Orders of the Day — Greater London and the South-East

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:20 pm on 1st April 1993.

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Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn , Islington North 11:20 pm, 1st April 1993

Driving to the House this evening, I travelled along St. Pancras way, in the borough of Camden, just north of King's Cross and St. Pancras stations. I saw one of London's normal sights—a group of 50 people carrying plastic bags, waiting alongside dustbins and rubbish piled up against the wall for the night shelter hostel to open. It opens each night at about 10 o'clock. The homeless can get a roof over their head and a bed for the night, and in the morning they must leave again—and spend another day tramping the streets of London.

Last night I attended a moving gathering at Islington town hall organised by a youth group called Speak Out for the Homeless. It was not a traditional public meeting, with a series of speeches by councillors, housing pressure group members, Members of Parliament, and so on. Most of the evening was taken up with young homeless people telling the story of their lives on the streets of London.

They included young women who had grown up in children's homes, and received inadequate community care at the time of leaving the home. They then found themselves in inadequate accommodation, involved in drugs and prostitution, and suffered all manner of violence against them. They ended up drugged, wasted and destroyed, hanging around Piccadilly circus and the streets of this capital city. They have got out of that, to the extent that they now enjoy some form of regular shelter and are at least able to tell the rest of us about their experiences.

It is a question not of solving housing problems in London but of witnessing a steady decline in housing standards. We are seeing young people's lives blighted by the shortage of affordable rented accommodation. We are witnessing the misery of young children suffering from chronic asthma or bronchitis living in damp, dirty, overcrowded flats that the council does not have the money to repair—and no other flats to which it can move such families.

We are seeing at the same time, still, the endless, speculative building of office blocks all over the capital, which remain empty. That is a shame, it is disgusting, and it is appalling. Responsibility for it lies fairly, squarely and totally with central Government's attitude towards the capital's housing needs.

I represent an inner-city constituency, as do a number of my hon. Friends. Our communities live for the most part in council accommodation. I am not particularly proud of the quality of much of it. It was built according to nonsensical, cost yardstick methods and too quickly, and inadequate thought was given to open space and nursery provision.

It is impossible for anyone to escape from tower block or deck access flats—there is simply nowhere to go. The idea that the Government are solving the problem is a hollow laugh. They produced a number of rough sleepers initiatives, which were introduced not out of any deep concern for the problems of London's homeless but to get them off the streets and into night shelters—to get them out of sight and out of mind.

It is no life for people to live permanently in shelters and hostels; it is no life for 18,000 to live in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. What can, must and, I hope, eventually will solve London's housing crisis is real investment by the public sector to ensure the provision of social housing, at affordable rents, for all the people of London, so that they have decent, safe, dry roofs over their heads. If anything less is provided, the city will continue to decline.

The knock-on effects of bad housing are family break-ups, under-achievement in schools, crime, unemployment and a great deal of misery. Last night, there was a repeat showing on television of "Cathy Come Home". That woman's prospect of finding a house all those years ago was much greater than it would be now. The film was moving in the 1960s, when it first came out; it is a crying shame that the present situation in London is not better, but worse than it was when that marvellous film was made. It is about time that the Government woke up to the misery that they are causing thousands, if not millions, of people in this capital city—and, indeed, outside it—through the shortage of decent, affordable housing.

The solution lies in the Government's hands. It does not lie in their constant attacks on local authorities. My authority, for example, has had to sell 5,000 homes in the past five years. It did not want to sell any of those homes: it knows that each sale means the removal of a home that could have been allocated to someone on the waiting list, or to a homeless family. But it had to sell them. It will not build any homes this year. Some housing associations, after a great deal of effort, will manage to build a very small number of places; our waiting list, like that of every other London borough, is constantly lengthening, and the only people with a chance of being housed are the homeless—provided that they are vulnerable and have dependent children. The single homeless lose out completely because of the lack of a proper housing strategy for London.

I shall give the Minister plenty of time to reply. I hope that he will tell us precisely what the Government are doing to solve London's housing crisis, and that he will not tell us that the private sector is to let rip. Letting rip in the private sector has led to private-sector rents of as much as £150 a week for a one-bedroom flat in my constituency. That is way beyond the means of anyone receiving the normal low wages that—tragically—exist throughout London. I do not want the Minister to tell me that the private sector will invest in affordable rented accommodation; that simply is not credible. The only answer is a serious attempt to invest on the part of public authorities with public funds.

Some years ago, we had an elected authority for London. We had a Greater London council; before that, we had a London county council. The hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) seems to think that the London county council tried to destroy the Tory party in London by building decent houses. If the Tory party in London is afraid of decent houses, good: I am very glad. That exposes what their argument is about. The London county council's quality of construction was incredibly high. I am thinking of the Downham estate, the Debden estate and many other London estates, which were built to a very high standard. Later, building mistakes were made by every local authority, Tory and Labour, by the GLC and by other metropolitan authorities. We embarked on system building of high-rise developments far too rapidly—perhaps, indeed, we should not have embarked on it at all—with all the attendant social problems.

Exactly the same problems are being created now by the Department of the Environment's attitude to cost yardsticks and the density of public-sector building. It is about time that we began to realise that if we want decent homes with gardens for ourselves, it is reasonable for everyone else to want the same. Such homes should be available from councils and housing associations just as easily as they are available on the open market in the private sector.

I shall mention one or two other matters, but I think that housing problems are among the most serious, pervasive and destructive currently experienced by the people of London. We need a crash initiative to deal with the crisis; otherwise, we shall reap the whirlwind later.

Tomorrow, London will be paralysed by traffic jams. There is to be a public transport strike. I understand the reasons why that strike is to take place. I understand why bus workers, who have given a lifetime of loyalty to London Transport, are going on strike—they are being forced to sign documents to reduce their wages, increase their hours and put their jobs out to competitive tendering at some time in the future. They believe in an integrated public transport system, just as the railway workers do. Why should they be forced to sign their own redundancy notices? That, in effect, is what privatisation of the railways and deregulation of the buses will mean.

When people from other parts of this country, or from other countries, visit London they say to me, "Why on earth do you put up with the chaos, the congestion, the pollution, the high fares and the inadequate service in London?" I tell them that it is good, compared with what it is likely to be in three or four years' time. At the moment we still have the vestiges of an integrated public transport system, but by the time the docklands light railway has been sold off, bus franchising has gone full circle, there has been total deregulation of the buses and the railways have been privatised, there will be no possibility of an integrated and decent public transport system in London. When one looks into the minutiae of the Department of Transport's capital spending plans, one begins to see that the logic of it is to transfer yet more journeys in London and the south-east—if not directly in and out of central London—from public transport to private car commuting. That is a disaster for us all.

Another issue to which I wish to refer—the health of Londoners as a whole—is related to the two previous issues. I mentioned the pollution that results from the high level of private car ownership and usage in London and the child and adult health problems that are brought about by poor housing in London. London is not a particularly healthy city to live in. Its air is very polluted and it is very congested. There is a great deal of social and individual tension, brought about by poverty and unemployment. There are 150,000 people waiting for hospital appointments.

Logic tells me that to deal with this problem we should make full use of our existing hospitals and that we should even consider building new hospitals and providing additional health care. The Government propose to spend £170 million on a primary care initiative, which I have no objection to, except that it is far too small and is limited to only six boroughs. By using the long-arm tactic of regional health authorities, and others, the Government hope to get away with the closure of at least seven hospitals in London, with the loss of a very large number of hospital beds. I cannot understand how losing hospital beds and closing hospitals and casualty units will reduce waiting lists. Logic tells me that it is simply not possible to do it that way.

I hope that the appalling state of London's health services and the need for a London health authority and the planning of health care for London as a whole, rather than being divided between the four Thames health authority regions, will be recognised in the debate. I hope that it will also be recognised that the internal market is incapable of providing proper health care for the people of London, because all that matters to the internal market is the buying and selling of health care between health authorities and particular hospital trusts.

Both I and other Members with constituencies in the area, including my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson), recently had a very interesting meeting at the Whittington hospital. At the end of it, we were appalled to find that our local health authority had yet to sign a contract for this financial year for its patients—our constituents—to be treated by the hospital trust. It is crazy to run a health service in such a way that in March and April of each year there is a panic about whether a contract will be signed so that our constituents can get the health care for which they pay through their insurance and tax contributions.

It would not be right to mention health without also mentioning the ambulance service. Later tonight my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) has a debate on the subject. He is to be praised for the work that he has done over many years in exposing the way in which the London ambulance service has been run. He is also to be praised for his work with the unions and those who are employed by the London ambulance service to get a decent ambulance service for London. It was his work and that of the unions, community health councils and others that exposed the nonsensical way in which the London ambulance service was run. Eventually it led to the resignation of the director. Now the entire London ambulance service board has been dismissed. Everything has reverted to the South West Thames regional health authority.

The situation that has arisen in the London ambulance service is chronic, but it is a typical result of the notion that every public service can be run by some quango, that one has only to avoid public-sector control. The London ambulance service was founded by the London county council and was run by that body and, later, by the Greater London council. At that time, there was real public accountability. Here we have an object lesson for our approach to many other aspects of life in London.

This city is in a state of crisis. We have a crisis of housing, a crisis of transport, a crisis of health and a crisis of employment. We have 468,000 people registered as unemployed. Each of them is willing, able and ready to take a job, but the job is not there. Because of the way in which the list of the unemployed is drawn up, many people cannot even have their names put on it. Last year, fewer than a dozen school leavers in my borough went straight into a job. Obviously, some started further or higher education, but very many youngsters who had grown up in the borough, like many from other boroughs, went straight from school to unemployment.

It is an appalling crisis. We have seen the closure of manufacturing industry. There is a lack of planning and a lack of investment, yet there is work to be done in the health service, improvement of the transport infrastructure, the building of homes and the redevelopment of some areas of manufacturing industry. But unless the capital city has a planning authority, and some concept of planning, this simply will not happen. The free market has entirely destroyed the manufacturing base, especially in north and east London. We saw the introduction to the east end and the City of lots of fly-by-night office jobs, which then disappeared. Now we have the nonsense of large numbers of empty office blocks as a testament to a period of lack of planning.

If ever there was a point in the history of a capital city at which chaos had been achieved and further chaos could be avoided, this is one. But to achieve that, we need an elected authority with a mandate to plan and to ensure that Londoners are decently housed and have decent health and education services and that somebody is taking responsibility for, and an interest in, the development of industry. Earlier this week a group of Labour Members stood on the steps of Westminster pier to promote a petition for an elected authority for London. We signed the petition, and it will be signed by thousands more Londoners. They understand the situation. They want to live in a clean, healthy and happy city. That cannot be achieved if the free market is allowed to rip, resulting in the destruction of all that is good in London and in the creation of a mess in which it will not be possible to solve any of the problems.

Seeing how few Members are in the Chamber, I am struck by the thought that the House may not be taking these problems very seriously tonight. None the less, we shall have to deal again and again with the choice between a properly run capital city and the propsect of further chaos and higher crime rates. Such misery is clearly beckoning.