Orders of the Day — Housing Subsidies

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 4th December 1974.

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Photo of Mr Timothy Renton Mr Timothy Renton , Mid Sussex 12:00 am, 4th December 1974

In the Supplementary Estimates, under Class VII, Vote 1, Section A, we are asked to vote an additional £196 million for grants to local authorities, development corporations and housing associations for housing purposes. It is about the inadequacy of that very large additional vote to meet the housing needs and housing crisis in Britain that I wish to speak.

When I made my maiden speech some months ago, in replying an hon. Member from the Government Front Bench said that he wished that his constituency had the same problems as mine. I appreciate the validity of that comment. We are very lucky in Sussex. It is a fortunate part of the country. But, none the less, we have a very substantial housing problem in which the difficulties of the young childless couple, or of the boy or girl who leaves his or her family and comes to my area for the first time to get a job, or the increase in the number of homeless in the area contrast starkly with the general prosperity of the South East. It is the prosperity which makes the position of these people worse because, naturally, that prosperity leads to higher prices for houses and flats than is normal in the rest of the country.

The housing situation in the South-East has become so bad that a few weeks ago our local paper ran as its headline a quotation from a speech made by the noble Lord, the Earl of March, president of the Sussex Rural Community Council, who said: Housing in Sussex is in a state of near disaster. It is about the total lack of success by the Government in dealing with this housing crisis that I shall speak.

First, I should like to touch on housing associations. In the circular put out by the Department of the Environment in April this year, in paragraph 38 the Department stated: The Secretaries of State believe that the voluntary housing movements has an important part to play in meeting housing needs in collaboration with local authorities. I fully support that statement. It is by the use of the voluntary housing movement that charitable funds and the free giving by people of both their time and money can be channelled into the most important basic social need of all—the provision of housing.

Two new housing associations have come into being recently in my area to deal with a new problem of homeless-ness that did not exist some years ago. These new housing associations are floundering in a mass of red tape.

One of those housing associations, a registered charity and friendly society, has raised £14,500 in the last year and it is apparently eligible for money either directly from the State or from the local authority. It wrote to the Department of the Environment, which suggested that it contact the local authority.

The association received a welcome in principle from the housing department, but the planners said, "We have a head and a heart. Our heart is with you, but our head is against you." Therefore, after some months, the association is still in negotiation with the local authority and it has not obtained a specific go-ahead for its plans.

The association then wrote to the Housing Corporation, which was charged by the Department of the Environment with the specific duty of aiding housing associations. The advice from the Housing Corporation was that in general it did not exist to encourage the development of new housing associations. As I said, my area is obviously not an area of severe housing stress, but these associations came into existence fairly recently to deal with the growing problem of the young and homeless.

The Housing Corporation said that under Section 13 of the Housing Act 1974 it was duty bound to establish a register of housing associations and that the Housing Association Registration Advisory Committee—a very long and complicated title—had not yet provided the necessary criteria for a voluntary housing movement.

The other new housing association in my constituency is a self-build housing association. Its members have become impatient waiting for council houses, they have been put off by the appalling cost of private houses, and therefore they have decided to try to acquire land to self-build houses themselves. They have received totally different answers from local authorities to the question whether land was available to them. Everyone tells them a different story. Some say that they think they will be able to have land, others say that they will not.

One of my constituents told me last night that they were told to register with the National Federation of Self-Build Housing Associations as an initial step. All that they have found out about that federation is that membership would cost an initial subscription of £50, and they do not wish to pay that money without knowing what they will get for it. So they too, are floundering.

These new housing associations are self-critical They admit that they are amateurish, that they do not know all the rules, but they say that they need a full-time expert to guide them through the complexities of the rules and regulations among the Department of the Environment, the local authority and the Housing Corporation so as to establish just what they are entitled to and how best to obtain it.

I would therefore suggest to the Minister that the HARAC should as soon as possible issue a list of guidelines and crieria for the housing associations to follow. The ordinary voluntary housing association will then know that, if it follows these guidelines, under the Government's auspices it will obtain some money with which to help meet the community's housing needs. Those guidelines could also deal with the funding of the additional costs of welfare work, in which so many housing associations are involved, since many people on low incomes, especially in areas of housing need, bring their social problems as well to the associations.

We should also bear in mind the problems of the young couple moving perhaps to the South East, who would like to buy a house but cannot possibly afford the £10,000 or £12,000 that it would cost. That would mean finding a deposit of £1,000, and having another £1,000 in the bank for furniture. They would have to be on a joint salary of between £3,000 and £4,000. For such people, house prices today put the possibility of owning their own home out of their reach.

Surely for such people, the Government should consider introducing a standard of permanent mobile home which a young couple with £3,000 or £4,000 could afford. In these cases, the initial sum required would be only £700 or £800 and it is likely that their parents would help to meet that initial cost. If such mobile or prefabricated homes, to which additional rooms could be added, were within the price range of £3,000 to £4,000 in total, the young couple would be encouraged to save and be given the possibility of owning a home of their own, which at present would not otherwise be possible.

In a year in which housing starts, both by councils and by private industry, are not likely to exceed 260,000, which will mean the worst year since 1958, it seems sensible to encourage every sector of the industry concerned with providing housing —public or private, rented, furnished or unfurnished. Unfortunately, the Government's Rent Act of 1974 has tragically moved in exactly the opposite direction.

If the Minister does not believe me let me quote from the magazine Time Out, which is not notable for its Right-wing views. Writing about the 1974 Rent Act on 8th November the magazine starts with the words: The 1974 Rent Act has had an apparently disastrous effect on the state of the market for furnished flats and rooms in London. In my constituency there are many good, decent, landlords who have previously rented furnished accommodation and who now feel that because of the security of tenure given to the tenant and the difficulty of getting undesirable tenants out they no longer wish to let accommodation. They do not feel that under the Rent Act, even if they are resident landlords, they are sufficiently protected. I am informed that if a landlord renews a tenancy to a tenant when the landlord is resident—if the tenancy is rolled over several times—a security of tenure will be established which it may be very difficult to remove. The general attitude is therefore to have nothing to do with the provision of furnished accommodation.

The Government should carry out a survey, perhaps using the Central Policy Review Staff, into the decline in furnished accommodation and the tragic rise in the number of homeless associated with its decline. Both of these trends have been accentuated, alas, by the 1974 Act.

In my constituency there is a good deal of short-life housing. Some is owned by local councils, concerned about future road-widening schemes or bypasses. They know that they will need possession of the property for these purposes in two to three years' time. Some of this housing is owned by developers who have permission to erect an office block but who, particularly in the current economic climate, are unlikely to build for many years.

Meanwhile, mainly because of the worry about giving security of tenure, this short-life housing is kept empty. It is not used for any purpose at all. I urge the Government to introduce a system of licences for such housing. These would be for a specific time and there would be no ongoing commitment to a further tenancy. I accept that this is only half a solution, but it provides a roof over the heads of people who might otherwise have none at all.

During the two to three years that people lived in such housing they would be able to work their way up the council list. I appreciate that this idea of licences with no ongoing security of tenure runs contrary to the political dogma of the Government, but it would help some people who are in a critical situation.

I conclude by quoting the words of Des Wilson, when he was Director of Shelter, in 1968. The final paragraph of a memorandum he wrote then reads: When we do comment on housing policies we comment on them from one point of view only—the point of view of the homeless. We try to reflect their wishes, their problems and their needs. Surely the needs of those who are without a roof over their heads is more important than pursuit of political dogma about State ownership of rented property. This dogma neither the country nor the homeless can afford.