I warmly endorse the announcement today by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment concerning the consultation document. My support for it is endorsed by the fact that it carries out to the letter the recommendation of the previous Labour Government in their Green Paper of 1977, in which they said that they considered that over a run of years rents should keep broadly in line with the changes in money income.
The rents of council houses then represented about 8 per cent. of the incomes of those houses, but that subsequently dropped to about 6·4 per cent. The amount spent by owner-occupiers on mortgage repayments represents 20 per cent. of a household's income. Even if the calculations of the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) are correct, and the rent increase is £2.50 or £3 per week for those homes which can afford the increase—excluding the 45 per cent., nearly five in every 10, of council tenants who for one reason or another get either supplementary benefit or rent rebates—the rent of a council house is still incredibly reasonable compared with the mortgage repayment paid by the owner-occupier.
That is further endorsed by the fact that the Government have raised the maximum rent rebate this year to£25 for homes in central London and to£23 elsewhere, whereas those figures previously stood at £13 for London and £10 elsewhere. I shall, therefore, spend no time in sharing the crocodile tears which are wept by the Opposition Benches today.
Last year's Queen's Speech promised a whirlwind of activity in housing and local government, and because of the Housing Act and the Local Government, Planning and Land Act a breath of fresh air is now beginning to sweep through the streets of our council estates—and also through the filing cabinets, the in-trays, the pending trays and the out-trays of every planning department in the land. May that continue and may it gain momentum during the next 12 months.
But there are three scars on the nation's housing scene. I refer to the growing number of homeless families, to the still increasing number of empty homes and to the ever-rising level of council house rent arrears. As was predicted by Opposition spokesmen on the Conservative Benches at the time when the Housing (Homeless Persons) Bill was debated in 1977, the Act has not reduced the number of homeless families. As in the case of other Acts introduced by the previous Labour Administration, the fullness of time has proved that Act to be counter-productive and contradictory. It has actually increased the number of homeless families from 32,000 in 1977 to nearly 56,000 today, most of whom are accommodated in hostels or in bed and breakfast accommodation at enormouse expense to the taxpayer and with great disruption of the family life of those poor people.
Yet at the same time there are more than half a million empty homes in the country today, some owned by local authorities and some owned by private individuals—;half a million homes waiting to be occupied by a similar number of families hoping forlornly, because of the lack of an alternative choice, for the key to a council house or flat.
If there is a housing crisis, it is not a crisis of demand or a crisis of supply. Nor is it a crisis of mortgage finance. It has been visited on the nation because of the Opposition's failure to acknowledge that the role of local authorities is to provide homes for those in genuine need and that the private sector has an equally important part to play in meeting the needs of those demanding a home to rent or buy. The crisis has also been caused by the inability of local government to allocate vacant homes quickly enough.
I share the view of those who are calling on Parliament today to allow councils to abolish, or drastically to revise, council house waiting lists. They cost an enormous sum of money and waste an enormous amount of manpower because they need to be kept up to date. After a delay of 10 years, an applicant may reach the top of the list, but he may then not be prepared to take the accommodation offered.