Public Housing (Scotland)

Part of Prayers – in the House of Commons at 11:45 am on 13th April 1984.

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Photo of Mr Archy Kirkwood Mr Archy Kirkwood , Roxburgh and Berwickshire 11:45 am, 13th April 1984

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important subject on the Adjournment. I am particularly grateful to the Minister. I know that he had some important meetings arranged for this morning, but I do him the credit of suggesting that he is aware of the importance of the subject and that with local government elections coming up in May it is right that the House should spend a little time looking at the problems of public sector housing in Scotland.

Having said that there are district elections in the offing, I do not propose a particularly party political speech. Public sector housing problems are so important that they should transcend some of the worst excesses of the party political banter that the House sometimes witnesses.

With that in mind, I turn to the first topic to which I wish to address the minds of right hon. and hon. Members. It is the need for a housing condition survey north of the border. The Minister cannot doubt that the professional bodies in Scotland—housing officials, the Scottish Housing Institute, Shelter and others—are deeply interested and concerned about the Government's reluctance to carry out a housing condition survey. The Under-Secretary will be aware that every other part of the United Kingdom has had the benefit of such a survey involving as it does a detailed inspection of between 10 and 15 per cent. of the housing stock—private as well as public—which is followed up by a four-page report on every house surveyed, prepared by a surveyor.

The Scottish Office refuses to acknowledge the need for such a survey. In the recent past it has changed the system of the district councils' requirements in terms of reporting the condition of their stock by reducing the need for annual housing plans to be submitted. The requirement now is that only a four-yearly cycle is required, with the exception of Glasgow district council. The Scottish Office conducts a summary check list of questions which it compiles and sends out. It receives information in that form from each local authority. But the information is not published. The Department's officials sit in Edinburgh saying, "We have the information that we need, and we are satisfied that no further information is required." With as much restraint as I can muster I tell the Minister that that is causing a great deal of concern north of the border. It is felt that the need for a housing condition survey is great and is getting greater all the time.

The Minister will be aware that in 1981 a housing survey was carried out in England. It had a major impact on the appraisal of housing stock south of the border. It served to reinforce what at that stage was still piecemeal evidence that was beginning to appear, especially in relation to fast-build, high-density, non-traditional types of council building in England—the Bison and the Orlit type of construction. It showed clearly that the extent of the problems in these areas was greater than had been anticipated previously. It showed that post-war council building by new non-traditional methods with materials that were supposed to give a 60-year lifespan was suspect. Once the results of that survey were known, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities and other organisations could plan to meet the needs that had been identified.

There is concern in Scotland that we may be sitting on a problem of far greater dimensions than is widely appreciated. The recent Select Committee report on dampness and condensation provides evidence for that. As one would expect, the Select Committee conducted a thorough investigation with a wide-ranging programme of visits, but recognised that its work was constrained by the lack of hard data about the condition of the stock across the national spectrum. Even with the limited information at its disposal, however, the Select Committee estimated the repair bill for eradication of dampness and condensation at about £500 million. To judge from the problems in my area—no doubt the Minister has found the same in his own constituency work—that is probably an under-estimate. It is a serious problem and that is a serious sum, but the problem and the cost will inevitably increase the longer the Government allow the problem to spread, causing untold misery and stress for the families involved. The Government must produce proposals and funds to tackle the problem once and for all. I know that it is early days yet, but I look forward to the Government's response to the Select Committee report.

Dampness is just one example of the problems that a housing conditions survey would quantify and clarify so that a far better informed debate could then take place. I note that the housing associations south of the border have decided to set up a special committee on their own—I believe that it is to be chaired by Prince Philip—to produce a United Kingdom-wide analysis of the needs confronting such associations.

On Wednesday the Minister replied to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) about the need for a housing condition survey: The resources to provide the same level of information could be better spent in other ways to provide more direct information of the type that we need to make our assessments."—[Official Report, 11 April 1984; Vol. 58, c. 371.] That is a pretty vague statement. Perhaps the Minister will take time today to try to persuade me that it is correct. I believe that there is a real need for a housing condition survey north of the border and that it is a reasonable request. I do not subscribe to the conspiracy theory, but if the survey does not take place the suspicion will be that the Government are not prepared to undertake it because they are afraid of what it will show. That would be regrettable.

The recently announced plans for general expenditure on housing show that in 1979–80 the Scottish Office devoted £1,720 million to housing costs north of the border. The Government's published plans for the future, however, show a predicted allocation for 1986–87 of only £620 million. Assuming about 5 per cent. inflation, that is a 51·2 per cent. decrease in funds devoted to general housing expenditure compared with an aggregate decline of about 10 per cent. for expenditure in all categories. I am not daft, and I know that the Government seek to constrain expenditure and I recognise the economic constraints on the public purse. Nevertheless, if those figures are correct that is a very severe reduction in general housing allocation.

I accept that there have been some increases in Scottish Office programmes, especially on law and order but also in health and social security, but there have been also considerable reductions—for example, a reduction of 12·4 per cent. on roads and 14 per cent. on education. We find those cuts politically unacceptable, but, even leaving party politics aside, the amount shaved off the housing budget in the period 1979–86 is astonishing. Based on 1984–85 prices, capital allocations for Scotland as a whole have fallen from £364·7 million in 1979–80 to £227·5 million in 1984–85, and it is especially worrying to note that the provisional allocations announced in December were decreased by a further £14·5 million when the final figures were announced in March this year.

I appreciate that there are political problems and differences between the Government's perceptions and those of some rogue authorities. Nevertheless, many smaller and less politically troublesome authorities are being clobbered as they are caught in the crossfire between the Government and some, mainly Labour-controlled, rogue authorities. Inverclyde, for example, despite a rent increase of 75p, or 9 per cent., which is almost double the rate of inflation, will be penalised by the loss of £1·5 million, or 33 per cent. of its capital allocation. That is a very hard blow. In Orkney, too, which is not a troublesome council by any definition, a 7·7 per cent. increase in rents still resulted in a 16 per cent. cut of £120,000 in provisional capital allocation. It is difficult for local authorities to live with such serious reductions.

The dilemma faced by most councils as a result of the expenditure cuts is whether they can afford any major renovation schemes at all. The post-war traditional stock is more or less catered for, but that leaves the major problems of the non-traditional stock built in the 1960s and the 1970s. Councils are lumbered with continuing loan charges. Sales receipts are now tailing off and councils are severely limited in the action that they can take to prevent their housing stock from real and in many cases abject deterioration.

We are also greatly concerned about waiting lists. Shelter estimates that 155,000 households in Scotland are waiting for accommodation, and that is probably an underestimate. Another matter of concern is overcrowding. According to Shelter, about 14 per cent. of Scottish households suffer severe overcrowding, compared with 3·4 per cent. in England and 2·8 per cent. in Wales. In other words, 25 per cent. of the population—one and a quarter million souls—suffer cramped conditions in houses with more people than there are rooms to accommodate them. That, too, is a serious problem.

I support the Government's housing sales policy, but it is beginning to impinge on the availability of council housing stock. That, too, will present serious problems in future. In 1979, local authority council house starts were running at 6,070 per annum. By 1983, the total had fallen to an estimated 2,050. That is quite a serious decline. The Scottish housing statistics show that public sector housing, including that of local authorities, the Scottish Special Housing Association and new towns, has fallen from 1,080,000 in 1981 to 1,049,000 in 1983. The number of houses held by local authorities has fallen from 894,549 in 1981 to 875,268 in 1983. Therefore, the number of council houses available for let has fallen.

A recent parliamentary answer gave the percentage of council houses that have been sold from January 1973 to September 1983. In September 1978, the date on which the figures were based, 3·7 per cent. of the local authority housing stock had been sold, 8·8 per cent. of the SSHA stock had been sold and 21 per cent. of new town stock had been sold. The combination of those figures suggests that the flexibility available to local authorities is diminishing rapidly. The Government should take that into account when formulating housing plans.

I accept that housing need not necessarily be provided by the public sector. There is scope for public building, for development through housing associations and joint ventures. We need a flexible policy that is built around the right to buy, but we also need to safeguard the public sector to prevent it from becoming the poor relation and developing into ghettos in which no self-respecting tenant is prepared to live. We should also consider the problems of first-time householders. Young married couples now find that, because the public sector housing stock is diminishing, it is difficult to find anywhere to live. Why should we not consider a grant or loan to get them on to the first rung of the housing ladder? That is worth considering.

I should also like to draw the Minister's attention to the complex problems of specialist housing. If we are selling off the local authority stock, and if the level of starts is decreasing, the problems of the single homeless, single parent families, the disabled and the elderly will become even more acute. The straightforward sale of houses is no policy at all for such categories of need. The Government have presided over a serious cut in capital allocation and revenue support through cuts in the housing support grant. There is a danger that Scotland will go into a housing crisis. There is a major need for immediate investment in and repair of post-war estates. There is also an urgent need to assist with the problems of the system-built housing of the 1960s which was encouraged by Governments of both major parties. I do not attribute blame solely to the Conservatives. Such housing is now subject to damp and structural problems. None of those problems can be tackled seriously by local authorities with the level of finance which is now available to them. The Government should be increasing capital investment. If the money from council house sales could be used as additional investment, some of those problems could be tackled.

Although many of the problems require substantial sums of money, there are others which require little money. For example, the Government could encourage local authorities to improve the quality of service that they give to tenants through better staffing levels in housing and direct works departments and the better training of housing management staff. We look forward to the imminent publication of the right-to-repair regulations. We should also encourage tenant co-operatives. Seminal work has been done in Liverpool where groups of tenants have instructed architects on the improvements that they require and have become housing co-operatives. That does not involve a great deal of expenditure and yet would help significantly.

We should consider carefully some of the build-for-sale schemes that have been pioneered by local authorities such as Inverclyde, which, incidentally, was Liberal-controlled at the time. That would ensure that councils meet land but not necessarily building costs and the 40-year duties that that involves. I know that the Minister has taken an interest in sheltered housing. There are some interesting developments in my area. Princess Anne opened an excellent sheltered housing scheme in Kelso only about 10 days ago. There are guidelines as to the quantity of sheltered housing that local authorities should provide, but almost every local authority fails significantly to reach that level. The Liberals would accord priority to giving additional resources to sheltered housing schemes, especially those with wardens.

Real problems lie ahead of us and I look forward to our debates between now and the local authority elections. There is a real and urgent need for increased expenditure to enable local authorities to attend properly to the defects that they perceive in their housing stock. If we do not put the problems right now, they will cost more in the future. I urge the Government as strenuously as I can to spend money now to remedy some of the problems before they get significantly worse.