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5.11 pm

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish): I want to do two things that have not been done so far in the debate. First, I want to make it clear that we can solve housing problems only by spending more money. We can alter systems and arrangements between tenancies and owner-occupation, but unless we are prepared to spend more money we will not solve the problems.

Mr. Sykes: How much more?

Mr. Bennett: I hear the hon. Gentleman's comment--all I would say at this stage is that it needs to be a substantial amount. It is no good shouting across the Chamber. The question that should be exercising the House is, "How can we find that money and persuade people to spend it on housing?" Unless that is done, there will be difficulties.

Secondly, I want to praise the Government. I was delighted that, nine months ago, they published figures showing how many houses they believe are needed. Such figures were last published in 1977. It is regrettable that Ministers refused to update them for a long time. I believe that, if we are to persuade people to spend more money, we must have a clear estimate of housing need.

I warmly welcome the fact that the Government have published the figures. Some hon. Members will be aware that the Environment Committee is now examining them. There can be many arguments about such figures. As the Committee has not published a report, I shall say simply that the majority of the evidence suggests that the Government have underestimated the need, but whether we accept the Government's figures or other--slightly higher--ones, the real challenge is how to achieve the totals

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in the next few years. Finding 1.7 million new homes in the next 10 years and--on the Government's own estimate--an average of 60,000 new social houses a year will be a substantial challenge. I praise the Government for publicising the figures, but we must think carefully about how we will find the money to meet the targets.

We must ensure that we look after the existing housing stock, and do not allow any existing houses to deteriorate. When I look around my constituency, I see clear examples of what first a Labour Government, and then a Conservative Government, did to turn houses that were built at the turn of the century and in the early part of this century into little palaces in which people could live. Reddish has benefited from being a housing action area. It now has first-class accommodation, and people are proud to live in their houses.

What worries me is that all that has been done in that part of Reddish could have been repeated in three or four other areas of my constituency; unless we are prepared to put more money into urban renewal, we will run the risk of allowing many areas of attractive old housing to continue to deteriorate. The country cannot afford that, and I deeply regret that the Bill does not propose to improve urban renewal.

Mr. David Nicholson: The hon. Gentleman has made much of resources, and he could refer, as did the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), to the vast number of houses that were built in the 1960s and 1970s but, over 15 to 20 years, did not many of those houses become unsuitable and unfit to live in? Did not they require vast repairs at vast expense?

Mr. Bennett: Of course, but I am trying to illustrate that the lessons were learnt--certainly in my constituency--not just by a Conservative Government, but by a Labour Government. They appreciated that good urban renewal meant that, instead of continuing a clearance programme, it was possible to rehabilitate houses. That has been done successfully during the past 20 years, and it has been a real success story in a pocket of my constituency. My complaint is that it has not happened in many other areas.

I want now to mention what are, allegedly, unpopular estates. In my view, many estates are unpopular because there is a lack of resources for good housing management, not because they are inherently bad. The failure to accept that money has to be spent on the management and on the maintenance of communal areas has often led to deterioration.

I want also to refer to problem tenants. I welcome the fact that the Government are suggesting that there might be ways of dealing with the issue, but the House must consider the matter carefully. Evicting a tenant--or not renewing a short lease--is one thing, but we must ask what happens to those tenants, particularly if they have children. One solution that was adopted recently was slowly to push the problem tenant around until he ended up on what was called a sink estate.

If we are trying--rightly--to get rid of sink estates, we must ask where such tenants are to go. Furthermore, what will happen to their children? There are measures to remove next door neighbours who are causing a nuisance, but unless we decide what should happen to them, we shall simply create problems. We might not even be able to allow the evictions to take place.

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The hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) said that certain properties that were built in the 1960s are now unsuitable. The ones that particularly concern me are bedsits. There was an assumption that elderly people would be happy with a bedsit. Many of them were in the 1960s, but that is no longer the case. Unless we have a positive policy for converting bedsits, a problem that has developed in parts of my constituency will become widespread.

If there is a vacancy in a bedsit and no elderly person wants to take it, as the Government rightly put pressure on the local authority to ensure that vacancies are filled, the authority puts someone in--very often someone who has come out of a long-stay hospital or who has psychiatric or alcohol problems. We would find it difficult enough to have such a person living next door and we might attempt vigorously to stop them making life hell, but it would be intolerable for an elderly person. We must spend money on dealing with some of those bedsits.

Another problem that I find alarming, and which came to the attention of the Select Committee on the Environment during its inquiry, concerns tenants who have bought council properties. I understand why the Government pushed the right to buy and encouraged many tenants to buy their properties. What I find unacceptable is the fact that building societies, which were originally keen to lend such tenants money to buy their properties and, in some cases, were happy to lend to a second buyer when the tenant sold the property on, are making it difficult for the prospective third owner to get a mortgage.

Building societies cannot afford to red-line former council estates and say that mortgages are not available.I would not mind if they had been honest and said that they never wanted that type of business, but having rushed in and encouraged people to become owner-occupiers in such areas, it is unacceptable for them to say no now.We need some quick action from the building societies, which ought to spend more time looking to their original principles and encouraging people to buy homes, rather than turning themselves into banks.

Finally--to keep my remarks brief--the Government are promising to deal with the problem of bed-and-breakfast accommodation. They say that local authorities will have the right to close down such establishments quickly. Authorities often have powers now, but they have to pick up the cost of using them.If an establishment is closed, and 20 families are immediately put out on the street, the authority has to find them somewhere else to go. When the medical officers had strong powers in local authorities, they could say, "Get on and do it", and pick up the consequences. Now, no one is strong enough to tell local authorities, "You've got to do this. It's your statutory duty." As a result, councils will waver and worry whether they can afford to do something.

To my Front-Bench spokesmen I simply say that it is all right to complain about some of the measures in the Bill, but I want to know--soon--how we will persuade people that we have to spend more money on housing. It will be one of the crucial issues at the next election. It is no good merely listing the problems.We have to be clear that we are going to find the money and we must not raise people's expectations and then leave them disillusioned.

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5.22 pm

Mr. Roy Thomason (Bromsgrove): I welcome the Bill. It makes a substantial contribution to housing welfare and the sooner it is implemented, the better.

In the spirit of Nolan, I must declare two interests before I go any further. I am a consultant to a building society and to a firm of solicitors and parliamentary agents. My remarks do not relate to matters that, so far as I am aware, impinge on the activities of either of those organisations. I have not been asked by the clients of that firm or by either of those organisations to make any representations during the passage of the Bill.

In building confidence in the lettings sector and in generating new partnerships, the Bill creates opportunities in housing on which we can build in the spirit that we have been building for the past 15 years. I want to focus my remarks on parts V, VI and VII. We have all had many people come to our surgeries to tell us about their difficulties with neighbours. Life being what it is, neighbours often find it difficult to get on with each other. Sometimes, however, people who live on council estates are asked to bear wholly unreasonable and untenable difficulties. Part V allows local authorities to deal with such difficulties and we should welcome and support it.

The Bill goes beyond that and helps people who have suffered domestic violence inflicted by a spouse, who has remained in occupation of the former matrimonial home while the family has been driven out. It seems wholly unreasonable that the accommodation should be left under-occupied and used by the perpetrator of such violence while the family is homeless. The Bill will allow the new ground to be used to remove the perpetrator of domestic violence from the accommodation that the family formerly occupied.


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