Homelessness (London)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:31 pm on 13th January 1989.

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Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West 2:31 pm, 13th January 1989

One of the problems in a short Adjournment debate on this subject is the sheer weight of evidence which demonstrates the enormous growth of homelessness, however that is defined, since 1979. Reports abound, and I shall refer to some a little later. Evidence from impartial sources exists by the cartload for anyone who wishes to read it. Unfortunately, the Government largely ignore that information.

I could be accused of many things, but I think that being a fool is not one of them. I realise that rational arguments in this place have no real influence on the Government. But, if I am not a fool, I am an optimist—an optimist against all the odds and, I fear, the evidence. I stand here today as a living embodiment of hopes, foolishness, hoping that, for once, the Minister will throw away the Central Office-inspired departmental brief to which he will refer later and let his heart and compassion hold sway on the crucial subject of homelessness in London—if, indeed, heart and compassion have not become indictable offences in today's Tory party.

The statistics regarding homelessness in London, as elsewhere, are stark, although figures can never do justice to the depth of misery and hopelessness that they portray. In London today, there are 21,000 households, placed by local authorities in temporary accommodation, waiting for a permanent council home—an increase from just 2,500 in 1981. Also, 29,500 homeless families are accepted by councils as in priority need. In 1979, it was less than half that figure. More than 7,000 families are placed by London councils in bed and breakfast hotels. In June 1981, the total was only 900. In my borough of Newham, the number of families in bed and breakfast accommodation stood at 557 in December. Bed and breakfast costs for my borough in 1983–84 amounted to £52,000 a year. In 1987–88, they amounted to £5·5 million a year.

Most council lettings now go to the homeless. The figure has grown from 31 per cent. to 57 per cent. since 1981, while the total number of lettings has fallen. In Greenwich, Bromley and Brent the figure is more than 80 per cent. In some London councils the shortage of homes is so acute that the number of people housed from the waiting list each year has shrunk to single figures. The number of homeless families accepted each year in London has been greater than the number of new council lettings for the past two years, and council lettings have fallen dramatically since 1981. That means that even if councils ignored the pressing needs of people on the waiting list, however ill, and the need to move people from estates that are being modernised, and left everyone in temporary accommodation, there would still not be enough council homes to accommodate those with a right to be housed.

In addition, more than 60,000 people in London are not included in the figures that I have given so far. They, unlike some of those whom I mentioned in the previous statistics, have no chance of a council home—now or in the future. They are the single homeless. It is estimated that 2,000 people sleep rough in central London, 30,000 are squatting, 15,000 are in short-life properties in bad conditions, 10,000 are in direct access hostels and night shelters, and 7,500 are in bed-and-breakfast hotels in central London—a staggering total of 64,000 people with no homes now or in the future.

The Government's response to all this weight of evidence has been to ignore it or to attack Labour local authorities in London for the alleged extent of their vacant properties and rent arrears. A regular battle has gone on in the House between Government propaganda and the facts. As so often in this place, the propaganda wins—but the facts tell a very different story.

The overall level of council-owned empty properties in London fell again in the year to 1 April 1988, from 27,000 to 23,000—a 15 per cent. drop. In contrast, the boroughs report that the position in the private sector remains the same. The number of empty properties there has remained at a massive 97,000 or thereabouts for the past three years. London councils maintained their record of having the lowest proportions of empty homes—3 per cent. of council homes are vacant, compared with 3·6 per cent. of housing association stock, 5 per cent. of stock owned by other public landlords, including Departments of State, and 5 per cent. of privately owned homes.

These figures come from the annual submissions made to the Department of the Environment for capital resource purposes. Although they provide only a snapshot of the position of housing stock they are a useful indicator of general trends. In case the Minister starts talking about the voids in the London borough of Newham, let me make it clear that the housing investment programme returns that I have show 1,921 voids in Newham. From that number must be deducted the units awaiting demolition, the decanting from the TWA tower blocks in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) and other structurally unsound blocks in the borough. So the net void level in Newham is 805—2·7 per cent. of Newham's housing stock. I hope that the Minister will realise that that is the truth and not keep repeating the accusation regularly made from the Dispatch Box that Newham has one of the highest void levels in the whole country.

So often, Ministers in this place take the crude total of households in bed and breakfast and compare it with total local authority empty homes. That is a fatuous and grossly misleading comparison. Not all empty homes are available for letting, as the Minister knows. Some are being let as we debate today; some are awaiting repair, demolition or sale. To make such a crude comparison is as silly as Lord Caithness saying on radio yesterday that the number of dwellings in the United Kingdom equalled the number of families. Such comparisons are meaningless and are no more than cheap debating points.

Similarly, the Government use rent arrears as a crude measure of council managerial efficiency. Local authorities in London have made great efforts to reduce arrears. They must do more. I tell the Minister that the three hon. Members who represent Newham meet the council leadership every month and press it to ensure that the council catches up with rent arrears as much as possible and that empty properties are made available to those who need them. We need no lessons on pressuring our local authorities in London.

The Minister must also realise that most rent arrears are brought about by the financial problems of tenants, not by council inefficiency. Councils' efforts to reduce arrears have been wholly undermined by the Government's social security changes. In April, the Government slashed £650 million from the housing benefit budget. Nationally, that meant that a million people were forced out of the benefit system altogether. The Association of London Authorities gave me figures for Brent which showed that before April the number receiving housing benefit amounted to 31,000, but that is now down to 23,000. In Southwark, before the April changes, 27,000 council tenants were receiving housing benefit, but that is now down to some 22,000. Those are two of London's poorest areas. The Minister surely must have seen the Association of Metropolitan Authorities' which revealed a 37·5 per cent. average increase in rent arrears since those housing benefit changes in April. The survey covered all authorities—Tory, Labour, Liberal and all other categories.

The category of person hit hardest by those changes has been the single homeless—those for whom no authority has any statutory responsibility. Grants are no longer available to assist people to book themselves into bed and breakfast accommodation—instead they can only apply for a discretionary loan. Supplementary benefit paid in advance has been replaced by income support payable two weeks in arrears. Consequently, people do not have the money to obtain bed and breakfast accommodation or the cash to pay rent for the first two weeks. Voluntary agencies in London, such as the Central London Social Security Advisory Forum, have found that most now are being forced to sleep rough in London's streets. That is an indictment of this country, the Government and our system.

I hope that the Minister has had an opportunity to read the book entitled "True Horror Stories" because it gives the real details. The Minister does not have to take these facts from me—I accept that I am politically biased—but the authors are people who work with the single homeless and can tell the Minister the extent and growing urgency of the problem in London. Those problems of homelessness have been created directly by Government policies—policies which to us seem deliberately designed to harass and intimidate the poor, the vulnerable and the weak.

One does not need to have the gift of second sight to understand the true nature of the present housing crisis in London and elsewhere. It has been caused by a Government who refuse to allow a long-term role for public sector housing. Before the advent of the small-minded, ideological bigotry known as Thatcherism, there existed a political consensus on the central role of the public sector in the provision of affordable rented accommodation. That consensus has now been destroyed, together with the hopes of so many of those who are homeless or living in substandard accommodation. Again, the facts are simple and straightforward and well within the grasp of even the thickest Tory Back Bencher.

In the 1970s, London boroughs were constructing about 25,000 new homes a year—that is now down to 2,000. The Government force local authorites to sell their housing stock and, as a result, 100,000 council units have been sold in London since 1979, but fewer than 30,000 have been added to the stock. Nowadays there is no incentive for councils to build, but if they try to do so the Government cut that off, too, by cutting the housing investment programme allocations. They have done that in London by a further 26 per cent. for 1989–90, which means that the housing investment programme has been slashed in real terms by 86 per cent. since 1979. One does not need a PhD in housing to understand why we have a housing crisis in London and in this country.

The Government say, as they always do, that the market will provide. Market forces might be efficient enough in the provision of cars, electrical equipment or soapflakes, but they are neither efficient nor just in the provision of housing. They never were and they never can be. The Government are relentless in their determination to force people into the hands of private landlords and owner-occupation. The result is a mounting housing crisis caused by policies based on crude ideology rather than on any rational assessment of the housing need and how to meet it.

There is little long-term comfort for those private tenants in London today facing market rents or, indeed, owner-occupiers facing mortgage repayments hiked up by the Chancellor's interest rate increases. Having listened to the Chancellor talking about the Autumn Statement yesterday, I fully expect him during the year try to remove mortgage payments from retail price index calculations. Before that happens, I expect repossessions through mortgage default to rise dramatically during 1989. Court orders for repossessions in London rose from 1,990 in 1980 to 4,723 in 1987. In England and Wales the figure went up from 16,120 to 49,000 in the same period. That is a fairly dramatic increase, but I am afraid that we have seen nothing yet.

Repossessions are now set to go much higher as many owner occupiers are faced with the annual revision of their mortgage repayments. I believe that local authorities should be allowed to assist those in arrears with their mortgage repayments and make a charge upon the property for doing so. I believe that building societies and banks should consider offering a shared ownership scheme whereby they take back the property and then re-offer it to the original owner on a part-rent part-mortgage basis. Obviously, I believe that they should offer concessionary rates to those who are in difficulties with their mortgage repayments.

I know that many building societies are holding back from repossession at the moment because of the scandal and embarrassment that it would cause for them and for the Government. The Minister should note, however, that it is the insurance companies which give top-up mortgages that are foreclosing on people, so the problem will come to the surface fairly swiftly.

Mortgage lenders should be required to provide money advice initiatives rather like the debt-line service offered by the Shelter Housing Advisory Committee in my constituency. I understand that at present that is the only debt advisory service in London. The mortgage lenders should face up to their responsibilities, because in many cases, they have forced people, with the encouragement of the Government, to overreach themselves. They cannot now walk away from their responsibilities and say that it is all down to the local authorities to mop up the mess. We are aware, however, that it is cheaper to build new homes or take over mortgages than to put people into bed-and-breakfast accommodation.

It would be inequitable to be concerned only with owner-occupiers and ignore the desperate plight of many council and private tenants facing rent arrears. In the end the only conclusion, which surely the Minister must accept, is that we need to have a supply of affordable accommodation provided in all forms of tenure. If the Government were really concerned about homelessness and the housing crisis they would restore housing benefit levels and throw into reverse all the social security changes that have exacerbated the housing problems of the old, the single homeless and the poor. Above all, they would enter into a partnership with local authorities, building societies, housing associations and the private sector to construct homes in sufficient quantities, in all forms of tenure, at prices affordable at all income levels.

In 1989 it is a scandal that the right to a decent home is not given to everyone in this country. We have the wealth, the expertise and the land, but we lack the political will by by the Government to eliminate homelessness from our country.