HC Deb 02 July 1996 vol 280 cc708-10
6. Mr. Skinner

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what, at the latest date for which figures are available, was the number of local authority dwellings. [33937]

The Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration (Mr. David Curry)

At the beginning of April 1995, there were 3,565,000 local authority dwellings in England.

Mr. Skinner

Is it not almost unbelievable that, during 1995, local authorities, deprived of money by this Tory Government, were unable to build more than 612 houses in one year? In 1978, which we regarded as a bad year for Labour, 78,000 houses were built. The ratio between the number of houses being built now and the number being built in the years before the Labour Government were kicked out of office is about 80:1. Is it not high time that the Government worked it out? There are millions of bricks in stock; people are lying on the streets and in doorways; builders and construction workers are without jobs. You do not have to be a Pythagoras to solve that theorem—but then this Government are not capable of anything.

Mr. Curry

Let me tell the hon. Gentleman how pleased I am to see him here and in such good voice.

Earlier today, the hon. Gentleman gave notice that he was unstarring his question. I knew that the Labour party intended to discipline dissident Members, and I was rather afraid that the hon. Gentleman had already been liquidated. I am glad that he is back—but he is back with exactly the same attitude that he had nearly 20 years ago, which is that housing must be built by councils. We have moved on from that old agenda to allowing building by housing associations, giving tenants the right to own their property and letting local authorities transfer property to the private sector.

Three weeks ago, I announced estate challenge results that allowed some of the worst estates to be moved to new landlords, subject to a ballot. Just three weeks later, Durham has already balloted its tenants. Those tenants do not want the hon. Gentleman's old-fashioned style; they want the new policies that give them better opportunities and new hope. The hon. Gentleman will die with the old Labour ship.

Mr. Yeo

In view of the concern expressed by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), will my right hon. Friend join me in looking forward to his enthusiastic support for recent proposals from the Ministry of Defence which will ensure that the most effective use is made of the large number of houses that it owns?

Mr. Curry

One can always live in hope, although it must be said that, in the case of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), there is not much hope.

The MOD's proposals will produce two important results. First, they will enable empty stock to be brought into productive use; it is a scandal that it has not been already. Secondly, they will allow houses inhabited by service personnel to be brought up to a proper standard, so that those people have the houses that they deserve. That is not the case at present, which is a very good argument for going ahead.

Mr. Raynsford

Will the Minister now recognise that under his Government, the output of new housing for renting has fallen to its lowest level since the end of the second world war? At the same time, the number of homeless people in Britain has doubled since Labour was last in power. When will the Government face their responsibilities and get unemployed building workers back to work building the homes that are needed, letting councils use their capital receipts to finance that building?

Mr. Curry

The hon. Gentleman keeps returning to his old anthem about capital receipts, but it is a myth that that money is doing nothing. Those receipts have been invested and are earning interest. If they were not, council tax bills would go up.

The hon. Gentleman is at pains to say, "No spending commitments." Even in the most informal setting, one could not prise a spending commitment out of him with forceps. If that money were put into house building, it would be bound to affect the public sector borrowing requirement, and other expenditure by local authorities would have to be pruned if public expenditure were not to rise. The hon. Gentleman must answer that question.

Like the hon. Member for Bolsover, with whom I doubt he would want to compare himself, the hon. Gentleman still represents the old municipal side of Labour. We and the agenda have moved on from that, and we are moving tenants with us to much greater opportunities. They will not want the hon. Gentleman's remedies thrust down their throats.

Mr. Dunn

In the context of local authority dwellings, does my right hon. Friend agree that there are thousands of empty properties in housing black spots such as Lambeth, Lewisham and Liverpool which are not well administered by local authorities? Is this not the question that we should be asking: "Why do these black spots exist and which party has created them"?

Mr. Curry

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The essential skills of a local authority are to fill voids and collect rents. When it does not do that, people are deprived of homes and the borough is deprived of revenue for its services. There are 600,000 to 800,000 empty properties around the country and they must be brought back into use. It would be more sensible to do that than to have them lying idle. Some of them are in the private sector, but too many are still in the public sector and need to be utilised.