Housing and Homelessness

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:15 pm on 10th February 1987.

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Photo of Dr Jack Cunningham Dr Jack Cunningham Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment 4:15 pm, 10th February 1987

I shall come to the hon. Gentleman's point in due course.

Mortgage payers, too, are in difficulties and mortgage defaults and arrears are increasing alarmingly. While the number of loans has increased by about one third since 1979, the number of families in arrears has risen sixfold. When the Government were elected, mortgage arrears in excess of one year were too insignificant to record. They now exceed 14,000. The number of houses repossessed from owner-occupiers last year was estimated at more than 20,000—virtually 10 times the number in 1979.

Mortgage payers got a consistently better deal under the Labour Government than they have had since 1979. Mortgage interest rates have averaged about 13 per cent. under this Government and have reached a crisis level of 15 per cent., not once but twice. Only the Government refuse to recognise the need to build more houses and significantly to improve the rate of renovation of private and public housing. But the Government's own statistics indicate a shortfall of homes fit and available of about 1 million. The Government's own research on the local authority housing stock condition showed a staggering backlog of £19 billion for renovation and repair of council houses in England alone. That was the Government's own report.

The Audit Commission believes that this total is growing at the rate of £900 million a year. Figures for essential rehabilitation of private houses are even higher. That is one of the reasons why they cannot be let, but there are others, and I shall come to that in a moment.

Traditional private rented accommodation continues to decline despite claims from successive Ministers about shortholds and assured tenancies. There are opportunities for new initiatives between local authorities and developers on mixed tenure schemes, and councils are showing increasing interest. We welcome this. We support assured tenancies, shared ownership and mixed tenure schemes as ways of increasing the options available to those seeking homes.

We have a way of putting the Government's record to the test on all these matters. It is at the Greenwich by-election. Greenwich is an inner London borough with a mix of outer London borough housing problems which is quite typical of the housing crisis in London. The problems of the borough well illustrate the effects of eight years of Tory housing policy. Homeless households accepted under the Act have increased fivefold since 1982 from 320 to 1,500 in the current year. Over 90 per cent. of homeless cases in Greenwich are local Greenwich people. The waiting list has increased 50 per cent. in the last four years from below 10,000 in 1982 to over 16,000 currently. Many families in Greenwich are now seriously overcrowded and have no prospect of moving to better accommodation.

House prices have doubled in the past four years. The cheapest three-bedroomed house in the borough now costs £55,000 and requires an income of at least £15,000 for a first-time buyer to be able to purchase it. Ordinary people in the borough of Greenwich, even if they are lucky enough to have a job, do not earn that sort of money, and people who in the past would have been able to buy can no longer do so.

The borough has 4,000 unfit private sector dwellings — another reason for the decline in the private rented sector—some of which need as much as £10,000 each in major repairs to make them fit. The private rented sector is collapsing in the borough of Greenwich as landlords convert dwellings and sell for a substantial capital gain. The clearest example of this is the Morden college estate, where no fewer than 900 private landlord homes are currently on the market for sale. That is another reason for the decline, in case the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) is still interested in responses to his questions.

The latest assessment is that £367 million needs to be invested in the borough's housing stock over a decade, which, allowing for inflation, requires an investment, on average, of £43 million per annum. There are extensive problems of system-built estates, too.

What have the Government done in Greenwich? They have cut housing subsidies to the borough by £13 million.

Government policy has cut housing investment in the borough from the 1979 average under the Labour Government of nearly £45 million at current prices. The Tories' housing investment programme allocation for the coming financial year, on the same basis, is £15·5 million — only one third of what it was eight years ago.

If the allocation had been kept at the same level the borough would have had an additional £200 million to invest in housing over the past eight years which would have built 1,500 new homes, given 5,000 more improvement grants, allowed for the protection of all the Morden college properties, replaced the windows of 7,500 dwellings, modernised 4,000 kitchens, re-roofed 5,000 dwellings and provided 8,000 dwellings with central heating. That is an indication of the damage done in the borough of Greenwich as a result of this Government's policies.

The Government have claimed that local authorities are not effective managers of council accommodation; that they are inefficient and irresponsible. Let us look at Greenwich.

Voids in the private sector in the borough are double what they are in the public sector—5 per cent. Current rent arrears represent only 5 per cent. of total income collected from council tenants. Praised by the Audit Commission as an effective, efficient, well-run authority, the borough has rehoused 2,600 homeless families over the last four years and has not spent a penny on bed and breakfast in doing so. The authority is progressive and pragmatic. It consults its customers. There are nearly 80 tenants' associations in the borough, and the housing service has 500 meetings with the public each year. It is a decentralised service operating through 13 local housing offices without screens or barriers between the public and the staff. It treats the question of equal opportunities seriously and believes that its staff and its policies must reflect the needs of all people in the borough. It works with other agencies, particularly housing associations and voluntary groups.

The borough is planning for the future, too. Under the last Labour Government, the council was building 450 council dwellings each year. Since 1982 the average has been 60, as a result of Government policy. The borough is organising now to produce 400 homes per year and is seeking to buy land and design new housing schemes for when a Labour Government is returned. Greenwich is a borough under quite left-wing political control but it collects its rates and rents and fills its empty houses. And it does it efficiently and I pay tribute to that,. I pay tribute to that, and so does the Minister of State, because that is a direct quotation from him when he was interviewed on the BBC television programme "This Week, Next Week" on 2 November 1986.

This is a council which any sensible Government would want to work with and not undermine; a council which is doing an excellent job for its community. Will Ministers from the Department of the Environment dare to put a contrary view to that of the Minister of State at the by-election in Greenwich? Will they go and argue against him? We will be waiting for them if they do—I can assure them of that—but I doubt that they have the guts to show their faces.

In the February edition of House Builder, Mr. Peter Short, the president of the House Builders Federation writes: Government Ministers can no longer be trusted with responsibility for housing". He goes on to say that under-provision of housing or its deterioration in both the private and public sectors will have increasingly severe effects on the efficiency of industry, while inadequate investment in the public sector stock and in the provision of housing in areas of need with which the market cannot deal will add to the decay of urban areas and the rise of homelessness—and he is right. Yet neither of these issues is adequately addressed—least of all, he says, by the Ministers responsible at the Department of the Environment.

The reality is that Ministers have abdicated those responsibilities. They have combined malice towards public provision with incompetence in administration. Their policies have failed and can only make an appalling situation much worse. A Labour Government will expand investment in housing, public and private, and allocate finance more fairly. A Labour Government will work in partnership with the building industry and local councils to improve people's homes and build more where necessary and, in doing so, create much-needed jobs. We shall strengthen tenant's rights and equal opportunities too. We will do these things because they are right—right for the people and right for the country.

4.51 pm