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Like other noble Lords, I, too, welcome the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Best, was absolutely right when he read out the list. I am not doing that, and thank him for doing it for me and saving me a bit of time. We have probably all received briefings from those organisations. It must be encouraging to my friend the Minister that none of those organisations disagrees on the fundamental acceptance of the Bill; they all feel that it is a major step forward. It is a Bill of some substance for the housing sector and the homes of the people of this country today. It brings together the Housing Corporation’s investment and regulatory role, English Partnerships’s investment role and some of the departments’ housing delivery roles under the aegis of the Homes and Communities Agency and—a dreadful word—Oftenant. I hope that they do not swap it around and call it “Tenantof”, because that would certainly be awful.

This is a four-part Bill, but I will concentrate my remarks on two. Before I do, it is important at this stage to pause for a moment and recognise the major and constructive contribution that the Housing Corporation has made to the nation’s housing over 30-odd years: as the noble Lord, Lord Best, mentioned, regulation of in excess of £50 billion of investment with next to no corruption at all. There has been no housing failure among any of the housing associations because that has been dealt with by the regulatory arm of the Housing Corporation. That kind of strength must be taken into the new organisation. English Partnerships, particularly under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lady Ford, has been creative in a private sector way in bringing together packages of land, essentially to make them available for social housing. Under her predecessors, that had not been done to the degree that she and her colleagues have done. In making these changes, it is essential to take into the new Bill the strengths of the organisations that have been working in this field, but also to ensure that those changes are workable for the future. Therein lie some of the differences that we may have in this Chamber.

I thank the Minister for being so available in a listening mode despite the fact that the Bill had substantial amendments as it went through the other place—in excess of 400. The Bill we get is much better, and in a fitter state, than it was when it arrived in the other place. I thank the Minister for listening, which has been extremely helpful in answering some of my questions in coming to this debate.

There is no doubt that the Homes and Communities Agency is at the heart of the Bill. We must be careful not to be distracted into spending an inordinate amount of time on the regulatory side—Oftenant—although it is an important issue and we must address it. The nature of this new agency will be critical to the type and quality of housing we can deliver to people in Britain who desperately need it. Clause 2 sets out the agency’s objectives, but I hope we can discuss that during the passage of the Bill through this House. It is key to our wider agenda in working with local authorities, for instance, and regional development agencies. The

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new agency will be a partner authority whereas, in the past, its predecessors have been present when invited; they have not necessarily been there by right. I can tell your Lordships, from my own experience, that that has sometimes meant that the worst areas in the country at providing houses have been the very areas which have made sure that the Housing Corporation has never been at the table for debate. So I welcome that, and the increase in local targets, very much indeed.

I know that there is some concern about the potential loss of control for local authorities. I do not see it like that at all; I see it developing as a partnership between the local authorities and the new agency. They must work in partnership together with a new, equal, agenda for discussion.

An essential part of the Bill is that the new agency will have enormous influence and powers. It is therefore essential that an agency which will affect the lives of so many of our citizens cannot be a remote national agency. It may be a national agency, but it must have a local presence, input and a listening ear. In that way, it will influence the decisions taken.

One of the key areas that has not yet been mentioned in this debate is rural housing. In future, the Secretary of State will not have the authority to direct in this area. The Minister directed the Housing Corporation to move the target for rural housing, from 850 a year, four times. The corporation had to report to the Secretary of State on whether it had delivered that target. It is essential that, somewhere within the new system, there is something ensuring that rural housing is not forgotten. It would be so easy to forget it. In reporting, we also found that some of the worst areas for providing rural houses were the counties with the biggest rural areas. Again, it is essential not only to have targets but to monitor them. Design is another area, but I know that other noble Lords will be covering that.

Part 2 of the Bill, on Oftenant—the Office for Tenants and Social Landlords—is key. Much of it comes from Professor Cave’s review, Every Tenant Matters: A Review of Social Housing Regulation. I welcome the Minister’s statement today that tenants will be at the heart of the system; a simple statement, but critical. I am afraid that my experience has not been exactly that expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, from the Dispatch Box. I hope that he has not been beguiled by the very professional lobbying of the National Housing Federation. Again, from my experience, many housing associations put tenants at the front of all that they did—but some did not and never would. They would have it there in name, and some would think that tenant involvement was one tenant on the board; “Tick that box, we have done it”. That is not tenant influence, involvement and power. I am looking forward to this new agency bringing that about.

One of the strengths of this sector has been its independence, which has brought with it a lot of creativity and innovation, as the noble Lord, Lord Best said, in areas that the Government of the day would not have thought about. That is because they are risky—and Governments do not do risky things,

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do they?—but also because there were a lot of new ideas that needed to be tried and tested. We must therefore ensure that, when the Bill leaves this House, that independence is not compromised in any way—certainly as regards the private-sector classification of housing associations. The Minister has given me her assurance and repeated it today, but it cannot be repeated often enough while the Bill is in this Chamber. That area gives me some concern. Regulation is an area we need to look at with forensic application. The forced amalgamation of housing associations worries the sector, and it worries me too. I have some sympathy with the sector’s view, and I equally do not accept that bigger is always better. In fact, some of the smaller housing associations are the ones that delivered much of what is needed in many of our communities. We do not want to go so wide as to challenge that independence. We do not want the regulator forcing amalgamations without real means. I accept the assurances that we have been given, but nevertheless I would like to debate it more. Objective 10 of Clause 88 requires regulation to be proportionate and reasonable, which are critical factors. At the moment, proportionality of regulation does not exist for the Housing Corporation. It is almost either do nothing or force them to amalgamate with nothing in between, so I welcome that provision. Clause 215 requires the regulator to have regard to the seriousness of the failure. That is important and will be on the side of the housing association under scrutiny.

The other area of concern I have is the potential to regulate and require housing associations to carry out non-housing activities. That would be a recipe for disaster because those that do it are very good at it, and those that do not usually do not do it because they have no idea where to start. Requiring the regulator to say that they are all going to do this or that would be a big mistake. Too much direction would be wrong. I know that the Minister may argue that it is not there because, in her words, they want to make sure that it is connected with social housing, but that is a long word for interpretation. I would welcome some clarity on that in the debate.

Domain regulation is another area that I have concerns about. I think that noble Lords are also concerned, as is another place down the corridor. The Cave review recommended that ALMOs, local authorities and everyone should be covered by the same kind of regulation. I know a report on this is coming out in May, but I would like some assurance that we are going to stick with that because the Government accept the principles of what is being said. It is how we get there and the timetable, which would be quite interesting to debate.

I feel very strongly about private landlords. Anyone who has worked in this sector and has seen, as some of us have, for instance, housing in the north-east bought for £18,000 a house, and with the building problem we have at the moment, some of those prices will be going down. Buy a house, advertise it in the local media and people on benefit need only apply. The state is paying the benefit to pay the rent to the private landlord who is not covered by regulation. That cannot be right. It is certainly something that needs to be addressed as the Bill goes through this House. I am aware that a review is taking place, by

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Julie Rugg and David Rhodes, and that it is due to be published in October. However, we cannot leave this there. We need to see some real progress.

Other areas that concern me include governance. If we track any failure in a housing association, it tracks back to bad governance. We need to have assurances on that. I very much welcome the reference in the Bill to the Armed Forces who have had a raw deal on housing from the public sector in this country. Housing has been on the agenda quite a lot in recent years, particularly under this Government but, a bit like buses, we have not had a major housing Bill like this for some time. Now we have it, good as it is now, it is our job to make sure that it leaves this House better than when we received it. I look forward to taking part in the discussions.

6.34 pm

The Lord Bishop of Leicester: My Lords, I add my welcome in principle for the Bill, which has already been widely expressed by noble Lords in this debate. The Government have rightly set an ambitious housing target, and there is clearly an overwhelming case for more housing. Bishops can well recognise the social and economic pressures that are intensifying as they are well placed to witness the effects in rural and urban communities of the special difficulties for first-time buyers.

Leicester, like many of our cities, has changed dramatically over the past 10 years or so through the urban regeneration process. Wherever you turn, you see new developments of flats and other high-density housing, but the experience of those developments suggests that even if we were to achieve 3 million new homes by 2020, we will not have solved many of the housing and regeneration issues that face us. Building new houses requires much more than aesthetic design value or the right location of the estate. People want more houses to be built, but they want houses in flourishing communities. The 2006 Church of England report Faithful Cities puts the question of what makes a good city, an intriguing and yet profound question that is as applicable to rural and suburban settings as it is to urban settings.

Urban geographers argue that what makes a good city transcends the immediate and tangible and leads us to speak of matters such as the quality of life, the need for nurture and the need for a human face for the city. Sadly, the test of a flourishing community has not always been at the forefront of our housing and regeneration policy, so I hope that the new Homes and Communities Agency will be charged with creating communities that have strong economies, a well educated workforce, vibrant centres, a healthy population and good transport and that are cosmopolitan and inclusive, well run, sustainable and well regarded. Those are all things that the Minister mentioned when she said that she would be looking for the wow factor. I hope the Government will ensure that the HCA will have person-centred values at the heart of its culture because with strong communities like that our education, health, crime and environmental policies will all be much easier to deliver.

With the creation of the HCA, government funding must be focused on the delivery of quality housing

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developments that provide sustainable mixed communities including affordable housing. To do that, the new body must quickly engage with local authorities to work in partnership on the delivery of regeneration projects. There is significant scope for improving the dialogue and partnership between central and local government over housing, planning and regeneration policy. The HCA must not simply be the creature of central government; it must be responsive to local needs and to the local democratic process.

If we are to deliver affordable housing of high quality and sustainable homes, the planning system must assist in delivering these objectives. The situation in my home city of Leicester is that many of the regeneration sites are expensive to redevelop and it is often not possible to deliver adequate levels of affordable housing or the quality of housing that we aspire to. Of critical importance is the availability of funds to support local authorities in delivering key regeneration sites. Significant further funding will be required from government, potentially through the regional development agencies with their new strategic housing remit proposed under the Prosperous Places review.

I shall comment briefly on eco-towns, which were referred to earlier in the debate. I hope that noble Lords will forgive me for using a local example to make my point. I declare an obvious interest as Bishop of Leicester. Leicestershire has been short-listed by the DCLG for the creation of such an eco-town at Pennbury on the eastern edge of the city of Leicester. It would see some 12,000 to 15,000 new homes being built. While the move towards low-carbon communities is firmly to be welcomed, there is intense concern locally, in city and county, that this proposed scheme is not the right way forward. The protests seem to amount to something much more than nimbyism. Local people feel that this will undo much of the good planning work that is already in place from recent years. The ongoing consultation period by the Government will need to see a much closer working relationship with the local authorities, taking their concerns seriously, as well as the concerns of other local and national agencies, before final decisions are made.

The Government have made this a central part of their housing policy, but by centrally controlling and driving this policy through, they risk jeopardising the creation of the new houses that they and local communities want. Surely that policy could be better achieved through the local democratic process and the Government should be more prepared to trust local communities with the decision-making on where to site the new developments. As it stands, there is a significant risk that we will be creating an eco-ghetto rather than an eco-town. At the moment, no realistic transport strategy is in place for the proposed town. The Government will have to ensure that a joint transport assessment is undertaken, including consideration of a new link to the M1 or a tram line. I understand that the Department for Transport has expressed significant concerns about the proposal.

The creation of so many new houses also has significant environmental implications. The Environment Agency is lobbying to ensure that any new policy has environmental impact at its heart, but from our local

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experience so far, it seems that the Government want to push through the eco-town policy without serious engagement with the environmental implications of such a scheme.

Furthermore, at the moment, insufficient attention is being given to the creation of the infrastructure for a new community—all the ancillary services that such a town would need: the schools, GP practices, shops, libraries and even churches. There would of course need to be the personnel to run them, and the consequent long-term demands on the labour market and economy to supply them.

Many of us are yet to be convinced that that part of government policy, at the heart of the thinking behind the Bill, is the right way forward. Have we fully utilised all the brownfield sites and brought back into supply the large number of vacant houses? Of course there will have to be some green belt development, but I am not sure that these new large towns are yet proven to be the way forward.

Finally, I have a comment on the creation of the Office for Tenants and Social Landlords. Sadly, in an economic downturn when it is estimated that the number of repossessions will rise to about 45,000 this year, the demand for rented accommodation will rise, and, with it, the possibility for unscrupulous landlords to take advantage of vulnerable people. The Government's proposal to regulate private and social landlords is therefore to be welcomed, promoting, as it should, stronger social inclusion, stronger neighbourhoods and the wider well-being of many in our society.

We are at a time of unprecedented demand for housing, yet we face significant economic threats. The Bill provides the framework for the next generation of housing and regeneration policy. We now need the Government to be open to the detailed scrutiny that your Lordships will give to the Bill, especially provision to create strong, vibrant communities that will enrich the lives of the people who live in them.

6.43 pm

Baroness Whitaker: My Lords, I am delighted to welcome the Bill. We had not been building enough housing for 35 years. More decent homes are one of our most pressing social priorities. By “decent”, we should understand “well designed”, within the sustainable development of thriving communities, whose facilities, infrastructure and institutions make for safe and satisfying places. A house by itself is not necessarily a home. A home is a place to live, with all that that means. I shall speak about where design comes in in the making of homes out of houses. I shall also welcome the provisions that will enable Gypsies and Travellers to have security of tenure.

The new organisation, the Homes and Communities Agency, will do much to create decent homes. It has almost all of the right objectives and considerable powers. Among its objectives, I focus on,

and regeneration. It will absorb the former Urban Regeneration Agency and the former Commission for the New Towns, as well as English Partnerships and

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the Housing Corporation. It will be the major national agent in delivering the central but ambitious target of 3 million homes by 2020, conforming to enlightened environmental standards. None of that can be achieved without high standards of design. It is not a case of not allowing numbers to squeeze out quality, it is that sufficient numbers can simply not be managed without good design. The HCA will be the facilitator and it must set out from the outset clear and consistent expectations about the importance of design. It must, of course, have the capacity to deliver the quality commitment.

How is the design imperative factored in to the operations of the HCA? It would send the right signal to give it a statutory duty to ensure the design quality of new housing in England within its remit, and to add a parallel duty on those who consider planning applications. That would give local planning authorities greater confidence in refusing planning applications on design grounds and encourage them to entrench design quality into their decision-making processes, rather as the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act places a duty on those exercising planning functions to do so with the objective of contributing to sustainable development. Sustainability, following amendments in the other place, is far more buttoned down in this legislation than is attention to design quality.

Secondly, the commitments to housing design quality built into English Partnerships and the Housing Corporation must be maintained and appropriately strengthened. They are that all development on HCA land must meet at least 14 of the 20 “Building for Life” criteria developed by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, better regarded as the national standard for design quality in new housing developments; and that all grants made are dependent on at least those 14 being met.

Thirdly, development on HCA land or funded by it should be subject to independent expert review to ensure that what is built properly implements the Government’s own excellent design policies, such as planning policy statement 3. Probably the most effective way to bring that about would be to ensure the right funding for regional design panels. At present, there is a fair amount of variation in their quality and capacity. Two regions, the north-east and Yorkshire and Humber, do not have a panel at all.

The HCA will have a regional organisation, so it would make sense to match its role with an immediate and high-impact design entity. I hope that my noble friend, who has shown herself to be a friend of good design, will also consider encouraging local design review panels to be available. Design consideration might then be embedded in the system wherever applications were judged, for villages as well as for cities and towns. The president of RIBA, Sunand Prasad, has tellingly said that,

The Calcutt review asked for a nationwide system of design review for house building. I hope that my noble friend can assure us that that will be taken forward.



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Will my noble friend also think again about space standards? England and Wales are the only countries in the EU that have no minimum space standards for housing. English Partnerships has just decided to introduce them for its land, and it would be a great pity if that improvement were lost in the transition to the HCA. I saw at Consort Road, public housing at the Southwark end of Peckham, the extraordinary impact on the attractiveness of social housing made by appropriately generous space dimensions. Following amendments in the other place, how will attention to design be incorporated into the regulation of rented social housing, with the Secretary of State’s new power to direct accommodation quality?


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