My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.
I am delighted to introduce the Housing and Regeneration Bill to this House. It will help us to meet one of the great challenges of our generation: to ensure that future generations have as much opportunity to own their homes as we have had and that they live in communities both new and renewed that will sustain and create opportunities for all, no matter what their individual circumstances. It also offers for the first time a greater say for social tenants over their own housing options and conditions. It will bring specific help for a range of other social groups and housing providers. I believe that the Bill will be welcomed by your Lordships as it has been already in the other place and across the housing and regeneration world.
Perhaps I may first set the context. Aspirations and expectations in terms of both home ownership and housing standards have risen dramatically in the past half-century. The Government share these aspirations. We believe fundamentally that everyone should be able to live in a decent home at a price they can afford, and we have done much to make that vision a reality.
I remind noble Lords that housing supply in England has risen by more than 50 per cent from a low of around 130,000 new homes nationally in 2001-02 to almost 200,000 in 2006-07. Between 1997 and 2006-07, we helped around 95,000 householders into home ownership through shared ownership and shared equity. And since 1997, more than £23 billion has been invested in improving social housing.
However, two major challenges demand that we think, plan and develop differently: demography and climate change. The growth in households and the demand for homes have outstripped supply for many years, and the consequences are self-evident: young people dependent on their parents for a deposit; teachers, nurses, care workers, policemen priced out of the local community where they work; and too many older people trapped in a home which has become a burden because there are so few appealing alternatives. But just as we have to meet the intensive demand for new homes in the south and east—and to do so sustainably—so we have a responsibility also to regenerate declining communities in the north and west in particular.
We have to be more ambitious and more efficient to meet the scale and diversity of housing need. We have also to ensure social cohesion as well as environmental sustainability, and to provide the range of affordable and sustainable homes that is so urgently needed. Our response reflects the scale of those challenges.
The Prime Minister announced that we would seek to deliver 3 million additional new homes by 2020. In July, we published a housing Green Paper which set out our action plan for delivering on this commitment. It included: a national target of delivering 240,000 new homes a year by 2016; five new eco-towns—now increased to 10; better use of public-sector land; an £8 billion funding programme for affordable housing in the period 2008-11; and a commitment to delivering greener and better-quality homes. This Bill is crucial to achieving all that.
We cannot deny that these are challenging targets, nor can we deny that, in recent months, there have been changes in the financial and housing markets that make this Bill and the changes that it will bring all the more important, and make it all the more essential that we are able to think creatively, invest wisely, respond flexibly and bring together all the partners needed across all parts of the housing market. The Bill seeks to achieve that by creating the Homes and Communities Agency, a single agency which will bring together individual programmes, partnerships and funding streams to make it more possible to build more affordable homes in the right places, and of the right kind, for people of different conditions and needs, to increase the energy efficiency of new homes so as to be carbon neutral by 2016, to build to the limits of innovation in both the public and private realm, to give tenants a greater say over how their homes are managed, and to focus on the key outcomes of growth, renewal, affordability and sustainability.
The new Homes and Communities Agency is critical to better delivery in housing and community growth. It is a bold and ambitious step forward. Both the Housing Corporation and English Partnerships have a record of outstanding achievement in recent years, but it had become evident that separate funding streams, parallel processes and separate negotiation meant that opportunities for investment, innovation and coherent planning and delivery might be missed.
Part 1 establishes the new Homes and Communities Agency to ensure that that does not happen. It opens a new world of possibilities. It will not only bring together responsibilities and powers which have previously been held by the Housing Corporation and English Partnerships, but it will also take on responsibility for delivering a number of housing and community programmes so far held by my department, CLG, and responsibility for the Academy for Sustainable Communities.
The scale, the scope and the synergy created by bringing all these related responsibilities together in one place with one focus will now match necessity with real opportunity. It will bring over £1 billion in savings, bring skills, expertise, investment, funding streams and delivery systems together, and provide an opportunity for doing things differently which could not have been realised by simply merging or modernising the two separate organisations. I am delighted to say that the new agency has the blessing of both English Partnerships and the Housing Corporation. I pay tribute to the outstanding work of my noble friend Lady Ford as chair of English Partnerships and of my noble friend Lady Dean at the Housing Corporation. Noble Lords will appreciate how very grateful I am to have them on this side of the House for this Bill.
Evidently, we want to see the HCA help maintain overall supply in the coming years. It will inherit the challenging programmes of its predecessor organisations, but it will also, given its scope and experience, be in an ideal position to provide stability in the housing market at this difficult time. Without losing its inherited capacity, the HCA has the chance to forge a new culture of creativity, enterprise and partnership. It is already in the best possible hands. We are particularly delighted that Sir Bob Kerslake is its chief executive designate; his vision is already clear. The agency has some important and challenging targets to meet if it is to deliver affordable homes on the scale we need. But the critical task is to create not just the right type and range of homes but communities of opportunity for people and places as well. In Sir Bob Kerslake’s words, the opportunity now is to create a “single conversation”, shared between the agency and the regional and local authorities, the building industry, funding agencies, planning bodies, landholders, and communities themselves.
The Bill, particularly in Clauses 5, 22 and 34 to 39, enables the agency to take forward the Housing Corporation’s functions in funding delivery of affordable housing. The agency will play a critical role in delivering 70,000 more affordable homes a year by 2010-11, and support the delivery of 3 million new homes in total by 2020. The agency will also take forward the work of English Partnerships in regenerating communities and bringing brownfield land back into use. It will also incorporate the Academy for Sustainable Communities, which will mean that we have the opportunity to drive and improve skills—not just the skills of building physical infrastructure but those for social infrastructure in communities.
The agency take forward the improvement of existing social housing stock by continuing the decent homes programme, making sure that 95 per cent of social rented homes are made decent by the end of 2010. It will also take on responsibility for housing market renewal and growth areas. All those programmes are currently located within my department. The agency will also be responsible for the Thames Gateway, the biggest regeneration project in western Europe. But we are not concerned simply with housing supply, important though that is. Building communities is not just about housing; it is about putting in place other infrastructure, such as public transport, local shops and community facilities and sports and leisure facilities, and ensuring that people can access employment and leisure opportunities, which are the things that make communities work and a pleasure to live in. We aim to achieve homes and communities where people are proud to live, now and in the future. We want to see inspirational design; we want the “wow factor”, not just in homes but in the public realm as well. We expect the agency to work with local authorities and spur them fully in their efforts to develop “lifetime homes”, so that people can remain independent and can age in place.
The vast majority of the agency’s powers will be inherited from previous legislation governing the Housing Corporation and English Partnerships. For example, Clauses 13 and 14 enable the Secretary of State to give the agency planning powers in certain areas, but they are modelled on existing powers provided by the Leasehold Reform, Housing and Urban Development Act 1993. Those powers may be used in pursuance of the agency’s objectives, set out in Clause 2, whose breadth gives the agency the necessary flexibility to find the right solutions for the right areas. I stress that the Government will look to involve and consult closely local authorities when the use of these clauses is being considered. Indeed, in the one example that we have so far, when English Partnerships used its similar powers in Milton Keynes, the local authority was fully involved in establishing the delivery vehicle.
With such a range of powers, noble Lords will want to be assured that we are not creating a behemoth or a juggernaut that will slow things down, impose top-down demands or frustrate other partners—whether housing associations, regional development agencies or local authorities. I can give those assurances. First, the agency will have offices in each region to help those relationships at the local and regional level to flourish. Secondly, for local authorities in particular this is very good news. The relationship between local authorities and the HCA will be critical. The agency will be no less than local government’s best delivery partner, working with the grain of local ambitions and local needs, while securing the achievement of government targets.
In the other place, the proposals for the new agency received a constructive welcome. There was particular support on all sides, however, for the role of the agency in delivering on the sustainability agenda to be strengthened. The Government were pleased to be able to respond to this and we amended the objects to include contributing to the achievement of sustainable development. Of course, this underlines the fact that good design will be a highly important feature of the agency’s work, and I know that many noble Lords will welcome that. The Bill was also amended to provide greater clarity over the agency’s relationship with the GLA. Those changes have made the Bill better and stronger.
The Bill is not just about delivering more and better homes. It will also break new ground in giving social tenants new rights to high standards of housing, access to better services and more say over how their homes are managed. In that sense, therefore, the HCA and the new social regulator that are contained in Part 2 of the Bill, are complementary in terms of ensuring and securing the better supply and condition of housing. Part 2 of the Bill establishes a new regulator for housing association tenants. Its predecessor body, the Housing Corporation, was established in 1964 and the current limited system of social housing regulation was introduced more than 30 years ago. Regulation has, until now, been focused on making sure that RSLs were well run organisations with sound financial management. We must not underestimate the importance of the changes in the scope of regulation and the creation of a regulatory regime that will mediate between some of the most vulnerable people in the community and the RSLs. They are benevolent providers, but nevertheless have a monopoly over the consumer. That means that the regulatory framework in the Bill is, rightly, rather different from other regulatory frameworks.
Noble Lords will also want to know why we have confined this initiative to registered social landlords, given that there have also been calls for the regulator’s remit to extend to local authorities. Let me explain. We agree with the principle that there should be a single cross-domain regulator for social housing. Obviously, tenants should have a right to expect good housing services no matter who their provider is. We have made it clear that it is our intention that the regulator’s remit should be extended to local authority landlords within two years of it being established. We understand why there are calls to move faster on this, but getting this right will take time, particularly as we need to ensure that regulation supports the principles of the new local authority performance framework.
We have to bear in mind, in particular, that the landscape of social housing has changed significantly. The housing association sector, to its huge credit, has risen to the challenge of providing an increasing proportion of the social housing stock since 1988, with both large-scale voluntary transfers and massive investment in building new homes. Throughout the country, many housing associations are key players in their local communities. But tenants’ experiences have changed too, and this Bill will put tenants at the heart of the new system. The fundamental objectives of the regulator, set out in Clause 88, are wide because the regulator can act only in accordance with his objectives. That means that important issues, which are not the direct responsibility of the regulator—like the supply of new social housing—must be reflected here so that the regulator can take them into account in his work, for example, through setting standards.
The new regulator will therefore be tasked with protecting tenants and helping them to have greater choice and influence over matters central to their everyday lives. He will do this primarily through setting standards for accommodation, facilities and services in connection with social housing—in Clauses 191 to 196—which will be developed in consultation with landlords, tenants, and a range of other interested bodies, including the Homes and Communities Agency, lenders to the social housing sector, and the Government. Where landlords fail to meet standards, the regulator will have new powers to step in with fines and enforcement measures designed to improve services to tenants.
But we are quite clear that the independence and integrity of landlords is important too, so these powers are balanced against an objective to minimise interference, and behave reasonably, transparently and proportionately—Clause 88(11). The regulator can intervene only when there is a material breach of standards, not a technical breach or an isolated incident. So this is about targeting the regulator’s efforts where they are really needed and can be really effective. Landlords who involve their tenants and deliver good services should in fact see fewer burdens, not more, but poor performers will be subject to a quicker and more targeted regime of sanctions, focused on securing rapid improvements to services.
Enforcement notices will set out to landlords exactly what improvements are expected, and what the consequences will be if improvements are not delivered—Clauses 216 to 224—and the regulator will have power to fine landlords, to award compensation to tenants and, in the worst cases, to require them to employ another organisation to manage their housing.
Let us put ourselves in the shoes of tenants. This means a regulator that sets clear standards on what level of management service tenants can expect from their landlord—for example, the quality of their accommodation and the speed of repairs—publishes clear information on landlord performance against those standards in a form accessible and useful to tenants, listens and responds to tenants’ concerns about systematic breach of standards and uses their evidence to investigate, uses enforcement powers when needed to name, shame and fine landlords, and compensate tenants and gives tenants more opportunity to be involved in management of their own homes—Objective 3.
I met Martin Cave recently and was pleased to hear that he is happy with the way his vision for the future of social housing regulation is being turned into a reality. He wanted to see an independent regulator, with government influence strictly limited, and the Bill delivers this. The regulator will be independent of government, and the changes that were made in the other place make it clear that the Secretary of State may direct it only on certain standards relating to rent, the physical standards of homes, and tenant engagement. Government will have no role, for example, in the exercise of the enforcement powers. That debate also made clear the Government’s commitment to protect tenants and public investment while preserving the independence of providers.
There was significant debate in the other place on how to get right the balance of regulation in the Bill. In response, we made important amendments to ensure that we strike the right balance and to ensure that the status of RSLs as private bodies is clear, for example, in relation to the Secretary of State’s powers of direction, as I mentioned earlier, and the enforcement powers. While we are still considering whether a number of additional amendments may be necessary to address technical issues raised by stakeholders, overall I think that we have the balance right.
The final part of the Bill includes a number of small but nevertheless significant provisions which will improve the way in which housing services are delivered and raise environmental standards. Measures to support and extend the mandatory supply of information about the sustainability of new homes are an important part of the package of measures to ensure we deliver our commitment to zero-carbon homes by 2016.
Linked to the regulatory reforms to give tenants more choice and voice, the Bill makes a tenant ballot mandatory before decisions about transfers out of local authority ownership. Significant changes to the housing revenue account subsidy system will give councils more income from any new homes they build. Measures to enable landlords of shared ownership houses to restrict “staircasing” in hard to replace areas respond to concerns that affordable rural housing is being “lost”. Changes to address an anomaly in housing legislation which has existed for far too long ensure that service personnel are put on an equal footing with civilians when applying to a local authority for social housing or for help because they are facing homelessness.
There is provision for family intervention tenancies, which are designed to help to support delivery of family intervention projects, which provide intensive support to a small number of the most challenging families. Amendments made in the other place have helped to ensure that the right safeguards are in place to protect these vulnerable tenants.
In response to a European Court of Human Rights ruling, there are improvements to security of tenure for Gypsies and Travellers living on authorised local authority sites. I know that noble Lords who have highlighted the lack of equity in the current situation will welcome this change.
Provisions introduced in Committee in the other place ensure that tenants retain tenancy status as long as they live in their homes to address the problem of “tolerated trespassers”.
The Bill represents the clearest possible expression of this Government’s commitment to social justice. It will help to address the shortage of affordable housing for first-time buyers and families; it will make new housing greener to tackle climate change; and it will give social housing tenants a better deal. It will build on the outstanding work we have done in regenerating some of the most deprived and marginalised communities in our country. It addresses some of the biggest challenges that we face today. I have set out the broad picture but we will have the opportunity in Committee to discuss how this will be achieved. I look forward to that because I know that your Lordships have a particular interest in how things will be achieved. I also know that all round this House there is a wealth of experience and commitment to the values and work of this sector so it will be a pleasure to engage with colleagues as we take this Bill forward. The Bill is fit for purpose and I commend it to your Lordships.
Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Baroness Andrews.)
My Lords, I need to clear the air slightly by declaring a number of interests. I am a landowner in Essex and own potential development land. I also let surplus farm cottages, so I am in that business as well. We have sold land for development and, among other things, we have provided a large number of homes for our local authority at no cost under a Section 106 agreement. In those days the biggest problem was ensuring that the local authority was able to hang on to those houses under the right-to-buy legislation and did not have to sell them. That problem is long past but it shows how long ago the planning permission was given.
I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for her exposition of the Bill. It was a tour de force that informed the House what the Bill is all about. Life would be very easy if this was as straightforward as she says. I have one question for her at this stage. I am informed by one of my Welsh friends that there have been no discussions about the Bill with the Welsh Assembly. I do not know whether that is so but I will be very relieved if she can clarify that matter when she winds up. I find it very difficult to believe that that is the case but if a worry is raised it is as well to deal with it.
I apologise to the House if I do not see it through the same rose-tinted spectacles as the noble Baroness. It is the fate of those who sit on these Benches that it does not really matter which side of the House we speak from, we inevitably see the world through slightly differently tinted spectacles. I suppose mine will inevitably be pale blue whereas the noble Baroness is wearing her pink ones.
One can have no quarrel with a Bill the purpose of which is to free up procedures and facilitate an increase in provision and improvement of regulation in the whole housing field and particularly in the social housing sector. The problem I have with the Bill is that, as drafted, it seems to go rather wider than that, as I shall explain in a moment. I have had many representations from many groups about it. They do not all agree that it is fit for purpose. I am most grateful to those who corresponded with me. If I do not mention them it is because it would be impossible to do all the matters justice. Things will come up at later stages of the Bill and I look forward to that very much indeed.
The arrival of the Bill in this House is a fortunate, or perhaps, if you are a pessimist, an unfortunate coincidence as it arrives when the whole construction industry is in crisis, but not one of its own making, which I am very happy to acknowledge. Unfortunately, the hiatus in the banking industry is the problem, and it is not just a problem for home-buyers; it will also be a problem for home-providers, because they will not find it so easy to raise finance either. Housing associations may well find that when they go to banks for money, as they do from time to time, they will have some difficulties.
This is a fundamental problem, which I regret to say is giving the doom-mongers a field day. One of the wonderful, terrible and terrifying things about the fourth estate is that it has no responsibility for the consequences of what it publishes. At the moment, it is talking the world down, and the world of housing really does not deserve it. I am bound to say that this is the case.
I have had some discussions with estate agents working in the field. People who have made firm offers for houses are already withdrawing those firm offers, because they want to stay where they are and wait and see what happens. I know of one firm of estate agents that has closed, not because it was not trading profitably, but because it had had 20 good years and those people thought that it would be rather more comfortable if they were not doing it for the next five years. That may seem to be a very short-sighted and pessimistic view, but it is not unrepresentative of some of the things that are happening.
Regrettably, the construction firms are predicting a downturn in house building. As a natural consequence, if the buyers are not there and there is no certainty of funding for purchasers, there is no point in building. That is another unfortunate matter, with which we will have to deal in the short term. That said, I am bound to acknowledge that this is extraordinary. We know that there is a crude housing shortage. We know that employment is at a high level. We know that there is a big demand for houses and that there are many people who would like to get on the housing ladder, even if they are going temporarily to withdraw that demand, because they are worried about where things are going. It will probably be two years down the road before we see what is going to happen. I hope that by then things will have sorted themselves out.
The past decade has not been quite as good in the housing sector as the figures that the noble Baroness gave us might suggest. It is a matter of regrettable fact that there are now 1.67 million households on the social housing waiting list. That is an increase of 64 per cent over the 1997 figure, and it has gone up by 40,000 in the past 12 months. Housing construction has slowed. During the 1980s, it was an average of around 250,000 houses per year. The low point was five years ago, as the noble Baroness said, and it is climbing back towards the 200,000 mark today. The target is 200,000 at the moment and perhaps 300,000 in the long term. While we have that sort of target, we have another reality, which is that the construction of houses by local authorities has completely collapsed. Fewer than 300 such houses were built last year. Of course, registered social landlords nowadays take up most of that burden, and they have done it very well, but the fact remains that there were roughly 26,600 houses completed last year against roughly 28,350 in 1997.
There is a very real cause for concern. The need for houses is growing, and greater life expectancy is keeping us all around rather longer. I can say that as a genuine pensioner. We do not have the sort of extended family existence nowadays that used to be the case. Old couples such as me and my wife want to have our own home and the children do not want to have us around. They love to see us—don’t get me wrong—but that is a norm of life. That is increasing housing demand. Perish the thought, but one has to say that immigration is also increasing housing demand, and the number of immigrants coming in every year is way beyond the figure that I am going to mention. The increase in housing demand is somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 houses per year. In the short term, all of that will be very difficult.
Now I will address my criticisms of the Bill. The creation of the Homes and Communities Agency seems a natural evolution and on first thoughts it certainly is. In principle, I have no difficulty with it. To bring together the powers of new towns, the Housing Corporation and English Partnerships has got to be a sensible rationalisation. But the question, as always, is where you draw the limits of those powers. The Bill seems to me to be very sweeping. Clause 2(1)(a) states the object as,
“to improve the supply and quality of housing in England”,
which is written almost as if no one else does that. Clause 2(1)(b) states the object as,
“to secure the regeneration or development of land or infrastructure in England”.
Again, the same remark applies. Clause 2(1)(c) states the object as,
“to support in other ways the creation, regeneration or development of communities in England”.
At this point, all my former colleagues in local government see a major part of their role in life being taken away. I know that the noble Baroness mentioned discussions with the Local Government Association. All I can do is report the feeling that is being reported to me; they are extremely worried. I think that the worry is because of the lack of definition in this part of the Bill, and that is one of the matters to which we must pay particular attention at later stages.
The Bill goes slightly further than that. In Clause 3, we read that the Homes and Communities Agency,
“may do anything it considers appropriate for the purposes of its objects”.
I have a nasty feeling—perhaps I read too many newspapers—that I can think of a number of Governments of whom we would not approve who would love to have words like those written into their legislation. It opens the mind to dreadful possibilities. I know that would not happen here, but we need to define the limits with greater clarity than exists at present. I accept that the Secretary of State has some controls, and I accept that there are financial limitations, but the Bill is too widely drafted as it stands. It is unfortunate that local government, which is perhaps the prime agent of carrying out these functions, because it also has to deal through the planning system with the private sector, feels that it is under attack.
I am fascinated by the continuation of the new towns path. Many years ago, in the early 1970s, I was a member of a very exotic body, which has long since been disposed of—the South East Economic Planning Council. In those days, the south-east region of England began in Essex, went round through Buckinghamshire and down to Hampshire. It had one-third of the country’s population and half the country’s GDP. It really was a very interesting and exotic body to serve on, if I may put it that way. The reason for mentioning it is that one of the things we did was to take part in a study of the Docklands. In those days, the London Docklands began just a bit east from the Tower. My abiding memory of that part of London then was of a continuous traffic jam surrounded by a sea of dereliction.
It had one other unique feature. The area was controlled by five separate boroughs. Whether I agreed with them or not politically is neither here nor there. I admired them. They were run by tough gentlemen who were immensely proud of their areas. Unfortunately, that had one consequence—that they would not agree to work together. There was no overcoming that, so in the end SEEPC recommended that the only way to solve the problem was by establishing a new town corporation. That recommendation went to the then Labour Government and it was finally implemented by Margaret Thatcher, now my noble friend Lady Thatcher, who is no longer in her place. The Docklands that we see today, which is bustling, developing and continues to move forward, was the result in part, although it was nothing to do with me, of my noble friend Lady Thatcher’s decision.
However, I wonder whether we need to continue those sorts of powers. Local authorities are far more accustomed to working together and co-operatively. They, perhaps more than we, recognise the need for development and redevelopment. Anyone with brownfield land recognises the need for that. However, the bulk of brownfield land is in the north of the country and the bulk of housing demand is in the south—and that causes problems. We need to think about that issue.
The National Housing Federation has written to me. I shall quote from its letter, because it describes a particular issue more succinctly than I could. It states:
“We are looking for a system that draws on the best regulatory principles, raises standards for tenants and puts accountability to residents at its heart”.
When the National Housing Federation, which represents a very large sector of housing, says that, we need to listen, because it then states:
“The Bill falls short of this”.
That slightly refutes what the noble Baroness said. The federation’s concern is on two fronts. The first is that the legislation was so prescriptive when it was introduced that the danger was that housing associations would have been classified as public sector bodies and thereby would have lost the right to raise money in the open market. I accept that the Bill has been largely amended in the Commons, so that this is not as much of a problem, although we need to look further at the matter. Secondly, because they see their function as putting their tenants first, housing associations are concerned that the establishment of the regulator provides it with powers to restrict that function. They think that the regulator should be required to ensure that what they do is legal, financially sound and is always—I repeat, always—in the best interests of their tenants. The National Housing Federation thinks that the regulator will be one step removed and will not have the detailed knowledge that housing associations have.
The Countryside Alliance has also written to me. It is particularly interested in the problem of housing in rural areas. It remains a fact that in urban areas social housing makes up 23 per cent of total housing provision. In rural areas that figure is only 5 per cent. Rural areas have huge problems. There is housing demand from within the community—as is the case everywhere else—and there is housing demand from outside rural areas, because everyone else is trying to get into them. I do not blame people for that, because I have been privileged and lucky to be a country man all my life. Sometimes I find it slightly hard to come up here to this place. We need to recognise that there is a particular problem in rural areas and we need to think carefully about whether we can do anything to help this situation.
I welcome the changes regarding housing for servicemen and, particularly, ex-servicemen. Perhaps one can say with the benefit of a great deal of hindsight that we should all have seen that situation a long time ago and done something about it.
My time is almost up. This Bill is here at a critical time. In a way we are fortunate; we have an opportunity to look at the Bill critically and see whether there is anything we can do to help the situation and to try to dig the industry out of a hole that is not of its own creation.
My Lords, it is a delight to see so many speakers on a subject which not long ago attracted only a very few usual suspects, and it has been terrifically helpful to have had a number of briefings from organisations with interests in housing and regeneration. There are two notable absences from our Benches this evening—both of whom have good reasons: my noble friends Lady Scott of Needham Market and Lord Greaves. He said, “They’ll just have to wait and see my amendments”. In this case, “they” includes me. However, I am delighted that my noble friend Lady Falkner of Margravine has joined the team for this Bill and my noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer could not keep away.
I need to declare two interests: I am joint president—one of three—of London Councils and I still have an interest as a Member of the London Assembly, but that will not be the case by the time we reach Committee.
As for the next stages of the Bill, I make a serious point on behalf of those of us who support it. A lot of amendments were made late in the Commons stages—I do not criticise that, because it is good that the Government respond to points that have been made—but there are rumours of many more amendments to come. If that is the case, I hope that we can see them well before the Committee stage, because the more time that we resourceless amateurs and the interest groups have, the more positive and constructive we can be. There will be a lot of detail to consider, and I am very grateful to those with an interest in the Bill for the material that they have sent. Perhaps I can use the medium of Hansard to thank them and to explain that it is simply not possible to do justice to their points at this stage—but we will.
For now, I shall confine myself largely to headlines—not about housing generally, but about the Bill, except that I cannot allow the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, get away with airbrushing history in the way that he has. I do not think that he noticed that comment. On the Housing and Communities Agency, there is general agreement that it is a good thing to bring its predecessors, the current organisations, together, but I have wondered about how we get from here to there, about the distraction and disruption of the amalgamation process and the bureaucracy which will inevitably be involved. I hope that forming the HCA will not be as debilitating as some seem to fear as a matter of process. Earlier this afternoon I sat through the Third Reading of the Regulatory Enforcement and Sanctions Bill. A new organisation, the Local Better Regulation Office, has been formed and its constitutional status will transform as a result of that Bill. That is an interesting model to follow.
An issue that runs through much of this Bill is governance—of the new regulator, of the providers and of the HCA. I understand that in London it is intended that the chief executive is to be the vice-chair, with the mayor chairing it. I am not making a party point here; I think it is right that the Mayor of London should chair it, but I wonder whether this confuses executive and board member responsibilities. That is an important point, as one of the HCA’s objectives is to uphold good governance. As has already been said, we will spend time on the HCA’s powers, and I hope that we can think about whether the proposals blur the distinction between a strategic role and delivery, or indeed whether there needs to be a combination of the two.
The Minister has been forceful in her promotion of the new agency and the benefits that it will bring. She talked about a new culture, which is often as important as the detailed powers, but I, for one, am not terribly clear whether the Government are introducing entirely new powers which neither of the predecessor bodies had. Perhaps we can come to that.
I share the concerns that have been expressed about the HCA assuming planning powers and a planning role. The White Paper said:
“The new homes agency will play a key role in supporting local government to realise its place-shaping role”.
I emphasise its supporting role, but that is not to say that the HCA should not be more than a housebuilding agency. As has been said, we need to look at the use of land overall and not necessarily take the easiest development opportunities, and we need to consider in its widest sense the infrastructure needed to support communities.
The Housing Corporation was, in its early days, chaired by Lord Goodman. It may be impertinent of someone who, as a very young and green solicitor, worked for him to say that a passage from his Dimbleby lecture of 1974 seems to be as good an explanation of the importance of good housing as any, but I shall be impertinent and quote a part of it:
“We have in this country no less than four million homes which for one reason or another are unfit for human habitation … just think of the millions of people in our society who are living in circumstances which are genuinely unfit—because the word ‘unfit’ means … that an intolerable burden of daily life is imposed upon these people, who are bereft of many of the essential requirements, living in squalid, unhygienic, congested circumstances which no human being should be asked to live in. Of course I am not saying that people in those conditions do not live decent, honourable lives … do not become great men … But if they do, think of the burden, think of the effort, think of the strain that is unnecessarily imposed upon them. And think of how many of them retain a permanent mark of the conditions in which they live … You cannot quantify the nature of the social resentment that these festering grounds of discontent create in our society. It is impossible to assess the cost of our neglect, the cost of our lethargy, in social and money terms. The question is why this has happened and how should we put it right”.
Thirty-four years on, I look forward to discussing how we can progress on the issues of overcrowding, housing conditions, the quality of stock and so on.
I know that the Minister has done a great deal of work in dealing with housing for older people, and I dare say that we will talk about some of that at following stages of the Bill. When reading in preparation for today, for the first time I came up against the term “age-proofing”. I am not entirely sure that I like it because it sounds as though it is proofing against old people rather than for them. The demographics are important here, as is the environmental impact of what is done, although I do not want to reduce the importance of that by making only passing reference to it.
I turn to the role of the regulator in all this: the tensions between regulation to drive up standards and the best interests of individual organisations; the danger of over controlling without achieving good governance; and the danger of overlooking the very proper differences between different housing associations which reflect different circumstances.
What about tenants? We talk a lot about tenants’ involvement in management but I think that we focus less on their role in governance, and I am concerned about that role. I am also concerned about the accountability structure, which is a subject not only for anoraks. We need to see how tenants, as well as landlords, engage with the regulator.
There is clearly concern about the status of different housing providers, with scope for confusion, technical impacts and, as I understand it, very real impacts on the funds available. There are concerns about definitions of affordable housing and social housing, and, again, real impacts arise from that.
It is unusual to see a sector calling on the Government to include it within regulation, but local government wants to be within the scope of Oftenant from the start. Given that the Government have consulted and not just produced the Bill out of the blue, it is a pity that that is not reflected in the Bill and that the Government are still working on the issue. It is a good point that consistency for tenants of different landlords should be achieved. The ALMOs make similar points.
This is a big Bill. It may of course get bigger as we cover issues from “ground 8” to community land trusts and much in between. Let us prepare for a great deal of work.
My Lords, I declare my interests, from none of which I derive personal financial benefit, in the local government and housing association sectors and, indirectly, in the private rented sector. Not least because of those interests, I have received proposals for amendments to the Bill from the Local Government Association, the National Housing Federation, the Chartered Institute of Housing, Help the Aged, Shelter, RADAR, CDS Co-operatives, the National Federation of ALMOs, the Countryside Alliance, London Councils, UNISON, RIBA and others. However, despite this volume of interest in improving the Bill, I note that its fundamentals receive the approval of these many interested parties.
In its underlying intentions, the Bill is of considerable significance. It enshrines and underpins the Government’s recognition both that the UK is suffering from acute shortages of housing—leading to homelessness, overcrowding, inflated prices and big problems for the wider economy—and that efforts must be redoubled in tackling troubled neighbourhoods in need of regeneration.
For more than a decade, it has been clear that the building of new homes each year—the supply—has been falling further and further behind the growth in new households each year—the demand for extra homes. The misery caused by the resulting housing shortages not only affects young people trying desperately to get on the housing ladder—I fear that many tens of thousands have overstretched themselves and now face the horrors of mortgage repossessions already affecting more than 1,000 families a fortnight—but it affects those who are forced into accommodation for the homeless or are living in dreadful, overcrowded conditions that we thought had become history. Housing shortages also mean long-distance commuting that ruins family life and a scarcity of key workers because they cannot afford a home near the schools or hospitals or other services that need them. Housing shortages also distort the whole national economy.
Five years back, when the Prime Minister was Chancellor, he asked Kate Barker from the Bank of England to look at this problem. Her reports added credibility and precision to the case for boosting housing output. Targets are now set for an extra 240,000 homes a year by 2016, with rather less than 30 per cent of these being subsidised, affordable homes for rent or for low-cost home ownership. Although that target is clearly on the right lines, it will never be accomplished simply by hoping that the market will do what it has previously failed to do. Indeed the private sector housebuilding industry, as the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, has mentioned, is now going into a period of sharp decline, not growth. Housing output last year was around 160,000 homes, requiring a 50 per cent rise to reach the target of 240,000 a year. Yet for the year ahead, it looks certain to slump further. Last week, Persimmon, one of the biggest housebuilders, called a halt to new development in the face of mortgage difficulties for would-be buyers and the loss of confidence in the market. Other housebuilders have seen their shares slide and are cutting back too. Any expectations for rapid growth from the housebuilding industry, an industry that has benefited so much in the past from acute shortages in the market, must now be set aside.
Ever since the demise of council housebuilding, which used to run at a level comparable to that of the private sector, and the unwillingness of Governments for 20 years to fill that gap with housing association provision, dependency on the housebuilders has placed this country in a highly vulnerable position. That vulnerability is not just about the overall numbers of new homes needed, most particularly in London and the south-east; it is also about the improbability of the private sector being able to regenerate run-down areas where development of mixed use, mixed tenure can revive the local economy, reverse inner city flight and reduce the necessity to use up virgin land elsewhere.
For the big housebuilders, building on greenfield land, or only on the most upmarket of the previously developed brownfield sites, has been more profitable than addressing unpopular areas with social problems. Yet those problems will multiply if extensive and expensive revitalisation is not addressed urgently. We can see now so very clearly that both easing housing shortages and tackling urban regeneration cannot be left to the market. It requires energetic and imaginative intervention from central and local government. Hence the need for this legislation with the significant new approach that it heralds.
The creation through Part 1 of the Bill of a Homes and Communities Agency, with the powers and funds of both the Housing Corporation and English Partnerships, plus key functions from the Department for Communities and Local Government, responds to the necessity for a robust, well equipped and well resourced national body to act in partnership with local councils. It will have powers and skills for land acquisition and assembly; land reclamation and remediation; sometimes the use or at least the threat of a compulsory purchase order if an owner holds society to ransom; new public-private companies; and further use of social landlords who can build and manage mixed income, sustainable and accessible communities. The Homes and Communities Agency has the potential to be the answer to the major housing and regeneration problems which face the UK. It has an impressive chief executive waiting in the wings, Sir Bob Kerslake, from the local government sector who is well able to build those partnerships with councils that will be the bedrock of success.
We will be looking at the detail of Part 1 of the Bill, and I suspect that some noble Lords will have comments on the concept of eco-towns, which has already been noted. They could create some exciting new communities and, I hope, take on board the lessons that remain valid from the garden villages and garden cities which were built exactly 100 years ago. But with a target of around an extra 100,000 homes, which I suspect may not be accomplished, out of a total of 2 million homes, by 2016, the eco-towns represent a very modest 5 per cent of the whole.
I am confining my remarks to the big issues in this Bill and after welcoming Part 1 with its plans for the Homes and Communities Agency, my remaining remarks relate to Part 2, the Office for Tenants and Social Landlords, Oftenant. At first, I had concerns that the role of regulator held by the Housing Corporation, alongside its funding role, was to be hived off to a separate body. The Housing Corporation has not only spent its annual allocation of government funds each year, but has protected taxpayers’ money and ensured no scandals, no bankruptcies and no loss of money by any private sector investor. It has done a good job and I congratulate it and would add the name of Peter Dixon to that of the noble Baroness, Lady Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, to the roll-call of honours for the Housing Corporation. With the magnitude of the task facing the new HCA, I think, including the regulatory role too could have overloaded this new agency.
There have been three anxieties about the role of Oftenant, which I would like to address in turn. First, there is the anomaly in that an office for tenants does not include any of the tenants commonly regarded as most at risk of mistreatment. There are growing worries that the recent expansion of the private rented sector, with its growth from about 9 per cent of the nation's stock to about 12 per cent, has brought with it a huge number of amateur, and often speculative, landlords who are currently outside any regulatory control. While social landlords are subject to intense scrutiny, continuous monitoring of performance and inspection by the Audit Commission, and are part of the Housing Ombudsman scheme, there are more than 1 million landlords whose tenants are denied that whole range of protection and redress measures.
On the face of it, one would expect regulatory attention now to switch away from the social landlords to the letting agents and private sector landlords where potential abuses can currently be addressed only by court action, which is far beyond the resources of most tenants. I recognise that this major lacuna in the Bill is unlikely to be remedied this time round. I am certainly hoping for important insights from Dr Julie Rugg at the University of York whose review of the PRS for the Government will be published in the autumn. Nevertheless, it would be good to have reassurance from the Minister that there is a serious intent at the very least to introduce a redress and ombudsman scheme for this sector, comparable to that for estate agents and for other sectors, from telecoms to financial services and energy suppliers.
The second concern raised by the Bill is that even in relation to tenants outside the private sector, the role of the regulator is currently to be confined only to housing associations. Separate legislation will be needed to extend the remit to cover tenants still remaining in the council sector and, importantly, in the arm’s-length management organisations that lie between traditional council and non-public sector housing associations landlords. I know that the Government hope legislative measures will emerge to extend the regulator's role to cover all tenants and non-profit landlords at a future date, but there are no guarantees, of course, that such opportunities will arise.
The Government’s expert group convened by Professor Ian Cole, from Sheffield Hallam University, which represents those from local government and from the ALMOs as well as those representing the interests of tenants, seems in agreement that there are no insuperable difficulties to achieving domain-wide regulation. While the Government have left it very late to put together the requisite clauses to this end, an enabling clause within the Bill could open the door to this natural extension that would put all social sector tenants on the same footing. After all, it is often a matter of chance whether a family in need of subsidised housing has moved into a home provided by a housing association, or an arm’s-length management organisation, or a local authority. With transfers of housing stock between these landlords, the same family can experience a different landlord without moving. It seems only sensible, and just, that tenants of all social landlords should enjoy the same measure of protection and redress as soon as possible. Perhaps an amendment here will find favour with your Lordships.
Finally, on the Office for Tenants and Social Landlords, there has been something of a campaign, orchestrated by the National Housing Federation but with cross-party support from Members on the Bill Committee in the other place, to moderate the degree of control exercised by the regulator. Certainly there are important points of principle at stake here. If every housing association were simply a creature of central government, forced to adopt a plethora of requirements imposed by the regulator who, in turn, was taking instructions from the Secretary of State, then all the advantages of using independent organisations, accountable to their own boards of management and able to innovate and be entrepreneurial, would be lost. It is precisely because they are not public bodies that the housing associations have enjoyed respect across political parties and have pursued a range of activities which may or may not have been priorities at the time for the current housing Minister but so often have shown the way forward. The housing associations are now a precious national asset, ready to make up for the deficiencies of past over-reliance on private housebuilders. To saddle them with overbearing regulatory controls would be to risk strangling the golden goose that the nation now needs so badly.
The good news—and I note the reassurances of the Minister—is that efforts in the other place have greatly improved the framework for regulating these independent bodies, the majority of them freestanding charities. Although there may be further tweaks to hone and polish the system, the Government are to be congratulated on moving a fair way already.
The challenges ahead remain daunting, but the Bill brings, perhaps in the nick of time, the instruments of change which could provide the necessary responses. I feel sure that the wisdom of your Lordships will lead to further improvements as the Bill moves forward but, at this stage, I give it a warm welcome.
My Lords, I first declare an interest: I am a non-executive director of the Taylor Wimpey plc house-building board. I am also a trustee of East Foundation, a charity aligned with the East Thames housing association.
Like other noble Lords, I, too, welcome the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Best, was absolutely right when he read out the list. I am not doing that, and thank him for doing it for me and saving me a bit of time. We have probably all received briefings from those organisations. It must be encouraging to my friend the Minister that none of those organisations disagrees on the fundamental acceptance of the Bill; they all feel that it is a major step forward. It is a Bill of some substance for the housing sector and the homes of the people of this country today. It brings together the Housing Corporation’s investment and regulatory role, English Partnerships’s investment role and some of the departments’ housing delivery roles under the aegis of the Homes and Communities Agency and—a dreadful word—Oftenant. I hope that they do not swap it around and call it “Tenantof”, because that would certainly be awful.
This is a four-part Bill, but I will concentrate my remarks on two. Before I do, it is important at this stage to pause for a moment and recognise the major and constructive contribution that the Housing Corporation has made to the nation’s housing over 30-odd years: as the noble Lord, Lord Best, mentioned, regulation of in excess of £50 billion of investment with next to no corruption at all. There has been no housing failure among any of the housing associations because that has been dealt with by the regulatory arm of the Housing Corporation. That kind of strength must be taken into the new organisation. English Partnerships, particularly under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lady Ford, has been creative in a private sector way in bringing together packages of land, essentially to make them available for social housing. Under her predecessors, that had not been done to the degree that she and her colleagues have done. In making these changes, it is essential to take into the new Bill the strengths of the organisations that have been working in this field, but also to ensure that those changes are workable for the future. Therein lie some of the differences that we may have in this Chamber.
I thank the Minister for being so available in a listening mode despite the fact that the Bill had substantial amendments as it went through the other place—in excess of 400. The Bill we get is much better, and in a fitter state, than it was when it arrived in the other place. I thank the Minister for listening, which has been extremely helpful in answering some of my questions in coming to this debate.
There is no doubt that the Homes and Communities Agency is at the heart of the Bill. We must be careful not to be distracted into spending an inordinate amount of time on the regulatory side—Oftenant—although it is an important issue and we must address it. The nature of this new agency will be critical to the type and quality of housing we can deliver to people in Britain who desperately need it. Clause 2 sets out the agency’s objectives, but I hope we can discuss that during the passage of the Bill through this House. It is key to our wider agenda in working with local authorities, for instance, and regional development agencies. The new agency will be a partner authority whereas, in the past, its predecessors have been present when invited; they have not necessarily been there by right. I can tell your Lordships, from my own experience, that that has sometimes meant that the worst areas in the country at providing houses have been the very areas which have made sure that the Housing Corporation has never been at the table for debate. So I welcome that, and the increase in local targets, very much indeed.
I know that there is some concern about the potential loss of control for local authorities. I do not see it like that at all; I see it developing as a partnership between the local authorities and the new agency. They must work in partnership together with a new, equal, agenda for discussion.
An essential part of the Bill is that the new agency will have enormous influence and powers. It is therefore essential that an agency which will affect the lives of so many of our citizens cannot be a remote national agency. It may be a national agency, but it must have a local presence, input and a listening ear. In that way, it will influence the decisions taken.
One of the key areas that has not yet been mentioned in this debate is rural housing. In future, the Secretary of State will not have the authority to direct in this area. The Minister directed the Housing Corporation to move the target for rural housing, from 850 a year, four times. The corporation had to report to the Secretary of State on whether it had delivered that target. It is essential that, somewhere within the new system, there is something ensuring that rural housing is not forgotten. It would be so easy to forget it. In reporting, we also found that some of the worst areas for providing rural houses were the counties with the biggest rural areas. Again, it is essential not only to have targets but to monitor them. Design is another area, but I know that other noble Lords will be covering that.
Part 2 of the Bill, on Oftenant—the Office for Tenants and Social Landlords—is key. Much of it comes from Professor Cave’s review, Every Tenant Matters: A Review of Social Housing Regulation. I welcome the Minister’s statement today that tenants will be at the heart of the system; a simple statement, but critical. I am afraid that my experience has not been exactly that expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, from the Dispatch Box. I hope that he has not been beguiled by the very professional lobbying of the National Housing Federation. Again, from my experience, many housing associations put tenants at the front of all that they did—but some did not and never would. They would have it there in name, and some would think that tenant involvement was one tenant on the board; “Tick that box, we have done it”. That is not tenant influence, involvement and power. I am looking forward to this new agency bringing that about.
One of the strengths of this sector has been its independence, which has brought with it a lot of creativity and innovation, as the noble Lord, Lord Best said, in areas that the Government of the day would not have thought about. That is because they are risky—and Governments do not do risky things, do they?—but also because there were a lot of new ideas that needed to be tried and tested. We must therefore ensure that, when the Bill leaves this House, that independence is not compromised in any way—certainly as regards the private-sector classification of housing associations. The Minister has given me her assurance and repeated it today, but it cannot be repeated often enough while the Bill is in this Chamber. That area gives me some concern. Regulation is an area we need to look at with forensic application. The forced amalgamation of housing associations worries the sector, and it worries me too. I have some sympathy with the sector’s view, and I equally do not accept that bigger is always better. In fact, some of the smaller housing associations are the ones that delivered much of what is needed in many of our communities. We do not want to go so wide as to challenge that independence. We do not want the regulator forcing amalgamations without real means. I accept the assurances that we have been given, but nevertheless I would like to debate it more. Objective 10 of Clause 88 requires regulation to be proportionate and reasonable, which are critical factors. At the moment, proportionality of regulation does not exist for the Housing Corporation. It is almost either do nothing or force them to amalgamate with nothing in between, so I welcome that provision. Clause 215 requires the regulator to have regard to the seriousness of the failure. That is important and will be on the side of the housing association under scrutiny.
The other area of concern I have is the potential to regulate and require housing associations to carry out non-housing activities. That would be a recipe for disaster because those that do it are very good at it, and those that do not usually do not do it because they have no idea where to start. Requiring the regulator to say that they are all going to do this or that would be a big mistake. Too much direction would be wrong. I know that the Minister may argue that it is not there because, in her words, they want to make sure that it is connected with social housing, but that is a long word for interpretation. I would welcome some clarity on that in the debate.
Domain regulation is another area that I have concerns about. I think that noble Lords are also concerned, as is another place down the corridor. The Cave review recommended that ALMOs, local authorities and everyone should be covered by the same kind of regulation. I know a report on this is coming out in May, but I would like some assurance that we are going to stick with that because the Government accept the principles of what is being said. It is how we get there and the timetable, which would be quite interesting to debate.
I feel very strongly about private landlords. Anyone who has worked in this sector and has seen, as some of us have, for instance, housing in the north-east bought for £18,000 a house, and with the building problem we have at the moment, some of those prices will be going down. Buy a house, advertise it in the local media and people on benefit need only apply. The state is paying the benefit to pay the rent to the private landlord who is not covered by regulation. That cannot be right. It is certainly something that needs to be addressed as the Bill goes through this House. I am aware that a review is taking place, by Julie Rugg and David Rhodes, and that it is due to be published in October. However, we cannot leave this there. We need to see some real progress.
Other areas that concern me include governance. If we track any failure in a housing association, it tracks back to bad governance. We need to have assurances on that. I very much welcome the reference in the Bill to the Armed Forces who have had a raw deal on housing from the public sector in this country. Housing has been on the agenda quite a lot in recent years, particularly under this Government but, a bit like buses, we have not had a major housing Bill like this for some time. Now we have it, good as it is now, it is our job to make sure that it leaves this House better than when we received it. I look forward to taking part in the discussions.
My Lords, I add my welcome in principle for the Bill, which has already been widely expressed by noble Lords in this debate. The Government have rightly set an ambitious housing target, and there is clearly an overwhelming case for more housing. Bishops can well recognise the social and economic pressures that are intensifying as they are well placed to witness the effects in rural and urban communities of the special difficulties for first-time buyers.
Leicester, like many of our cities, has changed dramatically over the past 10 years or so through the urban regeneration process. Wherever you turn, you see new developments of flats and other high-density housing, but the experience of those developments suggests that even if we were to achieve 3 million new homes by 2020, we will not have solved many of the housing and regeneration issues that face us. Building new houses requires much more than aesthetic design value or the right location of the estate. People want more houses to be built, but they want houses in flourishing communities. The 2006 Church of England report Faithful Cities puts the question of what makes a good city, an intriguing and yet profound question that is as applicable to rural and suburban settings as it is to urban settings.
Urban geographers argue that what makes a good city transcends the immediate and tangible and leads us to speak of matters such as the quality of life, the need for nurture and the need for a human face for the city. Sadly, the test of a flourishing community has not always been at the forefront of our housing and regeneration policy, so I hope that the new Homes and Communities Agency will be charged with creating communities that have strong economies, a well educated workforce, vibrant centres, a healthy population and good transport and that are cosmopolitan and inclusive, well run, sustainable and well regarded. Those are all things that the Minister mentioned when she said that she would be looking for the wow factor. I hope the Government will ensure that the HCA will have person-centred values at the heart of its culture because with strong communities like that our education, health, crime and environmental policies will all be much easier to deliver.
With the creation of the HCA, government funding must be focused on the delivery of quality housing developments that provide sustainable mixed communities including affordable housing. To do that, the new body must quickly engage with local authorities to work in partnership on the delivery of regeneration projects. There is significant scope for improving the dialogue and partnership between central and local government over housing, planning and regeneration policy. The HCA must not simply be the creature of central government; it must be responsive to local needs and to the local democratic process.
If we are to deliver affordable housing of high quality and sustainable homes, the planning system must assist in delivering these objectives. The situation in my home city of Leicester is that many of the regeneration sites are expensive to redevelop and it is often not possible to deliver adequate levels of affordable housing or the quality of housing that we aspire to. Of critical importance is the availability of funds to support local authorities in delivering key regeneration sites. Significant further funding will be required from government, potentially through the regional development agencies with their new strategic housing remit proposed under the Prosperous Places review.
I shall comment briefly on eco-towns, which were referred to earlier in the debate. I hope that noble Lords will forgive me for using a local example to make my point. I declare an obvious interest as Bishop of Leicester. Leicestershire has been short-listed by the DCLG for the creation of such an eco-town at Pennbury on the eastern edge of the city of Leicester. It would see some 12,000 to 15,000 new homes being built. While the move towards low-carbon communities is firmly to be welcomed, there is intense concern locally, in city and county, that this proposed scheme is not the right way forward. The protests seem to amount to something much more than nimbyism. Local people feel that this will undo much of the good planning work that is already in place from recent years. The ongoing consultation period by the Government will need to see a much closer working relationship with the local authorities, taking their concerns seriously, as well as the concerns of other local and national agencies, before final decisions are made.
The Government have made this a central part of their housing policy, but by centrally controlling and driving this policy through, they risk jeopardising the creation of the new houses that they and local communities want. Surely that policy could be better achieved through the local democratic process and the Government should be more prepared to trust local communities with the decision-making on where to site the new developments. As it stands, there is a significant risk that we will be creating an eco-ghetto rather than an eco-town. At the moment, no realistic transport strategy is in place for the proposed town. The Government will have to ensure that a joint transport assessment is undertaken, including consideration of a new link to the M1 or a tram line. I understand that the Department for Transport has expressed significant concerns about the proposal.
The creation of so many new houses also has significant environmental implications. The Environment Agency is lobbying to ensure that any new policy has environmental impact at its heart, but from our local experience so far, it seems that the Government want to push through the eco-town policy without serious engagement with the environmental implications of such a scheme.
Furthermore, at the moment, insufficient attention is being given to the creation of the infrastructure for a new community—all the ancillary services that such a town would need: the schools, GP practices, shops, libraries and even churches. There would of course need to be the personnel to run them, and the consequent long-term demands on the labour market and economy to supply them.
Many of us are yet to be convinced that that part of government policy, at the heart of the thinking behind the Bill, is the right way forward. Have we fully utilised all the brownfield sites and brought back into supply the large number of vacant houses? Of course there will have to be some green belt development, but I am not sure that these new large towns are yet proven to be the way forward.
Finally, I have a comment on the creation of the Office for Tenants and Social Landlords. Sadly, in an economic downturn when it is estimated that the number of repossessions will rise to about 45,000 this year, the demand for rented accommodation will rise, and, with it, the possibility for unscrupulous landlords to take advantage of vulnerable people. The Government's proposal to regulate private and social landlords is therefore to be welcomed, promoting, as it should, stronger social inclusion, stronger neighbourhoods and the wider well-being of many in our society.
We are at a time of unprecedented demand for housing, yet we face significant economic threats. The Bill provides the framework for the next generation of housing and regeneration policy. We now need the Government to be open to the detailed scrutiny that your Lordships will give to the Bill, especially provision to create strong, vibrant communities that will enrich the lives of the people who live in them.
My Lords, I am delighted to welcome the Bill. We had not been building enough housing for 35 years. More decent homes are one of our most pressing social priorities. By “decent”, we should understand “well designed”, within the sustainable development of thriving communities, whose facilities, infrastructure and institutions make for safe and satisfying places. A house by itself is not necessarily a home. A home is a place to live, with all that that means. I shall speak about where design comes in in the making of homes out of houses. I shall also welcome the provisions that will enable Gypsies and Travellers to have security of tenure.
The new organisation, the Homes and Communities Agency, will do much to create decent homes. It has almost all of the right objectives and considerable powers. Among its objectives, I focus on,
“to improve the supply and quality of housing”,
and regeneration. It will absorb the former Urban Regeneration Agency and the former Commission for the New Towns, as well as English Partnerships and the Housing Corporation. It will be the major national agent in delivering the central but ambitious target of 3 million homes by 2020, conforming to enlightened environmental standards. None of that can be achieved without high standards of design. It is not a case of not allowing numbers to squeeze out quality, it is that sufficient numbers can simply not be managed without good design. The HCA will be the facilitator and it must set out from the outset clear and consistent expectations about the importance of design. It must, of course, have the capacity to deliver the quality commitment.
How is the design imperative factored in to the operations of the HCA? It would send the right signal to give it a statutory duty to ensure the design quality of new housing in England within its remit, and to add a parallel duty on those who consider planning applications. That would give local planning authorities greater confidence in refusing planning applications on design grounds and encourage them to entrench design quality into their decision-making processes, rather as the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act places a duty on those exercising planning functions to do so with the objective of contributing to sustainable development. Sustainability, following amendments in the other place, is far more buttoned down in this legislation than is attention to design quality.
Secondly, the commitments to housing design quality built into English Partnerships and the Housing Corporation must be maintained and appropriately strengthened. They are that all development on HCA land must meet at least 14 of the 20 “Building for Life” criteria developed by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, better regarded as the national standard for design quality in new housing developments; and that all grants made are dependent on at least those 14 being met.
Thirdly, development on HCA land or funded by it should be subject to independent expert review to ensure that what is built properly implements the Government’s own excellent design policies, such as planning policy statement 3. Probably the most effective way to bring that about would be to ensure the right funding for regional design panels. At present, there is a fair amount of variation in their quality and capacity. Two regions, the north-east and Yorkshire and Humber, do not have a panel at all.
The HCA will have a regional organisation, so it would make sense to match its role with an immediate and high-impact design entity. I hope that my noble friend, who has shown herself to be a friend of good design, will also consider encouraging local design review panels to be available. Design consideration might then be embedded in the system wherever applications were judged, for villages as well as for cities and towns. The president of RIBA, Sunand Prasad, has tellingly said that,
“design is about much more than aesthetics ... It attracts people, investment and activity to places and brings social, environmental and health benefits. It must, therefore, be one of the most important considerations in housing”.
The Calcutt review asked for a nationwide system of design review for house building. I hope that my noble friend can assure us that that will be taken forward.
Will my noble friend also think again about space standards? England and Wales are the only countries in the EU that have no minimum space standards for housing. English Partnerships has just decided to introduce them for its land, and it would be a great pity if that improvement were lost in the transition to the HCA. I saw at Consort Road, public housing at the Southwark end of Peckham, the extraordinary impact on the attractiveness of social housing made by appropriately generous space dimensions. Following amendments in the other place, how will attention to design be incorporated into the regulation of rented social housing, with the Secretary of State’s new power to direct accommodation quality?
Finally, Clause 316 at last provides that Gypsies and Travellers will have the same protection against eviction as any other mobile home-site dweller. I congratulate the Government on this far-sighted and fair provision, which will enable children to continue at school, sick people to have consistent medical care, and families to have that ordinary contractual security in their home afforded by law and enshrined as a human right, which is part of the fabric of our society but which has been denied hitherto to a whole community. It will be beneficial for such sites, together with sites owned by registered providers, to be within the remit of the regulator.
It may be that more consultation needs to take place about the nature of the tenancy agreements, perhaps with a model agreement promulgated. We still need to go further in equal treatment in granting planning permission, whether or not the Gypsy or Traveller has a nomadic lifestyle. The very welcome site-licensing scheme envisaged by my honourable friend lain Wright will also be necessary to deter unscrupulous site managers. Perhaps residents should also have the right to take site disputes to the courts rather than to the site owners’ choice of arbitrator. But these are for later debates.
Meanwhile, I congratulate the Government on this most promising and deeply needed legislation.
My Lords, I too am pleased to welcome the Second Reading of the Housing and Regeneration Bill and to offer the strongest possible support to my noble friend the Minister as she guides us through this. Not content with turning in a virtuoso performance on the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill and the Greater London Authority Bill in the previous Session, she is now a glutton for punishment and will take us through the Housing and Regeneration Bill and no doubt the Planning Bill thereafter. I suspect that many of the same faces will appear in those debates, to which I look forward.
Like many other noble Lords speaking today, I fundamentally believe that having a safe, secure and decent home to live in is a basic human right. More than that, I also believe that the kind of environment in which we grow up profoundly affects our self-esteem and plays an important part in determining our levels of aspiration. I got the regeneration bug when I was 17 years-old, not through any professional route but through watching my mother, who as a head teacher inherited a primary school in 1980 in an area where male unemployment was at 62 per cent. To say that the school was dilapidated was probably giving it the best of it. My mother understood then, as I understand now, that the surroundings in which you grow up have a huge effect on how you feel. She set about trying to do something about the state of that school. She went first to the local education authority. This was 1980, and she was given very short shrift when she asked whether she could have some funding to improve the school. Undaunted, she said, “What have I got here? I have 60-odd per cent male unemployment. I have a lot of guys who know how to repair things—a lot of tradesmen who have time on their hands”.
Over 18 months, my mother, together with the parents in that school, set about transforming it. She begged and borrowed—I would not go so far as to say that she stole—resources, but she came by quantities of paint in ways that we never questioned. We found fabric in all kinds of places, and in 18 months the whole atmosphere of the school and the whole physical quality of the environment in which the children were educated was completely transformed. Unsurprisingly, in three or four years, not only had the educational attainment risen considerably but my mother also had the distinction of being the manager of two football teams that have carried off the Ayrshire county trophies at different levels. In my subsequent voluntary and professional careers in regeneration, I learnt very early that if you cannot get through a problem you had better figure out how to get around it.
I declare an interest in that I work for the Royal Bank of Canada. I have responsibility for its social infrastructure and investment, as part of which I manage its social housing loan book.
The Government’s determination to supply high-quality, well regulated social housing and to continue to encourage home ownership that is affordable, well designed and sustainable has been one of our proudest achievements in the past 10 years. However, we all know that more must be done, which is why I particularly welcome this new legislation, creating as it does the fundamental building blocks for accelerating the supply of new affordable and social housing.
There are four important sections in the Bill and we are fortunate indeed to have many noble Lords with significant expertise in many aspects of the legislation that is now being proposed. Indeed, I have over many years had the pleasure of working with the noble Lord, Lord Best, who is currently not in his place, during his tenure at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and of joining arms with the noble Baroness, Lady Billingham, in her leadership of the regeneration in Corby. I pay tribute to the magnificent job that she did there. I have also worked alongside the noble Baroness, Lady Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, during her tenure as chair of the Housing Corporation. I am happy to admit that the initial plotting that she and I engaged in brought the Housing Corporation and English Partnerships much closer together during that time and sowed the seeds for the creation of the new Homes and Communities Agency. I shall dwell on that aspect of the legislation today.
Many other noble Lords can comment with far greater expertise than I can on the creation of the new regulator, although I will just say that it is absolutely vital that a close working relationship is developed and nurtured between the regulator and the new Homes and Communities Agency. Moreover, although we all understand that the rights of tenants are paramount, we must never forget that the regulator has a fundamental impact on the availability of private finance and its terms.
The RSL sector has been exceptionally successful. Indeed, it has arguably been the most successful model of bringing private finance into public services. We should recall that since 1988 and the introduction of widespread private finance into the sector, more than £43 billion of private finance has been invested in social housing. The leadership and consistency shown by the Housing Corporation as a regulator has been the key determinant of that.
The regulator’s ability to assure the governance and management of RSLs, and of course to step in when necessary to protect tenants and investment, has continued to result in exceptionally good financing terms for a long number of years. That has meant many new developments. It is essential that the relationship between the two new bodies is close and productive so that policy development, which continues to protect tenants, also continues to encourage a favourable financing regime.
On the Homes and Communities Agency, I had the privilege of chairing English Partnerships for six years and, with the strong support of my right honourable friend John Prescott MP, helped that organisation to build significant capacity over that period by developing large-scale difficult sites such as the Greenwich Peninsula; by encouraging the significant re-use of brownfield land—more than 70 per cent of new homes are now built on brownfield land, although we still have significant supply; by brokering much more intelligently surplus government land such as former MoD sites—the Oakington Barracks in Cambridgeshire is an example; and by promoting and encouraging an urban renaissance in many of our towns and cities, such as Sheffield, Liverpool and Manchester, and in our new towns, such as Milton Keynes, Harlow, Bracknell and Telford, to name but a few. Most importantly over those six years, English Partnerships began to work very closely with the Housing Corporation, informally bringing land, expertise and funding together to accelerate the pace and to improve the quality of housing right across England.
However, in the past couple of years, it became increasingly clear that the job needed more than just informal co-operation. English Partnerships relied on legislation first created in 1948 and the Housing Corporation relied on legislation created in 1964. They had different statutory objectives. We found that we had different value-for-money regimes, different output measures and different reporting timescales, so trying to make sense of those different streams of investment became very difficult. It restrained creativity to the point of tension where it ceased to be creative.
Even between us, we did not always have the powers to do the job properly. Noble Lords have questioned whether the powers are perhaps drawn too widely. Certainly, English Partnerships dearly would have liked the power to make community investments, because, frequently, bricks and mortar do only a piece of the job. But, being seen to have funded some community enterprises and community groups, and to have done the people side of regeneration—which is as important, if not more important in many instances, as bricks and mortar—would have really made a difference. I quite take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, on the breadth of the powers, but it is important to give this new organisation the tools to do the job.
When the then Secretary of State, the right honourable David Miliband MP, announced a review of housing and regeneration delivery in 2006, it had become clear to all of us for the reasons that I have stated that we needed a new, expert vehicle that was fit-for-purpose for the 21st century. That review and, more importantly, the subsequent consultation that followed—I saw more than 1,500 people during the regional consultations in the summer of 2007, which I recall because that face-to-face consultation across England took place during the period of the flooding—confirmed that, among key stakeholders, local authorities—particularly among the wide range of local authority leaders and senior officers I met—regional development agencies, private house builders and developers, and the RSLs, there was a clear appetite and strong support for the creation of a new agency that had the ability to bring together skills, expertise, and land and planning know-how in a one-stop shop as an expert national partner for local authorities and regional bodies.
While I understand the reservations and the concerns being expressed on behalf of local government, from my experience in carrying out all those face-to-face meetings over the summer of 2007, although there were some concerns, they were tempered by a desire to have an expert partner who could sit alongside local, democratically-elected authorities to create the kind of places that we all wish to see. The legislation before us closely reflects that consultation process and is entirely faithful to the review process that preceded it, and I greatly welcome it.
As the Minister has said, we are very fortunate to have a chief executive designate of the calibre of Sir Bob Kerslake. His long experience in local government and his excellent regeneration track record in Sheffield make him exceptionally well equipped to lead the process that he has called “a single conservation” with local government and others.
Finally, we are in a period where the housing market and the banking market are severely dislocated. As the noble Lord, Lord Best, mentioned, the announcement last week by a major housebuilder, Persimmon, that all new construction is to be halted underlines how very vulnerable we are to the vagaries of the housing and the capital markets. So, if we need reminding, the current environment should underline why we need a strong delivery agency, which can, at whatever point in the economic cycle, intervene if the market fails. When I was at English Partnerships, from time to time, I was asked clearly by colleagues in the Treasury, “Where is the market failure?”. I suspect that they are not asking that question today.
In conclusion, the sooner we can enable the new agency and the new regulator to get going, the better. I urge all noble Lords, however we find ourselves in the debates in the coming weeks, strongly to support this legislation.
My Lords, housing has long been regarded as too important to be left to the market mechanism to determine its distribution. This Bill fits into the long and noble tradition of supporting the access into decent housing of low-income families.
I declare my interest as the leader of Wigan Council. In doing so, I declare a partiality, because we were in the first swathe of ALMOs. Perhaps my noble friend will take the criticism that the Government have been reticent about giving news of the success of their policy of arm’s-length management of local authority housing. There are now 68 ALMOs, with almost 1 million properties, investing to deliver the Government’s decent homes standards. In doing so, they have transformed some of the most difficult and challenging communities in our land. The Government have a model of tenant involvement in the operation of ALMOs, which can stand comparison with what happens anywhere else and could be a good model for other housing providers to follow.
In Wigan, we recently asked our tenants about the rent increase that they would wish to have. We gave them a number of scenarios and, perhaps surprisingly to some cynics, they did not choose the lowest increase; they chose one that would give improved services. With an 83.5 per cent level of satisfaction in the Wigan ALMO, the tenants think that it is a good organisation.
I shall comment on three aspects of the Bill and on one omission. The creation of the Homes and Communities Agency is important, for the reasons that so many noble Lords have already given. It starts with a high level of stakeholder approval. By bringing together housing and regeneration, it should help to build sustainable communities and to bring forward difficult sites. When my noble friend Lady Ford mentioned the sites that she would bring forward, she did not mention an important one in my ward: the old Bickershaw colliery site, where a former mining community is beginning to be transformed.
The HCA has the ambitious target of building affordable homes and homes for social need and it will clearly have to work closely with local authorities. As other noble Lords have mentioned, local authorities will feel confidence in the new chief executive, Bob Kerslake. I am sure that he will build up that record of making sure that there is a strong partnership with local authorities, which will work very well. I also think that the HCA will work closely at the regional level in developing strategies for the regions and, therefore, local authorities, which also can be well established. I have already met the potential HCA lead in the north-west, who gave me great confidence in his view and his strategy for housing.
The second important part of the Bill is the establishment of the Office for Tenants and Social Landlords, the new regulatory authority. I wish to make two comments in addition to saying that it is a welcome development. First, one of the duties is to provide information to tenants about performance. That needs to be tackled carefully and we should look at whether we need to extend the Bill. We need to make sure that the information for tenants is as simple and as informative as possible. There are many good examples where ALMOs give such information to tenants. In addition, if tenants are meant to compare different landlords, they need to have proper information that compares them in a straightforward manner. There should be comparisons with the local housing market. We do not want national statistics about housing; we want to know how it compares in a local area.
A number of noble Lords have mentioned the omission of the local authorities and ALMOs within the remit of the Office for Tenants and Social Landlords. I was pleased to hear my noble friend’s commitment to include local authorities within the scope of the Office for Tenants and Social Landlords but disappointed that she implied that it might be up to two years before this is achieved. There are two problems with that. The first is the danger that the ethos of the Office for Tenants and Social Landlords, which is to be established as a regulator of housing associations, will develop only in relation to such organisations, so that adding the local authority sector later on will be more difficult. But what will be most worrying for local authorities and ALMOs that want to be regulated by the Office for Tenants and Social Landlords is that the future legislation that that might imply may be difficult to achieve. I hope that, as a number of noble Lords have suggested, my noble friend will consider whether an enabling clause could be introduced to enable the new regulator to extend its remit to local authorities at an appropriate time after the review.
I was pleased to hear my noble friend mention in her introduction the changes proposed for the housing revenue account on the restrictions placed on housing funding within local authorities. The Local Government and Housing Act 1989 needs fairly substantial review and this minor change is important. It means that local authorities will be encouraged to do what they have not been doing for some time, which is to build new properties for rent. That is important if we want to achieve the targets that we have set. The additional flexibility will mean that local authorities must begin to do the job. Authorities will have to think about their approach by recognising that new vehicles will be required and they will have to be creative in their thinking on making arrangements for such properties to be built. They will also be able to access money from the private sector, but that means that they have to accept that there is some risk involved, as well as the rewards in terms of what might be achieved.
Finally, I turn to the omission mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Best, and my noble friend Lady Dean. This Bill will assist many vulnerable tenants living in low-cost rented accommodation but not all of them. It will miss those renting in the private sector. That sector can make a profit in low-rent accommodation by keeping management costs down and ensuring a high usage of the buildings. In the ward that I represent on Wigan Council, we have a large amount of terraced property that is a mix of owner occupation and private rental. I receive two kinds of complaint from local residents about the private rented accommodation. The first concerns the state of the properties. The properties are kept in only a minimum state of repair and therefore detract from the visual amenity of a terrace, reducing the value of the owner-occupied properties alongside. That is a cause for concern. Moreover, the poor state of repair of these properties, particularly if the guttering is faulty, can cause physical damage to adjacent properties.
However, the overwhelming number of complaints concern anti-social behaviour among the tenants in the form of late-night partying, petty crime and drug dealing. All sorts of issues emerge. Frankly, we need to accept that, provided that the rent is paid, private landlords have little incentive to concern themselves about the behaviour of their tenants in the neighbourhood. We have tried a number of methods to improve the situation. We have set up partnership forums, but inevitably only the better landlords turn up at these events while the ones whom we really want to see—the ones who change their names by the month and their addresses by the season and who cause the most nuisance—do not turn up.
I doubt whether my noble friend wants to extend this Bill to regulate the private sector, although I think that we ought to address it, but I ask her to consider a minor amendment for the benefit of the tenants of private landlords. We find that when private sector tenants manage to summon up what is undoubtedly the courage to report landlords to the council over the physical state of properties, in many cases their reward is to be served with a notice to quit. That is because the council serves an order for improvements to be made and the landlord knows who has made the complaint. It is perfectly legal, but we should try to stop it. Where there is a local authority order on a property to improve, the landlord should not have the right to get rid of the tenant. I hope that my noble friend will consider this small change to the legislation.
This is an important and timely Bill and I am sure that with detailed examination we will improve it. Under the expertise and guidance of my noble friend, I am sure that we will be able to pass a Bill that we can be proud of.
My Lords, I should like to speak to Part 2 of the Bill, but before doing so I should, as usual, make one or two confessions of a guilty past. For the first 20 years of my working life, I was involved in housing and housing aid, local authority housing and housing associations. However, noble Lords are safe because I have forgotten it all, so I shall not drone on too much. I find when looking again at the regulation of housing that I am reminded how important the issue is. I would like to make a few comments about why it matters. I want to take the House back to what the Cave review said and why I thought that it was such a powerful, impressive and progressive report about social housing regulation. I also want to raise questions for my noble friend on why some of the important Cave recommendations seem to have been lost on the way.
I start with why housing regulation matters. It affects 4 million homes and 10 million people and this is the first regulatory change for this sector for 30 years, so it matters that we get it right. It also matters because housing is a vital service. It affects people in their own homes—you cannot have a more important service than that—and it affects tenants, some of whom are the poorest and most disadvantaged people in our society with little political power or influence. I am sure that this House will be even more concerned to ensure that we promote and protect their interests in the passage of the Bill.
Something that we have not made much mention of so far is that the Bill is about trying to protect and empower consumers in the face of monopoly providers. We do not normally think of registered social landlords, local housing authorities or ALMOs as monopolies, but they are monopolies because, for most tenants, given the state of the housing market, if they do not like the services that they are receiving, they cannot easily move. A prime function of regulators has always been to try to protect tenants where monopolies are in place.
What did Cave say? I congratulate the Government on choosing an eminent person to produce a major report on regulation. The review looked at broadening choice, improving the quality of information provided for tenants, enhancing accountability to tenants, strengthening their voice and addressing some of the structural challenges to empowerment and choice. It saw, as do the Government, all those as central measures to empowering tenants so that they have much more of a voice, a choice and influence.
Let us look first at choice. Cave identified a number of collective choices—I shall not talk about individual ones—such as tenants having a choice about the range of estate services that they receive; a choice about a change of manager and the choice of the individual; a choice about additional services, as long as tenants are prepared to pay the costs for them; a choice about changing maintenance providers; and a choice about self-management options. However, as we can see, the Bill defines choice in an excessively narrow way. When the Government consulted after the report, they put most of the weight of their consultation on tenant management choices; that is, tenants having the right to take over the management directly of their properties. Amen to that—it is a good thing—but most of us do not want to spend our lives running co-operatives. We want to be able to receive the services that we feel we should get from suppliers and, if they do not deliver them, we want some power, influence and the choice to make changes. Because of the Government’s narrow focus on tenant management options, they have squeezed out consideration of a number of other things that matter a great deal to tenants. They have defined choices narrowly and have not addressed the structural impediments to choice that tenants experience.
Secondly, Cave quite rightly saw that choice and accountability require information. You cannot make informed choices without it. That is why all regulators are concerned about information. To hold anyone to account you need information about what they are doing and you need comparisons. All noble Lords have said that comparisons at local level, across all three types of social housing, are essential. Cave said that the regulators should play a key role in ensuring that core information is available across all areas. This must be at a local level, because people will want to know how their RSL is performing compared to another social landlord in the area.
We are in the remarkable situation where the Local Government Association, the National Federation of ALMOs, the National Consumer Council and the Chartered Institute of Housing all say that there should be a single system of collective performance information. The specialist body HouseMark, with one or two significant challenges about the small sample size, says that this is perfectly possible. Yet although the Government have known for a year that Cave was going to recommend this, we have the sad situation where they are still saying that they do not have time to do it in the Bill. To many of us, that is not where we want to be. I look to my noble friend to do something about it, because we cannot leave this as a hole in the Bill. If that requires a power and the creation of secondary legislation, I can assure her, as ever, that the Merits Committee will look on her with the kindness that she is used to receiving.
The Bill says nothing in Clause 88 about enhancing accountability being one of the fundamental objectives of the regulator. I would have expected it to do so. To give further instances, there is no clarity about the processes to strengthen accountability to tenants, about key triggers in how they can involve the regulator in an inquiry and about their right to sack a manager or to choose a manager in first principle.
Cave said that there is an overwhelming case for establishing a national voice for tenants of social housing. I agree. I am delighted that the Government agree and that they are going to do something about it. In part, the Bill is in this state because there was not a powerful voice by tenants making these arguments. Officials and Ministers look to where the pressure is coming from and, if there is no pressure from a consumer quarter, the producer interests—the traditional vested interests—tend to have more than their fair shout.
The Bill and the process, unless I have missed it, are silent on whether tenants will have a voice over the sale or merger of their homes. It is fundamental that they should be given the right to express a view—there cannot always be a deterministic view—and the regulator and RSLs should have a statutory responsibility to listen to tenants.
Finally, I turn to what may seem a rather dry fundamental: addressing the structural obstacles to empowerment and choice, as Cave described it. This has always been a key role for regulators when trying to address monopolistic provision. How do you change the structure of the service that so disempowers tenants? We now have a choice of telecom providers—they are not all good and they are not all bad—because previous Governments put in place over a 10-year period processes to ensure that the market supply changed. We have a mess with the London airports because we have failed adequately to regulate and address the market supply with BAA in ways that actively produce the effective competition that empowers users and gives them choice.
Addressing structural issues is phenomenally important. Cave said that part of the reason why social housing exhibits so many signs of failure is the consequence of “deeply embedded structural features”. He said that,
“any regulator has a proper interest in proposing amendments that will help to address identified failures and thereby promote consumer empowerment and choice”.
Any regulator worth their salt would say the same.
Cave talked about some issues for consideration in the future, such as separating the development and the ownership role from the management. Indeed, some are seeing RSLs on a scale of 50,000 properties. When we were managing the housing of local authorities, we thought that that was the problem, but now we have RSLs with that scale of ownership. By definition, the head office will be remote from tenants, whereas in the past, when I used to run housing associations, the tenants could walk round the corner and give you a good kicking, as they often did.
Even though there may be economies of purchasing power on development, buying and financing that we may wish to retain, we ought to be looking, as should the regulator, at whether we should be unbundling to give tenants more choice and control over their management—in other words, the contestability of housing providers at the instigation of consumers collectively. When you have a good provider at a local level—whether it is a local authority, an RSL or an ALMO well able to do management—and scattered housing stock, tenants should be able to have their management carried out by whoever is the best provider and best manager.
Cave said that the regulator should introduce measures to stimulate competition for management of social housing services across the domain, to give tenants choice and to enhance service delivery. There is no clarity whatever in the Bill about the tenants’ right to sack or choose their management. All they can choose to do is set up their own management organisation if they are an RSL. There is no clarity that the regulator has to promote appropriate supply options or to address structural deficiencies in the market, but there ought to be.
The VAT issue is a sad, anoraky instance of a structural impediment. An ALMO or a local authority can get a registered social landlord, albeit in a wicked private sector organisation, to undertake the management for them. But if a registered social landlord wants an ALMO, another registered social landlord or a local authority to undertake the management, it suffers a 17.5 per cent VAT impediment. This matters a great deal, because many registered social landlords have small pockets of stock, which, by definition, means that their housing management function is remote and that they do not provide economies of scale at a local level or, necessarily, a locally sensitive understanding. Yet the national process of rationalising some of that—if that is what tenants want—is frustrated by the VAT impediment. The Bill, the process and the Government are silent on that. I can guess why—the Treasury would not like it—but we should put on the regulator a duty to work progressively to overcome structural impediments to empowering tenant choice, and this is one of those. It may take five or 10 years, but it should be on the agenda.
Among the people to whom I have talked about this sad return to housing on my part, I have identified a great deal of support for the objectives and aims of the Bill but also concern that the Bill in its present form does not achieve the objectives around tenant choice and empowerment. This matters because the Government have stated that it is one of their major objectives. I and many organisations, as well as, I trust, many others in this House, would be pleased to work with the Minister—it is a long time before Committee stage—to try to plug some of these gaps. I look forward to doing so.
My Lords, about 10 minutes ago, while sitting on my perch up here on the Back Benches, my heart leapt when I saw the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, walking across the Chamber towards me. For one glorious moment I thought I was to be the recipient of a spot of Floor-crossing. Instead, with his characteristic courtesy, he had come to tell me that because of the withdrawal of an intervening speaker I was to follow the noble Lord, Lord Filkin. Although I shall not follow the noble Lord’s arguments—I wish to address my arguments to Part 1 of the Bill and he addressed his arguments to Part 2—that gives me the chance to say how full of admiration I am for his analysis of a whole range of matters concerning, choice, regulation and the need for structural reform. Noble Lords on both sides of the House should pay close attention to what the noble Lord has said.
I should begin by reassuring my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith on our Front Bench that I can say with absolute certainty that he has 100 per cent support from Back-Bench speakers behind him today. The Bill, which the Minister introduced with her characteristic verve, does a lot of things, one of which should not go unremarked. The Bill, in Clauses 51 and 52, lowers into an unmarked legislative grave that high watermark of paleo-old Labour, the Commission for the New Towns. The first new town, Stevenage, according to EM Forster in his Howards End, fell,
“out of a blue sky like a meteorite upon the ancient and delicate scenery of Hertfordshire”.
That was back in 1946, when our attitude to consultation was also perhaps a bit paleolithic. Then, the Minister’s lineal predecessor, Lewis Silkin MP, got into his ministerial car and went to old Stevenage to consult the townsfolk concerning their fate, which he described as,
“a daring exercise in town planning”.
The locals did not seem to like the sound of that very much, and they said so. In response, the Minister, adopting the best “man from Whitehall knows best” approach, said, “It’s no good you jeering. It’s going to be done”. The locals’ response was to let down the tyres of the ministerial limousine. Bad behaviour by them, which I deplore, but it followed a bit of bad behaviour by the Minister. Alas, that is sometimes still the attitude struck by some in local authorities and their officials with regard to some housing matters.
This is the sole issue I want to raise: the contribution that an enhanced role for the Homes and Communities Agency, which in general terms I welcome, could make in improving housing quality. The Minister lays that duty on it in Clauses 2 to 5, particularly in the matter of good design, which is important, a point to which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester referred in his speech.
Design is not some preoccupation of aesthetes or the limp-wristed. As the Royal Institute of British Architects says, good design brings pleasure, attracts people and investment and helps communities to build, bond and generally be happier. It is not some kind of latte-liberal preoccupation. Well designed homes are exactly what hardworking families want. As the Minister told the House, she is laying the duty for the Thames Gateway development on the HCA. That will succeed or fail not just on structural things such as roads, schools and houses but on the actual design of the homes that people are going to live in. That is of critical importance. The trouble is that all too often ordinary working families do not get this—that has happened over a sustained period; I certainly do not blame this Government alone for that failure—and they will not get it until there is a revolution in attitude among the two most important groups involved in housing design: council planners and private sector house-builders. The HCA should be given a statutory duty to help to give guidance to both.
The Bill is very timely, all the more so because of what one might term the “Persimmon pause” which gives us some breathing space to get this right. What is this “Persimmon pause”? Persimmon’s decision of last week has been referred to by at least two noble Lords. That good and high quality listed building company said last Friday that it was going to cease new housing development for the time being because of market conditions. This is a harbinger of building and construction things to come; other housing companies will follow. I have no current interests to declare, but for a while I was a non-executive director of Alfred McAlpine plc when it was a house-builder. I predict that the maximum number of new homes built in 2008 will be no more than between 100,000 and 110,000. That will not meet demand. The number in 2009 is unlikely to be much higher. This is bad news for people wanting new homes of any sort, but it could, if we make use of the Persimmon pause, be good news for housing design, for the quality of new homes when they start being built en masse again to meet the Government’s targets as well as popular demand, and for putting right what the chief executive of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment wrote of in 2007. I quote:
“The housing produced in the first few years of this century is simply not up to the standard which the government is demanding”,
and which customers have a right to expect. He has also opined—quite rightly, to my mind—that now is the time to build homes that are also,
“beautiful and practical places to live”.
The best way to ensure that is to ensure that every council in the land has access to a local design review panel, with the HCA being given the statutory duty to promote these bodies and to give guidance on how they could be set up and run. Far too few councils in this country have that access. Councils desperately need help here; too often they fail, for a whole host of reasons, to consider design issues properly. Indeed, one local councillor at the south Somerset end of our Westminster/south Somerset axis wrote to me on 12 April lamenting the attitude of planning officers to design issues in that council. Fearing for his safety in the area—I will not mention his name, but I will mention his words—he said:
“They are only prepared to discuss the dwellings per hectare and the relevant car parking spaces”.
That attitude is reflected too widely up and down the land and is certainly not restricted to councils of any one form of political control. I would not dream of asserting that.
Design panels can help at very little cost, being made up of architects, landscape designers and other professionals working pro bono. One good example of that is the Royal Borough of Kingston, which set up just such a panel in 2005. The panel has subsequently commented constructively and influenced the quality of some 2,200 homes in the borough. The cost of these things is minimal because time is given by landscape designers, architects and others for nothing. I have gone into this matter, and the time spent on this in Kingston is minimal: it requires part of the time of one council officer, the provision of some venues and a bit of organisation. The actual cost is £15,000 per annum. That is extremely good value. I assure the Minister that I am not putting to her the need for any new bureaucracy or any new massive public expenditure. To the contrary; the dialogue between the planners, builders and the community can, in the end, save time and money as well as improve the quality of the environment and so outweigh the costly process of later planning appeal and compensation.
The HCA could draw up guidance with the powers that the Minister intends to give it in Clause 43 of the Bill. With the help of CABE, the Royal Town Planning Institute, RIBA and all the other relevant bodies—I am not a professional in this area; I have not been snowed under by the list of representations that the noble Lord, Lord Best, has received and which he so kindly enumerated for the House—a revolution could happen in our housing design if such guidance were given. The Government must take this seriously in order to provide a better setting for the new communities they plan, and I have no doubt that they wish to do so. This approach would also complement the advice that CABE already gives to big strategic schemes with their regional design panels.
I finish by illustrating these benign-sounding sentiments with some specific examples. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester gave the specific example of the eco-town proposed for the edge of that great city. I hope that what he said is listened to nationally as well as locally. The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Leigh, who is not in his place, spoke earlier about micro issues concerning housing quality in the ward which he represents in Wigan. I shall pick another area: the West Country. I hasten to add that I have no interest to declare in any planning issues being considered in the area where I live: there are none within sight or sound of our property. However, there is some local interest in these matters which I would like to use to illustrate the theme of my speech thus far.
Over the Easter weekend, I looked at proposed sites, sites under construction and sites half-finished in two adjoining local authority areas: South Somerset District Council and Mendip District Council. I live near the border between the two and the difference is striking. Neither council has local elections this week so there is no political component in what I am saying. To cross from South Somerset, which, alas, has recently given all-too-little attention to good design, into Mendip council’s area is like crossing some institutional and design fault-line, from the too-often indifferent in the former to the very good indeed in the latter. In the latter is one of the developments picked out by CABE, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, in its 2007 Housing Audit: at Dukes Rise on the edge of Shepton Mallet. I say well done to the developers, well done to the council and well done to Bloor Homes, which built the houses. The landowners had their own design team to inform the local council on these matters, very much like a mini-local design review panel to help council planners. It had a design brief which stated:
“Building design and materials, by the consideration of the effect of building groups, can use standard house types and natural stone materials to give added character and quality within normal construction prices”.
It is very hard not to say “Hear, hear” to that. It is worth repeating, but I shall not.
Unfortunately, that attitude is not always reflected in South Somerset District Council, where the local council leadership seems to behave exactly like Lewis Silkin back in 1946 in Stevenage, at least to the extent of refusing to enter into correspondence with local people—I should like the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, to draw these remarks to the attention of her colleague who will wind up this debate for the Liberals—not over greenfield or brownfield development, nimbyism and all the rest of it, but even over such simple, innocent matters as good design and its quality. The local council leader gives no reply to letters about this.
Just as I have a question for the Minister—will she consider introducing a statutory design advice function for the HCA in the Bill?—so I pose a question for the Liberal Front Bench in its wind-up, which I have never done before in your Lordships' House. How can local people persuade the local council leadership—I know nothing for or against the gentleman concerned; he is called Councillor T Carroll—to reply to letters about such innocent matters as good housing design, or is he going hell for leather to win the Lewis Silkin memorial prize for consultation? I do not know, but I am sure that the Liberal Front Bench values good design for housing, and I am sure that there are councils of all political hues which behave inappropriately, arrogantly and do not respond to correspondence. But as we have been given the lead by the right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Leigh, to talk about local matters to illustrate our general themes, that, I have done.
My Lords, at this point in the debate, much has already been said about the Bill. I declare an interest as the chair of the Midland Heart Housing Association. Like other noble Lords, I give a general welcome to the Bill. Its provisions are timely, ambitious and urgently required.
The Bill comes at a time of great need for social housing, when the traditional marketplace for housing finance has developed a degree of chronic instability. The Bill therefore offers the reassurance that housing is and remains a social priority for this Government.
Your Lordships will have heard much about the key features of the Bill, not least of which are its structural provisions; namely, the powers of the regulator, the role and powers of the new Homes and Communities Agency, the Secretary of State’s possible new powers of direction, and the long-overdue powers of protection for tenants. However, much more work on the Bill needs to be done, particularly in the area described as domain regulation. As my organisation sees it, and as many housing associations have stated in representations, a clear timetable is needed for ALMOs and local authorities to be brought within the scope of the Bill’s provisions, without which there can be no level playing field. Some providers will have a distinct advantage.
We also look forward to a clear statement on the key principles which will guide the Homes and Communities Agency’s programme. That guidance would be helpful, because housing associations would like to know how the transition in respect of the spending programme for the two legacy agencies will be managed in the new organisation.
I want to shift the focus of the debate from the frontline activities of registered social landlords to those so-called non-housing activities carried out by many housing associations, because to the people who are on the receiving end of them the results can be life-changing. These activities are carried out by housing associations. They are not mandatory but optional. Housing associations seek some assurance, which I hope the Minister at some point will be able to give, that voluntary, non-housing activities will remain and maintain their existing status.
It would be a gross misunderstanding to assume that housing associations only build houses; we know better. Most housing associations do not just build houses; they change lives and build social capital in many of our communities. I hope that the House will permit me therefore to share a few examples of housing association activities which are being carried out by many organisations. They are not headline-grabbing; you will not see many of them in Inside Housing or in any of the publications.
The National Housing Federation estimates that housing associations invest more than £500 million, providing services that go beyond their role of direct housing provision. Housing associations provide some 400,000 houses in many areas, for older groups and those needing care and support. Between 2006 and 2008, associations spent some £300 million of their own resource in providing housing and support for those who are vulnerable and need that kind of in-house support. Of course, many housing associations are in the job-promoting business, which, outside the construction industry, was responsible for some 8,000 construction jobs in the year under review. Training is an important part of their work, too: some 19,000 people per year are being assisted with training and the development of new skills.
Among the activities of my own housing association, Midland Heart, is a rough sleepers programme, a community regeneration workless programme, a job replacement agency and a residents’ well-being programme. Of course, it is very much engaged in respect of drug dependency programmes. Clearly, a registered social landlord has responsibility well beyond the ordinary requirements, all of which demands a level of social independence, which means that they should be given the opportunity to develop, to grow and to expand. It is our view that they should not be bound by any form of legal straitjacket of the public sector, nor the laissez-faire culture of the market place.
I am aware that many housing associations express concerns about the classification or designation to that of public bodies. I am equally concerned that the designation of private sector bodies denotes, probably, the wrong culture and sends an unintended series of signals as to the exact role and responsibilities involved. I prefer to describe housing associations as socially independent bodies.
Before I conclude, I have a further point to make, about which representation has been made, in respect of possible added cost, which the sector is expected to absorb. As I understand it, the sector currently meets the cost of the Office of the Ombudsman, which runs to approximately £3 million per annum. It has been suggested that that cost could escalate quite significantly in respect of the office of the new regulator. Some people talk about figures in the region of £20 million, which would build a lot of new homes. Let me at this point revert to type, put on my trade union hat and invite the Minister to examine the principle of burden-sharing in respect of that cost. I do not believe that a split of 90:10 would go amiss with housing associations.
In any event, for all the reasons that have been expounded in this debate, we welcome the Bill and look forward to improving its provisions in Committee.
My Lords, the Government have done many good and important things in housing. Street homelessness and, indeed, bed and breakfast accommodation have been virtually abolished. Well over a million homes that were unfit—and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, in her eloquent quotation from Lord Goodman, reminded us of what that means—have been refurbished through the Government’s decent homes strategy. Large amounts of capital have been invested in social housing, although much more is needed.
Equally, I applaud the Government’s purposes now. In this Bill, the creation of the single Homes and Communities Agency will integrate strategy for social housing with strategy for infrastructure and regeneration—and that must be right. It is right, too, to update the regulation of social housing through the creation of the Office for Tenants and Social Landlords. Clearly, we will have detailed debate on exactly how that is to be done. Those two measures will help to open the way for the building of many more homes.
I am glad that it is the Government’s view that these should be mixed communities and tenures, including homes to rent in very significant numbers. Of course it is right that we should aim to build more homes to buy, to satisfy the rightful aspirations of people to do so and to make an impact on the impossible prices with which first-time buyers have been confronted. As a number of noble Lords have noted, the circumstances in which the Government have launched this drive are not auspicious. But in any circumstances, I often wish that in this country we could free ourselves from our disproportionate cult of home ownership. It should not be regarded as abnormal or a failure to rent rather than buy. Noble Lords have noted the inadequacies of the private rented sector; that has been a problem for a very long time. But it has also been a problem that many too many people who cannot sustain a mortgage, at least without a struggle, have been culturally pressured into home ownership.
Every generation burns its fingers in the housing market. I well remember my constituency surgeries in the late 1980s, with constituents in tears coming to see me to talk about the consequences of being in negative equity. Now we are seeing another spin of that miserable carousel, with the fear and stress on family finances and relationships that it brings with it. The Swiss are the wealthiest people in Europe, and they are a nation of renters rather than home owners. People in Switzerland invest their savings more productively than in bricks and mortar and their economy has a flexibility that our economy lacks, congealed as it is through home ownership.
I particularly applaud the Government’s emphatic commitment in this Bill and in their other policy statements to quality. Improving quality, as noble Lords have noted, is a role explicitly laid on the Home and Communities Agency in Clause 2. I am very happy to follow my noble friend Lady Whitaker and the noble Lord, Lord Patten, in what they had to say about the importance of quality and design. The Green Paper said:
“We don't just want to build more homes. We want them to be better homes, built to high standards, both in terms of design and environmental impact … Our aim is to eliminate poorly-designed new housing, and make good and very good new development the norm”.
In this commitment, the Government followed the advice of Kate Barker and the Callcutt review. Chapter seven of the review, on quality and regulation, opened with these wise words:
“Future generations will not thank us if growth in housing supply is achieved only by delivering large numbers of poor quality homes. If the quality of new housing is poor, in design or construction, it will rapidly become a cause of fresh economic and social problems, expensive to resolve and with consequences well beyond the housing itself”.
Social and demographic change require us to move vigorously ahead in providing more homes, but budgets and targets should allow money and time to design in quality. We should remember the words of Aneurin Bevan as Housing Minister that,
“we shall be judged for a year or two by the number of houses we build … we shall be judged in 10 years’ time by the type of houses we build”.
We should not repeat the errors of the 1950s and 1960s.
Rightly, the Government are committed to sustainability. As they noted in the Green Paper, we need a revolution in the way that we build, design and power our homes. A quarter of the UK's current carbon emissions arise from how we heat, light and run our homes. They have made the commitment that all new homes should be zero carbon by 2016, and it seems that the industry is bestirring itself to achieve that. The most eye-catching aspect of the Government's green programme is the commitment to 10 eco-towns. They could be a brilliant success. They will, at the very least, be interesting laboratories, but so were the new towns and the tower blocks.
The Housing Minister, Caroline Flint, is reported to have observed that eco-towns,
“will … revolutionise the way people live”.
That is a little reminiscent of a remark by the architects Peter and Alison Smithson that,
“only through construction can a Utopia of the present be realized”.
My right honourable friend Margaret Hodge has wrestled with the uncomfortable decision about whether to list the Smithsons’s Robin Hood Gardens estate in Poplar. The architects thought that it was revolutionary and wonderful but the tenants had a rather different view. I am sure that the Housing Minister will tread with due diffidence and delicacy in that territory. I was surprised that the so-called key criteria for eco-towns that I saw in a brief contained nothing about the availability of jobs for residents of eco-towns. That will have an important bearing on the carbon footprint and the well-being of these communities.
Of course, we could make more progress in providing homes and reducing emissions if the Government were able to persuade the Commission and our EU partners to allow us to level the VAT playing field between new build and refurbishment.
There is another meaning of “sustainability”. It is shaming to be told by RADAR, Care and Repair England and the Habinteg Housing Association that 1.5 million disabled people are in need of accessible accommodation; a third of households still in non-decent homes include a member with long-term illness or disability; half of all disabled children are living in unsuitable housing; because of the inefficiencies of the way in which accessible housing stock is managed without a statutory requirement for disability housing registers, only one in six wheelchair standard homes in the social housing sector is actually let to a family with a wheelchair user; and the inadequate budget for disabled facilities grants has led to unnecessary accidents, hospitalisation and requirement for personal care. I therefore very much welcome the strategy document published by DCLG and DWP Lifetime Homes, Lifetime Neighbourhoods, with forewords by the Prime Minister and my noble friend, and the commitment in it that all public housing will be built to lifetime home standards by 2011. There is only an aspiration in the document that all new housing should be built to those standards by 2013, but the Government commit themselves to review the situation then and consider new regulation.
The Government have also committed themselves to increase funding for disabled facilities grants by 31 per cent by 2011, but even then, the total would still be only £166 million, and I understand that the duty on local authorities to match funding is to be relaxed. There is a long way to go in this area. In due course, I hope that my noble friend will tell us more about what the duties on Oftenant will be in respect of the satisfaction of lifetime home standards. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Best, and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on their pioneering work in developing lifetime home standards.
One of the most pressing and difficult issues as we expand housebuilding is space standards, as other noble Lords have mentioned. The days of generous Parker Morris standards let alone of Tudor Walters standards are long gone. Private developers have been concentrating on building one and two bedroom homes and there is a painful shortage of larger homes for poor families. There needs to be a certain generosity in spaces within homes. My noble friend may confirm that England is the only country in the European Union with no minimum space standards for housing, as has been previously suggested. The Royal Institute of British Architects—and I declare an interest as an honorary fellow—notes that the average size of homes in the middle and lower end of the market has decreased sharply. Houses have been traditionally marketed in the United Kingdom in terms of the number of bedrooms and not the amount of space. Has my noble friend any thoughts on how we might influence that convention? The personal and social consequences for families obliged to live in mean and cramped accommodation are bad.
As has also been noted, good design is not primarily an aesthetic concept, but I am struck reading the documents and listening to the speeches of Ministers that, in a very British way, they are embarrassed to use the B word—beauty. PPS 1, in paragraph 36, does bring itself to say that objectives should include ensuring that developments are “visually attractive”. I was thrilled to hear my noble friend talk of the “wow” factor earlier this afternoon. I was also thrilled when the Secretary of State, Hazel Blears, said in a speech to CABE that people should live in houses that are not brutal, but beautiful. Of course, these 3 million new homes should be homes that lift the spirits of those who see them and, more importantly, of those who live in them, but what means will the Government and the HCA have to bring that about?
The Government certainly seek to give leadership. PPS 1 at paragraph 34 says:
“Design which is inappropriate in its context, or which fails to take the opportunities available for improving the character and quality of an area and the way it functions, should not be accepted”.
Paragraphs 33 to 39 make clear the Government's expectation that planners should insist on good design. Those affirmations are reiterated and elaborated in PPS 3 on housing. There is a difficulty that local authorities and even the Planning Inspectorate are short of qualified people. To compensate for professional weakness in planning departments and to make for more objectivity and certainty, I wonder whether some principles and practices of good design could be entrenched in building regulations. But the difficulty of that, as the Callcutt review pointed out, is that many—apparently including the DCLG—believe that compliance with the regulations is patchy and enforcement is weak. There will be the code for sustainable homes, but that will be voluntary.
We are told that the Government are investigating the role that the Homes and Community Agency will play in encouraging good design. The predecessor bodies, the Housing Corporation and English Partnerships, have promulgated design and quality standards, and that acquis should certainly be carried forward in the Homes and Communities Agency. A good instrument that we have had to hand since 2002 is the Building for Life standards put forward jointly by CABE and the House Builders Federation, which other noble Lords have mentioned, and the Green Paper speaks of developing and testing new mechanisms and design quality metrics to assist local authorities to monitor progress in achieving higher quality. I am interested to see what they will be like.
CABE and the Government have promoted appointment by local authorities and housebuilders of design champions—with mixed success as yet—but that is a thrust that should be developed, as should the use by local authorities of master planners. Design review has been one of the most productive and promising approaches, bringing design professionals together with planning officers to review schemes in pre-application processes. We should certainly thank architects throughout the country who give time and expertise in design review. As noble Lords have said, the design review facility needs to be available not only nationally but in every region, and it would be highly desirable for it to be available at county level and locally. The methodology needs to be more consistent across the country. I hope that we shall look in Committee at how to extend design review.
There are other possibilities of incentivising good design. The Green Paper discusses the possibility of a design quality assurance scheme which would allow the development process to be speeded up, where a benchmark of design quality is met. Surely it would be sensible to use housing and planning delivery grant to incentivise and reward quality as well as quantity. Possibly prizes might be used more imaginatively and effectively. The Green Paper talks of the inspirational power of the best. The DCLG administers the housing design awards originally introduced by Aneurin Bevan but an evaluation of these awards and several others found, unsurprisingly, a tension between the taste of professional architects and that of the volume housebuilders. The housebuilders reflected, as they claimed, the taste of the public. Design awards appear to have had little influence on the generality of residential development.
More encouraging is that it appears that the challenges of designing for brownfield sites are prompting the volume housebuilders to think afresh about design. Eco-towns and the requirements of the green agenda will certainly impel housebuilders to do so.
Callcutt drew attention to the fundamental problem that, with the housebuilding market as it has been, the incentives for quality have been weak. So long as demand exceeds supply and buyers stretch themselves to the utmost to be able to buy anything, they will consider price, size and location but will not be fussy about quality. Some smaller firms and developers catering to the upper end of the market may trade to an extent on quality but for most housebuilders aiming for high quality is not a rational commercial strategy. Guidance and exhortation do not of themselves seem likely to deliver the real improvement we need in general standards of design for housebuilding. Do the Government see ways to use their power and influence to provide better assurance that the 3 million new homes will be well designed? Do the Government intend to create stronger duties for the Homes and Communities Agency to promote good design than it has so far told us about? I hope that we shall look further at these issues in Committee.
My Lords, before I begin I declare an interest as the chair of Circle 33 Housing Association and a trustee of Shelter.
Having contributed to several other debates in the Government’s current programme, I can truly say that I welcome this debate this evening because this Bill, more than many of the others, has the capacity to deliver significant radical change that can improve the living conditions of hundreds of thousands of people. As we already know, this in turn impacts on their health, education and broader well-being. In particular, the backdrop to the Bill, in the Government’s committed target of 3 million new homes by 2020, represents a welcome and exciting challenge to us all. So it is in this context that I make the following comments.
First, I am not the first person to point out that the housing economy has shifted significantly since the Bill was produced in November. I, too, was going to mention Persimmon but that would make it sound as if we were persecuting it. I think, though, that we all assess that the phenomenon we are discussing represents a wider trend. While the private sector will undoubtedly continue to be a partner in our housebuilding strategy it may no longer be rushing ahead and we have to have the imagination to fill that gap.
This must be an opportunity to tackle the thorny issue of land supply, land banking and land prices. Given the current shortage of suitable land, the Homes and Communities Agency could insist that any public body considering land disposal should notify it in the first instance. They should then have a pre-emptive right to acquire the land on a cost-effective basis. I am not convinced that the “less than best” provision in the Bill goes far enough in this regard.
Equally, there have been press reports that developers are trying to offload surplus private land on to housing associations by creating informal bidding wars. I am pleased to say that in some cases the associations have clubbed together to stop this happening, but could not more be done to limit market pressures at this level?
There is also a suggestion that housing associations could buy up the surplus speculative developments, particularly the endless riverside “buy-to-let” glut, much of which we now know to be overpriced. Interestingly, this fails to take account of the fact that many of these blocks have been built to poor standards that would not have been tolerated in the private sector. It underlines the need for all new build, public and private, to meet level 3 of the Code for Sustainable Homes.
This also highlights the danger of allowing the wrong type of development in the wrong place. For example, my own housing association is crying out for extra family-sized accommodation but these developments are frequently unsuitable for families and therefore of only minor use in tackling real housing need.
Housing associations play a crucial third sector role in housing delivery. Their not-for-profit business model enables them to recycle surpluses from sales to build more affordable rented accommodation. Unfortunately, the Bill risks them being squeezed out of the low-cost home ownership market.
We are handing the private homebuilders a competitive advantage by giving them a free rein while the housing associations are closely regulated. This cannot be in the interests of consumers or government in the longer term, and I hope the Minister will recognise that there is a strong case for a level playing field between these sectors.
I do not want to spend a great deal of time on housing association issues, but on regulation I very much share the concerns of the National Housing Federation and others who have commented on it today. It is acceptable and desirable for the regulator to set standards on the core housing features of rent, quality and management of the stock. But more recently the progressive associations have experimented with local projects to meet particular community needs. These are by their very nature innovative and unproven, and often carried out with other partners. It therefore makes no sense for them to be part of the formal regulatory regime; otherwise, we run the risk of stifling the very creativity we want to encourage.
The changing economic situation inevitably offers new opportunities for the public sector. I personally hope that this includes a greater role for local authorities to build and manage new homes. Their understanding of what makes sustainable communities has changed beyond all recognition since the days of monolithic council estates. They should be enabled to build considerably more than the few thousand homes referred to in the Bill’s impact assessment. I would like to see the Local Government Association show some real enthusiasm for the prospects of 3 million new homes for its citizens, based on partnership and innovation, rather than concentrating on a defence of its current powers.
For example, although it is not a new idea, could community land trusts play a greater role in securing more affordable homes? These would hold the land in perpetuity and lease it to the owners of the properties on it. This community ownership of the land could help to keep homes affordable and deliver the crucial mix of tenures such as owner-occupiers, mutuals, social rented and co-operatives, which I think we all find desirable. I hope that the Minister will recognise the advantages of such models and give a commitment to clarifying their legal status in the Bill, which would enable them to thrive.
I would like to say something about the very welcome emphasis in the Bill on tenants’ rights. First, I am confident that the Government mean well with regard to tenant involvement, but it must be more than tokenism and must be seen to be so. For example, my housing association, which has just completed a major review of tenant involvement, has identified key demands for more localised and responsive services and better communications, rather than more seats on the board. We need to be quite sophisticated about how we measure real tenant participation.
Secondly, it is important that tenants involved in potential stock transfers are guaranteed impartial advice on the options and are not just buffeted around by the competing propaganda of vested interests. I would go further than that and say that individual blocks of tenants should be able to initiate a ballot to change their landlord, potentially breaking up the big estates and enshrining real tenant choice.
Thirdly, we should not lose sight of the value to many families of a secure tenancy. If tenants are to be really empowered, we have to find ways of making those tenancies portable so that individuals can become more mobile and respond to job opportunities and other reasons to move. The importance of secure tenancy is also a crucial factor in the family intervention projects initiative. For example, Shelter has already demonstrated that moving families with complex needs to different accommodation for intensive support can be effective; but the loss of a secure tenancy may override the benefits. It is vital that the interests of the children involved take precedence. I hope that the Minister is able to acknowledge these concerns.
Finally, if we are serious about tenants’ rights, we need to change the outdated definition of overcrowding, which counts children aged between one and 10 as half a person and includes living rooms and larger kitchens in the equation. I know that the Government have already made a commitment to review that formula, but it is not clear why that cannot be delivered in this Bill.
There is a great deal more that I could say on this issue, but I recognise the Government’s clear intent to transform housing provision in this country and to tackle a long legacy of housing need. I also welcome the Government’s record on engaging with stakeholders on the detail of the Bill, and I look forward to further discussions as the Bill progresses.
My Lords, there are many issues that I would like to address this evening, not least rural housing, the relationship between the HCA and planning authorities, eco-towns and design. I will resist the temptation to address those issues, because I want to speak about one particular subject. However, on design, I cannot let the moment pass without addressing some of the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Patten, who is no longer in his place.
Noble Lords will recognise that he obviously has a very large bee in his bonnet about something that the leader of the council in South Somerset has done at some time; in my opinion, it is a personal bee. That council pioneered village design statements, and it has a very strong record with conservation planners. I do not think that I need to defend it, because many noble Lords will be familiar with it. Coincidentally, I was having a conversation at tea time with the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, who has just visited Montacute and Tintinhull. She was saying how absolutely gorgeous they are. Those villages and the market towns of South Somerset have benefited over the years from a very considered design.
This evening, I particularly want to address something on which the Minister has a very good track record. She said:
“Allotments play a unique role in our community and have done so for many years. Indeed, they are so important that they have enjoyed a special protection in law for a century”.
This is the centenary year for allotments. The Minister’s comments were made in the introduction to the Local Government Association guide to good allotment management, Growing in the Community, the second edition of which was published earlier this year. The Minister was right to acknowledge how important allotments are. I am choosing to concentrate my remarks on allotments, village greens and commons because it seems to me from reading the Bill that they are under threat.
I am glad to see the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, in his place, because he will remember when the Countryside and Rights of Way Act was passing through this House the long debates that we had about registering land as village greens. In fact, the amendment on village greens was debated in the rather more energetic days of your Lordships’ House, at 2.20 am of Tuesday, 17 October 2000. It was very exciting that the Government decided to incorporate that amendment in the Bill, and it became law. The Government at the time were quite right to recognise how under threat village greens were. There was news of one a week being threatened by building projects. The situation was dire and the Government reacted strongly.
How will organisations like the Open Spaces Society feel when they read Part 4 of Schedule 3 to this Bill, which, to my reading—the Minister may say that I am wrong—effectively undoes that work? That schedule lists specifically commons, open space—by which it means village greens—and allotments. It states:
“The HCA or any other person may use the land in any way which accords with planning permission despite anything in any enactment”.
In other words, the Bill drives a stake through the heart of any protection that allotments, village greens and commons have had over the years. The Minister is shaking her head and I hope that she will tell me that I am wrong. If my interpretation is correct, during the passage of the Bill, I shall seek to change the power of the HCA in relation to protected open spaces.
The Minister may say that in the giving of planning permission there has already been enough built-in protection since the Government re-issued guidance in 2001, whereby local authorities are required to demonstrate, before consent is granted, that the allotment in question is not necessary, that alternative provision will be made for displaced plot holders, that the waiting list has been taken into account and that local authorities have actively publicised the availability of the sites. That guidance to local authorities is already in place, but that needs to be at least mirrored by the HCA if it is to become a planning body.
My greater principle is that the Bill needs to reflect the importance of community green spaces, but it does not sufficiently do that. While I recognise the importance of appropriate housing units for people in housing need, they are the private spaces where individuals and families live. It is in the open spaces that they become a community, whereby they can come out of their houses and meet each other and do all the time-honoured things such as kicking footballs about, growing vegetables or whatever it is that they want to do. Not least at a time of rising food prices and concerns about food security, other good arguments for allotments can be made—and not just for allotments, but community gardens. Demand has increased recently and for that reason we should make more of mentioning this issue in the Bill.
I shall save the rest of my fire on this issue for Committee, but I would hope to introduce a few more safeguards in relation to the way that the HCA regards open community space. There is a small mention of it in the Bill as recreational infrastructure, but that is not enough. The provisions for open space need to be strengthened to give it the place of importance that it should have, to reflect what has happened in the past 40 years of the 100 years since the laws on allotments were brought in.
My Lords, I apologise for missing the first few minutes of my noble friend the Minister’s splendid exposition of the wide scope of the Bill. I am afraid that I was overoptimistic about my speed.
I strongly support the Bill’s underlying objectives to enable the delivery of the 3 million new homes that we need by 2020. Housing is rightly at the top of the political agenda. We now need concerted action to meet the appalling shortfall in affordable, accessible and sustainable housing. I applaud the vision set out in the housing Green Paper, the recent eco-towns consultation and the National Strategy for Housing in an Ageing Society. It is a vision for housing which is well designed, inclusive and sustainable and is linked to thriving accessible communities.
The gap between vision and reality, however, is nowhere more stark than in relation to the housing situation for disabled people and their families. According to the latest figures from the Department for Communities and Local Government, 1.5 million disabled people in England remain in need of accessible accommodation, and 371,000 live in completely unsuitable housing.
Our ageing population means that over the next 20 years we will see an increase in the number of disabled older people of between 57 and 67 per cent, making accessible, lifetime housing and increasing housing choice and opportunity for disabled people vital mainstream priorities for housing policy. Legislation should reflect this, but I see no reference to increasing the supply of accessible, lifetime housing in the Homes and Communities Agency remit as set out in the Bill.
That is all the more surprising given the very welcome recent commitment to ensure that all social housing is built to the lifetime homes standard by 2011. The outgoing Housing Corporation’s affordable housing investment programme for 2008 to 2011 takes us nowhere near that target, making it doubly important in the eyes of disabled people that the HCA’s remit includes specific reference to inclusive homes and communities.
I am of course delighted that the Bill makes provision for all new homes to be given a rating under the Code for Sustainable Homes and that the Government have included the lifetime homes standard in the code. This, along with planning policy, is one of the few levers that the Government have provided to address the dearth of private sector housing built to the lifetime homes standard. Private housing accounts for at least two-thirds of completions. If we are serious about equality of opportunity and independent living for disabled people, we cannot limit the choice of accessible homes to social housing.
Under current plans, it will be 2013 before the private sector is expected to build to lifetime homes standards, and that is only an aspiration rather than a guarantee. This pace of change hardly reflects the need for urgent action that we face today. I echo the call by RADAR, Care and Repair England and Habinteg Housing Association for a faster and more robust timetable for incorporating lifetime homes standards into building regulations, as the Government pledged to do more than four years ago. The National Housing Federation, too, has said that private developers should be required to meet the same timetable as housing associations through building regulations.
Perhaps I may anticipate the Minister’s response to this. She will quote from many strategies and tell us that the Government are moving things forward; she will say that these things take time and that there are potential changes to the standards to consider and so on. To that, I say this: every single home built to existing Part M rather than lifetime homes standards costs us dear. It costs us in avoidable adaptations, accidents and hospital stays paid for out of taxpayers’ pockets; it costs individuals their independence and security; and it involves a sustainability penalty as we waste material and energy by retro-fitting.
Alongside lifetime homes, we need to make enhanced provision for housing built to full wheelchair-access standards. Can the Minister tell me what role she expects the Homes and Communities Agency to play in tackling the shortfall of 300,000 wheelchair-accessible homes nationwide? Will the Government require regional planning authorities to follow London’s example in setting appropriate targets?
If we are to meet the accessible housing challenge, it is crucial that we also look at bringing existing housing stock up to scratch. Sadly, the Decent Homes programme has not contributed to that goal. Perhaps the Minister will tell the House what specific role the HCA will play in ensuring that such programmes mainstream and maximise access and equality in future.
Further, just as concerted action is required to bring hundreds of thousands of empty homes and vast tracts of surplus public land back into use, so we must also ensure that our current stock of accessible or adapted homes is used much more efficiently than it is at present. The current housing allocations process creates needless waste and inefficiency. On average, only one in six wheelchair-standard dwellings in the social housing sector is let to a household containing a wheelchair user, despite overwhelming demand for wheelchair-standard property from wheelchair users.
I strongly welcome both the planned National Register of Social Housing, which will help ensure that social landlords gather information on the accessibility of their stock, and the Government's support for the London Accessible Housing Register which will give disabled people greater housing choice across London. However, I return to an issue which I and many other noble Lords, across all parties have raised on numerous occasions in this Chamber: the need for statutory provision for accessible housing registers. The Government have no quibble with the efficiency, desirability, positive impact and cost-effectiveness of such systems, but all they are prepared to do is encourage. Encouragement has not worked and will not work. Surely, it is time to legislate.
Finally, welcome the major new investment planned for disabled facilities grants. Central government will increase grants to local authorities by 31 per cent in the next three years. This is a very welcome start. However, I would welcome assurances from the Minister that the decision to remove the requirement on local authorities to contribute 40 per cent of DFGs from their own resources will in no way undermine delivery on the ground. DFGs will remain mandatory for all those who meet the eligibility criteria, but such are the pressures on local authorities' budgets that there must be a real risk of resources being channelled elsewhere. As a result families will continue to suffer intolerable delays, trapping them in often atrocious, degrading housing conditions. Perhaps the Minister could also outline Oftenant's role in improving access to timely adaptations for disabled households and ensuring quality service for disabled tenants more generally.
Nothing is more fundamental to freedom, choice, control and dignity for disabled and older people and their families than a decent, accessible home. Government policy is undoubtedly heading in the right direction, but there is deep frustration at the slow pace of change and continued inertia over accessible housing registers. Let this Bill mark the beginning of a bold new approach to delivering homes and communities that are truly fit for the future.
My Lords, I begin with an apology for having missed the Minister’s speech and that of the Opposition Front Bench.
Like many speakers in the debate, I have waited a long time for a Bill as comprehensive as this. I understand the desire of the Minister and her colleagues to ensure that the Bill contains as many answers to the needs in housing as possible. I believe that this is the most important housing Bill since 1997 and perhaps even before then. It is well worth waiting for. I have listened to most of the debate and I have been very impressed. We shall undoubtedly have good Committee and Report stages. We have heard from many people who have experience in this area.
In preparation for the debate, I looked up the Second Reading debate in the other place. Mr Grant Shapps began by moving what euphemistically is called a reasoned amendment. I have never read a more unreasonable reasoned amendment in 35 years at Westminster. It is bleak, destructive, petty and unconnected with the needs of the country. The Opposition should recognise the opportunity presented by this Bill and build on it. I say to the Opposition, “Oh ye of little faith, lift up your hearts”, because when we debate the Bill there will be opportunities to improve it. I do not look on housing as one of those political issues that ought to divide the political parties. I have experience as a constituency Member of Parliament and, more than once, after having listened to my constituents in surgery, I went to my car and sat and cried. The conditions, forlornness and misery which had come across the table made me realise, if I did not already know, that housing and its quality, accessibility and nature, are the bedrock of a happy family. I therefore congratulate the Government on what they are doing in the Bill.
Like every Queen’s Speech, however, the value of the Bill is not necessarily what is in it but what is not. I shall touch on two aspects on which I hope that the Minister will give me encouragement in believing that change is possible. First, earlier tonight, I attended a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Park Home Owners. The Minister knows of my interest in and long service to that group. The House will be aware that, as an alternative means of tenure and lifestyle, park homes are a vital segment of housing provision. There are 1,600 park homes in the country and over 200,000 people live on them. They are therefore entitled to have their needs given consideration by the Government. The contribution of this Minister, who had direct responsibility for park homes, is deeply appreciated; a great deal of progress was made under her stewardship. Her departmental colleague Mr Iain Wright now carries the primary responsibility for park homes and has certainly impressed me with both his grasp of the issues and his determination to put them right.
The Minister will be aware that, while the majority of park homes are well managed, and the relationship between the owner and those who live on them is good, there are villains who own park homes. They terrorise the elderly, the frail and the disabled. They get away with murder because, despite the many opportunities which the Minister and her colleagues take to improve the situation, those owners ignore the law. They know that it is there but ride roughshod over it. We need a cheaper method of resolving disputes, which I believe will be coming shortly. Currently, the general answer is, “Well, if you are not satisfied, take the site owner to court”. That is a petrifying experience for those who might be elderly, frail and on their own, so the Government need a reminder that access to a cheap method of settling disputes of this kind by arbitration is sorely needed.
There are loopholes in the law, and I am sorry that we have been unable to introduce remedies in this Bill. The Minister quite fairly told me and others last year that it was not possible because there were so many other priorities. However, she gave us an indication that there might well be legislative opportunities in the not-too-distant future, so I would be glad to hear an assurance from the Minister—nothing specific—that, as and when opportunities occur, advantage will be taken of them.
I will spend a minute or two on the issue raised by my noble friend Lady Jones, who is not in her place. I was delighted that she touched on the issue of community land trusts. As they often say in the papers, this is an idea whose time has come. When the Bill was in another place, there was an attempt to make some progress. My noble friend Lady Jones touched on the nub of the issue: the need to legally clarify precisely what is meant by “a community land trust”. As the House knows, I am strongly attached to the co-operative movement, and co-operatives are very keen on exploring and exploiting this issue. Although the House will be in favour of all the good things in the Bill, there is a niggle. We want more affordable housing provision not only for individuals, landowners, councils and investors but for whole communities by helping to create a comparatively new vehicle for doing so.
As I understand the situation, community land trusts are a means of engaging communities in their sustainable development, in particular by increasing the provision of permanently affordable rented and intermediate market housing. We are indebted to a group attached to the University of Salford that is currently carrying out a review, supported by the Housing Corporation, of the national CLT characteristics. The purpose of a CLT is to hold land and other assets for the benefit of its defined local community. The CLT balances the needs and interests of the individual with the interests of the community as a whole by separating the value of the land from the value of the property on it. The CLT holds the land in perpetuity and leases it to the owners of the buildings on it, who may be individual home owners, mutuals, co-operatives or occupants of affordable rented housing. It is this community ownership and stewardship of the land assets that regulates the occupancy, limits the resale value of the homes built upon it and ensures that the housing built on it remains affordable to the community in perpetuity. What is wrong with that?
As the Minister knows, one of the things that has irked me for many years is the manner in which council housing was sold under the regime that brought it in in 1979. Nothing has irked me more than hearing colleagues on the other side of the Chamber bemoaning the fact that there is no affordable housing in their areas, particularly in rural areas. The reason why is that it has been sold under legislation and not replaced. The CLT attempts to keep the key to this, the land, in the ownership of the community. The community controls it. The Minister and her colleagues will do well if they accept an amendment I intend to table in order to help the Government and those who wish to use this weapon. I understand the reason why a suggestion was rejected in the other place was that it appeared to prescribe the powers and activity of the major agency. We can get round that. I will table an amendment with a form of words that will ask the Government to agree to a precise legal definition. It will not put the onus on the Government to do much more than that. I believe that it will be well received.
Community land trusts go back at least to the garden city movement. CLT arrangements in the USA and Australia have empowered communities to contribute to increasing the supply of housing to rent that will remain permanently affordable from one generation to the next. In the housing Green Paper of 2007, the Government stated their support for CLTs. The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have also done so, so I ought to be knocking at an open door. I am not putting cost or time on the Government; I am giving them a further weapon in their armoury.
Over the years when I was the leader of a council and chairman of a housing committee, by and large, housing was either privately owned or council owned—other ways were very limited. Now we have a range of ownerships and opportunities. In the Bill, a number of mechanisms will empower tenants to take a better interest and activity in their home. There can be no great prize for an individual who cannot afford to or does not want to buy but wants a stake in what is happening to his community and his home. The community land trust mechanism should be considered.
I conclude by congratulating the Minister on her courage, because it is not easy. As we have heard, and as my postbag has demonstrated, there are a lot of people who, for their own vested interest, object to what the Government are trying to do. I am not averse to examining some of those—nor, I believe, will the Minister be. At the end of the day, I hope that we can take housing out of the political maelstrom that it has been in for the past 20 or 30 years. This is a good opportunity and I congratulate the Minister and her colleagues on providing a Bill that I believe will be in the best interest not only of the country but of our communities.
My Lords, the Government are indeed to be congratulated on the Bill as a way to make homes more affordable and available. It is long overdue and will bring fairness back into the housing pool. Social housing is essential to satisfy the needs of poorer people in our communities and the Bill deals comprehensively with that issue. The Homes and Communities Agency follows in the footsteps of the urban regeneration agencies. As a former chair of Catalyst Corby, I saw at first hand the excellent work done by a URC, which has transformed the entire town of Corby from a rundown to a vibrant town.
I know that the HCA will draw on the experience of URCs. Outcomes are achieved by outstanding teamwork. All the key agencies—the Government, local government and voluntary organisations—came together in Corby to give unprecedented cohesion in planning and delivery of what is now virtually a new town. We were fortunate to gain the fullest support from local residents and, importantly, from the media. Everyone got behind the initiatives and we were doubly blessed to have Bob Lane as our chief executive and Phil Hope as our MP. I urge anyone involved in regeneration to take the train to beautiful north Northamptonshire and see Corby now, with 22,000 new homes being built, a wonderful new shopping centre, a new academy being built and stunning new recreational facilities coming into being. Possibly more crucial than anything else, a new passenger railway station is coming to fruition at long last. So, HCA, please take our lessons to heart in this regeneration game. We learnt some hard lessons early on and you can certainly gain from our experience.
I am taking a rather unusual route via the Bill to urge the Government radically to change the planning procedure in respect of existing local sports clubs seeking to regenerate and modernise their facilities. I hope to use Section 2 in Chapter 1, which states that the HCA objectives include securing the regeneration or development of land in the UK, clarifies the inclusion of social and recreational facilities and goes on to propose that the HCA has the power both to provide and repair infrastructure.
In making that case, I am indebted to both the Central Council for Physical Recreation and the Lawn Tennis Association. I have been working with those two organisations for the past eight years—at last we have an opportunity to express our views here tonight—to highlight the plight that is caused by planning guidelines to local authorities, which candidly are not fit for purpose.
I hope to give some examples of the problems, but first I remind noble Lords of the difficulties that arise and why they arise. I will use tennis clubs as my model, simply because I have been involved with dozens of them, and they have sought my help, for many years. Noble Lords should be assured that tennis clubs are not the only clubs caught in this planning maelstrom; all sports clubs that seek to upgrade their facilities fall foul of the same obstacle. This obstacle is the nimby—the neighbour who invariably lodges an objection to any upgrading, be it floodlighting, new playing surfaces or the improvement of social facilities in the clubhouses or pavilions. In many cases, the local planning authority recommends acceptance of the plan, but the local residents, who are powerful and often well resourced, combine to defeat their neighbouring club.
What is the significance? The situation is dire. Hundreds of tennis courts, in clubs and in public spaces, have been sold and built on in the past few decades. Successive Governments have rightly been pilloried for selling off playing fields. The problems that those same Governments have inflicted on clubs are far greater. Quite frankly, it has been scandalous. There must be change. The benefits of these clubs, which are often small and are in both urban and rural areas, are immeasurable. They tick virtually every box in the current social climate: sport for all ages, inclusiveness, active play in an age of obesity, the acquisition of skills for whole life and proximity—the list goes on and on. All that is provided in the main by volunteers who give up their time and expertise for free to a sport that they love. We slam the door in their faces.
I could give noble Lords chapter and verse on the miserable experiences of clubs up and down the country, but I shall give just one thumbnail sketch of the most recent club with which I became involved, just this month. I received an e-mail from Linda Faulkner, the secretary of Endon Tennis Club. I have never visited the club, nor do I know Linda, but her determination to fight for the club where she has played for 40 years is an object lesson in doggedness. Here is the Endon saga.
First, the club was established in 1920. There were no surrounding houses then, so anyone living in the houses either facing or backing on to the club knew that the club was there. The club is the only club in Staffordshire without floodlights and the only club to play in the top league without lights. It applied to the local authority for floodlighting in 1986, 2001, 2002, 2007 and 2008, with appeals in between. In 2001, it was refused on the grounds of light pollution by floodlights. In 2003, there were no objections to floodlights—the new technology had overcome that problem—but the application was turned down on the grounds of noise. In 2004, the club employed a specialist surveyor, who revealed that there was no substantial noise problem.
At the local council planning meeting in 2005, the councillors voted five to four in favour of the application. At that point, one of the objectors stood up and shouted that she was going to sue the council. The chairman then ordered the councillors to retire to discuss the issue further. They came back a short while later and voted six to four against. I know that this sounds like Zimbabwe and that we must remind ourselves that this is Staffordshire. Undaunted, the club reapplied in 2007. All was going well until the 11th hour, when an objector lodged another complaint that there were bats in the club grounds. There was more delay. The club spent £450 on research, which showed that there were no bats in the area.
But last week there was triumph and planning permission was granted—but at what cost in terms of effort and exasperation? There were eight years of grossly unfair treatment in the local planning procedure, which was shown to be completely inept. How can we make sure that the planning guidelines are modernised? It is imperative that we do so. Looking at the Olympics and its legacy, can we justify not supporting clubs for which the legacy of the promotion of sport is being so cruelly denied?
Finally, I went to Goring-on-Thames yesterday for the Goring Tennis Club’s 40th birthday party. I went as the president of the Oxfordshire Lawn Tennis Association. It is everything that you would hope for in a club. It is lively and fun and it encompasses all age groups and skilful players, who are very proud of their club. When I asked about their plans for future projects, they said that they feared that they would never get planning permission and so would not apply. That is a fact. For every Endon that sticks to its guns, hundreds of clubs do not even bother to apply, because they take the view that the likelihood of success is virtually nil. Such clubs will wither and fail because they will not attract the new generation, who expect more than the conditions that I remember starting out with, where the local tennis club had an Elsan lavatory in a wooden hut.
I look forward to the Minister’s reply. We are seeking better planning guidelines with fairness at their core. We want sagas such as that at the Endon club to be a thing of the past and the future to be positive and successful for all sportsmen and sportswomen at every club in the country. It is a real objective for regeneration. I hope that the Minister will give us some support and some hope for the clubs, which would make an excellent Bill even better.
My Lords, I, too, welcome what I perceive the Government are attempting to achieve in this Bill. The creation of the Homes and Communities Agency could have enormous potential and be a key delivery partner in building successful communities. The aspiration behind this legislation is laudable and presents enormous possibilities for the investment that will follow, particularly in some of our poorest communities. But, as a practitioner who has spent the past quarter of a century attempting to improve housing conditions and to regenerate local communities in some of the most deprived housing estates in Britain with some success, I know that the devil is always in the practical details. For example, giving tenants a vote laid down in statute about transfer seems very reasonable. But when you have watched the political knockabout in one estate that I know well, which resulted in a nine-year delay in new housing for very vulnerable families, you know that there are unintended consequences. I would encourage the Minister to look very carefully at this clause.
I fear that this Bill does not learn from what is working well on the ground and build on it. It seems to fly in the face of the modern enterprise culture that this Government have done so much to encourage. I am confused by much in this Bill and I look for a more balanced approach. I welcome the aspirations, but I am concerned about the practical consequences on the ground. The housing association movement was begun by the social entrepreneurs of their day who used their independence from the state to pioneer new and innovative ways of creating social housing.
In a small and specialist housing association where I was secretary 30 years ago, we pioneered high-quality social housing for people with drug-related problems. Alongside the accommodation we also developed a social programme for addicts, which pioneered new ways of working, and gained wide recognition nationally and internationally. Until the late 1980s, the first duty of the housing corporation was to promote housing associations. It is only in recent years that it has moved from promoting a new way of working to regulating and controlling.
This Bill takes this direction of travel to its next logical stage and, for me, it is a step too far—not that one is against some regulation. Some regulation has contributed to the success of housing associations. It is important in relation to the first-line service to tenants and to protect public investment. The Government are right to legislate to ensure a high quality of housing service for tenants. These are the core things that this legislation should be about.
In the USA, housing has often been the driver behind a great deal of social renewal and innovation. We have learnt from that approach in East London, and over the past nine years have successfully built with partners an award-winning £300 million housing company called Poplar HARCA, in which I must declare an interest as a founding director. The company is predicated on the idea of using the housing capital programme as a tool to stimulate a change in culture among tenants which is moving us all on from a culture of mediocrity and dependence on the state to one driven by enterprise, innovation and personal responsibility. Today, nine years on from a standing start, the housing company has taken over control of nearly 9,000 local authority housing units just a few hundred yards from the Olympic and Paralympic site, and has invested millions of pounds in development and refurbishment.
In one tenement block I visited in the early days run by the local authority before handover, I found three dead pigeons floating in the water tank. All of the regulators’ paperwork said that the water supply met health and safety standards, but the pigeons would have disagreed and the tenants had not noticed. Today this company is putting together a £1 billion development programme in the centre of the Lower Lea Valley. When you watch an East End mother chair the board meeting of a £300 million company with development proposals of this scale in front of her, with the full support and respect of all the other company directors and professionals around the table, you know that something very important is going on.
My concern is that the Bill is travelling in exactly the opposite direction to those of us who are delivering successful change on the ground in East London, and is in danger of missing an opportunity to see housing as a core enabler of entrepreneurial regeneration. This legislation embodies precisely the wrong approach needed in the modern world. It needs to look up the telescope, not down it. It needs to ask how we are going to replicate and develop the work of the most successful housing and regeneration agencies in the country, not how we are going to make Whitehall civil servants sleep more easily in their beds.
The Bill paves the way for the spending of a great deal of public money on housing and regeneration in the coming years, and I welcome that investment. But surely the key question is: will this money bring the added value of greater personal responsibility and a spirit of enterprise, and will it be well spent or another missed opportunity by a Government who sometimes seem unable to break free of the desire for central control and a continuation of the dependency culture? Will it make the job of those of us who are seeking to innovate and enable residents to take more local control of their destinies easier or harder? I fear that it will make it harder for us in East London. This Bill refuses to let go of the view that government know best. One lawyer with many years of experience in housing and health told me that this Bill looked to him a lot like the National Health Service Act 1948. It did not really encourage innovation but instead put in place the centralised control of all existing structures. At a time when other government programmes have recognised that we now live in an enterprise culture and are opening the doors and windows to allow in the fresh air of business and enterprise skills into health and education, this Bill seems to be closing some of them. Why is that? It is very confusing.
In St Paul’s Way in East London, I am bringing together a multimillion pound development with the local authority, the primary care trust and a local housing company. I declare an interest in this project. Together we will build a new school as part of the Building Schools for the Future initiative, a new integrated primary healthcare centre with a patient list among the largest in the country so far tendered, and 500 homes. The homes will be built by the housing company which will be subject to this legislation. What message am I to give to colleagues who have now committed to working together in partnership to open up new joined-up enterprise opportunities for local people? What is the message of central Government to us as we attempt to build an integrated partnership team and a new joined-up approach, when at any time under this Bill the Secretary of State could intervene to prevent or undermine the social innovation we are making? All this is happening 500 yards from Canary Wharf, a modern bastion of the enterprise culture emerging in East London.
I am tempted to give the Bill the title of “Back to the Future” because so much of it speaks of another decade and an earlier century. Of course, it does not have to be like this. The commitment of the Government, through the new agency, to spend billions of pounds of public moneys in the coming years is a fantastic opportunity to redefine and rebuild some of the poorest communities in Britain in a way that truly learns from some of the best joined-up ways of working and from some of the best practice that the Government have encouraged many of us to grow and develop. Imagine if the Bill actually put the wind behind the sails of some of the most successful housing and regeneration projects in the country and we really learnt from best practice. What are the possibilities and what would we suggest, from practical experience, that the agency should do? My four specific suggestions would be the following.
First, for any new housing or regeneration scheme to work and deliver change you have to identify a long-term leader in that community, perhaps a mayor-like figure, who embodies the change and who builds the team. In contrast, the Bill focuses on changing structures as a way to make a difference. I do not believe that. All my practical experience tells me that you can change structures as many times as you like but it will make little difference on the ground. You must first focus on people before structures and build teams of people that encourage trust, openness and honesty—essential prerequisites if complex partnerships are to work and these housing and regeneration schemes are to navigate the modern world in which we now live and deliver more housing in an increasingly bureaucratic world. The Bill is all about structures. I see little in it about creating environments which support people to develop the relationships that will ensure delivery. Big agencies are not necessarily able to deliver better.
The Government seem to want to look seriously at how you actually build new communities, new sustainable places in which people do not only live but also create a new culture in which they can take responsibility for their lives. But to do this, simply creating a new government structure is not enough. We have discovered that building new places is all about building human relationships. It is indeed about people before structures; the world of business knows this.
In this regard, I could not find a single reference in the Bill or the Explanatory Notes to “entrepreneur” or “innovation”, yet a key aim is to promote regeneration. What is more, there is only a passing reference to business. If the Government are serious about regeneration, then innovation, entrepreneurs and business are key components, yet they are missing from the Bill. This is the approach that gave us the Dome before business took control, rather than the approach which gave us the London Eye, which was driven by business entrepreneurs from the beginning.
I propose that for each new development the Government now request that an entrepreneurial leader with a track record be appointed and that business development, economic growth and supporting local social entrepreneurs are not optional additions but a key requirement. This is how you make places that are worth living in. In my experience, many large housing associations now lack this ability for entrepreneurial innovation. It will not be reintroduced by regulations created by the Bill.
My second suggestion is that if the Government are serious about innovation in housing and regeneration, then diversity not uniformity must be the name of the game. It must be about responding to local needs and opportunities. To be genuinely innovative and entrepreneurial and to discover best practice, people need freedom to innovate in both housing development and social and economic projects. The Bill will ask people to walk through treacle, I fear; the regulation of non-housing activities may stifle it. Innovation needs flexibility.
Over the years at Poplar HARCA we have often fought against the Housing Corporation in order to create innovation and we were told that some of the services we were creating in the community were not permitted. Now we have innovated and demonstrated success we are told that they are the best thing ever and everyone is being told to do what we have done. There are some housing associations which need to be held to account for their failure to create communities rather than just building large impersonal housing estates. The Bill is in danger of stifling the innovation of the willing while corralling the unwilling rather than inspiring them.
Thirdly, the Bill could present us with an opportunity to move away from the public housing monocultures of the past and to invest in the creation of new places; new towns and areas that have both physical and social identity. The Bill does not recognise that there are different standards relevant to different places, down to a fine level of detail. There is no overarching right or wrong; it all depends on the context. Monocultures created by government just do not work; they create and drive human poverty. My noble friend Lord Best has written an excellent paper on the importance of place-making if we are to deal with the problems of some of our most challenging estates. Place-making is not just about having a leader, bringing people together or having a clear quality design concept. It is also about having a clear and rooted purpose and vision for the place.
Finally, I fear that the danger inherent in this legislation is that it attempts to give everyone 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.
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, 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. 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.
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.
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 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 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.
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 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 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.
A final concern is the lack of a level playing field between RSLs and commercial developers. This issue comes up again and again in housing and property development. I recently read that there will be a considerable subsidy in the direction of private developers through a two-year delay in their requirement to meet environmental standards. In the Bill, housing associations will have a more stringent regulatory framework for building and managing low-cost homes than private homebuilders will. This will inevitably put housing associations at a cost disadvantage in competitive bidding.
Several small measures are welcome. They may be small, but they are certainly not insignificant in this first attempt in 30 years to reform social housing. The support provided through family intervention tenancies is welcome, but there are further safeguards that I shall be seeking to ensure, whereby complete information is available to those families in advance of relinquishing their security of tenure. Likewise, the provisions that relate to Travellers and Gypsies, including securing their human rights, are welcome and long overdue, as the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, pointed out.
There are several other measures to be scrutinised. Overall, this is a timely Bill that has much potential. I look forward to contributing to its passage.
My Lords, I am slightly confused as to whether that was a Back-Bench contribution or a winding up speech, but it is now my turn. At the outset, I declare that for the past 10 years I have been a district councillor in Breckland in Norfolk and I am a private landlord.
We have had a good debate with many informed and interesting contributions from all sides of the House. The aspirations of the Bill are admirable and generally accepted by all. The devil is in the detail. When I realised that I would be involved in the Bill, I asked myself, “Why do we need it and what, after 11 years in power, are the Government trying to achieve?”. We are told that one of the Government’s main priorities is the provision of available and affordable housing. The conclusion must be that that objective, so far, has failed and there is a huge shortage in housing in urban and rural areas.
The Government want us to believe that because they talk about more and better housing and regeneration, they will deliver it. They have not done that so far. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, found the remarks of my honourable friend Grant Shapps to be bleak and destructive. I would say that things are bleak and grim. The Government have set themselves a challenging target of building 3 million new homes by 2020 and 250,000 new homes each year. Sadly, during their 11 years, they have built only a pitiful 145,000 houses per annum. Even the Conservatives managed 173,000 per annum during their 18 years of power. This is yet another example of the Government failing to meet their own targets.
If we delve a little deeper, the sad reality is depressing and bleak. In the past 11 years, councils have built on average just 4,000 council houses per annum. Last year the figure fell to 400. My noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith’s figures were lower. Perhaps I have been too generous. Housing associations, the Government’s preferred alternative for the provision of social housing, have managed on average only 22,000 new homes during the period. But demand for social housing by far exceeds this pitiful supply. The 2007 statistics reveal that there were 1.7 million applications filed on the waiting lists for social housing. The charity Shelter believes that nearly 4 million people in the UK are either homeless or live in temporary accommodation. Is it any wonder that these people are left with a feeling of total neglect? Some 130,000 children are homeless—double the figure of 10 years ago—most as a direct result of the lack of social housing.
It is likely that housing shortages will be further aggravated to the point of crisis by the present credit crunch. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester mentioned repossessions. There were some 27,000 last year and it is estimated that there will be some 45,000 this year—and goodness knows how many next year. Presumably those whose homes are repossessed will all need rehousing in social accommodation.
However, the bad news does not stop there. First-time buyers, who in the past have risked borrowing huge multiples of their earnings to get on to the property ladder, now cannot borrow and so will have to rely on the almost non-existent social housing sector. Therefore, the figure of 1.7 million on the waiting list for 2007 could be considerably higher for 2008-09—perhaps 2 million would be nearer the mark.
In addition, this acute shortage of housing is not helped by the announcement last week by Persimmon. I shall not go into any details but this company probably will not be the last to take this view. My noble friend Lord Patten talked about the “Persimmon pause” and estimated that during 2008-09 only just over 100,000 new homes would be built. During that time, he argued, we should concentrate on how to achieve better designed homes, perhaps with the use of design review panels. I hope that the Minister will reply to his interesting ideas.
Surely it is time to stop developers picking the same poorly designed houses from their catalogues and building the same houses in East Anglia, the West Country and the north of England with no regard to local design and materials. It is high time that we, the developers and planners listened to these arguments. Therefore, from this Front Bench I agree 100 per cent with the views of our Back-Bench contributors. It did not surprise me that the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, followed this theme, as he initiated a debate on design only a few weeks ago.
This chronic shortage in social housing is not unique to urban areas. The noble Baroness, Lady Dean, argued that rural housing must not be forgotten. Indeed, back in 2003 the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, issuing a report entitled Sustainable Communities: Building for the Future, acknowledged that the,
“availability of housing, especially social and other affordable housing, is a critical issue in many rural areas ... Rural housing is often in high demand from in-comers—long distance commuters, people moving in to retire, and owners of second homes and holiday homes. This can squeeze out local people on lower incomes”.
That neatly sums up the problem that we find in Norfolk. Ten years ago, my district’s population was 100,000; it is now nearer 150,000. However, in spite of meeting the building targets, the waiting list for housing continues to grow, and I am sure that we are not alone. The new build that has taken place has not been going to those most in need—that is, local people needing affordable housing. Noble Lords will recall my noble friend’s remarks. He said that only 5 per cent of housing in villages is social housing, while the national average is 23 per cent. That means that people find it difficult or impossible to remain in the communities where they grew up.
I know that this will not happen but, given the Government’s current record on housebuilding, if every new house built for the next 10 years was only social housing, the backlog of demand would still not be satisfied. It is against this depressing, grim and bleak backdrop that the Bill comes before the House.
The Homes and Communities Agency’s role has been described by government as a one-stop delivery partner for local authorities which will provide essential support and help to local councils to deliver on housebuilding targets. The creation of the HCA is generally welcomed on the grounds that it makes sense to replace the current multiple overlapping agencies with a single delivery partner for local government. There are, however, serious concerns about the relationship between the HCA and local authorities, as many speakers have said, and fears that, like other regional bodies, the new agency risks taking power away from elected local authorities and giving it to an unaccountable body.
Some have said that the Bill creates a top-down, centrally driven approach to development and regeneration, while local people in their communities are having their powers stripped away. The Local Government Association is concerned that the HCA should not impose its own vision on local authorities but should work in partnership with them to deliver their pre-existing vision for their communities. I ask the Minister, when summing up, to explain how the Government envisage the HCA working with local authorities and under what circumstances she envisages the HCA exercising its draconian powers, given that it will be able to do anything it considers appropriate for the purposes of its objects.
The Bill allows much more power to be transferred to the HCA than was granted to English Partnerships and I have no doubt that there will be much debate on that as the Bill proceeds through the House. The Bill also includes provision to improve the availability of environmentally friendly housing by changing powers on establishing new settlements to allow low carbon eco-towns to be built more quickly. Although it is not a wholly new power for the Secretary of State to designate the HCA as a local planning authority, there are fears that it will be used much more in the future as the Government seek to facilitate the rapid development of eco-towns. There are concerns that councils, as the democratically elected local planning authorities, should not lose their powers to take the lead on the creation and location of eco-towns. Can the Minister say which organisations will be represented on the board of the HCA to ensure adequate input in decision-making? Here I have in mind the Local Government Association and housing associations. Perhaps she can enlighten us. The same question applies to the board of Oftenant.
I now turn to Oftenant, with its brief to protect and to promote the interests of tenants and board accountability. Interestingly, the National Housing Federation does not believe that Oftenant will protect and promote the interests of tenants, as it will operate on the basis that it, Oftenant, not the tenants, knows best. Housing associations will be required to comply with Oftenant’s rules, even if that goes against the wishes of the tenants. Surely, the whole point of Oftenant is to reinforce the wishes and interests of its tenants.
The noble Lord, Lord Filkin, made some good points on monopolies of social housing landlords, the lack of choice for tenants, their ability to change landlord and the need for tenant choice and empowerment. No doubt we shall debate that. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Smith, that tenants should have better protection against retaliatory evictions. I am sure we shall consider that. The Cave report recommended that a new independent regulator should protect all social housing tenants, including council and ALMO tenants. The Local Government Association supports this recommendation, as do the noble Lords, Lord Best and Lord Whitty, and a number of others. It also believes that Oftenant should protect all tenants now rather than needing further legislation in two or three years’ time, or at any rate, that it should find some mechanism to include them at this stage. Can the Minister say why the Bill excludes council and ALMO tenants, thereby neglecting to give them the same protection that their housing association neighbours will receive? That is not only unfair but morally questionable.
On the timetable of the implementation of sustainability certificates, which is not set out in the Bill, does the Minister agree that it is important to give the industry clarity? Has a timetable for implementation been agreed? Given the botched fiasco of the implementation of the home information packs, what assurances can the Minister give that there will be no repeat of that when the Government come to implement sustainability certificates for new homes? While on HIPs, we were promised a report on their assessment and effectiveness before phase 2 was implemented. This has never been produced and, in typical fashion, the Government rolled out phase 2 anyway. Can the Minister say when we can expect that report?
The Government talk a good talk on meeting the aspirations of first-time buyers, but have done more than any other Government to build roadblocks to home ownership, including restricting the right to buy, ramping up stamp duty, driving up council tax and, now, introducing new costs with HIPs. When are the Government going to bring down these barriers? Do they realise that the more one encourages home ownership, the more pressure one releases from the ever increasing waiting lists for social housing?
The situation is not helped by the Government now taking 75 per cent of money raised from each right-to-buy sale from local authorities. This has dramatically reduced the capital receipts that councils can use to build more homes. Given the Government’s penchant for pinching Conservative policies, let me give them one for free: increase the stamp duty threshold for first-time buyers to £250,000 so that nine out of 10 first-time buyers will pay nothing.
Astonishingly, there were nearly 400 government amendments to the Bill when it was going through the other place, with no time to examine and debate the details properly. If I were charitable, like the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, I might say that the Government had listened to the arguments. If I were not, I would say that it was because the Bill was badly drafted and thought out. The answer probably lies somewhere in between. I am sure that the House will want to debate all the issues fully when the Bill comes to Committee.
My Lords, it has been a thoroughly excellent debate. I congratulate everyone who has taken part in it. A wealth of experience has been demonstrated across the House, and I would expect no less. I start by saying how grateful I am for the welcome that the Bill has received from all over the House, and how much I look forward to Committee. Many issues have been raised this afternoon, and I know that we will have a good debate in Committee.
First, I say to the noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, that the Bill is in good shape. We listened hard in the other place, which means that we can concentrate on the outstanding issues in this House. I have no doubt, from the range of—not least opportunistic—recommendations and the opportunities identified, that we will have a broad debate in Committee.
I was very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Best, for identifying the list of stakeholders and their arguments, but pointing out that they all want the Bill. That is perfectly clear. I advise noble Lords—and I do not mean to be presumptuous in saying this—that it is always wise to think of that as lobbying material. There is a broad context to the arguments in lobbying material. I was grateful for the comments of my noble friend Lady Ford on the appetite for what we are trying to do for stakeholders across housing. We have had various forms of evidence this evening, suggesting to me that the Bill is indeed welcome. Of course we will debate the detail, as we must.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester talked about the importance of asking ourselves what causes communities to flourish. We should keep that question in our minds as we debate the Bill. I will talk about purposes rather than processes in winding up, and noble Lords will forgive me if I cannot answer their many excellent but detailed questions. One of the purposes is to bring together all those elements, agencies and funding streams which make up a community, and which we have seen in the work we have done in growth areas and regeneration situations. You need it all; you need the infrastructure, the land and the leadership. I did not recognise what the noble Lord, Lord Mawson, said about the Bill; I will come back to that. You also need the ability to work as a team across all these elements—that is what the Homes and Communities Agency gives us for the first time—to draw on the expertise of people such as the noble Lord, Lord Mawson. I hope he will have the opportunity to talk to Sir Bob Kerslake because nothing could be nearer the sort of vision that Bob Kerslake is offering than drawing on the genuine expertise that is derived across this area.
We are now in a situation where we have a clear set of objectives. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked whether I can give assurances that there will not be a destructive and protracted process. I can assure her of that. A tasking framework and a business plan are in place that set out very clearly the processes that are being gone through and that will have to be gone through. I again pay tribute to the leadership of Sir Bob Kerslake, as everybody has done, because not only does he come out of local government and is so successful that he knows what works, but he knows how to manage change. That will drive this in as speedy and efficient fashion as possible.
The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, asked about Wales. I can assure him that officials have agreed provisions with our Welsh counterparts and they continue to be in close contact with them, so I do not think he should worry about that.
I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Mawson, and my noble friend Lord Sawyer were right when they talked about the need not for structural change but for cultural change. However, I hope I have made the case that we need the structural change in the single agency in order to bring cultural change, bring people together and find new ways of working. I am sure that that cultural change will be delivered.
We had a discussion about why the market cannot provide in this way. The noble Lord, Lord Best, and my noble friends Lord Morris and Lady Jones paid tribute to that, but we also had serious comment from noble Lords about the nature of the situation in the market. Noble Lords were right to do so. It is precisely because we are facing a different situation that we need a Homes and Communities Agency that can deliver not just the existing programmes of the housing corporations and EP but the flexibility to be able to have different approaches in different areas to meet different needs, which is the key to delivering in a period of uncertainty. It is obvious that the HCA would want to prepare to deal with the present situation as flexibly and imaginatively as possible and to prepare for a market upturn by putting together the key infrastructure, the key site assembly decisions and the capacity of local authorities so that we will be ready when the situation changes.
I share noble Lords’ admiration for the role of the RSLs. They are right to draw attention to it. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, raised a few issues about governance. All I would say is that there is a distinction between strategic development. On CLG, the Government continue to lead on strategic policy, but the HCA will be the delivery support and engagement authority. That is how it will work.
Noble Lords—the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, in particular but also the noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, in his wind-up—asked about powers. This is an important area. With powers come relationships, particularly relationships with local authorities. The powers of the HCA are wide because the task is wide. I believe the objectives that we have already expanded upon in another place meet the task before us. Because the objectives are wider, the powers we are taking—in relation to planning they are inherited powers—will be wider, too. Let me give the sort of assurances that were given time and again in another place by Ministers that the powers that we have taken are exceptional. They will be exceptional in use and will be governed by the Secretary of State’s involvement. We will be in discussion with local authorities on the very rare occasions when the HCA needs to take planning powers. The critical thing will be consultation with local authorities first. I can certainly give that assurance. They will be used only in very rare circumstances. It is probable that, as they have been used very rarely in the past, they will be used to deliver complex regeneration projects.
I turn to relationships with local authorities, which goes to the heart of much of what the HCA will be able to achieve. The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Leigh, and many noble Lords addressed the issue of the HCA’s regional and local responsibilities. The HCA sits within the planning system. Nothing that the HCA will do will be outside the planning system. Its relationships with the regions—the regional spatial economic strategies, the future single regional strategies and local development plans and frameworks—will be crucial. Of course, it is a national agency, but the key to success will lie in its ability actively to collaborate at regional and local levels. It will be a bridge between the delivery of national targets and the realisation of local ambitions. It cannot be remote—to address the question raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, it cannot be a monoculture. There is too much diversity locally for it even to begin to be a monoculture. That diversity will be reflected in how it works.
On its relationship with local authorities, we are in the process of drafting a concordat document, similar to the one that sets out the relationship between central government and local authorities, which will establish the relationship between the agency and local authorities. The concordat will set out how we expect the agency to operate with local authorities. Of course, we have special arrangements for London. My noble friend Lady Dean said that it will be a partner authority for the purpose of local area agreements and multi-area agreements. That is exactly what it will be—a partner authority. That will be key to its success. Everyone is well aware of that.
I turn to some of the questions raised. The noble Lord, Lord Mawson, asked about regeneration capacity. We have experience of regeneration—not quite his experience, but in the HCA we now have an opportunity to bring our best experience of regeneration together. We will do that not only in urban but in rural areas. I say to my noble friend Lady Dean that, as she knows, rural housing is a very important aspect of the Government’s plans. I am telling her what she knows here but, traditionally, we set Housing Corporation targets to reflect rural as well as urban aspirations and needs, and that will continue. We indeed have some very specific challenges in rural areas, but our ability to bring people and agencies together to consider the rural situation will be more powerful and more focused.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester asked about eco-towns. We are not forcing eco-towns on communities; there was an invitation process. However, I listened hard to what he said. We will ensure that growth is taken forward sustainably. We have powers in the HCA to deal with infrastructure, which is essential if we are to deliver proper communities. Clearly, there is an active debate around the whole issue of eco-towns and the Government are listening.
On the speeches made by my noble friend Lord Howarth—who gave a tour de force of the issues about design and quality, especially his emphasis on the term “beauty”—my noble friend Lady Whitaker and the noble Lord, Lord Patten, we had an excellent debate the other day on architectural design and quality. This debate had echoes of it. I know that noble Lords are asking me to strengthen part of the Bill in that respect. We are listening hard. I take the point about design-review panels. We will look in all the ways in which we can to strengthen the already vast range of opportunities, incentives and requirements. Quality in the terms of our objective means designers, but we will go on listening to this debate.
The same applies to accessibility in lifetime homes, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, referred. We have made a lot of progress in establishing a timetable for lifetime homes and public housing and a timetable of 2013 for all housing. We have now established a proper dialogue with industry and we will help it to achieve progress, but we will have no problem regulating if it does not make enough progress. However, by making lifetime homes such an important aspect of our work, not only in relation to ageing but for all of us, we will be in a much stronger position to make the sort of adaptations that we want for people who are in wheelchairs, for example. I will think more about what the noble Baroness said about how we can ensure in policy in general that we pick up that important point.
On villages and allotments, we have strong and specific legislation on allotments, as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, well knows. We know, because the allotment societies tell me—I meet all of them—that we have enough legislation but that it is probably not implemented systematically in some places. We have therefore put out guidance rather than looked again at what the law might do because that is not the point. On the noble Baroness’s general question, the Bill does not change the current position on the protection of green spaces, open spaces and allotments. I can give her that assurance because I think she thought that Schedule 3 in some ways weakened that provision. It does not.
My noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton talked about community land trusts. I am sure he will know that we are sympathetic and that we continue to provide support to the University of Salford’s pilots. We will support such support in principle, but I look forward to any further debate which he provokes if he makes any attempt to improve the Bill, as he would see it, in that respect.
Likewise, on park homes, my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State with responsibility for housing announced in a debate on 27 March that we are committed to reviewing the existing system of licensing park homes and that we will publish a consultation paper later.
I shall move swiftly to Part 2 and to the point about regulation, which is obviously as important. Many noble Lords addressed the problem of the domain and why we are excluding local government and the private rented sector. These are good questions. On local government tenants, all I can say is what I have already said; we are fully committed to it. We have made a pledge that we will include local authorities within two years. The private rented sector is a very different and problematic area—no one knows this better than the noble Lord, Lord Best—but the work that is being done by Julie Rugg is fundamental. It looks at a whole range of issues, and I feel fairly confident that we will come out at the end of that with a set of proposals.
On the point made by my noble friend Lord Smith about retaliatory eviction, Julie Rugg’s review was almost prompted by the cases that were brought by the CAB, so she will obviously look at that issue, which I agree with him is very serious.
There was much debate, powerfully led by my noble friend Lord Filkin, on the position of tenants and the question of choice. I do not agree, I am afraid. The provisions for tenants and choice are very powerful. The point about the regulator—Cave rightly identified the absence of choice as a reason for regulation—is that we want a dynamic market in housing management. We aim to achieve it through the Bill. The regulator’s objective is to promote choice, and the registration of a wider range of providers will extend choice. But the Bill has the fundamental objective—objective 3—of involving tenants for the first time. I hope that that will address some of the anxieties of the noble Baroness on the Liberal Democrat Benches who spoke about that.
Clause 202 requires the regulator to provide information on the performance of providers. I am sure that we will have lively debates on the nature of that information. The Bill provides for the greater ability of the regulator to require providers to contract out management following an inquiry. We certainly have a set of propositions to debate in detail in Committee. My noble friends Lord Morris and Lady Jones raised non-housing activity. Essentially, regulators can set standards for non-housing activities, but they will need to be connected to social housing. The regulator should not seek to stifle innovation, which is the opposite of what we want. The issue of non-housing activity is quite complex.
My noble friend Lord Whitty raised a set of issues, including the duty to engage with tenants. I say to him and to my noble friend Lord Filkin that we are listening hard to what is said about the issues that they raise. I am glad that my noble friend Lord Whitty welcomed the change to tenant ballots, but I am not surprised that he is not entirely satisfied with it. I look forward to further debate with him on the nature of information; we always listen closely to his concerns. On the HRA subsidy, the HRA review will look at a wide range of those issues.
To conclude, listening and responding to tenants will be at the heart of the culture of the regulator. Listening and responding is what we do. My noble friend Lady Billingham talked about regeneration. With her enormous experience, she spoke about sport and leisure essentially being two of the most important factors for driving regeneration. The experience of Corby is outstanding in that respect. The problems that she raised about the ability of the planning system to respond to what she wants to see are known to me and I am sure that we will have an active debate on that. It is part of our approach to making the community more vibrant, more resilient and well provided for.
Listening and responding to tenants is at the heart of the culture of the regulator and at the heart of this Bill. For the first time, housing association tenants will know what they have a right to in terms of standards of accommodation and the quality of their homes. They will know when those standards have been breached and what action has been taken, which takes us a long way forward from the situation that we have had in the past.
There will be much to discuss on the detail. I am sure that the amendments that come forward will be creative and thoughtful. It will be a pleasure to engage in that debate. For the moment, I thank everyone who has spoken. I am grateful for the welcome that has been given, not least to those provisions at the back of the Bill about Gypsies and Travellers, the Armed Forces and the important changes in the HRA system, on which I am quite sure that we will have separate, but very good, debates. I commend the Bill to the House and I look forward to the next stage.
On Question, Bill read a second time.