Homes Bill

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Mr. Waterson: I do not want to go too far down that path as there are two slightly different issues. Mixed communities and tenures are fraught with difficulty.

My constituency provides a graphic example of how careful everyone involved has to be to make sure that the system works—we will get into the question of choice in much more detail when discussing allocation. I was talking in the lift to the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin); I said how everything depends on where people are. Someone would have to wait two or three years for a council house or flat in Eastbourne, but I suspect that there are some parts of the country where one could be shown a couple of nice places on the same afternoon—

Mr. Curry: Well, not nice places, but certainly a couple of them.

Mr. Waterson: Maybe so, but we shall return to that, and probably in some detail.

My right hon. Friend is right to say that the Minister is being a bit squeamish. We do not criticise him for speeding up transfers—quite the reverse. However, his reaction to our amendments has been disappointing, so I will press amendment No. 88 to a Division. I am emboldened because we are not alone in our views: they are shared by quite a wide spectrum of opinion, which is respected by both sides. The National Housing Federation, which was relied on in part by the Minister, says:

    We will seek an amendment to the Bill to include a positive duty on local authorities to consult RSLs specifically on the review, formulation and implementation of the homelessness strategy.

That is no more and no less than we and the Liberal Democrats are saying. The Green Pepper campaign, which is co-ordinated by the Catholic Housing Aid Society and the Churches National Housing Coalition, has been active, especially in the context of the Green Paper. It says:

    Green Pepper welcomes the requirement for a greater strategic role for local authorities thorough assessments of local need. However, it is important to emphasise that the applicants themselves, the voluntary sector and faith groups will have a great deal of knowledge to assist in audits of local need. Where local authorities act on their own, they may not always be able to see the full picture.

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman has quoted the National Housing Federation in support of the arguments for local authorities consulting RSLs and other bodies, but I put it to him that amendment No. 88 would not have that effect. It makes a large number of other bodies, including RSLs, responsible for the strategy. There are difficulties, which I hope he will acknowledge, in splitting the responsibility for developing a strategy between a wide range of organisations. It is not the same as consultation.

Mr. Waterson: I appreciate that there is a subtle, but important distinction. The Minister is right to raise it. However, a large number of councils are already not in the housing business and more and more will remove themselves from that business as a result of Government policy. They will not be providers of housing, so I am not sure that it would be a bad thing to split responsibility for the strategy. Otherwise a blinkered council that no longer had any housing of its own might proceed along a line that is not in accord with the real-world experiences of those who provide housing in the area.

Mr. Raynsford: I do not want to linger on this point, but the hon. Gentleman will recognise that amendment No. 88 gives joint responsibility for both the conduct of the review and the preparation of the strategy not only to RSLs and local authorities, but to all the defined strategic partners including housing co-operatives, landlords of houses in multiple occupation, members of landlords' forums, voluntary organisations and voluntary bodies. Trying to get those various agencies together to take joint responsibility for a strategy would be a nightmare.

Mr. Waterson: That may well be, but if they are not signed up to the strategy, it will not fly. That is all I have to say on the matter. I intend to press amendment No. 88 to a vote.

The Chairman: Order. Before I call the hon. Member for Bath to wind up, it has been pointed out to me that he wanted to debate new clause 9. The Chairman does not normally give reasons for non-selection, but I am willing to do so in that case. New clause 9 largely reflects the content of new clause 10, which has been selected, with the exception of the subject of allocation, which is properly covered by other amendments. That said, if the hon. Gentleman chooses to use his ingenuity, while remaining strictly in order, to raise those points that he wants to raise, I am sure that the Minister will use equal ingenuity to respond.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton): On a point of order, Mr. Gale. I had hoped to speak to new clause 9. As you have only now said that you do not intend to allow a stand part debate on that clause, I shall be precluded from speaking other than by intervening on the hon. Member for Bath.

The Chairman: With respect, the hon. Gentleman has misunderstood the position. New clause 9 was not selected, so there was never any question of debating it. There will be a stand part debate on new clause 17. I shall rule fairly rigidly on the confines of that debate at the appropriate time.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): Thank you for that ruling, Mr. Gale. Will you confirm that, if the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) so wishes, he will be able to catch your eye after I have made my contribution?

The Chairman: No. I have called the hon. Member for Bath to wind up the debate. The convention of the House is that once the Chairman has called the winding-up speech, that is it. If the hon. Member for Edmonton chooses to intervene, and the hon. Member for Bath wishes to allow him to intervene, that is of course an entirely different matter.

Mr. Foster: If the hon. Member for Edmonton seeks to catch my eye, I will be more than happy to give way.

When we began this debate under Mr. Stevenson's chairmanship, I said that I intended to make a relatively brief contribution and to confine my remarks precisely to the issues raised by the amendments. Since then, however, the debate has ranged considerably wider, and Mr. Stevenson said this morning that he would not object if I ranged a little more widely in winding up than I did when I introduced the amendments.

We have discussed at considerable length the number of affordable houses that have been built in each of the past 12 or so years; we have debated the number of homeless households in each of those years and even touched on empty homes and the Government's strategies, or lack thereof, to deal with empty homes effectively. Rather to my surprise, we even got on to the difficulties of creating mixed-tenure areas. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of our debate was the process of stock transfer and the policies of the Government and the official Opposition in that respect. There was much debate about whether people were to be given choice. It is my firm view that if people are given choice, they should be given choice on a level playing field.

One difficulty for many local authorities is that they simply do not have access through the routes available to them to the funds needed to carry out improvements to their housing stock. The only way in which local authorities can ensure that the people they serve live in not only affordable housing but decent affordable housing is by offering their tenants the stock transfer option. If a stock transfer takes place, the new registered social landlord will have access to the finances that enable him to make those improvements. A large number of authorities have gone done the route of stock transfer with considerable reluctance, but have done so because they believe that it is in the best interests of their tenants.

Surely it would be preferable for the local authority to have similar access to finance, so that it could, if it wanted, retain the responsibility of maintaining housing stock: then tenants could be offered the option to choose an RSL, or to stay with the housing authority landlord. In those circumstances, we would not see the death of council housing, which the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon, rightly, predicted: more than a year ago, in an article in The Guardian, he said that by 2004 the majority of social housing or affordable housing will already be out of the hands of local councils and in the hands of RSLs.

Mr. Curry: The hon. Gentleman asks whether it would not be better to have a level playing field, so that the local authority could refurbish houses itself or transfer them. However, the two are not equal: if the local authority is involved, public funding is used, whereas the whole purpose of transfers is to bring in private sector funding and minimise the amount of public funding used, so that for any given pool of public funding, the amount that can be released for refurbishment is greater. Curiously, if we establish a level playing field, it would turn out not to be level at the end of the day. What does hon. Gentleman recommend for Liverpool, which I think is the largest city currently under Liberal Democrat control?

Mr. Foster: The right hon. Gentlemen is right to say that it would not be a level playing field in the true sense of the word, because the mechanisms for borrowing money in the public sector are very different from those in the private sector. He will recognise that the reason we have that problem is because of the current definition of public sector borrowing requirement and that one way in which to solve the problem, at least in part, would be to make major changes to the arrangements governing the public sector borrowing requirement. I note with interest that the Government have already started to move in that direction in the changes in accounting procedures that they have introduced. Sadly, they have not gone far enough to enable local authorities to benefit from the changes from which Government Departments may benefit. I accept the right hon. Gentleman's point, but I hope agrees that the current playing field is uneven to the extent that the vast majority of authorities, including Liverpool, may well be forced down a route that they do not want to take.

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