HC Deb 11 July 1988 vol 137 cc23-9 3.31 pm
Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)

(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on his intention to enforce the takeover of local authority housing by Government-appointed housing action trusts.

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. William Waldegrave)

Subject to approval by both Houses of Parliament of the Housing Bill and of the necessary designation orders, my right hon. Friend proposes to establish housing action trusts in:

  • Lambeth: Loughborough and Angell Town estates;
  • Southwark: North Peckham and Gloucester Grove estates;
  • Tower Hamlets: Solander Gardens, Shadwell Gardens, Berner, Boundary and Holland estates and part of Ocean estate;
  • Leeds: Halton Moor, Seacroft South and Gipton estates;
  • Sandwell: Windmill Land and Whiteheath estates; and
  • Sunderland: Downhill, Townend Farm and Hylton Castle estates.

Maps have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses today showing the areas that might be covered by the housing action trusts. My right hon. Friend will shortly be appointing consultants to advice him further. Final decisions on the areas to be designated will be taken in the light of the consultants' studies and of local views.

My right hon. Friend has chosen those areas taking account of the matters listed in clause 60(5) of the Ho using Bill. The combination of problems associated with the rundown council housing in those areas is such that a radical approach is necessary to give tenants decent housing, better services and more choice. It will therefore be the job of each housing action trust, in consultation with the residents, to carry out a major programme of renovation, to bring empty council properties back into use, to improve the way in which estates are looked after and generally to help improve the economic, environmental and social conditions of the area.

The creation of housing action trusts provides an opportunity to target resources on some of the areas where major concentrations of poor quality public sector stock create very intractable problems. I therefore hope that the local authorities concerned will co-operate fully in setting up housing action trusts so that tenants can gain as soon as possible from the benefits that they will bring. My right hon. Friend is writing to the leaders of the councils concerned today about the proposals. He is also writing to all local residents who might be affected.

Mr. Soley

Yet again, we have had to drag information out of a reluctant Government who are increasingly embarrassed by their housing crisis.

First, why is there no choice for tenants or residents in those areas? What has happened to the word "choice"? Secondly, why has there been so little consultation? Thirdly, what guarantees will we be given that the local communities will not be squeezed out and replaced by people from other areas? What guarantees are the Government giving to homeless people so that they will be able to get housing in those areas and to local authorities so that they can provide that housing for those people?

The Minister said that he was anxious to get empty council property back into use. Will he make sure that the housing action trusts have the same powers to bring back into use empty Government-owned properties, given that there are three times as many empty Government-owned properties as there are empty council-owned properties? Will housing action trusts have the same powers to bring back into use empty housing association properties—there are marginally more of those properties empty than there are council-owned properties—and empty private sector housing, given that there are nearly twice as many of those properties empty as there are empty public-sector properties?

I recognise that, in Committee, the Minister conceded that tenants would be able to go back to the local authority when a housing action trust was wound up if they so wished. It is important that he ensures that that is not just a paper promise, that local authorities have the housing finance to allow them to take those tenants back and that cuts are not imposed on local authorities which would make it impossible for them to offer to repurchase the estates.

What guarantees do we have that landlords such as Mr. van Hoogstraten will not benefit, given that he has already described the Housing Bill as a "step in the right direction"?

Mr. Waldegrave

The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) knows the answers to most of those questions because he asked them in Committee and he was given the answers then. I had intended to answer a written question put down by the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), but I am delighted to answer this matter orally.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith knows very well that there will be consultation with the tenants at all stages and that all the plans and directions, if any, from the Secretary of State will be published. I believe that the hon. Gentleman would welcome that. The hon. Gentleman also knows that the interests of local people are central to the housing action trusts. I had hoped that, rather than taking the usual negative attitude, he would have welcomed what amounts to an additional £125 million over three years for six of the areas where there is most need for that money to be spent. I am sorry that he has not found it in him to welcome that. There is a duty to co-operate with local authorities on homelessness, and he is aware of that. I believe that it is slightly unlikely that there will be Ministry of Defence properties on any of the estates, but if there are, we shall hope to get them back into action as soon as possible.

The hon. Gentleman is well aware of the system for the return of the estates to local authorities if they are willing to have them back, and these authorities will be free to purchase the estates back if they wish to do so.

There was no need for the cheap remark about Mr. van Hoogstraten because the hon. Gentleman knows that any transfers out of HATs will be to "tenant-guaranteed" landlords, housing associations and co-operatives. It is a bit of a cheap scare story to bring Mr. van Hoogstraten into this.

I believe that, in the next few weeks, when the tenants in the designated areas receive the information about the immense potential benefits on offer, they will take a slightly more generous and positive view than the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. John Heddle (Mid-Staffordshire)

Will my hon. Friend accept the congratulations of all the tenants in the areas that he has mentioned, as the opportunity that he has just announced will enable them to release themselves from the clutches of unsympathetic local authority landlords? Will my hon. Friend accept that HATs will do more to relieve the plight of the homeless? Will he further accept that those areas such as Southwark, which has rent arrears of £30 million, will be relieved from debt? Does my hon. Friend also agree that HATs will produce better housing management and more sympathetic living conditions for those who are currently homeless?

Mr. Waldegrave

I welcome my hon. Friend's support for this extremely important matter. To put it politely, it is perfectly obvious that some local authorities that cover the estates cannot grapple with the severity of the problems that they presently face—[HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"]—and central Government are now bringing resources to bear to do that. Labour Members may ask why, but the answer is exactly the same as why they and the leadership of their party would like to see different people in power in many of those local authorities.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

What will be the constitutional position of the new areas in Leeds? On Saturdays, many Leeds constituents consult their Members of Parliament about the allocation of houses and repairs, and I wish to know whether it will be in order now to table private notice questions and to write letters to Ministers. Will the Secretary of State take the place of the local authority? If he is not to do that, who is?

Mr. Waldegrave

The right hon. Gentleman is running a little ahead. The HATs will not be established until the House and another place have debated the matter. In due couse, it will be for the boards of the HATs to deal with management problems. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be ultimately responsible to the House.

Sir George Young (Ealing, Acton)

Is my hon. Friend aware that his statement will be widely welcomed, not least by tenants in difficult-to-let estates throughout the country, who have been failed by their local authorities? Will he tell the House when the first HAT will be up and running? Will he confirm that in many instances there is a need for physical improvement and better management afterwards? Will he confirm that HATs will put into effect localised and efficient repair services to maintain the momentum that the HATs begin?

Mr. Waldegrave

My hon. Friend, as usual on these matters, is entirely right. We hope to have HATs set up early next year. If the Labour party feels that the playing of party games in opposition on all these matters is inevitable, that will delay the bringing of benefits to the tenants whom they claim to represent. The localised management of the priority states project teams and Estate Action, if carried forward, will be carried forward also in the HATs. That is what we shall be doing.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

As a representative of a borough that is to have an HAT, may I say that more Government money for housing in rundown areas of England is welcome? However, I have one or two questions for the Minister for Housing and Planning. First, is this a "this is your choice" designation or is it a "there is no alternative" designation? Will there be a veto? Will tenants be able to approve the proposal, or will it go ahead irrespective of the views of local people.

Secondly, will representatives be on the boards of the HATs, having been democratically elected by local people? Thirdly, will the rents and the tenants' rights that are now enjoyed continue to be enjoyed in a similar way after the trusts have been created? Lastly, will local councils be able to nominate all the homeless in an HAT area, people whom they have a duty and a responsibility to house?

Mr. Waldegrave

We debated some of the hon. Gentleman's questions in Committee. First, I hope that there will be local representatives on the boards of the trusts. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and other departmental Ministers will be meeting local authorities to discuss these matters with them. The hon. Gentleman knows that there is no veto over the establishment of an HAT. Ultimately, it is for the House to decide whether a trust is established.

We have said repeatedly that rents will not increase before improvements have been made, and even then may increase only in line with local authority rents generally. As new money will be brought to bear—it will not be borrowing from the local authority—tenants will enjoy the benefit of smaller increases in rents than there would otherwise be for such improvements. They will remain secure tenants while they are in the HAT.

Mr. Robin Squire (Hornchurch)

Is there not a simple fact behind my hon. Friend's excellent statement: that the HATs are an imaginative way of bringing assistance to estates that have reached a level that is unacceptable? Is my hon. Friend aware that all men and women of good will will wish the initiative godspeed, not least on behalf of tenants who have suffered too much for too long?

Mr. Waldegrave

My hon. Friend puts succinctly what is surely the truth. I have visited most of the estates where HATs are to be established, and I think that, between us, I and my ministerial colleagues have recently visited them all. Opposition Members know many of them extremely well. I should be most surprised if anyone were willing to say that the estates do not merit the best efforts of the House and additional resources to bring them into a better condition.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Is the Minister aware that I read out to the Secretary of State the list of estates that he presented at the Dispatch Box this afternoon during the all-night sitting on 14 June on the Housing Bill? When I read out exactly the same list, the Secretary of State said that no decision had been taken. When was the decision taken?

Mr. Waldegrave

The hon. Gentleman is amazingly perspicacious. As a matter of fact, his memory is at fault—the list is not the same.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

Is it not a sign or the confusion of the Labour party—not on housing policy alone—that it does not know whether to applaud or to deprecate my hon. Friend's announcement? Will my hon. Friend confirm that if—as Conservative Members believe to be the case—the housing action trusts turn out to be a great success, this pilot scheme will be extended to other parts of the country?

Mr. Waldegrave

Yes, and doubtless at that point the pushmi-pullyu opposite—which remains stationary, emitting peculiar noises—will come down on our side and join us, as it has on the right to buy and so many other policies.

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)

On many deplorable estates, not least in the borough of Tower Hamlets, the issue that the Minister must consider is whether this is the best way of dealing with those problems or whether he should pursue the previous policy of priority estate projects and begin to repair some of the housing investment programme allocations that have been so grievously reduced in the past few years.

I fear that I know already what the answer will be, but can the Minister really say, despite what he has previously said about consultation, that if both the local authority and the tenants on the estate do not wish to have a housing action trust, nevertheless it will be imposed upon them?

Mr. Waldegrave

I answered the last question when I told the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) that it will be for the House to decide.

On the right hon. Gentleman's first question, he knows very well that if additional allocations were made to a number of boroughs—perhaps I say this in relation to his borough—the way in which that money would be spent would be extremely unpredictable, to put it politely, and it may be wasted. I believe that this is the best way forward. We shall continue Estate Action and the priority estates programme where that is the best way, but in some areas the problems are so great that a much longer and more concentrated direction of resources is now needed.

Mr. Robert Banks (Harrogate)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his statement today and especially on choosing Leeds. Is this not the implementation of a policy for real action that will bring tangible benefits to many people in the rundown areas? Will he especially monitor the progress of the housing action trust when they get under way, so that we can be kept fully in the picture as to their success?

Mr. Waldegrave

My hon. Friend makes a good point. We should monitor this new policy very closely, and we shall do so. I join him in saying that the policy is likely to bring real benefits, choice and hope to some areas that have been short of them for too long.

Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East)

Does the Minister accept that Sandwell's housing problems have been considerably worsened in recent years by the consistent underfunding of its HIP allocation? That is not politics, but fact. Can he assure us that the local authority and the local voluntary housing sector will be encouraged to set up these trusts, or will the trusts be confined entirely to the private sector, which has consistently failed boroughs such as Sandwell for many years?

Mr. Waldegrave

These trusts are not in the private sector, but are part of the public sector. They will be established by the House and they will be responsible to my right hon. Friend. We hope for good co-operation from the local authorities, the many housing associations and other housing experts operating in those areas.

Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West)

Does my hon. Friend accept that his statement today will bring real relief and help to people in Labour-controlled areas who have been left to rot by successive Labour councils in places in which no Labour Members would wish to live? Does he accept that there will be some disappointment that his statement does not include more areas to be designated as housing action trusts? When does he expect to be able to extend the housing action trusts to Bradford, Manchester, Newham and other areas where the Labour party has failed the people?

Mr. Waldegrave

That remains open to us for the future. If the new policy goes well, I hope that additional housing action trusts will be nominated. My hon. Friend was entirely right when he said that if anybody can doubt that national resources are now needed for these areas to bring them back into decent—[Interruption.] If anyone believes that some of the present housing management is capable of that, he is living in cloud-cuckoo-land.

Mrs. Harriet Harman (Peckham)

Can the Minister assure the people who live in north Peckham and Gloucester grove that they will benefit from any additional investment in their estates? Does he recognise that, based on the experience of the London Docklands development corporation in the north of the borough, there is widespread concern that existing tenants will not benefit? It is feared that they will be driven out in favour of those who can buy.

Mr. Waldegrave

There is not all that much comparison between a UDC and an HAT. The interests of existing tenants are central to an HAT's purpose. The failure or the success of housing action trusts will be judged by whether they have brought benefits to the hon. Lady's constituents who are tenants of those estates.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Bristol, East)

Why has there been no announcement for Bristol, with all its inner-city housing problems that my hon. Friend and I know so well? Could it be that it helps if there is co-operation with the local authority when establishing housing action trusts? One sees from the past actions of the Labour-controlled Bristol city council that it is more interested in bigotry than in caring for the community.

Mr. Waldegrave

My hon. Friend will well understand that Bristol was not forgotten. I was interested to hear him say that he believes that a housing action trust for Bristol might be worth considering for the future. He is quite right that we face the spectacle of Bristol city council wasting a considerable sum of ratepayers' money by pointlessly petitioning against the UDC, which most people in Bristol warmly welcome.

Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)

Reverting to the two estates in my constituency, if the majority of the tenants oppose the order, will that influence the Government and will they not proceed with it? Secondly——

Mr. Speaker


Mr. John Fraser

—if the Government are to provide extra resources for estates such as Angell town, why will the same resources be denied to similar estates in the neighbourhood, such as Tulse hill and Stockwell park? What is the difference in principle? Thirdly, will the Minister give an undertaking that all vacancies will be made available to Lambeth people, and will Lambeth be able to spend only 20 per cent. of its capital receipts, or the whole lot?

Mr. Waldegrave

The hon. Gentleman opposes these proposals but then asks why the same cannot apply to other estates. There were difficult decisions to make about the estates that were in most need. We have selected some estates that we believe will benefit dramatically. On the hon. Gentleman's first important point, I have already made it clear twice to his right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) and to the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) that it is for this House ultimately to decide whether to pursue housing action trusts.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

What consultation was there with Sunderland borough council before the decision was made to designate estates in its area? Is the Minister aware that public housing in Sunderland is extremely well run and that the only problem it faces is the shortage of funds from central Government?

Mr. Waldegrave

There were no formal consultations with local authorities before the estates were designated. That has always been made clear. The time for consultation is now. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State looks forward to discussions with the Sunderland borough council and others in the months ahead. There is nothing new about that. It is right that the proposals should be put to the House before they are discussed with outside interests. I have no doubt that had we done it the other way round the hon. Gentleman would have been jumping up and down and saying, "How dare you consult outside before coming to the House to announce the list?"

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind the House that this is a private notice question and that we have had a long run on it. I shall give precedence on a subsequent occasion to those hon. Members who have not been called.