Local Government Services

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:52 pm on 21st June 1991.

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Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West 1:52 pm, 21st June 1991

The hon. Gentleman is misinformed to the point of being a fool. If he knew anything about the London borough of Newham, he would realise that the fact that there are so many vacant properties is due to the council having to move people out of unsafe tower blocks, built by Taylor Walker Anglian. Ronan Point was so unsafe that part of it fell down and people were killed. We have had to move hundreds of families out of tower blocks because they were unsafe to live in. For a Conservative Member to say that there is something wrong with us in Newham as we have so many vacant properties—because we have moved people out of properties that were in danger of falling down and taking people with them—seems to me not hypocrisy but stupidity developed into an art form, something in which the hon. Gentleman specialises.

As for empty properties in London in either Conservative or Labour-controlled local authorities, when Conservative authorities want to do something about housing the homeless in their boroughs—I exclude Westminster from the list—they find that they cannot get the money to rehouse people in those empty dwellings. For example, in the past year the withdrawal of Government subsidies forced London boroughs to increase council rents by 22·9 per cent., compared with 13·8 per cent. in the country as a whole. The reason for so many rent arrears in London is the simple fact that people cannot afford to pay the rent. That is a major problem, but Conservative Members do not seem to think that it exists.

There have also been Government cuts in local authority capital spending on council housing in London. That has hit London far harder than anywhere else. In real terms, there has been an estimated 74 per cent. fall in London between 1979 and 1991, compared with a 64 per cent. fall nationally. That is the reason for so many empty properties and why rent arrears are so high. One does not need to have a PhD in housing administration to work out why there is a housing crisis in London. For example, London councils had 170,000 fewer homes for rent at the end of the 1980s than they had at the beginning of the decade because they had been sold off and were no longer available to rent.

There has been an 80 per cent. cut in the housing investment programme allocation by central Government. Local authorities cannot afford to build houses now. In the 1970s, London local authorities built 25,000 units of accommodation per year. Now they are building 1,500 per year. Some local authorities are building none. Is it surprising, therefore, that there are 80,000 people in bed and breakfast and temporary accommodation in central London? Conservative Members throw out cheap, silly sneers about vacant properties and the level of rent arrears, but they are not interested in solving the housing problem or in the homeless people in London. Many of the homeless, by definition, do not have the vote, so they are not part of Conservative Members' political considerations, but the homeless do exist and they are a real problem in Labour-held boroughs. My hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) was absolutely right to say that Labour authorities have so many problems because they cover the poorest areas, where the problems are legion.

It is no good saying that it is all about value for money. I understand the principle, but we need the money to start with. Since 1979 money has been taken away from local authorities which have then been told that they are somehow not managing to deal with their problems. Someone who is now departed—although not far enough for me—said, "You don't solve problems by throwing money at them", but nor does one solve them by taking money away, which is what has been happening in local government since 1979. It has been robbed blind by the Government.

I am conscious of the time. There are still many points that I should like to make, but I am not selfish and I intend to give way to an hon. Member with whom I shall disagree entirely. However, anyone who arrives at the beginning of a private Member's debate on a Friday morning is entitled to his four pennyworth, and I have already had three and a half pennyworth.

The Minister mentioned the paper on the reform of the structure of local government. Why should we not have another look at local government? We seem to be spending all our time looking at and interfering with local government structure. I resent the fact that the one area that has been excluded from any consideration for structural change has been the capital city. That has been deliberate. There are one or two sensible Tories—none of them in the House at the moment, except the Minister—who come to me and say that it makes sense to have a strategic authority for London because it needs one.

When Londoners have a Labour Government after the next general election, they will have a strategic authority which will be called the Greater London authority. I hope that it will be based at county hall and will provide Londoners with something that they are unique in not having. London is the only capital city that does not have a citywide local government structure. That is appalling, and it is an indictment of the Government—and especially of the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher), who still looms large enough for even the sensible Tories not to vote as they would like and restore strategic government for London.

About 50 per cent. of Londoners would quit the capital city if they could—for a variety of reasons, of which transport is the primary one. Other reasons include the filthy streets, the potholed roads and the general poor quality of life, all of which make London a pretty nasty, unco-ordinated and unpleasant place to live. The transport system is overcrowded and the provision of many services is bad. One thing is clear: two thirds of Londoners say that London needs a strategic authority. Conservative Members should listen carefully as we are approaching a general election. I do not expect this Government to provide us with such a strategic authority, but London will have one as soon as the Labour Government are elected.