Housing

Part of Orders of the Day — Supply – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 21st June 1978.

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Photo of Mr John Sever Mr John Sever , Birmingham, Ladywood 12:00 am, 21st June 1978

The main reason which prompted me to join the Labour Party, while I was still a schoolboy, centered around my view of the housing situation in Birmingham. At that time, capitalism's unacceptable face was in evidence everywhere. We had urban squalor, housing overcrowding, slums, condemned notices stuck on to rows of miserable streets which were long overdue for the bulldozer, Rachmanism, and little immediate hope for those in greatest need living in the courtyards and alleyways of our central areas.

The philosophy of the Labour Party was, and fortunately remains, that it should demand, and when in office work for, the provision of a home for every family provided by either the public or private sectors at a cost which could reasonably be afforded. During my maiden speech to the House, I made considerable reference to the problems confronting many of my constituents, with particular regard to housing and environmental matters. It is on those subjects that I have attempted to show a particular interest in my work in this place.

Within the Ladywood constituency—indeed, within the Ladywood ward itself—I have a situation where to the best of my knowledge no families are living in owner-occupation. There are all, save for a very small number who are tenants of private landlords, within accommodation owned by the local authority. That area was selected by the city council, along with four others, to be one of Birmingham's original post-war redevelopment areas. That redevelopment is now virtually complete. Only the unknowing or the ill-advised would disagree that as a result of that development my city remedied some of the poorest housing conditions in Britain.

In so doing, it was of the utmost importance to provide a great volume of municipal housing, and, in accord with the fashion of the times, large, impersonal high-rise flatted developments were under taken. In some neighbourhoods, the densities of habitable rooms to the acre were from 100 to 150, and even 200-plus in one extreme case.

Now, 20 years later, local social workers, housing officers, councillors, the present hon. Member for Birmingham, Lady-wood and previous Members of Parliament have concluded that that situation should be improved upon and that the situation of people living in that sort of density is unacceptable. In the light of our experience, some of those schemes now seem in some respects to have been ill advised.

Modern thinking leads many, including Ministers, to the conclusion that a density of about 60 habitable rooms to the acre is now the level that we should aim for. Birmingham and other authorities are being encouraged to develop housing at that density.

From those, including myself, who live in the inner city areas, there is a demand for environmental improvements, which will be undertaken only with great difficulty. For example, given that too many people live in too small an area, the need for open space, leisure facilities, sport and recreation is apparent. But the overriding difficulty is that no development space is available for these provisions, save in what now, in modern times, are regarded as small infill sites.

Local tenants' groups such as those in my constituency feel frustrated—justifiably—about the demands for improvements made upon them by local residents when at the same time all the land which would have been available has been used up and little is left on which the sort of environmental and leisure facility improvements which are demanded can be situated. Therefore, those municipal tenants seek tranfers to more satisfactory housing, which, paradoxically, often means properties far older than those they seek to leave.

The attraction of these older, often pre-war, houses is that they have gardens back and front in which their children can play, generally lower rents which they can more readily afford and a neighbourhood which will probably have a better allocation of open space and parks. The hopes and dreams of families desperately waiting to transfer to such housing are being dashed against the rocks of despair by the present, though temporary, Tory administration in Birmingham, through its policy of selling off the very properties to which these people seek to transfer.

Every corporation-owned house sold means that those waiting on the application lists for a first home have a longer wait, particularly if they are looking for a house, and that those on the transfer list living in high-rise developments will have to wait longer for a home of their choice.

I welcome the modifications made by my right hon. Friend to the structure plan. The plans were drawn up after considerable investigation in the various metropolitan areas. Birmingham's was the result of a lengthy process, which produced a worthwhile plan. My right hon. Friend has amended it, first, to show that the city should specify the general location of the major areas for residential development. That is long overdue, but the snag is that in the past two or three years the 20-acre sites referred to in structure plans have virtually dried up. The city has few such sites for development and most of the areas available when the list was compiled have now gone. I ask Ministers to look again at the problems of big cities in relation to available sites.

Secondly, my right hon. Friend has said that a policy related to the incorporation of housing in city centres should be considered favourably. That is obviously in line with the general proposal that life should come back to the centres of the big cities. Where it exists, very often the lack of leisure facilities and other amenities also exists. If we are to bring life back to city centres, we shall have to provide not only the housing but the general environmental facilities.

Birmingham's structure plan calls for the provision of about 38,000 dwellings in the area of the former county borough of Birmingham in the period 1971–81. The city is falling slowly behind that figure. With the details so far known, I suspect that the years 1981–86, which are the remaining years covered by he structure plan, will not see the development of the balance—8,000 or 10,000 houses—for which the plan called.

It is likely that the city will shortly be blessed again with a Labour administration, who will of course step up the housing programme. In the interests of those languishing on the housing lists now—who, to the best of my information, now number 11,500 for applications and 29,000 for transfers—who will obviously see their opportunity come along, I therefore welcome the observations in paragraph 12.2 of the Secretary of State's submission to the Secretary of the West Midlands County Council. It refers particularly to the exchange arrangements which should be available in the area covered by the county plan. The Secretary of State says: Structure plans should allow scope for the provision of a range of house types and tenures taking full account of the contribution that can be made by the voluntary housing movement. The policy on densities should help to ensure that the Plan has the necessary flexibility. The Secretary of State further agrees with the Panel that housing management measures could help to reduce the housing problems in the Six Plans area by minimising under occupation and by such measures as improved exchange arrangements for tenants in public sector housing both within and between housing authorities. But these are not strategic land use matters requiring his approval in the individual structure plans. Therefore, there will be considerable local flexibility in the administration of exchanges and transfers. It is to that end that many people look to local authorities like Birmingham to do something for their particularly difficult housing cases.

Environment and Housing Ministers have greatly assisted those in Ladywood and similar inner city areas by calling upon housing authorities to produce submissions for the housing investment programmes. Birmingham's submission says that 100,000 dwellings—almost 30 per cent. of the stock—were built before the First World War and that there are now 50,000 substandard dwellings. It is to these matters that I am sure Ministers will give attention when considering the housing investment programmes for the big cities.

I think that Ministers have realised the importance of extending the consumer demand in housing and, I hope, will adopt a flexible approach, offering public and private tenants the widest possible choice of options in home provision.

Paragraph 12.1 of the housing Green Paper says: There are quite large numbers of people who may face special difficulties in getting suitable housing. They include lower income households, homeless people, one parent families, battered women, the physically disabled, the mentally ill and mentally handicapped, old people, single people, mobile workers, ethnic minorities. In the last analysis, the effectiveness of any national housing policy and local housing strategy is likely to be judged by how far it helps those facing the most pressing housing problems. I am confident that this Government will continue to bear in mind those observations when they formulate a future housing policy. In so doing they will maintain the confidence and support not only of my right hon. and hon. Friends but of the British people.