HC Deb 04 March 1987 vol 111 cc856-8
3. Mr. Flannery

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will give the total number of people on the waiting lists for rented council houses of all types at the end of 1986, together with the numbers for each of the 10 largest cities.

Mr. Ridley

Criteria for including people on waiting lists differ from council to council, but English authorities reported that 1.35 million households were on their lists in April 1986. I am placing the figures for the 10 largest authorities in the Library.

Mr. Flannery

Does the Secretary of State remember that an answer to a question from me a few weeks ago about how many council houses the Government have allowed to be built, showed that the number was 74,000 in 1979 and steadily dropped to only 19,000 last year? The right hon. Gentleman admits that there is a waiting list of, I think, 1.3 million and has said that he will give the actual figures for the 10 largest cities later. There is a massive queue of people and homelessness all over the country, as my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) said. It is insufficient to say that there are plenty of empty houses. Why are the Government not allowing houses to be built not only to provide employment but to provide homes for those who need them?

Mr. Ridley

The waiting list is a notoriously bad measurement of housing need. Many people who are on a list are already housed or just want a transfer. Some are on more than one list, and some apply for council housing as an insurance in case their preferred housing plans fall through. In Sheffield there are currently 8,750 empty houses, 5,500 of them in the private sector and the rest public housing. It makes no sense for the hon. Gentleman to advocate a massive house building programme when there are 8,750 empty houses in his city.

Sir George Young

Would not the number on the waiting lists in London be reduced if the accommodation that many people were offered was in slightly better condition? What has been the response to my right hon. Friend's Departments' generous offer to local authorities in London for extra funds from his Department to bring back into better use some of the grotty estates in the inner London area?

Mr. Ridley

The estate action programme has received greatly increased resources —£75 million next year—to bring much-needed funds for the repair of the worst council estates, wherever they may be. I regret bitterly to have to tell the House that Brent and Lambeth have refused assistance from that source for the homeless. I hope that all local authorities, including those in London, will avail themselves of the help that the Government have brought.

Mr. O'Brien

Will the Secretary of State investigate the scandalous position that is developing in my constituency in the Rothwell area of Leeds where British Coal has just released an estate where the houses were empty for five years? The houses are now defective and British Coal refused to sell them to tenants. Now they have been sold to a private operator who is asking five times the previous rent but has carried out no structural strengthening of the houses. They are defective. Something should be done to ensure that this racket does not continue. Will the Secretary of State investigate the scandalous position that has developed in my constituency.

Mr. Ridley

I am always happy to investigate any problem which is brought to my attention. Obviously, the hon. Gentleman cannot expect me to know about that matter before I have had a chance to study it. On the general question on British Coal houses, my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction and I have written to all right hon. and hon. Members who have raised the problem and have explained the present position, and I think that that has satisfied them.

Mr. Fallon

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Labour councils in the north-east have some 10,000 empty council houses ready for occupation now and have had for some five years? Will my right hon. Friend be a little more radical and bring forward legislation to allow the homeless to homestead in houses that are difficult to let?

Mr. Ridley

My hon. Friend is right. It is possible for local authorities in housing stress areas to take on empty houses which are ready and available in other parts of the country to house the people whom those authorities cannot house. If local authorities are not going to get their housing act together and house those people and to use their massive resources, I agree with my hon. Friend that more drastic measures will have to be taken in the interests of the homeless.

Mr. John Fraser

Will the Secretary of State stop giving us what is called in the pop record industry a remix of alibis, excuses and gimmicks? Will he admit that the number of homes built to rent last year by local authorities was the lowest in 62 years, that the housing investment programme net of capital receipts was the lowest in real terms since HIPs were invented and that, even during the past three years the number of repair and improvement grants, which would bring some private homes back into use, have dropped by 100,000? Does not the right hon. Gentleman understand that, if the private owner and the local authority are starved of resources, we are left with lengthy queues, homelessness and all the other scandals of poor housing that exist today?

Mr. Ridley

Does the hon. Gentleman realise that there are about 760,000 more homes than there are households? What is the point in the hon. Gentleman getting up day after day and advocating massive council house building when there is a surplus of council housing in many parts of the country? There is a problem in London, but the hon. Gentleman must realise that there is not overall a national problem.

Mr. Gow

Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we could bring into use a majority of the 113,000 empty council houses and flats, it would have a dramatic impact on council house waiting lists? Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we could bring into use private sector properties that are at present underused or unused and which are available, but which the landlord is unwilling to let because of the Rent Acts, we would be able to solve the problem completely?

Mr. Ridley

I agree with my hon. Friend. The Audit Commission estimates that, with streamlined letting procedures, a further 20,000 local authority dwellings could be made available in London. That would be another massive increase in the available stock. Inefficiency in the letting procedures is another reason why there is a housing shortage in London. I repeat: we must tackle the misuse of existing housing stock before we go into the expensive idea of building lots of new houses because we cannot be bothered to let the old ones properly.