Housing

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 6:32 pm on 23rd May 1988.

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Photo of Mr Allan Roberts Mr Allan Roberts , Bootle 6:32 pm, 23rd May 1988

We talk about the voting system for the pick-a-landlord scheme, but housing action trusts will not even get a vote. The Minister promised to tell us their position when the Bill received its Second Reading, but we still do not know. He said that he was going to announce six trusts. But there will be no choice whatever for them.

This is a con trick that the Conservatives always operate: "Starve the public sector of resources; do not give the Health Service the money that it needs; that will cause waiting lists." Then they say, "It does not work; go private."

The Government are doing exactly the same in public sector housing. They are starving local authorities of the resources that they need to maintain and manage housing. They are also starving local authorities of the housing allocations that they need to build houses and offer transfers. They are making it difficult for local authorities to run public sector housing effectively. Then they say, "It does not work; go private." But people on the council estates know what the Government are up to. They have rumbled them.

The Government have tried to obfuscate and hide the facts. When the Secretary of State for the Environment answered a question about subsidies he said: The total figures for Exchequer contributions to council housing in 1981–2 was £1·3 billion and in 1987–88 £0·8 billion."—[Official Report, 18 May 1988; Vol. 133, c. 940] That is a massive drop. However, the Secretary of State said that that does not matter because there were fewer houses in 1987–88.

I have the figures for 1978–79. The subsidy was £1·457 billion, an even bigger amount. It is not that there is less subsidy because there are fewer houses: there are fewer houses because there is less subsidy. The cut in subsidy has resulted in fewer houses. There are I million fewer houses for rent. The decline in subsidy over the last nine years of Tory rule is because the 1980 Act got rid of the Labour Government's direct subsidies to local authorities for the building of new council houses and the modernisation of older council houses.

Subsidies bear no relationship to the number of new council houses that are built or to the number of older houses that are modernised and improved. Central Government told local authorities to increase rents every year by a set amount—the local contribution—until the housing revenue account was in surplus. Central Government subsidies were reduced and it was hoped that eventually they would disappear. In many areas, they have disappeared. The housing revenue accounts of many local authorities are now in surplus. That is a direct consequence of this Government's attempt to cut subsidies to local authorities so that they build no more council houses, thereby ensuring that the public rented sector declines even further.

There are fewer houses and, we must assume, fewer tenants. However, as rents have increased during the last nine years, housing benefit payments, despite the seven cuts that this Tory Government have introduced, have increased from £1·7 billion in 1981–82 to £3·5 billion in 1987–88. There have been massive cuts in public expenditure subsidies to build council houses and improve older ones, but there has been an increase in public expenditure to help those who have to face the massive rent increases imposed by this Government.

There have also been massive cuts in the housing improvement programme allocations. In today's prices, South Bedfordshire spent £13·6 million in 1978–79. Now it has been given £809,000, a cut of 94·1 per cent. Manchester was spending £108,329,000 on its housing investment programme. That has been reduced to £23 million, a cut of 78·8 per cent. The hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson) did not refer to the housing problems that have been caused by the cut of 80·9 per cent. in the housing investment programme between 1979 and now. Norwich regularly returns a Labour council. At Beauthorpe it was building houses for sale, houses to rent from housing associations and houses to rent from the local authority. That has been stopped because of the Government's cuts in the housing investment programme.

What do this Government offer? They claim that the way to solve homelessness is to make sure that councils fill their empty houses, but they have ignored the huge number of empty houses in the private sector. In 1987, 511,000 private sector houses were standing empty, but only 108,600 public sector houses were standing empty.

The Government's answer to the problem has been to hand over housing to the private housing market. They want to destroy the public rented sector completely. They have introduced the concept of assured tenancies, which destroys security of tenure for most tenants in the private sector. They have also handed over council housing to the private rented sector.

The Government believe in only one kind of free market in housing—a shortage of housing. Market rents and house prices would fall if there were a surplus of housing. As the Government believe only in their own free market—a shortage—they will not build houses in the public rented sector. That would destroy the shortages that provide the profits in private rents and house prices. A house is not worth what it costs to build or what it costs to replace. A house is worth what people can get for it on the open market. That also determines rent levels. There is profit in the private rented sector and in the free market only if there is a housing crisis, a housing shortage and waiting lists.

Aneurin Bevan said that the best kind of rent control is nine families chasing 10 decent houses. That is why I make no apology for restating Labour's answer to homelessness and the housing crisis. It is to build more low-rise council houses in the public rented sector that people want so that we can eat up the waiting lists, rehouse homeless families and get people out of bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Public expenditure will be needed. The Government say, "We agree, but where is the money coming from?" But they cannot say that after the last Budget. There is plenty of money, "loadsa" money, and we are going to spend it on building council houses.