HL Deb 12 April 1989 vol 506 cc243-6

2.42 p.m.

Lord Dean of Beswick asked Her Majesty's Government:

How many houses were started and completed by the public and private sectors during the last quarter of 1988 and the first quarter of 1989.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (The Earl of Caithness)

My Lords, in the last quarter of 1988 there were 48,300 private sector and 6,700 public sector dwellings started in Great Britain. The figures for completions were 46,800 and 7,700. The figures for the first quarter of 1989 will be available next month.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. However, are not the figures somewhat disappointing bearing in mind the size of the problem that we are now facing? Is the Minister aware that once again there has been a severe reduction in local authority house building and the availability of property in the private rented sector? All the figures show that ominously the incidence of homelessness is still increasing. According to a report by Shelter, the social security and housing legislation by the Government last year has driven young homeless people in their thousands on to the streets in major cities. Did the Government intend that? If they did not, will they do something to eliminate it?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, we have a range of policies to encourage both public and private sector development. That is shown by the fact that the number of starts last year rose by 9 per cent. The noble Lord talked about public sector dwellings. Some 29,000 were started last year. However, it is interesting to note that if the trend in the public housing starts from 1974–75 to 1978–79 had continued there would have been no public sector starts by the year 1984–85.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, is not the simplest and perhaps the cheapest way of providing some of the housing that is so desperately needed by the repair and restoration of some of the dilapidated houses that are at present lying empty? Am I not right in thinking that the resources required for that are merely labour, which is plentiful, and raw materials, which are home produced? That would prove no burden whatever on our balance of payments.

Finally, can the Government give a little extra help to some of the housing trusts that are doing such invaluable work in this regard?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I agree that there are too many houses empty in this country at the moment. As the noble Lord is aware, there are well over 100,000 in local authority ownership alone that should be brought back into use.

On the housing association movement, the noble Lord will be aware that we shall increase the funds to the housing corporation by 80 per cent. to about £1.3 billion in 1991–92.

The Earl of Selkirk

My Lords, will my noble friend say how many houses in the private sector have been finished for rented purposes?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I cannot at the moment, without notice.

Lord Mulley

My Lords, will the Minister give consideration to urging all local authorities to give discretionary grants for essential repairs? As I understand it, some do and some do not. If there were more discretionary grants available to repair roofs and such matters, it would stop the decline in housing and make more available.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the standard of housing has improved according to the last survey of English house conditions that your Lordships discussed not so long ago. However, the point of the discretionary grant is exactly that: it is up to the local authority. Noble Lords will be aware that we hope to change the home improvement grant system in the Bill that is currently before another place.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, the Minister has given the House figures of house building in the public and private sectors. Will the Minister inform the House of the estimated shortfall between those figures and what is needed to satisfy the housing market?

Is the Minister unable to give the House any estimate of the extent to which recent legislation has enabled housing in the private sector to be rented? The Minister must recall that a major strand of the Government's housing policy in that legislation rested on the premise that thousands of privately owned homes would be brought into the private rented sector.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, overall there is not a shortage of housing in this country. Since 1961 there has been an excess of households over dwellings.

On the private rented sector, I told my noble friend earlier that I did not have the figures. However, the noble Lord is absolutely right. One of the purposes of the Bill that your Lordships discussed last Session was to increase the private rented sector. That was backed up by the BES schemes. When I have the figures I shall be able to give them.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

My Lords, when does the Minister expect to give the House the number of starts under the HATs scheme which the Government are promoting? Will he give us the date when they are starting in the London boroughs, in particular in Tower Hamlets which has perhaps the worst properties and the worst homelessness? Can he tell us when he expects to announce the starts?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, no, because no decision has been finally taken by the tenants on a vote. As I am sure the noble Baroness is aware, we have decided not to proceed with the HAT in the Tower Hamlets area but have asked Tower Hamlets to come back to us with further proposals if they so wish.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, I was under the impression that in his last answer but one, my noble friend said that there was an excess of households over dwellings. I was a little puzzled by that in the context. Did he mean it that way round?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am not sure that I did. I apologise. Perhaps I may make the position absolutely clear. I am grateful to my noble and learned friend for permitting me to do so. The number of dwellings has exceeded the number of households since 1961.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, in his reply to my supplementary question the Minister referred to the last 12 months of the last Labour Government. If he was in the Chamber on Monday, he will recall that I was gently chided by his noble friend Lord Strathclyde for referring back to the last Labour Government. However, I have to challenge what the Minister has said. Is it not a fact that this Government's record in the public building sector is the worst of any government since the war? My noble friend and colleague Lord Graham has also referred to this fact. One of the major premises of the Housing Bill before your Lordships in the last Session—when I consistently challenged him on homelessness—was that the Government were pinning their hopes on the fact that the freeing of the private rented sector would diminish the number of homeless.

Is the Minister aware that nothing of that kind is happening and that the number of homeless, including single people being forced on the street, is increasing dramatically? When will the Government take positive action instead of merely talking about it?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the noble Lord has gone very wide of the Question on the Order Paper. I should like to take this opportunity to remind him that we are currently reviewing all the homeless legislation and the reports that have been published. I shall announce the Government's response in the near future.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, are the Government prepared to encourage local authorities which still have money from the sale of council houses to use some of that for the repair of properties which could then be used?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, that is exactly what we are doing but some local authorities have not taken it up.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, that is not true.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, the Minister mentioned the figure of 100,000 empty properties but that figure is out of date. Can he give the figure for the number of private houses which have stood empty for some time, including government-owned property? He will find that it is far in excess of that owned by local authorities.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, it is true that the amount of empty property in the private sector is in excess of that owned by local authorities. But it is not true in respect of government-owned empty properties of which there are approximately 16,000. Of course, it was the rent law about which the Labour Government were so proud which denied any opportunity for the private sector. We reversed that by the Act which came into force on 15th January.

Lord Mellish

My Lords, if the Minister is right, there are approximately 100,000 empty properties under the control of local authorities. What are the Government doing to force the authorities to make that property available to people on the housing lists and the homeless?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, we can but encourage the local authorities; it is their responsibility. I am sure that the noble Lord noted the recent case which was taken to the ombudsman. It concerned the length of the delay taken by the local authority to bring the property back ino repair.

Lord Glenamara

My Lords, is not the greatest need for houses to rent at a reasonable rate? Is not that problem continually exacerbated by the Government's foolish policy of selling council houses? They are lost for ever more to the rented market and are then resold two or three years later for three or four times the purchase price.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord wishes to deny the opportunity to someone who wishes to own a house. That is exactly why the "right to buy" has been so popular and why now more than 1 million people are owner-occupiers who were not so in 1979. The noble Lord has a point in saying that both the private and public rented sectors need support. For that reason we have given an increased amount to the Housing Association, and its starts increased by one-third last year.

Lord Glenamara

My Lords, the greatest need is in respect of people who have no homes within either sector because there are no houses to rent. It is that which I do not wish to see.