Previous SectionIndexHome Page

7.58 pm

Sir Anthony Durant (Reading, West): I welcome the Bill as a further step forward in our housing policy. It deals with tenants, landlords and leaseholders. I listened carefully to the extraordinary speech by the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson). There are several implications to be drawn from what he said. He implied that the Labour party would bail out people with negative equity, raise mortgage tax relief, lower rents for council tenants--thereby increasing costs for council tax payers--and build council houses, thereby stopping grants to housing associations.

Mr. Raynsford indicated dissent.

Sir Anthony Durant: That was what was implied by the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras.

Mr. Raynsford: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Anthony Durant: I shall not give way. I have said what I have to say on that, and I feel that there was such an implication.

I welcome several of the proposals, because they have been raised by my constituents over the years. First, there is the right to buy from charities and housing associations. That has been a great grievance in my area, which has a large amount of such property. People felt that the situation was unfair.

I am delighted that the powers of the housing ombudsman will be increased. That has not been mentioned this evening, but it is an important step forward. The right to buy has been one of our great policy successes.

There is some agreement across the Chamber on multiple occupation. We must have more safeguards and standards. There is a lot of multiple-occupation property in Reading. I do not have the same problems as hon. Members with seaside constituencies, but many people live in such properties. Registration must come and monitoring must follow it to keep decent standards for people in multiple-occupation houses.

I am delighted that housing benefit will be tightened up. That has been a great racket and there have been cases in my constituency. We need better guidelines.

Small landlords need more help. There was great criticism of reducing the time for non-payment of rent from 13 to eight weeks. I am in favour of that. How can

29 Jan 1996 : Column 717

small landlords stand so long a period of non-payment before they can go to court? That is wrong. I also welcome the move to shorthold tenancies so that we can further develop the rented sector.

I favour tightening up the homeless list. Queue jumping is a great grievance in my town. Many people come to see me who have been on the housing list for years, waiting and waiting. Every time they come near to getting a property, someone on the homeless list jumps the queue. I favour one queue--a system whereby the homeless will be put into temporary accommodation and take their turn in the housing queue. I support that strongly because it is the right way to proceed.

I want more hostels. London's experience has been successful in developing hostels for homeless people. Many such people are not in the best condition when they come into accommodation. I do not have many homeless people in my constituency, thank heavens. There are only about 50 people sleeping on the streets in Reading, so I am fortunate. Some of them live in squalid conditions and when they come into accommodation, they need help and guidance. We need more hostels around the country.

I am much concerned about leaseholders. I trust that amendments to the Bill will be introduced to safeguard their position. There was a leasehold property in my constituency in which all the balconies were falling down. It was dangerous and I tried to find the owner, but it was practically impossible to find who owned the block. I went round and round in circles and never found out who owned it. In the end, I think that the council did something about it and safeguarded the balconies on the flats. We have to do more about leaseholding and the ownership of leasehold properties. The present law on tenants trying to take over leaseholds is far too complicated. I look forward to when we can introduce commonhold. I hope that we shall move in that direction. I look forward to the Government introducing further amendments, as mentioned in the press, to strengthen the position on leaseholding.

I hope that the Government will, as announced today, introduce a further Bill dealing with the Latham proposals on contracting, which are important to the construction industry. I am disappointed that this Bill does not deal with them. As chairman of the all-party group on construction, I am very keen about that. I hope that I will be reassured that a second Bill will implement aspects of the Latham report. It was a good report, which is supported by the industry in general--although not by some of the bigger companies. We need to encourage the construction industry. It has gone through a bad time from which it has still not emerged. It needs help and I was disappointed that there was not more help for it in the Budget.

I welcome the Bill. All its aspects have come up in my constituency surgery. If we can implement it, some of those grievances will go. It is a useful and worthwhile Bill which I support strongly.

8.5 pm

Mr. Cynog Dafis (Ceredigion and Pembroke, North): I shall be brief, but I am the only Welsh Member to speak tonight and there is an important Welsh dimension to housing policy.

29 Jan 1996 : Column 718

The problem with housing policy, as with many other policies, is that it has been bedevilled by ideology. That has been particularly unpleasant for us in Wales because the ideology that has informed policy development has been so alien to us. It is only because enlightened people in Wales have insisted on being pragmatic that anything at all has been achieved over the past 16 years--and quite a lot has been achieved. Despite those achievements, in 1994 there were still 23,000 people homeless, according to Welsh Office statistics and according to Shelter, there were nearer 60,000.

I shall base my remarks on the publication, "Target 2000", which has been prepared for the Welsh Federation of Housing Associations. The first point made by the document is that we need a proper description of need both for the local level and for the whole of Wales. There is no such description currently, which means that we do not have an adequate strategy. The existing strategy is one for the allocation of available resources, which is another thing altogether.

Resources are declining. The number of dwellings provided in the social sector through Tai Cymru funding, along with private funding, has decreased from 5,274 in 1992-93 to 4,197 this year. It is projected that the number will go down to just over 3,000 in 1996-97.

Secondly, we have something close to parity in Wales between the number of dwellings and the number of households--in fact, there is a small surplus--but we still need about 10,000 social houses per year to achieve decent housing for all by 2000.

Thirdly, there is overwhelming evidence that the priority need in Wales--and I am sure that this is also true in England--is for affordable, rented accommodation. With owner-occupation at 72 per cent. in Wales in 1994, compared with 59 per cent. in 1979, it is clear that the trend towards owner-occupation has gone far enough--perhaps too far. According to the 1991 census, 8 per cent. of private homes in Wales were vacant or not being used as a prime residence, compared with less than 2 per cent. vacant in the social housing sector.

Some owners are unable to sell their property and let it on a shorthold tenancy. There is nothing wrong with that in itself, but it is an indication of a surplus of owner-occupied properties.

Some 20 per cent. of the Welsh population earn less than half average earnings, which means that they are probably ineligible for a mortgage. According to the report's author, the home ownership market in Wales is saturated. It is in those circumstances that the Welsh Office, obedient to its London masters, has set a target of 80 per cent. owner-occupancy in Wales by 2000. Such a target is clearly perverse, irresponsible, probably damaging, and ideologically driven rather than pragmatic. Policy in Wales is currently moving in the opposite direction to what is relevant. The 80 per cent. target could be achieved only at the expense of a reduction in the number of properties available for rent, unless the number of house completions is significantly increased.

A strategy for providing the necessary additional social housing should consist of a combination of new build and a significant number of acquisitions from existing housing stock, both houses in good condition and houses for renovation. That would be good environmentally as it would discourage the development of green-field sites. It would also be appropriate in a country where, in 1993,

29 Jan 1996 : Column 719

13.4 per cent. of occupied first homes were considered unfit, many houses dating from before 1919, which puts Wales just below central London in terms of the proportion of unfit properties there. Housing associations, along with what will now be other social housing providers, should be empowered and encouraged to make such acquisitions from existing housing stock. The funding process must recognise the higher costs of renovation, not least VAT.

We also need a means to enable demolition and infill building where appropriate. The time comes when all buildings reach the end of their useful lives and demolition is a more cost-efficient solution than renovation. I was glad to note that Tai Cymru has recently restored housing associations' power to acquire existing property. But that power is severely restricted and housing associations, local authorities and the new local companies that will come into force need greater freedom. More emphasis must be placed on that activity.

The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish(Mr. Bennett) spoke about the need for resources for such a programme. I previously mentioned that 10,000 properties per annum were needed for the social sector in Wales, which means doubling the existing programme. Plaid Cymru has no hang-ups about the amount of public investment as a proportion of the total economy that is required for that, nor about funding such investment from general taxation if necessary, especially as that activity creates employment and reduces the benefits bill in the process. We recognise, however, that other people have problems about that approach. The Government's answer, at least in part, is to create local housing companies that can raise private finance and therefore mobilise additional resources.

I agree with the recommendations in the Chartered Institute of Housing report, which suggest a two-pronged approach: first, a shift of emphasis in terms of public spending from the current use of the public sector borrowing requirement to a general Government financial deficit approach, distinguishing between public spending and public investment; and, secondly, the creation of non-profit-making local housing associations, wholly owned by local authorities and able to borrow against the security of the rent stream and asset values.

The case for more public subsidy in bricks and mortar to reduce rents is now well established. Moreover, the fact that central Government only partially pay for housing benefits to council tenants means that other tenants subsidise those benefits. That is unjust and an anomaly.

Next Section

IndexHome Page