HC Deb 20 March 1996 vol 274 cc285-308

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

9.34 am
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the issue of housing in Scotland. I suspect that housing is still the dominant issue raised in most hon. Members' constituency surgeries, and the trend has certainly accelerated over the past few years.

It seems to me, as I am sure it does to many hon. Members, that the right to live in a warm, dry and secure home is a basic human right that should be afforded to each and every person in society. The provision of decent. affordable housing is a key factor in determining quality of life, economic well-being and the health of all people. As such, it is the highest priority of the Government and every political party. In securing this debate, the Scottish National party is signalling that housing is and will remain at the top of its political agenda.

A nation cannot ever, to quote the Prime Minister, be "at ease with itself" when people are badly housed and while 500 to 1,000 people sleep rough on the streets of Scotland's cities and towns every night; while last year 40,000 households applied to local authorities as homeless. That figure equates to 78,000 people—about the population of a town the size of Paisley. Nor can the nation be at ease with itself while 150,000 children in Scotland are living in damp housing, where they are at risk from cold-related illnesses such as bronchitis and asthma.

Acceptance of the basic right to a home is one factor that distinguishes a civilised society from a non-civilised society. Decent. affordable housing is also the passport to participation in society. We know that people who live rough on our streets are denied not only the right to a home, but often the right to a job, as well as proper access to the health service and even social security benefits.

Housing authorities are uniquely placed to act as a centrepiece of care in the community. That means more than bricks and mortar; it means taking preventive action and providing community support and strategic planning for people with support needs, not only those living in institutional care but those who are already resident in the community and who require support. If there is to be any hope of meeting the needs of such people, more, not less, central Government funding is required to adjust the housing stock accordingly.

We know from a variety of authoritative sources, and from our experience as Members of Parliament hearing constituents' pleas for help in our surgeries, that the basic right to a warm, decent. affordable home is denied to far too many citizens in Scotland. That is either because they have no homes or because the properties that they occupy fail to meet the most basic housing standards.

Housing problems in Scotland are of a magnitude that can be properly described as a crisis. That is certainly the view of the housing professionals' organisation, the Chartered Institute of Housing in Scotland. In its recent report, "Investing in Scotland's Housing?", it said: There is a real crisis of underinvestment in housing", and it called on the Government seriously to address the issue.

The 1996 house condition survey has just begun, so we do not yet know the updated profile of Scottish housing, but it is worth recalling the results of the 1991 survey, for which hon. Members campaigned for many years. It found that one in 20 occupied houses in Scotland—95,000 houses—were below tolerable standards. One in eight homes—267,000 homes in Scotland—suffered from damp. Indeed, more than a quarter of Scottish households—392,000 homes—were affected by damp, condensation or mould. Shelter in Scotland has estimated that, today, about 186,000 households are on council house waiting lists in Scotland—about one third of the total council house stock, compared with one seventh in 1981.

Over the past few years, the realisation has dawned that the crisis in Scottish housing is not confined to urban areas—it extends to rural areas, too. Conditions in rural areas are particularly severe. Between 1985 and 1995, rural homelessness increased by 154 per cent. A report to be published in the coming week by Shelter will expose the extent of rural housing problems.

Figures for the number of houses that are below the tolerable standard are now highest in rural areas. I see the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) in the Chamber. I am sure that she is aware that 24 per cent. of houses in her constituency are below the tolerable standard, which is the highest of any area bar the Western Isles. On average, rural houses are 50 per cent. more likely to be affected by dampness. One in six homes-63,000 in rural areas—have a dampness problem, and that proportion rises to a third of all homes in the privately rented sector in rural areas.

If we examine the Government's response to the housing crisis in rural and urban areas, we find that it simply fails to match the scale of the problem. In fact, Government policy has contributed directly to making matters worse in many respects. They have slashed housing expenditure, which in turn has led to a decline in investment. According to figures from Shelter, between 1989–90 and 1995–96, capital investment in housing fell by 26 per cent. in real terms. If investment had been maintained at 1989 levels, an additional 27,000 affordable homes could have been built during that period.

The total level of housing support grant made available to Scottish councils next year will be a paltry £19.4 million, compared with £228 million in 1981. The scale of that cut testifies to the savage onslaught that councils, as housing providers, have suffered over the past decade at the hands of the Government.

All sectors of public provision—council housing, Scottish Homes and housing associations—are facing massive cuts. According to the Chartered Institute of Housing in Scotland, housing expenditure faces an overall cut of 22 per cent. in 1996–97. Local authority allocations will be cut by 17 per cent. in cash terms, and that is certainly not enough to tackle housing stock disrepair or homelessness. The Scottish Homes budget is to be cut by £55 million—a 21 per cent. cut in real terms—which will severely and seriously reduce the development programme for housing associations and co-operatives.

Yesterday, I had a series of meetings with housing associations and campaign groups in Scotland. One of the points that each of them made related to their resentment that the cut in the Scottish Homes budget did not receive the same publicity or interest as a smaller, although equally undesirable cut in the Scottish Enterprise budget. They took that as a signal that housing is currently not a sufficiently high priority in the political debate in Scotland. I hope that this debate and hon. Members' speeches will redress part of that impression.

Last year in the Scottish Grand Committee, the Minister's predecessor, now the Minister of State, Scottish Office, assured my hon. Friend the Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh) that There will be more than £2.8 billion for housing in the coming three years."—[Official Report, Scottish Grand Committee, 3 May 1995; c. 8.] I shall be listening very carefully to hear whether the Minister cares to repeat that that is still the target for the next three years. Many housing organisations say that that target will not be met.

Across Scotland, investment in council housing will decrease by at least one fifth. Capital allocations for Scottish local authorities totalled £423 million for 1995–96, which was made up of some £254 million in receipts and £168 million in borrowing consents. That was an 8 per cent. reduction in cash terms and an 11 per cent. reduction in real terms for the year.

Scottish Office cuts in housing investment in the coming financial year will exacerbate the problems that councils will suffer because of the shortfall in receipts. Tenants who live in the poorest housing and who have the lowest incomes—those whose homes need essential repairs or who need a home itself—will lose the most. The survey on capital allocations found that 30 out of the 42 authorities that responded are experiencing a shortfall in receipts this year. Due to a reduced number of houses being bought through the right to buy, local authorities will have a shortfall of at least £33 million in capital receipts this financial year.

Local authorities will, of course, now be required to use 25 per cent. of receipts to help pay off the housing debt, rising to 50 per cent. in the following year. In itself, paying off that debt will take millions of pounds out of housing provision in Scotland. The Chartered Institute of Housing reports councils as summarising their situation as follows: Contracts may have to be postponed, rewiring will have to be deferred as will heating replacement. The start date for projects will have to be delayed, which will also impact on spending for 1996–97. Authorities modernisation programmes will have to be curtailed. In the new Aberdeenshire council, my new local authority, it is estimated that investment will decrease by at least 32 per cent. in real terms. In 1997–98, further investment cuts of 17 per cent. are planned.

The approved development programme for Scottish Homes has been slashed from £325 million to £280 million. That will mean that the number of housing association starts will be cut from 9,000 in 1995–96 to just over 6,000 in 1996–97, a reduction of one third. In other words, 3,000 families who would have been adequately housed are set to lose out in the coming financial year because of cuts in the programme.

As a result of funding cuts, there is pressure on housing associations to increase the percentage of private finance and to decrease quality, leading to higher rents and increased long-term costs. The Government are proposing to sell the UK loan book to the private sector. One of the questions that I should like the Minister to deal with today is whether the Scottish Office will support a separate sale of the Scottish loan book, thereby opening the door to at least the possibility of Scottish housing associations buying out their own debt.

As I said, yesterday I had the opportunity to meet representatives of housing organisations in Scotland. I met representatives of The Big Issue, the Scottish Council for Single Homeless, Shelter in Scotland, the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations and the Chartered Institute of Housing in Scotland. They all agreed that the overriding challenge facing Scottish housing is lack of investment, and each of them argued that the resources available for housing are inadequate to deal with the problem.

Hon. Members will recall that, during the 1992 US presidential election, those working to secure a Democrat victory constantly and famously reminded voters that the major issue in the campaign could be summarised in the phrase, "It's the economy, stupid." The Minister responsible for housing in Scotland should have the phrase, "It's investment, stupid," on his ministerial desk, because that basic political and social fact encapsulates the problem and the solution facing Scottish housing. The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations put the situation rather well in its manifesto, "Putting Housing on the Political Agenda", when it said: Housing is a long term national and community asset. We believe that our current housing crisis will not be resolved until a greater proportion of our nation's wealth is invested in our housing stock. The short-sightedness in the Government's approach could not be more apparent. They fail to recognise that investment in public housing is not only of social benefit, but almost certainly of economic benefit. In addition, it brings substantial advantages in the reduction of health service costs to the national health service, and has a role to play in reducing crime. Housing is a key factor in economic regeneration, reducing unemployment and kick-starting local and national economies.

The Chartered Institute of Housing has estimated that, for each £1 invested in housing, there is an immediate return of 50p in reduced welfare benefits, increased personal and company taxation and in the generation of local expenditure. Shelter calculated that every house in poor condition costs the health service £300 per year per occupant, putting into stark relief the relationship between poor housing and bad health.

The cost to the national health service of cold and damp housing alone has been estimated at £800 million per year. That figure is for the UK, from the Standing Conference on Public Health working group in 1994.

The average energy rating of a Scottish home, on a scale of one to 10, is only 3.3. I am sure that hon. Members need no reminding that there are 3,000 cold-related deaths in Scotland every year, yet, for a 5 per cent. increase in building costs, we know that energy efficiency can be raised by up to 50 per cent. We also know that asthma directly costs the NHS £437 million, according to current figures, and that that figure is increasing yearly. It is estimated that a further £400 million in lost productivity and £70 million in costs to the Department of Social Security result from the prevalence of asthma.

Much crime and anti-social behaviour such as burglary and vandalism is housing-related. The Chartered Institute of Housing in Scotland, which published "Housing and Crime—How well we are managing", found that a major element in managing crime is partnership with the police, local agencies and community groups, but whether that approach is via management initiatives such as this, security-led initiatives or design initiatives, they all require proper resourcing to have any chance of success.

The Scottish National party offers an alternative, which we think is capable of dealing with the scale of the Scottish housing crisis. We want to establish a Ministry of Housing, to provide strategic policy direction, with a Cabinet Minister with sole responsibility for housing. Our intention is to transfer three quarters of the councils' housing capital debt to central Government over a four-year period, which would release up to £945 million of new resources that would otherwise be spent servicing that debt. At the moment, the bulk of council rent in Scotland goes to paying loan charges from previously accumulated capital debt.

We argue for the replacement of Scottish Homes with a new agency, whose sole purpose would be to provide good-quality housing and a high standard of public sector management. It is remarkable that we have in Scottish Homes one of the few housing agencies in the world whose sole intention and drive seems to be to get out of housing and managing houses.

Through the transfer of capital debt to central Government over a four-year period, Scottish councils would have substantial additional resources to tackle dampness, insulate homes and repair and maintain existing stock, and an additional 10,000 empty homes would be returned to use in that period.

Mr. Matthew Banks (Southport)

Let us be clear about this: is the hon. Gentleman saying that the whole of the local authorities' debt in Scotland should be transferred to the national taxpayer, because that debt currently stands at about £1,040 per head of the population north of the border?

Mr. Salmond

I was suggesting that 75 per cent. of the £4 billion of accumulated capital debt should be transferred to central Government over a four-year period. As the hon. Gentleman will know, that will have no effect on the public sector borrowing requirement, as the PSBR is both a local and a national borrowing requirement. The £900 million-plus over four years that I have estimated is the effect of deferred interest will then be paid by central Government.

The hon. Gentleman will recall that when the water services industry in England was transferred to the private sector, a £4 billion to £5 billion debt write-off, or dowry, was awarded to the private companies. Although there has recently been a £700 million write-off of capital debt in the Scottish industry, it has been accompanied by a lowering of the spending provisions, to give no additional resources to the industry in Scotland.

The hon. Gentleman is in a poor position to argue that transferring capital debt—or writing it off, for that matter—is not a viable policy option, when the Government have been keen to adopt it when sending industries into the private sector. We are suggesting that the same mechanism be used to refinance the public sector, without the privatisation process. The hon. Gentleman is probably not aware that the mechanism of transferring capital debt was first suggested by, I think, the late Sir Robert Grieve, one of the great authoritative figures in Scottish housing, in a report on Glasgow housing some years ago. I think that Robert Grieve would have forgotten more about Scottish housing than the hon. Gentleman is ever likely to learn.

With those new resources, we would be able to carry out a substantial programme of new build—perhaps 11,000 new homes, to be developed by local authorities in partnership with housing associations.

I shall soon conclude my remarks in order to allow a number of hon. Members the opportunity to speak, some of whose speeches have, I note, been signalled in the Scottish press. I would not want to deprive readers of the Evening News in Edinburgh of the advantage of hearing a contribution from the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Chisholm).

I have some specific questions for the Minister. The housing organisations told me yesterday that they were concerned—I am choosing my words carefully—that the Minister with responsibility for housing was about to announce a rough sleepers initiative in Scotland. They were concerned not that he was about to announce the initiative, but because it seemed that the initiative was to have no additional resources, unlike that in England, which received a total of £250 million for London and elsewhere.

Housing associations and bodies in Scotland expressed concern that the Minister was minded to announced a rough sleepers initiative involving the secondment of housing staff from Scottish Homes, but no additional resources. I am sure that the Minister will take the opportunity to allay the concern that he might announce such an initiative without the resources required to make a difference.

I have at various times heard the Minister talk about high public expenditure on housing in Scotland. The argument that anything spent in the public sector represents some sort of subsidy, even when it is not subsidised—by and large, housing in Scotland is not now subsidised because of the decline in revenue support—whereas private sector housing, which is subsidised, and rightly so, does not represent subsidy, is foolish. If he compares the accounts of public housing provision in England and Wales with those in Scotland and removes the capital debt overhang, which, I suggest, would be a good and viable policy option for any Government, he will find that expenditure per house in England is currently higher in the public sector than in Scotland.

I cite figures provided by the Library, which estimates that last year, in terms of housing revenue account expenditure, £2,070 was spent per house in England and Wales compared with £1,680 in Scotland. Given what we know about the quality of Scottish housing stock, is the Minister satisfied that there is such a discrepancy in the public sector between expenditure per house in Scotland and expenditure per house in England and Wales?

Unlike the Government, who take the attitude that anything in the public sector is bad and anything in the private sector is good, the Scottish National party has no ideological bias in favour of any form of housing, public or private. In fact, we should like owner-occupation to be made a lower risk by continuing to allow tax relief, investigating the feasibility of fixed-rate mortgages and restoring grants to those who have the problem of trying to maintain older housing stock in the private sector in durable condition.

I ask the Minister to reflect on the fact that the balance of housing in England has been a severe problem for the English economy. In the boom periods—for example, that of the 1980s—economic expansion was diverted into the housing market, leading to a rapid escalation in house prices, which was, in turn, a contributory factor to the stop being applied to economic expansion. In more recent years in England, the overhang of negative equity has been a feature in depressing consumer expenditure and has led to problems in the English economy.

The Minister might like to reflect on the fact that one reason why the Scottish economy has been performing marginally better than the English economy in the past few years has been that the balance of our housing stock is substantially different. That view was supported in a recent book by Gavin McCrone, the former Scottish Office economic adviser. There is substantial evidence of the advantage of having a balance between the public and private sector, so can it really be a good thing that the Minister with responsibility for housing recently said in Shelter's publication that it was his ambition to have no council houses at all in the whole of Scotland? That is an ideological ambition that bears no relation whatever to what is best for the economy, the housing stock or our people.

No country can rest easily on its wealth and opportunity while its people live in squalor. The SNP has a vision of Scotland—a Scotland of fresh walls and bright windows, a Scotland where homes are free of fungus and condensation, a Scotland where children do not wheeze and rattle. It is a grand vision, but, in a civilised country, it is no more than the people deserve.

Scotland needs a new roof over its head, a roof that keeps each and every citizen dry, warm and secure. Despite the catcalling of the so-called Housing Minister, I suggest that most of us want to get on with the task of building it.,

9.58 am
Mr. Phil Gallie (Ayr)

One reason why Scots do not face negative equity is connected not with the balance between public and private sector but with their good sense. They did not go mad, as people did in the south-east of England some years ago, and pay massive sums for overvalued properties. Scots kept a balance and purchased at the right level. That is a great credit to all Scots and the fundamental reason why we do not have such problems in Scotland.

Ms Roseanna Cunningham (Perth and Kinross)

Does the hon. Gentleman suggest that ordinary people in England and Wales are more stupid than people in Scotland? That is what his comparison implies.

Mr. Gallie

Three, four or five years ago, people in the south-east of England did not use sound judgment. I make no apologies for saying that. Opposition Members are pointing at my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. Banks). I know that their geography is a bit out, but Southport is certainly not in the south-east of England, on which area the problem centred. It affected not only the people but the housing industry, which became greedy and created long-term problems for itself.

The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) fails to recognise the massive change in Scotland in recent years. I give credit to the Scottish National party, which, supported by Conservatives between 1977 and 1979 in the jointly controlled Cunninghame district council, pushed ahead with the privatisation programme on council houses. We started the council house sale programme. That is a great credit to the Scottish nationalists and to the Conservatives. We stood out against the Labour party, which was burying its head in the sand. Happily, it has changed its attitudes recently.

There have been massive changes in housing schemes right across Scotland. There is massive investment, not from the public sector, but from private owners—from the individuals in the houses. Council house schemes that used to have an austere feeling about them and looked dull back in the 1960s and 1970s have undergone a massive turnaround. That says much for the Government's policy of selling council houses.

From 63 per cent. of houses being in public ownership, the figure is now about 39 per cent.—a massive turnaround. That is a great credit to Scots, across the board. It has met the dreams of many Scots who wanted to own their own properties. I hope that it will continue. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan failed to recognise that massive investment. Apart from that, the Government have permitted investment in local authority housing. Some £1 billion will be pushed into local authority housing over the next three years, despite the massive reduction in the number of local authority houses. Since 1979, over £6 billion has been spent on local authority housing. That is a considerable investment, in which the Government can take considerable pride.

In addition, since the inception of Scottish Homes, an extra £2 billion has been put into public sector housing stock. That does not take account of the massive amounts of money from the Treasury and, above all, from taxpayers' pockets, via the housing benefit scheme. A heck of a lot of the cash that has been passed on to local authorities for council housing comes from the benefit scheme. Some 70 to 72 per cent. of local government revenue for local authority housing comes direct from the Treasury or through the benefits budget. That should not be overlooked.

The change in the balance of housing is a marvellous example of devolution in practice—removing the controls of Government, councillors and people interfering in other people's affairs, by passing on responsibility to individuals who want to manage their own affairs. That is real devolution—not creating another layer of politicians, but giving people the right to judge and determine for themselves. Once again, the Government should take great pride in that.

Opposition Members have a misconception about levels of capital investment and the fact that capital receipts from the sale of local authority housing have not been allowed to be passed on to local authorities for reinvestment in their housing stock. In England, that has been the case until recently, but in Scotland it has not. Money realised through the sale of council housing stock has gone back into that stock. I give great credit to the Conservative administration of Kyle and Carrick district council over the past four years, which has invested in and brought up to date the houses under its control. It has done a magnificent job of upgrading, which has been much welcomed by tenants.

Mr. Salmond

From the drift of the hon. Gentleman's argument, I take it that he will vigorously oppose the proposals to force local authorities into repayment of debt as opposed to investing in the modernisation schemes that he is describing.

Mr. Gallie

Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I do not believe that we can pass debt from one area of the public sector to another. It is all the same. If a debt was passed to the central Treasury, as the hon. Gentleman proposed earlier, it would change only the pocket from which the taxpayer pays for the debt burden. Privatisation of companies, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, was a different case. At the same time as we got rid of debt, we passed on the requirement for investment to a different pocket—the private sector. It was obliged to invest after privatisation. There has been massive investment by the private sector in the water industry in England. That must be welcome.

Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus, East)

Does the hon. Gentleman oppose Government policy on writing off water debt in Scotland? All the things that the Government said could not be done have suddenly been done in respect of water. Why have they not been done in respect of housing, which would help solve Scotland's massive housing problem, which the hon. Gentleman is ignoring?

Mr. Gallie

I am not ignoring it. Local authorities were responsible for incurring that debt. They should carry it forward.

Mr. Welsh

What about the water authorities?

Mr. Gallie

The new water authorities are different bodies, a different ball-game. That debt will be paid for by the Treasury and, ultimately, by taxpayers across the country. It is a transfer of resources. Housing, and the budget suggestion of the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan, are different. In Scotland, the water authorities' debt has been contained in the Scottish budget. It has not passed on to the national Treasury, but is contained in the Scottish block grant. That would have to be the case if we changed the rules on housing. I do not believe that other services in Scotland could stand that. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan laughs, but services such as health and education need all the cash that can be pushed in. We cannot offload the debt on to the national Treasury. That would not be acceptable.

Mr. Matthew Banks

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Given that there is currently more leverage in Scotland than in the rest of the United Kingdom, should we not strike a balance? We should spend half the money available on improving the infrastructure of our housing stock. However, as local authorities in Scotland are in debt to the tune of more than £5.3 billion, it is right and proper that some of the money should go to pay off that debt, which costs some £154 per head of the population per year.

Mr. Gallie

I sympathise with those comments. I could see the point of local authorities carrying debt and even extending it some years ago, when inflation was out of control. People said that it would be impossible to bring inflation back into line, but this Government tackled the problem. Inflation is now pegged at 2 per cent. to 3 per cent. and that removes the advantage of carrying a high debt burden. A balance must be struck now and we must hold debt at its present level rather than incurring further debt.

The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan talked about the poor standard of the housing stock. That point is recognised because, over the past four or five years, the Government have carried out surveys of a kind that were not carried out in the past. The surveys have identified problems that people suspected were there, but of which they were not fully aware. The problems are beginning to improve, perhaps too slowly, because all of us would like to see massive strides. Once again, I congratulate the Government on identifying the extent of the problems.

There is, of course, housing in the private sector, including rented properties. Through the Government's efforts, there has been massive investment in private housing stock. In the 1980s, there were extremely generous improvement and repair grants. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Davidson) is present for this debate. When one wanders around Glasgow, one sees the massive upgrading of the housing stock. One must recognise the massive part that the improvement and repair grants have played in raising standards in the city.

There are still areas of Glasgow where investment is needed. Strangely enough, it is most needed in the post-war housing that was provided by the local authorities, which did not always use good judgment. Many of the real problems in housing in Glasgow are found in relatively modern properties that were provided in the 1950s and 1960s.

I am concerned about the tendency in some areas of my constituency for private landlords to buy large houses and to split them so that they can be used for multiple occupancy. There are real causes for concern. In many instances, there is a lack of control by the landlords. A lack of respect is shown by many tenants who come through the housing benefit system, and who have no real interest in the properties and no real identity with the neighbourhood. Such dwellings are mushrooming in certain areas, which has a bad effect on owners and other residents there. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to consider that problem in the months ahead, because it is serious and must be addressed.

The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan spoke about the need for investment in energy efficiency. We have recently had a massive disaster in Scotland following a harsh period of very cold weather. Housing stock in the private sector and in the public sector was seriously damaged, especially in the central belt. Fortunately, people had taken precautions, especially in terms of the widespread use of loft insulation, which was mainly funded—very generously—by central Government. Virtually every pensioner in the land had access to free insulation and virtually every local authority carried out insulation programmes, with additional support from the Government. That programme has been hit hard in recent times. We must give care and attention to such issues in future.

10.14 am
Mr. Malcolm Chisholm (Edinburgh, Leith)

I con-gratulate the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) on obtaining this debate and on being able to find a copy of the Edinburgh Evening News down here before 9.30 am—something that I have not managed to do.

I shall concentrate on the housing revenue account capital budget, which is the key budget for the modernisation, central heating and window replacement programmes that are so desperately needed by many of my constituents. It is also the budget for the building of new council houses, although precious few are being built nowadays.

The figure this year for the HRA capital budget in Edinburgh is £32 million. Three possible figures have been given for next year under the resource planning assumptions. Edinburgh has been told that it will get £26 million, £24 million or £22 million. Figures have been given three years in advance; if we take the central figure, Edinburgh will suffer a cut of £30 million, not taking account of inflation, in its council housing capital budget over the next three years. The Greater Pilton area in north Edinburgh, which is part of my constituency, will lose £11 million of desperately needed housing investment over the same period. I shall describe the effect that that will have on my constituency.

If we have the same amount next year as we have had this year, we could have some new council houses in the West Granton area of my constituency. As a result of the cut, even if we get the highest figure, there will be no new council houses there. The Minister will say, "Okay, let the private sector do it." However, attracting private sector money for houses for rent in that area is a problem. Even if we are successful in attracting private sector money, there will be fewer houses for rent than there would have been, and the rents will be higher.

We have a serious problem in Edinburgh. Only 16 per cent. of the stock is council housing. I know that the Minister wants to continue to increase home ownership, but the reality is that many people cannot afford to buy their houses and, because of increasing job insecurity, that situation is becoming more common. We shall have a serious problem in terms of the number of houses available for rent and the change in the budget figure means that the problem will get worse.

The Muirhouse area is in much need of housing modernisation and new build. On the top figure that the Government have suggested—£26 million—some modernisation work can be carried out in Muirhouse. There will be no modernisation work anywhere else in Edinburgh, but there will at least be some in Muirhouse. The council has taken the view that to attract private finance into the area, it must keep up its commitment to public housing. Obviously £26 million is not enough, but I tell the Minister that if he must pick one of the three figures, the top figure is the least that Edinburgh needs. Some modernisation work can then go ahead in Muirhouse and that may have knock-on effects on other developments in. the area. Many of the houses have already been vacated, ready for modernisation. The tenants have been devastated by the news that the programme may not go ahead and I have had many representations on the issue. I make this plea to the Minister. If he cannot go beyond £26 million, he must at least give us that amount.

The other area of my constituency that has been affected is the Granton-Royston area. Some 311 houses in Royston were expecting modernisation in the next three or four years, but that modernisation scheme has been taken out of the housing programme. Granton Medway, a street in Granton, has been the subject of two housing studies in the past few months, by Edinburgh university and by the home energy advice team. The information was sent to the Minister.

Much information has been available from those studies about the state of houses in that not untypical street. It was found that 58 per cent. of people complained of dampness, 78 per cent. of condensation and 45 per cent. of mould. Two thirds of the bedrooms surveyed were below the official tolerable standard, which means that they were so cold that they were a risk to health. Many of the health problems, especially children's respiratory problems, were described in that report. Another fact that emerged was that tenants in that street were paying between 10 and 15 per cent. of their income on heating bills—twice the national average—because of poor insulation and the poor condition of windows.

That street is not unique. Recently, I visited houses in Crewe road gardens, quite nearby, and saw many similar problems. Much work therefore needs to be done. We need far more than £26 million, but at least, if we are given that top figure suggested by the Government, some window replacement and central heating work might go ahead in the Granton and Royston areas.

If the Minister cannot go beyond £26 million, I make a plea to him that at least we may have that figure. It is still a massive cut of about 20 per cent. on the £32 million that we had this year. I know that the Minister will say that the council must sell its stock and make money in that way. There are plenty of arguments about that, which I do not have time to make. Even if the council met the target that the Government have set for next year of 1.25 million through selling stock—that is, in blocks rather than in individual sales—that would represent, even at the top figure, a massive cut for next year's budget in Edinburgh.

The Government will also say, "We are putting money into housing associations and so on and new houses can be built by them instead of by councils." We know that, as the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan said, Scottish Homes has had a massive cut in its budget and its development programme is down by £40 million next year. We know that the number of new starts by housing associations next year will be half what was planned, and that depends on Scottish Homes transferring £50 million of its stock, which may not happen, so we may have even fewer new starts than the 650 throughout Scotland about which Scottish Homes is now talking.

We have a massive housing crisis in Scotland. At the last count, there were 42,000 names on council housing waiting lists. The Scottish Office estimates that, because of demographic changes, 150,000 extra households will be required in the next 10 years.

We know from the Scottish home condition survey about the condition of Scottish houses. One in 20 is below the official tolerable standard and one in four suffers from dampness, condensation and mould. The Government's response is to slash housing expenditure, especially council housing expenditure. There is also a problem, which I do not have time to go into, with the budget for private housing, which must now compete with education and everything else for a share of a much diminished capital cake. We know that one in eight tenements in Edinburgh needs repair, and that cannot be done on present resources.

It is not only a housing problem. Investing in housing makes sense in economic and employment terms because of the direct jobs that are created and the indirect employment spin-offs. There are also health effects. Cold homes affect people's health and lead to additional national health service expenditure, they affect people's income because they must spend more on fuel and they affect the environment because people must use more fuel.

Low housing expenditure creates a vicious spiral of social and economic decline, whereas additional housing expenditure can create a virtuous circle of increased employment and better housing conditions. I make a plea to the Minister today at least to award the top figure to Edinburgh, although it must be said in conclusion that that in itself will be woefully inadequate.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. We are 17 minutes away from the winding-up speeches. Three hon. Gentlemen and one hon. Lady hope to catch my eye. With co-operation, I hope that all will be successful.

10.23 am
Mr. Matthew Banks (Southport)

I had supposed that the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) would seek to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and perhaps she will do so in a moment or two, but I shall heed your warning and speak briefly.

I listened with genuine interest to the remarks by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond). We have several things in common, including the fact that we both represent parts of the British Isles that neither of us was from originally. I note from memory that the hon. Gentleman's constituency benefited considerably from the borrowing consents that were announced by the Scottish Office in the past couple of weeks. I congratulate the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan. The nationalists seem to be doing extremely well in the ballot for Wednesday morning debates. They are obviously all putting in for the same subject. I only wish that some Conservative Members had similar success.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie) rightly drew attention to the Government's success in selling more than 32 per cent. of the public sector housing stock in Scotland. That transformation was founded on our belief in choice and in a property-owning democracy.

In the light of the remarks by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan and the general socialist desire for quantitative measures of success, let me say that we should not underestimate the fact that about £6 billion has been spent on housing stock in Scotland since 1979. An investment programme in council housing of more than £1 billion will take place in the next three years. Planned total expenditure of £3 billion is nearly three times that in England. Scottish Homes has invested more than £2 billion in Scottish housing since it came into being and has a budget of about £320 million for the coming year.

On top of the £424 million made available for housing stock investment, £16.8 million in borrowing consents has been made available to local authorities which have suffered from the fact that less money has been available as a result of decreased council house sales.

Mr. Salmond

I have some figures from the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations which show that 48 per cent. of working tenants in England, are on housing benefit compared with 27 per cent. in Scotland. Is the hon. Gentleman at all worried that the Government's policies have driven so many working tenants in England into the poverty trap and on to housing benefit?

Mr. Banks

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, he makes his own point in his own way and I wish to make my own point in the two or three minutes available to me, rather than allowing him to take me down that cul-de-sac.

My party and I realise the importance of genuine investment in housing stock. We also know that public money can never be fully exploited—can never gain value for money—without complementary qualitative reforms. The failure of opposition parties to grasp that point is still the great divide that separates us from them.

As I said in the House on 6 March in the debate on education in Scotland, we have devolved a great deal of power to the Scottish people, not by imposing a tartan tax or establishing an alternative bureaucratic apparatus staffed by apparatchiks in Edinburgh, but by giving tenants the right to own a home—and what can give anyone a greater stake in society than that?

Our approach to housing has assigned a limited though significant role to Government and local authorities. We prefer to enable the individual to find a home for himself. The themes of greater opportunities for home ownership, wider choice for tenants and targeting help on the most needy are much in evidence in Scottish Office policy.

We believe in levering private sector finance to supplement public funding. We believe that the mixture of the investment from business and financial institutions with public funds creates a more permanent and effective revitalisation of housing in urban areas than spending public funds alone.

The great difference between the Conservatives and the opposition parties is that the Conservatives believe in giving the people of Scotland greater choice and devolving greater power, not only to Edinburgh and the Scottish Office, but to local councils. Long may that policy continue.

10.30 am
Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Govan)

I shall be brief because this is an important debate and I know that other hon. Members wish to speak. Housing in Scotland is a national disgrace. More people in Scotland go to Members of Parliament and to councillors about the state of housing than about any other issue. Regardless of the fine words and statistics that are bandied around by the Government, an enormous number of people in Scotland live in damp and cold houses, are inadequately housed because their accommodation is the wrong size and cannot get a house in the area that they want. Those people are not being adequately looked after by the Government.

This issue does not have the attention that it deserves because so many of the opinion formers are adequately housed. Few Members of Parliament, few councillors and few journalists live in council housing and are subject to the difficulties of dampness and of cold accommodation in which a large number of our population live. Therefore, the issue does not concern the public print and it is inadequately covered on television. It is swept under the carpet because the people who suffer tend to be the less vocal and those less able to access the sources of public information. Therefore, that great disgrace is inadequately covered by the media.

The Government are pursuing a vendetta against the public sector. They have deliberately decided to cut public spending, to drive people into the private sector—in many cases, into the hands of unscrupulous private landlords who are seeking to exploit the system of housing benefit for their personal gain without regard to the quality of the accommodation that they provide. The Government have been remiss in tackling the issue. They appear willing to allow the exploitation of those in need by unscrupulous private landlords, without adequate supervision.

In the time available to me, I shall raise one other issue: the anti-social behaviour of tenants in council housing. The Government should treat this issue more seriously than they do. They ought to introduce legislation to allow councils much greater power to tackle anti-social behaviour.

Mr. Gallie


Mr. Davidson

I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman because only a limited amount of time is available.

Many people have their lives destroyed and the peace in their homes disturbed by anti-social behaviour, and the Government are not prepared to allow councils adequate powers to deal with the matter. I hope that the Minister will deal with the issue in his winding-up speech and that he will promise us legislation that will enable councils to deal with those problems.

10.32 am
Ms Roseanna Cunningham (Perth and Kinross)

I wish to speak in the debate because of the common misconception that housing problems are pretty much the province of the big inner cities. I shall concentrate on my constituency because it is widely seen by many people as one of the more prosperous parts of Scotland—and in some ways it is. However, it still has a housing problem, both in Perth and in the rural areas. There are homeless people in Perth. Indeed, there is a growing problem—I know that that may come as a surprise to people who have swallowed some of the lazy, shorthand descriptions of Perth and Kinross. One scheme, the churches' action for the homeless, has provided day facilities in Perth for a number of years and it has only recently felt the need to expand its activities, providing a wholly admirable day centre for the young homeless. In addition, the Cyrenians provide beds for mentally ill homeless men in Perth.

If the Under-Secretary announces a rough sleepers initiative today, he should announce that there will be some resources to go with it. If homelessness is a problem in Perth, it will be a problem in the rest of Scotland. The Cyrenians and the churches' action for the homeless are examples of what is felt to be necessary in my constituency. I assure hon. Members that there is a real unmet need.

Perth has a growing population, a factor that brings its own pressures. In the context of housing, it means a pressure on the existing stock—no matter the form of tenure. In addition, the area's desirability in terms of owner-occupation means that it is attractive to builders and that the prices are higher than in many other areas. The availability of owner-occupied housing is not matched by sufficient affordable rented accommodation. For example, the Perth housing association has to operate in an area of high land prices and competition from speculative builders in a city that is built up almost to its boundaries. There is no abundance of empty houses to be bought and renovated in Perth—as is the case in many inner cities—even if the association had the resources to do so, which it does not.

Budgetary reductions imposed on the Perth housing association in 1995–96 are already delaying site starts and limiting opportunities for site acquisitions—yet it has one of the biggest waiting lists in Scotland. Demographic projections show that in 10 years or so, Perth will be bigger than Dundee, but there is no sign of an increase in resources to cope with that growing population, at least in terms of housing. The situation is quite the reverse—for example, the Scottish Office, in cutting the budget to Scottish Homes, is ensuring that, when those cuts are passed on, the pressure in Perth will become ever worse. Fewer new starts means longer waiting lists. Is the Minister content with the fact that those who are already waiting for houses will have to wait even longer?

It is not just the housing association sector that is suffering. The savage cuts in Scottish Office grants to local authorities will have a serious effect on the provision that the voluntary sector administers. This, together with the restricted manoeuvrability of the housing associations, is likely adversely to affect bodies such as the Cyrenians, whom I have already mentioned. They know that they are not—with the eight to 10 beds that they have available—reaching everyone in the area whom they consider to be eligible. Again, there is unmet need in Perth and Kinross—one of the supposedly more prosperous parts of Scotland.

Although organisations such as the Cyrenians work hard, they cannot take up the entire responsibility. The fact that we rely on them to do so much is an indictment of the past 16 years of Tory Government. Cuts in local government budgets directly affect local authority housing provision. Information from the Perth and Kinross district council housing department shows that the waiting lists in Perth and Kinross have risen by 27 per cent. over the past six years. In response to the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie), let me say that that is a direct result of a reduction in investment in council housing. In the same period, the number of applications to the housing authority from homeless people rose by more than 50 per cent. I repeat: this is in a part of Scotland that is widely regarded as being one of the most prosperous.

I am not trying to repeat a litany of local organisations involved in housing—I do not have the time and I cannot cover all the issues that I would like to cover. I am making a serious point. As I have said already, this is happening in a part of Scotland that is widely seen as being well off and prosperous. For many people in my constituency, that is true—but there are also many people for whom it is not true. They are suffering now and they will suffer even more in the future because of the Government's housing policies.

In Perth and Kinross, and in the rest of Scotland, people are suffering because of what is effectively an ideological bias against a particular sector of the housing market. That sector of the housing market is as necessary in my constituency as it is in the rest of Scotland. It is as important to the homeless people in Perth and Kinross as it is to the homeless people in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen. Homelessness, wherever it strikes, has exactly the same effect on the individual, no matter where they might be.

Mr. Gallie


Ms Cunningham

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman if he is brief—we are pushed for time.

Mr. Gallie

Does the hon. Lady join me in welcoming the extra investment that the Government have recently announced for hostels for the homeless?

Ms Cunningham

I am always happy to welcome extra investment. However, there have been years and years of reductions in investment and there has been a cumulative effect. Homelessness in my constituency is increasing, as it is elsewhere in Scotland, and has been increasing over the years that the Government have been in power. The Perth and Kinross district council has been a Tory administration for the past four years. Happily, that will be the case for only another two weeks because the voters of Perth and Kinross saw the wisdom of removing that administration and voting in a Scottish National party administration for the new unitary authority.

Those who run local authorities have to do so in the context of a Scottish Office that seems to be hostile to the idea of public sector housing. That has to be seriously addressed because an entire sector of the housing market is effectively run down. The Minister made it quite clear that he wants to see, ultimately, an end to public sector housing. That is all very well, but the vast majority of people—enormous numbers of people—will never be able to afford mortgages, certainly in such places as Perth and Kinross. There is real need in constituencies such as mine, just as there is elsewhere in Scotland. I hope that the Minister will address that subject and understand that if there are problems in Perth and Kinross, the problems in other areas must be even worse.

10.39 am
Mr. John McAllion (Dundee, East)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) on his good fortune in the ballot which enabled him to secure the debate this morning and, more particularly, on his chosen subject. It has given us one of the great parliamentary occasions so far this Session in that we have witnessed the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie) accusing others of being lacking in sound judgment. I am sure that the House was grateful for that.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Perth and Kinross (Ms Cunningham) and my hon. Friends the Members for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Chisholm) and for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Davidson) on their contributions to the debate. They displayed detailed and expert knowledge of the crisis facing public sector housing in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Perth. They all exhibited a knowledge and understanding of Scottish housing that was clearly lacking in the hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Banks), who almost routinely pops up in Scottish debates to display his complete ignorance of all matters concerning Scotland. Nevertheless, he is welcome to the debate, as he provides us with entertainment, if nothing else.

I particularly welcome the debate this morning as, by my calculation, it doubles the time provided for debating housing in Scotland on the Floor of the House. The only other debate on these matters so far this Session is on the draft Housing Support Grant (Scotland) Order, on which the Government have to spend one and a half hours every year. In this Session, there have been just three hours on the Floor of the House in which Members elected in Scotland have had the opportunity to debate one of the most important subjects to the people of Scotland. That, more than anything else, makes the case for establishing a Scottish Parliament where Scottish housing can be given a proper national focus and where it can be debated by the elected representatives of the Scottish people.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Raymond S. Robertson)

How many debates have the Opposition initiated on housing in Scotland and how many applications have been made through the usual channels for such a debate?

Mr. McAllion

The most recent debate on housing in Scotland was in the Scottish Grand Committee. That debate was initiated by the Opposition. Although the Scottish Grand Committee is part of the House, it is not a Scottish Parliament established in Scotland to debate Scottish issues—and that must happen.

Although there has been little debate in Westminster on Scottish housing, there is a real debate in Scotland among those who are interested in housing. The basic demand that has arisen out of that debate is for increased investment in the housing stock. That demand now has widespread support across Scotland.

Shelter, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the Scottish Trades Union Congress, the Chartered Institute of Housing in Scotland and the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations are widely respected bodies with huge experience of Scottish housing. They are all knowledgeable about Scottish housing and call for a massive programme of additional investment to meet the housing crisis in Scotland.

Those organisations propose additional investment of about £580 million in each of the next five years. If that programme were realised, it would allow 13,000 affordable rented homes to be built in Scotland in each year. It would halve the numbers of houses below the tolerable standard in Scotland and restore repair and grant expenditure to the heady levels last experienced under Baroness Thatcher. Ministers cannot call those demands irresponsible. They have not been conjured up out of thin air, but are based on a detailed knowledge of housing needs in Scotland.

One such example is the demand for housing which has been generated by the increasing number of elderly people in Scotland. In 1992, the number of people over 75 represented about 6 per cent. of the Scottish population; by 2032, they will represent 11 per cent. of the Scottish population—in other words, the numbers will almost double in the next 35 years. If care in the community is to be honoured and if elderly Scots are to be given the opportunity to live independent lives, there will have to be a wider range of flexible housing options. That will require increased investment in the Scottish housing stock.

Mr. Matthew Banks

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. McAllion

No. The hon. Gentleman has made his speech, so he will have to sit down.

The same is true for those with learning difficulties and those who suffer problems with their mental health. If they are to avoid a lifetime in institutional care, there will have to be greater investment in integrating housing with social care in Scotland. The examples are endless. They include meeting the needs of the 78,000 homeless people in Scotland, according to the latest estimate by Shelter; meeting the needs of rural Scotland, which Conservative Members claim to represent; meeting the needs of young people—particularly very young people—coming out of care, a group whose plight was recently described by the journalist Jon Snow as a continuing national disgrace; and meeting the needs of those trapped on waiting lists and those in damp-ridden houses.

The knee-jerk response to all those demands for investment would be that the country cannot afford it and that the public purse is already stretched to the limit trying to satisfy the demands for social welfare spending and that housing will simply have to take its turn. That response ignores completely the strong economic case for investing in housing which receives widespread support across Scotland. Time prevents me from discussing every aspect, but I shall give a few examples of the arguments that support it.

House building and repair remain a labour-intensive industry that creates more jobs for a given level of investment than almost any other sector of the economy. Therefore, by investing in housing, we can quickly get more people back to work so that fewer people will claim benefit and be a drain on the public purse.

As has already been said, poor housing has a direct impact on people's health and therefore contributes to increased spending on the health service, as is evidenced by the incidence of bronchitis and asthma. Increased investment in housing would decrease the demand for spending on the national health service. The lack of good-quality, affordable rented accommodation reduces labour mobility and undermines our national economic performance. A growing number of people in Scotland are beginning to ask not whether we can afford to invest in housing, but whether we can afford not to do so.

Let me concentrate on one particular issue of housing investment under the present Government—housing benefit. Yesterday, I attended the national poverty hearings at Church house in London. It was a moving occasion in which real experts in poverty—the poor themselves—told the rest of us what it was like to be poor. They said that the hardest part was the negativity and hostility directed towards them by the rest of society—for example, being described or thought of as a scrounger, a waster, someone who did not want to work or was congenitally lazy. One of them summed it up beautifully when he said that there is no such thing as the poverty gene: people are poor not because of any lack in themselves, but because they are victims of a system which discriminates against them and makes them poor. The housing benefit system that has been promoted by the Conservative party is evidence of that.

Housing benefit in Scotland is enormously expensive. It currently costs the taxpayer around £900 million every year. That is £320 million more than the additional investment called for by Shelter, the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations and other bodies. They call for an additional investment in the housing stock of £2.9 billion in the next five years. The Minister would cry, "Where will the money come from?" but over the same five years he plans to invest £4.5 billion in the housing benefit system. We are entitled to ask him where he plans to find that money.

What are taxpayers being asked to pay for by that huge investment? They are being asked to subsidise unrealistic rent levels to keep rent at a level that tenants cannot afford to pay. They are being asked to pay to make it impossible for people on full housing benefit to get off benefit and back to work. They are being asked to pay to make people entirely dependent and trap them in poverty. Those are the consequences of the Government's housing policies.

There is an overwhelming need to rethink the present strategy whereby ever-increasing rents in Scotland are backed up by ever-increasing levels of housing benefit. Shelter has asked that urgent consideration be given to the relationship between rents and the benefit system. It is not alone in that call. Scottish Homes—the Government's own national housing agency—is arguing the economic case for controlling housing costs in Scotland. It points out that, for those not in work, the high cost of housing, coupled with the operation of the benefit system, reduces work incentives, thereby reducing overall labour supply and damaging the economic interests of the Scottish people. That leads us to ask: why does the Minister not listen to the advice of his national housing agency and break the ever-spiralling levels of housing benefit, rising rents and benefit dependency in Scotland?

Housing must become the priority of the elected representatives of the Scottish people and the focus of a genuine national debate about the best way to tackle Scotland's housing crisis. Housing must be viewed not in isolation but as part of the wider social and economic context. At the end of the day, housing impacts on the country's economic performance. It impacts on people's health and makes them less able to contribute to the economy. Housing also impacts on educational opportunities. It is critical that housing should be viewed once again as part of the wider economy and as an investment rather than a drag on public spending. If that is to occur, there must be a serious national debate about housing in Scotland. That will never happen in this place: it will happen only in a Scottish Parliament.

10.50 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Raymond S. Robertson)

I am delighted to have the opportunity to respond to the debate and I congratulate the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) on securing it. Many points have been raised this morning and obviously I will not be able to refer to them in the short time available to me. However, I shall endeavour to address as many as I can, and I shall try to write to hon. Members regarding the issues that I do not cover.

I turn first to resources, as that subject has dominated the debate this morning. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan seemed to suggest that £4 billion in local authority housing debt could be spirited away if it were moved to different areas within the public sector. In addition, he suggested that, in his independent Scotland, £945 million would be available for new investment. He seems to forget that his great, independent Scotland would face a massive budget deficit. He did not say where the money would come from.

Last year, my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade produced figures compiled by Government economists showing that the deficit would be £6.7 billion. Those findings were backed up by the independent Fraser of Allander Institute. The much-respected House of Commons Library said in 1993–94 that the deficit would be more than £7 billion. Scotland on Sunday—which is certainly no friend to the Government—predicted that the budget deficit would be £4.5 billion. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman is playing politics of the very worst kind: promising much and raising expectations, knowing all the while that he can never deliver.

Mr. Salmond

There are mistakes in that calculation. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the equivalent figure for the whole of the United Kingdom is £53 billion under his Government. That is why we have seen 22 tax increases—which have occurred in Scotland also—in an attempt to redress the balance. Will the hon. Gentleman concede that all the spending commitments about which I have talked today and their revenue consequences are laid down in the budget plans produced by the SNP? If he wants to attack those figures, the documents are available. If he has not read them or does not understand them, he should admit that to the House.

Mr. Robertson

I was being kind to the hon. Gentleman by not adding in his party's spending plans, which would take the budget deficit to £10 billion. The hon. Gentleman is asking us to believe that Government economists, the Fraser of Allander Institute, Scotland on Sunday and the House of Commons Library are wrong and that he is right. In so doing, he displays an arrogance on which the Scottish people will judge him.

Throughout his 11-minute speech, the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. McAllion) referred continually to lack of resources and the need for more money. However, he did not say how much the Labour party would spend over and above what we are spending. I am prepared to give him a minute of my speaking time if he will come to the Dispatch Box and tell the House exactly how much a Labour Government would spend over and above the plans that I have announced.

Mr. McAllion

The Government are currently spending £900 million subsidising failure and trapping people in poverty. If the hon. Gentleman were to listen to the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations and its very wise advice on how to make rents affordable for Scottish people. he would reduce the housing benefit budget—thereby releasing resources for investment in housing—and get people out of poverty, off benefit, back to work and paying taxes. In that way, he would create a virtuous circle instead of the circle of failure that his broken and useless policies have imposed on the Scottish people.

Mr. Robertson

We have fantasy figures from the SNP and no figures from the Labour party. I contrast that approach with the Government's actions. We plan to make almost £2 billion available for housing in Scotland in the next three years. Spending by local authorities could amount to about £1 billion. In 1996–97, the gross capital provision for investment by local authorities and Scottish Homes will amount to nearly £680 million. That means that, since 1979, we have invested £6 billion in council housing and £2 billion in private sector housing by local authorities.

This year, we have maintained net borrowing provision at planned levels, and gross investment by local authorities in council housing is expected to amount to almost £350 million in 1996–97. Over the same period, the number of council houses has fallen by about 25 per cent.—which means that the debt to which the hon. Gentleman referred has increased by 60 per cent. That is unacceptable, and there is a pressing need to tackle council housing debt.

Like the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Chisholm), I am aware that most of the new authorities have made representations about the estimates that we are about to announce. I told the hon. Gentleman yesterday when we met to discuss the matter that, before making a final decision, I shall take on board all the representations from local authorities. If hon. Members wish to discuss the matter on behalf of, or in conjunction with, local authorities before a final decision is taken early next week, I shall be delighted to meet them.

Local authorities owe it to themselves and to their tenants to maximise receipts by every means at their disposal. I shall now take a few minutes of the time of the House to refer to the potential for generating receipts from the sale of housing stock to other landlords.

Mr. Welsh

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Robertson

With respect, I have only four minutes left in which to reply to the debate.

In the past, some hon. Members have questioned whether the £22 million included in the provisional estimates for stock transfers next year is achievable. That figure represents the sale of about 1 per cent. of the total local authority housing stock in Scotland—that must be achievable. I believe that orders of that magnitude can be achieved, for example, through the sale of empty properties or through the transfer of a small number of houses to existing locally based housing associations.

I acknowledge that it may be difficult to achieve substantial large-scale stock transfers next year, but authorities should start to plan now for such transfers in 1997–98. As I have said on several occasions, I believe firmly that authorities should generate more resources for housing investment through selling stock to other landlords. I expect local authorities to take the steps necessary to maximise receipts.

The threat to increased investment in Scotland's housing comes not from Her Majesty's Government but from the ideology expressed by Opposition Members who believe that only councils should build houses and be landlords. That is a mentality from the past which does nothing to address the needs and the demands of social housing in Scotland as we approach the millennium.

I turn now to some points raised specifically in the debate. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan asked about the sale of the Scottish Homes loans portfolio. We shall shortly appoint advisers to examine the matter and we shall look closely at his idea for separate sales per country.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Davidson) inquired about anti-social tenants. I am on record as saying that the Scottish Affairs Select Committee, under the chairmanship of his hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. McKelvey), is examining the matter. I shall wait until it has reported to the Government and to the House before deciding on a course of action—it would be madness to try to duplicate that Select Committee's work. However, some of the powers that the hon. Gentleman suggested have not been requested by Labour-controlled councils. There is an immense area to explore, but I am willing to wait until the Select Committee has reported before deciding what, if any, legislation should be brought before the House.

Homelessness and rooflessness have been mentioned. Homelessness continues to be a national priority for local authorities and for Scottish Homes, which hopes to make about 2,400 homes available for homeless people this year. Helping rough sleepers remains a priority in the homelessness programme and I am sure that all hon. Members would agree that, before we bring forward any plans on rooflessness initiatives, we need to be properly informed, and that is why my predecessor commissioned a research report into what was happening. I expect to have the results of that this summer. I can tell the hon. Members for Banff and Buchan and for Perth and Kinross (Ms Cunningham) that I will consider carefully all the indications of that research, but I do not want to make policy without being properly informed, and that is what the research project will do.

Earlier this year, we consulted on the code of guidance on homelessness and asked for comments by 30 September from a wide range of bodies, including those representing the views of homeless people.

Mr. Salmond

Will the Minister concede that such an initiative would require—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Time is up.

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