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Housing: Affordable Homes

Volume 685: debated on Wednesday 18 October 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether there will be an express stipulation on the acquiring party for provision of social housing when the Ministry of Defence sells the Chelsea Barracks site.

My Lords, any proposals for the development of the site will be subject to Westminster City Council’s unitary development plan, which reflects the policies in the London Plan. The city council’s strategic planning brief, which providesa detailed planning policy framework for the assessment of planning applications relating tothe site, confirms that the city council expects the maximum amount of residential accommodation, including up to 50 per cent affordable housing.

My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend for that reply and the indication that affordable housing will be part of this plan. But is this not an extreme example of a situation in the Westminster area where we have recently been disposing of public assets in areas with a chronic absence of affordable housing of all forms of tenure? In this case, that was admirably chronicled in a report by the noble Lord, Lord Best, who I am glad to see in his place. Should not the first call on land disposed of by public authorities in areas of high housing stress be to provide affordable homes for people in that area after consulting the local authority?

My Lords, we certainly recognise the enormous housing stresses in London and the contribution that this site will make. What is instructive about it is to see how closely the MoD has worked with Westminster City Council and other partners in developing the planning brief, which will lead to the 50 per cent of affordable housing. That is not atypical. Indeed, the MoD has six sites around London through its project MoD Estates London—MoDEL—which will release a great deal of housing for development. It is working with English Partnerships in close association. That is a very good and positive example of how the disposal of public land can make a real contribution to meeting our housing needs.

My Lords, does the Minister really think that at a time when the Treasury is very short of money and the Chancellor is having to make major cuts in public spending it is sensible to reduce probably quite significantly the proceeds from selling this absolutely top-value site for subsidised housing? The reduction in what the Treasury gets from the sale will inevitably come out of other very desirable government spending programmes.

My Lords, clearly the MoD has to follow the Treasury guidelines, but clearly too it has to balance that with the Government’s housing objectives which seek more sustainable housing in London to meet the great housing needs in London. I am impressed by how the MoD is achieving that balance by close partnership. It is a very instructive demonstration of the way forward.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that in areas such as Westminster the chronic shortage of affordable housing means that there is chronic shortage of key workers and that there are times when narrow Treasury objectives should be weighed up and put second to wider community considerations?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right about the need for key worker housing, and I am pleased to say that the policy is a success: we have housed 22,000 people through the key worker living scheme. Interestingly, servicemen are classified as key workers. It is important because they aspire to home ownership just as everyone else does and the scheme helps them prepare for a return to civilian life.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, for his references to the Westminster Housing Commission, which I had the honour to chair. Might the Minister be able to use her good offices at the Department for Communities and Local Government to bring together the key people from the Treasury, the Housing Corporation and English Partnerships to look not just at the Ministry of Defence’s disposal policy, but at those of all government departments and all other statutory bodies, so that we have some protocols for when it is a good idea for land to be sold for affordable housing and when it is not, instead of the rather more anarchic situation we have at the moment?

My Lords, I always listen to my noble friend. In fact, the Westminster Housing Commission report that he has produced is an admirable document, and I hope that Westminster Council listens closely to what he has to say. We have a precedent for a sort of protocol in the way that English Partnerships works with those who dispose of public land to ensure that it meets government housing objectives, so we have something in place that I think might guide us.

My Lords, may we be assured that social housing provision outside the central activity zone will be based on 50 per cent of the total square footage of the development asagainst 50 per cent of the units? That would avoid what happened at the Bowater development in Knightsbridge, where Candy and Candy ended up, under the so-called policy for London on planning, providing only 11 per cent of the total development space for social housing?

My Lords, 50 per cent for affordable housing is the target in the London plan, and the Mayor is very serious about that. I hear what my noble friend says about the methodology. That is something we have recognised, as indeed has the Mayor himself. I will go back and think about what my noble friend has said.

My Lords, in view of the two recent decisions taken by the Deputy Prime Minister regarding skyscrapers on the riverside being allowed and justified because of the inclusion of affordable housing, will the Minister undertake that her department will abide by the wishes of Westminster City Council that the whole development on this site should be of low and medium-rise buildings?

My Lords, the planning decision will rest with Westminster Council. Nothing in the London Plan requires tall buildings to be scattered around London, and clearly the Westminster plan has to conform to the London Plan. The Secretary of State has a reserve power of call-in if what is decided goes against national objectives and determined criteria. I am sure that Westminster, having looked at its planning brief, has a very sound sense of what is needed on that site.

My Lords, will the Government give an assurance through the Minister that every house built under the heading of “affordable social housing” will cost no more than £200,000 for young couples to be able to buy it?

I wish I could, my Lords. We are building a great many more houses in order to reduce the cost specifically for the first-time buyer.