HC Deb 10 July 1991 vol 194 cc956-64 3.43 pm
The Minister for Housing and Planning (Sir George Young)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the housing action trust and estate action programmes, through which the Government are tackling the problems of rundown local authority estates.

Too many people are still trapped in unattractive, uninspired local authority housing. Considerable progress has been made, but we need to do more. With the thrust of our policy to transfer development of new social housing to housing associations, local authorities should now be able to concentrate on renovation of the existing stock. I am pleased to announce today a further advance in our long-term strategy to upgrade this accommodation.

Yesterday, the House approved the order for establishment of the North Hull housing action trust, and the order will be considered in another place later today. Meanwhile, as hon. Members may be aware, Liverpool city council and the London borough of Tower Hamlets, Bow neighbourhood, have forwarded proposals for the establishment of such trusts in their areas. Other authorities are also expressing interest, and the time has therefore come for the Government to set out their guidelines for future use of housing action trust powers.

The House will also recall that, earlier this year, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment announced the enhancement of the estate action programme, with additional resources this year and with a wider remit to focus in particular on more comprehensive proposals for the regeneration for seriously rundown local authority estates.

These steps reflect the importance that we attach to efforts to regenerate rundown estates. In the last five years, resources available for the estate action programme have risen from £45 million to £268 million and through the renovation of 300,000 dwellings it has already made a successful contribution to turning round severely rundown estates. I believe that the housing action trust programme, on its new firm footing, can also play a valuable role.

It is important, however, that the two programmes and the other instruments available should complement each other, should fit the wide range of problems confronting local authorities in such areas, and should promote an effective partnership between central Government, local government and tenants.

I am therefore publishing today, for issue to authorities next week, the new guidelines under which we shall consider proposals for the establishment of housing action trusts and for estate action schemes, and I am inviting bids from local authorities for next year's programmes. Within both programmes, the first priority must be to engage the support of tenants and offer then new hope.

We must also look to authorities to propose solutions to problems of estate structure, design and layout, poor management, and lack of housing choice and economic opportunity. They will be able to build on examples such as the major estate action schemes at Cowgate in Newcastle and Netherley in Liverpool, and work already under way for the North Hull housing action trust. Finally, it is essential to ensure the best possible deployment of skills and resources on a long-term basis for regeneration in such areas.

I shall deal first with the revised guidelines for estate action. Part of the programme will continue to fund small-scale projects on estates, addressed to particular problematical features of such estates or areas within them. That will help the smaller authorities and those with less obvious but important problems.

However, most of the resources will be deployed to tackle the larger and more severely rundown estates in a comprehensive way. For such schemes, the guidelines will require that all practical steps have been taken to involve the private sector, and that large-scale capital investment is complemented by effective housing management, at both the estate and the authority level, to improve service to tenants and to ensure that capital resources are not wasted. The guidelines will require, too, that the proposals result from a full economic appraisal of options for the estate, and complement the authority's overall strategy for its stock.

Some areas, however, will be so severely rundown and present such exceptional problems that they are likely to be beyond the resources and capacity of the local authority, even with the support of the estate action and other programmes. This is where we believe housing action trusts can now play a key role. It will therefore now be open to all local authorities to put forward bids against the public expenditure resources available, since expected commitments in Hull and Waltham Forest are not expected to absorb more than one third of existing provision.

For such proposals the criteria will be as follows. First, the area should have a high level of social, economic and environmental problems—for example, high unemployment, dependency on state benefits, and a high incidence of crime and vandalism.

Secondly, the area should have problems requiring very costly renovation, redevelopment and improved management, and which it is beyond the capacity of the local authority to tackle. Thirdly, it should be a coherent geographical area, within an area of considerable housing demand, containing a large concentration of poor-quality public sector housing—that is, between 2,000 and 10,000 dwellings.

Finally, the area should have empty properties or land available to accommodate tenants during renovation or development works.

The scheme should be beyond the ordinary resources of the local authority, should stand to benefit from the injection of external skills and resources, and should be best pursued through a special body involving a partnership of the local authority, central Government and tenants.

Finally, there should be a good prospect that the proposal will enjoy the support of both the local authority and the tenants, and a trust should be as cost-effective a way of pursuing the scheme as any other policy instrument.

I commend the guidelines to the House. I believe that they will enable us to build upon the success of the estate action programme and the progress that we are now making with housing action trusts. They should also provide a basis on which central and local government, with the active involvement and support of tenants, can work together over the coming years to eliminate the worst concentrations of rundown local authority housing.

Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)

This is a significant change in Government policy, and I give it a general welcome. It is a significant change not least because, for the first time, a Minister recognises that a coherent strategy is needed. The problem with the previous Secretary of State and his Ministers was that policy was changed from time to time so that we never knew whether we were supposed to be encouraging housing action trusts, estate action programmes, or whatever.

It is right to link good management with resources and tenant participation. It was not clear from the Minister's statement, so I ask him to make it clear later, that, especially in housing action trust areas, not only tenants but other residents are involved. We want to ensure that tenants and residents in housing action trust areas are involved in the planning, as many of their democratic rights under the local authority structure are taken away by the HAT quango.

During our proceedings on the Housing Act 1988, the Labour party proposed each and every one of the changes that the Government have announced today, but all our amendments were voted down by the Government. Now that the Government have accepted the general position that they consistently opposed then, will they confirm, as the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, the hon. Member for Suffolk, South (Mr. Yeo), appeared to do in Committee yesterday, that tenants will have an absolute right to choose their own landlords in future—and not just to go back to the council but to go back to it without the council losing funds?

That is vital. Previous Ministers said that primary legislation was needed for that. We want to be clear whether that is a right for tenants or merely something that can be done at the whim of Ministers, who on average do not stay in the job for much more than six months, as the experience of the past three or four years has shown.

Can we have some guarantees for tenants, not only in respect of rent levels, but in respect of the rent-setting mechanism? Will they be involved in the discussions about what rent levels will be, given that different standards of housing will emerge at the end of the development programme?

Can we have some guarantees also on the right of succession for tenants, which they can lose or have watered down by the assured tenancy proposal and, similarly, on the right to buy? Both are important.

Can we have a guarantee that anyone who applies for a housing action trust in particular will have significant number of tenants and/or residents on the board, and that the chair of the organisation will enjoy the support of local people and will not be a Whitehall appointee as the arrangements have unfortunately provided.

When the Government set up the housing action trust system, they identified seven areas which they said were desperately in need of money and, as I recall, set aside 180 million for those areas. Those areas consistently said no, either in Government-organised votes or in tenant-organised votes. Will those areas now be able to bid under the new system, given that it was the tenants' resistance, more than any other factor—certainly more than my intervention on behalf of the Labour party—that forced the Government to change course? Will they be given the opportunity to come back for the money that was taken away from them when they did not do what the previous Secretary of State wanted and vote to opt out of council control?

Finally, will the Minister make it clear that existing estate action programmes will be able to continue? My reading of his statement is that they will, but it would help if he would clarify the matter.

Sir George Young

I am grateful for the welcome that the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) has given for the proposals, although I must point out that it is not the Government but Labour Members who are shifting their position on housing action trusts.

Of course we should consult residents in the areas concerned. We are talking of local authority estates that are severely run down, and a feature of them is that there has not been a lot of exercise of the right to buy. Where people have bought, however, they are entitled to participate in the work of the housing action trust.

We have made it quite clear that if, at the end of the housing action trust period, the tenants want to return to their local authority landlord, we shall make the resources available to the local authority to enable it to reacquire the properties. I repeat that commitment.

On rent levels, of course tenants want to know, before voting for HATs, roughly what the deal is. In the two specific recent cases, tenants have been told that there will be no increases until the improvements have taken place and that, thereafter, rents will rise broadly to the level of other local authority rents in the area. Within those parameters, it is for the HAT to develop the policy once it has been set up.

I can confirm that the right to buy is carried through and that there is no prejudice to that right in voting for a housing action trust. It will be carried through on the same terms.

We have consulted leaders of tenants associations before appointing shadow chairmen and other members of the housing action trusts and in Waltham Forest and Hull, I understand that the shadow chairmen are acceptable both to tenants and to local councillors. We propose to continue with that model. We are prepared to appoint up to half of the members of a HAT from local people, either councillors or tenants.

On those estates that voted no, mischievous propaganda was circulated encouraging people to vote in that way. Some of those estates now regret that they were misled. However, they will be eligible to resubmit for a HAT, although they will have to accept that there will be other bidders in the field, whereas previously they had a fairly clear round.

If the hon. Gentleman really wants to help local authority tenants living on those estates, he and his Front-Bench colleagues should urge the tenants in Waltham Forest—who start voting on Saturday—to vote for a HAT. If Labour Members were to do that, it would help people who, I think, we all want to help.

Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton)

My hon. Friend is to be warmly congratulated on his statement and on the success of the estate action programme, which he founded about eight years ago when he was previously a Minister in the Department of the Environment. Is he aware that the HAT programme is now being successfully revived because he is integrating the tenants and the local authorities, which unfortunately was not the case previously?

Sir George Young

The Government are anxious that HATs should be set up with the support of local government and local residents. If we want to develop a successful model, we need the goodwill of all parties concerned. The Government are now anxious to work as hard as possible to ensure that, where HATs are proposed, that is done on the basis of collaboration and partnership. We do not want any of the adversarial politics that, sadly, were injected into some of the earlier proposals, mainly by people who were politically dogmatic and committed against HATs.

Mr. Ronnie Fearn (Southport)

I welcome the proposals. Is the Minister aware that nowhere in the guidelines that he has issued is there any reference to public or recreational spaces? Will he issue guidelines to local authorities, especially on footage for each person? Will he examine the systems of heating? Is it to be the prerogative of the individuals, rather than the board, to control the heating systems?

Sir George Young

It would be against the philosophy of HATs, which are essentially about pushing down decisions to the local people, if the Government were to be too dogmatic about how central heating systems were run on estates. We are anxious that energy efficiency should be an important component within the estate action programmes and within HATs. Every opportunity should be taken to insulate the properties and to ensure that tenants who occupy them have their heating bills reduced because of energy efficient schemes.

On the question of open spaces, some of the most successful estate action programmes have embodied the demarcation of certain land—for example, close to the tower blocks—and attributing it specifically to a tower block rather than leaving it as general open space. Many of the other programmes have allocated space on the ground floor to those living on the ground floor, which has given them some privacy and defensible open space. We are anxious that large open spaces, which are often unused, should be put to better use both in HATs and in the estate action programme.

Sir Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington)

The proposals sound both vigorous and challenging. They are necessary, and should be widely welcomed. In those interesting proposals, is there any equation with the vexed and damaging problem of non-payment of rent? That is spreading in certain areas, and somehow or other it should be dealt with concomitant with these proposals.

Sir George Young

Part of our proposal is to devolve housing management down to particular estates. We are promoting estate management boards under the estate action programme. There is every sign that, where local people are involved in the management of their estate, there are fewer voids, fewer squatters, and a better rent collection record.

With HATs, tenants will be on the board, making decisions. They will know that, the more rent that is collected, the more resources can be put back into the estate. That is a far better model for reducing rent arrears than an often impersonal, remote and out-of-touch local authority management, who simply do not have the same incentive to collect the rents and plough them back into the estates.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

Will the Minister cut through all the jargon and offer some specific hope to some of my constituents? He will be aware that the tenants on the Lancashire Hill estate and the Stockport local authority bid for money to be allocated under the design improvement controlled initiative scheme for work to be done on their estate. Unfortunately, Professor Coleman, who seemed to run the programme rather more than the Department did, insulted many of my constituents and finally decided not to go ahead with the scheme after a great deal of preparatory work had been done by the Stockport local authority. Can the Minister now say that money will be available for the Lancashire Hill flats under the programme that he is talking about today?

Sir George Young

Of course, the local authority can apply under the estate action programme for a programme of improvements. I regret if any offence was caused by Professor Coleman, but the programme which she is supervising, which I think amounts to some £50 million, is monitored and approved by Ministers and we are taking a close interest in the development of the research. We are interested in her findings on the relationship between the design of estates and factors such as vandalism, rent arrears, graffiti and so on.

Mr. James Hill (Southampton, Test)

Will my hon. Friend admit that he has tried several schemes recently and that each time he has come up against the solid brick wall of a Labour-controlled housing committee? When, in Southampton on a former scheme, we had to obtain a percentage of the votes to get tower block tenants to take over a new management programme, the Labour group sent out a tremendous amount of misinformation, and there was a lot of scaremongering about the rise in rents. Is my hon. Friend not relying too much on the co-operation that he is expecting to get? I can say here and now that, in Southampton, which has the worst-maintained tower blocks in the south of England, he will get little or no co-operation, and he will certainly be seeing once again the leaflets of misinformation.

Sir George Young

Realism is breaking out within the Labour party, if not in Southampton certainly in other parts of the country. As the House well knows, in Hull the Labour-controlled council supported the proposal to set up HATs. It urged its own tenants to vote yes. Other Labour-controlled local authorities, such as Liverpool, are approaching the Government to see whether we will set up HATs in their areas. The new enlightened approach may not yet have filtered south to Southampton, but other Labour-controlled areas realise the advantages of Government policy—that our new housing initiatives offer their tenants and themselves fresh ways of tackling problems. At the end of the day, if the tenants in Southampton do not like their present landlord, under tenants' choice they are perfectly free today of this week to choose another landlord, an approved landlord. They can vote to transfer to a housing association if they feel that a housing association would give them a better deal than Southampton council.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

Is the Minister aware that any increased or more effective expenditure on improving estates is always welcome, particularly since, during the past 12 years, the Government have robbed local authorities of hundreds of millions of pounds which should have been spent on improving estates? Will he assure the House that he will not force local authorities to spend money at the whim of the Department of the Environment and that he will allow local democracy to prevail?

When the Minister talks so glibly about housing choice, does he recognise that the only real way to provide adequate housing choice is to give local authorities the opportunity once again to build council housing at reasonable rents? That would allow the thousands of people in Bradford in my constituency who are on the waiting list and are desperately in need of housing to get the housing denied them by Government policies?

Sir George Young

I think that the hon. Gentleman was present for Environment questions today, when I made it clear that we expected the housing association movement rather than the local authorities to build new homes for rent. There is no compulsion on local authorities to bid for estate action. However, the Department usually finds that it is over-subscribed. That has been our experience with the urban programme, city challenge and estate action. Local authorities are eager to apply for resources under the scheme brought forward by the Government. If a local authority does not wish to bid, it will have to explain to its tenants why it has not taken advantage of the schemes that I have announced today.

Mr. Richard Tracey (Surbiton)

The news that my hon. Friend has given the House is very welcome. I join him in hoping that the friendliness demonstrated by the Opposition Front Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley), will also be shown by Labour councillors and Labour party supporters in residents associations, so that we shall not encounter again the mischief that was caused in London on the last occasion that housing action trusts were talked about by the Government. The policy outlined in my hon. Friend's statement deals with groups of housing dereliction, but I am worried about isolated properties that so often are wilfully kept empty by councils. They must be brought back into use to house the homeless.

Sir George Young

On the first part of my hon. Friend's question, I very much hope that Opposition Members will rethink their opposition to housing action trusts. A housing action trust is set up only when tenants vote for it. If tenants do not want a housing action trust, they need not have it. To oppose a housing action trust dogmatically is to deny resources to tenants who are living on the worst local authority estates and, moreover, to deny them the opportunity to participate in the management of those estates and in decision making. It is a denial of choice and democracy. I therefore hope that Opposition Members will think again.

On the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question, I hope that local authorities that have voids will apply to the Department—under the £300 million homelessness initiative, by means of which resources can be made available—to bring them back into use, if that would cost more than local authorities would normally be able to spend out of their housing investment programmes. Alternatively, they can homestead the properties. They can make them available to people on the waiting list, or to people with the necessary skills who want to move and who are prepared to move into the properties and modernise them. The local authority then gets a rent, its property is improved and somebody is housed. I hope that local authorities will look again at the advantages of homesteading.

Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

Will the Minister consider what can be done about private estates where the builder has gone bankrupt and left a legacy of unmade roads and causeways, and play areas that are a cross between an adventure playground and a tip? The local authority is unable to deal with them. It needs help with refurbishment, if it is to assist the people who are living on those estates.

Sir George Young

I commend the hon. Gentleman on his ingenuity in bringing private estates into the debate. If he will let me have details of the particular estate that he has in mind, I shall see whether there is anything that can be done. If planning permission was given for an estate, on the basis that certain roads would be built, the local authority may be able to take action in default and reclaim—

Mr. McKay

The builder and developer is bankrupt and has now disappeared.

Sir George Young

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will let me have the details. I shall then see whether there is any way through.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

I support what the Minister is trying to do, but I urge a little caution, having lived through any number of these schemes as a member of Westminster city council's housing committee. I saw the end product. The experience that I gained there leads me to believe that most tenants to not want to become involved actively in these democratic organisations. They want a private landlord, or just a good landlord. One way to achieve that is to bring in the private sector, even to the extent of selling off blocks of properties on certain terms. That would allow the private owner, or landlord, to do the work. I have seen some excellent schemes in docklands, carried out by Barratts. There are also some very good examples in Wandsworth. I am sure that Westminster's housing officials, with their great experience, would be happy to pass on some very good tips.

Sir George Young

I am interested in what my hon. Friend says. There is an important principle: whether to allow tenants to decide whether or not their landlord should change, or whether to do that for them or to them. The Government's view is that before one proposes that the landlord should be changed from a local authority to a housing action trust, the tenants should be told about the proposal and have the opportunity to vote upon it. If one is going to ask them to vote, one must explain what is proposed.

Although it may take longer and although one runs the risk of a "no" vote, it is better to try to obtain the support of the tenants than to impose the change on them. Having been to Waltham Forest and to Hull to meet the tenants, I was greatly encouraged by the interest shown in the housing action trust by people living on the estates and by their commitment to it.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Will the Minister confirm that that does not apply to the privately rented sector, although some of the worst cases involve private landlords? However, I should not expect the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) to recognise that. Why is tenants' choice only for private tenants, not for public sector tenants?

My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) spoke about the need for new council house building. Will the Minister bear it in mind that, during the past 10 to 12 years, there has been a substantial reduction in the publicly rented sector and that the Government have been determined that no new council houses should be built to replace those which have been sold? That is part of the problem.

Sir George Young

The hon. Gentleman should know the answer to the substantive point at the beginning of his question. The Government have a mandate for properties that have been built with taxpayers' money, but not for properties that have been built privately. That is why we have extended the right to buy to public sector tenants, but not to private sector tenants.

As for the rest of the hon. Gentleman's question, we dealt with the issue during the 45 minutes of Environment questions. The hon. Gentleman knows that it is Government policy for housing associations to provide new, socially affordable housing.