Orders of the Day — Housing Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:07 pm on 30th November 1987.

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Photo of John Battle John Battle , Leeds West 8:07 pm, 30th November 1987

I congratulate the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. French) on his maiden speech. I am sure that his gracious tribute to his predecessor was much appreciated by all who were present when she was a Member. The hon. Gentleman's speech showed his deep interest in housing matters and I look forward to debating those issues further with him during this Parliament. The fact that there have been two other maiden speeches — those of the hon. Members for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) and for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Hargreaves) — and that so many new Members are keen to speak in the first major debate on housing in this Parliament reflects the importance of the subject.

I had assumed that a debate on housing policy would be introduced by the Government with an analysis of the housing needs of the people of our country and of the conditions in which they are expected to live, rather than stepping back a century and suggesting that the prime mover in housing policy is securing higher rents in the vain hope that this will lead to an increased supply of housing and property improvements. That did not work in the past and there is no evidence to suggest that it will provide solutions now. The history of housing development in Britain shows that high rents lead to squalid conditions and the need for public health legislation, to property speculation and to private profit by landlords. As the hon. Member for Gloucester reminded us, we need a sense of history. It is worth recalling that the history of rent controls, as outlined by the Secretary of State, is exactly paralleled by that of public health legislation because the rents taken from tenants were not used to improve conditions. Indeed, conditions became so bad that at the turn of the century our forefathers found it necessary to develop and promote publicly rented housing, available according to need.

The Bill has a narrower aim. Indeed, its first paragraph states that it is aimed at transforming the rented housing market It is worth asking the fundamental question: why was it transformed in the first place at the beginning of the century, and why was public sector housing developed on the basis of all-party political consensus? Surely we should not naively set the clock back, but recognise that it is ticking under a time-bomb of increasingly bad housing conditions and rising homelessness that threatens the inner cities and urban areas of late 20th century Britain.

I shall take first the issue of conditions. There is still a common assumption that the housing conditions that touched the public conscience with the television programme "Cathy Come Home" in the 1950s have been eradicated. The Government still persist in the view that the United Kingdom is "a well-housed nation". Indeed, that was stated in their manifesto. The Government have based their housing White Paper proposals on a rose-tinted view of housing conditions that are precisely contradicted by their own surveys. Only last January the Department of the Environment's research report on housing in multiple occupancy concluded: There are some exceedingly squalid conditions within houses in multiple occupation…their existence is an indictment of local and national housing policy". However, the proposals in chapter 2 of the White Paper on repair and improvement to housing have been dropped between the publication of the White Paper and that of the Bill. It is not simply, as one Conservative Member said, that there is nothing about cowboys in the Bill. There is nothing in the Bill about improving the quality of Britain's housing. The Bill deliberately ignores all the evidence about the rapidly deteriorating state of Britain's housing stock.

The Association of Metropolitan Authorities has estimated that, in the private sector alone, repairs now cost £26 billion. A recent study by the National Economic Development Council put the price of repair in the private sector at £35 billion. It is worth reflecting that in 1975,1·75 million homes in Britain were over 100 years old and by 1991 that figure will have doubled to 3·2 million.

When will we address the severe problems of disrepair, not least in the private sector? The national housing and dwelling survey records that 1·2 million homes are unfit for habitation, 1 million or more lack basic amenities and that about 4 million are classified as substandard. It is worth reflecting also that more than half the unsatisfactory dwellings are occupied by households whose head is over 60 years old. Declining housing stock is occupied primarily by the elderly.

In my own city of Leeds 52,500 private sector dwellings are now substandard and in need of improvement, and 19,000 are unfit. The reason is the legacy of back-to-back houses in the city. Those are precisely the private rented houses that led the local authority to embark on programmes of renewal, improvement and replacement in the 1920s and 1930s. The figure for private, unfit houses in Leeds lacking basic amenities is 1,800. That contrasts with the number of local authority houses that lack basic amenities, now 490, as a result of improvement programmes. There is a stark contrast between the improvement record in the public sector in Leeds and that in the private sector.

I invite the Government to address the hard facts about housing and to provide some hard evidence to demonstrate that tenants' conditions will be transformed before they press ahead with legislation to deregulate all new lettings. The Secretary of State said earlier that he was interested in that issue, so when will the Government bring forward proposals to strengthen local authorities' duties and powers to require decent safe standards in the private sector and in houses that are in multiple occupation?

If the Bill does not address the condition of the housing stock, dare we ask whether it addresses people's needs for decent and appropriate housing? I have found it astonishing that the one word that did not appear either in the consultative White Paper or in the Bill was the word "homelessness". Last year, over 103,000 families were officially accepted as homeless by local authorities in England alone. That does not include homeless single people or childless couples who are not legally entitled to be registered as homeless with their local authority. The Bill fails to address the issue of homelessness and, in effect, does not offer homeless people anything.

In my own city of Leeds, at the end of September, 21,800 people were on waiting lists and a further 16,500 people were on a list to be transferred to a decent and appropriate home. I advise Conservative Members who say that that is simply the result of a failure of management by local authorities that it may instead have something to do with the fact that there is a shortage of decent and appropriate homes in our large cities. However, the Government have successively resisted all attempts to quantify housing needs. I invite the Government seriously to consider setting performance indicators for their policies to demonstrate to the country, in precise terms, that they are tackling Britain's housing needs. I need to be able to go home from the House and reassure the hundreds of constituents who come to me as their Member of Parliament that they have a chance that, in the near future or before they die, they will be offered a decent and appropriate home.

The Bill does not address conditions and needs, but simply states its intention to transform the rented housing market. The Bill's purpose is to attempt to open up housing in Britain to the big bang of the unfettered market. That belief in the magic of the market characterises the Bill. The Secretary of State seems determined to revive the word "rent". He has gone on record as saying: New investment can"— he did not say will— be undertaken by the private sector but the whole thing is going to be infinitely more difficult at present rent levels". There is an almost obsessional view that low rents are the cause of the dereliction of much of the country's public and private housing. However, in the statements that I have heard from the Secretary of State, there has not been any recognition of the need for investment in public and private housing. Higher rents are explicitly acknowledged as the impact of the Bill. The explanatory and financial memoranda state: The proposals in Part I of the Bill will result in higher rents for new tenancies". The question is, who will be able to pay those rents? As some of my hon. Friends have pointed out, it will certainly not be young workers or those on lower wages. For example, nurses looking for private rented accommodation will face rents that they cannot afford.

I shall be interested to know from the Secretary of State what work has been done to assess market rent levels, because there has been some suggestion that in London they could be between £200 and £250 per week, and in Leeds between £70 and £80 per week. That envisages a massive increase in rents. In the future, how will homeless people be able to find housing at a price that they can afford, either through their income or through housing benefit?

Market rents will often be higher than the cost of home purchase. As the Halifax Building Society pointed out in its regional bulletin No. 13: Any new private housing built for rent will be as highly priced as housing for sale where there is a rising demand and in areas such as the south-east of England, the market will not supply homes for rent to meet the needs of people like skilled workers, young people on low incomes, or other groups, swelling council house waiting lists. In other words, where people are too poor to exert economic demands, the private sector will not supply their needs. We cannot claim that their needs will be met because their rent will be covered by housing benefit when the DHSS has given absolutely no assurances that housing benefit will be increased.

Again the explanatory and financial memoranda state that there will be some increase in housing benefit expenditure. That statement is contrary to the measures brought to the House a week ago which introduce reductions in housing benefit and make no allowances for this Bill. The Secretary of State said that housing benefit contributions would be reduced where property was not of a quality of a sufficiently high standard. Is he saying that tenants must pay over the odds for under-investment by landlords? Is he saying that tenants will pay a high price for the squalid conditions of their home?

Other hon. Members referred to the Quality Street initiative of Nationwide Anglia to provide inner-city housing for rent, but when asked on the radio whether it would be necessary for him to assume a high level of housing benefit, Mr. Tim Melville-Ross said that it would indeed be necessary to have sufficient housing benefit support to make the schemes feasible. One cannot have one without the other, even under the scheme which the Secretary of State has highlighted as the flagship.

The fallacy of the claim that allowing landlords to charge higher rents will result in better conditions is exposed by the research of the Department of the Environment. It showed that most such lettings were unprotected by the Rent Acts and were mainly only temporary lettings; that most occupiers had only one room and were sharing bathrooms and toilets; and that there were severe problems of disrepair, unfitness, damp and inadequate fire precautions.

The truth is that most private landlords are not providing a social service, nor are they sharing, nor letting their spare houses, certainly not in terms of providing secure, satisfactory rented homes at reasonable rents and especially not for those on low incomes. Their prime motive is to maximise profits from rental income and future capital gains. The decline in public-sector investment has certainly not been replaced by private-sector investment, although rents are at an extremely high level.

Behind the Bill's proposals is the idea that the private rented sector should be transformed to adjust to the needs of the market. There seems to be an uncritical willingness to bow before the false idol of the unfettered market. That is the dogma that lies behind the Bill.

The Bill fails to recognise Britain's housing crisis or to accept people's housing needs. I cannot see how the provisions will result in a significant, new supply of homes or how it will tackle rising homelessness. Rather, the provisions will lead to a redistribution of the existing supply of homes. Those who are able to pay higher rents will be able to mount an effective market demand, but at the expense of those who cannot pay. The price of housing will be forced up. There is no guarantee that people on low incomes will be able to pay the price of housing, nor is there a guarantee that housing standards will be improved.

I am reminded of the slogan that the Conservative party took as its banner in 1983—"The Resolute Approach". I was interested in the word "resolute", so I investigated where it came from. It was introduced from Norman French and in early documents it meant a severe and fierce determination to get rents in with the ultimate penalty of death. What an irony. The resolute approach seems to be the hallmark of a Bill which does nothing to address the housing crisis that faces thousands of people.