Housing

Part of Statutory Instruments, &C. – in the House of Commons at 8:58 pm on 3rd July 1990.

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Photo of Mr Ronnie Fearn Mr Ronnie Fearn , Southport 8:58 pm, 3rd July 1990

The Government may well claim that never have so many people owned their own houses, and that that is, of course, because of Government policies. But they must also claim that never have so many people been homeless, sleeping rough on the streets, in derelict buildings, in substandard lodgings, hostels or bed-and-breakfast accommodation. That is also a direct result of Government policy. There is no doubt that in the past 10 years there has been a sharp increase in the number of homeless, well above any expected trend. A report commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree memorial trust, "Homeless in Britain", shows that every day an average 1,000 households apply to local councils for help and that during the past 10 years, more than 1 million households have been registered as homeless by local authorities.

The problem is no longer a phenomenon of our largest cities. People are sleeping on our streets, in unused buildings, temporary accommodation and other unsuitable places right across this land of ours. My own area of Southport, in Sefton, north-west England, has a homeless problem, which has been growing for the past few years as the local authority finds its hands tied with restrictions on housing finance, and social services departments find it increasingly difficult, because of their restricted resources, to assist people who are homeless through no fault of their own. Such people have been turned out of hospitals and other institutions as a result of the Government's policy of closing down such homes without providing an alternative means of care or an alternative place to live.

Such short-term measures as that announced by the Minister for Housing and Planning on 22 June to provide £15 million for additional subsidies and subsidised accommodation for the single homeless, may give some small relief. However, I fear that it may create more problems than it will solve. Until we recognise the underlying causes of homelessness and instigate a programme to combat them, the long-term prospects for Britain's homeless are bleak.

Another problem that I fear such short-term measures may create is to put pressure on the police force to use the Vagrancy Act 1824 and other laws to move people off the streets. To give people who are already down and out a criminal record as well will do little to enhance their prospects of finding permanent housing. If there is any form of compulsion attached to the programme, it is likely to be defeated before it gets off the ground. Young people may rebel against it, particularly if they can be compelled to enter an institutionalised system, of which many of them have had experience and are trying to avoid.

There will also be a problem finding buildings with long-term leases at a reasonable cost. That will not be an easy task in the south-east. There will be problems in finding the staff and volunteers to run such centres. Many of the young people on our streets are vulnerable. What safeguards will there be to ensure that someone placed in a position of trust can be trusted? I fear that short-term measures will serve only to paper over the cracks in time for the general election. Once the young people who sleep on our streets are safely hidden in hostels and dormatories, the issue of Britain's homeless will be put on the back burner.

Those are the problems that arise from short-term measures, but I must not spend any more time on that subject because it will deter from the main argument, which is to identify solutions for the causes of homelessness. There is no dispute—or should not be—that the single, most important cause of homelessness is the lack of affordable housing units. The blame for that can be laid directly at the feet of the Government. Due to the Government's policy to reduce public spending, their dislike of local government and their utter contempt for anything that might be seen as public service, the provision of social services and social housing by local government has been virtually destroyed.

The right-to-buy policy is not, in itself, a mistake, and the principle behind it is to be welcomed. Encouragement should be given to the voluntary and, in some cases, private sector to increase their contribution to the provision of housing, particularly affordable housing units. What is wrong is the way in which the Government have approached and administered that policy. The Government have failed to recognise—or perhaps chosen to ignore—the fact that in any society there will always be a need for social housing and housing at affordable rents and prices.

The right-to-buy programme, when coupled with restrictions on the use of capital receipts, has resulted in a critical shortage of such housing. In 1979, the number of new council houses built was 79,009. In 1989, that figure dropped to a mere 14,925. At the same time, the numbers on waiting lists requiring accommodation had increased from 741,000 in 1983 to 1,268,000 in 1988. That is the scale of the problem. The Government's attempts to move the emphasis of the provision of social housing to the voluntary and private sectors have failed, because they do not understand the nature of the matter with which they are dealing, and because they have not enabled the individual to acquire the means to obtain access to affordable housing.

The pressure on housing associations to take up the slack, accompanied by a reduction in central Government funds, has meant that they have had to bridge the gap between public and private sector funding through the raising of rents. In effect, they have had to move up market. The purpose of housing associations was originally to provide for the more vulnerable groups—those on low incomes, and the elderly. However, Government pressure has forced them into the business of catering for the conventional household and those more able to pay, rather than those in need. Consequently, access to permanent affordable housing for the traditional clients of housing associations has been further reduced. The sorry saga surrounding the administration and funding of the Housing Corporation is now undermining confidence in housing associations in general, and provision of all types of homes by that process is consequently under threat.

Women have possibly been the hardest hit by current housing policy. I recommend to the Government—and to all parties—the excellent Shelter publication, "Women Losing Out", which points out that housing policies are based on assumptions about the family, and about women's role within families. The policy is designed on the assumption that the nuclear family is the norm, whereas it accounts for only 28 per cent. of households. One-parent families with one young child represent 40 per cent. of the homeless. More than 50,000 one-parent households in Britain become homeless in a year, according to the Joseph Rowntree report. In an era that promotes home ownership at the expense of public housing, women's housing options have been drastically reduced. Their traditionally low incomes and employment prospects create vast inequalities in access to housing between men and women.

The Government's housing policy is now based on the ability to pay rather than on need. The housing Acts of 1988 and 1989 have increased the difficulties of those who are unable to buy. They have reduced security of tenure, introduced higher rents and reduced benefits, owing to the system of assessment of what it is reasonable to pay rather than what the tenant is paying for. Despite all their efforts, the Government have failed to attract the private sector back to rented accommodation. The measures about which we have heard tonight will not affect that either. The private sector still accounts for only 10 per cent. of rented provision, and much of that is to students and single professionals rather than to families.

I was interested to read in the Observer last Sunday that, owing to the high cost of living in the south and south-east, northern universities are expecting 50,000 extra students in September and landlords are already preparing their welcome with plans to increase rents by 15 to 20 per cent. and an insistence on 12-month contracts, although the academic year is only 32 weeks long. Students and some other young people increasingly find that they are in a no-win situation, with rents payable in advance. For students whose grants are payable term by term and for young people on social security which is paid in arrears, the chance of finding a permanent roof over their head is slim.

The housing crisis in Britain will get worse as high mortgage rates and ever-increasing rents push people into arrears. In 1979 there were 2,530 repossessions; in 1989, there were 13,780. That figure is bound to climb, as will the number of evictions from rented property.

I am intrigued to know how the Government intend to square the conflict in their advice. Perhaps the Minister will answer that question. As inflation bites and unemployment rises, their philosophy demands that they encourage young and old alike to get on their bike and look for a job. As the housing crisis deepens and homelessness is rampant, the Government's advice appears to be to stay put, as the pavements of London and other large cities are not paved with gold. Indeed, they are more likely to be paved with Britain's homeless. Because of the housing crisis in rural and urban areas alike, such advice is useless.

What can we do about the problem? We must start from the premise that the country believes that the Government have a duty to ensure that everyone has access to affordable housing. I urge the Government to start towards achieving that aim by removing many of the restrictions that they have placed on local authorities. The top priority must be the release of capital receipts to enable local authorities to replenish stock, by providing houses themselves, by allowing housing associations to cater for the more traditional client, or through partnership with the private sector.

Another priority is to bring existing stock up to standard. Where necessary, there should be powers to purchase homes or to carry out repairs to empty private sector homes whose owners have refused to bring them up to a habitable standard. It is a tragedy and a sin that so many properties are empty. In May 1988 there were 23,000 such homes in the public sector, of which only 4,100 were available for rent. According to the Minister for Housing and Planning in an article in the Municipal Journal on 15 June, there were 600,000 vacant properties in the private sector.

I should like to see the Housing Corporation retained, at least in principle, and it should be given more funds. I should welcome changes to the way in which we define "homeless" and changes to the social security system to prevent the policy working against the young and the single homeless and especially against women who, because of our present system, remain trapped in unbearable situations that are often dangerous.

We need to change the housing benefit system so that it reflects the true cost of rents. That could be combined with the introduction of housing cost relief, a policy advocated by my party in our policy document "Housing, a time for Action", and it would apply to home buyers and people who rent. Affordable housing for all is more than the provision of bricks and mortar. Among other things, it is about the economy, our tax system, our communities, planning and the environment. Our policy document contains innovative ideas for the provision of decent housing. I commend it to the Minister and to Conservative Members.