Housing (Stoke-on-Trent)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:20 pm on 1st May 1990.

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Photo of Joan Walley Joan Walley Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 10:20 pm, 1st May 1990

It is precisely because of my experience at constituency surgeries over the past few months that I have been prompted to seek the Adjournment of the House to debate what is a most important issue in my constituency. Anyone who had seen the huge number of homeless people who have come to my surgeries, who have families and who have nowhere to live, would be left with no alternative but to bring the matter urgently to the attention of the House. I know that the Minister who will reply to the debate has in recent weeks had the opportunity to visit Stoke-on-Trent, North and I know that he has seen at first hand some of our many problems. I hope that we will have a constructive response from him which will enable the city council of Stoke-on-Trent and the borough council of Newcastle to go a considerable way in dealing with the huge problem of homelessness. Roughly one third of Stoke-on-Trent comes under Newcastle borough council and the remaining two thirds under Stoke-on-Trent city council.

Of all the problems of the area, housing is one of the major ones. I stress that both councils are Labour-controlled and will remain so. Both are equally committed to deal with the acute and growing housing crisis which is easily the worst since the second world war. Both councils are doing the very best job that they can under the impossible constraints imposed by central Government. Neither council is able to invest either in new house building or in the improvement of existing housing on the scale which is now both necessary and urgent.

I stress that it is the scale of the problem that is so important. New and improved homes are urgently needed. Both councils are working in close partnership with the Government on specific schemes, and we welcome them. We have seen some progress. But it is important to state that, although there have been some improvements, far more are needed. My surgeries have shown me that homelessness is now a serious problem that we must tackle. I hope that I can persuade the Government that more resources are needed and that, if they cannot be provided this financial year, it is essential that the Government plan to make them available in the next allocation of housing money to the two councils concerned.

North Staffordshire is no different from most other parts of the country in this respect. Last year Channel 4, in consultation with Shelter, produced an important documentary about homelessness. I felt that it should have had the status of the documentary "Cathy Come Home". Wanting to dispel the false assumption that only London has a problem of homelessness, the makers of the programme selected North Staffordshire as an average area not normally associated with rising homelessness. The documentary confirmed beyond all doubt that, after 10 years of Tory policies, it is not just in London that people are made homeless and are without homes; homelessness is an everyday reality for thousands of people throughout the country. Families as well as single people are without a place to live. The situation is intolerable. I want the Minister to answer for the misery that his Government's policies are causing to my constituents and others in the west midlands and the north-west.

In the west midlands in 1989 as many as 14,250 households were homeless and came under the responsibility of the local authorities, under the provisions of the Housing Act 1985. Similarly, in the north-west in 1989 as many as 21,210 households were homeless and local authorities had to accept responsibility for them.

Returning to a constituency level, and taking Newcastle first, how does the Minister account for there being as many as 59 families with children in lodgings, 24 eligible transfer applicants and 17 approved cases, all awaiting rehousing in two or three-bedroomed houses—not in the whole area of Newcastle but just in the Kidsgrove area of the borough, including Talke, Talke pits and Whitehill? How does he account for there being only five houses available for re-letting in that area during the past three months; and how does he account for the waiting time for eligible applicants being more than one year?

It is difficult to imagine what it must be like for applicants who have to come to my surgeries time and again and who are told by the council that despite its best efforts there are no houses available for letting in the near future. It is difficult to imagine the fear that their children will be grown up before they have had any chance of providing a secure home for them. It is difficult to imagine what it must be like for families feeling guilty about the extra pressure that they are placing on ageing relatives when they have to share their accommodation and use only the downstairs living room because the remainder of the house is already overcrowded with the rest of the family living there. Surely it is wrong that these people have no home of their own in the area to which they belong and in which they have strong community links, and where they want to stay, with decent accommodation.

Just in case the Minister had thought of intervening to say that this is purely a matter for the local council to sort out, I should like to remind him of some figures. Newcastle council spent more on housing in 1988–89 than on anything else, yet its housing service has been increasingly restrained by Government legislation and reductions in finance. After the past 10 years in which the council's borrowing allocation for housing work has been reduced, its ability to improve its properties or to build new ones has become progressively limited. By 1989–90 the council's basic allocation as a percentage of its actual bid was 14·5 per cent., and the Housing Act is set further to restrict the council's ability to satisfy the area's many housing needs.

This year, the council's bid for a housing allocation was for £8·863 million—a figure based not on some wild dream but on the justifiable housing needs of the borough and on what the council knew it could realistically spend. In return the council received approval to spend a mere £2·8 million, which is not enough, given the scale of the homelessness problem.

I know that when the Minister visited the area he had every opportunity to reassure himself that the allocation from the Government was being properly and efficiently spent. I wonder why the Government are so blinkered and determined. Why do they insist that market forces alone can deal with housing policy? Why do they prevent councils from building much-needed family houses?

I am worried about the new provision that allows purpose-built accommodation for elderly and disabled people to be sold off. In the long term that is making matters worse. It is ludicrous that councils have not been allowed to spend all the money from council house sales on building new homes for people on the waiting list.

In Kidsgrove we have an area known as Birchenwood, which is reclaimed land; we are pleased to have had Government support, in conjuction with the local council, for reclaiming that land. Of the 37 acres of derelict land that have been reclaimed and are now ready for development, 12 were originally earmarked for council housing, but they have already been sold to the private sector.

Twenty-five acres remain. Outline planning permission has already been given for housing. I would like to hear from the Minister a commitment that he would consider both public and partnership housing bids on that site for a housing allocation for the future. It is nonsense to expect people who are on the housing waiting list and who are homeless to be able to afford houses which cost £60,000 to £80,000 new. It is also regrettable that the Housing Corporation, which could help with housing on that site, has had its money reduced so drastically. I want the Minister to take that into account when considering the bids for Newcastle for next year.

The Housing Minister has visited Kidsgrove and is familiar with the area. I should like him to acknowledge that there are special problems on Galleys Bank estate caused by British Coal's failure to tell people that houses built for miners who moved into the north Staffordshire coalfield were defective under the housing defects legislation. Will he accept that, unless the Government step in, the local council does not have the cash to make good all the houses belonging to the so-called eligible and non-eligible owners? Does he accept that that in itself would go a considerable way towards easing the specific problems of the homeless in that area? If he can give an extra £637,000 and then an additional £690,000 to the neighbouring Conservative-controlled Staffordshire Moorlands council to assist owners of designated buildings there, surely he can treat Newcastle in the same way.

In Stoke-on-Trent, where traditionally the council has provided a large number of houses and there is a great need for repairs to older stock, homelessness is also increasing, as the documentary on Channel 4 showed. The crisis of homeless families is deepening. The council rents out 28,000 houses. Approximately 7,000 have been sold. The main concern is that the council has not been able to replace the houses that have been lost.

During the Minister's visit to Stoke-on-Trent he could see that the council has proved over and over again that it will co-operate with central Government and that it is prepared to have partnership schemes where there would be a considerable improvement in conditions. Certainly the Minister was able to take advantage of the opportunity to see the good progress being made in Tunstall and Chell Heath, which I welcome, and which has been the result of extra money.

None the less, Government economic policy, leading to mortgage repossessions, and the refusal to allow councils to build affordable houses, are having their effect on a once-stable community. The housing chair in Stoke-on-Trent, Councillor Jean Edwards, told me that for the first time ever people are queueing to get into the family homeless unit. The only lettings that the council can make are to homeless families. Couples and single people do not stand a chance of being housed, Homelessness is a major problem in Stoke-on-Trent. The local councils are doing the best they can. They know best what needs to be done. The fact remains that, in 1989–90, £36 million was needed to deal with the housing problem but only £9 million was agreed by Government.

In the week of the local government elections voters all over the country will be voting for Labour-controlled councils which have pledged to deal with the shortage of affordable accommodation for rent and for sale. When even the Tory-controlled Association of District Councils pleads for more cash to invest in housing we know that the Government are in deep trouble. The Government have created a crisis. I welcome the opportunity of the Adjournment debate to hear from the Minister precisely what his proposals are to tackle the growing problem of homelessness; and especially how he proposes to assist councils which have to deal with homeless families in Stoke-on-Trent, North.

This is a week, too, when North Staffordshire district health authority and other organisations are meeting for the first time to discuss the report on the health profile of Stoke-on-Trent commissioned by the city. The report confirms that health throughout the city is considerably worse than the national position. The city has a death rate 25 to 30 per cent. above the comparable national rate. Within the city there is not a single ward that does not suffer excess mortality.

I commend the report to the Minister. Bearing in mind the relationship between good health and good housing, and the effect on ill health of high deprivation and housing conditions, I gladly present him with a copy of the report, if he has not already seen it. I ask him to bear it in mind when considering the housing allocations for my constituency. We owe it to those who are homeless to give them the basic right to a home of their own. I hope that the Minister will take account of the report on the health profile of Stoke-on-Trent.