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Homes and Communities Agency

Volume 488: debated on Tuesday 3 March 2009

The one-off costs of setting up the Homes and Communities Agency will be approximately £20 million over three years.

Ministers have made it clear that the agency will have a key role in carrying forward the eco-towns initiative. In doing so, will it make any concession whatever to democratic accountability?

The eco-towns initiative is under continuing consultation. When proposals are made, which will not be for some little time yet, they will go through the ordinary planning process in the normal way. There has been plenty of consultation so far, and I have no doubt that there will be more in the future.

Will the Homes and Communities Agency have a remit over land maintenance companies? As chair of the all-party group looking at land maintenance and factoring companies, I have been inundated with complaints from all parts of the House about how such companies are treating their customers. That includes companies such as Greenbelt, which this week is using a debt collection agency to take money off my constituents who have refused to pay for an inadequate service. Will that be part of the body’s remit?

Part of the main purpose of the agency, and why it was set up to replace the previous bodies, was to facilitate a single conversation that takes into account the range of issues around land, planning, homes construction and so on. I know that it will be concerned about the points that my hon. Friend makes, but if he would like to write to me about the particular issues arising in his constituency, I would be happy to look into them.

Does the Secretary of State have any plans to alter the system whereby local authorities that own their own housing stock, such as Stroud, part of which I have the honour to represent, are at a considerable disadvantage under the housing association grant system in comparison with housing associations with regard to the amount of money that they can either reinvest in their housing stock or use to fund future social housing? Does she have any plans to review that system?

Yes; as I said to the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy), we are consulting at present on changing the regulations that have hitherto disadvantaged local authorities in the same position as his own in benefiting from new housing build, and we also propose to make it possible for them to apply for housing grant.

As the right hon. Lady is sensibly reviewing so many things, will she review the whole eco-towns initiative, which is seen by many of us as expensive gesture politics?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern, but let me say two things to him. First, it is beyond question and clearly accepted, including across the House, that there is an unmet and growing demand for housing, because of the growth in the number of households. Secondly, I think it is also common ground across the House that something that must be done to address that demand. If it has to be addressed, surely it is better to seek on the basis of some exemplar programmes to provide new housing that meets the standards that the housing of the future will need to meet if we are to tackle climate change. Incidentally, that will also make those houses much more affordable to run. I understand that Opposition Members have sought to use this issue as a campaigning tool in a number of cases, but I am not sure that that is acting in their constituents’ interests in the long term.

When the Minister was establishing the remit of the Homes and Communities Agency, did she consider changing the rules to allow housing associations to apply for money to refurbish or upgrade empty properties? Does she recognise that the current rules are a disincentive for housing associations to buy up empty properties that could be hugely useful for many people already on waiting lists?

I am always willing to look at anything that is considered a disincentive, but I remind the hon. Lady that, as a result of the September package, we made money available to housing associations to buy up new-build empty properties on which they do not need to do any maintenance. Those properties are ready to be occupied now, and associations have now bought almost 6,000 homes to sell or rent.

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for her answer about the set-up costs of the HCA, which will be some £20 million. She is no doubt also aware that the running costs of the HCA in administering itself will be £100 million per annum, but is she aware that the HCA is reported to be in the process of employing 28 press officers? Does she think that that is appropriate in these austere times?

The hon. Gentleman’s numbers are out of date. I think that £100 million was the original prediction for the HCA’s running costs. The figure is now expected to be more like £86 million—[Interruption.] As I am sure the hon. Gentleman will appreciate—judging from the noises off, not all his colleagues do—it is believed that the amalgamation of the agency and English Partnerships, and the new structure of agencies, will result in substantial savings. From memory, I can say that those savings will be some £400 million, which will allow funding for a substantial number of new homes. I have not been scrutinising the detailed staffing arrangements for the agency, and neither do I think that it is necessarily useful for me to do so. However, it is typical of the Opposition to be much more interested in the number of employees, which they think they can criticise, than in the work being done by the agency, which is releasing thousands of new homes for the use of the British public.