Orders of the Day — Housing

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:24 pm on 25th November 1980.

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Photo of Mr Robin Squire Mr Robin Squire , Hornchurch 5:24 pm, 25th November 1980

I hope that the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) will forgive me if I do not follow him into the highways and byways of Salford, enjoyable though that place may be, although I suspect that some of its problems are due to the nature of the council that has administered its housing for so long.

I turn to some of the distortions that we have heard about in relation to housing. My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Heddle) highlighted the distortion we have heard in recent weeks and months about housing association funds. The Government were portrayed as having cut back when they had merely sought to ensure that total spending was kept within the previously agreed estimate. Something similar is entering the annals of folklore with regard to the alleged effects of the moratorium announced four weeks ago. I speak as one who would wish to see more money spent on housing and who believes and trusts that, as and when the upturn comes, greater resources in real terms will be devoted to this area rather than to others. But that is a subject for separate discussion.

Whatever our political views, we must surely support the determination of government, local and national, to live within previously established budgets. That was the purpose of the moratorium. That has been confirmed, and I do not think that it is a matter of disagreement. Yet it is being put about that the effect of the moratorium, to quote the hon. Member for Salford, East, will be to leave more people homeless.

There will be no medium-term or long-term gains for anyone, be they the homeless, local authorities, landlords or anyone else, if local authorities and Governments continue to overspend against what was previously arranged. That is no solution. It is merely the beginning of anarchy. The solution is to live within our means, to set budgets and to argue, as we shall and do in this House and in local authorities, and not to criticise Governments, of whatever political persuasion, who seek to ensure that those limits, once fixed, are adhered to.

I turn to the question of rents. I do not believe that we as a party in Government should be concerned at being seen to support the need for tenants in council housing to pay a greater percentage of the cost of that housing. We live in an age when, rightly and properly, a rebate scheme and a series of safety nets can and do provide for the poorest—those who are unable to meet increasing costs. That being so, I believe that many people expect the better-off council tenants to meet a greater proportion of the cost.

The figures supplied by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State indicate that the percentage of income devoted to rent has fallen from about 8 per cent. to about 6·4 per cent. Given the importance of housing in the average family or individual budget, I defy anyone to suggest that 6·4 per cent. is other than a derisory figure. In real terms, it masks a great increase in cost to everyone else, because the subsidy on that housing must be paid for in one form or another. We cannot have it both ways. I was grateful that the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) recognised that the argument for some rent increase was possibly in order. I can only agree with him.

It is a pity that he did not point out that the absence of such increases placed a direct burden upon other people. It is not money conjured out of thin air. It must be met by ratepayers and taxpayers. We owe a responsibility to all people, regardless of their tenure. I should like to see some of the money raised through increased rents ploughed back into an area with which I shall deal later.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, in his discussions with my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, will look closely at the question of mortgages and mortgage interest tax relief. I refer in particular to relief on the higher rates of income tax. We are moving to a stage, particularly in view of the welcome reduction in the higher rates granted in the 1979 Budget, when we should not exect those paying higher rates also to receive mortgage interest relief at those rates. We should be looking closely at a package that may well extend and remove the present £25,000 upper limit. That limit, if not amended, will in any case fall by the wayside as a result of inflation. A package along those lines would raise considerable extra funds, which I should like to see devoted to the area that concerns me most. I speak of the quality of housing and the nature of the repairs and renovations that can or cannot take place.

The Select Committee on the environment, on which I have the privilege to serve, recently published a report on housing projections, and some of its recommendations and comments have received wide publicity on both sides of the Chamber. One of its recommendations, which has achieved little publicity and which I seek to elevate this afternoon, concerned the state of repair of the nation's housing stock. After all, that is the legacy that we leave to future generations. If the figures are as bad as they seemed to the Select Committee, we face a problem that the Government—any Government—must immediately and carefully consider.

On the Select Committee's figures, the present level of housing repair and maintenance is one-third of what it would need to be to meet the Department of the Environment's criteria for repairs and maintenance. Moreover, within the three years ending 1982–83 it is likely that the amount expended under this heading will fall by a half, thus exacerbating the problem.

I do not take any pleasure in mentioning these figures. I hope that the Government, either today or more probably in their answer to the Select Committee's report, will seek to show where those figures are in error. If they are right, or approximately right, we must contemplate a major shift of resources in the immediate future and not in five or 10 years, or face a bill for housing that, with the best will in the world, it will be difficult for us to meet.

I have so far concentrated solely on housing. I turn now to local government, a subject on which I have spoken in this Chamber perhaps more than on any other in the short time that I have been a Member of the House Local government has been and is still a valuable, loyal servant of the country, under Governments of whatever political persuasion. Local government is now being asked to shoulder a very heavy burden in terms of the requirement to reduce grants, to cut services and to impose ever higher rate bills. It is right that local government should take its fair share of the national misery, for want of a better expression, because, like other areas of expenditure, it spends a considerable amount. I suggest that local government be judged in the same light and by the same criteria as we judge the Government's performance in the handling of their economic affairs. I am not making a party point; I speak of Governments of all political persuasions.

I do not believe that local government receives a fair press. At times we rightly concentrate on the lunatic fringe and overlook the fact, which is also overlooked in the national newspapers, that the majority of the 460 or so authorities comply with every possible statute, instruction, order, request, pledge, or whatever it may be, in a formidable and successful way. I make that point because at times it goes without mention in the House generally.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield and Tamworth correctly highlighted the duplicity of the Opposition on shortholds. One of the problems that has bedevilled housing over the years has been that it has been allowed to become a political football. I have endeavoured to show that I believe in a positive role for local authorities and the Government in assisting those who wish to purchase their own homes. But that is not the beginning and the end of the matter. It is dishonest of the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook to dismiss shorthold tenancies as being not on because they do not solve the housing crisis. No one said that they would. But they are a major contribution and could be an even greater contribution if they were given the chance.

I very much regret that the Opposition, by their words and actions, would seek to eliminate the shorthold option or to reduce its effectiveness. We need to get away from the stereotyped belief that we can have only council housing or owner-occupation. We need to be flexible. We should take and consider each option. I hope that even now the Opposition will listen to wiser words from more important and illustrious persons than me and think again about that pledge, because that is the root of bad housing. The hon. Member for Salford, East asked what would be done about rehousing some of his constituents who are living in poor conditions. I suggest that we should be flexible and look at all the options. The answer does not lie only in council housing.