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The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, I agree with those points.

Housing and Construction

3.7 p.m.

Lord Dean of Beswick rose to call attention to the housing needs of the nation and the ability of financial institutions and of the construction industry in general to meet these needs; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I hope that as a result of the debate we shall have some indication of measures that may be taken to deal with the present situation. There is no doubt that all the figures produced on any aspect of housing show a deteriorating situation.

The first part of my Motion calls attention to the housing needs of the nation. The second part deals with the building industry. Noble Lords will know that over the years I have from time to time asked questions as to why in the past few years we have had half a million building operatives on the dole, building firms across the spectrum working below capacity, and huge sums of money which belong to local authorities locked up and subject to restrictions which prevent those authorities from building at the rate they would like. I do not know what the Government are waiting for.

It is not as if a bolt from the blue has suddenly caused a housing crisis—and it is a crisis. It is the result of deliberate government policy, introduced under the present President of the Board of Trade, the Right Honourable Michael Heseltine, when he took office as Secretary of State in 1979. The first thing he did was to set about removing government subsidy for council house building. The Government compounded that by making the insane decision—and I still think it is insane—to stop local authorities building housing for rent. Historically, since the early 1920s they were the biggest provider of low rent housing. I do not say that they were perfect, but they were far and away the best landlords in the country.

It is about time that the Government ceased their vendetta against local authorities and their council houses and started giving authorities the facilities and finance to enable them to eat into the problem regarding the appalling current housing situation.

Over the years the Conservative Party has claimed to be the party of the owner-occupier. Literally every owner occupier in the country has been hit by what has occurred in the house purchase industry. An enormous number of people are now trapped in negative equity. From an item

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on the news this lunch time, I understand that the problem of negative equity is not reducing; it is increasing. Approximately 1,000 houses a week are still being repossessed. Those of us who are fortunate enough to own our own homes have a diminishing asset because of the Government's policy. It was rather naughty of the Prime Minister to suggest in a speech a few weeks ago that the problem of negative equity was people's own fault for daring to buy their houses.

Ministers always fall back on the success of the sale of council houses. That policy was a success based on enormous cuts in prices through the goodwill that the Government were able to engender and trade on. However, I have figures which indicate that in some areas of London some people received as much as a £50,000 cut in the price of their council house so they could purchase it. Yet in the same area young couples purchasing a similar type of house were being dispossessed because they owed a far smaller sum than the figure to which I referred. That does not seem to me to be equal treatment of people of the same nation.

I understand the situation now is that, if one deducts council houses from the number of houses being purchased, for the first time for many years in this country the figure is on the downturn.

What has happened over the years regarding provision of council housing or housing for rent? A number of reports have been instigated by prominent people in this country. They were not from political parties. We can go back to the Duke of Edinburgh and his commission. A group of people with expertise across the board on housing—it was in no way politically motivated—put forward proposals to assist housing in this country. Did the Government take action? There were some comments about parts of the reports with which they did not agree, but no action was taken.

We then had the report of the commission of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, the noble Lord, Lord Runcie, Faith in the City. It was a superb report for anyone to read in depth. It pointed the way forward. Once again the report was not politically inspired. But nothing happened; it just gathered dust.

The reports were supported by reports from other people—not from a political background—who took the same view. Those reports indicated, sadly, that deterioration in the housing stock of the owner-occupier section of the country is reaching alarming proportions. Between £8 million and £10 million will be required to bring those houses up to standard for the public sector. But nothing has happened and those houses just deteriorate.

I referred to costs that were first commenced by Mr. Heseltine. Figures have proved conclusively that had the Government continued with housing finance and allowed the councils to continue to build we would have gained between half a million and a million more houses available for rent in this country. There is no point in saying that an accident happened. That accident was a result of deliberate government policy. I have said this before in this Chamber, and I say it again: it was the Government's fault and no one else's.

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It is about time that the Government turned away from some of their political ideology now that the number of homeless people, and those in bed and breakfast accommodation, is increasing. If the money spent on providing bed and breakfast facilities were spent on building houses it would create a considerable number of houses for occupation. That is the current situation.

I have gone through most of the major points with regard to housing problems as we see them today. I now turn to the building industry. The Government, rightly, set up a committee under a former Member of another place, Sir Michael Latham, to consider the question of reorganising the building industry. He produced a very fine document which, I believe, in the main was accepted by the overwhelming majority of people involved in the building industry—certainly the builders themselves. There were some areas of disagreement, but, basically, it was accepted that a package was available which should be in the legislation to benefit the building industry.

What has happened? Yet again, we are going sideways, not forward. It seems strange to me that a major piece of legislation dealing with the building industry has now been handed to a Parliamentary Under-Secretary in the Department of the Environment. I make no criticism of that junior Minister, but that does not give a high profile to a building industry which is in serious trouble. In the circulars and correspondence from building organisations and suppliers to the building and civil engineering industry there are no projections regarding an expanding workload in this country. Having said that, there are some outstanding successes in the export field—building abroad—which I commend.

I attended a working lunch a few weeks ago to discuss the Latham Report. We were disappointed to hear the Minister state that there can be no action in the current parliamentary Session. From the way he spoke, it appears that there will be none in the next Session because the matter has now gone back for further consultation.

The Government ought to take this strong point on board—it has been raised in your Lordships' House by noble Lords on all sides of the Chamber—regarding the reluctance of some of the large building companies to pay their bills on time to the smaller builders and suppliers. Because of cash flow problems that reluctance often results in the smaller builders going to the wall. I should like to see the Government giving attention to that factor because it is a very real worry to people.

The debate gives us the opportunity to discuss the present housing situation in this country. Members of your Lordships' House will know that over the years I have led several debates in your Lordships' Chamber on housing. I have always found that the Government take not a bit of notice if they do not agree with what someone says, irrespective of party, even if the logic of the argument is pointed out. If the Government had listened a little more instead of hiding behind their political dogma on housing, many of the problems that we now face would not exist. In my opinion, enormous sums of money will be necessary to put right the errors that have accrued over the years.

We are going backwards in the housing of our people. When I was a chairman of housing in Manchester we were almost out of the tunnel. We were building houses so fast

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that keys were going out by the hundred each week. It was the same in all areas. Then suddenly someone in the Conservative Party thought, "We can't have local authorities doing this", and it was stopped. It is the first government ever to have stopped such building. As regards previous Conservative Governments, one has only to remember Harold Macmillan when he was in charge of the housing programme. He produced 300,000 council houses a year. I wonder what he would have thought if he had seen the shambles which the present Government are observing today. About 2,000 council houses will be built this year. A few weeks ago, when I questioned the Minister, I said that we were always told that, under the Housing Corporation, the HATs were the Government's answer once they had stopped councils building houses. We were promised that housing associations would have a yearly target of 60,000 houses. What is the Government's answer? That we will be lucky if there are 30,000 this year because of the enormous cuts created knowingly and intentionally by the Government in the allocation of cash to the Housing Corporation for general distribution. Those are the actions of a Government who are supposedly interested in dealing with a situation in which housing is greatly deteriorating.

I mentioned homelessness and other speakers will refer to the details; I have had to give a broad sweep. In conclusion, I believe that your Lordships' House should send out a message in regard to a situation which will not improve. I hope that for once the Government will listen to and not ignore that message. I beg to move for Papers.

3.25 p.m.

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