New Clause

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 7:30 pm on 21st July 2008.

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Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning), Co-Chair, Conservative Party 7:30 pm, 21st July 2008

Again, I broadly welcome this group of amendments, despite the fact that they come too thick and fast, and too late in the process for the liking of Conservatives. The Minister will be interested to learn that we did not object to the idea that the office for social tenants and landlords might be known as Oftenant, rather than the Tenant Services Authority, which for some reason does not roll off the tongue so easily. He decided on his own to make an amendment to the name.

On the substance, we had a long debate in Committee on the cross-domain regulation of Oftenant or whatever its new name; it has not been born yet, but already its name has been changed. It was strongly felt on both sides of the House that the idea of having a regulator that regulated only registered social landlords and did not regulate other social landlords, including local authorities, made nonsense of the purpose of providing fair regulation across the social sector. I welcome the Minister's U-turn. He mentioned in response to the previous group of amendments that I had forgotten to welcome some of them, but I do welcome them, because U-turns are nearly always welcome in this regard.

It was curious that we could not get these changes in direction a little earlier, because all the way through the passage of the Bill there has been a compelling case for doing all this at one time. I do not accept the Minister's arguments that it would be as complicated, or even more complicated, to describe these things in the primary legislation because lots of complicated secondary legislation would be required; such an approach clearly has to be more straightforward than introducing an entirely new Bill to provide exactly the same circumstances—the single regulator, whatever its name—across all social housing. Council tenants deserve nothing less than such provision; there is no reason to separate this into two. I am made to wonder what the Government will now do, given that they have announced a pre-Queen's Speech legislative programme in which they will legislate on this matter. Presumably, there will be one fewer piece of legislation or a gap in the programme—I am not sure which. I welcome the U-turn, although it could have come a little sooner. That would have allowed us a little more time to debate it, but, as I say, I think that both sides of the House agree on the measure.

There is also significant agreement on the welcome inclusion of a legal definition of community land trusts. I know that the Minister is aware of my interest in this subject. I had the pleasure of visiting a CLT self-build in Rock in Cornwall, about which I have spoken in this House previously. I found a community that was building its own homes; it was a do-it-yourself community land trust—a DIY CLT, to add more initials to this already complicated area. These individuals were leaving work at 5 pm and going to the CLT to build their own homes. I went there thinking that perhaps they had commissioned architects to build the homes for them using all the best principles, but they were physically constructing their own homes on evenings and at weekends.

The No.1 problem that those soon-to-be residents of the CLT had was that nobody in the finance world understood who they were and what they were trying to do, so for a long time—a year, in fact—they had battled to try to secure the finances for this thing called a CLT. Despite the fact that the financial institutions had an RSL helping them with the process, they simply could not get it into their minds where this fitted into the housing regime. When I put these points to the Minister on Report and, perhaps less forcefully, in Committee, he clearly told me that defining a CLT would add to the list principle that he most strongly rejected at the time—he has since changed his mind on that.

That practical example alone, as well as contact with many others who are now attempting to start their own CLT, convinced me that a legal definition, a framework, put in place by this House, which would help those who want to pursue the ultimate goal of a community based around the concept that people could live on a piece of land that would stay in common ownership in perpetuity to the benefit of those who came after them, has to be a good one.

The principle that land tends to be such a vast amount of the cost of any housing, even after a housing downturn, means that it must be right for this place to legislate a framework, a description, of what a CLT might mean in reality, and enable it, for example, to describe itself on a local basis. It is a classic example of what might be described as an enabling piece of legislation by Parliament, which can then be interpreted in the best possible way for the local community. I simply mean by that that the clause, which I am pleased to see is largely as we proposed it in Committee and now accepted by the Minister, will allow people locally to decide their own rules for the CLT. For example, it might include a commitment that the houses in the trust would remain for the use of people with local connections. Thus, in Rock in Cornwall, where it is now phenomenally expensive for someone brought up there to move into a house—a situation that is reflected in various parts of the country—the CLT might say in its local rules that the housing must always go to somebody who was either born there or had a strong connection with the area, or whatever other criteria it wishes to put in place.

I welcome this national framework, matched with sensible localised rules, which means that CLTs will be accelerated in years to come. I look forward to working with the Minister, perhaps even going on a joint visit to one of the pilot schemes that has been set up in his constituency in Hartlepool to see these in action. In our desire to solve Britain's housing crisis, CLTs could point the way forward. I welcome the measure in particular because his response in Committee was so discouraging and demoralising. When I proposed a clause that was almost identical to the one now in the Bill, the Minister said that did not want to prescribe too overtly the various mechanisms by which the Homes and Communities Agency might help to deliver housing. He was also concerned about the future-proofing of such legislation. The Committee divided on the amendment, which was negatived, so I welcome the change of heart. I will be delighted to work with him to ensure that CLTs help to become the solution to the nation's problem—to move from the test-bed and into reality, on a scale that is large enough to make a significant difference to communities throughout Britain who would greatly appreciate the outcome.

The Minister talked about tenant empowerment and, broadly speaking, I welcome and agree with some of the changes, which may not go far enough, but I respect the fact that we do not have the time this evening to get into the detail that was possible in Committee. [Interruption.] The Minister says that we do, but unfortunately we do not because the programme motion on which we divided gives us only until a certain hour. None the less, I do not want to be churlish and it should be said that the addition of greater tenant empowerment is to be welcomed. Of course it must be right that tenants play an active part in the way in which their communities and housing is run. Of course, almost by definition, the quality of housing must be improved when one allows the very people who have most to gain from good housing to be actively involved in its management. Therefore, these are welcome amendments, which we support.

Enforcement and control of the registered social landlords is yet another area covered by these many amendments where there has been a move in the right direction. I well remember the shock and concern of RSLs, as expressed through the National Housing Federation. They were running around frightened that the Bill would, perhaps even inadvertently, have the effect of partially nationalising a charitable element of housing by producing so much ministerial and state control over the RSLs that they ceased to operate freely, external to Government organisations. That concern was not just my own. I am sure that Treasury Ministers must have shared the concern that £35 billion or £38 billion of debt could end up on the Government's balance sheet at a time when I am certain that, for reasons of economic downturn and perhaps competence or otherwise, it would not have gone down well in No. 11 Downing street.

The Minister quite bravely argued at an earlier stage that it was not necessary to water down the aspects of the Bill that dealt with the potential control of RSLs by the Secretary of State. But, again, I am pleased to see the amendments, without which we would end up in a situation where the flexibility, the entrepreneurship, the dynamic that makes housing associations work in providing housing would have been to some extent, or perhaps to a great extent, choked off, unintentionally or otherwise, by the Bill. Therefore I welcome the changes.

I also welcome the realisation that if the Secretary of State was to ensure that appeals all went to the highest court in the land, the system would be snarled up to such an extent that it would be unworkable. The fact that a first-tier tribunal could be provided as a way of transferring responsibility from the Secretary of State for such decisions is to be greatly welcomed.

These are all good common-sense amendments to the Bill, which the Opposition welcome, not least because more than one of them were proposed by us and voted against by the Government. However, it is a pity to have literally had to reach the last hour or two of the Bill before having the opportunity to reflect on the changes. I say again to the Minister that better drafting, more thought, less dithering, or whatever it takes to have the right measures put in place early on, would have meant that this House and Parliament in general would have had a better opportunity to scrutinise the legislation and make it better for everyone who will rely on it.

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