I beg to move,
That this House notes the abysmal failure of the Government's housing policy which after 12 years has resulted in record mortgage levels, record homelessness, the collapse of the public and private rented sector and a crisis in the construction industry; and calls on the Government to put forward proposals for a mortgage rescue scheme, an emergency programme to deal with homelessness and a phased release of the capital receipts from the sale of council houses to fund a planned increase in housing investment.
There is no mystery about housing in Britain. There is a growing housing crisis for two main and obvious reasons. First, we have failed to build enough houses and, secondly, the cost of housing has risen so fast that decent housing is now beyond the reach of a significant number of people. Those factors are a direct consequence of Government policy and there will be no improvement until there is a change of policy or, indeed, a change of Government.
The facts can be stated simply. The number of houses built in the 1980s was the lowest in any peacetime decade in this century. The 1990s have started even less promisingly. Housing starts for 1990 totalled only 184,000 and few people doubt that there will be a still sharper fall this year.
No, I have only just started. I shall give way very sparingly in view of the short time available.
The total figures are bad enough. However, the real pain is felt when we consider social and affordable housing. That is the sector where there has been the most damaging decline and where it hurts most. In 1978—the last year of the Labour Government—local authorities built 92,000 houses in England and Wales. That figure had fallen to a mere 13,000 by 1990 and it will fall still further this year. Indeed, it is the deliberate aim of Government policy—so we are told—that the figure should fall to zero very soon. Presumably, the intention is for the gap to be made up by housing associations and by the private sector. That has not happened.
Housing associations completed a mere 8,873 homes for rent in 1989—that is a welcome contribution, but nowhere near the scale required. The private sector—after a period in the mid-1980s when, it must be said, it was not social but luxury housing that was built—also suffered a sharp decline. In fact, it is gripped by the severest recession for decades.
The latest state of trade survey conducted in March and published in May by the Building Employers Confederation shows that the steep downward trend in output continues. The balance between those reporting higher and lower output has fallen for the ninth successive quarter to minus 70 per cent. That is the lowest figure on record. The industry predicts that 150,000 jobs will be lost this year. Skills will be lost, never to return. Business failures are at record levels and they include long-established family firms.
They are the facts about the supply of new housing. The facts about the cost of housing are no less powerful. Home owners were lured into home ownership by the boom, which was helped by the shortage of supply and they were then trapped by soaring interest rates. As a result, home ownership has become an impossible dream for many and an impossible nightmare for many more.
The number of repossessions, which stood at 46,940 in the year to March, has doubled in a year and it is predicted to double again in the coming year. Few would quarrel with that prediction. A Bank of England study which was recently published shows that 784,000—or one in 12—loans are two months or more in arrears. It is not surprising that homelessness due to arrears increased by 58 per cent. in the first quarter of 1991, and it is a major factor in the increasing burden placed on local authorities.
Tenants have found housing costs no easier to face. Private rents have risen sharply, reinforcing the evident truth that the private sector cannot meet the demand for affordable housing. Due to a deliberate Government decision, council rents have risen by an average of 12·3 per cent., although that average conceals much more extreme rises such as the successive rises imposed in Ealing.
It must also be remembered that it was the unfairness of the burden placed by Government policy on the housing revenue account and, therefore, on the tenants and their rents which led the Tory councillors in West Oxfordshire to resign last year. The unfair pressure requiring some tenants to pay for the subsidies payable to others continues.
Housing associations have also had to respond to high interest rates by raising rents. In 1990, new lets were at an average rent per week for a three-bedroomed house of between £46 and £54, beyond the reach of most low-income families. That was the conclusion of the joint report by the House-Builders Federation and the Association of District Councils entitled "Bridging the Affordability Gap in 1990". The report found that fewer than half all young people under the age of 30 could afford to buy their own homes and it called, not surprisingly and with our support, for 100,000 houses to be built each year for rent or shared ownership.
With the supply of housing drying up and the costs of housing rising sharply, it is little wonder that homelessness is increasing rapidly. No fewer than 145,790 households, or almost 400,000 people, have been accepted as homeless in the past year—a doubling of the number with which the Tory Government began the decade. Some 12,170 homeless households are in bed-and-breakfast accommodation at an average cost of £15,440 per annum. That figure was described in May by the Public Accounts Committee as "bad value for money". The average cost per year of building those families a new home would be just half the cost of bed-and-breakfast accommodation at £8,200.
On the topic of the availability of housing for families in need, will the hon. Gentleman comment on the fact that the 10 councils with the highest number of vacant dwellings—incidentally also the 10 councils with the highest amount of unpaid rent arrears—are under Labour control?
If the hon. Gentleman reads the report of the Public Accounts Committee, he will find that by far the greatest culprits in the matter—I defend no one who has a high proportion of housing stock empty—are the Government. The Public Accounts Committee want to hear the truth of the matter about the 31,000 houses that are currently empty.
The position is worst in London. The report of Single Homeless in London estimates that 3,000 people are sleeping on London's streets. That is enough to make it difficult for even the most fastidious Minister to avoid stepping on them as he leaves the opera. The report puts the total of homeless in London—
I may give the Minister a chance to intervene a little later. The report puts the total of homeless in London—living in squats, in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, in hostels and on the streets —at 52,500. The Salvation Army says that 75,000 people in London are what it describes as "visibly homeless". It says that the situation is as bad as it was in 1904.
The facts are depressing and damning and they cannot be gainsaid. The Government's excuse is that demand for housing has risen as the baby boom of the 1960s has taken effect and as a higher divorce rate has split families. That makes the failure to prevent the fall in supply even more culpable.
The facts are the record of a decade of failure of a Government who had the huge benefit of riches from the North sea, but who have ended the decade with the shameful spectacle of young people begging on our streets by day and sleeping on our streets by night. The facts are the record of a Government who proclaimed an economic miracle, but who failed to provide the most basic of human needs—a roof over one's head—for many of their citizens. The facts are the record of a Government who have provided great benefits to some via tax cuts, capital gains and salary increases—including those that we shall debate later today—but who have left hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of the most vulnerable people in our society in overcrowded slums or without homes at all. The facts are potent, but they conceal more than they tell.
The official statistics measure only the statutory definition of homelessness; they do not tell the full story. They certainly do not tell the story of the individual tragedies which are now occurring on a huge scale. Surely Conservative Members cannot be unaware of the tragedies, such as the young families divided, the young mothers driven to despair and mental illness and the fathers who have lost their families and therefore their homes, and who end up, as in the case of one of my constituents, sleeping in a car for two years. How did that happen?
No, I will press on for the time being.
The first part of the answer lies in a fundamental mistake in Government economic policy. That assertion is hardly controversial any longer, as even Ministers now concede, in their more honest moments, that a huge consumer boom was unwisely unleashed on the basis of a surge in private sector credit which inflated property values and thereby created a new, though unstable, basis on which to construct a further edifice of credit. That tottering structure inevitably collapsed and the penal interest rates which were then put in place destroyed the private property market on which the Government had pinned all their hopes. Those who live by the market die by the market. Today's property market has killed not only the hopes of millions of families, but the illusions of the Government.
Mistakes are one thing, but deliberate prejudices carried into policy are another. The greater part of our housing failures have arisen because we have been saddled with a Government driven not by common sense but by ideology.
That is why we have had almost total reliance on the private market and when it failed, consumed by the very forces that it unleashed, the Government had nothing on which to fall back. That is why we have had the tunnel vision that meant a total and exclusive emphasis on home ownership. Ministers could not and still cannot conceive that, for many people, renting is the preferable or possibly the only option.
Many of those persuaded by the prospect of an endless property boom to buy their homes must now bitterly regret that choice.
Ministers are still at it. They offer rent-into-mortgage schemes when the immediate need is to help with mortgage-into-rent schemes those for whom home ownership has become a short-cut to home loss.
No, I will press on in the interests of the debate as a whole.
The ideological tunnel vision has produced the blind spot on the need for social housing and especially the need for housing for rent. The free market ideologues were content for everyone to take his or her chance in the marketplace. If that meant treating the homeless as a commodity to be traded in the marketplace and paying others to deal with them, as Westminster has tried to do, so be it. If that meant that the market created victims, it was their fault, not the Government's. If it meant that Ministers had to step on the homeless as they left the opera, what was that but a demonstration that the policy was working, however many tiny hands may have been frozen?
No one who listened objectively to what I said last week about rough sleepers could have written the article to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. It was a disgraceful, biased piece of journalism, ascribing to me views on rough sleepers which I have never held.
If the Minister claims to have been misreported, I sympathise with him. I imagine that no one was more shocked than he by the insensitive statement he was reported as making. The nature of insensitive remarks is their power to cast a spotlight on the dark places of Ministers' minds and of Government policy. The spotlight recorded a contempt for the homeless and a total lack of understanding of their plight and the Government's contribution to it.
The Government's attitude has led to a wholly irrational antipathy to public sector provision, with local authorities forbidden to spend their own money on housing and deliberately squeezed out by Government policy from any responsibility of meeting housing need. Ministers have learnt nothing from a decade of failure in that respect. Even those such as the Minister who have a reputation for more liberal views have been content to reinforce the ludicrous injunction against local authorities using their land, their money and their political will to meet a desperately required housing need.
We have an ideologue in action. At the conference of the Institute of Housing only last week, the Minister was at it yet again, telling local authorities that they were not to provide new housing and that they would have to put housing contracts out to compulsory competitive tender.
That heavy burden of ideology, which has so prejudiced our housing programme, brings me to the Secretary of State—or at least it would if he were present. The right hon. Gentleman is becoming the invisible man of the Department of the Environment—the ghost at the feast, or, in the case of housing, the ghost of famine. The right hon. Gentleman seems curiously reluctant to come to the Dispatch Box to defend what his Department is doing. It is true that he popped up only last week in a Liberal Supply day debate to do a spot of electioneering, but when it comes to the hard grind, the real responsibility and the true business of the Department—the council tax or the housing crisis—he is curiously not in evidence.
Why is the right hon. Gentleman so shy and so unwilling to face the music? On housing, the reason is not hard to find. He is, after all, a man with a record—a man with previous form. In being sent to the Department of the Environment, and to housing in particular, he is required to return to the scene of the crime. It is not only us who say that; let us see what the House-Builders Federation said in the January issue of House Builder. Mr. Roger Humber, director of the House-Builders Federation, reviewed the 1980s in the light of the Secretary of State's reappointment. He said that it was
a decade of muddle and myth, of one step forwards, another sideways, followed by two backwards. And central to this muddle and myth was Michael Heseltine.
I make no promises.
Mr. Humber continues:
Probably the most important contribution to undermining the proper purpose of planning was Heseltine's refusal to permit any strategic evaluation of housing requirements …
This was quite the most catastrophic stance any Minister could possibly have taken … the outcome of the Heseltine policy was not record levels of housebuilding; just the opposite … On average, new private sector housebuilding output was around 150,000 pa; exactly the same as in the 1970s. And public housing continued to fall.
I am delighted that the Secretary of State has arrived just in time for the coup de grace. Mr Humber says:
The 1980s therefore was a decade of failure in housing policy".
The Secretary of State
left us with a decade at the end of which we have to start trying to deal again with the same issues he refused to face … in 1852, Marx said that history does repeat itself. The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. We've had the tragedy: can we avoid the farce, now that he's back?
I shall not give way at the moment.
The way out of this mess is to escape from the ideological dead-end in which the Government have trapped themselves. First, we must acknowledge that whatever the strengths of the market the provision of social and affordable housing is a community responsibility. The homeless are not only of concern to opera-goers but a blot on all our consciences.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. When a Minister has made a personal declaration that reported remarks attributed to him were untrue, and when it has been accepted by the Opposition's spokesman, is it in order or within the conventions of the House for that spokesman to continue to read from a prepared text and to prosecute the allegations that have been disclaimed?
Order. There are a couple of hours to go and I hope to call as many hon. Members as possible who can refute, deny or agree with those allegations.
I make the point again: the homeless are not only of concern to opera-goers but a blot on all our consciences. If a wealthy country cannot put roofs on the heads of its citizens, that is a failure of political analysis and will. Government intervention is necessary because, as all the survey evidence shows, the market will not provide the social housing that is desperately needed. It is a question not just of money but of things that do not cost money, such as the availability of land. That is why we propose, for example, a new use class for land for social and affordable housing.
Secondly, we should forget the ridiculous dividing line between public and private-sector providers. Those who need decent accommodation at affordable rents simply do not care whether the providers are politically correct in the view of the Secretary of State or anyone else. What they need are homes. Surely all the evidence shows that if we are to meet that need the public sector must be involved. It simply does not make sense to exclude its resources, expertise and political will. What matters is that houses are built, and as local authorities have up to £5 billion in capital receipts, why not, subject to suitable safeguards, let them spend part of it? The need is too great for us to worry about picking and choosing on ideological grounds between the various instruments that are available to us. We should use every instrument that is at our disposal. That means housing associations and the private sector but also local authorities.
I am grateful to my geographical neighbour. As the hon. Gentleman is, I hope, dealing with the private sector, will he stress his party's commitment and non-ideological approach by giving its attitude to the private sector? In particular, will he confirm for how long it has not been Labour party policy to offer private tenants the right to purchase?
My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley), who will wind up the debate, made an excellent speech to the Institute of Housing in which he set out extremely interesting and imaginative policies on the private sector and how we shall treat private landlords. The effect of that will be to reverse the 80,000 per year loss of private rented accommodation from the housing stock. That is our objective.
We should be considering the possibility of collaborative partnership arrangements between local authorities and the private sector. If borrowing to build houses to meet housing need is a good idea for the private sector, why is not the same borrowing of equal benefit if done by the public sector?
Thirdly, we should not be too preoccupied with the lawyers' consent of tenure, and I speak as a person with legal training. Home ownership appeals to many people and will continue to do so, but there will always be others who prefer to rent, and there may be many more whose preferences, for family and financial reasons, may change from one part of their lives to another.
Instead of trying to compress everyone into the same mould, why not work on providing as much flexibility as possible and on achieving the most level playing field between different forms of tenure? We should encourage building societies and housing associations to devise, as they would like to, mortgage-into-rent schemes, part-rent, part-buy schemes and shared ownership schemes and we should provide the funding arrangements to make that possible.
No, I am about to finish.
Above all, if we are serious about tackling the housing crisis, as we must be, we must build more houses. I call on the Government even now to put the unused resources, skills and capital to work—to release some of the money currently held by local authorities so that, with the help of the construction industry, they can build immediately 50,000 homes in a crash programme, so as to make a start on housing the homeless. That would be only a start, but a start already too long delayed.
If the Minister will not commit himself to that simple, direct and humane step now, the homeless and all those whose housing needs are not met will, along with the rest of the country, draw only one conclusion: they need a Labour Government to provide them with the houses that they need. We shall do that job for them.
I beg to move, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof:
`welcomes the policies being pursued by Her Majesty's Government to put a decent home within the reach of every family by promoting owner occupation, by securing greater private sector investment in housing and by directing public expenditure effectively towards those people and areas that most need support.'.
I welcome the opportunity to set out the Government's housing strategy. I believe that our broad-based approach is right. We are maximising investment from all sources, not just the public sector. We are developing new forms of tenure, such as rent-to-mortgage and shared ownership, and new forms of social landlord, such as the housing action trusts. We are introducing new partnerships with the housing associations, and a new regime for private landlords. That approach is the right one.
We want to work with the grain of people's aspirations and with the grain of market forces. The Government's approach is more likely to succeed than is the more narrowly based approach advocated by the Labour party, which leans more heavily on local authorities and public finance which might not be available. As we have just heard, that approach turns its back on some of the more radical conclusions that we are developing and would lose the possibility of contributions from institutional finance.
The Labour party's approach has not changed over the years. There is an over-reliance on public expenditure, but this time it is based on public finance which will not be there. I ask the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould), who, as I understand it, has just given a commitment to enter a crash programme for building 50,000 extra homes, whether he has the authority of the shadow Chief Secretary in making that commitment.
That commitment has been on the record for at least a year. The Minister made a statement about private institutional finance which had no basis in anything that I have said or in any document that the Labour party has produced. As I categorically stated the opposite, I invite him to withdraw his remark.
The hon. Gentleman should examine some of his party's proposals for the private rented sector. He will find it more difficult to raise respectable institutional funds for investment in the private rented sector if he adheres to his proposals for rent control. There is a direct trade-off. We want to maximise the contribution that the private sector can make. We do not have the Labour party's dogmatic approach to the private sector.
No. This is a short debate and I want to make progress.
Not only can the Government's approach promote better housing, it can help bring down some of the barriers in our society and eliminate some of the fault lines that demarcate too many of our inner-city areas. We all know of estates designed by people who do not have to live in them and occupied by people who do not want to live in them. We want to turn those estates round, with the help of the residents and of private funds. We want the yeast of home ownership to raise the standards on those estates and transform the lives of those who live there. I should like to say a word in a moment about housing action trusts, whose potential the Labour party discounts.
The guilty men are not those accused in the hon. Gentleman's speech. They are local councils, such as those mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Norris), that leave properties unlet while families wait in bed and breakfast, that leave rents uncollected and plead shortage of money for maintenance. In London, the 10 least efficient local authorities had not collected £135 million in rent by the end of March 1990, and on 1 April 1991 owned 21,200 empty properties. That compares with 12,000 families in bed and breakfast at the same time. None of those authorities was controlled by my party. All but one were controlled by the Labour party. Profligacy and inefficiency are the hallmark of Labour in government. It is no response for Labour Members to refer to properties owned by the Ministry of Defence. Those properties are needed as soldiers and their families return to this country from west Germany and the middle east.
Let us get the facts right. Committees of the House have pointed out that local authorities of all political complexions have specific problems with some empty properties and have suggested, rightly, that something be done about it, including Government action. We cite not Ministry of Defence properties, but those owned by the Home Office and the Department of the Environment, 16 per cent. of whose properties are empty. Many of those properties are kept empty for sale or demolition. I challenge the Minister to make those properties available for homeless people now.
Most of the properties are owned by the Ministry of Defence and are needed for the purposes that I have just described.
Before I tackle the problems raised by the hon. Member for Dagenham, let me put them in focus. The total housing stock has increased by nearly 2 million since we came to office. The population has risen less fast, so there are now more homes per thousand of the population than when we started. In 1979 there were 377 dwellings per thousand of the population whereas in 1990 there were 406 dwellings per thousand.
Professor Duncan MacLennan, in a report entitled "Affordable Housing in Europe" published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said:
By international standards, Britain is well-housed. It has a well-developed and efficient set of private housing finance institutions and a complex, expensive set of government subsidy measures".
Professor MacLennan outlines areas of concern to which I shall return, such as homelessness, affordability and the private rented sector, but he finished with the following warning:
one of the major realisations of the British Housing sector in the last two decades has been that a massive, monopolistic social housing provision can move rapidly from 'solution' to `problem'.
I mentioned housing action trusts, which I believe are a solution that we can offer to estates such as those to which I referred. There is a growing gulf between the dogma of the Front-Bench Labour party spokesmen and the more realistic approach adopted by Labour councils in touch with reality. The Labour party is officially against housing action trusts. The housing spokesman is on the record as saying that he would wind up the Hull HAT and return it to the city council. That is an extraordinary commitment. The tenants have just voted two to one to leave Hull council control and to go to a housing action trust. The Labour party is for ever asking for local ballots on Government initiatives. It now proposes to overrule them when the results do not conform to its prejudices.
Nor is it just Hull that backs our proposals for a HAT. The leadership in Liverpool—a regime which apparently has the full backing of the Labour party—is now actively investigating the feasibility of a HAT for its tower blocks. Other Labour-controlled local authorities are also recognising that a housing action trust may be the right solution for some of their estates. The Labour party is divided.
Does the Minister not recognise in any way that much of the appalling misery of so many people —not only the homeless or near-homeless and families living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, but many of our constituents who have young children yet who have to live with their parents or their in-laws—is because since 1979 there has been an 85 per cent. reduction in local authority starts? What sort of dogma forces so many people to live in misery because the Government will not allow local authorities to do their rightful job?
That argument will not hold. The hon. Gentleman makes the same mistake as did the Labour Front-Bench spokesman, who referred to the reduction in local authority spending without mentioning the growing budget of the Housing Corporation. That budget is growing from £1·1 billion last year to £2 billion for 1993–94. One must put that fact on the table, too, and examine overall expenditure rather than focus on one part of the market.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. It makes a pleasant change from the behaviour of the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould). My hon. Friend has been talking about public funds and public housing. Instead of going round the edge, will he answer the question: when will the Government do something to force the hands of local authorities that refuse to collect rents and that keep properties empty although people are homeless? It is a public disgrace. My hon. Friend spoke of £135 million in uncollected rents and he knows as well as I do that in London alone there are tens of thousands of empty properties. We must get those properties back into use, because people are on the streets.
One way in which to deal with the problem that my hon. Friend has identified is to give more power to tenants and to enable them to take responsibility for their estates, which I suspect they would run more effectively and competently than many local authorities. I assure my hon. Friend that we are considering the matters that he has raised to see whether we can protect tenants from the incompetence of their local authority landlords.
Housing action trusts are not just about public money. They represent a fresh approach to difficult-to-let estates by setting up a single-minded agency—not encumbered with other responsibilities, and with tenants on its board —which can bring in private funding, produce a five-year strategy for modernising the properties and improving the management, and then give tenants a choice as to who manages their homes thereafter. The tenants can go back to their former landlord if they want to.
I served on the Committee that considered the Bill under which the trusts were set up. The Government rejected an amendment that we tabled which would have allowed those houses to return to local authority control. Are not the hon. Gentleman's officials now going round the country informing local authorities that, after the period of the trust has elapsed, the tenancies will return to them? Has not the hon. Gentleman changed the terms of the offer?
The hon. Gentleman confirms what I have just said. The trusts will then give the tenants a choice as to who manages their homes. If the tenants want to go back to the local authority landlord at the end of the period, they will be free to do so. I suspect that many of them will prefer to buy their homes after they have been improved. They may prefer to choose a housing association to manage their homes or they may want to manage their homes themselves through an estate management board. The point is that, at the end of the day, the decision will rest with the tenants.
Estate action is another policy that is relevant to those who live on difficult estates. Some 600 schemes up and down the country have been implemented, renovating 300,000 units, improving management, diversifying tenure, providing training opportunities and making the estates places where people want to live. In the past year, we have built on our success, increasing resources from £190 million to £268 million, of which £126 million will be available for new schemes. I shall shortly be inviting local authorities to bid for estate action resources next year. I wonder how many Labour Members acknowledge that as the contribution of a Conservative Government.
My hon. Friend has made a good point. He will be aware that in the new town of Skelmersdale, which has 25 Labour councillors, it took the Conservative-controlled district council to recognise the need of two of the most run-down estates in Digmore and Tanhouse and produce imaginative estate action plans. The first of them has now been implemented. Before the estate action plan, there were 3,000 requests for transfers from the estate; now there is a waiting list of those who want to be housed on it. The second estate action plan, in Tanhouse, is also making good progress. That is a credit to my hon. Friend's Department and to imaginative Conservative housing policy.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his glowing tribute to the work of my Department. I hope that local authorities will realise the potential of estate action and put in bids when we invite them for next year.
My hon. Friend will be aware that my local authority, Kirklees, took a long time to be shamed into using the estate action programme. When my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary visited the area recently, he saw that the authority had not made such a good job of it. The authority is now saying that it is almost too much trouble to bother with estate action, thus condemning its tenants to a future without help. Is that not a disgrace?
I very much regret that the authority has taken that narrow approach. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I would like to take a further look to see how we can rescue the tenants from their plight.
One strand of our efforts to improve the quality of life on run-down estates is an initiative, under the auspices of Professor Coleman, in which the impact of the physical redesign of such estates is tested. I am pleased to announce today the seventh scheme to be included in the experiment, which is on the Durham estate in Sandwell. Some £2·9 million of Government resources are being devoted to the scheme which will ensure the transformation of 261 homes.
The hon. Member for Dagenham did not touch on the policy of large-scale voluntary transfer. That policy is releasing resources tied up in council housing, part of which can then be reinvested. Sixteen local authorities, none of them Labour, have balloted their tenants and subsequently transferred their stock to a housing association. That has brought in more than £1 billion of entirely private-sector finance. It has enabled repairs to be carried out more quickly than if the stock had remained in council ownership.
Independent research into the results of the first transfers has revealed a high level of satisfaction with the new landlord and greater tenant participation in management. In the two years since the first transfer, the New Chiltern housing association has succeeded in reducing both rent arrears and the volume of empty dwellings. At the same time, part of the capital receipt has been used to finance a substantial new-build programme carried out by the association. That shows how local authorities, tenants, housing associations and private investors can come together to fund better homes and more homes without increasing public expenditure. It is an approach that Labour, with its slavish adherence to the drab policy of municipalisation, has so far rejected.
Does my hon. Friend agree that housing associations deserve tremendous congratulations on the first class way in which they are now running a great deal of the country's private rented housing? Is my hon. Friend aware that housing associations take over property not only from councils? Not long ago, housing associations in my constituency took over a substantial number of properties that used to belong to British Coal. They have modernised the properties and are looking after tenants much better than the previous landlord. I should, therefore, like to put on record my appreciation of the housing associations concerned.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The key point about resourcing housing associations, as opposed to local authorities, is that housing associations can go to the City. They can top up the resources that the Government make available to provide more units. A local authority cannot do that. The direction of funds in that way not only helps the housing association movement; it ensures that there are more houses for people who need them.
I should like to press the Labour party on the question of capital receipts. Labour housing spokesmen seem to think that they can increase spending on housing, without incurring the displeasure of the shadow Chief Secretary, by spending capital receipts. That will not do. Capital receipts are used to reduce the level of debt. Under the new regime, we have allocated part of the spending power from those areas with receipts to those without receipts. If capital receipts are to be spent again, the money will have to be borrowed—as is the case with any spending commitment not covered by higher taxes—with the usual impact on interest rates and the PSBR.
The key question in the debate on housing is not the rather narrow one that the hon. Member for Dagenham asked: how many rented houses can the local councils build? The debate should be much broader than that. We should ask ourselves how we can maximise total investment in housing of all tenures. The question does not revolve around public investment alone. As I have said, the housing associations are increasingly borrowing from the City to complement what we allocate. That does not score as public expenditure. Private builders are building low-cost homes on land owned by councils or on land secured by the exceptions policy.
Home ownership is the ambition of most people, and we have enabled 1·5 million former local authority tenants to buy their homes. Our recent research has shown that 96 per cent. of them felt that, taking everything into account, they were pleased to have bought. Few of those people would have achieved that ambition if the Labour party had had its way. Of those who bought between 1985 and 1987, 90 per cent. carried out significant repairs and improvements.
Not only has the policy helped those who bought; it has helped those who have not. The local authorities have been relieved of the burden of maintaining and managing these homes, and the amount spent on capital renovation and on management and maintenance of the remaining stock has increased. Spending on capital renovation increased from £150 per dwelling in 1980–81 to £450 this year—a real increase of more than 50 per cent. Spending on management and maintenance increased from less than £300 per dwelling to £800 per dwelling—a real increase of 40 per cent. There is scope for promoting home ownership yet further, perhaps by building more properties for shared ownership—for those who can afford a council rent but cannot afford the full costs of home ownership.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way—I had been waiting to intervene. My authority does everything that the Minister has been talking about. It uses every means to finance its housing but now, for the first time in its history, its housing policy is ruined. That is the result of the Government's policies. Furthermore, for the first time in its history, it now has homeless people.
On home ownership, will the Minister consider a problem that is occurring in my area? I refer to the people who bought council houses but who can no longer afford them. Those people have found that they cannot get out and that there is nowhere for them to go. They have to rely on the local authority, which no longer has any houses for rent. Could not a scheme be introduced to allow local authorities to buy back such properties from those who can no longer afford them?
That brings me straight on to the problem of repossessions, which has already been referred to. It is untrue to claim that the Government are doing nothing to help those who face difficulties with their mortgage. In 1989–90, £350 million was paid in income support to help people who were eligible to pay their mortgage. There has been some comment, in the light of one case, that the system is too generous, rather than too tight.
Nor do I accept the gloomy forecasts that are made of future repossessions. Over the past three years, people have had difficulty maintaining payments, as interest rates rose faster than their incomes. This put pressure on their budgets, leading in some cases to greater arrears. But, with base rates falling 3·5 per cent. in less than a year, and incomes for those in work rising by 4·5 per cent., that source of pressure is clearly reducing. Those who coped during the period of rising interest rates should be able to cope as they fall. I would, therefore, hope to see fewer repossessions because of that imbalance.
The pressure in future may come from rising unemployment, but it is important to understand that redundancy or long-term illness no longer means the loss of a home. If there is an entitlement to income support, that will pay half the reasonable mortgage interest for the first 16 weeks and all the interest thereafter, including any interest on any arrears that have accrued during the 16 weeks. So if someone loses his or her job, claims income support, contacts his or her building society to put it in the picture, and then pays over the income support to the building society, the building society would be most unlikely to contemplate possession proceedings. So although I am, of course, concerned at the information coming through—there are many repossessions in the pipeline—the changing circumstances to which I have referred may mean that some forecasts are too gloomy.
Other options are available to minimise the trauma of repossession. I understand that, through a housing association, Mole Valley council is offering shared ownership to owner-occupiers who cannot afford the full cost, leaving them in their homes as part-owners, part-renters. The hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay) may find that point relevant. Some building societies may be willing to allow owners to rent out their homes for a while or to roll up some interest until things improve. Surprisingly, only a minority of mortgage payers with repayments set annually have taken advantage of the chance to have their repayments reviewed to reflect the recent cuts in mortgage rates.
I had intended to say something about the private rented sector and our plans for it but, out of respect to the many hon. Members who wish to speak, I shall skip that and turn finally to rough sleeping. In the past six months, we have witnessed in our capital city the most concerted and best resourced attempt ever to help rough sleepers. The front-line agencies, whose work I applaud, have in the first six months reduced by about half the number of people sleeping rough in central London. The programme of investing £96 million in direct access hostels and move-on accommodation is only one third of the way through—with about 1,000 of the planned 3,300 places available. The Bull-Ring, by Waterloo station, known as "cardboard city", is closed, with all of those who were sleeping there being offered alternative accommodation— although some have refused it.
I recognise that we have some way to go. I am concerned about the numbers of people in Lincolns Inn Fields, but we have plans for more hostels nearby which should be open this autumn. I also welcome the help from the Department of Health, which is providing high-care hostels and outreach teams with medical skills to help those rough sleepers who suffer from mental illness and drug and alcohol problems. I am determined that the momentum we have built should be maintained and the policy seen through.
I have recently spoken critically not of rough sleepers but of professional, aggressive beggars, who prey on passers-by, tourists in the west end and young homeless people, who, when arrested, turn out to have fixed addresses and substantial sums of money on them. That group would like us to confuse them with young vulnerable people with no homes. We must make sure that we do not.
In conclusion, our policy is based not on a massive municipal expansion programme, but on diversity of provision, on encouraging the public sector to work closely with the private sector, on bringing in fresh funds to deal with the worst of the problems, and on offering choice and diversity to as many people as possible. Old prejudices and preconceptions must be overturned. The best local authorities are already working with housing associations, using their urban renewal powers and their planning powers, working up proposals for city challenge, estate action, priority estates projects, housing action trusts, large-scale voluntary transfer, and promoting rural trusts in our smaller villages. I ask the House to endorse that approach by voting for the amendment.
Order. The Minister was absolutely right: many hon. Members wish to participate in the debate, so brief speeches would be appreciated by all of us.
Thank you for calling me so early in the debate, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is an outrage that the Government should have sought to make a statement today, thus leaving less than an hour for Back-Bench Members to speak on this important topic. However, I shall be brief, as you have requested, Madam Deputy Speaker, because many of my hon. Friends wish to speak in this important debate.
The motion encapsulates the Government's abject failure throughout the 12 years of their administration to provide a coherent and meaningful policy that would give everyone in this country the right to a decent home. Listening to the Minister's speech was like hearing an echo from the past. He simply rehearsed all the arguments that were advanced by one of his predecessors during the Second Reading of the Housing Act 1988. The Minister rehashed those earlier policies although any objective analysis and the panic measures that the Government have recently undertaken on homelessness prove that the Government have no real understanding of people's need and right to live in a decent home.
In that Second Reading debate in 1987, the Government outlined what they viewed as their flagship policies for housing in the 1990s. The Government were proud of their Bill and its main initiatives, some of which the Minister referred to, such as the housing action trusts, the ability of local tenants to opt out of local authority control of housing, the market rent system and the introduction of assured tenancies. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle) has already said, ably led by our spokesman on housing, the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley), the Opposition Members who served on the Standing Committee that considered the Bill made it clear then that the Government's policies had no relevance to people's needs and that they would not work.
If we look at the way in which those policies have affected my city of Manchester during the past four years, we can see that we were right to oppose them and that we are right to say today that they still do not have any relevance to or meet the housing needs of cities such as Manchester. First, how many housing action trusts have been welcomed and introduced throughout the country? Very few. One of the first to be suggested in the first tranche of housing action trusts for Manchester was rejected out of hand by the people of Manchester.
Secondly, how many council tenants in Manchester have requested a ballot because they want to leave local authority control, and how many ballots have taken place? There has been not one ballot and not a single request for one because the people of Manchester know that their landlord—the council—is trying to deliver a service and that the only reason that it cannot is that it has been starved of resources.
Thirdly, in the Government's terms, have market rents in the private rented sector delivered a massive expansion in the number of homes that people can afford? Again, the answer is no because, although there has been an increase in the private rented sector in Manchester, it has been only in the luxury private rented sector where rents are at levels that most people cannot afford. People can afford such rents only if they are rich or if the private landlord has ripped off the housing benefit system and tried to increase the rent at the expense of public subsidy. I welcome and applaud Manchester city council's initiative to drive out such landlords by saying, "We are not prepared to sanction the rent levels that those landlords are trying to charge on the back of housing benefit." The Government should condemn that practice also because that is not the way to create affordable rents in the private rented sector.
The Minister wants us to consider public expenditure on housing in conjunction with allocations made to housing associations. More important, we must examine bids for resources made by councils such as Manchester for their housing investment programmes, because they clearly identify, both in the public and private sectors, the money that is needed to provide decent houses in their areas.
An examination of the bid compared with the allocation finally granted shows that the Government have had no commitment to the provision of resources for decent housing in our cities. In Manchester, for example, £189 million was sought in 1988–89 and £29 million was allocated. In 1989–90, £210 million was sought and Manchester received only £19 million. There was an increase in 1990–91, because £100 million was sought and £52 million received. Even so, in that year, Manchester received only half of what it really needed to deal with its housing stock. In the current year, from a bid of £127 million, the city received £61 million.
It is clear from the figures that the council has not been able to improve, modernise, install heating and so on for the houses that are required by Manchester families. The result is that we have a record number of homeless, with over 7,000 people in the city seeking their first decent home.
We must examine the implications of that situation on the private sector and renovation grants. In the last year, the city of Manchester received an allocation from the Exchequer of £3·405 million, a 75 per cent. allocation, to enable the private sector to renovate its stock. Out of that sum must be funded disablement grants, to enable people with disabilities to adapt their homes, and so on. So in the last year, 1,250 applicants wanting about £8 million have had to get what they can from the paltry allocation of £3 million or a little over.
With the rundown in the public and private sectors of housing, we are storing up problems for future generations. As our private stock of housing falls into disrepair, the people of the future will not have their housing needs met. We have heard enough about the rundown in the house building programme to know that in the future there will be greater demands on the public sector to house people, but homes will not be available for them.
I have some suggestions for the way in which we, including the Labour party, should be examining the housing issue for the future. We can have a coherent housing policy only if we tackle root and branch the problem of housing finance and the ways in which, in the future, we fund the public and private sectors.
I welcome the report published last week by the Rowntree trust, chaired by the Duke of Edinburgh, which advocated such a root and branch review of housing finance. Until we equalise subsidies between the different sectors, and conduct a thorough examination of mortgage tax relief and the amount available through subsidy and benefits to the private rented sector, we shall not free the resources necessary to expand the different tenures in the housing market.
That report rekindled a debate that has been going on for many years. I made a modest contribution to that debate over 12 years ago in a research project at York university with Professor Jonathon Bradshaw, in which we advocated the development of a universal housing allowance. In an article in Roof magazine entitled "Can a housing allowance work?" we examined the first stage of such an allowance, which was the integration of what was then supplementary benefit housing payments with rent rebates.
We moved from there to look at the possibility of integrating all subsidies, whether in the owner-occupied sector through mortgage tax relief or through the public or private rented sectors, to see whether we could contribute modestly to a debate allowing for the easier transfer of people between and within tenures.
We accept—I hope that the Labour party will examine this seriously; I appreciate that it could not be done overnight—that the phasing out of mortgage tax relief, if it became policy, would take many years. That was said by the Duke of Edinburgh's study. But unless we start heading in that direction, with a massive explosion in subsidy, £9 billion will be spent in the next couple of years on mortgage tax relief. That money would be better spent on providing decent housing.
We must have a subsidy arrangement providing a housing allowance that can be cashed in to enable people to move into any form of tenure, at any stage, in the owner-occupied or rented sectors. Such a step would achieve greater mobility because people would not be locked into mortgages in areas from which they cannot move because of fluctuating house prices. Such a housing allowance would free the market and give people the opportunity to move and have different tenures at different times of their lives. They would do that when it suited them, instead of being financially penalised by having locked themselves into mortgages at an early stage.
Bearing in mind the proposals of the Rowntree trust, I hope that the Government will take action along the lines that have been recommended. I feel sure that the Labour party will take the matter seriously, for unless we have a root and branch study of housing finance in Britain, and find ways to free resources to ensure the right of everyone to a decent home, we shall never make progress.
We will tackle the problem of homelessness not by initiatives that resemble panic measures and not by examining incoherent policies, the long-term implications of which cannot be foreseen, but by accepting that a thorough examination of housing finance is the key to housing in the future. The next Labour Government will take the issue seriously because my hon. Friends and I appreciate, as the motion says, that the mark of a civilised society is the provision of decent homes for its people.
If we do not put housing high on the political agenda, future generations will not forgive us. The citizens of Manchester understand that, and because they put housing high on the agenda, they will vote accordingly at the next general election.
I am grateful for having been called early in this short debate and I wish at the outset to congratulate the Minister on the knowledgeable and constructive way in which he dealt with the subject. He is increasingly recognised among housing practitioners as a person who appreciates the difficulties that they are endeavouring to overcome, and I congratulate him on his efforts so far.
I cannot say the same about the speech of the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould), who wove a tale of gloom and woe. I listened in vain to that part of his speech in which I thought he might produce some constructive proposals, but what little his remarks contained was unspecific and he did not answer any questions.
The hon. Gentleman said that his party and others should forget the ridiculous dividing line between public and private providers. I shall concentrate on that initially, particularly the question of voluntary transfers, to which the Minister referred. Regrettably, there has been no significant example of a voluntary transfer to a pre-existing independent housing association. Twenty nine specially formed housing associations have been created for specific local authority areas, of which 16 have been successful at ballot while 13 have been unsuccessful. About 70,000 houses have been transferred so far. While I do not belittle that achievement, it is a smaller number than had been hoped for, and certainly fewer than the merits of such transfers justify.
Where there has been a willing local authority and a willing housing association, often the stumbling block has been the way in which the campaign preceding a ballot has been undertaken. There are a number of examples of how entrenched interests against a transfer taking place have been ill-informed. Arguments have often been presented to tenants in a highly distorted way and tenants have been led to believe that penalties would ensue should they support a voluntary transfer. Believing in the argument that better the devil they know than the devil they do not know, tenants have accordingly voted against the proposed transfer.
Does my hon. Friend agree that local authorities such as Kirklees, which is my authority, have taken an ideological view on that matter and, over the past four years, have lost about £12 million in housing development money because of their silly socialist principles?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Her council is one of many where opportunities to bring more resources into the sector have been missed or rejected for ideological reasons. My constituency of Gloucester has had a similar experience. The arguments deployed against transferring to an independent housing association were grossly distorted and ill-informed. One of the difficulties is that the prospective housing association is obliged to put forward a firm proposal, with reliable figures for the projection of future rents and an explanation of how the financial package will hold together. But those who wish to oppose the proposal can refute those figures without, in turn, having to demonstrate that what they say is correct. Although they may have criticised the prospect of increased rents and argued that the local authority could secure lower rent levels over a particular period, in the event it may not prove to be the case. However, by the time that becomes evident the arguments against voluntary transfer have prevailed.
The voluntary transfer to a local housing association —one that emerges from a local authority—is akin to a management buyout. It suits some people but does not necessarily suit everyone. However, those who are unwilling to go down that route seem to me to have another option. Self-governing trusts have been introduced in respect of hospitals and the equivalent in education is grant-maintained status. By the same token there is a sound argument for local authority housing departments becoming charitable trusts. Those who are persuaded towards trust status, whether they are in schools or hospitals, are attracted to the opportunity to provide better internal management, a more productive use of resources and a better capacity to deliver the service to consumers. Those who run the services have a better opportunity to find the right solutions to solve the problems facing them.
That principle can easily be adapted to local authority housing departments. A charitable trust emerging from a local authority housing department would be the recipient of the local authority department's assets and liabilities, but the authority would continue to act as banker and would retain the debt profile serviced by the trust and secured on the properties. Like other trusts, the trust could appoint outsiders to manage it and inject private sector expertise into its operations.
I do not claim to be the originator of that idea. Some housing practitioners have already put it forward and explained it far more eloquently than I have. However, I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consider the principle carefully because it has great merits.
Other examples of ingenious housing initiatives can be drawn from international experience. One such example is rather confusingly known as the correlation insurance indemnity. Anyone who mentions the word "insurance" in a housing debate is quickly shouted down, but I refer to the experience in New South Wales—[Laughter.] The hon. Member for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards) laughs. It so happens that the housing profile in New South Wales is remarkably similar to the housing profile in a number of areas in this country. The housing department there has made an especially useful arrangement through the National Bank of Australia. Without going into the details of the system, which is complex, it boils down to a cost efficient way to obtain private finance to build substantially more houses than would otherwise be built through conventional methods. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consider that example as it could be adapted to the United Kingdom's experience.
One of the difficulties has been to persuade financial institutions that housing associations are appropriate organisations in which to place funds. That was well illustrated three years ago, when North housing association endeavoured to raise money in the City. At that time, it said that the biggest two difficulties were the two words in its name—"north" and "housing"—which put off many institutions that might otherwise have been persuaded to lend money. It overcame that difficulty and convinced the financial institutions that it was a viable haven for their funds. However, housing associations have often failed to present their case effectively to financial institutions. Housing associations executives have often failed to distinguish between what the financial institutions seek in terms of equity and where they would place fixed interest loans. One is suitable for risk and the other clearly is not. The packages put together by housing associations have not always recognised that.
There is also an urgent need for housing associations to rethink how they present their accounts. Some hon. Members will know that they have a curious way of presenting them. It is largely misunderstood, or not understood at all, in the City and it puts many City institutions off. A little effort to reconsider the presentation of those accounts would go a long way.
A viable rented sector needs willing landlords for whom renting is worth while, tenants who can afford to pay the rents, an arithmetic that stacks up, and a political framework with some continuity. Those are obvious requirements, but there are obstacles preventing their achievement. I refer in particular to housing benefit. The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley) said that landlords—I am not sure whether he referred to "wicked" landlords but has perhaps done so on other occasions—were "ripping off" the housing benefit system. I do not believe that the blame rests exclusively with landlords. The housing benefit system does not operate as well as it might for two reasons. First, landlords and tenants cannot generally risk signing a contract until housing benefit is confirmed. Conversely, housing benefit officials often will not confirm the availability of housing benefit until the landlord and tenant have signed a contract. That is a Catch-22 situation which it should be possible to sort out. Again, I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consider that problem.
My second point relates to the attitude adopted by the hon. Member for Withington. Sometimes landlords provide accommodation for people in receipt of housing benefit only to discover part way through the tenancy that the eligibility for housing benefit has ceased. The landlord has no means of knowing that until he is asked by the housing benefit office to refund some of the money paid on behalf of the tenant who is no longer eligible. That is a quick and sure way of discouraging landlords from offering accommodation to recipients of housing benefit. The procedure needs tightening up; if it is not improved people will fail to find accommodation that they need.
Finally, I urge the Minister to take another look at circular 7/91 published on 10 May, in which he announed his intention to allow public subsidy to go into shared ownership schemes even when there is some restriction on the availability of staircasing. Before the circular was issued the right to full staircasing was a strict requirement but the circular modified that requirement. The message coming from the Housing Corporation seems to contradict the contents of the circular—a matter of particular concern to people in rural areas. I urge my hon. Friend to tidy up this incompatibility.
I believe that everyone should have the right to a decent and affordable home. It is a national disgrace that in 1991 thousands of people are sleeping on our streets, hundreds of thousands are registered as homeless and countless more are living in cramped and unhealthy accommodation.
I accept that far more people now own their homes, but I cannot accept the cost at which that has been achieved. Government ideology, Government policy and the legislative changes of the past decade are major contributory factors to the appalling state of the nation's housing stock. Britain's housing is in crisis. The immediate response should be the removal of restrictions on local government finance to allow the greater use of capital receipts for new build, maintenance and improvement. But that is not the whole answer, since many local authorities do not have large capital receipts or stocks of housing to sell.
I should like some of the £23 billion that the Treasury has pocketed from the sale of council houses in the past 10 years to be reinvested in the housing market. Any Administration under our control would want substantially to increase direct public support for housing for people, however low their incomes. Our aim is to allow people maximum choice in how they house themselves and to gain maximum value for every pound of public money that we spend. This can be achieved by stimulating new investment to meet housing needs, by increasing the total amount of subsidy available and by dispensing it in a way that matches resources more closely to needs.
We need to increase the money available for housing associations and local authorities to build, acquire, improve and maintain housing so as to provide for people on low incomes.
We should introduce partnership housing, using a new and limited form of subsidy to enable a serious gap in the housing market to be filled—housing for people on middle incomes who for one reason or another prefer renting to buying. Measures such as these would need a new form of support, which we suggest would come from a housing cost relief, which will have the effect of making high rents more affordable and of enabling more people to cope with the difficult early years of buying a home.
We hear a great deal about affordable housing, but what does it mean? What is affordable rented housing? There can be no precise definition of an affordable rent; each household has different incomes, needs, priorities and skills for coping with its budget. At the moment the country relies on housing benefit to implement affordable rents, but the steep withdrawal of that benefit with increasing income has a damaging effect on incentives for people on low incomes to increase their earnings.
Ideally we should like a tax and social security system that shifts so much of the burden away from the low-paid that they can without hardship make a bigger contribution to their housing costs—
I have no time to give way.
We recognise that there would still be a need for a closely targeted housing benefit system, but we think that targeting could be less severe than it is now. Even a modest rate of withdrawal, at between 65p and 55p in the pound, should make life easier for many people.
The pressures of the past 12 years have been in the direction of home ownership and the right to buy, but many people on average incomes would prefer to rent if rented accommodation were available and affordable. With the housing market in its present condition I understand that there is a discernible move away from buying and into renting.
We see our proposals for housing cost relief and partnership housing as the only reasonable and economic way forward to encourage new housing for rent. Housing cost relief would differ from housing benefit in three ways. It would apply to rent and mortgage payments above a certain level, say, £30 a week, and up to a ceiling of, say, £100 a week, with regional variations. It would cover only a proportion, perhaps 50 per cent., of the rent or the mortgage interest. The rate of withdrawal with increases in income would be gentle—probably about 20p in the pound. The threshold above which relief would be withdrawn would stand at about the median level of net income for a single earner: at the moment, about £150 a week.
The introduction of such a housing cost relief would make possible the introduction of a new rented housing sector based on a lower subsidy than that applied to the provision of housing for low-income households. We call this new sector partnership housing. It would be based on a capital subsidy that would depend on market conditions of house prices relative to income. The level of subsidy would fall as land and house prices fell relative to income. The rent on a home costing £75,000 would be about £80 a week. Housing cost relief would reduce the cost to the tenant by up to £25 to a minimum of £55 a week. By this method we think that as many as 50 per cent. more dwellings could be provided through a partnership housing scheme, for a given amount of public spending.
I have not given way so far, and I will not now.
Thus far I have spoken only about homes for rent, but if we are true to our aims of maximising choice the option to buy a home must extend down the income scale. The right-to-buy policy has made that possible for some, but it applies only to people living in council housing and we are well aware that the supply of stock is dwindling. Housing cost relief will give people on modest incomes about twice as much help as they would receive from mortgage tax relief, which is a less effective way of helping people. Indeed, I believe that many of the parties in the House are thinking again about it.
The ceiling of £30,000 is half the cost of an average home and because of its across-the-board nature it does not target public money where it is most needed.
Another scheme with the potential to help people on modest incomes to buy their homes is shared ownership. We welcome the arrangements for that brought in by the Government—they are not dissimilar to our partnership housing proposals. Our system of housing cost relief will offer a great deal of help and make shared ownership possible for a wider range of people.
The provision of housing will mean little if that housing is of poor quality or if it is not maintained adequately. Investment in maintenance and repair is essential, and it makes economic and social sense to ensure that there are enough funds to maintain the existing stock. To allow property to fall into disrepair and rack and ruin merely adds to the housing and homeless crises.
The erosion of local authority responsibility for building control must have a detrimental effect and has caused hardship to many home buyers. Full responsibility for the inspection and approval of building works should be restored to local authorities. There must be a review of all aspects of building regulations and codes of practice with a view to improving the long-term durability of construction and economy in the use of energy.
We would promote the standards that are recommended in "Homes for the Future", which was published jointly by the Institute of Housing and the Royal Institute of British Architects, and would consider legislative backing for the essential standards in that document. I favour legislation to widen the definition of unfitness. That is relevant to the private rented sector in which conditions are often appalling. People who rent in the private sector are entitled to decent, good-quality accommodation.
In 1989, we said that we would encourage local authorities to take the initiative in developing agency schemes to help improve and maintain privately owned housing stock. We have been pleased with developments since then at national and local level, although we share doubts as to whether the £3 million allocated by the Government is enough to keep those agencies going. While we welcome the funds allocated to inner-city projects for improving estates, we would like to see all councils being able to improve the quality of life on their estates and, where necessary, being able to redevelop.
Another issue requiring attention is the number of empty properties under local government control. When waiting lists are long, that should not be tolerated. Many of the properties are empty because councils do not have the money to bring them up to standard. Others are empty because of mismanagement and inefficiency. Councils must find ways to turn over property between lettings at a much quicker rate. One way may be to involve the tenants, and I was pleased to hear the Minister speak about that. Tenants could carry out redecorating and minor repair work. More funds should be provided to enable local authorities to bring empty properties back on to the rent market, and a relaxation of capital controls could provide some such funds.
We advocate a regular analysis of repairs that are required and those that have been carried out, and we want to see regular monitoring of performance with contractors expected to reach high standards of tenant satisfaction. For example, the Liberal Democrat-controlled council of Berwick has a four-year rolling programme for repairs using a number of small agencies. The condition of the council's stock and the efficiency of its programme was recently given an excellent report by the Audit Commission. Our councils are committed to tackling the deterioration in the private sector by running an efficient improvement grant system and by working with agencies and the voluntary sector to ensure that those in most need are getting the assistance that they require.
The Government's improvement grant means test is far too restrictive, and we should like to see it removed for the disabled and the elderly. The elderly are particularly relevant because they disproportionately have homes which lack basic amenities and they cannot afford repair and maintenance.
There is an obvious need for more direct investment of public money in the grants system. That would be imperative if the definition of unfitness were broadened and standards were strictly enforced. Enforcement is rather lax at the moment. However, when providing direct funding we must look at other ways of providing incentives to save and repair.
Private sector tenants who do not have a repair obligation in their contracts are, of course, not entitled to an improvement grant, yet the private rented sector contains some of the worst disrepair. We should tackle that by giving tenants the right, with local authority approval for works and cost, to call in contractors to carry out essential repairs. In that context I am sure that there is a role for agencies. The local authority would be responsible for payment in the first place, but would be entitled to register a land charge against the property until the cost had been paid. When the repairs had been completed the landlord would be entitled to a rent increase, but that would be paid to the council until the debt was discharged. We expect that most tenants would have the extra rent increase largely covered by housing benefit.
Local authorities should have a statutory duty to ensure that housing, public health and fire regulations are observed in all multiple occupation premises and that properties with three or more households sharing essential living accommodation should be registered with the local authority. Properties not up to standard should be priority targets for acquisition by councils, housing associations and co-operatives and, where appropriate, we would use compulsory purchase orders.
I spoke about empty Government properties, but there are more than 600,000 empty properties in the private sector. Thousands of people are sleeping rough or in inadequate, cramped accommodation and it is obscene that so many properties are allowed to lie empty and fall into disrepair. We are willing to find ways of giving owners greater incentives to bring their properties up to standard and back on to the market, but when a property is intentionally left vacant we are prepared to introduce a new mechanism by which local authorities can serve a notice of intention to let, with appropriate right of appeal. Then, if necessary, we will extend compulsory purchase powers to enable local authorities to buy private homes which, I repeat, are intentionally left vacant for a significant time.
I have outlined some of the policies that should have been put in place during the past 12 years. The disaster area of housing has gone on for far too long. It should be tackled now.
I shall concentrate on housing action trusts, not because I want to, but because of the short time that is available. There is a proposed housing action trust in the borough of Waltham Forest in my constituency, and it is greatly welcomed. If the tenants vote in favour of the trust, it will cost about £160 million to £170 million, which is a considerable investment of public money. The trust would cover four estates in the borough: Chingford hall, Boundary road, Oliver close and Cathall.
Boundary road is in my constituency and all four estates share the same characteristics. They are 1960s designed and built tower blocks and they are horrendous. It is dreadful to think that they could ever have been conceived, and it is appalling that they were so badly built and have been disgracefully managed. Tower blocks breed unemployment, despair and misery, and the sooner that they are taken down the better. The only people who will regret their passing are the criminal fraternity, who engage in stripping stolen cars, and the owners of pit bull terriers. I do not know where those people will go when the blocks are demolished, but with any luck they will all make their way to Hammersmith. I am delighted to say that, if the housing action trust goes ahead, there will be tenants on the board, which will allow their voice to be heard. This is a great improvement over the housing action trust mark 1, which did not permit tenants any say in the running of their estates.
Safeguards are built in for the tenants on, for example, rents, which will be frozen while the housing action trust is in operation. Once the tenants have moved to their new homes, the new rents will be set at levels similar to those for comparable council properties. Moreover, tenants will have the right to choose their own landlord. Once they have moved into their new homes, under the housing action trust, if tenants wish to keep the local authority as landlord, then they have the right to do so. If, on the other hand, they choose to have a housing association as their landlord, or if they choose to set up a tenants' co-operative so that they can run their homes themselves, or if they wish to exercise their right to buy, all these options are open to them. There is no question of privatising these estates—a slanderous and disgraceful suggestion that has been made by such bodies as the Socialist Workers party. I urge the tenants to take no notice of what these people say.
There is no doubt but that this is the way forward. It is the way to deal with dreadful estates of this type. I hope that the tenants on such estates in the London borough of Waltham Forest will turn out in great numbers for the vote on 13 July. I hope that there will be a clear-cut, decisive vote.
The mark of a civilised society is that it is one in which people can expect to be decently housed and clothed, to have enough to eat and to have access to health care and to education for their children. Our society fails many people in a number of these respects, but nowhere more so than in housing. Every Member of Parliament representing an inner-city area has thousands of cases of human misery, ill health and broken families—all caused by overcrowding and the impossibility of getting somewhere decent to live. Furthermore, it is a cause of racial conflict. The Government put the squeeze on local authorities and refuse to let them have money for council house building, and so communities turn against each other and fight for the meagre resources that are left. The worst part of it is the loss of hope and the depression that come from 10 years of being on the waiting list and seeing no chance of a solution.
Tower Hamlets is fairly typical of inner-city boroughs. It has over 1,000 families accepted as homeless. Many are in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. The money that goes on bed and breakfast represents millions of pounds down the drain because it provides no permanent solution. I have visited constituents in seedy bed-and-breakfast hotels in Paddington and Earl's Court. The conditions are appalling. In a room the size of a boxroom in an average semi-detached house, there are two beds, a mother and father and two children. There is no television or a fridge. There is a coffee table at which one person can eat while the others eat on their beds. The mother comes up a steep flight of stairs from a communal kitchen with one child in her arms and the other hanging off her skirts, carrying pots of boiling food. Not only are they in danger, but, as I know from my experience as a teacher, these children will have no chance of healthy development. A child needs a place to move, to run and to stretch so as to develop mentally and physically, and there is no room for them to do so. These families in bed-and-breakfast hotels are condemned to a nightmare.
According to the community charge office, Tower Hamlets has 4,000 empty and second homes, most in the private sector. In docklands 1,500 units—the minimum admitted by the London Docklands development corporation—are luxury homes that people cannot afford to buy. We need radical solutions. The right-to-buy money must be released and used to repair empty homes so that they can be used. All unused land in public ownership must be released so that prefabs can be put on it; then we could do something within months to accommodate the vast majority of homeless families. Privately owned homes that have been empty for years must be requisitioned and let by local authorities.
The right to buy helped many people to purchase their own homes, but it has reduced the condition of public sector housing stock. In London, one fifth of the housing stock has been sold, three quarters of it houses with gardens, because they are what everybody wants to live in. That leaves only 15 per cent. of council tenants in houses with gardens. Therefore, the worst stock is that left in municipal control.
In docklands, we had a great opportunity to solve the housing problems because vast areas of land were left unused. When so much land is left empty, it must be zoned so that a fair proportion of it goes for affordable housing. Instead, million of square feet of office space was built, half of which is empty, and millions more are to come although they are surplus to requirements. That is not the answer that we need, in Tower Hamlets or any other city centre.
Most people dream of owning their own homes, but for many that dream has turned sour and has become a nightmare in these days of unemployment and rising interest rates. People come to me in desperation. They have bought their homes, but they cannot pay service charges, or a big repair has to be carried out, and they do not have the money for it. Bow county court deals with more repossession cases than any other court in London. A single person needs an income of £21,000 and a family needs an income of £26,000 to be a first-time buyer. That is no answer in an area such as Tower Hamlets, one of the poorest in the country.
The sad evidence of the failure of the Government's policy of trying to put an end to council house building can be seen all round us in London—in the people living in the streets, in the crowded rooms of the seedy bed-and-breakfast hotels and in the queues of desperate people in the surgeries of every London Member of Parliament. As I have said many times, for my constituents and those in other urban areas, the only practical answer is more affordable housing built by municipal authorities. The Government can shake their head and proffer other methods, but that method took people out of the slums and gave them decent homes and it is the only one that will work in the future.
I listened with interest to what the hon. Member for Bow and Poplar (Ms. Gordon) said about housing conditions in her constituency and other inner cities. I remind her of what a former Labour council leader said about his council, Liverpool. Mr. Keva Coombes said:
Tenants get an appalling service, and they know that. I think probably the fundamental cause is, frankly, we've put the interests of the providers of the service, the workforce, above the interests of the tenants.
How true that is of so many services provided in Liverpool.
I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Minister was not able to develop his thoughts on reviving the private rented sector. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will recall that he told me, in a written answer:
It is too early to assess the overall impact of the Act on private renting."—[Official Report, 14 February 1991; Vol. 185, c. 541.]
He was referring there to the Housing Act 1988. He pointed to some hopeful signs, but we still have a long way to go before we have a revived private rented sector. In contrast, in West Germany nearly half all homes are privately rented. In this country, there are some 600,000 empty private sector homes, many of which could be used to house the homeless. Unfortunately, previous restrictions have deterred such use.
There are hopeful signs—for example, reports in the London borough of Islington published in October 1990 show that private landlords are renting up to 30 per cent. more homes than they were two years ago. But in my constituency and in other parts of the south-west, there is no substantial scope for reviving the private rented sector. We must look to local authorities, or more particularly housing associations, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary knows.
I note that my hon. Friend the Minister said earlier that the Government have reallocated capital away from areas with receipts to areas without receipts. I hope that the Government will constantly take into account local authorities' practice of keeping homes empty, not collecting the rent and not facilitating the sale of council homes. Hon. Members will recall that I have made those points before. For example, in most of the districts of the south-west, between 25 and 30 per cent. of council accommodation has been sold, whereas in parts of London less than 10 per cent. of a much larger council estate has been sold. I hope that the Government will not lean over backwards too far to help inner cities in that respect.
An unpublished study of the housing situation and the consequences of council sales in my constituency said:
Family houses are more attractive to potential buyers than flats…This has clear implications for the housing section of Taunton Deane, as it displays a clear lack of available family accommodation which will either have to be met through an increased building programme, or through private rented sector property and reveals a problem which has arisen not solely, but perhaps largely as a result of the depletion of the housing stock through the promotion of the Right To Buy.
I therefore welcome the suggestion made in a letter dated 24 April from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State about the capital finance system. He said:
We shall keep the workings of this system under review and I do not rule out changes at some time".
I reiterate that some flexibility in the administration of the system would be welcome not only to me but to a number of my hon. Friends who represent local authorities which have handled their assets well.
Finally, I wish to relate housing provision and home improvements to our present economic situation and to the needs in the coming year or so to try to revive that sector of our economy. The Building Employers Confederation, in which I declare an interest as an adviser [Interruption.] As the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) will recall, I advocated these views before I became involved with the organisation and I should continue to advocate them were I not involved. It makes this point:
Housing output will have to be expanded in both the private and the public sectors, to meet market demand".
It also says:
Capital receipts are an available source of funding for the Housing Corporation if Ministers do not wish local authorities to build. Now is a good time to get housing associations to increase output, because land and building prices are low and they can maximise 'bang for the buck'"—as builders call it—
at present. Rules preventing local authorities using their own land to pay for more building work should be relaxed.
I note that when the economy was recovering from recession between 1981 and 1984 there was a significant increase in the amount of spending on home improvement grants. In the financial year 1981–82, £197 million was spent on home improvement grants. In 1983–84, when the economy was reviving, £911 million, nearly £1 billion, was spent on home improvement grants—a considerable increase at that time. I commend that to my hon. Friend the Minister. I know that he has recognised in correspondence with me the teething troubles in the system that was introduced last year and I hope that this opportunity will be taken to try to float that sector off the rocks on which it is at present.
There is also the problem in my constituency, and I think in others, too, of owner-occupied homes which are in some difficulty because of non-traditional build. In Taunton—in the Galmington area—there are Woolaway houses which were built just after the war. They are not facing significant problems in terms of repair, but they are facing problems with regard to resale. As my constituent Mrs. Keitch says:
On the last sale the purchaser had an extensive structural survey carried out on the house which proved positive in confirming that it was well-constructed and well maintained, but the purchaser withdrew because of unfounded rumours and worries about resale problems.
I have corresponded with my hon. Friend the Minister about that and I hope that he will continue to attach importance to the problem which is causing blight in parts of my constituency and no doubt other constituencies, too. Widows or elderly people occupying such homes and wanting to move to smaller, more manageable properties would release substantial three and four-bedroom houses for families in my constituency and elsewhere who are in urgent need of such accommodation.
I commend my hon. Friend's policies and I commend these points of concern to his attention.
It is important when discussing housing to get away from the rhetoric of simply slagging off any Labour-controlled authority and blaming everything on municipalisation. We should remember that many Tory-controlled councils are public-sector landlords to many people. I also despair at Tory Members—one of whom I am glad to see returning to the Chamber, the hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth)—who spend their time here whingeing about their Labour-controlled authorities and then write to them asking for special treatment for people whom they see at their surgeries. That is despicable.
It is important to remember that HIP allocations apply not simply to public sector schemes, but to new build, the modernisation of existing stock, the estate action programme allocation, statutory improvement grants, mortgages for council house buyers and support to housing associations.
My authority in Bradford, which is a pleasant mix of inner-city and rural areas, has seen a 75 per cent. reduction during the past 10 years in its HIP allocation. In 1990–91 we saw an increse in expenditure on bed and breakfast from £20,00 to £200,000. For the first time, Bradford had a long-term bed-and-breakfast accomodation problem on its hands. Last year, 2,300 people were assessed as priority homeless. Because of the loss of housing stock during the past 12 years we were able to house only 975 of them and 1,200 people were left in bed-and-breakfast accommmodation. In addition, more than 4,000 families are trapped in flats waiting for houses that they cannot have because the majority of houses have been sold.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Bow and Poplar (Ms. Gordon) said, bad housing affects education. We all know that substantial research has been done which shows that one of the major influences on children's educational achievement is their environment. Stress caused by poor accommodation leads to family break-up which in turn means that two units of accommodation are needed, adding to the problem. Such stress in turn makes demands on the health service. For far too long, the indirect consequences of the Government's housing strategy and the costs associated with it in other areas have never been brought together.
Because of the ludicrous housing subsidy rules, we now have the poor subsidising the poor. In 1990, £8 million in housing subsidy was lost from the housing revenue account. This year that figure has risen to £10 million. That has produced a rent increase of £6·20 which means that housing benefit must be increased—a rising spiral in subsidy.
In Bradford we have seen the rise of disreputable second mortgage companies which will advance money at extortionate rates of interest. At the first failure to pay they will go to the county court for a possession order.
Last week, one of my constituents came to see me. She may have been foolish, but never mind that. She had taken out a second mortgage to the value of £19,000 and—having, perhaps, taken less than the best legal advice—had signed a document that would lead to her losing her home three years later. Meanwhile, her debt stands at £31,000. That is the legacy of the 1990s, when the present Government created the myth that it was possible to extract the equity from a property and thus dispense with all worries. Now all the chickens are coming home to roost.
I will say little about the building societies. By and large, they are well intentioned; they have been led up the garden path by the new powers that they have been given, and now want to turn themselves into banks. We all know what that means.
What, then, is the solution? Both the Minister and Opposition Members have talked about housing strategy. I only wish that there were a housing strategy. We need a strategy that recognises all tenures and all agencies, and makes no excuse for bad management by local authorities, building societies or private landlords.
We need a strategy that reflects market forces. Nine thousand people are on the waiting list in my local authority area, because they want low-cost public-sector housing. The market is there; when will supply match demand?
In the past 10 years, the number of housing starts in West Yorkshire has fallen from 20,000 a year—both public and private—to 8,000. An indirect consequence of that pattern, which has been repeated across the country, is the fact that some 250,000 construction workers are now on the dole.
We need that new strategy soon and we need similar strategies to deal with associated problems in, for instance, education and health.
The Minister said that far too many people lived in estates that had been designed by people who did not live in them, and would not want to. Let me tell him that far too many local authorities' housing policies are being determined by civil servants who live in London, and are acquainted only with London problems. They have no conception of life outside the metropolis, because they venture further afield only on overseas trips.
Nothing in the debate has suggested that the Government appreciate the seriousness of the housing problem. Indeed, everything that we have heard suggests that they are as complacent as ever. If nothing that my hon. Friends have said has had the desired effect, I should perhaps remind the Government that housing investment in this country has collapsed from 6 or 7 per cent. of gross domestic product to about 2 per cent.—far lower than the proportion spent in any comparable European or western country. We see the evidence on our streets, and also in the many reports that reveal the current decay in our housing stock.
No one listening to the debate would gain the impression that the Government, or their supporters, were even aware of the reports by the Duke of Edinburgh, the Public Accounts Committee or the Select Committee on the Environment—or, indeed, of the report by the Association of District Councils, which seems to have had no impact on the Government, although the ADC is composed of their friends and supporters.
Listening to the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. French), no one would think that there was a housing problem in his constituency; yet Conservative councillors from that borough have asked me to try to persuade the Government to allow them to use capital receipts to replace housing costs in rural areas. I have received similar representations from other parts of the country. The Government are clearly prepared to ignore not only the Opposition but outside bodies. When will they start to listen to their supporters, who have also spelt out the problems?
The Minister implied that the Labour party had killed off the private rented sector. In 1979, when the Conservative Government were elected on the basis of their promise to revive that sector, it represented 14 per cent. of the rented market; now it represents 7 per cent.
That market share is now declining further, except at the upper end of the market—and it is rising at that end only because house prices are currently frozen, and landlords are letting on a short-term basis. When the housing market starts to pick up again, those short lets will come to an end, and the housing problem will recur.
As the Duke of Edinburgh's report has pointed out—and as I have pointed out for many years—the private rented sector has declined because of our system of housing finance. Only at the margins is that decline connected with the Rent Acts—as evidence from Northern Ireland and, indeed, elsewhere will show anyone who cares to examine the details.
The Government have fallen back on another example—empty properties. As Labour has said for some time, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney) has said tonight, when there is evidence that a landlord has not acted properly—whether that landlord is Labour or Tory, council or public housing association, or, indeed, private—we shall take steps to ensure that the property in question is transferred to a manager who can manage it, in the private sector if necessary.
Let me remind the Government, however, that 16 per cent. of their houses—35,000 properties—are empty. If they have read the reports of the Public Accounts Committee and the Select Committee on the Environment, they will know that only 2·5 per cent. of local authority houses are empty. Even authorities with larger housing stocks usually have special reasons. Where that does not apply, I would suggest transfer.
I shall issue a challenge to the Minister, which he may wish to meet when he replies to the debate. In the Government sector, 35,000 properties are empty—and I emphasise that most are not needed for defence purposes. One in five London police houses are empty; prison officers' houses have been left empty for up to 10 years. In Archway, Department of Transport properties are even now being auctioned off, while many Ministry of Defence houses are being kept empty for sale by auction. I challenge the Government to transfer those properties, here and now, to housing associations or local authorities. It is a question of, "Do it now—don't talk."
Let me tell the Minister what really happened about housing action trusts. I understand why he does not know: historically, housing Ministers in the present Government have lasted for an average of six months. The present Minister was not involved at the time; I give him full credit for that. If he had been, he would not have said what he did say.
In the Committee stage of the Housing Bill 1988, we argued against housing action trusts. We said that tenants would not be forced out of the council sector; we also saw problems involving rent-setting mechanisms and so forth. Every one of the seven housing action trust areas identified by the Government voted them down. As a result of that pressure, and as a result of my taking groups of Members of Parliament to see the then Minister—the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Mr. Trippier)—the Government began to shift their position. Now they are saying that tenants can go back to the council sector.
Given that the tenants who voted the system down in the seven areas identified by the Government were not offered the special and favourable deals that are now being offered to Hull and Walthamstow, which I welcome, will the Minister now make the same offer to those tenants? They knew that they would be transferred. Furthermore, is he prepared to change the law, which, as it stands, is not commensurate with his offer?
Let me say to the Minister what I have said to the Hull authority—I said it some time ago, and it is in writing. Those tenants will have the right to go back to either the local authority or another landlord of their own choosing; they need not go back to the local authority.
Then there is the question of housing authorities. It is wonderful, is it not? Various hon. Members are falling in love with the housing association movement: terrific. I wish that it had been so throughout the 1980s, when the housing associations grant was cut time and again. Now they are only just getting back to where they were in the 1970s. What a damning indictment of the Government's policy.
What else are the Government doing? One Minister —he is now Secretary of State for Health—promised to revive the co-ops. This year, the co-ops have had the lowest-ever allocation from the Housing Corporation—just 300 housing units. What a disastrous, incompetent measure.
Let me make two points about ending transfers—and I address this to the hon. Member for Gloucester as well as to the Government. Can we have a guarantee that, whenever tenants are transferred, they will be given the money to take independent advice about the desirability of the deal? Some tenants have bought a pig in a poke. An example of that—it was not badly intentioned—is the Greater London council seaside homes where tenants ended up paying more than they were told that they would have to pay. It was the fault of the housing association in that it got its sums wrong, but that was not surprising in view of the circumstances of the deal. Those involved were not offered independent advice which might have warned them off. No one should be transferred without independent advice.
I could make a success of a transfer if I were told that I could buy each unit for under £10,000, which is the maximum price for any house or flat in any total stock transfer that has taken place in Britain. Any fool could make a success of that. If one writes off all the debt, things can be improved. If it is such a good thing, why not do it for local authorities? The Minister says that we cannot have the capital receipts. He wants to do the equivalent of going home at night, finding that the roof is leaking and telling his family, "I am sorry, the roof needs to be repaired but we should pay off the mortgage." It is lunacy to use the money from capital receipts to pay off debts when there are so many homeless. It is also wicked. Therefore, the Government cannot use that excuse either.
There is a campaign for rough sleepers. Homelessness is not just a London problem and it is nowhere near being solved. I welcome the units that the Government have made available, but more homeless people will come to use them. They will come from Gloucester, Taunton, Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle. People will come from all over the place and the homelessness problem will continue to increase because, as the Duke of Edinburgh said, we have lost 1·9 million properties from the rented sector. The aggressive begging comes from the Government, begging for an excuse for policies that have failed the nation.
This has been an instructive debate on an important subject, and I welcome some of the contributions, including the eloquent plea of my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Summerson) for a housing action trust there. I hope that the tenants will take careful note of what he said. I was interested in the suggestions of my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. French) for encouraging voluntary transfer. I shall draw the attention of the Department of Social Security to his remarks on housing benefit. I should like him to clarify his concerns about the Housing Corporation's attitude to circular 7/91. Perhaps he will do so in a letter.
My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) made some powerful remarks about the revival of the private sector, the use of capital receipts and defective housing in his constituency. Almost all the other speeches were pleas for more money to be spent on council housing. Opposition Members ignored entirely the enormous resources that the Government are putting into the housing association movement. The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley) is a former employee of Manchester city council. Before he asks the Government to put more taxpayers' money into that city, he should do something about collecting the £15 million of rent arrears which were outstanding at the end of 1990. The hon. Member for Bow and Poplar (Ms. Gordon) should ask why Tower Hamlets council had 1,758 empty council properties at 1 April 1990. Those were council properties built for council tenants. They were not built for policemen or hospital workers or for soldiers returning from abroad. They were meant for tenants and should be for tenants. They would be used by tenants if the Labour-controlled local authority did something about it.
The debate has reminded the House how the Government's policies over the past 12 years have given Britain more and better housing than at any time in history. The policies have been based on expanding home ownership, which is the preferred choice of the vast majority of families and individuals. Home ownership is now at record levels and is expanding still further with the promotion of shared ownership schemes and other intiatives designed to bring owner-occupation within the reach of those for whom it was previously impossible.
The Government's policies are also designed to improve choice and opportunity for tenants. They give all tenants more say in their own affairs. They target more resources where they are most needed and encourage the private landlord to play a bigger role in housing the homeless. The private landlord will have listened with interest to the reply of the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire). The hon. Member for Dagenham refused to say that the Labour party would abandon its crazy policy of giving private tenants the right to buy. If ever there was a sure way of ensuring that the private rented sector remained largely dormant, it was that threat of confiscation.
The debate has also provided an opportunity for my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning to mention the hugely increased resources that we are putting into housing associations via the Housing Corporation and by making it possible for housing associations to tap private finance for the benefit of tenants. All those positive steps have been resisted in one way or another by the Labour party's dogged determination to continue living in the past. For example, the rents-to-mortgages experiment is now successfully under way in Basildon and Milton Keynes. That initiative manages to promote home ownership and extend the rights of tenants. It is sad but not surprising that no Labour Member today had a word to say in favour of that scheme. As it took so many years of proven Conservative success and overwhelming tenant enthusiasm before the Labour party replaced its obstinate hostility to the right to buy with its present grudging acceptance, it will be many more years before it gives the rents-to-mortgages scheme an unqualified endorsement.
The debate also reminded the House of what the Labour party would inflict on tenants and landlords if it ever got the chance. We have had the usual hostility to the private landlord, thinly disguised inside the Labour party's so-called new agenda for the private rented sector. That agenda has been drawn up carefully to prevent private landlords from providing for poorer tenants. The initiative of my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning, the pilot scheme under which housing associations are invited to bid for an opportunity to manage private property on behalf of landlords and to act as an intermediary between them and homeless families, is worth while. It would have done the Labour party some good if it had thought to give that a favourable mention.
The trouble is that at the core of the Labour party's policy is a deep-seated desire to meet every housing need by throwing huge sums of money at local authorities. The Government utterly reject that approach. Never again should tenants face the dreary monopoly of no alternative to a local council landlord. It was the excessive dependence on local authorities as the monopoly provider of subsidised housing which led directly to the dreadful conditions still found on many council estates today. That policy was utterly rejected by the Government but is still supported by the Opposition. It has given us more than 5,000 empty houses in Labour-controlled Manchester—more than one property in 20 of the total council stock. That same policy left more than £26 million of uncollected rent from tenants in Labour-controlled Southwark, almost one third of the annual rent roll.
Labour councils cannot be bothered to collect the rents that would pay for the improvements and maintenance that we want tenants to receive, but the Labour leadership is certainly not slow in promising to spend huge sums of taxpayers' money. Exactly how much it would spend remains shrouded in some obscurity. The promises that fall glibly from the lips of the hon. Member for Dagenham may not have been approved by the hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett). When she was confronted with the ghastly reality that Labour's spending commitments would require a basic rate of tax of 40p in the pound, the hon. Member for Derby, South back-pedalled furiously. The hon. Member for Dagenham told the House last year that a Labour Government would immediately set in train a scheme costing £1·85 billion as a solution to the homelessness problem. Was that commitment cleared with the hon. Member for Derby, South?
Later in the year the hon. Member for Dagenham was at it again. He told the Chartered Builder magazine that over £8 billion was promised for construction, repair and maintenance. I doubt whether that was cleared with the hon. Member for Derby, South. Perhaps she is not such an avid reader of that magazine as I am. When we talk of £1·85 billion here and £3 billion there, we are talking about real money. Those spending pledges are either a hollow and cynical sham designed to buy votes from every pressure group that presents itself on Labour's door, or they represent a clear and unambiguous threat to every taxpayer in the country—an attempt to cripple taxpayers and wreck the economy.
Liverpool is a supreme example of what Labour rule can do to a once proud and prosperous city. Of all the disasters caused by Labour's administration in Liverpool, its housing is supremely disgraceful. There are over 5,000 empty council properties—one in every 12 owned by the council. That is the worst record of any local authority in the country. There is 16 million of uncollected rent—more than a quarter of the total rent roll.
However, hope exists for Liverpool's beleaguered tenants in the form of a housing action trust. Last week the city council voted to start negotiations. I warmly welcome that change of heart, but does the Labour party? Is it still firmly opposed to housing action trusts? Will it threaten Liverpool council as it threatened Hull council with the winding up of a housing action trust before it has even had a chance to get under way?
On this crucial issue of housing action trusts, the Labour party leadership in Parliament is opposed to its whizzo new moderate Liverpool city council. So deep and rigid is the attachment of the Labour Front Bench to out-of-date dogma that it cannot utter a word in support of its councillors in Liverpool, who are belatedly attempting to redress some of the wrongs that were inflicted on them in the early 1980s.
A year ago tomorrow, the House debated a Labour motion on housing. In that year, Labour has learned nothing and forgotten nothing. The same touchstones have been uncovered—a slavish and unquestioning enthusiasm for the local authority monopoly landlord, the same profound hostility to extensions of tenants' rights, the same resolute determination to stop the growth in the private sector. Those were the solutions of the 1960s. They were mistakes then; they are irrelevant now. The House should reject the motion.
|Division No. 197]||[at 7.00 pm|
|Abbott, Ms Diane||Ashley, Rt Hon Jack|
|Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley,N.)||Ashton, Joe|
|Allen, Graham||Banks, Tony (Newham NW)|
|Alton, David||Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)|
|Archer, Rt Hon Peter||Barnes, Mrs Rosie (Greenwich)|
|Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy||Battle, John|
|Beckett, Margaret||Howells, Geraint|
|Beith, A. J.||Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd)|
|Bellotti, David||Hughes, John (Coventry NE)|
|Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)||Hughes, Simon (Southwark)|
|Bermingham, Gerald||Ingram, Adam|
|Blair, Tony||Janner, Greville|
|Blunkett, David||Johnston, Sir Russell|
|Boateng, Paul||Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)|
|Boyes, Roland||Jones, leuan (Ynys Môn)|
|Bradley, Keith||Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald|
|Brown, Gordon (D'mline E)||Kennedy, Charles|
|Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)||Kinnock, Rt Hon Neil|
|Brown, Ron (Edinburgh Leith)||Kirkwood, Archy|
|Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)||Lambie, David|
|Buckley, George J.||Lamond, James|
|Callaghan, Jim||Leighton, Ron|
|Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)||Lewis, Terry|
|Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)||Litherland, Robert|
|Campbell-Savours, D. N.||Livingstone, Ken|
|Canavan, Dennis||Lofthouse, Geoffrey|
|Carr, Michael||Loyden, Eddie|
|Cartwright, John||McAllion, John|
|Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)||McAvoy, Thomas|
|Clwyd, Mrs Ann||Macdonald, Calum A.|
|Cohen, Harry||McFall, John|
|Cook, Frank (Stockton N)||McKay, Allen (Barnsley West)|
|Cook, Robin (Livingston)||McKelvey, William|
|Corbett, Robin||McLeish, Henry|
|Corbyn, Jeremy||Maclennan, Robert|
|Cousins, Jim||McMaster, Gordon|
|Crowther, Stan||McWilliam, John|
|Cryer, Bob||Madden, Max|
|Cummings, John||Mahon, Mrs Alice|
|Cunliffe, Lawrence||Marek, Dr John|
|Cunningham, Dr John||Marshall, David (Shettleston)|
|Dalyell, Tam||Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)|
|Darling, Alistair||Martin, Michael J. (Springburn)|
|Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)||Martlew, Eric|
|Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'l)||Maxton, John|
|Dewar, Donald||Meale, Alan|
|Dixon, Don||Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)|
|Dobson, Frank||Michie, Mrs Ray (Arg'l & Bute)|
|Duffy, Sir A. E. P.||Mitchell, Austin (G't Grlmsby)|
|Dunnachie, Jimmy||Moonie, Dr Lewis|
|Eadie, Alexander||Morgan, Rhodri|
|Eastham, Ken||Morley, Elliot|
|Edwards, Huw||Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)|
|Ewing, Harry (Falkirk E)||Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)|
|Ewing, Mrs Margaret (Moray)||Mowlam, Marjorie|
|Fatchett, Derek||Mullin, Chris|
|Fearn, Ronald||Murphy, Paul|
|Field, Frank (Birkenhead)||Nellist, Dave|
|Fields, Terry (L'pool B G'n)||Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon|
|Fisher, Mark||O'Brien, William|
|Flynn, Paul||Orme, Rt Hon Stanley|
|Foot, Rt Hon Michael||Owen, Rt Hon Dr David|
|Foster, Derek||Patchett, Terry|
|Foulkes, George||Pendry, Tom|
|Fraser, John||Pike, Peter L.|
|Fyfe, Maria||Powell, Ray (Ogmore)|
|Garrett, Ted (Wallsend)||Prescott, John|
|George, Bruce||Primarolo, Dawn|
|Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John||Randall, Stuart|
|Golding, Mrs Llin||Redmond, Martin|
|Gordon, Mildred||Reid, Dr John|
|Gould, Bryan||Richardson, Jo|
|Grant, Bernie (Tottenham)||Robertson, George|
|Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)||Robinson, Geoffrey|
|Hain, Peter||Rogers, Allan|
|Hardy, Peter||Rooker, Jeff|
|Harman, Ms Harriet||Rooney, Terence|
|Haynes, Frank||Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)|
|Heal, Mrs Sylvia||Rowlands, Ted|
|Healey, Rt Hon Denis||Salmond, Alex|
|Hinchliffe, David||Sedgemore, Brian|
|Hoey, Ms Kate (Vauxhall)||Sheerman, Barry|
|Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)||Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert|
|Home Robertson, John||Shore, Rt Hon Peter|
|Hood, Jimmy||Short, Clare|
|Howell, Rt Hon D. (S'heath)||Sillars, Jim|
|Skinner, Dennis||Welsh, Michael (Doncaster N)|
|Smith, C. (Isl'ton & F'bury)||Williams, Rt Hon Alan|
|Smith, Rt Hon J. (Monk'ds E)||Williams, Alan W. (Carm'then)|
|Snape, Peter||Wilson, Brian|
|Soley, Clive||Winnick, David|
|Spearing, Nigel||Wise, Mrs Audrey|
|Steel, Rt Hon Sir David||Worthington, Tony|
|Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)||Wray, Jimmy|
|Thomas, Dr Dafydd Elis||Young, David (Bolton SE)|
|Wallace, James||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Walley, Joan||Mr. Martyn Jones, and|
|Wardell, Gareth (Gower)||Mr. Jack Thompson.|
|Adley, Robert||Day, Stephen|
|Aitken, Jonathan||Devlin, Tim|
|Alison, Rt Hon Michael||Dickens, Geoffrey|
|Allason, Rupert||Dicks, Terry|
|Amess, David||Dorrell, Stephen|
|Amos, Alan||Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James|
|Arbuthnot, James||Dover, Den|
|Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)||Durant, Sir Anthony|
|Arnold, Sir Thomas||Dykes, Hugh|
|Ashby, David||Eggar, Tim|
|Aspinwall, Jack||Emery, Sir Peter|
|Atkins, Robert||Evans, David (Welwyn Hatf'd)|
|Atkinson, David||Evennett, David|
|Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)||Fallon, Michael|
|Banks, Robert (Harrogate)||Favell, Tony|
|Beaumont-Dark, Anthony||Fenner, Dame Peggy|
|Bellingham, Henry||Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)|
|Bendall, Vivian||Fishburn, John Dudley|
|Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)||Fookes, Dame Janet|
|Benyon, W.||Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)|
|Bevan, David Gilroy||Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman|
|Biffen, Rt Hon John||Fox, Sir Marcus|
|Blackburn, Dr John G.||Franks, Cecil|
|Blaker, Rt Hon Sir Peter||Freeman, Roger|
|Bonsor, Sir Nicholas||French, Douglas|
|Boscawen, Hon Robert||Fry, Peter|
|Boswell, Tim||Gardiner, Sir George|
|Bottomley, Peter||Garel-Jones, Tristan|
|Bottomley, Mrs Virginia||Gill, Christopher|
|Bowden, A. (Brighton K'pto'n)||Gilmour, Rt Hon Sir Ian|
|Bowis, John||Glyn, Dr Sir Alan|
|Boyson, Rt Hon Dr Sir Rhodes||Goodhart, Sir Philip|
|Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard||Goodlad, Alastair|
|Brandon-Bravo, Martin||Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles|
|Brazier, Julian||Gorst, John|
|Bright, Graham||Grant, Sir Anthony (CambsSW)|
|Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's)||Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)|
|Browne, John (Winchester)||Greenway, John (Ryedale)|
|Bruce, Ian (Dorset South)||Gregory, Conal|
|Buck, Sir Antony||Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)|
|Budgen, Nicholas||Grist, Ian|
|Burns, Simon||Ground, Patrick|
|Burt, Alistair||Grylls, Michael|
|Butler, Chris||Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn|
|Butterfill, John||Hague, William|
|Carlisle, John, (Luton N)||Hamilton, Rt Hon Archie|
|Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)||Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)|
|Carrington, Matthew||Hanley, Jeremy|
|Carttiss, Michael||Hannam, John|
|Cash, William||Hargreaves, A. (B'ham H'll Gr')|
|Channon, Rt Hon Paul||Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn)|
|Chope, Christopher||Harris, David|
|Churchill, Mr||Haselhurst, Alan|
|Clark, Rt Hon Sir William||Hawkins, Christopher|
|Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe)||Hayward, Robert|
|Colvin, Michael||Hicks, Robert (Cornwall SE)|
|Conway, Derek||Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.|
|Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)||Hill, James|
|Coombs, Simon (Swindon)||Hordern, Sir Peter|
|Cope, Rt Hon Sir John||Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd)|
|Cormack, Patrick||Howe, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey|
|Couchman, James||Irvine, Michael|
|Cran, James||Irving, Sir Charles|
|Currie, Mrs Edwina||Janman, Tim|
|Davis, David (Boothferry)||Jessel, Toby|
|Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey||Moynihan, Hon Colin|
|Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)||Mudd, David|
|Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine||Neale, Sir Gerrard|
|Kilfedder, James||Nelson, Anthony|
|King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield)||Neubert, Sir Michael|
|Kirkhope, Timothy||Nicholls, Patrick|
|Knapman, Roger||Nicholson, David (Taunton)|
|Knight, Greg (Derby North)||Nicholson, Emma (Devon West)|
|Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)||Norris, Steve|
|Knowles, Michael||Onslow, Rt Hon Cranley|
|Knox, David||Oppenheim, Phillip|
|Latham, Michael||Page, Richard|
|Lawrence, Ivan||Paice, James|
|Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)||Patnick, Irvine|
|Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark||Patten, Rt Hon Chris (Bath)|
|Lester, Jim (Broxtowe)||Patten, Rt Hon John|
|Lightbown, David||Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey|
|Lilley, Rt Hon Peter||Pawsey, James|
|Lord, Michael||Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth|
|Luce, Rt Hon Sir Richard||Porter, David (Waveney)|
|McCrindle, Sir Robert||Powell, William (Corby)|
|MacGregor, Rt Hon John||Price, Sir David|
|MacKay, Andrew (E Berkshire)||Rattan, Keith|
|McLoughlin, Patrick||Raison, Rt Hon Sir Timothy|
|McNair-Wilson, Sir Michael||Rathbone, Tim|
|Madel, David||Redwood, John|
|Malins, Humfrey||Rhodes James, Sir Robert|
|Maples, John||Riddick, Graham|
|Marland, Paul||Ridley, Rt Hon Nicholas|
|Marlow, Tony||Ridsdale, Sir Julian|
|Marshall, John (Hendon S)||Rifkind, Rt Hon Malcolm|
|Martin, David (Portsmouth S)||Roberts, Rt Hon Sir Wyn|
|Mates, Michael||Roe, Mrs Marion|
|Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin||Rossi, Sir Hugh|
|Mellor, Rt Hon David||Rost, Peter|
|Meyer, Sir Anthony||Rowe, Andrew|
|Miller, Sir Hal||Ryder, Rt Hon Richard|
|Mills, Iain||Scott, Rt Hon Nicholas|
|Miscampbell, Norman||Shaw, David (Dover)|
|Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)||Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)|
|Moate, Roger||Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')|
|Montgomery, Sir Fergus||Shephard, Mrs G. (Norfolk SW)|
|Moore, Rt Hon John||Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)|
|Morrison, Sir Charles||Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)|
|Moss, Malcolm||Shersby, Michael|
|Sims, Roger||Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)|
|Skeet, Sir Trevor||Tracey, Richard|
|Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)||Tredinnick, David|
|Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)||Trippier, David|
|Soames, Hon Nicholas||Trotter, Neville|
|Speed, Keith||Twinn, Dr Ian|
|Spicer, Sir Jim (Dorset W)||Vaughan, Sir Gerard|
|Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)||Viggers, Peter|
|Squire, Robin||Wakeham, Rt Hon John|
|Stanbrook, Ivor||Walden, George|
|Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John||Ward, John|
|Steen, Anthony||Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)|
|Stern, Michael||Watts, John|
|Stevens, Lewis||Wells, Bowen|
|Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)||Wheeler, Sir John|
|Stewart, Andy (Sherwood)||Whitney, Ray|
|Stewart, Rt Hon Sir Ian||Widdecombe, Ann|
|Stokes, Sir John||Wiggin, Jerry|
|Sumberg, David||Wilkinson, John|
|Summerson, Hugo||Winterton, Mrs Ann|
|Tapsell, Sir Peter||Winterton, Nicholas|
|Taylor, Ian (Esher)||Wolfson, Mark|
|Taylor, John M (Solihull)||Woodcock, Dr. Mike|
|Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman||Yeo, Tim|
|Temple-Morris, Peter||Young, Sir George (Acton)|
|Thatcher, Rt Hon Margaret||Younger, Rt Hon George|
|Thompson, D. (Calder Valley)|
|Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Thurnham, Peter||Mr. Tom Sackville and|
|Townend, John (Bridlington)||Mr. Timothy Wood.|
That this House welcomes the policies being pursued by Her Majesty's Government to put a decent home within the reach of every family by promoting owner occupation, by securing greater private sector investment in housing and by directing public expenditure effectively towards those people and areas that most need support.