Housing (Luton)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 27th January 1976.

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Photo of Mr Brian Sedgemore Mr Brian Sedgemore , Luton West 12:00 am, 27th January 1976

This may be one of the last occasions on which I shall address you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in your present capacity—at least, I hope so.

Like most other industrial towns, Luton has an acute housing crisis. Because it is a growth town and because the pressures from outside—as well as from inside—are tremendous, the crisis grows worse. Ten years ago there were 2,723 applicants on Luton's housing waiting list. In those 10 years 3,568 houses have been built by the council. Yet today there are 4,000 applicants on the waiting list. The tragedy is that every week of the year another 10 families are added to that waiting list. Every week some of those families come to my surgery, their despair matched only by my own.

Some of the young women who come to my surgery literally break down into tears when one tells them the awful truth—that they have no chance in the foreseeable future of a home for themselves or their families.

One of the main problems is not finance. It is land. The land situation in Luton is moving from the desperate to the catastrophic. The chief planner of Luton tells me—some will find it hard to believe—that between now and 1991 Luton is likely to need land for 30,000 dwellings. Even in theory there is enough land for only 6,000 dwellings. In practice there probably is not more than enough for 3,000 dwellings.

That means that, in the long run, development will have to take place outside Luton—to the south, at East Hyde, and into Hertfordshire. If development takes place outside Luton, I hope that it takes place in the immediate vicinity and not miles away in such places as Flitwick and North Bedfordshire.

All this is in the future. There is an immediate crisis. Some of those families want relief, and want it in the near future. The Minister for Planning and Local Government can help us, and help us now, because he has before him an application by the Luton District Council to build homes for 300 families at Pastures Way, on Lewsey Farm, in Luton. It has come to the Minister as a departure from the development plan. The Luton District Council is supported by the Labour group on the County Council, by the Chairman of the County Council Planning Committee, Councillor Blowers, and—even more important—by the overwhelming majority of the people of Luton.

The only people against that development are the combustible squirearchy of Bedfordshire and a few local Liberals. The Minister should not worry very much about Bedfordshire's squirearchy. They do not care and they do not know. Their hopes, dreams and aspirations are light years away from the hopes, dreams and aspirations of the working people of Luton.

I do not think the Minister should worry too much about Luton's local Liberals who, in the words of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment—the hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. Oakes)—last night, have waged a "peevish, petty Poujadist" campaign against the homeless in Luton, not because they are interested in the environment or green belt but because they think there is a chance of winning votes in the elections in May.

They have played on the feelings of the people who live at Lewsey Farm, but they have received no support whatsoever. They cannot get anybody to come forward and object to the building of homes on this land, because the people on Lewsey Farm are decent people who are prepared to worry about the problems of others. They are not prepared to attack the homeless, and have not done so. They welcome the building of houses on this piece of land.

The only serious argument I have heard is that it would mean building on the green wedge which exists between Luton and Dunstable. I could understand that argument if Luton and Dunstable were a large conurbation from which it was difficult to reach the countryside, but it cannot take anybody 10 minutes to get out to the countryside. Most of the people who live in that area can literally see the countryside from where they stand at any given moment.

Equally, this piece of land is not the sort of land that should be preserved for a green belt. It is nondescript and inaccessible to the public. No one could claim that there is over-development in this area. There is a sports complex and a school in Pastures Way in Luton. This is the sort of land which should be used for housing. I favour the green belt, but an artificial argument has been constructed around it in this case.

I leave the Minister with this thought from the leader of the Luton district council, Councillor Lines. He says that every time he drives past this bit of land on the motorway he can only smile at the thought that it is green belt land for the enjoyment of the people. I agree with him.

One of the outstanding actions of this Government has been to reintroduce local democracy into housing, and it is important. The people of Luton are grateful that it has been done It can have an effect on rents in Luton. The Government have been very generous in giving subsidies so that councils can hold their rent increases to 60p, but they have left councils the discretion to fix their rents even lower if they wish. I believe that the Labour council in Luton will fight for lower rents. I believe that rent increases will be half that, and possibly even less. If that happens, I hope that the Minister will say that that is what local democracy is about, that Luton's councillors have the right to do that, and that he will support them.

In this case, I think that we can get well below the 60p and be fair both to council tenants and to ratepayers. The chairman of the Finance Committee, Councillor Lewis, and the Chairman of the Housing Committee, Councillor Kennedy, have the skill and ingenuity to pick a figure which is fair to tenants and to ratepayers. But we need the support of the Minister in this kind of action.

I find it almost unbelievable that the Luton News, a non-political paper, in a non-political article written only last week by the sister of a Liberal county councillor, Councillor Larkman, should print the following: If there's one thing guaranteed to get my back up it's people who think the world, or more particularly their local council, owe them something.Just think of council house tenants. Most of them are a darn sight better off than people who have the guts and independence to rent privately or buy property. Most council houses have central heating. Their tenants usually own at least one car. Many have a telly—probably colour—and go abroad annually for their holidays.A three-bedroomed council house with central heating in Farley Hill costs £6·14 a week in rent, exclusive of rates. A similar house rented privately would be up to £30 a week.Council housing is a great idea—for people who really can't afford to buy or rent their own place. But if tenants can afford luxuries like cars, expensive holidays and a telly they shouldn't be living a life of ease at the expense of more conscientious ratepayers. And how many couples are there living in three- or four-bedroomed houses, even though their families are grown up and have left the house.Why don't the council introduce a policy of moving the couples into smaller flats when there is no need for them to have a house. And why don't young couples who move into a council house soon after their marriage make any effort to save up for a deposit on a house of their own? Surely, council property should be regarded as a stop-gap and not as an end in itself. So, you wealthy tenants—pull your fingers out, get off your backsides and help yourselves. That is not a legitimate view based on fact. It is an illegitimate expression of prejudice and hate based on ignorance, and it echoes the views of precisely the kind of people who want to deny that land at Lewsey's Farm to the homeless. I say to the Minister, "Give us a decision. Give us a quick decision. Give us a firm decision."