§ 4.59 p.m.
§ Debate resumed.
§ Lord Crawshaw of Aintree
My Lords, on behalf of myself and my noble friends on these Benches perhaps I may express our gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Seebohm, for the opportunity of debating what is a most interesting and vital report. It is not merely a report on housing, because the very basis of this is something that could destroy our society as we know it; and I say that advisedly.
There is not the slightest doubt that over a number of years many people, particularly in our inner cities, have lived in circumstances that have been a disgrace. If I may refer to the former Minister for the Environment, Mr. Michael Heseltine, he is on record as having been to Liverpool and said that he did not know that people lived in such circumstances. What is said in this report is quite right: we shall not solve the problem by throwing money at it. Money has been thrown at the problem. What has not been done is to think through how that money is to be spent to the best advantage. I think that this report highlights some of the ways in which that can be done.
In the other place this past week we have had several last war examples: Dunkirks, Alameins and so on. To me this is Operation Overlord getting our troops into Europe. Anything else after that had to be planned in detail. This is a report which highlights different categories of people and I want to say that what impresses me is that the emphasis is on what is fair between one class of person and another. I thought that until I heard the argument that was going on over the Dispatch Boxes this afternoon as to what is fair and what is not fair; and I came to the conclusion that I was a little naive in thinking that normal people knew what was fair. I do not think it is fair to change the rules of the game when people are in the middle of it. Therefore, if there is hardship to be suffered, obviously one has to take those things into consideration, because the money has to come from somewhere.
What I am more concerned about is that, assuming we get the money, assuming we can build, we have highlighted the different categories of people we have to take into consideration—home-owners, the elderly 705 owners of property, rented property and so on. But after the last war and in the 1950s and 1960s we did pour money into houses, and I for one must take blame for what happened in Liverpool because I was on that housing committee for seven or eight years along with my noble friend Lord Sefton. We built monstrosities; we built slums; we built units; we did not build houses; we built estates; we did not build communities; and that is what we are suffering from in the inner cities today, because the people who were the lifeline in those communities in our inner cities have been sent to outlying estates where they do not know anybody, where there was no provisions made for shopping or adequate facilities for recreation and so on.
We destroyed communities. We destroyed so much in our generation. We say that young people today have no sense of responsibility because we as parents have failed to give them responsibility. Sanctions have gone from children; they have gone from them at home, gone from them at school. But there was a sanction. There was a sanction of a community. Lord help anybody who was caught breaking those sanctions; because if the parents did not know about it they soon would know about it! Now we have people living in areas who do not even know their next door neighbours. What terrifies me is that we are going to think out easy solutions to these problems and we are going to finish up in another 20 or 30 years with exactly the problems that we have today. Therefore when I say that this is the Overlord operation, what I believe ought to happen now is that there should be other committees of inquiry set up to find out exactly what sort of accommodation these different people want.
If public life has taught me anything it has taught me that I do not know the answers. Officials do not know the answers. Surprisingly enough, the people who know the answers are the people who are going to live in the houses. These are the ones we never ask what they want. If we do not ask them we are going to finish up in the same situation. Another encouraging thing from that is the co-operation that has to be given and the taking into confidence of the people who are going to be there. To that extent, I believe that it is a good report.
What is going to happen in regard to local authority housing? The suggestion is given that we are going to build more and more. If you look into any local authority housing system, it is almost inhuman. That is not a criticism of the people who are trying to carry it out. It is impossible to deal with individuals as individuals when you are dealing with thousands of people and when every day in your rooms you have callers saying, "I've got this fault; I've got this complaint and I've got this that wants repairing". I think we would be going down the wrong lane if we did that.
We already have the ideal thing—and here again I must declare a vested interest—in the voluntary housing associations. It may well be that they may be marginally more expensive to run. Housing associations have shown what they can do. I go round different properties owned by the association to which I belong, I cannot tell them from private property 706 because the standard is kept up on them. Why is that standard kept up? It is because the associations are mostly small ones in which volunteers are giving their time to ensure that that property is run properly. I want to pay tribute to people who do much more than I ever do on these associations, people who spend days and days in the course of a week dealing with one committee after another. But I can tell your Lordships this: every month, through the main committee, the names of everybody who owes rent come before the committee. The names are known and people sit and ask why they have not paid the rent. They ask whether there are any problems within the family that could be helped. Everyone is an individual.
What used to appal me—and I never made any headway with this when I was on Liverpool council—was that I used to say, "Well, we are building these blocks of fiats and we are leaving all the doors open." They are just becoming public playgrounds, with all the vandalism that is going on. Would it not perhaps pay us to engage commissionnaires and have doors fitted and let people come in and out? Would it not be repaid over the course of a year? When you see some of what we have had to pay on some of those blocks of flats in Liverpool, it is clear that we could have paid a whole troop of commissionnaires to sit down there to make sure they were looked after. Such places would not be built for the executive class in London without putting commissionnaires down below. Why should it be done for anybody else?
Those are the things that I am interested in. We know what the problem is. All governments have not spent enough money on housing to make sure that it was right, and the money that has been spent has been spent in many cases in the wrong way. That is the problem. And what about rented property? Of course there is a need for rented property; although I believe that nine out of 10 families, given the opportunity, would wish to own their own home. This is an argument that I used to have when I was a member of the Labour Party. For many years I could see that there was sense in people being home owners. It gives stability to our society. The argument that I used to put forward was this: "What do you really believe you are giving these people whom you are so kindly looking after? They pay high rents. They cannot get the repairs done". When I was in the other place I did not mind taking housing cases for people in private property because I could do something about it. I could go to the medical officer and get an order put on the house and if the landlord did not do what was necessary then the corporation did it and charged the landlord. You could make progress.
However, with council property you could send in reports of things that wanted doing by tenants in that property; and if they ever got done it was because they became so dangerous that they had to be done. I used to say, "This is what you are doing to people you are putting into these places. What do you think you are giving them? They will die eventually and they will not even own a brick of that property". To me, there was sense in selling up council property. And what was the argument against it? The argument of course was that if you sell off the property you will not have a stock with which you can accommodate other people. That makes sense. But I never thought that we would be 707 blessed with a government who would let you sell off council property and then retain the money and not allow you to spend it to buy new property. Never in my wildest dreams did I think we would ever have a government who would do that.
What is the sense in it? There is no reason why you should not sell off your property as long as you augment it with the returns you get. But the Labour Party has been proved right, for the wrong reasons. It is the Government who have proved them right—because now what are we left with? All the good council property has been taken up and the other is property that nobody even wants to live in, never mind buy. When the noble Lord talks about the number of houses in this country, we have more than we need—you could not give them away in Liverpool. We are talking about homes: the noble Lord is talking about units. There is a difference between the two, and until we appreciate the difference between them and realise what impact bad housing conditions are having on our social life we are going to store up for the future more and more trouble.
Is there any reason why two estates in Merseyside are being subjected to police investigation for drugs week in and week out?—it is because they have become the centres of drug trafficking. These are the problems we are building up. I have been responsible for building them up myself; but it is an arrogant sort of councillor who says that the planning people do not know best. They tell you, and unless you are very arrogant you accept what they say. It takes 20 or 30 years for you to find out that they were wrong.
I turn now to rented property. It is suggested that certain people should be allowed to have rented property which we should create. The memories of Rachman are too keen in my memory ever to want to go down the lane of allowing people to inflict high rents on tenants. And not everybody is a Rachman: quite kind people can be Rachmans. It is circumstances that drive them into it. As a person gets older he might have a property he is living in and so he lets it off. Circumstances get worse for such people and they turn round and say, "I'm not getting a very good return and I will put the rent up". Let us be very wary about going down the lane of private landlords unless that is done under the strictest supervision.
There are suggestions here as to how it might be done. For example, why not have housing associations? Why not have them so that every 1,000 or 1,500 houses have a committee which will investigate, week in and week out, how the people are faring in those properties? They will be able to investigate whether they are being looked after and so on. I believe that is the way it has to be done, because we do need a fund of rented property. I believe the way it could be done is for the Government to underwrite these associations, as they do other voluntary housing associations. If they underwrote them and did as the report suggests—guaranteed a 4 per cent. return index-linked—I believe that many pension funds would invest in them and we could build up a large store of rented property. When all is said and done, that is a vital need in many parts of this country, because people are becoming more mobile as the years go on. What is the alternative? If you move from the North 708 and get a job in London, you sell your house in the North, and it would not buy you a garage down in London. So there is a need for rented accommodation.
Then we come to owner-occupiers. Much of the poverty in this country is behind lace curtains and it is in the houses of people who are owner-occupiers and now elderly—perhaps the breadwinner has gone and they are eking out an existence on a pension. The report says that those in owner-occupied houses—I think it is 67 per cent.—are getting no more than £82 a week, and some of the repairs run into hundreds of thousands of pounds. Thirty-seven per cent. of them would require three times the income they get at present in order to do the repairs that are required. These are the houses that are going from bad to worse—houses which at the present time, if somebody had the foresight and the ability to do it, could be renovated and would make ideal homes for families. But that would require making reasonable rented accommodation available for the people who gave up their houses.
We welcome this report and it is a very important one. It outlines what is wrong with our society as regards housing. I do not think it answers all the questions, but one would not expect it to. I want to see these other reports coming forward, saying what variations of rented property we should have and what variations for elderly people there should be—the sort of thing perhaps which is done by the housing association that I belong to. We provided quite a large number of homes in sheltered accommodation. You go round there and everything looks perfect, but gradually as you go and take part in various social activities with the people, as we do from time to time, and get to know the people personally, you realise the fear that is in most of their minds.
Because it is only sheltered accommodation and does not make any other provision apart from the sheltered accommodation, their fear is that if they become ill beyond a certain stage they will have to go into an old people's ward in a hospital. That is the fear going through the minds of people day after day. So what has the housing association done now? Because we realised that this was a problem, we took over or built two or three places and they give a certain amount of medical support and so on—of a basic nature—and when these people become incapacitated to such an extent that they cannot remain in their sheltered accommodation, they can move to the other accommodation where they will be coming across people who have been with them in accommodation before. These are just instances of what can be done, if it is done at low level, if the individual is considered.
Yes, it is going to cost a lot of money. I have not gone into the figures as to how many houses need to be built: they have been given. I think all the figures in the book have been given this afternoon. They are all impressive figures; but whatever the government in power they will have to face this problem if they are going to try to save our society. I should like to feel that this Government were going to do it. We are in a state, in Liverpool and other places, where unemployment is so high, where building workers have been on the dole for year after year and where so much requires to be done in housing. All right: nobody is asking for extra money. All we are asking for is some of the money that 709 has been kept back and which came from selling corporation houses. That is all we are asking for. I think that if in fact the Government were to do that one thing, people might be more convinced that this Government intend to deal with the problem.
I finish with the words of Beveridge. When asked about the scheme which he put forward: "Can the country afford to do it?" his answer was, "Can it afford not to?"
§ 5.19 p.m.
The Lord Bishop of Southwark
My Lords, in 1933, Cyril Garbett described the housing situation in our country, with 3½ million people in overcrowded or substandard accommodation, asa practical denial of the fatherhood of God.Cyril Garbett was Bishop of Southwark before he became Bishop of Winchester and then Archbishop of York. He was a somewhat authoritarian, conservative figure, with a sharp mind for matters theological and moral. He was quite clear that the Gospel has to concern itself with fundamental human needs, such as adequate food, clothing, housing and education; and so, of course, was William Temple, his predecessor at York and author of Christianity and the Social Order.
I mention these two men, because Garbett's deep concern about housing in particular arose partly from his time as Vicar of Portsea before the First World War, and partly because as Bishop of Southwark he lived in Kennington. I am glad to be able in some small measure to continue his concern, because though the problem has undoubtedly changed, it most certainly has not gone away. William Temple will still be remembered by many here as a Christian leader who helped a whole generation to understand more clearly the dimension of justice in our national life. Both men stood in a long tradition of social concern, especially about housing, going back to the almshouses of the Middle Ages. It is from within that tradition that I want to speak today.
It was a very great privilege to be asked to serve on the inquiry into British housing chaired by the Duke of Edinburgh. The experience has considerably extended my knowledge of housing matters and finance, though I am well aware that there are still many gaps. At times, it was a disturbing experience as we began to grasp the full and growing extent of housing need and of poor living conditions, which many people in this country still face, and the facts about such things as the steady deterioration of the housing stock, some of which we went to see for ourselves.
But I should like as well to record my gratitude to the other members of the inquiry, with whom it was a great pleasure to work, to all those who gave evidence for the time and the care which they gave and which really did a lot to make the report as substantial as it is, and particularly, as the noble Lord, Lord Seebohm, has said, to our secretary, Richard Best—our indestructible and indefatigable secretary, I want to say—a man with a great flair for extracting the best from others and helping them to work effectively. The result of our endeavours is, of course, this report which your Lordships are debating this afternoon and the major recommendations which it contains.
710 Your Lordships have already heard some of the first-hand evidence which tells us what is actually happening and the consequences of decisions, many of which were taken many years ago. We have heard this set forth by the noble Lord, Lord Seebohm, and the succeeding speakers with great care, and I do not want to cover much of the ground again. But I should like to expand and perhaps illustrate a little certain of the points which they made and which I believe still need to sink deeper into the public consciousness.
First, the private rented sector is declining more and more rapidly, apart from the luxury end. What does that mean in human terms? It means that there is now very little slack or flexibility in housing, whereby, for example, a young couple can get somewhere to live for a few years before they are in a position to buy their own house or to be offered long-term rented accommodation. That is a very great loss, and many of us must be only too well aware of what it is doing to people in that position.
Less clearly understood in the country at large, also, is the fact that the housing stock as a whole is in decay, especially much of it that is privately owned, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Crawshaw, reminded us eloquently, much of it above and around the lace curtains of the elderly. In such cases, housing improvement grants, though they are much greater than they were, are not enough, and the rate and extent of decay is getting larger every year. To renew or replace large parts of the housing stock, especially in our cities and towns, now needs very large sums of money, as your Lordships have heard, and it is, if you like, a wasting asset. It does not stand still.
Those of us who have any experience of trying to care for buildings will know that the cost of repairs compounds the longer you leave it. More particularly, most deck access and tower blocks are not only a disaster to live in, especially if you have children; they are a disaster for local authority housing, because they, in particular, most unexpectedly in view of their relatively short existence, need vast sums of money spending on them. As we have heard, this is estimated conservatively at about £19 billion to £20 billion and may well be a good deal more.
Again, how well is it known that the payment of housing benefit is still proving beyond the capacity of some local authorities to cope with promptly and accurately? I could tell your Lordships some both sad and amusing stories about what that has meant in human terms, with old people literally going without food and then, eventually, finding themselves with enough money to take a continental holiday. But that, surely, is not the point of the exercise.
This in turn—and I want to stress this very strongly—has compounded the problems of rent arrears, which are now horrific in some places, and weak management in some large municipal housing authorities, thereby aggravating the frustration of tenants at the lack of proper maintenance and control. So one might go on.
But as everyone knows—and as we knew very well on the committee—it is always easier to analyse problems than to suggest new ways forward, especially in a time of financial stringency. When we turned to that part of our work, I think we all had that written, 711 as it were, over our heads, that we were not in the business of simply proposing the spending of vast new sums of public money. We therefore set ourselves to look at what was actually happening to the money which was already flowing into housing in one way or another, to see whether that money could be used more effectively to meet the problems we had now discovered and discerned accurately and, indeed, to see whether we could attract new money into housing from non-governmental sources as well. Again, the report sets this out in considerable detail.
But—and I want to emphasise this very strongly—it was clear to us, too, from the start that any solutions we proposed must be reached with justice to all in our society. I suppose that was one of the major reasons why we came to agree on what we have called a'needs-related housing allowance' available to all those with low or limited incomes to enable them to pay for the housing they require.That is a very radical proposal because it applies to the possibility of purchasing your house, as well as to the possibility of renting it—not, please note, the housing that they or any of us might want in our more extravagant dreams, but housing with adequate space for sleeping, eating, relaxing, cooking and washing in terms of the size of the family that we might have or, if we are single, in terms of that. This, we said, must ultimately replace housing benefit for tenants, mortgage interest tax relief and the housing ingredient in supplementary benefit. There was political uproar, of course, from all sides. We knew that would happen; in the nicest of ways it has happened again today. I should like just to comment on that a little more.
First, may I draw your Lordships' attention to the title of chapter 8 of the report, which is simply called "Changing attitudes". We regarded ourselves essentially in the business of changing attitudes. We were not, I believe, being naive, though we knew very well that these proposals would not be very popular. Perhaps I may just pick up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, when he said, and I hope I quote him correctly:Politics and economics … set the limits on what it is possible … to achieve".Yes, I understand that—we understood that—but I want to say that what is currently the received wisdom about politics and economics may not be the received wisdom in a year's time, or five years' time, or whatever it may be. So there is a value in setting goals which we are well aware may not be attainable immediately. Anyone who has read the report will recognise that we are very clear about this and that we speak in terms, if I remember rightly, of taking 20 years—to the end of the century and more—to get to where we believe finally we need to be. We hope very much though that we may have provided the ingredients for a consensus which will reach increasingly widely and firmly across the current party political lines.
We make the point that our proposals will of course mean that some people do have to make sacrifice in the name of justice for others—we are not trying to deny that for one moment—but we are proposing that many people who currently buy their houses with the aid of mortgage interest relief will in fact continue to receive help. There are some important figures about 712 this on page 18 of the report which suggest how this may well benefit some, but clearly not all. The noble Baroness, Lady David, was offering a kind of compromise solution which may well be an interim way forward and is an important part of the debate, but we were talking about goals and about, I think, an overall simplicity of approach which I believe to be a very important part of this whole inquiry and its recommendations.
A gradual phasing out of mortgage interest relief has the support of a great many people drawn from very varied positions in society. This year the estimate is that it will run at the rate not of £3½ billion, which I believe is the figure in the report, but something like £4.750 billion. That is a very large sum of money and it is a very rapid increase in the amount. How much further do we want to see it go? How much further can we afford to see it go?
The archbishops' commission on urban priority areas Faith in the City has made the same sort of proposal, and again it is couched in very gradual terms. But how in the name of justice can you justify a flat rate benefit to all house purchasers regardless of income, which sometimes means nearly £1,000 a year, and yet argue that, for example, child benefit is wasteful because it is a flat rate benefit and must be replaced by a complicated and expensive-to-administer means test? There seems some inconsistency here.
We were also clear that there is a need for a secure, good standard rented sector. We are most likely to achieve it by paying a housing allowance which will go a long way to meeting the economic rents which are related to the capital value of a modest but sound property. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Crawshaw, need not be too scared of going down this road when he bears in mind that our rents are limited or restricted by the capital value—that is an important part of our proposal—though we do recognise (and perhaps did not deal with this in enough detail) that London will need to have special subsidies of some kind because of its high land values and particular circumstances. We believe, too, that the rented sector needs a variety of landlords, and there is evidence of an optimum size, above which it is very difficult to sustain a satisfactory level of personal, efficient and well motivated management.
As a bishop of what is, in effect, South London and East Surrey, I suppose that I am quite well placed to recognise the sheer scale and complexity of the London housing scene, especially in some of the inner London boroughs south of the river. Side by side are two boroughs, Lambeth and Wandsworth, about which I want to say a word. They focus some of the issues most sharply. Lambeth has a vast stock of municipal housing, operates a generous policy towards the homeless, puts the provision of housing high on its list of priorities and feels desperate about the progressive and large cuts in Government funding that have taken place over the past few years. At the same time its financial control, its maintenance service, its handling of empty properties, in short its management, is in great difficulties. I hope that the just announced new Housing and Planning Bill mentioned by the Minister will help a little with this last problem at least.
713 Wandsworth, with a smaller stock of housing by contrast, has gone all out for the sale of council houses and flats, backed of course by the substantial discounts available. It has achieved financial managerial efficiency and the result is impressive. A lot of maintenance work and improvement work is being done to their properties. Yet already Wandsworth is a borough to avoid at all costs if one is homeless. Last year only 400 families out of 1,200 accepted as homeless—that is a pretty strict definition—actually found their way into permanent accommodation. Transfers were extremely difficult to get, however urgent the need. Council flats are being sold to a very wide range of people, including, I understand, some outside the borough. Single homelessness there, as in every part of London, remains an actute problem. When the noble Lord, Lord Elton, says that 14,000 units have been provided since 1979 for special need housing, we have to recognise that that is for the country as a whole, that a lot of the old-fashioned types of hostel have been closed and that this is not going very far to meet an enormous area of need.
The cumulative effect of a policy such as that of the borough of Wandsworth in London, if it continues, will, I fear, be to make the plight of the tenant or the would-be tenant worse and worse. There is a real danger that many will purchase not out of choice but out of necessity, and will then fail to maintain their property and possibily to keep up their mortgage payments. This is what happens if the scales are weighted too heavily in favour of ownership and against tenancy. I just want to say today that our report tried very hard to be even-handed as we looked these sort of problems in the face.
We are not for or against any particular kind of tenure; that must be underlined. We want as many people as possible to have a real choice. That is a very difficult judgment for Government or anybody else to make. Under our present distorted system of housing finance and restrictive tenancies, many people do not have that choice. I fear that they never will, unless we can agree to make good housing for all a matter of justice and national concern.
I believe that I speak for fellow members of the commission when I say that we shall all feel very well rewarded for our efforts if Members of your Lordships' House and many others will continue to study our report; will refine the arguments and improve the recommendations; and then use the report as a lever to achieve the sense of urgency about housing matters that this country so desperately needs.
§ 5.41 p.m.
§ Lord Orr-Ewing
My Lords, I should like to endorse what others have said. What a wonderful service to this House the noble Lord, Lord Seebohm, has done in making time available to discuss what is a very good, informative and constructive report! The right reverend Prelate who has just resumed his seat made one of the best, most measured and most constructive speeches that I have heard in this House for a very long time, which reflects how good the report is and how well the right reverend Prelate summarised it.
I myself take the view that the challenges have to be met. It is no use going on patching. We must accept the 714 challenges that are set out in the report. I am very attracted to a needs-related housing allowance. I believe that we must get away from rent restrictions on bricks and mortar and help people—flesh and blood—rather than a particular house.
I want to accentuate my belief that the Rent Act, which was originally started in 1915, has had a very distorting effect, and a very sad one, over a whole area of housing. We really must pick up the thread again and try to phase out the Rent Act. We could start with the more expensive property or with new property coming onto the market. I remember that when Henry Brooke was Minister for Housing, he started at the top end and then moved down so that the rented sector at least began to be freed from rent restrictions. Unfortunately, he also had a vast number of constituents in Hampstead who lived in rented property and so he lost his seat in the House of Commons. That programme, which was very moral and courageous to undertake, trickled into the sand and stopped. I feel that the present Government ought to pick that programme up again, for reasons that I shall explain in the few words I intend to say.
It is an amazing thought that when I was born in 1912, 90 per cent. of the people in this country lived in rented property. Now that figure is less than 9 per cent. What a tremendous change that is! I pay credit of course to the Government policy that has achieved something like 64 per cent. home ownership. That is good for the care of houses and for the morality of many of the people who live in those houses. However, that still leaves 30 per cent. or more of people who want to move into rented property.
I remind my noble friend, who made a very good opening speech, that in our manifesto we laid down the importance of the individual having a choice in all areas of life and that such was our philosophy. We said that it was true of schools; that parents should be free to send their children to the schools of their choice. We said that people should live where they wanted to. We have always opposed any direction of labour, and we said that we wanted people to be able to choose their jobs as part of their freedom. If all that is true in those other respects, is it not desperately true of whether people should be able to rent or buy their living accommodation?
It is the inflexibility of the present system that is worrying many of us in all parts of this House. After all, and as has been so rightly said, every family's housing needs change throughout life. The young, particularly when they are seeking jobs, want, on the whole, to rent. When their children are born and grow up, then people will, if they possibly can, with the help of building societies and with other assistance, want to buy. When the time comes that the birds leave the nest and the parents find themselves with surplus bedrooms, they may want to rent out some of their accommodation. However, they will wish to do so in the security that they will have reputable tenants who will behave and who, if the need should arise, will not prevent them from gaining repossession of those extra bedrooms. Later still, there may come the time when the house owners will want to sell their property and move into a sheltered home, in the last phases of their lives.
715 All through our lives there is a changing need for housing. We have to achieve flexibility so that people may choose, at different phases in their lives, to move. I underline a point that is not made very strongly in the report, nor in this debate so far; that, above all, when jobs for the young men are so desperately important, we must make it easier for students to move to places where they may improve their education, and for young people to move to areas where jobs are available. We have at present an arthritic society, with people locked into the areas where they live and unable to move elsewhere. That cannot be good for our economy, and certainly it is not good for the moral standards of all those who suffer from that immobility.
I notice from the report that the Institute of Housing estimates an annual demand for 100,000 homes to rent. I rather hope that the Government will take that statistic on board. If one is to have flexibility, then there will always be some people moving in and out. One cannot achieve a precise balance between the number of people who want to live in houses and the total population. Just a balance is not good enough—one must have some slack in the rope and the flexibility that that provides.
The need is to double the rate of provision of houses. I hope that the Government will grasp all the good and constructive points in this report, shake them, and try to persuade people to implement them. They should not look for difficulties but instead say, "This is a good proposal. Please come up with a way of putting it into effect and suggest how we may achieve some of these admirable concepts".
Such will not be achieved unless the Government have a plan to increase the remuneration and safety of private sector landlords and to attract other landlords into the private sector as well. After 80 years of rent control there are some staring cases of injustice. I heard of one such case in my own area—and I confess to living in Chelsea. It concerned a lady who decided to rent a well-furnished flat in a good area. I believe that the going rent was £150 per week. That is high, but she said that it was a holiday let and she wanted to rent it for just a short period. She then sat fast and asked the rent officer to fix the rent.
The rent officer, serving the local council, is compelled to act on his remit. His remit is to consider what rent is being charged for other unfurnished property in the area. If he were looking for hen's teeth he would find more of them there than he would unfurnished accommodation. So one is trying to set a standard that is not a standard. The sort of standard that rent officers come up with is that £30 a week is a fair rent. It is not. That is a wretched way of dealing with the matter. Even given the flaws in the scheme that has been put forward, I personally would bet that the capital value is a far better guide than the present guide from which rent officers have to suffer.
We return to the fact that although 64 per cent. of the population now own their own homes, and even if that figure increases to 70 per cent., we must consider the 30 per cent. of the population remaining; that is, the 8½ million people who are looking to the rented sector. Please may the Government now concentrate on that area so that we can achieve the essential flexibility whereby people can choose whether or not 716 they want to buy, whether or not they want to rent, and, above all, by which the young can move to areas where they will have a possibility of finding a job.
§ 5.49 p.m.
§ Baroness Denington
My Lords, I, too, express my great thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Seebohm, for initiating this debate, and to those who sat on the committee and produced this report. My thanks go also to the secretary, who, I imagine, did so much, if not all, in writing the report. It is a very clear, readable and direct report.
I think it very significant that this report followed so very closely on the heels of the Archbishop's report, Faith in the City. It is significant, too, that both of them express concern about the deteriorating and sad condition of our national housing in so many fields. Year by year those who are concerned with housing, and who work in housing now, are feeling more and more desperate about the problems that they are trying to solve. Those people who live in run-down housing feel that they are trapped and have to live in conditions that many of them positively hate. That is a recipe for social unease and is nationally very serious.
There are then those wretched people who truly have no home of their own, through no fault of their own. They are not being adequately dealt with because the facilities for dealing with them are not available. Decent places in which they could be housed do not exist.
Those are very serious problems, but I do not intend to talk about them over the general field. I feel sure that other Members of your Lordships' House will do so. I am sure we are all deeply indebted to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark for his excellent speech. I will restrict my remarks to topics that I have come across while working in the housing association movement: the provision of social housing to rent through the introduction of private finance, which I think is very important, and management problems.
There is a very great need, as the report highlights and as has been stated this afternoon, for the private sector to help finance social housing. A number of housing associations have been working on this for the past four or five years, but progress has been very slow indeed. I have found that institutions are reluctant to lend, and that is partly due to the lack of consensus on housing finance and subsidy. The present Government have been unwilling to match private investment with public subsidies, and this lack of political support does nothing at all to encourage the institutions.
Over the past 18 months two building societies have offered to raise finance to fund fair rent schemes. However, they are not prepared to finance them 100 per cent. The housing association on which I serve had a case where a leading building society was prepared to finance 48 per cent. of a fair rent project. We approached the Government, and after 18 months of sitting on it they refused to help. All we were asking for was the balance of 52 per cent. That scheme fell by the wayside.
While pension funds, life insurance companies, co-ops and banks have not been prepared, as far as I can tell, to help finance housing schemes, some building 717 societies have. However, in my view it is quite unrealistic to expect the building societies to meet the full cost of schemes. The Government must now come in and provide a degree of subsidy for these much-needed fair rent schemes or admit that they are not interested in the provision of fair rents at all, either through housing associations, whose allocations have been cut, or local authorities, or even, apparently, through finance. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Elton, will deal with this point in his reply, because we all think that it is important.
I now turn to the subject raised in the report concerning the importance of tenants' involvement in the management of their homes. Nothing is more important if council tenants are to be content and if the property they occupy is to be respected. In my view and experience the best way to achieve this in local authority housing is by the establishment of a tenant management organisation. I shall use the term "tenant management co-op" as the most appropriate.
This means that each housing block on an estate, or group of blocks—or of houses, if they happen to have houses—forms its own management co-operative. The Secretary of State has to approve each management agreement. Each co-operative employs its own manager, cleaners and so on. If it is small enough, the tenants can do the job themselves, if they are willing to do so. They will be responsible for the maintenance of the block and its surroundings. In this way they can ensure that they live in homes of which they can be proud, which is not, alas, the position today. These co-operatives can be a mixture of owner-occupied properties and rented properties. The occupants meet together and have a committee. They fix the service charge together. Their interests are identical in having somewhere nice, decent and happy in which they are glad to live.
Of course, tenants need considerable tutoring before they can embark on such an enterprise. Experience has shown that it takes from 12 to 18 months of solid work by one worker to get them ready to take over themselves. It is essential that the property should be put into a proper state of repair before it is handed over, or that the money is available to the co-op if they want to get the job done themselves.
I notice that there was a very short debate on this subject in the other place just before Christmas. It was initiated by one of the Liberal Members. I was pleased to see that Sir George Young was very forthcoming on the matter in his reply. I have also seen a letter which the Department of the Environment sent out in November to all national housing bodies. I quote from it. It is headed:Innovative approaches to the management and ownership of local authority housing stock—Proposals for legislation".The letter then goes on:The Government plans to introduce legislation to:I very much welcome that.
- (i) enable local authorities to delegate their housing management functions to a range of local management organisations, subject to the Secretary of State's approval.
- (ii) enable housing management start-up, training and education grants to be made to encourage better and more innovative management."
Progress towards the establishment of co-ops has been very slow, as it has on the other matter I 718 mentioned. This is partly because tenants fear that they are being conned and that the motive is for the council to push their responsibilities on to the tenants. On the other hand, there is great reluctance on the part of some councils to part with control of their empire and council officers may see the move as one that will deprive them of their jobs. I say that it should free the officers to concentrate on those tenants who will not form co-operatives, who find it difficult to manage their own affairs and who need much more support, help and attention. The circular from which I quoted may also be taken as evidence that the ploy is to push local government entirely out of its housing role. I am being perfectly frank about this because I think it is very necessary to be frank. I hope that at the end of this debate the noble Lord, Lord Elton, will make it quite clear that this is not the case.
As this report which we are discussing makes clear, its authors believe (and I am certain of it) that there is an important continuing role for local authorities in the housing field as regards provision and management, and that they should have a wider role of co-ordinator and enabler, as the report envisages. But for the success of this new initiative to establish housing co-operatives where people are managing their own affairs—which I think is important—several matters are really of vital concern. There are five which I wish to enumerate.
First, the Government must mount a promotional exercise to explain and put across the idea and benefits of belonging to a management co-operative. This has to be wholehearted; it has to use the media—television, and so on—and it has to be sustained by the Government just as firmly as their campaign for owner-occupation. Secondly, the finance provided for the management start-up, training and education grants must not be skimped. Thirdly, the local authorities must have the finance to put homes into proper order before they are handed over. Fourthly, in the legislation the tenants must be given the right to form co-operative management groups, just as they have been given the right to buy. This right is just as important. Fifthly, steam must be put into this fresh approach so that when enthusiasm has been generated it does not subsequently die because of frustration and delay.
I think that good or anti-social communities are largely the product of their environment and social conditions. In this new approach to housing management I see hope where now there is darkness and despair. I trust that the Government will press on with their initiative and not stint the necessary finance, and that local authorities will co-operate and do their utmost to bring about this very basic change.
§ 6.3 p.m.
§ Lord Marshall of Leeds
My Lords, the National Federation of Housing Associations is to be congratulated on initiating this inquiry into British housing and on producing this report, as is the noble Lord, Lord Seebohm, for introducing the debate today. I think that we are fortunate to have with us a member of the inquiry team, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark, who I thought made a quite outstanding contribution to this debate.
719 I fear that it is anachronistic—or maybe "inopportune" is a better word—that the report should be recommending the phasing out of mortgage interest tax relief, when on more than one occasion the Government have already made it clear that they have no intention of doing any such thing. Perhaps this is hardly surprising when the existence of this tax relief is an inducement to all aspiring owner-occupiers, whom Government, and I think the Opposition, wish to encourage, and whose expectations in this regard they would hardly be intending to frustrate. Just think of the financial impact that such a change would bring to the 900,000 worthy people, 800,000 of whom were sitting tenants, who have bought their houses or flats from local authorities or from housing associations! They would feel, would they not? that the Government have let them down. So would all the people who are currently buying their houses on mortgage.
Since 1979 the number of owner-occupiers has grown by no fewer than 2¼ million, as my noble friend Lord Elton pointed out. So at the present time no less than 62 per cent. of the totality of housing in this country is owner-occupied. A cursory reading of the report might give the impression that there were grave, general and irreparable housing problems in this country today which few had noted, but that supposing central and local government had noted it, neither of them had begun to provide a solution. This may be going a little too far; it is certainly not true.
Nevertheless I think it is apposite to remark that Government have increased the planned level of capital spending by local authorities by £200 million for the year 1986–87. They have also set up the Urban Housing Renewal Unit to advise local authorities on the full range of options open to them in dealing with run-down estates, which includes a greater role for the private sector. In the current year, 1985–86, about £500 million will be spent on home improvement grants in England. This compares with only £90 million in 1978—so, £500 million compared with £90 million.
Similarly, the English local authorities' capital expenditure on public sector repair and renovation has increased greatly since 1979. It is now £1 billion a year plus a further £1 billion out of revenue on repairs and maintenance. That 87,000 local authority dwellings in England were renovated in 1984, which is a higher figure than in any year since 1973, is certainly no cause for complaint; but the unwillingness of Government to abolish the mortgage interest tax relief means that the assumption of the report, that money thus "saved" by the Exchequer would help to pay for the needs-related housing allowance, becomes invalid.
The recommendation of the report on the provision of rented housing is that 100,000 new units a year are required. If evidence of voids is anything to go by, one would have thought that this is a substantial overestimate and that 65,000–70,000 is much nearer the mark. After all, the private sector completed 154,000 new dwellings in 1984, and that was the highest figure since 1973. So far this year starts are running at 17 per cent. higher than last year.
Of course, everyone will cheer the hope of the inquiry that the private sector should be encouraged to 720 assume an increased role in the rented area. We all have that hope. But let us turn to rents, because this is relevant. Turning to capital value rentals as recommended by the report, one fears that the report greatly underestimates the level at which rents would settle when set according to the recommended formula. There would be bound to be wide geographical discrepancies and special problems in London which, I would hazard a guess, would throw up capital value rents twice as great as those in the North of England, and for obvious reasons—for example, high initial capital cost, including high land costs, and much more expensive repair, maintenance and management costs in London particularly, but also in the South generally. That would make a significant difference.
That would imply that the needs-related housing allowance advocated by the report would be likely to make quite unacceptable demands on the Exchequer. In any event, it is certainly unrealistic to suggest (as in the box appearing on page 21 of the report, headed "Effects on Council Rents") that, on the basis of the report's figures, a change from present arrangements to capital value rents to provide a yield of 4 per cent. would lead to rents, on average, rising by 14 per cent. That again represents a too optimistic estimate and understates the case. It seems more likely that average rents would have to rise by almost 20 per cent., and in certain cases by up to 25 per cent. One doubts the enthusiasm of the private sector to become involved unless a reasonable and a reasonably safe yield was assured throughout a guaranteed minimum term of years.
I turn now to the management recommendations. I thought that I detected a certain lack of confidence, to put it at its lowest, concerning the public housing sector. No doubt a great deal of that received wisdom—and we have heard of some received wisdom previously this afternoon—arises from examples where certain local authorities, particularly certain London boroughs and Liverpool, as the noble Lord, Lord Crawshaw, confirmed, have had management problems in the past, and have them now, with difficult-to-let estates, where perhaps the management system has been bureaucratically over-centralised and is therefore too remote from tenants. That has obviously given local government a bad name, but we must be careful not to make sweeping generalisations. We must remember that local authorities currently house some 18 million people in Great Britain and re-house at the rate of 300,000 families each and every year.
I was privileged to serve on the housing committee, and later for some years as leader, of the city council in Leeds. In my opinion we were an eminent—I would not dare to say "pre-eminent"—and enlightened housing authority, as, I think, Leeds always was. In the 1960s we had over 26,000 people on the waiting list, with thousands of cases of gross overcrowding. We had 80,000 Industrial Revolution, back-to-back houses, a symptom somewhat peculiar to Leeds, I think. We were demolishing 3,000 houses a year and building a similar number. There was a great sense of urgency engendered by a great and pressing need. Yet I was not so single-minded after all, because in 1967, as leader of the council, I advocated selling council houses, and in 1967 we sold 1,000 houses to sitting tenants.
But to return to the theme, currently in Leeds the 721 housing director, Mr. Glover, is carrying on a long tradition of taking management to the tenants, with 38 de-centralised area housing officers, each responsible for the management of about 2,500 dwellings. That provides a quick, flexible and direct response to individual tenants. In addition, he deploys 12 housing welfare officers who conduct intensive welfare work in cases of deprivation and in stress areas within ethnic minorities.
Although I think that Mr. Glover gave evidence to this inquiry, there is (perhaps understandably) no mention that Leeds is an exception to the rule, with rent arrears by far the lowest of any big city in the kingdom. They are just £1 million, of which 70 per cent. represents cases of tenants owing less than £70 or the equivalent of three weeks' rent. Noble Lords may ask, what about empty houses or voids in the public sector in Leeds? The report cites a figure of 37,700 public sector houses vacant in the greater London area, or 3.9 per cent. In Leeds, the figure is 0.6 per cent., compared with the national average of 2.3 per cent. in the public sector. That says much for a more de-centralised, less bureaucratic and more personal style of management.
But I have grave doubts about local authorities handing over management, and perhaps ownership (as the report suggests), to co-operatives and tenant management associations. Too often we have seen that type of body first infiltrated, and then controlled and ultimately dominated, by political extremists and hard-liners.
It should have been plain to members of the inquiry that local housing authorities have at all times acted as co-ordinators and enablers, exercising their statutory duty under the Housing Act 1957, which requires them to consider:the housing needs of the district".They have had all along to exercise a strategic role which has been supported by the sort of research and monitoring that the report seems now, for the first time, to be advocating for them in the future.
But the local housing authorities have also had to be responsible for the elderly, the mentally ill, the handicapped and the homeless, including the single homeless, of which the non-public agencies mentioned in the report can have had little, if any, concern, let alone experience. It is significant that at page 143 the report is almost over-anxious to recommend that local authorities must continue to have the responsibilities under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act. Local authorities have not been slow either to encourage and assist non-public agencies like housing associations not only to build new dwellings but to re-vamp the old.
I fear that this debate will become more depressing than it should be as time goes on—particularly after your Lordships hearing me! There is no cause for alarm or great despondency. There is a challenge. But I fear that the inquiry has looked at the warts; what it has not looked at is the achievements. It has not appreciated that over the years local authorities have had to tackle enormous problems which would never have been within the capability of the various agencies whose interests the report seems now so anxious to promote.
Just because there are always some examples of 722 degradation and squalor, it is not safe to assume that the whole local authority housing canvas is uniform. It is, in my view, therefore unwise for the report to conclude:The more the day-to-day management of its estates devolves to bodies such as co-operatives, the more the local authority's management function will consist of giving advice, monitoring, nominating, and, where necessary, enforcing agreed lettings arrangements and minimum standards of management and maintenance".If that is how the inquiry sees the future role of local authorities, I despair. To write down in this way the current role and functions of the local authority housing sector which manages some £100,000 million worth of public assets in England alone, without advancing any valid, cogent or compelling reason, I regret to say, for me, devalues this part of the report. I want to say that the record of public sector housing is a good one, an honourable one and one that is worth defending. Its case needs to be put if only to reassure the millions of families whose homes the public sector has already provided and the many who will have to look to the local authority to provide them with a home in the future.
I merely wish to say, in finishing, that I hope that I have not been too critical in pointing out what I regard as some of the weaknesses in the report. I am full of admiration for the National Federation of Housing Associations and in particular for the noble Lord, Lord Seebohm, for putting down this marker, if I may so call it, which is a beginning that will, one hopes, take forward the thinking behind the report.
§ 6.21 p.m.
§ Lord Shaughnessy
My Lords, I, too, along with other noble Lords, acknowledge our debt to my noble friend Lord Seebohm for bringing this important report of the National Federation of Housing Associations to the attention of the House, and also for his very articulate summary, in his introduction, of its content and purpose. The report is both comprehensive and incisive. Furthermore, as stated by other noble Lords it could be considered a model in its form and in the language in which it has been presented. I endorse the congratulations to the committee and to the staff who produced such a cogent document.
A number of the conclusions and recommendations of the report will undoubtedly be controversial. But the purpose of the inquiry was, I believe, to stimulate action. Without an element of radical thinking, it is perhaps unlikely that any worthwhile action would be forthcoming. I intend to confine my remarks to the privately rented sector, which the report states is working badly. As my noble friend Lord Seebohm pointed out, in Britain, unlike North America and some parts of Western Europe, private investment in dwellings for rent by institutions, pension funds, building societies and private investors is minimal. The report states that,finance for homes to rent is almost exclusively the province of the State".This imbalance has a particular effect on the growth of available rental housing at the medium and low cost levels. The principal reason for this situation, in my view, is that the return on investment to the private sector landlord is far too low. In a paper submitted to the inquiry by Mr. C. J. Benson, it is stated that the 723 return to the private landlord is as low as 2 to 3 per cent. on his capital investment.
There are, of course, a variety of factors that bear on the lack of private funds flowing into the rental housing market. One of these, as pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, is rent control, which has been in place since 1915 in one form or another. Another major factor is the body of laws and regulations governing security of tenure, which tends to discourage investment by private landlords. It is, of course, unrealistic to contemplate a sudden dismantling of the rental control system. That would create hardship in the short term, which would be socially unacceptable. I agree, however, with the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, that a start should be made in the direction of decontrol with the object of creating some market for rental housing that would offer the tenant a wider choice of accommodation and also—and this is quite pertinent—a degree of mobility in respect of where he may want to live, or have to live, neither of which is available now.
Similarly, the problem of achieving a fair balance in security of tenure that adequately protects the tenant and, at the same time, removes some of the inhibitions of the private investor is a vexing problem that will require considerable ingenuity to solve. The inquiry proposes a number of possible remedies to alleviate these negative factors. I have no doubt that, if implemented, these innovative proposals, such as the concept of capital value rents and the needs-related allowances, would have a beneficial effect. I submit, however, that the overall objective should be to remove the economic straitjacket that now binds the market for privately financed rental housing. For it is in the private sector that the best opportunity for the expansion of the stock of available dwellings for rent exists.
I fully appreciate the comments of the noble Lord the Minister about the restraints upon the Government dictated by overall policy. I would submit, however, that if any success is to be achieved it will require an approach that transcends political dogma and partisan opportunism. So long as housing policy is subject to radical changes of direction as the political complexions of Governments change, there will be no incentive for increased private investment in the rental housing field. As the noble Lord, Lord Crawshaw, remarked, I believe, in part of his speech, the private investor will not put up his money if he thinks that the rules are going to be changed in the middle of the game. What, possibly, most Governments could agree upon, however, is that in an affluent society the right to adequate shelter is fundamental, just as the right to education and health care, and, some would say, the right to work, are also fundamental. Surely, then, the time has come when the full force of our technical, financial and political skills can be marshalled in a non-partisan programme to achieve this end.
§ 6.31 p.m.
§ Lord Sandford
My Lords, terms like "all or nothing" and "take it or leave it" are themes which appear in the preface of this report, which seem to me to detract a little from its immediate usefulness, particularly when one of those integral parts is the 724 proposal to abolish mortgage interest tax relief. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark has since explained why the committee of inquiry reported in that sort of way. But he ended his remarks by reminding us that we have an urgent problem, particularly relating to the condition of our housing stock, on our hands, and that it is therefore important that we have reports presented to us on which urgent action can be taken.
However, this particular point with which I have started does not detract at all from our sense of gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Seebohm, for having found time for this debate, particularly as we can also spend a little time, I hope, on the Green Paper on housing improvement which was issued by the Government in May. Those to whom it was addressed were given a couple of months, until July, in which to comment. Since then, six months have elapsed, giving the impression that the Government have put that report on the "back burner". If it is not on the back burner, perhaps my noble friend on the Front Bench, when he replies, could tell us a little more than he did in his opening remarks as to where the report is, what will be done, and when we might see the next steps.
In connection with that last report I wrote in my capacity as chairman of SERPLAN to the Minister expressing the views of the housing authorities of London and the South-East. SERPLAN is a conference which provides a forum for authorities in the whole of the South-East—all 12 Home Counties, and those in London—to put their minds together on matters of this kind.
On that occasion I had to say the following on their behalf to the Secretary of State:Figures for the South-East in the 1981 English House Condition Survey revealed that only about 3 per cent. of the dwellings sampled in the region had renovation work in progress, whilst 38 per cent. were judged to require renovation or clearance".In the next paragraph I say:In London, it has been estimated that the elimination by 1992"—that is, in six years' time—of the backlog of dwellings in poor conditions and the prevention of other dwellings from falling into this category would require rather less than a threefold increase in public spending over recent levels".It is in that context that one has to judge whether the recent £200 million increase which the Secretary of State secured from the Treasury is anything like enough.
I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Seebohm, when he says that market forces applied to this problem cannot possibly do it all. There is a huge role left for the housing authorities and the housing associations. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Shaughnessy, said just before I rose, market forces can do a very great deal. The Germans have shown us (in the illustration that the noble Lord, Lord Seebohm, gave us) just how much they can do; and we are not getting anything like as much as we can from them.
In that connection I wrote to the Secretary of State on behalf of SERPLAN in the following terms last autumn, saying that conference considers it essential that the Government,find means to provide financial incentives, by fiscal devices or otherwise, both to encourage homeowners to carry out repairs (and 725 especially preventive maintenance) and to encourage the private sector to provide funds—and the new legislation for the building societies will of course help there—andto do more to encourage the private sector to undertake conversion of dwellings, to increase the stock of smaller dwellings and at the same time to reduce the burdens which the maintenance of overlarge dwellings places upon their owners, especially the elderly—a point that my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing was making earlier—and thirdly and finally:to redress the current balance of financial advantage which new house-building has over renovation, both for owners and for builders; in this regard Conference notes that the recent imposition of Value Added Tax on housing improvements is widely regarded as a retrograde step".I shall come back to that in a moment.
The right reverend Prelate said that one of the objectives of his report—the report of the inquiry of which he was a member—was to change attitudes; and that certainly is necessary. But it is also necessary to change the balance of financial incentives. As the noble Lord, Lord Shaughnessy, was just saying, builders and developers will inevitably go to where profits can be made and yields achieved. They would be out of business at once if they did otherwise. Just look at the South-East and London, and see the effect at the moment of this imbalance. We have a large consortium of builders at present engaged in appealing against the decision of the local planning authority and seeking permission from the Secretary of State to put 600 houses at Tillingham Hall, right in the middle of the Essex Green Belt, whereas we would greatly prefer to see them busy refurbishing the back streets of Wapping.
The balance of financial inducements is not working in the right direction. It is therefore necessary to do what Governments are constantly saying that they want to do: namely, to "lift the burden." The particu-lar burden here, I believe, as I said on behalf of SERPLAN, is VAT on improvements, conversions and repairs. If the Government cannot wear that, if that is asking too much of the Treasury, let us at least consider the removal of VAT in respect of improvements, conversions and repairs either for designated categories of work—work, for instance, which is being done with the help of the improvement grant—or in designated areas, or both. I hope that I can persuade my noble friend to say when he winds up that he is at least exerting as much influence as I know his colleagues were this time last year on his right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to try to put this matter right when we come to the Budget.
This alone, I believe, would achieve more than almost any of the things about which we are talking, if not all of those things put together. I believe that without this change much of what we are discussing is a waste of time.
§ 6.39 p.m.
§ Lord Pitt of Hampstead
My Lords, we are grateful to the National Federation of Housing Associations for initiating this inquiry and to the Duke of Edinburgh and his team for producing this report. We are also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Seebohm, for giving us this opportunity to debate it. We are also very grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of 726 Southwark for giving us an insight into the thinking behind the committee's recommendations.
The report is an effective demolition of the housing policies being pursued by the present Government. It identifies a number of major housing problems facing Britain today. These include a shortage of housing with inadequate levels of new building to overcome it. That is one of the major problems. Then there are deteriorating conditions in both public and private sectors. Those are made worse by constraints on public investment. There is also the question of the increasing social divisions in housing which are exacerbated by the inequalities in housing subsidies. Those matters have all been highlighted in the report.
The report criticises a single-minded emphasis on owner-occupation. We heard examples of that in several of the speeches which have been made this afternoon. The report rightly identifies mortgage interest relief for home owners as a major priority for reform. By supporting the retention of improvement grants, it basically rejects the Government's proposals for home improvement policy which were set out in the 1985 Green Paper. It calls for councils to be given greater freedom to invest in housing.
The report is radical in its approach to many key housing issues. It points to major areas for debate, some of which have been dismissed or ignored in the past. Questions, such as the reform of housing finance—which is an issue that I raised in your Lordships' House when I initiated a debate on housing in the last Session—the housing role of local authorities and private sector investment, clearly need to be discussed.
However, while the report points to the failure of present policies, some of its own recommendations need additional investigation. Those proposals both in principle and in detail need to be explored further. For example, it is proposed that housing benefit and mortgage interest relief should be replaced by a needs-related housing allowance. There would be a maximum allowance, dependent upon household category and area, and it would be reduced as income rises.
At first sight, that proposal seems to abandon the principle that people on the poverty line should have their housing costs met in full. That principle, which has been accepted since Beveridge, has recently been confirmed by the present Government in their review of the social security system. Because there are wide variations in housing costs over which people have little control, any housing allowance would need to be related to costs as well as to income. If a flat rate scheme were adopted, as suggested by the inquiry, people in high-cost housing could find that the maximum allowance did not cover the rent, and that would lead to arrears and homelessness; whereas people with low-cost housing could find themselves with money in hand after paying the rent.
The present housing subsidy system is inequitable but it does not seem right to replace it with a scheme which may also be inequitable. The proposal seems to me to be too blunt and will need to be refined. Although housing costs vary from area to area, they also vary within areas. We hear a great deal about London. I can assure your Lordships that the cost of 727 housing varies considerably throughout London. Merely to say, for example, that in London the needs-related allowance should be so much would not meet the case at all. There would be people in London who would be well-off as a consequence, and there would be people in London who could not meet the rent. Therefore the proposal needs to be very carefully refined.
The difference must be taken on board because otherwise we shall find that we have problems such as those we have with RAWP and its effect on the health service. It is because RAWP is a blunt instrument that we have problems at places such as UCH and Middlesex which are having to close wards in order to save money. Unless the proposal is very carefully refined we could have the same type of problem. If it is not carefully refined it will not meet the objective because people would suffer hardship and we would be back where we started with an inequitable system. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that the needs-related housing allowance should be carefully refined to meet the objective. In addition, the principle that people on the poverty line should have their housing costs met in full should be reiterated.
It is also proposed that rents in both the private and public sector should be based on a formula which allows the landlord a 4 per cent. return on the vacant possession value of the property, together with an addition for management and maintenance costs. That would establish a new basis for calculating registered fair rents and would extend the fair rent scheme to council housing in much the same way as the Housing Finance Act 1972 attempted to do. According to the report, this would mean an average increase in council rents of 15 per cent. I am afraid that rent increases in the private sector were not discussed.
Calculations made by Shelter, however, suggest that council rent rises would have to be much higher to achieve that rate of return. The figure of 15 per cent. suggested by the inquiry report is based upon an assumed average value for a local authority dwelling of £12,750 in 1983–84. However, government figures contained in the housing and construction statistics of March 1985, based on council house sales, suggest that the average market value of a local authority dwelling is £20,800. That would imply an average rent of nearly £22 a week for council tenants, compared with about £15 a week which is the present average level. Your Lordships will appreciate what a high increase that would involve. Again, that will not matter if the needs-related housing allowance is adequate. We must be quite clear about that point. If the needs-related housing allowance is adequate, it will not matter.
The report suggests that these new higher rent levels are needed to encourage investment. However, many councils are already generating profits from their housing. The problem is that public spending constraints imposed by the Government prevent them increasing investment—for example, spending more of the £6 billion that has accumulated from the sale of local authority land and dwellings. They have it in their possession but they cannot spend it; the Government will not let them do so.
I turn to the question of the possible effects of the inquiry's proposal on the private rented sector. The 728 studies carried out by the Department of the Environment suggest that in many parts of the country landlords are already achieving returns of 4 per cent. to 6 per cent. on capital values while charging registered fair rents. Yet those returns do not seem to be stimulating investment, as the report suggests they should.
On the other hand, where returns on capital values are lower, for example in London because of higher property prices, tenants could face twofold or threefold increases in rents to generate a 4 per cent. return. I repeat what I said earlier on this relationship with needs-related rents allowance. There will be need for very careful correlation between the means-tested housing allowances and rent levels. If there is not, we shall find ourselves creating hardships.
The new basis for rents is designed to stimulate the provision of private finance for rented housing. That, the report suggests, would be done by seeking to guarantee financial institutions such as banks, building societies and pension funds a return of 4 per cent. on investment in housing. That investment would take place through approved landlords, envisaged as housing associations, building societies, housing co-operatives and property companies. Approved landlords would have to abide by a code of guidance to be monitored by local authorities.
The inquiry should be complimented on seeking ways of increasing investment in housing. However, it is unfortunate that the report should concentrate exclusively on the private financing of rented housing. The report itself says that it was decided,not to examine in detail the possibilities of advocating a major increase in public sector investment—although it admitted that that was a clear option. However, in presenting its key recommendations the report gives the impression that private financing is the only way forward.
The omission is unfortunate for two reasons. First, it can be argued that bricks-and-mortar subsidies, which have been the main form of subsidy in the public sector, are more economically efficient than the income support subsidy proposed by the inquiry. In the public sector, subsidies tend to be fixed, either as capital grants or as reductions of loan charges which end when the debt is paid off. An income support subsidy, however, continues to be paid after the landlord has cleared all debts; it rises with inflation and can artificially increase profits. The opportunity for an important debate about the most efficient way of subsidising housing has therefore been missed.
Secondly, there are important questions about the way subsidies operate in the public sector that need to be answered. Originally council house subsidies were designed to lower the cost to tenants of newly-built homes and a relatively simple system was devised to do that. Now, as much council housing ages and needs large-scale capital expenditure to repair and improve it, the subsidies system has grown more complicated. It would have been useful if the inquiry had looked at that problem.
The report suggests that in future local authorities should be seen as enablers of housing activity at a local level. Local authorities would seek more to help other agencies in providing housing rather than seeking 729 mainly to provide housing itself. Indeed,it is suggested that local authority estates should be handed over to housing associations, tenants' co-operatives and other types of landlord. But could local authorities carry out their statutory responsibilities, for example to the homeless, if they did not own and manage properties? Would housing associations or approved landlords be any more sensitive and democratic in the management of rented properties than local authorities? No, my Lords. Local authorities need to play as important a role as providers as they do as enablers or co-ordinators. They need to play both roles.
The report makes a large number of sensible and worthwhile suggestions about details of housing policy. But its general strategy must give cause for concern. Its principal aim is to encourage private sector funds to invest in rented housing. From that aim came the proposals to increase rents to provide a suitable rate of return on investment and to redirect housing subsidies partially to meet those higher costs. That is how I see it. Such a strategy might encourage investment in housing for rent for middle income groups—those who at present tend to move rapidly into home ownership.
If renting became more economically attractive (as it would under the report's proposals) such groups might prefer to rent for longer periods before deciding to buy. But while middle income groups might be able to meet the higher housing costs implied by this strategy, would the same be true of lower income groups and the unemployed? Historically the problems of homelessness, overcrowding and poor housing conditions have been concentrated on those whose low income prevents them buying a decent standard of housing on the private market. Public sector housing was intended to break the link between poverty and poor housing. We have to ask ourselves whether a strategy based on increasing the provision of housing through the private market can really deal with such problems. That is the question we must ask ourselves.
The inquiry has been useful in highlighting the problems. It has recommended a strategy for tackling them. As it stands it leaves a lot of questions still unanswered. The most important of them is whether this is the right strategy. There has been no political input into the inquiry. I throw out my suggestion that a Select Committee of your Lordships' House should try to do this, because if we are to move in that direction there is need for cross-party support. It cannot work unless it is generally accepted as a strategy. Whatever method is adopted, I hope that there will be an attempt to carry the inquiry further. I repeat that a decision needs to be made on whether the strategy suggested is the right strategy to meet our present needs.
§ 6.58 p.m.
§ Lord Elliott of Morpeth
My Lords, I wish at once to join others who have spoken in paying tribute to the work of the committee under the chairmanship of His Royal Highness, and to Lord Seebohm for introducing this very useful debate. It was appropriate that the Royal Commission's report of 1885 should be commemorated in this useful way. I greatly 730 appreciated the speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark. I believe that the report is good; it sets out the problems which face us at present fully and adequately, and although one may disagree with some of its recommendations, it is a useful report. As the preface states, housing conditions when that Royal Commission sat, over 100 years ago, were appalling. Since that time there has been a continuous battle—I emphasise, a continuous battle—to achieve the highly desirable aim of every family having a decent home of its own. That battle continues today and is still a very tough one indeed.
My earliest association with it was when I was at school in the 1930s and my father was the chairman of a local authority housing committee. I know full well that in his long public experience—and he had a long time in public life—nothing gave him more satisfaction than being involved in the very substantial slum clearance programme of the 1930s. Here, I should agree with my noble friend Lord Marshall that we can concentrate, as indeed we probably should, on all that is wrong. However, great efforts have been made in the past. That slum clearance programme just before 1939 was doing very great work indeed, and of course the coming of the war was a tremendous check to the battle of housing.
My next personal association was when I became a Member of another place in 1957. One of my earliest duties on being elected was to tour some of Newcastle-upon-Tyne's sub-standard housing. I feel my reactions must have been very similar indeed to those of members of the Royal Commission 100 years ago. I was utterly appalled, and I shall never forget that tour. I had not until that time appreciated what dreadful housing some people had in which to live their lives. Happily, the worst of that, in the Shieldfield and Scotswood areas of Newcastle, is now swept away. In one of those areas I was asked in the early 1960s to open a block of high-rise flats. I think we all appreciate now that that was not one of the most successful forms of housing of the post-war period. However, I remember saying in my opening speech on that occasion that those who were to live at a high level would at least be able to enjoy fresh air, rather than know the awful stench of rotting homes which had so recently been on that very site.
I was particularly interested in the report and anxious to take part in this debate because when I was in another place I represented a constituency which comprised solid housing. I used to say that the only industry I had was the local brewery and our famous football team, Newcastle United. Otherwise it was housing; large housing and small housing; old and new, publicly owned and privately owned. Thus, over a considerable number of years I had many problems to deal with in relation to housing.
The inquiry brought out, I thought, to my interest and the interest of others, the steadily increasing need for homes for single people of one kind or another. This brought me to the realisation that, although there are 50,000 fewer people living in the city of Newcastle than when I first became a Member of Parliament there, there is nevertheless at this time an estimated need for 5,000 extra dwellings by 1991. There are 21,000 houses in Newcastle-upon-Tyne which were built before 1919.
731 Here again, I should suggest that my noble friend Lord Marshall was right in suggesting that much has been done that is good and that we should be pleased about and grateful for. Most of those 21,000 houses have been revitalised, and that revitalisation programme of the 1970s was a very good one indeed. I should seek to suggest that we should encourage a continuation of revitalisation of older property with every means in our power. Here, I should agree with my noble friend Lord Sandford that if VAT could be removed from house repair and house revitalisation, it would be very helpful indeed.
Forty-two per cent. of the city's housing in Newcastle-upon-Tyne is council owned; 4 per cent. is housing associations, and 54 per cent. is privately owned. It is rather a commentary on the continuing battle that, when I first became a Member of another place some 27 years ago, we had a council house waiting list of 14,000 people. Our council house waiting list today is 13,800 people. Thus the battle continues; it does not become any less difficult. There is an increasing demand for housing accommodation by an increasing number of single people, many of them pensioners; but not only pensioners, other single people, too.
There remains a considerable need for renovation in both the public and private sectors. Council housing—and this is an alarming fact in the case of Newcastle-upon-Tyne—some of which was construc-ted as recently as the 1960s, is in urgent need of repair and upgrading. I am informed that there are over 2,500 dwellings at this time, most of them with flat roofs, which were built in the 1960s, which are in urgent need of very expensive repair. The housing department from which I seek advice suggest to me that the enormous financial pressure which they know within the housing sphere in general is very heavily caused by the need to upgrade and repair. One wonders whether it can be right, and what kind of architectural advice we had about flat roofs or about anything else in the 1960s. It seems quite deplorable that houses built as recently as in the 1960s are representing, in the continuing battle, as big a problem as they do at this time.
Looking at the report I fully understand the theory of a needs-related housing allowance, but I must confess that I personally dislike very much the suggestions of the withdrawal of mortgage relief. Having had a good deal of housing experience, I find it very difficult indeed to believe that there are not a very large number of people who have the understandable aim of owning their own homes. I therefore plead for a continuance of the tax system, supporting the formation of capital within families.
The report quite rightly also emphasises the need for the greater encouragement of rented accommodation. I listened with interest to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Shaughnessy. How right it is that there should be a sufficiency of rented accommodation, for all kinds of reasons. However, in an industrial city such as Newcastle, there is need for this kind of housing because we have a steady flow of those who are not with us permanently but are passing through. The proposal in the report on rent fixing seems to suggest a continuance and possibly an extension of rent 732 control. It has always seemed to me, having had a great deal to do with particularly old rented housing, that the existence of controls of one kind or another has been most detrimental to the maintenance of particu-larly old houses.
As I see it, and as others have seen it today, the urgent requirement is the need for all involved to recognise that private investment is there if it can be encouraged; and private investment can be encouraged only if there is a possibility of a reasonable return on it. I believe that we should do everything possible to encourage the private sector to be involved in the continuance of the battle on housing.
On local responsibility, the inquiry states—and I think it is a very good suggestion indeed—that authorities should steadily become, as the report states, "enablers and co-ordinators", rather than providers of housing accommodation. That is an excellent suggestion and one which I hope can be developed. There must be a substantial part of the answer to the housing problem in greater co-operation of all bodies involved. Building societies have in the main provided the money for the purpose of council houses, and in the future perhaps building societies can do more than that. Cannot this kind of capital be involved in the all-important and essential renovation which is still required in such old cities?
The city of Newcastle has also co-operated in a joint scheme with a building firm for the improvement and the sale of 170 flats. This is an urban development grant scheme. It was the largest of its kind approved in the country. Again, I suggest that such schemes are highly desirable. I know the city is at this time attempting to develop further schemes.
Finance in all spheres is of course the key to greater speed of provision. I think the report reasonably suggests a relaxation of existing controls on capital receipts on the sale of council houses. I understand that there is a certain release of such receipts in the year of their being received, and I understand also that the capital sums which build up should to some degree be regulated. But there seems to me to be common sense in the suggestion in the report that this money could be immediately used to enormous advantage in relation to the immediate problem.
I would conclude by referring to the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady David. In ending her speech, she said that adequate houses which were safe and warm in an area in which people wished to live are desirable. How right that is! In the experience which I knew of a city being cleared of sub-standard housing, those who had lived in the centre of the city found increasingly distasteful to be moved out on to virgin land on the outskirts when new houses had been built.
I should like to commend to your Lordships a scheme in Newcastle-upon-Tyne which has been proved to be highly successful, and it is right bang in the middle of the city. It is an unusual development. It is called the Byker Wall, and the Byker Wall is a continuous stretch of housing, which looks most peculiar. When it was opened, because it was so unique—and it was opened by His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh—and was strange architectually, with a startling colour scheme, when His Royal Highness mounted the platform to perform the 733 opening ceremony, he looked at it, and began by saying, "Good gracious!"
I commend this type of urban development, in that the people who are living in the Byker Wall were largely born and brought up in the area in which they are now living and they so much prefer it to going on to the outskirts of the city. I hope that the noble Baroness will find that interesting, and if ever she has a chance that she will visit that particular development. Those who live in it are happy in it, which is very important. Again I commend the report while differing from some of its recommendations. It is a contribution, a good one and a substantial one, in the long and worthwhile struggle to provide every family in the land with a decent home.
§ Baroness David
My Lords, to make clear that the noble Lord understood, what I said was an environment that the people should like. I hope that he did get that clear. That is what I wanted: not only the general good environment, but something the people liked.
§ 7.13 p.m.
The Lord Bishop of Liverpool
My Lords, I take note of the warning of the noble Lord, Lord Elton, about political reality but he perhaps will not be so surprised that I am still willing to have a tilt at some windmills. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Seebohm, for bringing this report, published last summer, back to public debate. The two things that I want to talk about are finance and the homeless. I want to return to the inquiry's very important proposals about housing finance. This has touched a raw nerve in the public debate by calling in question mortgage interest tax relief. One senior Minister recently dismissed that questioning by saying that mortgage interest tax relief had been proved overwhelmingly popular. He did not ask whether it was just and equitable. Nor did he ask in what part of the population it was overwhelmingly popular.
I believe that the answer to that is that it is overwhelmingly popular in marginal constituencies. That makes it very difficult for any political party to look at the issue on the basis of justice and equity. For example, I think I am right in saying that the Labour Party in 1974 was committed to taking away mortgage interest tax relief but that commitment soon became watered down in the interests of our friend "political reality".
This raises real questions about democracy, our democracy. We have often supposed that one person, one vote, makes it possible for those who are disadvantaged to bring about change. An old illustration shows that this does not work. We have wrongly assumed that all societies are shaped like a pyramid with the largest numbers towards the base of the pyramid. For a long time, for generations, British society has not been shaped like a pyramid but like a diamond in which the majority are in the middle. When a policy is overwhelmingly popular to those in the middle but is against the interests of the poor, how can a democratic nation like ours properly consider their interests?
Perhaps it is a particular responsibility of your Lordships' House, where we do not have to win re-election, to make sure that unpopular policies gain 734 good currency. I believe that it is certainly the responsibility of the Churches to speak up on behalf of those who have very little political clout. I was very glad to hear Lord Seebohm's lead—and Lord Shaughnessy followed—in the appeal for a way to be found between all the emphasis on public and all the emphasis on private. Is it too much to hope that a basic need such as housing could be withdrawn from the arena of political confrontation?
I believe the inquiry of His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh shows a way forward which should gain good currency and on which political parties could dare to find that dreaded word, "consensus". I am sure that members of the inquiry would not want the figures attached to their proposed needs-related housing allowance to be looked at on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. It would certainly need to be refined, as the noble Lord, Lord Pitt, was saying.
I have a little more to say about how our democracy works and the damage which confrontational approaches do to great human issues. Robust debate should not include misrepresenting what our opponents say. All of us need to question ourselves about that. On this subject, some have been quick to appeal to voters' fears. The noble Lord, Lord Marshall of Leeds, whose experience and opinions I respect very greatly, speaks about frightening off aspiring house buyers or frightening those who are commited to buying on mortgage; but we really ought to take great care to read what the inquiry is saying.
It is talking about a very gradual phasing in—20 years was mentioned; a long time. The table on page 18 in the inquiry report is done on the basis of redistributing the monies which are already coming in subsidy from the Government. If I read those tables aright—and I think that I have got it right—anybody who is earning up to £10,000 a year now would not receive less by those proposed arrangements than he receives now by mortgage interest tax relief. The difference starts to happen on a sliding scale as earnings rise.
As I say, the inquiry is showing us a possible way forward and not a fine-honed proposal. This proposal is not about abolishing government help to those who are buying their own homes. It is about replacing a system which offers increasing state subsidy according to the scale of a mortgage: that is to be replaced, it suggests, by a sliding scale of state subsidy to people's housing which relates to the scale of their need. Postwar governments sometimes exaggerated what council housing could achieve, as the noble Lord, Lord Crawshaw, was rightly sharing with us. At present, I believe there is a danger that we exaggerate what home ownership can achieve. Personally, I am strongly in favour of the right to buy, which is bringing more mixed communities into the nicer housing estates—I emphasise, the nicer housing estates. I am delighted when more people can own their own home, provided they have not been attracted into it without having the means to maintain mortgage payments and good repairs—and that point has been made.
The noble Baroness, Lady David, made the point that not all can maintain payments and repairs. I make this point as an enthusiast for home ownership. We need to get firmly on the table what the inquiry says about the need for a healthier rented sector both public 735 and private. The highest estimate of what home ownership will be in the year 2000, we have been reminded, is 72 per cent. That takes my mind back to the idea of the shape of society being, so to speak, like a diamond. At least 28 per cent. will not be home owners by the year 2000. The noble Lord, Lord Marshall, made a robust defence of local authorities. I do not believe the inquiry was quite so dismissive of those achievements or of the skills, and I certainly do not believe that we should be.
My right reverend friend the Bishop of Southwark has told us how disturbed members of the inquiry were at what they saw and heard during the inquiry. If I may just underline that, having served for two years on the Archbishop of Canterbury's Commission on Urban Priority Areas, we too saw for ourselves the decaying housing stock. We, too, looked at the figures, which showed a critical backlog of renewal and repairs; and we support what this inquiry has to say in that regard.
I strongly support governmment efforts to bring the private sector into the rented market, and building societies will need tenants to be able to afford economic rents. That brings us back to some new way forward like a needs-related housing allowance. But until private sector involvement is shown to be possible, you must not expect us to look elsewhere than to increased public investment in local authority housing, housing co-operatives and housing associations.
Perhaps I may give what I think is a very important example. I know Stockbridge Village quite well, where a crucially important experiment is taking place between the borough of Knowsley and the private sector. It will be very important for this not to fail and it will be important to monitor honestly the number of tenants who have been decanted from Stockbridge Village to Huyton and a nearby estate and how their housing needs are being met, as well as what is happening in Stockbridge Village.
Perhaps I may pick up one more brief point from the inquiry. That is a proper concern for the homeless. I could indeed wish that the inquiry had gone rather further and pressed the needs of single homeless people. It is my belief that the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 should be amended, that its priority categories should be abandoned and that the Act should be extended to cover all who are homeless.
When I worked in East and South-East London, I remember the stigma which was placed on homeless persons among London boroughs. A Southwark councillor once approached me after a service at which he had been present and said in a condemning tone, "You are in favour of the homeless." It was said as though that was a very wicked thing to be. The background to that was the widely-held belief that other authorities did not provide for the homeless and gave them their fares to come to London—and indeed that other London boroughs were giving them their fares to go to Southwark, or Westminster or Tower Hamlets, which did make provision for them. That Southwark councillor resented such demands and assumed that homeless persons would always be feckless, blameworthy and so wicked as not to have been born in the Borough of Southwark.
736 People are homeless for many reasons. If I may take one example, when I visit mental hospitals I find that those whose counterparts in earlier generations would have been institutionalised throughout their lives are now increasingly expected to live in the community. That is all right, provided that good housing and good support are there for them. We are saving a lot of money by that change in mental care. Are we putting sufficient money into making proper provisions for a very vulnerable section of our community?
One well-tried and successful way of housing the neediest—the point has been well made by the noble Lord, Lord Crawshaw, and the noble Baroness, Lady Denington—has been through housing associations. I very much regret the cut-backs in public housing money in this regard. It means that housing associations, which were providing 40,000 new homes a year at the end of the 1970s, now have a programme which is only half that size. The Liverpool housing associations face a further reduction of 30 to 40 per cent. this year. My hope is that the Duke's inquiry may be put firmly on the table of public debate and kept there, and that the five splendid objectives with which the report begins will really be considered by each of us.
§ 7.24 p.m.
The Earl of Selkirk
My Lords, I think we have all very much enjoyed hearing the right reverend Prelate speaking with knowledge, as he does, of an area where this subject is of the gravest concern, as we all know. The views on this have been pretty sharply divided: indeed, they reflect to some extent what came out in the papers. The Times said it was a craven example of vested interests—more nonsense could hardly be found—and the Guardian said that it was sanity in chaos. I think there is a great deal in that second description.
The inquiry tried to disentangle the very mixed problem which faces us. It is perhaps not unnatural that a non-political examination should have a good go at the sacred cows of, if I may say so, both political parties. That is not strange: indeed, I think it is right. Sacred cows should be taken out and washed every now and again, and then they may be put away again. But I think a number of questions have been raised which should very properly have been raised.
There is one thing for which my noble friend has not thanked this inquiry sufficiently. They did not ask for any more money. With every body of people which gathers together—whether it be the BBC, universities or the Arts Council—the first thing they do is to say that they want some government money. This inquiry did not do that. They said, "Let us see what we can do with the money available."
If we look in this very interesting book called Social Trends we see the sum of £10 billion which the Government are claiming to give to support housing. I know it covers a great many aspects of housing, but I think it is a sum that we should look at. Are we sure that the use being made of it is as good as it should be? There is a lot of talk about mortgage interest, but the fact is that there is fairly good evidence to show that some mortgage relief payments are not wholly what 737 they were intended to be. I do not know how many there are, but some certainly fall into that category, I think.
Another problem is the fact that Parliaments are only for five years, and no housing policy can be got going in five years. That is a very real difficulty so long as the two main parties, in major aspects, are opposing each other. I am bound to quote Mr. Crosland, who picked up the Tory Act in 1974 and produced an Act which has been extremely productive, dealing with housing associations. That is an example which, with a little wisdom, I very much hope can be followed on both sides.
I should like to recall for one moment the Royal Commission of 1885. As has been said, it revealed the most abominable situation. It had among its members Sir Charles Dilke, Cardinal Manning, Lord Salisbury and a number of others of a similar character. They saw what was the debris of the Industrial Revolution. People had poured into the cities without any provision of any kind at all. Commonly, there were 11 or 12 people living in one room, with no laid-on water, and if they died they lay there until someone buried them properly. I will not go on about that; but the point I want to make is that the report of that commission was pretty thin. Why was it so thin? I would put it simply in this language: the political philosophy of that time did not really permit of a proper solution.
We can go on, if we like, to when we started again after the First World War, in the 1920s, when the philosophy had changed. There were 8 million houses with the most appalling congestion, averaging 6 or 7 persons per house, in the whole country. Since then we have gone on to the present time, when there are, roughly speaking, 22 million houses. That gives what is a perfectly reasonable statistical presentation of about two and a half people to a house. But, of course, practically, that is quite wrong, because there are many holiday homes, many empty houses and many unfit houses: not all of the houses are being used. We must get a higher number than that—perhaps 23 or 24 million—and that is why I personally think that a major factor in producing these houses must continue to have full support. I mean building societies.
The building societies have been our salvation in this century, and they have changed the quality of society. For the first time in our history the majority of people own a piece of land and a house. Let future historians—the noble Lord, Lord Blake, maybe—tell the story of what is the greatest development in the 20th century. I believe that this will mark a very high-level point indeed. I would hesitate, at any rate for the time being, about any change in the mortgage rate. It is the most successful aspect of our housing. Let that success continue. That is why I hesitate about change. I shall not talk about the future, though there may well be changes which will take place later.
Our main problem is that of maintenance. I want us for a moment to cast our minds forward 10 or 20 years. This problem will continue. As soon as a house is built, it starts to deteriorate. I should like to quote a very sensible statement by the chairman of the Anchor Housing Association, who said:Housing is never critically urgent.738 The dry rot is no worse this week than it was last week, but it ought to have been treated last week. That is the problem.
The Government have produced two papers on improvements, and they are very interesting. I was very glad to see that they make two points in particular; first, the drawing in of private money, and, secondly, simplicity. Heaven knows, my Lords, the simplicity of the housing benefit payment could be improved! There are 40 pages of close print. It is not right for the public. I do not know whether or not it is fair, and I doubt whether anyone in this House could say whether or not it is fair, because people do not know. But it is quite stupid. It is no doubt nobly thought out and worked out mathematically, but it is not good enough. I think the plan which the Government have put forward will work. It appears to be a very good plan. But I have no idea whether it will work widely in practice.
I believe that a house is a national asset, and it is the duty of somebody—probably the local authority—to keep the situation going. Maybe these agency centres which have been spoken about should keep observation, not only to help competent repairers to be introduced but also to note when a start should be made, because if you pick up a problem at the beginning it is cheap, whereas if you wait a fortnight or even a year you pay a fortune to have something done.
I shall now come to another point which seems to me of vital importance. I do not want to be discourteous, but it is a disgrace to Parliament that tenants' houses have been destroyed. That is the work of parliamentary legislation. Have no illusions, my Lords: that is what it is. It is now Parliament's business to set things right again. We know that tenancies are wanted. Why do we not have them already? We have reached this position. With a shortage of tenanted houses you cannot take off control, but as long as you have control nobody will build houses for tenants. That is the fact of the situation. How are we to get round it? We must get round it. We have to break this shell at any price.
I am going to suggest a way. We have in the other House at the present time the Building Societies Bill. Five per cent. of their total assets can be spent on buying land. Up to now they have not been able to hold land. What I suggest is that if they built rented property on that land they would not be subjected to regulated procedures. That is a big step forward and it is very bold, but it is the only way that I can think of to break the tangle around us in regard to regulated property. Regulated property was essential in the 'twenties and the 'thirties, but it is a disgrace to this country that we still have regulated property. We should have enabled the economic system to work matters out, which would have made this unnecessary. The proposal of needs-related payments might have been a way around the problem, but we must get rid of this practice and make the economic system work, which would be to everyone's advantage.
The hour is late and I shall make just one more point. If we are to do something of this sort, we must get agreement between the parties. I know how difficult that is, but no one will disagree that it is a disgrace that at this stage of our civilisation, when we go to the moon, we cannot even build a house, where 739 people can live, which has a proper lavatory and hot water. We should have devised ways and means of doing what is wanted. The basis of civilisation is a good home, and in addition to education and health people need sound homes to live in.
§ 7.36 p.m.
§ Lord Ezra
My Lords, there have been many reports on housing and there will be many more, but I believe that the report which we are considering today is of exceptional scope and importance, and it has been remarkably presented to us by the noble Lord, Lord Seebohm, and by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark. I believe it would be true to say that after unemployment the need for improved housing is the most important social priority in the nation, and it is right that we should be devoting quite a bit of our time today to considering this issue.
There have been many achievements in the field of housing, as the noble Lord, Lord Marshall, indicated. But the problem—and we are still faced with a problem—has changed progressively over the post-war period. In the early 'fifties the basic issue, as the report indicates, was one of absolute shortage and that was put right by some very vigorous house building measures at that period. Today, there is not an overall shortage of housing, although there is a shortage in certain areas to which the report refers. But the fundamental problem that we face at the moment, to which many noble Lords have referred, is the condition of the housing, the quality of the housing; and I believe that that is something on which we need to concentrate above all other aspects.
The housing condition survey of 1981, which is to be replaced by a more up-to-date survey later this year, showed that one in four of the total number of houses then extant required repair, and the Government's own report, to which the noble Lord, Lord Elton, referred in his earlier remarks, has shown the magnitude of the renovation job required in public housing, which amounts to something in excess of £18 billion. So I believe that the first issue that needs to be faced is whether the present expenditure on housing will be adequate to deal with this problem even over a number of years. I feel that here it is not unreasonable to ask the Government—and perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Elton, will comment on this—whether they are reviewing the funding of housing in the light of their own report.
There are many ways by which this can be dealt with. For example, local authorities could be progressively authorised to use more of the funds that they have acquired from the sales of houses, home improvement grants could be extended and there is the recommendation of the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, about VAT on home improvement. I hope, in the light of the report that we are considering this afternoon and in the light of the Government's own estimates of the problem that the country faces in the way of home improvement and renovation, that there will be a review of these various financial measures.
But, in addition, emerging out of today's debate, I believe there is a feeling that this goes way beyond action by government and that there should be more and more schemes in which the public and private 740 sectors come together. A number of such schemes have been referred to. I should like to refer specifically to the scheme introduced by the National Home Improvement Council, with which I am connected, known as the neighbourhood revitalisation service. This was started a year or two ago and is intended to co-ordinate the use of public and private funds to improve housing in specific areas. I am glad to say that there are four projects now in operation—in Sheffield, Oldham, Bedford and Gloucester—and work is being done with support from both public and private sources to move into other areas. I believe that measures of this kind can bring home, perhaps more than just direct government expenditure, the need to take action in this area.
There is an aspect of this whole question of the physical renovation and repair of houses that also needs emphasising. I refer to job creation. It has been estimated that for every £5 million spent on home improvement 290 jobs are created on-site and a further 96 jobs in factories producing building material and equipment. That is a quite significant contribution to further employment and to wealth creation. What I should like to plead for arising out of our debate on this very important report is that we look at all ways of stimulating effort in home improvement at the present time involving government, local authorities, housing associations, joint public and private schemes and the private sector. I believe that this report has brought home more than anything else the very great social challenge that the condition of housing presents to us at the present time.
§ 7.43 p.m.
§ Lord Coleraine
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Selkirk started his speech by quoting from the press, and in particular from The Times, as being against the report. He is perfectly correct in saying that an article in The Times did say that this was a craven example of a vested interest urging that new restrictions and regulations should be introduced so that it can spend more of other people's money largely to further its own sectional interests. As a reader of The Times I should put the record straight although my noble friend has been called away for the moment. In the same issue of The Times there was a very balanced view of the report in the leader column and it finished with these words:Even jaded Ministers should be propelled into looking again at the rather threadbare garment which is current housing policy".This report comes as a package of proposals designed to solve among other vexing problems what I might perhaps call the problem of inner city housing distress. It comes with the clear message that the whole report must be taken as one dose and swallowed with nothing omitted. We are offered housing for all and considered proposals for arresting and turning back the terrible deterioration which has affected our country's housing stock. The report offers the prospect of choice, so that a householder can decide whether he buys and so accumulates savings in the bricks and mortar of his home; or whether he rents and accumulates in some other way—and if the decision is to rent, whether it is to rent on a municipal estate or privately.
741 I find convincing the analysis in Chapter 2 of the report of the mess that housing is in today. I refer particularly to the highlighting by the report of what the inquiry refers to as lack of choice and the factors which cause it and the positive priority given by the report to making private rented housing viable again. I am not speaking against unsatisfactory council estates if I say that I should have preferred to see some positive commitment by the inquiry to the gradual rolling back of the municipal sector. Twenty-eight per cent. of all houses in the hands of local authorities in 1983, with some local authorities owning almost the entire housing stock in their area, is surely too much when compared with the 11 per cent. owned privately or by housing associations.
The preface to the report tells us that it represents the collective views of the members of the inquiry. There is no indication in the sections which I have studied closely that there was much if any dissent among the members of the inquiry. All seem to have been agreed on what was necessary. I find it remarkable that there was no indication that any of the recommendations represented the views of only a majority—there was nothing to suggest that any member had any reservations on any particular point. For that reason I feel a little sceptical about the report and I must confess that I cannot take it as a whole—I can take it a la carte. I fear that the report leaves a certain amount unsaid.
It seemed to me when reading the report that there were a number of thorny issues carefully left to one side and untouched by the inquiry but without there being provided any clear indication that the issue had been left to one side because the inquiry could not reach agreement; or any indication as to what the arguments dividing the inquiry might have been. I would instance a section headed "Security of tenure" on page 26. This section deals with the provision of rented housing. The report says:Too much security discourages landlords from letting, or induces them to find loopholes which deny the tenant any security at all. Too little creates a situation of constant uncertainty and threat for the tenant".There in a nutshell is one of the big housing problems: how to satisfy the reasonable requirements of two groups when those requirements are basically irreconcilable. The report goes on:We are well aware of the dangers and pitfalls involved".I think we know about pitfalls: they are generally to be avoided, as the report does here, and not filled in. The report discusses the situation and finally lets us down by concluding:On the precise nature of security arrangements we are less clear, and feel that there is a need for widespread discussion on the subject".The inquiry also calls for further research and debate. To my mind the inquiry has undoubtedly avoided the pitfall but at some loss of persuasiveness.
I would ask one question concerning mortgage interest relief which has been so interesting to us this afternoon. I noted the intervention at Question Time in another place on 16th January by the right honourable Roy Hattersley. He said quite category-cally that there was no question of the next Labour Government abolishing mortgage interest relief. This 742 has been repeated this afternoon by the noble Baroness, Lady David. Throughout the report there are proposals the implementation of which would require a political consensus on housing such as we have never known before, clearly implying that the lamb has got to lie down with the lion. But how could it be here where the lion and the lamb have learnt to lie down together with mortgage interest relief—then along comes this report and tells them not to lie down together?
I referred to this question of mortgage interest relief only to point to the general unworldliness of the report. Perhaps it is best epitomised by the fact that it would take well into the next century for the report to be implemented. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark referred to the value of setting goals. I know that Rome was not built in a day but we are not building Rome now, and neither was Rome a Westminster-style parliamentary democracy in a very fast-moving world.
I wish to mention the needs-related housing allowance. This will be paid by some body—the report is not clear which of two bodies—to public and private tenants and owner-occupiers alike. It will be financed by clawing back something like £3½ billion of mortgage interest relief and adding that to the £2.6 billion already distributed in 1983–84 by means of the rent rebate and rent allowance elements of housing benefit and supplementary housing assistance—which currently provides practically all the housing expenses, including rent and rates for tenants on supplementary benefit and mortgage interest for owner-occupiers in a similar position.
That will produce something like £6.1 billion to be distributed as a subsidy. However, I can find precious little in the report to suggest that such an amount is an appropriate sum with which to fund the needs-related housing allowance. Nor, looking at the problem from another angle, is there much attempt to quantify the extent to which the existing needs-related subsidies fall short of the unquantified sums that the inquiry would like to see redistributed.
I myself find it very difficult to resist reaching the conclusion that the inquiry has been led by its disapproval of mortgage interest relief to appropriate for its own purposes the £3½ billion that it happened to find in that corner—simply because the money was there and the inquiry felt that it could be put to good use.
I happen to share in a modified way the inquiry's disapproval of mortgage interest relief in its present form. However, I share only one of the inquiry's grounds for disapproval. I do not agree that housing finance should be a pawn in redistributive politics, but I object to the fiscal distortions that the present form of relief creates. I share also, and for the same reason, the inquiry's reservations about the desirability of capital gains tax relief on the disposal of homes.
I suggest that in the case of mortgage interest relief at least, it would be far better to reduce the fiscal distortions not by restricting the relief but by extending it to borrowings for other forms of expenditure. It would surely be better to provide relief for repairs as well as for improvements, especially when "improvements" are allowed to include expenditure on the construction of swimming pools.
743 I would myself go further to liberalise mortgage interest relief, if only because the figures showing leakages of tax relief from housing make it clear that relief is already being unofficially liberalised to a considerable extent. That matter is one that ought to be examined carefully.
I have one further point to make about mortgage interest relief. The list of key recommendations that appears at the beginning of the report kicks off with a reference to a needs-related housing allowance. It says a good deal about what that allowance would achieve for all in need but not mentioned there is the limiting factor called eligible housing costs. They make their appearance later, on page 17.
To obtain the full needs-related housing allowance, the tenant or owner-occupier would have to have equal or greater eligible housing costs. The effect of that seems to be, broadly, that if a tenant's rent is less than his needs-related housing allowance then he would not receive the full allowance. He would therefore be advised to consider moving into somewhere more expensive, where the additional rent would be paid to him. For the owner-occupier under that regime, the lesson would seem to be that if he has no mortgage then he should get one so that the interest may be paid to him.
Why should a family who have paid £30,000 for their house, for example, be relatively penalised as against another family with the same household income, and falling into the same size and composition category, who happen to have bought a better, £40,000 house with the aid of a £10,000 mortgage the interest on which is paid by a needs-related housing allowance? That is just one distorting element that the inquiry itself would introduce.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Seebohm, for giving the House this opportunity to debate a most important report. I beg the noble Lord not to be too pessimistic. Did he really say that for 30 per cent. of the population, housing will always be a social service? That is what my note says. However, if we throw unlimited subsidies into housing we shall certainly create a truly servile state. I am convinced that that is not necessary in this innovative and affluent day and age, and that careful consideration and selective implementation of the report will help to ensure that it does not come about.
§ 7.56 p.m.
§ Baroness Fisher of Rednal
My Lords, it is late in the evening and the noble Lord, Lord Marshall, is just leaving the Chamber. I intended to follow up the point he made that one should not divide the achievements of local authorities. The noble Lord can leave now that I have mentioned that, and knowing that I support him.
Many millions of people have been given, and are still being given, the opportunity of decent housing by local authorities. We must accept that. After all is said and done, it was local authorities who pioneered many of the provisions that have been taken up by housing associations. I acknowledge also that local authorities are not perfect; I accept that that is so, because I was chairman of the housing committee in Birmingham before I became a Member of another place. However, 744 although we are not perfect, the fact that we were doing some good work is shown by the fact that people are now taking the opportunity of buying properties on the estates that were then created. They must think that they are all right; otherwise they would not make those purchases: for having purchased those properties, they remain living in them. Therefore those estates built by local authorities must have been of a high standard for people to choose to continue living there.
I was very interested in the observations made by the noble Lord, Lord Elliott, about the Byker Wall development. I do not know Byker Wall; it sounds an awful nomenclature, but nevertheless it is evidently a very good development. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Elliott, that for a very long time I represented on a local authority what was known as a central area. The houses there existed cheek by jowl with the local gasworks, which I suppose was one of the largest gasworks in the country before the introduction of natural gas. That area was devasted by enemy action. It contained the most appalling slums, with houses not just back-to-back but back-to-back-to-back-to-back.
It so happened that the city decided that it should be the first area chosen for redevelopment. Flats were built to provide as many homes as possible, bearing in mind that most of the large cities had what one might call a corset around them. No green belt wants any of the people from the central area to go and live there because they are considered not to be the right kind of people. When those flats were built there was no problem because, as the noble Lord, Lord Elliott, observed, the tenants were people who had already lived in the area. They moved into those blocks of flats and created a community. There were no problems at all. For the first 10 years, children were brought up in those blocks of flats, which had nursery schools at the bottom of each one.
Then of course Birmingham said that it wanted some more land and the government at that time looked at little pieces round the city and they gave us pieces. We started to build housing on that land. All those people who were so happy in the blocks of flats and who had lived in them for 10 years said, "We have lived in the flats for 10 years. We ought now to have our chance". So there was this policy for people who had lived in flats for a long time to be moved out. As soon as one did that of course one destroyed all of what the noble Lord, Lord Elliott, referred to. Therefore in choice being given to one group of people it was perhaps destroyed for others. It is a point worth considering because some people said "Tut-tut" when they went to live out on periphery estates. That is not what most people say, because they have often chosen, when offered a house, to move out to them.
I must also say that I can remember some of the things mentioned in the report taking place in Birmingham when I was chairman of the housing committee, when we built our estates on the periphery of the city in the 1960s. We were building houses for sale on a shared ownership basis, with the local authority taking responsibility for a half share and the tenant having responsibility for the other half. These were built specifically for those tenants on the housing list who said they wanted to purchase. That was before any government scheme of selling.
745 I was interested in what the noble Lord, Lord Crawshaw, said about not being able to get a tap fixed, and so on. With all due respect to him—and I thought he made a most excellent contribution to the debate—we had a debate yesterday in this Chamber on science and technology in local authorities. Science and technology—especially technology—is now working in the housing departments of all the large local authorities. I can give examples in the cities, because I have visited them, where one can see housing details on computers, showing what the people have asked for, and so on. If the noble Lord, Lord Elton, wants to know why certain properties lie empty on certain developments I feel sure that he will get some observations from the housing director in Birmingham because such details are tabulated on the computer. The reason is given why a certain piece of property has not been taken up after half-a-dozen or 10 people have seen it. After officials from the housing department have seen it, normally it is found that it is not the property that the people are turning down. It is usually for some very personal reasons.
Large local authorities, as in Birmingham, are decentralised and so are doing the things that housing associations are doing. They have their housing offices and in many cases the DHSS has asked for accommodation in those offices so that it can be helpful at the same time, with the whole process working together. There are terminals on the computer linked direct to head office should there be any problems. It is the job of those housing officers who are working in the districts to encourage tenant participation and try to get tenant committees going.
Everyone is saying that housing decay will not go away and that something must be done about it. I shall give figures which I think are important. Between the years 1978–79 and the expected outcome in 1985–86, spending by the Department of the Environment on housing will have been cut by 59 per cent. That means, in simple terms, that for every pound spent on local authority housing in 1979 just 30 pence is available today. There is not very much that one can do with 30 pence these days. It is important to remind noble Lords that many local authorities—in fact the majority—are receiving no grant subsidy from the Government. Most are not receiving that direct government subsidy and that automatically has an effect upon what a local authority can do.
I am interested in this aspect. Local authorities owe millions of pounds and every year pay out millions of pounds in debt charges for the money they have borrowed. I should like the noble Lord, Lord Elton, to tell me into what kitty that money goes—all the millions of pounds which the council house tenants are repaying—because it is coming out of their housing. Into what kitty do the debt charges go? Is there some kind of (if I may use a fancy word) bookkeeping which the Treasury uses?
Like other noble Lords, I believe that more resources must be made available. Those resources are available from the profits that have arisen from the sale of housing. Local authorities should be entitled to recycle the accumulated and accruing housing capital receipts into areas of acute housing need. This is no different from the system that currently operates for 746 housing associations, which use the housing corporation as the recycling vehicle. There should not be any difference between the two.
In talking about fairness we should consider the tax relief on mortgages. It was £4.75 billion in 1985–86 compared with £1.1 billion in 1978–79. Compare that with the Government's social security Bill, which we shall be having later in the year and which aims to cut about £0.5 billion from housing benefit. Is that fair when an increased amount is going to mortgage tax relief and being pulled away from another form of housing benefit? The noble Lord, Lord Coleraine, spoke about fiscal distortions. I consider that to be a fiscal distortion. It is to me, though I talk about fiscal distortions as being fair or unfair; but perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Coleraine, is an economist, which I am not.
On housing benefits, I can tell your Lordships that 78 per cent. of the people living on council house estates in Birmingham are receiving or awaiting housing benefit. I understand from the housing corporation that last year it did a survey which showed that the majority of the persons it was helping were people in full employment but earning less than £60 a week; so they also were housing benefit cases. I shall not go into the question of the disadvantaged, such as the homeless, to which other noble Lords have referred. We are all aware that homelessness is now on the increase as a result of domestic violence as well as other reasons which all show a trend in society. However, I want to make a point about the frail elderly because it affects housing associations. How sad it is that the Government have seen fit to make reductions in the DHSS allowances to residents in accommodation for the frail elderly. Those cuts will put some of the schemes in jeopardy.
Perhaps I may briefly refer to Servite, which charges £135 a week in one of its homes for the frail elderly. The housing person in charge says that the maximum the DHSS will pay is £120 a week. That means, he says, that he can see their residential care homes deciding that they have no option but to refuse people on benefit and to take only those who can pay privately. What a sad thing it is for a housing association which is trying to do something for the frail elderly, to have to say that! I go along all the way with the report, which recommends that local authorities should work on rehabilitation in conjunction with housing associations, co-ownership schemes and private builders.
I think that we also must understand, as many noble Lords have said, that there are certain persons who will want rented accommodation. For all kinds of reasons these people do not become owner-occupiers. Of course one cannot really become an owner-occupier if one is unemployed; that is almost an impossibility. A mortgage cannot be obtained on unemployment pay. It may be that the Government ought to consider very seriously the fact that if money were spent on housing, more people would become wage-earners because they would be employed in the building industry, and these people may thus be enabled to become owner-occupiers instead of remaining unemployed. This would give a real uplift to that group of people.
747 I think we are all grateful to the association for bringing to us the report of the inquiry which was conducted under the able chairmanship of His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh; but I also think it is important to recognise that housing associations work through the Housing Corporation. It is the Housing Corporation which lend money to housing associations.
In his introduction to their annual report, the chairman, Sir Hugh Cubitt says:Our own analysis [of what they are doing] suggests that we are now unable to support many projects which we ought to fund, even to keep pace with the most urgent needs—which include those of the elderly; those arising from inner city decay; those of ethnic groups; and of people with other very special problems".This statement is from the chairman of the Housing Corporation, which really have to help out housing associations. He is saying that the amount of money they receive, though it has been much more generous than that given to local authorities, is not sufficient. In his long final paragraph, he says:I would be shirking in my own responsibility—vested in the Corporation by Statute—for promoting and developing housing associations, if I failed to put on record our considered view that housing for those in the most dire need, for whom we provide, is now seriously under-funded".Coming from the Housing Corporation as well as local authorities, such statements clearly show that the Government must take note of what has been said today.
I am concerned with the Housing and Planning Bill, which I know we shall be discussing in this House. Like the noble Lord, Lord Marshall, I think there is concern that selling off large council estates can cause severe problems. What concerns me most of all is that if we do this, we may be leaving council housing as an undesirable type of tenure, one which is confined to those who have the least choice in the housing market. Poor environment and social surroundings have been widely researched and everyone knows that low income, poor health and pessimism, poor household management ability, inability to handle stress, things which in social terms are called "the cycle of deprivation" are the result. As the noble Lord, Lord Crawshaw says, from these cycles of deprivation will follow serious consequences.
I apologise for speaking for so long, but in conclusion I should like to say that I think the report has clearly offered solutions. They are not cast-iron solutions, as I think the right reverend Prelate who was a member of the inquiry said; they are solutions which are suggested for discussion, and maybe better ones can be found. What the noble Lord, Lord Seebohm, has done this afternoon in introducing this Motion to the House is to make sure that housing returns to the agenda. That is a start. As the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, has said, what we in this House must do is to ensure that housing in its broader sense maintains a higher profile on the Government's agenda.
§ Lord Marshall of Leeds
My Lords, perhaps I could ask the noble Baroness whether she possibly misunderstood what I was saying, becaause I do not remember saying that to sell off large housing estates would be detrimental to this, that or the other. It is not the sort of remark I would make anyway, so perhaps 748 the noble Baroness has mixed me up with another speaker.
The Bishop of Southwark
My Lords, may I add a word of explanation about the Byker Wall as the noble Lord, Lord Elliott, was not present in the Chamber, and as I was the Bishop of Newcastle? People might have got the impression that it was all wall. The bulk of the development is low-rise housing and the wall represents quite a small part of it. The consequences you feared, of people wishing to move out of flats into houses is not likely to arise in that particular development, which is a very interesting one.
Lady Fisher of Rednal
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord and to the right reverend Prelate.
§ 8.16 p.m.
§ Baroness Macleod of Borve
My Lord, like other noble Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Seebohm, for bringing to our attention today something which plays a vital part in our lives in this country; namely, housing. This is an enormously comprehensive and interesting report which has considerably enlightened me. I am one of the few people in your Lordships' House who have never been a member of a local authority. However, I do a certain amount of work outside this House on matters which are pertinent to housing.
As tail-end-Charlie almost, I have been putting pieces of paper away and using my pen as much as possible. A feeling has emerged from this debate which I have felt for a very long time, which is that we simply must have more flexibility in housing and more houses and dwellings available in the rented sector. I think I said in the debate on the Queen's Speech that 30 per cent. of those who want dwellings, want houses to rent.
We are living in changing times. People are changing their jobs, which very often means changing their homes. Unfortunately, people are also unemployed, which means that they have to travel to find employment. If they cannot find employment with homes, or if there are no homes in their area, then they cannot take up the employment. Therefore, it is very important that we look at the graph on page 23 in which we see that, in 1913, 90 per cent. of private dwellings were for rent, but that in 1983 the amount was reduced to 9 per cent. As the report has said, diversity and opportunity of choice in the housing market is essential and the aim should be that 60 per cent. of the population should own their own houses. This again is shown on the graph.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to own one's own house, but, as other noble Lords have said, in this difficult period in our country's history it is not often possible for people under, perhaps, the age of 30 to have enough money to take out a mortgage; and so we need property to rent. I am sure that that point has been covered adequately and the Government will take it under their belt.
Very little has been said this afternoon about the Government's capital expenditure on repairs and renovations in the public sector. There has been an enormous increase since 1979. Now £1 billion a year 749 is spent, plus another £1 billion out of revenue. In 1984, 87,000 town dwellings in England were renovated. This is the highest number since 1973.
Like other noble Lords, I listened with intense interest to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark. He has immense knowledge, not only from his diocese but because he was a member of the commission. This morning I did a little bit of homework on the inner London boroughs, which have a name for not building up to requirements. I came up with these facts. In Lambeth rent arrears are £7.3 million, or 16 per cent. of the total; in another borough they are £13.6 million, or 13 per cent. of the total; and in Camden they are £6.9 million, or 16 per cent. of the total.
As has already been said, if there was more effective housing management by the boroughs, millions more pounds would be available to be spent. Many of the unemployed tenants should be persuaded to claim their rent from the DHSS and get housing benefit. I grant that it all comes from the national pocket, but at least the money would go to the local authority for it to spend on housing.
The noble Baroness, Lady Fisher of Rednal, raised this point, and I hope that she will forgive me if I reiterate it. In the report very little mention is made of the ageing population. Every home that an elderly person vacates will be available for someone else. I am sure that all noble Lords know and admire the Abbeyfield Housing Association. The 1981 census showed that there were 383,291 people over the age of 71 living in Greater London, and 361,167 pensioners living alone. Apart from the fact that those people are perhaps lonely and are also probably taking up housing by remaining in homes in which they have brought up their families, it would alleviate the housing problem if they could be persuaded to enter an Abbeyfield or similar home. That association has 7,300 residents, and the average age is 82. The housing association grant for new buildings and conversions is nowhere near sufficient, but the Abbeyfield hopes to expand in order to fulfil a great need.
I know that we want to conclude the debate, but let me say finally to your Lordships that houses are homes, whether in private or public ownership or rented. The people of our country need and deserve suitable homes. I appeal to the Government to provide them.
§ 8.26 p.m.
My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to support my noble friend Lord Seebohm and to congratulate him on his admirable introduction of this important report. I wish to speak on two areas of great concern to me: ethnic minorities and children. Neither comes directly within the scope of the report that we are considering, but I submit that both are important in the general housing context.
However, I hope that your Lordships will forgive me if I start on a personal note. I was brought up in the days of the slums, which have now been replaced by the tower blocks. I remember so well those cramped, inadequate, insanitary and over-crowded little slum houses, but yet what splendid spirit there was among 750 the people who lived in them! I remember particularly as a child the courage, the cheerfulness and, above all, the camaraderie of some of the poorer inhabitants of North Kensington, where housing conditions were just as bad as those in the East End. It was there that my aunt worked tirelessly to try to improve those conditions. She gave her time, her money and ultimately her life for the poor of North Kensington, dying in her thirties of a disease which could easily have been cured today.
That was in my childhood, some 10 years before the First World War. I then spent most of the next 45 or 50 years in public service abroad, and it was only last year, some 55 years later, that I had my next experience of public sector housing. That was on a tour in which several noble Lords took part, among whom were the noble Baroness, Lady Denington, and the noble Lord, Lord Graham, who I hoped would be speaking today, but we are not to hear him. It was a tour of various GLC housing estates. It was a revealing experience, but also a saddening one.
Who would have dreamt that those living in housing immeasurably more comfortable than that of the 1920s or 1930s, with fitted carpets, central heating, televisions and so on, could be for the most part so querulous and unhappy, which they were? The reason is surely that those tower blocks, built 20 or 30 years ago, incorporated several basic design defects. Of those, by far the most important was the overhead walkways, which is a point that I do not think has been touched on in our debate this evening. Those are found on many estates, and they were the subject of universal criticism among the tenants to whom we spoke on our visit.
The original concept was laudable. It was to promote good neighbourliness, camaraderie and so on among the different groups. The idea was that Mrs. Smith from Southwark could be pally with Mrs. Singh from Bengal, and so on; but, of course, it did not work. It did not work because one has to accept, I am afraid, that it is not really possible to mix ethnic minorities in such close proximity with the white inhabitants. Such a concept would have been admirable in a desert encampment or in an African village, of which I have had much experience. These are environments where everyone comes from the same tribe, clan or extended family. But, of course, it does not work in London.
These walkways have become dirty, smelly and crime-ridden. They are escape routes for gangs of muggers, for children playing irresponsibly and for teenagers doing what teenagers do—and I need not go into too many details there. So they are thoroughly unsatisfactory in every way. The Westminster and Southwark councils have accepted that these walkways and other design defects are the prime cause of vandalism. What is the solution? I just do not know. Improvements would be very difficult and very expensive. I am told that it will cost about £4 million to remake the 30 walkways on the Mozart estate, where criminal damage costs approximately £110 per flat per year. However, on the Lisson Green estate, crime and vandalism were halved when the walkways were removed.
There are, of course, other defects on these large housing estates. Some are touched upon in Chapter 2 of the report, but, in my opinion, not in enough detail. 751 Among these defects one can note inadequate heating systems, poor sound insulation, large open spaces for which the tenants have no responsibility and inadequate drainage.
I turn now to ethnic minorities. I wish to deal briefly, in view of the lateness of the hour, with three aspects: racial discrimination and harassment, housing allocation and bed and breakfast accommodation. All would agree, I believe, that in the 1950s and the 1960s there was a great deal of racial discrimination. One would see notices in shop windows, "Room to let: no coloureds accepted". The situation has improved considerably since the passing of the Race Relations Act 1976. But there are still some pockets of discrimination, and these are very hard to assess. Harassment, too, I am glad to say, has declined, but it is still noticeable in some areas, particularly in the London borough of Newham.
Now to housing allocation. Two very valuable reports, published in the last two years, give a most interesting insight into this aspect of the problem. The first was a study conducted by the Commission for Racial Equality entitled Race and Council Housing in Hackney, dated 1984. Secondly, there was the report of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, Housing and Race, of April 1985. These two reports revealed that in Greater London as a whole—I am afraid that I must confine my remarks to Greater London—the ethnic minorities, particularly West Indians and Asians, are undoubtedly worse housed than the whites. I should like to quote just a few of the findings of the Hackney survey. This found, inter alia, that black families on the council waiting list were three times less likely to be offered a house, rather than a flat or a maisonette, than white families in similar circumstances; secondly, that white families were over eight times more likely to be offered a new property than black families; and, thirdly, that black families, on the other hand, were three times more likely to be offered pre-war property.
I turn now to bed and breakfast accommodation. It is important here to stress that a surprisingly high proportion of the homeless in London and elsewhere are from the ethnic minorities. A large number are obliged to stay in bed and breakfast hotels. How horrible these are! I would elaborate, but time does not permit. For example, 58 out of the 104 homeless households placed in bed and breakfast accommodation by Haringey Council were of black and ethnic minority origin. In Tower Hamlets, unfortunately, the situation is even worse: more than 90 per cent. of the bed and breakfast families are believed to be from the ethnic minorities, with a high proportion of Bengalis. Such ethnic minorities appear to suffer more from stress in such circumstances than white families by reason of the disruption and the unfamiliar environment in which they find themselves.
There has been far too little research on all this. But we must accept the excellent work being done in the housing and other spheres by the Ethnic Minorities Unit of the Greater London Council. The noble Lord the Minister will doubtless remember the inter-ventions and I made at the Committee stage of the Local Government Bill. I would ask him what is to happen to this Ethnic Minorities Unit. I went there the 752 other day—in fact, I spoke to them only yesterday on the telephone—and they still do not know what is to happen. I greatly hope that if the boroughs are to take over, as indeed they will take over, there may yet be some sort of overall co-ordinating body.
I turn now to children. Here, as we all know, it is the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, who knows infinitely more about children and their needs than I or anyone else in your Lordships' House. It was John Masefield who said:And he who gives a child a homeBuilds palaces in Kingdom come".But, of course, a home means not just the bricks and mortar of the dwelling-place. For, with children, love is more important than luxury, and compassion is more important than comfort. Thus a child can be happy in a hovel but miserable in a mansion.
What are children's basic needs? Your Lordships will, I believe, agree that, apart from food and clothing and reasonable shelter, these are room to play and room to express themselves. It is here that they suffer so gravely in bed and breakfast accommodation. A recent survey conducted by Shelter revealed that the number of homeless people placed in temporary accommodation by London local authorities this summer was the highest ever recorded. In June 1985, nearly 8,500 households in London were in temporary accommodation. Unfortunately, very little information is available on the numbers of children involved, their reactions to these conditions and their special needs. But where such information is available—a great deal more ought to be available—it makes disturbing reading. For example, 485 homeless households placed in bed and breakfast hotels by Camden Council in April 1985 included 274 children living with single parents and 396 children living with two adults or more. No less than 60 per cent. of the children placed in these hotels were aged five years and under.
I conclude with two recommendations, both of them stressed in the report. One is that tenants must always be consulted over design planning, bearing in mind—this has to be faced—that most tenants have little aesthetic sense. It was Sir Hugh Casson who said that as a race, we are "visually illiterate".
The second recommendation, it seems to me, is of vital importance. Here, if I may, I should like to quote from an article in the Observer dated 5th January dealing specifically with housing estates in Manchester, although it applies to the whole country. I quote:What is wrong with all these random estates is that they were planned with no thought for what makes a pleasant environment. There was no idea of the need for overall order, of continuity, of human scale, or of what is meant by character and quality. In short, they were simply run up by teams of people with no sense of aesthetic responsibility whatever".Surely, this is one of the vital points to be stressed in future planning. Such plans must reflect the totality of the concept, with due regard for overall order and, indeed, a measure of beauty, continuity and, above all, the needs of the inhabitants.
§ 8.40 p.m.
Lord Belhaven and Stenton
My Lords, an advantage of taking part in a long debate like this in 753 your Lordships' House is that one learns a very great deal, particularly if one listens to a number of speakers and reads the report upon which the debate is based.
In my view the report is a very good and balanced one and not at all what I expected having read the accounts of it in the press and seen discussions on television. It seems to me that the press and television tend to emphasise the sensational points and do not bring out the report as a whole at all.
It is not necessary to agree with the report's recommendations but I think it is fair to say that it makes a brave effort to cover a very difficult subject and an extremely important one. It also makes an effort to come to terms with the balance between security of tenure and availability of rented accommodation—a matter which has worried me ever since I was a farmer, although I am not one any longer. In this case they have rather neatly passed the buck on to the Government; and of course they are quite right to do this.
At present the balance is too heavily weighted in favour of the tenant. As I know, it is extremely difficult to get rented accommodation, particularly in big cities and in London, at any sort of reasonable rent. This is to a very large extent due to the fact that nobody with his head screwed on would let a house or flat if he ever wanted it back again. To my mind this is a ridiculous situation, I am surprised that nothing has been done about it for all these years particularly when we have had a Conservative Government since 1979.
Another point already dealt with by the noble Lord, Lord Crawshaw—but I should be grateful if my noble friend explained it—is the question of money obtained from sales of council houses and why the councils are prevented from using this money. It seems quite extraordinary to those of us who are not in local government, but I have no doubt that my noble friend will give us a very good reason.
Turning to a general point, we have had in my lifetime one purely beneficial piece of legislation. That is the Clean Air Act. This was brought to my mind on a visit which I made to Poland at the beginning of this month and to the beautiful Polish city of Cracow, which is very heavily polluted by aluminium works nearby. It reminded me of my childhood in the long, dark streets of London and Glasgow, when normally one could not see more than 300 yards. When one travelled in the buses one also saw the respiratory diseases and so on which people had. Nowadays with the Clean Air Acts—I shall not say that that is all wiped out—the improvement is enormous. I do not think that young people realise how enormous it is.
Speaking as a layman on the subject it seems to me that the next thing that ought to be done should be the encouragement at every level of housing of central heating, double glazing and insulation, and to a smaller extent soundproofing. However, the greatest enemy of housing is damp; and central heating, so far as I have seen, is the best cure for that, although not the only one.
Perhaps my noble friend could tell the House what efforts the Government are making to encourage this dry, warm housing and particularly the spread of central heating and insulation. In my view every penny spent on it is well worth while; and it will reduce costs 754 of the National Health Service if it saves nothing else.
My noble friend Lord Coleraine talked about the tax relief on mortgages. Perhaps there could be tax relief on installation of central heating in people's housing. That would be a very good idea. I put central heating into a house about 15 years ago and about two months later my rates went up. This seems to be a rather counterproductive way of dealing with the matter, particularly as I paid for it and not the council.
Finally, on a personal level, I should like to make a plea for common sense and humanity in dealing with some housing problems which I have seen. I know of cases where neither humanity nor common sense has been exercised, as I am sure that most of your Lordships do. I know a lady who was evicted from her flat and made homeless so that her flat could be bought by a society which houses homeless people. That lady is still homeless. The society which bought her flat will not let her have it back. They have very kindly put her at the bottom of their list, having admitted the paradox involved in putting her out—and thereby making her homeless—in order to house a homeless person.
I know of another case where, due to negligence on the part of an insurance agent, a young widow was left with a huge mortgage after her husband's premature death in a motor accident and with hardly any means to pay the interest. She has been hounded quite mercilessly by the building society for 18 months. The building society is now suing her for repossession although the building society knows that the flat is for sale and the widow is negotiating the conveyance with the buyer at this moment. Unfortunately there is too much of this sort of thing going on. For that reason I make no apology for troubling your Lordships with two cases which I know of personally, because I believe that this ought not to happen in a civilised society.
§ 8.48 p.m.
§ Baroness Faithfull
My Lords, every point that I was going to make has already been made, which makes me think that great minds think alike in your Lordships' House. I shall therefore confine myself to just one sentence on four of these points and develop the fifth.
First, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Seebohm, for initiating this debate and congratulate the National Federation of Housing Associations, and Richard Best, upon this very excellent report.
My first point, very briefly, is one which the noble Lord, Lord Crawshaw, made; that money should be spent to the best advantage. I have two examples of interdepartmental non-co-operation. I can think of one authority which built houses where there was no work. I know of an authority at this very moment which is building a factory when it has 7,000 people on its housing list: if they build the factory, where will they put the people coming to work at that factory? I therefore make a plea for interdepartmental co-operation.
My second point is on empty houses. I went to a London borough last week and there were two streets with blocked-up lovely little Victorian, solid houses—three rooms up and two rooms down. I 755 therefore marched into the Town Hall and asked why were they blocked up. They said, "They have been blocked up for 15 years because we are waiting for redevelopment". I cannot imagine why it would not have been possible to put them in minimum order and have licensees in the houses so that those houses could have provided homes for families for 15 years.
Many noble Lords have spoken on the subject of rented accommodation. May I make a plea for the single person? We talk so much about families, and rightly so; but I come from Oxford, where we have students, young teachers and young secretaries quite unable to get any accommodation at all. I wonder whether we should not think very seriously about the single person.
May I take up the point that the noble Viscount, Lord Buckmaster, made on the subject of bed and breakfast? The bed and breakfast scheme is most cruel because it means that people are tipped out after breakfast and wander around the streets all day. I know that in my own authority we have opened a day centre for such families, but this is no way to bring up children. I am grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Buckmaster, for having spoken about the needs of children.
The final point, upon which, with your Lordships' permission, I shall speak a little longer, is that made by the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod. On page 32 of this challenging report I draw your Lordships' attention to the recommendation. I quote:We suspect that the future direction for housing management in local authorities, housing associations, and all other large landlords will be towards decentralisation of decision making and executive action (rent collection and arrears chasing, lettings, repair services).More staff will come into contact with tenants if there are the small offices from the housing department in various areas, as outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Marshall.
I wish to speak on the intractable problem of rent arrears. That subject has recently been much in the news. I would submit that, on the one hand, serious rent arrears betoken poor management and that, on the tenant side, arrears betoken a disregard not only for the landlord but for fellow tenants. Rent arrears are sometimes explained on the grounds of unemployment, and rising costs of living. Those arguments are untenable.
Let us look at the rent arrears figures for 1983–84. I shall quote but a few. I ought to point out that the figures which I shall give are arrears as a percentage of gross rent collectable. For Brent the figure is 35.51 per cent; Haringey, 23.52 per cent; Southwark, 18.48 per cent. and Islington 15.58 per cent. On the other hand, not far away Tower Hamlets has precisely 6.4 per cent. and Newham 8.6 per cent. Why is there this big discrepancy between boroughs in London? In the Greater Manchester area, Bolton has no arrears and Wigan has 1.99 per cent. In Merseyside, St. Helens has 5.52 per cent., and I should point out to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool that Liverpool, despite all its problems, only has 12.62 per cent. Rotherham has no arrears and Durham, where there is very high unemployment, has 0.42 per cent. We must ask ourselves how it is that there are such wide variations.
756 Secondly, the families in receipt of unemployment and/or supplementary benefit are entitled to a housing subsidy. That also includes those who have low wages. I must confess that I am not quite sure about what the report says in this area because I have found the housing subsidy to be very effective. However, if as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark says, there have been difficulties over the housing subsidy, then I would say that it is due to bad management and poor administration rather than just the principle of the housing subsidy.
Thirdly, housing association tenants do not show serious rent arrears. I would therefore submit that where there are high rent arrears there is bad management and that tenants i[...] arrears do not hold to the concept that with the right to rented accommodation comes the duty to pay the rent.
There is a third sector and that is those tenants with personal family problems—drink, drug-taking and just sheer incompetence—which result in non-payment of rent. Eviction is a drastic and expensive solution in terms of human happiness and cash. Part of the solution must surely be in decentralisation of housing departments. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Denington, that there must be tenant involvement in management. I do not think that I would go so far as the noble Baroness over housing co-operatives, but there should be much more of a partnership between the tenants and the landlords.
Realistically, there are some families where eviction is the only sanction. For such families I would submit that there should be a close liaison with voluntary organisations—for example, the family service units and others which I could name. There should also be residential family units such as are run by some local authorities and voluntary organisations. For example, Birmingham Corporation is extremely good in this respect, as is an organisation called ATD. With such a service, families in trouble could be given a supportive and a rehabilitative service.
In dealing with the reduction of rent arrears, dignity, justice and compassion will only be achieved if there is efficiency in management, if there is a local service, if there is tenant participation and where there is partnership with the voluntary organisations.
§ 8.55 p.m.
§ Lord Dean of Beswick
My Lords, first I should like to join with all other previous speakers in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Seebohm, for the opportunity to have this very important debate. I should also like to thank him for the very impartial and informative way in which he has led the debate. I should like to pay tribute to the people who were on the committee chaired by His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, and to thank them for the work which they have done. Having spent a lifetime, in some respects, in the public housing sector, and with a very close interest in it, I can appreciate the detail with which they have looked into the matter, where they have had to go and the questions which they have had to ask. Obviously the areas which would receive most of their attention would be the very high-problem areas. It is a little difficult to follow the line taken by the noble Lord, Lord Seebohm, and to try to keep the debate completely non-political because there are in some 757 respects political decisions to be made along the line regarding the expenditure of public finance and so on.
I am glad that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark put one matter right. I was suffering under a slight misconception regarding the aims of the report. He put the matter in its right perspective when he said that it was to start people thinking about the situation. The report did not propose instant cures, but it wanted a change in attitudes to begin. That is completely relevant to the problem which we are experiencing. There must be changes in attitude.
Going back to the noble Lord, Lord Seebohm, in his speech he referred to the fact that local authority housing finance was a mess, that it was bad and out-dated. That is not the fault of any particular government, be it this Government or any other. We have grown up with it.
Having made those two points, let me say that if we are to begin to deal with the problem, the Minister made it clear that there would be no intention of interfering with mortgage repayment income tax rebates. My noble friend Lady David clearly stated our party's position: we would not be a party to its removal but we would consider some significant adjustments. It is a fact which is coming through from a variety of non-political bodies that there is some urgency about, if not removing it, at least reviewing it to see where the anomalies lie in order to make better use of that which is available.
If there is to be no clawback of finance from income tax rebates on mortgage payments, from where can the money come? Some blame has to be laid at the door of the Government for the situation in which we find ourselves. I took the trouble to contact the AMA to see what the financial support from the Government was when they took over in 1979, and what it was currently. With your Lordships' leave, I shall refer very briefly to the answer which I received from the Association of Municipal Authorities. It said that the difference between a continued level of net local authority housing capital expenditure from 1979–80 to 1985–86, minus the actual equivalent expenditure, is, allowing for inflation, £11.5 billion, which is a tremendous sum.
I know that other sums have been made available by the Government in a variety of ways. In fact the noble Lord, Lord Elton, referred to them in the publication entitled New Land, Old Homes. If we take the items listed together with the £200 million which he mentioned earlier in his speech, which is the sum which has been made available to the local authorities as additional finance, it falls just short of £3 billion. If one deducts that from the sum mentioned by the AMA, that means that £8 billion has been withdrawn from local authorities since 1979. Therein lie the seeds of some of the troubles and the rapid deterioration that we experience today.
That is not the only facet that is affected. At the same time there has been a reduction in rate support grant from 61 per cent. to 46 per cent. That may not be of any consequence to some authorities, but historically a large number of authorities have provided support for the housing revenue account from rate poundage. My breeding ground in housing was as housing chairman in Manchester. We aways provided 758 a penny, tuppenny or threepenny rate towards the housing revenue account to share the burden of our massive slum clearance programme. However, that has been cut now. The rate support grant has been cut and the big cities of the north such as Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool, do not have enough money to spend on maintaining services; so the first thing affected is the repair to or renewals of the fabric of such houses. So that, too, has had an adverse effect.
The Minister will recall that only last week I questioned him on making larger sums of money and more finance available from the £6.5 billion sale of assets that local authorities hold, but are prevented from spending because of the monetary policy of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I believe this is at the rate of 40 per cent., but most is reduced to 20 per cent. which further restricts the councils' own capacity to use that money. Numerous speakers from both sides of the House have supported the philosophy that finance is needed quickly. Housing as it exists now cannot wait for this report to mature. The situation is too urgent to wait for some of the ideal things that are in this report to mature. Action has to be taken now.
Various figures have been mentioned about what is required, from £18 billion in certain quarters to £19 billion in the Government's own report. The sum of £25 billion has been quantified by the AMA, but I am not too sure of that sum as I believe that includes dealing with deck access and industrialised buildings that were built and now require serious attention. We are asking the Government to make an absorbable amount available from that £6 billion. I am not suggesting that it all should be made available because I would question the building industry's capacity to mop it up effectively. All one would achieve would be overheating of the building industry with all the adverse effects, and no one could support that point of view.
I have discussed this with the private big builders and their representatives and organisations. I have discussed it with the people who maintain the public sector, with the local authority building departments, and they said they could put it to pretty good use in absorbable amounts fairly quickly. However, the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, asked what number of jobs could be created by inputs of multiples of billions of pounds. I hope that the Government will heed this.
The report makes out clearly that the deterioration is gathering pace. This is happening not only in the public sector. It is alarming when we are told that 64 per cent. of the housing stock is now owner-occupied, but even that is deteriorating. We must have some action. I do not think it can come from the private sector. It never has before, and as it is so urgent this action must come from the Government.
So many people have spoken on the report. They have put forward so many contributions that I, like the noble Baroness, Lady Faithful], find it difficult to find a new dimension to inject into the debate, but I believe this report will have a tremendous value. I hope that people will read not only the report, but the debate that has taken place, because, irrespective of the political standpoint, it contains a mass of information and points of view from a variety of people, like the people who made the report.
However, I take issue with the noble Lord, Lord 759 Crawshaw, on some of his observations, though I agree with many of them. My recollection of housing is that some of the best housing built in the public sector was built just after the war. Where things started to go wrong was in the late 1950s or, more likely, in the early 1960s when, to try to inflate the building programme of about 300,000 houses, the Government of the day—my own party was guilty at that time—initiated a building programme of industrial housing. Those of us who were involved in housing at the time were bitterly opposed to it. This is what we are left with.
One previous speaker spoke about deck access flats. I can tell your Lordships a little story about when Manchester carried out the biggest continuous slum clearance programme in Europe. It concerned the notorious Moss Side/Hulme area, where a new city was to be built within the city of Manchester to rehouse 30,000 people. It was such a huge programme that our own city architects' department could not handle it. We commissioned two of the most highly regarded architects in the country at the time—a company known as Wilson and Womersley. Hugh Wilson has been responsible for designing some of the postwar universities, and Lewis Womersley made a tremendous name as the city architect in Sheffield with Gleadless Valley. But what did they produce in Manchester? They produced four horseshoe blocks of flats which they had the cheek and the impudence to name after Nash. Those of us who were opposed to the scheme were beaten on the vote.
I will tell your Lordships why we were beaten on the vote—and here again I disagree with Lord Crawshaw. It was not the councillors of the day who were at fault because the subsidy structure was altered, yardsticks were imposed and we had to build within those yardsticks. Councils just could not build the type of accommodation they wanted. They were told that they could build what they wanted as long as it cost so much. Also, schemes that were submitted at one period had to contain 30 per cent. high rise accommodation, or no subsidy was forthcoming. There is no point in blaming councillors because, as I have said, many of us are on record in the big cities as being opposed, but we lost the argument.
Again I must be a little critical of the Government's response. That is because two years ago, after I had raised a debate in another place on the industri-alisation Bill, the first that was raised, they brought in a housing defects Bill, which became an Act. At first, there was included in that one group of houses, where people had bought council houses at very handsome discounts and found that they were then defective. Various measures were brought in. I have not the strictest details but it means this. In the eventual outcome of the houses not being put back in good order—and nobody wants to buy them if they are not in good order, once there is a doubt about them—the local authorities who have already sold such houses at a discount have to buy them back, with all that that means to their own revenue accounts and their rates support grant; and they have no say in the matter.
I should like to say this. If the Government are prepared to help people who have bought council houses at discounts, and then go in for a further refund 760 because they have made a mistake, why are they being so uneven-handed towards people who have still to live in these houses, and local authorities? There is still 90 per cent. of that kind of property in the local authority pool. Why are they not being given the same treatment?
I should like to deal with a couple of other points. As I said, the noble Lord, Lord Seebohm, talked about re-jigging, or having another look at housing finance. I wish to make a special plea for one group of people who are not mentioned in the report, and about whom nobody has spoken. I am talking about the group of people, who, in my opinion, have been more victimised than anybody by this Government through their housing policy. I am talking about the (I think the average national figure is) 35 to 45 per cent. of council house tenants who have had to bear the full brunt of every increase in council house rents imposed by the Government, not by the local authorities. These increases have had to be imposed on the instructions of the Government.
I can tell your Lordships that the percentage increase in council house rents since 1979 is 135 per cent. It is not bad going for a Government who believe in keeping down costs. However, what it means is this—and this is where we have the unfair treatment as against the owner-occupier. Fifty-three per cent. of every council house rent collected is paid out in debt charges. The average council house rent in the country today, before rates are charged, is £15.50. If that council house tenant was paying out that money on purchasing a house, he would attract £8 a week for rebate in tax repayment but, because it is in the public sector, he does not get back a sausage. Such people are actually differentiated against. As I say, I am not blaming this particular Government. It is something that we have grown up with, but it ought to be looked at.
In the same information that I have from the Association of Municipal Authorities, it said:According to the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, … the forecast expenditure by local authorities in 1985/86 on loan charges from the Housing Revenue Account is £3,138m—which is 53% of total [Housing Revenue Account] expenditure".In relation to that sum of money, if they do not give the rebate back to the tenants, if the local authorities were allowed to use the equivalent of discount as if they were paying mortgages, there would be a further £1 billion available to spend on the housing revenue account, whether they wanted to build more houses or to repair them.
Incidentally, the sum of money that I read out first, the difference covering the cut that the local authorities have suffered in housing finance since 1979 I am told is the equivalent of building half a million houses, or building many more houses and carrying out many more repairs, renovations, modernisations and that kind of thing.
I do not wish to speak any longer because I think it is too late in the night. There is no question but that the only possible way of dealing with the situation is as the report makes quite clear. It is the last of quite a few reports, but I have no doubt that it is not the last report that we shall debate here because I think we shall soon be debating the report of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury. However, these reports 761 all started 18 months ago when the Institute for Policy Studies came out with a similar matter. Then there was the RIBA, the Local Government Audit Commission, and even the CBI. Every known organisation, not politically motivated but containing expertise of which we should take notice, came along with the same conclusions as this report.
I think that as a nation we have to grasp this nettle and deal with it; we cannot run away from it for ever. And we know that, in building, a penny spent today saves tuppence tomorrow. I should like to ask the Minister to take back to the Chancellor of the Exchequer this plea from I think all sides of this House: not necessarily to make available some of the Government's own finance immediately, because it looks as though they are going to be in serious trouble; but to let the authorities have access to their own money, to spend how they want in the interests of providing good homes, safe homes and a better society for the people that we represent.
§ 9.15 p.m.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, by your Lordships' leave, if I may speak again, I have spent the last six hours manufacturing replies to points made and discarding them. I have manufactured more than I have discarded but I fear that although I have discarded some answers to noble friends who deserve an answer verbally and I shall have to give it in writing, I may still have more than I can deliver. I will try to deliver the goods nonetheless.
Your Lordships were fortunate to have the opportunity to hear the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark because I believe that he demonstrated far better than could the written word the integrity and concern of the committee whose report we are considering. He also provided an admirable summary of the report itself, of its analysis of the problems, of its search for a solution and its perception of political difficulties that any solution would meet. I take his point that political circumstances change; and that implies, I hasten to add, not necessarily a change of government but of the attitudes of society as a whole.
Therefore, I see the point of flying kites or putting forward proposals that may look out of fashion today but might be more fashionable another day. However, I am a politician and I must reply as a practising politician and a member of the Government. I can only therefore answer for the present, and the answer on mortgage interest tax relief must remain as I have already given it. Showing it as government expenditure would make no difference, I must tell the noble Baroness, Lady David, either to its impact or to our perceptions of it. The cost is justified—and she can read it tomorrow—by its economic and social benefits and it is, I should add, available for housing improvements.
But I have also shown that there is much common ground between us. This, again, I sought to establish in my opening speech. What I found particularly impressive in the speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark was his evident understanding of the practicalities of this problem. He gave a number of examples and I am grateful to him for them. I agree with a great deal though not 762 absolutely all of what he said about the boroughs of Lambeth and Wandsworth and certainly about the management abilities of the two boroughs. The right reverend Prelate is right to say that in a housing authority incompetent but passionate management is every bit as hard to live under as efficient but heartless management.
As he has said, the fact is that some housing authorities have simply ceased to cope and that is reflected in the arrears figures which my noble friend Lady Faithfull quoted in an exceedingly useful speech, if I may say so, and also reflected in the progressive decline in the environment of some estates and the alienation eventually of the tenants. The answer must be in many respects decentralisation. I agree with what has been said on this on all sides of the House and will turn immediately to the noble Baroness, Lady Denington.
Management should have a face and it should be a human and recognisable face, not a piece of paper flapping on a draughty notice board. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Denington, for her recognition of what we are doing to try to achieve this and for her recognition of the work being done by my honourable friend Sir George Young, including work to facilitate the formation of tenant co-operatives which can be an admirable way of giving a householder a proper interest and say in the running of his home.
The noble Baroness asked a little about our proposals. I should say that in the Housing and Planning Bill, at present in another place, the Government are seeking wider powers for local housing authorities to delegate management function to bodies approved by the Secretary of State. I err; it has actually come up the corridor and is sitting somewhere in this Box, I believe, until next week. Apart from seeking to provide powers for the local housing authorities to delegate management functions to bodies approved by the Secretary of State, it is seeking power for the Secretary of State to make grants to bodies taking on housing management functions or—and here we chime in with, I think it is, page 32 of the report—providing education, training or other services related to housing management. That is something which the Committee wanted.
The department will be considering how these powers can be best used to promote tenant co-operatives in the way suggested by the noble Baroness. I ought, however, to utter a word of caution. The Government are not persuaded of the appropriateness of giving a statutory right for tenants to form co-operatives against the wishes of the housing authority, because such bodies can be successful only with the goodwill of the authority and because of the difficulty of defining the precise area that a co-operative should cover if it did have a statutory right.
Many of your Lordships showed a proper and understandable concern about the poor condition of local housing stock and, indeed, some private stock. My noble friend Lord Sandford won the approval of the Opposition—which is sometimes a dangerous thing to do—when he said he wanted us to take value-added tax off improvements to houses. His motives, as always, are impeccable, and even if that had been in doubt it would no longer have remained in doubt 763 when he was joined in the request by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra. But I have to say that I doubt whether such a move would have quite the dramatic impact that they would hope. Value-added tax has only been charged on improvements since the 1984 Budget, and if progress since then is anything to go by we should note that they have actually increased by 2 per cent. since that time. But that does not mean we do not want to encourage refurbishment and improvement.
There is a trend which I think I ought to put before your Lordships. From 1975 to 1979 the number of repair and improvement grants paid by English councils averaged 67,000 a year. Since then the number has risen, and it reached 230,000 in 1984. Again, in the four years 1975 to 1978 councils in England improved an average of 39,000 of their dwellings per year, Between 1980 and 1984 councils improved in average of 72,000 of their houses and flats each year. That may not be anything like sufficient in view of the problem, but the number has increased, and that is a step in the right direction.
May I also say to my noble friend that the report on home improvements—the home improvement Green Paper—is most certainly not on the back-burner, if that is the phrase he used. The Government have received a very large number of responses to the paper, and these are being considered and analysed at the moment—actually, I mean analysed and not considered, because they have to be analysed before simple souls like myself and my colleagues can consider them.
As I said, there is some common ground between the inquiry's report and the proposals that were set out in the Green Paper. We shall consider the points put forward in the report in the light of those comments, and I will ensure that my noble friend's comments on the balance of financial advantage between improvement or refurbishment, on the one hand, and new build, on the other, is taken into account at that stage.
The main concern of the report is of course to consider how to target assistance from public funds on those owners who cannot afford repairs themselves. That will also be of interest to the noble Baroness, Lady David, because it is a question of targeting on people and not on bricks.
My noble friend Lord Elliott of Morpeth pointed out that the bad condition of stock arises very often from the experimental system building of the 1950s and 1960s, to which the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, was good enough to refer. That is too true, my Lords. I am responsible, among other things, for new towns—and they have a lot of it. I am very much aware of the problem; but we are taking steps to prevent a repetition of substandard products. As it happens, I addressed earlier today the Partitioning Industry Association—an important body within the building industry—and I was able to refer to the considerable progress made since our 1982 White Paper on standards and quality. There are now over 100 British Standard Institute kite-mark schemes in the construction field. The British Board of Agrément now has over 600 operative BBA certificates, and there are a number of independent certification schemes, some of them organised by the BSI. There 764 are also encouraging signs that the intractable problems arising from poor design and site procedures are being tackled by the NHBC, the Building Economic Development Committee and the BSI, among others.
These advances do have an impact on the people who live in the houses, and they are not just padding for my winding-up speech, because they are protection for people, if you like, against condensation, cracks and the 2 a.m. screaming of the baby next door.
I was greatly interested by the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady David, and I can agree with her on at least one point—that is, the undesirability of polarisation in society. It is fair to say that until I came to London to live I did not know what the word meant. I was brought up in the country in one village and spent my early working life in another. There was every variety of tenure in them and being somebody's neighbour did not tell you anything at all about his economic circumstances, his relationship with the council or his occupation. It was in London that I first found a place divided up into chunks, with an upper middle-class chunk here, a lower middle class chunk there, a class which thought it was lower middle-class but was upper middle-class there and so on. There were all these invisible divisions between them, and that in itself I regard as a weakness in society.
But the real fault line is the divide that runs between a large council estate and the rest of the community. The noble Lord, Lord Crawshaw of Aintree, put it in a nutshell. He said that we did not build communities, we built estates. The effect of the priority estates plan is to bring management of these estates down from the distant administrative tower and in among the people on the street. That is a start and it works. But it is not the only answer and I would expect the noble Baroness, Lady David, to recognise the virtue of breaking up these awful social and economic monoliths, letting the tenants buy, getting the private sector to renovate, breaking up the uniformity of tenure and destroying the polarity.
I heartily welcome the support of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool for achieving mixed tenure, as being itself one way of starting to salvage a threatened society. He said, with emphasis, that this is something for the nicer estates, and I understand exactly what he meant. But he will also, I am sure, recognise the exciting potential now being realised of getting rid of the hard-to-live-in estates, and indeed the impossible-to-live-in estates, to private developers, who have proved that they can turn them into very agreeable places to live in. It is better—is it not?—than boarding them up even in goodish conditions which, as my noble friend Lady Faithfull has shown, is the tragic alternative.
I repeat what I said in my earlier speech: that we want to bring building societies further into the field of renovation and renewal. I greatly welcome the support which my noble friend Lord Selkirk gave to the fantastic work and the enormous contribution which the building society movement has given. It has contributed to the great silent unviolent revolution of the 20th century and the building societies deserve the credit which he gave them.
The noble Lord, Lord Crawshaw of Aintree, speaks from great experience and therefore speaks also with 765 great authority. But I ask him not to believe, as he appears to believe, that we do not know the difference between a house and a unit. He suggested, first, that we must consult the customer—a very good principle—and surely the best possible way to test the customer is to offer him a property or a service. The private sector already does that in houses to buy, and now, thanks to Conservative laws, the public sector is doing so, too.
With the committee of His Highness the Duke and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool, we also think that the private sector ought to take a bigger hand in the rented market, too. I am glad of their support in this. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Crawshaw of Aintree, that when we look at proposed legislation affecting this sector we shall seek to strike a just balance between the landlord and the tenant. We have, I agree, to lock Rachmanism out of the system, but we must leave sufficient economic freedom to give the landlord an incentive to let; otherwise, there still will not be any property to let.
I cannot promise my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing legislation at the moment, but I can promise concentrated and constructive thought. I remind him and the noble Lord, Lord Pitt, that we have a comprehensive housing benefit system to help people who cannot otherwise afford their housing costs. Yes, it is complicated and, yes, I can tell my noble friend Lord Selkirk that we will simplify it. I refer him to our social security White Paper of last December for the details. But it is paying out £4 billion a year, and that, again, is subsidising people, and not bricks.
I note in passing the brave support of the noble Baroness, Lady David, for capital value based rents, brave not just because it is likely, as the inquiry and the noble Baroness no doubt recognise, to result in higher rents, but also because her party's published policy statement Homes for the Future said:In many areas council rents are now too high and we will ensure through the subsidy system that they can be reduced or frozen".It is pleasant to see other people's difficulties on occasions.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, the policy of the noble Baroness's party, if it is not as she thinks it should be—I am closer to her perhaps then she is to her party, which is a dangerous statement for both of us so I hope I do not make too much of it—seems to be to ignore economic facts just as much as the inquiry did explicitly. The noble Lord, Lord Seebohm, quoting the example of Germany, seemed to me to be much nearer to the mark. With my noble friend Lord Marshall of Leeds, I wonder if even the inquiry has fully appreciated the size of the increase that this change would produce.
The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, asked if we had considered the findings of our own stock condition inquiry when we made our financial calculations. The Government did indeed take account of these findings when they decided that public expenditure provision for local authority housing should be £200 million higher in 1986–87 and in encouraging local authorities to switch resources into renovation. The Government have also put forward in the Green Paper published 766 yesterday proposals for a fundamental revision of the whole system.
I must say that if there is a superfluous sentence in this speech it is that, because your Lordships all know that we put forward a fundamental proposal for the revision of the system for controlling local authority capital expenditure on all services. Even so, the resources of the public sector are unlikely to be sufficient to eliminate this problem in a reasonable timescale. That is why we have to mobilise private sector funds to help in the process. Perhaps I may add that if public expenditure is allowed to rise significantly above planned levels, that would cause increased inflation and the result would be reduced economic growth and fewer jobs.
That really brings me round to the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, who was kind enough to signal the punch twice—
§ Lord Sandford
My Lords, perhaps I may interrupt my noble friend before he goes off on to another tack. On the question of the resources for dealing with the housing stock, it is not that local authorities do not have the resources—we are not being allowed to use them. That is the complaint. Whether we have the resources or not is a question which we have not reached yet because we are not allowed to use the resources that we have.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, my noble friend gave me a breathing space at exactly the turn of the page that brought me to the answer to his question. Whether that is some psychic power or the fact that he was sitting two and a half feet behind my right shoulder when I was writing the note, I do not know.
The purchasing power of the accumulated receipts, to which the noble Lords have both referred, is about £6 billion. If that were released in one tranche it would have a very considerable effect on the public sector borrowing requirement. Noble Lords know the critical inportance of interest rates and inflation for the economy, and they cannot expect Her Majesty's Government to ignore that threat or leave it uncontrolled. The answer is to release the purchasing power gradually. This, I have to repeat—and I have said it before—is what we are already doing at a rate of 20 per cent. per annum. I am not certain that either the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, or indeed the inquiry fully recognised that this 20 per cent. is available not just in Year One but in the subsequent years, year on year, until it is exhausted. So you have 20 per cent. of your sales receipts in the year you sell; you have 20 per cent. of the remainder in the year thereafter together with 20 per cent. of what you sold in that year; in the third year you have 20 per cent. of the third slice of the first year and of the second slice of the second year and of the first slice of the first year. There is an accumulation of money which is known as the cascade effect, for reasons which I hope I have made obvious.
§ Lord Dean of Beswick
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way after that very detailed exposition. He will recall that up until, not last year's Autumn Statement but the Autumn Statement the year before that, local authorities were allowed to use 40 per cent. of their revenue. The figure was then cut to 20 per cent. Is the Minister trying to make out that a cut of 20 per cent. is an increase?
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, I am doing nothing of the sort. I am not talking about amounts; I am talking about modalities. If we wish to talk about amounts then we must consider what we want to do. One can produce an enormous number of houses, possibly from a heated private sector, as the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, warned that we might do, by letting all the money go at once. What would that do to the economy? It would spoil the economy; reduce employment; increase the cost of housing; reduce the number of jobs; increase the cost of unemployment benefit; and reverse the downward spiral of inflation that all our discomforts over the past six years have achieved. That would be a mistake.
It would be very agreeable in the interim, and lovely as a Minister of the Government, to have my senior Ministers telling me, "Spend, spend, spend!". Think of the speeches that I could make, and think of the applause I would get! But then the chickens would come home to roost.
I apologise for the change of metaphor. They would come home to roost in two, three, five or seven years—no doubt after a general election. We have all seen that happen before. It did not happen last time, and that was a very unusual departure in politics. That was because we believe that the long-term benefits to this country are more important than the short-term benefits to a political party. In that, I am speaking the same language as that of the authors of this report, who are looking forward to the life of several Parliaments. I will not be driven off that path by friend or foe.
§ Lord Sandford
My Lords, if I may intervene just once more, my noble friend is putting up an enormous smokescreen to disguise one simple fact. It is that £200 millon is nowhere near enough to deal with the condition of our housing stock. We all know that my noble friend is absolutely hamstrung by the Treasury, but for heaven's sake let us encourage him to do all that he can to do even better.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, the Government are a seamless robe and, except on a few unfortunate occasions, the tensions within it are not revealed.
I will go on, if my noble friend will allow me, and curtailing the rest of my speech, to say that in 1984–85 the basic HIP allocation was £1,850 million; but I will say to my noble friend Lord Elliott of Morpeth, who is interested in this matter, that, thanks largely to the system that I have just been describing, actual expenditure was £3,130 million. So it is not true that the Government have either taken the money into themselves or have denied it to the authorities. Instead, the Government have staged its use.
We have spent long enough on that subject, so I will move on to a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick. If it does not sound too patronising, I should like to congratulate the noble Lord on a very workmanlike speech. If he had made his speech at the beginning of the debate then I would have answered it better, but by the end one is busily writing out answers to all the other speakers. The noble Lord was kind enough to share the blame, and so he will understand 768 that there is nothing unfair in the pot calling the kettle black.
We are talking about reductions in public expenditure, and the noble Lord is beating me around the head—and he has my noble friend elegantly to assist him—for having done it. Cuts have been necessary in the housing programme in order to secure our primary objective of controlling inflation and achieving sustained economic growth. That is another way of saying what I have said already. However, public sector investment in housing fell by only 19 per cent. in real terms between 1979–80 and 1984–85, whereas over the period 1974–75 to 1979–80—and I will not name the brand—it fell by 46 per cent.
There are a number of points to which I have not the time to reply. I apologise, and I will write to noble Lords. In the last moments I should like to say that for me this has been an enormously interesting and instructive debate. It is true to say, I think, that that part of the country which looks at the debate and reads it will find it equally enormously interesting and instructive to Her Majesty's Government.
We do not agree with everything, and we cannot do everything at once. The noble Lord, Lord Crawshaw of Aintree, pointed out that if we did everything in a rush we would be in the same damn muddle again in 20 years' time as we started with. We must get it right.
We are taking our precautions. We recognise the size of the problem. There is no immediate, discrete, complete and final answer to our housing problems. We are in a better shape now to face them than we were before because we have a better perception of what they are. I have a wonderful passage in my notes, which I regret not using, giving all the concrete and constructive things that the Government have done since 1979. It grieves me not to use those examples, but this is not a political debate. There is progress. We do have the problem in our sights. It is very big. We do not have an immediate solution. The committee chaired by the noble Duke, and so ably manned, has given an inestimable service in suggesting some things which will work and some which I regret might not.
§ 9.41 p.m.
§ Lord Seebohm
My Lords, I am glad to be able to say that it is not customary for the proposer of a Motion to make two speeches, and I shall not do so. However, I must thank all the Members of your Lordships' House who have spoken in what became, to my mind, a very important debate—in fact, far better than I thought it would be.
I want only to stress why I believe this housing problem is so important, apart from my many years of interest in housing. For hundreds if not thousands of years the top priority for the creation of wealth, which admittedly is human happiness, has been board and lodging. We seem to have cured the board problem for a long time. There has been enough food, at any rate in the northern part of the world, for a long time. Why not concentrate now on the second priority, which is lodging? I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.
§ Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.