On a point of order Mr. Speaker. May I have your advice on this Bill? It is the custom and the constitutional right of the House that Scottish business be dealt with by Scottish Bills which are considered by Committees on which only Scottish Members serve. All too often the Government have breached that tradition by putting clauses that relate to Scotland into Bills largely concerned with England and Wales. That practice puts Scottish Members at a severe disadvantage.
We have the same thing with this Bill, in which five major clauses relate to Scotland. I and other Scottish hon. Members are serving on a Standing Committee which is considering the Housing (Scotland) Bill, which contains many clauses that are exactly the same as clauses in this Bill. The Minister in charge of the Bill in Committee is the Minister with responsibility for local government and housing in Scotland. Because he is serving on that Bill, he will be unable to serve in Committee on this Bill and a Scottish Office Minister with no responsibility for housing and local government will be in charge of it.
As the spokesman for the Opposition in the Committee considering the Housing (Scotland) Bill, I should like to make the Government an offer. I am prepared to facilitate the Government in removing the Scottish clauses from this Bill and adding them to the Housing (Scotland) Bill as new clauses. Scottish Members have some right to protection from the present abuse. What we really require, of course, is an assembly in Edinburgh.
Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. I do not want to turn this into a battle between England and Wales and Scotland, but I hope to serve on the Committee which considers the Housing and Planning Bill, 90 per cent. of which concerns England and Wales, and I could not possibly have the knowledge or ability to speak on the Scottish clauses. The same is true for most of the hon. Members who will consider the Bill because Scottish law is completely different from the law affecting England and Wales. It is a fog and a mystery to English and Welsh Members. It is an imposition on English Members, even if they represent outposts of Ireland such as Bootle, to put Scottish clauses into the Bill.
That is not a matter for me. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) has made an interesting suggestion, which I am sure could be taken up through the usual channels.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Bill has one underlying theme —the need to create the conditions in which available resources, private and public, human and financial, are released and mobilised to improve the conditions in which our people live, especially to help improve housing conditions and to tackle problems in the inner cities. I intend to consider housing, inner cities and then planning.
The Bill marks one more stage in the development of the Government's housing policies. We can claim major practical achievements for our housing policies since 1979, but, perhaps even more important, we have won the argument about housing in the long term. Quite simply, the intellectual landscape of housing policy has changed, and the centre ground has shifted. Nothing could illustrate that more vividly than the gradual change in the attitude of the Labour party to our policy of council house sales. That policy has been so successful that we have irreversibly altered the perceptions of tenants of the choices and opportunities which should be open to them.
Since the Government came to power, the status of council tenants has been transformed. The Bill would give tenants still more choice and still more control over their own homes.
Nobody would deny that public sector housing faces major problems. There is a legacy of bad stock, aging stock, bad design and poor workmanship. Much good work is being done by housing managers in local government, but too much of it is still remote from tenants and insensitive to their needs. In some authority areas, such basic tasks of property management as keeping down rent arears and arranging that houses are not left empty are sadly neglected.
Money alone is not the answer. Resources were poured into public sector housing in the 1960s and the early 1970s, and look at the result. Too often, the result has been vast, impersonal estates — the concrete desolation in which few people would today choose to live. The problem in public sector housing does not lie with money alone. Of course there is a continuing role for public sector housing, but in the rest of this century and the next century it will be different. It will be smaller and more specialised. The old bureaucratic and paternalistic monopoly which has characterised public sector housing for too long must go.
One more passage, and I shall give way to at least one hon. Member.
The keynote is not doctrinaire privatisation, but diversification and an end to bureaucratic control. I believe that the whole House shares that hope. I am sure that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer), to whom I now give way, shares that view.
Is the Minister denying that thousands and thousands of ordinary people would not have lived in reasonable houses had there not been local authority housing? Does the hon. Gentleman think that that is wrong? Is the hon. Gentleman saying that, because sometimes great mistakes were made in relation to those houses, the principle is wrong?
I recognise, as I said in my speech, that public housing will continue to have a role as far as I can see, albeit in a more specialised and narrower focus. The hon. Gentleman would do more for the city he seeks to serve if he persuaded the council to bring back into use the 10,000 or so empty flats and houses in Liverpool today.
No, I would like to make a little progress. I am saving the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) for later.
The first three clauses make important changes in the right to buy. They increase discounts on flats by 10 per cent. and provide flat purchasers with better protection against high service charges in the early years after purchase.
I agree with my hon. Friend that it is indeed sad that high service charges deter so many people from buying flats, particularly in city centres where it is so important to try to introduce more diversified forms of tenure. We are also introducing the right to a loan enabling purchasers to spread the burden of particularly heavy charges. Sales of flats in the big blocks in our major cities have so far been relatively few. The provisions in the Bill will encourage further sales.
Clause 1 also helps mobility by providing that the period during which discount must be repaid on resale will be reduced from five years to three.
Does my hon. Friend accept that the people in Leicester who live in flats will be particularly grateful for the news he has announced today, and for the passing of the Bill, as only seven flats have so far been sold in Leicester, East? Can my hon. Friend ensure that the new proposals will be sent to the director of housing on Leicester city council to encourage him to sell more flats as the people in Leicester want to be able to buy their own flats?
My hon. Friend has on previous occasions brought to my attention and to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment the goings-on in Leicester council. As he suggests, I will certainly write to the director of housing and to the leader of the council and ask them to explain to their tenants the new opportunities that we intend to give in the Bill should it become law.
The Bill is not simply about purchase. It will also enable those who continue to rent to have more choice. With my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's consent, local authorities can already transfer ownership of estates to other bodies. Clause 4 will provide a statutory basis to protect the rights of tenants under such transfers. Under clause 6, local authorities will be able to retain ownership—
The hon. Gentleman must not fear. I shall come to clause 5 in a moment.
Under clause 6, local authorities will be able to retain ownership but to delegate the management of particular estates to other bodies. At present, authorities are able to delegate their powers only to tenant management cooperatives of which there are already about 20, with, happily, more on the way.
Does my hon. Friend accept that the period he picked, five years, is a spit in the wind? Would he also accept that a three-year period is also a spit in the wind? I would like to hear the intellectual argument giving the reason why there has to be any period whatsoever, particularly when that inhibits people from places like Copeland who want to move and get new jobs in other parts of the country.
By reducing the length of time from five years to three years, we are attempting to increase the opportunities for job mobility. We shall keep the whole matter under review in further legislation. I believe that the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) would very much like me to give way to him.
Does the Minister remember that the Conservative manifesto of 1983 stated that it was the Government's goal to make Great Britain the best-housed nation in Europe? How does the Minister set that alongside the Government's record of reducing to 20p in the pound the spending on housing, thus making British spending on housing as a proportion of national income the lowest of any country in the Common Market?
In clause 5, which ignores the 5 million damp and unfit houses in the country, the Minister introduces the power and authority for councils to flog off parts of their estates to private companies. Does the Minister recognise the validity of a comment made to me by a tenant in Stoke Aldermoor, in Coventry, South-East, on Friday night, who said that if the measure is carried out, there will be islands of affluence in council estates within a sea of effluent? Is that not the intention of the Bill?
I thought, with respect to the hon. Gentleman, that I was probably wrong to give way because the hon. Gentleman can never resist making a speech when he should be asking a question.
In response to the hon. Gentleman's first point, and his reference to the 1983 Conservative manifesto—and an excellent manifesto that was—it is indeed our intention to make housing in this country the envy of the rest of Europe. That is why we are seeking through the Bill and in other ways to mobilise all possible resources to bring that about. On many estates, like the one to which the hon. Gentleman referred, developers have been brought in to refurbish rundown council houses by Labour councils. Successful schemes such as those at Regent park, Salford or St. John's green in North Tyneside relieve authorities of a problem and give an enormous boost to the character of an estate, introducing a variety of tenures. Where blocks are only partly empty, it is fair that the remaining tenants should receive a home loss payment when they move.
Clause 5 will enable such payments to be made. It also allows an extra ground for possession under the tenants' charter. That will be similar to the existing ground available since 1980 to local authorities when they carry out redevelopment. In all cases, tenants who move will be given suitable alternative housing as they are given suitable alternative housing by councils when councils redevelop their own blocks.
Moreover, in the case of schemes involving private sector redevelopment, we are proposing the extra safeguard that all schemes will have to be approved by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. The Opposition are rightly and reasonably concerned about the welfare of tenants as are the Government. That is why the Bill safeguards them.
All these proposals demand a fresh approach from housing managers. That will give public sector landlordism a much better name than it sometimes has at present. The Government want to help in that process and that is why clause 7 enables my Department to grant-aid training and to provide better finance for more management innovation. I will give way to the hon. Member for Bootle if he thinks that now is the right time.
If the Government say that they are trying to do something about charters, why are they launching a major attack on the owner-occupier? Why are they cutting improvement grant moneys in their housing investment allocations to local authorities? For example, Sefton borough council asked for £5·5 million but it only has £1·1 million. Sefton can give only the minimum number of improvement grants to owner-occupiers and only in improvement areas. Why, under this Government, has there been at least a fourfold increase in the number of owner-occupiers who have had to default on their mortgages because they could not keep up with their payments?
The number of people defaulting on their mortgages is minute — 0·2 per cent. of all people holding mortgages. Since coming to office, we have spent a substantial sum on home improvement grants, £2·5 billion. This year, it is currently running at £500 million. If Sefton borough council wants to spend more on home improvements, it can do so.
My hon. Friend has been very tolerant in giving way. I am grateful to him. Under the Bill, my hon. Friend will enable councils to privatise some of their estates, should they wish to do so. We understand that many councils, including several enlightened Labour councils, will pursue that course of action. What will my hon. Friend do for those of our unfortunate citizens who live in the areas currently controlled by those Labour councillors who will be the Labour party's next prospective parliamentary candidates—the Hattons, the Bernie Grants and so on? Those citizens will still be imprisoned if council housing is controlled by these Labour barons who have no intention of providing decent housing. Can we move one stage further and require these councils to take action?
The first piece of advice I would give those tenants is to vote Conservative in the borough elections in May. The second piece of advice to them is to shame — perhaps one should use the word "whitemail"—their Labour councils into doing the same things that excellent Labour councils such as Salford, Oldham and North Tyneside are doing because they care for their tenants and want to improve their lot.
I turn to the inner cities. I hope that there is no hon. Member who says, "There is an easy solution to inner city problems" or "It is a matter of doing this or spending that and it will be all right." We already have a considerable range of instruments—some of which date back to the important 1977 Labour White Paper on inner cities—in the urban programme, derelict land grant, urban development grants, urban development corporations and the urban housing renewal unit. However, we need to do more to mobilise private sector resources in the regeneration of our inner cities. That is why part III enables my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to give financial support for expenditure on urban regeneration. That will be an important power. It is well precedented. It will complement the powers that Ministers in other Departments already have to give financial assistance to industry and to training programmes. Part III is drawn in wide terms. It will be used selectively by Ministers. Our initial intention is to use it to tackle one problem with which existing grant regimes cannot cope. We are open to suggestions from hon. Members on ways of using this new power.
Does my hon. Friend accept that some of us are a little concerned about the wording in clause 11, which refers to
creating an attractive environment or ensuring that housing and social facilities are available"?
Does my hon. Friend accept that there are facilities other than social facilities that should be provided —for example, shops? People would not want to live on a housing estate that did not have shops. It might be desirable to incorporate facilities other than social facilities. Would not a better word be "associated" facilities?
My hon. Friend is right. We shall consider that point in Committee and tighten the provision. It is not within my gift to put my hon. Friend on the Committee—
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, especially as there have been so many interventions during his excellent speech. He has referred to inner city regeneration and the need to move more towards the private sector, as 62 per cent. of the population is housed by the private sector. As we are talking in terms of £75 million of housing stock in England being held by local authorities, will my hon. Friend consider in Committee imposing a requirement on local authorities to publish, at least annually, for council tenants in houses or in flats, the differential between continuing to rent accommodation from a local authority over a typical 20 to 25 year period and purchasing that property? Clearly, the effect would be to shift 9 to 10 per cent. more people from the public sector to the private sector. At the moment, many of the people who come to my surgery and to the surgeries of other hon. Members do not fully understand the equation. It is simple: it makes sense to buy one's house.
That is an intriguing idea. I had not thought of it before. It is one that we must consider, along with repair costs. I shall draw that idea to the attention of my city council—Oxford city council—which has put out a scandalous little leaflet, as so many Labour-controlled councils have done, entitled "Bob and Betty buy their council house", which failed to point out many of the advantages to Bob and Betty of buying their council house.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East is not interested in listening to an exposé of the powers of the new grant, which will be of great use to his own city.
Secondly, those areas are too big to be regenerated or redeveloped by a single project supported by urban development grant. Thirdly, individual buildings in the area cannot be dealt with because of surrounding conditions.
We shall be looking first for areas such as those—heaven knows there are enough of them—where the private sector is willing to contribute its share to regeneration. This use of the new power will be known as urban regeneration grant. I am placing in the Library copies of a paper giving more details.
I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will forgive me if I do not give way. I have already given way quite a lot. I am conscious of the fact that many hon. Members will seek to catch your eye later, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
Part II provides powers to establish simplified planning zones. They, too, will be of particular importance in the inner city. This is a radical new idea to speed up inner city and other development, exactly complementing urban regeneration grant.
They must prepare a scheme for each zone. The scheme will grant planning permission for any development of the type or types that it specifies. For 10 years thereafter, developers will have the certainty that such a development can be carried on without the need for a planning application or the associated fees. I hope that those points will be widely welcomed. I believe that many local authorities will want simplified planning zones. The Bill provides that, if a local authority will not prepare a scheme, any person can refer the matter to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment who can then direct the authority to prepare or alter a scheme.
I am truly grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene. He is aware of my concern and that of the Christchurch council, which has been fighting to retain its character against the predatory activities of some large building companies. Will he make it clear beyond peradventure that local authorities will not be required under clause 9 to designate areas as simplified planning zones? As the Bill reads, it appears to make it incumbent upon local authorities to do so. Many of my right hon. and hon. Friends who represent certain parts of the country are extremely worried about this provision.
I know of my hon. Friend's concern and that of other of my right hon. and hon. Friends. Councils will be required to ascertain whether there are any areas within their responsibility that could benefit from designation as simplified planning zones. If they find that there are no areas that would benefit from such designation, it will not be incumbent upon them to designate one area here or there merely for the sake of it. I hope that my hon. Friend will take that reassurance from me. I shall consider the matter again in Committee to ensure that we arrive at exactly the right wording.
I turn to other planning aspects of the Bill that, to a lesser extent, complement urban regeneration grants and simplified planning zones, which together will be such valuable additional tools to those that we use already to implement our urban policy. We hope that the grants and zones will be another significant step forward for the inner cities.
Thirdly, and lastly—
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I believe that I rise on behalf of a number of my right hon. and hon. Friends who want to take advantage of my hon. Friend's extraordinary generosity in allowing important interventions to be made, especially those relating to simplified planning zones. I ask you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, whether you will restrain the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) from disrupting the process of the debate. His behaviour has caused my hon. Friend to refuse, quite understandably, to allow a number of us to intervene to make important additional points about the urban development of the south of England, and Dorset, especially.
The point of order of the hon. Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker) gives me an opportunity to say that there is great pressure on time in this debate. Many right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House wish to participate in it, and interventions inevitably lengthen speeches.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. With the greatest respect, I am sent to this place by 50,000 constituents, half of whom are council tenants. When the Minister makes controversial remarks in his opening speech in introducing such a crucial Bill, it is my duty, and that of other Members, to attempt to question him.
I understand the deep concern of those of my hon. Friends who represent counties such as Dorset. I appreciate that they do not wish planning powers to be abused. In responding to an earlier intervention I attempted to explain that it will not be the duty of councils to define simplified planning zones at all costs. It will be their duty to ascertain whether any areas within the borough or district would benefit from simplified planning zone status. That is the whole, complete and utter story.
Part IV requires the specific consent of the planning authority to the use of land for purposes involving the presence of hazardous substances. At present there is a yawning gap in planning control. It is possible, without any material change of use or any specific consent, to introduce highly dangerous substances on to land. We can no longer allow this to continue in the interests of public health and safety and of the environment.
The theme of the remainder of the Bill is the efficient, simple and speedy operation of the planning system. An example is the provisions of schedule 8 on the award of costs against unreasonable planning authorities and applicants. I know that that is an issue of interest to some of my hon. Friends. Part V is another example of simplification. It brings to an end duplicate procedures for the control of opencast coal mining.
We are using the Bill to get rid of some redundant statutes. The Bill makes equivalent provision for Scotland as it does for England and Wales, except for housing, an issue which was the subject of points of order earlier, when Mr. Speaker was in the Chair. Provisions appropriate to Scottish circumstances are contained in the Housing (Scotland) Bill, which is presently in Committee.
Some of the provisions in the Bill are radical while others remove unnecessary regulation and introduce simplifications. Provisions to make regulations work more effectively may seem to be rather humdrum, but it is important that we get planning law right. Even if Opposition Members are not in agreement with every element of our policy, I hope that they will accept its general drift. I believe that we are all devoted to one end, that of mobilising public and private resources and releasing the energies of individuals, tenants, communities, company directors, managers, councillors, officials, investors and others to play a part in improving their own areas.
No, I shall not give way.
Where it is necessary to retain or increase control in the interests of safety, amenity and the environment generally, the Bill does just that. I am as hopeful of that as I am of the further important changes in housing which the Bill introduces, and the message of hope that it offers to the inner cities.
I beg to move, to leave out from "That" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof:
the House declines to give a Second Reading to a Bill which encourages the eviction of council tenants from their homes in order for them to be redeveloped and sold to other people, which will allow planning powers to be taken out of the control of elected authorities, which departs from the partnership principle for urban regeneration, which fails to reverse the real cut in the urban programme planned for 1986–87 or to provide any new resources to deal with the massive problems of urban decay, housing shortage and disrepair amongst home owners and tenants; and regrets the missed opportunity that the Bill presented to give new rights to millions of tenants to control the management of their public sector housing, if they wish.
First, I give the assurance that the Opposition will facilitate procedurally anything that can be done to transfer the Scottish material from the Bill to the Housing (Scotland) Bill, whether we disagree with it or not. I think that there is a general feeling on both sides of the House that that material would be more properly set within the provisions of the other measure.
The planning provisions relating to Scotland that are set out in the Bill could not be placed in the Housing (Scotland) Bill because they would be without the long title of that measure.
It is quite easy to amend a long title. That is no barrier.
We are debating housing and the other matters to which the Minister referred. The Bill is a somewhat miscellaneous measure but, essentially, we are debating the right of the citizen to have decent housing. That is what housing policy should be about. Housing is not confined to tenure, finance or the roles of central and local government. All these factors play a part, but only a part. The formulation and conduct of policy must be aimed at achieving the central objective of providing decent housing for our people. If the policy does not achieve that, it will be seen by the consumer to be irrelevant.
The housing crisis—
I shall not give way now. I shall do so in a few minutes. I do not want to delay the House unnecessarily. but I have quite a lengthy speech and I wish to complete it.
The housing crisis is all around us. We hear so from Conservative Members who say that they do not want houses in their constituencies. The nature of the crisis in their constituencies must be different from what it is in the constituencies of my right hon. and hon. Friends. Britain has a diversity of housing, so no single plan can be held up to meet the crisis. There is no question of anyone arguing that that could be the case.
It is a statement of the obvious to say that we should aim for homes that are dry, allow privacy, and are well maintained and secure. For millions of our fellow citizens that is not achieved. To be precise, 4 million households in England suffer that injustice. Two out of nine homes in England are either unfit, lacking in basic amenities, or in need of substantial renovation. That adds up to a coalition of several million badly housed people, owners and tenants alike. They will not thank anyone for seeking to erect artificial barriers of tenure and finance between them and a decent home. The best definition of decent housing is that in which people are happy. Happiness comes from control over one's life, including one's home. To meet that objective, we need a coherent housing policy. We must test the Bill against that aim.
The Government's short answer is that they are not selling enough flats, but they fail to appreciate why. I claim that people will not buy what they cannot sell. It is a bad bargain at any price, as the owners of defective concrete houses have discovered.
I shall give way shortly.
So far, 29,000 flats have been sold compared with about 700,000 houses since the change in the law in 1980. That represents about 4 per cent. of a local authority flats stock of 33 per cent. of all council housing. It appears from clause 3 that the new right to a loan—I say right to a loan and not right to a home, because that is not what the Bill is about—is nothing more than a right for today's tenants of flats to become owners to pay for the necessary large scale renovation of our nation's flats. It is a loan secured against the flat, so their very home would be used to pay it off. That comes at a time when 72 per cent. of council tenants are on housing benefit.
Why is there no promise in the Bill of reinstatement grants as there is in the Housing Defects Act 1984? We know that that is a con, but at least the promise of a grant is there if the resources are made available to back it up. The recent report of the Department of the Environment on the condition of the public housing stock is daunting reading. It should be sent as a financial health warning to those thinking of buying a flat. The Government know —because they are their figures—that £18·8 billion is required for public housing. No less than £6·5 billion of that is for flats.
From the Government's report, flat repairs will cost between £2,800 and £14,000 per flat, with an average of £5,000. Flat dwellers should be warned. The restriction on service charges does not last for ever, and the potential cost for flat dwellers buying on that basis is frightening. It would not be a bargain, even at a 90 per cent. discount, to be trapped in a home that one could not leave and on which one must borrow to pay off service charges to make good the structure. If the true financial burden is made clear, the Government's efforts in the Bill simply will not work.
If the Government were serious about housing need, especially rented housing need, they would have proposed a portable discount for flat dwellers that would have enabled those who wanted to buy to do so, thus leaving a flat available for rent. The Labour party proposed such a scheme in Brent and it is working well on an experimental basis. That could have been taken up by the Government and we regret that they have not done so.
Flats in tower blocks can be made highly desirable places in which to live, not by piecemeal selling off, but by imagination and flair of management, which needs to be as intense in the public sector as it is in the private sector. For a start, porters in tower blocks would be a sight more effective than entryphones. There are examples in my constituency of the doors being ripped off. Wages would be recouped by the reduction of damage and the consequent higher occupancy. The tenures can be mixed as easily as they are in houses. There are many examples from around the country, some of which are identified at length in the report on tower blocks by the South Bank polytechnic published by the Institute of Housing a year ago. We urge action along those lines and we regret that the Government have failed to take it.
What is the policy of the hon. Gentleman's party in assisting people in those matters, for example by offering discounts when they want to buy property, whether it is a flat or a house? More important, what is his attitude to the local authorities' policy of threatening to repurchase, or repurchasing what tenants have bought from the authority in the first place?
The hon. Gentleman has not been listening. I have just castigated the Government for not taking advantage of providing a portable discount for flat dwellers. The implication is that we would give general support to that as an alternative to the Bill. I shall try to meet the hon. Gentleman's other points later. I shall make my speech in my own way.
The hon. Gentleman has put out a little bit of a scare story about service charges to flat dwellers. In the private sector people buy their flats and manage the service charges. I know that the hon. Gentleman says that they are too high, but in a lot of the private sector they are not, and on the Continent people buy their flats and they cope with them there. Why is it such a problem in the public sector?
I suggest that the hon. Gentleman goes to the Vote Office and reads the Government's report on quality and the need to spend on renovating public sector housing stock, which they are trying to sell off at a greater rate. The hon. Member should look at the figures, because they are exactly the ones that I have quoted.
The Bill does little for the homeless. A few nights ago I visited some families stuck in bed and breakfast accommodation in the Bayswater area. Families have been placed by authorities in 10ft by 10ft rooms. One of those authorities not only has 1,500 empty homes, but has so managed to arrange its finances as to underspend its meagre housing investment allocation by a cool £1 million.
One young mother, in a hotel since last August with no offer or visit from those who placed her, explained that she cannot get on a doctor's list, cannot use the local nursery, cannot cook properly and has had three different rooms in a hotel that is subject to fires. In the first few weeks, when she was under terrible strain with her new baby, she rang her local social services department for help and advice and was told, "It is OK, whatever you do to your baby you will be OK." She will never trust a local authority social services department again. That is the type of pressure under which young families have been put by being forced to use that sort of accommodation. For the homeless, the formulation of policy is irrelevant, unless it brings about a decent home. I will gladly take the Minister to meet that family if he wishes so that he can explain how the Bill will help them in their circumstances.
Before today's maiden housing speech by the Minister, as a Back Bencher he is on record as asking only one question on the subject. On 25 July 1979 he asked about housing construction starts in the public and private sectors.
He was a Back Bencher for only one and a half years. Just after his election he asked a question about housing construction starts in the public and private sectors. In answer to the hon. Gentleman, the Minister referred him to statistics which clearly showed that Labour were building 5,400 new homes a week during their period of office. Has he asked the question again since he became Minister for Housing? If so, he would have been told that the Tory record since 1979 shows not 5,400 new homes per week, but ony 3,400 per week — 2,000 per week short.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for the close care he has shown in looking up things that I said on earlier occasions. I am flattered by that. Does the hon. Gentleman recall that in his summing up of the debate on the inner cities he said that he abhored, in housing terms, playing the numbers game? Does he agree that much more important than bandying about statistics—amusingly put as his assertions are—he would be better advised to concentrate, as the Bill does, on ways and means to bring back into use hundreds of thousands of empty flats and houses in the public and private sectors, which would help the homeless and others? Does he agree that making use of the resources available is of paramount importance?
I could not agree more, and I shall deal with that in a few moments.
Most of the worst housing in Britain is in the private sector—usually in the urban areas where Labour local authorities own the worst quality public sector housing. Since they own most public housing, it follows that they own most of the worst housing. Those urban areas are usually represented here by Labour Members, which is one reason why the Labour Government were seized of the problem and organised their affairs so that they could build 2,000 more new homes a week than the Tory Government have done since 1979. Had the Government simply continued what the Minister suggests was Labour's meagre housing programme, Britain would have 500,000 more homes than it does now. That would make a massive contribution to solving homelessness.
The Minister says, "We do not need them." However, household formation is greater than the population increase, and every serious analysis shows that the Government need to build at least as much as the Labour Government did. That is so even with the many empty houses.
In any circumstances, but especially Tory circumstances, flats and houses that are needlessly standing empty in the private and public sectors are a disgrace. They should be homes for people, not monuments to inefficiency or prejudice. If the Government were serious, we would be debating the compulsory acquisition of some of the 540,000 empty homes in the private sector where, in the words of the Minister in answer to my question on 19 December, the
owners do not wish to occupy or sell them but are deterred from letting by the Rent Act." —[0fficial Report, 19 December 1986; Vol. 89, c. 264.]
That prejudice is preventing the homeless from having decent houses.
In the public sector, a much lower proportion—2·7 per cent. — of the stock is empty, as against 4·1 per cent. in the private sector. That still means 110,000 empty homes. The smaller percentage gives no excuse for failing to condemn the reasons why some of that stock is empty. I should also put on record the fact that the landlord with the worst record and the biggest proportion of its stock standing empty is central Government —6·6 per cent. of the housing controlled by the Government is empty. I know that it is a small number at 19,000, but that would go a long way to meeting the needs of homeless families.
We should not pretend that all the reasons for empty houses in the public sector are financial. Some management practices are not as good as they might be. A lettings policy where the allocations are made on a quarterly basis is inefficient. It simply means that homes remain idle while awaiting the quarterly meeting. There is another quaint management practice called normalisation. It means that when a tenant leaves, gangs of workers, sometimes several and not all at the same time, are sent in to rip out any improvements that the tenant may have done, such as fitting ornamental stone fireplaces or pine wall cladding. I cannot think of a more futile, inefficient practice, besides being an insult to the previous tenant. Neither practice can be blamed on the House, the Opposition or, indeed, the Government, and I demand that they cease forthwith in the interests of the homeless.
Local authorities who issue telephone numbers so that people can inform them when their properties are empty are at least aware of defects in management, but authorities who send notices to properties that have been empty for 12 years, asking the tenants whom they rehoused 13 years ago whether they still wish to move, should make some heads roll.
Privatisation of management, as envisaged by clause 6, is not required to make some sense of this patent nonsense. That does not mean that present management sizes are appropriate. No fewer than 23 authorities manage between 20,000 and 30,000 dwellings; another 16 manage between 30,000 and 40,000 dwellings; 13 authorities try to manage between 40,000 and 50,000 dwellings; and seven authorities are desperately trying to cope with the management problems caused by between 50,000 and 120,000 dwellings. I speak from the experience of my constituency, because the authority with most public housing is Birmingham, part of which I represent. The scope in that size of management for the bungling, depersonalised approach is amply taken up. Clause 6 also envisages tenants becoming involved in management, to which I shall return later.
Contrary to what the Minister said, the Bill is short on new rights. It is about time that the leaseholders of flats had the right to obtain their freeholds. That right was given to leaseholders of houses by the Labour Government in 1967. As the Bill is drafted, it will create two classes of leaseholders of flats, which will cause further difficulties. The Bill should strengthen legislation on racial harassment in housing. Without that, the freedom to live in peace and tranquility is at risk. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) will return to those points when he replies to the debate.
We must spend a little time on clause 5, which forms the central part of our reasoned amendment. The Labour party has set out many of its housing proposals in the document "Homes for the Future". We are committed to genuine choice, variety of tenure, and greater control of housing by the people. The choice between renting and buying cannot be genuine if there is a shortage, and clause 5 provides a further reduction in freedom of choice under the Conservative Government. The party that boasted of the tenants' charter in 1980 is reduced, in 1986, to removing the right of security of tenure of millions of council tenants so that their homes can be done up and sold to others.
Council tenants who love their homes, are happy in them, and who wish to remain as tenants of the council, or to form a tenant management co-operative with neighbours will be unable to sleep peacefully if clause 5 remains in its present form. As it stands, their choice, freedom and, indeed, liberty to remain in their homes are under threat. I make no accusation that it is a further export to the United States, but it is as serious as that. Tenants will lose the possibility of staying in their homes.
I remind my hon. Friend that the Minister was asked by one of his colleagues, who has now left the Chamber, whether tenants would be told by local authorities how much better off they would be were they to buy their homes rather than pay rent on them. Does he agree that information should be given to all tenants showing how much extra rent they would have to pay to balance housing revenue accounts when, because of council house sales, fewer people shoulder the debt charges created by the building of council houses? If the Minister is interested in the provision of information for a balanced argument, he should explain to the House and to tenants by how much rents will increase because of that factor.
The right to information is also missing from the Bill, but we shall return to that in Committee.
Clause 5 is required to kick tenants out because existing grounds for their removal are suspect. Our excellent Library staff could not find a legal case on this issue. However, one example is about to come before the courts in the county of Cleveland, where at Langbaurgh three tenants are sitting tight on the Spencerbeck estate. I should say at the outset that that is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Mr. Tinn), not the constituency of the hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt). That estate contains 12 to 16-year-old Parker Morris standard homes — good in themselves but laid out appallingly. The lack of privacy and proper road access meant that many became hard to let or, more correctly, hard to live in. There are about 800 homes, and Langbaurgh district council was desperate to do something, so it sold a group of 177 houses to a developer—
I do not seek to hide the fact. I shall come to that point later, and I shall balance the argument.
Quite why the developer could not take the empty properties plus all those that the council could empty voluntarily, as it claimed that many wanted to leave, I am still unclear. That would have had the advantage of mixing up the tenures and giving scope for improving the layout. It would have preserved the liberty and freedom of choice of those who wanted to remain in their homes.
Those three tenants now live in the middle of a building site. For people to knock on a person's front door and ask why he is still living there because his home is to be theirs is unpleasant, to put it mildly. We know that for the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young)—I regret that he is not present—it cannot sound too unpleasant. On the "TV Eye" programme last autumn he said that the Bill would be
a "useful reserve power in those rare cases where, for whatever reason, one person is impeding a modernisation scheme".
Unlike that or any other Minister, I think, I have been in the three homes concerned and I suggest that before we reach the relevant stage in Committee somebody from the Government Front Bench follows my example.
Homes on that estate sold under the right-to-buy legislation are not affected. That shows that there is nothing inherently wrong with the quality of the construction of the houses. The three tenants could buy, but they do not want to. We would support their right t0 buy. Does the Minister support their right to rent their home? That is the question to which he must address himself.
On Second Reading of the Housing Act 1980, the then Secretary of State for the Environment, after having talked about the new rights in the Bill, said:
Many tenants, having put their work into the dwelling, will want to own it and thus attract the capital benefit for themselves. If so, the way ahead will be clear. But there will be no pressure." —[Official Report, 15 January 1980; Vol. 976, c. 1454.]
Those three tenants could get out of the jam that they are in by exercising their rights under the right-to-buy legislation. Because they do not wish to do that, they will be hauled before the courts and evicted. That is the only reason that that will happen.
The rub here is that the standards of some of the houses have been reduced by the developer. The three-bedroom, two-toilet houses have been reduced to three-bedroom, one-toilet homes and they carry only a six-year NHBC certificate, not the normal 10-year one.
It is not too late for me and my hon. Friends to ask our colleagues in control of Langbaurgh district council, the leaders of which I met when I visited Cleveland, to come to a compromise with the developer which allows for freedom of choice and protects the right of those three families to live in tranquility in the homes that they love.
Perhaps this is the point at which the hon. Gentleman could clarify his party's position. In the context of rights and tranquility, which the hon. Gentleman is rightly raising, will he give an assurance to all those who have bought their council houses that his party will give them tranquility by guaranteeing that never in the future will it give local authorities any powers to compulsorily repurchase any properties that have been purchased from them?
The hon. Gentleman mentioned me and my constituency and I want to make it clear to the House and everybody else that those properties are in the constituency of the hon. Member for Redcar (Mr. Tinn). The three tenants came to my surgery because they thought that they could get nowhere with the Labour council in charge or their local Member of Parliament. As a matter of convention I had to refer them back to their Member of Parliament in the hope that there would be a dialogue which would assist those people because they are nice people living in nice houses.
I do not deny that I raised it. I have not criticised my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar. I gave the facts so that there was no misunderstanding about which constituency the three homes are in. That was in the first paragraph of the point that I made about Langbaurgh.
That is an example from a Labour-controlled authority. It is only fair that I give an example, just as scandalous, from one of the authorities where the Liberals keep the Tories in power. I choose at random the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham.
Fulham court is a mixed community in every sense of the word. It has 372 families, black and white, living in harmony with several generations of the same family around the estate. Ninety per cent. of them voted to remain there rather than be kicked around the borough and the community be destroyed when the Tory-Liberal council announced that it wanted everybody out so that the flats could be done up and sold off. There is not much sign of the tenants' charter there.
In August 1985 that council was funding 127 families in bed and breakfast hotels compared with 39 in April 1984, despite the fact that the officers of the Hammersmith and Fulham council had estimated that it would work out £5,000 a year cheaper for each homeless family to be housed in the empty flats in Fulham court, even as short-life homes. There were 46 flats empty in blocks which will not be empty for another year and a further 52 are empty in blocks which are not expected to be clear until 1988, by which time we hope that the controlling group on that council will have been justifiably booted out. Such is Tory-Liberal action in Fulham. Today about 170 of the flats are empty and 330 families live in temporary accommodation.
I am just giving another example of local authorities seeking to evict tenants who have security of tenure under the Government's legislation which is being removed in clause 5.
Recently there were attempts to dispose of one of the empty blocks to the Addinson housing association as shared ownership along with a restrictive covenant tying the hands of any future council never to use any of the other eight blocks of fiats for rented housing. To its credit, Addinson said no.
I call upon the Liberals to condemn what is going on in Fulham and join the Labour party and Nick Raynsford in calling for freedom of choice for tenants to remain in their homes and within their community.
After that mini party-political speech in relation to the by-election, may I say that the hon. Gentleman has made it clear that there have been two authorities, one run by the Labour party and one by the Conservatives with Liberal support, which have pursued the same policy. I hope that he will agree that we are both striving for local authorities to have the power to make decisions on such matters, whatever decision might be made, not for the Government to impose eviction against the will of the local authority. I hope that the Labour spokesman on housing will confirm the right of local authorities against that of the Government.
Let us be clear that the Labour party is opposed to evicting council tenants for the sole purpose of their houses being done up and sold off. The hon. Gentleman did not condemn that practice. I have condemned it under the Tories, the Liberals and under a Labour authority because it is immoral. It is as simple as that. We still have had no condemnation of it from a Liberal or Social Democratic Member, and we await with interest their contributions.
There are other examples from both Tory and Labour-controlled councils where tenants are being treated as worse than second-class. In November the Appeal Court in the case of Eileen Short and the borough of Tower Hamlets showed what a farce the tenants' charter is on the issue of consultation when tenants are about to be removed for such a purpose. That aspect must be strengthened because the Government's legislation of 1980 has been found to be defective and we shall expect Ministers to remedy it in Committee.
From time to time there are many legitimate reasons for homes and people —both owners and tenants — to be separated. There are slum clearance schemes; road schemes; dare I say it, airport construction schemes and schemes to unlock parcels of land for house building. In all those there is due process. In no case is someone kicked out of a home for it to be done up and sold off.
It may be that the Tories say that there is no need for more rented housing in the public sector, in which case they would do well to look at the 1983 manifesto which has been referred to earlier. On page 25 it said:
Britain needs more homes to rent, too, in the private sector as well as the public sector.
We are not dogmatically opposed to inputs of private sector cash to improve bad housing. We are for freedom of choice and the liberty of people. Those two things need not be incompatible. Clause 5 makes them incompatible in certain circumstances. That is why we wish to make major amendments to the clause.
To redress the damage that would be done by the clause I want to put on record a quote from Labour's programme for 1976. It is as relevant now as it was then and highlights what I have just been speaking about:
There is a growing danger in this age of bureaucracy that the rights and freedoms of citizens will be infringed by the large and powerful organisations with which we have increasing contact. We believe there is a need to tip the scales away from public and private concentrations of power back in favour of the individual. There are several ways of doing this.
When we reach clause 6 in Committee we intend to hold the Government to the commitment given by a Minister at the Dispatch Box at Question Time on 4 December that an amendment from the Labour Opposition to give council tenants a legal right to obtain control of the management of their homes, if they wish,
may well receive support from the Government."—[Official Report, 4 December 1985; Vol. 88, c. 296.]
We want that commitment, given in good faith by a Minister, incorporated in the Bill.
The Bill proposes that councils may make management agreements. That is nothing new; it has been Labour party policy for years. Because progress has been so slow, we said in our document "Homes for the Future" that tenants should be able to trigger the change. That is not in the Bill although the Minister paid lip-service to it. Tenants should be trusted because they know best. There are dozens of examples of successful tenant management co-operatives in Glasgow, Liverpool, Birmingham and London. With resources and commitment they have shown that they can control effectively and fairly the management of their housing. Many of the people are unemployed, single parents, blacks and Asians. It is an abuse of language to refer to them as elitist. They, not the landlords, know best how to run their housing. Some of the existing rules governing tenant management co-operatives need strengthening. After all, they were laid down 10 years ago by the last Labour Government in circular 8/76 which is still the relevant circular.
I want to deal briefly with inner cities and urban renewal. Along with my right hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) I carried out a chore this morning which hon. Members are not often asked to do. Usually we are asked to open housing developments, but my right hon. Friend and I went to his constituency in the east end to close a house. There are five co-operatives in that part of London dependent on GLC funding and they cannot get a decision from the Department of the Environment. The people, many of them Bangladeshis who have no proper homes, have put an enormous amount of time and effort into trying to get housing co-operatives off the ground. Without a decision by 31 March they are doomed. Houses are deteriorating to such an extent that they are no longer fit to live in; hence the closure.
On behalf of my right hon. Friend and the five cooperatives which operate under the Solon secondary cooperative, I demand that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State gives reasons for the delay and an assurance that a decision will be forthcoming. A total of 150 homes in the Adelina, Sylhet, Grand Union, London Fields and Spitalfields co-operatives are to be lost. Is that what Ministers really want? We should like an announcement about a decision tonight.
I knew of the visit that my hon. Friend was making today. Is he aware that I have asked the Department for decisions on about 40 outstanding consents? The answer that comes back is that the Department is giving careful consideration to the matter. The Department is blocking the decisions and waiting for the matter to drop on 31 March. My hon. Friend has highlighted an absolute disgrace and scandal.
I hope that Ministers will reconsider the promises made when they decided to abolish the GLC. The only money that the GLC had to fund the co-operatives was capital receipts. Ministers promised that that money would be transferred. That is no good to a borough such as Tower Hamlets which does not have much in capital receipts. Firm commitments were given about the nature of the funding. I hope that we will not see many more houses being closed. I do not like it, nor do my right hon. and hon. Friends. There is no excuse for it because money is available. It is not forthcoming because of bureaucratic hold-ups in the Department.
I wish to comment briefly on clauses 9, 11, 12 and 13. No hon. Member who represents an inner city area can be satisfied with Government policy. The position has got worse over the last few years. New measures are needed. The urban regeneration grant—I say "grant" although on reading the Bill I think it need not necessarily be a grant but may be a loan—is not a new resource. According to the financial memorandum, there will not be a larger input of cash. That is confirmed by the submission of the Building Employers Confederation on the Bill.
The urban programme announced by the Minister on 27 January of £225 million is in real terms £20 million down on the expenditure for 1985–86 of £237 million. If we add on 5 per cent. for inflation, the Minister should have announced an urban programme of £245 million so that pound for pound it would be of the same value. Is the new scheme really to be paid for by cuts elsewhere in the programme or, worse still, by further cuts in the rate support grant? I cannot believe that is so. My constituents and constituents in other inner cities will despair if that is the only answer the Government can give to the problems of inner cities.
The Minister for Housing was deprived of the opportunity to reply to the debate on 11 December when the House was treated to a charade by the chairman of the Conservative party. We are still awaiting a legitimate, rational Government response to the crisis in the inner cities. We need a commitment of new resources. It was reported in The Guardian on Saturday that the Prime Minister had ordered Ministers to make a statement this week on the inner cities even though it was not known which Department would make the statement or if there was more money available. That shows the disarray the Government are in.
The hon. Gentleman is arguing that more cash should be given to inner cities. Is that not exactly what the Secretary of State has done in the rate support grant by shifting resources from the shire counties to the inner cities? Does the hon. Gentleman believe that more and more funds will solve the problem of the inner cities?
The hon. Gentleman has an advantage over me. I suggest that he uses the advantage of representing an inner city area and a rural area. He should go to see what is happening to the area that he used to represent.
Will my hon. Friend ask the Minister to justify why in the recent announcement of partnership allocations for the next financial year every single partnership authority, with the exception of Birmingham, has had a cut in its partnership allocation in cash terms as well as in real terms?
My hon. Friend asks a fair question. I do not know why Birmingham seems to have done better than other areas. I do not wish to abuse my privilege by making a constituency speech, but Birmingham's inner city deprivation is the largest both in scale and intensity of any inner city, according to the Z index on the census. The other areas are only a little behind Birmingham. That is no excuse for the relative cuts between other inner city areas and Birmingham, compared with inner cities overall and the shire counties. One thing that is clear above all else is that my inner city constituents, of whatever age, black or white, will no longer tolerate resources coming to their area accompanied by workers on buses. They want the jobs. I warn the Minister that people are fed up to the point of desperation. They want the opportunity to work in schools and in the local environment, but they are not being given that opportunity.
Whenever there is a local problem, the Government say that they have spent £20 million on the area and ask why people have rioted. However, what happens is that big business with outside workers comes into the area to do the work. It does not spend money locally and it takes off again. That leaves local people as bitter and depressed as they were before the work was carried out.
A way must be found to involve those who live in the inner cities. All of them have skills. I cannot accept that there is any such thing as an unskilled person. Everybody has a skill to contribute, even if it means cutting across demarcation rules, rigid local government rules and the collective agreements of certain building firms. A quota of the work must be provided by consortia to local people. They will spend the money locally. That will assist in the regeneration of the economy of the inner cities. It cannot otherwise take place.
No, I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman.
It is in the interest of business that the work provided by the urban regeneration grant should not be tied into the special planning zones. Furthermore, business should not refuse to work with the local authorities; it is in its interest to co-operate with local authorities. The simplified planning zones may be used to circumvent some of the planning laws, but I do not believe that anybody who is involved in construction activities on a national scale will wish to ride roughshod over the wishes of democratically elected local authorities.
It is in the interest of business to join local authorities in the consortia approach and to use whatever means may be provided by the Bill. Local people could be put on the boards of consortia which could also ensure that a quota of jobs is provided for local people. It is an extremely modest proposal, because no details have been given about the money that will be provided. Simplified planning zones could work. However, we have heard in this debate that certain Conservative Members of Parliament do not want to have simplified planning zones in their back yard.
The Minister must have been told by the building industry that some Conservative-controlled local authorities do not want simplified planning zones. He must have been told that these authorities will use the appeal procedure that is provided for in the Bill and will come to the Minister who, because he is one of their friends, will not grant permission for simplified planning zones. The Minister must also have been told that he will probably grant consent for simplified planning zones against the wish of local authorities in urban areas because they are Labour controlled and that if he does so the companies will be piggy in the middle of a political dispute. He must have been told, too, that they do not want to fall out with the local authorities, whatever the nature of their political complexion. It would be better if the Minister said that he would grant permission, otherwise he would have a hell of a problem on his hands. He would be accused of acting in a partisan manner towards Conservative controlled authorities.
The Bill defies belief in respect of the simplified planning zones. A firm promise was given on 11 May 1984 relating to the consultation paper on simplified planning zones: that conservation areas would not be included in the simplified planning zones. There was also a promise that national parks would not be included in the simplified planning zones. However, national parks are referred to in the Bill. Is the omission of conservation areas from the Bill a complete reversal of Government policy? Is the Minister saying that he will allow green belt and conservation areas to be included in the simplified planning zones? If so, he will find that he is faced with objections and opposition from all sides of the House. It may be an omission. The Government may have forgotten their promise —something that they are not unknown to do. Nevertheless, that commitment was given in writing and it has to be made good.
It cannot be denied that the Bill is good in parts, bad in parts and neutral in parts. It may benefit certain individuals and companies. It may result in more jobs and faster regeneration of the inner cities but the points that are contained in our reasoned amendment are entirely valid, and that is why we shall vote for it in the Lobby.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) has addressed the House for 49 minutes. It seemed to some of my hon. Friends to be a great deal longer than that—as, most emphatically, it seemed to be to me. It may be, Mr Deputy Speaker, that it seemed to be a great deal longer to you as well. I remind the hon. Member for Perry Barr that quality of speech and length of speech are not the same thing. I would not dream of accusing the hon. Gentleman of deliberately misleading the House. If I were to do so, you would rule me out of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, the hon. Gentleman deliberately failed to remind the House of a key aspect of the policy upon which his party fought and won the last general election.
The hon. Gentleman said that freedom of choice and liberty for people were at the centre of his party's policy. By a strange accident, I have with me the exact words of the Labour party manifesto of June 1983. The hon. Gentleman must forgive people if they doubt the words that he used this afternoon at the Dispatch Box, because the policy of the Labour party, including the hon. Gentleman, who did not distance himself from that policy when he fought his campaign in Perry Barr, was contained in its June 1983 manifesto. It said that Labour would
end enforced council house sales, empower public landlords to repurchase homes sold under the Tories on first resale and provide that future voluntary agreed sales will be at market value.
Those words were deliberately misleading. Stripped of the cloak with which the Labour party sought to engulf them, they mean that there would be an end to the right to buy, that if there were to be voluntary sales there would be no discount and that if any person who was a former tenant wanted to sell the house or flat that he had bought he would first have to offer it back to the local authority that had previously been its owner. That was the Opposition's policy.
Because at the start of this debate Mr. Deputy Speaker appealed for short speeches — advice that was ignored by the hon. Member for Perry Barr.
The hon. Member for Perry Barr, as official Opposition spokesman, disagrees with his predecessor's policy. I respect the view of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer). He still believes in the policy that was set out in the Labour party manifesto of 1983. The hon. Member for Perry Barr, who is so keen to present himself as a man of principle, perceiving the electoral albatross that the Opposition have hung about their neck by seeking to end the right to buy, is trying to lead the Labour party away from these words, of which, to the hon. Gentleman's discomfiture, I have reminded him this afternoon.
There is something else that perturbs the Opposition. Since my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister arrived in Downing street, 902,000 public sector dwellings have been sold, the great majority to sitting tenants. That of course is a great achievement. Even the Opposition have to take note of the truth. Those houses and flats were built by local authorities with the purpose that they should be occupied in perpetuity by tenants to whom we have offered, and given, the choice of which the hon. Gentleman spoke — the choice which the Opposition have sought to deny.
It is of course because my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction well understands that the overwhelming majority of the British people, if given the choice, would prefer to be owners rather than tenants that he has brought forward this excellent Bill, on which I congratulate him most warmly.
My hon. Friend quite rightly has proposed that there should be increased discounts in respect of flats because, although a total of 902,000 dwellings have been sold since May 1979, only a small proportion—about one in 20—were flats. My hon. Friend rightly proposes to give an extra discount for flats.
There is one point which even the hon. Member for Perry Barr got right. He asked why a tenant of a flat should buy his or her flat when it would be difficult to resell. I think that I have not misunderstood the hon. Gentleman.
The Opposition agree with me, as I hope they will agree with what I am about to suggest to my hon. Friend.
Part of the problem in selling flats is the value placed upon them by the district council or by the district valuer. When a flat is in a tower block, whether on the fifth, the tenth or the fifteenth floor, and the local authority is invited to place a value on that flat, how does the wisest housing officer, the wisest director of finance, place a value on the flat, as he is of course required to do? If the tenant, disagreeing—as well he might—with the value placed on the flat by the local authority, appeals to the district valuer, which under section 128 of the Housing Act 1985 he has the right to do, what then does the wisest district valuer say?
I am surrounded by chartered surveyors on these Benches, and I hope they will confirm what I am saying. How does even the wisest district valuer place a value on the first flat to be sold in a block, whether on the fifth, the tenth or the fifteenth floor? There is only one way in which one can find out the open market value of that fiat. 'That is to give it to the finest estate agent when it is empty. There are plenty of empty flats in tower blocks which are controlled by the Labour party — alas, there is no problem about finding an empty flat.
I do not know whether I shall have the privilege of serving on the Standing Committee which considers the Bill. If not, I hope that some of my hon. Friends will table an amendment in Committee to require that a tenant, if dissatisfied with the original value fixed by the council and with the valuation made by the district valuer—neither of whom is in a position to give a proper judgment—shall have the right to require that a flat as similar as possible to the one which he is seeking to purchase shall be sold and put into the hands of the finest estate agent in the area. No doubt some of my hon. Friends will be able to provide such a service.
If I may assist my hon. Friend, as a chartered surveyor I know that the experience of many of my colleagues in the profession is that, when acting as valuers to building societies, they have been unable to sustain the level of value put on the property by the local authority and, indeed, by the district valuer. That frequently occurs.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I believe that, if what I have suggested followed, we would find very much lower prices being fixed for flats than those which have been fixed in the past. Therefore, the great majority of tenants — particularly with the increased discount proposed by my hon. Friend the Minister—would face the real prospect that the amount due in mortgage interest, especially after tax relief if they were entitled to it, would be dramatically less than at present.
No. I gave way to my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill) because he is a chartered surveyor and was on the very point, but I am now dealing with a slightly technical point.
Will my hon. Friend accept it from me that, regardless of whether he serves on the Standing Committee, the important point he raises is one to which Ministers will give serious consideration in the passage of the Bill? Secondly, will he accept that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and I are deeply indebted to him for many of the ideas and concepts in the Bill, which are his and not ours?
No, I am sorry; I think I ought to get on.
My hon. Friend is proposing that, if a tenant has been a tenant for 30 years and is living in a flat, the maximum discount shall be increased from the present 60 per cent. to 70 per cent. I want to put a suggestion to my hon. Friend, and I hope that I will not be arraigned under the Official Secrets Act 1911 if I say that this is an idea which I discussed with my officials when I held the office which he now holds. If we are going to allow discounts of up to 60 per cent. after 30 years' tenancy in respect of houses, why do we not allow the discount to increase for every year after 30 years? We are engaged in a radical policy. Why not say that, if a person has been a tenant for 40 years, in the case of a house there should be an entitlement to a discount of 70 per cent. and, in the case of a flat, under my hon. Friend's proposals, a discount of 80 per cent.?
I will not give way again. It may save the time of the House if no hon. Member tries to intervene.
My hon. Friend will remember that when my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces piloted through the House the 1980 legislation, the qualification period in order to buy a council house or flat was three years. In the 1984 legislation, which was introduced by my hon. Friend's predecessor, the three-year period was reduced to two years. I therefore ask my hon. Friend, again in order to increase the opportunity to purchase, which is at the centre of the philosophy of the Conservative party, whether he will consider in Committee reducing the two-year qualification period to one year. That would be greatly welcomed by tenants.
Order. The hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) is being very unfair to other hon. Members who hope to speak in the debate. If such interventions continued, very few hon. Members would speak at all.
shall deal with what I regard as an omission from the Bill. To my regret, there is no measure in this important Bill designed to revive the private rented sector. The Rent Acts, which were first introduced 70 years ago with the purpose of offering protection to tenants, have, in fact, injured the very people whom they were designed to help. They have injured them because the supply of privately rented accommodation has been and still is diminishing. Whenever a property falls vacant, most landlords do not look for another tenant. On the contrary, landlords try to sell.
If there is to be an increase in home ownership—home ownership in England has reached the all-time record of 63 per cent. — it goes without saying there must be a diminution in other forms of tenure. Landlords are treated with inequity over security of tenure and rent control, but what is more disturbing is that today there is a supply of unused or under-used accommodation which would be brought into use were it not for the Rent Acts.
There would be three advantages if we could bring about that reform, which I believe is long overdue. The first is that a landlord, when his property became vacant, would be able, reasonably, to look for a new tenant instead of automatically seeking to sell. Secondly, we should be able to bring into use accommodation which is at present under-used or unused. Thirdly, we should be able to attract private sector capital into building new houses for rent in the private sector.
If we could revive the private rented sector, it would make more accommodation available and improve mobility. How should that be done? In respect of future lettings and tenancies — not in respect of existing tenancies—it would be right to allow the terms of the tenancy to be agreed between the landlord and the tenant. If that were to happen, the supply of privately rented accommodation would increase. Furthermore, those tenants who were in a less favourable financial position would be entitled to housing benefits as private sector tenants today are. If my hon. Friend the Minister thinks that that goes too far, I hope that he will consider removing from the present shorthold provision the requirement in Greater London and the tenant's option outside Greater London to have a fair rent registered.
I repeat the congratulations that I offered my hon. Friend earlier on the Opposition's supreme discomfiture. The great majority of the British people are better housed today than ever before. Home ownership has reached record levels. It is the preferred choice of the people. The speech of the hon. Member for Perry Barr was great in length but short in wisdom. I commend the Bill to the House, as did my hon. Friend.
I propose to concentrate on the Bill's provisions on housing, but I should first like to comment briefly on parts II and III.
On special planning zones, I am surprised that the Government have not produced realistic evidence to support the idea that they clearly hold, that essential development is held up by the application and operation of the existing planning mechanism. It is not realistic merely to point to the success of enterprise zones, because they involve tax incentives. It would have been much more sensible to try a feasibility test of special planning zones in inner-city areas where there is a tremendous need to encourage new employment opportunities and new development of all kinds.
I take the point made by the Building Employers Confederation, that if authorities have been awkward and used the planning mechanism to thwart developments, they are hardly likely to be the first to set up special planning zones and if the Minister has to be brought in to establish them, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) said, there will be the possibility of a knockdown drag-out political battle.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the Bill's deficiencies, as drafted, is that the procedure necessary to set up special planning zones could lead to two public inquiries and take as long as three years? Does he agree that in Committee it might be better to simplify the procedure so that it is quicker and easier?
I am in favour of simplification, but I would rather we had the simplified machinery tested in those areas that desperately need new development. The inner cities are obvious places for such an operation.
Part III relates to urban regeneration grants. The proposals are welcome so far as they go. We should do more, however, and use public money and investment as a lever to try to attract more private investment. That is a sensible step. The sums about which we are talking are extremely small. If we read the financial memorandum, we see that we are talking about £10 million to £20 million only in 1987–88. That is hardly a princely sum, given the tremendous problems in the inner cities. There is also concern, already expressed in the debate, that the funds may be made available at the expense of other parts of the urban programme. That would be indefensible.
I am also worried that, by making the grants direct to private enterprise and bypassing the local government machinery, we may have confusion and hostility between the local authority operating the urban programme and the Government operating the urban regeneration grants. We should be looking to the urban regeneration grants to complement the existing urban programme — working with local authorities and not competing with them. I hope that in Committee that point will be reconsidered.
Turning to part I of the Bill, on housing, I wish to deal first with the sale of council flats. I have the clear impression that the Government are sensitive to the criticism that the right to buy has been extremely successful where we all expected that it would be—in the semi-detached houses with gardens. They are the most desirable council properties. It has clearly been nothing like as successful with the sale of flats and maisonettes. Only 4 per cent. of the stock of flats has been sold. That inevitably produces a risk of polarisation—where those who have to depend on rented council housing are increasingly restricted to flats and maisonettes the less desirable property, which is often less well maintained.
I can understand the Government wanting to counter that criticism by seeking to sell more flats. I also understand their approach of increasing the discount and trying to deal with the problem of service charges. Some local authorities deliberately use the threat of massive service charges to deter people from buying. I have had cases in my constituency where tenants were officially quoted service charges of £3,000 a year for a rather unpleasant two-bedroom maisonette in beautiful downtown Plumstead. I recognise that as a problem.
I do not believe that the Bill will have a dramatic impact on the sale of flats and maisonettes. People will be reluctant to buy them, given a number of the issues which have been mentioned in the debate. First, there is the general environment of the average block of council flats or maisonettes. People will not invest their life savings in a maisonette in a block where the lifts are vandalised, where the entrance doors are smashed regularly, where the whole place is covered with graffiti and filth and where they cannot obtain the services for which they pay service charges. They will not buy properties which are in desperate need of renovation.
The Department of the Environment's own survey shows that about 85 per cent. of flats and maisonettes are in need of repair and renovation. The most important point is that people will not buy flats and maisonettes when they are well aware that it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to sell them if they have to move because of the problem of selling one privately owned flat in a council block. I am interested in the idea of the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) of dealing with the original valuation, but, with great respect, that will not have a dramatic effect.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that all flats and maisonettes in inner-city areas, which are the most deprived areas, should have their weekly rental payments converted into a mortgage repayment, so that in 10 years the flat would belong to the tenant? Would that not be one of the most dramatic changes in our urban areas, which would turn public sector housing into private sector housing, and restore the pride of people in their area?
That idea has been touted around for some time, but it is simplistic. I do not know what would happen to the long-term unemployed on housing benefit, if they suddenly got the dubious advantage of owning a rundown maisonette in a council block with repair, maintenance and insurance problems. The problem is more complex than the hon. Gentleman suggests.
I wish to refer to the comment of the Building Employers Confederation, which clearly has an axe to grind, about ways of making flats and maisonettes more attractive for sale. It states:
Only if substantially more public resources are provided, specifically targetted to the renovation of flats, is the rate of sales of council flats likely to increase.
There is a good deal of common sense in that.
I am strongly in favour of the principle of devolving the management of council housing, and have been since my initial experience in local government about 20 years ago. This is not a party point, as some hon. Members in all parties are strongly in favour of the concept. We all understand the problems of centralised council management, and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) referred to some of them. However concerned a council's members, and however skilled its housing staff, the system is inevitably insensitive to the needs of people as individuals. It is bureaucratic and slow-moving, especially when it must refer to committees for vital decisions. All hon. Members know of desperately needed homes standing empty for months because at least three council departments are involved — the housing department, the architect's department and the works department. Then, because the property stands empty for so long, someone gets in and vandalises it, making the position worse. There is a desperate need for more local decentralised management.
The first possibility is to decentralise council management. That is certainly an improvement, but the management remains locked in to the central control systems of local authorities. Although that system sometimes involves tenant consultation, it does not give tenants genuine control over their estates. The second possibility, management co-operatives, is by far the best because it gives tenants genuine power and control over the running of their homes and their estate.
It is important to understand that that is not a panacea for all ills. First, tenants must want to participate in a cooperative, and understand what it involves. One cannot impose a co-operative on people who do not want one. A good deal of effort and investment is needed in explaining what it is about, and in providing detailed advice, back-up and guidance once the co-operative has been born. Some of us with a long record in the co-operative movement originally saw the Co-operative Development Agency as a way of developing the general advice and sponsorship of co-ops, but, sadly it has not been given the necessary resources.
The third possibility is trusts, which involve tenants and outside interests. As long ago as 1982 the SDP proposed neighbourhood housing trusts to take over existing council estates. It is essential that the trusts are democratically based and accountable downwards to the tenants whom they represent, not to some external force. The most interesting example of that is the Thamesmead development. With the abolition of the Greater London council, somebody had to take over that estate. I argued strongly to Ministers that any trust set up to do the job would have to be democratically accountable to the people. I pay all credit to the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young), who listened to me and other local interests, and produced a model of local democracy. The model put to the people of Thamesmead gave them nine trust members elected by them, and three executives, who were to be appointed by the elected trust members and accountable to them. That is an important example of tenant and resident self-management.
Is that not a perfect example of a local authority, the GLC, building an estate on which people want to live, and of people being completely satisfied with control being left in the hands of the GLC? The tenants of Thamesmead had a choice of two private trusts, but were never given the option that they wanted, which was to retain the GLC.
I would have to quarrel with some of that. I was not in favour of the abolition of the GLC, as the hon. Gentleman knows. But my Friday night advice surgeries would not bear out his point that everyone in Thamesmead was ecstatically happy with the GLC's management. [Interruption.] That was the implication of the hon. Gentleman's comment. He said that the residents would have preferred GLC management but they were not consulted about that. That is incorrect because the ballot gave the residents of Thamesmead three options — a community trust, which was finally adopted, a trust controlled by the London borough of Greenwich, which was rejected, or neither of the two. They opted for a genuine community trust by a clear majority. It is a sensible system of tenant and resident self-management, and I hope that we shall develop it in other areas.
We should not ignore some of the practical problems of development management. The first relates to the relationship with the local authority. There is little evidence yet that tenant co-operatives are cheaper. Many of them are locked into the central services of the local authority. We should also be worried about nomination rights. When a trust or co-op is set up, it inevitably runs the risk of becoming exclusive. It is important for it to keep its neighbourhood as it would like it. If no overall nomination right is held by the local authority, the management co-op may become inward-looking and selective in its acceptance of tenants. Similarly, there is a problem of mobility. I do not accept that there should be no right of exchange or of mobility for those involved in a housing co-operative. We need that right of mobility. I hope that we can deal with those practical problems in Committee.
The idea of complete privatisation of ownership also flows from the Bill. Our experience in that area is mainly limited to the refurbishment of former council property for sale. In some areas that has a considerable role to play, especially where there is a dearth of owner-occupation for young married couples wishing to buy for the first time. Otherwise, we risk forcing young couples away from inner-city areas, which only aggravates the problems there. But equally, in many stress areas there is a continuing need for rented housing. When the private sector takes over the ownership of council estates, one is bound to ask whether it will be interested in letting those properties. Will the private sector get a sensible, adequate return, in its terms, on the capital investment involved in the purchase and rehabilitation of the estates? At the end of last year, the building societies were apparently warning the Government that rent control would have to be abolished if it were to make financial sense for them to take over a tenanted council estate and continue to provide rented housing. There must be a risk that the Bill will simply aggravate the demand for what council property remains.
I want to refer to the issue of consultation with tenants when their estates and homes are privatised. Experience until now has been chequered. In some cases consultation has been limited and in others it has been non-existent. I resent homes being sold over the heads of people living in them. I suggest that there is a contrast with what the Government are doing in the Local Government Bill, where they require councils not to dispose of mortgages without consulting those who are hold them and paying mortgage bills. Ministers were indignant about the idea of councils selling mortgages over the heads of those who hold them. That may be a serious issue. I have no strong views about it but it is a much more serious issue to be selling homes over the heads of tenants without any involvement on their part.
Clause 5 massively undermines the rights of tenants. The idea that councils would have the power to remove tenants from their homes so that whole estates could be sold with vacant possession is going too far. Under the existing arrangements, there are serious problems about decanting whole estates. Sometimes it has to be done where there are major problems but it does cause difficulties especially if one is trying to build up a community feeling. Suddenly to empty the whole area causes major upheavel and considerable hardship to individuals. However, in such cases tenants at least have some ability to bargain. They can hold out until they get an offer of rehousing which suits them.
My fear about the new arrangements under clause 5 is that that bargaining power of tenants will be substantially reduced. All they must have is one suitable alternative offer. Those of us who are used to housing problems all know that an alternative offer may look good on paper but in reality it may not be at all acceptable to the tenant concerned. The risk is that the tenants have no choice but to accept the alternative housing offered or make themselves homeless, with all that flows from that. That is an appalling way to treat people. It looks as if we are simply regarding tenants as numbers occupying units of accommodation rather than as flesh and blood people living in their own homes. I hope that clause will be changed dramatically in Committee.
The issue of management agreements for managing council property in clause 6 goes well beyond devolving power to housing co-operatives, housing associations, tenant-based trusts and other such bodies. It opens the door to private management agencies which might be prepared to take on the management of council property in the hope of making a profit. In that situation, what protection is there for the tenant?
As far as I can see in the Bill, the one protection the tenant gets is the right to buy. That is maintained for him, but what is the position of the tenant in relation to many other issues laid down, for example, in the tenants charter? What is the position on repairs, allocations policy, enforcement of tenancy, and the fixing of rent levels? What power does the tenant have to go to his local councillor when the management has been devolved to a private agency? Presumably, the council having given a management agreement to a private agency, local councillors will have no chance to pursue the roles which we all know to be their bread and butter in terms of housing management. That is also something we should look at in more detail in Committee.
I think that the Bill has some useful proposals, some of which I welcome. However, I strongly endorse the comments of the hon. Member for Perry Barr, who, in his reasoned amendment, says that this is a missed opportunity. The Bill could have provided real practical help for tenants' co-operatives and tenant-based trusts. It could have been a real boost for self-management in housing. As drafted, the Bill is motivated by a belief in traditional privatisation and an attempt to revive the private rented sector in a new guise. For that reason, we shall vote against it.
It is self-evident that the provision of housing and planning land use are two vital political issues. Anyone who has listened to the debate so far will appreciate that those issues cause deep and bitter controversy. I think we are entitled to point out to our constituents that we hold totally different views in many respects but they are all sincerely held. I do not doubt the sincerity of the Opposition Members who have spoken.
However, there are one or two ill effects of this political divide. The first is that the incompatibility between our different political views has led to a certain unnecessary polarisation. There is a lack of consensus which is damaging to long-term planning for the provision of housing. It is also damaging to the necessary long-term planning to tackle the problems of inner cities and to promote urban regeneration. The second ill effect of the polarisation is that it has inhibited the best, and some of us would say the only, key to tackle the problems—greater co-operation and co-ordination between the public and private sectors.
I would like to give some statistics to underline that. The urban housing renewal unit of the Department of the Environment has estimated that we need to spend about £18,800 million if we are to renovate and refurbish the public sector part of housing alone. I treat macro figures with some reserve, but I have heard it estimated that we would need to spend about £45,000 million to put our national housing stock in good repair. I do not think that there is the remotest possibility of the public sector satisfactorily and successfully being able to tackle that problem. Even if we could significantly increase public sector funding, it would not achieve that objective. I apologise for the partiality but I believe that it is true that if we significantly increased public expenditure on housing it would lead to inflation and we would move along the old, well-worn spiral of needing to spend more and more to achieve less and less.
I believe that the public sector and the private sector should work more harmoniously. I suggest to the House that the
public sector has the authority and I think the public acceptance. It has the contact with communities and can identify the social needs of a particular area. It often owns the land that needs to be redeveloped. The private sector has the access to finance, the development experience and the skills and expertise needed to assemble parcels of land and undertake construction." — [Official Report, 20 December 1985; Vol. 89, c. 712.]
The key to success will be the marriage of those two sectors. I believe that the Bill is important and that it moves in the right direction.
I particularly welcome five points in the Bill. I welcome the further discounts and incentives to encourage council tenants to buy their own homes by increasing discounts by 10 per cent., so that they range from 42 per cent. to 70 per cent., as contained in clause 1. The merits of that have been eloquently testified to by my hon. Friend the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow). I welcome the encouragement to set up management trusts to encourage residents to run their own blocks of flats. I listened sympathetically to the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright) when he spoke about that matter. I believe that we have now gained sufficient experience from the many experiments that have taken place. However, in many instances there is still what I would call trivial consultation by local authorities with their tenants, and not the genuine joint decision-making that we need to encourage. I believe that clauses 6 and 7 move those initiatives in the right direction.
However much this displeases the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), I must point out that the amendment to the Bill is the same predictable, depressing knee-jerk reaction that we have come to expect from the Opposition, but I agree with him on one or two of his points. The Committee will have to look carefully into how clause 5 is to be operated, as both he and the hon. Member for Woolwich said, to protect tenants from unnecessarily being moved out of their homes. We must look at this in a balanced way. It ill becomes people who have promoted wholesale redevelopment schemes in the past to pick up this point and pretend that there is some inconsistency in principle. Whether it is compulsory redevelopment, compulsory acquisition or moving people out of their council homes, the Government must carry out such measures only as a last resort.
I welcome the introduction of an urban regeneration grant. My hon. Friend the Minister will recall that I had an Adjournment debate on 20 December on the need to encourage urban regeneration, and this was one of the points that I put to him. I suspect that other organisations and people must have made this point to him, because I cannot believe that he has necessarily taken notice of my point of view. However, I welcome clause 11. I understand, and fervently hope, that it is to be a complement to the urban development grant and not a substitute for it. It is a modest initiative on its introduction — some £10 million to £20 million—but one of the disincentives of the urban development grant is that it requires a 25 per cent. input from the local authority. I welcome this as another positive initiative.
Anybody who thinks that the urban regeneration grants are a giveaway bonanza to developers should remember that such grants require —5 of investment by the developer to attract £1 of grant from the Government, as a sign of good faith. As I said on 20 December, public funding in these sectors can attract three or four times as much private investment. In the London Docklands development Corporation area, £180 million of Government money has attracted no less than £1,000 million of private investment. The ratio will undoubtedly be lower in other areas, but such a movement is to be encouraged. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will keep this under review and that the money will be forthcoming if, as I believe, the urban regeneration grant proves to be successful.
At this stage, I prudently declare that I am a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects and a fellow of the Royal Town Planning Institute, although a non-practising architect and planner. I am also a non-executive director of a development company and a construction company.
I welcome the introduction of the simplified planning zone which will specify types of development in specified areas not requiring planning permission. Therefore, I welcome clauses 9 and 10 and schedule 3.
I also welcome the Bill because, as laid down in part IV and schedule 4, it has the objective of securing better control over the handling of hazardous substances. These are sensible policies.
It will come as no surprise to anybody that we all have our own views and minor criticisms, although they are significant points, to make about any major Bill, especially one of this length. While I realise that some of these points may be better handled in Committee, it is only fair to my right hon. and hon. Friends to put down a marker by mentioning specifically two aspects of the Bill that worry me. The first comes in the simplified planning zone provisions. The hon. Member for Perry Barr has a point when he makes out the case that these areas, after due consultation with local authorities, might be designated, like an enterprise zone, directly by the Government. I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill) that the process of designating a simplified planning zone is somewhat long and complicated and could, as he said, involve up to two public inquiries. This process is too long, and I ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to look at this point carefully.
One aspect of the proposed simplified planning zone procedure is causing concern to environmental bodies. I mention the English Heritage, the Council for the Protection of Rural England, the Georgian Group, the Victorian Society and the Civic Trust, all of which are deeply anxious that simplified planning zones should not be designated in any part of a conservation area. I hope to press that point if I have the privilege of serving on the Committee. I do not believe that the Government would want to do this in any case, but they could give a reassurance that is badly needed.
My second point of criticism is about listed buildings. As my right hon. and hon. Friends will know, anybody wanting to demolish a listed building has to refer the application not only to the local planning authority but at least to the regional office of the Department of the Environment, and probably from there to the Secretary of State himself. As I understand the Bill, this provision is to be removed. I understand that the Secretary of State has it in mind that he would activate this provision in the Bill only for a partial demolition of a grade 2 listed building. That would reassure me, but it would reassure me more if it were actually written into the Bill and I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will sympathetically consider that point.
The Bill can be criticised, as it has been, for not doing exactly what Government critics believe is their answer for housing and planning policies, or alternatively not going enough in the direction some Government supporters think that it should. I shall add my pennyworth, although I may not be popular for doing so. I should have liked to have seen in the Bill greater financial resources to be allocated to the renovation of properties, in particular council flats, because it is essential to encourage more tenants to buy and that would be helpful in achieving that objective.
I return to the hoary chestnut. There are plenty of resources locked up by Government in the capital receipts of local authorities, and the Government must look at this sympathetically. Nevertheless, the provisions of the Bill move the Government steadily and surely in the direction that they believe to be right in tackling the task of urban regeneration. I share those sentiments, and I believe that the Bill should be warmly welcomed for two reasons. The first is that it encourages private investment, which will have a beneficial spin-off effect for public provision of housing—let no one underestimate that. Secondly, it makes the development control system less inflexible, and gives the opportunity for the planning system to take on a more positive role. For those two reasons, but not for those reasons alone, I warmly welcome the Bill.
I shall try to make all of my points as quickly as possible and not speak for too long. However, there are one or two matters I wish to raise in response to the debate so far.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman), who is an architect and whose professional judgment, I respect. We both serve on the Environment Select Committee and I recognise his professional judgment although I disagree politically with much of what he advocates. I cannot be here for the whole debate because I and my hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench have a meeting later with the Royal Institute of British Architects. It is appropriate to mention that since I follow the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet who is an architect.
The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) refused to give way when he was reading from the 1983 Labour party manifesto in respect of our policy on the sale of council houses. The hon. Member was quite correct when he said that the Labour party was in favour, at the last election, of taking away the right to buy. That did not mean that we intended to stop councils which wished to sell council houses from doing so. The Labour party intended to give freedom back to local authorities to continue the sale of council houses if they wished. If they did not wish to do so, the policy was exactly the same as—
Yes. As the hon. Member points out from a sedentary position, it was the same as Liberal and Social Democratic party policy. The Labour party did not intend—as Conservative canvassers and, I might say, alliance canvassers said on the doorsteps at the last election—compulsorily to purchase or to give the power of compulsory purchase to local authorities to take council houses away from people who had brought them. There was never any suggestion of that, although that was the lie told by opposing canvassers on the doorsteps at the last election. It has never been our policy.
Many former council tenants, who have purchased their houses in my constituency, would love Sefton council, or any other council, to have the option to buy their houses back at market value, because they cannot sell them. They have failed to sell them on the open market and see no harm in the council having the first option to purchase them back at market value. I see no harm in that either.
The hon. Member for Eastbourne does not quote from "Homes for the Future", the Labour party's current policy statement on the sale of council houses. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) is not trying to force the Labour party to alter everything but he has succeeded in getting the Labour party conference overwhelmingly to accept the current policy in every detail. The Bill deals with the situation created by seven years of Conservative housing policy. The policies of the next Labour Government will also have to address that problem.
When the Labour party comes to power—perhaps in the next 18 months or two years—it will face a housing crisis of 1945 proportions, with massively growing waiting lists, increasing homelessness and a deterioration of the housing stock. I believe in choice, but the Tory choice in the sale of council houses has been choice at the cost of other people's choice. We predicted that if the Government forced the sale of council houses in 1979, only the best houses would be sold and councils would be left with the worst of the housing stock. We predicted that public sector housing would become stigmatised and ghetto housing estates similar to American welfare housing would develop. The Government are introducing the Bill because that has happened. The Labour party's prediction that only the best houses would be sold has come true. No one wants to buy flats and the Government are attempting to deal with the fact that only 4 per cent. of sales are flats, which represents only one third of the total housing stock.
That is exactly what has happened. The Bill is the Government's closing-down sale. Every year, especially when the Government are near local elections, they up the discount to 30 per cent., 50 per cent. or 60 per cent. Now, with the closing-down sale, it is 70 per cent. It is an attempt to make the figures look better than they are and to get more and more sales as they approach a general election. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ferry Barr has said, it will not work. Do Ministers and Conservative Members honestly believe that a 70 per cent. discount, with a relaxation of service charges for five years, will encourage people to buy deck access, high-rise, inadequate and difficult-to-let flats? If they do, they are living in cloud-cuckoo-land. Families in those flats do not wish to buy them and 90 per cent. of them do not wish to rent them either.
The families want to be transferred into decent houses — the houses which the Government have allowed councils to sell off. New houses are not being built. People are stuck in flats they want to leave, and most certainly do not want to buy.
I know what the flats are like. There are some blocks which have been emptied, sold off to developers, done up and sold again, but there are many more that developers would not touch with a barge pole. I remember the first thing that happened to me when I became chairman of housing in the city of Manchester. The director of housing came to me and said, "We have had a telephone call to the housing department from a woman who says a donkey keeps going past her bedroom window." I replied, "What is wrong with that?" The director of housing said, "She lives on the eighth floor." I asked what he had done about that. He said, "We have rung up the social services department and they are sending a mental health visitor round." I then asked what happened and was told, The mental health visitor went round and was interviewing the woman and a donkey went past the window." They then found out that the guy at the end of the deck was keeping a donkey in the front room and at night he was bedding it down in the well of the lift shaft. That is the type of problem experienced in these deck access flats. I asked the director of housing, "What have you done about this?" He replied, "We have got the woman a transfer and the donkey is quite happy." With problems like that and in those types of flats, people will not buy no matter how much the discount is put up. The Labour party has opposed the policy of selling off all of the best housing and leaving local authorities with the worst. There is nothing inconsistent in the Labour party policy. There is no point in continuing to sell off what has already been sold. The Labour party has to address itself to how best to help the people we predicted would suffer if the best housing was sold off—the people left in the worst housing, the families in flats. In "Homes for the Future" we propose to keep the right to buy, but we will introduce another set of policies that will deal adequately with all of the criticisms of the Government's sales policy. That will justify our opposition to their sales policy from 1980.
We shall help people living in flats, especially with families, not by paltry measures such as are put forward in the Bill, but by giving them right-to-buy grants which will enable them to leave their flats and become owner-occupiers in the private market. The precedent has already been set by the Government in their policy towards tenants of charitable housing associations. We will help the families imprisoned in flats whom we predicted would be left in the worst housing.
We opposed the sale of council housing because it diminished the stock and because there would be no relets. The Labour party will stick by the right to buy, but will say that for every council house sold by councils, including Tory councils, they will have to build a new one to replace it. What is wrong with that?
In the early days, the Tory argument, in preparing the ground for the sale of council houses, was that sales would generate money to build more houses for rent. Of course, the Government have forgotten that, except when they are reminded by the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet. That is what capital receipts were supposed to be for. The Labour party will ensure that every house which is sold is replaced. If people have the right to buy, what is wrong with their having the right to rent? Why cannot people on council house waiting lists have the right to require a local authority to buy a house on the open market and rent it to them if it does not have enough houses of its own? What is wrong with the right to sell? Why cannot elderly owner-occupiers have the right to require the local authority to buy their houses so that they become council tenants, especially when they cannot afford repairs?
The hon. Gentleman has rightly described a basic tenet of housing policy—the right to freedom of choice. Will he consider another right — the right to rent private accommodation?
I am in favour of people owning their own homes. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is. I am in favour of people owning their own homes as owner-occupiers, collectively through social ownership, co-operatives and housing associations and local authority home ownership. I oppose people owning other people's homes and making profit out of them. The hon. Member means the right to make profit out of housing. I oppose that.
As is outlined in "Homes for the Future", I favour tenants having the right to buy off private landlords. They should also have the right to enforce improvements. The worst housed people with fewest amenities and fewest repairs, are in the private rented sector. They must be given some rights as well. What is wrong with their being able to acquire their property?
The hon. Gentleman says that he does not favour the private sector producing rented accommodation when it makes a profit. Does he agree that he wants to place responsibility for providing rented accommodation squarely on the state, and that there should be no private sector participation? Does he agree that that is the logical conclusion of his argument?
I am against the state providing everything. I am in favour of democratically elected local government providing it, of co-operatives providing it and of housing associations providing it. Does the hon. Gentleman remember housing associations? They used to be the respectable wing of the public rented sector for Conservatives. Many a housing association management committee comprised people who would be at home on the management committee of a Conservative party constituency association, but then the Government started to attack them, cut their expenditure, restricted what they could do and thus stopped them providing housing for rent. Nobody is saying that landlords who rent off a room or a flat in their own home should be prevented from doing so, but tenants of absentee landlords should be given the right to buy.
I hope that the urgings of the hon. Member for Eastbourne will be taken up by the Minister because that would ensure our winning the next general election. The hon. Gentleman wants another Rent Act 1957. He wants to destroy security of tenure in the private rented sector. I imagine that the people of Fulham who live in the private rented sector will be listening to that. Does the House remember the 1957 Act—the Rachman Act? I thought that the Government had already solved the problem with shorthold tenant agreements—the one that would bring all of the property into the private rented sector market because the landlord could get tenants out easily. What has happened to the assured tenancies in the Housing Act 1980 which enables builders to build back-to-back houses and let them free from Rent Act restrictions? I have not noticed a flood of such property revitalising the private rented sector and meeting housing needs.
The Bill does nothing to deal with the real problem of resources, of which there is a massive shortage. It does nothing to tackle the public expenditure needed to build, modernise and improve houses, especially in inner cities. When, in October 1981, he was Secretary of State for the Environment, the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) said at the Conservative party conference that the principle of self-help was not applicable to inner city problems, that Tories must realise the true impact of unemployment
if the case can be made it may also be from extra public expenditure
that they have to solve these problems.
The House should listen to this as the right hon. Gentleman might not be able to speak at the next Tory party conference. He continued:
In the inner cities, none of us can act on a scale and with a speed that has the measure of the present recession".
He was right then and still is in the context of the Bill. We have only to consider the capital allocations of local authorities such as Sefton to see how inadequate is the money that the Government have provided for housing.
Sefton is a Tory-controlled council and, as I have said so many times before, it is at the bidding of the Government. It cuts everything that the Government ask it to cut and it keeps within Government guidelines. This year they asked for a restrained bid for 1987–88 of £19·5 million. The Labour party proposed a bid of £35 million because that is what we thought we needed and could spend to start tackling the borough's housing problems.
Sefton received only £5·93 million. That is all. It is a housing manager's pocket money, and most of it is already committed. It depends for any continuing or new capital activity in the next financial year on capital receipts of £3·5 million and on £2·25 million from an urban programme. It will not be able to build any houses—it wanted to build only 107 sheltered houses and 90 for general needs, but it cannot. It wanted £5·5 million to provide improvement grants for owner-occupiers, but got only £1·1 million. It wanted to give housing associations £1·5 million to build special needs housing, but it got only £250,000. I could go on describing how the problems of my area are affected by the Government's refusal to provide the necessary money. There are 2,381 difficult-to-let houses in my constituency and 4,000 people on what the Government call the active waiting list.
It has been implied today that the Government are likely to announce proposals concerning inner-city policies. It seems to be being suggested that the task force concept will be extended to other cities. If so, and if it is anything like the task force in Merseyside, other inner-city areas will not get very much. The task force on Merseyside has operated merely as a sub-office of the Department of the Environment office in Manchester. It has funded some urban aid projects which would otherwise have been funded with the same urban aid money through the local authority.
The proposed special planning zones are modelled on enterprise zones. They too have been a failure. Ministers should go to Speke and have a look. Retail trades, which do not employ many people, have gone in to take advantage of low rates and no planning restrictions. There is no manufacturing, but bonded warehouses which employ very few people have moved from docklands in my constituency to the enterprise zone for the simple reason that they do not have to pay rates there. The concept of enterprise zones and the lack of planning, as is proposed in the special planning zones, does not work.
I predicted some time ago that if the Government got a third term of office, they would set about destroying the planning system as we know it because they do not like planning. Green belt areas and rural seats would be affected. I did not think that they would start before the next general election, but they have here. They have set about destroying planning so that we shall have many Hong Kongs scattered through our inner cities.
The hon. Gentleman can have one in his constituency. He should go down to Devon and tell his constituents that he wants such developments there. We do not want them in Bootle. The trouble is that we are more likely to get them in Bootle because the destruction of planning is dear to the heart of the council in the area that I represent. I hope that the very reasonable reasoned amendment which the Opposition have tabled will be carried.
I will adhere to your instruction to be brief, Mr. Speaker, and in the course of five or six minutes will make five points which no other right hon. or hon. Member has made so far.
I yearn for the day when the House can debate housing on a non-partisan basis. I believe that today's debate has taken us a small step in that direction. I respect the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) for having said, not just in the Chamber today but publicly elsewhere, that he and other Labour Members genuinely believe that, deep in their hearts and minds, most people want to be masters of their own destinies, control their environment, own their own homes, and pass on the fruits of their life's labours to their children. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on that and I hope that he can take other Labour Members with him. That can only be to the benefit and independence of our nation in years to come. The nation will not then have to depend upon people living in an impersonal concrete block with a donkey as a neighbour.
I must declare two interests. I am a vice-president of the Building Societies Association and, as a former practising surveyor and valuer before I was elected, I am now a consultant to a practice which may well have clients who might benefit from the urban regeneration grants if the Bill is passed.
In a spirit of trying to find the consensus to which I have referred, I would like wholeheartedly to endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) about giving people the right to rent. The hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) also made that point. Everyone should have the right to a roof over their heads. If they cannot afford the rent themselves for one reason or another, they should have the benefit that the state or another agency can provide for them, to keep them wind and watertight and safe from destitution.
Will the shadow Minister for Housing, the hon. Member for Perry Barr, tell us, now or in the near future, why it will not include a provision in its next manifesto to repeal the shorthold provisions of the Housing Act 1980? I genuinely believe that one of the reasons why the private sector is not prepared to provide homes to let on a shorthold basis is the threat that, with the inevitable swing of the political pendulum early in the 21st century or beyond, another party in power might repeal the shorthold provisions.
I would gladly give way to the hon. Member for Perry Barr if he would admit from the Dispatch Box that he agrees with me and that, in the interests of giving people the right to rent by shorthold tenancy, the Labour party will not repeal the shorthold provisions of the Housing Act 1980.
The hon. Member is disagreeing with his colleague the hon. Member for Bootle, who has just said that the shorthold provisions are not working. I ask the hon. Member for Perry Barr once more: if the shorthold provisions are not working, is that not because of the commitment that he has just given from the Dispatch Box?
I hope that the hon. Member for Perry Barr will give the matter a second thought. The House and the nation will have heard what the hon. Gentleman has just said.
My second point is that every hon. Member at his advice bureau on Fridays and Saturdays hears sad cases of people desperately looking for homes, who know of homes down their streets, in their cul-de-sacs, which have been empty not for one month, two months or six months but sometimes for a year or more.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will give consideration to requiring local authorities to give reasons in their regular returns to his Department why such houses have remained empty for three, six, nine and 12 months or more. Perhaps a local authority which did not have a genuine will to rehabilitate, repair and improve should be encouraged by the Department to allow tenants on the waiting list to have the key and a rent-free period to renovate those properties at their own expense. That would save the ratepayer, the taxpayer and the Chancellor of the Exchequer the responsibility for doing so.
Most council tenants and potential council tenants are do-it-yourself experts. They would willingly put in a new bathroom and redecorate the property themselves in exchange for a rent-free period. They would have a home, the home would then be occupied and the taxpayer and ratepayer would save money.
My third point relates to council house rent arrears. Last year, those arrears were £187 million, a rise of £11 million over the year before. This year that figure is likely to exceed £200 million. The lack of that money prevents local authorities from providing, building, improving, modernising and extending their housing stock.
Where has the rent collector gone? What has happened to the person who knocked on the door every Monday or Tuesday, twice a fornight, three times a month to remind the tenant that if he wanted a roof over his head he ought to pay the rent and that if he could not pay the rent there was another agency, the Department of Health and Social Security, which was prepared to help deserving cases? In such circumstances, the local authority can look to the DHSS for the payment of that money, thus relieving the tenant of the worry of that never-ending spiral of debt which the tenant never intended to get into in the first place but from which he does not have the courage or understanding to extricate himself.
My fourth point is that the urban regeneration funding should be complementary and additional to the existing urban programme and not part of the existing budget, which I suspect it is. That should not displace the existing efforts that are being made by local authorities.
My final point concerns vacant land and vacant land registers. At long last, my right hon. Friend is speeding up the process of requiring local authorities, other statutory undertakers and public bodies to bring forward land which has been locked away from public view behind corrugated iron and gorse bushes for years. That land is at last coming on the market through the exercise of section 98 of the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980. Why are those registers restricted to sites of more than one acre? Why is not every parcel of land, of a quarter or half an acre, included? Such parcels of land are often large enough to build a small cul-de-sac on or perhaps large enough to accommodate a little enclave of mobile homes to provide temporary accommodation for people who are tonight homeless in the constituency of the hon. Member for Perry Barr—who is laughing.
I apologise to my hon. Friend for not giving way, but he may wish to take up my points in his own speech.
In conclusion—I said I would speak for only a few minutes —I believe that the Bill is a good Bill. It is good for the tenant who wants to buy, and it is good for the tenant who cannot buy. It could be good for the building societies movement if building societies are given the opportunity in the Building Societies Bill, which is now in Committee, to invest directly in ready-made investments. They could buy the hard-to-let blocks of flats from local authorities.
I do not share the view of some colleagues that, by increasing the level of discount to 70 per cent. and reducing the qualifying period from three years to two years—I welcome that move to some extent—sales will be stimulated. I do not believe that sales of high-rise council flats will be stimulated. By and large, those flats are inferior architecturally and environmentally. Their construction is usually inferior. Often, the tenants are on low incomes and, in some cases, it would not be in their best interests to buy. I would prefer the management of those blocks to be put out to more sympathetic, non-profit-making organisations, such as the building societies. The Building Societies Bill will enable building societies to do that.
The Bill will be a good measure for all those estates that are grafitti-ridden and worse. It will be good for our inner cities and, therefore, for the heart of our nation.
I do not know why the hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Heddle) concluded that there is consensus here on the legislation. There is nothing of the kind, as has already been demonstrated by my hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker).
We face a formidable housing crisis. New public sector starts are at their lowest level in peace time. It is unlikely that the total number of building starts in the public sector in the whole of the United Kingdom this year will be more than 30,000. That means that a large number of people are unable to buy, and stand no chance in the near future of being offered, accommodation by a council. That all adds to the housing crisis.
Last year was the centenary of the Housing of the Working Classes Act 1885; so we have had 100 years of council housing.
It was not, however, an anniversary that the Government would wish to see celebrated. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) said in an intervention, council housing came about because of slum landlords, and so on. Although the hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) said that council housing had been a disaster, I take a different view. Hundreds of thousands of people of successive generations have benefited from public sector housing, and we shall not apologise for that in any way, shape, or form.
The purpose of the Bill is to reduce substantially the amount of rented accommodation in the public sector and actively to encourage privatisation of council estates. That would undoubtedly seriously undermine the rights and security of those tenants who do not wish to buy. A large number of tenants, of course, have no intention of buying. Under the proposed legislation, some of the accommodation will be transferred to private ownership. Conservative Members talk about tenants' rights and so on; but what about the tenants? They will have no say. They will not even be consulted, so let us not have hypocrisy about tenants' rights. We should be concerned about the way in which those rights will he undermined.
Since the Conservative party took office, public expenditure on housing has been cut by two thirds. The housing investment programme allocation continues to be totally inadequate to meet the needs of local authorities in building and modernising. Since 1979, because of the Government's policies, and for no other reason, no council house starts have taken place in my borough of Walsall. What am I supposed to say to the people with children who come to me at my surgeries or write to me asking for accommodation or a transfer from a high-rise flat to a house? Should I say that they should buy? Many are unemployed and the incomes of others are totally inadequate to obtain a mortgage. Their plight is due to the Government's deliberate policy of making it virtually impossible for local authorities, such as mine, to undertake any new building work.
Owner-occupiers in my constituency in need of improvement grants are regular visitors to my surgeries. They are in no position to pay for a new roof, roof repairs or other repair work without assistance. Once the 1983 election was won, the Government turned off improvement grants so that it became virtually impossible in many parts of the country—certainly in my area—to obtain such grants. Is there any protest from Conservative Members who are always talking about owner-occupiers? What about those owner-occupiers I have described—do they not have a right? Many are retired and desperately need improvements on their properties which can be carried out only through a grant. There is no help in the Bill.
We must bear in mind that the demand for rented accommodation continues to grow. It is not obscene that, when thousands of families are forced to live in and bring up children in bed and breakfast accommodation, legislation is brought before us that does nothing to build a single new council house or flat? This will affect not only people in bed and breakfast accommodation who are homeless, but many others.
The fallacy in the Government's case is the argument that most people, apart from the pensioners and the poorest people, can afford to buy. Is it possible in Greater London to find even a one-bedroomed flat for less than £26,000 or £30,000? The position is somewhat different in the west midlands. House prices exclude many people, not just the poorest, from being able to buy. What is to happen to them? Should they be denied adequate housing? Should they continue to wait for years on council waiting lists because of the Government's deliberate policy of ensuring by financial means that local authorities cannot build? Apart from the large number of people who are not offered any type of accommodation, many other people, such as my constituents, have to wait a very long time for transfer to a house. Even if they have two children and live in a high-rise block of flats, they must wait years on end before there is any chance that the council can offer them a house. Is it asking too much to provide for them what we as Members of Parliament have—a house with a garden? They are asking only for that. Inevitably they are told by the local neighbourhood offices who certainly want to help, "You must wait." To have two children is not a good enough reason.
Because of the shortage of time, I shall not.
It is interesting that the Government have continued to deny private tenants any opportunity to buy. We have asked a simple question: if it is almost a "sacred" right for council tenants to buy, as Conservative Members have argued, why not give private tenants the same right? Why not give that right to the tenants in the constituency of the hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Heddle), who complained to the local press? Why should private tenants, who in many cases—I would not say in all cases—are in a worse position than council tenants, not have a legal right to buy? When I asked the former Minister. the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow), that question, he ruled the idea out entirely. I am willing to give way to the Minister for Housing to enable him to answer this question: why should private tenants not have the legal right to buy? It is understandable that there is silence because there is no real answer to the question. It is obvious that the Tory party is not in power to offend its friends in property companies and the large landlords.
Many council tenants face a serious threat as a result of the Bill's introduction. Clause 5 will make it much easier for a council tenant to lose his or her security and for possession to be granted against the tenant when the local authority wishes to sell the accommodation to the private sector. We are told that there is provision in the Bill for suitable alternative accommodation to be found. but who decides whether the alternative accommodation is suitable? Will it be the courts or local authorities which decide? Council tenants will have no effective defence against eviction under the Bill. If the local authority decides to sell and the Secretary of State agrees, that is the end of the matter.
It is understandable that many private landlords and property companies would like to see the same powers given to them. The hon. Members for Eastbourne and for Mid-Staffordshire argued, in effect, for a repeat of the Rent Act 1957. My hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) was right to make the assertion that he did. I was a member of a local authority when that Act started to take effect. The authority's job was to do its best to rehouse those who had been evicted legally —not by Rachmanite means—as a result of the Act.
When the Labour party won the 1964 general election the 1957 Act was so discredited—perhaps the Labour party won the election because of the Act—that the then Tory Opposition did not vote against the Labour Bill to repeal the measure which they had introduced a few years previously. I believe that the Cabinet takes the same line as the hon. Members for Eastbourne and for Mid-Staffordshire. The members of the Cabinet would like to see the deregulation of the private rented sector but they do not have the courage to take the steps to secure that result. They believe—they are right to do so—that if there is one certain way to ensure that the Labour party wins the next general election, it is to deregulate the private rented sector. I believe that my party will win in any event.
The hon. Gentleman takes us down memory lane to the 1957 Act in every housing debate. I would rather look forward to 1997, when I hope that there will be more people in homes and more people having the right to rent. Does he agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) that in any new letting of any property having basic, standard amenities, such as a bathroom, hot water and electricity—a property which has been fully modernised and improved — in circumstances where the landlord and the tenant can come to terms on the rent that should pass between them in return for the right to rent, the result will be the provision of more accommodation for his constituents and mine? If so, will he tell the occupants of the Opposition Front Bench?
The hon. Gentleman seems not to understand that the 1957 Act — I have gone down memory lane, and rightly so, for reasons which my right hon. and hon. Friends and even some Conservative Members will understand—demonstrated that deregulation does not provide more accommodation. More privately rented accommodation was lost as a result of that Act than ever before. When landlords were given the opportunity of obtaining vacant possession, they sold off their properties. We must recognise—the hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire is unwilling to do so—that if we accept that there is a need for rented accommodation, the supply of it will come only from the public sector. Unfortunately, some Conservative Members do not seem to recognise the need for rented accommodation.
The Select Committee on the Environment heard evidence from representatives of the private sector and they made it clear that they were not interested in shortholds. The Small Landlords Association and other such groups told the Committee that it would not work. In their opinion, it would not give them the proper freedom to operate. The sort of freedom that they wanted was available under the 1957 Act. Unless they are given that freedom, we shall see no revival of the private rented sector.
Clause 6 encourages councils to hive off their housing management to private agencies. As long as the agents are approved by the Secretary of State, there will be no further obstacles to such an arrangement. The agents can take over the management of council estates and they are not likely to be overconcerned with tenants' rights and tenants' problems. As I understand it, these agents will be responsible for the allocation of council housing and the level of rents. It seems that they will be responsible for all matters concerned with housing management.
I am totally opposed to that approach. I believe that local authorities should continue to be responsible for housing management. That responsibility should not be given to the private sector. I am proud that the borough in my constituency pioneered local neighbourhood offices. The concept was sneered at at the time, and it was argued that it would not work. It has 32 offices and it is interesting that a number of local authorities, including non-Labour ones, are copying what was initiated in 1980 in Walsall. That is a form of decentralisation that should be encouraged. Although these neighbourhood offices have been subjected to all sorts of difficulty and stress —understandably so in view of the Government's policy—they have proved essential in securing good management practice. There is no need to privatise such functions.
The Bill makes no provision for tenants to have any say in whether their homes are to be sold to the private sector or whether management functions are to be taken over by a private agency. Tenants will have no right of information. They will merely be told what has been done. For all these reasons we must be very much opposed to clauses 5 and 6.
The Government are determined to treat the public housing sector with contempt. They are waging what can be described only as a doctrinaire vendetta against council housing. Ministers remain indifferent to the housing plight and misery of so many of our fellow citizens. The Cabinet has shown by the introduction of the Bill that it is interested only in trying substantially to reduce the number of rented dwellings.
The Opposition are concerned to ensure that people are in the position to buy their own homes, and in the 1960s a Labour Government made it easier for many to obtain a mortgage under the option mortgage scheme. We are determined to ensure—it is one of the reasons why we are here — that those who cannot buy are housed adequately. They should have decent council housing and we shall do our utmost to expose their present plight. When we are in government, we shall ensure that policies are implemented that will result in such people being housed adequately.
I make no bones about believing that housing policy should be judged according to the criterion of how it measures up to the aspirations of the British people. There can be no doubt that the majority of the people prefer owner-occupation; that is especially true of those who form the youngest age group who are in a position to buy their own homes. I shall judge the Bill according to that criterion and accordingly I shall welcome it. Unfortunately, it does not go as far as I would like by the same criterion.
Unlike many other Conservative Members, I accept the case for the right to buy for the tenants of private institutional organisations. I hope that that view will shortly become the view of many more of my colleagues, and in due course the view of those who occupy the Government Front Bench.
I do not believe that the extension of the discount range by 10 per cent. on the sale of flats will achieve the purpose that my hon. Friend the Minister intends. It is true that the provision might nudge up the sales rate of attractive flats in three-storey blocks in my constituency, but I doubt whether it will have any great effect on sales in tower blocks in inner cities, which is surely where we are seeking to promote owner-occupation more than anywhere else. We wish to do so because that is where it is to be found less than anywhere else.
There are various ways in which the extension of owner-occupation in inner-city areas could be achieved. First, local authorities could be encouraged, or even required, to designate certain blocks as sales blocks so that those who bought would know that they would be joined by other owner-occupiers over a period of years. That would increase their confidence and it would lead to a greater market for the resale of houses.
Secondly, I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) was right about the need to experiment by putting some of those flats on the open market to see whether we could establish a proper market value on which district valuers could base their views.
Thirdly, there is more scope for refurbishment of existing blocks and existing estates than is contained in the Bill. I welcome the initiative money that my hon. Friend the Minister has announced. I am sure that it will result in many more experiments like that at Salford, which has yielded great benefits and owner-occupation at a low cost. That is more possible in the north and in the midlands than in the high-priced areas of the south-east.
I welcome the comments of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) about portable discounts and I commend his proposal to my hon. Friend. However, it is extraordinary that the hon. Member should have been in favour of portable discounts for tenants of local authorities when he and his hon. Friends did everything possible to frustrate the Government's desire to give a similar opportunity to the tenants of charitable housing associations.
I make no apology for discussing several omissions from the housing provisions of the Bill. There should be a legal requirement on local authorities to publish not only waiting lists for rented accommodation, but waiting lists for owner-occupation. Many of those on the waiting list for local authority accommodation would prefer to buy. A waiting list for that purpose would provide some guide to the local authorities in deciding housing policy.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne was right to say that the Bill should have contained measures to revitalise the private rented sector. I believe that decontrolling vacant tenancy would move us in the right direction.
We have not heard much about planning law during the debate, but it is an important part of the Bill. I welcome the proposals for simplified planning zones. I detect some ancestry in my modest work on the planning system published a few years ago, which has sold many copies to the Department of the Environment during the past year and a bit.
The main problem with the planning system is not the decisions that are made, but the slowness with which they are reached. In 1979 Slough Estates published a comparative survey showing that in the rival countries of Belgium, the United States and Canada it was much quicker to obtain planning permission for industrial development. In 1979, it took six weeks to obtain full permission for a 50,000 sq ft factory with 10 per cent. office content in Belgium, five weeks in the United States and four weeks in Canada. That compares with 32 weeks in the United Kingdom. It is little wonder that a mobile international company wishing to get its products on the market sooner than its competitors might seek to locate its factories in Belgium, the United States or Canada rather than the United Kingdom, if all other things were equal. Much more attention must be paid to speeding up the planning system.
The appeal system is one control over the speed of the planning system. Local authorities have eight weeks to make a decision on ordinary planning applications. If the local authority does not make a decision within eight weeks, the applicant can go to the Department of the Environment and appeal on the grounds of non-determination. However, that appeal takes 19 weeks to go through. What sort of sanction is an average appeal period of 19 weeks against a local authority that has not determined an application within eight weeks? The vast majority of applicants will tend to continue with the local authority system rather than going through the appeal system. They will use the appeal system only if the local authority decision has gone against them. It has no effect as a policeman of the speed of the planning system. That is something to which we should pay more attention.
Nothing is said in the Bill about the other great problem in planning — the adequacy of the training of local councillors who make those decisions. By the very nature of local authorities, there is an enormous turnover of councillors. Many hon. Members will be familiar with the fact that half the councillors may retire every time there is an election, to say nothing of those who lose their seats. All over again, councillors on planning committees must be educated about planning law. When people come fresh to the system they think of it as a response to public opinion rather than what planning law tends to be about, which is precedent, comparative decisions and the historic use of a site.
When new councillors are elected, many officers make strenuous efforts to inform and educate them, for example, by having seminars, but far too often local councillors choose to ignore the real planning law of the country, because they wish to play to the views of groups of their constituents. All of us know about the duress of having a large group in the public gallery that may not be representative of public opinion, but which, because it is howling down the necks of councillors, influences the way in which they approach the planning system.
I recommend that, when he considers the planning sections of the Bill, my hon. Friend should seek to ensure that councillors receive proper advice, proper counselling and proper education.
I welcome the Bill. It can be improved in Committee and I sincerely hope that when it returns to the Chamber it will achieve even more in moving towards its objectives of increasing owner-occupation for the British people, providing choice for the tenants of existing rented accommodation and speeding up and simplifying the planning system.
I listened carefully to the Minister's opening speech. He said that the intellectual landscape had now changed and that we would not be returning to the local authority housing policies of the past. He called it "irreversible change". He said that the Bill was in line with continuing Government housing policy. I agree with the hon. Member. He is absolutely right. The Bill is another addition, cleverly introduced, to the counter-revolutionary process which has been going on in Britain since the Government were elected. All the values, the traditions and the accepted modes are now slowly but surely — sometimes fairly quickly — being destroyed.
It worries me that some people have a strange idea about why we had and have local authority council housing.—[Interruption.] I see the hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) nodding. He is a strange example of that strange idea. In Britain we have never had really good housing on a mass scale for ordinary working people. That position improved, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) mentioned, when the first legislation was introduced to build housing for the poor. The first council housing began in 1919. The great breakthrough came in 1924, with the Act introduced by John Wheatley—one of those mad, wild Lefties from Glasgow who happened to be a marvellous Roman Catholic and who believed in building houses for ordinary working people who could not afford to buy homes.
To listen to some people, one would imagine that those sections of our community have no problems. I do not know where some hon. Members have been hiding. Clearly, they have not been living in the real world. We could ask any of my hon. Friends who represent urban areas about what happens at their weekly surgeries, and they would tell stories of young people crying out for accommodation, sometimes having to live with their parents and sometimes separated from each other and their children. They cannot buy homes. Many of them are unemployed. Liverpool has 21 per cent. unemployment; in some areas of the city, the figure is between 60 and 65 per cent. On one estate, 80 per cent. of the people have no incomes except from state benefits. Where would they get the money to buy homes?
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Heddle), who said that he represented the building societies, has left the Chamber. I would like to send those people along to him and say, "You get them a mortgage. You get them somewhere to live." They have nowhere to live, and the only organisations that can help them are the local authorities. Some co-operative associations can help, but most assistance comes from local authorities. The Church of England report makes that point.
Some of my hon. Friends seem to be mesmerised by the word "choice". I hope that they will not remain mesmerised by it, because most working people have no choice. They do not begin to think in terms of choice. They cannot say "I will buy a house", or, "I will rent a house or go into a local co-operative housing association." Their only possible choice is that the local authority might offer them accommodation and allow them to turn down at least one offer. Even that is happening less and less.
I wish to pursue the hon. Gentleman's point about the availability of public sector housing to let. He is perpetuating the myth that we heard from the hon. Members for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) and Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). Is he aware that the public rented sector increased from 367,000 in 1979–80 to 410,000 last year? What is his explanation of that?
I do not argue about the exact figures. All that I know is that the working people of Liverpool have no choice of accommodation, because there is no accommodation. Dwellings should be made available for them to rent. The Liverpool city councillors—I will not refer to the court case—began to tackle the problems of housing in the city. They built houses to rent and began to pull down the old multistorey blocks with which nothing could be done—
Even the private sector in Liverpool wanted nothing to do with them, apart from two blocks. They are still standing as monuments. If the hon. Gentleman wants to know about the Piggeries, I shall tell him. Liverpool city council is building houses to rent and is helping people to leave their present terrible accommodation or giving youngsters an opportunity to have new homes. At the same time, it has been starved of financial aid by the Government. Its HIP allocation has been reduced—
Yes, and the council has been unable to deal with repairs as it would have wished. That is what is really happening in housing.
I do not usually make long speeches; I hope that I usually make effective speeches. I have listened to some rubbishy, long speeches from Conservative Members. Listening to the hon. Member for the building societies—which I shall call him from now on—I had a picture of my mother-in-law, who is aged 83, putting in a new bath, the poor disabled fellow who lives four doors away from her putting in a new bath, and the young girl who lives next door to her, whose husband died and who has two children, putting in a new bath. I have never heard such rubbish. It is time that they stopped talking rubbish and talked about building houses for the people, because that is what the Labour party intends to do.
I end by referring to the document "Homes for the Future". Some hon. Members seem to believe that it was produced by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), but he was only one member of the committee. I chaired the committee and I moved the report at the Labour party conference on behalf of the national executive. It is not my hon. Friend's report or mine; it is party policy accepted at the party conference and we all contributed to it.
The Government mention only one side of the story and try to suggest that we have suddenly accepted their philosophy. If they read the document, they will see that we reject their philosophy completely. We say that once those houses are built, there will be an opportunity for choice. If people have the wherewithal to buy homes, we shall help them, as we have always said we would. The report states:
Finally, we know that in some areas, such as the inner cities, the shortage of council houses and of land to replace scarce council housing raises special difficulties. These could be considerable. In these areas local authorities will be free to determine whether, in the light of local circumstances, council tenants should be able to buy their houses.
We go on:
Council tenants who wish to buy a home in the private market would be helped by the more general assistance available to first-time buyers, as noted above.
I shall not go into the details because they are all there. We are working on a scheme to help the first-time buyers.
That is our policy. I am not ashamed of it. I helped to get that through. The idea that there is a great difference of opinion between me on one side of the party and the Opposition Front Bench on the other is just untrue.
We recognise that there will be areas where we cannot automatically say that council stock should be sold. But we do say that when we get to a stage when there are no longer any real problems — that will take some considerable time unfortunately, especially after the Government have made it worse by every Bill that they have brought in—we shall carry out our policy.
Let us vote the Bill down and get it across to the people that once again the Government are putting their sectarian ideological views forward and privatising everything. The way that the Government are going, if they last a few more years we shall be paying out money to breathe the air that we need to live.
We have been down memory lane quite a bit this afternoon. Perhaps those of us who have been in public housing for many years will cast our minds back to some of the mistakes that we made. In my city of Southampton we bulldozed down, with disregard to the communities, many long streets of terraced houses that could have been modernised and rehabilitated. We broke up the families. We put people who were unused to flat dwelling into flats. We created the monster of the dissatisfied tenant.
I am sure that anyone who served on the local authorities in the 1960s will agree that in those days we could have easily restored the community spirit in some of our inner cities. Not only did we bulldoze the terraces down, but we built high rise flats to provide the maximum accommodation to rehouse the people from the terraces. Then we created vast concrete areas, all under the grand umbrella of the Parker Morris standards, and wondered why the poor demented people, who had been forced out of their individual homes to live way up in the sky in areas that were dangerous to transverse at night, wanted to move. We suddenly found that one of the worst problems was not that tenants could not get accommodation but that practically every other tenant wanted to move.
We must all accept that the problems arise from bad designs, bad workmanship and the fact that the high-rise blocks have become dangerous. We have had to evacuate the tenants from three high-rise blocks in Southampton, and they are another burden on the housing committee. All those mistakes happened when we as junior politicians were devising a housing policy. No one can blame anybody else. We are all responsible for the mess we are in.
If the public in the Gallery who were so appreciative of the speech made by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) were fair, they would recognise that there has been a series of mistakes since the end of the last war. I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House would agree that when one reaches the conclusion that there has been a series of mistakes, there must be remedial measures. The only way that we can take any remedial measures in this place is with legislation.
I agree that we have had too many housing Bills. I sat on the Committee on the Housing Bill in 1972 which took five months to go through because we fought cat and dog all the way. Blood was on the carpet. Luckily it was verbal blood. If it were not, we probably would not fight quite so much. At the end of the day we created another series of problems for the people whom we were trying to help.
Having got to that point down memory lane we can start rationalising what is wrong. The Piggeries in Liverpool have been mentioned. That is a perfect example of what we are up against as politicians after many years of incorrect decisions.
What my hon. Friend says is perfectly true, and I am sure the House will agree that there have been a lot of bad decisions at local government level in public housing. It was not just the high rise blocks, the comprehensive redevelopment programmes of the inner cities or the vast, soulless council estates that were the mistakes. Every decision has been a mistake. What does my hon. Friend see as a solution? Many of the estates that were built 10 years ago are being blown up. Part of a housing estate has been blown up in my old constituency in Liverpool. If all the problems of the past 10 years are put together, they are all the result of mistakes, so what is the solution?
Of course, there have been mistakes, but I must reject my hon. Friend's argument that everything has been a mistake. One of the best periods of housing policy was when we brought in the general improvement and housing action areas. They worked successfully. It was back to my idea of the restoration of terraced houses in deprived parts of a city. One of the jewels in our policy was the housing action and general improvement areas.
However, to get back to the high-rise blocks of flats, what is to be done with them? No tenant wants to stay there. Anyone with young children wants to move into a house with a little bit of garden. Frankly, the only solution that we have is in the Bill. We must convince as many people as possible of that. Whatever one says in political terms, home ownership tends to make people more proud of where they are living. They try to improve their environment and look after their properties that much more. But I can see no hope for the large, high-rise blocks of flats. They will have to go. They are dinosaurs in housing terms.
But the tenants of blocks of flats that are perhaps four storey high, of which we have many in Southampton, will appreciate what is in the Bill.
The problem that the Bill presents is that we shall not be able to sell off the high-rise blocks even if local authorities want to do so. The more appealing blocks—the smaller, low-rise blocks—where the tenants most want to stay because they have a greater sense of community will be where there is most resistance to compulsory transfer from public sector ownership to somebody else or to getting the tenants out.
It depends whether the Bill's success is such that practically everyone in a four-storey block of flats will benefit from further discounts and from having the repairs worked out beforehand by the local authorities so that they know their financial status. It is also important that the common parts of the building with the service should be controlled. Many of my constituents are fearful of the stories that go around. Someone buys a flat in a four-storey block which comes within the rolling programme of the local authority for repairs and maintenance. Suddenly the new owner finds that he is responsible for a percentage of the cost of reroofing the whole building, the replacement of all the windows and the decoration of all the common parts. If he is on a low income but has managed to get a council mortgage by taking advantage of all the discounts, his financial budget is critical and he does not want the surprise of the extra expenditure. The Bill will eliminate that surprise. Many people will be induced to buy their flats because of the provisions in the Bill.
Clause 5 deals with the redevelopment of a house. It may be considered politically as harsh or sympathetic. The same happens under compulsory purchase orders when unfortunate people do not want to leave their homes. The explanatory memorandum says:
The new ground (under which suitable alternative accommodation must be available) will apply".
I am not a barrister, but as chairman of a housing authority I have dealt with enough compulsory purchase orders to know the problems. That provision is as hard as possible in legal terms.
If a person wants equivalent accommodation or wants to live near his mother he may have problems if the local authority is inflexible. I hope that most councils will be flexible enough to give someone at least three alternatives. I think the suggestion from the Opposition was that only one offer should be made. That would be wrong when a local authority is dispossessing a person of his statutory home, which is what it is, because he is a regulated tenant and has possession.
No matter how much a private landlord wanted to redevelop a site he could not do anything like that. In Committee — not that I want to be on the Committee because I served for five months in 1972 and that will last me for ever—my colleagues should make sure that the Bill includes a proviso that three offers of alternative accommodation should be made.
I have the same doubt as has already been raised about simplified planning zones. It is a wonderful idea, but I do not see it working. The idea is that people should be able to build what they want and it seems that the developer would not even pay for the planning application. Everything is supposed to work smoothly. We have seen what has happened with enterprise zones and I am aware of the same thing with the freeport in Southampton. The schemes do not work as smoothly as seems possible when they are discussed in Committee. There are always obstacles that we politicians do not foresee.
Southampton is a most attractive specimen of the mix of one third council accommodation and two thirds private housing. When I left the post of chairman of the housing authority we had 23,000 council dwellings. Not to my horror, but perhaps to my surprise, when I talked to the Labour chairman of the housing authority just before Christmas I found that the council still had 23,000 housing units, although a sale scheme had been in operation since 1967. People should not fear the sale of council houses. The scheme should be used to the greatest advantage. The Government should be more lenient in future about the capital receipts from the sale of council houses. Some local authorities may abuse their powers and waste money but we shall not be able to keep the neck of the purse tied so tightly.
I hope that we are all on the same lines on modernisation, destruction of high-rise flats, the encouragement of as many tenants as possible to buy low rise flats and the operation of simplified planning zones. However, I fear that there will be many a squabble in Committee.
In expressing my grave disquiet about the Bill, I want to concentrate mainly on the housing provisions. I begin by making a brief reference to the principle of simplified planning zones, which are of great concern to me. There has been a tendency in some parts of the Conservative party in recent years to throw much doubt upon the planning system. There are frequent calls to sweep away the delays, the bureaucracy and the decisions by grey, faceless bureaucrats in planning departments. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] The chorus of assent from the Government Benches demonstrates their attachment to that point of view.
The principle of simplified planning zones is nothing more nor less than a simplistic attack on the planning system as a whole for the areas that are to be designated. In making that attack the Government Benches have forgotten the basic principle that lies at the heart of the planning system—that people in a local community should have some control over what is developed in that area. The mechanism of the private market, the profit motive and the ownership of land should not be the only determining factors in decisions that are made on how an environment develops. The proposal for simplified planning zones will effectively remove local democratic control from the area and thereby remove the decision by the local community on how the area should develop.
The hon. Gentleman should appreciate that there is not on the Tory benches a desire to remove that control. The simplified planning zones will be brought into being by local authorities. On his general point, will the hon. Gentleman accept that the process he has described has been unsuccessful in representing the wishes of local people? That is demonstrated by many of the unsatisfactory housing conditions that we see in major cities. If what is happening is deemed to be the wish of the local people rather than the dreams of people in planning authorities and borough architects most hon. Members would be very much surprised.
The hon. Gentleman has anticipated my argument. Many examples can be given to show where the planning process, as operated at present, has gone wrong. However, there are other examples where the planning system has gone right for a change. I point the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill) in the direction of the Coin street site in Lambeth. The basic point remains the same. The way to deal with the problem of bureaucracy and the way to cope with the difficulties that are imposed upon areas by a remote planning system is not to do away altogether with planning controls but to look at ways of democratising the planning process so that people have a genuine and real say in how their area is to be developed. Simplified planning zones will not achieve the democratising principle that ought to be at the heart of any examination of how the planning system can be developed.
I echo a point that has been made by several other hon. Members about the simplified planning zones concept. I am deeply concerned that designated conservation areas, areas of outstanding natural beauty and national parks—despite the brief, opaque reference in the Bill to national parks—are not specifically excluded from the possibility of being designated as simplified planning zones. I hope that during the passage of the Bill they will be excluded.
Many criticisms can be made of the housing provisions, but two of them stand out as being detrimental to housing in this country. The first is clause 5. In his opening speech the Minister sped over its provisions. Clause 5 relates to the new ground for possession of council property. Opposition Members have eloquently pointed out that it will enable local authorities which are determined to sell council property to sell it over their heads and against the wishes of council tenants. I hope that during the next few weeks Conservative Members will talk to the tenants of the Fulham court estate and find out how they feel about the prospect of the estate being sold over their heads and against their wishes. That is precisely the power that the Minister, by this Bill, wishes to give to local authorities.
The institution of a new ground for possession ought surely to follow the basic principles that seeking grounds for possession and allowing grounds for possession to be granted have traditionally followed for secure tenancies: either because a tenant has reneged on his tenancy obligations or because development or improvement work that is in his interests is taking place. Neither of those provisions pertains in the proposed new ground for possession. If the Bill becomes law, it will be possible for a tenant to be evicted from his home, not because his home is being renovated for another tenant to move into or for that tenant to move back into, or for the benefit of council tenants as a whole, but because it is to be sold and will benefit a private developer. That breaches the conventions upon which grounds for possession have traditionally been conceived. I hope that that provision will be defeated.
Equally worrying provisions are contained in clause 6. The Minister and Conservative Members have rightly applauded the opportunity that clause 6 affords to establish management co-operatives on estates. I welcome that provision. Before I became a Member of Parliament I worked for several years for a housing co-operative. I am an ardent advocate of the benefits that a co-operative, either a management co-operative or an ownership co-operative, can bring to housing management and of the degree of control that residents have over their environment. However, there is a grave danger that the baby will be thrown out with the bath water. Clause 6 makes it possible not only to form a management co-operative on an estate but to privatise the entire management of an estate or a group of council dwellings. It is deeply worrying that an estate could fall into the hands of an organisation or an individual who has no connection with the co-operative or with the tenants.
Whatever the failings may be—and they are many—of existing council housing departments, it is a horrifying prospect that private estate agents, or organisations, or private landlords could take over the management of accommodation. We would go from something that is frequently bad at present to something that would be, or could be, far worse.
I have listened with care to the hon. Gentleman because I respect his experience in the housing co-operative movement, but does he not think that he has over-polarised the argument between public authority management and/or tenant co-operative management, as delegated by local authorities, and private sector management? There is a whole range of bodies in the middle to which local authorities might also welcome devolving management. Housing associations and building societies, under the new powers that are to be granted to them under the Building Societies Bill, are but two examples.
The idea of a building society managing a local authority housing estate is horrifying. —[HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] For the simple reason that building societies were not established for and have no experience in and are unlikely to have any interest in the management of rented accommodation. Indeed, they are extremely unlikely to have at the heart of their concern the interests of tenants.
The principle upon which I hope any local authority housing department official or any Department of the Environment official will wish to operate is that the wishes of the tenants of an estate or of a group of houses are paramount. There are different degrees of tenant control, ranging from complete local authority management to full tenant co-operatives. The tenants may wish a housing association to assist them with the management of an estate, or some aspects of it. There is no problem about that, and I fully support it.
I hope that tenants will be able to opt for any of the different forms of control and participation that are available to them. I would welcome such a system, but I cannot welcome the open provisions that clause 6 makes available to local authorities that wish to shuffle off the arduous responsibility of managing their accommodation to the highest bidder. The clause would allow them to do that, but it would not be in the interests of or benefit the tenants of such an estate.
Even more worrying are the general assumptions that underlie the Bill. The Minister revealed those assumptions during the course of his speech. They characterise not just the Bill but the Government's housing policies in the last six years. He said, for example, that money had been poured into public housing in the 1960s and early 1970s, and the result has been vast impersonal estates. That as a bald statement of fact is probably correct. The vast impersonal estates that were built in the 1950s, 1960s and the early 1970s—and my constituency has its unfair share of them—are unpleasant places in which to live. They should never have been built in the first place and present management and maintenance headaches now for those who have to manage and maintain them. To leap from there to the conclusion that public housing as a whole is discredited and is a lesser form of tenure and a lesser form of housing enterprise than private home ownership is not sensible.
I invite the Minister to visit my constituency and to see some of the housing development that took place under a Labour Government by a Labour council in the late 1970s. That development took the form of rehabilitation of individual street houses on a large scale. It took the form of rehabilitation of old inter-war estates into good quality accommodation. It was an attempt to preserve on those estates the existing community of tenants.
The hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Hill) spoke about the preservation of communities. That initiative was developed and has been carried out on a considerable number of older tenants in my constituency. The tenants living on those rehabilitated estates found them very comfortable, decent places in which to live. On York Way court estate, the tenants sadly face the prospect of cuts in the further programme of work on the estate because the Department of the Environment is not permitting the project control application for the full cost of the next phase of work. I will be taking that up with the Minister in another forum.
The work which has been carried out to rehabilitate old existing council property, to buy up street properties and do them up and to build new houses with gardens in small closes and streets is very popular. It makes for good housing and provides decent homes for people to rent at prices they can afford. That was done by the public sector. To damn by implication the entire public sector by reference to the impersonal and inadequate work carried out in the 1950s and 1960s is unfair to the principle of public housing. One Conservative Member said that every decision has been a mistake, but I hope that he and other Conservative Members will reconsider their attitude to public housing which, at its best, in modern conditions and with an emphasis on quality, can indeed provide good quality accommodation for those who need it.
Because of the operation of the project control system, the cost limits which the Department of the Environment is now imposing, the drying up of housing investment programme allocations, the restrictions on the use of capital receipts by local authorities and all the restrictive measures that the Department of the Environment is now applying, the ability by local authorities to carry out work of that quality for people who want it has become virtually impossible. Tenants on Bentham court estate in my constituency who had been looking forward keenly to further stages of the estate action programme are being told that they have to wait for several years before the work can be completed. As a result, there is a family of 10 in my constituency living in a three-bedroomed flat who have been waiting for four years to move from that flat because the local authority cannot build a large enough house for them to move into. This can be provided only by the new build programme. For that state of affairs I am afraid the Government's housing policy and their attitude to public housing as a whole is undoubtedly responsible.
The Minister commented that public housing will continue to have a role, but a more specialised and narrower role. That means, in effect, that housing provided by the public sector will be concerned with the provision of housing for the urban poor. That is the future for public housing as seen by the Government. Their focus entirely on tenure and their assumption that the only form of housing with any validity is the home ownership form of tenure—assumptions which lie behind everything the Government have said — are against the wishes and interests of many thousands of people in the country. There should be available equally to everyone the choice to own or to rent. That surely is how we should be gearing our housing policy.
Many thousands of people in my constituency will find nothing in the Bill for them. I speak of those who are badly housed, who are homeless or who are living in inadequate, damp, mouldy and condensation-infested housing. The Bill does nothing for them. Nor do the assumptions the Government have been making in housing policy during the last six years.
This has been a spirited and thoughtful debate, although the Opposition seem to have mistakenly equated long speeches with good quality speeches. I hope that I can make an uncharacteristically short contribution on part II and part III of the Bill, which are concerned with planning and with putting public money into urban areas.
With regard to the planning aspect, I welcome any move to deregulate planning legislation. It involves too much bureaucracy and too many delays. Planning legislation has grown to become one of the greatest blights of our time. It has done more damage to the urban areas than any other factor. Many of our cities could hardly look worse if we had no planners at all.
The Bill simplifies one aspect of planning. However, rather than tinkering with the system, I believe that we need outright and radical reform. Planners see things in compartments. They see the inner city, the middle city, the residential zone and the vast council estates beyond the city boundaries, with industrial parks on the fringe. What they do not see is the individual needs of an area, and they are not flexible enough to be able to adapt to local problems.
The one thing the Government could do to restore the cities is to lift planning regulations lock, stock and barrel as they apply to the inner city so that the only things which cannot be done would be activities which were noisy to neighbours or offensive by way of smell, and buildings which were too high or blocked light. If planning control were lifted, the inner city would start to revive much more rapidly. People would want to live there and firms would want to go back there. If we continue with the current planning regime and merely tinker at the edges, there will be little change.
There is one matter about which the Bill is silent but which I feel that both sides of the House would like to see included. It relates to homesteading and shopsteading. Homesteading was started in London many years ago. It is practised all over north America. It is one of the most important factors involved in the revitalisation of the rundown inner cities.
Homesteading describes a process where a local authority sells, for a nominal sum, private houses which it has acquired through compulsory purchase. Instead of seeing the private housing sector deteriorate, one of the most effective actions a local authority could undertake would be compulsorily to purchase private houses which are declining and which are to be demolished and let them for £1, for example, to young married couples to restore and revive. The only condition would be that they live in the house for five years. The same applies to shops. In many run down city areas there are shops which have been abandoned by the retailers. The owners cannot relet them. The most effective way to save those shops would be to allow shopkeepers to buy them once they had been compulsorily purchased by the local authority provided that they continue to run the businesses for five years. I should like to see homesteading and shopsteading included in the Bill.
Zoning by planners is one of the most damaging things that happens to our cities. I represented an inner Liverpool constituency. I share with few other hon. Members the honour of representing a Liverpool inner city area, and also a rural seat some 300 miles away watching a city such as Plymouth sprawling outwards towards the green belt outside. I understand the inner city and the rural problems. When I was in Liverpool a black man was doing some enterprising work in a small garage at the back of his garden. He found that there was a need for wrought iron gates. After a year, he was stopped, although he was employing two people, because he was working in a residential zone. He was not allowed by the planners to carry on, although no complaints had been received.
My first plea to my hon. Friend the Minister is that we should lift planning controls in the inner city, subject to certain restrictions, and that the planning regime should include a new approach to homesteading and shopsteading.
My second point relates to the need and desire to put more public money into urban renewal. The Government's greatest mistake is to pour more public money into inner areas. It will not solve the problems. Successive Government have poured billions of pounds of public money into a bottomless pit in the hope that it would result in urban renewal. The more public money pumped in, the worse the inner areas become.
The urban aid programme started in 1968. Harold Wilson believed that inner urban area problems would be solved by throwing £20 million at them. He started the urban aid programme. I pay tribute to him for doing that. He believed that £20 million would solve the problem, but today, of course, the urban aid programme is running at £338 million, and the problems continue to worsen.
In 1968, the Opposition shifted the rate support grant from the shire counties to the urban areas. They transferred £60 million from the shire counties to the inner urban areas in the belief that they deserved that help. Now the Conservative Government have done the same. They are shifting money from the shire counties to the urban areas. However, the Opposition voted against our proposal to help the ailing urban areas even though the Government have courted great unpopularity in the shire counties.
The hon. Gentleman is right, but he has missed the crucial fact that between the two years that he quoted the inner city areas lost billions of pounds. That was thieved by the Government and put into the shire counties. The Government are merely marginally redressing the balance. As that august and completely apolitical man the Controller of Audit at the Audit Commission has pointed out, the inner cities have lost 20 per cent., in real terms, of their resources under this Government.
I always find the hon. Gentleman's interventions helpful, but he failed to mention that between 1968 and 1986—he will be familiar with what the Government did — the Labour and Conservative Governments introduced the community development project, the young volunteer force, which I had the privilege to direct, neighbourhood schemes, quality of life studies, educational priority areas, the six towns studies, urban guideline studies, inner area studies, the urban deprivation unit, the comprehensive community programme and the Inner Urban Areas Act 1978. They were all designed to give additional money to ailing urban areas. It is wrong to say that nothing happened between 1968 and 1986. Labour and Conservative Governments poured more and more public money into the inner urban areas. Hundreds of millions of pounds have been spent on urban renewal by the public sector and yet the inner areas look worse, the people living there more deprived.
The Bill changes that direction and pours public money into the private sector to help them to renew the urban areas. That is the correct shift. That is the difference between previous legislation and this.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is surprising that the parts of our cities that the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) wants to preserve—the conservation areas—were built by the private sector whereas the bits that he wants to pull down were built by the public sector? Does that not seem odd?
Many things seem odd. My hon. Friend has made a good point. The Opposition has spoken with great commitment and emotion. Because we have spoken with less fervour it should not be thought that we care less. All of us in the House care a great deal about the problems of people living in the inner urban areas. We care passionately about the problems of people living in council housing. We recognise that they have a great deal to put up with. That does not mean that we believe the Opposition's solution is any better than ours. On the contrary, we believe that our approach has some hope of success. Pouring more public money into the inner areas does not solve the problem, as we have seen for years.
There are three things that the Government should do to help relieve urban problems. The first, which I have mentioned before, is that the Government should explore the possibility of converting rental payments for council housing into mortgage repayments. People would not have to pay any more, and the benefits would be the same. If we could switch from public to private ownership, over five or 10 years, there would be the most dramatic change in the inner areas. People living in public housing would find that after five years they were living in private housing.
My second point is of great importance. People living in inner areas are short of cash. They need cheap money. They cannot obtain cheap money if banks charge them the ordinary rate of interest, or more, because they have no security. We need neighbourhood banks. Neighbourhood banks in the United States have shown that if people can borrow money cheaply they can renovate their houses and start small firms. The most effective way that the Government can help the inner cities is to make cheap money available.
My third point relates to the amount of vacant public land. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Heddle), who is not in his place. He mentioned the vacant land problem. I estimate there to be about one third of a million acres of vacant land in public ownership. The vacant land on the register, despite the amount that the Government have sold, continues to grow. Therefore, the Government should include in the Bill a provision to sell vacant public land at auction. That is long overdue. The only way to get rid of all the vacant public land in local authorities, statutory undertakers and Government is to have a massive auction. There should be a covenant in each lot sold that whoever buys the land must develop it within two years or re-auction it. Although more public money to inner cities will do no harm, it will not do much good either.
The Bill is a step in the right direction. It has the right ingredients to solve some problems, but the Government must stop pouring public money into this bottomless pit. It is the wrong medicine. The best medicine is to lift the rules and regulations, and to reduce the amount of bureaucracy. In one fell swoop the Government could do more for the cities than successive Governments have done during the past 18 years.
I shall respond to the planning issues raised in the debate, in particular by the hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen), but first I shall deal with the housing issues, especially clause 5, which has implications for security of tenure, and clause 6. I wish to democratise all forms of housing tenure, and the control and management of estates. I should like to see far more co-operative housing developments which straddle the two poles of private owner-occupation and public sector tenancy. Many of my hon. Friends and I, who regard ourselves as libertarian Socialists, see the need to pluralise the forms of housing tenure.
I endorse all the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) on that count. He stressed the need for greater tenant democracy—greater self-management by tenants of their estates, and greater collaboration on a community basis. I am worried that clause 6 will emphasise management by contract or consultancy agreement, rather than by the control of tenants. Similarly, clause 5 represents a severe reduction of tenants' freedom and security. The Conservative party often talks in the rhetoric of freedom, but in reality the material freedoms that it offers are rather different.
I share the anxiety behind part II, especially behind the notion of specialised planning zones. The zones originated in the infamous White Paper entitled "Lifting the Burden", in which planning policy was given the pride of place that the hon. Member for South Hams decried.
I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman would not abolish the planning system in the Snowdonia national park. The hon. Gentleman argued that the inner cities should not be planned as they have been since the Town and Country Planning Act 1947. That was the effect of "Lifting the Burden". The White Paper's emphasis was on extending the planning regime which was already established in the enterprise zones. Page 11 argued that the planning schemes had proved effective and successful in enterprise zones. However, we have had no evidence of how enterprise zones have been an economic success, let alone a planning success.
Enterprise zones were proposed by the former Chancellor of the Exchequer the right hon. and learned Member for Surrey East (Sir G. Howe) as a "Socialist alternative" and "liberation approach" to liberate private enterprise from over-regulation, which the Conservative party diagnoses as Britain's major disease. He argued for a simplified planning regime, rate relief, maximum capital allowances and exemption from development land tax, and the legislation enacted that. The zones were designed to facilitate new firm formations, but one of their most conspicuous effects was the redistribution of existing activity so that the cost per job in enterprise zones was much higher than originally envisaged, as the Financial Times recently pointed out.
Much of the debate about enterprise zones has been an ideological one. When the former Chancellor was establishing them, he argued that if Labour-controlled authorities were queuing up for enterprise zone status,
we shall have gone a long way towards winning the debate
between the two philosophies.
The fate of the simplified planning zones will be similar to the fate and experience of the enterprise zones. The real inhibitions on growth in depressed centres and regions of the economy are the relatively high level of rents, rates and VAT and, in particular, the Government's deflationary policies. Those factors have inhibited enterprise, and they are not the planning practices of successive Governments.
The responses to consultation documents in Scotland, England and Wales have been negative. District planners, who will be responsible for carrying out the legislation, have raised strong objections to the proposals. Recently, I was in correspondence with Michael Jones, the chief planning officer of Dwyfor district council and the chair of the Society of Welsh District Planning Officers. He will be well known to Welsh Office Ministers. The Society of Welsh District Planning Officers is worried about the direction powers of the Secretary of State to local authorities in preparing the simplified planning zone proposals.
The Minister was slightly disingenuous when he said that if a local authority objected to a simplified planning zone, that would be the end of it. He implied that if a local authority was unhappy about establishing a simplified planning zone, and if there was an appeal as set out in schedule 3, the Secretary of State would not necessarily overrule that view. However, after careful reading of schedule 3, that does not seem to be the case. The Secretary of State has the power to direct the making of a scheme and the alteration of a zone. Clearly, this is yet another intervention in the freedom of local authorities. It is an insistence that local authorities shall pursue planning policies regardless of the view of the community and its elected representatives.
When the Minister replies, will he refer to what his hon. Friend the Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction said, and confirm that schedule 3 confers override powers on the Secretary of State? Will he confirm that Secretaries of State will be able to override the view of a local authority, which may not wish to have a specialised planning zone in its area?
In Wales we are already familiar with the overriding planning policies of the Secretary of State. Only before Christmas the Secretary of State for Wales issued a most interventionist and fascinating draft circular for consultation with Welsh local authorities entitled "Housing for Senior Management". The blame for the Government's economic policies in Wales was laid, not at the door of the planning system, but on the lack of
attractive locations for individually designed residences commanding privacy and space for executives in industry.
The document was released under his direction, but I do not know whether the planning section in the Welsh Office agreed with him.
The document has been rubbished by Welsh planners. I quote Michael Jones again, speaking as chairman of the Society of Welsh District Planning Officers. He said that the
combined intelligence systems of local and central government",
had failed to decipher that there was such a shortage. He goes on to describe the draft circular in critical terms and proposes that the Secretary of State should withdraw it. No doubt the inroads into the planning system which the Secretary of State for Wales seeks to make in that aspect will be taken much further in the concept of the specialised planning zone.
I want to turn to something which is not in the Bill. There is no power for district local authorities or planning authorities in Wales to protect communities against the proliferation of second, or holiday, homes. Those properties should not be called homes because they are leisure properties, which are used by people for leisure purposes. I want to put on record, as I have before in the House and outside, my strong, unequivocal and unreserved condemnation of the recently resumed arson attacks against property in Wales. The arsonists are a threat to our society. They are dangerous exhibitionists who are preventing the possibility of change in the law governing second homes. They are giving the Secretary of State the excuse to rub his hands in resignation—not resignation from office—and say that what goes on in Wales in that way has nothing to do with him and that if the Welsh Office were even to meet those of us who have been trying to get changes in policy it would be seen as giving in to violence.
It is essential that legislation should be introduced to enable local authorities to control the increase in second and holiday housing. The Welsh Office should not be using its planning function, as it determines individual appeals, to override the attempts of local authorities to legislate in that area and execute policy in relation to local need.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the Secretary of State having intervened to overturn planning decisions. That is not the case. As the hon. Gentleman knows, planning decisions are looked at by an inspector and in the cases to which I think the hon. Gentleman is referring the decisions were made by an inspector. The Welsh Office has not intervened in the decisions of inspectors.
I am grateful to the Minister, but I remind him that the local clause, which appears as a restrictive covenant on the sale of housing for holiday homes, or the sale of local housing to prevent it becoming holiday homes, is one to which his Department objects. That is also the view taken by the Department of the Environment. It proves my point that we need legislation to enable local communities to control the housing stock of their area rather than intervention by a central Government Department.
There are many reasons why I welcome the Bill but in the interests of brevity I shall confine my remarks to one of its provisions. I welcome the Bill because it seeks to grapple with the thorny problem of management of blocks of flats where some of the flats have been sold and some remain tenanted by local authority or other tenants. It is a difficult problem to try to harmonise that mixture of tenures. I should like to draw the Minister's attention to a development within my own constituency—Ruskin park house. I believe that that development provides a model of good practice in housing management where there is a mixture of tenure. It is a case study that might be looked at in detail when seeing how provisions in the Bill might work out in practice.
I shall briefly give details of how this fine development and its good management structure came into being. It was built in the late 1940s and early 1950s by the London county council and was tenanted by London county council tenants. During the early 1960s some tenants began to buy their flats. There are some 240 flats and over the years more and more were bought. In order to manage them, the Ruskin park housing association was formed. That association, a properly constituted and professional management body, took a long lease of 99 years in 1972 from the owners of the flats, the Greater London council as it then was, at a ground rent of £250 per annum. That arrangement has existed very successfully over the past 15 years.
It is interesting to note the proportion of owner-occupied flats to those that are still tenanted by GLC tenants. At present Ruskin park house is two thirds owner-occupied and has one third GLC tenants.
To understand how the scheme works so successfully it is necessary to give an outline of the arrangements. The GLC remains the ground landlord. It has a reversionary interest after 99 years from 1972. The Ruskin park housing association is the head lessee and it holds that lease for 99 years. Under that head lease individual owner-occupiers hold a lease just short of 99 years as sub-lessees. Therefore, the sub-lessee owner-occupiers are members, with one vote, of the Ruskin park housing association. The GLC tenants are there in a rather unusual way. They are sub-tenants of the GLC, which is a sub-tenant of the Ruskin park housing association. The GLC is involved in two distinct and separate ways. It is the ground landlord in one instance and is also the sub-lessee of individual flats, which it lets to its weekly tenants.
I feel the need to explain this in detail because saying that the arrangements have worked harmoniously with a mixture of tenants, tenure and occupants over the past 15 years implies a measure of agreement and good management which makes those tenants and owner-occupiers want to live there and enables the owner-occupiers to sell and pass on their interest in the property without problems.
When the GLC looked like living for ever, the Ruskin park housing association made an overture to purchase a freehold reversionary interest, that is to say, a period some 80 or 90 years hence when the ground rent for the unexpired term is a mere £250 per annum. That was turned down. When it was known that the GLC was to come to an end in March of this year the Ruskin park housing association, in July 1985, again approached the GLC to try to negotiate the purchase of the freehold interest, thereby merging the head lease with the freehold interest. It received no answer to that application. It made a further approach to the chairman of the GLC housing committee who said in his reply that the freehold interest along with the sub-leases of the individual flats occupied by GLC tenants would pass to the borough on the demise of the GLC.
Knowing what was in the Minister's mind and the legislation suggested in the Queen's Speech, I could not believe that that was right. I therefore wrote to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State asking what the position was to be on the demise of the GLC. I was horrified to receive a reply dated 28 January 1986 from my noble Friend the Minister of State, who replied on behalf of the Secretary of State, saying that on the demise of the GLC the freehold interest in Ruskin park house would pass to the borough. The individual sub-tenancies occupied by GLC tenants would pass to the borough. There must be a mistake or a misunderstanding somewhere because if this were to happen in this estate, it would be a negation of the Bill's provisions.
I suggest to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that the estate should be looked upon as a model of good management. One can imagine the pride of the Ruskin park housing association and its management body. I served on that body as a member of the GLC, representing those residents who were tenants of Ruskin park house, taking an interest in their affairs and making sure that their proper concerns were reflected vis á vis the owner-occupiers. One can imagine the horror that such tenants will feel when they discover that it is proposed that the freehold interest of the individual tenancies of the GLC flats are to pass to the London borough of Southwark. That borough is in the top league of mismanagement of housing, with rent arrears of about £23 million to £24 million. It cannot be in the spirit of the Bill or of good management that this should happen.
I urge that, when examining this provision of the Bill, special account be taken of what is to happen to the freehold interests of individual tenancies of Ruskin park house. This is a matter of great concern to my constituents and it will be of little consolation to them if the Bill goes through but Ruskin park house passes to Southwark council.
The hon. Member for Dulwich (Mr. Bowden) will excuse me if I do not comment on the detailed constituency points in his speech. As I realise that other hon. Members wish to contribute to the debate, I shall concentrate on a small number of points basically concerned with housing issues. However, I have some questions about planning and the relationship between central Government and local government.
I am concerned about a drift in the Bill that is characteristic of the Government"s move to greater centralisation in the relationship between Whitehall and local government. Inner city problems, such as those in my constituency, are best tackled in a partnership between local government, central Government and the people who live in the areas.
Clauses 11, 12 and 13 provide the powers for financial assistance for urban regeneration, but there is no mention of local government. I hope that the Minister will comment on this point, because it appears that local government will have no role in the allocation and distribution of urban regeneration grant, or its priorities. If that is the case, the Government are taking a retrograde step because we need partnership, and the Government seem to be going in the opposite direction. I hope that the Department envisages some role for local government in the urban regeneration grant system.
Some planning points have already been made. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) made a point in the way that I should like to make it about planning in the inner cities. We all have criticisms about the bureaucratic nature of planning and we can all point to examples in which there have been mistakes and delays or with decisions with which we did not agree. We all recognise that bureaucracy needs to be moved, humanised and made sensitive to the wishes of people in the local communities. I must confess that I do not see simplified planning zones as the way in which we can make the planning process sensitive to the wishes of the people in the inner cities.
Many of my hon. Friends have said that we need a process whereby local people have the opportunity to participate in the way in which planning decisions are made if we are to recreate the climate that existed in inner cities many years ago before we made planning and housing mistakes, a climate of community and a sense that people help each and belong to each other. We shall not do that if we take planning decisions and decisions about inner city fund allocations away from the local community and place them in Whitehall. I should like a system—and perhaps the Minister will comment on this — whereby we can allow local people to plan their communities and have a say in their communites so that they can recreate a sense of community, which is crucially important in overcoming many of the problems in our inner cities.
I wish to comment on the Bill's housing clauses. I represent an inner city constituency, and increasingly, when people refer to me at advice surgeries or in letters, the problem that comes up is that of housing. People are looking for housing repairs to be completed, for better housing and for the ability to move into an area that they consider more desirable. The stress in housing in the inner cities is probably the greatest social problem that we face. I say that recognising the problems of unemployment and poverty in the inner cities. Clearly one cannot often differentiate between those factors, because they hang together.
Some problems have been accurately described in the debate. For example, there is housing that is decaying, often in owner-occupation. Estates have been badly built and conceived in the first place, and have developed a whole series of faults. In my city, there are many difficulties associated with system-built housing, high-rise flats and maisonettes in which people will not want to live and which do not provide the homes that many people thought that they would. In addition, the private rented sector makes accommodation available to the student population, but the quality of that accommodation is very low.
Those characteristics of housing in the inner cities are almost universally recognised and accepted by both sides of the House. What has been the Government's response to them? I see their response in my city. Since 1979, the Government have cut the real level of the housing investment programme by two thirds which means that more people who come to me or go to the local authority or local councillors with housing problems cannot be satisfied, because the financial resources are not available to refurbish the housing that needs it or to repair, improve or modernise estates that need it. Work is crucially required in the high-rise blocks and, above all, new build is urgent in the cities, because that would help to create confidence and regenerate a sense of community.
The Government have cut back on housing in a way that establishes and magnifies the difficulties of the inner city areas, but the Bill offers no substantial additional housing resources. It places its faith in the belief that private enterprise will solve the inner city problems. That belief bears no reality to life in the inner cities. In my constituency, a high number of people are living on some form of state benefit. Those people will not be able to take advantage of any new owner-occupation build that may take place in the inner city through private enterprise. The Minister has offered no evidence that there is a demand for increased owner-occupation new build in the cities.
As to the right to buy housing in the inner city, with the difficulties that individual tenants face it is unrealistic to believe that that right, for that population, with that accommodation and housing, is anything more than theoretical. In practice, people will not be able to buy their council house or flat because they have neither the resources nor, in many cases, a desirable property to buy.
I suspect that the Minister would buy little of the council stock in central Leeds because he would recognise that it would be a bad buy. We need an effective partnership for housing in the inner city which acknowledges that there is a role for private enterprise in addition to the important contribution that housing associations can make. We need a partnership that perceives that the central role in tackling inner city housing problems should be played by local government.
If the Government are serious about giving the people of Britain accommodation that is decent to live in and which they can call their home, they should not reduce resources but increase them. The Government should get off the dole queues people who have the skills to build the houses which are desperately needed by so many people. Sadly, the Bill will not help in that process. I shall vote against the Bill tonight because it offers my constituents little when they have so many problems which a sensitive and caring Government would deal with.
I welcome the Bill. It is a work of art. Much work has gone into it. It is a Bill of many parts. I cannot speak to all of them in the few moments that I have, so I shall deal with some of the planning aspects which concern me. The Bill has important schedules dealing with town and country planning, but the detail will need close examination in Committee.
Part II which proposes simplified planning zones is welcome in principle. It should reduce somewhat the load of environmentally unimportant planning applications in the planning machine at any given time. At the same time, I hope it will avoid the financial distortions which are sometimes implicit in enterprise zones.
I think that most hon. Members have received a briefing from the Building Employers Confederation which raises a concern which I share. Many local authorities are hostile to development anyway and if it is left to the local authorities to decide whether they are to be a simplified planning zone there will be no encouragement to them to implement such a possibility. Therefore, the Building Employers Confederation suggest that it might be wise for the Government to take the odium—if that is the correct word—of a decision to have such a zone and not leave it to the local authorities themselves.
Part IV of the Bill introduces a complex system for the presence of hazardous substances on sites. We have not heard very much about that this evening, and I believe that it will need close examination to avoid new burdens on industry and undue uncertainty in the movement of hazardous materials. The regulations which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will introduce will need close consultation with industry and businesses before they are introduced and implemented.
Part VI is miscellaneous and its implications and proposals will need close examination in Committee. The operation of the listed buildings procedure which clauses 24 and 32 will amend leaves much to be desired. Any reform which will make easier the prompt and appropriate amendment of local plans is to be welcomed.
I welcome the fact that the schedules to the Bill can be understood without reference back to previous legislation. It is an extremely well drafted Bill and there is no need to go fishing in old legislation to decide what the Bill is talking about when it proposes reforms.
In the few moments at my disposal, I wish to refer to the urban regeneration grants. So often in the past we have seen money simply poured into the local authorities either for council building or for regeneration. On many of those occasions there has been no commercial input in the decisions taken. We have seen some element of directive in Merseyside, in the London docklands and in Glasgow. We ought to see more of private enterprise taking an interest in these grants and the Bill will ensure this. Urban regeneration needs private sector enthusiasm—not soft-headed enthusiasm but hard-headed business enthusiasm—to see how one can best use the grants. Merely to give those grants to local authorities as we did in the past gave no incentives.
I welcome the urban regeneration grant and I believe it will go a long way to bringing the private sector into the regeneration of some of our inner cities. Such a policy has been pursued successfully in many of the larger and poorer cities in America. I had hoped to expand on how successful the urban development action grants had been in the United States, but I must leave that to another debate. However, they have been outstandingly successful and they have brought in private enterprise in a way which the Bill is just beginning to do, and I commend that.
In conclusion, I take one more thought from the briefing of the Building Employers Confederation—it sounds as if I am in its pay but I received the briefing, as did other hon. Members, the other day. It makes the valid point that urban regeneration is a good idea and let us go for it, but if it is a good idea do not take the money from the urban programme of grants in the first place. It is a good idea and let us have it on its merits. Let us have the funding and get on with it. In this way the Building Employers Confederation believes — and I share its belief—that there is much going for the regeneration of many of our worst inner urban areas. I support the Bill.
The Bill is primarily about housing and planning and, in the context of housing, it is about the relationship between individuals, local authorities and the Government. I and my party believe that the test should not be people's aspirations, but their needs and their aspirations. We do not accept that Government policy, as expressed by the right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin), should be to promote home ownership by all means. That is an insufficient housing policy. There has been a massive lack of Government investment and the Government have inhibited the expenditure of local authorities' capital receipts, yet it is proposed that £20 million should be found for urban regeneration grants. The Building Trades Journal described that sum as too little too late and as peanuts. The Government are not showing any commitment to resolving a problem which only they can resolve.
Of course there has been bad management in some local authorities. Mine is an example, and the Minister knows that I criticise it. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) mentioned it—it has a housing stock of more than 60,000 dwellings. However, its size does not excuse many of its management inadequacies. Southwark experiences the problems of the inner city and dereliction.
Hidden or exposed rolling privatisation, which is what part of the Bill is primarily about, and rolling deregulation, which is what the planning provisions are principally about, is not the required combination. The keynote should be true participation and true partnership. Although those qualities have been mentioned, they do not motivate the Bill.
Our objection to clause 1 is that there is no compensation for local authorities for the loss incurred when additional housing stock is sold under the right to buy. That is a fundamental defect of the right-to-buy programme and local authorities desperately need the money.
I welcome clause 2. The hon. Member for Dulwich (Mr. Bowden) and I know that one of the bugbears of the right-to-buy policy — I have just written to a junior Environment Minister about this matter again — is the enormously distorted service charge provisions and the amazing time that it can take for people to understand what they should pay and to discover whether they are paying the right amount. Those of my constituents who are grappling with the problem will be gratified to think that the service charge conundrum will be resolved. People will know how much they have to pay and the amount will be limited. They will have certainty. That will be welcomed.
The advantage of clause 3—the right to a loan—goes only a minimal way towards what many people in inner cities need. The Minister is aware of the problem. People who want to get out of the public sector often cannot find sufficient accommodation at low cost. The London Docklands development corporation and others have produced some housing for sale, but very little at a cost which young couples, who we especially want to keep in the community, can afford. I hope that we shall have much more than clause 3 to enable young people to have accommodation which they can afford and afford to maintain. That is essential if we are to integrate communities to the benefit of our cities.
Clauses 5 and 6 are clearly the most controversial. There is nothing like adequate protection in clause 5. The ground for possession—that the council have to offer suitable alternative accommodation — is inadequate. Why do not the Government allow the right of appeal? Why do they not allow a statutory right of consultation, which was found not to be an existing right in a case that was brought against Tower Hamlets at the end of last year? Why do not the Government allow a public inquiry? The Housing Act 1957 provides all three rights in respect of compulsory purchase. To possess property which people do not want to give up and to give them no right and possibly only one alternative offer goes against all the basics concerning the right of tenants which we should all want to uphold.
Clause 6 could be good. It enables co-operative management to occur, but I fear that it would also facilitate management that is not co-operative but private and in which tenants have no say.
There is no evidence that planning zones as proposed will be an incentive to investment in the inner city. All of the planning organisations confirm that the incentive is fiscal rather than a planning one. I and my party are worried that the simplified planning zone provision allows the Secretary of State to make the ultimate decision, whatever might be the view of the local, democratic planning authority. I hope that the Minister will say that the Secretary of State will use the power only in extremely limited circumstances. We want to know what they are. Unless he exempts also conservation areas, areas of outstanding beauty, nature reserves and sites of special scientific interest, the zones will pose another danger to the local democratic planning process.
I hope, too, that we shall hear that land and property, and title to them, will be registered publicly. I also hope that the proposals for urban regeneration will at all times involve partnership with local authorities and will not bring in the private sector on its own.
The Bill should be a partnership Bill, but I fear that it is not. Therefore, as my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright) said, we will be voting for the amendment and not for the Bill.
As there is a very short time left at my disposal, I will have to skate over the surface of the Bill. I apologise straight away if I oversimplify matters.
I give a warm welcome to all the provisions in the Bill. I believe that the Bill is only one small step along the way to a much better housing philosophy. I believe, and I have written to the Minister expressing my view, that there are yet further measures which need to be taken to bring better housing stock and tenure back into operation. The amendment, which I hope the House will not support, is nothing more than a rehash of old sentiments put out by the Opposition. The Opposition do not have much to offer. I first worked on a local authority housing committee in 1967. In those days it was said that there was a housing crisis. They said there was a housing crisis between 1970 and 1974, another between 1974 and 1979 and they are saying the same thing again, that today there is a housing crisis dating back to 1979.
When I worked in a local authority it seemed to be the idea of local authority councillors that more and more council houses should be built to resolve the housing problem. I did not see that as a basis for a solution. I found that the more council house building there was, the more the waiting lists increased. Local authorities were chasing a never ending tail which they could never possibly catch. When I was elevated to the position of chairman of the housing committee, I reversed the whole procedure. While I accept that I am over-simplifying the case, by building fewer council houses in my local authority and working in other areas, we reduced the waiting lists. We rehoused the people who needed rehousing far quicker by that method than had ever been done before. That was a compassionate way to behave. I saw people on the waiting lists in my local authority who badly needed accommodation, who had not previously been housed. These people were housed quicker through our housing policy than ever before.
I would like to make two important points. The first relates to local authority waiting lists, on which many local authorities base their HIP allocation, and the second relates to empty properties. The figures given by Shelter in the research document show that there are 1,217,000 people on local authority waiting lists. The local authority in my constituency has a waiting list, so they say, of 4,764 people. I beg everybody to look more closely at those figures. I suggest that those waiting lists are patently not an accurate reflection of the housing need. I discovered that through a personal examination of the lists when I was chairman of the local authority.
In Norwich, the city which I have the honour to represent, the waiting list of 4,764 is split up between those people in shared accommodation, which form 75 per cent. of the waiting list, and those in self-contained accommodation, representing 25 per cent. of the list. Of those in shared accommodation, 80 per cent. are single people. That does not represent housing need. The criterion for entry on to the waiting list is so wide that virtually anybody who is single could put their name down and become part of the statistics. My son could become part of those statistics. There are single people living with their parents on the waiting list who do not have a housing need. They are perfectly adequately housed, their housing standards are up to scratch and so on. Quoting such statistics does not give an accurate reflection of the criteria for what must be spent on housing.
According to the figures cited by the Department of the Environment, there are about 116,500 empty properties, 26,000 of which have been empty for more than one year. In my local authority area, there are 652 empty properties, 170 of which have been empty for more than six months and 300 of which have been empty for more than three months. That is a disgrace. Because of the number of empty properties, I believe that, instead of waiting for an indeterminate period before properties can be included in the housing stock, we should seriously consider the options. Some of the properties could be sold for owner-occupation, and the purchaser could do up the property. Some could be offered to people on council waiting lists, and they could do up the property. Empty properties could be brought back on to the market. That would be better than letting them stand empty for long periods while apparently nothing is done. People who badly want rehousing come to my surgeries. Something must be done about the length of the waiting lists and about the empty properties. Many local authorities do little or nothing about those properties.
I support the Bill. I hope that I catch the eye of the Chairman of the Committee of Selection so that I can give my hon. Friend the Minister support in Committee.
Three things are certain about the Bill—it is 158 pages long; it costs £8·60; and it is a long and expensive missed opportunity to deal with the crises in the inner cities and in housing which have been so vividly illustrated in the past 12 months. They have been illustrated in the worst possible way, with the streets ablaze in my consitutuency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) and with even murder becoming an ingredient of the inner city brew. They have been illustrated in a more thoughtful way in the reports that have thumped on to the desk of the Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction and the Secretary of State for the Environment, which have usually been dismissed by the Prime Minister before officials have even had a chance to study the contents.
We started the debate with great expectations. We had a new Minister with responsibility for housing and we even had the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the Front Bench. We thought that there would be a stunning new announcement, a change of heart about the Government's financial policy towards the inner cities or some new, great initiative — financial or otherwise. Instead, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor departed as soon as the introduction of the Ten-minute Bill to reintroduce the lump. We now know from listening to the Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction that there certainly is not a General Patten driving a new housing policy.
There are parts of the Bill with which we disagree, and we have spelt them out in the amendment. There are parts of the Bill with which we agree, or do not disagree. Labour Members, and most recently my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett), agree that the contents of the Bill are dwarfed by the scale of the problem to which the Bill is supposed to address itself.
I hope that the Minister will listen seriously to the constructive suggestions on what should be in the Bill and has been omitted from it. There is the right to rent. Every hon. Member—Tory, Labour and Liberal alike—agrees that the shortage of rented accommodation is our greatest afflication. Let us have some unanimity about introducing a right to rent. That argument has been well rehearsed and is contained in our policy document "Homes for the Future".
Let us have the right to rent private sector accommodation. Let us give someone who is in need of accommodation the opportunity to move into empty premises. Let us have the right to sell, which can be enjoyed by the elderly. Let us have the right to buy. If we are to have a Bill which furthers the right to buy for those living in flats, let us have that right extended to private sector tenants. That idea is supported by the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones). That right should be available to private tenants and collectively to tenants of leasehold homes.
Let us try to insert provisions in the Bill in Committee for repair and improvement grants. There has been a call from hon. Members on both sides of the House to take up that aspect of Government policy. It is true that the Government had a reasonably good record on repair and improvement grants from 1979 to 1983. As the amount of money spent on new construction decreased, the amount directed to repair and improvement grants increased. The Opposition welcomed that in part, but that policy came to an abrupt and cruel end shortly after the 1983 general election, when the Government told us that it was not the job of a Government to repair people's homes.
If there is one thing which can make a contribution to preserving the old terraces in inner city areas and the sense of community, preserve older houses for this generation and the next, bring local employment quickly into inner city areas and bring hope to those whose homes are in disrepair and who are on low incomes—perhaps they are retired or unemployed—it is repair and improvement grants.
I am sure that I share the experience of many hon. Members on both sides of the House when I attend my advice bureau. Some of my constituents tell me that their roof is falling in or that they have discovered dry rot. Many of them are owner-occupiers and they do not know how they will spend the rest of their lives in a home which they are unable to repair. There is little chance of them obtaining local authority accommodation.
Surely we could build on the coalition of interest that exists between the many poor, disabled and often elderly owner-occupiers — they do not have mortgages and consequently they do not enjoy tax relief — and the interests of council tenants whose homes are in need of repair, a fact which has been identified by the Government's investigations into the cost of repairing public housing. Surely we could bring together that coalition of interests and take action on repairs and improvements, whether in the private or public sector.
The Government have virtually phased out repair and improvement grants in many of our inner city areas, irrespective of their political control. Everyone agrees that it is the shortage of housing investment programme funds that has brought that about. There is a contradiction because the Government have chosen to introduce the urban regeneration grant in clause 2. I am not opposed to any form of grant for urban regeneration, but the Government have introduced the principle of the urban regeneration grant for industrialists while phasing out the same grant that would have gone to owner-occupiers. That is a strange contradiction when dealing with the inner cities. It suggests that the Government have adopted the blindfold and the sticking of a pin in a board as their policy initiative.
I hope that the Government will take into account the comments that have been made about simplified planning zones. There is great fear in conservation areas and green belt areas about the effect that they could have on the environment generally, and on unspoilt areas especially.
The provision within the Bill that facilitates the selling off of local authority accommodation will allow some local authorities to abdicate their responsibilities. Example is a good teacher, and a good example is Fulham court. It is owned by the Tory borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, and it should be said that the Tories are kept in power in that borough by two Liberals. I know that estate very well. I lived in Fulham, my agent used to live there and I used to go babysitting there. That estate is an especially good example. We can put the clauses to the test in the May local authority elections and in the by-election that is coming shortly. A Bill that enables the Tory Hammersmith and Fulham council to sell off that estate is enabling the local authority not only to abandon ship, but to sell the lifeboats.
It is not as if Hammersmith and Fulham does not have a housing problem. In the last financial year Hammersmith and Fulham had 1,493 homeless families. The Government are proposing to sell off an estate that has 200 vacant flats, so they will not remain available for letting. In the last financial year Hammersmith and Fulham accepted 635 families in bed and breakfast accommodation. There is no shortage of demand for rented accommodation in Hammersmith and Fulham, yet the Tory Government, in collusion with the local authority, are introducing legislation to divest that authority of accommodation that could be available to meet the needs of the homeless.
A similar development is taking place in Westminster. I wanted to give the House the figures for the homeless in Westminster and for the number of people in bed and breakfast accommodation, but the Tory Westminster city council neglects its responsibilities to such an extent that it does not return statistics to the Department of the Environment to reveal how many homeless families there were last year and how many were in bed and breakfast accommodation. We must rely on the figures for 1983–84, which show that 964 families were accepted as homeless and 632—almost the same number as Hammersmith and Fulham—were in bed and breakfast accommodation.
The most objectionable part of the proposals is that they will not only lead to a loss of housing accommodation within the control of local authorities, but the operation will be carried out against the wishes of the tenants. The hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright) mentioned the extraordinary contradiction of a Government who increase the bureaucracy of local authorities by requiring them to obtain the consent of the Secretary of State to transfer mortgages, which they transfer only to generate funds for housing investment, and at the same time remove from local authority tenants the right to have some control over their landlord.
It is clear from the Archbishop of Canterbury's report that we must try to remove the sense of despair and alienation from our inner cities and our problem estates. We must make people feel that they matter and that they will be consulted about decisions that affect their lives, buildings and surroundings. They must feel that they will not be overridden and ignored. Clause 5 allows some authorities to act as "winklers" and agents of gentrification over the heads of local authority tenants.
During the debate, there has been much discussion about flats. From parliamentary questions we know that when the scheme first started about one flat was sold for every 54 houses. Now that relationship is narrowing and about one flat is sold for every 20 houses. However, it is clear that in many areas of the country, especially in the inner cities, it would not matter whether the discount was increased to 100 per cent. People would still not want to buy flats. Why will people not buy flats that are now being offered at market value with substantial discounts? They do not like to live in flats. They know that if they buy their local authority flat they abdicate the chance of a transfer to a house. Also, they do not want to buy flats because it is difficult to resell them. I do not believe that the people in the Gloucester grove estate in Peckham would wish to buy their flats and it is easy to understand why. A newspaper article states:
The 1,200-home Gloucester Grove Estate in Peckham is already boycotted by doctors, social security staff, milkmen and cab drivers.
In the words of Billy Connolly, even the alsatians go round in pairs.
The estate is likely to be boycotted by prospective purchasers, even if the discount is increased to 70 per cent. People do not wish to buy those flats because they are unsafe, difficult to manage and defective. As the Government have identified, many of them are subject to horrendous service charges. The Government will not solve the problem with their clauses on service charges, because the local authorities will so exaggerate their service charges as not to make a loss during the first five years. That would be the responsible way of doing it. In other cases, there will be real problems. If a housing association makes a genuine estimate of its service charges for five years and then discovers an unexpected service item, it will be driven into a loss or will have to put the expenses, which cannot he recovered from the owner-occupiers, on to other tenants.
Of course, not all blocks of flats are undesirable. Even in Brixton, some warden-controlled tower blocks are well maintained and people want to live in them. I am sure that other hon. Members have similar examples in their constituencies. It is a great mistake to categorise all blocks of flats as places in which people do not want to live. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) said, some council estates are ghettos. I would describe them as urban cages from which people find it difficult to escape. In some estates, there is great intrusion by noise and by burglars—
No, they are not all like that, but some are. They are called hard-to-let estates; as Professor Donnison said, they are hard to live in. None of those problems will be cured by increasing the discount to 70 per cent. This summer, the Government will have a sale and will knock down the price of flats. But the Government do not even act like business men. If a business man was selling old stock, he would put the receipts into new stock. The Government will not allow the local authorities to do that. The Association of Metropolitan Authorities calculates that local authorities will be left with about £450 to spend for every flat that they sell under the new provisions. At the same time, £6·3 billion is locked in the coffers of local authorities which could be spent on housing improvement.
The Opposition do not object in principle to the sale of local authority homes, to people owning their homes, to co-operatives running estates or to local authorities being landlords. That is a matter of choice. However, we object to the freezing of funds that could improve those difficult estates. The Bill provides no hope to those who are locked in those flatted estates.
The Bill does not take the opportunity to allow leaseholders of residential flats at least to improve the quality of their management. The Labour party's policy statement "Homes for the Future" had no doubt about what the new rights should be: the right to hire and fire the managing agents in blocks of flats; maximum limits for management fees; the right for leaseholders to examine the accounts of the freeholder; the right to extend a lease, which already exists for the lessee of a house; and the right for the tenants collectively to purchase the freehold and to deal with any defects that arise in leased premises.
The Government have received the report of the Nugee committee. Its recommendations do not go far enough because its terms of reference were limited, but I make this offer to the Government: if they will table the few clauses that are necessary to legislate for the limited recommendations of the committee, the Opposition will give them fair passage. Of course, we reserve the right in the future to legislate on the wholesale enfranchisement of leasehold flats, but the immediate problem of those in tenement blocks is so long-standing and urgent that we offer this compromise in the hope that it will be an offer that the Government cannot refuse.
Secondly, we offer full co-operation for the Government to add to the Bill a clause against the racial harassment of tenants by specifically making racial and other forms of reprehensible harassment grounds for possession and a criminal offence. I understand that some forms of harassment which constitute racial harassment would perhaps be grounds for possession on the grounds of nuisance, but that is not always so. We in this House need to underline our detestation of racial harassment and to incorporate a clause which makes it grounds for possession. After all, if to want to sell to a private landlord is to be a ground for eviction it should certainly be a ground for eviction if somebody has been guilty of racial harassment against fellow tenants.
Thirdly, the Government have always berated local authorities about the number of empty homes, although they fail to underline that often homes are empty because local authorities do not have enough money to spend on improving and repairing homes that they have acquired to bring into the rented stock. Labour members are against unnecessary empty homes, whether in local authority, housing association, private or Government ownership. As has been said, the Government are the worst offender.
I came across some examples when I was in Leicester last week. Leicester has a private stock of homes of just under 70,000. It has a massive waiting list and a great housing problem, yet it has 4,000 empty privately owned homes. Why not introduce in the Bill a right to rent similar to the do-it-yourself shared ownership scheme which the Government had a couple of years ago? That was a successful scheme so they had to abort it. Let us have a right-to-rent arrangement which can be triggered off not by any bureaucracy or Government intervention but by the action of a person who is homeless or in need of a better home.
The secret of improving our housing is to use the rights of occupants to trigger off action. Do not leave it to local authorities or to Government but to the tenants, occupants or residents to demand what they want. Allow people the right to demand that a local authority should buy an empty house to rent to them. Create the right for tenants collectively, if they are dissatisfied with the management of their private or public landlord, to form a co-operative. I know that the Bill deals with the privatisation of management, but it does not create the right for tenants and residents to bring those things about. If one creates rights, one can start to deal with the fundamental defects in the management and sometimes in the property itself.
It was on the inner city that we expected the Bill to respond to the challenge which had been thrown down by the Archbishop of Canterbury's commission, and indeed by the events of the past 12 months. Yet it is on the inner city that we find the Government's policy at its emptiest and most threadbare. Against all that has happened in the past year and all that may happen in the forthcoming year, we expected some new initiative, but what have we got?
Between £10 million and £20 million has been allocated to an urban regeneration grant. That is less money than the Government fined Lambeth in the financial year 1984–85. I represent an inner-city area. We were fined about £17 million in penalty against urban aid of about £13 million. Liverpool was fined £3 million. One has only to multiply that by six to get the amount of the new initiative which the Government are announcing in the Bill. Islington was fined between £10 million and £15 million.
We have the extraordinary situation at the moment where the amount of subsidy being paid by council tenants into the general rate fund exceeds the amount of money—£393 million—which is coming from the Government to aid local authorities that have deficits on their housing revenue account. After a year of riot, murder and criticism all the Government can bring forward is an initiative which produces £10 million to £20 million and which bypasses the partnership principle which has been regarded by many hon. Members as a useful way of tackling the inner-city problem.
On 28 January we had the announcement about the new urban aid programme. There is not time to go through it all but the Financial Times said that the total
represented an overall cut in real terms of around 5 per cent.
That is the scale of the Government response. There were ferocious riots in Birmingham. Commenting on the amount of aid for deprived areas, the Financial Times said:
The seventh, Birmingham, had its cash allocation held at £24·5 million, suffering a lower cut in real terms than the others because it 'has an exceptionally large scale of problems and a good record in the effective use of resources,' Mr. Patten said.
If the Minister thinks an authority has a good record it still gets a cut in its allocation but its reward is that the cut is slightly less than the cut in, say, Lambeth.
In the Bill the Housing Ministers had a chance to bring hope to the homeless, to bring imaginative proposals to owner-occupiers desperate for help with repairs and to take at least some steps towards emancipation and control for those who own leasehold flats. The Bill presented an opportunity to help the first-time buyer to jump the double hurdle of spiralling interest rates and house prices. It could have introduced meaningful rights for tenants to play a constructive part in the management of their estates. It could have dealt with the seething discontent and the social fragility of the inner city which erupted again last year. It could have captured the growing consensus about housing policy which we have seen in the debate and which is emerging from all the reports on the subject.
What have we got? Instead of taking the chance to use a prime legislative spot to build a new housing edifice, the Government have presented us with 158 sheets of legislative corrugated iron. The Bill is a short-life property from what ought to be a short-life Government.
Despite what the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) has just said, we have had a most interesting debate on a useful Bill. We have had, of course, the usual Armageddon-style reasoned amendment from the Opposition. We have just had some rather cynical, or what some might describe as concrete, rhetoric from the hon. Member for Norwood.
Despite the way in which the legislation has been treated and despite the amendment, the variety of points raised by right hon. and hon. Members reflects the wide range of subjects on which the Bill touches. There has been broad agreement on many of them. We have heard from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) of the people's right to decent housing. We would not disagree with that, and we believe the provisions of the Bill will assist it. We have heard from the hon. Gentleman about the management standards of public sector housing. We agree with that and have made provision in the Bill for the training of managers. The provisions all contribute to the achievement of our aim to enable people to make their own decisions about their homes, to encourage urban regeneration, to protect the environment, and to reduce the burden of regulation.
My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing referred in his opening speech to the major advances we have made since the Government came to office — not just successful individual policies, such as the right to buy, but much broader changes that we have brought about in the assumptions that people make about housing.
We have won the big housing arguments. It was a joy to me to hear the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) claim credit for "Homes for the Future" which includes—in, I believe, a slightly tricky way—the right to buy. We have changed people's assumptions about who can expect to be a home owner; how much say tenants can expect to have in the way that their homes are managed; what is the dividing line between the public and the private sectors; and what contribution private resources can make to meeting housing needs. On all of these issues, perceptions have changed greatly.
In the case of home ownership—the greatest of all the changes—since 1979 more than 900,000 council houses and flats have been sold into home ownership under the right to buy and similar schemes. Most of them have been sold to sitting tenants who would not otherwise have had the chance of home ownership. That has completely altered the climate of tenants' expectations. But it goes even further than that. Something like 90 per cent. of households in the younger age groups expect to be home owners sooner or later.
The hon. Gentleman will realise that public sector housing is public and that it is therefore subject to disposal by the Government, whereas private sector housing is not subject to disposal by the Government. Our policies recognise the change in expectations and build upon it. The Bill will improve the opportunity for tenants to buy their homes, a point that has won the widespread approval of my hon. Friends. There was an excellent contribution to the debate by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) who has made such a great contribution to housing in this country. We also heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Southampton, Test (Mr. Hill), for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) and for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones).
Opposition Members may like to note what I shall say next. The Bill does not mean that the Government are neglecting tenants who cannot or who do not wish to buy. The statistics prove that today there are more public sector units for rent than there were in 1979 when the Government came to power. I pointed out earlier to the hon. Member for Walton, who failed to respond, that 367,000 housing units were in public ownership in 1979 and that 410,000 units are now available for rent. That is fair proof, surely, that the Government have the tenant in mind, too. This Government strengthened the position of such tenants by introducing in 1980 the tenants charter. The Labour party may carp, but tenants will remember that they were not allowed to carry out improvements to their homes. They could not even paint the doors of their homes the colour of their choice. That was the legacy which the depleted Opposition Benches left to us.
The Bill will enable us to do more for tenants. It will open the way for new forms of management delegation. It will enable us to grant-aid new initiatives to improve the quality of housing management. It will enable us to get new agencies involved in managing rented housing. I point out to the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright) that we shall consult, just as we consulted over the Thamesmead trust, of which he was a favourable observer. I was surprised, in the face of what he said, when he announced at the end of his useful contribution that he would vote against the Bill tonight.
The suggestion that the Bill is a threat to tenants' security is laughable. In fact, there will be a new statutory guarantee of tenants' right to buy where occupied property is transferred to another body. I hope that that will go some way towards answering the points made by the hon. Members for Perry Barr, for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith), for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) and for Bootle (Mr. Roberts). If property has to be vacated before disposal, the new powers in the Bill will come into play only where a redevelopment scheme has been approved by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.
As to the point on consultation, we will consider this in Committee. It will also be necessary for the court to be satisfied that suitable alternative accommodation is provided for any tenant who is asked to move.
My hon. Friend will probably be well aware that between here and the Oval are several vast GLC-type blocks currently under the control of local authorities which are completely vacant and have been vacant for years. In fact, there are hoardings against the edges of them saying that they do not have the money to do anything with them. Will my hon. Friend take action to ensure that, if the local authority cannot take any action, somebody else can, even if it is to provide housing for rent?
I have no hesitation in saying to my hon. Friend that this is a scandal and disgrace. Unfortunately, it is the sort of thing which characterises Labour administrations in too many parts of the country. It is a shame that the hon. Member for Norwood, who represents part of that borough, did not say something about it.
At one point in the speech of the hon. Member for Perry Barr, the Spencerbeck estate in Langbaurgh was mentioned and, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) intervened. I am aware that certain tenants are resisting the local authority's attempts to include their houses in the refurbishment scheme being carried out by the firm of Barratt. Whether the local authority is entitled to obtain possession is, of course, a matter for the courts. I understand that proceedings are pending. That being so, the House will not expect me to comment further on this aspect of the case.
If I am correct, the sub judice rule does not apply to legislation, and there is no reason why the Minister cannot comment further on this. Is the Minister in favour of tenants who do not want to move being thrown out of their homes for the simple reason that someone wants to do them up and sell them—yes or no?
I am amazed, given the experience of the hon. Member for Perry Barr—he has been in the House longer than me—that he does not realise that we do not comment on specific cases.
New initiatives are being pursued, but not at the expense of tenants' rights; rather, to make those rights a reality so that tenants get the housing conditions that they are entitled to expect.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne spoke about the sale of flats. He made some valuable suggestions which we shall consider about the realistic valuation of flats, about increasing the discounts after 30 years of occupation, and on the qualifying period. We are determined that the occupiers of public sector flats will have the opportunity to buy and will be assisted in dealing with—