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Housing Standards

Volume 80: debated on Wednesday 12 June 1985

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asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what is his most recent estimate of the number of homes in the United Kingdom regarded as being below tolerable standards.

The 1981 "English House Condition Survey" estimated that 1 · 1 million dwellings in England were unfit for human habitation. An updated estimate will be provided by the next survey to be held in 1986.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept the point made earlier by the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Morris), that only by providing proper improvement grants to private owners will we keep pace with the deterioration in housing stock? Is he aware that people in local government well remember what happened some years ago in the cities when the rate of grant was reduced from 75 to 50 per cent? Suddenly, private owners were unable to carry out the necessary renovations of their houses. Unless proper improvement grants are made available to those people, will we not be faced with having to demolish and rebuild some properties at far greater cost?

I must question the assumption at the beginning of the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question, that it is up to the taxpayer to maintain the condition of privately-owned houses. In the first instance, it must be the responsibility of the owner-occupier to maintain his house in good condition. Where that has failed, there is a case for public sector intervention in certain cases. It would be wrong to imply, as the hon. Gentleman did, that the emphasis on restoring the condition of private housing stock rests with the taxpayer.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the substantial reduction in the number of houses below a tolerable standard north of the border owes a great deal to the success of the Government's policy on housing improvement grants? Does he also agree that, judiciously used, housing improvement grants can do a great deal to improve housing stock and to create employment in the construction sector? Will my hon. Friend and his colleagues press the Treasury to make appropriate resources available for this important grant?

I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that the Department of the Environment has done well in relation to improvement grants. The figure increased from £90 million to £900 million over six years at a time of restraint on public expenditure generally. I hope my hon. Friend also agrees that, within public expenditure constraints, we have tried to make improvement grants a priority. I was encouraged to learn of the good results in Scotland. I am sure that the policy over the past five or six years has resulted in large numbers of houses in England being improved.

Does the Minister agree that the Government's only response to the problems of deteriorating and defective housing has been to cut local authority investment programmes by more than half in cash terms in the last five years and to prevent local authorities from using their own capital receipts to assist with the problem? Is he aware that that demonstrates yet again the Government's contempt for the badly housed, of whom there are hundreds of thousands?

I reject that analysis entirely. The policy of the Government has been to engage the resources of the private and public sectors to tackle the housing problems and to generate a large volume of receipts for local authorities from vigorous sales as a result of the right to buy, which was opposed at the time by Labour Members. I repeat that the answer to the problems caused by poor housing conditions does not rest solely on more public money being provided. We must also get the resources of the institutions and owner-occupiers.

Will my hon. Friend accept, however, that it is far cheaper to improve a house than to knock it down and build another? Is he aware that where clearance has taken place the social problems that have resulted have far outweighed any savings that my hon. Friend thinks there may have been in terms of improvement grants? Will he reconsider the importance of improvement grants, which I believe are good for the community, good for first time house-buyers, good for the country and ensure good value for money?

Order. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides want to hear the Minister's reply.

If my hon. Friend re-reads the Green Paper on improvement grants which we published a few weeks ago he will see that the Government share his desire to maintain the housing stock in good condition. However, we say that it is more important in the future to engage the resources of the private sector as well as those of the public sector so as to make even faster progress than we have so far made. I hope he will agree that the Government's commitment to getting the private institutions—building societies, pension funds and the building industry — to put more into it is wholly consistent with our philosophy and will enable us to make faster progress than we would were we to rely solely on publicly funded improvement grants.

The Minister should be deeply ashamed to stand at the Dispatch Box and announce to the House and, more importantly, to the country, that 1·1 million houses are not in a tolerable condition, especially at a time when he is cutting not only improvement grants but the financial wherewithal to solve the problem. Is it not patently obvious to him, even at this stage, that his policies have failed? Will he go back to the drawing board and re-think the whole issue, not just because of what Labour Members think about his policies, but on behalf of the people who are living in the houses in question? Is he aware that if he does not do that he will be condemning them to living in the sort of intolerable conditions in which he would not be prepared to live? Will he please have a re-think and produce a new solution, knowing that his policies have patently failed?

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the figure of unfit houses that was revealed in the 1981 survey was lower than the figure shown in the 1976 survey. [Interruption.] The 1976 figure showed fewer unfit houses than there were in 1971, and the 1981 figure showed fewer unfit houses than there were in 1976. It is not true to say, therefore, that there are more unfit houses. The answer to the rest of the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question is that we have recently outlined some fresh initiatives in relation to home improvements to enable faster progress to be made, and I look forward to seeing his response to our Green Paper.