Orders of the Day — Housing Policy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:19 am on 15th December 1986.

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Photo of Mr Terry Fields Mr Terry Fields , Liverpool Broadgreen 1:19 am, 15th December 1986

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.