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Crown Estate

March 2, 2010

Crown Estate

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I will try to do so, Mrs. Humble. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush (Mr. Slaughter) on initiating the debate. As he will know, I have raised my general concerns regarding housing provision in the capital a number of times over the past year in the House. However, I would be grateful if you allowed me to take a slightly more parochial approach on this occasion, Mrs. Humble.

An important local issue has been brought to my attention, which I wish to raise with the Minister with some urgency. I should add that the matter has profound consequences for the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson) and the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier). A couple of weeks ago, a member of House of Commons staff spoke to me personally about the future of the Millbank estate in my constituency of Pimlico, in which he has lived for many years. The freeholds of Millbank are owned by the Crown Estate, whose Housing Business Group provides about 1,300 homes in London as a whole.

Having recently completed a review of its residential housing portfolio, the Crown Estate has decided to consult on the sale of its central London freehold ownership. The Housing Business Group was historically set up to provide decent homes at an affordable rent in central London, which allows working Londoners to stand on their own two feet without state reliance. For that reason, Millbank houses a significant number of my constituency’s key workers-for example, nurses, teachers, bus drivers and, indeed, a number of parliamentary staff.

A local vicar, the Rev. Philip Welsh of St. Stephen’s Rochester Row, has said that “the current provision of affordable housing for key workers by the Crown Estate is a major contribution to social wellbeing, in maintaining a diverse and lovely local community in this part of central London, among them many long-established local families who give the place a sense of roots”. The looming fear is that following any sale, rents will inevitably increase. That will push many residents out of their homes and destroy the strong community that has grown up on Millbank.

I accept that that applies equally to the estates in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras and other seats. I raise the issue today because although responsibility for the management of the estate rests with the Crown Estate’s board, the organisation is formally accountable to Parliament, and the Treasury is effectively the principal Government stakeholder. Indeed, the Treasury is kept informed of the Estate’s business plans and strategies. Although the property is, of course, officially owned by Her Majesty, the Crown Estate’s profits-some £227 million-are paid directly to the Treasury.

Only a couple of weeks ago, the chief executive of the Crown Estate, Roger Bright, came before the Treasury Select Committee to be questioned about the value that the Estate delivers to the taxpayer. Mr. Bright has recently had to deal with some hefty challenges, namely the £1 billion that has been wiped off the value of the Estate’s portfolio in the last tax year following the recession. It is thought that the sale of Millbank and its sister estates could raise up to £250 million. Many residents believe it is rather curious that the Crown Estate is proposing to sell Millbank at a time when property prices are well below their peak, but when the Treasury’s cupboard is relatively bare.

Following the discussion with my constituent in the House of Commons, I arranged to meet Paul Clark, the Crown Estate’s director of investment and asset management, to learn more about the Estate’s plans. Mr. Clark was keen to emphasise that no decisions have yet been made on the sale, but said that because of a lack of explicit management expertise in the provision of social housing, the Crown Estate has not been able to benefit from the economies of scale in the same way that London’s larger housing associations can. The Crown Estate also feels that the returns from that stock over the medium to long term do not fit with its broader financial obligations.

Mr. Clark explained that anyone who rented or bought their property under certain contractual arrangements will have those rights carried over. Those whose rents are set under the terms of the Rent Act 1977 will continue to have their rents set by a rent officer, and assured tenants will continue to have full security of tenure and their rents will remain subject to a rental ceiling. Mr. Clark told me that he feels that the Crown Estate will only do a deal with a potential owner if a housing association is involved and, preferably, takes on an equity stake. He assured me at the meeting that the Crown Estate is going to great lengths to make any sale as smooth as possible for residents and, in doing so, is likely to penalise itself financially. Evidently, it is looking for potential new owners who have a long-term perspective on the sale.

I want to touch on several of the deep local concerns that remain. We will have a reprise of the matter in a little over 48 hours’ time when the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras will discuss it in the main Chamber, so I hope that the Minister will recognise that we are trying to work together across the political divide to represent the interests of our residents and that there is a strong feeling about the matter, which requires resolution. The chairman of the Millbank residents association, Professor Ben Bowling, told me that many residents believe that the consultation period, which will finish before the end of the month, is little more than a sham.

He feels, as do many residents, that the decision on whether to sell has already been made. He rejects the notion that the Crown Estate has no explicit management expertise, given that it has successfully provided residential accommodation for nearly a century. Indeed, until recently, most tenants have had good relations with the landlord, a point to which I can testify, given the absolute dearth of complaints I have received about them in the nine years I have been a Member. It has been stated that the provision of affordable housing is part of the Crown Estate’s core values of integrity, stewardship and sustainability.

There is deep disappointment that the decision to sell the residential estate seems to be driven entirely by financial considerations, with the importance of community and the duty to hard-working Londoners being cast aside. The residents’ suspicions, I fear, have been aroused by Mr. Clark’s history as the person who presided over the Church Commissioners’ sale of their affordable housing only a few years ago. In that case, despite prior assurances that a focused housing provider would provide benefits for tenants, rents rose astronomically after the sale, the key worker scheme ended and flats were then sold off.

The proposals are causing real concern among the excellent team of local Westminster councillors, including Danny Chalkley and Steve Summers of Vincent Square ward and Angela Harvey, Nick Evans and Alan Bradley of Tachbrook ward. They, along with local activist, David Harvey, are united in opposing the sale of the estate, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) will share those sentiments. They fear the damage that might be done to a cohesive local community and the uncertainty and distress being inflicted on individual residents. Until now the Crown Estate has been regarded as a highly valued landlord for its residents, but councillors and other local people are distressed that it is giving such a short consultation period when the uncertainty surrounding the decision will profoundly affect many people’s lives and homes.

Local people are demanding some confirmation that no decision has been taken, as they believe that the Crown Estate is being pressed to sell the homes by the Treasury in a desperate attempt to raise money. I have now received a significant number of letters and e-mails from desperately worried constituents.

Frank Dobson: I think that the hon. Gentleman would agree that everyone was suspicious that the Treasury was behind that in some way, but will he not confirm that the minutes obtained from the Crown Estate through the freedom of information request show that it has never even informed the Treasury of its intentions?

Mr. Field: There have been too many references to secret minutes obtained through FOI requests, but I take on board the right hon. Gentleman’s point. I have heard from many concerned residents. Eileen Terry, a Crown Estate tenant since 1979, recently retired and is now on a fixed income, so large rent rises would force her to find another home. Angela Reape and her husband both work as nurses for the local NHS trust and so are vital key workers in the vicinity. Their three children, who were all born in the flat, attend local schools and the family has always said that it feels part of a close-knit community. They fear that their nurses’ salaries will not cover the rent for a home big enough for their children in Pimlico. Vincent Minney’s family have lived in Crown Estate property since 1945. His brother lives around the corner from him and he would not be able to afford market rents in the community in which he has lived all his life. As he says, “not everything can be measured in pounds, shillings and pence”. I started school in 1970, so I am as young as one can be to remember what that means-my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening) is entirely oblivious to the notion of there being 240 pence in a pound. Perhaps we would all rather like that now, as it might make the financial situation rather easier.

Mr. Slaughter: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Field: The hon. Gentleman must forgive me, as I was just coming to the close of my speech. What I have said chimes with a recurrent theme in other speeches I have made in the House on social housing. Too often social housing goes to people who have no real connection with an area, and I should hate that to happen in Millbank. I call on the Government to look at the proposed sale as a matter of urgency. Alongside hard-working local councillors, I am joining cross-party efforts to look at the matter. I know that the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras is deeply committed and is doing fantastically effective work in his constituency, and the same applies to the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch. I hope that we can all work together to ensure that the residents’ voices are properly heard on that matter.