§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Sainsbury.]5.40 pm
§ Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)
The best comment on the Government's policy on housing expenditure is as follows:the facts are that since Mrs. Thatcher first gained office in 1979 we have increasingly been subjected to an extreme form of disruptive and damaging `stop-go' cycle, we have seen truly massive cuts in our capital construction programmes, a serious reduction in training opportunities and appalling unemployment.That statement was made last month by Mr. Bruce Chivers of the Building Employers Confederation, a body not noted for its sympathy with the Labour party.
The Government are presiding over a deliberately created disaster in both public and private housing, but it is not as if they recognise that. The Secretary of State for the Environment said:I will not take criticism from the Opposition about improvement grants…These grants totalled £900 million last year, whereas they were £90 million when the Labour party was in office.—[Official Report, 18 July 1984; Vol. 64, c. 334.] That piece of cheek came from a Government who have drastically cut the money available for improvement grants generally and the percentage of grant for householders. That is apart from cuts in the housing allocation, rate capping and all the other interferences with local democracy.
I shall tell the Minister what is happening in Birmingham in relation to improvement grants. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) hopes to enlarge upon my remarks. Mr. Frank Reynolds, the city environmental health officer, in a letter to the National Home Improvement Council in March, said:The situation in Birmingham is that our present workload on house renovation grant inquiries and applications is 28,475 and this accumulation has built up since 1 April 1982. Although some 22,000 of these grants are being actively pursued by the staff there is an enormous backlog still to be visited.Because of the Government's cut in the money available, Birmingham will be able to complete only about 6,000 grants in the current financial year. This is not an argument about numbers and money. It means heartbreak and disappointment for thousands of people who were encouraged to apply for grants before the last election and whose hopes were dashed when the Conservative Government were returned last autumn and the first of the cuts were made. That was deceitful and dishonest. I have no doubt that the people of Birmingham had that in mind when they returned the city to Labour in the local elections in May and the Euro-elections later.
The Government have forced Birmingham city council to restrict grants to houses lacking basic standard amenities such as baths, wash hand basins, sinks, water closets, hot and cold water supplies and to improvements to meet the needs of disabled people. That is it—full stop. That is the reality of the Government's vaunted home improvements policy. Thousands of Brummies will receive no help with new roofs and other works that need doing. The vaunted "enveloping" scheme, of which Government Members could not make enough before the last general election, is now a dead duck.
The facts are not a surprise to Government Members. They know the position. Public spending on housing in 1020 1978–79 was £5,803 million. By 1981–82 it had slumped to £3,336 million. For 1984 it is pitched at £2,264 million. Since 1979 a cut of about 61 per cent. has been made in spending on housing compared with a rise of 27 per cent. on defence spending. Such are the Government's priorities.
The building figures tell the same dismal and depressing story. In Great Britain, local authorities started 56,378 new homes in 1979. 13y 1983 that figure had fallen to 32,591. That was not an accident. It was not because people were not waiting for homes. It was the result of a deliberate strategy by the Conservative party to cut back heavily on spending on housing in the public and the private sectors. In the public and private housebuilding sectors, starts between 1980 and 1983 were 40 per cent. down on the period between 1975 and 1978.
§ Mr. John Heddle (Mid-Staffordshire)
How much will Birmingham benefit from money provided through the Housing Defects Bill, the Lords amendments to which are due to be considered tomorrow? Will the hon. Gentleman suggest to the now Labour-controlled Birmingham city council that if the money that is locked up in mortgages by people who have had the good sense to buy their houses from the Birmingham city council were released and refinanced through a building society it would be available to the ratepayers and the homeless and for all the things, like home improvements, for which the hon. Gentleman pleads?
§ Mr. Corbett
The hon. Gentleman has the problem round his neck. I hope that he will be courteous enough to sit there until I have finished so that I can tell him exactly what is happening. He has obviously been reading an out-of-date brief from Tory central office.
The Government's most massive attack on public spending has been against housing. Government policy means longer waits for a home and longer waits for repairs and transfers. It condemns thousands in Birmingham and hundreds of thousands throughout the country to the misery of squalid housing and adds to the package of deprivation suffered by those who are also denied jobs.
In 1982–83, under Tory control, just five new houses were built in Birmingham—just five. In 1983–84, just 33 new houses were built. That is for a major city in Britain. Is it because new homes are not needed? In 1979–80, 12,562 people were on the waiting list in Birmingham. About 13,000 people were on the waiting list in 1980. When the Tory administration left office in May, the housing list stood at 20,450.
§ Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South)
I was the chairman of the housing committee in Birmingham at the time about which the hon. Member is being so avidly critical. Will he tell the House the number of properties that were started and developed for sheltered purposes, for the disabled and other special needs groups, the number of properties funded by the city for housing associations and other groups such as the single homeless, in which I took a particular interest? Will he tell us the amount of property sold, including derelict land, to private builders and the number of properties that they were able to erect as a result, particularly in the inner city?
§ Mr. Corbett
The hon. Lady's constituents in Derbyshire must wonder why she has such a long and lingering fascination for Birmingham. I shall come later to most of the details for which she asked.
1021 The Minister knows what is going on in Birmingham in relation to housing and housing expenditure. The city put in a bid for £120 million of housing allocation for 1984–85. It has been allocated only £66 million. There is urgent need, especially in the inner city area, for a much larger spend to create the jobs about which the Prime Minister and her right hon. and hon. Friends are always crowing. The need is not only to provide decent homes, but to help take some of the 400,000 building workers off the dole and put them back into useful work.
These well-housed Ministers know well that they are storing up a housing problem that will match that of the immediate post-war years. Some 1.25 million homes in England and Wales are unfit and lack basic amenities, 800,000 people live in overcrowded conditions, 2.5 million houses are seriously affected by dampness and it has been estimated that about £10,000 million is needed to remedy construction and design faults in existing council homes such as those built by the Bison wall frame system in my constituency. Some 103 blocks have been built by that system in the city of Birmingham. All that the Government can say to a city that cannot get anywhere near enough housing money to deal with its normal problems and faces a massive repair and renovation bill is, "You find the money yourselves." A report on the tower blocks, which was submitted to the Birmingham housing committee in February this year, stated:The main problems with the wall frame system are the possibility of insufficient ties being installed in inner and outer leaves of external walls.The report added:urgent action has been taken to provide bolts to 83 suspected panels.Those are the 3-ton external cladding panels. Some 1,200 other panels in those tower blocks are suspect.
The Housing Defects Bill promises to help those who bought defective council houses by giving them a 90 per cent. repair grant, most of which will be funded by the councils, but what are the councils to do when they face equally severe problems with similar types of housing? They have been told that they must deal with these matters by using funds from their housing allocations, which are being cut in any event.
The private sector, together with the building suppliers and other linked trades, used to be a good friend of the Tory party, but not now—not any more. I suspect that VAT on home extensions, introduced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, put the final seal on that. However, that is by no means the end of the housing misery. A survey just published by the Birmingham standing conference on the single homeless showed that on any one night nearly 200 people could be sleeping in six night shelters in the city. In the course of one year, well over 2,000 people might pass through those shelters. It is no good the Minister saying that they should look to the private sector. The privately rented sector in Birmingham fell from 61 per cent. of housing stock in 1947 to 15.9 per cent. in 1975,and I suspect that it is much lower today.
The number of single homeless on the city's housing list has risen dramatically. According to the survey, they now represent 55 per cent. of those on the waiting list, and half of them are aged between 18 and 24. What is being done to help them? Nothing is being done in Birmingham, because of the Government's policies. Let us look at the 1022 number of maisonettes, assuming that they are suitable for the single homeless—in many cases they are not. In 1979–80 just 15 were built in the city. In 1980–81 none was built, in 1981–82 four were built, in 1982–83 none was built and in 1983–84 two were built. What about two-storey flats? They are no good, because they are provided mainly under warden-supervised schemes for the elderly. There are precious few of them in any event. Some 263 were built in 1981–82, only 62 were built in 1982–83 and 213 were built in 1983–84.
The stark fact is that nothing is being done in Birmingham for the single homeless or others in desperate housing need, because of the Government's savage cuts in the money spent on housing. In 1982–83, just five new family houses were built in the city of Birmingham. That is when the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) was proud to be chairman of the housing committee. In 1983–84, just 33 new family houses were built. There are 20,000 or more people on the waiting list. What hope do they have of getting decent and adequate housing under this Government? The fact is that the only place that those 20,000 people will have to live is on that waiting list.
§ Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) has initiated a useful debate on housing.
There is no doubt that there is a housing crisis. It arises mainly from the large-scale cuts in public expenditure since the Government took office five years ago. In a recent Adjournment debate on housing the Under-Secretary disputed some of the figures that I quoted then. I have since rechecked them in the Library. I am repeating what I said in that Adjournment debate: in real terms, expenditure on housing in Britain will fall during the current financial year to around 39 per cent. of the 1979–80 level. In round figures, that means a reduction from £5,455 million in 1979–80 to £2,118 million in 1984–85.
Ministers have made much play of the decline in public sector housing starts during the last years of the Labour Government. There was such a decline, and I regret it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Erdington rightly said, however, it is nowhere near the decline since this Administration have been in office. In 1978, the last full year of the Labour Government, there were over 107,000 public sector starts. In 1981, the figure was down to 37,000. It rose to 52,000 a year later, and last year it was just over 47,000. Therefore, the Minister, like the Under-Secretary, may state that there has been an improvement, but it was an improvement over the miserable 1981 figure when there were just 37,000 starts in the public sector. From 1974 to 1979, there was a reduction of just over 26 per cent. in the number of public sector housing starts. From 1979 to last year, the figure was just under 42 per cent.
I know that the private sector interests Conservative Members more than public sector starts. It is interesting therefore, to note that in the private sector there was a 48 per cent. increase between 1974 and 1979 and only a 16 per cent. increase under this Administration.
There is undoubtedly a desperate need for council dwellings to be built. As my hon. Friend said, a large number of people are waiting to be housed. Many have been waiting for years on end. A lot of them are living in the most inadequate accommodation. Some young married 1023 couples manage to live with their parents or in-laws; others take one-bedroomed rented accommodation because it is all that they are likely to get. Many of them are being cruelly exploited by private property companies. I have referred to the role of the Berger property empire during Question Time and in correspondence with the Minister.
Recently, there was a television film about what is happening in London, where bed and breakfast accommodation is provided by hotels. What a pathetic scene it was. Families, most with children, were put up in so-called hotels because the local authorities could not—and are not likely to be able to for some time—offer them any sort of rented accommodation.
A substantial house building programme is required. The Government's approach — there was the same response from the Under-Secretary during the Adjournment debate on 25 June—is, in effect, to say that there is no real need for new rented accommmodation in the public sector. Even if there were not massive unemployment— officially, the figure in my travel-to-work area is over 17 per cent.—and even if there were no increase in the mortgage interest rate, there would remain many people—I put the figure as high as 30 per cent. — who would stand no chance of getting a mortgage and who could find adequate accommodation only by being offered it by the local authority.
Those are people who desperately need to be housed by a local authority. What is their alternative if they cannot get a mortgage? How can they find other forms of accommodation? Does the Minister suggest that the private rented sector could help such people? All the evidence shows that there has been no revival of the private rented sector and that there is not likely to be. It is not in a position to help the hundreds of thousands of people on waiting lists. All hon. Members know that that is a fact. The sort of people shown on television who are living in bed and breakfast accommodation, with their parents, with in-laws or in one-bedroomed flats will have adequate accommodation such as hon. Members, including the Minister, enjoy, only if a local authority offers them accommodation.
Other people are in difficulty because of the Government's housing policies. Many couples live in multi-storey flats and are waiting to be rehoused in houses. In some cases couples with two or three children must wait a long time for that. Conservative Members are keen to tell us about the Government's policy of forcing local authorities to sell council accommodation. People who live in multi-storey blocks of flats and come to my surgeries or write to me do not want to buy accommodation on the sixth, seventh or 12th floor of a multi-storey block. The better type of council accommodation, such as houses with gardens, is being sold off. If the Government are so keen on their policy to sell council accommodation — they constantly tell us about it—why is the same statutory right not given to private tenants? Hon. Members know the answer to that only too well.
A couple of weeks ago a constituent wrote to me because he was concerned that his parents were living on the seventh floor of an eight-storey block of flats. Apart from other matters, the son wants his parents to be rehoused in a house or at least in a three-storey block of flats. I took the matter up with the local authority, as I always do. The housing department, in its reply, told me that, due to the acute shortage of housing in the borough, 1024 the couple would be eligible for a two-bedroomed house only after having been 21 years in a flat. I do not blame the local authority; but I do blame the Government.
My hon. Friend the Member for Erdington told us that his local authority had built only five or 10 dwellings in the past few years. Since 1979, my borough councilWalsall—has been unable to enter into contracts for new council dwellings. Clearly it is faced with an ever larger number of people waiting to be rehoused from multi-storey accommodation and a large number of people waiting to be housed for the first time. Year after year the borough submits applications under the housing investment programme for about £36 million, and each year the sum allocated is no more than about £10 million.
The Minister who is to reply courteously sent me a note to tell me that he would be visiting Walsall, I replied immediately, and suggested that during his visit he should try to understand the housing plight in the borough and the local authority's problems as the borough is designated as a housing-stretched area. But I doubt whether he took up those points.
It is not only a question of building new accommodation. There is also the problem of modernising older council properties. Local authorities cannot carry out the sort of modernisation programmes that they wish to carry out.
I make no apologies for referring again to the Rosehill estate in Willenhall in my constituency. The properties there were built in the 1930s. Among the dwellings—-I doubt whether the Minister saw them on his visit—are 200 which have only outside toilets. Many of them have unplastered kitchens, some are missing hand basins and more than 400 of them are damp. The local authority wants to modernise those properties as quickly as possible. That is the objective that one would expect from a local authority. However, it cannot do so at the moment and it has not been able to do so for the past few years, because the allocation it receives under the annual housing investment programme is inadequate. Therefore, tenants on the Rosehill estate must wait year after year, although they pay large amounts in rent. The improvements, which are absolutely necessary, and which the House should recognise as being necessary, cannot be carried out.
The Government have pursued a dogmatic policy on housing, as in other matters. Since they took office they have been determined that housing should bear the brunt of public expenditure cuts. That has brought many difficulties and much misery to families everywhere. As I said, many people who cannot get mortgages desperately need to be rehoused by their local authority. It is all very well for the Government to sell off council accommodation—I do not want to go into the pros and cons now of that argument—but it is interesting and distressing to note that, apart from the war years, this is the first time that there has been a substantial reduction in the rented sector.
The elementary thing that the Government should have done if they were determined to pursue their policies was to say, "If we are going to encourage local authorities to sell off accommodation, we must ensure that the accommodation is replaced." They have done nothing of the kind. It is precisely because the best type of accommodation has been sold that local authorities are left with multi-storey blocks of flats, from which many people wish to move to houses. But, as the houses have been sold off, how can they do so?
1025 The Government may argue that, even if there had been no sales policy, the houses would still be occupied. However, in the last Parliament, the report of the Select Committee on the Environment, of which I was a member, pointed out that quite a number of the people who had bought those dwellings would have moved to the private sector anyway. Therefore, a number of those council houses would have been available for the type of family that I have been speaking about. There are many building workers on the dole who could be usefully employed on building and modernising the accommodation which is so desperately needed.
Neither I nor my hon. Friend the Member for Erdington have any illusions that we can persuade the Government to change their mind. However, it is right that Labour Members should use every opportunity in the House to illustrate the hardship and suffering that are being caused to our constituents because of the Government's policies.
§ 6.9 pm
§ Mr. John Heddle (Mid-Staffordshire)
I rise with an apology, if I may, to you Mr. Speaker, my hon. Friend the Minister and the House because I fear that I may not be able to be here when my hon. Friend replies. I hope that in the event he will forgive me.
It is necessary to put right one or two statements. The hon. Members for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) and for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) failed to acknowledged one simple fact—that the long housing waiting lists in their constituencies, mine and those of my hon. Friends did not start in 1983, 1979, 1974, 1970, 1966, 1964 or even 1959. They started years ago. They perhaps started in 1919, when rent control was first imposed as a temporary post-war expedient. They were perhaps exacerbated by the fact that between the wars it did not pay reputable builders, and landlords such as Costain and the Wimpey group to build homes to rent. It might have been exacerbated when the Government, in their wisdom, introduced the Parker Morris standards and caused houses to be built of far higher standards and at far greater costs than necessary. [HON. MEMBERS: "Rubbish."] It is not rubbish at all. Opposition Members shout, "Rubbish," but they do not understand that the capital cost must, in some way, have a reflection upon the rental income; otherwise, who pays? The taxpayer and the ratepayer have to pick up the tab. I am not necessarily suggesting that we should return to cost-rent, but there must be a relationship, as any hon. Member who has served in government or local government is aware, between capital and revenue.
Opposition Members fail to acknowledge that our housing problems are born of political dogma. I suggest that the political dogma is mongrel political dogma. Why was it that in 1977 the party then in government produced a Green Paper, from which I shall not quote but which, as the House is aware, specifically stated that rent control was one of the reasons for the excess of people over homes to rent? Despite the findings of that Green Paper, did the party opposite in government do anything to release the noose that is rent control? Not a bit of it. It did the opposite, and it was contradictory. When, in 1979, the Government introduced the Housing Bill, they introduced two forms of tenure that could, under normal, fair and reasonable circumstances, increase the supply of rented 1026 accommodation for just the people whom the hon. Member for Erdington has suggested are on his housing waiting list and that in my constituency.
§ Mr. Winnick
I know the hon. Gentleman's views about rent control. He is frank about them and I suppose that we should respect him for making his views clear. He is not in favour of rent control. He sees shortholds as a way of doing away with rent control and security of tenure in time. Is he aware that the Rent Act 1957, which decontrolled a great deal of rented accommodation and ensured that all new rented accommodation was not subject to any security of tenure or rent control, did not lead to an increase in rented accommodation; it led to a substantial decrease in privately rented accommodation? In 1959-60, the local authority of which I was a member found that it had to rehouse many people who were the victims of Rachmanism or semi-Rachmanism. That Act led to Rachmanism.
§ Mr. Heddle
The hon. Gentleman makes the same point in every housing debate. The House is well aware of his views. I deplore Rachmanism and the activities of the few who get rich quick on the backs of the poor and unhoused, such as the Berger group of companies to which he referred. However, we should not let one egg in the housing basket spoil the many good. We may put restrictions on overcrowding, unfair rents and licence agreements but, in doing so, we should not ignore the fact that the majority of institutions, building societies and reputable builders would like the opportunity to provide homes to rent.
I welcome the proposals contained in the Green Paper published this week about the possible way ahead for the building society movement to become more directly and actively involved as a supplier of first resort homes to rent or for sale.
I gave way to the hon. Gentleman, who in the last Parliament was a parliamentary neighbour of mine, because I hoped that he might explain the dichotomy in which his party finds itself. It disagrees with the principle of shorthold, designed to provide private rented accommodation and thereby mobility of tenants and mobility of labour, yet it agrees with the concept of the assured tenancy provisions designed to do precisely the same for newly built properties in the same Housing Act 1980.
The division across the floor arises because the Labour party believes that the housing problem can be solved by the wave of a municipal cheque book and Conservative Members believe that although it cannot be solved, at least in some respects it can be ameliorated by a partnership between the public and private sector, with the public sector providing homes for the disabled, and for those in real and genuine need —the disadvantaged— and the private sector providing the ladder of opportunity and independence to which most people aspire who are fortunate enough to be able to do so.
The hon. Member for Walsall, North referred to the building societies and the current rate of mortgage interest. I must declare an interest. I am a vice-president of the Building Societies Association. A year ago, it published a most interesting report which I suggest the Labour party ignores at its peril, and which shows that, of the 40 per cent. who do not today have the privilege of owning their own home, 90 per cent. expect to own their own home 1027 within their lifetime. They look to the Conservatives in government to implement policies that will enable them to aspire to their lifetime's ambition.
Why did not the hon. Member for Erdington, who has temporarily left the Chamber, mention that between 1976 — when the then Chancellor went with his begging bowl, as far as the tarmacadam of Heathrow, to the IMF —and 1979 when they lost office, deservedly, starts in public sector housing fell from 170,000 to 81,000?
It is easy for Opposition Members to point to the figures of this Government. It is even easier if they look back and see what the leaves of history foretold then—and the reason was simple. Inflation and the economy were out of control; as the late Anthony Crosland rightly said, the party was over. There was just not enough food in the larder or money in the kitty to provide homes. That is why public sector starts in those three short miserable years fell by 50 per cent.
I have mentioned the fact that the private rented sector, whether through the voluntary housing movement, shorthold or short tenancy, can provide the mobility and can release people from the wooden and static housing environment into which, sadly, the public sector locked them. The hon. Members failed to mention that. They failed to mention that the Government — the Labour party could have done it, of course, in its period of office —have given public sector tenants a tenants' charter. The Government have given them the same rights that the private sector tenant has had for some time. Let not the House and the country ignore that.
The Opposition have failed to acknowledge that improvement grants, despite this temporary hiccup, have been at an all-time high and that home insulation grants are at an all-time high. They have failed to acknowledge that, by trying to bring forward development land in inner cities such as Birmingham, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) referred, the Government have established a land register to identify that basic commodity on which all new houses must be built. It is our most precious national commodity.
I am pleased that, in answer to a parliamentary question last week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment said that at last he is taking powers under section 98 of the Local Government, Planning and Land Act to compel local authorities to release this land to enable private sector builders—the employers of skilled labour in the construction industry — to build homes under the partnership and half-and-half schemes. Local authorities and other public authorities such as the British Rail Property Board, the Ministry of Defence and regional hospital and health authorities have been sitting on this most valuable asset, but the schemes to which I have referred will enable prospective tenants on housing waiting lists at least to start on the ladder of opportunity.
Who provided the concept of the half-and-half scheme, improvement for sale and homesteading? It was not the Labour party. Mongrel political dogma shut the door of the kennel in its face.
§ Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley)
The hon. Gentleman has made comparisons between the public and private sectors, but one important area in which fair comparisons cannot be made is that of the interest burden borne by council tenants in their rents. Would it not be fair if council tenants were given a concession equivalent to the income tax 1028 concession on mortgage repayments given to those in the private sector, bearing in mind that at present the interest burden on rents is extremely high?
§ Mr. Heddle
I shall not be tempted down that path, other than to say that local authorities are at a greater advantage than the private sector. The private sector must borrow its money on much shorter terms and much more stringent conditions. Local authorities obtain money from the Exchequer over 40 or 60 years at concessionary rates of interest, but the private sector enjoys no such privilege or advantage. The hon. Gentleman's point about tax relief on rents and on mortgage interest would be fair if rents were at a realistic and fair market level, just as they are in the private sector.
§ Mrs. Currie
Is it not also the case that where housing benefit is claimable, the private owner purchasing his house on a mortgage can claim that benefit only against the mortgage interest — not against the repayment of mortgage itself—whereas the council tenant can claim it against the entire rent?
§ Mr. Heddle
That is absolutely right. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that the owner-occupier who enjoys the benefit of mortgage interest relief up to £30,000 —recently increased—is by standing on his own feet releasing the public sector from the pressure of providing him with a home.
The hon. Member for Erdington failed to mention the number of houses owned by local authorities in Birmingham and elsewhere which have been empty not just for six or 12 months, two or four years, but in some absurd cases 10, 15 or 20 years. Those hon. Members who know of such houses that have been left idle and which have gone to waste should consider urging that they be let at concessionary rents or for rent-free periods to those on housing waiting lists who are do-it-yourself experts and who might be prepared to invest some of their time and a lot of their expertise to bring those homes up to habitable and lettable standards.
§ Mr. Corbett
I take the hon. Gentleman's point about homes, particularly those owned by the county council, out of which the police have moved. Some in my patch have been vandalised. However, when the Conservative party was in control of Birmingham, under the control of the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie), many homes around the city, once tenants had moved out, were boarded up and stood empty waiting for people who were able to buy them. Is the hon. Gentleman defending that?
§ Mr. Heddle
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, but I am saying that Labour Members did not even bother to mention these blatant examples of bureaucratic waste. I am not for a moment suggesting that this is a party political issue. I am suggesting that, as these properties are owned by the public sector, there is no landlord—no one who each week knocks on the door to collect the rent. There is no one to care for those properties or even to care for the good will and welfare of the tenants. That is why there is a strong argument for the management of the public housing sector to be given perhaps to the voluntary housing movement which has a more caring, coin-passionate and prudent attitude to the way in which our housing stock is managed.
I rest my case there. I asked the hon. Member for Erdington how much the city of Birmingham would 1029 benefit from the grants made available to Airey house owners and to the owners of the 26 other types of property which fall within the categories incorporated in the Housing Defects Bill. He failed to give the answer that I was seeking.
The problem of housing and its waiting lists will be solved only if all parties can somehow reach an accommodation—I choose my words carefully—so that mongrel dogma goes by the board and practical reality which has regard to the aspirations of the majority of the people takes its place.
§ Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)
The hon. Gentleman referred to people with a £30,000 mortgage standing on their own feet, but the tax relief on such a mortgage is £1,170 public subsidy in the first year. Can we reach a consensus that that subsidy is paid to everyone in need of housing?
§ Mr. Heddle
The hon. Gentleman, whose views I respect very much and who has much practical experience of these matters, perhaps did not understand my answer to the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike). We can compare a subsidy in the public sector with mortgage tax relief in the private sector only if the conditions relating to both are equal. They are not. Tax relief to the home owner in the private sector through mortgage relief is not a subsidy in the same sense that a rent is subsidised — [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh?"] It is not. The housing problems that confront us all in our advice bureaux each weekend will be solved only if the political barriers are broken down and practical realities which have regard to the aims and aspirations of the majority of the British people take their place.
§ Mr. George Park (Coventry, North-East)
Time and again, attention has been drawn to the fact that the Government are prepared to carry through their policies irrespective of the social consequences. A classic example is the restriction of expenditure on housing.
No one can deny the tremendous need for new houses, and for the maintenance, repair and renovation of existing homes. In terms of human misery, this lack of provision is hard to measure, but there is no doubt that it is a major contributor to the break-up of marriages and families and a cause of general unrest. Lack of a decent home plus unemployment adds to the sorry picture of life under this Government for millions of people.
A steady increase in housing provision and repair would not add substantially to imports. It would bring work to a sector of industry which has probably the highest rate of unemployment, and pay packets instead of dole would result in a greater demand for goods and services to the general well-being of the economy. The Government seem blind and deaf, and are more intent on their accountancy than on meeting this need.
In Coventry, even before the moratorium, the existing resources, including capital receipts, were completely unable to deal with the problems. There are 3,000 pre-war council houses needing modernisation. This problem can be tackled only at the rate of 200 a year, so is a 15-year programme. Some 7,000 houses have major insulation problems and 13,500 are not centrally heated. The Minister will agree that that is the only way to deal with 1030 condensation in the no-fines dwellings that Coventry had to erect in great numbers after the war to get roofs over people's heads. At the present rate, this programme will take 20 years to complete.
All the multi-storey blocks in Coventry need their windows replaced, and there is no money in the programme for that. Jobbing and planned repairs are already £1 million over budget, and those repairs are essential if the housing stock is to be regenerated. The only new house building is at the rate of 70 units a year for the elderly and disabled, despite a waiting list of over 6,000 and a transfer list of 3,000. No one on those lists is interested in when the lists started. All they know is that they are on the lists and have little prospect of getting off them.
I am sure that the general public would be interested in the comment by the hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Heddle) that councils had built houses to too high a standard. He might have put it a bit more bluntly and said that the houses were too good—it would have been more honest if he had put it that way. The claim that the Labour party does not believe in people owning their own homes is evidence of a lack of knowledge. Nearly 20 years ago, the Labour council in Coventry was building houses for sale.
§ Mr. Michael Forsyth (Stirling)
I appreciate that Glasgow is some way from Coventry, but is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Labour party in Glasgow has refused an offer of £1 million to sell a sub-standard block, and that it will demolish it at a cost of £750,000 rather than allow a private developer to develop the block for sale to provide housing in Glasgow? What commitment does that show to home ownership or to dealing with the problems that the hon. Gentleman is discussing?
§ Mr. Park
I shall not parade my knowledge of Glasgow, but I was born there, although I do not get back there very often. The last time I did so was nine months ago, and I was agreeably surprised at the amount of renovation work that the Glasgow authority is doing on some of the old tenements such as the one in which I had lived. It is doing a marvellous job of work. More power to its elbow; I am sure that it will want more money to get on with it.
In the private sector, 17,000 dwellings in Coventry need improvement. At the present rate of progress, it will take 30 years to cover current needs. Rewiring is a dangerous problem that is well known in Coventry, but the programme for that will take five years to complete. It hardly needs to be said that, by the time all these programmes are completed at the present rate of expenditure, there will be another huge backlog.
To add to the general frustration, interest rates will require council tenants to find an additional £800,000, which is about 65p a week for each tenant. I do not imagine that Coventry is exceptional, and the Coventry problem is repeated up and down the country. That means that there is an urgent need for a complete reappraisal of Government policy towards public expenditure on housing.
§ Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)
It was about five years ago, when the Minister for Housing and Construction was occupied in a different role, that I drew 1031 the attention of the Prime Minister to the plight of young families in tower blocks in my constituency. I instanced the need of the council unwillingly to sell off excellent small houses built at public expense, and I asked whether this was not discriminating against the needs of families in tower blocks. The Prime Minister, in her ignorance, replied that it was not, because people in tower blocks had an equal right to buy their flats if they wished. The right hon. Lady had misunderstood the point because she did not understand housing needs.
The hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Heddle) talked about doctrinaire principles on housing. All the evidence is that it is the Conservative party that is being doctrinaire on this matter. The Labour party believes in all types of home ownership — co-operative, housing association, municipal and private.
The London borough of Newham has a high proportion of private building, which needs a great deal of renovation because it was built at about the turn of the century. The borough also believes in housing for sale to young married couples. Indeed, it pioneered a scheme to build houses at relatively low cost for sale to young people who, for a short period, went into the tower blocks to which I have referred. That shows not a doctrinaire approach, but a very practical approach to the need for good, sound accommodation.
§ Mr. Winnick
Does it not show the flexible policy of the Labour party, that a Labour Government introduced the option mortgage scheme in the 1960s, which gave many young people the opportunity to become owner-occupiers? If the Labour party were anti-owner-occupation, why did it introduce the option mortgage scheme?
§ Mr. Spearing
My hon. Friend underlines my point.
I started by referring to tower blocks. I wish to draw the attention of the House to a serious problem now developing in Newham, which I mentioned on Second Reading of the Housing Defects Bill on 26 April—the events in and surrounding Ronan Point. This is perhaps the most famous tower block in the world because in 1968, as a result of a relatively mild gas explosion, a corner of it collapsed, and with it the whole idea of tower blocks. From then onwards, they have not been built in anything like the same numbers, and their social disadvantages have become all too apparent.
Again, in principle, this should be a non-party issue, particularly as system building in tower blocks was officially encouraged. Ronan Point was built under the Larsen Nielsen Danish patents by Taylor Woodrow Anglian construction. It was encouraged by the National Building Agency, which spanned both Labour and Conservative Governments, and by the Minister for Housing and Local Government, as he then was.
I hope that the Minister for Housing and Construction will yet again acknowledge that this is a non-party national issue. The Government have already acknowledged this by providing some help to those who have purchased defective buildings, which are now in private ownership.
However, they have not provided sufficient assistance for defective buildings in public ownership. I shall concentrate on defective buildings of the Ronan Point, type. After the collapse of Ronan Point, the Minister set up a tribunal, chaired by Mr. Hugh Griffiths QC. It reported with commendable speed. Within a year, it had 1032 produced a report and recommendations. However, the House may be shocked to hear that the legal procedures over liability, and compensation for the burgesses and council of the London borough of Newham have not been completed, although it is 14 years or more since the collapse of that block.
Taylor Woodrow Anglian has appealed to various courts. The most recent appeal to the High Court was completed only a couple of months ago. The matter is now before the official referee so that the amount of money to be paid can be determined. I understand that that can take up to two years.
There must be something wrong with the legal system if it takes between 14 and 16 years for the legal consequences of the Ronan Point collapse to be sorted out. Perhaps there is something wrong somewhere. I am all in favour of the law providing plenty of opportunities for appeal, but the Taylor Woodrow Anglian consortium seems to be taking things a little far.
Two or three months ago it was found that something was happening to the structure of Ronan Point that had not been foreseen. In particular, the floor slabs were contracting, leaving cracks between the floor and the walls. In an ordinary two-storey house, such a structural fault might be unfortunate but not all that serious. However, it is very serious in a tower block.
Years ago, before the tall building era, we were told that a building could not be higher than the tallest fire escape. After the war, the building regulations changed but only on condition that an outbreak of fire in a tall building could be contained within a small part of it for a given period. It was on that understanding that tower blocks were built. The cracks around the floor slabs meant that Ronan Point and eight similar blocks surrounding it immediately became a fire hazard. Other structural aspects were investigated.
A few weeks ago, tests took place in a block that had been emptied of people, but: the results have not yet been given. Just a week ago one of the most important tests, a fire test, took place, but very quickly that had to be aborted. It was found that the floor panels had bowed and that one had cracked. The results of the fire test will be made known to the inhabitants of Ronan Point and those eight surrounding blocks at a public meeting to be held on Saturday 4 August at 2 pm. At 5 pm. that day, the council's housing committee will meet to reach a decision.
The Minister will probably already know that invitations have been sent to his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. If the right hon. Gentleman cannot come from nearby Redbridge, I hope that others will come to hear what the technical experts have to say. After all, there are serious implications, probably for the nation as a whole, and certainly for Newham. The eight blocks surrounding Ronan Point house 700 families. If any hon. Members were in a similar position, I am sure that they, like them, would say that if the flats are a major fire hazard —as they may well be—they want up and out.
If any of us were members of a housing committee in a London borough, Birmingham, Glasgow or anywhere else, I am sure, we would say—even the Minister too—that something should be done. Of course, the cascade effect of having to rehouse 700 families—as may be the case — is mind boggling, particularly in present circumstances. The problem is not just finding accommodation quickly for them, but the cascade effect on the other families on the waiting list, who will include 1033 young married couples, people living in inadequate accommodation with children, elderly people who want ground floor accommodation or accommodation better suited to their needs, the ill, the disabled and those in overcrowded conditions. If those 700 families have to be given priority, the human misery, suffering and waiting for the rest will be considerably increased. Yet they are the very people who have not been offered redress for the original Ronan Point disaster. That is ironic, and should be considered by the appropriate authority at a later stage.
However, the Government will clearly have some responsibility. In earlier debates, they have admitted that there is a national problem. In former times, the GLC would have had a strategic role in Greater London's housing. But the GLC has been divested of that role not only in the county but in the new towns and in the area covered by its predecessor—which did great work, too —the London county council. That is a result of this Government's policy. The Government also have policies for the housing improvement programme. They have policies—or, rather, lack of them—in respect of capital for housing. Indeed, we heard about them last week from the Secretary of State for the Environment.
In other words, just when the needs of the London borough of Newham may be dramatically increased, the Government's policies are restricting to the minimum its means to meet them. However, there is one hope. As a result of an order that has passed through the House, the London Dockland Development Corporation has appropriated land on which the borough council was going to build 6,000 homes. Thus, in certain circumstances there may be a moral obligation, not only on the Government but on the LDDC, to use land which may be available in Newham, and which may even at this very minute be the subject of compulsory purchase orders. Ironically, vesting orders were imposed on the borough some time ago, so its land area is much smaller than it would otherwise be. Therefore, despite the Government's policies, some relief may be possible.
The Griffiths report, which was published in 1968, contains many conclusions and recommendations about the Ronan Point disaster. Conclusion No. 10, which relates to paragraph 147 of the report, states:The individual components of the building provide the specified fire resistance, but the building may suffer structural damage leading to progressive collapse as a result of a fire of normal intensityWe know that the buildings were strengthened against the possibility of another explosion, but were they strengthened against the possibility of fire? If so, when and where were the tests carried out?
The second recommendation to which I wish to draw attention, No. 46, relating to paragraph 216 of the report, states:The Fire Regulations should be revised to take account of the effect of heat arising from a domestic fire of normal intensity on the behaviour of the structure as a whole.Were the fire regulations revised accordingly? If so, were tests carried out? The tests that took place last week on Ronan Point will probably reveal unexpected features which may have been present for a long time but which have been revealed only by structural changes in the block.
I hope that at some time—I do not expect him to be able to do so tonight—the Minister will say whether all the recommendations of the Griffiths tribunal were 1034 implemented. If so, may we be told of the documents involved and how they were carried out? I trust that the Minister will answer the two specific questions that I have asked, if not tonight, certainly before the afternoon of Saturday 4 August.
§ Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)
It is axiomatic that, as I am speaking in this debate, I shall not be rising on a similar matter which was to have been debated later. I am sure that it is convenient for the Minister and my hon. Friends that I should speak now, because the points that I wish to raise concern the general terms of this debate on public expenditure on housing.
Tempted though I am to respond to the points made by the hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Heddle)—I agreed with some aspects of his speech—I shall confine myself to the current housing improvement situation in Birmingham. I shall not compare the performance of the present Government in relation to housing grants with that of previous Labour Administrations. The two cannot be compared in general terms because the overall figure of housing expenditure has changed dramatically and, within that overall figure, the housing improvement grant figure has changed in the opposite direction. In other words, in one there has been a substantial reduction and in the other a substantial increase.
I wish to concentrate on the way in which the state of affairs in Birmingham has come about and to plead with the Minister to do something to help. Most of the difficulty has arisen because of a change in recent months compared with what was the position in, say, the previous two years. That is the period about which I am speaking and I shall not go down the highways and byways travelled by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie), who, to my astonishment—I discovered this only this evening — is still a member of Birmingham city council. I thought that she had resigned. I gather that if she does not turn up in October, she will be deemed to have resigned.
Because of the change in Government policy on housing improvement grants since the general election, 5,000 jobs in Birmingham will be lost between next September and May 1985, 3,000 directly in the building industry — the jobs of people working on housing improvements—and 2,000 indirectly—those working in services and for sub-contractors and suppliers. Under the present arrangements, contractors cannot keep those people employed between the time when existing contracts come to an end and the point at which Birmingham can start large-scale schemes next year.
That information was given to me by the chief officer of the council. His statistics have been confirmed by the Building Employers Confederation. Given the normal downturn in employment prospects in the building industry during the winter, those 5,000 people will be unemployed in addition to the normal rise in unemployment in building in the city, part of which I represent.
There was a time when Conservative Ministers applauded the system known as enveloping, which was developed to its present sophisticated state by the city of Birmingham. Whatever may be said about that system, it has not been regarded as a party issue in Birmingham. This area of policy was not even adopted by what I might call my former constituency until last year. I went to a seminar organised by the local urban renewal committee — it 1035 was, in reality, the former urban renewal committee, which existed before the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South became chairman of the housing committee—to obtain more information about the policy. I am glad that I did so, because a large chunk of the inner city is in my present constituency.
Although, as I say, Tory Ministers applauded the enveloping scheme, we have turned full circle to the point at which it has almost been wrecked. I gather that there is, somewhere in the Department of the Environment, a draft circular on the subject. Those with practical experience of these matters tell me that the terms of the draft circular can only be described as rubbish in the way that they will affect Birmingham. That information was given to me as recently as four weeks ago.
I gather that the terms of the circular will represent a bureaucratic nightmare for the locality. For example, Birmingham officials tell me that it will require a double bill of quantities to be presented and that local officers will be expected to supply to the Department of the Environment, 18 months in advance, details of the bed space in houses for enveloping. The hon. Member for Derbyshire, South, like my hon. Friends, will be aware of the way in which Birmingham got to work on enveloping and secured a large share of the extra cash so that it would have sufficient money to get on with the job.
That work cannot continue if a civil servant in Marsham street must be given details 18 months in advance of the bed space in the houses involved. Officials of Birmingham city council — I am talking not about politicians but about people operating the scheme—have asked me to put those matters to Ministers at the first opportunity, and that I am now doing.
The 1982 Budget triggered off the changes. We recall the Chancellor of the Exchequer saying:to encourage local authorities to make more general improvement grants available, their capital allocations in 1982-83 will be increased by £100 million over and above the expenditure provided for in the White Paper". £ [Official Report, 9 March 1982; Vol. 19, c. 750.]It was in that Budget that he announced the availability of 90 per cent. home improvement grants.
§ The Minister for Housing and Construction (Mr. Ian Gow)
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that on 9 March 1982 my right hon. and learned Friend said that the exceptional measures to which the hon. Gentleman has referred would apply only to 31 December 1982.
§ Mr. Rooker
I had intended to deal with the 1983 Budget, which extended the 1982 policy. I did not intend to make a substantial point of that because I am more concerned with the implications of the policy, which can be seen daily, house by house, road by road, in my constituency. But more of that later.
Birmingham grabbed the opportunity of the 90 per cent. grants and the extra money that was available. Indeed, some local authorities accused Birmingham city council of trying to scoop the pool. Only because we had schemes which could be put together quickly were we in Birmingham able to take advantage of what the Government, rightly, were encouraging at that time, and other authorities followed our example. In 1983 the Chancellor said in his Budget statement:Last year I announced a major attack on disrepair by increasing the rates of repairs grants. This has proved very successful. Expenditure in 1982–83 will be twice that in 1981–82 and a further increase is expected next year. We have already announced that the higher rates are to continue until the end of 1983–84; and local authorities have been told they may spend without limit on all improvement grants next year."—[Official Report, 15 March 1983; Vol. 39, c. 146.]I accept that there was a deadline, but the Chancellor of the Exchequer told local authorities that they could spend without limit. Local authorities told the people, "Get your application forms; the Chancellor has told us to spend without limit." In a speech outside the House in late 1982 the former Minister for Housing and Construction said: "Spend, spend, spend." Birmingham city council used the opportunities presented by the two Budgets and Ministers' statements to adopt the envelope approach for blocks of houses——
§ It being Seven o'clock, and there being private business Set down by direction of THE CHAIRMAN OF WAYS AND MEANS, under Standing Order No. 7 (time for taking private business), further Proceeding stood postponed.