Orders of the Day — Tenants' Rights, Etc. (Scotland) Amendment Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:05 pm on 25th October 1983.

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Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar , Glasgow Garscadden 9:05 pm, 25th October 1983

The adjectives that come to mind when describing the Bill are "depressing" and "inadequate". The Bill completely fails to measure up to the magnitude of the housing crisis in Scotland. It gives us no hope, no appreciation of the reality of circumstances, and no inspiration. The only thing that I can say to the Government which, superficially, might be thought to be kind is that their housing policy over the past four or five years has been consistent. The trouble is that it has been consistently wrong. This is merely a continuation of the old argument about council house sales policy with all the old faults. It is a case of experience teaching Ministers nothing.

Labour Members object fundamentally to clause 1. The operation of the present sales policy is an extremely bad bargain for the public purse and local authorities, not as a collection of councillors, not as a bureaucratic piece of government machinery, but for the public purse in a much wider sense. It is a bad bargain for the people of Scotland.

In 1982 the average selling price of a council house was, according to a recent parliamentary answer, £8,375 and the average discount was 45 per cent. I was looking at an extremely good paper that was recently produced by the university of Aberdeen on the experiences in that city. It is interesting to note, for example, that in my former constituency, south Aberdeen, semi-detached houses in the Kincorth housing scheme were valued at just over £21,000. If the kind of discounts that are likely to be applicable in a settled scheme such as that are allowed, one begins to see that we are asking local authorities to sell off assets in a way which will make the management of their housing stock peculiarly difficult and which could not be justified in the light of the good business practice that the new race and the new generation of Tory Back Benchers is constantly urging upon us.

More important than the financial argument—in this alone I agree with the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) — is the social argument, which is decisive. It has cropped up again and again during the course of the debate. Over the years Tory spokesmen have talked a great deal about choice, and about choice in housing. To Labour Members choice is a key issue but in a different sense. If the best of the housing stock is sold off — there is no doubt that that will happen — the remaining pool of letting accommodation will be impoverished. There has been no denial that that is happening. For a long time the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) was in charge of housing policy and he tried to disguise that fact. He thought that his amiable manner would compensate for the poverty of his argument at Question Time. The argument was a strict denial of what was happening. A recent parliamentary answer to a question from me dated 11 July shows that in 1982 in Scotland 9,220 houses were sold under the tenants' rights legislation but only 1,446 flats.

I commend the Aberdeen university study to the Minister. I am sure that it will be in his Department. In a careful and controlled way, looking at all the figures and experience, that study confirmed what probably all Labour Members know from experience in their constituency— that the semis and terraced houses sell and, by and large, the flats do not.

The product of the Government's policy is that those who have been fortunate in the lottery of allocation are doubly fortunate because they can capitalise on their luck by buying at these enormous discounts. The tragedy is that in the name of giving people choice we are pursuing a prejudiced policy which will reduce choice for those who wish to exercise the right to continue to rent property in the public sector. There is no especial virtue in going for that option. Nor is there any virtue in deciding to become an owner-occupier. It is a matter of personal preference and we should be providing a range of choice so that people can exercise their judgment.

In my constituency, as in many others, there is a constant stream of people who, understandably and rightly, are bitter because, having waited for a long time in the sophisticated, complicated and often frustrating process of allocation, they now see the housing which they covet—I do not mean covet in any narrow or unpleasant sense but in the sense that it is the right type and in the right place, the type of house which they have always wanted —being taken out of the letting pool for ever, and with present Government policies there is no prospect of its being replaced. Thus in terms of choice, there is a massive question mark—to put it as charitably as I can—over the effect of what the Government are trying to do.

I want there to be a legitimate home ownership option for as wide a range of people as possible in Scotland, and local government has a part to play in that. I should like to see in the future possibly the examination of the policy of building to sell by local authorities. Homesteading, which has been referred to in terms of the Glenelg Quadrant experiment, is something from which we can learn in the future. The kind of partnership scheme in South Rogerfield and Priesthill, which I am sure the Minister welcomed when it was initiated by Glasgow district council, has something to offer as part of the mix of opportunity in our housing stock.

What I find extraordinary is the fact that, at the same time as we are considering the Bill, the Minister is announcing initiatives—if one can so call them—in improvement and repair grants which put at risk those very schemes and imaginative experiments in housing. In the last year or so Scottish Office Ministers have been saying — to adopt the phrase of my right hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Millan)— that the sky is the limit, that the more people who approach local authorities and sign up for 90 per cent. improvement grants the better.

Local authorities and those applying to them were literally whooped on by ministerial clamour and were told that there would be no limit on the amount that could be spent. Indeed, on 10 October the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Ancram) wrote to the Glasgow housing convenor congratulating him on his efforts. One week later—not because of a variation in the level of grant but because of the attached announcements about next year's finance — housing repair and improvement grants came to a shuddering dead stop. I urge the Minister to address himself, at least in passing, to this problem because it is extremely relevant to what we are discussing in the wider context of housing policy.

Does the hon. Gentleman dispute what my right hon. Friend the Member for Govan said about his letter to Glasgow district council — I will deal with that one authority—saying that it could expect on the non-HRA account the same as, or perhaps less than, it was initially allocated in the current year, meaning that in 1984–85 it could expect £29 million as the best possible option? Does the right hon. Gentleman dispute that authority's calculation that the carry-over—even working as hard as it can to clear the backlog in the last six months of this year — into 1984–85 will be £57 million? If he does not seriously dispute those figures, Glasgow will not be able to honour its legal commitments.

Even if we managed to drive the Minister from his present intransigence, we should still be working on the basis that if that £57 million were found in 1984–85 not one new grant application would be processed in the second half of this and the whole of the next financial year. That is the situation which the city of Glasgow is facing, and it can be repeated in many other parts of Scotland.

It is fashionable—I have some sympathy for it—in Conservative circles sometimes to criticise the more extreme options of local government policy that are pursued by the far Left beyond the Labour party—the argument that there should be no rate or rent increases, no cuts and no redundancies. That which the Minister has done over the past few days — knowingly or, I fear, perhaps unknowingly—is just as destructive a form of anarchy and it has not even the redeeming virtue of compassion.

Only a few weeks ago the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Hirst) appeared all bushy-tailed and bright-eyed on my television screen to tell me and other viewers how he had discovered a great campaign to increase the range of housing repairs and improvement grants and to raise the rateable value ceiling so that more of the burghers of Bearsden could improve their properties. Little did he think that only a few weeks later the whole system would be brought to what I described, I think rightly, as a shuddering stop. He said not a word about that.