Housing (Change of Landlord)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:40 pm on 17th April 1989.

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Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West 10:40 pm, 17th April 1989

Like many hon. Members, I have a surgery in my constituency, in my case every Friday. Every week, the greatest number of problems concern housing. People come to me asking me what can be done. Some live in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Some are single-parent families. Some have lived in Newham for many years. Some are in unsuitable private rented accommodation, and others want transfers. Last Friday, about 70 per cent. of all the cases that I saw concerned housing. What can we offer such people? On many occasions, I have said that I only wish that Ministers, and in particular the Prime Minister, would come to my surgery to see how enormous is the housing problem in my area, and how that is mirrored throughout London and in no doubt in other cities.

If the Housing Act 1988 from which these regulations flow had done anything to address the housing crisis, I would have been most encouraged. I would also have been amazed, given the Government's record. The Act has nothing to do with building one single unit of the accommodation that is so desperately needed. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) said, it is all to do with ideology, and the drive to force local authorities out of providing housing. It is about petty, party political, ideological objectives rather than housing.

It does not take a great statistician to work out that there must be something wrong when homelessness in London has doubled since 1979 when the Government came to power. The number of people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation has reached astronomic proportions. In 1983, Newham was spending £50,000 a year on bed and breakfast. This year, it will spend £5 million. That cannot be right.

While the queue of people wanting accommodation keeps growing, the Government cut the resources that local authorities need to build new houses. The Minister will correct me if I have got it wrong, but if I remember rightly, since the Government came into power, the housing investment programme has been cut by 80 per cent. in real terms. That is why homelessness has doubled. It is not because there are no good landlords waiting in the wings to come along and give people decent accommodation in which to live: it is all because the Government have cut, cut and cut again against the resources that local authorities need to spend on housing.

I hope that, if the Minister's bag carrier has just got the figure for the number of voids in Newham—I am sure that that is what I lipread—he will bear in mind the fact that we have about 1,100 voids because they are in unsafe tower blocks. They are those Taylor Woodrow Anglia tower blocks. No doubt the Minister remembers the name of Ronan Point. There are 110 of those unsuited tower blocks. In the drive to sell off units of accommodation, there are not many takers for tower blocks in Newham. Boroughs have been forced to sell off the best properties. Tenants have been left in the worst, and they have little chance now of ever moving out of them.

The problems of homelessness in London and elsewhere stem from the constant denial of resources to local authorities to build houses that people so desperately need. In the 1970s, we were building, about 25,000 units of accommodation a year in London. We are down now to fewer than 2,500. Building in the public sector is at a lower level now than it was in the 1920s. It is a scandal. The Minister and the Government generally are presiding over an obscene disgrace. In 1989, there are still tens of thousands living in conditions that no Member of this place would be prepared to tolerate for five minutes. At 10.45 pm we are discussing measures that have nothing to do with the problems of homelessness and nothing to do with building new homes. Instead, they are all about party political spite and ideology as the Government try to drive local authorities out of the provision of homes.

The regulations against which we are praying make t he already fundamentally flawed policy even more problematic. They display disregard for the interests of tenants. They work against genuine efforts to find satisfactory tenant-based solutions to housing problems. They introduce the imposition of intolerable administrative and financial burdens on councils. The time scale for consultation is woefully inadequate. If the objective is to allow genuine discussion among tenants and their advisers to enable satisfactory solutions to housing problems, the time scale is nonsense.

I understand that 14 weeks is the maximum period for consultation, and it could be much less. The applicant landlord could effectively stifle debate by issuing the final offer only at the end of the first seven-week period. The belated concession of seven to 10 days for the council to respond is completely inadequate. There is then four weeks in which to vote, but that could be done on the first day, with only two weeks to follow up. Real debate could be restricted to only two weeks in the middle of the process. It is the opinion of the Association of London Authorities that 28 weeks is the minimum period for real debate and discussion.

Perhaps the Minister will argue that there will be debate during the preliminary phase, but few details are available about that. I hope that the Minister will tell us in greater detail what the consultation period will involve. As the procedure is non-statutory, an applicant landlord will not have to make a final offer. That means that details of rents, for example, will be missing. Genuine consideration of all the facts can take place only within the statutory consultation process, and under the regulations that could be limited to a mere couple of weeks.

Housing is far too important for these procedures to be acceptable even to the Minister. The provisions of only one vote for joint tenants will cause major problems. At the very least, we maintain that two signatures should be required to prove that the vote is acknowledged by both parties. The regulations are inadequate for meeting the needs of tenants whose first language is not English. That is a matter of major concern in a borough such as Newham. Regulation 16, schedule 3, states that, Where there is significant foreseeable demand material, should be translated. That provides too many loopholes for applicant landlords.