Orders of the Day — Housing and Building Control Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:03 pm on 5th July 1983.

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Photo of Mr Allan Roberts Mr Allan Roberts , Bootle 8:03 pm, 5th July 1983

The hon. and learned Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Lyell) gave the game away about this legislation when he closed his speech by defending the private rented sector and blaming its decline on successive wicked Labour Governments who have given tenants in the private rented sector security of tenure and rent control. The Conservative argument is that all one needs to do to solve housing problems is revive the private rented sector, allow people to get a return on the capital they invest in property for private renting, and get rid of security of tenure. People will then provide accommodation for the private rented sector in greater numbers, and the problems will be solved. That was the thrust of the Housing Act 1980, which was a landlords' charter to destroy security of tenure in various ways, including the shorthold provision, and allow private landlords to charge higher rents.

However, the Conservative party has a problem, because no one in his right mind will be dependent upon renting from a private landlord if the landlord is offering a more expensive choice than home ownership or renting in the public sector. If one subsidises the public rented sector, it will be cheaper than the economic rents that the private landlords will be allowed to charge.

Therefore, to force people back into being dependent upon private landlords, one has to make access to the public rented sector more difficult and more expensive. That can be done in a number of ways such as pushing up rents, reducing subsidies, not building more council houses or housing association houses, and reducing the stock of available accommodation in the public rented sector. The Bill has nothing to do with owner-occupation. It is an attempt to continue to force local authorities to sell off the best of their rented accommodation. It is part of a strategy to destroy the public rented sector and revive the private rented sector. It does little for the real needs of the nation or for owner-occupiers.

The Government's policy is build less, sell off the best, cut repair and maintenance services and push up rents. In this legislation, they are beginning to go over the top with their 60 per cent. discounts. Earlier, the Minister refused to give me an undertaking that the 60 per cent. Discount will not eventually become 80 per cent. or 90 per cent., and, when we get to the next general election, a closing down sale with 100 per cent. off and the final destruction of the public rented sector.

There is now the two-year rule; one has to live in a council property not for thre years before one is eligible to buy, but for only two. I hope that the Minister will assure us that he will not reduce that time limit as Parliament progresses and the Government want to give away all the public rented sector, with the result that one only has to live in a council house for two weeks or so. I am sorry that the new Minister has inherited the brainstorms of the previous Minister on shared ownership. which was that Minister's great contribution to the housing debate and to the needs of the nation: "If you cannot afford to buy the whole house, buy part of it. Start with the lavatory and move on to the kitchen." That is the maddest and most hare-brained idea. The problem comes, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) showed, with repairs. People do not want to buy one half of their house knowing that once they have done so and are renting the other half, they do not get repairs done on any of the house. If they buy the back door, the council will not pay to repair the front door. It is a mad idea that creates enormous administrative problems for local authorities, and council tenants will not take it up.

The Bill also allows leasehold council tenants to purchase. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton said, the most squalid part of it is that the Bill allows the sale of houses adapted for the disabled. It is part of a massive attack by the Government on council tenants and the public sector. The Labour party has to decide on its attitude, policies, statements and campaigns, not only on this Bill, but also on the Government's housing policies as a whole. We are told by many that it was our opposition to the sale of council houses that lost us some votes in the general election and made our defeat worse than it might otherwise have been.

We failed in the general election campaign to convince the electorate that we are the party of owner-occupation and that we want to help real owner-occupiers and those who aspire to be owner-occupiers. The record of past Labour Governments shows that that is true. The wrong way to help those people is to force those in housing need to wait for ever longer on ever growing housing lists and to force families with children who live in high-rise, mid-rise and walk-up flats to stay trapped there because the houses to which they could be transferred are being sold off.

We should continue our opposition to the enforced sale of council houses because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) said, only the best council houses are being sold, and we should continue our opposition to the massive discounts. The question whether Labour will be opposed to the sale of council houses will not be an issue at the next general election because by then, with the Government's intention to continue a policy of getting more people to buy the best houses, all the best houses will have been sold off. We shall then have an entirely new housing situation, in which all who want to buy or to take advantage of the give-away discounts have done so. We shall have had nine years of enforced sales. There will be a housing crisis of 1945 proportions. There will be massive and growing housing waiting lists, increasing homelessness, and the faults of system-built owner-occupied properties being constructed at present will be revealed.

Already the faults in properties that have been acquired and improved shoddily by housing associations and local authorities are beginning to show up. The properties have been improved shoddily because the profit in acquiring and improving the property comes to more than its market value. Corners are being cut. By that time this will all be revealed. There will be a continuing decline in disrepair in the housing stock because of the private landlords' charter in the 1980 Act. Rachmanism will be rife. What is left of the public rented sector is likely to be the flats and problem estates, becoming ghetto welfare housing of the worst kind. That is what will face the next Labour Government in five years' time.

We believe that choice is at the heart of liberty. We want people to have a choice to buy a decent house at the price they can afford, and also the choice to rent a decent house at a rent that they can afford. The way to get choice is to have a surplus of properties. There can be choice only when nine people are chasing 10 houses. There can be choice only when there is not a massive shortage of houses for rent, and when there is a major opportunity for anyone who wants to be an owner-occupier.

So the Labour party must continue with its commitment to a new public rented sector, which will have to be built and provided by a Labour Government with the help of Labour local authorities and the right kind of housing associations to meet the needs of the people who want houses for rent. We shall also need to be committed to providing real help to owner-occupation, especially the first-time buyer.

This Bill is not about help to owner-occupation. It is an attack on the public rented sector. It is part and parcel of a total strategy. Before I come to what I believe Labour's proposals for owner-occupation should be, I shall quote from the housing investment programme report which will form the basis of the submissions that will be made to the Minister by the Conservative-controlled council of Sefton. Other housing Ministers and Department of the Environment Ministers have heard me refer to the metropolitan district of Sefton. It is the lowest rated metropolitan district in the country, and it is probably one of the meanest Conservative-controlled authorities in the country.

The report reveals the attitudes and actions of the Conservative Government towards the public sector, and housing needs in general: Over the past few years the total capital spending on housing has been reduced dramatically. In real terms allocations to the country as a whole have been cut by 58 per cent. in six years. All areas have suffered a reduction in resources for housing. Merseyside has been faced with a reduction of 40 per cent. After a modest upturn in allocations in 82–83, the 1983–84 allocations for all areas have resumed a downward trend. All districts have received a reduction in resources: Liverpool 35 per cent., Wirral 36 per cent. , St. Helens 46 per cent. However, Sefton's reduction has been in the order of 60 per cent., whilst the council has at the same time recognised the need for increased activity. One of the most loyal Tory councils in the country cannot get resources out of its own Government, and it is cut even more than other Labour authorities in the area. For the last three basic HIP allocations, Sefton's allocation has been the lowest of all Merseyside's districts, and Sefton is the only Merseyside district whose allocation has fallen faster than the national average rate of 58 per cent. Sefton's basic allocation was 75 per cent. of its bid. The report puts that reduction in context: It is estimated that at 1.4.84 some 12,200 private sector dwellings were lacking basic amenities in the borough of Sefton. As it happens, most of those are in my constituency, and many of them in the private rented sector, where landlordism is rampart. People cannot find out who the landlords are, and the landlords will not do the repairs or put in basic amenities. So 12,200 private sector dwellings were lacking basic amenities or were in need of major improvement. The council has recognised this problem and is giving an increasing share of its resources to the private sector in the form of improvements and repair grants. Current rates of progress could mean that 10 years will be needed to treat today's problems, taking no account of properties falling into disrepair within the period. Progress in renovating the council's own stock was very slow in 1982–83. It can say that again. Figures for last year's HIP submissions show that, although Sefton received the lowest allocation per head of population of any district in Merseyside, housing conditions are worse than several other districts. The report goes on, catalogue after catalogue, condemning the Government policies, the cuts in the allocation of housing to a Tory authority, showing that there is indeed a major problem. Over the next five years, neglect of that kind will result in the housing crisis that I have described. The Labour party will have to commit itself to a revitalised and new public sector.

We also have to be seen, as indeed we are, as the party of owner-occupation. This Conservative Government, far from helping owner-occupation, have hid behind the sale of council houses and launched a large-scale attack on owner-occupiers—the very people whom they claim to support. Their three-pronged attack created record high interest rates, a slump in houses built for sale, and increasing difficulties for those trying to sell their homes. During the past four and a half years, mortgage interest rates have been at a record high level. The average monthly mortgage rate under the last Government was 13·25 per cent., compared with 10·7 per cent. under Labour before 1979. It was 2·5 per cent. higher. That was their record on interest rates for the owner-occupiers. Under this Government, the mortgage rate reached its highest ever level of 15 per cent. Such a rate has never been known before. As we predicted during the general election, the Government waited until the election was over, and now mortgage rates have risen again. That is the party of owner-occupation that hides behind the attack on the public rented sector, but pretends that it supports the owner-occupier.

Independent financial sources predict that interest rates and mortgages will continue to increase. Fewer homes for owner-occupiers have been built by this Government than were built at the time of the Labour Government. Existing owner-occupiers are finding it increasingly difficult to sell their houses or flats. In many parts of the country the market is being undermined by unemployment —especially in such areas as Merseyside—and even more so by the sale of council houses. In many areas people who are trying to sell properties in the lower price range cannot find purchasers.

Those who previously moved out of council housing to buy are now purchasing their council property at half price and there will soon be a 60 per cent. discount. That is knocking the bottom out of the traditional owner-occupier market. The Government have now gone over the top with the 60 per cent. discount. What will that do to the value of the traditional owner-occupied house? How will it help owner-occupiers? The Labour party will help real owner-occupation as well as assisting those in housing need and tenants.

Home owners are commercially exploited in the most callous way by estate agents, building societies and the conveyancing monopoly. We shall introduce schemes to help first-time buyers. We shall simplify and reduce the cost of house purchase, ending the solicitors' conveyancing monopoly. We believe in introducing a log book type approach for the buying and selling of houses. We want to stop red lining by building societies and to simplify grant procedures. We want to make more money available to owner-occupiers to improve their houses because those who need improvement grants are some of the poorer people who often live in the worst accommodation.

We want to give a real opportunity for joint mortgages from building societies for people who want one. Such an opportunity was given to people who wanted to buy their council houses under the 1980 Act, yet is denied to many young couples and others who want a joint mortgage in the traditional owner-occupier market. We want to make it easy for low income groups to get a mortgage. We shall be advocating as party policy that we should devise some scheme to introduce 100 per cent. mortgages. The first rung on the ladder is often the difficulty for people wanting to get into owner-occupation. We need to expand council mortgages. The local authority home loan service should be developed to compete with building societies and banks.

We want to establish a network of local authority estate agency and conveyancing services. If there is any group which exploits another it is the estate agents who exploit the buyers and sellers of houses. Anyone qualified or unqualified can rent a shop, put up a sign and open up in business as an estate agent, entering into the business of making profits out of people who are buying and selling houses. Municipal services would safeguard many from such exploitation.

We want a policy of building for elderly owner-occupiers for rent so that, if they wish, they can sell their houses to the local authority, relieving themselves of a growing burden of repair and care of a big house, and move into council accommodation in their old age. Shelter and Help the Aged, have recently launched an initiative of care and repair for the elderly owner-occupier. Housing associations, jointly with Shelter, have developed schemes to help elderly owner-occupiers repair and improve their houses with grants and assistance. That is a good idea. There should be more such schemes.

In justice the council tenant who has lived for 20 or 30 years in a council house should benefit when he retires from the rent-free occupation of his council dwelling in the same way as does the owner-occupier who has lived in a dwelling and had a mortgage with Government subsidy by means of interest relief, and thereby enjoys free occupation after living in his house for 20 or 30 years.

We should be developing co-operative housing schemes such as the co-operative homesteading which was pioneered in the London borough of Islington by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury when he was chairman of the housing Committee there. We need a scheme in which groups of people come together, acquire old and empty properties from the local authority —or the council does it for them—and develop self-help co-operatives. That does not lead to the right to buy and it does not lead to those in housing need being bypassed or exploited.

We must experiment with new forms of tenure when we develop our revitalised public rented sector which will be needed after the next general election in five years, when a Labour Government will have to face an inherited crisis. There is a massive need at the moment for a major housebuilding programme, both in the owner-occupier and in the public rented sector. The post-war baby boom has now reached the family formation stage. The population may be declining but there are more and smaller families and they need more homes.

The Bill does nothing at all to meet the nation's problems. It does not help council tenants, private tenants, those in housing need on the growing waiting lists, the homeless or the owner-occupier. However, I want to refer to a particular category of people in housing need whom the Bill does nothing to help. I am talking about the single homeless and the hostel dwellers who have to live in council, local authority or voluntary organisations' hostels. One of their initiatives during the previous Government paid lip service to the building of decent hostel accommodation for those who are often on the bottom rung of the housing ladder. Yet by their actions they are preventing what they claim they want, although that might be the result of bureaucratic actions by civil servants in the Department of the Environment.

The Manchester city council agreed to replace Ashton house and Walton house, two large old Dickensian hostels. One voluntary night shelter agreed to replace itself because the conditions there are also appalling. The council was to replace the two hostels in its ownership with its HIP allocation and the night shelter was to be replaced through the housing corporation funding and joint projects with housing associations. Under the Government's hostel initiatives, housing associations want properties. Manchester has large empty properties in council ownership. Some of them Manchester will use for its hostel replacement and others could be usefully used by housing associations. But general consent is required by the 1981 Department of Environment circular.

The city council has made an application for dispensation under this circular to sell some of the large properties that it owns to the housing associations for hostel replacement. It made one specific application for dispensation to sell a particular property, 28 Palatine road, to the Family Housing Association. That was refused by the Department of the Environment even though it was for a hostel. A stupid argument was used. It was said in a letter from some civil servant that it cost taxpayers less if the council replaced it itself. That is nonsense, because the replacement of the night shelter has to happen anyway. Through the housing association, the night shelter people will have to purchase another property, probably at greater cost, with everything taking longer on the private market.

Manchester also asked for a general dispensation to sell properties for shelter use only. That was also refused, even though the properties would only be used as hostels. Such bureaucracy is stopping one of the Government's own initiatives and I hope that the Minister will take that up and do something about it.

I hope that I have made it clear that I, and people in the Labour party, are still opposed to the sale of council houses in its present form. Council house sales and large discounts are being imposed, undemocratically, on local authorities. However, we recognise that the next five years are likely to alter the situation as well as everyone's perspective of the real housing problems of the nation. I hope that I have also made it clear that the Labour party is the party that wants to help the real owner-occupier and that we have policies for council and private tenants as well.