Orders of the Day — Housing (Wales)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 16th January 1974.

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4.48 a.m.

Photo of Mr Neil Kinnock Mr Neil Kinnock , Bedwellty

I am very glad that the Secretary of State for Wales is gracing this debate with his presence. He has made frequent appearances here in the last 10 hours or so—unlike that gentleman of Hereford who in the circumstances does not perhaps curse himself for being in bed with 'flu. In other circumstances, of course, the Minister of State might have been here, but personally I am glad in any case to see the Secretary of State.

It is unfortunate that the subject of the debate, a subject of vital interest to my constituency, has to be raised against the background of the miners' dispute—I represent a mining constituency—and many other problems which afflict our society in general. The one matter of universal concern to Bedwellty and the valleys of South Wales is that of housing. It affects everybody. It seeps into every home in the constituency. It affects people of all ages and all income brackets. I have old-age pensioners who yearn for purpose-built bungalows they know they will probably never have.

There are improvement grant applicants who are despairing that their improvements will ever be completed ; private house buyers who dread the continually rising mortgage rates ; council house tenants facing rent rises as a result of the Housing Finance Act with increasing hopelessness, since they sometimes take as much as £5 or £6 from their restricted pay packets ; leaseholders infuriated by the manufactured delays by ground landlords who simply refuse to come into line with the Leasehold Reform Act.

There are NCB tenants who have lived in mining villages for 40 years and are becoming increasingly depressed by the decay that they see in their communities. This is not directly to be blamed on the Estates Department of the NCB, which operates on limited resources, but it means that what were model villages when they were built in the 'twenties and' thirties would, but for the efforts of tenants, have become derelict slums a long time ago.

Most directly and heart-breakingly, there is the problem of the young marrieds, or the young engaged couples who face the hopeless prospect of beginning married life without a home and, even worse, without the hope of having their own home. Superlatives are frequently used in this place, but to try to articulate the fear and despair felt among these people, I can only say that I leave my surgeries emotionally drained after facing young couples completely bewildered by the fact that in 1974 there is absolutely no prospect, as relatively prosperous, sometimes highly-trained young people, of their having their own home within two or three or even four or five years.

To face those young people, frequently of my own age or a couple of years younger, some of them with similar family responsibilities to my own, and to try to communicate with them that it is not the council's fault or that I as an MP can be of no direct assistance, when they have already been to the mortgage company or the bank manager and found the doors locked in their faces and learned that there is no question of a public or private house being put at their disposal for years to come, is a harrowing experience for those who have to give them that kind of news, and it must be a disastrous experience for them.

The frequency with which these cases come to my notice amounts to tens if not scores of times a week and must have amounted to hundreds over the three and a half years that I have represented this constituency, as a consequence of the continuance of two Government policies. The first is the stagnation of council house building in my area as a result of a reduction in subsidies, a refusal to stimulate local authority housing and house building and, of course, the imposition of a totally unrealistic housing cost yardstick.

These are complicated issues. They are not the stuff of Saturday morning surgeries, but in trying to explain their predicament to them, these are the things that I have to tell my constituents. Perhaps the Secretary of State will be able to provide me with some novel approaches to this problem, so that these young people can begin to understand why they cannot have a council house in the reasonably near future.

The other policy that has contributed to the deep crisis faced by the people of my constituency is the benevolent neutrality with which the Government have regarded the fantastic rise in house prices over the last three and a half years.

These policies—or in some cases the lack of policies—have meant that the combined council house waiting list of people who want houses right now, who are without reasonable accommodation of any kind, numbers over 800 names between the four urban district councils in my constituency. One council cannot undertake before 1978 to house people who go on to the waiting list now. The very best area has a housing list with a two-year wait. When the authorities come together on 1st April to form Myniddislwyn Council the problems of the worst areas will be imported into the areas which are relatively free from problems.

Not only will there be the difficulties arising from overcrowding, multi-occupation, split families and domestic quarrels, but the prospect of a divided community, with people claiming preference on the basis of being born and raised in a particular village. Those are the prospects in the public housing sector.

In the private housing sector in 1970 a modern three-bedroomed semi-detached house on one of the small estates in my constituency cost between £3,500 and £4,200, dependent on the situation of the house. This week, in 1974, that same house would cost between £7,500 and £8,000. In 1970 a three-bedroomed terraced house—rather romantically called a miner's cottage—cost between £500 and £1,200, dependent on its size and situation. Now, even the meanest three-bedroomed terrace house in my constituency in the remotest area would cost £2,500 and at the southern end of the constituency, in Risca and Cross Keys, which are becoming part of Newport's commuter belt, there is not a house for sale under £4,500, regardless of its state of dereliction and lack of modern amenities. To compound the situation there is no council house building, and private building has dried up to a trickle. Those builders who have made fat profits for the last three-and-a-half-years are sitting in their well-lined nests disregarding the needs of the community from which they have made a fine living in the recent past.

Youngsters have to face price inflation, the lack of council houses, the prospect of a long wait and high council house rents caused by the Housing Finance Act. That is why there is an increased demand for private housing. Three years ago there was an apparently limitless supply of 50-, 60- and 70-year old terraced accommodation. Because of the demand that supply has now virtually dried up, and with that process has come the fantastic increase in prices.

All houses have been put beyond the range of workers in my constituency by price inflation. For example, a top-paid miner earns £37.50 per week on the day shift and £44 a week if he works nights regularly. That means that he could, theoretically, raise a mortgage of £5,000 which would involve him in monthly payments of about £50 or weekly payments of £12.50. No one can afford to pay £12·50 a week for his house on a wage of £37·50 or £44. That is the kind of average pay being earned in my constituency.

People cannot afford any kind of private accommodation so they turn to the council and find that there are no council houses. The councils are apologetic. They explain the reasons why there is no housing and the reasons for the length of the waiting list. Then, when some form of accommodation is found, with a generous relative, with all the risks attached to that, the council has to explain to the sub-tenant that overcrowding must not take place or he will have to be evicted. They have to explain that sub-tenancy is a fragile protection and that it will die when the main tenant dies or leaves the district. The family dare not move from that area, even by 100 yards, for fear of disqualifying itself from any chance of getting council housing in the area in future.

These young people have fallen into the housing trap. A few years ago we spoke of a new phenomenon called the poverty trap. Here, because of the conjunction of Government policies and market forces working in a direction directly contrary to the interests of the community, these people have fallen into the housing trap. They start married life in the trap and it requires an armourplated marriage to survive the trials of those early years. Many homes are broken even before they have been made.

Obviously most couples survive those years but far too many end their marriages within a few years for no other reason than that they share their homes, living with parents and relatives. They are ultimately unwanted, quarrels break out and there is domestic crisis. One or other of the partners leaves. Perhaps there are children, who are deserted and left with grandparents. The whole business of delinquency and illness starts. In my constituency the root of delinquency and illness lies in inadequate housing accommodation. It is not like illnesses of previous years, which came from insanitary conditions, overcrowding and slums. It is a result of the mental strain that derives from the fact that people have no adequate housing. That is the cost we are paying for leaving the business of housing people to the market, for not protecting people by public expenditure, for disregarding the needs of the community.

Many of the people falling into this category are, as I have said, young people. Their whole view of life, society, the country, their representatives, of the whole business of democracy, without any exaggeration, is tainted even before, in some cases, they have voted. It is a consequence of society being unable to provide them with the one thing they need to make a perfect life, somewhere to live.

The councils are now reaching a point as hopeless as that of the would-be tenant. They have a deep feeling of inadequacy. They have strictly to apply their tenancy rules, even at the risk of seeming inhuman, to provide a measure of fairness of treatment. They have to evict a sub-tenant because she is overcrowding her mother's home. This strict application of the rules has been forced on the councils by the inadequacy of Government policy. It makes them angry when they know that they are bearing the brunt of public criticism and carrying all the responsibility for inadequate housing in their areas when it is not their fault. To add to that they have the ignominy of having to enforce fair rents which they have played no part in fixing and against which they cannot appeal.

I believe that there is no answer from the private sector to the crisis that we face. In proportionate terms, the crisis in my own area is comparable to that in the great cities. It is the basis of delinquency and illness. It has the effect of deprivation that the removal of any basic necessity has in a modern society.

These are the homes of the kids who go wrong and of the married couples who end up in the divorce courts. They know cruelty, conflict and mental illness. That is the price that we pay for not having a civilised housing policy.

In the last generation, when a crisis of this nature was recognised, emergency action was taken. I was brought up in a prefabricated bungalow. Sadly, those bungalows in Tredegar are still standing, 17 years after they were supposed to be knocked down. At the time, they met a desperate social need. But action of that kind will not solve the problem in the long term. We need a massive commitment to public housing-building. That is the only way to root out from the start the several other ills which are bound to afflict our society.

5.6 a.m.

Photo of Mr Peter Thomas Mr Peter Thomas , Hendon South

The hon. Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock) quoted from Henry V when he referred to my hon. Friend the Minister of State as a gentleman in England now abed. My hon. Friend is truly in bed, I hope only temporarily indisposed. But I feel sure that he does not feel himself accursed that he is not here. In any event, I am delighted to take his place.

In the course of this Second Reading of the Consolidated Fund Bill, we have already had a debate on housing in Wales, so perhaps I might borrow another quotation from the same play and say that I am happy once more to go into the breach.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I reply only briefly to his many points, the hour being late. He spoke first of the waiting lists in his constituency and of what he referred to as the stagnation of council house building. He will realise that a housing programme cannot be completed overnight to satisfy today's demand. The necessary housing programmes should have been instituted three or four years ago.

The Government's recent activities in housing have been directed to ensuring that adequate programmes are in hand to meet current and future needs. There are grounds for optimism. The number of house-building schemes approved at tender stage by the Welsh Office for 1973 is more than twice that for 1972 and the highest figure since 1969.

The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that we have never restricted the number of houses which an authority might wish to provide. Even on cost control, that much maligned instrument the housing cost yardstick, rendered more flexible by the special market allowance which we introduced in November 1972, has not impeded progress. The number of cases where the Welsh Office has had to refuse approval for a scheme on cost grounds can be counted on the fingers of one hand. I mean that to be taken literally, since the figure is in fact four, and the reasons for refusal were explained.

The hon. Gentleman will recall that housing has been specifically excluded from the recent cut-back in expenditure on public sector programmes which was announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer last month.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about inadequate National Coal Board houses. I do not know the circumstances in his constituency. The normal improvement procedures apply to National Coal Board houses as to any other houses. The improvement of National Coal Board houses is proceeding and substantial numbers have been improved. In some areas the local authorities have taken over National Coal Board houses, on agreed terms, and have improved them. I hope that every opportunity will be taken to keep up the improvement of NCB houses. I cannot at the moment see that any measures additional to those already available are called for.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the concern of the aged in his constituency. About one in four or five of applications for building approval reaching the Welsh Office is for special housing for the elderly. We attach great importance to this aspect of housing and encourage local authorities to plan for the elderly.

Last September I opened an admirable housing scheme in Rhymney. Cardiff opened its first scheme last week. Three of the building schemes which won awards in the Welsh housing design competition for 1973 were especially for the elderly. Those were schemes at Llan-sannan, Llanerchymedd and Abercarn. This is an important part of our housing policy. We certainly give every encouragement to local authorities to plan for housing for the elderly.

The hon. Gentleman referred briefly to improvement grants. He will appreciate that I have already dealt with this matter in an earlier debate. Therefore, I hope that he will forgive me if I do not go into the subject again. I went into it in some detail yesterday evening.

The cost of private housing is important. The hon. Gentleman was right to lay stress on that matter. The Government are doing all that they can, in consultation with the building industry, to control the cost of house building. To help the intending purchaser who is confronted with high house prices, the Government have taken steps to make mortgages more readily available. Option mortgage relief limits have been extended. Discussions with the building societies have had beneficial results, and plans are in hand for special assistance to be given to low-income purchasers.

The hon. Gentleman referred to leaseholds. I do not know whether he has any special point in mind which is not already covered by the Leasehold Reform Act provisions that he outlined. Remedies for disagreements over price and for delay on the part of the freeholder are prescribed in the Act. I can only suggest that any of his constituents who feel aggrieved should consult professional advisers on the position.

Fair rents have been debated again and again over the last two years. I think that the problems are grossly exaggerated. The system of fair rents as a whole is designed to be equitable across the board and to remove anomalies between one local authority and another and one tenant and another. No tenant needs to suffer hardship because his rent is increased under the Act. Rent rebates are generous enough to ensure this. Indeed, some tenants pay less because of the rebates. I have found that, despite some of the suggestions which are made, the Act is operating reasonably well in Wales.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will acquit me of discourtesy if I have not covered all the many points that he raised. I do not think that he heard the previous debate when I went into more detail and said that the Government have carried through a wide-ranging housing programme and have laid the foundations for further development in future. The measures that we have already taken are to be strongly reinforced by the further powers that are proposed in the forthcoming legislation that will be laid before the House in a very short time.

The encouraging figures of house-building programmes planned by local authorities, which I mentioned, indicate that we can look forward to a period of increasing housing supply. This is a very important subject and a matter of great concern to everyone in public life, and I know that we are indebted to the hon. Member for Bedwellty for raising the matter so clearly tonight.