HC Deb 04 December 1974 vol 882 cc1893-903

9.38 a.m.

Mr. Tim Renton(Mid-Sussex)

In the Supplementary Estimates, under Class VII, Vote 1, Section A, we are asked to vote an additional £196 million for grants to local authorities, development corporations and housing associations for housing purposes. It is about the inadequacy of that very large additional vote to meet the housing needs and housing crisis in Britain that I wish to speak.

When I made my maiden speech some months ago, in replying an hon. Member from the Government Front Bench said that he wished that his constituency had the same problems as mine. I appreciate the validity of that comment. We are very lucky in Sussex. It is a fortunate part of the country. But, none the less, we have a very substantial housing problem in which the difficulties of the young childless couple, or of the boy or girl who leaves his or her family and comes to my area for the first time to get a job, or the increase in the number of homeless in the area contrast starkly with the general prosperity of the South East. It is the prosperity which makes the position of these people worse because, naturally, that prosperity leads to higher prices for houses and flats than is normal in the rest of the country.

The housing situation in the South-East has become so bad that a few weeks ago our local paper ran as its headline a quotation from a speech made by the noble Lord, the Earl of March, president of the Sussex Rural Community Council, who said: Housing in Sussex is in a state of near disaster. It is about the total lack of success by the Government in dealing with this housing crisis that I shall speak.

First, I should like to touch on housing associations. In the circular put out by the Department of the Environment in April this year, in paragraph 38 the Department stated: The Secretaries of State believe that the voluntary housing movements has an important part to play in meeting housing needs in collaboration with local authorities. I fully support that statement. It is by the use of the voluntary housing movement that charitable funds and the free giving by people of both their time and money can be channelled into the most important basic social need of all—the provision of housing.

Two new housing associations have come into being recently in my area to deal with a new problem of homeless-ness that did not exist some years ago. These new housing associations are floundering in a mass of red tape.

One of those housing associations, a registered charity and friendly society, has raised £14,500 in the last year and it is apparently eligible for money either directly from the State or from the local authority. It wrote to the Department of the Environment, which suggested that it contact the local authority.

The association received a welcome in principle from the housing department, but the planners said, "We have a head and a heart. Our heart is with you, but our head is against you." Therefore, after some months, the association is still in negotiation with the local authority and it has not obtained a specific go-ahead for its plans.

The association then wrote to the Housing Corporation, which was charged by the Department of the Environment with the specific duty of aiding housing associations. The advice from the Housing Corporation was that in general it did not exist to encourage the development of new housing associations. As I said, my area is obviously not an area of severe housing stress, but these associations came into existence fairly recently to deal with the growing problem of the young and homeless.

The Housing Corporation said that under Section 13 of the Housing Act 1974 it was duty bound to establish a register of housing associations and that the Housing Association Registration Advisory Committee—a very long and complicated title—had not yet provided the necessary criteria for a voluntary housing movement.

The other new housing association in my constituency is a self-build housing association. Its members have become impatient waiting for council houses, they have been put off by the appalling cost of private houses, and therefore they have decided to try to acquire land to self-build houses themselves. They have received totally different answers from local authorities to the question whether land was available to them. Everyone tells them a different story. Some say that they think they will be able to have land, others say that they will not.

One of my constituents told me last night that they were told to register with the National Federation of Self-Build Housing Associations as an initial step. All that they have found out about that federation is that membership would cost an initial subscription of £50, and they do not wish to pay that money without knowing what they will get for it. So they too, are floundering.

These new housing associations are self-critical They admit that they are amateurish, that they do not know all the rules, but they say that they need a full-time expert to guide them through the complexities of the rules and regulations among the Department of the Environment, the local authority and the Housing Corporation so as to establish just what they are entitled to and how best to obtain it.

I would therefore suggest to the Minister that the HARAC should as soon as possible issue a list of guidelines and crieria for the housing associations to follow. The ordinary voluntary housing association will then know that, if it follows these guidelines, under the Government's auspices it will obtain some money with which to help meet the community's housing needs. Those guidelines could also deal with the funding of the additional costs of welfare work, in which so many housing associations are involved, since many people on low incomes, especially in areas of housing need, bring their social problems as well to the associations.

We should also bear in mind the problems of the young couple moving perhaps to the South East, who would like to buy a house but cannot possibly afford the £10,000 or £12,000 that it would cost. That would mean finding a deposit of £1,000, and having another £1,000 in the bank for furniture. They would have to be on a joint salary of between £3,000 and £4,000. For such people, house prices today put the possibility of owning their own home out of their reach.

Surely for such people, the Government should consider introducing a standard of permanent mobile home which a young couple with £3,000 or £4,000 could afford. In these cases, the initial sum required would be only £700 or £800 and it is likely that their parents would help to meet that initial cost. If such mobile or prefabricated homes, to which additional rooms could be added, were within the price range of £3,000 to £4,000 in total, the young couple would be encouraged to save and be given the possibility of owning a home of their own, which at present would not otherwise be possible.

In a year in which housing starts, both by councils and by private industry, are not likely to exceed 260,000, which will mean the worst year since 1958, it seems sensible to encourage every sector of the industry concerned with providing housing —public or private, rented, furnished or unfurnished. Unfortunately, the Government's Rent Act of 1974 has tragically moved in exactly the opposite direction.

If the Minister does not believe me let me quote from the magazine Time Out, which is not notable for its Right-wing views. Writing about the 1974 Rent Act on 8th November the magazine starts with the words: The 1974 Rent Act has had an apparently disastrous effect on the state of the market for furnished flats and rooms in London. In my constituency there are many good, decent, landlords who have previously rented furnished accommodation and who now feel that because of the security of tenure given to the tenant and the difficulty of getting undesirable tenants out they no longer wish to let accommodation. They do not feel that under the Rent Act, even if they are resident landlords, they are sufficiently protected. I am informed that if a landlord renews a tenancy to a tenant when the landlord is resident—if the tenancy is rolled over several times—a security of tenure will be established which it may be very difficult to remove. The general attitude is therefore to have nothing to do with the provision of furnished accommodation.

The Government should carry out a survey, perhaps using the Central Policy Review Staff, into the decline in furnished accommodation and the tragic rise in the number of homeless associated with its decline. Both of these trends have been accentuated, alas, by the 1974 Act.

In my constituency there is a good deal of short-life housing. Some is owned by local councils, concerned about future road-widening schemes or bypasses. They know that they will need possession of the property for these purposes in two to three years' time. Some of this housing is owned by developers who have permission to erect an office block but who, particularly in the current economic climate, are unlikely to build for many years.

Meanwhile, mainly because of the worry about giving security of tenure, this short-life housing is kept empty. It is not used for any purpose at all. I urge the Government to introduce a system of licences for such housing. These would be for a specific time and there would be no ongoing commitment to a further tenancy. I accept that this is only half a solution, but it provides a roof over the heads of people who might otherwise have none at all.

During the two to three years that people lived in such housing they would be able to work their way up the council list. I appreciate that this idea of licences with no ongoing security of tenure runs contrary to the political dogma of the Government, but it would help some people who are in a critical situation.

I conclude by quoting the words of Des Wilson, when he was Director of Shelter, in 1968. The final paragraph of a memorandum he wrote then reads: When we do comment on housing policies we comment on them from one point of view only—the point of view of the homeless. We try to reflect their wishes, their problems and their needs. Surely the needs of those who are without a roof over their heads is more important than pursuit of political dogma about State ownership of rented property. This dogma neither the country nor the homeless can afford.

9.55 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Gerald Kaufman)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton) on managing to make an extremely wide-ranging speech about housing within the narrow confines of this Estimate. I congratulate him, too, on attracting to the Chamber most of the members of the Committee dealing with the Housing Rents and Subsidies Bill. Perhaps if one or two more come in, we can have our meeting here.

The hon. Gentleman's was a novel speech in some respects. It is unusual for a Conservative Member to quote Time Out and Des Wilson as authorities for his argument. Whether the hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury) would agree with the hon. Gentleman on one of the authorities he quoted is a matter for conjecture, and whether also the hon. Member for Mid-Oxon (Mr. Hurd) would agree with his plea for more housing subsidies, with which he acceptably opened his speech, I am not sure, either.

We accept that the availability of subsidies for local authority housing is a very important factor in the construction of such housing. We have managed to obtain from the Treasury the most massive increase in subsidy allocation. We recognise that it is still not enough, but it is enabling us to improve the level of council house starts way beyond what was achieved under the Conservative Government.

I agree that we face a grave housing situation. Since you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, are perhaps a little too fatigued to call us to order if we become too polemical, I shall not trawl over the record of the Conservative Party which has led us to the situation in which we so unhappily find ourselves.

The hon. Member spoke movingly about the problems of those who wish to organise housing associations. We are very anxious that the housing association movement should be given every incentive. That is why we took over the housing and planning Bill left behind by our predeccessors and transformed it into the Housing Bill which we introduced in the last Parliament, in the course of it making subsidy assistance to the housing associations even more generous than the Conservatives had intended. Current estimates of expenditure for grants and subsidies for the coming financial year for the voluntary housing movements are more than £216 million, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman agrees that that is a considerable amount of aid.

This will not alleviate the other problems to which he referred. One of these is undobutedly planning considerations. I sympathise with those who wish to build but find themselves hampered by planning problems. As far as we are concerned, we hope that local authorities will streamline their methods because we want to ensure that the maximum number of houses is built in the shortest possible time. At the same time, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Planning and Local Government said yesterday, it is also true that planning considerations are very important to make sure that the right procedures are gone through and that the right protection is given.

The hon. Member referred to the beauties of the county, part of which he represents. It is very important that in his county, as in other places, including urban areas, we should reconcile the speedy building of the maximum number of houses with the preservation of amenity, and, of course, planning procedures are required for that.

The hon. Gentleman was a little irked about registration procedures introduced in the Housing Act 1974. Again, I accept that, for those wishing to set up housing associations, these could be bothersome. But as a Government who wish to encourage the voluntary housing movement in the way our predecessors did, we believe that it is very important that the voluntary housing movement should not only be entirely reputable but be seen to be entirely reputable. There is a small minority of rotten apples in this barrel, and the registration procedures are intended to make sure that that barrel is purified. This is extremely important. We all know of housing associations which are not carrying out the social rôle which is the aim of the voluntary housing movement to which we in all quarters of the House are dedicated. I think that the irritations to which the hon. Gentleman's constituents have been put, about which I sympathise with them, are nevertheless a small price to pay to make sure that we have an entirely reputable voluntary housing movement.

On the question of publicising criteria, this is something with which we could perhaps help. I will certainly contact Lord Goodman to see whether the Housing Corporation can assist in this matter. In the cases of the particular associations which the hon. Gentleman has in mind, if he would like to give me details of individual problems, I will certainly be glad to look into these to see whether help can be given.

At the same time, it is necessary to make clear that it ought not to be too easy to set up a housing association. People with the best will in the world, anxious to assist in dealing with the very serious housing problems to which the hon. Gentleman has alluded, can get themselves into great financial difficulty if they do not organise their endeavours in a satisfactory way. That is why the kind of guidelines and procedures which are entrenched in the legislation exist, even though those who wish to go full speed ahead may wonder whether they are sometimes necessary.

The hon. Gentleman made an appeal for helping first-time purchasers by means of mobile homes. He will, of course, have read the speech by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State delivered in Brighton on 30th October. My right hon. Friend has made it clear that the Department is looking urgently into all ways of providing speedy low-cost housing to assist those whom the hon. Gentleman has in mind. We are looking into a number of possibilities. I have received recently—I cannot make any commitment about them —most interesting suggestions about forms of extendable housing to which the hon. Gentleman referred as a possibility. We are looking into these, and I assure him that we have ruled out no possibilities. We are very anxious to get lots of people housed quickly.

I can tell the hon. Gentleman in this regard that the desperate situation that we inherited is being alleviated somewhat. Although the private housing starts are still lamentable to a degree, it appears that we are likely to be turning the corner in private housing starts. The completions are more encouraging than they were. The completions are, to a large extent, based upon a better spirit in the industry because of the increased cash flow in the building societies and the increased number of mortgages being taken out. The Building Societies Association issued very interesting figures on this subject this week.

Also, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State pointed out yesterday, we have modest cause—no more than modest —for satisfaction in the increase in local authority housing starts which is very discernible since the present Government came into power and made it clear that we are very anxious indeed for a considerable increase in local authority starts.

The hon. Gentleman was a little contentious in what he said about the workings of the Rent Act. Although Time Out is, I am sure, an authority on many things, housing may not be a field in which it should receive the greatest attention. For all these strictures of Time Out and of the hon. Gentleman, too, on the outcome of the Rent Act, I would tell him that there are many people who believe that the Rent Act is not strong enough even so—including a constituent of mine who, despite the security of tenure given her, was thrown out of her flat a few days ago as a furnished tenant.

Protection is not always as great as it should be. The hon. Member is not accurate in talking about a decline in furnished accommodation. There has been an increase in furnished accommodation in recent years. We cannot say, as yet, what the effect of the Rent Act will be. It is very early indeed to leap to conclusions, but I can assure the hon. Member of one effect of the Act. Since he quoted an early memorandum by Mr. Des Wilson when he was in charge of Shelter, I shall give information that we now have, that since the Rent Act came into force the number of furnished tenants going to Shelter for help because of security of tenure problems has declined quite dramatically, and I think that is a tribute to the legislation which the Government insisted on asking the House to approve earlier this year.

When the hon. Member refers to the dogma of this party about furnished tenure, I will not resile from that allegation. We have a dogma about it. We want to protect tenants and I am afraid that the hon. Member's plan, sincere though it is, for short-term licences is not one that we can accept. It is no good giving people houses if at the same time a cloud is put over the tenure of their home. The sheer misery of people who are not sure from day to day whether they will have a roof over their heads is far worse than the uncertainty of landlords whether they can get property back, though we have put a great many safeguards into the Rent Act and, indeed, safeguards for resident landlords to whom the hon. Member referred.

Mr. Nicholas Scott (Chelsea)

I have no wish to be contentious. We should all be careful in pretending that things are easier than they are in these matters. I have had deputations in my constituency about the effect of the Rent Act. Young single people, in particular, are being very hard hit by the decline in available property, with furnished landlords insisting only on overseas lets. I believe that we may well be facing a crisis. I wish that the Minister would not dismiss too easily the idea of licences. In London we are spending £3 million a year on bed and breakfast accommodation. I am not at all sure that we would not do better to look at other forms of short tenure so that the family can be together in a unit with the facilities of a home rather than being pushed into bed-and-breakfast accommodation like this. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not turn this idea down too firmly.

Mr. Kaufman

I recognise the sincerity of the hon. Member for Chelsea (Mr. Scott), who has represented one stress area in this House and who now represents an area where perhaps the stress is not so great but where there are considerable problems of another kind. But I do not want the House to be under any illusions. I cannot accept proposals for this kind of short-term tenancy. The hon. Member for Kensington (Sir B. Rhys Williams) repeatedly puts forward the notion of some kind of tenure called "shorthold", and I have repeatedly and, I am afraid, somewhat to his anger, had to turn it down.

The need for the kind of bed-and-breakfast accommodation to which the hon. Member refers is caused by home-lessness, which was to a very large extent brought about by the lack of security of tenure for furnished tenants. The local authority from Wandsworth, for example, can give the hon. Member a great many examples of that kind of thing. Our information is that the decline in rented accommodation has been halted, but we gave the assurance when the Bill was going through the House earlier this year that we would be examining the effects of the Rent Act and that it might be necessary for certain reasons to return to this subject later in the Parliament.

I thank the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex for giving us this opportunity at this interesting time of day to examine these problems in detail. I assure him that the Government are dedicated to helping people to get homes of their own, whether as owner-occupiers or as tenants, and I assure the hon. Member also that we are under no illusions about the only effective way to get people better housed —and that is to build many more homes.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Committee of the whole House.

Committee this day.