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Solon Housing Association

Volume 281: debated on Wednesday 17 July 1996

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On resuming—

1 pm

The subject of anti-social behaviour by what newspapers frequently call "neighbours from hell" has been a staple of social housing throughout the country for some time, and the Government are, of course, in the process of taking steps to provide local authorities with the power to do something about such behaviour. Whether authorities such as Bristol will actually use the power is another matter.

My reason for raising the subject of 50 Concorde drive in my constituency and the behaviour of its shifting population is not just to draw attention to another example of neighbours from hell; it is also to note that housing practices by local authorities, which it appeared had been stamped out in the 1970s, are beginning to re-emerge in the voluntary housing movement.

In my younger days in politics, I was an active member of a Conservative organisation known as the Bow Group, and it was in 1976 that I was first asked, as an officer of that group, to edit a draft pamphlet on the use of local authority tenants as weapons against owner-occupiers in property that the council wished to buy in the London borough of Hillingdon.

The pamphlet was written by a young Hillingdon councillor, Michael Lawrence—who has since achieved rather greater fame by going on to do other things, such as running the stock exchange—and it concerned the activities of a socialist-dominated London council, led then by the now infamous Alderman Bartlett, which was buying individual houses in an area that it wished to dominate for local authority housing and was choosing less than satisfactory tenants to occupy them, in the hope that other properties would then fall into the council's lap and obviate the need for compulsory purchase procedures.

The pamphlet noted:
"It has always been possible through existing powers for a local authority to turn itself voluntarily into an active acquirer and developer of land, and some Socialist authorities have been particularly aggressive in this field. People living within the areas of these authorities have had to fight to preserve their homes and protect their environment using any appeal procedures available to them, and have experienced considerable distress in the process. In some cases their existing rights of appeal have proved inadequate".
The aim of Hillingdon at the time was, quite clearly, the increasing acquisition of private housing for municipal development, changing the balance of ownership away from the private individual.

The Conservative Government were eventually successful in stamping out such socialist housing practices, not least by the repeal of the Community Land Act 1975. I should like to draw to the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister the fact that it appears that such practices are beginning to return, at least in the use of less than satisfactory tenants to change the character of a whole area, through the voluntary housing movement rather than through local authorities.

Solon Housing Association (South West) Ltd. purchased 50 Concorde drive in my constituency in the early 1990s, with, I believe, Housing Corporation—that is to say, public—money, and in early 1994 it moved in as the new tenants Miss McNeil and her two children, who are now aged three and six. Her brother, currently in prison, also gives 50 Concorde drive as his permanent address.

Solon, to quote from its statement of purpose, is
"a locally-based housing association providing and managing good quality homes, working with people in greatest housing need, primarily in the inner city of Bristol. It is committed to working in partnership with tenants, local authorities and other agencies to achieve this aim. It intends to achieve its aim by: new build schemes on in-fill sites; bringing empty privately and publicly-owned properties back into use; working in partnership with Bristol City Council in the redevelopment of the renewal areas; maintaining and improving our existing housing stock".

I am afraid that I cannot. I have little time, so I shall not be able to give way.

In its 1994–95 annual report, a copy of which I shall place in the Library, Solon lists the various factors that it takes into account in assessing or selecting tenants, and notes that it regards itself as accountable to tenants and applicants for housing to the housing corporation and to local authorities. The House will note that nowhere in its resounding list of objectives is there any mention of working with individuals who might be affected by the housing association's activities.

The House will also note that there is no mention of what the association actually does—purchase existing housing stock if already owned or tenanted—although the 1994–95 annual report, having stated its aims and objectives as excluding purchase in those circumstances, then goes on to mention that, during that year, 15 such purchases were made. In addition, and perhaps not surprisingly, there is no mention in the report—unlike many company reports—of the addresses of the directors; I doubt whether they live next door to a Solon housing association property.

As with many housing associations, substantial amounts of public money, through the Housing Corporation and the single regeneration budget, are applied by the association in furthering its aims as stated, although some of that money inevitably went into financing the rise in rent arrears held by the association on its books from 1993 to 1995.

I return to the central omission from any of the housing policies, transfer policies or acquisition-of-information policies set out by the association in all its documents. Nowhere is mention made of any consideration whatever being given to the suitability of the tenant to the house that they are to be offered to occupy, despite growing public concern at the effects of anti-social behaviour by tenants on their neighbours.

The Government's own Green Paper, "Anti-Social Behaviour on Council Estates", published in April 1995, noted:
"Such behaviour manifests itself in many different ways and at varying levels of intensity. This can include vandalism, noise, verbal and physical abuse, threats of violence, racial harassment, damage to property, trespass, nuisance from dogs, car repairs on the street, joyriding, domestic violence, drugs and other criminal activities such as burglary".
Inevitably, the majority—if not all—of these activities have been forced on the neighbours of 50 Concorde drive during the tenancy of that property, and the garage further up the street that goes with it, by Miss McNeil, her children and their juvenile visitors, who seem strangely reluctant to attend school during normal hours, and the more adult visitors who come to the house at all times of the day and night, frequently gaining entry by unorthodox means such as the bathroom window. Indeed, it is fair to say that there have been times when occupation of the house by the visitors has been more frequent than that by Miss McNeil.

As for the garages grouped further along Concorde drive—one of the garages automatically comes with the tenancy of No. 50—complaints consist of numerous youths hanging around, vandalising cars, climbing on and damaging the garage roofs, under the apparent leadership, or at least the spirited concurrence, of the McNeil family, adult and children, which makes improvement of those garages by other owners a complete waste of time. More seriously, arson inside the garage belonging to No. 50, and the regular destruction of its doors, have led other legitimate users of the garages to park their vehicles elsewhere for safety reasons.

But it is the conduct of Miss McNeil and her circle that gives most cause for concern. Its impact on their immediate neighbours extends to perhaps a dozen houses on either side. Since the matter was first drawn to my attention in 1994, I have received reports of threats against other children; of fighting in the house, the garden and the street outside; of people coming and going 24 hours a day—in particular, a series of men late at night—of rubbish and stolen cars dumped nearby; of glass strewn in the road in the presence of Miss McNeil and regular visitors; of alleged drug activity; and of all the more common regular annoyances to neighbours that are associated with a house of this type.

Police activity is inevitably limited to regular visits and the occasional arrest for aggravated vehicle taking. Also inevitably—this brings me back to the main purpose of the debate—the activity of the housing association has been between limited and non-existent.

I first wrote to Solon's housing manager in December 1994, after Miss McNeil had been a tenant for a little over half a year. I received regular complaints from the occupants of adjoining houses—and the occupants of the garages adjoining that belonging to No. 50—throughout 1995, as I have throughout 1996 to date, and I encouraged the complainants to write to Solon. In the absence of any observable action on the part of either the housing association or any of its directors or officers, I wrote requesting an urgent meeting with the director to discuss what action might be available to the association.

I wrote that letter on 8 February this year. After reminders from me, issued on 19 April and 9 May, a meeting was eventually arranged for 14 June. At that meeting, it was explained to me that the delay was due to the fact that, shortly after my original request for a meeting, Miss McNeil had produced a series of allegations of racial harassment—I have not been able to establish by whom—and the association had considered it inappropriate to meet me while such complaints were being investigated, and, inevitably, rejected. Needless to say, I am not sure that I accept that explanation. The 14 June meeting was of no value: it did not chart even a potential way forward.

I know that the Government are already aware of part of the problem, and proposing probationary tenancies in order to prevent the terrorising of neighbours in at least some of the ways that I have described. It is a pity that, in Bristol—and therefore in housing associations that depend entirely on Bristol to supply a substantial number of tenants for the properties they own, or control in other ways, in that city—the emerging opinion is that such probationary tenancies would oppress tenants, and are therefore not appropriate to housing circumstances.

The Government do not appear to be dealing with the possibility that housing associations—or, at least, this housing association; I cannot say whether it is typical—are returning to the socialist housing policies of the 1970s, when rented housing was used as an instrument of change in the character of an area. That is why I have raised the issue today. I have not done so in order to attack an individual tenant; I believe that Miss McNeil and those who surround her are symptoms of a greater malaise. That malaise is represented by the policy of inactivity adopted by Solon.

Solon receives substantial sums of public money. I do not believe that my constituents, who contribute that money, expect it to be used as an instrument for their own financial and social impoverishment.

1.14 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment
(Mr. James Clappison)

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Stern) has raised some interesting points. I am sure that he will understand if I do not go into all the details of those points, but try to deal with the general concerns that he has expressed. I am particularly pleased that he has raised the important subject of anti-social behaviour, which enables me to tell the House of the Government's commitment to tackling that problem. shall return to the measures that vie are taking in a moment; first, however, I wish to deal with housing policy issues arising from my hon. Friend's speech.

The cornerstone of our housing policy is our acknowledgement that most people want to own their homes. We remain firmly committed to the continued growth of sustainable home ownership. During the next 10 years, we expect an additional 1.5 million householders to become home owners. Nevertheless, we recognise that some people prefer to rent. I am about to say something about housing associations and their role in providing social rented accommodation, but we are determined to sustain the revival in the private rented sector, which we believe can play a part in meeting housing need.

Private renting is important as a complement to the social rented sector. We are committed to maintaining an effective housing benefit system that helps low-income households to rent in both the private and social rented sectors. We are determined to learn from the mistakes of previous socialist Administrations, and to recognise in our housing policies that affordable rented accommodation need not be in public ownership.

As my hon. Friend may know, the Housing Bill that is currently passing through Parliament contains provisions that will, we hope, bring a further supply of private rented accommodation on to the market by easing some of the formalities that landlords must undergo before letting properties on assured shorthold tenancies and, in some circumstances, making it easier for them to recover possession in the case of that and other forms of tenancy. Since the late 1980s, when important reforms were introduced, there has been a substantial increase in the private rented sector. We look forward to a continuation of that.

My hon. Friend is particularly concerned about the housing associations. We have given social tenants a real choice between having a local authority as their landlord and having a housing association. Housing associations are now the main providers of new social housing. They have attracted more than £5.5 billion in private finance during the past five years to stretch public finance further—through the Housing Corporation and local authorities—so that more homes can be built. We continue to give generous support to the Housing Corporation's approved development programme, and about £1 billion of investment this year will attract a further £800 million in private finance.

The average cost of building a new housing-association home has fallen by about 40 per cent. in real terms. During a similar five-year period—the period that I have just mentioned—more than a quarter of a million homes for social renting or shared ownership have been provided by the building of new homes and the rehabilitation of old ones. In addition, about 60,000 lettings have been created through incentive and do-it-yourself shared ownership schemes.

The housing association movement is contributing to our regeneration objectives by rehabilitating existing empty properties and letting them to people in need, but the purchase of existing satisfactory street properties or new empty properties forms a small part of the Housing Corporation's programme—less than 8 per cent. of new homes in the corporation's development programme for 1995–96. Such purchases are approved for public funding where they meet locally identified housing needs on a most cost-effective basis.

I understand that Bristol has some 5,500 empty homes in the private sector, and that it has a strategy for bringing those back into use by working in partnership with housing associations in the city. I am sure that the House will be aware of the importance that we attach to bringing empty properties back into use. The vast majority of empty properties are in the private sector, although it is important for local authorities and others to manage their housing stock effectively to avoid empty properties. In Bristol, the local authority operates a common housing register with its housing association partners, so that it can work closely with them on the allocation of properties, and ensure that the best use is made of all available stock.

Housing associations play an important part in diversifying tenure to help to build balanced, stable and responsible communities—breaking down the barriers between old, sprawling estates and the rest of the community. The Housing Corporation's programme promotes mixed communities, embracing both tenure mix—rent and shared ownership—and a social mix of young and old and low-income and better-off groups. In 1996–97, 11 per cent. of the rent allocations and 30 per cent. of the allocations for new homes for shared ownership are for schemes that form part of a mixed tenure development. Around 80 per cent. of approvals are for homes that, when completed, will form part of a cluster of 40 or fewer social homes.

I listened carefully to my hon. Friend's comments on housing association tenants. As I have said, I am not prepared to go into the details of the matter, for reasons that he will understand, but it is appropriate to say something about housing associations' record. In general, they have a good record of responsible management, not just in terms of keeping their properties in good repair, but in achieving a good match between tenants and their properties, which is important.

It is in the interest of associations to manage their properties with care and consideration, so that they and their tenants are respected as "good neighbours" to other residents. In the particular case that has been mentioned, it is up to the housing association to consider what action might be appropriate, and to explore with Bristol council what solutions might be appropriate.

My hon. Friend is developing an important point, which is part of the core of my argument. To what extent does he have powers as a Minister to draw a case to the attention of the Housing Corporation, through which funds are channelled to housing associations, when it is felt, for any reason, that a housing association is not meeting the standards that he has outlined?

My hon. Friend will be aware of housing associations' position in respect of their tenants, and of housing associations' opportunities to recover possession in certain circumstances. I appreciate and will reflect on his important and interesting point on the relationship with the Housing Corporation.

I know that my hon. Friend will be interested in the Government's response to the problem of anti-social behaviour. Part of that response is ensuring that authorities and others concerned are aware of all the remedies available to them. The Association of District Councils's "Winning Communities" document covers the full range of remedies. The good practice unit of the Chartered Institute of Housing, funded by the Department of the Environment, produced another useful and practical document in December last year entitled "Neighbourhood Nuisance: Ending the Nightmare". I accept that neighbourhood nuisance can be a problem that results in a nightmare.

The Government believe that repossession cases need to be handled more quickly. Part of our response was the publication on 29 March of a Government-wide guide to getting the best out of the court system. It contains a quick reference list of steps to take, and more detailed guidance on the possession process.

Of course, we need a range of responses to different forms of bad behaviour. Those include—this will especially interest my hon. Friend—tightening tenancy agreements to make them more readily enforceable, using mediation and counselling to try to resolve disputes before they escalate, use of injunctions, and, if all else fails, seeking the eviction of the tenants concerned.

Above all, we must make it clear to tenants that anti-social behaviour is simply unacceptable, and that, in the worst cases, the consequences could be the loss of their home. The revised council tenants' charter, which was issued last summer, stresses that tenants have responsibilities as well as rights, and that those responsibilities include being a good neighbour. My hon. Friend will be interested in our proposals in the Housing Bill, some of which I have adverted to. In developing the proposal for introductory tenancies in the Bill, the Government were responding to an idea proposed by local authorities. A consultation exercise conducted last year showed a clear consensus that measures to deal with anti-social behaviour should be available for authorities, if they wish, as part of a wider strategy for tackling the problem.

The Bill provides for the existing ground for possession because of nuisance or annoyance to neighbours to be strengthened in four important ways. It will apply, first, to behaviour "in the locality" of the tenant's homes; secondly, to behaviour of visitors to the property; thirdly, to behaviour "likely to cause", in the words of the Bill, a nuisance or annoyance; and, finally, where a person has been convicted of an arrestable offence in the locality of the property.

At present, it can be difficult to mount a successful case for eviction. Some courts have interpreted
"nuisance or annoyance to neighbours"
as behaviour affecting those living adjacent to the perpetrator, but the effects of a tenant's behaviour can often be felt over a far wider area. The revised ground widens the scope to deal with such activity in the locality. That is an important addition. Similarly, frequent visitors to a flat or house can be disturbing to other tenants, so the activities of visitors will now be covered, which is another important addition.

Perhaps the most far-reaching of the amendments to the existing grounds for possession is the inclusion of behaviour
"likely to cause nuisance or annoyance"
as a ground for eviction. One of the most difficult aspects of obtaining a successful eviction is getting neighbours to testify against other tenants. Understandably, they are often too frightened to come forward for fear of reprisals.

The amendment's practical effect is that third-party witnesses, whether professional witnesses, local authority officers or perhaps even police officers, will be able to provide the evidence. Some local authorities have already taken that course, but others may have been deterred from doing so by doubts over whether the courts would accept such evidence. This provision will pave the way for far wider use of professional witnesses.

The Bill introduces a new ground for possession related to domestic violence. There has been growing concern not only about how such violence impinges on neighbours, but about the way in which, after the victim flees, the violent partner is often rewarded by remaining in the family home. That can be especially irksome for a local authority when that person occupies a much sought after family-sized property.

The amendments that the Bill makes to help speed up the repossession process will enable a landlord to start possession proceedings against a tenant as soon as a notice for possession has been issued, rather than waiting the customary 28 days in cases of nuisance or annoyance. In cases in which the court thinks it just and equitable, the notice can be dispensed with altogether.

The final element in the legislative package is a power to allow the courts to attach a power of arrest to an injunction taken out by a local authority or other social landlord, to prevent a breach of a tenancy agreement by anti-social behaviour. The Bill also provides a specific power for all local authorities to take out injunctions to restrain the behaviour of anyone who comes on to their estates to cause nuisance. The power of arrest will offer the victim immediate protection.

The provisions in the Bill apply to both local authorities and housing associations in their capacity as social landlords, with the exception of the proposals for introductory tenancies. However, housing associations can grant assured shorthold tenancies—