Housing

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:20 pm on 1st July 1985.

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Photo of Mr Jeff Rooker Mr Jeff Rooker , Birmingham, Perry Barr 6:20 pm, 1st July 1985

I was not discussing the allegations themselves. I was merely pointing out that Councillor Lloyd will no doubt be the first to insist that they be investigated.

With the exception of certain interventions, I have not disagreed with any of the speeches from either side. The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Latham) put forward positive proposals for improvement grant expenditure which are much to be welcomed and I look forward to debating legislation on building societies later in the year.

The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Ryder) attacked the solicitors' monopoly and the Government's failure to keep their own promises.

I thought that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King) was starting to tease me a little, but he made a valuable contribution about the massive scale of the housing crisis in Birmingham. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North also touched on that. As I must not deal with constituency matters from the Dispatch Box, I will merely point out that Birmingham has 25,000 unfit dwellings in the public sector and 35,000 in the private sector. Out of a housing stock of 380,000 there are 60,000 unfit dwellings—one dwelling in six, compared with the national average of one in 16. Birmingham and comparable cities clearly need special treatment. There is no blanket solution to the nation's housing crisis, because the situation varies throughout the country. In some areas there is a surplus of housing—it may be rotten housing, but it is in surplus — while in other areas there is a massive shortage of housing to buy or to rent, as the Minister knows from his own constituency.

The public pronouncements of the Building Employers Confederation in the past six or seven months have been vastly more pertinent than in the previous five or six years. A quotation from the confederation will set the background and tone for what I have to say. It has stated: We face a worsening housing crisis reflecting the fact that we are neither building sufficient new homes nor adequately maintaining existing housing. No hon. Member could disagree with that, but it remains to be seen whether anything will be done about it. By and large, the Government have no housing policy, just a few slogans. The Minister also has some quite funny speeches, but I hope that today he will respond seriously to the comments of Members on both sides about the breadth, depth and variety of the housing crisis throughout this country in the voluntary sector, the public sector and the private sector.

The Minister will no doubt bring out his home ownership slogan. As home ownership increased proportionately every year under the Labour Government, there is no argument between us on that. The Minister will no doubt go on to talk about the private sector, but the private sector has told him that, for a variety of reasons, it cannot meet the demand for housing in this country. He will no doubt also boast about the success of the Government's policy on improvement grants, but if it is so successful, why are they about to abandon it?

As this is a short debate, I can mention only a few of the Government's failures since 1979. First, they should be thoroughly ashamed of the fact that mortgage rates are on average 50 per cent. higher than they were under the Labour Government. No one expected that to happen under the Conservatives. A mortgage rate which is twice the rate of inflation imposes a crippling burden on millions of people.

Millions of viewers saw the stark effects of that in the "Panorama" programme on television a week ago. Why should families paying off long-term mortgages become the victims of short-term changes brought about by big-time money speculators? When the interest rate casino started up in the mid-1970s, the Labour Government set up a building societies mortgage interest stabilisation fund at no cost to public funds. That system worked quite satisfactorily, but the Conservatives have made no attempt at all to deal with the problem. Of course there is no magic formula but the Labour Government proved that some short-term assistance could be given.

The Government's failure with regard to land prices has already been mentioned. They have allowed the price of building land for housing to rise by 1,000 per cent. in seven years and by even more in some areas. Under the Conservatives we have had south American inflation rates in the price of building land, finishing off the building industry in many parts of the country, especially the home counties. The deliberate restrictions placed on building land for new homes in areas where people want or need to live has sent the price of building plots through the roof. How can the private sector fulfil the Government's policy to take over virtually all land for housing and build houses within the reach of first-time buyers when a plot of land costs between £20,000 and £30,000?

In many parts of the country, such as Berkshire, Hertfordshire, Suffolk and Warwickshire, cuts in building land of between 20 and 30 per cent. from structure plans are deliberately designed to force up the price of such land. Indeed, they are deliberately designed to prevent people from moving into such areas. They are designed deliberately to stop the building of houses—a subject on which many Conservative Members have campaigned in recent months. They do not want new housing in their constituencies. In fact, this cut amounts to a tax on housing.

The Minister only recently met the House-Builders Federation. Following that meeting, Mr. Humber said last week: We can only fill the gap if we have land at reasonable prices. The party of home ownership at Downing Street is not the party of home ownership when you go into the shire counties". What is the Government's response to a situation about which they alone can do something? The federation also said: in terms of delivering owner occupation to people who want it, at prices they can afford, and who expect this Government to help them, the Government's record—and that of its shire county supporters who are the real culprits—is appalling". The House-Builders Federation and, indeed, the Building Employers Confederation are not exactly known for stuffing the coffers of the Labour party at election time. Those gentlemen and their industries are the paymasters of the Tory party. They believe that under this Government it is their duty to carry out housing policy, but they cannot do so because of the other policies which the Government have imposed on the nation.

The third area of failure, in addition to the massive increase in mortgage rates and land prices, relates to the number of new dwellings. No one will argue that there is no longer a need to build new dwellings, even though we may argue about the part of the country in which they are built and the kind and size of dwellings to meet the mix in the population. By the year 2000, the population will increase by only 4 per cent. The Government recently told us that by the same date the number of households will have increased by 14 per cent. We therefore know that there will be a massive mismatch of population to households, even in the few short years to the end of the century.

Had the Government continued the average new home-build programme of the last Labour Government, there would today be more than 500,000 new homes than exist. The last Labour Government's average build programme was 285,000 dwellings a year for five years. The average new build programme under the Tory Government in their first five years was 180,000 dwellings a year—more than 100,000 fewer. Put another way, for every week that the Prime Minister has been in Downing street, 2,000 fewer new homes have been started than under the last Labour Government.

The Labour party has nothing whatever to apologise for, although we are the first to admit that we did not build enough homes. We have nothing to be defensive about. The 500,000 homes that have been lost represent 1·5 million taps. I bet that the tap manufacturers would have liked to see their factories churning out those taps. Those houses also represent at least 1 million front and back doors, which the woodworking factories would like to have made. They represent at least 10,000 million bricks, which could have been manufactured by British workers to be used in homes for British people. That has not been possible simply because of the cutback in the Government's building programme.

In its leader column a few weeks ago, when it referred to taking comfort from the Prime Minister's statements, the Building Trades Journal said: The next election would be upon us and who is to say which way the voting will go. Another dose of this type of Tory administration would be disastrous for the industry and the Government needs firmly discouraging now from keeping on its present course". That is the weekly vehicle of the builders and building material producers, who have suffered catastrophic business failures in the last five or six years.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North referred to international comparisons. Why should we be different from France or Germany? Their populations are roughly the same, and the wealth of those nations is not that dissimilar from our own. Indeed, the economic capacity of the three countries is about the same. France and Germany are our economic competitors. Why do they invest three times as much of their gross national product in residential building as we do? What difference causes that to happen? Why do they think it worth while to invest in residential building, whereas the United Kingdom Government do not? I doubt whether those issues will be raised at the European summits, but perhaps the Minister can explain the reasons for this trend over the past few years.

The repairs crisis has been well documented by many of my hon. Friends, and reference has been made to the Government's forthcoming attempt to change the system of measuring unfit housing. Do the Government intend to change the fitness standards in the next house condition survey? We must be able to measure the fitness of housing in 1986 on the same basis as in 1981. Come the end of this month, when the inquiry into British housing—which to its credit has been sponsored by the National Federation of Housing Associations—reports, the Government will not be able to get out of the corner.

On the evidence available, it is possible for only one kind of report to be written, and the Minister knows it. He will not be able to flannel over dinner with members of the inquiry team on the day that the report is published. They and the country will want firm Government decisions on what has emerged in report after report from all sectors of society right across the political spectrum, because the housing crisis can no longer be ignored.

We now face problems arising from the junk housing forced on local authorities by Governments of both persuasions in the 1950s and 1960s—no one denies that —but we must show the British people that Parliament has learnt from its mistakes. We shall no longer be able, simply by fiddling the subsidy arrangements, to force local authorities to build junk jungles in which people will be forced to live, be they vast estates that are so anonymous as to be unbelievable or tower blocks in the sky. Both parties are to blame, but this Government have not yet had the courage to say, "Yes, we made a mistake. We admit it. We shall learn from it and do something about it." We will not allow the Biiminghams of this world to pay out of their own resources, because the 429 tower blocks in Birmingham have been surveyed and all have been found to be in serious need of repair. We will not allow the Manchesters of this world to cope on their own, because they are saddled with vast numbers of deck access housing. We will not allow them to count as housing investment the dismantling of the Bison deck access fiats to see whether they were put together properly.

The Minister still refuses to give Newham council financial approval to dismantle Ronan Point, winch I visited a few days ago to see how that tower block was put together. Why should Newham council have to pay housing investment money to dismantle Ronan Point? Surely the Government cart make a special dispensation for that tower block, whose name will haunt housing policy, architects and planners for years to come.

Local authorities alone cannot cope with these problems. Given their inadequate resources, they are not able to help the thousands of people who are trapped in junk high-rise housing in which they are forced to live. Local authorities are unable to get people out of unfit owner-occupied housing, simply because the Government refuse to accept their responsibility.

It is no good the Minister saying, "You own your own house. We have created a policy which forces you to do this because we have cut back on the building of houses for rent." The Minister knows full well that there is a massive need for houses to rent. His own local council told him so in its housing investment statement last year.

There is a massive need for housing both for those who want to buy and for those who want to rent, at a price which they can afford. There can be no freedom of choice between tenures if there is a deliberate Government policy to deny people the opportunity to have one sort of tenure of housing, and so force them into the other. That leads to the examples that we saw on "Panorama" last week. Real choice of freedom means what it says—a genuine choice of available housing. The Government's dogmatic approach of virtually refusing to countenance any building for rent must change.

We want building for sale to continue. We want housebuilders to improve their record levels of building for sale, but we also want people to have a choice to rent if they wish. That should be their decision. It should not be a decision of the Government or of the local authority. However, the decision whether people have the choice is the Government's. They should make resources available to the voluntary sector and to local authorities, and should change the rules and regulations for land planning, so that housebuilders can go back into the market to build for first-time buyers. Nobody will convince me or the housebuilders that the Government's policies are designed to allow them to build for first-time buyers. The Government know that that is not the case, so a change in Government policy is called for.

Often in the past the Opposition have been accused of being irresponsible because, it was said, we made demands which were based on a bottomless pit and the money was not available. This is one of the wealthiest countries in the world—let no one deny that—but we misuse our wealth. The Audit Commission was set up by the Government, but only a few days ago it said that to tackle seriously the scope and size of our housing crisis no less than £50,000 million was required. That makes the Building Employers Confederation demand for £30,000 million to tackle the housing crisis look extremely modest. I ask the Minister to split the difference and get on with the job.