Previous Section Home Page

Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith) : I hope that I shall be able to honour your request, Madam Deputy Speaker. I want to focus my comments to some extent today, largely because in the past I have spent much time condemning the Government's lack of a housing policy and I cannot say much that is new about the failure of the Government's policy. However, I repeat one thing that I have said in the past. When there is a loss of 2 million homes from the rented sector, both public and private, and at the same time the Government slash benefits for young people, there are two consequences. One is a dramatic increase in homelessness ; the other is homeless teenage children begging on our streets for the first time in 70 years. The Government say that they have reduced the number of people sleeping on the streets in London. That is a sad claim to make in arguing the success of their policy. The Government put those people there in the first place. When I was a probation officer in King's Cross in 1979, I could

Column 317

always get someone under the age of 21 somewhere to sleep for the night. From the early 1980s onwards, that was no longer possible. It was the first time that that had happened in Britain for about 70 years.

Some 2 million homes have been lost and not replaced in the rented sector. If those homes are cut out of the rented sector, of course there will be long queues. Some people have been in bed and breakfast for years. That never happened before. It needs to be said loudly that the problem is not one of single-parent families trying to get ahead of the queue.

There is a desperate shortage of affordable rented accommodation. That creates a dog-eat-dog situation in the housing queue. People from all types of background who cannot afford any other form of accommodation will fight to get ahead in the queue. I understand people when they do that. But they are not the problem. They are a symptom of the problem. The problem is the loss of that rented sector. The Government could have done a number of things. If the Minister had wanted more initiatives, he could have mentioned them today.

The Minister talked about the slight revival of prices in the housing market. If the Government want the revival of prices in the private sector market, why do they delay it by dumping hundreds of the 30,000 empty homes in the Government-owned sector on to the private market for sale? They could transfer those homes to housing associations or local authorities so that they can be rented out. Homes at a former air force camp at Biggin Hill, a Conservative region, are empty and awaiting sale. The Government's policy depresses house prices and keeps people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. It is lunacy.

The Government could also extend the use of leaseback so that local authorities can get rid of their final bed-and-breakfast cases. I warn the Government that, if they go ahead with their proposal to move the homeless from accommodation to accommodation and do not give them a permanent home, children will suffer dramatically. If children are moved from property to property while they are being brought up, they will suffer acute personal distress, their social development and educational achievements will be inhibited, and their health prospects will worsen. Umpteen pieces of evidence to confirm my argument are available to the Department.

The Government could also allow local authorities to buy in the private sector rather than use bed-and-breakfast accommodation, which, together with leaseback in certain circumstances, is by far the most expensive form of temporary accommodation. The Government should also consider the problem of residents in council blocks who bought their flats under the impression that they would not have to pay large lease costs. Almost inevitably, they face those costs--it is happening in a number of local authorities. I wrote to the Minister a couple of years ago on that matter. People are often trapped by enormous debts that run to thousands of pounds caused by a right -to-buy policy that was not thought out properly. They will continue to be trapped unless the Government help local authorities to buy them out.

The Minister knows my views on the subject. I have no objection to the right-to-buy policy if it is backed by a duty to replace. That would be a brilliant housing policy. From 1978-79, it was the policy of the Tory party, but it was dumped by Lady Thatcher. Hugh Rossi, the Government spokesman at the time, said that the money should be used to replace homes, but the Government then abandoned that

Column 318

promise. That was the cause of the problem. The right-to-buy policy without a duty to replace led to a housing disaster that was waiting to happen.

The problem is so serious that it needs a fundamental review. We must have a stable financial regime for housing. The lack of such a regime is the fundamental reason why we are in a mess. The Government do not have a financial policy on housing. The Conservative party needs to stop worrying so much about house ownership--the Labour party made that break some time ago--and start worrying about three factors : affordability, quality of management and tenants' rights. If the Government meet those three objectives, ownership will matter far less, although it will not be immaterial.

I made it clear some years ago that tenants with a bad landlord should always have the right to transfer from one home to another. A bad landlord who has been imprisoned for harassing and assaulting his tenants can still receive a Government subsidy through housing benefit, which might go directly to him in prison. That is a ludicrous feature of the Government's financial regime.

One good Government policy, although they do not boast about it much, is the phasing out of mortgage income tax relief. The bad part of that policy is that they are not replacing that tax relief. As a result, people who cannot afford to pay their mortgages are getting less and less subsidy. When the Government finally get rid of tax relief in a few years' time-- they have never denied that it is their intention to do so--those who lose their jobs and have to live on low incomes will be evicted that much sooner. That is the problem that the Government must tackle.

The Government should by all means get rid of the mortgage income tax relief--an open-ended subsidy that has caused the decline of the private- rented sector. The rent laws had only a marginal effect on that decline. The key factor was the introduction of mortgage income tax relief at the turn of the century, when the decline started. The Government can get rid of that relief, but they must ensure that a subsidy is available to those on low incomes who are in danger of having their homes repossessed because they cannot pay their mortgages.

I argued some time ago that we needed to provide stability in the housing finance regime for all areas of the rented sector. That was a Labour party policy at the last election. One of my suggestions involved the establishment of a housing bank, which exists in a number of countries and in some states in the United States. I cannot overestimate the importance of such a bank. When I made my suggestion, the Government would have had to guarantee about 1 per cent. of the funds in order to make the bank a gold key lender on the market so that it could be seen as a safe investment.

I was told by bankers in the City of London and by two major building societies that such action would not be necessary as they would be happy to co-operate in the scheme. I suggested that capital receipts, which at that time totalled £7 billion, should be lodged in the bank and would generate an enormous amount of additional private sector money. One could allow local authorities to draw their receipts, which they would not lose, and invest them in housing over a period. I would have ring-fenced such funds for housing. It was an important proposal, because the private sector was keen to develop it.

Everyone knows that the problem with obtaining private investment in housing associations is that the figures do not stack up, because there is no guaranteed

Column 319

funding arrangement. Pension funds and insurance companies look for long-term safe investments such as housing. A number of other private organisations said that they would like to put money into such a bank. If we had done that, we could have started spending money in the council sector, on housing associations and, indeed, in the private sector.

I made it clear that the private sector should receive such funds and sensible subsidies to help them invest, while the daft subsidy of housing benefit, which goes to a landlord, no matter how bad, should be dropped. In exchange for that help, private landlords would have to be registered so that, if they were bad landlords, they could be struck off.

Nothing is more stupid than imprisoning for three months a bad landlord who has been chased into court by a tenant--with difficulty and often with great fear--but allowing him to become the tenant's landlord again when he is released from prison. That is bad news for the tenant. Bad landlords should not be allowed to let a property again and should be struck off, in the same way in which solicitors or doctors who engage in bad practice in breach of guidelines are struck off.

A subject that has always troubled the Minister--and me, to some extent--is the definition of the public sector borrowing requirement. My view is slightly different from my party's historical view on the subject. We turn the PSBR into an artificial constraint on us. I was never convinced that the Maastricht treaty was a brilliant treaty--it contained far too much about economics and too little about politics. It requires all countries in Europe to harmonise their definitions. The countries in Europe are not daft enough to define the PSBR as we do. If we in this country were to define the PSBR properly, all mortgage tax relief would be included in the PSBR. Tax relief is an open-ended subsidy that does not draw any income from the people who receive it. I receive it, which is nice, but I do not need it and I would prefer it to go to someone who does need it.

If the PSBR definition is right, the lump sum that I and probably every other hon. Member receives, should be included in the PSBR. Investment that generates income, however, should not be part of the PSBR. The other countries of Europe and those in North America exclude such self-financing loans from the PSBR as defined in this country. For that reason, the French were able to subsidise the channel tunnel express line across Europe. They and other countries in Europe can subsidise other projects in the same way because they make it clear that, if the capital investment attracts an economic return, it falls within the boundaries of the PSBR. It also represents good Keynesian economics. The Government, however, now seem unsure whether they are Thatcherite monetarists or Keynesians. The good part of that Keynesian argument is that public money is used sensibly to generate an income that creates wealth. If a house is built and rental income which covers its cost is received on it, it represents precisely the same type of long-term investment as a house owned in the private sector. If the Government simply say that they will subsidise rents or mortgages, they are committing themselves, indefinitely, to taking money from the taxpayer in order to give it to someone else. That is the uneconomic part of the equation.

Column 320

It is right that such a subsidy should be offered in certain circumstances, but anyone who knows anything about finance knows that one must generate taxation and wealth to pay for it. The other type of investment, which generates an income, is different. We need to treat it as such.

We must forget a lot of the garbage with which the Minister has tried to defend the indefensible. I know that he is trying to pick up the pieces after 15 years of housing disaster. The Tories have made a bigger mess of housing than they have of the health service, education or the British manufacturing base. Housing policy has a tragic history. The Duke of Edinburgh's report on housing, which was produced by the Rowntree Trust, says it all. It is a damning indictment of the Government's housing policy.

Since the Government came to office, 14 Ministers have been in charge of housing policy--roughly one for each year. As I have said to the Minister before, his colleagues were all on a short let. He is the first one on a medium-term let. If the Government stagger from crisis to crisis, the providers of housing will not know from one year to the next how many houses they can provide. That means that the supply of housing will not increase. Housing associations have only just overtaken their position in the mid 1970s, so they are unable to increase the housing stock.

The disastrous policy of the past must be put behind us. We should make sensible use of a housing bank and a sensible use of a redefined PSBR. We must adopt a sensible approach to ownership. We should not worry about whether someone is renting or owning. We should give an equal subsidy to each individual to create a level playing field in those sectors. Within the rented sector we should make it clear that we are not too troubled about ownership, but deeply troubled about affordability, tenants' rights and the quality of management. If we get those three right, we will have a happily housed society. We will then be spared the horror, and I mean the horror, of seeing what I never dreamt I would live to see--homeless teenage children, stretching out their hands with a notice reading, "homeless and hungry". That problem is not as severe as it once was in London, but it still exists in other parts of Britain. It is a damning indictment of the Government.

5.22 pm

Sir Paul Beresford (Croydon, Central) : The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) has tried to blame the Government for the housing difficulties with which the Government have struggled--they have done so successfully, as my hon. Friend the Minister has pointed out--but his comments will not wash.

Those of us who worked in housing, especially in inner London, prior to and after 1979 have watched Labour local authorities struggle against the Government. We know that the blame should lie with those inner-London Labour authorities and other Labour authorities around Britain. In contrast, a Conservative-controlled authority--I choose Croydon for obvious reasons--which has followed good Conservative policies and has worked with the Conservative Government, has no housing crisis. Croydon, for example, has just 39 families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. They are now being assessed.

Column 321

I accept that the difficulties encountered by Croydon do not compare with those encountered in inner London. It is worth considering some of them and the way in which Conservative policies can solve them.

It would be appropriate to choose a favourite authority of the Labour party, Conservative Wandsworth. It is worth comparing it with some of its Labour neighbours. The difficulty with making such a comparison, however, is that the relevant figures often are not available. London Labour authorities used to provide those figures for the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, CIPFA, but once they realised that those figures could be turned against them, they failed to present them. That has made life very difficult. It is clear that those authorities have something to hide. Before 1979, Wandsworth was a leading Labour authority--the winning, red light Labour authority. It worked with the Labour-controlled Greater London council in blatant gerrymandering. Any Opposition Member who says that a Conservative authority has gerrymandered ignores the difficulties that were caused because of Labour party gerrymandering, particularly in London. That happened in the days before we had an Audit Commission to point out those problems. In those days, it was called not gerrymandering or ethnic cleansing, but municipalisation. That sweet word covered the wholesale purchase of private properties, private land, the utilisation of compulsory purchase orders and the designation of entire areas as slums--which assisted the use of CPOs. In areas where such tactics were not possible, Labour authorities made individual purchases. I saw that happen in street after street in pre-1979 Wandsworth. After such a purchase was made, the most difficult tenant family that the authority could find was housed in the property. That family was used to apply pressure on other householders. Axes were put in neighbours' doors and windows were broken until those neighbours finally moved out.

In those days, Labour authorities made no attempt to use small grants to assist home owners, tenants or private landlords to do up properties. They were simply designated as slums.

Mr. Booth : Does my hon. Friend accept that that practice is still going on in boroughs such as Barnet?

Sir Paul Beresford : By Labour authorities?

Mr. Booth : Yes.

Sir Paul Beresford : Quite.

Mr. Booth : I am sorry. I am so upset about that incredible practice that I did not make my point particularly well. In Barnet, Labour authorities, such as Camden and Hackney, are buying some of the best houses and housing some of their worst tenants in that Tory-held authority. That backs up my hon. Friend's argument.

Sir Paul Beresford : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that clarification.

A recent article in New Statesman and Society described Wandsworth as a council that would "sell, sell, sell". In the pre-1979 days, the Labour authority practised the reverse policy of buy, buy, buy. It would buy at any cost and surveys of any property were rare.

One of the more notorious Labour housing chairmen caught what might be called a "Tebbit" habit, because he

Column 322

was renowned for riding the streets of Wandsworth, with notebook in hand, looking for "For sale" signs. The next day, the man from the council would arrive on the doorstep, with cheque book in hand, to purchase that property. Following purchase, however, those properties were not used to house tenants but were boarded up. If they were used, they were used by illegal squatters. The aim was to pool together a sufficient number of properties in order to bulldoze them. Wandsworth now suffers because of the shabby concrete tower blocks that were erected in their place. It was a straight scandal.

Additional scandals arose from that policy, although one of the Labour housing chairmen got caught by getting too close to T. Dan Smith--his accommodation was found for him. At one stage, Labour Wandsworth and Labour GLC proudly boasted that they were spending £1 million a month, mostly on house purchases. According to today's figures, that is equivalent to £15 million. Their policy was to buy, board up, leave to rot, bulldoze and rebuild.

The wastage involved is obvious when one considers what happened on a Battersea estate. It was made up of 600 good residential properties, but it was designated as a slum area and bulldozed. Five years later, the direct labour organisation finally finished building the new estate of 605 properties. Battersea lost housing stock for five years and the area was desecrated just to gain five additional properties. According to the Labour party, a similar slum area was located next door to that estate. When the Conservatives took control, however, they used small grants to improve those properties. The owners, landlords and tenants were able to improve them, with the result that they are now classy, expensive properties, which house the same people who lived in them in the first place : hardly slums. Labour's posture was that it was helping the homeless ; in fact, it was leaving desolate areas boarded up behind corrugated iron and assisting squatters, while the tenants who were supposed to be looking after the estates were left to rot.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley) : In the 1960s, people like me--people on Tory-controlled councils such as Merton and Morden--were desperate for a change in local government to give us Labour councils that would do something about the current housing problems.

Sir Paul Beresford : If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, he will learn that it is possible to turn the position around. When such estates are made acceptable to council tenants, those tenants will then support the council involved. That does not happen in deprived areas such as Tower Hamlets, Southwark, Lambeth and Islington. That municipalisation-- that gerrymandering--completely changed the nature of aspects of inner London. In 1957, Wandsworth had 10,000 council dwellings ; by the time of the Herbert Morrison techniques, it had 44,000. In Roehampton, one of the wards in Putney where Labour was trying to build the Tories out, 95 per cent. of dwellings were owned by the council. In the Parkside ward, mentioned in a certain early-day motion, 70 per cent. of dwellings were council-owned after perfectly sound, lived-in properties had been bulldozed. Next door, in West Hill, 60 per cent. of dwellings were council- owned. Labour's difficulty lay, and still lies, in its inability to recognise that council tenants do not automatically vote Labour.

Column 323

Mr. Betts : That is because of gerrymandering.

Sir Paul Beresford : The gerrymandering failed, and early-day motion 353 shows the fallacy of it. The two wards that it mentions returned Conservative councillors. In one of them--which I have just mentioned--70 per cent. of dwellings were council-owned ; in 1974, it returned two Conservative councillors. In the other ward--West Hill--the figure was 60 per cent. The flaw in the EDM is this : that ward has never been Labour- controlled, despite the attempt to build the Tories out.

As I said earlier, there used to be no Audit Commission, and no technique by which Labour could be brought up short. The council tenants did that themselves, however : they had had enough of Labour's mismanagement, and the lack of respect that allowed their properties to remain in such an appalling state. They threw Labour out. In 1978, we had a Conservative council, following the Conservative policies of central Government. The residents--including council tenants--had had enough. That was understandable. Wandsworth's last housing chairman, whom I met, had a reputation for throwing away tenants' letters of complaint about the state of disrepair in their properties without answering them. He left those council tenants to rot.

In 1978, the incoming Conservative council inherited an appalling inner- city problem, which is still found today in many Labour areas in London. Many private dwellings were in a poor state because of the lack of improvement grants. Labour's idea was to designate them slum areas, allow them to decline and then purchase them. In many areas, building firms had been driven out because the direct labour organisation took all the work available ; meanwhile, the council estates were left in an appalling state of disrepair.

I visited an estate in Earlsfield, central Wandsworth. It had been built as a council estate before the war, and had subsequently been deserted by Labour. A good tenant living on the top floor would tell the lady living on the bottom floor to put the plug in her bath before flushing their toilet ; otherwise, the contents would come up in the bath. The plumbing had been in that state for years--but Labour was spending its money on municipalisation and gerrymandering.

Mr. Richard Tracey (Surbiton) : My hon. Friend has mentioned the sorry state of properties in Wandsworth and Putney in the late 1950s and 1960s. May I take him back a little further? Those properties were put there by Lord Morrison of Lambeth, then leader of the London county council, when he was building in Wandsworth to a degree that was completely disproportionate to the area's needs. It had no requirements related to homelessness or medical problems. Lord Morrison should have been building in other parts of London--which some members of his party have mentioned today--but, instead, he was building in Wandsworth, and skewing the housing figures.

Sir Paul Beresford : Of course, it was not called gerrymandering then ; but, by God, that is what it was.

When the Conservatives inherited Wandsworth, they found not only that the housing stock--expecially council housing stock--was in a disreputable state, but that the council was up to its eyes in debt. The area was full of rotting empty properties--and rotting full properties ; a bit like Sheffield. Labour housing policy had failed. The rent

Column 324

situation was awful : rents were not being collected. The vacancy level was horrendous, the squatting figures were up in the thousands and the caretaking was non-existent.

Slowly, the Conservatives have changed that. They had to begin by selling two small estates and one tower block to the private sector ; they used the capital receipts for pump priming. One of the estates was half-empty : its residents had been partly decanted out by the Labour party, which intended to carry out works using the direct labour organisation. Owing to the mismanagement of the DLO, the costs escalated and the council ran out of money ; so it just left the estate. Two other estates--also built by Labour --were so riddled with asbestos that, after the asbestos was taken out, one of the tower blocks was a mere skeleton.

The capital receipts were turned around and reinvested. Good Conservative management was brought in : voids were filled, squatters were pushed out and the caretaking was vastly improved. The estates no longer resembled what might have been expected in the Dickens era ; they had been brought into the modern world. They were given new roofs, central heating, decent security systems and decent plumbing : that lady living on the top floor could flush her toilet now without the contents coming up through the bath on the bottom floor.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) : If Wandsworth is such a marvellous example of Conservative-controlled London boroughs, why does it contain more people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation than any other local authority in the country?

Sir Paul Beresford : I think you had better check your figures. You will find that that is not correct.

Madam Deputy Speaker : Order. I think the hon. Gentleman has forgotten that he should be addressing me.

Sir Paul Beresford : Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman should examine the figures a little more carefully. When the quality of those estates was improved, the right-to-buy measures introduced by the Conservative Government really took off. An added advantage was mixed tenure, which had an effect on many estates. As a direct result, certain estates across the borough were selected as "sales areas" : properties that had become vacant through the normal transfer procedure were sold to people on the "housing to purchase" list. That was based on housing need. A homeless family in Wandsworth will be placed at the top of both lists : such families have bought as well as renting. That meant that the council was able to meet its housing demands on the basis of need through rent and sale. It was also able to obtain capital receipts for reinvestment. Latterly, the council decided to designate the poorer estates to speed up the positive effect of the mixed tenure.

Wandsworth council started with a stock of 44,000 properties. It sold 19,000--5,000 through designated sales areas--to people in housing need whom it would have had to house in any case.

The Conservative housing methods in Wandsworth are pretty widely accepted, not only by Conservative authorities up and down the country. Many of the methods have been accepted by Labour authorities. Lambeth council actually purchased the privatised caretaking

Column 325

scheme and the software that goes with it. I am not too sure whether it will be able to implement it, because it involves joined-up writing.

The techniques have also been accepted and utilised in Hong Kong, New York, Australia, New Zealand, Moscow and even Ireland. The results have been quite dramatic. The vacancies among lettable properties in Wandsworth represent less than 1 per cent. There are 1, 381 vacancies in Lambeth and 117 in Wandsworth.

Earlier in the debate we were given a figure about Hackney. On a like-for- like basis, there are 117 vacant properties in Wandsworth and 1,911 in Hackney. If we take into account the sale of properties--there has been a slowing down of sales on vacant property estates because of red lining--on a like-for-like basis about 400 were vacant in Wandsworth, compared with 3,900 in Hackney.

The average re-let period for vacant properties in Wandsworth is one quarter of that of Hackney. The Conservative sales policy in Wandsworth has raised more than £400 million. That has provided a total capital programme of £286 million in the past six years. It has also provided an opportunity to pay back debt and invest many of those funds in revenue- earning benefits for the ratepayers, the poll tax payers or the council tax payers.

The council has also worked with the private sector. Private sector management has been particularly successful. The savings on the privatised caretaking service which provided a 24-hour service that could be monitored and enforced were 18 per cent. of what Labour was paying.

There have been partnership schemes, renewal of properties and sales to people on housing lists on the basis of housing need. Mention has been made of rent arrears. in Wandsworth they are 3.6 per cent. of the gross figure, in Hackney they are 31 per cent. of the gross figure and in Southwark they are 27 per cent. of the gross figure.

Whenever anyone mentions Southwark, I am filled with horror. How the Labour party, with its headquarters in Walworth road, can preach about housing when it is based in the middle of one of the worst housing authorities in the country is beyond belief.

The gerrymandering in that borough has been such that, in 1978, 86 per cent. of the properties were owned by the council. Even today they are appalling, filthy and often squatted. The council even gerrymandered compulsory competitive tendering. I understand that the estate grounds maintenance went out in three geographical sections. The private sector won one and the other two were won by the in-house management. After three to six months there was regular reporting back, during which the direct labour organisation admitted that, although it was taking 100 per cent. of the fees, it was providing only 42 per cent. of the service. Yet the council kept it on. I shall now touch on the homeless figures. Wandsworth council started with 44,000 properties ; it sold 19,000 and has reinvested many of the capital receipts. It has worked with housing associations and the private sector, rented accommodation and home ownership. It has pioneered partnership schemes where the private sector provided the money and did the work and the tenants bought high-class, low-cost homes. It is all good Conservative Government policy. As a consequence, since sales began, Wandsworth council has rehoused 9,000 homeless families. It has alsso reduced the waiting lists. Lambeth council next door has housed 6,000 families and sold 600 properties.

Column 326

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. You called for relatively brief speeches. May I bring it to your attention that the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Sir P. Beresford) has now spoken for 23 minutes without any sign of reaching a conclusion? Although there is no time limit, it seems to me to be an abuse and goes directly against what you have urged hon. Members on both sides of the House to do.

Madam Deputy Speaker : I made my point in the form of a request as I have no powers to force anyone to make a speech of a certain length. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have noted it.

Sir Paul Beresford : I have noted it indeed, Madam Deputy Speaker. When the Conservatives took over from Labour, the waiting list for rented accommodation in Wandsworth was between 12,000 and 13,000. Conservative techniques and housing policy halved that figure and it has consistently stayed at half that level.

The council tenants support the Conservative council because it is low- cost, high-quality management and because it recognised that the residents wanted different means of solving their housing difficulties.

In Wandsworth, 19,000 homes have been sold to families, many of whom would have continued to be council house tenants under Labour. In May 1990, the voters went against the trend and returned a council of 48 Conservative and 13 Labour members. The residents of Wandsworth, including the council tenants, voted Conservative. The council tenants in Wandsworth helped to put my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) and my right hon. and learned Friend the member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) back in the House. The council tenants and residents of Wandsworth supported Conservative policies.

5.47 pm

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury) : The entire debate is based on one critical set of facts. Between 1982 and the present day, the total number of social buildings for rent in housing associations, new towns and the council sector is down from some 5.3 million to 4.6 million. At the same time, homelessness has doubled, and the use of temporary accommodation has gone up by a factor of seven. That is the problem, the difficulty, what has gone wrong ; so what is the solution?

Only yesterday, I received a letter from a Mrs. Irons, who lives in Streatley in my constituency, who put the problem and its potential solution at its best. She also said that I could pass on her letter to a member of the Government, and I hope that a Minister will take the opportunity to reply to her.

She wrote :

"Why are local authorities not permitted by the Government to spend the money they have locked up from the sale of council houses on building more houses? We have thousands of homeless people living in bed and breakfast accommodation, or worse. Employment of builders would also presumably provide some sort of a kick-start to the recession and a good follow-on effect to other industries. This question may seem ignorant and naive"

not in my view--

"but no one I know locally--including many staunch Conservative supporters- -seems to know the answer".

I can confirm that many Conservatives in local government are furious about the way that the Government have insisted on not following the policy of allowing council

Column 327

house receipts to be used. I am sure that they, as well as Mrs. Irons, would require some evidence of the Minister changing his mind.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tony Baldry) : I hope that the hon. Gentleman will explain to Mrs. Irons that, if local authorities are debt-free--as are many that have transferred their stock under large-scale voluntary transfer--they can use their capital receipts in whatever way they wish towards investing in social housing.

Mr. Rendel : In Newbury, we are told that that is not entirely true. We can use some of our other receipts, but not necessarily the council house receipts, for that purpose. We can use only those that are not used to pay off the original debt. That is something that we have had to do, and we use a considerable amount on that. However, the point is that the money is available, and that the policy would in effect kill two birds with one stone. As Mrs. Irons quite correctly points out, we need to solve not only the homelessness problem, but the problem of the recession that we have suffered for so many years. As we are all aware, the construction industry is one of those that has been worst hit. It could form a lever by which we could wrench many other industries out of recession as well. If we put more money into housing and got the housing market moving again, many other businesses would gain greatly.

I shall speak to the motion and then the amendment, because I have noticed that hon. Members do not always speak to the words of the motion. Having looked through the Labour motion, I would like to take exception with one small part of it. On the whole, I find it almost totally acceptable, but I am sorry that it includes a phrase about the

"phased release of capital receipts".

It seems that that is quite unnecessary. Anyone who has worked in local government knows that, if capital receipts were released now, it would not be possible for councils to use them all at once. They simply do not have the management staff there ready to do so. As they do not all need to use them, or are not capable of using all of them, there is no need to place a restriction on local government by phasing the release of capital receipts. I fear that that is merely a sop to Government propaganda concerning the potential inflationary effects, which I do not believe holds true.

There are a number of things in the amendment with which I cannot agree. First, the Government seem to be proud of the fact, believe it or not, that they have succeeded in producing some 178,000 homes over three years--under 60,000 a year. That is nothing to be proud of, and it nowhere near meets the need. It is true that that is more than was in their manifesto, but surely that just shows that they should be ashamed of what was in it, and not that they should be proud of exceeding those amounts.

Secondly, the amendment says that the

"size of the nation's housing stock has grown faster than population growth over the last 15 years".

So what? If they are saying that with their housing hat on, what they are saying with their planning hat on is that it is not the size of population growth that matters, but the size of growth in numbers of households.

Column 328

In Berkshire, we were told that we would need 30,000 to 40,000 extra houses over the next 10 years simply to keep up with the growth in the number of households, even if our population did not grow. If the Government are trying to force those extra houses on us because of the number of households, surely they must realise that it is no argument in this amendment to talk about population growth. They must say the same thing with both hats on. They are certainly not doing that at present.

Thridly, the Government amendment says :

"the mortgage rate is now at its lowest since the 1960s as a result of the Government's economic policies".

That is a shameless thing to say. What they should have said, had they had any integrity, is that the mortgage rate is down as a result of the failure of the Government's economic policies. We are in a major recession--a recession that the Government tell us they never wanted and which they never thought would last as long as it has. The recession has brought down interest rates. They have come down as a result of the failure of Government policies, not their success. Fourthly, the Government say that they wish to go ahead with a number of changes to housing legislation, and consult people on them. I do not believe that they can genuinely feel that, by housing the homeless is temporary accommodation, they can possibly solve the problem. They have recognised that there is a difference between supply and demand in housing. Instead of answering that by increasing the supply, they are simply trying to reduce the demand--not the actual demand, but that as shown in the figures--by putting some homeless people into temporary accommodation without the true security of tenure which they have had up until now.

As we are all aware, the problem of homelessness is traumatic. We have all seen, and have heard from, people about their problems. When they lose their homes and, so often as a result, their jobs, they often suffer considerable psychological damage and family break-ups. The Government are supposedly a Government of family values. Any Government who cherish family values and wish to keep families together should surely concentrate on the problem of building more homes for those who need them, instead of simply redefining the homeless when they put them into temporary accommodation. There is a need to create stable communities and stable families. The Government are not even attempting to meet those two needs. The Minister is saying that there is nothing wrong with temporary housing. I hope that the tenants of Nos. 10 and 11 Downing street accept the fact that their housing may be somewhat temporary if the present Government's policies continue. There are a number of people who do not accept that there is nothing wrong with temporary housing.

Try telling that to those women who live in battered women's hostels. Try telling them that there is no means for them in future to get permanent accommodation again. Try telling those who have lost their homes through fires that the Government are simply not willing to provide any sort of permanent accommodation for them. They will not agree with the Government's new policy.

Next Section

  Home Page