Third Reading

Part of Deregulation Bill – in the House of Lords at 6:45 pm on 4th March 2015.

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Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) 6:45 pm, 4th March 2015

My Lords, we are discussing short-term lets, and it is perhaps ironic that we have had a long-term slot when it comes to issues of deregulation. We are talking about London, and people have talked about London specifically. Let me put it into context as someone who was born in London, educated in London, worked in London, lived in London and represented a London council. Unlike my noble friend, who has had a very distinguished career in the London Borough of Sutton, I had the honour and privilege to serve in the London Borough of Merton, which, as we all know, hosts the great event that we know as Wimbledon. Therefore, it is my great honour also to carry it in my title. Perhaps there are people in Wimbledon who currently let their properties on a short-term basis.

It is important that we respond not just to the challenges and concerns that have been expressed today, to which I will come specifically, but acknowledge that this is commonplace not just in inner London; it is experienced, perhaps with a different perspective, in other boroughs across our great capital.

Starting with the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, first, I put on record his broad support at least for the spirit and principle of what we are trying to achieve. In noting that, I thank him for his constructive discussions. We have not always agreed on the issues, as is clear from our debate on Third Reading thus far, but I have always found him to be someone with whom I can have a constructive and honest exchange. I put on record my deep thanks to all noble Lords with whom I have had meetings since I have taken over this ministerial responsibility, but particularly to my noble friends Lady Gardner, Lady Hanham and Lord Tope, who have always been courteous in their exchanges. To “courteous” I wish that I could add “uncritical”, but clearly they have had concerns, which they have expressed again today. However, I assure my noble friends and all noble Lords that I have taken that in the spirit that it has been well intentioned and reflects noble Lords’ experience in local government.

In talking about the amendments to government Amendment 4, the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, asked about this being an integrated group of amendments. We agree that we are treating these amendments as consequential.

The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, and my noble friend Lord Tope also raised issues about notifications to local authorities, as an addition to some elements that the Government have already introduced. Perhaps I may repeat something which have I shared with them at previous stages of the Bill’s passage: we believe that this would be a further burden on the person letting. It is not a restriction which applies elsewhere in England. Part of our principled stand on this is that we are seeking to bring London into line with other great cities around the country.

The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, and others including my noble friend Lady Gardner also raised the issue of two periods of 90 nights being allowed to run across calendar years. We recognise that it would be possible for 90-night periods to run continuously across the calendar years but we also think it right not to be overly prescriptive about when the 90 nights should take place in the year. I commend my noble friend Lady Shields for her contribution and I congratulate her. When you are standing in your Lordships’ House, there is always the great expertise in what others have expressed—not only others; I pay tribute to her own expertise in this field. She highlighted what numbers of nights some of the other great cities around the world apply.

Several noble Lords asked why we need the Secretary of State’s consent. We believe that the Secretary of State’s intervention will ensure that the provisions are applied appropriately across London and that there is consistency and fairness to them. The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, asked whether Amendment 4 could be used to disapply exemption from properties where there has been a statutory nuisance. I draw his attention to proposed new Section 25B(2), which allows the Secretary of State or a local planning authority to make a direction where,

“it is necessary to protect the amenity of the locality”.

Indeed, such a direction could be made when there has been a statutory nuisance.

I believe that the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, also raised limiting council tax liability, and whether that could still be done commercially. The council tax liability test has to be read and taken in conjunction with the 90-day limitation, as I said in my opening remarks. That will make it unattractive to undertake commercial letting on a long-term or continuous basis.

The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, also talked about building on the government amendments. As I said at the outset of my closing remarks, I welcome the spirit in which our discussions have taken place. One of the contributions today alluded to the fact that Governments change positions, or that the Bill today is not where it had been. My noble friend Lord Clement-Jones raised a specific question on this. In my time as a Minister responding from this Dispatch Box, I find that you are in one of those situations where if you do not change, you are accused of being terribly rigid and not flexible in listening to your Lordships’ House. However, when you change you are told, “This is not what was presented to us initially”. Perhaps some answers on the back of a postcard would be welcome. I jest, of course, but the important point here is that the Government have listened carefully to the concerns and expressions that have been raised across Parliament, both here in your Lordships’ House and in the other place. We have sought to provide a correct balance in what the Government are presenting.

Several concerns were expressed by my noble friends Lady Hanham, Lady Gardner of Parkes and Lord Tope about the consultation. I regret that my noble friend Lady Gardner feels that the responses I have given in this respect have not answered her question. I gave my latest response only yesterday, as I believe she acknowledged. I wrote to my noble friend on the details of the consultation but in the interests of the public record let me reflect on the public consultation held last year, in which local authorities were asked the question. As noble Lords will know, including the Corporation of London there are in total 33 local authorities across London. Fifteen London authorities responded in total. Eight authorities opposed reform of the legislation. They were—I will feel a bit like a train announcer here—Haringey, Enfield, Camden, Westminster, Newham, Redbridge, Lambeth and the City of London. Seven were not opposed to a review, which included Lewisham, Sutton, Southwark, Hammersmith & Fulham, Harrow, Islington and Greenwich.

I also wish to set the record straight on the issue of Westminster. My noble friend Lord Tope is correct that I have received a letter from the leader of Westminster Council—indeed, I have responded to her—but I want to put officially into the record what has happened. In addition to taking full account of the written representations we have received, officials in the Department for Communities and Local Government have met a number of local authorities, including Westminster Council, on 20 June and 7 October 2014 and 26 February 2015. A further meeting with Westminster was also scheduled for 3 March. I hope that these specific dates give some reassurance to my noble friends, given the concerns they expressed.

I think that I have covered the concern about the Government changing position which my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones posed, but on transparency for police and local authorities, let me assure my noble friend that we believe that our measures will offer the assurance to Londoners that they can do what they like with their homes, as with anywhere else in the country. However, the police and local authorities do not have this power anywhere else. This does not affect the police and local authorities in acting against any antisocial behaviour, or in tackling the genuine concern about terrorism. My noble friend Lady Gardner raised that concern and talked of Sydney, but it is a tragic fact that we have been victims of terror attacks right here in our great capital city. Nothing is proposed in the Government’s amendments which seeks to lessen the importance or priority that they are giving more generally to tackling that. I know that that sentiment is shared by all noble Lords across the Chamber.

My noble friend Lady Gardner also raised the issue of the £20,000 fine for short-term letting. Enforcement action is of course taken at the discretion of local authorities. What is significant—this is what the government proposals are about—is that authorities still have the ability to take action, which acts as a disincentive and deterrent to anyone considering breaking the law. That will continue.