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There is a partial explanation for the difference. The Government and the people of Britain made a great sacrifice in order to improve the housing stock; I shall not go into the full historical details, but it is worth noting the interesting set of priorities that were determined after the war. Some mitigating circumstances have been evident in the past 11 years, but given that the Government promised a colossal house building programme, they
need to explain how they intend to achieve that when they are putting together economic strategies that will militate against that outcome.
Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): I do not want to let the Government off the hook too easily there. There was a huge peak in building during the few years shortly after the warnecessary to tackle the bombed housing and all the rest of itbut the point stands good for 50 years. Over the 50 years since world war two, the average council house build per year was 150,000 a year as compared with the tiny number that we have seen built over last 11 years.
Lembit Öpik: My hon. Friend makes a good point. Perhaps the Minister is getting some sense of the cross-party concern on this matter. Even if he were to close his ears to hon. Membershe is not the sort of Minister to do thathe would need to remember that the Government themselves have set house building targets comparable to the sort of figures highlighted by the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire and by my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield. The Minister needs to explain to all of us why he and the Government have been comfortable with a system that militates against incentivising local council house building by local authorities.
Let me conclude with some good news. There is a way out for the Minister, who is looking for solutions. I can present him with a very simple solutionto accept new clauses 1 and 8. Those new clauses are not rocket science and they do not contradict anything that the Government have said that they want to achieve. No great philosophical dilemma would be posed for new Labour by adopting those new clausesafter all, it is not clause IV, in the historical context of the wordso the Minister could make progress on a cross-party basis that sent all the right signals to local authorities. He should indicate his willingness to respond to what we are all saying: we are not saying it for any party political advantage, as it is also what local authorities of all political parties are saying to the Government in their efforts to resolve a desperate shortage of affordable housing across the land.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) has given the Minister a feast of opportunitiesmany new clauses and amendments to acceptto improve the situation still further. I would be satisfied if the Minister were to explain his willingness seriously to consider amendments Nos. 14 and 15, which I described before, and to accept new clauses 1 and 8, which are very robustly phrased. There is no technical reason why they could not be absorbed into the Bill. As the Minister has heard, there is a robust logic to accept them to achieve the very goals that the Government seek.
In fact, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I hope that you will allow us to press new clauses 1 and 8 to the vote if the Minister indicates an unwillingness to accept them. If he is willing to accept such provisions and promises that they will be included in the Bill at a later stage, we will accept that in good faith. However, most of all, we would like him to say that he has listened to the arguments and to show the courage that any Minister who really cares about the issue should have and say, I will accept them. Failing that, we hope that if they are
pressed to the vote, he will encourage Labour Members to vote aye. If he does that, it is no loss for the Government; it is a victory for scrutiny and, moreover, a great credit to the Minister and the Government for showing that they care more about solving a desperate housing crisis in this country than they are concerned about having things their own way at every stage of the Bills consideration.
Mr. Raynsford: I start by agreeing with the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) on his opening remarks, in which he rightly praised my hon. Friend the Minister for introducing sensible amendments in response to debates in Committee. The hon. Gentlemans recognition of the Governments willingness to listen and respond positively was welcome and in rather marked contrast to the comments of the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), who was rather churlish in his approach to the issue. However, I disagree very profoundly with most of the other comments made by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire and, indeed, those of most of the other contributors to the debate this afternoon. It strikes me that, when there appears to be consensus, as there appears to have been in the House today, it is often an occasion for ringing alarm bells. I want to ring a few alarm bells now.
I have to tell hon. Members that the inheritance that the Government received when they came to office in 1997 was indicative of things that were in many ways fundamentally wrong with housing policy. Not only was there the huge legacy of substandard council housing that was in urgent need of improvementthe funding for that improvement has been quite rightly a fundamental part of Government policy in recent years, and we will return to the details of that in a momentbut there was the pernicious legacy of years in which tenure had been allowed to dominate the debate and politicians had argued the merits of tenure as master rather than the interests of the public for whom tenure should be the servant. So we had debates about the merits of owner-occupation, which obsessed the Conservatives at the time, in just the same way as we have heard rather an obsession about the merits of council housing as against social housing more widely. I believe that it is fundamental that we should think of tenure not as the master but as the servant and that we should try to provide a framework where people can opt for an appropriate tenure suitable to their needs and resources at different stages in their lives, without being trapped, as too many people have been in the past, in unsatisfactory and undesirable circumstances.
The consequence of the obsession with tenure was that, for 50 years or more, we allowed all housing development in this country to be divided and polarised in a rigid and ultimately socially destructive way. We had estates that were almost exclusively owner-occupied on one side and estates that almost exclusively comprised social housing on the other, and neer the twain did meet. That led to all sorts of problems. A lot of the market housing provided for owner-occupation was built wholly unsustainably, with people gobbling up acres of green space, seeking detached houses in rural settings. Of course, that created the concept of concreting over the countryside, which has become a rather significant issue in the debate about
how we meet housing need. A lot of the opposition to new housing is exactly the product of poor-quality, insensitive housing development, gobbling up the countryside, particularly in southern Britain, over many decades. The Government who were in power in the 1980s and early 1990s were fundamentally at fault for allowing that to proceed.
David Taylor: My right hon. Friend, whose knowledge and reputation on this subject are without parallel in the House, rightly points to the fact that tenure tended to dominate debate and that the interests of the tenant were not paramount, but is it not even worse dogma for a Government to deny the possibility of local authorities having any part to play in resolving the problems of affordable housing by undertaking the provision, management and maintenance themselves?
Mr. Raynsford: If that were the Governments policy, I would agree with my hon. Friend; but it is not their policy, and as I shall demonstrate in a moment, the right approach, which they are broadly following, is to pursue a policy that supports the provision of social housing by a variety of providers, so that there is both diversity and some competition to avoid the problems of monopoly, which became a serious problem in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, when very large council housing estates were run by authorities that found them difficult to manage in many cases and that were opposed to the concept of stock diversification for ideological reasons. I do not think that that is part of the solution; I want a pragmatic approach that accepts the need for local authorities to play a positive role but not a monopoly role, and I would not want to see a return to that.
Mr. Stewart Jackson: Surely the right hon. Gentleman is being somewhat churlish about, for instance, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), who did a lot to push forward a plurality of providers in the period of the Conservative Government up to 1997tenant management organisations, housing action trusts and other initiatives were developednot just a monolithic approach to social housing.
Mr. Raynsford: If the hon. Gentleman had waited a little longer, he would have heard me say some very nice things about the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), whose period as Housing Minister was distinguished in a number of ways, even though I am afraid it coincided with the Conservative party adopting planning policies that had the effect that I was describing: to polarise areas of owner-occupation and of social housing, and to allow unsustainable development which, frankly, gave development and housing a bad name in many parts of the country, the legacy of which we still live with today.
If we consider some of the other adverse consequencesthe concentration of too many poor people in areas of exclusively social housing, where a geographical concentration of poverty and disadvantage inevitably resulted in some degree of stigma, and the extent to which the standards of energy efficiency in both public and private housing were woefully short of the standards that we now recognise are necessarywe can see pretty clearly the scale of the problem that had
to be addressed. The Governments initial approach in saying that the first priority must be to tackle the backlog of substandard council housing was correct. It would have been nice, if there had been more resources, to expand the new build programme as well, but the priority was to put an end to the scandal of millions of people living in substandard housing in which they had been neglected and left for decades because of a lack of investment.
There was some increased public investment, but the Government recognised that there would be no possibility of achieving the consequences that were set out in the decent homes programme of improving the entire social housing stock within a finite time without the injection of some additional private finance. That is where the stock transfer programme, which began when the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire was Housing Minister, has played an important role. As I have said already, we should not approach these issues in an ideological or dogmatic way; we should consider the interests of the tenants and see what the outcome has been. If we look objectively at the evidence, we see that it is not as it has been presented to the House today, with tenants universally opposed to stock transfer. There has been a mixed view. Some tenants are opposed; others tenants have welcomed it. The evidence where stock transfer has taken place is that, in general, there have been huge improvements in the condition of the stock and high satisfaction among a large proportion of the tenants concerned. I take the view that we should listen to that, rather than to the views of people who want to put tenure ahead of the interests of the public.
Simon Hughes: Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the picture is mixed, in that tenants in different places can have different views? In my borough and in other areas, whenever people have been asked they have been very clear that they want to be able to remain as council tenants. When the people and the parties represented on the council in question clearly express that wish, the Government should permit that and not give any financial disincentive for it to remain the position.
Mr. Raynsford: I agree that the position varies from area to area, and that Government should listen to the views of tenants, but it is also right to consider the merits of diversification to avoid large, monopoly landlords, which can be problematic. In my area, the local authority in Greenwich still retains the bulk of the housing stock, but it has agreed stock transfer in a particular area, which has led to a huge improvement in property conditions and a higher level of tenant satisfaction. Such a mixed approach is admirable and sensible, and it should be part of the solution. That is why I reject the approach implicit in new clauses 1 and 8. They adopt a back to the future attitude of saying, We simply want to return to a framework of council housing, and not to accept that there is a need for a pluralist world.
My right hon. Friend talks about an injection of private funding as if that is somehow cost-free. Is not the truth of the matter that such an
injection of private money costs the public purse more than publicly funded capital investment? It is right that we should invest in the decent homes programme, but even thatlet alone the new-build programmehas been woefully inadequate; certainly in Birmingham, thousands of homes have been demolished. So, not only have we not been building new homes, but we have been demolishing council homes, which has led us into this terrible housing and homelessness crisis.
Mr. Raynsford: I am certainly not going to defend the housing record of Birmingham city council, which is very unsatisfactory in many respects. However, my hon. Friend is wrong to suggest that the cost of bringing extra private money into the decent homes and stock improvement programmes is greater than the cost of providing public money. On the contrary, £35 billion has been raised for housing investment because housing associations are able to borrow from the private sector to supplement the public funds that are available to them. That is extra investment that has improved many homes that would not otherwise have been improved.
Also, contrary to the view that is often expressed, tenants interests have been protected. The idea that housing associations are unaccountable and irresponsible landlords is very different from my experience. I have worked with a range of housing providers, including small and large housing associations, and most of them achieve high standards and aim to be truly responsive to the needs of their tenants and the communities they work with. I strongly advocate an approach that recognises the merits of a mixed economy with a range of providers, and a programme that allows the continued attraction of private investment to supplement public funds, so that we get a larger programme and more work done than would otherwise be achieved.
That must be applied more widely. There has been a dramatic change in new private house building development: unlike 10 years ago, house builders are now prepared to accept that new developments should be mixed developments with an element of social and affordable housing alongside market housing. That was not the case in the past. How often in the past did we hear private developers saying, We simply want our own exclusive estates, with no social tenants? That pernicious and wrong approach has largely been countered by the policies pursued by the current Government, and I hope that they will be maintained. The thinking in the Green Paper published in the summer, which is implicit in the policies advocated in the Bill, is encouraging mixed developments in which, side by side, there will be housing for sale, housing for rent and low-cost and intermediate options, and in which there will also be a commitment to raising energy efficiency standards and to doing so in new ways. If we pursue that, and we also accept the need to bring in an element of private finance, there will be an expanded programme, which is what we all want.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will reject the blandishments of those who advocate new clauses 1 and 8, and that he will continue on the course the Government have pursued, which is the right one in the long term for this country.
Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC):
I rise to add my voice to the polyphony of support from all parts of the House for new clauses 1 and 8although
not a monopoly of support, as we have heard a discordant note from the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford). Members of four parties have, however, supported new clauses 1 and 8. I do not see in them an almost Stalinist nostalgia, which is the picture that the right hon. Gentleman painted. They are in favour of a mixed economyof a social democratic principle, which I would have thought the right hon. Gentleman, a former Minister, would have found it in his heart to support.
It is true that mistakes have been made in relation to council housing. However, when I compare those mistakes with the achievements made through council housing in the 20th century, I still feel that it should be part of the iconography of the Labour party, alongside the NHS, because council housing did as much as the NHS in that century to improve public health. The under-investment in council housing was as nothing to the abuse and suffering that working-class people had to cope with from private landlords before the council housing movement gathered pace, initially at local level and then through the 1945 Labour Government.
The amendments attempt to maintain some space for council housing. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) referred to the first council house that was built. If things continue in the current way, we might see the last council house.
The picture in Wales is depressingly similar to that in England. We have partial devolution, but the model of housing finance is governed by primary legislation in Westminster and rules set by the Treasury. Although the political consensus in Wales is generally to the left of centre and is overwhelmingly in favour of retaining a strong role for council housing, more and more local authorities are being forced down the route of transferring their stock.
The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Havard) is present. Only last Thursday, there was a knife-edge vote in Merthyr Tydfilthe closest yet in Wales. With people voting by text message, there was still a majority of only 14 in favour of stock transfer, even though they were promised 2,000 new bathrooms, 2,500 new kitchens and so forth. Those are the kinds of inducements that are repeatedly offered to tenants, yet the votes are always close. In Conwy, there was a 51 per cent. to 49 per cent. decision, despite the same kind of financial pressure, which leads the tenants to decide there is no future in the local authority housing sector.
Mr. Dai Havard (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) (Lab): As the hon. Gentleman has mentioned my constituency, may I just say that while much of the provision in the Bill does not directly apply, it sets a background against which the Welsh Assembly has to operate, both ideologically and practically, in terms of local government expenditure? I ask the Minister to recognise that if his proposals are not amended, they will put local authorities in an invidious position, and all the amendments do is ask him to take them out of that invidious position and give them the freedom to have plurality in their provision.
I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Gentleman. I do not wish to embarrass him politically by saying that, although I suppose we are now in
coalition in Wales. The Housing Minister in the Welsh Assembly Government is a Plaid Cymru Member, and in a few weeks time she will have to confirm the decision made by the people in Merthyr, despite the fact that she is a strong supporter in principle of local authority housing.
Lembit Öpik: As there is a coalition in Wales between Labour and Plaid Cymru, what does the hon. Gentleman imagine the position in Wales will be when they consider the outcome of this proposed legislation? Does he think Labour Members there will be persuaded by the arguments put here to reject new clauses 1 and 8, or that they will take a divergent view based on common sense rather than dogma?
Adam Price: I do not have a crystal ball to give me greater understanding of the views in the Labour party in Wales, but the broad political consensus among its members and activists, as well as those of Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats in Wales, is in favour of maintaining a key role for local authority housing. As a result of the same financial pressures that we see in England, Labour-controlled Rhondda Cynon Taf county borough council initiated a ballot that was successful in transferring its stock, and Swanseas Liberal Democrat council initiated the ballot referred to by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), despite the fact that the Liberal Democrat membership is probably against it. I suspect that Plaid Cymrus Gwynedd council feels the same financial pressures. It undermines peoples faith in local democracy when the majority of the political partiesthe Conservatives in Wales are the exceptionare against stock transfer in principle but are being corralled down such a route because the financial cards are stacked against them. The two proposals merely seek to create a level playing field in the information provided to tenants in ballots and in the system of housing finance, so that people can have a genuine choice.
I support plurality. In my area, the pattern of council housing was different, because its estates were smaller and thus did not have the attendant problems that have been mentioned. If there is a case for plurality, let us embrace plurality, but that is not the road along which we are accelerating. We are moving towards an end to an historic and important central role for local authorities, which are democratically accountable, in providing housing to their constituents.
Competition between providers is not the only way to drive up standards; I cannot ascribe to the Blairite mantra. There are other ways to drive up standardsdemocracy and politics. If people are unhappy at the standard of housing in their local area, they have an option where there is council housing. That option is the local elections, because people can vote in another party. What option will people have when there is an indirect and convoluted system of accountability? What right will future generationspeople who are not current tenantshave to hold their local political leadership to account about what it is doing locally on housing and homelessness?
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