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Column 1004Mr. Cryer rose --
Mr. Cryer : Mr. Speaker, we have a Standing Order that requires hon. Members to desist from persistent repetition. We have already heard, on four occasions, the Minister's attack on the Labour party, and we are anxious to hear what the Government propose to do. I invoke your support, Mr. Speaker, because tedious repetition is out of order.
Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am a little confused. Although I have been in the House for six years, I do not seem to have caught up with things. I thought that today was an Opposition Supply day and I thought that those were the days on which the Opposition, in addition to attacking the Government, helped the House towards a better understanding of their policies. I came here this afternoon in the hope that I would be educated about the Labour party's housing proposals. So far, I have not heard one scintilla of a positive suggestion of what the Labour party intends to do in its housing policy or of how it would cost its proposals.
Mr. Speaker : That is more a debating point than a point of order. A propos tedious repetition, if I had judged that there was tedious repetition, I would have intervened, but I did not judge it. We should get on with the debate. A great many hon. Members wish to participate, and if the Front Bench spokesmen are constantly interrupted, other hon. Members may be disappointed.
Mr. Howard : It is precisely because of the omissions of the hon. Member for Dagenham that it falls to me to tell the House what the Labour party's policy would be, and that is what I have been trying to do.
Our policies for owner-occupiers could not represent more of a contrast with those of the Labour party, and our approach has been proved effective by 10 years of success. Since 1979, the proportion of owner-occupied households has increased from 57 to 68 per cent. We have one of the highest rates of owner-occupation in the world--higher than that in the United States--and the number of first-time buyers in 1988 was about double the number in 1979.
About 6 million people have bought their own homes for the first time over the past 10 years--more than 1 million of them under the right-to-buy provisions against which the Opposition fought so bitterly. The Labour party would still interfere with the unrestricted right to buy. The housing resolution passed by the Labour party conference in October supported the right to buy, "providing that the local authority replaces the stock sold, and those wishing to resell allow the Council first option to buy." The Labour party has still to come to terms with the undoubted aspiration of the vast majority of people in Britain to own their own homes. That is an aspiration which the Government unequivocally welcome and will do their utmost to assist.
Column 1005I acknowledge that many home owners find the present level of interest rates very difficult indeed, but that difficulty must be seen in perspective. It would be wrong to make any simplistic links between mortgage interest rates and homelessness. There are many causes of mortgage arrears other than high interest rates. One of the most significant of them is unemployment, and the reduction in unemployment by 1.5 million since 1986 has significantly helped the overall picture on mortgage arrears, as it has helped in so many other ways.
Clearly, we have nothing to learn from the Opposition about owner- occupation. We promote it, and they obstruct it, and the sooner that people understand that difference, the better.
When we last discussed housing, the hon. Member for Hammersmith alleged that the right to buy was the Government's sole housing policy. That is also a travesty. During the next three years, total central Government spending on housing and their grants and credit approvals to local authorities for housing will add up to almost £20 billion. That sum of money will largely benefit the minority of the population who are not owner -occupiers. I hope that even Opposition Members will acknowledge that £20 billion is a large sum by any standards. It is worth noting that no sums are mentioned in the Opposition's policy review.
Opposition Members come to the House day after day, promising to spend more on houses, as well as everything else under the sun, but the shadow Chancellor constantly says that any extra spending would have to await the creation of additional resources. The promises of the Opposition are not worth a row of beans. We do not rely on promises, we rely on action-- £20 billion worth of action.
Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East) : My hon. and learned Friend is talking about resources. Will he bear in mind the need for a balance between new housing and the environment? If my constituents are successful in their High Court battle with Barratt's today, will he remind Bolton's Labour council of its duty to defend covenants and to ensure that Birtenshaw farm remains free from development?
We acknowledge that owner-occupation is not the answer for a minority. Some people do not want, or cannot afford, the responsibility of home ownership. That is why we are working to restore quality, diversity and choice to the residential sector. The deregulation of new lettings in the Housing Act 1988 will help to revive the private rented sector, which was almost entirely killed off by the rent controls introduced by successive Labour Governments.
Already, some £350 million has been invested in business expansion schemes to provide private sector tenancy lettings. Private sector finance is now being attracted to support housing association projects.
The Opposition want to destroy that revival. The hon. Member for Hammersmith conceded in the Financial Times last year that some private investors may be
Column 1006frightened of investing in rented houses when they realise that a Labour Government would impose rent controls. Some? All private investors would be frightened, and the revival would be utterly destroyed. Not only would the Labour Government reimpose rent controls, but tenants of non-residential private landlords would be given the right to buy, or to transfer to a council landlord. Do Opposition Members believe that any of Labour's policies to penalise the private rented sector would encourage investment in it? How can they endlessly bang on about housing shortages, but at the same time make proposals that by their own admission would scare away much-needed investment in housing? If people who can afford market rents choose to rent privately and withdraw from the market, they will release more subsidised rented homes for those people who are most in need. That is an objective which should be encouraged by hon. Members on both sides of the House.
Mr. Tony Banks : In the private rented sector, there has been an increase in the number of houses available for rent, because people have had to move out when they cannot afford to keep up with the mortgage payments. Estate agents have put houses that are up for sale in to the rented market. That increase has happened by default. Can the Minister explain another statistic? Ten years ago, nine families were in bed-and- breakfast accommodation in Newham ; now, the number is 1,151, yet only 3.5 per cent. of our own housing stock is vacant.
Mr. Howard : If the hon. Gentleman examines the statistics on repossessions and the causes for them, he will see that the assumption that lay beneath the first part of his question is without any foundation whatever. The facts simply do not support it. It is typical of Labour's approach that its one and only solution to the problem of housing shortage is to increase our municipal housing stock, although we already have the largest in western Europe.
Our approach is to encourage choice in the social rented housing market. We do not want to increase the number of monolithic council housing estates or to strengthen local authorities as the monopoly suppliers of rented housing. That is why we want new provision to come primarily from housing associations.
In the next four years, we shall more than double the Housing Corporation's main programme, from £815 million this year to more than £1.7 billion by 1992-93. That should permit a doubling of output to about 35,000 dwellings in that year alone. Such steps to increase the supply and diversity of rented accommodation will help to tackle the imbalance between supply and demand, which is one of the causes of homelessness.
In the meantime, we fully acknowledge that further immediate action is required to help the homeless. That is why we are providing an extra £250 million over the next two years for local authorities and housing associations in stress areas. Those additional resources should provide
Column 1007approaching 15,000 extra lettings. That should be compared with the total number of families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, who number about 12,000. That is our response to this problem. It is a serious response and on a considerable scale. It will have a considerable impact.
Mr. Derek Fatchett (Leeds, Central) rose --
Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax) rose --
Mr. Howard : The motion refers to the Government's alleged failure to maintain the condition of the housing stock. The hon. Member for Dagenham said that its condition was getting worse, but he failed to support that assertion with one piece of evidence. He is wrong : nothing could be further from the truth.
There are 2 million more houses in England today than there were in 1979, and the English house condition survey shows that, between 1981 and 1986, the number of dwellings that lacked basic amenities fell by no less than 41 per cent. That gives the lie to the hon. Gentleman's assertion. Moreover, there has been continued improvement since 1986, so there is not a shred of evidence to support the assertion in the Opposition's motion. It is a typical piece of undiluted scaremongering, and I hope that, on reflection, the hon. Member will have the decency to recognise that and to withdraw it. I give him the opportunity to do that now.
Mr. Howard : The hon. Gentleman's argument was that matters are getting worse. [Interruption.] I challenge him to produce one piece of evidence in support of his assertion that matters are getting worse. [Interruption.] He cannot do so. His silence speaks volumes. [Interruption.]
We suggest that more should be done to improve things. Unlike the Opposition we make no apology for concentrating assistance on people in greatest need. [Interruption.] We have acted-- [Interruption.]
Mr. Howard : We have targeted home improvement grants on people on the lowest incomes. We have almost doubled the amount of money available for home improvement grants, and now we are ensuring that the increased resources go to those who need them. Labour's policy review says :
"We will review the renovation grant system so that it relates less to people's means."
That is a typically cockeyed approach.
We have established programmes for Estate Action and housing action trusts that will provide huge additional resources for the most rundown inner-city council estates. Yesterday in Sunderland I announced the appointment by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State of the first shadow chairman of a housing action trust. I also visited Hartlepool, which I understand is a town of particular interest at the moment to those in powerful places in the ranks of the Labour party. On one estate alone in Hartlepool, we have made available £3.5 million over three years to improve the conditions of the people living there. Those improvements are dramatic and have transformed
Column 1008the lives of those people. While the Opposition table carping, whingeing motions, we are getting on with the business of improving people's housing standards.
Mr. Gould : The Minister challenged me to produce figures to support my contention that the condition of the housing stock has got worse. If he will look at the figures for dwellings in serious disrepair, he will see that in 1976 there were 859,000 such houses, representing 5 per cent. of the total ; that in 1981 there were 1,178,000 such houses, representing 6 per cent. of the total ; and that in 1986 there were 2,400,000 such houses, representing 13 per cent. of the total.
Mr. Howard : I do not accept those statistics. A much more accurate way of looking at this matter is to consider the proportion of houses lacking basic amenities. If the hon. Gentleman looks at those statistics, he will find that there has been a considerable--indeed, a dramatic-- improvement in the condition of the housing stock during the lifetime of this Government.
At the centre of the debate is the issue of high interest rates and the problems that they cause homeowners. I readily acknowledge the hardships that such a level of interest rates causes. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has often made it clear that high levels of interest cause difficulties but that interest rates must and will remain high until inflation has been brought back down. Persistently high levels of inflation, such as those that we experienced under the last Labour Government, would hurt everyone in the country, and homeowners would certainly not be exempt. It is wholly in their interests for a tight rein to be kept on inflation, and that we are determined to do.
As we have seen, the Labour party has no coherent policy to deal with inflation. However, apparently one of its few clear policies on housing, which has been referred to by the hon. Member for Dagenham and was set out in a letter written to me last week by the hon. Member for Hammersmith, is to allow local authorities to spend all their capital receipts on housing.
It is an interesting reflection of Labour's long-trumpeted commitment to a regional policy that this commitment would unleash about £8 billion of spending power, which would be concentrated largely in the south-east of England. Indeed, the hon. Member for Hammersmith had the grace to admit at a press conference last week that removing restrictions on the expenditure of capital receipts would produce clear inflationary pressures. It is not surprising, therefore, that that policy is not even mentioned in Labour's policy review. Indeed, Roof magazine noted :
"Labour's review sadly does little more than express worthy sentiments in a bubble bath of irrelevant platitudes."
Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith) rose--
Mr. Soley rose--
Mr. Soley rose--
Column 1009Mr. Soley rose--
Mr. Howard rose--
Mr. Soley : I regret having to raise this on a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I do not mind being quoted, but I object to not being quoted anywhere near accurately. I said that the £8 billion would not and could not possibly be used in one year. If it was, it would be inflationary, but I said that there was no possibility of that. That is the accurate quote.
Mr. Howard : The hon. Gentleman's policy is to allow the money to be spent as fast as it can be. That would lead to inflation. It is absolutely clear from what the hon. Gentleman said that the policy would lead to inflation, and that he recognises that.
It is clear that the Labour party will pursue policies on housing, as on other matters, that will inevitably fuel inflation, and it knows that. The Government will continue to pursue sensible housing policies to improve people's housing conditions. I invite the House to support the amendment.
Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North) : It would be interesting for my hon. Friends to read the terms of the amendment, which refers to just one aspect of Government policy--owner-occupation, or the right to buy. That is fairly revealing. The failure of the Government's policy on housing is that until comparatively recently they felt it necessary to have a policy on only one aspect--owner-occupation. That policy started to come unglued in about 1985.
The housing portfolio changes hands so often in this Government that it is difficult for any Minister to get his feet under the table and become properly briefed before being sent off to do something else. The Minister can therefore be forgiven for not understanding all the statistics because he has not been in his post long and, no doubt, he will not remain there for long. The reason why the Government decided to extend their interest in housing policy beyond owner-occupation was purely economic. Some economists started to advise them that one of the problems that people moving particularly to the south-east, following the advice of the right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) to get on their bikes, was that there was simply not enough rented accommodation available. That was the origin of the Housing Act 1988, and I and many of my hon. Friends served in Committee on that measure. That was the only reason why the Government decided to take any interest in rented housing. Several of my colleagues want to speak, so time prevents me from detailing all the objects of the 1988 Act, but the main thrust of the Government's policy was to expand the supply of rented housing outside the public sector as it was then defined. In addition, in relation to local authorities, they wanted to deregulate the housing market and create various devices to break down what they regarded as local monopolies of council housing.
Column 1010However, none of that adds up to a housing policy. The Government have not addressed the real problems in housing, which we shall describe in the debate. Even in their approach to the 1988 Act and the more recent Local Government and Housing Act 1989, the Government have not succeeded in achieving any constructive progress towards building up a coherent housing policy. The policies that they have implemented, piecemeal as they are, have not and will not succeed in solving any of the serious housing problems.
In this debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) has described some of the problems within the local authority sector and the growing problems of disrepair across the range of tenures. The Minister challenged my hon. Friend to produce figures, which he ably and quickly did, disproving the Government's argument--whether or not the Minister accepts the figures.
I have the December edition of the Institute of Housing's excellent magazine "Housing". I hope that the Minister will accept that, by and large, the institute is an impartial organisation which looks at the facts and tries to inform professionals and others interested in housing issues. The magazine contained a supplement dealing with the Autumn Statement and the Government's approach to housing, and to some extent I shall rely on that information. The Autumn Statement contains all the Government's proposals for spending on housing, which are set out in great detail. The supplement says :
"Some £3 billion per annum is needed to deal simply with the backlog of disrepair, defects and modernisation of local authority housing stock, let alone to deal with homelessness, housing needs and the condition of private housing."
That is an unbiased conclusion about the Government's proposals. The Minister spoke about some of the initiatives that the Government have taken. On occasion I have supported them and praised Ministers and Departments when the initiatives have been usefully applied. I mention a constituency matter to illustrate one of the difficulties arising from a piecemeal policy and no coherent approach. Some of the programmes start off well and with good intentions, but changes in priorities are often applied in a state of panic because something has gone wrong and the good intention of the new programme drifts into the sand.
On the Tower Hill estate in my constituency an effective Estates Action programme supported by the residents, the local authority and the Minister's Department has been running for three or four years. In connection with that there was probably the most detailed consultation exercise ever undertaken there. The consultation revealed that residents wanted improvements in the way that the estate was laid out and wanted some of the design problems put right. However, there are more problems than that on the estate. There is a lack of leisure facilities and economic opportunities for residents. The action programme is about 50 per cent. of the way through and many improvements have been carried out. In response to such residents the Government extended the guidelines and I am sure that an application will soon reach the Minister's desk because the residents are looking for what they describe as multi-faceted schemes which involve an economic development initiative and an increase in leisure facilities. We are now told that, because the guidelines have been extended precisely to cater for
Column 1011schemes such as the one at Tower Hill, we will have to compete with other authorities which have applied for similar schemes. I repeat that the Tower Hill scheme is 50 per cent. completed but all the pioneering work carried out in my constituency will come to nothing because the rules have been changed and the goalposts moved, so all the benefits of the scheme will be lost. I hope that when the application reaches the Minister he will look at it in that light and decide that the pioneers of such schemes should be supported until the job is finished.
The Minister may be aware that the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young), who is in the Chamber, and I have taken an active interest in housing co-operatives. Last year the Government produced an excellent document when the Minister's noble predecessor was in post. That document set out in some detail what should happen to housing co-operatives. My latest information is that because of the use of private finance, on which I have recently tabled questions, and especially in view of the guidelines that the Housing Corporation has recently sent out about how private finance should be tackled by housing co-operatives and associations, housing co-operatives will encounter grave difficulties in securing the private funding that they need to get their schemes off the ground. That is because they have no asset base.
There is all-party support for housing co-operatives and there is an all- party parliamentary group on the subject. If the amount of private money that the co-operatives can raise is restricted and the grant is insufficient to meet the deficiency, the co-operatives will have to move towards design-build packages. That means that one of the great benefits of new-build and rehabilitation
co-operatives--control of the design process--will be lost. I understand that there has been toing and froing and that disputes have occurred within the Housing Corporation board about how to handle the matter. I hope that the Minister will deal with it at some point. All the benefits and experience built up in the housing co-operative movement over the years could be lost if someone does not take the problem by the scruff of the neck and sort it out so that housing co-operatives can continue to produce the goods and important urban renewal initiatives in inner cities and outer estates. That is what they are good at and what they have achieved. We all accept that a high level of homelessness is unacceptable in a civilised society. If one moves around London and other major provincial cities on any night of the week, one sees young people sleeping on the streets. Some may have drug and alcohol problems, which we all accept are difficult to resolve because they fall outside the scope of the main agencies, but many young people from my constituency and from those of my hon. Friends and of Conservative Members come to London because they are unable to secure employment in the north of England in some of the real economic black spots. When they arrive they find themselves in a double blind. If they do not have an address they are not taken seriously when they apply for jobs, and if they do not have a job they have difficulty securing accommodation, so they end up sleeping in cardboard boxes on the Embankment or in other places both in summer and on cold winter nights. It is an appalling condemnation of society that that should happen in this decade.
What are the Government's proposals on housing the homeless? What do they mean? What will they produce in
Column 1012terms of initiatives? I draw the attention of the House to a submission in the Institute of Housing magazine, "Housing", which says that the Government's proposals do not add up to much. They do not make up for shortfalls in the housing investment that would have been necessary to head off the problem of homelessness in the past decade, so they will not resolve the problem of homelessness. That is the opinion of experts in housing whom the Government should heed and respect.
I wish to refer to some of the other issues raised in the Housing Act 1988. Much play was made of the fact that problems on housing estates and in inner city areas would be resolved by housing action trusts. The Minister announced such a trust for Sunderland today. Much play was also made of other proposals in part IV of the Act. Yet week by week we read in the housing press headlines such as : "Essex tenants vote to stay".
That article says :
"Redbridge LBC tenants in Ilford voted by 5,418 to 2,780 against the plans to transfer the housing stock to Oakbridge Housing Association "
Brentwood district council also rejected transfer plans, by 2,953 to 708.
The Government have not realised that although people may quibble and criticise their local authorities they know, as we constantly said in the debates on the 1988 Act, that if they want to change the way in which the local authority housing department is managed they at least have recourse to the ballot box at local elections. They can say, "You have failed, so we shall put in another party." That right of council tenants who opted not to exercise the right to buy is of more worth to them than their trust in any other organisation, no matter how worthy.
The Government have clearly failed. They have not been inundated with requests from local authority tenants to transfer to housing associations or other organisations. They have not even been inundated by requests from landlords to register as approved landlords under the scheme provided for by the Act and run by the Housing Corporation. That part of the Act, which was almost the flagship of the Government's privatisation plans for housing, has been a complete and utter flop.
It is about time that Ministers and those who support them accepted that the measures introduced do not add up to a housing policy. There is no strategy. They are just playing politics with housing. They have very little to show for their efforts and that will continue to be so.
The Government set great store by their dealings with housing associations, but what is likely to happen to those bodies? The Autumn Statement contained some good news. I acknowledge that additional resources were put into the pot, but there are still problems. The Minister must be aware that many small housing associations are suffering the same difficulties as housing co-operatives in that they do not have the asset base to make proper use of the present scheme. The Government's attempts at a de facto privatisation of the housing association movement is likely to drift into the sand. The Government will probably have to increase the proportion of housing association grant, thereby undermining their own strategy to put the movement into the private sector. Their plan does not work for the smaller housing associations. If the Government do not do something to resolve the problems of small associations, they will end up with a series of local monopolies by large associations.
Column 1013The Minister's last but one predecessor heralded small community-based housing associations as a wonderful innovation in inner cities, but if something is not done they will disappear completely. The Government must take action to increase the housing association grants to a level at which the private finance involved is negligible. The Institute of Housing says :
"Even with such a grant rate increase, however"--
the institute believes that it should be increased to 80 per cent.--
"new housing association lettings are likely to be at rents well above the National Federation of Housing Associations affordability' guidelines."
Even if the Government increase the level of housing association grants, the amount of rent charged will be too great. The Government have failed across a whole range of policies because they have no policies. Their failure in housing is one of the most important among many failures which, in the near future, will ensure that my hon. Friends are on the Government Benches and the Conservatives on the Opposition Benches.
Mr. John Heddle (Mid-Staffordshire) : The title of this brief debate is, "Mortgage costs and housing." I shall address my remarks particularly to mortgage costs and the plight of home owners who have borrowed more money than they prudently might have done. Perhaps I should declare a non- pecuniary interest as vice-president of the Building Societies Association.
Before you came to the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, there was an exchange of views between myself and the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) on the imposition of VAT on non-domestic construction work. I take this opportunity to say that it is the duty of all hon. Members who take an interest in the construction industry and the provision of housing to anticipate events. It was in that context that I raised the matter in Question Time today.
Only six or seven brief years ago, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) will recall and confirm, the Government's view was that there would be no question of VAT being imposed on non-domestic construction work. Because of the rules of the European Court that have been passed down to us, we must impose VAT on non-domestic construction work. Post-1992 there is a strong possibility that the European Court will force the United Kingdom Government to impose VAT on domestic construction- -whether on non-social housing, such as private sector housing, or across the board, I do not know, but it is our duty to anticipate the possibility of such events. I was encouraged today by the assurances of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that together with our right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer all possible resistance would be presented to our European friends to ensure that that does not happen in the United Kingdom.
I was encouraged by the comments of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer when he appeared before the Treasury Select Committee recently and