Housing and Urban Policies

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 8:16 pm on 29th June 1994.

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Photo of Ms Jean Corston Ms Jean Corston , Bristol East 8:16 pm, 29th June 1994

John Lewis made it clear that it wished to go outside the city because there was a large shopping centre there where people shop with cars, and that was obviously more convenient. The problem is that if there is an inner city area where 65 per cent. of people have no access to a car, those people cannot go to those shops. That is a question for the policy makers which we must address.

In Lawrence Hill, Knowle West, Hartcliffe and Southmead, the number of school children eligible to receive free school meals is more than half or nearly half. In those areas, nearly half of all children were in households with no earners or only one part-time earner, usually a woman. That is a huge fraction of the local community, and poverty and unemployment are on such a scale that they crush the potentiality for local responsiveness.

Too many people have problems of eking out a livelihood. Short-term help from family and neighbours becomes difficult, and long-term support becomes impossible. Better-heeled professionals are becoming less likely to live in and serve those areas, and they also do not know that the areas exist. They are commuters, who drive to work and back along a few principal roads on which there are fewer and fewer facilities to tempt them to stop.

Local populations are becoming less of a mixture of people of every occupational class. For Bristol, the 1991 census shows that vividly, if roughly. There are wards such as Cotham and Clifton with nearly seven times as many non-manual as manual workers. At the other extreme are wards such as Lawrence Hill with only half as many non-manual as manual workers, and Filwood with as little as one fifth as many non-manual as manual workers.

If unemployment, part-time and casual forms of employment and extremely low incomes are becoming concentrated in certain areas, lack of access to affordable housing and other forms of property are following suit. There is a sharp divide between owner-occupiers and tenants, and the Government are penalising those who are paying rent.

Having reduced wages and benefits, the number unable to buy has increased and too little housing is being built to rent. Council housing rents have been forced to rise, and the poorest are being squeezed out of homes.

Earlier this week the National Federation of Housing Associations issued a revealing research report to which reference has been made by other hon. Members. The report makes a powerful case for much more affordable housing. It affirms that home ownership is near its limit and that private sector renting can't meet future needs". The south-west is one of three regions singled out as being likely to experience a 20 per cent. increase in the number of new households during the next 15 years. The case is an economic one, providing a basis for fuller employment. The federation says affordable rents help people back to work". The housing crisis in Bristol takes some of the forms familiar to other parts of the country. A National Housing Forum study, commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, was published today. One in 13 homes is officially unfit for human habitation, while one in six is in need of urgent repairs costing more than £1,000. It was estimated that a comprehensive programme to deal with the backlog would cost £34 billion.

The problem applies to all the areas highlighted in the Bristol city council's report on "Poverty in Bristol". Homelessness is the tip of a poor housing iceberg. In 1985–86 the number of homeless people officially registered was 994. By 1990, the figure had doubled and in 1993–94 it was 2,856. Of those, 1,477, or more than half, were accepted as priority cases by Bristol city council.

Those figures are of applicants to the council. Many more do not apply, and many homeless people do not believe that they are eligible for rehousing or do not believe they would be successful if they did apply. Reputable attempts have been made to estimate the real numbers of homeless, resulting in informed estimates of between 6,000 and 8,500 people.

The Select Committee report on homelessness stated that a key factor affecting homelessness is the availability of sufficient accommodation at affordable rents. In 1978–79, total rented accommodation declined overall by some 1.5 million units—20 per cent.—and the number of new homes built by housing authorities declined from 104,000 to 22,000.

The Government's consultation paper "Access to Local Authority and Housing Association Tenancies" sets out proposals for the reform of homelessness legislation and new powers to prescribe local authority allocation policy. Bristol city council provided just one of 9,000 predominantly critical responses to that Government consultation paper. The council said: The proposals are not concerned with either housing provision or more effective services for homeless people. Rather, they appear to be concerned with redefining homelessness and directing homeless people away from permanent homes towards temporary and more expensive accommodation. A family had to be literally "roofless" before qualifying for assistance, and it seems that assistance could be in some very unsatisfactory forms of temporary accommodation. Old lorries, caravans and tents do not appear to be ruled out. Those are shades of third world shanty towns.

The consultation paper recommends greater use of private lettings. In Bristol, 45 per cent. of that sector of housing is unfit or in serious disrepair. Since public housing is hedged around with restrictions which prevent rebuilding, limit repairs and artificially raise existing rents, more people will be forced into sub-standard accommodation at rents which the National Federation of Housing Associations would undoubtedly describe as unaffordable.

Figures collected by Bristol city council show that average rents in private tenancies range from £87 a week for a two-bedroom flat to £134 a week for a four-bedroom flat, compared with an average weekly rent for a Bristol city tenancy of £35.

What is happening in Bristol applies to many other areas. Council rents have been and are being forced up and, while housing benefit fills the gap for some, the near-poor are faced with increases in the cost of living which are out of all proportion to those elsewhere in the economy. They are dragged down into poverty, which is now shared with the great majority of their neighbours.

Those matters may be attested to by any hon. Member from an inner city constituency. We have seen the consequences of the Government's policies. Children live in high-rise flats, which causes tension, and there is a lack of play space for children.

When one reads about and sees the kind of people who are classified as homeless in Bristol, one begins to evolve an infinitely more human and appealing picture than that evoked by the Prime Minister's black caricature of beggars in Bristol.

The Government's housing policy is more concerned with undermining the work and powers of local authorities than with the housing crisis. None the less, Bristol city council is striving to introduce a housing advice shop providing services to homeless applicants and a related homeless prevention service, a homeless-at-home scheme to enable applicants to be supported by relatives and friends, high-quality temporary accommodation to replace bed and breakfast, establish a Bristol common register to enable housing applicants to get the answers to all their questions in one place, create a Bristol housing partnership, offering joint planning and action with all housing associations in Bristol and other organisations, introduce a private sector leasing scheme for access to good standard private tenancies, set up housing associations as managing agent schemes to access privately owned lettings as alternatives to bed and breakfast and establish a Bristol special needs housing forum.

Within its powers, those are the imaginative things that Bristol city council is trying to do to solve the problem. It has the brains; what it needs is the money.