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Lord Best: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, for once again raising the profile of housing. I declare interests as director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust, as president of the Local Government Association, as chair of the Westminster Housing Commission and as a member of the independent commission on the future of Birmingham council housing.

Although I will say something about the ownership by local authorities of rented housing, I make it clear that I do not see the question as the most critical issue in UK housing policy. Of greater significance, for example, is the fact that the output of affordable homes through all not-for-profit agencies—that is, local authorities and housing associations put together—is now at its lowest level for 80 years.

Nevertheless, the transfer of ownership of about 1 million council homes, alongside the transferred management of nearly a million more, is an important phenomenon—the biggest example in the UK of a shift in public service provision to the voluntary sector. It is right to ask, therefore, whether that really modernises public services by bringing in the pluralism, competition, variety, innovation and flexibility that it promises. Does it really directly
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engage more citizens and communities in the process of service delivery? Also, are there lessons here for the possible transfer of other public services?

On the policy's success, John Perry of the Chartered Institute of Housing reports in the UK Housing Review 2005–06 that repeated surveys show that levels of tenant satisfaction are much higher and performance levels much improved where management is transferred. An analysis of stock transfer housing associations by Hal Pawson and Cathie Fancy at Heriot-Watt University in 2003 concluded:

This JRF report also found that transfer often triggers genuine change in organisational ethos, summarised by staff interviewees in their case studies as replacing a no culture with a yes culture. The report said that the step change in available investment resources, the increased control over organisational destiny and an increased freedom from local authority constraints underpin this transformation.

Meanwhile, although the halfway house of the arm's-length management organisation has been unable to access extra funds from private lenders, because its borrowing counts toward public sector debt—one of the EU stability pact measures—it has still proved a popular option. Looking at the work of Westminster City Council, which has taken this route, I have been impressed to see how the local authority can then concentrate on its more comprehensive housing role—in relation to homeless families, tenants in the private sector, elderly home owners and the rest—rather than on day-to-day management of the council stock.

That model of public service provision differs greatly from privatisation, since the assets are retained for ever for social purposes and are not owned by shareholders for private gain. I argued fiercely about social housing grant being made available to house builders and developers during the passage of the Housing Act 2004, since those bodies are ill suited to providing high standards of rented housing and long-term caring housing management.

But what of the problem where, even if the local authority itself is keen on a transfer, council tenants are suspicious of the idea, vote against it and, as things stand, thereby cut themselves off from the funding and the potential benefits that could follow? This was the case in Birmingham, where an independent commission, chaired by Professor Anne Power—a longstanding campaigner for more tenant participation and control—has proposed an alternative to the one-size-fits-all transfer of the whole stock to a single new entity. Given the chance, some of Birmingham's 75,000 tenants might vote for a transfer of their estate into new ownership, particularly if it needs a good deal spent on it; others might vote for a continuation of the status quo where they feel the service is of a good standard; and others might go—where the Audit Commission establishes that management is better than for the stock as a whole—for the halfway house of the ALMO. Partial transfer has
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worked well in Liverpool, Manchester and elsewhere and I have hesitations about the transfer of the whole stock of any major council to just one new landlord.

The future for those living in the homes built by local authorities can be transformed through the transfer route, but I hope that in the next stage of this important process further refinements to the arrangements will be possible to help with partial transfers and for large authorities to ensure transfer to more than one body.

8.01 pm

Lord Bradshaw: My Lords, council housing—or public sector housing—was conceived from high ideals. I remember being taken to Hemel Hempstead from school and seeing the first centre in Hemel Hempstead being developed. I remember going to New Addington, outside Croydon, where two of my uncles, who had returned from the campaign in Burma, were allocated new council houses. These were times when there was a kind of pride in housing, where people talked about public housing with real commitment. They were days of hope and optimism. They were, admittedly, days before the motor car, the supermarket and television. But management of public housing went into steady decline—I do not think many people will argue with that—and there are probably many reasons for it.

On top of that came the right to buy and the sell-off of new towns, which was probably one of the worst things that happened in many respects. The best properties were, of course, sold far too cheaply and years of mean local government finance have led to a rump of council property which is badly maintained, as other noble Lords have mentioned, and hard to let. Social housing—mainly owned by housing associations—is poked into the unattractive corners of sites, overlooking the gasworks or railway sidings, while the best parts of sites are, of course, allocated to people to whom houses can be sold at high prices.

The vision, the enthusiasm and the management skills may have gone but the demand for housing that people can afford is very high, especially in the south-east, again an issue to which other noble Lords have referred. My first question for the noble Baroness is this: are the solutions promised by the Government at places such as Ashford, Thames Gateway and Milton Keynes likely to consist of anything imaginative or inspiring, as were the early new towns, or will they be vast tracks of houses which have been built as cheaply as possible?

My first call on the Government is to put some oomph into the management of public sector housing. My second call is for them to recognise that the question of affordable housing is much larger than the narrow social issue. We have had many examples quoted from many parts of the country where two-thirds or 80 per cent of aspiring home owners are being excluded from the market. Is it not time to bring this to an end and to replace the right to buy with a right to invest some money but not to own the property?
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What about the decent homes standard? Does it really achieve a good, well insulated, secure home, or does it mean a huge outlay for councils in attending to a few cosmetic features, such as new bathrooms in houses where the bathrooms are over 30 years old? That will not go to the root of any problem. The problems are much more deep-seated than can be attended to by any form of cosmetic treatment. Housing needs to be, as it were, brought out of the doldrums to become the kind of subject to which good people apply their brains, drive and initiative. One feels that housing is not in that league any more.

I suggest that we need car-free settlements, properly policed, where children can play and nuisance neighbours are firmly dealt with; where many types of property are mixed in and access to leisure facilities is by public transport which is fit for all to use, with obviously a suitable car available for rent when needed. We need properties which are well heated and well insulated against noise. We need a new generation of the Parker-Morris standards, updated to meet modern standards, so that the buildings we build really are well built, not built as cheaply as possible so that we can cram the maximum number of people into the minimum space. We need sites which are imaginatively planned and managed where residents feel part of a new community. That may seem old-fashioned, but it is the way back.

As we have heard, much of the Government's thinking is dominated by financial considerations—obviously all their thinking is bound to be influenced by them to some extent—but where is the vision? Who will build the new Jerusalem of housing fit for people to live healthy and fulfilling lives? People expect this of a Labour Government, but given the large numbers of council houses where I live—and, indeed, wherever I look in the country—I believe they are largely hoping in vain.

8.08 pm

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