Housing and Regeneration Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:16 pm on 28th April 2008.

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Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Labour 9:16 pm, 28th April 2008

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 counter-allegation 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.