HC Deb 04 August 1980 vol 990 cc242-309

2.6 am

Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)

As the night is still very young, I call the attention of the House to the impending housing crisis in London, which has been caused by the destructive policies carried out by the Tory Greater London Council. It has been worsened by the collapse of new house building all over the country, and in particular by the utterly reckless actions of the Tory council in Wandsworth, which includes my constituency. All these practical proofs that the Tory Party no longer cares in the least about housing, if indeed it ever did, and about the thousands of wretchedly housed families in London, are combining to cut down further and further the number of council dwellings available for those most in need.

The GLC's completely irresponsible policy of handing over housing estates to the boroughs means that the only slender hope that was once available for council tenants to move from one part of London to another has almost disappeared. The Prime Minister is advising the population of Wales to move to London. My constituents cannot move from Battersea to Southwark, because it is impossible to find anywhere to move to. Indeed, the Tories on the council in Wandsworth have now devised an even more extraordinary scheme, by which most council tenants in that borough cannot even move from one ward of Wandsworth to another.

On top of this, and probably worst of all, the sale of council houses is drastically reducing the number available to let. Hardly one constituent who comes to my surgery, or writes me letters about his or her housing needs, can buy a house. For the first time in many years, I am having to tell any number of people in distressing housing conditions—for instance, old ladies of 80, living alone and in frail health—that there is no practical hope now of their being rehoused in London, as long as present Tory policies are continued.

The Tories did tell us that the sale of council houses was intended to enable the sitting council tenant to realise his alleged lifelong ambition of buying a house. The humbug of this has just been exposed by the extraordinary action, in the last two weeks, of the Tory council in Wandsworth.

This council decided recently to sell to a private property interest the council estate known as St. John's, bordering the river in my constituency. This estate was a pioneering effort by Labour councils in the 1920s, designed to rehouse families from the worst slums of those days. Three years ago the then Labour council decided that it should be wholly modernised. The Tories then took it over two years ago. Having decided to sell the estate to a private interest, the Tory council recently discovered that about 40 families refused to move out. The Wandsworth council then decided to evict them. We can see how much sincerity there was in all this talk about selling council homes to sitting tenants. In this case a Tory council is proposing forcibly to evict council tenants from their homes and to sell the estate to a private property interest, which will no doubt sell the flats to the highest bidder.

That is not quite the end of this curious story. The Wandsworth Tories also recently discovered that the Government's Housing Bill would give security of tenure to the council tenants, which would frustrate this whole operation of selling the estate. If this Bill becomes law in the next week or two, as I understand the Government hope, according to my information the enhanced security for council tenants would operate not later than early October. I believe that that is the latest state of the Bill. Thus threatened with defeat by their own Government's legislation, Wandsworth Tory council was so determined to evict these unfortunate people, at any cost to the council's reputation for responsibility, that it rushed through council last Thursday evening, 31 July, a motion authorising it to carry out the evictions at once, before the new Bill becomes law and the tenants obtain a new security.

This seems to be positively outrageous conduct on the part of the present majority on the Wandsworth council. I urge the Secretary of State to intervene in this affair and prevent the Wandsworth council from, in this case, defying not merely all principles of responsibility and decency but the intention of Parliament and the Minister's own legislation.

I understand, and the Minister can tell me whether I am wrong, that the sale of this estate to a private interest would require the consent of the Secretary of State. I therefore repeat the request that I made in a letter which I sent to the Secretary of State last Thursday, to withhold his consent to this sale. I would have thought, if there is any sincerity left in the Government's professed concern for the security of council tenants, as set out in the Housing Bill, that the Secretary of State could prove it by disallowing this sale. I therefore ask the Secretary of State to do so. I can assure him that he would immensely relieve the anxieties of 40 families on this estate if he would do this immediately.

2.15 am
Mr. John Hunt (Ravensbourne)

I shall be reasonably brief as I wish to allow ample time for the 19 Opposition Members who wish to take part in this debate. Some of them have been unaccountably detained at meetings elsewhere, but no doubt they will contribute to our proceedings later.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) on initiating this debate. I always regard him as one of the original prophets of doom. Whether he is speaking about the Common Market or housing in Wandsworth he always seems to paint the same dreary picture and he was his usual lugubrious self tonight.

I shall not follow in the parochial matters which the right hon. Gentleman raised, but I think that the first thing that should be said is that the problems of London cannot be considered in isolation. Of course, London will benefit when the upturn in economic activity comes. We shall have to wait a little longer for it but not too long, I hope. But it would, surely, be unrealistic to expect Government assistance at present to be directed specially and specifically to the capital.

I take up two points on housing made by the right hon. Gentleman. First, there is the matter of the transfer of GLC properties to the boroughs. I think that he misunderstands the views of most tenants in greater London. Those with whom I have contact have welcomed the fact that they will not now be administered from what they regard as the remote area of county hall but will instead have more direct, and personal, contact with their own boroughs. I think that most of them prefer that.

When the right hon. Gentleman spoke of the private sector I was sorry to note that he made no mention of the provision in the Housing Bill for shorthold tenancies. That is a provision that will be of direct help and benefit to people like teachers, nurses and students who will never be able to accumulate sufficient points to be rehoused from a council waiting list and who will, therefore, be looking to this provision to enable them to move into the accommodation for which they yearn. I believe that the Labour Party has done a great disservice to those people by threatening to repeal that provision and I hope that it will have second thoughts on the matter.

As this debate is about Government assistance to London we should range a little wider than housing, upon which the right hon. Gentleman concentrated in opening the debate. I wish to mention particularly the enterprise zones which have been proposed and which are in the process of being set up.

Mr. Jay

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman realises that the Government have decided not to declare part of Wandsworth as an enterprise zone.

Mr. Hunt

That leads me to something that I was about to say. I share the disappointment expressed in some quarters that only the Isle of Dogs has, as yet, been designated as an enterprise zone in London. But I am bound to comment on the ambivalent attitude of the Labour Party on this matter. On 2 May in our last debate on London, the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown) ludicrously equated enterprise zones with sweatshops. Now I understand that the right hon. Member for Battersea, North is complaining that there is not to be an enterprise zone in Wandsworth.

Mr. Jay

I am just stating a fact.

Mr. Hunt

I am interested in the right hon. Gentleman's non-committal attitude on this. I can tell him that my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) is most disappointed that an enterprise zone has not been designated for North Wandsworth. I know that he intends to press the Government to designate one there in addition to that in the Isle of Dogs.

It is interesting to see this ambivalent attitude within the Labour Party, and not just on the Labour Benches in this House. Although the Labour Party has opposed enterprise zones, a number of Labour councils appear to have been falling over themselves to make applications to the Government for zones to be designated in their areas. Of course, they want the jobs and opportunities that will come from such designation, bringing as it would exemption from development land tax, from industrial and commercial rates and from industrial development certificate requirements, 100 per cent. capital allowances on industrial and commercial buildings, and substantial relaxation of planning controls.

All this must give a tremendous boost to the development potential of these derelict and rundown areas in London and elsewhere, and will provide jobs in the very areas where unemployment is at its worst and most intractable. At least the enterprise zones are a new idea that should be tried, and I greatly regret the dog-in-the-manger attitude of Labour Members on this project.

The Government have already taken a number of measures to revive and encourage activity in London. Office development control was scrapped a year ago. The Location of Offices Bureau, the Labour Party's chosen and cherished instrument for the dispersal and loss of jobs in London, has been abolished. In addition, further Civil Service dispersal from London has now been virtually halted. All this is a useful start in helping to retain jobs in London at a time when the capital, in common with all other parts of the country, faces a growing problem of unemployment and recession. At the same time the Government are trying to soften the impact of unemployment, particularly among young people—

Mr. Jay


Mr. Hunt

Yes, and I shall spell out precisely the way in which that is being done. We are spending more on training measures, particularly for young people, than the Labour Government spent.

Mr. Jay

The hon. Gentleman may also like to know that his Government cancelled a skillcentre that was proposed for my constituency by the Labour Government.

Mr. Hunt

I have no knowledge of that cancellation, but over the country as a whole more money is being spent than under the previous Government. By Easter next year, for example, every one of this year's school leavers, in London and elsewhere, will have been offered a job or a training place under the youth opportunities programme. In the current year the programme is being expanded to cater for up to 260,000 entrants compared with 210,000 last year, which is an increase of 28.5 per cent. That, against a general background of public expenditure cuts, is no mean achievement on the part of the Government. It indicates their commitment to ease the problems of unemployment in areas like London. It emphasises the importance we attach to better, fuller and more comprehensive training. Incredibly, even today employers in London are still complaining about the difficulty of recruiting skilled staff. London's evening newspapers and our local newspapers are still full of advertisements of job vacancies for the right applicants. If the present employment difficulties bring home to young people and others the vital importance of obtaining better qualifications and becoming more skilled, our present troubles will produce a positive spin-off for the future.

I hope that this will prove to be a useful and constructive debate, reflecting the concern of hon. Members in all parts of the House about the problems of our capital. There are no quick or easy solutions. It is my submission that the problems of London can ultimately be tackled and solved only in the context of the revival and recovery of the economy as a whole. As soon as we have conquered inflation, that revival and recovery will be under way and will gain momentum.

2.25 pm
Mr. Ron Leighton (Newham, North-East)

It is right and proper that the House should consider the position of London. When many people think of London they think of Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, Soho and plush five-star hotels. However, those of us who represent London constituencies know that London has much bad housing and that in some inner London boroughs unemployment is as bad as in any region. Under the previous Tory Government we had a three-day week. For many young people under this Government there is no work. Our younger generation is coming from school to the dole queue. We are entering uncharted waters. In some multiracial areas in London there is danger of riots. As frustrations build up, the temptation for some people is to lash out at the nearest scapegoat.

In the borough of Newham the local council is wrestling with the most severe financial difficulties. In the past couple of weeks the council has been requested by the Department of the Environment to revise its expenditure and lop £3.3 million off the 1980–81 figures. There were veiled threats about what would happen if it did not do so. The figure is arbitrary. It is based on the figure for 1978–79, which was cut voluntarily by the council by £2½ million. The council budgeted this year for a contingency fund of £12½ million to cover inflation, which has soared way beyond estimates. Eleven million pounds of that sum has gone in the first three months of the financial year. The council has therefore had to draw on the £6¾ million in the capital and revenue support fund, which has been accumulating over a number of years. That fund will be exhausted by the end of the year. There will therefore be a complete stop on all future capital projects.

The council is trying to save £1 million in staff and produce a further £1 million in even higher rents, which are to increase by a further £1.50 a week. That is still not enough. The council has therefore decided to bring future housing projects to standstill, which is a scandal in an area of high housing stress. I have a constant stream of people coming to my advice bureau with housing problems. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Batterea, North (Mr. Jay), I have to tell them that there is no chance of improvement while Tory policies remain. This year is bad enough. Next year will be desperate, because there will be no fat from the capital and revenue support fund. The maximum benefits from restriction on the recruitment of staff will have been realised. The only further savings will be in the form of drastic cuts in services. Those will fall on the weaker sections of the community—the handicapped, and so on—and will worsen the quality of life in an already deprived area.

The Government say that they have no money, but they have plenty for other things. There seems to be plenty of money for defence. The Government can spend £5 billion or £6 billion on Trident. What is the purpose? The purpose of those billions of pounds is to destroy cities in other parts of the world and to incinerate their populations. That is appalling.

I want to see a change of Government and of policy so that we may spend billions of pounds, not on destroying cities, but on building up London and the decaying inner areas of other cities in this country.

2.31 am
Mr. William Shelton (Streatham)

I suggest to the hon. Member for Newham, North-east (Mr. Leighton) that the objective of Trident is not to destroy cities in other parts of the world but to avoid Tridents, or whatever they may be, belonging to other countries destroying our cities. In other words, it is the reverse of what was suggested by the hon. Gentleman.

I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) is not in his place. I was talking to him earlier. As the hour approached 2 o'clock, I thought that we might miss the debate, I want to comment on what he referred to in Wandsworth. My constituency lies in Lambeth alongside Wandsworth. I have seen in the local press comments about the block to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. If the facts are as reported in the press and as stated by the right hon. Gentleman, there must be some cause for concern. Perhaps the Minister will have something to say about that matter when he replies to the debate. I am glad that Labour Members are as keen as me that people should own their houses, whatever the circumstances.

All hon. Members must be aware of the difficulties facing urban centres not only in this country but throughout the world. We have the famous phrase "urban centre decay". When I first entered the House 10 years ago, Lambeth had five constituencies each of 50,000 or 60,000 people. There are now four. After the next redistribution, there will be only three. I trust that I shall continue to be fortunate enough to represent one of them after the next election.

There is a flight of population from our cities and from London which must worry all who represent urban constituencies. I must agree that money, or the lack of it, has a bearing on what happens in urban centres. But I suggest that money is only part of the answer. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Ravensbourne (Mr. Hunt) that as the tide comes in every ship will rise with it, but I suggest that in London money is only a small part of the answer to the problem.

I remind the House of what has happened during the past 10 years in terms of planning because of too much money. Good properties have been knocked down by bulldozers and horrors have been built in their place. I have only to drive round the Elephant and Castle to remind myself of the horrors which are perpetrated by planners when money is available. I often wonder how much better that area might have been had they not had the money to create that hideous monstrosity.

If money had been available five or 10 years ago to do the same thing to Piccadilly Circus, as was planned, we would certainly regret it now. Fortunately—hopefully—it looks as though we may get something reasonable in Piccadilly Circus. I suggest that hon. Members should look at Covent Garden, where an excellent job has been done. I suggest that they should pay a visit there if they have not already done so. That was achieved without much money. A certain amount of private money was involved, but it was done with imagination and skill.

I do not accept that scattering money over our capital city will cure its problems. However, as hon. Members have already said, the main problem that we all know—the problem that confronts us at our advice bureaux and in the letters that we receive—is housing. Housing causes more misery to my constituents than anything else. I am sure that the same applies to the constituents of other London Members. If ever a road paved with good intentions has led to disastrous results, it has been housing legislation in the last 50 or 60 years, and every party has been guilty.

While I strongly support the Housing Bill, which returns to the Chamber tomorrow, I wish that in some respects it were bolder in helping the privately rented market. It seems to me that the use of local government as a solution to our housing problems—which Labour Members have emphasised—has been proven to have failed in the last 10 or 20 years.

We all have enormous housing queues, yet we all have more local government housing now than we had in the past.

I understand that housing is worst in Scotland, yet Scotland has the highest percentage of those living in council houses. Surely that cannot be a coincidence. Perhaps it is, but it is a jolly odd one. But Lambeth, which has 11,000 people on the waiting list, has a council that is notoriously inefficient in housing its people. There are more than 4,000 empty flats and houses owned by Lambeth council, some of which have been empty for up to four years. How can that be possible? How can one justify it?

I receive pathetic letters from constituents saying "I am in a desperate housing situation", and clearly they are. They attach a list of perhaps half-a-dozen addresses of empty council houses which they have found within a block or two of where they live. Perhaps the answer is to think laterally and to ask "Is not the way to do it through short-hold tenancies?". Again, I agree profoundly with my hon. Friend the Member for Ravensbourne. I fear that the Labour Party has knocked the shorthold tenancy scheme on the head by saying that it will repeal it. If that is so, that is a terrible thing to have done. It should have allowed the scheme to operate for four or five years. Heaven knows, we need new ideas in respect of housing in London, because it is the main area of misery. I do not believe that local authorities or the Government are able to solve the housing problem. They may be able to do so partly, but the other part must be achieved through the privately rented market.

I was talking to the boss of a distinguished housing association which is not normally associated with Conservative policies. In other words, it has the tendency to be a rather Left-Wing organisation. He had just returned from the United States, and he told me "You know, slums in the States are very bad, for instance, in Washington". I asked whether they were any worse than those in some of our cities. He replied "No", but he added "The extraordinary thing was that there is no shortage of housing to let. Anyone can get a house at a very reasonable rent, and rents are less than they are in this country. I cannot understand it". I said "You don't think it could possibly be because they do not have such a regulated market in the private sector?". He said "No, it could have nothing to do with that at all, but nevertheless, I don't understand it".

Therefore, one day a party will be brave enough, or in power long enough—it will not be the Labour Pary, so I hope that it will be the Conservative Party—to start freeing the private market to allow private money to come back into housing. That is the way that we shall get mobiliy. That is the way in which we shall reduce some of the misery. I do not see it being done through public sector housing.

Mr. Reg Race (Wood Green)

Will the hon. Gentleman explain how this system for defeating housing waiting lists will work with the private landlord taking precedence? Does not this mean, in very simple terms, that the rate of profit for the private landlord will have to be raised to a considerable extent to make housing a profitable investment over and above any other form of investment in the economy, either in the financial or the industrial sector? By how much will rents have to go up in order to give that profit premium to the private landlord to create the thousands of dwellings needed?

Mr. Shelton

I do not think that there is necessarily any conflict between the private sector and the council sector. I do not see why they should not work in harmony, as they do in most countries in Europe. There is no conflict between them in Scandinavia. There need be no conflict between them in this country. The hon. Gentleman has a very good point. The problem is that the private market is so strangled at the moment and there is such a shortage of housing that if it were freed there would be unacceptably high rents asked overnight, until the market had expanded sufficiently. It would probably take five or 10 years to do so.

That is why the Conservative Government introduced in 1972 the excellent Housing Finance Act. Had that not been repealed by the Labour Government, it would by now be having the sort of effect that I very much hope to see one day. But I shall not follow that line because it is a difficult one and it is very late.

Might we not, sitting as we do for inner London constituencies, at least have common cause in certain aspects of housing which create grave problems for our constituents? Might we not have some sort of crusade among us to stop councils, because of their inefficiency, from keeping houses and flats empty? Might we not move to press for some kind of central computer so that there can be mutual exchanges taking place more freely and more quickly? Might we not in some way between us see whether we can help our constituencies with their major problem—that of housing?

2.43 am
Mr. Thomas Cox (Tooting)

The range of issues to be discussed in the debate this evening highlight yet again the need for a Minister with sole responsibility for London. This has been suggested, I know, on many occasions. We are all aware of the excuses that we hear time and time again. I do not believe that, on whichever side of the Chamber we sit, we believe those excuses. The time will come when there will be a Minister with responsibility for many issues that face us in London.

London, the capital of this country, is a hell of a mess. We who represent the inner areas especially wonder at times what is our long-term future, because we have all the problems. Solving them is never easy. With a Government such as we have now, following the kinds of policies that they have been pursuing since their election a little over a year ago, in the inner Iondon area and in many of the outer areas we are starting to become what can only be described as a desert of despair. When we run through the list of our problems—housing, employment, the environment, traffic, transport, industry—we find that it goes on and on and on. I am sure that each and every hon. Member can bring into a debate such as this the problems that beset the areas that he represents.

I shall talk about London Transport and industry. Recent weeks must have filled many Londoners with utter confusion as they heard of the to-ings and fro-ings at County Hall on the issue of London Transport and what was wrong with it.

We all know that London Transport has lost an enormous sum. I am told that the loss is over £130 million. We know that buses and trains do not run, or do not run on time. We know that buses are out of action and that there is a shortage of staff. London Transport gives us every possible excuse for not providing the service that Londoners look to and need to have if they are to be able to find employment and travel from their homes to it.

We do not need any surveys to ascertain what is wrong with London Transport. All that the powers that be at County Hall or 55, The Broadway, need to do is to send out a few representatives to any bus stop to ask those who are waiting there what is wrong with London's bus services. They will soon be told what is wrong. It will be said that they are unreliable, too expensive and inefficiently run.

The Greater London Council is now responsible for London Transport. "Mr. London", the man who can pick gimmicks out of the sky quicker than anyone else—I refer to Sir Horace Cutler, the leader of the GLC—should be familiar with these issues. Whenever one switches on the radio or even the television one hears Sir Horace being interviewed. He speaks at great length about his knowledge of various subjects. However, it seems that all the problems of London Transport are someone else's fault and most certainly not Sir Horace's. The fault lies with the workers, the chairman or the late chairman but not with Sir Horace.

We are entitled to ask what Sir Horace has been doing. The final responsibility for London Transport rests with the GLC. The leader of the GLC should know as soon as things start to go wrong. I suggest that Sir Horace has failed the people of London and London Transport and that the sooner he goes the better it will be for everyone who lives in London.

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras, South)

Does my hon. Friend agree that Sir Horace has a direct responsibility, having himself appointed the bulk of the London Transport board, including the chairman whom he has recently dismissed and the deputy chairman, who was so precious to London Transport that he had to be given a special financial relationship so that his salary was paid to a private company?

Mr. Cox

My hon. Friend raises a valid argument. However, Sir Horace says "It is not really my fault. Those in whom I believed have let me down." Those who live in London and represent it, know the gimmicks and the wriggling that Sir Horace Cutler adopts. As Members of Parliament for London constituencies, we should discuss when we will provide Londoners with the transport system that they need. At present, we drive people away from public transport and towards using other forms of transport to reach their places of employment or to travel to functions. They simply say that they cannot rely on London Transport and that it is therefore up to them to find their own means of transport.

If we allow that to happen, things will escalate and will become even worse. It is regrettable that the service loses money, but it is nothing new. Few transport systems in the world make money. However, there is a vast difference between our policy and the policies of other countries. Other countries are prepared to give generous grants to ensure that their transport systems can provide services at fares that people can, and will, pay.

In September, there will be a 12p minimum fare on buses, and a 20p minimum fare on trains. That will be the third increase in a year. The increase also means that fares will have gone up by 45 per cent. since September 1979. I am sure that no hon. Member doubts that when such increases take place, people stop using public transport. Given recent events at County Hall, no one could suggest that Sir Horace Cutler has paid any constructive attention to this issue.

I should be interested to know whether the Government have had recent discussions with the GLC about the plight of London Transport. Are the Government satisfied with events under the leadership of Sir Horace Cutler? What steps will the Government take to ensure that there is an adequate transport system for Londoners? In particular, I hope that the Government will give some financial aid to London Transport. Unless help is given, and unless there is a dramatic change of policy, London Transport will soon grind to a halt. Those whom we represent will suffer. Anyone who disputes that should go to Whitehall in the rush hour and should look at the numbers of those waiting for buses. They should talk to some of the people. At first hand, they will hear the despair that they feel about the service that they want, but that is not, unfortunately, forthcoming. If something is not done it will be a sad day for London Transport, and for the people of London.

I should like to turn to the subject of industry and employment in London, particularly in inner London. As a Member of Parliament for a south London constituency, I have seen the position worsen year by year. No hon. Member will dispute that we have allowed too many of our basic industries to move away from London. That was a mistake. The Government's policies affect London as much as any other area. The nature of London, with its appalling housing and the rundown of the environment, makes it explosive.

It is a tragedy for anyone to be out of work. If one is young—and especially if one is black—and one lives in South London it is more than a tragedy to be out of work. Young people feel that society has let them down. Year after years at school they have been told "Study hard, take exams, try to do well and respect authority and you will get on". The only way that they get on is to get on to the dole queue.

Unemployment of a little under 2 million does not give the full facts of the inner London area. There is little industrial base. The opportunity for apprenticeships diminishes week by week in many places. The lack of training opportunities has also been reduced drastically, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) has already said.

Parents now come to my advice service asking whether I am able to get their youngsters a job. They do that because they share the despair of their youngsters about not being able to get work, however much they try and want a job.

The Prime Minister and her Ministers say that inflation is the overriding issue. When comments such as those made by the Prime Minister are heard by my constituents they are regarded with utter contempt. My constituents see a Government who are not concerned with their problems.

The great anxiety of business men about Government policy is of the high interest rates which they have to pay if they want to borrow money to expand. They are also worried about the unfair competition posed by goods coming into Britain from overseas. They are worried because the Government are killing off industry so that even when things start to look up the industrial base will be so destroyed that the opportunities for industry to revitalise and offer jobs will not be there. Unless we in London start to receive Government help, the problem will get worse. Anyone who thinks that those in London, especially the young, will sit by and accept that is out of touch with the feelings of our young people.

If we hope to be able to develop a realistic industrial future for our city, it is surely common sense to spend money to create basic training and employment. The problem is particularly pressing now. Not only have we lost our industrial base, which provided an enormous number of job opportunities in the past, but the Government have imposed cuts on many of the service industries that also offer job opportunities. As a result, there is a reduction in the number of jobs and apprentices that are available.

South London is a million miles from Finchley and Surrey, East, the constituencies of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. They should not just pop in for half an hour or so and say "Things are a bit rough now, but they will start to improve". They should spend time walking round areas such as South London, listening to what the people say and seeing how depressed those areas have become, certainly in the past 15 months while this Government have been in office.

If we are to have a viable future that offers hope for our people and are not to become a city in which the overwhelming percentage of the population is elderly or retired, we must have more constructive help from the Government. Young people will not accept that they cannot get a job, but, tragically, that is what many of them are starting to feel.

It is time that the Prime Minister and her Ministers realised that the one thing that the British worker wants, wherever he lives, is constructive employment. Our workers are not layabouts or scroungers, as the Prime Minister repeatedly suggests. She is always saying that they should work harder and change their attitudes, but many hon. Members can give examples of workers showing a constructive attitude to their companies, only to find that, as a direct result of Government policies, their jobs disappear and they become redundant.

We are all aware of the number of company failures in London over the past few months. Unless the rot is stopped—and only the Government can stop it—the situation will become even more serious. The Government's policies are causing the problems.

The Miniser, as a fellow Londoner, must find that his constituency is suffering from the same sort of problems that many other parts of London are suffering from. We look to him to give us hope that the Government are aware of the problems and will give us help that will lead us to rebuild the future of this great city.

3.5 am

Mr. John Wheeler (Paddington)

It would normally be proper at this hour to say to the House that I shall be brief. I apprehend, however, that the House wishes to stay on. I should like to take up the theme of jobs and job opportunities, to which previous speakers have referred. We have a major crisis on our hands in London. That crisis is not of people looking for employment but of job vacancies. I am sure that hon. Members will find the facts I shall relate of particular interest. The Department of Employment has explained the situation. The Manpower Services Commission, the jobcentres and the employment agencies, in a survey carried out during the month ended 12 June 1980, recorded 41,992 job vacancies in London. The survey states that about one-third of all vacancies in the economy are notified to the Department of Employment and its various agencies.

The plain truth, as many hon. Members well know, is that there are about 150,000 job vacancies in London. There are certain institutional employment opportunities. The Metropolitan Police, for example, has no fewer than 4,000 job vacancies. These are well-paid jobs with a career structure and excellent pension opportunities. There are also vacancies in the Post Office. It is difficult to get telephones installed in central London or letters delivered because of a shortage of trained engineers and postal workers to sort and deliver the mail. One could go on, industry by industry. The casual observer, reading the London evening newspapers or local newspapers, will see column after column of advertisements of job vacancies.

Mr. Race

I have also taken the trouble to bring into the House the latest figures of the Department of Employment on job vacancies. I am astonished by the figures that the hon. Gentleman has given. I should like him to reflect on the Department's latest figures published on 4 July which show that the seasonally adjusted total of vacancies notified to the Department in Greater London was 27,900, not the figure that the hon. Gentleman gave. There was a substantial reduction of 4,600 job vacancies between June and July. Those figures cannot be reconciled with the figures that the hon. Gentleman has given. I suspect that he is reading the unemployment figures and not the vacancy figures.

Mr. Wheeler

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's intervention. It enables me to say, again with complete frankness, that I have information, received in a written reply, which clearly states that 41,992 vacancies were notified to the three London employment service division areas. The reply went on to list in great detail the employment office vacancies throughout the London area. I will refer to only a few. In Brixton, for example, there were 327 job vacancies; in Hammersmith, 1,006; in the City of Westminster, 4,345. There are also vacancies for professional and skilled people. The London professional and executive office had 1,709 vacancies. The hotel and catering trades group had 3,080 vacancies.

In London, many major employers are looking for people to work for them. The real question is why these vacancies are not filled. Perhaps we should look with greater care at the character of our population to see why some young people are unemployed in some parts of London, are unwilling to take some jobs, or indeed to move, or rather to travel, relatively short distances to take up the employment opportunities which are available to them.

Some people say that fares are the cause of people not taking up job vacancies. It is true that the average fare paid on the Underground is about £1, but this is generally reflected in the wages and salary offered, particularly by employers in central London, who know that if they are to fill their vacancies they must be prepared to pay a reasonable salary.

The quality of life in London is another aspect of the problem, and one to which we as London Members will increasingly turn, not only on the Back Benches but in the Government.

Many people say that they want all aspects of the quality of life improved. That means greater provision for open spaces, for trees and shrubs, for gardens and for children's playgrounds, and more attention to the character and quality of housing erected in London. There have been many serious mistakes, and it does not do to try to put the blame on one political party, since both have made mistakes, often from the best motives.

I am sure that we are all glad that the tower block is now a thing of the past and that it will not return to plague the London skyline and to provide the kind of accommodation in which most people would prefer not to live. But might we not occasionally consider the better use of tower blocks? Might we not designate a tower block for use by young single people, who would like to work for short periods in central London to obtain job experience or particular skills and who would welcome the opportunity? Many young people have great difficulty finding suitable accommodation. Perhaps we should try an experiment along these lines. It would be exciting and attractive to many people.

It is sad also that there should be so much objection by Labour Members to the Government's shorthold proposals, because they offer an opportunity for ordinary people to make use of their homes, to bring spare accommodation into use to enable young people, particularly, to have a home here in central London.

The quality of life is increasingly becoming a major issue for the people who live in central London. I can best illustrate that by referring the Under-Secretary to the pile of rubbish in black plastic bags outside St. Stephen's House, almost within the precincts of this House. The rubbish has been there for several weeks, and I have no doubt that it will continue to remain there. Why is this so? It is not that the city of Westminster, the local authority responsible for the refuse collection, is unable to fulfil its duty. It is simply that the law does not enable an inner city authority to exercise the powers that are necessary under the Control of Pollution Act 1974 to encourage the cafés and take-away food shops to remove this rubbish in a way that would be acceptable and is manageable.

I urge that further consideration be given to bringing into operation, perhaps within central London alone, on an experimental basis, sections 12 and 13 of the Control of Pollution Act.

This is a most serious matter. Millions of people visit central London. A few tens of thousands live in it. But it is the heart of the capital. It is the place to which tourists, from within the United Kingdom and from overseas, come. They have an expectation of cleanliness. They do not find it in our streets. This is quite disgraceful. It is an issue to which we should give greater attention if we are to enhance the quality of life in central London.

The transport system, referred to at great length by the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox), is also very important to the quality of life not only of the people who live in London but of those who work in it—the million-plus people who travel into London on a daily basis, apart from the visitors to the capital. The task of making such a transport system work effectively is extremely complex. Even the leader of the GLC, as able and talented as he is, has considerable difficulty in controlling the price and cost of oil and petrol, which contribute to the increase in the costs of the transport undertakings in London.

It has been suggested that there should be an improved transport system. But that requires people to run it, and if one has people for such a system, one must expect to pay the appropriate wages and salaries; that costs money, and that is reflected in the fares. These things go together.

I very much hope that greater attention will be given to the passage of vehicular traffic in London. It is a matter of concern that in central London the traffic warden service has fallen from an authorised establishment of 1,800 to about 1,000. Many of the streets in central London are becoming congested. This is serious because it prevents the free passage of buses and it obstructs the commercial life of central London. It means that businesses do not function efficiently. That, too, costs money. This is also an area affecting the quality of life for the residents and the people who work in London which requires early attention.

I am glad to have had this opportunity briefly to intervene in the debate. I shall not take up the time of the House further. Others wish to contribute.

3.18 am
Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras, South)

But for the initiative taken by Opposition Members, the hon. Member for Paddington (Mr. Wheeler) would not have had any opportunity to debate London matters. While 19 Opposition Members put down their names for this debate, not one of the 50 Tory Members who represent London seats even bothered to do so. Therefore, we do not accept any criticism from the hon. Member for Ravensbourne (Mr. Hunt) or anyone else on that score.

Mr. John Hunt

Will not the hon. Member at least have the grace to concede that the present Conservative Government have provided time on two separate occasions within the last 15 months for debates on London, the need for which was pressed upon the Labour Party when in government but was never acceded to? At least the hon. Member will acknowledge that.

Mr. Dobson

That is one of the more irrelevant remarks to have been made from the Conservative Benches. The debate is on the Consolidated Fund Bill. There is always at least one such Bill, and there are frequently two, in any Session. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown) has had a considerable hand in achieving such debates as we have managed to have on London issues.

The role of Conservative Members appears to be that of scavengers off the Labour Benches. I was going to say that they were snappers-up of unconsidered trifles, but having listened to them I must say that their speeches splurge forth with unconsidered trifles, particularly in relation to the employment and unemployment figures, which we have just heard from the hon. Member for Paddington. I am sure that one of my colleagues will deal with that matter.

I find myself reverting to what I said in my maiden speech, not because I was right but because I was wrong. I said: the people I represent have much to fear from any erosion of public expenditure on housing".—[Official Report, 16 May 1979; Vol. 967, c. 269.] That was true, but what those people face with the present Government is not the slow process of erosion, not a general, gradual decay and wearing down, but the consequences of a catastrophic attack on public expenditure on housing, which is having a dramatic effect on their housing standards and prospects. It will have an even more dramatic effect as the months go by.

In February of this year the Secretary of State for the Environment announced his housing investment programme allocations. With the sleight of hand that has become characteristic of him and his departmental Ministers, he managed to put across the message that the cut compared with the previous year was 21 per cent. That was achieved by presenting figures that did not compare like with like. Once people had had an opportunity to look in detail at the figures, it turned out that they represented a cut of no less than 38 per cent., quite contrary to what the Secretary of State and his departmental press releases said.

That was not all. The public expenditure White Paper showed that compared with the £5.3 billion expenditure on housing in 1979–80 the Government intended to achieve by 1983–84 a total expenditure of only £2.7 billion, roughly halving in real terms the expenditure on housing over the next three years. The Government did not deign to give us any indication of what sort of breakdown they intended to use in achieving that reduction—reductions in capital expenditure or a reduction in the subsidies on rents. There can be no way out of it; if the money is to be reduced by roughly half, that will be done by massive reductions in capital expenditure, massive increases in rents, or a combination of the two. The Secretary of State has stalwartly refused to provide any indication of how the reduction will be achieved, other than to give us the rather unpleasant assurance that whatever happens the reduction will be achieved. The Environment Committee, in its first Report, considered the effects of the public expenditure reductions. In paragraph 16 it said: By comparison with rent levels in 1979–80 this"— the Government's guesstimate of rent increases— would represent a real increase of 16 per cent. Most of the future reductions in housing investment would occur as soon as 1981–82 and the reduction over the two years between 1979/80 and 1981/82 would be very large, at over £1,000 m. That is quite a dramatic reduction in the amount of money being spent on housing capital. I go on to quote from paragraph 17 of the report: Even assuming no further shift of investment resources from new building to improvement, public sector starts in England would fall from 66,356 in 1979/80 to 36,000 in 1981/82 and to under 30,000 in 1982/83 and 1983/84. Those are not the figures just for London. Those are the figures for England and Wales. There have been years when the completion and starts figures for houses in Greater London have exceeded those figures which the Environment Committee predicts will result from the Government's reductions in capital expenditure for the country as a whole. That is a most important point which needs to be noted by the people of London since many of them, particularly in the central area, will bear the full weight of those reductions.

I quote what the Environment Committee predicts in paragraph 20, and I emphasise that this was the unanimous view of all members of the Committee—at least all those present at the meeting when the final text was decided. It said: The Committee considers that it is unlikely that new housing starts in the public sector in England will exceed a figure of 31,000 in 1983–84 and could be well below it in the period to 1983–84. In his chacteristic way the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg), will no doubt come up with all sorts of variations on a theme, trying to prove that everything I have said is rubbish and that the Government's intended reductions in public expenditure on housing will not send up rents or reduce the number of houses started and completed, or in course of construction. He will also go on to say, I feel certain, that what is needed is for councils to sell houses so that they can use some of the money to build new houses to replace those sold.

I return to the all-party Environment Committee report, paragraph 23 of which says: Your Committee estimates that an average of between five and ten houses will need to be sold in order to build one replacement and therefore the discretion given to local authorities to use 50 per cent. of capital receipts from sales for investment will be of limited effect. It goes on, and this is particularly important for inner London boroughs: We are also concerned that unevenly spread receipts from sales will in no way reflect the needs of different local authorities. In particular, authorities with a high proportion of flats would appear to be likely to have a relatively low number of sales. The Committee consequently recommended that compensatory provision be made. It seems unlikely that that compensatory provision will be made, because the general drift of the Government's policies under the present Secretary of State—and I am sure encouraged by the Under-Secretary—is to penalise those authorities which will suffer most, as set out in paragraph 23 of the Environment Committee report. All those matters leave out such matters as the buying up of rundown property so that it can be improved, and the reduction in the amount of money made available so that councils can—at the exhortation of many private tenants—buy up privately tenanted blocks to give people effective security of tenure and to make sure that homes are properly maintained and, in that way, reflect the needs of the people who live in those blocks. Again, the hon. Member for Hampstead will be familiar with the process because he knows that a significant number of his constituents have pressed Camden council to buy mansion blocks in his area to protect them from the unscrupulous landlords who infest a great deal of our private housing and private rented accommodation. That money will no longer be available, as some of the constituents of the Under-Secretary know.

The other factor left out of those calculations is the money available for improvements. There may, at least, have to be an adjustment between the amount of money available for improvements and the money available for new building. It is clear that the deliberate efforts of London local authorities to buy up run down properties, because they knew that they were the only agencies that could possibly improve them, will be thwarted by the total unwillingness of the Government to provide the funds for such improvements. That is a disgrace.

Another point that should be made is that all the calculations about future rents and the number of housing starts leave aside the question of the decline in the amount and quality of existing housing stocks. As many Opposition Members know, and as Conservative Members who are not blind will have been forced to observe, a substantial number of council estates built just after the war and in the early 1950s are now in a state of considerable decline. Large sums of money will have to be spent if those estates are to be brought up to the standard people have come to expect and which they deserve. That money for the improvement of pre-war, post-war and even recent estates which were badly designed or built will not be available.

When the Select Committee took evidence from the Secretary of State for the Environment he, apparently, did not even care about the standard of housing that would result from cash reductions. He said—and the published evidence can be seen—that he was not concerned with updating the surveys of housing stock conditions. He said that that was a waste of time and he certainly did not intend to publish figures to enable people to compare those figures with what had happened and thus set standards. The Secretary of State, the Pontius Pilate of Henley, is in charge of the Department of the Environment and is responsible for the state of Britain's housing.

I had understood, until May 1979, that the Conservative Party supported the concept of housing associations. They certainly seemed to prefer them to local authority housing. But if one asks the housing associations how they are getting on now they say that they are getting on very badly because they are not receiving the money that they expected when they were inveigled, by both political parties, into taking on a much bigger job then they had previously done.

In my constituency there are a number of recently established housing associations and one might expect them, in a sense, to over-stretch themselves because they have limited experience of how to gear their activities. But there is also an old-established and reputable housing association, namely the St. Pancras housing association, which has been around as long as any hon. Member present tonight has been alive.

That association is in financial difficulties because of the changes which have been brought about by Government policy. It is also going into decline and finding things extremely difficult.

The hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Shelton), who was so expert about the future of Covent Garden—half of which I represent—spoke about the contribution of the private sector. I feel obliged to turn again to what the all-party Select Committee on the Environment said about the contribution of the private sector. A number of hon. Members who are familiar with London's housing circumstances served on that Committee.

I quote from paragraph 30: They suggest that new legislation on private renting is unlikely to lead to any large net gain to the available housing stock. Your Committee concludes that the additional output from the private housing sector will at most make only a small contribution to offset the reduction in public sector investment within the period under review. At the end of the next paragraph it reads By the mid-nineteen eighties there will be a cumulative shortfall of new construction, compared with the green paper forecasts, approaching half a million dwellings. That is the sort of massive contribution that we shall get from the public and private sectors combined as a result of the Government's policies.

I believe that those policies will have their most acuute impact on central London. They will certainly have an acute impact on the area that I do my best to represent. I know that there are council estates, built before and after the war, which are now run down. They need a lot of money spent on them. The money is not there, however. I know that there are slum blocks bought from villains like Mr. William Stern, the man who managed to go personally bankrupt for the largest sum of money in personal bankruptcy in British history. He used to run slum property in the area I represent. He managed to go bankrupt on the rents that he screwed out of many of my constituents. All that property needs a massive injection of capital if it is to provide decent housing. That is being held up by the Government's policies.

I shall quote two cases. One is of someone who has been to my advice service three times. She moved out of the dwelling she occupied at the request of the council because the council was to improve it. The council ran into difficulties with the DOE about the design and cost of the rehabilitation. She wants to move back in when the rehabilitation has been completed. She has been to-ing and fro-ing for a long time. I do not suggest that the council is wholly blameless in the delays which have occurred in that case. Certainly, however, the DOE has made the major contribution to the difficulties by crawling over the details, objecting and jibbing at various stages to the proposals.

This lady told me of what I regard as the ultimate humbug when she appeared at my advice service last Friday and showed me a letter from 10 Downing Street—presumably sent on the Prime Minister's behalf—telling her that the DOE has now cleared the design and that no doubt the Camden council would be able to proceed with the rehabilitation, and would no doubt give it priority. That presumably was on the advice of the Department which knows full well that the council has already committed its entire housing improvement programme allocation to contracts to which it is firmly committed. It will certainly be in no position to enter into any little contracts to oblige 10 Downing Street. That letter represented a fair degree of humbug.

Another case bothers me even more. It concerns one of my neighbours whom I know reasonably well. Her husband had his foot and part of his leg amputated not long ago because of thrombosis. It was the intention of the Camden council to provide them with a ground floor flat instead of the third floor walkup flat that they have at present. A man with only one foot cannot walk up three floors. The couple do not want to move from the area with which they are familiar. They have a little shop. They are the small traders that the Government are supposed to be looking after. The council said that it would do up a ground floor flat just round the corner, so that the man could get about in a chair or on sticks. The reduction in money available to the council has meant that it cannot do up even that flat. All its funds are committed, as the DOE knows.

That is a small example of the human tragedy which is doubling and trebling in London and which will continue to do so as a result of the Government's amazing housing policies. Those policies are wholly heartless and were arrived at without consideration of the consequences, simply because the DOE decided that it would contribute at a certain level to the so-called reduction in public expenditure.

These services are vital to people in London, particularly in inner London. They are being cut at a time when the Government are indulging in preposterous expenditure by their commitment to the Trident missile and other lunatic prestige prospects, which are of no benefit and possibly of great danger.

It would be false to say that I hope that the Government will take notice of the housing problems of inner London. I am convinced that they will not, at least until a month or two before the next general election. I do not expect a sympathetic response to the problems of inner London and the problems of people in council housing or whose future depends on it. The major contribution of the Under-Secretary of State has been to try to persuade his right hon. Friend not to prevent the Jubilee hall at Covent Garden from being demolished. I am glad for once that the Tarzan from Henley prevailed.

3.42 pm
Mr. Ronald W. Brown (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

My hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mr. Dobson) eloquently identified the problems. He also argued that London is short of debating time. The hon. Member for Ravensbourne (Mr. Hunt) said that the Government had given us two days, and we are grateful for the two Fridays. However, London is once again having to debate its affairs at 3.45 am. The first debate today was on the West Midlands, which only two or three weeks ago had a half-day debate. On Wednesday we are to debate the Eastbourne Harbour Bill. Important though that Bill may be, we have 92 London Members who wish to discuss London problems, and it is ironic that we have to do so at this odd time in the morning.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) pointed out, we still do not have a Minister representing London. Until we have such an appointment, London's affairs will not be taken as seriously as they ought to be. There is an anti-London syndrome in Governments and in all parts of the House. It is sad that we have to fight not only to stress the facts but to persuade some of our provincial colleagues that they are jaundiced in their views.

There is a continuing decline in industry and jobs in London. I was interested to hear the hon. Member for Paddington (Mr. Wheeler) and the contretemps on the different figures. I think that that contretemps will go on because we do not seem to be able to agree the figures for London. The GLC's figures do not match the Department of Employment's figures. There is a mismatch on the apparent vacancies available, yet we have this high level of unemployment in inner London. It is a cause for concern that we do not seem to be able to discover the reason.

Only yesterday I was with one Minister who came to my constituency to discuss industry and employment. We also had the benefit of the advice of his two principal officials in my area. Their view was that there were fewer vacancies, although the one bright spot in that misery was that more places had been taken up. In other words, although there were fewer places on offer, a greater number had been placed, as it were, during the past month. That did not answer the question why there appears to be this mismatch, but we all have our various views.

One of the principal problems has been the lack of training over the years. I represent a furniture trade union. Many cabinet makers, upholsterers and French polishers are now working for the Post Office. If the Post Office were to start making furniture at Mount Pleasant, it would make a profit because there are so many ex-furniture makers working there. It is a ludicrous situation, because the furniture trade industrial training board is trying to get people to become cabinet makers and upholsterers. There is something wrong with the matching of jobs and skills.

However, that should not blind us to the fact that London has had a severe beating during the past 20 years because an enormous amount of industry has been taken away. It was redistributed because it was believed to be right. Many of us, although adding words of warning, appreciated the need to help other areas. But now there is no industry in London. For example, the furniture industry, which used to be evident in my constituency, is now spread over the four corners of the land. High Wycombe, Thurrock, Chelmsford and other places have the furniture industry and London still has those who formerly worked in that industry.

London has been left with service industries only. Therefore, it does not have facilities for young people to enter into apprenticeships. There are no longer any opportunities for people to go into industry and to become skilled. I have heard it argued that London must come to terms with itself and promote service industries. I am not sure that is right. I do not know how we can convert 7 million people to the argument that London should have no manufacturing base. We appear to have lost the art of manufacturing in this country.

We have a deep-seated problem. This is what distinguishes London from other parts of the country. When the economy finally turns up, whereas provincial areas will be able to take advantage of it, London will not, because there will be no manufacturing jobs in the capital. We shall not be able to provide the job opportunities that people need. Therefore, the crisis for London will extend beyond the turn-up, whenever it comes. I counsel people to watch carefully the argument that we can accept that there is no need for manufacturing industry in London. That is a fallacious argument and should not be followed too closely.

I should like to take up some of the points which were made about public transport in London. Little by little, travelling in London is becoming almost impossible. It has become a hazard for those of us who live in the inner London area to get about by public transport. During the past three years we have witnessed the virtual breakdown of London Transport. For sheer incompetence, the Tory GLC takes some beating. Indeed, it has surpassed itself.

When Mr. Kenneth Robinson, former chairman of London Transport, was trying to get the thing into good order, he was regularly sniped at. As soon as the Conservatives took control of the GLC, they sacked him, not because he was incompetent or not doing his job but for typical party political dogma. In fact, Sir Horace Cutler decided on that spiteful action, which only he could be capable of. He sacked the man on the spot for no reason whatever, and put in his own placeman.

We get used to that sort of thing. I do not condone it, but nevertheless one gets used to it. Sir Horace Cutler put in Ralph Bennett, the great man who would solve all the problems. Not only did he place Mr. Ralph Bennett, but he placed other men as well. He even put in his mole, Mr. Leslie Chapman, in order to harass his colleagues. I do not quite understand the management technique that Sir Horace applied, but he did it.

The fanfare was that after all the years of failure, things would be different now that Mr. Ralph Bennett and all those other placemen were there. That was the high point of Toryism in London. Many of us just sat back and watched. We did not criticise it then. We waited and thought "We shall see what happens at the end of three years". What has been the result? We have a service which has almost broken down. We have a less efficient service, and we have a horribly expensive service which has resulted in fewer passengers.

In the last two weeks we have been told that we have a bankrupt industry. It was so bankrupt that it needed a special meeting at County Hall to try to resolve the problem. As a result, we had a sacked chairman. As has been said, if all else fails, blame the chairman, sack him and start off afresh.

That was the placeman who would do so much three years ago, along with all the others who were appointed with him. So much for Tory enterprise! The Tories have had complete control. They cannot make any excuses whatsoever. They cannot even blame a Labour Government because a Conservative Government have been in power for half the time. Therefore, they are bereft of any excuses. I suppose that we can say that they were appointed by Sir Horace Cutler, run by Sir Horace Cutler and finally ruined by Sir Horace Cutler. The saddest thing is that we now have an appalling public transport system, and we still have to endure Sir Horace Cutler for another nine months. Goodness only knows what further damage will be inflicted upon us before London finally rids itself of this expensive popinjay.

There has been an equally disastrous situation in housing, which has already been well illustrated. It has long been recognised that the housing problems facing inner London boroughs cannot conceivably be solved by the inner London boroughs themselves. They will need help from the outer London boroughs. What is more, they need the help of the GLC as the strategic housing authority. The original reorganisation of London particularly made the GLC. I was one of those who opposed the creation of the GLC. I did not think that it was necessary. I happen to be a boroughs man, and I said so in those days. I said so to the Herbert Commission. I was never very happy about it, but finally, when all the various reasons were put to me as to why we should have a second tier, the one thing that I was seized of was that a case could be argued for a strategic housing authority, because it was not possible, as I have said, for any inner London borough to resolve its own problems.

In the light of that, and in the light of the urgent housing problems that we have in inner London, the staggering story in housing after three years of Sir Horace Cutler is that he has abrogated his responsibilities for being the strategic housing authority. He has disowned his own responsibilities. In doing that he has kept large numbers of GLC properties all over London empty. He has kept them empty because, as he has argued, he wants them either to flog off to the people in the area or to hand back to the boroughs.

It was a deliberate policy, and in doing that he has made life impossible for people in a constituency such as mine where we rely entirely upon having an opportunity for people to move or transfer to other areas of London where their families are and where they prefer to be. Sir Horace Cutler has made it impossible for any of our tenants to be transferred. But he has gone further than that. He has not only made it impossible by keeping these places empty and making sure that no transfers take place. He has been running down the estates and neglecting repairs and maintenance. There has been a total and wilful refusal to plan, programme and build sufficient homes for the needs of London.

What is worse, perhaps, is that the GLC is deliberately refusing to provide sheltered homes for the elderly. In a debate such as this about a year ago, I drew the attention of the House to the fact that the Secretary of State for the Environment had just turned down a compulsory purchase order that had been placed by Hackney on a site which was seen to be most attractive for establishing about 40 sheltered homes for the elderly. The Secretary of State turned it down in favour of a speculative group.

I drew attention to sites in my constituency owned by this speculator. I said that it was a pity he did not do the work there before he took on other sites—in particular, the one where the sheltered housing could be put. This speculative body still has not touched the site in my area. It is in an appalling state The public health people are having to be called in frequently to try to do some thing about it. There is corrugated sheeting all round it. The whole place is a disgrace. It is not surprising that some people who see it think it must be owned by the borough council, whereas it is owned entirely by the speculator. Nevertheless, it was the Secretary of State's argument that he felt it was better for the speculator to have the site rather than to have sheltered housing on the site.

Recently in Hackney the GLC built some sheltered housing for the elderly and provided within those homes all the usual aids for the elderly—the warning lights, the various attachments to the bath, and so on. Then it decided not to allow these to be used for sheltered housing. So, having paid to put all these things in, the council has gone round removing all the warning lights, the attachments to the baths and the other things specially provided for sheltered housing in order that it can put the houses up for sale. That is a disgrace.

All hon. Members who represent inner London constituencies have elderly folk coming to them Friday after Friday in their search for sheltered accommodation. I cannot understand why the Department is allowing Sir Horace and his colleagues to behave in such an appalling manner. It is behaviour that cannot be justified in any circumstances.

We have heard a great deal about shortholds. We have always had a form of shorthold. It is not a new idea. Shortholds were once called furnished tenancies. They were exactly the same arrangement. A tenant occupied the accommodation for a limited time and at the end of that time he was bound to leave. The effect of a shorthold is exactly the same.

I ask the Minister to explain to me what will happen after one year, two years, three years, four years or five years, whatever may be the length of the short-hold, when the landlord tells his tenant that he no longer wants him. The landlord will have the inalienable right to put out the tenant and his family. There will be no council housing to turn to because that has finished. There will be no recourse to the council for help. Who is going to house families in that posi- tion? It was because people were being thrown out at the end of their "short-holds" that we introduced legislation to prevent that from happening. We are returning to where we started.

It is not true to say that we have never had shortholds before. Those of us who were chairmen of housing committees about 30 years ago well remember the basic problem of families being made homeless because of the shorthold system or the furnished tenancy system, which are one and the same thing.

I cannot envisage a shorthold system providing sheltered housing for the elderly. If the Government will not allow Hackney to provide it and they are prepared to stop the compulsory purchase order, and if the GLC will not have such housing because it is flogging off the units that it provided as sheltered accommodation, I ask the Minister who he suggests will provide sheltered housing for the elderly. He is directly responsible. He has chosen to stop the CPO in Hackney and he has permitted his friends in the GLC to sell off that which it provided as sheltered accommodation. The House is entitled to have a statement from the Minister that will explain who he thinks will provide the large number of sheltered housing units for the elderly that is required in the inner London area that I represent.

The GLC has acted to satisfy its doctrinaire party political dogma. In the meanwhile many elderly persons who are desperately seeking help from the councils are having to be turned away. It is a total disgrace. It is a deplorable state of affairs. The Tory GLC's record is a total disgrace.

The inter-borough nomination scheme is not working. The Minister relies on inter-borough nomination. The borough in the hon. Gentleman's constituency will not house people from Hackney. I asked Hackney officials to give me the names of the boroughs that were not offering accommodation to Hackney. The hon. Gentleman's beloved Camden was one of those boroughs. The chairman of the housing committee told me that there were difficulties. I advised him to tell the Minister as he, the Minister, did not seem to appreciate the difficulties.

The hon. Gentleman cannot rely upon the inter-borough nomination scheme. He has had the same responsibilities as I have had in years gone by. He knows that good housing is not put into an interborough nomination scheme. Most of the stuff that goes into that sort of scheme will be that which no one wants locally.

The hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Shelton) talked about mutual exchanges. I do not know how much exchanging the London borough of Bromley has done. It might have done exchanges with Bexley, but it has not done any with Hackney.

Mr. Race

The housing record of the London borough of Bromley is appalling. It cannot house the large number of those who require council accommodation. Indeed, it has no intention of doing so.

Mr. Brown

I have been known to suggest that the problem can be conveniently solved. The homeless of Bromley could be put on buses to Hackney. They could get off at the first stop. I accept that Bromley has never done very much.

Recently, the Minister was very kind to me. I wrote to him about an elderly brother and sister who wanted to get into a mobile home in Hammersmith. He was kind enough to involve himself immediately. He received an answer from Hammersmith to the effect that they were going to dismantle all the mobile homes. However, that is no longer true. I am told that Hammersmith will tart up the mobile homes, so that they can be made available to homeless families.

I invite the Minister to reconsider the case of Mrs. Bracey and Mr. Hutchins, and to discover whether Hammersmith can allocate separate mobile homes. They are very anxious to get into such homes. Indeed, Mr. Hutchins is now 73 or 74. I hope that the Minister will be able to help. However, that case again indicates that the inter-borough nomination scheme is not working. The Minister would be ill-advised to rely on it too much, and to argue that the housing problems of inner London can be solved in such a way.

London faces many problems. For example, we could discuss the problems of the Health Service. We could discuss other services, including the environmental services. In addition, the GLC is running down the fire brigade to a dangerous level. The fire brigade knows about such things, and it has offered me evidence to that effect. If it were thought that the evidence was incorrect we could argue about it. However, we cannot argue with anybody, because the GLC does not discuss such issues with anyone. Such subjects do not seem to be discussed at committee meeting any more. Discussion takes place behind locked doors, in smoke-filled rooms. Suddenly a press release is issued and something happens. I am very concerned about the situation.

Mr. Wheeler

Is not the hon. Gentleman aware that the Home Office has issued a Green Paper on fire brigade policy so that such points can be discussed in an informed manner?

Mr. Brown

I accept that, but the GLC took action first. It reduced manning levels before there had been any opportunity for discussion.

Mr. Race

Is not the answer to the point raised by the hon. Member for Paddington (Mr. Wheeler) that an enormous fire tragically took place recently at Alexandra Palace, in my constituency, and that the firemen and officers told me—as their local Member of Parliament—that they had had to strip the fire cover of the whole of London. If there had been another major conflagration in London, the fire brigade would not have been able to deal with it, or with many of the usual minor household fires.

Mr. Brown

I am grateful for that information. My experience is the same.

We should be discussing many London matters, but we must wait until May for the first part of the dividend when we get rid of the Tory regime at County Hall. Although we must wait nine months, the damage that will be done will be catastrophic. Housing, transport and the fire brigade will be destroyed. The council is trying desperately to destroy the ILEA. It is having an orgy of destruction. However, at the end of four years it will not be able to point to one achievement other than the destruction of everything. The council is turning everything into a farce. Please God, we shall never have to suffer another Tory administration in London.

I hope that we can unite on one issue at least. We must ensure that we debate London affairs at a more reasonable hour on a more regular basis so that we do not have to discuss the whole range of issues every time. We should be able to identify areas of interests so that we can put the interests of Londoners more to the front than is possible at the absurd hour at which we have to have our debates.

4.11 am
Mr. Reg Race (Wood Green)

We have had a wide-ranging debate. I wish to refer to some issues which have not yet been covered. First, I wish to reply to some of the points made by the hon. Member for Paddington (Mr. Wheeler) about the number of vacancies and the extent of unemployment in the greater London area. The hon. Gentleman has misconstrued the Government figures. I do not think that he is being deliberately misleading, but there are important points of principle about which we must get the record straight.

The Department of Employment's unemployment and vacancies returns each month are based on a single day on which the Department counts the number of men and women who are unemployed. It also counts the number of job vacancies in standard regions in the country. The figures obtained in that way are quite different from the figures which the hon. Member for Paddington gave to the House.

I am aware of the basis of the figures which the hon. Gentleman gave. They show a much larger number of vacancies in greater London than exist. The figures which he gave represent the number of vacancies notified to the Department during the whole of the month. The hon. Gentleman is talking about the velocity of circulation of vacancies that occurred during the whole of a calendar month. One of the most interesting things about unemployment and vacancy patterns in the area in the last few months is the extent to which vacancies have declined in conjunction with the decline in the other standard regions.

No reasonable person, looking at the figures objectively, could say that there is a substantial number of vacancies that exceeds the number of unemployed and leads one to believe that there is a mismatch between the available jobs and those seeking employment. That would be a fundamental misreading of the situation in London.

One has only to consider the Department of Employment's vacancy figures to appreciate the problem. Between July 1979 and July 1980, the number of vacancies in the United Kingdom fell from nearly 253,000 to 126,000. That is the impact of the recession on the United Kingdom, and it is clear that, although the number of vacancies notified to job-centres and employment exchanges is only one-third of the total, the economy is in a deep recession and that London cannot escape from that.

The hon. Member for Ravensbourne (Mr. Hunt) said that London faces problems that can be solved only by Government action. I agree that our major problems will be solved only by the Government taking responsibility for expanding the economy. The whole economic system is driven by two major factors—net exports and Government spending and taxation. The Government are hell bent on removing some of the major planks of employment creation throughout the country and particularly in London.

We have seen reductions in public expenditure and a substantial decline in net exports because of the overvalued pound. Those factors will drive the economy of London into a further, deep-seated recession and it will be revived only by a Government policy of reflation.

It is significant that no one has yet referred to the fact that London is the most vulnerable region in respect of public expenditure cuts, because of the high proportion of those in the region who are employed by central or local government or by other arms of public employment, such as the NHS. One of the most interesting aspects of the recent report by the Cambridge Economic Policy Group was its identification of Greater London as the area which had most to lose from public expenditure cuts.

In the present economic crisis, it is important for us to look at ways in which the Government could alleviate the problems of London and other regions. The Government's regional policy measures are increasingly being limited to areas with the worst social problems, which implies a greater reliance by the Government on the operation of market forces to produce a convergence between the economic performances of various regions. Market forces are supposed to drag the North, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland into line with the operation of the labour and employment markets and the production system of the South-East. To anyone with a shred of economic knowledge, that analysis is absurd.

The Prime Minister has said to the House on a number of occasions that if jobs do not exist in the North, Scotland or Wales, workers have to move to where the jobs are. That can mean only one thing. Workers will move to jobs that are currently available in London, the South-East and other relatively advantaged areas. I wish to analyse that problem. It is important that the House should understand the consequences of what the Prime Minister proposes. Individual members of the labour force in poor areas will decide to move to areas such as London where there are jobs. In those same areas, however, some people will take less good jobs than if they migrated. This will result, in turn, in someone in that region becoming unemployed.

The filtering down process operates in all regions so that the least qualified and the least experienced are more likely to become unemployed. They are the people likely to be at the bottom of the job pile. In London, this process has a particular effect. Outward mobility for people who might have been employed in central London or the suburbs until recently, has been further restricted because of the large-scale abandonment of the new town and expanded town policies. Inward migration from assisted areas will only increase under these free migration policies.

In London, the filtering down process will operate with a vengeance. Those made unemployed will have nowhere to go, because there is probably no region that will be more prosperous than the South-East of England. Their ability to move to find jobs is therefore totally circumscribed and the number of jobs that will be available to them will be restricted because of an inflow of workers from other parts of the country. The inevitable consequence of the Prime Minister's policies of workers moving to the job—involuntary migration—is the socially undesirable production of a pool of workers in London who are totally unemployable. These will be people with the fewest skills and the poorest education living in the inner city areas. Many thousands will be black.

Over the next 10 years, we shall see in London the creation of an extremely large and increasingly hostile pool of unemployed people. That is where the Government's policy is driving us. The House should be clear that it is the logical consequence of the Prime Minister's attitude to job mobility.

Mr. Ronald W. Brown

My hon. Friend is right. Are his remarks not illustrated by a Minister in the other place who said that one has to make people do a job of work whether they like it or not? Will not this approach mean that introduction of a chain gang-type situation, forcing people to undertake jobs such as breaking stones?

Mr. Race

My hon. Friend is right when he argues that there are Ministers in the Government prepared to say that workers should be made redundant, receive unemployment pay and go back to performing the same job they were performing before they were made redundant in the guise of voluntary service or some other guise. So in that sense my hon. Friend is absolutely right.

The only protection which Londoners will have against the creation of this large pool of urban unemployed is the fact that inward migration will be limited by the very free market that the Prime Minister wants to encourage. The aspect which will discourage that migration is, of course, the house market. If house prices are sufficiently high in London, that will be the only guarantee of relatively high employment.

Therefore, under the free market policies pursued by the Prime Minister, there is a trade-off between homlessness in London—the inability of our society to solve its housing problem—and keeping relatively high and stable employment in London. That is a scandalous trade-off, which the Government should never advocate. But that is what the Prime Minister is saying.

The London area has substantial variations of unemployment. Such areas as Tower Hamlets, Hackney and my own borough have considerably higher unemployment than London generally or the country as a whole—certainly higher than the rest of the South-East. The variations between those parts of London and the more affluent parts such as north-west London, are greater than the variations between London as a whole and the so-called assisted areas.

The regional policy that the Government are pursuing—if one can dignify it by the term "regional policy", which I doubt—does not take that position into account. Thus we see the crude application of market force economics to London as a whole, and absolutely no understanding of the differentiation between different parts of London and their different economic problems. It is no exaggeration to say that in Tower Hamlets, Haringey, Hackney and other parts of inner London, the next few years are likely to see an acceleration of their relative decline in relation both to other regions and to the rest of London.

One of the Government's answers is that enterprise zones will be a significant and important answer to London's employment problem. I do not believe that. The enterprise zone on the Isle of Dogs is likely to produce, on current levels of industrial density, about 15,000 jobs—and that assumes that every inch of the zone is taken up by business enterprise. An input of 15,000 jobs into Greater London as a whole—even assuming that they were new jobs and not jobs taken from anywhere else—although welcome, would be a drop in the ocean of London's employment problems. I hope that the Minister will not have the audacity to make that argument: he must have more respectable arguments than that.

There are other problems over regional policy. One difficulty is ministerial responsibility. The Under-Secretary is responsible, through the Department of the Environment, for certain aspects of regional policy which affect London. For example, the Department of the Environment is responsible for the regional policy aspects of local authorities, for the urban programme, for the new towns, for inner city policy, and for regional planning in England—although that has been dismantled now. But the Department of Industry, another major Government Department, is responsible for certain other aspects of regional policy. The Department of Employment is responsible for employment and training. If one is talking about regional policy as a whole in the United Kingdom, one must consider the role of the Northern Ireland Office and the Scottish Office concerning regional policy in those areas, and one has to discuss regional policy as regards London in relation to those other parts of the United Kingdom.

There are at least six major Government Departments responsible in part for regional policy in the United Kingdom. Three of those relate to the situation in London. I do not suppose for a moment that there has been any serious consultation between any of those Government Departments about the way in which regional policy has affected London since the present Government took over. There has been no announcement of serious regional policy initiatives from the present Government because they believe that all the problems can be solved by market forces. I hope that this debate will produce a situation in which the Government will begin to think that regional policy has some part to play in alleviating the chronic problems of stress and unemployment in the inner city areas and in London as a whole.

The difficulties that we face because of the Government's attitude will be very serious over the next few years. The solutions that we might produce—these are relevant to the Consolidated Fund—are these. If the Government are prepared to spend only a certain amount on industrial support and regional grants and are prepared to do virtually nothing for London, other than the enterprise zone on the Isle of Dogs, presumably Opposition Members have the responsibility of putting forward serious alternatives for expanding employment and industrial development in the capital. These must cover a number of major areas.

First, sites in inner London should qualify for Industry Act financial assistance. That would produce a situation in which local authorities and private industrialists would be able to obtain money from the Government in order to create jobs in sensitive areas.

Secondly, local authorities clearly have a major role to play, and not only concerning their current functions. They ought to be given greater powers to clear sites, to secure land and to engage in trading and production themselves, because without the removal of the constraint of the restricted sites in London, which affects many industries, including some in my constituency, there is a great possibility that increasing numbers of factories will, as they have in the past, move out of London on to green field sites in Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Kent, Surrey and Essex, simply because they can expand more readily in those areas and create employment there.

Thirdly, we have to argue for a general expansion of the economy as a whole. The industrial and regional problems of London cannot be solved by regional policy alone. They must be determined by the overall economic and political stance taken by the Government.

The economic consequences of the present Prime Miniser will be just as serious as the economic consequences of Mr. Churchill when he deliberately and cynically decided to move the economy back on to the gold standard in the 1920s. That decision provided the basis for the great depression and the great recession in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s.

I believe that the policies that the present Government are pursuing in relation to the economy as a whole are so appallingly naive that they will drive the economy into the deepest recession that it has known for 50 years, in which London will be dragged down to the status of a high-unemployment region, a region in which there will be a substantial number of unemployed people, which will see a relative fall in its prosperity, which will perhaps see an increasing inward migration of workers from other regions, and which will not be able to solve its serious social problems, to which many of my hon. Friends have referred tonight.

Without a clear indication from the Government tonight of their intention on regional policy and the expansion of the economy, no fine words from the Minister can convince us that they have got it right. We believe that they have got it fundamentally wrong, and we hope that they will change their policies as quickly as possible, or make way for people who will take the right decisions.

4.36 am
Dr. Oonagh McDonald (Thurrock)

On Wednesday 23 July The Daily Telegraph had the following headline about the unemployment figures, which had reached a new peak: South-East Hit Hard As Jobless Soars To Peak Of 1,896,634. It said in the article underneath the headline: Ominously, the normally prosperous South, including the Greater London area, has been particularly hard hit, with another 54,500 on the dole. That sums up exactly what some of my hon. Friends and I wish to emphasise tonight—both the extent of unemployment in the Greater London area and its significance.

We have heard a great deal from the Prime Minister about the need for mobility among the work force. She has said that the Welsh should simply uproot themselves once again and flood into London and the South-East to find the many jobs that are allegedly available for skilled and unskilled workers. The right hon. Lady's remark, made in Wales, was made with the most crass insensitivity to the history of Wales and the many who suffered from harsh unemployment in the past and who had to tear themselves away to look for work elsewhere. How she could go to Wales and say that is almost impossible to understand. It is hard to believe that she actually said it.

The Prime Minister seems not to know what is going on in the country that she is, at the moment, governing. She fails to realise that not only is unemployment increasing in the Greater London area but the number of vacancies are declining sharply. My hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mr. Race) gave the year-on-year figures. Even if we take the month-on-month figures, we find that the change since June in the seasonally adjusted figures for the Greater London area is a drop of 4.6 per cent. in the number of vacancies registered. Those vacancies continue to decline.

Two further matters emphasise the situation in the country as a whole, but particularly in the Greater London area. The Sunday Times has been publishing week after week in its business news section a column listing job losses, rightly headed "The Gathering Storm"—a lovely title. The storm is coming. The Government do not yet realise that it will hit them with the fullest possible force in the autumn. They do not understand the extent and nature of that storm and what it will do to them and to the country.

I shall go through that list of job losses, picking out only the months of May and June and the jobs affecting workers in the Greater London area. On 17 May, 600 jobs on the Isle of Grain disappeared, not for the simple reason that has been presented in the press, of an inter-union dispute. The whole situation on the Isle of Grain is much more complex than that. In June 280 jobs disappeared at Thermalite, the concrete block manufacturing plant at Grays, Essex. A further 1,700 jobs disappeared in the Port of London. Ford (UK) has asked for voluntary redundancies of 2,300 in its United Kingdom plants as a whole and that affects workers at Dagenham, and many of my constituents. Towards the end of June a further 400 jobs disappeared at Delta Metal brass rod factory in London. A further 120 jobs disappeared in the Chrysler London office.

Week after week The Sunday Times records these figures, rather like casualties in a war. In a sense that is what they are, casualties in an economic war. These are job losses that are not simply and solely due to lack of demand. These are not jobs which will necessarily reappear if the economic miracle which the Government seem to think will take place this year, next year, some time, takes place. They do not simply depend on loss of demand. They are part of the destruction of British industry which has been taking place and which has been sharply accelerated by the activities of this Government.

My constituency is a good illustration of this point. It was, as my constituents are apt to point out to me, a thriving manufacturing area. About 40 per cent. of the work force in Thurrock is employed in manufacturing industry. Unemployment in my constituency is now at not quite the national average. It is 6.3 per cent. It is certainly higher than the average for the South-East as a whole. What is worse is what is going on there now. Earlier this year an analysis of a large number of major firms in my constituency was carried out for me. Not one of those firms planned to recruit labour during the course of this year. Most of those firms were declining in terms of numbers employed, some through voluntary redundancies, some through natural wastage and some through actual redundancies, through closure of firms.

I have in my constituency about 500 unemployed school leavers as from this week. Hardly any will find vacancies in apprenticeships with Shell or Esso or Thames Board or Thames Case. The opportunities for apprenticeships there simply do not exist. In spite of the Prime Minister's boasts about the enormous opportunities in the youth opportunities scheme I estimate that about one in five of the school leavers in Thurrock will find a place on the youth opportunities scheme immediately. Other places may be made available to them later this year, but certainly many of them will go straight on to the dole. There can be no question of an offer of a place on the youth opportunities scheme or any other training course in the area in the immediate future.

Let me take one or two examples of the firms that are closing in my constituency. Last week Thames Board Mills finally sacked 800 workers. The British Paper and Board Manufacturers Association has given a good explanation of part of the reasons for those closures. The reasons given are interesting. They are high interest rates, imports, high energy costs and the high pound. Those four factors together have made it extremely difficult for British paper and board manufacturers to make a profit. They have made it virtually impossible for them to compete with firms in Germany, France, Canada and America. They cannot compete effectively and export their goods there.

Every one of those reasons and criticisms given by the Manufacturers Association are aspects of deliberate Government policy. The high pound, high energy costs, high interest rates and the refusal to protect our basic industries against imports are all important planks of Government policy. Notice that I said that the criticism was made by the Manufacturers Association. That association launched that fundamental attack on Government policy. It was not the trade unions, or the Left wing of the Labour Party. It was the Manufacturers Association and it has repeated its attack on Government policy again and again and has taken every opportunity to convince hon. Members on both sides of the House of what is wrong with Government policy and how it is utterly destroying that industry.

I take the Thermalite factory, referred to in The Sunday Times list, as another example. Redundant workers there are shortly to be joined by a small number of redundant workers—about 25—from another company in my constituency called Aerated Concrete. However, the workers in Thermalite represented by their shop stewards told me bitterly that they thought that the Prime Minister would be proud of them. Last year they negotiated a productivity deal. They cut down the number of hours worked and increased productivity in the company by 40 per cent. What do they now find? A year later the factory closes and they all lose their jobs.

There was a group of workers consciously, over a period of time, negotiating what they considered to be a good deal for themselves and their employers and the result is still closure. The reason for that is not high unit labour costs. The reason is simple. It is the impact of Government policies on the construction industry and, therefore, on that industry's need for basic building materials. The high interest rate policy has forced companies which manufacture the basic materials for building into liquidation or closure.

Nor is it simply the high interest rate policy that does that. The sharp cuts in public spending, especially on capital expenditure have had a disastrous impact on companies such as those in my constituency. There will be others as well, because the construction industry must be reeling under the blows which this Government are raining upon it. It must wonder whether it can ever recover on the production side. We find here that the direct impact of Government policies is raising unemployment sharply in my constituency. That means that there are no vacancies for skilled workers. There is no effort on the part of local companies to offer apprenticeships to young people who are genuinely and earnestly seeking employment.

The vacancies that the Prime Minister fondly imagines exist in London and the South-East do not exist in the way that she and some Conservatives seem to imagine. Of course, that means that the migrant workers who flood into London and the surrounding areas looking for work will find that there are no jobs and no homes either.

In my constituency, for the first time, a borough council, which under Labour had the proud record of starting a house a day every day since the Second World War, now finds under the Tory Administration from which it is suffering that no council houses will be built, and that the housing improvement programme that is desperately needed in an area where much of the housing stock is pre-war is sharply cut back and those houses will further deteriorate. That means a lack of jobs as well as of homes, and the social consequences of that will be disastrous for many families in my constituency.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown) spoke earlier about those who say that it does not matter that jobs do not exist because workers can switch from manufacturing to service industries. It is not quite as easy, of course, to do that. It is difficult in my constituency, for example, to retrain redundant shiprepairers in their 40s and 50s and send them on expensive trains into central London in order to find clerical work.

That apart, something much more significant is happening in London and the South-East. Like the West Midlands, it is one of the relatively prosperous areas in which manufacturing industry is sharply declining. That shows that Britain is rapidly—much more rapidly under this Government—becoming deindustrialised. That tells us two things about Government policy—first, that the Government no longer wish to look to manufacturing industry in this country to provide the wealth for the future. I believe that the Government have it in mind to allow companies here to transfer production abroad—those companies that are the source of many of our exports—and fritter the oil wealth away on unnecesary defence spending. In that way they will jettison our future for the sake of the present in the hope of winning the next election.

Mr. Race

Does my hon. Friend recall that in The Observer on Sunday a figure of £ 3 billion was given as the net outflow from the United Kingdom after the lifting of exchange controls by the Government last year? Does she believe that the money could have been used more effectively to increase the social wage and to increase employment in manufacturing industry? Would not that money be useful to assist the depressed areas in the South-East as well as the North?

Dr. McDonald

That is the point that I wished to develop. My hon. Friend attempted earlier to put forward constructive policies by rightly reminding us of the need for a proper regional policy in order to prevent migrants from flooding into London and the South-East, thus adding to the unemployment figures and the social problems there. This money should be used constructively in London and the South-East. The paraphernalia of Government intervention is available. For example, selective assistance for industry could assist failing industries in my area. We should have a proper programme of planned public spending instead of cutting back an capital spending, which is desperately needed for schools, hospitals and roads. We need a proper programme of capital spending, which would greatly assist all industries, particularly those in my area.

I should also like to see a change in the Government's policy on derelict land clearance. At present it relates only to development areas, because it is tied to a certain level of unemployment. My hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green mentioned the pressures on space for factory expansion in inner city areas. In my constituency there are vast tracts of derelict land. It is impossible for the borough council from its own resources to provide 50 per cent. of the expenditure in order to reclaim that land for industrial purposes. Use of those vast tracts of land on a site adjacent to London and the docks and which, as time passes, will be the site of an important road network would greatly enhance employment opportunities throughout East London. We need a change in the policy for supporting local authorities as they attempt to make derelict land available for industrial purposes.

The Government deliberately missed another opportunity. They put an end to the river Thames ship repairers, withdrawing the urgently needed ship repairing facility from the Port of London Authority. They let the opportunity pass to deal with the PLA's finances and upgrade the docks in the East End and Tilbury. I want to see viable, thriving and competitive docks throughout the Port of London. Those docks can compete properly with the Continental ports only if they are subsidised to the same extent. Once we have thriving docks, we also have jobs in dock-related industries. Opportunity after opportunity has been squandered by this Government to improve job opportunities in London and the South-East. Worse than that, the effect of their economic policies will be to destroy London as a manufacturing city and speed the process of deindustrialising Britain. We want to see those policies reversed before it is too late.

4.58 am
Mr. Ted Graham (Edmonton)

We are indebted to my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) for his determination to be here at 2 am. He started the debate at a good pace. My hon. Friends the Members for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton), Tooting (Mr. Cox), Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mr. Dobson), Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown), Wood Green (Mr. Race) and Thurrock (Dr. McDonald) have also usefully contributed to the debate. They have introduced their own individual brand of passion, anger and experience. As I took notes of the various points on which I wanted to comment, I found a common thread running through them. Top of the list—and it was no surprise—was housing, followed by transport and employment and unemployment. There is no doubt that the villain of the night is Sir Horace Cutler. The quicker he gets his cards—and that will be next May—the better.

I know that the Under-Secretary of State, in his courteous and careful way, will have paid close attention to all the points that were made, but at this early stage I ask him to consider particularly the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green about the London fire brigade service. The Minister will recall that on a previous occasion when I had the temerity to make similar points I got short shrift from him. I was accused of being alarmist about the situation at that time. I share the same local experience and newspapers as my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green. I confirm that the local newspapers have carried accounts of the comments that my hon. Friend said we made to him by the local firemen. I ask the Minister at an early stage to make inquiries into the matter and to let us know the results.

I pay tribute to the contributions by the hon. Members for Ravensbourne (Mr. Hunt), Streatham (Mr. Shelton) and Paddington (Mr. Wheeler). They were clearly from a different point of view, but they were serious, subdued and defensive. I was surprised. As the debate was billed as being about London and its problems, particularly with the Greater London Council in mind, I expected a defiant rather than a defensive note from the Government Benches. Frankly, they are resigned to the certainty that there will be a change in the control of the GLC next year.

Housing is certainly high on the list of London's problems. I recall listening to the Secretary of State for the Environment on a radio programme defensively saying to the interviewer that he could not be expcted to carry all the can. "After all", he said, "we have been in government for only 15 months." That is absolutely true. Not everything in the Government's court can be wholly held to be their responsibility. But the government of the GLC has had responsibility not for 15 months but for more than three years. The GLC was formed in 1964, and the Tories have had control for nine of its 16 years. Therefore, it is not as easy for the Tory GLC to slip away from its responsibility as for the Tory Government at Westminster.

Housing in London has to be seen against the background of two devastating commentaries on London and the nation which have come our way in the past few weeks. My hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South referred copiously and correctly to the evidence in the report of the Select Committee on Environmental Matters which came out in the past week. Apparently 500,000 fewer homes will be built by 1985 than were forecast in the 1977 Green Paper and a nationwide level of 30,000 fewer houses will be built in the public sector by 1983–84. A severe imbalance in cuts has been planned for housing. Of all the public expenditure reductions that have emerged from this Government in the last 15 months, 92 per cent. of the cuts are to be found in the construction and housing spheres. By 1984, only 4 per cent. of total public expenditure will be spent on housing, whereas in 1974 the figure was 10 per cent. That is the measure of the decline in the Government's housing priorities.

However, we do not have to rely simply on the national picture, because the GLC has produced its own housing strategy for 1981 to 1983. That document represents a gloomy prospect for Londoners, which is worse than for the country as a whole. That document was debated at County Hall in the past few weeks. It reveals, first, that there are three times as many unfit dwellings—253,000, or 10 per cent. of the stock—in London as there were thought to be last year. In all, 642,000 dwellings—25 per cent. of the total—need substantial work carried out on them. Secondly, the demand for reasonably priced rented accommodation will be greater than the supply until at least 1985. Thirdly, the long-term trend of improving housing conditions based on substantial public investment has been reversed. Fourthly, house building in London, in the public and the private sector, has been more than halved. There were 24,600 starts in 1975, and only 11,000 starts in 1979. The proposed changes in the Housing Bill will not remotely stimulate the private sector to replace the public sector investment.

Frankly, that strategy statement serves as a gloomy warning of what will happen, not only under the current GLC but also under the Government over the next few years. When the Secretary of State announced the HIP allocation for 1980–81 in February, it was for English authorities and it totalled £2,199 million. While that was a colossal figure, when analysed it revealed that it was 24 per cent. below what the local authorities were expecting to spend in 1979–80. It was 32 per cent. below what was allocated by the Government for 1979–80. It was 39.5 per cent. below Labour's allocation for 1979–80, and it was a colossal 52 per cent. below what the local authorities requested as essential for their spending for the years 1980–81.

As every hon. Member present knows, the money that was made available under the HIP allocation will largely be spent merely to fulfil the existing commitments. It certainly led to many authorities, including the GLC, stopping Council mortgages for those who wished to buy their houses.

The GLC's house building record is also interesting. In 1973, it built 4,363 houses. By 1976 the number had risen to 7,342. In 1978 it declined to 3,136. In 1979 it had gone down to 1,336, and now in 1980 the miserable estimate is that 400 houses will be built by the GLC.—[HON. MEMBERS: "Scandalous".] When the Tory GLC in its strategy document said: New building has a low priority", what it really meant was that it had no priority at all. As my hon. Friends have rightly pointed out, the housing situation which London now faces is a scandal and a disgrace. It must be defended tonight by the Minister. I appreciate that he has a responsibility for the Government, but he is also entitled to speak on behalf of his political friends at County Hall.

The National House Building Council forecasts that new starts by private developers will be down from 140,000 to 100,000 in 1980. In fact, the new housing starts in the public and private sector this year will be the lowest not for the last 10 or 30 years but for the last 5Zr years. This is the indictment that not only I bring but also the National House Building Council and every Londoner who is desperate for a house bring to the Minister tonight. It is his responsibility to answer for it.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch pointed out, one of the sad things has been the decline in the strategic role envisaged for housing 10 to 15 years ago between the GLC and the boroughs. I will give an illustration from my own constituency of Edmonton. In 1966, the Labour borough council and the Labour GLC combined to buy the Klinger site, formerly a factory, which became vacant in Silver Street. The sum of £3 million was paid by the GLC so that eventually, when the site was developed, the housing would be used not merely to house GLC tenants but also tenants from the London borough of Enfield. Over the next 12 or 13 years, despite the change in council control, in GLC control and in central control, the position remained the same.

The 330 houses, when they were built, were intended to be there for renting to 330 families, wherever they came from. I was on that site on Friday and one of the ladies I met there in the old people's dwellings was from Hackney. The concept had been followed through. But in 1978, without any consultation, the GLC and the Tory Enfield council reneged on 15 years of planning. Despite the fact that those houses had been built for rent, it was decided to sell them.

That was a catastrophe. At my surgery I meet many of my constituents who have been waiting for years in tower blocks, and in my part of Edmonton their escape from the tower blocks built in the 1960s was into the flats and the maisonettes on the Klinger site. What has happened since? The GLC decided to sell, aided and abetted by the Tory Enfield council. The properties then went for sale—£30,000 for a three-bed-roomed flat. The GLC and the Enfield council could not do otherwise. They were hemmed in; it was a Catch 22 position. They were determined doctrinally to sell, but they were inhibited and they had to sell them, not at the market price but at not less than the price at which they were built.

In March it was decided to put the houses on the market. What happened then? At the recent meeting of the housing committee, after more than four months and intense effort to sell the houses, guess how many of the 270 flats—excluding 60 for old people—have been sold? Only six have been sold, despite the most intensive efforts. In the local newspaper last week, Miss Cook, the council director of housing, admitted, It would seem that without a massive financial investment in advertising nothing further can be achieved. Six out of 263 having been sold, what is to happen to the 257 which are unsold and unoccupied? The Enfield Tories are more optimistic about what is to happen than their own director of housing. At that meeting John Lindsay, the chairman of the housing committee, said: We are not turning our back on this.… We have done our best. They have only been up for sale for a short time and the rest is up to the GLC. Umpteen millions of pounds of taxpayers' money has been invested to buy the land and build the houses. There is now an intensive campaign to sell them. The net result is that there are 250 houses on the site waiting to be bought. If the price of the houses is £30,000 this year, it should be £33,000 after a year has passed. If £30,000 of public money were not tied up in an empty house, it would be invested. If those concerned are proper business men, they must ask for £33,000 next year. Never mind the Enfield families that are desperate for a flat, the policy of the GLC and Enfield Conservative council is to let them stand and wait in the queue.

The Government's attitude to housing was well summed up by an editorial that appeared in The Guardian on 30 July following the publication of the report of the Select Committee on the Environment. It stated: The charge against the Government is not that it has cut housing—which is the obvious victim in a financial squeeze—but that the cuts have been carried out in secret, seemingly without any rational approach and in too severe a manner. Mr. Heseltine's rationality is suspect because his policy has such an ideological smack. Subsidies to council tenants are to be cut back to £600 million—possibly to £200 million—while the hidden subsidy which mortgage tax relief provides will hardly dip below the £1,500 million level. The result of this package can only mean an increase in the number of homeless, a lengthening of house waiting lists, an increase in voluntary sharing with more young people delaying their marriages and an increase in house prices because of the housing shortage. It is a policy which if persisted in the Government will come to regret. The writing is on the wall on the Government's housing policies.

I turn briefly to employment in London. I am grateful to my hon. Friends for their excellent speeches. They will appear in the record and all Londoners will be grateful to my hon. Friends for making them. They speak with experience on the South-East.

In the past London enjoyed relatively good employment. That no longer applies. In the past 200 years London has lost 500,000 jobs. The pace of decline in London is barely matched elsewhere. London industry has declined by one third in the past 20 years. Between 1974 and 1979 female unemployment increased fivefold. Male unemployment doubled.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock: she spoke of the opportunities that exist for using available land that can be turned to good use. In London there are 35 square miles of land that is classified as unused and available.

There are more than 1 million public sector workers in London. When the Government attack public expenditure they make a direct attack upon 1 million public sector employees. My hon. Friend has said that so many of our troubles can be laid firmly at the Government's door. Those troubles include high interest rates, inflation, falling demand, import penetration, and export failure. They are all the direct result of Government policy. How can the Government improve employment in London? As my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green said, London's employment must be tackled on a co-ordinated basis. More than one Department has responsibility, and there should be a co-ordinated effort.

London needs a more clearly defined policy. My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting rightly pointed out that London needs a Minister. We need a policy, but neither the GLC nor the Government have given us one. There should be a partnership between private and public finance. Manpower planning should be more co-ordinated. In addition, training should be taken to a higher level.

Deindustrialisation is increasing. It should be reversed. We need something that we have not seen for 15 months, namely, a partnership of unparalleled intensity between Westminster and County Hall. However, I doubt whether we shall get that from the deadly duo of Heseltine and Cutler—the "H and C". I do not know who is hot and who is cold. That deadly duo will not improve London. When the GLC becomes Labour-controlled once again next May, we may see a semblance of improvement.

Several of my hon. Friends have mentioned the problem of transport. I pay tribute to the expertise of my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South. He gave us a graphic description of the problems. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shore-ditch rightly pointed out that responsibility for such scandal and disgrace undoubtedly rests with the leader of the GLC. Because of his arrogance and determination to be in front, he nailed his flag to the mast. He nailed himself to a government and to a party of business men at County Hall when, in a peremptory manner, he dismissed the former chairman of London Transport, who had done a first-class job. We all recognised that he had a major problem. Three and a half years later the men that he put in are being taken out in the same arrogant, unfeeling, but now justifiable way.

London Transport was the pride of London for a long time. It is not so any more. A recent report considered all London Transport's operations, and concluded: In summary, we diagnose that the executive board is weak in the skills required to run a large business, and indeed to manage itself as board. That is a savage indictment of the board, and of the man who appointed them, Mr. Horace Cutler.

What do we need? First, we should switch the present emphasis on roads, to public transport. Higher priority should be given to pedestrians in London. People are more important than motor cars. We should try to achieve an integrated policy for public transport. Negotiations should be opened with British Rail in order to integrate all commuter-related services. That must be done quickly. The staff of London Transport must be consulted. The staff's experience and innovative spirit must be harnessed to serve Londoners. There must be a radical review of the fares policy to attract back the millions of Londoners who have deserted the buses. Whether transport is free, or fares are fixed or low, there must be a positive, sustained attack on high fares immediately.

There has been a decline in the morale of staff in the GLC. It was never lower. The evidence can be seen in County Hall and by speaking to councillors and staff. In June further cuts of 1,735 in GLC staff levels were announced. That is to take place by 1981. That is on top of 4,000, or 16 per cent., who have been dismissed, made redundant or retired since the Tories took control in 1977. Many of the posts have gone because of changes in national Government policies.

My constituents have little faith that the policies of the Government or GLC will bring them relief. By democratic means we have a Tory Government and a Tory GLC. They are both disastrous. By democratic means at the GLC election in 1981, and at the subsequent general election, we shall rid London and the nation of those twin catastrophies. That day cannot come a moment too soon.

5.27 am
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg)

I join in the tribute to the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) for being fortunate to head the distinguished cast in the debate on the Consolidated Fund. I am glad that he stayed, at considerable inconvenience, to open the debate. I understand from conversations that I have had with him why he is not with us now.

The right hon. Gentleman raised the problem of the St. John's estate in his borough. The facts are simply that the Wandsworth council sought consent to dispose of the estate. I am satisfied that there is no reason for me to interfere with the council's plans to dispose of the three vacant blocks for on-sale after completion of improvement into owner-occupation. However, I am anxious to ensure that tenants in the remaining two blocks are fully aware of what is involved, both under the right-to-buy and the security of tenure provisions of the Housing Bill, if they move from their present homes. That is why Wandsworth has been told that consent to sell the tenanted blocks will not be forthcoming until I am satisfied on that point.

My hon Friend the Member for Ravens-bourne (Mr. Hunt) emphasised one of the most important points which came through in many speeches—the need for an increase in the amount of housing in London. He emphasised the vital importance of shorthold which we believe will make a substantial contribution to housing in London. I also noted what my hon. Friend said about enterprise zones. It is interesting that, in spite of what Opposition Members say, the demands from Labour boroughs in London for enterprise zones indicate that Opposition Members are not representative of their local authorities, which want enterprise zones. I am delighted that the Isle of Dogs featured in the first list and I shall pass on to my right hon. Friend the suggestions that my hon. Friend the Member for Ravensbourne made about other zones.

The hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton) made an interesting speech which showed clearly that he has not understood the facts of life in the real world. That came through in many of the speeches by Labour Members, though not in that of the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Graham). One of those facts is that we cannot spend more than we earn—and that has happened for far too long in this country.

When complaining about the shortage of money for housing purposes, the hon. Member made no reference to the facility that his local authority will be able to obtain to add to the allocation by the sale of its dwellings to tenants, many of whom in Newham wish to buy.

The hon. Member asked about the purpose of Trident and the need to spend more money on it. That will be the subject of another debate, but I say to those who share the hon. Member's views that, without Trident and restored defences, the citizens of London would not be free to enjoy debates such as the one that we have had. Labour Members laugh. It is easy to laugh in a democracy, but they should recognise that we retain democracy only by remaining strong.

My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Shelton) paid tribute to the GLC for the fantastic transformation that it has made to Covent Garden, which it has aided in such a far-sighted manner. I am delighted to join in that tribute.

However, my hon. Friend made a mistake when he referred to the Labour Party knocking shorthold and said that the Labour threat to give security of tenure of shortholders would make landlords less likely to let. I do not believe that any landlord believes that the Labour Party will form a Government in the foreseeable future. I do not be- lieve that there is any problem with shorthold.

The hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) produced rather late in the day, and on a matter which is not the day-to-day responsibility of the GLC, a common feature in London debates, namely, the expected attack on Sir Horace Cutler. Sir Horace is attacked time and again for a variety of reasons—he is a formidable opponent of the Labour Party, he is single minded in his commitment to let GLC tenants buy their homes, he and the Tory GLC have cut staff substantially without any compulsory redundancies, and he has held the rate in a remarkable fashion.

All that deserves praise and I am delighted to give it to Sir Horace. The citizens of London are fortunate to have such a man in control, rather than the spendthrifts of places such as Manchester who are getting themselves deeper into debt because they pay no heed to the needs of tenants or ratepayers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Paddington (Mr. Wheeler) made an important contribution, because he gave us some hard common sense on figures. In spite of attempts to denigrate them, the official figures are clear. My hon. Friend said that too many jobs in London remain unfilled. There is a substantial number of unfilled vacancies in London in spite of all that we hear about unemployment. I noted what my hon. Friend had to say about the Control of Pollution Act and I will see that his remarks are passed to my hon. Friends with special responsibility for that aspect of matters.

The hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown), an old opponent in these debates—he and I have managed to get more London debates than many people at one time thought possible—spoke with knowledge and depth of feeling about his constituency of which I have some knowledge in my capacity as chairman of the Hackney and Islington Partnership. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his work to increase the number of jobs in the area. He asked about sheltered housing. I have to say, that as he well knows, the London borough of Hackney has a substantial amount of vacant land. It is for the borough of Hackney, on its vacant land, to decide where it puts first priority for the provision of sheltered housing. That is not the responsibility of the central Government. Our responsibility is to allocate the total amount that the London borough of Hackney can spend. It is for the borough to decide how it allocates that amount between various kinds of new-build, maintenance, insulation grants, home loans and so on.

I cannot help the hon. Gentleman further. He will have to get an answer from Mare Street about why some of the vacant land is not being used for sheltered housing—

Mr. Ronald W. Brown

I was making the point that the London borough of Hackney had identified a site but that the Secretary of State refused its compulsory purchase.

Mr. Finsberg

The hon. Gentleman perhaps failed to hear, due to some strange noise from the Benches near to him, that I stated that the borough had some land within its own ownership and had no need to acquire further land. The borough already owns a lot of land that is undeveloped. When it has finished developing that land, I could understand the hon. Gentleman making the sort of complaint that he has raised.

The hon. Member for Wood Green (Mr. Race) tried to dispute the figures given by my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington. My hon. Friend was quoting from a written reply which indicated that, in the course of the month ending 12 June 1980, 41,992 vacancies were notified in the particular area. The hon. Gentleman said that those figures indicated a longer period.

Mr. Race

I was right.

Mr. Finsberg

The answer went on to say that at 6 June, a particular date, there were 36,522 vacancies at employment offices. That answer, like the earlier answer, indicates that only about one-third of all vacancies are notified. This indicates that there are about 100,000 vacancies in Greater London—a very different story from that heard from Opposition Members. The hon. Gentleman, I am sure, inadvertently, misquoted my hon. Friend the Member for Ravensbourne, who did not say that London could be saved only by national action. My hon. Friend said that London would benefit when the Government conquered inflation—a different thing from Government action which means cranking the printing press and turning out more notes that are not backed by production.

I welcome the hon. Member for Thurrock to our London debates. She made an interesting contribution. We are glad to welcome her, even as a non-Londoner. She spoke of "the gathering storm" with, I thought, a certain amount of relish. That might not be unfair.

Dr. McDonald

It is a disgusting remark.

Mr. Finsberg

It is no more disgusting than some of the things the hon. Lady was saying. If the storm that she forecasts is to come, I can only say that a substantial number of people, not only in the South-East but also in the North-East and the North-West, tell me "For God's sake, don't change your policies now." I assure the hon. Lady and the House that they need have no fear. We are embarked upon a course determined to remove inflation from our system. Until inflation is removed, everything else will suffer. I think that behind the hon. Lady's remarks lay an unwillingness to recognise that her Government lost the last election.

Those hon. Members who mentioned the fire at Alexandra Palace will appreciate that the London fire brigade is not within my departmental responsibilities. I will see that they get answers. However, I must remind them that the reorganisation of the London fire brigade had the approbation of the Home Office because it met its standards. Speaking as a layman—I am sure that the hon. Member for Edmonton is no more of an expert on this—I would say that it would be unusual if the bulk of the force were not committed to stopping a fire of this size. Whether the old manning was in existence or not, I still believe that the same proportion would have been committed to that size of fire.

I do not propose to comment on what has been said about the Select Committee, because its report has to be studied and will in due course receive a considered response from my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Race

That is a start.

Mr. Finsberg

Unlike the last Government, we respond swiftly to Select Committee reports.

This debate has ranged far wider than just housing. I hope that I have done my best so far, in my usual helpful and non-controversial fashion, to answer some of the issues raised. I want to deal in more depth with housing in a moment, but I shall deal first with another subject which has been raised. I will ask my right hon. Friends to respond directly by correspondence to non-housing issues which have been raised.

On industry, the Government have decided to concentrate the limited resources available for regional assistance on those areas of the country with the worst problems of persistently high unemployment and long-term structural decline. Assisted areas are normally designated by reference to whole travel-to-work areas, since they represent self-contained labour markets for which the Department of Employment quotes unemployment rates. Within a travel-to-work area such as London, there are, of course, pockets of high unemployment, but the TTWA's overall unemployment rate of 4.8 per cent. is well below the national average and compares favourably with areas such as Merseyside and Tyneside, both of which have suffered from unemployment in double figures for a considerable time. In view of this, I do not believe that assisted area status could be thought appropriate for the London area.

Labour Members have painted an alarming picture of rapid deterioration in housing conditions in London and of Government inactivity in face of a growing problem. Both images are far from the facts. A man from Mars listening to this debate would have thought that London housing history began only in May 1979. Labour Members like to forget that, in the majority of the years since 1946—not 1964—the control of London's housing has been overwhelmingly under the control of Labour local authorities. It would be stretching the imagination too much to blame this Government for all the ills or for failing to remedy them forthwith.

London's housing has improved immensely in recent years, in terms of both availability and physical condition. The Government remain firmly committed to sustaining the momentum of that improvement.

Mr. Race


Mr. Finsberg

Of course, given the overall economic background and the need—clearly recognised by the previous Government—to reduce the burden of public expenditure, public sector housing has had to take its share of the cuts; but we do not accept that the only way to deal with a problem is to throw public money at it.

Mention was made of the Greater London house condition survey. That shows that there is a significant problem of disrepair in basically sound properties in both the public sector and the private sector, and of unfitness, though often for technical reasons, in scattered houses in all parts of London and all sectors of housing stock. I hope that hon. Gentlemen will recognise that several recent Government initiatives are relevant here.

It is worth reminding hon. Members of the achievements of the recent past, under Governments of both parties. The number of dwellings in London lacking one or more basic amenities has been roughly halved in the past decade; so has the number of households living in overcrowded conditions. Now, for the first time, there are in London more dwellings than households, though of course, for a variety of reasons, that does not mean that there is no longer a problem; but the situation is not as black as it has been painted.

There are, indeed, still too many families living in unsatisfactory conditions, and, of course, expectations are constantly rising. But the nature of the problem is changing, and the blanket solutions of the past are no longer appropriate. The emphasis of public sector housing policy must now be on meeting special needs, such as those of the elderly and handicapped; on making the best use of the existing housing stock, and ensuring that fit houses do not fall into disrepair—

Mr. Race

Absolute tripe.

Mr. Finsberg

—and on meeting reasonable aspirations such as those for mobility and for low-cost home ownership.

The repair and improvement grant provisions of the Housing Bill, in particular the wider availability of repair grants and the new opportunity for tenants to receive grant, will permit a more finely tuned approach to the problems of particular areas. The increase in owner-occupation through the sale of council flats and houses and other measures to encourage low-cost home ownership will give more people a direct stake in their housing and an incentive to improve it. The measures in the Bill designed to retain a healthy private rented sector will encourage private landlords to improve their property and keep it in repair.

As I have said, public expenditure must be controlled, and London has had to accept its share of the reductions. But it is quite wrong to say that the Government have discriminated against London, or against housing in London.

To the extent that housing took a more than proportionate share of the reductions, this is the continuation of a trend begun under the previous Government—that fact is incontrovertible—and is a consequence of the improvement in housing conditions I have described, and the need to spend resources more selectively. As for the regional allocations, we have been determined to make funds available where they are most needed, rather than simply giving money to the authorities which are keenest to spend it.

In fact. London got about the same size slice of the national cake this year as last year. Also, recognising as we do that local authorities are the best judges of local needs, we are giving them from next year freedom to spend half the money they receive from sales of land and houses, on top of their allocations, and much greater freedom to transfer resources from one service to another when in their judgment this is justified.

Let me give the House two figures—first, of underspend. In the year 1977 –78, £836 million was allocated to the Greater London area. Only £789 million was spent. In the year 1978 –79, £824 million was allocated; only £727 million was spent. Hardly, when based upon the requirements put forward by local authorities, can it then be said that they were able to justify their requirements. What they did was to ask for more than they could spend, and other parts had to suffer.

The Greater London Council and its particular problems were mentioned. I deeply regret that the council has had to suspend its home loans scheme. I know that that is a disappointment to a substantial number of would-be house buyers. It must have been a difficult decision for the GLC, in view of its outstanding commitment to promoting home ownership, but this is, alas, as the GLC recognises, an unfortunate consequence of the reductions in allocations enforced by the national economic conditions. I regret that at present I cannot consider special cases from any authority seeking more money. All that I can say is that I have well in mind the GLC's desire to restart its loan scheme as soon as it can.

Hon. Members have suggested that recent measures will increase the difficulties facing Londoners who want to move, either to be nearer a job or for other personal reasons. I suggest that the increase in owner-occupation and the maintenance of a healthy private rented sector will make life easier, not harder, for those who need to move and who sometimes face bureaucratic obstacles to mobility in the public sector and in particular the public rented sector.

Nor do I think, and nor do most people with practical experience, that it is as difficult for public sector tenants to move as is sometimes suggested. I am satisfied, though I should welcome any further evidence that the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch can give me, that the inter-borough nomination scheme is handling an increasing number of moves. The GLC is continuing to play an important role in facilitating mobility in its own stock and—what must not be forgotten—through nomination rights to stock that it has transferred to the boroughs. We are keen to encourage mobility schemes and are taking powers in the Housing Bill, which we shall be discussing later today, to give those schemes financial assistance.

Of course, London has a continuing housing problem. There is still need for a large programme of public investment—and it remains enormous by international standards. We need to improve housing conditions and to provide access to decent housing for those who cannot buy it in the market. But public expenditure is not a universal panacea, and it is an unhealthy situation that in some parts of London housing is virtually obtainable only through the local authority as landlord.

We are committed to directing public money where it is most needed, but we are also committed to maximising tenure choice, giving individuals an incentive to repair and improve their homes. Our seven-point plan for low-cost home ownership and the other measures in the Housing Bill may be national incentives, but they are particularly relevant to London, with its continuing high pressure of demand and its ageing housing stock.

We were elected with a clear mandate—no one disputes this, least of all the right hon. Lady who sat for Hertford and Stevenage, Mrs. Shirley Williams—to reverse our predecessors' policy on council house sales, and we have done this. There is ample evidence that many council tenants in London want to buy their own homes. As for the charge that only the best houses will be sold, the evidence so far is limited, but it does not support that view, and, with the substantial discounts available, there will be a strong incentive for tenants to buy on council estates of all sorts. Certainly in my own constituency I have had numerous requests to buy flats in tower blocks, requests which my prejudiced council has rejected.

This debate has been of value, for a wide variety of reasons. Most of all, perhaps, it has been of value in showing the average Londoner the difference between the two parties. There is a wide difference. On the Government Benches there is the party that puts the interests of the nation and the tenant first. On the Opposition Benches is a party that puts blind political dogma first and flies in the face of economic reality.

I acquit the hon. Member for Edmonton, but most of his hon. Friends still believe that one can spend one's way out of any problem by printing more and more money, by having more and more staff, by having more and more public housing, and by having less and less ownership and less and less private renting. We reject that philosophy, as the British public rejected it when they had their chance at the last general election.