Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Lord Dean of Beswick: My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, takes that view. I am as well aware as anyone of the achievements of Mr. Macmillan who on the question of housing would, I believe, stand with me and not with the noble Lord in his criticisms of the former Prime Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher.

Lord Marlesford: My Lords, I am delighted to hear that. It is worth having those remarks on the record in memory of both Mr. Macmillan and Mr. Marples.

However, I cannot agree with the noble Lord that it is a terrible mistake to sell council houses. There are all sorts of good reasons for selling council houses. One reason was that at the time the sales started a great many people in this country wished to become home owners. That is laudable and desirable. The sale of council houses enabled many people to become home owners. Perhaps a more important reason, however, is one that has been echoed again and again in speeches made in this House this afternoon; namely, all too often council estates become ghettos. They become thoroughly undesirable places in which to live and they become deprived places. I am sorry that the right reverend

17 Dec 1997 : Column 646

Prelate is no longer in his seat. I listened to his excellent speech yesterday afternoon when he spoke about a council estate in his diocese which is "too tough" to live in. What a sad picture that portrayed.

I vividly remember my first experience of such a place when I visited Ferguslea Park in Paisley. It was a terrible sight, with houses boarded up. Anyone could have walked into the housing office with a week's rent and obtained a house instantly. Many of those areas were ghettos. In some areas of London we constantly read about appalling crimes being committed. The criminal environment is such that no one is prepared to help the police to control them. I believe that the breaking up and the sale of council estates has been beneficial on the whole. I shall explain later why I am such a supporter of the noble Baroness's housing associations which in many cases have taken over from council estates.

A central aspect of our debate is affordable housing. It is crucial to subsidise the tenant and not the house. The reason is simple. First, if the house is subsidised, whether privately owned or owned by a local authority council, it will not be properly maintained because the rent will probably not be sufficient to cover the cost of maintaining it properly. As I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Dean, knows, over the decades many council houses have not been properly maintained. Secondly, with the limited public funds available to any government, it is not possible to avoid focusing social help where it is needed. Subsidising tenants rather than houses focuses help where it is needed.

The big change came in 1988 when the present housing benefit scheme came into force, together with the Housing Act 1988 which introduced the assured shorthold tenancies and the assured tenancies. As a result, private sector landlords were prepared to offer housing for rent. Previously landlords had sold let housing as soon as the property became vacant. The property was then immediately lost to the rented sector. Associated with that earlier period were the wicked days of Rachmanism whereby people bought up rented housing in order to get rid of the tenants and then to make a profit from selling it.

The position has now changed considerably. The private sector is now able most usefully to add to the stock of affordable housing because the tenant is subsidised through the housing benefit. The landlord is not being required to charge a wholly uneconomic rent. I have experience as regards rural areas. It has been possible to convert a number of redundant farm buildings into useful dwellings, often for rent. The people who own the buildings on the farms often do not wish to sell them.

The useful Review of Housing Benefit was published in May 1995 by the Social Security Advisory Committee. It quotes the DoE as suggesting that the,


    "typical pre tax return on capital for private rented sector landlords is between 5% and 8% after management costs".

The DoE says that this,


    "can hardly be regarded as extravagant".

17 Dec 1997 : Column 647

The fact is that in the remaining controlled tenancies under the Rent Act 1977, rent officers are still regularly fixing rents at well below that level. No doubt they believe that they are saving public money. I believe that they are keeping part of the privately rented sector at a lower standard than it should be, because landlords cannot afford to make desirable improvements. I ask the Minister to ensure that, whether rents come under the 1977 Act or the 1988 Act, they are fixed at a reasonable level.

I turn now to the most important housing association sector. The noble Baroness is now responsible for something like 1,000 housing associations. They have done and are doing a wonderful job. In a way they are the providers of the future. In some respects one can say that housing association housing is council housing under another name; but it is very much better than council housing for a variety of reasons. First, the housing is usually built to a higher standard; secondly, housing associations show more imagination in design and location, are often innovative, and add greatly to the quality of the area in which they are located; thirdly, they tend to build in smaller numbers than the old big scale council housing estates, and they build where the housing is really needed; fourthly, their housing is better maintained. I do not know of any housing association houses which are boarded up. Certainly the housing association in Suffolk has done an excellent job and, frankly, there are now many villages in Suffolk where there is not a shortage of affordable housing. In certain areas housing associations--for example Suffolk Heritage Housing Association--have taken over responsibility for council housing. That is a good thing. I believe that about 55 district councils in England have handed over their housing stock to housing associations. That is very desirable.

I am particularly concerned at the impact on the English countryside of the target of 4.4 million new dwellings--it is a target which the present Government inherited from the previous government--which they have undertaken to provide by the year 2016. I reject such a policy of predict and provide. It is like roads. If the Government were to build all the roads people wanted they would still not have built enough. But they propose to build houses at an unacceptable cost to the countryside. I believe that the priority should be affordable housing. The private sector, both as builders and landlords, has a significant part to play. Once the affordable housing is provided, market forces should determine the supply of owner-occupied housing, within the constraints of available land.

The trend towards owner occupation has changed as a result of the collapse in house prices during the late 1980s and early 1990s. That is no bad thing. With a more mobile society, and people moving from job to job, it is not always a good idea for young people in particular to have the debt of a house tied round their necks. The idea that bricks and mortar are the only things into which to put money is almost as bad as the old concept that gold under the bed was the only thing to put money into.

17 Dec 1997 : Column 648

I said earlier that I believed the right to buy was a good idea. On the whole, it has achieved its objectives. I urge the Government to change the Voluntary Purchase Grant Scheme. They opposed it when it was introduced by the previous government. Under the Voluntary Purchase Grant Scheme, if housing associations have houses in an area with greater than 3,000 inhabitants, they are required to be prepared to sell the houses. I believe that that is a mistake. If affordable houses, which are built in an area where they can be built, are sold, further affordable housing has to be built. Often the land is not available except at an unacceptable cost to the local landscape.

We need a more careful assessment of real housing needs. Not nearly enough attention is given to the needs of the smaller households. Not everyone wants a three or two-bedroomed house. I hope that the noble Baroness will focus the attention of her housing associations on that point.

In their 18 years in power the previous government put in place the framework for a better housing policy. I am glad to know from their manifesto that the present Government do not intend to make radical changes to the current framework of housing policy. Indeed, I hope that they will build upon it.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Monkswell: My Lords, in thanking my noble friend Lord Dean of Beswick for opening the debate, I think I must straightaway disabuse the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, that the present Government are going to carry on the policies of the last government. I think that nothing could be further from the truth. At the start of my remarks I have to declare an interest as a residential landlord; I shall give some details of my experience in that capacity later.

I was particularly struck by the contribution of my noble friend Lady Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde when she questioned the use of the phrase "social housing". That was a very perspicacious remark. The Motion talks of the case for more rented housing in both the public and the private sectors. We need to recognise that there will be a need for rented housing, both public and private, for a number of different reasons. To start with, young people who are not yet settled in their future way of life may not want to commit themselves to buying a property; indeed, they may not be able to afford to buy one. People who move their jobs frequently may think it inconvenient to enter into the commitment of purchasing a house. Also, I would suggest that elderly people may not wish to have their capital tied up in a house as such. So there are a number of reasons why rented housing is necessary and important, and we need to recognise that it goes right across the scale from the bed sitter of the impecunious student at one end to the most grand tenant of the Duke of Westminster at the other.

It may be useful to relate some of my experiences and knowledge of the situation. I should like to take you back to the 1930s to the house that my lady wife grew up in after the war. It was in the council estate of West Derby in Liverpool. It is interesting to think that the

17 Dec 1997 : Column 649

estate was not considered to be "social housing"--housing for the poor. This was housing for the middle classes and, dare one say it, for the upper-middle classes, because my wife's grandfather was a sea captain and in Liverpool that would have put him in the top bracket of society.

It is interesting to ponder the standard of housing that was built by municipal corporations at that time. I can relate the experience in the area in which I live in Manchester. There are two estates in the local ward. One is a council estate built by the city council of which my noble friend Lord Dean of Beswick was such a distinguished member, the other a private speculative development. One estate is characterised by quality building standards, good materials, roomy interiors and well-sized gardens. You may think I am talking about the private development; I am not. This is the council estate. On the other hand, the private development goes under the name of Chorltonville and local knowledge has it that local builders used shoddy materials, scrimping all the way around, providing very small rooms and very small gardens. It is one of the unfortunate reflections of the market that houses in Chorltonville retail at over £100,000 whereas houses in the West Derby estate retail for about half that yet are of better quality.

It reminds me of the automobile magazine which asked, "What is the best car in the world, Jaguar or Rolls-Royce?" Having assiduously tested different models and reviewed their performance it concluded that the Jaguar was the better car even though it cost half as much as the other. Yet the public perception was that the Rolls-Royce was the better car. This is one of the difficulties we encounter in the market place in housing. I hope that the Government will think in terms of how we tackle the difference between perception and reality.

I mentioned at the beginning that I had a vested interest as a residential landlord. A couple of years ago I was looking for a house to buy in London. I saw one that was roughly in my price bracket. It was a four-bedroomed house in multiple occupation. Seven tenants were living in absolute squalor. Window frames were falling out and there were no decent facilities. There was a cold water tap in the kitchen and a gas stove that should have been on the tip rather than in a domestic residence. I was advised by the owner that he was netting £10,000 a year from the rents of those tenants. He had been served with notices for improvement by the local authority but seemed quite happy to go along to the court and pay the odd fine now and again. The serving of a notice of improvement was the rule a couple of years ago. It was a Conservative government, in the last dying throes of their administration, who took away the requirement that houses in multiple occupation should be improved by the landlord so that they were fit for people to live in. Not only that: even where legislation required improvement by landlords of houses in multiple occupation the government starved local government of the resources to implement that policy. A number of people have mentioned that when the Conservative government came to power in 1979 one of their first

17 Dec 1997 : Column 650

actions was to cut investment in council house building. It seems that council housing and municipal housing were under sustained attack by the previous government all the way through.

The result is that people end up living in squalor. There was a case reported the other day of a young student who had died as a result of incompetent work by the landlord and the person he had employed to fit a gas fire and a gas cooker. I am very glad that those people were severely punished. When we talk about housing we need to recognise that it is a life and death issue. I accuse the previous government of abdicating their responsibility to look after the people of this country.

What prospects do we have now? First of all, the new Labour Government have already acted on the manifesto commitment of ensuring that capital receipts from the sale of council houses received but not spent by local councils are reinvested to help build new houses and rehabilitate old ones. It is interesting that this will be phased to match the capacity of the building industry and to meet the requirements of prudent economic management. I am reminded of the biography of Nye Bevan written by Michael Foot, which explained that even though Nye Bevan as Minister of Housing came under immense pressure to build more houses because of the desperate shortage and the need for housing that existed after the war, he said, "No, I am going to ensure that we build decent houses for decent people." That, in practice, meant building fewer houses because the materials, the skills and the workmen were not available. The resources had to be built up over time. That process of building up the necessary facilities was capitalised on by future Conservative Ministers.

The new Government will do more. Again I quote from our manifesto:


    "We will provide protection where most needed: for tenants in houses in multiple occupation. There will be a proper system of licensing by local authorities which will benefit tenants and responsible landlords alike".

I am glad of that commitment.

We will also place local authorities under a new duty to protect those who are homeless through no fault of their own and in priority need. Effectively, the new Government are turning away from the policies of the previous government. I am very glad they are doing so.

4.40 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, the debate has been enlivened by the experience of so many who, although not at the sharp end--that is, desperate to find a decent place to live--have been involved as councillors or Members of Parliament and in other ways. The House therefore has an opportunity to listen to people such as my noble friend Lord Dean, whose experience in this field is unrivalled. I also extend a warm welcome to my noble friend Lady Dean, who comes with the unique qualification of her newly acquired post. Although she has occupied it for only five weeks, she could have fooled me. From the thoughts and experiences she related, it is quite clear that the platform that this House will provide for her to test her

17 Dec 1997 : Column 651

own opinions and those of her colleagues in the Housing Corporation from time to time will be put to very good use.

I sense, as previously, that we are at the beginning of what will be seen in years to come as an opportunity for the people of this country to make a great contribution towards solving the housing problem. In fact, the problem will never be solved; it is gigantic, and will be with us for ever. I do not blame the previous government for their record. It would have been impossible, as it will be for this Government, to solve the housing problem. We can only do our best.

The National Housing Federation, the Local Government Association and the Chartered Institute of Housing produced a document entitled, Making Partnership Work. I have no time to go into detail, but the document demonstrated that there are partnerships, collaborations and opportunities for groups and institutions to work together. I commend those three organisations for their endeavours.

We could spend time down memory lane, thinking about the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s or 1980s, even the 1990s, and we could castigate a particular government, council, individual or policy. But our concern should be not with what has gone before. By all means we should learn from what has gone before and remember it; but our concern should be with what the Government and the Housing Corporation can do now.

When I was Member of Parliament for Edmonton I confess that I went home from the House more than once having cried in my car, following a surgery during which I had listened to the misery that my constituents brought to me, invariably born out of problems to do with housing. Matters of health, education and employment were all vital; but the condition that brought the most misery was the quality or absence of housing. No one could forget that.

When I look back over my past 30 or 40 years as chairman of a housing committee, a council leader and Member of Parliament, I realise that there are good landlords and bad landlords, good councils and bad councils, good tenants and bad tenants. It is no use castigating a class of people. It is no good saying that private landlords are bad and ipso facto public landlords are good. They may approach the problem on a different level and try to achieve different things.

Looking back over the past few years, the problem that those involved in housing have had to recognise is the enormous change in household formation across the country. At one time the household would be a man, his wife and two or three children, who had modest aspirations. What they wanted was a well-built house with a small garden, access to shopping, and access to trains. Now, people live longer; they live as single units, following divorce; there is separation; and there has been the baby boom. The noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, referred to the break-up of the former council estates and the right to buy one's own house. That was one of the biggest bribes ever placed before the council tenant. Very few council tenants who had nothing would resist the opportunity to buy for £10,000 a house valued at

17 Dec 1997 : Column 652

£30,000--and they took that opportunity. But in doing so, not only was the unity of the estates broken up--which is not a bad thing--but the local authorities were then saddled with the desperate problem of how to manage the remaining housing stock. I respect the view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, that it was a good thing. But out of that good thing came some very bad consequences which had to be dealt with.

The cost of putting right the quality of housing in both the public and private sector is a very real problem. I hope that this Government will demonstrate, more than the previous government did, that they want to solve the housing problem. I do not believe that they ever will solve it, but I believe that the will to solve the problem is there.

And there is the experience of the past few years in terms of different forms of tenure. My noble friend Lady Dean alluded slightly to the housing sector which I believe can provide the people of this country with opportunities; namely, the co-operative housing sector.

The noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, while not eulogising, paid tribute to the housing associations. They are unelected and unaccountable, a small group of people who organise themselves and have the opportunity to do good. Nobody elects them; they are removed by themselves, and replaced by themselves. Most people in this place own their own house, and in so doing have a stake in what happens to that house. A tenant in privately rented accommodation does not have a stake, because there is no access to control. A council tenant or housing association tenant may very well enjoy good housing and pay the rent, but such tenants do not have access to control. Who controls the ownership of the premises, or the key to the future?

I should like to say to my noble friend on the Front Bench, who has considerable experience in housing matters, and my noble friend Lady Dean--all I want her to do is to listen, but not necessarily to nod her head (I shall not look in her direction)--is that there is an opportunity for the Housing Corporation and the Government to examine again the possibilities for co-operative housing.

In 1991 the Department of the Environment commissioned Price Waterhouse to carry out an investigation into co-operative and related housing. I take the point about "social housing" made by my noble friend Lady Dean. Whether there was a stigma or not, people knew what was meant by council housing. For a long time it meant good, well-built, decently priced, affordable housing. If that has to be changed, so be it.

Price Waterhouse said, when it examined the co-operative sector:


    "small-scale community-based TMOs [tenant management organisations] are able to deliver superior value for money; in the housing association sector PVCs are a flexible model capable of delivering housing services which compare with the very best mainstream providers; where appropriate PVCs should be encouraged to buy-in services from specialist support agencies; the development of TMCs [tenant management co-operatives] in the local authority sector is more likely to produce better results than forms of TMO where responsibility is diffused and roles are circumscribed."

17 Dec 1997 : Column 653

There are 20,000 to 30,000 houses in co-operatives. The tenants are the owners and the tenant-owners are the managers. They have a stake. I say to my noble friend on the Front Bench that if we are to pursue the concept of a stakeholder society we can do it best in the realm of housing. People are stakeholders and many people could, in my view, benefit from it.

Co-operative housing is cost efficient and effective. It gives people the opportunity, through the democracy of the co-operative, not only to have a say in who should come in and who should go out but in all the other ranges of activity. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, that such housing will never be free of some form of subsidy. If we want good quality housing, we need to take account of the fact that many people, through no fault of their own, are unable to pay the market rate. There must be a mechanism. This is not the right debate in which to talk about housing finance. I simply say that co-operative housing can be one of the means--and only one--which will help to solve the problem of housing in this country.

The noble Lord, Lord Dean, has once again stimulated a debate about the quality of housing. When he, like me, came into local government--I see the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, champing at the bit; she wants to get in her twopennyworth in the debate; she knows all about it--we all had housing experience. In those days housing had a much higher profile, it made people angry and desperate. I have told the House that it made me weep. With a commodity or sphere of public life capable of moving people in that way, we must recognise that the problem must be solved. It can be solved best by collaboration. Another word for "collaboration" is "co-operation". I believe that co-operation in housing, through co-operative housing, is one of the ways in which the problem will be solved.

4.53 p.m.

Lord Ezra: My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Graham, said, we have had a wide-ranging and well informed debate from all sides of the House. We are indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Dean, for having introduced it and for having made such a powerful case for increased availability of rented property both in the public and the private sector. The point was vigorously taken up by my noble friend Lady Maddock with her great experience of housing matters. She referred specifically to the poverty trap in housing which was eloquently dealt with by the right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord Dixon, from his experience.

One of the points I wish to take up was made throughout the debate: the question of the quality of housing. It is a matter in which I have been involved for many years as President of the National Home Improvement Council. Quite recently, on 28th July, I asked an Unstarred Question about the need to increase the rate of renovation of domestic properties, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington of Ribbleton, replied. So she will be aware of what I said on that occasion and will no doubt remember what she said in answer.

17 Dec 1997 : Column 654

I reminded the House that, based on house condition surveys and other studies such as the Rowntree Report on the state of UK housing, 2.5 million homes are in need of substantial repair in Britain, representing something like 14 per cent. of all homes in the country. But as regards the private rented sector in particular, the position is even worse. The noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, gave us a graphic illustration of the conditions one can get at the lower end of the private rented market.

The Association of Residential Letting Agents recently stated that:


    "the condition of over a fifth of the privately rented accommodation in this country is among the worst in Europe. Until every part of our sector is managed to reasonable minimum standards, we will never shake off our poor image".

This highly regrettable situation is confirmed in depth by the energy report of 1996, issued by the then Department of the Environment, arising out of the last English house condition survey. The report emphasised the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dean, that cold homes are one of the worst health risks in this country, particularly for the elderly on low incomes who have to live in them.

These conditions tend to be worse in rented accommodation. While 10 per cent. of owner-occupied dwellings lack central heating, the proportion is 40 per cent. in the private rented sector. About 15 per cent. of all converted flats--the most common dwelling type--have no fixed heating of any kind. The elderly on low incomes in private rented accommodation are the part of our population that suffers most. Altogether about 1 million or 22 per cent. of all households with persons over 65 years of age live in homes with SAP ratings below 20 per cent. The SAP rating is a government rating for relative heating efficiency. That 20 per cent. is under half of what is required for normal heating standards.

The Rowntree Report takes a pretty gloomy view of the future, if things are left as they are. Its conclusion states:


    "the abolition of mandatory renovation grants in England and Wales through the 1996 Housing Grant, Construction and Regeneration Act will [no doubt] relieve pressures on local authority budgets but may lead to a reduction in public spending if hard-pressed local authorities cut back on grant provision. In the absence of new measures to encourage private spending and to make it more effective, there is a strong prospect that housing conditions for low income homeowners and those in the private rented sector may deteriorate in the medium and long term,".

In other words, the present unsatisfactory situation could get even worse in the future. I do not believe that that is at all acceptable.

Thus I must ask the question which other noble Lords have posed in the debate: has the time not come for a total rethink of the situation, particularly for a rethink of the position relating to the disrepair of such a large proportion of our housing stock? Is there not a need for a national strategy to deal with the problem, as is being urged by the Chartered Institute of Housing?

It is clear, in my opinion, in present budgetary conditions, that the Government are most unlikely to increase renovation grants, however strong the case may

17 Dec 1997 : Column 655

be. But could not the system be reshaped to attract private funding? Should there not be some form of registration of private rented accommodation, to ensure that the quality is reasonable and that the heating is adequate and safe? The noble Lord, Lord Monkswell referred to the worrying case of unsafe heating which we read about the other day.

My noble friend Lady Maddock referred to the need for fiscal incentives for the renovation and improvement of property. The noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, referred to housing co-operatives. There are a large number of new ideas being put forward in this whole area. What we cannot afford to do is to allow things to go on as they are. House condition survey after house condition survey shows that the proportion of low quality domestic dwellings in this country is increasing; there is no reason to suppose that the next house condition survey will not once again reveal that situation.

The Government have limited resources at their disposal. However, they are making capital receipts available to local authorities and I share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Dixon, that the emphasis should be on improvement and renovation of existing stock. Out of all those new ideas a new strategy should emerge. If we are going to create a New Britain, which is the aim of the Government, surely a large proportion of decrepit housing cannot be part of it.

5 p.m.

Baroness Seccombe: My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, for initiating this debate. It is a subject of immense importance and raises our emotions, as we have seen today. I feel it is timely that we are discussing this issue today as we approach the Christmas festivities. If we were given a Christmas wish I am sure that Members of your Lordships' House would wish that families, particularly those with children, would share in happy, loving times in homes of a high quality in warmth and comfort. Sadly, life is not like that and we have to deal with the situation as it is.

I rise with humility. I listened, as we all have, to people with experience who have shown that they know their subject. I listened to the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, and hope that she will forgive me and not think me rude when I say that she is a fast learner.

We are not dealing with overall housing, but the specific matter of rented accommodation. The Conservative Party has always had home ownership high on its agenda. But at the same time, we always laid great stress on the quality and standards of the rented sector. My noble friend Lord Marlesford illustrated that earlier. We recognise the need for diversity and choice and when in government concentrated on that aim. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, explained, there has been a dramatic change in the way we live over the past 20 years. People are living longer and many elderly people are living alone. We have seen the breakdown of marriage, often leading to both parents claiming the need for suitable accommodation for their

17 Dec 1997 : Column 656

children while on staying access. Many young people who would have remained in the family home until marriage or moved to another part of the country, now prefer to have, in current jargon, their own "pad".

For those and many other reasons a massive strain has been placed on resources and now we are told that we need 4 million new homes by 2016. We should keep in mind that we have no increase in population; it is demographic changes that have brought this about. There has been and always will be a real need for rented accommodation. Some people do not want the responsibility of owning a house and all that goes with it. Some may not be able to raise the deposit. Some, due to breakdown in relationships, move to other areas. And some need temporary accommodation.

There are two types of rented accommodation; namely, the private and the social subsidised accommodation. The private sector can provide for many in the groups I mentioned. Social housing can enable those on low incomes to have a decent home. But of course that type of housing does not have to be provided by central or local government. In Britain we have a long tradition of private trusts and charitable foundations providing accommodation for low income families.

I understand the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick. When his party was last in government between 1974 and 1979, 400,000 private homes were lost from the rental market. That was due to more and more regulation and constraints placed on landlords. The last government understood only too well the importance of the private sector and so, on assuming office, set about deregulation of that sector. Landlords were encouraged to rent out their property, allowing them to set market rents and, in agreement with their tenants, specify a fixed term after which the property could be repossessed.

At the same time, tenants were encouraged to rent property by providing them with extra protection against illegal eviction and harassment. The number of households in that sector increased from 1.7 million in 1988 to 2.1 million in 1996. I believe that that was a direct result of deregulation and other initiatives to sustain the revival of the rented sector.

I turn to social housing. As I said earlier, that does not have to be provided by local or central government. Perhaps the most exciting development in recent years has been the dramatic growth of housing associations. The last government welcomed that diversity and the end of local government monopoly. There are strong obligations to which the associations have to adhere. High standards and quality are required and the incomes of the tenants always have to be borne in mind. Those associations have been enormously successful in building affordable homes and attracting £6.4 billion of private investment.

Local government provision has been strengthened for tenants to ensure high standards of service. Under the council tenants' charter, tenants are now entitled to a lifetime of security; to have urgent repairs done quickly at no cost to themselves; to take in lodgers and sub-let part of their home; to exchange their home for

17 Dec 1997 : Column 657

another one; and, most importantly, to be consulted on the management of their homes. Of course, there are many other measures.

Perhaps at this stage I can mention the difficult subject of housing homeless people, for whom I have great compassion. I know of one couple who acted responsibly throughout. They became engaged and applied for accommodation with the council. They waited a number of months before they married. But, on the night of their wedding, they each returned to their parents' home, neither parent being willing to have both of them living with them.

It was many months before a flat was offered. They did not start a family or try to jump the queue in any other way. But one can imagine their misery. In a village everyone knows when a flat becomes vacant; and the couple watched as people who they believed had acted irresponsibly leapfrogged over them. We must be aware and sensitive to the concerns of people in such situations, and I ask the Minister to keep that matter in mind.

In spite of what the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, said, I am proud of my party's achievements in providing homes of an increasingly high standard. Of course, there are always new challenges and demands as time moves on and there is always much to do. But I cannot finish without reference to capital receipts, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell. I understand that instead of allowing councils to spend their set-aside capital receipts, as had been promised, the Government now intend to allow councils to borrow more. This can only result in higher public sector debt.

My Lords, I end where I began. We need to keep the housing agenda on the front burner. We should continue to search for imaginative initiatives so that in the not too distant future our wish to see most of our people in decent, warm, safe and affordable accommodation will be on the way to achievement.

5.10 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, this has been one of the most knowledgeable and wide-ranging debates that it has been my pleasure to listen to in the House. I should like to begin by congratulating my noble friend Lord Dean of Beswick on bringing to the attention of the House the important issue of the need for rented housing in the public and private rented sectors.

Housing is at the heart of this Government's wider social agenda to tackle disadvantage and all manifestations of social exclusion. The noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, and my noble friend Lord Dean of Beswick asked about the membership of the social exclusion unit which has been set up within the Cabinet Office. It brings together senior government officials and representatives from local authorities, voluntary organisations and business. That is a good range of knowledge and expertise to cover the many aspects of social exclusion.

Making housing the central feature is integral to our aims of giving people a decent quality of life, involving them and giving them control over the way they live,

17 Dec 1997 : Column 658

and supporting family life and healthy families. I agree with my noble friend Lord Dean of Beswick that health and housing are closely linked. In developing our housing policy, we also need to ensure that people are not excluded by benefit dependency from work and the social and economic support and opportunities that work brings.

We recognise that most families want to own their own homes. We are pursuing policies designed to limit instability in the housing market. We recognise that renting plays a vital role in meeting a large part of housing need. The private rented sector contributes to a more mobile and flexible labour market and is a stepping stone to home ownership for those who can afford it. Several noble Lords referred to mobility. If we look at those under 35, even those who are highly qualified and in professional jobs, it is a surprise to my age group and those older than myself to discover how few have permanent appointments and how many know that mobility is part of their future career.

Our objective for social housing is to encourage the provision of well managed housing, of good quality, securing value for money--value for individual and family money and value for public money. That requires a partnership approach, with everyone--government, local authorities, housing associations, communities, voluntary groups, private funders and tenants--working together.

Many speakers, including the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, and the noble Lord, Lord Dixon, asked about the complex world of local and public funding policy, local authority housing finance rules, regulations and policy, and contributions from public expenditure towards housing. All government departments are engaged in comprehensive reviews of government expenditure. A review of spending on housing is being carried out by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Department of Social Security. This joint exercise recognises the interdependence of spending on housing and spending on housing benefit. Among other things, the review will consider future investment, the better targeting of that investment and how we estimate housing need. Both the definition of the PSBR and the whole issue of ring-fencing the housing revenue account--a complex area to tackle--are part of the wide-ranging review.

One issue--I refer here to the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford--is whether it is reasonable to take the view that, where there needs to be investment in renovation of older housing stock that is publicly owned, it should be a charge on all the people living in a community who own it or only on those people who happen to be tenants of the local authority housing. That is one of the issues to be considered during the review.

Behind the review there are a number of fundamentals: making certain that what comes out will work; that there should be no rigid compartments either within social housing or between social housing and other housing; that all the housing sectors should make a contribution to meeting need; that housing strategies should look across all sectors; and that we should look

17 Dec 1997 : Column 659

for variations around the country so that local needs can be taken into account. Factors vary from one area to another and a solution in the centre of London may not work in the fells in Lancashire. My noble friend Lady Dean referred to the importance of looking at future housing developments as building and strengthening communities and not merely as bricks and mortar.

The capital receipts initiative was referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, and by my noble friends Lord Dean and Lord Dixon. The previous government slashed capital investment in housing year on year. The noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, and the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, hoped that we would build on the previous government's policy. I hope that we will build a little faster, because the rate at which the previous government were building was making the waiting list grow. Under the previous government capital investment fell from £4.3 billion in 1992-93 to £1.7 billion this year. We cannot change that overnight but we have started with £800 million of additional resources.

The noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, asked whether investment should be linked directly to the receipt of capital receipts by individual authorities. That kind of thinking can lead us into the difficulty of ending up with houses being built in an area where there is little demand and no capital receipts being available in local authority areas where there is great demand. It would fail to meet the needs of those who have the most acute problems to do anything other than follow the wise policy that has been pursued by our Government in the months since May.

The noble Lords, Lord Dean and Lord Dixon, said that a first priority was to tackle the years of neglect in terms of the basic stock. We must recognise that alongside building new housing is the need to renovate, restore and repair the fabric of buildings. Each local authority must identify the specific needs in its area. On current plans we expect about 200,000 additional social lettings to be provided for rent and shared ownership over the four years 1997-98 to 2000-01. Around 60 per cent. of those will be new build. It is important to recognise that the remaining 40 per cent. will be achieved through the restoration of other property.

The noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, was not alone in making a comparison between the relative merits and values of different types of provision. I started by serving on a borough council housing committee, and from my experience, comparisons are odious. To look at whether housing associations, local authorities, the private rented sector or home ownership are best and most ideal in order to solve any particular housing problem is a mistake. The housing associations movement has become increasingly adept at attracting private finance to complement public funding. So if local authorities provide new social housing, in partnership with housing associations, more homes may be provided than would be possible through public resources alone. Housing associations--or registered social landlords, to use their formal title--have skills as developers and managers of housing. They are in a good position to be partners in the wider regeneration of

17 Dec 1997 : Column 660

communities with the most severe economic and social problems. Several speakers, including my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton, referred to this. It is all linked to the important issue of getting people back to work as part of developing a strategy to improve and develop the housing stock.

My noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton is renowned for his knowledge of and support for housing co-operatives. He is outstandingly respected in the Co-operative movement. We are keen to see the development of tenant participation more generally. The development of housing co-operatives is seen as part of that wider approach. We are currently reviewing policies for tenant participation, looking at a range of issues including the raising of standards and implementing a more consistent approach to tenant participation across the whole of social housing. The Housing Corporation is currently undertaking a review of tenant participation and housing co-operative strategies.

We have also asked officials to discuss with the Housing Corporation a paper received from the all-party parliamentary group on housing co-operatives in the context of looking at tenant participation in the round. The words spoken by my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton were extremely wise as regards the issue of ownership. It is not only ownership through holding the title deeds and the mortgage, but having ownership that stretches in a deeper and more fundamental way. The approach and philosophy of housing co-operatives can often develop that.

The Housing Corporation, which my noble friend Lady Dean has been appointed to chair, is obviously going to be an extremely important player in developing a housing strategy that is comprehensive and that will meet needs. It is always difficult to cope with someone of her ability, skill and knowledge who has been appointed as the first woman to the post. I know that she has been appointed on ability alone. I am delighted that the ability of women of her calibre is now being recognised in such posts.

My noble friend Lady Dean referred to the realism with which we must speak of the financial position. I fully agree with her, particularly as regards those features which she identified as critical: the importance of housing in tackling social exclusion; the relationship of housing to other social policies, illustrated by her reference to foyer schemes and their support for education and training. There is also the importance of good design and effective housing management in saving wider costs, for example, on policing.

The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, referred to the important and integral value of energy conservation both in terms of the quality of our lives and our approach to wider environmental issues. My ministerial colleagues will be looking to the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, and her board to guide the Housing Corporation. They also value the insight that they can give on social housing policies more generally.

The Housing Corporation has an approved development programme. My honourable friend the Minister for Local Government and Housing has already asked the Housing Corporation to develop its

17 Dec 1997 : Column 661

programme in a number of ways, ahead of the outcome of our review of spending, placing even greater emphasis on homes for rent, with 80 per cent. of the programme's expenditure, compared with 75 per cent. in previous years.

In this short debate many speakers have referred to the importance of estimating the level of need for the future. The private rented sector is part of the fabric of seeking to meet housing need. The noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, and the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, referred to that. Over 10 per cent., which is 2.1 million households, now occupy that sector. We are seeing a growth in demand for privately rented accommodation. It is extremely important that we recognise that the demand will grow as an additional range of housing units become available.

The noble Lords, Lord Ezra and Lord Monkswell, referred in particular to being fair to good landlords. That is a point which is often forgotten in debates on housing. They stressed the importance of the quality of housing available in the private rented sector. In particular there is the need for a national licensing system for houses of multiple occupation, and that has been recognised by the Government. Of course the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, is right when she said that we should minimise unnecessary regulation and control. But there must be a legal duty to protect the health and safety of people living in such accommodation.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester also referred to the range of housing available for people and the need to ensure that it is all of good quality. There is much that can be said about those who will be our partners in the exciting new venture, which is seeking to meet housing needs, working in co-operation with local authorities and a range of agencies.

Many of those involved in this partnership such as the Housing Corporation, as my noble friend Lady Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde is fully aware, have all-party support. The noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, referred to the Empty Homes Agency. That is another example of all-party support.

It is critical that we face the many challenges as we move towards the 21st century. Our aims are clear. We need housing which works and goes on working. The key point underlying our policies for investing in social housing is that we must create a framework which is sensitive to local requirements and which makes the best use of resources. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester referred to the impact on individuals of housing problems.

Perhaps I may be forgiven for concluding with a personal anecdote. While I was chairman of the education committee in Lancashire, we appointed a head teacher during that period of the 1980s when it was difficult to sell property. The head teacher ended up being homeless, unable to buy because he was unable to sell. For three months he lived in the homeless families accommodation that was available in that seaside area of Lancashire. He said that without that personal experience he would never have understood how much

17 Dec 1997 : Column 662

a child's inability to perform well at school relates to the quality and experience of his home and home environment.

I finish where my noble friend began. Health, housing and education are linked together--and this Government are determined to have a strategy that works in all areas.

5.30 p.m.

Lord Dean of Beswick: My Lords, when I first chose this subject for debate I was a little dubious about whether now was the right time or whether it might be a little too early and we might be expecting a bit too much. I wondered also whether the debate would attract enough speakers. However, this debate has been an outstanding success, and I hope that what has been said will be listened to by the Government at the other end of the corridor.

I thank all noble Lords who have spoken. All contributions have been excellent. The noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, and I disagree slightly on some matters, but I believe that our objective is the same.

I was pleased that my noble friend Lord Dixon referred to my period in local government. In those days, housing policy was "hyperactive"; it was a different wicket. Under the leadership of a man called Bob Thomas--he became Sir Robert Thomas--Manchester cleared 85,000 slum houses in fewer than 20 years. Think of the enormity of that undertaking. I do not believe that that man was ever given sufficient credit for what he did. I played my part, at a pretty high level and, as my noble friend Lord Dixon said, I eventually became the last chairman of the old Association of Municipal Corporations, and was a founder member of its successor body, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities.

This has been a wonderful debate. I conclude by thanking my noble friend Lady Farrington of Ribbleton for the excellent way in which she replied in detail from the Dispatch Box to all the points made. My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page