Orders of the Day — Housing

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:55 pm on 25th July 1984.

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Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North 5:55 pm, 25th July 1984

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) has initiated a useful debate on housing.

There is no doubt that there is a housing crisis. It arises mainly from the large-scale cuts in public expenditure since the Government took office five years ago. In a recent Adjournment debate on housing the Under-Secretary disputed some of the figures that I quoted then. I have since rechecked them in the Library. I am repeating what I said in that Adjournment debate: in real terms, expenditure on housing in Britain will fall during the current financial year to around 39 per cent. of the 1979–80 level. In round figures, that means a reduction from £5,455 million in 1979–80 to £2,118 million in 1984–85.

Ministers have made much play of the decline in public sector housing starts during the last years of the Labour Government. There was such a decline, and I regret it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Erdington rightly said, however, it is nowhere near the decline since this Administration have been in office. In 1978, the last full year of the Labour Government, there were over 107,000 public sector starts. In 1981, the figure was down to 37,000. It rose to 52,000 a year later, and last year it was just over 47,000. Therefore, the Minister, like the Under-Secretary, may state that there has been an improvement, but it was an improvement over the miserable 1981 figure when there were just 37,000 starts in the public sector. From 1974 to 1979, there was a reduction of just over 26 per cent. in the number of public sector housing starts. From 1979 to last year, the figure was just under 42 per cent.

I know that the private sector interests Conservative Members more than public sector starts. It is interesting therefore, to note that in the private sector there was a 48 per cent. increase between 1974 and 1979 and only a 16 per cent. increase under this Administration.

There is undoubtedly a desperate need for council dwellings to be built. As my hon. Friend said, a large number of people are waiting to be housed. Many have been waiting for years on end. A lot of them are living in the most inadequate accommodation. Some young married couples manage to live with their parents or in-laws; others take one-bedroomed rented accommodation because it is all that they are likely to get. Many of them are being cruelly exploited by private property companies. I have referred to the role of the Berger property empire during Question Time and in correspondence with the Minister.

Recently, there was a television film about what is happening in London, where bed and breakfast accommodation is provided by hotels. What a pathetic scene it was. Families, most with children, were put up in so-called hotels because the local authorities could not—and are not likely to be able to for some time—offer them any sort of rented accommodation.

A substantial house building programme is required. The Government's approach — there was the same response from the Under-Secretary during the Adjournment debate on 25 June—is, in effect, to say that there is no real need for new rented accommmodation in the public sector. Even if there were not massive unemployment— officially, the figure in my travel-to-work area is over 17 per cent.—and even if there were no increase in the mortgage interest rate, there would remain many people—I put the figure as high as 30 per cent. — who would stand no chance of getting a mortgage and who could find adequate accommodation only by being offered it by the local authority.

Those are people who desperately need to be housed by a local authority. What is their alternative if they cannot get a mortgage? How can they find other forms of accommodation? Does the Minister suggest that the private rented sector could help such people? All the evidence shows that there has been no revival of the private rented sector and that there is not likely to be. It is not in a position to help the hundreds of thousands of people on waiting lists. All hon. Members know that that is a fact. The sort of people shown on television who are living in bed and breakfast accommodation, with their parents, with in-laws or in one-bedroomed flats will have adequate accommodation such as hon. Members, including the Minister, enjoy, only if a local authority offers them accommodation.

Other people are in difficulty because of the Government's housing policies. Many couples live in multi-storey flats and are waiting to be rehoused in houses. In some cases couples with two or three children must wait a long time for that. Conservative Members are keen to tell us about the Government's policy of forcing local authorities to sell council accommodation. People who live in multi-storey blocks of flats and come to my surgeries or write to me do not want to buy accommodation on the sixth, seventh or 12th floor of a multi-storey block. The better type of council accommodation, such as houses with gardens, is being sold off. If the Government are so keen on their policy to sell council accommodation — they constantly tell us about it—why is the same statutory right not given to private tenants? Hon. Members know the answer to that only too well.

A couple of weeks ago a constituent wrote to me because he was concerned that his parents were living on the seventh floor of an eight-storey block of flats. Apart from other matters, the son wants his parents to be rehoused in a house or at least in a three-storey block of flats. I took the matter up with the local authority, as I always do. The housing department, in its reply, told me that, due to the acute shortage of housing in the borough, the couple would be eligible for a two-bedroomed house only after having been 21 years in a flat. I do not blame the local authority; but I do blame the Government.

My hon. Friend the Member for Erdington told us that his local authority had built only five or 10 dwellings in the past few years. Since 1979, my borough councilWalsall—has been unable to enter into contracts for new council dwellings. Clearly it is faced with an ever larger number of people waiting to be rehoused from multi-storey accommodation and a large number of people waiting to be housed for the first time. Year after year the borough submits applications under the housing investment programme for about £36 million, and each year the sum allocated is no more than about £10 million.

The Minister who is to reply courteously sent me a note to tell me that he would be visiting Walsall, I replied immediately, and suggested that during his visit he should try to understand the housing plight in the borough and the local authority's problems as the borough is designated as a housing-stretched area. But I doubt whether he took up those points.

It is not only a question of building new accommodation. There is also the problem of modernising older council properties. Local authorities cannot carry out the sort of modernisation programmes that they wish to carry out.

I make no apologies for referring again to the Rosehill estate in Willenhall in my constituency. The properties there were built in the 1930s. Among the dwellings—-I doubt whether the Minister saw them on his visit—are 200 which have only outside toilets. Many of them have unplastered kitchens, some are missing hand basins and more than 400 of them are damp. The local authority wants to modernise those properties as quickly as possible. That is the objective that one would expect from a local authority. However, it cannot do so at the moment and it has not been able to do so for the past few years, because the allocation it receives under the annual housing investment programme is inadequate. Therefore, tenants on the Rosehill estate must wait year after year, although they pay large amounts in rent. The improvements, which are absolutely necessary, and which the House should recognise as being necessary, cannot be carried out.

The Government have pursued a dogmatic policy on housing, as in other matters. Since they took office they have been determined that housing should bear the brunt of public expenditure cuts. That has brought many difficulties and much misery to families everywhere. As I said, many people who cannot get mortgages desperately need to be rehoused by their local authority. It is all very well for the Government to sell off council accommodation—I do not want to go into the pros and cons now of that argument—but it is interesting and distressing to note that, apart from the war years, this is the first time that there has been a substantial reduction in the rented sector.

The elementary thing that the Government should have done if they were determined to pursue their policies was to say, "If we are going to encourage local authorities to sell off accommodation, we must ensure that the accommodation is replaced." They have done nothing of the kind. It is precisely because the best type of accommodation has been sold that local authorities are left with multi-storey blocks of flats, from which many people wish to move to houses. But, as the houses have been sold off, how can they do so?

The Government may argue that, even if there had been no sales policy, the houses would still be occupied. However, in the last Parliament, the report of the Select Committee on the Environment, of which I was a member, pointed out that quite a number of the people who had bought those dwellings would have moved to the private sector anyway. Therefore, a number of those council houses would have been available for the type of family that I have been speaking about. There are many building workers on the dole who could be usefully employed on building and modernising the accommodation which is so desperately needed.

Neither I nor my hon. Friend the Member for Erdington have any illusions that we can persuade the Government to change their mind. However, it is right that Labour Members should use every opportunity in the House to illustrate the hardship and suffering that are being caused to our constituents because of the Government's policies.