I am sure that the House is aware that housing is in a state of crisis, affecting thousands of people in all parts of the United Kingdom. I shall address myself to the problems of homelessness and the housing stock throughout the United Kingdom.
The evidence of the past seven and a half years proves that the Tories in government have been pretty shocking housekeepers. That is perhaps remarkable as the Government are led by a woman who now and again pretends that she is just a housewife. There has been substantial neglect.
Twenty years ago, to within a couple of weeks, the television play "Cathy Come Home" brought home to the British public the seriousness of the problem of homelessness and the fact that there was a major housing crisis. Successive Governments stand pretty comprehensively indicted as, 20 years later, the problem is significantly worse. It is now a case of Cathy's children, who want to come home, getting little or no help from the Government.
Bed and breakfast regulations force young people to keep moving or sleep rough. Homelessness has risen to record levels—well over 100,000. The number of people in England and Wales accepted as homeless under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977—one of the most useful pieces of legislation, which was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross)—has risen from 53,000 in 1978 to 94,000 in 1985. In Scotland, the comparable figures are 15,245 and 25,536. That is a shocking problem, and it is only the tip of the iceberg.
The number of hidden homeless is much greater. I refer, for example, to young couples who live in cramped conditions with relatives and friends. Every hon. Member probably meets such young people virtually every week. They rightly want a home of their own, and preferably before they start a family, but they are put in an invidious position. They have to start a family to secure enough points to give them the priority that they need, and even then they see others leapfrog over them because their needs are assessed, probably quite rightly, as more urgent.
Any responsible Government should address themselves to that problem. Far from doing that, however, the Government have pursued policies that have made the problem worse. The Government simply do not care and are prepared to write off that section of the community.
While homelessness has grown, the quality of the housing stock has deteriorated. According to the Department of the Environment's criteria, it has deteriorated to the point at which the Department faces a bill of £20 billion-plus to put it right. It is disgraceful that, as we get towards the end of the 20th century, millions of homes are still affected by chronic dampness, condensation, poor insulation and costly heating bills. We endure record numbers of old people dying from hypothermia each winter.
Those of us who have contact with our neighbours in northern Europe will find that they do not understand why we have such a serious problem. They do not have to address themselves to that to anything like the same extent. The Scandinavians in particular and other northern European neighbours must wonder whether we have discovered that we live in a cold, damp group of islands. We certainly do not build or maintain houses as if we have. What makes matters worse is that we are not taking sufficient remedial action fast enough. In other words, the problem is growing worse every day and we are not even holding ground.
Against that background, home improvement grants have been cut and home repairs subjected to VAT; the consequence of both is that many people are financially embarrassed and unable to maintain their homes. At the same time, in the public sector, local authority funding has been cut, so that local authorities cannot carry out the necessary repairs and improvements or deal with what can be described only as the obscenity of 680,000 empty properties which could and should be homes for the homeless. Yet we are not addressing ourselves to that serious problem.
We have the worst insulated and least energy efficient homes in Europe, yet within a couple of weeks we shall approach the end of Energy Efficiency Year. In that year the Government have cut the allocation of funding for loft insulation by more than 30 per cent. when they should have increased the grant and extended it to cover wall insulation, thermostats and so on.
Good work that is being done by the Manpower Services Commission's backing of insulation projects is coming under question, especially in rural areas where, by definition, the unit costs are higher and the need is often greater. I visited a project in my constituency only a couple of weeks ago.
As my hon. Friend rightly says, many of us did.
I visited the relatively remote parish of Glass where an 84-year-old lady was having her house insulated by the MSC Gordon rural insulation project. That project could well have finished today because of the withdrawal of funding. I have not been able to establish whether there has been an extension. The argument is that, because more time is spent travelling and houses are dotted about in country areas, it is inefficient and that it would be better to whip through a housing scheme in a city. That is not the way the countryside is, and the Government should take account of reality. In rural areas the need is often greater. Old people live in remote cottages, may be snowed up and will not necessarily have regular contact. There the risks of hypothermia are correspondingly greater.
The Government may retort that one of the great merits of their policies has been to increase the number of home owners. As I have said, many people cannot for a variety of reasons become home owners and the Government are ignoring them. There are also casualties among people who have taken the Government's advice and either bought their council house or a private house. They find that the cost of maintaining their house on top of high interest mortgages in circumstances where the Government have cut repair and insulation grants and imposed VAT has placed them in financial difficulties. The House may remark on some of the statistics that help to prove that.
The number of mortgages in arrears has risen from 8,420 throughout the United Kingdom in 1979 to 60,390 in 1985. The number of houses taken into possession by building societies has increased from 2,530 in 1979 to 16,590 in 1985. All the signs are that this problem is on an upward curve. Home ownership has not been a dream for everybody. For some people it has turned into a nightmare to which the Government have contributed.
We have witnessed the Government's latest foray into this area with their cuts in social security payments towards the cost of mortgage interest for the first three months out of work. That will clearly add to the problems. it will make many people believe that it simply does not pay to be thrifty under the Tory Government because people will be penalised for being thrifty.
The cut in social security payments towards the cost of mortgage interest will create special problems in areas such as my constituency where, because of the fall in oil prices, many people are being made redundant who have very heavy commitments on their mortgages and in many cases, because they have bought recently, they simply do not have the savings to enable them to absorb that kind of problem. We hear stories of people walking into the building society offices and throwing their keys at the manager and of others applying for council houses because they are about to be made homeless.
The alliance is right to call for urgent action now. We have a stated programme of what we want to do in government, but the problem is more urgent than that and we must still impress on the Government the seriousness of the crisis to which they have contributed and the need for specific and urgent action.
To start with, the Government must restore capital spending to cope with the problems that I have identified. An initial boost of at least £2 billion is likely to be necessary throughout the United Kingdom to get that programme rolling. I believe that 90 per cent. home improvement grants should be restored. After all, an election is coming and that is the time when the Government usually introduce such schemes. The sooner they announce such a scheme the better, and that rate should apply to the whole of the United Kingdom. However, this time it could usefully be targeted to assist first-time buyers and people on low incomes to give the maximum support where it is most needed.
Insulation grants should be increased, not cut. The grant should be covered to extend not just to loft insulation but to wall insulation and the provision of thermostats. It would be helpful if the Government would consider extending tax relief to energy improvements in homes, whether that is alternative energy or greater energy efficiency. There is no incentive there at all at present.
The Government have prevented local authorities in England and Wales from using all the money that they have received from the sale of council houses. That is a figure of £6 billion that local authorities would dearly like to use now to deal with problems in their areas and to meet local needs. The Government should be prepared to allow local authorities access to that money now. I suspect—although I cannot prove this—that we are in a worse position in Scotland, where that money is not banked. The Government theoretically allowed local authorities to use all the money, but they have successively cut the housing support grant, so in reality we may have kissed goodbye to the money altogether.
A housing condition survey revealed that £19 billion is necessary to restore the housing stock in England and Wales. The Government ducked that exercise in Scotland, no doubt because they are frightened of what it might show. Given the general higher proportion of public authority housing in Scotland and the rundown condition of some of the older property, it is certain that Scotland will require, pro rata, a larger injection of capital.
The problem that I identified at the beginning of my remarks obviously relates to problems of dealing with the shortage of rented accommodation. That problem should be approached in a flexible manner. Local authorities have a role to play in providing amenity housing, although the Government now seem to have choked off that supply. There can be a mixture of housing associations and public and private funding, including partnership schemes for redeveloping urban areas. Those ideas have been tried and tested and we believe that they should be extended.
I want to make a constituency plea within that context. The priority status given by the Scottish Special Housing Association to oil-related workers in the north of Scotland should be removed immediately. It is absurd in the present climate that those houses are reserved for oil workers when unemployment is increasing in that sector. They could be made available to health workers, teachers and other public service staff who are not able to move into the area but are badly needed. There is no justification for maintaining that priority status.
I believe that the Government should show a little more radical thought about how they broaden the basis of home ownership. We, like them, support the principle of home ownership, but we would always argue that it is not for everybody. There are circumstances in which people, for very good reasons, need to rent. It may be because they cannot afford to buy or because—my constituency is bearing this out—one of the disadvantages of home ownership is that it discourages mobility when there is change in value. Many of us hear of people frightened to move out of London, sometimes to a better job, for fear that they will not be able to get back on to the housing ladder in London. Perhaps the Government should attend to the widening differential between the cost of housing in London and the rest of the country. The discrepancies are absurd.
I wonder when the market will start to show any intelligence. I have received through my door recently, as I suspect have other hon. Members, brochures and letters advertising two-bedroom flats in dockland for £240,000 to £360,000. I do not know about you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but if I ever had £240,000 I could think of a lot better ways to spend it than on a two-bedroom flat in dockland, but perhaps I have a better understanding of the market than the lunacy that seems to characterise the way in which the City operates to create such absurd values. I understand that the value of the Prime Minister's house in Dulwich has increased by three times the average value of a family house anywhere outside London. That is an obscene distortion that should be tackled, and if the Government had any real commitment to solving the problem they would tackle it.
The Minister should respond to the problem of the disposal of houses belonging to British Coal in the coalfield communities where considerable injustices are taking place and an irresponsible process is going on. People are finding that the houses in which they have lived for 30 or 40 years have been sold over their heads, sometimes to a totally unknown buyer, and very often resold. They are then faced with buyers who will rackrent their houses and not maintain them. That is unacceptable. I know that the Government may say that the tenants are given the opportunity to buy at a 50 per cent. discount, but that is only at short notice and many of them cannot raise the money that fast. They should be given some security to stay in those homes and retain the right to buy, either by having them transferred to the local authority, for which the local authorities would need cash, or by having them retained by British Coal. It seems that the local authority is the most appropriate body to take them over.
I believe that I have covered a reasonable range of issues affecting housing in this country. I believe that it affects people in every part of the country, that it gives rise to anger and, in many cases, fear of not having a roof over their heads. There is bitterness that the philosophy of the present Government seems to be concerned only with those who can afford comfortably to sustain the buying of their own homes, and even those people are finding that that is not as easy as they thought.
The rented public sector market has been neglected, the less well maintained older private sector is not being given adequate support and we continue to live in the most poorly housed country in Europe where the problems of homelessness, dampness and condensation are getting worse as are the problems of decaying housing stock. The Minister should be able to tell us, not just for Scotland but for the whole of the United Kingdom, what the Government propose to do about a problem that is a disgrace.
Anybody with an ounce of common decency would accept that decent housing is a basic human right to which everybody is entitled, particularly in a so-called civilised society. The Government's alleged commitment to the sanctity of family life has been proved to be hypocritical. They have created conditions that deny basic human rights to many people in this country. Since 1979 they have perpetuated and increased the problems for both the young and the old. Many of them are isolated in high-rise flats that were built in the 1960s and the 1970s.
Young couples in areas of high unemployment—as in Liverpool—have no chance of getting out of council houses and buying property. Local authorities have been forced by the Government to sell off property, much of it the best housing stock, thus reducing the number of council houses that are available for those who cannot afford to buy their own homes. As if that were not bad enough, local authorities cannot even spend the money that they earn from the sale of council houses to provide housing in their areas for those who need it.
New council house starts slumped from 140,700 in 1975 to 69,400 in 1979. Many of the system built and high-rise blocks of the 1960s and 1970s whose building was encouraged by subsidies to developers under both Tory and Labour Governments have turned into modern slums, and their tenants are dissatisfied. Before the Labour party came to power in Liverpool in 1983, there was absolute misrule and chaos over council housing in the Liberal-Tory administration. During the last four years of that administration not one council house was built, and when Labour formed the administration it discovered that there were 22,000 people on the housing waiting list.
There have been three effects. According to the April 1986 returns—as spelt out in this Chamber by the Secretary of State on 18 November—Liverpool city council, with a housing stock of 64,836, had 7,704 houses vacant, 5,637 houses awaiting demolition and 4,283 houses that had been vacant for over a year awaiting repair. In that same stock of 64,836 houses there were 14,547 difficult-to-let houses in the Liverpool area.
In a housing authority with private sector responsibilities and a stock of 97,860 houses, the Secretary of State told the House in a written answer that 10,656 of them were unfit for human habitation, that 3,865 lacked basic amenities and that 35,640 needed to be renovated. That has not happened just since 1983 when Labour took power in Liverpool. However, it has been accused of being responsible for the decline in the housing stock and for the decline in the amount of accommodation that is available. However, had it not been for Liverpool city council, conditions for tens of thousands of people in Liverpool would be very much worse than they are today.
Since this Government came to power in 1979, Liverpool's housing investment programme has been cut by £150 million. If grants had continued at the 1979 level, Liverpool would have had an additional £150 million to spend in an area of gross deprivation. Housing subsidy has been reduced by £70 million. The effect on the private sector has led to restrictions on improvements and repairs. The housing action areas have also been hit by financial cuts. Grants to those in need have also been cut. The sole responsibility for this since 1979 rests with the Tory Government. Liverpool's responsibility for cuts since 1983 when the Labour party came to power, in no way matches the Government's crimes against the people of Liverpool.
Additionally, we must say quite clearly that the rate support grant has affected housing. Since 1979, Liverpool has lost £185 million in rate support grant. If that had not been stolen, we could have provided more employment to resolve the housing problem and finance housing services in the public and private sectors of Liverpool over and above what we must do now. So those things must be linked to the housing crisis in places like Liverpool.
We must also consider the background of people in the house hunting market, because between 1979 and 1986 more than 75,000 jobs have been lost in Liverpool. The manufacturing sector has lost 45,000 jobs. Unemployment is 26 to 27 per cent., and 53 per cent. of the population has been unemployed for more than one year. On some of the estates in Liverpool there is 94 per cent. youth unemployment and, at the same time, about 20,000 people are on the housing waiting list. They cannot buy houses because many families are unemployed. They cannot let houses in some areas of Liverpool, because houses are not being built. But we must give credit to Liverpool city council for the tremendous pamphlet it put out, free of charge, called "Success against the odds" which itemises what Labour has done on Liverpool city council since it came to power in 1983.
Liverpool city council has set up and identified 17 priority areas and embarked upon an imaginative scheme of urban regeneration. The scheme's proposals affect 40,000 people in Liverpool and address the problems over an area of 400 hectares of densely populated land. Since 1983, 350 council houses and/or bungalows have been built or are in the process of being built by "top downing"—a technical expression which means that three-storey houses have either the top storey or the two top storeys taken off to create either bungalows or two-storey houses. A total of 810 walk up flats have been used in this way. a further 4,080 houses and flats have been or are in the process of being improved under the urban regeneration strategy. Since 1983, more than 6,000 unsatisfactory properties have been or are in the process of being demolished, including the infamous "Piggeries" which is an absolute condemnation of past generations who allowed such housing conditions to prevail.
Also since 1983, 3,800 much needed council houses and bungalows have been or are in the process of being built for people in the Liverpool area. Despite the lies and the distortions which some people put out about Liverpool's Labour city council, it has a commitment to and is involved in the private sector as well. The private sector renewal strategy has the following key elements: an area approach, by the declaration of housing action areas and general improvement areas where capital and revenue resources will be concentrated, an emphasis upon improvements by the owners themselves, whether owner-occupiers or landlords with the support of improvement grants, a partnership with the housing corporation and the local housing associations to ensure co-ordinated use of resources and a recognition that environmental conditions in the areas as well as improvement to the properties must be tackled.
The progress Labour has made since coming to power in 1983 has meant that in 1982–83 the number of private dwellings improved was 1,721. In 1983–84 it was 1,802; in 1984–85, 1,944; and in 1985–86, 1,369. The council has declared its intention to designate a further 25 housing action areas. These are being declared during 1986 and will be administered by the decentralised area improvement teams which are responsible for progressing the private sector renewal programme. Additionally, owner-occupiers who are waiting to improve their homes can get help from the council's agency service. The service can make all the arrangements for improving owner-occupied houses, including surveys, plans, finding a contractor and supervising the work. So that Labour has a commitment to the private and the public sector.
In 1986 the technical study undertaken to see the byproduct of the building of houses and the urban regeneration strategy in Liverpool showed clearly the tremendous prospect that we have for creating jobs in an area of high unemployment. In Liverpool alone, as a direct consequence of the programme undertaken by the Labour-controlled city council, 16,489 jobs were generated in the private sector which had a tremendous effect on the building industry and on those building workers thrown out because of the policies of the Tory Government. Due regard has been paid to the city council by firms such as Wimpey, McTay, Cubitts, Cruden, Fawley and a number of other private sector developers.
The Government jumped at the chance to create a property-owning boom and a bonanza for the banks and building societies, competing with each other to lend money because of the policy not to build council houses. As a result of a further decline in all house building, house prices in the private sector began to rise sharply. Comfortably well-off house owners in the south-east in particular suddenly found themselves with handsome chunks of real estate—assets which they could then use to borrow more money, helping to boost the explosion in credit and fuelling the property boom. But the rising prices brought difficulties for first-time buyers and the burden of high mortgage payments have led to an increasing number of defaults, particularly among young people.
The increase in home ownership has led to growing and now stark inequalities in housing. Well-off home owners benefit from huge sums given out in mortgage interest tax relief. A single person on £30,000 a year receives an average of £1,700 in mortgage tax relief and may be able to claim other tax allowances, whereas someone on £4,000 would receive only an average of £280 in mortgage tax relief. Even the Tory wets have acknowledged the inequalities in housing in that respect. The cost of mortgage tax relief to the Government has now soared to £4·5 billion while council house investment has slumped to £2·5 billion. In 1979 the subsidy to council tenants was £1·23 for every £1 of mortgage tax relief. By 1983 the situation had more than reversed with the subsidy for council tenants being 53p for every £1 of mortgage tax relief.
In addition, we must look at the consequences of the Tory Government's policies economically and to housing finance. In December 1979 in Britain alone 2,530 properties were taken possession of by building societies and by 1986 that figure has escalated dramatically to 20,020. In 1979 8,420 mortgages were over six months in arrears and by June 1986 the figure had jumped to 66,930.
On top of all that, people who through no fault of their own find themselves in difficulties will find themselves in greater difficulties as a result of the policy introduced last week by the Government on supplementary benefit relating to mortgage interest. That will mean that 90,000 families will be pushed deeper into debt, leading to eviction and, no doubt, as my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) said last week, marital breakdown.
We also find that the family consisting of a husband, wife and two children with a £16,000 mortgage will have to find an additional £17 a week out of supplementary benefit of £70 a week—in effect, a quarter of the weekly income—as a direct result of the Government's policies.
This is a horror story for working class low-paid workers, and young people in particular, looking for a decent house and a decent future for themselves and their families. The alliance might have some illusions in pleading to the better nature of the Minister and the Tory Government to reverse their policies on council houses and their attitudes to Britain's building industry, but I have no such illusions and nor does the Labour party. Liverpool, and its people in particular, look forward to the next general election when a Labour Government will be elected to deal with the serious problems affecting us in Britain in building houses for people in need.
We in the Labour party must pay due regard to past errors. People in Broadgreen must realise that now they are not part of the 17 priority areas in the city, or of the urban regeneration strategy. The only hope for people in Broadgreen for house improvements, house building programmes and urban regeneration and for all the other things that Liverpool city council has done in other areas is a Labour council in the city working hand in hand with a Labour Government. That can resolve the problems.
Labour's policy must be directed towards breaking the power of big business in order to provide the resources for housing and other needs. Labour must campaign to win support for a genuine Socialist programme of housing and home ownership. The nationalisation of the banks and the insurance companies would be relevant and beneficial, even to middle-class voters, if it meant the provision of cheap credit at stable rates or state assisted mortgages.
Housing is a serious problem. Anyone walking around London late at night can see the homeless, who can also be seen in our major cities. The policies of the Government are a disaster and only a Labour Government committed to a decent, planned house building programme can resolve the problems and meet the needs of the homeless, the people in despair in 1986 in a so-called civilised society.
I do not propose to follow the hon. Member for Liverpool, Broadgreen (Mr. Fields) in his private paranoia. He speaks about the need for a Labour Government and a Labour council to deal with the problems he mentions, but fails to remind the House that it was under a Labour Government that all the evils of high-rise flats and the problems of industrial building were created.
The hon. Gentleman believes that if he repeats inaccuracies often enough, even he might begin to believe them. If he understood the principle of housing revenue for local authorities he would know that the provision of houses in Liverpool was far better accomplished through housing associations and cooperatives than by direct building by the council. The hon. Gentleman sees house building as worthwhile only if it is done by the state. I reject that.
The hon. Gentleman also spoke about what Liverpool city council might wish to do and might be doing now. All the things about which he spoke may in themselves be excellent, but none of us have any problems about sorting out the expenditure side of our budgets. The problems arise when we try to find the income to pay for that expenditure. The fact that we are doing good by spending is never an excuse if we cannot afford to spend that money. One is doing good by spending has been the plaintive cry of the bankrupt down the ages. How on earth can we cope with the reality of a declining economy by widespread distribution? In Liverpool and in Britain as a whole there is no way one can escape from the reality of finance.
I have nothing against the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Ancram) who is on the Government Front Bench, but I find it strange that in a debate about housing policy generally there is no Minister here from the Department of the Environment. Whatever complaints I have had about DoE Ministers in the past, one thing I have never levelled against them is an unwillingness to debate housing issues. It is surprising and reprehensible that not one Minister from that Department is present in the Chamber.
I have one other point, Mr. Deputy Speaker, which I hope you will pass to Mr. Speaker. We continually hear Conservative Back Benchers moaning that they are unable to speak in debates about housing policy. Mr. Speaker should be reminded that not one Conservative Back Bencher is in the Chamber to debate housing policy. That is scandalous.
I accept that there is a natural cycle to housing and that a problem arises if one section of housing is removed from that cycle. In my county of Yorkshire, people are canny about sorting out their affairs. Young people are always told that the first thing to do is to make sure they have a roof over their heads, and that other priorities come after that. There is a general cycle which starts when a young couple are wed. If they are able to, they buy a small back-to-back two-bedroom house which can still be purchased in Leeds for around about £10,000. A family will be able to buy a through terrace house with four bedrooms, which would cost a little more. Then, if a man is doing well at his job and he has some money to spare for a mortgage he can buy a two or three-bedroom semi. Then, when the children have gone, the parents move back to the smaller house and look after themselves and cope without recourse to state financing. The problem is that if the first rung of that ladder is taken away—the small terraced house—the family cannot get on to the next tier. The escalator that carries those who are fortunate enough to get on it upwards and onwards fails to work when that first rung is taken out. That is what happened in so many of our cities. That first rung of the small terraced house has been taken away by demolition.
In that sense housing is a self-inflicted problem. The single homeless are particularly hit by the Government's policy, as are young couples looking for a first home and unable to afford to buy. A total of 250,000 households are registered on council waiting lists. Some 39,000 public sector homes were built in 1985 as compared to 163,000 with 1976. I want to concentrate on a particular local problem in Leeds which I believe to be a microcosm of the whole problem of defective housing that assails so many of our cities.
My constituents who live on the Raynville estate in west Leeds face a very bleak Christmas. They are trapped in unfit accommodation. Whether they rent or own their homes, they can neither get them repaired satisfactorily nor can they move elsewhere. Many of these dwellings have mould growing on the doors, they have cracks in the walls, and wallpaper that simply falls off because of the excessive clamp. Even the windows fall out of their frames. These are what are called Reema houses and they figure on the Government's Housing Defects Act list. But despite the recognition that the houses are defective, there is apparently no solution in prospect. The houses are perhaps worth around £17,000 on the market today, but the estimated cost of repairs well over £20,000. How ludicrous it is that to repair the houses costs more than their value. There is, therefore, hardly likely to be a great rush to repair them and to put them into a habitable state.
But if the council were to decide to cut its losses and to demolish all the dwellings, it would be impossible to rehouse the residents in west Leeds within a reasonable time. Some 800 people are left on the estate but there are only approximately 400 properties available for re-letting in a full year. There are other equally pressing demands on housing in the area. As yet there are no approved schemes for rectifying housing defects, although I gather the two schemes are under appraisal.
Nevertheless, there is every indication that any possible solution will cost more than the £20,000, which is the Government's latest figure for this type of property. The Housing Defects Act is right in spirit but it is desperately inadequate in practical resources. The local Liberal councillors and the city council have not washed their hands of the problem, and have set out to get a private builder who is interested in developing the site. Indeed, the Reema maisonettes were a particular problem and became literally un-lettable despite the massive housing waiting list in that area. These blocks were demolished with a view to Wimpeys developing the whole site.
The original plan was to refurbish the property but this was changed two years ago in favour of complete redevelopment. To achieve this an urban development grant was applied for but has not as yet been agreed. My understanding was that the urban development grant procedure was specifically designed to speed up the process of negotiation between developers and the local council. Clearly, this has not happened in this case. I hope that the Minister understands that I believe there is a clear duty on the Government to explain why it has not happened. Does the Minister realise that the Housing Defects Act plays an unfortunate role in relation to the Government's right to buy legislation? Leeds city council is forced to sell what it knows to be defective properties to people whom it knows cannot cope with the huge repair costs. The council inevitably has to buy back the houses because the Government's Housing Defects Act does not cover the maintenance cost for people in this position. I hope the Government will understand the need to deal with this anomaly sympathetically.
We are not talking about old dwellings. The ones in this case date only from the 1960s, but they are riddled with serious construction defects. For instance, the metal bars that are driven through the four corners of the houses are corroding and are carbonating into the concrete. The city council is fond of calling the structural cracks "thermal movement", but they show no signs of closing. It is no wonder that residents are worried. Inevitably, while people are still living in those houses, there are excessive housing costs. An official from the city council's works department admitted openly at a public meeting that Reema houses are especially badly insulated.
As I said in a debate on 24 July this year, the tenants in the multi-storey flats were told not to use their balconies. The balconies are now said to be safe, but tenants are still advised not to use them. As one tenant said, "If the balcony will not stand my eight and a half stones, should we not be moved out immediately?" It is ridiculous to tell people not to use their balconies but also to tell them that the flats are safe. Good, decent Yorkshire folk, tenants as much as owner-occupiers, are desperate for help, yet no help is forthcoming.
The residents have been forthright and resourceful in their campaigning. They have gathered information and lobbied effectively, but the final decisions are out of their hands. My local colleague, Councillor Selby, has battled on in support of our constituents, but there is a growing thought abroad that the Labour council in Leeds is cynically punishing people on the Raynville estate for consistently voting Liberal. It is hard to prove such motivation, but it would be easy to demonstrate its inaccuracy—by allocating resources sufficient to renovate where possible and to demolish the properties where not.
I beg the Minister to realise the desperate position of those families. The site is a mess, with the remains of the maisonette blocks still visible and an expanse of vacant land crying out for sensitive redevelopment. I ask the Minister to tell the Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction of the need to receive a delegation of the residents of the Raynville estate at an early date. The solution will inevitably lie in a joint operation with building societies, private builders and the city council working together. I am doing my best to make that happen, as are the residents. I wonder whether the Minister is.
I apologise to the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) for having missed the first two or three minutes of his speech, but I was detained on urgent business in my constituency all day and have just driven 250 miles non-stop to try to speak in this debate, which is important. I regret that much of what I shall say in my short speech has been said before, but since I have been in the House the Government have done nothing to deal with the serious problems of housing. During the past three and a half years, housing has become worse than it was in 1983. Something must be done to tackle the problem.
My constituency is slightly different from many others in that it has a surplus of public and private sector housing. I must accept that there is only one reason for the surplus of housing—employment is not available in Burnley and people are leaving the town to seek it elsewhere. Recently published figures show that the population has declined by about 5,000 during the past five years, which accounts for the empty houses.
However, there is a waiting list for sheltered accommodation for the elderly in Burnley. Wherever I go, I discover that councils are unable to meet the full demand for such housing because the problem is growing and not enough resources are available. Whether the problem is solved by converting existing stock or by constructing purpose-built housing, the money must come from the housing investment programme. If the Government will not make available sufficient resources, councils will be unable to meet the demand for housing to which elderly people are entitled and which is a priority.
I urge the Government to consider introducing a more generous subsidy for improvement-for-sale schemes that are carried out by local authorities. Burnley has made representations on this score on several occasions but it has been unsuccessful in its attempts to persuade the Government to change their policy. The subsidy that is given to housing associations is more generous than that provided to local authorities, which is not acceptable.
In Burnley the cost of improving an old terraced house is more than the sum that the house will sell for, and with the existing subsidy there is a loss for the council. The price of property has been low traditionally in the Burnley area, and with surplus housing in both the public and private sectors the price must remain low. With the absence of demand, high prices cannot be obtained. If the council cannot afford to improve a terrace house, for example, and tries to sell it, because the Government's policy does not permit it to do so the house may well become derelict, causing the entire terrace subsequently to become derelict. The loss of one house in the Burnley area might be acceptable because of the housing surplus, but the loss of an entire terrace is not, especially where improvement grants have been provided for individual houses in the terrace. We all know that improvement grants are provided so that the life of a property can be extended, and if a house becomes derelict and the end result is dereliction throughout the terrace and demolition, public money that has been expended in the form of improvement grants will have been wasted. Perhaps there should be variations in policy and grant in different areas to meet different circumstances.
Burnley hopes that the Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction will visit the area, or alternatively receive a delegation, to discuss grants for improvements in the private sector. The policy which was introduced in October 1983 has become less satisfactory as time has passed. Applications have had to be frozen and since April 1984 Burnley, like many other councils, has been unable to accept applications for improvement and repair grants. It is able to deal only with mandatory grants. Assuming that no more applications are made, Burnley needs about £13 million to deal with the backlog. Burnley is not unique in that respect, and that is not acceptable. If the Government do not come forward with more money now, the cost to them could well be greater later, especially if there has to be slum clearance, demolition and rebuilding, which would be nonsensical.
Like many other councils, Burnley is unable to modernise its pre-war housing stock at anywhere near a quick enough rate. The turn of the century will be reached before Burnley's pre-war houses are all modernised, and that is not acceptable. The Government must come forward with more generous provision when the housing investment allocations are announced, and Government time should be found in this place to enable the allocations to be debated.
The hon. Member for Gordon referred to capital receipts. I strongly support the view that, as an immediate step, the Government should increase the amount of capital receipts. I do not say that all of the capital should be used, but it certainly should be increased from the present level of 20 per cent. to at least 50 per cent. That will give local authorities a little more leeway with which to deal with their problems.
Housing is one of the most crucial issues that face the country. We have not seen an improvement in our housing stock. We have not even seen the maintenance of the status quo. We have seen the deterioration of housing throughout the country, whether it be in the public or private sector.
I do not know what the Secretary of State knows about the housing problems of Leeds, Liverpool and Burnley. I might be stretching a joke if I mention the housing situation in Cornwall. The debate is clearly about UK Housing. My hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) was asked over the phone what subject he wished to raise. The Secretary of State specifically was told that it was UK housing. I must now address the Secretary of State on problems that affect Cornwall, when the Minister represents a seat in Scotland. I do not complain about that, but when the hon. Gentleman's responsibility is specifically and only Scotland, it verges on the ridiculous. For all that, people read Hansard, and one must live in faith and hope, even if one's experience does not always justify it.
The problem that my area faces is certainly different from those outlined by a number of hon. Members. It is interestingly different. In a way, it demonstrates one of the problems that inevitably face any Government who wish to evolve a sensible housing policy. We tend to talk too much about the national housing situation, as though every constituency is similar. That is manifestly not so. Certainly, my area has no excess housing capacity. It is beyond the imagination of local councillors and local housing executives to believe that there could be unoccupied council houses anywhere in the country, such is the pressure that exists within my community. When one examines the background of the matter, it is not surprising.
I do not know the precise figures, but I suspect that in Cornwall, less than 10 per cent. of the housing stock is owned by the local authority. It has never been much more than 15 per cent. Many houses have been sold. I have no complaint about that. The desirability of home ownership—at least in my part of the country—is not a controversial issue. All effective political parties in the community support it. For all that, just 10 per cent. of local housng is owned by the local authority. That percentage is too low to deal with the problem.
Statistically, Cornwall has the lowest average wage of any part of Great Britain. That fact is not new. It has been so this year, last year, last decade and the decade before that. Quite clearly, in the long run, a community's ability to house itself, is a reflection of its earning capacity. If the average wage in Cornwall is the lowest in the United Kingdom, a minority within our community must have incomes that are dramatically below the national average, to put it mildly. That section of our community has no choice but to look to the local authority for re-housing.
In my area, very few people are housed unless they specifically qualify under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977. If somebody lives at home with his parents and children and cannot arrange for his parents to throw him out—when I say, "Throw him out," the parents actually have to take their own children to court to throw them out of the house—his prospects of being housed are remote, if not much more than zero. If someone gets married, lives at home and does not have any children, his only hope is the pathetic one of simply waiting for his parents, by death or incapacity, to vacate the property and thus hand it over.
That is the situation. The only solution is to build some council houses. Quite a lot of money has been generated by the sale of council houses. We have few houses in any case. Therefore, we need some state investment in housing. I have had much correspondence recently with the Secretary of State for the Environment, asking him why Cornwall is left out of the 80 areas defined as stress areas in Britain. I am not claiming that we are one of the worst. It is possible that we are not. But I fail to believe that 80 areas in Britain are worse off than my county with regard to obtaining a house. I have written to the Minister. I asked for the facts and figures to back up that policy assertion. I have not yet received a reply. I fear that it may be difficult to put together an answer to the observations made. I fear that the Government will not do anything about it, but the problem is there. It is mounting, and many ordinary Cornish folk find themselves leading a life that is little more than misery because of the housing problem.
There are some things that the Government could do if only one could get them to consider them. Not the least of the problems in my county is the disappearance of the rented sector. I suspect that it has disappeared from my area for a slightly different reason from that in many other areas. The reason is simply this. There is an alternative use for rented accommodation in my area that is extremely profitable. It has been made far more profitable by the Government. That is the letting of property by the week, fortnight or month dring the summer, known in Cornwall as summer lets. Through tax changes that the Government made in the past two or three Finance Bills, the Government have created the following incredible situation. If one owns a house and lets it on a permanent basis, and procures an income by that, one pays tax on that income. No one complains about that. If one lets that property casually by the week, fortnight or month and procures an income, one pays tax on that. No one complains about that. But the tax that one would pay on letting the property permanently is more than on letting it casually. That is unbelievable. There is no justice in it and no justification for it. My constituents who have properties to let are not fools. One can be hardly surprised if they choose the option that not only gives them vacant possession every year but procures the highest income after tax, because, after all, that is why most people go in for business, and that is the way to achieve success.
That process of letting properties by the week, fortnight or month should be considered as a business. I do not believe that it is an immoral business, but I believe it to be a business. It should be treated as a business with regard to rates, planning consent and so on. If that was done, we could at least bring that endless problem under control.
Let us not underestimate the size of the problem. In some parishes, 40 per cent. of the properties are let in that manner. Once some 40 per cent. of property in a parish is let in that way, the community has been destroyed. The chapel is used no longer because there is nobody there on Sundays during the winter months. The doctor finds that he has little business. The shops closed. The whole community becomes like a disorganised Butlin's holiday camp. There is little of the community spirit and village life that led it through so many decades and, indeed, centuries.
That problem needs attention. There is no way that any Government will ever restore any form of private rented sector in my community unless someone is willing to face up to the admitted peculiarities of the problem. I ask the Minister to pass those comments on to the English Secretary of State and to seek from him his observations.
I repeat the raw bones of the argument. Less than 10 per cent. of housing in Cornwall is local authority housing. We have the lowest average wages in Britain. It is manifestly obvious that people must look to the local authority because other houses just do not exist. The councils manage as best they can by the most vicious interpretation of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 that I suspect is made in this country. Many people therefore suffer great stress. The outlet of private letting which exists in some areas is virtually taken away in my community because properties are let by the week, fortnight or month during the summer season for the owner's profit. The desperate situation for the minority who are affected deserves some Government attention and action.
We are not so municipalised in my area that we would argue that the council could solve the problems if it owned 80 per cent. of houses as opposed to the 65 per cent. it perhaps owns. In the short term, the only action that the Government are likely to take is to put Cornwall back on the map in respect of funds for housing associations. I look forward to receiving a letter from the Secretary of State explaining why the problem which I have outlined means that Cornwall is not included in one of the 80 stress areas, which seems to be the criterion determining whether an area receives any money.
I must confess to being in difficulty with this debate. Like the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, when I saw that the debate was in the name of the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce), I, too, assumed—obviously, wrongly—that it was on Scottish housing. Unfortunately, I do not have a bunch of advisers desperately passing me notes to reply to hon. Members' points. I hope that hon. Members will accept my apologies for not being able to reply in detail to their points, because I do not confess to having any great knowledge of English housing.
It is clear hon. Members' speeches, especially those of my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Broadgreen (Mr. Fields) and for Burnley (Mr. Pike), that they face many of the problems that we face in Scotland. In Scotland, 49 per cent. of housing is council housing, so the problems faced by councils are great. I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Broadgreen, who, in his graphic description of Liverpool, related the housing crisis much more broadly. Unemployment and social deprivation create many housing problems, which are then made worse by unemployment and social deprivation.
I agree with the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Meadowcroft) on one point. The hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Terlezki) referred to the fact that earlier only two Labour Members were present for the debate on defence policy and NATO. It is remarkable that there are no Conservative Back Benchers present to talk about housing. More people have been made redundant in the construction industry since 1979 than would be made unemployed as a result of even the wildest claims by Conservative Members about Labour's defence policy. Of course, to most of our constituents, the problems of dampness, high rents, of repairs not being done and of inadequate sheltered housing are of much greater importance than Conservative attacks on our defence policy.
I wish to limit my remarks to some of the Government's recent actions in Scottish housing policy. A recent Scottish Office press release was headed,
Big Cash Increases for Housing Announced".
The Government were proudly announcing their increases in capital allocation, yet when the true figures came out, they showed that the total cash for housing next year will increase by only 2 per cent.—well below the inflation rate. The Minister shakes his head at that. He may care to look at his own figures.
The Government have also cut the rate fund contribution limit from £69·8 million in 1986–87 to £43·7 million in 1987–88, compared with their own figure of £112·4 million in 1983–84. Housing support grant next year will be £46·5 million compared with £50·7 million this time last year, although there is to be a variation order to cut this year's figure to £44·5 million. As a result, tenants of only 25 out of the 54 housing authorities in Scotland will receive any subsidy on their rents and two thirds of the total housing stock in Scotland will receive no grant at all in the coming year. Those restrictions mean that only 12 per cent. of council house costs will come from the public purse and 88 per cent. will come from the tenants in rents and other charges. In 1979–80 rents covered only 47 per cent. of council house costs while Government grant accounted for 53 per cent.
At the same time, almost inevitably, rents have increased. If the Government have their way the average rent increase next year will be £1·32 and some council tenants will face increases of more than £3. Even the average increase is more than 10 per cent. or more than three times the present rate of inflation, and since 1979 average rents in Scotland will have increased by 191 per cent. or double the rate inflation. How any Government can justify loading those costs on to tenants, I do not know.
Meanwhile, the Government have done nothing to reduce the subsidy paid even to the wealthiest home owners through mortgage tax relief. We are not in favour of abolishing mortgage tax relief completely at the present time, but we believe that it should be for standard rate taxpayers only and not for the wealthiest people in our society. It is certainly grossly unfair for the Government to increase subsidies to the better off members of the community while constantly cutting those available to council house tenants, many of whom are among the poorest people in our society.
The hon. Gentleman says that it is Labour party policy to abandon mortgage tax relief for those paying tax above standard rate. I think that he has made a mistake. Is not Labour policy to limit the relief to the standard rate? I am always willing to help.
And I am always willing to accept help from wherever it comes.
On top of all that, the Government are now seeking to shift the burden of local taxation from the wealthy home owner to the council house tenant through the change from rates to a poll tax. Home owners in my constituency whose houses are valued at £70,000 or £80,000 and who obtain tax relief on the maximum figure of £30,000 are currently obtaining a subsidy of more than £1,000 per year in tax relief. They pay some £1,250 to £1,300 a year in rates. A married couple—a standard household in Scotland—would pay about £550 a year in poll tax. With tax relief, they will be subsidised to the tune of £460 a year and will not contribute to local services. Council house tenants, however, who receive no subsidy or tax relief pay £370 in rates now and will pay the same £550 in poll tax. Nobody in his right mind can consider that fair or just.
I have given only a bare outline. The Government claim that they have done much for housing in Scotland, and yet there are 63,000 houses below the tolerable standard. In Glasgow alone, 21,000 private sector houses are below the tolerable standard. Some 22,000 council houses may also be below the tolerable standard. Some 350,000 houses need full or partial mondernisation, 107,000 council houses need rewiring and 308,000 council houses suffer from some form of dampness. Scotland requires about 251,000 houses for single people, but we have only 129,000.
We have greater overcrowding in Scotland than in any other part of the United Kingdom. There are 155,000 people on local authority waiting lists. We have a major housing crisis which the Government have done nothing to solve. They have tried to make propaganda out of the increase in this year's capital allocation, but the fact remains that, since the Government came to power in 1979, Government housing expenditure on Scotland has been halved. We require a Government who are committed to solving the housing crisis and who are prepared to use houses as one of the ways in which to get people back to work. The sooner that happens, the better it will be for the country.
I intended to start in a humble fashion and to apologise to English Members for not being able to answer their detailed questions. Having listened to what they said, however, I must say that I was somewhat surprised that the party that claims that it is decentralist and the party of devolution has not appreciated that we have a separate housing policy in Scotland. There is no Minister who is responsible for housing in Scotland and in England, other than the Prime Minister, and I am sure that Opposition Members would not have expected her to be here tonight.
Despite the fact that the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) told me that he would be ranging wide, I assumed that he would speak basically on behalf of his constituents and that his interest would therefore be largely Scottish. I assure the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Meadowroft), who I know feels strongly about the matter that he raised—I have heard him on that topic at a rather greater distance before—the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike), who also has raised these matters before, and the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) that I shall pass on their comments to my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction. I am sure that he will note what they have said.
Tonight we have heard several Liberal speeches and, indeed, it was a Liberal-inspired debate, but, as usual, we have heard little about Liberal policy. We heard many bland assertions from the hon. Member for Gordon, but we heard no details or answers. We were not told where the money would come from or how much the policies would cost. We were given no inkling of the hon. Gentleman's policy on the right to buy. At least I know what the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) feels about that. Despite his party's fudging of the issue, he is clearly against it. On many previous occasions the hon. Member for Gordon has made it clear that, while he accepts the principle, he is against the practice. I hoped that tonight we would hear some explanation of what I understand to be the alliance policy which is that it would like increased local discretion over exemptions and discounts. I wanted to hear what the alliance believes is the correct level of discount, what exceptions should be made and to what extent there should be local discretion. Unfortunately, tonight I was again disappointed.
Equally, I hoped to hear the alliance say something about mortgage interest tax relief, which is of interest to many of my constituents.
If I set the question, perhaps the hon. Gentleman will then answer it.
I recollect that the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), who is the Liberal housing spokesman, pointed Out:
The Liberal party voted against increasing from £25,000 to £30,000 the limit at which mortgage tax relief is available. Under the housing and tax credit system which we would use to replace the tax and benefits systems, that tax relief would go—[Official Report, 11 December 1985; Vol. 88, c. 954–5.]
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will say whether or not that is Liberal policy.
The Minister knows that our policy on this is exactly the same as the Labour party policy. We shall restrict tax relief to the standard rate. How he can defend giving someone on £40,000 a year twice as much tax help with his mortgage as someone on £14,000 a year, I do not know. That is the record he must defend. If he would like to outline that to us in the remaining eight minutes—clearly he is not going to reply to any of the points raised—at least the House will gain something of interest.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for informing the House that the remarks of the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey, who I understood to be a Liberal environment spokesman, were not correct.
First, I shall deal with the question of rents which was raised by the hon. Member for Cathcart. He knows full well, and his English colleagues may be interested to learn, that Scottish council house rents are three quarters of the level of English and Welsh council house rents, despite the fact that the average manual worker's wage is basically on a par. The hon. Gentleman knows that in Scotland we have a tradition of low rents created by subsidies which matched low wages. Since then Scottish wages have caught up with those south of the border, yet the Labour party expect, not subsidies to those who need them, but indiscriminate subsidies through housing support grant and rate fund contributions to be given to all council tenants.
The hon. Gentleman suggests that the Government have been forcing up rents in Scotland. I wonder whether he noticed my answer to a question from the hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Raynsford) on 3 December who asked what the average level of local authority rents and fair rents registered for unfurnished lettings in Scotland was compared with the rate of inflation. The figures shows that between 1979 and 1985 local authority rents in Scotland rose by 134 per cent. Registered rents, which have nothing to do with the Government and are set by rent registration officers, rose by 174 per cent. That shows that in Scotland rents have been at an unnaturally low level and now they are beginning to move towards the level at which they should be.
The basic attack made against the Government by the hon. Members for Gordon and for Cathcart, on a Scottish basis, was directed at resources. I found it difficult to listen to the hon. Member for Liverpool Broadgreen (Mr. Fields), who suggested that this Government have slashed investment in housing. Since we came to office, we have—and I can give only the Scottish figures for this—increased annual capital investment in Scotland's housing stock by £383 million in cash terms and by 5 per cent. in real terms—
The hon. Gentleman laughs. May I remind him that when the Labour party was in office—and this matters to the people in Scotland—annual investment in real terms on the same basis fell by 37 per cent. I find it difficult to accept suggestions from the hon. Gentleman that we have cut investment in Scottish housing and that his party has a better record.
The hon. Member for Gordon accused the Government of what he described as bad housekeeping. I should like to explain to him some of the housekeeping in terms of looking after Scotland's housing that has been carried on by the Government. Since 1979, 140,000 new houses have been built. The number is presently running at a rate of 18,000 a year. That is a total increase in the stock of 3·5 per cent. at a time when the Scottish population was falling. The number of sheltered dwellings—a matter that was raised by the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) admittedly in an English context but it is equally important in Scotland—under this Government has trebled to more than 21,500 and the number of amenity dwellings has more than trebled to more than 8,500.
I shall not give way as I have not much time left.
The hon. Member for Gordon made a number of other assertions about the public sector. Capital allocations to Scottish local authorities have increased by almost 60 per cent., or £135 million, over the past three years. More local authority dwellings were improved last year—45,000—than in any of the previous 10 years. More than 210,000 local authority dwellings—about a quarter of the stock—have been included in modernisation schemes costing about £1 billion since the Government came to office.
The hon. Member for Gordon and others also referred to the private sector. In Scotland, 86,000 tenants have been able to buy their own homes under the Government. The number of applications at present is more buoyant than it has been for a number of years. The proportion of families owning their own homes has risen from 35 per cent. to more than 41 per cent. Under this Government, more than 10 times the resources have been made available for improvement and repair grants, about which the hon. Member for Gordon criticised the Government, than during 1974–79 when the Labour party was in office. When the Labour party was in office, £55 million was made available in that area against £550 million under this Government. In the two years from 1982 to 1984, the maximum rate for repair grant was boosted from 50 per cent. to 90 per cent. and the transformation of the private stock in cities such as Glasgow is visible for all to see.
As a result, the number of below tolerable standard houses in Scotland was more than halved to 57,000 last March.
This year, when the hon. Member for Cathcart proclaimed that there would be reductions again in housing investment in Scotland, we have managed in the public sector allocations of £40 million—that is 12 per cent. more than last year and well above the rate of inflation. On the private side—the non-HRA—we have increased provision by £28·5 million, which is 24 per cent. more than last year.
The hon. Member for Gordon rightly mentioned the housing associations. The Housing Corporation has been funded this year for next year at its highest ever level of £123·4 million pounds and that has been welcomed by the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations.
It is clear that the attack that has been made on the Government's housing policy in Scotland is not well based. Our record is good, and the people of Scotland will judge it to be so.