HL Deb 26 October 1998 vol 593 cc1759-75

7.33 p.m.

Baroness Maddock rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what action they propose to take to improve the quality of the housing stock following the recent publication of the English House Condition Survey for 1996.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I am both delighted and disappointed to see so many noble Lords taking part in this dinner hour debate. I am disappointed because I know many noble Lords taking part could say a great deal more if they had more than four minutes in which to do so. But I am delighted, because housing is often rather low on the agenda, in particular on the political agenda. Therefore, I am delighted that we have so many people taking part, although I am disappointed that there is to be only one contribution from the Conservative Benches.

For too long there has been a lack of what I would call a truly comprehensive housing strategy. The survey that we are debating this evening, which was undertaken in 1996—the English House Condition Survey published earlier this year—shows only too clearly that lack of cohesion across all sectors of housing policy.

The reports are published every five years. They not only outline the state of our houses but also the characteristics of the people living in them. Therefore, they provide us with a very clear picture of who is living in the poorest housing in this country and why.

I intend to highlight some of the findings. Although I have 10 minutes and your Lordships only have four, I shall still be rushed. I want to focus in particular on health and housing and, if I have time, I wish to touch upon social exclusion and also on the particular problems of the elderly who are living in poor housing. My noble friend Lord Ezra will deal in some detail, because he is an expert in the area, with problems in the private sector, which are very great.

The most outstanding aspect of the report is that it shows that between 1991 and 1996 very little changed. I shall highlight some of the problems which we are facing. The report says that 1.5 million dwellings in England—that is one in 13—have failed the statutory standard of fitness for human habitation. One million of those houses were the same houses referred to in 1991. Although 0.5 million have been improved, another 0.5 million now fall into that category, so the total is the same. To do anything meaningful about it, the backlog of money that needs to be spent is in the region of £8 billion. The private rented sector remains of very serious concern, with one in five dwellings unfit for human habitation.

What is also slightly disturbing is that the majority of the unfit dwellings are owner-occupied. In the social housing sector—local authorities and housing associations—there are 300,000 dwellings which are unfit, with a bill to accompany that of £1 billion. But empty properties of whatever tenure tend to be unfit properties.

The other really serious aspect demonstrated by the survey is that the problem is much worse in the private rented sector, where nearly two-thirds of private rented sector dwellings have at least one problem requiring urgent action.

It is interesting to note who lives in that worst housing. Six groups have been highlighted. The six groups of people most likely to live in poor housing include households where the head of household is unemployed, a student or in part-time employment; lone parent households; households with people under 60 with a long-term sick or disabled person present; ethnic minority households with people aged under 60, especially those from Pakistan and Bangladesh; younger households aged 16 to 24, particularly those living in the private rented sector; and older people living alone or those headed by a person aged 75 or over.

The findings show clearly that the most disadvantaged in our country live in the poorest housing. I should have liked time to talk about social exclusion because the findings in the report suggest that many of those people suffer social exclusion. I know that the Government have recognised that, particularly in relation to homelessness. I hope that as the Minister has slightly longer than me to reply, he may mention that in his winding-up speech.

I wish to turn now to the connection between poor health and housing. The very first public housing in this country and the legislation to deal with housing was born out of people's concern for health. There is a growing call to return to a closer link between health and housing. It has been suggested that changes in health and local government responsibilities when local government was reorganised in 1974 led to a distancing of the relationship between health and housing. I know that health visitors, who face some of those problems daily, are particularly voicing that view.

Joint working across a variety of departments and agencies is essential if we are to attack the health problems which arise from our poor housing in this country. Studies by health visitors—and I acknowledge my gratitude to Marie Vickers from the Community Practitioners and Health Visitors' Association for the information—have shown and highlighted the cost to the health service and to society of the emotional stress which is suffered by people living in poor housing.

For children living in poor housing there are implications for their development. There are the implications of poor arrangements for the preparation and eating of food, particularly in the poorest private rented sector housing. There is also the connection between damp and mould and respiratory conditions. That has recently been highlighted by detailed studies by Peter Ambrose of Sussex University who has looked at problems in Stepney.

In addition to looking at more cross-departmental working at all levels of government, there is clearly also a need for the Government to look more closely at the revenue costs of health and other public services because we have failed to invest enough in decent housing in this country. The longer we put off taking a closer look at this, the longer we continue to try to keep up with the ever-growing revenue costs which are due to the lack of past capital investment.

I now turn to the particular problem of the number of elderly people living in poor housing. I am grateful to Age Concern for information that it has gleaned from the English House Condition Survey. Warm homes are particularly important to elderly people. Elderly people can be particularly susceptible to illnesses caused by damp and cold housing, such as bronchitis and hypothermia. This country has the worst record of deaths arising in winter, with people dying from hypothermia in their hundreds every year.

Although we now know from the House Condition Survey that 90 per cent. of homes in this country have central heating, looking at pre-1990 homes, 20 per cent. of owner-occupied homes and 40 per cent. of private tenants do not have central heating. That figures rises to 44 per cent. if you look at the private rented sector. In addition, 93 per cent. of homes have loft insulation, but only 14 per cent. actually meet the current building regulations on loft insulation.

Perhaps I can give your Lordships some of the statistics about where elderly people are living to illustrate the importance of this problem. Of the 2.7 million households living in poor housing over a million are older households. Single older people are more likely to live in poor housing. One in five over the age of 75 live in poor housing and nearly a quarter of people over 75 who live alone are in poor housing. Thirty per cent. of people over 85, some of the poorest in our country, live in very poor housing. Older people are significantly more likely to live in homes requiring essential modernisation.

As regards heating and insulation, I applaud the announcement made by the Government this morning that they are looking at holding a campaign to encourage people to save energy. That is important, but I ask the Government whether they will greatly increase the support for action under the Home Energy Conservation Act and under the home energy efficiency schemes? The amounts spent on those are small, considering the costs to the health bill for elderly people and environmental costs.

I end where I began. It is the most disadvantaged who live in the worst housing. Tonight I hope that we can have assurances from the Government that as we go into the new millennium the situation will rapidly be reversed and that we shall not have a standstill each time we have a report about house conditions in England. It is a situation that concerns the people in our society who are most disadvantaged.

7.44 p.m.

Baroness Goudie

My Lords, housing is an issue with which I am very familiar, both from my experience as a local councillor in Brent and from my work with an inner city housing association. It is a distressing and shameful fact that as we approach the millennium one home in 13 in England is officially classified as unfit for human habitation. As a direct consequence of housing policies pursued for the past two decades, one and a half million homes are uninhabitable. Half a million of those homes fell into that state between 1991 and 1996. The cutbacks in direct government support for housebuilding and renovation over the past 20 years have left us with a housing stock of rotting social housing, most of which is in the private rented sector, and an enormous backlog of maintenance. The longer those properties are left, the more it will cost to make them habitable.

We cannot disregard the social consequences of the situation. The 1996 English House Condition Survey showed how poverty and poor housing go together. There is also a strong association between poor housing and poor health. It is disturbing to discover that during the 1990s lone parents and people from ethnic minorities were increasingly being housed in sub-standard accommodation—minorities condemned to live in condemned homes. That is not the basis for social cohesion or social progress.

The Government's priorities on health and education are capable of achievement only if families have decent housing. I welcome the steps that the Government have taken to tackle the crisis. The release by my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister of capital receipts held by local authorities will provide a massive boost to public housing. That initiative will provide more than £800 million for local authorities over two years. As part of the Government's comprehensive spending review, a further £3.6 billion will be provided to help councils refurbish and repair at least 300,000 houses.

However, there is a particular problem in inner London. It is only since 1986 that building regulations, which apply throughout the rest of England and Wales, have covered inner London. Before 1986 many houses built for single-family occupation were converted into flats without provision for sound insulation, so tenants cannot avoid hearing the normal activities of their neighbours. Yet, even after 1986, inner London social housing continued to suffer because of the lack of capital resources for improvements.

While the previous government cut back on capital investment in housing, they also stopped councils from finding alternative means of funding housing projects. Their changes in relation to housing benefit prevented revenue from being raised through rents at a time when ring-fencing of the housing revenue account prevented this from being utilised for house repairs and investment. So inner London housing continues to be in desperate need of soundproofing to bring it up to an acceptable standard.

I welcome the start that the Government have made to remedying the situation and I look forward to further measures which will accelerate this remedial action.

7.47 p.m.

Baroness Uddin

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for bringing this matter before your Lordships' House as it affords me an opportunity to raise a number of points about my own experience as a councillor in Tower Hamlets. Many of your Lordships will be aware that about 90 per cent of councillors' surgeries are taken up by housing-related issues, and as a councillor I often felt paralysed, despite the desperation suffered by families.

Poor housing is defined in the English House Condition Survey 1996 report as that which is unfit, in substantial disrepair or requires essential modernisation. The report states that households which are the most likely to live in poor housing are—not to my surprise—those detailed by the noble Baroness. Among others, it mentions that the Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities are suffering in desperate conditions. The report says that since 1991 there has been a reduction in the proportion of households living in unmodernised homes, but it states that during the same period no significant changes have occurred to the situations experienced by the same group of people.

Many of your Lordships will be aware that during the period 1986 to 1990 the housing allocation in Tower Hamlets became synonymous with race. I wish to talk about that for a minute or two. Policies were deliberately initiated to keep out specific parts of the communities. Many of your Lordships will remember vividly the impact of the sons and daughters scheme based on residency points, thereby discriminating against Bangladeshis. Also, the council only agreed to newbuilds consisting of smaller properties—again discriminating against the Bangladeshi families; and there was selective targeting of resources for environmental improvements away from where Bengali families lived. Of course, who can forget the proposal to ship the homeless on the shore of the river Thames? The final impact felt was in the election of the National Front councillor in the Isle of Dogs.

Although somewhat belated, I bring this matter before the House because the housing crisis was significantly worsened by the policies enacted by the then Liberal council's stringent and discriminatory period of office and the impact is still felt. Since taking charge in 1994, the Labour council has worked extremely hard to repair some of the past damages. Our 1,000 homes promise was so welcomed by the housing associations in the borough that the council was able to deliver well in excess of that. Also, we were even able to re-negotiate with the LDDC to assist us in building new properties which had previously been said to be unthinkable. That was in exchange for land. The question is obvious: had we worked effectively as a team in previous years our part of the survey in the report may have told a different story.

There are approximately 76,000 dwellings in Tower Hamlets for which substantial investment is required; that is to say, around £450 million. The estimated disrepair costs only take account of the external repair needs of the council stock. Nothing is said about providing modern kitchens, bathrooms, installing central heating and so forth.

Tower Hamlets has a significant problem of overcrowding—exacerbated by the eight years of stringent and discriminatory housing policies by the then Liberal council, as I indicated earlier. And for many in the community the appearance of the LDDC ushered new hope of having access to a larger housing stock. However, while some of Docklands is characterised by new modern private apartments, other areas of the borough remain with old, run-down private housing.

With over 20,000 families on the waiting list and the historical baggage of which my noble friends and I have spoken, it is of extreme importance that this Government begin to address the housing crisis in the public and private sectors.

7.52 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, this is a timely debate. Like many others in this Chamber, I feel passionate about housing and am grateful to the noble Baroness for bringing this Unstarred Question before us today.

The English House Conditions Survey is an important quinquennial audit of social and economic trends in housing. This one, which features five of the six years of the last government, indicates that home ownership growth is slowing; that a disproportionate number of unemployed people live in the private rented sector; that lone parents are over represented and that the economically inactive are finding themselves pushed into that sector of housing.

The good news is that the stock is not getting worse. Only 1 per cent. lack basic amenities and 90 per cent. have access to central heating. Sadly, unfitness levels remain at the 1991 level. We need to get behind the Government's programme for reinvestment and renewal. I would argue that it is not just for government to act; we must all take responsibility. Government locally and nationally and both the public and private sectors must act together as partners.

That said, the Government's record to date makes impressive reading. They set out a framework for action and investment. Over the lifetime of this Parliament almost £5 billion-worth of extra investment will take place—£800 million of that from capital receipts, nearly £4 million released as a result of the CRS review. But it is not just about money; it is the freedom to act and invest across all sectors that is so valuable. It is also a restatement of councils' strategic housing purpose that is important. That is something that was taken away by the last government. There is also a continuous commitment to improvement through HIP/Best Value, private finance initiative and the new housing inspectorate to come.

I am heartened too by action on rents. The promise of action to prevent growth in the gulf between local authorities and the registered social landlord sector is extremely welcome. We are promised matched action in the private sector, all of which will make an important and significant difference.

The English House Condition Survey points the way to better targeting of resources and a clearer focus to public policy. Coming from Brighton and Hove, I believe that we need stronger and firmer action on leasehold reform and the creation of commonhold. All too often in my borough we have had to put up with second rate and third quality private sector housing, perhaps best epitomised by the treatment of that once beautiful Grade 2 starred listed building, Embassy Court, designed by the art deco builder Wells Coates. In that dwelling reside 73 tenants in appalling conditions fit only for the owner of the company to make a tidy profit—perhaps £1 million over the past decade. They live in housing which is not fit to benefit from that name.

In my borough 18 per cent. live in the private rented sector; 50 per cent. occupy pre-1990 housing; 13 per cent. of that housing is unfit; and 35,000 people live in homes of multiple occupation. The conditions in which those people live should not be tolerated in the present day and age. We have a strategy to deal with it. We have managed to generate enthusiasm from landlords in the private sector, estate agents, solicitors and mortgage companies to act to arrest that decline. We need more of that strategy nationally. Since 1993 we have brought back into use 1,800 properties from the private rented sector and prevented 400 families from being evicted and becoming homeless.

If we can see that translated into national and effective action as the Government intend, the future for the private rented sector and private housing generally will be far brighter, especially in light of the Government's new and determinedly interventionist strategy.

7.56 p.m.

Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde

My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, for tabling this Unstarred Question. It is obviously based on her many years' experience and interest in this sector. I declare an interest as chairman of the Housing Corporation, which regulates the registered social landlords.

In that capacity, in the past year since I was appointed, I have been going around the country seeing some of the appalling conditions in which we expect our citizens to live, usually the most vulnerable groups. The environment in which they live affects their whole lives. Indeed, the noble Baroness referred to the health situation. Today, coming up to the millennium, 1 million children in Britain live in housing declared by the survey to be unfit for occupation. That is quite an indictment of today's society.

The Housing Corporation regulates 1 million homes and, as the survey shows, they are in the best condition, need the fewest repairs and have the lowest number of faults. That is perhaps not too surprising; it is the newest sector within the whole housing field. But we require—I believe rightly—that maintenance of stock should take preference over expansion and new build. We must install a maintenance programme. We need greater freedom to spend money on major repairs on pre-1988 housing. Around £350 million will be spent over the next four years, plus an annual amount of between £80 million and £90 million.

It is true that bad stock condition is at the heart of much of our inner city decay. When we look at where we have a grip on those issues, we see that it has a profound effect on the quality of people's lives. I shall refer to the Holly Street development in London—everyone seems to know about it. Some of us perhaps get a bit fed up of it being held up as the one shining light in this sector. There is much more going on throughout the country, but not enough, as the survey shows.

The housing association put £20 million into the Holly Street development, being only one of the partners. There is also the local authority and the developers. The result of that investment meant that calls to the police dropped by two-thirds; crime itself dropped; calls to the hospital dropped by 20 per cent. and GP appointments time needed from the families of that community dropped by 30 per cent. That is a very good return on investment in the condition of the stock in any specific sector. We can see that if that was repeated throughout the country it would have a very positive effect on the lives of our citizens and their communities.

In view of the enormous amount of money which has been spent by all governments over the years, it is an appalling indictment that there has not been money available for repairs. Councils were not able to use their capital receipts to invest in repairs to their property. Of course, we all know of the release of the £5 billion capital receipts and the New Deal for Communities; and we welcome that. I welcome too the fact that we have a guaranteed, approved development programme for the Housing Corporation over the next three years. That is something we have not had before. We shall be targeting that money on areas where it is needed. The private sector is the one most strongly indicted by the report. Around 18 per cent. of all private rented households are worse in terms of unfitness compared with 6.7 per cent in the local authority rented sector.

It is an enormous problem. It has not arisen overnight and we shall not put it right overnight. But we have to get to grips with the problem because the conditions in which in too many areas our people are living are unacceptable in any modern society.

8 p.m.

Lord Ahmed

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, for raising this very important subject. As a councillor and vice-chairman of the housing board in Rotherham, I pose these questions.

How useful is the stock condition survey? Is it value for money? Clearly, it provides national information across tenures, and this informs national policy and resource allocation. To a certain extent the information supplies local authority associations, local authorities and registered social landlords with benchmarks against conditions in their districts. But are those benchmarks useful?

Local authorities are becoming expert at housing strategy across tenures and have to collect local information through local stock condition surveys, housing needs assessment and local market observations, and report much of this information through the housing investment programme process. They have immense difficulty bargaining for resources to address small areas of concentrated poverty, poor health and had housing, which are typically at estate or sub-ward level.

My point is that the national stock condition, housing need and deprivation data do not depict the real problems that local authorities and local communities face. For example, the national stock condition survey is based upon a sample of 12,100 properties from the national housing stock. The sample size would barely be adequate to define stock condition in my home town of Rotherham. Certain of its assumptions are not relevant to everyday life. For example, the report's definition of four dwellings with a central heating system is: A housing system with a distribution system sufficient to provide heat in at least one room, in addition to the room or space containing the boiler. In this report, the definition also includes electric storage heaters which run on off-peak electricity, and programmable gas convector heaters". I think noble Lords will agree that this is a level of heating that most people would not regard as adequate heating and does not give an accurate picture of investment needs or an appropriate benchmark. With affordable warmth being such an important factor in the health of people, surely this definition is inappropriate.

However, returning to my main theme, I question the relevance of the national survey on a regional basis. An important study by the Northern Consortium of Housing Authorities has drawn attention to the north-south divide as far as concerns housing condition, demand and vacancy rates. In low demand areas, property of all tenure is vacant and, in the language of the report, there is a high proportion of problematic void properties, many of which are unfit for human habitation through criminal damage, deterioration or lack of maintenance. It seems to me that the scale of importance of this problem is entirely missed by the report.

The attention of the House has already been drawn to the survey's finding that there has been an increase in the proportion of ethnic minorities occupying housing in the private rented sector and that others tend to be housed in local authority flats. I must ask why, in spite of equal opportunities legislation and an income maintenance system, there is apparently a failure in national housing policy which ensures that ethnic minorities tend to gain access to inferior housing.

Finally, returning to the question of the survey informing the national picture and supporting the Government's thinking on addressing social exclusion, health inequalities and joined-up thinking for regeneration, I express doubts that the stock condition survey is either relevant or necessary in its present form.

8.4 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I join other colleagues in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, for giving us the opportunity to discuss this subject. She began by expressing disappointment and pleasure. One of the pleasures is that we have increased the membership of the repertory company interested in housing. We have double figures. The noble Baroness and I remember times when housing was debated by only four or five speakers.

The noble Baroness said that housing is way down the political agenda. Sadly, by comparison with earlier days—I can go back some time—housing appears to be less important in the totality of the political agenda. But that is not true for the people who are affected by poor housing. I make the claim that good housing is not only the right of everyone but that lack of good housing is the cause of more misery in terms of family break-up, disease, ill-health, and so on. We have a national stake in improving the quality of the housing in which our people live.

I welcome the widening owner-occupied sector of the community, but, sadly, that has led to local councils and housing associations being deprived of a stock of housing that would be useful at any one time for housing those in need. Fortuitously, last week I received a letter from a former constituent, a Mrs. Howard, of 62 Chamberlain Road. I shall read the letter without embellishment. She states: My daughter is and has been living in damp flat for 10 years. Her ceilings had fallen down, her electricity had blown because of damp and wet walls and ceilings. She has four children …; Kane is 11 years…; Mellissa is 9, Abbey is 3, and Matthew is fifteen months. They have been in hospital, having asthma, and have cold and flu all the time. The wallpaper has fallen off every time she decorates. She has had damp course and was told it was unfit for anyone. She has a convector. Water has run down the walls from the roof". She goes on to say: My daughter has pains in her legs, back and arms through the damp. I have sat there of a night and been wet and gone home and been ill myself. The children should not have to live like this. She has letters. Please would you see her flat". Letters like that make me weep real tears, as they did when I was a Member of Parliament and met people living in those conditions. We need to do something about it. I say to the Minister, who has our goodwill, that he and his colleagues should attempt to improve the grants and the moneys given to the Housing Corporation.

The Housing Corporation was the main housing instrument of the previous government, who denuded and deprived local councils. All of their work was done through the Housing Corporation. Yet, over the past five years the money given to it was reduced from in excess of £2 billion to below £700 million. That is a scandal and a disgrace. The position is in the process of being reversed and, by the release of council housing receipts, councils will get more money. However, at the end of the day, more money needs to be found by the Government in one way or another to enable the Housing Corporation and councils to do their job.

Today I received a press release from the Federation of Master Builders. In it, Mr. Derrick Ovington, the Federation's national president, says: Public sector workloads reported by our members are in decline compared with a year ago…; This has been the trend for the last six months, yet we read about increased orders by the public sector. It prompts me to ask just where is the money going?". I want to encourage the Minister to recognise the breadth of knowledge displayed in the debate. He has some good friends behind him in this matter—but not so many in front of him—and I ask him to look upon the debate as a launching pad for providing more money to improve the housing stock of this country.

8.10 p.m.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, as a friend in front of the Minister, I should like to add my four minutes' worth to this important debate. I should declare an interest. I am president of the National Home Improvement Council. Like other noble Lords who have spoken, I am indebted to my noble friend Lady Maddock for introducing this subject so effectively. I have been much impressed by the speeches of other noble Lords from their experience in this subject.

What is quite clear is that the survey has shown that there has been no improvement in the quality of England's housing stock. The use of the poor housing standard to which the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, referred, shows that there are 2.8 million dwellings in this country which come in the poor housing category out of the 20 million in total, or approaching 15 per cent. This is a horrific total and, as far as I can tell, far worse than in any other Western European country.

It seems to me that the situation in which we are with this relatively high level of poor housing must have led successive governments to decide that we need to build another 4.4 million houses in order to meet housing needs. Here I must say that I fully share the views expressed so effectively by the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, that too little regard has been paid to refurbishment and repair and too much resource has been put, and is still being put, into new house-build which is bound to spill over into rural communities, whatever efforts are made to limit it. This is a crucially important issue.

At the present time something like £3 billion of public expenditure is devoted to housing, and this £3 billion more or less keeps the situation under control but does not improve it. The Government have committed themselves under the spending review to raise this progressively over the next three years to £5.5 billion. This will undoubtedly help the situation and will enable us, I hope, to see when the next review is carried out that some improvement has at long last been achieved.

However, the difficulty is that the bulk of the expenditure has been devoted to public sector housing: yet the bulk of the problem lies in the private sector.

Seventy per cent. of the homes in this country are owner occupied and a further 9 per cent. is private rented property. It is in that last category, as many noble Lords have said, that the worst problems arise. So far as I can tell, only about 25 per cent. of the expenditure on housing committed by the Government is going to go into the private sector, whereas well over 80 per cent. of the problem lies there. I think this is the essential problem. Something serious has got to be done to try to stimulate, incite and support the owner-occupiers and landlords to improve the standards of their housing.

It seems to me that the progressive reduction in the level of discretionary grants is something that needs to be reversed very urgently. I feel also that fiscal measures need to be taken to stimulate private householders to improve their properties, and I think that a great deal of thought needs to be given to the thorny problem of how to stimulate private landlords to do likewise. I know it is not going to be easy, but unless a variety of measures of this sort are devised to deal with the problem where it essentially lies, in the private sector, we shall continue to have a very large proportion of poor housing in this country.

8.13 p.m.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I too would like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, for giving us the opportunity to have this debate tonight. If she did have a slight swing at the fact that I was the only one on this Bench at that stage, perhaps I may remind her that the noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, who cannot be here tonight, has in fact consistently put down Questions on empty houses and on other housing matters.

Perhaps I may now—because time is short—turn quickly to the report. It has highlighted many issues covered already by other speakers tonight, so I shall not go over the same ground. I should like to touch on one or two matters. One is the increased number of vacant dwellings, which was highlighted in the report. Secondly, I should like to refer to the conversion of flats which are in bad repair. I think that the whole issue of flats is one particular item that we need to look at. The report was also critical of the housing stock held by local authorities, as well as of the fact that, with local authorities, re-lets take up to eight weeks to complete, whereas registered social landlords turn round their housing within six weeks. There is also the fact that 80,000 council houses are in fact vacant.

I do understand what other noble Lords have said: there is a big problem within our housing provision. I should also like to raise one or two other issues. The noble Baroness, Lady Dean, spoke of the importance of housing associations and the role that they play. I should like, if I may, to highlight—because I come from Leicester—the very exciting project which has happened on Bede Island, where government money put up by the previous government in City Challenge, the local authority, the housing association and the builders all came together to take on board this Bede Island site. It was a brownfield site and now there is social housing, a business park and also student accommodation, along with other housing. It is a good example of what can happen if there is the will. I think that in this House tonight we are talking about the will to get better housing for everyone. We are not just concerned with certain aspects of certain housing.

The noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, also touched on the ageing population, who tend themselves to live in ageing housing. I should like to ask the Minister who is to respond whether the Government have any particular projects to bring forward on this issue. The White Paper which has just come out will link strands not only of housing but of education, employment, health, social exclusion and transport. They are all interlinked and I believe that this debate tonight has shown that it is not just a matter of housing but also includes other issues.

Certainly one of the areas in my home town of Loughborough very much reflected the need to ensure not only that the housing is good but that other issues are considered as an important part of regeneration there. So, in thanking the noble Baroness, perhaps I may also raise with the Minister one or two other matters. In looking to this new housing which is going to be provided, will he please look with all seriousness at brownfield sites? By brownfield sites, I do not mean just contaminated sites but building sites which were formerly used for industrial purposes. I think that local authorities have within their own bounds a lot of land and property that is not actually contaminated but which could and should be used. I wonder whether perhaps the noble Lord would like to touch on that.

Finally, may I say to the noble Lord that there is much concern on these Benches about the possibility of all this new housing coming along on greenfield sites? I hope that when responding he may also touch on that.

8.18 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, I very much welcome this opportunity given to us by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, in initiating this debate and using as her text the English House Condition Survey. The results of the survey are seen by the Government as providing a valuable and, as far as possible, up-to-date indication of the state of the housing stock. I certainly take some of the points which were raised by my noble friend Lord Ahmed; I shall come back to those in a moment.

The survey gives an overall picture, and the big picture is that between 1991 and 1996, although there was an improvement in the provision of facilities and services such as central heating and modern kitchens, there was actually no overall change in levels of unfitness or disrepair. That is a problem for us all. Half a million houses did improve but half a million deteriorated. As my noble friend Lady Goudie and others indicated, the local authority stock did, in that process, show a relative deterioration, reflecting reductions and changes in emphasis in public expenditure and other policies by the last government. We have now estimated that in this sector alone there is a backlog of some £10 billion in terms of repairs. My noble friend Lord Graham and others gave telling examples of people having to live in this sort of housing, both in the public and private sectors.

As far as the local authority sector is concerned, this Government are determined to tackle the backlog. The severe lack of resources in the past meant poor housing conditions as well as failures in delivery by many local authorities. Substantial investment in the renovation of the stock is key to future housing policy and is a top priority for this Government. We should not tolerate poor housing conditions in any tenure, least of all that for which the public sector is directly responsible. The Government have already acted to improve the condition of the housing stock. We are making available an additional £5 billion for investment in housing over the lifetime of this Parliament.

Most of this money is being routed through local authorities, who are expected to direct resources mainly, but not exclusively, towards improving their own local authority stock. The resources made available last year and this through our capital receipts initiative are already delivering improvements to around 300,000 homes. We expect improvements to be delivered in a further 1.5 million council homes over the next three years. It is important to recognise that our general approach has been that local authorities will prioritise their own stock. This is in part a reflection of the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra. However, they will also have scope to invest in renovating the private rented and owner-occupied sectors or in the provision of new social housing where that reflects their own local housing priorities.

To reply to the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, the majority of housing is indeed privately owned in Britain and the prime responsibility must remain with the private owners. However, it is true that not everyone is able to afford to provide the necessary level of repairs. Renovation grants need to continue to be available to those who are most in need. This year we have allocated £168 million to local authorities in England for private sector renewal. There is a separate ring-fenced allocation of £60 million for disabled facilities grant expenditure in this area. We expect this to support, in practice, around £280 million worth of expenditure on private sector renewal. We have also allocated an additional £2.7 million for the home improvement agency programme over the next three years.

As I think my noble friend Lord Bassam was hinting, we need to look at scope for bringing private finance into activities which have traditionally been paid for solely from public funds. I am pleased that a number of authorities and other bodies, including lending institutions, are working together to make affordable loans available to, for example, elderly home owners for whom the noble Baronesses, Lady Maddock and Lady Byford, indicated their concern, for repairs and improvements in their houses, using the equity in their own homes. Those institutions and authorities are still considering ways, including the possibility of setting up partnerships, through which this assistance may be made more widely available.

In proportionate terms the greatest problem is in the private rented sector. If the housing market is to work in the interests of all, we must see an improvement in quality and accessibility in the private rented sector. I noted what my noble friend Lord Bassam said about the actions of the Brighton and Hove authority in tackling some of the deep-seated problems in that area. There are many other authorities which must make similar provisions and will be supported by the Government.

Some of the worst conditions are in houses in multiple occupation. The Government are firmly committed to introducing a mandatory national licensing scheme for multiple-occupation properties to provide better protection for the tenants who live in them. We are examining the options for such a system and will shortly be issuing a consultation paper.

There is still, frankly, too much sub-standard accommodation, not only in the multiple-occupier sector but in other areas of private rented accommodation at the lower end of the market. While the Government would prefer to see this dealt with by a voluntary approach where landlords recognise their own responsibilities without the need for further regulation, bearing in mind what the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, says, we would give consideration to taking further powers and re-directing resources should such an approach not work.

Local authorities already have statutory enforcement powers in this area. We are looking at the effectiveness of those powers. The comprehensive spending review dealt with housing in a broader context. Many noble Lords have referred to that—the relationship between housing, regeneration and social policy. In addition to the increased resources for housing, the new spending plans provide over £3 billion over the next three years for a new deal for regeneration. My noble friend Lady Uddin referred to Tower Hamlets. The noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, referred to other parts of inner London. They are in desperate need, as are many other areas of the country, of a comprehensive approach to regeneration. The package we are proposing includes £800 million under the new deal for communities. That aims to bring together investment in buildings, people and better job prospects as well as in improved neighbourhood management and better delivery of local services in some of the most deprived neighbourhoods of our country.

Regeneration is a wide problem. It involves aspects of personal and community health as well as problems of social exclusion. My noble friend Baroness Dean and others referred to the problems of social exclusion. The Social Exclusion Unit published its report Bringing Britain together: a national strategy for neighbourhood renewal last month. That report describes the problems of deprived neighbourhoods, such as the greater prevalence of dereliction and high unemployment and low educational achievement. As part of the way forward, we have set up 18 action teams across government and focused the £2.3 billion single regeneration budget on those problems. Eighty per cent. of the new resources will be concentrated on major regeneration schemes in the most deprived areas. The remaining 20 per cent. will fund schemes tackling smaller pockets of deprivation outside those areas.

On health, the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, referred to the elderly. My noble friend Lady Dean referred to the health of children. Housing and health are interrelated. I am tempted to remember that Nye Bevan's ministry was the Ministry of Housing and Health. We must recognise again the association between housing and health, particularly in relation to cold and damp housing. Our work on the development of the new fitness rating will help to target action. The extra resources we have provided for tackling the problems of the worst housing will help in that regard. We are working closely with the Department of Health.

One of the other social problems mentioned several times by my noble friend Lord Ahmed, the noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, my noble friend Lady Uddin and probably others is the disproportionate effect on ethnic minorities of poor housing. That is partly a wider problem of the concentration of ethnic minorities within the poorer districts of our land. But even taking that into account, there is a much higher concentration, particularly of families of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin, in areas of poor housing.

My noble friend Lady Uddin referred to the sorry story of Tower Hamlets in certain previous eras which, being generous, I would say brought some embarrassment to the leadership of the Liberal Democrat Party as well as to the citizens of Tower Hamlets. Any local authority which aggravates those social divisions, particularly in the housing area, causes graver social problems across the board.

The noble Baroness, Lady Dean, and my noble friend Lord Graham both referred to the Housing Corporation and housing associations. They are responsible for keeping their stock in good order. The Housing Corporation's resources are being reversed. Approved development programmes of the Housing Corporation will provide some assistance for major repairs and improvements among registered social landlords who have not been able to build up sufficient provision to repair stock which was built prior to 1988.

Although the majority of the stock which the registered social landlords and Housing Corporation have may be new stock, there is a substantial backlog there as well.

The corporation has given RSLs greater freedom to use their rent surplus to fund reserves for carrying out work in a flexible way to eliminate the problems they have in their pre-1988 stock. I take the points made by my noble friend Lord Graham about resourcing the Housing Corporation and better allocation and follow through of those resources, but we have made a beginning.

My noble friend Lady Dean and the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, reported on particular schemes where there is a clear and large social return as a result of action in terms of renovation and repair undertaken by social landlords.

The health problems caused by cold and damp have been mentioned. Reference has also been made to those who suffer from fuel poverty, as has the degree to which that leads to much larger problems. There is an inter-relationship between tackling that problem and tackling the problems of the global climate. Better insulation and more fuel-efficient housing will tackle both problems at the same time. We have been reviewing our policy in that area, including the operation of the home energy efficiency scheme. We have already allocated an additional £150 million to that following the Comprehensive Spending Review. When we came into office—

Baroness Maddock

My Lords, perhaps I may press the Minister a little on this point. If one looks at the cost to the health service of treating people who suffer ill health because of damp housing—it has been estimated to cost billions of pounds—one realises that £150 million is but a small sum. Is there any prospect of the Government getting to grips rather more with this issue?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, some of the broader housing repairs will probably improve problems caused by dampness and cold. Therefore, we are talking about more than the £150 million which has been allocated specifically to deal with those problems. I believe that I said that we are reviewing our whole policy in that area and that we hope to report back relatively soon.

A number of technical points were raised. My noble friend Lord Ahmed referred to the basis of the survey. Any survey has its drawbacks and it is important that this survey is supplemented by individual local authorities making detailed assessments of their own housing needs. We are considering the development and testing of a new fitness rating to replace the current standard. That will obviously have an effect on the statistical sample.

The question of empty property was also mentioned. We are attempting to tackle that in both the private and public sectors. We are now pressing some 200 local authorities to take action in areas where there are substantial numbers of empty properties.

In the time available to me, I think that I have covered most of the points raised. This survey reveals the extent of the problem. For the sake of the social and physical health of those who live in poor housing, I hope that this debate has given an indication of the Government's determination to reverse the decline in investment in housing and, in particular, to tackle the problems of poor housing in our poorest neighbourhoods and among our poorest communities.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8.35 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.32 to 8.35 p.m.]