Housing

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 5:14 pm on 28th April 1987.

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Photo of Mr Michael Meadowcroft Mr Michael Meadowcroft , Leeds West 5:14 pm, 28th April 1987

Unlike the two Front Bench speakers, I intend to reduce the speech that I was going to make, in the interests of giving others the chance to join in. I am happy to have interventions about Tower Hamlets, but they will be added to what I intend to say about housing in general.

Since the Minister's translation from the Department of Health and Social Security to the Department of the Environment he has tried to rehabilitate himself from his old finger-wagging days, but, as we have seen today, he sometimes reverts to that "student union" kind of indulgence. He is dealing with the subject admirably, and then suddenly says that he will give way when it comes to something that he thinks may be of some assistance against the alliance in Tower Hamlets. It is the ultimate cynicism in dealing with Tower Hamlets not to tell the House that his Government rate-capped Tower Hamlets at £124 million, which is wholly inadequate, and the local authority has had to quadruple the amount spent on homelessness in the face of what the Select Committee on Home Affairs calls a national problem. It is the height of cynicism and it undermines the whole style of what the Minister is trying to tell the House.

The whole question of empty houses is nothing like as simplistic as the Minister pretended. To begin with, many of the houses are incapable of repair, and some are unlettable when repaired, as I know, alas, in Leeds. Many of them are mismatched with the needs of the people in the locality. No local authority wants to keep one house empty for a moment longer than necessary, because it loses revenue by doing so. To pretend that one can solve the housing problem by re-renting a few rented houses is ludicrous.

It is important to took at the terms of the motion. The aims of the motion are splendidly Utopian and wholly unobjectionable, but what the public demand of politicians is not simply a statement of what or why, but an explanation of how. This is the danger courted by the Labour Opposition. Its members tend to fall down when it comes to telling the House how they will achieve their aims. No one would object to the aims themselves.

Let us look, first, at the resources available for housing. The first thing to point out is that the Government have made the most draconian cuts of all in housing. The reduction of some 60 per cent. in real terms since 1979 is one major reason for our current housing problem. When I first assumed my new role as housing spokesman, I believed that there was an overall shortage of cash for housing and that there would be a great problem in putting together the resources required to solve the problem of housing, but now I find differently. Resources do exist. The problem is how we put them together with the need. I find, for instance, that the Halifax building society, one of the largest housing finance organisations in the world, is anxious to help alleviate the housing crisis in this country, to put money into local authorities and to seek to find a way of partnership and management that helps to do that. As recently as 27 March the Halifax building society put £29 million into a housing scheme in Notting Hill, which shows that resources are available if only we can bring them to the needs.

We must also unlock the resources that exist in people's own houses. Like other hon. Members, I see many constituents, most of them elderly, who are desperately worried about a particular repair that is required, perhaps a new roof or something of that sort, for which they have no cash, but what they often have is resources in their own houses, for which, with good Yorkshire thrift, they paid many years ago. The question there is how we assist people to unlock some of the resources of their own housing to help them to do repairs. Ways did, of course, exist. One way was through the building societies but building societies are now prevented from making interest-only loans. That was one way of getting money because elderly people could cope with an interest-only loan, but it has now been stopped.

The other question in terms of unlocking resources is that of tenure, of return on investment and of what guarantee can be given by local authorities to private finance. This is very important if we are to get away from the ideological straitjacket in which the parties have been locked for far too long. The political consensus on housing is growing, but it is doing so with certain hiccups, one of which is the question of the private rented sector. I accept what the Minister says, that the private rented sector has a role.

Looking at the old properties and the terraced houses that have been so popular and beloved by so many people, one of the sad things in my city is that the houses that are in council ownership are, all too often, the dilapidated ones, not those that are privately rented or those that are owner-occupied. We do not necessarily have the bad landlords who are apparently so rife in areas where there is much more housing stress than there is in the north.

The second crucial area is the assessment of need. I am puzzled by the Government's failure to meet their own assessment of housing need. On their own assessment, about £18 billion is required to cope with the backlog of maintenance work in public housing. Other estimates put the figure far higher, stating, for example, that about £50 billion is required in total. It is bizarre that, having tried to sell the concept of the right to buy to local authorities on the basis that those resources would be available for capital investment in housing, since imposing the right to buy the Government have limited that amount to 20 per cent. Therefore, the housing authorities are incapable of coping with their own needs because of the vast millions of pounds that are locked up in their balances under the 20 per cent. rule.

I should like to illustrate my points by reference to my city. The Government commissioned private consultants to survey the housing stock in Leeds. Those Government-appointed consultants estimated that £600 million was needed for repairs and improvements to the public housing stock. The council estimates that perhaps another £340 million is required for the private sector, for the repair grants and the back-to-back refurbishments that are required for the unfit houses. Moreover, even when faced with the evidence of the Government's own consultants, the housing investment programme for Leeds is £22·3 million in 1986–87, which, in real terms, is a third down over three years. The amount for 1987–88 is down still further to £19·86 million. There is no way in which local authorities can cope with the housing needs that have been identified and accepted in their areas.

The motion has some curious wording. When it begins, it states in the names of those right hon. and hon. Opposition Members who have tabled it that they want every household to occupy a dwelling of the size, type, standard and location suitable to its needs". It is only when the motion deals with tenure that it refers to a "choice". That seems reminiscent of the old paternalism that I thought the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) had got rid of in his thinking on housing. Therefore, there is a bizarre dichotomy in the motion, which refers to "needs" at the beginning and "choice" later. That is an important point.