Housing and Homelessness

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:40 pm on 10th February 1987.

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Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North 8:40 pm, 10th February 1987

The contribution of the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) was uncharacteristically measured in tone. One could almost describe it as the new moderate Marlow. If the hon. Gentleman does not watch it, he may be in difficulties with some of his more Right-wing colleagues.

The debate reflects the acute housing crisis and the growing homelessness. That is reflected in the contributions made by Labour Members. We had a disappointing and dreary speech from the Secretary of State which in no way recognised the acute housing problem and the crisis that exists in the country. Leaving aside the compliment that I have just paid to the hon. Member for Northampton, North, the only speech from a Conservative Member which understood and appreciated some of the problems that my hon. Friends and I are trying to explain was that made by the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Malins), 80 per cent. of which I tended to agree with.

Much of the problem that we face arises from the Government's determination on taking office nearly eight years ago drastically to cut public spending on council housing. Between 1979 and the publication of the latest figures there has been a 65 per cent. reduction in public housing expenditure. That explains the present housing crisis, the long waiting lists, the bed-and-breakfast scandals and the position of so many people about whom my hon. Friends, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) spoke who tonight will not have a home to go to.

That is the situation that we face and to which, unfortunately, the Government seem so callously indifferent. We now have the lowest number of council house starts in peacetime. It is expected that the number of new council dwellings started during the current year will be fewer than 30,000.

I agree that there is a consensus of a kind between lion. Members on both sides of the House that a relatively large number of people still require rented accommodation. Perhaps my hon. Friends and I would put that figure somewhat higher than would the Government, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Raynsford) pointed out, the rented sector, and certainly the public rented sector, has been drastically reduced. Many people who are not especially dogmatic on the issue of whether council dwellings should be sold, understandably feel that if the policy is to sell off existing stock, at least we should make sure that that stock is replaced. Of course, that has been far from the Government's policy.

The consensus that does exist goes only as far as recognising that there remains a need for rented accommodation. The fundamental divide between the Government and Opposition Members relates to whether the supply of that rented accommodation should come from the public or the private sector. I am convinced that the possibility of any large-scale revival of the privately rented sector is remote, even with deregulation. When Conservative Members say that all was more or less fine in the past and that the present situation has been caused by the Rent Acts, they should recognise that the houses in which so many of our fellow citizens lived — at the beginning of the century 90 per cent. of our people lived in rented accommodation—were little more than hovels. That was why the slum clearance and redevelopment programmes took place so many years later.

I advise the Minister that he should bear in mind that some hon. Members — I am one — served on local authorities in the London area when the Rent Act 1957 was taking effect. Even with the housing problems that existed then we had to give priority to people who were, in most cases, being legally evicted because of that legislation.

The Labour party must warn existing private tenants that if the Government deregulated the private sector, even if such deregulation is limited o new lettings, unscrupulous landlords—there will be plenty—will try to ensure that the sitting tenant who currently enjoys protection is thrown out, by one means or another, because once that accommodation is empty it can be sold or let at an exorbitant rent.

What is so important, and what Ministers will not accept, is that a deregulated rented sector, by which I mean one in which there is no security of tenure and no limit on rents, will not be any good to those many families who desperately need accommodation. In many cases, they will not be in a position to pay such rents and they will not have protection. When the agreement, if there is an agreement, comes to an end after six months, a year, or even two years, what will happen to them? Even if there is a new offer, they may be asked to pay a larger rent which they cannot afford. What good is such a privately rented sector without security of tenure or rent control? That is why I believe that what the Government intend to do will not benefit the many people who are waiting desperately for rented accommodation. I hope that the Labour party will make the position perfectly clear and warn tenants what is likely to happen if the Government are re-elected.

We need a substantial house-building programme. Much has been said about the poor quality of council housing in the past. I do not disagree with that. However, to some extent that is the fault of successive Governments, who forced and squeezed local authorities to build accommodation which, even from the beginning, would obviously be inadequate. I accept that, but that is not an excuse for not allowing local authorities to have the financial means to build accommodation. We must ensure that it is proper and good quality, low-rise accommodation. It is essential that that type of accommodation is provided by local authorities if we are to tackle the housing crisis that faces the country.

The housing investment programme allocation in my local authority of Walsall is only 80 per cent. of the sum that was provided last year. From 1987–88 we will receive £7,709,000, which is totally inadequate for the borough's housing needs. Money has to be spent from that HIP allocation on properties that are structurally defective, such as the Orlit, the Cornish Unit and the Smith properties. About £5 million will be spent over two years on such properties and that will have to come from a narrow and totally inadequate HIP allocation. Is it any wonder that for eight years no council housing has been built in my borough? None at all has been built. Moreover, many properties that should be modernised, and others on which major repairs should be carried out, are not getting that work done on them because the local authority does not have the HIP allocation or the capital receipts to allow it to spend that money. That is why my borough is facing a difficult housing situation.

More than 1,000 people who have a medical recommendation are waiting to be rehoused in Walsall, apart from all the others on the waiting list. That medical recommendation is from the community physician. Very few indeed of those 1,000 people stand any chance of being rehoused in the near future. Many of them are elderly and have been waiting a long time for warden-controlled or OAP accommodation. Indeed, many will die before an offer comes from the local authority.

In my borough there are many families with two children who are living in multi-storey blocks and whose chances of being rehoused are remote. All they want is to live in a house with a garden, but they have to wait year after year because the local authority is not in a position to give them any assistance. That is part of the housing crisis that we face in Walsall.

The Tory Reform Group, of which the Secretary of State for Energy is president and four other Cabinet Ministers are sponsors, has sent a letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer saying that, instead of tax cuts in the Budget, money should be spent on essential needs. It mentions, in particular, housing and urban renewal. That reflects the pressure of opinion that much more needs to be done in housing construction and modernisation, and to end the scandal of homelessness and bed-and-breakfast hostels. Unfortunately, that opinion is not reflected by the majority of the Cabinet.

I hope that housing will be a major issue during the general election. It was not in 1983, and perhaps we must take some blame for that. We must ensure that housing and the needs of people who are desperately waiting for accommodation or to be rehoused are explained on the hustings. We must explain that for eight years we have had a Government who have been totally indifferent to the plight of people who have as much right as any of us to be adequately housed.