§ Mr. Speaker
Before I call the Front Bench Spokesman I advise the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.
§ Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)
I beg to move,That this House believes that every household should be able to occupy a dwelling of the size, type, standard and location suitable to its needs, free from nuisance, harassment, racial discrimination or arbitrary eviction, and should have a free choice of tenure, freehold, leasehold or other, without prejudicing its mobility or its right to financial aid, equality under the law, or status; and strongly condemns Her Majesty's Government for its failure to provide for the housing needs of the nation over the past eight years.I thought you were about to ask for brief speeches, Mr. Speaker, and I was about to say that I have not the slightest intention of curtailing my remarks, notwithstanding that we have lost a little time. I understand the needs and wishes of hon. Members, but this debate is important. Hon. Members on the Back Benches and the Front Benches ought to be entitled to make speeches on this vital issue of "Housing: A major cause for concern".
My first protest is that last Thursday, when the Leader of the House read out the title of the debate as "Housing: A major cause for concern", that was the title the Opposition wanted. We resent deeply the archaic, juvenile, stupid, bureaucratic rules of this House that prevent the Opposition from having their own title on their own motion. I understand that that is something we have to live with, but we deeply resent the fact that we are not allowed to have our own titles on our own motions. I say that to the Minister because I understand the point raised in the Government's amendment.
The first part of the motion is:That this House believes that every household should be able to occupy a dwelling of the size, type, standard and location suitable to its needs, free from nuisance, harassment, racial discrimination or arbitrary eviction, and should have a free choice of tenure, freehold, leasehold or other, without prejudicing its mobility or its right to financial aid, equality under the law, or status".So far in the motion I can take with me the Association of County Councils which, if one talks about power structures, I understand is hung; the Association of District Councils, which is under Conservative control; the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, which is under Labour control; the Association of Municipal Engineers; CHAR, which is the Campaign for the Homeless and Rootless; the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities; the Housing Centre Trust; the Institute of Housing; the Institution of Environmental Health Officers; the National Federation of Housing Associations; the National House-Building Council; the National Housing and Town Planning Council; the Royal Institute of British Architects; the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors; the Royal Town Planning Institute; and Shelter. These organisations, which are clearly not Labour party organisations, subscribe to every word of that part of the 178 motion I have just read out. Together they form the National Housing Forum which has housing representatives from across the political and professional spectrum.
I will put the aims of the National Housing Forum on the record because I think they are important. Its aims are to make the case for increased public awareness of our growing housing difficulties, to secure more widespread support by politicians of all parties for an increased emphasis on housing, and to ensure that greater human and financial resources are committed to ending the misery brought about by bad conditions and housing shortages. On behalf of the Labour party I endorse those aims and I invite the Minister to do the same.
In a short debate of three hours or thereabouts, I do not propose to recite another description of the problems that have been catalogued in a mountain of reports sent to hon. Members in recent years. We should look at the causes, resources and possible prescriptions. A major cause for concern is the lack of a national strategic housing policy. New initiatives, welcome as many of them are, operate only at the margin of the problem.
We have to recognise that housing has a significant impact upon the health of people and their families. We must accept that, without decent housing, the social ills of family break-up, vandalism and crime, racial prejudice and discrimination, loneliness, and physical and mental illness are all multiplied and magnified. We have to accept that it is a major economic and social responsibility of each generation to build, repair, maintain and improve the nation's homes so that unfair burdens are not passed from one generation to another. That leaves aside the creation of jobs and the development of skills and technologies involved in the task.
If one accepts those self-evident truths, it should greatly concern us that in many areas people face problems of severe housing shortage and unsatisfactory housing conditions. Homelessness is on the increase. The number of homes for rent has declined by Government fiat in the past few years. The quality of the stock, notwithstanding bursts of improvement, has declined so that every home must now last more than 1,000 years. That is a quite ludicrous proposition.
In absolute terms, the largest number of homes in serious disrepair are owner-occupied, many of them occupied by elderly people. The highest percentage of housing that is either unfit or in serious disrepair—31 per cent.—is in the private rented sector. Frankly, with its record, that is hardly surprising. We are all aware that not only is around £23 billion required to bring public sector council housing stock up to scratch, but the Audit Commission tells us that we fall behind on repairs by £900 million per year. It gets worse each year, notwithstanding the considerable sums that are spent.
§ Mr. Rooker
I do not propose to give way. I want to speak on behalf of my hon. Friends without interruption. I do not want to crowd out any Back Bencher because of the time that has just been wasted on the points of order.
Those are some of the factors that have led to the obscenity, to take one example, of the bed-and-breakfast hostels and hotels. Does it make sense for taxpayers to fork out £300 million to keep 160,000 families in bed-and-breakfast hostels and hotels? Examples of this kind of 179 waste are known by hon. Members on both sides of the House. I can cite the example of the Harrow millionaire mentioned in the Sunday Mirror who rakes in nearly £7,000 per week for cockroach-infested hotel rooms in London or the Edinburgh landlord who pulls in £45 per week for each of 20 beds and slices of bread in a house, as shown in a recent Channel 4 series on young homeless. These examples can he found up and down the country; I have given one from London and one from Edinburgh.
§ Mr. Rooker
I have already said that I do not propose to give way.
The Government do not appear interested in how the money is spent. Both the Department of the Environment and the Department of Health and Social Security refuse to check the quality of rooms or breakfasts, or to answer parliamentary questions about the waste and abuse in hon. Members' constituencies. The payment of two housing benefits for one bedsit is not unknown in the murky underworld created by housing shortages.
The money involved is a vital public resource that is simply going to waste. Taxpayers and ratepayers cannot understand why this is allowed to happen. I will not accept that there are administrative or financial barriers that prevent this money from being switched to the Housing Corporation and local authorities, thus putting these landlords out of business. None of these landlords would he approved by Parliament under the assured tenancy provisions. They feed off the homeless and the taxpayer. We can stop them, and we should stop them.
I make no apology for saying that my hon. Friends and I consider it our duty to put those characters out of business. They should not be allowed to exploit the homeless and the financial allowances granted to them by the taxpayer any longer than we can avoid.
Although housing demands extra resources, we have to be extremely vigorous about the use of existing resources. No one must ever advance the case for extra resources without pointing out that we have to be careful how the money is to be spent. By way of example, I quote the two modest reports from the Audit Commission last year, on management and repairs in the public sector. They showed clearly how improvements could be made. While not everyone may agree with every proposal, it is to the credit of many local authorities that they are seeking to learn from and implement the recommendations in these reports. It is extremely irritating to tenants everywhere that, when so much needs to be done and when we know that we are falling behind in our repairs and our remodernisation programme, five or six — one of my hon. Friends quoted more—inspectors are looking at a problem but nobody ever does the job.
I invite Ministers to go to one authority, Dudley. I do not know whether the Minister has been there. It is close to my area, and I have been there a couple of times in the past few years. He would then see how real, effective decentralisation and the new rapid multi-skill repair squads are giving greater satisfaction to the tenants. They are cutting the frustration and it is clear that they are saving nine by doing a stitch in time. That is an example that many other local authorities should follow. I pay tribute to what is happening in Dudley. A large proportion 180 of landlords have taken it to heart to try to implement better procedures to give satisfaction to tenants and, in my experience, the tenants greatly welcome that.
Although we require a national commitment, we do not want a national "same everywhere" solution to the housing problem, because there is not one. Anybody who stands up and says there is, is doing a disservice to the homeless. There has to be balance and variety in housing, or there is no choice.
Just before I came to the House for Prime Minister's Question Time I was on the telephone to one of my constituents. She is in serious trouble and cannot sell her home. It has been on the market for over 12 months. It is one of those refurbished maisonettes that we find in many of our cities. My constituent explained that six of her neighbours have been unable to sell their properties and have handed the keys in to the building society and gone elsewhere. They found it impossible. They did not wish to buy at the time, or to buy the property that they did, but they did not foresee the massive problems they have had in selling the property now that they want to move. Clearly, they had no choice. There must be genuine choice in housing. I have put that to the Minister throughout my remarks and over the past couple of years and my hon. Friends have also made the point. People should not be forced to rent or to buy because of particular circumstances of Government policy. That has been the case in many areas in the past few years.
The national shortage of rented housing could be met by large-scale construction of single tenure council estates, using factory methods of building, coupled with lots of tower blocks and economies of scale. That would be a disaster and show we have learned nothing from the past. The Labour party rejects that approach. It was a system foisted upon local councils first by the post-war Conservative Government and later by Labour Governments. Thousands, if not millions, of today's tenants are, as a consequence, trapped in defective housing, which is badly planned and, for many of the local authorities, impossible to maintain. Those homes are less than 30 years old. The debt charges have not yet been paid on those homes. It would be impossible to correct many of them structurally, so they will have to come down. That has to be taken on board as a national policy and not left to individual local authorities because they simply cannot cope with the size of the financial commitment that would be involved.
Some councils could and should build new family housing for rent, without any subsidy whatsoever. It is actually cheaper than subsidising the private sector. The chairman of housing in Gateshead made that clear to the Minister recently. Other local authorities want partnership with financial institutions and instead of putting barriers in their way the Government should positively encourage that.
I know that the Minister made an announcement in February and that since then there has been some legislation. However, the institutions are not queueing up to say that that is the greatest thing since sliced bread or that it allows them to go into partnership. The bureaucratic rules that have been imposed by the Civil Service at the behest of Ministers, or the other way round, will not allow the scheme to operate in the way that it should and in the way that we would wish.
Some local authorities are just plain old-fashioned. They just want to use the money they have obtained from 181 selling homes and land to replace and build homes for the elderly and refurbish their existing stock. However, the money is locked in the bank. Nobody can make a case, on either side of the House, for such a crazy policy. Nobody believes that it makes any sense that that money is not available to put hack into housing, whether in refurbishment or new build. It does not make any sense.
In the same way as the public sector, in its traditional form, is not the only way forward, I invite the Minister to confirm—this is important—that he does not see the only way forward as being the private sector. He either agrees with balance, variety and choice or he does not. One cannot have it both ways. One cannot suggest that there is a single solution by saying that there will be only the private sector and that everything will be done to stamp out any aspect of the public sector. I do not make that claim from my side of the argument and I do not think that the Minister should continue to make it from his side.
I invite the Minister to study the plans by COPEC, the second largest landlord in Birmingham, to build and rent family housing using institutional funding such as British workers' pension funds. That is better put into British homes than American hotels and fancy paintings. It uses institutional funding with the required rate of return and with rents set at fair rent levels.
§ Mr. Rooker
That imaginative scheme has been organised to build and rent family housing using institutional funding with the required rate of return, and rents set at no higher than fair rent level. The concept is simple. I cannot go into all the details, but it is based on the idea that the voluntary sector exists to provide homes to rent and not necessarily to build up a property portfolio. It rests on some equity surrender or withdrawal at some point during the period of the loan to ensure the required rate of return to the building society or pension fund. With a rolling programme of development and acquisition over the loan period, normal voids occur at no less than three times the rate required for the equity withdrawal. Therefore, there is no problem in respect of security of tenure. As ever, it was made in Birmingham. It is a good idea and the imaginative scheme of COPEC deserves all our support. I certainly hope that the Minister will look at the scheme. I know that the Housing Corporation supports it and that it finds favour with the institutions as well.
Earlier this year I wrote to the Minister, following the claim in the public expenditure White Paper that there is generally speaking an adequate supply of housing overall in Britain. I pointed out, using everybody else's figures, not Labour party figures, that we appear to be about 1 million homes short rather than having 500,000 too many. I wrote to the Minister and told him that I had not taken account of the high rise blocks or the defective housing, much of which will have to be demolished or replaced, and I did not take account of the view of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, which is that we need about 2.5 per cent. —nearly 500,000 homes—empty at any one time to facilitate mobility. The professional view is that without that, the system will not work.
After disputing the figures, which, incidentally, were repeated by the National Housing Forum in its note to party political leaders at the end of March, the Minister 182 went on to remind me that most people want to own their own home. I wrote to the Minister about total numbers of homes for people, irrespective of whether they are owned or rented. Unfortunately, the Minister picked up only one aspect. What he asserts is correct for the majority of people, but people want to decide for themselves when they want to buy.
We now know of people being forced into purchases prematurely. The building societies are worried about that. The Minister's attention has been drawn by the building societies to the fact that we have the largest sector of young home owners anywhere in the advanced western world. They see some pluses in that but they also see some minuses. One has only to look at the high repossession rate, especially among the younger sector of the population. If there is a shortage, there is no choice. It is plain and simple.
The Nationwide building society has said that prices for first-time buyers are outstripping rises in pay and that people are being forced to buy smaller and smaller homes. Hon. Members must know from their constituents that those homes are not easy to sell. A show house which is empty or has specially built furniture designed to create the illusion of more space, can look great. Those houses might be all right for Tom Thumb people, but not for ordinary people. [An hon. Member: "Shortisin."] I plead guilty to shortism. Builders are being forced to build smaller dwellings.
People go to their Members of Parliament or local councillors and say: "Look, I bought this home in good faith. Now I can't sell it. What are you going to do about it?" We have to explain that this is the result of free market housing and that this Government over the past eight years have deliberately created a shortage of rental housing. Thousands of people are trapped in homes that they are finding it extremely difficult to dispose of.
Only yesterday, the south-east director of Wimpey claimed that, due to the demand on new housing estates, he was tickling up the price of new houses, in some cases daily. My constituents have told me that they have difficulty keeping up with price rises every week, but prices being tickled up daily is news to me. The director of Wimpey was reported in the London Daily News as having said that that is the case. House price inflation in the south-east on this scale is in nobody's interests. It is not in the interests of owners or buyers, especially first-time buyers.
I find it difficult to understand why some Ministers have said that some people want to remain tenants. Some people remain tenants because they cannot afford to buy a home, but some people genuinely want to remain tenants. They resent being forced into what they consider to be not very good quality housing; they would prefer to remain tenants. Tenants cannot see why rent structures are organised so that they have no share in the capital growth of the property, and they end up buying the homes for the landlords. That is the present rent structure in the public and private sectors.
This issue ought to be tackled because many good things would come from such changes, such as flexible leases. That is not the only scheme which could be implemented. Tenants must feel that the rent they pay is not wasted money. Tenants often say, "I have boughs this house two or three times over with my rent," but neither the property nor the capital growth accrues to them. People do not necessarily want to buy houses, but they do 183 not want to feel that the rent is wasted money. Some changes which could improve the tenants' satisfaction are to increase the stock of rented housing and to provide better maintenance and above all, to assist in breaking the polarisation between tenants and owners, which has concerned hon. Members and our late colleague, Tony Crosland, in the 1977 housing policy review. We have never taken on board that concern as seriously as he intended.
Some authorities, Labour and Conservative, have experimented, but at the margin of the present law. Parliament should assist by introducing these changes. No one course of action will solve the problem; many ideas could be implemented to give new rights to tenants and to convince them that money paid in rent is not money down the drain.
We all know, because of the debates on pensions and the aged—we have just had a ten-minute Bill relating to the Occupational Pensions Board—that the aged population is changing and will do so in the first part of the next century, which will lead to a much higher proportion of elderly people. We have to adjust our housing policy to take account of this. A Conservative Member has said to me, "It is all these divorces causing more homeless and household formation growth," but no one says that we should change the law and stop people divorcing, or force people to live together as they used to have to do.
§ Mr. Rooker
It is not a red herring; it is dragged out by hon. Members from time to time. Changes in one aspect of policy must take account of changes in other aspects of policy. This applies to the age profile of the population. The elderly are not a single group who can be dealt with by a single solution. We know from reports produced in the past few years, particularly the inquiry into British housing, that there is an urgent and massive demand for sheltered housing for the elderly, for those who both rent and buy, at realistic figures, not at the figures which are deliberately inflated by property developers.
Mixed investment could come about with a national policy—not a national direction—to take account of the change in population age. Mixed public and private investment would lead to the release of a substantial number of dwellings for renting and buying by families and the younger generation, thereby enabling the nation to make much better use of its existing housing stock. We all know of the grossly inefficient use of our existing housing stock.
Nobody would advocate, as some councils have come close to doing, forcibly removing people due to under-occupation. I say "forcibly" because there are no alternatives; the choice is not there. A national policy could create new investment. This country is awash with money—I do not accept that we do not have the money.
§ Mr. Rooker
I will not give way. I am coming to a conclusion. [Interruption.] It is no good hon. Members yelling at me from a sedentary position. I have clearly said 184 that I will not give way again. I have always freely given way in other housing debates—perhaps too often—but, because of what happened earlier, I do not propose to give way. We have nothing to be defensive about. If hon. Members have listened to me, they would appreciate that that is the case.
As the National Housing Forum has made clear, we have never had answers to the three main questions posed by Mr. Crosland in 1977. Those questions are: how much housing is needed and how could the available resources best be used to get it; how much would people pay for their housing; and what are the wider social implications of how housing is organised? The National Housing Forum is right to remind us of the need for answers, because in finding them we might help our homeless fellow citizens and those who are badly housed. If we do not address the matter as a major cause for national concern, with a national assessment of what is required, most of the post-war gains in housing standards, the physical condition and reduction in shortages, will be thrown away by this generation. We are not prepared to see that happen. We are prepared to address the wider issue of housing policy. The Government, after eight years in office, have yet to show the concern for the young. I invite the Minister to rubbish the motion, if he can.
§ The Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction (Mr. John Patten)
I beg to move, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof:'that as many households as possible should have the opportunity to benefit from owning their own home and that for those who are unable to buy or who do not wish to do so there should be a real choice of rented housing both in terms of type and location of dwelling and of landlord; and congratulates Her Majesty's Government for pursuing policies which give people not only the housing they need, but also the housing they want.'.Apart from a purple patch at the beginning and a deep purple patch in the last sentences, that was an extremely interesting speech, with many good points. There is considerable agreement about many of those points.
§ Mr. Patten
It is not patronising at all. It is right that when one agrees with someone, one should say so. I would be delighted if I could ever say that I agreed with the hon. Member.
I welcome many of the things that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) said, but I do not think that he can have read our amendment. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Mrs. Kellett-Bowman) said on more than one occasion, the hon. Gentleman need only look at the amendment to see that the Government are striving for just the balanced approach that he wants, although we may not agree on matters of detail. It is a pity that he has not done so.
I welcome the opportunity for another debate on housing. It is certainly right that housing should be high on the national agenda and I am delighted to see that it is. One reason for that is that over the past eight years the Government have helped to put it there. We have had some remarkable achievements in housing, particularly in owner-occupation, in the past, and, with the important reforms that we are proposing in the public and private rented sector, will have more in the future.
§ Mr. Patten
If the hon. Gentleman, to whom I have given way on more occasions than I have had hot dinners, will forgive me, I intend to pursue the same policy towards Opposition Members as the hon. Member for Perry Barr pursued towards my hon. Friends.
The motion talks of housing needs. There are legitimate housing needs, which we recognise, but I am concerned about a number of other so-called housing needs. First, I am concerned about claims that there is a need for more council and rented housing when 113,000 council houses and flats are standing empty. I am concerned about claims that there is a need for more money for repairs and maintenance of council stock when 20 authorities in England have over £100 million of rent owing to them. That is exactly the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor) attempted to raise earlier.
§ Mr. Patten
I am just getting going. I shall give way later.
Thirdly, I am concerned that the Opposition still see a need for more council housing when all that that would do is to increase the grip of the local authority monopoly on rented housing. The hon. Member for Perry Barr is feeling his way towards more mixed solutions, and I welcome that, but, alas, that approach is not shared by many of his right hon. and hon. Friends.
Fourthly, I am deeply concerned that Britain has allowed a situation to emerge where 540,000 privately owned flats and houses are empty which could he used to house people in need. If only Opposition parties would join us in searching for solutions to that issue we would be some way down the road to cracking the housing problem.
§ Mr. Peter Bruinvels
Is my hon. Friend aware that in Leicester, contrary to what has been said, there are nearly 1,000 empty council houses? Is he further aware that about 24,000 council houses have not been repaired? Is it not a double standard for the Labour party to say that there is a great housing problem when it is the Labour-controlled authorities which do not give a damn about what is happening to council tenants in their areas?
§ Mr. Patten
Just as the hon. Member for Perry Barr was right to draw attention to the generally good housing record of a Labour authority called Dudley, so it is right for my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels) to bring home to the House Leicester's lamentable housing record. It is one of the worst housing authorities in the country.
The essence of the Government's housing policy, as it has been developed in recent years and will be developed further, is choice. We have encouraged home ownership for the majority who want it and now we want to provide, for the first time in decades, a real choice in rented housing for these people whose needs are not met by home ownership, who cannot afford it, or who simply do not want it. That is what we intend to do. That is exactly what the hon. Member for Perry Barr asked for. However, we do not intend to do that just by council housing; nor do we intend to do it just by mixed developments with housing associations, important though both those areas are. We intend to move much further.
The hon. Member for Perry Barr is halfway to the position that we intend to reach. He is in the position now 186 that the Labour party was in in 1979 over the right to buy and owner-occupation. One can see how much things have changed when owner-occupation is lauded and praised in Labour party political broadcasts, and I welcome that. The landscape of housing in Britain has changed over owner-occupation in the past eight years and we shall see the same change in rented housing in the immediate future.
Choice is no empty slogan. Those who can choose their housing take it for granted, but those who cannot are stuck with problems that can pervade their whole lives. We have come a long way since 1979. At the beginning the right to buy was dismissed and opposed by most Opposition Members. It is now an established fact of our housing. The battle over the right to buy has been won, game, set and match. It is the consensus, except, of course, among the alliance who are not wholly in favour of the right to buy under all circumstances. Alliance Members wish to give a little local discretion to councils to have it here and not there. [Interruption.] We do not know what they are up to in extremist, loony Liberal Tower Hamlets. [Interruption.] I will break my self-denying ordinance not to give way to Opposition Members if an hon. Member wants to force me to give way over Tower Hamlets.
§ Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)
I could see how reluctant the hon. Gentleman was. I was simply saying from a sedentary position that we know exactly what is happening in Tower Hamlets. It is a mixture of inefficiency, incompetence, some mind-blowing decisions on homelessness which verge on racialism, and five, six or seven chief executives.
§ Mr. Patten
It is indeed a remarkable local authority. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for setting the record straight.
Most local authorities are now operating the right to buy fairly and efficiently, including most Labour authorities. They know that it is what their tenants—their customers—want. I do not know what the hon. Member for Perry Barr thinks, but I think that we should talk less about tenants and more about customers. That is how we should regard people who rent in the public sector.
Most local authorities are operating the right to buy fairly and well and I pay tribute to them, but a handful of authorities are not doing so. The performance of a handful of authorities on the right to buy is lamentable. Tenants are being discouraged from applying and when they do apply cases are delayed interminably. I do not know whether the cause is incompetence or some sort of sullen rearguard foot-dragging by councillors in those particular constituencies, but we are monitoring the situation closely from month to month. We know where the matter is deteriorating, and it is not just in Leicester, but in Camden, Islington, Lewisham and Sheffield.
§ Mr. Patten
If the hon. Gentleman is lucky enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he will he able to make his point later.
There is foot-dragging in Sheffield and in loony Liberal, extremist Tower Hamlets there are also considerable delays in processing right-to-buy applications.
The Government have powers to intervene and we shall not hesitate to use them unless the performance of those 187 local authorities improves soon. We may need new legislation to protect the rights given to tenants by the House.
My deepest wish is that we should not have to discuss this issue. The fault lies among a few Labour councils and I make it clear that I recognise that most local authorities of all political colours are operating the system fairly and well. It is the few who are bringing discredit on the many.
§ Mr. Robin Squire (Hornchurch)
Is my hon. Friend aware that in the campaigns for the local government elections that are currently taking place in many parts of the country, a systematic scare campaign is being organised by the Labour party telling council tenants that they will lose their security of tenure under the Housing and Planning Act 1986? Will he join me in condemning that?
§ Mr. Patten
I join my hon. Friend in utterly condemning those tactics. They have been used by only a few Labour councils such as Leicester, which seems to be on my lips a lot this afternoon, and Nottingham. Those leaflets are simply not telling the truth and they are being distributed at ratepayers' expense. The facts are set down in the Housing and Planning Act 1986.
Choice is no empty slogan. In the same way as the right to rent will bring individual and corporate capital into the rented sector of housing again, where so much effort has been put into squeezing it out, choice in housing is directly related not just to the amounts of public money, but to the amount of private money that is put into it, as the hon. Member for Perry Barr recognised. Private expenditure on housing has already taken over the burden of most housing expenditure in this country. That means that most decisions on housing expenditure on new building and repairs and maintenance are taken by private individuals, not by central Government or local authorities.
§ Mr. Marlow
Although this does not affect me, despite what Opposition Members may say, does my hon. Friend accept that one reason why decisions are hard to come by is that in some of these areas, which are largely Labour-controlled authority areas, where the demand for housing is greatest it takes the longest time to get planning permission to build houses to satisfy that demand?
§ Mr. Patten
That is very sad. The speedy granting of planning permission can speed up the provision of much needed houses.
There is a need for an increased supply of permanent rented accommodation in London, other high pressure areas and elsewhere. We are all agreed that more rented accommodation is needed. That is common ground. However, I do not believe that the answer lies with wholesale council housing or wholesale municipalisation. But that is not to say that local authorities do not have a role. I do not say that. However, we must move away from the inevitable inefficiencies, rationing and queues that arise when we have a managed economy in rented housing.
I do not believe that the managed economy has worked particularly well since the second world war. We must recreate a true and well-targeted market in rented housing. 188 That is one way of helping those people who are accepted as homeless under the homeless persons legislation and those who do not fall within the priority needs categories, such as the young, mobile people seeking jobs or those who simply do not want to buy a home, but rent. Who are we to deny them that choice? That is effectively what we are doing today.
The right to rent will help. It means that there must be an adequate supply of rented housing for those who wish to be tenants rather than home owners. It means encouraging responsible landlords to enter or remain in the rented sectors to that those who wish to become tenants can choose the type of landlord that they want. Why should there be only one kind of landlord available — largely the local authority supported by housing associations? We must tackle the appalling contradiction of increasing homelessness at a time when there are 540,000 empty privately owned homes in this country.
How is the right to rent to be achieved? First, new landlords must be able to charge rents that give an adequate rate of return on their investment. We have seen the effects of low rents on the investment in private housing. We have also seen that effect on the face of public housing. Those authorities that have set consistently low rents and failed to collect them have not had the resources to repair and maintain their housing stock.
Private rented accommodation has shrunk to only 8 per cent. of housing and that is a uniquely low figure for the western world. Alas, much of that housing is in a poor state of repair. In Switzerland, 60 per cent. of people rent their homes privately. In West Germany the figure is 43 per cent., and in the United States, Canada and France it is around 30 per cent. or 35 per cent.
Only in this country do we not have a viable independent private rented sector. It strikes me that when there is agreement between such newspapers as the Daily Telegraph and The Guardian about the need for change in this area, we are really in business. I do not point the finger just at today's editorial in the Daily Telegraph which states that we should move on this front. That is not surprising, but very welcome support. Opposition Members need only look at The Guardian and its editorial of 24 March. That was a very interesting editorial. First, it said things in my praise. When The Guardian says things in my praise, a slight tremor goes up my spine. It makes me worried. However, I was not worried when I read the phrase which I quote from memory, from the third leader in The Guardian on 24 March 1987 which stated:The private rented sector has a vital role to play.When there is that kind of agreement between commentators with different political views, we are in business for the kind of social change that undoubtedly we are going to see during the next few years.
We have made a start with assured tenancies. The hon. Member for Perry Barr referred to that. I am grateful for the support from the Opposition and I am pleased to tell the House that interest in assured tenancies is growing fast. I can announce that we have just approved, together with our colleagues in Wales—I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Robinson) is here this afternoon — applications from another 41 bodies for approved landlord status. That brings the total to 270, with many more applications in the pipeline. I believe that the measures in the Housing and Planning Act 1986 and 189 the new 30 per cent. grant regime will provide a considerable further boost. We shall see great developments in that area.
The hon. Member for Perry Barr was correct in his comments about the need for more mixed public and private sector funding. In some areas, landlords would need to charge very high rents simply to cover their costs. That might choke off the development of the private independent rented sector at an early stage and that sector would not get going. The new arrangements for mixed public and private sector funding which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and I have introduced—often called the "30 per cent. grant schemes"—can bridge the gap between affordable rents — that is what we must be considering—and those necessary to give an adequate return to the landlord.
The new funding arrangements for the Housing Corporation are very important. For the present financial year the corporation has been given an extra £20 million to which it has added £10 million from its existing programme for schemes that will raise between another £50 million to £60 million from the private sector. We shall be approaching £100 million of half to two thirds privately funded housing for the homeless, the young job seeker and the person moving from north to south. The rest of the money is being raised privately through index-linked mortgage loans and other ways.
The Housing Corporation has not actually been overwhelmed, but it has an enormous number of schemes to consider. It has received about 300 applications from housing associations already this year to take up the funding. There are private institutions in the City of London with available funds queuing up to match their funds to the housing association funds. We shall see a great development in this form of mixed funding.
In addition, at the last meeting of the Housing Consultative Council for England in November—a body which I have the privilege and honour to chair—the Labour-dominated Association of Metropolitan Authorities asked me specifically to give local authorities similar opportunities to carry out 30 per cent. grant schemes. I remember it was that nice Councillor Clive Betts who asked the question. I announced immediately a reaction on 5 February that local authorities would be given wider powers to assist privately let housing. We have included proposals to grant those powers in the Local Government Bill under consideration at the moment. I said that the use of the new and existing powers would be subject to the Secretary of State's consent, but that we would seek to give as wide a general consent as we could to such schemes. We have already issued five general consents and we intend to issue more.
Of course, there must be some controls on capital expenditure in local government and I hope that the hon. Member for Perry Barr was not trying to leave the impression with the House that if a Labour Government came along there would be no more capital controls on local government.
§ Mr. Patten
I am glad to learn that that was not what he was saying. We are in exciting new territory here on the development of joint public and private sector funding. It is this joint approach to funding that will help to make the right to rent a very rapid reality.
§ Mr. Richard Ottaway (Nottingham, North)
When my hon. Friend talks about funding for housing associations, he must surely be aware that the Labour-controlled city council of Nottingham has just earmarked £2.5 million to build a new office block for its own housing department. That in itself may be all right, but is he aware that £1.8 million will come out of the housing investment programme, money which should be used to modernise my constituents' houses but which will instead be used to provide offices? The money is being taken from housing associations.
§ Mr. Patten
I am absolutely appalled to hear that Nottingham city council, which is a Labour-controlled authority, I understand, should take £1.8 million from its housing investment programme. These resources could have been spent on providing better housing in Nottingham; instead, the council has tried to provide better offices for its own staff. It shows a very odd order of priorities indeed. Doubtless the people of Nottingham will seek the opportunity to make their own judgment on the council in the forthcoming local elections.
The Government have in the past eight years brought about radical and irreversible changes, making the meeting of the wishes of the people the top priority. Many people want to own their own homes so we have made it possible for many more to do so. There are now 20 per cent. more owner-occupied dwellings than in 1979. Over a million public sector dwellings have been sold since that year, mostly to sitting tenants. Now we are turning to the rented sector. If only the hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Raynsford) and his ideologically bound friends in the Labour party were more sensible about the Rent Acts, we would not have our present appalling homelessness figures. He and his friends are the guilty men.
We have significantly increased tenants' rights through the tenants' charter and other measures since 1979, but I have to ask the House whether we should not give tenants a greater right to select their own landlords. Should we not give the public sector tenants, the customers of local authorities, more opportunity to choose their own landlords? That is why I questioned the assumption that new town housing should automatically be transferred to district councils when new town corporations were wound up. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State announced on 25 March that the Government would consider proposals to transfer new town housing to other landlords.
We have, for example, the situation in Telford, where a consortium of five housing associations, led by the Coventry Churches housing association, wishes to offer the tenants of the outgoing Telford development corporation the genuine choice, backed by building society money and with no call on public funds, between it and the Wrekin district council as landlords. I would not want to stand in the way of people being given that opportunity to express their own choice. That is why my hon. Friend made this very important announcement on 25 March.
There is much food for thought in that approach. We are determined to give potential new tenants a choice, something that they have not had for many years. We have devised the methods that are needed to bring in private sector funding. Our efforts on behalf of the public sector customers, through the tenants' charter and other approaches, show that we really put our customers first.
191 Having brought owner-occupation to millions and having given the right to buy to the people of this country, we now intend to restore the right to rent to those who choose to use it. That will give us the balanced housing policy that the country needs for the 1990s.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)
Order. This is a very short debate, and very short speeches will be in order.
§ Mr. Michael Meadowcroft (Leeds, West)
Unlike the two Front Bench speakers, I intend to reduce the speech that I was going to make, in the interests of giving others the chance to join in. I am happy to have interventions about Tower Hamlets, but they will be added to what I intend to say about housing in general.
Since the Minister's translation from the Department of Health and Social Security to the Department of the Environment he has tried to rehabilitate himself from his old finger-wagging days, but, as we have seen today, he sometimes reverts to that "student union" kind of indulgence. He is dealing with the subject admirably, and then suddenly says that he will give way when it comes to something that he thinks may be of some assistance against the alliance in Tower Hamlets. It is the ultimate cynicism in dealing with Tower Hamlets not to tell the House that his Government rate-capped Tower Hamlets at £124 million, which is wholly inadequate, and the local authority has had to quadruple the amount spent on homelessness in the face of what the Select Committee on Home Affairs calls a national problem. It is the height of cynicism and it undermines the whole style of what the Minister is trying to tell the House.
The whole question of empty houses is nothing like as simplistic as the Minister pretended. To begin with, many of the houses are incapable of repair, and some are unlettable when repaired, as I know, alas, in Leeds. Many of them are mismatched with the needs of the people in the locality. No local authority wants to keep one house empty for a moment longer than necessary, because it loses revenue by doing so. To pretend that one can solve the housing problem by re-renting a few rented houses is ludicrous.
It is important to took at the terms of the motion. The aims of the motion are splendidly Utopian and wholly unobjectionable, but what the public demand of politicians is not simply a statement of what or why, but an explanation of how. This is the danger courted by the Labour Opposition. Its members tend to fall down when it comes to telling the House how they will achieve their aims. No one would object to the aims themselves.
Let us look, first, at the resources available for housing. The first thing to point out is that the Government have made the most draconian cuts of all in housing. The reduction of some 60 per cent. in real terms since 1979 is one major reason for our current housing problem. When I first assumed my new role as housing spokesman, I believed that there was an overall shortage of cash for housing and that there would be a great problem in putting together the resources required to solve the problem of housing, but now I find differently. Resources do exist. The problem is how we put them together with the need. 192 I find, for instance, that the Halifax building society, one of the largest housing finance organisations in the world, is anxious to help alleviate the housing crisis in this country, to put money into local authorities and to seek to find a way of partnership and management that helps to do that. As recently as 27 March the Halifax building society put £29 million into a housing scheme in Notting Hill, which shows that resources are available if only we can bring them to the needs.
We must also unlock the resources that exist in people's own houses. Like other hon. Members, I see many constituents, most of them elderly, who are desperately worried about a particular repair that is required, perhaps a new roof or something of that sort, for which they have no cash, but what they often have is resources in their own houses, for which, with good Yorkshire thrift, they paid many years ago. The question there is how we assist people to unlock some of the resources of their own housing to help them to do repairs. Ways did, of course, exist. One way was through the building societies but building societies are now prevented from making interest-only loans. That was one way of getting money because elderly people could cope with an interest-only loan, but it has now been stopped.
The other question in terms of unlocking resources is that of tenure, of return on investment and of what guarantee can be given by local authorities to private finance. This is very important if we are to get away from the ideological straitjacket in which the parties have been locked for far too long. The political consensus on housing is growing, but it is doing so with certain hiccups, one of which is the question of the private rented sector. I accept what the Minister says, that the private rented sector has a role.
Looking at the old properties and the terraced houses that have been so popular and beloved by so many people, one of the sad things in my city is that the houses that are in council ownership are, all too often, the dilapidated ones, not those that are privately rented or those that are owner-occupied. We do not necessarily have the bad landlords who are apparently so rife in areas where there is much more housing stress than there is in the north.
The second crucial area is the assessment of need. I am puzzled by the Government's failure to meet their own assessment of housing need. On their own assessment, about £18 billion is required to cope with the backlog of maintenance work in public housing. Other estimates put the figure far higher, stating, for example, that about £50 billion is required in total. It is bizarre that, having tried to sell the concept of the right to buy to local authorities on the basis that those resources would be available for capital investment in housing, since imposing the right to buy the Government have limited that amount to 20 per cent. Therefore, the housing authorities are incapable of coping with their own needs because of the vast millions of pounds that are locked up in their balances under the 20 per cent. rule.
I should like to illustrate my points by reference to my city. The Government commissioned private consultants to survey the housing stock in Leeds. Those Government-appointed consultants estimated that £600 million was needed for repairs and improvements to the public housing stock. The council estimates that perhaps another £340 million is required for the private sector, for the repair grants and the back-to-back refurbishments that are required for the unfit houses. Moreover, even when faced 193 with the evidence of the Government's own consultants, the housing investment programme for Leeds is £22.3 million in 1986–87, which, in real terms, is a third down over three years. The amount for 1987–88 is down still further to £19.86 million. There is no way in which local authorities can cope with the housing needs that have been identified and accepted in their areas.
The motion has some curious wording. When it begins, it states in the names of those right hon. and hon. Opposition Members who have tabled it that they want every householdto occupy a dwelling of the size, type, standard and location suitable to its needs".It is only when the motion deals with tenure that it refers to a "choice". That seems reminiscent of the old paternalism that I thought the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) had got rid of in his thinking on housing. Therefore, there is a bizarre dichotomy in the motion, which refers to "needs" at the beginning and "choice" later. That is an important point.
§ Mr. Rooker
Perhaps I can make it clear that I moved the motion, and when I stopped reading it out, I said that I carried with me a list of organisations. Those words in the motion came, word for word, from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. I am quite happy to have those words in the motion, as they are supported by all those other organisations.
§ Mr. Meadowcroft
I was aware of what the hon. Gentleman had said. However, the words on the Order Paper are his, wherever they were taken from.
It is important to note that the provision of housing is not an absolute right in the same way as is health. If a person has diabetes, he or she requires insulin in the proportion that is required by the disease. However, in housing there is a choice to be exercised, which is outwith the need for shelter. It is shelter that is the absolute need, not how it is provided. There are people—I know them in my city—who prefer to have a smaller and cheaper house so that they can have a car, holiday or caravan. That is their choice. Of course, one can still obtain housing cheaply in Leeds to enable that choice to be made. However, if one takes away that choice, or the possibility of it, as has happened so often because of clearance, one takes away the possibility of someone being able to have the other things that he wants. Once someone is forced into the rented sector, that person is invariably forced to live at the margin. No choice is left to that person, and such people cannot decide the type or size of house that they require.
§ Mr. Meadowcroft
I shall give way, but I should like to get on and enable other hon. Members to make their speeches in their own way.
§ Mr. Corbyn
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I am interested in his remarks about choice. Would he care to tell the House what choice the 140 Bangladeshi families have, when the Liberal-controlled Tower Hamlets council proposes to throw them on the streets in the next two weeks?
§ Mr. Meadowcroft
The hon. Gentleman has picked the wrong place. I started off by talking about the Tower Hamlets problem with Bangladeshis. If the hon. Gentleman is concerned about that, he might consider 194 how on earth one can afford to cope with that problem in Tower Hamlets, which is a national problem, rather than cynically using that issue as a bargaining point for votes in Tower Hamlets. That is monstrous.
§ Mr. Meadowcroft
The same thing is happening in Camden, which is under the control of the hon. Gentleman's party. Camden is going down the same path as Tower Hamlets. On 20 March the policy and resources committee in Camden had to start re-assessing the offers that it made to people entering the borough for exactly the same reasons. It could not afford the generous implications of the policies of the past.
The Minister's record on housing choice in local authorities has not been very good. When I first joined the Leeds city council, I recall that it was the Minister's party that was removing choice. His party went for a policy of clearance of the old properties in Leeds, which turned out to be disastrous. I hope that we can get away from the idea that one can have area clearance and still maintain housing choice. That cannot be done, because it blights entire areas, causes further demolition and further need for such clearance in the future.
§ Sir Nicholas Bonsor
If one takes the hon. Gentleman's point to its logical conclusion, there would be no clearance of absolutely intolerably poor housing in slum areas, and of course such clearance must be performed. It is a question of judgment.
§ Mr. Meadowcroft
We are back to the question of choice. I do not see how it is possible for politicians to say to adults that they will decide whether those adults' houses should remain standing. One cannot say that. The previous policy should have been one of improvement, rather than of demolition. The fact is that we have demolished many houses that did not need to be demolished and, in their place, we have built houses that have turned out to be worse. Those houses are now the problem.
I was told by Conservative Members that one could not take one house out of a terrace and replace it with another house. I was told that that was impossible. However, I was then sent to campaign at a by-election in the centre of Newcastle and went to canvass on a street where that had happened. A house had been taken out of the terrace and a new one had been put in. That was a splendid solution. It meant that older people could have a smaller flat inside that house, near to their friends, relatives and neighbours. However, we were told that such a solution was not possible. We have demolished and cleared too much and we should not have done so.
We must, however, consider the problem of system building, and its demolition. The Housing Defects Act 1984 nowhere near covers the problems of pre-reinforced concrete housing. Nor does it deal with the problems of other types of system-built housing, for example, Caspon, Myton and Reema. We need to reconsider the way in which we cope with people being able to repair those houses, or have them bought back.
195 We need more dwellings of all types. Therefore, our predisposition should be against demolition where there is the possibility of improvement.
We should reduce the immense pressure on the south-east, where house prices, or more accurately, land prices spiral upwards, way ahead of inflation. It seems to me that it is no longer possible for young people, as first-time buyers, in the south-east to have the type of housing which we, in the north, would regard as adequate or desirable. That will not do.
Furthermore, the imposition of the Government's poll tax, the community charge, will put up house prices further, because it takes away the tax on property and puts in on to individuals. Therefore, house prices will be forced up.
Money is available. The question for us, as politicians, is how we bring together need and resources. In the forthcoming election we shall be judged on whether we are seen to be able to achieve that key aim of bringing together resources and need.
§ Sir George Young (Ealing, Acton)
I believe that the hon. Member for Leeds West (Mr. Meadowcroft) is a jazz musician, with skills on the clarinet. I am not an addict, but I understand that there is a time when recital takes place and the rest of the instruments fall quiet while the clarinettist plays on his own, uninhibited by the need to remain in harmony and unrestricted by beat, and when he can grab some themes, perhaps from old tunes, and continue until he is out of breath, when he signals that the time has come for his colleagues to come in. We have listened to a clarinet solo without the clarinet.
During the speech of my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction we heard of many areas of success in housing. We heard of the buoyancy of the private sector, in which starts are at a record level and making a direct contribution to meeting housing needs. We heard also of the diversification of tenure, not just through the right to buy, but through other initiatives, such as the promotion of tenant co-coperatives, shared ownership, leasehold schemes for the elderly, and the rest.
My hon. Friend also explained how we were breaking down barriers between the public and private sectors by encouraging joint ventures between local authorities, house builders, building societies and housing associations. He explained the choice for tenants, particularly those in new towns, of different types of landlord apart from the local authority.
I shall speak briefly about the outstanding problem of homelessness, which I know concerns my hon. Friends on the Front Bench and which formed a large part of the speech of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker). As a London Member, I see at first hand the growing number of homeless people, reflected in the figures — people attracted to London by the buoyant economy, casualties of marital breakdown, and young people who have left home earlier than would otherwise have been the case. Naturally, hon. Members on both sides are worried about the numbers and the conditions in which many families now live in bed-and-breakfast hotels, often in Paddington. Both hon. Members and the public are worried about the cost.
196 I believe that it is possible to get every family in bed-and-breakfast accommodation in London out within six months without disadvantaging anyone else on the waiting lists, without an expensive public-sector programme of building for rent, as the Opposition advocated, and without sending families to areas where they do not want to go. I advocate a dramatic, imaginative expansion of a scheme which is already in operation in several boroughs under the control of various parties and which enables local authority tenants in areas of housing shortage to leave their home and buy a house outside London.
Many tenants in London who have been given the right to buy do not want to buy the flat in which they live, but cannot afford to move out. The scheme gives them a capital sum in lieu of the discount to which they would have been entitled had they exercised the right to buy, to enable them to move out. It is targeted on those who do not have the resources to do so without that help. Local authorities then get a relet at a fraction of the cost of new build and quickly, and a homeless family is taken from bed-and-breakfast accommodation, saving taxpayers' and ratepayers' money.
One could quickly get about 30,000 relets for families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation in London by promoting that scheme. Certainly, many tenants in my constituency who have retired and no longer have to live in London would like to move to be near friends and relatives elsewhere, but they need a grant of £8,000 or £10,000 to enable them to do so.
Such a scheme is wholly consistent with the philosophy of the Conservative party, which is to concentrate resources of local authorities on people who need them, to encourage home ownership and to promote mobility within London. The Government have already put a similar scheme on the statute hook by giving tenants of charitable housing associations a right to a transferable discount. That scheme, which is operated by housing associations, has freed several properties in London and enabled more rapid progress to be made on the waiting lists.
If one is to do something about homelessness in London, one must adopt such a scheme, whatever the potential inequities or problems. I submit it as a scheme, not to promote home ownership, but to tackle the growing problems of homelessness. That is the right way to tackle homelessness in London.
The London borough of Ealing is tackling homelessness in the wrong way. It is underwriting the municipalisation of private housing estates in the borough. One flat being bought by a housing association, but being underwritten by Ealing council, is costing £180,000. That sort of deal does not add to the housing stock. It simply swaps the tenure from home ownership to rented accommodation. It denies that accommodation, which is being built by the private sector, to many people living in Ealing and Acton who were hoping to buy those flats. The flats are no longer available and the people must wait to find something else. If £180,000 is available merely for one unit, the council could find many better ways of using it, such as the scheme that I outlined.
I do not propose to speak on any other subject. When my hon. Friend the Minister replies to the debate I hope that he will say how the review in the Department, which is evaluating the scheme in London, is progressing, what 197 the time scale is, and whether there is any chance of the Government taking action on homelessness by promoting more vigorously the initiative that I have described.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) for his brevity.
§ Mr. Tony Lloyd (Stretford)
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) made a sensible point when he said that it was vital that people understood there was no such thing as blanket solutions to the housing needs of different areas. Sadly, for all the Government's rhetoric about choice in the housing market, in reality they are trying to impose an ideological straitjacket which simply does not fit. That can be well illustrated by the abysmal failure of the Government's housing policies in Manchester and Greater Manchester.
It is conceded by Labour politicians and our political opponents that at present Manchester has a housing crisis. More than one and a half times the national average of houses in the city of Manchester are considered to be overcrowded, and the position is getting worse, not better. There is a freezing of choice, even in Manchester which has a massively higher number of relets of local authority properties than other authorities. The Government's actions are inflicting human misery throughout the Manchester area because of the resulting housing conditions.
There is a housing stock of nearly 100,000 and about 37,000 people are on the housing waiting list. Many hon. Members may wish to dismiss some of those people, but I do not because each person represents somebody who is badly housed. As everybody involved in housing in Manchester recognises, the housing transfer list will never offer any hope for many people, although their circumstances are intolerable.
Recently a constituency case was brought to my attention of a family living in a three-bedroomed house. The married couple had one bedroom, their teenage son another and their four daughters shared the third. Because of the acute crisis in housing, their problem will not be resolved in the near future. Neither I, nor the chairman of the housing committee as a local councillor can offer them any hope. Such is the misery that is inflicted.
Conservative Members say that the crisis is the fault of the wicked public sector. Sadly, Manchester is now a poor city. About 70 per cent. of its population is described as low-paid by well-established definitions, or as out of work. The proposed private sector solutions are not available to those people and are ridiculous. The same national builders whom my hon. Friend the Member for Perry Barr said were tickling up house prices in the south-east have approached the local authority in Manchester to ask whether it will buy the houses they have built for purchase because they cannot sell them at cost. Indeed, they cannot even sell the houses when the price is dropped below cost. Therefore, neither national builders nor local builders will build to sell when the housing market in the city simply does not exist.
The pre-first world war terraced houses in Moss Side have been considerably improved, sometimes to a good standard, but those houses cannot be sold easily because the cost of modernisation is greater than their market 198 price. The hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Meadowcroft) is right to say that such houses should not be demolished, but without a significant public sector contribution they will eventually have to he demolished. The public sector will have to take responsibility for that type of housing in our inner-city areas.
Private rented accommodation simply does not exist. I was perplexed to hear the Minister say that after eight years of Conservative Government there was an awakening private sector about to unleash itself to solve my constituents' problems. Eight years is a long time for people to wait in appalling housing circumstances and it is a long time for a hypocritical Government to discover their compassion for those whose housing conditions are intolerable. It is about time that the Government came clean and said that their ideology is not relevant to areas such as my own.
We can look across the border from the city of Manchester, which is labour-controlled, to the conservative-controlled borough of Trafford, which failed to build any houses for the general housing public sector market, except for a few of what my friends on the local authority called Noddy houses at the time, which the Government put on offer before the general election in 1979, when they said that all authorities that got houses up to the eaves by a certain date could have the money. Trafford Conservative council decided that, for the first time since reorganisation, it would go in for that. It did riot achieve its objective in terms of getting houses up to the required standard and had to pay the full whack itself. But we know that that was just an election ploy, similar to the election ploys that we are seeing now. Clearly, apart from the faint hope for the private sector, housing is riot something on which the Government feel emboldened to offer anything in terms of electoral bribes.
One of the big criticisms by constituents concerns the number of voids in the ownership of both local authorities. This concerns me and must concern everybody. I would feel much better hearing hon. Gentlemen talk about voids in local authority housing stock if they would join us in pressing the Government on this point. On the Langley estate in Manchester some 600 houses are now vacant, which is a very large number; but the reason is that the concrete floors and the sulphate in the soil have made those houses uninhabitable. Yet, when the local authorities approach the Government for the money to repair the houses, that money is simply not available. Manchester is not repairing its housing stock, so it has to see its houses boarded up, vandalised and not let to families which could use them.
The reason for the overwhelming majority of those voids is the underfunding of the capital budget for local authorities, and that is something for which central Government have to take direct responsibility. That situation applies throughout the land.
Housing in this country is now severely underfunded, and this is true of both local authority housing and housing in the hands of owner-occupiers. In my own constituency owner-occupiers, who are very often on moderate incomes, find even the improvement grant system that exists no help to them. One of my unemployed constituents has been trying for some time now to get some assistance with his own home, but when it comes down realities and the funding of his portion of the grant he simply cannot afford to take on that kind of debt. More 199 to the point, he cannot find anybody who would lend it to him. So for many people there is an underfunding of housing.
The private institutions do not cope with that kind of problem. The local authorities are not in a position to do so, not because they do not want to but because the Government will not let them. At the end of the day, the housing crisis in this country is a crisis inflicted by this Government which affects the way of life and the quality of life of the people of Britain.
§ Mr. William Shelton (Streatham)
I must first say how much I agree with the suggestion by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) and I shall follow him by speaking briefly to one point only. Reference has already been made to the matter of empty properties on both the private side and the council side. I intend to talk about the council side because I think that the empty properties on the private side are empty through the fault of the House, because of the Rent Acts.
In May of last year I was talking to a constituent in Hambalt road, in Clapham, about some problem she had, and she said that she wished that her daughter could move into the flat next door, which had been empty for 10 years and was owned by the council. I wrote to Lambeth council and asked if it was true that the flat had been empty for 10 years. I had no reply, but two weeks later a team moved in and put in central heating and did the flat up. I checked again last month, March, and the flat was still empty. The constituent who told me about it said that it had been empty for 10 years and the lady downstairs said that it had been empty for 8½ years. There was a slight difference there, but certainly it was empty for more than 9 years. Somebody has now moved in because I created such a row in the local press.
I think that it must have fallen off the local council books in some way. I do not believe that even Lambeth council would have left it empty deliberately for so long. It bought it some 10 years ago and it remained empty all that time.
I think that the Government must take some responsibility for collecting figures from local councils in a more co-ordinated and comprehensible way. I started looking to see what was available in terms of statistics on empty properties, waiting lists and so on, and here are a few of the figures. They come from different sources and they contradict each other. As I say, there is a need for some correlation.
First, the council house waiting list in inner London, in March 1985, was 142,500. So there were very nearly 150,000 people waiting, of which it was said that 128,000 were "in need", whatever that definition may mean. That point has been raised already.
Secondly, bed-and-breakfast homeless in inner London in March 1986 amounted to about 3,500 families, and the cost, according to the Association of London Authorities, had risen from £3 million in 1981–82 to £11 million in 1984–85. It also said that the number would be up to about 12,000 by 1989 unless the policies were changed. So everyone must agree that there is a massive problem here.
Looking at the supply side, according to the same association, those councils, which are basically the inner London councils, have some 20,000 empty properties 200 between them. That is a far higher percentage than an average management estate would have. To be honest, I do not know what percentage it is, but it is very high. I could not, however, get a breakdown. Nowhere did it say how long the properties had been empty or why they were empty.
I then looked at Lambeth and Wandsworth, where I had direct access to more specific figures. I need hardly tell the House that Wandsworth is Conservative-controlled and well managed and Lambeth is Labour-controlled and badly managed.
§ Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)
Can the hon. Gentleman help me with a mystery, if that is the proposition? Why is it, then, that Wandsworth has more empty council houses than Lambeth?
§ Mr. Shelton
If the hon. Gentleman will restrain himself for a moment, I will come to that precise point.
Lambeth has 1,500 homeless, while Wandsworth has 750. The boroughs are more or less the same size. Lambeth has a waiting list of 13,000 and Wandsworth has a waiting list of 5,950. Lambeth has 865 squatted properties; Wandsworth has 11. Lambeth has a 26-week turnover in lettings; Wandsworth has a two-week to three-week turnover. But — this is the point which the hon. Gentleman raised—Lambeth claims to have only 1,388 empty properties, 2.7 per cent. of its stock, while Wandsworth has 1,071, 3.7 per cent. of its stock. That brings me back to the point, that these figures should be put forward in a comparable way. I will explain this anomaly.
Lambeth excludes squatters from its voids. If we add the number of squatters to Lambeth's voids, we get 2,193, so 3.9 per cent. of its properties are either squatted in or void. On the other hand, in Wandsworth 935 houses on the waiting list are being renovated prior to sale. If we abstract those, it has only 136 waiting to be let, or 0.4 per cent., compared with Lambeth's 3.9 per cent.
It really is nonsense that councils put forward figures in such extraordinarily different ways, misleading normally intelligent people such as the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser), who is a Lambeth Member and was delighted by those figures, as I was until I looked into them. I found that, instead of Lambeth having fewer empty properties as a percentage than Wandsworth, it had 3.9 per cent. including squatting, whereas Wandsworth had only 0.4 per cent.
In conclusion, we need more information about empty properties, squatters and the homeless. We need to avoid disgraces like the flat owned by Lambeth council that had been empty for 10 years. A year ago I told Lambeth council about it. It did it up, and put in central heating, but it was still empty 10 months later. If the hon. Member for Norwood approves of that, I shall be delighted to publish his approval in my local press.
§ Mr. Shelton
I will suggest to my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench that the Government should designate certain local authorities which should be obliged to submit to the Department—and make public locally—lists of empty properties in their ownership, compiled on a like-for-like basis, including or excluding whether they are squatted, and how long they have been empty, if they have been empty for more than six months.
201 No property needs to be empty for more than six months, unless it is being rebuilt, in which case the local authority would say that it was being rebuilt. I accept that some work is involved, but the homeless and those who are poorly housed should demand that councils should not keep a good flat empty for 10 years because it happened to fall off the books.
§ Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)
The hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Shelton) is, like many of his colleagues, full of hypocrisy on these matters. Local authorities have been starved of money to meet the requirements of local people to repair their houses. Because of that, many problems have developed, particularly over the last eight years. The basic responsibility is with the Government and not with local authorities, but the local authorities are not entirely excused.
I want to raise the question of choice. I am becoming worried about it because I hear about choice all the time, and to some extent I even read it in our own motion. I am not certain what is meant by choice. People have choice if they have money. Anybody who has money can buy a house where they want to buy one. That has always been so. Some people have always had that choice.
But the ordinary mass of working people, who have no money and cannot afford to raise cash so that they can get a mortgage, have no choice. Those are the people that I am worried about. The Labour movement must be concerned about them because those are the people we really represent. We represent them; no one else will.
John Wheatley, the first Housing Minister in a Labour Government, was a man of fine character. Five hundred thousand houses arose out of the Wheatley Act. Incidentally, he was always referred to, when alive, as one of the loony Left—and he was a Roman Catholic, so one can be a Roman Catholic and a member of the loony Left. People like Wheatley were doing that job for those in need.
Masses of people are in need now and require help. They cannot get accommodation unless they are assisted by local authorities. It is only through local authorities that the housing needs of these people can be met and necessary repairs made. I am all in favour of choice. Those who have money and who do not want to live in a local authority house can move out and buy some other accommodation.
My local council—and its 47 members—has been disqualified. What did they do? They built almost 5,000 houses in three years. I know of a private estate in Liverpool, next to which the council has built council houses similar to the ones that were built for sale by the Liberals and Tories. Those council properties are full because the occupiers have been moved into them from slum housing. Other parts of the estate have sale signs up because people cannot afford the mortgage payments.
A couple in my constituency—perhaps an example of many other couples — could not afford to pay the mortgage payments and had been negotiating for some time with a building society. One evening they went home and discovered that the building society, which already had the keys, had moved in and had changed all the locks on their house. I can happily give the names and details of that couple. All over Liverpool, the sale signs are going up not only on houses that were built by or through the 202 local authority but also on older properties that people have bought. That is happening because workers have been thrown out of work. They cannot afford the mortgage payments, and many of them are being evicted from their homes.
They are our people and they require more assistance than anyone else. We in the Labour party have to give them that help. It is our responsibility to ensure that those people are assisted, because this Government will not help them. This Government have made the position far worse since attaining office.
Statistics from the National Council of Building Material Producers—that body is certainly not an adjunct or affiliate of the Labour party—show that in 1979, in the public sector, 145,000 houses were being built, and that in 1986 46,200 were being built. In the private sector, for the same period, the number of houses being built increased, but not dramatically. Taking both private and public sectors together, the number of houses being built has gone down, although there has been an increase in the private sector as against the public sector.
How do people find somewhere to live? I will give an example of the homeless. I am a member of the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians. Many of the membership have had to move to different parts of the country to seek employment. Many of them have come to London. The February issue of the union paper, UCATT Viewpoint, gives examples. Any hon. Member who has been round London at night will have seen what is happening; if hon. Members have not been, I urge them to go. In winter just round the back of Covent garden one could see people trying to get some warmth from cardboard boxes. The Minister should have a look. My-union paper has photographs but hon. Members should go and see for themselves what conditions are like. A disgraceful position has developed. The Government are bringing us back to the days described by Jack London in his book, "The People of the Abyss". They do not give a damn about the ordinary people who are suffering without a shelter over their heads.
We must care. We must build houses, basically through the local authorities. We must stop talking about choice and make sure that people have a shelter over their heads. I shall support the motion but I hope that we will be more positive in what we put before the people at the general election. The Labour party must say that it is the only party that is concerned about meeting the needs of the people for shelter.
§ 6.1 pm
§ Mr. Robin Squire (Hornchurch)
The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) is always listened to with respect even if most of us on this side of the House reject his remedies. In particular we reject his belief that the future can lie only in council housing, but he is entitled to that view.
For some five years I have been a board member of Shelter and in that role have spent not a little time considering the problems of homelessness and bad housing, on which I shall concentrate now. In Shelter's view, a definition of a successful housing policy has three criteria: first, does everyone who needs an adequate home have one; secondly, is society meeting its responsibility to keep in reasonable repair the housing stock which is held in trust for future generations: thirdly, are Government ensuring that housing policies do not discriminate against 203 particular sections of society or affect their ability to lead full and satisfying lives? I would need to make a long speech to cover each of those principles, but I certainly endorse that broad approach.
In the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless, there is broad agreement across the Chamber that bad housing creates conditions for increased crime, bad health, stress, family breakdown, vandalism and all the other problems which we know only too well. Last year, £26 million was spent on the increased use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Goodness knows what the figure will be for the year to March 1987, but it will obviously be higher. That is indefensible on financial or social grounds. Such accommodation is provided at twice the cost of other accommodation.
The survey of houses in multiple occupation published at the beginning of the year showed that only a quarter of the estimated 200,000 homes concerned were adequate. There are now 100,000 homeless families. As I suspect most hon. Members are aware, that is the number accepted as homeless by local authorities. If we throw in those who are single or couples without children, we have to add another 203,000 people or families who are not accepted as homeless. The majority of the 100,000 accepted as homeless may have been unfortunate enough to be put out of work or may have suffered industrial injury which led to them being out of work. We must not think of them as a separate category.
I have long believed that we must continue to make use of housing associations. I welcome the increase of 21 per cent. in funding announced for the Housing Corporation for 1987–88. In high stress areas, housing associations have a major role to play. I am concerned that some recent changes may reduce that role. Housing associations will no longer be offered first refusal when public property is being disposed of. I regret that particularly, as I also understand that housing associations cannot buy at the outstanding historic debt. When those provisions are combined, it will be very difficult for housing associatons, particularly in areas such as central London, to buy property that would be suitable for people paying fair rents.
I wish godspeed to the Minister's latest initiative involving 30 per cent. housing association grants—or HAGs as they are quaintly termed. I hope that they are successful. He should remember that housing associations have a major role to play and that they should not be restricted in carrying out that role.
§ Mr. John Patten
I ask my hon. Friend to accept that in the near future we wish to see growth in the number of homes built by housing associations in partnership both with central Government and privately funded institutions. We see housing associations playing a particularly important role. I welcome the vigorous way in which housing associations are rising to the challenge.
§ Mr. Squire
I welcome my hon. Friend's comments. We shall all note them and shall expect to see the growth of which he has spoken.
I should like to refer specifically to mixed user grants, or MUGs. With MUGs and HAGs, it sounds a bit like pre-Wolfenden Paddington, but I am talking of 1980s housing. Mixed user grants apply when there is a prospect of a housing association acquiring property above a 204 disused retail or industrial outlet. The rules do not allow housing associations to be responsible for the lower property. In rundown inner-city areas, this is denying activity to housing associations. St. Pancras housing association has been discussing the problem with my hon. Friend the Member for Surbiton (Mr. Tracey). In his reply to the debate he may be able to tell us what progress is being made.
On better use of empty property and potential empty property, I have been advocating for some time that the Chancellor of the Exchequer should find funds to encourage people to bring empty rooms in their property into use, particularly in inner cities. If the first £500 of rent thus received was free of tax, it would create a new source of supply of accommodation, particularly for young people aged 18 to 25 who gravitate to the cities, who cannot find anywhere to live and who end up living rough or in conditions of which we should be ashamed. Many elderly people would be only too pleased to have the extra income from the use of spare rooms. It would be a much more flexible way of dealing with mobile young people than requiring local authorities to provide accommodation for them. We should be looking closely at ways of finding the funds that would enable that to take place.
§ Mr. Charles Irving (Cheltenham)
As to flexibility—as my hon. Friend knows, I have had a long relationship with housing associations—does my hon. Friend feel that the Department and the Minister should be giving local authorities and housing associations two or three-year programmes rather than a one-year programme? A one-year programme is extremely difficult to plan and often impossible to fulfil. If it were extended, there would be a better chance of using the available resources. In some authorities, such as Cheltenham, those funds are not used because it has been impossible to complete the programme.
§ Mr. Squire
The Minister will have heard my hon. Friend's interjection, which I would endorse.
One sector which needs not legislation but exhortation is the political encouragement of local authorities to make use of empty properties. not just their own—I do not have the time to develop what might be termed the expected line on council properties—but empty property which is lying unused within their boundaries. Currently, a number of authorities are doing that, so they do not need legislation. I shall quote an example which might not be expected of me—the London borough of Brent. Brent is working with local housing associations and over the past year it has leased 200 empty properties. Landlords are guaranteed vacant possession at the end of the lease, and the borough pays them a rent. It is a particularly good deal for owners who may otherwise have left the property to rot.
I know that what has happened in that area of high stress has happened elsewhere. I should like to see such schemes grow, because if they do not and if we continue to see a growth in company lets in central London side by side with the pressures for low-rent accommodation, we will face great problems in the future.
§ Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)
Despite all the ministerial denials, there is an acute housing crisis in many parts of the country, as my hon. Friends have pointed out in this short debate.
205 I am glad that the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) has spoken because he is one of the few Conservative Members who recognises that there is a real housing problem in this country.
It must be sickening to all those who are in desperate need of adequate accommodation to read and listen to Tory Housing Ministers denying that there is a problem. It is bad enough for a family to be forced to live in bed-and-breakfast accommodation and not know how much longer they must put up with such miseries, or to live, as so many of my constituents do, in a high-rise block of flats with two children and be told that the chances of being allocated a house are remote.
How many young married couples, often with a child, who come to our surgeries or write to us, have no alternative but to live in one rented room, or in cramped conditions with parents or in-laws with all the accompanying domestic strain? Surely it aggravates such miseries to be told time and time again by Government Ministers that there is simply no housing problem at all. That is the sort of 1984 Orwellian position the Government adopt.
Tory Members of Parliament, and many others who are involved in that party at local level, have always deeply resented public sector rented housing. Indeed, some would go so far as to say that there has almost been a vendetta over the years against council dwellings. Since 1979 the Government have given effect to that resentment or vendetta. They have virtually made it financially impossible for many local authorities to build at all.
Reference has often been made previously by Ministers to the decline in council house building under the Labour Government, but in the last full year of that Administration over 100,000 new council houses and flats were being built. We know that in the last few years, and certainly in the current year, the figure is 30,000 new houses or flats or just under.
First and foremost, we need a substantial national house building programme in the public sector. Building houses and low-rise flats, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) said, is the most effective way of tackling the housing crisis.
It is no good those people who are on low incomes or unemployed being told that they can buy. What should I tell my constituents when they come to my surgery? Should I tell them that they should get a mortgage? They have no more chance of getting a mortgage than of going to Mars. The only way to resolve their housing crisis is for them to be housed by the local authority or a genuine housing association.
We must ensure that local authorities have the means to modernise and carry out large-scale repair work to old and structurally defective council properties. I shall refer briefly to what is happening in the borough of Walsall. Since 1979, no council properties have been built at all. Of course properties have been sold off, and I would just make this comment: much reference has been made by the Minister to the privately rented sector. The question that I and my hon. Friends have asked on many occasions is a simple one. The Government tell us that it is right in law for public sector tenants to be able to buy. Why should that not apply to private tenants? Why should there be a distinction? Why is it that private tenants are not given that right in law? the explanation is pretty obvious—no Tory Government would dream of giving private tenants the right to buy.
206 In Walsall too many pre-1939 properties have yet to be included in the modernisation programme. The explanation for that is known to the Minister because I have written to him on a number of occasions. There simply are not enough funds. Since the Minister is here, can I refer to the fact that a number of tenants in my constituency live in what are known as the "Wimpey no fines" properties. They are very concerned indeed that their properties are not to he modernised in the forthcoming financial year. I have written to the director of housing and I have been informed that there are not sufficient funds for the work to be carried out in 1987–88. I then wrote to the Housing Minister. Altogether in the borough, not just in my constituency, it would cost about £3.5 million to bring that type of concrete-built but not pre-cast dwelling up to scratch. That is about £3,500 per property.
Understandably, the tenants are up in arms at the state of these properties. I have already described them by their name—Wimpey no fines—and they were built just after the war. The problems with those dwellings include acute dampness, much condensation, rotting window frames, and so on.
When I have received deputations from the residents concerned, they say, "Well, Mr. Winnick, are we to spend another winter in such conditions?" As I have just mentioned, when I received a reply from the director of housing I immediately wrote to the Housing Minister and asked him whether he would be willing to receive a deputation as requested by the residents. The answer was in the negative, I am afraid. I understand that the tenants are not satisfied with the Minister's reply to me and that they intend to come to London. If they come to Marsham street I shall do my best to see that they are seen by a Minister or at least by a senior civil servant. It would be very discourteous of the Minister to tell my constituents that, having travelled over 100 miles to London, they cannot be seen when they arrive at the Department of the Environment.
What is required in this sector is a sufficient housing investment programme allocation to my local council and other housing authorities so that they can carry out their housing responsibilities of building, modernising and maintenance. The question which immediately arises is how much more it will cost if all the work that I have described is further delayed and not carried out in the next two or three years. It will certainly cost more, yet it is estimated that about 25 per cent. of those who are involved in the building trade are unemployed. Would it not be much more sensible for those people, instead of being jobless and having to rely on unemployment or supplementary benefit, to be building and modernising the properties so urgently required in the public sector?
Again, I am sure that this problem too is shared by a number of hon. Members.
In my constituency a number of elderly owner-occupiers are living in old properties. They cannot get an improvement grant. In some cases, they are unable to afford a new roof, for example. When I took these cases up with the local authority, I was told that there was no way in which any discretionary improvement grants could be made because of the lack of sufficient funding in the next financial year. I have been told that a large number of people in the borough—nearly 2,000—have been waiting for over four years for such grants. Unless the money is forthcoming, my constituents will not be able to carry out the work because they cannot afford to do it 207 themselves. When the Minister boasts about owner-occupation, he should think about these owner-occupiers as well. It is not too much to ask that they should be given the necessary funding to put on a new roof and other such essential work.
There is no future for the private rented sector. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Hornchurch that there is no reason why an owner-occupier should not let out a room. Labour Members would be the last to say that that would be wrong. However, the idea that the private rented sector can somehow be revived and provide accommodation at a reasonable rent is sheer moonshine. The Government are trying to bring back the legislation of 30 years ago—the notorious Rent Act 1957. On a previous occasion, I reminded the House that when that Act was in operation, I was a councillor in a borough in London. The Minister can smile about this if he wants, but I saw for myself the numbers of people who were evicted quite legally, and not as a result of Rachmanism. Why is it that, with a majority of 140, the Government have not legislated to do away with the Rent Acts? The simple reason is that they have been frightened to do so before a general election. We must warn the country and private tenants of what is likely to happen if the Government were to be re-elected. Rachmanism would come back with a vengeance.
The debate once again demonstrates the need for ample funding for the public sector and the need to ensure that improvement grants are made, so that, at the end of the day, all our people can be housed properly, whether they are owner-occupiers or council tenants. We need adequate accommodation for all our people, through the state or the voluntary housing sector.
§ Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)
No doubt, Mr. Deputy Speaker, at your bedside there is a copy of this month's edition of "Roof' which is the magazine for Shelter. In that document you will find an interview given by the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Meadowcroft). It is a breathtaking interview. With that flamboyance that is characteristic of the Liberal party there are 10 photographs of the hon. Gentleman in different poses. It starts in the way that one might expect. It says:Meadowcroft didn't want to become the Alliance spokesman on housing and local government when the Liberals and SDP merged their parliamentary posts in January.That will come as no surprise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if you read the Official Report tomorrow and see the speech of the hon. Member for Leeds, West.
It is an astonishing interview, because it shows that the hon. Gentleman is way to the Left of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker). I shall give one or two quotations to illustrate this point. I emphasise that these words are not mine, but those of the official spokesman for the Liberal party. He said:right to buy discounts should be concentrated on less desirable properties. There would be no 'blanket discounts' if he had his way".I shall be issuing a copy of this interview to my electorate, and I know that many of my hon. Friends will be doing the same. The hon. Gentleman does not appear to understand that those properties that he describes as less desirable have had an abated price by reason of the 208 fact that the open market value of less desirable houses is lower than the open market value of more desirable houses. However, that truth has not dawned on the hon. Gentleman.
The hon. Gentleman went on to say:Measures such as requiring owners of homes sold under the right to buy to sell back to the council if they move, however, could be used to ameliorate some of the worst effects of sales.At the last general election the Labour party proposed that, where a person who had bought his house or flat under the right to buy wanted to sell, he should be under an obligation to offer it back to the council first. That was an obligation to remunicipalise. It was denying persons who had bought under the right to buy the same freedom as those who had not bought under the right to buy. In certain circumstances, that may still be the policy of the Labour party, but I am dealing with the Liberal party. We now have the official spokesman of the Liberal party saying that those who have bought under the right to buy—more than 1 million of them, including many of the hon. Gentleman's constituents—will, when they wish to sell, be denied the freedom to choose the purchaser and will have to sell it back to the council, if the hon. Gentleman gets his way.
That is not the only matter. Another short quotation shows the way in which the Liberal party never likes to offend anybody and always takes two sides simultaneously. I have further evidence for that proposition. The interviewer said:He doesn't go so far as to approve of Tower Hamlets' policy of selling tenanted blocks of flats, but he won't condemn it outright either.As always, the Liberals are trying to have it both ways. No wonder that the person interviewing the hon. Gentleman reached this conclusion:Having thus nailed his colours to the mast, Michael Meadowcroft immediately begins to pull them down again.I could not have put it better myself.
§ Mr. Meadowcroft
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is under severe attack from the Liberals in Eastbourne. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the selling of council houses was first instituted in Leeds in 1974, when there was an agreement between his party and mine, to do it on the terms set out in that article and that this was very successful? That is an important point.
§ Mr. Gow
The hon. Gentleman would find it instructive to look up the record of how his party voted on what is now the Housing Act 1980, which gave the right to buy.
I find myself in respectful disagreement with my hon. Friend the Minister on only one aspect of his remarks. He said that he thought the hon. Member for Perry Barr had made a good speech, but I disagree. I thought that it was a muddled speech and that some of his supporters, who had been hoping that there would be a real strategy on housing from the Labour party, were disappointed. The speech bore all the hallmarks of a shadow Minister who knows that he will never hold office. That is part of the trouble with the Labour party.
I welcome the partial conversion of the hon. Member for Perry Barr to the policies enunciated and developed by my hon. Friend the Minister, and in the few minutes that remain to me I shall concentrate on one or two aspects of my hon. Friend's speech. He told the House that there were more than 100,000 houses and flats empty in the public sector, and more than 540,000 houses and flats 209 empty in the private sector. We may not know with total precision how accurate those figures are. We may not know precisely in what areas of the country they are, but we know one thing. If, as is the case, those figures are approximately accurate, and if, alongside those figures, we have the continuing scandal of homelessness and the continuing scandal—I hope that the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) has noted my choice of language — of some of the bed-and-breakfast accommodation, we cannot allow that number of empty houses and flats to continue.
With regard to the public sector, I commend to my hon. Friend the Minister the suggestion put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young). I am particularly anxious that we should bring into use those houses and flats in the private sector that are presently under-used or unused. We must also consider the task of bringing into use that accommodation that exists in houses and flats where the owners would be willing to make a room or part of a house available for those who are presently homeless, but are discouraged from doing so. My hon. Friend the Minister rightly discussed the right to rent. However, he did not spell out—I appreciate why he did not—the specific proposals that we should adopt. We shall need more information than we received this afternoon when we come to write our manifesto.
There has been a transformation in the private rented sector. When the Rent Acts were first introduced 75 years ago, 10 per cent. of our housing stock was held by owner-occupiers and 90 per cent. by the private rented sector. My hon. Friend the Minister has already said that the private rented sector has fallen in those 75 years from 90 to 8 per cent. in 1987.
§ Mr. John Patten
Is my hon. Friend aware that, such is the loss of units of accommodation and homes in the private rented sector—presently running at 70,000 a year—that. unless we act, within 10 or 15 years there will be no private rented sector left?
§ Mr. Gow
If there is an increase in owner-occupation—now approaching 64 per cent. in England—it is self-evident that there will be a diminution in renting. We want that figure of 64 per cent. to go on rising. Indeed, I am sure that it will.
I believe that we need a radical policy to bring into use unused and under-used accommodation. We also need a radical policy to attract new investment to the private rented sector. I congratulate the Minister on his announcement of the increase in the number of approved landlords under the assured tenancy scheme. However, the truth is that, apart from that scheme, there is practically nobody in Britain building houses or flats for renting in the private sector.
§ Mr. Gow
Exactly. The hon. Gentleman and I agree. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Mailing (Mr. Stanley) made a start with assured tenancies, and my hon. Friend the Minister is continuing that good work.
In respect of all new lettings, I believe that the rent to be paid by the tenant should be that rent that is agreed between tenant and landlord.
§ Mr. Gow
Yes, the hon. Gentleman is correct. If the landlord asks too high a rent, he will not get a tenant. That practice would bring more accommodation into use.
In respect of all future lettings, I believe that the terms of the tenancy should be those agreed between the landlord and tenant. In our future policies for lettings there should be no place for the rent officer, and no place for the tenant to have the right to extend the terms of his tenancy beyond that term agreed between himself and landlord.
The tragedy of the Rent Acts is that they have injured the people whom they were designed to protect. We have succeeded in drying up the supply of privately rented accommodation, to the great injury of potential tenants. That has meant a great loss of housing for our people. I believe that the radical poliy that I have suggested would, in the medium term, reduce rents in many parts of the country. [Interruption.] It is quite extraordinary how the Opposition have still not learnt elementary economics. If one increases the supply of eggs, the price of eggs will diminish. If the supply of privately rented accommodation is increased, rents will come down.
The Labour party believes that the moment one removes price controls there is a price rise. Some Opposition Members still do not accept that the free market is able to provide a better service to our people than is provided by the controls so beloved by the Opposition. I hope that my hon. Friend will have the courage to include in our manifesto radical proposals for the encouragement and revival of the private rented sector.
§ Mr. Nick Raynsford (Fulham)
In many ways we have heard a rather depressing debate this afternoon. We have heard the backward attitudes of the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow), a former Minister for Housing, whose comments have gone a long way to explain his abject failure in office.
We have also heard the sensitive comments of the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) who advocated a scheme that was put to him by me—in a former guise before elected to the House—and others some two years ago when he was a Minister. Sadly, his sensitive approach towards this issue probably led to his departure from the present Government. He is now advocating a scheme that could have been put into practice two years ago if the Government had had the will to do so. We have heard the Minister's comments. He has presided over one of the most appalling housing crises since the war and he displayed insensitivity, complacency and arrogance that would make most people feel depressed.
Any Minister who has witnessed this record rise in homelessness, together with the scandal of bed-and-breakfast accommodation, should come to the House with a touch of humility and a willingness to admit that things are not all that they should be. Instead, we have been treated to arrogance, insensitivity and complacency of an extraordinary scale.
We now have the worst figures for homelessness since records began in 1947. It is ironic that, in the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless, we have the worst homeless figure since records began. We also have the worst figures yet recorded for bed-and-breakfast accommodation. That accommodation represents squalid, overcrowded conditions, imposing on families circumstances that destroy family life. Those conditions have 211 been achieved at an appalling financial and human cost. It is costing the Government more to keep families in bed-and-breakfast squalor than to build new homes. Such are the policies of the loony Right who govern our country at the moment. The Government are squandering money on keeping people in squalid hovels rather than building the homes that they need. What a disgraceful record. Any Minister worth his salt would apologise for that this afternoon, rather than hardly mentioning the issue of bed and breakfast.
The Minister should not express surprise about the increase in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. It is not something that has mysteriously emerged, for no apparent reason. Bed-and-breakfast accommodation fills a gap left by the lack of an adequate house building programme and the lack of adequate homes available to rent. In a time of shortage, the private sector — beloved of the Conservatives—moves in to make a killing. The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) should consider what life would be like were the Tories to change the Rent Acts to remove all controls on new lettings and thus allow such lettings to be freely negotiated.
There are freely negotiated conditions of occupation for bed-and-breakfast accommodation. A landlord buys a property, but will not let it on decent terms, and states that he will take homeless people. He will charge the earth for squalid conditions. Such are the freely negotiated conditions that are presently being imposed by exploitative landlords. The Conservatives, to their eternal discredit, subsidise this exercise to a massive extent through the Department of Health and Social Security. They are subsidising those landlords who keep people in squalor rather than providing the necessary homes for people in need. Such is the basic economics that the hon. Member for Eastbourne should consider. It is the basic economics of exploitation — when the opportunity is available, in times of shortage, the private sector is rapacious.
The Minister has given excuses for the present problems. He has discussed empty properties and once again has shown extraordinary hypocrisy. He turned his attack on local authorities for leaving properties empty. I join him in condemning those authorities, including Wandsworth, which leave masses of properties empty in order to sell them. Such properties are needlessly empty. However, I also condemn those Government Departments that have empty properties. The percentage of empty properties owned by Government Departments is far greater than those owned by any local authority. Government Department empties are 6.5 per cent. of their lettings.
What is the Minister of Housing doing about that? Is he talking to his right hon. and hon. Friends and urging them to bring those properties into use? Has he talked to the Home Secretary about the 18 per cent. of Metropolitan police residential accommodation in London that is currently vacant? What about that scandal of empty property? Why are some of those homes not being used for the homeless? Why is nothing being done about those? The Minister is simply playing party politics in order to make cheap attacks on local authorities, but he will not apply the same logic to his own hon. Friends who have far more empty residential properties in their Departments. That is hypocrisy, and the Minister knows it.
212 The Minister knows that there is support in principle, on the Opposition side as well as on the Government side, for assured tenancies. He knows very well that this is only a small-scale operation and not a replacement for mainstream programmes. That is the tragedy of the Government's present policy. They are fiddling with palliatives and talking about small-scale schemes rather than providing mainstream programmes.
The Government cry crocodile tears about the housing association movement, but they ought to be reminded of their record. In 1979, housing associations completed just over 16,000 lettings for people in need in England. That was the record that the Government inherited from the Labour Government. In the last 12 months, housing associations completed only 9,000 homes for letting. The Government like to be seen as a friend of the housing association movement but they have cut the housing associations' programme and associations that are desperately keen to provide rented homes for people in need are being prevented from doing so by Government policies. The Government are fiddling rather than dealing with the mainstream needs of our time. It is certainly not good enough for the Government to hide behind such palliatives.
The Government's talk about the right to rent is perhaps the greatest hypocrisy of all. In the eight years during which they have been responsible for housing policy, they have presided over the worst ever decline in rented housing in Britain. Some 1 million homes for rent have gone from the market. About half of those were in the private rented sector and the other half were council homes. That is the legacy of this Government. Never before has there been such a loss of rented accommodation in so short a period. That is the record of the Government and therein lies the explanation for the alarming rise in homelessness and the bed-and-breakfast crisis.
The shortage of rented housing needs to be tackled. The two parties that will fight the forthcoming election will put fundamentally different policies to the electorate. We will put policies of hope about building homes for people in need and the Conservatives will put a record of failure, disaster, homelessness and misery. On that record, the Government will be judged and found wanting.
§ Mr. Richard Ottaway (Nottingham, North)
I should like quickly to make a few points. My first is about the importance of improving the quality of housing estates like those in my constituency. We all know that there is a shortage of decent homes. There always has been and there always will be. This is primarily because expectations always exceed demand. However, building more council houses is not the whole answer. That results in large council estates, and we have found by painful experience that such estates are difficult to manage.
We need smaller estates, either privately owned or in management, and the management should be carried out by housing associations or by tenants themselves. I believe in that concept primarily because it leads to greater involvement by those who live on the estates. We all know that, when people occupy their own houses and are involved in the running of their estates, that results in a cleaner, better and tidier estate. In Nottingham, my party is advocating for the local elections greater local 213 management in the running of the council estates. We should not fear going beyond that and should ask tenants how they want their estates to be managed.
Anyone who takes an interest in housing will be aware of the Thamesmead experiment, in which tenants were asked whether they wanted to be run by Greenwich borough council or by a local trust. They voted to be run by a local trust. We should break up the large estates, give their tenants more choice, and encourage more localised management.
My second point is about the need to deregulate the private rented sector. In Nottingham, both private and council houses are very cheap—indeed, it is almost as cheap to buy as to rent — but buying does not suit everybody. Britain needs mobility of labour. People going from the north to the south can get jobs but they cannot find somewhere to live. But it is not just that; people going from the north to the midlands have the same problem, and it affects young people who may not be high on a council's waiting list and have difficulty in finding somewhere to live.
I am pleased to see that the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) has just returned to the Chamber. He said that, in the short term, rents may go up. However, as more property comes on to the market, rents will begin to drop, we will see them coming down to an acceptable level and more property will be available. It is important that we have adequate protection for the tenants in order to prevent the harassment and the Rachmanism that used to go on.
My final point is that, in improving the quality of existing stock, we must look at estates such as those in Nottingham on which there are pre-war and post-war houses. They are largely unmodernised. Some of them still have outside toilets, and modernisation is slow. I complained to the local authority about this and it said that it was short of funds. If I were a councillor and the local Tory MP complained to me, that is what I would say to him. However, we see there the hypocrisy that I spoke about in my intervention, because while complaining that is has a shortage of funds, the council is relocating its housing services department in a brand new luxury block of flats which cost £2.5 million.
I have no objection to such relocation, but to do it the council is taking £1.8 million out of the housing investment programme. Some £1.4 million of that was targeted for a housing association in Nottingham, but it will not now receive that money. A further £400,000 is being taken from housing receipts.
I do not mind the council complaining to me about a shortage of funds, but I object to the approach of offices before homes, at the same time as the Opposition Front Bench spokesman complains that the Government are not giving the councils more money. We are hearing the smooth words of the Opposition spokesman and they are covering up for the iron fist of the activists in the country. The Opposition motion is hypocritical and I ask all hon. Members to resist it.
§ Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North)
In debates over the last few months, I have listened with interest to the Minister and I have read some of the articles that h: has had published about the emerging consensus about housing that exists in the House. I concede that, in terms of some ideas, there is an emerging consensus and to some 214 extent that is welcome. In this debate we have heard a catalogue of problems for which no resolution seems to be in sight. It is questionable whether the emerging consensus of ideas is a consensus of action. We need a consensus of ideas that leads to action.
I shall not talk about homelessness or waiting lists, because those things have been well covered. One of the issues to which we must address our minds if we are to build up such a consensus is what to do about mortgage tax relief. We must ask ourselves what purpose it serves and how it can be used as an instrument of housing policy. The Minister quoted from today's leader in The Daily Telegraph. He omitted to quote from the leader a section that dealt with this very question. Speaking about the results of housing mortgage tax relief, the editorial said:This expression of sturdy individualism has been encouraged by mortgage tax relief; but the latter has had the unintended effect of driving up house prices and so, in the long run, the proportion of the nation's wealth invested in bricks and mortar, as opposed to more productive options.Clearly I am not going to try to work out the solutions to that problem in my contribution this afternoon, but we have to address it. The Minister was perhaps a little disingenuous in quoting only part of that leader.
In the time that is available to me, I want to discuss one type of housing provision which needs more attention and support. If we are to expand rented housing—I think there is a consensus that that needs to be done—how do we do so without repeating the mistakes of the past? A major part of the answer to that question is to involve the prospective tenants in the construction, design and thinking about housing. One way of doing that which I have been involved in that I think needs greater attention is the use of new build housing co-operatives that give people a say in where they live, the layout of the estate, the internal design of the houses and, more importantly, how those houses are managed and maintained.
For some years I was fortunate to work in the housing co-operative movement on Merseyside. My conclusion is that, with motivation, in many respects these schemes are visibly better than other forms of rented housing and some forms of owner-occupied housing. The results of tenants in co-operative control warrant some thought and attention.
At the moment on Merseyside there are some 24 new build housing co-operatives, and a further six which will be municipalised. I am pleased that some eight of those new build co-operatives are in my constituency. New build co-operatives prove that ordinary people — 800 on Merseyside—when given the opportunity, are capable of taking control of their housing and making a good job of it. They can control the development process and do something useful with it. It also shows that ordinary people can use professionals in a way that enriches their own lives and produces better schemes. The results are visibly better than other types of schemes both in overall effect and in detail.
It is important that housing co-operatives are essentially, although not always, a local phenomenon. They tend to use local sites, providing hope to the area and a demonstrable belief in the area that is important. That also has important local consequences. It is quite a sight to see the Southdene or Cherryfield housing co-operatives in my constituency. They took over demolition sites and 215 new houses have sprouted like the phoenix from the ashes. In this local context, it is important that it keeps communities together and cements them.
Another important point in the community context is that the skills that ordinary people develop while working in those schemes can be used to do other things. A small but important example is that there are several members of the Southdene housing co-operative in my constituency who, by employing those same skills, have formed the Southdene credit union. Those people have drawn the same sorts of conclusions about local control. Many other initiatives can spin off from housing co-operatives.
I began by talking about the emerging consensus in housing. It is small, embryonic and tentative, and I do believe it is yet complete. But if we are not to repeat the mistakes we made in the past with rented houses, housing co-operatives should form a mainstream part of that consensus. It is the logical consequence of the involvement of tenants. It delivers good housing through co-operatives and it strengthens and controls local communities.
There are many more things that I could say on the subject and had planned to, but time does not permit. The Government must recognise that, if they want the co-operative system to do a job for them, in turn they have to do a job for the co-operative movement.
§ Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)
It is a shame that this is such a short debate, because housing is the issue that affects people most. The speeches by the Minister and the former Minister were an absolute disgrace in complacency, especially the assumption that market forces will solve the housing problem. If that is so, why is it that there are record numbers of homeless people? Why is it that tonight, as on every night of the year, people will be sleeping under the national theatre, in Covent Garden, around the tube stations in London and alongside the main roads? The Government, in their obsession with market forces and the triumph of the rich over the poor, are creating a hobo society. That is all they are trying to do with their housing policies.
§ Mr. Corbyn
No, I will not give way.
My own borough suffers from the contrasts of the type of society that the Government would like to create—the very expensive privately developed properties, often badly developed and badly built by incompetent property developers. Contrast that with the problems faced by the council in my borough. On the general waiting list of Islington council are some 9,500 people, of which 80 per cent. require bed-sit or one-bedroom accommodation. There are 10,000 people on the housing transfer list, mainly those who require family accommodation.
Those people who come to see me, councillors or my colleague the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) know perfectly well that the policy of sale of council houses means that the possibility of elderly people or families with small children moving out of tower blocks is very limited. Yet the Government have the arrogance to talk about housing choice. There is no choice for those people.
216 The Government also talk about homelessness. In 1986, 2,812 people applied to my borough council as homeless people. Of those, 887 were single people, many of them extremely vulnerable. No answer for those people has come from the Tory Government or the Tory party in the past, none come now or will come in the coming election. They know it full well.
§ Mr. Corbyn
The hon. Gentleman says, "Try the Rent Acts." Speaker after speaker from the Tory Benches proposed freedom for landlords to exploit people to the nth degree. They are proposing a return to Rachmanism. They are proposing all the horrors of the Rent Act 1957: nothing but homelessness and exploitation for the unemployed, the poor and the homeless.
I also want to talk about the house-building costs that the Government impose on local authorities. To build a four-bedroomed two-person property in my borough costs approximately £52,000. If one adds to that the gross debt charges over 30 years that the council has to incur, we are talking of a cost of over £150,000 for that property. If the Government are serious about getting council houses built—I very much doubt that they are—they should look at the debts forced on local authorities by the system of local authority finance.
The Government say they are concerned about housing, so I will give a couple of figures about the housing investment programme bid and the amount allocated to the borough of Islington to deal with its housing problem. In 1980–81, the council bid £60 million and was granted £47 million, or 79 per cent. of the bid. In 1983 it was granted the same percentage. In 1985–86, the council bid £81 million and was allocated £29 million. For the current year it has been allocated only 24 per cent. of its bid. The Government have the impertinence to describe the council as not meeting the housing needs of the people of the borough. It is they who are responsible for policy towards local government and for the levels of homelessness in this country.
The investment bid application for 1987–88 stated:Islington's housing is dominated by two contrasting realities. On the one side, there are the Council's attempts to maintain, improve and expand the housing stock in its ownership. This is an over-riding priority if Islington is to meet the ever-increasing and desperate demand for decent homes from existing tenants".That is quite correct. It is good stuff and it is correctly put. Then I look at the property pages of the local newspaper. I listen to what the Tory party says about the choice of housing and the choice of buying. An example on one of those property pages is a newly converted top floor, one-bedroom flat in Bryantwood road N.7, which is offered at £55,000. On the second page of the paper, a former council house in the borough of Haringey sold under the right to buy is now on sale for £86,000. That is way beyond the reach of people in housing need.
In London, £45 million is being spent this year on bed-and-breakfast accommodation for the homeless—the very people who are now being expelled from those bed-and-breakfast hotels to make way for the tourist season. This night and every night, people will continue to sleep on the streets. The police will threaten street sleepers with the Public Order Act 1986, telling them they must move out of the way because they look untidy. I wish that the House could be lobbied by all those people who are completely homeless. The complacency and arrogant 217 smug smile of the Minister would be removed by the sight of those people demanding their rights: a roof over their heads.
§ 7.1 pm
§ Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)
As we say in our motion, the supply of good quality, affordable housing is one of the indispensable conditions for a full, happy and healthy life. That is as true for the old-age pensioner looking for decent sheltered accommodation as it is for a young child growing up and taking his first opportunities in life. That understanding of a basic need is endorsed by all the organisations that subscribe to most of the motion before the House, from the Association of Metropolitan Authorities to the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. It is a proposition endorsed by almost everybody in the country, apart from the people who occupy the Conservative Benches. By their words and actions, they have demonstrated that they regard the Government and their agencies as no longer being involved, except in the margins, in the provision of housing accommodation generally for the people of this country. That policy was announced by the right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkins), when he was Secretary of State for the Environment, to the Housing Consultative Council when he said that it should concentrate on the provision of housing only for people in special need.
Every Government since the war, and many before the war, accepted the general duty of the state to provide and encourage housing of good quality — except this one. The facts, as well as the words, speak for themselves. For instance, in 1978–79, local authorities spent a modest 0.63 per cent. of gross domestic product on providing new council housing to rent. Yet under this Government, by 1985–86 the same authorities had been reduced to spending a miserable 0.16 per cent. of GDP on new investment in housing. An almost imperceptible part of the wealth of the country is devoted to people in housing need.
Last year, the number of homes built to rent for people in need was the lowest peacetime figure since 1924. It was the lowest figure since John Wheatley was Minister of Housing. Just to emphasise the switch in philosophy on housing among the Conservative party, one can put the figures another way. Last year, the Government built one house for every 10 council homes provided by Harold Macmillan when he was Minister of Housing and Local Government. In 1978, the last full year of Labour government, we were completing about 2,500 council homes for rent every week. By 1986 that number, under restrictions of subsidy and capital expenditure, had fallen to 600 a week.
What we got from the Minister was the Tory housing GT model. I call it the GT model because it is just gimmicks and tokens. For the loss of almost 2,000 homes a week to rent—100,000 homes a year—we have had talk of a right to rent. But when the Minister talks about a right to rent, he is talking about a fantasy, using a phrase he stole from the Labour housing group. The Government have had eight years in office, but what are the achievements of the new initiatives?
The Minister talked about the number of organisations that could build homes for assured tenancies. We have not been against assured tenancies, but I have to tell the Minister and the House that the Government have provided an average of about two homes per week under 218 the assured tenancy scheme—enough to count on two fingers—to try to make up for the loss of 2,000 homes a week as a result of cuts in public expenditure and restrictions on local authorities. Quite deliberately, through the withdrawal of subsidy, the amount of housing available to rent has been reduced. It is no answer to tell those people that they can either go out and buy or look for housing on the private market.
The Labour party supports the desire and the right of people to own their own homes. We always have done and we always will. However, for some people—about one third of our population—that will never be practical or possible, particularly for the 3 million people on the dole. Those people are equally entitled to housing of good quality.
Our charge against the Government is not just that they have failed to discharge their duty to provide housing; it is even more serious. They no longer regard themselves as having a general duty to house at all. That was certainly confirmed by the Minister this afternoon.
That dereliction of duty led to 100,000 families being accepted as homeless in 1986. It led to 275,000 families applying to be treated as homeless last year. In our capital city and booming financial centre it has led to a contrast in housing standards that is more akin to the big cities of Latin America than to the London we love.
Penthouses are selling on the River Thames for figures measured in millions of pounds, but 25,000 people in London have to live rough or in grossly unsatisfactory accommodation. Sometimes they have river accommodation as well but it is usually a cardboard box or a bench. That is the contrast that has been brought about. In London, it has led to 6,000 families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation nightly at a cost of £26 million a year. That is enough to pay the running, maintenance and building costs of 5,000 new homes. That is a policy of sheer economic lunacy, as well as inhumanity.
If one wants to glimpse Tory housing policy for those in need one does not need to look any further in London than Westminster city council—the Tories' aristocratic jewel of local authorities—and to those who operate the policy of the lunatic raving Right. On the Elgin and Walterton estates in Westminster, there are 700 council homes for rent, in an area of acute shortage of housing to rent. Yesterday I met Mr. William Rae. He is aged 83 and has lived on that estate for over 50 years. For 48 of those years, he lived at 50, Walterton road, first as tenant of a private landlord but later with the council as his landlord. Not many years ago, he moved to another property in the same road, just a few doors away. He now faces eviction by Westminster city council as a direct result of central Tory housing policy, carried on by the enthusiastic practitioners in Westminster.
Mr. Rae has been told that 150 council tenants will be evicted from the Walterton estate into other accommodation so that their homes can be sold to the private sector. On the Elgin estate, about 100 people will be dealt with in a similar way. People such as Mr. Rae, who fought in two world wars, will be forced to move out of their homes to make way for private development. In the city of Westminster, where the sale of bedsits is booming, those council homes could be sold for about £70,000 for bedsits and about £87,000 for single-bedroom accommodation. 219 Never again in Westminster, in the centre of the bed-and-breakfast industry, will people be able to rent at affordable prices. As a result of Tory policies, those homes will be lost for ever and the need for housing will increase in London.
The reason is that the raving Right of Westminster are carrying out the raving policies of Whitehall, although Westminster has the capital receipts which have been frozen. It has been forced to cannibalise its council accommodation in order to keep it going. Mr. Rae, this 83-year-old gentleman who would like to stay where he is, went to a Westminster council meeting to protest. One of the leading Tory councillors on Westminster council described Mr. Rae as "one of a ragbag of extremists". His extremism is that he fought in two world wars and he has lived in the same road for almost half a century. He likes living there, he likes his neighbours and the close-knit community; but to the lunatic Right of the Westminster city council he is apparently an extremist.
Mr. Rae, at the age of 83, does not want to exercise the right of which the Government amendment speaks, to buy his own home. If Mr. Rae wants to stay put and fight against the Tory council in Westminster and not exercise his right to buy, the committee of Westminster city council has got him. At the meeting to which Mr. Rae went, the committee approved the following resolution:That proceedings for recovery of possession be taken where necessary in respect of tenants on the Walterton and Elgin estates submitting right-to-buy applications after 1 April 1987 in accordance with paragraph 5.6 of this report.The ultimate in Tory housing policy is that, in the centre of a city where people are clamouring for homes to rent or buy at prices that they can afford, in a city where bed-and-breakfast hotels are booming, where people sleep in cardboard boxes, Westminster city council, in the central stream of Tory housing policy — the policy of privatisation—is about to evict 250 tenants to sell off parts of its estates in order to keep the council going, not to provide affordable housing, but to raise the money to maintain the rest of the estate.
We in the Labour party say that the party which believes that the Government should get out of housing is the party that should get out of government.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Richard Tracey)
The Government welcome an opportunity for debate on housing, because housing is important, at both the local and the national level, and it is only right that it is debated regularly. My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction has been listening closely to all that has been said in the debate, as I have, and we shall study closely the points that have been made.
One would imagine, from some of the remarks of Members of the Opposition, that the Government's housing policies would be very unpopular. We had the archetype of that kind of speech from the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), but we have become accustomed to hearing that speech from him. As Government Members know, our policies are not unpopular. Our housing policies are very popular; so popular that the Opposition parties, particularly the Labour party, are busy trying to adopt parts of them.
The hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Raynsford) nods. He claimed to have to played a part in the conception of 220 one of our policies. He said that before he came to this House he had had discussions with my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young). Our policies are popular because the Conservative party believes in giving people the sort of housing that they want, rather than imposing on them some centrally dictated type and tenure of housing.
The main priority over the first years of this Government was to widen the opportunities for home ownership, because that is what most people want, and we have been outstandingly successful. Public sector tenants were given the right to buy their homes, and since 1979 over 1 million council, new town and housing association houses and flats have been sold. I am sure that the electors will be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne for pointing out so clearly this afternoon the policies of the Liberal party, as stated by the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Meadowcroft), the housing spokesman for the so-called alliance.
A series of low-cost home ownership initiatives have made it possible for more young people to become home owners. Since 1979, 4 million households have become owner-occupied for the first time. About 65 per cent. of dwellings are now owner-occupied, compared with 57 per cent. in 1979 when the Labour party left government.
It would be wrong, as some have done, to represent our housing policies as being concerned exclusively with the promotion of home ownership. As my hon. Friend the Minister said, we have been working hard to improve the lot of the tenant. We have developed, and recently extended, the concept of assured tenancies. New mechanisms have been devised to allow much greater input of private sector resources into the public sector. In the Housing Act 1980, the Government introduced the first statutory charter of rights for public sector tenants. Through the priority estates project and Estate Action we have encouraged improved local management of tenanted estates. We intend to go further.
The Housing and Planning Act 1986, which I was pleased to pilot through the House with my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Construction, encouraged further innovations in forms of tenure and management. The hon. Member for Fulham talked about housing associations, which the Government rate very highly. The Government have provided resources in 1987–88 to allow for 22,000 new association houses to be rented or bought.
Many Labour Members have talked about the problems of homelessness. I should correct two common misconceptions about homelessness. The first is that the much-quoted figure of over 100,000 households with no roofs over their heads is not correct. Those people have been accepted by local authorities under the homeless persons legislation and they have been housed mostly in permanent accommodation.
The second misconception is that the rise in the number of households accepted as homeless by local authorities is a direct result of cuts in public sector resources. That is certainly not true. The causes of homelessness are complex. It has to do with the supply of housing, especially the decline of private renting, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne said today, as he has on many other occasions.
Private renting flourishes in every other part of the free world, helping the homeless, as much as the young and the job seeker. Homelessness is the extreme development of 221 the monopoly of public housing, which inevitably creates—[Interruption.] I advise Opposition Members to listen and they might learn—rationing and queues.
But the reasons for homelessness go wider than that. It has much to do with social factors, such as the increasing incidence of divorce. Britain has the highest divorce rate in Europe, except for Denmark. Young people are leaving home earlier. Today's patterns of migration and the general loosening of the structure and cohesion of family life are also causes. [Interruption.]
The Opposition may dispute my reasons for homelessness, but the fact that homelessness is caused by social factors does not mean that the Government have any intention of washing their hands of the consequences. We have launched a major study by the University of Birmingham's centre for urban and regional studies. We need to improve our information about the homeless if we are to deal seriously with the problem.
The supply of housing in Britain has increased significantly. Since 1979 the total number of dwellings in England has increased by 7.5 per cent., from 17.5 million to 18.9 million. Private sector house building completions in England in 1986 were 142,000, the highest level since 1973, when, incidentally, we last had a Conservative Government.
We recognise that the overall increase in supply does not mean that there are not shortages of particular types of accommodation in son-le areas, but those shortages could be eased drastically if better use were made of existing dwellings in the public and private sectors.
I commend to the House what has been said this afternoon by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton. He talked about monitoring schemes being run by the London borough of Bromley and others. Under those schemes tenants may receive cash to help them to buy a home in the private sector and so create a vacancy for the council. I am happy to tell the House that the Department has commissioned research into that matter which is progressing well, but it is a little early to give its initial results.
My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Shelton) talked about the anomalies that seem to exist in the account given by various boroughs of empty dwellings. Local authorities are asked to provide details of their empty council dwellings on their housing investment programme submissions. They are asked to show those that are vacant for more than six months, one year or two years. This year we shall ask local authorities to show separately their squatted dwellings, and that should help to resolve the problem that was identified so clearly and graphically, particularly in the London borough of Lambeth, by my hon. Friend.
This afternoon we have heard something about the condition of the housing stock. This was raised at an early stage by the hon. Member for Leeds, West. Over recent years we have recognised that more money needed to be spent on maintaining the existing housing stock, and more money is being spent. Spending on home improvement grants, although lower than in 1983 and 1984, was still £400 million last year, about five times the level of the last year of the previous Labour Administration. Let us not forget that that was also the year when the Liberal party kept the Labour Government in power.
Total expenditure on maintaining the private sector stock is running at about £10,000 million a year. Similarly, local authorities are, rightly, spending more of their 222 resources on the repair and maintenance of their stock — over £2.5 billion out of capital and revenue in 1985–86. The number of local authority and new town dwellings renovated each year has increased by 120 per cent. since 1978, to 135,000 in 1986.
As is inevitable in a housing debate, we have heard complaints from the Opposition of cuts in public sector resources on housing, particularly resources for capital investment. Let me draw attention to the local authority areas of three hon. Members who have spoken. I must point out to the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) that 18 per cent. arrears of the rent roll exists in the borough of Islington—£6.17 million. Let us hear no more about a lack of resources from him.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) talked of a lack of resources. In Liverpool the arrears amount to 13 per cent. of the rent roll—£7.67 million—and 11 per cent. of the housing stock is unoccupied. The hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) said that his authority was short of resources, but Manchester is 9 per cent. in arrears on its rent roll.
This has been an interesting debate. There is clearly a measure of agreement between us and some Opposition Members on some issues, but on others there is no meeting of minds. We do not underestimate the problems that exist, but our policies are designed to create a housing market with real choices in all sectors, to make the most effective use of public sector funds and to unlock the huge resources in the private sector. That is the best way forward. I commend to the House the amendment in the name of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.
§ Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—
§ The House divided: Ayes 179, Noes 240.225
|Division No. 147]||[7.28 pm|
|Adams, Allen (Paisley N)||Cocks, Rt Hon M. (Bristol S)|
|Alton, David||Cohen, Harry|
|Archer, Rt Hon Peter||Conlan, Bernard|
|Ashdown, Paddy||Cook, Frank (Stockton North)|
|Atkinson, N. (Tottenham)||Cook, Robin F. (Livingston)|
|Bagier, Gordon A. T.||Corbett, Robin|
|Barnes, Mrs Rosemary||Corbyn, Jeremy|
|Barron, Kevin||Craigen, J. M.|
|Beckett, Mrs Margaret||Crowther, Stan|
|Bell, Stuart||Cunliffe, Lawrence|
|Benn, Rt Hon Tony||Cunningham, Dr John|
|Bennett, A. (Dent'n & Red'sh)||Dalyell, Tarn|
|Bermingham, Gerald||Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (L'lli)|
|Bidwell, Sydney||Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'ge H'I)|
|Blair, Anthony||Deakins, Eric|
|Bray, Dr Jeremy||Dewar, Donald|
|Brown, Hugh D. (Provan)||Dixon, Donald|
|Brown, N. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne E)||Dobson, Frank|
|Brown, Ron (E'burgh, Leith)||Dormand, Jack|
|Bruce, Malcolm||Douglas, Dick|
|Buchan, Norman||Dubs, Alfred|
|Caborn, Richard||Duffy, A. E. P.|
|Callaghan, Rt Hon J.||Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G.|
|Callaghan, Jim (Heyw'd & M)||Eadie, Alex|
|Campbell, Ian||Eastham, Ken|
|Campbell-Savours, Dale||Evans, John (St. Helens N)|
|Canavan, Dennis||Fatchett, Derek|
|Carlile, Alexander (Montg'y)||Faulds, Andrew|
|Carter-Jones, Lewis||Fields, T. (L'pool Broad Gn)|
|Cartwright, John||Fisher, Mark|
|Clark, Dr David (S Shields)||Flannery, Martin|
|Clarke, Thomas||Forrester, John|
|Clay, Robert||Foster, Derek|
|Clelland, David Gordon||Foulkes, George|
|Clwyd, Mrs Ann||Fraser, J. (Norwood)|
|George, Bruce||O' Neill, Martin|
|Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John||Park, George|
|Golding, Mrs Llin||Patchett, Terry|
|Hamilton, James (M'well N)||Pendry, Tom|
|Hamilton, W. W. (Fife Central)||Pike, Peter|
|Harrison, Rt Hon Walter||Prescott, John|
|Healey, Rt Hon Denis||Radice, Giles|
|Heffer, Eric S.||Randall, Stuart|
|Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)||Raynsford, Nick|
|Holland, Stuart (Vauxhall)||Redmond, Martin|
|Home Robertson, John||Rees, Rt Hon M. (Leeds S)|
|Howarth, George (Knowsley, N)||Richardson, Ms Jo|
|Howell, Rt Hon D. (S'heath)||Roberts, Allan (Bootle)|
|Howells, Geraint||Roberts, Ernest (Hackney N)|
|Hoyle, Douglas||Robertson, George|
|Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)||Robinson, G. (Coventry NW)|
|Hughes, Roy (Newport East)||Rogers, Allan|
|Hughes, Sean (Knowsley S)||Rooker, J. W.|
|Hughes, Simon (Southwark)||Ross, Ernest (Dundee W)|
|Janner, Hon Greville||Rowlands, Ted|
|Jenkins, Rt Hon Roy (Hillh'd)||Sedgemore, Brian|
|John, Brynmor||Sheerman, Barry|
|Johnston, Sir Russell||Sheldon, Rt Hon R.|
|Kennedy, Charles||Shore, Rt Hon Peter|
|Kirkwood, Archy||Short, Ms Clare (Ladywood)|
|Lambie, David||Short, Mrs R.(W'hampt'n NE)|
|Lamond, James||Skinner, Dennis|
|Leadbitter, Ted||Smith, C.(Isl'ton S & F'bury)|
|Leighton, Ronald||Smith, Rt Hon J. (M'ds E)|
|Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)||Snape, Peter|
|Lewis, Terence (Worsley)||Soley, Clive|
|Litherland, Robert||Spearing, Nigel|
|Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)||Steel, Rt Hon David|
|Lofthouse, Geoffrey||Strang, Gavin|
|Loyden, Edward||Straw, Jack|
|McCartney, Hugh||Taylor, Matthew|
|McGuire, Michael||Thomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)|
|McKay, Allen (Penistone)||Thomas, Dr R. (Carmarthen)|
|MacKenzie, Rt Hon Gregor||Thompson, J. (Wansbeck)|
|McNamara, Kevin||Thorne, Stan (Preston)|
|McTaggart, Robert||Tinn, James|
|McWilliam, John||Wainwright, R.|
|Madden, Max||Wallace, James|
|Marshall, David (Shettleston)||Warden, Gareth (Gower)|
|Martin, Michael||Weetch, Ken|
|Mason, Rt Hon Roy||Welsh, Michael|
|Maxton, John||White, James|
|Maynard, Miss Joan||Wigley, Dafydd|
|Meacher, Michael||Wilson, Gordon|
|Meadowcroft, Michael||Winnick, David|
|Michie, William||Wrigglesworth, Ian|
|Mikardo, Ian||Young, David (Bolton SE)|
|Millan, Rt Hon Bruce|
|Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)||Mr. Frank Haynes and|
|Nellist, David||Mr. Ron Davies.|
|Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon|
|Aitken, Jonathan||Blackburn, John|
|Amess, David||Body, Sir Richard|
|Ancram, Michael||Bonsor, Sir Nicholas|
|Arnold, Tom||Boscawen, Hon Robert|
|Ashby, David||Bowden, A. (Brighton K'to'n)|
|Aspinwall, Jack||Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)|
|Atkins, Rt Hon Sir H.||Boyson, Dr Rhodes|
|Atkins, Robert (South Ribble)||Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard|
|Atkinson, David (B'm'th E)||Brandon-Bravo, Martin|
|Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Vall'y)||Bright, Graham|
|Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)||Brittan, Rt Hon Leon|
|Baldry, Tony||Browne, John|
|Banks, Robert (Harrogate)||Bryan, Sir Paul|
|Batiste, Spencer||Budgen, Nick|
|Beaumont-Dark, Anthony||Bulmer, Esmond|
|Bellingham, Henry||Burt, Alistair|
|Bendall, Vivian||Butcher, John|
|Benyon, William||Butler, Rt Hon Sir Adam|
|Bevan, David Gilroy||Butterfill, John|
|Biffen, Rt Hon John||Carlisle, John (Luton N)|
|Biggs-Davison, Sir John||Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)|
|Carlisle, Rt Hon M. (W'ton S)||Jessel, Toby|
|Cash, William||Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey|
|Channon, Rt Hon Paul||Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)|
|Chapman, Sydney||Jones, Robert (Herts W)|
|Chope, Christopher||Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine|
|Churchill, W. S.||Kershaw, Sir Anthony|
|Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)||King, Roger (B'ham N'field)|
|Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)||Knight, Greg (Derby N)|
|Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe)||Knox, David|
|Clegg, Sir Walter||Lang, Ian|
|Cockeram, Eric||Lawrence, Ivan|
|Conway, Derek||Lee, John (Pendle)|
|Coombs, Simon||Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)|
|Cope, John||Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark|
|Cormack, Patrick||Lester, Jim|
|Couchman, James||Lightbown, David|
|Critchley, Julian||Lilley, Peter|
|Dickens, Geoffrey||Lloyd, Sir Ian (Havant)|
|Dicks, Terry||Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)|
|Dorrell, Stephen||McCrindle, Robert|
|Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J.||MacKay, John (Argyll & Bute)|
|Dover, Den||McLoughlin, Patrick|
|du Cann, Rt Hon Sir Edward||Major, John|
|Dunn, Robert||Malone, Gerald|
|Dykes, Hugh||Maples, John|
|Emery, Sir Peter||Mates, Michael|
|Evennett, David||Mather, Sir Carol|
|Fallon, Michael||Maude, Hon Francis|
|Farr, Sir John||Mitchell, David (Hants NW)|
|Fenner, Dame Peggy||Monro, Sir Hector|
|Fletcher, Sir Alexander||Moore, Rt Hon John|
|Forman, Nigel||Morrison, Hon C. (Devizes)|
|Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)||Moynihan, Hon C.|
|Forth, Eric||Neubert, Michael|
|Fowler, Rt Hon Norman||Norris, Steven|
|Fraser, Peter (Angus East)||Onslow, Cranley|
|Fry, Peter||Oppenheim, Phillip|
|Gale, Roger||Osborn, Sir John|
|Galley, Roy||Ottaway, Richard|
|Gardner, Sir Edward (Fylde)||Parkinson, Rt Hon Cecil|
|Garel-Jones, Tristan||Patten, J. (Oxf W & Abgdn)|
|Gilmour, Rt Hon Sir Ian||Pattie, Rt Hon Geoffrey|
|Glyn, Dr Alan||Pawsey, James|
|Goodhart, Sir Philip||Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth|
|Gorst, John||Pollock, Alexander|
|Gow, Ian||Porter, Barry|
|Gower, Sir Raymond||Portillo, Michael|
|Grant, Sir Anthony||Powley, John|
|Greenway, Harry||Proctor, K. Harvey|
|Gregory, Conal||Pym, Rt Hon Francis|
|Griffiths, Sir Eldon||Raison, Rt Hon Timothy|
|Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N)||Rees, Rt Hon Peter (Dover)|
|Ground, Patrick||Renton, Tim|
|Grylls, Michael||Rhodes James, Robert|
|Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom)||Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon|
|Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)||Ridley, Rt Hon Nicholas|
|Hampson, Dr Keith||Ridsdale, Sir Julian|
|Hannam, John||Rippon, Rt Hon Geoffrey|
|Harris, David||Roberts, Wyn (Conwy)|
|Harvey, Robert||Robinson, Mark (N'port W)|
|Haselhurst, Alan||Roe, Mrs Marion|
|Hawkins, C. (High Peak)||Rossi, Sir Hugh|
|Hawksley, Warren||Sainsbury, Hon Timothy|
|Hayes, J.||St. John-Stevas, Rt Hon N.|
|Hayward, Robert||Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)|
|Heathcoat-Amory, David||Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')|
|Heddle, John||Shelton, William (Streatham)|
|Henderson, Barry||Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)|
|Hickmet, Richard||Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)|
|Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.||Silvester, Fred|
|Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)||Sims, Roger|
|Holland, Sir Philip (Gedling)||Skeet, Sir Trevor|
|Howard, Michael||Speed, Keith|
|Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A)||Speller, Tony|
|Howarth, Gerald (Cannock)||Spencer, Derek|
|Howell, Ralph (Norfolk, N)||Spicer, Jim (Dorset W)|
|Hubbard-Miles, Peter||Squire, Robin|
|Hunter, Andrew||Steen, Anthony|
|Irving, Charles||Stern, Michael|
|Jenkin, Rt Hon Patrick||Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton)|
|Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)||Waldegrave, Hon William|
|Stewart, Andrew (Sherwood)||Wall, Sir Patrick|
|Stewart, Ian (Hertf'dshire N)||Waller, Gary|
|Stradling Thomas, Sir John||Walters, Dennis|
|Sumberg, David||Wardle, C. (Bexhill)|
|Tapsell, Sir Peter||Watson, John|
|Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)||Watts, John|
|Thomas, Rt Hon Peter||Wells, Bowen (Hertford)|
|Thompson, Patrick (N'ich N)||Wells, Sir John (Maidstone)|
|Thorne, Neil (Ilford S)||Whitfield, John|
|Thornton, Malcolm||Winterton, Mrs Ann|
|Townend, John (Bridlington)||Winterton, Nicholas|
|Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)||Wolfson, Mark|
|Tracey, Richard||Woodcock, Michael|
|Trippier, David||Yeo, Tim|
|Trotter, Neville||Young, Sir George (Acton)|
|Twinn, Dr Ian||Younger, Rt Hon George|
|van Straubenzee, Sir W.|
|Vaughan, Sir Gerard||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Waddington, Rt Hon David||Mr. Tony Durant and|
|Wakeham, Rt Hon John||Mr. Richard Ryder.|
§ Question accordingly negatived.
§ Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 30 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.
That this House believes that as many households as possible should have the opportunity to benefit from owning their own home and that for those who are unable to buy or who do not wish to do so there should he a real choice of rented housing both in terms of type and location of dwelling and of landlord; and congratulates Her Majesty's Government for pursuing policies which give people not only the housing they need, but also the housing they want.