Orders of the Day — Housing (Scotland) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:44 pm on 11th January 1988.

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Photo of John McFall John McFall , Dumbarton 8:44 pm, 11th January 1988

I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to contribute to this debate. When the consultation paper on Scottish Homes was produced in the summer, I welcomed it because it gave us an opportunity for a re-examination of the housing needs in Scotland, both public and private, as the latter has as many problems as the former.

There is undoubtedly a crisis in housing in Scotland and I shall give the House some statistics to consider. Some 150,000 people are on the housing waiting list, 20,000 people are homeless—their number has quadrupled in the past four or five years — 250,000 people are in overcrowded accommodation and 63,000 are in housing of less than a tolerable standard. There are 850,000 houses in the public sector, of which 120,000 need rewiring and more than 300,000 are affected by dampness. Clearly, the problem is great.

Compare those facts with the figures for new build houses. In 1979, about 8,500 new houses were built. That figure decreased to 4,500 in 1985, representing a cut in new build over eight years of approximately 50 per cent. In 1979, 36,000 houses were modernised, whereas in 1985, seven years later, 20,000 were modernised, representing a cut of more than 40 per cent.

We look expectantly at the Government's proposals in this Bill, but we look in vain. There is no mention of homelessness. It is a blot on the Scottish housing scene, yet there is not one mention of it in the Bill. We look for provisions on special housing needs, and my hon. friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) mentioned the Bield housing association, which deals with the needs of the elderly, but again there is no mention in the Bill of special housing needs.

As was mentioned earlier, a house condition survey was carried out in England and Northern Ireland to assess the housing position accurately. If the Government were sincere about putting out a consultation paper and introducing a housing Bill, first of all they should know what they are talking about, and they cannot possibly know what they are talking about when they have consistently refused to implement a housing condition survey in Scotland. That is the only way in which they can accurately assess the entire Scottish housing scene. The Government are proceeding on false premises, because they do not know the position. Indeed, do they care?

Experts estimate that about £4 billion is needed for modernisation and repairs. There is a lack of information in the Bill. There is no technical annex and there are no costings. It appears that the Government are not interested in the financial aspect. One is led to the conclusion that the Bill has more to do with the Tory preference for home ownership at the expense of the public sector than with the nub of the issue, which is the crisis in housing.

The Bill seeks to eliminate the general subsidies to public-sector housing, by the decrease of rate fund contribution and housing support grant. The only consequence of such a policy is a consequent massive increase in rents. Let us examine the Government's record of the past eight years on housing support grant as a proportion of the total local authority housing revenue account budget. Since 1980 it has fallen from 37 per cent. to a mere 7 per cent. in 1985, so money has not been forthcoming.

The Bill contains a number of platitudes about tenants' rights. The Under-Secretary of State was with me at a meeting in Glasgow during the summer, where a number of tenant representatives put their points of view about the consultation paper. At that meeting the Minister mentioned that tenants would not be pushed into any other scheme against their will. However, tenants have not been consulted. I would suggest that if one member, one vote is good for trade unions, one member, one vote is good for the tenants of SSHA. If we have democracy in one sphere, let us be consistent and exercise it into another sphere. There has been massive criticism from the tenants' movement, because the Government have been less than honest in their approach to housing, and less than fair in their approach to tenants.

A number of doubts have arisen because of the Bill. We talk about the SSHA and the Housing Corporation in Scotland coming together. The SSHA has 85,000 tenants and it is in debt. That is important. The Housing Association has 40,000 tenants. The combined total is 120,000 tenants, out of 850,000 public tenants in Scotland. We expect that body, with no experience of attracting private capital, to be capable of regenerating Scottish housing. It is a farce. That is the only way that one could describe it. It cannot regenerate Scottish housing without the resources, the experience and the grass roots knowledge that local authority housing departments have built up over many years.

When we consider the implications of the Bill for local authorities, we see that their role is being changed to what is called an enabling role. If they have an enabling role, will the Minister say that local authorities can be given the power to require private landlords to house the ever-increasing number of homeless people, because the situation of homeless people in Scotland is becoming desperately serious?

My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas) spoke about MOD properties. In my constituency there are a number of MOD houses, and I have been in contact with the Minister about them. The families in those properties reflect the society in which they live. Families break up, couples divorce and people have to move out of the house. In my constituency, as soon as a family breaks up, the Ministry of Defence requires the wife to leave the house. She comes to my surgery or goes to the housing department in Dumbarton for rehousing. In this case, the local authority is acting, not as an enabler, but as a receptacle for those types of problems. That is an instance of how the MOD deals with such problems. It is not a benign way. How would private landlords deal with such a situation, and what would be expected of local authorities? Can we expect private landlords to behave any differently from the MOD? Such practice will lead to "sink" schemes for the homeless and for the low-paid.

In 1983 the Government allowed low-paid people up to £86 per week in wages. If their wages were below that, they would get assistance and housing benefit. That figure has been cut from £86 in 1983 to £68 in 1988. The Government are doing nothing for the low-paid. Homeless and low-paid people will become an increasing burden on local authorities, which will not have the resources to deal with it.

The issue of private finance appears in the Bill. It is quite simple. Local authorities are non-profit-making organisations. Private landlords are profit-making. For every £1 that will go to a private landlord, there will be £1 less for repairs, modernisation and investment.

The Secretary of State mentioned Quality Street. I would put it to him that, instead of referring to Quality Street, we should be talking about quality homes. The Quality Street type of experiment has been attempted in Scotland by no fewer than 18 local authorities during past years. They ran into opposition from the Scottish Office because the Treasury was not very pleased. The local authorities and the public sector have been keen during the past few years to get involved in joint ventures with the private sector, but they need the resources.

During the recess I had the opportunity to read a number of stories to my youngest child. One of them was "The Three Little Pigs" and that story comes to mind tonight.