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Orders of the Day — Housing and Building Control Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:26 pm on 5th July 1983.

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Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 6:26 pm, 5th July 1983

When I made my first speech some three months ago, I followed my hon. Friend the then Member for Croydon, North-West, (Mr. Pitt). The hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill), who has just made his maiden speech, some 18 months ago tried to become the Member for Croydon, North-West. I am happy to recollect that he was defeated by a member of the Liberal party. In the way of true, determined Tories, the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West proceeded up the Tory alphabet from C to B and now comes to the House as the Member for Bournemouth, West. We welcome him here and welcome the expertise that he brings to such a debate.

I am happy to agree with the hon. Member on one point, at least, upon which he substantially concentrated — that the regulations should be in the Bill and not somewhere else, so that those who are given the task of ensuring that property is built properly know where to look and know the penalty if they do not comply with the requirements.

Many speakers have begun their contributions by commenting on the national position and I want to do so also. The recently arrived hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) who is a personal friend of mine, although a political opponent, said that it was a disastrous national position. It may not be commonly realised that the housing budget has been cut more in the past 10 years than any other social expenditure budget. Between 1974 and 1979 the Labour Government cut housing expenditure by 27 per cent. between 1979 and 1983 the Conservatives planned to cut it by 48 per cent. We still have a few months of the projected period to run. Compare that with a 10 per cent. cut in the education budget and a 23 per cent. increase in the defence budget and one can begin to understand why our housing predicament is so appalling. During the past two years there has been a reduction, first, of 40 per cent. and then 60 per cent. in the pounds and pence per year spent on housing.

Many people have a dire concern to remedy what is happening. It falls to me to say from the Liberal Benches, as it did to the Liberal spokesman when the Bill was introduced in its original form in the last Parliament, that the Bill does nothing to deal with the housing crisis in Britain in 1983. All that it does is deal with some peripheral areas. Primarily, it deals with the right to buy, about which I shall make some observations, but it deals too with building control and regulation, which I shall also discuss.

I represent a constituency where four out of five families live in council housing. More people live in council housing in Southwark and Bermondsey than in any other constituency save four. Tinkering with provisions such as the right to buy does not begin to solve their problems.

Southwark contains about 5,000 empty properties and about 14,000 which are technically unfit for human habitation. People are desperate to have their lot bettered and, if possible, to escape. The tragedy is that 61 per cent. of people who live in council housing need the rent and rates connected with that housing to be paid for by the state. They cannot escape because they do not have the funds to buy their own housing, whether it is a council dwelling or a privately owned property elsewhere.

We are therefore talking only about four out of 10 families in council housing who might consider purchasing property. The problems remain for those who will live in public sector property for years. They will be unaffected by the Bill's proposals.

Liberals welcome one thing. In spite of the Minister's opaqueness in his maiden appearance in his new role, on which I congratulate him, there is no old clause 2. That dealt with charitable housing associations' right to buy. One reason for the omission is that, in another place, Liberal Members, with other Opposition Members, defeated the proposal. Even some Conservatives saw the light before the end of the road. In passing, it is important to note that the Labour party wants to abolish the second Chamber. Liberals want a second Chamber, but we want it to be democratic. There is great merit, as the exercise on this Bill last time round showed, in another place being able to curb the excesses of a majority in the House of Commons, particularly when the majority of seats, though not majority of votes, is so large. We hope that plans to return the right to buy for charitable housing associations will disappear from the Department's thinking.

We welcome in principle the opportunity for people to afford and acquire their own homes. All parties appear to agree about that, but situations vary. In a rural community, only four council houses may exist. Should the people in them be entitled to buy, to the detriment of prospective applicants for public sector housing? In a London borough, such as the one that I represent, there are some 65,000 council houses. Surely there is good reason for monitoring and controlling houses that are sold. The most appealing properties to buy are the newest. People are willing to buy a semi-detached or detached ground floor property with a garden, but they are unwilling to buy if they live on the twenty-fifth floor of a tower block, particularly since such a purchase might involve enormous complications.

I invite Labour Members to make their proposals clear. They object to the Government's proposals, but what do they propose? I can tell the House what we propose. We believe in the principle of the right to buy. However, the local authority should be entitled to say that in its situation, or in respect of some of its property, only a given percentage, or none, in each year should be sold. That may have to be monitored by an independent body such as the Ombudsman. A local authority should have the primary responsibility for adjudicating upon its needs. I hope that the Government can be persuaded that those nearest to the problem should be allowed to decide how best to control their housing stock, subject to the entitlement of those who feel that decisions are unmerited to appeal against an arbitrary local decision.