Orders of the Day — Housing and Urban Development Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:37 pm on 3rd November 1992.

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Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 6:37 pm, 3rd November 1992

I should like to reduce the temperature of the debate somewhat and return from the realms of fantasy to which the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Evans) took us and come back to the subject of housing and urban regeneration.

The Bill and ministerial utterances must be judged against the background of a severe housing crisis, and the extent to which what the Government try to do addresses the problems. It is a twofold crisis. First, there is the crisis facing those living in inadequate housing and the homeless. The second crisis has a profound effect on our economy—the debt overhang, the problems of the construction industry and the lack of confidence in the housing market. All those matters need urgently to be addressed not merely because many people are suffering as a result of them but because an economic recovery can take place only once they have been addressed. It is against the background of those important questions that we should judge the Bill.

I will deal with the better part of the Bill first. I welcome —almost without qualification—the long-overdue reform of leasehold. The Minister for Housing and Planning will confirm that my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) and I, with some of our colleagues, up to a year before the general election were willing to participate and co-operate in bringing forward legislation in that regard. Although the provision is overdue, it is welcome.

I hope that the Minister can, when he replies to the debate or in Committee, give a convincing reason why the commonhold proposals could not be incorporated in the Bill. We have a partial resolution of the problems facing leaseholders when we could have had a comprehensive bite at the issue and resolved the problems for the next generation and longer. As it stands, we have not completed the process.

Part II of the Bill deals with compulsory competitive tendering, social housing and housing management. The Bill compounds mistakes that the Government have made possibly since 1979–80, but most certainly since the mid-1980s. The Government mistakenly assumed, probably because very few Conservative Members represent urban areas—[HON. MEMBERS: "Not true."] Well, those who do represent such areas clearly walk around with their eyes closed.

The Government mistakenly assume that people who live in urban areas regard Labour-controlled local authorities with deep loathing. Ministers ignore the fact that in areas such as mine, in the London boroughs and elsewhere, the electorates return Labour councils year after year. They do not do that because they think that those councils arc doing a bad job. They are aware of the difficulties facing the councils as a result of central Government funding policy in relation to housing and other policy areas. However, the electors believe that the councils are generally doing quite a good job.

As a consequence of the Government's misunderstanding of what is happening in urban areas, they take a completely false approach to housing in inner city areas and in areas such as my constituency. The Government believe that they can impose an outside agency which bypasses local government and that that will solve the problem. The Government seem desperate to continue that approach although the evidence is that no one wants those agencies and, where they have been offered, people are unenthusiastic about them.

Such an approach gave us housing action trusts and, in the Housing and Planning Act 1986, produced the voluntary transfers. None of those has taken off. There is no huge groundswell of support for them from tenants' organisations and residents. The Bill represents the next step in that it takes away a tenant's right to decide how a landlord is chosen, who it is, in what circumstances and what regime the landlord should apply. Tenants will not be consulted and there will be no ballot.

The Government assume that housing management is an evil force in urban areas and that it must be supplanted by something that they dream up through compulsory competitive tendering. That is far from the truth. In areas such as mine, tenants understand the difficulties facing local authority housing departments. They sometimes become frustrated, but they do not want an external agency to run their housing for them.

We must also consider the process of the urban regeneration agency, which seems to be a modern form of colonialism. As the Government have no electoral foothold in the urban areas, they have decided to send in Lord Walker in the guise of a latter-day Clive of India to set up a form of colonial administration. It is interesting to contrast what is proposed with what has already been carried out.

The ludicrously self-styled President of the Board of Trade set up the Merseyside development corporation and I am glad to see the Secretary of State for Wales, who represents a Merseyside constituency, on the Government Front Bench now. After a few years, that well-known socialist Professor Patrick Minford resigned from the Merseyside development corporation board saying that it had had an overall negative effect on jobs.

It is possible that the Merseyside development corporation could become the agent of the urban regeneration agency under the Bill. The corporation is not interested in industrial development or a working waterfront. Whenever proposals have come forward in that regard—the Secretary of State for Wales will be aware of the saga of Hamilton Oil—the corporation has stood in the way of those proposals. When the chief executive of the corporation was asked recently what achievement he was most proud of, he identified the fairy lights on the parish church at Pier Head. It is clear that the corporation is not working. We want a working port, but instead we get pretty schemes which do not bring employment in their wake.

The Government should take stock of those schemes and what they have achieved so far before repeating the same mistakes. The Government seem to want to shuffle the pack every few years and create new agencies which simply repeat the failures of earlier agencies.

My main concern lies with the major housing crisis in this country and we must consider what will happen if the Bill reaches the statute book in its present form. The Bill will do nothing to help the homeless. It contains no provision to help the homeless. It will do nothing to remove the debt overhang. It will not create a realistic mortgage rescue package, which is desperately needed. The Bill does nothing to reform the inappropriate system of housing finance which has grown up in recent years. Hon. Members are aware that something needs to be done urgently about the housing finance system, but that issue is not addressed in the Bill.

The Bill does nothing to recycle the capital receipts into schemes which would provide for the homeless and provide employment for the unemployed in the construction industry and thus start the process of moving the economy once more. I should like—