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Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I am glad that the noble Lord the Opposition Chief Whip agrees that that is right. I hope that he agrees with everything I say; but in this respect he is right and I am delighted that we are in accord.
We are proposing to make the pay-when-paid clauses in contracts unenforceable in all but the most exceptional circumstances so that everyone may be paid promptly for the work which they have done. I hope to carry the noble Lord the Opposition Chief Whip with me on that too--
We are also proposing arrangements to deal with construction disputes. That appears in Clause 105. The concept is straightforward. We are giving all contractual parties the right to use the alternative dispute resolution procedure which is known as "adjudication". The procedure is familiar to the construction industry, although it is relatively new and at present not widely used. Essentially, it involves taking a dispute to an impartial third party who will generally use informal procedures to try to sort out the rights and wrongs of the issue and who will make a decision which will enable work on the contract to continue. Our intention is to see contract disputes resolved, wherever possible, within a period of 28 days. Of course, many serious disputes will not be capable of resolution within that timescale and those will have to be resolved by other means, normally by arbitration or through the courts.
The industry's advice to us is that prompt and informal action at the time when a dispute first arises will help to nip the problems in the bud and to save a great number of disputes finding their way into the courts.
Part III of the Bill reforms the Architects Registration Council of the United Kingdom. The position at present is that one cannot practise as an architect, and one cannot call oneself an architect, without having been first entered upon a statutory register.
That register is not, as many of your Lordships might think, maintained by the Royal Institute of British Architects. The Royal Institute of British Architects is a distinguished body but its duty is to represent the professional interests of architects. The Register of Architects is maintained by an independent Architects Registration Council which was set up by statute in 1931.
The Government initially took the view, following a report which was prepared by Mr. John Warne in 1993, that the registration council should be abolished and that other arrangements should be made to secure the continued integrity of the architectural profession. That in the eyes of the architects was a wholly disagreeable prospect. There was also some disquiet among members of the public and Members of Parliament. So we agreed that the council should be retained, but that it should be reformed.
The proposals in the Bill, therefore, include a reduction in the members of the body from 73 members to 15 members and the streamlining of its organisation. I think that your Lordships might agree that a council with 73 members tends to be a fairly unwieldy body. The proposals also change the balance of membership. At the moment the council is overwhelmingly dominated by architects. The Bill would change that and would provide a small majority of eight to seven in favour of non-architects. Those include the profession's customers whose confidence in the architectural profession is essential to its well-being.
The lay majority on the reformed council was specifically agreed with the Royal Institute of British Architects, who were advised by none other than the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank. I am glad to see the noble Lord in his place and I am glad to say also that the Royal Institute of British Architects approves of our proposals. Our intention is that these changes should make the registration council a more representative and, dare I say it, a more efficient body which will work better for the benefit of both architects and their clients.
Part I of the Bill deals with the provisions for supporting the renewal of private sector housing. It is a fundamental principle that homeowners must be primarily responsible for the repair and the maintenance of their own properties. But there is a long-standing tradition of government assistance for owners who cannot afford to deal with their unfit houses.
When my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment published the housing White Paper last summer, he made it clear that we remained committed to the principle of a decent home for every family. Renovation grants help to achieve this. The present system was introduced in 1989, and it was intended to encourage local authorities to develop their
Local authorities now have wide powers, but experience has shown that the pressure for grant assistance has resulted in mandatory grants taking the lion's share of resources. This has often distorted what many local authorities might wish to do because so much of their funds have had to go towards what they had to do that there was little left for them to do what they would like to do and which, in their view, was a suitable and needy expenditure in their locality.
The Government are committed to improving the condition of the housing stock and to providing resources to help those who are most in need. But any regime which we have has to be able to operate within a finite level of resources. There will never by sufficient resources to do everything which we might ideally wish to do. They will always be constrained.
The main change which we are proposing, compared with that which happens now, is that, with the exception of the disabled facilities grant, the mandatory grants will be made discretionary. This will give local authorities the ability to manage their resources so that they can provide help to those who are most in need and so that they can secure long-term improvement of the worst of the private housing stock.
Means testing of grants to owner-occupiers will be retained. The Bill will also prevent abuse by introducing a "prior qualifying period" and it will strengthen the conditions attached to the grant. Mandatory and discretionary disabled facilities grants, which are provided to help disabled people to remain in their own homes, will still continue, with some improvements, including a more relaxed approach to means testing.
The Bill will now make grant assistance to landlords of rented property discretionary. This is a change from the White Paper proposals which proposed more restriction on grants to landlords, and it will, I think, be widely welcomed.
The existing minor works assistance scheme will be replaced by a simpler and wider home repair assistance scheme. Under this, local authorities will be able to give help for minor repairs, improvements and adaptations for elderly people, for those who are infirm and for those who are on means-tested benefits. People who live in mobile homes and houseboats will, also for the first time, be eligible for help.
Local authorities will have increased flexibility when taking enforcement action on unfit property requiring repair. They will be able to defer this action for up to 12 months, at which time they will have to review the position and decide what is the best course of action to take.
This grant will help to keep local communities together by assisting people. It will help to bridge the gap between the cost of a replacement home in the locality and the amount of money which the applicant can reasonably afford, taking into account any compensation which he may receive for the loss of his old home.
Put simply, this is a Bill which aims to help the construction industry and the local authorities to achieve more in the work which they do. It will benefit both the construction industry and the house owners, and I commend it to your Lordships.
Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Earl for explaining with his usual clarity and good humour what is, as your Lordships will understand, a long and rather complicated Bill. I thought that the noble Earl was perhaps rather worried about what I might be about to say from this Dispatch Box and was trying to get his retaliation in first, as we say in football terms. He may be rather more worried by the time I finish.
As I understand it, this is the first of two or perhaps even three offerings from the Government which started off, according to the gracious Speech, as a Housing Bill. That Bill in draft achieved no fewer than 380 clauses and would have been one of the largest Bills ever put before Parliament. In that event, the Government, in my view quite wisely, decided to split it and present two Bills--one for consideration by your Lordships and another for concurrent consideration in another place. So far so good.
But there is an oddity. The oddity is that the original Housing Bill contained 380 clauses. The Housing Bill introduced in another place contained 180 clauses, of which I understand 11 have now been withdrawn, and this Bill has 145 clauses. My arithmetic is not of the strongest, but to me this means that the two Bills together when reduced contain 326 clauses. So, 54 clauses are therefore missing. What is to happen to those 54 clauses? We do not know. But I hope--and I say this most seriously to the noble Earl--that they are not waiting in some sort of legislative siding, waiting to be shunted into the Bill as it travels along the parliamentary railway. I say that because with other Bills we have had occasion to recommit clauses introduced by the Government. I trust that we will not be going down that track as regards this Bill.
The Bill before your Lordships today is, to be honest, something of a mishmash. It ranges from home renovation grants to disposal of the assets of new towns, by way of the construction industry, architects and the single regeneration budget. As such, as your Lordships might expect, there are matters with which we agree and matters on which we disagree. In our view, therefore, the Bill has a strange resemblance to a curate's egg. If your Lordships will allow me, I propose, without muddling the Minister in any way, to take each bit of the egg in its turn.
The first bit of the egg that we come to would, I am afraid, turn off any reasonable curate. It is, of course, Part I, which deals with home renovation grants. Perhaps I may give your Lordships some of the background. Private housing in Britain is in a state of major disrepair in many places. Indeed, 1.5 million homes in England alone--that is one in 12 of the total--are officially unfit for human habitation, failing the basic legal standards covering structural stability, sanitation, dampness, water supply and heating. Nor is there any reason to believe that the situation is any better in Scotland or in Wales.
Further, and contrary to popular opinion, the majority of those homes are not owned by absentee private landlords but by owner occupiers, many of them older people, or unemployed or from ethnic minorities (some, indeed, by people who fall into all three categories at the same time). One-half of outright owners--that is, those without mortgages--live on incomes of less than £150 per week; in other words, people who simply cannot afford to bring their homes up to the minimum legal standard. There are consequential dangers to health which, quite apart from the suffering of those involved, impose greater strains on the NHS. That is the background.
To be fair--and I always try to be fair to the noble Earl--the Government recognised the problem in the 1980s and tried to do something about it by introducing the Local Government and Housing Act 1989. That Act recognised a government responsibility to ensure minimum standards in the nation's housing stock--in our view, quite rightly. The Act set out a grant system under which a statutory grant of up to £20,000 is given provided a property fails the legal minimum standard of fitness and the owner passes a means test, a test which may also set the level of contribution from the owner, him or herself.
That scheme is now to be dismantled, against, as it happens, the advice of most of those who were consulted. After only five years' experience of the scheme, the Government have decided that enough is enough. In its stead we are now to have a new scheme, which is not to be available to everyone as of right, but which is to be at the discretion of local authorities.
Let me be quite clear what that means. It means that the Government have abandoned their previously acknowledged responsibility to ensure the maintenance of minimum standards in the nation's private homes. In future, there will be no clear, national framework either to address the current disrepair in private housing which, after all, provides eight out of 10 of all homes; it follows
It is no good the Government pretending that what is proposed will reduce the present long queues for renovation grants. The queues will still be there, because the requirement will still be there. It is no good either to pretend that abuses--and there have been abuses--will magically cease; if anything, abuses will increase as those with the greatest influence try to jump the queue. We all know how these things work, even in the best of systems.
Worse still, practice on how to apply the discretionary system will vary from local authority to local authority. The effect of that will be most marked, I believe, in urban areas where local authority boundaries run along streets rather than fields. I have no doubt at all, if precedent is anything to go by, that Wandsworth and Westminster--to name only two councils--will operate the new discretion in quite a different manner from Southwark and Kensington and Chelsea. Not only that, but by introducing a three year qualifying period before entitlement to grant and the ability of local authorities to defer action, the Government have deliberately introduced a place, under statute, for unfit housing to be a permanent feature of our urban landscape. Unfitness is now to be institutionalised. I can only say that, in our view, this part of the Bill will do nothing to help our housing problem and in all probability will make things worse.
The next bit of the egg has a somewhat better flavour. Indeed, in Part II of the Bill, dealing with construction contracts--which is what the noble Earl started with--we are on less controversial ground, although there are still difficulties. We welcome the general intentions of this part as we welcomed the Latham Report when it appeared. As the noble Earl pointed out, we have to recognise that the construction industry is a major contributor to our gross domestic product--8 per cent., we are told. However, by general admission, it is also extremely inefficient. Those inefficiencies are caused by bad contractual and operating practices. If that were not so--and I agree with the noble Earl that it is--I am bound to say that I would have some sympathy with the view taken by the Scottish Law Commission and the Scottish Law Society both of which argue that the construction industry is not so different from other activities in the economy that it requires specific legislation on its own. But the industry is so important and the inefficiencies so great that we agree with the Government's view that legislation should be introduced, and we must reject the view of the Scottish Law Commission and the Scottish Law Society.
The difficulty, of course, lies in deciding what constitutes "construction operations"--to use the words of the Bill. In fact, I am advised that the activities specified in Clause 102 of the Bill only cover about 50 per cent. of what could properly be called construction activity. So here is the first problem. It does seem rather odd, to say the least, to legislate for 50 per cent. of an industry's activity and leave the rest to fortune. The split, if that is what it is, makes curious reading in itself. For instance, we
I have no doubt that the Government will reply that they have a let-out in allowing themselves to change the definitions in Clause 102 by simple order. We shall, of course, see what the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee has to say about that. But it does seem to me odd, and some might say offensive, that the Government present us with legislation for half an industry, and then say in effect, "Do not worry; pass the legislation and we will make up the rest of it as we go along".
The same kind of fuzziness appears in other clauses in this part. The process of adjudication is far from clear; there will presumably be a requirement for the parties to act on an adjudicator's decision pending any appeal to an arbitrator or to the courts, but this sits uneasily with the suggested "fall-back" position of "fast-track" arbitration. Nor is there to be any provision for trust funds as recommended by Latham, on the grounds, apparently, that nobody could agree on how such a system might operate; the Government seem to be standing on the sidelines. The whole matter of latent defects liability has been not just kicked into touch but, given the normal timetable for the implementation of Law Commission reports which the Government are suggesting, kicked into touch, over the grandstand and into the car park.
On the question of "pay when paid", we welcome the new Government proposals, while noting that if they had been in force at the time that Mr. Heseltine was running a business we might have been deprived of the glorious presence of a deputy Prime Minister because that is the way Mr. Heseltine, according to his own account--I say that, of course, without any duplicitous intent, to use the modern phrase--made his fortune. But there is a residual concern that the insolvency exemption allows loopholes which will be to the detriment of precisely the smaller contractors whom the noble Earl was so anxious to help. We shall have to look at that carefully.
It is difficult to be enthusiastic either way about the third bit of the egg, and I imagine most curates would munch their way through this part without departing from respectful silence. I refer to the passage on architects. This has, we are told, the strong support of the Royal Institute of British Architects and, given that
But even here there are some oddities. Not very long ago, in February 1992 to be exact, as the noble Earl pointed out, the Government set up a review of the Architects Registration Acts from 1931 to 1969. The review was conducted by an assessor for the Department of the Environment, Mr. John Warne. The review's conclusions were decisive, and warmly welcomed by the Government. The conclusions, I have to tell your Lordships, were that the protection of the title "architect" should be abolished and that the Architects Registration Council of the United Kingdom should be disbanded, its functions to be taken over on a self-regulatory basis by RIBA. So enthusiastic were the Government about these conclusions that they embraced them with the greatest alacrity, and continued to do so until their change of mind. Indeed so sudden was that change of mind that one unfortunate DoE Minister found himself making a passionate speech pledging the Government to implement the Warne conclusions only the day before one of his ministerial colleagues rose to his feet in another place to announce the opposite.
Now, of course, the Government are no stranger to that sort of event, and we have all learnt to take it in our stride. No doubt we will be offered some explanation for this sudden change of heart or, perhaps more likely, an assertion that Ministers were blameless and that it was all the fault of the officials in the first place. But the real question which has to be answered is this: why is it that in almost all other professions, lawyers, accountants, stockbrokers and so on, the Government favour self-regulation, but in this particular case, when there is a competent and distinguished body able to take on the job, they go for statutory control? It seems so out of keeping with their usual approach. As it happens, it is also out of keeping with the Latham approach of Constructing the Team which is the title of the Latham Report. You cannot construct a team when one of its members is given a privileged legal status and is subject to a separate discipline.
Part IV of the Bill deals with relocation grants and is very welcome. Indeed, it is the only bit of the egg that the curate may eat more or less without reservation. Whatever we think about the single regeneration budget--and it is by no means a perfect arrangement--it is certainly better than the previous system of regeneration grants. I confess I find it a bit odd that only now is the SRB to be given, in the words of the explanatory memorandum to the Bill, "a legislative basis". Does this mean that the awards that have taken place already were illegal? What is the answer to that question? Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, will explain that when he comes to wind up. As for relocation grants in clearance areas, we welcome these. They are based on good practice developed by Birmingham City Council--I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Fisher of Rednal in this--which the DoE study showed to have beneficial results, and Birmingham should be congratulated. The only point I would make is that the scheme will only work properly
I come at last to Part V of the Bill. Our curate has now got down to the shell at the bottom of the egg. This part is entitled "Miscellaneous and General Provisions". This seems to occur in many Bills nowadays, and serves as a general repository for things which will not fit elsewhere or which the department would like to get in while they have a legislative slot. Thus we have residuary bodies, about which my noble friend Lord Dubs will say more later. I will confine myself to one comment. In the case of urban development corporations we have been assured time after time that once the period for a particular UDC was terminated the properties would revert to local authorities. Are those assurances now to be considered worthless? Are all the assets of the UDCs going to be transferred to unelected residuary bodies? Indeed, are all the assets of new towns to be flogged off by a new quango? It really cannot make much sense.
As your Lordships will by now have gathered, this is a long, complicated and difficult Bill. I am afraid that the Committee stage will be similarly long and difficult. It might have been easier had we been persuaded by the Government that the intentions behind the Bill, and its likely effect if passed into law, would be on balance beneficial. We are, I am afraid, unable to take that view, and we will in Committee hope to expose its inadequacy and attempt to improve it. We will be doing the same when its Siamese twin, the Housing Bill, comes before your Lordships' House, as neither of them taken in the round provide an effective response to the country's many pressing housing, construction and regeneration needs. This should have been the moment for the Government to produce something positive and convincing. They have not done so. When the time comes, we will.
Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, the title of the Bill suggests an ambitious programme. Housing grants, construction and regeneration are ringing terms. However, leaving aside Parts II and III, which I concede are important, it is a Bill concerned with detail. It is important detail, but nevertheless detail. I see it not as a strategic Bill, more micro than macro.
With boring conservatism, I shall start at the beginning, although I am not sure where the beginning of a curate's egg is. That is not something which lends itself neatly to anything with parallel lines. I shall begin with Part I. I do not pretend that the issues are easy. The foreword to the housing White Paper referred to the balance between the role of the state in providing for necessities and the role of the individual in taking responsibility for his own needs. I do not agree with the Government's analysis that:
Within the Government's own objectives, does the Bill meet the White Paper's themes of choice, opportunity and responsibility? I recognise that the Bill contains the offcuts and outtakes of the main Bill, subject perhaps to the lost 54 clauses, but I suspect that it does not.
The Bill might have been called the Housing Condition Bill because condition is the nearest to a common thread running through it. Housing condition matters greatly. Decent housing and good health are fundamental to personal wellbeing. If one has good quality housing one is more likely to have better health than if one is in bad housing. It is crucial to the individual and for society as a whole. It is not only a moral issue but a matter of good economics and of common sense. The noble Lord, Lord Williams, referred to the costs to society: healthcare, reduced productivity if one is in poor health, and the effect on children and on children's education. It has a place in effective community care and the local economy. Housing restoration is labour-intensive. It uses a high proportion of indigenous materials, and that amounts to jobs locally and nationally.
Housing is a national asset. Our housing stock is ageing. Approximately half of it is more than 50 years old. Within the private rented sector about three-quarters is more than 50 years old. Old housing is not necessarily bad. Indeed, it is often very good. However, it needs to be looked after. The noble Lord, Lord Williams, referred to the rate of replacement of obsolete properties, which is now so low that housing built today will have to last about 4,000 years. He did not say that that is probably as long as Stonehenge has lasted, but I suspect that he and I probably got that fact from the same source. Therefore, it is very important that investment in maintenance, repair and improvement is continued. One might say that tender loving care is needed.
The scale of the problem, as reported by the National Housing Forum in its paper Papering over the cracks, published about 18 months ago, is that there are 1.8 million homes unfit for human habitation, 3.9 million in need of substantial urgent repair and at least 300,000 houses shared by more than one household, most of which lack adequate means of escape from fire. People living in housing in poor condition are more likely to be on low incomes, unemployed, young single people, frail older people over 75, or members of minority ethnic groups.
Repairs are becoming very difficult for many households in poor quality housing. We know of the low level of income of many households. We know of the problems of negative equity. We need a strategy to help owners and private landlords--who are in an important position to provide a major source of housing--to afford the costs of property ownership. Housing is a national asset, and it must be good business practice to invest in, and maintain, that asset base.
The Government have set their own target of houses that will be needed in the foreseeable future at 50 per cent. of new houses on brownfield or re-used sites. I wonder whether the Bill has a place in helping to meet that target.
What is the thrust of Part I of the Bill? It ends most mandatory grants, but it constrains discretion. As I read the Bill it seems to provide neither a national strategy nor real discretion locally. As the noble Lord, Lord Williams, said, what is local is at times difficult to determine. Boundaries in urban areas do indeed run along streets, although that between Westminster and Wandsworth is a rather wet street. However, if the noble Lord is suggesting that the Thames would be better used as a highway I agree with him. There is not true discretion. A local authority can grant aid if various criteria set by the Bill are met. Its discretion then relates to whether or not to provide the assistance.
The Bill ends the statutory means to tackle the problem. Discretionary grants are not a framework for a strategic approach, without which disrepair will continue. The current system is founded on an assumption that if property is unfit action will be taken to address the problem. That system is being dismantled.
The Bill does not address the funding difficulties. One did not realistically expect that it would. However, funding is a fundamental issue. I recognise that it is not the whole issue. However cash-happy one is, one must target, prioritise and identify best value for money. However, one cannot let this debate pass without commenting on the competing demands for local authority resources, which must affect the level of grant.
What are the Government doing to encourage other sources of funding and to raise awareness among owner occupiers of maintenance needs? Is it that, with repossessions running at 1,000 a week and a stagnant market and negative equity, they accept that there is rather less incentive to repair than there might have been?
The system does not have the values of a truly discretionary scheme. It does not enable local authorities to work up and implement their own plans. For instance, how will the residence qualification period of three years affect those starting on the home ownership ladder? Are not new owners, those coming into the market, the very people to be encouraged? The provision may vary between areas. The three-year period may be varied by the Secretary of State. I am not sure whether that applies for different areas.
What is the place of the deferred option or the do-nothing option in the national strategy? Does this set a specific place for unfit housing in the strategy? The Association of District Councils and the Association of Metropolitan Authorities--the very people one would think advocates of complete discretion for local government--say that,
What is the place of grants in the strategy for helping people to stay in their own homes? As regards discretionary grants, many of the potential applicants will be elderly. That must have implications for community care programmes.
I welcome the disabled facilities grant in principle. However, I am concerned about the delay of up to 12 months in payments of discretionary disabled facilities grants. That must lead to individual hardship. It must be costly in terms of the well-being of disabled people and their carers and involve costs to social services and the health service while the adaptations are awaited. Although it is a point for detailed amendment, the definition of a disabled person seems outdated. It reflects a definition of some generations ago. At the least it should be replaced by the definition of the Disability Discrimination Act so that, for instance, visually impaired people who are not registered blind will qualify.
I have stated that many of the people affected will be elderly, which must have implications for community care policies. In Committee we shall test the Government on the discretionary aspects of the scheme and the means testing.
My noble friend Lord Ezra will, I am sure, spend some time on the home energy efficiency provisions of the Bill. Knowing my noble friend, I am sure that he will cast light rather than heat on the subject. Those provisions are separated from the grants provisions by some 70 clauses. Is it appropriate to include provisions for grants for lights and domestic appliances in a home energy efficiency scheme which does not have the capacity to meet basic insulation and heating needs? The clause follows the part of the Bill which puts the single regeneration budget on a statutory basis. Like the noble Lord, Lord Williams, I rather blinked at the suggestion that the basis might not have been statutory and wondered what that meant.
When the single regeneration agency was formed, I expressed concern about yet another king-sized quango and asked whether it would harness talents which had not found their expression in the previous system. This was at a time when there was a damning report on the activities of the urban development corporations--I admit that I quote the press on this--which,
I am not wholly convinced that matters are now perfect. Although I accept that the bidding process, the competition process, is developing, I remain anxious about the effort, time and cost that are put into unsuccessful competition--the defeated expectations.
I remain anxious about the over-emphasis on the leverage of the private sector. A year ago £1 of single regeneration budget funding was met by £4 of private and/or public sector money. That seems to give enormous scope for tweaking and distorting the target of that funding. I do not believe that competition is the right strategy to tackle deprivation.
I look forward to detailed debate on the provisions on construction contracts. I find difficulty in accepting that an imposed disputes procedure should be separate from the courts. In a complex industry I accept that that may point to a failure of the courts, but it is an interesting and perhaps dangerous path to go down. The same applies to an imposed scheme for dealing with payments separate from that agreed by contract. At the same time I note that the Government are refusing to underwrite the industry's codes of practice by legislation. However, when such changes are heralded, so much is excluded--maintenance, process plant, off-site fabrication. Indeed, it appears to be a complete list of the privatised utilities. I look forward to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, on that aspect.
My noble friend Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank will refer to parts of the scheme which deal with the architects' profession. My personal view is that registration of the professions must provide for complaints and the need to address any compensation scheme. I speak as a solicitor whose trade association attempts also to be the organisation which responds to complaints from the public. I feel that that is not necessarily a happy mix. Having had to seek compensation from an accountant in my professional life, I discovered that that profession does not have a scheme. I look forward to the next stages of the Bill.
As regards Part I of the Bill, the chair of a district council housing committee wrote to me last week saying that government funding for housing could fall on the grounds, "If you don't have to do it, we don't have to fund it". I hope that we shall have undertakings and assurances today that the Bill is not a mechanism for reducing grant funding. I hope that we may also have assurances on the point made in the housing White Paper that local authorities will be encouraged to act as strategic enablers to make the best use of available housing and resources. I remain to be convinced by the Bill.
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