HC Deb 10 February 1987 vol 110 cc175-261 4.15 pm
Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland)

I beg to move, That this House believes that it is an obligation for any responsible and caring Government to ensure that there is a fit home available to buy or rent for every household in the country; believes that such an objective is a social and economic priority which cannot be achieved by market forces alone, which lead to increased prices for housing and land for those seeking a home; recognises that the objective can only be achieved by a combination of private and public provision; and therefore calls for a reversal of present policies, which have failed to meet the objective, which are leading to a decline in the overall quality of the housing stock and failing to increase it at a rate sufficient to meet the needs of the people of Britain, and which are increasing homelessness.

Mr. Speaker

I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister. Many right hon. and hon. Members have expressed a wish to take part in the debate. As yet, I have no authority to limit speeches to 10 minutes between 7 o'clock and 9 o'clock, but I hope that hon. Members will bear that in mind. If they do so, they can all be called.

Dr. Cunningham

The Labour party has chosen to debate the deteriorating housing situation in Britain today because of the fundamental importance of the social and economic issues involved. After seven years of Conservative policies it is widely recognised that a housing crisis exists and that there is an alarming increase in homelessness. Major problems of housing shortage, deteriorating homes, and absence of any real choice are apparent in rural areas, towns and inner cities alike. The decline in the nation's housing is outpacing existing programmes of restoration in the private and public sectors. The cost of mortgages means that many people cannot afford to buy a home, and increasingly, families doing so cannot meet their repayments.

The huge and increasing gap between the cost of houses in London and the south-east and the cost in other parts of the country is preventing some people from taking up work and is adding to the difficulties of employers, particularly in the public sector. Government policies on house building, finance and interest rates are making a difficult situation much worse for millions of families.

There is a lack of any strategy for improving inferior housing, and no serious attempt to deal with defective housing, much of which results from policies of system building and high rise Rates introduced by earlier Conservative Administrations. There is a scandalous growth in bed and breakfast accommodation, which is not only a wholly unsuitable way to house families but a grossly inefficient use of public money.

Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton)

The hon. Gentleman should not be allowed to get away with that. Does he not realise that the biggest drive for system building was under Mr. Richard Crossman?

Dr. Cunningham

I do not recognise that, because it is not true.

Mr. Latham

Of course it is true.

Dr. Cunningham

System-built housing and high-rise flats as a policy were initiated by the right hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph) when Minister of Housing and Local Government in a Conservative Government, and the incoming Labour Government in 1964, having assessed the situation, terminated the additional subsidy in 1967, having recognised the weaknesses of the system. The hon. Gentleman's intervention was completely in error.

The situation in many houses in multiple occupation is a disgrace. The Department of the Environment's own report on houses in multiple occupation, published as recently as 23 January, describes a scandal. Approximately four fifths of all surveyed houses in multiple occupation were assessed by surveyors as unsatisfactory on at least one of three measures — management, occupancy, and amenity provision. Only a quarter of them were assessed as being of a good standard. Nearly three quarters of tenants lived in one room. Only 39 per cent. of tenants had access to a full range of adequate amenities. Overall, 80 per cent. of all such houses had a means of escape which was, to quote the report, "defective, inadequate or nonexistent", which is a clear breach of fire regulations. The reality is that the Government stand indicted today for pursuing policies which are divisive and unfair.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

Does my hon. Friend not agree that almost as scandalous as the revelations in the report was the response of the Housing Minister to those revelations, which was revolting in its complacency, stating for example that the report indicates that houses in multiple occupation do a useful job in many towns and cities, providing relatively cheap housing, furnished accommodation and a lack of restriction which is popular with some tenants?

Dr. Cunningham

I agree with my hon. Friend. He is absolutely right. The Minister of State's response, as set out in his press notice from the Department of the Environment, was disgracefuly complacent about the problem of people living in houses in multiple occupation. An examination of the past seven years shows that Government policies have actually exacerbated problems, and made difficult situations much worse. Problems resulting from short-sighted planning and defective construction are also being neglected. No attempt is made to be fair in terms of financial support either. Massive cash reductions for public rented housing contrast starkly with unlimited tax relief for those on very high incomes.

These major failures in housing policy will result in the increasing misallocation of public and private finance and considerable damage to the building and construction industries and their suppliers. Worst of all in any decent civilised and wealthy country is the social cost, misery and deprivation. These costs — economic and social — are costs on everyone. They are bills that the nation cannot afford, from a Government that the nation cannot afford. Our motion today does not suggest that the existing problems are all the fault of the existing Government. It does suggest that present policies are making things worse for millions of our fellow citizens and that the country as a whole is disadvantaged as a result.

The Government's amendment blandly ignores the seriousness of the situation, reflecting not only the complacency of the Conservatives but a lack of responsibility and of caring. There is an abundance of evidence to support the Labour party case, much of it in the Government's own reports and statistics. Reports from voluntary organisations — Shelter, SHAC and CHAR—confirm our view and are highly critical of Government policy. The Building Employers Confederation, the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, NEDO, the Duke of Edinburgh's inquiry into British housing, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, the Audit Commission, the Institute of Housing, the Archbishop of Canterbury's Commission—we could build houses with the volumes of evidence, reports and inquiries, all highly critical of present and past policy failures.

The criticisms highlight the incompetence of Conservative policies on local government finance, their unfairness in taxation, loss of opportunities for growth and employment and a lack of urgency in responding to the problems. In spite of all the evidence, the Government have abdicated responsibility, apparently in the naive belief that market forces will solve these problems. The Prime Minister's extreme views on public services and her determination to eliminate collective provision are the root cause of much failure in current housing policy and the misery which results.

Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)

The hon. Member talks about abdication of responsibility, but is there not an abdication of responsibility by the London boroughs which have allowed their rent arrears to run to 20 per cent of total rents due?

Dr. Cunningham

No one on this side of the House defends inefficiency in local government, as I and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) and others made clear as recently as last weekend in Leeds. Since the hon. Member for Bolton North-East (Mr. Thurnham) is talking about arrears, let me remind the hon. Gentleman of some of the worst offenders in the case of arrears in payments to local government. The Conservative council at Winchester is owed by a single client £742,000 from the year 1985–86.

Mr. Thurnham

Name the client.

Dr. Cunningham

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman knows who the client is. It is the Secretary of State's right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services. The same right hon. Gentleman's Department owes Salford council £100,000; Chester-le-Street district council—my home town — £330,000; Luton council £300,000—

Mr. Neil Kinnock (Islwyn)

Are we glad the hon. Gentleman asked this question.

Dr. Cunningham

— Manchester £100,000; Wandsworth — Conservative controlled — £125,000; Ealing £265,000. If the hon. Gentleman is interested in arrears and debtors, I suggest that he table some new questions to the Secretary of State for Social Services.

Mr. Laurie Pavitt (Brent, South)

I would like my hon. Friend to add Brent, which was Conservative controlled until last May. Brent had a colossal amount of arrears which the new Labour administration now has to clear up.

Dr. Cunningham

That is absolutely true, and they have to clear it up on the basis of a Conservative budget which has been rate-cut by the present administration.

The Government have followed a deliberate and consistent policy of reducing the money available to councils to build new houses and repair and renovate their existing stock. The value of housing investment programmes is now only 28 per cent., in real terms, of the 1979 value. Allowing for the perversely restricted use of councils' own capital receipts, actual spending in real terms is 59 per cent. of the level of 1979. Government policy has not only reduced the borrowing provisions by 72 per cent., it has prevented those councils that wish to from making up that drastic reduction by using their own money raised from sales of houses and land. That is how perverse Government policy has become.

These cuts have reduced council house completions from over 66,000 in 1979 to just over 18,000 in 1985–86. Housing association programmes have also been reduced. In England the newbuild figures were 16,275 in 1979 when Labour left office and 9,039 in 1985–86. Rehabilitations are also down in that sector, from just over 17,000 in 1979 to over 11,500 in 1985–86.

So much for the claim of Ministers to be pro the housing associations. It is true that private sector house building has increased in the same period from about 140,000 to 150,000 a year. But, overall, the completion of new homes is down substantially, by about 100,000 each year compared with the Labour Government's performance. Realistically, houses for owner-occupation anyway can never on their own solve the problems of those who cannot afford to buy. In this same period the number of households accepted as homeless has doubled, from 56,750 in 1979 to an estimated 103,700 last year. But the actual number of households who regard themselves as homeless has reached the staggering total of more than 250,000 under this Government. The severe shortage of adequate, affordable, fit housing is causing the crisis.

There are regional variations in homelessness, but it is concentrated particularly in London and the south-east. In 1986, of all households accepted as homeless, 44 per cent. were from the Greater London area. In some parts of the country, again particularly London and the south-east, there are insufficient lettings available to house the homeless. The use of bed and breakfast, hostels, hotels and other short-stay accommodation has increased significantly. Published data updated by preliminary results show approximately 7,500 households in bed-and-breakfast accommodation alone. Of these, over 6,150 are in Greater London. Current individual examples include 885 in Tower Hamlets, 402 in Haringey and 980 in Camden.

Mr. Eric S. Heifer (Liverpool, Walton)

My hon. Friend has rightly stressed the increase in homelessness. Is he basing that figure on the designation of homelessness in the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977? If so, the homelessness is greater.

Dr. Cunningham

My hon. Friend is right. I am basing the figure on the provisions of that Act; I said that those accepted and registered as homeless exceed 100,000, but that the real total is more than 250,000 households.

Families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation have created a new form of waiting list. In some parts of London there is no indication when or if households in temporary accommodation will move into permanent housing. For example, the current waiting period for the bed and breakfast case in Camden who needs a four-bedroom home is at least four years. Some councils cannot say when a household will be made an offer.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

Can the hon. Gentleman tell the House how many vacant properties there are in those local authority areas run by the Labour party, which have been mentioned in the latest Audit Commission report? What does he, as a Labour Member and as the Labour environment spokesman, intend to do about those authorities and the wasted housing assets that exist in those areas?

Dr. Cunningham

I shall come to that in a few moments because it is an important question. Suffice it to say for the moment that the number of vacant tenancies in local authority control is the smallest of any sector as a percentage, and is falling.

The hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) has mentioned Labour authorities. We recognise that there are problems. Indeed, the leader of the Association of London Authorities, Councillor Margaret Hodge, wrote to the comptroller of the Audit Commission on 4 February, seeking help and co-operation from it in rectifying the weaknesses in the management systems of the authorities concerned. We welcome that positive response.

On vacancies in London, the hon. Gentleman and Ministers on the Treasury Bench have good cause to consider what one London borough is doing. It is keeping deliberately vacant nearly 1,000 houses which are in good condition. The council will not let them be occupied unless they are bought. This is a borough with almost 200 homeless families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, almost 1,000 families on the waiting list, and almost 6.000 families wanting a transfer. It is the Conservative-controlled borough of Wandsworth.

The use of temporary accommodation is increasing at an alarming rate. Figures for families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation in England four years ago were 3,270 and today are an estimated 11,000. Several thousand more households are in hostels and other temporary accommodation. Last week the Secretary of State's solution was to run up as many hostels as quickly as possible to house these people".—[Official Report, 4 February 1987; Vol. 109, c. 985.] That was the nasty, inadequate, uncaring response of the Secretary of State, but it would not be a cheap one to the British economy or to the taxpayer. It would be a very expensive expedient, because the average cost of bed-and-breakfast accommodation to a local authority in London is £9,500, compared to the annual loan charges on the construction of a new two-bedroom dwelling of only £7,700. In other words, it is cheaper to build new houses or even to acquire existing houses than to go on putting people into this absymal accommodation.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Does my hon. Friend agree that there would be more of a public outcry over the appalling position of people living in bed and breakfast accommodation if the media showed more interest? Has my hon. Friend looked at the Press Gallery and seen the minimal amount of interest in the debate?

Dr. Cunningham

I share my hon. Friend's disappointment at the lack of interest in what is by any test a national crisis in housing.

There are numerous examples of statutory overcrowding. In some cases, whole families live in one room in temporary accommodation. Also, wholly inadequate amenity provision and substandard fire precautions abound. There is no overall standard for bed and breakfast accommodation, although some London Labour boroughs are working towards a base minimum. The Institute of Housing says that bed and breakfast costs are £30 million a year and are rising. There is little specific assistance to councils through rate support grant; therefore, they must effectively meet the bill themselves.

Ministers argue repeatedly that the homelessness crisis can be solved by bringing empty council homes into use. The facts are that 2.3 per cent. of council stock is vacant, and the total is falling; 4.2 per cent. of the owner-occupied and private rented sector stock is vacant, over 500,000 homes; the biggest culprit of all, with the highest percentage of vacant stock as a landlord is—guess who — Her Majesty's Government, with 6.9 per cent. of Government property vacant, and that percentage is rising.

Mr. Marlow


Dr. Cunningham

I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman.

Most council dwellings are vacant for only short periods during changes of tenancy or for repairs. However, 27,000 have been vacant for more than a year. The evidence shows that most of those are concentrated in London, sometimes the products of early municipalisation policies. By far the majority are already in planned renovation programmes. Those not in such programmes require additional resources to renovate them at a faster rate which is not available from the Government because of their present policies. Many of these houses are already let to short-life users, the homeless. They are let on short-life terms to housing associations or on other initiatives, even though they are officially recorded as vacant.

The housing that is unfit to live in will remain boarded up until it can be brought up to the minimum standard. Cutting council investment, restricting the use of capital receipts, stopping the acquisition of homes to rent, cutting housing association programmes and the recent restriction by the Minister of State, for no good reason, of leasing arrangements between local authorities, the private sector and housing associations, all restrict the better management by local authorities of these problems.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

The hon. Gentleman has explained to the House his assessment of the reasons why houses and flats in the public sector remain empty. Will he now enlighten the House as to the extent to which he believes that the Rent Acts are the cause of empty houses and flats in the private sector or give us his explanation why they remain empty?

Dr. Cunningham

I shall come to the hon. Gentleman's point in due course.

Mortgage payers, too, are in difficulties and mortgage defaults and arrears are increasing alarmingly. While the number of loans has increased by about one third since 1979, the number of families in arrears has risen sixfold. When the Government were elected, mortgage arrears in excess of one year were too insignificant to record. They now exceed 14,000. The number of houses repossessed from owner-occupiers last year was estimated at more than 20,000—virtually 10 times the number in 1979.

Mortgage payers got a consistently better deal under the Labour Government than they have had since 1979. Mortgage interest rates have averaged about 13 per cent. under this Government and have reached a crisis level of 15 per cent., not once but twice. Only the Government refuse to recognise the need to build more houses and significantly to improve the rate of renovation of private and public housing. But the Government's own statistics indicate a shortfall of homes fit and available of about 1 million. The Government's own research on the local authority housing stock condition showed a staggering backlog of £19 billion for renovation and repair of council houses in England alone. That was the Government's own report.

The Audit Commission believes that this total is growing at the rate of £900 million a year. Figures for essential rehabilitation of private houses are even higher. That is one of the reasons why they cannot be let, but there are others, and I shall come to that in a moment.

Traditional private rented accommodation continues to decline despite claims from successive Ministers about shortholds and assured tenancies. There are opportunities for new initiatives between local authorities and developers on mixed tenure schemes, and councils are showing increasing interest. We welcome this. We support assured tenancies, shared ownership and mixed tenure schemes as ways of increasing the options available to those seeking homes.

We have a way of putting the Government's record to the test on all these matters. It is at the Greenwich by-election. Greenwich is an inner London borough with a mix of outer London borough housing problems which is quite typical of the housing crisis in London. The problems of the borough well illustrate the effects of eight years of Tory housing policy. Homeless households accepted under the Act have increased fivefold since 1982 from 320 to 1,500 in the current year. Over 90 per cent. of homeless cases in Greenwich are local Greenwich people. The waiting list has increased 50 per cent. in the last four years from below 10,000 in 1982 to over 16,000 currently. Many families in Greenwich are now seriously overcrowded and have no prospect of moving to better accommodation.

House prices have doubled in the past four years. The cheapest three-bedroomed house in the borough now costs £55,000 and requires an income of at least £15,000 for a first-time buyer to be able to purchase it. Ordinary people in the borough of Greenwich, even if they are lucky enough to have a job, do not earn that sort of money, and people who in the past would have been able to buy can no longer do so.

The borough has 4,000 unfit private sector dwellings — another reason for the decline in the private rented sector—some of which need as much as £10,000 each in major repairs to make them fit. The private rented sector is collapsing in the borough of Greenwich as landlords convert dwellings and sell for a substantial capital gain. The clearest example of this is the Morden college estate, where no fewer than 900 private landlord homes are currently on the market for sale. That is another reason for the decline, in case the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) is still interested in responses to his questions.

The latest assessment is that £367 million needs to be invested in the borough's housing stock over a decade, which, allowing for inflation, requires an investment, on average, of £43 million per annum. There are extensive problems of system-built estates, too.

What have the Government done in Greenwich? They have cut housing subsidies to the borough by £13 million.

Government policy has cut housing investment in the borough from the 1979 average under the Labour Government of nearly £45 million at current prices. The Tories' housing investment programme allocation for the coming financial year, on the same basis, is £15.5 million — only one third of what it was eight years ago.

If the allocation had been kept at the same level the borough would have had an additional £200 million to invest in housing over the past eight years which would have built 1,500 new homes, given 5,000 more improvement grants, allowed for the protection of all the Morden college properties, replaced the windows of 7,500 dwellings, modernised 4,000 kitchens, re-roofed 5,000 dwellings and provided 8,000 dwellings with central heating. That is an indication of the damage done in the borough of Greenwich as a result of this Government's policies.

The Government have claimed that local authorities are not effective managers of council accommodation; that they are inefficient and irresponsible. Let us look at Greenwich.

Voids in the private sector in the borough are double what they are in the public sector—5 per cent. Current rent arrears represent only 5 per cent. of total income collected from council tenants. Praised by the Audit Commission as an effective, efficient, well-run authority, the borough has rehoused 2,600 homeless families over the last four years and has not spent a penny on bed and breakfast in doing so. The authority is progressive and pragmatic. It consults its customers. There are nearly 80 tenants' associations in the borough, and the housing service has 500 meetings with the public each year. It is a decentralised service operating through 13 local housing offices without screens or barriers between the public and the staff. It treats the question of equal opportunities seriously and believes that its staff and its policies must reflect the needs of all people in the borough. It works with other agencies, particularly housing associations and voluntary groups.

The borough is planning for the future, too. Under the last Labour Government, the council was building 450 council dwellings each year. Since 1982 the average has been 60, as a result of Government policy. The borough is organising now to produce 400 homes per year and is seeking to buy land and design new housing schemes for when a Labour Government is returned. Greenwich is a borough under quite left-wing political control but it collects its rates and rents and fills its empty houses. And it does it efficiently and I pay tribute to that,. I pay tribute to that, and so does the Minister of State, because that is a direct quotation from him when he was interviewed on the BBC television programme "This Week, Next Week" on 2 November 1986.

This is a council which any sensible Government would want to work with and not undermine; a council which is doing an excellent job for its community. Will Ministers from the Department of the Environment dare to put a contrary view to that of the Minister of State at the by-election in Greenwich? Will they go and argue against him? We will be waiting for them if they do—I can assure them of that—but I doubt that they have the guts to show their faces.

In the February edition of House Builder, Mr. Peter Short, the president of the House Builders Federation writes: Government Ministers can no longer be trusted with responsibility for housing". He goes on to say that under-provision of housing or its deterioration in both the private and public sectors will have increasingly severe effects on the efficiency of industry, while inadequate investment in the public sector stock and in the provision of housing in areas of need with which the market cannot deal will add to the decay of urban areas and the rise of homelessness—and he is right. Yet neither of these issues is adequately addressed—least of all, he says, by the Ministers responsible at the Department of the Environment.

The reality is that Ministers have abdicated those responsibilities. They have combined malice towards public provision with incompetence in administration. Their policies have failed and can only make an appalling situation much worse. A Labour Government will expand investment in housing, public and private, and allocate finance more fairly. A Labour Government will work in partnership with the building industry and local councils to improve people's homes and build more where necessary and, in doing so, create much-needed jobs. We shall strengthen tenant's rights and equal opportunities too. We will do these things because they are right—right for the people and right for the country.

4.51 pm

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Nicholas Ridley)

I beg to move, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof: 'welcomes the Opposition's long overdue recognition of the need to combine public and private provision in housing; commends the Government for taking steps to re-establish the right to rent; recognises that further progress in increasing choice and supply depends on re-creating a market in rented housing and harnessing private sector resources, and therefore rejects calls for more municipal housing which can only lead, as it has done in the past, to poorly managed, badly maintained unpopular estates provided at excessive public expenditure cost; and commends instead this Government's achievements in seeing one and a half million more homes built since May 1979, and in widening the opportunities for home ownership, so that there are now well over two million more home owners than in 1979, and in meeting housing needs in the most efficient and effective way.'.

I welcome this debate and a discussion of the issues in the first part of the speech of the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham). I rather lost him when he started to fight the Greenwich by-election. He might have been wiser to go down to Greenwich, because there are not many people here from Greenwich and certainly no one else in the Gallery was listening to him.

We on this side of the House are quite clear that everyone should be able to have a decent home, whether rented or owned. Everyone should be able to afford a home, and we will continue to ensure that no one need be homeless because he cannot afford a home. There are problems, but they are not the result of a lack of resources or an overall shortage of housing. They are a direct result of the lack of a proper market in rented housing and the inevitable inefficiencies that arise when we have a managed economy in rented housing. If we can create a true market in the rented sector, we will help not only those who now find accommodation through the homelessness legislation, and council tenants who now have very little choice in their housing, but those who do not fall within the priority need categories—young people looking for jobs, for example, or people whose job requires them to be mobile.

The figures issued by my Department, which the hon. Gentleman quoted, do not show the number of homeless people. They show the number of households which are accepted as homeless by local authorities under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 and given shelter. All the households in these figures have roofs over their heads, although after listening to the hon. Gentleman one would not think so. Fifty per cent of them move immediately into permanent, full-time accommodation. That did not exactly emerge with crystal clarity from what the hon. Gentleman said.

If we wish to debate homelessness, we ought to look at its causes. The number of households housed under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 is rising. Why? Fundamentally, the causes are social. They arise from changing values and expectations, and from the loosening of family ties. The break-up of marriages caused 19 per cent. of homeless acceptances in 1986—up from 15 per cent. in 1978. Thirty-nine per cent. became homeless because parents or friends would no longer accommodate them. There are rising numbers of illegitimate children. These were 17 per cent. of all births in 1984, up from 6 per cent. in 1961. One-parent families are now 13 per cent. of all families, compared with 8 per cent. in 1971. Young people are leaving home earlier and expect to be housed.

There is also the "Dick Whittington" factor.

Mr. Allan Roberts (Bootle)


Mr. Ridley

People move to London because they believe that there will be better opportunities there, that the streets are paved with gold. Dick Whittington had to trudge through Camden, where he left his cat, and Islington, where he heard the bells, but, being a good entrepreneur, he sensibly chose the City, rather than one of the Labour London boroughs. Although he became Lord Mayor of London, this was not by twin-tracking with Southwark council, and he was certainly not boosted by any "engines of growth".

We cannot control these social factors. We cannot force people to behave differently, nor do we wish to.

Dr. Cunningham

It is because of Government policy.

Mr. Ridley

The hon. Gentleman consistently misses the point. He does it on purpose. He is trying to say that homelessness is in some way the result of Government policy. He knows from those figures that it is the result of changing social practice, and it is about time that he acknowledged this to be so.

Dr. Cunningham

We have the incredible proposition by the Secretary of State that changing social conditions have nothing to do with Government policy and that the Government have no responsibility for what is happening. It is a preposterous thing to say.

Mr. Ridley

Now we have it. The Labour party would stop people from leaving home and getting divorced. What penalty will it bring out against one-parent families, because that is the implication of the hon. Gentleman's remarks?

Mr. Allan Roberts


Mr. Ridley

No, the hon. Gentleman does not ask good enough questions.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)


Mr. Ridley

I shall give way to the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson).

Mr. Anderson

Is the Secretary of State saying that the moving hand has written and that nothing can pull it back; that he has no responsibility for unemployment and for the collapse in house building?

Mr. Ridley

I should not have given way to the hon. Gentleman. Let me explain again. The cause of the rise of homelessness is the change in the way that people are behaving.

Mr. Allan Roberts

What about unemployment?

Mr. Ridley

I do not think that people's marriages break up because of unemployment. They break up because they are—

Mr. Roberts


Mr. Ridley

No, I have a lot to say. The hon. Gentleman would be better seen and not heard in the debate.

We cannot control these social factors. We cannot force people to behave differently. I do not intend to do so, nor do I wish to do so, but we can try to make people take a more realistic view of their prospects of getting a house. This year we are giving over £500,000 to bodies providing practical advice and help to the homeless. For example, through the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless Trust we fund a leaflet aimed at school leavers and other young people, but I suspect that, as always, social factors are stronger than the advice.

In addition, the demand for rented housing increases because for many people housing benefit means that the cost of housing is virtually zero. If a commodity costs little or nothing, demand is unrealistically high. Maintaining a separate household costs a certain amount, so there are costs involved, but housing benefit makes it easier for people who are in the lowest income groups to move away from home and be rehoused under the homeless persons legislation. [Interruption.] I am not complaining about this. I am merely explaining the reasons for homelessness. The Opposition are getting terribly over-excited, but I am merely telling them what the problem that we are debating is all about.

Nobody wants to keep unhappy families together. I accept that we have a responsibility to provide financial assistance at the bottom end of the market so that everyone can afford a home, but undoubtedly the benefit system increases demand for rented housing. That is why there is growing demand, but what about the supply? Overall, nationally there is no shortage of housing. Our projections of household growth in England to the end of the century show an increase in need averaging 100,000 per year. That is much slower than over the last two decades.

New building and conversions by the private sector are already proving more than sufficient to cover this amount. Last year private builders completed about 159,000 homes, not the 150,000 which the hon. Member for Copeland so meticulously misquoted. That is the highest level since 1973. There is also no shortage of dwellings overall, in either the owner-occupied or the rented sector. However, there is a serious mismatch in the rented sector. in that there are surpluses in parts of the north and shortages in parts of the south.

Mr. John Powley (Norwich, South)

My right hon. Friend makes a valid point about the social changes that have taken place. Does he agree with the view that I have formed over the past five to 10 years, that one of the problems is that we are a long way from making the most efficient use of our housing stock, in both the owner-occupied sector and in the public rented sector? In some cases one or two people occupy three-bedroom houses, and such inefficient use of our housing stock is part of the problem.

Mr. Ridley

My hon. Friend is right. I shall later cover that ground. The first thing to do is to make proper use of the houses that we have. The crucial difference is that there is a healthy market in one sector, the owner-occupied sector, but not in the other.

Mr. Roberts

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Ridley

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, but it will be the last time. He is rather keen to jump up and down.

Mr. Roberts

The Secretary of State talks about owner-occupied houses. Is he aware that fairly new estates of 30 to 40 houses built about a year ago by Wimpey in my constituency on land provided mainly by the local authority are standing empty because people have had to default on their mortgages as a result of sudden unemployment and hand in their keys? House prices are falling in that area because of unemployment. Do the Government not have some responsibility for those houses standing empty in the owner-occupied sector? Do they not have a responsibility for that kind of homelessness?

Mr. Ridley

I do not know the houses that the hon. Gentleman speaks about. Policies should be directed to bringing empty homes in the public and private sectors back into use.

Mr. Allan Roberts


Mr. Ridley

I think that the hon. Gentleman must have St. Vitus's dance. If he would sit quietly for about 10 more minutes he might learn something.

The market for owner-occupied housing is thriving and growing. Since 1979, over 2 million people have become owner-occupiers and 65 per cent. of houses in England are now owner-occupied. Under the next Conservative Government we hope that between 70 and 75 per cent. of households will be owner-occupiers. That is 1 million more home owners. That healthy market simply does not exist in the rented sector in this country. It exists in other countries.

The private rented sector in Britain has diminished by 75 per cent. since 1950. Everyone knows the reason for that, except apparently the hon. Member for Copeland, who was unable to reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow). The hon. Gentleman exhibited extraordinary evasion. He said that he would answer my hon. Friend later, but he did not do so. The reasons are the effects of 58 years of Rent Acts in destroying the economic case for investment in rented accommodation. That is the reason, not the reason given by the hon. Member for Copeland. The private rented stock has deteriorated and dwindled. There are now over 500,000 empty properties in the private sector, many of which could and would and should be used for rented accommodation. This has been allowed to happen because the Opposition have never dropped their vendetta against the private landlord. They have a heavy responsibility to bear. The problem of homelessness is part of it and should be laid at their door.

Dr. Cunningham

In view of what the right hon. Gentleman has said, will he explain why the fastest decline in the private rented sector occurred after the passing by a Conservative Government of the Rent Act 1957? That measure decontrolled rents and led to Rachmanism. That led to the biggest decline in the private rented sector.

Mr. Ridley

The hon. Gentleman is often rusty on these matters. Rachmanism was caused by the Rent Acts, not by decontrol. He should know that. The decline has been continuous since 1919. At some times it is faster than at others.

Mr. Marlow

Is it not possible that my right hon. Friend is right in his answer, in that in other countries in the European Community there is a large private rented sector without any Rachmanism?

Mr. Ridley

Rachmanism is about ending tenancies that are controlled in order to make better use of property by selling it in a buoyant market. If tenancies are not controlled, Rachmanism cannot happen. The results of the Opposition's doctrinaire approach that all housing should be provided by the state, by central and local government, have become clear even to them.

They have begun to acknowledge the immobility, the soullessness and the misery of the municipal tower block and the monolithic council estate. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) for his courage in recent speeches in trying to put people's needs in front of the ideology of public ownership. I hope that the majority of his colleagues will come to agree with him. Young people looking for jobs or starting out, people who are not in priority categories and have not spent time on a housing waiting list, have virtually no chance of finding rented accommodation.

Moreover, conditions are often bad. Much of the public rented stock is in poor condition because the rent paid is not adequate to pay for the maintenance and repairs that are needed. There is a chronic lack of mobility because there is no market. Many council estates add bad and insensitive management to bad and insensitive architecture—a grisly legacy of the 1960s and the god of municipal social engineering. There is, thank goodness, an emerging public consensus that the experience of public sector building for rent is that much of it has been an expensive failure.

Despite the fact that the Labour party recognises that public sector provision and management are often inadequate, its answer to the problem is to throw more public money at public sector house building. The hon. Member for Copeland did it again today. This is simply nonsense, and it is nonsense for three reasons. First, as I have said, in many areas there is a surplus of council housing, not a shortage. Secondly, we must learn from the mistakes of the past. Lack of choice in the public sector is just as off-putting to people as is the poor quality of much of the rented stock. The combination of the two makes people feel trapped and they wish to escape. The dominance of public rented accommodation in some areas has driven out the enterprising.

Mr. Nick Raynsford (Fulham)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Ridley

I shall give way once. I have more to say and I wish to let other hon. Members have an opportunity to take part in the debate.

Mr. Raynsford

If the right hon. Gentleman is in favour of choice, will he accept that the 7,000 families in bed-and-breakfast hotels would like the choice of a rented council house? They would have that choice if the Government allowed the councils the money to build houses.

Mr. Ridley

I should not have given way, because I was just about to deal with finance and that would have answered the hon. Gentleman's question.

Public renting in some areas has driven out the enterprising. It has driven out those who create jobs and those able to exercise housing choice. It has contributed to the social imbalance and decline of inner-city areas. More council house building is not the right solution

Thirdly, the hon. Gentleman, as always, puts politics before arithmetic. There never could he enough public capital for a massive programme of council house building, on top of the need to repair all the council-owned properties that have fallen into disrepair. Additional public capital becomes available where councils have sold dwellings to tenants. The policy of selling council houses to tenants has generated £10 billion for reinvestment in the stock. The hon. Gentleman is wooing Tory local councils by promising to let them spend their accumulated capital receipts.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

Why do the Government not do that?

Mr. Ridley

I must tell the hon. and learned Gentleman that the greatest receipts do not correspond to the greatest needs. The friend of the hon. Member for Copeland, Mrs. Margaret Hodge, the leader of Islington council, to whom he referred today—someone with whom I am not always in full agreement—pointed out the folly of the hon. Gentleman's ways in an article in January's edition of New Socialist. The article said: The Front Bench's attitude is unhelpful. They mean to retain the extensive capital controls of the 1980 Act and simply to allow Councils the free use of capital receipts. As it is the low spending, low need and mainly Tory authorities which hold capital receipts they would get the first bite of a fixed spending total.

That is quite correct, and that is why, within the total provision for local authorities for housing investment of £2922 billion next year, we are continuing to maintain the proportion of accumulated receipts that councils can spend at 20 per cent. per annum. This enables us to keep allocations higher and target the money to areas of higher need in the inner cities, where the need is to maintain and repair the existing stock. Those with the receipts can use them over time, but we have put the high need areas first. Inner-city authorities can improve their entitlements by selling houses to tenants and by releasing land to private developers, but too many are reluctant to do so.

The hon. Member for Copeland, despite the pressures on him, has not proposed an end to the controls on borrowing. He knows that to do so would wreck the economic strategy of his right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley). Allowing councils free use of capital receipts would inevitably increase borrowing, because most of the capital receipts have already been used to repay debts or to lend internally. That means that if authorities with receipts use them there will be less within the borrowing ceiling for everyone else. The hon. Gentleman ought to know that. Indeed, it must be awful to have to learn one's mathematics from Margaret Hodge. I am sorry for the hon. Gentleman.

The planned level of capital spending by local authorities has been increased by £390 million over this year's plans, partly because of the increased receipts under the right to buy. There is £75 million available for Estate Action next year—an increase of £25 million. It has a specific remit to tackle the disrepair and improve management of the most difficult inner-city estates. We are giving the Housing Corporation a gross allocation of £705 million next year, which will allow it to give approval to some 22,000 new homes for rent and for sale. Within that, its allocation for new fair rents and shared ownership projects in housing stress areas are being increased by 9 per cent. to £390 million, and we have asked it to give priority to help for homeless families and people looking to move for jobs.

I come back to the point that the problem of the rented sector is the absence of a market. Demand is not constrained by price, and supply is not directly related to demand. Under these circumstances, the substitute for the market is waiting lists and queues. Housing is no exception.

I must tell the House about when I bought a shirt in Moscow. There is only one shop in Moscow that I was allowed to go to, and when I arrived there I had to queue for 20 minutes. When I reached the head of the queue I was asked, "What sort of shirt would you like? You can have a large or small one." I said that I wanted a large one. I then went to the bottom of the next queue and queued for a further 20 minutes. When I arrived at the head of the queue I was given a docket, and I paid the specific number of roubles for the shirt. I then had to go into a third queue, and when I got to the head of that queue 20 minutes later I exchanged the docket for the shirt. That is what happens if there is not a market.

The economy of planning and allocation, which the Opposition always favour, is inefficient. It means that people have to wait. It means that people do not get what they want because there is no choice. In housing the problem is more serious. People suffer more if those who manage the system add to the inefficiency of the planned economy their own peculiar brand of inefficiency which the Audit Commission has found in certain authorities run by the hon. Gentleman's friends.

Such a system also means rules. Politicians must categorise and judge priorities between those who are genuinely homeless, those who have been a long time on the waiting list, those who are intentionally homeless, and those who do not fall into priority need categories. There has to be rationing. It is impossible to have a system where large numbers of people can demand a free home, more or less where they like, and be entitled to get one immediately. That is why we need more hostel accommodation. We need it so that those who manage the public rented stock can put people in temporary accommodation while they assess their need for housing. We also need it so that people who are not in priority need categories at least have the opportunity, so far as possible with the present crazy rented system, to find accommodation.

Within the Housing Corporation allocations we have given an extra £20 million specifically for new schemes, mixing 30 per cent. grant with private finance, to build self-contained units for families in bed-and-breakfast accomodation, and young job movers. This, together with a £10 million of challenge funding, should generate £100 million of housing investment. My hon. Friend's announcement of last Thursday that we are prepared to approve similar schemes for local authorities' funding of housing association schemes in co-operation with the private sector will enable councils further to facilitate that sort of development.

I must express astonishment at the fact that the hon. Member for Copeland never mentioned the Rent Acts, particularly when my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne pressed him on the matter. I am astonished that he did not turn his guns on the way in which certain local authorities manage and administer their responsibilities under the homelessness legislation. In 1977 the House gave local authorities the responsibility for housing the homeless. The vast majority carry out that function efficiently and well, but the greatest problems are here in London, and those problems are compounded by the inefficiency of certain local authorities, especially the famous eight Labour boroughs. They will be recorded in Labour folklore in the same way as the Tolpuddle martyrs, the Shrewsbury three, and now Kinnock's eight dented shields and all. They are not carrying out their duties to house the homeless effectively because of their gross inefficiency, bad management and misuse of resources.

The hon. Gentleman spoke at the weekend on his visit to Leeds about "statutory minimum standards" and his "Quality Commission". What is the point of that if it is not to deal with Kinnock's eight? He should stop beholding the mote that is in his brother's eye, and consider the beam that is in his own eye.

Dr. Cunningham

The Secretary of State is wrong. I made no reference to statutory minima. The right hon. Gentleman is quoting someone else's speech. As the right hon. Gentleman is referring to the Audit Commission report, may I refer him to page 15, in connection with money for housing in London, where it says: Expenditure on housing improvements in London needs to be increased, yet capital allocations for housing to local authorities in Greater London have fallen from £1.5 billion in 1979–80 to under £500 million last year: and London's share has fallen from 35 per cent. to under 30 per cent. That is what the Audit Commission says about the right hon. Gentleman's policies on housing finance in London.

Mr. Ridley

It is extraordinary that the hon. Gentleman does not know his own policy document. I read the Labour party's "Future of Local Government" and quoted precisely from it.

Mr. Allan Roberts

It was the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham).

Mr. Ridley

There are so many dogmas that I might have been mistaken about which was which. If it was not in the hon. Gentleman's speech, it was in the Labour party's policy document. It does not matter which: the hon. Gentleman cannot get out of it.

The hon. Member for Copeland talked about resources and quoted from the Audit Commission's report. There are massive resources, but they are being misused. For example, in September last year, in Tyne and Wear 128 households were in temporary accommodation, 49 of them in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. At the same time, there were nearly 6,296 empty council houses.

Moving to London, let us look at the record of Kinnock's eight. The House should listen. In Islington there are 2,271 empty council-owned properties, 5.5 per cent. of the stock—the eighth worst record in the country. Hackney has 3,111 empty properties, 6.8 per cent. of its stock—the fourth worst in the country. The hon. Members for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) and for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) are here. Newham has 2,420 empty council-owned properties, 7.8 per cent. of the stock—the second worst in the country.

Mr. Heffer


Mr. Ridley

I shall not give way. How can Labour Members complain about homelessness and about there being nowhere for people to go when all those grossly inefficient Labour councils are keeping all those houses empty?

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)


Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)


Mr. Ridley

I shall not give way. These councils take an average of 20 weeks, going on for half a year, to re-let houses, compared with authorities elsewhere with similar problems which take on average between nine and 13 weeks, and even that is too long. Wandsworth takes only three weeks. The hon. Member for Copeland says that these councils are short of financial resources.

Dr. Cunningham

No, the Audit Commission says that.

Mr. Ridley

I do not care who says it. Quite apart from the hundreds of millions of pounds—

Dr. Cunningham

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Ridley

No, I must get on.

Dr. Cunningham

Give way.

Mr. Ridley

I give way for the last time.

Dr. Cunningham

As the Secretary of State does not care about the first reference from the Audit Commission's report, perhaps he will care about the second, in paragraph 58 of its conclusions, when, referring to inner London authorities, about which the right hon. Gentleman was talking, it said: Inner London authorities cannot be expected to tackle their local housing problems without at least unfettered access to future capital receipts, the ability to fund capital expenditure from revenue and reasonable confidence about the level of borrowing approvals over the next few years. Additional borrowing will also be necessary". Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that recommendation by the Audit Commission?

Mr. Ridley

It is a mistake. I am coming to all that.

Dr. Cunningham

What is the answer?

Mr. Ridley

May I be allowed to make my speech and give the hon. Member for Copeland the answer in what I shall say? The hon. Gentleman wants me to give the answer before I give it. That is ridiculous. He says that councils are short of financial resources.

Dr. Cunningham

The Audit Commission says that.

Mr. Ridley

I accept that the Audit Commission says that those councils are short of funds.

Mr. Allan Roberts

Do not quote it at us again.

Mr. Ridley

I accept what the hon. Member for Copeland says, that the Audit Commission says that the councils are short of financial resources. Quite apart from the millions of pounds that those councils could save if they eliminated inefficiency, and quite apart from the £20 million that the Audit Commission says they spend on "gesturing and zealotry", they have borrowed enormous amounts of money through creative accounting devices. They are now starting to pawn the council tenants' lavatories and bath taps. Ealing has pawned them for £30 million. How can those councils be short of money if they have done that? It is rich for the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook to accuse the Government of the "economics of the pawnshop." That is what happens in Kinnock's eight.

Those councils have allowed rent arrears to build up uncontrolled until they average 26 per cent. of their annual rent bills. I concede that these are some of the authorities that face the worst problems, but that means that they should be more than averagely competent in managing them. Even with the massive creative accounting resources at their disposal they seem incapable of tackling the real management task of housing people under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977.

Every night in London about 5,000 households are accommodated in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, yet there are 113,000 empty council-owned properties in England, nearly 28,000 of them in London. Why are they not being used? There is also money available in our housing allocations and through Estate Action to enable councils to bring empty properties into use, yet Lambeth and Brent have turned down special help from Estate Action to ease their homelessness problem. The one significant contribution that the Labour party could make to solving the problem of homelessness is to tell their friends in local government to stop their political interference and let their officers get on with the job of managing properly. The Labour party if failing the nation by its approach to homelessness. Indeed, it just does not care.

In the long run, we must create a market in rented housing based on a private sector response to demand. The interest is there. The resources are certainly there. With record levels of fixed investment in the rest of the economy generating economic growth, it is tragic that the rented sector is still the poor relation. The demand for rented housing is certainly there. The will is certainly here among Conservative Members. For the sake of all those who are looking for rented housing, I pray that the Labour party will shed its ideology and rise to the challenge. If the Labour party does not do so, we shall go ahead without it.

5.27 pm
Mr. Reg Freeson (Brent, East)

We have listened to a rather sad speech. I do not intend to follow it. It would be extremely difficult to do so and to comment on all the detailed convoluted nonsense in the speech. I shall, however, pick up some of the points that were made towards the end of the speech, because they are directly relevant to a matter on which I wish to concentrate.

The Secretary of State referred to Brent as an example of what should be done—and is not—to help homeless families. I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman is not up to date. I shall pick up some of his points, in which he was not only not in full knowledge of the facts but in which he contradicted statements issued by his Department. The right hon. Gentleman referred to the Estate Action programme, which has been rejected by Brent. Perhaps he will therefore explain to the House, to me and to Brent why press releases have been sent to me by the Government, as well as by Brent council, announcing the receipt of several million pounds jointly negotiated between Brent council and the Department of the Environment for just those special estates.

It is about time that these exaggerations, inaccuracies and misleading statements by the Government should cease, because they are a total denial of what is happening. The millions of pounds are being negotiated and they will be applied as the Secretary of State's Department and my town hall have told me.

In Brent, 800 to 900 families are in homeless family accommodation. The bulk of them are in bed-and-breakfast hotels. They have the "roofs over their heads" to which the Secretary of State referred earlier. Whatever may be the social causes of that homelessness, which the Secretary of State rather peculiarly sought to put to the House, there are answers to it now. Whatever the causes of homelessness, those answers consist—if the Secretary of State will listen to these important points, whether or not he will act upon them—of providing the capital and the revenue resources as well as good management to the local authorities concerned to provide the dwellings that those homeless families require.

The plain fact is that, in the local authority and housing association sectors, there has been a reduction of 40 to 50 per cent. in the capital required to build new homes and to purchase and modernise old rundown empty dwellings, including many Victorian dwellings in my borough and elsewhere, convert them into decent modern dwellings and rehouse homeless and other families. That capital is not being made available.

Reference has been made to the large number of empty dwellings. I do not know what the up-to-date figure is, but those dwellings are certainly not to be found wholly on those estates which the Secretary of State wrongly stated would not be improved by my local authority with the help of the Department of the Environment. They will be. However, scores of dwellings are standing empty and are deteriorating week after week, month after month and in some cases year after year, because the Secretary of State's Department will not give the local authority concerned permission to undertake the works on them because it considers that the unit costs are too high.

No matter how many times professional officers revise the schemes and put them forward, they are rejected. The schemes relate to single dwellings and to whole blocks of flats in my constituency that are standing empty and rotting. All that is required is for the DOE, with the Minister's permission, to put a stop to this disgraceful bouncing of schemes, month after month and year after year, and to get those dwellings put into decent condition and used for homeless families whose number is growing.

I shall now refer to one specific area of housing policy and to the somewhat misleading statement that was made last Thursday in the House by the Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction. I am glad to see that the Minister is now taking his place. In the first part of the statement, he said that he would introduce legislation to enable local authorities to do what the Housing Corporation already does in a few schemes—that is, to marry housing association grant to private capital and so draw in private capital to public housing. But even that aspect of the legislation that the Minister announced last Thursday was not accurately described.

The scheme will be a revenue scheme and not a capital grant scheme related to private investment. It will involve annual revenue moneys, and I have yet to see how that can be related to housing capital allocations, as the Minister then described; but no doubt we will learn more. However, I do not want to concentrate on that but on the main burden of the Minister's statement and the consultative document on the proposed legislation that he placed in the Library and which I have read several times.

It is already quite clear that, as a consequence of the statement on the proposed legislation, which announced a deadline at midnight last Thursday against any further private capital schemes being negotiated by local authorities, there will be a major reduction, not increase, in private capital coming into rented housing through the agency of housing associations and local authorities. My local authority—which is much criticised by the Secretary of State—has, like many others, negotiated over months with housing associations and with private sources of finance about £100 million-worth of guaranteed private money to be injected into housing association work. The Minister is putting at risk schemes that have been freely, sensibly and imaginatively explored negotiated by housing associations and local authorities throughout the country.

On Monday I had discussions with a welfare housing association which wanted to put up sheltered housing for the elderly. It cannot do so, although the plans have been approved, because the capital allocated to my borough by the Government through the Housing Corporation is not enough to allow it to proceed. Therefore, I discussed with the welfare housing association alternative ways of handling the financial problem. One of the ways that I discussed with the appropriate officer in the town hall was the possibility of the local authority giving a guarantee for a private loan to enable the association at least to buy the site which now stands a chance of being put on the market for private purposes in an area which is in great need of such welfare housing. If the welfare housing association does not obtain that site by March, it will no longer be available to it despite all the work that the association has done over many months to prepare that scheme for elderly people. Because of the midnight bar, the welfare housing association cannot get the local authority to negotiate that loan by way of a guarantee.

I shall give another, bigger example. Recently, in my borough, we have formed, on the initiative of two or three housing associations, building societies and the council, a housing trust called Homelease. Its purpose is to create, as it is entitled to, a trading company to buy private properties on the market that are in need of modernisation, repair and conversion so as to take families out of bed-and-breakfast hotels in Paddington and rehouse them in permanent accommodation. The housing trust required a guarantee to get the private funding. It was estimated that about £37 million had to be borrowed over the next three years or so to provide about 150 dwellings per year, decent family flats, for homeless families.

That is now at risk unless the agreement that the housing trust managed to scrape through by midnight on Thursday stands. Unless that stands, the housing trust cannot proceed and the whole exercise that took about 18 months to negotiate is at risk of collapsing. Even if that immediate scheme does not collapse, any future proposals will become subject to risk.

Two or three other housing associations have done the same thing. That scheme is not singular to Brent. It has been going on in London boroughs and cities such as Sheffield and other boroughs in a big way. It is something to be applauded, not to be knocked on the head and restricted as it is by all the conditions which have been laid down in the consultative document. I have read that document and it has been read by the National Federation of Housing Associations, by housing directors and building society representatives and others with whom I have been in touch. They have read it and have said that the criteria that the Government are introducing under the new control will make it extremely difficult—that is putting it mildly—for the schemes that have been negotiated to operate.

What is even more important at this stage is that it has killed off the morale of professional people who have spent weeks and months, and in some cases even years, negotiating such deals. What does the Minister or the Chancellor of the Exchequer—he is the man really behind this—think is going to be the effect on people in the private sector who have spent months of professional officers' time negotiating schemes of this kind, which have now been blocked? I too have been involved. We were fooled.

Last Thursday's statement was complicated, and when we got to the end I said to an hon. Friend beside me, "That is the key." The reality is not the liberalisation of local authority rights to put public money in with private money. The real and central theme of the statement and the legislation that is proposed is to stop local authorities and housing associations doing what they have freely negotiated to do, which is to get private money in on top of their public sector finance. I hope, no matter how strongly I am speaking now, that the Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction and other Ministers—I do not blame the Minister entirely; the Chancellor is behind it—will change their minds.

If they now have to commit themselves to the policy contained in the statement last Thursday at least let them adopt a liberal approach. If they do not, no matter how slow it may be in coming—it is a complicated subject to make a quick drama about—there will be a justifiable explosion of anger in the housing association movement, the building societies and other financial institutions which have willingly gone along and wanted to participate in and produce these joint schemes. For heaven's sake, let us get some sense and get away from the stupid Treasury ideology that drove the Department of the Environment to draft that statement last Thursday which will kill off the provision of housing for the homeless rather than encourage it.

5.42 pm
Mr. Timothy Raison (Aylesbury)

It is over 10 years since I took part in a housing debate in the Chamber. Listening to the right hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Freeson) brings a strong sense of deja vu and deja entendu. I remember that at one time I was a shadow spokesman on housing and the environment and the right hon. Gentleman was the Minister for Housing and Construction. I remember before that the protracted battles over the Housing Finance Act 1972 and I caught echoes of his familiar voice and ideas in what he said just now.

The right hon. Gentleman has been excessively crabbing about what the Government have been doing for the housing associations this year. I will not follow up his comments in detail but in the magazineVoluntary Housing of January this year there is an article entitled "Review" by Mr. Best. It says: The best news about funding through the Housing Corporation next year is that the mainstream fair rent programme will be bigger. He then goes on to say: in place of 14,400 rented homes in 1986–87, associations in England will provide some 18,320 homes for rent…The Housing Association Movement will easily clear its 'base line' of 20,000 rented homes next year. It cannot be said that the magazine, which after all is produced by people who know the subject, takes such a gloomy view as the right hon. Gentleman.

The picture today does not suggest that the overall state of our housing is in decline.. The hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) tried to say that it was so but the figures do not bear that out. There is a steady excess in the number of dwellings over the number of households. That has been maintained, as the recent figures and social trends confirm. Overcrowding has declined and amenities have improved. The number of houses with a bath or shower has increased. In 1979, 95 per cent. of houses had a bath or shower and by 1984 it was 97 per cent. The number of houses without central heating fell from 45 per cent. to 34 per cent. over that period—and so on. Clearly, there has been a steady improvement in the overall availability and quality of housing.

Mr. Allan Roberts

If that is the case, can the right hon. Gentleman explain why the Building Employers Confederation, not known for its support of the Labour party but rather for the Conservative party, wrote to us in a briefing for the debate today: There has also been a marked deterioration in housing conditions."? It says that there are only 200,000 starts per year—a cumulative shortfall of some three quarters of a million. As a result of this shortfall there has been a marked increase in homelessness. In England alone it now stands at 94,000 families. The Building Employers Confederation could hardly he accused of political bias.

Mr. Raison

I accept that its political leaning is in our direction, but it has an obvious interest in providing more buildings. Of course it will produce arguments to support that point of view.

Although I believe that the general picture is one of improvement, we all recognise that there are severe specific problems that must be tackled. The anxiety about homelessness, which has been considerable for some time, was obviously brought to a head, perhaps in an emotional way, at the sight of people living in cardboard boxes during the freezing weather conditions and so on. That is an important part of the subject of the debate and we would be wrong to shrug it off.

As I understand it, figures show that last March about 14,400 households were in temporary accommodation. As we know from the figures, there is a steady rise in acceptances as homeless. In 1978 53,000 households were accepted, in 1984 83,550 households were accepted and the figure for last year seems to be over 100,000. Of course that is a substantial figure, but most people would say that even more worrying than acceptances—after all, they were people who were housed—is the unknown number of people who were not eligible to be treated as homeless but who, nevertheless, were homeless. When my hon. Friend the Minister replies he may be able to give us more detail than I have been able to discover about the extent of the problem. We know that it is there, and we have to face it.

We know that it is a remarkably difficult problem. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, at the heart of this lies social change; changes in patterns of social behaviour. It is no good trying to duck that fact. The figures that I use are from the second quarter of 1986. They show that, among the homeless households accepted, 41 per cent. were cases where parents, relatives or friends were no longer able or willing to accommodate the people concerned. A total of 20 per cent. stemmed from the breakdown of relationships with partners. I do not know the figures for those who were not accepted but we can see something that must concern us and which is a difficult problem to tackle.

I do not think that we can say simply that everybody who becomes homeless, for whatever reason, has an absolute and total right to a house. The Opposition motion puts forward a programme designed to ensure that everybody is housed. I am not clear whether they are saying that there is either an absolute right to housing or an absolute duty to provide housing for every person. Perhaps we will hear more about that.

Mr. Allan Roberts


Mr. Raison

The hon. Gentleman, who is apparently a power in this realm, says, "Yes"—that the Labour party does say that.

Mr. Roberts

The Labour party believes that a decent home is a right, not a privilege, and that it should be provided so that it is available for everybody in the way that health care and education should be available. It is not a case of being able to buy if one is rich and being homeless if one is poor. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that when rich people have marital problems and separations it does not result in their becoming homeless.

Mr. Raison

We want to know, and perhaps we will discover from the debate, whether, when the hon. Gentleman says that the Labour party believes that everyone has a right to housing, it means to enforce that by a statutory right to housing, or what I suppose is technically more feasible, a statutory duty to provide housing for every person, whatever their conditions, who applies for it. I do not know whether it is Labour party policy. It is not enough to get up and say in a generalised way that everybody has a right. If the Labour party means that, presumably it will require, as I have said, either a statutory right comparable to the right to buy a council house or a statutory duty on local authorities to provide housing for everybody come what may.

Mr. Allan Roberts

In the Labour party's policy statement, "Homes for the Future" there is a whole section on the right to rent as well as the right to buy. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman should read our policy documents as assiduously as the Secretary of State does; he would then know that that was our policy.

Mr. Raison

If the Labour party has adopted the absolute right that I have suggested, the hon. Gentleman will find that he runs into great difficulties of cost and common sense. He would be embarking on an open-ended commitment which, in reality, it would be impossible to fulfil and which will, therefore, join the ranks of Labour's broken promises without doing much good for the people it is supposed to be trying to help. I do not believe that that is the answer, any more than I believe that we should regard housng as a kind of general social service. Obviously, there is a social service element in housing policy, but we should make much more progress if we considered housing primarily as an economic commodity which can be provided through the market rather than something to be regarded as a social service. That has been the experience of recent years and we should be foolish to move away from that. However, we have a problem and we must face it. The only answer to homelessness and the other remaining housing problems has much to do with finding ways of increasing the available housing stock, especially in places where it is most needed.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment was absolutely right to say that the impact of rent control legislation since the first world war has made life very difficult, although there were admirable motives behind such measures. We cannot read accounts of life in Victorian England and not be struck by the fact that one could always rent a reasonable house. There was no hassle about it. That facility has been destroyed by successive legislation. It is important to try to get back to that picture.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction and his predecessor have introduced various measures designed to liberalise the private rented market. I welcome those moves, but I think that we all accept that they have not solved the problem. We hope that the Government will introduce bold measures. People often say that we must wait for a consensus, but if we wait for a consensus, especially if we wait for the Opposition, we shall be well into the 21st century before anything is produced.

The Government must be bold. They must forget the fears of Rachmanism, which was a phenomenon of 30 years ago. We must take our courage in our hands and try to provide what many recognise as the most flexible form of housing. Therefore, I look forward to hearing my hon. Friend's reply to the debate, when I hope that he will be able to give us some encouragement.

Mr. Winnick

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Raison

No; I must get on.

The key to our housing policy in the next decade must be flexible housing. The tremendous triumph of the sale of council houses during the past few years showed boldness. Many people were very dubious about that bold policy, but I hope that that success will be copied in the private rented sector. However, I recognise that such a radical reform will not solve the immediate problem in the next few years. There are people who badly need rented housing of one kind or another. Of course, it is the homeless who must inevitably fall into that category. That leads us to the two questions of council housing and housing association housing.

I agree with the long-term objective of moving people out of council housing, provided that is what they want. We should not go so far as to dismiss council housing as a useful vehicle for providing new housing in the immediate future. Some parts of the country with housing needs are not stocked with old Victorian houses that can be divided, sublet, and so on. Aylesbury has virtually no residue of that kind of housing and there is little alternative at present to providing council housing for people who have that kind of need. I do not feel any deep abhorrence when I look at the council houses in my constituency. I do not object to the fact that the council has been providing new housing in my constituency. We should look at the matter pragmatically, rather than get caught in some kind of ideological hang-up.

We should look more towards housing associations to fill our housing needs. I welcome the step taken to provide a mix of housing association money with private sector money. Progress has been made in Wales in particular to that end. I think that the idea that housing association money can be stretched much further through that kind of partnership, with private sector housing money coming from the building societies and elsewhere, is of great importance.

Mr. Pavitt

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Raison


Nothing in housing will be a cure-all. The formula of the 30 per cent. element will work only in areas where there is some flexibility and the ability to meet higher rents. The January issue of Voluntary Housing made it clear that it is not appropriate for every part of the country. Nevertheless, what is being done is most exciting and positive.

Again, Mr. Best says: The combining of public and private finance has long seemed to us to be a key to getting more out of the tax-payer's contribution. This breakthrough is a vital starting point. It seems that we have something which my right hon. Friend has done a great deal to stimulate, and I give him my full backing.

There is a specific and serious problem of housing within the overall picture of a general improvement. We shall not solve that problem unless we get to grips with renting. The reform of the private rented sector is a crucial element but what I have said about the housing associations would make a substantial difference. I believe that the policies of my right hon. Friend point in the right direction, and I hope that he will be able to press on with them as rapidly as possible.

5.57 pm
Mr. Michael Meadowcroft (Leeds, West)

I commend the Labour party for the serious terms in which the motion is couched. I regret that it did not draw a better response from the Secretary of State. The Government's action is not only wholly at odds with expressed Government aims in housing but is also completely baffling even within Conservative philosophy.

Housing has suffered a cut of 60 per cent. That is the highest cut of all in real terms over the past eight years. I cannot understand why a Government who believe in good housekeeping would let the fabric of housing in this country decline so much that it requires far more money now to restore it even to minimum habitable standards. People have to try to cope with the deteriorating fabric of their accommodation. They feel hopelessly inadequate when they have to try to deal with it out of their own resources. It has become a serious social and financial problem. Each cut increases in real terms the amount that will eventually be required to restore housing to any kind of reasonable standard.

The Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction is aware of the problem of Reema buildings. Leeds has the largest number of such buildings, but around the country there are about 15,000 such dwellings. One of the problems is that no two blocks are exactly the same. That causes additional difficulties. Thousands of people still live in such houses, but we do not yet have a solution to the problem. If those houses have to he demolished, that will put further pressure on an already overcrowded housing market. So far as we can see, no effort is being made to solve the problem of housing and to consider whether the cuts will cause more expenditure later.

All parties are concerned about the number of empty houses at this time of housing need, and we are seriously hampered by Government policies. For example, the limit of 20 per cent. of capital receipts for reinvestment makes it difficult for local authorities to solve their own problems out of the money that they have gained from council house sales. One of the ways used by the Government to persuade reluctant Labour authorities to sell council houses was to tell them that the money would be available for their own capital spending, but that did not happen.

Mr. Conal Gregory (York)

Does the hon. Gentleman share the view of the September 1984 Liberal assembly? Would he deny the right to buy for those entering into a coalition, or does he share the view of the Government and of his hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) that that freedom should continue?

Mr. Meadowcroft

I hope that the House accepts that I am a fair man in these matters. I shall deal with the intervention of the hon. Member for York (Mr. Gregory) when I come to the question of rented accommodation If he feels that I have not, no doubt he will remind me.

In addition to the problem of the limitation to 20 per cent., we must consider the wholly inadequate housing investment programme allocations. I do not accept that the Dutch auction is the best way of dealing with HIP allocations; it can mean that councils greatly overbid because they are trying to get a higher allocation. Nevertheless, it is perfectly clear that the amounts being made available in areas of great housing need are simply inadequate. A further problem was the announcement last week of still further restrictions on private cash coming into that sector.

An article in today's edition of The Independent makes the point that the alliance-controlled authority of Tower Hamlets has been prevented from introducing a scheme that would have made some impact on the problem by housing 600 homeless families. That scheme has been caught by the Minister's midnight deadline of a few days ago. It is ridiculous for Ministers to express their worries about housing by making arbitrary decisions and introducing midnight deadlines, when many local authorities are trying, with the best possible motives, to solve their problems by drawing on private money.

Mr. Allan Roberts

The hon. Gentleman referred to Tower Hamlets being under Liberal control. Does he agree with the new alliance policies on homelessness in Tower Hamlets? In future, offers of accommodation for homeless families will be made irrespective of specified areas of choice.

Unlike other families, homeless families will be housed above the fourth floor in high-rise blocks. Furthermore, the existing standards governing the number of people per dwelling will be ignored, with the result that more people will be occupying each property.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept the alliance policy of making homeless families—most of them Bengali—live in high-rise flats above the fourth floor in overcrowded conditions that other families do not have to suffer? History has shown that it is in such flats that people are most likely to suffer racist attacks. Is that a good way of dealing with the problem?

Mr. Meadowcroft

None of the proposed ways of dealing with the problem of homeless families is ideal. However, I do not accept that there is anything to be proud of in the legacy left by the previous Labour council. The immediate solution to a huge problem may not be ideal by any means, but it may be the best available.

The hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) should realise that the fault does not lie with my colleagues in Tower Hamlets. They are rate-capped by this Government to the tune of £124 million, of which their officers now tell them £24 million will be required in the next year to house 1,500 homeless families.

Mr. Pavitt

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Meadowcroft

I have given way to the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts).

Mr. Allan Roberts

The right hon. Gentleman does not want to answer the point.

Mr. Meadowcroft

I am happy to answer the point. Twenty per cent. or more of Tower Hamlets' total resources is to go to house 1,500 families, so of course the council is keen to find a solution. The Independent article states that over 600 of those families—[Interruption.] I shall certainly not give way to the hon. Member for Bootle if he continues to chat away so discourteously.

Tower Hamlets had a scheme that could have housed more than 600 families, but that has been stopped by the Minister. If the council is forced into schemes that are less than ideal, I sympathise both with the council and with the families involved.

Mr. Pavitt


Mr. Allan Roberts


Mr. Meadowcroft

I give way to the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Pavitt).

Mr. Pavitt

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Before he was diverted by my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts), he made a powerful point about the arrogance shown by the Minister when at 4.30 pm last Thursday he set a deadline for midnight the same night. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Mr. Freeson) told the House, I managed to get the only available copy of the document in the Library to Brent by two minutes to midnight so that the year's negotiations for the housing assocations—which have been praised by the Government—could be signed before the deadline came into force.

Perhaps when the Minister responds to the pertinent point made by the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Meadowcroft) he will explain why he gave only seven and a half hours notice. Why were the housing associations, housing corporations, and housing co-operatives, all of which were affected, not given more time to follow up their negotiations?

Mr. Meadowcroft

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's remarks. In addition to answering that point, will the Minister tell us whether he will give his consent for schemes such as the Tower Hamlets scheme? Will he regard such schemes sympathetically?

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

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I am loth to display signs of the Bootle syndrome.

I, too, have seen the serious report in that eminently serious newspaper, The Independent. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that I have already looked into the matter and that this morning my officials spoke to council officers in Tower Hamlets? Is he aware that the scheme was some distance away from signature? Is he further aware that my officials have asked the officers of Tower Hamlets council to keep in close contact, so that we can see whether or not we can give consent to a modified form of the scheme? I am sure that he recognises that we are being eminently reasonable.

Mr. Meadowcroft

Reasonable, but not eminent, I should have thought. I appreciate what the Minister has said. It seems that elections work wonders.

A further huge housing problem is that of system building and high-rise dwellings. I am not desperately concerned at this point to say whose fault it was, but there is no doubt that for some years Governments of both colours put financial pressure on local authorities to build. I have often found it rather odd that local authorities that have paraded their independence and sought desperately to remain independent of central Government have allowed themselves to be forced into such building. Now they say, "We were not really independent. We were forced into building by central Government." It is a shame that more authorities did not hold out against building. It is not merely a question of hindsight, because some authorities saw well ahead that the outcome would be disastrous.

For posterity, let me quote a report from Leeds which goes back to 1906. Alderman Lupton, the Liberal chairman of the then housing committee, which was known as the unhealthy areas committee, wrote: The Committee consider that land is so easily attainable at a low price within a mile of the most crowded parts of the city, that it is quite needless to introduce flats…into Leeds; whilst there are objections to them on the score of want of privacy, as well as considerable difficulty in giving proper exercise to young children, who cannot come down from the upper storeys in high buildings, and are therefore shut up in the dwellings whenever their mothers cannot look after them. The same objection applies when one considers the case of the old and infirm We discovered exactly those problems 70 or 80 years later and we must face them still. The buildings are still with us in many respects—if not on our skyline, then in our ledgers where the debt charges will remain for many years to come. That applies particularly to the impossibility of coping with deck access dwellings, of which many still remain. Men and women in local government and in central Government, with the best of intentions, but still to disastrous effect, destroyed much improvable housing and replaced it with dwellings that undermined neighbourhoods and dispersed communities. For every three terrace houses demolished in Leeds, only one could he put back in the same place. People were spread around and had to travel greater distances so that communities lost much of their ability to manage themselves. There is no doubt that a policy of more gradual renewal, and the replacement of houses that were incapable of improvement, rather than their demolition, would have been far better.

One of the problems that came out in the Secretary of State's speech is that the Government always deal with units and bricks and mortar. They do not deal with homes. If one confuses houses with homes, one will never get the housing problem right. It is not just a question of building units. People must belong to a community. Bricks and mortar do not make a home. The solution to the problem must be based on all types of tenure, and not limited to either the public or the private sectors. The Centre for Environmental Studies report on the outer estates—one of the most optimistic documents for a long time — shows us how to deal with the legacy of the answers to the problems of the 1930s and 1940s, which have led to our current problems. Stockbridge village is one example; it has its problems but no doubt it will be improved upon in the next experiment of that type involving — [Interruption.] There are other examples as well, such as east Glasgow.

It is ironic that a memorial service was held today for Lord Stockton who, as Minister of Housing in 1954, was responsible for building 310,000 houses, of which 220,000 were council dwellings. After that time, there was a progressive switch from public sector building to private sector building. The disparity was not picked up by the Labour Government and building by Labour authorities tailed off, even into the 1970s. It is a pity that we do not have the same drive to make sure that a variety of housing is available as was shown in 1954.

The Conservative party regularly tries to make a simplistic equation between empty properties and homeless people. Many of the empty properties are simply unlettable. When I served on Leeds council for many years, in a three-party committee meeting the housing managers would provide a list of individual properties empty for more than three months. Committee members questioned why individual dwellings were on the list. The vast bulk in my area were Reema-type maisonettes. However desperate the people were, they would not accept them.

There is a mismatch in the housing area. The hon. Member for Bootle referred to the problems of Tower Hamlets, with its 1,500 homeless families. As the families have an average of five children each, the empty properties are generally smaller and are not suitable for them. Because of that mismatch, it is simplistic to link the statistics. We should not be throwing around figures and trying to link them; to solve the homeless problem we need to provide a variety of housing and choice, rather than simply forcing people into a particular type of tenure in a particular place.

There is an escalator in house: buying trends. Young people in Leeds buy a small back-to-back terraced house when they are first married. However, as they become better off, they might move to a through terrace or even a semi-detached. Later, when the children have moved away, they could go back to a smaller house. If one takes a piece out of the escalator, especially if it is the first step, people cannot get on it. That is the problem today and a change of policy is needed to deal with it. If we are to alter this awful categorisation of public and private, we need to make sure that houses are not identifiable as public or private. However, we have to deal with the attitudes of some developers.

I recall being part of a three-party committee that had discussions with developers in an attempt to persuade them to build a large estate of houses, with the object of the council then buying back 40 per cent. of those houses, scattered throughout the estate, to let to council tenants. It was hoped that in that way, the houses would not be identified as private or public. However, the developers would not do that, because they said that they would be unable to sell the private housing. I did not believe it, but that is what they said. The most they would agree to was to build separate cul-de-sacs of houses with separate access roads. If the Minister wishes to abolish that distinction, he should do more to persuade developers to be more socially oriented.

I have not yet dealt with:he question raised by the hon. Member for York on the right to buy. It has been as much a problem for our party as for the Labour party, because once a right is given, it is difficult to take it back. It would have been easier not to give the right in the first place. I guess that that is why the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) has decided that the right to buy must continue. The Alliance agrees that the right to buy will have to stay, but we want to give a greater variety of discounts to local authorities with particular needs. That is a sensible policy. Because of the right to buy, there are fewer good rented properties for those in greatest need.

Constituents tell me that they are desperate to get out of their awful housing in awful areas, but that the best council housing has been sold, especially on the modern estates. Poor people are stuck in accommodation. That is wrong. Local authorities should not simply sell their houses without regard to need, but should endeavour, when adhering to Government policy, to focus on the housing needs within their authorities.

Mr. Gregory

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for seeking to clarify the incredible motion put before the Liberal assembly in September 1984. However, he has not come clean; he is still fudging the issue. Is he saying that a tenant who has purchased a property under the right to buy will then be denied that right by a Liberal council? The Liberal leader in York, which is not far from the hon. Gentleman's constituency, has said that he will steal back those properties because they should be in the public sector. Will the hon. Gentleman denounce that Liberal leader?

Mr. Meadowcroft

I would want to know the precise circumstances in which that statement was made, and I would do nothing that would undermine a colleague. I am anxious to discuss with York city council the effects of the right-to-buy policy in its council estates and whether, in fact, we should focus the policy in a different way for York, rather than applying the blanket policy throughout the country. I repeat that the right to buy will remain.

Mr. John Patten

When I reply I shall certainly remember that the hon. Gentleman has been courteous enough to give way to me twice. [Laughter]. I dare say that I shall regret that pledge.

The hon. Gentleman is the alliance spokesman on this matter. Is he saying that the SDP has joined the Liberals in stating that there will be not a full-blown right to buy, but a policy of allowing local authorities to decide who shall or shall not buy? Will he give a straight answer?

Mr. Meadowcroft

I stress again that the scale of discounts will focus on the different needs of particular authorities. That is not abolishing the right to buy. We must be careful to make that distinction. If the Minister can afford it, I will sell him a copy of the book in which the policy is set out [Interruption.] I am surprised that he does not have it. [Interruption.] I hope that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will allow me injury time to compensate for these interventions.

We do not intend to view the right to buy in the way that the Government view it- namely, virtually giving away the houses. In a recent court case in Leeds, the recorder said of an estate that had been offered for sale: Dare one use that terrible expression, is it a working class, rather than a middle class area? A housing official replied: It depends what you mean by middle class. Moortown Estate tends to be an area where people buy council houses. The judge said: It's not like Seacroft where you get flats boarded up The official replied: No. That's a different kettle of fish".

That is intolerable. The difference is that there is a variety of rented accommodation around the country and a blanket policy will not suit all the different authorities. Therefore, we must be more sensitive than the Government in applying the policy.

I shall move on quickly now, as other hon. Members wish to speak—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] At least I have support for something. Market forces cannot deliver housing to meet the individual needs of the people. It was interesting that, during questions, the market Conservatives sitting behind the Minister asked for an alteration in planning regulations to enable local authorities to prevent housing being built for a particular sale that was able to command a price on the market rather than to meet the need in the local authorities. It is important for us to accept that market forces will not solve the housing problem.

There is a need for the third sector in which housing associations can draw in private money and, with a modicum of subsidy, can ensure that rents are fixed at reasonable levels. That could provide a great part of our housing stock.

Renovation must continue in ways that are sensitive to the needs of different areas. When improvement grants were available, it was quite amazing how owners were able and felt it worth their while to put in the rest of the money and improve their houses. That has been eroded over recent years and owners can no longer afford to put money into their own housing stock. Schemes such as the "staying-put" scheme of the Anchor housing association have done a great deal with the small amount of money that is being made available.

Those resources often come from people liberating the money tied up in their houses. I hope that it will be possible to liberate the capital that people have in their houses by flexible schemes from building societies, and that they will be helped and encouraged by the Government.

Finally, I should like to speak about bed-and-breakfast accommodation and the problem of homelessness. There is no way that the present policy is in the slightest way acceptable. It is a bizarre commentary on the Government's failure that this is not strictly a financial problem. The cost of providing homes for people who are in bed-and-breakfast accommodation would be less than the cost of that bed-and-breakfast accommodation. It would be hard to imagine a greater indictment of the Government than the fact that they find it impossible to find a way of bridging that gap. Alas, we have come to accept the inevitability of bed and breakfast as accommodation for homeless people. That is absolutely intolerable and the Government must find a way to link the resources put into that with decent housing for those people.

I have no doubt that when the hon. Member for Perry Barr replies, in his genuine manner, he will continue down the road that he has taken during recent months and be sensible and pragmatic about housing policy. Although he is making a genuine and brave attempt to update Labour philosophy, there is still the problem of the local authorities through which he would have to administer housing policy. The prodigal son may well come and say, "Yes, my party has sinned and wishes to change its ideas about housing." However, those amongst whom he squandered his inheritance in the past are still there. The difficulty is that the Labour party's ideological commitment to one type of housing is detrimental to the housing scene.

As an example, one of the cries of Liverpool council is that it has been defending homes and jobs. However, Liverpool now has 10,000 fewer council tenancies than it had when the Liberal party was in control. The hon. Member for Perry Barr should take note of that statistic.

We should ensure that housing resources come from different sources, and that we deal with the problem sensitively and efficiently. The housing units that are available are more important than the ideological background from which they come. This is a crucial and serious problem that needs all our pragmatic resources to cope with it.

6.23 pm
Mr. Humfrey Malins (Croydon, North-West)

I suspect that those of us who have the honour to represent inner or outer cities find that housing is the major problem that we come across. In our correspondence and at our surgeries, the vast preponderance of worries and problems arise in that area.

Homelessness is on the increase. Certainly in my borough of Croydon, of which you have such intimate knowledge, Mr. Speaker, homelessness has been on the increase in recent years. However, there are different sorts of homelessness. It ranges from those who literally have to sleep on the streets, to those who have no home in the sense that they sleep in short-term hostels, and to those who are in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. I share the sentiments that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State expressed when he said that social changes have led to increased pressure on housing, and especially to homelessness.

I should like to talk, first. about bed-and-breakfast accommodation. In so doing, I shall try not to make any party political points, because the problem crosses London and political parties of differing complexions. However, the common factors are squalor, misery and depression, wherever one might be.

About three years ago, I went to see a family who were living in a bed-and-breakfast hotel in Croydon. Four people lived in one room, which was about 10 feet square. There was a husband, his wife and their two daughters who were aged about nine and five. They had been there for months. The room was not only their bedroom, but their living room, playing room and eating room. It was their entire abode.

The circumstances that led to their being in that accommodation are not important. The fact is that they were there, and had been there for some time, and their life there was miserable. The father told me that because of their situation the marriage was under strain, the children were not performing well at school and there were possible signs of delinquency. It was difficult to be surprised at what he said. The rent for the room was £105 a week, yet the DHSS was paying about £157 a week. The landlord was making an exorbitant profit, and somebody was not doing very well out of it.

I hope that Opposition Members do not think that I am making a party political point. All I am saying is that here in London there are problems, which I recognise as severe, but they are not limited to that hotel. I have seen many others like it, and people who have to live in the knowledge that the next day will be just as grim as the day that they have just gone through.

I wondered how on earth decent standards could be enforced upon such hoteliers. I took the matter up with my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson), the then Minister for Social Security, and asked whether, apart from paying out the money, the DHSS could enforce standards of accommodation. I think that the answer was no, because at that time those matters were the responsibility of the local housing authority.

I went to the local housing authority in Croydon. Incidentally, I should add that Croydon currently does not use bed-and-breakfast accommodation, much to its credit. The housing officer told me that the position was complicated because all the legislation appeared to give the housing authority powers, rather than duties. He could not quite understand—I paraphrase what the officer told me —the complexities of the legislation. In practice, it was almost impossible for a local authority to insist on minimum standards. Later it was confirmed to me that that was the case. There is no absolute duty on anybody to enforce minimum standards.

Ever since then I have tried to campaign, not only that bed-and-breakfast accommodation should disappear, but that there should be minimum standards that can be enforced by somebody against the providers of that bad accommodation, the profiteering landlords.

I should like to move away from the issue of bed-and breakfast accommodation and to talk a little about other issues in Croydon, where great contributions to housing are made. We should not forget the contributions of the voluntary sector, the local authorities and, indeed, the Government. I am referring to those who live in short-term hostels, and in general they are young, single people.

In Croydon, the Association for the Young Single Homeless is supported by a variety of means. Urban aid was a great help and something for which many people have been grateful. There is also the Young Men's Christian Association and the Croydon Housing Aid Society. Many of these voluntary set-ups provide good, short-term, individual, clean hostel rooms for people who do not have a permanent home of their own. Some thoroughly good people work in that area; and they all deserve the thanks of us all.

Finally, I come to those on the streets, and it is difficult to know exactly how many there are. Nightwatch, a group in Croydon run by John Taylor, offers advice to people who live on the streets. It does a soup run, taking soup at night to people who do not have a bed to go to. One night during the worst of the weather I had fixed the date before the weather changed—I went out with him and a local clergyman, Francis Pole, to see who was sleeping rough. Funnily enough, there were not many; perhaps only 15 to 20. They were in a different category from those about whom I have been speaking and can best be described—I do not mean this unkindly—as tramps and down-and-outs. I hope to goodness that something can be done for them — the local authority in Croydon is looking into this — and that their numbers do riot increase.

I shall end by shifting my ground slightly. Many of us in London feel that the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 and the Housing Act 1980 have not helped. The requirement to give special priority to those considered to be vulnerable, for example, can cause unfairness. I sometimes deal with cases, for example, of a girl with a child who has just been evicted from her parents' three-bedroomed house. Unless I am mistaken, such a girl is meant to get priority treatment, but that is grossly unfair. It reflects the sad trend in society that families often do not take responsibility for their own, as they used to do. Perhaps it is a sign of the times. Too many of us think that the state is the great provider, and not enough think that families have some duties.

I have asked many questions and I appear to have no answers. I certainly have no easy answer to the bed-and breakfast problem, but I wish to goodness that we could open up the private sector. I am acutely aware that people who own houses might let them if they thought that they could get a decent return on them.

Mr. Winnick

The hon. Gentleman should not spoil a good speech.

Mr. Malin

It is kind of the hon. Gentleman to say that, but I am not spoiling it. Properties are empty and landlords may let them. How can we shift people who are in bed-and-breakfast accommodation into private rented accommodation?

Mr. Winnick

What about council houses?

Mr. Malins

I shall stick to this one point. At present a fair rent is established, but that is no good to a landlord who seeks a 10 per cent. return. Is there any way in which empty properties can be let to a family and two rents can be fixed? Perhaps the DHSS could pay the fair rent, which is low, and money that was used to pay for bed-and breakfast accommodation could be transferred from DHSS coffers to pay the private landlord an economic rent. In that way he could make a decent profit.

Private landlords are greatly discouraged from letting because, when the rental goes wrong, regaining possession through the county courts is expensive, slow and a waste of time. I have no answer to the question, but it seems incongruous to have people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation on the one hand and many empty properties on the other.

I have raised problems, some of which exist in Croydon, but nothing that I have said should detract from my tremendous admiration for what the Government have done about home ownership. Homelessness and bed-and breakfast accommodation are genuine problems placing great strains on families. All hon. Members on both sides of the House should strain every sinew to ensure that we never need bed-and-breakfast accommodation again.

6.34 pm
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

It is a great pity that the Secretary of State was not present to hear the speech of the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Malins). His sincerity was impressive as he spoke of the reality and savagery of homelessness.

At the end of the debate, we shall leave the House and go home to clean beds, where we will be warm. Presumably, we shall not face children who are suffering from being jammed into one room or mothers who are on large doses of tranquillisers, and we shall not be trying desperately to keep a marriage together in intolerable circumstances. But that is what many people face today.

It is absolutely incredible that the Secretary of State can come to the House and say, apparently seriously, that these problems are caused by changes in social conditions, yet feel that he has no involvement in or responsibility for the changes in housing policy and in the policies of local authorities.

When the Government came to office in 1979, my borough, which does not suffer from the extensive difficulties suffered by inner London boroughs, could offer council accommodation or some hope of it to the people on its waiting list. Not more than 1,000 families were on the whole waiting list for every different type of problem. Today we have more families than that on the urgent waiting list alone. Those families can demonstrate immediately social conditions which make it essential for them to be rehoused and know that the problems are so urgent that if they are not solved, their children will produce immediate and plain symptoms of that deprivation. Housing has a direct effect on the health of a family and society as a whole.

There are now no ways in which housing authorities can operate flexibly. They do not have an easy, efficient way of managing their housing stock, and those on their waiting lists suffer considerable anxiety from not knowing how long they will be there. In my area, both families and the single homeless have virtually no hope of being rehoused, despite the tremendous efforts made by some voluntary societies.

Tonight I wish to make one specific point. An effect of social deprivation, especially in housing, is that children run away. Not far from here, in any of the main London stations, groups of voluntary workers seek late at night to help those who have run away from problems at home, whether from parents or institutions. The Children's Society's central London teenage project cannot produce exact figures for the number of children who have run away, but it has asked each chief constable how many runaways come from his area every day. The Children's Society estimated from the data that it gathered that 75,000 children under the age of 17 were real runaways each year.

We cannot say what becomes of those children; no Government statistics label them adequately. The problem of invisible children is even greater. They have run away from various correctional institutions and are labeled "absconders". Many are never registered under any known institutional figure, so we cannot know how many of them come to large cities every year. It is certain that these children face great moral and social problems when they become homeless. They are not receiving support or help from any kind of governmental or local institution. If they are lucky, they are found by representatives of the local voluntary associations.

However, there is no sign that anyone is making an attempt to deal with the problems of those who have voluntarily or involuntarily become homeless. Many turn to shoplifting and theft, and an increasing proportion are turning to child prostitution. When we think of Victorian England and what happened then in terms of housing, we should remember that the Victorian society tolerated child prostitution and was prepared to accept the conditions under which many working-class people had to live.

It was very easy for the Secretary of State to make the kind of speech that he made today, a speech so arrogantly patronising that I am astonished that he felt able to stand at the Dispatch Box and deliver it. It is not enough to remember the homeless simply at the time of a general election. It is certainly not enough to remember the homeless only when we are seeking a way to berate local authorities and trying to shift the responsibility from central Government to locally elected representatives.

We need a housing policy which will urgently house people, but not in any tatty bed-and-breakfast establishment which can be sold from one proprietor to another for indescribable amounts of profit, irrespective of the human lives contained within those sad walls. We need a housing policy which accepts that many people will never be able to buy their own home. Those people have a right to a decent home and some form of stable life within their own four walls. They will not get that unless the Government cease to talk in such arrogant and unacceptable terms and begin to put money, effort and real commitment into rehousing those saddest people of all, those who tonight will not have a home of their own.

6.42 pm
Mr. Richard Ottaway (Nottingham, North)

I hope that the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) will forgive me if I do not deal with her remarks. I want to comment on the remarks of the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Meadowcroft), the alliance spokesman on housing.

As we sat with bated breath, the hon. Gentleman announced the alliance policy on the right to buy. I was dismayed to hear that the alliance proposes a policy whereby councils could juggle with the right-to-buy discounts. That would cause much concern in cities such as Nottingham. If no discount was stipulated, that could enable a local authority that was hostile to the right to buy, to adopt a policy of ignoring discounts. That would be to the disadvantage of council tenants. I listened to the alliance policy with the greatest dismay.

When I considered the Opposition motion tonight, I was reminded of the saying, "People in glass houses should not throw stones." Rarely have I seen a motion more likely to draw attention to the conflicting views of the Labour party than this.

The first part of the motion refers to the objective of providing a fit home available to buy or rent. The motion continues to consider the combination of "private and public provision." I congratulate the Opposition on seeing the light of that combination which has been so successfully deployed in Nottingham. On the approaches to Nottingham by Trent Bridge, there is a site which lay derelict for many years. The site was unused and an eyesore to everyone who entered the city. Thanks to an urban development grant of just under £500,000 from the Government, the site has been transformed. Nicely landscaped modern housing was set out. An old warehouse was converted into flats and the development is a perfect example of the combination between the private and public sectors.

Opposition Members may say that that is exactly what they are advocating. Unfortunately, Labour's prospective parliamentary candidate for Nottingham, South has criticised this combination of private and public funds. He announced grandly to the people of Nottingham that private developers should not profit at public expense. It appears that the Labour party in the House is saying one thing and the activists outside are saying another. We are seeing the iron fist of the activists covering the soothing velvet words of the Opposition spokesmen.

Mr. John Patten

Does my hon. Friend also recognise that the comments of the Labour party candidate reveal a yawning gap between himself and Nottingham city council? The council is a keen applicant for and recipient of urban development grant, which can be used to bring about such public sector and private sector co-operation. There are clearly many differences within the Labour party in Nottingham.

Mr. Ottaway

I agree with my hon. Friend. The Labour candidate's comments reveal the credibility gap between the activists in the constituency and the spokesman in the House.

The latter part of the Opposition motion refers to the decline in the overall quality of the housing stock and failing to increase it at a rate sufficient to meet the needs of the people of Britain. There is a large empty site at present in my constituency that used to be occupied by the Basford flats. In the early 1980s, it was realised that there were defects in the Basford flats in common with so many high-rise flats elsewhere in the country. It became obvious that the flats would have to be demolished. I did not criticise the decision to demolish the flats. They were unpleasant to live in and it was hard to find tenants to occupy them.

My objection is that private developers offered to buy the flats from the local authority, lock stock and barrel, for nearly £1 million. They undertook to demolish and rebuild at private expense. However, the Labour members of the local authority refused that offer. The site was demolished at public expense and that cost the ratepayers and taxpayers nearly £1 million. That site is still empty. Opposition Members may have heard me refer to this site before. I referred to it in 1983, but it is still empty today. Although one or two small houses have been built on one corner of the site, there are enormous acres of land in the centre of Nottingham which are empty and unused, purely for dogmatic reasons. The tragedy is that the ratepayers will have to continue paying for the site until the year 2030. When the site is eventually redeveloped at public expense, the ratepayers will have to pay a second time.

Hon. Members who represent midland constituencies may have received in the past two days a brochure from a developer about the development of the Wymeswold airfield. That is an admirable scheme in which an old airfield in Leicestershire is to be developed to provide the kind of village that we are all so keen to see developed in the midlands. The brochure is accompanied by a question and answer sheet that contains a small section entitled, "Why is this development needed?" The answer states: Although there had been major efforts by both public and private sectors to renovate the inner areas of Leicester, Nottingham, and Derby, these alone cannot provide for all the land required for new housing or the variety of housing environment necessary to give house purchasers sufficient freedom of choice. As a result there is constant pressure for the release of 'green field sites' in north Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire. If this pressure is not satisfied in an environmentally acceptable fashion it could lead to the loss of good agricultural land and areas of higher landscape value to urban sprawl.

Thanks to the opposition of Labour councillors from the city of Nottingham to private development, pressure is being brought for agricultural land to be released. That flies in the face of the words of the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Clark) when he spoke during the private notice question before this debate. He criticised the Government for their policy on agricultural land, but developers in the midlands are having problems finding land to develop because of the policy of the Labour council in Nottingham. We have discovered that there are no fewer than 800 acres available for development in Nottingham, but the local authority is blocking that development.

It does not just stop with the unused land at Basford or with the fact that the ratepayers will have to pay twice for the redevelopment of the Basford flats. The city has a modernisation programme of council flats that are about 30 to 40 years old. This is welcomed by everybody, but unfortunately the work is being done painfully slowly because there is no cash to pay for it. The local authority admits that if it had sold these flats to the private sector, there would be the cash for the modernisation programme, which would be completed by now. These inconsistencies in the Labour party's policy continue.

The problem is not just the building of the housing but its quality. Recently around the edge of the city has been built the north-west Nottingham outer loop road. People who live in the countryside suddenly found a main road going through their back gardens. That is a fact of life such things sometimes happen. However, one would have thought that the local authority would provide noise insulation to the houses affected by the road. Where it has an obligation to do so, it has provided insulation, but those of us who have studied the noise insulation regulations will know that local authorities have discretion sometimes as to whether they provide such insulation. Nottingham has refused point blank to exercise that discretion in favour of my constituents who live by the loop road. They are having to live daily with the traffic noise that hitherto was not there. The council is happy to spend money on offices and tarting up the market square. It is happy to give money to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, but when it comes to a genuine issue with which local authorities should be dealing, it will not touch it with a barge pole.

I can give the Labour council a small pat on the back. Many people have spoken about the homeless, a subject about which my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Malins) knows a great deal. There are many problems with homelessness, such as family splits and increasing demand, and the city of Nottingham council is active in the bed and breakfast market and is doing a rather good job. I also congratulate it on the night shelter it has developed. This allows the down-and-outs to turn up in the evening and have a bed at a low price—lower than the social security payment.

I referred to planning aspects when I spoke about the Wymeswold development. It is not in the interests of the nation to let the land become a concrete jungle. In my constituency there is a half empty industrial estate located one mile from the motorway. Next to it is an empty site with planning permission for housing. We want to try to provide incentives for people to get up the M1 and use the housing available in Nottingham. One can buy a house in Nottingham for £12,000, so why is it that the entrepreneurs of today will put their factories down the M4 corridor when there are sites in the midlands? I do not know the answer to that—perhaps it is that the golf clubs in Surrey are better than the golf clubs in the midlands.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

What about the north-south divide?

Mr. Ottaway

It is not the north-south divide—it is inner poverty against outer poverty. It is an illusion to think that it is the north-south divide. We want to lift the pressure on developed areas and encourage development in the under-developed areas such as Nottingham.

The Labour party's motion encourages the use of market forces. It rather suggests that statutory regulations are succeeding where market forces have failed.

Many a person in Nottingham is trying to find somewhere to live and cannot, simply because there is not enough rented accommodation. We have to repeal the Rent Acts so that we can free the rented sector to let the flow of rented property come on to the market. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction on what he has done with shortholds. He has taken a positive step in the right direction, and I encourage him to go the whole way and repeal the Rent Acts.

6.54 pm
Mrs. Renee Short (Wolverhampton, North-East)

It is a pity that the Secretary of State did not hear the speech made by the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Malins). He might have learnt one or two salutary facts about the housing situation had he done so. We did not hear much from the Secretary of State except the usual Tory speech, overlooking the problems and the needs of the large mass of people who look to Government and local authorities to provide decent housing for them. It is now estimated that we have 22 million ageing houses, many of which need to be replaced. To keep pace with deterioration and demographic changes, we need 250,000 new houses a year.

In 1979, the last year of the Labour Government, we built more than 250,000 houses. From 1974 to 1979, the average was over 300,000 a year. That is a record that this Government have never been able to equal. Under this Government, the figure has fallen to below 180,000 a year, which shows the shortfall in newbuild. We are not building enough new houses or refurbishing the older houses that could be made habitable and attractive if we spent the necessary money on them. Much of our older housing stock no longer satisfies. It is without modern heating or proper insulation and is neither safe against water penetration nor proof against damp. Those houses need money spent on them to make them habitable.

Many local authority and private houses are just not good enough by today's standards. Local authorities pay out much money to house people in bed and breakfast accommodation in miserable conditions and at high cost, and much of that accommodation is sub-standard. The Government have the gall to blame local authorities for leaving houses empty, when under the present financial arrangements, local authorities do not have the money to repair and modernise their old houses. The Government also insist that local authorities should sell houses to sitting tenants. They promised that money from sales could be used for newbuild and modernisation, but the Government are blocking the use of the proceeds to improve matters. Will the Government allow the release of this money and allow local authorities to carry out urgently needed housing repairs?

Not building enough houses leads to artificially high prices for both old and new property, and badly affects the building industry. Research and development suffer severely, and morale is affected, particularly in the building materials supply industry. Civil engineering construction has also declined, and that, combined with the serious plight of housing has led to a further grievous decline in some parts of materials production. As we all know, if we do not have enough raw materials, we cannot build.

The cement industry is an example. It has suffered not only from the reduction in building activity but from imports of subsidised Greek and Belgian cement, with which we cannot compete affectively. I have raised the matter of imported cement with Ministers over the years, and none of them are willing to take action about it. The Government seem utterly incapable of dealing with these imports or of taking any steps to resolve the problem. Subsidised Greek cement is distributed here to the detriment of our cement industry.

Our industry, alone among all European cement manufacturers, has a progressive attitude to research and development in the construction industry. The Cement and Concrete Association's laboratories, maintained by the industry itself by a levy on every bag of cement sold, have contributed greatly to research in the building industry.

Courses in their college are highly regarded by the construction industry. Many colleagues in the building group from both sides of this House have seen the work at Wexham Springs done by the CACA. The college, I am informed, will be shut down because the restrictions imposed by the Government and because the lack of work in the industry now compel a reduction in these activities. This will affect not only the job situation here, but, eventually, the earning capacity of the industry abroad.

The Minister should let us know that he intends to save this CACA college, which has greatly helped the training of engineers and builders.

Mr. John Patten

I thank the hon. Lady for allowing me to intervene in her speech. Is she not already aware that in the south of England the work load for the construction and house building industry is at the 1979 level? Secondly, is she not also aware that the cement industry—I and my right hon. Friends have tried to help it through action in the European Community by stopping the import of over-competitive Greek cement, to put it politely—is also suffering as a result of a certain number of structural changes in the construction industry? Builders are using concrete less and other forms of material more. There are structural changes as well as economic changes under way.

Mrs. Short

We have gone through all those economic changes over the years. We are using bricks less. The brick industry was in difficulty because more concrete and steel were being used. Of course there are changes in that area, but the Government have to take that into account in deciding its policy on subsidies and encouraging building. That still does not answer my point — why are we allowing imports of subsidised Greek cement? Surely it is not impossible for the Government to make such decisions. The Government's responsibility for research and development is also under threat. The Building Research Establishment has been subject to a series of Government investigations aimed at reducing state support for their work.

This has led to a continual undermining of the morale of BRE staff, of scientists and engineers, many of whom have very high international reputations in their own fields. The Government are treating the Building Research Establishment with contempt. The BRE now finds it difficult to recruit and very difficult to retain staff. The latest reports, produced at the instigation of the Secretary of State, has a series of recommendations to make the BRE more commercially minded. They recommend the practical elimination of all their work on geotechnics or soil mechanics, the science of foundations, a field in which the BRE enjoys a particularly high reputation. It also happened to be an area where the BRE has developed a very effective consultancy business earning considerable amounts.

The Government also ought to face the fact that the BRE is not only a centre of excellence for research but is primarily of value to the public, not only as a watchdog over the activities of a very highly competitive industry but also as the only unbiased source of advice for all Government Departments that engage in building. The BRE has investigated the Ronan Point collapse, the high alumina cement difficulties and many other problems, and their reports have been accepted by the Government. The BRE must be maintained by public funding and must not be forced to commercialise. I hope the Minister will reply to these points in his winding-up speech.

Finally, there is the much disputed policy introduced by the Government to compel consulting engineers to engage in a Dutch auction in respect of fees. Instead of the long-established practice of fixed fees based on a proportion of the contract cost of the job, we now have a free-for-all where, for example, the PSA, a Government authority, is compelled to accept the cheapest offer irrespective of merit or experience. This will mean, in the industry as a whole, less time being spent on quality of design and more on cutting corners, which means more risk and less innovation.

The consulting engineering profession is a high earner of foreign currency, some £500 million per annum, and is responsible for large contracts abroad. Its effectiveness abroad depends on a viable base at home. The Government are eroding that viable home base and are putting in jeopardy the work that they are able to do abroad. The viability of our building and civil engineering industries is crucial to our country and to our people. I urge the Government to change course on their disastrous policies. I hope that next time the Secretary of State addresses the House on the work of his Department he will make a much more constructive, effective and hopeful speech.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Before I call the next speaker, I repeat what I said at the beginning of this debate, that if we could limit speeches to 10 minutes between 7 and 9 o'clock, every hon. Member who wishes to take part in the debate will be called.

7.8 pm

Mr. Tom Sackville (Bolton, West)

Mr. Speaker, I sought to catch your eye in order to express my amazement at the Labour party's refusal to recognise some of the real causes of homelessness. The hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) failed to mention—and his hon. Friends failed in their attempt to silence my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State when he tried to spell out—the fact that very real changes have taken place in our society. His failure must cast doubt on the credibility of everything else that he said. The decline in the stable family has been the major cause of housing shortage.

Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

I regret to interrupt the hon. Gentleman at the beginning of his speech. We do not dispute the causes; nobody does. The Secretary of State said that he does not want to overturn the changes in policy which had brought about some of those causes. All we are saying is that the Government should adjust their policy to meet the facts of the situation.

Mr. Sackville

There was a certain amount of barracking and noise from the Opposition Benches when my right hon. Friend attempted to spell out one of the main reasons for the acute housing shortage.

Mr. Allan Roberts

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Sackville

No, I have just given way, and I will carry on.

In my constituency in Bolton some half of council housing allocations involve single mothers with children. This immediately raises the question of what housing arrangements have been made by the ex-husbands who are the fathers of those children. A certain number of them would be occupying council property, thus doubling at a stroke the number of housing units required. Marital break-up is not the only social change with serious implications for housing. There are too many cases of teenagers abusing the public housing system by leaving home quite unnecessarily and occupying yet more of the council housing units available.

I came across a case in my constituency of two teenage girls who managed to spin a yarn to the housing department of their bad relationship with their father and secured the tenancy of a flat. Their parents were taken completely by surprise and were absolutely furious that the girls were offered a flat in an area which was famous for crime and drug abuse. Surely that sort of behaviour and that sort of scrappy policy by local councils does not help.

I have even heard, as perhaps other hon. Members have, of girls who have apparently become pregnant with the sole purpose of getting a place at the top of the council housing list.

Such behaviour exacerbates the situation further. I am not advocating any formula to get around the problems caused by the decline in morals and family life, but to pretend that these factors are not a major cause of housing shortage is to fail to recognise reality.

The Labour party likes to explain the whole problem in terms of unemployment and lack of resources. Of course I do not pretend that unemployment does not severely exacerbate the problem, nor do I pretend that infinite resources would not help, but we need to consider very carefully how resources, if infinite, would be used by councils. Public funds should not be squandered on councils which persist in maintaining unbelievably inefficient and ineffective direct labour organisations whose repairs may cost twice what an outside contractor would charge for the same job.

That leads me on to the stark choice which faces many young couples, between owner-occupation and getting a mortgage or securing the tenancy of a council property for which the administration and maintenance costs may be frightful, where the smallest repair may take months to get done and, when it is done, it is done so badly that it needs to be done again. The lack of a private rented sector, which has been mentioned by many hon. Members, is deplorable. We are probably the only country in western Europe or. indeed, in the West whose politicians have inflicted such a state of affairs on its citizens.

Mr. Winnick

What the hon. Gentleman says about the private rental sector is untrue. Why does he not ask the question of his right hon. Friend? If the rents legislation is so bad, as the Secretary of State has confirmed, why do the Government not repeal it? Should not the people in Greenwich and elsewhere be told that if the Government are re-elected—which they will not be—they would do away with security of tenure for many people in the private sector?

Mr. Sackville

No doubt the hon. Gentleman will have a chance to put that question to my right hon. Friend. If he listens to the rest of my speech, I shall address some of those points.

We have to ask how we are to start gettng desperately needed investment into the private sector. There are problems with overnight decontrol of rents. It is for that reason that the Institute of Rent Officers has just published a report in which it proposes an interim measure as a new system of control. Surely the problem is that to provide the confidence to motivate institutions to invest long-term in new or renovated private rented accommodation, we need to find a system for which there is a modicum of cross party agreement. What investor will put money into a housing project with the strong possibility staring him in the face that the return on his investment will be halved after the next election? The institute suggests that the present complex rent-fixing formula be replaced by a fixed percentage return on capital value, reviewable at fixed intervals. Surprisingly, this would not increase or decrease by very much the current average rental levels in most areas,. but it would give both landlord and tenant the certainty they need. My hon. Friend the Minister of State should consider that proposal carefully. I believe that it represents a constructive way forward.

7.13 pm
Mr. Allan Roberts (Bootle)

If facts and figures are not available to support one's case, one is prejudiced. We have heard it suggested by the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Sackville) that some of the problems of homelessness and housing shortage are caused by women getting pregnant on purpose in order to be allocated a house. That is the kind of rumour-mongering that we expect from Conservative Members.

The hon. Gentleman and the Secretary of State for the Environment seemed to suggest that the reason for the shortage of decent accommodation to offer to the homeless is that there has been an increase in homelessness as a result of family breakdown. My experience as a councillor and as a Member of Parliament, and before that as a social worker, is that many family breakdowns are a direct consequence of homelessness and inadequate housing, as well as other social conditions. To deny that is to ignore the reality that poor people have to suffer because of a shortage of housing.

If rich people — Secretaries of State, Cabinet Ministers and people who own their own businesses—have marital problems, they do not have to queue up at a housing department to try to get an offer of accommodation; nor do they have to go into bed-andbreakfast accommodation. They have enough money to look after themselves, so marital breakdown does not present for them the same social problem.

I am pleased to have confirmed by Conservative Members their desire to get rid of the Rent Acts in order to free the private rental sector from control. I have heard it all before. I came to the House in 1979 and was a member of the Committee that considered what is now the Housing Act 1980. All the arguments were rehearsed by Conservative Members. They said that all one had to do to solve the housing shortage was to create conditions in which it was easier for landlords to get rid of their tenants, to destroy security of tenure and to enable them at the same time to get a better return on the money that they had tied up in property by charging higher rents. They argued that more empty properties would come on to the market and that more would be built for the private rental sector. All that would solve the problem.

The Government set about doing that under the 1980 Act. About 200,000 tenancies were taken out of rent control. Under the fair rents system, more regular reviews were introduced to enable landlords to put up rents. The concept of the short tenancy was introduced. If a developer wants to build a house or a flat for private renting, anyone can rent that property without any rent control of restrictions if it is a short tenancy.

Then there was the Government's three—card trick, their piece de resistance-the shorthold tenancy. Under its provisions, if anyone wants to rent vacant accommodation, he has security of tenure only for the one, two, three or five years for which the agreement runs. The landlord can then get rid of the tenant at the end of that period. According to Tory Members in 1980, that provision would bring a flood of empty property on to the market and would solve the problem, but that did not happen.

Even if rent controls are abolished, if security of tenure is done away with, and if landlords are allowed to charge whatever rent they want, there will still not be an increase in the supply of private rented accommodation. The Housing Act 1957 proved that. As soon as security of tenure went, the owners of private rented accommodation got rid of the tenants. They did not relet the properties, but sold them into owner-occupation to make a capital gain. That always happens when one gets rid of security of tenure. Following the lifting of restrictions, the amount of property available in the private rented sector goes down, not up.

Unless there is a massive shortage of accommodation to rent in the public sector, whether housing association or council property, and unless it is difficult to become an owner-occupier, people in their right mind will not rent from the private landlord who is offering the more expensive alternative without security of tenure. If someone can gain access to subsidised council housing, or to subsidised housing association property, that will be better for him. On the other hand, he could become an owner-occupier and get income tax relief on the interest paid on his mortgage. It is a strange system that operates at the moment. It is based on the assumption that the richer someone is, the more help he needs with his housing. The Government give the rich more income tax relief; the bigger the mortgage, the more income tax relief one gets.

Both public sector housing and owner-occupied housing are subsidised. If a person is sensible, he will want to get into one of those sectors rather than rent from the private landlord who, free from any restrictions, will always offer a dearer alternative to what is offered in the other tenures-unless the private landlord is subsidised as well, and not even the Secretary of State for the Environment has suggested that. I am sure that the spending of Government money on subsidising private landlords is not even being considered by Conservatives for their next manifesto. So whatever restrictions are lifted, unless we scrap the policy of subsidising the other sectors and get rid of mortgage tax relief and any form of subsidy for public renting, there will never be any growth in the private rented sector.

That is why the hon. Member for Bolton, West is totally wrong, because in every other Western country, including the United States, there is no private rented sector to talk of. There is public renting or owner-occupation on a large scale, depending on the nature of the subsidy and how different kinds of tenure are given Government assistance.

Let us put to the electorate at the next election the Government's policy of decontrol, forcing up the rents of private tenants and getting rid of their security of tenure, and on the other hand Labour's proposals which are: the right to buy for the private tenant the Government believe in it for the council tenant and we will introduce it for the private tenant; facilitating the transfer to socially responsible ownership; requirements for the public rented sector to meet the needs of those now dependent upon the private landlord; closing Rent Act loopholes in the form of bogus holiday lets, using licences instead of tenancies, and other fiddles that enable Rachmans to exploit tenants; introducing regulations to stop the exploitation of service charges; repealing shorthold tenancies; giving the right in law to an effective and efficient repair service for tenants of private landlords; and making provision for full information about the name of the landlord and other matters to be shown on the rent book. Many people in my constituency do not even know who their private landlord is and cannot find out. At least a person in a council house knows who to blame if the repairs are not done. We also propose stiffer penalties and more adequate safeguards against harassment and illegal eviction, and a duty on landlords to ensure the safety and welfare of the tenants.

I make no apologies for being on the side of the tenants and not on the side of the landlord who wants to profiteer out of those in housing need in the way that even Conservative Members have described. Between 10 and 12 per cent. of the population of this country still rent from private landlords. They are the worst housed and the most disadvantaged of any sector of the housing market. The free market will not solve any of their problems, but will make them worse.

Turning to what the Government have done in the public rented sector, one sees that housing has been cut hack more drastically than any other area of public spending. Since 1979, the housing programme has been devastated by a 75 per cent. cut in real terms. This has damaged private as well as public sector housing because of the lack of improvement grants, home loans and other things, and brought about some of the worst conditions in our housing stock, public and private, for many years.

Housing has also been subject to annual fluctuations. It is impossible for local authorities to plan ahead, and that is against the background of massive and growing waiting lists. The number of people on local authority waiting lists has risen from just over 1 million in 1979 to 1,350,000 in 1986–87. Over 250,000 households registered on these waiting lists are overcrowded. There are a further 250,000 elderly people, and 14,000 disabled people, requesting more suitable accommodation. A further 420 households are having to share accommodation.

It is said that there is a surplus of housing. The Secretary of State for the Environment said that there was not a shortage of houses. He went on to talk about there being a shortage and its being a problem, and then he mentioned that the people and the jobs were in one place and the houses in another. He talked about houses standing empty in areas where there was a surplus because there was no employment and people had moved out. He produced figures about houses standing empty, which are not houses but flats in tenement blocks which people have moved out of and which councils want to knock down and replace by council houses.

Let me take the example of Sefton, the local authority that covers my constituency of Bootle. Its housing investment allocation for 1987–88 is £5.188 million. It has not built a council house for seven or eight years. That is just about a housing manager's pocket money to deal with the odd environmental improvement. We cannot give improvement grants but there is this wonderful scheme for home insulation introduced by the Government, which has suffered a 60 per cent. cut this year. The local authority has only £64,000 to spend. By the middle of last year it had spent £206,000 on home insulation schemes. The Minister is now threatening to change the scheme, but before he does that it will have spent the £64,000.

Mr. Heffer

Will my hon. Friend contrast that with what has happened in the city of Liverpool, where in three years the authority has built 4,240 houses, improved houses and flats to the tune of 4,541, and taken out of old tenancies—that is, tenements, flats and maisonettes — 4,900 people? Despite all those efforts there are still 18,000 people on the waiting list, of whom more than 9,000 are in the private sector and are in real difficulty. Some of them bought houses on the basis of the Government's policy and then discovered that they were getting pushed out of them because they could not afford to keep up the payments.

Mr. Roberts

The hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Meadowcroft) said that there were 10,000 fewer council houses in Liverpool now under Labour rule than there were when the Liberals were in power. That is true, but those 10,000 were the tenement blocks that people would not live in. Many of them were standing empty and the Labour council has knocked them down and replaced them by decent low-rise housing. That is what we want to do. It is not possible to denigrate the public rented sector by picking on examples of the worst kind of high-rise flats built in the 1960s. There are thousands of decent low-rise council houses all over the country, built over the years in which people like to live. Conservative Members boast that people are buying council houses and say what a wonderful scheme it is, but they then say that no one wants to live in a council house. They cannot have it both ways. We want to build decent low-rise council houses, with gardens for people to live in; houses that families and single people can enjoy.

The hon. Gentleman the Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Malins) poignantly described the conditions in which homeless bed-and-breakfast families live and said that he did not know what the solution was. The solution is to build decent low-rise council houses with gardens and rehouse the homeless families. If the Government made the housing investment programme allocations available to meet the needs, the local authorities would rise to the occasion and build the housing.

It is not public money that is involved. What is necessary is permission for the local authorities to borrow. Why should local authorities not borrow money to build capital assets? The money that they owe on those capital assets is always less than the value of the assets. Rent payments increase with inflation as the years go by. They are in exactly the same position as the owner-occupier borrowing money through a mortgage to buy a house. The Government would rather borrow money through the public sector borrowing requirement to pay the equivalent of the weekly food bills, to pay for bed-and-breakfast accommodation and to pay the unemployed their social security benefits than allow councils to borrow to build council houses.

We had the statement last week by the Minister, not trying to stop local authorities borrowing money to build houses, but trying to stop a local authority acting as a guarantor for a housing association to borrow money to build houses to rent. Eighty-one houses that would have been built on the St. Ambrose site in Netherton in my constituency will not go ahead because of that decision. It was not a loony Left council. Sefton was loony Right until last May, and now it is balanced and very moderate. It was negotiating to build for the first time some houses that it could let and manage which has not happened since 1974 when the Tories took power in the newly created Sefton, but that has now been stopped.

The Park Lane estate is in my constituency. The Government claim that they have no responsibility for empty properties and homelessness. The fact is that 400 dwellings were built for sale by Wimpey on land allocated by the local authority, and 40 of them are now empty, in some cases because the people have been made unemployed and cannot afford the repayments and have had to move out, but also because, although the scheme at first was a good one, with no deposit and a 100 per cent. loan to help people on lower incomes to become owner-occupiers, and although the people moved in, house prices have plummeted in Sefton.

House prices are going down on Merseyside because of unemployment. No one can afford to buy the houses. A house is worth what one can get for it on the open market. If there are no jobs and no one can afford to buy, house prices go down. There were employed owner-occupiers, school teachers, in these houses, who saw the equity in their property going down, and who could rent more cheaply or buy a house more cheaply in some other part of the country. They handed in their keys and said, "Keep it. It is not worth it any more." This is a direct result of Government policies, which have brought about unemployment, causing houses to stand empty and creating homelessness on Merseyside.

The home is the central part of the fabric of our society. That is what the Secretary of State forgets. It is not just bricks and mortar. The home should meet two criteria. It should be a place where individuals and families can be themselves, for better or worse, obtain peace and security and flourish, both mentally and physically. The home should also be an effective base for daily living, providing rest and relaxation; a place where we gain mental and physical strength for participating in our highly pressurised and competitive society. Families nagged by insecurity, overcrowded, so that they live with constant strain and tension, missing any kind of privacy, surrounded by dampness and infestation by such things as cockroaches, which spread disease, living in physical danger because of the unfitness of the property and cheated of the necessary facilities that others take for granted are, in my view, homeless. This is what creates the social conditions, not the other way around.

7.31 pm
Mr. Robin Squire (Hornchurch)

The Chair has obviously seen the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) and me as some form of two-step, since only last week the hon. Member followed me in a debate and tonight I return the compliment. I will come later to his near-pathological hatred of renting, but I have some sympathy for one or two things that he said.

I welcome the debate as the first of what I hope will be several housing and homelessness debates in the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless, a major United Nations initiative. The relevant motion recognising it has been signed by more than 250 right hon. and hon. Members. I believe that, in signing it, they recognised that the responsibility was not only global but very much concerned with the state of housing and the homeless in this country. Of all the many statistics circulating, simply to note, as the campaign does, that half a million elderly people are currently living in accommodation unfit for human habitation will serve to remind us that in this area at least we have much to do in this country.

Comment has been made about bed and breakfast and, in fairness, there is little if anything to split the parties on this issue. Certainly, I have heard the Minister say how much he would like that sort of accommodation phased out, and I know that Opposition Members too wish to see it go. Although the way in which we do this will create some differences between the parties, it ought not to do so, because each of us can see how at the moment the practice is contributing to much bad housing and helping only a few rich landlords and property owners.

On all these issues, we are talking of extra money— there is no question of that. I hope that my Government recognise that some of the problems will not be resolved without the injection of money in various ways. I include in that the question of private renting. I want to see us take the same imaginative and crusading approach to homelessness as we have taken for some time to unemployment. There is not just one answer but a whole series of them, and we must be prepared to try a whole series, even if one or two prove not to be as effective as we hoped. It is too easy at times to find ourselves arguing either for private ownership or for council renting while forgetting that this creates the very sterility which has bedevilled much of our discussion in recent years.

In opening the debate, the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) mentioned the short-life use of a number of empty council properties. I hope that he is right: they should be used. We should be very much concerned that a number of other councils, Conservative, Labour or whatever, should use short-life property—that which is bound to be redeveloped in due course. There is a proper form of licensing agreement available and widely in use. There is a good book on it from Shelter which I can recommend and which gives some short-term assistance, particularly for young people. It is not a long-term answer, but we are talking of the better use of all resources including short-term property.

As others have done, I would urge my Government, since they have announced that the "movement requirements", if I may so call them, attached to board and lodging will be abolished next year, to go the whole hog and abolish them this year. They do not help to solve the present problem.

If I had not done so before the debate, I must now recognise that there is still a sustained resistance to private renting among Labour Members. pay tribute to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) who, in a comparatively short period, has shifted Labour Front Bench thinking quite a lot and made it much more realistic —if I do not damn him with faint praise—than it has been for a number of years. But at the heart of it we still have to cope with the attitude which can be exemplified by the speech by the hon. Member for Bootle. I read from the Financial Times today: The Labour-led Association of Metropolitan Authorities is threatening to boycott housing associations which compete to buy council housing following a decision by a consortium of five housing associations in Telford, Shropshire, to bid for 9,000 houses being offered for sale by the new town's development corporation. Nothing better demonstrates the sort of thing that I mean. With the exception of the far Left of the Labour party, most hon. Members on the Opposition Benches accept that one is entitled to make a profit on the selling of goods and services and, as an individual, from one's labour. I cannot see why, provided that we have checks on the quality and calibre of landlords, it should be inherently wrong to make an equal profit on renting.

The consequence of that attitude and of our lunatic voting system, which means that there is still a chance of a Labour Government being elected, is that even if we were able to bring in legislation to encourage an increase in private renting, it might well be rendered largely inoperative, as in the case of shortholds, because the Labour party has made sure that it would not be effective, since landlords would not dream of acquiring property for renting if there were threats of a future Labour Government rescinding the legislation.

Mr. Allan Roberts

Will the hon. Member accept that if private landlords are always making a profit on renting accommodation, they will always offer a dearer alternative? People will only take that alternative if they are forced to do so because they cannot get access to any other kind.

Mr. Squire

I do not accept that, for a number of reasons. I accept that it is not simply a question of passing legislation and that one must examine all financial angles and different forms of tenure and money coming in:, but I do not accept that a private landlord will automatically charge more.

Turning to the alternative which people face at the moment in the council sector, from both points of view—that of the nature of some of the councils themselves and that of the surroundings in which they find themselves—"that report", as it is now becoming known. of the Audit Commission made it clear that the eight authorities in question are spending more within their housing departments than comparable authorities outside, because when it comes to repairs, and the money that is going in to maintain the stock, the figures are frighteningly bad. If I were a tenant and had a choice between living in some of that accommodation or in private rented accommodation, I would by no means be as certain as some Opposition Members seem to be that, invariably, council accommodation would be better.

However, it is more than that. Within the last couple of days we have had reports about no-go areas. Is it in some 70 zones around London that the milkman and the postman are afraid to go? What sort of life is that? It is all very well for the hon. Member for Bootle to say that we designed something wrong and are all at fault because we did not get it right last time, but basically it will be all right if we get the design right; he forgot for the moment about the money. But it is not just that, because who is to say that the same mistakes, or different mistakes, will not be made next time round? The environment for the people in those areas is every bit as bad as, and in some cases much worse than, it is for people in private rented housing.

To believe that council housing represents a panacea relative to privately rented housing is to fly in the face of a lot of our experience. I read in the newspapers—and, of course, I believe everything that I read there—that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is likely to turn down the Tillingham hall development. That is not far from me. Of course he cannot comment on that now. Despite what appears to be a unanimous clamour—at least, he must think it is unanimous — urging him to reject the development, some of us believe that further development is essential.

We do not talk of concreting the entire area from London to the coast, because that would be insane, but we recognise that in the fairly short time since 1976 the green belt has almost doubled in the metropolitan green belt. Those who say that we must preserve the green belt at all costs must recognise that at present we are doing more than preserving it. We have a green belt and green braces and for all I know other green things to go with them. The green belt is not in danger. However, in the home counties and in the south and certainly in my area, it is nearly impossible for many young people, especially young married people, to buy homes. Hon. Members will know that I draw a distinction: in order to be able to buy a home couples are forced to have two separate mortgages, even though they will live together. If they marry, they are hit by the rules.

I encourage and welcome all signs of industry and employment coming to the midlands and the north and I applaud that when it happens. The reality is that demand is in the south-east and it is not sufficient to say that people who wish to be housed must go to the inner-city areas. Many of them will not do that, and even if they did, that would again create massive high-density housing in the inner-city areas, thus giving rise to the slums of tomorrow. We do not want that. We must seek a balance.

I urge the Minister to recognise that, if the market is to be a key force and if it demands that in terms of employment and family links people must live in certain areas, we must go some way towards meeting those demands. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister of State on a number of interesting initiatives that he has taken in recent months. I look forward to many more directed at tackling this, arguably the greatest problem that we face.

7.43 pm
Mr. Nick Raynsford (Fulham)

It is appropriate that the debate should be taking place at the beginning of International Year of Shelter for the Homeless. It is sad that in this year, far from seeing progress to reduce homelessness and to respond more effectively to the human miseries experienced by the homeless, we will see, at least until the general election, an ever-increasing upward spiral in the number of homeless people and, secondly, more people recorded as homeless than at any time since records began shortly after the end of the second world war.

Thirdly, we will see more single, homeless and childless people — whose needs will not be recorded because official records do not cover most of them—without a home than at any time in recent years. Fourthly, we will see more homeless families in bed-and-breakfast hotels than at any time in our history. The Minister and the Secretary of State should ponder my fifth point, which is that we will also see fewer new homes for rent built in Britain than in any peacetime year this century.

By any criterion, that record of the Government—which is coming home to roost in. of all years, International Year of Shelter for the Homeless — is disgraceful. It is symbolised more than anything by the rise of the bed-and-breakfast hotel. The speech of the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Malins) was interesting and many of us listened to it with a great deal of sympathy and respect. It was interesting to note that the scandal of bed and breakfast is now widely recognised by people of almost all political persuasions. That should be so, because the evidence is overwhelming.

Yesterday I attended the launch of a new report by the West London Homelessness Group. That report identifies the appalling living conditions in the Thorncliffe hotel near Heathrow, where hundreds of families are living in squalid and overcrowded conditions. They are subject to racial and sexual harassment and abuse and their cooking facilities are hopelessly inadequate. The bathrooms are described by residents as dirty, stinking and terrible and the toilets are described as dirtier than those in Piccadilly circus. It costs a lot of money for the privilege of living in that sort of accommodation.

The irony is that this year we will spend more public money than ever before on subsidies to some of the greediest, most evil, most exploitative landlords in Britain. They are literally exploiting the misery of the homeless and doing so — this is the extraordinary comment—by courtesy of Her Majesty's Government, who through the DHSS will be paying the great bulk of the bill. I recognise that that is not the Minister's Department. The DHSS may not be able to pay rates to those local authorities that are owed large sums; my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) appropriately identified that in his speech. However, the DHSS is providing large sums of public money to keep homeless families in squalor.

Surely it ought to occur to the Secretary of State, if he ever gets together with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services to discuss these things, that it would be economically more sensible, let alone socially more desirable, to spend some of that money on building houses for homeless people rather than using it to keep them in squalor at public expense.

According to an answer given by the Minister, it costs far more to keep homeless families in bed-and-breakfast hotels than to provide them with brand new houses. According to the Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction in an answer that he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith), the average cost of keeping a homeless family in a bed-and-breakfast hotel is some £30 per household per day. That figure should be engraved on the Secretary of State's heart. Some £30 per household per day works out at £12,000 a year, and the average cost, allowing for all debt charges, management and maintenance, of building or acquiring a new council house in Greater London is between £5,500 and £7,000. It is not just socially disgusting, it is economically lunatic. It is an illustration of the loony Right ideology that is motivating the Government's housing policy.

The Government's hostility to public enterprise is matched only by their hostility to mixed public and private enterprise. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Mr. Freeson) so ably illustrated earlier in the debate, last week, in a fit of ideological lunacy, the Government stopped councils, housing associations and private sector agencies providing for homeless families new homes to rent that are cheaper and better than bed-and-breakfast hotels. The Government have stopped one further initiative by people who care and are trying to provide decent homes for the homeless, rather than leaving them languishing in bed-and-breakfast hotels. The Government are failing abjectly in the responsibilities, perversely stopping people who are trying desperately to respond to the dreadful housing crisis we face. The numbers of people who are suffering in bed and breakfast are growing alarmingly.

We learned quite a lot from an extraordinarily bizarre and inadequate speech by the Secretary of State about the ideology that is responsible for this misery. We learned, by the terms of the amendment proposed by the Government, of their hypocrisy. The amendment refers to reestablishing a right to rent — a quite extraordinarily brazen claim by a Government who have presided, during their term in office, over the sharpest decline in rented housing opportunities in Britain's history.

In the past seven years, 900.000 homes have become unavailable to rent. Never before has there been such a loss of rented accommodation. It is the Government's responsibility, and it is sheer hypocrisy to talk about reestablishing a right to rent. Only a Secretary of State as insensitive and ignorant as the present one could pretend that that dramatic decline—the 900,000 loss of homes to rent-has not contributed in some way, let alone been a significant contribution, to the rise of homelessness.

The Secretary of State talked highly selectively about some of the social causes of homelessness. He ought to have referred to his own Department's statistics on homelessness, from which he would have learnt about the reasons for homelessness. He would have learnt that disputes with relatives and friends are the largest single cause of homelessness. If he studied the figures and reports that have been written by many eminent academics who have studied the problem, going back to the period when John Greve conducted probably the best survey of homelessness in London some 20 years ago, he would know that often losing a home in a friend's or relative's flat is the last stage in a long cycle of insecure homes or limited opportunities. In addition, the homeless person constantly faces his inability to get and pay for secure and stable housing. The Secretary of State would realise, if he had studied such reports, that the shortage and loss of rented housing was a contributory factor.

Mortgage arrears, which the right hon. Gentleman strangely and curiously forgot to mention among the causes of homelessness, have risen from 4 per cent. when Labour left office to 12 per cent. currently—the largest escalation in mortgage arrears that we have ever seen. The Government are responsible for that. About 20 per cent. of homelessness cases are those of people being evicted from private rented accommodation or losing a service tenancy. That fact might cause the Secretary of State to ponder whether encouraging more insecure lettings on the private rented market might contribute to greater homelessness.

If the Secretary of State started thinking seriously about some of these issues, he would not make, as he did, the extraordinarily bizarre and inaccurate claim that there was no shortage of housing. Only someone who did not consider the geographic and tenure imbalances that exist so chronically in our society could say anything as insensitive as that. We all know that it is of no possible use to someone who is seeking a rented house, and can only afford to rent, to be confronted with houses for sale. The cheapest possible price option in my constituency starts at around £70,000. Ordinary single people and young couples have no hope of buying houses at that price. If there are empty houses for sale in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts), they will not help people in London. It is those imbalances, in particular the chronic shortage of rented housing., that lie behind homelessness in Britain. That is something that any sensitive or serious Secretary of State should recognise.

If the Secretary of State thought about this problem more seriously, he would not resort to trotting out the weary old claim about empty properties being the key to the whole problem and saying that, if we can get empty properties back into use, there will be no problem. Empty properties are unacceptable in all tenures. Something must be done about the problem. In the public and council sectors, inefficiency is unjustified and action must be taken to encourage councils to bring empty properties back into housing use. Ideology is also unjustified. The largest number of empty properties in the public sector in my constituency were deliberately left empty by a Tory council which was reserving them for sale and not allowing them to be rented to people in need. We have seen that in other Tory authorities, and I hope that the Secretary of State will condemn that lunancy from the Right.

Mr. Tony Banks

The other point that needs to be drawn out is that, although the Secretary of State mentioned 28,000 empty properties in the public sector, in the private sector in London there are 94,000 empty properties.

Mr. Raynsford

I was about to come to that point, but first I was going to refer to Government Departments. The Secretary of State, who referred to motes and beams, should, when considering the responsibility for empty property, recognise that Government Departments have the worst record — 6.5 . per cent. of empty property in London is owned by Government Departments, compared with about 3.5 per cent. owned by local authorities.

I visited some empty Government-owned properties near Didcot, a Ministry of Defence site. There were empty houses there that have been rotting for years, yet in that area the local authority has 50 families in bed-and-breakfast hotels. Why is the Secretary of State for the Environment not talking to his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and getting those homes into use for homeless families in that area?

In the private sector in London there are 93,000 empty properties, some of which have been empty for an extraordinary time. In the borough of Kensington and Chelsea I recently saw properties which had been empty for 20 years. That borough has the highest number of empty private properties of any authority in London. It is matched only, in terms of numbers, by Westminster. Those are two Tory authorities with a shocking record for empty private properties, which they have tolerated for far too long. When will the Secretary of State take action with those authorities to get these empty properties used by homeless people?

The Secretary of State may claim that the key to the problems is a relaxation of the Rent Acts, but if he seriously thought about the issue, he might realise that history is not with him. History shows that the decline in the private rented sector began before rent controls began during the first world war. The private sector was already declining in the early years of the century. He would also realise that in the years after 1957, when a Conservative Government sought to reduce tenants' security, there was the fastest ever decline in private renting. Those inconvenient facts do not tie well with the Secretary of State's ideologies.

Mr. Marlow

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Raynsford

I am coming to an end. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be able to respond later.

Those inconvenient facts might interfere with some of the quaint ideas of the Secretary of State. I am sad that he is leaving the Chamber, because I was about to refer to his quaint comment that somehow the private rented sector was a key to ending queuing. Has the Secretary of State no experience of the degrading queues that all too often apply when people are looking for private housing? Does he know of the experience of so many desperate people who scour the newspapers looking for flats to rent? Does he know of the rush to get to the property first, to join the queue, only to find that there are 10 people in the queue? Does he know of the degrading experience of the person who has ready money in his pocket, who is able to jump the queue because he can offer the landlord cash in advance—key money—to get in, even if it means that the family in front of him in the queue will lose the home? Does he know of degrading experiences of queueing that are associated with private rented housing? All his responses show the insensitivity, the ignorance of real experience and the adherence to quaint and ancient Victorian values that characterise the Government.

The Government's record is appalling, and the sooner they are swept away by a Government who will do something about Britain's housing crisis, the better.

7.59 pm
Mr. Conal Gregory (York)

Adequate housing is a vital tenet of modern life, and I welcome this debate. Conservatives have developed policies to cope with rapidly changing situations brought about by greater mobility and the breakdown in the family life. But throughout the debate so far, the Socialists have failed to distinguish between "need" and "want". They cannot distinguish between the two words. Consequently, housing lists are grossly distorted and do not reflect need. In the other states of the European Economic Community, young people are encouraged to stay at home with their parents until they can support themselves, secure their own accommodation or get married.

Mr. George Park (Coventry, North-East)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gregory

I have just started to develop this argument. You will learn a lot if you sit on the Benches and listen.

Mr. Winnick


Mr. Gregory

Britain, on the other hand, is isolated from the rest of the EEC in that respect. That system would release more resources for those in genuine need and reduce the burden on the state. In direct contravention of supporting the family, Socialist councils such as York are openly changing their waiting list system artificially to bring in youngsters who would otherwise live at home.

Why do councils not ask for evidence that applicants on a housing list can not obtain accommodation on the open market? In other words, do applicants have the financial ability to obtain a home on the open market, or do they require the state umbrella? I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will consider the possibility of asking by circular each local authority to require evidence from anyone going on to a housing list that a minimum of two financial institutions, such as building societies, have turned down his request for appropriate loans or funds. In other words, it must be shown that the applicant's resources are inadequate. Applicants can then go to the local authority and say that they are in need of the state umbrella.

Futhermore, waiting lists should be examined by independent consultants to find out how many applicants are still seeking state accommodation and are in genuine need. Circumstances change, yet names remain on the list to justify over-staffing by Left-wing councils and to give distorted figures to the Government.

Labour never sheds its deeply rooted opposition to the spread of private property, especially through home ownership. The Conservative commitment to the right to buy—strangely missing from Opposition speeches—and to the continuation of mortgage tax relief is absolutely clear. Those two pillars of our housing policy have played a crucial part in the massive extension of home ownership since 1979. Credit should go to the Government for the fact that more than 2.5 million more families have become owner-occupiers under this Administration. That means that 55 per cent. of people in Great Britain were in owner-occupation when Labour ended its disastrous period of office, but now 64 per cent. of the population are owner-occupiers. This is a popular policy which will succeed even more as that proportion increases. After all, fewer people are throwing money away on rent. They are making an investment that will increase in value with time and prevent families from being dependent on the state.

Labour has slightly shifted its ground, aware of the vast popularity of this policy. It has moved from its 1979 and 1983 positions, and now Labour Members are having to condition themselves in local elections to fudging—it they have well and truly got a fudge—by returning the right to buy to the councils. In reality, as I have challenged in York and elsewhere, when there is a Socialist council, it means that big brother always knows best and will snatch back property when it comes on to the open market and will stop the right to buy. I hope that the Opposition, when they get the chance later in the debate, will come clean and assert that that is the reality.

The Leader of the Opposition remains wedded to a Socialist past. Addressing the national housing and town planning conference in Bournemouth last October, he sneered at ownership and the freedom and dignity it brings". He continued: That sort of fundamentalism which treats possession of private property not as a desirable economic and personal asset but as a condition of liberty is a form of primitive religion. The 64 per cent. of the population who own their properties are totally out of line with the Leader of the Opposition. That number will increase.

Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gregory

You will have your opportunity later.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. The hon. Member must not keep bringing me into these matters.

Mr. Gregory

Thank you, Sir.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I hope that the hon. Gentleman recognises that he should not address the Chair as he did.

Mr. Gregory

Those millions who have exercised their right to buy profoundly disagree with the Leader of the Opposition. Despite Labour's fudge at its 1985 conference to give tenants the option to sell, more than half of Labour's new prospective parliamentary candidates oppose the right to buy.

In September 1984, the Liberal assembly came down with a policy on similar lines to Labour's with its intention to remove the right to buy. The big brother of Socialism will deprive ordinary tenants of a basic right and even claims the first option in any sale. That is clearly state theft.

How far are local authorities helping to explain home ownership so as to release resources to those in greatest need? Two ways can be explored. The first is an annual advice to each tenant, setting out the relative costs of purchasing against the costs of continuing to rent. That should not be difficult, with the computer skills in local authorities. Few tenants realise how cost-effective it is to purchase. But when challenged to undertake this — I challenged York city council—n its peculiar document, which is entitled "In Touch" but which is out of touch, Labour tried to put the relative figures so that council tenants would know both. The council could not even get its facts right, which is hardly surprising in view of the Labour leadership there. The council deliberately took not average figures—the figures that anyone would expect from a reputable authority — but figures from a particular district in York. The council took a two bedroom property in Chapelfields district, a noted Labour area, where the average rent was £12.69 a week. But that was not the average rent of York city council, and the council knew it. If it could meet the challenge, the average rent was £12.27. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take the opportunity of accepting the invitation to compare the cost of renting with purchasing over a 20-year period. I hope that those in the small group who are still renting their accommodation will again look at the figures.

The second way in which home ownership can be explained is by proper marketing. A great many local councils are not giving local estate agents or in shops in the local premises information to sell to tenants under the right to buy.

Empty council accommodation is a scandal. We have heard this evening of some 113,000 council dwellings that stood empty in April last year. That is 2.5 per cent. of the total English council stock. York is not one of the worst offenders. It has 71 empty properties, but 20 of them have been vacant for more than a year. That Socialist council has even had property void since October 1982—more than four years. Hon. Members should consider how that accommodation could have provided a real umbrella for the homeless.

Indeed, I have received inquiries from and been visited at my surgeries by potential tenants who would like to take over the oldest property they can find and redecorate and refurbish it. In return, the local council would have the benefit of the rent. But still tonight, as we hold this debate on the homeless in society, that property is void. The Audit Commission has rightly drawn attention to the number of voids. I wish that more local authorities would adopt the Commission's recommendations for good management practicn e as set out in its two publications: "Managing the Crisis in Council Housing" and "Improving Council House Maintenance." Priority should be given to those groups in special need, such as the homeless and the disabled. I applaud the Government's increased resources for housing capital investment which is some £390 million over that planned for 1986–87. The assistance directed through the Housing Corporation—

Mr. Park

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I thought, Sir, that you had appealed to hon. Members to confine themselves to 10-minute speeches.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Mr. Speaker made such an appeal but, of course, that is not a point of order. Hon. Members must make a judgment about the length of their speeches.

Mr. Gregory

Thank you. Mr. Deputy Speaker. The more interruptions that occur the more the time available for the debate will be reduced.

The assistance directed through the Housing Corporation through about 81 projects for new fair rent and shared ownership, as well as the corporation's new temporary accommodation policy, will be of real benefit. Furthermore, urban programme grants can be used for innovative house projects, including the provision of hostels.

Councils must explore the full range of options open to them to maximise their housing resources and to introduce private sector capital. In particular, councils might well look further into the possibility of meeting the needs of some of their single and elderly waiting-list applicants by encouraging the private development of smaller, lowercost homes, although of course not all applicants can be helped in this way.

Local authorities might also examine houses in exchange for land schemes, which have been successful in the past, and building under licence. It should be remembered that any capital receipts achieved through building for sale or under licence can be reinvested in full. Furthermore, since the enactment of the Building Societies Act 1986, these financial institutions are permitted to build. That was their original role and it should help innercity renewal.

The Housing Corporation's programme for 1987–88 is of interest with regard to mixed private and public finance schemes. In the first instance, it is targeting about £20 million of public resources towards helping homeless families in bed-and-breakfast: accommodation arid to assist job movers. In that regard, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will hold discussions with the appropriate Minister at the Department of Health and Social Security to remove the difficulties that landlords have in opening accommodation to those who are in bed and breakfast accommodation.

Last Saturday at my surgery I received a deputation. not for the first time, from landlords and landladies who provide that necessary service. Yet the problem that they face is that their tenants, who are on supplementary benefit and need board-and-lodging accommodation move before the landlords have had a chance to receive payment. Clearly, if we are to continue to open up rented accommodation for those purposes, two Giro payments need to be sent, one to the applicant and the amount for the board and lodging to the landlord. If we do not act on that in an administrative capacity soon, the amount of available accommodation will clearly dwindle.

I mentioned the Housing Corporation's programme. I understand that an allocation will be available in the north-eastern region for "challenge funding" for which the corporation will be inviting housing associations to compete in proposing mixed finance schemes that meet urgent housing needs.

For those without their own home, the problems that arise through inefficient work under home improvement grants sadly occur too frequently. I well recall the announcement made last November by the Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction about our expansion of repair and improvement agency services which meets half the costs of a new £6 million scheme. Care and Repair Ltd. and the National Home Improvements Council are free to decide which schemes should be established.

Mr. Winnick

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I implore you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to take into consideration the fact that a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House have been sitting throughout the debate. You made an appeal, Mr. Deputy Speaker, like the other occupant of the Chair, for hon. Members to try as far as possible to limit their speeches to 10 minutes. It is obvious that the hon. Gentleman is trying to take up half an hour and to deprive other hon. Members of the opportunity of taking part in this debate.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

So long as the hon. Member for York (Mr. Gregory) does not stray out of order, I have no power to curtail the length of his speech. However, I hope that he will have regard to the appeal that has now been made twice from the Chair—by Mr. Speaker and myself—to be brief and to give other hon. Members who have sat here for a long time the opportunity to take part in the debate.

Mr. Gregory

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am also mindful of the fact that the last Labour Member who so spoke took up considerably longer than I have already done, as did the previous Labour Member.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must not make such an allegation, which is not accurate. I hope that he will bring his speech to a speedy conclusion.

Mr. Gregory

Care and Repair Ltd. and the National Home Improvements Council are free to decide where schemes should be established. I hope that more councils will attract these organisations. I look forward to a countrywide network of centres being established this year which will offer practical advice and help. We need councils to monitor builders and check their warranties so that taxpayers' money is spent efficiently. Clearly, if taxpayers' money is being put into home improvement grants, it is important that, wherever possible, effective warranties are investigated by local councils and that there should be a list of approved builders for such grants.

Let me address the question of the rental sector. The Government plan to match their right to buy with a right to rent. We have given an enormous boost to owner-occupation, but there is a minority that cannot afford that. They compete for a dwindling supply of private rented housing or go on long council waiting lists. Therefore, we seek to bring responsible landlords into the market by keeping security of tenure for tenants but moving to market rates. That can be achieved partly by creating a political climate in which building societies and housing associations are encouraged to build for rent. However, it is important to discuss this in the context of the DHSS on the bed and breakfast side and renting and letting of homes must be made respectable and not confined to councils with their elaborate bureaucracy. If that is secured, the Conservatives will be on the right road to obtaining the best housed nation in the Western world.

8.18 pm
Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley)

If time permitted I would deal with a number of the points made by the hon. Member for York (Mr. Gregory) because he made many points that should be dealt with and attacked. However, I shall refer to just two of his points because, we should make it clear that his reference to the Labour party policy as being opposed to home ownership is simply not true. The Labour party's record for encouraging and developing home ownership over many years has been excellent, and our position on that remains the same and will continue to be so in the years ahead.

The hon. Member for York spoke about the limitations and restraint that he would put on people who were applying to go on council house waiting lists. Some of his suggestions were unbelievable and deplorable. I hope that when the Minister replies he will make it clear that even the Conservative party would not wish to move in the direction that the hon. Gentleman suggested.

Today's debate is on homelessness and the Government's record on housing. The subject of the debate is important and is one of the major issues facing the country at the present time. Everyone has a right to a decent home, whether that be rented or purchased. They should be able to keep their homes dry, warm and clean. That is a basic entitlement for every person living in Britain. The Government's record on that is deplorable and they will stand indicted and found guilty on housing alone when the election comes.

The Minister should convey to the Chancellor when he is considering his Budget the fact that if there is to be a reduction in the standard rate of tax, a large number of people, whether unemployed or whatever, will receive no benefit, and that if the standard rate is reduced by 2p in the pound, the majority of ordinary working people will receive only a few coppers a week in their pocket while it will benefit the wealthy considerably. That money, the equivalent of just under £3 billion, should be used to deal with the problems facing us in Britain. It is obscene and wrong that a person who has a £30,000 mortgage and is paying tax at the standard rate should be paying a higher mortgage monthly repayment than a person who manages to benefit from an income tax rebate at a higher rate because his income is higher. That is nonsense. Mortgage tax relief should be limited to basic rate taxation.

I believe to some extent that the Government, through the DHSS, are forcing people into multi-occupied properties and bed and breakfast accommodation. That is not the best type of accommodation or in many cases the most desirable. However, I know from people in my council area that even if the council offers them council accommodation, they are unable to obtain single payments for such basic items as a bed or gas cooker if they are single. Therefore, they are forced to remain in that sort of accommodation. However, it would be cheaper and provide them with a far more decent home if the single payment was to be given. The Minister and the Department of the Environment need to speak to the Department of Health and Social Security to persuade it to move in that direction.

On Friday we shall debate a Bill on multi-occupied properties. That will provide an opportunity to debate in greater detail the problems that arise in some such properties. I say "some", because some are well run but many raise serious questions. In my constituency in the Calder ward such accommodation causes considerable concern to the councillors, and to the Top 0' Town residents association. It is also a matter of concern for the Daneshouse ward councillors and the Daneshouse residents action group.

The major problem of housing in Burnley is slightly different from that in many other areas. One thing that 1 have learnt since I have been a Member of Parliament is that we need a much more flexible approach to housing throughout the country. We have a surplus of housing stock of about 6 per cent. in the public and private sectors, and that arises because of the decline of the manufacturing industries and because of the many people who have left the area. Some 5,000 people have moved away from Burnley in the past five years. That is a serious problem. It creates problems different from those that exist in other areas. If a person owns a house in the private sector and is fortunate enough to be able to receive a grant to improve it, the value of the house hardly increases because values are deflated as a result of the surplus stock within the area.

When the council considered this year's housing allocation it issued a statement. That statement was made by the chairman of the housing committee, Councillor Bradshaw, and it was unanimously agreed by members of all parties on the council's housing and community services committee. The members of that committee expressed their serious concern at the fact that the council's allocation represented only 32 per cent. of the amount that the council sought. They believe that they should pursue the issue in every possible way. The bid submitted was for £10,742,000. The council received an allocation of £3,431,000, which included £47,000 for loft insulation. When one realises the problems we have within the area, one can see that those allocations are deplorable.

Burnley has a housing stock of some 37,842 houses and within that, 1,344 are classified as unfit, 1,379 are classified as fit but lacking basic amenities, and 9,286 are classified as non-substandard dwellings but in need of renovation and much money being spent on them. The council has tried to meet the Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction, either in London or in Burnley. He has not been able to meet the council's request to date. We believe that the problems are serious.

The council is looking, in the first instance, to the private sector where one would have thought that this Government would at least have been a little more willing to meet the council and try to deal with the problems. We realise that Ministers are busy people, but we hope that he will continue to consider the problem.

The point that I have made on many occasions is that one has only to have one house in a long terrace become derelict or go into decay—many of our terraces run the full length of the street — and that can spread and ultimately one will be looking not at improvement but at demolition, not just of one house but a whole block. Many of the stone houses built towards the end of the last century and the early part of this century are basically good houses and are well worth saving and improving.

The borough council would love to be able to attract people into the area to take up the surplus property but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) so rightly said, there is the problem as to what we would give people for jobs if they came to the town.

Those are the problems facing us. There is much more that one could say, but I believe that the housing problem in Britain under the present Government continues to become more critical. They are not taking the necessary action and when the general election comes the people of this country will show what they think of the present Government's policies on housing.

8.28 pm
Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

I am pleased to follow the speech of the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) for whom I have a great deal of respect. However, he would not expect me to agree with all his remarks, particularly his last few words.

I shall start by putting the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) out of his misery I do own a few properties, a very few properties. The second initial of my name is "R", but it does not stand for Rachman. Just because some people treat their tenanted property appallingly, it does not mean that everybody does.

I intend to be fairly brief. It is not my intention to give way because I know that many Opposition Members want to speak. If there is a general consensus that I should give way on a point, I shall give way but otherwise I shall plough straight on.

There is a great, and I hope growing, amount of common ground on the subject of housing and there is certainly a great deal of common concern. In the past few years, one of the successes has been the large increase in the number of people who are able to own their own houses. I do not believe that that is a Conservative or Socialist thing; people who vote Labour enjoy owning their properties just as much as those who vote Conservative. There is a great deal of satisfaction, pleasure and creativity in which people can indulge if they own their properties.

I do not wish to discuss the reasons for home ownership or the financial aspects involved, but, generally, it is considered by many hon. Members to be a good thing that people should own their properties. It is also good because local authority housing, in most areas, costs the community money. If people own their properties, it does not cost the community to the same extent.

Despite the increase in home ownership, there is a need for rented accommodation. It is a large and significant demand. Although it may be declining slowly, it will always exist. There will be a demand for rented accommodation from elderly people who do not want the responsibilities or problems of home ownership. They did not have those problems when they were younger and they certainly do not want them now.

There will also be a demand for rented accommodation for people moving out of institutions into care in the community. I am aware that in parts of Northampton— not the part that I represent—there are people who have been moved out of institutions into care in the community. There is a great deal of concern that those people are being exploited. I am not sure whether that is so. There is concern that properties for such people should be properly regulated. Those who regulate are also concerned that they do not have the power to regulate on small properties. However, they are aware that if they were over-zealous in their regulation, the availability of property might clam up. Therefore, we would be in a worse situation.

It is sad that we have not got this area of rented accommodation right. It is vital to provide adequate accommodation in this area and we must get it right.

As my right hon. Friend explained, there is a demand for rented accommodation from broken families. There is also a demand for rented accommodation on the grounds of mobility. Some people like to live, work and stay with the family in the area in which they were born rather than move around the country. Other people, because they are adventurous and want a particular job or wish to move, need such rented accommodation. At the moment, a scheme is operating among councils for people who wish to exchange from one area to another. At present, that scheme is not very good and we need a more positive approach to this problem.

We need rented accommodation for those people who do not want to buy property. Not everybody wants to be a property owner and have the responsibilities that go with it. Thus there will always be a demand for rented accommodation.

My hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Gregory) said that demand and need are not the same. I know that many of my constituents take the view that there are those who get married when they are young and feel that they are immediately entitled to a house. However, when my constituents were younger they knew they needed a house but thought, "We will not get married until we get a house." Also, some young girls believe that if they become pregnant the council will take them off the dole queue and provide them with a property. I am not absolutely sure that their needs — that is how they describe them — should be met overnight. That is a grey area. I do not believe that we can fulfil everyone's requirements as soon as they make them known. Some priorities do not rank as high as others.

How will we satisfy the needs? I am not sure that there is common ground about this, but I feel that one of the greatest environmental disasters that has happened in this country since the war has been the massive expansion of council accommodation—the tower blocks and some of the disastrous estates that were built about 20 years ago. It is generally becoming recognised that this was a mistake. We destroyed homes and we built slums. The hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) spoke about the days when we built a larger number of houses, but we destroyed homes. A measure of the success of a housing policy is not necessarily the number of houses that are built or the amount of money that is spent but the number of decent houses available for people to live in. We should move in that direction.

There has been much criticism — I know that the Labour party has been strongly critical and it may well have good reason — of the private rented sector. The Labour party will be aware that in other European countries, in Germany and France, there is a large, strong, powerful and well-regulated private rented sector. People get a lot of satisfaction from renting that accommodation. The quality of property in the private rented sector in France and Germany is no worse than the quality of property in some of the inner urban areas of Britain. The rented sector in Europe is a success story, and we should move in that direction.

How will we satisfy the demand? One of the problems has been that, in the rented sector, there has been a virtual monopoly. I think that most people would agree that, in some sensitive way, we should try to tackle that monopoly. There will always be a great deal of local authority housing. Some local authorities are good at managing their housing, but some local authorities, as Opposition Members know only too well, are not good at maintaining properties and looking after their tenants. It is the tenants who suffer and the ratepayers who have to pick up the bills because of the councils' inefficiency.

Mr. Tony Banks

The hon. Gentleman is being very moderate!

Mr. Marlow

I believe that the hon. Gentleman wishes to contribute to the debate, so I will leave him in peace.

One of the means of satisfying demand has been housing associations. They have done some very good work, but they do not solve all the problems and they are not totally virtuous. Some housing associations have a tendency to a degree of extravagence, and the fees that are raised by some people are quite high. Not far from here, a church was converted into 18 units with an average of about one and a quarter bedrooms in each unit. The conversion cost was £70,000 per unit. That is a lot of money, especially when one considers it was two years ago.

How will we encourage the private rented sector? At present, there is a haemorrhage in the private rented sector. The reason is obvious. If one owns a house with a tenant in it, and if the tenant moves out, that house has a freehold value. If another tenant is put into the house, the value of it immediately falls. I do not know how we will solve this problem, but solve it we must. The returns on maintaining a house in the rented sector must be equal to the returns on selling that house. That will ensure the maintenance of a large part of the rented sector.

Many councils face the problem of empty properties. We want more efficient councils and we want those with problems to sort them out. I was pleased that the hon. Member for Copeland said that he is trying to provide advice and assistance to those local authorities that are presently facing problems. There are also a large number of vacant properties in the private sector. We know why they are vacant. If they are vacant, such properties have a value. If there is a tenant in that property who may never get out, the value is automatically reduced. That is a problem that we must solve. We need rented accommodation to be available. In the interests of the people we all represent, we must get our heads together over this subject and not keep fighting about it.

There is one point I wish to make of a different nature. It concerns the so-called north-south debate and the cost of property in the south-east. The hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Raynsford) said that that was a great problem for some of his constituents who wished to get on the first rung of the housing ladder. It is true that in London the cost of property is extortionate. Perhaps we need to develop the system of shared ownership to enable such people to get on the first rung of the ladder. Families live in London and when children grow up they need accommodation.

My right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for the Environment and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food have spoken about changing the planning regulations. There is a feeling that there will be a move into the green belt. I believe that that fear is mistaken. However, I do not believe that we should encourage a large-scale expansion of housing in the south-east of England. The cost of housing is high in the south-east, the cost of labour is high, but the availability of such labour is low. In other parts of the country with severe levels of unemployment, housing and labour exist and it would be far better to move the jobs to where the people are rather than to move the people to where the jobs are.

Mr. Tony Banks

How would the hon. Gentleman do it?

Mr. Marlow

If we build houses and factories in the south-east of England and decamp people from the rest of the country, we will certainly not be able to do it. However, if we restrict and restrain, to a certain extent, the development of housing, plants and factories in the southeast as the economy expands—it has been expanding over the past five years—people who want labour and want to set up more facilities will have to move where the housing can be bought and where labour exists. In that way the recession will be removed from the north and north-west of England.

Mr. Nicholas Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West)


Mr. Marlow

I am always tempted to give way to my hon. Friend because he makes the best interventions in the House but I said to Opposition Members—all of whom are keen to take part in the debate—that I would make a short speech. I have made that speech. All that I am trying to do is to implore, at the end of my speech, that it is in the interests of all our people who are quite entitled to their totally different views that we get our heads together a bit more than we have done in the past.

8.40 pm
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

The contribution of the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) was uncharacteristically measured in tone. One could almost describe it as the new moderate Marlow. If the hon. Gentleman does not watch it, he may be in difficulties with some of his more Right-wing colleagues.

The debate reflects the acute housing crisis and the growing homelessness. That is reflected in the contributions made by Labour Members. We had a disappointing and dreary speech from the Secretary of State which in no way recognised the acute housing problem and the crisis that exists in the country. Leaving aside the compliment that I have just paid to the hon. Member for Northampton, North, the only speech from a Conservative Member which understood and appreciated some of the problems that my hon. Friends and I are trying to explain was that made by the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Malins), 80 per cent. of which I tended to agree with.

Much of the problem that we face arises from the Government's determination on taking office nearly eight years ago drastically to cut public spending on council housing. Between 1979 and the publication of the latest figures there has been a 65 per cent. reduction in public housing expenditure. That explains the present housing crisis, the long waiting lists, the bed-and-breakfast scandals and the position of so many people about whom my hon. Friends, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) spoke who tonight will not have a home to go to.

That is the situation that we face and to which, unfortunately, the Government seem so callously indifferent. We now have the lowest number of council house starts in peacetime. It is expected that the number of new council dwellings started during the current year will be fewer than 30,000.

I agree that there is a consensus of a kind between lion. Members on both sides of the House that a relatively large number of people still require rented accommodation. Perhaps my hon. Friends and I would put that figure somewhat higher than would the Government, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Raynsford) pointed out, the rented sector, and certainly the public rented sector, has been drastically reduced. Many people who are not especially dogmatic on the issue of whether council dwellings should be sold, understandably feel that if the policy is to sell off existing stock, at least we should make sure that that stock is replaced. Of course, that has been far from the Government's policy.

The consensus that does exist goes only as far as recognising that there remains a need for rented accommodation. The fundamental divide between the Government and Opposition Members relates to whether the supply of that rented accommodation should come from the public or the private sector. I am convinced that the possibility of any large-scale revival of the privately rented sector is remote, even with deregulation. When Conservative Members say that all was more or less fine in the past and that the present situation has been caused by the Rent Acts, they should recognise that the houses in which so many of our fellow citizens lived — at the beginning of the century 90 per cent. of our people lived in rented accommodation—were little more than hovels. That was why the slum clearance and redevelopment programmes took place so many years later.

I advise the Minister that he should bear in mind that some hon. Members — I am one — served on local authorities in the London area when the Rent Act 1957 was taking effect. Even with the housing problems that existed then we had to give priority to people who were, in most cases, being legally evicted because of that legislation.

The Labour party must warn existing private tenants that if the Government deregulated the private sector, even if such deregulation is limited o new lettings, unscrupulous landlords—there will be plenty—will try to ensure that the sitting tenant who currently enjoys protection is thrown out, by one means or another, because once that accommodation is empty it can be sold or let at an exorbitant rent.

What is so important, and what Ministers will not accept, is that a deregulated rented sector, by which I mean one in which there is no security of tenure and no limit on rents, will not be any good to those many families who desperately need accommodation. In many cases, they will not be in a position to pay such rents and they will not have protection. When the agreement, if there is an agreement, comes to an end after six months, a year, or even two years, what will happen to them? Even if there is a new offer, they may be asked to pay a larger rent which they cannot afford. What good is such a privately rented sector without security of tenure or rent control? That is why I believe that what the Government intend to do will not benefit the many people who are waiting desperately for rented accommodation. I hope that the Labour party will make the position perfectly clear and warn tenants what is likely to happen if the Government are re-elected.

We need a substantial house-building programme. Much has been said about the poor quality of council housing in the past. I do not disagree with that. However, to some extent that is the fault of successive Governments, who forced and squeezed local authorities to build accommodation which, even from the beginning, would obviously be inadequate. I accept that, but that is not an excuse for not allowing local authorities to have the financial means to build accommodation. We must ensure that it is proper and good quality, low-rise accommodation. It is essential that that type of accommodation is provided by local authorities if we are to tackle the housing crisis that faces the country.

The housing investment programme allocation in my local authority of Walsall is only 80 per cent. of the sum that was provided last year. From 1987–88 we will receive £7,709,000, which is totally inadequate for the borough's housing needs. Money has to be spent from that HIP allocation on properties that are structurally defective, such as the Orlit, the Cornish Unit and the Smith properties. About £5 million will be spent over two years on such properties and that will have to come from a narrow and totally inadequate HIP allocation. Is it any wonder that for eight years no council housing has been built in my borough? None at all has been built. Moreover, many properties that should be modernised, and others on which major repairs should be carried out, are not getting that work done on them because the local authority does not have the HIP allocation or the capital receipts to allow it to spend that money. That is why my borough is facing a difficult housing situation.

More than 1,000 people who have a medical recommendation are waiting to be rehoused in Walsall, apart from all the others on the waiting list. That medical recommendation is from the community physician. Very few indeed of those 1,000 people stand any chance of being rehoused in the near future. Many of them are elderly and have been waiting a long time for warden-controlled or OAP accommodation. Indeed, many will die before an offer comes from the local authority.

In my borough there are many families with two children who are living in multi-storey blocks and whose chances of being rehoused are remote. All they want is to live in a house with a garden, but they have to wait year after year because the local authority is not in a position to give them any assistance. That is part of the housing crisis that we face in Walsall.

The Tory Reform Group, of which the Secretary of State for Energy is president and four other Cabinet Ministers are sponsors, has sent a letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer saying that, instead of tax cuts in the Budget, money should be spent on essential needs. It mentions, in particular, housing and urban renewal. That reflects the pressure of opinion that much more needs to be done in housing construction and modernisation, and to end the scandal of homelessness and bed-and-breakfast hostels. Unfortunately, that opinion is not reflected by the majority of the Cabinet.

I hope that housing will be a major issue during the general election. It was not in 1983, and perhaps we must take some blame for that. We must ensure that housing and the needs of people who are desperately waiting for accommodation or to be rehoused are explained on the hustings. We must explain that for eight years we have had a Government who have been totally indifferent to the plight of people who have as much right as any of us to be adequately housed.

8.50 pm
Mr. William O'Brien (Normanton)

I have listened to the debate for more than four and a half hours, and I shall not keep the House for too long.

The amendment in the name of the Prime Minister and her colleagues states that the House commends the Government for taking steps to re-establish the right to rent; recognises that further progress in increasing choice and supply depends on re-creating a market in rented housing and harnessing private sector resources". The amendment also refers to widening the opportunities for home ownership".

I wish to refer to the right to buy in connection with British Coal's sitting tenants. The Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction has sent a letter about the situation between British Coal and its tenants. It states: British Coal say that tenants have three months to decide whether they are interested in buying and at least three further months to make the purchase after the discounted price is notified to them.

On 3 December 1980, a constituent of mine applied to the Coal Board to buy his house. The machinery was set in motion, the evaluations were carried out and an application was made for a mortgage. Six years later, on 2 December 1986, that tenant was advised that his house had been sold over his head to a property speculator. Over years, not months, that person has been denied the opportunity to buy the property. If contracts had been exchanged, my constituent would have qualified for a grant under the defects order. Therefore, he has lost in every way. He cannot buy the house now because the new owner will not sell to a sitting tenant.

I hope that the Minister will investigate that injustice and put right the evils that have been created. My constituent is not the only one to have suffered. There are other cases where the Coal Board has denied its tenants the opportunity to buy properties.

Mr. John Patten

The hon. Gentleman has described what, on the face of it, seems to be a serious case. If he would give me all the details of that and any other cases, I shall look into them, as I am already doing for others who have passed me these details.

Mr. O'Brien

I appreciate that intervention and will ensure that the Minister receives the information.

On this estate of Coal Board houses there are 62 vacant properties out of a total of 220. They remained vacant some for over five years, so that British Coal could sell them en bloc to a speculator. That is not in the best interests of the tenants.

Shorthold tenancies are now developing. People must take a tenancy for only one year, although the shorthold tenancy agreement allows for five years. I do not know of one shorthold tenancy that has been extended beyond one year. That, too, should be investigated. It is a racket and works to the detriment of tenants and people desperately in need of accommodation because local authorities lack the resources to build new houses. Will the Minister investigate those matters?

In areas such as mine, where industry has been devastated, local authorities need to build properties. We cannot rely entirely on private landlords. I hope that consideration will be given to the position in the north and areas of industrial dereliction.

8.56 pm
Mr. Timothy Wood (Stevenage)

I shall intervene briefly, but pursue several points quickly.

The Opposition often argue that the Government have starved local authorities of money, with the result that there are great housing problems. In reality, all too often local authorities have taken pride in holding down rents, when in many instances a greater sum could be generated from rents and from taking advantage of both the income from the receipts of housing sales and the interest received on those receipts to improve and maintain property from the revenue account. The tragedy is that all too often local authorities choose to say, "We shall not cover ordinary routine maintenance from our revenue income. Instead, we shall endeavour to cover it eventually from capital spending." At the end of the day there is insufficient capital to carry out both essential maintenance and the house building that they may desire to pursue.

When I was involved in a local authority, I encountered that problem. The Labour opposition on the council repeatedly said that maintenance expenditure should be a capital item, not a revenue item. That had two effects: first, it deferred the evil hour when the work was paid for, so that the people of the future were paying rather than those of the present who were benefiting from the maintenance; and, secondly, it implied greater costs, which had to be covered at a later date.

The consequences of that for many local authorities are now evident. It is interesting to note that if we consider the statistics on housing maintenance and the outstanding costs for such maintenance, we see that the smaller rural authorities have taken more care per house and have maintained their homes better than some of the large inner-city authorities.

Council housing over the past 20 or 30 years has not been a great success. We have discussed at length this evening the fact that much of the housing produced over the past 20 or 30 years has not provided satisfactory homes, partly because of system building, and partly because of the destruction of communities. One of the major problems in many areas, particularly inner-city areas, is that we have not provided the necessary variety of tenure and landlord. I hope that in future we will endeavour to create a much greater variety of landlord, through housing associations and other imaginative schemes.

I agree with hon. Members who have said tonight that there will be a continuing need for rented accommodation, and I especially agree with the remarks by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) in that respect. It is important that in meeting that need, we ensure that there is a considerable variety of tenure.

I have been involved with two new towns. I believe that one of the disadvantages of those towns was that so much of the accommodation was rented from just one landlord. In recent years housing associations have come to play a major role in providing housing accommodation in those new towns, and that is a boon for tenants. It has provided a much-needed element of choice. I hope that in future we will endeavour to increase the varieties of tenure.

I also believe that there is a need to edge up the rents that are paid. We have introduced what I believe to be a satisfactory and improved system for providing housing benefit to individuals in need. I believe that the case, therefore, for holding down rents is weak.

Mr. Charles Irving (Cheltenham)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the two most important factors are that at present some 130,000 or 140,000 council houses and flats are deliberately being kept empty by rotten local authorities?

Mr. Freeson

That is stupid.

Mr. Irving

It is true, and the right hon. Gentleman knows it.

Secondly, does my hon. Friend agree that it is scandalous that many families are living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, in some cases paying as much as £135 a week? Does my hon. Friend agree that much accommodation is available, but that because of had management by many local authorities, it is not being put to proper use?

Mr. Wood

I agree that there is a good deal of bad management in that respect. With a greater variety of people providing homes, we will avoid some of the problems. I believe that the Government are working their way towards improving matters in that respect.

9.2 pm

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

I have sat through the whole of this debate hoping to make the case for the London borough of Newham and to describe the serious homeless problem in that borough. I have now been given two minutes in which to make that case. Frankly, that is beyond me. I cannot possibly do it. However, I will try to do it and I hope that the Minister will respond to my comments.

There are 47,000 unsatisfactory dwellings in Newham in need of substantial repair, the highest number in London. The position with regard to bed and breakfast in Newham is an absolute scandal. In 1983–84 there were 10 families in Newham in bed-and-breakfast accommodation and that cost £40,000. In 1985–86, the figure had risen to 107 families, costing the borough £587,000. Tonight, there are 370 families in bed and breakfast accommodation, costing an estimated £1.5 million. Newham has the fastest growing level of bed and breakfast inhabitation in London. Newham simply cannot deal with such a problem.

The Secretary of State made a speech of stunning complacency. He has no awareness of the housing problems in London or of the problems in Newham. He lives in a good, rich Tory constituency. The Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction, who is to reply to the debate, is a decent sort. I do riot know what homelessness there is in Abingdon and Oxford, but I suspect that it is nothing like that in the London borough of Newham. I ask the Secretary of State and the Minister to come to the borough and sit with me on one Saturday morning at my advice surgery. They will begin to see, when all the statistics are shredded away, the real face of homelessness, hopelessness and poverty, not only in Newham but in all the inner-city areas. If only the Tories had that experience, they would not be so callous and complacent in their speeches.

9.5 pm

Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

We have had an interesting debate about people and their homes. That is why the Press Gallery has been virtually empty for the whole of the debate. I missed two speeches this evening and I apologise for that. Of those I heard, only that by the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squires) referred to this being the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless. If the opposition had concentrated on that issue, the Government would have sent the Minister for Overseas Development to answer the debate, because the Department of the Environment has virtually opted out of housing. We drafted our motion with care and precision because we wanted the Ministers responsible for housing to come to answer the debate.

The Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction has sent a letter to me and some of my hon. Friends, for which we thank him. It is a letter of considerable detail, concerning the sale of British Coal houses. As far as I understand it, there has been only one change in policy—the auctions have been suspended for the time being in certain circumstances. These have been going on for only a few months. Only a year ago I saw the director responsible for the sales policy, and there was no contemplation of the sort of auctions that have been going on in London hotels. People's homes have been bought and sold over their heads, and they have been given new shorthold tenancy agreements, at astronomical rents. I hope that this new policy has caused the Government concern.

One Conservative Member seemed to jest about the reference in the motion to "fit" housing. It is all very well to talk about units of accommodation, as the Secretary of State did, but we are talking about homes fit to live in. However the Minister may argue about the amount of money spent on renewal and improvement, the fact remains that Britain's stock quality is deteriorating. I do not want to abuse the House by flooding it with statistics, so I shall keep them as brief as I can.

There are three categories of fitness measure. There is unfit housing, housing that is fit but lacking a basic amenity such as hot and cold water or an inside toilet—although I fail to see how houses can be fit if they lack such amenities—and housing that is in need of renovation. In 1984 the number of houses in all three categories in England was 3,513,000. In 1985 it was 3,991,000, and in 1986, 4,045,000. That increase shows how the quality of the stock is deteriorating, but the Secretary of State made virtually no mention of this. It naturally follows that if building numbers and demolitions decrease, we need to repair and improve at a faster rate than we were before even to stand still. Instead, these figures show that we are falling even further behind.

The Secretary of State said nothing about the point raised by one or two of my hon. Friends on the position of first-time buyers. There has been reference to the impossibly high prices for first-time buyers in the southeast and the difficulty of youngsters being able to stay in the areas where they were born and raised. The Secretary of State virtually ignored this issue. In 1984 the volume house builders— the nine largest house builders in the country, responsible for 60,000 new homes each year, plus renovations—sold 60 per cent. of their output to first-time buyers, in 1985 they sold 40 per cent., and they told me yesterday that in 1986 the figure is even lower. There are many reasons for this.

Mr. John Patten

I spoke to the same body of people, and they are extremely interesting. Will the hon. Gentleman explain why, if their facts and figures are correct for the building industry as a whole, in 1985, the last year for which we have available statistics, there was a record number of 570,000 first-time buyers in this country, and the number will be higher in 1986?

Mr. Rooker

This group of the nine largest house builders, by and large were as a matter of policy providing considerable numbers of homes for first-time buyers. They are now concerned that they are able to provide even fewer for that market than before. The problems are many, notwithstanding the north-south house price problem and the issues of land availability and prices. These market-oriented companies say that with 63 per cent. conventional owner-occupation we are getting towards the top limit of those who can afford conventional home ownership.

We must have varieties of tenure, which must include a positive policy of housing for rent. Last Thursday the Minister spoke about the right to rent, but he excluded from that those who take up the new partnership rents. They will not even have the right to buy. The right to buy should not exclude the right to rent, and the right to rent should not exclude the right to buy, if we are to give people a variety of choice in their housing tenure — [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] For that reason we have gone out of our way to make clear to the Government on several occasions that we fully support the principle of shared ownership—which was invented by a Labour-controlled local authority in Birmingham—and assured tenancies.

We genuinely want the partnership arrangements to work. The Minister must be aware of the consternation that followed his statement last Friday among housing associations and above all among the financial institutions involved in some of those partnership schemes. I realise, as I said at the time, that his statement is for consultation. We will not make a knee-jerk reaction to it. The Opposition refuse to do that, but the Minister must be aware that his midnight deadline is causing problems up and down the land. I ask the Minister, while he is consulting on the issues, to reconsider whether he needed that midnight deadline last Thursday.

The potential Tower Hamlets scheme has been mentioned. I shall not go into detail, but the Minister must be aware of the great concern in the National Federation of Housing Associations and local authorities and other institutions. I ask him generally to reconsider that deadline. The Secretary of State claims, as does the public expenditure White Paper, that there is enough housing to go round overall. This is so only if we count unfit housing as fit, if we ignore second homes, if we ignore people forced to share, if we ignore the need for empty housing for mobility, and if we ignore houses under major repair and reconstruction.

If we do not ignore those, there is no question but that in England and Wales there is a shortfall of more than 1 million homes. Is the Secretary of State saying that we should ignore all those factors? In addition, there are the catastrophic implications of defective and system-built housing. It is estimated that in Birmingham half the 400 tower blocks will have to come down. They are 20 to 25 years old. A potential need for housing exists in all the categories that I have mentioned.

Although I have said that there are regional imbalances in the amount of stock because of depopulation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) said, the shortage of good housing for the households that need them is a direct cause of the increase in homelessness. The Secretary of State gave a list of what he called social factors. He also said, to his credit, that he did not want to reverse the law that had brought about some of those social factors.

I am waiting for the first Conservative Member of Parliament to get up in this House and say that he wants to go back to the divorce laws as they were in the 1960s. None of them will do it. Therefore, it is no good Members complaining about breakdowns in marriages, when people are no longer forced to live together by law. The Government refuse to change their policy so that we have enough houses to take account of marriage breakdowns. Housing policy must not ignore the changes in social conditions that were mentioned by the Secretary of State, because if it does the implication is that the Government want to revert to unsatisfactory laws.

I made it clear in a recent letter to the Minister, to which I do not expect him to reply tonight, that we will not play the numbers game of setting targets. As we all know, the result of that in the past was shortcuts in design and production methods which led to structural and social problems in high-rise and system-built dwellings in Tory and Labour constituencies alike throughout the country. However, not setting a target is no excuse for not adjusting policy to fit the facts. The fact is that not enough homes are being built or renovated. I remind the House again that if it had not been for the catastrophic drop in new house construction since 1979 we would not have had this debate on housing and homelessness.

For every week since 1979 that the Government have been in power, 2,000 fewer new homes have been started than the average under the Labour Government. At the time, many of my hon. Friends and I criticised the levels under our Government, but since 1979, some 100,000 fewer new homes have been started each year. If the Tory Government had only continued with the average building programme of the Labour Government — I am not arguing about the mix—700,000 more new homes would have been built.

Mr. Roger King (Birmingham, Northfield)

Where would the hon. Gentleman build them?

Mr. Rooker

I shall come to that point. The implication is that there is a deliberate restriction. I remind the House that the best year for construction under this Government was 1983, when there were 217,000 new starts. That compared with 264,000 new starts in 1978, the worst year under the Labour Government. So in their best year the Tory Government managed to build 47,000 fewer houses than in the worst year of the Labour Government. I was asked where the houses would be built. I shall come to that towards the end of my speech. We keep hearing from Conservative Members that we should fill every derelict site with housing.

Several hon. Members have mentioned the problem of empty houses. I take second place to nobody in condemning authorities which leave houses empty deliberately because of inefficiency, but I lose my temper at such unreasonable interventions as that made by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving) just after 9 o'clock. It is almost beyond belief that someone with his knowledge should have made such an intemperate intervention.

There are several reasons why housing is left empty, as we all know. Problems involving major improvements and repairs, transfer policies, tenancy turnover and allocation policy have all been identified by the Institute of Housing in a document published to give advice to local authorities. I repeat, as my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) said in moving the motion, that the worst landlord for keeping homes empty is central Government, with a figure of 6.3 per cent. in London, while for local authorities in London the percentage is 3.5.

Landlords may get sick and tired of the matter being raised in the House, but we have to put the other side of the picture. People who leave housing empty needlessly must be condemned. Before the Minister repeats the condemnation, may I point out to him that the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors recommends that 2.5 per cent. of houses should be empty at any one time to assist mobility? That does riot figure in the calculations. Last year the Opposition gave the Government an opportunity to do something about it. We proposed that housing which had been empty for six months but which was fit and available for letting should be used by people on the waiting list who would simply write to the local authority and make an arrangement to pay the rent. The Government rejected the amendment: it was far too radical for them. We recognised the problem and tried to draft an amendment to meet the needs of the situation.

I made a list as Conservative MPs spoke of empty properties in the private sector and the public sector in their constituencies, and it does not make very good reading: private properties in Northampton, 2,100; York, 800; Bolton, 2,800; Nottingham, North—and certainly Nottingham as a whole—3,600. These are all very high percentages.

The hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Malins), who made by far the best speech of any Conservative Members recognised the problem. In Croydon—where, of course, it is your local authority, Mr. Speaker—there are 3,300 empty properties: in the private sector 3.3 per cent., and only 1.4 per cent. in the local authority sector.

Why are they empty? The Minister will probably tell us that it is because of the Rent Acts. If the Government had the guts to get up and say that they were going to abolish the Rent Acts, we would know where we stood. Members of the Tory party say that they want to abolish the Rent Acts, but Ministers cannot quite bring themselves to say that. They know — and it has been said from these Benches—that the fastest fall in private rented housing followed the 1957 Rent Act. It disappeared at a faster rate from the time that Rachman was brought in that it had done before.

Local authorities are, of course, slagged off by Ministers all over the country, and one local authority was particularly slagged off by the Minister who will be winding up the debate tonight when, on Tuesday 20 January, he was interviewed by Nick Ross on "Tuesday Call". He had a go at Southwark, I understand, and made the point that Southwark had refused to accept money to improve empty properties and said that the council preferred either to buy property or to build it itself.

The Urban Renewal Housing Unit circular was sent to Southwark in September 1986. On 23 October the local authority wrote back setting out a scheme and inquiring whether it would be eligible for funding. It set out ideas for the acquired properties. It wrote again on 16 January 1987, three days before it was slagged off on the radio, regarding another of its initiatives to help the homeless. This involved the acquired properties, which again it had owned for some time. It agreed that all the properties should be let and allocated to the homeless. In response to that letter, the Estate Action team invited it to submit an application, which it has done.

Why, then, does the Minister go on the radio and say that this Labour-controlled authority has refused the money? We deserve an answer to that. The Minister obviously had some facts about Southwark of which I am unaware and which he used on 20 January. If that is so, I invite him to refute what I have said.

The obscenity of homelessness will continue if we do not have a change of policy. We have again had Conservatives — I cite in particular the hon. Members for Bolton, West (Mr. Sackville) and Nottingham, North (Mr. Ottaway)—calling for the lid to be taken off rents.

My hon. Friend the Member for Copeland raised issues relating to Greenwich. It is not an unimportant area. It has a good mix of housing. As the Minister says, it has a well run authority that collects its rents and rates. In Greenwich this morning I saw properties belonging to Morden college which it is keen to sell. This is a private landlord which apparently did repairs only when the council issued a notice and the courts were involved. The trustees are all former lord mayors and aldermen of the City of London. Not much local content in the management there! The local authority cannot be blamed for that fiasco. The quality of the housing is poor. Now, at the end of the day, the Labour-controlled local authority is desperately trying to put packages together with the private sector, the housing associations and the financial institutions to buy up those properties so that they can be managed and repaired properly and provide good homes for local people.

What is wrong with that? The Minister will say that a private landlord will be lost. To the best of my knowledge, the arguments have nothing to do with the Rent Acts. The landlord has decided to sell. It obviously does not want to be a landlord. It obviously is not a very good landlord, and that is a damned good reason for making sure that it gets out of landlordism.

We have also had mention, in interventions in my own speech, of land. Without going into detail, which would be inappropriate at this time of night anyway, several hon. Members on the Government Benches have repeated in interventions and in speeches the idea that it probably ought to be natural that every square yard of derelict land in the inner city should be built on. We reject that. It is a ridiculous policy. The Minister has coined the term "brown land". We can have all the brown land that we like, but I still think that it would be wrong and grossly unfair to develop intensively all the inner cities.

As I said to the house builders last December, it is as unrealistic to claim that all inner-city derelict sites should have homes on them as it is to say that all newbuild should be green field sites. There must be a balance. We are opposed to urban sprawl, but this does not mean that where there is a proven need some of the green outer area could not be exchanged for green lungs in the inner cities. We should have these in any event, as a green belt without green lungs is one-sided and discriminates against those who live in the inner cities and cannot afford to use the green belt.

Mr. Squire


Mr. Rooker

I have repeated word for word what I said to the builders and what was reported, yet we have had the Minister for Environment, Countryside and Planning, who I understand, was not well, appearing on television on 22 January and saying that I had said that we should build "all over the south downs". That was a lie, and I am still waiting for an apology from the Minister.

The result of some land policies is that builders are being virtually forced to go round the country—my own constituency provides a good example — digging up landfill sites 15 to 20 years old, which were filled without control so that no one can be absolutely certain what the sites contain, to provide building land. As the Minister well knows, because we have had exchanges at Question Time on this issue, there is a massive derelict land grant claim of over £500,000 for a 10-acre site in my constituency to dig up waste tipped 15 to 20 years ago.

The environmental services director of Birmingham is opposed to the idea root and branch, not only on environmental grounds, but and on the grounds of the health and safety of my constituents. However, the builders are virtually forced to consider such antisocial, retrograde steps. It would be as stupid to build on the south downs as it would be to have a policy that meant that builders had no device but to dig up that kind of land to provide houses. It would be absolutely ridiculous.

Mr. Squire

All I was going to suggest was that although the hon. Member was not in the Chamber at the time, if he reads the record he will see that what he said had been said by at least one hon. Member on the Government Benches.

Mr. Rooker

Yes, I regret that. I apologised for the fact that I had to leave the Chamber after the hon. Member had started to speak, and I apologise now for missing the speech of one of my hon. Friends.

Our motion was drafted with care and precision. It is both responsible and moderate. All that we ask is that it should be the policy of any caring and responsible Government to ensure that there are enough fit homes for all the households that need them. We require a change of policy to bring that about. If the Minister, in reply to the debate, answers no other question, I ask him to say whether he agrees that it ought to be an obligation on any responsible and caring Government to have such a target for their housing policy.

What we were treated to by the Secretary of State was a non-housing speech. The debate has been worth while if only to get that speech on the record. We had enough of it last Wednesday at Question Time, when the Secretary of State said that the Housing Corporation had been given money to run up hostels for the homeless, and when he also said that they were not really homeless but were just registered as homeless. It is true, of course, that the 100,000 registered homeless who were accepted last year and who are only the tip of the iceberg of people who are really homeless are not all on the streets without a bed, but does the Secretary of State not appreciate that if local authorities have to use so many of their vacancies to deal with registered homeless people, the ordinary tenancy exchange and transfer scheme will come to a stop?

That must be grossly unfair. The hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) who is not in his place, said that the tenants exchange and mobility schemes were not working properly. One of the reasons for that is that so many of the tenancy allocations are pre-empted by the need to deal with the registered homeless.

As we have said before, we want choice and variety and the freedom of choice to buy or rent. People should not be identified by income and status according to their tenure. That is the position that we are in today, and it has got worse under the Government. For the benefit of those hon. Members who were not present when the Secretary of State talked about the housing crisis and the rise in homelessness, I can tell them that he told us about Dick Whittington and shirt buying in Moscow. That was the main thrust of his argument. Housing policy is not safe in his hands. We require a change in housing policy, and for that reason we probably require another Secretary of State.

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

I regret the attack on my right hon. Friend by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker). It marred an otherwise interesting speech. I am sorry that it shows—[Interruption.] Off go the Opposition, behaving exactly in the way that they did when my right hon. Friend made his opening speech, trying to shout down the person at the Dispatch Box. Shout away. It does argument no good, and it does no good to politics or to the reputation of the House.

There is one thing that I welcome in the Opposition motion. That is the recognition that better housing for the people of Britain can be achieved only by a combination of public and private provision. That represents a considerable move forward in Labour party thinking and shows that over the past seven years it has been prepared to think and move. I am quite prepared to take advice from the hon. Members for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) and for Perry Barr about how to do this better, because I too believe that in order to provide better housing and better social provision we need to learn from each other from time to time.

I shall begin with one announcement, one reminiscence and one prediction. The announcement, Mr. Deputy Speaker—I am sorry, Mr. Speaker, the slip is a result of all those years answering Adjournment debates. My announcement is about the Greenwich by-election. After listening to the elaboration by the hon. Member for Copeland of my part in that election, I and my diary secretary looked closely at my diary. I regret that I have no free time to visit Greenwich during the by-election campaign, although I expect I shall have to find time for a visit to central office for a re-education session in the cellars. That will undoubtedly teach me to be reasonable.

If the Opposition are prepared to pray in aid my qualified praise of a London Labour borough, I hope that they will eqaully pray in aid my strong criticisms of the housing record of many London Labour boroughs. If they are prepared to play it on one side, they should be prepared to play it on the other.

My reminiscence is about my brief time on Oxford city council when the Labour party was in control. I remember that in 1972 and 1973 people in the council began to foam at the mouth when we mentioned the right to buy. They thought that that was bad and impossible because tenants could never afford it and could never manage the housing stock. Some 15 years later we have consensus between the Labour party and the Conservative party about the right to buy. That is a good thing. I shall have more to say later about the alliance view of the right to buy because it is also part of the consensus. Suddenly in the last couple of years we have seen a considerable change and it is reflected in this interesting motion by the Opposition. It says that now we need mixed provision in housing and joint funding from the public and private sectors. That is good.

My prediction for the future, based on my reminiscence, is that in about 10 years 'Tory thinking and philosophy about the right to rent will be equally accepted by Labour Members, and that every strand of housing policy in Britain will follow the Tory lead.

The main sections of my speech will focus on three points. The first is homelessness, which concerns right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House. The second is the new role that I and my right hon. Friends foresee for local authorities and the provision of better housing — exactly the kind of better housing that we want in Britain. Thirdly, I shall end on the theme of the right to rent, which will continue to be important.

On the issue of homelessness, I was fascinated to hear the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison). He said that it was 10 years since he had spoken in the House on housing. I hope that it will not be long before we again hear his immensely wise voice, to which we listen with care. [Interruption.] Labour Members should not jeer at the founder of New Society who has had a deep and abiding interest in social trends in Britain. My right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury said—these themes were repeated by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Sackville) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Maligns) in his excellent speech—that there are deep social issues which will have to be examined if we are to come to grips with homelessness in Britain.

It was good to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West how good management in his borough had made it unnecessary for there to be recourse by the local authority to bed-and-breakfast provision. One should be as willing to praise local authorities, of whatever political colour, that manage their stock well—I share the view of the hon. Member for Perry Barr on this—as to condemn had management in local authorities. It is good that the borough of my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West has managed without bed-and-breakfast provision.

I wish that the hon. Member for Copeland had been present in the Chamber to listen to the speeches of my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury and my hon. Friends the Members for Bolton, West and for Croydon, North-West. I am not criticising the hon. Gentleman for not being here because he has duties that take him to other parts of the House. Had he heard the detailed arguments which were put forward about the social reasons for housing, he and his hon. Friends would have had cause to reflect on whether it was wise to organise the totally unnecessary shouting down of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment during his introductory speech. That behaviour does rational argument and the political judgment of this place no good.

The hon. Member for Perry Barr gave me pause for thought about the relationship between Government housing policy and social trends in Britain. He listed a number of points, but one that he forgot was the radically and rapidly changing nature of household formation in Britain. Currently, households are getting smaller and smaller, and one would therefore expect to have fewer households but, by the early 1990s there will be a radical decline in the number of households in Britain, which will have an important effect on homelessness.

As my right hon. Friend rightly said in his opening speech, the causes of homelessness go much wider than the supply of housing alone. We need to improve our information about the homeless, why they have lost their homes, what are the best methods of providing temporary accommodation, and so on. We need to consider our policy in the light of that advice. That is why today we have let a contract for a major national study—exactly the sort of contract pressed on us by those interested in homelessness and by lobbying bodies—to be carried out by the university of Birmingham's centre for urban and regional studies. This will be the first comprehensive national study of homelessness since the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977. I think that it will be broadly welcomed.

We are taking a series of measures to deal with the problems of homelessness. In the short time available, I should like to mention two. First, the House will know of the important changes in the arrangements for funding housing association schemes which we announced before Christmas. They have been welcomed by the whole housing association movement. I have yet to hear a dissentient voice — indeed, I have heard far from dissenting voices in the National Federation of Housing Associations, the Housing Corporation, and others. We have allocated an extra £20 million to the Housing Corporation's spending programme specifically for use in schemes in which public and private money are combined. That is one of the themes of this debate.

A further £10 million is to be made available for such schemes from within the corporation's existing programme. About £30 million will be available for schemes in which no more than 30 per cent. of costs are met through grant, with the private sector making up the balance. That is exactly the type of co-operation between the public and private sectors that the Labour Front Bench wants. I welcome the fact that there has been no criticism of these schemes. For £30 million of public expenditure — this is the joy of the scheme — we shall be able to increase housing association investment by £100 million, which will be an enormous benefit. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment — the scheme's pioneer—and I want this fruitful co-operation between the public and private sectors to develop. This is a major breakthrough.

A key priority for the new funding arrangements—it may account for as much as half of the £30 million—is to provide self-contained temporary accommodation for homeless people who would otherwise go into hotels, hostels and boarding houses before getting the permanent accommodation that they need. It is important to remember that some 50 per cent. of those who are accepted as homeless go immediately into permanent accommodation. Everyone recognises that there will always be a need, however good the housing position becomes, for some temporary accommodation in which to house people in housing pressure areas, such as central London, pending permanent accommodation. That is precisely what the policy introduced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will do.

Mr. Raynsford

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, although there is a need for temporary accommodation, the critical problem is the shortage of permanent housing to rehouse people from bed-and-breakfast accommodation? Why will not the hon. Gentleman accept the need for more permanent housing, including the leasing arrangements which he stopped last week, as announced in his statement, which is the way to tackle the problem?

Mr. Patten

Of course, in those parts of the country where there is housing pressure we need to increase the supply of housing. In many other parts of the country there is excess housing, as the hon. Gentleman, with his detailed knowledge of the housing world, knows. Big housing associations, such as the Hyde housing association and the Paddington Churches housing association, and 23 other associations are coming forward to carry out schemes in London. A wide welcome has been given to the housing corporations scheme.

Mr. Freeson

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Patten

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but I have only limited time.

Secondly, in August last year, we launched an initiative to use the resources for my Department's Estate Action team to bring empty property on council estates back into use for the homeless. We began by focusing on 14 London boroughs with particularly serious problems. Twelve of those boroughs have responded to the initiative. Two London boroughs, Brent and Lambeth, have refused to respond to the initiative offering Government money to bring back into use their estate houses to house the homeless.

Southwark responded to the homelessness initiative, but it wanted to spend its money on municipalised street properties and not on the council estates, despite the well-known criteria of Estate Action. I would apologise to Southwark if I thought that I had been unfairly critical of it on the Nick Ross programme. However, I do not think that I was unfairly critical.

Mr. Freeson

In view of what the Minister has just said, which was a repeat of what the Secretary of State said, will he explain to me why his Department has been issuing press releases—information has also been announced from the town hall—which specify figures that run into millions of pounds which the local authority of Brent had negotiated with his departmental officials for just such schemes in which he is saying they are refusing to participate? Will he explain that to the House?

Mr. Patten

The right hon. Gentleman is more than a little confused. I referred to the offer of Government money through Estate Action to house the homeless in Brent through bringing back into use empty estate houses. That has been refused by Brent and Lambeth. I am not misleading the House.

First, I shall mention the new role for local authorities in dealing with housing problems, but not before I deal with the important point about Newham that was raised by the ex-chairman of the Greater London council, the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks). He gave me scant reward for my kindness in giving up three minutes of my time to let him speak, by calling me reasonable. What a sneer from such a quarter!

The hon. Member for Newham, North-West is worried about the position of the homeless in Newham. So am I. We share that worry, and that is why I am worried that Newham has 2,400 empty council properties. That puts Newham eighth in Britain in terms of the numbers of its empty properties and it puts it second in the percentage of its rented stock.

Mr. Tony Banks


Mr. Patten

No, I shall not give way. The hon. Gentleman has already had some of my time. He will have no more tonight, however charming he is. He needs to go back to Newham and tell it to begin to co-operate more with central Government to fill those 2,400 empty flats and houses.

Secondly, we need a new role for local authorities in housing as a whole. I sometimes think that if we could turn back the clock to the 1920s when Conservative and Labour politicians were starting to construct big council estates, and we could show them then where we have ended up, none of them would wish to have brought about the position that we see before us today.

What we need to do, just as we have managed to develop agreement across the House on a number of housing issues, is to begin to look hard at whether local authorities should regard their role primarily as being that of providers of housing—that point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for York and other hon. Friends or—whether they should be concerned with the coordination of housing in their area. Should local authorities develop their co-ordinating role to encourage developers and financial institutions to provide housing for rent, to make appropriate interventions by releasing land, by making grants available and to encourage others, such as housing associations and similar bodies, to take on the responsibility?

A number of enlightened local authorities are already doing that. In the long run, with the enhanced role that local authorities can have thanks to the announcements made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and others last Thursday, we can bring greater variety into the provision of rented housing.

That leads me to my third important theme, which is the right to rent and the need to re-establish some common sense in the private rented sector. Why is it that Britain alone in the western world has a private rented sector that is dying—1.5 million houses? We are losing 70,000 flats and houses a year and only 8 per cent. of our stock is privately rented compared with 30 per cent. in America, 33 per cent. in France and 45 per cent. in West Germany. In every other civilised country in the western world the private rented sector has an important role to play in the provision of housing. The big question we have to ask ourselves is why, uniquely in Britain, that provision cannot be made possible.

The hon. Member for Perry Barr reflected on what happened after the Rent Act 1957 and asked a couple of pertinent questions. The private rented sector has been in decline for 70 years. The rate of decline—this point has often been made in my hearing by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) who was more moderate tonight than at other times, but I do not want to smear him—increased markedly in the 1950s and 1960s. However, the Opposition have the bizarre idée fixe that the Rent Act 1957 was the cause of the decline. There were two causes. One of the main causes of the decline was clearance. A high proportion of unfit houses in the 1950s that were demolished were homes built for private renting in the 19th century. The decline we saw in the 1950s and 1960s was part and parcel of the great clearance, which, incidentally, was also seen in public sector housing. The second major cause was the sale of rented dwellings into owner-occupation in order to fulfill the enormous demand at that time for home ownership. In retrospect, it can be seen that the 1957 Act could not possibly have stemmed that tide.

Mr. Rooker

The right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) is not in his place, but if anyone looks at the debate on the Second Reading of the Housing Bill in 1957, which he introduced from the Dispatch Box, one will see that he gave as the reason for taking the lid off rents the fact that it would increase the supply of the private rented sector. In fact, the opposite occurred.

Mr. Patten

I shall read the back numbers of Hansard as the hon. Gentleman recommends.

The Conservative party and the Government are determined to repeat the success that we have had in establishing the right to buy in Britain by re-establishing the right to rent. The right to rent means a better deal for council tenants, better and more local management and a breaking down of monolithic council housing departments. I have heard the Labour party Front Bench spokesmen criticise those departments just as much as we have. It means the development of new forms of management and choice and new forms of ownership. Above all, it means the development of greater choice.

The right to rent in the private sector, as opposed to what I have described for the public sector, means doing something about the appalling situation in Britain where we have housing needs and homelessness next to 540,000 empty privately owned flats and houses. We must do all we can. If someone came here from the moon or Mars arid saw the housing need next to empty houses, he would say that we were mad. That is why we need to see much closer co-operation between the public and private sector. That means the sort of scheme that I announced to the House on Thursday, which I think has been misunderstood by the right hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Freeson).

I announced then that we shall give local authorities exactly the powers that the Labour-dominated and Labour-led Association of Metropolitan Authorities asked me to give it at the last Housing Consultative Council meeting. It asked for a power similar to that given to the Housing Corporation and housing associations to enter into negotiations with the private sector so that we can have reasonable mixed schemes. We have made it available to all local authorities and my right hon. Friend and I hope that local authorities of all political persuasions will in fact make use of it. However, the powers must be used appropriately.

Those powers are certainly not intended to featherbed the private sector, which I believe some of the prospective deals would have done because they would have led to an entirely risk-free investment by the private sector. New schemes will have to be submitted to my right hon. Friend for his approval. He must be satisfied that the local authorities' commitment is not open-ended and that the commercial risk of the development rests substantially with the private sector. He must also be convinced, quite rightly, that the housing will be managed and maintained by the private sector bodies concerned and not by the local authorities. By operating the scheme in that way, we will ensure that the housing that is provided is not a recreation of municipal housing by the back door, but the genuinely new sorts of mixed tenure that the hon. Member for Perry Barr said that he wanted.

The time will undoubtedly come when those schemes, after a year or so in operation, will be welcomed by the Opposition. They attacked the right to buy, but they now accept it. They attack the new form of joint funding that their colleagues in local government want, but in a year's time they will think it is a good idea. It will be the same with the right to rent.

I welcome the statement made by the hon. Member for Copeland on assured tenancies and I welcome the way in which the Opposition are moving forward on mixed funding schemes. I am sorry that the hon. Members for Copeland and for Perry Barr and other Labour Members are not prepared to take a long hard look at the private rented sector to see whether we can build some consensus. My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow), that great consensus politician, suggested that we should seek that consensus in this area. Perhaps we should think of a different name from "private rented sector", and then perhaps people would not be so agitated about it. [Interruption.] Opposition Members are excitedly discussing the ideas that I am putting forward, and I welcome their approach.

All the problems and opportunities that we have discussed bring us back to the central question of choice—something that has been missing from housing provision for too long. We are still too ready to substitute official choice for individual preference in the destinies of too many ordinary people.

I come now to a very important part of my speech. The hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Meadowcroft) may well feel that he is being ignored and that the alliance has not had a fair crack of the whip in what I have said. I apologise profoundly. I wish to put on record, for the benefit of my right hon. and hon. Friends who were not present during his speech, what the hon. Gentleman said about the right to buy. The new housing spokesman for the alliance, speaking with the enormous authority of that position, has said that the Liberals and the SDP were no longer in favour of the full right-to-buy policy—[Interruption.] He said that they wanted to give councils, not individuals, the right to decide—

Mr. Meadowcroft

The Minister is an earnest seeker after truth. I repeat that we will retain the right to buy. Does not the hon. Gentleman realise that if the discounts cannot be properly targeted that will minimise the number of houses that are sold? It is the inflexibility of the Government's policy which unbalances the housing stock and minimises the number of council houses for sale.

Mr. Patten

The alliance parties do not like the right to buy. They want to give local councils the right to decide.

Mr. James Hamilton (Motherwell, North)

rose in the place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.

Question, That the Question be now put. put and agreed to.

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

The House divided: Ayes 200, Noes 268.

Division No. 87] [10 pm
Abse, Leo Dubs, Alfred
Adams, Allen (Paisley N) Duffy, A. E. P.
Alton, David Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G.
Anderson, Donald Eadie, Alex
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Eastham, Ken
Ashley. Rt Hon Jack Evans, John (St. Helens N)
Ashton, Joe Fatchett, Derek
Atkinson, N. (Tottenham) Faulds, Andrew
Bagier, Gordon A. T. Field, Frank (Birkenhead)
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Fields, T. (L'pool Broad Gn)
Barron, Kevin Fisher, Mark
Beckett, Mrs Margaret Flannery, Martin
Beith, A. J. Foot, Rt Hon Michael
Bell, Stuart Forrester, John
Benn, Rt Hon Tony Foster, Derek
Bennett, A. (Dent'n & Red'sh) Foulkes, George
Bermingham, Gerald Fraser, J. (Norwood)
Bidwell, Sydney Freeson, Rt Hon Reginald
Blair, Anthony Garrett, W. E.
Boothroyd, Miss Betty George, Bruce
Boyes, Roland Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John
Bray, Dr Jeremy Godman, Dr Norman
Brown, Hugh D. (Provan) Golding, Mrs Llin
Brown, N. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne E) Gould, Bryan
Brown, R. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne N) Gourlay, Harry
Brown, Ron (E'burgh, Leith) Hamilton, James (M'well N)
Bruce, Malcolm Hamilton, W. W (Fife Central)
Buchan, Norman Hancock, Michael
Caborn, Richard Hardy, Peter
Callaghan, Rt Hon J. Harrison, Rt Hon Walter
Callaghan, Jim (Heyw'd & M) Hart, Rt Hon Dame Judith
Campbell, Ian Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy
Campbell-Savours, Dale Healey, Rt Hon Denis
Carlile, Alexander (Montg'y) Heffer, Eric S.
Carter-Jones, Lewis Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)
Cartwright, John Home Robertson, John
Clark, Dr David (S Shields) Howarth, George (Knowsley, N)
Clarke, Thomas Howell, Rt Hon D. (S'heath)
Clay, Robert Howells, Geraint
Clelland, David Gordon Hoyle, Douglas
Clwyd, Mrs Ann Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Cohen, Harry Hughes, Roy (Newport East)
Coleman, Donald Hughes, Sean (Knowsley S)
Conlan, Bernard Hughes, Simon (Southwark)
Cook, Frank (Stockton North) Janner, Hon Greville
Cook, Robin F. (Livingston) Jenkins, Rt Hon Roy (Hillh'd)
Corbett, Robin John, Brynmor
Corbyn, Jeremy Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)
Cox, Thomas (Tooting) Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Craigen, J. M. Kennedy, Charles
Crowther, Stan Kinnock, Rt Hon Neil
Cunliffe, Lawrence Kirkwood, Archy
Cunningham, Dr John Lambie, David
Dalyell, Tarn Lamond, James
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (L'lli) Leadbitter, Ted
Davies, Ronald (Caerphilly) Leighton, Ronald
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'ge H'l) Lewis, Terence (Worsley)
Dewar, Donald Litherland, Robert
Dixon, Donald Livsey, Richard
Dormand, Jack Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Douglas, Dick Loyden, Edward
McCartney, Hugh Robinson, G. (Coventry NW)
McDonald, Dr Oonagh Rogers, Allan
McKay, Allen (Penistone) Rooker, J. W.
MacKenzie, Rt Hon Gregor Ross, Ernest (Dundee W)
Maclennan, Robert Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
McNamara, Kevin Rowlands, Ted
McTaggart, Robert Sedgemore, Brian
Madden, Max Sheerman, Barry
Mallon, Seamus Sheldon, Rt Hon R,
Marek, Dr John Shields, Mrs Elizabeth
Marshall, David (Shettleston) Shore, Rt Hon Peter
Martin, Michael Short, Ms Clare (Ladywood)
Maxton, John Short, Mrs R.(W'hampt'n NE)
Maynard, Miss Joan Skinner, Dennis
Meacher, Michael Smith, C.(lsl'ton S & F'bury)
Meadowcroft, Michael Snape, Peter
Michie, William Soley, Clive
Mikardo, Ian Spearing, Nigel
Millan, Rt Hon Bruce Steel, Rt Hon David
Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby) Stott, Roger
Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe) Strang, Gavin
Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon) Straw, Jack
Nellist, David Thomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)
Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon Thomas, Dr R. (Carmarthen)
O'Brien, William Thompson, J. (Wansbeck)
O'Neill, Martin Thorne, Stan (Preston)
Orme, Rt Hon Stanley Tinn, James
Park, George Wainwright, R.
Parry, Robert Wallace, James
Patched, Terry Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Pavitt, Laurie Wareing, Robert
Pendry, Tom Weetch, Ken
Pike, Peter Welsh, Michael
Powell, Raymond (Ogmore) White, James
Prescott, John Wigley, Dafydd
Radice, Giles Winnick, David
Raynsford, Nick Wrigglesworth, Ian
Redmond, Martin
Rees, Rt Hon M. (Leeds S) Tellers for the Ayes:
Richardson, Ms Jo Mr. Frank Haynes and
Roberts, Allan (Bootle) Mr. John McWilliam.
Aitken, Jonathan Durant, Tony
Alexander, Richard Emery, Sir Peter
Alison, Rt Hon Michael Farr, Sir John
Ancram, Michael Fenner, Dame Peggy
Atkins, Rt Hon Sir H. Fletcher, Sir Alexander
Atkins, Robert (South Ribble) Fookes, Miss Janet
Baldry, Tony Forman, Nigel
Batiste, Spencer Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)
Beaumont-Dark, Anthony Forth, Eric
Benyon, William Fowler, Rt Hon Norman
Best, Keith Fox, Sir Marcus
Bevan, David Gilroy Franks, Cecil
Bitten, Rt Hon John Fraser, Peter (Angus East)
Boscawen, Hon Robert Fry, Peter
Bottom ley, Peter Gale, Roger
Bottomley, Mrs Virginia Galley, Roy
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich) Gardiner, George (Reigate)
Brandon-Bravo, Martin Gardner, Sir Edward (Fylde)
Bryan, Sir Paul Garel-Jones, Tristan
Buchanan-Smith, Rt Hon A. Gilmour, Rt Hon Sir Ian
Budgen, Nick Glyn, Dr Alan
Burt, Alistair Goodhart, Sir Philip
Butcher, John Goodlad, Alastair
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Gow, Ian
Clark, Hon A. (Plym'th S'n) Gower, Sir Raymond
Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S) Grant, Sir Anthony
Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe) Greenway, Harry
Cockeram, Eric Gregory, Conal
Colvin, Michael Griffiths, Sir Eldon
Coombs, Simon Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N)
Cope, John Grist, Ian
Corrie, John Ground, Patrick
Couchman, James Grylls, Michael
Currie, Mrs Edwina Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Dicks, Terry Hanley, Jeremy
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J. Hannam, John
Dover, Den Hargreaves, Kenneth
Harris, David Monro, Sir Hector
Harvey, Robert Montgomery, Sir Fergus
Haselhurst, Alan Moore, Rt Hon John
Hawkins, C. (High Peak) Morris, M. (N'hampton S)
Hawkins, Sir Paul (N'folk SW) Mudd, David
Hawksley, Warren Murphy, Christopher
Hayes, J. Neale, Gerrard
Hayhoe, Rt Hon Sir Barney Needham, Richard
Hayward, Robert Nelson, Anthony
Heddle, John Neubert, Michael
Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael Nicholls, Patrick
Hickmet, Richard Norris, Steven
Hind, Kenneth Oppenheim, Phillip
Hirst, Michael Page, Sir John (Harrow W)
Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm) Page, Richard (Herts SW)
Holland, Sir Philip (Gedling) Parkinson, Rt Hon Cecil
Holt, Richard Patten, J. (Oxf W & Abgdn)
Hordern, Sir Peter Pattie, Rt Hon Geoffrey
Howard, Michael Pawsey, James
Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A) Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Howarth, Gerald (Cannock) Percival, Rt Hon Sir Ian
Howell, Rt Hon D. (G'ldford) Pollock, Alexander
Hubbard-Miles, Peter Porter, Barry
Hunter, Andrew Portillo, Michael
Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas Powell, William (Corby)
Irving, Charles Powley, John
Jackson, Robert Prentice, Rt Hon Reg
Jenkin, Rt Hon Patrick Price, Sir David
Jessel, Toby Proctor, K. Harvey
Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey Raffan, Keith
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N) Raison, Rt Hon Timothy
Kershaw, Sir Anthony Rathbone, Tim
King, Roger (B'ham N'field) Rees, Rt Hon Peter (Dover)
Knight, Greg (Derby N) Rhodes James, Robert
Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston) Ridley, Rt Hon Nicholas
Knowles, Michael Ridsdale, Sir Julian
Knox, David Rifkind, Rt Hon Malcolm
Lamont, Rt Hon Norman Rippon, Rt Hon Geoffrey
Lang, Ian Roberts, Wyn (Conwy)
Latham, Michael Robinson, Mark (N'port W)
Lawler, Geoffrey Roe, Mrs Marion
Lawrence, Ivan Rossi, Sir Hugh
Lee, John (Pendle) Rost, Peter
Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh) Rumbold, Mrs Angela
Lester, Jim Ryder, Richard
Lewis, Sir Kenneth (Stamf'd) Sackville, Hon Thomas
Lilley, Peter Sainsbury, Hon Timothy
Lloyd, Sir Ian (Havant) St. John-Stevas, Rt Hon N.
Lloyd, Peter (Fareham) Sayeed, Jonathan
Lord, Michael Scott, Nicholas
Lyell, Nicholas Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)
McCrindle, Robert Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
McCurley, Mrs Anna Shelton, William (Streatham)
Macfarlane, Neil Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
MacGregor, Rt Hon John Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)
MacKay, Andrew (Berkshire) Shersby, Michael
MacKay, John (Argyll & Bute) Silvester, Fred
Maclean, David John Sims, Roger
McLoughlin, Patrick Skeet, Sir Trevor
McNair-Wilson, M. (N'bury) Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)
McNair-Wilson, P. (New F'st) Soames, Hon Nicholas
McQuarrie, Albert Speed, Keith
Madel, David Speller, Tony
Major, John Spencer, Derek
Malins, Humfrey Spicer, Jim (Dorset W)
Malone, Gerald Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)
Maples, John Squire, Robin
Marland, Paul Stanbrook, Ivor
Marlow, Antony Steen, Anthony
Marshall, Michael (Arundel) Stern, Michael
Mather, Sir Carol Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton)
Maude, Hon Francis Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)
Mawhinney, Dr Brian Stewart, Ian (Hertfordshire N)
Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin Stokes, John
Mayhew, Sir Patrick Stradling Thomas, Sir John
Merchant, Piers Sumberg, David
Meyer, Sir Anthony Tapsell, Sir Peter
Mills, lain (Meriden) Taylor, John (Solihull)
Miscampbell, Norman Temple-Moris, Peter
Mitchell, David (Hants NW) Terlezki, Stefan
Thatcher, Rt Hon Mrs M. Warren, Kenneth
Thomas, Rt Hon Peter Watson, John
Thompson, Donald (Calder V) Watts, John
Thompson, Patrick (N'ich N) Wells, Sir John (Maidstone)
Thorne, Neil (llford S) Wheeler, John
Thornton, Malcolm Whitfield, John
Townend, John (Bridlington) Whitney, Raymond
Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath) Wiggin, Jerry
Trippier, David Wilkinson, John
Trotter, Neville Winterton, Mrs Ann
Twinn, Dr Ian Winterton, Nicholas
van Straubenzee, Sir W. Wolfson, Mark
Vaughan, Sir Gerard Wood, Timothy
Waddington, Rt Hon David Woodcock, Michael
Wakeham, Rt Hon John Yeo, Tim
Walker, Bill (T'side N)
Wall, Sir Patrick Tellers for the Noes:
Waller, Gary Mr. Mark Lennox-Boyd and
Wardle, C. (Bexhill) Mr. David Lightbown.

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.

Mr. Speaker

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

Resolved, That this house welcomes the Opposition's long overdue recognition of the need to combine public and private provision in housing; commends the Government for taking steps to re-establish the right to rent; recognises that further progress in increasing choice and supply depends on recreating a market in rented housing and harnessing private sector resources, and therefore rejects calls for more municipal housing which can only lead, as it has done in the past, to poorly managed, badly maintained unpopular estates provided at excessive public expenditure cost; and commends instead this Government's achievements in seeing one and a half million more homes built since May 1979, and in widening the opportunities for home ownership, so that there are now well over two million more home owners than in 1979, and in meeting housing needs in the most efficient and effective way.

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