Housing

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 6:11 pm on 28th April 1987.

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Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North 6:11 pm, 28th April 1987

Despite all the ministerial denials, there is an acute housing crisis in many parts of the country, as my hon. Friends have pointed out in this short debate.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) has spoken because he is one of the few Conservative Members who recognises that there is a real housing problem in this country.

It must be sickening to all those who are in desperate need of adequate accommodation to read and listen to Tory Housing Ministers denying that there is a problem. It is bad enough for a family to be forced to live in bed-and-breakfast accommodation and not know how much longer they must put up with such miseries, or to live, as so many of my constituents do, in a high-rise block of flats with two children and be told that the chances of being allocated a house are remote.

How many young married couples, often with a child, who come to our surgeries or write to us, have no alternative but to live in one rented room, or in cramped conditions with parents or in-laws with all the accompanying domestic strain? Surely it aggravates such miseries to be told time and time again by Government Ministers that there is simply no housing problem at all. That is the sort of 1984 Orwellian position the Government adopt.

Tory Members of Parliament, and many others who are involved in that party at local level, have always deeply resented public sector rented housing. Indeed, some would go so far as to say that there has almost been a vendetta over the years against council dwellings. Since 1979 the Government have given effect to that resentment or vendetta. They have virtually made it financially impossible for many local authorities to build at all.

Reference has often been made previously by Ministers to the decline in council house building under the Labour Government, but in the last full year of that Administration over 100,000 new council houses and flats were being built. We know that in the last few years, and certainly in the current year, the figure is 30,000 new houses or flats or just under.

First and foremost, we need a substantial national house building programme in the public sector. Building houses and low-rise flats, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) said, is the most effective way of tackling the housing crisis.

It is no good those people who are on low incomes or unemployed being told that they can buy. What should I tell my constituents when they come to my surgery? Should I tell them that they should get a mortgage? They have no more chance of getting a mortgage than of going to Mars. The only way to resolve their housing crisis is for them to be housed by the local authority or a genuine housing association.

We must ensure that local authorities have the means to modernise and carry out large-scale repair work to old and structurally defective council properties. I shall refer briefly to what is happening in the borough of Walsall. Since 1979, no council properties have been built at all. Of course properties have been sold off, and I would just make this comment: much reference has been made by the Minister to the privately rented sector. The question that I and my hon. Friends have asked on many occasions is a simple one. The Government tell us that it is right in law for public sector tenants to be able to buy. Why should that not apply to private tenants? Why should there be a distinction? Why is it that private tenants are not given that right in law? the explanation is pretty obvious—no Tory Government would dream of giving private tenants the right to buy.

In Walsall too many pre-1939 properties have yet to be included in the modernisation programme. The explanation for that is known to the Minister because I have written to him on a number of occasions. There simply are not enough funds. Since the Minister is here, can I refer to the fact that a number of tenants in my constituency live in what are known as the "Wimpey no fines" properties. They are very concerned indeed that their properties are not to he modernised in the forthcoming financial year. I have written to the director of housing and I have been informed that there are not sufficient funds for the work to be carried out in 1987–88. I then wrote to the Housing Minister. Altogether in the borough, not just in my constituency, it would cost about £3·5 million to bring that type of concrete-built but not pre-cast dwelling up to scratch. That is about £3,500 per property.

Understandably, the tenants are up in arms at the state of these properties. I have already described them by their name—Wimpey no fines—and they were built just after the war. The problems with those dwellings include acute dampness, much condensation, rotting window frames, and so on.

When I have received deputations from the residents concerned, they say, "Well, Mr. Winnick, are we to spend another winter in such conditions?" As I have just mentioned, when I received a reply from the director of housing I immediately wrote to the Housing Minister and asked him whether he would be willing to receive a deputation as requested by the residents. The answer was in the negative, I am afraid. I understand that the tenants are not satisfied with the Minister's reply to me and that they intend to come to London. If they come to Marsham street I shall do my best to see that they are seen by a Minister or at least by a senior civil servant. It would be very discourteous of the Minister to tell my constituents that, having travelled over 100 miles to London, they cannot be seen when they arrive at the Department of the Environment.

What is required in this sector is a sufficient housing investment programme allocation to my local council and other housing authorities so that they can carry out their housing responsibilities of building, modernising and maintenance. The question which immediately arises is how much more it will cost if all the work that I have described is further delayed and not carried out in the next two or three years. It will certainly cost more, yet it is estimated that about 25 per cent. of those who are involved in the building trade are unemployed. Would it not be much more sensible for those people, instead of being jobless and having to rely on unemployment or supplementary benefit, to be building and modernising the properties so urgently required in the public sector?

Again, I am sure that this problem too is shared by a number of hon. Members.

In my constituency a number of elderly owner-occupiers are living in old properties. They cannot get an improvement grant. In some cases, they are unable to afford a new roof, for example. When I took these cases up with the local authority, I was told that there was no way in which any discretionary improvement grants could be made because of the lack of sufficient funding in the next financial year. I have been told that a large number of people in the borough—nearly 2,000—have been waiting for over four years for such grants. Unless the money is forthcoming, my constituents will not be able to carry out the work because they cannot afford to do it themselves. When the Minister boasts about owner-occupation, he should think about these owner-occupiers as well. It is not too much to ask that they should be given the necessary funding to put on a new roof and other such essential work.

There is no future for the private rented sector. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Hornchurch that there is no reason why an owner-occupier should not let out a room. Labour Members would be the last to say that that would be wrong. However, the idea that the private rented sector can somehow be revived and provide accommodation at a reasonable rent is sheer moonshine. The Government are trying to bring back the legislation of 30 years ago—the notorious Rent Act 1957. On a previous occasion, I reminded the House that when that Act was in operation, I was a councillor in a borough in London. The Minister can smile about this if he wants, but I saw for myself the numbers of people who were evicted quite legally, and not as a result of Rachmanism. Why is it that, with a majority of 140, the Government have not legislated to do away with the Rent Acts? The simple reason is that they have been frightened to do so before a general election. We must warn the country and private tenants of what is likely to happen if the Government were to be re-elected. Rachmanism would come back with a vengeance.

The debate once again demonstrates the need for ample funding for the public sector and the need to ensure that improvement grants are made, so that, at the end of the day, all our people can be housed properly, whether they are owner-occupiers or council tenants. We need adequate accommodation for all our people, through the state or the voluntary housing sector.