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Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Elton: My Lords, the reduction in unemployment has been consistent over a long period. Noble Lords opposite are crowing because the rate of reduction is now slowing down. However, there has been a real achievement. I am glad to have the Opposition talking among themselves about this. No doubt that will enable them to have a uniform reply at the end of the debate.

In the meantime, I want to make the point that the Government have kept their heads in difficult circumstances and have maintained an economy in which it will be possible for the construction industry to return to growth. I declare an interest as a director of a company which runs the biggest building materials and handling exhibition in the English-speaking world, and I have as much interest as anybody in that industry returning swiftly to profit. However, I would not want that at the cost of the national interest. I would not want to prejudice the beating of inflation and of unemployment in the long term.

There are also less central issues. The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, raised one which is close to my heart. I refer to the House Condition Survey. I became interested in this area back in 1986 when there was an earlier House Condition Survey. I remind the noble Lord that we have always had a problem with maintenance. It fluctuates, and the situation is not good now. However, I commend to the Government measures which will enable both the private and public sectors, and housing associations which fall between them, to recover some of the lost ground of maintenance. Anybody who has been responsible for a house knows that if you delay spending £5 for a year, you will find yourself spending £50. Therefore, assistance to those bodies which tackle that problem is money exceedingly well spent. If there are means of assisting the local authorities to improve the maintenance of their housing stock, they should be taken.

That could be done in association with another of the Government's cherished projects. I refer to the activation of the voluntary sector. Your Lordships will have seen the document Make a Difference and the resources being put by the Government into the voluntary sector. There are voluntary agencies working in the maintenance area. I have the honour to be president of the Upkeep Trust,

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which is a very small body which has a large effect by training housing associations and local authority officials in the diagnosis of maintenance needs and the management of maintenance. It also seeks to educate the private home-owning public in elementary matters such as emptying gutters before you start getting wet rot in the ends of your roof. That sort of effort can, at minimal cost, have a very considerable effect on the cost of maintaining our housing stock. Therefore, it adds to its value and consequently to the resources available for new and refurbished dwellings, which is what this debate is about.

I hope that my noble friend will not be rattled by the attack of the noble Lord, Lord Williams, on the thesis that you have to control capital expenditure from public sources in order to control inflation. I believe the Government have got it right and I hope they continue.

4.21 p.m.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford: My Lords, as distinct from the noble Lord, Lord Elton, who observed that my noble friend Lord Dean of Beswick, sitting as he is on the Opposition Benches, could not be expected to give the Government undue credit, I fully expected the noble Lord, Lord Elton, to give the Government undue credit. However, if ever a government were not due any credit on housing, it is the present Government. The housing market—housing for people in general—is in crisis in this country. I bring in support of my argument statistics of just yesterday in Scotland and of today in relation to the whole of the United Kingdom. Yesterday, the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations, in conjunction with Shelter, published the findings of a survey carried out on their behalf by Gallup showing that nine out of every 10 respondents put housing higher than health and education on their list of concerns. In other words, housing is now people's greatest concern. That is manifesting itself in all sorts of situations over the length and breadth of Scotland.

In your Lordships' House today we were given a response on the question of the increased number of house owners suffering from the ever-growing disease of negative equity. The number has increased, on the Government's own figures, by 200,000. When I hear the noble Lord, Lord Harding, say, "Well, some people are going to lose their house this year and unfortunately nothing can be done about it" it takes me back to my political roots. Housing is now, as it always has been and always will be, a social question. Therefore it will need a government with a social conscience to deal with the problem. I give one further statistic, published the day before yesterday by the Scottish Council for Single Homeless. Every day of every week five elderly people join the homeless queue. When, at a press conference, it was asked what was meant by elderly people, the age group given was 60 to 80 years of age.

That is a new dimension of homelessness. We have always taken the view that homelessness was a major problem among young to middle-aged people. Yet in Scotland—I do not know the figure for England—five elderly people every day of every week join the homeless queue. That is an absolute scandal: in 1995 no government should try to defend that position. The problem has arisen because the Government do not believe in social housing. Indeed their whole objective

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since being elected in 1979 has been to remove housing from the control of local authorities. I am sorry that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford is not with us now because in many ways that was the wrong reason for setting up the housing associations. The Government are using housing associations—in Scotland, through the vehicle of Scottish Homes—to remove houses from the control of local authorities. The evidence exists. The noble Earl the Minister will know that when Scottish Homes, formerly the Scottish Special Housing Association, comes to dispose of its stock it fights might and main to stop local authorities being on the ballot paper as an option for a tenant transferring a house. There is only one instance that I know of in Scotland where a local authority has been included on the ballot paper as an option.

So we have this major problem. It is easy to identify, but I share with the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, the belief that we have to modernise the existing housing stock. Yes, we need new build. I leave to my economist friend on the Front Bench the job of demolishing the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Elton, regarding the capital sums that local authorities have and how they should be used. We certainly need new build but we also need to modernise the existing housing stock. Some of that housing stock, built in a hurry for perfectly good reasons at the end of the Second World War, is now in a bad state of repair and desperately in need of modernisation and of upgrading.

We need to allow local authorities to be involved in new build. I support the housing associations in what they are doing, although I have one reservation about them. That concerns what I describe as the gap site developments. Some of the sites that housing associations have been given to build houses on are simply not suitable for the building of houses. I see that in Kirkcaldy every day as I pass a development at a busy traffic junction. The only advantage is that you can plug your standard lamp into the traffic lights. It really is not on for housing associations to be given difficult gap sites on which to build houses. That is just storing up problems for the future.

There is a serious shortage of housing for people with disabilities. We need to concentrate much more on barrier-free housing. I know of patients being detained in hospital for week upon week upon week because there is not a house to which that patient can be discharged.

My final point relates to the sale of council houses. I shall say something now that I know will not be popular, not even with some of my noble friends. I have never known anything to be so socially divisive in all my political life as the sale of council houses. I have known families who lived happily together for 40 or 50 years but as soon as one member of that family purchased a house they stopped speaking to each other. A six-foot high fence is built and they are away to the council to claim that the driveway is theirs and theirs alone. Lifelong friendships and the social cohesion of communities have been destroyed on this myth of the sale of council houses. I feel that we are talking among ourselves here, and I do not believe that the Government will attempt to solve the

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problem. I hope, however, that when we get a change of government we can make a beginning on the massive job that requires to be done in housing.

4.29 p.m.

Lord Howie of Troon: My Lords, I am extremely glad that my noble friend Lord Dean put down this Motion. Apart from anything else, it gives me the opportunity to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Elton, on a quite remarkable speech. He knows that I hold him in high regard. With his interest in building materials, he gave us a marvellous demonstration of how to make bricks without straw. It also gives me the opportunity to draw attention to an impending construction disaster. It is that London Underground proposes to line the Thames Tunnel between Wapping and Rotherhithe with concrete. That is unnecessary. It is a desecration of a remarkable historic monument. It was the first underwater tunnel in the world, engineered by Marc Brunel, a British engineer, with his son, Isambard Brunel, as a site engineer. The tunnel has been listed as a Grade 2* monument. In a Written Question I have asked that there should be a public inquiry before the work is permitted to go ahead.

The planning director of the London Docklands Development Corporation has justified the passing to the Secretary of State of the application to do the work in the following words:

    "The Tunnel requires repair and is potentially unsafe. Furthermore, it leaks. This was confirmed by the panel of independent and eminent engineers appointed by English Heritage".
That was in a letter to the New Civil Engineer, a magazine with which I have been associated for the past 20 years, as many noble Lords will be aware. But it is not true. The tunnel does not leak. What the eminent engineers appointed by English Heritage said was:

    "In our opinion the Tunnel is in remarkably good condition for its age of 152-169 years and with considerable reserves of strength, even against accidental damage".
This is the important bit:

    "With normal periodical maintenance, we believe that, under present usage, it can be expected to have a further life of comparable length".
That is, the eminent engineers think that the tunnel can last for another 150 years with normal maintenance and without the extravagant lining which London Underground proposes.

I shall say just one more thing about that. I said that I had put down a Written Question. About half an hour ago I received the Answer from the noble Earl, Lord Lindsay, who is sitting listening attentively to me. The Answer is:

    "Very careful consideration is currently being given to whether the application should be called in for determination by Her Majesty's Government. It would not, therefore, be appropriate to comment on whether a public inquiry should be held".
I understand that, and I thank the noble Earl for that reply. I sincerely hope that when consideration is given to calling in the application the Secretary of State will decide that it should be called in.

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