Archive – House of Commons Speeches 1979/80


HC Deb 13 November 1979 vol 973 cc1169-72 1169

§ 4.3 pm

§ Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Edge Hill)I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to confer on tenants of privately owned property the opportunity to become owner occupiers of the property concerned, and to require owners of privately rented property to install inside sanitation whenever that property has a life-expectancy of five years or more. About 200 years ago Thomas Spence argued that the ultimate logic of the private possession of real property is that the landlord can oblige every living creature to remove off his property; so of consequence were all the landlords to be of one mind, all the rest of mankind might go to heaven if they would, for there would be no place for them here. Thomas Spence was arguing that the security that landlords have should be extended to all. Only ownership of property can be true security.

Today over 9 million British homes are private rented properties, 45 per cent. of the population are tenants, nearly 3 million properties are in the private sector and 13.9 per cent, of the population live as tenants in private property. Their rights have not greatly improved since the days of Thomas Spence. They do not have control over their own homes or immediate surroundings. Ultimately the landlord determines many matters affecting his tenant’s daily life.

The Bill seeks to give tenants the same rights that are to be conferred on council tenants by the Government later in the year. It amounts to discrimination, and it goes against every elementary principle of justice not to extend the same rights to the tenants of private landlords. Not to do so is to apply double standards.

If the Bill were enacted, landlords would receive the market value for the property, with such factors as the length of tenure and improvements and repairs undertaken by tenants being taken into account when fixing the price. A discount system similar to that being given to council tenants would also be available for private tenants wishing to become home owners.

The benefits for Britain in creating a great property owning democracy would be untold. Democracy’s weaknesses lie at its roots. Its failures may be found 1170 in different degrees of indifference, inactivity and unwillingness to accept responsibility. There is no better way of strengthening democracy than the creation of a nation in which each person has a stake in the community through the ownership of his own home. Equally there can be no surer way to undermine democracy than to confer that right on some tenants in the public sector but refuse to do so in the private sector. That is deliberately divisive.

Many private tenants have lived in their homes all their lives, as their parents did before them and their grandparents before them. However, they do not own one brick, although they have paid their rents religiously over three generations. The Bill will liberate many hundreds of thousands of tenants who want the opportunity to own their own homes without having to move to a different house in a different district. Where there is multi-occupation, the Bill will confirm a statutory right to establish co-operatives.

The Bill embraces different localities and different circumstances—for example, seaside landladies and resident owner-occupiers renting spare rooms. In those instances property will be excluded from the terms of the Bill. Local authorities will be empowered to determine the suitability of the Bill’s powers in the context of their local housing needs. Liberals are arguing that that should apply to the Government’s new housing Bill. In Liverpool, where 32 per cent, of all property is still privately rented, the Bill will create the right balance between rented and owner-occupier property.

The second major area covered by the Bill concerns the standard of property that remains in the private rented sector. There are still about 1½ million homes without inside toilets and bathrooms and a supply of running hot water. In the 1880s Octavia Hill, and other great reformers who were concerned to improve the housing of the working class, adopted as a standard the assumption that privies and a water tap could be shared by several households on the same landing. They considered it justifiable for a family with several children to live in one room.

We have moved on since the 1880s. A council tenant living in a brand new Parker Morris house has toilets upstairs and downstairs. The Bill will make it 1171 compulsory for landlords to provide at least one inside toilet. That will eliminate the appalling indignity that hundreds of thousands of elderly people will suffer this winter as they skate across ice in the middle of the night to find an outside loo. These are the children of the soldiers who were promised homes fit for heroes to live in. Some photographs that have been given to me by Shelter prove that there are people still living in squalid and totally unacceptable housing conditions.

The Bill will also make it compulsory for any landlord owning a property with more than a five-year life expectancy to provide inside sanitation. If he is not prepared to do so, it is my contention that he is not fit to be a private landlord. The Bill will create a right to have repairs carried out and for tenants to be able to undertake repairs and to charge landlords who have refused to do the work.

Such reforms and simplification of procedure have been promised for years and are long overdue. Reform was first mooted in June 1977 in the “Housing Policy: A Consultative Document”, Cmnd. 6851, which stated: Local authorities have powers to compel improvements and repair of unsatisfactory housing, but the procedures involved are complex and cumbersome. They will be examined with a view to making them simpler and more effective. In August 1978, the Department of the Environment consultation paper on home improvements and repairs stated: The proposal to examine existing procedures for compulsory improvement with a 1172 view to simplification was welcomed by all respondents, who criticised present procedures as laborious, cumbersome and complicated. In April 1979 the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, in a submission to a panel of Members of Parliament examining the new Conservative proposals, wrote: More immediate powers are required to integrate compulsory procedures with grant legislation. The best way of achieving this objective is to compel owners to provide basic amenities in the same way as they can at present order repairs to fit or unfit houses. The Bill meets those requirements. It will give tenants home rule and the chance to have ownership, a stake in their community and a genuine say in the running of their own homes. Nothing is more basic than that. It also aims to provide them with basic amenities which in this day and age should be theirs by right.

§ Question put and agreed to.

§ Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. David Alton.

    c1172

Speech:  November 25th 1980 on Housing:  Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Edge Hill)It was interesting to listen to the recollections of the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Sir A. Costain). He made an interesting observation about homes for heroes. That was one of the promises made after the First World 367 War. One of my constituents put it very well to me recently. She lives in a home without an inside toilet or bathroom, and she said “In these days you have to be a hero to live in these conditions.” There are over 1 million people in Britain who are still living in homes without inside sanitation and for them the set-piece battles that take place so regularly when policies are swung drunkenly to and forth have no real value.

In a perceptive speech, the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) talked of the dangers as our housing funds are slashed. That point was also made by the hon. Member for Huntingdonshire (Mr. Major). I entirely agree. We have now passed the first piece of major housing legislation. It is disappointing that the Queen’s Speech makes no mention of future housing legislation. The old battle cries are becoming increasingly irrelevant to the problems. The housing authorities of the future will have a complex mixture of roles, for which the old slogans will be a poor guide. The steam has gone out of the housing argument. The biggest slum clearance programme anywhere in the world, having been completed, and the biggest housing improvement programme of any country in Europe having been mounted, a variety of unorganised and less popular minorities are now left in housing need. Their requirements are often forgotten.

The hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Heddle) mentioned the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act. My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) sponsored that Bill. It was not promoted primarily by the Labour Party, as the hon. Member suggested. He said that he hoped that the Act would be repealed. That would be appalling and would cause immense problems for the homeless. However, we all know that there are no votes in homelessness.

§ Mr. HeddleI said that I looked forward not to the legislation being repealed but to my right hon. Friend’s review of the Act. Since its enactment in 1977, it seems not to have done that which it set out to do. It has increased the incidence of homelessness from 36,000 to 56,000 families.

§ Mr. AltonThat remark shows the naivete of the hon. Gentleman. The Act has not increased homelessness. The policies of this Government, and those of the previous one, have increased the number who have become homeless and need to be helped by local authorities, upon which a statutory requirement is laid under the Act. That is why the Act is so important. Those people were not previously a figment of the imagination. The hon. Gentleman, by his remarks, has turned homeless people into scapegoats, which is most unfortunate.

§ Mr. Keith Best (Anglesey)I might be able to assist the hon. Gentleman. Is he aware that in 1978–79 about 40,000 lettings were made to homeless people, which was only 13 per cent. of the total number of lettings? Sometimes, the furore over the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act is unjustified.

§ Mr. AltonThe point that I am making is that to talk about repealing part of the Act or to try to diminish the need for that legislation does the homeless no service. The recommendations of CHAR and the comments of the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Dean) on the way in which 368 we deal with homelessness prove that we need additional legislation. We should not try to diminish the provisions of the existing Act

§ Mr. Allan RobertsThe hon. Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. Alton) is not the only hon. Member who represents Liverpool, as the two previous interventions appear to suggest. Many of us represent Liverpool constituencies. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act should be extended to cover single people? Does he agree also that the intentional homeless clause should be looked at, because it is being used by reactionary councils to get round their responsibilities?

§ Mr. AltonI agree with the hon. Member—whose constituency falls outside the boundaries of Liverpool—that the intentionally homeless clause. is being used wrongly by some local authorities. Again, there are no votes in the single homeless. It is not a popular issue in the electoral battleground. We seem to spend too much time on the old arguments about whether houses should be sold and not enough time dealing with fundamental issues.

Since the Secretary of State took office, rents have gone up by 23 to 28 per cent. His announcement today means that they will have gone up 50 per cent. in two years. However, practical measures can be taken to reduce local authority rents. It is a problem that all local authorities, the Government and the Opposition have to face. There would have been some increase whichever party was in power. The Opposition’s objection is to the way in which the Secretary of State made his announcement, in a written reply, at the eleventh hour and tried almost by subterfuge to prevent hon. Members from knowing about the increase and taking action. He could not be challenged during the several days of recess before the new Session began.

The scale of the rent increase perturbs us all.

§ Mr. KaufmanIs there not a further point? This is not a rent increase that is being decided by local authorities to deal with the needs of their housing revenue accounts but one that is being imposed by the Government by the use of a section in an Act which, when the Bill was being discussed in Committee, the Government denied was designed for that purpose.

§ Mr. AltonThat adds to the subterfuge. It is a further erosion of the right of local authorities. They should determine the levels of rents and rates. The erosion of local authority power is evidenced not only in the Housing Act but in local government and planning legislation. Local councillors are elected on mandates to deal with rents and rates. Their rights to take such decisions are being eroded.

One of the most perturbing aspects about the state of housing revenue accounts is the high levels of rent arrears. Between 1978 and 1979, rent arrears were £61 million. We should tackle that problem. Many council tenants pay their rent regularly and, whatever the increases, will continue to do so. I feel that it is unsatisfactory that they should subsidise those who cannot be bothered to pay their rents. I am not talking about those who cannot afford to pay. There are rebates and allowances to help such people, and it is also possible to have rent paid direct.

But there is insufficient co-operation between the Department of Health and Social Security and local authority housing departments. Perhaps the Minister could try to bring them together. Often one of the biggest debtors 369 to a local authority is the DHSS, which does not always pay the backlog of arrears. We should try to reduce the high level of arrears for local authorities.

We should also try to reduce the large number of empty properties owned by local authorities. The hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe and others referred to the private sector, but properties are empty in the public sector and are bringing in no revenue. We must try to increase the speed of lettings and ensure that vandalism does not occur between lettings. That would be a more constructive approach in getting value for money than arbitrarily putting up rents by extortionate amounts.

It is also a more constructive approach than suddenly imposing a moratorium, again before Parliament reassembles. No one can convince me that the Government could not have waited five or six days so that the announcement could be made in the Chamber. It was most unfortunate that the Secretary of State made the decision before Parliament reconvened. We have heard nothing about when the decision will be rescinded or the moratorium lifted. It has halted house improvement programmes and stopped the construction of new homes. More construction workers will be on the dole as a result. It makes no economic or social sense to pay £6 billion or £7 billion a year to keep construction workers and other unemployed people on the dole when there is work to be done and their talents and skills could be used.

I come now to the improvements programme. Some years ago, the bulldozers were pensioned off and it was decided to renovate and modernise homes. Millions of pounds have been invested in housing action and general improvement areas. But, as a result of the moratorium, there will probably be a patchwork quilt of decay and renovation in our inner-city areas. It will mean that many homes will not now be improved. It will also mean that those that have been improved will linger and languish alongside houses that are derelict, ugly horrible eyesores, a breeding-ground for vermin and totally unfit for people to live in. That is why the moratorium was unwise. I hope that the Minister will give us some indication of when it will be lifted.

There is also the question of the right to buy—an idea that was much vaunted during the first 12 months of the Government’s period of office. We were given no indication today by the Secretary of State of what level of sales had been achieved. I am sure that those figures will be interesting when they are brought to the House in the near future. From my experience in my own constituency, where more than 30 per cent. of the people are out of work—many of them council tenants—I know that the sad truth is that they simply cannot afford to buy their own homes. Many of them will not be able to take up the opportunities afforded to them by the legislation that the House has enacted. Rather than bandy slogans about the right to buy, it would be more realistic and helpful if the Government would let us know how this scheme is working. If they did so, the House could perhaps reconsider its attitude.

I turn now to shorthold. I am not against the idea of empty properties in the private sector being used for a short period by people in housing need—far from it. It is a good idea and it is one that I supported when it was recommended by Conservative Members in a Private Member’s Bill. However, the provisions that the Government brought forward were very different from the provisions in that original Private Member’s Bill. Many 370 Opposition Members felt that they could not support the shorthold arrangements because many of the safeguards were removed and it could become a charter for Rachmanism. Many of us would like to see the introduction of shorthold experimental areas on a limited basis, to see how the proposal works. If we were convinced that it could go ahead without causing all the problems about which we have fears, I am sure that the Government would receive support from Opposition Members.

I turn to the mortgage rate. It is ironic that before the 1974 general election it was the Prime Minister herself who talked about fixing the mortgage rate at 10 per cent. She said that it would not go higher than 10 per cent. if a Conservative Government were elected.

§ Mr. KaufmanThe right hon. Lady actually promised 9½ per cent. by Christmas.

§ Mr. AltonPerhaps an allowance for ½ per cent. can be made, but the present mortgage rate is 15 per cent. That is why many people cannot afford to buy their own homes. It is a reason why many people have been forced to sell and have become a burden on the local authorities. Perhaps it is one of the reasons why the number of homeless people is increasing. People are being forced to give up their owner-occupied property. I have met such people at my housing advice surgeries, and I can supply factual evidence of that.

§ Mr. Anthony Steen (Liverpool, Wavertree)Is the hon. Gentleman aware that more than 4,000 houses and flats in the ownership of Liverpool city council are at present unoccupied? Does he consider that they should be occupied first?

§ Mr. AltonHad the hon. Gentleman bothered to be present for the earlier part of the debate, and had he been here at the beginning of my speech, he would have heard me refer to the scandal of empty properties in the public sector. I agree that something should be done about that problem. Indeed, the number of empty properties in Liverpool has doubled since I was chairman of the housing committee. I do not think that that is the fault of the local authority, be it Labour or Liberal-controlled—it has rotated between the two for the last 10 years. It has far more to do with the reduction in funds that are made available to the local authority. As a result of the Government’s policies, Liverpool is at present overspent by £2.5 million due to the reduction in funds to the housing investment programme. The number of vacant dwellings are increasing at the rate of 30 a month. Rents are to go up by £2.85 this year, plus the increase that will have to be added as a result of the Secretary of State’s announcement.

The how Gentleman’s party has nothing to write home about. He would do far better to question his own Ministers about the reduction in funds which enable local authorities to turn over vacant properties at a faster rate. One must also accept that the community itself should do more to try to detect those who are committing crimes of vandalism, and it should ensure that the police are made aware of who are the culprits.

I want to refer to the question of housing co-operatives. The hon. Member for Lambeth, Central (Mr. Tilley) referred to the lack of help that housing co-operatives receive. II is a great shame that there are no 371 recommendations in the Gracious Speech to enable tenants on council estates to take over the management and control of their properties. If such management co-operatives did exist, I am sure that many of the problems referred to by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Steen) would be removed, because tenants would have a greater responsibility and involvement in the running of their own affairs. That will not be achieved by the sale of a house here or there. We must go far deeper into the problem, and that means initially the establishment of management cooperatives.

I turn next to the question of sheltered accommodation. In Liverpool at present, one-third of the people are over the retirement age. There is a massive shortage of sheltered accommodation. That inevitably means that many houses are under-occupied—houses that could be used for people and families in need who are now on the waiting list. While there is a shortage of sheltered accommodation, it is impossible to rehouse those elderly people. It means that people are remaining in under-occupied property, and that is something to which the Government should turn their attention.

Then there are the problems of the North-West in general. The cuts in housing association budgets will exaggerate the region’s growing housing crisis. Local authority building has been cut back to the core. Private building for sale and rent is in serious decline. The Select Committee on the Environment has looked at the output from the private housing sector over the next few years and has concluded that The private housing sector will at most make only a small contribution to offset the reduction in public sector investment. Furthermore, in 1979 more than 25 per cent.—600,000 out of 2.4 million, the highest proportion of any English region—of all the homes in the North-West were unfit for human habitation, lacked basic amenities or needed major renovation. A total of one-third of the region’s housing stock was built before 1914. The Department of the Environment’s quality of life indicators show that the North-West is below the national average in respect of 21 out of the 26 factors selected. Unlike some parts of the country, there is an absolute shortage of homes in the North-West.

Local authorities have estimated that there is a need for 223,000 additional dwellings by 1984. Homelessness is on the increase. Waiting lists are swelling. More than 150,000 families are on local authority waiting lists in the North-West alone, and more than 400 families are in bedand-breakfast or hostel accommodation. The elderly, single parents, those who are already in substandard housing and the poorest in our community will be the hardest hit as a result of these housing cuts.

One of the groups that has done most to try to tackle the problems of bad housing is the voluntary housing movement—the housing associations. Housing associations have produced 235,000 homes through new building and property rehabilitation. In the 10 years 1970 to 1979, 135,675 new homes were created as a result of new building and 99,857 as a result of property rehabilitation. In the last four years of that period, completions averaged 36,000 each year, including an average of just over 1,000 in Wales. This year, however, North-West approvals are down from 8,429 to 3,450, and the total stock of the voluntary housing movement was approximately 410,000 372 homes at the beginning of 1980. It will be interesting to see what the effects of the cuts will be on the voluntary housing movement.

In the years 1977–78, 1978–79 and 1979–80, loan approvals to housing associations in England through the Housing Corporation provided for an average of about 33,500 homes each year. There were 34,579, 32,455 and 34,494 in those three years successively. About half were in schemes of new build and half in schemes of rehabilitation. In 1980–81 the housing association movement had to shoulder a heavy share of the public spending cuts. The level of Housing Corporation loan approvals for the year was cut by 35 per cent. this year, to 21,700 homes in England. However, because it became clear that the cost of the new programme, when added to the cost of schemes coming through the pipeline, would exceed the cash targets set by the Government, the moratorium announced by the Minister on 12 September was suddenly called. For a month no schemes proceeded. Now, a much-reduced programme has been resumed, with loan approvals down to 14,900, and building work on a large number of sites and properties has been postponed until next year or, in some cases, indefinitely.

That is not the whole story, because housing associations have also borrowed money for their work from local authorities. Loan approvals for about 8,000 homes were given by local authorities to housing associations in 1979–80. Because of the need to cut their spending, many local authorities have stopped lending for further schemes and are cutting money for schemes already approved. The effect of that loan approval in 1980–81 will probably come down below 3,500 homes for the year. The picture for 1980–81 is of a probable level of loan approvals for about 18,000 homes, compared with 42,500 last year. That represents a cut in the programme of nearly 60 per cent.

§ Mr. StanleyWill the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the figures that he has given for loan approvals are highly misleading and in no way represent the level of activities of housing associations? As I am sure he knows, there is a substantial pipeline of housing association activity, and the Department estimates that at the beginning of this financial year about £700 million of housing association activity was in the pipeline. That represents about 50,000 units of accommodation.

§ Mr. AltonThe figures that I have given were provided for me by the National Federation of Housing Associations. Frankly, I believe its figures. After all, its members are people working at the coalface. They are having to administer the Government’s policies and shoulder the burden of the cuts. The difference between funding in 1981–82 at £420 million and, say, £400 million makes a huge difference to the work of associations. Falling below 20,000 homes because of corporation funding means depriving people in extremely harsh circumstances of a decent home. It also reduces the level of activity of the movement at large to a point from which it may prove impossible to recover in the years ahead.

I wish to relate that to the cuts that have been made in the public sector. The Government’s White Paper on public expenditure set out proposals for cutting public expenditure. The aim is to reduce it from £69,500 million in 1980–81 to £60,100 million in 1983–84. That is at constant 1979 prices. In reality, it will actually be an 373 overall cut of £2,400 million. The cuts in public sector housing over those three years amount to £1,910 million, and 80 per cent. of the cuts come from the housing section of Britain’s economy. The cash to housing has been cut by 40 per cent.

The Secretary of State has not made clear how the global figure will be achieved by local government or how it will affect different sorts of housing activity. That is part of the new freedom that he gave to local authorities—the freedom to determine how to make their cuts. Local authorities are having to face cuts, Housing Corporation Loans to associations are being reduced and local authority loans to associations, expenditure on council housing, home loans, improvement grants and so on are all being cut. In overall terms, housing is taking the brunt of public expenditure cuts, which means that local authority and housing association activities are being reduced in real terms and placed in competition with each other in achieving cuts.

The Secretary of State suggested that a substitute for the funds could be found in three separate areas, all of which will badly hit housing associations. First, he suggested that more money could be found by raising rents. If rents are raised at a higher rate than costs increase, the net gain can make a significant difference to the housing revenue accounts of local authorities. However, the housing association rents are currently 30 per cent. higher than those for comparable council houses. In any case, they are set by rent officers and are not under the control of the housing associations. Raising the rents is no use to them. It does not compensate for the funds that they will lose.

Secondly, the housing associations have been told that they can find more funds by selling properties to existing tenants. Although there may be opportunities for local authorities to do so, few housing association tenants have the statutory right to buy or the associated favourable mortgage and other arrangements. Most association homes are owned by charities and meet specialist needs where sales would not be appropriate. Because half of the stocks of the voluntary movement have been completed in the past eight years, there are few surpluses, after deducting discounts, from any property.

Thirdly, the Secretary of State suggested that the loss of funds could be compensated by reducing the number of employees and by ensuring wage restraint. Again, that has a minimal effect on the financial problems of housing associations. Only just over 1 per cent. of the total expenditure of the voluntary housing movement’s programme goes in salaries to association staff, because it does not have direct labour departments. Only in a minority of cases does it employ in-house professionals. Where it has its own architects or surveyors, it normally contributes a surplus that offsets other costs.

It is important to remember that local authorities are passing on much of the burden of public expenditure cuts direct to the housing associations and the voluntary housing movements. They are in an extremely exposed position, and a threat to their very existence hangs over their work. Even though it may be fully acknowledged that they are doing an important job, without public funds they will wind down, to the detriment of those who desperately need their help. That is why I said to the Secretary of State during one Question Time that by his policies he is turning what was known as the third arm of housing into the dead arm of housing.

374 I recall the words of the Secretary of State when he spoke to the CBI a couple of weeks ago. He said that sacrifice “was not an option” and that “someone would have to make sacrifices”. He then compared himself with Wellington before the Battle of Waterloo. It is precisely that sort of pretentious nonsense that is at the core of our problems. While he is fighting imaginary battles, people are living in homes that are turning into rotting slums. They are living in conditions that defy description. Local authorities and housing associations are grinding to a halt because of the Government’s policies. Instead of fighting imaginary battles, the Secretary of State should come and see the real battles that are being fought, not only in our inner city communities but in our rural areas, where there is rural deprivation and when houses there are also in a great state of decline. To ignore those problems is to fly in the face of disaster.