Orders of the Day — Housing (Scotland)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:03 pm on 23rd January 1989.

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Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar , Glasgow Garscadden 11:03 pm, 23rd January 1989

I hardly imagine that the Minister is not aware of my answer. No, I am not in favour of doing that, but I am in favour of spending money to help those in need of help to get into the home-ownership market. I should have thought that in his better moments, the Minister might have taken some interest in achieving that end.

The Government's approach to housing is not even-handed. The public sector is being manipulated in a way that puts ever-increasing burdens on those who wish to continue to rent. The impenetrable good nature of the Minister is no consolation. I fear that he is a man who knows not what he does but who is prepared to accept it.

Housing support grant in the coming year will be £5 million higher than it is in the current year. That will be paraded by some people as good news, but if we look back to 1980–81 we find that we spent £228 million on housing support grant, whereas next year we shall spend only £60 million. That is a measure of the Government's indifference. In 1980–81 it made up 37 per cent. of total housing costs in Scotland. Next year it will be 7 per cent. and 33 authorities will receive no grant.

Let us take Glasgow as an example. In some ways it is the best case to take from the Minister's point of view, because it is one of the few authorities that is still receiving a significant amount of help. In 1980–81 Glasgow received £49·4 million, whereas in 1989–90 it will receive £27·8 million, in cash terms. In real terms that is a fall over that comparatively limited period of 65 per cent. For Scotland as a whole, in 1987–88 constant prices, between 1980–81 and 1989–90 the drop is from £338 million to £54 million, a fall of 84 per cent. Yet Ministers say that they are generous to the public sector and that they bring good news. We are creating a massive housing crisis. There is no way in which the Minister can hide that.

The general fund contribution to rents has dropped this year from £22 million to £3 million. I apologise for using so many figures, but they put into sharp perspective the reality of what is happening. In 1983–84, the figure was £125 million—18 per cent. of total housing costs. In the coming year the figure will be less than 1 per cent.

The Minister says, with almost breathtaking complacency, that he is not trying to set rents for authorities, but that does bear even the most cursory examination. It is a disgrace. It is not just an abstract entry in a municipal balance sheet. It means that rents, which have increased in nine years by over 230 per cent., as my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) mentioned, will again be substantially increased.

The Minister does not convince anyone when he says that rents in Scotland are still below those south of the border. I do not believe that anyone would accept as a rational argument the claim that everything south of the border has to be duplicated in Scotland. That is the whole point of having a different form of housing stock, a different form of local government finance and a different approach to the social responsibilities of providing housing. It is a puerile argument—one of which the Minister should be ashamed—merely to say that. on average, tenants in England pay £2·55 a week more. If one considered housing costs, wages and incomes per head in Scotland, one would find that the picture was very different.

The point, as Renfrew pointed out in its representations to a number of hon. Members last week, is that many local authorities are now reaching the stage where housing is entirely self-financing. That is extraordinary, particularly when we look at the contrast with the other end of the housing market. It has been done largely in order to keep down the poll tax in its first year of operation and to make a few political points.

Ministers are full of brave talk about choice, but choice for them has a very special definition. It is distorted and destroyed for those in the public sector who wish to exercise choice by continuing to rent. Renting has, quite deliberately, been made a very unattractive option for anyone who is above the rebate level. That cannot be defended.

The Minister may be a nice man. [Interruption.] A lively debate has broken out in the ranks behind me. I am prepared to accept that he is a nice man, although my judgment may be distorted by my knowledge of some of his predecessors. At one time, Opposition Members thought of having the Michael Ancram memorial meeting tonight, but we decided to resist the temptation. The Minister cannot wander into politics and not be answerable for what he does.

The structure of housing finance is now based more and more on sales and anticipated receipts. In 1989·90, the general fund contribution will be £3 million. Housing support grant will be £60 million. Borrowing in the normally accepted sense and authorised by central Government will be £125 million. On top of that, the standstill in real terms which is being allowed for this year includes £307 million from anticipated receipts of council houses. For the first time we have a redistribution of receipts. Thirteen authorities have been asked to give up £10 million of their receipts which are now being reallocated.

I shall encapsulate the point. In 1987–88, of the total sum available for housing in the public sector, about 33 per cent. came from the sale of council houses. In 1989 –90, only two years later, that figure went up to 71 per cent. That is an unsatisfactory basis on which to fund the totally inadequate effort, without commitment, to do something about the collapse of housing stock in this country and its impact on the individual living standards of many of our constituents.