Housing

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 4:37 pm on 27th November 1991.

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Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith 4:37 pm, 27th November 1991

You would rule me out of order, Madam Deputy Speaker, if I went too far down that road. Suffice it to say that the Government have taken away any real choice from the British people of going into a common European currency. When the previous Prime Minister signed the Single European Act, she more than anyone else put us on that course, as Conservative Members know.

The Government's high interest rate policy, which they have pursued consistently since 1979, is the root cause of the housing crisis in owner occupation. Almost 100,000 homes will be repossessed by the end of the year. When I first gave that figure, people said that it would probably not be so high. Now I note that various people are saying that the total is likely to be 115,000. I will stick to my estimate of close to 100,000. About one in 12 people with mortgages are in mortgage arrears. The 100,000 repossessions this year compares with 2,500 in 1979. The figure of 100,000 is equal to the population of towns such as Oxford, Exeter, Norwich or Basildon. Many of those whose homes are repossessed will go into bed-and-breakfast or emergency accommodation. One in 12 mortgage payers are in arrears of two months or more. That means that roughly 1 million mortgage payers are in serious trouble. When I give the figures, I am not talking about people who hand in the keys. They are excluded. I am not talking about people who pay most but not all of their mortgage each month. We are talking about a minimum figure of 1 million.

What is the other factor, along with interest rates, that is affecting us so drastically? It is unemployment. As we all know and as the Government concede, unemployment will continue to rise. All that the Government can say is that the rate of increase is less, "seasonally adjusted"—the funny phrase that they use. The Government have already clobbered manufacturing industry in the north and they are now busy clobbering industry in the south. The net result is that unemployment in the south will, this time, rise far more drastically—and the rate of interest confirms that—than in other parts of Britain. That is why so many Conservative Members are quoted in Roof magazine as being worried about the issue. They are worried because most people in mortgage arrears or whose homes are being repossessed are in the south or the midlands—the areas having most problems with unemployment.

The recession and the collapse of house prices that goes with it aggravate the problems in the south—and elsewhere in Britain. They mean that people cannot easily trade down. People who bought in 1988 when the market was high suddenly found in 1989, 1990 and 1991 that they were selling at a loss. So they could not even get out of their debt, let alone pay the mortgage. One would have thought that, faced with those figures, Ministers would express concern.

I have drawn attention to the fact that in their amendment to our motion the Government cannot even bring themselves to mention the mortgage problem. What do Ministers say? One interesting idea comes both from the Minister for Housing and Planning and from his deputy, the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Suffolk, South (Mr. Yeo). On a "World in Action" programme the Minister for Housing and Planning said that the best mortgage rescue service was a drop in interest rates. His deputy used that phrase too, on "The TimeThe Place"—a programme on which I joined him. He told an audience of 50 or 60 people, all of whom had had their homes repossessed, that help was on the way because mortgage rates were coming down. I have to tell him that to someone whose home has been repossessed it makes no odds whether the interest rates are going up, down or sideways. It is too late for them. It is too late for many people, because even if interest rates came down by another 1 per cent. tomorrow—they will not—the repossession figures would continue to rise. Sadly, the prediction for the number of repossessions in a year's time is still about 100,000.

On 2 July the Minister for Housing and Planning said: I do not accept the gloomy forecasts that are made of future repossessions. 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. The hon. Gentleman said that only four months ago, yet it does not look too convincing now, does it?

What else do Ministers say? Another response, which has not been used so much recently, was by the previous Minister responsible for housing, who is now the Secretary of State for Employment. Under a nice headline in the papers saying: Lodgers can ease mortgage bills, says Minister", the right hon. and learned Gentleman was reported as stating: Lodgers now had no security of tenure —that was a result of the Housing Act 1988making it easier for householders to repossess the property…'With a minimum of effort people can raise extra income to offset the increased cost of their mortgages. That has to be good news for lenders.' What has happened since then? One problem, which we tackle in the mortgage rescue scheme, is that when people who have taken out a mortgage have a lodger, when the house is repossessed the lodger, too, will be made homeless. What is more important, in a significant minority of cases, the lodger does not even know that the mortgage is in arrears. There is a recent case in Camden, and I could name many others. The first that the lodgers know of the threat of eviction is when it takes effect and the bailiffs appear at the door. That kind of thing was encouraged by the Minister who was responsible for housing at the time. The Government have still not dealt with it. They hoped that the building societies would change the rules. The story from which I have just quoted was based on a call to the building societies and banks to change the rules, but they did not do so.

The Government amendment says that they have achieved "diversification of tenure" among other things. Does that mean that more people are sleeping rough in the streets and more are in bed-and-breakfast and emergency accommodation?

Let us remember the Rowntree report—the Duke of Edinburgh's report—the second edition of which was published in July or August this year. It said that almost 2 million—1·9 million—homes had disappeared from the rented sector since 1979, half from the council sector and the other half from the Government's much-loved private rented sector. When the Labour party left office, private rented accommodation accounted for 14 per cent. of the rented market. Now it is only 7 per cent. There has been a marginal increase in middle and upper rent areas, but almost certainly that rise is due to the depression in house prices. When prices start to rise again a lot of the people in such accommodation will be evicted, because they have assured shorthold tenancies and it only takes six months to get them out. Then homelessness will increase again. That is what the Government are boasting about.

We cannot get rid of 2 million homes from the rented sector in 12 years, and neglect to put anything in their place, without expecting a dramatic and growing housing crisis. The collapse in the construction industry—another aspect of our concern about the state of the economy—confirms that crisis. I could use more than all the time allowed me simply in quoting the views of the construction industry, many of whose companies bankroll the Tory party. It is interesting that the number and amount of such contributions have been dropping rapidly. That is not entirely surprising when we read what Sir Clifford Chetwood, the chairman of Wimpey, backed by the building material producers, is reported as having said about the construction industry: This is an industry in crisis…In terms of workload and order books things are getting worse. There are harsh times ahead … Britain was on the brink of a housing crisis that would leave a shortfall of more than 1 milion homes between those being built and those needed. Lest hon. Members should think that I am quoting an out-of-date report, I must tell them that what I have said is taken from yesterday's report in The Guardian of Sir Clifford's speech and the survey undertaken by the National Council of Building Materials Producers.

Many other examples show that the construction industry is in desperate trouble. Increasingly, it supports the call from ourselves and from Conservative-controlled local authorities that authorities should be allowed to spend their capital receipts on housing investment, to boost the industry.