HC Deb 02 March 1984 vol 55 cc510-86
Mr. Speaker

Hon. Members will have noticed that the three motions on the Order Paper are in identical terms. This means that, once the House has taken a decision on the first motion, the Chair cannot call the second or third motions, because they fall. If, therefore, the first motion is disposed of before 2.30 pm, I shall suspend the Sitting until that time, when the remaining business will be taken.

9.36 am
Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)

I beg to move, That this House asserts and defends the right of every person and family to a secure home in good repair and of a size and at a cost and with heating to meet the residents' needs and means and in a safe and pleasant environment; deeply regrets that millions of people still live in homes which are in serious disrepair or overcrowded or have no secure home at all; deplores the Government's record of savage cuts in housing expenditure particularly affecting those in need; notes that the Government's recent expenditure plans continue those cuts and a system of finance for housing which is riddled with inequities; and calls for a programme of construction, improvement and repair which will both fulfil the right to a home and provide work for unemployed building workers. When, for the first time in 18 years, I drew first place in the ballot I had no hesitation in choosing a subject. When I was first elected, I considered that it was one of my first duties to fight for secure and decent homes. In the time that I have been a Member of Parliament, that duty has in no way diminished. Indeed, the only thing that has happened in my constituency is that, while the need for good housing remains as important as ever, that need has now been equalled by the need to provide jobs.

It is fundamental to the well-being of our people to have good housing. The ability to exercise the right to a home is fundamental to the enjoyment of a healthy, happy and satisfying life. The consequences of overcrowded and insanitary dwellings, homes that are in poor repair, and —worst of all— people or families with no home or shelter, must be beyond dispute. Family life is injured, as are the esteem and dignity of ordinary people and their families. Children cannot make full use of education in overcrowded conditions. I am sure it is the experience of many hon. Members that both the mental and physical health of occupants suffers. Moreover, poor housing is a contributory factor in crime. If individuals cannot respect a home and possessions of their own, how can we expect them to respect the institutions and possessions of others?

One of the problems that I used to have in my constituency—fortunately, it is now a minor problem—was the difficulty of furnished accommodation. I have no doubt that the heyday of furnished lettings without any security—Labour put a stop to that in 1974—produced many disturbed casualties in the generation that grew up in dispossessed and shifting tenure. We are now beginning to reap the effects of that. The stability of the family and the community must and does rest on good homes. To the shame of the Conservative party, the public provision of housing has been savagely attacked by a Government who parade the virtues of the family. The Government's great Victorian virtue is hypocrisy.

The tragedy is that Britain has a golden opportunity at the moment to break the back of the housing problem. There are more unemployed building workers than any other single category of people on the dole. About half a million people are capable of putting their talents and effort into providing housing. About a quarter of a million building workers have been thrown out of jobs since the Government took office. One of the statistics that I have from the unions is that the concentration of unemployed building workers is often greatest in those areas of great housing stress. We are missing a golden opportunity to improve the quality and number of our houses.

Britain is awash with capital, if we want to mobilise it. The provision of homes has the lowest input content of almost any other form of production, so it does not throw a strain on the balance of payments. It is the politics and economics of the madhouse to throw away the chance to match the scale of human need for housing to the unused resources of people and materials that abound in Britain.

I want to consider the scale of the problem and the Government's response to what I think will be beyond dispute—the enormous and continuing need for housing. Let us start with the condition of Britain's housing stock. The scale of disrepair and unfitness is set out in the English house condition survey of 1981. I apologise to any Scottish Members who are present if I do not use Scottish figures. It is difficult to assemble the figures for Scotland and Wales and many of the figures that I use will be largely for England.

Of 18.1 million houses and dwellings in England, 1.1 million are unfit for human habitation. Almost one house in 17 is in such a poor state that a family does not really deserve to live in that house at all. That is one measure of the condition of Britain's housing, despite all that has been done since the end of the last war. One million houses in Britain need repairs costing £7,000 or more. I understand that that figure was so arranged when the English house condition survey was carried out that it did not show too great a need for major repair. Nevertheless, 1 million houses need the expenditure of more than £7,000.

Two million dwellings in England are in extremely poor condition. What is worse is that there were more homes in poor condition in 1981 than there were in 1971. The problem in proportional terms has shifted away from the private sector to the owner-occupied sector. Of the houses needing £7,000 or more spent on them, one third of a million are in the private rented sector, over half a million in the owner-occupied sector, and only 50,000 in the local authority sector. Although, let me add, there are 170,000 prefabricated houses in the local authority sector which need major repairs or possibly even demolition. We have an aging stock of largely owner-occupied houses in deteriorating conditions, often with occupiers too poor or elderly to keep their homes in repair and whose only capital is tied up in their home. That is one measure of the need to provide housing in Britain.

Another measure of housing need is the length of council waiting lists. When the Under-Secretary of State was a councillor in Lambeth, his party commissioned a survey on housing which showed that at that time only 24 per cent. of the people who ought to have been on the housing waiting lists actually were. Those figures may have changed since but on the whole the length of council waiting lists tends to underestimate rather than over-estimate the problem. With that proviso, let us consider waiting list figures. In my borough in Lambeth, the queue approaches 20,000 families. In London, our capital city, 234,000 families are on housing waiting lists. Nationally, 1–2 million people are queuing up for local authority homes.

To take another measure of housing need, Shelter estimates that the national housing shortage is about 800,000 homes. The need is greatest in the rented sector, which has been most neglected by the Government. Another measure of the need is homelessness. In the first half of 1983 for which we have figures, 38,700 people were accepted as being homeless. Although that figure has been declining for some years, it is higher than the figure at the end of 1982, which was a little over 38,000. But applications to be treated as homeless number around 140,000. The number of people homeless as against those classified under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 is about twice as large because many who are homeless do not fall into the priority classes classified by that Act.

In Britain 51,000 people live in hostels or lodging houses. Many of them might be described as urban nomads. They are people whose existence and need for housing is often ignored altogether. All those figures show a miserable upwards climb in what a civilised society ought to treat as unthinkable—a family with no home.

Another measure that we can take from the census is that half a million households in Britain live in dwellings with shared accommodation and a quarter of a million live in what are called concealed households. Again, those figures hide the scale of need, especially as the young and single do not even qualify for consideration in many areas. So the need for homes in Britain is massive and growing; worst of all, it is unmet. It ranges from the young single person, whether homeless or not, to the elderly and handicapped.

Against that background, the Government have not just neglected public housing but savaged it. The Secretary of State barely shows his nose in a debate on housing and he has made it plain in conference speech and interview that he does not believe in meeting general housing needs. It is not as if he has neglected his responsibilities. It is not as if he has treated them lightly. He has actually disavowed and abdicated those responsibilities for meeting general housing needs altogether.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

While I recognise that the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment is present, would it not have been right for the Minister for Housing and Construction to come along? If he had done so it might have shown that he understands the priority of housing. His absence only confirms what my hon. Friend has said.

Mr. Fraser

I find it surprising that an hon. Member who was the Prime Minister's parliamentary private secretary who is now Minister for Housing and Construction is absent from the first general debate that we have had on that subject since he was appointed. I find that surprising, but I cannot recall ever seeing the Secretary of State for the Environment in a debate on housing. We had a number of debates on the Housing and Building Control Bill. After the riots, the former Secretary of State, who is now the Secretary of State for Defence, was shaken by what he saw in Lambeth, Liverpool and other places. Even if the Treasury had denied him the money, I believe that he was beginning upon a path of conversion. I think that he was convinced of the greater need for general housing assistance. All we can say now is that Tarzan has been replaced by Cheetah and we have a Secretary of State who does not even show his nose in a debate.

In the Secretary of State, the quality of mercy and care is not just strained, it is broken altogether. He has proclaimed the doctrine of special needs only, which means an end to public housing for those vast masses which I have described. For him the yearning masses of men, women and children who want the security and comfort of a home of their own can sink or swim in the private sector without any help or intervention from the state.

The record of the Secretary of State for the Environment is not good. It is one of muddle at the Department of Health and Social Security—sometimes nicknamed the Department of Stealth and Total Obscurity. No doubt, that is due in part to the record of the Secretary of State who, while there, reorganised the Health Service and created another 6,000 administrators. He then began on the disastrous housing benefit, which has been full of muddle and change and has caused distress to many of my constituents. Now he has come to deal with the problems of the environment, and, I suppose, to be a housing supremo. The Secretary of State would have made a good Tory Minister of Agriculture in an Irish potato famine.

I hope that the House agrees with at least three propositions: first, that housing is fundamental to the stability and happiness of the community; secondly, that there is a massive and unmet need for homes; thirdly, that the Government's duty is to provide for the shelter of their citizens.

As Humphrey Bogart might have said of the Government's record in these matters, "Of all the cuts of all the spending, they have had to pick this one." No programme of public expenditure has been the victim of Tory butchery to the same extent as housing. The Government's figures for public expenditure were published in the recent public expenditure White Paper, Cmnd. 9143. The figures I shall cite are mostly for England, because it is difficult to put together the figures for all parts of the United Kingdom. That might confuse rather than assist the House.

In 1979–80—the last year during which there was a Labour Government for part of that time — central Government expenditure on housing provision was £1,898 million. The projected figure for 1984–85 is £1,162 million. There has been a considerable drop, even if the effects of inflation are ignored. That is not a proper measure, because that expenditure must be examined in real prices. At 1978–79 prices, the real level of central Government expenditure this year on housing will be £757 million, compared with £1,898 million in 1979–80. That is a heartless and catastrophic reduction in central Government expenditure of 40 per cent. on the last year when there was a Labour Government. If bricks were being laid, for every 10 bricks laid by the Labour Government, four bricks are being laid by the Tory Government.

Since 1979–80, local authority spending has fared no better. In real terms, in 1984–85 local authority expenditure, exclusive of capital receipts, will be one third of the expenditure in the last year of a Socialist government. The present Government talk about local authority overspending, but one of the most important duties of a local authority is to provide for the housing and shelter of its citizens. After four years of Tory government, local authority spending is projected to be one third of the figure inherited in 1979–80. That shows no element of local authority spending.

By Government diktat, rents of local authority tenants between 1978–79 and last year rose by 117 per cent. in cash terms and about 50 per cent. in real terms. [Interruption.] I heard the Under-Secretary of State mutter, "Of course." Of course the Government say that the figures ignore capital receipts from the sale of council housing. The Government's policy on housing, insofar as they spend money at all, translates into domestic terms as one of selling the household furniture to pay the mortgage. That is how they finance their programmes. Even taking into account capital receipts from the sales of local authority dwellings—I ought to say the sale of the more attractive local authority houses, because the figures show that for every 541 houses sold by local authorities only one flat is disposed of — the total programme of housing expenditure by local authorities and central Government is about 43 per cent. of the total in 1979–80. Those figures are documented in a leaflet sent to Members of Parliament by the Institute of Housing. I understand that those figures have been examined in detail by the Department of the Environment. I do not believe that central Government would disagree with them. In graphic terms, it means that for every 10 bricks laid in the last year of the Labour Government, four are being laid by the present Government.

The largest cuts came in last autumn's Budget, with an effective cut of £500 million. Chris Holmes of the Campaign for the Homeless and Rootless described those cuts as "sad news", but I would be stronger than that and call it sadistic news. They were intense cuts in figures which were already down.

The Institute of Housing calculated other effects—not just on those wanting a home but on the economy generally. The institute calculated that the cuts would put another 40,000 workers on the dole, at a cost of £200 million in unemployment and other benefits. John Perry of the Royal Town Planning Institute summed up the matter in a letter to The Guardian. The cuts last autumn affected not just the public sector, local authorities or housing associations but owner-occupiers. On 23 November 1983, John Perry in a letter in The Guardian said: First, owner-occupiers will no longer get the same help through the improvement grant system, despite the fact that there is a £25 billion backlog of disrepair in the housing stock, and 55 per cent. of dwellings in bad repair are owner-occupied … Second, the cuts are a direct attack on the private sector, because nearly all the money would be spent by private contractors. He summed up by saying: We must now ask whether the Environment Secretary has any understanding or appreciation of the housing problems of this country, or whether he was given the job so he could preside over the elimination of the Government's housing budget. John, Perry was not alone in his condemnation. The headline in the Financial Times stated, Once again, housing bears the brunt": The Guardian led with an article entitled Halt called to boom in home improvements"; and other headlines read

Housing is first victim as Lawson swings his axe through budgets and Cuts in Housing 'threaten 50,000 Construction Jobs'". That is the record in financial terms. That record is in terms not just of pound notes but of housing and construction figures. In 1979–80 local authorities made 55,000 starts—I have rounded the figures and they are for England alone—and by 1983–84 the rate of starts had fallen to 28,000. The number of new houses being started by local authorities has been almost halved during this Government's period in office. In 1979–80 there were about 78,000 completions. This year, they are running at 30,000 for England—less than half the figure inherited by the Government.

That abysmal record is not compensated for by anything that has happened in the private sector or any other source, by conversions, renovations or private sector completions. Since the war, the figures for the construction of houses for sale have never been lower than during the past four years. The money raised by the Government from rents has not been spent on major repairs. Capitalised repairs effected by local authorities fell from 300,000 in 1979–80 to 200,000 in 1982–83 — the last complete year for which figures are given. I take my numbers from a parliamentary answer given to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heifer).

The Government have promised a Bill to give £200 million to those who bought defective prefabricated homes. We have not seen that Bill yet. However, for those who were too poor, too old or too sensible to buy a prefabricated home from a local authority, the scale of aid has been diminished by one third. The Government have made no promises that there will be any matching aid for many of the tenants living in the 170,000 prefabricated homes requiring major repairs or even demolition.

The increase in rents and cuts in housing expenditure have brought no relief to ratepayers whose rate support grant from central Government has been cut. The Tories love to play the ratepayer off against the tenant or the owner-occupier, but it is clear that, while the Government have been robbing the ratepayer, they have been mugging the council tenant and others.

There is one achievement about which the Government could boast and for which I give them credit: the number of grants paid to private owners and tenants—which the Opposition supported. By 1982–83 the grants paid in the private sector in England rose to 131,000, although the number of grants for repairs in the public sector fell. At least there was that bright spot, that one beacon of hope for people living in poor quality accommodation which needed improvement or modernisation. That programme has collapsed, leaving many private owners and tenants not just disappointed but in chaos and despair.

The squeeze on local government expenditure has throttled the grant system in borough after borough. The borough of Lambeth, which is Labour-controlled, has 2,000 applications for grants to be dealt with. It has had to have a moratorium, except in special cases. That does not apply just to Labour-controlled boroughs; Tory-controlled boroughs such as Croydon, Hammersmith and others throughout the country have had to call a sudden halt to applications for grant because of the way in which the Government have strangulated their expenditure as well as reducing the rate of grant next year from 90 per cent. to 75 per cent.

It is a pity that the Minister for Housing and Construction is not here, because I understood that he gave an assurance in an after-lunch speech to the National Home Improvement Council that if people applied for grant before April 1984 — even if the grant was not approved by the end of the current financial year—that grant would eventually be available to them. That assurance and the general aura created by the Government, even if they were cutting 90 per cent. improvement and repair grants, gave many owners and tenants —particularly those in the course of acquiring an older, cheaper house that needed repair—the impression that those grants would continue. The Government's action has been irresponsible. It is a cruel and crippling blow to the occupier or purchaser of the older home — the very houses that the English house condition survey highlighted as a growing problem. Those sudden changes in course, not just cruelly disappointing to the owner-occupier and the private tenant, are the worst possible way to govern housing.

The men who parade themselves as Ministers of housing are not the attainers of housing achievement. I am sure that the Under-Secretary would like to see a great deal more done. They have acted as vandals and wreckers of housing achievement. All their actions over the past four years are a sorry, shabby story.

I shall give one small but telling example of the way in which the Government have dashed the hopes of people at the lower end of the housing market—those most likely to be in need. The Government encouraged the shared ownership scheme, which I strongly support, because it provides a right to rent as well as to buy. The scheme provides flexible tenure and it was lauded by the Department of the Environment, whose publication on shared ownership went into reprint. The Department was proud of the scheme, advertised it and reprinted the publication. The Department then launched what was called DIYSO—do it yourself shared ownership. It was a scheme funded by the Housing Corporation, which has turned out to be a roaring success because it has enabled home seekers to exercise several choices. They can choose where they live, and the type of tenure and subsidies—they receive mortgage interest relief on part of their purchase and housing benefit assistance on the other part of their purchase.

I welcomed that scheme, which was a success. Then the bombshell fell, with the aid of the hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Heddle). Whenever I see him and a parliamentary question, I always think of when I had to learn the piano. One had to learn E, G, B, D, F—every good boy does favours. Every time one sees the hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire, one knows that he has done a favour to the Whips and put down a planted parliamentary question which will have an unpleasant answer. Here it is:

"Mr. Heddle asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether provision would be made for do-it-yourself shared ownership programmes in the Housing Corporation's approved development programme for 1984–85". I will not read the whole of the answer, just the last sentence: I regret that resources available for the Housing Corporation next year will not allow the scheme to be funded in 1984–85."—[Official Report, 23 February 1984; Vol. 54, c. 607.] That is only a small matter, but it is another example of how the Government have destroyed an aspect of intermediate tenure and the hopes of those at the lower end of the market, who are not going to obtain council houses. They were not going to become council tenants; they were going to help themselves, in part. Their hopes have been dashed as well.

I want to deal with some of the measures which are urgent and immediate and for which there are good economic and social reasons. I do not pretend that I will give a comprehensive list. My hon. Friends will be able to supplement it. I hope that I will not quarrel later with people who say to me, "You did not mention this or that." If one mentioned all the matters one wanted dealt with in housing, one would be here until after 5 o'clock. I shall try to give a short selection.

First and most important is the supply of housing. Anyone who more than glances at housing will agree that there is a real and massive housing shortage. The only way to satisfy the demand is to increase the supply. I am sure that Conservative Members will agree with that.

The Institute of Housing has suggested as a minimum demand that 100,000 new public sector dwellings should be provided by local authorities and housing associations. That would more than double public sector starts. I do not believe that that is an extravagance; it is a necessity. They are needed for housing and employment. A further 50,000 homes a year would provide 50,000 jobs. Shelter's report "Build Homes, Build Hope" calculated that 70 to 80 per cent. of the expenditure on those new homes would return to the Treasury in national insurance contributions, tax, the ending of dole payments and the spending power which would create further jobs and raise other taxes. The restoration of public sector housing levels to below those at which they stood in 1979–80 is a modest and minimum demand. It might even be a miserly demand. Let us at least have 100,000 new public sector dwellings a year.

Secondly, I wish to deal with the existence of a policy. The country needs a clearly stated housing policy. We hear the words "cut and thrust". I am afraid that the policy of the Department of the Environment is all cut and no thrust. We do not know what policy it has. It must produce an intelligent, long-term strategy and take up the recommendations of the Select Committee on the Environment to assess the long-term needs of housing in terms of new buildings, repair and renovation. We have had reviews of defence —I was going to say "reviews of the Health Service", but that is not a very good example, so perhaps I should ignore it—and other matters. At the moment the Secretary of State is stabbing — I suppose I had better say "cutting"—in the dark in the way that he is running a so-called housing programme.

The Secretary of State should stop talking rubbish about building only for special needs. If he goes on speaking in that way he will be considered to have as many qualifications to be a housing supremo as Jack the Ripper had to be a member of a male escort agency.

At briefings and talks with local authorities the right hon. Gentleman has continually said that general needs housing will end. There is no evidence to support that proposition. No research or inquiry has been carried out into the general Government response to the undoubted needs shown up in the house condition survey. We need an intelligently argued housing strategy for the longer term.

The problem is that housing policy is made not in the Department of the Environment but at the Treasury. The real housing Minister is the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and if the Under-Secretary disputes that perhaps he will say whether, when the Treasury decided to change the method of taxing building societies —by taxing their investments in gilt-edged securities—he, the Minister of housing or the Secretary of State for the Environment were consulted on a matter that would add to the cost of buying a home. If Ministers were not consulted, that proves my proposition that the Treasury, not the Department of the Environment, is running this affair.

There have been well-authenticated leaks from the Treasury that VAT is to be put on house alterations and improvements. My view is that VAT should be removed — it would be a slight compensation for the cuts in improvement grants — from house improvements and repairs. We understand that the Chancellor is considering putting VAT on construction and alterations. Were the Under-Secretary and his Department consulted about the proposal, which we are likely to see in a few days in the Budget?

We also need local strategies for housing. It is no good having a strategy for housing in Lambeth but no such strategy in, say, Wandsworth, Richmond and Twickenham. In other words, the strategy must cover all the conurbations and it must not be a fragmented policy.

Having said a good deal about improvements and repairs, I must add that the Government should immediately reverse, or at least moderate, the abrupt end to the repair and improvement schemes in many parts of the country. Private tenants and owner-occupiers have been subjected to a cruel deception and they face great personal distress and embarrassment as a result of the Government breaking their word over grants.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir George Young)

The hon. Gentleman says that the Government have broken their word. What slightest evidence does he have for that statement?

Mr. Fraser

The evidence of people who were present when the Minister for Housing and Construction spoke after lunch to the National Home Improvement Council.

Sir George Young

Was the hon. Gentleman there?

Mr. Fraser

No, so I must rely on the evidence of people who were there.

Sir George Young


Mr. Fraser

In addition, the impression was given in the Supply day debate which the Opposition used to discuss the abrupt ending of the improvement scheme that those who made application for improvement grants before April 1984 would have their grants approved. Only later, in answer to parliamentary questions, did the Government begin backtracking.

Does the Under-Secretary not agree that great distress and personal embarrassment have been caused to people who, in the course of buying a home and believing that they would have the opportunity to apply for grant, have had that opportunity cut off? That abrupt cut—indeed, it is a moratorium on grants in many parts of the country—must be reversed, because it is hitting the poorest owner-occupiers, and we in this House should be looking after them in addition to council tenants. Part 2 of the English house condition survey, referring to unsatisfactory housing, states: They were more likely to be headed by an elderly person, to be single or a couple living alone, to be on a low income or not to be in full time employment and/or to be relatively long term residents. They are the people who have been hit by this abrupt change, and the decision must be reversed.

When I refer to the plight of single people, I do not mean just the homeless but all single people. The Government, in conjunction with local authorities and housing associations, must encourage a more imaginative use of the housing stock to provide for the needs of single people on housing waiting lists. It is not simply that single people should have rights to housing which many of them do not have at present. They should have the right not only to be on housing lists but to be rehoused. If we are to have a reasonably balanced community, especially in inner city areas, we must provide for that part of our community as well.

There have been some imaginative schemes, some of them in my constituency, such as schemes to make hard-to-let accommodation available to single people, or, in the case of two or three-bedroomed flats, to groups of single people. Such schemes have been successful. Indeed, the result of letting hard-to-let accommodation to single people is that the accommodation becomes less hard to let. More imagination must be shown in considering the whole question of housing single people because they are subject to some of the greatest exploitation in the private housing market. It can be done — it must be done without harming the interests of other groups — and a more imaginative use could be made of our housing stock for single people.

The Government must tackle with urgency the problem of irreparable system-built housing. If the Government can write off hundreds of millions of pounds worth of debt for British Airways so as to give it away to their friends in the private sector, they should equally write off hundreds of millions of debt for system-built housing which needs to be demolished and reconstructed.

It is too big a problem for some hard-hit local authorities to tackle on their own. It applies to Tory and Labour authorities. The way to do it would be to write off the debt and make a fresh start, as has happened with other publicly inspired disasters. Much of our system building —I do not say the majority, but a large part of it—has been a disaster, and another instalment is due soon, when local authorities report on the condition of post-1960 system-built houses. The Government should have a special programme to assist local authorities in this matter.

I come to the right to rent and the right to choose. It must be recognised that the right to a home is not coterminous with the right to buy, which, incidentally, has involved the loss of £3 billion of public assets in discounts. There should not be just a right to buy in those localities where there is no shortage of homes to rent. There should also be a right to rent; and not just a right to rent but a right to change from renting to buying and from buying to renting. In other words, there should be a right to choose and a right to change. That ability would help many elderly owner-occupiers who face considerable problems in maintaining their homes when all their capital is tied up in the property.

To a small degree the Government's do-it-yourself home ownership scheme gave that right to choose, but that imaginative venture has been swept away. I have no doubt that a right-to-buy scheme should apply to long-standing tenants in privately rented accommodation, where standards are lower and where, if the occupier wishes to own and improve his home, he should be given that opportunity.

As a first step towards eradicating the inequities which riddle our system of housing finance, we should guarantee roughly an equal level of support to those who buy and those who rent. The system is riddled with inequity at present. In 1979–80, mortgage tax relief in the United Kingdom was £1,450 million. By the current year for the United Kingdom as a whole it is up to £2,750 million, but for England alone the total of mortgage interest relief is £2,240 million.

In the same period, the general housing subsidy to tenants of local authority accommodation in England droped to a miserly £370 million. Therefore, for every £6 given in England to the owner-occupied sector, £1 is given in general Government assistance to those in the local authority rented sector. Yet the figures from the Department of Health and Social Security show that about 60 per cent. of local authority tenants are impoverished and have to rely on housing benefit.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

Has my hon. Friend seen last November's astonishing figures, which reveal the Government's priorities? The average subsidy of tax relief per mortgagor was £400, and had gone up by 20 per cent. over the year, yet at the same time the Government cut £230 million from housing benefit.

Mr. Fraser

Indeed: However, it is worse than that, because about £60 million of that advantage goes to those whose rate of tax is higher than 30 per cent. It is Robin Hood in reverse—it is robbing the poor to pay the rich. That is a consistent theme of the Government's economic policy.

I do not in any way begrudge the general level of support for owner-occupiers. It should be continued, sustained and concentrated on those who have the greatest difficulty in the owner-occupied market, such as first-time buyers and people in the lower income groups. At the moment the policy is regressive. The greater one's income and rate of tax, the greater the subsidy. The total should not be diminished, but it should be balanced more in favour of those who want to get into owner-occupation and find it difficult to make a start. That is why I deplore so much the ending of the do-it-yourself home ownership scheme, to which I referred. In equity, there should be a rough balance between the amount provided for the rented sector and the amount provided for the owner-occupied sector.

Things are bad enough, but there is a need to avert the major housing crisis that is round the corner. I am not sure whether it will be in 1984–85 or 1985–86. More well-informed commentators are beginning to forecast a major public housing crisis. There is a possibility of a sudden moratorium on local authority construction, with all the dreadful and costly consequences for the construction industry and the customers — the ordinary people wanting a home.

The reason for the impending crisis is that the Government are relying more on money raised from the sale of council houses. Last year they took 40 per cent. of the proceeds of the sale of council houses, which produced altogether £1.7 billion. In the next financial year the Government will give less assistance and take 60 per cent. of the proceeds. Many people forecast that the following year they will want to take about 75 per cent. of the proceeds. In other words, the Government are funding their expenditure by selling the furniture, as it were.

At the same time, as the more attractive houses have been sold under the Government's right-to-buy provisions, the sale of other council dwellings has diminished. I reckon that in two or three year's time, given the level of income of local authority tenants and the fact that more attractive houses as opposed to flats have been sold, the money from the sale of council houses will diminish to a trickle. That means that the Government will have 75 per cent. of a trickle to finance their house construction programme. That will result in a public housing crisis of major proportions, and it must be averted.

I shall be doing two advice bureaux tonight, as I do most Friday evenings. Half the cases will be housing cases. It is impossible to describe the despair, distress, frustration and waste of human lives after people have lived for years in unsafe, unsatisfactory, insecure or overcrowded accommodation. Neither I nor any of my hon. Friends will relent until there is equal opportunity in housing, and until the right to a home has become a reality. I wish that that conviction were shared by the Government. They have the resources, and the power to command those resources. They could employ the financial and human assets that we have to solve our housing problem. The tragedy is that they not only refuse to do so but have set their face against major public intervention. That intervention and the drive to make the right to a home a reality are necessary and inevitable, and will come perhaps sooner than we think. When there is a Labour Government, we shall turn that into a reality. It is what my hon. Friends and I will fight for.

10.25 am
Mr. Jerry Hayes (Harlow)

Despite the shock to the system of being called second in any debate, I am deeply grateful to the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) for sharing with Conservative Members the Disneyland of Labour party housing policies. It was fascinating to sit back and listen to the promises made in opposition. It was also fascinating to hear his speech, in which, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, the platitudes, clichés and mixed metaphors — The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) is leaving the Chamber. I am sorry if I have upset him, but he might appreciate later parts of my speech. In the speech by the hon. Member for Norwood, the platitudes flowed almost as fast as the Federation bitter in the bar. He told us very little. The selective amnesia of Opposition Members when they refer to housing policy under the Labour Government is interesting.

The Chamber will be awash with crocodile tears before the debate is finished, but I wonder whether Opposition Members are in touch with reality and the aspirations of ordinary people. The vast majority have made it clear, not just at the general election, but in opinion poll after opinion poll, that they wish to buy their own homes. The Government are not only pledged to that, but are carrying out that pledge. That is why people in my constituency and all over the country welcome the new and improved Housing and Building Control Bill. The 250,000 people who, as a result of the qualifying period being reduced from three years to two years, will be able to buy their own homes particularly welcome that. Those who have lived in council houses for over 30 years will welcome the 60 per cent. discount. It is sad that many people are being cheated of that discount by Labour-controlled local authorities. It is also sad that the Government have had to intervene.

The hon. Gentleman referred mainly to the public sector, but, no doubt for party political reasons, he overlooked the private sector. No doubt my hon. Friend the Minister will deal with the matter more fully than I shall. The hon. Gentleman should remember that the Government have adopted a radical policy to encourage building in the private sector. In the past year alone there has been a 20 per cent. increase in private housing starts. That must be welcomed by hon. Members in all parts of the House because it helps ordinary people who are desperately trying to get a home, let alone their own home.

What must be welcomed in the new Housing and Building Control Bill presently going through mother place—

Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)

There is a decline in standards.

Mr. Hayes

It depends on how one looks at it. We live in a democracy, and it is only right and proper that people in other places should look carefully at the Government's proposals.

I draw the attention of the hon. Member for Norwood to the latest proposal for part buying and part renting. This will give a new horizon to many young people who are desperately wanting to set up their own homes. I hope that Opposition Members will at least concede that that i s a welcome initiative by the Government.

Another matter which the hon. Member for Norwood conveniently overlooked—and I can understand why—is improvement grants. Again there have been the crocodile tears because the grant has been decreased from 90 to 75 per cent. It was made clear by Ministers that this was to be a temporary scheme. So successful was it that it was extended for a year, which is to be welcomed. What the hon. Gentleman does not tell us, because he knows that all hon. Members know it, is that the Labour party's record in this respect is abysmal. Grants under the last Labour Government were running at abour 50 per cent. We increased the grants to 90 per cent., and it is now running along happily at 75 per cent.

The effect of that on the house market and on housing stock is very beneficial. I shall give one or two examples. In the period 1975 to 1978, in the private sector, grants totalled 67,000, whereas this year alone there will be over 200,000 grants. In the public sector, local authorities have been encouraged to do repairs. In 1978 the number of grants was 157,000 and it is increasing rapidly this year, which must be welcomed.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about the decline in the building industry. I accept that there has been a decline, but the hon. Gentleman should look at the report of an inquiry carried out by the Housebuilders Federation in October 1983. It states: Builders remain optimistic about the prospects for the new year with 57 per cent. expecting to increase their level of starts over the next 12 months, and a further 34 per cent. expecting to maintain their present level. That must be welcomed.

Another matter which the hon. Gentleman conveniently overlooked is the encouragement that the Government are giving to housing starts for the disabled and the elderly. That must be welcomed by all hon. Members.

Mr. Laurie Pavitt (Brent, South)

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman refers to the Health and Social Services Bill, in particular clause 4, to see the effect of that Bill on housing for the disabled.

Mr. Hayes

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He will have to give me a little more detail. I was specifically referring to the Government's encouragement to housing starts for special accommodation for the elderly and the disabled. It is my understanding that, so far this year, over 6,200 starts have been approved. I submit that that should be welcomed by all hon. Members.

I wish next to deal briefly with a matter which I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will consider very carefully—the mobility of housing. I know that provision for this is made in the new Housing and Building Control Bill. Although some hon. Members hate to admit it, there is an economic upturn in the country. More and more jobs are becoming available, but people must have the opportunity to exchange houses in different towns. It is difficult to do this at present, and I hope that the Minister will give the House some good news in this respect.

What the hon. Member for Norwood said is correct. It must be right and proper for people to have the opportunity to have their own homes—secure, decent and fit homes. That is why it is only right and proper that, under the new Housing and Building Control Bill, people have the right at least to do their own repairs. In my constituency alone there is an enormous backlog of repairs, and this is not the fault of the council. Some of the new towns were built in the 1960s, and gold medals were awarded for the houses, but they are now becoming the slums of the 1980s. Parliament has a duty to act on that issue.

We all welcome the fact that the rented sector of the private property market has been opened up. That is to the benefit of everybody, as is the relaxation of the Rent Act 1974, but, make no mistake, there are some appalling abuses. The Government must investigate the scandal—almost a national scandal—of certain landlords abusing holiday lets, and also the principle of licensing. I respectfully ask my hon. Friend the Minister to look into that matter.

I accept much of what the hon. Member for Norwood said. The Government must, of course, be the first to accept that people ought to have a home, and have the right to buy a home. However, we must not forget that an alarmingly large number of people remain homeless, and we have an obligation to them. There will always be a need for some form of municipal housing, and it would be wrong and irresponsible to forget that.

10.35 am
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) on initiating this important debate. It is right and proper that parliamentary time should be devoted to housing.

It would be appropriate, as I remarked in my earlier intervention, for the Minister for Housing and Construction to be in his place. The House has received no apology from the Minister. If he considered his responsibilities in the same way as other Ministers have for many years considered theirs, one would expect him to be in his place for the debate, or to apologise for his absence.

There is a housing crisis which, on the basis of present policies, can only get worse. A large and increasing number of people are unable to be satisfactorily housed. The amount of new public sector rented accommodation continues at an all-time low. Substantial cuts in public housing expenditure mean that large numbers of pre-war council dwellings will remain unmodernised for many years to come, and far too many building workers remain on the dole. For the first time—and this fact should not be overlooked — apart from the war years, the rented sector has been substantially reduced as a result of deliberate Government policy.

Local authorities are forced to sell off their housing. As the Labour party has said, and as was observed by the Select Committee on the Environment, on which I served in the last Parliament, the housing stock which has been sold off, and which will doubtless continue to be sold off, is the best. There is no long queue of tenants waiting to buy flats on the eleventh, twelfth, fourteenth or fifteenth floors of multi-storey blocks. However, no new accommodation on anything like the same scale is being built to replace the stock that is being sold off. In the borough of Walsall, no contracts for new council housing have been entered into since 1979, despite a formidable housing waiting list.

Private tenants, however, are denied the right to buy in law. That is an interesting point. We are told constantly by Ministers—and no doubt will be told again—that there is a fundamental right for tenants to buy their homes. Why does that not apply to private tenants? In many cases, they are living in far worse conditions than council tenants. The reason they are not given the right to buy is simple. Whereas the Government could not care less about public assets, and are prepared to sell them at a large discount, they will do nothing to offend the property companies. They will not allow private tenants the same rights as council tenants.

The hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Hayes) commented on the actions of some unscrupulous landlords. He knows that I have received a letter from a group of residents in his constituency complaining about the way in which the Berger property group operates. I have raised the matter on the Floor of the House and I have complained to the Minister both orally and in writing. The conditions suffered by Berger tenants constitute a scandal, yet the Government say that they cannot act because they do not have the power. If the same accusation was made, however, against a local authority—especially a Labour-controlled authority—the Government would act quickly enough. That is the ambivalence of the Government's attitude towards public and private rented accommodation—and, indeed, towards the public and private sectors in other areas.

Council tenants are being punished. During the past four years there have been exorbitant rent increases, which cannot possibly be justified. The Government often make the excuse that many council tenants receive rebates, but many of them nevertheless pay an increased rent. Council rents have increased at double the rate of increase in the retail price index. That is the way in which the Government penalise those tenants who do not wish to buy their homes.

Another way in which tenants are being penalised is through the great difficulty they face in being rehoused. For example, a man, his wife and one or two children living in a multi-storey block of flats may find it increasingly difficult to be rehoused in a council house with a garden. Surely that is not too much to ask. They tell me how long they have been waiting to be rehoused, but when I contact the local authority it makes the point that there is a limit on what it can do, because of available accommodation.

If no new council accommodation is being built, as is happening in my borough, and if the best of the housing stock is being sold, obviously the chances of such families being rehoused in the type of accommodation in which so many of us want to live become increasingly remote. Does the Minister really understand and appreciate the difficulties of such families?

The hon. Member for Harlow, when referring to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood, said, "Promises, promises". So let us consider the amount of accommodation built during the last four years of the Labour Government. Like many of my hon. Friends, I wish that we had done more. I am not suggesting that all was perfect. I accept that there were cuts, that not enough council house building took place. But let us compare like with like. From June 1975 to May 1979, 549,300 council dwellings were started. Between June 1979 and May 1983, the figure was 218,900 — a fall of 60 per cent. Therefore, the Opposition can stand on their record on council house building. We also protected private tenants against exploitation.

Mr. Hayes

I accept some of what the hon. Getleman says about the public sector. But does he accept that under the last Labour Government there was an enormous decline—if not a slump—in private sector building?

Mr. Winnick

We did not reach the level of decline that has been reached under this Government. Housing has taken the brunt of the cuts in public expenditure since the Government took office. From the first few weeks, housing was subjected to the most severe cuts.

We sometimes hear another argument from the Government. The previous Secretary of State for the Environment, when giving evidence to the Select Committee, said that he had looked around Liverpool and noted the poor quality of council accommodation. I do not deny that. I accept that a great deal of the accommodation is of poor quality. Certain facts, however, must be borne in mind — for example, the manner in which such accommodation was provided and the type of accommodation it replaced, such as the slums owned by private landlords. Surely the answer is to improve the quality of council dwellings, not to allow a continuous decline in the amount of that accommodation.

I do not know how seriously Ministers and Conservative Back Benchers believe their propaganda when they accuse us of being anti owner-occupation. It is such a farcical argument, we wonder whether it is worth a reply.

Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South)

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would deny the accusation.

Mr. Winnick

Yes, I do strongly deny it. We have never been against owner-occupation. It would be hypocrisy for those of us who are owner-occupiers to deny our fellow citizens the right also to be owner-occupiers. The Labour party has never had a wish to reduce owner-occupation.

The best proof of that is the fact that in the 1960s the Labour Government introduced the option mortgage scheme. That provided the opportunity for those who otherwise could not have become owner-occupiers to take the first step. So before the Minister glibly accuses us of being anti owner-occupation, he might remember that fact. If we had wanted to reduce the opportunities for people to own their homes, why did a Labour Government introduce that scheme? There was no pressure for it from the Tory party. We believed such a move to be right and proper. We have taken other measures to help people become owner-occupiers. We maintain, however that it is wrong to force local authorities, regardless of circumstances, to sell their housing stock. It may be said that such a line is unpopular, but we have adopted other initially unpopular lines. For example, we argued against racial discrimination and said that there should be laws to prevent it. I do not suppose that that was highly popular at that time but we took a principled stand, just as today we take a principled stand about the need to ensure that there is adequate rented accommodation for those who need it. We make no apology for the line that we adopt.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood said, there is a great need for a substantial public sector housing drive, but improvement and repair work is also needed and it is important that it should be properly carried out. In my borough the latest figures show that there are some 5,400 pre-war properties in the public sector that require full modernisation, and a further 11,875 that require major expenditure on them. There are other dwellings that require work to be done on dampness, rotten window frames, defective plaster work or roofing problems. Unless that work is carried out shortly, more money will have to be spent on them. However, because of the way in which the HIP allocation has been reduced since the Conservative party came to office, my local authority can carry out only a fraction of the essential work that needs to be done.

I shall quote from a letter that I received from the town clerk of my borough council. I sent it on to the Minister. It arose from a meeting of the housing committee, which is not Labour-controlled. I am sure that my Front Bench colleagues will be interested to hear that the town clerk said: The 1984/85 HIP bid submitted by the Council amounted to £36,850,000 and was based upon the objective of dealing with the numerous housing deficiencies in the Borough and was, in the opinion of the Director of Housing, capable of practical implementation. The amount allocated to the Council is £10,185,000."— for the next financial year— and although this allocation is a modest increase on the 1983/84 allocation, allowing for inflation in real terms it represents a lower amount than was allocated for 1983/84. The Committee consider that the allocation falls far short of the sum required to enable the Committee to produce a realistic housing programme in both the public and private sectors and it will affect the ability of the Council to continue to modernise and repair the existing sub-standard public housing stock within a realistic time period. I sent that letter to the Minister, as it was only right to do. However, the response that I received was hardly encouraging.

Thus, I have cited the opinion of my local authority, which knows the modernisation and repair work that needs to be done, although it cannot build any new council dwellings. It wants to carry out its functions as other housing authorities do, but it cannot because the money is not available. No doubt the remarks of Walsall council are true of many other local authorities in the west midlands and elswhere.

Sir George Young

The hon. Gentleman said that the reply that he received was not very encouraging. Would he like to read it out?

Mr. Winnick

I could take up the time of the House by reading it out. I have it with me, but I shall not read all of it. The Minister wrote: Within their total allocation it is, of course, up to the local authority how the money available is to be spent. In outlining their proposals for 1984/85 Walsall have placed great emphasis on renovation of their existing housing stock, in particular their Block Improvement Scheme, the success of which they are seeking to continue. The Government also remains committed to the repair and improvement of existing houses and expenditure". The Government may be committed, but that only underlines my point that my local authority believes that it has not got the means to carry out the modernisation and repair work that is so essential.

The letter sent to me by the local authority was not sent for fun or to make party political propaganda out of the situation. The letter arose from a realistic understanding of what needs to be done. Of course, I could read out the whole of the Minister's reply, but the part that I read illustrates only too well this Government's attitude towards the formidable difficulties facing local authorities such as mine.

I do not believe that there is any possibility of a revival in the privately rented sector. We have not heard much about that from Conservative Members, but perhaps we shall hear something later. The schemes introduced by the Government have not amounted to much. I believe that there is no way in which the privately rented sector will revive. All the signs are that it will continue to decline. My view, which is no doubt shared by a good number of my right hon. and hon. Friends, is that it would be better for many of the privately rented dwellings either to be sold off to the tenants, or to be taken over by the local authority or by genuine housing associations. That form of social ownership is more likely to ensure that such accommodation remains in the rented sector.

There is cause for concern about the way in which, as a result of the housing crisis, some landlords are making unscrupulous profits out of bed and breakfast accommodation. On 21 February, The Standard carried the headline Making Fortunes out of Misery. It reported that Camden council estimated that it would spend £6 million in the next two years on providing temporary bed and breakfast accommodation for its homeless. The chairman of Camden's social services committee is reported as saying: It would be cheaper for us to house homeless families in top class hotels in London. The report goes on to refer to the way in which some landlords are taking the opportunity to squeeze the maximum amount of money possible out of such so-called bed and breakfast accommodation.

Again, that illustrates the acute housing problems that exist. Why is there a need for bed and breakfast accommodation? The explanation is simple and comes down to what my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood and I have been saying today—that local authorities are not in a position to build on anywhere near the scale necessary to provide the accommodation for those in need.

Ordinary people need, above all, two things: a job, and somewhere decent to live, whether it is their own place, owner-occupied or adequate rented accommodation. However, the Government have substantially undermined the possibility of people having such jobs or decent accommodation. Too many people are in the dole queue. Far too many families live in the worst possible conditions, because their local authorities are unable, because of Government policy, to provide the accommodation required. Instead of doing the job that they should be doing, far too many building workers are forced to spend their lives in the dole queue drawing unemployment pay and supplementary benefit, when they could be earning their livings, and when that public expenditure could be providing the accommodation that so many people need. Until Government policy is reversed, the situation will only worsen.

The plea that we make today from these Benches is that the Government should at least modify, if not change, their housing policy. They should allow local authorities to build again according to the number of dwellings needed, and should allow them the finance to modernise and repair the dwellings in their existing housing stocks. That is the cry that we make today from the Labour Benches.

11 am

Mr. Richard Ryder (Mid-Norfolk)

In its 1983 general election manifesto the Conservative party stated: Britain needs more homes to rent, too, in the private sector as well as the public sector … But our assured tenancy scheme has encouraged builders to start building new homes to rent again, and our shorthold scheme is helping the private sector to meet the needs of those who want short-term rented accommodation. That passage was widely welcomed by those intent on arresting the shortage of accommodation and extending the provision of housing throughout the country.

Despite an evident demand for rented accommodation, the sector sank to the point of crisis years ago. In 1945 the private sector accounted for 45 per cent. of the total housing stock. By 1970 it was down to 20 per cent., and in 1980 it was a mere 13 per cent.

Rent control was introduced in 1915 as an emergency wartime measure. It was an understandable piece of legislation, for price control and rationing are suitable measures in wartime. Virtually every western nation introduced rent control as a wartime measure, but that control yielded pots of gold for successive generations of politicians after the first world war. They took dubious credit for keeping rents down while landlords, without political muscle and tired of subsidising others, gradually sold off properties, especially in the inner cities, where severe controls contributed to decay.

Even a Select Committee stated not long ago that rent control was a major element in creating housing shortage. Rent, which denies a competitive return with alternative investments, discourages lettings and suffocates the supply of accommodation in the rented sector. The problem is compounded when, as happens frequently, rents tail costs and bear scant relation to market prices. Houses then fall into disrepair and supply shrinkage inevitably occurs, which not only makes a mockery of existing legislation but congeals labour mobility.

If rents are fixed below the market price and the size of the rented sector declines, the freedom of choice of those wanting to move to new jobs is at best limited, and at worst stifled altogether. This applies most of all to young people. At a time of high unemployment, it is inexcusable to allow the rented sector to collapse without examining the reasons and recognising the consequences.

Mr. Pavitt

I remind the hon. Gentleman that rent control was removed by a Tory Minister, Henry Brooke, in 1957. The result was the Rachman rip-off, which took place in the inner cities. Every Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1957 onwards increased the amount of benefit to landlords in the hope that they would carry out repairs. It was not until 1964 that a Labour Government were able to force them to do that.

Mr. Ryder

It is a myth that Rachmanism was caused by lack of rent control. It was in part caused by rent control itself.

Two years ago, during a debate on housing in the other place, all 11 speakers agreed about the human misery inflicted on young people by the difficulty of finding rented accommodation. Their concern was summed up by Lord Robbins from the Cross Benches. He declared: Rent control is essentially the fixing of maximum rents below the level which would prevail in a free market. Thus it affords an incentive to an excess of demand and a disincentive to spontaneous response of supply. This has occurred whenever and wherever it has been introduced." — [Official Report, House of Lords, 23 June 1982; Vol. 431, c. 1046.] What is the answer to the Government's predicament? Several options have been shaken and stirred during the past few years. Yet by far the most attractive option is to place no restrictions on new lettings. It is that option, the most realistic and workable, which I urge the Government. to seize. Rent control has prolonged shortages, limited choice, caused housing delay, thwarted the construction industry and congealed labour mobility. That is why the Government must act, and do so without undue delay.

11.5 am

Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)

I do not intend to take up the remarks of the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Ryder), other than to say that the private rented sector started to decline long before the first world war. It became increasingly uneconomic to rent if the landlord was to keep up the standards that were required by the public health authority, unless he held a number of properties or charged exorbitant rents which people could not afford. That underlying decline has continued since about 1907. To pretend that the decline is due to the Rent Acts is nonsensical, and has always been so.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) on the real emphasis that he gave to the unmet housing need. He was right to emphasise that. It is a problem that we see in considerable measure in the inner cities, although it is not confined to those areas. We sometimes forget the rural aspects of housing poverty. However, the problems in the inner cities are severe. In Hammersmith, for example, 16 per cent. of properties are unfit and another 38 per cent. in the private sector are in serious disrepair and need about £165 million to be spent on them.

The decline is continuing and the Hammersmith council, along with many other local authorities, is unable to keep pace with it. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwood was right when he said that there was a housing crisis around the corner. I could criticise that statement only by saying that the crisis is already with us. That fact is emphasised to us every time we hold our advice surgeries.

There is an important need to have long-term planning for housing. Housing authorities, whether local authorities or housing associations, have been bedevilled by policy changes from time to time and cuts in expenditure which have resulted in their having to change their policies at short notice, with all the disadvantages that that can bring.

The Government's response to housing expenditure in the public sector is to say, "We cannot afford it. It is public expenditure and public expenditure is bad." The assumption that usually underlines that response is that public expenditure is inflationary. It is not necessarily inflationary, because there is no direct link between public expenditure and inflation. Certain types of expenditure, both public and private, might lead to inflation, but to dismiss public expenditure as inflationary is nonsense. Other countries which devote a greater percentage of their gross domestic product to the public sector have pretty impressive inflation records.

The Government have increased public expenditure as a percentage of the gross domestic product. They have done that by cutting the wealth of the nation and reducing the GDP. In doing so, they have more than doubled unemployment. They have increased public expenditure overall in percentage terms. There is no evidence to suggest that public expenditure, used wisely and properly, is inflationary.

A good example is to be found in the building and construction industry, where about half a million workers are unemployed. I do not think that four or five years ago any of us would have dreamt that that was possible. It is a central part of the Opposition's argument that a major investment programme in housing— repair, renovation and building—is essential to meet housing need and to regenerate the economy. One of the advantages of an expansion of the construction industry is that it does not suck in imports. There is not the problem of import penetration that stems from giving benefits to the higher paid in the form of income tax reductions, who then spend on imports.

The impact of housing on the structure of society is extremely important, as my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood said. Housing and a job are the most important things in a person's life, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) said. Housing affects people in many and varied ways. Not only the number of houses, but the quality of houses is important. Housing affects a person's ability to move to look for work.

People must have a sufficient number of rooms in which to bring up a family, and to allow children to study properly. Children should have a garden to play in. I emphasise the importance of a garden, because some years ago a Labour local authority in London decided that it was wrong to put families with young children in high-rise flats. The impact socially is dramatic. A mother with young children living in a high-rise flat either has to keep the children indoors all day, with all the tensions that that involves, or let them play outside without adult supervision. That has many implications such as a decline in social behaviour and an increase in vandalism. We should make a major effort to take all families with young children out of high-rise flats.

The ability to move to the area of one's choice is also important. When I was elected in 1979, I could say to people at my advice surgery who wanted a transfer within the area that there was a possibility of staying in west London because GLC activity made it possible to rehouse them there. That is no longer possible. People must move to north-east or south London to have a real chance of transfer. That often means that they lose their jobs.

I know of a number of people who have been told by their local authority that they must choose between their job and a housing transfer, because they cannot have both. Particular problems are caused when a person works late at night and cannot return to a house or flat on the other side of London.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwood was right to say that we must help people to rent as well as to buy the property of their choice. There is no reason why a person, born and brought up in west London, should not be able to stay there in decent housing. There is no reason either why a person should not have the right to retire to the coast. Just because a person has rented all his life in the public or private sector, it does not mean that he should be denied the right to move which is enjoyed by owner-occupiers, who receive so many subsidies. We should aim at that in our long-term plan to improve housing.

I shall concentrate on renovation and grants in my area. Hammersmith and Fulham council is Tory-controlled, with the support of two Liberals. I have been asked by the council to urge the Government to do something about housing renovation and grants. The Minister knows that, because he recently wrote to me about it.

What is the problem? I have received many letters—probably 50 or 60 — from my constituents. One letter was from a lady in Agate road, who said on 27 February: I am writing to ask for help. We were down for a grant for our house which is in need of repairs. 2 weeks ago we got a letter from the housing department, saying that they had run out of money and could not help us. We have a mortgage through a Building Society and have a £2,000 retention order to do certain jobs, at the moment the gas board has cut off our Ascot and we have to boil all the water we need by kettle. Furthermore, just as we are trying to get enough money to do the water system, we get the surveyor's bill for over £650. I'm a registered disabled person, and on part time, it would be most appreciated if the housing department can pay part of the above bill. I received another letter from a lady who lives in St. James street, Hammersmith. She said: I wish to put to you some facts that I find very disturbing. I have owned since 1967, a small dilapidated terraced house, which I have always maintained at my own expense. My income is small—£65 approximately a week after tax, and I still have two non-contributing children at home. In recent years the public has been encouraged to ask for government help to keep such homes as ours in good repair. That is important in the context of this debate, because successive Governments, particularly Labour Governments, have tried to encourage house repair and renovation.

My constituent added: Therefore, since my income is quite inadequate to pay for the extremely high present day building costs, and my house has become in great need of repair, i.e., the sagging roof is leaking again, the internal walls are damp, some window frames are rotting—all this pointed out by local government surveyor—I decided to ask for a grant to mend the roof. The first surveyor from Hammersmith grants department agreed to give a grant provided I did a great deal of other work, to bring the house to the standard required. Costs escalated. A solution was agreed to verbally by Mr. Mawger. It is important to remember that to receive a grant people have to employ an architect if they are not to get into difficulties later. Councils encourage that, so people have to incur costs before they can receive the grant.

The letter continues: There were delays and problems. The work was going to necessitate us vacating the house for six months, with no alternative accommodation. Plans were submitted, and formal application for grant was made in September. The architects and myself were assured at all times there would be no problem of the offer being withdrawn. In the meantime, while waiting for planning permission, I was served with a dangerous structure notice — November 1983. The building department agreed to wait until the grant was available. However, on 4th January 1984, another notice was sent, saying that my grant has been withdrawn. [As a result of government policies?] Do you agree that I am justifiably very upset that the council should go back on an agreement that I was counting on, and that the architects are already hinting at the expenses they have already incurred? The lady asked me to do what I could to help.

Another lady, writing from Eynham road, says: I am writing to express my deep concern at hearing that my application for a repairs grant to my property has been cancelled. She says that she had the assistance of architects and planners and that a housing official informed her by telephone that the grant had been blocked. She went on to say: I have lived for four months with rain coming through my skylight, increasing damp on the dining room ceiling, a hole in my bedroom ceiling, and no doubt other (as yet unseen) damage, in anticipation of this grant. I have no option now but to try and get an extension of my mortgage since it would be irresponsible of me to let the condition of the property deteriorate any more. But I am not the only person affected. The property is a maisonette and has a lease which states that the costs for upkeep, repairs etc., of the exterior must be shared between myself and the occupant of the other (in this case ground floor) flat. The person concerned … is a pensioner and a widow for whom the prospect of having to pay half the costs of the roof repair is a bombshell, and undoubtedly a major problem. Apart from this I have had considerable embarrassment informing her of this prospect—taking into account her age of 70 years. My constituent asks me to look into her problem.

A letter was sent to that constituent by the Conservative leader of the Hammersmith council, Kim Howe. It is a short letter, which simply says that he is concerned to hear about her position and is deeply sympathetic. I am sure that he is genuine when he says that. He continues: As you will probably have seen in the press, the Government has had to reduce the money available to this and other Councils for these sort of grants and a number of other people have had to be disappointed as well. The Conservatives have been in control of the council for some time.

The Conservative chairman of the housing committee, Councillor Clark, came to me a couple of weeks ago with the director of housing and the assistant director in overall charge of the private sector. They said that they were extremely concerned about the way that the policy was hitting so many people. Like me, they were getting many letters of protest, and they pointed out the very real problems of an inner city area such as Hammersmith, which has some of the worst housing in the country.

The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk should remember that until recently Hammersmith had more privately rented accomodation than almost any other borough, most of it in appalling repair. It demonstrates what went wrong in the private sector.

The director of housing points out to me that the council reluctantly had to cease entertaining discretionary improvement, repair and special grants in September last year because of the unprecedented number of applications and the massive predicted commitments into 1984–85. The figure on 30 September was £4.2 million.

Again, it should be remembered that this policy was encouraged by the Government. In my view, basically it was a good policy in that it encouraged repair and renovation. There is not enormous scope for new building in areas such as Hammersmith. It is essential to emphasise repair and renovation.

I do not happen to like the policy of the Conservative and Liberal council in Hammersmith, but I recognise that in the circumstances it had to consider other possibilities. The council thought that if it entered into further commitments at the expense of other equally high priority aspects of the housing capital programme, it would be in difficulty. Nevertheless, it decided to allocate 30.3 per cent. of the total capital programme for renovation grants. However, because of the cuts, it has had to refuse several hundred applications, many of which are for seriously substandard housing of the type that I described earlier. If the council had entertained them, the housing director tells me that it would have meant a further massive commitment of about £3 million into 1984–85 alone.

The other major difference with grants compared with other aspects of the housing programme is the difficulty of predicting outturn. I think that the Minister was confused about it when he replied to an intervention of mine on a related matter. It is the problem of predicting outturn and commitment due to factors which basically are outside the council's control. The rate of progress on any scheme cannot be controlled by the council, and the applicant has a statutory right to take up the offer for 12 months to complete the work. Almost invariably there is slippage in any one year. No council can avoid that, no matter how good its planning.

I return to the speech by the Minister for Housing and Construction. I was present, and I remember some aspects of it. It was difficult to be sure what he was saying at times, but he seemed to suggest that he wanted the private sector—I took him to mean the building societies—to take up the problem of renovation and repair. Hammersmith's housing director was also present at that meeting and heard the Minister. He tells me that it is pointless asking private sector funding to top up a loan without being able to underwrite it with improvement grant. The objective of harnessing private sector investment to stimulate an improvement of the housing stock is ineffective unless a local authority, with Government aid, is able to do the necessary pump priming.

The Minister does not understand the nature of the problem. It would be nice if a building society would step in and agree to supply the money to do up a house, but there is no way that a society will do that, because there is no return for it unless it gives a total extension to cover all the cost, which then is dependent on the owner's income. In areas such as Hammersmith and Fulham, incomes do not allow that.

What happens in our inner cities is that anyone in bad housing need is unlikely to get any accommodation on the council market unless his need is desperate. The waiting list in Hammersmith is close to 10,000 people. The only way to get in front of that list is to have quite appalling problems, and anyone with problems of that kind cannot rent privately because the prices are way outside what people can afford. If that same person thinks about buying, he finds that the cheapest property available with, say, two rooms will cost him a minimum of £25,000, and usually considerably more.

People on average incomes cannot contemplate that. What happens is that the inner cities get squeezed. People move out of the inner cities and are no longer able to stay with their families, other people move in, and what was previously privately rented property is taken over and split into flats for private home ownership, with a consequent decline in the economic structure of the area.

It is a desperately serious problem. It removes the mortar from between the bricks of society by concentrating the very poor and the much better off and moving out the spread of social mix that we are trying to get in our areas.

Mr. Ryder

Inner cities are certain to decay if the costs of maintaining properties rise above prices. Moreover, the inner cities are certain to decay if the demand for housing is greater than the supply, and that supply has been reduced by Rent Acts.

Mr. Soley

It has not been reduced by the Rent Acts. I ask the hon. Gentleman to rethink his basic approach. He is making an assumption about the way in which the market operates. We do not have a free market in housing. There never has been and there never will be a free market. It is not a market which people can enter and leave, shuffle around and compare prices. It is dependent on a great many other factors—the areas in which people have to live, their total incomes, Government expenditure and a vast range of other factors which distort the market. The free market philosophy preached by the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk cannot work. It is impossible for it to work in an inner city area without it being grossly distorted. Sooner or later the Conservative party has to accept that the only way round the problem is by adopting sensible, sensitive planning. It will not be solved without planning. We shall live with housing chaos and a gross unmet need so long as we forgo that planning. Many other countries have practised this free market philosophy, only to realise the essential nature of planning.

I am not here to defend the present Hammersmith and Fulham council. It has done some pretty wicked things to housing in the area. It has made it far worse than it ever was before. It has done it by stopping building almost entirely. Only a few houses for the disabled have been built in recent years. It has also made the position worse by selling off its stock.

I have never been against housing sales where there is no unmet need. However, if a council sells in an inner city area where there is a crisis in need, the best properties go first and people are condemned for ever to live in the worst properties. A young couple with children will be stuck in a high-rise flat and will not be able to move. That is the problem about selling in areas where housing need has not been met. I have no objection to leaving it to the local authority to judge it. We do not need to force the issue on local authorities, as this Government tend to do.

Hammersmith council has got into such acute trouble that it is trying to sell off a whole estate of pre-war four or five-storey blocks in Fulham to try to finance repairs on another estate in Becklow gardens in my constituency. The suggestion is that the council will not be able to use the money for that because, by the time it feels the effects of rate-capping and other Government policies, the money will have to go to something else. We shall get the worst of both worlds. We shall have properties sold off against the will of the tenants, while at the same time those who are supposed to benefit from the sales are not likely to get those benefits. The tenants are coming to lobby Parliament and to see the Minister on Wednesday of next week, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) will meet them as well.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwood was right to pick up this extremely important issue. We shall not resolve the problem until we have some planning from the Government. It should be one of our highest priorities.

11.29 am
Mr. Roger King (Birmingham, Northfield)

I have listened with interest to the debate, but there was no mention of what I believe is a fundamental prerequisite in any solution of the housing problem—the land. I admit that there is a problem, but there has always been a problem. Where are the houses to be built? There is a lot of pressure on those who want property to purchase and to rent, but the problem comes back again and again of where those houses are to be built.

I represent a constituency in the outer suburbs of Birmingham—a city that probably encapsulates both the challenges and the problems of housing. I had a telephone call in the summer from one of my constituents who said, "Mr. King, I have looked out of my window and to my horror, I saw two people with a tape measure. I do not know what they were doing, but we are having a protest meeting next week." I asked, "What are you protesting about?" The answer was, "People do not go around with tape measures unless they intend to build houses there, and we do not want houses at the back of our gardens." I tended to dismiss the matter, because until one receives information of positive action by an authority, one does not necessarily attend a protest meeting that has been called on someone's whim or hunch. However, I went to the meeting, expecting to see a dozen people in the local village hall. In fact, there were over 200 people, and the meeting had to be held in the middle of a sports field—purely because someone had been seen with a tape measure on a piece of nondescript white land, where the council was hoping to build no more than 60 council houses.

I have seen the area, and in my view it would be wrong to build council houses there. Moreover, it is the wrong type of land. The land rises, and it would obscure the daylight of much of the development at the foot of the hill. The point is, however, that in Birmingham if one goes anywhere near the green areas of Woodgate Valley or Sutton Park, or if one starts to look at the rolling landscape of north Worcestershire or parts of Warwickshire, one is firmly told to push off. Nobody wants housing to be built there. As a result, we have to look at the city areas. There we have a problem, because there is only a small amount of land on which to build all the houses that Opposition Members have been asking us to build.

At present, Birmingham has about 133,000 municipal dwellings, making it probably the largest housing authority in Europe. Included in that total are some 430 high-rise tower blocks, making Birmingham the largest owner of tower blocks in Europe. Much of the property was built immediately after the war. Those were the days when record house building targets were achieved. Indeed, the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) said that the Labour Government had built a record number of houses in the 1960s. The quantity was there, but certainly not the quality. Many of the problems of rapid house building programme are coming home to roost, with a vengeance. We in Birmingham have our fair share of damp houses and poorly designed and constructed housing, despite all the safeguards that were supposedly in use at the time to ensure that local authorities were getting value for money.

It is odd that one does not find acres and acres of privately built houses—theoretically built according to the whims of house builders in those days—falling into disrepair, cracking and crumbling away. There may be isolated examples, but as a general rule the many pre-war and immediate post-war semi-detached houses are still in sound repair, and reflect the ability of the private sector to build houses at a competitive price and to provide good quality at the same time.

So in Birmingham we have inherited a large amount of crummy housing. In my constituency which, as I said earlier, is on the outer limits of the city, we have the paradoxical situation of having large amounts of Government money available to refurbish and rehabilitate the inner urban areas — of which Birmingham is, of course, one, with all the problems of moving the population out into properties that we built after the war. Those problems are now being inherited in areas such as Northfield, which have degenerated into such poor housing areas that there is little alternative but to use the bulldozer to bring some of them down. My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) was pictured, wearing a hard helmet, only a few months ago at the controls of a bulldozer ready to tackle the first practical demolition that we have had in Birmingham in recent years.

The problem is that once such estates are built, the situation becomes inherently hopeless. It does not matter how much money the local council spends on refurbishing. The estates have narrow roads, no car parking, no garages — or vandalised garages, if there are any — low-rise accommodation that looks dreadful, and there is a general "couldn't care less" attitude. As a result, all the money that is spent on refurbishing is rapidly undone.

Indeed, when the local authority has refurbished some of the houses, putting in new heating, baths and sink units as a result of pleas from local councillors and hon. Members to do something to stop the slide into degradation, the tenants move in and promptly leave two or three weeks later, taking with them the sinks, wash basins, toilets and central heating.

Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would accept an invitation from me to come to Halton Mansions in my constituency, to Taverner and Peckett squares, or to the Hornsey lane estate in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), to see inter-war estates that have been renovated by the local authority, with central heating, lifts, entryphones and better space standards. The property is looked after wonderfully by the tenants, and few tenants there have exercised their right to buy, because they like being tenants in good, decent and fit accommodation.

Mr. King

I thank the hon. Member for his kind invitation, but I do not have to travel to his constituency to see the effects of such a policy, because I can see it in parts of my constituency and in neighbouring areas of Birmingham. I am saying that there are isolated areas of poor housing, where money has been spent, but, because of the reputation that the area has, it does not matter how much money one spends, the area remains under-privileged. The only thing to do is to use the bulldozer and replace the existing dwellings with purpose-built accommodation.

One of our minor success stories is the demolition of part of a problem area in my constituency, which is now being replaced with private housing. People will say, "Ah, you are moving out of municipal housing and building houses for sale. What happens to all those who have been moved out?" They have been housed elsewhere, but it has come to light that many of those people want to buy houses in the same are where they once lived — an area that they once loathed. The refurbishment of many of these areas with new private building of cheap readily available housing—nothing elaborate but modest two-bedroomed houses of a good standard and quality and at a competitive price, and the ability of the hitherto displaced tenants to purchase those houses—is a valuable added string to our policy in the area.

Birmingham also has a policy to develop new towns. I have heard no mention of those in the debate. As the great cities and conurbations have become increasingly hemmed in by the environmentalists, we have turned to the development of new towns on a wide-ranging scale. I have experience of one of those because I moved to Telford in Shropshire some eight years ago. An enormous number of houses have been built there, for rent and sale at competitive prices. It reflects well on the attitude of the local authority, the development corporation and the Government that the area has largely been a housing success.

The problem is that such housing is not necessarily where people want to live. Those who have lived all their lives in Birmingham do not want to move 40 miles away to live in Telford and run the risk of not finding employment. One of the problems is that housing is often available but in the wrong place for those who desperately need it. Perhaps we could consider some encouragement, perhaps commuting concessions so that those who have to commute large distances to their place of work can live in decent accommodation while receiving assistance from the Inland Revenue to finance their journey.

One of the odd things about municipal housing is that the inhabitants often leave the repairs to the authority. When we moved to a new corporation house in Telford I observed after 12 months that the paint was peeling off the woodwork, presumably because it had been incorrectly applied in the first place. Most of the inhabitants in the road complained that the paint was of poor quality. I did not think too much about it because I bought a tin of paint and proceeded to rectify the matter, having found out that the houses were not due to be repainted for another three years. I certainly did not want to live in a house with paint peeling off the window sills and front panels all that time. My neighbours looked at me as if I were not normal. They said that the authority would and should do the work, but once one starts painting the front of one's house everyone else does so too. That is a good example of self-help. Minor repairs can be done in that way instead of waiting for the authority to do the work.

Birmingham's policy of selling council houses has had a dramatic impact upon the local landscape. We have sold nearly 8,000 over the past three years. Driving around the estates, which until recently had the same boring outlook, one sees houses that have been sold which sport replica oak-panelled doors with nice little privet hedges and, invariably, double glazing. They have improve the aesthetic appearance of the area and the quality of the environment for everyone. That has had a knock-on effect because those who, for various reasons, cannot afford to purchase their house have no wish to be compared with the smart privately owned house next door. They in turn have become infected by the desire to improve the aesthetic appearance of their house and have tended to improve their standard of accommodation. That must be applauded.

Perhaps we should give greater encouragement to those who wish to carry out their own house repairs and maintenance. We could have a municipal cash-and-carry for timber and plumbing materials such as pipes and radiators so that tenants could draw from its stores and either do their own work or use the expertise of somebody else in the family. That would save local authorities an enormous amount of money., provided of course that it was not used as a cheap way to obtain black market products for somebody at the ratepayer's expense. However, adequate safeguards could be introduced.

I have canvassed interminably in Birmingham over the past three or four years. The electoral roll shows that many people are living in the wrong type of accommodation. Often it is too big for them, depriving other families who could use it better. Are we right to say that, having moved from a high-rise tower block to a low-rise maisonette and into a semi-detached house, a person is entitled to stay there until he is carried away by a hearse? Should the council reserve the right to offer a couple whose family has grown up and left an attractive home for their retirement after a certain period?

A number of conversions have been carried out in Birmingham. High-rise blocks have been converted into granny accommodation with warden control and lest and recreation rooms, and similar developments are planned The initial reaction is that they provide attractive accommodation for the elderly. Indeed, as one person living on the 20th floor of a high-rise block put it, "When the Almighty calls me, I have not got so far to go." One might laugh at that or think that he might be destined for the down-under, but the advantages of being able to convert many structurally sound high-rise blocks into accommodation for retired people is that it will release two and three-bedroomed semi-detached houses for those families who are currently stuck in high-rise tower blocks.

No one wants to move such people forcibly. No one wants to bundle a person from his home after 35 years to the 20th floor of a high-rise block on the other side of the city. But it would be nice for a tenant to have the opportunity to think seriously about it and perhaps to have the offer of a £250 bounty if he were prepared to move into some purpose-built, warden-controlled accommodation. The council could carry out the move and pay the removal expenses in addition to the £250 bounty to compensate for the trouble of moving. Many tenants would probably find such an offer attractive and the house that they vacate could be given to those families who at the moment are under pressure in maisonettes.

Mr. John Fraser

How will people progress from high-rise flats to houses, when most of the houses have been sold off?

Mr. King

Most of the houses have not been sold off. I said that Birmingham sold 8,000 houses, but there are 133,000 municipal houses left. Even if we increase the advantages of people purchasing their house, we shall still not make much of a dent in that 133,000. We have sold 8,000 in the past three years and before that another 20,000 were sold. At one stage Birmingham had 190,000 properties, but it lost a few as a result of boundary changes, as well as through sales.

The problems of system-built housing have already been mentioned. My advice bureaux are largely taken up with people who occupy either Wates-type houses or Smith houses, of which we have quite a few in the city of Birmingham. The Minister's initial response has been that the Wates-type houses are one of the six or so on which the Government have accepted the need for action. The Government have some obligation to people in those houses. The Smith sytem is not yet in the same category. Initial reports have shown that there is a major structural defect in the Smith houses, but we are still waiting for a statement from the Government about what, if anything, they will do with that type of house and many others showing structural defects.

Occupiers of Smith houses in Birmingham—only 500 have bought their houses—are in an appalling catch 22. The building societies will not grant mortgages on those houses, so if the occupiers wish to sell to move to another job or take another opportunity they are well and truly stuck. Some of the occupiers must clamber over scaffolding and timber frames shoring up the houses, and that is intolerable. I and my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Hall Green (Sir R. Eyre) and for Birmingham, Yardley (Mr. Bevan) have met representatives of Smith house owners. We had to tell them that we could not give them any immediate good news about the Government's intentions, but we hoped that their problems would be alleviated in the not-too-distant future.

They are a tragic group of people. We feel especially responsible because they took up the challenge of buying their property when that was a realistic thing to do. No one was really aware of the extent to which the poor building standards had been used many years ago. Now those problems have shown up. There is a problem of "buyer beware", but no one ever told those people that their houses would begin to crumble to dust shortly after they were purchased. We look forward to a statement which, once and for all, will tackle that legacy of crummy jerry building about which we are becoming aware. This massive problem will require a large amount of Government finance. The problem will not go away; it must be tackled. If we can lay out a programme, extending perhaps over a number of years but with the worst houses tackled first, we ought to set to with enthusiasm as soon as possible.

By and large, the housing problem offers us a number of challenges. I am satisfied generally that our approach in getting people to buy their houses is the way forward. I see no evidence that endless building of local authority housing is the answer. We probably have sufficient housing for those who desperately need it. We need more houses for sale.

There is no real way of tackling the problem until we have land on which houses can be built. I accept that there are difficulties in London, where everyone wishes to live. It would be worth while to hear of where all the houses that are desperately needed would be built. I should like many more houses to be built in the Birmingham area, but I am at a loss to see how and where we can do it, given the large growth of the environmentalist lobby. We must meet that challenge, and we are on the way to meeting it.

11.54 am.

Mr. Laurie Pavitt (Brent, South)

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King) put his finger on the basic problem—land. My experience in Willesden was the same as his. No land was available in a congested area that was built up at the end of the last century. The only alternative was to build upwards. Twenty years ago, the basic mistake was made in building high-rise blocks because there was little land on which to build. Slum areas were pulled down, and the only way in which people could be rehoused on that piece of land was to build upwards. The Labour Government were the only Government to do anything about the land problem. They introduced the Community Land Act 1975.

The hon. Member for Northfield referred to crummy, jerry-built houses. I remind him that his Government decided to relax the Parker Moms standards, which then permitted even more jerry-building.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) who began by saying that for 18 years he had been trying to win a place in the ballot. He said that had his name come up during that period of time he would have spoken on the same subject. I have trying for 25 years to win a place in the ballot and my name has not come up once. If I had won a place, I too would have chosen the same subject.

The inner city area which I represent, which includes Willesden, Harlesden, Kensal Rise, Kensal Green, Roundwood and Stonebridge, has always experienced acute housing shortages.

My hon. Friends the Members for Norwood and for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) referred to a crisis. Six months ago the local authority in my area declared that the London borough of Brent was an acute housing crisis area, as soon as the waiting list went above 15,000. Those on the list had little hope of obtaining a roof over their heads.

My hon. Friends the Members for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) and for Hammersmith and other constituencies have put forward the real needs that we meet at our surgeries. At my surgery tomorrow morning, I know that I shall hear of tragedy after tragedy. A waiting list of 15,000 is merely a figure, but to Members of Parliament who meet the people affected it means hundreds of tragedies. We must face the despair and disillusionment of people and then say, "I am sorry. We shall do what we can, but there is little hope of you being rehoused in the foreseeable future."

In my area, 1,000 families live in bed-and-breakfast accommodation provided by the council because the authority has a statutory responsibility to house the homeless. This year, the estimate is that Brent ratepayers must pay £2 million because of the failure to provide housing. Brent is on the hit list of rate-capping measures. The Government's housing policy leads to rates increasing by £2 million to meet bed-and-breakfast accommodation costs, while the Government are threatening cuts in social services, housing, health and amenities that would have helped inner city areas.

I guarantee that every Opposition Member and many Conservative Members who undertake surgeries experience similar cases. A few weeks ago, I met a young man who had married. He had nowhere else to live, so he moved in with his wife's family. In my area, three or four families often live under the one roof. After 12 months, a baby arrived. Immediate problems occurred between the in-laws. There was already inadequate room, but problems increase when the family grows. The young people come to visit me. I know that the next time they come I shall advise them to see a marriage guidance counsellor, because their marriage is breaking up, merely because they do not have a place of their own in which to live. They are shut in, and family conflicts become inevitable.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith spoke about the problem caused to people on housing waiting lists by the sale of council houses. His area adjoins mine, as does that of the Under-Secretary. I have two large estates in my constituency. One is called Chalkhill and the other Stonebridge. The local council is always anxious about the problem of transfers. They involve the elderly on the 16th floor, who have problems when the lift breaks down, and also families with children. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith said, the houses that are being sold to council tenants are the better type of house with a little garden. The transfer list in Brent has now been blocked. There will be no transfers for six months because there is nowhere to transfer people to. That is a direct result of the Government's policy of selling council houses.

In areas of affluence such as those represented by the hon. Members for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Ryder) and Harlow (Mr. Hayes), where there is plenty of land and houses, perhaps the sale of council houses is a different proposition, but in areas such as Hammersmith, Norwood, Islington and Brent it can only mean deprivation for people with a housing need.

I shall give an example of another personal tragedy. This time it is of an old couple whose family have left. They lived on an upper floor. After the husband was discharged from the Central Middlesex hospital following a coronary thrombosis, there was a real need for them to move to a place where there were no stairs. He continued to suffer from angina. It was not possible to find alternative accommodation, despite the high priority that they were afforded. A few months later the widow came to thank me for the efforts that I had made and told me that the funeral had been held the previous week.

When we give figures of 10,000 or 15,000 on the housing waiting list, we are trying to tell the Government that these contain tragedies which are avoidable and are a direct result of the Government's housing policy.

I pay tribute to the housing associations in my area. It was rather fortunate that last night the Brent People's Housing Association celebrated is 20th anniversary. That housing association has done a terrific job. The Under-Secretary was to have been the guest of honour. I always enjoy meeting the Under-Secretary, because he shares similar problems to mine in his adjoining constituency, and I was disappointed that he could not attend. The Minister for Housing and Construction was there in his place. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North drew attention to the fact that the hon. Gentleman is not present today. The Under-Secretary of State received the sticky end of the exchange.

Last night the Minister for Housing and Construction enjoyed his prawn cocktail, roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, and his Piesporter and Cote du Rhone wine, and so on, and he expressed the usual congratulations. The hon. Gentleman should have been here this morning and the Under-Secretary should have been enjoying good company last night. They changed places, and the Under-Secretary had the worst of the bargain.

Sir George Young

I should have liked to discharge that obligation, but I was serving on the Rates Bill Committee, doing my duty as a Minister. The hon. Gentleman no doubt knows his Gilbert and Sullivan: But the privilege and pleasure That we treasure beyond measure Is to run on little errands for the Ministers of State. That is what I am doing this morning.

Mr. Pavitt

That explains the Under-Secretary's absence last night, but not the Minister's absence this morning. We would have been happy to see two Ministers on the Front Bench, given the importance of the debate. We would have been very happy to see half a dozen Ministers here, including the Chancellor of the Exchequer. That would have been useful.

In their dealings with the Housing Corporation, the Government have cut another important sector — co-operative housing. There has been a growth in the new co-operative movement, while there has been a decline in the 150-year-old co-operative retail trading sector. Housing co-operatives, workers' co-operatives and service co-operatives have all grown while unemployment is high. The previous Conservative Government unfortunately cut finance for the Housing Corporation. That is a disaster. Co-operative housing is a self-help scheme, do-it-yourself management, and an acceptance of mutual responsibility for living and working together. I hope that the Government will think again about what can be done for that sector.

Housing in the inner cities is a disaster area. The only way that anything successful can be done is for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to make resources available. When housing is perhaps the most acute of all social problems that we face, I believe that it is criminal folly for the Chancelllor of the Exchequer to cut resources. The rate-capping legislation will aggravate the future position in inner cities like Brent.

A dynamic drive which recognises the case made out by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood is needed. I hope that my hon. Friend will not think that I am rude if I say that I have never heard such a magnificent broad story told. He expressed our feelings before we ever spoke.

That dynamic drive is not likely to come from this Government. The only hope for my 15,000 people on the waiting list is that they can survive until the next Labour Government, who will probably inherit a bankrupt society, can put forward the initiatives necessary if there is to be happiness and a roof over the heads of deserving people.

12.6 pm

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

It is extremely frustrating when parties that agree on matters are deprived of doing anything because they do not have a majority in the House. I read carefully the motion tabled by the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser). There is not a word in it with which I or, I suspect, any member of the Liberal party would disagree. It is not common for motions tabled by one party to be supported by other parties. I suspect that the hon. Member for Norwood may not regard it as an advantage, but that is the case today, and I believe that it is an advantage. It means that if our two parties, which between them have the support of over 50 per cent. of the electorate—unlike the Government—were in power we would be doing the things mentioned in the motion.

It is clear that what precipitated the wording of the motion is an increasing and unparalleled crisis in the housing stock and housing needs, which is likely to become worse in the near future, not just in inner cities, although it is possibly worse there, but also in rural and suburban areas.

Mr. Chris Smith

However welcome the hon. Gentleman's support is for my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser), will he nevertheless distinguish his party from that of his alliance partner — the Social Democratic party—which, when it had control of the local authority in my area for a brief six months, acted contrary to the terms of the motion? It disposed of property, sold sites and did nothing to assist the people to obtain decent rented housing.

Mr. Hughes

I cannot answer that, because I do not know the facts about the brief interlude when the SDP had control of Islington. However, our housing programme for last year, under the headline "The Tragic Reality", begins in words so similar to the motion that it is difficult to detect any real difference. It asserted that Liberal principles were, as they have long been, to provide a wide range of choice of type of housing, systems of tenure and location; to make sure that everyone, regardless of income and age, can have access to housing at a cost that they can afford; to end social divisions in housing; to improve the existing housing stock, using demolition and clearance only as a last resort; and to give occupiers the opportunity to control their own houses and the environment around them. We said then, and we have repeated for years—looking back at motions which Liberal assemblies have passed since, say, 1974 — that a combination of Government cuts in the housing investment programme and a general lack of commitment on the part of Government have created the fundamental problems in housing that we face today.

I have a table—visual aids are not always useful in this House, but hon. Members will know of the table to which I refer—showing the public expenditure changes since 1950 in relation to housing. When hon. Members quote figures, they frequently go back to the last or a previous election, but let us consider the position back in 1950. Taking a common starting point, with an indicator of 100, for the public spending programme areas, the table sets out as comparisons the figures for housing, defence, roads, transport, health and personal social services, education, science and social security. The greatest increase has been in social security. The greatest decrease has been in housing. It comes bottom of the league, not marginally but considerably.

Taking an indicator of 100 in 1950, housing now stands at about 150, showing a 50 per cent. increase; but defence stands at 180; roads and transport, 270; health and personal social services, 350; education, 400; and social security, about 550. The decline has been primarily since 1974. That was the peak of public expenditure on housing. It then declined, and, while there was a last-minute increase in 1979, there has been a steep decline since then.

That shows objectively and statistically that the commitment of Government to dealing with the housing needs of Britain has been reducing with the passage of years, and that has brought about the problem that exists today.

The public—for example, the people listening to us in the Strangers' Gallery—may wonder what purpose is served by Members of Parliament addressing green leather benches if their words do not achieve some result. The result that we seek to achieve is not just to alert the public and those concerned with these problems, in the hope of providing some ideas that will be taken on board by others. It is to persuade the Government that the money must be found to deal with the problem.

I hope that the Under-Secretary will not deny that it should be a task of his Department to persuade his colleagues in other Departments of the need to tackle the problem urgently. He may talk about what has been done by the present Government or by a previous Administration and he may deny some of the assertions that have been made about the merits of a Labour Government in dealing with housing between 1974 and 1979 and the way in which such matters have been dealt with by the Tories since that date. But he should accept, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King) said, that a substantial investment programme for housing is vital.

The hon. Member for Northfield mentioned the anecdote of an old lady, presumably from Birmingham, who took the view that if she was offered accommodation on the 18th floor of a block that had been converted for the use of old people, she would at least be nearer her creator when he called her home. That reminded me of a story—I believe it originated on a television programme that I did not see—about the Prime Minister coming to her end and being sent, first, to the pearly gates, where she was met by St. Peter or St. Paul, who told her that, despite all her efforts, she did not qualify for that place. On being sent down to the other place, she immediately began to put out the furnaces, close down the nationalised industries and put out the flames below. The result was that before long there was another knock at the pearly gates upstairs, and this time it was the devil himself saying that, for the first time in his existence, he had to seek political asylum. It is the sort of desperation that is felt in a more immediate way by many people with ordinary, respectable and proper housing needs. They face their housing problem every day of every week.

Hon. Members have pointed out how we learn about housing problems by telephone calls to us, in letters and by people coming to advice centres. We witness their desperation. A lady telephoned me before nine o'clock this morning despairing because her parents-in-law would not be adequately housed. Somebody called on me late last night when I arrived home with a similar concern about inadequate housing, and no doubt tonight I shall receive more such inquiries. The nature of the problem arises in many ways.

Increasing amounts of property, mostly the better property, in the public sector have been sold off. I assert that local authorities should have the right to make their own decisions. Although the hon. Member for Norwood criticised the decisions in Hammersmith and Fulham, at least he accepted that it was right for the local authority to do the deciding.

There is an immense failure to repair aging estates. Increasing use is being made of bed-and-breakfast accommodation at great expense in insanitary, inadequate, overcrowded, multi-occupied hotels and hostels. The lucky ones get that. The unlucky ones must go to some appalling hostels. Homeless people for whom the local authority has a duty under the homeless persons' legislation and who need accommodation immediately will probably find themselves in a hostel where privacy does not exist and where they know they may have to stay for months, if not years, before being adequately housed elsewhere.

There is nowhere adequate to send single people in addition to those who are living rough and sleeping out at night. Some single people, if they go anywhere, go to, say, the resettlement unit at Camberwell, which is Victorian in construction and in the regime which unfortunately must be imposed on those who stay there.

There are an enormous number of empty properties. I was given leave to introduce a Bill—it received its First Reading last month and I hope that it will receive its Second Reading next month—to identify exactly where empty properties are and what can be done to bring them back into use.

In the private sector there are over half a million empty houses. In the public sector there are between 100,000 and 200,000 standing empty, and there are others. We have almost as many empty houses as households needing homes. The figures are incredible. It is surprising to think that in a civilised society such as ours there should be 800,000 households without accommodation. That is the level of housing need, without taking into acount those with dry, adequately heated and reasonable accommodation of the right size for them but who have others—for example, old people—living with them.

There is lack of the repair needed to protect security. Earlier this week, I called on a blind constituent living not far from Guy's hospital. His house had been broken into for the third time. Some repairs had been done—for example, a new door had been fitted—but they were not adequate to stop people breaking in. Only one lock had been put on the door, and he was in the process of fixing a second lock. That man was incredibly vulnerable, his blindness making his situation even more difficult. In other words, he should move to accommodation where he would feel more secure.

The problem in London is enhanced because of the value and cost of properties. In places such as County Durham or Lincolnshire, a young couple can buy something for £10,000—possibly more, but not much more than that. Here, one has to find £20,000, £22,000, £24,000 or probably £30,000 to get anything decent The difference in wage levels does not justify that difference in price. Land in the cities, particularly in the capital city, is, inevitably, inordinately expensive. However, we cannot just accept that, or the fact that people whose families happen to have lived in London for 200, 300 or 400 years cannot live in London just because the price of property, if they want to buy, is so great that they cannot afford it. They are thus obliged to go to a part of the country where they have no links and there are fewer opportunities for finding work.

This problem has also been identified. When families have moved away, old people might live in properties with five or six empty rooms. They cannot afford to heat them and do not want to stay there, but want to move to accommodation in which they feel warm and secure. However, the system often does not allow that. Many local authorities do not allow everybody to go on the transfer list. They do not allow everybody who applies to go on the waiting list. Once one is on the waiting list, the system does not give much credit to someone who has spare rooms. It gives credit to those who have too little accommodation. However, one must balance the two.

I have an example of handicapped people in need. A widow I know lives with her mentally handicapped son in his twenties, who has fits and needs space to release his emotions. At the moment he causes damage inside the cramped accommodation where he and his mother live. It is not true to say that their housing needs are being met adequately. At the same time, there are many competent and skilled people in the industry. Many have done apprenticeships in the building industry and could do the repairs, building and installation. They could do the enormous amount of work needed to improve those properties.

Those are the problems. The Government could provide some solutions. The Liberal party said at the election as clearly as it ever has done that one must have public investment. We suggested an increase in the borrowing requirement from £8 billion to £11 billion. Therefore, instead of spending money on dole payments, at £16 billion or more per year, the Government could put the money to productive use. They could pay the people to renovate properties. The pump must be primed by the Government. They have an amazing policy. They spend all that money — and complain about it — on social security, whereas they could spend much of it in giving people the means to find work. That would be more satisfactory for the country, as well as for individuals.

Mr. Winnick

What about selling council houses?

Mr. Hughes

I have already dealt with that matter.

No doubt the Budget in a few days' time will continue the practice of giving an advantage to those for whom it will be wonderful to have an extra £1,000 or £2,000 after tax, but who already have sufficient homes. The people at the top end of the earnings bracket, the 10 per cent. who own 90 per cent. of the nation's wealth, will do well out of the Budget, but the Government should look to those at the bottom end and make sure that their fiscal and budgetary policies are altered in their favour for the first time.

I hope that Ministers will recommend this to their colleagues. We should consider a system of tax and benefit, with a housing credit system that works so that people have adequate funds to pay for the housing they need, so that they do not find that their rents and rates do not qualify for rebate, they have no spare money, and cannot consider moving anywhere else.

We need investment and structural change. There should be a change in the help given under the Government's financial policy. Not until that happens can we start the schemes for which we have been crying out for years—shared ownership, co-operative ventures and equity sharing. There should be a whole range of public and private housing that would make this country a place where we can accommodate our citizens. That is the least we can do. We should be able not only to accommodate them but to give them work. If we cannot even accommodate the families around us, that is one of the greatest indictments of Government policy. Sometimes the Liberal party is accused of community politics. Perhaps that means that we believe that the community should be very important. No community can exist unless people have decent homes.

12.25 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir George Young)

I add my voice to the chorus of praise for the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) and his hon. Friends for giving us the opportunity to debate housing.

We had a full day's debate in November, when my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction opened the debate and made a wide-ranging and important speech. He sent his apologies for not being present today. He has a long-standing engagement in Humberside and was most anxious not to disappoint those who were looking forward to meeting him. As hon. Members know, it is not unusual to see an Under-Secretary of State on duty on a Friday.

It is right that we should return to housing, because it is a crucial issue. Anyone who has listened to the debate will realise how important are the issues that we are discussing. In no way do the Government underestimate the importance of the issues. As a Member of Parliament with an inner city constituency, I am under no illusion about the severity of the housing problems that remain.

When the debate ends, I shall hold my second advice bureau this week in Acton, and the bulk of the cases will be about housing. We have heard about such cases today. We have heard of families with children living in tower blocks who want to move, and of young married couples living with their in-laws in difficult circumstances. We have heard of young engaged couples who want their first homes, and of people living in private rented accommodation sharing facilities with many others in buildings that are in poor condition. Some elderly people can no longer cope with stairs, or need to move to a more sheltered environment. As the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Pavitt) said, behind each statistic is an individual need which, as hon. Members, we must never forget.

While both sides of the House may not be far apart on the analysis, we are far apart on the solutions. The solution of Opposition Members is to reach instinctively for the municipal cheque book and to judge the effectiveness and sincerity of the Government by how much they spend. They make no bones about that. In our debate on London last week, when talking about housing, the hon. Member for Norwood confined himself to the public sector because it is the only sector for which the Government are directly responsible".—[Official Report, 24 February 1984; Vol. 54, c. 1124.] In the hon. Gentleman's speech today, and in the speeches of most of his hon. Friends, the public sector was dealt with almost exclusively. Such an approach might be justified if we were debating education, the Health Service, the police or defence, where the bulk of provision is provided publicly, but that is demonstrably not an appropriate measure when it comes to housing, where the bulk of it is privately provided and the preferred form of tenure—home ownership—lies outside the public sector. To put it in perspective, output on new housing in 1982, the latest year for which figures are available, was under £1 billion in the public sector, but over £2.5 billion in the private sector.

To try to judge an Administration's policies on housing, one must look at the total picture, not just at one part of it. If, as I shall argue, our overall economic policies bring home ownership within reach of more people, and if we can spark off a sustained recovery in the private sector of house building, that is relevant, and to be welcomed. However, it would not show up on the criteria which Opposition Members ask us to adopt. More than that, we have seen the risks of what one might call the public sector solution, because it is a solution which Opposition Members tried to adopt in 1974. It ended unhappily in 1976 with the visit of the IMF. Public sector starts, on which Opposition Members rest their case, fell from 170,000 in 1976 to 81,000 in 1979.

The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) tried by some sleight-of-hand to conceal the trend by simply adding up the last four years of the Labour Government, and comparing that with the first four years of the Tory Government. What that does not do is to show up the trend. It was falling very fast. Happily, that trend in overall starts has now been reversed, and it is beginning to climb again.

Not only did the Opposition's policies come unstuck in the public sector, but, because of the disastrous effect of their economic policies, the private sector was affected as well, and starts in the private sector also fell over the same period, though by not nearly so much. Therefore, the traditional Socialist approach to housing is blinkered and ineffective.

What is needed is a partnership between all concerned together with a weather eye out for what it is that people actually want. Perhaps I can demonstrate why the approach urged on us today by Opposition Members is basically misguided. Imagine that a local authority has some land which is zoned for housing and that it wants to develop it to help those on the waiting list. The local authority could develop it itself and then rent it out, and that would score as public expenditure on the capital side, and on the housing revenue account, because it would run as a loss. Alternatively, the local authority could sell the site to a builder, on condition that he built low-cost homes that were offered to people either in local authority accommodation or on the waiting list.

That would not count as public expenditure; in fact, exactly the reverse, because it would have got some receipts back for its land. As those properties were sold to sitting council tenants, or to those on the waiting list, the local authority would get the benefit, at no cost to itself, of the re-lets, or it would benefit from the reduced pressure on the waiting list. That solution would bring about a better form of tenure, because home ownership is what people want.

To most people looking objectively at housing, what I have described is a perfectly legitimate approach to tackling the housing problem. If one begins to measure it by public expenditure, of course that solution does not begin to show up. That is why the analysis on which some Opposition Members have rested their case is basically defective. What the Government have tried to do is develop a scheme of partnership, and to harness the energy and resources of the private sector to tackle the housing problems which the House has debated.

To put it in a slightly broader context, we have always made it clear that our primary task is to create the conditions in which private enterprise investment and initiative flourish, and low inflation, moderate interest rates and rising real disposable incomes are the key requirements for increased investment in housing. Higher public expenditure on just about everything would not help to create these conditions; indeed, excessive public expenditure would destroy them.

What is happening at present is that rising earnings are bringing home ownership within the reach of more people. In addition to the many buyers who have benefited from discounts under the right to buy, first-time buyers in the private sector should now find a home easier to afford. When we came to power in 1979, the average price of a first-time buyer's house represented 2.7 years' earnings for the average man, and, at the end of 1983, the price represented only 2.5 years' earnings.

If one looks at the 1983 figures for starts, published recently, they prove not just that new house building is increasing, but how very significant that increase is. Last year total housing starts, private and public, in Great Britain were 11 per cent. higher than in 1982. Within this total, private sector starts showed a continuing sharp growth, with an increase of about 20 per cent. over the previous year, sustaining growth at this rate for the third year in succession, and total starts in the private sector, 167,000, were the highest since 1973.

Private house builders are now providing more than three quarters of all new housing. I accept that we have to show that statistics of the sort about which I have been talking are of relevance to the people about whom hon. Members have expressed concern. The private sector, with active Government encouragement, is expanding its provision of low-cost housing, often in partnership with the local authorities and the new towns.

Apart from the construction of smaller, cheaper homes, builders are playing an active part in our various low-cost home ownership initiatives. Between April 1979 and September 1983, over 44,000 homes were sold through these initiatives, almost half of them in the last 12 months, and sales are continuing to increase. The total for the current year is expected to be about 25,000. Half these sales have been in schemes where private builders have built housing for sale, usually under licence, on local authority or new town land, directly meeting the needs about which we have been talking, and a further quarter of the total sales were on shared ownership terms. The balance is made up of homesteading and improvement for sale schemes. Over the same period, the sales of land by local authorities and new towns have amounted to 1,385 hectares, sufficient for some 32,000 dwellings. Many of those will be low-cost homes.

There is another form of partnership relevant to some of the problems that we have been debating, such as that mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King). Private builders and developers are playing a substantial and increasing role in the management and improvement of local authority estates, not just through the provision of repair and maintenance services, but in some cases by actively acquiring difficult-to-let property whether empty or tenanted, for refurbishment and reuse. On Merseyside, a private trust has acquired the Cantril Farm estate from Knowsley borough council, consisting of 3,000 properties, 80 per cent. of which were tenanted. The trust is currently pursuing a vigorous programme of demolition, refurbishment and new build, together with improved local management and repair services.

It is already clear that the tenants are responding favourably to that approach. At Minster court in Liverpool, Barratt's has converted difficult-to-let flats due for demolition into attractive and readily-sold homes for first-time buyers. In Oldham, the Labour-controlled borough council has disposed of the Strinesdale estate of 160 houses, including 20 tenanted houses, to a private developer who is repairing all the accommodation, including the rented houses, at his own expense. Tenant's rights, including the right to buy, have been protected. There are many other examples of successful disposal of vacant property. In spite of the difficulties, a number of new schemes are being pursued.

That simply would not score as public expenditure, but it is tackling the real needs of tenants and those on the waiting list. If anyone has any doubts about the relevance of the private sector, I suggest that he looks at what is happening in the Docklands area of London—an area noted for its high proportion of local authority houses. During the past two years several thousand homes for sale have been built or started by private developers. The response by would-be purchasers has been remarkable, even for those of us who have always believed in the deep-rooted desire for home ownership.

One of the most recent examples is a small group of family houses built by Broseley Estates in the Surrey docks area, which was recently released on to the market. All nine of the two and three-bedroomed house were sold in just an hour. The February edition of Docklands News states: Buyers queued all night … and council tenants led the rush". It reports that one Southwark tenant paid a £19,000 deposit on the spot. It also reports the regional director of Broseley Estates as saying: Everyone of our latest buyers comes from the Southwark area of Docklands. Many Of them have told us they are moving out of council flats to take houses of their own with gardens. There are other, if less dramatic, examples.

Having said a word about the private sector, I turn to the public sector, which has, and will continue to have, an important role. We have made over £3 billion available for public sector investment in housing next year. Opposition Members may mutter darkly about cuts, but in fact that is broadly the same figure as we have made available for the last three years.

Before that there were cuts, and I am honest about that. They were necessary to secure our primary objectives for the economy, to which I have already referred, of controlling inflation and creating the springboard for growth. Even those cuts, however, were only half as deep as those imposed by the Labour party when it was in power between 1974 and 1979.

During that period, public sector investment in housing was reduced by 46 per cent. in cost terms. Since we came to power it has fallen by 23 per cent. So screams of butchery from the Oppostion Benches will not wash.

Within that £3 billion, investment resources for local authorities are some £2.5 billion. The main housing investment programme allocations were announced last November. In addition to those allocations, we estimate that authorities will generate at least £666 million of housing capital receipts next year that will also be available for investment. The hon. Member or Norwood excluded that figure from his calculations.

One problem has been that local authorities simply have not spent all the resources available to them. In 1981–82 there was an underspend of £500 million, and £800 million in another year. I hope that local authorities will spend the resources which the Government have made available to them. I only regret the loss of the opportunities for the two years to which I referred. We have changed the way in which capital receipts can be used. That enables us to direct resources towards those authorities with the greatest housing need.

We recognised that the change in the prescribed proportion would cause problems for authorities which had been planning to use their receipts on the old basis, and we held back £50 million from the initial allocation to provide supplementary allocations for authorities which would otherwise be affected. My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction has today announced our decisions on those supplementary allocations, which include £400,000 for Walsall — increasing its total allocation for 1984–85 to just over £10.5 million—and almost £1.4 million for Lambeth. They bring to £1,853 million the total of next year's HIP allocations.

We have made it clear that the priority must be to concentrate public sector investment on those in greatest need. Hon. Members have mentioned the problems of the homeless. Indeed, the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) referred to that. Under our hostels initiative, we are carrying out a major expansion in the provision of modern hostels. Since May 1979, hostel accommodation across the country for more than 8,000 people — many of them single homeless — has been approved by the Housing Corporation, and in addition we have assisted with grants totalling more than £1 million over the past four years to various voluntary bodies giving housing advice to the homeless either at national level or in Greater London.

The disabled and elderly on low incomes are also clearly in need of help, and private house builders are now providing homes for sale, with the needs particularly of the elderly in mind, but there has to be a role for the public sector. Increasingly, local authorities are making provision for the needs of the disabled by adaptation of their existing stock. The number of adaptations undertaken by local authorities for their disabled tenants in 1982–83 was nearly twice that undertaken in 1979–80. Very encouragingly, the number of grants made by housing authorities—under the home improvement grants system — to disabled occupants for adaptations works in the private sector in 1982–83 was nearly four times the number of such grants in 1979–80, at nearly nine times the cost.

Repair and improvement of existing stock is another priority, and the motion before the House draws specific attention to the problems of disrepair. As a result of our initiatives, spending on home improvement grants in 1982–83 more than doubled compared with the year before, and we expect spending on grants this year to be much higher, and perhaps as high as £740 million, as against the £90 million which the Labour Government spent in their last year in office.

We have also made it clear that provision exists in 1984–85 for at least the same level of spending as last year, and more resources are also being spent on the improvement and repair of local authorities' own stocks. Expenditure rose from £614 million in 1981–82 to £934 million last year.

My hon. Friend the Member for Northfield mentioned the problems of systems-built houses.

Mr. John Fraser

I think the hon. Gentleman will concede that the abrupt ending, for whatever cause, of improvement grants has caused distress. Will he at least consider supplementary allocations for local authorities such as Hammersmith and Lambeth—whether they are Tory or Labour controlled — where there has been a sudden cut off, and so help those who had a reasonable expectation of some public assistance to get on with repairing and renovating their newly purchased homes?

Sir George Young

We have allocated all the funds currently available to local authorities. However, we can do what we have done in previous years. If it appears, as the year progresses, that some authorities are unable to use their allocations, we can consider reallocating the money to other authorities facing that problem. At this stage I cannot go beyond that, because the resources available to my Department for housing have already been allocated, and there is no more money lying around in bottom drawers in Marsham street.

I was slightly surprised by what the hon. Gentleman said about my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction. I have now had an opportunity to read the speech that he made at the presentation of the National Home Improvement Council awards, and I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman a copy of it. It is quite unambiguous. The position was that local authorities would be free to decide what proportion of the resources allocated to them in 1984–85 would be spent on improvement grants. The 90 per cent. grants were introduced in the 1982 Budget as a temporary measure and have already been extended once. I want to stress that those whose applications are made before 1 April 1984 will still be eligible for 90 per cent. grants even if the local authority does not approve the grant until the new financial year has started. It is up to the local authority, which has total discretion, whether to make the grant.

Mr. Fraser

Those remarks, especially the distinction which is drawn between 1984–85 and the position in the current year, give a clear indication to owner-occupiers that they will receive their grant provided they submit their applications by April 1984. The contrast between the remarks for 1984–85 and the current year clearly and inevitably gave that impression, and that is why there is so much anger and bitterness about the sudden moratorium.

Sir George Young

The use of the word "eligible" is unambiguous. All the Department's advertising has stressed that the grants are discretionary. They are not mandatory, because it is for local authorities to decide whether they are granted.

My hon. Friend the Member for Northfield mentioned the problems attached to some systems-built houses. The House will be aware that we intend to introduce a Bill as soon as possible to provide a scheme of assistance for owners of certain structurally defective buildings which originated in the public sector. Work on the proposal is well advanced. If the Bill reaches the statute book by the end of the Session, we hope to have the scheme operational before the end of the year. My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction will have to consider whether Smith houses satisfy the criterion of eligibility which he set out in his statement on 10 November. He is still collecting the facts that will enable him to take a decision. I cannot say more about that at this stage.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Is my hon. Friend able to assure the House that the Bill will cover all the houses that are causing major difficulties to so many people?

Sir George Young

If my hon. Friend refers to the statement of 10 November, which I shall try to get to him, he will learn exactly which types of house are covered. The scheme will have two parts. One part will be the statutory scheme and the other will enable local authorities which have a particular local problem to introduce a scheme for home owners at their discretion. I shall give my hon. Friend a reply as soon as I can.

The hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) referred to the apparent disparity of support between that for council tenants and that for owner-occupiers. It is important that the figures are known. We estimate that this year the average subsidy to council house tenants, including central Government and local government subsidies and housing benefit, will be £520 for each tenant. Average tax relief will be £215 for owner-occupiers. That puts a slightly different complexion on the subsidy figures from that given by the hon. Member for Swansea, East.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Mr. Hayes) mentioned the important factor of mobility. If I were not wearing my sweater, he would see that I am wearing the national mobility scheme tie. The Government attach high priority to mobility and we are introducing a statutory right to exchange for local authority tenants under the Housing and Building Control Bill. I shall consider the licensing scheme that my hon. Friend mentioned.

The hon. Member for Walsall, North implied that we were doing nothing about management problems in the private rented sector and mentioned the Berger company. Last week my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction announced the composition of a committee of inquiry under Mr. Edward Nugee, QC, which will collect evidence on management problems and make recommendations as to how they can be resolved. We cannot be involved in civil disputes between existing tenants and landlords. Such disputes are matters for the courts, but we shall pass on to the committee of inquiry whatever documented complaints the Government receive.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Ryder) made a powerful speech about the role of the private sector. I am saddened by the blinkered and destructive attitude of the Labour party towards that sector. Its manifesto repeated and amplified its threat to repeal shorthold and proposed many further burdens to be placed on private landlords. We all know what the electorate thought of that manifesto.

We are examining all legislation that affects private renting to determine how it can best meet today's needs in a changing market. We want to see what scope there might be for new initiatives. We must try to establish conditions in which investors and landlords have the confidence, incentive and desire to commit new resources to long-term private renting. There must be genuine protection for tenants, who must get value for money and the appropriate security.

Mr. Winnick

Will the Minister pledge that the Government have no intention of removing security of tenure from private tenants or of returning to the time under the Rent Act 1957 when landlords could charge whatever rent they liked?

Sir George Young

The hon. Gentleman had better wait until the Government produce their proposals.

I was saying that we have to consider the need for security and the other protections for which tenants can legitimately look. My hon. Friend the Member for Northfield mentioned land and its problems. We have set up a register on which land of more than three acres owned by the public sector has to be entered. That has led to a number of sites throughout the country being used which otherwise would have been left unused.

I shall pass to the Treasury the suggestion about a commuting allowance. The imaginative use of tower blocks by Birmingham city council shows that it is a progressive and enlightened authority.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) asked about improvement grants. I hope that the improvement grant programme will be resumed and that councils will respond to compassionate cases. I have taken up the cases of one or two of my constituents, and Hammersmith council responds if one can make a genuine case on compassionate grounds. One of the electors in my constituency has a house, half of which is in my constituency and half in the constituency represented by the hon. Member for Hammersmith. He needs an improvement grant for both halves of the house. Trying to get Ealing council and Hammersmith council to co-ordinate their response has caused confusion.

Mr. Soley

Perhaps the house belongs to the ex-mayor who owns a house on the boundary. The Conservative Hammersmith council is saying in letters to constituents that the Government are to blame. It says that the Government have cut its funds and that that is why it cannot give grants. Whose problem is it? The Conservative party is involved at both levels.

Sir George Young

The Goverment have dictated the overall level of resources available to the London borough of Hammersmith. We are prepared to take full criticism for fixing the figure, but it is up to Hammersmith to decide how to spend the available money. It is in touch with local needs and can make the decisions more sensibly than us. The hon. Member is capable of explaining that to his constituents.

Many other hon. Members wish to take part in the debate. I began by saying that I did not doubt the sincerity of hon. Members who have taken part and that I do not seek to minimise the problems. However, only the Government have a sensible practical set of policies attuned to people's needs and desires and which offer the only realistic, balanced programme for getting to grips with the problems.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

I am anxious to call all hon. Members who wish to take part, so I appeal for brief speeches.

12.52 pm
Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South)

I am sure that the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) will not mind if I call his motion a Labour motion, embracing all Socialist activities which are all things to all men. Some of it is already Conservative party policy, some of it can never be Conservative party policy and some suggestions, though desirable, will be difficult to achieve whoever is on the Government Front Bench, because of lack of resources.

One of the most important resources was identified by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King) when he talked about the shortage of land.

I should like to comment on the draft circular on green belt and land for housing. The philosophy of concentrating on urban, particularly derelict land, is entirely right.

A recent written answer by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment said that the survey of derelict land in England for 1982 had been published and showed that between 1 April 1974 and 31 March 1982 17,000 hectares of derelict land were restored to beneficial use, the majority of it with the aid of central Government derelict land grants. This represents the equivalent of 50 per cent. of the derelict land identified in 1974". — [Official Report, 28 February 1984; Vol. 55, c. 148.] We seem to be doing quite well. However, the 1982 survey shows that we are slipping behind. Some 45,000 hectares of land are recorded as derelict, of which about 34,000 are considered to justify reclamation. It is interesting that some 46 per cent. of it is in urban areas but that nearly all of that is considered to justify reclamation.

I have done some calculations. Unfortunately, I cannot work in hectares. My Conservative party diary tells me that one hectare is 2½ acres. I hope that the House will forgive me if I switch. It means that 20,000 hectares, or 50,000 acres, of good land in our cities is waiting to be used. It is interesting that, according to the same written answer, 16 per cent. of it is owned by local authorities and 25 per cent. by other public bodies and that the remainder is in private ownership.

The local authorities, of course, have the power to use their derelict land. A comment made to me by the House Builders Federation is that it would be extremely useful if urban development grant were available at the point of sale, instead of developers having to wait several months for it to become available. Perhaps my hon. Friend will consider that.

As for the other publicly owned land, it is my strong belief that the Government should urge these public bodies to make the land available—either use it or sell it. They should require a diminution in the amount of this land, whether it is owned by the National Health Service, the prison service or any similar body.

As for privately owned derelict land which is available and suitable for use, again the local authority has the responsibility and should encourage its developmnt, with full co-operation. By "co-operation", I mean assisting with access difficulties, with ensuring that new services are available, with planning briefs on difficult land and with package deals, because very often access is restricted by other bits of publicly owned land and it is possible to open up an entire site of this kind by active co-operation.

When that is done, as it has been widely done in Birmingham, one of the results is a tremendous increase in rateable value. I quote the figures for 1983–84 of the penny rate product in three different cities. In Liverpool, which has just on 500,000 people, the proceeds of a penny rate are £664,000. In Sheffield, with 542,000 people, it is £659,000. In Birmingham, which is almost exactly twice the size, with 1 million people, the proceeds of a penny rate are £1.6 million and rising. That is one of the main reasons why Birmingham has been able to cut its rates now for two years on the trot.

In addition, there is a tremendous increase in capital receipts. The city of Birmingham can now finance more than half its total capital expenditure programmes—not just housing—from the proceeds of the sale of land and housing. One of the projects that it has been able to promote is the complete renovation of part of the city centre in Broad street, to the tune of £91 million. If we do not develop this derelict land, it is not just an eyesore but will add to a considerable crisis in land for housing which I feel certain will develop before the next election. It must be a top priority.

There is something odd about the housing crisis of which we have heard in the debate. I have been interested enough to look at the interface between housing demand and housing supply. Housing demand can show an excess in terms of empty houses, and housing supply can show that it is not enough in terms of the number of homeless people. I shall concentrate my remarks on empty houses and homelessness and try to make some comments based on my experience elsewhere.

It was Shelter which drew attention to what it called in its report "The Scandal of Empty Houses". I have to admit that I have not a great deal of time for Shelter as it operates in the midlands at local level. It never discusses what it is doing with the local authority before publishing its criticisms. It frequently uses out-of-date statistics. It is trying not to solve problems but simply to make a fuss about them. Since Shelter owns no property and has no tenants, it has no experience of what it is like to try to sort out the problems that difficult tenants can cause to the decent tenants who have to live next door to them. Nationally, Shelter's approach seems a little more substantial.

Every vacant house is not just an unsatisfied customer. It also blights the entire area. It invites vandalism. It is expensive. It represents lost rates and rents. Ultimately, it costs a great deal more to repair than if it had been occupied quickly in the first place.

Up to 1 million houses are vacant at any one time. According to the HIPS returns for 1984–85, about 113,000 are in the ownership of local authorities. Another 300,000 are in the ownership of local authorities and described as difficult to let, which means that frequently they are empty. On top of that there are about 519,000 empty private houses. So we could be talking about 1 million properties. That alone would help to solve many of the housing problems that we have heard about today.

About 60 per cent. cannot be let because they are in a poor state of repair. About 2 per cent.—that represents about 10,000 houses in the private sector, according to the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys, 1980 publication — are vacant solely because of the Rent Acts. That fact should be put on record. In the case of about 15 per cent., according to the same survey, no one knows why they are empty. I recall the story of a council that tried hard to find out why houses in a certain street were empty. It could not trace the owner, until someone pointed out that the owner was the council itself. That has happened in Birmingham, so I know that it is true.

The Labour party's policy would call for a lot more money, and we must recognise that the Conservative Government have spent substantial sums of money. Money is available to repair many council properties, and any council that forks out money for pantomimes, free newspapers, peace groups and goodness knows what else has no excuse for not repairing its own properties.

On the other hand, much of the property that was built by councils since the war, to which the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) referred, is junk and it will be knocked down. The property that I knocked down, as my hon. Friend the Member for Northfield described, was occupied in 1963, and we shall be paying for it until the year 2023. I think it is a disgrace. It should never have been built. It was built to Parker Morris standards, but it is a disgrace. I pity any council that has to cope with it.

The record on encouraging private owners to repair empty properties has become outstanding. Housing renovation improvement grants paid to private owners and tenants covered 494,000 dwellings in the first three quarters of 1983 in England and Wales: that is five times the figure for the whole of 1979. So our record is good. However, even a Conservative council should use the powers that it has to ensure that empty properties in private hands are used. It is always entertaining to see how quickly owners crawl out of the woodwork when we threaten to put compulsory purchase orders on empty properties. It frequently works, and — surprise, surprise — the properties are put on the market and have families in them in no time at all.

My personal solution to the problem of empty houses is threefold. First, we should say to the housing manager of the council, "Get them let." It is possible to achieve a much quicker turn round. I used to be told, "You have to have some empty," to which my answer was, "Very, very few." Most council transfers are planned transfers. We know when the tenants are moving. Guess who knows? The council housing department knows, because it is doing the transfer. It should be possible to encourage pre-letting so that people move out and move in on the same day. That can be achieved.

Secondly, I would say, "Get them let, if necessary to different kinds of tenants." I have been accused of setting up love nests in the Northfield constituency by saying that we should offer vacant and difficult-to-let flats that are in a poor state of repair to engaged couples rent-free for three months. They could then take the tenancy and do the property up themselves. The idea was a tremendous success. In fact, it was not entirely my idea; it was also the idea of the local housing manager. It was an excellent idea, and it worked. As a result, a number of happy families are now living in much better properties than they lived in before. It is love on the rates, I suppose.

Third, if we cannot let them, we should sell them—put them on the market, and get them sold quickly. It is a good idea to offer them with a discount to existing council families who are on the waiting list. We sold a great many void inter-war properties in Birmingham, and most of them were sold to council tenants living in high-rise flats. We sold them at a discount. Hon. Members who have described the queues are quite right. It is highly popular. I have not mentioned public money very much in all that because, if land and property are sold and the right-to-buy provisions are implemented, one ends up with a lot of money to spare.

Then we have the problem of the homeless. I must admit that I am unhappy about the working of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 and I am sorry that the Government have not modified it. There was so much goodwill when that Act was passed. It came out of compassion and concern. We are actually housing more homeless families. We housed 28,000 homeless families in England in the first six months of 1979 and 38,000 homeless families in the first six months of 1983—roughly half the people who present themselves as homeless. I am worried because in many areas that is roughly half the total allocation of council properties.

First, that tends to distort and destroy housing planning. In some parts of our cities some property is being used for decanting because of urban renewal and a great chunk is going to homeless families. Therefore, it becomes extremely difficult to rehouse people on the waiting or transfer lists and that distorts housing policies.

Secondly, it encourages people to declare themselves homeless as a way of jumping the gun. I confess that I have encouraged people to do that. I have sent a young girl with a baby to the housing department on a Friday because she did not want to live at home any more. I told her to lake the baby under one arm and a suitcase under the other and sit there until they gave her a flat. I said that if anybody went near her she was to cry, and it worked. I have a feeling that that was wrong, although I did it several times many years ago. She was not homeless. She was just impatient. Why should she be permitted to jump the queue in that way?

Thirdly, we are prevented from giving greater assistance to those who really need it. It is widely admitted that the elderly and disabled, who will not go to the housing department and say that they are homeless, suffer, and tend to slide down the priority list.

A few people are confirmed in their lackadaisical and feckless approach to life and in their dependence, particularly if they go into bed-and-breakfast accommodation, and we should not encourage that. Brent council spends £3 million a year putting people into bed-and-breakfast accommodation. It forks out up to £100 a week per family. That is wildly expensive and unnecessary. The Labour chairman of that council, Mr. Jon Mordecai, blamed the Government. Birmingham has never put anybody into bed-and-breakfast housing, because it is not necessary. It is a wildly expensive and wasteful way of not solving the problem. If a council made up its mind, it would not need to use it at all.

Many homeless people need help. I often feel that responding to a homeless family or person in the way that they ask is not always in their own interests. Battered wives need a refuge, often with support. Seventy per cent. of battered wives go back to their husbands. Young single mothers need supervised flats with a day centre. For a long time I was manager of one such centre, set up by the National Children's Home. Disorganised, inadequate families need advice and support from organisations such as the Middlemore Homes. Discharged psychiatric patients and prisoners need hostels, with encouragement and advice on how to get back into normal life. Homeless young people need a family, not a flat. Simply to give them a key is to shut the door in their face. A typical case in Birmingham would be when we allocated a flat to a 19-year-old who had no idea about budgeting, managing or being nice to the neighbours. After many complaints and not a penny of rent it took 10 months to get him out. All that did was to add to administrative costs, create a lot of miserable neighbours and add to the rejection and misery of that young person. It was not and is not an answer.

I pay tribute to the work of housing associations such as SHAPE in Sparkbrook, which has found much of the answer in its cluster housing with a warden. We must encourage people to provide for themselves and most do. The Labour party's motion implies that the state must provide everything. That has been tried and we have seen the results in the forests of tower blocks in our cities. Derby—bless it—had the sense to build only one. It did not like it and it built no more. We have seen the result in the wastes of cheerless estates and in the disoriented and dissatisfied clientele, especially in our cities. We have seen the result also in the huge burden of debt on local authorities and the impossible task of keeping awful properties in good order. As always, Labour's efforts since the war have meant that they have spent much money and made people unhappy. The motion is a recipe for yet another miserable meal which we should firmly reject.

1.10 pm
Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

I listented to the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) with interest and amazement. The hon. Lady appears not to have seen one word of the motion. I am sad that I speak after the Under-Secretary of State, because he also ignored the words. The motion calls for improvement of housing quality and standards. It refers to heating and the way in which houses are constructed. I draw the attention of the Under-Secretary of State to the recent safety standards for glass. They have not yet been made mandatory, as they should. I declare an interest, since my constituency contains the heart of the glass industry. I make no apologies for my statements, which will be relevant to the glass and insulation industries and the poor qualities and standards of insulation and double glazing.

At the present rate of double glazing, it will take a mere 121 years to double-glaze every home in England. At the current rate of double glazing in Denmark, it will take 2.9 years and, in the Federal Republic of Germany, 15 years to double-glaze all homes. Double glazing has an immense amount to do with housing. If a home is properly insulated, heat is retained. Energy conservation means an improvement in the quality of life within the home and in the quality of the home.

Recently, much has been written and said about housing grants for insulation. This Government and their predecessors have merely tinkered with the problems. They have never sought to solve the problem. Construction in the public or private sector has often failed to meet the minimum standards of heat, and therefore energy, conservation. We shall reach our next round in the energy crisis in, I believe, the year 2005. That is when our ability to produce oil will cross on the graph with our ability to consume oil. Once again, we shall become a net importer of that energy source.

We need never meet that point if we begin to insulate and protect our homes now. Recently, the Government launched their great energy-saving campaign, but they have missed the point. What matters is not how much is saved on the electricity bill, but by how much the quality of life within the home improves. We should look at matters in that way. Insulation protects and enhances our housing stock, and I do not believe that any hon. Member would disagree with me. Many units in the housing market do not have cavity walls. Wall cladding can be a method of conservation with double glazing.

I strongly urge the Under-Secretary of State to examine the recent British safety standards. We cannot make those standards mandatory. The need for mandatory standards has been enhanced by a recent decision of the Court of Appeal, and I can arrange to let the Under-Secretary of State have a copy. The case dealt with a major city council which was sued over the type of glass installed in a house in which the occupier fell and injured himself. The Under-Secretary of State may know of the case. It showed clearly that 3 mm glass is no longer deemed safe by the courts and that 6 mm glass would be preferable because it would comply with requirements. Perhaps the Minister would study the building regulations and insulation standards again. While doing so he may care to study the standards being applied on the continent of Europe, which have already met the needs of houses.

There is more to a home than four walls. The quality of life within those homes is important. We do not just have to think about glazing and insulation, but also about the repair and numerous other grants that are available to those who live in houses in the public and private sector. When it comes to the quality of life, I do not seek to differentiate between sectors. It is important to consider both.

I could offer the Minister a number of solutions that have been tried elsewhere to encourage investment in insulation in the private sector. I note that a couple of years ago—if my memory serves me correctly—VAT was removed in the Budget from first-time double glazing. I put this plug in now, if I may, but if the Chancellor is thinking of equalising value added tax on all matters and of replacing it on double glazing this year, perhaps he would think instead of granting capital allowances or allowances against income to those people who invest in improving their homes. It is not a novel suggestion. It is used in France and Germany, where allowances can be offset against income.

I harp back to the improvement of homes, because many other speakers have dealt with the provision of homes. Improving the housing stock is another aspect of the subject. If we are to be honest, a person needs not just a house, but a house of a particular quality. We will have a civilised society only when there is decent housing. Part of decent housing is that it should be warm and comfortable. That is essential to the young, the middle aged and the elderly.

I shall finish on the note upon which I started. If we were to look not just at the nature of our housing stock but also at its quality—it could be much improved by the measures that I have suggested—we would be providing warm and comfortable homes. We would also—I make no apologies for this—be assisting the glass industry in my constituency, taking building workers out of the dole queue and putting many thousands of people back to work. They could be insulating these housing units, constructing the double-glazing units and constructing and distributing various other energy-saving products.

Housing not only affects one's home; its construction, maintenance and development creates employment for many hundreds of thousands of people. Is it not a crying shame that it costs over £5,000 a year to keep someone idle when we could so easily spend that money giving people jobs that would give other people better, warmer, safer and more comfortable homes?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I am grateful to the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) for being so brief.

1.20 pm
Mr. Colin Moynihan (Lewisham, East)

As other hon. Members wish to speak, I shall be particularly brief.

I wish, in particular, to comment on the right to buy, that being a most important provision. It is important because there is no doubt about its success. Even Labour Members, like whining school boys, had to be dragged unwillingly to school at the general election on this issue. The right to buy encourages independence and self-reliance, all of which Labour Members abhor, wedded as they are to the outmoded cloth cap image of the British worker.

There is a fundamental shift in society towards the property-owing democracy. It is the most significant economic, social and political development since the 1960s. The inescapable fact of life is that the greater the opportunity that exists to exercise individual freedom, the greater the opportunity for prosperity individually, and as a society collectively.

That is why the goal towards a property-owning democracy is so important. In any event, people want it, as other hon. Members have made clear, and I shall concentrate briefly on the political significance of it. It is self-evident that we are moving towards a participating society which is not predicated on an employment-unemployment nexus, a society in which we all play a role in the development of the economy to our mutual advantage, be it through job sharing, shares in small capitalist units of production, part-time work or the active pursuit of leisure.

Such a society starts from the premise of independence and self-reliance in the home, from pride in home ownership. Such a society is not beyond our powers of conception. Indeed, such a society is here, for technology will mean less work and more leisure time. It will mean more concern with the home and recognition of improving one's standard of living by self-help.

If it does that, it must mean that housing policy must come to reflect the demands placed on it by such a society—the demand to own one's own home, to take on the responsibility of a mortgage, to take a direct personal interest in the economy—not least in interest rates—and to have the responsibility to decide how one shall live. It includes, of course, the rejection of being told to wait six years for an inefficient council team, armed with paint and brush, bereft of pride in an unpleasant job that must be done, to knock on one's front door.

Meanwhile, the role of the caring state must be to establish standards to protect individuals against unscrupulous behaviour and to provide housing for those disadvantaged in society, for those in need. People want independence, self-reliance and freedom of choice. That is the raw-nerve reality for the Labour party. It is right, therefore, that we should push ahead with the sale of council houses urgently and with complete commitment.

Sadly, so many areas of public housing policy are such that people rarely benefit, since it has become a pork barrel. We have over-pampered public sector unions in the absence of strong management with ever-expanding empires, and over-bureaucratisation exists. This takes away decision-making power from individuals in their homes—and we have the soporific comfort of the over-staffed Lewisham town hall, to give one example.

In my constituency of Lewisham, East the housing problems are great. No one denies that Lewisham faces problems of social and economic deprivation—a tough task in maintaining and managing the houses under its ownership—but it has often exercised its responsibility in a neglectful and inefficient way. The direct labour organisation, for example, frequently neglects its job in terms of housing need, as evidenced in an internal management report to which I referred in the House on Wednesday of this week.

The council has failed to tackle the problem of the massive demand for the 1,800 empty properties in the borough. If the people are foremost in the council's interest, it should let the properties out at a nominal rent, turn them over to private developers or have participation with housing associations. But the council does not. It delays, and its staffing policy deserves comment. In an open letter, the Lewisham rights group asked: Why did it take nearly a year to appoint key staff to the new Housing Benefit Section … including the … Head of Section and yet the Personnel Department gave assurances in August 1982 that these posts would be given top priority and would be filled by the start of the scheme which, as hon. Members will be aware, was in November 1982. Those points are important in such a debate.

In conclusion, I shall refer to the private rented sector. We are the only country in Europe to be so bad at handling this. To a great extent, that is because it has been legislated away. In the 1960s a considerable amount of legislation was introduced to protect private tenants, fix rents and make it impossible to charge fair and economic rents. Sadly, the word "landlord" became and is still an ugly word. To Opposition Members the word has the connotation of an evil Victorian figure. In fact, Labour's inability to ditch its outmoded concepts is the root of many of its problems, not least on housing.

I hope that the Government will strip away the regulations yet further. I know that they are looking at the matter both inside and outside the House. However, I hope that they will look more closely at systems of licensing so that pension funds, trade union funds and others will play a major role in the residential housing sector, which they would do if only they could get a decent return.

I am grateful for the opportunity of making those comments. By being brief, I hope to have given other hon. Members an opportunity to speak.

1.26 pm
Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)

I shall address my remarks to the plight of 19,000 households in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn). Those 19,000 are represented by 9,000 people on the waiting list, 8,500 families on the transfer list and 1,500 reporting each year as homeless to the housing department. I am most concerned about their plight and their needs and the fact that the Government's housing policies do nothing to assist. In fact, the Government's housing policies run completely counter to their interests. Despite all the mellifluous words of the Under-Secretary of State, his speech did not hide the fact that the Government are doing very little to assist in dealing with problems such as I shall face later when many of those families come to see me at my constituency surgery.

The Government seem to have two aims only in conducting their housing policy. The first is to give the appearance — I stress "give the appearance" — of promoting owner-occupation. It is only an appearance. The Government could have done many things to assist owner-occupiers, but they have not. They have only very late and grudgingly come to accept that there is a need to abandon the conveyancing monopoly of solicitors, for example. They have not yet looked at Land Registry charges or the imposition of stamp duty. They have made no attempt to tackle the inequities of mortgage tax relief and to make it more attractive for young couples wanting to buy for the first time, and less of a gravy train for those on high incomes, who can take out high mortgages and claim tax relief at the higher rates of tax. As Opposition Members have said, they have also drastically cut the flow of funds to home ownership, repair and improvement grants.

The Government's policy of supporting owner-occupation has taken only one form. They have attempted to assist, through large cash handouts and discounts, a small number of people who wish to become owner-occupiers — I refer to those who live in council accommodation who wish to purchase the accommodation in which they live. However, an enormous number of people are ignored — those who wish to buy in the private sector and do not want to purchase the property they are renting. The Government's only answer to those problems is that once the purchase figures start flagging they will say, "We shall increase the cash discount and make it more attractive to that same small sector of the population who wish to become owner-occupiers." The Government's attempt to assist owner-occupation is therefore revealed for what it is: an attempt to bribe a section of the electorate while not fundamentally tackling our housing problems.

Another aim of Government policy appears to be to reduce dramatically the amount of work in new build, renovation and repair that the public sector can carry out. The people who come to my surgery — the 19,000 households in Islington who are desperately in need of decent housing—cannot, and do not wish to, turn to any of the Government's marginal schemes of home ownership. They want decent housing to rent from the local authority or from a housing association. In Islington, the money available for the production and improvement of that kind of housing has effectively been halved over the last four years. Three years ago, in the Islington housing department some 500 flats were available for letting at any one time. The number is now down to approximately 150 at any one time. That is the scale of the reduction and of the squeeze on available property for people to rent.

People who rent or who wish to rent are being hit in many other ways. There is the revenue effect on local authorities of capital spending. In my authority, the revenue impact on housing of any capital spending immediately falls foul of the Government's new rate-capping proposals. So severe are the penalties imposed on the borough of Islington that, when any spending on capital occurs, the housing subsidy which the Department of the Environment pays is almost completely outweighed by the penalties imposed in the first two or three years. That cannot be a sensible way of conducting the building of new houses.

Any person who wishes to sell his property to a local authority cannot do so at present, because the local authority is not empowered by the Secretary of State to purchase the property, even by agreement. With the present system of compulsory purchase orders, it is very difficult for local authorities to try to tackle some of these severe and continuing problems in the private sector where housing is in gross disrepair and where landlordism is still, alas, not of the best.

There are many other ways in which the ability of local authorities to create decent housing and to improve their housing stock is being hindered by Government policy. The Government are hooked simplistically on a philosophy which says, "We have given council tenants the right to buy, and that is all we need to do to solve the housing problems of the country."

On examination of the Housing and Building Control Bill now under consideration in the other place, where it is being amended, and of the way in which the Bill presents itself as a housing policy for the country, hon. Members will find that all it contains, apart from some measures on building control, and some half-baked schemes that are supposed to assist tenants in carrying out their repairs, is the philosophy of the right to buy and an improvement, so-called, of the ability of people to exercise that right to buy. That is the Government's only response to the many housing problems of the country. The people of the country who want to rent, the people who, as my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) has said, want to exercise their right to rent, the people who want the right to choose what kind of accommodation and what form of tenure they will have, and who want the basic right to a decent home at a price they can afford, are being neglected and ignored by Government policy.

If there is no change in Goverment policy, those of my constituents who are stuck in the higher floors of tower blocks, the young couples who want to set up home for the first time but cannot, the overcrowded families in decaying estates desperately in need of improvement, will all be consigned to an ever-bleaker and more dispiriting future.

1.35 pm
Mr. Piers Merchant (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central)

Conservative Members should pay tribute to the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) for enabling us to debate this issue. Unlike some issues debated by the House, housing provision is a matter of fundamental importance for millions of people. The Conservative party can be justifiably proud of its record over the years.

Unfortunately for Opposition Members, they cannot expect praise from any viewpoint, even their own, for their record, their ideology or their policy—none of which coincides. The simple statistics tell a powerful and persuasive story that highlights the Government's successes.

The private sector housebuilding starts demonstrate a clear and undeniable trend upwards, showing a recovery for the building trade and, more importantly, the provision of more and more houses that the people who live in them can own. The story is one of growing home ownership and the growing individual freedom and wealth associated with that.

That presents the Opposition with a classical political dilemma. They enjoy the fruits of home ownership themselves — they even grudgingly admit, at least sometimes, that the idea is beneficial—but they fear to extend it too far because they know that it carries with it the seeds of their own political destruction as well as curtailing the influence and extent of the state or council apparatus that Socialism seeks to extend and control in every aspect of national life.

Last year, even at a time when the economy was still deeply in recession, the number of private sector starts reached 167,200—the highest figure for 10 years. It is higher than for any period during the Labour Administration. That figure demonstrated a recovery that began in 1980 and which led to a rapid and unchecked growth, faster than in any period during the past 20 years. There is no doubt that the future hope for the nation's housing lies with that sector, just as for the individual it lies with home ownership.

Those who believe firmly in the concept of home ownership—as I do, and not only for housing reasons—do not want to see an inexorable growth in the number of public sector houses. In the long term, we want to see a reduction in the public housing stock, but we want it to be brought about by the voluntary action of individuals, the exercising of free choice in an atmosphere of a multitude of options. It is not for Government to curtail public sector starts or artificially to inflate private sector starts. It is for Government to set the market free and to eliminate the political distortions that have intruded.

Rather than Government and councils deciding which houses of what type should go where, and telling families where they must live, let the people themselves make those decisions all along the line by utilising the traditional freedoms of the market place. In the housing market of all markets, where the supply is so massive and the turnover so great, the choice is vast and highly flexible. The level of satisfaction is extremely high. If, for some reason, a choice of home turns out to be unacceptable, the alternatives are legion. Unfortunately, for those trapped in the grip of state provision, the outlook is far from rosy, and flexibility is about as great as the concrete used in too much of the construction.

It is for that reason that one of the most important contributions of Government since 1979 has been to set free increasing numbers of the trapped from the slavery of tenancy—a yoke that otherwise would have bound them for life. The Housing Act right-to-buy provisions have brought a new hope into the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. They have been freed from the drudgery of the rent queues, from the inefficiencies of the housing repair depots, from the unpredictability of the rent fix and from the deafness of the housing transfer lists. They have had the shackles of petty rules and regulations struck off along with practical restrictions on modernisation and, indeed, the agony of seeing a whole area slide inexorably downhill, with nothing but vague and distant promises of modernisation at some point in the future. They have put behind them perhaps the most dispiriting process of all — paying their weekly rent on the dot every week of every year for 30 years or more and having nothing to show for it at the end of it all. In place of all this instead of downtrodden tenants, mere figures on a housing department computer, are proud homeowners whose property invests them with both personal status and real wealth. They are thus masters of their own destinies, and hold directly themselves the rights and means to choose the way in which they will develop one of the most crucial aspects of life—where to live and what their homes will be like.

It is not surprising that the sale of council houses is nothing short of a social revolution, and the enthusiasm with which the new rights have been taken up is ample proof of tenants' attitudes. Given a fair chance, there is no doubt that the hugely depressing and uniform council estates of our big cities will be transformed remarkably, as is already happening. If what has already happened can happen during an economic recession, that transformation will know no bounds as the economy picks up and booms.

Nevertheless, there is one serious snag. Far too many Labour-controlled councils are still doing what they can to block the sale of council houses to those tenants who demand to exercise that right. Whether that attitude derives from fear, dogma, or simply the desire to retain power over people rather than return it to them, the dead hand of such monolithic council bureaucracies grips remarkably tight and, like all dead hands, cannot easily he prised loose. I speak with the experience of my city, Newcastle upon Tyne, where the council finds devious ways of evading the provisions of the right-to-buy clauses without appearing to do so.

The sheer dearth of information on the sale of council houses is, in itself, remarkable. Amidst vast displays of information about virtually every other right in existence, this one is curiously always omitted. For a council that appears to pride itself on being a monstrous spender on information and publicity, and whose mastery of propaganda surpasses any of its other achievements, the omission of virtually all mention of that particular right is the clearest indication of an intention to ignore and distort Government policy, and the wishes of thousands of its own citizens.

When a recent request was made to the council, at a council meeting, to advertise more widely the right to buy, there was a swift and complete refusal. People were told that it was against the council's policy. Yet Newcastle city council is at present flooding the estates with 100,000 copies of a newspaper called Campaign News, which seeks to make an entirely one-sided attack on the Rates Bill, and, is spending thousands of pounds on a massive poster campaign on the same theme. Such energy is not spent on promoting something far more relevant and meaningful to the ordinary people and citizens—the right to buy their homes.

Small wonder, then, that fewer than 3,000 houses from a stock of about 50,000 have been sold. The number of requests for applications in itself reflects a lack of knowledge at grass roots level. However, that figure tells another story too — a significantly large gap between applications and sales, reflecting a tale of frustrations, delay, obstruction and discouragement. Frustration exists in large quantities, too, among those on the housing waiting list. That list is said to verge on 21,000, and its length is testimony to the local council's failure. It has been run up entirely by that council, as it is entirely responsible for that function. The length of the list is a disgrace, not least because of the individual cases of personal tragedy that it contains, and is an utter condemnation of both the council's housing policy, and the administration of that policy. How it has the gall to continue to advocate the same policy and to deny any options, yet prove that policy to be quite unworkable, while complacently remaining utterly inept in its implementation, is quite indefensible. It is the most eloquent demonstration of the futility of trying to solve housing problems by bureaucracy, by the state and by believing that an expansion of the public housing stock is the simple answer.

It is significant that about half of the 21,000 on the waiting list are already tenants who want a transfer to another house. They are muddled with non-tenants. They are given points and made the subject of assessments. They are put on interminable lists and categorised, put on priority lists and then taken off. Forms are completed and shuffled. Complaints are registered, and interviews take place. Letters are written to councillors and to officials at the civic centre. Tenants even write to me because they are left wondering who really makes the decision at the end of the day.

The decisions that are eventually made are often hit and miss. Many of the categories of priority are not comparable and thus defy any fair listing. The system becomes a massive bureaucratic nightmare. As more and more tenants decide that they would like a transfer, the list becomes longer and longer. The wheels of bureaucracy slowly snare and foul.

It is interesting that more than 1,500 council houses in Newcastle are standing empty while would-be occupants are scrambling up the growing queue. If a tenant, or would-be tenant, waiting in the queue draws attention to an empty house in an area in which he wants to live, it is often quickly provided for him. The obvious abuse of houses standing empty has at long last registered. The council, which at long last is deciding to look for economies, has announced that it can save £140,000 by reducing the number of empty homes by means of better management.

Many non-tenants are very particular about where they want to live and are prepared to wait on the list in an endeavour to get into the right estate. This is one of the factors that swells the list. Transfer problems, especially in popular estates, would be greatly diminished by the presence of low-cost private houses on the open market, and that is precisely the result of the sale of council houses. The policy produces two other major benefits. First, by reducing the overall size of the local housing stock and the potential number of tenants and would-be tenants, the management and bureaucracy problems, which are evidently critical, are reduced. Secondly, it produces valuable capital funds for use either in new building, if that is deemed necessary, or in modernisation if that is the greater problem.

Modernisation and repairs present a problem that is at least as great as, if not greater than, that of the housing waiting list. I have been appalled to discover since my election to this place that 70 per cent. or more of my surgery cases have related directly to housing. The majority of these cases — many hundreds — have concerned housing repairs. There is a constant account of repairs being reported, only to be followed by no action. Promises to visit are never fulfilled. Inspections result in reports but often there are no repairs. Work is started but never finished. A series of men tramp in and out of someone's home over a number of days without finishing the work, or if they complete the work they leave the tenant to discover that the wrong thing has been repaired, or that the job is a complete mess.

Sometimes there is bad workmanship, but more often the fault lies in a lack of management. Invariably administration gets its wires crossed. The barmy results are legion. One constituent told me that council workmen arrived to mend a broken window and decided that a new window frame was needed. On Monday, very efficiently the glazier arrived and inserted a new pane of glass. Two days later the joiner arrived to fit a new frame, and his first task was to break the glass that had only two days previously been fitted. This may all make work for the working man, but it costs ratepayers a great deal of money and ensures that someone else does not get his property repaired.

It is not surprising that some of my constituents report that they have been waiting for a year or more for a repair to be carried out, often having reported the fault on a number of occasions. I do not blame the staff involved because they are victims of their own system. The shortcomings lie in the sheer size of the operation, and they are the products of its monopolistic nature. It is by its nature authoritarian and inflexible, and at the end of the day it cannot deliver the goods. As the political force behind it becomes increasingly dogmatic, so the administration grows more and more dilatory as individualism and inspiration are driven out altogether.

The lack of care and sympathy in the system is matched by a lack of personal responsibility on the part of the tenant, who views every aspect of his house as a political issue. Hence politicians are blamed for everything, from condensation and loose roof tiles to blocked drains and cracked paths. While warming the heart of Liberal party headquarters and, no doubt, that of the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), it has a dangerously debilitating effect on the political process. The esteem of politicians sinks even lower every time a door comes off its hinges.

People have no incentive to repair or modernise their homes. Who can blame them? The property is not theirs and they are not allowed to benefit from any work that they might do. It is only natural that they should demand their undoubted rights — a proper repair service. If the councils cannot provide that, it is certainly not the fault of the tenants.

How different it would be if the tenants were home owners. They would know that repairs and modernisation were their responsibility. They would know that they benefited from such work by either doing it themselves or choosing the most efficient private firm. It would add to the value of their property and would benefit them doubly.

We are drawn to the same conclusion, not just in Newcastle, but in every big housing authority area. The answer is the same. The system is too big and unmanageable. It is monopolistic, authoritarian and it cannot cope.

Where there are home owners there is incentive, enterprise, self-help and personal responsibility. The sale of council houses not only brings those benefits, but releases the funds that can be used to improve a smaller and therefore more efficient service for those who remain in public housing and who are in real need.

The lesson of the debate may not appeal to the Opposition, but the facts and the conclusions are irrefutable. The answer to the problems of home provision is as clear as the case is overwhelming. It lies in more private stock, more council house sales and a much smaller, and thus much more efficient, public sector.

1.53 pm
Mr. Eric S. Heifer (Liverpool, Walton)

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Merchant) is right on one issue. Housing is of fundamental importance and is one of the most serious problems of today. However, the hon. Gentleman is wrong to suggest that the Labour party has nothing to be proud of in its housing policies. Before the 1924 Act, no Government had seriously begun to tackle housing problems for the mass of ordinary people, who had no opportunity to live in decent accommodation at a reasonable rent.

Some of us who have lived a little longer than the hon. Member and have studied what really happened more closely know that immediately after the war Britain faced the most serious housing problems that it had ever had. For example, during the war almost 1 million houses were either destroyed or were in a bad state of repair. In 1945 the Labour Government had to tackle that problem. Millions of young men were coming back from the war. Many were married and had no accommodation. We had to do our best to find accommodation for them. At about that time, I lived for 12 years in rooms or other accommodation that was not my own. To suggest that the Labour Government's housing record is not good is a travesty of the truth.

We have a very good record, but I have to admit that during the period in office of the last Labour Government there was much more of a Tory approach. The Government cut housing expenditure, and I made speeches from precisely the position now occupied by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central urging my colleagues on the Front Bench to adopt a different housing policy. I did not disapprove of their basic policy, but I wanted more money to be made available.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Northwood (Mr. Fraser), who had the good fortune to be able to initiate the debate. Not only did he put down a good motion; he made one of the best speeches on housing that I have heard in the House. We owe my hon. Friend a great debt for clarifying the position of the Labour party and for bringing home to people our very serious housing problems.

There is one other myth that I deal with in passing. It is that the Labour party has never believed in owner-occupation. That is an absurd argument. There is no truth in it. Even in the last Labour party manifesto we were not against owner-occupation. We are not against it now. We want to see more people buying their homes.

The policy of my party on council house sales—my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) spelt it out clearly—is that where there are areas of need, where there are long waiting lists, where people are not in a position to purchase their homes, and where the only way for them is to have rented property, it is wrong to allow council houses to be sold, because it makes the position of such people a great deal worse. For that reason we have always been selective in our approach to council house sales.

We encourage owner-occupation. I do not disagree with the argument put forward by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central that people pay rents for 20 or 30 years and at the end do not receive any benefit. I remember my old father-in-law saying, "I have bought this house about five times over, but when I die it will still belong to the council." I understand that point of view, and it is a very telling argument.

I have before me an excellent document published only three years ago by the Labour party. It is entitled "A Future for Public Housing". I think that it still has a great deal to commend it. It was a discussion document, and it puts into perspective exactly where the Labour party stands on housing.

Let me read its conclusion: Theoretically, one possible model would be public housing as a near-universal public service on the lines of health or education. But this is not a serious option: we live in a society where majority home ownership has now been established, at least as much by Labour as by Tory efforts. Between this and the `welfare' model, the only alternative future for public housing is as a sector offering to all who need or prefer to rent as many as possible of the rights and benefits traditionally but, in the main, unnecessarily tied to home ownership … In exploring the theme of comparability, however, we have found that it offers very positive opportunities to erode the rigid barriers between renting and ownership; widen the range of choice in housing to cater more effectively for households' changing circumstances; and extend social control over the whole housing system, not merely that portion which happens to be occupied on a traditional landlord-and-tenant basis. That is a very clear statement of where the Labour party stood in the past and still stands today.

I do not expect Conservative Members to read the Labour party's document on housing, but had they done so and understood what Labour's policies were we should not have had the tripe that we have listened to today in some of their speeches, at the time of the last general election, and in past years, saying that Labour does not want home ownership and that we want everything publicly owned.

The case for public housing and the need to get people back to work are immensely important. I shall quote from a document issued by the Institute of Housing, called The case for public housing". It started with the following words: The chances of living in a decent home are slim for those who cannot afford to buy or do not already rent a house or flat from a local authority or housing association, and they are about to get slimmer. About 5,000 workers in the construction and allied industries are out of work. All hon. Members here today have admitted the serious problems that exist in home ownership and housing accommodation. Everyone has recognised the need for more home improvements, more homes to be built, and even normal repairs to be carried out. We have heard today about local authority houses that are left empty. One reason why local authority homes are left empty is that those authorities do not have the money to deal with them. The cuts have bitten deeply.

We warned that if the Government, in their autumn Budget, removed another £500 million from housing, or did not allocate further money to it, there would be greater unemployment and further problems. We have had a debate on home improvements—an important matter—but the problems have got worse. Local authorities, particularly in Liverpool, Islington, central London, and in fact in most of the London constituencies, which want to go ahead with home improvements are faced with the problem of having to say, "We do not have the resources available. We cannot give you the home improvements that you have applied for."

That has caused much disappointment and hardship for people living in homes that need to be improved. It has also led to a further 40,000 construction workers going on the dole. That is what has happened, and I indict the Government for that policy. Their policy on home improvements was the only jewel in their crown, but they cut it back. My hon. Friend was right when he said that housing policy is being determined not by the Ministers who are responsible for housing, but by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

If the Government listen to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and allow him to put VAT on housing repairs, it will be a disaster for the industry. I am glad to see the Minister agreeing with me. I hope that means that he will tell his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer that that is not on. However, there is a problem. I have often heard Ministers say, particularly during elections and on odd occasions in the House, that they have no intention of doing something, and the next minute there is a written question and they have done it.

Other hon. Members want to take part in the debate, so I shall not make a long speech. The basic points have been made by my hon. Friends. However, there are one or two minor but grave points about which I want to talk.

We are faced with the abolition of the GLC. People might ask what that matters to me as I come from Liverpool, but it does. Fifty local authorities outside the GLC area inherited or took over homes built by the GLC. Those authorities have an agreement with the GLC for their repair. Who will be responsible for paying for such repairs in future? It is interesting that most of those authorities are Conservative-controlled. I am told that one was about to endorse the streamlining of the cities proposal when it discovered that it would probably be responsible for all the repairs on the GLC houses. It then passed a resolution saying that it was not in favour of the Government's policies. Who will be responsible?

The Shelter report on systems-built houses and their effect is interesting. The Government have not given any serious answer to how local authorities will deal with the repair of such houses. Most will have to be torn down and new homes built in their place because they cannot be repaired. The Government say that the cost of that will have to be met by the HIP allocation. Leeds' repair bill is £60 million and its HIP allocation is £28 million. Wakefield's repair bill is £20 million and its HIP allocation is £10 million. I could go on. The report gives example after example. The Government have not answered that point.

My city of Liverpool is moving towards an unfortunate confrontation with the Government. I say "unfortunate" because the Government are basically responsible for it. It is partly due to the Government and partly to the fact that we inherited a budget from the Liberal-Tory administration which was in office prior to our people taking over after the May elections last year. I know the areas of my city only too well. I meet the tenants. I go to see them in their great blocks of flats. I see the state of disrepair of those flats and the empty houses. I see what ought to be done. Nothing is done because the council has been starved of financial aid. Areas such as Liverpool cannot deal with such problems unless the Government change their attitude towards intervention and support for local authorities. If a confrontation arises, I shall indict the Government's policies.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood for giving us the opportunity to debate the most serious problem that is facing anybody in Britain—the need to have a decent home in which to live, either to rent or to buy at a reasonable cost. Thousands of homeless people and young couples in Britain who do not have the opportunity to purchase a house need a house to rent. There are thousands of unemployed building workers. The time has come when the Government must change their attitude and policy on housing and construction so that we can both provide our people with decent homes at reasonable rents and put the construction workers back to work.

2.9 pm

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle)

I, like the hon. Member for Liverpool,. Walton (Mr. Heffer), am worried about providing houses for the homeless. The hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) accused Conservative Members of not having read the motion. I have read the motion, and I am sorry that nothing in it points to the role that the private rented sector must play in providing housing for all. I shall address my remarks to that role, taking up some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Ryder) in his excellent speech.

The gradual reform and ultimate dismantling of rent controls for future tenancies would be the best possible news for the homeless, the young, single and mobile—all those who have no stake and no say in the Socialist pantheon. Those people, whom the Socialists neglect, know that one can no more suppress natural economic forces than defy the laws of gravity. The political tunnel vision and dogma of the Socialists against the private rented property sector has caused the very people whom they want to help more hardship and suffering than would have been the case if the Socialists had not meddled in the housing market. The Under-Secretary of State wisely described their attack on the private rented sector as blinkered and destructive.

Mr. Anderson

If the hon. Gentleman cared to look at the figures for the private rented sector, he would find a consistent decline over the periods of both Labour and Conservative Governments. How can he claim that Labour Governments have been especially vindictive?

Mr. Leigh

I am happy to reply to that point, because I have done some research on the attitudes of landlords over many years. I do not seek to defend the case that the rent laws are right. We should be prepared to reform them. We should learn the lessons contained in various Department of the Environment surveys. A 1976 survey, followed the passing of the Rent Act 1974 by Labour, showed that only 40 per cent. of resident landlords, 40 per cent. of non-resident landlords and 36 per cent. of company landlords were prepared to relet. The rest were going to sell, reoccupy the premises themselves or leave their own properties empty. About 61 per cent. of non-resident landlords and 80 per cent. of company landlords cited the low levels of rents as the reason for not reletting.

Why are people not renting? I hope that reforms will occur and that we will dispense with the old Socialist adage, "Housing should be for people not profits." The Socialists say that private enterprise is interested only in profits, not in supplying housing for human needs, but in tempering productive interest in profits with a social conscience, the small family man who may have a spare in-law's flat empty can subscribe to the profit motive and provide housing for those in need. All that good common sense is trampled underfoot by a belief that individuals have a right to shelter and the state has a duty to provide it.

Mr. Anderson

What about the failure of shorthold?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Other hon. Members are waiting to catch my eye. Interventions delay speeches.

Mr. Leigh

As the Prime Minister once put it, "Where is the morality of the man with his hand in somebody else's pocket?" I have myself experienced the near-impossibility of finding rented accommodation in a rural area. Why should people in the area I represent—it is 700 square miles, with 170 parishes—find it almost impossible to find that accommodation simply because of rent controls? They might well ask why they should be forced to live in council housing, which is scarce and difficult for a local authority to provide. If rent controls were removed and rented accommodation could be created in the area people would have an opportunity to move into the area and take up jobs.

Every hon. Member knows that in his area there is massive under-occupation of property. People leave property empty simply because they do not dare to rent for fear of acquiring a sitting tenant. Who can blame them? There would be no housing shortage if the rent laws were reformed.

In discovering what will make the owner of property into a potential landlord, one can pose the questions he will be asking himself. What will be the cost of erecting or renovating a building to prepare it for renting? What will be the market price during its lifetime? What will be the rate of return on the assets? That is the classic question posed by business men. How will that rate of return compare with his other investments? What tax policy will apply in the calculation of net income tax payable on the income from the investment in housing? Those questions are posed by the largest potential supplier of housing for the needy. The Government must address themselves to those questions.

The Government's policy towards housing cannot take place in a theoretical vacuum. They must consider seriously the calculations and anxieties of potential landlords—the large entrepreneur and the small family man. As in any market, the rules of supply and demand apply to housing. Government attempts artificially to fix the price of housing lead to shortages or surpluses. The price of rented accommodation held above the price that consumers and producers would determine in the absence of controls results in a surplus of housing stock. Similarly, if the price is set too low, it results in an increase in consumer demand and a diminution of supply. That self-evident economic truism, based upon elementary economic analysis, is publicly ignored by Socialists in opposition and privately acknowledged by Socialists in power the world over.

I shall give an example to illustrate my case. In April 1906, 250,000 people were made homeless overnight by the San Francisco earthquake. After temporary camps and shelters had been established, over one fifth of the city's population had still to be absorbed by the remaining apartments and houses. However, there was no long-term housing shortage as a result. There was an increase in the price of rented accommodation in response to the dramatic increase in demand. All available apartments were taken up, even if they were not entirely what people wanted. Prices remained high until new buildings led to an easing of the position. In the same city 40 years later there was a housing shortage following the dramatic growth in population of almost one third after 1940.

A situation similar to that of 1906 occurred, with people being accommodated in previously unlet property. It was described by the state governor as the most critical problem facing California. The response to that urgent demand was minimal. During the first five days of the year there were only four advertisements offering houses or apartments to rent, as compared with 64 on one day in May 1906. In 1946 30 advertisements a day were placed by people wanting to rent against only five a day in 1906. The difference—this is a clear, empirical example—is that in 1906 the city had no rent regulations, whereas in 1946 the use of high rents to ration houses had been made illegal.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk wisely quoted Lord Robbins, who said in a debate on 23 June 1982: Rent control is essentially the fixing of maximum rents below the level which would prevail in a free market. Thus it affords … a disincentive to spontaneous response of supply. This has occurred whenever and wherever it has been introduced." — [Official Report, House of Lords, 23 June 1982; Vol. 431, c. 1046.] Rent controls produce shortages because, when the price is fixed below the clear market level, it acts as a tax on the landlord. He is coerced into giving his tenants a subsidy. The tax and subsidy is the difference between the market and the controlled price. The only way that the landlord can avoid that tax is by refusing to supply his product. That is what he does.

The gap between supply and demand is further undermined by politicians' actions. There is a housing shortage. That has been the story of rent control in Great Britain and that is why I hope that the Government will seek ways to free the market.

2.18 pm
Mr. Ernie Roberts (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

Three of the most important things in life are a job, a home and good health. They are all related and everyone has the right to them.

In an Adjournment debate in the previous Parliament I raised at 1.30am with the Under-Secretary the problem of the homeless and helpless.in London. He will remember that debate. The position has since worsened. The Under-Secretary has been invited to see the desperate housing conditions of the Hackney people. He cannot deny that the housing conditions in that area are inhuman, and need urgent action by the Government. When will he and his Government do something about those serious problems?

As the hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) correctly said, our philosophy is that rented housing is not a matter for private profit. Housing should be a service to which all people should have the right. They should have a decent home in which to live.

Having raised the question of the Berger company, its properties and the scandalous things that have been occurring, I am glad to note that, as a result of pressure put on the Minister, an inquiry is to be conducted into the whole situation. That is good, but action will be needed if the defects in that area of property ownership are to be remedied.

There is a massive problem of empty houses in London. About 129,000 empty dwellings exist in the capital. Of those, about 49,000 are in the public sector and almost twice as many, over 80,000, are privately owned. A statement issued by an authoritative organisation pointed out: a major reason in the inner cities is government cuts in expenditure on rehabilitiation and redevelopment programmes, so that houses acquired for this purpose are emptied waiting for works which are then long delayed. In Hackney there are about 8,000 empty properties, of which about 2,500 are in the ownership of the borough council, the rest—the overwhelming majority—being owned privately and by housing associations. These houses are unfit for human habitation and require money being spent on them. At the same time, 16,000 families are on the housing list in the borough. I see many of these people each week at my advice surgery, and I shall be seeing some of them this coming Sunday.

In my constituency over 300 families are living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, some of them with four children living in one room. In the past week 100 of them were put on to the street by an owner of bed-and-breakfast properties, but he was compelled to take them back following action by the local authority.

The conditions in which these people are living are deplorable and an attempt is being made by the council to provide alternative accommodation by rehabilitating empty properties and putting the families into them, if only for short periods. However, the council's efforts are being frustrated by a lack of money.

I have called a meeting in this building of all adjacent local authorities and hon. Members representing local constituencies to consider what action we can take to get rid of this terrible bed-and-breakfast problem as it affects the northern part of London — areas such as Brownswood and Finsbury—where people are living in deplorable conditions.

There are tower blocks in Hackney which are not fit to live in and should be pulled down, and the Minister has under consideration blocks which require millions of pounds spent on them to keep them habitable, or to have them taken down and the land used to provide decent accommodation. I would rather they were taken down.

On the other hand, it is possible to deal with them in the way in which we have dealt with blocks in my constituency, by changing them into good maisonette-type homes. That was done at a huge block known as the Lea View flats. An excellent conversion has been done there, with the aid of the tenants, who were fully consulted and who took part in the designing of the flats and giving advice to the builders.

A first-class job has been done on a rotten block of flats, which has been turned into a place where people want to live. The same job could be done on other uninhabitable blocks of flats that still exist in the Hackney area. During his visit to Hackney, the Minister saw that block of flats at Lea View, and he knows what an excellent job has been done.

In Hackney, thousands of houses and flats occupied by families suffer from extreme dampness. Rooms such as bedrooms and living rooms cannot be used. Other rooms are cold, and the result is ill health. Outside decoration and repairs are long overdue in thousands of houses. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley), I have received many heart-breaking letters from tenants about the serious disrepair of flats and houses, and saying that children are virtual prisoners in tower blocks. They cannot go out to play, and some are too young to be left on their own. People try to lug prams up many flights of stairs when the lifts give out, or try to live a normal life in flats that are too high for young families.

The Government say that one cannot solve those problems and many others like them by throwing money at them. That is the latest parrot cry. However, the Government are causing terrible problems by cutting finance. They are creating problems for many people who want proper homes, who are at present living in deplorable conditions. Money has been taken from local authorities, including the Hackney borough council, so that they cannot solve the problems that they face.

In 1979–80 Hackney's housing investment programme allocation was £31 million, but for 1983–84 it was £14 million. The criticism is made that the generalised needs index, which is used as a basis for the allocations, has serious shortcomings, so that it fails to recognise the needs of local authorities such as Hackney. With regard to private sector stock, it fails to give sufficient emphasis to the lack of amenities and substantial disrepair. That is because there is an overemphasis on dwellings that are only in a modest state of disrepair as distinct from dwellings that are unfit to live in, suffer from a lack of amenities and are in substantial disrepair. Hackney needs a greater allocation of finance if it is to solve its housing problems.

Thousands of millions of pounds are being spent by the Government. They have £130,000 million in their purse. It is being spent on the so-called defence of the lives of the people, including on the Falklands. However, the most important defence of the people in the country, including Hackney, is the defence of their jobs, their homes and their health. The Government must use public money for such priorities.

The by-election in Chesterfield, in which I played a part, has given the Government the answer. The electorate made it clear to the Government what it thinks of their housing policies, their economic policies and the mass unemployment that they are creating. The electorate made clear what it thinks of the Government's terrible attacks upon the democratic rights of the country—the abolition of the GLC, the abolition of the ILEA, and the destruction of London Transport. Above all, the electorate has shown what it thinks about the living conditions that have been inflicted upon the people. It is time that the Government used the public money at their disposal to solve the housing problem. The money is there—let them get on with the job.

2.30 pm
Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

The result in Chesterfield was the worst Labour result in the constituency for 50 years. London Transport has been—

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The comment made by the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley), who has not been present during the debate, has nothing to do with the motion on housing, and the provision of homes.

It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

  1. Orders of the Day
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      2. BUSINESS OF THE HOUSE 81 words
  2. Accrington Victoria Hospital 4,474 words