HL Deb 18 May 1994 vol 555 cc239-42

Lord Jacques asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they accept that improvements to housing create empioyment and tend to reduce crime; and, if so, whether they will increase the proportion of public money spent on housing.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, the Government recognise that the design of the built environment and improvements to housing contribute to the tight against crime. Local authorities and housing associations invested an estimated £4.7 billion of public money on housing in the year 1993–94.

Lord Jacques

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for that Answer. Do the Government accept that a positive housing policy, involving both private and public finance, could be a preferable alternative to a reduction in the rate of interest, because the materials used in housing are materials which are produced mainly in this country and consequently there would be no adverse effect upon our balance of payments? Will the Government also bear in mind that bed and breakfast in a boarding house which has seen better days is not a satisfactory home for any family? In the long run it may mean that the community pays a higher price for hornelessness than it would by providing homes?

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, to answer the last question of the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, first, of course bed-and-breakfast accommodation is an unsatisfactory way to house people. That is why we encourage local authorities to phase out its use. I am happy to be able to say that the number of families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation is now some 63 per cent. below its peak two-and-a-half years ago. Lower interest rates would of course help all sectors of the housing market. It would help the public sector by reducing the rate at which local authorities and housing associations have to borrow funds, and in the private sector it would do much to help people who require mortgages.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that it was found that the design of some housing projects was at fault, and that walkways or runways made it easy for vandals and criminals to escape? Where those estates have been modified in such a way as to do away with those quick escape routes, that has been a great benefit to the people living there.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, my noble friend is right. The police, through the work of dedicated architectural liaison officers, and the "secure by design" scheme, have already been successful in encouraging planners and others in the building industry to design housing and housing estates so that the opportunities for crime are reduced.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, is the Minister aware that my noble friend and colleague Lord Jacques was correct? If the Government had allowed the enormous sums of money that have been spent on bed-and-breakfast accommodation to have been made available to local authorities to build houses for rent, that would have had an extremely beneficial effect on homeless people and people desperately in need of housing. Is the Minister also aware that everyone dealing with this problem at the sharp end, such as Shelter and CHAR and all the non-profit-making housing associations, are of the opinion that we are still building only 50 per cent. of the homes necessary if we are to deal with the situation in anything like an acceptable manner?

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, housing associa-tions are the main suppliers; of new subsidised housing for rent. The Housing Corporation estimates that the approved development programme for 1994–95 of over £1.5 billion will enable housing associations to provide over 58,000 new lettings in 1994–95. That brings the total over the period 1992–93 to 1994 to 178,000, which more than meets the manifesto commitment of 153,000 homes over that period.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, is there not a logical fallacy behind this discussion and Question? Granted that improved housing on a bigger scale would have the advantages claimed for it by the noble Lord, Lord Jacques; so would improved expenditure on health, education, training, crime prevention schemes, construction projects and, above all, the production efficiently of more goods and services. Is not it a fallacy to single out the advantages of one form of expenditure as against another when the real problem is the allocation of limited resources to unlimited requirements?

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, my noble and learned friend's general assumption is correct, but I can assure your Lordships that housing remains a high priority for the Government.

Lord Jacques

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that I disagree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham? I believe that the question of housing is of crucial importance. There is no perfect solution to it; but as one gets nearer to finding a solution to the housing problem, other problems will become fewer. I ask the Government to bear in mind that providing houses also gives rise to a demand for furniture and equipment, which will speed the recovery. I hope that will cause the Government to think again about housing.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, I must advise the noble Lord that we do not have to think again because everything that he has said is at the forefront of our minds when considering housing policy.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, can my noble friend give us an idea of how many houses are unoccupied in the areas with the worst crime rates?

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, I do not have an answer to my noble friend's question; but if I can find one, I shall write to him.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, will the Minister acknowledge that our local authorities play a very important role in providing homes for people, and that a good home is the basis for creating a good society? In as much as the problems vary from one local authority to another, can the Government consider giving some degree of priority to those local authorities that need help more than others?

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, the noble Lord will find that those priorities are assessed in the standard spending assessments that are applied to local authorities.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, is my noble friend aware, first, that some months ago—it must have been 18 or 24 months ago—one of his noble colleagues who has since moved to another department wrote to me pointing out that several local authorities did not spend up to their allowed proportion of capital receipts? Secondly, some time ago now, the Department of the Environment had a policy on hostels and on the building of hostels by local authorities which would be suitable for several members of the housing clientele we are talking about in this Question. Can my noble friend update us on the department's hostel policy?

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, I cannot update your Lordships on the department's hostel policy; but I shall write to my noble friend on that point. As to the first part of his question, it is for local authorities to decide their priorities on local needs.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that the major need at the moment is for affordable houses—that is, for houses that can be afforded by people on low incomes? Is he further aware that housing associations, which are doing a good job (certainly in London; I am quite happy to grant them that), are worried about the level of grant which is forcing them to increase rents to beyond the limit that can be afforded by people on low incomes? You already have to be on full income support and full housing benefit before you can afford their lowest rents. Therefore, unless we can get the rents down to an affordable level, we will never find a solution to the problem.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, I can tell the noble Lord that the Government do everything to make certain that their housing policy provides houses that are affordable.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the Government, through the noble Viscount, whether they support the housing policies pursued by the City of Westminster, in the borough of which we now sit.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, I have no comment to make on the situation as regards Westminster City Council.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, in these days of party political truce, can we at least accept—will the noble Viscount accept?—that there is an established relationship not just between housing design and the crime rate, but also between the level of unemployment and the crime rate? Is it not the case, as my noble friend Lord Jacques said, that the most effective way to reduce unemployment at the moment, without balance of payments effects, is to put the building industry to work building houses? Is it not also the case that the finance for doing so is available in the capital receipts that are held in the balances of local authorities?

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, the best way to encourage long-term improvements in the nation's housing and employment is to secure the conditions necessary for sustained economic growth.

Lord Glenamara

My Lords, with regard to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Gisborough, is the noble Viscount aware that on Victoria Street, almost opposite Westminster City Hall, a small block of flats has been kept empty for years and years? It was invaded by squatters a few weeks ago and is now boarded up. Cannot the Government take over that block for the homeless—or how many more years is it to be kept empty?

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, I am afraid that I am unable to answer the noble Lord's question.

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