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Housing (Scotland)

Volume 934: debated on Tuesday 28 June 1977

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With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the consultative document on Scottish housing which is being made available today. This Green Paper is complementary to that which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has just announced for England and Wales. It is the outcome of a comprehensive review of housing in Scotland. It draws together the several developments on which we have been engaged over the past two years and further proposals which add up to a strategy appropriate to Scotland's housing need.

The paper describes the great progress made in overcoming housing shortages in Scotland, particularly by the local housing authorities. But it also stresses the continued housing needs, with new problems arising as the old ones are solved. Too many people are still living in inadequate houses and depressing environments. We must take more account of people with special needs—the elderly and the disabled, for example, and single people of all ages. We must also give people better opportunities to obtain the kind of house they want—whether they rent or buy.

In consultation with the Scottish local authorities we have agreed arrangements for housing authorities to devise strategies based on local needs. Accordingly, all authorities will be submitting their first housing plans to me this summer to cover the five years beginning 1978–79. These plans take account of the whole range of housing needs, including the private sector.

In parallel, we have been discussing a new single housing subsidy for local authorities. The Government will continue to give substantial financial support for authorities' housing expenditure. But I intend to distribute this support in a way that will reflect fairly the different burdens in different areas. The new arrangements should begin to operate in 1979. They will provide a better and fairer subsidy system. The level of assistance I have in mind will enable the local contribution to housing costs—rents and rate fund contributions—to keep broadly in line with changes in money incomes.

As well as continuing support for the public sector, the Government want to ensure that the growing demand for home ownership can reasonably be met. To this end, the special measures to help first-time buyers announced by my right hon. Friend—the savings, bonus and loans schemes—will apply equally in Scotland. They will help many young peope to acquire their first homes. But for some people alternative forms of tenure are what they want—equity-sharing schemes, tenant co-operatives, and so on. We shall encourage more of these to meet the demand for a wider choice of tenures.

For the vast number of people for whom renting a public sector house is the most appropriate tenure we shall be exploring with the local authorities the development of a model agreement for tenants so that the responsibilities of both tenant and the authority are clearly set out. Public sector tenants should be secure in their homes and they should not have to suffer outmoded and irritating restrictions. But they should also be able to take on more responsibility, if they wish, for the management and maintenance of their homes.

I hope that hon. Members and all interested housing organisations in Scotland will now study the paper closely and let us have constructive reactions. On the policy foundations we. have already been laying the outcome should be a coherent and responsive strategy to meet the housing needs of the people of Scotland. Our aim remains
"a decent house for every family at a price it can afford ".

Is the Minister aware that while the very limited loan facility for first-time buyers is welcome, it is not enough to reverse the situation in Scotland, where the rate of owner-occupation of 31 per cent. is about the lowest in the free world and lower than in Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia? Did not the Minister try to obtain a special deal for Scotland in view of our special problems and the very low rate of owner-occupation?

Have the Government shifted their position on sales of council houses to sitting tenants? Can the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that the Conservative-controlled councils, which now cover more than half of Scotland's population, will not be frustrated in pursuing the policy on which they were elected?

Does the proposed single housing subsidy mean that subsidies pledged to councils under past legislation of the present Government and the previous Government—for example, the rent rebate subsidy—will be cut off? Which authorities are likely to lose out? What steps do the Government propose to deal with local councils that ignore the Government's advice on rents?

Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate that the number of unemployed building workers in Scotland now exceeds 30,000? Is there anything in his statement that will bring about an improvement?

As the outcome of three years of the right hon. Gentleman's policies on housing is a declining housing programme, record unemployment in the building industry and savage cuts in council mortgages, does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate that he does not have much to be proud about in this inadequate statement?

The hon. Gentleman's description of the present housing position in Scotland is absolutely grotesque and bears no relation to the actual situation. The level of owner-occupation is now about 33 per cent. and it is increasing. I think that the measures I have announced today will provide for a continued increase in the percentage of owner-occupation.

Council house sales are strictly controlled at present and will continue to be, although proposals by local authorities with regard to council house sales will form part of their housing plans in the future and will be considered in that context. The first priority must of course be an adequate supply of houses to rent for those for whom that is the most appropriate form of tenure. But within that policy there will be a limited opportunity for a modest programme of council house sales. That is described in the Green Paper published today.

The subsidies at the current level will not be affected by what I am proposing today for council housing. They would have been severely affected in a few years' time if the subsidy system had not been altered as I propose to alter it, because by 1982-83 there would have been a substantial and precipitate reduction in housing subsidies to local authorities in Scotland resulting from the provisions in the Tory Housing Act of 1972.

The House will be glad to know that, far from our reducing the subsidies on rent rebate, the subsidy on rent rebate and rent allowances paid by the Government will be increased from 75 per cent. to 90 per cent. We expect the rent and rate contribution paid by local authorities to rise over the next few years largely in accordance with general rises in money incomes. That will be pretty well the same as our experience in recent years.

I turn to the building industry. We recently announced proposals to help the construction industry in Scotland, and there is much in my statement, particularly the increasing emphasis on maintenance, renovation and the rest, that will give opportunities to the building industry.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his statement will be generally welcomed in Scotland today? In view of his reply to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor) about rent and rate rebates, will they be made retrospective to the beginning of the present financial year? Secondly, what proposals does he expect to receive from Scottish housing authorities about meeting the uigent needs of battered wives?

One of the points made about housing need in the Green Paper is that local authorities should give more attention to the needs of special categories of people. We mention particularly the elderly, the handicapped and the single homeless. Certainly I have in mind also in that respect battered wives and other wives who have left horn;: and have to establish themselves in separate accommodation. I hope that local authorities will give every attention to that. I cannot make the change in subsidy retrospective, but I know that local authorities will welcome the increase in the rate from 75 per cent. to 90 per cent.

Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that there is still a continuing need in oil development areas, such as the North-East of Scotland and the Moray Firth area, for a continuing housing programme? Will he acknowledge also the need for the support of these programmes and the provision of basic facilities such as water, sewerage systems and so on? What priority is he giving to a continuing housing drive in those areas?

It is part of the emphasis in the Green Paper that we should be looking at housing needs locally in a comprehensive way on a district basis. It is no longer sensible to look at problems of national housing shortage in Scotland, because although some areas have an overall shortage, obviously, or have developing needs because of increasing population or economic development, other areas are not in that situation. Therefore, the new housing plans are intended to provide the framework within which local housing authorities can consider the needs of their areas as a whole—and not, incidentally, restricting their examination to public sector housing but considering also the contribution of the private sector and the contribution which renovation as distinct from demolition can make. We therefore have the framework in these new proposals to deal with local needs, whether in the oil areas or anywhere else in Scotland.

As the new housing plans get into full operation and as we are able to introduce the new subsidy arrangements, the housing finance allocations to local authorities will no longer be made in the form of a number of separate slices of money. We want to have a comprehensive allocation within which the local authorities can determine their own priorities for new building, renovation, local authority lending and the rest. As soon as we can change the subsidy arrangements in a way that will provide a single subsidy, we can move to that more comprehensive assesment and give more power to district authorities to determine their priorities with less interference by Government.

I would remind the House that I shall be able to call far fewer hon. Members if we are to have very long questions, and very long answers.

Although today's Green Paper will be known as the owner-occupiers' charter, may I remind my right hon. Friend that the majority of Scottish people and the overwhelming majority of Labour voters in Scotland are council tenants, who will still face ever-increasing rents for older and older houses? When will a Socialist Government take the construction of housing out of the money market and give local authorities loans at nominal rates of interest, such as I and 2 per cent.? Then we shall solve the problem without all these aids to individuals and groups.

When he has read it, I shall be surprised if he can still describe it as simply an owner-occupiers' charter. Yes, there are certain proposals in it intended to help owner-occupiers. There are also many proposals in it intended to help tenants in the local authority and the public sectors. Our point is that there is a variety of housing need in Scotland and a variety of tenures and that any attack on Scotland's housing problem has to take account of that fact and provide solutions for all the varying problems.

May I raise two brief points on housin;; for the elderly and the disabled? Will the Government do everything possible to encourage the development of sheltered housing complexes for the elderly, since they are much advocated by the old-age pensioners' associations in Scotland? Secondly, in the realm of adaptations of houses for the disabled, I note that the Government are looking at the subject of improvement grants. Could they also consider awarding charitable exemption from rating for houses adapted for the disabled?

The hon. Lady will find mention of that latter matter in the Green Paper. On at least one subject— rating relief—we have already made a separate statement, which I hope she will find satisfactory.

As for disabled people generally and special needs, we have emphasised that area in the Green Paper. However, the hon. Lady will know that, although we can give and have given guidance, at the end of the day it is local authorities, in their own housing allocation schemes and building programmes, which must take care of that. But the new framework will, I think, provide increased opportunity for looking at the special needs.

With the permission of the hon. Member for Banff (Mr. Watt), may I ask my right hon. Friend a question or two? First, he described the Green Paper as a consultative document, yet I have gained the impression from listening to him that his mind is made up about some things. Exactly what is for consultation, what can be done administratively and what will require legislation? I think that we all approve of his idea about freedom for local authorities. Will this include those district authorities in the proximity of new towns, which are at present considerably inhibited by interference from St. Andrew's House?

I hope that we shall be able to reduce unnecessary interference from St. Andrew's House. That situation has improved, I understand, in the last year or so. It is true that there are certain things in my statement that are beyond the process of consultation reached in England and Wales. For example, the housing plans arrangements are coming into operation now and have already been agreed by the local authorities in Scotland. The housing subsidy system, which will require legislation, is largely agreed already with the local authority associations in Scotland.

However, there are other aspects of the paper that are still open for consultation, as indeed is the whole paper. In that respect much of what is in my paper is on a par with England and Wales, but on a number of matters I am glad to be able to tell my right hon. Friend, with all due modesty, that we are rather further forward.

If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to reduce interference from St. Andrew's House, why is he refusing permission to Kyle and Carrick District Council to sell a small number of council houses to its sitting tenants, which it was plainly elected to do? Is he aware that many people are disappointed that there is no direct reference in his statement to housing improvements, which is running at a fraction of what it was under the previous Government? Will the new subsidy arrangements make it more worth while for councils to keep their housing stock up to date?

The hon. Gentleman's latter claim is not true. There has been an increasing emphasis on improvement in the public sector in recent years, and that emphasis will continue. The new subsidy arrangements will provide an encouragement. As for sales of council houses, I recommend the hon. Gentleman to read what I have said in the Green Paper. They have been controlled and they will continue to be controlled but they can be looked at in a much broader framework once the housing plans are in operation.

Since my right hon. Friend has referred to the needs of special minorities, is provision made for consultation and financial co-operation between health boards and local authorities where it is possible that residential accommodation can be provided by either local authorities or new town development corporations, thereby relieving bed occupation in, for instance, mental hospitals? A particular case in my constituency is of great relevance in this respect.

In the preparation of housing plans it will be open to local authorities to have consultations with the local health authorities, and I would expect them to do this. The problem is not always so much moving from hostel accommodation to sheltered housing accommodation. There is sometimes a question of residential accommodation in between, involving old people's homes and hostels and the rest. This is rather more difficult. The framework will provide, I hope, better opportunities for looking at these problems.

Will the Minister agree that the proposals in the Green Paper for dealing with the rehabilitation of problem housing areas in the public sector seem to be restrictive? Would he care to say what proposals the 3ovem ment have in mind for dealing with areas, sometimes of modern origin, which are posing a lot of problems to the tenants living in the area?

I would not accept that the proposals in the Green Paper are restrictive. We have been encouraging local authorities, but there is a fixed programme at the moment, in which priorities have to be determined. With the housing areas, when we get them fully in operation it will be possible for local authorities to choose to place increasing emphasis on rehabilitation rather than on the building of new houses. In many areas I believe that that is now what is required, because the overall demand fur new housing has reduced. In other areas we have the serious problem of deteriorating houses in the public sector, some of them quite recently built. I hope that some of the proposals made today will help in tackling that issue.

Referring to the question of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) dealing with new towns, is my right hon. Friend aware that there was a NALGO lobby yesterday, albeit to do with English affairs, which included some representatives from Livingston who expressed fears about the rate at which the Scottish Office wished to expand new towns? Can my right hon. Friend give us his views on the future of new towns?

Not so much in the con text of this statement. I was at Livingston New Town as recently as last Saturday when I met the development corporation and the local authorities. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State recently had a meeting with the local authorities and others concerned on this point.

If the Secretary of State is proposing that there should be less Government busybodying over the individual housing policies of the local authorities, may I ask how he is hoping to encourage housing authorities to develop more sheltered housing and to cater for the needs of the growing proportion of elderly people in various communities? Dealing with the new subsidy arrangements, will provision be made for the importance of environmental factors in the public sector housing, although I recognise that my right hon. Friend has taken account of this in his inner city proposals?

The answer to my hon. Friend's second supplementary question is "Yes". The answer to the first supplementary question is that we have sent out a considerable amount of guidance. We shall be giving housing allocations in future, as the housing plans develop, very much more closely related to overall need in a particular area. In some of these matters we can give guidance and make suggestions, but ultimately local decision-making is the important consideration. It is part of the Government's intention to have an overall view on housing and to have local authorities looking at it in their own districts on a comprehensive basis, making their own decisions about priorities. I think that that is the right way to proceed.

Would my right hon. Friend agree that the indiscriminate sale of council houses, as proposed by the Tories, would lead to the creation of ghetto areas in many districts and also to a situation in which the allocation of houses is based not so much on need but on free market forces, which very often operate against those who are most in need?

There are a considerable number of irresponsible propositions concerning council house sales, apparently supported by Tory Members, including the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr Taylor), which would have absolutely disastrous effects on Scottish local authority housing. I do not intend to see those proposals go through.

Would my right hon. Friend have a look at two minor but important points? One concerns the inter-changeability of council housing and housing owned by the Scottish Special Housing Association. Is he aware that in some areas a great deal of dis-harmony is often created because the exchange provisions are operated in such a harsh fashion? Secondly, while not interfering with local authorities, would he perhaps suggest some guidelines to them in relation to matters affecting women? Is he aware that local authorities are often loath, when a couple has split up for any reason and the woman has the children, to let her have the tenancy of the house? Will he encourage authorities to be more forward-looking?

There is a section in the Green Paper dealing with transferability generally in the public sector. I agree with what my right hon. Friend has said. We ought to try to facilitate exchanges more than we do. It is a theme of the chapter on housing choice that in the public sector people ought to be able to move around more freely. There is also a passage in the Green Paper about housing allocation policies. What is said there is in terms of a liberal outlook on this issue, which is very much in line with my hon. Friend's proposition, with which, as a constituency Member, I agree 100 per cent.