Will the Minister confirm that, nevertheless, there has been a significant fall in public sector housing starts during the lifetime of the Government, that in many inner cities no public sector houses are being built and that several million people cannot afford, for reasons of low income or unemployment, to buy in the private market? Among them are hundreds of thousands of people who are badly housed and overcrowded, and the Government's housing policy offers them no hope.
That is exactly what the Labour party said before we started the process of council house sales, never mind the present position The balance of new build has switched between 1979 and now, nowhere more successfully than in Wandsworth, which has done a marvellous job. By selling properties, Wandsworth was able to spend last year about £58 million—the biggest housing investment programme in London—and this has allowed it to spend more on maintaining and repairing its council house stock than any Labour or alliance-controlled council in London.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the way to curb homelessness is through the maximum use of existing housing stock? The number of houses left empty, not for two, four or six months, but for a year, is a scar on the face of a caring society and an indictment of many Labour-controlled housing authorities. Does he agree with the proposition that the answer to homelessness might be for councils to give house keys to people on their waiting lists who are do-it-yourself experts and who could renovate the houses in exchange for a compensatory rent-free period?
That is a possibility. That view was expressed by the Opposition during the Committee stage of the Housing and Planning Bill. It is clearly something to consider. It saddens me that there is so much housing need and so many empty houses and flats, not only in the council, but in the private, sector. It is absurd that we cannot, as men of good will, find a consensus and so bring back much of the empty properties and house more of our people.
Does the Minister agree that, coinciding with the dramatic decline in public sector starts, there has been a continuing increase in homelessness? There are now more homeless families accommodated in bed-and-breakfast hotels than ever before because there are insufficient public sector homes for them. Is it not wasteful of public finance to spend money on bed-and-breakfast accommodation? Is the Minister aware that in Wandsworth, because of the increase in homelessness, there are people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation who should be in public sector housing?
The hon. Gentleman, with his experience in these matters, should look at the large number of empty properties in London boroughs, seek ways with us to bring them back into use, through better management in the public sector, and try to find ways to bring down the absurdly high number of empty private properties to rent, by looking hard at that area.
Does my hon. Friend agree that Left-wing local authorities which refuse to enter into imaginative partnership with the private sector for the improvement and renovation of their derelict housing stock are denying their citizens the right to decent housing? What action will he take to force such local authorities to act responsibly and in the interests of the people who live in their cities?
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. He is absolutely right and my answer is a clear and unequivocal yes. I am happy to report that many Labour authorities, such as Salford and Oldham, have been collaborating and co-operating with better housing for their own tenants and inhabitants. Some councils are not so co-operative, including places such as Manchester, Nottingham, and Leicester—we have heard their names before—and, in particular, Liverpool. I think that the tenants will, in the end, force councils to take action that they should have taken long ago. If they do not do so, we may have to take action.
No matter how much private investment is brought into joint action with public authorities, we need more public investment to deal with the very large number of private dwellings that are in grave need of repair and renovation and could be put to use by housing associations and local authorities if money were available to buy and repair them.
Money is one half of the equation. The other half is the inhibition that so many private landlords feel about improving and bringing back into use their own stock which is being kept empty. If the right hon. Gentleman is putting forward a suggestion and would like a response from us, I say, "By all means put forward your suggestion, but recognise that the expenditure of extra money on the improvement grant system will not necessarily bring back the empties. "If only the Labour party would move a bit on the private rented sector, we would be in business.
Further to the question of the hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Raynsford), will my hon. Friend confirm that he wishes to see the phasing out of bed and breakast accommodation as a means of solving homelessness, on both social and financial grounds?
Does the Minister accept that the public, whether owners, tenants or the homeless, rightly condemn the 100,000 empty dwellings in the public sector, and, in many ways, condemn them more than they condemn the 500,000 empty homes in the private sector? If there were genuine good will to do something about the matter, surely the Government would have accepted the Opposition's new clause to the Housing and Planning Bill, which would have allowed people who have been on the waiting list for more than 12 months to take over the tenancy of a property that has been empty for more than six months and was available for letting.
The Minister must appreciate that his predecessors, playing the numbers game, have left millions of our fellow citizens in junk housing which will have to come down. That being so, why was the Government's national building programme for new homes down by 70,000 last year on the figure for 1978, the last full year of the Labour Government?
I agree with a great deal of what the hon. Gentleman has said. It reflects something that I mentioned in a speech yesterday to which he was good enough to listen. I said that councils had
segregated council tenants on estates and labelled them with a distinctive address and a distinctive architecture. For many, it has not been a social success.
It is because of that fact that we need to start again and to look at the provision of social housing in this country. Perhaps the scheme mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, which we were not able to accommodate in Committee, should be looked at again—if only we can find a way of stopping people getting into flats that have been empty for six months, 12 months, or longer, and taking accommodation that is more than they need. That is the one problem with that scheme. If the hon. Gentleman can think of a way round the problem, I should be pleased to hear from him.
Is the Minister aware that this is often a self-inflicted problem? In Leeds during the past two decades some 10,000 more houses have been demolished than have been built. Given that there is a need for rented accommodation, it is important to present a package of refurbishments for housing association dwellings and public sector starts. Will his statistics reflect that and make the point that we have to get on with housing for rent? We should not be demolishing houses that could be refurbished.
Demolition is rather like putting people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation and should be a last resort. I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Meadowcroft) that we need a greater diversity of provision on our housing estates.