Housing Association Transfer Ballots

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:46 pm on 6 March 2015.

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Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons 2:46, 6 March 2015

I congratulate Jim Fitzpatrick on securing this debate. I thank him for providing the notes for his speech so that I will, I hope, be able to respond directly to the points that has raised, albeit perhaps not with the answers that he is hoping for. If he feels at the end of the debate that there are points that I have not addressed, I will be happy to ensure that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Stephen Williams, who apologises for not being here, provides a written response.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for highlighting the work that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change is doing with him in relation to leaseholders. I think all Members of Parliament will be aware of the difficulties that leaseholders often face, so we would all welcome any reform that can come through that work.

The hon. Gentleman drew attention to the decent homes initiative, which was initiated by his party in government. That was a good, sound programme. Rightly, however, he noted that in its initial stages it may have meant that the building of new properties was not taking place. We are all trying to catch up with that now. It was certainly a very important programme. In my borough, it is still ongoing. As part of that, there is lots of scaffolding up on the St Helier estate to provide new roofs.

The hon. Gentleman touched on affordable housing. I think we are in agreement about that. Unfortunately, I am underwhelmed by what the Mayor has achieved in that respect in London. Relatively few properties have been built, and there is clearly a strong demand for that.

The hon. Gentleman rightly focused this debate on the significant issue of whether tenants have the right to throw out their housing association. I will give him a very clear response to that shortly.

I agree that we need to build more homes and fix the housing market. The Government’s measures on the economy are part of that. In ensuring that the economy is working, we are getting the investment that is needed into the housing market and keeping interest rates down for home buyers. The situation is starting to turn round. Since 2010, over half a million homes have been built, and there are now 700,000 more homes in England than in 2009. I am pleased to say that house building is now at its highest level since 2007. We have recovered from the crash, in terms of house building.

The hon. Gentleman referred to stock transfers, which have played an important role in providing investment in housing stock. As a result of the transfers that have taken place in his borough and elsewhere, transformations have been carried out, improving local communities and quality of life for tenants.

Since 1988, about 1.3 million former council homes have been transferred to the ownership of housing associations. That has enabled billions of pounds of investment in bringing homes up to a decent standard. It has also supported the delivery of thousands of new affordable homes by the newly created housing associations, although I agree with the hon. Gentleman that that is not enough. There is a cross-party consensus—I think it will be identified in all the party manifestos—that there is a need to do something about housing, particularly affordable housing. Every party—my party, the hon. Gentleman’s party and the Conservative party—has set out what it wants to achieve.

The hon. Gentleman made specific reference to part 2, chapter 7 of the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008, under which enforcement powers are open to the Homes and Communities Agency regulator to use in dealing with a failing or failed provider. They are not open to tenants. In the housing association sector, however, tenants’ rights are protected through a range of mechanisms.

That leads me to the points the hon. Gentleman made about the abolition of the Tenant Services Authority and the role of the HCA regulator. The enactment of the Localism Act 2011 abolished the TSA and transferred its remaining functions to the HCA. It also significantly scaled back the regulator’s role in the proactive monitoring and enforcement of consumer protection standards. The rationale for that is that the vast majority of landlord-tenant issues are locally based. They are most effectively resolved at a local level by tenants and their representatives, not by a national regulator.

The Act gave back to tenants and their representatives the power to hold landlords to account, giving MPs, councillors and recognised tenant panels a formal role in resolving complaints at a local level. That can include referring complaints to the housing ombudsman if they cannot be resolved locally. The housing ombudsman, and the tenants themselves, can, of course, raise specific concerns with the HCA regulator. The regulator does not have powers to mediate in or resolve individual cases, but will investigate where there is evidence of serious detriment and, in extremis, have far-reaching powers to intervene where there is evidence of serious mismanagement. The regulator has the powers to initiate a statutory inquiry if it feels that to be necessary, and that can lead to muscular interventions in the housing association management structures or to forced mergers or takeovers where the boards are not fit for purpose. I am glad to say that the regulator rarely needs to use such powers.

I now turn to the hon. Gentleman’s specific question about One Housing Group and sacking housing associations. I am afraid that, as his legal advice suggests, there are no powers available for tenants to sack or fire their housing associations. Clearly, I do not wish to underestimate the impact felt by the individuals whose lives are affected by mergers of the members of One

Housing Group, or what they may see as very real grievances. However, it would not be appropriate for the Government to intervene in individual cases of this nature.

The Localism Act placed the power to scrutinise landlords’ performance and hold them to account back in the hands of tenants and their elected representatives. Where the ombudsman finds in favour of a complainant, it may order the landlord to pay compensation or take other steps to provide redress. I should make it clear, however, that the role of the Ombudsman is focused on the provision of housing services by landlords. Its role does not extend to constitutional changes within housing associations.

On affordable housing supply, overall this Government’s approach to the sector has been appropriate and is delivering results. Despite the fiscal constraints, we have secured capital resources for affordable housing. Almost 217,000 affordable homes have been delivered in England since April 2010. In comparison—the hon. Gentleman may have referred to these figures himself—under the previous Administration the number of social rented homes fell by 420,000 between 1997 and 2010.

With £19.5 billion of public and private investment, our affordable homes programme is on track to deliver 170,000 new affordable homes between 2011 and 2015, and more than 144,000 homes have already been delivered. Another £38 billion of public and private investment will help ensure that 275,000 more new affordable homes are provided between 2015 and 2020. I hope that all parties and future Governments will sign up to that. It means that over the next Parliament we will build more new affordable homes than during any equivalent period in the past 20 years.

I have directly addressed the hon. Gentleman’s specific question and I am afraid that the answer is no. I will conclude by encouraging him to contact me again if he feels I have not addressed any of his points adequately.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.