Housing and Homelessness

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:32 pm on 10th February 1987.

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Photo of Mr John Patten Mr John Patten , Oxford West and Abingdon 9:32 pm, 10th February 1987

I regret the attack on my right hon. Friend by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker). It marred an otherwise interesting speech. I am sorry that it shows—[Interruption.] Off go the Opposition, behaving exactly in the way that they did when my right hon. Friend made his opening speech, trying to shout down the person at the Dispatch Box. Shout away. It does argument no good, and it does no good to politics or to the reputation of the House.

There is one thing that I welcome in the Opposition motion. That is the recognition that better housing for the people of Britain can be achieved only by a combination of public and private provision. That represents a considerable move forward in Labour party thinking and shows that over the past seven years it has been prepared to think and move. I am quite prepared to take advice from the hon. Members for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) and for Perry Barr about how to do this better, because I too believe that in order to provide better housing and better social provision we need to learn from each other from time to time.

I shall begin with one announcement, one reminiscence and one prediction. The announcement, Mr. Deputy Speaker—I am sorry, Mr. Speaker, the slip is a result of all those years answering Adjournment debates. My announcement is about the Greenwich by-election. After listening to the elaboration by the hon. Member for Copeland of my part in that election, I and my diary secretary looked closely at my diary. I regret that I have no free time to visit Greenwich during the by-election campaign, although I expect I shall have to find time for a visit to central office for a re-education session in the cellars. That will undoubtedly teach me to be reasonable.

If the Opposition are prepared to pray in aid my qualified praise of a London Labour borough, I hope that they will eqaully pray in aid my strong criticisms of the housing record of many London Labour boroughs. If they are prepared to play it on one side, they should be prepared to play it on the other.

My reminiscence is about my brief time on Oxford city council when the Labour party was in control. I remember that in 1972 and 1973 people in the council began to foam at the mouth when we mentioned the right to buy. They thought that that was bad and impossible because tenants could never afford it and could never manage the housing stock. Some 15 years later we have consensus between the Labour party and the Conservative party about the right to buy. That is a good thing. I shall have more to say later about the alliance view of the right to buy because it is also part of the consensus. Suddenly in the last couple of years we have seen a considerable change and it is reflected in this interesting motion by the Opposition. It says that now we need mixed provision in housing and joint funding from the public and private sectors. That is good.

My prediction for the future, based on my reminiscence, is that in about 10 years 'Tory thinking and philosophy about the right to rent will be equally accepted by Labour Members, and that every strand of housing policy in Britain will follow the Tory lead.

The main sections of my speech will focus on three points. The first is homelessness, which concerns right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House. The second is the new role that I and my right hon. Friends foresee for local authorities and the provision of better housing — exactly the kind of better housing that we want in Britain. Thirdly, I shall end on the theme of the right to rent, which will continue to be important.

On the issue of homelessness, I was fascinated to hear the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison). He said that it was 10 years since he had spoken in the House on housing. I hope that it will not be long before we again hear his immensely wise voice, to which we listen with care. [Interruption.] Labour Members should not jeer at the founder of New Society who has had a deep and abiding interest in social trends in Britain. My right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury said—these themes were repeated by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Sackville) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Maligns) in his excellent speech—that there are deep social issues which will have to be examined if we are to come to grips with homelessness in Britain.

It was good to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West how good management in his borough had made it unnecessary for there to be recourse by the local authority to bed-and-breakfast provision. One should be as willing to praise local authorities, of whatever political colour, that manage their stock well—I share the view of the hon. Member for Perry Barr on this—as to condemn had management in local authorities. It is good that the borough of my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West has managed without bed-and-breakfast provision.

I wish that the hon. Member for Copeland had been present in the Chamber to listen to the speeches of my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury and my hon. Friends the Members for Bolton, West and for Croydon, North-West. I am not criticising the hon. Gentleman for not being here because he has duties that take him to other parts of the House. Had he heard the detailed arguments which were put forward about the social reasons for housing, he and his hon. Friends would have had cause to reflect on whether it was wise to organise the totally unnecessary shouting down of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment during his introductory speech. That behaviour does rational argument and the political judgment of this place no good.

The hon. Member for Perry Barr gave me pause for thought about the relationship between Government housing policy and social trends in Britain. He listed a number of points, but one that he forgot was the radically and rapidly changing nature of household formation in Britain. Currently, households are getting smaller and smaller, and one would therefore expect to have fewer households but, by the early 1990s there will be a radical decline in the number of households in Britain, which will have an important effect on homelessness.

As my right hon. Friend rightly said in his opening speech, the causes of homelessness go much wider than the supply of housing alone. We need to improve our information about the homeless, why they have lost their homes, what are the best methods of providing temporary accommodation, and so on. We need to consider our policy in the light of that advice. That is why today we have let a contract for a major national study—exactly the sort of contract pressed on us by those interested in homelessness and by lobbying bodies—to be carried out by the university of Birmingham's centre for urban and regional studies. This will be the first comprehensive national study of homelessness since the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977. I think that it will be broadly welcomed.

We are taking a series of measures to deal with the problems of homelessness. In the short time available, I should like to mention two. First, the House will know of the important changes in the arrangements for funding housing association schemes which we announced before Christmas. They have been welcomed by the whole housing association movement. I have yet to hear a dissentient voice — indeed, I have heard far from dissenting voices in the National Federation of Housing Associations, the Housing Corporation, and others. We have allocated an extra £20 million to the Housing Corporation's spending programme specifically for use in schemes in which public and private money are combined. That is one of the themes of this debate.

A further £10 million is to be made available for such schemes from within the corporation's existing programme. About £30 million will be available for schemes in which no more than 30 per cent. of costs are met through grant, with the private sector making up the balance. That is exactly the type of co-operation between the public and private sectors that the Labour Front Bench wants. I welcome the fact that there has been no criticism of these schemes. For £30 million of public expenditure — this is the joy of the scheme — we shall be able to increase housing association investment by £100 million, which will be an enormous benefit. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment — the scheme's pioneer—and I want this fruitful co-operation between the public and private sectors to develop. This is a major breakthrough.

A key priority for the new funding arrangements—it may account for as much as half of the £30 million—is to provide self-contained temporary accommodation for homeless people who would otherwise go into hotels, hostels and boarding houses before getting the permanent accommodation that they need. It is important to remember that some 50 per cent. of those who are accepted as homeless go immediately into permanent accommodation. Everyone recognises that there will always be a need, however good the housing position becomes, for some temporary accommodation in which to house people in housing pressure areas, such as central London, pending permanent accommodation. That is precisely what the policy introduced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will do.