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Mr. Gary Streeter (Plymouth, Sutton) : I am delighted to be called to take part in this important housing debate. I should start by declaring my interest as a parliamentary consultant to the Institute of Housing, although our views do not always coincide.
My right hon. Friend the Minister will be delighted to know that I do not propose to talk about local housing companies, about which I have bent his ear on many occasions. I still say that it is an idea whose time has come. They increasingly could become the vehicle to deliver cost-effective, well- managed social housing.
We heard from the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) about his regrets that there is no longer a consensus about social housing. It is difficult to have a consensus with people who, rather than come into the 1990s and embrace radical ideas for the delivery of social housing policies that work and of quality services to tenants, prefer to remain in the 1950s and stick with policies with which they feel comfortable and safe.
There are occasions on which there is consensus between myself and Opposition Members and other people with whose views I do not always agree. For example, on 15 May 1992, Tribune magazine commented as follows about Labour's performance in the 1992 local government elections :
"It would be wrong to blame the debacle of May 7th entirely on that of April 9th. In several of the councils where Labour did worst, it did not deserve to do any better, simply on the basis of its dire record in office in many areas Labour local government is lacklustre and incompetent. In a few it is simply corrupt. This is nothing new. Ineffectual or rotten Labour councils have been a feature of political life for as long as anyone can remember". I agree with that.
I also agree with the comments made by Councillor Simon Matthews, a Labour councillor in Hackney council. In May 1993, he said :
Column 352"That we have failed many of the people of Hackney is beyond doubt. The sole objective of housing management in Hackney seems to be muddling through'--buying off tenants and councillors with short term expedients and gimmicks. Complacency is rife ; incompetence is widespread . Our figures for rent arrears and empty properties are the worst in the country. There totals are massaged to show bogus improvements. With nearly 5,000 empty properties we have 4,000 homeless families in temporary accommodation--most headed by women, most of them black, an appalling record.
I agree with Labour Councillor Simon Matthews. There is consensus on some issues.
I also agree with the former leader of Liverpool city council, Mr. Keva Coombes, who said :
"we are the worst landlord in Liverpool, probably in the country. All the new building has taken place and been run by a central unit and all despite the housing department. It takes genius--voids gone up, rent arrears soared the breaking of the law on racial equality I think the fundamental cause is frankly we've put the interests of the providers of the service, the workforce, above the interests of the tenants".
I agree with him on that.
I also agree with the director of housing in Hackney, who produced a report recently which said :
"By April 1990, there was a massive backlog"
of cases of arrears
"which was distributed as follows :
Approximately 9,000 on the Estate Manager's Action List with arrears in excess of £13 million.
5,000 under investigation by the Rent Recovery Teams in the 6 District Offices with arrears in excess of £3 million ;
Another 4,000 in the DoLs or in the County awaiting Hearings or eviction warrants with arrrears of about £3 million."
The report stated that the whole process of recovering arrears was a series of built-in delays.
So there can be a consensus in social housing. I agree with the remarks that I have just read out. It is a consensus that we should welcome. For is it not true that too many Labour-controlled housing authorities are incompetent, corrupt and stuck in the past? They abandon the people who elected them in the first place. Is it not, therefore, the height of hypocrisy and humbug for Labour Members to protest about the conduct of one Conservative housing authority when they have so many skeletons in their cupboard?
Why do not Labour Members clean up their record and their back yard? I should like to ask the Labour housing spokesman, the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle), the following questions. What has he done to force Labour councillors in Lambeth to collect their rent arrears--a staggering £22.7 million, or 30 per cent. of its rent roll as at March 1992? What has he done to persuade Labour councillors to get their act together in Lambeth? What has the hon. Member for Leeds, West done to persuade Labour councillors in Southwark to collect their rent arrears--a breathtaking £29 million as at March 1992? What action has he taken to clean up the incompetence and corruption of Hackney council?
Mr. Battle : What has the Minister done about those Conservative authorities which have the highest rent arrears in Britain--Brent, which has been Conservative for some time, and the Minister's constituency borough of Ealing, which has the highest rent arrears in Britain? While
Column 353the hon. Gentleman is on about housing and Conservative councils, let him tell us why the list of top rent increases includes 17 Tory authorities.
Mr. Streeter : The House will notice two things. First, the hon. Member for Leeds, West cannot tell the difference between a council which has been Labour-controlled for decades and two authorities which have recently changed to Conservative control, which must now deal with the mess that Labour councillors have left behind. Secondly, the House will notice that the hon. Gentleman singularly failed to answer my question.
"The Tories clung to power in Plymouth by just one seat and their policies on education, the health service, the poll tax and many other things are hated. They have had their day."
That was a comment by a Social Democratic party councillor who was the housing spokesman for the SDP, who was the hon. Gentleman who has the floor.
The truth is that Labour Members do nothing to sort out the corruption and incompetence of Labour authorities throughout Britain. They speak like lions in the Chamber, but like lambs when they go back to their constituencies. They are incapable of cleaning up their own back yards.
Mr. Rendel : If it is true that the local authorities to which the hon. Gentleman refers are so incompetent, why does he not mention that the Government's own housing policies are so bad that they as landlords have a worse record for housing vacancies than the local authorities?
Mr. Streeter : If the hon. Gentleman will be patient, I will come to a part of my speech in which I shall urge my right hon. Friend the Minister to maintain the pressure on the Ministry of Defence to release empty houses in Plymouth. I urge the hon. Gentleman to be patient.
I wish to deal briefly with the Government's proposed changes in access to local authority and housing association tenancies. Again, I want to find a consensus with people with whom I do not usually agree. I should like to read an extract from an article written by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett). It has already been quoted, but it bears repeating. He said :
"We need a housing waiting list structure that positively rewards those who have tried their best to take responsibility and have some order in their lives a stable relationship before having children. We need to encourage them rather than punish other people. They need to know it's worth waiting People are not fools. If you can't get a house by waiting on the list, you present the maximum number of reasons why you should receive priority. That is not encouraging people to accept responsibility in their own lives and society." That was from The Independent in July 1993.
On 21 January 1994, The Guardian reported :
"Sir George Young believes the criteria should be changed so that the individual needs of all families on the two separate routes to a rented home--homelessness and housing waiting lists--are weighed against other. In principle he is right. The proportion of new lettings going to homeless families has swelled to 45 per cent. In some areas the only available way to be rehoused is to make yourself homeless. This is simply absurd."
Column 354The truth is that the Government's proposals are intended to produce a fairer system of access to local authority and housing association properties. They have nothing to do with bashing single parents ; they have nothing to do with them.
It is worth considering what might happen to two couples in my constituency. The first couple may wish to leave the parental home or the home of friends with whom they are currently staying. They want local authority housing to raise a family, when they can afford to do so. They want to be settled in that long-term home before they raise their family. All young people should be given that advice. Why should they have to wait longer for the home of their choice than another young couple who have no settled home or financial resources, but who have gone ahead and had a child or children anyway? Why should they get priority over that first couple? What kind of signal does that send to young people who want a council house? The only way to get such a property is to make oneself homeless. One way of being classified as such under current legislation is, of course, to have a child.
I am not suggesting that women are deliberately getting pregnant to get council property. Opposition Members should read the article that I recently wrote for "Roof" to discover my view on the subject. We should encourage young people to plan their family once they have the resources to raise it properly. Our welfare system must encourage responsible behaviour, as the hon. Member for Brightside has suggested, and discourage irresponsible behaviour. If the Opposition fail to recognise that, they have no solution to offer.
Mr. Streeter : No. I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman. We must maintain a safety net to prevent children from suffering. That is offered in my hon. Friend's proposals, because young people, whether single or in a couple, will be rehoused as homeless by local authorities if they have children. They will not, however, necessarily be offered long-term accommodation. If even The Guardian can accept that that is reasonable, surely Opposition Members can. The Government's proposals are worthy of support. They are fair and they will encourage responsible behaviour. It is true that many local authorities are already implementing such a sensible approach to housing the homeless, and I pay tribute to them. I also pay tribute to the many local authorities, Conservative and Labour, which have done an excellent job in the past few years in difficult circumstances. Many have got their act together by reducing costs and carrying out repairs efficiently. Many have entered partnership deals with housing associations for the benefit of their citizens. Many are seeking to improve the services that they deliver to their tenants--helped by the compulsory competitive tendering arrangements. Many Conservative and Labour-controlled authorities are getting their act together, helped by Government legislation.
The Ministry of Defence is being far too slow in releasing houses in Plymouth for the use of local residents. I urge my hon. Friend to exert whatever pressure he can bring to bear on his colleagues at the MOD to ensure that
Column 355those properties are released at the earliest possible moment so that local people can enjoy the benefit of them. I hope that my hon. Friend will take up that matter.
The one abiding truth is that too many Labour authorities, especially in London, are incompetent and corrupt. That is why those Labour Members who refuse to put their own house in order and who point the finger at one Conservative authority are not just an example of the pot calling the kettle black, but are guilty of the ultimate hypocrisy.
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) : Housing is the subject that most people come to our surgeries or write to us about. The shortage, indeed the acute shortage, of affordable rented accommodation causes immense hardship and misery. That was not recognised, however, in the rather complacent speeches that we heard today from Conservative Members.
If the Government really were interested in the welfare of the family, as they always claim, they would ensure that adequate, affordable housing was provided for those people unable to buy. At times, I find it heartbreaking to listen to the genuine accounts of housing hardship that are recounted at my surgeries. Those people are often in desperate need. If they were able to buy, they would not come to my surgery, but it is precisely because they cannot afford to service a mortgage, or are unable to obtain one because of their low incomes, that they look for local authority accommodation. I do not pass judgment on their family circumstances, unlike some Conservative Members who believe that one should do just that. The one thing I know is that many people, often with children, need housing and should not have to put up with their current living conditions. Everything should be done to resolve their problems. I write to my local council about such cases. I know full well that, in most cases, the response will be that the constituent is on the list and that an offer will be made in due course. That is understandable in view of the acute housing shortage locally and the very long waiting list, but it does not show when that offer will be forthcoming.
The reason for the housing shortage is obvious. In 1978, the last full year of the Labour Government, there were nearly 80,000 council house starts. Last year, there were fewer than 3,000 throughout the country. In my borough, Walsall, not a single council dwelling has gone up since 1979.
I make no excuse for the existence of any vacant properties. Of course all local authorities, be they Labour or Conservative, have an obligation to get vacant properties back into letting as quickly as possible. That obligation is all the more pressing at a time of acute housing shortage.
I know that my borough--for the moment, it is no longer Labour controlled, but that will soon change--has few vacant dwellings. Some dwellings are vacant because work needs to be done on them. Even if they were all returned to the housing stock for renting, the housing shortage would not be relieved, because since 1979 there has been a fall nationally of nearly 45 per cent. in investment in housing.
Column 356Bearing in mind the figures I have quoted, is it any surprise that council house building has virtually come to a stop? Is it any surprise that we have so many homeless people and such long waiting lists? Is it any surprise that we have families living in furnished rooms and many couples with two children, not just one, living in high-rise blocks of flats?
Many of those couples ask me how much longer they will have to wait before they are transferred to a house. But some of the best council housing stock has been sold off. We predicted that that would happen when the right-to- buy policy was introduced. In the main, it is those high-rise blocks that have been left unsold.
Today's edition of The Birmingham Post draws attention to a problem faced by people who bought flats, rather foolishly in my view, in such blocks. Those properties are virtually impossible to sell now, because no one will give a mortgage on them. Those people are prisoners in their own homes. They are willing to sell at a reduced price, but there are no buyers.
From 1979, the Government were determined virtually to stop council house building--and, moreover, to reduce existing stock substantially. When I returned to the House in 1979, I was put on the first Select Committee on Environment, to which evidence was given by senior civil servants and the then Secretary of State for the Environment--the present Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. It was made clear then that Government policy would be to stop the continued building of council dwellings.
No one should be surprised about what Westminster council has done. Of course, Tory Members who have served on that council, and others who wish to act as apologists, want to present a different picture. The fact is, however, that Westminster council tried as hard as it could to reduce its housing stock substantially and offered council tenants bribes to get them out of the borough. How could anyone take seriously the claim of some Conservative Members that those actions had no political implications?
Although he has not made a statement in the House, the Secretary of State for National Heritage has admitted that discussion of the political implications took place at some meetings--understandably, he said. Westminster's political aims were clear : to ensure that the council remained Tory-controlled and to ensure that the more marginal parliamentary constituency was also retained by the Tories. Responding to questions last week, the Prime Minister spoke of "allegations" about Westminster council, but these are not allegations. They are the provisional findings of the district auditor, following an exhaustive inquiry. One hon. Member said that the inquiry had been very costly. Does she suggest that it should not have taken place? Surely the district auditor's findings have justified the cost. It is interesting to note that, even when all this was happening, one or two Conservative members of Westminster council were courageous enough to argue that it was wrong ; I consider what occurred to be one of the most shameful episodes ever to take place in local government.
A few years ago--much to the annoyance of Conservative Members--I said that Lady Porter's conduct over the cemeteries should have disqualified her from serving on any local council, or in the House of Commons. I hold that opinion even more strongly now : Lady Porter has no right to take part in public life. I hope that the time
Column 357will come when she must explain her actions in person, but she seems somewhat reluctant to return to the United Kingdom. In a long speech, the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Sir P. Beresford) gave us a list of justifications for what had happened in Wandsworth. In my view, however, Wandsworth was trying to do exactly what Westminster did, and its behavour was equally shameful. In some respects, there is no difference between the parties-- [Interruption.] I hope that Conservative Members will listen to what I am saying. The parties agree that most people want to buy homes of their own. That is entirely acceptable, and there has never been any dispute about it. Labour Members are owner-occupiers-- [Interruption.] The Government Whip, the hon. Member for Berkshire, East (Mr. MacKay), seems to wish to intervene from a sedentary position. Let me repeat that there is no difference of opinion on this point--
In the late 1960s, a Labour Government introduced the option mortgage scheme, whose purpose was to encourge people on relatively low incomes to become owner-occupiers. Such conduct would be strange, coming from a party that supposedly opposed owner-occupation, as Conservative Members claim that Labour does.
Mr. Winnick : My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle) has just suggested that I repeat what I said earlier, so I shall do so. It was a Labour Government who introduced the option mortgage scheme in the late 1960s, to encourage owner-occupation among those whose income would otherwise have posed difficulties. It is not my fault if Conservative Members do not wish to be reminded of that.
A substantial minority--not 5 per cent., 10 per cent. or 15 per cent., but 25 per cent. or 30 per cent. of people--will never be in a position to buy their homes, because of their relatively low incomes. That is where the party difference occurs. My hon. Friends and I believe that most of those people should be able to obtain affordable rented accommodation, which should be supplied by local authorities or genuine housing associations.
It should not be forgotten that local authority accommodation was provided in the first place precisely because of the state of private dwellings, which had become slums or near-slums. We would not think it from what Conservative Members say, but local authorities began to play a dominant role in housing provision because of what was happening in the private rented sector. I make no apology for my view that local authorities should continue to play a major part in the provision of rented accommodation.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) admitted, local authorities have made some mistakes, as a result of the pressure imposed by Governments of both parties to keep costs low. High-rise blocks are an example. None the less, there is much to be
Column 358proud of in local authority housing-- certainly in my borough, and in many other parts of the country. There is also a role for genuine housing associations, as there always has been.
Unlike Conservative Members, I do not believe that the private rented sector can supply adequate accommodation for those who are unable to buy ; I do not believe that it can be brought back to any large degree, and I do not think that it can provide the secure accommodation that is needed now. The people who write to me and visit my surgeries do not want to be housed just for six or nine months, with no form of security ; what good is that to them? Nor do they want to pay exorbitant rents. Conservative Members should realise that those people want decent homes. They cannot afford to buy ; they want to live in secure accommodation, knowing that they can live there for a long time. What is wrong with that? Because of Government policies, however, it is not possible.
Labour Members have always said that the two essentials are jobs and decent housing. The Government have done much to undermine the provision of both. They have brought back large-scale unemployment, which has affected many people who could be working in the building industry. They have implemented the same policies continuously since their return to office in 1979. Because they have not allowed local authorities to build as they used to, many people now live in misery and hardship.
If we, as Members of Parliament, want decent housing for ourselves, why should that not be possible for our constituents who are unable to buy? Why should we punish them for their low incomes? We are right to engage in today's debate, and to continue it subsequently. At the next election, we shall explain to people why there is a housing shortage--a housing crisis-- and why so many people have been punished in the way that I have described.
We require a Government who are determined to ensure that those who cannot afford to buy are not punished, but can live in decent accommodation. That is the purpose of a Labour Government in housing matters, and that is the right policy.
Having been involved in the fringes of housing policy in the Cabinet Office for many years, and having written a considerable amount about the subject, I felt that the extraordinary statements that he was making were divorced from facts, filled with cynicism, horrific in the use of dismissive words such as "disgraceful", and designed to whip up dissension in the Chamber. His speech was wholly unhelpful to an important area of national policy.
For many years, we have tried hard to help people to reach some consensus about these crucial issues. I have been involved in inner-city policy, and there have been partnerships all over the country--in Leicester, Teesside and south Wales. When I inadvertently, in my youthful inexperience, called the hon. Member for Blackburn my hon. Friend, he said quickly, "I am not your friend," dismissing at a stroke the partnership history of housing in which I had been involved for all those years.
It was horrific that his speech contained no praise for the housing action trusts and no reference to the marvellous
Column 359number of people to whom we have managed to give real rights in council housing. There was no reference to the charter that we gave council tenants in the early 1980s.
I met council tenants in Hackney, where I worked. They were filled with praise for the policy. They had been council tenants for many years, and they were at last enfranchised and could treat their houses as their own homes. They were able to paint their own front doors thanks to our policies. Was there any reference to that by the hon. Member for Blackburn? Not at all.
Dismissing for a moment those who have been hurt by negative equity, was there any reference to the hundreds of thousands of people who, since the rise in home ownership from 55 per cent. in 1979 to 67 per cent. now, enjoy the freehold ownership of their own homes? Was there a reference to that in the balanced and mature speech of the hon. Member for Blackburn? Not at all --there was only cynicism. Was there a reference in his speech to anything that we had done correctly? He made no reference to the new rental options that we have provided, or to how we have helped so many people to maintain and look after both council houses and their own homes by providing insulation and other assistance. None of those policies had the slightest mention in his speech.
Instead, we heard one of the most gall-ridden speeches I have ever heard. How could a leading Labour spokesman have come to that Dispatch Box to tell us that we were responsible for so much gerrymandering because of Westminster, when the central tenet of Labour policy since the 1930s and since Herbert Morrison has been to build the Tories out of town after town? How could the hon. Gentleman come to the Dispatch Box and not once mention that fact?
In Putney, that policy returned a Labour Member of Parliament for many years, and we have heard the Wandsworth story this evening. Even in Norwich, the Labour party used the same gerrymandering Morrison policy. Labour councillors in south Norwich were using the same device in Eton ward. They put the worst council houses and problem families there in order to destroy the best Tory ward. We have heard that story time and again.
Even today, the Labour spokesman has the gall to say that the Conservatives are manipulating people. Even in my borough of Barnet, houses have been brought up by Camden council in a cynical attempt to destroy a Conservative area.
When Labour councils buy houses in Barnet and other Conservative areas, they put their very worst problem families into those wards. If that is not an exploitation of ordinary, good people I do not know what is. It is quite preposterous for the Labour party to say that we are cynical about human nature.
Last year and the year before, I was involved in a survey of what constituted the vacant, void property in Britain. When I was in the civil service, I constantly met the proposition that there were void properties but they were all in the wrong places. It was suggested to me that we had empty cottages in the highlands of Scotland that were no use for the homeless people in London. We looked into where those empty void properties were, and discovered that there were 83,000 void properties owned by councils, 18,000 in London.
Column 360If, as hon. Members have rightly suggested, we discount those that will soon be repaired and those that will be filled in a short time, and if we are pessimistic about all the discounting, there are 20,000 empty houses in council ownership that could be used for the homeless today. They are all or nearly all in Labour or Liberal-controlled areas. The honours are shared in London between Tower Hamlets and Hackney among others. Parts of the list have been read out today. It has been said that Conservative Members came armed with bits of paper from Central Office. I have not seen any bits of paper from Central Office. I have learnt from many years' experience. Housing policy in those places is cynical. It is part of the old empire-building process that Morrison began.
Having found all those void properties, I made a proposal that was eventually published in a book called "Into the Voids", suggesting that ordinary homeless people could use those properties. I have had nothing but negative responses from many Labour council leaders around the country. However, I have had endless requests for interviews, and tremendous support from homeless people. I received a petition from hundreds of homeless people wanting to use my proposal.
What was my proposal? It was that those empty properties could be accessed by homeless people. If they spotted that a house had been empty for three months, they could slap a notice on the door of the council saying, "We will be your tenant in 14 days if you cannot show that you use it." If the property is used within 14 days, everyone wins, because someone has a home. However, if it is not used, the homeless person can use the property.
What reaction did I get from Labour councillors? What do they say about the proposal? They say that it will never work, because we cannot trust homeless people to do all the necessary renovation work.
All over the world, people of ordinary abilities are building their own homes, not just renovating them. Today, the largest sector in housing in Britain is not Barratt, Taylor Woodrow--which was referred to earlier by the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) from a sedentary position-- Laing or any of the others. It is self-build. We have 6 per cent. self- build in this country. The figure is 20 per cent. in Germany, 6 per cent. in Scandinavia and about 10 per cent. in America.
We should trust ordinary people to renovate houses themselves. If they can build, surely they can renovate. The Labour councillors around the country said, "But these people do not have any money." The Conservatives, through good, sensible policies, have given homeless people the money to use. We give them a dowry. The moment they become tenants, they can use housing benefit, if they are homeless and unemployed.
My suggestion has had a marvellous response from the Department of the Environment, from Ministers who have been open-minded and encouraging, contrary to the proposals and the negative response from the Opposition. The sensible proposal is to commit that sum of money--the dowry for homeless people--to pay for the renovations that they cannot do themselves.
Mr. Rendel : Given the encouragement that the hon. Gentleman has had from Ministers at the Department of the Environment, has he persuaded them to persuade the Ministry of Defence to start the policy with its empty properties?
Mr. Booth : It is probably a matter of consensus in the House that the 10,000 or so homes owned by the Ministry of Defence should be used as soon as possible. I thought that I heard an intervention earlier from the Front Bench saying that they will be used as soon as possible. I hope so. It is no part of my contribution to the debate to defend the failure of the Ministry of Defence to dispose of those houses even sooner.
The Government place tremendous store by a successful housing policy for all our people. We have the right policies and will go on having the right policies, because the Ministers have imagination and listen to new proposals. They have been listening throughout the debate. I encourage the House to support Ministers.
Several hon. Members rose--
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse) : Order. I understand that the winding-up speeches will begin at 9.20 pm. Six hon. Members are hoping to catch my eye. With a bit of co-operation from all hon. Members, I may be able to call them all.