HC Deb 22 April 1986 vol 96 cc180-227

4.1 pm

Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

I beg to move, That this House calls for a new approach to housing policy which combines investment in good housing with responses to family and individual needs reflecting the informed opinions of tenants and home buyers, in order to bring about solutions based upon choice, freedom and fairness, to improve the quality of life throughout the whole community.

Mr. Speaker

I should announce to the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

Mr. Rooker

In the Queen's Speech last November the Prime Minister said: Labour could not hold a candle to our record on housing."—[Official Report, 6 November 1985; Vol. 86, c. 19.] The Government amendment to the Opposition motion today appears to reflect that view, although I notice that the name of the Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction does not appear on it. It is therefore important to set out some of the old problems as a result of the Tory record to see why new solutions are required.

Our housing is old and deteriorating. One in four homes in England pre-date the first world war. I must add that those homes are not the only homes that are deteriorating. Britain spends less of its wealth on housing than any of the 11 Common Market countries and is behind the United States, Sweden, Norway and Finland in that respect. Indeed, we are at Third world levels in relation to the wealth we spend on housing.

The period of this Government has seen the national house-building programme plummet from an average of 285,000 new homes a year under the previous Labour Government to only 180,000 a year for the first five years of the Conservative Government. That is a drop, as I have said repeatedly, of 2,000 new homes every week since the Conservatives came to power in 1979.

So far, the best year that the Conservatives have managed was 1983 when 217,000 new homes were started nationally. Unfortunately it seems to have escaped the Prime Minister's attention that her best year of home starts is 47,000 new homes below the 1978 figure which was the worst year for new home starts under the previous Labour Government. That shows above all else that the Prime Minister's claim in the debate on the Queen's Speech in November is quite preposterous.

All of us know that the Government generated a pre-election boom in home improvement grants. However, once the election was over the chopper came down quite firmly. The number of home improvement grants in 1985 is less than half of the 1984 total. The Government's Green Paper "Home improvements—a new approach", effectively spells the end of home improvement grants as a policy instrument for raising the standard of an area. Even those living in decent housing—this point escapes Ministers—need to know and be sure that their neighbours' homes will be looked after, if only for the narrow interest of preserving the value of their own homes. The Government Green Paper, to all appearances, is finished. We have hardly heard a pip from the Government because of the overwhelming response against the proposals contained in that Green Paper.

The Government must be constantly reminded that, in the rush of pre-election time-limited bonanza, extra staff throughout the country had to be taken on by local authorities. Because of the cuts, tens of thousands of our fellow citizens who applied for grants during that time, will never receive them unless there is a substantial and vast change in Government policy. People are extremely bitter. How can they now be blamed for being reluctant to spend money on their homes when a programme of improvement might resume rendering them ineligible for the grant that they might otherwise have received.

Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Rooker

I will give way later as I wish to make progress now.

On top of that failure, the demolition rates have also been cut. The building figures of new homes are down nationally and demolition levels are also down. It therefore follows that it is crucial that improvements are vastly stepped up. We do not need lectures from the Government, as the Labour party first introduced the system of home improvement grants for private sector home-owners.

To add to the crisis, there is also an increase in households beyond the increase in population. The Government are aware that many "hidden" homeless people are forced to share other people's homes. The legally defined homeless figure rises each year the Government are in office. In 1985 it topped 90,000. I do not see how the Government amendment fixes figures in relation to the 90,000-plus homeless families in 1985. Those people are not homeless out of choice. Their freedom is severely limited and they do not believe that the system is fair.

Is it Tory freedom and fairness which has caused an estimated 14,000 families to be in bed-and-breakfast accommodation? Are Conservative Members satisfied with the quality of life that they mention in the amendment for the estimated 750,000 handicapped people living in housing that is not suited to their needs? To add further to the crisis on the Tory record, it is known that long-stay patients in psychiatric hospitals are mainly long-stay because there is no alternative accommodation. In the face of that, how can the Government, through their manipulation of the Opposition motion, say that there is choice, freedom and fairness?

I stress two further points to highlight the Tory record on housing—the record which the Prime Minister said that the Opposition could not hold a candle to. After six years of Conservative Government—the figures relate to April 1985—no fewer than 4 million out of the 18 million homes in England were either unfit for human habitation, lacking in basic amenities such as an inside toilet or hot and cold running water, or were in need of substantial renovation.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Rooker

I must continue.

That figure of 4 million represents 20 to 25 per cent. of the homes in England. That is some record and certainly shows that there is not much fairness. I give way to the first hon. Gentleman who wished to intervene.

Mr. Latham

I notice that when the hon. Gentleman was giving the figures for new housing starts, he compared the Labour party record with the Government's record. He did not give the same comparison for improvement grants. Will he do that now?

Mr. Rooker

I shall be quite happy to recount the figures. However, my point is that the Opposition's housebuilding record, as I have said, was 2,000 new starts every week better than the Government's. We were demolishing old and decrepit housing faster than the Tory Government. It naturally follows that, if we are to maintain housing standards, there must be a vast increase in improvement grants. No one can deny that, because of the pre-election boom, the Tories engineered a boom in home improvement grants to hide the cuts in new housebuilding and the further cuts in demolition. There is no denying that. That is not part of my case, but the record overall is not one of which the Government can be proud.

Mr. Marlow


Mr. Rooker

There is also the Tory record on rents and mortgage interest. Even with the recent decreases in the latter, mortgage interest has on average been 50 per cent. higher under the Tory Government than it was under Labour.

I want to be fair to the Government. I am in favour of being fair and placing the facts on the record. The increase in the retail price index between 1979 and 1985—in the first six years of the present Government—was 74.6 per cent. At the same time, rents went up by 144 per cent., and the index for mortgage interest rose by 158 per cent. That is the scale of the increase in mortgage interest compared with inflation under the Tories. Ministers may not agree with the figures, but it was provided by the Library and confirmed by a Minister in a parliamentary answer on 28 January.

Despite those figures, the Government have the brass face to tell us that we cannot hold a candle to their record on housing. Despite that appalling catalogue, the Government are arrogant enough to claim in their amendment that they are fulfilling the housing aspirations of the British people.

Mr. Marlow

There are two aspects to the provision of housing. One is national Government and the other is the local authority. The hon. Gentleman says that a great number of houses are sadly below standard. What proportion of those houses is in Labour local authority areas? Will he also explain why, although Lambeth has much higher rates than Wandsworth, the housing situation is much worse in Lambeth than in Wandsworth, a Conservative local authority with a lower rate? What is the secret? What is the difference? Why does that happen?

Mr. Rooker

The hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) always asks about Lambeth, to which he is, of course, extremely grateful for his home improvement grant.

Mr. Marlow


Mr. Rooker

No, I shall not give way again. I did not say that the hon. Gentleman criticised Lambeth—he did that himself. I said that he is eternally grateful to Lambeth.

Mr. Marlow


Mr. Rooker

Many of my hon. Friends—

Mr. Marlow

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker—

Mr. Speaker

Is the hon. Gentleman sure that it is not a point of frustration?

Mr. Marlow

I am not a net debtor to Lambeth.

Mr. Rooker

Millions of home owners and tenants are demanding a change of policy. What we do not save in our housing stock we shall lose. The next generation will have to foot the bill.

Mr. Marlow

Will the hon. Gentleman answer the question?

Mr. Rooker

There is no one answer. No one in his right mind would claim that there is one answer. None of my hon. Friends would claim that there is, and I am sure that the Minister would not either. However, a start must be made. The Government could make a start by redressing some of their own faults. They could, for example, lift VAT from improvements and repairs carried out by registered builders. The money lost in VAT would be saved out of the black economy. The Government made a fantastic and fundamental error in 1984 in imposing VAT. The imposition has caused considerable difficulties. Lifting the burden of VAT from improvements and repairs by registered builders would pay for itself.

A programme should be pledged to ensure that within two to three years at the most every home in the land has hot and cold water, a bath and an inside toilet. That is a very modest proposal, but each of those basic amenities is lacking in at least half a million homes.

The labour and materials are there, and, heaven knows the need is there. The investment would be a prudent one, and putting decent amenities into our houses would save the NHS a fortune.

The Government must scrap the Green Paper on home improvements. We need proposals that would not penalise home-owners as the proposals in the Green Paper seem to do. Private money could be encouraged into improvement work through public channels. That has been advocated by some Labour-controlled local authorities.

Grant procedures must be simplified to encourage those who are bewildered by the form-filling that is needed if they are to take up the opportunities. With the present lack of either newbuild or demolition, the take-up of grants needs to be positively encouraged rather than cut again as it was in 1985.

On no occasion have the Government increased the financial limits of the grants or the cheap scheme for the first-time buyers which they inherited from the Labour Government. They should do so immediately.

We need a national programme for the repair and modernisation of our 5 million or 6 million council dwellings. The Government should set it up in a way that actively involves the tenants. The Government know the scale of the problem. It is not fanciful to say that there is a demand for repair and modernisation. The Government's own report of last November on the condition of public sector housing stock itemised one area of stock after another—flats and houses categorised by age—and arrived at the need to spend £18 billion on bringing that stock up to good condition. A start should be made on a national programme actively involving tenants.

We must go further. It is crucial that tenants and home owners should have new rights to be involved in the modernisation, repair and improvement of their homes. Another of our modest proposals is that there should be a right to demand that the work is done satisfactorily before payment is made for repairs or improvement. That vital right does not exist today for local authority tenants or for home owners on the receiving end of improvement grants. They have no right to insist that the work be done to their satisfaction before the local authority can pay the builder or the contractor.

Mr. John Maples (Lewisham, West)

Or the direct labour organisations.

Mr. Rooker

Yes, or the DLOs. People will not feel responsible for caring for the improved properties unless they are involved.

Some Conservative Members have joined us in another demand that we have made on three or four occasions in the past year. The money locked up in local authority bank accounts, being the proceeds of the sale of property or land, must be released. To ignore £6 billion is simply not prudent financial management. I am sure that all the Ministers at the Department of the Environment agree. However, they cannot say so, because the Treasury will not permit them to do so.

We need an immediate increase in resources devoted to the Housing Corporation, in order to enable the voluntary sector of housing authorities and co-operatives to flourish and to contribute in the area in which it can contribute so much—catering for the special needs of the young and the elderly. In addition, the voluntary sector should once again be able to concentrate on what it can do extremely well—rehabilitating rundown housing for family purposes.

I make a plea on behalf of the Opposition generally and of some Labour Members in particular who have defective housing in their constituencies.

The House must seriously consider the problems of defective housing and put muscle behind the Housing Defects Act 1984 which had all-party support. However, there must be the proviso that resources will be made available to make the Act a reality. If that is not done the House will be conning hundreds of people.

We must not throw good money after bad—nobody is asking for that. However, hundreds of thousands of families who live in defective housing—owners and tenants—need to know where they stand. They are in homes which they cannot sell and for which there is a block on improvement grants and modernisation by public sector landlords. It is crucial that we take action.

Without returning to the quick-build policies of the 1950s and 1960s—I have had to use statistics as a qualification of the scale of the damage, but we are not interested in playing the numbers game for the sake of building junk housing—which caused so much distress to people trapped in high-rise blocks and walk up deck-access flats, we must have a national comprehensive building programme for all kinds of tenure. That includes those who wish to rent, those who wish to buy and those who wish to do a bit of both through shared ownership.

Mr. Maples

The hon. Gentleman has referred to those who wish to buy, and the motion refers to choice. I am sure that he will agree that most people, given the choice, would prefer to own their homes. Can the hon. Gentleman explain how such aspirations would be realised by the 6 million public sector tenants if a future Labour Government stopped the sale of council houses?

Mr. Rooker

A future Labour Government would not remove the right to buy—we have made that absolutely clear. It is no good the hon. Member looking surprised, for it is there, chapter and verse, in "Homes for the Future".

Mr. Robert Atkins (South Ribble)

It is called a U-turn.

Mr. Rooker

It is not a U-turn. Let me give an example to prove that. In 1967 the Labour Government gave home owners of leasehold houses the right to buy the freehold, and that was without Conservative party support. Recently, the Tory Government went to the European Court to defend that piece of socially just legislation. We do not deny that we opposed the Government's proposals in the Housing Act 1980. But although our proposals are not the same as the Government's, because we want to replace what has been sold, we now accept each other's position. There is no argument about that and there is no point in the hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins) refering to a U-turn.

We accept people's right to buy, in the same way as the Tories opposed the right for home owners to buy their freeholds which had been granted under the Labour Government. No Labour Government have ever stopped a council—whether Tory or Labour controlled—from selling houses to its tenants.

Mr. Maples


Mr. Rooker

No, I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Maples


Mr. Rooker

No. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be able to make his own speech later. I give way to my hon. Friend.

Mr. George Park (Coventry, North-East)

Is my hon. Friend aware that, over a quarter of a century ago the Labour-controlled council of Coventry was building houses for sale?

Mr. Rooker

The record of Labour-controlled local authorities providing homes for sale, up and down the country, is clear. If the Government half close the gap between their average levels of house building and that of the last Labour Government it would mean an extra 50,000 new homes a year. Our target is simple and we have made it clear. We will build and plan to repair and improve at a rate faster than the present rate of housing decay. The problem of house decay is serious and, if we do not meet it, future generations will have problems with which they will be unable to cope.

Poor housing is an injustice for all our community, but those who live in it live out the injustice on a daily basis. An investment in housing is an investment in people both in their homes and in their jobs. We cannot offer real choice, freedom and the fairness inherent in decent housing unless the nation wakes up and starts to put people first. That is our intention.

4.25 pm
The Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction (Mr. John Patten)

I beg to move, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof:

'welcomes the Government's approach to housing policy which combines investment in good housing with responses to family and individual needs reflecting the informed opinions of tenants and home buyers, in order to bring about solutions based upon choice, freedom and fairness; and congratulates the Government on its achievements since 1979 in fulfilling housing aspirations and improving the quality of life throughout the whole community. '. The amendment recognises the crucial truth about the debate. Phrase like "putting people first" or "choice, freedom and fairness" may be new themes to the Labour party, but they are not new themes for the Conservative party. They have been the basis of our housing policy for the past seven years, since the introduction of the tenant's charter and the Housing Act 1980.

It is right that I should welcome the Labour party's conversion to the importance of choice, freedom and fairness, but it has been some time coming. The Labour party's attitude to the introduction of the right-to-buy policy followed different priorities from those outlined by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) when he discussed the policy in his speech.

When the Labour party was faced with one of the most popular housing policies introduced by any Government, what did it do? It opposed it. It did not put people first, it put the wishes of local authorities first. Even now, when the overwhelming popularity of the right-to-buy policy has forced the Labour party to accept it, it has done so grudgingly.

Mr. Robert Atkins

A U-turn.

Mr. John Patten

It has done a sort of U-turn, but more of that in a moment.

From the policy paper "Homes for the Future", to which my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Maples) referred in his telling intervention, and which the Labour party conference approved six months ago, it is far from clear whether it has accepted the right-to-buy policy. I demonstrate that by quoting from the document which tells us that the right to buy has the effects of restricting choice for tenants". With regard to the public sector stock, it says that the right to buy has only made matters worse". Which is the real Labour party policy? That approved by the Labour party conference, or that skated over by the hon. Member for Perry Barr?

Mr. Allan Roberts (Bootle)


Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)


Mr. Rooker


Mr. Patten

I shall give way in a moment. I did not interrupt the speech of the hon. Member for Perry Barr.

In that document, the Labour party proposed to allow local authorities to determine whether, in the light of all the circumstances, council tenants should be able to buy their houses". That is not so much a conversion as a case of half falling off the donkey on the road to Damascus—a mixture of "Me-tooism" and totally muddled Labour party policy formulation.

Mr. Allan Roberts


Mr. Patten

I shall give way with pleasure to the hon. Gentleman later. The U-turn referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins) shows how much the ground has been shifted—it is ground not of Conservative party choosing but of the choosing of British people.

Mr. Allan Roberts


Mr. Patten

I shall give way in a moment as I promised.

Mr. Peter Riddell revealed yesterday in the Financial Times that Labour's own research had revealed that the party was in danger of being seen as rooted in the 1960s and the 1970s in its approach". The hon. Members for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) and for Perry Barr are trying to drag the party into the 1980s. They have some way to go yet. But how much will it all cost?

This morning a new document on housing was launched. It is a glossy new document published in the new, fashionable soft-focus colouring, blurred round the edges, such as we are accustomed to seeing in some newspapers. It refers to a new package of housing policies. But how much will it cost? My right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury is waiting, with his little calculator, for evidence of how much it will cost so that he can add it to the £24 billion of pledges that the Labour party has already given.

I shall give way to the hon. Member for Perry Barr if he will tell me the cost. The hon. Member for Copeland is also sitting on the Opposition Front Bench. I shall gladly give way to the hon. Gentleman and to the hon. Member for Perry Barr if they will tell me the cost of their programme. It appears either that they do not know the cost of their programme, or that if they do know how much it would cost they are refusing to tell the House.

Mr. Rooker

What is the cost of the 4 million people who are living in decaying and unfit housing? What is the cost of the people who are living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation? What is the cost of the 90,000 people who are homeless every year, and of the 4 million people in the dole queue who are being wasted?

Mr. Patten

The hon. Gentleman should be ashamed of himself. One does not answer one question by asking five or six others. If the hon. Gentleman cannot give a straight answer to a straight question, let the hon. Member for Copeland, who is in charge of the Labour party's policy on the environment, get up and tell us the cost. If he will not do so, either he does not know or he is trying to perpetrate a fraud on the electorate by putting forward an uncosted and false prospectus.

Mr. Allan Roberts

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Patten

If the Opposition Front Bench will not tell us the cost, perhaps the hon. Member for Bootle will tell us what it is.

Mr. Roberts

I shall say something about the cost of housing investment later, Mr. Speaker, if I catch your eye. As for U-turns and public expenditure on housebuilding, one of the Government's main arguments during the proceedings in Committee, of which I was a member, on the Housing Bill of 1980, in favour of the sale of council houses was that one could use the capital receipts from the sale of council houses to replace those that had been sold. Why have the Government done a U-turn? Why will the Government not allow local authorities to spend their capital receipts on the building of houses? Has the Minister read the Labour party's document "Homes for the Future"? Is he in favour of the Labour party's commitment to replace every house that is sold by building a new one?

Mr. Patten

We are, of course—

Mr. Roberts


Mr. Patten

That is exactly what I am going to do. The hon. Gentleman should restrain himself. He asked a direct question. The answer is that each year we are permitting a proportion of the accumulated sums of money from council house sales to be spent on new building. Not all the £6 billion is now backed by cash. Much of the £6 billion has now been spent on other purposes, so not all of it is available. We are reviewing the capital control system. We have had this argument across the Floor of the House on a number of occasions since I became Minister for Housing. A new series of questions now has to be asked about the cost of the Labour party's programme. The Opposition Front Bench refuses to give that information because it does not have it. Therefore, I give due notice that I shall return to the issue again and again.

Mr. John Powley (Norwich, South)

Did my hon. Friend hear correctly the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts), who said that it was the Labour party's policy to replace every council house that is sold with another council house? Will he speculate on the cost to the Exchequer and the financial institutions of this country of replacing about 900,000 council houses?

Mr. Patten

My hon. Friend has put his finger on the confusion in the Labour party's policy. I listened carefully to the speech of the hon. Member for Perry Barr. He said that he did not want to play the numbers game. He also said that there was a pressing need to build more and more houses. I invited him to give the answer, but he has not chosen to explain how that programme will be paid for.

Mr. Tony Banks

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Patten

I shall give way later to the hon. Gentleman. I am conscious of the fact that during our last debate I was unable to give way to him.

It is as difficult as ever to tell what is the official policy of the Social Democratic party and the Liberal party on this issue, as expressed in their amendment on the Order Paper which has not been selected for debate. The Social Democratic party seems to accept the right to buy. That leaves the Liberal party, as I am always being reminded by the hon. Member for Perry Barr, in the extraordinary position of being the only party that does not officially accept the right to buy. The amendment of the Social Democratic party and the Liberal party does not suggest that they are about to resolve this confusion. If my right hon. and hon. Friends have not read the amendment, I recommend them to read it. It reads like a John Cleese parody of the risible results of consensus policy making.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

Before the Minister leaves that point, will he give way?

Mr. Patten

Perhaps I shall get a straight answer from the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Alton

The answer is unequivocally yes, the Liberal party would retain the right to buy. The amendment specifically says that it would.

Mr. Patten

If that is now official Liberal party policy, it is extremely useful information to have from the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Member for Perry Barr ended on the question of the right to buy and home ownership, and naturally, I began on those issues in order to take up his points. The right to buy has been successful because it recognises the wish of the great majority of the British people to own their own homes.

Mr. Tony Banks


Mr. Patten

Mortgage famines have disappeared and mortgage rates are coming down. Mortgage rates are being significantly reduced, for the second time in a matter of weeks.

Mr. Banks

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Patten

Before I turn to the rented sector, I shall of course give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Banks

On the Minister's point about the right to buy in the private sector, according to the most recent survey in the London borough of Newham, only 7 per cent. of the population can afford to buy a house that costs about £35,000, which is a low price in the south-east. Is the Minister aware that because of the massive unemployment and other poverty that has been brought about in Newham by this Government's policies, the right to buy in the private sector is effectively denied to the people of Newham?

Mr. Patten

In the Housing and Planning Bill we are trying to include additional incentives for flat dwellers, a substantial number of whom live in the London borough of Newham, which will make it more possible for them to buy their homes. I do not want to devote the burden of my speech to the right to buy, but I had to deal with the points that were made by the hon. Member for Perry Barr.

More choice, freedom and fairness are needed in the rented sector. I have made that point time and again since I have been Minister for Housing. I hope that the hon. Member for Perry Barr recognises that fact. The right to buy and home ownership have not been the only tunes that I have played either in debates in this House or in Standing Committee. That is one of the best ways to avoid the mistakes of the past.

The hon. Member for Perry Barr referred to choice and fairness. Council tenants did not have much choice about the design of the estates and tower blocks that were built in the 1960s and 1970s. Alas, those designs reflected what the bureaucrats and architects in central Government and local government thought was best. The people were not consulted. All those who were involved made that fundamental mistake. The result has been many of the housing problems that face us today. We are trying to deal with the failed solutions to past problems, and we are now in the third or fourth cycle of trying to solve them. I very much regret that the management record of many local authorities has not made solving those problems any easier.

I have said it before, but it has to be said again, that just as there are far too many homes standing empty in the private sector, so there are 116,000 houses and flats standing empty in the public sector. That is more than the total number of people who are accepted in this country as being homeless. In fact, 26,000 houses and flats have been standing empty for more than 12 months. Those houses and flats are an affront to the homeless of this country.

Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Patten

No. I have given way on many occasions, and in the interests of those right hon. and hon. Members who are hoping to speak I must make progress with my speech.

We hear a great deal from Labour-controlled local authorities, in particular, about the need for more expenditure, but rent arrears now total more than £200 million. In the worst 20 authorities alone, rent arrears equal about £94 million.

Labour authorities should tell us what they have been doing with the substantial sums of money spent on their stock. If their housing is in poor repair, how did they allow it to get into that state? What have they been doing for the past 30 or 40 years? Sheffield, for example, has been under Labour control for all but two of the last 40 years, and in the last six years alone it has spent £180 million on housing. Wolverhampton has been Labour for 30 years since the war, and in the last six years it has spent £115 million. Manchester has also enjoyed Labour control for most of the last 30 years, and it has spent £340 million on housing in the last six years.

What have these authorities been doing for so long with so much money? What has been the result? On the most recent figures available to me, Sheffield has nearly 3,000 empty homes. It is owed nearly £10 million in rent arrears—15 per cent. of its annual rent income. Wolverhampton has nearly 2,000 empty homes—5 per cent. of its total stock—and rent arrears are nearly £3 million. Manchester has 6 per cent. of its stock standing empty—nearly 5,000 houses and flats. It is owed £4.5 million in rent arrears. What a record of the results of more than a generation of Labour control in those areas of housing. What a tribute to generations of Labour control. What an affront to the homeless.

Perhaps the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser), who I understand will wind up the debate for the Opposition and to whose speech I look forward, will find time to comment on Lambeth's record of 1,800 empty council houses and over £9 million in rent arrears—25 per cent. of its annual rent income.

The records of many of these councils are very poor, but they cannot be held entirely to blame. Many council housing departments are simply too big to manage properly, as I think all hon. Members recognise. I know that I have the agreement of the hon. Member for Perry Barr, because he quoted some telling figures in his speech on Second Reading of the Housing and Planning Bill. He told us that seven councils have more than 50,000 houses and flats to manage, and that a further 52 councils have between 20,000 and 50,000. The hon. Gentleman was certainly not exaggerating when he said that there was scope in that size of management for the bungling depersonalised approach. He was right and I commend his courage in saying it.

We have to find ways to break up these great empires and to achieve more diversity of management and ownership. I believe that there is a growing consensus in the House that those are desirable ends, even if we might not necessarily be able to agree on all the ways of achieving them. We have to encourage more tenant participation in the organisation and management of the blocks of flats, houses and estates in which they live. The Housing and Planning Bill will promote just this kind of change, and I welcome the enlightened attitude of Opposition spokesmen of all political parties in the Committee on that Bill to these new attempts to help tenants of housing in council ownership.

Mr. Marlow

My hon. Friend mentioned parts of the record of Manchester. Probably, like me, he has received a letter from a Mr. Taylor of the city of Manchester, who has been seeking to misrepresent the Housing and Planning Bill. He is not only doing that, but is threatening to set up a conference for the purpose of inviting trade unionists and other councils further to misrepresent the Bill. Can my hon. Friend say what action the Government will take to prevent Manchester from putting politics rather than people first?

Mr. Patten

I am afraid that that letter has not come through to me. Perhaps my civil servants thought that I was too weak a spirit to receive such a threat from Manchester and decided to keep it off my desk. I deplore the way in which local councils, such as Manchester, or indeed Leicester, from time to time threaten people wishing to purchase their own homes that they will diversify management of tenure in the estates on which they live.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, E ast)

What message does my hon. Friend have for those constituents of mine in Leicester, East who have been trying for the last three years to buy their own flats and have been prevented because the Labour party is denying them the right to do so? Those people are desperately keen to buy their own homes, but the Leicester city council, which is Labour-controlled at the moment, is refusing to allow them to do so. They want to be property owners, and they are being denied that right. What can we do in the Housing and Planning Bill to help them?

Mr. Patten

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has observed sotto voce, that is the authentic face of the Labour party at grass-roots level. What is going on in Leicester shows the yawning gulf between practice in so many Labour authorities in this land, alas, and the sensible, pragmatic and non-ideological words which come so often from Labour Front-Bench spokesmen. If my hon. Friend would like to write to me with examples of these shocking incidents, I shall look into them and see whether there is anything that I can do.

Local estate-based management is one of the key changes which my Department is advocating to local authorities through our priority estates project and the urban housing renewal unit.

Another matter that has been of great concern in recent debates on the Housing and Planning Bill is the need to bring in private investment. I must say to the hon. Member for Perry Barr that the misrepresentation by at least some parts of the Labour party of the intent of that Bill and the stories being put around in Labour party leaflets in places such as Wandsworth—I was shown a shocking example today—that the purpose of the Bill is to make it possible for tenants to be removed at will, freely and at the stroke of a pen, is wrong. The hon. Gentleman knows that. We are to have a chance to debate it on Report on Thursday. I simply want to put him on notice now that I shall do all that I possibly can to make sure that the truth is told about these proposals.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State hopes to say more about these initiatives when he replies to the debate. I should like to say how pleased we have been by the positive response that we have had from so many local authorities, many Labour authorities among them, to the offer of help by the urban housing renewal unit. More than 100 authorities have already asked for help from the UHRU and many schemes are being worked up. These authorities have realised that they do not themselves have all the answers, so they are prepared to work in partnership with central Government and with the private sector to try to provide some of the answers.

We have to look at new ways of providing rented housing. That is a theme to which we have to return in the House. The private sector certainly has a part to play, as do housing associations and other forms of investment institutions. This is critically important. These alternatives can not only offer tenants the prospect of better management, but can offer more choice, more freedom and more fairness compared with the hopelessly divided forms of housing that we have, with owner-occupation, council renting and precious little in between. This is one of the great blots on the social landscape of this country and is unique in the Western world. We have to do something to break down those barriers.

We need to spend money, too, on improving and repairing the stock. We were given the uncosted benefit of the uncosted thoughts of the hon. Member for Perry Barr and his uncharacteristically demure and self-effacing colleague the hon. Member for Copeland, who said what they were going to do, but not how they were going to pay for it, and when.

We have been spending money. We have spent a record amount on home improvements since 1979. We have spent more than £3 billion, and approximately £0.5 billion is being spent this year. It is the same in the public sector, where about £2.5 billion is being spent from the capital account and the revenue account on housing repairs and renovations—not before time. In 1978–79, the last year of the Labour Government, only £1 billion was spent. We have increased the amount of money spent on council house repairs and renovations by some 14 per cent. since 1979.

Let there be no tales from the Opposition about the Government not wishing to begin the substantial task of trying to bring back into good repair our housing stock and to undo many of the mistakes so tragically made in the last 20 or 30 years. Those are the areas in which expenditure is needed. It is not needed to play the numbers game or to provide vast new housing estates on which so much was spent in the '60s and '70s, to such disastrous effect.

Those are our priorities. We want to help those who wish to buy their own homes. We want to improve diversify management for tenants, and we want to devote more resources to bringing back into use, by improvement and repair, houses for everyone, especially the homeless. Those are the priorities that really mean putting people first.

4.51 pm
Mr. Nick Raynsford (Fulham)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to make my first speech in the House on this subject. I say that for three reasons. First, I have worked in housing for the last 14 years, a major part of which was with the housing organisation SHAC. Secondly, housing has, sadly, been neglected far too much in recent years and has been given far too low a priority, both in terms of public expenditure and emphasis by the Government. Thirdly, the Government's policy on housing is so woefully lacking that there is a crying need for a new approach and a new policy to try to ensure that many of our fellow citizens who have to endure shameful conditions of poverty and squalor and homelessness have the prospect of a decent home.

There is no doubt about the extent of the housing crisis. We know from the official figures that on the most cautious estimate something of the order of one in 10 properties are totally unsatisfactory—unfit unfit for human habitation or suffering from a lack of basic amenities such as bathrooms and WCs, or requiring considerable expenditure to tackle disrepair. There is a huge backlog of properties in bad condition. They are to be found in the private rented sector, especially in constituencies such as mine.

I am pleased to have this opportunity to pay tribute to the two hon. Members who represented Fulham in the last 40 years—Michael Stewart, now Lord Stewart of Fulham in another place, and the late Martin Stevens whose unfortunate death led to the by-election which resulted in my election to this House. In my constituency a substantial number of properties are privately rented and many of the people who live in them have to endure appalling conditions. I was able to show those conditions to my hon. Friends the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Bar (Mr. Rooker) when they visited Fulham a couple of months ago. They saw some of the worst conditions anywhere in Britain.

Apart from privately rented housing, many owner-occupiers live in properties that they do not have the money to maintain. They are living in houses that are literally falling to bits around them, and action is needed to tackle that problem if we are not to see a much greater problem of deterioration in owner-occupied houses. As we all know, there is a huge backlog of poor condition council properties. Many of those houses were built to prefabricated systems that have proved unsatisfactory. Those systems were often encouraged by central Government and local authorities are now being given the blame for them because they followed the advice of central Government 20 or more years ago.

There is also a serious problem of unmet housing needs. We know from surveys carried out by organisations such as Shelter that 1.25 million households are registered on council waiting lists. That is a rather imperfect measure of need, but it shows the extent of the problem. Perhaps more graphic are the shameful figures of homelessness, of which the most recent for last year were published last week. They' show that 94,000 households were accepted last year by local authorities in England as homeless. That is the highest number ever recorded and an increase of some 13 per cent. on the previous year. That is a measure of unmet needs.

The problems of poor conditions and unmet housing needs have been greatly exacerbated by Government cuts in housing expenditure. I should like to put a couple of figures on the record. The Minister said a great deal about the Government's spending record, but for every £100 spent on housing in the last year of the last Labour Government, only £30 was spent by this Government last year. That is a measure of the extreme cuts in expenditure on housing for which this Government have been responsible. We spend less as a proportion of our gross domestic product on housing than any other European country. We spend less than West Germany and less than Greece. We are at the bottom of the European league for spending on residential accommodation. The figures for public sector house building are a disgrace. Ten years ago 170,000 new homes were started. Last year, the figure was just 33,000 one fifth of the level achieved 10 years ago. That is the record of this Government.

The Minister talked about the polarisation between owner-occupation and council renting and said he wanted something in the middle. Many of us want that. Many of us, including myself, have served on committees of housing associations that have been striving to provide alternative tenures. For every three homes that housing associations were providing in 1979, the last year of the Labour Government, only one is being provided now, and that is because of cuts by the Government in expenditure on housing associations. That shows the hollowness of the Minister's claim that he is seeking some additional tenure through that medium. Some £20 billion is required to meet the backlog of poor condition in the council sector, but the current allocations go only a small way towards meeting that need.

Home improvement grants have been mentioned and I should like to put some more figures on the record. The Government's policy on home improvement grants has been a classic example of stop-go-go when they seek to inflate the economy or to give an impression of activity, and stop when the Treasury says no. Last year, the number of home improvement grants approved was some 137,000, a 40 per cent. cut on the number a year before of 229,000. Is that the way to plan for the future? Is that the way to give confidence to people who want to improve their homes? Is that the way to run any public administration? The answer to those questions is no, it is a disgraceful way to proceed.

Government policy does not involve only cuts because it is also one-sided. The Government are obsessed with the owner-occupied market and in assisting the extension of owner-occupation. They ignore the needs of those people who either cannot afford or do not want to own their own homes. The right to buy has frequently been mentioned, but the chief criticism of the right to buy in the Government's own Housing Act 1980 is that it provides a benefit to those council tenants who could and want to buy, and totally neglects the needs of the homeless, the badly housed and council tenants who want to transfer to other accommodation. It is a one-sided policy that neglected the needs of an important section of the population. It is rather similar to a policy towards the National Health Service that simply looks after the interests and needs of consultants and ignores the needs of nurses. That is the same as the one-sidedness that we see in the Government's housing policy.

The one-sided approach is exemplified in the Housing and Planning Bill, 1986 which will have its Third Reading and Report stage debate in two day's time. That Bill is a measure of the Government's preoccupations. Does it attempt to tackle the need for additional home building? The answer is no. Does it attempt to tackle the need for a better improvement policy or take any further that Green Paper on improvements that was published last summer and has since been forgotten? No, there is no proposal on that score. Does it do anything to meet the needs of the homeless? No, it does not. The Housing and Planning Bill proposes a series of fiddling changes around the edge in that it allows more generous discounts on the right to buy, facilitates disposals on privatisation, and extends the almost entirely abortive assured tenancy scheme.

When he was speaking about privatisation, the Minister mentioned empty properties. He should know that over 200 properties are standing empty in Fulham Court, an estate that has been deliberately left to go to rack and ruin by the local authority while it has been attempting to sell that estate and privatise it. That is a measure of the criticism that ought to be directed at local authorities that neglect housing needs in their areas.

Those are the actions of a Government who have abandoned their responsibility to meet Britain's housing needs. In their obsession to be seen to be doing something the Government are simply fiddling around the edges, neglecting all the fundamental principles of a housing policy.

In some ways I feel rather sorry for the Minister because that is not his fault. The Government's policy is being determined not by the Department of the Environment but by the Treasury and the Department of Health and Social Security. The cuts in capital investment about which I have spoken are very much the product of the Treasury. I must stress that when the Housing Bill 1980 was going through Parliament it was the clear pledge of Ministers that local authorities would be able to use their full capital receipts in order to build new houses. That pledge has been reneged on and that is real evidence of a U-turn.

There have also been cuts in subsidies. Under this Government the subsidies available to local authorities for housing revenue accounts have been cut drastically, forcing substantial increases in the real level of rents paid by tenants. Those increases were justified by Ministers at the time on the grounds that there was a generous rent rebate system to assist those tenants who could not afford them.

Shortly afterwards—here comes another U-turn—the Department of Health and Social Security decided that the cost of that increased expenditure on rebates and allowances caused by the increase in rent levels was too much. Therefore, another Government Department cut expenditure caused by increased rents, for which the Secretary of State for the Environment and the Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction were responsible. As a result, one is seeing an increase in poverty, in rent arrears and in misery among people who do not have the means to pay their rent and who are seeing their housing benefit cut.

If one wants a further example one needs to look no further than the miserable story of the board and lodging allowances. The Department of Health and Social Security decided to cut expenditure on board and lodging allowances because it regarded this expenditure as excessive, and as a result it is creating homelessness and causing enormous misery among young people. The Department of the Environment is powerless. It has to sit back and watch another Department effectively dictating housing policy. That is a measure of the pretty pass into which the Government have allowed their housing policy to fall.

To illustrate the absurdity of the Government housing policy I want to focus on that one issue of bed and breakfast. We have here the symbol of all that is wrong about Government policy. There is an increase in homelessness and local authorities have fewer resources to meet the needs of homelessness and are placing more and more people in bed and breakfast hotels. In parallel, single people who do not qualify for assistance under the (Housing Homeless Persons) Act 1977 have to occupy board and lodging accommodation because they cannot find a home to rent, for which the DHSS has to meet the bill. As a result, we have an increased expenditure on board and lodging and bed and breakfast when it is known that it would be cheaper to pay for new houses for tenants to occupy.

For the record, on 20 December 1985, the Minister for Social Security, in answer to a question from the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving), gave figures showing that the cost of accommodating a family with two children in board and lodging accommodation would be some £10,800 a year in Cheltenham and £13,150 in London, but if they were housed in proper council housing the cost would be just £5,060—about half the cost of keeping people in squalor and misery in bed and breakfast accommodation. That is all that would be needed to provide a decent home for such people to live in. The Minister tried to give the Labour party a lecture about finance, economics and costs. I can only say that those figures show the economic and social lunacy of the Government's policy. They are paying more for keeping people in squalor rather than investing in new homes for people in need.

The tragedy of all that is that the unmet housing needs in Britain are not so massive as to make it impossible for Britain, if it wanted, to go a long way towards eliminating homelessness and bad housing conditions. If there were a political will and a realistic programme over the next 10 to 15 years, we could go an enormous way towards ensuring that few people, if any, had to suffer the misery of homelessness and we could eliminate slum conditions.

However, we do not have the political will at the moment and as a result we are suffering the problems that I have identified. We require a programme that ensures more investment in house construction and improvement, not a massive return to the days of high-rise and system building—that is not needed—but a sustained programme providing traditionally built houses that people want. That, sustained over 10 to 15 years, would ensure that there were sufficient homes to meet needs.

A programme of improvement, carried out by housing associations and public authorities, with an effective improvement grant system, not subject to a stop-go approach, would ensure that we tackle the backlog of bad conditions, with local authorities playing a major role in improving conditions on their poorer estates. That requires money. Not only would it improve homes but it would ensure additional employment and would go some way to tackle the scourge of unemployment.

We need a fairer subsidy system. How can we honestly proceed with a subsidy system which ensures open-ended largesse to those people who are lucky enough to be buying their homes and paying the highest rates of tax through the mortgage interest system, when we are cutting housing benefits to the poorest tenants who depend on that benefit to try to make ends meet?

Someone with an income of over £30,000 a year would qualify for some £1,480 a year in tax relief. Someone with an income of £4,000 to £5,000 a year would qualify for about £250 in mortgage tax relief. The Labour party is not opposed to tax relief. We are in favour of helping owner-occupiers, but we are opposed to the gross distortion of tax relief which ensures that the greatest benefit goes to the wealthiest. Of the £4.75 billion that went on tax relief, over £1 billion of tax relief went to people with incomes of over £20,000 a year. How can the Government justify that when they are cutting housing benefits to people on incomes of £5,000 a year?

Finally, there is the need for freedom of choice, which requires a healthy rented sector as well as an owner-occupier sector. It requires the choice of renting from the council or from a housing association and the choice to buy. Those choices require a reasonable supply of accommodation and a fair subsidy system, recognising that people have different preferences at different stages in their lives. Older and younger people may want to rent and they may in the meantime wish to own a home. They should not be trapped into one tenure for their lifetime. They should have the option to move from one tenure to another.

That new approach, advocated by the Labour party, requires a recognition, first, of the extent of the crisis—a recognition of the needs—and, secondly, investment to meet those needs, together with the political will to carry such a policy through until the scourges of homelessness and bad housing are no longer the blot they are at the moment on British society.

5.7 pm

Mr. Den Dover (Chorley)

It is with the greatest honour and pleasure that I welcome the hon. Member for Fulharn (Mr. Raynsford) to the House and congratulate him on his excellent maiden speech. It is evident that we have a first-class authority on housing on the Opposition Benches and I look forward to his contributions over the years. I hope that it will not be too long before he obtains some sort of promotion.

I spent five hours one afternoon and evening recently canvassing in Fulham and I want to support what the hon. Gentleman said. There is a wide gap between the massive council estate with multi-storeyed housing, such as the Clement Attlee estate that I canvassed during those five hours, and the good rented or privately owned accommodation of the professionally up and coming people in Fulham.

It is one of the Government's aims to narrow the gap between those two extremes. I should like to pay tribute to the work of the London Docklands Development Corporation in the East End, where we now see housing for sale and the breakdown of the enormous housing estates owned by the council. Some 96 per cent. of housing in that area is owned by the council.

In addition to congratulating the hon. Gentleman, I want to back up his compliments to the former Member, the late Martin Stevens. He entered this House, together with so many of my other colleagues and myself, in 1979, and it is a compliment to his efforts that his name was mentioned on the doorstep of many council flats and homes during our canvassing. I would like to pay tribute to his efforts.

One of the Governments undertakings over the last seven years has been the priority estates programme. It is no good seeing these massive council estates with enormous voids—some 5 or 10 per cent. of houses empty—without saying, "What can we do about it?" We speak about how much homelessness there is, the lack of facilities, the lack of hot and cold water and of bathrooms in many houses. It is no good if we allow so many council houses to be empty. The best approach is to make sure that the tenants of those council estates manage their own affairs. The local authority housing management is too remote, perhaps being five, 10 or 15 miles away from the point of action. That is not good. Tenant committees are needed, with authority to spend, and to make decisions.

Where we have seen the priority estates programme working, just south of the river, we see the voids vanish within a matter of weeks and much better cost-effectiveness in the management of those estates. There are people actively wanting to live on those estates, instead of trying to get out of them. These are the advantages of local management and choice by the local tenants.

Regarding the improvement programme, I agree that the Government have seen a massive expansion, followed by something which is almost grinding down to a halt. It is that very word—expansion—which is so labour-intensive, which does not suck in imports, and which could help ease the unemployment situation in the construction industry, where there are already some 400,000 people unemployed. Something needs to be done about this.

More needs to be spent on improvements. I criticise the Government in that they have failed to allow the capital receipts which have flowed into the council coffers from the sale of council houses, in accordance with Government policy under the 1980 Housing Act, to be spent on doing up rundown housing estates. If that money is not spent now, we shall have a much bigger bill to pick up in later years. Will the present formula ensure that the more houses a local authority sells, the more it will be able to spend money on doing up those housing estates?

It is a national cake and if one authority sells perhaps 300 or 400 homes, and another sells none, they all take a share. That cannot make sense. I hope that, when we allow them to use capital receipts, it will be on the basis of being in proportion to the houses that they have sold.

I feel that the Government have made a massive change over the last seven years. They have reduced housing subsidies, which were far too high, and we have seen housing ownership and sale of council houses which I greatly applaud. There is nothing wrong in giving people what they want. The swing towards more and more private houses being built, without any drain on local authorities or the Government, is much better than having unwanted, unnecessary council houses. The Opposition's pledge to build one new council house for every one sold is silly, and will be seen as such in later years.

5.15 pm
Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich)

I should like to add my congratulations to those already offered to the hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Raynsford) on his impressive maiden speech. I have had the benefit of being briefed over the years on housing issues by the hon. Member in his previous incarnation, and it was wholly appropriate that he should make his first speech to the House in this debate. Those who recall our maiden speeches in this Chamber will have envied the assurance and style with which he addressed the House. We were impressed by the sincerity which he brought to the debate, and his detailed knowledge of the issues involved. I am sure the whole House looks forward to hearing him again on this and other issues.

The motif of choice, freedom and fairness now seems to be the watchword when it comes to discussion of housing issues. I echo what I took to be the message from the hon. Member for Fulham—that those are not the priorities, important though they be. The first priority must surely be greater investment. We are simply not building enough new homes, nor are we investing enough in the maintenance of our existing housing stock to maintain it in a reasonable state of repair.

There is a wide measure of agreement that we now need about 145,000 new homes a year up until 1991 simply to meet the growth in the formation of new households. If we add another 60,000 to 80,000 new homes a year to make good the losses through slum clearance and changing employment patterns, that means that we ought to be building something between 205,000 and 215,000 new homes a year. We have not achieved that since 1980. The 1985 completions were only 187,000 new dwellings.

We are as a result storing up problems for ourselves. Some of those problems are hidden in the overall national statistics. It is a sad fact that the big cities and urban areas are the worst hit by our current housing problems. It is there that we find the biggest concentration of unemployment, the biggest concentrations of low incomes, and, therefore, poor housing.

Those who represent these areas know all too well what this means to ordinary people. Homelessness is growing, waiting lists are getting longer, young married couples are forced to live with their parents at the start of their married lives. Families are divided, transfers are more difficult, and overcrowding of council property is now a fact of life in many of our urban areas. All these problems we see at our advice services every week. They were problems that we were beginning to overcome in the late seventies but they have returned to haunt us, with little prospect of any early solution.

They have brought with them some new problems—for example, the problem in London of the young single homeless. It is an unusual Friday night for me when I do not have at my surgery a young person whose parents have moved away from London, leaving him high and dry. These young people are moving around sleeping on floors, occasionally in cars. This underlines the need for more investment in housing.

Looking at the condition of the existing housing stock, the Department's own survey reminds us that something like £19 billion is needed to bring housing up to a reasonable standard of repair at a cost of about £5,000 per home.

These are cold statistics. For those of us who live with the problem, they translate into things such as dampness and condensation, mould growth and fungus, which we see in council flats throughout the winter months. They translate into inadequate, inefficient heating systems, with people unable to maintain an adequate level of heating in more than one room. They mean rotting window frames, peeling paint, leaking roofs, and all the rest of the defects in rundown, inner-city council estates.

If the Minister feels that I may be making a political point, I refer him to what was said recently by the Group of Eight, the body which brings together the construction industry and the housing professionals. They went to see the Minister on 13 March, and the RIBA president, Mr. Larry Rolland, commented on what they told him. He said: The Government is failing to fulfil its responsibilities in the face of massive and growing deterioration in the stock of local authority housing: the longer work is delayed, the more disproportionate will be the cost. The Group of Eight went on to make clear its view that the total amount of … planned spending by Government on construction was quite inadequate in relation to the scale of the problem. That is the view of the industry and of professionals.

There are similar problems in private rented accommodation and in owner-occupied housing. Yesterday the Association of Metropolitan Authorities published the provisional results of its 1985 house condition survey in Greater London. To be fair, it shows some improvement compared to the last official survey in 1979. Only 6 per cent. of housing stock is unfit, compared to 9 per cent. in 1979. Property lacking basic amenities has dropped from 9 per cent. to 4 per cent. of the stock. That is the impact of the generous improvement grants made available up to the time of the last general election. They hit a peak of £183 million in 1984–85 but, as we all know, they are now much more tightly rationed.

The interesting thing about the survey by the AMA is its suggestion that 500,000 homes, or one home in every five, in Greater London now need repairs costing more than £5,000; that is an increase of 28 per cent. compared with 1979. Of the homes needing such repair, 54 per cent. are owner-occupied. That underlines the broad spread of the problem of disrepair in housing stock. The case for a sensible programme of repair, rehabilitation and improvement of housing is absolutely overwhelming, even on the basis of the old proverbial view that a stitch in time saves nine.

There is considerable agreement among all parties that we need greater choice in housing. For many people there is no choice. All they can do is put their names on an ever longer council waiting list because there is no way in which they will ever be able to afford homes of their own. Their income is simply too low to encompass that possibility. Others in slightly happier circumstances are restricted; they can choose only between going on to a council waiting list or buying a home of their own, even when neither choice is best for them and when both are difficult. For many young people with the necessary resources, buying is often easier than renting because it is easier to find a house to buy than to find a decent property as a sensible rent.

I think we all accept that we are looking for new forms of rented housing to meet that demand. As a result of the growing consensus, I hope we can find ways of bringing together the skills of the building societies and the other financial institutions who can generate the funds that are needed; the skills of the volume builders who can build what people want to live in; and finally the skills of the housing associations which have proved that it is possible to provide efficient and sensitive localised housing management. If we can bring together all those skills, I hope we can provide a new source of rented accommodation which we in the Alliance refer to as social housing but which will provide an alternative to local authority renting for those who desperately need rented homes.

I endorse everything that has been said so far about the need to break up large-scale, centralised, local council housing management. All too often it has proved to be neither sensitive nor efficient. We want to encourage a variety of different approaches. By all means, let us have localised management, but let us try much harder than we have in the past to encourage genuine housing cooperatives in which tenants can run their own affairs and their own homes. There is limited experience of this yet, but many tenants in my constituency say, "We could not make a worse job of it than the local authority." Some of us hope that they might do a better job.

Apart from housing co-operatives, we have advocated neighbourhood housing trusts, bringing together tenants, representatives of the council and perhaps outside experts. There is a range of different approaches under which we could devolve more power to ordinary people. The aim must be to do just that—to give tenants much more control over their homes and over their environment. If we are looking seriously for greater choice, we should be doing more to help first-time buyers by encouraging more low-start mortgages, and more shared ownership in which people buy part of their home and rent another part.

Why have the Government not persevered with the concept of "do-it-yourself' shared ownership which was tried as an experiment a couple of years ago? Housing associations acted as agencies. When people found their own home in the private market they used the housing association as a vehicle for the purpose of shared ownership. That was an imaginative scheme and it was extremely popular. I have the sense that perhaps it was not so popular with the Treasury; that may be why it was not developed to a greater extent. I hope such imaginative and enterprising schemes will be reconsidered. The home purchase assistance scheme, under which grants from public funds were made to match the savings of individuals towards a deposit, was another approach to bring home ownership within the grasp of more people.

When talking about ways of assisting people to own their own homes, it is only reasonable to deal with the interest which has been exhibited by Conservative Members in the position of the alliance on mortgage tax relief. I cannot understand why there should be confusion. We made it clear in our general election manifesto that we would retain mortgage tax relief, but that we would limit it to the standard rate of tax. That has been our position since 1983, and it remains so. I recognise from my constituency experience that tax relief is an important element in enabling people with limited means to own their own homes. Neither I nor the alliance is in the business of changing the rules of the game after people have started to play.

If we are talking about fairness, we should point out on the other side that it is not reasonable for councils to put up rents to such an extent that they can subsidise the rates charged to all ratepayers as a result of the profits made from council tenant. That is not a fair approach; nor are the cuts in housing benefit which the least well off are now suffering.

One wider problem that flows from the absence of choice in housing, is the inhibition it places on mobility. People can no longer move around the country seeking work because of the problem of moving home. Often my constituents want to move to another London borough because of a change of job. It is easier to help people to emigrate to Australia, Canada and New Zealand than to enable them to shift from one London borough to another.

There are also people who have followed the advice of the Government; they have got on their bikes and gone out to seek work. Some have come to London and have found work—even if not brilliantly paid. They then come to my advice centre on Friday nights because it is impossible to find anywhere to live in London. So they have a choice which I would not want to inflict on anyone—a job in one part of the country with no home, or a home in another part of the country and no job. It must be a priority in housing to tackle such mobility problems.

Despite the knockabout in the earlier part of the debate, there is a growing measure of agreement among all parties about the need for new approaches to housing. Housing has been a major social problem throughout the post-war period. It is about time we solved that problem. I think we are now agreed that there is no one solution, be it owner-occupation put forward by one side or council renting put forward by the other side. Both have a contribution to make, but we need to encourage many other contributions. New approaches are urgently needed if we are to get more and better housing.

If we are to get the much greater private investment which is essential to the solution of the housing problem the Government should seek to build on the growing consensus that is emerging. We will only get more private investment, if investors believe that there will be stability and a measure of agreement, whoever is in power in Whitehall. We cannot expect people to invest if they believe that housing policy will be totally changed as a result of change of Government.

Bad and inadequate housing is at the root of many of the problems of our great cities and urban areas. I hope that, even at this comparatively late stage, the Government will give the housing problem the priority that it richly deserves.

5.29 pm
Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton)

Before I say a word about the speech of the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright), may I echo the congratulations of the House on the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Raynsford)? It was a remarkably fine performance. He is right to come to the House and talk about housing, as he has a deep knowledge of it. When I was on the board of Shelter and he was director of SHAC, I often used to read his papers, which were of great benefit to homeless people in the country. We shall look forward to hearing from him many times on this subject. Many of us were pleased that he referred to his distinguished predecessor, Martin Stevens, a man who was greatly respected and admired in the House and in his constituency, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said.

It is a pleasure to follow the speech of the hon. Member for Woolwich—as always, because he too has a deep knowledge of housing. He and I have followed each other in housing debates many times in past years. The hon. Gentleman was right to mention the importance of tenant participation. The one thing that has clearly come out of the initiatives taken by the Government, whether it be the priority estates project or the urban housing renewal unit, is the need for new thinking in the management of existing estates. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) is well aware of this, and has said so in speeches. I think that there is a broad consensus on this matter. It is important that we develop it and concentrate on it.

I hope that my hon. Friend will make sure that the urban housing renewal unit is not simply involved in a monitoring activity but is up front pushing local authorities to get things done so that we can get effective reports back to the House of what is happening on the ground with regard to the achievement of the urban housing renewal unit.

Several Members have mentioned improvement work. My hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Dover) concentrated particularly on the capital receipts question, as did the hon. Member for Perry Barr. First, I must declare an interest, as I always do when speaking on housing and building. I am a long-standing director of a building company, and have been involved in this industry for many years.

I have said many times in the House that in my view improvement work is one of the single most vital aspects of construction activity. First, it is the most labour and craft intensive. Secondly, it is the one most directly related to the aspirations of ordinary folk in improving their own homes. Thirdly, in my view it is particularly good value for money. That is why personally I welcome the action that the Government have taken over the years in substantially increasing the improvement grant programme.

I interrupted the hon. Member for Perry Barr, to ask him to give the figures. He had, perfectly properly from his point of view, contrasted the public sector housing build starts of this Government and their predecessor.

Mr. Rooker

That is not true. I took the national building programme, public and private together. I never at any time distinguished between the public sector and the private sector.

Mr. Latham

I stand immediately corrected by the hon. Gentleman, and accept what he says. However, I think that he would also say—because he referred to public sector starts—that that was particularly in his mind. Both he and the hon. Member for Fulham made a contrast between this Government and their predecessor in regard to public sector starts. There is no doubt that there has been a significant reduction in public sector starts under this Government.

Everybody knows, as the hon. Member for Woolwich hinted, that housing thinking has moved on since the 1960s. We no longer talk, as Anthony Greenwood did, of 250,000 council houses a year. These mass building programmes are no longer necessary or desirable. They have created the very problems that the House is addressing today and that were addressed by both the Minister and the hon. Member for Perry Barr, from the Front Bench. The problems of squalor, social deprivation, tower blocks and so on came directly from the mass building programmes of the 1960s and 1970s.

The Government have been right, in my view, to shift the emphasis in two directions—first, towards improvement work and secondly, to encouraging people to get into home ownership. There has been a significant increase in that regard, about which I shall say a word later.

I am disappointed that there has been a reduction in the number of improvement grants in the last year or so. Having said that, and having been critical of the Green Paper which was produced last year by my hon. Friend's predecessor, I accept immediately that there was a need for change and reform in the improvement grant system. Improvement grants were being made to people who did not need them. This was said by the Select Committee on Public Accounts, on which I serve, and it has been accepted that there was a need for change. Nevertheless, I urge my hon. Friend to bring forward new Government proposals. Last year's Green Paper has in effect disappeared down a black hole, so let us have some new proposals and a reasonably steady level of provision of improvement sector work.

I wish to make a suggestion to my hon. Friend which I have made before in the Public Accounts Committee and on the Floor of the House. In my view there is a very real case for transferring responsibility for improvement grant work to the building societies, lock, stock and barrel. To all intents and purposes the local authorities act as agents for central Government in this regard. The vast majority of the money advanced by local authorities for improvement grant work is refunded by the Government in form of loan, grant or whatever.

That being so, there is a real case—I am a vice-president of the Building Societies Association—for telling the building societies movement as a whole, particularly in the new era of greater freedom that will result from the Building Societies Bill which is now before the House, "Here is the figure that we as the Government are prepared to offer you this year and next year in improvement work. Take it, recycle it and offer it to people by way of improvement grants. You can charge an administration cost of 1 or 2 per cent." That is how it will be dealt with—no clawbacks, no holdbacks, no penalties, no targets and no bureaucratic problems of staffing such as local authorities have. In that way, we would deliver a more effective improvement grant programme to the people of this country. I commend that thought to my hon. Friend for serious consideration.

As for shoddy workmanship and cowboys, which were mentioned by the hon. Member for Perry Barr, I express some disappointment to my hon. Friend about the response of the Green Paper and about the lack of action since. The Green Paper of last year said that the Government hoped that the building societies and builders would have discussions to ascertain whether the building societies were prepared to limit finance—mortgage or grant—to builders who were covered by a warranty scheme.

There is no need for any further discussion. This should be got on with now. In the same way, local authorities should be restricting their grants to responsible builders who have proper warranty schemes. This was recommended several years ago by the Director General of Fair Trading. I believe that the time for action is now, and I hope that my hon. Friend will talk it over with the Department of Trade and Industry to get something done about it. As the Director General of Fair Trading has shown, far too many people are getting ripped off by cowboys and shoddy workmanship. Every hon. Member knows this, from his constituency postbag.

The time for action is now, with no more discussions or working parties. There are clear proposals, and warranty schemes are in place. Let us get on with restricting the grant work to builders who are involved in such schemes.

With regard to private sector housing, there are five points in a private builder's game plan—finance, land, marketing, buildings and sales. Marketing and sales are entirely a matter for the industry. They are not within the control of Government or part of Government. Building is effectively controlled by the National Housebuilding Council, and I would like to see the council involving itself in improvement work also. On finance—about which I asked the Prime Minister a question today—all the signs are that we are moving into an era of lower mortgage rates, which is welcomed by every hon. Member and by millions of home owners. All the mechanisms, therefore, are in place for a substantial increase in private sector housebuilding in the coming 12 to 15 months, and there is no reason why that should not be so.

It is important that we achieve consensus on the one matter that has not been mentioned at all this afternoon, and which is not mentioned in either the motion or the amendment—the question of land and planning. I do not know the Labour party proposals on that matter; they were certainly not included in the policy document put to its party conference last year.

As we approach the election—I hope and expect this Government to be returned to office, but Britain is a democracy and people will look at different proposals—I hope that the Labour party will not come forward with proposals for community land acts, land commissions, large development land taxes and all the other things that stifled the market in the past.

Mr. Allan Roberts (Bootle)

The private sector built more houses for sale, as did the volume builders, under the previous Labour Government than it has under this Government, despite the Community Land Act.

Mr. Latham

I remember serving for hours and hours and hours on the Committee stage of that Bill, together with my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury). If the hon. Gentleman really thinks that the building industry believes that the Community Land Act did it any good, I suggest that he talks to it—

Mr. Roberts

I did not say that.

Mr. Latham

I know that the hon. Gentleman did not say that, but the reality is that the Act had a severe cramping effect on the industry. Let us continue with consensus on this matter.

I agree with the hon. Member for Fulham that we need more housing debates. I really want to hear more about the vital role that land and planning have to play in the release of housing for our people.

I commend my hon. Friend the Minister on his start as Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction. He is showing great energy and dash, and I wholeheartedly support him.

5.41 pm
Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

It was a pleasure to listen to the maiden speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Raynsford). I am sure that he dearly wanted to get off his chest the good speech that he made, especially in view of his activities before entering the House. Many of us felt that way when we made our maiden speeches.

I want briefly to speak against the Government's amendment, which I believe to be hypocritical in view of their housing record over the past six years. There has been a reduction in the housing investment programme allocations of about 70 per cent. under this Government, and some of the legislation of the past two years has done nothing to meet the housing need. I refer especially to the Housing Defects Act 1984. The Opposition did not oppose its passage through the House, although we frequently warned about its pitfalls. Indeed, the Act is seriously defective in what it sets out to do.

Four villages in my constituency have large estates of houses classified as defective under the Act. The Act gives the Rotherham metropolitan borough council the responsibility to make grants to reinstate those homes to a standard where they are saleable and mortgageable. It also gives the council power to buy back those homes from people who have bought them from public bodies. However, the council is in tremendous difficulties with the implementation of the Act.

One major problem is that there is no reinstatement scheme to repair Reema houses. We are still waiting for a scheme to be accepted by the Department of the Environment so that money can be awarded. There is also the problem of lack of funds.

The Minister spoke about what the Government have been doing on housing, and he referred to Labour authorities such as Sheffield and Lambeth. It is a pity that he did not go a few miles down the road from Sheffield to Rotherham, which has a serious housing problem. Its housing investment programme allocation for the financial year 1986–87 has been cut by just under £1 million, from £7 million to £6 million. In 1985, when the HIP allocation was £7 million, it also had an allowance of £117,000 to spend under the Housing Defects Act to alleviate problems on these estates. There is no such money this year. The Minister has made available an additional £30 million to assist local authorities which have been obliged to sort out problems under the Act, but not one penny of that new money will go to the Yorkshire and Humberside region—it has been spread between the south-west and the midlands.

That leaves the question of what we do on those estates, given the attitude of the owners of the houses that have not been sold. I am sure that many right hon. and hon. Members face this problem. The Act provides that people who bought houses from public bodies should receive help. The problem in my constituency, however, is what to do about the houses on the estates still in the hands of public bodies such as the National Coal Board.

The NCB has told me on numerous occasions that its policy has been to sell those houses to the sitting tenants. However, that cannot happen under the Act because grant would not be available to reinstate the homes to mortgageable standard. The NCB has also offered whole estates to the local authority. Indeed, before this Government took office my local authority bought a whole estate at Laughton Common. It has resold nine of those houses, and is quite prepared to do the same with the remainder of the estate if money is forthcoming. People living on the estate are secure in their belief that the local authority will do that. However, it no longer has any funds to buy such estates and, indeed, would not wish to do so because they are now classified as defective under the Act.

Another option suggested by the NCB is to sell the houses on the open market. On 6 December 1985, during my Adjournment debate on this matter, the Minister said that he had good news for the Rother Valley. He said: I understand that a private sector party is interested in acquiring a considerable number of the National Coal Board's empty Reema properties in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. I can give the House the good news that agreement has now been reached on the sale of 21 vacant NCB houses in Maltby. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be as pleased as I am to hear that news."—[Official Report, 6 December 1985; Vol. 88, c. 603.] My information is that that sale fell through because the buyer discovered that he could not obtain assistance under the Act to repair the houses, if that became necessary, so that they would be at a standard in which people could live.

Currently, the NCB appears about to accept an offer for both the empty and the tenanted houses on the Maltby estate, with more than 250 houses now up for sale. The Minister will know what I said about this matter in December, and I shall not change what I said then. If it is true, as we read on the Order Paper, that the Government have been so good in dealing with housing, I want to know from the Minister what will happen on that estate.

If the 250 homes are sold to the private sector, it presumably will not have the money that the Minister has talked about to reinstate them, to bring them up to a stage at which they will be mortgageable. Indeed, whoever buys the homes may decide that people can live in them for another 10 years, paying rent, so that the price paid for them will be recouped and the homes can then be discarded. What will happen when the Housing Defects Act is implemented on that estate by the local authority? For the other 98 homes there will supposedly be grants so that they can be brought up to a mortgageable level. They will be reinstated and made good. Presumably the other 250 homes will remain in a state of disrepair.

I warned the Minister in December that the Housing Defects Act was deficient and would leave many problems unsolved unless the Minister took action. My local authority believes that that is still the situation. It has been asked to give grants under the Housing Defects Act to bring the 98 houses at Maltby up to a mortgageable level, but at the same time no help has been provided for the other 250 houses. This makes nonsense of the matter. Indeed, it is wrong to ask the local authority to spend public money in this way, because even when that money has been spent and the 98 homes are reinstated it may still be impossible to sell them because of the condition of the neighbouring houses, which could even be attached. Thus, the problem that we have had since the Act was put on the statute book has still not been solved.

We really need action now, so that we can protect the tenants and home owners on these estates. Maltby seems to be in the firing line at present because of the attitude of the National Coal Board towards selling the tenanted homes that it owns, but I am also concerned about houses in my constituency at Kiveton Park and Aston. If there is no reinstatement of the homes being sold by the National Coal Board, at least three estates in my constituency will be blighted, not because there is any major structural default in the houses—for many years I lived on the estate at Maltby—but because of an Act introduced by the Government which protects only the people who bought homes from public bodies and does not seek to protect other homes which are presently owned by public bodies.

I shall use every opportunity that I can to bring this matter to the Minister's attention. I understand the need to compensate people who brought homes in good faith from public bodies, but a serious problem in my constituency has been created by the very Act that has compensated others, and the problem will not go away. The problem will not be solved by allowing public bodies to sell homes to the private sector. Presumably grants will not be available to reinstate such homes to the level achieved in homes bought in terms of the Act.

Even at this late stage, I ask the Minister to talk immediately to the National Coal Board to stop the sale of homes unless they are dealt with in the same way as the other 98 homes which were reinstated, so that they are brought up to the standard that is referred to in the Minister's amendment—housing fit for people to live in and bring families up in. Under the Housing Defects Act, the situation on the three housing estates in my constituency will be the opposite of the statement on the Order Paper.

5.55 pm
Mr. Mike Woodcock (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

In spite of the comments we have heard this afternoon, much has happened over the past three years to improve housing policy in this country. In particular, thanks to the policies of the Government, we have moved much closer to a true property-owning democracy. Private ownership is, and should be, the first and major plank in the nation's and the Government's housing policy. The Government should do all that is possible to encourage it. Private ownership makes people more responsible; it frees state resources; it brings greater security; it promotes family life and it improves the environment. Long may we continue to support through mortgage tax relief the sales of council houses, incentives to renovate older homes and, we hope, through the reform of the rating system, private ownership.

The second plank in our housing policy will probably continue to be public sector housing. While I believe that this is a poor option next to private ownership, nevertheless, it is invaluable especially in areas of social need. However, necessary as it is, it should be a diminishing part of the nation's housing policy, because there is no reason why state resources should be deployed where private individuals are capable of providing for their own housing needs. This afternoon I wish to speak about the smallest plank in our nation's housing policy, and I refer to the private rented sector.

Mr. Allan Roberts


Mr. Woodcock

I will not give way at this stage.

The private rented sector was once the largest plank in the nation's housing policy, but it is now, I am delighted to say, the smallest. But, while it is the smallest plank, it is still a necessary part of our housing policy, and an area that successive Governments have attempted to reform. However, far from improving the situation, they have helped to destroy that plank. How has that happened? One central reason is that successive Governments have paid more attention to electoral advantage than to what is fair, reasonable and in the best long-term interests of the housing market. The fact is that there always have been and always will be more tenants than there are landlords, and that has tempted Governments of both persuasions to carry forward reforms that are popular with tenants and to ignore reforms that might be popular among landlords. The result has been a continuing decline in the private rented sector; an increased reluctance to relet properties by private landlords; an increase in interest by irresponsible landlords; and a grave shortage of accommodation. All this has been to the advantage of no one.

There will always be those who choose or need to rent, such as young people who are either not earning enough or have no desire to buy their own home at that point of their lives; people who stay in an area for only a relatively short time, such as transient and temporary workers; people who tragically are from broken marriages; people who prefer to rent privately rather than from the public sector; people who prefer not to live on council estates; and people who want something better than the public sector can provide. All these people need a healthy private rented sector, and they find it almost impossible to find the kind of place they wish to rent.

On the other hand, thanks largely to the Government's policies, a vast number of people in this country have money that they wish to invest. Some people recognise the advantage of investing in property. Many people would be willing to invest in the private rented sector if they could get fair treatment. Those two groups—those who want to rent property and those who could provide the property to rent—should come together. However, far from encouraging that, our present policies are preventing it. Our laws have moved too far in terms of protecting tenants and have failed to consider the legitimate interests of landlords. By passing successive rent legislation, this House has added to the national housing problem and prevented many people from obtaining a decent roof over their heads.

No one will deny that there are bad landlords and that tenants, like other consumers, need protection from unscrupulous people. However, landlords also need a fair deal. I therefore ask the Government why it should not be possible for landlords and tenants freely to agree rents that are legally enforceable. Why are local authorities entitled to register rents of private property even in cases where neither the landlord nor the tenant wants that to happen? In so doing, they help to destroy the private rented sector in an area, an opportunity that some Left-wing councils exploit to the full.

Why should it be possible for local authorities to continue the registration process, even when the tenant in whom they had an interest has left the property? Why should it be possible for private landlords to be barred from representing themselves in county courts on possession actions, when tenants are free to represent themselves? Why do county courts continually, year after year, have such backlogs of actions that landlords are denied justice merely by the passage of time? Why should it not be possible for county courts to enforce their judgments on housing matters?

Mr. Marlow

Would my hon. Friend like to point out to the Labour party that many of those "landlords" are little old ladies who have been left a small asset by their husbands, which nevertheless forms a significant part of their income? If the Labour party cared, it would probably care for some of those old ladies.

Mr. Allan Roberts

The hon. Gentleman should declare his interests.

Mr. Marlow

The hon. Gentleman knows them.

Mr. Woodcock

My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) is quite right. Landlords come in all shapes and sizes, as do politicians. But far from discouraging investment in the private rented sector, we would do well to encourage it. That would be to everyone's advantage. I shall give one further and very valid reason for the Government taking action over the private rented sector. The present Rent Acts significantly contribute to unemployment. Government interference in a free housing market results in considerable waste and in a lot of overuse and underuse of accommodation. Above all, it leads to an immobility of labour.

We have heard much about the need for unemployed people to get on their bikes in search of employment. My constituency has a very high unemployment rate. Many people have told me that they have been round the country searching for jobs, but find that local authorities are unwilling to provide accommodation—

Mr. Allan Roberts


Mr. Woodcock

Local authorities are unwilling and unable to provide accommodation unless the person has a job. However, the person cannot get a job unless he has a house. The law does not help the private rented sector to meet that need.

Professor Patrick Minford, one of the best known monetarist economists in this country, recently claimed in an article in the Economic Affairs magazine that one fifth of the rise in unemployment since 1960 could directly be explained by our Rent Acts. Perhaps the Minister w ill take note of Professor Minford's arguments.

I shall make a few suggestions about how my hon. Friend the Minister could improve housing, and could demonstrate the Government's professed belief in the private rented sector. First, why not make rent agreements freely entered into by landlords and tenants legally binding? Secondly, either remove the local authority's statutory right to register rents on private property, or give local authority tenants the same statutory right to a fair rent as private tenants have. Thirdly, remove the county court's discretion to bar landlords from representing themselves in possession actions. Fourthly, require county courts to enforce their own possession judgments. Fifthly, give a statutory right to have possession cases heard quickly. Sixthly, make shorthold tenancies enforceable for a term agreed at the outset. Finally, make fair rents payable on registration, at the time when they are deemed to be fair, and not a year later.

If the Government did those things, there would be a significant improvement in the nation's problems, a terrific increase in private investment, a freeing of state resources, and the Government would demonstrate their belief in the private rented sector as well as making a considerable improvement to the unemployment problem. The Government have shown themselves willing to take actions which may not be electorally popular but which they believe to be right and just. I ask whether the time has not come for the Government to take such actions in the private rented sector.

6.3 pm

Mr. Tom Pendry (Stalybridge and Hyde)

I intend to be brief in this all too short debate. Unlike many hon. Members, I am not a housing expert. Of course, I exclude the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Woodcock) from the charge of having some expertise. However, one does not need to be an expert to recognise the housing problems that exist. I make no apology for saying that I shall relate my remarks to the housing problems that the, Government are causing my constituents. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), I shall devote my speech—much of which has been shed because of the lack of time—to doing just that. My local authority is little different from many others, at least in the Greater Manchester area. Consequently, many of my points are quite general.

The House will know that in its 1983 manifesto the Tory party clearly said: Our goal is to make Britain the best housed nation in Europe". One did not have to listen too long to the excellent maiden speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Raynsford) to know that that is already a pretty sick joke. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) said, both public and private sector housing are being hit by the Government. Council tenants are the victims of cruel cuts in the housing budget, which is barely a third of what it was under the last Labour Govenment. People in the private sector are being hit by the clampdown on improvement grants. Many owners are trapped in homes needing major repairs, but they cannot afford to do them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Perry Barr has recently visited Tameside and can vouch for what I am about to say. That local authority has over 5,000 families whose homes are unfit for habitation, and more than 10,000 council homes—half its stock—which do not have adequate heating. About 1,000 of the pre-war council homes are in urgent need of modernisation. Perhaps I can attract the attention of the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels) by saying that they have problems in Leicester also. Indeed, it is a pity that we do not hear more about them from the hon. Gentleman.

Such problems are not confined to the public sector. In the private sector in Tameside, 3,000 homes are unfit for habitation and 2,500 lack basic amenities. Indeed, 12,130 properties need repairs costing over £3,000 per property, and 7,000 of them need repairs that will cost in excess of £7,500 per property. The cost of outstanding repairs to the pre-1919 properties in the private sector is estimated to be £103 million, or 31 times the council's renewal budget for 1985–86.

Those are the startling facts that we have to face when we go back to our constituencies and surgeries and hear about the sad cases of our constituents. Moreover, 1,135 Tameside families have been accepted as homeless, there are 6,000 on the general waiting list. A further 3,220 people are seeking transfers for one reason or another. Almost 2,700 of them are pensioners. Indeed, 1,500 are aged over 70. About 1,500 single people aged under 25 are also on the waiting list. From my surgery I know of one casualty of the system who is aged 65. She is a widow with an artificial leg, and she suffers from bronchitis. Her home in Hyde, in which she has lived for the past 40 years, is crumbling. She has an outside toilet and a stone sink, and her home is bitterly cold in winter. The council scheme to modernise it is estimated to cost £11,000, but has been postponed because of Government action.

By now the House will have a good idea of the problems in my constituency, but I must go on. The recitation of these facts may be tedious to Conservative Members, but the problems are rather more than tedious to those who have to face them day in, day out. Tameside's housing investment programme allocation for 1985–86 is worth only 45 per cent. of the value in 1979–80 and that causes us great concern. Its housing investment programme bid for 1985–86 was £23.5 million, but the actual allocation was just over £10 million. How can the local authority be expected to cope with such immense problems? I hope that the Minister will give us a hint when he replies. However, I very much doubt whether he is even listening to the debate.

The cut in this year's programme has meant that Tameside's plan to build 140 new dwellings has been shelved, and there are no new public sector starts for 1985–86. Plans to modernise 450 council properties have been cut, and now only 240 properties are included. Tameside's bid for its programme this year was estimated by the council to be £24.7 million. The Government promised it £10 million, but the actual amount is £8.4 million. I hope that as a result of this debate the Under-Secretary of State will at least review the shabbily low figure that has been provided for my local authority.

As my hon. Friends who represent other constituencies in Tameside know, because we are forever telling the House, Tameside is a low-wage area. More than 75 per cent. of council house tenants are in receipt of housing benefit. The financial circumstances of most of those people mean that they cannot even consider owning a house. As many of my colleagues have said, purchasing a house is not an option available to them. It is an academic question.

The council estimates that a total housing programme of £42 million per annum sustained over a five-year period, is needed, to make meaningful inroads into the housing problems in my borough. The council and I recognise that the amount available will not be anywhere near £42 million per annum, but we expect to receive a more realistic sum.

Recently, the chairman of the housing committee in my constituency, Councillor Peter Baily, sent the Minister a document entitled, "The Case for Housing Investment in Tameside". If the Minister has lost the document, I can provide him with another copy. If he reads it, he will recognise that there are gigantic problems. This morning the chairman of the housing committee said to me: The size of the problem in this borough can only be resolved by an injection of Government cash of sizeable proportions and releasing hundreds of local skilled building craftsmen who are languishing on the dole. I am sure that those comments could be echoed by other hon. Members.

I promised you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I would speak briefly. Therefore, I conclude by saying that the Minister must recognise that one reason why the Government lost the Fulham by-election and are doing badly in the polls is that they do not have a socio-economic strategy for salvaging local housing. In view of the Government's unpopularity, I hope they will consider that now is the right and proper time to do something positive. If they do not do so, it will be just another nail in their coffin. I assure the Government that when their funeral takes place there will be a rush by many of the homeless people of Tameside to be pallbearers.

6.12 pm
Mr. John Powley (Norwich, South)

I suspect that not many hon. Members or people outside the House would disagree with the sentiment expressed in the title of this debate which, according to the business statement, is, "Housing—putting people first." I support that sentiment. The motion moved by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) contains sweet words and nice-sounding phrases. It contains words with which one could easily agree. Indeed, any stranger to this planet would probably support a number of aspects of the motion, but there is a problem.

Many of my hon. Friends have been involved in housing for a considerable time. We are aware that the motion, nice-sounding though it is, is in sharp conflict with the performance of the Labour party when it had the opportunity to put housing policies into practice. It is as well to recall the Labour party's performance. It sought to municipalise as much housing as possible. It had a declared policy of building as many council houses as possible and of buying up as much land as it could on which to build council houses.

A number of my colleagues have referred to some of the social and economic problems which the Government inherited simply because there was a mad scramble, in the vain hope of solving the housing problems, to build more council houses. As the waiting lists became ever longer, more council houses were built. Local authorities were on a treadmill, which resulted in a great deal of heartache and caused social and economic problems in many cities and towns.

The Labour party's policy of municipalisation did nothing to solve the housing problem. All it did was to shift the tenure of a house from owner-occupied to tenanted. I know from experience in local government that many Socialist-controlled local authorities deliberately built council estates in previously Conservative-represented wards simply to change the political balance in those wards.

Mr. Tony Banks


Mr. Powley

The hon. Gentleman says that that is nonsense, but we all know that it is true. Many Labour-controlled local authorities followed that policy. The Labour Government sought to buy the council tenant's vote by one means or another. The Labour party came to office in 1974 on the promise that it would apply a rent freeze. Of course, it forgot that the housing revenue account would have to be propped up by the ratepayer. There is no such thing as a rent freeze, because at the end of the day somebody has to pay the bill. I mention a few of the Labour party's policies to emphasise that the words in the motion are one thing, while the practices have been quite the opposite.

Despite the support, or half-support, of the Labour party for the sale of council houses in one form or another, I urge caution. The Labour party's words will never be put into practice, even if it were to gain office. Housing matters are administered by local authorities. The quite definite policy of local authorities which are controlled by Labour party groups is to oppose the sale of council houses. If a Labour Government said, "Our policy is to sell council houses," would they instruct Labour local authorities to sell council houses?

Mr. Tony Banks


Mr. Powley

If that happened, I suspect that a way would be found for local authorities not to sell council houses. My local authority has sought, by every means possible, to oppose the sale of council houses. In 1980 it opposed the right-to-buy principle. It changed the tenure of some tenants in my area, which meant that they were unable to exercise their right to buy if they had exchanged a house. A number of means were devised by Norwich city council to inhibit the sale of council houses. I do not doubt that if it came to pass, Labour-controlled authorities would seek to inhibit the sale of council houses and deny tenants the opportunities that they desire.

I turn to a few points which are important if we are to improve the housing stock. We need to increase the number of council homes which are offered for sale, especially in my constituency, which has an abominably low level of owner-occupied housing. About 35 per cent. of homes are owner-occupied and 52 per cent. are tenanted. Those percentages must be reversed if we are to improve housing conditions in my constituency.

We need a waiting list in all areas of the country which accurately reflects true housing need and not just the wants of some people and some local authorities which seek to inflate their waiting lists just to try to convince a Minister that they need more in their housing investment programme allocation.

We need to dispose of much of the land held by local authorities and nationalised industries so that private housing can be built. We need a bigger switch of resources from new build because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Latham) said, the need for large council house building is now virtually at an end. We need to switch our resources from new build to improvement and repair. That must go on to a greater extent than at present. We need greater efficiency among many of our local authorities for the operation and management of our council estates and the operation of our repairs and direct labour organisations, much as I dislike them.

I believe that were we to follow some of those policies, many of which were implemented by Conservative-controlled councils when they had the opportunity, there would be a distinct improvement in the quality of housing and it would reflect what the motion says. It would be putting people first in housing matters.

6.21 pm
Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

Two things have given me some delight this afternoon. The first was the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham, (Mr. Raynsford). The authority with which he made that speech and the confidence that was displayed was, I suggest, a pleasure to all in the Chamber. I count it a privilege to he able to call him Friend rather than Member. My second delight is that we are graced with the presence of a Clerk somewhat more comely than the usual more hirsute incumbents who give us the benefit of their sterling assistance as we pursue our procedures in the Chamber.

I do not have the experience of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) to comment on housing as a national issue. I leave that his greater expertise. However, I offer for the consideration of the House some comments on housing in my parish of Stockton in Cleveland. It is important to realise from the outset that not for ten years has Stockton district had the freedom of action in the democratic decision-making process afforded by Labour control at both national and local level.

Stockton has about 18,500 units in its housing stock. That is about a 10 per cent. reduction on the figure held in 1979 when the Government took office. Therefore, one can see that there has been an obedient, if somewhat reluctant, response to the Government's doctrinaire requirements of house sales. In the past five years, that same Government have filched more than £30 million from the subsidy of the housing revenue account. In 1979 that subsidy was £4 million per year. Extrapolating from that, based on an index of escalation—even the deliberately misleading index published by the Government's ministry of massage parlours—the subsidy should now stand at more than £6 million per year. In fact, it is nil. It was zero last year and the year before.

The last time the Government gave any positive direct financial support to the housing revenue account was five years ago, when they chipped in the princely sum of £13,000—not even the cost of a dog kennel in Dulwich. The Government have filched £30 million when more than 27 per cent. of Stockton district council's housing stock is more than 25 years old and badly in need of major renovation and the urgent attention that that term implies.

It is true that in Stockton at present the average basic rent is £18.12 per unit per week. It can be logically reasoned from that that if the Government were now providing subsidy in real terms, as they profess, and as previous Governments did, that rent would be a mere £12 per week. In other words, they have deliberately imposed, through policy decisions, a £6 per week deduction from the pockets of Stockton tenants. That is a cynical and Scrooge-like mechanism to squeeze the most from those who can afford the least.

Stockton's spend this year under the housing investment programme will be £13–5 million. If the Government had not sought to interfere over the intervening years, it would have been nearly £30 million, much more in line with real needs if we bear in mind the terms of the motion and the amendment which is to provide

good housing with responses to family and individual needs". I shall turn briefly to Stockton's housing capital programme. It is true that, under a Labour Government, Stockton district council averaged 330 new builds per year, even under a Tory-controlled council. Now, under the Tory Government, it can achieve an average of only 55.

However, under the Government's restrictions, the council has managed to average a yearly total of 540 housing improvement completions. That is despite the fact that its total bid over the previous five years for housing improvement was £64.5 million and its sanction allocation from the Government has been a mere £23 million. That is 74.5 per cent. less that it deems necessary. In this year alone the Government have limited their housing investment programme allocation to £3.3 million, when Stockton has provided hard evidence that more than £15 million is necessary, even by the Government's own standards.

How then, with all those restrictions, has Stockton council succeeded in averaging 540 housing improvements with all the odds stacked against it? It has been done by imaginative application of initiative and creative accounting—in the interests of its tenants, of course.

Mr. John Patten

Tell us more about that.

Mr. Cook

I shall tell you in a minute.

Mr. Rooker

Do not tell them.

Mr. Cook

If the Government dispute that, are they saying that the houses should not have been refurbished? The creative accountancy took the form of exploiting loopholes left in the Government's restraints. [Laughter.] My hon. Friends know, regardless of the Tories' hilarity, that we have now learned that the Government intend to close those loopholes. In other words, not only does the regime want to halt housebuilding, it wants to stop renovation schemes too. Otherwise, what is its motivation for pursuing such measures?

In the brief time left, I wish to make specific reference to Stockton's submission for assistance under the urban housing renewal programme and the community refurbishment scheme for the Clarences in Cleveland, where conditions are appalling. I challenge the Minister to visit that estate to see for himself the distress imposed upon tenants whose only crime is imposed indolence and concomitant low incomes. If the Minister will not agree to visit the area, will he at least consent to examine this small album of photographs which graphically record that estate's grievous need for urgent assistance—proof positive of the need for response to family and individual needs. I am confident that he will then give a positive response to Stockton's application on behalf of the Clarences.

In support of that, I quote Stockton housing department's most recent report: If a decision should be delayed until September"— I hope that the Minister is listening; he appears not to be— or October of this year, then obviously it will not be possible to spend any money that might be allocated before March of 1987. That means that the inhabitants of that estate could well be condemned to a further three winters exactly like the last. A decision is needed now. Can the Minister please assure me that he will give that matter his most urgent attention?

6.29 pm
Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)

It is my most pleasant duty to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Raynsford) on both his election and his maiden speech. Many people have to come to the House and build a reputation but my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham comes to the House with an established reputation. I have known my hon. Friend for many years. He has worked with Housing Advice, and for the housing association movement, and is greatly respected. My hon. Friend is fortunate to come to the House with such a reputation and I am sure he will establish a similar one for himself on other matters.

My hon. Friend's success in the by-election was not simply a personal triumph. All the opinion polls in Fulham revealed that the two major issues were housing and unemployment. The electorate in Fulham gave a decisive and unequivocal verdict about the Government's policies on those two major issues. Those matters will determine the results of other elections in many seats in the next general election.

The Opposition have proposed the motion tonight because we believe that people should come first and have a right to a home at a price that they can afford, with choice and flexibility over where they live, control over their own homes and environment and the right to a home that is dry, warm, and well maintained. A home with such characteristics is an essential precondition to a happy and healthy life, to the stability of the family, to mobility of employment, and to security and contentment in old age. We believe that caring about people means caring about their homes.

There are two tragic aspects of Britain's housing conditions today. The first is the condition of the housing stock. Some 3.9 million families live in homes which are either unfit for human habitation, lack the basic amenities or are in need of substantial repair. Those figures are based on returns recently sent to the Department of Employment on the housing investment programme returns. I can also quote the figure of just under 100,000 families who last year were literally homeless and vulnerable. That is an escalating, shameful and costly total.

Another measure of the tragic state of Britain's housing is revealed in the description by the Audit Commission. The Audit Commission is no ally of the Labour party and it does not write our political pamphlets. It certainly does not write them in Lambeth. The commission did not misuse language when it described the crisis in council housing and the 85 per cent. of council-owned dwellings requiring repairs and improvements. I could continue to cite the condition of people and their homes and the increasing number of people who live in homes that are damp or in poor repair, with leaking roofs, dry rot, and so on. Many of these people are owner-occupiers, the elderly or the less well-off, who are the victims of the current recession.

Mr. Marlow

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Fraser

No, I will not give way.

The main feature about the housing crisis is that there is no division between the tenant and the owner-occupier. It is becoming more and more apparent from the crisis that there is a community of interest between those who live in the poorer owner-occupied homes, those in the privately rented sector, and those in council accommodation. All these people share the consequences of the famine of funds that has been imposed by the Treasury and probably reluctantly agreed to by the Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction. The Treasury has done for the homeless of this country what drought did for the hungry in Africa.

The second tragic aspect of British housing is that the acute shortages and the poor condition of much of the housing stock is actually avoidable. We are not faced with an act of God; rather we are faced with a tragedy which I should perhaps not call man-made or person-made, but woman-made. It is a woman-made disaster.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham said, the political will is lacking. There is no shortage of funds to invest in housing in Britain. All of us with mortgages receive letters from the building societies inviting us to spend more of their money. Each building society is competing with the other to lend money. The building societies in turn are competing with the banks to lend money and both institutions are awash with cash. The local authorities are not short of money to spend on housing. Indeed, the amount of capital receipts which are unspent and largely unspendable, at £6,000 million, is four times greater than the housing investment programme permitted by the Government on the last occasion.

The real Minister for Housing is the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Treasury is more in the business of forging shackles for local authorities than in the business of building homes. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) spoke about loopholes. He should have taken care, as his words were given careful attention by that stooge of the Treasury who calls himself the Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction. We heard the Minister asking for more details about the loopholes from a sedentary position because he will want to work that information into his draft document on the limitations of capital spending by local authorities.

Mr. Marlow


Mr. Fraser

There are no insuperable problems to the solving of our housing problems. The fault lies with the Treasury and the pace at which it has allowed local authorities to spend their money or the money that is freely available on the open market.

The scale of the failure to deal with the housing problems is illustrated by the evidence of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities to the Duke of Edinburgh's inquiry. It calculated that at the present rates of building—which includes both private and public building—it would take 900 years to replace the existing housing stock. To put that another way, if William the Conqueror, who landed in 1066, had adopted in addition to administrative and constitutional changes a housing policy which involved replacing the hovels and shacks of the conquered Saxon kingdom, and if he had moved at the same rate as the Conservative Government, he would have come to the House of Commons now and said "Je l'ai fini".

The figures of new housing starts are available. If we compare the figures for the last complete year of starts under the Labour Government—1978—with the present figure, the reduction in new house starts in the public sector is approximately 92,000. That figure has not been compensated in any meaningful way by an increase in private sector housing. The completion figures are equally dismal. The Government cannot pretend that there has been a change of emphasis and that somehow private sector housebuilding has compensated for the loss of between 70,000 and 90,000 local authority homes a year while the Government have been in office. Last year, fewer houses were completed for private purchase than in 1978.

Lambeth's housing record has been attacked and compared with that of Wandsworth. However, I want to reveal a few of the facts about Wandsworth's housing programme. Last year, on the latest figures available, Wandsworth did not start one social home and it did not finish any social homes. It did not have any social housing under construction, yet, at the same time, there were 204 families either in bed and breakfast accommodation or in hostels. That statistic of no public housing was repeated in Hammersmith, Fulham, Merton, Sutton, and many of the surrounding boroughs that could make a real contribution to housing in areas of acute housing stress. That is one aspect of how local Tory boroughs follow their Tory masters in Westminster.

Last week I visited the Tory-controlled borough of Reading. That authority is not untypical of many Tory authorities. As soon as the Tories took control of the authority in 1983 they stopped building council homes, in spite of the fact that 120 families were homeless and 3,200 people were on the housing waiting list. Reading is in the affluent silicon valley and in the relatively affluent Thames Valley.

Reading reveals a new and ugly consequence of the Government's housing policy. The hoods and the heavies line up outside the post offices in Reading to collect the money from people who live in bed and breakfast accommodation before those people step off the pavement. Indeed, there have been times in Reading when the police have had to be called in to stop that ugly trade in homelessness. Homelessness has become a boom business in Britain. Millionaires make fortunes out of it.

When the police in Reading interfered with the collection of giro money for bed and breakfast accommodation, the hoods and heavies working for the landlords went round and collected the giros themselves and gave the tenants the change, making sure that the exploitation continued and the money went to those who run those squalid places. That is the picture of housing in one of the more affluent parts of Britain.

Many people are stuck because of the ending of improvement grants. I believe that about a quarter of a million people are waiting for improvement grants that have been cut as a result of the reduction in the housing investment programme.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Bristol, East)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Fraser

No, time is too short.

Someone came to see me the other day. His was a typical case. He had come from the West Indies during the second world war to join the Air Force and serve this country. In his sixties, his health became poor and he fell upon hard times. Because of his ill-health he was not able to put his repair grant application in on time. Because of the moratorium on spending, Lambeth cut out its improvement and repair grant policy, as did Croydon and many other local authorities, both Labour and Conservative. The man was beside himself. How was he to stop the rain coming through his roof? His neighbours were besides themselves, too. They did not know how they were to stop the rain coming into their houses, either.

It happened that the man suffered a stroke, so serious that a stair-lift had to be put into his house. He was therefore deemed to be so disabled as to qualify for an improvement grant on compassionate grounds.

That is the scale of the problem of housing and repair improvement grants. It is repeated in many other districts. Many people who are fortunate enough to be able-bodied live in despair and terror about what is to become of their homes. There is no opportunity for them to resort to rented housing. That is what has happened to housing as a direct result of the Government's policy.

Mr. Sayeed

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Fraser

The grants boom before the 1983 election was bribery, but we welcomed it. However, within a year that pattern of grant had been cut by 40 per cent., and cuts are still being made.

The Government have a housing policy with gimmicks. There is the urban housing renewal unit. There is clause 5 of the Housing and Planning Bill, for evicting tenants. We will discuss that on Thursday. However, what Government policy amounts to is a row of gimmicks and no guts. It is a policy that is increasingly earning—as in Fulham two weeks ago—the outrage and contempt of the public.

The Labour party has the necessary political will. The funds are available; there is enough money in the kitty to deal with the housing problem. We shall use energy, ingenuity and investment to increase the provision of housing across all forms of tenure. We have no ideological attachment to renting, buying or indeed swapping between different tenures. Our ideological attachment is to the meeting of need, and we have no obsession with tenure. We will emphasise quality as well as quantity—quality of construction, conversion, management and cost in use. We reject a housing programme based on the proposition that if people are hungry enough they will eat.

We also believe that as far as possible there should be a choice of tenures and the chance to change from one form of tenure to another. We believe in the development of a subsidy system that is fair across the tenures and is geared to meeting need and stimulating housing investment. In the case of mortgage interest relief, the greatest benefit goes to the higher rate taxpayers. We believe in fairness across the tenures, and that is what we shall achieve.

Our emphasis will be on people and their wishes and choices. We reject a housing policy in which a year of spend, spend, spend, such as 1982, can be followed a year later by cut, cut, cut. We reject a policy based on an obsession with tenure and little else, and we reject Tory policies that are a shabby abdication of the Government's central responsibility for meeting housing need. We reject those policies and ask the House to support our motion.

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

I begin on a happy note by joining all those who have complimented the hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Raynsford) on his maiden speech. I make no secret of the fact that I spent several hours in Fulham trying to impede the hon. Gentleman's entry to the House. Like other hon. Members, I was struck by the depth of affection and warmth shown to his predecessor, Martin Stevens, to whom many people have paid tribute.

The hon. Gentleman made a well-informed speech. That is no less than I would expect from someone whose organisation has been funded by my Department for eight years. I see that the miserly £69,000 paid to SHAC in 1978 had been generously increased to £128,300 by 1985.

In housing terms the hon. Member's status in Fulham is that not of a secure tenant, but a licensee. He is well known as a housing expert and I am sure that we will all welcome his contribution to debates on the subject.

I have a small quarrel with the hon. Gentleman. I believe that he said that for every £100 spent on housing under Labour £30 is spent now. Those figures conveniently omit capital receipts, and are based on HIP allocations. If he includes capital receipts, and arrives at the figure that is spent rather than the provision, he will find that the answer is somewhat different.

Whatever mistake the hon. Member for Fulham may have made pales into insignificance in comparison with what the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) has just said. He said that he regretted the ending of improvement grants. In 1979 we spent £90 million on improvement grants. Last year we spent £450 million. Yet the hon. Gentleman has the audacity to say that improvement grants have been ended. In fact, much more money is being spent in that way than was spent under Labour.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Dover) endorsed the priority estates project. The project has encouraged the local management of tenanted estates. Measures contained in the Housing and Planning Bill, which we are to discuss on Thursday, are designed to continue and accelerate the progress of innovation in forms of tenure and management.

The hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright) mentioned the AMA survey. I believe that he gave a somewhat partial quotation. The survey indeed shows that the number of properties needing repairs that would cost more than £5,000 rose slightly from 18 to 19 per cent. What the hon. Gentleman did not say was that the study also suggests that the number of statutorily unfit dwellings fell from 9 to 6 per cent. of the stock, and of dwellings lacking standard amenities from 9 per cent. to 4 per cent.

Mr. Cartwright

The hon. Gentleman should read Hansard tomorrow. I mentioned that point.

Mr. Young

I shall be delighted to read that in Hansard. The picture given in the AMA survey was not all bad.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about do-it-yourself shared ownership. My Department wrote to all local authorities in January 1983 telling them that they no longer needed specific approval from my Department to carry out do-it-yourself shared ownership. I understand that a small number are doing so. In addition, there is nothing to stop local authorities funding housing associations to carry out do-it-yourself shared ownership, and I understand that a number are doing so.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Latham) I mentioned tenant co-operatives. Everyone is in favour of tenant involvement and tenant cooperatives. He asked whether we could have progress reports on the urban housing renewal unit. I shall be happy to answer any questions about that. In opening the debate my hon. Friend said that there was an enthusiastic response, not least from the members of the AMA which had been initially somewhat hostile. The idea is that the unit should be a catalyst and should try to prod local authorities to consider new solutions for the difficult problems faced on unpopular estates.

Of course we shall consider my hon. Friend's suggestion that improvement grants should be run by the building societies, but obviously that is something that we shall discuss with the Building Societies Association.

The hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) raised a constituency matter which followed up on his recent adjournment debate. My Department is in touch with the Department of Energy concerning the houses he mentioned on the National Coal Board's estate at Maltby. My Department is considering the implication of the proposed sales to a private buyer.

On a happier note, the hon. Member mentioned a scheme for improving Reema housing. I understand that a system of repair to these houses is currently with PRC Homes Ltd. for appraisal. I shall keep the hon. Member informed of important developments.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Woodcock) spoke of the need to involve the responsible private sector and to initiate some movement in that area in the interests of job mobility. My hon. Friend put forward a five-point agenda of worthwhile suggestions of how that could be done, for which we are grateful.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Powley) reminded the House of the reluctance of some local authorities to sell council houses. The Labour party policy on the right to buy is now crystal clear. Tenants in our inner cities will have the right to buy and local authorities are to have the right not to sell. One cannot have a fairer policy than that.

The hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) made a valid point that my department should approve earlier in the year the schemes which are submitted under the urban housing renewal unit. Thus the spending can be achieved during the current year We have already approved a number of schemes this year and, of course, we intend to make decisions as soon as possible to achieve spending in the current year.

Many of us read in yesterday's press of the Labour party's campaign of freedom and fairness which is launched today. The Times said that the drive will concentrate, among other things, on housing. Some of us hoped that today's debate would witness the launch of some fresh initiative and existing new policies on housing. Nothing new has emerged from the Opposition Front Bench. Most of the sensible proposals that it put forward are already being implemented.

Mr. Terry Lewis (Worsley)


Sir George Young

I shall come to that in a moment.

I hope that the Opposition Front Bench can persuade its colleagues in London that housing is an important issue. I have a copy of the Labour party manifesto for the London borough of Ealing. Of its 81 pages, four cover the policy for policing in Ealing and 10 cover policies for women—including a policy for banning suggestive calendars at the works depots. But how much is there on housing? Twenty-one lines in the manifesto are devoted to housing, tucked away in the planning and environment section. There is more space on nuclear policy, on fairs, circuses and zoos, and on animal products, than there is on housing. In Ealing we shall have an exciting new policy of a ban on the sale of kittens in pet shops. There will be a borough pet-watch scheme.

The section on housing contains no new ideas, but simply a commitment to a massive campaign of municipal building. That is a return to the quick-build policies of the 1950s and the 1960s which were rightly condemned by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker). There was no mention of partnership with the private sector, tenants' involvement, or the other ideas which were mentioned in the debate. It represents a step backwards.

The hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) mentioned Wandsworth. Wandsworth has pursued an active sales policy—it has sold almost 7,000 council dwellings and around 4,000 of the dwellings have been bought by sitting tenants. On balance, priority has been given to council tenants who account for half the 15,000 to 20,000 potential purchasers on the council's special waiting list for the purchase of former council properties.

Co-operation with the private sector has been a great success in Wandsworth. For some estates the only realistic policy is disposal to the private sector for resale. Some have doubted whether there was a market for high-rise council blocks. Recently, however, Wandsworth successfully disposed of the Livingstone estate to Regalian Properties. That demonstrates that there is a substantial market. The first 24 refurbished flats which were put up for sale by Regalian were sold within two and a half hours of being put on the market.

The sales have provided substantial capital receipts for Wandsworth, a prescribed proportion of which can be reinvested in housing. In 1985–86 Wandsworth expected to supplement its HIP allocation of £17 million with some £36 million of capital receipts—£31 million from housing. In the past year, Wandsworth has raised more housing capital receipts than any other London borough.

Wandsworth has demonstrated that sales have not led to an increase in the waiting list if priority is given to council tenants, who help to create additional vacancies for lettings. Sales have also provided additional resources to make faster progress in tackling the problems that remain.

During the debate, there were a number of criticisms about the Government's economic policy. It is beneficial to consider some of the impacts of that policy on housing. In 1979 the mortgage rate reached 15 per cent. Since then it has fluctuated but it has now fallen to 11 per cent. and some societies hope that there will be a further reduction. A person with an average building society mortgage would have been paying £137 per month in November 1979. With the present mortgage rate of 11 per cent. that person pays £110 per month—saving £27 per month. That equates to a reduction in income tax of roughly 4p in the pound.

As interest rates fall and as earnings continue to rise, home ownership has become attainable for more people. That has enabled the public sector to concentrate its resources on those who cannot or do not want to buy. An inevitable consequence of Opposition policies would be a rise in interest rates, a rise in mortgage rates, and therefore a growing dependence of more people on the public sector.

The hon. Member for Perry Barr criticised the imposition of VAT on repairs and improvements. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman can tell the House whether the Labour party is now committed to lifting VAT on repairs and improvements? What would the cost be? From the hon. Gentleman's reluctance to come to the Dispatch Box, I take it that there is no commitment.

Mr. Rooker

When the Government imposed VAT in the 1984 Budget we said that we would remove it. That is not a new policy, it is existing Labour party policy.

Sir George Young

It is most helpful to have that commitment on the record. The hon. Gentleman may be aware that we are trying to cost the Opposition's expensive policies, and we are grateful for that further commitment.

The homeless or those on the waiting list are disadvantaged if they have to compete with more people for public sector accommodation if private accommodation for sale has been made more expensive because mortgage rates have been driven up by economic policies which push up interest rates.

The Government's economic policies have also benefited council house rents. By keeping inflation down we have enabled council rent increases to be kept at a low level. On average, weekly rents have risen by only 70p in each of the past three years. The Government's economic policies have benefited not only owner-occupiers but local authority tenants.

A couple of hon. Members mentioned improvement grants and asked for the Government's reaction to the Green Paper. The Green Paper produced some worthwhile responses. Some parts of that Green Paper have been welcomed in the debate, especially the section which asked for verification that the money had been well spent. It was suggested that the money should be linked to policies that have guarantees. Other parts of the Green Paper were not so well received. The Government will come forward with conclusions on the Green Paper as soon as possible.

The hon. Member for Perry Barr said that Labour party policy was to focus on choice, freedom and fairness. That is an excellent description of the approach to housing policy which has been followed by the Government since 1979. We welcome the conversion of Opposition Members to our point of view. In my reply to this debate I have tried, modestly, to point to some of the considerable achievements in Government policy in the past seven years. However, we are under no illusion about the scale of the problems that still remain, especially those of homelessness and of disrepair to the housing stock. We shall continue to make every effort to tackle the problems that remain, to look for new and imaginative solutions and to bring together all the available resources in both the public and the private sectors.

Despite the inevitable rhetoric in some of the speeches, there is in fact much common ground between us about the way in which we should proceed. It is on those sensible policies that we propose to make progress. I commend to the House the motion, as amended.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 173, Noes 269.

Division No. 151] [7 pm
Abse, Leo Brown, Gordon (D'f'mline E)
Adams, Allen (Paisley N) Brown, Hugh D. (Provan)
Alton, David Brown, N. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne E)
Anderson, Donald Brown, Ron (E'burgh, Leith)
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Buchan, Norman
Ashdown, Paddy Caborn, Richard
Ashley, Rt Hon Jack Callaghan, Rt Hon J.
Atkinson, N. (Tottenham) Callaghan, Jim (Heyw'd & M)
Bagier, Gordon A. T. Campbell, Ian
Barnett, Guy Campbell-Savours, Dale
Barron, Kevin Canavan, Dennis
Beckett, Mrs Margaret Carter-Jones, Lewis
Beith, A. J. Cartwright, John
Bell, Stuart Clark, Dr David (S Shields)
Benn, Rt Hon Tony Clarke, Thomas
Bennett, A. (Dent'n & Red'sh) Clay, Robert
Bermingham, Gerald Clelland, David Gordon
Bidwell, Sydney Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Blair, Anthony Cocks, Rt Hon M. (Bristol S)
Boothroyd, Miss Betty Conlan, Bernard
Boyes, Roland Cook, Frank (Stockton North)
Bray, Dr Jeremy Corbett, Robin
Corbyn, Jeremy Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Craigen, J. M. Martin, Michael
Crowther, Stan Mason, Rt Hon Roy
Cunliffe, Lawrence Maxton, John
Cunningham, Dr John Maynard, Miss Joan
Dalyell, Tam Meacher, Michael
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (L'lli) Meadowcroft, Michael
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'ge H'l) Michie, William
Deakins, Eric Mikardo, Ian
Dixon, Donald Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)
Dobson, Frank Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)
Dormand, Jack Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)
Douglas, Dick Nellist, David
Dubs, Alfred O'Brien, William
Duffy, A. E. P. O'Neill, Martin
Eadie, Alex Orme, Rt Hon Stanley
Eastham, Ken Park, George
Evans, John (St. Helens N) Patchett, Terry
Ewing, Harry Pavitt, Laurie
Faulds, Andrew Pendry, Tom
Fields, T. (L'pool Broad Gn) Pike, Peter
Fisher, Mark Powell, Raymond (Ogmore)
Flannery, Martin Prescott, John
Forrester, John Radice, Giles
Foster, Derek Raynsford, Nick
Foulkes, George Redmond, Martin
Fraser, J. (Norwood) Rees, Rt Hon M. (Leeds S)
Freud, Clement Richardson, Ms Jo
George, Bruce Roberts, Allan (Bootle)
Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John Roberts, Ernest (Hackney N)
Godman, Dr Norman Robinson, G. (Coventry NW)
Gould, Bryan Rooker, J. W.
Gourlay, Harry Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
Hamilton, James (M'well N) Sedgemore, Brian
Hancock, Michael Sheerman, Barry
Harrison, Rt Hon Walter Sheldon, Rt Hon R.
Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy Shore, Rt Hon Peter
Haynes, Frank Short, Ms Clare (Ladywood)
Healey, Rt Hon Denis Short, Mrs R. (W'hampt'n NE)
Heffer, Eric S. Silkin, Rt Hon J.
Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth) Skinner, Dennis
Holland, Stuart (Vauxhall) Smith, C. (Isl'ton S & F'bury)
Home Robertson, John Smith, Rt Hon J. (M'ds E)
Hoyle, Douglas Stewart, Rt Hon D. (W Isles)
Hughes, Dr Mark (Durham) Stott, Roger
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Strang, Gavin
Hughes, Roy (Newport East) Thomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)
Janner, Hon Greville Thomas, Dr R. (Carmarthen)
Jenkins, Rt Hon Roy (Hillh'd) Thompson, J. (Wansbeck)
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald Thorne, Stan (Preston)
Kennedy, Charles Tinn, James
Lambie, David Torney, Tom
Lamond, James Wainwright, R.
Leighton, Ronald Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Lewis, Terence (Worsley) Wareing, Robert
Lloyd, Tony (Stretford) Weetch, Ken
Lofthouse, Geoffrey White, James
McCartney, Hugh Wigley, Dafydd
McDonald, Dr Oonagh Williams, Rt Hon A.
McKay, Allen (Penistone) Winnick, David
McKelvey, William Wrigglesworth, Ian
MacKenzie, Rt Hon Gregor Young, David (Bolton SE)
McNamara, Kevin
McTaggart, Robert Tellers for the Ayes:
McWilliam, John Mr. Ron Davies and
Madden, Max Mr. Sean Hughes.
Marek, Dr John
Adley, Robert Atkins, Robert (South Ribble)
Aitken, Jonathan Atkinson, David (B'm'th E)
Alexander, Richard Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)
Alison, Rt Hon Michael Banks, Robert (Harrogate)
Amery, Rt Hon Julian Beaumont-Dark, Anthony
Amess, David Bellingham, Henry
Ancram, Michael Bendall, Vivian
Arnold, Tom Benyon, William
Ashby, David Best, Keith
Aspinwall, Jack Biffen, Rt Hon John
Atkins, Rt Hon Sir H. Biggs-Davison, Sir John
Blackburn, John Ground, Patrick
Blaker, Rt Hon Sir Peter Grylls, Michael
Boscawen, Hon Robert Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom)
Bottomley, Peter Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Bottomley, Mrs Virginia Hampson, Dr Keith
Bowden, A. (Brighton K'to'n) Hanley, Jeremy
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich) Hargreaves, Kenneth
Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard Harris, David
Brandon-Bravo, Martin Haselhurst, Alan
Bright, Graham Havers, Rt Hon Sir Michael
Brinton, Tim Hawkins, C. (High Peak)
Brittan, Rt Hon Leon Hawksley, Warren
Brooke, Hon Peter Hayes, J.
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thpes) Hayhoe, Rt Hon Barney
Browne, John Hayward, Robert
Bruinvels, Peter Heathcoat-Amory, David
Buck, Sir Antony Heddle, John
Budgen, Nick Henderson, Barry
Bulmer, Esmond Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael
Burt, Alistair Hickmet, Richard
Butler, Rt Hon Sir Adam Hicks, Robert
Butterfill, John Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.
Carlisle, John (Luton N) Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Holland, Sir Philip (Gedling)
Carlisle, Rt Hon M. (W'ton S) Holt, Richard
Cash, William Hordern, Sir Peter
Channon, Rt Hon Paul Howard, Michael
Chapman, Sydney Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A)
Chope, Christopher Howarth, Gerald (Cannock)
Churchill, W. S. Howell, Rt Hon D. (G'ldford)
Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S) Howell, Ralph (Norfolk, N)
Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe) Hubbard-Miles, Peter
Cockeram, Eric Hunt, David (Wirral W)
Colvin, Michael Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)
Conway, Derek Hunter, Andrew
Coombs, Simon Irving, Charles
Cope, John Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey
Couchman, James Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
Cranborne, Viscount Jones, Robert (Herts W)
Critchley, Julian Joseph, Rt Hon Sir Keith
Crouch, David Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine
Currie, Mrs Edwina King, Roger (B'ham N'field)
Dickens, Geoffrey Knight, Greg (Derby N)
Dicks, Terry Knowles, Michael
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J. Knox, David
Dover, Den Lamont, Norman
du Cann, Rt Hon Sir Edward Lang, Ian
Dunn, Robert Latham, Michael
Durant, Tony Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)
Eggar, Tim Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark
Emery, Sir Peter Lloyd, Ian (Havant)
Evennett, David Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)
Eyre, Sir Reginald McCurley, Mrs Anna
Fairbairn, Nicholas MacGregor, Rt Hon John
Fallon, Michael MacKay, Andrew (Berkshire)
Farr, Sir John MacKay, John (Argyll & Bute)
Fenner, Mrs Peggy McNair-Wilson, M. (N'bury)
Fletcher, Alexander McQuarrie, Albert
Fookes, Miss Janet Major, John
Forman, Nigel Malone, Gerald
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling) Marland, Paul
Forth, Eric Marlow, Antony
Franks, Cecil Marshall, Michael (Arundel)
Fraser, Peter (Angus East) Mather, Carol
Freeman, Roger Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin
Fry, Peter Merchant, Piers
Galley, Roy Miller, Hal (B'grove)
Gardiner, George (Reigate) Mills, Sir Peter (West Devon)
Gardner, Sir Edward (Fylde) Miscampbell, Norman
Garel-Jones, Tristan Mitchell, David (Hants NW)
Gilmour, Rt Hon Sir Ian Moate, Roger
Goodhart, Sir Philip Monro, Sir Hector
Goodlad, Alastair Montgomery, Sir Fergus
Gorst, John Morrison, Hon C. (Devizes)
Gow, Ian Morrison, Hon P. (Chester)
Gower, Sir Raymond Moynihan, Hon C.
Greenway, Harry Mudd, David
Griffiths, Sir Eldon Neale, Gerrard
Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N) Needham, Richard
Grist, Ian Newton, Tony
Norris, Steven Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)
Onslow, Cranley Stewart, Ian (Hertf'dshire N)
Patten, J. (Oxf W & Abgdn) Sumberg, David
Pattie, Geoffrey Tapsell, Sir Peter
Pawsey, James Taylor, John (Solihull)
Percival, Rt Hon Sir Ian Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Pollock, Alexander Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman
Porter, Barry Temple-Morris, Peter
Powell, William (Corby) Thompson, Donald (Calder V)
Powley, John Thorne, Neil (Ilford S)
Proctor, K. Harvey Thornton, Malcolm
Pym, Rt Hon Francis Thurnham, Peter
Raison, Rt Hon Timothy Townend, John (Bridlington)
Renton, Tim Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)
Rhodes James, Robert Tracey, Richard
Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon Trippier, David
Ridley, Rt Hon Nicholas Trotter, Neville
Ridsdale, Sir Julian Twinn, Dr Ian
Rifkind, Rt Hon Malcolm van Straubenzee, Sir W.
Rippon, Rt Hon Geoffrey Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Roberts, Wyn (Conwy) Viggers, Peter
Robinson, Mark (N'port W) Waddington, David
Roe, Mrs Marion Wakeham, Rt Hon John
Rossi, Sir Hugh Waldegrave, Hon William
Rost, Peter Walker, Bill (T'side N)
Rowe, Andrew Waller, Gary
Ryder, Richard Wardle, C. (Bexhill)
Sackville, Hon Thomas Watson, John
Sainsbury, Hon Timothy Watts, John
St. John-Stevas, Rt Hon N. Wells, Sir John (Maidstone)
Sayeed, Jonathan Wheeler, John
Shelton, William (Streatham) Whitfield, John
Shepherd, Colin (Hereford) Whitney, Raymond
Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge) Winterton, Mrs Ann
Shersby, Michael Winterton, Nicholas
Silvester, Fred Wolfson, Mark
Sims, Roger Wood, Timothy
Skeet, Sir Trevor Woodcock, Michael
Soames, Hon Nicholas Yeo, Tim
Speed, Keith Young, Sir George (Acton)
Speller, Tony Younger, Rt Hon George
Spencer, Derek
Squire, Robin Tellers for the Noes:
Stanbrook, Ivor Mr. Michael Neubert and
Steen, Anthony Mr. Francis Maude.
Stern, Michael

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 33 (Questions on amendments) and agreed to.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.

Resolved, That this House welcomes the Government's approach to housing policy which combines investment in good housing with responses to family and individual needs reflecting the informed opinions of tenants and home buyers, in order to bring about solutions based upon choice, freedom and fairness; and congratulates the Government on its achievements since 1979 in fulfilling housing aspirations and improving the quality of life throughout the whole community.

Forward to