HC Deb 22 January 1986 vol 90 cc299-301
11. Mr. Spencer

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what initiatives he is taking to promote owner-occupation in the inner cities.

Mr. John Patten

A lot. Let me give some examples. We are assisting new private house building in inner cities through the urban development grant. We are financing housing association development for home ownership, with an exphasis on the inner cities. We are urging local authorities to sell their empty housing for home ownership, perhaps after renovation. We are bringing more wasted urban land into use by giving derelict land grant for land reclamation and pressing the sale of vacant public land. My Department's urban housing renewal unit is helping authorities to bring run down council housing back into use for owner-occupiers.

Mr. Spencer

Does my hon. Friend agree that we cannot promote the welfare of the inner cities unless we promote owner-occupation there? Does he agree that city councils such as Leicester, which makes no provision for local home ownership, and which this year sold only enough land to the private sector to build four houses, are not showing much faith in the inner cities?

Mr. Patten

Yes, I agree entirely with my hon. and learned Friend. It is critical for a good social mix in the inner cities for there to be a mixed set of tenures, including owner-occupation. It is sad that councils such as Leicester should take the negative attitude that they are doing.

Mr. Chris Smith

Does the Minister agree that the greatest deterrent to home ownership in the inner cities is the extremely high level of mortgage interest rates, which are currently at risk of going even higher? What representation has he made to his right hon. Friends the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister about the impact of any increase in the level of general interest rates on mortgages?

Mr. Patten

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman at all. The reason why so little owner-occupation is being promoted in so many inner city areas is the stupid intransigence of so many Labour authorities which refuse to make use of the opportunities available to them and refuse to co-operate, in the way that good Labour authorities such as Salford and Oldham do, with the private sector and the Government.

Mr. Steen

Will my hon. Friend consider using some of the additional money that he has made available for the inner cities to reduce the number of houses in public ownership? Does he agree that one of the best ways of doing that would be by switching the weekly rental payments for houses, maisonettes and flats to a mortgage repayment? In that way, public ownership could be switched to private ownership at a stroke.

Mr. Patten

Yes, that is an interesting idea and we shall consider it.

Mr. Tony Banks

It is all very well for well-heeled Tory Ministers to talk about owner-occupation, but what advice can be offered to the people of Newham, for example, in public sector housing, 90 per cent. of whom cannot afford a deposit for a mortgage, while the London Docklands Development Corporation is building luxury houses and flats at £50,000 and £60,000 a go? What good are they to the people of Newham?

Mr. Patten

The Department's urban housing renewal unit now has a budget of £50 million for the coming financial year to make it possible for councils such as Newham to co-operate in bringing mixed forms of tenure back into the inner cities. There is a need to promote sensible debate about the need for a better social mix in the inner city, which partly, but not wholly, involves the introduction of owner-occupation. I believe that Labour and Liberal Members of Parliament agree with that.

Mr. Lyell

Bearing in mind the large amount of empty property in the ownership of local authorities over years and years, is it not clear now that urging is not enough? Will my hon. Friend seriously consider bringing in legislation to require local authorities, whose domestic property has been empty for more than one year, to put it immediately upon the open market?

Mr. Patten

It is a scandal. My hon. and learned Friend is right. If we look at the areas where there is the highest homelessness and the most rate rebates, we find them in councils controlled by the Labour party in London. We may have to take radical action. Last July we distributed a circular giving councils the opportunity to do more to bring back into use empty property in their ownership. If they do not do that, we shall have to think again.

Mr. Alton

Given that high unemployment makes it virtually impossible for many people in the inner cities to become owner-occupiers, does the Minister agree that housing co-operatives are a good way of promoting more ownership in inner cities? If so, what extra funds and personnel will be made available to pursue that objective?

Mr. Patten

Yes, I think that the hon. Gentleman is right. The housing co-operative movement is important. It is a tragedy that councils have sometimes put barriers in the way of housing co-operatives getting going in various city areas. I hope that when we debate the Housing and Planning Bill we shall have a chance to talk about such ideas.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels

Is my hon. Friend aware that only 4,500 council houses and, surprisingly, seven council flats have been sold in the city of Leicester? Will he promote and speed the sale of all council houses and make it clear that the new arrangements for the sale of council flats should be distributed to all tenants? Is he further aware that there are now about 10,000 empty properties in the county of Leicestershire?

Mr. Patten

My hon. Friend will not have long to wait, I hope, for the publication of the Housing and Planning Bill, which will contain our proposals for increasing the rate of sale of flats. I am appalled to learn from him of the substantial number of empty properties in Leicestershire. I am equally appalled by the substantial land holdings that so many inner city authorities have which could be used to bring housing back into the inner cities and lead to a housing-led regeneration of some of our inner city areas.

Mr. Janner

Is the Minister aware that the Government's policies have ravaged the housing and construction programmes of the city of Leicester in the public and private sectors? Is he further aware that there is no point in having land available for building if no one has the money to buy houses and if the people who have bought them are unemployed and cannot pay the mortgage? Why is he not doing anything to help the owner-occupiers of Smith houses in my constituency, who cannot have them put right because, to no small extent, of the two Tory MPs who represent the city?

Mr. Patten

I am rather confused. It was only a few weeks ago that the hon. and learned Gentleman was praising me for the action that I had taken over Smith houses in Leicester. I am sorry that he seems to have changed his tune. The trouble with city councils such as Leicester is that they do not seem to have the imagination to promote a multiplicity of forms of tenure—home ownership, housing associations, housing co-operatives and building for special needs.

Mr. John Fraser

If the Minister wants to help poorer owner-occupiers, why has his Government brought about a position where virtually every city authority, Labour and Conservative-controlled, has had to cut repair and improvement grants, which are the best way to help the rotting privately owned housing stock in our cities?

Mr. Patten

During the life of this Parliament we have already spent about £2.5 billion on improvement grants. We are spending about £500 million a year. That expenditure helps to diversify tenure in the inner cities. If one talks to tenants as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir. G. Young) did today on the Doddington estate in the constituency of the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Dubbs), one finds that tenants wish to see their estates privatised and home ownership brought into those areas.