Orders of the Day — Education and Family Poverty

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:50 pm on 13th November 1986.

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Photo of David Clelland David Clelland , Tyne Bridge 8:50 pm, 13th November 1986

It is appropriate that much should have been said today about education because this is an important aspect of life, but I shall concentrate on another important aspect. My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) will shortly refer to the problems of family poverty, and nowhere does that manifest itself more than in housing.

I listened carefully to the Gracious Speech and, like many hon. Members, found its significance to lie more in what it left out than in what it contained. There is nothing whatever in the Gracious Speech to show that the Government have realised the nature and extent of the housing crisis in our country, and how that crisis could be resolved. Although the proposal to extend the rights of people living in privately owned flats in England and Wales receives a cautious welcome, the commitment to continue the Government's firm monetary and fiscal policies and the implication that the Government intend to continue their attacks on local authorities bode ill for the prospect of improved housing standards.

In his Budget speech in March the Chancellor of the Exchequer told us of the "success" of the Government's economic policy. On the same day the Prime Minister referred to the record standards of living that our country was said to be enjoying. I am afraid that those alleged truths have escaped the notice of the people of Tyne Bridge, and I suspect that the same is true of the rest of the northern region. Under this co-called successful economic strategy public investment in housing has been cut by more than 60 per cent., resulting in deteriorating housing conditions and a halving of the number of jobs in the region's construction industry since 1979. It is that combination of poor housing and high unemployment that has led to a deterioration in social conditions, and to an increase in crime and vandalism in our inner cities—all that under a Government whose Prime Minister back in 1979 offered our country hope and harmony.

If we want a secure future and a harmonious society we shall have to build it, and that means a lot more assistance and a lot less hindrance than we have had from this Government, or are likely to get. We are constantly told by Ministers that investment through inner city partnerships is contributing to that future, yet in my constituency the two local authorities, Newcastle and Gateshead, have between them lost more than £300 million in rate support grant over the past six years—a figure which reduces to a mere pittance the amount provided through inner area partnership grant in the same period.

When the Government's policy of council house sales was introduced they promised that the capital raised from sales would be available for building new homes, but the truth is that councils are unable to make any impact on housing problems even by that means because of the restrictions on the spending of sales receipts that the Government have introduced. I say, and the Labour party says, that people have a right to a decent home. The provision of such rights was never easy, and no one would ever suggest that the problems can be resolved overnight, but this Government's abandonment of the progress that was being made has multiplied the problems and made the task immensely more difficult. The Department of the Environment has reported that nearly £20 billion needs to be spent on Britain's decaying housing stock. At the Government's current spending rate it will take 67 years to deal with our defective housing, leaving aside further deterioration in the meantime.

The Government also support more private sector control of council housing. However, that would force council tenants out of their homes into worse accommodation, so that their houses could be sold off. Any Government who deliberately create conditions where suffering is inflicted on families by forcing them to live in damp, draughty, depressing housing have no right to claim to have the interests of the people at heart. To deny, as many Conservative Members do, that there is any link between housing deprivation, deteriorating health and rising levels of crime and vandalism is the same as seeing fewer ships than Nelson did, and, as we know, he chose to see none at all.

I offer no panacea for the crime and disorder problem, but investment in our communities will go a long way towards resolving it. Investment in new and modernised housing must be at the top of the list of priorities in building a future for our people.

When we raise such matters, Ministers ask what it will all cost, thus implying that the Government defer action on housing because of the cost alone. There was no difficulty in finding the vast millions of pounds that it cost for the Falklands war, and still costs. Nor was there any difficulty in finding the substantial sums that the extra security measures cost as a direct result of the Government's decision to support America's bombing of Libya. No doubt Ministers will say that they were national emergencies. So they were, but they were emergencies which the Government could have avoided, but did not.

Labour Members say that the housing crisis is also a national emergency that results directly from the action, or lack of action, taken by this Government. Therefore, as a national emergency, the money must be found, and will be by a Labour Government. Young families need a decent home in which to bring up their children. The elderly need warmth, comfort and security in their homes, and the handicapped need adaptations to make life more tolerable in their homes. These are not outlandish ambitions, or greedy or extravagant demands. They are absolute necessities for the people of Britain and for any modern civilisation.

My constituency of Tyne Bridge has the entire range of housing and house types, from the castle keep to hack-to-back Tyneside flats, but we also have more than our fair share of housing problems. The cause of many of those problems lies in the inadequacies of the developments in the early 1960s, and in the dreadful communal living accommodation with which we are left, following the drastic error of trying to provide homes on the cheap—a policy which, even after the lessons, appears to endear itself still to this Government. Ordinary, decent people in my constituency, and others throughout the land, are reaping the consequences of such policies and are having to live in conditions which may have won accolades for being remarkable examples of modern architecture, but which are totally unsuited to modern living.

The housing situation in Tyne Bridge is bad, but the councils of Newcastle and Gateshead are doing their best to alleviate it. Over the years, before this Government came to office, slum dwellings were almost completely eradicated, and so very few houses now lack basic amenities. The councils have plans for the modernisation and repair of the housing stock and, where appropriate, the clearance of some of the worst examples of 1960s architecture. However, it is a mammoth task.

It is estimated that Newcastle's housing stock needs £152 million over the next five years, and Gateshead's £145 million over the next 10 years, to bring them up to a decent standard. The need for new build is evidenced by the fact that in Tyne Bridge alone more than 12,000 people are still forced to live in overcrowded conditions. Most of them cannot afford to purchase their own homes and their only dream is to be allocated a decent council house — a dream that is an illusion under a Government who so obviously and bitterly abhor the public sector and worship the free market private sector.

What of the private sector? More than 60 per cent. of the pre-1919 housing stock in my constituency is in a state of substantial disrepair, and one in four private sector homes is in an unsatisfactory condition. The councils are trying to tackle these problems but are obstructed and frustrated at every step by central Government.

While the nature and extent of the problems urgently require more resources, the Government have slowly been strangling the housing sector. Gateshead's housing investment programme has been cut by 75 per cent during the period 1979 to 1985, and Newcastle received only 55 per cent. of what was needed to carry out a modest programme in 1986–87. As if to rub salt into their wounds, both councils have been rate capped by this Government.

The minimal support given to the local authorities through the inner area partnership has been cut in real terms, and the flexibility to use the moneys as the councils perceive the need has been severely curtailed. Despite the fact that housing is the major inner area problem, no part of inner area partnership grants can be used to help improve the housing stock itself. This problem is not peculiar to Tyneside, because one has only to travel a short distance from the House of Commons to see similar housing deprivation.

We need a strategy which will improve conditions for all sections of the community, and which will give people a choice over where they live and more control over their environment. The basis of that strategy must be a substantial boost to investment in house building and repair, including measures to help elderly owners who find it difficult to maintain their own homes, assistance for first-time buyers and those on low incomes, and adequate provision for single people to meet the growing demand in that area.

The way forward in housing is to recognise the moral duty that we have as a society to provide decent homes for our people. The way forward for our society is the recognition of the major impact that such provision would have on our environment, health, peace of mind and civilisation.