HC Deb 14 June 1988 vol 135 cc469-77 2.15 pm
Mr. Spearing

I beg to move amendment No. 311, in page 44, line 34, leave out 'after consultation with' and insert 'with the consent of'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to consider amendment No. 312, in page 44, line 35, leave out 'with' and insert 'of'.

Mr. Spearing

Clause 61 of this controversial Bill confers planning control powers on the housing action trusts. As was said in an earlier debate, it is in itself a controversial matter, because, it will involve taking powers from the local borough or district council and putting them in the hands of a HAT. That is an exceptional step of which there has been only one previous example in this country, in urban development corporations. It is particularly controversial because, despite their reassuring name, housing action trusts are appointed by the Secretary of State. HATs are not accountable to local people and are not formally connected in any way with local councils, but fall entirely within the jurisdiction and direction of the Secretary of State.

The power that will be given to housing action trusts is controversial because they will be entirely within the remit of the Secretary of State and because they will remove powers from local authorities. The subsection about which I am worried states: A housing action trust may submit to the Secretary of State proposals for the development of land within its designated area and the Secretary of State, after consultation with the local planning authority within whose area the land is situated and with any other local authority which appears to him to be concerned, may approve any such proposals either with or without modification. I emphasise the latter few words because they mean that even if housing action trusts have an idea of what to do —they may have conducted some informal non-statutory consultation with the local authority or with the people whom they are supposed to benefit—the Secretary of State can modify those proposals. That is controversial because it means that Whitehall can modify a planning application made in Manchester, Newcastle or Wales without intervention by our democratic planning procedures. Under those procedures, appeals are made to the Secretary of State, cases are called in occasionally or there are public local inquiries to which the Secretary of State sends an inspector. In this case, not only will the planning proposal be drawn up not by the democratic planning committee but by the housing action trust, but the Secretary of State can modify the proposal without giving a reason and without democratic dialogue.

The simple change that I propose would mean that, instead of just consulting the local planning authority on the development of land, the housing action trust must obtain its consent. The HAT may cover only a small area, whereas a planning district or borough may be fairly large and may require a range of technical expertise in its staff. For those small areas to have their own planning powers is a grotesque interference with the established structure of planning. By substituting "consent" for "consultation" wish to bring back the democratic process so that there can be a proper relationship between the housing action trust area and the much larger surrounding area.

Let us take the example of docklands. As we know from an earlier debate, it is possible that a housing action trust will be established in the Canning Town area of the London borough of Newham. The area has a local plan and is subject to Newham's planning proposals. The facilities provided and the amount of open space established in the borough are regulated by a well-known planning process. The idea that people appointed by central Government should draw up a plan for the area that is unrelated to the plans of local elected councils and subject to central direction from the Secretary of State, with only the limited consultation available under the Bill, is wrong and undemocratic.

We already have something like this—the London Docklands development corporation. It is a planning authority, which means that there is now no proper democratic accountability for its decisions other than through the House. Hon. Members know that we have a lot to do here, but it is ludicrous that accountability for certain decisions in my constituency is via the Secretary of State. The planning proposals that come from the LDDC are not subject to any democratic check other than across the Floor of the House or via the Royal Mail or, occasionally, the pigeonholes in the Central Lobby.

At the moment, we have an important planning application for jets to use London City airport. The decision to put jets into an airport surrounded by tower blocks, flats and factories, some of them with important works, has aroused a great deal of local controversy. However, instead of the planning authority now considering an application by the airways people for those movements, and being responsible to the local people, it is responsible only to the LDDC, which in turn is responsible to the Minister. It will make the decision and, although local people may have a say, they will not decide.

The same will apply to a housing action trust. I am not suggesting that there will be many airports bang in the middle of a HAT, but we do not know what applications there may be for high-value developments. Many such schemes—for example, for luxury flats—might easily be located in a HAT. For instance, there may be an area of open space which the HAT considers to be in excess of need. There is nothing to prevent it from selling off part of the space for a luxury hotel. The planning application would be agreed, and without let or hindrance the HAT would get the plan through. It is a nominee of the Secretary of State.

Who would have believed that this Government, who talk about local freedoms, would establish a planning system in which somebody in Whitehall could determine the future use, "with or without modification", as clause 61 says, of somewhere in Nottingham, Cheshire or anywhere to the north of Berwick?

Mr. Hanley

Or Richmond.

Mr. Spearing

It could be Richmond, although I doubt that HATs are likely to be there. It is not the sort of area that the Secretary of State has in mind.

Who would have supposed that a Conservative Government would have made such a proposal? What about the relationship between this proposal and the strategic plan? In an earlier debate, the Secretary of State, trying to be reassuring, said that the HATs will have to be in accordance with the strategic plan. The Secretary of State is not here, so I ask the Minister: what is the strategic plan for Greater London? We have not got one.

Mr. Brandon-Bravo

The elimination of Labour seats.

Mr. Spearing

The hon. Gentleman has brought me on to my next point about the elimination of the GLC.

Mr. Brandon-Bravo

No, Labour seats.

Mr. Spearing

A Secretary of State may have the elimination of Labour seats in mind when he considers areas suitable for HATs—we have not yet been told where they will be. They are not being given to the people. Conservative Members say that they are being given to the people, but they are being given to the members of the housing action trust, who will be local gauleiters, local stewards of the Secretary of State, not only because they will have the ownership of the land which they will have purchased from the council at knock-down prices, including all the peasants, all the peons, all the villeins, cotters and bordars in occupation of the manor which at the moment belongs to the people, but they will also have planning permission for vacant land.

It is a formula for all sorts of problems to give people who are not democratically accountable locally the ownership of space plus the magic Midas touch of planning permission, and for all that to be subject to the diktat of the Secretary of State.

2.30 pm
Mr. Winnick

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will you confirm that, as far as the House is concerned, it remains Tuesday and that Wednesday's business has now gone? Secondly, would it be possible for you to ask the Leader of the House to make a statement on business? He is not here, and I should have thought that the Leader of the House should be present to make a statement as soon as possible.

Mr. Speaker

That is not a point of order. It remains Tuesday and we are debating amendment No. 311.

Mr. Allan Roberts

On a different point of order, Mr. Speaker. We are debating the Housing Bill, and the Opposition are doing that at length because of the importance of the subject and not with any wish to talk out any other business. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I fully accept that. The occupants of the Chair will ensure that the debate remains in order, as has been the case so far.

Mr. Cryer

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am very grateful for your last comment because there have been suggestions that there have been unduly lengthy speeches on some points. In case one or two of the rowdy hooligans on the Tory Benches failed to catch it, you, Mr. Speaker, have just confirmed that the debate has been conducted in good order throughout. The Labour Opposition certainly have been examining the Bill in detail. It deserves every bit of detailed consideration.

Mr. Spearing

May I confirm what my hon. Friend has just said. In an earlier debate I moved a group of amendments at about 6.30 am which were voted on at about 12.30 pm. I do not recall at any time the occupant of the Chair calling any hon. Member to order for wandering beyond the scope of the amendments. Although I spoke at some length, I challenge anyone to look at Hansard and say that what I said was not necessary and important.

Just to put it on record, it would have been possible for the Government to have moved a closure motion. I am not saying that it would have been accepted because we were dealing with very important matters. If they had an intimation that it would not have been accepted, and therefore did not move it, that proves what my hon. Friend said, that the matters concerned were such that the Government did not claim to move a closure motion.

Having made a little procedural detour, may I now revert to the Greater London council and its strategic plan. At the moment, there is no strategic planning in London. Therefore, for the Secretary of State to say that planning goes on as before and that the housing action trust will have to take account of the local strategic plan means that he does not understand that, although there was a strategic plan for London, and it stands for something, it cannot be updated. Nor can it be updated for the metropolitan counties because they have disappeared. How we are to have proper strategic planning in the metropolitan counties or in Greater London is becoming more apparent day by day. Every week we have some announcement from the Department of the Environment or the Department of Transport about studies concerning railways, roads, and airports or we receive rumours of new housing estates from various Departments willy-nilly and not at all co-ordinated.

The Department of the Environment is now considering building large numbers of what are called low-cost areas in various parts of Greater London, particularly in east London. The Department is now in consultation with people about those areas. Some of them could be housing action trust areas, but in putting those areas on the map, and in discussions about them, there has been very little regard to strategic planning, particularly transport and roads, which are vital for getting people in and out of areas to and from work.

Here we have yet another planning body spatchcocked into an already unsatisfactory situation. Also, the Secretary of State is given unprecedented powers centrally to determine what should happen. He does not even do that for the urban development corporations, which are bad enough. I can see what will happen. There will be more correspondence in the press, more letters, more Adjournment debates from enraged hon. Members, more deputations to the Department of the Environment in Marsham street and more confusion. When people in the areas ask, "Why can't the planning committee do something about it?" and they are told, "It is up to the Secretary of State", they will then say, "What? All the way down in London?". We get that from a Government who say that they believe in giving people freedom and choice, but this measure will do the very opposite. It will restrict choice.

There is an example of what already has gone wrong in planning in London. I conclude my remarks on the benefits of the amendment by mentioning what has happened. At the moment east London is suffering from an enormous housing shortage. We all know that in London there is an extreme shortage of rented housing at reasonable rents because the Government have cut council house building by about half throughout the country.

A few years ago the Government said, "We will regenerate east London. We will regenerate the docklands area. Let us have a docklands development corporation." There has been a lot of controversy about what has happened.

I have the record of the other place for 1 July 1981. I believe that I cannot quote exactly the words said in the other place unless they are the words of a Minister, but in column 214 the Chairman of the Select Committee of the House of Lords, who, in my view mistakenly, permitted the London Docklands development corporation to proceed, said that the greatest need in docklands must always be for rented accommodation for people of modest means. He said that at the moment it was not possible for that to be built, but he looked forward to the day when it would be.

We all know what has happened. We now have Canary wharf, 12 million sq ft of commercial property surrounded by similar developments, with a knock-on effect on housing values and no plans for any large area of municipal building. That has caused a great deal of trouble, not only in terms of transport but also for the local community. The knock-on effect on house price; is making it impossible for local people to stay. They are looking for even cheaper accommodation further away.

In Newham the escalating cost of new houses means that families who have lived in the area for generations are now unable to stay. Whereas years ago in the same job they would have had a modest mortgage for a small house, that is no longer possible. That is because the LDDC, which is not democratically accountable locally either to the GLC, which has been dissolved, or to the local council, has got away with putting up Canary wharf without even a planning inquiry. I am not saying to the Minister that it therefore follows that there will be such developments in every housing action trust which is created. However, I am describing the danger of departing from the normal post-war planning laws that in broad terms were agreed by both sides. If that can happen disastrously in respect of the social and economic effects of a development such as Canary wharf, there could be many developments of that sort in any designated housing trust area. That could happen anywhere in the country, not only in London. Such plans would be under the direct authority of the Minister and he could modify them should he care to use the powers that are included in the Bill.

It was wrong of the Government to draft the clause in this way. It would make much better sense if the word "consultation" were deleted and if the words "agreement of the local authority" were inserted. I hope to hear from the Minister that she will consider doing so. If the Government cannot do so now, I hope that they will be prepared to make the amendment when the Bill reaches another place in the next few weeks.

Mrs. Roe

I regret that these amendments represent a further attempt by the Opposition to frustrate the objectives of housing action trusts. Not content with the provisions in clause 61 that require the Secretary of State to consult local planning authorities about a housing action trust's development proposals, or with the provisions in clause 59 that require HATs to consult authorities about their general proposals for the designated area, the amendments seek to add a further layer of planning bureaucracy.

The hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) is concerned about the lack of a strategic plan for London. There is now a London planning advisory committee to which the Secretary of State has issued guidelines, on the basis of which the committee is in the process of drawing up strategic guidance. If HATs are proposed for London, that guidance will be taken into account.

We have made it clear that we do not intend HATs to take over the role of local planning authorities in drawing up formal development plans and we shall expect HATs have regard to such plans when working out their proposals. That reaffirms our wish to see co-operative working arrangements being developed between HATs and local authorities.

However, the job that HATS are being set up to do is urgent. The people who currently live in run-down areas dominated by unattractive council estates deserve to see early results. If that can be achieved in harmony with local planning authorities I shall be delighted, but we are not prepared to risk obstruction from those who want HATs to fail.

Clause 61 is therefore necessary to achieve that purpose. We have built in adequate consultation procedures with local authorities both in respect of a housing action trust's general proposals and its development intentions. Beyond that, we have already debated the extent to which HATs will be accountable for their activities. There is therefore no justification for the amendments and I invite hon. Members to reject them.

Mr. Allan Roberts

In Committee, the Opposition made it clear that they oppose the need to establish housing action trusts, but we welcome the fact that for the first time in nine years the Government have committed themselves to providing additional resources for problem council estates that need money to be spent on them to revitalise them. The Opposition Front Bench view is that the best way to deal with problem estates would be to provide the necessary resources to local authorities to carry out the job, in consultation with, and with the co-operation of, their tenants.

Many of the local authorities in which HATs are to be declared have already consulted their tenants and have drawn up plans for their problem estates. For example, that is true of the Hulme estate in Manchester. All that is preventing action being taken by the local authority, in consultation and in conjunction with their tenants, is the Government's refusal to give to local authorities the resources that they need to do the job. That has been the position for nine years. Housing action trusts do not need to be declared before the Government can make money available to local authorities to deal with problem estates.

We recognise that problem estates exist and that the only way to deal with them is to pump into them the necessary resources. If the Government push through their legislation, against all the advice that they have been given by the Opposition, no local authority in its right mind will oppose additional resources coming its way, but we are opposed to the bureaucratic machine that is to be established to spend that money. We are opposed to the fact that the tenants and the planning authority will not be involved or consulted.

The worst way to deal with a problem estate is for the Secretary of State to appoint a non-elected quango that will probably act against the wishes of the residents. Instead of tenants benefiting from modernisation, renovation and improvements, they might be driven out by gentrification and yuppification, as some Conservative Members implied earlier.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) has moved an amendment that would restore accountability, democracy and reasonable planning procedures to housing action trusts. It is not a wrecking tactic. The Government ought to welcome my hon. Friend's amendment.

2.45 pm
Mr. Spearing

With the leave of the House, Mr. Speaker, I should like to comment on the Minister's reply. I was astonished by its brevity and illogicality. She will correct me if I am wrong, but I think she said that my amendment would add yet another layer of planning bureaucracy to that which already exists.

Mrs. Roe

indicated assent.

Mr. Spearing

The Minister nods her head. I do not suggest that planning is without its bureaucracy. Many people get up-tight when they are told that they cannot have planning permission, but one man's bureaucracy is another man's protection.

The additional layer of bureaucracy is not in the amendment; it is in the Bill. The amendment seeks to remove the additional layer of bureaucracy that the Secretary of State is imposing on local authorities. I expected a higher standard of accuracy from the Minister. If she would care to withdraw her accusation that my amendment imposes an additional layer of bureaucracy, I should be very pleased to accept an apology. To accuse me of imposing an additional layer of bureaucracy when that is what the Bill is doing takes the biscuit. It is not even up to Standing Committee standard on a bad Wednesday morning, let alone on the Floor of the House. Standards in Marsham street must be dropping quite remarkably.

The Minister also said that there is a strategic plan for London and that the London planning advisory committee has been asked to get on with it. That committee is what it is called; it is an advisory committee. It does not have the resources of the old Greater London council. It does not know the views of local people, through their elected representatives. Representatives of the borough councils serve on the advisory committee, but borough councils have their own particular view. As a Member of Parliament with a London constituency, you will know, Mr. Speaker, that Croydon is all that matters to the councillors of Croydon and Newham is all that matters to the councillors of Newham. That must apply also to Kensington. Kensington is everything to the councillors of Kensington. Can we expect them to get together in the London planning advisory committee and sort out an effective strategic plan for London? I suggest that that is impossible.

The Minister also referred to run-down council estates. There may be a need to rehabilitate, rejuvenate and regenerate—a word that is being used in connection with the London Docklands development corporation. It may be regenerating the environment, but the LDDC is not regenerating communities.

Will those run-down council estates be assisted by development for which local authorities cannot give planning permission? In the amendment, we are talking about not money but planning. What planning permission could be given by a HAT that could not be given by a local authority to an applicant to improve the quality of the environment of those estates? That will not require a new planning authority.

I suggest that the Government have a different objective in mind. Why? Because it is in the Bill. Clause 58(1)(c) states that the objective of a housing trust is to encourage diversity in the interests by virtue of which housing accommodation in the area is occupied and, in the case of accommodation that is occupied under tenancies, diversity in the identity of the landlords". That is the objective of a HAT. A landlord who wishes to develop the slice of territory that he has been given by the HAT may make a planning application. At present, if the change to a new landlord has been effected by one of the voluntary arrangements in the White Paper, the landlord is still subject to planning permission from the borough. He cannot do exactly what he likes. Under this part of the Bill, the HAT can hear an application from the landlord, who may have vacant possession of a plot of land, and say "You can put up a building, hotel or a block of offices."

Mr. Skinner

My hon. Friend is talking about the generality of the new HATs, but he should understand that certain areas will not be touched at all. It would be incredible, following the Secretary of State's alarming television interview this week, if somebody said that they were to develop in his back yard. My guess is that there will be no HAT in that area, and I do not think that there will be one for Chequers. If a developer said "We shall turn Chequers into 20 flats under a HAT", the Government would not wear it and the Prime Minister would put a stop to it.

Mr. Spearing

My hon. Friend is right. I cannot foresee planning powers in areas such as Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Kent, Essex or Berkshire being taken away from their county councils. Berkshire county council is not always in agreement with the Government, but imagine what would happen if a Labour Government said to Berkshire county council, "We are creating a rural development area in Berkshire. The county planning authority has no power." Imagine the indignation and accusations of dictatorship that would follow. That is, however, what is happening in urban areas. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) was right to say that it would not happen where the Secretary of State lives.

The Minister said that planning permission will be in the hands of the Secretary of State. We therefore deduce that the Government are interested in taking the right to grant planning permission away from elected, democratic planning committees. In Newham it is not planning permission but money that is required. We have eight tower blocks unoccupied because they are unsafe. I have an estimate that was given to Newham borough council in 1985 of how much it would cost to repair those tower blocks. Hume point would require £2.5 million and John Sopp and Ault points would require £6 million for essential repairs. If the repairs were done on a unit basis, it would cost between £22,000 and £36,000 per housing unit. I believe that the same problem is to be found in Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool. It may not be to the same intense degree, but if run-down estates are to be rejuvenated, such resources will be needed, rather than the transfer of planning permission, which undoubtedly will be used by the Minister's agents to grease the slipways for planning developments which will not help the area's people and which will be out of kilter with the sort of strategic plans that exist elsewhere.

For those reasons, I urge that the amendment be pressed to a vote. It is important to make a protest against the takeover by lackeys in Whitehall of areas that belong to the people.

Amendment negatived.

Forward to