Examination of Witnesses (Questions 660
WEDNESDAY 16 JANUARY 2002
MP AND SIR
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.
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
(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 yearwere 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.
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
(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.
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.
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.
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 forceto be honestlandlords 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.
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 stockgiving them
cash incentivesand 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 builtand of course
we dothe 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 politicallyand
it can often be a difficult lead and you can be criticised for
itwe 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.
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
(Mr Byers) There is a unit in the department that
is doing precisely that.