Housing

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:05 am on 2nd March 1984.

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Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith 11:05 am, 2nd March 1984

I do not intend to take up the remarks of the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Ryder), other than to say that the private rented sector started to decline long before the first world war. It became increasingly uneconomic to rent if the landlord was to keep up the standards that were required by the public health authority, unless he held a number of properties or charged exorbitant rents which people could not afford. That underlying decline has continued since about 1907. To pretend that the decline is due to the Rent Acts is nonsensical, and has always been so.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) on the real emphasis that he gave to the unmet housing need. He was right to emphasise that. It is a problem that we see in considerable measure in the inner cities, although it is not confined to those areas. We sometimes forget the rural aspects of housing poverty. However, the problems in the inner cities are severe. In Hammersmith, for example, 16 per cent. of properties are unfit and another 38 per cent. in the private sector are in serious disrepair and need about £165 million to be spent on them.

The decline is continuing and the Hammersmith council, along with many other local authorities, is unable to keep pace with it. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwood was right when he said that there was a housing crisis around the corner. I could criticise that statement only by saying that the crisis is already with us. That fact is emphasised to us every time we hold our advice surgeries.

There is an important need to have long-term planning for housing. Housing authorities, whether local authorities or housing associations, have been bedevilled by policy changes from time to time and cuts in expenditure which have resulted in their having to change their policies at short notice, with all the disadvantages that that can bring.

The Government's response to housing expenditure in the public sector is to say, "We cannot afford it. It is public expenditure and public expenditure is bad." The assumption that usually underlines that response is that public expenditure is inflationary. It is not necessarily inflationary, because there is no direct link between public expenditure and inflation. Certain types of expenditure, both public and private, might lead to inflation, but to dismiss public expenditure as inflationary is nonsense. Other countries which devote a greater percentage of their gross domestic product to the public sector have pretty impressive inflation records.

The Government have increased public expenditure as a percentage of the gross domestic product. They have done that by cutting the wealth of the nation and reducing the GDP. In doing so, they have more than doubled unemployment. They have increased public expenditure overall in percentage terms. There is no evidence to suggest that public expenditure, used wisely and properly, is inflationary.

A good example is to be found in the building and construction industry, where about half a million workers are unemployed. I do not think that four or five years ago any of us would have dreamt that that was possible. It is a central part of the Opposition's argument that a major investment programme in housing— repair, renovation and building—is essential to meet housing need and to regenerate the economy. One of the advantages of an expansion of the construction industry is that it does not suck in imports. There is not the problem of import penetration that stems from giving benefits to the higher paid in the form of income tax reductions, who then spend on imports.

The impact of housing on the structure of society is extremely important, as my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood said. Housing and a job are the most important things in a person's life, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) said. Housing affects people in many and varied ways. Not only the number of houses, but the quality of houses is important. Housing affects a person's ability to move to look for work.

People must have a sufficient number of rooms in which to bring up a family, and to allow children to study properly. Children should have a garden to play in. I emphasise the importance of a garden, because some years ago a Labour local authority in London decided that it was wrong to put families with young children in high-rise flats. The impact socially is dramatic. A mother with young children living in a high-rise flat either has to keep the children indoors all day, with all the tensions that that involves, or let them play outside without adult supervision. That has many implications such as a decline in social behaviour and an increase in vandalism. We should make a major effort to take all families with young children out of high-rise flats.

The ability to move to the area of one's choice is also important. When I was elected in 1979, I could say to people at my advice surgery who wanted a transfer within the area that there was a possibility of staying in west London because GLC activity made it possible to rehouse them there. That is no longer possible. People must move to north-east or south London to have a real chance of transfer. That often means that they lose their jobs.

I know of a number of people who have been told by their local authority that they must choose between their job and a housing transfer, because they cannot have both. Particular problems are caused when a person works late at night and cannot return to a house or flat on the other side of London.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwood was right to say that we must help people to rent as well as to buy the property of their choice. There is no reason why a person, born and brought up in west London, should not be able to stay there in decent housing. There is no reason either why a person should not have the right to retire to the coast. Just because a person has rented all his life in the public or private sector, it does not mean that he should be denied the right to move which is enjoyed by owner-occupiers, who receive so many subsidies. We should aim at that in our long-term plan to improve housing.

I shall concentrate on renovation and grants in my area. Hammersmith and Fulham council is Tory-controlled, with the support of two Liberals. I have been asked by the council to urge the Government to do something about housing renovation and grants. The Minister knows that, because he recently wrote to me about it.

What is the problem? I have received many letters—probably 50 or 60 — from my constituents. One letter was from a lady in Agate road, who said on 27 February: I am writing to ask for help.We were down for a grant for our house which is in need of repairs. 2 weeks ago we got a letter from the housing department, saying that they had run out of money and could not help us.We have a mortgage through a Building Society and have a £2,000 retention order to do certain jobs, at the moment the gas board has cut off our Ascot and we have to boil all the water we need by kettle.Furthermore, just as we are trying to get enough money to do the water system, we get the surveyor's bill for over £650.I'm a registered disabled person, and on part time, it would be most appreciated if the housing department can pay part of the above bill. I received another letter from a lady who lives in St. James street, Hammersmith. She said: I wish to put to you some facts that I find very disturbing. I have owned since 1967, a small dilapidated terraced house, which I have always maintained at my own expense. My income is small—£65 approximately a week after tax, and I still have two non-contributing children at home.In recent years the public has been encouraged to ask for government help to keep such homes as ours in good repair. That is important in the context of this debate, because successive Governments, particularly Labour Governments, have tried to encourage house repair and renovation.

My constituent added: Therefore, since my income is quite inadequate to pay for the extremely high present day building costs, and my house has become in great need of repair, i.e., the sagging roof is leaking again, the internal walls are damp, some window frames are rotting—all this pointed out by local government surveyor—I decided to ask for a grant to mend the roof.The first surveyor from Hammersmith grants department agreed to give a grant provided I did a great deal of other work, to bring the house to the standard required. Costs escalated. A solution was agreed to verbally by Mr. Mawger. It is important to remember that to receive a grant people have to employ an architect if they are not to get into difficulties later. Councils encourage that, so people have to incur costs before they can receive the grant.

The letter continues: There were delays and problems. The work was going to necessitate us vacating the house for six months, with no alternative accommodation. Plans were submitted, and formal application for grant was made in September. The architects and myself were assured at all times there would be no problem of the offer being withdrawn.In the meantime, while waiting for planning permission, I was served with a dangerous structure notice — November 1983. The building department agreed to wait until the grant was available. However, on 4th January 1984, another notice was sent, saying that my grant has been withdrawn.[As a result of government policies?]Do you agree that I am justifiably very upset that the council should go back on an agreement that I was counting on, and that the architects are already hinting at the expenses they have already incurred? The lady asked me to do what I could to help.

Another lady, writing from Eynham road, says: I am writing to express my deep concern at hearing that my application for a repairs grant to my property has been cancelled. She says that she had the assistance of architects and planners and that a housing official informed her by telephone that the grant had been blocked. She went on to say: I have lived for four months with rain coming through my skylight, increasing damp on the dining room ceiling, a hole in my bedroom ceiling, and no doubt other (as yet unseen) damage, in anticipation of this grant. I have no option now but to try and get an extension of my mortgage since it would be irresponsible of me to let the condition of the property deteriorate any more.But I am not the only person affected. The property is a maisonette and has a lease which states that the costs for upkeep, repairs etc., of the exterior must be shared between myself and the occupant of the other (in this case ground floor) flat. The person concerned … is a pensioner and a widow for whom the prospect of having to pay half the costs of the roof repair is a bombshell, and undoubtedly a major problem. Apart from this I have had considerable embarrassment informing her of this prospect—taking into account her age of 70 years. My constituent asks me to look into her problem.

A letter was sent to that constituent by the Conservative leader of the Hammersmith council, Kim Howe. It is a short letter, which simply says that he is concerned to hear about her position and is deeply sympathetic. I am sure that he is genuine when he says that. He continues: As you will probably have seen in the press, the Government has had to reduce the money available to this and other Councils for these sort of grants and a number of other people have had to be disappointed as well. The Conservatives have been in control of the council for some time.

The Conservative chairman of the housing committee, Councillor Clark, came to me a couple of weeks ago with the director of housing and the assistant director in overall charge of the private sector. They said that they were extremely concerned about the way that the policy was hitting so many people. Like me, they were getting many letters of protest, and they pointed out the very real problems of an inner city area such as Hammersmith, which has some of the worst housing in the country.

The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk should remember that until recently Hammersmith had more privately rented accomodation than almost any other borough, most of it in appalling repair. It demonstrates what went wrong in the private sector.

The director of housing points out to me that the council reluctantly had to cease entertaining discretionary improvement, repair and special grants in September last year because of the unprecedented number of applications and the massive predicted commitments into 1984–85. The figure on 30 September was £4·2 million.

Again, it should be remembered that this policy was encouraged by the Government. In my view, basically it was a good policy in that it encouraged repair and renovation. There is not enormous scope for new building in areas such as Hammersmith. It is essential to emphasise repair and renovation.

I do not happen to like the policy of the Conservative and Liberal council in Hammersmith, but I recognise that in the circumstances it had to consider other possibilities. The council thought that if it entered into further commitments at the expense of other equally high priority aspects of the housing capital programme, it would be in difficulty. Nevertheless, it decided to allocate 30·3 per cent. of the total capital programme for renovation grants. However, because of the cuts, it has had to refuse several hundred applications, many of which are for seriously substandard housing of the type that I described earlier. If the council had entertained them, the housing director tells me that it would have meant a further massive commitment of about £3 million into 1984–85 alone.

The other major difference with grants compared with other aspects of the housing programme is the difficulty of predicting outturn. I think that the Minister was confused about it when he replied to an intervention of mine on a related matter. It is the problem of predicting outturn and commitment due to factors which basically are outside the council's control. The rate of progress on any scheme cannot be controlled by the council, and the applicant has a statutory right to take up the offer for 12 months to complete the work. Almost invariably there is slippage in any one year. No council can avoid that, no matter how good its planning.

I return to the speech by the Minister for Housing and Construction. I was present, and I remember some aspects of it. It was difficult to be sure what he was saying at times, but he seemed to suggest that he wanted the private sector—I took him to mean the building societies—to take up the problem of renovation and repair. Hammersmith's housing director was also present at that meeting and heard the Minister. He tells me that it is pointless asking private sector funding to top up a loan without being able to underwrite it with improvement grant. The objective of harnessing private sector investment to stimulate an improvement of the housing stock is ineffective unless a local authority, with Government aid, is able to do the necessary pump priming.

The Minister does not understand the nature of the problem. It would be nice if a building society would step in and agree to supply the money to do up a house, but there is no way that a society will do that, because there is no return for it unless it gives a total extension to cover all the cost, which then is dependent on the owner's income. In areas such as Hammersmith and Fulham, incomes do not allow that.

What happens in our inner cities is that anyone in bad housing need is unlikely to get any accommodation on the council market unless his need is desperate. The waiting list in Hammersmith is close to 10,000 people. The only way to get in front of that list is to have quite appalling problems, and anyone with problems of that kind cannot rent privately because the prices are way outside what people can afford. If that same person thinks about buying, he finds that the cheapest property available with, say, two rooms will cost him a minimum of £25,000, and usually considerably more.

People on average incomes cannot contemplate that. What happens is that the inner cities get squeezed. People move out of the inner cities and are no longer able to stay with their families, other people move in, and what was previously privately rented property is taken over and split into flats for private home ownership, with a consequent decline in the economic structure of the area.

It is a desperately serious problem. It removes the mortar from between the bricks of society by concentrating the very poor and the much better off and moving out the spread of social mix that we are trying to get in our areas.