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Column 891very unsatisfactory forms of temporary accommodation. Old lorries, caravans and tents do not appear to be ruled out. Those are shades of third world shanty towns.
The consultation paper recommends greater use of private lettings. In Bristol, 45 per cent. of that sector of housing is unfit or in serious disrepair. Since public housing is hedged around with restrictions which prevent rebuilding, limit repairs and artificially raise existing rents, more people will be forced into sub-standard accommodation at rents which the National Federation of Housing Associations would undoubtedly describe as unaffordable.
Figures collected by Bristol city council show that average rents in private tenancies range from £87 a week for a two-bedroom flat to £134 a week for a four-bedroom flat, compared with an average weekly rent for a Bristol city tenancy of £35.
What is happening in Bristol applies to many other areas. Council rents have been and are being forced up and, while housing benefit fills the gap for some, the near-poor are faced with increases in the cost of living which are out of all proportion to those elsewhere in the economy. They are dragged down into poverty, which is now shared with the great majority of their neighbours.
Those matters may be attested to by any hon. Member from an inner city constituency. We have seen the consequences of the Government's policies. Children live in high-rise flats, which causes tension, and there is a lack of play space for children.
When one reads about and sees the kind of people who are classified as homeless in Bristol, one begins to evolve an infinitely more human and appealing picture than that evoked by the Prime Minister's black caricature of beggars in Bristol.
The Government's housing policy is more concerned with undermining the work and powers of local authorities than with the housing crisis. None the less, Bristol city council is striving to introduce a housing advice shop providing services to homeless applicants and a related homeless prevention service, a homeless-at-home scheme to enable applicants to be supported by relatives and friends, high-quality temporary accommodation to replace bed and breakfast, establish a Bristol common register to enable housing applicants to get the answers to all their questions in one place, create a Bristol housing partnership, offering joint planning and action with all housing associations in Bristol and other organisations, introduce a private sector leasing scheme for access to good standard private tenancies, set up housing associations as managing agent schemes to access privately owned lettings as alternatives to bed and breakfast and establish a Bristol special needs housing forum.
Within its powers, those are the imaginative things that Bristol city council is trying to do to solve the problem. It has the brains ; what it needs is the money.
Several hon. Members rose
Column 8928.30 pm
Mr. John Gunnell (Morley and Leeds, South) : It is inevitable that the debate has highlighted contrasting opinions on a number of Government programmes. I want to refer to one of them, the estate action programme. I can speak with experience because the programme is operating in Belle Isle North in my constituency. I also want to consider the programme in the context of my entire constituency and the city of Leeds.
The estate action programme in Belle Isle was extremely fortunate because it built on an earlier experiment to develop tenant participation, which was initiated through the city council. The success of that original tenant participation scheme owed a great deal to the then chairman of the housing committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle). Those early experiments in tenant participation took place when he and I were public representatives for the same area of Hunslet and Belle Isle. There is no doubt that that participation started well. A few enthusiasts committed themselves, as tenants, to work in Belle Isle. The estate action programme also offered accessibility to finance. The fact that money was available to develop the estate and to make the improvements that tenants wanted undoubtedly contributed to the major improvements made to homes in the area. The estate action programme is currently part way through in Belle Isle. In addition to internal improvements, a number of external improvements have been made. Anyone going through that estate can see the visible changes that have taken place. As well as that, the estate action programme has had a notable effect on the community. There are now far more community participants and they work with a good spirit and in the knowledge that progress will be made.
The scheme has been a considerable success because it is based on a three- way partnership. The Government, through the estate action programme, have invested money and that money is matched by the city council. In addition to that money, the city council has devoted a great deal of officer time and resources to ensure that the programme runs smoothly and that tenants are assisted in carrying out their role. That partnership is not just one between the public agencies, but involves those who live in homes on the estate. That is important. Those people first put themselves up for election to an estate management board, prior to the introduction of the estate action programme. As a result of that programme, those people are actively representing their community. The ethos of the area has changed, because people are committed to working for their community.
The benefits of that successful three-way partnership have rubbed off not only in terms of the physical improvement of homes, but in terms of the establishment of other organisations. The same tenants who were involved in setting up the estate management board have also set up Belle Isle Winter Aid. That organisation provides a lot of community care for hundreds of elderly people not just in the estate management board area, but throughout Belle Isle.
The estate action programme has therefore led to a spillover of participation in wider community work. Much of the work of Belle Isle Winter Aid has been funded by the urban programme and the loss of that programme threatens
Column 893to undermine some of the things that have developed through the estate action programme. That should be borne in mind.
The estate action programme has downsides as well as upsides. It is important to consider the programme in a balanced manner. It is not sufficient for people to offer either a blanket acceptance or a blanket rejection of programmes, as they so often do in the House. People must consider the effects of those programmes.
One of the downsides of the estate action programme is that the allocation of city council moneys is skewed. Because the estate action money is matched by the city council, it takes up a considerable amount of city council resources. Of the 38 housing management offices in Leeds, only four are involved in the estate action programme. Those four have received considerable capital resources at the expense of the other offices. I represent not only Hunslet and Belle Isle but Middleton and Morley. Considerable resentment is felt there about the fact that people in Belle Isle North can have their walls built for them.
A lady from Middleton came to see me. She still lives in a home where the lavatory is downstairs next door to the kitchen. She has no bathroom upstairs. When she told the housing management office that it was impossible for her in her physical condition to get downstairs at night to go to the toilet, she was told to take a bucket upstairs. In this day and age that is simply unacceptable.
When I spoke to the city council about that matter I was told that it would need about £500 million to put everything right. Its representatives told me that the least they needed was £120 million, which they bid for the last time they were able to make a full bid for the capital programme. Although I applaud some of the work being done in Belle Isle North, I recognise that my constituent in Middleton has less chance of getting basic amenities because of the way in which the allocation of money is skewed. An enormous amount of work needs to be done to the Sissons estate, where that woman lives. I recognise that it will be extremely difficult for that work to be undertaken. Similar problems are experienced on a number of estates in Morley and throughout the city. People resent the fact, quite understandably, that other people get their garden walls built when others are unable to get proper bathrooms and toilets installed. The estate action programme has extremely good features. The way in which it gets people involved in working for their community is satisfactory, but that should not be achieved at the expense of everyone else. The Government must address that problem.
The housing investment programme allocation to Leeds for 1994-95 was £25.2 million. Given that £120 million is needed by the city to do essential work, that allocation is not satisfactory. When I wrote to the acting chief housing officer to ask why certain improvements had not been undertaken and new homes built, he replied :
"In 1994/5, for example, we were asked to submit a HIP bid based on 15 per cent. above, equal to, and 15 per cent. below our 1993/4 HIP allocation. We did this ; we were informed that as a department we were either average' or well above average' in the areas of housing management, enabling and tenant involvement ; we were cut by 20 per cent.!"
Column 894Had they been below average, by how much would their HIP have gone down ? The money simply is not sufficient to do the job.
We should not denigrate the programmes that have been set up, but should be prepared to use them to the benefit of our constituents. One-off programmes, however, and programmes that reach only a small proportion of the city's population are no substitute for on-going maintenance programmes that are necessary in any city and every housing management office. To fund one programme but short-change others is not the consistent relationship that is necessary between partners. Partnership is working in Belle Isle North, but partnership between the Department of the Environment and Leeds city council and other city councils needs to be more broadly based to ensure that problems as significant as those of my constituent in Middleton are dealt with in the near future.
I shall begin by commenting on some remarks made by the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Ms Corston). Part of the mythology of how inner cities decline is the belief that commercial firms move out when they see more profitable opportunities on the rim of cities. She probably does not realise that I was associated with John Lewis when it moved into Bristol. I well remember that time because we made considerable efforts to persuade people to shop in the city centre. We were not helped by the then Bristol council, which did not provide opportunities for people to drive into the city centre, thereby making that shopping centre and other shops viable. It is sad that, despite what the hon. Lady said, the city council clearly contributed towards that development being on the edge of the city.
Ms Corston : Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the enormous, new multi- storey car park right next door to the Gallery shopping centre, which has recently been completed with the full co-operation of the city council ? It provides more car parking facilities than we have ever had.
Mr. Mans : I am well aware of that. I am also aware of the Bristol city council's incredible pricing policy for car parking during the 1980s, which discouraged people from using the spaces that were available.
Even at the late stage to which the hon. Lady referred, John Lewis pointed out at the inquiry into the development outside Bristol that if the development went ahead, there were not sufficient shopping opportunities to have stores of that size in the centre and outside. Clearly, if that development went ahead, it was bound to take priority. So the fact remains that Bristol city council was involved in what happened. The hon. Lady should therefore not blame commercial companies for the decline of Bristol city centre when the local council was clearly very much involved.
Ms Corston rose
Ms Corston : I made no complaint about commercial companies. They take their own commercial decisions and if they decide to relocate to other areas, we must ask what sort of Government are responsible for encouraging such irresponsible development, which destroys our inner cities. That is the question.
Mr. Mans : The hon. Lady has clearly not even bothered to read the latest guidance which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has published on that subject. It is false for the hon. Lady to suggest that the Government have promoted out-of-city developments while the previous Labour Government did nothing, because in the 1960s and 1970s they promoted more out-of-city developments of the sort the hon. Lady was complaining about than have been promoted since.
I shall make a few other remarks and dwell no further on Bristol. It is interesting to draw a distinction with present policies and some of the past policies on improving housing stock and the environment in which people live. During the early 1980s, I was a candidate for Stoke-on-Trent and saw the policies that had been adopted for many years, if not decades, by successive
Labour-controlled local administrations. There were huge council housing estates where individuals were not part of what was going on. The estates were inhuman and rundown, and rents were not properly collected. One can see why those policies resulted in many of the problems that exist today.
Let us contrast the position in the early 1980s in Stoke with what is happening in north-west England today, particularly in my part of Lancashire on the Fylde coast. The solutions that are being adopted are not all-embracing but multi-faceted. They are small solutions that take individuals into account. My borough council of Wyre has introduced a number of initiatives that have resulted in a transformation in Fylde in the past few years. Of a population of just over 100,000, well under 100 people are technically homeless and, of those, very few are ever in bed-and -breakfast accommodation. Indeed, those people can be counted on the fingers of one hand. That is largely as a result of the local council's policy of trying to find smaller solutions to meet individuals' needs.
For instance, temporary self-contained flat accommodation is provided for people who have, for some reason, become homeless, so that they are not put in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. That approach is a partnership between the local council, the private rented sector and housing associations in the area. Moreover, local people appreciate the fact that they must take part in that process. They cannot simply rely on the local council to provide their housing needs when things go wrong. They are part of the process and are encouraged to find ways of solving their own problems, and assistance is given in that.
The fact that we do not have much council housing stock has, in a sense, helped in finding those solutions. As a result of involving the private sector, private tenants and housing associations, we have few homeless people. Many people from Scotland come to the area during the summer and, at the end of the holiday season, in September and October, they prefer staying in the Fylde area to returning to Glasgow. So the problem is not as small as it might appear at first. None the less, sensible policies rather than universal solutions have made a huge difference to homelessness and housing in my part of Lancashire.
In that respect, I commend the efforts of my right hon. Friend the Minister responsible for housing in the various initiatives that have been put forward over a number of years. My local council has taken advantage of those initiatives, to the great benefit of local people. I wish that more councils, particularly those controlled by the Labour party, would look more carefully at a multi-faceted approach that involves tenants in their own solutions. In
Column 896Wyre, for instance, most housing stock is run by tenants' associations. The effect on those estates is stunning. As a result of the tenants being involved in managing, the estates are more easily cleaned up and people do not wait for the council to provide the maintenance required. They go out and do things themselves with the initiatives available. Alongside that, we have a strict rent collection policy. I am convinced that that has meant that there has been money in the kitty to spend on the maintenance of those houses, which has meant not only that people want to live in them, but that they feel proud of the houses in which they live.
I have to compare the policies in boroughs such as mine, where rent collection is considered important, with those of other boroughs, especially others in the north-west, such as Liverpool, where there seems to be an equivocal approach to whether people should pay rent at all. As a result, debts arise at borough level, maintenance of council estates does not take place and the whole city gives the impression of being run down. I am pleased to say that in Liverpool there are signs of an improvement. There are signs that even that council is considering several small solutions, rather than one universal solution driven by the ideology of the past, quite often supported by the Labour party.
I should add a few other points about the environment in our housing estates, around where people live. A couple of years ago, I was fortunate enough to promote a private Member's Bill, which is now the Traffic Calming Act 1992. Although that was designed to slow down traffic, it was also designed to improve the environment around people's homes. Often the streets in our urban areas have become race tracks and people have been pushed away from the common areas of many of our suburbs. That is a silly way to use those common spaces. As a result of the 1992 Act and of the Government's
policy--specifically, those of the Department of the Environment--we are reclaiming those areas, so that the motor-car is no longer dominant and people can live outside their houses, in the streets, without being at risk from motor-cars racing along at huge speeds. In many cities, we have introduced enlightened schemes as regards street furniture, plantings, the use of different road surfaces, more colour, fewer screens to prevent people getting on to the road and, most important of all, slowing down the traffic.
Although my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing, Inner Cities and Construction has just left the Chamber, I should say that it is noticeable that, in his home constituency of Ealing, enlightened schemes are constantly being introduced, which have had quite an effect on the environment in which people live. That is what it is all about. We are trying to encourage people, with help from central and local government and the voluntary and private sectors, to improve their living environment, both in their houses, by improving the quality and maintenance of the housing and introducing self-help schemes, and around their houses, by ensuring that the car does not dominate the streets.
We are all aware of the mistakes that have been made by many Governments in the past. Policies such as proposing one monolithic solution to a specific problem, bulldozing through communities and building high-rise flats and accommodation that has not been properly thought out have not worked. That is what confronts us, and what has confronted us in the past few years.
Column 897I believe that the way forward is through the very different approach that we have now adopted, whereby we understand that there is no one specific solution to the housing problems in this country and that we must involve the tenants and the people themselves and provide initiatives, both at central and local government level, involving the public and the private sector. I commend the Government for following that policy.
Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) : I was especially interested by the contribution of my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman). Anyone who represents an inner-city constituency would recognise the problems that he described. Like those of my right hon. Friend and, I suspect, of many other Members with such constituencies, my advice surgeries are filled, week after week, with people asking for help with housing problems, to the point where I almost despair when someone walks in and sits down and it turns out, when he starts talking, that it is a housing problem. In 20 years of dealing with housing problems in my area, I cannot remember a time when it was so difficult to offer positive help to people--people who are threatened with homelessness, seeking a transfer, or trying to find a private letting when all that is on offer is a six-month shorthold lease that requires the payment of a huge deposit. In that context, the speech of the Secretary of State at the beginning of the debate would not only have filled my constituents with despair, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton suggested, but made them extremely angry about the arrogant and contemptuous way in which the problems that they have to face was being treated.
We are all familiar with the policies that the Government have been following : encourage home ownership at all costs and the right to buy for council tenants, force up rents to encourage people to buy and push council tenants out of the public sector. The reaction of council tenants to the voluntary transfer of their estates has not been very positive. The vast majority of them used to live with private landlords, and the last thing that they want to do is to go back to being the tenant of a private landlord.
Many tenants have moved into owner-occupation. It is often the best property that has been sold--very good for the person who has bought it, but not very much good for anyone else whose name is on the waiting list or who is trying to obtain a transfer. In my local authority area, it is possible to count on the fingers of one hand the number of four-bedroomed properties that become available for letting in a year. That is one of the consequences of the right to buy.
The other thing that happened is that tenants were persuaded into quite unsuitable purchases. Earlier, the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant) said that people who bought flats and became council leaseholders had done so with their eyes open. Of course, that was not really quite the truth. What happened is that people were persuaded by the Government that they were getting a bargain if they bought a flat, and local authorities that tried to point out the pitfalls were threatened that, if they did so, their sales would be taken over by the Department of the Environment and they would no longer be able to handle their own properties.
Column 898The Minister for Housing, Inner Cities and Construction is well aware of the problems that now confront those tenants, or ex-tenants, after they have bought their council flats. A month or two ago, I went to meet him with a delegation of council leaseholders. They are unable to meet rehabilitation costs that are legitimately required by the local authority. They are unable to sell because building societies red- line the areas that they live in. They are completely trapped.
I am aware of the answer that the Minister gave my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) this afternoon. He said that he hopes to lay an order introducing a scheme to help council leaseholders who need to move and that, where leaseholders can buy more suitable homes from their local authority, that scheme will allow the council to take their present flat back in exchange and offset the price paid against the sale price of the exchanged property.
Unfortunately, that solution raises more questions than it answers. Who will decide what is a more suitable home ? Will it be another flat ? Very few of the people who have bought flats will want to move to another flat and be stuck with exactly the same problem of not being able to move again. Is the council supposed to keep houses available ? If so, what consequences will that have for the rest of the programme ? What happens to leaseholders who do not want to stay in that region and want to move out ? What happens to leaseholders who do not want to move but cannot afford the rehabilitation costs ? The Department of the Environment says that only about 2 per cent. of leaseholders face such a problem. That may be the number of people who are trying to sell and cannot, but it is by no means the sum total of people who will be affected.
The Government initiatives on inner-urban areas have been mentioned a number of times in the debate. They include city challenge, housing action trusts, estate action and the single regeneration budget. Clearly, some good schemes have developed through those initiatives, such as partnerships between local authorities and the private sector. I have nothing against partnership schemes with the private sector, and I can think of very few Labour-controlled local authorities that have. Those authorities are at the forefront of setting up economic development units to promote such initiatives. I am pleased that Priory Court estate, a major estate in my constituency, is to receive estate action money. I cannot think of a single example in my area of a local authority deciding that it could not or would not do the work where estate action money was available. As my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Gunnell) said, that is not extra money ; it is available at the expense of cuts in the mainstream programme, and must be seen in the context of an overall cut.
The Government will no doubt hold up the Waltham Forest housing action trust as a success. It is redeveloping four ex-council estates--the first building work has just begun. The housing action trust is not just about housing. It sets up construction training courses for tenants and employs part-time tenant information workers who must come from the estates. It appoints its own staff to manage estates--there is no question of compulsory competitive tendering. It requires contractors who undertake the building work to use local labour. It offers a scheme whereby tenants with skills are given work as labour-only sub-contractors on their estates.
Column 899The housing action trust offers tenants a range of choices in their new homes on door fittings, different styles of doors and windows, kitchen units and wardrobes. It even offers tenants the choice of a cat flap in the back door. I can imagine what the Minister would say if a Labour-controlled local authority built new houses and told prospective tenants that it would meet the costs of installing cat flaps in back doors.
I do not mind tenants being offered such a choice and money being spent to develop decent housing. I hope that the housing action trust carries out the work and the estates are rebuilt. However, I am angry at the way that the work is being done at the expense of everyone else. In any case, the tenants on the estates have waited since 1988 for work to start. In 1988, the local council developed plans to rebuild the estate. Six years later, those plans are being used by the housing action trust. The Government refused to give the local council the money for the project. Eventually, because the Government were embarrassed when Prince Charles gave the council an award for design, they offered the housing action trust. Six years later, the work has started, but it is at the expense of mainstream programmes everywhere else.
Next year, another special programme, the single regeneration budget, will swallow up, among other things, section 11 grants, which have been part of urban policy for many years. The importance of the work that is carried out through section 11 grants has been mentioned already. Will the Minister explain what will happen to existing projects ? There will be no ring fencing of the money when we receive the new single regeneration budget. The guidelines that have been issued make no specific reference to educational needs. One of the 10 draft objectives refers to ethnic minority communities. There are signs that the money will simply be pump-priming money. Using the single regeneration budget for pump priming may be sensible and legitimate in an economic development project. However, when there is a continuing need for section 11 grants, it is wrong. It is likely to mean that successful schemes will disappear altogether.
We need a Government who are prepared to take off their blinkers. They must cease their dogmatic housing policies and recognise that investment is needed. Investment in building and construction will not just improve the quantity and quality of supply but create jobs and save revenue. Therefore, it makes good housing and economic sense.
Mr. Robert Ainsworth (Coventry, North-East) : I listened to the Secretary of State replying to the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) and repeating the old allegation, often thrown at my party, that ours is the party of the provider, not the receiver, of services--in this case, housing. One of the main thrusts of Government policy has been to encourage private sector housing and to move subsidies away from bricks and mortar and towards the individual, as well as running down the public sector's involvement. Another--not deliberate this time-- consequence of Government policies on home ownership has been the active discouragement of people from becoming home owners, owing to the problems in the housing market of the past few years.
Whether deliberate or accidental, the effects of Government policy are clear. We know that, as a result of
Column 900Government policies, £3.8 billion is paid out to landlords through the housing benefit scheme. In Coventry, £24 million is paid out in this way to provide housing that is, by and large, substandard compared with that provided by local authorities and housing associations. We can therefore hardly say that Government policy is aimed at the users. The users do not choose to live in substandard housing that costs £80 a week, when local authority housing costs less than £40 a week. People will only live in such housing when the Exchequer is picking up the revenue tab for it. The benefit is not, in effect, a well -targeted subsidy for the people living in private sector housing but a massive, grotesque and unjustified subsidy to landlords. Nevertheless, the Secretary of State had the cheek to try to suggest that my party was the party of the providers, not the party of the receivers, of services. That is certainly not true in respect of housing.
Another main plank of policy in respect of which the Government seek to misrepresent our views is the right to buy. Their policy was sold to people in terms of giving them choice, opportunity and freedom. It was also said that it would be good for social cohesion--home owners would gain a stake in the poorer estates and would then provide some sort of leadership in those communities, thereby enhancing social cohesion.
In Coventry, which is not unlike the rest of the nation in this regard, one third of the houses in the city have been sold, almost without exception on the better estates and in the better areas. Within a generation those estates will effectively be privately owned. No one who can help it will stay in the rented system that the Government have imposed, paying the subsidy, if he lives in a decent house and has the right to buy. So as the old tenants move out and the new tenants move in--particularly those not subsidised by the housing benefit scheme--they will exercise the right to buy, and the better housing estates will become wholly private. And the few people who have exercised the right to buy in the problem estates--the ones who are supposed to provide social cohesion there--will find themselves still living with the worst of the problems of those estates. There are examples of people who are trapped in houses bought under the right-to-buy policy which they cannot sell or release, from which the most appalling consequences flow. Far from providing social cohesion, the right-to-buy policy has divided communities by splitting off the rented sector as completely welfare oriented and all the best housing has been sold off on estates that have effectively become private.
There are many examples of people being ripped off by spiv behaviour which runs from children buying on behalf of their parents in order to become the next generation of private landlords through to companies setting themselves up to target people on problem estates and buy their houses below the price paid under the right-to-buy policy, then profiteer off the back of such purchases by renting them out. Such behaviour is utterly disgraceful and should be investigated. Examples can be found on estates in Coventry which point to that.
In two areas, the Government's stated aims and policies have been completely reversed, and they have achieved the opposite of what they set out to do. People from within the Government have recognised the failures of their own policies. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn referred to the report released last week after an 18-month
Column 901delay--during which the Government attempted to sit on it--which pointed out that those policies had failed, with the consequences that I have described.
What we need in terms of Government policy is not what is being delivered. The Government's response to the report has effectively been that they are addressing the issues through the setting up of the single regeneration budget into which has gone the housing action fund, section 11 grant and many other funds.
One thing which has not been made clear but which needs to be made clear-- and which I hope the Minister will make clear when he replies--is whether estate action will continue within the SRB. The Government have not yet made clear the size of the cut that has been imposed through the SRB.
In evidence to the Select Committee on the Environment, officials from the Department of the Environment admitted that there was a 10 per cent. to 12 per cent. cut in funds as a result of the SRB. But that is on top of cuts that had already been announced but which the Government are now trying to disguise by putting the various budgets together into the SRB. The comparative cuts--had the programmes continued with their original level of funding--are well in excess of 20 per cent. I hope that the Government will at least show some transparency in putting forward figures that show exactly what has happened to all the different programmes that have been put together in the SRB. They are deliberately trying to hide those in answer to parliamentary questions and they have been doing so for some time. Will housing issues continue to be dealt with once the SRB is introduced ? In the west midlands, which is putting bids together now, we have been told that strategic issues that will be considered within the SRB include an automotive component park, science parks, employment land provision, the Birmingham northern relief road, the greening of urban areas, rural regeneration, coal closure issues, regional public transport priorities, higher education institutions and national education and training targets.
All those issues are laudable in themselves, but there is not a single mention of housing among those priorities. As estate action has disappeared completely within the SRB, will it continue in any form and at any level ? As has been said, it was top sliced from local authority spending in the first place. My fear is that it will disappear altogether and that estate action funding will be discontinued.
If we want to solve some of the problems created within our cities, power must be returned to local authorities. They should be made accountable to the people who elect them and be given the powers and tax base to get on with the job. For too long, we have gone down the road of deliberate on- going centralisation. No matter which party is in control--and there are people in the Tory party who believe this--and no matter what decision is taken at whichever level, a decision taken in Whitehall and applied 94 miles away in Coventry or 150 miles away in Manchester will not be a good decision. Let us return to properly financed local government, return the business rate to local authorities, get rid of capping, and have good, strong and accountable local government rebuilding communities in cities, so that they will again be places in which people want to live.
Column 9029.15 pm
Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) : In 1941, McInnes wrote in "Above Suspicion" that it was God who made the country and man who made the town. It is a pity that man did not learn better. After listening to today's debate, I can only add that it may have been God who made the country, but it is a pity that the men and women who run our towns and cities have not had their commitment to urban communities supported by the Government.
Urban policy debates are always tales of two cities--the cities that Conservative Members believe exist and the towns and cities of Britain as experienced by Opposition Members, who know what urban Britain is really like. I am not surprised that the Government ran out of Back-Bench speakers. We have continually made the point that only Opposition Members care for urban Britain--Conservative Members just make noises and pretend to be interested.
We heard excellent contributions from my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) and my hon. Friends the Members for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg), for Birmingham, Yardley (Ms Morris), for Sunderland, North (Mr. Etherington), for Bristol, East (Ms Corston), for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Gunnell), for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) and for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth). I particularly congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Barking (Ms Hodge), for Newham, North-East (Mr. Timms) and for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe) on their maiden speeches. All three follow much-respected and much-admired former Members of Parliament. As the former leaders of Islington, Newham and Bradford councils respectively, they spoke with enormous authority and considerable knowledge of local government. They set out passionately the case against the Government. I am sure that they will each make a distinguished contribution to the business of the House.
My hon. Friend the Member for Barking is renewing old acquaintances. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) served as her vice-chair of housing in Islington, and when I worked at Islington 15 years ago she was my first boss.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn eloquently explained how the Government have failed to deliver housing policy that meets the needs of the people. In the time available, I will concentrate on urban issues. My task is much easier than that of my hon. Friend. Whereas the Government pretend to have a housing policy of sorts, they have never pretended to have a coherent urban policy. Coherence was lacking in abundance in the Secretary of State's speech. It is no surprise that he has not bothered to show his face for the conclusion of this debate. We witnessed something historic, because it was the last speech that the right hon. Gentleman will make as Secretary of State--and, judging by his performance, he realises that he is for the chop in the reshuffle.
One of my hon. Friends said that the Secretary of State's extraordinary speech reminded him of the worst of the Cambridge university debating society. I felt a bit cross because I was also a member of that society. I can tell the House that, although I heard some pretty dreadful speeches there, the speech today from the Secretary of State was 1,000 times worse than the worst speech that I ever heard at the union.
As the Government's own evaluation has shown, urban Britain is in a state of crisis. We face increased drug abuse, truancy from schools, fear of crime and rates of family
Column 903breakdown and communities are being set against communities. That is the legacy of 15 years of Conservative mismanagement of urban policy. It is no wonder that 4 million people leave our cities every five years.
In the summer edition of the magazine BURA published yesterday, the Secretary of State said :
"Our urban centres matter too much to follow America's horrifying lead into despair and decay. We in Europe can recapture the spirit of the city. We must build for the future."
By his own words, the Government can be judged to have failed. It is not that the Government have been short of schemes ; there have been plenty of schemes. The problem is that they have lacked direction, cohesion, consistency and purpose. New schemes have been devised and dropped at a great rate in every year since 1979, the difference between them being that they deliver fewer and fewer funds. In fact, the Secretary of State and inner-city policy very much resemble "Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat"--a splattering of a TEC here, a dash of a CAT there, a bit of a UDC somewhere else, mixed with a brightly coloured city challenge scheme embroidered with the jewels of inner-city policy. There was a boxful of those, all of them now faded, from Compacts to enterprise zones and now down to the single regeneration budget. In the words of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, for the Secretary of State, a latter-day Joseph, "Any dream will do", provided that it can be launched in a blaze of glory.
Let us consider city pride, just 240 days old today. That scheme called on Manchester, Birmingham and London to invest tremendous time, effort and resources in producing a plan and a brochure for their cities' future. The winner of that bizarre game show then receives absolutely nothing--not a single, additional penny of resources. Perhaps it is not quite nothing ; it could be a visit from the Minister for Housing, Inner Cities and Construction wearing a hard hat--an excellent photo-opportunity for the Minister or the Secretary of State.
The Government cannot urge us to embrace city pride while robbing our towns and cities of civic pride. If our cities are to flourish and develop, they need support and funding, allowing them to create communities of opportunity and hope. Our civic leaders need to be allowed the freedom to provide for the people who directly gave them a mandate.
In the debate on inner cities on 25 March, the Under-Secretary dwelt on the importance of the derelict land grant and the need to bring contaminated land back into active use. On Monday, just two days ago, the Government announced that the standards required to be met for reclaimed land were to be dropped. No doubt the grant goes next. That means that the health of the people returning to those areas to work will be seriously compromised. The perennial trick of giving on paper but taking in reality is causing our once great towns and cities to slip into a mass of decay. Unless there is a return to proper strategic and targeted funding for our cities, the social and environmental consequences will be irreparable.
If the total regeneration budget of £1.4 billion were used so that every pound provided at least a full pounds' worth of regeneration, our towns and cities would have no cause for concern. As it is, funds are squandered on consultants and quangos, not on homes, education and crime prevention.
Column 904The urban development corporation was quoted at length by the Secretary of State. Bristol UDC spent £6.4 million on consultants. Merseyside UDC spent £24.4 million. The list goes on, a ledger of waste and squandered resources. We need look no further than the Minister's own constituency in Ealing, where the incoming Labour leadership has been left a crippling budget deficit of £15 million by the defeated Conservative leadership. [Laughter.] The Secretary of State may laugh, but it is not a laughing matter for the people of Ealing. It is an example of why more and more people are waking up to the fact that Labour is better.
The single regeneration budget is yet another scheme that has been trumpeted as the saviour of urban Britain. The bidding guidance is as clear as mud ; local authorities and others have inundated the integrated regional offices with requests for information and guidance, taking up valuable resources in the process. The Government remain unable to reassure community and voluntary groups that they will be supported in their bids : bids for housing action and section 11 grant are being positively discouraged. Not only must those groups now compete with training and enterprise councils and other large consortia ; they are being forced into a dialogue with a level of government with which they have no experience of dealing. The single regeneration budget provides a total budget of just £100 million of unallocated funds for the whole of Britain, compared with the annual grant of £261 million that was available to 57 urban programme authorities this year. As the House knows, the urban programme was abolished by ministerial letter after being in existence for 20 years. Just £100 million of unallocated funds will be available to the whole country next year! The SRB should be renamed the SNB--simply no budget.
The role of local authorities in putting together bids and co-ordinating the approach has been completely downplayed, and the bidding left open to groups that act without a mandate from local people. At the start, we were promised that each integrated regional office would produce a regeneration statement ; a few months on, those statements have been forgotten. I hope that the Minister will tell us when they are due to be published.
In short, the SRB does not provide any guaranteed funds for inner-city areas. This is a purely political omission, condemning the most needy to continued hardship. The Government cannot encourage city pride--as the Secretary of State has done--and then rob the town halls and city centres of their pride. We need to return to a time when trust, confidence and integrity were an essential part of the relationship between local authorities and central Government. The attitude of the Department of the Environment to our civic leaders is made explicit by the treatment by the Government--and this Minister in particular--of Greenwich council. Greenwich submitted plans to hold centenary celebrations in the borough : what better place could be found in Britain than the place where time itself is measured ? The proposals have been on the Minister's desk for more than a year, but there has been no reply. No doubt the council will receive one on 31 December 1999.
We need only look at the recent election results to see that the Conservative party does not understand urban life and--more important--does not represent our urban areas. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn observed, just one major urban area outside London is now controlled by the Conservative party--Trafford.
Column 905The House will recall the disgraceful attack on Birmingham city council during the local government elections. This tactic of trying to undermine the effectiveness of one of our nation's greatest cities failed ; indeed, the Labour leadership--no doubt because of the attack--was returned with an increased majority. That is further proof, if we needed it, that Labour local government provides the services that people want and need at prices that they can afford. In October last year, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn set up an urban policy inquiry, City 2020. The committee--composed of experts, academics and people who live in our towns and cities--has visited more than 33 urban areas in six months to take evidence from councillors, chief executives, community workers, business people and city challenge board members. We have listened to and studied more than 1,000 separate pieces of oral and written evidence. We have been from Greenwich to Glasgow, from Southampton to Sheffield and from Brighton to Burnley. On Saturday, we held our national conference in Reading : it was attended by more than 250 representatives from all walks of urban life.
The feedback from the conference has been overwhelming. There are two overriding themes with which all are concerned--the need for proper funds to be released and the need for local authorities to take the lead, free from central Government interference. We found that, the Government evaluator found that, and the people of our towns and cities know it. When will the Government act ? As part of the inquiry, we have seen some excellent examples of co-operation between local authorities, central Government, the private sector and community groups.
Our cities handle budgets bigger than those of some countries. In 1990, inner-city London employed 1 million people and added £4.2 billion in manufacturing ; Sheffield employed 204,000 people and added £1 billion ; Birmingham employed 366,000 people and added £2.7 billion. For economic reasons alone, we cannot afford to neglect our cities.