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Housing (Rushmoor)

Volume 31: debated on Friday 5 November 1982

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

2.22 pm

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise a problem of acute interest to my constituents and to my constituency.

Aldershot is well known as the home of the British Army. It also has, if the New Statesman is to be believed—and the New Statesman can only improve—the lowest unemployment rate, 4·2 per cent., of any constituency in the United Kingdom.

We in Aldershot are delighted to be the home of the British Army, and never more so than today after our victories in the Falklands. But the physical presence of so many soldiers and their families, many of whom wish to stay on and live in or near Aldershot in the borough of Rushmoor at the end of their military service, puts a great strain on the borough's housing department, and it is a strain which has been aggravated by the effects of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act.

We are just as happy that we seem to have escaped the scourge of unemployment. But the attraction of Aldershot and district, an island of relatively full employment in a sea of joblessness, further aggravates the housing problems of Rushmoor, and we look to the Government for more financial help.

I have spoken of the presence of the Army—the largest garrison in any town or place in the United Kingdom—and I have made the point about full employment. But we labour under yet another disadvantage—the shortage of available land.

The borough of Rushmoor comprises the towns of Aldershot and Farnborough and covers an area of 3,600 hectares, approximately half of which is Government owned, either by the Army or by the Royal Aircraft Establishment. The rest is built up. We have literally no hinterland over which we might expand. In Rushmoor we have 7,250 houses, a waiting list of 1,600 and we house approximately 200 a year of those rendered homeless. Since 1977, not including 1982 to 1983, 869 homeless families have been rehoused, a quarter of whom were ex-Army personnel.

In July the Minister was kind enough to receive a deputation from Rushmoor led by myself. The Minister's noises could be described as sympathetic. It was suggested that we examine the circumstances of two boroughs to see what lessons we in Rushmoor might learn. The places suggested were Shepway, which I believes includes Folkestone, which does have soldiers, particularly marines, but also has 35,555 hectares of land compared with Rushmoor's 3,500 hectares. We did not learn much there. The second suggestion was to have a look at Hove. The only army in Hove is the Salvation Army.

In what way might the Government help Rushmoor? They might persuade the Army to release more land, which the Army is clearly reluctant to do. Even were the Army to do so, we should be obliged to compete for it on the open market. That would be especially expensive and we are conscious that the modernisation and renovation programme of the borough is already behind schedule. Another thing that the Government might do is to persuade the Army and the Royal Aircraft Establishment in particular, to release some of its housing, particularly in Farnborough.

I know that there is no way in which the Department of the Environment can just hand over money to Rushmoor. However, there is the housing investment programme which is paid on an annual basis. In 1980–81 Rushmoor asked for £4,600,000 and received £2,472,000. In 1981–82 we asked for £3,455,000 and received £1,943,000. In 1982–83 we asked for £4,463,000 and received £2,287,000.

In response to the Government's initiative this week designed to encourage capital spending, which was referred to in the debate that has just concluded, we are asking for an additional £763,500 which, were we to receive it, we would spend in the following way—£400,000 on improvement grants and the remainder on modernisation, central heating, and so on.

In conclusion, I ask the Minister to be generous in the money to be allocated as part of the housing investment programme for 1983—84. We have asked for £5,063,000. Were we to be given more than the customary 50 per cent, that we have been receiving over the past years, we might be able not only to repair and renovate our housing stock but to compete in the open market if and when more land becomes available.

Rushmoor's problems are acute and the circumstances of the borough are unique. We have the Army, we have full employment, but we have no land. We do need a bit more help.

2.28 pm

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley) for initiating the debate and for giving us an opportunity to discuss the housing provision in the borough of Rushmoor, particularly in relation to its military role and the other two problems that he mentioned—the shortage of land and the high unemployment rate.

Before I turn specifically to Rushmoor, it might be helpful if I were to outline in general terms the resources available to local authorities to provide housing for those in need. I do that at the risk of imposing yet again on my hon. Friend some of the arguments that he has just sat through in the previous debate.

There are the housing investment programme borrowing approvals allocated annually by the Government. There are also local authorities' capital receipts and the other finance, which may be transferred to supplement the housing programme. My hon. Friend spoke about the importance of resources and gave the figures for Rushmoor. The basic HIP allocation for the current year was £2,239,000. Additional allocations for various improvement grants amounted to £143,000 and that brought the total allocation from central Government up to £2,382,000. I believe that the council also proposes to use nearly £1 million of its capital receipts for the housing programme.

The total resources for housing this year are therefore at least £3,300,000. That excludes any contributions to housing from the authorities' other accounts. The amount of HIP allocated to each authority from the total agreed by the Government is carefully calculated. It is based on information supplied to my Department by the authorities.

It being half-past Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

One source of data is a numerical statement of housing needs. This includes a statement of the total number of households accepted as homeless by the authority and the number of those who were subsequently housed by it. Under the statutory provisions of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977, which my hon. Friend mentioned, local authorities are responsible for securing that those Service men and their families who satisfy the priority need criteria are provided with housing when they are discharged and they have no other accommodation available. However this Act offers protection to local authorities with garrisons in their areas. A local connection for the purpose of the Act cannot be established solely by military service.

As I think that my hon. Friend knows, any long-term duty to secure accommodation for a Service man or his family will therefore in many cases not rest with the authority in whose area the garrison is located. Thus, this provision is particularly relevant to my hon. Friend's constituency for the reasons that he outlined—it contains the largest garrison town in the country. An authority may incur expenditure in the first instance by providing temporary accommodation while arrangements are being made for the transfer of the responsibility to another authority, but the local authority associations' referrals agreement provides that it would be reimbursed for any costs incurred by the authority that ultimately takes on this responsibility.

Nevertheless it is accepted that some ex-Service men can marry local girls and thus prove a local connection with the area. As I said, the HIP allocation took into account the total homeless figures including those ex-Service men who have established a local connection of this kind. My hon. Friend may find it reassuring that the allowance for homelessness for the 1982–83 HIP allocations was revised upwards over previous years to reflect more accurately the demands being placed on authorities.

That was the main reason for Rushmoor receiving a substantial increase over its previous year's HIP allocation at a time of financial restraint; the increase was about £⅞ million and Rushmoor was thus one of the very few authorities in the South-East to have its HIP allocation increased in real terms.

Authorities are able to determine from factors such as the size and composition of their waiting lists, the condition of the private and public sector housing stock, and other costs how the HIP allocation and other resources should be spent to best effect. They are in the position to decide what proportion of expenditure should be devoted to the different aspects of their housing programme. For this reason, since 1980–81 HIP allocations have been made in a single block so that local authorities have freedom to decide how to spend it in the light of local needs. This has worked quite well.

In the case of Service men awaiting discharge, close liaison between housing authorities and local military garrisons is obviously important. I wish to draw the attention of the House to the importance of this. A few weeks ago, on 18 October, my Department sent a consultation letter to the local authority associations and voluntary organisations with details of a certificate procedure designed to assist authorities by providing evidence of impending loss of Service accommodation.

The certificate should dispense with the need to obtain a court order for possession as evidence of impending homelessness and should be submitted, whenever possible, six months before discharge so that appropriate arrangements can be made. My hon. Friend will, I am sure, wish to know that my Department has asked local authority associations to commend this practice to their member authorities, since it not only helps ex-Service men about to lose their Service accommodation but also offers early advance warning to authorities who may be called upon to rehouse these families. We are not doing that because we anticipate a big increase in the number of Service families requiring rehousing, but because we wish to improve the procedure and where possible remove the need for a court order before homelessness is established.

When I saw my hon. Friend and the deputation from Rushmoor they said that the council had a statutory responsibility to provide housing which it may not be able to fulfil in future because there is so little land to build on and because it had committed its HIP money elsewhere. I understand that argument. In the letter that I wrote to my hon. Friend on 4 August I set out the position as it was then on land likely to become available. I should like to update that information, so I shall write to my hon. Friend again. One or two events have taken place since I wrote the letter and I should like to put my hon. Friend in the picture.

In the last month or so right-to-buy sales using private finance have increased dramatically. I hope that that was as a result of the meeting. I commend Rushmoor's action to speed up right-to-buy sales and get the money in.

The use of private mortgages, as opposed to local authority mortgages, boosts capital receipts. Rushmoor may also find that it can transfer funds to housing from its other accounts. For example, the contribution paid to Rushmoor in lieu of the rates of the military town at Aldershot may be another source of funds for that purpose.

I do not wish to give my hon. Friend the impression that I am unsympathetic to Rushmoor's position. I am not. My sympathy was increased as a result of the meeting on 7 July. Since then a further meeting has been held between representatives of the council and my Department to discuss Rushmoor's proposed housing programme for next year. My hon. Friend's timing of the debate is opportune because we are about to take decisions on HIP allocations for all authorities. They will be announced shortly.

Within the constraints of the overall resources that will be available, Rushmoor's requirements, with those of other authorities, will be most sympathetically considered when the allocations are decided. The local authority associations have been told recently that applications from authorities for increasing their current HIP allocations for 1982–83 will be considered urgently. My hon. Friend mentioned that. Any leeway that Rushmoor has to bring forward expenditure will be sympathetically considered.

I hope that my remarks have been helpful and that they have allayed my hon. Friend's concern about housing problems in Rushmoor. I also hope that other authorities with large Service garrisons in their areas will obtain some reassurance from my remarks about the rehousing of Service men and the new procedure which I hope will be introduced. I assure my hon. Friend that I shall examine Rushmoor's position personally before we take any decisions about HIP allocations. I shall take on board the valid points that he has made.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes to Three o'clock.