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Grand Committee

Tuesday, 10 June 2008.

The Committee met at half-past three.

[The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen) in the Chair.]

Housing and Regeneration Bill

(Fifth Day)

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen): If there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting, the Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division Bells are rung and resume after 10 minutes.

Clause 18 [Regional planning]:

Lord Greaves moved Amendment No. 73G:

The noble Lord said: The wording of the amendment is clearer than the wording in the Bill and that is all I have to say about it. It says what the Government want to say but in better English. We are concerned that if government Amendment No. 74 were to be passed today it might pre-empt discussion on important points in the planning part of the Bill at a later stage. It would be useful to know the Minister’s views on that. I beg to move.

Earl Cathcart: The clause refers to regional authorities, with which I have a slight problem. In the past we have spoken about local views being valued, but the decisions by regional authorities are anything but democratic because the authorities are unelected. The electorate can just about grapple with parish, district and county councils, but regional authorities are beyond their radar. Is it not time that they were elected so that they can be accountable to the electorate for the decisions they make?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: Before I get to this debate itself, I should say that both myself and, in particular, my noble friend Lady Andrews as the lead Minister on the Bill are going to be as telegraphic as we can in our responses. The Committee will be aware that we are running out of time in which to consider the Bill and we need to give it fair consideration across the piece. If noble Lords enter the debate in that spirit we will make greater progress and still try to answer the points. If any points are unanswered in our responses we will, of course, fulsomely correspond with noble Lords to ensure that questions are answered.

We are grateful for the amendment. I can see that the noble Lord is trying to make the language clearer, which does not conflict in any way with our policy intent. If he is happy with that observation, I should like to give a little thought to the wording of the amendment and come back to this issue—perhaps with some jointly agreed words—at a later stage.

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I should say to the noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, that I am intrigued by this new development in Conservative Party policy and thinking and the call for elected regional assemblies. I shall await developments with great interest. It is, of course, our party’s policy to try to ensure that we have democracy at each tier and level of government.

Lord Greaves:Would the Minister like to comment on the government amendment in the group?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: Yes. Sorry; I was so enthused by the question. Our Amendment No. 74 clarifies the circumstances in which a regional planning body might be required to seek the advice of the Homes and Communities Agency. We intend that it be only when the agency has had the functions of local planning authorities conferred on it in relation to all or part of the designated area that its advice should be sought by the regional planning body. As the Bill is drafted, that would not be the position—the regional planning body would be required to seek the advice of the HCA in relation to any designated area, irrespective of whether local planning authority functions had been conferred on it in relation to that area or any part of it. That is not our intention. The HCA’s advice should be sought only where the functions of a local planning authority have been conferred on it. That is the proper position and it is what the amendment achieves.

Lord Greaves: I am delighted to accept what the Minister said on my Amendment No. 73G and hope that he agrees that I moved it in the spirit of trying to make some progress on the Bill, although we have one or two meatier amendments to come.

Like everyone else, I was intrigued to hear what the noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, said about elected regional authorities. I am a passionate believer in regional government in England with a great deal of devolution from this place and the centre generally. I think that that is still the policy of my party, although the whole thing is a bit on the back burner now. I look forward to debates on the subject.

I am in some difficulty about whether we can accept the government amendment today, because I am speaking on behalf of my noble friend Lady Hamwee, who is detained at some conference that she is chairing. She will be along later and apologises for not being here. It is her suggestion that, were the amendment to be carried, debate on some planning aspects of the Bill on Report or at Third Reading would be pre-empted and we might be in some difficulty. On that basis, she asked me to indicate that we did not support it today. However, perhaps I can have a clear assurance that there would be no pre-emption of any debate at all on the planning aspects of the Bill, other than the details of this provision. I think she is worried that if Amendment No. 74 were passed today, it might pre-empt discussion on amendments on Report to take out the whole question of the HCA taking over from a local authority in an area as the planning authority, if there were any. If I have an absolute assurance that that is not the case, I will proceed on that basis.

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Lord Bassam of Brighton: This is a technical amendment. I assure the noble Lord that pre-emption does not prevail in this instance. I have taken the opportunity of checking that with officials, and they see it that way. We do not see a problem. I am sure that the noble Baroness will be able to do whatever she wants on Report, and we do not see Amendment No. 74 as fettering that.

Lord Greaves: That will be written down in Hansard and will have to satisfy my noble friend, because it satisfies me. I hope she agrees. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw Amendment No. 73G.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Bassam of Brighton moved Amendment No. 74:

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 18, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 19 [Power to enter and survey land]:

Lord Dixon-Smith moved Amendment No. 75:

The noble Lord said: The intention behind the amendment is to make what I would call a very small probe. We are talking about land that might be purchased compulsorily, and the Bill states:

Subsection (2)(b) says that they,

That is quite plain but I wish to make two points. First, it should be obligatory on the person intending to enter the land to carry a copy of the notice. That really is the subject of the amendment. Also, if it is a large plot of land in multiple ownership, how on earth is the person whose land is about to be entered to know whether everyone else has received the notice? It seems to me that if he does not have that knowledge, he has a perfect right to refuse entry. Secondly, how will the Government be sure that notice has been given to all the appropriate people? I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I shall describe why the amendment is unnecessary and how the clause works. However, the noble Lord’s questions are right and proper, and I am sure that with his long involvement in the farming industry and so on he is very familiar with landowning. Of course, he is right that people should be clear about why they are on someone else’s land and for what purpose, and I had better write to him on that and explain how we see the authorisation working.

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I hope that that will satisfy him and I shall obviously share the information with other Members of the Committee.

The clause allows an authorised person to enter a person’s land in connection with a proposal by the agency to acquire land. There are only two reasons why the agency is empowered to enter a person’s land: the first is to carry out a survey and the second is to value the land. In both cases, it may do so only in connection with a proposal for it to acquire that or other land or to assess the amount of compensation to be paid in respect of the acquisition.

The clause has been amended since it was debated in another place. The phrase “and subject as follows” has been added to make it clearer that Clause 19(1) is to be read in the light of what follows. Clause 19(2)(b) now refers to “land” rather than “occupied land” and to both owners and occupiers, making it clear that the provision applies to all cases of intended entry. Clause 19(3)—a new subsection—requires that a notice of intended entry must,

Therefore, there is a clear obligation for information to be provided, but the other points that the noble Lord raised require an answer for good reasons.

The amendments that have been made to Clause 19 clarify and strengthen it. They now make it clear that this amendment is unnecessary and I hope that, following my explanation, the noble Lord will withdraw it.

Lord Dixon-Smith: I am very grateful to the Minister for the explanation and even more grateful for the fact that he intends to write to me and all Members of the Committee with detailed answers to the questions that I have asked. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 19 agreed to.

Clause 20 agreed to.

3.45 pm

Clause 21 [Powers to connect private streets to highways]:

Lord Greaves moved Amendment No. 75A:

The noble Lord said: Clause 21 allows the HCA to serve a connection notice on a local highways authority requiring it to connect a private street to the highway network. The private streets in question are new streets and roads being constructed. This is an amendment to probe the circumstances in which serving a notice might happen. First, why are connection notices required? Why cannot the normal procedures take place which happen when any sort of development is built? It is not unusual for streets to be connected to the highways network and there are well established procedures for this, involving the highways authorities and the planning

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system. Secondly, why does the HCA require these powers, when it is not a developer? Why cannot a developer who is building new roads that need connecting simply do what every other developer does everywhere else? It is not clear at all why this clause is required. I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: This amendment seeks to restrict the power of the HCA to serve a connection notice on the local highway authority to require that authority to connect a private street to an existing highway only to those circumstances in which the HCA has carried out the development which includes the private street.

Clause 21 enables the HCA to serve a connection notice on the local highway authority which will require it to connect a private street to an existing highway. There are several reasons why the HCA may require this. The local authority may be undertaking a major regeneration project and may be working in partnership with a private developer and the HCA. To secure the full regeneration potential of the project it may well be necessary for highway networks to be linked. In those circumstances, I am sure that all noble Lords want the HCA to be able to exercise its power to require the local highway authority to connect the private street to an existing highway.

In reality this power provides a means of certainty whereby road networks can be linked where necessary, and that would almost always be done by negotiation. Subsection (4) requires that before serving a connections notice the HCA must consult the highways authority on the contents of the notice, and subsection (5) provides for an appeal procedure. The HCA will be required to consult the highway authority on the connection. The role of the HCA in such circumstances will generally be to facilitate the development by working in partnership with the local authority, the private developer and other agencies.

Even in cases where the agency served a notice on the highway authority, Clause 21 sets out the requirements of the notice, who should be consulted and how appeals can be made to the Secretary of State. These requirements, consultations and the ability to make appeals would apply whether the HCA undertook the development or not. Given that those safeguards are in place and given the fact that the requirement to connect a private street to a local highway authority would usually be expected to result from a major regeneration or housing project led by the local authority itself in order to build a sustainable community, I hope the noble Lord will be reassured that this power is designed to facilitate a local authority’s objective.

I turn to the amendment. There will of course be circumstances in which the HCA may undertake a development which results in a requirement for a private street to be connected to a local highway. However, the agency would most likely undertake such a development in partnership. It would be unwise to restrict the power of the HCA to request the connection of a private street to an existing highway in those limited circumstances rather than those that I have described.

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It may be suggested that the HCA could, in theory at least, seek to connect all private streets to existing highways, whether or not they were involved in activities near those streets. It is perhaps worth taking one’s attention to Clause 21(8), which states that,

by making the connection. It would serve no practical purpose for the agency to seek connection of a private street in which it had no interest as it would be paying for connections which were not linked to any of its development activities. In practical terms, we expect the HCA to seek connection only where it would provide a benefit that contributed to regeneration overall.

This is a reserve power; first and foremost, matters will be sorted out by agreement. In a very few cases, this procedure might be necessary. A right of appeal for local highway authorities is built in. We do not expect the power to be used very often, but it is needed to ensure that developments give a full return to potential.

Lord Greaves: I am even more mystified as to why the power is required. The Minister confirmed the circumstances in which it could be used, but it is difficult to envisage them. How are developments connected now with the highways network without these powers? Well, it happens. Huge housing estates, new towns, eco-towns, new factories, power stations, bus stations and railway stations are not built without a connection to the highways network; they are all connected to the highways network without these powers. I do not understand why they are needed. I assume that they are legacy powers carried forward from previous Acts. How often have they been used within living memory? If the Minister cannot tell me now, perhaps somebody can write to me with the answer. The Bill is full of stuff carried forward from the past which does not represent the real world today.

The Minister talked a lot about projects working in partnership with the local authority for regeneration, even those led by the local authority. If the local authority is working in partnership with the HCA and leading projects, it will not refuse to link them up to the road network. That is not the real world.

I am utterly mystified and ask the Minister to let me know in due course how often the powers have been used. Meanwhile, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 21 agreed to.

Clause 22 [Financial assistance]:

Lord Greaves moved Amendment No. 75B:

The noble Lord said: This is a more substantial amendment that bears some discussion and debate. We move on to Chapter 3 of Part 1 and the aspects of the financial provisions and financial assistance from

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the HCA for regeneration schemes, housing schemes or whatever they are. It is similar to an amendment that was the subject of considerable discussion on Report in the House of Commons along with a number of other amendments, some of which we will discuss in a batch later on in the Bill. Basically, it is about council housing, whether it has a future and whether the Labour Government believe in it any more and are prepared to treat council housing on the same basis as social housing of other kinds. In that sense, it is what might be called a “level playing field” amendment.

I do not want to repeat a great deal of what was said in the Commons. Rather, I want to lay out the basic case, which is, essentially, about the treatment of local authorities that still have traditional council housing, as opposed to ALMOs or housing that has been transferred to housing associations and so on. The Prime Minister raised a lot of hopes when he said,

In a sense, there is nothing to stop councils building houses now; it is just that, because of the way the system is operated by the Government, most councils do not find it possible. Specifically, they are not provided with the resources to do so.

At present the Government prohibit local authorities from applying for a social housing grant to help build new council homes. Again, when I talk about “council homes” here, I am talking about traditionally controlled and organised council stock, not ALMOs. Registered social landlords can apply, local authorities with ALMOs or special purpose vehicles can apply, but not traditional council housing with secure tenancies at traditional council rents.

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