HC Deb 27 January 1976 vol 904 cc389-98

10.34 p.m.

Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Luton, West)

This may be one of the last occasions on which I shall address you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in your present capacity—at least, I hope so.

Like most other industrial towns, Luton has an acute housing crisis. Because it is a growth town and because the pressures from outside—as well as from inside—are tremendous, the crisis grows worse. Ten years ago there were 2,723 applicants on Luton's housing waiting list. In those 10 years 3,568 houses have been built by the council. Yet today there are 4,000 applicants on the waiting list. The tragedy is that every week of the year another 10 families are added to that waiting list. Every week some of those families come to my surgery, their despair matched only by my own.

Some of the young women who come to my surgery literally break down into tears when one tells them the awful truth—that they have no chance in the foreseeable future of a home for themselves or their families.

One of the main problems is not finance. It is land. The land situation in Luton is moving from the desperate to the catastrophic. The chief planner of Luton tells me—some will find it hard to believe—that between now and 1991 Luton is likely to need land for 30,000 dwellings. Even in theory there is enough land for only 6,000 dwellings. In practice there probably is not more than enough for 3,000 dwellings.

That means that, in the long run, development will have to take place outside Luton—to the south, at East Hyde, and into Hertfordshire. If development takes place outside Luton, I hope that it takes place in the immediate vicinity and not miles away in such places as Flitwick and North Bedfordshire.

All this is in the future. There is an immediate crisis. Some of those families want relief, and want it in the near future. The Minister for Planning and Local Government can help us, and help us now, because he has before him an application by the Luton District Council to build homes for 300 families at Pastures Way, on Lewsey Farm, in Luton. It has come to the Minister as a departure from the development plan. The Luton District Council is supported by the Labour group on the County Council, by the Chairman of the County Council Planning Committee, Councillor Blowers, and—even more important—by the overwhelming majority of the people of Luton.

The only people against that development are the combustible squirearchy of Bedfordshire and a few local Liberals. The Minister should not worry very much about Bedfordshire's squirearchy. They do not care and they do not know. Their hopes, dreams and aspirations are light years away from the hopes, dreams and aspirations of the working people of Luton.

I do not think the Minister should worry too much about Luton's local Liberals who, in the words of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment—the hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. Oakes)—last night, have waged a "peevish, petty Poujadist" campaign against the homeless in Luton, not because they are interested in the environment or green belt but because they think there is a chance of winning votes in the elections in May.

They have played on the feelings of the people who live at Lewsey Farm, but they have received no support whatsoever. They cannot get anybody to come forward and object to the building of homes on this land, because the people on Lewsey Farm are decent people who are prepared to worry about the problems of others. They are not prepared to attack the homeless, and have not done so. They welcome the building of houses on this piece of land.

The only serious argument I have heard is that it would mean building on the green wedge which exists between Luton and Dunstable. I could understand that argument if Luton and Dunstable were a large conurbation from which it was difficult to reach the countryside, but it cannot take anybody 10 minutes to get out to the countryside. Most of the people who live in that area can literally see the countryside from where they stand at any given moment.

Equally, this piece of land is not the sort of land that should be preserved for a green belt. It is nondescript and inaccessible to the public. No one could claim that there is over-development in this area. There is a sports complex and a school in Pastures Way in Luton. This is the sort of land which should be used for housing. I favour the green belt, but an artificial argument has been constructed around it in this case.

I leave the Minister with this thought from the leader of the Luton district council, Councillor Lines. He says that every time he drives past this bit of land on the motorway he can only smile at the thought that it is green belt land for the enjoyment of the people. I agree with him.

One of the outstanding actions of this Government has been to reintroduce local democracy into housing, and it is important. The people of Luton are grateful that it has been done It can have an effect on rents in Luton. The Government have been very generous in giving subsidies so that councils can hold their rent increases to 60p, but they have left councils the discretion to fix their rents even lower if they wish. I believe that the Labour council in Luton will fight for lower rents. I believe that rent increases will be half that, and possibly even less. If that happens, I hope that the Minister will say that that is what local democracy is about, that Luton's councillors have the right to do that, and that he will support them.

In this case, I think that we can get well below the 60p and be fair both to council tenants and to ratepayers. The chairman of the Finance Committee, Councillor Lewis, and the Chairman of the Housing Committee, Councillor Kennedy, have the skill and ingenuity to pick a figure which is fair to tenants and to ratepayers. But we need the support of the Minister in this kind of action.

I find it almost unbelievable that the Luton News, a non-political paper, in a non-political article written only last week by the sister of a Liberal county councillor, Councillor Larkman, should print the following: If there's one thing guaranteed to get my back up it's people who think the world, or more particularly their local council, owe them something. Just think of council house tenants. Most of them are a darn sight better off than people who have the guts and independence to rent privately or buy property. Most council houses have central heating. Their tenants usually own at least one car. Many have a telly—probably colour—and go abroad annually for their holidays. A three-bedroomed council house with central heating in Farley Hill costs £6.14 a week in rent, exclusive of rates. A similar house rented privately would be up to £30 a week. Council housing is a great idea—for people who really can't afford to buy or rent their own place. But if tenants can afford luxuries like cars, expensive holidays and a telly they shouldn't be living a life of ease at the expense of more conscientious ratepayers. And how many couples are there living in three- or four-bedroomed houses, even though their families are grown up and have left the house. Why don't the council introduce a policy of moving the couples into smaller flats when there is no need for them to have a house. And why don't young couples who move into a council house soon after their marriage make any effort to save up for a deposit on a house of their own? Surely, council property should be regarded as a stop-gap and not as an end in itself. So, you wealthy tenants—pull your fingers out, get off your backsides and help yourselves. That is not a legitimate view based on fact. It is an illegitimate expression of prejudice and hate based on ignorance, and it echoes the views of precisely the kind of people who want to deny that land at Lewsey's Farm to the homeless. I say to the Minister, "Give us a decision. Give us a quick decision. Give us a firm decision."

10.43 p.m.

Mr. Ivor Clemitson (Luton, East)

I support every word said by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, West (Mr. Sedgemore). Incidentally, the houses on Farley Hill, mentioned in the newspaper article quoted by him, are in my constituency and are nearly 30 years old. It was the first post-war housing estate built in Luton.

No one would claim that Luton's housing problems are the worst in the country. That would be an absurd statement. But we have very serious problems. My own constituency covers the central area of the town and most of the older areas, and there are still many houses which lack most of the basic amenities. They have outside toilets, no bathrooms and no hot water.

In the centre of Luton, we have a skyscraper hotel with 153 rooms. It grew miraculously from 40 rooms in the original plan, but we were told that a 40-room hotel was not on, so it grew to 153. But each of those 153 rooms has a bathroom. Almost within spitting distance of that hotel are many homes which are not fit for human habitation and which certainly have no bathrooms.

As my hon. Friend said, we have a great shortage of land for building in Luton, and I support him in his plea to the Minister that a decision be made to free for building houses the piece of land to which he referred in order to help partially to relieve this tremendous problem.

There are two general points I wish to raise. The Government want a shift of policy away from demolition towards rehabilitation. This is particularly significant in my constituency. The Luton District Council is doing everything it can to implement this policy but it faces the problem that the Department limit on money that can be used for the repair, maintenance and improvement of council houses is such that it is difficult to put this policy into effect. I quote briefly from a letter which the Chief Executive, Mr. Collins, addressed to my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, West. The letter says: This council has welcomed this new policy of central Government, as it seems particularly fitted to the needs of Luton, but they fear that if sufficient money is not made available for repair and improvement to tackle a rehabilitation programme successfully, the outmoded policy of demolition will have to be adopted in many cases, because Luton faces a serious problem of ageing properties, both in the public and private sector. The second, admittedly general, matter I wish to raise is the cost of providing council dwellings at the prevailing high interest rates. Again I quote from the letter. It says: A very cogent local example of the problem is that it is estimated that each new dwelling which we provide in Luton will cost us at least 12,000, excluding the cost of providing the site and services to the site. In these circumstances, local authorities need not only a substantial subsidy from central Government, but a very clear indication well in advance of the amount of subsidy which can be made available. I do not claim that Luton's housing problems are the worst in the country or that they are unique. The points I have raised are not peculiar to Luton. I hope that the Minister will comment upon them.

10.47 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, West (Mr. Sedgemore) has raised an important matter. I am glad that he has the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, East (Mr. Clemitson). I will try to deal with the points that they have raised. They have both performed a service by raising these issues tonight. They are important to those for whom the Luton council wishes to provide new or better homes. These matters are certainly important for the ratepayers of Luton. Above all, they are important for the families who are in desperate need and who seek decent homes.

The debate gives me an opportunity, which does not arise often, to explain how the Government's housing policies affect a particular area and to show what help the Government can and do give to local authorities. Luton is a town where the population has increased very fast in recent years. This obviously presents great housing problems. Between 1961 and 1971 the population increased by one-seventh from about 140,000 to about 160,000. Since 1971 the population has continued to expand, though more slowly, and it is now around 166,000. Employment opportunities have been good, and this attraction, coupled with the national trend towards smaller households, has created a vigorous and urgent demand for housing. Although Luton is not a growth area in the Strategic Plan for the South-East, this demand can be expected to continue over the next few years because of migration into the area as well as the natural growth in the existing population.

There are about 4,000 people on Luton's waiting list for council housing, and the number is growing. I understand that the council expects between 500 and 600 houses a year to become available for re-letting. Its building programme shows a healthy increase, for which the council deserves credit. From 195 houses completed in 1973 it expects to complete well over 300 this financial year, over 500 next year, and, subject to land availability—to which my hon. Friend referred—about 900 in 1977–78. In the first six months of 1975–76 it started over 450 houses, so it is well on target. There have, of course, been demolitions to set against these figures, but they show a considerable net housing gain and a healthy trend.

However, as my hon. Friend said, the borough council now has very little new land available for development for housing within the borough boundary. My Department is well aware of these difficulties. Once the Marsh Farm estate in the north of the town is complete, there is little undeveloped land that it can bring into use. There are, as anywhere, a number of small sites in the town that can usefully be developed. But, important though it is to make the fullest possible use of these, I appreciate that they are unlikely to go all that far towards meeting Luton's housing needs and that what is needed is room for expansion.

My hon. Friend referred to the borough's council's desire to build houses at Pastures Way, next to the Lewsey Farm estate on the north-west side of the town. At present this is an open strip of land between Luton and Houghton Regis, just inside the Luton boundary. Obviously this raises planning issues. The council's planning application was called in for a decision by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

A public inquiry was held in October, at which Luton's housing needs were fully described by the borough council's representatives. They have been vigorously confirmed by my hon. Friends in tonight's debate. My hon. Friends will realise that as the case is still under consideration by my right hon. Friend I cannot comment on its merits, nor can I give a definite date when my right hon. Friend's decision will be announced, but we recognise the urgency of the matter, and there will be no unnecessary delay in coming to a decision.

If the borough council is so short of land within its boundary, it can only expand outside. That always presents difficulties of one kind or another. But it is a situation that has to be faced if Luton is to carry out its obligation as a housing authority, and it should be considered in the context of the county structure plan. The plan is in the early stages of preparation, and I am sure that the question of Luton's housing needs is a matter that will be fully discussed between the county and the borough. I hope that they will be able to reach amicable agreement.

My hon. Friend also expressed concern about the freedom of housing authorities in deciding rent increases. He was wondering, I think, whether the Luton Borough Council would be penalised if it decided to increase the rents of its dwellings in 1976–77 by a figure lower than the average of 60p per week which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made clear he expects to be the average increase in rents by local authorities.

The law is quite clear. Under the Housing Rents and Subsidies Act 1975, which we promoted, local authorities had restored to them the power, which the Conservatives took away from them, to make such reasonable charges as they might determine. We pledged in our manifesto in 1974 that local authorities should have restored to them the full responsibility for fixing the rents of their houses. We have carried out that pledge, and I emphasise that we have no intention of going back on it.

What we have tried to do is to give guidance to local authorities on how they might balance that freedom with their responsibility to their ratepayers, at a time of severe inflation in costs, and when no one wants to add to inflationary pressures by exceptional increases in either rents or rates. That was the point of my right hon. Friend's guidance on the 60p. That was estimated to be the national average amount of an increase in line with the rise of prices generally.

My hon. Friend rightly asked whether Luton would suffer financially if, nevertheless, it decided to increase rents by a lower amount than 60p on average. It is difficult to give any categorical answer to that question without knowing a good deal more about the circumstances of Luton's housing revenue account. We have said that we intend to pay local authorities a special element of housing subsidy in 1976–77 to enable rent increases to be contained within the 60p national average. The method of calculating an authority's entitlement to this special element of subsidy is complicated, but I shall try to explain the essence of it.

An authority has to construct a notional housing revenue account according to certain rules which have been prescribed. It is then expected to meet out of its own resources—rents or rates—increased costs in 1976–77 as against this year to the extent of £31 per dwelling per year. If the notional account is still in deficit, the Government intend to pay subsidy for the whole amount of that deficit up to another £21 per dwelling per year.

There is further provision to assist authorities whose notional accounts are in deficit by less than £21 per dwelling and which choose to reduce the rate fund contribution in the notional account, provided they make certain rent increases.

It is not easy to say how Luton's situation fits these guidelines. If it has a deficit in the notional housing revenue account it will qualify for some special element. However, everything depends on the state of the housing revenue account. If my hon. Friend would like to pursue this matter with me I shall be able to give him details when the increases have been agreed by the council.

My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, East raised the matter of Section 105 allocations—the expenditure on improvement of existing houses. In the year 1975–76 the amount allocated was £306,400. The 1976–77 allocation is £430,000. We have just been able to increase the council allocation for 1975.76 by £50,000 because of underspending by another authority.

The allocation for 1976–77 was based upon the Government's priorities as stated by my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction in reply to a Question on 4th August 1975. This takes into account contractual commitments; conversions of acquired dwellings to produce housing gain; improvement to acquired sub-standard dwellings, especially those in action areas and in general improvement areas; the conversion of purpose-built council dwellings to produce housing gain; and the improvement of purpose-built council dwellings lacking full standard amenities.

It is true that a great increase has occurred in the amount of resources allocated to housing, but, because we are concentrating on areas of greatest housing stress, the ordering of priorities is always a difficult matter. We realise that Luton could use more allocation. However, I assure my hon. Friend that all the relevant circumstances have been taken into consideration and that we are constantly reviewing the matter.

My hon. Friend also raised the question of interest rates and the cost of new houses, which is again something to which, unfortunately, there is no easy answer. We are aware of the pressure on local authorities and I shall take heed of what my hon. Friend said.

I hope that I have succeeded in shedding some light on the issues raised by my hon. Friends. There are, of course, many other ways, both financial and advisory, in which the Government can assist, and do assist, a local authority with its housing programme. Housing is, indeed, the greatest social need of our people. If we are to have a good society, our people must be well housed. We are anxious to work with local authorities in order that provision might be made. I can say without hesitation that we recognise the problems and pressures which face Luton because of its circumstances, and that we have done our best to put at the council's disposal a proper share of available funds. I shall be ready at all times to discuss with my hon. Friends the problems which arise from the urgent need in Luton.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Eleven o'clock.