Housing

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:12 pm on 1st July 1985.

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Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North 4:12 pm, 1st July 1985

My hon. Friend has asked an interesting question to which I am sure the hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) will want to respond. The hon. Gentleman made a valid point about housing associations, but they form part of the Opposition's argument because, like local authorities, their funds have been cut so deeply that they cannot do their job.

In the borough of Walsall, no contracts for council dwellings have been entered into since 1979. Nor is there any hope under existing policies that there will be any such contracts. I ask the House to imagine a borough of the size of Walsall with no contracts having been entered into for six years because the council simply has not sufficient finances. Land owned by the council is being sold because it cannot be utilised by the authority. A great deal of work needs to be undertaken on older and mainly pre-war dwellings in the borough. Again there is not the money to do it.

In passing, I mention the Rosehill estate in Willenhall in my constituency. It was built before the second world war. The tenants have waited for years for their properties to be modernised. The conditions there are terrible.

I have written to the Minister a number of times asking whether he would be willing to meet a deputation from the Rosehill estate. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State has replied saying that it is not a matter for him. His view is that it is purely a matter for the local authority. The local authority tells me that it simply has not the cash to carry out the necessary work. It so happens that the tenants intend to come to London this month on a deputation and to go to Marsham street. I wonder whether the Minister will be courteous enough to see them — or will he remain indifferent to their plight and, even though they have travelled down from my constituency, will not spend some time putting forward his point of view and listening to theirs?

I have mentioned my area, but Birmingham has nearly 25,000 council dwellings in need of modernisation and major repairs. Only 40 are being attended to this year, again because of the financial crisis.

Local authorities have the added headache of putting right the defective prefabricated concrete dwellings in their ownership. The work has to be done out of the annual housing investment programme. On top of all their other difficulties and headaches, local authorities have to rectify the defects in concrete dwellings that require urgent action. No extra money has been provided. The Minister says again that it is up to the local authorities.

I do not deny that there was a substantial increase in the money provided to owner-occupiers for improvement grants. It helped many people buying their own homes who in many cases would not have had enough to improve them. However, once the Tories won the general election of 1983, they were not interested. Today, as a result, we have a large number of defective houses whose owner-occupiers, many of them pensioners, do not have the means to put them right and to whom local authorities say, "We are sorry, but we have not the cash to give you improvement grants." What sense is there in that? I remind the House that when the necessary work is eventually undertaken, it will be much more expensive. I cannot understand why the Government will not give owner-occupiers on limited means the chance to put their houses right and to make them adequate for the coming winter. But, again, there is no response from the Government.

In the last published data on housing investment in different countries, Britain is seen to spend just 2·1 per cent. of its gross national product on housing. That figure has to be compared with 6·1 per cent. in West Germany, 5·7 per cent. in France, 5·6 per cent. in Italy and more than 5 per cent. in the Netherlands. It is difficult to find an advanced country spending as little as we do on housing investment.

I suppose that in some respects today's debate is a trailer for the inquiry into British housing whose report is to be published on 25 July. That inquiry was under the chairmanship of the Duke of Edinburgh. There has been one leak concerning a possible recommendation about mortgage interest relief. But it would be unfortunate if that was the only attention that the media gave to that report. I have not seen the report, of course, but I have seen the evidence to the inquiry. That shows the damaging state of British housing and the need for the type of investment about which I have been speaking.

When the report is published, it should provide the opportunity for a debate not merely in the House but in the country and an awareness of what needs to be done, of the terrible condition of so much of our housing stock and of the misery and hardship of so many people who desperately require decent housing.