Orders of the Day — Housing and Urban Development Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:31 pm on 3rd November 1992.

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Shadow Secretary of State (Environment) 4:31 pm, 3rd November 1992

Yes, we owe a great deal to them, as we do to my hon. Friends the Members for Hammersmith and Greenwich. I think that tenants in London know that they owe a good deal more to my hon. Friends than they do to the right hon. and learned Gentleman's hon. Friends.

I am glad to have that undertaking from the Secretary of State, but I would point out that it was we who had to extract that statement, not he who volunteered it.

I turn, finally, to the urban regeneration agency. When, with regard to Westland, the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), the former Secretary of State for the Environment, stormed out of the Cabinet in protest at other Ministers making decisions without consulting him —a position of principle which he evidently forgot just a few weeks ago—he spent part of his time writing his manifesto to become leader of the Tory party, entitled "Where there's a will". On page 169, drawing on the success of the Labour creation of the Scottish and Welsh Development Agencies, he recommended an English development agency. He said that we needed an English development agency, a national urban renewal agency to promote, co-ordinate and drive forward the many local development initiatives in which the Department of the Environment is engaged. He went on to say, uncharacteristically, that this was to be an institution which would be localist in character. He said: The EDA must be the start-up motor, taking out of the hands of government the main initiative for bringing local authority, private and voluntary interests into partnership for joint renewal schemes. But the right hon. Gentleman had to convince his colleagues of the merits of an English development agency. In this, as with so much else these days, he did not manage that well.

The urban regeneration agency in this Bill is the result, a rather ineffectual mutation of what the right hon. Gentleman had in mind. Far from being localist in its approach—and I listened carefully to what the Secretary of State said—it shows every sign of being strongly centralist. Reserve powers are to be taken to replace local authorities' own planning and local assembly powers. We will examine this proposal with great care in Committee, but it seems to me that the Government have learned none of the lessons of their perpetual whirligig of one so-called initiative after another in their inner urban policy.

Over half of all the public money expended on the 11 urban development corporations has been spent in London docklands—well over £1,000 million out of a total of £1·9 billion. But the sweeping powers given to the London Docklands development corporation, its failure to involve local authorities, especially in the early days, and, above all, its refusal to take proper account of the impact of its decisions on local communities has meant that it has wasted many millions of pounds of taxpayers' money on inappropriate prestige projects and has created remarkably few jobs for local people.

If the Secretary of State wants the URA to work, he will need—to use his own words—to make sure that it works hand in hand with local authorities. I am glad that he said it and I applaud him for doing so. If that is so, may we ask for assurances that membership of the agency will be broadly based and will include councillors from all parties, and that it will concern itself with creating real jobs, with providing social housing and community facilities, as well as with building empty office blocks?

Then there is the issue of resources raised by the hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen). How much will these be and where will they come from? All we are told in the Bill is that the agency is expected to achieve more regeneration from the resources available to it. So, after all this, will the agency turn out to be another pre-election wheeze that will fail like so many of the schemes that have preceded it?

Aside from some strong criticism of the detail of this Bill, our overriding case against it is that it will do virtually nothing to ease the crisis in housing which is now engulfing this nation and which is a potent symbol of the collapse of this Government's economic and social policy as a whole.

How different it was meant to be. Just eight months ago, the right hon. Member for Henley, then the Environment Secretary, said: Housing sales under the Conservatives are picking up. All this would change if there were a Labour Government. The recovery in the housing market would be devastated just as it gets under way. Eight days later, the Prime Minister asserted: We're going to make life easier for people buying their own homes. Our policies will mean a stronger housing market. Labour's policies would destroy the housing market. But it is the Conservative policies that have destroyed the housing market, that have led to the largest ever fall in house prices and, with them, the assets on which the very survival of so many small businesses is based. It is Conservative policies that have put 450,000 building workers on the dole; and it is Conservative policies that, insanely, have locked up £5 billion of council house sales receipts when homeless families are crying out for new homes, when building workers are desperate for jobs and when the construction and materials industries are desperate for orders.

If the Secretary of State wanted to do something serious and constructive for housing and urban regeneration, he could do so today. He could, and he should, unlock that £5 billion of unused council house sales receipts, allow their phased release, direct them to areas of greatest need, let local authorities start to build new homes and buy empty ones already built, take action which at a stroke would get the housing industry moving, regenerate our urban areas and do something for the hundreds and thousands of people in poor housing or in no housing at all.

If the best that the Secretary of State can do for housing and urban regeneration is this paltry Bill, which will not build a single home, will not save a single family from repossession, and will not put a single extra pound into our inner cities, he will be justly condemned for creating a housing crisis of the most monstrous proportions and for then wilfully refusing to take any effective action to end it.

It is for those reasons that we shall vote against this Bill in the Lobbies tonight.