Orders of the Day — Housing Policy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:48 am on 15th December 1986.

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Photo of Malcolm Bruce Malcolm Bruce Shadow Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change) 12:48 am, 15th December 1986

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.