Orders of the Day — Housing

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:23 pm on 25th November 1980.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Donald Dixon Mr Donald Dixon , Jarrow 8:23 pm, 25th November 1980

I sometimes wonder whether people who go into Tory Members' surgeries are different from those that come into Labour Members' surgeries. I have been amazed by some of the comments from the Conservative Benches.

I do not know whether the hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Heddle) was serious when he suggested that waiting lists should be done away with. I have never heard such nonsense. It would be like doing away with the Highway Code, with everyone driving on whichever side of the road he wished.

The hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne) suggested that council house rents should go up, so that ratepayers would have some return on their rates. I do not know whether he realises that council tenants are ratepayers and taxpayers and that they pay a considerable amount of rates and taxes.

The Government have embarked on a policy of reducing the money supply. All their policies are directed towards that end. They now claim in the Gracious Speech that it is essential further to reduce public expenditure. It seems strange to want to continue a monetary policy that has already led to massive unemployment. The figures announced today are disgraceful. In my constituency the male unemployment rate is above 18 per cent., and half of those have been unemployed for six months or more. That percentage has come about because of the Government's policy.

It is not only strange that the Government carry out that policy, but it is immoral to pursue it at the expense of the poorest and weakest in our society and further to cut public expenditure. It seems that the Government are more interested in the pound than in the people.

I remind Conservative Members of what effect a further reduction in public expenditure will have on the ordinary people of South Tyneside, where my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) are situated. In particular, I should like to point out the effects of the disastrous housing policy that is being forced on local authorities, a policy, determined by central Government totally divorced from the needs of the people, that denies people the right to a decent home and makes it impossible for responsible local authorities even to maintain and repair their housing stock.

In the area that I represent there are 7,353 people on the council waiting list. For the benefit of those Conservative Members who would not recognise a council waiting list if they saw one, I explain that that means 7,353 households, not 7,353 individuals. Those households are looking in desperation to the local authority to help them, but the authorities are being prevented from helping because of an American economist's theories. Far from offering assistance to housing authorities, the Government have already reduced the finance available to them. The Government claim "We cannot afford to build houses. People will have to wait until the current financial crisis is over and inflation is down to a figure acceptable to us." That is just short of criminal in view of the number of young people who are waiting for houses and the number of construction workers who are signing the book. How long do the Government expect them to wait?

My authority has built only 112 houses this year. If the Secretary of State for the Environment lifts his ill-advised and totally unnecessary moratorium, it will be possible to build 200 houses this year. Even the Chancellor of the Exchequer should be able to work out that at the rate of 200 dwellings each year it will take more than 35 years to provide new homes for those on the present list.

Of course, the Government will claim that the councils' waiting lists are not static. They express the fond hope that in future years those lists will decline as everyone becomes an owner-occupier. For the Minister's information, let me tell him that the waiting list in my area has risen more than 600 in the past year alone, so 200 new dwellings each year—the limit imposed by the Government—are not enough to deal with the increases, let alone with the 7,353 households already waiting for a house.

The other topic on which I wish to touch is that of the difficult-to-let properties which we and, no doubt, other local authorities have. The Government not only prevent housing authorities from building new houses, but their fanatical adherence to financial controls makes it impossible for those authorities to improve existing dwellings that are unsuitable for family life.

During the 1950s the Government virtually forced authorities to build high-rise flats and deck access maisonettes, with all the problems that they created. Instead of recognising this mistake, the present Government are refusing local authorities the finance to rectify those design faults. There is one estate in my constituency, in Queen's Road, Jarrow, where four-storey maisonettes with deck access and an external staircase must be improved or demolished. However, the Government, especially the Secretary of State, first tried to dictate how they should be improved, then threatened to withdraw subsidy for any dwellings that were demolished and finally reduced expenditure, thus putting the whole improvement scheme in jeopardy.

That is interference of the worst kind by the Government in local housing matters and shows how little respect one can have for a Secretary of State who promises to increase local autonomy. Instead of allowing local authorities the right to determine their own local policies and giving them the means to resolve local problems, the Government issue blanket restrictions of the most autocratic kind. Because "Tarzan" knows best, the tenants of Queen's Road, Jarrow, will have to push prams up ramps and carry buckets of coal up two flights of steps in the open air.

Even the authority's attempts to use existing stocks to the best advantage is being hindered. South Tyneside authority has 3,506 properties in council stock that are unusable for its needs. Elderly tenants occupy three-bedroom houses. Often they are frail and cannot manage to climb stairs. With mass unemployment forcing younger householders to leave the borough, the elderly form an increasing proportion of our community. Obviously, these frail elderly people require smaller houses and preferably warden-controlled sheltered schemes, but the Government's cutback and moratorium prevent the authority from building them. Two sets of households suffer: the single person who occupies a family house because there is no suitable smaller house available, and the overcrowded family who could occupy the larger house. That is the kind of absurdity to which the Government's action leads, denying the elderly comfort and independence and forcing families to a life in flats.

Even more tragic is the plight of those unfortunate people who happen to live in slum clearance dwellings. The South Tyneside authority pursued a vigorous policy of clearance and was well on the way to removing this cancer from our area. After years of effort, only 600 dwellings are left in the clearance areas, most of them in the South Shields part of the district. But they will remain a lot longer because of the cutback. The Government are sentencing people to live in dwellings that were condemned as being unfit for human habitation even by the standards of the Housing Act 1957, which was passed a good number of years ago.

The Government claimed to be committed to a policy of rehabilitation rather than to one of building new dwellings. They maintain that the preservation of communities in improved dwellings is infinitely more desirable than bulldozing older properties to build new houses. With much publicity and self-congratulation, the Secretary of State announced increased grant amounts and a reduction in administrative procedures. However, the biggest reduction is the reduction in the finance given to authorities to enable them to make grants in the first place, allowing the South Tyneside authority this year to approve only 200 grants instead of the normal 400.

My authority has more than 4,500 private tenants who still fill their baths with kettles of water. There are more than 5,000 occupiers of private dwellings without WCs. This is only a small part of the 1 million dwellings that lack amenities, and it is an even smaller part of the 3 million that are known to be in a state of gross disrepair. The tenants of these properties also look to the Government and the local authority for help. They receive none.

Like most other authorities, South Tyneside has to restrict the number of grants that it clan make. Instead of giving older dwellings in the borough the basic amenities by 1984–85, which was our objective when reorganization took place in 1974, they will not be improved until we get a change in Government thinking or, better still, a change in Government.

The stupidity of it all is that, apart from the human misery, it does not even make economic sense to stop making grants. Many properties in older areas can make good family houses. Many have already been improved with grant aid. The potential for further improvement and the finance already invested are being put at risk by the Government's shortsighted policies.

Those authorities that believed the Government's claim to be committed to house improvement and to the need to improve our declining inner city areas have been misled. The Government encouraged authorities to embark on improvement programmes and have now apparently changed their mind.

Previously, the local authority could help tenants when a private landlord failed to accept responsibility for substandard houses. As a last resort, the council could purchase houses by agreement or by compulsion and then improve them. By Government decree local authorities are forbidden to purchase by agreement. Even if they could do so the finances are not available.

Mortgages are closely related to the improvement aid previously given to provide basic amenities. The phenomenon of Tyneside Flats exists in my area. It consists of two-storey terraces with separate flats on each floor. Traditionally, they are sold in pairs. The owner becomes the occupier of one flat and the landlord of the other. Many of the flats have been handed down through the generations, and many are owned by elderly people. The local authority has assisted many elderly owners to repair and improve their properties by means of council mortgages, because building societies prefer to lend their millions to better-off clients on better-quality housing. Since finance has been reduced, sales are limited and such mortgages cannot be continued.

I deal next with the sale of council houses. I have no doubt that the Minister knows about the case that I wish to mention. He will not defend what has taken place. In 1978, a constituent of mine applied to buy a council house after a programme encouraging the sale of council houses was forced through by the Conservatives and Liberals on South Tyneside council. It was such a dismal failure that when Labour took control the policy was not changed. Over two and a half years, only about 300 of the 34,000 council houses were sold.

When my constituent applied to buy the house, there was a problem about the cost of land and ministerial approval was necessary. That approval was given only in June this year. The council decided, in fairness to the tenant, to offer him the house at the price that applied when he made his original application to buy. That experience makes a mockery of the Government's argument in favour of the right to buy.

The individual purchased the house at 11 am last Monday for £11,000—the price that applied in 1978. Within minutes, he put it on the market for £18,000 and earned a profit of £7,000. In fairness to the Minister, it should be said that that could not happen under the Housing Act, but under the two years' £100 option system a similar problem could arise.

The Government's policy is determined by money supply. Under their education policy they are depriving youngsters at comprehensive schools of school books, while they are providing grants for private schools. The Government have no regional policy for industry. Areas such as the North-East are being turned into industrial deserts.

The Government are robbing the old, the disabled, the sick and the unemployed of social services provision. Their tax concessions line the pockets of people at the top of the wages league. They are denying young couples housing and sentencing others to live in flats for the rest of their lives. The Government's policy represents Robin Hood in reverse. They are robbing the poor to give to the rich.