Local Government Services

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:20 pm on 21st June 1991.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen , Leyton 2:20 pm, 21st June 1991

As time is short, I shall not follow Conservative Members' anecdotal attacks on Labour local authorities. They did not once mention Westminster council, with its selling of cemeteries for 15p and its wish to sell its homeless people to other boroughs, despite the fact that it has plenty of empty houses. Conservative Members conveniently forget Tory examples. Such anecdotes are part of their overall attack on Labour authorities. They cite all the anecdotal evidence because they want to cover the fact that the Government have cut grants to Labour local authorities. Billions of pounds of central Government grant have been taken away from Labour authorities so that they can no longer provide the services that their areas need.

I welcome the debate on local government services because I want to raise the important issue of the housing crisis, both in my borough and in London generally. It is a desperate crisis. Some 33,400 households—more than 80,000 people—are living in temporary accommodation awaiting a permanent home. That is a tenfold increase over the past year. If I had brought to the House all those people in my housing file, I could have filled the Benches on both sides of the House. I will cite the first case that I picked up this morning. A Mr. Raja wrote to me saying: I have been living at …for the last 13 years with my wife and six children ranging from 1 to 12 years …in appalling conditions as I am occupying only one room. I intend to raise his case with the council. He and his family would have had a much greater chance of being rehoused a decade ago. Now, he has little chance because of the housing crisis. I suspect that, after I have raised his case with the council, yet another sorry reply will be sent to him.

My housing authority in Waltham Forest is relatively good, especially in the circumstance of various options being closed by the Government. It has avoided bed and breakfast. It has fewer empty properties than most other authorities—certainly fewer than the private sector and fewer than central Government, who preside over 31,000 empty houses, often for a long time.

I wish to refer to the report of the director of housing for Waltham Forest. It is a microcosm of the crisis faced by London local authorities. It points out that there has been a massive increase of 58 per cent. in homelessness during the first few months of 1991, compared with the same period in 1990. There has been no increase in staff to cope with that because of the pressure caused by the poll tax. Casework is falling behind, with ever more cases needing investigation. The homeless are having to wait for up to nine months before they are offered accommodation. More than 500 cases are waiting to be investigated.

The director says that there is no one reason for the increase in homelessness, but he says that the number of people with mortgage difficulties is now twice as high, and the number of applications from refugees is two and a half times as high. No money comes from the Government, to help. The director points out that the number of applications from people who have lost private rented accommodation is one and a half times as high. If friends and relatives are not willing to accommodate an applicant, he is pushed further down the queue and told to make his own arrangements.

On the other side of the coin, the housing director points out that the supply of accommodation has been significantly reduced. The number of houses available in November, December and January fell from 195 in 1989–90 to 158 in 1990–91. Nominations to housing associations are much lower. The number of properties that an authority can lease for homeless people has dried up because the Government revised the subsidy reviews in October 1990. The effects trickle through because it takes time to negotiate leases.

The housing director points out that many families have to go into one-bedroom accommodation because that is all that is available. Even with families in such unsuitable accommodation, this year there will be a shortfall of 370 properties. Only 209 urgent cases out of a waiting list of thousands will be rehoused.

Many people are told to make their own temporary arrangements for an indefinite period and many are in grossly inadequate accommodation. People in category A special management transfers—for example, victims of domestic violence or racial harassment—cannot get rehoused. Even the useful transfers list—whereby people in family-sized accommodation move to smaller, more suitable accommodation, making their houses available for families—is clogged up because of the enormous pressure.

The housing director concludes by pointing out the impact on staff. He says: The rise in homeless has obviously created severe pressures on staff. Not only the increased work in investigating applications, but also the additional work involved in advising and counselling people turned away who would otherwise be rehoused and who may refuse to leave the office, have not been matched by more staff and have contributed to the high levels of stress and poor morale amongst officers in the Homeless Persons and Housing Advice Units. We all extend our condolences to the family of the planning officer who was shot. It was a shocking incident. I am amazed that more people in housing departments —[Interruption.] Many people fall victim or are put at risk in a similar way. As well as extending condolences, the Minister should institute a review of security for local officers who face such risks.

I welcome the debate. I checked with the Library and found that the last debate on housing and homelessness was on 3 July 1990. It is a scandal that the House has put off discussing a problem of such magnitude. The Conservative party has been in power for the past 12 years. The Government have created this crisis. They sold the best houses and did not make all the money available to the councils that owned them. The houses were sold at big discounts, and because of Treasury regulations the councils were not allowed to spend even amounts that they received from those sales on improving existing homes or building new ones.