HC Deb 25 June 1974 vol 875 cc1356-9
Mr. Stallard

I beg to move Amendment No. 6, in page 34, line 23, leave out 'appearing to the authority to be suitably qualified' and insert 'normally resident in the area'. I will follow the pattern set by other hon. Members and speak quite briefly. I felt worried when I read the words in the Bill in Clause 34, line 23: persons appearing to the authority to be suitably qualified". I immediately began to think about what criteria would be used to find out whether a person was suitably qualified. I would like to be able to think that an association of residents would be accepted as suitably qualified persons to submit a report supporting the declaration of a housing action area. If the Minister can give me that assurance I shall feel much happier.

Mr. Ronald Brown (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

I support my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard). These words "suitably qualified" need to be spelled out more clearly. In the view of most people I have consulted, it is thought that such people will have to be professionally qualified. I am not sure whether my hon. Friend has that in mind, but that is how it is being interpreted. We must be in a position to allow people living in the area to declare how they think the area should be developed.

Mr. Kaufman

I would like to reassure both of my hon. Friends. Under the clause there is nothing to prevent residents in potential housing action areas, or residents' associations, from submitting reports on such areas or assisting others in compiling them. Indeed, I go further and say that it is expected that they will do so and that the authorities concerned may well decide that they are suitably qualified. The Department of the Environment has heard of one or two residents' groups which have already suggested that their areas should be declared as housing action areas.

I point out to my hon. Friend that to confine the reference to the submission on potential housing action areas to persons normally resident in an area would restrict the scope for declarations and would restrict the definition of housing action areas. For instance, it would exclude local authority officers, councillors, consultants, civic societies, housing associations, and Members of Parliament. I intend to press my local authority to declare housing action areas in parts of my constituency in which I am not resident. The part I live in deserves to be called a housing action area but there are other parts which are even worse. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend ought not to be insulting towards the premier city of the land.

My hon. Friend's amendment would exclude such persons and organisations unless the people concerned happen to live in the housing action area. It is unreasonable to dispense with the obvious qualification that the person concerned should at least appear to the authority with the responsibility for housing to be suitably qualified.

Residents and their associations have a rôle to play in seeking to initiate housing action area action. But there is no doubt that on merits and in practice the local authority will, and normally should, take the lead. It is a question not only of the need for such action but of the resources required to carry through an action programme and of priority between one potential housing action area and another. In declared housing action areas residents will have a prominent place, and will be involved in proposals. Clauses 35(4) and 39 secure that they are involved.

In any case, the amendment would not oblige a local authority to act on a report, no matter by whom it was submitted. It would remain at the discretion of an authority to consider whether it should declare as a housing action area an area which was the subject of a report. That is obviously appropriate, as a housing action area could not be effectively dealt with without a commitment by the authority.

I hope that both my hon. Friends, whose arguments I take seriously, will be reassured by what I have said, and that my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard) will not feel obliged to press the amendment.

10.30 p.m.

Mr. Stallard

I am grateful to the Minister for his reply, and for the amount of detailed thought he has given to the amendment. On the basis of his statement, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Freeson

I beg to move Amendment No. 22, in page 35, line 5, leave out 'act in accordance with' and insert 'have regard to'.

The amendment arises from an argument presented in Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham), who sought to replace the power to give guidance by a power for the Secretary of State to make regulations subject to negative resolution of either House. He argued that "guidance" that had to be complied with was not guidance but, in effect, "instructions", and that instructions should be a matter for delegated legislation, subject to parliamentary control and embodied in statutory instruments rather than in departmental circulars.

There was a wide-ranging debate in Committee, as a consequence of which I made it clear that it was not the intention to use the clause to impose detailed control by the Secretary of State on local authorities in their housing action area declarations. The aim is rather to give guidance in general terms which will be flexible to take account of the wide variation of circumstances in different districts and regions. The intention of the amendment is to clarify this and to meet the objections raised in Committee to the original wording—inherited from the Housing and Planning Bill—that it implied a degree of control over local authorities for which no sufficient justification could be given in the context of housing action areas.

Mr. George Cunningham

I am grateful to the Minister for making this concession. This may be a small point, but it is fundamental. I would prefer subsection (3) to be deleted, because if the guidance is truly guidance the Minister does not require statutory authority to give it. He could simply issue a circular, to which the local authority would no doubt have regard. There is no practical difference between that arrangement and the one which is suggested by the Minister, and I am therefore happy to go along with what he proposes.

As I said I would in Committee, I have referred the point as a general one to the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments. It would be a serious matter if it became a habit for Ministers to have power, in effect, to give instructions in the form of delegated legislation by means of a circular which had statutory backing. I hope that the Select Committee will take that matter seriously as a general one, not in relation to the Bill.

Amendment agreed to.

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