Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Finally, I fear that the danger inherent in this legislation is that it attempts to give everyone

28 Apr 2008 : Column 102

everything. In the real world you cannot have everything; if you try to make everywhere inexpensive, very green or really accessible, what you achieve on the ground, in my experience, is none of those. Conformity will rule the day. You have to allow for local choice and compromise. I fear that the Bill refuses that logic, which is the logic of life. I welcome the Bill, but there is more to do if the aspirations inherent in it are to be turned into practical realities on the ground.

9.16 pm

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I had better make it clear at the beginning that I am strongly in favour of the main provisions of the Bill. I support the central purpose, which is to create a comprehensive housing and regeneration strategic body and provider that will take on the successes of the predecessor bodies but also no doubt learn from their mistakes and from innovations that have taken place elsewhere in the housing market. I am particularly pleased that we have followed the recommendation of the CABE report to separate out the regulator role from the role of the strategic authority funder and provider. Despite doubts about the name of the new regulator, I hope that we are laying the foundation in the Bill for a clearer and more robust statutory basis for tenant involvement in decisions in social housing.

The housing and regeneration body will deliver the kind of targets that the Government have somewhat belatedly set themselves for social and affordable housing. It will be an uphill struggle, and we are behind in what is needed both physically and socially in that regard. I hope that the housing that results will be high quality and sustainable, both in the physical sense and in the sense of sustainable communities.

Before my noble friend the Minister relaxes and thinks this is all part of the general consensual support for the Bill, however, I want to introduce a jarring note that is almost the opposite of the jarring note introduced just now by the noble Lord, Lord Mawson. There has been too much consensus that what has happened so far has all been positive. The fact is that, for various reasons, in those areas of high housing stress the tenants and residents of social housing have felt greater distress and pressure, felt that they had fewer choices and in some cases felt great anger, particularly in areas like central London where the shortage of affordable housing of any sort is more manifest. We have to bear in mind that the Bill is being brought in against a background of a failure effectively of all sectors of the housing market, much remarked on in the owner-occupied sector at the moment but also in much of the private rented sector, where affordable rents in areas of high housing stress are at least as difficult to acquire as are places within social housing.

I did not originally intend to say this: I also think some of the institutional changes have not been quite as great a success as has been implied. I hate to cross swords with my noble friend Lord Smith of Leigh, but I actually live on a council estate that is run—during the week, anyway—by an ALMO. It used to be run very effectively by a local authority,

28 Apr 2008 : Column 103

admittedly a Conservative one, but, frankly, ever since it was handed over to an ALMO, the service and the respect for the management by the tenants and residents have gone downhill. I appreciate that there will be very good ALMOs, but I am worried that the ALMO to which I refer is highly regarded by the present regulators and even by the Cave review. If we are going down the road of ALMOs, standards have significantly to be improved, and I hope that the new regulator will help to do that.

I have three specific propositions for improving the Bill. The first has already been referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Best, and others, which is to broaden the remit. If we cannot bring local authority and ALMO tenants into the structure of the Bill at this point, there should be a mechanism whereby they can be brought in as rapidly as possible. Private sector tenants need similar protection, as others have said already. However, there are other broadenings of bases which the Government have to take into account. As an objective of policy and as a reality of the inheritance of previous policies, many of our council estates are now seriously mixed-tenure communities. There are lessees who bought under right-to-buy and are still there; others have sublet their properties, sometimes back through other social landlords. So a whole crop of owner-occupiers, subtenants and tenants occupies the same territory, all of whom have issues with their social landlord, many of them common, particularly with regard to the provision of services. Other residents of what are loosely called ex-council estates or social housing need some recognition in the Bill and the regulations proceeding from it.

It is not just housing provision that should be covered. I do not want to overregulate the areas of creative provision by social landlords, to which many people, including the noble Lord, Lord Morris, have referred. However, there are basic services provided by social landlords—heating systems, security, cleaning, amenities—which might be excluded from the purview of the regulator here, but which could be areas of quite serious dispute and exploitation if the cost to tenants and other residents is placed on those services rather than on the normal rental relationship. The Bill needs to be broadened in that sense as well.

The second area in which the Bill could be improved is more in the mainstream of the National Consumer Council’s concerns. If I have not already done so, I declare an interest as the chair of both the current and the future consumer council, which has adopted a strong role in relation to social housing tenants. The provisions here could be tighter. There ought to be a clear duty on the regulator to engage with and consult social tenants. It would be helpful if the user panel were advisory to the regulator. The regulations, if not the primary legislation, need to provide that providers of social housing need more explicitly to engage with the landlord in relation to inspection, contract assessment—where new service contracts come up for recontracting—and the basic service provisions. Many social landlords provide all that as a matter of course, but others do not. We need to raise the standard of the average to that of the good, and that of the very poor to at least the average.

28 Apr 2008 : Column 104

Even a light-touch form of regulation would help to do that. I should like to see slightly tighter provisions on the degree of tenant involvement in those decisions.

The Minister will recall that the third area for improvement is one on which I have spoken previously in the House and where I take a position that is diametrically opposed to that of the noble Lord, Lord Mawson. It is ballots for change of ownership and stock transfer, and allocation of contracts to ALMOs. As the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, said, the normal situation here is one of monopoly suppliers, which is why we need particular provisions for the engagement of tenants with the social landlord. That is a key role for the regulator. The point at which it is decided to transfer responsibility either of management or ownership—not choice within the provisions of the monopoly landlord but every now and again, if we are to encourage diversity of supply and provider—is an absolutely key point on which the residents of a property must assert their rights. It is therefore very welcome that the Bill provides for a mandatory ballot. However, I am afraid that the provisions probably need to go further than that.

The Bill refers to regulations for the ballot. As the Minister will recall, I raised this issue a few months ago. I am only slightly exaggerating when I say that some of the problems with our own electoral system or electoral systems around the world from Zimbabwe to Florida are reflected in the actual failures, and allegations of failures, of the ballot process that we have seen. There is a lot of evidence and a lot of allegation and counterallegation with regard to how the ballots are run. There is the lack of a clear franchise—knowing who is able to vote; the equality of access to the list of eligible voters being denied in some cases; the equality of information to all potential voters and the clarity of the question; the key integrity of the ballot paper itself; the security of the ballot box from tampering, before and after the ballot; the independent counting of ballots so that the same people are not counting the votes who were the previous day campaigning for a particular vote—usually a yes vote; the use of local authority or other RSL staff in the campaigns; and the equality of access to campaigns and ability to circulate propaganda about the ballot. Frankly, there should also be limits on both sides’ total expenditure.

Those are all benchmarks that we would adopt for a democratic process in any other ballot in this country, for local authority or national elections, for trade union elections—or abroad, in emerging democracies that are proceeding with their democratic process. It is particularly important in a wider democratic sense here, in that we are by and large dealing with people who are not major participants in the political process, but this is so key to their existence and their life that they are usually highly motivated and manage to turn out in large numbers. If that process is then seen to be corrupted, it is not only a problem on a particular estate or in the particular range of property involved but a discouragement and disincentive to engage in wider political activity.



28 Apr 2008 : Column 105

Those are the three areas in which I shall either pursue amendments myself or support those who table amendments. I should also like to ask a couple of questions. I am not entirely clear about the position on the housing revenue account. I am in favour of the provisions that allow flexibility and allow authorities to come out of the HRA provision when they provide additional housing. There need to be radical reforms of the HRA system in any case. But the national HRA was, historically, a way in which to redistribute resources from one local authority to another, usually from the richer to the poorer local authorities, although quite often it was to the authorities with the lowest rents, which are not actually the same thing. It then moved to attempting to target extra resources to areas of higher stress. That never worked properly—and I am sorry to say that, in more recent years, the distribution through the national pool has often been to those authorities that were prepared to divest themselves of housing stock rather than those that continued to maintain and manage their own, which is a legitimate use of the pool. But the fact was that in various ways, resources were distributed. If we are getting away from that, as ultimately we probably should, it is important that some of those redistributing criteria are taken on board in the priorities facing the regeneration body. I am not saying that it should entirely make up for that—but there needs to be some prioritisation of activity.

Those are the areas on which I should like an answer. I should also like one to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, on allotments if the Minister can run to that, because I have a past and present interest in that issue.

This is a pretty good Bill. It could do with a bit of improvement, but it needs to be seen in the context of a serious housing crisis for millions or at least hundreds of thousands of relatively low income families. We have reached a strategic point. The underlying policy of both the present Government and the previous Conservative Government had two strands—to increase home ownership and to encourage local authorities to divest themselves of that part of social housing that they had previously run as a monopoly. Both of those may have been sensible. They are clearly popular, but we may have reached the end of that process. When home ownership reaches nearly 75 per cent and local authority housing falls below 20 per cent, that inevitably causes some stress in the system. The combination of a number of demographic factors—immigration, the break-up of families and people living longer—requires more flexible housing, which is difficult to provide through owner-occupation and with the old approach of municipal landlordism, but it is necessary in an increasingly atomised society. For the poorest, the future of social housing needs to be addressed in a more strategic and rather different way from the residual role that it has played in recent years.

9.31 pm

Lord Sawyer: My Lords, my contribution is the last from the Back Benches tonight. Many of the things that I wanted to say have already been said, so I want to confine my comments to three brief points. A

28 Apr 2008 : Column 106

politician who achieved great distinction and fame once said to me, “If you can't make the best speech in a debate, make the shortest”, and I think this one will qualify for that. I have eight minutes to beat, so noble Lords can watch the clock.

I first want to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, for her staunch work on this Bill. She is the kind of campaigning Minister who I want to see leading this Bill from a political point of view. I wish her all the best in her endeavours, as other noble Lords have said.

My first substantial point is about the political and economic situation, which is deeply serious. It has the capacity to completely blow off course our intentions in housing and almost everything we aim to do. The new builds in 2008 will probably be half the Government's target. Mortgages will continue to rise as bank rates fall. Repossessions are rising and will continue to rise rapidly. First-time buyers are completely out of the market with no sign of coming back in. This is a crisis: it is not a problem. With the greatest respect to the noble Lord, Lord Mawson, who seems to have engaged the wrath of two general secretaries of the Labour Party in the same 15 minutes tonight, I do not think that entrepreneurship is exactly what we are looking for. When he said that, I thought, “Let me think; the most entrepreneurial bank that I remember in recent times was Northern Rock”. That is not quite what we are looking for.

I would say to my friends in the banking industry that social responsibility is what we are looking for at present rather than entrepreneurship—a dialogue with the Government who have really serious problems with housing and who need the help of bankers and banks to solve the problem. As parliamentarians, in this period ahead we cannot simply focus on legislation. We must also fulfil our wider remit as representatives of the people to make sure that we engage in the wider argument about housing and the failure of our economic and social system to deliver housing. We must engage with those who are creating the crisis in the banking sector and others and, as parliamentarians from all parties, we must clearly be on the side of those people affected. That is my first point—a big and important one.

My second point was made by the noble Baroness, Lady Dean. The new Homes and Community Agency must get the big things right. The potential for that organisation not to be right is fairly extensive. It will be a big and powerful organisation and its ability to keep a distance between itself, its customers and the stakeholders that it serves will be considerable. So it is very important that we get the culture of that organisation right from the very beginning and find a way for it to be open to people, accountable and interested in what people have to say and in how it engages with people and tenants. I was very impressed by the contribution of my noble friend Lord Filkin on the balance between the communities agency and the regulator and how those two organisations will interact to affect tenants’ circumstances. Tenant involvement has slipped back slightly in the housing world since my noble friend Lady Dean was the leader of the Housing Corporation and that needs to

28 Apr 2008 : Column 107

be rectified. Getting the big corporate governance issues around the new organisation right is very important.

Thirdly and finally, design quality is a working-class issue. Those were almost the words of the noble Lord, Lord Patten, although he did not use quite the same formulation as someone from the Labour Benches. However, he came pretty close. It is true that this is not just about aesthetics. I am glad to hear more and more noble Lords express the view that design quality is not about aesthetics but rather about quality of life. That is particularly the case for people who are less able to afford to buy good design than those people who may have it provided by other means. Space standards have been identified in the debate as being very important. I have never met a rich man who lived in a studio flat. I do not know whether anybody else has. The well-off almost take it as a right that they will have the space that they require. They do not even think about it. It is the people on lower incomes who need somebody on their side to fight for this very important aspect of their lives. I saw a beautiful block of flats go up near to where I live. The block is about 12 storeys high, has steel and glass balconies and looks absolutely beautiful. However, as the flats began to fill, the balconies became full of bicycles, boxes, toys and other household goods. When I talked to the people who lived in the flats it became clear that the problem was there was not enough storage space. If that had been a posh high-rise development at the best end of the town, that would not have been the case. Therefore, we must be on the side of ordinary people in standing up for good design.

Those are my three points. To parliamentarians I say that we need to be social reformers as well as legislators. Housing is an issue where we can do this effectively and cohesively from all sides and I hope that we will continue to do so.

9.37 pm

Baroness Falkner of Margravine: My Lords, I should start by declaring an interest. I am a member of the group board of the Hyde Group, which is a housing association and a registered social landlord. I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Sawyer, who thought that he was the last Back-Bencher to speak in the debate. Although my name appears after the gap, which indicates that I am making a winding-up speech, I should rightly be listed in the main body of speakers, as I am speaking not from the Front Bench but in my personal capacity.

I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Patten, who is now in his place, made some specific points—some might even say that it was a full frontal assault—about Somerset council. I shall not respond to that but he may wish to look at Hansard tomorrow to see the response of my noble friend Lady Miller to those specific points.

This is a significant Bill in several respects. It follows the logic that the supply of what is known as affordable housing cannot simply be allowed to grow organically and that a step change in its availability is

28 Apr 2008 : Column 108

now pressing. It recognises that the Government cannot any longer just exhort housebuilders and landlords to do more but that a framework must be provided for them to meet the demographic and social challenges to provide housing that is so desperately needed. Many noble Lords touched on that. In the creation of Oftenant—I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, that the word does not slide off one’s tongue—the Government recognise that home ownership should not be the only model available and that those who do not, or cannot, avail themselves of that option should nevertheless live within frameworks that allow them to make informed choices about how they live and to determine the quality of their accommodation.

The operative words in the Government’s briefing on the Bill relate to their desire to give tenants more choice and voice. While both are to be welcomed, it appears that this ambitious objective is in many ways contradicted by aspects of the Bill. On the one hand their measures indeed improve the choices available to tenants, not least through having a regulator to enforce their rights, but on the other hand the powers entrusted to the Homes and Communities Agency and to Oftenant in Parts 1 and 2 will serve both to tie the hands of providers such as housing associations and to limit the existing powers of local authorities to be involved in decisions taken on their patch at local level.

Let me turn first to the challenges that will affect housing associations. Those bodies provide more than 2 million homes for over 5 million people. Over the next three years alone, they expect to deliver some 155,000 new homes, with an investment of £12 billion from private borrowing and their own resources to supplement £8.4 billion provided by the Government. Housing associations invest some £0.5 billion a year in non-housing-related community services and activities. Their role is not simply as providers of social housing but as partners in ensuring the viability of local communities. I say that to illustrate how central they are to meeting the need for social housing and how central they are as players in meeting the needs of tenants, which go beyond housing into other areas of training and caring. That is often unrecognised more widely.

The Bill says much about promoting the interests of tenants and improving board accountability, but it seems to imply that it is the regulator rather than the board that has a duty of accountability to tenants and that knows best what tenants might wish for. As drafted, boards would have to comply with the regulator’s requirements of them or face regulatory intervention rather than fit in with local needs of local provision of services.

A broader area of concern is the lack of proportionality that runs through the Bill in terms of the powers of the regulator. I recognise that due regard to proportionality is provided as the final objective in the fundamental objectives of the social housing regulator. However, it is just one of 10 objectives. Hence, we find the regulator setting rules to do with broad areas that may well impinge on and direct the social purpose functions of RSLs; in other words, it is setting rules to do with the

28 Apr 2008 : Column 109

delivery of non-housing activities such as neighbourhood services. Those aspects fail to recognise that independent, not-for-profit businesses are already driven by a social purpose. They are required to reinvest their surpluses to the benefit of the community.

The National Housing Federation argues in its briefing on the Bill that it is in a better position to design local solutions to local problems in partnership with tenants. Its claim to be more connected to the local appears to be stronger than the claim exercised by a distant regulator. I understand what the Minister said about the regulator not being distant, but nevertheless there is a view, which will need to be dispelled in Committee, that the regulator will be speaking from on high rather than connecting immediately on the ground with local communities.

Likewise—I am not very well versed in planning rules—I was struck by the degree of intervention that the HCA can take on planning functions in a designated area. It does not appear that the subject local authority will decide for itself that the scale of the task to do with development or regeneration is such that it needs the support of the HCA. It will be the Secretary of State who will designate such an area, so the HCA will, in the words of the Local Government Association, “usurp the powers” of local government. Moreover, the Secretary of State will be able to amend the definitions of the planning-related provisions or relevant functions under Clause 14, which is hardly indicative of a hands-off approach.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page