HC Deb 15 February 1993 vol 219 cc39-71 4.40 pm
Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

I beg to move, That this House is alarmed by reports from all areas of the United Kingdom regarding the acute shortage of low cost housing available for rent or for purchase under all systems of tenure or ownership; calls on the Government to provide urgently for the release of capital receipts derived from the sale of council property from all previous financial years for housing investment both directly by local authorities and by partnership schemes and for links to be established between agencies providing housing, health and social care to ensure that provision is made for all people in need; and further calls on the Government to ensure that people have the right to decent and appropriate conditions including facilities for the disabled. It is perhaps a pity that such an important debate on matters relating to housing has been delayed due to the farce that we have just seen. If the Government had got their act together, we would have had another 45 minutes to deal with this very important subject.

It is easy to fall into the trap of suggesting that problems in one's own constituency are unique. I had no idea of the scale of the housing crisis facing this country outside my area of the north-west of England until I compared notes with my colleagues. If we want to begin to tackle the problems, we do not need the Government's laid back approach of "It'll be all right on the night"; we need radical action from the Government. I will refer in detail to my constituency to give the House a flavour of the problems in one constituency which is by no means the worst off in the land, but by no means the best off.

My constituency comprises part of the borough of Ellesmere Port and Neston and part of the council area of the city of Chester. Some 10,000 electors live in the latter part. There are 4,500 people on the housing waiting list in the borough of Ellesmere Port and Neston and 5,000 in the city of Chester area.

I want to examine the facts in some detail and I hope that that will demonstrate to the House that the problem lies not with local authorities, private landlords, housing associations or the owner-occupied sector, but right here with the Government. The problem is their failure to recognise the importance of the links between the breakdown in the economy generally and the growing crisis in housing.

In the rural Chester area, the council has undertaken a major survey to determine the extent of rural housing need. The results of two pilot surveys show an under-estimation of need in respect of the housing waiting list. There is a substantial level of requests for rented accommodation in preference to owner-occupation.

In its 1992 report, the Rural Development Commission highlighted the problems and cited Chester as a case study. The report refers to the low average wage of often less than £3 an hour—against a background of the Government wanting to abolish the wages councils—and the average private rent of £63 a week. The report also refers to other difficulties in respect of trying to resolve the problem in rural areas. Thirty seven per cent. of Chester's rural council housing stock has been sold off. With a rural turnover of 6 per cent., which is substantially less than the urban area, there is a real problem.

Since April 1989, there has been a 25 per cent. increase in the housing waiting list in the borough of Ellesmere Port and Neston, from 3,276 to 4,492. As bad as that figure is, it hides the real problem which is the time that people have to wait in order to be housed. I will refer to harsh statistics to illustrate my points and I ask hon. Members, many of whom on the Conservative Benches live in relative opulence, to think carefully about what the figures mean.

With regard to the increase in the housing waiting list from 3,276 to 4,492, in April 1987, a family with one child had to wait just one month in Ellesmere Port and Neston on average to obtain council accommodation. That reflects a well-run Labour-controlled authority of which there are many up and down the land. Regrettably, as a result of the Government's policies, that waiting time has increased to 42 months—

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Gedling)

Well run?

Mr. Miller

The Government Whip may criticise that point from a sedentary position, but I challenge anyone to criticise the authority which has managed its housing stock extremely well. The Government are responsible for the increase in waiting time to 42 months.

The main contributory factors to the increase in waiting lists are constraints on new build, the effects of the poll tax, stress related to family breakdown, unemployment and repossessions. After.14 years of Tory trial and error, one would have thought that the Tories would have got it right; but no, the problems continue. It is the public's trial based on Tory errors.

In this month's House Builder magazine, the Chancellor of the Exchequer displays an awe-inspiring ignorance. Under the headline, which I found difficult to believe,

The Government's done its bit", the Chancellor argues that the housing market can look after itself after his autumn statement. What complacent drivel. Having set out what is so obviously a flawed argument, he concludes: the Government cannot underwrite the housing market; nor can it insulate the building and construction trades from the economic cycle. When the Prime Minister eventually realises that the Chancellor just is not up to the job, I suggest that he looks at the cartoon linked to that article in which the Chancellor is pointing to building workers saying, "Gentlemen, over to you." Yes, any one of them could do a better job than the present incumbent. Any one of them could demonstrate the clear links between the state of the economy and the construction industry. Any one of them could tell the Chancellor that his autumn statement was just a drop in the ocean. Any one of them would have more concern for the needs of the homeless and people living in inadequate accommodation than the Chancellor.

Mr. Charles Hendry (High Peak)

As the hon. Gentleman referred to the autumn statement, is he aware that the £577 million allocated to housing associations has already led to 11,000 houses being brought back into use by housing associations?

Mr. Miller

The hon. Gentleman is somewhat premature: that has not happened. If he waits a little longer, he will hear my economic analysis and I hope that he will then appreciate that the scale of the problem is much greater than has been suggested. If the Chancellor spent less time evicting his own tenants and more time thinking about the nation's economic plight, perhaps he would really start to understand what is happening.

In the House Builder, under the byline "Absent jury", the president of the House-Builders Federation, Mr. Tony Hillier, states: Clearly, the economy dominates all. The slump in the housing market is inextricably linked to the continued failure of the general economy to move out of recession. The jury is still out on whether the Chancellor's Autumn Statement was sufficient to stimulate the economy into decisive action. The Government clearly does not believe that a recovery in housing is a pre-condition for recovery in the wider economy, and we at the HBF have suspended judgment to see who is right. People at the HBF obviously believe one thing and the Government believe another. He went on to say: When I took chemistry 'A' level, many years ago, I grappled with molecular theory"— I was attracted by that statement, because I grappled with molecular theory as well— which taught me that life was made up of various sub-atomic particles—protons, electrons and neutrons. In my journey through life I have since discovered a further particle, which seems to be the main building block of life: that is, of course, the moron. It seems to me that it is this particular particle which generates much of the housing policy of the DOE and other Government departments. I could not put it better myself. Mr. Hillier's knighthood obviously goes down the Swanee.

My staff have been talking to local estate agents. I thank the estate agents who took part in my little survey. It was particularly important because it was an attempt to put into perspective some parts of the problem that we face. I shall describe to the House some of the anecdotal comments that came from estate agents. The first said: Not wonderful—not very good at all! She said that things picked up after the new year but fell again and that if interest rates stayed down they would improve. According to that estate agent, it is basically supply and demand. She has many properties on her books without chains but they are not moving either. Property prices are down by 20 per cent. to 25 per cent. in the past two years. The second estate agent said: There are positive signs of improvement this year, busier than last year. Although there are more properties on the market, they are not selling any more. Lots of people appear to be waiting for interest rates to fall again. When the market picks up and house prices are realistic, they should sell. Another estate agent said that last year was the worst year on record. Prices dropped by 10 per cent. That estate agent was a little more encouraged by the beginning of 1993, but he said that that could be wiped out by a rise in interest rates and local employment setbacks. The importance of that for the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Gedling) is that, according to the estate agents to whom I have spoken, there are direct links between the general economic situation and the needs of the housing industry. Another estate agent said that redundancy worries and possible job loss are more important than keeping the brake on interest rates. The general links are clearly seen by estate agents.

As the House can see, estate agents' views are not all necessarily bleak in respect of the owner-occupied sector. But, even if one were to take the most optimistic of those comments, unless the supply side is addressed in terms of the low-cost end of the market, there can be no solution. We simply have too few houses to meet the nation's need for housing of a decent standard. Add to that the problems of negative equity and the problems in the private sector start to become even more clear. Negative equity more than doubled last year to £2.68 billion. Also, 27 per cent. of people buying the cheapest property have negative equity. If this year's fall in house prices continues, by the end of the year negative equity will double.

A resolution of the issue of confidence raised by the agents to whom I referred will occur only when the economy gets back on the move. Of course, most people bar the Chancellor think that a house-building programme that targets the low-cost sector would have an early impact on confidence. In turn, that would provide an incentive to the marketplace and take pressure off local authorities by increasing interest elsewhere in the spectrum, and remove or at least reduce the number of repossessions. In turn, the chain reaction would release precious resources which could be used to address many other pressing social problems. The formula is quite straightforward and simple.

Examples of how the system has gone wrong can be seen throughout the country. The Minister for Housing and Planning recently suggested that mandatory renovation grants might be abandoned entirely due to the financial pressures that they are placing on local authorities. Although financial pressures on councils are undoubtedly increasing, such a step would be extremely short-sighted. It would accelerate deterioration of the housing stock, affect the most vulnerable groups in society and reduce the supply of housing.

As hon. Members know, housing capital finance is an extremely complex subject. Capital expenditure can be derived from three sources: first, permission to borrow money; secondly, housing capital receipts; and, thirdly, rent income. The Government issue a basic credit approval which covers all council activity, not just housing. However, they do that in stages to make it appear that capital allocation is being made specifically for housing. The first stage is the announcement of the housing investment programme allocation. That in itself does not confer permission to borrow, but it is the Government's assessment of what a council needs to spend on its capital works.

I shall set out in careful detail the next part of my argument because it shows the anomaly between the way the Government manipulate the figures and the real facts facing local authorities. In the case of my local authority, the "receipts taken into account" figure significantly increased in 1993–94. That represents central Government's assessment of the council's ability to finance capital expenditure from usable capital receipts. The figure is based on actual usable capital receipts as at 31 March 1992, plus an estimate of the likely usable receipts that will be generated in 1992–93. However, the latter figure is modified as though the relaxation on capital receipts rules that was announced in the Chancellor's autumn statement had applied from 1 April, which of course it did not.

For Ellesmere Port and Neston, matters have been made worse by the fact that the council received a one-off windfall capital receipt of more than £3 million before 13 November 1992. Therefore, although it was able to use only 50 per cent. of that money, the Government treated it as 100 per cent. usable. That was a general fund capital receipt, not a housing capital receipt. Moreover, the Government have made the assumption that that represents the typical usable capital receipts during the year and therefore the figure has been projected to 1993–94. The effects of that perverse methodology in calculating receipts taken into account is that in 1993–94 the housing capital programme will lose credit approvals amounting to £793,000, which actually relates to general fund capital receipts, half of which the council is not allowed to use anyway.

By comparison, it is estimated that additional usable housing capital receipts released as a result of the Chancellor's autumn statement are £280,000 in 1992–93 and £572,250 in 1993–94. Against that, the amount of set-aside capital receipts—the amount of capital receipts which the council owns but is not allowed to spend—is approximately £11.5 million. That logic is perverse and must be changed.

Mr. Nick Raynsford (Greenwich)

My hon. Friend rightly highlighted the perverse logic of the Government in their attitude to capital receipts. Is my hon. Friend aware of the even more perverse position of the Minister of Housing ten years ago—he was a junior housing Minister at that time—when he was advocating the use of all accumulated capital receipts as absolutely essential for the housing programme? That is an extraordinary inconsistency on the part of the Government who now claim that they cannot release the £5 billion which is available and would make such an enormous difference in meeting housing needs.

Mr. Miller

I bow to my hon. Friend's knowledge and expertise in the field of housing. I agree with him wholeheartedly that not only my small detailed example but the whole logic of the Government's position is perverse.

This morning, I received a letter from the Maritime Housing Association which set out the difficulties that the association faces. Maritime housing is an area supposedly being helped by the current Administration. The association wrote to me on behalf of all members of the committee of management to express concern about the level of average housing association grants for rental schemes which is projected for 1994–95 and 1995–96. A small housing association is expressing that view. It has written to all Members of Parliament in the greater Merseyside area. I hope that the Minister will take on board the points which have been made. We face serious issues.

The House Builder is not a left-wing tract as far as I am aware. In that magazine, the Minister for Housing and Planning takes a marginally more enlightened view on which I congratulate him. He says, There can be no doubt that the issues surrounding Housing are among the most important facing us today. When I first read that statement I thought that the Minister had seen the light and was on his way to Damascus. He continued by saying—[Horn. MEMBERS: "He does not know where it is."] He does not know where the article is, either. He continued by saying, and I think that it is a quote from the Department of the Environment's annual report: The Government's aim is to ensure that a decent home is within the reach of every family whether it is owned by them, rented from private or social landlords or part owned and part rented. He then goes on to promote a series of solutions, some of which I would go along with. However, the problem is his failure to distance himself from that wretched Chancellor and recognise the scale of the problem facing the country.

He said that his package is to provide a kick start"— Labour Members were criticised for using "kick start" during the election— to the depressed housing market, while at the same time providing some additional 20,000 social homes this year. I have to say to the Minister that that simply is not enough. His logic and financial methodology are suspect in the extreme.

Earlier, I accused the Minister of underestimating the scale. Why did he do that? He did it simply because, with all the expertise at his fingertips, he is satisfied with a target figure of 20,000. The Institute of Housing says that the target should be 100,000. Shelter agrees with that view, as do the Housing Corporation and that other well-known left-wing think tank, the Audit Commission.

In considering action for the Budget, the Chancellor would do well to examine the arguments of the Institute of Housing. The institute says, House building is one of the most effective ways to create new employment because it is labour intensive. Every £1 million invested in new houses or renovation creates as many as 50 new jobs. If 100,000 new jobs can be created overall, something over £750 million would be gained by the Exchequer. Most construction products are produced from United Kingdom sources so the import bill for expanded house building will be modest. House building primarily stimulated United Kingdom materials suppliers. Part of the cost of the investment programme would be offset by savings in benefits and recovered tax income. On the same theme, Shelter says, In 1990 nearly 5,000 building firms became insolvent, followed by 7,000 in 1991. The building employers estimate that an average of 600 jobs—about 300,000 in total—will have been lost each working day in the past two years to the end of 1992. Another 100,000 could be lost by the end of 1993. Each unemployed person costs the state, on average, £8,900 in benefits and lost tax. In just two years the collapse of the construction industry may well have cost the Exchequer £2,700 million, and much more if unemployment in related trades is considered … If lost corporation tax and stamp duty are included, the recession in the construction industry has probably already cost over £4,000 million. Later, I will set out arguments as to why that figure is larger.

The motion talks about links between different agencies and appropriate housing for people with disabililities. What do I mean by that? One of the most frustrating aspects of public administration in the United Kingdom is the way in which everything works in little boxes. Departments and, indeed, empires build up in splendid isolation with no knowledge or even a care about the rest of the world. In addressing the problem which we face in that area, we can examine the health links. Shelter argues that meeting the needs of homeless people costs more per person than meeting the needs of the rest of the population. That is fairly obvious. It says that the issue is causing considerable concern to health authorities—we have not seen any action on that—but, as yet, there are no estimates of cost. Similarly, few studies have estimated the costs of bad housing. The Department of Health has recently estimated that the cost to the NHS of treating illnesses created through condensation runs at £800 million per year. We must add that to the figure of £4,000 million and all the other health cost implications.

Likewise, much of what happens on the ground with regard to social services relies on the good will of local authority officers trying desperately to solve the housing-related issues which stem from, for example, care in the community. We need a lead from the top to resolve some of the housing-associated problems.

My final illustration of the need for greater cross departmental links relates to people with disabilities. Is there not a basic human right for people to be housed in appropriate conditions or are the Government happy to see people such as the young man I saw a fortnight ago whose mother is becoming more and more ill coping with his disability? The Government are not allowing the local authority to spend money which is available to provide that man with proper ramps or a stair lift. Not only should existing moneys be released: we should have a long hard look at the method of delivery.

Even the Department of the Environment recognises that people with disabilities are discriminated against, although it does not seem to do much about it. In early 1992, data showed that only 30 accessible homes were being built for every 100,000 disabled people and that there were 1,170,000 outstanding requests for adaptations to existing homes. I doubt whether there is a better example of discrimination anywhere in the United Kingdom.

I shall now turn to the economic issues and the solutions to the problems with which I have been dealing. I know that my hon. Friends intend to expand some of the arguments that I have set out. Many of the necessary solutions are well described in a document published by Shelter last year called "Moving Forward. A Programme to Meet Housing Need." On council and housing association empty homes it says: These would be brought back into use through rehabilitation and improvement work. Councils could also fund housing association repairs in return for nomination rights for homeless households currently in temporary housing. The programme envisages that 30,000 empty homes would be repaired and brought back into use over a five year period. The programme also deals with private sector leasing and purchase. It says: Councils should be allowed to offer owners of homes, used on a lease, a cash sum to buy the home when the lease expires. There are currently an estimated 17,500 homes used on lease by councils in England, with the majority in London. The programme makes recommendations about private purchase. It says: This would involve the purchase of private unsold and repossessed homes by local authorities and housing associations from developers, lenders and private owners. Advantage could be taken of the current state of the private housing market. The programme also deals with private and Government empty homes. We often hear comments from Conservative Members about the number of empty local authority homes. The number of empty homes is very large. Throughout the land a total of 640,000 houses are vacant, many of which are in the private sector and require finance in the ways that were described earlier. Some empty homes are in local authority hands and 31,000 are in Government hands.

The Government could take a lead in making empty homes available through an expansion of shared and low-cost home ownership. An expansion of the existing programme of shared and do-it-yourself ownership through housing associations would meet the needs of many households. Of course, it is also necessary to expand new build. I refer hon. Members back to my earlier comments about the House-Builders Federation. That new build clearly needs to be demonstrably targeted towards the homeless.

Mr. Barry Porter (Wirral, South)

I have listened with great interest to the hon. Gentleman's detailed knowledge of the housing market. It is so detailed that I sometimes think that he misses the wood for the trees. If the ideas that he sets out are so obvious and straightforward and have no effect on the public sector borrowing requirement, why does no other western industrialised country follow those policies?

Mr. Miller

The answer to that is yes, of course they do. There are plenty of examples. Clearly, the one difference between other countries and Britain is that we have a different pattern of ownership. But the methodology that I have described for solving some housing problems has been applied elsewhere in Europe.

Mr. Barry Porter

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Miller

No. I shall finish now. The hon. Gentleman will have his opportunity shortly, if Mr. Deputy Speaker allows.

My motion refers to the release of capital receipts. The pace of that release should not be determined by the Department of the Environment on its own. It is time that the Department got together with the Department of Health, the Department of Social Security and the Treasury and conducted an analysis of the overall cost to the economy in the way that I have described. It could then launch a crusade aimed at attacking the terrible evil of the current housing shortage in our society. Such an approach would produce huge social advantages but would also have enormous economic benefit.

Vision and original thought have not been the hallmarks of this Administration, so I shall not be greedy and ask for the impossible. But the real work has been done and Opposition Members will have no objection if the Government pinch our ideas and those of some of the organisations that have advised them. For the homeless, for those living in inadequate conditions, for those in financial difficulty and for the unemployed, we need action and we need it now.

5.14 pm
Mr. David Amess (Basildon)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) on his success in winning the ballot. I have listened carefully to the comments that he has made on housing. It will probably not come as any surprise if I say that I do not agree with them. However, I am delighted to have this opportunity to speak on housing. First, it gives me an opportunity to talk about my constituency of Basildon. Secondly, it gives me an opportunity to talk about the reports in my local newspaper of the visit to my constituency last week of the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle).

Before I deal with those points, I pay tribute to our Front-Bench team on housing. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) has great expertise on housing. I do not think that there is anything that my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) does not know about housing: he is a superb Minister and I pay tribute to his many initiatives.

Hon. Members

Where is he?

Mr. Hendry

My hon. Friend may have heard Opposition Members ask from a sedentary position where my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning is. My hon. Friend may be aware that this afternoon our hon. Friend the Minister is visiting a hostel in London, examining the needs of homeless people.

Mr. Amess

I thank my hon. Friend for that remark; sadly, good manners do not appear to be so highly regarded as they once were.

My hon. Friends and I have absolutely no idea what the Labour party stands for these days. Socialism appears to have been dumped, although very quietly. The Labour party does not say publicly that clause 4 has been abandoned. It is all about winning elections. Nowhere can one see the Labour party's hypocrisy more clearly than on housing. What does the Labour party stand for?

Mr. Miller

If the hon. Gentleman is saying that he agrees with the programme that I have just set out, we welcome that.

Mr. Amess

I thought that I had started by saying that I did not agree with the content of the speech of the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston. I wish to talk briefly about the Labour party's policy on housing. Nowhere can one see its hypocrisy more clearly. The Government introduced the right to buy. The two socialist parties—Labour and the alliance—fought that Bill word for word and line by line. They did not want council tenants and new town commission tenants to have the right to buy.

However, when the policy proved popular, Labour and the alliance changed their view. There was no longer talk of buying back the properties. All of a sudden that was quietly dumped, although Labour was in difficulty with its left-wing councils throughout the country. Lambeth is not an isolated case. Socialist-controlled Basildon district council is one reason why the Conservative party is in the majority and the Labour party in opposition. When the market got into difficulty and interest rates rose, the Labour party decided that it was not such a good idea for people to own their own house.

The Conservative party has a consistent policy on housing. We want to give people the opportunity to live in decent property.

Mr. Raynsford

Cardboard boxes?

Mr. Amess

We want people to be able to own their property, if they want to do so. The hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) is talking about cardboard boxes from a sedentary position. I shall deal with that point.

It does not matter who is the Member of Parliament, the No. 1 subject about which people come to constituency surgeries is always housing. It is not what the Opposition parties think.

Mr. Raynsford

Yes, it is.

Mr. Amess

As far as I am concerned it is not. The problem is caused by the popularity of transient relationships—[Interruption.] If Opposition Members listen, they will learn what I mean. Conservative Members are not frightened to stand for something. We understand that Opposition Members are frightened to enunciate their policies, but I am glad about that.

I was talking about the popularity of transient relationships. Men walk in and out of relationships; they produce children with one woman, abandon her, go on to another woman, produce more children, and so on. Those women and children are the victims of many of the policies supported by Opposition Members, who should be ashamed of themselves.

Mr. Gary Streeter (Plymouth, Sutton)

My hon. Friend touched on a fundamental question—the instance of family breakdown in our society—in an interesting and pertinent way. Does he agree that we hear precious little about that from Labour party Members, who have no idea how to deal with that central question?

Mr. Amess

How right my hon. Friend is. Labour Members have no interest in family life and do not want families to stay together. They are interested only in designer socialism. The hypocrisy is that Labour Members, who always pretend to support the working class, come to areas such as Basildon, thinking that they know best how ordinary men and women should live their lives, but my constituents do not want to be told what to do by socialists—

Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)

The hon. Gentleman has mentioned a well-known prejudice of Conservative Members. The number of broken relationships has decreased and is not significantly different from the number 15 or 20 years ago. The big difference is that, according to the Duke of Edinburgh's report on housing, there are 2 million fewer homes available for rent than there were in 1980. Does the hon. Gentleman want to comment on that? The lack of homes in the rented sector, rather than marital breakdowns, is to blame for our housing difficulties.

Mr. Amess

I have no idea where the hon. Gentleman gets his figures, but he is wrong about both issues.

I was talking about the breakdown of settled relationships. It is no good people coming to our surgeries because they think that the council or the state can be a substitute family. That is not good enough. I want men to be responsible for their offspring. The Conservatives will be dealing with that problem from 1 April.

Mrs. Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East)

I was fascinated by the hon. Gentleman's definition. He mentioned transient relationships and settled families, but it has to be one or the other. I remind him that only he, or someone like him, could make such statements about women. I assure him that none of the women with young children who have come to my surgery have done so to get council housing.

Mr. Amess

That is less than generous of the hon. Lady. She knows perfectly well that that is not what I said.

My experiences in Basildon are not very different from those elsewhere in the country. Fathers of children should take some responsibility for their accommodation. I do not want the women or children to be punished, but I want there to be some responsibility—

Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West)

Tell that to Cecil Parkinson.

Mr. Amess

If the hon. Member for Leeds, West will calm down, I shall come to his remarks and his visit to Basildon shortly.

I am talking not merely about the popularity of transient relationships, but about my experience of families in the east end of London, who stayed together and helped one another out. It is sad that 16, 17 and 18-year-olds leave home and have to live in cardboard boxes—as the hon. Member for Greenwich saidx2014;but in this day and age there is no need for anyone to live in a cardboard box.

Under this Government, this is a free country, and any hon. Member can travel anywhere and can visit other Members' constituencies. If the press reports are accurate, the hon. Member for Leeds, West—who is more than able to intervene if reports are not accurate—visited my constituency last week and advised my constituents at a meeting on how to vote in a ballot on the transfer of housing. I find that extremely interesting. I do not know how many times he has been to Basildon. My home is there, I have represented the town for more than 10 years and I know the people only too well.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

It is nine and three quarters.

Mr. Amess

Does the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) want to intervene? It appears not.

The hon. Member for Leeds, West advised my constituents how to vote. As the House knows, Basildon is the finest town in the country—probably the finest town in the whole world—so it is not surprising that people wish to come and see how we do things. One thing that my constituents do not like is socialism. My constituents threw out the rotten socialist council, which I had had to deal with for the past nine and three quarter years, last May—if the hon. Member for Burnley wishes to quibble about the difference between nine and three quarters and 10 years. Fifteen Conservatives stood and 15 won the election, with swings of between 20 and 50 per cent. from the socialists to the Conservatives.

It is amazing for the hon. Member for Leeds, West to visit Basildon. In all the years I have represented the town, the Opposition Front Bench has known that Basildon Labour party is crazy and that its policies are bringing the Labour party into disrepute as it tries to fool the electorate so as to gain power at the next general election in four or five years' time. The Opposition Front Bench have distanced themselves from Basildon, but the hon. Member for Leeds, West seeks wisdom and has visited Basildon.

Since 1960, succeeding Labour councils have promised Commission for the New Towns tenants that they would take over their properties. Socialist councils have said that they would be happy to take over the properties. Under the Labour Government in 1977, the council could have done so, as Labour-controlled Harlow did.

Mr. Barry Porter

My hon. Friend's description of the joys of Basildon almost brought tears to my eyes. I have never had the privilege of being there and I am not sure that I shall be putting that situation right either. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) mentioned capital receipts, and I understand that my hon. Friend intends to come to that subject. Is it not the case that there would not have been any capital receipts to argue about if it had not been for a Conservative Government?

Mr. Amess

How right my hon. Friend is. I will tell the House how much the stupidity of the socialist-controlled council has lost my community charge payers.

In 1977, the council had the opportunity to take over the housing, as Labour-controlled Harlow did, but said that it was too expensive. In 1976–77 the council was in deep consultation with the Department of the Environment and got to the point of taking over the property. At the last minute, it phoned the Department and the deal was called off. Goodness knows how much that cost us.

The council could have taken over CNT housing stock, which then comprised 15,000 properties, at any time during the next eight or nine years. The Conservative Government even shortened the time required under the transfer scheme from six to three months, but nothing happened until 1985, when socialist-controlled Basildon district council put in an offer. It offered £500,000 for those properties, although the current value of the remaining 12,000 properties is £113 million. Since that time, the dear socialist council has spent more than £300,000 of ratepayers' and community charge payers' money on propaganda to kid the people that it wanted to take over those properties. That is the nonsense with which my constituents have lived year in, year out, month in, month out. Yet the hon. Member for Leeds, West went to Basildon to advise my constituents about housing transfer.

Mr. Battle

I have listened with care to the hon. Gentleman. I was invited to Basildon because tenants have particular questions that they want answered. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would care to tell me the answers that he will give to his constituents, because he knows that CNT tenants will be transferred to a new housing association. That association claims in its propaganda that it will give rent guarantees, but those guarantees can only apply to those tenants when their rents go through the roof as a result of his Government changing the grant rates in the next two years.

Mr. Amess

I shall refer to those issues later. The hon. Member for Leeds, West may then feel that he would like to apologise—

Mr. Battle

Answer the question.

Mr. Amess

I will. I do not need to be told my duties by the hon. Gentleman. I fulfil those duties; that is why I was elected in 1983, in 1987 and in 1992, and that is why I shall run for office again in 1997. I take no lectures from Opposition spokesmen who know nothing about local issues.

The Labour council has spent more than £300,000 on propaganda. It has wasted that money on broadcasting a message that had nothing to do with housing need. That message was simple, "The wicked Conservatives are awful —vote Labour." The cost of the current advertising to CNT tenants about the transfer to the council is being borne by the Government.

The previous socialist council even spent money producing a video to put its message across. There was one famous occasion when I led a delegation of joint estate management representatives, together with a tenant representative—he later became deputy leader of the socialist council—to the Minister then responsible for new towns, Lord Skelmersdale. We played that video in front of that tenant representative after he had told the Minister how fair the council had been in putting its argument. It was the equivalent of a video nasty. A little old lady was shown coming into an office with a letter some 8 ft long which was supposed to demonstrate the size of the rent increases that the wicked Conservative Government and the wicked housing association had set. Such is the irresponsible frightening nonsense that we have had to put up with from the socialist council.

Mr. Battle

That is not true.

Mr. Amess

Yes, it is. Frankly, the hon. Gentleman does not know the issues and he does not know what he is talking about.

Mr. Raynsford

Would the hon. Gentleman like to confirm to the House that in the past four years the average rents of housing associations have risen by 107 per cent.—that is according to the core monitoring figures produced by the National Federation of Housing Associations—while the income of housing association tenants has increased by 25 per cent? Would he recognise that council rents have also been pushed up, ahead of the rate of inflation, as a direct result of Government policy? Does he accept that his remarks are inappropriate, bearing in mind the Government's responsibility for forcing up the rents of those who are tenants of councils and housing associations?

Mr. Amess

I do not accept that; presumably that was also the feeling of the electors in 1987 in Fulham.

The socialist council wreaked havoc, worry and fear, particularly among elderly tenants, for purely political reasons. It should be absolutely ashamed of itself. My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Porter) mentioned capital receipts and it is worth noting that that socialist council, through its disgraceful behaviour, lost for the residents of Basildon between £80 million and £100 million in capital receipts by not taking over dwellings and leaving them with the CNT.

The Basildon Community Housing Association is a home-grown one whose members are non-political. The BCHA also handles the Siporex estate, which is home to 830 low-quality properties. My hon. Friend the Minister will be aware that that housing association is planning to do everything possible to bring that estate and the Cosmos housing in Vange up to standard.

The hon. Member for Leeds, West met a number of individuals in Basildon and put his argument, but he should note that the rent of the CNT tenant who opts to transfer to the BCHA will not increase until October 1994. It will then only rise by the rate of inflation until October 1997. After that, the association aims to set a rent increase of not more than 2.5 per cent. above inflation. Under the Government I have no doubt that the inflation rate will be extremely low. That is a cast-iron guarantee and it will be part of a legal agreement between BCHA and the CNT. That will ensure its delivery.

The hon. Member for Leeds, West has said in the House today and to my constituents that they should look for a copper-bottomed guarantee on rent. I understand that, but as BCHA is the only body able to offer such a guarantee, one would have expected the hon. Gentleman to advise my constituents to vote for transfer to that association. The council cannot give a rent guarantee as its finances are decided year by year. One could speculate about possible rent increases for council tenants.

I know that the hon. Member for Leeds, West also had something to say to my constituents about repairs, but BCHA has guaranteed that it will deal with all major repairs within five years. Again, that guarantee will be subject to a legal agreement with the CNT. The association will also employ local contractors and will seek to create employment and training opportunities for local residents through such work. It will maintain, inside and out, the homes of those who opt to transfer to it.

One need only look at Basildon council estates—for example, Craylands—and talk to the tenants to see that the council, when it was socialist, had a shameful record of neglect. Those socialists who ran the council chamber misled and confused people about the difference between commission and council houses. If the hon. Member for Leeds, West had been better briefed he would have known about that.

When in Basildon, the hon. Member for Leeds, West talked about tenants' rights, as is the socialist way. Apparently he talked about the benefits of protected assured tenancies as opposed to secure tenancies, but tenancies will be no less secure under the BHCA and tenants will certainly not lose their rights.

The local Labour party and its friends in the tenants action group are now putting considerable effort into the ballot. I understand that they are saying that when they regain control of the council everything will go back to how it used to be. God help my constituents if everything goes back to how it used to be. My constituents certainly do not want things to go back to how they used to be, which is why the socialist council was thrown out last year.

There is to be a by-election in five weeks' time, not for a Conservative seat, but for a Labour seat. There are only 13 socialists left on Basildon council. The socialist councillor who came in with bright ideas has thrown in the towel as he cannot take the fight any more. He has emigrated to New Zealand, and rumours abound that the leader of the Labour group, who works at the treasury department in Walworth road, has decided that he will no longer stand. One by one, the socialists responsible for destroying community life—they tried to do so, but were unsuccessful in Basildon—are throwing in the towel and running off.

When the Conservatives took control of the council last May, they we are left with hardly enough money to collect the refuse, let alone concentrate on housing. The socialists appointed a number of politically motivated council employees, which was an absolute disgrace. Officers should always be politically neutral and independent. It is not for officers to make political decisions, but for the elected representatives. It is quite wrong for local government officers to become party political. If they do not like what the Conservative council is currently doing, they should leave with good grace.

When I hear interventions from Opposition Members trying to laugh at housing associations—[interruption] If they are laughing at me, I am delighted. Their arrogance in laughing at me shows that they have learnt absolutely nothing from their defeat in the last general election, which is good news for my hon. Members.

Mr. Battle

Hon. Members?

Mr. Amess

My hon. Friends. I know that the hon. Member for Leeds, West is starting to become uncomfortable. That is entirely understandable after the things that I have said today.

When the Conservatives took over the council, they found themselves in a difficult position as there were a number of politically motivated local government officers. Such officers should be entirely neutral and should not make political decisions. It is quite wrong for them to do so.

At present, the Conservative-controlled council is doing a magnificent job in difficult circumstances. As the present chairman of housing has said, it is extraordinary that the Labour council, as it was until last May, promised for years to take over the CNT properties, but did not. It has taken a Conservative council to do so—and it has taken a socialist Member of Parliament to visit my constituency and advise my constituents to vote in favour of a Conservative council.

I shall not give my constituents any advice about how they should vote in the ballot as that is entirely a matter for them. They will not take lectures from any hon. Members, whatever their political party. My colleagues and I will be vigilant to see whether any intimidation takes place during the ballot. If any socialists visit elderly people's homes, as they have done over the past 10 years, to collect ballot papers and mislead people, I shall ensure that the severest action is taken against those socialists.

5.45 pm
Mrs. Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East)

How does one follow the speech of the hon. Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess)'? It will be quite difficult. I shall begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) on securing the debate on an important subject that involves one of the most dreadful problems facing any individual or family in this country: the prospect of not having a decent home in which to live.

There are some things in life that we should be able to take for granted, and having a roof over our heads is one of them. I am sure that many hon. Members can recite many examples of the tragedies facing constituents who come to their advice surgeries, hoping that their Member of Parliament can help them to find a decent home. The people that I meet in Lewisham, East are not asking for very much. They simply want a decent home, with space for their children to grow and play, where they can feel secure and get on with the rest of their lives. That is something that we would all expect for ourselves and we all hope to try to achieve for our constituents. However, too many people spend years on waiting lists. They live in overcrowded and sub-standard accommodation with little prospect of anything better. If they are young and single, their chances are even less.

I shall concentrate on the position in London and the horrendous housing crisis in the nation's capital. There are more than 40,000 families in temporary accommodation in London. That probably means that about 100,000 children have no permanent home. That number has been steadily increasing every year for the past 11 years. It may surprise Conservative Members to learn that two-thirds of all temporary accommodation in this country used for homeless families is here in London.

Those figures, enormous as they are, do not tell the whole story. They do not include the single homeless who are not counted in the statistics because, under the Housing Act 1985, their need is not considered a priority. I—and I dare say many of my colleagues—have to tell young people who visit the surgeries that they have little chance of being housed. Therefore, we now have on the streets of our capital city 2,000 people sleeping rough.

Mr. Streeter

The right hon. Lady, sorry, the hon. Lady —I am sure that that was a premonition on my part—mentioned people coming to her surgery asking for advice. Does she ever recommend that they approach housing associations or seek accommodation in the private sector, or does she—like many, if not all, of her colleagues—think only of council houses and believe that nothing else will do?

Mrs. Prentice

I certainly advise those people who come to my surgery of the realities of life and the housing problems that they face under the Conservative Government. I advise them to seek housing association nominations. Lewisham council and its local housing associations work closely together, and the council nominates people to housing association lists. I advise people to seek accommodation in the private rented sector, but they tell me that it is difficult because of the amount of money initially required. People have to pay lump sums that they simply do not have in their pockets, so it is nonsense to suggest that they should use the private rented sector.

Some 5,000 people are in bed and breakfast accommodation which is often poor quality. There are 15,000 people in short-life property and 17,000 in hostels. There are 80,000 people in London in overcrowded households. For any nation to admit to such figures is surely, at the very least, embarrassing. For Britain to do so, with 500,000 construction workers on the dole, is a national disgrace.

Homelessness is only the most obvious expression of the housing crisis in London. We should never forget the thousands of people living in poor and deteriorating housing—the overcrowded families, the people with disabilities trapped in their homes because access is poor or impossible, and the growing numbers of home owners facing mounting debt and repossession.

Let us examine what is happening here in our capital city. More than 1.1 million of London's homes are either unfit for human habitation or are fit but in need of serious renovation; 79 per cent. of the unfit houses—four out of five—are in the private sector. A quarter of a million households are on council waiting lists. Many of them are families with children, elderly people or people with disabilities who need specialist accommodation. More than 60,000 households in London are defined as seriously overcrowded, and about 110,000 council tenants are on council transfer lists.

These are staggering figures, yet in 1991–92 only 500 new homes were built by councils and a further 1,800 were made available through conversion and renovation. To call that a drop in the ocean is an understatement.

London's councils could house only 9,000 families and enable another 17,000 to move. At that rate it will take 25 years to house the people already on waiting lists and another six and a half years to transfer existing council tenants. The fact is, however, that these people will not be rehoused, because others with more pressing needs will join them, every day of every week of every year, in every London borough.

I have already said that the numbers of families in temporary accommodation continue to rise. That is because London's councils are accepting about 38,000 families—as they did in 1991–92—but can provide accommodation for only about 25,000 of them.

We tend to think of the housing crisis as affecting only those who want to rent. That is simply untrue. Although repossessions have slowed a little in the past year, the number of people in arrears has markedly increased. According to some figures, about £169 million is owed to building societies in mortgage arrears. My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston spoke about negative equity. Four out of 10 of the people in London who bought their homes between 1988 and 1991 have an average negative equity of £5,500—yet prices continue to fall, and although building societies are beginning to accept lower repayments, I fear that as unemployment relentlessly rises their goodwill will soon disappear and people will be out on the streets.

So what is to be done? Clearly, the Government do not know, and the hon. Member for Basildon has even less understanding of the housing crisis.

Mr. Miller

He has left.

Mrs. Prentice

Having delivered his polemic, the hon. Gentleman has indeed disappeared from the debate.

The Government have made no plans to deal with the problems of homelessness in London. They have not even conducted a survey of London's housing needs. Instead, we have been showered with publicity about two initiatives which do no more than recycle existing public spending. I agree that they have been worthwhile initiatives, but they can hardly be considered adequate. They have had only a marginal impact on the situation in the capital.

First, there was the two-year £300 million homelessness programme, which at least recognised that there was a problem that needed dealing with. When it began, 31,485 families were in temporary accommodation. When it finished, 37,058 households were in temporary accommodation—hardly a startling success. It is tragic that nothing has replaced that programme. Despite the best efforts of the Association of London Authorities and the London Boroughs Association, the Department of the Environment has resisted any increase in the share of resources to councils and housing associations in line with levels of homelessness.

Then there was the rough sleepers initiative, with £96 million provided over three years, followed by another £60 million. I agree that the initiative reduced the numbers of people on the streets in central areas of London, but it did not solve the problem. About 1,500 permanent places were found, together with some temporary beds in hostels. Yet, as my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford), a recognised expert on this subject, will probably say if he has the opportunity to speak, we need about 10,000 permanent places for single homeless people to stop the hostels being clogged up with people who cannot move to more permanent accommodation.

Another aspect affecting particularly London, and perhaps other areas too, is that of refugees. The Government have done nothing to help councils in this respect. My constituency contains about 41 households with refugee status and recognised as homeless, but the Government have offered no help to councils with refugees on their lists.

The same questions can be asked about the Government's help for homeless former home owners, and the same reply will be heard. The Government have done little or nothing for them. London has been the scene of the greatest number of repossessions, and the mortgage rescue schemes, which have flopped, have done nothing to help these people, who bought their homes during the 1980s and earlier. The Government refused to talk to councils or lenders about resolving the problem.

The autumn statement, which concluded the housing market package of about £570 million for housing associations, would provide in London only about 3,500 houses—less than a year's increase in the number of homeless households in temporary accommodation. Because of the tight rules, the associations have found it very difficult to buy enough cheap properties in high-cost areas—the very ones in which there is the most acute need of affordable rented accommodation.

The London boroughs have tried hard to come to terms with the problem, co-operating with one another in trying to deal with homelessness. They have cut down on the use of bed and breakfast; Lewisham borough council does not use it at all. They have expanded private sector leasing schemes—from fewer than 3,000 in 1988 to about 24,000 today. They have tried to cut the costs of bed-and-breakfast accommodation by implementing a pricing policy and an hotels inspection and grading system. And they have made new arrangements with the housing associations so that they have many more nominations. They also provide hostel and winter shelters for single homeless people and fund voluntary sector homelessness projects.

What the councils need—like the homeless of London—is just a little help and support from the Government. The Government will reply, "We are letting councils use their capital receipts until December of this year," but that is no great shakes when we remember that, because of the recession, sales of land and homes have declined and prices are depressed. Much of what councils can sell has already been sold at discounts to housing associations and tenants. The Government are clawing back the receipts in any case through the estate action schemes and urban programmes. If they really wanted to give a serious boost to the economy they would free up the £5.1 billion of accumulated receipts.

Even the distribution of receipts that we have will not be equal across the nation, and efforts will have to be made to target the areas in greatest need. London needs an agreed plan to reduce homelessness, drawn up by the Department of the Environment, local councils and others concerned about the crisis in the capital, and, after proper consultation, to set out precise targets and time scales.

Local councils and the voluntary sector should be given responsibility for implementing an expanded single homelessness programme to cover the capital. The Government should increase the priority attached to homelessness and temporary accommodation levels in allocating capital resources to councils and housing associations. They can do that simply by adopting the ALA—LBA proposal of a comprehensive homelessness indicator.

It is high time that the Government started talking sensibly with the London associations and revising arrangements for the winter shelter programme by allowing shelters in outer London boroughs such as Croydon and Newham, where there was clearly a need in the past year but no funding. They should change the private sector leasing scheme to allow councils to take up to 20-year leases instead of phasing out the grant that meets a portion of the cost of those leases. They should work jointly with councils and lenders to plan a range of initiatives to support home owners. There must be a specific grant to assist in rehousing refugees.

I said that it was rather tragic that we should have to have a debate on housing in a society where having a roof over one's head is something that we all take for granted. I repeat my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston on raising the subject, and I am only sorry that such a tale of neglect and dereliction of duty must be laid squarely at the Government's door.

6.1 pm

Mr. Hartley Booth (Finchley)

My name appears on the Order Paper under a different topic—victims support. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) on being lucky enough to win the draw, in which I came second.

We are debating an issue of multiple sadness and deprivation. My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) spoke of the problems of splitting relationships and how marriages break down so often. We are talking about the victims of crime and the victims of housing. I shall talk about the problems experienced by victims of crime because they relate directly to the issue of housing. Hon. Members will be glad to hear that 1 have torn up my speech on the victims of crime.

It should be the first duty of every criminal court to consider victims before passing sentence. At present, it is the last duty of a criminal court to consider victims, who are very much an afterthought. I want offenders to be brought directly into the system to pay for—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. The hon. Gentleman is trying very hard to steer a thin line, but he is straying from the subject of housing. If he can keep his remarks to that he will be in order.

Mr. Booth

I am grateful for your correction, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Reference has been made to the 80,000 void properties under local authority control and the 400,000 private sector void properties, rather than the 600,000 quoted by Opposition Members. Those properties offer scope to deal with housing and social problems. Crime and housing need are linked evils of society. It is one of life's ironies that the criminal often targets the weakest members of society, and often those who already have housing problems. Under an advanced criminal justice system, and in a civilised nation, with the right housing priorities, we must put the interests of the victim first. That is why I rise to add my contribution, and I am grateful for being allowed to make this intervention on behalf of such sufferers.

6.4 pm

Mr. Nigel Jones (Cheltenham)

I shall be brief because other hon. Members wish to speak.

I welcome the opportunity to debate the housing crisis and congratulate the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) on securing the debate. I am in two minds about whether I should have preferred a debate on victims of crime as my constituency office was broken into over the weekend.

Hon. Members will remember that our last opportunity to debate the housing crisis was on a Liberal Democrat Opposition day on 16 November.

Mr. Hendry

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that since that date the Committee considering the Housing and Urban Development Bill has sat for many weeks? Will he explain why he, as his party's spokesman, has not bothered to turn up?

Mr. Jones

Yes, I am happy to explain my actions to the hon. Member. He will remember that on Second Reading my party voted for the Bill because of a conversation that I had with a Minister, whom I shall not name as he is not present. He asked for our support to send a strong message to the Dukes, who opposed leasehold reform. I told the Minister that I was not in favour of the Bill and that most of it was bad, with one or two good bits. The Minister told me that he would be prepared to consider amendments in Committee. I put that to my colleagues, and my Scottish colleagues in particular were dead against believing anything that Ministers said. I, being a new Member, told them that as it was only Second Reading I was prepared to recommend that they vote for the Bill in the hope that some amendments would be passed. In the first five sittings of the Committee, I attempted to pass some amendments, including some to make the Scottish aspects of the Bill separate from its other provisions. I also attempted to amend its leasehold provisions. The Minister declined to accept those amendments.

Mr. Banks (Newham, North-West)

He stitched you up.

Mr. Jones

I felt stitched up—

Mr. Banks

Never trust a Tory.

Mr. Jones

—and decided to concentrate on other duties. In future, I shall never trust a Tory.

Mr. Tony Banks

That's the stuff. It was a good lesson.

Mr. Jones

Our housing problems are entirely of the Government's own making. Their obsession with home ownership, their neglect of other tenures and their assault on local authorities have compounded the problems caused by the recession, which the Government created through their economic incompetence. They have caused a dangerous imbalance of tenure in the housing market. In 1992, repossessions fell from 75,000 to 68,000. That was a welcome improvement, but it was still 68,000 human disasters. However, mortgage arrears increased and, according to the Council of Mortgage Lenders, 205,000 households were six to 12 months behind in their mortgages in the second part of 1992 and 147,000 were over one year in arrears.

Negative equity, when houses are worth less than the mortgage on them, is also spiralling, with an estimated 1.5 million households stuck in that trap. Hon. Members will have seen the report in last Friday's issue of "Mortgage Weekly", of the paper that Daniel Dorling of the housing and society research group at Newcastle university presented to the European housing finance seminar at Bristol university on 4 February. Mr. Dorling said: The rise of negative equity is now preventing individuals from spending, and reducing the mobility of skilled labour. It has halted the widespread use of homes as assets upon which capital can be raised for investment. It is preventing people from moving house when they need to. Freedom of movement—freedom to choose where to live—is being eroded by the inefficient operation of the supposedly free market. He also said about the way people look at housing: Many now see it neither as a worthwhile gamble nor a secure investment, despite most houses being much less expensive now than a few years ago and the overall cost of home buying being at its lowest level in real terms since 1971. Public housing has been hit by the Government's inept housing policy. Public spending on housing has been cut by 62 per cent. since 1979 from £11.5 billion to under £6 billion. It is no wonder that fewer than 170,000 new homes are being completed a year—an all-time low. With massive repossessions and a huge homelessness problem, local authorities have to pick up the pieces, but they no longer have the ability to do so. Some 150,000 people were accepted as homeless in 1991 and 8,000 people sleep rough every night. The Government's response is to encourage further reductions in public housing stock.

The Government must allow local authorities to spend their accrued capital receipts, so that they can start building homes for the homeless. In the autumn statement, the Government tried to boost the housing market by giving money to housing associations to buy repossessed properties. This has not happened. Out of 13,169 properties purchased up to 29 January, only 5,000 have been repossessed properties. The rest have been new build. In my constituency, only three properties have been purchased. I spoke to a senior estate agent this weekend and asked him what he thought about that. He said, "Three hundred might put a bottom in the market, but three is useless."

What is needed is not piecemeal panic projects but a coherent housing strategy. We need a sector—in between renting and owner-occupation—of shared ownership, to encourage flexibility in the market. We need new co-operation between local authorities, Government and housing associations to tackle the appalling problem of homelessness. Capital receipts must be released. Most of all, we need a Government with a coherent economic policy to encourage recovery and invest in infrastructure and housing projects. Until that happens, we shall still have a massive housing problem, and an economy in slump with hundreds of thousands of building workers on the dole—

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Jones

No. I am just about to finish my speech. Building homes is the key to recovery and it is about time that the Government got on with that job.

6.13 pm
Mr. Gary Streeter (Plymouth, Sutton)

I had hoped to come to the debate to make common cause with the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) because I appreciate that there are Opposition Members, as there are Government Members, who are genuinely concerned about housing issues. I was looking forward to hearing some suggestions as to what we can do, in addition to the many things that the Government are already doing, to meet those needs; I was looking forward to hearing new ideas that would help to solve the problems. Having listened intently to two hours of the debate, I remain disappointed in what I have heard from the Opposition.

We never hear any solutions from the Opposition. All that we get are moans, gripes and complaints. There is never a single costing to be had. They talk about policies and the need for more public housing and more council houses, but they do not speak of the cost of such housing. The only constructive suggestion from the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Mr. Prentice) was that we should set up a talking shop to allow various bodies to discuss what should be done. The Government are already seeking and finding solutions to meeting housing needs in 1993.

The Labour party does not know what it wants. All that it knows is that it is in favour of more but it has no idea how much more will cost. That can be demonstrated better than in any other way by taking the example of the endless calls for the release of the £5 billion worth of capital receipts. Has the Labour party explained to community charge payers the extra cost that they will have to bear when the interest on capital receipts that rolls into local authorities year after year is no longer there? There is never a word about that.

The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston dismissed quickly, in half a sentence, the massive contribution made to social housing problems by Labour-controlled local authorities. Everything is the Government's fault, he said. I am afraid that it is not as simple as that. We cannot write off millions of pounds of rent arrears that Labour-controlled authorities have clocked up. We cannot disregard the countless thousands of void properties, even those in London about which the hon. Member for Lewisham, East was concerned. Many of those empty properties are controlled by Labour local authorities. What solutions do Labour Members have? What pressure are they bringing to bear on those authorities to cause them to get their act together?

Mrs. Bridget Prentice

While the hon. Gentleman is having a go at Labour local authorities in London, will he remind himself of Government Departments that have massive numbers of empty properties in London, particularly in areas such as Hammersmith and Fulham, where both Defence and Home Office properties are lying empty, and have been for as many years as I can remember?

Mr. Streeter

Once again, the Labour party will not accept responsibility. It will not go to Labour-controlled local authorities with solutions to the problems of the homeless. They always want to throw mud at the Government when they must accept responsibility for their part in housing problems.

The truth is that 4.2 million properties are still in local authority ownership and until Labour-controlled authorities get their act together, many of the problems suffered by homeless people will continue to be the result of the actions of Labour-controlled authorities. They do not come to the debate with clean hands.

Mr. Nigel Evans

Does my hon. Friend agree, given all that is said by Opposition Members about homelessness, that if they were to come to the north-west, which the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) knows well, and to once-proud cities such as Liverpool and Manchester, they would see that we are talking not merely about hundreds of houses but about thousands of houses boarded up? Does he also agree that those houses could be used for the homeless if only the uncollected rents in those cities, together with the revenue from the sale of council properties this year, were diverted into improving them?

Mr. Streeter

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Furthermore, if Labour authorities collected their rents and used that money to do their repairs, the lot of many council tenants would be far better. We recognise that we are talking not just about statistics. We do not want merely to rattle off the number of empty properties and the millions of pounds worth of rent arrears. We know that behind each of those situations is a human tragedy. It is a pity that Opposition Members do not also recognise that.

We have heard no solution, no new ideas and no new thoughts. No questions have been answered. It is clear that the intellectual agenda on housing is still being set by the Conservative party. After 14 years of head scratching. the Labour party has failed to produce a new agenda. It has produced no exciting new ideas. Instead, we have been told this afternoon that it wants to return to local authority domination. In other words, Labour Members want to return power to Labour-controlled authorities. It is no solution to throw more money at the problem.

Those of us who have some local authority experience know that local authority housing has inherent weaknesses and few incentives for excellence. Traditionally, there has been no competition in that sector. Similarly, there has been virtually no accountability and regulation. Those are features that the Conservative party is seeking to build into the system. It is these principles that will cause standards to rise. That is what my right hon. and hon. Friends want. It is only a pity that Opposition Members cannot agree.

Mr. Raynsford

It is fascinating to hear the hon. Gentleman talking about competition, regulation and other such factors. The Opposition believe that there is a simpler solution to the problem, and that is to build more houses. When will the hon. Gentleman talk about providing enough houses to meet the present need? My right hon. and hon. Friends know that that is what is required if the homeless are to be put into homes.

Mr. Streeter

It is disappointing to hear the hon. Gentleman banging the same drum day after day. Has not he yet heard that through public sector investment this year the Government have ensured that more than 55,000 new homes will be provided for people to rent? That is a colossal achievement. Why do not Labour Members congratulate the Government on that achievement? Instead, they continue to gripe and ask for more.

Interest rates now stand at 6 per cent. For many mortgage holders the benefit of that low rate is yet to come through the system. In my discussions with estate agents in Plymouth—

Mr. Tony Banks


Mr. Streeter

I wonder why the hon. Member, who seems to be responsible for causing trouble, scoffs. It is important to understand that estate agents in Plymouth have a vital voice and one that should be echoed in the debate. They have told me that since Christmas there has been much activity in the housing market. It appears that first-time buyers are viewing properties and making offers. Contracts are being exchanged and the housing market is beginning to recover. It is fair to say that the recovery began before the full benefit of recent interest rate cuts started to manifest itself to many mortgage holders. We can look forward with confidence to the market recovering in the spring.

We all agree that the housing market is an essential ingredient in the economy. It is a pity that the only contribution that Labour Members can make is to talk the market down. They spend day after day and week after week talking it down. Instead, let us talk up the market. As I have said, it is recovering. There is every reason why it should be because mortgage rates are at an all-time low. Since October 1990, the repayments of the average mortgage holder have been reduced by more than £150 a month. That is a success story. People have been enabled to put money in their pockets and to go out and spend.

What about the autumn statement, which contained an extra package for social housing? That was designed to get the market moving again. It was a package of £750 million, and 20,000 properties were purchased by housing associations throughout the country to rent. Have we heard Labour Members welcome that? Have they offered the Government any congratulations? We have heard not a word. They are always sneering and never congratulating.

The Conservative party has been setting the housing agenda for the past 14 years. We have seen the right to buy, right to manage, right to repair, compulsory competitive tendering, rents to mortgages and the boost that was given to housing associations by the autumn statement. All of those initiatives have been taken at the behest of the Conservative Government. In contrast, the Labour party looks barren and sterile as it presents its old ideas.

I rarely agree with the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) but on one point—it is a serious one—I must do so. In a recent article that was written for the Fabian Society, the hon. Gentleman stated that the Labour party was "sleep-walking into oblivion." On that note of agreement, I resume my place.

6.24 pm
Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West)

Many outside the House will not know or understand the internal lottery system which enables Back-Bench Members to win space in the parliamentary timetable to debate a topic of their choice on the Floor of the House. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) on choosing to debate the housing crisis. In so doing, he has ensured that housing and homelessness in his constituency and throughout the country are firmly on our agenda. In his thorough approach he underlined the need to consider need, health and disability under the heading of housing. He stressed that such issues should be taken seriously and echoed on the floor of the House more regularly. I am sure that he will continue ensuring that that happens on the basis of his contribution today. We are indebted to him for the debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Mrs. Prentice) expressed passionate concern and a deep knowledge of housing in London. She spelled out the bleak prospects which face her constituents and many thousands of others in London unless the Government are jolted out of their rather complacent approach to the housing crisis.

It is almost a year since we were presented with the Tories' election promises. We heard tear-jerking threats as soundbites were issued. On 23 March, the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine)—he is now the President of the Board of Trade—said: House sales under the Conservatives are picking up. All this would change on 10th April if there were a Labour Government. The recovery in the housing market would be devastated just as it gets under way. Of course, that was not true. The market was not picking up, and the recovery is still not under way a year later. On 31 March, the Prime Minister echoed the right hon. Gentleman when he said: We're going to make life easier for people buying their home and our policies will mean a stronger housing market. We all know something of the Prime Minister's ability to turn language inside out and to turn meanings on their head. Government policies in the past 12 months have resulted in a weaker housing market.

It seems that the stark reality is obvious to everyone except Conservative Members. Only this month, the former head of Wimpeys commented: It is the worst recession I have experienced in my 42 years in the construction industry. There is a crisis in the housing market, and it has been manufactured by escalating unemployment. Last year, 68,000 families had their homes repossessed., According to the latest figures presented by the Council of Mortgage Lenders, 147,000 families are more than 12 months in mortgage arrears and are staring eviction in the face. We are already hearing of people losing their homes because of secondary mortgages. Double glazing companies are causing people to lose their homes by calling in debts of as little as £500.

Over 1 million people cannot afford to move because their homes are worth less than the prices that they paid for them. They are caught in the negative equity trap described by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston. In response, the Prime Minister talks about cash incentives in the Budget for first-time buyers to revive the housing market. Even today, however, there are printed leaks from the Treasury informing us that there may be a 5 per cent. increase in VAT on new home sales in next month's Budget. It seems that everyone except the Government acknowledges that escalating unemployment is undermining the housing market. The fear of redundancy holds families back from extending mortgage commitments. Millions are terrified that they may be just one payslip from redundancy. Faced with that economic insecurity, they dare not risk extending their long-term financial commitments.

Escalating unemployment—the figures this week will show another rise—is the primary cause of the crisis in the housing market and the homelessness in our society. What do we need? Although the Government's position is not clear, it is evident to everyone that there is a desperate shortage of rented housing, so the response to the crisis must be the right to rent. However, under Conservative Governments the only policy offered by one Housing Minister after another—there have been many in the past 14 years — has been the discounted right to buy.

That single policy instrument has dismantled any post-war consensus on housing. That deep-seated Tory obsession with tenure has led to almost 2 million rented homes disappearing since 1987. Over the same period, there has been a fall in the number of houses built by local authorities and housing associations. The result is a massive imbalance in tenure. At 69 per cent. of the stock, home ownership is proving difficult to sustain. In other words, there is a desperate shortage of decent, affordable and secure housing to rent.

There are 1.5 million families stuck on local authority housing waiting lists. We must not forget the hidden homeless who share sofas and floors while they wait for their own space. The Institute of Housing, Shelter and the Audit Commission have spelt out the fact that each year there is a shortfall of 100,000 homes to rent. As my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) said, on the best estimates, the Government are providing only slightly more than half that number this year. Local councils have been sidelined, undermined and prevented from providing homes.

In the latest Department of the Environment annual report, published only last week, the projections for housing under the housing investment programme capital provisions show a decline of £325 million between 1992–93 and 1995–96. That is an actual cut in housing budgets, taken out of housing programmes, of £100 million a year.

Housing associations still have only 3 per cent. of Britain's housing stock, yet they have been given the task, practically on their own, of filling the enormous gap of need. Despite that, day by day they are being undermined by Government changes in the rate of grant. This year it is down from 73 per cent. to 67 per cent. and it appears that next year it will go down further to 60 per cent. and the year after to 55 per cent. What will be the result of that cut in grants? Housing associations will have to borrow more money from the private finance sector, so rents will have to rise beyond the incomes of those not receiving full housing benefit.

By those reductions in the rate of grant, the Government are ensuring that housing associations will be turned into providers of welfare housing with a vengeance. They will soon be putting signs in windows saying, "Rooms to let: DSS only—apply within." Some 70 per cent. of housing association tenants are on housing benefit, yet rents are still rising. It is tragic. The Government are also building in a work disincentive. They are saying to those on housing benefit, "You can afford to rent a housing association property, but don't get a job because that will take you out of full housing benefit, you will not be able to afford the rent and you will lose your flat."

The Government must deal with the problem of housing benefit. The latest Department of Social Security report, also published last week, shows that the amount spent on rent in the housing association and private rented sector has doubled. A real poverty trap is built into the system for those who are not on housing benefit. Their homes are at risk because they have to spend more than their incomes to meet the rent demanded. I hope that the Government will begin to deal with the problem of affordability. A report from the Housing Corporation was discreetly placed in the Library. I hope that the Government will provide a full debate on affordability because under their policies housing association houses are becoming beyond most people's means.

Homelessness has more than doubled since 1979. A record number of 65,000 families are now in temporary accommodation. They are wondering whether "temporary" actually means for the rest of their lives. I recently met a young woman called Michelle who had been moved across London, away from her family and friends, when she was taken out of bed and breakfast. She lost her daughter's creche place and she lost access to her training course. She said that she felt like an exile from her community. She wants to get out of temporary and into permanent accommodation among her family and friends so that she can rebuild her life and find a job.

The crisis in temporary accommodation is tragic. I accept that the number of people in bed and breakfast is falling, which is welcome, but the problem cannot be solved simply by putting people into temporary accommodation. They need permanent secure housing where they can build basic communities with their friends and their families.

I remind the Minister for Housing and Planning that at the launch of the rough sleepers initiative he said that people sleeping on the streets of London would disappear by February 1992. It is now February 1993. If, when we leave the House tonight, we walked the streets of London, we would still meet many homeless people. Just before Christmas, late one night, I left the House and I spoke to some homeless youngsters. I was shocked because when I asked them how old they were, those who were confident enough to answer did not say that they were in their 20s or 30s—certainly they were not, as in the past, older people broken by war or alcohol—they said that they were 16. That suggests that many of them were not 16, but younger. I was shocked that youngsters of 16 were on the streets of London.

Another factor was important. When I asked them where they last lived, most of them said that they had been in local authority care. That care runs out at 16 and those youngsters have to fend for themselves. The Government have a responsibility to deal with the problems of youngsters of 16 who come out of local authority care but are then left to fend for themselves and so end up on the streets. I shall return to that point later.

Mr. Hendry

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that when children come out of care at the age of 16, local authorities have an obligation to keep any eye on them until they are 21? In addition, 16 and 17-year-olds coming out of care are entitled to income support.

Mr. Battle

I accept and welcome the fact that the Government included that provision in the Children Act 1989. However, we raised a problem in Committee on that Bill which was not resolved by the Government and which is now manifesting itself on the streets. How does a local authority keep track of those youngsters if they move to another borough, town or city? That is causing a real problem with the operation of the Act. Local authorities cannot comb other boroughs looking for homeless youngsters.

There have been changes in the benefit rules which I believe have been the cause of some of the homelessness among young people.

Mr. David Evans (Welwyn Hatfield)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that there are 100,000 local authority dwellings empty, of which 18,000 are in London? Is it not political dogma which keeps those dwellings empty deliberately to cause hardship to the homeless?

Mr. Battle

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for taking such an interest in that matter. I urge him to investigate it in more detail and to check the facts and figures. More than half the empty properties in London have been listed as defective by the Government and are therefore included in demolition programmes. Nevertheless, those properties appear in the figures for empty properties. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that we put homeless families into properties which are unfit to live in and due for demolition.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Battle

No, I must move on. I want to give the Minister time to reply.

In our society there are 80,000 single homeless people. We now face the introduction of care in the community, without the proper backing. The Minister should remember the line in the White Paper: Housing is the key to independent living. Unless the resources to provide such housing are passed on to local authorities, we shall face increasing homelessness among the most marginalised members of our society—those who may be discharged from hospitals. It will stare us in the face from 1 April this year.

I could echo some of the local comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston. In Yorkshire, homelessness has risen by 60 per cent. in the past six years; in Leeds, there has been a 34 per cent. increase in homelessness inquiries between 1988–89 and 1991–92. Last year, there were 10,000 inquiries; 10,000 people applied for housing, and were registered as homeless. A total of 24,000 households are on waiting lists; the figure is up 30 per cent. since 1983–84.

In 1980–81, Leeds city council built 1,200 homes; in 1991–92, it could build only 18. That is a telling figure. There is not enough housing to rent. The council was not even able to replace the housing that it had lost through sales, including housing association accommodation. Although homes are now coming from housing associations in partnership with the local authority, the authority is not being allowed to use capital receipts to replace the rented housing that has been lost. It is no wonder that people are homeless. One third of the homeless people in Leeds have been in care, and those people are vulnerable.

The Government should examine, across Departments, the desperate need for supported accommodation for young people. The private market is not providing it, and housing associations have been priced out of special needs. Who will provide those homes? The Government's cool complacency reflects a chillingly barren policy, and an absence of real, co-ordinated housing action. The housing crisis is frozen in the permafrost of the economic recession which is gripping the country.

The real dereliction, as will be revealed when the English house conditions survey is published later this year, is the dereliction of duty by a Government and a Minister attempting to sustain an image of competence from day to day, floated on daily departmental press releases as one phoney piecemeal initiative after another is launched, sinks and is launched again. Two weeks ago, for instance, we received a press release telling us of the virtues of the "flats over shops" initiative. Last week, the annual report of the Department of the Environment told us that there would be nothing in the 1995–96 budget programme. We are told that the capital partnership initiative has a future, but the annual report provides nothing in the 1994–95 budget.

Action could be taken, however. I will put a five-point action plan to the Minister. First, more rented housing should be provided. On every working day since June 1979, 600 building workers have lost their jobs; they have continued to do so, yet there are fields full of bricks in Bedfordshire. The need is there, the skills are there, the materials are there and the resources are there; yet £5–7 billion is locked up in capital receipts. That money could be used to provide housing. The Government refuse to link jobs and housing, which flies in the face of ordinary common sense. The Government can and must provide more rented housing. What is needed is a housing need package, not a housing market package.

Secondly, I ask the Minister to extend the rough sleepers initiative beyond London. Sixty per cent. of those sleeping rough are on the streets of Brighton, Bristol and other towns and cities throughout the land. Thirdly, the Government should immediately restore income support for 16 and 17-year-olds, which was removed by the present Prime Minister in 1988. The removal of that benefit is increasingly seen as a cause of homelessness among young people.

Fourthly, the Government should publish and use the English house conditions survey, which will s how that nearly 1.5 million properties are now in serious disrepair. They should use it as a renovation and renewal charter, change the failed means-tested improvement grant system and ensure that the construction industry is free of the increases in value-added tax on building repairs that we are told the Budget may contain. Such increases would drive the construction industry even further back.

Fifthly, the Government could support and publicise a real mortgage rescue scheme. I suggest that the Minister take a look at the Bradford and Bingley building society, and support fully mutual housing associations which allow families to remain in their own homes and be charged rent. The Government should support mortgage-to-rent schemes rather than rent-to-mortgage schemes.

To sum up my five points for action, I suggest more rented housing, an extension of the rough sleepers scheme, the restoration of income support for youngsters, the use of the English house conditions survey for renewal and improvement, and support for real mortgage rescue schemes. Too many people are being denied the basic right to a decent, affordable and secure home.

The current housing crisis is the most vivid symbol of the failure of the free market myth. What is needed is real choice, not just abuse of the word. Without real choice between tenures, which must include the right to rent, millions will remain locked out of decent housing that they can call a home of their own.

6.46 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tony Baldry)

The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) has done his party a favour. He has done something that his Front Bench has not seemed willing to do since the general election: he has initiated a debate on housing.

The hon. Gentleman's initiative stands in stark contrast to the utterances of hon. Members on the Opposition Front Bench, who seem more concerned with attacking the royal family than with debating housing. I am not surprised about that, because Opposition Front-Bench Members never seem to mention housing. A recent speech by the Leader of the Opposition, supposedly outlining Labour's agenda for the next decade, completely failed to mention housing. As for the recent interview in Tribune with the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), who graced us with a fleeting appearance a moment ago, he told us last week that the entire interview was tape recorded by the author. He then told the House that the direct quotation of any words was correct; the only problem was that the article made no mention of housing.

Why, then, is housing off Labour's agenda? Simply because Labour has no policy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter) made clear in his excellent speech, little by little over the past decade Labour has come to accept, and then to endorse, our policies. That applies to the right to buy, housing action trusts and the ability of councils to transfer their stock to housing associations. All those policies were once bitterly opposed by Labour authorities; all are now embraced by them. Waltham Forest, Tower Hamlets, Hull, Birmingham and Liverpool—all those councils, Labour and Liberal, are now promoting housing action trusts in their areas. The Opposition would have denied those opportunities to thousands of tenants.

The hon. Member for Blackburn boasted to Tribune, "We run urban Britain." Perhaps that is another reason why Labour says nothing about housing: the nation will look at Labour's housing record, which is lousy, as tellingly illustrated by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess). He described how ill served Basildon's housing interests were under a Labour council.

We, by contrast, have much to offer when it comes to housing. Therefore, I welcome the debate. It enables the Government to reinforce their determination that a decent home should be within the reach of every family and our determination to promote owner-occupation, to widen choice for tenants, to encourage further private investment in the rented sector and to increase the supply of decent homes for rent.

Mr. Miller

The Minister keeps criticising Labour authorities. I gave him a specific example and was very careful about the language that I used. Can the Minister spell out precisely, here and now, what my local authority of Ellesmere Port and Neston should do and where it has gone wrong?

Mr. Baldry

The hon. Gentleman might reflect upon the fact that, at the end of 1990–91, Ellesmere Port's accumulated debt in rent arrears amounted to nearly £500,000—£474,000, to be precise. I suspect that if the local authority had been more effective in collecting its rents, it would have been able to invest that money in local authority stock.

The opportunity to own a home and to pass it on is one of the most important rights that an individual has in a free society. We have extended that right. Home ownership lies at the heart of our philosophy. We want to see wealth and security being passed down from generation to generation. Surveys show that owner-occupation is the preferred tenure of every age group from every background in every part of the country. Some 4 million more householders now own their own home compared with 1979. The number of former council tenants who have bought their homes has risen to nearly 1.5 million.

Recent house price reports show that encouraging signs of stability may now be returning to the housing market. At 6 per cent., interest rates are at their lowest for 15 years. Average mortgage rates are now 7 percentage points below their peak. Indeed, average mortgage rates are now at their lowest level since March 1969. With the latest cut in mortgage rates, reductions over the past two years have saved a family with a typical mortgage £160 a month. Home purchase is now more affordable and more attractive. The ratio of mortgage payments to income is at its most advantageous level for a quarter of a century. That must be good news for buyers and builders alike.

We are committed to making the aspiration o f home ownership a reality for as many households as possible. The right to buy for council tenants has become a resounding success. We are determined to continue to respond to people's aspiration to own their own home. Thousands of tenants have been able to take advantage of cash incentive payments that enable housing associations and local councils to help existing tenants to move into home ownership and free their current home for new tenants. All around the country, successful shared ownership schemes, supported by the Government, have enabled many more people to become home owners. We are determined to make it easier for those council tenants living in high cost areas or on low incomes to move gradually into home ownership without taking on too heavy a financial burden at any one time.

Our rent-to-mortgage scheme will give tenants a further route to home ownership. We care about council tenants who want to buy but who cannot afford to do so outright. We shall continue to drive for home ownership and make sure that tenants are aware of their new rights. Many tenants will consider that now is the time to take advantage of low prices, low interest rates and substantial discounts.

Of course we recognise that not everybody can or will want to buy their own home. Our aim is to ensure that a decent home is available to every family, whether it be owned, rented from a private landlord, or rented in the public sector. That means that encouraging and supporting home ownership is complemented by measures to increase availability and choice in rented housing, to target investment and support to those areas and to those people most in need and to ensure that the billions of pounds of taxpayers' money that we are investing and continue to invest in housing is put to the best possible use by improving the performance and value for money achieved by those who spend it.

Mr. Raynsford

On the Minister's point about the provision of affordable housing, he will be aware of the concern expressed about the grant rates for housing associations. He will also be aware that officials, giving evidence last Wednesday to the Select Committee, said that no decision had yet been taken about a reduction in grant rates. Bearing in mind that concern, will the Minister give the House an assurance tonight that there will not be a reduction in grant rates that would lead to great increases in rents and serious affordability problems for housing association tenants?

Mr. Baldry

I thought that the hon. Gentleman intended in his intervention to explain why it was that at the end of 1991 Greenwich had rent arrears of £13 million. He will have seen from evidence of the Housing Corporation that there is no generic affordability problem for housing associations. Last week I was in the area of the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston where concern was raised by a housing association about housing association grants and housing association rents. That same afternoon I visited a scheme in Manchester where six housing associations are providing good, affordable houses at housing association grant rates of 50 per cent. They are providing houses at rents which everybody recognises are affordable.

We are investing billions of pounds in housing. This year alone, more than £8 billion will be spent on social housing, most by local authorities but some £2.3 billion of it by the Housing Corporation, in providing new, affordable social housing through housing associations. New investment in housing received a significant boost in the autumn statement with the housing market package and the ability of local authorities to spend 100 per cent. of their capital receipts raised before the end of this year. That ability could, we believe, generate some £1–75 billion for local authorities. That is in addition to the money that will be given to them through the housing investment programme. Those figures are based on local authorities' own estimates of what they have raised and are likely to raise from capital receipts in 1992–93. All hon. Members should, therefore, ensure that their local authorities are seeking properly to maximise their capital receipts this year and putting them to good use.

The housing market package has been a great success. The Housing Corporation now estimates that the money for housing associations in England to buy new, empty and repossessed homes, announced as part of the overall £750 million housing market package, will allow the purchase of over 17,000 properties in England by the end of March. Nearly 15,000 purchases have already been approved. More than 90 per cent. of the original target of 16,000 houses has been achieved, using just over 80 per cent. of the available funds. Another 3,500 homes will be bought with the help of cash grants to existing tenants moving into ower-occupation. Taken together with the substantial fall in interest rates, the housing market package is having a positive impact on the housing market. The Housing Corporation and the housing associations involved are to be congratulated on their excellent performance in translating these substantial sums made available into new homes.

This financial year, and over the next three years, housing associations should have some £10.5 billion to invest in new social housing—£7.5 billion from the Treasury to the Housing Corporation, and £3 billion of private finance. In our manifesto we promised to provide 153,000 new affordable homes over three years to 1994–95. The Housing Corporation now estimates that it will be able substantially to improve upon that figure and to fund some 170,000 new homes over the same period.

Those new homes will go a long way towards improving matters for households accepted as homeless by local authorities and currently living in temporary accommodation. Even before the autumn statement, the number of families housed in bed and breakfast accommodation was falling. It is down now to just over 11,000. I hope that local authorities, working with the housing associations, will now be able to bring these figures down even further. For those most visibly in housing need, we have extended the rough sleepers initiative, with a further £86 million being made available to the voluntary organisations which are managing the programme.

While housing associations are the main providers of new social housing, it is also important that we continue to invest in council housing as effectively as possible. This we are doing through the housing investment programme and large-scale schemes such as estate action and housing action trusts, which help to tackle some of our more difficult estates. Up and down the country this year we are spending £330 million on 360 estate action schemes. Next year the budget of £350 million will enable another 160 new schemes to start.

Estate action schemes enable money to be invested to turn rundown housing into areas where people can again be proud to live: where appropriate, tower blocks are pulled down and new family-designed homes are built; unpopular deck access blocks are converted into popular family homes; the quality of homes is improved with, where appropriate, new roofs, new wiring and new PVC windows; and areas of sterile public space in which no one has a sense of ownership are turned into gardens. The planners call that "defensible space". To all of us, and to the people who live in the area, that means gardens. Crime is designed out. There is better security—

It being Seven o'clock, proceedings on the motion lapsed, pursuant to Standing Order No. 13 (Arrangement of public business).