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Housing Policy (Liverpool)

Volume 958: debated on Wednesday 22 November 1978

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Bates.]

12.22 a.m.

The House earlier dealt with matters concerning Scotland and Wales before moving on to Northern Ireland debates at a late hour. I make no apology for returning the House to an English region, namely, Liverpool, and housing policy in that area.

It should be made clear at the outset that the Liverpool local authority has the right to determine housing policy, including building, allocation, rents and general administration in the Liverpool area. When the Housing Finance Act 1972 was before the House in its earlier stages, and even when it took its place on the statute book, I was opposed to it. I did not agree that central Government should intervene in the housing affairs of local authorities. The Act imposed unwarranted intervention by the Government in areas of local authority responsibility; for example, in building and allocation.

It is significant that at that time the Conservative and Liberal oppositions in Liverpool did not display any opposition to the intervention of the Government in housing by means of the Housing Finance Act. The only opposition to the Act came from the Labour benches of the city council, of which I was a member. I was a member of its housing committee. I believed that the intervention was wrong and that the Act was wrong in principle. It represented unnecessary and unwarranted intervention by the Government in a number of major housing issues.

There were penal sections in the Act which were objectionable to me and to several of my colleagues. Along with 24 members of the Labour group, I left my group to fight the Act.

I make that clear because I do not believe that in that sense there is a valid argument for saying that the Government intervention of that kind is desirable in housing. There is a responsibility on the local authority to determine its housing needs. I believe that housing allocation, rents and the administration of housing generally are matters properly given to the local authority because it is fully aware of the needs of the area. That sort of situation should continue.

But we reach a point when we have to consider whether the general approach by Government to housing—it is contained in many Acts passed by Parliament—is being carried out by local authorities. In the Housing Rents and Subsidies Act 1975 the question of rents was raised and it was said at that time—I accept that it was a different situation from the one that we are in at the moment—that, in accordance with general Government policy on wage control, there would be some degree of control over rents.

This year in Liverpool there have been two increases in rents. In May there was an average rent increase of 50p, which for the tenant could, in many cases, exceed £l or more. This month there was a second average increase of £1·20, which means that a council tenant's rent increase can go far beyond £1·20. I believe that this is part of the present policy being pursued in Liverpool of abrogating responsibility completely for continuing to make rented accommodation available to the community in that area. Yet this is a main responsibility of the local authority, and certainly of the housing committee.

Those rent increases, in my view, do not represent a realistic appraisal of the existing position of the housing revenue account. It has been said, and admitted, that the local authority is budgeting for a surplus in the housing revenue account for next year. One might then argue that, if that were the case, the present rent increase impositions were unnecessary at this time bearing in mind the Government's intention to keep down the prices of goods and services.

It appears—certainly in the view of those who occupy tenancies in Liverpool council properties—that the whole of their wage increase of 5 per cent. could be wiped out at a stroke if we were to take into account this year's increases. If we add to that the increases in public transport costs in that area, it could be argued that a considerable number of people would be affected by this process, in the sense that whatever increase they had in wages would be written off at a stroke by the increases in rents and in public transport costs.

I do not believe that that decision is accidental. I believe that it is following a line which the Government, and certainly the Minister for Housing and Construction, ought to be aware of, because there is an intention, clearly declared now in Liverpool by the present chairman, in his announcement, to "dismantle the municipal empire" which exists in Liverpool.

I have lived in Liverpool all my life. I therefore know the needs of council tenants. These needs have existed in the past and will exist in the future. I believe that the policies being pursued by the Liverpool authority are in contradiction of the general housing principles followed by the Government and of the role which local authorities ought to play. I firmly believe that housing is a social need and that this should be recognised by local authorities. There is a private sector to deal with those who have different needs, and the private market can accommodate that need.

If a point is reached where a local authority has fulfilled its obligations with regard to rented accommodation, it could be argued that it ought to move into other areas of need; for example, building for sale rather than building for rent. But one must examine whether this would be applicable to Liverpool, although I am sure that this does not apply only to Liverpool.

At present, an estimated 15,000 families are awaiting accommodation in Liverpool. These are families awaiting their first accommodation. When one looks at the policy of the present Lib-Con local authority in Liverpool, one can see that there is almost a complete abrogation of responsibility for supplying houses for those 15,000 families awaiting accommodation.

I accept that Liverpool has had a major slum clearance problem. In the post-war years successive councils have considered that problem and dealt with it in accordance with available resources and needs. I am not saying that those decisions were perfect or that they have answered Liverpool's problems, but if one looks at the present situation in Liverpool one sees a movement away from the building of houses for rent and the accent being placed squarely on building houses for sale. Indeed, existing housing stocks are not only being offered for sale to sitting tenants but in many cases to what is known as the highest bidder.

If one looks at the housing revenue account, one sees that a house which is placed in that category robs both the ratepayer and the local authority not only of the housing stock itself but of the value of the housing stock. Even if one accepts the argument that these houses should go to the highest bidder, the fact is that if one examines the initial cost of building them as well as their present market value, one discovers that they are being sold at far below their value because of an escape clause in the 99-year lease. That means that these properties are going out of the local authority's control and into the hands of people who certainly under the present situation, could later sell them at a profit, thereby depriving those on the housing waiting list of accommodation The whole policy is directed towards that end, as was clearly seen when the local authority decided to put up for sale some of the flats in Liverpool.

In the Estates Times of last week there was a careful breakdown of the sale of the so-called "piggeries", which was hailed as the "sale of the century" by certain people in Liverpool. In analysing that deal, we see that both the local authority and the council tenant are being conned by the measures that have been taken so far.

In the deal for the sale of the block of flats in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Scotland Exchange (Mr. Parry) before the purchaser takes over responsibility for them certain provisions must be made. One is that certain parts of the flats will be allocated for housing caretakers. Another is that additional land will be provided for the parking of cars. These provisions should have been made available to the tenants who lived there in the first place. Had they been made, the "piggeries" situation would not have arisen because of the inability of the local authority to get tenants to occupy those premises.

One might ask what the argument is about. If this block of flats presents a problem, surely it is right that the local authority should try to remove that problem and find someone in the private sector who will take it over. But the burden of responsibility for the future of those properties will remain with the local authority. It will have to provide about £89,000 a year over 48 years in interest charges on the money borrowed for the building of those flats. If that is the sale of the century, I simply do not understand the so-called business-like approach being made by the present Liverpool council towards its housing stocks.

The hon. Member for the Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) has been responsible for introducing a Bill on homelessness. One would have thought that the first responsibility of a local authority in looking at that type of property would be to consider its possibilities for accommodating the homeless. If the sort of deal that has been done had been done for the benefit of homeless people in the city centre—where the majority of homelessness exists—we could have seen a major breakthrough.

I am sorry to intervene in the hon. Gentleman's interesting speech. Would he say that the "piggeries" were suitable places for homeless families to move into?

I would not accept that they were suitable in the conditions that obtained at the time. But I am saying that everything that the present purchaser has argued that he will do to that property could have been done by the local authority. It has been argued that in blocks of flats of this kind there is a need for some sort of supervision—for caretakers and for other provisions. It is an abrogation of responsibility to sell off housing stock that will cost Liverpool £89,000 a year for 48 years without paying any regard to homelessness in the city. I accept that in the conditions in which those people found themselves it would not have been proper to have offered them that accommodation. It is wrong to argue that the homeless should be accommodated in inferior accommodation. It has been indicated, however, that that is what must happen before the properties are taken over.

In housing policies, a local authority has an obligation and responsibility first to the waiting list, which in Liverpool numbers 15,000 to 16,000 families. The indiscriminate sale of council houses, which is the policy in Liverpool, denies the families in the constituencies of myself and my hon. Friends the chance of getting out of the unsuitable accommodation in which they live. They cannot be moved into what we call relets, because those relets will probably be put up for sale. So in that respect the Government have a responsibility. Of course, it is the responsibility of local authorities to deal with the housing problem. But when matters arise such as have arisen in Liverpool, the responsibility passes to the Government.

What is happening to housing in Liverpool must be a matter of concern to the Minister and the Department. The provision of housing in Liverpool has reached the point where the needs for thousands of people who are awaiting accommodation are being disregarded. It means that people living in unsuitable accommodation in high rise flats and elsewhere are not being catered for.

Building for rent is also something upon which the Government ought directly to influence local authorities. Liverpool has made poor provision from rate support for building for rent. In the latest period, about £6,000 was allocated in the housing revenue account to support housing via the rates. That compared with about £11 million in Manchester and £14 million in Glasgow. Glasgow's housing problems are comparable with those of Liverpool. This is a complete abdication of housing policy by Liverpool.

I make no apologies for declaring my interest as a council tenant. I should not have been housed were it not for local authority provision of housing. I therefore understand the problems of living in apartments and tenements in a slum area of Liverpool. There will be a continuing need for rented accommodation in an area of high unemployment.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will confirm that Government influence will be brought to bear on Liverpool's housing policy.

12.43 a.m.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden) on raising this important issue. It is a pity that we can debate the subject for only half an hour. It would have been better had we had longer to debate the disastrous policies of the Liberal-Conservative alliance in the local authority.

I represent an inner dockland area of Liverpool. Over the years, under Liberal control of the local authority, tenants in my constituency have been hammered by rent policy. Three years ago some rents in my constituency were increased by the then Liberal-controlled council by as much as £5 a week. The increase referred to by my hon. Friend means that in some cases in Liverpool rents will be increased by 30 per cent. or more. This will be the second increase in six months. I am a critic of the Government's 5 per cent. pay policy. How can I support a policy of a 5 per cent. increase in wages for my constituents when they have had imposed upon them the second rise in rents in less than six months?

I should like to discuss Liverpool's far-reaching problems but I do not have the time. The building for sale and the sale of council houses is a complete disgrace when we have 15,000 people on the waiting list and when the housing department in Liverpool has at least 45,000 outstanding repairs to carry out. In Liverpool the council tenant is the whipping boy of Liberal policies. The Liberals are increasing rents and not carrying out repairs. They are building for sale in prime spots in the centre of Liverpool. Liverpool is not carrying out its job as a housing authority.

I have been attacked personally and privately by the leader of the Liberal Party in Liverpool. The Liberals in Liverpool are a disgrace to the great traditions of the old Liberal Party. I have already written to Mr. Speaker seeking his ruling on the question of a breach of parliamentary privilege. I will, in my own time, if necessary in the House, use privilege to expose some of the Liberal leaders in Liverpool, because some of their lies and morals are a disgrace and make Peyton Place look like Coronation Street.

12.47 a.m.

In the very few minutes remaining, may I say that Liverpool has a very serious problem in housing as in other things? We have a real interest in ensuring that sensible and realistic policies are followed. The local council is by law the provider of housing. It is not for the Government to assert that they know best what is suitable for each area. Nevertheless, the Government have an overall interest in housing and we watch very closely the activities of the various local authorities.

My hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden) and Liverpool, Scotland Exchange (Mr. Parry) have criticised the council's building programme, especially the level of building for rent. There is no doubt that the scale of public sector building has fallen in the city over the past two or three years. This has been true of other areas. This year Liverpool expects to make a start on 855 dwellings and to complete almost 800. Since 1st January 1978 the city has accepted tenders for 922 dwellings and it hopes to reach about 1,000 in tenders accepted by the end of the year.

The proposed building programme over the next five years amounts to about 10,000 houses, comprising 3,000 council homes for rent, another 3,000 housing association dwellings, 2,000 in the special "building for sale" scheme, and another 2,000 by ordinary private development. The supply of homes for rent will therefore exceed those in the "building for sale" scheme and, indeed, exceed the total of those built in the private sector as a whole. The real question is how far this programme will meet the genuine housing need. That question can be answered only in the context of the whole housing stock—what exists, what is wanted in types and tenure of housing.

It may be fair to say, as my hon. Friend the Member for Garston has said, that if we exclude building for sale, the new building programme is insufficient to meet the needs arising from the present clearance programme, let alone the needs of those on the housing waiting list. These needs are, to some extent, met by relets and by the continued improvement of council stock, which remains a major element of the city's strategy. But if the council pursues its strategy of building for sale, it will be necessary to ensure that build-for-sale contributes to the easing of pressure on the city's council stock, and whilst I note that in the first completed scheme at Stanfield Road sales of many of the homes have been to people in housing need—whether from clearance areas, improvement areas, or council tenants on the waiting list—it will demand continued vigilance to ensure that this continues to be the case.

The Government are not against building for sale—we encourage home ownership—but certainly not at the expense of those who cannot afford to purchase. Only the local council—or possibly the housing associations—can look after them.

I am very much in sympathy with the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Garston on the indiscriminate sale of vacant council homes. The intention of the Liberal leadership on the Liverpool city council, as reported in the Press, of "dismantling the municipal empire", is certainly dangerous.

The Government support the sale of council houses to sitting tenants, provided that the housing needs of the remainder of the local population are not thereby prejudiced. The provision of rented accommodation by local housing authorities will continue to be necessary to meet the needs of those who cannot afford to buy their own home, for many of those displaced from clearance areas and from the declining private rented sector, and those in special need.

This is particularly so in inner city areas, where experience has shown that large-scale public rented accommodation is necessary to meet genuine housing need. In some instances, it may also be possible to make a reasonable case for the disposal of difficult-to-let council housing, where this is really the only way likely to put that property to the best and fullest use.

The recent proposal to sell the three blocks known as Haigh, Crosbie, and Canterbury Heights—the so-called "piggeries"—to a firm of developers who will refurbish and resell the flats, may be a case in point. Incidentally, it will be necessary for my right hon. Friend to give his consent to this sale which will be considered on its merits once an application is submitted.

But I am bound to say that no case has been made for the wholesale disposal of council housing for its own sake. We have heard a great deal of talk in the press about the sale of as many as 2,000 vacant homes in Liverpool, at knockdown prices. We are keeping a close watch on the situation throughout the country, not only in Liverpool.

But let us put the situation in perspective. It is my understanding that not a single house has been sold in Liverpool under these arrangements so loudly heralded in July this year. But my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will not hesitate to amend the general ministerial consent for council house sales as and when he decides it is necessary to do so.

My hon. Friend has drawn attention to the rent increases levied by Liverpool this year. This year's 90p increase in Liverpool contrasts with the guideline that we issued to councils last January, indicating, as we had done for each of the two previous years, increases on average of 60p per dwelling per week.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Wednesday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at eight minutes to One o'clock.