Social Landlords (Permissible Additional Purposes) (England) Order 2006
Lord Avebury rose to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the order, laid before the House on 26 July, be annulled (S.I. 2006/1968).
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I want to make it absolutely clear that I am not opposing the order, but simply using the device of praying against it to discuss some of the problems of enlisting social landlords in the provision and management of Gypsy sites. This is not a simple matter, as one can see from the fact that it was two and a half years ago when the then Minister, Yvette Cooper, said in another place that she would amend the purposes for which the Housing Corporation could provide funding to include the construction, maintenance and management of these sites. We agree with that policy, which we advocated under the heading “Enlisting Social Landlords”, in a document that the Liberal Democrats published in 2002, although we do not claim any particular monopoly of the idea, which was widely canvassed at the time.
At a meeting last week with the Minister, Gypsy and Traveller organisation representatives expressed disappointment that it was taking so long to get in place the new system of site provision, of which this order is an essential component. The delay in bringing forward the order was occasioned by the need to consult on the definition of Gypsies and Travellers. As your Lordships’ Merits of Statutory Instruments Select Committee explained in its useful memorandum on the subject, we now have two definitions, for reasons which are comprehensible but which may lead to some confusion. The one used here is based on nomadism rather than ethnicity, but it is extended to include those who are no longer nomadic because of illness or old age, and travelling showmen, who I am glad are included because frequently in the past they have been left out of these discussions. It includes people who are not Romany Gypsies or Irish Travellers but who follow a cultural tradition of nomadism or living in caravans. For the purposes of the Housing Act, under which local authorities are required to assess the accommodation needs of Gypsies and Travellers in their areas, a broader definition was needed to encompass ethnic Gypsies and Irish Travellers, many of whom are permanently settled either voluntarily or because of the huge difficulty of following a nomadic way of life now that it is unlawful to stop anywhere except on transit sites, which are few and far between.
The first thing to say about the order is that social landlords are not expected to make provision for ethnic Gypsies who may be tempted to resume living in a caravan because of the greater availability of land for Gypsy sites as a result of the permissions that will be granted following the implementation of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act. Yet there may be cases where extended families, some of whose members are in bricks and mortar and others on caravan sites, would like to be reunited on a site
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provided by a social landlord. Is the order flexible enough to cope with that kind of demand, when some people may come from bricks and mortar and others from substandard sites or sites that are to be eliminated?
Secondly, at the recent meeting between the All-Party Group on Gypsy and Traveller Law Reform and Meg Munn MP, it was made clear that the priority for social landlords would be to cater for those among the 3,000 families living on unauthorised sites who will be unable to buy landto develop sites for themselves when the landfinally becomes available following the completion of the needs assessments and the incorporation of the numbers resulting from those assessments in the regional spatial strategies. It will be many years before Travellers who are living on some of the grossly unsatisfactory sites provided under the 1968 Act—some of which are next to sewage works or under motorways—can be rehoused. As far as I can see, there is nothing in the order to prevent schemes to rehouse people from sink sites. If they are identified as needing to be rehoused in the needs assessments, social landlords might well have a role to play. I hope that the Minister will say something about that.
In some areas, local authority sites are being closed without alternative provision for the residents being made. In London, there has been a sharp decline in the number of pitches: 76 were lost in the 10 years to 2004, according to the London Gypsy and Traveller group and sites in Newham and Hackney on land needed for the Olympic Games are threatened with imminent closure, with no agreement on how they are to be relocated. It would be ironic if the Olympic Games, which were touted as a means of reducing social deprivation in London, were to decrease further the supply of accommodation for the most deprived community of all. I hope that Ministers will knock heads together, particularly in the LDA, to see that that does not happen.
I mentioned that case to indicate that the longer it takes to mobilise social landlords, the bigger the task confronting them will be. They cannot really get going until the local authority has been through the needs assessment and has produced the development plan document identifying the land needed for the purpose. In the mean while, they might occasionally be able to use Circular 1/06, as described in the Planning Inspectorate letter of 24 July, to get planning permission on suitable land that has not yet been designated in the DPD. However, as with private individuals, that approach means additional trouble and expense and might sour relationships between social landlords and local authorities.
That brings me to the question of whether RSLs are going to come forward in sufficient numbers and with sufficient resources to match the need. During the passage of the Housing Bill, the Government rejected a proposal to give local authorities a reserve power to develop sites in areas where the need for rented pitches was not being met, so RSLs are assumed to be capable of rising to the challenge and providing rented sites throughout the country. At the meeting of the all-party group, we were told that there
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were new entrants—until recently, Novas has had the field to itself. Who are those new entrants, in what areas of the country are they operating and what sites have they provided or are in the course of providing? What efforts is the DCLG making to enlist new providers?
At that meeting, we raised the problem of rising land prices, which are likely to create problems for RSLs as well as for private developers of sites. Once the land has been identified in a DPD, its value is likely to be considerably higher than it would be for agricultural land, which would have to be reflected in the rent charged by the RSL. In the case of county council and RSL-owned sites, which have been brought under a procrustean system of regulation so that the amount of housing benefit payable is less than the economic rent, many existing sites are now loss-making, and there is no incentive for social landlords to develop new sites where the rents would need to be higher if they cannot recover the amounts from tenants who are on benefit. Research carried out for the DWP led to a recommendation that the allowable rent for benefit purposes on all Gypsy sites should be increased by £15 per pitch to reflect the cost of management on the site, depending on its attainment of quality standards for maintenance and health and safety. Families who need a lot of support will not be well catered for under these arrangements and the assumption that all Gypsy sites require the same amount of management resources is manifestly untrue. RSLs would naturally tend to offer places on their sites to Gypsies who they think will not give rise to major problems, leaving difficult families who need a lot of support to fend for themselves. The arrangements recommended by Spark are not flexible enough to cope with the wide range of situations, and it would be preferable to abolish rent controls for social and local authority landlords, who may be expected to act responsibly without that incentive.
I welcome the extension of funding for Gypsy and Traveller sites to RSLs as well as local authorities—£28 million will be available in 2006-07 and £35 million will be available in the following year in order to provide new sites or refurbish existing ones. The extent to which RSLs were involved inthe bids for the current year and their expressionsof interest for 2006-07, which had to be in by30 September, would be an indication of their likely interest in the Housing Corporation funding resulting from this order. I would be grateful if the Minister could give us the figures. It would also be useful to know how many RSLs have constitutions that allow them to take on the provision of Gypsy and Traveller sites or have applied for consent to the necessary changes to their constitutions under paragraphs 9 to 11 of Schedule 1 to the Housing Act 1996.
When we meet Gypsies and Travellers, as in the meeting with the Minister last week, they are naturally sceptical about the ultimate success of the strategy for ensuring that members of their communities have a place to live. Inevitably, residents in the neighbourhood of unauthorised encampments are dissatisfied with the rate of progress that is being made. It is important that the Government should
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keep both sets of people informed of what is being done, and this order is one essential piece of the jigsaw.
Moved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the order, laid before the House on 26 July, be annulled (S.I. 2006/1968).—(Lord Avebury.)