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The Government refuse to say what a fair rent is, yet many people are spending up to 40 per cent. of their net income on rent. In some cases nurses are spending 39 per cent. of their net income, even taking account of their recent pay rise.
Rural housing has been hit, too. In the villages of England people are living in the holiday accommodation during the winter and are having to move out when the holiday period begins. They then move to the towns, present themselves as homeless or drift around.
Mr. Soley : I know that is a county. In Dorset right now people are using holiday accommodation lets and moving into the-- [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) does not believe me--
What else do people do when they leave their holiday lets? They move in with relatives or wherever they can find accommodation in towns. Of course, in many areas they cannot find accommodation, and they end up sleeping rough.
We are moving towards having ghettoes in our city areas where there will be the sort of crime and vandalism which the Government try to pin on local authorities. People have died behind their cast iron doors, which prevented the fire brigade from gaining access. The House should remember that those people installed such doors out of fear. People have to take such measures because the Government will not give local authorities the money needed to provide a good 24-hour concierge system. They starved my council of money for the Edward Woods estate almost long enough to push out of the annual programme the system that was designed to come into effect, but the council managed to keep it in. If the Government really cared, they would make sure that they helped good management.
The Government's problem is that they do not understand that housing is about supply and management. If there is bad management, whether in the private or public sectors, something must be done about it. It is no good picking one or two councillors one does not like and putting the boot in. A housing problem must first be acknowledged and then the solution sought. That means more building, renovating and repairing. It also means that something must be done about bad management.
The Minister said that he thought that people should have a choice of landlord, but he does not believe that. He believes that local authority tenants should be able to vote once only to change their landlord. But a tenant of Mr. Hoogstraten, Mr. Sonssa or Mr. Rachman would not have that choice. Let me give the House a commitment. The next Labour Government will give tenants of non-resident landlords the right to change their landlord, and, by God, we shall see some landlords changing then. We shall do what the Audit Commission and the internal report of the Department of the Environment said and we shall see people returning to the public sector because, as the report said, local authority housing management is better than that of housing associations and as good as the best.
Column 430has to finish at 7 o'clock and we should deploy that time sensibly so that I can call as many hon. Members as possible. Therefore, may we have brief speeches, please?
Mr. Nicholas Bennett : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. You will recall that the debate was originally due to take place on 1 February on an Opposition Supply day. Will you investigate the distribution of today's Order Paper, because, with only six Labour Back Benchers present, it is clear that not all Labour Members are aware that the debate is taking place?
The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) referred to holiday accommodation in Dorset. I hope that in the near future as a result of Government legislation much of that will cease to be holiday accommodation and become permanent accommodation. Landlords have holiday accommodation not because there is more money in it but because in the past they could not get the right sort of tenancy agreement to ensure repossession. I want to see more people living permanently in west Dorset rather than have the place flooded with holiday accommodation which is empty in the winter months ; that is bad news.
It is right that the debate should focus primarily on housing problems in the urban areas, but, as the hon. Member for Hammersmith said, there are problems in the rural areas, too. The scale is different, but there are unhappy people in rural areas just as there are in the towns. It is in that context that I welcome the statement made by my noble Friend the Minister for Housing, Environment and Countryside the other day that there would be an increase in the rural allocation for rented accommodation in 1990-91 and 1991-92. No one would deny that that increase is a drop in the ocean. A figure of 900 extra houses in 1990-91 is small. That figure goes up to 1,100 in 1991-92. That is nothing in the rural areas unless it is supported and enhanced by the activities of housing associations.
Just a few months ago in my constituency a debate was organised by the Dorset county council which set out clearly our involvement with housing associations. I have set a personal target for west Dorset of 500 new housing association houses to rent or buy by the end of 1990. That target is achievable, but only under two conditions. The first and most important is that land should be given to housing associations, or at the very worst, provided at low cost. One may ask where that land will come from, but I can tell the House that in Dorset and Somerset many landlords who are members of the Country Landowners Association and the National Farmers Union, are perfectly prepared to give half an acre or an acre of land towards that end. They want to see local housing for local people at reasonable rents. That will come about, but not unless one particular area of mistrust is cleared up, and that is whether land given to a housing association for that purpose might be deemed at increased value for capital gains. This worry has not yet been cleared up.
Column 431Everybody says that the point is being addressed, but why on earth does it need to be addressed? If people of their own volition are prepared to make a gift of land or to let it go at one tenth of the sum that such land would make on the open market for housing, why cannot the Treasury say that that is in the interests of the community and those who need houses and give a categorical assurance that there will be no such tax?
Secondly, there is the matter of planning. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment was right to make it clear the other day that he hoped that local authorities would look more sympathetically at planning approval for housing association schemes for local people at low cost and to rent. I pay tribute to West Dorset district council which is implementing that policy. It is a dangerous policy, because a few starter homes may be included in the hope that approval will be given for a larger scheme. That is not what this is about. I hope that planners will significantly bend the rules for housing association schemes to help small villages. We are not talking about an estate of 200 or 300 houses but about a block of six or eight houses at the most for small villages in my constituency. If such housing does not come about, we shall see the continuing depopulation of our rural areas, along with the closure of sub- post offices and pubs, which is the last thing that I want to see.
My plea to the Government is : please obtain that assurance from the Treasury. If we get that, we shall be able to get on with our building.
Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North) : After 10 years in office the Government have managed to land themselves in one enormous mess on their housing policy. The Minister laughs, but if he looks at what is going on sector by sector, the evidence is plain for anybody to see. One principal cause of that is the Government's market philosophy, which has been demonstrated not to work in housing matters. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) has given some examples of that and I shall give some further examples.
The truth of the matter is that housing policy does not lend itself to a non-interventionist policy. The Government should recognise that they must continue to engage with local authorities, housing associations and others in order to do something about housing. The more one disengages, the greater the problems are.
The truth of what I say becomes more and more apparent when the situation is looked at sector by sector. For example, the owner-occupied sector, for which there is all-party support-- [Interruption.] There may be the odd exception but, broadly speaking, all parties' official policy is to support owner-occupation. High interest rates are now putting property, particularly for first-time buyers, out of their range. People simply cannot afford to get into the owner-occupier market-- [Interruption.] That might happen in the long term but it has not happened across the board yet. We find that people cannot enter the market. Indeed, some people are having to leave that sector because of the problems of high interest rates.
The hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) seems to think that there is something wonderful about high interest rates and mortgage costs. Perhaps I could summon up in
Column 432support of my argument no less an authority than the right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit), who writes in today's Evening Standard as follows :
"High mortgage rates are very unpopular but it is mortgage rates in the year before an election, not the second year after one which affect the general election result."
That tells us a great deal about the cynicism of the right hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Holt : Perhaps the hon. Gentleman needs a basic lesson in the economics of housing. The mortgage is one thing ; the price of the houses is another. Where houses cannot be sold because the mortgages are difficult to repay that stabilises and brings down the prices, which is what my right hon. Friend was saying in the article.
Mr. Howarth : I do not entirely accept that, because the point I am making is that all sorts of other factors are brought to bear. The burden of my argument is that, as a direct result of high interest rates, there are people who are being prevented from entering the market and, equally, there are people who are being forced to leave the market because they cannot sustain their mortgage repayments. That is a simple fact of life at present. Whatever the long-term effects on that of macroeconomic policy, as matters stand that is what is happening.
The other problem, which I have mentioned before in the House but which bears repetition, is that we have consistently falling standards of construction, space and materials. I make it a practice to go on a fairly regular basis and look at new properties that are being built, some of them co-operative--in which I am heavily involved in my constituency--and some in the private sector. We are seeing properties which in 20 years time will be slums which are either put on the market or rented. That is because of the great pressure on people to get into the market at almost any cost. People do not have the kinds of choice that the Government would have us believe exist and consequently are forced either to rent--or in some cases, tragically, to purchase--properties of an appalling standard which will be real problem properties in 20 years' time.
Mr. Trippier : I am listening to the hon. Gentleman's argument very carefully. He has not addressed the point that I touched on in my opening remarks when I talked about the fact that we have the highest percentage of public sector housing stock anywhere in the western world. In his constituency and that of the hon. Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. Hughes) there is a very high number of council houses. One of the biggest problems that they face is the management of that stock. I do not want to make a political point, but that stock was not built during the period that this Government have been in office. He and I are trying to do something about it together, and I am with his local authority.
Another part of the problem in connection with owner-occupation currently is the whole mess of subsidy. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith mentioned that mortgage income tax relief costs about £6 billion. No one is against the idea that people who need help to get into the market should be given it through tax relief or by some other means. But what we have now is a totally
Column 433unselective subsidy that does not serve any housing policy of which I know. Furthermore, for a Government that seem so obsessed with targeting other benefits, it is very strange that this very general policy should be sustained. I suspect that that reflects a little of the cynicism of the right hon. Member for Chingford because there is a definite electoral sweetie or bribe in that housing policy. That has to be sorted out if something is to be done about housing. I do not intend to go into the question of the private rented sector at any length. The Minister deplores the fact that only about 8 per cent. of the current stock in this country is private landlord stock. He might try and look at some of the causes of that. The Government have been in power for 10 years and that figure has not dramatically increased, but has declined, in that period. There are very real barriers to that market developing and one is that people do not trust it. Many of my constituents are familiar with the history of the Rachman era and are very cautious indeed about seeing that as a means of finding satisfactory housing. Other barriers have to do with the economics of housing in general, and the House will be familiar with the arguments which my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith adduced.
The 1988 Act, which was supposed to deal with that, will not change the situation at all, because it did not deal with the root causes of the problem ; it dealt with a series of rather fancy measures that will not change the situation at all. I suspect that the Minister already knows that it has failed to reinvigorate the private rented sector as they had hoped. That being the case, that policy has failed even on the Government's own terms.
The Minister referred with some accuracy to some of the problems that exist in the borough of Knowsley, part of which I represent. I accept, and the Minister knows that my local authority accepts, that some of the problems connected with council housing in Knowsley stem from the difficulty of managing and maintaining a very large council stock. Originally, in 1974, there were, I think, 39,000 council houses in Knowsley, but with a combination of right to buy and some demolition and so on, the figure is now down to some 24,000. My local authority accepts that there is a problem in managing and maintaining a stock of council housing on that scale, so the policy of the borough of Knowsley is not to build any more properties. It feels that the policy for the foreseeable future should be concentrated on correcting the problems with the stock it already has and that any new housing needs should be met through housing co-operatives and associations, which it supports very well and vigorously. I accept that it is not necessarily always the case that local authority housing is the only way forward. On the other hand, even in the borough of Knowsley--the Minister is aware of these figures--and even with that policy, we currently need, to put the 24,000 properties with which we are left into some sort of reasonable order, £20 million a year. I use this as an example to illustrate the problems of local authorities.
The housing investment programme allocation, even though it has recently gone up slightly, is still only about £4 million. With the use of capital receipts and other devices, perhaps that can be raised to £10 million, but that means that £10 million which needs to be spent on those properties every year is not being spent. Therefore, there
Column 434will be an even further deterioration in the quality of life of the people who live in council houses, brought about not by the mismanagement of the local authority but by the scarcity of resources.
The Government's solution to that is to introduce market conditions through the provisions in part IV of the 1988 Act. I will not go through all the arguments that my hon. Friends make, but I know, the House knows and anybody who takes an interest in housing knows, that those provisions will not work. What they have done is spread fear and concern among council tenants.
What is quite staggering about this is that in many areas people who did not rate the council very highly as a landlord before this Act was put on the statute book are now saying that their local authority is wonderful. The Government hoped that they had denigrated local authorities, but they have succeeded in some areas in making the tenants appreciate the local authorities.
In the housing association and housing co-operatives sector, in which I take a great interest, with the changes in mixed funding, in areas where the cost-value relationship is wrong--and that includes London and the whole of Merseyside--the very device that the Government said would increase the supply of money to housing associations and co-operatives will simply mean that the schemes will not get off the ground. The financial institutions will not engage in that kind of arrangement where the cost- value relationship is wrong, as it is in many parts of the country. I suspect that, once we reach the end of the first year of this new mixed funding arrangement there will be a massive underspend because the scheme cannot be applied in many parts of the country. That is something of which the Government have also made a mess.
So after 10 years, in every sector imaginable, the Government have made an absolute hash of housing policy. They have done nothing to deal with the needs of people, nothing to create new housing for people in need. They have just let the market rip, and the market simply is not working.
Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South) : Before I came to the House, I had the privilege of being housing chairman in the city of Birmingham. I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Mr. Trippier) on his excellent speech and his grasp of the subject.
I wish to broaden the debate a little. It is worth pointing out that we have a record number of homes in this country. The housing stock now stands at 23 million dwellings, an increase of about a third since 1961, and as a result we have a lot more property of all kinds. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) mentioned that there were about 20,000 families in difficulties. What he forgot to do was to put that in the context of 14.5 million owner-occupiers, some 9 million of them with mortgages ; 25 per cent. of those people own their properties outright.
In council housing, the subject of some of the speeches from the Opposition Benches, we have now about 6 million properties. If we compare that with 1961, we find that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is in charge of a hell of a lot more council housing than her Conservative predecessors. I looked at the number of council house lettings and was surprised to find that the
Column 435figure is still running at some 450,000 a year. That is also a very high level. I do not know whether my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is aware that she has one of the best records in charge of council housing of any Conservative Prime Minister since the war. I am not sure that that was her objective, but it is true.
The accusation by the Opposition that fewer houses are being built will not stick either. I listened with the greatest care to the hon. Member for Hammersmith. He talked about some of these little leaflets being incomplete. I hesitate to suggest that he is a bit incomplete, Madam Deputy Speaker, because you might rule that that was a little unparliamentary, but he certainly picked some incomplete statistics. His figures, for example, for the number of houses being built started at 1980. If we start at 1979, when we took power, we find that the number of public starts was 81,000 and the number of private starts was 144,000, giving us a total of 225,000 starts.
In 1987, the number of public starts was 32,000 and the number of private starts 191,000, giving virtually the same total, 223,000. Mr. Soley indicated dissent.
Mrs. Currie : The hon. Member for Hammersmith may shake his head, but I got these figures not from the Government but from the House of Commons Library. My hon. Friend who will answer the debate may have more up -to-date information, as the figures in the Library are for only the first nine months of 1988, but if we gross up those figures for the whole year, we arrive not at 225,000--the figure for 1979--and not 223,000--the figure for 1987--but 240,000 in a full year for 1988. The simple fact is that we are not building fewer houses. Taking the two together, public and private, we are building roughly the same number.
It is certainly true to say that public sector new build has fallen. It has been falling for years--and a jolly good thing too. In 1979, there were 81,000 public sector starts ; in 1987, there were only 31,000. But if we go back to the first year of the Labour Government of which I believe the hon. Member for Hammersmith was a very proud member, 1974, the figure was 146,000, an enormously larger number than they finished with in 1979. We all had the pleasure tonight of watching him standing there wriggling, a little embarrassed, a little ashamed, at the Dispatch Box, saying that he was not too proud of the housing record of the last Labour Government--and absolutely right.
There are three reasons why the Labour Government did not build council houses--whatever their policy was, they did not do it. First, they could not afford it. Secondly, it was not needed. The slum clearance programmes of the post-war period were coming to an end. We had shifted 1.5 million households and it was no longer necessary to do that kind of clearance. Thirdly, it was not wanted. People do not want council housing. They want their own houses, and the Labour party now belatedly recognises this.
Nobody has mentioned tonight the quality of the housing stock. There is a lot more of it, and it is a lot sounder than it has ever been in the nation's history. I am told that there are five basic amenities--an inside loo, a fixed bath in the bathroom, a wash basin, a sink and hot and cold water at three points. If we take the number of properties in England and Wales that lack those amenities, we find that over the past 20 years, despite a widening of
Column 436the definition of these basic amenities, the proportion of the dwelling stock lacking one or more such facilities has fallen from 25 per cent. to under 3 per cent.--that is, fewer than three homes in 100. I would like to bet that most of them are in the areas covered by Labour councils.
Renovation of property is something that I was very keen to do in the city of Birmingham. We had enveloping schemes and we did our best to ensure that people could live where they wanted, in the homes that they wanted to live in, and that those homes were in good order. In the five years under Labour, 1974 to 1979--these are not incomplete statistics, and I have taken them again from the Library--over 160,000 houses a year on average were improved. In the past five years, an average of over 440,000 have been improved every year. Our homes are in better nick than they have ever been and that is because people want to stay in their own homes and they want advice and assistance and support to improve them. That is what we have been doing. Of course, the hon. Members on the Opposition Benches used to build their council houses. They are welcome to them. The fact is that they built dismal, damp dumps--they have already been called "concrete jungles" twice--more tatty tenements, more miserable places, more tower blocks named after the Labour chairmen of the housing committees--and people do not want them. They did not want them then and they do not want them now. Nobody wants to live in those grotty estates that were built in those years. People want to live in modern, private houses, put up by private builders who have an eye to the market, an eye to the customers and what the customers want. When people had no choice, Labour built them junk. They expected them to be grateful. Now people have some choice and they do not want to live in those houses any more.
Mr. Heffer : The hon. Lady must be aware that it was a Labour Government that first brought in the idea of housing action areas and assistance to modernise houses. We were also responsible for bringing in enveloping. Perhaps she does not know that. Some of us do know it because we were here at the time when we were getting it through the House.
Mrs. Currie : The hon. Gentleman is quite right. They passed lots of legislation, lots of it. They did not have the money to implement most of it and the resulting council property is still a slur on the face of the Labour party and the Labour councils.
Mrs. Currie : I merely say to the House that, as far as I and most of my constituents are concerned, the Labour party is welcome to its claims that it built council housing in the 1960s and 1970s. I look forward to the day when more councils will do what Solihull has just done and pull those properties down. That is what the tenants really want.
I want to make two more points, the first of which concerns mortgage rates. Again, I went to the Library and looked up the figures. Incidentally, as has been mentioned,
Column 437this is something of a re-run debate. The first one was supposed to be held in Opposition time. I happened to see the original motion in the Table Office--it just happened to be lying there when I went in one day. The people who worded it cannot spell "mortgage" ; the Table Office had to put it right. Anyway, I looked up the interest rates at the time the Labour party was in government and hon. Members opposite were Housing Ministers. In only one year, very briefly in 1978-- what about this for cynicism?--was the mortgage rate in single figures. Almost the whole time the Labour party was in power the mortgage rate was over 11 per cent. Indeed, it stood at 12 per cent. in May 1979, just before the election. In those days it was a fixed rate ; there was no shopping around. The banks were not giving loans to ordinary people, and borrowers did not have the opportunity that now exists to shop around for the best bargain or for whatever suited them. I give the Chancellor my full support in his efforts to stabilise the housing market. The rapid house price inflation that we saw last year was unhelpful to everyone. No one could support or argue in favour of it. And it was aggravated by lower interest rates. Heaven only knows why, the moment interest rates go into single figures, everybody in this country thinks that it is a green light. Nobody in West Germany thinks that an interest rate of 9 per cent. is low. People there do not behave like that, but we in this country do. Well, so long as we think that as soon as the interest rate reached 9 per cent, we should borrow enormous amounts of money that we cannot afford, interest rates will have to stay where they are.
The Labour party should come clean about one topic that it has mentioned. The hon. Members for Hammersmith and for Knowsley, North (Mr. Howarth) talked about mortgage interest tax relief, did they not? They talked about how much it costs, did they not? They should tell us whether they are going to abolish mortgage interest tax relief. They should come clean and say, "We do not like mortgage interest tax relief, and we are going to abolish it." They should say that that will be in their manifesto for the next election. Mr. George Howarth rose--
The Labour party should come absolutely clean about mortgage interest tax relief. Hon. Members opposite should say that they do not like it and that they are going to abolish it, and that should be in their manifesto. If, however, they recognise that mortgate interest tax relief helps many people to get on to the housing ladder for the first time, and that it is welcomed by those people, particularly by people in constituencies like mine, they should stop criticising it and admit that it is a good thing.
My final comment concerns a thought for the future. As my hon. Friend the Minister will have realised by now, I am totally in favour of the Government's housing policies. We in this country are extremely lucky to have a Government who run the economy in such a way that we can all afford to buy our homes, a Government who are organising planning legislation in such a way that land will be released. That is happening in areas such as mine, and we are seeing growth. But I offer my hon. Friend one thought for the next 10 years of Conservative
Column 438Government, the next 10 years we will be in power. One quarter of all households consist of single people, most of them elderly. Nearly 3 million old ladies live alone. Another third of all households consist of two people, mostly older couples whose children have grown up and gone away. We are talking about a large number of old people. When we think ahead and take into account the fact that single person households are expected to increase from the current total of 5.25 million to over 7 million by the year 2001--and that will be nearly one third of all households--I wonder whether it is right that so many builders are continuing to build three, four and five- bedroom houses with double garages and no granny flat. For certain, by the end of another 10 years or so we will find that the crying shortage, unless there is a response to this need, will be in property that is suitable for elderly people, particularly those living alone. We will know that we have made progress on this issue when the price of bungalows is lower than the price of houses, not higher, as at present. However, I shall leave that thought for my hon. Friends. I congratulate the Government on the tremendous improvement that we have seen in the nation's housing, and I look forward to further progress.
Several Hon. Members rose --
Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro) : I was going to say that the Minister had combined conceit and venom in a way rarely excelled in the House, but the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) has managed to trump it.
In preparing for this debate, I took the trouble to read not various statistics--we all know how statistics can be juggled--but the debate that took place on 23 May 1988. The comments that were made then have been repeated today, and I am very sad that it should be so. On both occasions, despite the smugness of what the Government had to say, the message that came through--it is a message which must not be lost among the arguments about the Local Government and Housing Bill and about mortgage interest rates--was that the devastating impact of the continued policy of restricting expenditure on the development of public housing in all its forms is having an immediate and sustained effect on those people in most need of help with housing.
I rang both local authorities in my area--Carrick and Restormel--a few weeks ago, and the message from them was abundantly clear : "Allow us to spend our money to house our homeless." Not only are local authorities not given that freedom ; they are now hampered by rising land prices, even in areas that are relatively poor, such as my own. If a district council like Restormel owns very little land, there is no way in which, with current restrictions, it can outbid private investors. In a recent sale of some land in Newquay, a private developer was able not simply to outbid the local authority by a small amount but actually to double what the council could afford to bid. That local authority has very little land of its own and is therefore hamstrung in attempting to meet the needs of its people.
Another message has started to come through from my county, and it is echoed in many other parts of the country, not only by councils but by people who come to my
Column 439surgery and, no doubt, people who consult other hon. Members. They are asking what the point is of a housing allocation list. I understand that councillors in Caradon have gone so far as to suggest that their housing allocations sub-committee should be wound up because there is no longer any such thing as an empty property. As soon as a property in council hands is vacated it goes straight to a homeless family because, as a result of the right to buy, the council no longer has properties for families at the top of the housing allocation list.
The hon. Member for Derbyshire, South said--I think that I quote her exactly--"People do not want council housing." I think it is fair to say that people's ultimate ambition is probably to own their homes, but in the case of very many who come to see me, it is not a question of their "not" wanting council housing but of their desperate need for any kind of roof over their heads. When they are told that they will have to live for years in caravans that are damp, smelly, small, unclean and unhygienic, and where, when they are in the bathroom, they can see the land outside, between the floor and the walls, it is no surprise that they are unable to understand why the Government will not put money into providing houses for them.
Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax) : In my constituency there are 6,000 people on the housing waiting list. I am sure that those people, like the hon. Gentleman's constituents, will be highly insulted by some of the remarks that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) made about council housing and about their expectations.
Mr. Taylor : The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I allowed her to intervene, because she has not done so before, but I shall have to rein in other right hon. and hon. Members, because time is short. The Conservative- controlled London Boroughs Association says that the Government should relax current restrictions on the spending of local authority capital receipts. It comments :
"the fundamental requirement is to increase the supply of permanent housing."
Seen in that context, the fact that the Secretary of State presides over a housing budget that is the only departmental budget to contribute to the Treasury is one of bitter irony for the homeless. All that profit has been made possible by council house sales and at the expense of the homeless.
People are making their beds out on the streets tonight, as they did last night, and will do again tomorrow night, and the night after that. People are out on the streets because they have no housing. For the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South to say that people do not want council housing is painful for them, and shows no understanding of the conditions that people must endure. It speaks volumes about middle class, suburban ambitions, but nothing about the reality of the very many people who cannot hope to realise those ambitions. The recent report of the Audit Commission, "Housing the homeless : The local authority role", made many recommendations, and one point that comes through loud and clear is the continuing need for local authorities to play a role. I hope that Ministers accept the report's argument that there is a strong case for taking greater account of homelessness in the allocation by the Government of resources to local authorities.
Many of the areas hardest hit by homelessness are not in inner cities but in rural areas. One reason for that is that
Column 440wealthier, luckier people are fulfilling their ambition to own property and to retire to what, to them, is a lovely part of the country--but to others it is their home and was their parents' home, but can no longer offer them work and, as a result, they cannot afford to buy houses. I refer also to areas where people are buying second homes in beautiful and lovely countryside. It is a pity that people wishing to move to them do not see the poverty of the families living next door, because families who have lived in those villages for years cannot now afford homes there.
I give as evidence of that the almost ideal example of a young couple in Cornwall, wishing to make a start on the housing ladder. If they both work, both receive the county's average wage for their sex, and have no children- -one can hardly imagine a better scenario for first-time buyers--they can, according to local building societies, afford just 2 per cent. of the housing stock that is for sale at any one time. Needless to say, that stock is not in the areas where they want to buy, even if they are lucky enough to track it down before it is sold. That 2 per cent. of the housing stock is to be found in the larger conurbations, in the more rundown areas of high unemployment. Young couples living in villages scattered throughout my constituency and others have no chance of buying a home in their birthplace or workplace.
A prime example of the Government's response has been the transfer of council stock. For us, one of the most glaring examples is Torbay. Giving council tenants a greater say in what happens has potential, but when the Government exploit that situation, and cloak it in a rigged electoral system of secrecy and misinformation, council tenants naturally grow suspicious and do not feel that they have been made a genuine offer. The only convincing argument for the negative voting system is that under it the constituency of the Secretary of State for the Environment--Cirencester and Tewkesbury--would have fallen to the Liberals at the last election. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would not think that such a system would be appropriate if it were to have that result for him.
When that rigged electoral system for Torbay was overthrown by the Secretary of State under pressure from local Democrat councillors--who collected a petition showing that most people were against the transfer, despite the negative voting claim to the contrary--it was not just an attack on the Tory councillors who attempted to implement that system but, above all, a clear and visible attack on the negative voting system itself. Basically, the Secretary of State told the Tory councillors in Torbay that they had run the system as he had told them to do, but that the system was not right. It is only a shame that the right hon. Gentleman does not recognise the value of extending his decision more generally.
Council tenants throughout the country are concerned about who will manage their homes. There is great anxiety among tenants of the Commission for the New Towns about the future ownership and management of their homes. I cite Basildon as one example. Can the Minister give an assurance that there will be a ballot for CNT tenants on the future ownership and management of their homes before any changes occur? That is what tenants are pressing for.