Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-121)
MR TONY MCNULTY, MR PAUL HOUSTON AND MR PETER ELLIS
WEDNESDAY 3 JULY 2002
100. We have two very specific concerns as a Committee. If you look at the areas where abandonment has begun, the properties are changing hands for very small amounts of money. The level of Housing Benefit does not reflect anything like a sensible yield on the investment that the landlord is making in the property. There is no actual reason why if a property is selling for under £5,000 the state should be spending £2,000 a year to rent it for someone. That seems to be a flaw in the system. The other element, which was a recommendation of the Empty Homes Report, is I think general licensing of every private landlord across the country would be an absolute nightmare for every local authority and completely undesirable. What you need to do is to give individual authorities the flexibility to introduce a scheme of licensing for those landlords who are expecting to take on tenants who depend on benefits. If the authority and the state is paying the bill they have a reasonable right to set an expectation on the type of property and quality of property that their money is paying for. Those are the two elements that we would like to see addressed.
(Mr McNulty) The first element is Work and Pensions, again not my concern. That is not to be pernickety with the Committee, it is simply not my role to speculate about what may or may not
101. You have the ability to make representations to colleagues.
(Mr McNulty) In the context of what develops and prevails in housing, regeneration and planning and how it impacts on other Government departments then I will be talking to other Government departments, but suffice to say it is Work and Pensions. On the second, as I understand it, the initial thing we are trying to do, and as I say hopefully as soon as possible, is on a selective basis license. Where I think the difficulty in that isI have read it but do not have the whole thing grasped by any means so if this is wrong I will certainly let the Committee knowif we do that universally it is a nightmare, an absolute nightmare, because with all these things universally you start from the other end and see what should be excluded and it just becomes a complete nightmare, so you have to select. The difficulty we have at the moment is defining under statute how you select and how you link it into the benefit system and all that you said about that sort of cross-fertilisation or relationship between the value of housing and benefits. That may be a way to go and if it is I will explore it and I will get back to this Committee or, I suspect, to cover myself, its successor body. The gist of the answer is that in terms of legislation it is easy to say in local communities where X percentage or whatever else are abandoned, empty, and there is clearly something significant going on with sinister overtones because the same landlords, criminality or otherwise, are involved we will selectively license those private landlords to take a grip because the area, the estate or whatever else, has reached X degree of depredation. That is easier and then coming back to the bit in the middle which is picking up pockets like Woodside and Telford. I think that is right but if it is not I will certainly get back to the individual Member or Chairman.
102. There is one other issue you should be looking at and that is the remit of the Rent Officers. One of the problems that was put to us in Telford was that the Rent Officers were looking at the whole of Telford in setting what were appropriate rents and therefore they were taking into account the more affluent parts of northern Telford and making a judgment about the rent on the basis of the whole area. If they made a judgment about the rents that were appropriate in some of those more difficult areas the rents would have been considerably lower and the system would not have been ripped off quite so much.
(Mr McNulty) I will certainly look at that. I think there is a lesson in that generally when you are getting down to real micro levels of doing things on a small area based focus than either ward, borough or district level. I think that is an area that does need looking at I would say, at the risk of a bolt coming from the sky, across Government rather than simply in this area.
103. You do not need to worry about a bolt from the sky.
(Mr McNulty) Oh, I do. I can assure you I do.
104. The Deputy Prime Minister told us three and a half years ago that Housing Benefit was a shambles. There is some recognition in the Department that there are problems there.
(Mr McNulty) I hope, and I am sure he does, that he remembers that.
Chairman: We will remind him.
105. The other area I want to raise with you, Minister, is many of the new towns have got small local authorities. Just down to simple things like the number of people in the planning department, for example, it does put significant pressure on them. Do you think there are any ways in which the Department can provide a back-up to them to enable them to meet some of the challenges that being a new town authority represents?
(Mr McNulty) Underlying that, which I was hoping given I have still to read the glory that is your report, is all that we may or may not do in terms of the Planning Green Paper in our legislative response to it and in response to the consultation. In the broader sense, not just new towns but in the widest possible sense, more and more again across the public policy field, as and where appropriate and if we need to make changes they should be looked at, local authorities should not live simply within their own mindset or their own administrative boundaries. That is happening in some regards. It is certainly happening in terms of some London local authorities, which clearly I know more about than others, where solutions to affordable housing are now being done on a two or three borough basis as a specific and appropriate and efficient public policy response. It may well be that needs to happen in terms of the new towns in a wider response. It may well be something that needs to be looked at in the context of whatever we come up with in terms of the Green Paper and where that goes, which I am sure will be done with the full cognisance and appreciation of your Committee's report on the Planning Green Paper which I confess I have not read yet.
106. Minister, as you personally are fully aware there is huge demand for housing, particularly in the South East. What is your opinion on whether or not some of these new towns that you have mentioned at the start can actually absorb some of that housing growth?
(Mr McNulty) Again, I think the answer is some can but that is couched because we will very much get a steer on that not just from Regional Planning Guidance 9, which talks about some of the corridors that should be included in the development, not just because of constant and ongoing repetition in terms of London and the South-East, Thames Gateway and all that entails, but because strategic sites versus non-strategic sites in the context of the actual review will give some indication that that might be appropriate. Hand on heart, is development of housing over the next ten years to try and solve London's and the South-East's problems going to include some of the new towns? I would be astonished if it did not.
107. And a new new town?
(Mr McNulty) Let us see.
108. The other observation we came back with from our site visits was these vast expanses of green spaces which were obviously very costly to maintain.
(Mr McNulty) Is that the countryside or green spaces in new towns?
109. If you take a new town like Telford, which essentially is isolated pockets of development with vast spaces between them, what is your view on building on a few of these green spaces, perhaps to meet local affordable housing needs?
(Mr McNulty) In Telford's context I am certainly not going to tell Telford what to do with the bits in-between or how to project into the future. There is clearly a role, given the land holdings there, for EP. I would be astonished if there was not at least the odd strategic site that emerged from phase two of the review in that particular context. That is not to prejudge anything but from the little I know about it. Our starting point is always, and has been, the brown field sites, the urban fringe and then you look. Do you rule it out forever, filling in some of the green bits? I do not think you do. I do not think you are serving the community or the town or the dynamism of the whole urban economic community and doing it any favours by saying everything green at the moment is redlined, that is not doing anybody any favours. In one sense, if you do look at those after you have gone through brown field and some of the more obvious locations, filling in perhaps some of those with new build that preserves the greater green fringe around the edge of some of the towns. There are quid pro quos involved.
110. Even though that will offend the purists from the new town movement?
(Mr McNulty) The purists, I do not know who they are and I have never met them but I am sure they are there because they are there in every walk of life.
111. We met them in Harlow.
(Mr McNulty) The purists, if they have a real affection for the new towns, need to live and grow with the new towns over the next ten, 15 years. New towns are not there as museums or historical heritage sites, they are there as living, vibrant communities and we want them to remain that way and grow and develop and prosper.
112. Many consider them to be part of the post-war socialist dream.
(Mr McNulty) Hopefully you do not lose some of those elements. Hopefully you do not lose some of the key elements that make particularly some of the immediate post-41s distinct. Please do not take that as Minister suggests locally and nationally listing everything in the town centres of some of the key new towns of the immediate post-war period, because I am not, but if you can, as ever in urban scapes, preserve some of that heritage but live and grow as communities and urban centres need to, then that is perfectly fine.
113. I think Stan Newins on behalf of the Harlow Civic Society would be very pleased to see some protection for the green wedges in Harlow.
(Mr McNulty) Maybe so. In the first instance, with all due deference to Stan, that is a matter for Harlow and Stan as part of the stakeholder community or whatever in Harlow.
114. Finally, in the strategic review of English Partnerships, is one of the things you are looking at possibly the winding up of English Partnerships up and giving their assets to local authorities or the RDAs? People have said to us repeatedly what is the purpose of the body now that we have other organisations.
(Mr McNulty) As I understand the framework or good practice for the development of Quinquennial Reviews that is phase one and if after phase one you accept there is a rationale, a raison d'etre, a purpose, a mission, for this particular non-departmental public body you move on to phase two. In that sense that has been asked and answered and we are now into phase two.
115. So English Partnerships is there for the foreseeable future?
(Mr McNulty) I guess, yes. It depends how you define "foreseeable" or "future". I would hope it will be given that phase one has been determined. Does "foreseeable future" mean to act in the way it has done in the last three years, five years, ten years, I would hope not because the essence and excitement of this whole areahousing, regeneration planning, all of itis it is forward, it is dynamic, it has to react to the environments within which it works and grow and take all the elements with it. If English Partnerships or any other element in the partnership is not doing that then that is troublesome but from what I have heard, meetings and discussions I have had, they are about forging those partnerships and taking everything forward.
116. Recognising that some of the non-strategic sites may go back to local authorities or whatever, what can English Partnerships do on strategic sites that the RDAs could not do?
(Mr McNulty) In that sense I do not know, show me the strategic sites, because you are back to what are they.
117. As a matter of principle surely the RDAs were created for that purpose?
(Mr McNulty) I do not think they were created to take over the strategic sites as defined by the second stage of the Quinquennial Review into English Partnerships.
118. They should be capable of doing the work.
(Mr McNulty) I would guess so but English Partnerships must bring something else to the table. What they bring to the table will be defined by whether we agree or not with their strategic sites and the whole undercurrent of stage two of the review.
Chris Grayling: There are some specific sites, such as the Omega site in Warrington which as far as I am aware is still undeveloped which has been classified for a number of years as being a potential major inward investment site in the North West. Therefore, in that case, it is obvious there is linkage with the RDA.
119. Why can RDAs not deal with that?
(Mr McNulty) Because EP, CNT and URA before it, that existed before they did, have got a whole bunch of land holdings and we have a national set of policy objectives that we want to fulfil. I think, as has been said, in some cases non-strategic sites may well go to the RDA. I would think in most cases, if not all cases, development of the strategic sites will be within the context of a partnership with the RDA and whether the local authorities are concerned. We decided at the first stage of the review that there is a future, especially in terms of brown field development, for English Partnerships. The second stage is now looking at the strategic dimension for that and what sites they should own. It is not as simple as strategic sites EP still have a role, non-strategic sites they do not.
120. It could be argued that the strategic review of English Partnerships stage one was carried out by a Minister who had perhaps slightly less sympathy for the Regional Development Agency than the Deputy Prime Minister. Since the Deputy Prime Minister is now responsible for it, might it not be that he might feel that the Regional Development Agency should be playing a bigger role in this?
(Mr McNulty) That is so entirely mischievous and laced with speculation that I am not going to answer it, with the best will in the world, because it would ask for an opinion on previous colleagues, an opinion on existing colleagues and an opinion on, at least as I count, three governmental agencies. I have been here four weekspass.
121. On that note, can I thank you very much for your evidence. Perhaps I can offer you a copy of our report on the Planning Green Paper which I am sure will make some nice lunchtime reading for you.
(Mr McNulty) It will not because I have got to go to the Adjournment Debate in Westminster Hall, but thank you anyway, I shall certainly read it.
Chairman: Thank you.