Orders of the Day — Housing Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:55 pm on 30th November 1987.

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Photo of Mr Douglas French Mr Douglas French , Gloucester 7:55 pm, 30th November 1987

I rise to make my maiden speech deeply conscious of the value of the democratic process which in this country confers on hon. Members the privilege of speaking in this House. It is too readily taken for granted.

My first and most pleasant task is to pay a tribute to my predecessor as hon. Member for Gloucester, the right hon. Mrs. Sally Oppenheim. Mrs. Oppenheim made her maiden speech in this House 17 years ago this month. She was in her time here an extremely popular Member, popular for her charm, the warmth of her personality and her great ability, which took her to the post for Minister of Consumer Affairs. I know that right hon. and hon. Members will wish to convey good wishes to her in her new post as chairman of the National Consumer Council.

In her role in Gloucester, she has become something of a legend. She has always fought to secure the best possible interests of the city and has always been somebody to whom Gloucestrians could turn, knowing that, if there were any solution to their problem, Sally would find it. She is, as they say, a very hard act to follow indeed, but I will try to do so and to justify the confidence which the electors of Gloucester have placed in me. Most particularly I will seek to follow her tradition of never allowing officialdom to stand in the way of justice, fairness and common sense.

The constituency that I represent consists not only of the city of Gloucester itself but also of an area which comes within Stroud district council, which incorporates the area known as Upton St. Leonards, Quedgeley and Hardwicke, and also the two small villages of Elmore and Longney. The city of Gloucester is one of great heritage and tradition. It has a magnificent Norman cathedral where the Domesday Book was commissioned by William the Conqueror at Christmas, 1085. It is also the only place, apart from Westminster, which has witnessed the coronation of a monarch—Henry III—the burial of a monarch—Edward II—and the sitting of Parliament. If the course of history had been slightly different, I might have found myself making a maiden speech in my own constituency.

Today, Gloucester is a thriving shopping centre with well below the national average of unemployment. Its older businesses, which have incurred difficulties in the past, are now well on the road to recovery, and there are many new ones. The city has found particular favour with relocating financial institutions. The area known as Barnwood Fields is seeing the erection of a new headquarters for the Imperial Trident life assurance company, which will bring many jobs to the city, together with a new administrative office for the Cheltenham and Gloucester building society. The other very exciting development is the refurbishment of Gloucester docks, which offers for the foreseeable future substantial opportunities for employment and also forms a considerable tourist attraction.

Gloucester also boasts excellent communications and is set amid beautiful countryside. It deserves to be popular, its people are friendly, warm and loyal, and I predict that many new businesses looking for places to relocate in the future will find in Gloucester exactly the combination of resources and amenities that they seek.

Although Gloucester is the county town of Gloucestershire, it has a somewhat different atmosphere from the county, and some unexpected characteristics. It has an inner-city area with some fairly typical inner-city problems, of which the most serious is housing. That is why I sought to catch your eye in this debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Gloucester has well above the average level of home ownership. There are also some fine housing estates, including the new estate currently being built and known as Abbeydale III. Nevertheless, there are severe pressures on accommodation and especially on the council waiting list. Pressure is particularly heavy on family accommodation. Some families have been waiting eight years to be rehoused. Others, with two bedrooms fewer than they need, have had to endure that situation for more than five years. I am aware, too, that some people have been in bed-and-breakfast accommodation for two years, when the national average is usually measured in weeks. I conclude from those problems that the present system of housing provision, especially local authority provision, has not been successful—that it has, indeed, failed dismally. For that reason, I very much welcome the provisions of the Bill.

I was interested to hear the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) about the Labour party's original attitude to the right to buy. The right to buy was pioneered in Gloucester and the sale of council houses was already well ahead in the late 1960s. I would welcome a speeding up of the current rate of sale, as progress is slower than it should be. I do not believe that exhortations from the Government and glossy literature, however persuasive, will be sufficient to achieve the level of sales that one would like. I foresee a role for building societies and estate agents in a much more promotional and positive attitude towards securing more sales.

I am also disappointed that the Bill contains no proposals for portable discounts, which have been well explained by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young), although I believe that my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning is considering the possibility of introducing such a scheme. Some clarification of the associated legal technicality is urgently required. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will shortly feel able to turn his attention to that.

I must also add my name to those who have expressed reservations about the abolition of the cost floor. If recently built property is to attract such a discount that it is disposed of at a price lower than the debt charge remaining for the local authority, that seems frankly ridiculous.

On a number of occasions, the House has debated the subject of capital receipts. It is well known that local authorities may spend only the prescribed proportion of 20 per cent. of capital receipts except on capital repairs in the year of receipt, and that that is taken into account in housing investment programme allocations. The defect of that arrangement is that it has no direct regard to the relative overall debt position of individual councils, some of which are in a far healthier position than others. I should like to see greater flexibility so that in certain cases larger proportions of capital receipts would be available to local authorities.

I welcome the proposals for the deregulation of the private rented sector, and I endorse the comments about the initiative taken by the Nationwide Anglia building society. Even as the law currently stands, however, I believe that more could be achieved — but for the activities of certain rent officers. I could show hon. Members two-roomed flats in Gloucester suitable for couples for which the rents have been fixed at almost half those for identical accommodation divided into two separate units for two people. The result is non-availability of rented accommodation for couples, who therefore have to go into bed-and-breakfast accommodation at a cost higher than the amounts that landlords would accept if the rent officers set rents at appropriate levels.

I associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Latham) about the need for co-ordination and for agency services. I have observed the activities of organisations such as the National Home Improvement Council, the neighbourhood revitalisation scheme and PROBE — the Partnership for the Renewal of the Built Environment. In many ways, they are precursors of the activities that I expect of the housing action trusts. If substantial proportions of private finance are introduced, as I believe will be achieved by the Bill, that must be accompanied by a high degree of co-ordination among the various parties involved. I therefore see the emphasis on an agency role as extremely important, not merely in the provision of finance but in the co-ordination which is equally essential.

I see the Bill as introducing a housing revolution. Many entrenched attitudes will have to change, but the Bill will offer choice, variety and freedom not hitherto experienced. I expect it to result in better housing opportunities not only in my constituency but for every family in the land.