Local Housing Programmes

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:14 pm on 13th March 1986.

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Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 6:14 pm, 13th March 1986

I welcome the opportunity provided by the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) to debate the Government's policy towards local housing programmes. Now is the appropriate time of year to hold such a debate, as all hon. Members will know that around this time local authorities are deciding their priorities for what they have been granted as expenditure permission under the housing investment programmes. The authorities are now deciding their budgets for the coming year.

Like other hon. Members perhaps, I have in recent days attended at least one of the district housing committees in my borough, where local representatives of the tenants associations in the estates owned by the borough council in Southwark have been expressing their views about the priorities for expenditure. The tenants hope that these priorities will be endorsed by the housing committee and implemented over the next 12 months.

The background to this debate is common knowledge. We are at the end of a 10-year period in which Government financial contributions towards housing—which is traditionally also contributed to by local authorities—have been reduced year by year. We are now at the bottom point of that period of reduced Government investment in housing. Coincident with that is the reduction in the number of new housing starts and completions, and the reduction in the amount of work that is being done on renovation.

That is the background to the debate and we have often rehearsed in the House the difference in attitude between the Government and the Opposition in the way the Government have responded to what, by any analysis, is the housing need in England. The Government know that all the committees and reports issued last year concluded that we needed a massive amount of new housing. We also need a massive amount of money—£20 billion was the Department of the Environment's own figure—to renovate the housing stock in the public sector.

We continue to hope and look for signs that wisdom will prevail. We are looking for signs of a response to that mass of critical evidence which states that the Government are not doing their job properly in seeking to fulfil their election promise. That promise is now famous and no doubt with hindsight the Government may regret making it, but the Government promised that their objective was to make this nation the best housed nation in Europe. The Government have so far fallen appallingly short of that objective. Presumably the Government will want to forget all about that promise, as it will be decades if not centuries—if the Government's present policy continues—before they can reverse the trend and put us at the top of the league table in terms of adequate provision and meeting housing needs.

The title of the debate on the Order Paper names the three key issues on which I shall concentrate in my short contribution. That is unusual, as debate titles do not normally set out all the aspects of the matter under discussion. The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury wanted the House to address the subject of Government policy on local housing programmes. That requires us to confirm each of the three elements in the title of the debate.

First, there is a need to have programmes for housing. We do not want a hit-or-miss, stop-start housing policy. We need, if we are to recover from the appallingly low position in housing provision, a planned policy whereby the housing provided actually meets the housing need. At present there is no set of programmes, under any Government-recognised methodology, which considers what is to be produced across the range of tenures and sectors. There is no way at present whereby the Government require a local authority to prove that the housing need—not demand—in the authority area requires so many single-bed, two-bed, three-bed or four-bed homes over the next few years. There is no way at present whereby the local authorities state their projection of population for new households and so require the Government to respond to their need. There is no way in which the Government can require an authority to supply details of local authority housing build, housing association or Housing Corporation build, as private development and so have the authority to provide a plan which the Government can recognise and ensure that the authority achieves.

The time has come for us to plan to meet housing needs at all levels. Some two years ago, the Government said that they would no longer have a national housing plan for England. We must plan if we are to realise the extent of the need and so meet that need. We must plan in each local authority area. Unless there is planning and a financial response to the sheer volume of need, we will not be able to fulfil that need and the increasing needs which will be caused by people presenting themselves for housing in future years.

If we do not meet this year's need, for example, for the people presenting themselves as homeless and the needs of those who may become homeless in the future, which may see an escalation in the number of new homeless cases received in boroughs such as Brent, Camden and Westminster, we will perpetually—certainly until the end of this decade—condemn people to bed and breakfast accommodation, to sleeping on the streets and to wandering around looking for what may be seedy, unsatisfactory, unsafe and multiple occupancy dwellings.

The first priority is planning. The second need is obviously for houses—renovated, fit and warm houses. Often of course flats and maisonettes are acceptable and people may prefer them. I am sure that the Minister will have seen that the survey recently produced by the GLC about housing standards in Greater London—no doubt one of its last pieces of research before its demise—confirms that with the removal of the traditional Parker Morris standards there has been a reduction in the standard of housing.

There has also been a reduction in the size of rooms, particularly in London, and no doubt elsewhere. Although there are arguments which may suggest that old-fashioned housing with high ceilings and large rooms was difficult to heat and unsatisfactory, I often now have complaints—as I am sure the Minister has in his borough of Ealing and elsewhere—that many people believe that there is not enough space. We must examine the standards of the housing we need and alter the requirements of the building regulations and of local authorities.

Although we should through advanced building construction and material science have better quality housing—much of our housing is of better quality—some poor quality new-build housing still exists in all sectors. That is often worse in the private sector than in the public sector. There is not a great deal of timber-framed housing or modern housing development in a constituency such as mine, except in the docklands area in Bermondsey, but when surveys are done there are often complaints that the new housing is not of a high standard, so would-be occupiers are put off. They will not buy those properties because they are advised that for structural reasons they should not make a major investment in them.

The third point was made specifically in relation to Islington—I do not know the figures or percentages, but perhaps the Minister will inform us of them—but it should not be the responsibility of Government to decide local authority priorities. Housing programmes supported by funding from taxpayers need to be local housing programmes. This is one of our great criticisms of Government economic policy as it affects housing policy.

In 1979, the Conservative party went to the country on a policy of the right to buy. The Government steered legislation through Parliament, and local authorities, whatever their views, political colour, will or circumstances, were forced to sell. They gained the assets from the sales which often left them in net deficit, and now they are told that they cannot spend the proceeds from those sales. They have been told that this year they may spend only 20 per cent. of capital receipts.

That restriction, for national expenditure reasons, which forbids local authorities to spend their own money, which has been acquired only by policies imposed by the Government, shows that the relationship between central and local government is wrong. Local authorities are at the centre of a complete pincer movement. On the one hand, they are forced to reduce their stock but are not given extra money to replace it, and on the other they are not allowed to spend the money coming to them from forced sales.

I hope that the Government will co-operate fully with the plans that the GLC has laid for the forward funding of housing programmes which it cannot pay for or manage after abolition at the end of this month. Southwark has the largest volume of public sector housing of any London borough. It has 65,000 properties, and some 65 per cent. of the population live in public sector housing. It also has the largest proportion of ex-GLC housing stock—27,000 homes. A substantial amount of work needs to be done.

When we debated the undertakings by the Minister's predecessor, we did not receive any commitments that money would be found for that work when the GLC properties were handed to the boroughs. Indeed, there was a breach of a clear undertaking given at the time. We now need a clear undertaking that the Government will cooperate with, support—not merely be neutral about—and oppose any attempt to prevent, the forward funding with GLC money of the work that needs to be done on the housing estates that were in the hands of the GLC. If the boroughs cannot have the moneys which the GLC at present has, much of the vital work on the estates in greatest need of expenditure, whether on roofing and window repairs or on the installation of central heating, will not be done. People who live on what are generally regarded as some of the least desirable estates in London will then have no prospect of decent housing in the foreseeable future.

My next point is a regional point, which is inevitable given that all hon. Members who are likely to participate in the debate are London Members, except for the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). In London we have a particular responsibility to the public sector because a substantial proportion of our properties are local authority properties. Only one region in England has more local authority properties. In London, 29·8 per cent. of homes are owned by local authorities, we have the highest proportion of housing association properties—nearly 5 per cent.—and the highest proportion of private rented accommodation—we are the highest of the three regions where it is more than 10 per cent. Therefore, owner-occupation is a relatively small form of tenure in London compared with other regions. For that reason we have a particular responsibility to consider London policy separately from regional policy.

I should be grateful if the Minister, when he considers Government figures, planning and HIP allocations, will recognise that in London we are starting from a base of more public sector housing. I hope that he will recognise that, whatever happens in the future, we need commensurately more Government investment and approvals for expenditure on housing in our capital city than elsewhere.

As the Minister knows, one problem with the right to buy, and one of the problems which we in the alliance see increasingly with buildings in the public sector, is that if the right to buy is to continue, public sector new build, unless it is specialised housing, such as sheltered housing or housing for the elderly, is the housing most likely to be bought because it is the most desirable housing. Therefore, there will inevitably be a higher take-up of the right to buy of new-build housing stock, so the relative amount of decent new property in the public sector will be reduced. If it is believed that it is inappropriate to replace lost stock in the public sector, the voluntary sector must take up the deficit. I am thinking of the social housing sector, the Housing Corporation, housing associations and the like.

The Housing Corporation administers this part of the moneys funded by Government. I know from discussion with its officers that, although this year it is seeking to deal with the needs in London by moving funds which would otherwise be spent in counties such as Kent, Surrey and Sussex to housing association build in London, it is finding it impossible to fund the projects for which it has bids from housing associations and which it would like to fund. If in the coming year the Minister does not fund and support public sector housing through Government expenditure, we need some commitment to increase the possibility of people having housing association and Housing Corporation funding.

Will the hon. Gentleman reconsider the grant given to the Housing Corporation, and encourage the view that, if there is a crisis in housing in the capital city, he will seek to make additional funds available to the Housing Corporation? He knows that I am particularly interested in arguing that the docklands could benefit greatly from additional special Housing Corporation funding. Is he willing to accept that the docklands should be considered for special Housing Corporation allocation, such as has been given to other areas in the past?

The other day we came to the end of a hard road, down which many of my constituents have travelled to achieve an acceptable result regarding the Cherry Garden site on the riverside in Bermondsey. The London Docklands Development Corporation was about to develop largely private sector housing there, which was wholly unacceptable because the cost of the housing was to be massively beyond the means of most local people. A flat on the river with a wonderful view would have cost hundreds of thousands of pounds in a community with a desperate need for housing. The local authority, the LDDC, the Government, the GLC and I have long been engaged with local people in seeking a satisfactory solution, and we have now more or less done so.

Most of the site will be taken up with a deferred funding project, which means that local authority housing will occupy most of it. That is a good achievement. Incidentally, the best laid plans of the LDDC were further thwarted when it was discovered that there was an ancient monument on another part of the site—a medieval royal mansion on the riverside. Therefore, its idea of putting up a futher luxury block of flats for sale has been thwarted because our heritage must, of course, come first.

I ask the Government for a commitment that schemes which allow deferred payment and forward funding, if necessary by borrowing from the private sector, can be encouraged rather than discouraged. Therefore, even if there is no immediate prospect in the forthcoming financial year of the development of such a site as the Cherry Garden site for public sector or deferred public sector housing, if none the less the need is there and the financial arrangements are available, I hope that the Government will not block any possible overtures by local authorities for extra funds to enable the housing to be built that the local people need. Such co-operation from the Government would prevent such a site as Cherry Garden being bought speculatively for private gain at the expense of local needs. I would be grateful for an assurance that that type of scheme will receive the endorsement of the Government. We need more such schemes for the local people of Bermondsey, as elsewhere.

I hope we will soon see change from a Government who have resisted Londoners' demands for housing long enough. The Government may think that a move in this direction will at least save them a few votes in the elections that are coming up.