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Orders of the Day — Housing and Building Control Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:32 pm on 5th July 1983.

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Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien , Normanton 5:32 pm, 5th July 1983

It is with pride and a sense of privilege, that I rise to address the House in this debate on the Housing and Building Control Bill. I express my thanks to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for this opportunity at such an early stage in the debate. I also offer my congratulations to you Sir, on your election as Deputy Speaker, and I am sure that the warmth of your character and fairness will ring through the Chamber. In addition, I congratulate my colleague and friend, whom I have known for a considerable time, my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond), on his splendid speech.

It is also a privilege and an honour to represent the Normanton constituency, and I do so with pride. This is the first maiden speech from the Normanton constituency for more than 31 years. I thank my predecessor, Mr. Albert Roberts, for his sterling work and efforts on behalf of my constituents. I hope that I can draw the same respect and support from the constituents of Normanton.

Boundary changes have meant slight adjustments to the Normanton constituency, which now includes the former borough of Ossett in the Wakefield metropolitan district council area. Before the boundary changes, it formed part of the Dewsbury constituency. That area was represented by David Ginsberg, who is no longer a Member, but I thank him for his work on behalf of my new constituents.

As you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, are aware, the Normanton constituency is in west Yorkshire. In the days when Albert Roberts was first elected to this House, mining and railways were the two prime industries that offered job opportunities to thousands of people. As one who has served and worked in the mining industry all my life, I appreciate the values of the mining fraternities. Sadly, these industries have declined, and my constituency, like many others, is now suffering from rising unemployment and loss of job opportunities.

The rise in unemployent since 1979 has been staggering. In the Rothwell area, which comes under the Leeds metropolitan district, the total number of people unemployed, male and female, in May 1979 was 340. By May 1983, that figure had increased to 1,235—four times greater than five years ago. In the Dewsbury employment area, total unemployment in May 1979 was 1,591. In May 1983, it was 4,756. Last October, the figure was 4,871, but there was then an adjustment in the method of recording the unemployment level.

In the Wakefield employment office area, which includes a large part of my constituency, in May 1979 1,612 males and 622 females, a total of 2,234, were unemployed. By May 1983, the total figure stood at 5,492. That demonstrates the problem that the Normanton constituency is facing, just like many other constituencies, mainly because of the Government's policies.

The Wakefield district council and West Yorkshire county council are using all the means at their disposal to attract industry and employers into the area. The towns of Ossett and Rothwell lie alongside the M1 motorway, and the former Normanton and Stanley urban district areas are adjacent to the M62 motorway. In other words, this important area is covered by the motorway system, communications are ideal and industrial sites can be found adjacent to the M1 travelling north to south and the M62 travelling east to west.

I shall be pleased to show any industrialist or entrepreneur considering future development over sites that offer wonderful opportunities. I can introdue them to a work force that is willing to work and help to produce national wealth. All that exists in Normanton.

I am pleased to use this opportunity to make my first contribution on housing. I have been active in local government since 1951 and was deputy leader of the Wakefield metropolitan district authority from 1974. That authority is responsible for about 48,000 council dwellings — about the tenth largest housing authority in the country. As a result, housing has always been foremost in my mind. We are proud in the Wakefield metropolitan district that we make housing provision for all sections of the community, and in particular for the aged and the infirm. I share the concern of my colleagues about the talk of reducing the number of dwellings that would be available for the disabled as a result of the introduction of the Bill.

The Housing and Building Control Bill, by its very title, suggests that it might tackle some of the problems that local authorities face. However, I find that the case is to the contrary and the Bill deals with a whole series of relatively minor and peripheral issues, and is largely irrelevant when it comes to facing up to the housing crisis that we have to endure. The Bill sets out the right to buy in certain cases where the landlord does not own the freehold and it proposes to extend the right to buy at a discount. It also gives tenants the right to shared ownership, and gives the Secretary of State a host of new powers.

The Government's proposals on shared ownership are hard to believe or conceive. If I have it right, the Bill could mean that if a tenant cannot afford to buy his house, he can first buy the toilet and perhaps the kitchen, and then pay rent for the bathroom, the living room and the rest of the house. That is ridiculous, to say the least. There is also the problem of repairs. We heard much about that from the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths), and there will be tremendous difficulties over repairs to shared ownership properties. It is difficult to understand how it would work.

Let me make it clear that I am not opposed to owner-occupation. The Labour party is not opposed to owner-occupation, and I wish to underline that. Over the years, in my capacity as a local councillor, I have encouraged many a married couple to buy their own house, and I shall continue that advice in my capacity as a Member of Parliament. In my former authority, and now in the Wakefield metropolitan district council, we have built and are building houses for sale. In the 1960s, when I served on an urban district council, council houses were sold, but that was done on a voluntary basis and that is what should apply today. If an authority feels that it has the ability and the wherewithal to sell council houses, that should be done on a voluntary basis and not on the compulsory basis used by the Government, because that causes many problems.

The Bill will do nothing to help the 1·2 million people on our housing lists, or the 60 per cent. or so of council tenants in receipt of housing benefits and dependent on means-tested allowances. I ask the Minister what the Bill will do for the 1·5 million public sector dwellings that have structural defects. The Association of Metropolitan Authorities estimates that remedial works necessary for those dwellings may cost £10,000 million. That could involve putting right defects in, or the demolition of, houses that in some cases are only 10 years old. These are some of the major problems that the housing authorities face and the Bill, like the Housing Act 1980, simply ignores them.

Housing expenditure has borne the brunt of public expenditure cuts. The level of investment on housing is only 45 per cent. in real terms of what it was in 1979. However, the housing problems have become worse rather than better over the same period. The Government may say that local authorities are underspending, but generally that is not true. Where some local authorities have failed to spend their allocations plus capital receipts, it is generally because of the crazy system of housing finance from which we suffer. The system of annual allocations for housing expenditure is, and always has been, complete nonsense. The under-investment in housing is chronic and if the position is not improved, more and more houses will fall into disrepair and there will be increasing problems of homelessness and desperate housing circumstances.

Investing in housing would be a sensible measure and net costs would be small. The AMA has estimated that for every additional 1,000 houses built, up to 1,500 jobs are created and that for every 1,000 houses renovated, 700 jobs are created. At the moment, there are 400,000 unemployed construction workers, and at the latest estimate it costs £5,000 per annum to keep an unemployed person, in terms of benefit and tax forgone. If that money were spent on housing, more than 120,000 jobs could be created.

I ask the Government to conduct a thorough investigation into the condition of the public housing stock and to begin to do something about the defects in that housing.