Prison Officers' Houses (Clase, Swansea)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:32 pm on 3rd November 1980.

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Photo of Mr Donald Anderson Mr Donald Anderson , Swansea East 8:32 pm, 3rd November 1980

I am glad to have this opportunity to open a short debate on a matter which, in my view, illustrates very well one aspect of the Government's attitude to housing in South Wales, namely, the response of the Welsh Office to the proposed sale of prison officers' houses at Clase in my constituency.

I suggest that the problem is best seen in the context of the overall housing crisis in South Wales. Perhaps we in Wales have become accustomed to low quality housing for too long and have given too little priority to housing as against our perhaps understandable prime concern with the problems of unemployment. Yet more than 15 per cent. of houses in Wales are substandard, compared with 9 per cent. in England. On most indices of unfitness, including those properties built before 1919, Wales comes bottom of the league table for Britain.

Certainly the general housing position has deteriorated under this Government. I commend to the Minister the recent report on this subject by the South Wales chief housing officers group, published in October last year and entitled "A report on the housing financial allocation to housing authorities for 1980–81". This has naught for the comfort of Welsh Office Ministers. The housing officers stress that the housing service in Wales is taking a far greater proportion of the public expenditure cuts than any other service". Indeed, over the period 1980 to 1984 there will be a reduction of 40 per cent. in real terms in housing allocation.

No matter to what sector of our housing we turn—whether it be to public sector housing, private sector housing or the third arm, the housing associations—we see a constantly gloomy picture. The public sector is affected by the cutbacks. In the private sector starts have plummeted over the past year, in part because of the high mortgage interest rates, the general economic situation and the high unemployment in South Wales.

Hardly the most Socialist or radical group in South Wales, the South Wales region of the National Federation of Building Trades Employers, writes to me: The influence of the Government's economic policy is having catastrophic consequences for those firms relying on house-building as their main activity. As was stated, this is particularly true for those firms who have for many years made a major contribution to the house building in the public sector. The forecast in both the Swansea City and Lliw Valley borough councils' HSIPs for the period up to 1984 will inevitably mean some firms will cease to trade. The letter then gives the housing completions in Swansea in the private sector. In 1978–79 they were 398; in 1979–80 they were only just over half that figure, at 208. The comparative figures for the public sector are equally alarming. In 1978–79 there were 205 completions; in 1979–80 there were 156. A little more than 80 are forecast for 1980–81. With that shortfall in both the public building programme and the private building programme, it is hardly surprising that the waiting lists in all of South Wales increased to the present amount—well in excess of 29,000. Homelessness is also on the increase.

As the supply of public sector housing diminishes, because of the public expenditure reductions and the projected sales of council houses as part of the Government's policy, so the demand increases. That is partly for social reasons—the lower household size, which comes from an ageing population, break-ups of families and so on—but also because of the Government's policies, particularly in respect of the worsening unemployment figures in South Wales. All of that leads to defaults on mortgages, with those who default looking to the public sector for housing. This means that fewer can move from the public to the private sector and hence release homes for those on the waiting list. It must be remembered that our percentage of council houses in the total housing stock in Wales is less than 441st in England. For example, in my local authority in Swansea the percentage of council houses in the total housing stock is less than 30.

That is the context. We turn now to the specific problem and its importance for the Swansea housing situation. This is an excellent case study of the Government's ideology ratting on the housing needs of a local community.

The prison department owns 28 houses in Swansea, four of them with four bedrooms and the remainder with three. At the moment 23 are vacant, because prison officers in these days dislike living in compounds and prefer to live in their own accommodation, where they also enjoy rent allowances. So these houses are empty and surplus to the prison department's requirements.

The houses were built in the 1960s and are suitable for family housing. Al-thought they lack central heating, they are roomy, well-maintained and have garages. They are similar to the Swansea council's pre-war parlour-type houses which are among the most popular part of the housing stock of my local. authority.

The Home Office wishes to sell and the Swansea council wishes to buy, but Welsh Office approval is needed. The council wants to buy because these are attractive properties for its needs and because money is available in this financial year due to a projected underspend. That underspend does not arise from incompetent forecasting on behalf of the council. In fact, a scheme to build' about 100 houses on the Graig brickworks site in the same area was 17 per cent. over the housing cost yardstick and had to be abandoned. Those houses would have cost more than £20,000 per unit, compared with the asking price of £10,000 to £12,000 for the prison officers' houses.

Apart from the costs of the Graig brickworks scheme, the financial commitment that would have been necessary for 1981–82 was too large in respect of the uncertainties of the housing allocation that the Welsh Office would make, bearing in mind the fact that this year's allocation by the Welsh Office was not notified to local authorities until February. This tardiness has created substantial programming difficulties for housing authorities. However good reasons, the Swansea council has money available.

The council also has a large and growing waiting list of 2,435 families. One knows the arguments about how artificial waiting lists can be, but it is the view of my housing authority, and also my own personal impression from regular contact with constituents, that this is a real waiting list. It is underlined by the fact that homelessness in the city is a large and growing problem. Swansea is one of the black spots in Wales in this respect. Last year there were over 1,000 inquiries at the homelessness unit.

At £10,000 to £12,000, the prison department properties are good value for the city. The latest figure—in September this year—on a tender basis for two-bedroomed houses is £20,834, compared with £10,000 to £12,000 for these three-and four-bedroomed properties.

It is not surprising, therefore, in the light of that price differential and the large and growing needs of the housing authority, that my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) and I, and the whole city council, including the Conservative councillors, unanimously sought consent from the Welsh Office for the purchase of these houses.

There are a number of additional cogent reasons for that purchase. I have already mentioned the completions in the public sector in Swansea being reduced year by year so that the projected figure for this year is about 88. I have mentioned the state of the private housing market in the city. In effect, it is dead, as a recent deputation from the National Federation of Building Trades Employers underlined to me and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West. On an impressionistic basis, I know of a cheapish house in a popular part of the city that has been on the market for over two months. During that time there have been only two visits and no offers. There are ample building society funds available for prospective purchasers, but few, if any, takers.

Those houses are likely to be unattractive to the private buyer. They are in terraces, and they are unmistakably institutional, having been built for a public authority. To that extent they are less attractive to an individual in the private sector. Another factor of which the Minister should be aware is that the Home Office is responsible for the roads and lighting on the estate. There would be considerable administrative problems if the houses were sold as single units. The charges for roads, lighting, and so on, would have to be apportioned between individual purchasers.

That is the background to the problem. The city council needs Welsh Office consent, and it has approached the Welsh Office. The response of the Welsh Office has been wholy negative, unreasonable and wooden. As far as I am aware—I stand to be contradicted by the Minister—there has been no inspection by the Welsh Office, no suggestion by the Welsh Office that if the houses did not sell on the open market its position would be reconsidered, and no suggestion by the Welsh Office that it would consider an alternative buyer such as a housing association, although, as no doubt the Minister knows, there is at least one housing association in the area that is interested in the houses. Although it would be a second best because of the nomination rights of the local authority, it would at least have the beneficial effect of reducing the ever-extended housing waiting list.

I say that there is little expectation of a positive response on the housing association front, and I am fortified in that view by an article in today's issue of the Western Mail, which states: The housing associations in Wales are launching a campaign this week to protest against any further cuts in Government aid which some believe could lead to the disappearance of a third of them. The report goes on to say: The problem is particularly acute in Cardiff and Swansea, where the waiting lists for accommodation are longest and the resources most thinly spread … Mr. Gareth Hughes, Welsh director of the National Federation of Housing Associations, said, ' If the cuts are made there will be no new houses built in Wales at all, and as many as a third of the housing associations will have to close. The situation is potentially dangerous'. So great is the danger that the Gwalia housing association, which was planning a special celebration on 5 November to mark its five hundredth house in the city of Swansea, will now use that event as a protest against further cuts in aid to the housing association.

If the Welsh Office has reacted in such a negative way to the plea of the Swansea city council, one perhaps has no high hopes that it will respond any more positively to an approach to it for consent from a housing association.

What was the nature of the reply of the Minister, dated 21 October, to the points that I put to him? He said that if the Welsh Office were to give consent it would be contrary to the policy of discouraging local authorities from buying existing property. That is clearly the doctrine. He also said: I believe that to allow the City Council to proceed in this case would not only be contrary to that policy but would be a complete negation of our views on private home ownership. The right course should now be to dispose of the houses on the open market if they are indeed surplus to existing requirements. The phrase if they are indeed surplus to existing requirements must suggest that the Welsh Office has not even bothered to contact the Home Office to see whether these houses are surplus to requirements. It has answered wholly from an ideological standpoint, without seeking in any way to check the facts on which it based that reply. Had it bothered to contact the Home Office it would have found, without any difficulty, that these houses are indeed surplus to Home Office requirements.

The Minister went on, in his letter of 21 October, to say: The purchase of existing dwellings places a quite heavy financial burden upon local authorities, and as it is the Government's policy to reduce public expenditure wherever possible it would not be seen right to be allowing a local authority to add to their existing commitments. If one uses the public expenditure argument, surely the Minister will look at the figures that I have given of the tender prices that the city council is now receiving for smaller properties—double the amount for which these houses are available on the market—and see what excellent value they are, rather than have new building in the public sector for the city council to take over. This is not in any way to municipalise because, after all, this is not a transfer from the private sector to the public sector, but a cash transfer from one part of the public sector, namely, the prison department, to another part of it, namely, a local authority. Indeed, on any figures, looking at house against house, or value against value, this would be a reduction in public expenditure.

The message is clear from the Government and the Welsh Office. They prefer to leave these properties empty and to be vandalised than to let them go to my local authority.

I am told that the local vandals have not yet noticed the 23 properties that remain empty. However, there are signs that they are beginning to notice. Already the shed windows in the back gardens of these properties have been smashed. Six of the windows have already been smashed. These first signs will further attract vandals and make the houses even more difficult to sell on the open private market. This will be a process of cumulative decline and the estate will rapidly become a wasteland as the last prison officers leave, as the nights darken and as the remaining tenants are unable to exercise some supervision over the estate. What an uncaring response! What a triumph of a doctrinaire Government!

I refer the Under-Secretary of State to the final flourish of the South Wales chief housing officers' group in the report to which I have referred. Having outlined the growing housing crisis in South Wales, it states: We therefore urge the Government to reconsider its attitude towards housing and towards a philosophy which cannot and will not work in the current economic situation. Unless this reconsideration takes place we believe that the housing problems of South Wales will reach a point when they may be insoluble. That is not the report of a group of radicals that the Government may think they can lightly disregard. It is a report from those in the front line—the directors of all the South Wales housing authorities—who see at first hand the effect of the Government's policies and who react in that way against the effects of those policies.

Had the Welsh Office, on a reasonable consideration of this case, given its consent, 23 families from the ever-growing waiting list in Swansea would have been immediately and decently rehoused. To them and to all those on the waiting list in Swansea, to my colleagues from Swansea, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West and my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Davies) who support me tonight, and to all those in Swansea in inadequate accommodation, the Welsh Office is saying in terms "Doctrine rules. Continue in your disadvantage. Our aim is to roll back the public sector"—this is set out so shamefully and so eloquently in the letter that I received from the Minister—"and to bring a new Tory freedom". This is a sad case and a sad feature of Conservative housing policy. What a perfect commentary on a wholly ideological response to a deeply human housing problem in Swansea.