Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:52 pm on 2nd March 1984.

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Photo of Mrs Edwina Currie Mrs Edwina Currie , South Derbyshire 12:52 pm, 2nd March 1984

I am sure that the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) will not mind if I call his motion a Labour motion, embracing all Socialist activities which are all things to all men. Some of it is already Conservative party policy, some of it can never be Conservative party policy and some suggestions, though desirable, will be difficult to achieve whoever is on the Government Front Bench, because of lack of resources.

One of the most important resources was identified by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King) when he talked about the shortage of land.

I should like to comment on the draft circular on green belt and land for housing. The philosophy of concentrating on urban, particularly derelict land, is entirely right.

A recent written answer by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment said that the survey of derelict land in England for 1982 had been published and showed that between 1 April 1974 and 31 March 1982 17,000 hectares of derelict land were restored to beneficial use, the majority of it with the aid of central Government derelict land grants. This represents the equivalent of 50 per cent. of the derelict land identified in 1974". — [Official Report, 28 February 1984; Vol. 55, c. 148.] We seem to be doing quite well. However, the 1982 survey shows that we are slipping behind. Some 45,000 hectares of land are recorded as derelict, of which about 34,000 are considered to justify reclamation. It is interesting that some 46 per cent. of it is in urban areas but that nearly all of that is considered to justify reclamation.

I have done some calculations. Unfortunately, I cannot work in hectares. My Conservative party diary tells me that one hectare is 2½ acres. I hope that the House will forgive me if I switch. It means that 20,000 hectares, or 50,000 acres, of good land in our cities is waiting to be used. It is interesting that, according to the same written answer, 16 per cent. of it is owned by local authorities and 25 per cent. by other public bodies and that the remainder is in private ownership.

The local authorities, of course, have the power to use their derelict land. A comment made to me by the House Builders Federation is that it would be extremely useful if urban development grant were available at the point of sale, instead of developers having to wait several months for it to become available. Perhaps my hon. Friend will consider that.

As for the other publicly owned land, it is my strong belief that the Government should urge these public bodies to make the land available—either use it or sell it. They should require a diminution in the amount of this land, whether it is owned by the National Health Service, the prison service or any similar body.

As for privately owned derelict land which is available and suitable for use, again the local authority has the responsibility and should encourage its developmnt, with full co-operation. By "co-operation", I mean assisting with access difficulties, with ensuring that new services are available, with planning briefs on difficult land and with package deals, because very often access is restricted by other bits of publicly owned land and it is possible to open up an entire site of this kind by active co-operation.

When that is done, as it has been widely done in Birmingham, one of the results is a tremendous increase in rateable value. I quote the figures for 1983–84 of the penny rate product in three different cities. In Liverpool, which has just on 500,000 people, the proceeds of a penny rate are £664,000. In Sheffield, with 542,000 people, it is £659,000. In Birmingham, which is almost exactly twice the size, with 1 million people, the proceeds of a penny rate are £1·6 million and rising. That is one of the main reasons why Birmingham has been able to cut its rates now for two years on the trot.

In addition, there is a tremendous increase in capital receipts. The city of Birmingham can now finance more than half its total capital expenditure programmes—not just housing—from the proceeds of the sale of land and housing. One of the projects that it has been able to promote is the complete renovation of part of the city centre in Broad street, to the tune of £91 million. If we do not develop this derelict land, it is not just an eyesore but will add to a considerable crisis in land for housing which I feel certain will develop before the next election. It must be a top priority.

There is something odd about the housing crisis of which we have heard in the debate. I have been interested enough to look at the interface between housing demand and housing supply. Housing demand can show an excess in terms of empty houses, and housing supply can show that it is not enough in terms of the number of homeless people. I shall concentrate my remarks on empty houses and homelessness and try to make some comments based on my experience elsewhere.

It was Shelter which drew attention to what it called in its report "The Scandal of Empty Houses". I have to admit that I have not a great deal of time for Shelter as it operates in the midlands at local level. It never discusses what it is doing with the local authority before publishing its criticisms. It frequently uses out-of-date statistics. It is trying not to solve problems but simply to make a fuss about them. Since Shelter owns no property and has no tenants, it has no experience of what it is like to try to sort out the problems that difficult tenants can cause to the decent tenants who have to live next door to them. Nationally, Shelter's approach seems a little more substantial.

Every vacant house is not just an unsatisfied customer. It also blights the entire area. It invites vandalism. It is expensive. It represents lost rates and rents. Ultimately, it costs a great deal more to repair than if it had been occupied quickly in the first place.

Up to 1 million houses are vacant at any one time. According to the HIPS returns for 1984–85, about 113,000 are in the ownership of local authorities. Another 300,000 are in the ownership of local authorities and described as difficult to let, which means that frequently they are empty. On top of that there are about 519,000 empty private houses. So we could be talking about 1 million properties. That alone would help to solve many of the housing problems that we have heard about today.

About 60 per cent. cannot be let because they are in a poor state of repair. About 2 per cent.—that represents about 10,000 houses in the private sector, according to the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys, 1980 publication — are vacant solely because of the Rent Acts. That fact should be put on record. In the case of about 15 per cent., according to the same survey, no one knows why they are empty. I recall the story of a council that tried hard to find out why houses in a certain street were empty. It could not trace the owner, until someone pointed out that the owner was the council itself. That has happened in Birmingham, so I know that it is true.

The Labour party's policy would call for a lot more money, and we must recognise that the Conservative Government have spent substantial sums of money. Money is available to repair many council properties, and any council that forks out money for pantomimes, free newspapers, peace groups and goodness knows what else has no excuse for not repairing its own properties.

On the other hand, much of the property that was built by councils since the war, to which the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) referred, is junk and it will be knocked down. The property that I knocked down, as my hon. Friend the Member for Northfield described, was occupied in 1963, and we shall be paying for it until the year 2023. I think it is a disgrace. It should never have been built. It was built to Parker Morris standards, but it is a disgrace. I pity any council that has to cope with it.

The record on encouraging private owners to repair empty properties has become outstanding. Housing renovation improvement grants paid to private owners and tenants covered 494,000 dwellings in the first three quarters of 1983 in England and Wales: that is five times the figure for the whole of 1979. So our record is good. However, even a Conservative council should use the powers that it has to ensure that empty properties in private hands are used. It is always entertaining to see how quickly owners crawl out of the woodwork when we threaten to put compulsory purchase orders on empty properties. It frequently works, and — surprise, surprise — the properties are put on the market and have families in them in no time at all.

My personal solution to the problem of empty houses is threefold. First, we should say to the housing manager of the council, "Get them let." It is possible to achieve a much quicker turn round. I used to be told, "You have to have some empty," to which my answer was, "Very, very few." Most council transfers are planned transfers. We know when the tenants are moving. Guess who knows? The council housing department knows, because it is doing the transfer. It should be possible to encourage pre-letting so that people move out and move in on the same day. That can be achieved.

Secondly, I would say, "Get them let, if necessary to different kinds of tenants." I have been accused of setting up love nests in the Northfield constituency by saying that we should offer vacant and difficult-to-let flats that are in a poor state of repair to engaged couples rent-free for three months. They could then take the tenancy and do the property up themselves. The idea was a tremendous success. In fact, it was not entirely my idea; it was also the idea of the local housing manager. It was an excellent idea, and it worked. As a result, a number of happy families are now living in much better properties than they lived in before. It is love on the rates, I suppose.

Third, if we cannot let them, we should sell them—put them on the market, and get them sold quickly. It is a good idea to offer them with a discount to existing council families who are on the waiting list. We sold a great many void inter-war properties in Birmingham, and most of them were sold to council tenants living in high-rise flats. We sold them at a discount. Hon. Members who have described the queues are quite right. It is highly popular. I have not mentioned public money very much in all that because, if land and property are sold and the right-to-buy provisions are implemented, one ends up with a lot of money to spare.

Then we have the problem of the homeless. I must admit that I am unhappy about the working of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 and I am sorry that the Government have not modified it. There was so much goodwill when that Act was passed. It came out of compassion and concern. We are actually housing more homeless families. We housed 28,000 homeless families in England in the first six months of 1979 and 38,000 homeless families in the first six months of 1983—roughly half the people who present themselves as homeless. I am worried because in many areas that is roughly half the total allocation of council properties.

First, that tends to distort and destroy housing planning. In some parts of our cities some property is being used for decanting because of urban renewal and a great chunk is going to homeless families. Therefore, it becomes extremely difficult to rehouse people on the waiting or transfer lists and that distorts housing policies.

Secondly, it encourages people to declare themselves homeless as a way of jumping the gun. I confess that I have encouraged people to do that. I have sent a young girl with a baby to the housing department on a Friday because she did not want to live at home any more. I told her to lake the baby under one arm and a suitcase under the other and sit there until they gave her a flat. I said that if anybody went near her she was to cry, and it worked. I have a feeling that that was wrong, although I did it several times many years ago. She was not homeless. She was just impatient. Why should she be permitted to jump the queue in that way?

Thirdly, we are prevented from giving greater assistance to those who really need it. It is widely admitted that the elderly and disabled, who will not go to the housing department and say that they are homeless, suffer, and tend to slide down the priority list.

A few people are confirmed in their lackadaisical and feckless approach to life and in their dependence, particularly if they go into bed-and-breakfast accommodation, and we should not encourage that. Brent council spends £3 million a year putting people into bed-and-breakfast accommodation. It forks out up to £100 a week per family. That is wildly expensive and unnecessary. The Labour chairman of that council, Mr. Jon Mordecai, blamed the Government. Birmingham has never put anybody into bed-and-breakfast housing, because it is not necessary. It is a wildly expensive and wasteful way of not solving the problem. If a council made up its mind, it would not need to use it at all.

Many homeless people need help. I often feel that responding to a homeless family or person in the way that they ask is not always in their own interests. Battered wives need a refuge, often with support. Seventy per cent. of battered wives go back to their husbands. Young single mothers need supervised flats with a day centre. For a long time I was manager of one such centre, set up by the National Children's Home. Disorganised, inadequate families need advice and support from organisations such as the Middlemore Homes. Discharged psychiatric patients and prisoners need hostels, with encouragement and advice on how to get back into normal life. Homeless young people need a family, not a flat. Simply to give them a key is to shut the door in their face. A typical case in Birmingham would be when we allocated a flat to a 19-year-old who had no idea about budgeting, managing or being nice to the neighbours. After many complaints and not a penny of rent it took 10 months to get him out. All that did was to add to administrative costs, create a lot of miserable neighbours and add to the rejection and misery of that young person. It was not and is not an answer.

I pay tribute to the work of housing associations such as SHAPE in Sparkbrook, which has found much of the answer in its cluster housing with a warden. We must encourage people to provide for themselves and most do. The Labour party's motion implies that the state must provide everything. That has been tried and we have seen the results in the forests of tower blocks in our cities. Derby—bless it—had the sense to build only one. It did not like it and it built no more. We have seen the result in the wastes of cheerless estates and in the disoriented and dissatisfied clientele, especially in our cities. We have seen the result also in the huge burden of debt on local authorities and the impossible task of keeping awful properties in good order. As always, Labour's efforts since the war have meant that they have spent much money and made people unhappy. The motion is a recipe for yet another miserable meal which we should firmly reject.