|Baroness Stowell of Beeston, |
Parliamentary Under Secretary
of State, Brandon Lewis MP,
Nick Boles MP, Kris Hopkins MP,
and Stephen Williams MP,
of State, DCLG
Nevertheless, the session went ahead with five of Pickles's ministerial team. As one of two new members of the team, housing minister Kris Hopkins was facing the Committee for the first time, and was less polished in his responses than some of his colleagues.
The session opened with some tough questions from the chair, Labour veteran Clive Soley MP, who started by asking the minister if his department and the secretary of state had full confidence in the social housing regulator. The question, prompted by the Committee's concern after regulator Julian Ashby told them that governance ratings were used to flag concerns about financial viability. The minister revealed that Eric Pickles has 'had a conversation with Mr Ashby" and "we are absolutely confident that he can undertake the challenge that he has got."
The chair pressed on, suggesting that he had been alarmed to learn that the regulator had "hardly had any meaningful role" in respect of consumer regulation - asking whether the government would take another look at whether consumer regulation is fit for purpose. The minister insisted that a lack of formal action did not indicate a lack of regulatory engagement, and avoided committing to any review of the current arrangements.
The Homes and Communities Agency faced further scrutiny when committee member James Morris MP was critical of its chief executive Andy Rose's £18,000 a year 'London location allowance' on top of his salary of £142,000. The MP pointed out that the HCA's information on senior salaries had not been updated for over a year. In light of Eric Pickles' criticism of high local government salaries, the chair promised to question him on the matter when he appears before them for the postponed #AskPickles session.
Later in the session, Kris Hopkins was quizzed over the lack of progress on the £10bn debt guarantee scheme intended to support the building of new homes for the private rented sector. Although he insisted that there was now significant interest in the scheme and discussions were taking place with potential investors, he was not prepared to estimate the number of new homes that might be produced - leading the committee chair to ask:
"Isn't there a bit of a trend in the department to develop policy without any assessment of what the impact of that policy will be?"
The questioning then moved on to the impact of the new homes bonus - the minister insisting it had been highly successful and the chair referring to the National Audit Office's criticism of the department's lack of evaluation of the scheme. The minister said that evaluation is now underway.
The next policy under the spotlight was the Help to Buy policy. Committee man Mark Pawsey keen to have the latest figures. The minister obliged, quoting figures from the recently released stats on the equity loan scheme. He reported that there have also been around 2,000 applications for the mortgage guarantee scheme, and revealed that the Treasury, advised by the Financial Policy Committee and the Bank of England, will be responsible for ensuring that the scheme does not artificially inflate house prices.
Finally, the minister revealed that the department's civil servants have assured him they are confident that they will be able to deliver on David Cameron's pledge for the one for one replacement of homes sold under the right to buy despite recent figures showing that the target is a long way from being achieved.