HC Deb 19 February 1992 vol 204 cc319-20
6. Mr. Ian Bruce

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the availability of council house sales' receipts to repay debt and to provide additional houses to rent.

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Michael Heseltine)

At 1 April 1991, local authorities had unspent housing capital receipts of £700 million. In addition they held approximately £5.1 billion from all capital receipts and set-aside as provision for debt repayment under the new capital finance system. Since 1985–86 alone, total capital public expenditure on social housing provision has been £18.3 billion.

Mr. Bruce

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I wonder whether a new radical approach should be taken to the receipts from council house sales. Should councils be asked to relieve the public sector borrowing requirement of that burden of long-term debt by transferring it and their balances to housing associations? In that way housing associations could immediately buy up many of the surplus properties that are currently available on the housing market. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that would provide low-cost homes, a welcome boost to the housing market and reduce housing benefits?

Mr. Heseltine

My hon. Friend's heart is in the right place, but I do not believe that his precise proposal would have the effect that he has in mind. Because of the flow of capital receipts we have been able to increase the cash spent on social housing, not least through the agency to which my hon. Friend referred, the Housing Corporation, whose budget is shortly to rise to £2 billion a year.

Mr. Nellist

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that if the principle that the Government applied in cancelling £14.5 billion worth of debt for all nationalised industries before privatisation were applied to local authorities, there would be little debt left to repay? If he is really concerned to increase the number of homes available to rent, why will he not recognise that of the 700,000 empty properties, 100,000 are in the council sector and 600,000 are privately owned? Why not deal with the beam instead of for ever going on about the mote?

Mr. Hesletine

The hon. Gentleman raises the important issue of the privately rented sector. It is probably true to say that his party did more decade after decade to destroy the availability of properties in the private rented sector—to the impoverishment of some of the most needy sectors of society.