HC Deb 17 July 1980 vol 988 cc1899-914

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Waddington.]

9.52 pm
Mr. John Smith (Lanarkshire, North)

The purpose of this Adjournment debate is to raise a serious problem which affects some of my constituents and which results from the Government's public expenditure cuts, which have affected the programme of the Scottish Special Housing Association, particularly with regard to its modernisation schemes.

In my constituency, in the village of Newarthill, there are 52 Atholl steel houses, which were to be modernised as part of the modernisation programme of the SSHA. The modernisation was due to start in April this year. A number of houses in the same area have already been modernised under a previous scheme of the association. The tenants confidently expected that work on their houses, which are greatly in need of modernisation, would be started in April this year, but in March they were informed by the association that the modernisation programme would not take place. They were also told that the programme would be deferred at least until April 1981 and that the association could give no date when a start could take place.

The tenants asked the reason for this sudden change of policy. The association explained that it was because the Government had reduced the capital alloca- tion for the SSHA by 20 per cent. and that serious cuts had had to be made in all the modernisation schemes, or the schemes had had to be revised.

Of this type of house—there are almost 2,000 in Scotland—about 348 have been modernised. About 500 are in the course of being modernised, and there are still about 1,100 to be dealt with. Of that 1,100, in excess of 500 are to be tackled in seven schemes. The houses in my constituency are included in one of those schemes.

It is not surprising that the tenants in those houses are angry and frustrated. They have voiced that anger and frustration to me in no uncertain terms. I have pursued the matter with the association, and I have corresponded with the Minister. But it is clear that the main reason for this and other schemes throughout central Scotland not being proceeded with is a deliberate act of Government policy, and a cut in public expenditure on housing for Scotland.

It means also that tenants such as those in my constituency and the constituencies of other hon. Members will have for the foreseeable future to live in houses that are totally out of date because the Scottish Special Housing Association cannot give them a date for the starting of the repairs. Indeed, so abrupt has been the halt that in some cases contracts had been issued for some of the work that was to be done.

Apart from the very serious injustice that will be caused by the effects of the Government's policy, it will have consequences of an economic character, because some of the houses will require essential repairs so that people can live in them. The association will therefore have to do bits and pieces of repairs to keep the houses wind and watertight, and that cannot be economic on any sensible basis.

The real villains of the piece are the Government, who have deliberately cut the public expenditure provision for houses, not only for local authorities but for the Scottish Special Housing Association as well. But more serious than I thought when I applied for this Adjournment debate is the position that was revealed today in the columns of The Scotsman, which quotes from a private report made by the Scottish Special Housing Association on the effects on its budget of Government policy. It appears from the report that the capital budget is not just chopped by 20 per cent. but that over the next three or four years it will be cut from £42 million at present by a factor of 40 per cent. in total, so that the Scottish Special Housing Association will be able to undertake the Glasgow eastern area renewal project—GEAR, as it is called—and little else. It will not be able to help any of the schemes in any other parts of the country, and it will end up by merely being the landlord of the houses which it has already built. Indeed, as I am reminded, it will be encouraged to dispose of the stock which it already has.

I ask the Minister to tell the House what he has been communicating to the Scottish Special Housing Association as to its future building programme and the future financial allocation. If the report in The Scotsman is correct, it reveals a quite scandalous state of affairs. If the Minister denies the accuracy of the report, he will no doubt tell us what he has said to the Scottish Special Housing Association and what will be available to it for capital and revenue spending in the next three of four years. I suspect that the reports in the newspaper are correct and that the Scottish Special Housing Association is facing not only a serious financial problem but that its very scope will be limited over the next three or four years.

The Scottish Special Housing Association has played a unique role in the development of housing policy in the United Kingdom. In England and Wales there is no such institution, and it has been to the benefit of Scotland that we have had an association, funded by the central Government, which has been able to supplement local authority house- building programmes and in particular has been able to help the programmes of economic development.

This is now put seriously at risk by the Government's financial cuts, which will have very serious and unfortunate consequences for my constituents and the constituents of my hon. Friends. Modernisation schemes will be affected by these cutbacks, and people cannot be told when the improvements will take place. Even more serious, the whole future of the organisation seems to be in doubt as the result of the deliberate policy of this unfortunate Government.

9.59 pm
Mr. Peter Fraser (South Angus)

I have listened with great interest to what the right hon. Member for Lanarkshire, North (Mr. Smith) said about the Scottish Special Housing Association. As he has rightly said, for a considerable period now in Scotland the SSHA has enjoyed a very important role. It will be admitted on each side of the House that it has performed a very valuable function, not only in the west central belt of Scotland but throughout Scotland as a whole.

As the right hon. Gentleman has already indicated, the Government have introduced a fairly substantial level of cuts in the budget of the SSHA, but the cuts require to be put in context. For more than five years there has been a downward trend in the expenditure on housing in Scotland.

There is no need for me to rehearse the reasons why the Government consider it necessary to make these cuts in public expenditure. In that context, it is important to assert and to consider where priorities in housing expenditure should lie. There have been cuts in the SSHA's budget, but it is important to consider where expenditure on housing in Scotland is being maintained.

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Waddington.]

Mr. Fraser

It is important to look at expenditure on the SSHA in the wider context of expenditure on housing in Scotland as a whole. We have seen the continuance of expenditure on housing associations more generally, not on the SSHA in particular. Where that expenditure is being allowed, in our tight economic difficulties, is right. It is a relatively young movement and is able to provide the housing that is most important in Scotland.

I should have thought that all Scottish Members were well aware that of the greatest importance in housing is the provision of houses of limited size of two or three apartments in renovated and restored city centre properties. I believe that the housing associations, which have been particularly effective in performing that role, should be given the opportunity to continue it.

I understand why the right hon. Gentleman should be concerned about the specific instance that he has put before the House. I have to accept that there is a tight limitation on expenditure on housing. If there has to be a priority for that expenditure, I prefer to see it go to housing associations rather than to the SSHA.

Mr. Gregor MacKenzie (Rutherglen)

The hon. Gentleman made the point that this is a comparatively new organisation. I believe that he is thinking purely in terms of the housing stock built and owned by the Scottish Special Housing Association. I am sure that he is aware that the SSHA took over many older houses from the previous association, most of which were badly in need of modernisation. That was the complaint that was voiced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lanarkshire, North (Mr. Smith). Many of these houses are in steel areas, which are being badly hit, and there is a great need for improving the environment. That is the question to which we are asking the Government to address themselves.

Mr. Fraser

I accept the right hon. Gentleman's point to the extent that if a priority has to be asserted, it should be in the modernisation and improvement of the existing housing stock. If I have to assert a priority, it is that we should not continue building on a large scale on the outskirts of towns.

I have experience of the effects of the cutbacks in the SSHA's budget in my constituency. I accept that it is a diffi- cult decision, and personally it will not be easy to face. However, there are difficulties. I recognise that my hon. Friend has to make cuts in expenditure. What he has done and the priorities that he has established seem to me to be broadly correct.

The right hon. Member for Lanarkshire, North has difficulties within his constituency, but I recognise that there will be anomalies throughout Scotland. If we have a tight limitation on what we spend, our priorities should lie in the provision of sheltered housing and small units of accommodation for the elderly and so on in our city centres and elsewhere.

10.5 pm

Mr. Michael Martin (Glasgow, Spring-burn)

Less than two years ago Glasgow district council agreed that the Scottish Special Housing Association should take over several hundred of its houses for the purpose of modernisation. Many of the houses were what is known as nontraditional houses, built just after the war when traditional materials were difficult to obtain.

In my constituency there are 250 houses known as BISF houses and 300 Orlett houses. The tenants welcomed the SSHA because they wanted modernisation not simply for their comfort but because they believed that the houses were dangerous. The cladding of the Orlett houses is made of compressed paper. The wiring is deplorable. It costs people living in the Orlett houses £1.40 for a plug for any electrical appliance, and the plugs are difficult to come by. As a result of this difficulty, the tenants are overloading their wiring system.

For those reasons, the tenants welcomed the SSHA. Because of the bad electrical wiring and the type of materials with which the houses were built, I fear for the lives of some of my tenants, and I urge the Minister to take action.

10.6 pm

Mr. David Lambie (Central Ayrshire)

We are grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Lanarkshire, North (Mr. Smith) for raising tonight the question of the Scottish Special Housing Association's modernisation schemes. It is not true, as the hon. Member for South Angus (Mr. Fraser) said, that my right hon. Friend was dealing only with a specific instance in his own constituency. Every hon. Member who has SSHA houses in his or her constituency, throughout Scotland, knows that it is a general complaint.

I have just given the chairman of the SSHA, Bill Taylor, a petition from one of my own schemes within the town of Dairy, the West Kilbride scheme. The tenants complain that while the Cunninghame district council has been modernising and spending a great deal of money given to it by the previous Labour Government, to bring its council houses in the Dairy area up to date, the SSHA tenant who looks across the road and sees millions of pounds being spent on modernising council houses has not one ha'-penny being spent on his own SSHA house.

That problem applies not only in Dairy but in Kilbirnie and Beith and in my other two major centres where there are thousands of SSHA houses, the towns of Kilwinning and Irvine. Not only is no money being spent by the SSHA on its houses, but it has the cheek and audacity to keep increasing the rents. It has already increased them twice this year. The SSHA is increasing rents by substantial amounts, and spending not a ha'penny on repairs, while my own district council has put a standstill on rents and is spending millions of pounds on repairing council houses. That anomaly is creating a feeling of deep revolt among SSHA tenants, not only in my area but in every constituency in Scotland.

The matter is even worse, because the SSHA has only enough money to continue with the projects in the East End of Glasgow. I have nothing against the money being spent there, but my constituents complain that while they are having their rents increased, with no money being spent in their area, all the money available to the SSHA will be spent in the East End of Glasgow.

What will be the solution? If the Scottish Special Housing Association is no longer to be a building association but only an association that factors houses there is no need for the Scottish Special Housing Association. I call on the Minister to disband the quango and to hand houses over to the local district council. The people will then have their houses controlled by local councillors. who are elected to voice the opinions of the local people. They will deal with rents and the amounts of money to be spent on modernisation. They will give a fair deal to the tenant.

I accept that my next remarks will not please some of my hon. Friends. Let us carry out Tory policy and get rid of the quango. Let us abolish the Scottish Special. Housing Association, and hand houses over to district councils. They will do a better job than the Scottish Special Housing Association has done.

10.12 pm
Mr. Martin J. O'Neill (Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire)

I should like to mention the effects of the cuts on the village of Tullibody in my constituency. A considerable number of houses are ready for renovation. Houses have been assigned for the purposes of decanting. The people know that their houses will not be renovated and that there will be no decanting. One house, at 41 Redlands Road, has been offered to every applicant for a four-roomed house in the county of Clackmannan. The Scottish Special Housing Association has not got the money to improve the quality of the house, to renovate it, or to bring it up to a tolerable standard.

It is clear that the Government wish to finish the job that they started on in the Tenants' Rights Etc. (Scotland) Bill. It is significant that the hon. Member for South Angus (Mr. Fraser) was silent for most of the time during discussion of the Bill, and he did not support any moves to protect sheltered housing. He did not try to protect houses in inner urban areas. The Tories wish to create conditions in which the people will have to pay higher rents for houses that will not be renovated. The obvious conclusion is that if they want better houses and houses at rents that they can afford they would be better to buy them.

There is a general strategy to shift responsibility for public sector housing on to private ownership. That is a squalid move, at the expense of many tenants who do not have the money to carry out the necessary improvements. They are often incapable of purchasing their houses, because all too often they are in danger of the dole queue. They have to live on supplementary benefit, and so on. This is another example of the Government's insensitivity to the needs of council house and public sector tenants.

Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton)

On 22 February—

Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, Central)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Two Front Bench speakers have spoken in an Adjournment debate. It is outrageous that any of my hon. Friends should speak from our Front Bench during an Adjournment debate.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Richard Crawshaw)

In an Adjournment debate the Minister is normally given 15 minutes in which to answer. The hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) will speak for only two minutes. I could not be sure that any other hon. Member would speak for only two minutes. I shall call the hon. Member for Hamilton.

Mr. Alexander Pollock (Moray and Nairn)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order to carry on a debate that is of importance to the whole of Scotland—as has been emphasised by the right hon. Member for Lanarkshire, North (Mr. Smith) and other hon. Members—in the absence of any representative from the Scottish National Party or from the Liberal Party?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

That is not a point of order.

10.14 pm
Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton)

On 22 February 1980 the Scottish Special Housing Association issued a press release. It states: Some promises which have been made to tenants and to local authorities may not be honoured. The chickens are coming home to roost. My hon. Friends have illustrated that the Scottish Special Housing Association's plea in that press release has become a bitter reality to many of its tenants. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Lanarkshire, North (Mr. Smith) on bringing this issue before the House.

As well as speaking from the Front Bench in this debate I have a considerable constituency interest in the Laighstonehall area of Hamilton, where one of the most significant developments in the SSHA's modernisation programme has been making progress apace. Much of the momentum of that modernisation has now come to a halt. As my hon. Friends pointed out, this is being accompanied by increasing rents for the houses in which people are expected to live. I hope that tonight the Minister will give some comfort to those living in SSHA houses, who are now suffering from the Government's public expenditure cuts.

10.15 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)

This has been an unusual and wide-ranging Adjournment debate. It has been interesting and unique in that it appears that the Labour Party's policy on the Scottish Special Housing Association is either to expand it or to abolish it. We are not sure which, because both points of view have been put forward this evening. It is quite clear that the Government's policy is somewhere in between. It is our policy to preserve the SSHA at a level that is consistent with the overall level of expenditure on housing and with the economic potential of the country at present.

I am delighted that the right hon. Member for Lanarkshire, North (Mr. Smith) has raised this matter, and I am happy to respond to the general points and to some of the detailed points covering his constituency.

I assure the House that it is the Government's intention that the SSHA, which has done sterling work in housing in Scotland for more than 30 years, should continue that work. We do not intend to wind it up, because we believe that it has an important role to play.

The right hon. Member for Lanarkshire, North correctly indicated that there has been a reduction in the current year of 20 per cent. in the finances available to the SSHA compared with its provisional allocation. My hon. Friend the Member for South Angus (Mr. Fraser) was correct to point out that when we are looking at housing expenditure it is wrong and misleading to suggest that on the day after the present Government took office expenditure on housing began to fall. He was quite correct to point out that expenditure on housing began to fall in 1974 and has continued to fall ever since. That is a fact of life, which cannot be contradicted.

In that context the proportionate cuts that the SSHA has experienced this year are comparable to the reductions in housing allocations to local authorities, and it is considered only appropriate and fair that that should be the case.

The right hon. Member for Lanarkshire, North asked whether allocations for future years had been determined. He referred to an article in The Scotsman this morning. No firm decisions have yet been reached on the allocations for any year after the current year. As the SSHA itself has indicated in the article to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. it has been advised for its planning purposes that it would be sensible to contemplate a possible reduction proportionate to the overall reduction in housing expenditure announced in the White Paper—[Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Glasgow, Craig-ton (Mr. Millan) insists on mumbling in every debate that we have, but he should appreciate that it is unfair to his right hon. and hon. Friends who raised this matter and who presumably want to hear the answers. If the right hon. Member wishes to intervene, perhaps he will have the courtesy to rise.

Mr. Bruce Millan (Glasgow, Craigton)

The Under-Secretary knows that the public expenditure White Paper, which has already been published, shows these 40 per cent. reductions over the next few years, and it is completely dishonest and hypocritical to pretend that this is an open question. It is not open at all, the Government have decided.

Mr. Rifkind

I had assumed that the right hon. Gentleman had read the White Paper. He will therefore be aware that it shows the global sums available for housing expenditure. [Interruption.] Will the right hon. Gentleman please stop mumbling. I gave way to him, and he could at least have the decency to remain quiet while I answer his question. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Richard Crawshaw)

Order. I know that there is strong feeling, but the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Millan) is forgetting himself.

Mr. Rifkind

The White Paper on housing expenditure gives the global sums that will be available for housing spending over the next few years. It does not attempt to break down the amounts that will be available to local authorities, the housing corporation or the Scottish Special Housing Association. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Angus pointed out, in the current year the housing corporations have experienced no reduction in real terms in their allocation. It does not automatically follow that the proportionate cuts for any individual recipient of central Government funds will be exactly in relation to its present expenditure. That fact is well known to the housing authorities, even if it is incapable of being absorbed by Opposition Members.

The article in The Scotsman was gravely misleading in a number of ways. I shall briefly mention two. As has been repeated by a number of hon. Gentlemen, it suggests that the reductions that the Government have indicated will force the SSHA to abandon almost all its projects outside Glasgow. I shall indicate some of the projects outside Glasgow which, in the light of the figures given, the SSHA intends to carry out over the next few years. In the current year there are new build projects in Keith, Galashiels, Edinburgh, Bonnyrigg and Grangemouth. There are modernisation projects in Edinburgh, Hamilton, Greenock, Bellshill, Blackburn and Douglas. In 1981–82 there are new build projects planned for Inverness, Tweedbank, Edinburgh, Stirlingshire and the Western Isles, and modernisation projects for Edinburgh, Dundee, Oakley and Hamilton. In 1982–83 there are new build projects for Gordon, Arbroath, East Lothian, Inverclyde, Motherwell and Kilmarnock, and modernisation projects for Greenock, Dundee, Dalkeith, Clydebank, Tullibody, Newarthill, which the right hon. Gentleman will be interested in, and New Stevenson.

Mr. David Steel (Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles)

Did I hear the Under-Secretary aright? Did he include Tweed-bank in the 1981–82 projects? If so, why has that been denied in all other Scottish Office pronouncements?

Mr. Rifkind

I do not know about Scottish Office pronouncements, but these are detailed projects which the SSHA is responsible for determining. The Scottish Office does not decide these matters. I shall deal in a moment with the priorities that the Scottish Office indicates. Beyond that it is for the SSHA to indicate its own projects.

Mr. Lambie

What about Cunninghame?

Mr. Rifkind

The list that I have indicated is not exhaustive, but it demonstrates the nonsense of the report in The Scotsman that there will be no projects outside Glasgow as a result of the Government's policies.

There is a further false suggestion in the article, that the Government have indicated to the SSHA that its priorities should be the GEAR project, economic expansion houses, the modernisation of steel houses and the rest of Glasgow. That also is incorrect. The Government have followed the precedent of the previous Government and indicated two priorities, and two alone, to the SSHA. One is economic expansion houses and the other is the Glasgow eastemare renewal scheme. Apart from that, the Government have indicated no priorities that the SSHA is required to follow. It has been for the association to decide its priorities. The association has indicated that the priorities for the remainder of its resources should be pre-war SNHC steel houses. It considers that those are the houses most in need of modernisation.

I turn now to the specific point that the right hon. Member for Lanarkshire, North raised—the 52 Atholl steel houses at Newarthill. Having nearly completed the comprehensive modernisation of its Weir quality steel houses the SSHA, as I have indicated, is giving priority to prewar, SNHC houses. Those are generally in a worse condition than the Atholl houses, a start on which has, in most cases, had to be postponed for about two years, because of the reduced finance available. Only two Athol] steel projects are going ahead as previously planned and those are schemes that are in a worse condition than the other housing of that category. The remaining Atholl steel projects, including the 52 steel houses at Newarthill, which were previously programmed to start in 1980–81, have not been put back by three or four years, as the right hon. Member for Lanarkshire, North indicated in a letter to me earlier this year, but are re-scheduled for 1982–83.

Mr. John Smith

The hon. Gentleman will understand that that is news to me and to the tenants. They had been told that work could not start before 1981 and that no date could be given beyond that. Is the hon. Gentleman conveying new information? If so, I am grateful to him.

Mr. Rifkind

I am conveying information that I have received from the SSHA. These are not matters determined by the Government. We have indicated the two specific priorities to which I referred and, apart from those, it is up to the SSHA to decide its programme in the light of the remaining resources that will be available. In the light of that general indication, the SSHA's present assessment—and it is no more than an assessment—is that it hopes to be able to start those projects in 1982–83. I emphasise that the SSHA is not giving a firm guarantee.

Mr. Smith

That information is important to the tenants concerned. Should it not have been made available to them, rather than its having to be extracted via a Minister in the House?

Mr. Rifkind

I have no doubt that the SSHA intended to make the information known as soon as possible. When the right hon. Gentleman proposed to initiate an Adjournment debate in which he would obviously refer to circumstances in his constituency, it was inevitable that the Government would contact the SSHA to find out its intentions and it would have been foolish of me to refuse to give the information. The right hon. Gentleman would have been the first to complain if the information could have been given, but was not divulged.

Mr. O'Neill

Does not the hon. Gentleman concede that, if the prognostications by the Government that public expenditure cuts are to be even worse than those indicated in the White Paper are correct, the figures and dates that we have been given in the debate are meaningless and the time scale has no significance?

Mr. Rifkind

When any Government, including a Labour Government, introduce reductions in spending, commitments or aspirations that may have been indicated previously sometimes have to be frustrated. I can give no guarantee that further reductions in public expenditure will not be required. That is not a matter for me to decide.

All that I am indicating is the intentions that the SSHA hopes to be able to implement, taking into account the information that it has received from the Government about the likely resources that will be available. The House will recognise that it is helpful that such information should be made available. That is why I gave it.

Labour Members have been more willing to take part in this debate on expenditure cuts than they were in the debate earlier this week when we had more time to discuss such matters and to go into detail. However, we welcome the fact that their interest in public expenditure in Scotland has been re-awakened.

We recognise that the SSHA is going through a period of reduced activity and we acknowledge that it will bring genuine and deep disappointment to many tenants who had hoped or expected that housing modernisation would take place. We are not trying to hide behind a suggestion that that will not happen.

We care most about the economic recovery of this country. We believe, as did the Labour Government when the IMF took over their books, that a reduction in public expenditure is an essential ingredient in economic recovery. Therefore, it is necessary that the SSHA, as one major recipient of public funds, should be included in that exercise. However, it still has an important future, and recognises that fact. I have no doubt that it will continue to make an important and significant contribution to the housing needs of Scotland.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'clock.