The House has been patient for the last few weeks in waiting for this debate on housing. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) and we, too, have been patient in waiting for it. Now that the moment has arrived, I welcome the opportunity of emphasising the Government's strategy on this important subject.
The Government's aim in housing is no different from that of any post-war Government. We want decent, affordable and suitable housing to be within the reach of all families. We differ from other Governments, and certainly the Opposition, on the best way of achieving that aim.
Immediately after the war, there were three main policies to restore a decent standard of housing in Britain: first, a huge public sector programme of housebuilding; secondly, restrictions on private house-building to give priority to the public sector programme; and, thirdly, controls to keep rents down in the private rented sector. With about 2 million fewer houses than households, that crash programme approach was fairly understandable. As a direct comparison, today we have more houses than households—in fact, 300,000 more—so circumstances are very different.
The post-war approach to housing worked by putting bureaucratic controls in place of market forces. One can do that for a while, but, in the end, market forces will have their revenge. If market forces and the resources of the private sector are suppressed, we will produce less, we will produce goods that people do not want, and it is certain that we will produce the wrong amount in the wrong places. Sadly, the post-war housing policies of big public sector building programmes and controls of private sector rents trundled on unchanged through the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, long after the crisis of housing shortage everywhere had given way to a much more varied pattern of local needs that could not be solved by that blanket approach.
As a result, we now have the largest state-owned or public housing sector in western Europe and the smallest private rented sector. Other countries have been far more successful in maintaining investment in the private rented sector by encouraging private investment, and by using public money to supplement private money rather than to replace it.
For example, despite the war's devastation and massive immigration from East Germany, Germany managed to bring demand and supply for rented accommodation back into balance more quickly and effectively that we did. It did that by encouraging private investment. Today, 60 per cent. of German housing is rented, over 40 per cent. of the total is provided by private landlords, 13 per cent. by bodies similar to housing associations, and only 3 per cent. by municipalities. But here in this country, by insisting that subsidised housing had to be built for the public sector, be public sector-owned and have public sector landlords, we also helped to create the major economic problems that were fuelled by the excessive public expenditure which characterised the 1960s and 1970s.
A Conservative Government introduced the Rent Act 1957, which was meant to encourage private residential dwellings. As a result of that Act, by the time the Labour Government came to power in 1964, far from there being any increase in private dwellings, there had been a substantial reduction, as well as the scandal of Rachmanism and abuse.
People are desperate for accommodation. They come to our surgeries or write to us day in and day out. They cannot afford to become owner-occupiers because they cannot afford a mortgage. How can they afford the new rents which will not be regulated? They cannot afford market rents.
If the hon. Gentleman had listened a little more carefully, he would have gathered that I made a clear distinction between the policy of this Government and that of past Governments. I included Conservative Governments, too. If the hon. Gentleman follows me a little more carefully and opens his ears instead of his mouth, he will hear my explanation of why the Rent Acts are disastrous.
I was referring to the inflation which characterised the 1960s and 1970s. There must be a limit on public expenditure. I accept that Opposition Members do not believe that there should be, but there must be, and I will develop that theme later. If the Government absorb too high a proportion of the national output, they will fuel inflation. That was why we saw the record level of inflation of about 27 per cent. under the last Labour Administration. That was why we had the IMF crisis, and why the last Labour Government were forced to cut public housing investment by one third in their last two years in office. Perhaps this is an opportunity for the hon. Member for Hammersmith to intervene.
I realise that the hon. Gentleman is not an economist and does not know a great deal about housing, either, but he is part of the Government. How can he say that the number of homeless has actually doubled since 1979? Surely that deserves an explanation as well?
I will give the hon. Gentleman that explanation. Like Opposition Members, I do not believe that the problem of homelessness is a matter for housing policy in the round. I shall develop that theme throughout my speech. I noticed that the hon. Gentleman ducked the opportunity that I put to him, and which I now put to the hon. Member for Hammersmith, to intervene now or at some later stage and explain why the Labour Government cut public housing in their last two years.
I shall deal with it now. I shall not let the Government duck the issue. In their last year, the Labour Government produced over 70,000 houses. It was not one of our best years, not least because of oil price rises. The Minister is saying that he wants to cut public expenditure because it must be limited. Will he limit the public expenditure outlay on mortgage income tax relief, which is now up to nearly £6 billion, one quarter of which goes to those who earn over £25,000 a year?
It could possibly be the greatest understatement we have heard in the House that the last year of the last Labour Government was not one of their best.
We can assume that that is correct because it led to the general election at which they were defeated. The hon. Gentleman, however, did not answer my question.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we were building more houses than have been built since, but he asked a fair question. Why did the Labour Government cut back on housing? He should know—I do not think that he was here at the time—that many of us on the Back Benches fought strenuously against the housing cuts that were being made by the Labour Administration. They unfortunately had to make those cuts because they were asked to do so by the IMF, which adopted not the Socialist policies for which some of us were arguing but the capitalist Tory policies to which we objected.
The hon. Gentleman knows that I have some respect for him, not least in the matter of his honesty, and that was an honest comment which I believe to be true. The only correction I would make is that, prior to the IMF coming on the scene, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury of the day, now Lord Barnett, had already cut that budget, and in the noble Lord's book "Inside the Treasury" he explains in clear detail what happened during the period to which the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) referred.
I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman may know, but some may not. The noble Lord says on page 91 of his book:
My main difficulties were with Peter Shore, who as Secretary of State for the Environment, controlled very large budgets in the local authority field. I felt some of them were eminently 'cuttable', especially in expenditure on roads and housing.
The hon. Member for Walton will agree with that, in view of what he said in his intervention. The Labour party still does not seem to realise that the old approach carried the seeds of its failure and of that Government's destruction.
In private renting, the fixing of rents at levels that could barely cover the cost of repairs has led to a catastrophic decline. Private renting provided 50 per cent. of the total stock of dwellings in the country immediately after the war. The figure is now only 8 per cent. That is in stark contrast to 30 per cent. in France and 40 per cent. in Germany.
That 42 per cent. of the private rented stock is in poor condition is a direct consequence of the interference in the market that prevented good landlords from making a modest return and encouraged disreputable landlords—[Interruption.] I thought that the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) would come in at that remark. I referred to the disreputable landord, the type to whom the hon. Gentleman keeps referring; he dreams or has nightmares about Rachman and has already mentioned him in this debate.
If anyone deserves to have nightmares, it is the hon. Member for Walsall, North. I admit that disreputable landlords were encouraged to get rid of their tenants to cash in on the price gap between tenanted properties with controlled rents and empty properties for sale. Some people, such as the hon. Member for Walsall, North, find it difficult to believe that the Rent Acts, which were designed to protect tenants, should, in the long run, have done so much harm, but they did. In fact, they were absolutely disastrous.
The council sector, like all centrally directed programmes, gradually lost touch with what people wanted and eventually produced the concrete mazes that we see in many of our inner cities today——
Despite that remark by the Minister about my city, I am not sure that he knows that the Government of which he is a member did not give much assistance in sorting out the concrete jungle built by Shephards, but that is another story.
Why was public housing built in the first place? Was it not because conditions in the private rented sector, which predominated in cities such as mine, with 172,000 back-to-back properties, were so bad that public health legislation had to be passed? That led the Government to decide that the only way to provide housing with inside lavatories, bathrooms, and so on, was to build them through the public sector, supported from the common treasury. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that that is not the history of public housing?
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should have listened more carefully to my remarks about what happened immediately after the war. I have no doubt that there was all-party support for that crash building programme. That is no excuse for the decline in the private rented sector from 50 per cent. to 8 per cent. today, in contrast with the position in other developed western countries.
My hon. Friend is right in what he says about concrete jungles. I lived in east London and saw how that area was reduced to a concrete jungle by Labour housing policy. Is my hon. Friend aware that Ealing council will do the same to Ealing unless it is prevented from doing so?
When the Labour council took over in 1986 there were 30 families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation waiting to be rehoused. People were sucked on to that list from all over the nation and from all over the world, so that the list now comprises 1,300 families and the cost has risen from £300,000 to £16 million per annum. The only way to rehouse all those people in Ealing would be to build on every blade of grass and turn the borough into another concrete jungle, but that must not be allowed to happen.
I understand the problem outlined by my hon. Friend and, if anything, he understates the case. Because of the dramatic development of public housing, the housing stocks in each borough were too great for people to manage efficiently.
I do not want to tar all councils with the same brush, but monopoly suppliers in any market tend to see their tenants as dependants instead of as consumers. The modern-day municipal paternalists and their defenders on the Opposition Benches are genuinely confused—none so much as the hon. Member for Walsall, North—as to why their brand of paternalism does not work. They do not see that the root cause of the problem is the assumption that they know what is best for the tenants. In direct contrast, this Government's approach is that those tenants should be free to make their own choices.
This is a short debate and I have already allowed perhaps half a dozen interventions. I have tried to be fair to the House, but I now must press on.
The first of our policies is to put the consumer first. We believe that people can, should and want to take personal responsibility for their housing. State resources should be concentrated on those people who are genuinely in need and who are not able to compete in the market. But they, too, should have far more choice than they have had in the past, including the right to change their landlords if they do not get a decent service.
The lack of response by the state-directed system of housing supply has meant that, although countryr j 3–8wide there are enough houses for everybody, there are severe local shortages in some areas. In areas of shortage, the most vulnerable households could suffer severely if Government support were cut off. So we intend to maintain a major programme of subsidised housing, but we cannot do that unless we make every penny of public money count.
The second part of our policy is good housekeeping in the use of that public money. Because public expenditure must be limited, choices have to be made. The old approach, with its insistence on the exclusive use of public sector resources, while rents were often kept low for local political reasons, entailed a huge amount of waste and inefficiency.
If we can get private investment to add to investment by the public sector in housing, why not do so and build more houses? If better-off people can afford to pay higher rents, why hold their rents down and so reduce the money available to support poorer people? Why should taxpayers, many of whom are not well off, pay subsidies to people who do not need them? Why should we use public investment where private investment will do the job?
We should focus public resources on those who need them most—the poor, the elderly, the chronically sick and the handicapped. That approach of consumer choice, good housekeeping and focusing support on those with the greatest needs, has shaped the Government's housing policy since 1979. We started with the expansion of home ownership, but the Labour party attacked our right-to-buy policy.
I have been waiting patiently for my hon. Friend to refer to private housing. The Minister has spoken of local authorities and the way in which they have restricted the supply of rented property. Would he like to say something about tight planning controls and their effect on the price of building land? Is he aware that during the 1960s agricultural land was being released at almost three times the rate it is today and during the 1970s at almost twice the rate, and that the price of building land is going through the roof? In the north-west prices increased by 90 per cent. in 1987 and are likely to have more than doubled in 1988. There will be a great effect on the price of housing. Figures issued only last week show that the price of housing in Southampton went up by 50 per cent. last year.
I have sympathy with my hon. Friend's remarks. That is precisely why my hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Water and Planning recently announced measures that will help to ease the position.
I was saying that the Labour party viciously attacked the right-to-buy policy. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) said that it would not work. But it has worked well; in fact, it has been an astonishing success.
Well over a million council tenants have bought their own homes since 1979, which is bringing in billions of pounds of private resources to ease the strain on the public purse. They are taking the management of their housing into their own hands. There have been 4 million first-time buyers since we came to power in 1979. Two out of three households in England own their own homes. Now we are tackling the rented sector.
First, in the rented sector, new tenancies at market rents will encourage existing landlords to continue renting. The tax incentives in the business expansion scheme will accelerate that process. Secondly, in the housing association sector, a 70 per cent. increase in public resources will be supplemented by extra private money to give it new impetus. Thirdly, the financial system for councils' housing will be changed so that they cannot hide poor performance by subsidies from the rates. If they do not operate efficiently, the results will be only too visible to their tenants.
When authorities like Southwark can allow properties to remain vacant between relets for an average of 24 weeks, or nearly half a year, it cannot be denied that better management is badly needed. Just nine Labour-controlled inner London boroughs, and Liverpool, account for 38 per cent. of the national total of rent arrears, at £86 million between them. Large amounts of arrears, sometimes running into four figures, are owed by individual Labour councillors. It cannot be denied that better accountability is vital.
I am sorry to interrupt the Minister once again. On the question of rent arrears in Liverpool, is he aware that, in Liverpool more than 15,000 people have been out of work for longer than five years? If the Minister wants to know about rent arrears and the problems of the unemployed, perhaps he should come to some of the estates in my area and see how the people survive on that basis.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am well aware of his estates. He knows that because of my frequent visits to Liverpool.
My interview on Radio Merseyside this morning with Keva Coombes resulted in the leader of Liverpool city council admitting that it was totally unacceptable to have arrears at the level they are in Liverpool and that it adversely affected those who were paying their rents as well as the ratepayers, because the council has been taking money from the general rate fund to subsidise the housing revenue account.
Council tenants who feel unhappy with the service that they are getting from their landlords will be able to opt out and accept a new landlord, often a housing association. Whether they go or stay, their freedom to choose will act as a stimulus to efficiency and service. Indeed, it is already doing so. There are plenty of examples of deathbed repentance by councils who are trying to win back the affections of their tenants.
In addition, a new system for allocating resources for investment by councils would ensure that resources for renovation are much better focused on the areas of real need, rather than on areas that have the most receipts. Opposition Members should welcome such a change, if only they understood it, for many of the areas that they represent will benefit. In the recent Second Reading debate, the hon. Member for Hammersmith seemed to understand so little that he appeared to be quite scandalised by a reform that would help the poorer areas.
Alongside these policies, we are also introducing new arrangements for improvement grants, so that they are concentrated on those people who most need support, while maintaining a level of expenditure that in real terms is almost double the level of that it reached under the Labour Administration. Twice as much money will be available, and it will be better targeted on the less well off. I should have thought that Opposition Members would welcome that; but they would not recognise good news if it jumped up and hit them in the face.
When combined, these new policies will have a much more effective impact on the most severe forms of housing need, including homelessness. Housing provided with the help of public sector funds will correspond much more closely with what the tenants themselves want. That is why they will no longer be entirely dependent on their local councils. That is why the Opposition are so agitated.
Homelessness is one of the most bitter legacies of the old approach to housing that is still espoused by the Opposition. It really. is amazing that with 300,000 more houses than households there should still be more than 30,000 homeless families in temporary accommodation. There can be no clearer demonstration of the misallocation of resources that always results from a State-directed approach to housing.
As the Audit Commission's report on homelessness pointed out, if the average period taken to re-let a vacant local authority property could be reduced by three weeks outside London and six weeks in London, the number of vacant properties could be reduced to such an extent that an extra 17,700 relets would become available.
I know that the Housing Act 1988 has been debated exhaustively but there is one topic that needs to be dealt with now—the Opposition's misleading and irresponsible propaganda. All over the country, material is being produced and circulated to tenants on tenants' choice and housing action trusts, which is full of untruths. I am naturally constrained, Madam Deputy Speaker, to use parliamentary language. But it is full of untruths and half-truths and economical half-truths and terminological inexactitudes. Elderly tenants are terrified by leaflets suggesting that their properties are to be handed over to the reincarnation of Rachman. What deceit.
The hon. Member for Hammersmith is party to that deceit. He undertook to condemn misleading propaganda about tenants' choice. He will recall giving me and the House that undertaking when we were considering the Housing Bill last November. The hon. Gentleman seems to have forgotten that promise. I wrote to him on 19 December, enclosing a leaflet produced by Nottinghamshire county council, which is full of complete distortions of the truth. I shall give just one example. It says that rents will go up to market levels under tenants' choice. There was no mention of the fact that the only landlords allowed in tenants' choice will have specifically signed up to charge rents that those on low incomes can afford. There was no mention of the fact that rent levels and arrangements for reviewing them will be one of the matters on which tenants vote.
I must correct the Minister before he gets deeper into the hole. The leaflet was not issued by Nottinghamshire county council. I checked that, and I was going to tell the Minister later. The Minister is doing exactly what he has accused the Opposition of doing. The leaflet was issued at a much earlier stage in the Bill's consideration by a housing group that was not related to the council.
The hon. Gentleman at least acknowledges that the material exists. I hope that he will denounce it publicly. It never is anything to do with the Labour party. I shall come back to that point in a few moments.
I am most grateful to the Minister for giving way, as Nottinghamshire has been mentioned. That material might not be technically or legally issued by county or city, but the House must know, and the Minister will confirm, that the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen)—I am sad that he is not in his place—has been the greatest peddler of the terminological inexactitudes to which the Minister has just referred.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I distinctly heard the Minister say that it was Nottinghamshire county council that put out the leaflet. Now he says that it may not have been. He had better withdraw, because it is wrong for a Minister to come to the House and accuse Nottinghamshire county council and then not admit that he is wrong. I ask the Minister to withdraw that now.
I shall, Madam Deputy Speaker. I assure the hon. Gentleman that if I am wrong and if Nottinghamshire county council never played any part in producing the leaflet, I shall be the first to apologise for that mistake, as I always do. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Hammersmith should not open his mouth at this precise time because I am about to refer to other things that he said he would do but has not done. Having sent two letters to me within one week prior to Christmas, he has not yet replied to my latest letter. It was probably lost in the Christmas post. When he challenged me to debate these issues in public—I cannot think of a more public place than this—in the media or on television, I was happy to accept. I repeat that acceptance now. I am happy to debate the issue with him or with any of his colleagues anywhere, at any time.
I think that the hon. Gentleman has realised his mistake. I call on him seriously to condemn unreservedly the literature which is going round. If he does not wish to be associated with it—he clearly does not—let him condemn it, say what is wrong in it, and spell out to the House what he does not agree with so that the House and the country may know.
The hon. Member for Hammersmith does not accept that some tenants may vote to pay slightly higher rents in return for better management and repairs. A recent survey by Glasgow university showed that almost 40 per cent. of tenants would be prepared to pay higher rents for a better service. Some may not, but it is their choice. It is not the Official Opposition's choice. It is not the Labour council's choice. It is not the choice of the wider Labour party or any one of its many divisions, and it has many divisions. It is not even the choice of the National and Local Government Officers Association. It is the tenants' choice. They, and they alone, should decide.
But when fantasy, imagination, and deception fail him, the hon. Member for Hammersmith has recourse to amateur theatricals. It would be laughable were it not clearly intended to prevent legitimate debate. The way that he and his hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) tried to sabotage the wind-up speech in the recent Second Reading debate of my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) was a disgrace. I fear that it was all too typical of the way some Opposition Members are bringing on to the Floor of the House the deceitful scaremongering tactics used by their Left-wing activists against tenants. But in truth they resort to those tactics because they have nothing else to say, and because they are desperate to appease the bully boys who are no doubt crucial to their own reselection.
Behind the Labour party's banner stand those who want to scare tenants into believing that only the council can provide for them; those whose power is threatened by tenants' freedom; and those whose inefficiency will be exposed by tenants' choice.
The Labour party protests so much, as it has throughout my speech, because it is frightened at the prospect of competition for its municipal fiefdoms—
Order. That is not a point of order for the Chair. The Minister will deploy his argument as he sees fit, provided it is within parliamentary conventions.
We have just had a first-class example of the type of tactics that I was talking about. The hon. Member for Leeds, West simply does not listen. That is the tactic with which we are all too familiar in the House and outside in matters concerning housing, and particularly housing association trusts, which the hon. Gentleman does not know much about, but which exist in his city. That tactic is deployed there. The reason why it is deployed by him, and by the hon. Members for Hammersmith and for Copeland is that they are frightened of giving tenants a choice. They are frightened of competition for their municipal fiefdoms. They are frightened because it is the last bastion of the Labour party—[Interruption.]
The Government are proud to be the champion of greater freedom, of consumer choice, of more competition and of greater efficiency. Our response to the challenge of today is to trust in people's judgment and their self-reliance, and to let the consumer rule.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Towards the end of the excellent opening speech by my hon. Friend the Minister, the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle), twice in my hearing, accused my hon. Friend of lying. He should not use remarks like that in the House simply because he does not like what is being said. He should withdraw.
Within my hearing no hon. Member accused anyone of lying. They used other words but they certainly did not accuse the Minister of lying. I have very good hearing. That is not a point of order.
Further to the point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am sitting nearer to the hon. Gentleman. I accept that you may not have heard it, but I am sure that the hon. Member for Leeds, West will he honest enough to admit to the House that that was precisely what he said.
Had he done that, I am sure the Minister, who is very much alive to what has been going on, would have taken up the matter himself. We must proceed with the debate.
Anyone listening to the Minister's speech who had a housing problem would be appalled at what he had to say. One would think from his speech that there was not a housing problem. I wish to deal with various matters, including some raised by the Minister, but first I will make two other points. First, I want to be as tight with time as I can because it is a short debate. Secondly, I apologise to the House because I will have to leave half an hour early for a meeting on the poll tax at which the Secretary of State for the Environment and I are speaking. I would not like him to be without the advantage of the guidance and the assistance that I may be able to give him from time to time.
The point that we are making strongly, and with increasing support from across the political spectrum, is that there is a growing housing crisis. Every time the Government try to duck it by referring to the past or to individual local authorities or councillors, they bring shame on themselves because they cannot face up to the problem. What is it? It is a crisis of mortgage rates and market rents. It is a catastrophe of escalating homelessness. It is a lack of low-cost accommodation for rent or sale.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer's disastrous reliance on interest rates has clobbered home owners with a vengeance. We should never let anyone say that the Conservative party is the party of the home owner. [Interruption.] Yes. The Labour party did far more with start-up schemes and with mortgage relief for first-time buyers than the Conservative party. Let us hear the facts.
Let the hon. Gentleman hear the facts first; then he may intervene if he wishes. I want to limit interventions.
From January 1988 to January 1989 is just 12 short months. Someone on the average mortgage in Britain is now paying £81 per month more than in January 1988. In the south-east the payment is £112·44 per month more; in inner London it is £135·06 per month more.
The hon. Gentleman said that the Labour party is the friend of those who wish to buy their homes. Will he tell the House exactly what the Labour party did for council house tenants who wished to buy their homes?
It is a point that we have been making over and over again. I will repeat it for the hon. Gentleman, who missed it. There is nothing wrong with the right to buy, but it has to be matched by a duty to replace property in housing stress areas. If people are merely given a right to buy, with no duty to replace, the best houses go first. People become trapped in high-rise, grotty, rundown houses from which they cannot be transferred. Waiting lists and homelessness go up.
I cannot supply them off the top of my head, but I shall supply them. I assure the Minister that he will be able to get them from my own source, the Building Societies Association. If the Minister looked at the figures and other evidence held by the BSA and other organisations, they would tell him something that he should already know.
When house prices begin to stabilise after house price inflation as a result of interest rates remaining high over a sustained period, homelessness goes up owing to mortgage repossessions. The fastest growing area of homelessness is now due to mortgage repossessions. One in every 10 families is going to the local authority and asking for housing under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977. They have been made homeless because they cannot pay their mortgages. [Interruption.]
The Minister makes the mistake, as he shouts from his sedentary position, of supposing that the problem relates only to individual mortgage companies such as the Nationwide Anglias of this world. However, it does not, because it affects many other lenders, including banks and other organisations. Many people have mortgages on which their payments are more than six months in arrears.
I shall give the Minister the figures. In 1979, the number of mortgages that were more than six months in arrears—the Minister is fond of talking about arrears, and I shall return to that point—was 8,420. In 1986, the figure was 66,930. In 1979, the number of repossessions was 2,530 and in 1986 it was 20,020——
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. He must have heard me give a statement at Question Time last week when I said that the Building Societies Association had made it clear that mortgage repossessions had actually dropped, and that Mr. Boleat had made it clear that there was no direct correlation between higher interest rates and mortgage repossessions.
Why does the Minister not listen before he intervenes? I said to him—to be correct, to a Conservative Back Bencher—that it was no good looking at just the building society figures, because building societies are not the only lenders. He must look at the figures of banks and other organisations that lend money.
It is not an accident or imagination that one in 10 families has been made homeless as a result of mortgage repossessions. Most of the building societies and a significant number of banks are quite good on this matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) and I conducted a survey which showed that almost all banks and building societies were worried about their customers' ability to pay and were trying to find ways of making it easier for them. A common theme that came out of the survey was the need to ensure that people sought advice as early as possible. Otherwise, they would inevitably run into trouble.
That intervention is an absolute gift and I shall tell him right now. If, as suggested, it is ultra vires, and the council has to freeze its position, it will walk away with £13 million profit. There will be no loss to the council—the figure in The Independent is wrong. The council would gain £13 million. But it pales into insignificance in the face of the problem that the Secretary of State has created for the Labour and Tory boroughs that have carried out such activities, by his refusal to introduce a proper system of local government finance. He tells local authorities to use business practices. Hammersmith and Fulham used them successfully and made £13 million profit. [Interruption.] It is questionable whether it is illegal.
We know one thing for sure: if a private company had acted in the same way, everybody would pat it on the back and say how well it had done. It would have been strictly legal in the private sector; it is only local authorities who must not trade in that way.
I must stick to the point about which the Government are increasingly worried. The Government are blind to the problem being caused by those seeking to buy. A couple of weeks ago the Economic Secretary to the Treasury said:
Mortgage rates show no correlation with difficulties over arrears or repossessions".—[Official Report, 26 January 1989; Vol. 145, c. 117.]
Let him tell that to the people who are being made homeless, or those 20,000 people whose payments are in arrears.
Do the Government think that money grows on trees for those people? The dream of home ownership is turning into a nightmare of bed-and-breakfast accommodation for increasing numbers of people, and the Government know that.
The other day, The Daily Mirror presented the case of Mr. Soussa—one of the many growing examples of the Rachmanite and Hoogstraten-type experiences about which we have warned the Government. The Daily Mirror said that a family of three—two adults and a child—paid rent of £161 per week for one room and a shower which they shared with 10 other families. Their meal times were limited to half an hour a day in the dining room and there was no fire escape.
When that story appeared in The Daily Mirror, Mr. Soussa gave the family two hours notice to quit and put them in the street. The council—which was not Labour—had to use other bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Other local authorities—including Conservative-controlled Southend—told the Minister that they could do nothing other than resort to bed-and-breakfast accommodation for such people because of the Government's housing cuts.
The hon. Gentleman has made a silly mistake that he could have avoided if he had done a little more homework. He would then have found that the family to which he referred was the responsibility of Slough—[Interruption.] Oh, the hon. Gentleman knows that Slough is a Labour-controlled council.
The incident occurred in Windsor. The Minister does not understand that the accommodation is in Windsor and other local authorities use it. The argument is not about which councils place such families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Is the Minister really saying that Conservative councils do not use bed-and-breakfast accommodation? The argument is quite simply that local authorities—whether Labour, Tory or Liberal—are forced to use inadequate and inappropriate bed-and-breakfast accommodation because of the Government's policies.
The leader of the Conservative group in Hammersmith, Councillor Peter Prince, has some interesting suggestions. He says that there is nothing wrong with paying £100 rent per week for a two-bedroomed flat—and that it is all right. Can hon. Members say how ordinary people on average incomes are supposed to pay £100 per week rent for a two-roomed flat? He said something far worse, which I should like the Minister to think about.
In Hammersmith and Fulham, 19 people from Belfast who were threatened by the Provisional IRA have suddenly turned up. Two of the children had been kneecapped, one in both knees, with similar treatment to elbows and ankles. Quite rightly, Hammersmith and Fulham council put those people into bed-and-breakfast accommodation. It had experience of other cases, knew the dangers of sending them back and realised that it must help them.
However, Conservative Councillor Peter Prince said they should he sent hack to Belfast. That was not only inhumane but also seems effectively to be saying to the Provisional IRA that it can carry on policing Northern Ireland because it is doing a good job. That is what the Conservative party is saying.
I have encountered people in Hammersmith who are not in council accommodation but are running from both the Provisional IRA and the Unionist paramilitaries. What do I get from the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office? He says:
Hence, while I have every sympathy for the problems faced by local councils
in cases of this kind, he cannot help. As a result of the crisis in Northern Ireland, local authorities in Britain must either provide bed-and-breakfast accommodation, send the people back or provide housing out of their own stock. What will the Minister do about that?
I have argued for many years that the Northern Ireland Office needs a policy to deal with people who are driven out in that way. I have every sympathy with Southend council, which has the same problems as Windsor, Slough and others. Indeed, Southend and the Conservative-controlled London Boroughs Association and Association of District Councils say that they cannot cope without using bed-and-breakfast accommodation—because of the Government's policy.
How does the Minister think that a family copes with education, health and family stress when they have to live in bed-and-breakfast accommodation and when the Government have no policy on homelessness? In 1978, a total of 53,110 homeless families were accepted. In 1987, the figure was 118,710. The sharp end of the problem is something that I never dreamt I would live to see in this country: men, women and children sleeping in cardboard boxes in the streets and parks of our towns, in both Tory and Labour areas. If the Minister and his hon. Friends really believe that that is the Labour party's fault, let me tell them that no one else believes it. Other people know that the housing crisis has been caused by the present Government. The Minister should not try to dodge that by blaming local authorities for the existence of empty properties.
Let us get the figures nice and clear. At present 2·5 per cent. of local authority properties are empty, compared with 3·1 per cent. of housing association properties. Both those figures are pretty good, and should be treated with a degree of flexibility. The figure for the private sector is 4·2 per cent. And who is the worst offender of all? The Minister. Nearly 6 per cent. of properties owned by the Government are empty. Houses and flats with three, four and five bedrooms, valued at £150,000 to £200,000, have been empty for up to nine years. The Government, who have known about it for years, are to knock them down to make way for car parking and landscaping around Wormwood Scrubs prison.
One in five police houses is empty, as are prison houses, defence houses and houses owned by London Regional Transport and other regional organisations. What the Minister likes to do is blame local authorities—to starve them of cash, undermine their morale and erode local democracy and to try to pretend that that solves the problem. He knows very well, however, that the problem lies at the Government's door.
Horsham council actually gave an empty council house to none other than the Horsham constituency Conservative party to use as an office. I understand that it had to offer something because this was part of an improvement area—but an empty council house as an office? Are we joking?
I agree entirely with what the hon. Gentleman has said about empty properties owned by the Government, and I think that the Departments responsible need to clean up their act. As he says, it is a scandal.
Would the hon. Gentleman comment on another scandal? According to figures produced by the London borough of Hackney, some 300 housing units have been empty for more than three years so that minor repairs can be carried out. How can that be justified in an area of such stress?
I do not want the hon. Gentleman to suggest that it is the Department's fault. It is the Home Office Minister's fault. I took the Wormwood Scrubs case to him about a year ago, but the properties are still not being used. Admittedly the junior Minister said that we could use four of them on a short-life basis, and a housing association is trying to do that, although it will be difficult to use four properties on such a basis. The other properties are not going to be used at all.
Unfortunately, the examples that we give—including some that I have given about the Government—are irrelevant to the main cause, which is a drastic drying-up of the supply of low-cost accommodation for rent or sale. When the Minister opened the debate he revealed his naivety and inadequate grasp of the problem by saying that the country now contained more houses than people. In a technical sense, what he said was true, but it nevertheless showed a complete misunderstanding of the mismatch of properties to people.
Having said that he recognised the problem of linking people and properties, the Minister did not go on to say how he would deal with it other than through the private market. The Government are saying that the private sector will provide, whereas local authorities cannot. What they are doing constitutes one of the nastiest forms of bullying that I have seen for many a long year. I attend meetings up and down the country which are packed out, with up to 400 people present. Many are very elderly—in their sixties, seventies and eighties. They go to the meetings because they are scared. [Interruption.] If they are scared, it is not because of me. I attended meetings organised by people from the Minister's own council.
Rochester upon Medway council in Kent has put out a leaflet. People who went to a meeting in the area wanted to know what would happen to them, as the leaflet mentioned no agreement other than one that might result at the end of the day. They were worried because they were being told to vote for an arrangement under which they would have no contract. I beg the Minister to recognize that many elderly people do not understand that housing associations are not just like any old private landlord. When a leaflet about a housing association takeover drops through their letterboxes, they see a return to the 1930s.
The hon. Gentleman has already referred to what is happening in my constituency, where tenants are to be given a choice. I consider it, to say the least, slightly less than ethical for an Opposition Front Bencher to try to frighten the lives out of tenants when they have not even held the contract in their hands yet. Perhaps he would like to mention the scheme that my city council hopes to introduce. When the scheme is completed and the tenants know the details, they will have a choice.
Let me tell the hon. Lady what I told the people at the meeting. I told them what I always tell them: "There may be cases in which you want to transfer to a different landlord, but first you must know the facts." What scared people about the leaflet was that it said that an assured tenancy was the same as a secure tenancy, which it is not. When I read it, my knowledge of such matters led me to believe that what the organisers meant—and I suspect that their intentions are quite good—was that they would try to make it the same by drawing up a legal contract, but there is no legal contract here. If the hon. Lady took the leaflet along to a solicitor and asked "Should I buy this?" would he advise her to sign? Of course he would not. What is so wrong with her approach is that bullying and frightening people is unnecessary.
The Minister talked about Nottinghamshire. I eventually got hold of a leaflet published by the Notts Housing Bill Campaign—not by the Labour party. Why did it take so long to find? Because it was published about a year ago, when the Bill first arrived. Much of it is accurate. [Interruption.] It is difficult to see that it is inaccurate. There are some points which are incomplete. [Interruption.] It is not a new word. It is relevant to the case, because the Government's Bill had only just been published. As we all know, that legislation—with constant changes to it—went through on the hoof with a vengeance.
Of course, the Minister dodged the real challenge that I put to him. My challenge was not for him not just to debate it publicly but for him or me, if we came across any misleading information—which we could not agree on as being misleading and therefore have it put right—to put it to an independent organisation. The two organisations I suggested were the National Consumer Council and the Institute of Housing. However, the Minister has refused——
Can I have a clear statement from the Minister? I pointed out 10 or 11 serious inaccuracies in the leaflets put out by the Minister's Department. I said that the leaflet entitled "Tenants' Choice" should go to the National Consumer Council or the Institute of Housing for an independent view. He has refused to do that.
I know that one has to tell the hon. Gentleman something about 13 times before he is on to it in a flash, but I must make it clear to him again that I am prepared to debate that isue, and the contents of any leaflet in front of anybody in the public or the media. I am prepared to appear on any occasion—even for no money.
The leaflet that has been mentioned affects my constituency. I must ask the hon. Gentleman to accept that that leaflet may be a year old, but we have suffered such literature—press releases and public statements—in our city ad nauseum, month after month, and the majority of it is the most spurious nonsense and disgraceful literature I have ever read. In my constituency there is an estate of 9,000 homes and many old people have written to me saying, "The Labour party locally are saying that our houses will be sold to private landlords; is that true?" That is what is happening in our cities, and it is time that the hon. Gentleman repudiated it.
I will not do it now, for the sake of Back Benchers who want to contribute, but I would be happy afterwards to go through this leaflet with the hon. Gentleman to pick out any inaccuracies. I would say to him that at the time it was written it was basically accurate.—[Interruption.] Since then, the Bill has gone through Committee and has been changed thanks to our amendments.
We want to know also from the Government whether they intend to change the rigged voting system that has so frightened people that they know that their only solution is to group together as tenants and community groups to fight the Bill. One good thing, however, about that wretched Housing Act is that it has managed to create a sense of community in those areas, because they are so appalled by what is happening.
I ask the Minister whether the Government will spend the money that they promised on the housing action trust areas now that they know that they have lost the argument there, too. Effectively, all the tenants have said no to their proposals since they rumbled the Government's other dishonesty. They discovered that the real aim of housing action trusts, according to the report prepared for the Government, was
to successfully transfer the properties to the private sector.
That was something that the Government never told the tenants. That is the dishonesty and the deceit which causes the tenants to be fearful and makes me say that the Government are guilty of bullying tenants.
What will the Government do about the new towns? The new towns will not even get a proper vote until in some cases they have waited two years to see how the new system works. Terrific: we will have a new government now; see how it works and then we will have a vote on it. How about that? Wht sort of democracy is that? Even some cheap dictator would riot accept that as a form of democracy.
The housing statistics tell the grim story. In 1987 there were 30,000 fewer completions in all sectors compared to 1980. I warn the Minister of that, because that is what he was talking about when referring to public sector investment. Throughout the 1970s, housing investment was high when compared to European standards. Even investment in our worst year, which was 1979, was good compared to other European countries. What is significantly different now is that we are at the bottom of the heap—as we are with the National Health Service. Next year there will be a decline in the private building sector again, because of interest rates. The Government know that. In 1975, local authority completions were 103,000, in 1988 they are estimated to be 15,000 and in 1992 they will be 6,000.
The Government have suddenly turned to housing assocations as the way out, but housing association completions are only about 2,000 above what they were in 1975. Somehow the housing associations are supposed to swallow local authority housing and build more at the same time. The management implications of that are appalling.
In addition, there is the disaster of market rents in the private sector. We must remember that the rented sector has declined by 1·2 million houses, more than half of which are from the private rented sector. That decline has been caused by the Government's public expenditure. The Minister dodged my question about mortgage income tax relief. If he is prepared to accept someone on £7,000 per year getting a subsidy of about £300, but someone on £25,000 per year getting about £760, he had better work out where his priorities lie with Government expenditure. That is now up to nearly £6 billion.
The nightmare about market rents is that they will approximate to what people pay to buy, which is why the private rented sector is declining. Mr. Rachman, Mr. Soussa—not really Mr. Soussa—and Mr. Hoogstraten are not really bad landlords; they are bad property developers. They want to sell with vacant possession, which means getting tenants out, and that is what the 1988 Bill is designed to make much easier.
I cannot give way again, because there is the problem of time.
The Government refuse to say what a fair rent is, yet many people are spending up to 40 per cent. of their net income on rent. In some cases nurses are spending 39 per cent. of their net income, even taking account of their recent pay rise.
Rural housing has been hit, too. In the villages of England people are living in the holiday accommodation during the winter and are having to move out when the holiday period begins. They then move to the towns, present themselves as homeless or drift around.
I know that is a county. In Dorset right now people are using holiday accommodation lets and moving into the—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) does not believe me——
The hon. Gentleman does not have to take my word for it. He can get the facts from the Association of District Councils, which is Conservative-controlled.
What else do people do when they leave their holiday lets? They move in with relatives or wherever they can find accommodation in towns. Of course, in many areas they cannot find accommodation, and they end up sleeping rough.
We are moving towards having ghettoes in our city areas where there will be the sort of crime and vandalism which the Government try to pin on local authorities. People have died behind their cast iron doors, which prevented the fire brigade from gaining access. The House should remember that those people installed such doors out of fear. People have to take such measures because the Government will not give local authorities the money needed to provide a good 24-hour concierge system. They starved my council of money for the Edward Woods estate almost long enough to push out of the annual programme the system that was designed to come into effect, but the council managed to keep it in. If the Government really cared, they would make sure that they helped good management.
The Government's problem is that they do not understand that housing is about supply and management. If there is bad management, whether in the private or public sectors, something must be done about it. It is no good picking one or two councillors one does not like and putting the boot in. A housing problem must first be acknowledged and then the solution sought. That means more building, renovating and repairing. It also means that something must be done about bad management.
The Minister said that he thought that people should have a choice of landlord, but he does not believe that. He believes that local authority tenants should be able to vote once only to change their landlord. But a tenant of Mr. Hoogstraten, Mr. Sonssa or Mr. Rachman would not have that choice. Let me give the House a commitment. The next Labour Government will give tenants of non-resident landlords the right to change their landlord, and, by God, we shall see some landlords changing then. We shall do what the Audit Commission and the internal report of the Department of the Environment said and we shall see people returning to the public sector because, as the report said, local authority housing management is better than that of housing associations and as good as the best.
Order. Before I take any points of order let me remind the House that the debate has to finish at 7 o'clock and we should deploy that time sensibly so that I can call as many hon. Members as possible. Therefore, may we have brief speeches, please?
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. You will recall that the debate was originally due to take place on 1 February on an Opposition Supply day. Will you investigate the distribution of today's Order Paper, because, with only six Labour Back Benchers present, it is clear that not all Labour Members are aware that the debate is taking place?
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there are sufficient hon. Members in the Chamber to keep the debate going well after 10 o'clock.
I shall abide by your ruling to be brief, Madam Deputy Speaker.
The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) referred to holiday accommodation in Dorset. I hope that in the near future as a result of Government legislation much of that will cease to be holiday accommodation and become permanent accommodation. Landlords have holiday accommodation not because there is more money in it but because in the past they could not get the right sort of tenancy agreement to ensure repossession. I want to see more people living permanently in west Dorset rather than have the place flooded with holiday accommodation which is empty in the winter months; that is bad news.
It is right that the debate should focus primarily on housing problems in the urban areas, but, as the hon. Member for Hammersmith said, there are problems in the rural areas, too. The scale is different, but there are unhappy people in rural areas just as there are in the towns. It is in that context that I welcome the statement made by my noble Friend the Minister for Housing, Environment and Countryside the other day that there would be an increase in the rural allocation for rented accommodation in 1990–91 and 1991–92. No one would deny that that increase is a drop in the ocean. A figure of 900 extra houses in 1990–91 is small. That figure goes up to 1,100 in 1991–92. That is nothing in the rural areas unless it is supported and enhanced by the activities of housing associations.
Just a few months ago in my constituency a debate was organised by the Dorset county council which set out clearly our involvement with housing associations. I have set a personal target for west Dorset of 500 new housing association houses to rent or buy by the end of 1990. That target is achievable, but only under two conditions. The first and most important is that land should be given to housing associations, or at the very worst, provided at low cost.
One may ask where that land will come from, but I can tell the House that in Dorset and Somerset many landlords who are members of the Country Landowners Association and the National Farmers Union, are perfectly prepared to give half an acre or an acre of land towards that end. They want to see local housing for local people at reasonable rents. That will come about, but not unless one particular area of mistrust is cleared up, and that is whether land given to a housing association for that purpose might be deemed at increased value for capital gains. This worry has not yet been cleared up.
Everybody says that the point is being addressed, but why on earth does it need to he addressed? If people of their own volition are prepared to make a gift of land or to let it go at one tenth of the sum that such land would make on the open market for housing, why cannot the Treasury say that that is in the interests of the community and those who need houses and give a categorical assurance that there will be no such tax?
Secondly, there is the matter of planning. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment was right to make it clear the other day that he hoped that local authorities would look more sympathetically at planning approval for housing association schemes for local people at low cost and to rent. I pay tribute to West Dorset district council which is implementing that policy. It is a dangerous policy, because a few starter homes may be included in the hope that approval will be given for a larger scheme. That is not what this is about. I hope that planners will significantly bend the rules for housing association schemes to help small villages. We are not talking about an estate of 200 or 300 houses but about a block of six or eight houses at the most for small villages in my constituency. If such housing does not come about, we shall see the continuing depopulation of our rural areas, along with the closure of sub-post offices and pubs, which is the last thing that I want to see.
My plea to the Government is: please obtain that assurance from the Treasury. If we get that, we shall be able to get on with our building.
After 10 years in office the Government have managed to land themselves in one enormous mess on their housing policy. The Minister laughs, but if he looks at what is going on sector by sector, the evidence is plain for anybody to see. One principal cause of that is the Government's market philosophy, which has been demonstrated not to work in housing matters. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) has given some examples of that and I shall give some further examples.
The truth of the matter is that housing policy does not lend itself to a non-interventionist policy. The Government should recognise that they must continue to engage with local authorities, housing associations and others in order to do something about housing. The more one disengages, the greater the problems are.
The truth of what I say becomes more and more apparent when the situation is looked at sector by sector. For example, the owner-occupied sector, for which there is all-party support—[Interruption.] There may be the odd exception but, broadly speaking, all parties' official policy is to support owner-occupation.
High interest rates are now putting property, particularly for first-time buyers, out of their range. People simply cannot afford to get into the owner-occupier market—[Interruption.] That might happen in the long term but it has not happened across the board yet. We find that people cannot enter the market. Indeed, some people are having to leave that sector because of the problems of high interest rates.
The hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) seems to think that there is something wonderful about high interest rates and mortgage costs. Perhaps I could summon up in
support of my argument no less an authority than the right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit), who writes in today's Evening Standard as follows:
High mortgage rates are very unpopular but it is mortgage rates in the year before an election, not the second year after one which affect the general election result.
That tells us a great deal about the cynicism of the right hon. Gentleman.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman needs a basic lesson in the economics of housing. The mortgage is one thing; the price of the houses is another. Where houses cannot be sold because the mortgages are difficult to repay that stabilises and brings down the prices, which is what my right hon. Friend was saying in the article.
I do not entirely accept that, because the point I am making is that all sorts of other factors are brought to bear. The burden of my argument is that, as a direct result of high interest rates, there are people who are being prevented from entering the market and, equally, there are people who are being forced to leave the market because they cannot sustain their mortgage repayments. That is a simple fact of life at present. Whatever the long-term effects on that of macroeconomic policy, as matters stand that is what is happening.
The other problem, which I have mentioned before in the House but which bears repetition, is that we have consistently falling standards of construction, space arid materials. I make it a practice to go on a fairly regular basis and look at new properties that are being built, some of them co-operative—in which I am heavily involved En my constituency—and some in the private sector. We are seeing properties which in 20 years time will be slums which are either put on the market or rented. That is because of the great pressure on people to get into the market at almost any cost. People do not have the kinds of choice that the Government would have us believe exist and consequently are forced either to rent—or in some cases, tragically, to purchase—properties of an appalling standard which will be real problem properties in 20 years' time.
I am listening to the hon. Gentleman's argument very carefully. He has not addressed the point that I touched on in my opening remarks when I talked about the fact that we have the highest percentage of public sector housing stock anywhere in the western world. In his constituency and that of the hon. Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. Hughes) there is a very high number of council houses. One of the biggest problems that they face is the management of that stock. I do not want to make a political point. but that stock was not built during the period that this Government have been in office. He and I are trying to do something about it together, and I am with his local authority.
I will cover that later in my speech. While there is disagreement between the Minister and me, he will accept that I understand the sort of problem that he is talking about.
Another part of the problem in connection with owner-occupation currently is the whole mess of subsidy. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith mentioned that mortgage income tax relief costs about £6 billion. No one is against the idea that people who need help to get into the market should be given it through tax relief or by some other means. But what we have now is a totally unselective subsidy that does not serve any housing policy of which I know. Furthermore, for a Government that seem so obsessed with targeting other benefits, it is very strange that this very general policy should be sustained. I suspect that that reflects a little of the cynicism of the right hon. Member for Chingford because there is a definite electoral sweetie or bribe in that housing policy. That has to be sorted out if something is to be done about housing.
I do not intend to go into the question of the private rented sector at any length. The Minister deplores the fact that only about 8 per cent. of the current stock in this country is private landlord stock. He might try and look at some of the causes of that. The Government have been in power for 10 years and that figure has not dramatically increased, but has declined, in that period. There are very real barriers to that market developing and one is that people do not trust it. Many of my constituents are familiar with the history of the Rachman era and are very cautious indeed about seeing that as a means of finding satisfactory housing. Other barriers have to do with the economics of housing in general, and the House will be familiar with the arguments which my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith adduced.
The 1988 Act, which was supposed to deal with that, will not change the situation at all, because it did not deal with the root causes of the problem; it dealt with a series of rather fancy measures that will not change the situation at all. I suspect that the Minister already knows that it has failed to reinvigorate the private rented sector as they had hoped. That being the case, that policy has failed even on the Government's own terms.
The Minister referred with some accuracy to some of the problems that exist in the borough of Knowsley, part of which I represent. I accept, and the Minister knows that my local authority accepts, that some of the problems connected with council housing in Knowsley stem from the difficulty of managing and maintaining a very large council stock. Originally, in 1974, there were, I think, 39,000 council houses in Knowsley, but with a combination of right to buy and some demolition and so on, the figure is now down to some 24,000. My local authority accepts that there is a problem in managing and maintaining a stock of council housing on that scale, so the policy of the borough of Knowsley is not to build any more properties. It feels that the policy for the foreseeable future should be concentrated on correcting the problems with the stock it already has and that any new housing needs should be met through housing co-operatives and associations, which it supports very well and vigorously.
I accept that it is not necessarily always the case that local authority housing is the only way forward. On the other hand, even in the borough of Knowsley—the Minister is aware of these figures—and even with that policy, we currently need, to put the 24,000 properties with which we are left into some sort of reasonable order, £20 million a year. I use this as an example to illustrate the problems of local authorities.
The housing investment programme allocation, even though it has recently gone up slightly, is still only about £4 million. With the use of capital receipts and other devices, perhaps that can be raised to £10 million, but that means that £10 million which needs to be spent on those properties every year is not being spent. Therefore, there will be an even further deterioration in the quality of life of the people who live in council houses, brought about not by the mismanagement of the local authority but by the scarcity of resources.
The Government's solution to that is to introduce market conditions through the provisions in part IV of the 1988 Act. I will not go through all the arguments that my hon. Friends make, but I know, the House knows and anybody who takes an interest in housing knows, that those provisions will not work. What they have done is spread fear and concern among council tenants.
What is quite staggering about this is that in many areas people who did not rate the council very highly as a landlord before this Act was put on the statute book are now saying that their local authority is wonderful. The Government hoped that they had denigrated local authorities, but they have succeeded in some areas in making the tenants appreciate the local authorities.
In the housing association and housing co-operatives sector, in which I take a great interest, with the changes in mixed funding, in areas where the cost-value relationship is wrong—and that includes London and the whole of Merseyside—the very device that the Government said would increase the supply of money to housing associations and co-operatives will simply mean that the schemes will not get off the ground. The financial institutions will not engage in that kind of arrangement where the cost-value relationship is wrong, as it is in many parts of the country. I suspect that, once we reach the end of the first year of this new mixed funding arrangement there will be a massive underspend because the scheme cannot be applied in many parts of the country. That is something of which the Government have also made a mess.
So after 10 years, in every sector imaginable, the Government have made an absolute hash of housing policy. They have done nothing to deal with the needs of people, nothing to create new housing for people in need. They have just let the market rip, and the market simply is not working.
Before I came to the House, I had the privilege of being housing chairman in the city of Birmingham. I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Mr. Trippier) on his excellent speech and his grasp of the subject.
I wish to broaden the debate a little. It is worth pointing out that we have a record number of homes in this country. The housing stock now stands at 23 million dwellings, an increase of about a third since 1961, and as a result we have a lot more property of all kinds. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) mentioned that there were about 20,000 families in difficulties. What he forgot to do was to put that in the context of 14·5 million owner-occupiers, some 9 million of them with mortgages; 25 per cent. of those people own their properties outright.
In council housing, the subject of some of the speeches from the Opposition Benches, we have now about 6 million properties. If we compare that with 1961, we find that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is in charge of a hell of a lot more council housing than her Conservative predecessors. I looked at the number of council house lettings and was surprised to find that the figure is still running at some 450,000 a year. That is also a very high level. I do not know whether my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is aware that she has one of the best records in charge of council housing of any Conservative Prime Minister since the war. I am not sure that that was her objective, but it is true.
The accusation by the Opposition that fewer houses are being built will not stick either. I listened with the greatest care to the hon. Member for Hammersmith. He talked about some of these little leaflets being incomplete. I hesitate to suggest that he is a bit incomplete, Madam Deputy Speaker, because you might rule that that was a little unparliamentary, but he certainly picked some incomplete statistics. His figures, for example, for the number of houses being built started at 1980. If we start at 1979, when we took power, we find that the number of public starts was 81,000 and the number of private starts was 144,000, giving us a total of 225,000 starts.
In 1987, the number of public starts was 32,000 and the number of private starts 191,000, giving virtually the same total, 223,000.
The hon. Member for Hammersmith may shake his head, but I got these figures not from the Government but from the House of Commons Library. My hon. Friend who will answer the debate may have more up-to-date information, as the figures in the Library are for only the first nine months of 1988, but if we gross up those figures for the whole year, we arrive not at 225,000—the figure for 1979—and not 223,000—the figure for 1987—but 240,000 in a full year for 1988. The simple fact is that we are not building fewer houses. Taking the two together, public and private, we are building roughly the same number.
It is certainly true to say that public sector new build has fallen. It has been falling for years—and a jolly good thing too. In 1979, there were 81,000 public sector starts; in 1987, there were only 31,000. But if we go back to the first year of the Labour Government of which I believe the hon. Member for Hammersmith was a very proud member, 1974, the figure was 146,000, an enormously larger number than they finished with in 1979. We all had the pleasure tonight of watching him standing there wriggling, a little embarrassed, a little ashamed, at the Dispatch Box, saying that he was not too proud of the housing record of the last Labour Government—and absolutely right.
There are three reasons why the Labour Government did not build council houses—whatever their policy was, they did not do it. First, they could not afford it. Secondly, it was not needed. The slum clearance programmes of the post-war period were coming to an end. We had shifted 1·5 million households and it was no longer necessary to do that kind of clearance. Thirdly, it was not wanted. People do not want council housing. They want their own houses, and the Labour party now belatedly recognises this.
Nobody has mentioned tonight the quality of the housing stock. There is a lot more of it, and it is a lot sounder than it has ever been in the nation's history. I am told that there are five basic amenities—an inside loo, a fixed bath in the bathroom, a wash basin, a sink and hot and cold water at three points. If we take the number of properties in England and Wales that lack those amenities, we find that over the past 20 years, despite a widening of the definition of these basic amenities, the proportion of the dwelling stock lacking one or more such facilities has fallen from 25 per cent. to under 3 per cent.—that is, fewer than three homes in 100. I would like to bet that most of them are in the areas covered by Labour councils.
Renovation of property is something that I was very keen to do in the city of Birmingham. We had enveloping schemes and we did our best to ensure that people could live where they wanted, in the homes that they wanted to live in, and that those homes were in good order. In the live years under Labour, 1974 to 1979—these are not incomplete statistics, and I have taken them again from the Library—over 160,000 houses a year on average were improved. In the past five years, an average of over 440,000 have been improved every year. Our homes are i n better nick than they have ever been and that is because people want to stay in their own homes and they want advice and assistance and support to improve them. That is what we have been doing.
Of course, the hon. Members on the Opposition Benches used to build their council houses. They are welcome to them. The fact is that they built dismal, damp dumps—they have already been called "concrete jungles" twice—more tatty tenements, more miserable places, more tower blocks named after the Labour chairmen of the housing committees—and people do not want them. They did not want them then and they do not want them now. Nobody wants to live in those grotty estates that were built in those years. People want to live in modern, private houses, put up by private builders who have an eye to the: market, an eye to the customers and what the customers want. When people had no choice, Labour built them junk. They expected them to be grateful. Now people have some choice and they do not want to live in those houses any more.
The hon. Lady must be aware that it was a Labour Government that first brought in the idea of housing action areas and assistance to modernise houses. We were also responsible for bringing in enveloping. Perhaps she does not know that. Some of us do know it because we were here at the time when we were getting it through the House.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right. They passed lots of legislation, lots of it. They did not have the money to implement most of it and the resulting council property is still a slur on the face of the Labour party and the Labour councils.
I merely say to the House that, as far as I and most of my constituents are concerned, the Labour party is welcome to its claims that it built council housing in the 1960s and 1970s. I look forward to the day when more councils will do what Solihull has just done and pull those properties down. That is what the tenants really want.
I want to make two more points, the first of which concerns mortgage rates. Again, I went to the Library and looked up the figures. Incidentally, as has been mentioned, this is something of a re-run debate. The first one was supposed to be held in Opposition time. I happened to see the original motion in the Table Office—it just happened to be lying there when I went in one day. The people who worded it cannot spell "mortgage"; the Table Office had to put it right. Anyway, I looked up the interest rates at the time the Labour party was in government and hon. Members opposite were Housing Ministers. In only one year, very briefly in 1978—what about this for cynicism?—was the mortgage rate in single figures. Almost the whole time the Labour party was in power the mortgage rate was over 11 per cent. Indeed, it stood at 12 per cent. in May 1979, just before the election. In those days it was a fixed rate; there was no shopping around. The banks were not giving loans to ordinary people, and borrowers did not have the opportunity that now exists to shop around for the best bargain or for whatever suited them.
I give the Chancellor my full support in his efforts to stabilise the housing market. The rapid house price inflation that we saw last year was unhelpful to everyone. No one could support or argue in favour of it. And it was aggravated by lower interest rates. Heaven only knows why, the moment interest rates go into single figures, everybody in this country thinks that it is a green light. Nobody in West Germany thinks that an interest rate of 9 per cent. is low. People there do not behave like that, but we in this country do. Well, so long as we think that as soon as the interest rate reached 9 per cent, we should borrow enormous amounts of money that we cannot afford, interest rates will have to stay where they are.
The Labour party should come clean about one topic that it has mentioned. The hon. Members for Hammersmith and for Knowsley, North (Mr. Howarth) talked about mortgage interest tax relief, did they not? They talked about how much it costs, did they not? They should tell us whether they are going to abolish mortgage interest tax relief. They should come clean and say, "We do not like mortgage interest tax relief, and we are going to abolish it." They should say that that will be in their manifesto for the next election.
The hon. Gentleman has already had a go; it is my turn now.
The Labour party should come absolutely clean about mortgage interest tax relief. Hon. Members opposite should say that they do not like it and that they are going to abolish it, and that should be in their manifesto. If, however, they recognise that mortgate interest tax relief helps many people to get on to the housing ladder for the first time, and that it is welcomed by those people, particularly by people in constituencies like mine, they should stop criticising it and admit that it is a good thing.
My final comment concerns a thought for the future. As my hon. Friend the Minister will have realised by now, I am totally in favour of the Government's housing policies. We in this country are extremely lucky to have a Government who run the economy in such a way that we can all afford to buy our homes, a Government who are organising planning legislation in such a way that land will be released. That is happening in areas such as mine, and we are seeing growth. But I offer my hon. Friend one thought for the next 10 years of Conservative Government, the next 10 years we will be in power. One quarter of all households consist of single people, most of them elderly. Nearly 3 million old ladies live alone. Another third of all households consist of two people, mostly older couples whose children have grown up and gone away. We are talking about a large number of old people.
When we think ahead and take into account the fact that single person households are expected to increase from the current total of 5·25 million to over 7 million by the year 2001—and that will be nearly one third of all households—I wonder whether it is right that so many builders are continuing to build three, four and five-bedroom houses with double garages and no granny flat. For certain, by the end of another 10 years or so we will find that the crying shortage, unless there is a response to this need, will be in property that is suitable for elderly people, particularly those living alone. We will know that we have made progress on this issue when the price of bungalows is lower than the price of houses, not higher, as at present. However, I shall leave that thought for my hon. Friends. I congratulate the Government on the tremendous improvement that we have seen in the nation's housing, and I look forward to further progress.
I was going to say that the Minister had combined conceit and venom in a way rarely excelled in the House, but the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) has managed to trump it.
In preparing for this debate, I took the trouble to read not various statistics—we all know how statistics can be juggled—but the debate that took place on 23 May 1988. The comments that were made then have been repeated today, and I am very sad that it should be so. On both occasions, despite the smugness of what the Government had to say, the message that came through—it is a message which must not be lost among the arguments about the Local Government and Housing Bill and about mortgage interest rates—was that the devastating impact of the continued policy of restricting expenditure on the development of public housing in all its forms is having an immediate and sustained effect on those people in most need of help with housing.
I rang both local authorities in my area—Carrick and Restormel—a few weeks ago, and the message from them was abundantly clear: "Allow us to spend our money to house our homeless." Not only are local authorities not given that freedom; they are now hampered by rising land prices, even in areas that are relatively poor, such as my own. If a district council like Restormel owns very little land, there is no way in which, with current restrictions, it can outbid private investors. In a recent sale of some land in Newquay, a private developer was able not simply to outbid the local authority by a small amount but actually to double what the council could afford to bid. That local authority has very little land of its own and is therefore hamstrung in attempting to meet the needs of its people.
Another message has started to come through from my county, and it is echoed in many other parts of the country, not only by councils but by people who come to my surgery and, no doubt, people who consult other hon. Members. They are asking what the point is of a housing allocation list. I understand that councillors in Caradon have gone so far as to suggest that their housing allocations sub-committee should be wound up because there is no longer any such thing as an empty property. As soon as a property in council hands is vacated it goes straight to a homeless family because, as a result of the right to buy, the council no longer has properties for families at the top of the housing allocation list.
The hon. Member for Derbyshire, South said—I think that I quote her exactly—"People do not want council housing.- I think it is fair to say that people's ultimate ambition is probably to own their homes, but in the case of very many who come to see me, it is not a question of their "not" wanting council housing but of their desperate need for any kind of roof over their heads. When they are told that they will have to live for years in caravans that are damp, smelly. small, unclean and unhygienic, and where, when they are in the bathroom, they can see the land outside, between the floor and the walls, it is no surprise that they are unable to understand why the Government will not put money into providing houses for them.
In my constituency there are 6,000 people on the housing waiting list. I am sure that those people, like the hon. Gentleman's constituents, will be highly insulted by some of the remarks that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) made about council housing and about their expectations.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I allowed her to intervene, because she has not done so before, but I shall have to rein in other right hon. and hon. Members, because time is short.
The Conservative-controlled London Boroughs Association says that the Government should relax current restrictions on the spending of local authority capital receipts. It comments:
the fundamental requirement is to increase the supply of permanent housing.
Seen in that context, the fact that the Secretary of State presides over a housing budget that is the only departmental budget to contribute to the Treasury is one of bitter irony for the homeless. All that profit has been made possible by council house sales and at the expense of the homeless.
People are making their beds out on the streets tonight, as they did last night, and will do again tomorrow night, and the night after that. People are out on the streets because they have no housing. For the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South to say that people do not want council housing is painful for them, and shows no understanding of the conditions that people must endure. It speaks volumes about middle class, suburban ambitions, but nothing about the reality of the very many people who cannot hope to realise those ambitions.
The recent report of the Audit Commission, "Housing the homeless: The local authority role", made many recommendations, and one point that comes through loud and clear is the continuing need for local authorities to play a role. I hope that Ministers accept the report's argument that there is a strong case for taking greater account of homelessness in the allocation by the Government of resources to local authorities.
Many of the areas hardest hit by homelessness are not in inner cities but in rural areas. One reason for that is that wealthier, luckier people are fulfilling their ambition to own property and to retire to what, to them, is a lovely part of the country—but to others it is their home and was their parents' home, but can no longer offer them work and, as a result, they cannot afford to buy houses. I refer also to areas where people are buying second homes in beautiful and lovely countryside. It is a pity that people wishing to move to them do not see the poverty of the families living next door, because families who have lived in those villages for years cannot now afford homes there.
I give as evidence of that the almost ideal example of a young couple in Cornwall, wishing to make a start on the housing ladder. If they both work, both receive the county's average wage for their sex, and have no children—one can hardly imagine a better scenario for first-time buyers—they can, according to local building societies, afford just 2 per cent. of the housing stock that is for sale at any one time. Needless to say, that stock is not in the areas where they want to buy, even if they are lucky enough to track it down before it is sold. That 2 per cent. of the housing stock is to be found in the larger conurbations, in the more rundown areas of high unemployment. Young couples living in villages scattered throughout my constituency and others have no chance of buying a home in their birthplace or workplace.
A prime example of the Government's response has been the transfer of council stock. For us, one of the most glaring examples is Torbay. Giving council tenants a greater say in what happens has potential, but when the Government exploit that situation, and cloak it in a rigged electoral system of secrecy and misinformation, council tenants naturally grow suspicious and do not feel that they have been made a genuine offer. The only convincing argument for the negative voting system is that under it the constituency of the Secretary of State for the Environment—Cirencester and Tewkesbury—would have fallen to the Liberals at the last election. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would not think that such a system would be appropriate if it were to have that result for him.
When that rigged electoral system for Torbay was overthrown by the Secretary of State under pressure from local Democrat councillors—who collected a petition showing that most people were against the transfer, despite the negative voting claim to the contrary—it was not just an attack on the Tory councillors who attempted to implement that system but, above all, a clear and visible attack on the negative voting system itself. Basically, the Secretary of State told the Tory councillors in Torbay that they had run the system as he had told them to do, but that the system was not right. It is only a shame that the right hon. Gentleman does not recognise the value of extending his decision more generally.
Council tenants throughout the country are concerned about who will manage their homes. There is great anxiety among tenants of the Commission for the New Towns about the future ownership and management of their homes. I cite Basildon as one example. Can the Minister give an assurance that there will be a ballot for CNT tenants on the future ownership and management of their homes before any changes occur? That is what tenants are pressing for.
I am staggered by the hon. Gentleman's reference to property transfers in Basildon, because the alliance of the Socialists that he represents and the Labour party has gone out of its way deliberately to frighten tenants. It is disgraceful that the hon. Gentleman makes a debating point of it.
I reject absolutely the hon. Gentleman's remarks. Our councillors and supporters have tried only to inform, and to argue that tenants should have a genuine say in the transfer of their housing stock. I may add that they have not supported the Labour party in seeking ballot after ballot, because they would like to see matters properly and independently conducted.
Will the Minister consider giving CNT tenants wishing to buy their own homes the same level of grant and subsidy that he intends giving any housing associations that are interested in CNT stock? If so, that might provide a fair balance and proper choice.
The young are among those most affected by Tory housing policy. In April 1988, the Government introduced income support regulations that created different levels of income support for 16 and 17-year-olds, for 18 to 24-year-olds, and for 25-year-olds. Household levels of income support were abolished, with the consequence that benefit levels no longer reflect the additional costs involved when a young person has no choice but to live away from his or her parents' home.
Earlier, I spoke of middle-class suburban values. Another is the assumption that parents can always be relied upon to support their children. For too many young people, that is not the case. Due to the alignment of income support allowances and housing benefit allowances, young people not only receive less help in meeting their personal costs but, if they are on a YTS or are unemployed, receive less help than older people with paying their rent and rates. I have never heard a convincing argument for why that should be, other than that which the Government does not like to articulate, which is that parents are always there, ready and willing to pick up the tab. That is not the case.
Since April 1988, income support has been payable two weeks in arrears, and the Department of Social Security no longer provides deposits to help people to secure accommodation. People needing money in an emergency must now apply for a discretionary loan, which young people in particular are not guaranteed to obtain. Linked with those changes was a Government promise of a YTS place for every young person who wanted one. The Government have been unable to keep that promise. On 9 November last year, the Government admitted that more than 13,000 young people looking for a YTS place had not been found one. As the Government should be aware, that means that those young people are ineligible for any form of benefit support. They increasingly face homelessness and the risk of destitution. They do not even appear in the figures of the homeless, but go unwanted and unrecognised.
Recently, I received a letter from a Methodist minister who picked up on those changes, and who wrote asking how such a thing could be. He wrote:
Whilst my wife was in St. Austell this morning, she came across a young woman begging outside Tesco, displaying a sign reading, 'I have no work and no money—please can you spare 10p?' This young woman—she is around 18 to 20—had left a catering course after two years and had come to this area seeking work. She has accommodation in a `bed-sit', but is caught in some sort of 'waiting period' until she becomes
eligible to draw benefit. She is actively seeking work but, meantime, has no means of support—hence her begging. No doubt this will concern you as it does me, the more so with the temptations which may well come the way of a young woman in this situation. If the present Social Security regulations really are causing such a situation, then they urgently need amending.
They are causing such situations, especially for those who are not even offered a YTS place or who are without a family to turn to.
The smug, complacent attitude of the Minister and the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South shocked me. It showed no recognition not only of the political propaganda that the Minister has to face in the House, but of the political reality of young people who have no hope of a house of their own or the Minister who wrote to me describing the young lady begging in the street in St. Austell. That attitude does not recognise the people who cannot afford to pay the mortgage on the houses for which they have scraped together the money to buy on the Government's recommendation. It does not recognise the people in pleasant towns and villages who see the devastating impact that neglect is having on those who have always lived there.
If the Minister had said that the Government were trying to do what they could, but that they recognised the failings and that more needed to be done, that would be one thing. But the Minister gives the impression that he honestly believes that there is nothing wrong, that no more needs doing, that everything about the Government's policy is right, that there is no omission and no improvement possible. That makes me angry because it shows a fundamental unwillingness to face up to the realities for people today. I hope that as the Minister reads the reports of this debate and the reports from many different organisations, he will reflect that he was wrong after all to take the attitude he has shown today.
I must say to the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. M. Taylor) that my hon. Friends do not think that everything is right, but he is wrong when he says that everything is wrong. My hon. Friends are more realistic about their record of achievement. However, they have achieved a tremendous amount in comparatively few years. No doubt that achievement will continue.
I want to return to the subject of inner cities and the area that I represent in inner London, and to comment on some of the achievements and some of the problems waiting to be resolved. This Government of all Governments have accepted the major challenge to provide a better quality of life for people living in urban areas. The problems in accepting that challenge are considerable. Areas such as Wandsworth face the major problem of dealing with the designers and planners of the past and with vast numbers of high-rise dwellings. The high-rise dwellings of former Socialist administrations in Wandsworth have resulted, 10 or 20 years later, in the crime, deprivation and isolation that we see today and there are mammoth problems to be overcome.
Such problems affect families and communities because we have areas in which people feel that they do not know each other and in which they feel that they can no longer send their children out to play with other families and know that they are safe. They have either to keep their children indoors or let them go out, where they pick up bad habits from their role models who are, of course, older children. Sadly, we cannot pull down those tower blocks because that would be too expensive a solution, but we can remedy the problem. If we had been able to pull down the tower blocks, we would have been able to house the same number of people on the same area of land in terraced houses with gardens and we should have kept the communities that we have lost.
That is a major problem, and in trying to solve it we have other problems. In my area, there is a paucity of land available for development. That is not true of all areas, but it is true of my part of inner London. In some areas the Land Registry can help in identifying and releasing land for development, but not in mine. We also have the continuing problem of social change. We have higher rates of divorce, young people leave home earlier, there are more single parents and more people coming out of institutions and looking for accommodation in society.
I salute the Government's achievements, which have been many. An enormous amount has been achieved through the Estate Action programme, for example. Hon. Members need not take my word for it. They can come to Wandsworth and see what a Conservative Government and a Conservative council have done together to rejuvenate an area of high-rise council estates.
Park Court is one of the blocks on the Doddington estate which is being completely refurbished so that it can be offered back to the tenants who resided there. It can also he offered to people on the waiting list. Some homes will be for rent and some for purchase. In refurbishing those homes, the council will bring new life into the estate. Alongside that redevelopment is low-rise development with landscaping and all the other amenities that enable one to achieve a more popular and habitable living area in a high-rise estate. I do not apologise for that.
There has been an enormous achievements, in crime prevention. Hon. Members need not take my word for it. They can come and see the partnership in Wandsworth between the Government, the Department of the Environment and the Home Office and the crime prevention measures that have led to new areas of lighting, locks, ground floor gardens and the moving of walkways. We know what needs to be done in Wandsworth, and we have a good example of partnership there. Tremendous strides have been made on sheltered accommodation and home improvements throughout the borough.
We have seen the enormous achievement of home ownership. Three million more families nationally own their homes than in 1979. Locally, 12,500 council dwellings have moved into private ownership, including 3,500 council flats. Half have gone to sitting tenants and half to people on the waiting list.
That is an enormous list of achievements, of which the Government can be proud, although I believe that there is a long way to go on home ownership. We still have more nationalised housing than anywhere else in Europe, but the Government are freeing people from being locked into dependency on tenancy, whereas Labour Governments have sought to perpetuate that.
We still have particular problems in inner London. We have the problem of empty properties, and other hon. Members have referred to the problem of empty council properties. I shall not dwell on that except to say that the Government are moving to rectify that. There are still problems in the private sector, and we should not under-estimate them. If private sector properties are empty for a period of years, perhaps we should consider trusts taking them over and letting them.
We should consider the question of squatting. Squatters jump the queue over more deserving people on the waiting list. The definition of homelessness needs to be considered. There are far too many cases in my constituency of people who suffer overcrowding, such as five people living in one-bedroomed accommodation, people in accommodation that needs repair, and disabled people who live upstairs and cannot get out. They are being jumped over by people who are defined as homeless and who, for one reason or another, seem to be able to reach the top of the list ahead of others. Sometimes that may be justified, but too often it is not.
The other day I received a letter from a constituent which asked the following question:
18 months ago, my sister got pregnant—she then moved (almost straightaway) into a three bedroomed council flat … Shall I get pregnant and do things the wrong way round? Will that help my chances?
That is not the message that we should give young people in need of housing. Such an attitude is true of too many housing associations.
I received a letter from a couple in which the young man was training for the ministry. They have been told that they must wait until either they are married or living together. They said that they did not want to live together. The Peabody Trust said:
The criterion the Trust has recently adopted in this respect is that couples approaching us must either be married or must show a commitment to the relationship in the form of being already living together.
That is not the answer that we should be giving to young people who wish to "do it the right way".
There is one injustice that the Government have not yet put right. Housing associations are central to the Government's housing plans. When they are good, they are excellent but when they are poor they can be tyrannical. We must try not to set a new trap that will prevent people from owning their own homes. My mailbag is full of letters from constituents saying, "The Government have given the option of home ownership to council tenants. Why cannot I have it? I have lived in a housing association property for the past 20 years. My family have grown up in it and I have spent thousands on improving it, yet I am not allowed the right to buy it." Others write and say, "The council has just moved me into a housing association property for its own convenience, and nobody told me that I would lose the right to buy." That behaviour is unjustified. As we bring in more housing association properties to help solve problems of housing and homelessness, more and more people will fall into that trap unless we give them the right to buy their housing association property.
I hope that no hon. Member will try to tell me about tenants transfer discounts of Home Ownership for Tenants of Charitable Housing Associations. HOTCHA was not so hot, and TIS—the tenants' incentive scheme—is a 'tisn't in London, given that the average price of a council flat after discount is £15,000 while the average after a TIS is between £50,000 and £70,000. For Londoners TIS ain't on.
I beg my right hon. and hon. Friends to reconsider this matter. Increasingly, housing associations are funded by the taxpayer and the ratepayer, and we therefore have a right to tell them how that money should be spent. It should be spent on providing rented accommodation, from which people can eventually step on to the home ownership ladder by exercising the right to buy. We need also to consider the possibility of allocating a quarter or a third of housing association funds with specific strings attached, insisting that properties should be provided for equity sharing schemes so that the sons and daughters of those who exercise the right to buy can climb up a stage on the home ownership ladder. It is time to right an injustice that has stayed with thousands of London families, and families throughout the country, for far too long.
One of the saddest things about this debate has been the repudiation, not only by the Minister but by Conservative Back Benchers, of the previous policies of the Conservative party. Public housing did not begin with a Labour Government—not even with John Wheatley, whose Housing Act 1924 led to the building of about 500,000 houses. Public housing began before that, and was determined by the needs of the people. Let us consider the history of Parliament from 1915 onwards. Perhaps the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Boscawen) is related to Griffith-Boscawen who said, "If it is right to have public education and public roads, why should it be wrong to have housing built by the state and by local authorities on behalf of people in need?" He was absolutely right to argue that case.
Some hon. Members who have appeared on the Conservative Benches during the last couple of Parliaments do not seem to understand their own history. Some of them have never heard of Joseph Chamberlain or of others in their ranks who argued consistently over the years that local authorities and the state should play a positive role in meeting the needs of the people. They seem not to know that, and that is a great pity. Perhaps they should look into their own history.
I was born and bred in a very small town. I was not born in Liverpool; I went there later, during the war years, and settled there after the war. I was born in Hertford, which is 20 miles north of London and had a population of 12,000. Even in that small community, we had council houses and council estates. I can name some of them. There was Gallows Hill estate—admittedly not a very good name—and there was the Bengeo estate, through which I passed on my two-mile walk to the church school. My mother insisted that I went to the church school. There were other estates in that small town.
I sometimes compare the lot of those who lived in council houses with the circumstances in which we lived. Our accommodation was damp, and my brother got TB and died at the age of 21. Others like us lived in dreadful conditions with mould on the walls, and the private landlords did nothing for people. The council houses were wonderful in comparison.
I then went to the great city of Liverpool. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) is not here. She knows what I mean when I call her "luv", because it is a Liverpool expression. In some parts of the country it would be "duck" and in Cornwall, for example, it would be "dear". My remark was not a sexist remark but a Liverpool remark, and I want to put that on record in case people write to me and say, "My God, what a sexist thing to say."
The hon. Lady and I both come from the city of Liverpool. I have lived there since the end of the war and my wife was born and bred there, on the Norris Green estate, a working-class housing estate. People used to pray that they would get to live in such a place. When my mother-in-law moved from rooms into a house—the house in which she still lives and in which she brought up her family—she took with her a handcart with the few odds and ends that she had; she did not have any furniture.
Conservative Members say that people do not want council housing. It is all right for the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South. She was born round the corner from where I now live. She would not know what living in council housing meant to people. I do, although I have never lived in one. As it happens, I have been an owner-occupier since the end of the war. First I lived in rooms and then I saved up to get a mortgage. I know that millions of people in this country have benefited from living in council housing and that they have been able to live a decent life because of it.
People are worried sick about the Government's new housing proposals. They do not know what will happen to them or whether their house will be handed over to some other landlord. I do not know what the leaflets say, but I know that my constituents write to me expressing concern, not because they have received leaflets but because all their lives they have lived happily in those houses.
Of course people want decent houses. They want their repairs done and they want their houses properly looked after and modernised—as many of them have been looked after and modernised by local authorities. I urge hon. Members to visit my mother-in-law's street. It is easy to tell the council houses from the ones that have been bought: the ones that have been bought are running down because people cannot afford to keep them in proper order. That is what is happening. The hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo) may laugh, but I challenge him to come to Liverpool and look at all the houses that people have bought but are being repossessed because they cannot afford to meet the mortgage repayments. It may be different in other parts of the country.
I shall not give way. After all, the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) spoke for 10 minutes. If we are to discuss these matters, we should be really concerned about them.
I shall conclude by quoting some figures. The hon. Member for Derbyshire, South also used figures. According to the Department of Environment housing and construction statistics published in October 1988, a total of 81,099 local authority houses were started in 1977. In 1979 the figure was 47,465, but by 1988 the figure had fallen to 15,204. Those are not my figures; they are the Department's figures.
I can also quote other figures, such as those relating to the homeless. A recent written reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) shows that, at the end of June 1979, only seven local authorities had over 20 and up to 50 homeless households requiring bed-and-breakfast accommodation. By the end of March 1988, a total of 26 towns and cities had more than 20 homeless households. The position is becoming worse.
I do not have time to quote all the facts and figures, but the housing crisis still exists. It is worse than it has ever been for ordinary working people, especially in London. Where do ordinary working people in London live? From where can they get housing? There are not even the rooms that used to exist. That is why there is such a rise in the number of homeless. We have to do something about it. The only solution is to get rid of the Government's policies. I hope that when a Labour Government are elected, we shall tackle the housing crisis for the first time. I believe passionately that no Government have really dealt with it properly. Like many workers among the Opposition, I know about living in lousy, rotten conditions and it is about time that it was stopped once and for all.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) for curtailing his remarks. I would not contradict what he said about his constituency, but in Ealing the position is reversed. The council houses that have been bought are well maintained, and the houses owned by the council are vandalised, squatted in and left empty for too long.
I shall address my brief remarks to the housing pressures in London and the south-east. Many of the symptoms have already been referred to—house prices increasing two and a half times in the past 10 years, rising faster than incomes; sadly more families accepted as homeless; young people sleeping on the streets; and problems in recruiting professionals such as teachers and nurses in London. There are also many concealed households, as young people stay with their parents because home ownership or renting is not available.
I very much welcome all that the Government have done to improve the position, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on what he is doing to reduce voids in local authority stock, to reclaim and use derelict land, to get the urban development corporations to provide affordable housing and to turn round difficult-to-let estates through Estate Action. More power to his elbow, but even if all that is done, there will still be a housing shortage in London and the south-east that can be met only by building more houses. Even SERPLAN, which is notoriously conservative, has now agreed that by 2001 100,000 to 120,000 dwellings will be needed in addition o those already planned.
I want to rebut the view that the answer to our problems in the south-east is to adhere to a strict planning regime and simply hope that development will take place elsewhere. I welcome the economic revival of the north, and the confident statements from the business community and its civic leaders are music to our ears—our strategy must be to build on that—but it is important not to dismantle or destabilise the economic base of the south-east and, crucially, not to enforce the relocation of residents from the overcrowded south to the north.
Some of my hon. Friends wish to hang up a "house full" sign on the door of the south-east, tightly to restrict further development and let the market do the rest. I find such a solution unacceptable. It is certainly unacceptable to the DTI. In its evidence to the public inquiry into proposalls for a new country town at Foxley Wood, the DTI was provoked into saying:
Past policies of discouraging development in relatively prosperous locations, or even steering that development to other parts of the country, have not met with success. It would therefore be a mistake to interfere with market forces by putting protective barriers around the south-east and other desirable areas in the hope that this would open up opportunities elsewhere.
We are a party that responds to market forces. We believe in reading the signals given by the market, and the policy of freezing development in the south-east is the very negation of what we stand for. The transformation of the country's economy has been achieved through acting on the supply side, finding out where the bottlenecks are, and removing restrictive practices by trade unions, anti-competitive agreements and the rest. The housing market cannot be expected to work with one hand tied behind its back.
What happens to the nurses, the teachers and the postmen who live and work in the south-east? As we have heard, local authorities are increasingly committed to rehousing the homeless, and those people often cannot afford to buy at the moment, let alone if the restrictive policies advocated by some people are pursued. The communities that would result from such policies would be unbalanced, polarised and unstable. The social cement that binds us together would not exist. We would have only the prosperous and the poor, and the children of people in the south-east would have real problems in finding somewhere to live.
Our strategic objective should be to manage and exploit the economic strengths of the south-east for the benefit of its residents and the rest of the United Kingdom. We need more houses. The rapid rise in land prices in England and Wales has increased fivefold in the past 10 years. Much of the land that has become available has not gone to the groups that most need housing, so there has been a mismatch between the type and location of new housing and the reasonable expectations and aspirations of local people. That is an understandable reason why planning committees can turn down development applications because they do not consider them relevant to local needs.
No one can argue that the land does not exist. Between now and the end of the century, 20 per cent. of agricultural land will become redundant—much of it in the areas of housing shortage. Farmers have already applied for 150,000 acres to go into the set-aside scheme. My right
hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has made it clear that change of use is needed. At the Conservative party conference in 1987, he said:
We must accept that more land will have to come out of agricultural production. So we must facilitate this change, to the benefit of our rural areas, and not obstruct it.
I see no reason for us to turn our backs on the one form of development that is most urgently needed—homes.
At the moment, the planning system cannot cope. Farmers and landowners have to play rustic roulette. They either get planning permission and their land is worth £1 million an acre, or they do not and it is worth £1,000 an acre. If they get consent, the developer will maximise his profit by building high-value units often beyond the reach of local pockets. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West (Sir J. Spicer) that we need a halfway stage—to give planning permission if the land is sold at a realistic price, which means that properties can be bought or rented by people on average incomes, and if the properties are offered in the first instance to local people doing key work or to the children of those already living in the community.
Many reasons for opposing development are based on sheer selfishness. The secretary of the village conservation society is often the chap who bought the last Wimpey house on the site of the old village school. He is often advocating restrictive development policies which, had they been adopted a few years back, would have meant that the house in which he now lives would never have been built. Other motives are more defensible, but one can overcome the understandable unhappiness of local people by insisting on a higher quality of design and on planning gain, so that there is real advantage to local communities if development goes ahead.
Many of the issues that I have raised fall outside my hon. Friend's brief, although they fall within his Department. I hope that, as a party, we can approach the subject in the spirit that I have outlined and come up with solutions in keeping with our party's broad sympathy to respond to and harness the forces of the market—solutions made more urgent by a humane desire to see our people adequately housed.
The debate has been wide, but I shall confine my remarks to housing in Wales. When we look, as we must, at the result of the Government's housing policy in Wales, we see that there is no doubt that the problems that have been highlighted by my right hon. and hon. Friends are even worse in the Principality. Wales has the oldest housing stock in Britain. Of all its houses, 40 per cent. were built before the first world war. Despite the fact that the Government have done some work to improve the condition of those houses, their own house condition survey admitted that about £500 million is still necessary to put right the houses in the Principality.
Welsh district councils have said that they need more money for environmental schemes and more grants for low-paid owner-occupiers to carry out urgent repairs. Low-cost houses are important in the valleys and elsewhere in Wales. The staggering rise in private house prices during the past year is more obvious in Wales than elsewhere. There was a 52 per cent. rise in private house prices in Wales in the past year. That is more than in any other region. It is more than in London, where prices rose by about 15 per cent., and in the country as a whole, where prices have risen by about 31 per cent.
We have seen widespread gazumping in the Principality. The Prime Minister tells us that private industry and estate agents should work out their own solutions to gazumping. That is not the answer to a major problem in England and Wales. High interest rates and low salaries in Wales mean that young people cannot afford new houses. The only people in Wales who can afford new houses are those who come in from elsewhere and are second, third, or even fourth-time buyers. That fact must be contrasted with the lack of local authority housing.
One of the most staggering remarks in the debate came from the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie). She said that no one actually wants council houses any more. I wish that she would say that to the 70,000 people who are on waiting lists in Wales or to the other people throughout Britain who badly require housing.
In the years of this Government, 60,000 council houses in Wales have been sold, and 30,000 more are planned to be sold. The rate in Cardiff is 73 sales a week. The housing supply is effectively drying up. In 1975, a total of 8,000 houses were built in the Principality. Last year, 900 were built, and they were mainly specialist housing. In some district council areas in Wales it takes up to 10 years before people can get the council house which the hon. Lady said they do not actually want. In the past 10 years, there has been a 174 per cent. increase in rents in Wales.
The traditional supplier of houses in Wales is the local authority, but people cannot now look to their local authorities for housing. If the hon. Lady has her way, they will never be able to. It is wrong to talk of councils in Wales and the rest of Britain building only bad, decrepit housing. That is by no means the case. Local authorities stuck stringently to the Parker Morris standards. This Government relaxed those standards. Council houses were often better built than private houses.
Housing associations are now seen as the panacea for housing problems in Wales and Britain. The public expenditure White Paper states that they are the main providers of social housing. The organisation Housing in Wales has been created for that purpose. It is elected by nobody and is accountable to no one, save the Secretary of State himself. Its very creation is a slap in the face for local authorities in Wales, with all the experience that they have gained over the years in providing houses for our people. The £72 million that that body has been given should have been given to councils to put right their stock and to build houses, as they have been doing over the decades.
Housing associations will not provide the answer to social housing problems. Rents will rise through decontrol or the replacement of secure or assured tenancies, and the need for market rents. Those who are just above the housing benefit eligibility level will be caught in a poverty trap.
Housing associations in Wales provide houses for people. A recent survey undertaken by the associations showed that one in five families in housing associations earn less than £40 a week and that only a handful earn over £100 a week. How will the associations deal with the problem of single, young people in Wales and elsewhere who cannot afford mortgages?
There has been a rise in homelessness, the extent of which is more staggering than we have seen for many years. There has been a 100 per cent. rise in 10 years. Six thousand people in the Principality are now homeless, and that is not counting those who are regarded as homeless but are not in the official figures. Matters have been made worse by a rise in rent arrears and mortgage defaults. It is no wonder that the Audit Commission said that some councils will be unable to meet their legal requirements.
What of the future? The Secretary of State for Wales has provided an answer. He wants to give away council houses altogether. That is a dotty idea. It is as absurd as it is impractical. It has been universally condemned by every Welsh housing association and other housing bodies. The impartial South Wales Argus called it political engineering of the most sinister kind. Public housing stock in Wales and Britain as a whole would be destroyed at a stroke if the Goverment's proposals were put into operation. The Secretary of State's statement has more to do with internal Tory party politics than with the proper provision of housing in Britain.
There is no doubt that housing in Wales is at a crisis point. First-time buyers cannot afford to buy. There are fewer and fewer houses to rent. Housing association rents will rise dramatically. The financial future for housing is bleak, with housing revenue accounts not to be helped any more by rates. That will fall heavily on pensioner schemes. There has been an effective cut in housing figures over the past 10 years. Wales has lost £1·25 billion in housing money which should have come to it over the last decade.
Housing in Wales is a time bomb which the Government must defuse. Ministers should plan for a balanced provision between rented and private housing. Instead, all that we are offered is the jungle of the free market which will no more solve Wales's housing needs than Britain's housing needs.
I will not be able to reply to all the points made by the hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) and I hope he will forgive me for not entering into the details of Welsh housing. There was a full debate on Welsh issues yesterday.
The hon. Gentleman did not make proper reference to the Welsh house condition survey. The latest survey shows that significantly fewer houses in Wales are now unfit. The proportion of houses without basic amenities has almost halved since 1981 and many fewer houses are now in a state of disrepair. These improvements have been particularly marked in areas such as Gwent, where unfitness has more than halved since 1981 and is now well below the Welsh average. I suspect—without having detailed knowledge of circumstances in Wales—that much of what the hon. Member for Torfaen said exaggerated the problems in Wales.
We have had a lively debate with some excellent contributions, especially from my hon. Friends. We particularly welcome the contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie). She commanded the attention of the House, she spoke with knowledge and experience as a former chairman of Birmingham city housing committee and she made some well-researched and telling points which caused confusion among the Opposition. I hope that she continues to speak out on the important subject of housing.
We also had important contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Dorset, West (Sir J. Spicer), for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) and for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young), and I hope that I shall have time to respond at least to some of the points that they made.
A common strand that has run through all speeches has been that more houses must be made available either through better management or through new building In the pressure spots, be they in London, the south-east or elsewhere. But before we can have more houses, we must have the land on which to put them, and that is where the planning system comes in.
That issue was addressed by my hon. Friends the Members for Dorset, West and for Ealing, Acton and, in an intervention, by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Mr. Favell), who said that restricting housing land led to a consequential increase in the cost of that land and, therefore, house prices.
The latest household projection clearly shows that more housing will be needed in the next decade, not so much because of any population increase as because of the increased rate at which the existing population forms new households. The reasons for that are many. The fact that elderly people are living longer, the increasing divorce rate, the growth of one-parent families and the fact that young people are leaving home earlier are all contributory factors.
Some say that the new demand for housing should be accommodated within the existing urban areas, as a means of taking pressure off the countryside, especially green field sites, and to encourage urban regeneration. They are right. That should happen as far as possible, but it is impractical to expect all new demand to be absorbed by our older urban areas.
We are doing as much as we can to encourage the process. Urban development corporations, enterprise zones, simplified planning zones and the financial incentives offered by city grant and derelict land grant are already doing much to rehabilitate urban areas by encouraging new enterprises, new homes and new jobs.
But cities need their open spaces, too. It is not the business of the planning system to direct people where they should live—to cram them into towns when that is not where they want to live—which is not only immoral but self-defeating. We need more housing in areas outside the. major conurbations. Too often, development plans propose new enterprises and new jobs because of the prosperity they bring, but shun the new homes that are vital to go with them, or hope that neighbouring areas will accommodate them.
That is often referred to as the "not in my back yard" philosophy. People who support that philosophy fail to realise that increasingly they will be unable to recruit the skilled labour that their businesses need because the price of housing will be beyond the reach of many of the candidates and because the available housing is likely to be snapped up by the more affluent, thereby excluding from the housing market the local people whose interests they are trying to protect.
We appreciate the feelings of those who see the character of their neighbourhoods changing and their communities being dominated by outsiders, be they commuters, second-home owners, retired people or people who have come from other countries. The answer cannot be to pull up the drawbridge; on that, the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West were important because he drew attention to the possibility of more housing land being brought forward on a voluntary basis by people being prepared effectively to give it as a gift for use by housing associations.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West referred to a potential fiscal problem in that connection, especially for capital gains tax. I shall draw his remarks to the attention of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Government are well aware of the anomaly and are looking closely to see whether there are any practical means of distinguishing these cases in a way that would enable us to deal with that problem.
Another initiative that we have taken in recent weeks has been to announce a new deal which will bring considerable comfort to those who live in rural areas, particularly in rural villages, and who resent the fact that their sons and daughters cannot afford accommodation in the place where they were brought up and wish to remain.
We have said that exceptionally—and only exceptionally—local authorities may, where there is a demonstrable local need, grant planning permission, on sites where it would not normally be granted, specially for low-cost housing for local needs. They should also make arrangements to ensure that housing remains within the low-cost, local needs sector. It is crucial that these sites should be additional to, and not instead of, the provision for general market housing as set out in the development plan. The scheme should be used not as a means of keeping out outsiders but for bringing more land into the market place and making it available for local people. I hope that some of these initiatives will be welcome in west Dorset.
I must emphasise that I am not advocating random development. Development must be properly planned, and it is important to remember, when considering household projections, that the need for development is absolute. So far as possible, we shall reduce existing under-used and derelict sites in the conurbations. We shall also maintain the green belt and other specially protected areas.
But we shall still need fresh land for housing, and I look forward to the unanimous support of the House in willing not only the end but the means to ensure that enough houses can be built in the years ahead. I hope that hon. Members listened with interest and respect to the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton, who dealt with this issue with considerable knowledge.
The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) raised a number of points, but in the time available to me I shall deal only with his wrong assertion that the biggest cause of homelessness was mortgage repossessions. In the third quarter of 1988, a total of 7 per cent. of homelessness was attributable to mortgage repossessions. That was down from 10 per cent. in the previous year, so the trend is going in the opposite direction to that which the hon. Gentleman alleged.
That demonstrates the scaremongering attitude that Opposition Members often adopt. They pay lip service to the idea of a property-owning democracy, but seem to seize any and every opportunity to try to frighten people away from home ownership. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heifer) did not miss that opportunity. He made assertions about the consequences for people who purchase houses in his area.
An independent report found that, on average, right-to-buy purchasers were less heavily committed than other first-time buyers. The report stated:
Most buyers have found the problem of purchase and the experience of home ownership to be entirely unproblematical.
Some people have taken on larger mortgages than perhaps they would have done had they known the extent to which interest rates would go up. I was disappointed that no Opposition Member pointed out that there is often scope for people in that situation to let one or more rooms in their homes, so helping to deal with the problem of homelessness.
An initiative in that connection, on which the Opposition poured cold water, was brought in by the Housing Act 1988. It will make it easier for resident landlords to remove difficult tenants, an inhibition which has caused many people to be reluctant to let parts of their homes.
The Opposition have been in one of their doom and gloom moods. They speak of a housing crisis which is really a crisis of their own. They lack a housing policy. Government successes have that effect on the Opposition. The more successful the Government are, the more gloomy the Opposition are. The more successful our housing initiatives are, the more gloomy the Opposition are.
Socialists have good reason to be gloomy about housing. On national policies, they can hope that the public have short memories and have forgotten what Socialist policies were like in practice, but the Opposition are confronted daily by local examples of their policies in practice.
We have seen already this year harrowing pictures of estates in Lambeth where tenants live like prisoners behind barricades. One would think that that might have shaken the Opposition from their complacency. The hon. Member for Hammersmith suggested that it was because of a lack of Government funding, but in the past year Lambeth has refused to collect from its tenants rents amounting to £5 million. Those rents could have been spent on improving property. Those estates represent Socialist housing policy in practice. The political views of a housing officer are more important than his management responsibilities. Rents may be low, but the standards of maintenance and repair are even lower——