I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because I was about to come to that. I should like first to illustrate the extent to which the Government are without a serious and intelligent policy towards housing and how they are floundering. There has been a huge escalation in homelessness. When the Government are asked to give their estimate of the likely level of homelessness this year —they must have such an estimate to plan provision—what is the answer?
Since such estimates would depend on individual local authorities' policies, the housing stock position in their areas and other factors, too many assumptions would be involved for them to be reliable."—[Official Report, 23 July 1986; Vol. 102, c. 261.]
That is evidence of a Government who are clearly without a housing policy, who are failing to plan and who are
failing to consider needs. There is a shameful record of massive homelessness and the worst housebuilding record for many years.
Housebuilding is relevant. In 1975, Britain was starting about 174,000 new public sector homes each year. Last year, we managed to start just 33,000—a cut of some 140,000 in 10 years. The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment said yesterday at Question Time that the private sector is expanding its provision and meeting the gap. We should examine that claim.
Ten years ago, there were 149,000 private sector starts. Last year, there were 161,000. I will give the hon. Gentleman the benefit of the doubt and say that there has been an increase—of 12,000 over 10 years. That should be compared, however, with a drop of more than 140,000 public sector starts. Overall, we are talking of a reduction of 128,000 homes. That is a measure of the failure of the Government's policy. The private sector has broadly kept in line with previous performance and even increased it, but the public sector cut has been dramatic and resulted in a drastic overall reduction.
The Government have crowed a lot about increasing improvement grants. That was true, to a degree, until 1984, but what has happened since then? There was a 26 per cent. reduction in improvement grants in 1984–85 because the Treasury turned off the tap, and compared with 1984, there has been a dramatic reduction in the number of improvement grants. What has happened to the much vaunted review of improvement grant policy—the Green Paper that was published a year ago and which was supposed to herald a new policy? Heaven knows, one is needed to bring some order and logic to the chaotic state of improvement grant policy. There are different criteria and different grants, grants do not go to people in greatest need, and there are unmet needs. There has been silence on that. It will be interesting to hear the Minister's response, to learn what will happen to improvement policy. We hope for some new and positive policies which will meet needs more effectively. Why is there silence from the Department?
What a deplorable record! And the Government's response is pretty threadbare. Until the last year, we have consistently heard one line from the Government in defence of their housing policy. It is that they are promoting home ownership. They, too, I suspect, must now know that there are limits to how far home ownership can be extended, and growing problems — increasing mortgage payment arrears, for example. We are therefore beginning to hear a different tack, and we hear it more and more. It is that, if only the Rent Acts were abolished, private dwellings available for rent would burgeon. We should consider that claim.
The history of private renting shows that, for the past 80 years, the private rented sector has been in decline, irrespective of the degree of security afforded to tenants. In 1957, when a Conservative Government reduced security of tenure, there was an acceleration in the decline of the market as landlords took the opportunity to get rid of their tenants to sell their properties. That led to the era that is associated with the name of Peter Rachman. The Government are pursuing exactly the same line, but they have not got the courage of their own convictions and are not prepared to do it before the next election. They are saying that they may do something after the election. If they really believed what they are saying, they would bring in now their proposals to reduce security of tenure for tenants and take the electoral consequences at the next election. There would be a massive reaction against them by tenants.
Against that appalling record, that lack of policy, there is a growing housing crisis and no evidence that the Government are prepared to do anything about it. It gives me great sadness to see the enormous unmet needs, the lack of any coherent Government policy and the lack of co-ordination between Departments. I can only express the same view of other hon. Members who have spoken tonight, that there is a need now for an entirely new approach which will require a change of Government.