Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 660 - 679)



  660. But the contrary view of people like Professor Peter Hall is that the Green Paper is designed to let business interests overcome NIMBY-like objections.
  (Mr Byers) Yes, well, that is wrong.

  661. That is wrong?
  (Mr Byers) Yes.

  662. One last point on that is that Lord Falconer seemed to think that planning decisions made in the House of Commons or planning policy decisions made in the House of Commons could and should be whipped. Is that your view?
  (Mr Byers) Well, I would not be happy with that, I have to say. I think if it is an issue of policy principle, then one can argue why the political process needs to have a desired outcome, but if it is something else, I think we should be far more relaxed about the approach. We have free votes on a number of issues traditionally in the House—

  663. So the House of Commons acting as a planning decision body would have the same sort of parameters as, say, a local authority planning committee?
  (Mr Byers) Well, it would not, you see. That is a misunderstanding the proposals contained in the Green Paper because what we are saying about the parliamentary process is that it would not be involved in the details which would still be decided locally, but Parliament would be involved in deciding the principles behind the major infrastructure developments.

  664. Absolutely, so it should be not a political decision, but a planning decision and, therefore, not be whipped and would apply in the House of Commons as a local authority level?
  (Mr Byers) Well, my own view is to make a distinction between the policy where I do believe there is merit in having a disciplined approach as opposed to the detail of a particular planning application where obviously that is for local determination anyway and it is not a matter that Members of Parliament in this House would get involved in.

Christine Russell

  665. On the matter of brownfield developments, at the moment we have a target of 60 per cent and is it your intention in the future to improve that, ie, have a larger percentage of housing built as brownfield developments, or are you looking to maintain it?
  (Mr Byers) I want to get to the 60 per cent first. We are at 57 and this target has got to be met. It is not easy. When I saw the target, I thought, "Well, we are at 57 per cent already. Is 60 per cent a bit easy?" There are reasons why it is actually quite difficult, but we have now introduced some fiscal measures which will make brownfield development a lot more attractive financially, so I am confident that we will achieve the 60 per cent within the timescale that we have set ourselves. What I am prepared to do is to say that when we get to the 60 per cent, let's up the target and let's try and get there before the timetable that has been set. As I say, I am confident we will achieve it, but I would rather get there first than set a new target before we have got to the one that is there already.

  666. What about the statistics for reclaimed brownfield sites in the last year—were expectations met?
  (Mr Byers) They have been and we have got some very useful figures, which I do not know whether the Committee have got, which break it down by region. We have set targets by region and most of the regions actually have done very well, and Yorkshire Forward, as an example, has done very, very well in terms of the work that they have been able to do, so there are some very good examples, particularly in former coalfield communities and that is important both in terms of making the communities more pleasant places, but also in assisting economic regeneration in those areas that need that support very valuably.

Mr Betts

  667. The Committee has been looking at the situation of housing in low-demand areas, particularly in the North West, areas where there are perhaps far too many houses and the quality is very poor, places like Burnley, for example. Has the Department now in its budget for the next years until 2010 got sufficient funds actually in those areas to fund the demolition and regeneration that is going to be needed and, in particular, are we going to see some action on a housing market renewal fund to help that process along?
  (Mr Byers) This is a key area for the Department and I think the Government actually. Housing is one of those policy areas where I do not think enough attention has been paid for 15 or 20 years. The one policy, the right-to-buy for council tenants, if you look back over the last 20 years has probably been the only new policy which has been developed in housing. Now, we are facing real issues in London and the South East with too much demand, if you can put it that way, and then we have the low demand problems, I have to say not just in the Lancashire mill towns, but there will be low-demand areas in Sheffield, I am sure, there are low-demand areas in Newcastle and there are low-demand areas in many parts of the country coming about for a variety of reasons. A great danger is that in those areas, there is this desperate downward cycle. Where it is local authority housing we can rescue it because we can invest and we can have a far more focussed approach. But it is the privately-rented and privately-owned sector where we have the real problems where what happens is that there is low demand, prices fall, landlords move in, buy up the properties and then put in people in receipt of housing benefit and they do not really care about the condition of the properties.


  668. We understand the problems, but we are looking to you for solutions.
  (Mr Byers) Well, it is important that you recognise that I understand the problem actually because sometimes it may be the case that people do not understand the problem. We understand it and we will do something about it in terms of the Spending Review for 2002. It is no secret to say that one of the main submissions that the Department will be making will be to get additional funding to address these particular concerns and the market renewal aspect is, I think, one of the interesting parts of the proposal that we will be putting forward.

Mr Betts

  669. There was perhaps a feeling that the Neighbourhood Renewal Strategy and the Social Exclusion Unit have looked at these problems in the past, but they have always seemed to adopt a "worst first" basis and that almost every community, every area can be saved and something can be done with it. Is that not a mistaken policy and we ought to rethink that and perhaps some areas cannot be saved in their current form and we actually have to think of something else?
  (Mr Byers) That may be an option, but I do think that making that decision in Whitehall would be the worst possible approach. It has got to be far better if local people come up with proposals maybe for demolition, maybe for renewal, for renovation. What I think would be terrible is if we had a blueprint here in London where we would say that for Lancashire this is what is going to happen. I think we should give people a range of options and it could be demolition and new build so that they can respond to different sizes of families and so on, but it has got to be bottom-up, otherwise it simply will not work. We have been here before in housing policy where people determined it from the centre and it has not been successful.

Ms King

  670. I am very pleased to hear that the main submission from the CSR is going to centre on housing. You mentioned the right-to-buy because obviously we need to sort out the flip sides which are the desperate situation of low demand and the desperate situation of high demand. Are you aware of the truly shocking statistics that last year in London 11,000 council properties were sold off through right-to-buy, yet there were only 3,000 new units built by RSLs which obviously is a net loss of 8,000 council or social housing units. What is the Department going to do about that and will you not reconsider calibrating right-to-buy policies which is draining London of its social housing stock?
  (Mr Byers) I do not want to be in a position where we deny people the right to buy because of our failure to see new housing stock in London or elsewhere in the country, so the challenge, I think, is not to deny opportunities to people to own their own home, but the challenge is actually to see new stock being built or old stock being renovated and brought forward into use or remodelling. You will know from your own constituency that we cannot accommodate very often within the social sector large families and there are huge differences between families and we have to be far more responsive to the new demands which are being made upon us. Now, within the plan that we are developing which we will discuss with the Treasury as part of the Spending Review, we have got to have this flexible approach which will mean more housing stock being provided.

Mr Betts

  671. On the issue of targets for housing for 2010, firstly in the social housing sector, can you make it clear that those targets are going to be met irrespective of whether houses are simply block transfer or they are part of a wholly-owned local planning company or whether they remain with the local authority or is it all social housing?
  (Mr Byers) Yes, it is across the board.

  672. So if tenants choose to vote against a block transfer or against going with a local planning company, they are still going to get that target met irrespective and the funding will be there to do it?
  (Mr Byers) It is a commitment that will be met irrespective of any decisions which are taken by tenants.

  673. Why are similar targets not being set for private rented and owner-occupied houses as well?
  (Mr Byers) We are using different mechanisms to improve the stock in those sectors. One of the things we are looking at, at the moment, is whether we can use the Housing Benefit system to force—to be honest—landlords to improve the quality of the stock. My view is this: the private landlord is receiving, directly from the Government, Housing Benefit. It does not go through the tenant in many cases; they get it directly from the local authority on behalf of the Government. They get a Housing Benefit cheque. In some authorities it is tens of thousands of pounds a week that a private landlord is getting. In my own constituency one landlord gets tens of thousands of pounds a month from the local authority by way of rent. I think we should be expecting the landlord to provide decent accommodation for the money that we are giving him by way of Housing Benefit, and we are not at the moment. I think that is a lever that we can use, and should be using, to drive up standards in the privately rented sector.

Ms King

  674. Can I come back on one thing on Right to Buy that you mentioned, because there are a lot of quite simple things that could be done. For example, extend the period in which discount can be clawed back, clamping down on the companies that are incentivising tenants to sell off the stock—giving them cash incentives—and also allowing councils to invest a larger proportion of the receipts that they get, say, up from 25 per cent to 50 per cent. Those things would stem the flow because although you say we want more housing built—and of course we do—the fact is it is not happening right now.
  (Mr Byers) I think it is an area that, obviously, we need to keep under review. I think we need to tread very carefully. I do not want to say something this morning which may lead people to believe that somehow the Government is going to alter its policy, because there are no plans to do so at the moment.

  675. Regarding the summer riots, you will know that the Chair of the CRE called for action from the DTLR to "desegregate" housing. What do you propose to do?
  (Mr Byers) I think the reports that came out before Christmas are very informative in terms of looking at the situation, whether in Burnley, Oldham or Bradford, because they all vary in terms of what was at the heart of the problems. You are right, I think, to point out that there was a common thread through all of them, which was simply different communities growing up alongside each other but with no relationship with each other. I think the way round this is through civic leadership. What has happened in those parts of the country where you have had strong civic leadership, where people have been prepared to give a lead politically—and it can often be a difficult lead and you can be criticised for it—we have not seen the sort of difficulties that we saw in those three towns and cities. I said this when we published the Local Government White Paper; we need to have a renaissance of civic leadership and community leadership. Perhaps one of the mistakes that successive Governments have made, really, since 1980 is to take powers away from local government. So there has not been that sort of leadership there that one might have expected in previous years.

  676. Does the DTLR recognise that we need to deal with housing and education? In Tower Hamlets children are segregated where they live and they are segregated in their schools. Civic leadership, unless you change housing policy and education admissions policies, will not actually change the fact that children are brought up, educated and live separately.
  (Mr Byers) That is where you need that civic leadership. What I do know is that we cannot do it from the centre. An imposed solution would not work. You need, in a sensitive area like this, civic leadership which seeks to build consensus, to take people with them and to introduce those sorts of policies.

  677. Civil leadership will not deal with the schools admission policies, will it?
  (Mr Byers) Engaging with governors and relevant bodies and getting them to see that there are changes that might be necessary may well help.

Mrs Ellman

  678. How are you monitoring the effectiveness of the new cabinet model in Local Government?
  (Mr Byers) We are monitoring the new governance procedures as it develops, and there is a unit—


  679. How?
  (Mr Byers) There is a unit in the department that is doing precisely that.

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