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Housing (Leicester)

Volume 929: debated on Thursday 7 April 1977

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4.2 p.m.

Leicester is a stress housing area, and I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss in the House the intolerable and disgraceful decision of the new Tory-dominated council to cut in half the provision for council house building during the next two years.

A stress housing area is one that the Government have recognised as being an area in which the need for housing is at its greatest, in which the pressures are at their most intolerable, and in which, in spite of the restrictions that have to be placed on the building of new homes because of the financial situation, houses should nevertheless be permitted to be built.

In the face of that Government decision it is difficult to understand why the Leicester council should come to the conclusion that the programme that had been planned should be hacked in half, and I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that this can only be because of the doctrinaire views of the Tories on the Leicester District Council, who dislike council housing and who are once again determined to preside over the destruction of a programme carefully built up by their Labour predecessors to provide decent homes for ordinary folk in the Leicester area.

As a constituency Member of Parliament I receive a massive mailbag, and by far the highest proportion of the letters come from people who are desperate for better housing. Some of these letters I forward to the housing manager and others my Labour colleagues on the council are good enough to deal with, but they stretch into hundreds, and they are pathetic in their entreaties for help.

Those concerned range from young married couples who have no accommodation and are forced to live with in-laws or parents, with grave social results for both; to young people anxious to marry but unable to do so because they have no home; to parents, some of whom are separated from each other and their children; to old people who want bungalow accommodation but who, at the proposed rate of building are unlikely to get any until after they are dead; to ordinary folk with large families who have left home and who want smaller homes; to people with smaller homes with large families who wish to move into larger accommodation. The whole gamut of hardship and suffering is caused in the stress areas through the absence of adequate housing.

The population of Leicester is about 300,000. According to the council's own calculations, the number of people on the housing list is 34,208. Over 10 per cent. of the people in the city are seeking to move and are actually on the housing list. That figure excludes the thousands who do not know enough to get on the waiting list or who regard it as so long that they do not bother to put their names on it. It also excludes those who have taken their names off the waiting list and others who are looking for rented homes for many reasons. There are at least 34,208 individuals, or 12,991 applications on the list.

The replies that I now send to the letters that I receive bear a close resemblance to the Government health warning on cigarette packets. I tell my constituents that their prospect of a decent home has been cut by half by the ludicrous, doctrinaire decision of the Tory council. I hope that the young people, the newly-weds, the families and the elderly who need homes will place the blame where it belongs—on to the Tory-controlled council—because the Government have said that this is an area where the planned housing programme should continue. The Tory-controlled council is now to build 500 houses a year instead of 1,000. It is to reduce by 500 a year the number of families who can move into decent housing.

I was not surprised to read a careful document prepared by the Leicester section of the National Campaign for the Homeless, which said:
"From all perspectives, … the present recommended building programme rerductions are completely without justification."
Shelter suggests that the council should try to start 1,825 homes in 1978 and 1979, and certainly not 500. The document also states:
"It should be borne in mind that Leicester has already been declared a housing stress area by the DOE, while none of the other councils in Leicestershire have been so designated. These other councils have had their already inadequate building programmes decimated by the recent DOE housing cutbacks; and yet Leicester, not faced with such central government restrictions, seems bent on emulating its county neighbours. We do not see how the citizens of Leicestershire are well served by simultaneous and dramatic reductions in the provision of all rented housing, in county and city, and both local authority and housing association."
I call in aid the words of Mrs. Irene Pollard, the Chairman of the Leicester Housing Committee, in a report in the Leicester Mercury on 10th February. The report said:
"Mrs. Irene Pollard said today that she had every confidence in a city planning department survey predicting future housing needs.
She said of the survey which forecasts that in Greater Leicester 12,200 new homes will be needed by 1981 and 41,800 by 1991. I am satisfied with the report. I think this is the paper on which we should work."
She suggests 12,200 new homes by 1981, yet the council is building only 500 a year. By what convoluted arithmetic can Mrs. Pollard conceivably hope to reach that result?

I regret that Mrs. Pollard is at present unwell, as I am sure do my hon. Friends the Members for Leicester, East (Mr. Bradley) and Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall). We have long disagreed with Mrs. Pollard on policies and will doubtless continue to do so, but as is happily normal as between representatives of the major political parties in Leicester, we disagree on good personal terms. I hope that Mrs. Pollard will soon return to her usual abundant good health and spirits. When she does so, I think that she will be called upon to answer this indictment, particularly bearing in mind that people now move from council houses much morer slowly than they used to. Because of the enormous cost of buying new homes, there is less movement from existing stock, yet the doctrinaire Tories are once again seeking to reduce the stock still further by selling it off. They sell off what is there; people move less frequently, and they are now to build fewer houses. What a disgraceful lot they are!

The matter is not improved by the fact that Leicester's request for money under the "New homes for old" programme has been granted only as to one half. I fully appreciate that one does not always ask for what one expects, and that requests from all over the country have been cut down. But in view of the disgusting decision of the local Tories to cut the housing programme in half, I ask my hon. Friend to review the decision and consider whether it may be possible to grant more of the council's request for money, so that, in the light of the Tories' cutting the housing stock, at least they will have no excuse for leaving old homes in Braunstone and other areas in an unfit state for people to live in.

I also pay tribute to the Labour Group on the council and to the former Chairman of the Housing Committee, Bob Trewick, for their prodigious efforts to make good the miseries caused to Leicester citizens last time the Tories were in power, when they almost destroyed the entire housing programme, as they look all set to do once again. I hope that my hon. Friend will convey to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment a request which I made on behalf of my Labour colleagues on the council, to see my right hon. Friend in connection with the matters I am raising today. I realise that we cannot meet my right hon. Friend until after Easter, but I hope that he will see us then.

Housing policy, not only in Leicester but in all areas where the citizens have seen fit to put the Tories into power, is in jeopardy. The present policy is built on cracked foundations, with defective structures built to outdated standards and with tiled roofing constructed by a Thatcher. The structure should be reconstructed and rebuilt.

On 5th May the electors of Leicester will have an opportunity to show what they think. It is unfortunate that housing policy is not one of those areas that are in actual dispute at that election, but as people appreciate that one area of Tory policy reflects on another I hope that they will express their feelings in no uncertain terms, not only about this matter but about the way in which Tory councils invariably erode the rights of ordinary people, whether by cutting their housing or, as the Tories have done in Leicestershire, by removing travel concessions from the aged, the disabled, the blind and even home helps.

It is a mean and nasty régime that destroys these rights. I hope that my hon. Friend—bearing in mind that central Government can only encourage and enable, as they have done in Leicester through declaring it a stress housing area—will denounce the behaviour of the local authority and encourage it to think again. Otherwise, generations of ill-housed Leicester people will blame those who today unfortunately dominate housing policy in our great city.

4.14 p.m.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) is to be congratulated on bringing this highly topical subject before the House today. I fully support the views that he has expressed. My view of the action taken by the local Tory-dominated city council is that once again it is showing a cynical disregard for the needs of those awaiting new council homes in Leicester, who, in reality, have little prospect of getting any home other than one provided by the local authority.

Despite protestations from the Opposition Benches and from Tories throughout the country, many people in large cities are unfortunately dependent on the local authorities providing them with homes. Despite all the hogwash we hear from Tory spokesmen that still remains a fact of life.

I underline the point that my hon. and learned Friend has made already about capital loan allocation provided for under Section 105 of the Housing Act 1974. The city of Leicester applied for £2·25 million under this heading to cover rehabilitation of old houses, improvements and conversions. These moneys were required for inner city areas, areas blighted by road schemes and for improvements to older council estates. In the event, less than half that amount was allocated. Also the money was made less in value by the need for it to cover Section 101 improvements—those required on properties acquired under the municipalisation scheme. I implore the Minister to convey to the Secretary of State the need for the moneys to be increased to the level that the local authority requires.

We must face the truth, which is that we can overcome the problems in stress areas only if we look at their needs and requirements and make allocation by increasing public expenditure in these areas rather than reducing it.

4.17 p.m.

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) and my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) for raising this most important issue. Leicester City—and only the area of the city—is one of the three areas in the East Midlands Region that are being regarded as stress areas for the purpose of their new house building programme.

With all the representations that my Department has had from housing authorities outside stress areas that they might be included, it is disturbing to say the least that an area designated as a stress area should deliberately restrict new house building, as we have heard this afternoon.

As a major urban centre, Leicester has most of the problems of other large towns and cities, but the city council has, in recent years, faced up to its daunting tasks extremely well. In this debate we are concerned mainly with the building of council houses, but the city council has not neglected the need to tackle existing areas of poor housing: much of the inner part of the city is in declared general improvement areas or in areas scheduled for declaration as such. One housing action area has been declared, and another is in the preparatory stages.

The city council is active in improving the dwellings it owns and has indicated that it would like to do considerably more if it were possible to let them spend more money.

Certainly I shall convey personally to the Secretary of State the request for a deputation. I shall have something to say about the new system of allocating housing capital which gives the authority the power to transfer from one section to another. This will be helpful, and the question of Section 105 allocations is under constant review in my Department.

On new housing, the council let contracts for some 850 dwellings in 1974 and almost 1,500 dwellings in 1975. Substantial progress continued to be made in 1976. Up to the Chancellor's speech on public expenditure on 22nd July the council had accepted tenders for 627 dwellings.

In July 1976 we had to introduce a measure of control over new housebuilding. Local authority housebuilding, which hitherto had been uncontrolled, showed every prospect of exceeding the public expenditue provision contained in the February 1976 White Paper by a substantial amount. Given the difficult prevailing economic circumstances, house-building had to be brought under control to prevent the budgeted level of expenditure being exceeded. But the local authorities' housebuilding programmes are still a major component of our efforts to overcome local housing problems. We expect local authorities in England to accept tenders for about 90,000 dwellings in 1977, which will still mean that tender acceptances will average 100,000 per year from 1975 to 1977 compared with 78,000 in 1973.

When the July measures were introduced, we were most anxious to avoid an indiscriminate cut-back in activity across the board. The Government made it clear from the beginning that they were concerned that the resources which were available should be concentrated more selectively than before on areas of greatest housing need. Our aim in imposing controls has therefore been to protect the programmes of the stress authorities. I think my hon. Friends will agree with me that another dimension is added to the problem by the fact that there are some areas where the total weight of the housing problem is substantially greater than elsewhere. My hon. Friends have underlined that Leicester is one of these areas.

The greatest concentration of stress will naturally be found in the inner cities, though we have recognised that local patches of stress may be found almost anywhere. We have made allowance for this fact in deciding how resources for building new houses should be allocated. In drawing up a list of authorities with a major stress we had regard to the 1971 Census data, to our assessment of comparative conditions and housebuilding performance since 1971, and to the best overall picture of local housing needs—I stress "housing needs"—that we could obtain through our regional offices. On that basis, Leicester was included in the original list of stress authorities annexed to the Department's Circular 80/76.

For the 15-month period from 1st January 1977 to 31st March 1978 Leicester City Council proposed to let contracts for 1,527 dwellings. We agreed to a programme of 1,486. Housing associations expect to let contracts for 735 dwellings. But in recent weeks, the city council has been reviewing its housing programme.

Following the council's deliberations, I understand and it has been confirmed today that Leicester has taken the view that in 1978 and 1979 there will no longer be a need to continue building at as high a rate as in the past. On the evidence produced so far there will be no reduction in the building programme approved for the city in the current calendar year, but only 45 of the 200 dwellings included in the approved programme will be taken to tender acceptance stage in the first quarter of 1978. For the whole of that year and for the following year the council has decided to limit its programme to 500 dwellings a year. It intends to review these proposals early in 1978.

My hon. and learned Friend argues that Leicester's housing conditions—he mentioned waiting lists—are such that it has been recognised, as an area of housing stress, and that to cut council house building will destroy the hopes of ordinary people to have a decent roof over their heads. My hon. and learned Friend's concern is understandable, and I share it. However, any call for the Government to exercise direct control over local authorities' decisions about their housebuilding efforts raises a fundamental issue about the relationship between central and local Government. This is because responsibility for reviewing and meeting the housing needs of an area lies in the hands of the housing authority concerned. Authorities must make the decisions and—and I would emphasise this—must justify their actions to their electorates.

In fact, we as a Government are now moving towards giving more responsibility to local authorities for deciding priorities and there are good reasons for this.

The Government will continue to give their views on housing policy and the necessary priorities. In our first policy circular, Circular 70/74, we made very clear that the first duty of a local housing authority is to ensure the adequate supply of rented dwellings. Whatever we are able to do to assist first-time buyers and those on council waiting lists who want to own their own homes, there will always by people who are completely dependent on public sector housing. Often they will be those who are in the most desperate need, and to these folk local housing authorities have an overriding responsibility. It is in this context that the facts given by my hon. Friends cause me such great anxiety.

We are playing our part in meeting real housing need by providing the means for an authority to respond more sensitivity to the needs of its area. This is relevant to the plea for extra Section 105 expenditure. In answering a Question yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State indicated the way in which housing capital allocations will be made for 1977–78. There will be four blocks of capital expenditure in which the seven main programmes of housing expenditure—new house building, slum clearance, local authority improvements, acquisitions, improvement grants to private persons, local authority mortgage lending and housing association lending—will be brought together for expenditure purposes.

Local authorities will be enabled to switch expenditure within each block at their discretion and also to switch expenditure, in or out, from one block to another, subject to a maximum of 25 per cent. There will also be the ability for authorities to carry expenditure forward to or anticipate it from the succeeding year, within defined limits.

These arrangements will, I believe, be of considerable assistance to authorities and be welcome to them. They are the first steps towards the system of housing investment programmes which will enable authorities to consider their housing situation and present coherent proposals for meeting local needs, setting out their assessment of the capital expenditure required to support that programme. We are discussing these proposals with the local authorities associations.

Meanwhile, we look to authorities to make their housing decisions so as to secure the greatest possible advance in overcoming their needs as economically and humanely as they can within their allocations. That will, I suggest, mean avoiding doctrinaire or arbitrary changes. It will, too, in many areas mean that a substantial number of new houses must be built to support and supplement programmes of rehabilitation and acquisition. It was in recognition of that fact that we gave the stress areas the bulk of the new build allocations for this year.

The change that Leicester appears to have decided upon is, indeed, a dramatic cut-back on a particular part of its overall approach to housing. I am, therefore, asking the regional office to explore with the authority the factors which it has taken into account and what other action it proposes to take to meet real housing need. But at the end of the day the decision will, by virtue of the duties which Parliament has given to local authorities, rest with Leicester. As I have said, I understand that it proposes to review its present thinking early in 1978. I hope that, in coming to its decision, it will take full account of the social impact, as well as the financial and economic impacts, of a move which, in isolation, does look as though it would slow down the pace at which housing need is met. I am sure that my hon. Friends will not be slow to make their views known in the areas that they represent.

Is it clear that my hon. Friend the Minister will be good enough to review the decision not to allow in full the request of the Leicester City Council for an allocation for improvements to its council properties? I appreciate that he cannot conceivably say here and now that he will be able to give more than the regional office has apparently decided to allocate, but, bearing in mind the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) and I have put today, I should like an assurance that he will be kind enough to institute a complete review to see whether some extra help can now be given.

These matters are under constant review. I have to tell my hon. Friend that there is, as it were, no extra money in the till, although we keep a continuing review, because, as we have heard today, it is the authorities that make the decisions, and some do not take up all that they are allocated, and so on. I assure my hon. and learned Friend that these matters are under constant review, and that every word said in the debate will be read and considered again, and I shall be in touch with him to see whether he can meet some of the representations that he has made.