Inner City Areas

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:20 am on 6th March 1987.

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Photo of David Clelland David Clelland , Tyne Bridge 11:20 am, 6th March 1987

I take my hon. Friend's point. Indeed, Gateshead council is attempting to resolve its great problems in education. Unfortunately, it is being held up by the parochial views of one or two parents, which we hope will shortly be sorted out. [Interruption.] With the help of the Government. We must get the authority of the Secretary of State for Education and Science before we can go ahead with our programme. If the Minister states that that authority is not likely to be forthcoming, I shall be interested to hear it, but I am sure that that will not be the case.

Unemployment, the scourge of the northern region in particular and of the country in general, is highest in the inner city areas and is running at 26 per cent., even on the Government's figures, which few people believe to be credible. The actual figure in my constituency is more like 30 per cent. Nothing that the Government are doing in the area is having a major impact on unemployment. Indeed, the closure of training centres, jobcentres and Government offices aggravates the situation, as does the relocation of Government offices outside the region. The Government have failed to take positive action to promote the shipbuilding and engineering industries, which, far from being outdated, as we often hear from those who live in the south and are ignorant of the north, are at the forefront of technological advance. The electrical engineering industry in particular is being run down, not because of lack of demand but because of Government prevarication. The minor grants to small business, as welcome as they may be, cannot begin to approach the impact that Government policy has had on major industries in the northern region.

The other major problem in the inner city area is housing. On the one hand, there is a shortage of housing and, on the other, for various reasons, inadequate housing. Housing—the inadequacy and lack of it—has reached crisis proportions, particularly in inner city areas. It is no good Conservative Members trying to score political points, as they have done today, by drawing attention to the number of empty council houses. That not only does nothing to resolve the problem but shows contempt for the intelligence of the general public and complete indifference to the real suffering that is being perpetuated while they enjoy their political knock-about.

It is quite obvious to any casual observer that, at any one time, there will be empty properties. But to suggest, as the hon. Member for Darlingon (Mr. Fallon) did a few days ago—it has been repeated by other hon. Members today — that local authorities are deliberately keeping homes empty when they desperately need not only the rent income but to meet demand and house people, is beyond comprehension. Of course, houses are empty. In Newcastle, for instance, 1,336 houses, from a stock of over 46,000, are empty. Of them, more than 400 are being modernised. Thirty five are awaiting demolition — still awaiting an answer from the Department of the Environment since as long ago as 22 July 1985. Sixty four houses are awaiting disposal or sale, and the remainder are either undergoing repair or are on offer to prospective tenants.

For those hon. Members who like to play around with statistics, that represents 2·9 per cent, of housing stock, compared with a rate of 4·1 per cent. of empty properties belonging to the housing associations in the area and 4·6 per cent. in the private sector. Of course, the Government are responsible for 6·9 per cent. of empty properties in the control of Government Departments. There are in no position to criticise.

Incidentally, the rate in Wandsworth is 3·7 per cent. Wandsworth has something to do to match the housing efficiency of Newcastle city council. I do not criticise Wandsworth for that. I understand the reason for empty properties and do not intend to use it, as some hon. Members do, in some sort of political point-scoring game. The continual harping on by Conservative Members about housing provision, particularly as it obtains in the public sector, which they despise, amounts to a cruel deception perpetrated on homeless families and others seeking decent accommodation. Even if Newcastle council were able to let every empty house tomorrow, there would still be 10,000 or more people on the waiting list. That applies in other boroughs, particularly in Wandsworth.

The answers to the housing crisis are to build and modernise more houses at rents and prices that people can afford, but the Government have done the opposite. They have severely cut the amounts that local councils are allowed to spend on housing, and now, in their 43rd local government Bill, they propose to attempt to channel public money into providing private rented properties. Ministers refer to the right to rent. That does not mean the right of tenants to rent property, but the right of landlords to rent property to tenants at massive profits.

The Government completely ignore the fact that the private rented sector — the absentee landlords, the Rachmans of this world — created the terrible slum conditions that Labour councils such as Newcastle and Gateshead cleared away to provide decent homes with modern facilities. That is, of course, with the exception of system-built communal properties forced on local authorities by central Government in the 1950s and 1960s, many of which are now completely discredited for the damp, dreary places that they turned out to be. That is another problem that plagues inner cities which councils wish to tackle but cannot tackle at anything like the necessary rate. Despite the difficulties, some local authorities such as Newcastle and Gateshead are tackling the problems of such developments, and in some case are removing them altogether, which is often the only suitable treatment for them.

If local authorities were free to get on with the job that they were elected to do, even with all the difficulties, they would have a much greater impact on the problem than they do at present because of the straitjacket into which the Government have placed them. The City of Newcastle has demonstrated that it can do that. It has been acknowledged, even by Ministers, as having the right approach to the problems. A recent report made certain observations. It referred to the past heavy investment in the city. It went on to state: This has not been without its cost and high rates and debt charges will be a burden to be carried into the next century. That aspect of local government life today has often been mentioned in the Chamber. The report also states: Had this not been done its position today"— in the city, that is— would be grave indeed.

The report recognises what the city council is about. It goes on to say: There is little evidence of political extremism, right or left wing, in the official political arena…although fundamental disagreement on policies inevitably exists, the interests of the City and its people remain the priority. Many other authorities would do well to consider the success of moderate politics. The report goes on: If the Conservative Government remains in office, then the structure and service of Newcastle city council may have to severely alter if it is to remain intact.

The funding available through the Inner City Partnership has been used more effectively in Newcastle than appears to be the case elsewhere. The environment creates an image of stability which would impress prospective investors in the City.

The enthusiasm and determination of the local authority workers and officers give grounds for optimism." My final quotation from this document is this: There is more to this City than meets the eye, and we feel confident that its present difficulties will be overcome. Hon. Members may wonder from which report I am quoting. Is it a document produced by Labour party sympathisers or by trendy "Leftie" students? No, the report from which I have read extracts is the report of the Police Staff College's senior command course that visited the city of Newcastle less than 12 months ago.

I do not say that all the inner city problems have been caused by this Government. However, their policies have worsened and aggravated them. Those problems could have been eased, if not completely resolved. The Government's attacks, amounting to a virtual vendetta on local authorities, have prevented the bodies that could have tackled the problems from doing so effectively.

There are those who say that to make meaningful progress, to arrest the decline and to revive the inner cities means that Government policy will have to change. Most thinking people, as we shall soon see, know that what is really needed is a change of Government. That is what they will have, and the sooner the better.