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recently released its index of local conditions. Drawing on the 1991 census, it puts Newham in the No. 1 spot as the most deprived local authority area in the country. There is a massive need for regeneration, but there are also great grounds for optimism about the future.

We have energy and vitality, and, despite the problems--perhaps partly because of them--we have a community that works. I am among those who want Government policies that will nurture and support our communities instead of tearing them apart, as has happened so often in the past 15 years. We have large numbers of bright and energetic young people, many from families who arrived in this country from other parts of the world, now determined to build a better future for themselves and their families.

We also have vast areas of land close to central London, benefiting from excellent public transport links that are set to improve with the completion of the Jubilee line and--I hope--Crossrail and the channel tunnel high-speed link. Those vast areas--the docks, the gas works, the railway yards--are places where thousands of people used to make their livelihoods, and where we hope they will one day do so again.

As much as any area in the country, Newham needs successful urban regeneration, with investment in our housing and schools. But one key Government decision, which I understand is imminent, is critical to the regeneration of our area--the decision whether to allow the international passenger station at Stratford, on the route of the high-speed rail link to the channel tunnel, to go ahead.

In 1987, when I was chair of Newham council's planning committee, British Rail announced that it was considering Stratford as a station on the channel tunnel link. Since then, we have supported Stratford International. I find it extraordinary--given the Government's policy of using the high- speed link to promote development in east London--that, seven years on, there is still uncertainty about whether the station will receive the Government's support. The locations of the intermediate stations on the link are to be determined on the basis of regeneration, transport, environmental and commercial considerations. Stratford succeeds handsomely on all those criteria, but I wish to concentrate on the urban regeneration issues. Within five miles of the Stratford site are 125,000 people without work--a quarter of all the unemployed people in London. Our ambition is for Stratford and the nearby Royal docks to be transformed into a major commercial centre providing employment for many of those people, and the direct link to Europe will enable that to happen. When, in 1991, the then Secretary of State for Transport announced that the high-speed link would run through east London, he said that it was to bring economic regeneration to the area. In October 1991, he told the House :

"It is envisaged that the high-speed train from the channel tunnel to King's Cross will stop at Stratford".--[ Official Report , 14 October 1991 ; Vol.196, c.34 .]

Only with a station in east London will the regeneration benefits that were the reason for the choice of the eastern route be achieved. I think that hon. Members will understand why, nearly three years after those annoucements, we in Newham feel frustrated that uncertainty remains about the Stratford station. We hope that the Government will soon end that uncertainty with a firm commitment to Stratford.

The Government have invested heavily in east London, and valuable foundations have been laid. If they decided

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now that there should only be a station on the M25, that would jeopardise all that investment. The reason is--the point has been made forcefully by the London planning advisory committee, speaking for all the London boroughs and the City--that if there were only such a station, it would suck development out of east London. We have seen that happen in a number of north American cities. Development would leapfrog east London, where it is so urgently needed and where the Government have provided some of the infrastructure for it to happen, and cluster around the M25, leaving inner east London to decline further and throw away the benefits of the investment made so far. There is overwhelming public support for the station in Stratford and throughout Europe.

One of the main conclustions of the report commissioned by the Department of the Environment is the importance of creating effective coalitions of "actors" within localities to achieve regeneration. I believe that Ministers will acknowledge that that has been achieved in Stratford. The Stratford promoter group includes about 15 public and private sector partners, including landowners, developers and construction companies, as well as public agencies such as the council, the university of East London and the London Docklands development corporation. They are all ready to go.

We do not ask for subsidy ; we simply want a green light to press ahead with a project that will pay for itself, will give a good commercial return and will ensure that past Government investment in east London is not thrown away. More than that, the project gives us an opportunity of the kind that comes only once in a hundred years, to change the nature of east London for the better, for good. I urge the Government to make a clear and positive decision for Stratford station and, in east London as elsewhere, to allow the local authority to build the coalitions that will create the changes in our cities and the regeneration that we so desperately need.

7.40 pm

Sir Paul Beresford (Croydon, Central) : I am delighted to be able to congratulate the hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Timms) on his maiden speech. Making one's maiden speech is a nerve-racking task which on this occasion was especially well done. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his praise of his predecessor, too.

The hon. Gentleman is a little more imaginative and broader in his approach to the task than one or two of his hon. Friends who have spoken. They seem to be running back to the same old difficulty, because their set answer to inner-city problems is for more money from the Government--from taxpayers-- to be pumped in through local councils, even though those councils have often proved themselves to be absolute and utter failures.

Many local authorities can be, and have proved to be, catalysts--but in many urban areas, especially in inner London, councils have proved to be parasites on the community and have damaged accommodation as well as education opportunities and the environment. Yet the knee-jerk claim from Labour is always that they need more money to pour into that wastage.

Urban regeneration touches much more than housing ; it is concerned with education, for example, and with better local services. It must be achieved at a reduced cost that will represent value for the taxpayer and the council tax payer. The Labour motion refers to "cuts", but successful

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authorities have often proved that they can manage within their budgets, trimming them in many areas so that they can expand in others.

Unfortunately, I was unable to be here at the beginning of the debate, but I understand that a couple of snide comments were made about Wandsworth ; that is the sort of knee-jerk reaction that we would expect. It is time that Labour Members learnt from some of Wandsworth's successes in urban regeneration. In fact, Wandsworth has been so successful that I understand that the Department of the Environment has decided on a 23 per cent. cut in its standard spending assessment. Nevertheless, over the years, the council has managed to deal with the reduction in its grant from central Government relative to grants given to the rest of inner London, especially to inner- London Labour and Liberal-controlled authorities.

Examples can be given using what I would call the real facts--the total tax take. Comparisons between some of the boroughs illustrate the point that I am trying to make. By total tax take for a band D dwelling, I mean the local taxation minus its preceptors plus the total grant from Government. In broad terms, in the case of Wandsworth the figure is about £2,000 per dwelling. In Labour Lambeth, as it was at that stage, the figure was £3,000 per dwelling, and in Southwark the figure was similar. If Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Haringey are counted, the figure is £4,500. Considering what those councils do with the money, those figures represent not cuts but daylight robbery.

To take one example, revenue collection seems simple enough, yet those councils cannot do it competently. Lambeth, Southwark, Islington and Tower Hamlets seem unable to collect rents or council tax, and most of them cannot even collect the rubbish that people want to give away. Let us examine the actual cost per head. In Wandsworth, it is £11.14 ; in Lambeth, £26.54 ; and in Tower Hamlets, £28.77--and for a worse job. Some of that money could be spent elsewhere if the job were done efficiently, because revenues would increase as a result.

Let us consider the environment. Moving through Wandsworth towards Lambeth, Southwark and Tower Hamlets, one can see the demarcation point. On the Wandsworth side, the streets are clean, whereas on the Lambeth, Southwark and Tower Hamlets sides they are consistently filthy. The explanation lies not in the amount of other people's money thrown at the job but in the way in which the job is done. In Wandsworth, street sweeping costs £5.36 per head. To the best of my knowledge, Lambeth did not report the figure-- perhaps there is no street sweeping in Lambeth. In Southwark, street sweeping costs £17.54 per head ; in Tower Hamlets, it costs £15.84.

Refuse collection may seem a simple service, especially in an area such as Southwark, in which 86 per cent. of the properties were originally owned by the council and in which there are many tower blocks, where collection is simple. Yet in Wandsworth, collection costs £9.50 per head ; in Lambeth, £26.66 ; and in Southwark £21.66. In Liberal Tower Hamlets, it costs £25.49. Those sums represent an abuse. The services should be organised using the abilities of the private sector. Wandsworth has brought in a new system, upgrading standards and going out to competitive tender again. It is setting higher standards because of imaginative use of the private sector, and costs have been reduced by a further 41 per cent.

In the housing sector, we hear the request that councils should do the work. One has only to tour places such as

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Southwark to see a council that had 86 per cent. of the properties in its hands yet made a diabolical and appalling mess until the Government leant on it to use new ideas. Even then, Southwark managed to bungle the job. When it was forced by compulsory competitive tendering to go out to tender for cutting grass and carrying out maintenance on the estates, the district was divided into three areas. One area went to the private sector, and that was leant on to prove that it could meet the standards ; the other two areas went in house. The first report, after several months of the new in-house service, told tenants that they were being charged 100 per cent. of the fees while receiving less than 45 per cent. of the service.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley) : The hon. Gentleman represents Croydon.

Sir Paul Beresford : We are talking about inner cities. The hon. Gentleman must recognise that that council does not have quite the same inner-city problems as many others do, and if we compare like with like there is a lesson to be learnt, if we want to learn it. The Government offer the opportunity to be imaginative, to have choice, and to bring in the private sector. The private sector has proved that it can work with councils, if councils are co-operative. It has proved that it can make changes and improve the environment without wounding the pockets of those who have to pay.

Inner-city councils have a role, but it should be that of flexible enablers. It has been proved, especially in the inner cities, that Labour and Liberal councils cannot produce the results as providers. I hope that the Minister will reflect on the debate and recognise that, rather than the funds of councils being boosted, the squeeze should be put on them to be more imaginative and to provide the funds to the private sector--perhaps allowing the private sector to be directly involved, as are housing associations, and to bid competitively for housing association grant.

7.48 pm

Mr. Bill Etherington (Sunderland, North) : I place on record my admiration for the excellent speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman). In many ways, what he said about inner- city deprivation and housing problems is reflected in Sunderland, North. I have no doubt that I am not alone among Opposition Members in finding that the majority of problems that are brought to my office and surgeries involve housing. Dealing with those problems is becoming quite a major task. Approximately two days a week is spent dealing with those problems by a member of my staff. I was not quite so pleased to hear the Secretary of State for the Environment bringing up the same old arguments about whether it was desirable to sell council houses. He accused Opposition Members, in effect, of being against people owning their properties. It is interesting to look at the results of the Government's policy on the sale of council houses. There is no problem now for anyone who wants to buy a house privately, whether it is a new dwelling or not. The only problem now for people involved in the business of buying a house is selling their existing premises, because the market has been flat for a long time. It is becoming increasingly obvious that there is a problem

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for those who, for various reasons, are unable to buy their own premises but who require decent, reasonably priced, rented accommodation.

The Government have stated that they want more private rented accommodation. They are very much in the minority in thinking that, because most people who have had the "privilege" of living in private rented accommodation have been only too pleased to get municipal housing with a decent landlord at the earliest opportunity. The Minister would do well to look at the history of housing policy. Even during periods of Conservative Governments, and especially during the period when the Conservative Government went under the name of the National Government in the 1930s, there were considerable house-building projects. Municipal housing was built because it was recognised that private landlords were not the answer. If they were not the answer in the 1930s, they will not be the answer now. The Secretary of State cited the figure of 67 per cent. in relation to people who owned their own houses. That is excellent and no one argues against it. It would he nice if everyone who wanted to own their premises could do so. I for one would never be against what was once called the property-owning democracy, but the fact is that that has not come about. If 67 per cent. of the population own their houses, there must be another 33 per cent. who need to find some sort of rented accommodation.

As the councils have been stripped of the power to build houses as they are required, housing is approaching a crisis. I wonder whether Ministers are aware that many organisations have warned that we are approaching a crisis in the condition of much of our housing. I refer not only to rented accommodation but to owner-occupied accommodation. That crisis will occur because not enough resources have been put into housing.

In 1945, when everything was in short supply, a Labour Government took power and instigated a massive house-building programme which, to the credit of the Conservative Government who came to power in 1951, continued apace. That was a period when we made progress in the quality and availability of housing. We have now gone full circle and present Government policies are leading us into a crisis not just of homelessness but in the condition of property. There is also the problem of those who find life difficult because of the price of property. Not everyone is on some form of income support or housing benefit, and people find life difficult. The situation is probably worse now than it has been for the best part of this century. One of the effects of the Government's policy of selling council houses may not have been foreseen and I have not heard it mentioned this evening. When municipal property is made available for tenants, the stock of housing available for those who require rented property is reduced. Those sales bring about another phenomenon--a brake on new private housing. People who have been living in council premises who want to buy a house and who are offered a house at a good price by the council will not buy new houses or owner-occupied houses. The knock-on effect has been a gradual reduction in the number of houses built and that problem is now coming home to roost.

I shall cite one or two figures from the National Federation of Housing Associations. I declare an interest here : I belong to the management committee of a rather unusual housing association which was set up in 1909 to provide houses for retiring miners--the Durham Aged

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Miners' Homes Association. When coal miners retired, they had to find accommodation and there was not much about. Usually their home would be a couple of rooms in a grotty private landlord's domain, which was not satisfactory. As time went on and legislation changed, the organisation became a housing association. The association provides housing only for retired people or widows. I am sure that everyone here in the Chamber is aware that by the nature of things, not many people who are around retirement age are willing to buy property. There is not much use in buying a house at the age of 65 when one might not live long enough to pay for it so people do not bother.

According to the Housing Corporation, more pressure is now being put on to housing associations to build more houses for sale ; a larger percentage of houses is supposed to be sold. I thought that the Government's policy was to use the housing associations, as they are always crowing, to provide low -cost accommodation for rent--social housing, which is getting harder to come by day by day.

The National Federation of Housing Associations states that, in its opinion, 120,000 homes should be

"produced each year to meet housing need in the social sector." The present policies seem likely, by 1996-97, to produce 27,000 homes per year. We therefore have a continuous downward spiral and the problem will get worse.

This is not an argument about whether council houses or housing associations are best, or whether it is better for people to be able to buy their own houses. It is an argument about the Government's responsibility to provide decent homes for all their citizens. I believe that that is a fundamental right that anyone who lives in a democracy should expect, but it is not happening. We have heard all the jokes about cardboard boxes and about the Government's initiatives to deal with the homeless, but no progress is being made. There may be a marvellous flagship in London and fantastic progress may have been made in hostel provision, but such progress is not happening anywhere else. It is not happening where I live in the north-east ; it has not reached that far yet. There is nothing unusual about that ; it is what we have come to expect under the present regime.

What will happen ? Will the Government wait until people riot about housing conditions ? That has happened before. That is what we mean when we talk about inner-city deprivation. It is all very well for Conservative Members to say that we always ask for more resources. One does not have to be a brilliant financier to know that, if there is a problem of shortages, the only way in which to put that right is to allocate more resources.

Unfortunately, the Minister for Housing, Inner Cities and Construction has just left the Chamber. I tried unsuccessfully for 23 minutes this morning to elicit some information from his office. At the end of that Herculean task, I was fortunate enough to get an answerphone so I was at least able to leave a message, which has not yet been answered. If people who had a housing complaint met such a response from a local authority, of whichever colour, they would talk about bringing in the ombudsman. That is the service that a Member of Parliament can expect from a Department under this regime. I find it most objectionable. I am sorry that the Minister concerned has left the Chamber, but I am sure that he will read my remarks. If he makes investigations, he may find, among the seven different people to whom I talked, someone who can inform him about the true position

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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse) : Order.

7.59 pm

Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest) : I am proud to be able to declare an interest as a director of a house-building company.

I add my voice to those of my hon. Friends who have congratulated the hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Timms) on his excellent and thoughtful maiden speech. Obviously, we shall not agree on everything about housing and urban policy, but it is important that he stressed the importance of reviving communities as part of urban policy.

It is important that the hon. Member for Newham, North-East was able to identify in Newham, as I am sure is possible in every other area of the country, urban and otherwise, exactly the kind of revived spirit on which, ultimately, successful urban policies, however financed and however generous in financial terms, depend. I remember that, in my maiden speech some seven years ago, I made precisely the point made by the hon. Member for Newham, North-East. The difference between us is that I believe, as I shall--hopefully--demonstrate, that, in many parts of the country and in many of our inner areas, substantial progress has been made as a result of the Government's housing and urban policies.

I also happen to agree with the Government when they stress choice in housing between ownership, private renting and, of course, social provision, either by councils, or, especially recently, by housing associations. I support that because, by their actions over the past few years, the people of Britain appear to support it too. I do not believe that it is a coincidence that 67 per cent. of people in Britain nowadays are home owners, which is the highest figure in any country in Europe. That has risen significantly since 1979 from about 51 per cent. It is also significant that a large proportion--1.5 million--of households have moved away from state-controlled council housing and, indeed, 0.4 million households are no longer in the housing association sector.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) rose

Mr. Coombs : Let me finish the sentence and then I promise to give way. They have moved away from the housing association sector to take advantage of home ownership opportunities.

Mr. Winnick : Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is no dispute between us on the question of people who want to buy ? Obviously, if they wish to buy and become owner-occupiers, they have every right to do so and we would never discourage that in any way. The dispute was, of course, over the way in which council dwellings were to be sold or not. Does he also accept that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Etherington) pointed out, the remainder of people unable to buy for obvious reasons is about one third ? Their wish is for affordable, rented and secure accommodation, which they are not likely to find in the private sector, where there is no security and where, as I was told at Question Time, the average rent is now well over £70 a week.

Mr. Coombs : I entirely accept that, with about 6 million households still in council accommodation, that may well fall because of the rent-to- mortgage scheme,

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which will affect 1.5 million people in the next few years, and that there are people in state-owned housing who want to ensure--it is our obligation to ensure--that it is run as efficiently and as properly as possible.

Equally, it is important that councils recognise their role as facilitators --as many are--in providing social housing. They would be in a better position to be able to do that if they concentrated on that kind of housing, rather than spreading themselves too widely and inefficiently, as has been the case up to now. Most local authorities, especially many Labour -controlled local authorities, have recognised that their future lies in being able to facilitate good housing in conjunction with the voluntary sector and the private sector. The Demos research group is a classic example of that, and I hope that the trend continues.

The other reason why I think that people are more likely to want to own their home is that, almost by definition, it gives them more control over the housing stock available than is the case for council house tenants. I find it most demeaning, in a sense, for my constituents--although not Conservative-controlled, the Wyre Forest district council has a relatively good record on housing management policy--to hear them saying "Mr. Coombs, I want a transfer to another part of Kidderminister or to another area, but, unfortunately, I cannot get it and I am stuck in the points system." If they were able to secure a direct stake in their council houses through ownership, or through housing associations by shared ownership, their ability to move would be greatly enhanced and that could only be to their good. We have also heard of the other reason why people are moving away from council housing. In many areas--again I do not say all areas, not even on a party-political basis--which, generally, are controlled by the Labour party, there is an appalling record on rent arrears and empty houses. The classic example was given by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central (Sir P. Beresford) when he compared the efficiency of Wandsworth with Lambeth and with Tower Hamlets. People want efficiency and, sadly, too often they do not get it. In Birmingham, in the largest Labour-controlled local authority, which is near my constituency, some 900 houses are empty and unavailable for letting. It is significant that the tenants of the Castle Vale estate, a large 1950s-60s estate in the north-east of Birmingham, recently voted, on a democratic basis, to become a housing action trust, to move their management away from the council, precisely because of the poor management and inefficiency of the council.

It is also significant that, just before the tenants did so--as reported in The Birmingham Post only last year--the residents of a tower block on the Castle Vale estate received a letter from the council saying that it was very sorry but it was withdrawing their caretaker and that it hoped that the tenants, the majority of whom were elderly, would be able to maintain the standards of cleaning in communal areas to which they had been used. If that is an example of sensitive, good, reactive housing management, the people who are regarded as such are living in cloud cuckoo land.

People want to move and to take more control of their own destinies. The housing action trusts and the estate

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action programmes, which sometimes are a prelude to home ownership, are an extremely important part of housing policy.

An interesting document was recently produced by the National Federation of Housing Associations, which stated that 67 to 70 per cent. home ownership in the country is about our maximum, and it put forward many interesting ideas about how the housing market in the country will develop. When any party considers its housing policy, it ought to take cognisance of that. The NFHA estimates that, up to 2011, the number of households in the country will increase from 19 million to 22 million, that there will be a far larger number of single-parent households and a far larger number of single-adult households and that during that period the number of older men, as single households--45 to 64-year-old men--will increase by no less than 156 per cent. So we shall see a fragmentation of households, far more single households and, therefore, a need for a significantly different kind of more flexible housing stock and more flexible tenures than has been inherent in the past as a result, primarily, of a system of state-provided social housing.

Being in the housing business myself, to a certain extent, I have some first-hand experience of the recent recession in the housing market. Although it has had a number of adverse effects such as negative equity and, sadly, some repossessions, it has also given people a more realistic idea of the future of housing. People are no longer regarding house buying as an automatic investment, whereby one buys a house and the value rises by 20 per cent., for example, over the following two years to cover the transitional costs. I see no reason why, with the current low inflationary climate, with interest rates staying low, and with a gradual decrease in mortgage interest relief at source, we should not see a far more sustained and sustainable recovery in the housing market, which, at the same time, does not take the enormous amount of resources away from the productive economy as occurred in the past boom and, indeed, during the boom and busts under different Governments since 1970 and even before that.

Let me move on to the question of inner-city policy. It is helpful that the Government have rationalised many of the initiatives which have come forward from Government Departments. An enormous amount of money--some £4 billion--will be spent this year on inner-city initiatives. However, many initiatives need to be rationalised, and it is important that that will take place through the single regeneration budget and the Urban Regeneration Agency.

Successful inner-city policy has always been a question of partnership between the voluntary sector, local people, central and local government, and the private sector. One good example that is currently taking place, again in the west midlands, is Birmingham Heartlands. That sort of infrastructure investment needs a significant amount of financial backing, and it is happening in the way that I have just described.

As the hon. Member for Newham, North-East rightly pointed out, we will ultimately have sustainable recovery in inner-city areas only if people are given a direct investment in the future of those areas. That is why it is absolutely crucial that everything is done to promote, through grant- maintained schools, housing action trusts or neighbourhood groups, the sort of direct involvement in

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local communities which people can have in order to promote the community spirit to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

As an example of that, I shall quote from a magazine that has been issued by the Building a Better Balsall Heath campaign. Balsall Heath is an inner- city area of Birmingham. I can remember going down its main street in 1981. It was riot torn--it was like Detroit a few years earlier. I can remember seeing cars on fire, people throwing stones, and so on. Since then, there has been--and I quote from Respect "a blooming miracle. The neighbourhood has been largely rebuilt. The community has become an example of multi- racial harmony to the rest of Britain. We can now expect the rest of the city to respect this achievement".

Balsall Heath had an appalling reputation in the late 1960s and early 1970s. That was the "before" situation. I know that we are not allowed to show photographs but there it is. The "after" scenes are "astonishingly and refreshingly different. The houses have been rebuilt. Parks adorn the area. Mosques and churches grace it. In the 1990s, the area has become strong and resilient. The community is chasing away the old problems and attracting fresh life and hope. People are now beginning to choose to live and invest in it." That is what makes for good inner-city policy.

That example of what has happened in what was an unpromising area of Birmingham shows that if inner-city policy is done with the community, as most of our inner-city policies have been until now, and certainly in Balsall Heath, rather than imposed on it, it can be successful.

I shall briefly talk about housing associations and say why I feel that they have an important role to play in housing development over the next few years. I understand--certainly our amendment indicates this--that housing associations, over the past three years, have out-performed the targets that were set for them in 1992. What is more, they are expected to repeat that performance over the next three years.

First, as the National Federation of Housing Associations said in its excellent report, "Working households, affordable housing and economic needs", housing associations will be increasingly important by providing flexibility in the housing market between ownership and renting, and the interface between them. Do-it-yourself shared ownership schemes will be seen as increasingly important in allowing people to get a step on the home ownership ladder.

Secondly, because housing associations are more local and much smaller, they are, intrinsically, more likely to be more efficient than the potentially bureaucratic council housing departments which they succeed. Indeed, housing associations are able to attract private capital where local authorities cannot--some £6 billion since 1988--and through BS5750, "A Tool for Improvement", which has been recommended to housing associations by the National Federation of Housing Associations, housing associations will continue to improve their efficiency in a way that is bound to be good for their tenants and shared owners.

Housing associations, compared to council housing, depoliticise the housing situation. In other words, because they are more local, they are less party political ; and, because they are more practical, they are less easily manipulated by people who would like to make a political

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argument out of them. As a result, they address the problems of home ownership and reducing homelessness in a more effective way than council housing departments.

I should like to see many more large-scale voluntary transfers than are taking place. As I said, there are 6 million council house properties in this country. So far, only 123,000 of them have been the subject of voluntary transfers to housing associations. There is enormous scope for more transfers of that sort, which would underpin the facilitating role that local authorities should be taking in the future to make the country much more efficient in the way that it provides for its housing needs.

8.16 pm

Ms Jean Corston (Bristol, East) : This debate is about the biggest change to have affected the country in the past 15 years--indeed, in any 15 years in history. The structural change--increasing social inequality--is of such a magnitude that it underlies every political debate, including today's challenge to the Government.

The problem is not peculiar to certain towns and cities in the north. Indeed, the census shows that in some respects the position has been getting worse more quickly in the south than in the north. The facts about the north are reasonably well known ; those about the south are only beginning to be fully established. My constituency is a good example. Between 1989 and 1994, unemployment in Bristol, East grew by 96 per cent., compared with 51 per cent. in Britain as a whole. The exact extent of that increase--96 per cent.--ironically applied to places as far apart as Yeovil, Eltham and south-west Norfolk. They are not the most dramatic examples. The biggest increases of all in these five years have been in places like Guildford, Horsham, Newbury and north-west Surrey.

I shall concentrate not on the regional and national divide but on the divide which afflicts every city and town and which is turning our urban landscape into a depopulated inner city surrounded by a scatter of formally designated areas of dereliction, in which there are insecure and low-paid workers, and elderly and unemployed people, beleaguered by affluent fortresses--whether commerce and banking in the city centres, or the increasingly security-minded residential locations of business and professional elites on the periphery. There is what we might call the "Polo" factor--creating cities with holes in the middle.

Bristol city council has just published a report entitled "Poverty in Bristol". This is six years on from a similar report in 1988 and, dare I add, 56 years on from one of those classic surveys of poverty in the inter- war years, carried out by Herbert Tout in Bristol. It showed that, in 1938, there were fewer unemployed, a smaller percentage in poverty and certainly fewer homeless people than in the 1990s. The diet prescribed then for a needy family was, by modern standards, substantial and nutritious.

The Bristol city report deals with changes between the censuses of 1981 and 1991 and it found that poverty in the poorest areas has worsened. The areas are Lawrence Hill in my constituency, which is covered by the Bristol development corporation--one of those development corporations which the Government never boast about--parts of Ashley in the constituency of Bristol, West, Hartcliffe, Withywood and Knowle West in the

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constituency of Bristol, South and Lawrence Weston, Southmead and Lockleaze in the constituency of Bristol, North-West.

On the 1991 measures of unemployment--free school meals, poll tax rebates, children in households with no earners or only one part-time earner, long- term illness and mortality among those under 65--those areas have the highest rate. In those areas, unemployment grew faster than elsewhere in the city, as did the substitution of part-time for full-time jobs. There were said to be "significant reductions in income".

In Lawrence Hill, 65 per cent. of households did not have a car and the growth of out-of-town shopping facilities increases the difficulty of transport for those populations. Bristol city council and local business people are determined to keep the city shopping centre alive. John Lewis has just announced that it is moving to an out-of-town site. That creates the problem of access to supermarkets and department stores for working people without cars, and that problem will get worse.

Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre) : Does the hon. Lady agree that John Lewis's decision was taken mainly because of the policy of the city council, which prevents cars in any number from getting into the city centre to shop in the original store ? Is not it also an example of a planning decision, after John Lewis made it clear that it wished to stay in the city centre ?

Ms Corston : John Lewis made it clear that it wished to go outside the city because there was a large shopping centre there where people shop with cars, and that was obviously more convenient. The problem is that if there is an inner city area where 65 per cent. of people have no access to a car, those people cannot go to those shops. That is a question for the policy makers which we must address. In Lawrence Hill, Knowle West, Hartcliffe and Southmead, the number of school children eligible to receive free school meals is more than half or nearly half. In those areas, nearly half of all children were in households with no earners or only one part- time earner, usually a woman. That is a huge fraction of the local community, and poverty and unemployment are on such a scale that they crush the potentiality for local responsiveness.

Too many people have problems of eking out a livelihood. Short-term help from family and neighbours becomes difficult, and long-term support becomes impossible. Better-heeled professionals are becoming less likely to live in and serve those areas, and they also do not know that the areas exist. They are commuters, who drive to work and back along a few principal roads on which there are fewer and fewer facilities to tempt them to stop.

Local populations are becoming less of a mixture of people of every occupational class. For Bristol, the 1991 census shows that vividly, if roughly. There are wards such as Cotham and Clifton with nearly seven times as many non-manual as manual workers. At the other extreme are wards such as Lawrence Hill with only half as many non-manual as manual workers, and Filwood with as little as one fifth as many non-manual as manual workers.

If unemployment, part-time and casual forms of employment and extremely low incomes are becoming concentrated in certain areas, lack of access to affordable

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housing and other forms of property are following suit. There is a sharp divide between owner-occupiers and tenants, and the Government are penalising those who are paying rent.

Having reduced wages and benefits, the number unable to buy has increased and too little housing is being built to rent. Council housing rents have been forced to rise, and the poorest are being squeezed out of homes.

Earlier this week the National Federation of Housing Associations issued a revealing research report to which reference has been made by other hon. Members. The report makes a powerful case for much more affordable housing. It affirms that

"home ownership is near its limit"

and that

"private sector renting can't meet future needs".

The south-west is one of three regions singled out as being likely to experience a 20 per cent. increase in the number of new households during the next 15 years. The case is an economic one, providing a basis for fuller employment. The federation says

"affordable rents help people back to work".

The housing crisis in Bristol takes some of the forms familiar to other parts of the country. A National Housing Forum study, commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, was published today. One in 13 homes is officially unfit for human habitation, while one in six is in need of urgent repairs costing more than £1,000. It was estimated that a comprehensive programme to deal with the backlog would cost £34 billion.

The problem applies to all the areas highlighted in the Bristol city council's report on "Poverty in Bristol". Homelessness is the tip of a poor housing iceberg. In 1985-86 the number of homeless people officially registered was 994. By 1990, the figure had doubled and in 1993-94 it was 2,856. Of those, 1,477, or more than half, were accepted as priority cases by Bristol city council.

Those figures are of applicants to the council. Many more do not apply, and many homeless people do not believe that they are eligible for rehousing or do not believe they would be successful if they did apply. Reputable attempts have been made to estimate the real numbers of homeless, resulting in informed estimates of between 6,000 and 8, 500 people.

The Select Committee report on homelessness stated that a key factor affecting homelessness is the availability of sufficient accommodation at affordable rents. In 1978-79, total rented accommodation declined overall by some 1.5 million units--20 per cent.--and the number of new homes built by housing authorities declined from 104,000 to 22,000.

The Government's consultation paper "Access to Local Authority and Housing Association Tenancies" sets out proposals for the reform of homelessness legislation and new powers to prescribe local authority allocation policy. Bristol city council provided just one of 9,000 predominantly critical responses to that Government consultation paper. The council said :

"The proposals are not concerned with either housing provision or more effective services for homeless people. Rather, they appear to be concerned with redefining homelessness and directing homeless people away from permanent homes towards temporary and more expensive accommodation."

A family had to be literally "roofless" before qualifying for assistance, and it seems that assistance could be in some

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