Housing

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:09 pm on 5th May 2004.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Labour, Sheffield, Attercliffe 2:09 pm, 5th May 2004

Listening to Mrs. Spelman introducing the motion on behalf of the Opposition, I almost felt that life in housing had begun in 1997. It is incredible that she made no mention of anything that preceded that date, or of the housing crisis that this Government inherited.

To put that crisis in a local context, at the beginning of the 1980s my own city of Sheffield had a major rolling programme of house modernisation in the local authority sector. That came to a standstill because the funding simply dried up. New house building by the local council was also stopped. We had a pioneering enveloping scheme for putting right the structures of private sector homes in some of our poorest communities. It was started in Birmingham, taken up by Sheffield and stopped by the Tory Government. We had a unique housing partnership scheme in conjunction with local builders, the local authority and housing associations that built 1,000 new homes, but the Government brought in specific legislation to stop the scheme. Building on brownfield sites did not happen, because the builders knew that the Government wanted them to build on green fields, and one green field after another was built on.

The only policy that we had at that time was council house sales. The one housing policy in which the Conservative Government believed was the right to buy. There was a saving to be made there because, although at the beginning the Government said to the local authorities, "Sell your council houses, and you can have the money to invest in your own stock," restrictions were soon introduced and the amount of money that could be used for reinvestment went down to 20 per cent. of the proceeds from the sales.

Sheffield also had an innovative programme to implement new heating schemes in local authority homes. We helped 10,000 homes a year for three years on a leasing arrangement until the Government legislated to stop the scheme and brought it to an end. One measure after another was introduced by the Government to restrict the ability of local authorities to invest in their rented stock and in private sector homes in the poorest communities.

By the time the Tory Government left office, the total local authority spending on housing in Sheffield was down to £20 million. That was less than a third, in money terms, of what had been available to the local authority at the beginning of the 1980s. That is why we had a housing crisis in 1997, and the hon. Lady made no mention of it whatever. She said that there were certain problems today. Absolutely; we all see rising house prices as a problem. It is a problem for first-time buyers and young couples; we all acknowledge that. There is cross-party agreement on it. Some of us might also share her concerns about an imbalance in growth and prosperity between the north and south of this country. There is an issue there that has to be addressed. The Select Committee, which I chaired a few months ago, made some criticisms of regeneration policies, and pointed out the need to simplify them and to pass more responsibility back to local authorities and local communities.

However, when the hon. Lady got down to the key issues, all that she had to offer the House was a programme of consultation. She made not one positive suggestion on what we should do about rising house prices or about the north-south divide. She recognised the problems but did not offer a single policy solution. People will draw their own conclusions from that. No doubt there is consultation going on, no doubt there is a review, but that was all that we were offered.

Let us turn to this Government's record. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning will not expect me to be totally uncritical, but let us recognise that the decent homes standard has been introduced by this Government. They are the first Government to recognise that council tenants have a right to a certain standard of housing, which is an important move forward. It is also a brave move, because the Government can be judged against the very clear targets that they have set. I shall not go into too much detail on this, because I am sure that my right hon. Friend knows that a Select Committee report on this issue is about to be published that might say one or two things about the precise level at which the decent homes target has been set. Nevertheless, there is a recognition that the principle is a good one, and the Government should be congratulated on it.

The Government have achieved a step change in spending levels and investment in social rented housing, particularly in local authority areas, and they should be congratulated on that as well. This involves money through stock transfers and arm's-length management organisations, or ALMOs. I would ask my right hon. Friend please not to give up on the right of tenants to chose their own local authority as the best organisation to manage their homes, and when tenants have made that choice, will he also please try to find a way of allowing money to come into the local authority to bring those homes up to a decent standard as well? The Select Committee has virtually ruled that out, but in other areas of local government, the prudential guidelines on borrowing can be used to allow borrowing against future income streams to deliver improvements in infrastructure. That is not allowed for council housing, and the Minister should consider the possibility of allowing future rental income streams to be used as a basis for borrowing under the prudential guidelines, which would mean that when tenants chose to remain with a local authority, council housing could be brought up to a decent standard.

When tenants choose ALMOs as a way forward, I hope that the Minister will give a clear undertaking that the money will be forthcoming to fund those schemes. If tenants go to the trouble of choosing an ALMO, as many have in Sheffield through a series of neighbourhood consultations, and if more and more local authorities go down that route, there must be some certainty that money will continue to flow into ALMOs so that those houses will be brought up to the decent homes level. My right hon. Friend will also want to consider the idea of building more socially rented homes through ALMOs. They are a vehicle that could start to deliver new homes in many areas of the country, to add to those that will be available through housing associations.

We should strongly welcome the Government's approach to housing renewal initiatives in our poorer areas through the pathfinder projects, particularly those involving houses in the private rented sector. In my constituency, the South Yorkshire pathfinder is doing good work and coming up with innovative ideas. The Government should be congratulated on telling the pathfinders to go out and look at the problems and come up with the solutions that are required at local level. They have not been prescriptive from the centre, which is also welcome. However, the cost of some of the proposals are going to be far greater than the Government have budgeted for, and the Minister will need to persuade the Treasury—he will have a lot of evidence on which to base his case—that more money should be put into the pathfinder projects to make them work.

The Government should also be congratulated on PPG3. It is a major breakthrough to be able to stand up and say that we are now determined that more and more new homes will be built on brownfield sites. I have had arguments in the past over the unitary development plan in Sheffield when builders in one part of my constituency wanted to build on greenfield sites and the local community did not want it, while in another area, the builders did not want to build on the brownfield sites when that was what the local community wanted.

It is interesting that builders and landowners are now beginning to consider the possibility that the Government might be serious, and to bring forward more proposals for house building on brownfield sites. One reason that we have not yet seen the increase in house building that we want to see is that it takes time for the industry to adapt to changes of policy. The industry needs to understand that the Government are serious about the brownfield site issue, and that PPG3 is here for good. I am just beginning to see examples in Sheffield of builders putting forward major long-term proposals for more house building on brownfield sites, and the Government should be congratulated on taking that initiative.

The Minister was right to poke a little fun at the hon. Lady for the nimbyism that she effectively put forward as a policy. Part of what she seemed to be saying was, "We don't want more houses next to people in our constituencies who might get a bit upset and not vote for us at the next election." The issue of new house building is a difficult one. We need more new house building in the south-east; I think that it is inevitable. We must recognise that and get it right. The amount of public sector infrastructure investment required will be very great indeed, in terms of sewerage, water and transport, to make the new communities properly sustainable.

We must also remember that we need to strike a balance between the north and the south. The Deputy Prime Minister's initiative in looking at the new growth area in the north is very interesting. Again, it will need a great deal of backing from the Government, as well as from the local communities. If it is to happen, however, there will need to be a switch of infrastructure expenditure to the north. Current plans for transport infrastructure mostly involve investment going to the south-east. With the exception of the west coast main line, there is very little indeed going to the north to support the Deputy Prime Minister's plans. That is something that we will have to address.

We shall probably never bring back to the coalfield communities next to Sheffield the amount of industry and jobs needed to sustain them. That does not mean that the local communities cannot remain there, or that we do not have to invest in better housing for them. We must ensure that there are better transport links to Sheffield, Leeds and other cities, so that people can live in their communities and commute easily to their workplaces. That is probably the reality, but we need to consider how the infrastructure will be developed, and where the money will go, to enable us to have that development in the north as well. We must not fall into the trap whereby, because there is lots of growth in one part of the country, we put in lots of infrastructure to support that, but do not invest in other areas where growth probably is not happening, but where such investment will create opportunities for growth in the future. That is very important.

I have two final points about which I want the Minister to think carefully. It is right that we consider ways to try to speed up the amount of house building going on. I know that there is a temptation to move to more system building, but please let us be cautious. Please let us be absolutely certain that we have got the systems right. In my constituency, we are starting to demolish system-built properties on Scowerdons Farm, Weaklands and Newstead, which were built in the 1970s. They were lovely homes when they were built, with nice space standards, and people liked living in them, but they do not like the water coming in. The cost of putting that problem right after only 30 years is so great that demolition is the only answer. Please let us make it clear that we do not want those problems again. If we are to have system building, we must be absolutely certain about future maintenance costs and the ability of the maintenance industry to carry out repairs at a reasonable cost in the future. Those are real problems, which we must address.

I welcome the Government's move to examine one of the biggest problems: quality. They are addressing quality issues as well as quantity—quality issues were forgotten about for 18 years—in terms of licensing houses in multiple occupation. That is included in the Housing Bill, which we will discuss next week, and I ask the Minister to consider again the standards and definition of homes that will be included in the compulsory licensing arrangement. Please let us not rule out the possibility of including two-storey homes in that definition, which we will debate further next week.

The Government inherited a housing crisis, but they have made significant steps forward. There are some matters of concern, as I have said, and some lessons to be learned, but the Government have put housing clearly back on the political agenda, and have begun to reverse 18 years of continuous decline. They should be congratulated on that.