HC Deb 24 July 1986 vol 102 cc713-35 11.25 pm
Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

Everyone knows that there is a crisis in housing. The Church of England's report "Faith in our Cities" said that, and the Commission chaired by Prince Philip said the same. Hundreds of thousands of homeless and badly housed people say that and know that.

I said that everyone knows that there is a crisis. There is one exception, and that is this Government. Since they took office, they have cut spending on housing by 47p in the pound since 1979–80. This week the Institute of Housing reports that only 39,000 houses and flats were built by councils and housing associations in 1985, against 162,000 10 years earlier. Over both sectors there has been a drop of 40 per cent. in the decade from 1975, from 313,000 to 188,000 last year—not because new homes are not needed but simply because this Government seem to prefer to leave £3.5 billion washing around the banks and 400,000 building workers jobless instead of putting both money and manpower to work.

The crisis in housing is the worst in 20 years and growing. It is evidence of the lack of freedom and fairness under this destructive Government. Millions of people are denied real choice over where and how they shall live. For those with cash there is a chance of private housing in pleasant well-laid-out areas, increasingly around the far edges of Birmingham and our other great cities. For those without cash, because of unemployment or low pay, there is the squalor of many of our crumbling run-down estates and tower blocks with almost non-existent repairs and little real hope of a move.

That is easy to say. It is harder to appreciate, because that misery is there hour by hour, day by wretched day. It does not go away. It gets worse as vandalism and unsolved crime are piled on top to produce hopelessness and despair among people who feel abandoned, unheard, neglected and forgotten. In the public sector there is both the squalor of many board and lodging houses and the insults and mysteries of the so-called private rest homes where some unscrupulous owners make money out of the age an infirmity of those whom councils are prevented from properly helping because the cash has been stolen from them by this Government.

A Government cannot cut rate support grant, for example, from 61p in the pound to 46p in the pound, have rate-capping multipliers and the rest and be surprised at the growing squalor in private and public housing.

Ten years ago, 44 tenants in every 100 in Birmingham got help with their rent and rates because of low pay or joblessness. Now that number is a staggering 77 in every 100. In recognition of that fact, housing benefit is now to be cut, and people in poverty are to be forced to pay 20p in the pound of their rates, having then to choose between food, heat, light and so on, or face the miseries of a summons for non-payment of rates. That is housing in Tory Britain 1986.

As the Institute of Housing argues, the present level of restriction of publichousing investment is not simply mean; it is short-sighted. Without more money for essential repair work next year, the deterioration will accelerate and soon we may truly be unable to afford the kind of housing standards that we expect in a civilised society.

Nowhere is that more true than in the city of Birmingham. Last year's return on the repair and improvement of local authority housing stock showed a need—not a wish—to spend £715 million on repairing and improving the council's present stock. At the present rate of tackling that job, it will take more than 600 years to achieve.

In July, a housing committee report to the council showed that housing need is outstripping supply in Birmingham, despite a falling population. It argued that a minimum of 1,270 new homes were needed each year for the next five years. These should be built by the council and housing associations in an attempt to cope with the demand. Yet, not one new family home has been built in Birmingham in the past four years because of Government cash cuts.

It is the same with improvement grants, but this, in many ways, is the greater idiocy. The Government encouraged thousands to apply for improvement grants, but a few months after the 1983 general election they suddenly switched off the funds. The housing committee considers that because of this neglect an extra 26,000 substandard homes will get too bad for repair and the bulldozers will have to be called in. We have been this way before, but we and the Government seemingly learn nothing.

There are also the infamous tower blocks. We have 492 in Birmingham. I am delighted to say that eight in my constituency must come down within the next 10 years, I wish it was in the next 10 months. It is only a start. There are 1,400 Boswell system built homes in Pype Hayes in my constituency. About 400 of them have been sold to former tenants. People scraped together to find the cash to buy these places at discounted rates, but now there is a question mark over their future. Until the Minister decides to designate them under the Housing Defects Act 1984, the whole area is blighted. These people have an urgent right to know what will happen and I appeal to the Minister to speed a decision to designate.

Birmingham, along with other cities and towns, has paid the price of the neglect of housing because of having cash stolen from it by the Government. It matters in ordinary and everyday ways. Some 30,000 low and medium rise blocks and maisonettes in the city are without an adequate cleaning and caretaker service. The hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) had a hand in this matter during her benign days as chairman of the city housing committee.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)


Mr. Corbett

Yes, indeed. If the caretakers are taken out, the vandals are allowed in. Lifts are fouled, graffiti blossoms and security locks are smashed as fast as they can be replaced. In many blocks in the giant Castle Vale estate in my constituency, doors and door frames, let alone the security locks, have long since disappeared. The vandals are joined by vagrants and dogs.

In 1986 people should not have to live like this. It insults their self-respect. It adds to the misery of life on low pay or on the dole. It also denies others work and in turn costs more and more in the direct and indirect taxes paid by people at work.

Yet there is an answer. It is to unlock the cash in town hall vaults derived from the sale of former council homes. It is to find ways to use the £3.5 billion in the banks to get the 400,000 jobless building workers back to work. That turn will stimulate further work in the industries which supply the building industry.

The answer is obvious. The trouble with it is that it collides with the Government's dogma. They do not care a damn about wretched and worsening housing conditions. It is sad to say that it is no good appealing to the Government to change course and do what is suggested. Our appeal must be to the voters to change the Government and allow the next Labour Government to start rebuilding Britain and ensure a real and wide choice of housing for all our people. It is a job that will not wait.

11.35 pm
Mr. Michael Meadowcroft (Leeds, West)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) on his luck in the draw and on being able to raise such a vast subject. I hope that my constituents and those of other hon. Members will not have to wait for the return of a Labour Government; many houses will have fallen down long before that happens.

It should be understood that there is a difference between houses and homes. It is unfortunate that over the past 40 years the distinction has not always been clearly delineated in the minds of administrators in local government and central Government. In housing there is immense variation — possibly more than in any other service that is provided by local government and central Government— between what people want, what people are provided with, and what people perceive as being progress.

There is immense variation between what is perceived to be good housing and good houses that make good homes. What was once thought to be progress is now seen not to be. I do not subscribe to the malign school of politics that suggests that certain things are done with evil motives and with intent. I believe that things are done with the right motives and from idealistic concern. If they turn out to be wrong, the wrong was not intended. That is my view. Unfortunately, we have malign politics now, and it is all too easy to attack previous Governments and say that they should have known better, should have acted differently, or should have tackled something in an entirely different way. That approach serves no useful purpose when we address ourselves to housing.

If we were to go along that road, we would succeed only in placing a smokescreen between ourselves and the problem, and perhaps even inhibit some of the help that our constituents and constituencies require. The supposed answers to the provision of housing in the past are now the problems. All of us, especially those who represent city seats, are well aware of the problem of deck-access housing. We were all shown marvellous pictures of streets in the sky and told how wonderful it would be, but we are aware of the problems of those who are still condemned to live in deck-access housing. The problems are illustrated vividly in my constituency. A block that is known to some as Hunslet Grange is known as Alcatraz to others. Leek street is known as Bleak street. The block was demolished some years ago, but the Leeds city council will be paying £590,000 a year until 2028 for those dwellings. That is the sort of problem that we face. The properties were thought to constitute an improvement on the housing in which people were then living, but they turned out to be a nightmare.

I am not anxious to attack others left, right and centre, and I acknowledge that hindsight makes the problems and the answers more obvious, but with foresight we could have seen things differently. Perhaps it would have been possible to have initiated different housing policies. The right decisions were not always made when houses were demolished. Some were fit and others were not. I shall quote a Liberal chairman of what was called in 1906 the Unhealthy Areas Committee, perhaps accurately if somewhat unfeelingly. He reported that high multi-storey dwellings in Leeds would be bad for people because young children would be imprisoned in them as would the elderly. It seems that no note was taken of that opinion during the "progress" that was made later in the century.

It is all too easy to attack councils and Governments. In so many of our cities the housing problem is self-caused. In the past two decades about 10,000 more houses have been demolished than built. There is pressure on housing waiting lists and a lack of choice for people. That has come about, to a large extent, because there are fewer housing units.

I have stood with a public health inspector — no doubt other hon. Members have done so—at the lop of a hill and have seen the rows of terraced, back-to-back houses. I have seen the inspector wave his arms imperiously over those houses and say that they must be demolished. Hundreds of homes were demolished simply because some public health inspector believed that they were slums.

The folksiness of people in those dwellings came through to me. One man told me that his home had to be demolished because it was a back-to-back house and, therefore, in the view of the inspector, a slum. He was put in a flat that he said was not only back-to-back but also top-to-bottom. He could not understand that, and rightly so. We have destroyed, we have built, and we have not improved.

I had hoped that the hon. Member for Erdington would have covered the more practical problems. How do we cope with the vast problems we face, which are peculiarly capital problems? The Government have a narrow-minded accountancy attitude. They want to stifle local authorities from doing what they perceive will remedy the problems. The Government have limited the amount of capital receipts that local authorities can use. They cannot spend those receipts in ways that they consider beneficial. While that narrow-minded accountancy attitude continues, the problems get worse.

There are a number of Reema blocks in my constituency. Recently the tenants of those blocks were told that, even though the flats were safe, they must not use the balconies. At a recent meeting of those tenants — a representative from the housing department attended—a woman said: If balconies won't stand 8½ stones shouldn't we be moved out immediately? The official replied: They could be unsafe. We won't know until each one is inspected. The housing department does not wish to alarm people unnecessarily, partly because it has nowhere else to put people. On the other hand, it does not want to be liable if someone falls through a balcony. It is ludicrous that people were told not to use part of the flats although they were still safe. That is intolerable.

Another tenant said that a crack had appeared in the wall. The council filled it in. Eventually, after it had been filled in a number of times, the tenant refused to have it filled in again. She employed her own structural engineer who said that there were no angle irons and no fire stop. The council said that it was unaware of that and that it would, rightly, check the reports.

People who have bought Reema and low-rise dwellings cannot afford to undertake the necessary renovations. They could cost between £18,000 and £21,000 —considerably more than the dwellings are worth. Yet they cannot sell them. Leeds council has interpreted the Act concerning buying back extremely strictly.

I mean no disrespect to the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young), who is present in the Chamber, when I say that I am sorry that the Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction is not here. The Minister visited Leeds recently. As a member of an all-party group, he looked at some houses. He took lumps of concrete off the walls of inhabited Duo Slab flats with his own hands.

Mr. Corbett


Mr. Meadowcroft

I would not mind that if it led to a positive result, but it did not in this case. Yet, two months later, the Minister has refused to designate those houses under the Act. That is ridiculous.

The DOE's survey came to the conclusion that Leeds needed upwards of £400 million to solve its housing problems. When the local authority submitted a claim for a £68 million grant, it was allocated £24 million, which was less than it received the previous year. The problems get worse. That was not a high enough capital allocation to cover normal or programmed housing stock maintenance. In addition to the ordinary stock maintenance problem, we have a system-built housing problem. More problems are coming to light week by week and month by month, and that is bound to place an extra burden on local authority expenditure. No additional allowance is coming from central Government to meet that.

The Government should note that capital investment in housing could lessen unemployment. Many schemes which have much lower costs than the cost of simply letting buildings deteriorate have a beneficial effect as well. Voluntary bodies, such as Anchor Housing, and building societies, such as the Abbey National, are involved in "staying put" schemes. Mortgages available to those in council houses or on waiting lists provide three loans for the amount needed for one new build; yet again we cannot switch resources to that aspect of housing because of the cost of covering emergencies. There is a lack of money for repair grants, but people will happily repair their own homes, given some incentive. Some years ago, when the grant for housing improvements in Leeds decreased from 75 per cent. to 50 per cent., there was an immediate decline in the numbers taking it up. Housing stock continues to decline.

We face an exceptionally serious problem. I am deeply concerned about the problem in my city and my constituency. Unless the problem is attacked within the next few months, the social and economic consequences will be immense. The Government do not appear to realise the scale of the problem. There is no doubt that it is worsening. There is no point in expecting local authorities to cope within their present capital allowance limits. People cannot sell; the council will not buy back; and people cannot improve their properties. The Housing Defects Act 1984 has many good points, but it does not cover nearly enough properties. So far as I am aware, only one new type of system-built house has been added to the list. Other houses, such as Caspon houses, are not covered by the Act. People face the same situation with those types of houses as they would with PRC houses.

I beg the Government to take note of the problems and to be aware that, unless something is done to resolve the problems this year, they will increase next year and people will be living not only in squalor but in fear. We should not tolerate that in this century in this country.

11.46 pm
Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

It is a shame that a debate on such an important topic can produce only one Tory Back Bencher sitting at the back of the Chamber, the Minister and his minder to represent the Government.

Six weeks ago, a survey was published by researchers who spent three years analysing data and statistics and examining all the major towns and cities in Europe. They drew up a league table of the least attractive towns and cities. Coventry came 93rd in that league of 102. Nine other British towns and cities were in the bottom 15 on the list, Liverpool being at the bottom. The list was based on employment figures, the numbers leaving the city and those wanting to make it their home—that is why this is relevant to the debate — the demand for travel to the area, and so on.

The environment and the condition and quality of housing are central points. Cities such as Liverpool and Coventry share the housing problems which have played a major role in inspiring the politics of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Broadgreen (Mr. Fields) and me.

The researcher from Reading university responsible for collating those statistics used this quote: Coventry is one of the British cities that have deteriorated the most since 1970". I know that for a fact because, for 15 of the 16 years since 1970 Coventry has been my home, and I have seen that decay take place. For most of this century, Coventry has been seen as a prosperous, working-class city with high wages, low unemployment, an increasing population and award-winning estates. For many Coventry people, that was always a myth, but it was the reputation. Thirty years ago 2,000 private houses and 2,000 council houses were built each year. This year, not a single family house is being built by the city council. In fact, in Coventry, for the past five years, we have not had the money for the council to build a single family house. The only spending on specialist accommodation — sheltered housing for the elderly—finishes next year.

We have been unable to find the money necessary for repairs and modernisation and, unfortunately, the city council has chosen a strategy which I strongly disagree with for the privatisation of parts of estates, including the Pondfield within the constituency of Coventry, South-East. Plans for such privatisation have been extended to other areas of the city such as Wood End, Stoke Aldermoor, Henley Green, Willenhall and Hillfields. I cannot see that being the solution to the crushing problems of housing facing working people in Coventry.

One in six of all the houses in Coventry, public and private, requires major attention. Most of the 20,000 or 21,000 houses — 15,000, according to statistics of a couple of weeks ago—require at least £5,000 to be spent on repairs and modernisation. Nine hundred and forty-four houses are officially classed as unfit for human habitation and almost 5,000—4,935 to be precise—lack one of the five basic amenities such as an inside toilet, hot and cold running water, a shower or a bath and so on. There are 327 people officially classed as homeless. That figure was "only" 76 when the Government took office in 1979, so it has increased almost five times. There are 9,644 families and individuals on the waiting list.

Those are cold statistics. What do they mean? My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Park) and I have been dealing with the case over the past couple of days of a young lass, a single parent with a three-year-old daughter, living in a bedsit. She is on the housing waiting list and hopes to be moved into a one or two-bedroomed flat by the council when one becomes available. However, she telephoned me and I telephoned my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East. What fear or panic made her do that? It was the announcement last night that by 11 August the provision of household equipment and furniture from the Department of Health and Social Security for those moving out of furnished into unfurnished accommodation will end. The only thing she owns in the single room is a bed. If she does not get her claim in by 11 August, she runs the risk of not being able to afford the basic requirements when she moves.

I am glad to see that the Minister for Social Security has arrived. Perhaps he can contribute to the debate on the subject of supplementary benefit needs grants affecting one-parent families in furnished accommodation transferring to unfurnished council accommodation. Coventry has an urban renewal programme to try to repair and improve the sub-standard council and private housing in the city. It is no surprise that the areas the council is trying to tackle with the urban renewal programme, the poorest areas for housing in Coventry, are the areas of highest unemployment such as Hillfields, Foleshill, Willenhall and Stoke Aldermoor to give just a few examples. In Hillfields, an area I represent, official male unemployment is 45 per cent. Add the fiddles to that, such as the lads over 60 who do not count in the figures, the kids on the schemes and the women who are not allowed to claim and we are talking about 50 or 60 per cent. unemployment rates.

The council say they cannot do much about repairs and modernisation because of the cuts over the past seven years. It is clear that the majority of owner-occupiers who are unemployed do not have sufficient cash in their pockets to improve their homes without grant aid. Where do they get the grants from? The present rate of distribution of grants in Coventry means that it will take more than 30 years to deal with known owner-occupied housing problems. We have residents who will not live long enough to see their houses repaired at the present rate of grants from the Tory Government.

Mr. Meadowcroft

Is the hon. Gentleman going to comment on the inadequacy of the Housing Defects Act 1984, because, as far as I am aware, in Coventry only about 358 houses are designated under that Act whereas in Leeds there are 7,000? The way in which the hon. Gentleman is speaking suggests that there is a huge problem which is not even touched by the Act.

Mr. Nellist

I suspect that I will not have enough time to develop the major problem which is "No fines" construction. It relates to the mix of concrete used in the 1950s and 1960s for the construction of council estates. Damp soaks up it like up loo paper or, if Hansard prefers it, blotting paper.

The other major problem is that some council estates are built on shale from closed pits in areas such as Binley. With the shifting and settling of foundations cracks appear. Those problems will not go away because the grants are inadequate and are often given not for full improvements, but only partial improvements, and further treatment will be needed in future on houses that receive grants.

I am tempted to offer the Minister a chance to visit Coventry and see the problems that I have already outlined, but the offer is a bit tempered because the last Minister who came, the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), came four years ago and graced Wood End estate, which has major problems, with his presence for only 12 minutes. After his great investigation, he said that the housing was some of the worst he had ever seen, yet he returned to London and cut housing grants to Coventry, as the Tory Government have done in every year of their seven-year term of office.

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

I visited Coventry two months ago at the invitation of the city council and saw one such estate. I was able to announce a grant to finance some badly needed improvements which was welcomed by the local authority.

Mr. Nellist

The Minister came to Hillfields in southeast Coventry, and I received a letter to say that he was coming. He provided an additional £1.8 million to renovate the lifts in the tower blocks and for double glazing. If he wants to read through the council documents I have with me tonight, but which I shall not have time to deal with, he will find that that is not even 1 per cent. of the money we need to begin to tackle the problems. It is all very well being featured on the front page of the Coventry Evening Telegraph, for that £1.8 million grant, but when on 12 July housing improvement submissions came through we put in for £27 million for this year, as we have done for the past three years. In the past three years we have received £7 million or less, and this year it is predicted that we shall receive £5.8 million. In other words, the Minister gives with his left hand the £1.8 million which gave him his publicity for caring capitalism, which he then takes with his Right-wing monetarist hand from our housing improvement programme application.

Mr. Corbett

Beware of Ministers bearing gifts.

Mr. Nellist

My hon. Friend is right.

Unless we receive the full £27 million, rents are predicted to rise by £1.70 a week later this year. The rent for a run-down council flat in a hard-to-let area in Coventry is £33 a week, which is equivalent to a £17,000 mortgage. Tenants and owner-occupiers in Coventry alike need help, not further grant cuts. The longer renovation and repairs are left undone, the worse they become. Obviously, that is not a problem to be found in a Prime Ministerial retirement home in Dulwich costing £400,000 and built by Barratt, but it is a horrific problem in the areas I represent.

I now wish to deal with the Tory's hoary old solution of home ownership. That is seen as a sick joke among the unemployed of Coventry. The Government plan to cut by half for the first six months the housing benefit to pay the mortgage interest of unemployed people, and 90,000 families throughout the country will be affected. I estimate that between 700 and 1,000 families in Coventry will be affected from this autumn. Since 1979, 50,000 families nationally have been evicted and had their homes repossessed by banks or building societies. It is now running at 16,500 families a year. If the mortgage interest benefit for unemployed workers is cut, that figure will rocket. In 1985, 50,000 families were in that pipeline, being more than six months behind with their mortgage payments, and the number will rise if that proposal goes through.

Mr. Greg Knight (Derby, North)

If the hon. Gentleman is being fair, will he also give the House the figures for the families who are in arrears with their council house rent? Are not his comments a gross distortion of the facts? Are there not many thousands of families in the east midlands who welcome the opportunity to buy their home provided by the Government?

Mr. Nellist

Given the level of council house rents, many families would rather take out mortgages. The Government have cut so much money from the rate support grant during the past seven years that councils, to avoid making cuts in services, have had to increase the rents and rates charged to those who live in council accommodation. On the surface, people welcome the change, but the 50,000 families who are already six months behind in their mortgage repayments and who face eviction and repossession do not welcome the change.

As for rent arrears, about £11,000 million has been cut from supplementary benefit during the past seven years, which has forced many workers to choose between feeding the kids and paying the bills. The increase in rent arrears was caused by that. Where rents are paid directly by the DHSS, the staff cuts in that Department have led to rent arrears not from tenants, but from the DHSS offices. They canot pay the rents because of the problems caused by the changes in housing benefit during the past three years.

The Tory vision of a nation of individual capitalist homeowners was nonsense from the start. They eased lending restrictions and pioneered early loans, but they have also been responsible for mass unemployment and declining living standards. In the immortal words of the chairman of the Tory party, the solution to unemployment is, "Get on your bike. There are plenty of job vacancies in the south-east." The average sale price of houses in the west midlands is about £34,000. The average sale price of houses in greater London, where all the jobs are supposed to be, is £61,000.

That is the beauty of a market economy. The Government tell people to get on their bikes and find jobs, but they cannot afford somewhere to live when they get there. One sees advertisements for one-bedroomed, pre-1914 flats in "cheaper" areas of London which sell for more than £28,000. In The House Magazine, Members of Parliament see advertisements for houses priced at £100,000 or £150,000. The spiral of low housebuilding and high interest rates will be stopped, and we shall finally have enough places in which working people can live and work, only with radical Socialist solutions, such as the public ownership of banks and building societies and the cancellation of the debts of millions of workers who are caught in the mortgage web.

Indeed, we should go so far as cancelling the debts of local authorities. The city of Coventry owes £284 million to the banks; that is £910 for every man, women and child in the city. The figure has increased by about £22 million since last year. The reason is that, mainly to finance building programmes, councils borrow from banks on 60-year loans, but, no matter how they try to pay off those loans, interest rates increase the total debt at the end of the year, even though they may have paid off £20 million or £25 million. If we cancelled that debt, we could halve all the domestic rents and rates in Coventry and have more than £10 million extra a year for repairs, modernisation, central heating and other environmental improvements.

Of course, the Minister will say, "What a utopian this bloke is. It is absolutely impossible to talk about the restructuring or cancellation of debts." But he should have a word with the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the Department of Trade and Industry. It is not impossible to restructure the debts of industries before privatisation. When they talked about privatising the water industry, they began the discussion with the restructuring and cancellation of the industry's large debts. When we have a Labour Government who are prepared to consider the public ownership of banks and the cancellation of local authority debts, that drain on local authority resources will be ended once and for all.

I shall end now, because other comrades may wish to speak in the debate. I have used many statistics in my speech, but housing is not a question of cold statistics. I regularly visit the homes of my constituents, personally witnessing the mould, the wallpaper hanging off, the kids with constant coughs and colds, families with damp clothes and furniture, the generally deteriorating health, the bronchial diseases and the depression that comes from living in overcrowded, inadequate accommodation in Coventry. The same is true of other major cities.

Not many of the people who live in council or private homes in Coventry, South-East which desperately need modernisation and improvement could have afforded £35,000 to buy a wedding dress, as the Duchess of York managed to do yesterday. They could not afford £600 a metre to buy the cloth to make that dress. If they had £600, they could do their own decorating to bring their houses up to scratch.

There are 6 million people in this country living in damp accommodation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Erdington said, match that with the 400,000 building workers who under this Government are lying idle at home, denied the chance to use their skills to build, or improve, housing and accommodation.

What the country needs is a crash national housebuilding programme of repairs and modernisation. I believe that that will come only when we get a Socialist Labour Government who are prepared to pursue a programme firmly embedded in public ownership of construction and finance firms.

The Government's own figures show that £19,000 million would crack the problems of repairs and modernisation in the country. Is that too much to ask— what is £19,000 million between friends? Cancel Trident and stop the stupid torpedo programme. The Government are spending £5,000 million to develop three types of torpedo; only two of them have been fired, in the Falklands and they both missed. Withdraw for two years the tax concessions given to company directors for their company cars, and there is £19,000 million at the drop of a hat. If the will were there, the finance could be found.

The Tories pretend to be the party of caring, particularly one or two of the Ministers who turn up at these debates, above all in the run-up to general elections. They talk about promoting democracy. They define it sometimes as a share-owning democracy when they want a fig leaf to cover privatisation — or, more accurately, privatisation exercises. Sometimes they define it as a home-owning democracy. That is a callous confidence trick. The largest percentage of public expenditure cuts in the last seven years has come in housing. The number of new home starts in the country is 33 per cent. less than in the last year of the Labour Government. Council building has been slashed by 70 per cent. under this Government, and is down to 39,000 new council houses according to last year's statistics.

I want to see a country that gives a guarantee of a well constructed family home with a garden to every family in the country, not for them to be trapped on the 15th floor of a tower block, such as the Minister visited in Hillfields a couple of years ago. These people are trying to bring up families who will never see a garden or swing in a swing. We will never get that under this Government. For that we need a change of Government and the transformation of society along Socialist lines.

This has not been the best attended of debates, but, when workers outside the House read some of the speeches made from the Labour Benches, they will understand that the best hope that they have of changing housing conditions is to chuck out the Tory Government as soon as possible and return Labour to office.

12.7 am

Mr. Nick Raynsford (Fulham)

I am pleased to have an opportunity to contribute to the debate, and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) on raising this extremely important issue tonight.

There is, without doubt, a severe housing crisis in the country at present, one which has been deepening in recent years and which the present Government show little or no sign of even recognising, let along taking the necessary steps to tackle.

There are acute problems of shortage of housing in many areas of the country, hitting particularly those people on low incomes who cannot afford to buy homes but depend upon the supply of rented housing. Many people in many inner-city areas, not just London, are desperate for homes and have no prospect of finding them. They cannot afford to buy, and there are no homes for them to rent in their price range.

Secondly, there are the problems of bad conditions in all sectors of the housing market, not just in the private rented sector, which used to be the area in which the worst conditions were concentrated. Indeed, they still are, although the private rented sector has much declined and there are now fewer homes in that sector. However, many are still in appalling condition and in need of some action.

There are problems in the other sectors. We have growing problems of structural decay and lack of maintenance and repair in the public sector. Let us not be too pessimistic about this. There has been a tendency recently to take the view that everything in the public sector is wrong. That is not so. Council housing provides the prospect of a deent home and an escape from the slums for many millions of families. Without it, they would be living lives substantially worse than they are. The achievements of the public sector should be recognised.

The public sector, which has been denigrated in recent years, starved of funds and not given the encouragement and assistance to tackle its worst problems, is in some ways falling short, and there are problems.

There are problems in the owner-occupied sector, traditionally an area thought to have relatively few problems. More elderly and poor home owners do not have the means to maintain their houses and are finding increasing difficulty in meeting their mortgage repayments.

So in all sectors we have problems, and the symptoms of those problems are obvious to anyone who takes an intelligent interest in housing conditions in Britain. We see the evidence of decaying homes and estates, of overcrowded waiting lists, of people with a desperate need for housing — hon. Members witness this problem in their surgeries—who have been told that they have no prospect of being housed because their local authorities and housing associations cannot afford to provide homes.

We also have the evidence of empty homes, many of them empty because the authorities and housing associations do not have the money to put them into decent condition or because private owners keep them empty for speculative reasons.

We have record levels of homelessness. More people were recorded as being homeless in the last year than at any time since records began shortly after the last war. That is a chilling fact, of which the Government should be deeply ashamed. About 94,000 households were last year accepted as homeless.

Mr. Meadowcroft

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the definition of "homeless" has been restricted still further? More people are being regarded as intentionally homeless, which was never the intention of the measure introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross). In other words, many of the homeless would not be recognised as being homeless under the present legal definition.

Mr. Raynsford

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention. I was talking this morning to the Minister who will reply to this debate about the unfortunate result of legal definitions following the Pulhoffer judgment. That has created a restrictive interpretation of "homelessness" and has had the effect of penalising homeless people, but I shall not pursue that matter now.

Perhaps the most shameful of all the Government's actions is to be found when we consider where the homeless people are going. It is the symbol by which the Government's housing policy will be judged.

The homeless are going into bed and breakfast hotels. They have become the homes for many thousands of people, whether they are placed in such establishments because the authorities have nowhere else to place them or because they are young, single people on supplementary benefit who end up there because they do not have proper homes.

We have seen the rise of squalid, expensive board and lodging accommodation instead of proper, decent homes. It is a tragedy that so many people are having to live in such places. The cost is enormous. I am pleased to see the Minister of Social Security here. He often quotes the huge escalation in social security payments to people in board and lodging accommodation.

Consider the cost to local authorities which place people in such establishments. Figures placed recently in the Library by the Department of the Environment showed that the net cost of such accommodation—after recovering money from families, housing benefit and so on — had risen from £8 million in 1982–83 to £15 million in 1984–85. We do not have the figures for 1985–86, but I suspect that they will show a further enormous increase, with a further escalation in the current year.

This money is being poured down the drain. Worse, it is being poured into the hands of private hotel and bed and breakfast owners who are providing a shoddy, nasty product and are charging far too much for it, and the state is subsidising it. If people had their own homes, they could live in them at substantially less cost to the state.

We are seeing the economics of the madhouse—the result of capital cuts leading to Revenue expenditure escalation. Any economist examining the DHSS and Department of the Envionment expenditure on bed and breakfast and board and lodging would agree that madness lies this way and that there is no logic in what is happening.

It is not just a question of bed and breakfast and board and lodging. The Government's policy is to promote home ownership. They have sought to increase the home ownership option for many people. They have encouraged council tenants to buy their council homes. However, when problems have arisen, the Government have shown extraordinary insensitivity, with the result that an increasing number of home owners have found themselves in trouble.

During the lifetime of this Government the number of mortgage arrears has risen dramatically. According to the Building Society Association's figures, in 1979 about 8,000 households were more than six months in arrears with their mortgages. By 1985, that figure had risen to 60,000 —an enormous increase—and it is escalating very fast. In the last two years the figure has doubled. That is the result of the promotion of owner-occupation, coupled with an economic recession. Many people have lost their job, or have suffered a cut in income and have therefore been unable to meet their mortgage repayments.

Has this problem resulted in co-ordination between Government Departments? Has a positive approach been adopted? Not in the least. The Department of Health and Social Security says once again, "Oh, the cost of meeting these debts through supplementary benefit is going up so much that we must cut it." Therefore we witness the appalling spectacle of the Department of the Environment encouraging home ownership and the Department of Health and Social Security saying that if people are in difficulties over their repayments the benefit will be reduced, thereby removing the safety net that is necessary to help low-income home owners or others who are in difficulties. Homelessness is the inevitable result.

Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

Did my hon. Friend see the recent television programme in which the Minister for Social Security, whom I applaud for being here, castigated local authorities for lending money to people who were not good mortgage risks, although Government legislation requires local authorities to be lenders of last resort who cannot take into account the fact that somebody had been a bad rent payer?

Mr. Raynsford

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his extremely helpful intervention. We see once again the inconsistency of the Government's policy, the lack of coordination between Government Departments and the sheer hypocrisy of encouraging people to get into this position and then cutting off the option that would save them from falling into difficulties.

Housing benefit is another example. During the early years of this Government we heard again and again that rent levels were not high enough, that they should be increased and that the poor would be protected by means-tested benefits. However, as rents rose, there was an inevitable increase in the cost of housing benefit. The DHSS responded again in exactly the same way. Instead of realising that the logical result of a cut of more than £1 billion in general subsidies to council tenants would be an increase in means-tested benefits, for which the DHSS meets the bill, the Department said, "The bill is too high, the benefit must be cut."

Again and again during the last three or four years, we have heard that housing benefit has been increasing too fast and that it must be cut. We heard it again last night. The Government are incapable of co-ordinating the policies of the two Departments, although they have an extraordinary identity of interest, the overlap between housing and social security is so obvious.

Mr. Nellist

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is not so much an inability to co-ordinate the Departments as a perfect ability to co-ordinate? The strategy is to say, "Don't worry, everything will be OK," thus lulling people into a false sense of security, and then, as the bills increase, to cut, since the real aim is to cut benefits? There seem to be no problems at the top end of the scale, in that the top 5 per cent. of the population are given tax cuts and everything is done to ensure that, year after year, their position improves.

Mr. Raynsford

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because I was about to come to that. I should like first to illustrate the extent to which the Government are without a serious and intelligent policy towards housing and how they are floundering. There has been a huge escalation in homelessness. When the Government are asked to give their estimate of the likely level of homelessness this year —they must have such an estimate to plan provision—what is the answer? Since such estimates would depend on individual local authorities' policies, the housing stock position in their areas and other factors, too many assumptions would be involved for them to be reliable."—[Official Report, 23 July 1986; Vol. 102, c. 261.] That is evidence of a Government who are clearly without a housing policy, who are failing to plan and who are failing to consider needs. There is a shameful record of massive homelessness and the worst housebuilding record for many years.

Housebuilding is relevant. In 1975, Britain was starting about 174,000 new public sector homes each year. Last year, we managed to start just 33,000—a cut of some 140,000 in 10 years. The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment said yesterday at Question Time that the private sector is expanding its provision and meeting the gap. We should examine that claim.

Ten years ago, there were 149,000 private sector starts. Last year, there were 161,000. I will give the hon. Gentleman the benefit of the doubt and say that there has been an increase—of 12,000 over 10 years. That should be compared, however, with a drop of more than 140,000 public sector starts. Overall, we are talking of a reduction of 128,000 homes. That is a measure of the failure of the Government's policy. The private sector has broadly kept in line with previous performance and even increased it, but the public sector cut has been dramatic and resulted in a drastic overall reduction.

The Government have crowed a lot about increasing improvement grants. That was true, to a degree, until 1984, but what has happened since then? There was a 26 per cent. reduction in improvement grants in 1984–85 because the Treasury turned off the tap, and compared with 1984, there has been a dramatic reduction in the number of improvement grants. What has happened to the much vaunted review of improvement grant policy—the Green Paper that was published a year ago and which was supposed to herald a new policy? Heaven knows, one is needed to bring some order and logic to the chaotic state of improvement grant policy. There are different criteria and different grants, grants do not go to people in greatest need, and there are unmet needs. There has been silence on that. It will be interesting to hear the Minister's response, to learn what will happen to improvement policy. We hope for some new and positive policies which will meet needs more effectively. Why is there silence from the Department?

What a deplorable record! And the Government's response is pretty threadbare. Until the last year, we have consistently heard one line from the Government in defence of their housing policy. It is that they are promoting home ownership. They, too, I suspect, must now know that there are limits to how far home ownership can be extended, and growing problems — increasing mortgage payment arrears, for example. We are therefore beginning to hear a different tack, and we hear it more and more. It is that, if only the Rent Acts were abolished, private dwellings available for rent would burgeon. We should consider that claim.

The history of private renting shows that, for the past 80 years, the private rented sector has been in decline, irrespective of the degree of security afforded to tenants. In 1957, when a Conservative Government reduced security of tenure, there was an acceleration in the decline of the market as landlords took the opportunity to get rid of their tenants to sell their properties. That led to the era that is associated with the name of Peter Rachman. The Government are pursuing exactly the same line, but they have not got the courage of their own convictions and are not prepared to do it before the next election. They are saying that they may do something after the election. If they really believed what they are saying, they would bring in now their proposals to reduce security of tenure for tenants and take the electoral consequences at the next election. There would be a massive reaction against them by tenants.

Against that appalling record, that lack of policy, there is a growing housing crisis and no evidence that the Government are prepared to do anything about it. It gives me great sadness to see the enormous unmet needs, the lack of any coherent Government policy and the lack of co-ordination between Departments. I can only express the same view of other hon. Members who have spoken tonight, that there is a need now for an entirely new approach which will require a change of Government.

12.24 am
Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) on opening the debate and on getting second place in the ballot for the Consolidated Fund. It is a tribute to his diligence in serving his constituents. I have to take into account the fact that he is also my Member of Parliament.

I want to raise two points that go a little outside the points that have already been raised. Earlier this week I met a delegation of local authorities from the north-west organised by the Association of Metropolitan Authorities. They came to see me and my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) as Opposition spokesmen on this subject because Ministers refused to meet them. They were concerned with an argument about the way in which housing investment programme allocations and the general needs index are worked out.

We opened that meeting to all Members of Parliament for the north-west, and the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt) turned up, representing one of the few Conservative constituencies in that part of the world. I was extremely grateful to him for his approach and I know that he will have made an approach to the Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction if not to the Under-Secretary.

I want it put on record now that the Opposition want the Minister at least to meet Members from both sides of the House from the north-west even if they continue to refuse to meet the local authority representatives. There is a case to be made and Ministers should find the time to listen to the case put by hon. Members from both sides, whether separately or together. I do not expect a response to that tonight, but we shall do so in due course.

The other point that I want to raise concerns what has been going on down in Tower Hamlets since the change of control after the local elections. It has been put to, me only in the last couple of days that the local authority is proposing to organise boats moored on the Thames to house homeless people. Yet there are 3,392 empty dwellings in the borough—a figure which has increased since May.

I am not saying that everything was rosy in Tower Hamlets before May, but for a local authority to ring round the London Docklands and the shipping companies to find out what ships are available and what technical difficulties there might be in putting ships on the Thames to house people is a thundering disgrace. Has the Department been contacted about that, and, if so, what is its response?

Mr. Meadowcroft

I do not know the details of this, but the hon. Gentleman is surely not suggesting that local authorities should be castigated for putting people in bed and breakfast accommodation, as if that were their fault. Whether one method is an improvement on another is like trying to determine whether someone should be suffering by one method rather than another. Surely the key question is how to house people properly rather than deciding whether they should be in bed and breakfast accommodation, in boats on the Thames, or anywhere else. It is all equally appalling.

Mr. Rooker

I shall come back to that, but I did refer to the number of empty dwellings in the borough, and that point cannot be ignored.

Every hon. Member who has spoken has referred to homelessness. We are talking about people, their families and relatives. Last year the legal figure for the homeless reached over 100,000 for the first time. There seems to be a ratchet effect and the figure goes up every year under the Government. The first quarter's figures this year is over 25,000, so we are on the way to a further increase. That is unacceptable to everybody. I cannot believe that it is part of the Government's policy to create an enormous number of legally homeless families. They will certainly reap the whirlwind from that, although the homeless families are not usually well represented on the electoral register. I warn the Government about the consequences of a policy that is leading to so much homelessness when there are hundreds of thousands of empty dwellings in the country.

In round figures the total is 600,000—some 545,000 in the private sector and 144,000 in the public sector. I was given those figures in an answer to a parliamentary question. We all know that in proportional terms the Government are the worst landlords for keeping the biggest proportion of their property empty—over 6.5 per cent. but at 19,000 the figure is still piffling compared to the other figures for empty properties.

Earlier this year the Audit Commission produced a report on the management of council housing which gave the number of empty dwellings. Empty dwellings are one thing, but empty dwellings available for letting are something else. It is wicked to have empty dwellings available for letting when people are in need of housing. The audit Commission said that at 31 March 1984 there were 27,700 empty dwellings available for letting and it said that of those 1,900 had been empty for more than a year. I do not know where those figures come from, because when I ask parliamentary questions about them I am told by the Minister—the last time on 19 May—that: Information is not collected about how long local authority dwellings vacant at any date have been available for letting."—[Official Report, 19 May 1986; Vol. 98, c. 82.] Apparently the Audit commission has access to that information. That situation is unacceptable. I do not care which local authorities are to blame or which political party is in control, and I do not care that I am told by housing professionals that parliamentary spokesmen do not understand local housing problems. That is wicked and something ought to be done about it. If something were done about that, it would make a modest impact on the 100,000 families that become homeless each year. We have to get these figures out into the arena a little better than we are doing.

Another point which has to be made and about which we do not need to be defensive is that we need to speed up re-lettings. My hon. Friends are quite right when they talk about private sector landlords sitting on properties which, under the present law, they are not bound to let. They are holding on to those properties to make a speculative gain and at present the Opposition are powerless to do anything about that. However, it is possible to do something about speeding up the letting of public sector properties. The Audit Commission suggests three weeks. I do not understand that and, of course, I am told that I know nothing about the subject.

If it is possible for ower-occupiers to move out in the morning and for someone else to move in in the afternoon or on the next day, why can that not happen in the public sector? [Interruption.] They may lose their keys. One of the reasons is the policy of some councils — a policy which crosses party lines—of so-called normalisation. I have raised this before. The councils send in a team or teams of workers to rip out any change the tenant has made so that the dwelling is restored to a normal council dwelling. That takes weeks, and in the meantime properties are vandalised. I see that on a weekly basis in my constituency and so do my hon. Friends. There is no justification for such a policy.

I only have Audit Commission figures to go on, but they show that in the London boroughs the void period between relets is 18.7 weeks, that in the metropolitan districts it is 13.6 weeks and that in the shire counties, whose hon. Members lecture the Opposition, it is 9.8 weeks. Even if we got it down to three weeks, which is three weeks too long, the flow of dwellings available for letting would increase by 20,000 a year. That is a management thing and something could be done about it. I do not accept the argument that only money is necessary to solve the problem: it is an attitude of mind and the Government seem to do nothing about it. In local government these policies transcend the political parties.

The extra cost of repairs because empty dwellings are vandalised is enormous. When we get the HIP returns I have no doubt that we shall see more than two out of nine dwellings in England are unfit, lacking in basic amenities or awaiting substantial repair. That means that 4 million families in all kinds of tenures are living in great unhappiness.

Owner-occupiers, council tenants and private tenants comprise one hell of a coalition of interests. They are people with an axe to grind against policies which are not corrected by the Government. As my hon. Friends say, the Government have one central theme—owner-occupation at all costs.

I shall not repeat my hon. Friend's arguments, but it is fair to say that a local authority cannot refuse a mortgage even if the tenant applicant has a bad rent-paying record. That is a recipe for disaster, both for the tenant and the local authority. The tenants will have to pick up the bill in the end.

We are not spending enough on repairs and maintenance. The Government might argue that more is now being spent on improvements, but, if we do not spend on maintaining dwellings, the nation will lose. Properties will become beyond repair. It does not matter whether the annual shortfall is £700 million, £900 million or £1 billion, we must spend the money. If we do not, we shall hand to the next generation a bill of whopping proportions. That will be grossly unjust for the next generation.

I intended to talk about tenant power and control, but I shall leave that for another day. I was made aware of an example of the importance of repairs when reading in the Housing Centre Trust review last week about the effect of decentralising the repairs of local authority properties. Islington, an authority pilloried by Conservative Members, by using decentralising repair teams, has cut the time taken for repairs from between 10 to 15 weeks to one and a half weeks. The authority has achieved that by the massive decentralisation of repair teams. That achievement should be noted by other authorities.

I should have liked to address my next remarks to the Prime Minister, but in recent weeks questions about social policy would not have gone down too well at Prime Minister's Question Time. General price inflation is 2.5 per cent., wage inflation 7.5 to 8 per cent. and house price inflation between 12 and 30 per cent., depending where one lives. How can first-time buyers gain from that? A plot of land in the home counties costs £20,000 before building starts. We are told that all the jobs are in the home counties. How does that assist first-time buyers?

Many of my hon. Friends referred to the Housing Defects Act. Good intent was behind that legislation, but the necessary resources to make it work are not available. That type of legislation makes people bitter. The Minister has travelled the country, as I do in a modest way. I know of people in my own backyard in my constituency who have bought in good faith and find that they cannot sell their property. No one wants to buy it and no one can get a mortgage for it. This creates unhappiness on an unparalleled scale. The legislation does not even cover the demolition of tower blocks.

Yesterday I asked about the national housebuilding programme. I do not care whether homes are to buy or for rent, as long as they are available, where people want them and at a price that people can afford. In 1983, the best year for national housing construction under this Government, 217,000 starts were made, but that was 49,000 fewer than in 1978, the worst year under the Labour Government, when 264,000 starts were made. Couple that with lack of demolition of older properties that need demolishing—let us make no bones about it, because houses do not last for ever — and add unfit housing, second homes, vacancies and those in disrepair, and it is clear that we should be building more new homes. It is no good saying that we have enough homes for the present and forecast population. That is not so.

The money will not come from thin air. No one says that it will. We may not agree with the examples given by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist), but at least he came with a package for equating the figures he used, and that is more than any Conservative Member has done.

The situation on capital receipts is ludicrous, and Conservative Members have voted to ensure that that is so. About £3 billion or £4 billion is locked in local authority bank accounts which everyone except the Treasury says should be recycled back into housing and the social infrastructure that housing constitutes. An enormous amount of capital is locked up in housing.

One of my hon. Friends referred to schemes such as Anchor to unlock capital so that it can be used, particularly for the elderly. We also have the absolute scandal of the housing revenue account being milked by local authorities because it has been manipulated in such a way that it is fictitious rather than notional. Frankly, one day the Public Accounts Committee will call someone before it and we shall have a stronger report on housing revenue account than we have had on the Westland affair.

My hon. Friends have raised some useful and interesting points, and we look forward to hearing the Minister's response.

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

I join other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) on giving us an opportunity to debate housing. Many of us saw the recent survey of Members' correspondence, and housing was the most frequently mentioned topic. Therefore, this is a matter of primary importance, and it is right that we should debate it regularly.

I hope that it will not be thought mischevious if I say that I noticed a contrast between the open-minded and pragmatic approach of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) and the rather more dogmatic speech of the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist). The latter indeed had a method of funding the improvements in housing expenditure that he wished to see, but that would involve local authorities defaulting on their debt. He wanted the interest paid by local authorities to banks, institutions and pension funds to be waived. He did not say how the pensions of those who depend on those institutions would be made up if they did not get interest on the money they had invested.

Nor did we hear from the hon. Member for Perry Barr exactly how much the Labour party would spend on the capital side of housing in year one, were it to be elected. I suspect that the hon. Member for Perry Barr is under strict instructions from the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) to say absolutely nothing on this subject, but at some point we are entitled to know exactly what increase in public expenditure the Labour party envisages on housing.

Apart from one or two passing references, not enough attention was paid to the role of the private sector in putting right some of the mistakes in the public sector stock. The hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Meadowcroft) made a passing reference to the role of building societies and institutions, but the emphasis was almost exclusively on the public sector solution.

An impression was given that the problems that have been described have occurred almost miraculously in the last six or seven years, whereas in practice they have grown up over many years. They are due to inadequate expenditure on management and maintenance over a long period. The hon. Member for Leeds, West is correct to say that we have a problem on the capital account and that exists because the problems on the revenue account were not tackled earlier. We have a backlog of repair and maintenance to address.

Mr. Nellist


Sir George Young

Many questions have been put to me, and I would like to make some progress.

I agree entirely with what was said about local management. My Department's urban housing renewal unit is promoting local management and a local repair base on the estates. Through the priority estate project we have been promoting local management as an important ingredient in putting right some of the problems on the estates.

I was asked a number of questions on the Housing Defects Act 1984. With regard to Reema blocks, we have commissioned the Building Research Establishment to study the large panel system buildings and the research results, which are beginning to come through, should be helpful. Duo slab has not been found to be defective nationally but we are considering carefully Leeds' latest proposals. It may be that local designation or acquisition, with Government sanction, may be the answer.

Last year the hon. Member for Erdington kindly brought a deputation to see me and we have asked the BRE to study the Boswell system. As yet we have not had the report from the BRE, but when we do we undertake to publish it. It is better for the BRE to consider all the evidence, even if it means that it takes a little longer, and to provide the research needed to enable us to reach the right decision rather than to cut corners and reach the wrong one.

It is worth recalling that, before the Housing Defects Act 1984 was put on the statute book, there was no remedy for people. Although it is taking slightly longer to designate approved systems and although we are processing new applicants for designations, the Act has brought relief and peace of mind to many thousands of people, who otherwise would have been told, "Caveat emptor."

I was disappointed to hear the hon. Member for Conventry, South-East criticise his local authority for the approach which it has adopted on a number of estates. In Coventry an entirely pragmatic approach has been adopted—one can make faster progress in putting right some of the defects on these estates if one uses the additional resources of the private sector. If there are blocks which are difficult to let—vacant and vandalised —and the local authority has not got the resources to put them right, what is wrong with asking a private developer to put them right? The blocks can then be offered, in the first instance, to those on the waiting list or to sitting council tenants. Therefore, the local authority gets the benefit of the re-lets or reduced pressure on the waiting list. The local authority receives a capital receipt for disposing of the block. It creates work in the constituency for those who will refurbish the blocks and, at the end of the day, it provides homes for those on the waiting list, or those who want to buy and are sitting council tenants. It is sheer dogma to deny that solution.

Mr. Nellist

I am grateful to the Minister for finally giving way. The reason why I object to the privatisation of estates or parts of estates is that it will not solve the problem of the 9,000 waiting list in Coventry. Over the past seven years the city has lost over £100 million in grants. The Minister asks why we are not spending more time praising the private sector for coming in to put right the problems of the public sector. Those estates, of no fine construction—the Minister said that they are difficult to let because of vandalism—were built in the 1950s and 1960s by private sector constructors. The Wimpeys, Laings and other big construction companies in this country are responsible for building those estates. That is our objection.

Sir George Young

They were built by the private companies, but they were designed and commissioned by the local authorities. It is naive to blame the private sector for defects—many of which are defects of design. If the hon. Gentleman read the publications by Dr. Alice Helman he would see that she attributes—although I do not endorse everything she says—many of the problems on the estates to design rather than construction, management or anything else.

From all that we have heard, it could be thought that the Government's housing policies are unpopular, but that is not so. Many of our housing policies are so popular that Opposition parties are busy trying to adopt them. I am happy to say that the dogmatic opposition to the right to buy has now been abandoned. I am interested that the Labour party's policy is now to put people first. That has not been one of its housing preoccupations in the past.

The hon. Member for Perry Barr asked two specific questions. The first concerned the request from councillors in the north-west to meet Ministers of the Department of the Environment. This is open season for discussions of HIP allocations and, by and large, Ministers resist seeing deputations from local authorities. That is because, if we meet one, we must meet them all. If a deputation led by a Member puts in a request, we will consider it sympathetically. If we agree to see one local authority about its HIP allocation, we have to agree to see all 320. If the hon. Member for Perry Barr aspires to ministerial office, I ask him to exercise a little caution before he urges Ministers to adopt the policy of seeing all deputations.

I was invited to Tower Hamlets in April by the then Labour-controlled council, but it withdrew the invitation shortly before the local elections. I am trying to secure another invitation to visit the Isle of Dogs so that I may see what is happening in the area. We have had no inquiries from Tower Hamlets about housing people in a boat. Responsibility rests with the authority to discharge its obligations under the Act.

The urban housing renewal unit has shown that there are new ways of tackling problems on estates. I have been encouraged by the response from nearly all local authorities that we have approached through the unit. We have announced 40 schemes and many more are coming through. We have allocated £21 million so far and that will have an effect on about 25,000 properties. I am happy to say that the response of the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) was untypical of the response of most of the local authorities with which I have been in touch.

I am conscious that many other matters have been raised than those to which I have responded. Unfortunately, I do not have time to deal with the remainder in the time that remains available to me. I shall reply by post to Members who have raised matters with which I have not dealt.

I shall now address myself briefly to homelessness, a subject which has been raised by a number of hon. Members. We have made it clear that the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation for the homeless should be considered only as a last resort. Among other things, authorities should ensure that their own property does not lie empty unnecessarily. I commend the robust statement of the hon. Member for Perry Barr on that subject. Authorities have wide powers to control standards of bed-and-breakfast accommodation. The possibility of any extension to their powers can be considered in the light of research that we are currently conducting.

The homeless stand to benefit from a wide range of general Government housing policies, including measures to encourage the private rented sector. If only we could have some agreement between the two parties on an acceptable regime for the private rented sector, perhaps we could get the 500,000 houses in that sector back into use. We have facilitated the sub-letting of council dwellings and we have instituted a hostels initiative. Recently we have given further advice to local authorities on how to reduce the number of empty dwellings in their area. We have extended the housing association grant to council dwellings that are awaiting major repairs. We have also increased the resources available to voluntary bodies to give housing advice.

It is always useful for the House to have an opportunity to debate housing. I remain convinced that the broad range of policies that is being developed by the Government is the right approach to housing and that the solutions that we have heard offered this evening, especially from the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East, would replicate some of the problems that we have been discussing.