HC Deb 13 April 1984 vol 58 cc665-74 11.45 am
Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important subject on the Adjournment. I am particularly grateful to the Minister. I know that he had some important meetings arranged for this morning, but I do him the credit of suggesting that he is aware of the importance of the subject and that with local government elections coming up in May it is right that the House should spend a little time looking at the problems of public sector housing in Scotland.

Having said that there are district elections in the offing, I do not propose a particularly party political speech. Public sector housing problems are so important that they should transcend some of the worst excesses of the party political banter that the House sometimes witnesses.

With that in mind, I turn to the first topic to which I wish to address the minds of right hon. and hon. Members. It is the need for a housing condition survey north of the border. The Minister cannot doubt that the professional bodies in Scotland—housing officials, the Scottish Housing Institute, Shelter and others—are deeply interested and concerned about the Government's reluctance to carry out a housing condition survey. The Under-Secretary will be aware that every other part of the United Kingdom has had the benefit of such a survey involving as it does a detailed inspection of between 10 and 15 per cent. of the housing stock—private as well as public—which is followed up by a four-page report on every house surveyed, prepared by a surveyor.

The Scottish Office refuses to acknowledge the need for such a survey. In the recent past it has changed the system of the district councils' requirements in terms of reporting the condition of their stock by reducing the need for annual housing plans to be submitted. The requirement now is that only a four-yearly cycle is required, with the exception of Glasgow district council. The Scottish Office conducts a summary check list of questions which it compiles and sends out. It receives information in that form from each local authority. But the information is not published. The Department's officials sit in Edinburgh saying, "We have the information that we need, and we are satisfied that no further information is required." With as much restraint as I can muster I tell the Minister that that is causing a great deal of concern north of the border. It is felt that the need for a housing condition survey is great and is getting greater all the time.

The Minister will be aware that in 1981 a housing survey was carried out in England. It had a major impact on the appraisal of housing stock south of the border. It served to reinforce what at that stage was still piecemeal evidence that was beginning to appear, especially in relation to fast-build, high-density, non-traditional types of council building in England—the Bison and the Orlit type of construction. It showed clearly that the extent of the problems in these areas was greater than had been anticipated previously. It showed that post-war council building by new non-traditional methods with materials that were supposed to give a 60-year lifespan was suspect. Once the results of that survey were known, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities and other organisations could plan to meet the needs that had been identified.

There is concern in Scotland that we may be sitting on a problem of far greater dimensions than is widely appreciated. The recent Select Committee report on dampness and condensation provides evidence for that. As one would expect, the Select Committee conducted a thorough investigation with a wide-ranging programme of visits, but recognised that its work was constrained by the lack of hard data about the condition of the stock across the national spectrum. Even with the limited information at its disposal, however, the Select Committee estimated the repair bill for eradication of dampness and condensation at about £500 million. To judge from the problems in my area—no doubt the Minister has found the same in his own constituency work—that is probably an under-estimate. It is a serious problem and that is a serious sum, but the problem and the cost will inevitably increase the longer the Government allow the problem to spread, causing untold misery and stress for the families involved. The Government must produce proposals and funds to tackle the problem once and for all. I know that it is early days yet, but I look forward to the Government's response to the Select Committee report.

Dampness is just one example of the problems that a housing conditions survey would quantify and clarify so that a far better informed debate could then take place. I note that the housing associations south of the border have decided to set up a special committee on their own—I believe that it is to be chaired by Prince Philip—to produce a United Kingdom-wide analysis of the needs confronting such associations.

On Wednesday the Minister replied to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) about the need for a housing condition survey: The resources to provide the same level of information could be better spent in other ways to provide more direct information of the type that we need to make our assessments."—[Official Report, 11 April 1984; Vol. 58, c. 371.] That is a pretty vague statement. Perhaps the Minister will take time today to try to persuade me that it is correct. I believe that there is a real need for a housing condition survey north of the border and that it is a reasonable request. I do not subscribe to the conspiracy theory, but if the survey does not take place the suspicion will be that the Government are not prepared to undertake it because they are afraid of what it will show. That would be regrettable.

The recently announced plans for general expenditure on housing show that in 1979–80 the Scottish Office devoted £1,720 million to housing costs north of the border. The Government's published plans for the future, however, show a predicted allocation for 1986–87 of only £620 million. Assuming about 5 per cent. inflation, that is a 51.2 per cent. decrease in funds devoted to general housing expenditure compared with an aggregate decline of about 10 per cent. for expenditure in all categories. I am not daft, and I know that the Government seek to constrain expenditure and I recognise the economic constraints on the public purse. Nevertheless, if those figures are correct that is a very severe reduction in general housing allocation.

I accept that there have been some increases in Scottish Office programmes, especially on law and order but also in health and social security, but there have been also considerable reductions—for example, a reduction of 12.4 per cent. on roads and 14 per cent. on education. We find those cuts politically unacceptable, but, even leaving party politics aside, the amount shaved off the housing budget in the period 1979–86 is astonishing. Based on 1984–85 prices, capital allocations for Scotland as a whole have fallen from £364.7 million in 1979–80 to £227.5 million in 1984–85, and it is especially worrying to note that the provisional allocations announced in December were decreased by a further £14.5 million when the final figures were announced in March this year.

I appreciate that there are political problems and differences between the Government's perceptions and those of some rogue authorities. Nevertheless, many smaller and less politically troublesome authorities are being clobbered as they are caught in the crossfire between the Government and some, mainly Labour-controlled, rogue authorities. Inverclyde, for example, despite a rent increase of 75p, or 9 per cent., which is almost double the rate of inflation, will be penalised by the loss of £1.5 million, or 33 per cent. of its capital allocation. That is a very hard blow. In Orkney, too, which is not a troublesome council by any definition, a 7.7 per cent. increase in rents still resulted in a 16 per cent. cut of £120,000 in provisional capital allocation. It is difficult for local authorities to live with such serious reductions.

The dilemma faced by most councils as a result of the expenditure cuts is whether they can afford any major renovation schemes at all. The post-war traditional stock is more or less catered for, but that leaves the major problems of the non-traditional stock built in the 1960s and the 1970s. Councils are lumbered with continuing loan charges. Sales receipts are now tailing off and councils are severely limited in the action that they can take to prevent their housing stock from real and in many cases abject deterioration.

We are also greatly concerned about waiting lists. Shelter estimates that 155,000 households in Scotland are waiting for accommodation, and that is probably an underestimate. Another matter of concern is overcrowding. According to Shelter, about 14 per cent. of Scottish households suffer severe overcrowding, compared with 3.4 per cent. in England and 2.8 per cent. in Wales. In other words, 25 per cent. of the population—one and a quarter million souls—suffer cramped conditions in houses with more people than there are rooms to accommodate them. That, too, is a serious problem.

I support the Government's housing sales policy, but it is beginning to impinge on the availability of council housing stock. That, too, will present serious problems in future. In 1979, local authority council house starts were running at 6,070 per annum. By 1983, the total had fallen to an estimated 2,050. That is quite a serious decline. The Scottish housing statistics show that public sector housing, including that of local authorities, the Scottish Special Housing Association and new towns, has fallen from 1,080,000 in 1981 to 1,049,000 in 1983. The number of houses held by local authorities has fallen from 894,549 in 1981 to 875,268 in 1983. Therefore, the number of council houses available for let has fallen.

A recent parliamentary answer gave the percentage of council houses that have been sold from January 1973 to September 1983. In September 1978, the date on which the figures were based, 3.7 per cent. of the local authority housing stock had been sold, 8.8 per cent. of the SSHA stock had been sold and 21 per cent. of new town stock had been sold. The combination of those figures suggests that the flexibility available to local authorities is diminishing rapidly. The Government should take that into account when formulating housing plans.

I accept that housing need not necessarily be provided by the public sector. There is scope for public building, for development through housing associations and joint ventures. We need a flexible policy that is built around the right to buy, but we also need to safeguard the public sector to prevent it from becoming the poor relation and developing into ghettos in which no self-respecting tenant is prepared to live. We should also consider the problems of first-time householders. Young married couples now find that, because the public sector housing stock is diminishing, it is difficult to find anywhere to live. Why should we not consider a grant or loan to get them on to the first rung of the housing ladder? That is worth considering.

I should also like to draw the Minister's attention to the complex problems of specialist housing. If we are selling off the local authority stock, and if the level of starts is decreasing, the problems of the single homeless, single parent families, the disabled and the elderly will become even more acute. The straightforward sale of houses is no policy at all for such categories of need. The Government have presided over a serious cut in capital allocation and revenue support through cuts in the housing support grant. There is a danger that Scotland will go into a housing crisis. There is a major need for immediate investment in and repair of post-war estates. There is also an urgent need to assist with the problems of the system-built housing of the 1960s which was encouraged by Governments of both major parties. I do not attribute blame solely to the Conservatives. Such housing is now subject to damp and structural problems. None of those problems can be tackled seriously by local authorities with the level of finance which is now available to them. The Government should be increasing capital investment. If the money from council house sales could be used as additional investment, some of those problems could be tackled.

Although many of the problems require substantial sums of money, there are others which require little money. For example, the Government could encourage local authorities to improve the quality of service that they give to tenants through better staffing levels in housing and direct works departments and the better training of housing management staff. We look forward to the imminent publication of the right-to-repair regulations. We should also encourage tenant co-operatives. Seminal work has been done in Liverpool where groups of tenants have instructed architects on the improvements that they require and have become housing co-operatives. That does not involve a great deal of expenditure and yet would help significantly.

We should consider carefully some of the build-for-sale schemes that have been pioneered by local authorities such as Inverclyde, which, incidentally, was Liberal-controlled at the time. That would ensure that councils meet land but not necessarily building costs and the 40-year duties that that involves. I know that the Minister has taken an interest in sheltered housing. There are some interesting developments in my area. Princess Anne opened an excellent sheltered housing scheme in Kelso only about 10 days ago. There are guidelines as to the quantity of sheltered housing that local authorities should provide, but almost every local authority fails significantly to reach that level. The Liberals would accord priority to giving additional resources to sheltered housing schemes, especially those with wardens.

Real problems lie ahead of us and I look forward to our debates between now and the local authority elections. There is a real and urgent need for increased expenditure to enable local authorities to attend properly to the defects that they perceive in their housing stock. If we do not put the problems right now, they will cost more in the future. I urge the Government as strenuously as I can to spend money now to remedy some of the problems before they get significantly worse.

12.5 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Michael Ancram)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) on raising this important topic and giving the House the opportunity to discuss public sector housing in Scotland before we return to Scotland for our Easter recess. It is appropriate that the hon. Gentleman should raise the issue now because, as he said, housing is perhaps the issue that is most often raised by constituents.

In the past few months the House has given a good deal of attention to public sector housing. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of our debates on the Tenant's Rights, Etc. (Scotland) Amendment Bill before Christmas during which many of the subjects that he has dealt with today were covered at some length. More recently, during our consideration of clause 6 of the Rating and Valuation (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill several of the issues that he has raised, especially the balance between capital and revenue in housing accounts, were dealt with fairly fully.

Although the hon. Gentleman rightly said that this is not a party political issue—I pay tribute to him for that—there is a tendency among Opposition Members to suggest that public sector housing in Scotland is undergoing a crisis. It is important to see the issue in perspective. Some people suggest that the Government are doing nothing to cope with the crisis. I am also grateful to the hon. Gentleman for not falling into that easy political trap. Some of our critics have gone so far as to suggest that we have no housing policy at all, although they argue in the same breath that our policy of encouraging a larger private sector in housing demonstrates our lack of concern for the public sector. I find it difficult to see how they can suggest that we have no policy when they argue that our policy is one with which they do not agree.

I should be the last to deny that there are serious housing problems in Scotland. The Government take those problems seriously. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs recently highlighted one problem—condensation and dampness. The Government hope to publish their response to the Committee's report shortly. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the housing condition survey for Scotland. Although I shall make a few comments about it, because it was dealt with in the Select Committee's report, we shall deal with it in our response to the report. Obviously it would not be right for me to pre-empt the response this morning before we had had time to receive the report and consider our response.

It is worth reminding ourselves that the Committee did not regard the case for a housing condition survey to be conclusively proven. I had doubts about its effectiveness. I repeat to the hon. Gentleman what I said to the House at Question Time on Wednesday, which he quoted. A national survey would need substantial resources if it were to meet all the possible requirements for information. A sample of the same size in Scottish terms as that of the survey done in England would not provide the level and detail of information that would be of any use. If we were to have a national survey designed to provide the right level of information, it would take up substantial resources that could be better used in directing research at specific areas of the housing stock where problems have been identified.

Mr. Kirkwood

Is the Minister saying that we would. require a bigger percentage sample in Scotland to provide the same level of information as in England? Is he saying that if we were to use the 1981 English formula in Scotland it would be inadequate?

Mr. Ancram

It is partly the size of the sample, because if one takes a percentage sample of a smaller area the information is less applicable. There are different problems in different areas—the hon. Member himself is seeking information on that point from the survey. From the point of view of local authorities and the Government, it is the particular needs in particular areas that are of most interest when local authorities decide their priorities and the Government look at the requirements for the allocations that have to be made.

The Government have been carrying out ad hoc surveys in particular areas. There have been a number of them over the years and there is now one under way into private sector inter-war stock in 1,000 houses in four cities which is concerned with all aspects of housing conditions linked to the social survey. The idea is that, if there is a particular problem in a particular area, information on that problem is the most useful, and not generalised information of the sort that the hon. Member admitted came from the English housing condition survey.

Information on matters such as material and design is useful, but that information is available, and where further information is needed, as has been the case with the Orlit houses, it may be obtained from the Building Research Establishment. The hon. Gentleman must realise that there is not necessarily any great virtue in having a survey for its own sake. The Government are concerned to ensure that the information that is required is made available. We shall be answering in more detail his specific questions when we consider our response to the report of the Select Committee.

Over the next few months, we shall hear much more about the problems of defective system built houses. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we shall be debating the Housing Defects Bill, which has recently been published, and this will cover particular types of defects. I hope to show that the Government are taking positive steps to assist housing authorities to deal with the problems that they face. That is the proper role of the Government in housing.

I deal now with our overall policy. We have never concealed the fact that we wish to see a larger private housing sector in Scotland. Over 53 per cent. of Scottish houses are in public ownership—one of the highest proportions in Western Europe and higher than some of the countries behind the iron curtain. We believe that the present balance of tenure reflects neither the needs of the economy nor the aspirations of the people. That is why our right-to-buy policy, which has already led to the sale of over 45,500 houses, is so important. It is also why the Government are taking steps, through the Tenants' Rights, Etc. (Scotland) Amendment Bill, to extend both discount and the right to buy.

Our policy has been criticised, and I understood that there was veiled criticism in the hon. Gentleman's remarks, on the basis that it will reduce the stock of houses available for rent as though the sale of public sector houses reduced the total stock of houses rather than shifting the balance of tenure. The policy reduces the stock of public sector rented houses, but it does not reduce the total housing stock. It is important to realise that the transfer from public tenure to private ownership of itself has no effect on waiting lists, and nobody has yet succeeded in producing any evidence that those who buy their council houses would otherwise have bought on the private market and left those houses available for renting. It is important that the hon. Gentleman and the House should appreciate that the Government are not seeking a reduction in the number of houses by this policy, but a transfer from public tenancy to private owner-occupation. This policy also frees resources that would otherwise remain tied up in bricks and mortar. It enables authorities to spend more on the urgent and important tasks that face them, such as those mentioned by the hon. Gentleman this morning. For instance, we estimate that during the current financial year the receipts from the sale of council houses will amount to some £111 million, releasing money that will be available for the modernisation and upgrading of stock remaining in the public sector.

The hon. Gentleman said that he hoped that it would be possible for funds and resources so released to be used in addition to the allocations. That is the position already. Although these estimates are made and agreed by my Department and the district authorities, if they are exceeded by any authority that decides to promote a vigorous sales policy the resources released over and above the estimate are equally available for use.

For that reason, in some cases authorities that deliberately put a damper on the policy of sale are doing themselves out of resources that they could usefully use. Although this is not on the subject of the sale of council houses, I was surprised to read the reports in today's press that the Glasgow city Labour party, which is in control of the Glasgow city council, had decided to stop releasing land for private housing development within the city. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has seen that report.

That district council and all other district councils have a responsibility to consider the totality of housing need and provision in their area and not simply the public sector. The balance between the two is an essential part in any housing policy. The decision that I understand has been taken by the Glasgow city Labour party is all the more regrettable given the significant benefits that have accrued to Glasgow in recent years from its policy of encouraging private house building on what have come to be known as brown field sites, which has led to a steady increase in private completions to a figure of 1,502 in 1983. The decision is all the more regrettable in a city with 63 per cent. of its stock in the public sector.

Mr. Kirkwood

I agree with the Minister and regret the decision reported in today's press. Is he aware that some authorities, such as the Glasgow district council, are deliberately reducing the receipts that can be made available to them by disposing of land in stock, and are waiting until their stock is in such a state of disrepair that the Government have to decide that they have to do something about, for example, Glasgow? That will mean that district councils that have been doing things properly, realising sums of money and attending to their stock will be penalised again. If the state of the stock in places such as Dundee and Glasgow is so bad that the Government are obliged to do something about it, it will be at the expense of the proper management authorities.

Mr. Ancram

In fairness to Glasgow district council. I should say that it has made substantial progress in making provision for private sector house building in the city. I used to work in the city and I know that the changes wrought there in the past 10 years show the value of private sector building.

I hope that the Glasgow city Labour party will think again before finalising its manifesto. Otherwise, I think that it will be clear to the electorate of Glasgow that the decision owes more to political ideology than to good housing policy.

I understand that the decision has been presented as a retaliation for lack of cash for council house building in Glasgow, but I remind the House that, despite the reduction of £5.5 million—which could have been used for dealing with the problems that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned—which Glasgow brought on itself by exceeding its rate fund limit, the council will still receive £46.7 million on its housing revenue account block, which is one fifth of the Scottish total, and £80 million for its non-HRA block, which is half of the allocation for Scotland. Those are substantial sums by any reckoning and I hope that the decision of the city Labour party is put into that context.

We are very concerned about the quality of housing and the quality of life for those who remain renting in the public sector. That forms the second leg of our policy. Our tenants' rights legislation—I emphasise that it was passed by a Conservative Government—has given tenants a range of new rights, including security of tenure, the right to a written lease and, under the Bill in another place, the right to repair. The hon. Gentleman mentioned his interest in those matters. Of course, one cannot have quality without paying for it and the Government believe that that must mean the concentration of resources of capital expenditure rather than the subsidisation of current expenditure.

The reductions made in the housing support grant and the steps that we are taking to control rate fund contributions to the housing revenue account result from that assessment of priorities. Labour Members often present those policies as a sustained attack on council house tenants and they suggest that the fall in housing support grants, which has been reduced from about £228 million, divided among all 56 housing authorities, in 1980–81 to about £52 million, divided among 26 authorities, in the current financial year, illustrates our lack of concern for public sector housing. Nothing could be further from the truth.

A large part of the reduction in housing support grants is attributable to the fall in interest rates since 1979. Recently the fall has been considerable. But the reduction also reflects our judgment that tenants should make an appropriate contribution to the costs of their houses and that the taxpayer should no subsidise authorities that, on reasonable assumptions—I stress those words—can be expected to balance their own books.

The average rent of a council house in Scotland in 1983–84 was £9.87 a week, which is less than 7 per cent. of the average weekly earnings of a male manual worker in full-time employment. That compares with an average rent of about £14 a week in England, where the average weekly earnings are similar. The hon. Gentleman can draw his own conclusions from those figures.

Information from local authorities shows that average rents in the current financial year will increase to £10.45 a week. That does not seem to be an excessive amount from people to pay for their housing. I admit that rents will be higher in some areas, but equally, as the £10.45 is an average, they will be lower in other areas. About 50 per cent. of tenants receive support towards their rent and half of those have their rents paid in their entirety. Housing benefits mitigate the effect of rent increases on those who have difficulties paying them.

The expectation that the ratepayer and taxpayer should make excessive contributions to subsidise the housing costs of those who do not need subsidising has for too long pre-empted resources which would have been better spent on improving and modernising our housing stock. It is particularly disappointing that this year 26 authorities have exceeded the very fair rate fund limits which we set them, resulting in a reduction in the sums available for capital expenditure on the local authority housing stock throughout Scotland of over £20 million. To put it another way, almost 9 per cent. more capital expenditure could have been directed towards treating the pressing problems of the Scottish housing stock if authorities had not decided to budget for excessive rate fund contributions. That is why the powers that we are taking to regulate contributions from the rate fund to the housing revenue account under clause 6 of the Rating and Valuation (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill are of such vital importance.

Despite those regrettable reductions in capital expenditure—which arise entirely from decisions taken by local authorities—we have made substantial resources available for capital expenditure on the Housing stock in Scotland. For local authorities we have allocated £227.5 million and authorities that can generate additional receipts through increasing the level of their sales of council houses will be able to use those receipts to increase their capital expenditure.

Mr. Albert McQuarrie (Banff and Buchan)

I am sure that my hon. Friend will welcome the news published yesterday that the Labour-controlled Aberdeen district council has had so many applications for the purchase of council houses in the past few months that it will have to take on another solicitor to carry out the conveyancing.

Mr. Ancram

I am pleased to hear that, because I have always believed that there is a demand among council tenants to purchase their houses. Sales not only help tenants, but assist councils by making extra resources available to them.

Some authorities have pressed the Government for additional resources to help them deal with, for example, problems of defective houses, condensation and dampness. The resources that have been allocated will permit substantial progress in dealing with such problems. I have taken careful note of the requests that authorities have made for additional resources, and if further resources become available I shall, of course, consider those requests carefully.

I am also aware that authorities have criticised the allocations as providing insufficient resources for new starts. However, the main problem facing us is not the need for large numbers of new houses—many current problems stem from our previous preoccupation with the number of completions—but the need to improve the existing stock and to provide housing for those with special needs—the elderly and the disabled. Our allocations take due account of those needs.

We have also made substantial resources available to the Scottish Special Housing Associaton and the Housing Corporation. We have made £50 million available to the SSHA and in 1984–85 housing associatons, which are making a substantial contribution to meeting the housing requirements of those with special needs, can look forward to a programme worth over £100 million. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the Government have always strongly believed that the housing associations, through the Housing Corporation, can meet this area of need. The allocations which we have made since coming to office—considerably more than those which were available to housing associations previously—underline our commitment in that direction.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of waiting lists. I do not believe that such lists are a reliable measure of demand. Local authority housing plans and check lists provide more reliable projections of housing needs, and these are taken into account in determining allocations.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Boxburgh and Berwickshire for giving us the opportunity of having what has been a short but useful debate. I have taken note of his anxieties and I will bear them in mind. I hope that I have demonstrated that the Government's housing policy reflects those concerns in practice and that it is directed towards the aspirations of all our people in the public and private sectors of housing.