Deregulation Bill

Mark wished to speak at Report Stage of the Deregulation Bill to express his concerns about plans to relax rules on short lets in London. Unfortunately he was not able to make the full speech he had drafted as time was taken up by clauses on Sunday trading and TV licences. However he was able to make the contribution below. 

Mark Field: I endorse the view stated earlier that a process of consultation began as recently as February on this issue and has not yet come to a close, so it feels a little strange that this measure has been rushed through in this Bill. That is the tenor of the concerns expressed by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) as well. Why does the Minister think there is a different regime for London? Why was that put into place some 40 years ago and why is the time suddenly now right for it to be changed?

The Solicitor-General: As I think was said in another part of the country today, London is a super-city: it is an enormous city and it does have unique circumstances. The Government recognise the necessity of working with the London boroughs to design the provision to ensure we achieve the right balance between increasing the freedoms for Londoners and protecting London’s housing supply. We would not want that to be undermined. We are trying to ensure that speculators are not able to buy homes meant for Londoners and rent them permanently as short-term lets.

Ms Karen Buck (Westminster North) (Lab): Is the Minister aware that central London authorities such as Westminster, as the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) will know, Kensington and Chelsea, Camden and Islington, backed almost unanimously by the amenity and neighbourhood associations in those boroughs, have all expressed extremely strong reservations about these proposals, precisely because of the fear that they will lead to a loss of residential stock in what are already highly stressed neighbourhoods?

The Solicitor-General: Yes, the Government are aware of that, and we have tried to respond, first of all by making the point, as the Department has done, that the London boroughs must be fully involved in the process and also by allowing the regulations to be subject to the affirmative procedure, which means that the hon. Lady and other colleagues will have an opportunity to consider the detail of the changes and whether they are appropriate.

Mark Field: I think I speak on behalf of the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) when I express some concerns about what, I appreciate, appears to be an anomalous situation in London with the short-term letting of residential properties. These proposals have caused enormous concern among communities in the heart of our capital.

The Greater London Council (General Powers) Act 1973 was originally introduced to ensure that London’s permanent housing stock would be protected from strong market pressure to convert homes into visitor accommodation, and was deemed wholly necessary to deal with the acute housing shortage that London was then experiencing. At that time, London had a population of some 7.5 million and declining. Its population now stands at 8.2 million and, as all London MPs know, increases at a breath-taking annual rate. It needs to be recognised that allowing greater flexibility to change use from permanent residential occupation to short-term letting will have significant implications for London’s stock of permanent housing. It may make it impossible for our local authorities to meet their targets for new homes.

My constituents have very good reason to believe that a loosening of the rules governing short lets, as set out in this somewhat ill-thought-through new clause 21, will make it much harder to keep their buildings safe, secure and well maintained. It risks undermining a sense of community that can be all too difficult to build in an essentially transient urban population. In fact, London’s hyper-mobility and hyper-diversity get greater year by year. It will make it far more difficult for local authorities to deal with noise and antisocial behaviour. Above all, it threatens to make central London homes, already traded by many people as some sort of global currency, into little more than assets to be exploited for maximum profit.

Also pasted below are the contributions Mark made to clauses in the Deregulation Bill relating to the TV licence.

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I wish to speak briefly on this matter. I have a lot of sympathy with the Opposition’s views, and the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) is right: we have a lot to be proud of. I am always wary of using the phrase, “It is the envy of the world”, but we have a superb television service and largely, the British Broadcasting Corporation is responsible for that.

There are those on the Government Benches—I have some sympathy with some of my, as the hon. Lady would put it, “right-wing colleagues”—who worry about the political bias of the BBC. Even its former director-general, Mr Mark Thompson, has referred to that. None the less, I do not think any of us can deny that the BBC does a very good public service with its broadcasting, and it is one that is recognised throughout the world. My concern is this: we are living in a fast-changing world and the notion that the BBC’s licence fee can remain in aspic as the only model of funding is one that would be dangerous for the BBC, as well as for all of us, necessarily to hold close to our hearts.

Criminalisation is also something that I want to speak about briefly. When my late mother died, she was living alone. She had been widowed for some years, and she died in September 2010. I took on the responsibility for looking after her affairs in the home in which she had lived prior to it being sold, which took place some months later. I was appalled by the experience that I had, which I am sure is one shared by many hundreds of thousands of our fellow countrymen in a similar position. Literally on a fortnightly basis, we got threatening letters from the BBC’s licensing department, saying that we were committing a criminal offence by not having a licence. There is a sense, I am afraid, in which the BBC regards every single home as being fair game, whether anyone is living there or, indeed, using a television set. It certainly was not terribly good public relations, not just for me personally, but, I suspect, for many other people who go through that particular rigmarole. There is a sense that the BBC feels it has the right to claim, almost with menaces, moneys, when the particular circumstances of my mother having passed away made it even more upsetting to get one letter after another in this way.

David Rutley (Macclesfield) (Con): My hon. Friend makes an important point by talking about his mother’s circumstances. My constituents, too, have had similar experiences with the TV licence and the point they are trying to make is that these approaches by the BBC are overly aggressive. That has helped the push towards the introduction of the amendments.

Mark Field: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. For those of us who are broadly supportive of the BBC and its values, it is very upsetting to see that aggressive approach, particularly in circumstances such as the ones that I have pointed out, which affect, as I said, many tens of thousands of our fellow countrymen on a day-to-day basis. The notion is put across that somehow, if we lose the money, we will not be able to have CBeebies and BBC4, but again, there has to be a sense of prioritisation in the BBC, which has a very privileged position with its money—some £2.5 billion a year—that it is able to rely on in order to make the excellent programmes to which we have all referred.

I hope that we will have a sensible debate—in fairness to the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland, she has presented some sensible proposals—on how our British Broadcasting Corporation will be funded. The only warning sign is that we are increasingly living in a world of pay-per-view and a proliferation of channels. Like me, the hon. Lady grew up at a time when, until 1982, there were only three channels. A fourth channel then emerged, and suddenly we had a plethora of channels that we can rely on. As a result, if the BBC is to play as important a part in public life in the decades to come, it must be wise to the fact that there will have to be changes to its funding mechanism, without immediately accusing the House, and others who wish it to survive well into the 21st and future centuries, of being aggressively anti what it does.

I hope that the Solicitor-General will have some proposals regarding what I have said, and particularly that he will ensure that the good will towards the BBC in the hearts of many of our fellow countrymen remains intact. Some of the BBC’s antics are the sorts of things that have allowed people who would otherwise oppose the amendments to hold the views expressed in one or two of them, although as we see, they will not necessarily be discussed to any great extent.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to make a brief contribution. I look forward to an interesting debate, which I expect will take place not just on the Floor of the House but will make up an important part of discussions on the renewal of the charter in 2016 and beyond.

Mark Field: I had hoped to agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about this measure being in a Christmas tree Bill. I agree with him fundamentally that it would be better to have it in a proper broadcasting Bill, but the difficulty is that we focus our minds on the BBC only when the renewal of the charter comes up, which is not necessarily the best time to look at these things in the broadest sense. However, I disagree with what he said about Sky. Ultimately, we are all consumers of Sky. It is the market that decides, and if there were no market for it, Sky would not have £7 billion in its coffers. We have £2.7 billion in the BBC, which I think does a terrific job, given that amount of money, but it is right that the market should prevail to a certain extent.