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My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate and thank the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, for introducing it. I look forward to the two maiden speeches and the valedictory speech of the noble Lord, Lord Eden of Winton.
No contribution from a practising chartered surveyor would be complete without a comment on housing and development, and I declare my interests. If, as we are told, there is a significant deficit in housing completions, there are one or two things to bear in mind. First, there is a shortage of skills in both the construction worker and backroom technician sectors which cannot be remedied overnight. Then, if one is going to build a lot of housing in growth areas, some greenfield land will need to be used. However, many local planning authorities perceive that their electorates will not support that. Terms such as “sustainability” and “localism” are used as weapons, just as “environment” used to be in times past.
Rapid increases in house prices are fuelled by a relative shortage but many would profit from these rapid rises, including existing owners, mortgage lenders and foreign investors to mention but three. The marginal cost of taxation, regulatory compliance, the community infrastructure levy, affordable housing, community benefits and so on in a quite risky financial model of development economics can have a material effect on the cost base. This needs to be monitored constantly. I well remember the late 1970s when the development land tax caused the effective failure of the land supply.
When we build, we need decent standards. I still see serious shortcomings in the quality control under some of the self-assessing construction warranty schemes where normal local authority building control supervision is perfectly legally bypassed. We are also building properties that are too complex for normal occupiers to use effectively. They are too cramped in living space and have too little communal amenity space. This is cheapening the product for first-time buyers. Talking of cheap, I observe that if one offers affordable housing and the option to purchase at a discount later on, a long queue will form and demand is not necessarily the same as need. Staying on that, I hope that the proceeds of any housing association right to buy will indeed be reinvested in the sector and not appropriated for other things as the council house proceeds were in 2000.
We have a common desire for a fairer, more just society and my second theme relates to this. In the Queen’s Speech debate last year, I drew attention to the shortcomings of the police—an institution that should be one of our most trusted, cherished and honourable public services. There still remains much to be done and I welcome the commitment in the gracious Speech and the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, in that respect. However, if the police lack accountability, so do some other sectors. I am constantly told that local authorities—I declare an interest as a vice-president of the LGA—are among the greatest snoopers and eavesdroppers into the affairs of the citizen. What are we doing about that?
Our institutions are in many ways no better than the standards of society at large, where individual gain and lack of responsibility seem to have supplanted collective care and conscience. My father used to quote Aristotle. For example, “that which is owned in common belongs to nobody” was one of his favourite quotes. In relation to some legal advice he once received, he quoted Aristotle’s words, “where there is muddle and confusion, dishonesty stalks close behind”. How true. Throw away the rulebook and anything becomes possible. In complex situations moral depravity may even become undetectable.
My recent experiences in the planning field as a professional have been unedifying. Obtaining listed building consent to replace a gutter on a client’s building included 10 months of official delay, muddle and incompetence. I will stop short of naming the authority in question. HMRC itself appears to be a player and gamer of the system, to the point where it is impossible to know whether one is dealing with the objective administrator of a tax code or an aggressive commercial undertaking that is like some of the utility companies. That should stop.
Then we have areas of what seem to me to be complete lawlessness. I refer to situations where the elderly and vulnerable are fleeced of their assets, of their financial freedom and dignity, with apparent impunity. I have had recent direct experience of this, where the normal safeguards appear to have been dispensed with and family beneficiaries have been largely cut out of a will that favoured some friendly neighbour. On further inquiry, it became clear that this is a growing phenomenon, perpetrated by a range of people, from avaricious kinfolk to opportunistic neighbours and unrelated conmen. If adverse influence does not work, it is frighteningly easy to forge a signature, impersonate an old person, make a bogus will or obtain by deception a power of attorney, which one can do online via a government website. What is it about, “Thou shalt not steal or bear false witness or covet” that is misunderstood in modern society? The fact is, there is a better defence against money laundering than there is against abuse of the elderly or the young, and the problem, as I see it, is growing. Because of privacy and other repercussions, nobody dares mention their suspicions so we have a society in which these things are everyone’s concern but apparently none of one’s individual business.
Perhaps this problem is just a matter of little public interest that can readily be dealt with by those affected through civil action—I wish. The courts are clogged to the point of dysfunction, with delays, huge costs and some mismanagement. The very pillar of the 1940s reforms to the welfare state, which included fair access to justice, has crumbled. There is no such access now. There is clear injustice where there is inadequate access to these things. All these things have consequences for public confidence and trust, ultimately, in the rule of law. In a fair society, these issues and others like them need to be addressed, not by wholesale new regulation so much as by streamlining what we already have. That is the message I wish to give to the House today.