Council Houses

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 11th June 2003.

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Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Liberal Democrat, Colchester 9:30 am, 11th June 2003

My hon. Friend makes that point strongly and I am sure that it is recognised by his constituents.

If the Government are going to claim that housing associations and the private sector are making up the shortfall in council housing, I am bound to observe that figures from the House of Commons Library say the opposite. In 1979, in addition to 75,000 local authority dwellings, registered social landlords and housing associations built 17,835. By 1997, there were 27,502; but in 2001–02 that figure had fallen to 20,692, by which time virtually no local authority dwellings were being built. There were 140,481 private enterprise dwellings in 1979, 152,530 in 1997 and 141,125 in 2001–02. However one looks at it, whether in terms of councils, housing association or private enterprise, the figures for all sectors building new dwellings have fallen under new Labour. No wonder we have a housing crisis.

Housing associations would love to build more homes, but they rely on funds from the Housing Corporation, which in turn is funded by the Government. One aspect of housing association developments causes me considerable concern—what I call "Heineken housing", or building on sites that private developers do not want to reach. Land that the private sector knows would not be suitable for houses for sale is deemed okay for social housing tenants.

There must not be double standards, but there are. That is proved by three examples from my constituency. First, family houses were built on top of a 100-year-old slag heap of foundry waste. Secondly, planning permission was given just two weeks ago for social housing to be built on a greensward and car park behind a block of shops next to a mobile phone mast and under overhead electricity supply cables. Thirdly, there is a site for which the developer had failed for years to get permission because of planning objections, but all those mysteriously disappeared when a social housing element was included.

Double standards should not be permitted. I should like to see a return to the Parker Morris standards, which used to apply to council houses. However, if the Government are looking to housing associations to build houses for rent—by the way, what does the term affordable rent mean?— I am told that the bids to the Housing Corporation are three times greater than the available finance. Will someone please tell the Chancellor? In his euro speech on Monday, he said:

"Britain has experienced difficulty in balancing supply and demand in housing."—[Hansard, 9 June 2003; Vol. 406, c. 411.]

He promised that there would be an increase in the supply of new housing, but can anyone recall him mentioning the need to provide housing for rent? There is no room at Gordon's inn for the homeless.

Tomorrow, the Minister for Housing and Planning is due to give what is billed as a keynote address at the Millennium grandstand at Newmarket race course at the launch of the regional housing strategy for the east of England. Will that include building new council houses? If not, why not? The Chancellor said that there was a risk of a cycle of boom and bust in Britain's volatile housing market. We are told that he is considering massive increases in stamp duty and capital gains tax as a way of damping down any house price boom. He said specifically that

"further housing reforms will be put in place in the coming year . . . that will help to ensure that by having a reduced propensity to house price inflation, which is in everyone's interest, stability can be further entrenched."—[Hansard, 9 June 2003; Vol. 406, c. 411.]

How the homeless and those in inadequate housing may have reacted to the Chancellor's comments is something to ponder. Young mothers and children living in a hostel for the homeless in Colchester, which is "not fit for dogs" according to reports in the town's Essex County Standard and Evening Gazette last Friday, would welcome the Government funding new council houses. That would, at a stroke, reduce the demand for people being forced to buy and it would, as a consequence, have a stabilising effect on house prices. That would be a return to the balance that happily co-existed prior to 1979.

How many people are in a position to buy? A large percentage are not, according to a survey carried out by Professor Steve Wilcox at the university of York for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. A report in the East Anglian Daily Times on 2 June said:

"People aged in their 20s and 30s and key workers such as nurses, teachers and police officers are among those finding it hardest to buy their first home."

Statistics showed that 35.5 per cent. of families in Suffolk with two working adults could not afford to buy a home. In Essex it is even worse, as 39.2 per cent. cannot reach the asking price of the cheaper properties. In Chelmsford, that figure rose to 52.3 per cent., while Colchester is slightly more fortunate at 37.1 per cent. In south Cambridgeshire, the figure is 57.3 per cent.

Aspirations of home ownership for those people cannot be fulfilled. The resumption of council house building would have the twin outcome of a supply of good quality houses for families to rent and less demand in the house buying market. There is another bonus—a boost for jobs in the building industry.

When I was leader of Colchester borough council, between 1987 and 1991, at a meeting of the Essex branch of the Association of District Councils, I told the then Member for South Colchester and Maldon—now Lord Wakeham—that a combination of large-scale sales of council houses and a failure to build replacement houses would result in thousands of people being forced into the property-owning market when they would not otherwise have done so, that the demand for lower priced houses would be greater than the availability, and that that would lead to an increase in house prices throughout the entire housing market. I suggested that that did not make economic sense and that it was not fair on those who would be deprived of a decent home in which to live. I have been proved right. Tragically, the problem is considerably worse than I ever thought it would be. For the homeless and those in accommodation that is less than ideal for their needs, there is no such thing as the dream of being part of the property-owning democracy, but rather the 24-hour nightmare of housing despair. Whether we are talking about big cities, towns or villages, all have residents suffering because of the lack of council homes. In rural areas, young people are being forced to leave the villages in which they were born, where their families may have lived for generations, because there is no housing for them, or which they can afford.

Two weeks ago, BBC television in the east of England, over two nights, reported on council housing. Its survey revealed that waiting lists are rising sharply across the region. Some local authorities reported numbers up by as much as 50 per cent. in a year. When reporters asked viewers for their stories, they were swamped with calls. A representative from BBC East told me last night:

"In Ipswich, a couple were told there was a 30-year waiting list for council houses. In Milton Keynes, a nine-week-old baby sleeps in a pram because there is no room for a cot in the house. And in Norwich, a family of five are living in a cramped one-bedroomed bungalow."

Those are just three examples of Labour's housing failure. Last year in Colchester, the council received 1,456 homelessness applications. However, only 426 were accepted. I am told that that figure is the highest in the region, but more than 1,000 applications were rejected. There are 2,354 applicant households on the housing register. The council's head of housing, Mr. Andrew Murray, tells me that Colchester needs 500 affordable homes a year. The number delivered last year was 40—further evidence of Labour's housing failure.

In this morning's debate, I am concentrating on the need to build new council houses, not other aspects such as stock transfers or creation of arm's-length management operations. However, I ask why the Labour Government are so hostile to local authorities? Why does Labour not trust local councils? Why will the Government not fund authorities to build, maintain and manage council houses, which was the case for the greater part of the 20th century, and which had a track record of delivery because homelessness was beaten? We need a regime change in Government thinking towards council houses—back to that which proved so successful over the larger part of the last century. Tried and tested ways are often better than new ones. Tinkering with the system, such as last month's launch of the consultation paper with the long-winded title "Improving standards of accommodation for homeless households placed in temporary accommodation by housing authorities — England" does not produce a single new house, and it is houses that the homeless want, not temporary accommodation, or bed and breakfast.

I suggest that better solutions come from Shelter, which is arguably the most knowledgeable organisation dealing with the national housing crisis. Its proposals in response to the Government's published strategy, "Sustainable communities: building for the future" are ones that I hope will be adopted. As Shelter so graphically put it in evidence given to me:

"Poor housing and homelessness has a negative impact on all aspects of a child's life. Temporary accommodation inevitably means frequent moves, forcing children to change schools and friendship circles. And due to damp, cramped conditions, badly housed children are also more susceptible to diseases."

Is the Prime Minister aware of the housing crisis? If his friends have not told him, I have. It was the subject of my last question to him, when I challenged him in the House:

"When will his Government do something to provide decent housing for homeless people, particularly for the underclass that has developed under new Labour?"—[Hansard, 4 December 2002; Vol. 395, c. 907.]

That was six months ago. Sadly, I see no evidence that new Labour is giving the housing crisis the attention that it deserves. In the past, real Labour would have made a priority of providing decent homes for homeless families.

I am not sure how the Minister will respond. Perhaps he will use the charm offensive, or perhaps he will not bother with the charm. I do not hold him responsible for the housing crisis. He is the person who has been landed with it. What he tells us—I am sure that we all have nice homes—is not important. It is the message that he gives to those without a decent home that is important. The best way to tackle the twin problems of rapidly rising house prices, which put buying a home beyond the reach of more and more young people, and the increasing number of homeless people and others who are housed inadequately is the restoration of the council house building programme that brought about such a huge advance in living standards for millions of people in the 20th century. There is a housing crisis, and it is worse now than it was in May 1997.