Orders of the Day — Housing

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:52 pm on 25th November 1980.

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Photo of Mr Donald Anderson Mr Donald Anderson , Swansea East 8:52 pm, 25th November 1980

The hon. Member for Eye (Mr. Gummer) made a passionate appeal for shorthold. Shorthold could make but a marginal contribution to dealing with the major housing stress in our areas of greater population. His appeal would have been better directed to his own Front Bench during the discussions on the Housing Bill, when it clearly overplayed its hand and refused to accept safeguards. Had those safeguards been inserted then, the view of the Labour Party might well have been coloured by them. The Government thought that their hand was stronger than it turned out to be. They have reaped what they deserved as a result of their own ideological stance at that time.

Yesterday in this House we had a unique parliamentary occasion. We had the interruption of a debate on the Queen's Speech for a "Budget Statement". That statement marked the breaking of a number of election pledges. The first related to the burden of taxation, with the increase in the national insurance contribution. The second related to social security benefits, with the breaking of the link between social security benefits and inflation. One cannot point to a similar election pledge on housing, but the electors could legitimately have imagined, prior to the last general election, that by voting Conservative they would share in the general prosperity in the housing area that would have been their lot under a Conservative Government.

One cannot envy the task of the Minister in having to defend the indefensible, in having to defend a Government who are presiding over an acute housing crisis. The reality is that, comparison of the third quarter of this year shows that with the third quarter of last year, total housing starts are down by 39 per cent., and starts in the public sector are down by 37 per cent. Council house waiting lists are now more realistic as a result of annual monitoring. Compared with 1979, the numbers of those on council house waiting lists increased by 150,000 in 1980. Clearly, the supply of housing is diminishing at a time when demand is increasing.

Under this Government, housing has taken a disproportionate share of the cuts. Of the total reduction planned, 75 per cent. will fall on housing. It is as if, in those long Cabinet meetings, the Secretary of State had volunteered the suggestion that his Department should suffer greater cuts. It is as if he did not fight his corner when the Secretary of State for Defence spoke about resignation and got off relatively unscathed. The Secretary of State for the Environment, an arch-monetarist, is putting his head on the chopping block and rejecting the interests of those whom he should represent.

The report of the Select Committee shows that the housing cuts are a result of the Government's failure to think through the social and economic implications of their policies. As the Under-Secretary of State for Wales intends to reply to the debate, I shall prove that the situation in Wales is even more dramatic. I refer him to Roof, the journal published by Shelter. The publication dated July-August 1980 show that 15·4 per cent. of housing stock in Wales was unfit compared with 9·6 per cent. in the relevant survey of English housing investment programmes.

Allocations fall far short of the bids. Rising unemployment and building costs in South Wales and in the areas of greatest stress will probably mean that fewer owners will be able to take up improvement grants. At the same time, the recession means that many of those in the public sector who might otherwise have looked to the private sector for housing are staying put and thus reducing the supply of housing for those in need.

Nearly one-quarter of all pensioners in Wales live in houses without indoor sanitation. About 75,000 houses in South Wales are unfit for habitation. Those houses represent a town larger than Swansea. I have given some indication of the severity of the housing crisis in Wales. There is a chronic housing problem and, in addition, under-investment. We face a cut of 40 per cent.

I refer the Minister to the October report of the South Wales chief housing officers' group. It is not a radical group, yet the report ends with the startling words: We fear that if increased finance is not made available very soon then the problem that will be created in the next 10 to 20 years will require drastic action such as extensive clearance programmes … 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." Those housing officers see the situation every day. They point out that housing needs remain unmet and that there is a slide into increasing obsolescence. That is the legacy that the Government will leave their successors.

In my local authority, 46 per cent. of tenants require some form of assistance in order to pay their rent. Clearly, such people cannot enter the private housing market, nor can they buy their council houses. Of the remainder of the tenants, a substantial proportion are at an age at which they will be unable to obtain a mortgage. No one in his mid-forties would wish to purchase a property, given the problems of unemployment and the insecurity that it causes. The picture that the Welsh Office and the Government try to give of people moving from the shackles of the public sector into the freedom of the private sector does not accord with the realities of the present economic situation.

I wonder what picture the Welsh Office and the Government have of the role of the public sector. In a debate on 3 November, the Under-Secretary gave a picture of public housing in Wales being, in the Government's view, designed for special needs, such as welfare housing —something akin to the American picture. That is very far indeed from our needs. As I have tried to stress, given our present economic situation and the profile of housing, with 46 per cent. of our people receiving assistance with their rents, who is able to afford to move from the public to the private sector?

No doubt the Secretary of State saw the leader in The Times on 10 November—even The Times—which pointed out in the most glaring way the result of the disproportionate cuts that the housing sector is suffering under the Government. That leader asked what sort of legacy of housing stock the Government would leave to their successors. In particular, it asked what would be the impact on disadvantaged groups. It mentioned the need not to destroy the building industry and the need to protect the stock that we already have.

The truth is that, if we ask what the Government's housing policy is, we find that they do not have a housing policy as such, because all is subordinated to their monetarist policies, which are manifestly failing. Who now believes the technical view of the purists that by limiting money supply there will inevitably be a fall in inflation?