Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness(Questions 520-533)

THE RT HON LORD ROOKER

WEDNESDAY 30 OCTOBER 2002

Mr Betts

  520. The interesting point you made about the Scandinavian model is, of course, I think I am right in saying, that the debt of those organisations do not count against the public sector definitions of national governments.
  (Lord Rooker) That is right in some cases. They have got more flexible arrangements for financing. That is much to their credit. They have been able to use that to a great advantage.

  521. You know there is a particular problem in some major northern cities where there are proposals for transfer of ownership and indeed some of the proposals for transfer of ownership simply do not stack up in the current arrangements for financing. Is the Government actively looking now at altering the ways forward so we can get the money in to get the decent homes standards met where there is resistance to the transfer of ownership?
  (Lord Rooker) The short answer to that is yes, we are, because the fact of the matter is it would be totally unfair, or immoral rather than unfair, if tenants were deprived of the chance of a decent homes standards because we could not organise the finances in order to achieve that because of some hang up about whether it was public or private or arguing about the definition. The fact is we want to meet the decent homes target. Doing it the way we have tried to do it with some authorities—and it would be unfair for me to name particular authorities because none of you has done that—the finances do not stack up for transfer anyway. Now that is not the fault of the tenants, it is the historical baggage that today's tenants have got to carry. We have to find a way round that and that is something we are considering actively.

Christine Russell

  522. Could we move on to design and density. I think when PPG 3 came out it really was quite widely welcomed as a way of encouraging better designed, high density new housing developments. The reality is that in most areas it has had very, very little effect. If you look at the density of new housing developments, even ones containing the high percentage of affordable housing, they are still being built to very low densities. What can you do to encourage, especially local planning authorities, working with local developers to not only improve the overall standards of design but also do something about trying to up the densities?
  (Lord Rooker) The first thing we are going to do, of course, is put some money into local authorities specifically for planning, that was announced in the Comprehensive Spending Review, £350 million over three years. We will not ring-fence it. It will be tied to an improvement in the output of planning.

  523. Is that not just speeding up applications rather than improving the quality of decisions?
  (Lord Rooker) Part and parcel of it is but we do not want to speed up applications at the cost of poor quality, either in visual amenity or in terms of sustainability, the two things go together. You have already, I understand, had CABE give evidence. I am very keen that they be involved, particularly in the growth areas where we have to have a step change to make sure that we do get on a good basis good quality design where we are stepping up density. On the other hand, of course, we want good quality design whatever the level of density. In the last decade in the South East 40 per cent of dwellings have been four bedroomed detached houses, that is part of the problem, they are not very low density. We are nowhere near the density figures given in the planning guidance, if we had been we would have several tens of thousands more homes in this country today than we have got. We do intend to take action and the Deputy Prime Minister has already forecast that he intends to take some action to see that the densities are delivered, in fact when he was asked how would he do that I think his first answer was at a press conference "I will put on my dark glasses". We do intend to take action on density but we need to do it in part and parcel and make sure we have good quality design. There is no shortage of examples, by the way, all around the country you can see both CABE's literature and other literature, good examples of densities 70, 80 even 100 dwellings per hectare where people are queuing up to get in there to live, very, very few voids and good sustainable communities.

  524. I accept that, Lord Rooker, but equally I am told, also, constantly by members who serve on local planning authorities and planning officers that they still do not have sufficient powers to insist on a higher standard of decent homes or a higher density. They do not have the powers to do it.
  (Lord Rooker) I think we have made clear that we intend to take some action on this but I am not in a position to announce what it will be at the moment. Nevertheless it will be action that actually, as it were, forces the pace on the density. We have got already arrangements, of course, for calling in planning applications where they are drawn to our attention by the Government Offices of the Regions but we are looking at ways of, as it were, spreading our tentacles to find out about more of the applications so less of them slip through at low density.

  525. Some of us will give you the evidence.
  (Lord Rooker) I can say, also, there is another issue. Planning authorities in the last four or five years have lost about a third of their resources, I understand, and therefore we do need to rebuild those authorities both for the councillors and for the planning staff themselves so that such developments are not able to slip through without all the scrutiny that they do deserve. As I say, we are going to take some steps to ensure they will have a little more power.

  526. We welcome that. Can we just move on very quickly to the 60 per cent target for brownfield housing development.
  (Lord Rooker) Yes.

  527. In most parts of the country that is being achieved so my question is should we not be raising the limit, in fact, and going for a more challenging target?
  (Lord Rooker) It would be very seductive—having met the target of 60 per cent I think some eight years earlier than was planned—to say up the target but I have to say to you the target was met on a very low level of output, much too low for this country. As I have said repeatedly we are not building enough new homes yet. We build and we knock a few down, our net figure is appalling compared with our European partners. If we up the target from 60 per cent at a time when we are going to up production as well we would be really stretched. In fact we will be stretched to maintain the 60 per cent target by a step change in production, although I have to say, particularly in the growth areas, particularly in the Thames Gateway, we could probably virtually meet the whole of the South East target for brownfield in the Gateway itself. That is not to say we are going to allow everybody to build on greenfields by the way. It is seductive to say put the target up but I think if we can get a step change in housing production and still meet the target we will be doing extremely well in the next few years.

  528. My final question relates to an earlier one and it is about the effect of rent restructuring, particularly on housing association tenants where the rent levels are likely to come down. There is some real concern being expressed that those housing associations where the tenants will be paying less, which is obviously welcomed by the tenants, will struggle to improve the standards for the properties. Do you have any comments on that?
  (Lord Rooker) It is very early days in rent restructuring at the moment do not forget, 2002, it is a ten year programme and I do not think it is rigid. It has passed me by for the last 18 months in the Home Office, by the way, I have no constituents as well now by the way so one does not get alerted to these things as quickly as in the past. I do not think the ten year figure is rigid. Where in fact, for example, some specialist housing associations had already forecast they were going to be in difficulty, and had done so to try to fault that, particularly the black and ethnic minority groups, we have taken some action on that. It is early days but we have to make sure it is a direct result of rent restructuring. Nothing is crossing my desk about major problems for specific or housing associations in general relating to it.

  529. I think it is from the Chartered Institute of Housing, it is a general comment that they have made.
  (Lord Rooker) If it is only a general comment—

  530. Less money for maintenance.
  (Lord Rooker) Yes, but if it is a general comment then I cannot give you a specific answer to it at the moment.

  Chris Mole: Lord Rooker, you were talking about a step change in production just now. Earlier on we were taking evidence from witnesses about the use of offsite fabrication and indeed you were saying yourself about the shortages in new construction industry. Do you believe you have a role as the witnesses were requesting to promote offsite fabrication?

Alistair Burt

  531. Enthuse.

  (Lord Rooker) Enthuse, yes. I will enthuse about modern methods of construction. Because of—how can I say—the yellow journalism in this country, the only description I am ever going to use is modern methods of construction. Everybody knows modern methods as opposed to traditional methods. The headlines are frightening to people because of what happened in the past, as you said when you were talking to your previous witnesses. Two or three television programmes wrecked a generation of housing construction, which would not be modern methods in the sense you are discussing today, they are very much wet trades on site, simply because modern methods of construction require an investment which the building industry does not make. The building industry is peripatetic. It has got land, it pulls in contractors and orders supplies from all over the country, it builds and disappears. There is no factory that requires an infrastructure and a capital investment as you heard from the previous witnesses and therefore the one thing they need to know for modern methods of construction is that there is a plan, that they have got confidence, that we ourselves are confident in the techniques. I think the Deputy Prime Minister has made it absolutely clear—he will do so I might add at the Urban Summit in Birmingham in the next couple of days—we will do so by our visits and our pronouncements and we will do so by the very fact of setting up the Challenge Fund and structuring it the way we have with an emphasis on modern methods of manufacture to give a real push. Now I think one of the questions you asked was about examples. There are plenty of good examples around this country by the way. I have seen adverts for "housebuilder of the year" but it was not traditional construction and it was foreign, I might add, in the sense of non British, but it was here in this country so it had been imported. People were more than willing to pay the prices, having secured the land, for what would have been non traditional modern methods of manufacture so they can work and they can provide housing that lasts for generations. If others can do it, I am sure we can. Then to get them smeared by headlines in language I am not going to use, to put people off, negates what is the technology of the industry. I think what you heard from the witnesses today could have been repeated by other members of their industry and other manufacturers that they are waiting to get going and we are going to give them the green light. Is that enthusing enough?

  532. Yes, it is great. No-one can enthuse better than you when you are on form. I had one question to bring you back just slightly to brownfield sites. Do you have any evidence that any councils restrict the availability of brownfield sites by keeping them back for supposed economic development when in fact there has been no pressure to put any manufacturing or anything related to business on the land for quite some time and therefore by artificially restricting the availability of that land they push building into greenfield sites? Are you worried about it if there is evidence there?
  (Lord Rooker) When I say it is an anecdotal basis, it is the result of planning casework. I do London, South East and Eastern minus the Dome, another minister will do that, and therefore I see the casework. I have seen examples, on the basis of either calling a decision to be made or deciding whether or not to give it to an inspector, I have seen arguments about a piece of land which have been put forward by a local authority which said "Oh, we have had this reserved for industry" and it turns out it has been reserved for industry for a decade or more. Someone has come along and put an application for housing in and by and large I have tended to go in favour of development. I am pro development rather than anti development, I have to say, that is my predilection. Yes, I have seen examples of that. I have said to developers and house builders where they have got examples of that "Write to me". It is good that we have land set aside for industry. We are not building enough factories, if you like, because we do not make as many things as we should do, but nevertheless to use it as an excuse for stopping a housing development, which sometimes is what it is, is unacceptable. Where we can we will take decisions, based on advice, it is true, to go for a housing development where it is quite clear land is not going to be used for industry. There are plenty of brownfield sites around where people have said "Oh, we are hoping that it will come back to industrial use" but clearly it has not.

Chairman

  533. Decent homes standards, will that apply to the private sector rent as well as to public?
  (Lord Rooker) The private sector makes a major contribution of housing in this country and, of course, most of the worst housing in the country, in which most of the most vulnerable people live, is private sector rented, there is no question about that. Therefore the Government has programmes for putting money in for housing renewal and refurbishment and even in the Comprehensive Spending Review we have been able to allocate some more money for that. I think once we get to the point of selectively registering—I have to use that word, that is the point—the landlords and also bringing in the registration of homes in multiple occupation even though that will not cover all of them, it will cover the areas that are vulnerable. Relooking at the way housing standards are measured in the private sector will have the effect of building up the standards but what I cannot say in answer to your question is simply that we will include them in the decent homes standard in the same way we have got the public sector involved in that.

  Chairman: Right, on that note, can I thank you very much for your evidence.





 
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