HL Deb 18 June 1986 vol 476 cc860-96

3.8 p.m.

Lord Dean of Beswick rose to call attention to the case for greater public investment in housing and the need to reduce the waiting time for applicants for local authority housing; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. That reads as follows: To call attention to the case for greater public investment in housing and the need to reduce the waiting time for applicants for local authority housing; and to move for Papers. The reason I read that in extenso is because it is my belief that if the first part of the Motion is not put into operation there is no possibility of achieving the objectives of the second part.

I consider it a great privilege to be able to move this Motion. I believe it deals with a subject that is perhaps the most serious that we as a nation face, apart from the major one—the question of unemployment. I believe that housing is a basic service that not only covers the question of housing but has a spin-off effect in other directons. Good housing provides a motivation to a better social order but I and other people believe that it also contributes to better health and to a better start in education. Statistics show quite clearly that where a child does not have the advantage of good housing and perhaps exists in a deprived home, that very often is related to the question of poor education. Those of us who are familiar with the big cities see that all too often.

It was only five months ago, in January, that your Lordships had an extensive debate on housing in the United Kingdom on the Report of the Inquiry into British Housing chaired by the Duke of Edinburgh. The debate on that occasion was introduced in an absolutely first class-manner by the noble Lord, Lord Seebohm, who I see is present in his place today. Noble Lords from all sides of the Chamber contributed to that debate and brought their great expertise to bear on the subject. I said at the time that I thought that the debate had to take place in conjunction with the report. It was a first class exercise enabling us to discuss what was happening.

I am a little sad that, so far as I can see, no Government Back-Bencher's name is on the list of speakers for this debate. I know that there are quite a number of Government Back-Bench supporters who are as interested in housing as any of us on any side of the Chamber or of any political party.

This debate must be something of a re-run because the situation of housing in this country has been discussed in the not too distant past. There has been a series of non-political bodies with expertise in this subject which have given us the benefit of their experience as to what is taking place at present. I shall give your Lordships a list of those people who have declared what is happening in this particular field. The series started in autumn 1984 with a report by NEDO on behalf of Neddy. That was the first major report that indicted the serious situation which was developing as regards housing. It was followed by reports by RIBA, the Federation of Civil Engineering, the National Home Improvement Council, the AMA, the Institute of Housing, and finally the CBI and the TUC became involved. However, the most profound report which has been debated to date is the one to which I have already referred; namely, the Duke of Edinburgh's report on the problem. Since then there has been published the report entitled Faith in the Cities which we have not yet debated. It is the report of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, and I understand that arrangements are trying to be made to enable us to debate that report perhaps in the overspill of this particular Session. I look forward to that occasion when we can once again go over old ground.

During this debate some of us may wander from the strict disciplines of the Motion on the Order Paper, and that is because we cannot isolate any particular facet of housing without affecting the others involved. All of the reports which I have mentioned come to the same conclusion; namely, that massive amounts of money ranging from £18 billion to £35 billion (if we include the private sector owner-occupiers) need to be made available over a long period to deal with the problem. It is no good the Government or anyone else standing back and assuming that there are other huge sums of money that will come into housing from the private sector. If private sector money is to be attracted, it can only be so attracted if there is public money acting as a catalyst and attracting it.

Let us consider the Government's answer so far to the problem. Figures were produced during the debate in January showing that, even allowing for some additional schemes initiated by the Government, on balance local authorities had lost, because of Government action, £8 billion from their housing programmes since 1979. That factor, coupled with the reduction of the rate support grant from, I think, 61 per cent. to 46 per cent. over the same period, is the main cause of the deterioration which is taking place in the public sector stock. I and other noble Lords from various sides of the Chamber, including Government supporters, have questioned the Government as to why they continually refuse to make available the £6 billion of assets upon which the Government placed a moratorium, although they are allowing the local authorities to use 20 per cent. of the interest to deal with their housing problems.

It is a fact of life that when the original Bill dealing with the compulsory sale of council houses went through, its main premise was that it would release or make funds available for local authorities. I have with me figures relating to one of our major cities which show the treatment which the Government have meted out over the past 12 months to deal with the situation. Last year Manchester asked for £96 million to deal with its housing problem. It received £36 million. This year it asked for £108 million, and received £26 million. That is an indication of the seriousness with which the Government view the present problem with which we are dealing. While all that is going on, I point out that all the known figures relating to people asking for local authority accommodation continue to escalate.

I read in the Sunday Times at the weekend that the Minister of Housing, John Patten, was horrified that about 120,000 council tenancies were empty. I think that the correct figure is 113,000. I would not for one moment excuse tenancies in the public sector being kept empty because of poor administration and organisation by housing departments. However, if the local authorities had been granted the resources to get on with their job, I honestly believe that the figure would be considerably lower than it is at present.

Let us compare the 113,000 with the other sectors of housing. If we take the 113,000 as a percentage of the housing stock of the public authorities, it represents 2.3 per cent. of their total stock. At present there are 16,000 housing association properties empty, which represents 3.8 per cent. of their stock. There are 541,000 owner-occupier properties empty in the private sector, which represents 4.2 per cent. of the stock. I do not have the figures for Government departments, but I am assured that, in percentage terms, 6.9 per cent. of housing accommodation under their control is empty. Therefore, it is about time that the Government found another wicket on which to bat.

Every conceivable piece of information on housing indicates that demand is on the increase. In 1979, the known and identifiable waiting list. for housing accommodation was about 1 million; it is now 1.2 million. Over the past few weeks I have persistently put questions to the Minister regarding the escalation of other figures in respect of handicapped people, people in wheel-chairs, homeless people and concerning sheltered accommodation. I do not want to repeat the figures because there is not time, but there has been a tremendous increase in demand for public sector housing. I must tell your Lordships that the figure will not decrease unless the Government decide to make the resources available.

In the few minutes remaining, I think that I am entitled to ask the Minister to comment on the statement made over the weekend by the Minister for Information Technology, Mr. Geoffrey Pattie. He made the most outrageous and scandalous attack on council house tenants that I have ever known. It was absolutely outrageous.

I now turn to some of the points made by the right honourable Nicholas Ridley at the Institute of Housing last week in his first major housing speech since his appointment. He said—and I have to quote quickly— Although there is some disrepair in all sectors, owner-occupiers are on the whole well satisfied with the quality of their housing". I have figures from reliable sources which show that £26 billion would be needed to put the owner-occupation sector in reasonable order.

Mr. Ridley also referred to municipal tenants and said that this Government had as paramount in their thinking on the question of municipal tenants that the views of the tenants should absolutely stand supreme. Does this mean that the new Secretary of State—and he is the fifth or sixth we have had in this Government; Secretary of State for the Environment is a very hot seat in this Government—will withdraw from the Housing Bill shortly to be discussed by your Lordships the disgraceful proposals which will allow a local authority to sell off municipal houses over the heads of the tenants, whether they like it or not? In other words, that would destroy any security of tenure that municipal tenants have historically enjoyed. When that Bill comes before the House we, with I hope the support of Members of all parties in the Chamber, will try to prevent such a disgraceful suggestion going ahead.

I have to finish shortly because I have only 15 minutes. Not only the housing section but also the building section of the community, starting with the Building Employers' Confederation, and including the National Federation of Building Employers, the Federation of Civil Engineers, the Institute of Maintenance and Municipal Building Management, are all ready to play their part. I am not suggesting for one moment that it would be possible to release huge sums of money and absorb them immediately, but surely a start must be made. The figures that I have quoted make it clear that had the Government not imposed those financial cuts, we would have had another half a million council houses available today for letting to people.

The purpose of my Motion today is to try to bring some light to bear on the most difficult social problem that we face as a nation. I was saddened and disappointed by the Minister's reply on the last occasion we debated housing in January. If the Government are not more sympathetic to the overtures and pleas that are being made to do something about this situation, I can only conclude that they place the god of tax reductions above the well-being of our people as a nation. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.23 p.m.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, we are indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, for introducing this Motion for debate today. It is not the first time that we have directed our attention to the housing problem of the nation. It will certainly not be the last time because, as the noble Lord has rightly said, this is one of the most important social and economic problems that we face. The evidence, as he has pointed out, is overwhelming that the state of British housing is rapidly deteriorating.

I should like to quote from only three important reports in recent times which indicate the size of the problem. The 1981 English House Condition Survey, which is the latest one we have had—the next one is not yet available—indicated that the cost of putting right defects in the housing stock was then estimated at some £30 billion. That estimate was recently reviewed by the Select Committee on the Environment in another place, and they considered that that figure, in current terms, would now be £40 billion.

Secondly, the Department of the Environment's own recent inquiry into the state of housing in the public sector pointed out that 3.8 million out of the 4.6 million houses in public ownership required attention, at a cost estimated at £19 billion, or £5,000 per dwelling requiring improvement. Then the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, in regard to London estimated that one in five of the houses in London, amounting to 500,000 dwellings, required essential improvement, the cost averaging £5,000 per home. This is overwhelming evidence that the state of housing in Britiain is deteriorating, and I do not believe that this is at all consistent with our position as one of the leading developed countries in the world.

The Environment Select Committee in their last report made the comment, with which I am sure we would all agree, that neglected maintenance is not merely maintenance postponed, but gives rise to the need for even more maintenance later. We all know this from experience in our own homes. The Select Committee went on to say that some property, particularly in the public sector, could be approaching the point where replacement was the only possibility. In other words, maintenance and repair have been so long neglected that the whole house had to be replaced.

Many of your Lordships will no doubt have read a leading article in the Sunday Times last Sunday on the whole question of housing policy. Reviewing the housing policy of the Government, the article stated that "new building has slumped, the existing housing stock is becoming increasingly dilapidated, and homelessness is on the rise". It concluded: The Government's housing policy is in tatters". This is a sad, but I believe reasonably objective, reflection on the state of housing in Britain. We are today far from the objective that the Government stated in their manifesto in 1983 when they said: Our goal is to make Britain the best housed country in Europe". When we now compare ourselves with our Community neighbours we find that their expenditure on housing in the period since then has been greater than the expenditure that we have allocated in proportionate terms to our own housing.

It seems that the Government, in their housing policy, have been unduly concerned with changing the ownership of houses—and I think that the majority of us in this country believe that people should own their own homes—but they have been far too little concerned with the adequacy and physical condition of houses. It is that balance that I suggest now urgently needs to be put right, and I should therefore like to make a few suggestions as to how that might be done.

I believe that there are three clear courses that the Government could now take to correct the balance. The fact of the matter is that there is now what might be termed a house maintenance bulge in Britain. The lack of maintenance in housing is now increasing, and the amount of expenditure on maintenance, in both the public and private sectors, is not keeping pace with increased requirements. This is what has to be put right before the fabric of a house falls into such a state that the whole house has to be replaced.

How do we deal with this? There are three ways in which the Government, if they were to act vigorously and with determination, could begin to correct this problem. First, we know about the moneys that have been obtained from the sale of council houses and the Government's restriction on the use of those moneys for the purpose of maintaining, repairing and building houses. A sum of £6 billion is now available for this purpose and has to be held in reserve because of fears about the possible inflationary impact. But our inflation is now falling. The Government have taken great credit for the low level of inflation in Britain today. Is this not the time when we should be releasing more of these resources to get such an essential part of our social structure as housing right? This needs seriously to be looked at again. The inflationary argument no longer stands.

Secondly, there is a need to increase home improvement grants. I have a special interest in this because I am president of the National Home Improvement Council and I follow these things with great interest. At an earlier date the Government encouraged home improvement, and the discretionary grants under this heading were over £600 million in 1984–85. The trouble is, however, that the Government then had second thoughts and the grants under this heading that were made available in 1985–86 fell to £350 million. At the very time when the need was there to increase the efforts on maintenance the discretionary grants were nearly halved. The companies which were gearing themselves up to produce the tiles, the bricks and other equipment for this purpose were stopped in their tracks. The construction industry, the local authorities and indeed the home owners and occupiers, having got geared up to a certain momentum of home improvement, found that momentum halved. That does not seem to me to be sensible in the light of all the evidence that has been accumulated about the need for improving the housing stock of Britain.

Thirdly, the Chancellor recently introduced VAT on improvement and repairs carried out by registered builders. This has been a further discouragement to home improvements. It has been a further encouragement to people who are not acting as registered builders and therefore it has led to a degree of shoddy work. What we need to do is to encourage people who strictly keep to the law, who want to be registered, who undertake work in accordance with agreed conditions and precepts and who had been held back by this imposition. When one looks at the overwhelming evidence on the one hand, and when one considers the actions of the Government on the other hand, it does not seem to me that the two go together. The actions taken by Government have indeed diminished the efforts to improve the housing stock of Britain.

So what I believe your Lordships should like to hear today from the Minister when he replies to the debate is, first, that the Government take very seriously the deteriorating condition of the housing stock of Britain, and secondly that they intend as quickly as possible to take the necessary measures to deal with the problem.

3.35 p.m.

Lord Pitt of Hampstead

My Lords, I should like to thank my noble friend Lord Dean of Beswick for giving us the opportunity to debate this Motion. Building, repairing, and improving the nation's homes is one of the most important economic responsibiliites which pass from generation to generation. Through building we create jobs and preserve valuable skills and technologies. Through building we create the homes which our children and our children's children will live in and make their own. Neglect of this task creates a social burden of homelessness and poor housing and also an economic burden of a back-log of repairs and a shrunken construction industry. That is obvious; it is known to everyone; yet over the past 10 years public sector investment in housing has been a major target for cuts in public expenditure. I presume that the idea was that the private sector was to expand to fill the gap. But this has not happened. In 1985 total construction industry housing output was only 90 per cent. of its 1976 value.

But this is a much more serious development than it seems at first sight. Housing investment is needed to provide new homes to allow for the growing number of separate households and to replace older properties which are worn out and should be demolished. But in addition existing homes must be repaired and improved to make good deterioration due to age or defect and to bring older properties up to modern standards. All these things have to be done at the same time.

The Department of the Environment statistics put the number of new households being formed at around 200,000 a year. Yet the number of new homes being started in both the private and public sectors has exceeded that figure only once in the last six years—even though the number of households is increasing by the figure I have mentioned. We have not built more than that except in one year in the last six. In fact, in 1980 and in 1981 new house starts barely exceeded 150,000. The figure of 200,000 does not take account of the need to build new homes for those households currently living in overcrowded conditions or in properties which are unfit for human habitation or are in a poor state of repair. So there has to be an addition to that 200,000.

Calculations arrived at in outlining a building programme designed to take account of these needs were last made in 1977 for the Labour Government's housing policy Green Paper. Subsequent studies have suggested that the forecasts in that Green Paper were basically well founded. The Green Paper forecast a need for 300,000 new homes a year between 1976 and 1986. Of those houses it was suggested that 180,000 would be built by private builders to meet the demand for owner-occupation, while 120,000 a year would be built by public bodies for those who needed to rent.

The last year in which 300,000 homes were started was 1976. Since then the overall level of starts has been less than two-thirds of that needed; in other words (I am almost repeating myself) it has been less than the 200,000 we need to meet the new households that are being created. That shortfall has been greatest in the public sector where, since 1980, starts have averaged half the level required. In other words, instead of the 120,000 that the Green Paper estimated would be built in the public sector, we have averaged 60,000,—in fact more often a lot less than that.

Overall, the country has built nearly 550,000 fewer homes over the 1976–86 period than the Green Paper said were needed. The shortfall is about 100,000 in the private sector and about 450,000 in the public sector. This explains the lengthy waiting lists about which my noble friend spoke. It also explains the rising homelessness.

In 1985 the number of households accepted by local authorities as homeless exceeded 100,000 for the first time ever. A large proportion of these people are housed in unsuitable bed and breakfast accommodation. The conditions in much bed and breakfast accommodation are a direct risk to the health of the occupants. Severe overcrowding, infestations by cockroaches, mice and rats, inadequate sanitary facilities and fire hazards are common. Infections causing diarrhoea are frequently reported by GPs working in areas which contain a high proportion of the hotel homeless. There is also evidence of malnutrition and of children living in these conditions being underdeveloped because of lack of food. Added to that, of course, are the obvious mental health problems affecting both parents and children.

There is an urgent need for investment in new housing, particularly in the public sector. The Government are making a real attack at the moment on drug abuse, but seem never to have connected drug abuse with homelessness. I can tell your Lordships from my experience that the area close to my practice known as Tolmers Square was squatted in and most of the squatters registered with me. After a while I realised—my noble friend Lord Stallard knows all about it; he is laughing—that I had a large number of drug addicts on my books and I endeavoured to treat them. I never run away from problems; I never run away from challenges. One of the things I discovered was this: you can often get a drug addict to the stage where he will give up, but in order for him to do that he has to get away from his environment, his friends and associations, because the society in which he lives is a society of drug taking. Therefore, you have to get him away. I found that often I could not get the addicts away because there were no homes for them to go to, and the only homes they had were those associated with drug taking.

There is a real need for some attention to be given to this housing problem. The need for greater investment in repair and improvement work is equally clear. The last English housing condition survey carried out in 1981 found that 900,000 homes leaked—I am sorry, I am misreading my writing; I should have said that they lacked one or more basic amenities. It is probably right that they leaked, but that is not what I had written in my notes. As I say, they lacked one or more basic amenities, and at one point 1 million were unfit for human habitation while over 4 million, or nearly one quarter of the housing stock, needed repairs costing £2,500 in each case.

Some of the people who suffer most are the elderly. As your Lordships know, I am chairman of Shelter, and we have a lot of problems helping elderly people who own properties that they cannot possibly maintain. This is where I am always having to draw swords with the Government. The Government have this one-vision, a tunnel-vision, approach to housing, and they want owner occupation, but that requires a willingness to support the owner occupiers when they reach the stage that they cannot repair their houses. The Government must take that on board. Unless they do so, many people will be placed in grave difficulties and their homes will be not pleasant places but very unpleasant places in which to live.

Added to that, there are the increasing number of local authority dwellings built in the last 40 years using non-traditional repair methods which are now developing faults. There are several estimates—your Lordships have heard them already—of the cost of the backlog of repairs, ranging between £18 million and £35 million, but whatever the figure, the problem is huge, and it will not go away.

There must be a programme of increased house building—new homes—and of repair and improvement of existing houses. We want both. Shelter has suggested a modest programme for increased public sector investment in housing. We have suggested a public sector new housebuilding programme of 100,000 units a year, which is 40,000 more than we have had on average during the last six years, but in effect is about 70,000 more than we are building now. There is also required repair and improvement spending on public sector housing aimed at reducing the backlog of disrepair by a £1,000 million to £1,500 million a year. There should also be increased public support for private sector improvement spending—the sort of thing I was talking about just now—to restore it to its 1983–84 level because, as I have already pointed out, the Government were moving in the right direction on that one. There again, they have faltered; there were 320,000 houses repaired in 1984, but the figure fell to 195,000 in 1985. We want that to be restored.

This is a modest programme. In fact, I can assure your Lordships that most of my friends think it is much too modest. But it is a programme which in four years will enable us to arrive at the housing investment we had in 1976. I think it is very modest and we cannot ask for anything more reasonable. Remember, my Lords, that building houses also provides jobs. Let us do it.

3.48 p.m.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, I too should like to add my congratulations to my noble friend Lord Dean of Beswick for giving us yet another opportunity to discuss the problems of housing and housing investment.

While it is always a great pleasure for me to follow my noble friend Lord Pitt of Hampstead, I do not know if I shall be able to match his eloquence or his expertise because I know of his long experience in trying to deal with the problems of bad housing in the area in which he has spent most of his practising life, and I respect him all the more for that.

A recent survey conducted by a MORI poll puts housing at the top of the correspondence list of Members of the other place. The correspondence received by Members in another place on housing far exceeds that on any other subject, and, as any former member of the other place will tell you, that has been the situation for many years past under different governments. But in the past governments have accepted responsibility for public housing, and although there have always been arguments about the extent of responsibility and amount of responsibility, there has been some kind of broad consensus about the Government's role and the need for a government role. The present crisis, as has been said, is well documented. We have had reports from the Duke of Edinburgh's inquiry, from the Church of England's Faith in the City, from SHAC in their excellent booklet on capital decay, from the Association of Municipal Authorities, the Audit Commission, the Campaign to End Bedsit Squalor, from Shelter's numerous reports, from the Labour Party documents, expertly researched documents, I may say, and from many other bodies. Whereas housing had come to be regarded as a major government priority, since 1979 this Government's attitude and approach have changed. The main thrust of this Government's policy towards housing now seems to be mainly directed towards seeking ways to offload the responsibility, to shun the responsibility, not in an attempt to get better housing or to improve the situation but in yet another cost-cutting exercise. I think that was clearly demonstrated in the examples given by my noble friend Lord Dean.

It would appear from that, that the Government have abandoned any pretence of a housing policy or strategy and recent statements again seem to underline this view. There are not many statements about the size of the problem coming from the Government, from Ministers or spokesmen or about the seriousness of the situation, or about any recommendations to deal with it. There is not even this spate of panic legislation which we have had in other areas such as social security to deal with immediate problems. There are problems far deeper than many of the social security problems that we have dealt with in the panic legislation to which I have referred. They have abandoned any pretence of involvement in public-sector housing. This means, so far as we are concerned, that after the election of a Labour Government at the next election, the new government will face a formidable task if first of all, they are going to try to retrieve the situation, before they can go on to improve it.

I have listed four major areas that they will have to deal with. First, there is the collapse of the house building programmes themselves. In 1981, house building (public and private) fell to its lowest level since the 1920s. Since then, public-sector house building has remained almost unchanged while the private sector which had shown only a modest recovery is not making much progress and is in fact now falling. Public house building has been slashed: less than 40,000 new council houses were started in the 1984–85 period; that is 65 per cent. down on 1968 and 80 per cent. down on 1975. As my noble friend Lord Pitt says, the present Government seem to be inferring that the private sector can make up this fall but house builders have said quite clearly that it cannot do so. Taking public and private house building together, the number of homes started under the Tories are almost 40 per cent. below the number started under the previous Labour Government.

The second major element that will have to be picked up is the poor quality of our housing stock at the moment. Facing the next government will be a huge problem of poor-quality housing; and the worst of this poor-quality housing is in the private sector. This would seem at least partly to answer part of the speech made by a Government Minister, referred to by my noble friend Lord Dean and reported in yesterday's issue of The Times, headed, "Pattie put his case for No. 10". It reads: Mr Geoffrey Pattie, a leading contender for promotion to the Cabinet, last night appeared to put himself forward as a right-wing candidate to succeed Mrs Margaret Thatcher when she eventually steps down as leader of the Conservative Party". It goes on: He condemned demands for extra government spending by colleagues as 'electoral bribery' … and claimed that council housing bred slums, delinquency, vandalism, waste, arrears and social polarisation. Put in that context, none of us has any doubt about what he was saying. He was blaming the people who live in those places for their conditions; but he had nothing to say about the private sector or about any possible solutions.

Let me say that nearly half the unfit homes in the country are owner occupied in the private sector. These figures reflect the fact that nearly one-third of today's homes were built before 1919 and are rapidly deteriorating. 1¼ million homes in England and Wales are unfit for human habitation; 1 million homes in England and Wales lack one or more of the basic amenities; 2½ million homes in the United Kingdom are seriously affected by damp; 3 million homes require repairs costing more than £2,500; and 1½ million homes have serious design defects. The estimate for putting those defects right has been mentioned by previous speakers.

The third aspect that I want to mention is the defects in the design of system building. As a Member of the Opposition who participated in a recent Bill on housing defects, I was privy to a whole batch of documents outlining that programme. We have no time to go into that now, but certainly the Association of Metropolitan Authorities estimate that it will take £5,000 million to remedy system-built design and construction defects in tower blocks and in other high density areas built in the 1960s and 1970s. Some of these, we know, passed into private ownership in good faith. Unlike that Bill and unlike the approach of this present Government, it will not be the intention of a future Labour Government to differentiate between tenants and owners who are trapped in that defective housing. We will treat the problem as seriously as it deserves.

The fourth problem is that of the backlog, again mentioned by my noble friend Lord Pitt. The AMA have stated that this backlog has accrued mainly as the result of cuts in the budget on housing expenditure by the present Administration. They have estimated there is a present shortage of 1 million dwellings. There are now about 1¼ million households registered on the local authority housing waiting lists. There are 83,000 households accepted as homeless compared to 57,000 in 1979; and many homeless people—and we know there are thousands of homeless people especially single homeless people—do not even get counted and do not emerge in the statistics anywhere. Because of this concealment, the known figure of 500,000 overcrowded households may seriously underestimate the real number of householders searching for suitable accommodation. As well as this, we know that by the year 2001 there will be another 2.3 million extra households.

I want to spend my last couple of minutes on two areas of particular interest to me. First, the single homeless. I have just mentioned a few statistics. I cannot apologise for mentioning statistics because they are important in this kind of debate. A government survey shows that over a million people face fire risks and overcrowding because of the conditions of these houses. There are 334,000 multiple-occupied properties in England and Wales and 2 million people live in them. At least, 53 per cent. of those properties are substandard. These are all in the private sector and not, as Mr. Pattie would have us believe, only in council and public sector housing. Some 127,000 houses lack satisfactory means of escape from fire; 110,000 houses need major repairs; 96,000 houses lack proper amenities; 77,000 houses are unsatisfactorily managed and 53,000 houses are overcrowded or over-occupied, according to the Government's own survey. That is no mean problem. And we could probably add a great deal to that because, if their previous record in other fields is to be followed, I imagine that they would automatically doctor the figures.

The other aspect I mentioned, which was touched on, was the question of housing for the elderly. We know that expenditure on public-sector housing is now less than half what it was in 1978–79. The cuts that have been made have had a serious effect on the elderly, and that situation, if left, can only deteriorate. If the housing of elderly people is left static so that nothing is done to cure some of the problems which have been outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Pitt, the situation will get worse and cost much more to put right. So we have to face the fact that there are now 10 million elderly people in Great Britain, and by the year 2000 the number of people aged 75 and over will have increased by almost 1 million. The housing needs of elderly people, either to remain in their existing home for as long as they wish (for which appropriate repair work will be needed) or to move to more convenient accommodation, often to be nearer their families, create many problems.

I could go on about the plight of the elderly but I hope that other speakers may also touch on it because it is a problem that affects every area in the country—the problem of elderly owner-occupiers trapped in a house which is far too big for them and unable to qualify for the necessary points to move because they may wish to move to an area, to be near their family, which is outside the area in which they live. There are many other attendant problems, and altogether these represent a tremendously difficult situation that will face the next administration.

I have mentioned the fact that the next Labour Government will have to tackle this problem. Our Motion calls for greater public investment in housing; and in documentation from the Labour Party headquarters the party is firmly committed to accepting the responsibilities in the field of public expenditure because we recognise that poor housing is in fact a false economy. It throws extra burdens on health and social services; it contributes to immobility in the labour market and to greater economic decline. What is needed is a major programme to repair and improve old homes and build new ones. We also know that, pound for pound, house building and construction creates more jobs than any other government spending and it creates little direct strain on our balance of payments. There are 400,000 construction workers on the dole, a recession in the construction materials industry and a massive shortage of decent homes. The arithmetic of those figures ought to be apparent to everybody.

It is a prudent investment. We need good quality housing stock for many years to come. We simply cannot afford to let housing deteriorate at the present rate. Repairs, improvements and replacements, if done now, will safeguard the future of our housing stock and certainly—I can speak only for the next Labour Government—we shall work with tenants, with local authorities and housing associations to develop a strategy that will begin to solve the crisis that has been created and worsened by Conservative administrations since 1979.

4.3 p.m.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, the topic that my noble friend Lord Dean has put before us this afternoon is clearly a vital one. That has been proved, I think, by the speeches that have already been made—speeches which have contained statistics and statements which have proved that the Government's housing policy is in very serious disarray.

I should like to confine my few remarks to only one area and one category of people who are caught up in our housing situation through having no home at all. I should like to speak only about the homeless; about who they are, how many of them there are and what can be done to rectify their situation. There are, it is thought, no fewer than 100,000 households—I know that the statistics we use are put forward in good faith but sometimes they vary slightly as between different speakers—who are accepted as homeless, in terms of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act. As my noble friend Lord Stallard said, it is felt by those who work in the field of housing that the true figure, including the categories of people whom local authorities are not under an obligation to house—all those people who do not approach the local authorities—might well be three times that number. Also, there is no doubt that the figure is rising.

The reasons that a growing number of people are being squeezed right out of the housing market are various, and I should like to give your Lordships a few of them. First, while the right to buy has enormously grown, the right to rent has enormously declined, both in the private and the public sectors. It now seems absolutely inconceivable that in 1914 the privately-rented sector's share of the housing stock was as high as 90 per cent. Much of that may have been imperfect accommodation but nevertheless it provided an option for those people on waiting lists for council accommodation. Today that option has almost disappeared, with only 10 per cent. of the housing stock remaining in the privately-rented sector and with the publicly-rented sector standing at about only 30 per cent. That can only mean that the balance between home ownership and private and public rented housing has been completely lost, with the result that a growing number of people are without homes and on the waiting lists.

Surely it is true to say that the whole concept of a waiting list is itself becoming an anachronism because it implies that there is somewhere to wait. But, as I have said, the waiting room which used to be provided by the private landlords has disappeared and there is a virtual disappearance of new lettings, so that the only option left to those people on the waiting lists is to live with relations or friends or to enter the network of hostels and bed and breakfast lodginghouses.

My noble friend Lord Pitt has given some very vivid examples of the effects on the health of those people who are living in this accommodation. May I also remind your Lordships that as there is no rent control, no security of tenure and no controls over standards, the owners of those commercial establishments are able to make vast profits at public expense by letting squalid, overcrowded and often unsafe accommodation to homeless people. I have visited some families living in these conditions, and it is impossible to overstate the problems of living and bringing up children in such a setting. I have seen small, inadequate and appallingly decorated rooms, with the family eating their takeaway meal sitting on the bed—a takeaway meal because the cooking facilities in these bed and breakfast establishments are almost nil, and they sit on the bed because there is nowhere else to sit.

I have also heard so often that children who are cooped up in these very restricted areas, with their education very often disrupted through moving and having lost their friends and homes, are showing serious signs (as my noble friend Lord Pitt said) of withdrawal and of disruptive behaviour. In addition, their physical health can be affected. It must also be remembered that the people who end up in these miserable places are often the most vulnerable people in our society: the single-parent family, often a very young mother and often unmarried, with small dependent children. What sort of grown-ups will those small children grow up to be?

Then there is the mother who, with her children, has left her home because of domestic violence. Others may be patients coming out of hospital with nowhere to go or young people who have left home either because they have to or because they wish to do so, and young people who have been in institutions or in care, because they have nowhere to go. The last category of people who often end up in this kind of accommodation are of course ex-offenders who, when discharged from prison, have nowhere to go. I know from experience through my work with the New Bridge that rehabilitation is the major problem. But if there is accommodation for an ex-offender the risk of that ex-offender re-offending is very much diminished. That very often is the reason for their re-offending: they have nowhere to go.

It really boils down to the fact that, at an exorbitant price to local authorities, the most deprived and vulnerable sections of our community are kept in these miserable conditions. The irony, as has already been said, is that it would be not only better but much cheaper to allow those local councils and housing associations to provide proper self-contained flats than to pay the cost of board and lodging to commercial landlords. However, far from allowing that, the Government's response has been to bring in the new limits which will force people into still more substandard temporary accommodation or, literally, put some of them out onto the streets. Another reason for homelessness, which the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, has given, is the very large number of houses standing empty in need of repairs and, as he said, the majority of those houses are from the private sector.

So may I put forward two suggestions as to how this situation, which presents so many homeless people, could be slightly remedied? First, the balance of public investment must surely be redistributed, giving a higher priority to investment in public housing, both for building and for repairs, and less to subsidies for mortgage tax relief, exemption of owner-occupied housing from capital gains tax and discounts to council house tenants buying their homes with these bribes, as one would see them. It has now come out that so many of those owner-occupiers are unable to look after and maintain their own houses. This point has been very clearly made this afternoon. So this redistribution is surely the only way to bring about a reality of choice between the right to buy and the right to rent.

We on these Benches have often been blamed for not respecting that right to own, but we respect it so long as there is also a right to rent and sufficient building to provide an option for those people who will never be able to own and buy their own houses. Public investment in housing has continued to decline and, at the same time, the number of unemployed building workers increases. This point has again been made several times this afternoon.

My final point is that surely the way towards a good housing policy is not through a centralist approach but from a local base. Surely a housing policy constructed from the bottom upwards must mean that housing plans and priorities are set locally, based on full discussions with those in unsatisfactory housing and those without a proper home. If local authorities were under a statutory obligation to prepare annually a comprehensive assessment of housing needs and demands in their area, to discuss this with local people and to publish their report and plans, that would definitely provide an essential framework for local housing programmes and would also lead the way towards removing the terrible scourge of homelessness of which I have spoken this afternoon.

There is always a danger that this unfortunate group of people who are homeless will become a forgotten community. That is one of the reasons why we are extremely grateful to my noble friend Lord Dean for bringing forward this subject this afternoon, so that some of us can speak about that group of people who, through no possible fault of their own, are without a home and are therefore unable to live with the dignity which a home provides.

4.14 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Manchester

My Lords, some 45 years ago Archbishop William Temple wrote in a book entitled Christianity and the Social Order some significant words about housing. He said: A society committed to the family would see that there were houses available for all citizens within their means, in which a family could be brought up in health and happiness in the unity of family life and in the decency and dignity proper to human beings who are the children of God. All these many years later, we have been given another opportunity to air in this House the problems of housing and I for one am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, for introducing this subject in the way that he has.

However, it is sad and depressing that we have to come back, again and again, to this terrible crisis in housing and find that, far from progress having been made, things seem to be getting worse and worse. Sometimes it is alleged that the British people are among the best housed in the world. This may be true for approximately 70 per cent. of them. It certainly includes people like your Lordships and myself. I live in a tied cottage—not a palace, I hasten to say (those days are disappearing for the Bishops)—but a tied cottage adequately maintained by the commissioners.

This is not a personal and pressing problem for me and I suspect, if we are honest, we have to admit that this is so for all of us here in the House this afternoon. Yet we know perfectly well from what we are reading, from the reports which have been mentioned, from the news media and from articles in the press that this is a terrible, pressing and urgent problem which is very damaging for many people who are our fellow citizens in our country today.

I believe that one reason that it has been so difficult to get on top of the housing problem is precisely because it is a problem which affects a minority of British people. If you think back to some of the documentaries which have been produced, such as that television documentary "Cathy come Home", a good many years ago now, they had a tremendous effect, but it was not a lasting effect, and surely this was partly because politically the people who are the worst housed do not really have enough clout in this country. Problems which affect minorities in health, in education, in some of our disadvantaged areas in the country are particularly intractable, because they are not problems which affect the majority of our population, and because politically influential majorities do not experience such problems at first hand. That, I think, is partly what concerns us in the issue of housing.

But let me hasten to add that I do not believe this is really a party matter. For example, if you look back at the debate which was held in this House in June 1982, there was one telling quotation from a speaker at that time. He said: I can think of no issue on which political economists of widely differing tendencies are in more substantial agreement than on the unholy mess which successive governments have made of the housing market. Housing has become the growing source of human misery. So there is no cause for complacency on the part of members of any political party in this House this afternoon. Yet, having said that, the situation has been deteriorating and Government Ministers responsible would ignore at their peril what is being said.

We know that we live at a time of diminished resources. We know that, in some ways, Britain has become a poorer nation than some years ago. Yet it is apparent to all that, when something is recognised as a real crisis, money can be found. You have only to go back to the Falklands crisis for that. The national situation over housing has been well outlined in this debate already this afternoon and the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, referred to a number of reports that are readily available and in which the situation is well documented.

So far as the Church reports are concerned—and perhaps your Lordships will expect me to make some reference to them—I think that the Churches have been paying more attention to this subject in recent years, though we feel as puzzled, as weak and as helpless in some ways as the rest of sections of society over how to tackle the housing problems. I think back to a very good report in 1982 that was produced by our Board of Social Responsibility nationally, called Housing and Homelessness, which is in my hands. Faith in the City, which has already been alluded to, carries an excellent section on housing.

As regards the area of Greater Manchester from which I come, we have a Board of Social Responsibility under my own diocese which outlined in a special report several years ago the situation in the Greater Manchester area. It brought home the facts in such a startling manner that, when we had a diocesan synod debate on it, there was no dissentient voice from the fact that housing should be given a far higher priority politically and also by the Churches. That report showed that housing in the Greater Manchester area is of poor quality or in disrepair and nearly 30 per cent. of it is substandard. As is well known, there have been great problems with some of the newer properties—not just the older properties dating from the early years of this century but those which have been put up since, such as multiple-decked access flats in the 'sixties. The case of Fort Beswick, which has had to be demolished, is well known. On one estate in Salford which consists of housing from that era a survey showed that more than half the tenants wished to get out of the estate. The problems instanced concerned overcrowding, small, inadequate kitchens, damp houses, rubbish not removed, repairs not done, and things of that kind. Part of the problem facing us in the greater Manchester area involves public sector housing of poor quality or in disrepair.

We all know that the resources to deal with these problems have simply not been available in recent years and that the situation has been growing worse. Mention has been made of the waiting lists for local authority housing. That is part of the subject of our debate this afternoon. Current figures for Manchester city show that 37,640 households are awaiting housing, nearly 20,000 of them new applicants. Most of these are families or households with elderly dependants. This links to what I was saying at the start with the quotation from Archbishop William Temple about the devastating effect of such problems on family life. Any political parties which make the family a plank in their programme should pay special attention to what housing means for families.

I consulted one of our major local housing associations about what waiting lists meant in their situation in Manchester city. This is what I was told: Families being rehoused now have waited four years for a house. The families coming on to our waiting list cannot be told how long they will have to wait, because the waiting list simply cannot be calculated for time. The waiting list has now expanded to unmanageable proportions, and we could fill our entire holding of 1,100 units if all were vacant and still have a substantial waiting list. In short, in a situation of ever-increasing demand we have a significantly decreasing supply leading to over-crowding, homelessness, frustration, boredom and aggression". There are no individual reasons why this crisis has been growing so much in recent years. You can put a number of things into the pot and look at them in turn. There is bad design from the past, some poor housing management (let us face it), some bad planning in various estates, and of course there is misuse by tenants, which is often used as an excuse for the housing situation. I should certainly not wish to underestimate the amount of misuse that there is. But I think we must all appreciate that there is a real cycle of deprivation which leads to this misuse. That in turn leads to vandalism and the problem becomes difficult and intractable. Again and again one comes back to the problem of under-resourcing in these areas.

I am perfectly aware of the reasons why we are not as wealthy a county as we were and why all the time there is competition for scarce resources, but I believe that there is a moral issue here. I turn for a moment to homelessness. I need not say very much because the previous speaker, the noble Baroness, Lady EwartBiggs, has referred to this. The figures are now higher than have ever before been recorded, though it is very hard to find out exactly what is happening in regard to homelessness. It can be linked very clearly to shortage of housing, as many surveys show. I quote from the Church report on this matter, Housing and Homelessness: Homelessness cannot be attributed to personal failure. It results largely from the inability to acquire suitable housing. Thousands of people are forced to live at present in institutions and in situations of stress engendered through over-crowding or poor physical conditions". We ought to explode the myth that those who are homeless are always single people—male, middle-aged, drunken and inadequate. This applies to only a proportion, and perhaps a small proportion at that. In a recent survey women constituted more than 25 per cent. of the single homeless; 30 per cent. were under 30; and many had skills and above average qualifications. Homelessness is such a distressing feature of our situation today and we must treat this crisis with very great urgency.

I have already said that there is competition for resources and that we have to recognise the danger of inflation. We give credit to government where credit is due for a low rate of inflation, though as we well know, quite a lot of this is due to fortunate circumstances for this country—circumstances which are not necessarily bringing the same good fortune to others in other parts of the world. But now that inflation has come down perhaps attention can be given to other sides of the various problems which face our country at the present time.

Public sector housing remains a vital element of the scene. Whatever we may or may not think about the drive for greater private ownership—and I am not opposed to this—we need to make sure that an adequate proportion of our national resources continues to go into public sector housing and all the problems which are to found there. I support the plea which has been made from the Benches opposite that a hard look should be taken at the tax relief being granted on mortgage payments. This may be unpopular politically in certain circles, but if we are to achieve greater fairness and a better distribution of the resources in this country, this point seems to me to be fundamental.

I shall finish by saying that with all problems which seem to be intractable and which come up again and again for debate in the House of Commons and in your Lordships' House there can easily be a feeling of hopelessness and an attitude of, "Oh, not that again". But we must somehow get over this feeling and look at the facts and try to tackle them realistically and with great urgency. This is surely a moral challenge to us all.

4.27 p.m.

Lord Parry

My Lords, as every speaker in the debate up to now has said, the House owes a debt to my noble friend Lord Dean for introducing the debate at this time. He has done a favour to this, the temporal, side of the House. In introducing this debate in Ascot Week he has done no favour to the noble Lord who has to reply. The House will have difficulty in proving to the people who are homeless and in substandard accommodation at this time that it is the caring House that we know it to be. We are told from time to time, often from the Benches opposite, that there is no monopoly of care in this House. I subscribe to that view and have said so many times. It has therefore been greatly to the credit of this House that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester has been able to make a massive contribution from the spiritual side of the House to this debate this afternoon.

This debate should be equally supported in all parts of the House because we represent here the entire population of Great Britain, if we have a role in the constitution, as I believe we have. Having said that, I want specifically to say that the debate up to now has identified the problem as it stands nationwide across Great Britain. It would be correct for me to say that in January the Secretary of State for Wales—my former parliamentary election opponent—announced that he was undertaking the most expensive and detailed research into the difficulties of housing in Wales that has ever been undertaken. That survey will cost £1.5 million and it will indicate once and for all the pattern of housing difficulty which exists in Wales.

It is not only a Welsh problem, but a world problem. Food, clothing and shelter are things which we all in our political philosophies seek to provide for the people. The right reverend Prelate was perfectly right to say that no political party should take particular credit for having been able completely to solve or even completely to plan away this great social difficulty. In fact, in the bibliography that has already been provided, one might write in another title. It is the biography of Aneurin Bevan by my right honourable friend Michael Foot.

In 1945, in another place, there was a classic debate on housing. That outlined the very problems which we are discussing this afternoon. Anyone discussing the subject of housing has first to talk about two things. They have to talk about the quantity of housing and about the quality of housing. Those aspects have been identified by my noble friends, and by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, speaking from the right hand side of the Temporal side of the House.

In that debate in 1945, Aneurin Bevan said that a government could be judged in two or three years on the number of houses that it had built; but in 10 years and thereafter, it would be judged more and more by the quality of the housing that it had built. So we are speaking this afternoon about the type of housing as well as the volume.

I want to focus the attention of the House on the fact that we can all of us, though caring, grow away from our own perceptions of the need. I was born literally into a cottage-type house. My father was a nonconformist minister in Wales, and I was born in a tiny manse. Now I am constantly surprised and amazed when I go into terraced houses—and I occupied one myself until the late 1950s—at the limits of scale that there are. So that even within houses that are existing and adequate, there is a certain limitation of life. That comes from a style, scale and type of house that would otherwise pass all the tests as being adequate as a home.

When the right honourable Member for Pembrokeshire, the Secretary of State for Wales, looks into the facts as they affect the Principality, he will find them already presaged, even before his report comes out. I am sure that he, being a caring man, will have set his report in motion because he knows of bleak facts such as that there are in Wales 80,000 homes that have no toilets, bathroom or hot water supply. We forget that some noble Lords who sit on these Benches grew up in houses such as those. As the years go by they tend to forget. It is not that they cease to care; it is just that such memories are no longer in the forefront of their minds. Today we have the opportunity to say, and the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, and the Government have the opportunity to say in response to my noble friend's deposition, that they do care; that they do remember; and that they are in touch with the facts.

I have to handle Parliamentary Questions asked in this House and in another place concerning cash grants to landlords of properties. They have been reluctant—and we know the reasons why—to take advantage of development schemes by successive governments because they do not offer the return on capital that the landlords can obtain elsewhere. We understand that. Local government has been prevented from major public housing development schemes by the Government's changes of direction in fiscal policy. It is a fact that many caring councils have been unable to spend money that they have had available because it is the Government's fiscal policy not to spend money in that direction. It may be that a caring Conservative, a caring Socialist or a caring Liberal might find other priorities at any given time for the spending of the national purse. However, that does not remove long term a problem that was identified in 1945 as being soluble only if this nation could build then and there 750,000 houses.

I wonder whether your Lordships realise the similarity of those figures, and whether your Lordships now understand the emphasis of the right reverend Prelate on the failure of successive governments really to grasp the nettle of our housing problem. It was said in 1945 that 750,000 houses were needed. Those houses had to be built in the context of returning this nation's economy from war production to peace. An attempt was made, and it was probably the most courageous attempt that had ever been made up to then.

I shall for just one moment take the issue back another 30 years. Why was it that all those houses were needed in 1945? Many of them were needed because of war-time bombing and because of the war-time failure to spend money on bringing housing up to decent standards. More importantly, the crisis in the economy that existed in the 1930s led to a failure on the part of the private sector to invest in the development of housing. So by 1945, there was not much argument as to the previous position between private and public spending, because everyone said that the building industry had to be remotivated, and that it had to build both public and private housing.

That is my own position from these Benches. We are not arguing for more spending on public building than on private building in the economy. We are arguing that the balance should be maintained and that houses should be built. It is vital that money should be spent in the public sector because some of the money that was spent betwen 1945 and 1951 provided some of the finest public housing in the world. Some of that housing of a high standard has recently exchanged hands. Its market price has been demonstrable, and people were delighted to buy their own homes. I do not want to go into that issue. What I want to say is that, because we build houses of sufficient scale and style, some families were fortunate enough to grow up in them.

It is a fact that some people advised Aneurin Bevan that one could not build 300,000 houses a year. He always regretted accepting that advice; he said so publicly. In fact, subsequent Ministers in a subsequent government built 300,000 houses a year, to his embarrassment. They did so by cutting down on the standards, by limiting the sizes of those houses, and by building an inferior type of house. If Mr. Pattie, whoever he may be, in another place wishes to point the finger at certain council estates and describe them as slum housing, then let him pick up the lease and find out in what period those properties were built. Who built that slum housing, if indeed it is slum housing? How long has it been in occupation?

I quickly want to tell your Lordships that the Secretary of State, when he supplements what is already known with the inquiry for which, very properly and rightly, he has called about my own native land, he will find, because the lines are already drawn, that the number of dwellings both in Wales and in England has increased by more than 50 per cent. over the past 30 years—but that the population has grown rather more slowly.

In 1984, there were 2.5 persons per dwelling compared with 3.6 persons in 1950. The housing stock in Wales is rather older than in Great Britain as a whole, with 22 per cent. of the houses built before 1891 compared with less than 16 per cent. in Great Britain. That is why Wales is one of the poorest areas in Great Britain in terms of housing provision.

The relative importance of public and private housebuilding has changed over the past 30 years. I believe it to be proper that it has. I believe in a property-owning democracy; but I believe also that it is essential for a democratic country to keep within its control, and the control of Parliament, an adequate housing stock of the best possible quality that it can afford. Any government who fail to do that are failing the nation and the challenge of this time.

4.39 p.m.

Lord Crawshaw of Aintree

My Lords, it is always difficult to follow the noble Lord, Lord Parry, who puts over what he has to say with such feeling because it comes from his heart. I was interested in everything that the noble Lord had to say. I may also say how much I appreciate the opportunity that has been given by the noble Lord, Lord Dean, once again to express our views on this particular subject. I hope that the noble Lord was not apologising for bringing this subject forward. I am sure that he was not doing so, because what he and other noble Lords said two months ago is still as relevant today. It is still as true today, and it will still be true in two months' time. However, the more we say it the more chance there is that somebody will pay some attention.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester spoke about Salford. That is where I was born. I know the area he was speaking about where slums have been removed and other slums built. That is not unusual, and it brings me to my first point. This is not a political issue. When we refer to statistics, as we have this afternoon, we must remember that each statistic is a human being living in inadequate circumstances and, in many cases, in squalor. It is not, therefore, a party political matter.

I was going to point out, had not the noble Lord, Lord Parry, done so, that it was a Conservative Government that I believe managed to reach a target of 350,000 houses and I was going to pay tribute to that. But where have all those houses gone to? Where are the tower blocks? They have been taken down at tremendous expense. In Liverpool we shall be paying the interest on the money borrowed for the next 40 years; but the blocks are not there now. That is what we must think about when we decide on building. How are we to do it? It is not just a case of putting up houses. Houses have to be maintained and standards have to be maintained. Obviously the systems we have had until now have certainly not maintained standards. We must look at that problem immediately.

I believe, and I have said it before in this House, that one of the most fruitful means of rehousing people in this country, at a rent which is economic and which people can afford to pay, is through housing associations. But I am not bound to that view. I think there is a tremendous prospect in the private sector if the Government are prepared to help finance building societies and organisations of that nature and get private investment into private housing which could be available for rent. However, having lived through the age of Rachmann I am always loath to talk about private rented housing because of what happened in those circumstances. However, it should not be beyond the wit of government to frame legislation which can provide the private investor with a reasonable return on his money. We must face the fact that, unless finance is going to come solely from the Government, we shall not get private investors unless there is a return. That is why I say the Government must do something to help finance the building societies or other private enterprises that want to go into housing.

The Government have done that in London's docklands. I know that some of those houses are a tremendous price, but there is no need for houses to be built at such prices. Therefore, we must first see how we build in order to maintain their standards. I have said previously in this House that if we build in London for letting at a high rent we should not have the buildings open for all and sundry to go through the main door into the corridors and make a mess all over the place. There should be a commissionaire allowing people to enter or not enter as the case may be. Why should corporation tenants be treated any differently?

One of the points that I made when serving on the Liverpool housing committee was that millions of pounds would have been saved if we had paid for a rota system of commissionaires on the bottom floor of the flats instead of spending millions of pounds a year on each block repairing the damage inflicted on them. Those are the issues we must consider. Penny-pinching only costs more money.

That brings me to my next point. The Government talk about getting on your bike. I accept that it is always helpful to go out and look for work but if you live in the North of England and get a job in the South, what do you do? You have to live apart from your family while you are working. There are no houses available in the South at an economic rent that anyone from the North can afford. I know of many executives who are looking for promotion but dread that the promotion might be into the London area or the South-East. At present they have their own homes and are living comfortably, but selling their house in the North-East would not buy a decent garage in the South. So when we talk about getting on bikes and the mobility of labour it is necessary to look at the circumstances which exist.

That is the position in the private sector and that is why I believe that a great need exists, and not only through housing associations, which I have had the privilege of working with for a number of years. I have said often before that each tenant in an association is known personally by the person responsible in the association. At committee meetings they can discuss why someone is behind with the rent. Perhaps the husband has been ill or out of work; all those things can be discussed.

I am not trying to run down the local authorities. They were given an impossible task. In dealing with 80,000 or 100,000 tenancies as in Liverpool—when I was on the council there were 80,000 people on the waiting list—how can you speak of individual tenants? It is an impossibility. Therefore, I plead with my noble friends to be careful, when we are speaking about money being put into local authority funding, to think out some way whereby these tenants can be given their say in the running of the places in which they live.

There is no reason why a tower block should not be handed over to a tenants' association, which would be told, "You look after it. You make suggestions. You have committee meetings and tell us what you want us to do." I am not seeking to take housing out of the hands of local authorities but I have had bitter experience in Liverpool of seeing housing estates developed with hard-won money some of which are now the drug centres of the city.

Those are the problems, and they will not be solved overnight. However, we hear that the Government do not have the money available. I asked a Question about housing associations a few weeks ago and the Minister replied that the allocation was not cut down last year and that the associations received more money. That is true but at the same time it is false. The associations received the same money as the year before but that did not take into account the 2½ per cent. rise in the cost of living. In addition, that money was primarlily sent to the inner city areas. I do not complain about that. I have fought for the inner city areas. But, as I said to the Minister, it leaves a nasty taste in your mouth when you know that the effort you have made on behalf of the inner cities is being paid for by housing associations in other parts of the country where the housing situation is as bad as in some of the inner cities. In many cases they have been cut down to 30 or 40 per cent. of what they were getting the previous year.

I do not believe that the Government are sincere in saying that they are trying to solve the housing problem. I have never criticised the Government on a whole range of policies. When the Conservative Government came into power there were many actions they had to take which were unpopular, and I went along with many of them. We cannot live with inflation at 25 per cent. But the Government seem to have made some sort of god of reducing inflation. When they reduced inflation to 7 per cent. they wanted it down to 6 per cent., even at the cost of another 200,000 jobs. That is the sort of thing which I believe is wrong. The more they continue on those lines the more they depress the economy. The more people the Government throw out of work the less money the Government have for what we are asking for this afternoon.

We talk about inflating the economy—and I know that "inflate" is a horrible word for the Government—but I believe that in housing we are in a prize field to do it, under regulation. We know approximately how much it costs to refurbish 1,000 houses, so there is no need for the Government to say that they are going to give £20 billion. All they need say is that 20,000 houses will be refurbished in the next six months. Then, if the economy does not overheat, they can take another 20,000 or 30,000 houses and go on until such time as they reach a position where they think the economy is overheating. Then, of course, any normal government would have to pull back. But the excuse that the Government will spend nothing at all in case the economy overheats is hypocrisy. I do not think that they mean it.

I do not believe that members of the Government are insensitive to people's feelings. I have never believed that. But I wonder how many know what it is like to live in such conditions or have seen people living in them. I had the honour of being the Member for Toxteth for 20-odd years and was a councillor for more than that. Few weeks went by without my seeing 30 or 40 houses that had things wrong with them. As has been said, it is not just the housing; it is what it does to the families. The husband would come home from work to his family of three or four children, and there would be nowhere for the kids to go apart from the one room that they lived in. What sort of married life is that for anybody? It is even worse when the husband is out of work and spends all his time in that environment.

I do not believe that the Government know what it is like to live in such circumstances. After he had been to Liverpool, Michael Heseltine said that he did not know that people lived in such conditions. I do not think that he is insensitive. One cannot criticise people if they have never had the opportunity to see such things. The right reverend Prelate and others know what it is like.

I say to the Government that the tide is running out fast. Bad housing is not the reason for riots in Toxteth; there are a whole collection of things. But when people live in such circumstances they come to a stage where even a riot is a bit different from the life that they are living day to day. That is the great reality of the situation. It is no good the Government saying that they do not have the money. What has happened to the 50 per cent. of the proceeds from the houses sold by councils? I went against my party when I was a member of the Labour Party, because I always felt that there was a need to sell council houses. But in my wildest dreams I never thought that we should have a government who would let the council sell them and keep the money. It is hypocrisy for them to say that the money is not there. There is plenty of money from the council house sales. At least that would be a start to what we are asking for.

4.52 p.m.

Baroness David

My Lords, housing is a human problem, and a very big human problem, and it is not going away. It is getting bigger. That fact and the information in the speeches this afternoon and in the numerous important reports that we have had over the past year totally justify our choosing the subject for debate. Those who suffer from poor housing or no housing at all need others to put their case, as the right reverend Prelate said.

The Government have had a strong case made against them. I hope that they will come up with good answers. All the reports tell the same tale of gross under-investment in housing, of a shortage of houses, particularly in the areas of the country where there is work, of an accelerating deterioration of the housing stock and of a failure to bring the many properties lacking the basic amenities up to a respectable standard.

The Government are constantly telling us that they have spent more in real terms on education and health than was spent in 1979. One can argue about what effect that has had and about its adequacy, but there is no question but that the money spent on housing has been cut by this Government more drastically than public spending in any other area. I should like to ask the Minister to tell us the amount spent in, first, cash and, secondly, real terms on public sector housing in 1979 and in 1985.

The lack of resources in the public sector has resulted in 1985 having the record lowest number of new houses started since the First World War and there was no net decrease in the number of empty houses needing work to make them habitable. Eighty five per cent. of council-owned dwellings require some repair and improvement. The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, spoke powerfully of the need for more improvement grants. Are we to have a response to the Green Paper on improvement grants? The responses from local authorities have been in for some time. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us about that. I totally back up the noble Lord's plea for the removal of VAT on repairs. That should definitely be done. Both he and the noble Lord, Lord Crawshaw, mentioned the ability of councils to spend their own money.

I have no doubt that when the Minister replies he will be referring to the helpful report of the Audit Commission in March 1986, Managing the Crisis in Council Housing—and crisis it is. He will doubtless point out that councils could do better than they do with the money they have. No one would deny that there is the possibility that some councils could do better. Estate management does not always receive sufficient attention. Too little is spent on it and too few staff are allocated to it. Top managers are not always of top quality. Their responsibilities are great. A typical large authority might have 40,000 dwellings and an annual rent roll of £30 million a year, but few directors of housing receive more than £25,000 to £30,000 a year and salaries are not competitive with industry.

The commission refers to empty properties, and my noble friend Lord Dean mentioned that 2.4 per cent. of the total housing stock was vacant at any one time. He made the point that the housing associations, the private sector and the Government most of all have higher percentages. Many homes are awaiting repair, being repaired or awaiting sale or demolition. It is possible by good practice to reduce the relet period, but waiting lists are large and growing, the Audit Commission admits. They are increasing at the rate of 3,000 a year. There are also those who want to transfer; over 4,000 applications a year might be made in a typical metropolitan district.

I think that it would be appropriate to ask the Government whether they can set about collecting very much more information on those lists. I should have thought that much more precise information and monitoring are needed in order to understand the national need and to formulate a national housing policy. I am not suggesting that local authorities should not have their own arrangements about creating their lists. Circumstances may be different in different parts of the country. But an overall and up-to-the-minute view is necessary. With computers available, as they were not 10 to 15 years ago, that should be quite possible.

Shelter did a good job in producing in 1983 a waiting list survey and an analysis of trends in waiting lists between 1976 and 1983, but that is now three years out of date. It says that it is supplying information which is not officially available elsewhere. That also applies to transfers, which are equally important. The information ought to be officially available, and what is the department to do about that?

I want to say a word or two about the homeless, although the subject has been well covered by my noble friends Lord Pitt and Lady Ewart-Biggs. However, it is such a important problem that I feel I should mention it from this Front Bench. The number of families in London in bed-and-breakfast accommodation has tripled over the past three years. The total cost of homelessness to local authorities was £28.6 million in 1983–84 and rose to over £34 million 1984–85. That can be compared to the increase in the DHSS cost of supplementary benefit board-and-lodging payments, which have risen from £76 million 1980 to a staggering £380 million in 1984. Surely a wiser Government would use those huge sums to invest in hostels or indeed in houses. The average cost of a night's bed-and-breakfast accommodation for a family is about £19, which is above the average weekly rent of most council dwellings.

A Shelter report, A Decent Home Makes all the Difference, shows the position in four large cities. The larger problem is found in the large metropolitan authorities and in London. I met an old friend, the headmaster of North Westminster Community School last week. I told him about this debate. He said that he would send me a report on 90 Bangladeshi children from homeless families in his school living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation in Bayswater. It makes devastating reading. I shall quote from it about one family: When the children come home from school at 4 o'clock, all they can do is sit in the two rooms the family occupies. There is nowhere for them to do homework or to play, except the hotel corridors and stairways—or outside by the busy main road. Four of the children sleep in one of the rooms—they are aged 19, 14, 11 and 9. The fifth and younger child sleeps with the parents in the other room. There is little or no privacy. The report tells more horrifying stories. The length of time families are staying in such accommodation is increasing. A two-year stay is no longer remarkable. It seems a little ironical that in this House on 2nd June we passed an amendment to the Education Bill to the effect that where sex education is given to pupils it should be given in such as manner as to encourage those pupils to have due regard to moral considerations and the value of family life. There must be some hollow laughs in Bayswater if they know of that. What sort of family life can there be in the wretched circumstances of those seven people "partly living" in those two rooms?

In his defence of the Government's position on housing, I am sure that the noble Lord the Minister will mention rent arrears and the figure of £250 million. Authorities vary enormously in the amount of debt. Total rent arrears at the end of March 1985 amounted to the equivalent of some 25 days' rent on average, but in 262 authorities it was under 3 per cent., of gross debit—less than 10 days' rent—and in 168 authorities it was under 2 per cent. When local authorities are criticised, it should be remembered that many housing associations have arrears in the range of 2 per cent. to 3 per cent. of gross debit, and nearly all manage fewer dwellings.

Since the Audit Commission's 1984 report, Bringing Council Tenants' Arrears Under Control, the trend has been downward. I want to ask the Minister, and I believe it is relevant in this context, what are the building societies' repossession figures for the past three years? It is worth remembering that 10 per cent. of families accepted by local councils as homeless in the first nine months of 1985 had defaulted on their mortgage payments. It is not always right to buy.

There could be tighter financial control and better management, but the savings so made would only go a small way to solving the enormous housing problems in this country. On page 72, the Audit Commission's report states: even on optimistic assumptions about the value improvements that could be generated from implementation of the recommendations in this report, little immediate headway would be made in clearing the £20 billion repairs and improvements backlog. The most that could be reasonably expected after a 2–3 year implementation period would be of the order of £1 billion a year. Moreover, local management may not be able to cope with the challenges involved. In such circumstances proposing a managerial solution may be tantamount to suggesting a rearrangement of the deckchairs on the Titanic". In chapter 4 the commission considers what steps should be taken over and above those managerial proposals made in the earlier chapter. I should like to refer to those: (i) relax the current controls over local authorities' ability to fund capital spending internally, from the sale of assets". That point has been made previously. The second is: Attract more private sector finance. This will be essential in Category B authorities"— they are the ones with moderate problems— where saleable assets and local property market values will not be sufficient to generate the necessary funds internally to meet the authorities' capital needs. (iii) Invest more public resources in Category C problem authorities, if only to attract the necessary weight of private money to tackle the serious problems involved". The 1985 report, Capital Expenditure Controls in Local Government in England, is referred to and a plea is made for local authorities to be given much greater freedom to get on and be allowed to help themselves. In particular, it asks for a new approach and for a three- to five-year planning horizon so that programmes and projects are not subject to abrupt changes in the year-end "rush to spend". I have referred to and quoted from the report fairly extensively because, as the Audit Commission is a body set up and created by this Government, one hopes that its wise words will be heeded. Will the noble Lord the Minister tell us when we shall hear the Government's reaction to the report?

I want to turn to another side of the need for more investment in housing. The Government seem to have lost sight of the fact that investment in public housing for rent makes a major contribution to private sector building. Somehow, the impression has been conveyed that houses for rent are built by local authorities and housing associations. That is rarely true. It is normally carried out by local and national builders who tender for the work. They are firms such as Wimpey, Laing, Costain and Tarmac. They have suffered from the drastic decline in public sector starts. Public money is also vital if private builders are to be able to build for sale on sites other than the easy-build easy-sell green-field sites. Massive sums must be made available for infrastructure, roads, sewers, etc., and, in many inner city areas, for basic land reclamation.

The Government have quietly recognised that in the case of the London Docklands Development Corporation, as the noble Lord, Lord Crawshaw, said, where £300 million of public money went into assembling the land, the infrastructure and so on. Huge public expenditure is a prerequisite for new house building, both public and private. Land prices and availability of land are vitally important. The reason that the London docklands can sell 75 per cent. of its houses for less than £40,000 is that the land was made available to it free of charge.

I should like noble Lords to look at my area, Cambridge, where £500,000 is being asked for one acre. In a few cases more than £500,000 is being asked. Assuming that 15 houses are built to the acre, the site cost per house is over £33,000. That is before a brick is laid. It is not surprising therefore to hear that a not very attractive three-bedroomed semi-detached house in a fairly smart area of Cambridge has just sold for £91,000 and that a very small terraced house with the front door on the street in the Romsey Town area, where houses were run up pretty quickly when the railway came to Cambridge, has just been bought by a young couple whom I know for £38,000. Grander houses are fetching London prices—£200,000 or so.

That is crazy. Will the Government think again about mortgage tax relief reform which would help to stop the ridiculous escalation in house prices? Of the £4,750 million spent on mortgage tax relief, £1 billion went to those paying higher rates of tax. Are the Government going to develop any policy on land allocation and availability, because it is the scarcity and high price of land which is helping to cause the escalation? Even some Conservatives are becoming bothered. I was told by one housing expert who went to speak at a Conservative meeting in the Home Counties that people there were becoming very angry because although they were living in houses which had increased astronomically in value, that rise was of no immediate benefit to them, and their children were now marrying and wanting homes and just could not afford to be first-time buyers.

The House-Builders Federation has produced an interesting document, Homes Jobs Land The Eternal Triangle. Current planning policies are creating difficulties in building houses where they are needed and where there is work. On Greater London it says: the shortage of suitable land for private housing at the right price means that only 10–15,000 dwellings in total can be built each year during the 1980s compared to the requirement for some 20,000 dwellings per year to meet the recognised level of need. As a result, some 40,000 people a year are currently leaving London. Yet the counties in the rest of the South-East are planning to keep them out. Many local authorities are seeking to resist natural growth trends and to suppress the development of the housing and job markets. Hertfordshire proposes to cut housing provision by 17 per cent. from previous levels to well below market demand. But it intends to continue to promote jobs and office growth". Are the Government taking note of the way that this restraint pre-empts the planning of land for public and private housing? If the Minister refers to lifting the burden, or building businesses, not barriers, I would say that they will make no impact on this problem. Job mobility and employment opportunities are being suppressed by high land value resulting from these restraint policies.

I must finish now as I see that I have overshot my time. The Secretary of State made his first speech on Friday as Secretary of State. I do not believe that the speech was very helpful. He is, however, the third Secretary of State to hold that office within the Department of the Environment during this year. It does not seem likely that we shall get very forward-looking or sensible policies while these changes are going on.

5.10 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I welcome the opportunity of discussing housing in this Chamber, and I am very willing to cross swords again with the noble Lord, Lord Dean, on a subject upon which we profoundly disagree. This debate, with a few notable and welcome exceptions, has concentrated almost entirely on bricks, on mortar and on cash. Hardly a word have we heard about people, and their desires, their wants and their needs. It is these—I agree here with the noble Lord, Lord Crawshaw—which should dictate housing policy and not theoretical prescriptions that have been tried and found wanting on so many occasions in the past.

The first part of the Motion, putting the case for greater public investment in housing, emphasises what has been evident in the Opposition's contribution to recent debates here and in another place. Despite plenty of gloss, presentation and changes of colour scheme, the Labour Party's heart is still firmly entrenched in the same discredited old ideas. Its approach is clearly illustrated in a comment that the noble Lord, Lord Dean, made during his contribution to the debate on the inquiry into British housing. The noble Lord said: 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 mut come from the Government".—[Official Report, 29/1/86; col. 758.] The noble Lord said much the same this afternoon. If the noble Lord was right, we would listen to him. Indeed, even though he is wrong, we listen to him. Why is he wrong? I do not think", he said, it can come from the private sector". I assume that the noble Lord knows perfectly well, as the noble Lord, Lord Pitt, revealed that he did, that in the last three years private housing starts have been in excess of 150,000 a year and total 485,000, the highest three-year total since 1972–74. But, as amply demonstrated this afternoon, this, of itself, is not enough.

The noble Lord, Lord Parry, referred to a debate on housing that took place in 1945—the year, incidentally, that I was born. He suggested that the same problems existed then as now. In fact, there have been enormous achievements in housing since then. The number of dwellings in England and Wales has increased from 10.7 million to 18.7 million, and standards of accommodation have improved dramatically. Nearly every dwelling now has basic amenities, and space and the number of rooms per household have steadily increased. In these strict terms—I agree that this is not a particularly valid comparison—our housing is among the best in Europe.

The Government are no Jeremiah in these matters. Briefly, the major differences between us and the party opposite are that, first, we have faith in the skills and capabilities of the private sector and, secondly, we have learned a lot from the lessons of the past about the effects of massive public sector house building drives, both in terms of the type of housing that results and the effects on the economy.

Some speakers today have pointed to the stockpile of capital receipts that local authorities have accrued through council house sales as a possible source of finance for more public housing investment. If this money was sitting idle in town hall petty cash tins, there might be an economic case for spending it. But this is not the case. Receipts are used by local authorities to reduce their borrowing requirements. Therefore, if the money is used on capital projects, local authorities will have to borrow yet more money to replace the sums used in this way, thus adding to their external debt that already amounts to around £30 billion in England. We now know that the accumulated receipts amounted to £6.2 billion at the end of 1984–85, and the figure by now will be substantially larger. If the whole of this were to be released into the economy at once, the effect on the PSBR, interest rates, inflation and ultimately unemployment would be devastating.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, will the noble Lord bear in mind that we are talking in terms of housing shortage and crisis? Will he justify the morality of refusing councils the freedom to spend their own money in providing houses with cash that has been raised from the sale of houses? If the noble Lord is arguing that to release all the money now would be catastrophic, the reason that it has accumulated is that Government policy has not allowed it to be spent in reasonable tranches.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, if the noble Lord will do me the courtesy of allowing me to develop the argument in my own way, he will find that I am about to answer that question. It is only reasonable, in view of the shortness of time available to me, if I do not answer any further interruptions.

The construction industry would be unable to cope if we were faced with the situation I mentioned a few moments ago. The Government are currently reviewing the whole area of local government finance, including the capital control system. But one option which is definitely not being considered is that apparently favoured by Labour Party spokesmen—unleasing all at once this whole immense torrent of purchasing power. Listening to the speeches of some noble Lords, one would think that the Government were preventing councils spending their capital receipts from the sale of council houses. As I have sought to explain, that is simply not the case. Over a period of three years a council can spend about half of any receipts that it has generated on new capital projects. And councils are making use of their receipts. In 1985–86 the housing investment programme allocation was £1,600 million. But actual spending was about £2,500 million. The difference was made up mainly through the spending of capital receipts.

Let me return to people. By disagreeing with the approach suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Dean, I shall immediately be accused of lack of sympathy and even of complacancy in the matter. That is a palpable nonsense. It does not mean that I am not sympathetic to the strong desire and need of everyone to be properly housed. I recognise and put first and foremost in my mind the fact that there are people who have to live in sub-standard housing on impersonal estates or indeed who have no accommodation at all. I can assure the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, that rented housing is far from completely lost. The Government's strategy for dealing with the problems is aimed at helping these people through better targeting of public funds and the greater involvement of the private sector. As the noble Baroness, Lady David, pointed out, public expenditure on housing under this Government has indeed been reduced. What the noble Baroness did not add was that cuts in investment under the last Labour Administration were much more severe—46 per cent. as opposed to 36 per cent. Both figures are in real terms. The noble Baroness asked for the particular figure. In 1984–85, in real terms, £3,914 million was spent. The figure for 1979–80 was £3,159 million in cash terms and £4,812 million in real terms. So, yes, it has reduced as I have just explained.

The crucial consideration is not the amount of public investment but the total resources mobilised to solve housing problems, public and private. No one has recognised that where a local authority arranges for a developer to build for sale under licence on land that it owns local authorities can use not 20 per cent. and not even the old 40 per cent. of their capital receipts, but a full 100 per cent. Why do we make this exception? It is for one very simple reason. The vast majority of people want to own their own homes. It is right that the Government should do all in their power to help them achieve this aim. These schemes are, of course, self-financing.

While I am speaking about home ownership I should respond to the noble Baroness, Lady David, on the question of the number of homes repossessed by building societies. This is still a very small proportion of the total number of loans given. The noble Baroness asked for figures for the past three years. These are as follows. In 1983 it was 7,320 homes, or 0.12 per cent. of total loans. In 1984, it was 10,870 homes, or 0.17 per cent. of total loans. In 1985, it was 16,590 homes, or 0.25 per cent. of total loans. I cannot agree that a repossession rate of 0.25 per cent., or 1 in 400 homes, gives credence to the contention of the noble Baroness that people are being forced to buy who cannot afford to do so and are then suffering the consequences.

As well as owner-occupation, people have other pressing needs which local authorities have to meet. I am pleased to say in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, that local authorities each year prepare an annual assessment of housing need as part of their housing investment programme submissions. The Government discuss these assessments very carefully with the local authorities before reaching decisions on their HIP allocations. It is as a result of this that the Government have continued to devote very substantial amounts of public expenditure to housing.

Gross capital expenditure on housing in England is currently £3.25 billion. Indeed, we have started following the advice of the noble Lord, Lord Crawshaw, by increasing the provision by £200 million last year. We fully intend to see whether it is possible to maintain a small increase until we get to the damaging figure that the noble Lord very reasonably recognised. Within this total the Government have been encouraging local authorities and housing associations to target their expenditure at those people and areas most in need: the inner cities, the homeless, the elderly and the disabled on low incomes. These will continue to be the priorities. These are the types of housing need for which the public sector still needs to provide and—I freely admit it—will always need to provide.

It is not the job of local authorities and housing associations to house the great majority of the population for whom the private sector has been catering with increasing success. We must be careful to ensure that the public sector does not fritter away its resources on people who can meet their needs perfectly well in the private sector.

In this connection, I should like to make a small reference to the Building Societies Bill which is to have its Second Reading in your Lordships' House on Friday of this week. I hope that building societies will make full use of the opportunities offered by the Bill to play a much more direct role in housing than has been possible up to now. The new powers to own and manage land will enable societies to offer, for example, shared ownership, a full range of agency services, and schemes to revitalise rundown council estates.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester and many other speakers discussed the problem of the homeless. Of course I share the concern about the increase in the numbers of homeless. It is for local authorities to decide how to fulfil their duties under the Homeless Persons Act. We have improved the way that housing resources are distributed to give a better measure of the problem in the areas most affected. In addition, the homeless stand to benefit from a wide range of government policies; for example, measures to encourage the private rented sector, facilitating subletting of council dwellings, and the Government's hostels initiatives.

Within the public sector the first priority lies not with new building but with renovation of the existing stock. The House may be interested to know that this is true not only in this country but in developed countries generally. The United States House of Representatives agreed unanimously earlier this month to restrict public housing funds to renovation, and not to allow any new building. We have not gone that far. Local authorities take decisions about the content of their housing investment programmes but we expect them to be guided by the priorities as I have stated them, and by the facts.

As the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, noted, the Department of the Environment's stock condition inquiry last year estimated that the backlog of repair work needed in the local authority housing stock amounted to almost £19 billion. The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, spoke of private sector home improvement, and the noble Baroness, Lady David, also asked me about it. The House will be aware that we published a Green Paper on this subject. I can tell both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord that we are looking again at the proposals in the Green Paper in the light of the many comments that my department has received. It will not be too long before I or my noble friend can reveal the answers to the House.

This £19 billion was built up over many years and with the best will in the world cannot be conjured away overnight however much the Government, or indeed any government, spend. I agree with the right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord Parry, that it is a colossal amount of work even though not all of it requires action right away. I am very encouraged by the way local authorities are now responding.

The noble Lord, Lord Dean, asked about the English house condition survey. The next survey in this five-yearly series begins this autumn and will give an up-to-date overall assessment of the condition of the stock. Surveys of this kind are complex exercises and thorough analysis of the results will be necessary. As has become normal form, it will be published in due course. It is also too early to start speculating about the results. However, I am encouraged by the recently published provisional report of the AMA's Greater London house condition survey which suggested that the Capital has enjoyed a considerable reduction in the number of unfit properties and those lacking basic amenities. We shall have to wait to assess the contention of the right reverend Prelate that the situation is still getting steadily worse.

The noble Lord, Lord Stallard, reminded us that nearly half of the unfit homes are owner-occupied. He failed to add that in Great Britain, at December 1985, 62 per cent. of the houses were owner-occupied and 30 per cent. of the houses were in the public sector—and in the time available I have been unable to find out what has happened to the other 8 per cent. I shall let noble Lords know in due course. The number of unfit owner-occupied dwellings is high because owner-occupation forms such a high proportion of the stock and the average age of owner-occupied dwellings is much older than public sector stock.

More immediately, it is for local authorities to decide how much to spend on grants, taking into account their local housing needs and priorities. Last year, spending was around £450 million. To put this in perspective I would remind the House that in the last year of the last Labour Government grant spending amounted to a mere £90 million. I agree that both these figures are in cash terms. However, even in 1983–84—the peak year for grant spending—public spending accounted for only about 10 per cent. of the total. Private spending will therefore be the most important factor in improving the condition of the stock. Public help should be directed where it is most needed. We have asked local authorities to consider giving priority to certain groups when approving discretionary grants. These comprise those living in unfit dwellings in statutory improvement areas, private rented housing, elderly owner-occupiers, the disabled and other applicants known to have limited income.

Our strategy is also designed to stimulate and encourage the maximum contribution from the private sector, both in its own right and in partnership with the public sector. I have already told the House the recent very encouraging trends in new private housing starts. Furthermore, there are also increasing examples of joint ventures and partnerships with local authorities. This is happening not only in Conservative-controlled councils but also in those Labour areas which have been far-sighted enough to see private developers not as bogeymen but as invaluable repository of expertise and resources. A major part is being played by the Department of the Environment's urban housing renewal unit. This unit recently completed its first year of operation and has just published its first annual report. I have arranged for copies of this report to be placed in the Library of your Lordships' House. It illustrates very well what can be achieved when local authorities, central government, private developers and the tenants themselves get together to devise ways of revitalising run-down estates. So far 23 schemes have been approved, which when completed will transform some 15,000 dwellings, and the lives of the people living in them. A number of other applications are still being considered.

I turn now to the second part of the Motion—the need to reduce council waiting lists. By encouraging local authorities to concentrate on specific needs rather than general needs, and by applying public and private sector resources where they are most needed, local authority waiting lists should fall. I deliberately say "should" rather than "will" fall, because this is not simply a question of resources. Good management is also a critical factor.

It is a scandal to hear, as we did last week from my noble friend Lady Macleod, of 2,000 letable units in Southwark standing empty; and I understand that on 1st April this year there were 110,000 empty local authority dwellings in England, and of those 30,000 were in letable condition. That surely is an affront to the homeless, the taxpayer and the ratepayer.

The recent Audit Commission report Managing the Crisis in Council Housing draws attention to the need for reletting periods by local authorities to be reduced to the absolute minimum necessary. We shall of course respond in due course. A particularly telling statistic appears tucked away as a footnote. In London the average reletting period varies from over 30 weeks in the worst borough to seven weeks in the best, compared to an overall weighted national average of 11 weeks. In case anybody wants to suggest that this had to do with the size of the borough's housing stock, noble Lords should also note that a leading American property company with a stock of over 60,000 dwellings, aims for a reletting period of just five days—even when major repairs are required.

As I told the House last week, the Audit Commission estimates that, if all authorities could improve this turnover time by just two and a half weeks, an additional 20,000 dwellings would become available for letting. Imagine the effect on the waiting lists if all councils started to approach the American model! I shall of course look at the suggestion of the noble Baroness, Lady David, of having a rolling investigation into waiting lists. I think that that has a great deal to recommend it.

One matter which has been in your Lordships' minds is the speech made recently by my honourable friend the Minister for Information Technology. I should make it clear that in the course of a wide-ranging and hard-hitting speech he was expressing a personal view of the problems of council housing. He did not express government policy on public sector housing.

In conclusion, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Dean, will join me in urging local authorities to do all they can to improve their management in the light of the Audit Commission's report. I hope they will be able to achieve this in months rather than years. Perhaps I may be allowed to rephrase the quote with which I started the speech. Throwing money at a problem, does not make it go away. It never has and it never will. But solving all the problems of Britain's housing will not be easy and will take a concerted strategy by all the parties concerned over a period of years. The Government have such a strategy which they are determined to pursue until the problems are solved.

5.33 p.m.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, it falls to me as the mover of the Motion to wind up the debate. I must say that I am disappointed at the quality of the Ministerial reply which I think only indicated the Minister's prejudice against public sector housing. He mentioned my reference to private capital being involved in housing. He obviously had not read carefully the Motion on the Order Paper. The point which I was making—and which I have made again and again—is that private money will not flood in to rescue the public building stock. It never has done, and it never will do so unless it is matched by Government money.

I was also surprised to hear the Minister say that the debate was not about people. One speaker after another talked about people—about the homeless, about drug addicts, about people who had nowhere to live or who were living in overcrowded conditions. If this debate was not about them, it was not about anything.

The Minister once again castigated local authorities for not letting houses quickly enough. Does he not realise that the figures which he gave meant that of the total of 120,000 houses that are empty and under local authority control only 0.25 per cent.—I repeat, 0.25 per cent.—are due to local authorities not letting them quickly enough? No other sector of housing, according to my figures, comes anywhere near it. I would not for one moment defend authorities that are slow in letting. However, the Minister should try to put the picture in its proper perspective.

I opened this debate by saying that I was privileged and pleased to be able to move a debate in your Lordships' House on such an issue as housing. At first, I thought that it might have been a little soon after the debate which we had in January on the report of the inquiry chaired by the Duke of Edinburgh. However, I am convinced that it has been a worthwhile exercise because it has shown that the Government have not shifted one inch in the stupid policies which they are pursuing.

Having said that, I wish to thank each and every Member of your Lordships' House, from all sides of the Chamber, who have taken part in the debate. I cannot thank anyone on the Government Back-Benches, because no one there has taken part. I thank all those who spoke to the Motion. My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

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