Housing

Part of Adjournment (Easter) – in the House of Commons at 6:50 pm on 2nd March 1989.

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Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment) 6:50 pm, 2nd March 1989

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——