Previous Section Home Page

Scottish Estimates

Motion made, and Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 96 (Scottish Estimates),

That the Estimates set out hereunder be referred to the Scottish Grand Committee :

Class XIV Vote 1 Agricultural support, Scotland.

Class XIV Vote 2 Agricultural services, agricultural grants and fisheries, Scotland.--[ Mr. Kirkhope .]

Question agreed to .

Column 475

Opposition Day

[17th Allotted Day]


Housing in Wales

Madam Speaker : I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

4.43 pm

Mr. Cynog Dafis (Ceredigion and Pembroke, North) : I beg to move, That this House records its concern at the continuing high level of unmet need for social housing in Wales ; recognises that adequate provision of rented homes at affordable rents is a fundamental necessity ; is opposed to any intention to reduce the proportion of the Tai Cymru budget dedicated to providing rented properties or to reduce the level of Housing Association Grant ; calls for the restoration of a financial regime which would make the purchase and renovation of existing properties by both local councils and housing associations economically feasible ; and demands the establishment of a Parliament for Wales with legislative and revenue- raising powers that would enable the people of Wales to implement housing policies appropriate to their specific needs and priorities.

It had been my intention to speak in last Wednesday's debate on housing initiated by the Labour party, but on the morning of the debate I found that it was to be specifically about England, so I could not speak about Wales in that context. When Plaid Cymru was offered a supply day this Thursday, I decided to take the opportunity to have a debate on housing in Wales. It is a vital issue at present, as I shall try to show. I want to show that at least one party in Wales is concerned about this topic.

I shall show the extent of the continuing problem with regard to housing in Wales, and I shall show that Government policy is, by and large, in disarray. There is a danger of foisting on Wales approaches already pursued in England which would be entirely inappropriate and damaging here. I am not for one moment saying that they are appropriate in England either.

It is true that Tai Cymru hopes that housing associations will provide more than 4,000 units of social housing in 1994. That sounds substantial, but it means that we would return to the level of provision that we had in 1980 after a long period of under-provision. Nevertheless, it is important to congratulate the housing association movement of Wales on its ability to respond to the challenge of providing social housing and delivering that substantial number. I was associated with that movement for more than 10 years. The figure of 4,000 needs to be set in the context of a number of issues that I shall raise. First, there has been an enormous increase in homelessness in Wales over the past decade. It is a serious problem. The number has increased by 84 per cent., with 10,270 households accepted as homeless in 1992--the highest number ever. The Shelter report, which is quoted in the Western Mail today, shows that the position is not getting better ; it is getting worse.

Mr. Rod Richards (Clwyd, North-West) : The hon. Gentleman quoted the number of homeless households in Wales as being in the order of 10,000. The figure that I have for 1992 is 7,345. My source is Welsh housing statistics. Can the hon. Gentleman tell the House his source ?

Column 476

Mr. Dafis : My source is Shelter, which has access to similar sources to the hon. Gentleman. Even if his figure is right, it is a serious problem.

Over the past decade, there has been an increase of 121 per cent. in the number of homeless families housed in temporary accommodation. There is a particular problem with regard to young people. It is estimated that between 7,500 and 10,000 young people experience homelessness in some form every year. That is an astonishing figure.

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery) : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the problem among young people includes a very large number of young people who simply are not in a position to buy accommodation ? Whatever the Secretary of State's proposals to make it possible for more people to buy accommodation--welcome though they may be--there will still be a large residue of homeless young people who need houses to rent which are not being built.

Mr. Dafis : That is a crucial point, and it will be the main thrust of my remarks. However welcome proposals to facilitate

owner-occupation may be, that approach cannot satisfy the needs especially of young people.

Another unsatisfactory aspect is the special circumstances in Wales with regard to the condition of housing. In Wales, 36.8 per cent. of the housing stock was built before 1919, compared with 26.6 per cent. in the United Kingdom as a whole. That is a significantly higher level. In certain industrial areas--for example, the Cynon Valley, about which I made some inquiries over the past week--more than 50 per cent. of the housing stock predates 1919. Much of that housing stock is inhabited by pensioners. As a result of the industrial legacy of that part of Wales, a high proportion of them suffer from varying degrees of disability. That means that we have disabled, elderly people living in antiquated houses which are seriously in need of repair.

Mr. Jonathan Evans (Brecon and Radnor) : We know that the population of the Cynon Valley area has fallen recently and there has been additional housing provision. With that background, how would the hon. Gentleman explain the increase in homelessness to which he referred ?

Mr. Dafis : The hon. Gentleman did not hear me. I did not refer to the Cynon Valley specifically in relation to homelessness. I was talking about the condition of the housing stock. A high proportion of the residents of that housing stock are elderly people who suffer a disability. They live in old property that badly needs renovation. Of those old properties, 9 per cent. apparently still lack or have to share a bath, shower or WC. They are still inadequately insulated. I am told that it is pretty well impossible for anyone who is not on benefit to obtain an insulation grant. The grant is entirely for people on housing benefit and some of those elderly people have a small pit pension which makes them ineligible for benefit. To people living in old property badly in need of renovation, the effect of the imposition of 17.5 per cent. VAT on domestic fuel is particularly damaging. It is not too much to say that that represents a serious threat to the health and certainly to the welfare of many elderly people in such housing conditions. It is worth pointing out that there is a downside to owner-occupation among low-income families. The vast majority of the houses in

Column 477

question are owner-occupied : 42 per cent. of all owner-occupied houses in Wales are in significant need of repair.

The Government will say that they are tackling the problem through the renovation grant system. Let us examine that system, which is in serious disarray. A tremendous amount of good work has been done and large sums of money have been poured into the renovation of existing sub-standard property. It is worth saying at this juncture that sometimes demolition and rebuild might be a more cost-effective option and we need to explore that.

Substantial sums of money have been spent on renovation of existing old property, but the whole thing has been badly handled. Hon. Members will remember the open cheque book system that applied for the first year or two of the system. While the open cheque book applied, there was no problem. The money was available and the work could go ahead apace. However, there was an enormous expansion in demand without the funds to meet it. The open cheque book system came to an end. Councils found that they must either break the body of law on mandatory grants or break the body of law on control of local government expenditure. I can quote an example from the ombudsman's report. Councils were legally obliged to make mandatory grants for renovation, but simply did not have the funds to do so. That has led to a great deal of frustration and delay, of which we are all aware from our constituency mail.

In the south Wales valleys, the waiting period for a renovation grant is eight years in Cynon, 10 years in Merthyr and nine years in Rhondda. The Welsh Office has responded by attempting to make the funds more quickly available by reducing the maximum grant level to 24 per cent. However, that will mean that many of the least well-off in the poorest properties which need the greatest sums for renovation will be unable to undertake the improvements. That is not satisfactory targeting, of which the Government are very much in favour.

Renovation is a good idea for environmental reasons because we wish to avoid developing green-field sites. It is a good idea for social reasons because there is often social cohesion in areas of existing property and because it avoids the costs of providing new infrastructure. So renovation of existing property is a good idea, although on the surface it is the more expensive option.

It is regrettable--everyone in the housing association movement in Wales agrees with this--that nowadays housing associations are simply unable to purchase and renovate. The Secretary of State for the Environment recently said that he wished to see housing associations return to purchasing existing property and, in that way, restoring the quality of life in well- established areas.

Mr. Jonathan Evans : Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that the key issue is a fiscal one ? VAT is chargeable on renovation and makes the cost that much higher. Presumably the judgment ultimately involves sweeping away VAT.

Mr. Dafis : Indeed. The hon. Gentleman might have read my next sentence. The decision to impose VAT on renovation and to differentiate between it and new build is a Government decision. It needs to be reconsidered. It is not in the gift of Tai Cymru or even of the Welsh Office. It is in the gift of the Government. VAT is not the only factor. Tai Cymru's acceptable cost

Column 478

guidelines do not recognise that other extra costs besides VAT are associated with the option of renovation. There are extra maintenance costs. In my experience, major repairs which involve considerable cost frequently have to be done to renovate a property.

We need to look afresh at creating a financial regime which will enable housing associations to undertake renovation work and, because renovation may not always be the best option, to consider how to purchase and demolish and new build on existing sites. I know of several instances of housing that has been expensively refurbished and could have been more cost- effectively replaced by new building on the existing site. We need to consider ways in which that could be made feasible where a property has reached the end of its useful life. All properties reach that stage at some time. Housing associations and councils are better equipped to undertake such tasks than many owner-occupiers. They are certainly far better equipped to do so than private developers and landlords.

The question of rents is a vexed one. Since the introduction in 1989 of the new mixed funding regime, housing association grant--HAG, as it is called-- as a percentage of the total cost of providing new units has been pushed down. It currently stands at 62 per cent. The result is that rents have been pushed inexorably upwards. The Government argue that housing subsidies should be targeted through housing benefit rather than to bricks and mortar. That is the Government's rationale. It sounds plausible enough on the surface, but it, too, has a serious downside, which is increasingly recognised throughout the housing movement and the world of housing expertise. Housing associations are already worried that only those who are in receipt of housing benefit can afford to take their property. That is becoming the case. It means in turn that people just above the benefit level, but still low paid, hard-up and unable to enter the open market for purchasing a house find it difficult to obtain housing. It also means that the poverty trap leads to a disincentive to unemployed benefit recipients in such properties to take employment. The poverty trap is a well-known phenomenon and it applies particularly where rents are high. It means in turn that housing association estates tend to have a high percentage of benefit-dependent unemployed people. That brings social problems. It also has to be said that housing associations often do not have the resources or experience to provide the special management skills such as counselling or, in some cases, enforcement. They do not have the capacity or resources to tackle such problems. That is what tends to happen where the cost per unit dominates policy. There is a strong feeling in the housing association movement that cost per unit has constantly driven development.

The rent situation is already harsh with HAG at its present level--42 per cent. of housing association tenants pay 25 per cent. or more of their income in rent. That is approaching serious unaffordability. It is a harsh regime for those who have to pay rent and it is socially problematic for the reasons that I mentioned. If the Government proceed with their proposal to reduce HAG from its present 62 per cent. to 55 per cent. by 1997, rent levels will become intolerable. The situation could even become inflammable. People will be annoyed and worried to the point of desperation, if rent levels rise in that way. City analysts UBS have calculated that rents would rise by 34 per cent. in those circumstances, and that 83 per cent. of tenants would be paying unaffordable rents, which

Column 479

depends on how one defines unaffordable. The Government refused to present an affordability index at the time of the Housing Act 1988, even though the housing association movement pressed them to do so. On the whole, the housing association movement believes that affordable rents are between 20 and 25 per cent.--certainly less than 25 per cent. The Government seem to be thinking of an affordability index of about 35 per cent. It is a very serious matter.

If HAG is reduced to 55 per cent, there will not merely be a problem with rents. Most housing associations in Wales would find it impossible to raise the remaining 45 per cent. from banks and building societies and we must attend to that problem.

The mixed funding system could unravel and disintegrate, which brings me to the subject of low-cost home ownership. Tai Cymru has drawn up a new proposal for assisted ownership, whereby aspiring owner-occupiers who cannot buy on the open market have to raise only 70 per cent. of the cost of a house and HAG provides the remaining 30 per cent. That is an interesting proposal and I have no objection, in principle, to providing some public subsidy, which is what it is, to enable some categories of people to become owner-occupiers. I have no philosophical problems with that, as it is a useful approach, especially when local people on relatively low pay have to compete in the same housing market as wealthier incomers. We were familiar with that phenomenon in my constituency in south -west Wales and throughout western Wales in the late 1980s, when local people were priced out of the market because of demographic phenomena-- migration and so forth. That sort of subsidy for acquiring one's own property is useful in that context.

The latest Tai Cymru proposals are ingenious. It is not the first time that it has come up with such ingenious ideas and I am prepared to praise it for that. The system is preferable to shared ownership, which has had some limited success but also some grave failures. It is good to see Wales ploughing its own furrow in devising policies in these times.

I am very dubious, however, about the rationale for assisted ownership presented in Tai Cymru's discussion paper--the creation of social stability. The idea is that social stability can somehow be enhanced by integrating at least 25 per cent. of owner-occupiers into any estate with more than 20 homes. The rules state that, initially, assisted ownership will be provided for in those circumstances. Any estate of more than 20 houses will have to have 25 per cent. of people on an assisted ownership scheme.

Significantly, that shows that Tai Cymru recognises the social problems created by the high-rent policy forced on it by the Government. There is a clear recognition of those significant social problems in Tai Cymru's policy document. We must tackle that aspect--the high-rent, low-HAG policy- -as well as the problem of low pay and unemployment, rather than attempting to solve the latter problem by an assisted ownership input in a social housing estate. That attempt at social engineering is unlikely to succeed, as we shall see in a few years' time. We will be able to check to find out whether it has worked in that way.

A further reduction in HAG would be very damaging--indeed, it would be disastrous. It would be equally inappropriate for the Secretary of State to insist on an

Column 480

ever-greater proportion of Tai Cymru's budget being set aside for low-cost home ownership. In Wales, we want no emulation of the situation in England, where the Housing Corporation is being forced--kicking and screaming, I understand--to increase the percentage of its budget for low-cost home ownership from 33 to 45 per cent. between 1995 and 1997. That is the way that England is going, but we must not go that way in Wales.

All the evidence confirms that what one housing director told me in a letter this week is true throughout Wales. I shall quote his opinion, as I am sure that it is typical. He said :

"There remains a significant problem of unmet social housing need which demands the provision of low-cost rented housing rather than housing for sale which may well be outside the scope of local applicants due to the uncertain local economy and low wage base". I am afraid that an uncertain local economy and a low wage base are not untypical of the Welsh situation. There is a consensus among people involved with housing policy in Wales--in the housing association movement, local authorities and charities, such as Shelter.

The Welsh Office knows of the 1990 survey conducted for the Council of Welsh Districts and the House Builders Federation, which found that less than half of new households formed in Wales could afford to buy the cheaper, older, second-hand homes available in their area. The position has probably improved since then because the market is less vibrant, but it is not significantly different. A large proportion of new households will not be in a position to enter into owner-occupation, even with the assisted ownership scheme.

Mr. Richards : The hon. Gentleman quoted a director of housing. May I quote another--the director of housing for Ynys Mo n--who said : "I consider that the existing housing stock on the island, together with the current initiatives being undertaken in partnership with private landlords and developers, will provide the decent homes which every Ynys Mo n resident has a right to expect."

Mr. Dafis : I would be very surprised if my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Mo n (Mr. Jones) did not confirm that young people wishing to set up home for the first time will find it difficult to get housing in Ynys Mo n. If he will not confirm that, it must be the exception, as that is the general picture throughout rural Wales. If one matched the housing stock-- the aggregate number of houses--with local demand, one might be able to say that there was sufficient balance, but that is not the end of the story as there are population movements. Other people move in, and young people find themselves marginalised and unable to acquire property to live in. We know that the Government's not-so-hidden agenda--it is hardly hidden at all, in fact--is the advancement of the private sector, even in the provision of social housing. There is talk, which the Under-Secretary of State did not deny in a recent reply to me, of paying HAG-type grants to private developers and landlords, which is an entirely different approach. The private sector has expressed scepticism about the idea, knowing that it will be in competition with the housing association movement for the same financial resources. Surely it is far better for that sort of provision to be made through the public sector, housing associations and local authorities.

The Minister of State for Housing, Inner Cities and Construction at the Department of the Environment,

Column 481

extolled the virtues of HAMA, whereby housing associations become managing agents for private landlords. There is nothing particularly wrong with that in itself, but we must recognise how volatile, insecure and unstable such provision would be.

Private houses are lying unoccupied at the moment because the owners have been unable to sell them in today's depressed market. As soon as the market becomes more positive, the properties will be put up for sale, so trying to tackle the needs of social housing through that sort of procedure would be profoundly unsatisfactory. Some Conservatives see housing associations as playing only a transitional role in the move towards an entirely privately owned housing stock. I am sure that many Conservative Members have that view. In Wales, the number of homes for rent in the private sector has fallen by 10,000 since 1981, so anyone who imagines that we will find salvation in that direction--either in terms of the number of homes or the quality of management--is deluding himself.

Mr. Walter Sweeney (Vale of Glamorgan) : Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the decline in private rented sector has been brought to a halt since the Housing Act 1988 and will be ultimately reversed ?

Mr. Dafis : There is no evidence of that in Wales, and the statistics certainly do not confirm it. The hon. Gentleman might be looking at the figures between 1988 and 1992, but during the past 10 years there has been a decline.

It would be wrong to look in that direction for the provision of social housing, certainly in terms of the quality of management. The Department of the Environment recognises that in its suggestion that housing associations should be providing management services to the private sector. That is a recognition that private landlords cannot, and do not wish to, provide the quality of management that is currently provided by housing associations and local authorities.

Mr. Sweeney : Is not the reason for the reluctance of the private sector to increase the stock of private rented accommodation the fact that there is a fear that, at some stage in the future, the Opposition might reintroduce rent controls and other measures which would mean that investment in the private rented sector would prove to be misplaced ? Is not all-party co-operation and an assurance to the private sector that it is to be welcomed and encouraged, rather than constantly denigrated, the solution to the problem ?

Mr. Dafis : I was not denigrating the private sector, and I was not saying that the private sector might not make a contribution. I am saying that it would be foolish to look in that direction for a major contribution to solving the problem of social housing in Wales, and the statistics clearly indicate that.

There are people in the Conservative party who are prepared to delude themselves concerning the role of the private sector. In one of the debates on the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill, the Parliamentary Under- Secretary of State for Corporate Affairs called for a wide-ranging new housing Bill in which the brave new world of the private sector would be advanced even further. It was a very interesting dialogue between the Minister and the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham),

Column 482

in which local authorities were denigrated as landlords and the scenario of the large-scale provision of social housing by the private sector was proposed.

What was on the cards there was local authorities having no housing for rent at all. Clearly, there are different emphases within the Conservative party and one of the purposes of the debate tonight is to find out where the Secretary of State for Wales stands in the Conservative party in the matter. Will he represent clearly identifiable Welsh views and interests, or is it his priority to promote a right-wing agenda within his own party ? Recent reports indicate the latter. It is said that the right hon. Gentleman wishes to introduce the right to buy for housing association properties which have been provided with mixed funding. That would have far -reaching and problematical implications.

Hitherto, the existence of a degree of administrative devolution has afforded some protection for Wales against the worst excesses of right-wing ideology in housing and other policies. However, it is insufficient protection, and we must ask ourselves : what will protect us from a new housing Bill ? What will enable us to devise an approach to housing that is truly appropriate for Wales and in keeping with our values and priorities ? We say that only a Welsh parliament with legislative and revenue-raising powers can enable us to do that. We hope that all the Opposition parties will support us tonight in this matter.

5.14 pm

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. John Redwood) : I beg to move to leave out from House' to the end of the Question to add instead thereof

congratulates the Government on its comprehensive housing policies to meet the needs and aspirations of the people of Wales ; welcomes in particular the high and increasing level of home ownership in Wales ; supports measures to promote wider home ownership ; notes the high level of investment by Tai Cymru since 1989 which has exceeded £1 billion and produced nearly 22,000 homes ; welcomes the attraction of substantial private funding to the housing association programme enabling greater diversity and choice ; and rejects the call for the establishment of a Parliament for Wales which would create an unnecessary tier of Government and would waste resources.' We had a ramble through the by-ways of housing policy from the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Dafis), ending with a short eulogy to the idea of an all-taxing, all-regulating and all-legislating Welsh assembly. It is interesting that the Opposition still have not clarified all the details about the kind of assembly that they would like, but at least the hon. Gentleman's party is clear and straightforward : tax more, legislate more, put in more red tape and tie people up in more bureaucratic knots--that is the kind of assembly they would like for Wales.

I look forward to seeing the verdict of the electorate on that in due course in a general election, and I know that the electorate will say a big no to an all-taxing, all-legislating assembly of that kind.

The long march of Everyman to freedom began with rights to justice symbolised by Magna Carta. It gathered momentum in the 19th and 20th century enfranchisement of all adults in the political life of the country. As the 20th century draws to a close, it is strengthened by a majority coming to own property and by many coming to benefit from college education. Everyman has gained his rights, his votes, his dignity and his enlightenment. Owning a home of your own is an almost universal aspiration and the experience of most.

Column 483

In the 1920s and 1930s, the suburban semi spread all over Britain, and the suburbs of Cardiff and Swansea grew. Sneered at by the liberal intelligentsia, it was real social housing. Behind those front doors, people enjoyed more comfort than had been available to their parents. By those hearths, loves and lives were cultivated in a fruitful family way. The superior mind of socialist Bloomsbury found that hard to take--as some Opposition Members seem to-- along with their whisky and soda. That housing was what people wanted then, and that is what many people in Wales want again today.

Design should not be solely a matter for the expert. We all have a view, and the profusion of styles is a consequence. Architecture moulds and reflects the spirit, and architectural style in Britain, I am pleased to say, is now much more varied than it was in the 1960s. There are many good examples in Wales.

The drab conformity of buildings in the countries of the old Warsaw pact reflected their totalitarian and uniform world view. Concrete architecture was also part of the levelling spirit of post-war Britain--mean-minded and unhelpful. British architecture today is part of the energy and variety of contemporary life and a vital part of our housing policy.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon) : The Secretary of State will be aware that in many of the more historic towns of Wales--I am thinking of Caernarfon in particular, but there are others around Wales--it may be more costly to provide housing and other buildings to the acceptable architectural standard that the right hon. Gentleman describes. Will he confirm that the Welsh Office will always be prepared to look sympathetically at the differential in cost between the market value attainable by a development in such towns and the higher cost necessary to meet those historic architectural requirements ?

Mr. Redwood : In sensitive areas and conservation areas, it is particularly important that architecture should be sensitive to what is in the surroundings. I visited Caernarfon recently--as the right hon. Gentleman knows--to see the good work that is going on there on the projects that we and the local authority are backing to restore some of the beauty and excellence of the buildings in the heart of the town.

On the more general point, design matters. If it requires money--and it is legal to grant permission--I should like to see that work done. Sometimes it does not require more money--just a different and better design.

People should also be careful to look at the total cost--not just the one- off capital cost of a building, but the maintenance costs and the cost of using a building over many years. How depressing it is to visit schools where extensions were put up in the 1960s, for example, with flat roofs. They were cheap at the time, but my goodness, they have cost us dear ever since in trying to remedy the problems that they created. I want no part of that today in our housing policies ; I want good design and practical, sturdy buildings, which also add something to the architectural life of our towns and villages. People are now walking tall in modern Wales and modern Britain. People know that owning their home gives them more options. When we buy a house, we appreciate that the money we spend can make us richer. If people rent

Column 484

a house all their life, the money they spend can make the landlord richer. At a time like the present, when interest rates are low, when land is cheap, when inflation is low and growth is back in the economy, it is ideal to make a further leap forward in that great policy.

The idea that social housing should be housing for rent is one of the oddest in British social policy. Subsidised housing for rent not only reduces the scope for people to move house and to develop their lives as they see fit : low-cost home ownership is better value for the tenant and the taxpayer and it does not have the drawbacks of some rented accommodation.

Those who are truly concerned, as I am, to provide real social housing should think twice about those pensioners who pay high bills when they have their lowest income and are most frail. Many of those who have bought a house have much better prospects in their old age. They may be able to live on in their house for the rest of their life rent free. Alternatively, they may sell the house and use the money to provide more suitable sheltered accommodation in old age, in a setting of their choice, with the care of their choice.

If a couple had set out, just before the war, and purchased a house in Wales, after 20 or 25 years of paying a mortgage they would own their house. They would have no more mortgage to pay, let alone rent, and they would have an extremely valuable asset. If that same couple had set out and rented property--I am advised that rents were about 30p a week--and if they were still fortunate to be alive and renting a subsidised property, they would be paying 100 times that rental each week and they would have nothing to show for all the money that they had spent over all those years. For that reason and many others, the best social housing of all is low-cost home ownership.

The success of our housing policy in the 1980s was to attract many more people into ownership. The biggest advances by far came through rising incomes and more employment opportunities, which enabled many people to buy new homes of their own for the first time in the many attractive estates and villages that grew up around Wales. A very successful council house sales programme converted many tenants into owners. In the 1990s, we need to make sure that housing associations, too, make their contribution.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central) : Would the Secretary of State care to comment on what has been perceived as a particularly difficult British economic problem ? He has rightly pointed out that, in the past, investing in one's home was considered the best use of a person's money. In other European countries, however, investing in some company that makes something is considered a better use of one's money. The problem is that, over the years, it has been a better option in Britain to invest in bricks and mortar than in industry. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that that tendency might be a part of our problems today ?

Mr.Redwood : People can do both, should do both and, now, largely do do both. Their investment in industry is mainly channelled through their pension savings, usually made on their behalf by their employers' schemes. There is room for both types of investment. Given the current levels of investment in industry, the stock market and in housing, I do not believe that we need to engineer an artificial shift

Column 485

of the type that the hon. Gentleman has described. There is room for both types of investment, and investment in housing has a lot to recommend it.

Too few housing association tenants have the opportunity to buy their homes. My policy for the housing associations in Wales is to encourage a higher proportion of low-cost home ownership schemes and to encourage right to buy for new tenancies.

Local authorities can also play an essential role in facilitating home ownership and, at the same time, freeing up their stock for those waiting for council homes. Today, I am announcing a package of £4 million for local authorities from the homelessness reserve. Of that sum, £1 million will support enterprising schemes, including proposals from Newport borough council working with Lovell Partnerships to provide 36 homes and from Alyn and Deeside and Ogwr for 23 do-it-yourself shared ownerships. Some £2.4 million of the £4 million package is available to local authorities for transferable discount schemes, which will enable them to give significant grants to people who move out of council houses to purchase their homes. This means a new tenant for the local authority home and a new home owner at the same time. For those who wish to do so, I am allocating £600,000 to providing accommodation to elderly people moving out of larger council housing into accommodation more suited to their current needs.

Local authorities are in a position to cheapen the initial capital cost of the home by making land available on favourable terms or free. In Wales, I want to see more of those on lower incomes having more immediate access to a home of their own. I also intend to expand shared ownership schemes and other schemes where a subsidised capital value can offer someone a cheap way into a home of their own. The taxpayer is well protected by having a claim on the property should the person decide to sell and realise the gain in the short term.

Mr. Gareth Wardell (Gower) : As part of the policy to encourage home ownership, will the right hon. Gentleman consider the decision in the case of Murphy v Brentwood district council, which went to the House of Lords on appeal in 1991 ? As a result of that decision, there is no legal obligation on a local authority should a person who owns his own home find that it is defective. That person cannot sue the local authority for any fault in the inspection of the property during its construction. That represents a major retrograde step for home owners and has caused great concern to people who are purchasing a property.

Mr. Redwood : There are other ways of protecting the interests of those whom the hon. Gentleman is seeking to protect. I assume that they would take proper advice when they were thinking of purchasing their home. There are ways around the problem that the hon. Gentleman is trying to place in the way of that important policy.

Mr. Gareth Wardell : Let me spell out the implications of the decision. If a person buys a property from another person and the second owner finds that the builder has gone bankrupt, the insurance company will not cover that property if internal defects appear because of the absence of footings. As a consequence of the case, there is no recourse to sue the local authority. Will the right hon. Gentleman consider that decision and bring in legislation to overrule it ? That decision has reversed all previous law. Now, it does not matter what the building regulator says to

Column 486

the local authority, because the building inspector can do absolutely nothing. People will have no come-back on the local authority if a defect is found.

We want to avoid what happened with BISF housing and Cornish Units, which had so many problems that the Government were forced to introduce legislation on defective housing to remedy them.

Mr.Redwood : The hon. Gentleman has partly offered his own answer, because, when problems emerged, the Government took action to remedy them. I will, of course, read the case to which he referred, but the particular chain of events that he described is a rather extraordinary one and not likely to become common, as he fears. Now is an extremely good time to make a major advance in low-cost ownership. Land prices fell during the recession and building costs have been controlled by fiercely competitive markets. I have asked the agencies in Wales to bring forward more land for sale. I cannot accept a position where they are hoarding more than 4,000 acres of land, some of it usable for housing.

As a response to the invitation, the Land Authority for Wales will be making available 500 acres per year for all purposes over the next three years. Cardiff Bay development corporation has 150 acres under offer or available ; the Welsh Development Agency is bringing forward 330 acres over the next three years and the Development Board for Rural Wales is currently reviewing its land stocks with a view to releasing at least 27 acres. Over the next three years, a total of some 2,000 acres of land will be offered for sale from the public sector. I trust that some of that land will be used for housing. I also wish to ensure that the training and enterprise councils provide the tradesmen whom the builders will need over the next few years as house building increases again from the low levels of the early 1990s.

I am asking all councils to ensure that sufficient land is granted planning permission for development. I do not want massive increases in development in the most beautiful and prosperous areas of Wales.

Mr. Alex Carlile : I welcome what the Secretary of State has said on increasing home ownership and look forward to more people in Wales owning their own homes. However, does he recognise that one group not being catered for is that of young people who are not yet in a position to buy their own homes and who would not obtain the finance ? Can we look forward to an announcement of increased facilities to enable them to find properties to rent ?

Mr. Redwood : I shall cover that point later in my remarks. I wish to see realistic attitudes towards redevelopment in areas that most need jobs, especially building jobs, and where land can be recycled and reclaimed. I have asked the WDA to make a major increase in its land reclamation programme and I have given it extra cash to do that. The WDA's single most important task at home over the next few years is to reclaim sufficient land so that the building industry is well supplied, while the best areas of Wales, in environmental terms, are protected from developers' bulldozers.

I shall use my influence over the new development plans of the unitary local authorities to ensure that, in total, Wales has enough development land available for her needs in the foreseeable future. I do not expect a balance

Column 487

in each individual area, as I wish to ensure that the most beautiful and prosperous parts of Wales are protected, while giving maximum encouragement to those areas in need of regeneration and of many more jobs.

Housing policy must recognise the pressures of social change but also the fact that it will influence social change itself. If we make subsidised housing too readily available to young people, it will induce them to leave home earlier than they would otherwise. Much housing policy in recent years has rightly been designed to take care of young people who are no longer prepared to live at home and other vulnerable groups.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones : On the Secretary of State's point about developing land while protecting the most beautiful and prosperous land, will he concede that, in some cases, land in a prosperous area with low unemployment is next door to a highly populated area with high unemployment, where there is no land to develop ? In those circumstances, should not he try to encourage development on that land ?

Mr. Redwood : I do not think that there are as many such problems in south Wales as the hon. Gentleman is suggesting. Occasionally, I shall have to take tough decisions under the planning rules and laws. But I have made it clear in previous debates that, wherever possible, I hope that local people and their local representatives can guide that work. Today's statement offers a way to square the circle between those areas that are less keen on new jobs and development, and those that are keen. The balance in Wales is not too bad, so we come to a sensible answer overall.

On social change and young people, some of that source of increased demand for housing needs to be met, while some of it needs careful handling through a range of other policies. I do not believe that a 16 to 18-year- old should have a right to a subsidised house just because he or she no longer wants to live at home. Only in extreme circumstances should the state intervene to break up a family--for example where violence or grave damage is being done. Most 16 and 17-year-olds are keen to leave home ; it is a part of the natural process of growing up. But it does not mean that we should subsidise them to do so.

The bulk of housing support is now routed through housing benefit directly tied to the incomes and outgoings of the individuals concerned. Blanket or general subsidies to bricks and mortar can be a wasteful way to proceed and there is always a danger that the benefits leak to those who do not need such help. There is no need to subsidise a three or four-earner family in a council house bringing in several hundred pounds a week from reasonable jobs ; there is every need to provide housing benefits to the low-wage or no-wage family next door to meet the rent bill, which is why we have been shifting the balance of our support.

Our care in the community policy has also added to the demand for suitable housing for the elderly, handicapped and mentally disabled. We need to ensure that sufficient sheltered and very sheltered accommodation is constructed and provided. We should not carry the policy so far that those who need the full support of residential care homes are discouraged from receiving it and are put into the community, where they may be less happy or secure. We need a balance, and I hope that all those involved in

Next Section

  Home Page