HC Deb 18 March 1991 vol 188 cc137-44

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

11.32 pm
Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise on the Adjournment the very serious and growing issue of homelessness in the city of Leicester. I refer not only to families and single people who have nowhere to live but to the effect that the homelessness of these people has on others who desperately need housing but who cannot get it because such diminishing housing as there is goes as a priority to the homeless.

This is a growing problem. It is getting worse all the time, and it has grown seriously in the past few months. It is estimated that there are between 200 and 400 homeless people in Leicester, the majority of whom are single homeless, but there are homeless families. The number of young homeless people has grown from a small percentage to between 30 and 40 per cent. They are entitled to homes and the local authority is under an obligation to house them.

At Christmas, I visited Knighton house, where marvellous volunteers were looking after people who otherwise would have been sleeping rough, probably in the parks, over Christmas. Yesterday, I again visited Knighton house and Border house in my constituency and a hostel for the homeless in Loughborough road. I pay tribute to the professionals from the homeless unit of the city council, people from Night Shelter and individuals such as my friend Lawrie Simpkin who devote their time as volunteers to serving homeless people.

They are doing their best, but in all the homes and hostels for the homeless that I have visited I have found a deep sense of frustration. When I asked them, 'What would you like me to talk about in Parliament, where your voice can be heard only through me?", I received the same answer each time: "We need resources, money, places for people to play, sleep and work and help, but we are not getting it."

The effect of that on families and on people who demand homes but cannot get them is devastating. It escalates like a waterfall of suffering; it is a spiral of homelessness. At the top of the housing pile is the city council whose job it is to provide houses. Unfortunately, since they took office, the Government have effectively prevented council house building, so there is no new stock. At the same time, they have instituted the right to buy, so that the number of available houses has shrunk. They have prevented councils that have sold their houses from using the money they obtained to maintain and improve houses or to build new houses. Only 20 per cent. of that money may be used for such purposes.

There are fewer houses because none are being built and because people have the right to buy them, and homelessness is growing because of people's desperate need to rent houses as they cannot afford to buy. Such people were on the housing list before, but they are being joined by people whose homes have been repossessed because they cannot pay their mortgages as they are out of work. Some of those people were former council tenants who were encouraged to buy their homes but now cannot afford to pay for them.

What is the council doing? It is providing bed- and-breakfast accommodation. It costs £33 a week to cover the rent, water rates and poll tax on a council house, but it costs £40 a night to put someone in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. That is not only wasteful of human resources and causes misery to the people involved but is financially mad.

When the council has placed people into temporary accommodation, it is its duty to provide them with homes. That means that, whenever homes become available, they are given to homeless people, while those on the housing list have to wait. As a result, the housing list is becoming longer. On 13 March, there were 10,656 applicants. That means that 30,000 to 35,000 people are waiting for a home, and some of them will be living in desperately overcrowded conditions. My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) will know, as I do, that our mail bags and surgeries are full of complaints from those who are desperate for housing, which they badly need but cannot obtain.

There are 10,656 applicants on the waiting list and there are 3,256 on the transfer list. If, two years ago, people wanted accommodation on the New Parks estate, for example, in my constituency, they would wait for nine to 12 months. The waiting list now could be three to four years. Young people who marry cannot afford homes. How are they meant to live? People are living with their in-laws or their parents. These people are living in desperately overcrowded conditions. There may be two rooms, but they have three or four children. I am speaking of husbands and wives living together, single-parent families and elderly people. The suffering stretches across the community.

Homelessness is a problem for not only the homeless. It is a problem for those who have homes but need better or different ones. There is also a problem for those who are trying to help and to serve. As I have said, there is a problem for the entire community. If we as a "decent" society cannot provide homes for people who are without money—people who cannot get jobs, people who are disadvantaged—we are a rotten society. The trouble is that our society is becoming more rotten every day as disadvantage spreads and poor people become poorer. More people are dispossessed, with the result that there are more and more repossessions. Those who are looking after the homeless in Leicester told me yesterday that in the past eight months the problem has burgeoned. I do not understand why the Minister finds that funny, but he seems to do so. It is one of the tragedies of our time that there is such homelessness. It is the inevitable result of a rotten housing policy that is produced by a Government who do not understand the needs of ordinary people. Above all, they do not understand the needs of those who desperately require homes.

I challenge the Minister—I am sure that he would help personally if he could do so—to visit Knighton house, Border house and shelters for the homeless generally in Leicester and to listen to those who are trying to serve. I challenge him to spare time on his rounds, wherever he goes, for a visit to Leicester. If he does so, he will understand why I am so pleased to have had a brief opportunity this evening to put before the House the needs of my constituents and others. I am speaking of the needs of the homeless in Leicester, and those needs are becoming more acute daily. We need resources, understanding and care from the Government and from those who are responsible for housing within the machinery of government. I call for action now.

11.43 pm
Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South)

I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) on raising an issue of interest in Leicester, but one which is of national importance. I agree with him that the despair which he sees at his surgery, and which I see at mine, must be seen by Ministers and many other Tory Members. I pay tribute to the professionals and non-professionals who do so much in Leicester to try to ameliorate some of the worst effects of homelessness.

I reinforce the point made by my hon. and learned Friend. The Government cannot escape their responsibility for the causes of homelessness or their refusal to act to remove them. It is clear that Leicester's responsibility to house the homeless must inevitably mean that other people will be on the waiting lists for longer. That problem has been exacerbated during the past 10 years by the Government's refusal to allow local authorities to build more homes. I am sure that the Minister for Housing and Planning will be aware from his visits around London, before he rejoined the Government that local authorities statutory obligation to house the homeless inevitably causes resentment among people on waiting lists as they see their chances of obtaining a new home in a reasonable time recede.

I am sure that my hon. and learned Friend agrees that, as an immediate step towards removing some of the problems arising from homelessness, the Government should restore to local authorities the freedom to build more houses. Local authorities would then be better able to fulfil their legal obligation to house the homeless. Such a step would also offer some hope in the short to medium term to people who want a home in the public sector, but are denied one as a direct consequence of Government policy towards the building of new council houses.

11.46 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tim Yeo)

I congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) on raising on the Adjournment this important subject. It may be helpful if I describe the background of the Government's housing policy before I consider the specific points relating to Leicester.

The Government are committed to making good housing available to everyone. During our term of office, home ownership has risen from 57 per cent. to 68 per cent. of the population. Over the same period, 2 million new houses have been built and the number of dwellings per thousand of the population has increased by 8 per cent. At the same time, quality has improved. The number of unfit dwellings fell between 1981 and 1986—the date of the last survey—from 1.14 million to 1.05 million. During the same period the number of dwellings lacking basic amenities almost halved.

Funding is also being more carefully targeted. The rising programme of housing association new build, expanded considerably by the use of mixed funding arrangements, is aimed at the areas of greatest need. For the longer term, our policies will also revive the private rented sector, despite the efforts, I am sorry to say, of the Opposition over many years to undermine that important element in any workable housing market.

Our enlarged estate action programme, raised from £190 million to £270 million in the coming year, ensures that priority goes to improving the worst estates. It also ensures that those improvements give the best possible value for money. The new private sector improvement grant system is designed to ensure that resources are directed to the poorest people living in the worst conditions, while active home improvement agency services make sure that it reaches them.

It is against that improving background that the problem of homelessness should be seen—a problem which affects countries abroad as well as Britain. The problem arises from many different causes, including the generation gap, the breakdown of relationships in families, and the demand of young people for greater freedom and independence. Housebuilding is only part of the answer. Personal economic independence is just as important, and here the whole range of Government policies are relevant.

On the housing front, we have to begin with the worst aspects of the problem. Those sleeping rough, with no kind of shelter, are obviously a top priority. In London, we have a special £96 million programme now under way—the hon. Gentleman will be well aware of it—to provide additional hostel places and longer-term move-on accommodation. Six hundred hostel places and 900 places in move-on schemes will come on stream over the next few months, with substantially more expected over the next two years. I mention this because we are aware that a number of the people who are sleeping rough in London do not originate in the capital. We have targeted our present efforts on London, where the problem of rough sleeping is most acute, but we will be considering how the initiative can be extended to other parts of the country in the future, with the help of voluntary organisations.

We are similarly concerned for those who present themselves to local authorities as being statutorily homeless. The most acute problems are in London and in the south-east. Here, we are spending £300 million over this year and next year to increase the amount of rented housing that is available. Our aim is to reduce the need for local authorities to make bed-and-breakfast accommodation available to homeless families by increasing the number of lettings available to the homeless. Priority is being given to getting empty local authority and housing association property back into use and to the release of tenanted property by using cash incentives to encourage better-off tenants to move into owner-occupation. Our aim is to provide 15,000 units over the two years.

We are tackling the wider national problem on a range of fronts. Housing management is vital—a point to which I shall return in a moment—and we are introducing a number of performance indicators to encourage the best practice. High rent arrears represent funding opportunities forgone, and high void rates condemn people to homelessness quite unnecessarily.

How local authorities administer the legislation on homelessness is also important. We are revising the code of guidance to provide clearer advice and fairer treatment for those who apply as being homeless. The consultation draft was warmly welcomed by both the local authority associations and voluntary groups working with the homeless. We hope to publish the revised code around the beginning of May. We also take careful account of homelessness in allocating spending resources under the housing investment programme, and both the general needs index and housing needs index used to allocate resources have been revised this year.

We recognise that short-term leasing can sometimes have a part to play. We have therefore made arrangements to permit local authorities that apply to us to operate short-term leasehold accommodation outside the housing revenue account and thereby avail themselves of a more favourable financial regime.

I turn now to the specific problem of Leicester. Leicester's homelessness problem has, I know, increased recently. But, although it is serious, it is manageable. Neither in terms of total homelessness accepted nor in terms of lettings to the homeless as a percentage of all lettings does Leicester stand out as a particularly difficult city. Indeed, the proportion of homeless people in temporary accommodation has been exceptionally low until very recently. It is not true to say that the Government have failed to help Leicester with its homeless. The city's housing investment programme allocation of £18.3 million was the highest per capita in the east midlands. On the national scale, although the city is only 23rd in terms of population and 27th in terms of need, Leicester's estimated spend for the current year is the 14th highest of those of all the largest housing authorities. In 1989–90 it was ninth highest.

We recognise the vital role of voluntary organisations in the prevention and relief of homelessness. That is why we have again more than doubled—to £4.5 million—the amounts available to those organisations in 1991–92 in grants under section 73 of the Housing Act 1985. Of this money, £1.6 million goes to the new national co-ordinated homelessness advice service, based on citizens' advice bureaux and involving Shelter and SHAC, to make timely and expert advice more widely available than ever before. The remainder of the money will go to a total of 78 voluntary bodies for specific projects of direct practical help to the single homeless.

Leicester night shelter, for example, received £15,102 in 1990–91 towards the cost of establishing a junior night shelter providing overnight accommodation, meals, advice, therapy and other necessary facilities for homeless people between 16 and 19 in Leicester for whom the existing shelter is not suitable. Funding in the next financial year will be in the region of £25,000 subject to agreement on satisfactory monitoring and evaluation arrangements.

Much play has been made during the debate of the housing that is alleged to have been lost through the right to buy. Of course, that housing is not actually lost at all. For the most part, it is still occupied by the Leicester people who rented it in the first place. When they die or move on, it goes either to their children or to other Leicester people who, in earlier years, would probably have been on the waiting list for rented housing.

The money that is received from the sale of housing is similarly not lost. The Government are ensuring that that money is, as far as possible, used to meet the most urgent need in terms of new capital expenditure on housing, and, by requiring local authorities to repay debt, they are helping to reduce the burden on local authorities. At all events, despite the right-to-buy sales that have taken place, the falls in re-lets have not been as dramatic as some people believe. Between 1984 and 1990 the number of council houses re-let in Leicester has remained stable. It was almost 2,000 last year. With the additional housing association units coming on stream during that period, re-lets for social housing for rent may even have slightly increased.

Leicester city council has had large sums of capital finance to dispense over the past few years. It has had full freedom of choice on how that finance should be allocated. In 1989–90 the council spent more than £48 million. If even £5 million of that had been put into grant aid for housing association building to rent, up to 130 new dwellings could have been provided. Furthermore, the council is owed £4 million in rent arrears—10 per cent. of its total rent roll. That is by far the highest percentage in the whole of the east midlands. It is 21st in the national league. If £4 million could be retrieved, the funds for a further 100 houses might be released. It is most unfair that some of those who are decently housed should deprive the homeless by not paying their rent.

Management of the council stock could also be improved. Void rates have been persistently high over the years. In April last year, the latest year for which figures are available, 2.78 per cent. of its total housing stock was unoccupied. That is almost 3,000 properties—a fact that has been conveniently overlooked in the debate. If that figure could be cut merely to the regional average voids figure, which is just under 2 per cent. of stock, it would make available more than 250 properties—enough to accommodate all the homeless to whom the hon. and learned Gentleman referred. If Leicester could manage its stock as well as the average management performance in the east midlands, many more people could be housed.

In its 1990 housing investment programme return, Leicester failed to estimate how many private sector dwellings were vacant. I expect that the figure must be around 4,000. Any council that was clear-headed about making the best use of available resources and was really determined to meet the needs of its homeless people would by now have been in touch with every owner. It would be encouraging all of them to make use of the new market rent regime that the Government have introduced and make accommodation, either furnished or unfurnished, available for the homeless.

With the consent of the Secretary of State, grants can be paid to private landlords under sections 24 and 25 of the Local Government Act 1988. Those grants take the form of revenue or capital assistance. Where necessary, the council can consent to top up housing benefit payments with grants under section 24 of the Local Government Act 1988 to ensure that owners are fairly recognised. A determined effort could produce hundreds of additional rented properties from that source.

The housing association movement has done a wonderful job in Leicester. Over the past three years it has added 744 dwellings to the stock of houses to let there. In 1990–91, 237 houses were added. Had it wished, Leicester city council could have considered ways of drawing private funding into the rehabilitation of its own rented stock by transferring some of it to the housing association movement. It could thereby have released funds for new build.

Mr. Janner

Does the Minister know that housing associations are not handling the demand from homeless people in almost any way and that, of a total accepted statutory homeless of 8,718, the total housed by local authorities in the area was 5,833, and the total housed by housing associations was only 96—that is, 1 per cent.? Those figures come from the east midlands housing corporation for 1989–90.

Mr. Yeo

The figures that the hon. and learned Gentleman quoted are somewhat historic by now, and the housing associations are placing increasing emphasis on housing homeless people. The associations' total programme is building up substantially as the Government are roughly doubling the allocation to the housing association movement through the Housing Corporation—from just over £1 billion in the current year to just over £2 billion in three year's time. The housing associations will be making a rapidly growing contribution towards solving the problems of homelessness in Leicester.

Leicester city council could also consider offering capital payments to some of its existing tenants to encourage them to move into the private rented sector, making way for homeless people with, currently, no alternative but to rent. Another possibility is to make better use of the stock by paying elderly tenants to vacate family housing and move into flats.

Another aspect of overall housing management needs developing. Several authorities have set up property shops, which ensure that each person coming to the council for housing considers all the options open to him, instead of heading automatically into a council house. People are given information about the prices and types of housing available for sale. They are invited to look at shared ownership—something that they may never have considered. Housing associations provide information about their own stock and waiting lists. Most important of all for the longer term, registers of reliable private landlords are built up, and contacts with them maintained, so that this most flexible source of accommodation can make a contribution. In that way, people who would be better suited in another form of tenure do not clog the waiting list unnecessarily, and I commend that course of action to Leicester.

I admire many aspects of Leicester's housing policy. Its renewal strategy over 15 years has done much to consolidate its older private sector stock. More recently, it has begun to work with housing associations. In addition, we worked with it through the estate action programme. But Leicester city council must cease to see itself as a universal provider. Instead, it should consider dispassionately how it can most make use of private sector property and private sector finance, thus adding to the sum of housing to rent. I hope that it will improve those management aspects which have left it with runaway arrears and unnecessary voids. As the economy expands and as Leicester city council comes out of the 1920s, I can foresee much brighter housing prospects for its citizens.

The hon. and learned Gentleman was kind enough to invite me to visit Leicester and to see some of the factors for myself. I am glad to be able to tell him that I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning will pay a visit to Leicester later this year.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute past Twelve o'clock.