Orders of the Day — Homeless People (London)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 15th July 1971.

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Photo of Mr John Grant Mr John Grant , Islington East 12:00 am, 15th July 1971

I begin by taking up the point made by the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Selwyn Gummer), who referred to the social deprivation caused by bad housing conditions. We are talking about a crisis in housing. It is a long-standing one, but a crisis none the less. Decent housing will do more than anything else ultimately to achieve the reduction in spending on the social services which the Government are so anxious to make.

If we had decent housing, it would help alleviate the problems of crime and delinquency, those of wrecked marriages and ill-health, and probably the prejudices which are aroused by the inequalities caused by bad housing conditions. It would be interesting to know, for example, how many of the man-hours and how much of the productivity lost can be traced back to the root cause of bad housing.

The plain fact is that we do not spend enough of our gross national product on housing. In this respect we compare badly with other countries. I think it would be very much in line with the Government's "one nation" theme to free us from the kind of injustices which we have heard described in the debate.

I cannot accept the Government's line about subsidies only for those in need as the way to keep down our overall expenditure on housing. That seems to be the message of the White Paper which will be discussed next week. If the Government want to provide decent homes for all those in need at a price which they can afford, they cannot contemplate cutting back on the overall figure of expenditure for housing. We must spend more. It is no answer to say that we cannot afford it. I do not believe that we can afford not to do it.

The Minister said that the Inner London boroughs should gain considerably from the new subsidies for slum clearance. I hope that that will prove to be the case. We shall see. But the vast majority of council house tenants, certainly in my constituency, will face rocketing rent rises as a result of the policies which the Government are anxious to pursue. I think that is the path to further inflation, which they have pledged to curb. I share the view that cash aid through subsidies alone cannot solve the problems of the Inner London boroughs.

I should like to give one or two examples of overcrowding. The Greve Report referred to Islington as having the highest proportion of families in London in shared accommodatoin—57·4 per cent. I regard it as a scandal and an indictment of this nation and of Governments past and present that that situation should still be prevalent in 1971.

A recent survey in North-East Islington, which took in part of my constituency, Highbury, has been published by Shelter. It was the work of one of the local community workers. That survey showed that only 43 per cent. of the households surveyed had their own hot water and only 18 per cent. had an inside lavatory. That, again, helps to illustrate the gravity and seriousness of the problem in that part of London. I do not believe that any solution or, at best, only a partial solution, is to be found within the framework of the White Paper, whatever it may say about subsidies for slum clearance and for council and private tenants.

We come back to the problem of the chronic shortage and price of land, which was particularly stressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. John Fraser). In passing, I should like to mention a subject which I hope that the Minister will take up in his reply. My borough council is gravely concerned about the current handicap of the building cost yardstick because it believes that it is impeding its own housing efforts.

I should also like to mention the series which has been running in the Evening News called "Heartbreak Homes". It has been an excellent series based on Pimlico, but I have a similar problem currently obtaining in Canonbury where long-established tenants are under considerable pressure to quit their homes which are then sold at inflated prices or let at much higher rents. Either way, the tenants who will occupy those properties will not be from the low-income groups in the borough ; they will be people coming in from outside who are able and willing to pay the kind of profits which landlords and private developers are seeking. The lower-income group tenants in that area who might otherwise qualify for the Government's new rebate scheme will not get a sniff at it. I hope that the Minister will bear that point in mind. These landlords may not be in breach of the law, but they are doing nothing to ease the pressure on housing in my borough.

The Greve Report pointed out that there was no coherence in London housing. It mentioned that homelessness in Inner London was up by 156 per cent. in eight years and that the Inner London problem was utterly out of line with anything happening throughout the rest of Britain.

I come back to the suggestion in the Greve Report of a central housing agency, which many hon. Members have supported. I think that is right. The Minister should set up such a body without further delay and give it powers to direct specific local authorities to build in certain areas—particularly outer London areas. I make no bones about it. I believe that encouragement has manifestly failed over a long period. Therefore, we must have compulsory methods to get the Outer London boroughs to accept their proper share of responsibility for London's housing problems.

The Prime Minister had a great deal to say before the General Election about "one nation". I take it that that included housing. I have not heard him say very much, if anything, about housing since the election. That may be because he represents an Outer London, not an Inner London, borough. If he really wants to get to grips with this problem and achieve one nation, he might make a start by making one nation out of both Inner and Outer London.