Housing

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 4:51 pm on 22nd April 1986.

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Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford , Fulham 4:51 pm, 22nd April 1986

I am pleased to have the opportunity to make my first speech in the House on this subject. I say that for three reasons. First, I have worked in housing for the last 14 years, a major part of which was with the housing organisation SHAC. Secondly, housing has, sadly, been neglected far too much in recent years and has been given far too low a priority, both in terms of public expenditure and emphasis by the Government. Thirdly, the Government's policy on housing is so woefully lacking that there is a crying need for a new approach and a new policy to try to ensure that many of our fellow citizens who have to endure shameful conditions of poverty and squalor and homelessness have the prospect of a decent home.

There is no doubt about the extent of the housing crisis. We know from the official figures that on the most cautious estimate something of the order of one in 10 properties are totally unsatisfactory—unfit unfit for human habitation or suffering from a lack of basic amenities such as bathrooms and WCs, or requiring considerable expenditure to tackle disrepair. There is a huge backlog of properties in bad condition. They are to be found in the private rented sector, especially in constituencies such as mine.

I am pleased to have this opportunity to pay tribute to the two hon. Members who represented Fulham in the last 40 years—Michael Stewart, now Lord Stewart of Fulham in another place, and the late Martin Stevens whose unfortunate death led to the by-election which resulted in my election to this House. In my constituency a substantial number of properties are privately rented and many of the people who live in them have to endure appalling conditions. I was able to show those conditions to my hon. Friends the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Bar (Mr. Rooker) when they visited Fulham a couple of months ago. They saw some of the worst conditions anywhere in Britain.

Apart from privately rented housing, many owner-occupiers live in properties that they do not have the money to maintain. They are living in houses that are literally falling to bits around them, and action is needed to tackle that problem if we are not to see a much greater problem of deterioration in owner-occupied houses. As we all know, there is a huge backlog of poor condition council properties. Many of those houses were built to prefabricated systems that have proved unsatisfactory. Those systems were often encouraged by central Government and local authorities are now being given the blame for them because they followed the advice of central Government 20 or more years ago.

There is also a serious problem of unmet housing needs. We know from surveys carried out by organisations such as Shelter that 1·25 million households are registered on council waiting lists. That is a rather imperfect measure of need, but it shows the extent of the problem. Perhaps more graphic are the shameful figures of homelessness, of which the most recent for last year were published last week. They' show that 94,000 households were accepted last year by local authorities in England as homeless. That is the highest number ever recorded and an increase of some 13 per cent. on the previous year. That is a measure of unmet needs.

The problems of poor conditions and unmet housing needs have been greatly exacerbated by Government cuts in housing expenditure. I should like to put a couple of figures on the record. The Minister said a great deal about the Government's spending record, but for every £100 spent on housing in the last year of the last Labour Government, only £30 was spent by this Government last year. That is a measure of the extreme cuts in expenditure on housing for which this Government have been responsible. We spend less as a proportion of our gross domestic product on housing than any other European country. We spend less than West Germany and less than Greece. We are at the bottom of the European league for spending on residential accommodation. The figures for public sector house building are a disgrace. Ten years ago 170,000 new homes were started. Last year, the figure was just 33,000 one fifth of the level achieved 10 years ago. That is the record of this Government.

The Minister talked about the polarisation between owner-occupation and council renting and said he wanted something in the middle. Many of us want that. Many of us, including myself, have served on committees of housing associations that have been striving to provide alternative tenures. For every three homes that housing associations were providing in 1979, the last year of the Labour Government, only one is being provided now, and that is because of cuts by the Government in expenditure on housing associations. That shows the hollowness of the Minister's claim that he is seeking some additional tenure through that medium. Some £20 billion is required to meet the backlog of poor condition in the council sector, but the current allocations go only a small way towards meeting that need.

Home improvement grants have been mentioned and I should like to put some more figures on the record. The Government's policy on home improvement grants has been a classic example of stop-go-go when they seek to inflate the economy or to give an impression of activity, and stop when the Treasury says no. Last year, the number of home improvement grants approved was some 137,000, a 40 per cent. cut on the number a year before of 229,000. Is that the way to plan for the future? Is that the way to give confidence to people who want to improve their homes? Is that the way to run any public administration? The answer to those questions is no, it is a disgraceful way to proceed.

Government policy does not involve only cuts because it is also one-sided. The Government are obsessed with the owner-occupied market and in assisting the extension of owner-occupation. They ignore the needs of those people who either cannot afford or do not want to own their own homes. The right to buy has frequently been mentioned, but the chief criticism of the right to buy in the Government's own Housing Act 1980 is that it provides a benefit to those council tenants who could and want to buy, and totally neglects the needs of the homeless, the badly housed and council tenants who want to transfer to other accommodation. It is a one-sided policy that neglected the needs of an important section of the population. It is rather similar to a policy towards the National Health Service that simply looks after the interests and needs of consultants and ignores the needs of nurses. That is the same as the one-sidedness that we see in the Government's housing policy.

The one-sided approach is exemplified in the Housing and Planning Bill, 1986 which will have its Third Reading and Report stage debate in two day's time. That Bill is a measure of the Government's preoccupations. Does it attempt to tackle the need for additional home building? The answer is no. Does it attempt to tackle the need for a better improvement policy or take any further that Green Paper on improvements that was published last summer and has since been forgotten? No, there is no proposal on that score. Does it do anything to meet the needs of the homeless? No, it does not. The Housing and Planning Bill proposes a series of fiddling changes around the edge in that it allows more generous discounts on the right to buy, facilitates disposals on privatisation, and extends the almost entirely abortive assured tenancy scheme.

When he was speaking about privatisation, the Minister mentioned empty properties. He should know that over 200 properties are standing empty in Fulham Court, an estate that has been deliberately left to go to rack and ruin by the local authority while it has been attempting to sell that estate and privatise it. That is a measure of the criticism that ought to be directed at local authorities that neglect housing needs in their areas.

Those are the actions of a Government who have abandoned their responsibility to meet Britain's housing needs. In their obsession to be seen to be doing something the Government are simply fiddling around the edges, neglecting all the fundamental principles of a housing policy.

In some ways I feel rather sorry for the Minister because that is not his fault. The Government's policy is being determined not by the Department of the Environment but by the Treasury and the Department of Health and Social Security. The cuts in capital investment about which I have spoken are very much the product of the Treasury. I must stress that when the Housing Bill 1980 was going through Parliament it was the clear pledge of Ministers that local authorities would be able to use their full capital receipts in order to build new houses. That pledge has been reneged on and that is real evidence of a U-turn.

There have also been cuts in subsidies. Under this Government the subsidies available to local authorities for housing revenue accounts have been cut drastically, forcing substantial increases in the real level of rents paid by tenants. Those increases were justified by Ministers at the time on the grounds that there was a generous rent rebate system to assist those tenants who could not afford them.

Shortly afterwards—here comes another U-turn—the Department of Health and Social Security decided that the cost of that increased expenditure on rebates and allowances caused by the increase in rent levels was too much. Therefore, another Government Department cut expenditure caused by increased rents, for which the Secretary of State for the Environment and the Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction were responsible. As a result, one is seeing an increase in poverty, in rent arrears and in misery among people who do not have the means to pay their rent and who are seeing their housing benefit cut.

If one wants a further example one needs to look no further than the miserable story of the board and lodging allowances. The Department of Health and Social Security decided to cut expenditure on board and lodging allowances because it regarded this expenditure as excessive, and as a result it is creating homelessness and causing enormous misery among young people. The Department of the Environment is powerless. It has to sit back and watch another Department effectively dictating housing policy. That is a measure of the pretty pass into which the Government have allowed their housing policy to fall.

To illustrate the absurdity of the Government housing policy I want to focus on that one issue of bed and breakfast. We have here the symbol of all that is wrong about Government policy. There is an increase in homelessness and local authorities have fewer resources to meet the needs of homelessness and are placing more and more people in bed and breakfast hotels. In parallel, single people who do not qualify for assistance under the (Housing Homeless Persons) Act 1977 have to occupy board and lodging accommodation because they cannot find a home to rent, for which the DHSS has to meet the bill. As a result, we have an increased expenditure on board and lodging and bed and breakfast when it is known that it would be cheaper to pay for new houses for tenants to occupy.

For the record, on 20 December 1985, the Minister for Social Security, in answer to a question from the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving), gave figures showing that the cost of accommodating a family with two children in board and lodging accommodation would be some £10,800 a year in Cheltenham and £13,150 in London, but if they were housed in proper council housing the cost would be just £5,060—about half the cost of keeping people in squalor and misery in bed and breakfast accommodation. That is all that would be needed to provide a decent home for such people to live in. The Minister tried to give the Labour party a lecture about finance, economics and costs. I can only say that those figures show the economic and social lunacy of the Government's policy. They are paying more for keeping people in squalor rather than investing in new homes for people in need.

The tragedy of all that is that the unmet housing needs in Britain are not so massive as to make it impossible for Britain, if it wanted, to go a long way towards eliminating homelessness and bad housing conditions. If there were a political will and a realistic programme over the next 10 to 15 years, we could go an enormous way towards ensuring that few people, if any, had to suffer the misery of homelessness and we could eliminate slum conditions.

However, we do not have the political will at the moment and as a result we are suffering the problems that I have identified. We require a programme that ensures more investment in house construction and improvement, not a massive return to the days of high-rise and system building—that is not needed—but a sustained programme providing traditionally built houses that people want. That, sustained over 10 to 15 years, would ensure that there were sufficient homes to meet needs.

A programme of improvement, carried out by housing associations and public authorities, with an effective improvement grant system, not subject to a stop-go approach, would ensure that we tackle the backlog of bad conditions, with local authorities playing a major role in improving conditions on their poorer estates. That requires money. Not only would it improve homes but it would ensure additional employment and would go some way to tackle the scourge of unemployment.

We need a fairer subsidy system. How can we honestly proceed with a subsidy system which ensures open-ended largesse to those people who are lucky enough to be buying their homes and paying the highest rates of tax through the mortgage interest system, when we are cutting housing benefits to the poorest tenants who depend on that benefit to try to make ends meet?

Someone with an income of over £30,000 a year would qualify for some £1,480 a year in tax relief. Someone with an income of £4,000 to £5,000 a year would qualify for about £250 in mortgage tax relief. The Labour party is not opposed to tax relief. We are in favour of helping owner-occupiers, but we are opposed to the gross distortion of tax relief which ensures that the greatest benefit goes to the wealthiest. Of the £4·75 billion that went on tax relief, over £1 billion of tax relief went to people with incomes of over £20,000 a year. How can the Government justify that when they are cutting housing benefits to people on incomes of £5,000 a year?

Finally, there is the need for freedom of choice, which requires a healthy rented sector as well as an owner-occupier sector. It requires the choice of renting from the council or from a housing association and the choice to buy. Those choices require a reasonable supply of accommodation and a fair subsidy system, recognising that people have different preferences at different stages in their lives. Older and younger people may want to rent and they may in the meantime wish to own a home. They should not be trapped into one tenure for their lifetime. They should have the option to move from one tenure to another.

That new approach, advocated by the Labour party, requires a recognition, first, of the extent of the crisis—a recognition of the needs—and, secondly, investment to meet those needs, together with the political will to carry such a policy through until the scourges of homelessness and bad housing are no longer the blot they are at the moment on British society.