HC Deb 11 March 1986 vol 93 cc911-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Durant.]

10.55 pm
Mr. Robin Cook (Livingston)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a matter of serious and growing concern to my constituents—the forward housing programme of Livingston development corporation. On the whole, I do not quarrel with the priorities of the corporation, and usually agree with the judgments that it makes within the resources available to it. My point, for which the Government must take full responsibility, is that its resources are not adequate to do the job that if faces.

There are two separate issues. The first is the amount of capital allocation available to LDC to tackle the upgrading of the existing housing stock. The second is the Government's ban on general needs building by the new towns, including the LDC. The two are linked, as, were that ban to be lifted, the new towns would require an even more generous capital allocation than they need for the upgrading of existing stock. Both cases stand on their own merit, so I shall address myself to them as separate issues.

This debate, and my application for it, were prompted by the reduction in the capital allocation for the LDC in the forthcoming year. For the current year, it received £2–4 million net capital allocation for housing purposes. Next year, it will receive only £1.7 million, which is effectively a reduction of one third in real terms. It is difficult for those of us who know and seek to grapple with the housing problems of Livingston, to understand what possible basis there could be in the reality on the ground for that reduction in the net capital allocation for LDC.

Livingston, by its nature, has a large number of houses that were built in the 1960s, when system building was extremely fashionable among architects. Those houses have proved inappropriate wherever they have been built, but they have proved particularly inappropriate in Livingston, which is on an exposed hillside in Scotland, 500 ft above sea level. Some aspects of the housing stock desperately needs urgent attention if it is to provide acceptable housing into the 21st century, and if it is to stop deteriorating before the 20th century comes to an end.

First, a large number of houses have flat roofs. Unfortunately, in the 1960s, architects forgot that flat roofs do not allow the rainwater to run off. I have constituents who have reported 14 or 15 times that their roofs are leaking. To be fair to the LDC, quite often the tenants have been visited 14 or 15 times, and have had more patches put on the fiat roof above them. That is no solution. The only solution to the problem faced by the tenants and the LDC is to provide the houses with proper pitched roofs. If the rain does not get in through the roof, it gets in through the Bison cladding. The Minister will be familiar with the problems of Bison-built houses, and he will be aware that where such buildings are in an exposed position, as in Livingston, the case is as strong as anywhere else for urgent treatment of that form of building.

My next point concerns the provision of the heating systems in those houses. Unfortunately, many of the houses were built at a time when architects blithely assumed that energy, and particularly electricity, would be cheap indefinitely. They therefore built houses that were cheap on insulation, and which are now expensive to run.

A number of houses in Livingston are recognised by the DHSS as exceptionally hard to heat houses. The LDC, to its credit, perfectly properly wants to replace the heating systems in those houses and provide heating systems that the tenants can once again afford. That is a matter of concern not only to the tenant but to the landlord as, while the houses are not heated, they deteriorate as a result of the familiar problems of condensation.

In addition to all these problems with the existing housing stock, there is the further quite distinctive issue of the upgrading programme for Knightsridge 4. I will not weary the Minister with the details of that tonight, as he was good enough to meet me and the local councillor, Maureen Ryce, a fortnight ago and we much appreciate the fact that since then he has been able to make a decision approving that upgrading programme.

That upgrading programme alone requires a capital expenditure of £3.6 million spread over two years. Therefore there will be an annual expenditure of £1.8 million. That figure compares to the total net capital allocation for Livingston for the current year of £1.7 million. In other words, that project alone would swallow up the entire net capital allocation. If we add the other expenditure to which I have referred, Livingston requires and can readily absorb a net capital allocation some two or three times the figure that has been offered for the current year.

The Minister could perfectly properly argue that the net capital allocation is not the sole capital resource available to Livingston. The LDC can also apply to capital expenditure the receipts that it obtains from the sale of houses. The fact is, however, that those receipts are on a declining profile. We are over the hump in public sector housing sales. In Livingston in the past year there has been a marked reduction in interest in purchases of corporation houses. That is not surprising, since more than half the tenants in Livingston are on housing benefit and are not in a position to purchase their houses. There is bound to be finite point to the demand for council house sales and we appear to be approaching that point.

It is possible that the Housing (Scotland) Bill, which is currently before the House, will stimulate a fresh wave of applications for purchase, should it complete its passage. That, however, will be a one-off effect. The LDC expects that its receipts from house sales will decline from £2.5 million in the current year to £1.1 million in 1990. That estimate was prepared by a development corporation which takes no view on the rights or wrongs of selling public housing and which has proved itself willing and energetic in marketing the sale of such houses. That corporation nevertheless expects to be able to achieve only a declining revenue from the sale of its houses.

In other words, the LDC is faced with a declining capital revenue from the sale of its housing stock and a declining net capital allocation from the Scottish Office. On that basis, it is impossible for the LDC to tackle the grave housing problems that it has inherited. In the immediate future that means that it does not have enough resources to meet committed expenditure in the coming financial year. In the longer term, it means that some of my constituents will continue to live with flat roofs, with Bison-clad buildings and with heating that is too expensive for them to use, until beyond the year 2000 on the present resources available to LDC. That is the situation in a housing authority for which the Secretary of State is directly responsible.

It would not require resources beyond the bounds of imagination to tackle the problems at Livinston. The capital programme of the LDC in 1978–79, the last year of the Labour Government, was double the capital programme in the current financial year. Moreover, none of that expenditure was financed by sales of the housing stock.

I do not expect miracles. I do not expect the Under-Secretary of State to be able to return us to those halcyon days and the expenditure of 1978–79. I do not think that he has brought his cheque book with him. However, I ask him to give serious and sympathetic consideration to the representations from LDC and to look at them with a genuinely open mind. The hon. Gentleman has been willing—I appreciate this—to recognise the problems in the Knightsridge 4 area of Livingston. He has been prepared to admit that there is a case for expenditure. I put it to him that having recognised those problems, he must now will the means to tackle them.

I am concerned also about the ban imposed by the Scottish Office on construction of general needs housing in the new towns. That ban was imposed by the Minister's predecessor three years ago. Since then, no general needs housing has been started in Livingston or in any other Scottish new town. The hardship caused by that moratorium has become increasingly evident during those three years.

When I was first elected to the seat of Livingston and went to my surgeries there, I had few, if any, cases of people coming to me who were not able to obtain rehousing. I have to admit that it made a refreshing contrast to my previous constituency in central Edinburgh where such cases were the stock in trade of my surgery. However, over the three years, first a steady trickle and now a steady stream of people have come to my surgeries unable to obtain the housing that they urgently and desperately need. I share that experience with local councillors. Yesterday, West Lothian district council carried a resolution requesting the Scottish Office to lift the moratorium on the construction of general needs housing in Livingston, precisely because of the experience of local councillors in finding an increasing number of constituents coming to them whom they could not assist.

To understand the pressure on the waiting list, it is necessary to remember that Livingston is a new town which has been constructed over the past 20 years. We now have a large number of second generation residents reaching their 20s, getting married and understandably seeking a house in which they can set up their family home. Forty six per cent. of the applicants on the LDC's waiting list are under 25. The houses are just not there for them. The waiting list grew steadily until December 1984 when the LDC decided, perhaps understandably, that it would have to close the waiting list, except for priority cases. Even so, the average waiting time lengthened dramatically during the subsequent 18 months. The average time that must elapse before a first offer can be made exceeds a year. Many people on that waiting list cannot afford to wait a year. One hundred applicants a year involve cases where families have split up, often in desperate circumstances, occasionally in violent circumstances.

Bluntly, LDC is caught between the twin pressures of diminishing housing stock from the sales and an increasing demand from the new generation reaching maturity and seeking a family home of their own. The only way out of those conflicting pressures is a building programme of general needs housing. I am not asking for a massive programme. I am not seeking an enormous new estate. I am asking for LDC to have the flexibility to provide a steady responsible programme of perhaps 200 houses a year.

Some private sector house starts are being carried out in Livingston, and it is welcome, but they do not match the needs of the local community. In the past seven years, the average number of starts in Livingston by the private sector has been 137. It is estimated that we require 350 homes a year. Moreover, the people buying those houses come overwhelmingly from outside the new town. They are attracted by houses in an attractive, modern environment and are welcome to the new town. However, the houses constructed by the private sector do not and cannot meet the needs of the young couples of Livingston who cannot afford to purchase them.

I hope the Minister will agree that I have put my case in a rational, reasoned and dispassionate manner. I ask him in return to give a reasoned and dispassionate response to my case for lifting the moratorium, but I do not want him to give an instant response tonight if it will be no. He will have adequate opportunity to respond. The five district councils representing Scottish new towns have formed a joint forum which has been examining, among other issues, the housing needs of the new towns. The unanimous view of those councils is that the moratorium should be lifted, and they wR11 be placing a report before the Minister within a couple of months.

I hope that when he receives that report, he will reflect on my remarks tonight and will, in the light of the evidence that they and I have given, be willing to consider lifting the moratorium. By definition, a moratorium should be only a temporary pause. I hope the Minister will agree, when he receives the report from the five councils, that the time for lifting the moratorium is long overdue.

11.11 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Allan Stewart)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) for giving the House an opportunity to discuss the housing responsibilities of the Scottish new towns. Their achievements in housing generally have been rather eclipsed by their well-publicised and well-merited achievements in industrial promotion and development. We are all aware of Livingston's success and its pre-eminence in high-tech development, with companies such as Damon Biotech, NEC, Burr Brown, Shin-Etsu Handotai and many others which have decided to "make it in Livingston."

While the solid achievements of the development corporations in housing have not had the same public focus, their role in housing is important. It is inextricably linked to the successful overall development of the new towns, and the new towns have been alive to the interaction between their social and economic objectives.

As the hon. Gentleman said, Livingston has grown substantially. It is now the largest community in Lothian region, outside Edinburgh. Since its inception, the development corporation has built over 12,000 houses at an historic cost to the public purse of£92 million. The hon. Gentleman referred to the contribution of private enterprise. That has been an increasing contribution, in Livingston as elsewhere.

The hon. Gentleman dealt at length with the current restrictions on corporation house-building for general rental needs. As he said, the restrictions were imposed by my predecessor in 1983 to stimulate private housing development in the new towns to improve housing choice and social balance. At the same time, the Government encouraged the corporations to introduce positive measures to increase the supply of and demand for low-cost homes for purchase.

Through agreements between the corporations and private builders, a growing amount of relatively low-cost housing for single people—the hon. Gentleman referred in particular to young couples—is now coming on stream. Hon. Members in all parts of the House will welcome, for example, the shared equity schemes that have been introduced in Livingston and elsewhere.

The hon. Gentleman said that corporations might feel that now was the time to reintroduce a limited programme of general needs building by the Scottish newtowns. I emphasise that I would be willing to consider a case based on genuine housing need, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall be examining carefully the corporations' submissions. In relation to Livingston in a submission to my Department the development corporation has made it clear that it sees no need at present for a major general needs programme. I invite the hon. Gentleman to rely on the corporation's own assessment of its housing needs and priorities.

The hon. Gentleman rightly pointed to the importance of the gross allocation figure, which reflects not only the net allocation but also sales to sitting tenants. That is an area where Livingston has been particularly successful. It has sold over 1,700 houses to its tenants. That is evidence of the attractiveness of Livingston as a place to live. Of course, sales of public housing are important not only because of income. They help to foster a sense of pride and permanence in the community. The income has been important to the corporations which have been able to apply it to their rehabilitation programmes, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, and to their special needs programmes. In Livingston, for example, sales over the past six years have financed nearly £17 million of new investment.

I accept that future sales cannot be predicted with certainty, but in Livingston's case we have provided some flexibility by setting a sales receipts target for 1986–87 which is lower than is likely to be achieved in the current year, thus accepting the point made by the hon. Gentleman about the trend of sales.

On the Housing (Scotland) Bill the hon. Gentleman was right to point to the possible significant boost to sales following the relaxation of the cost floor. Hon. Members will recall that, under the current rules, which apply to homes first let after May 1975, if the discount to which a tenant would otherwise be entitled brings the selling price of the house below the outstanding debt on the property, discount is restricted so that the house is sold at the lower of either the outstanding debt or the market value. Clause 3(1) of the Housing (Scotland) Bill brings forward the date after which discount restrictions may apply to 31 December 1978. The general effect is to ensure that tenants of houses first let before 31 December 1978 will benefit from their full discount entitlement.

I am now permitting new town development corporations to operate the revised cost floor in respect of unmodernised houses on a voluntary basis in advance of the Bill's enactment. The impact of the voluntary consent is likely to be considerable. The vast majority of tenants in the 11,600 or more houses built in the five Scottish new towns between 1975 and 1978 will stand to benefit from the voluntary consent in now being able to purchase their homes with the benefit of their full discount entitlement. Livingston alone has some 4,000 houses in that category. In cases where the houses have not been significantly modernised since 1978, the tenants will have the opportunity to benefit straight away from improved sales terms.

I fully expect that the early application of the legislative changes will give an appreciable boost to sales over the next few months. In Livingston's case it will help ensure that the corporation achieves its target to self-finance about 60 per cent. of its gross programme involving £4.2 million for 1986–87, to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

The main components of the corporation's housing programme are the provision of special needs housing and the rehabilitation of rented stock. Relatively little special needs housing was built in Livingston in its early years because the town's youthful population structure meant that elderly and disabled groups were under-represented in the town.

However, the corporation has recognised that, as the population structure ages, the demand for specially adapted housing will increase. The hon. Gentleman will know that the corporation let the first of its contracts for wheelchair-adapted houses in 1984, in three areas of the town, and a further scheme for 31 special needs houses is due for completion in August 1987.

Improvements to rental stock, to which the hon. Member for Livingston has referred, comprised the major part of Livingston's housing programme. Over the past four years—I must emphasise this to the House—nearly £12 million has been invested in capital repairs and rehabilitation. About £3.8 million will be spent in the coming year.

The hon. Gentleman rightly pointed to the fact that the need for resources for modernisation is related to the age of the housing stock. Some 64 per cent. of Livingston's housing stock has been built since 1970. That is a high figure compared with the local authority sector, so the stock has suffered relatively little of the obsolescence affecting most housing authorities.

In 1983–84, the latest year for which figures are available, the allocation was £384 per house in Livingston, compared with £353 per local authority house in Scotland. Those figures put Livingston's needs into perspective. I recognise that there are problems and areas that could be improved. Schemes have been proposed for those areas. The resources allocated in recent years have enabled the development corporation to carry through a substantial programme of work.

Since 1982, more than 1,000 houses have been modernised; 7,700 have been insulated; 5,600 houses have had new fixtures and fittings and more than 3,000 houses have had obsolescent heating systems replaced. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the pace of repairs has been rapid. The resources available have enabled large-scale schemes to be carried out, which leaves less to be done in the future.

The hon. Gentleman will know that my Department approved last year a major house remodelling and refurbishment project in the Craigshill area of Livingston. That involved 119 houses and cost more than £1.8 million. Last week I gave approval in principle—the hon. Gentleman has referred to this scheme—to the physical remodelling of 427 houses in the Knightsridge area. That project will cost £3.2 million. I was grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and to the local councillor, for coming to see me to detail their concern about Knightsridge. I wish the tenants, who have been very involved in the scheme, every success.

These substantial projects are being funded from the gross allocation made to Livingston development corporation. Against this background, I must say to the hon. Gentleman that the suggestion that resources are niggardly—against a background of public expenditure restraint—does seem wide of the mark.

For 1986–87, the provisional gross allocation of £4.2 million for new investment will allow for new special needs housing and for the modernisation of about 2,500 units of Livingston's rental stock. Of course, there may be additional receipts as a result of the provisions of the Housing (Scotland) Bill.

Resources are limited and I know that the corporation would have liked more, but I hope that the House will agree that Livingston development corporation is getting a fair share of the available resources for public expenditure on housing in Scotland.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-four minutes past Eleven o'clock.