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Council Housing Stock

Volume 82: debated on Wednesday 10 July 1985

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asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will institute a survey in all major cities of council housing stock to discover how much money necessary repairs will cost.

My Department has already launched such an inquiry. On 11 April of this year my Department wrote to all local housing authorities in England asking them for information on the condition of their housing stock, and the expenditure they estimate is needed to put it in good condition. Local authorities' returns are now being processed and I hope initial results will be available by the end of this month.

Is it not a fact that Sheffield launched such a survey, the results of which show that hundreds of millions of pounds are needed at a time when the trail of destruction of cuts by the Government is not only allowing the infrastructure to degenerate on a grand scale but is causing the superstructure to degenerate? When will the hon. Gentleman realise that, as a result of those cuts and the ensuing rate capping, it is impossible to provide services for people in the way that councils have been doing for years because the Government are cutting out the money that is needed to repair council houses, for which the waiting lists grow longer every week?

On the first point, my Department is indeed analysing the results of the survey that Sheffield council has done. As I said, we hope that the results will be available by the end of the month. With regard to reductions in public expenditure investment in housing, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, between 1974 and 1979 public sector investment in housing fell by 45 per cent., after allowing for inflation, and since we came to power it has fallen by 26 per cent. on the same basis, so I reject his criticism.

Has my hon. Friend had any discussions with the Halifax building society about the approval of repair schemes for pre-cast reinforced concrete houses in major cities or elsewhere? If so, can he tell the House what types of houses and what methods of repair may now be eligible for mortgages from the Halifax as a result of what seems to be an excellent initiative by the society?

I was delighted to learn that the Halifax building society has agreed that PRC houses repaired under the NHBC schemes will automaticaly be accepted by the society for a mortgage. It has done this in advance of formal approval by the NHBC. I very much welcome that initiative, which I think will be greatly welcomed by many owners. I hope that it will not be too long before other building societies follow in its wake.

Does the Minister recognise that the massive problems of dampness and condensation, which affect so many flats in constituencies like mine, result directly from the fact that many tenants simply cannot afford adequate heating in their own homes, particularly when they have to contend with wickedly expensive and inefficient heating systems put in during the 1960s? What steps are the Government planning to help local authorities to tackle those problems?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I visited his constituency and met a number of the tenants in some of the more difficult estates in Greenwich. If Greenwich borough council wishes to spend part of its HIP on improving the heating systems in local authority stock, the Government would not question its priority. We shall be discussing at a later stage with Greenwich and other local authorities which have difficulty what can be done through the newly established unit on urban housing renewal, which my Department launched a few weeks ago.

*Having carried out this survey, will my hon. Friend also take the opportunity to examine the length of time for which council houses remain void in the Middlesbrough area in particular, and the outstanding rents that are owed in that area? If the two things were brought together, after 50 years of almost continuous rule by the Labour authority in Middlesbrough, the situation would improve for council house and other tenants in that region.

I agree with my hon. Friend that if houses are left unlet there is a loss of income. Likewise, if rents are not collected, the local authority is also out of pocket. This may inhibit the level of service that it can provide to tenants and ratepayers. I hope that Middlesbrough will respond to the prodding of my hon. Friend and reduce the number of vacant properties and outstanding debts.

Has the Minister seen the Royal Institute of British Architects' survey on local authority housing entitled "Decaying Britain", which shows that £10,000 million is needed to deal with the backlog of repairs and maintenance? Is the Minister aware that selling council houses will not raise that amount of money? Where will it come from? Will the Government cough up? Can the people who live in that housing be assured that these problems will be resolved?

As of a few days ago, I understood that the policy, supported by a number of the hon. Friends of the hon. Gentleman, was to sell council houses. I am surprised to learn that this policy does not have the support of the hon. Gentleman. On the figure of £10 billion that he mentioned, I have seen a range of figures, from £10 billion up to £20 billion, from the Association of Metropolitan Authorities. When we have the results of the survey to which I referred we shall have a much clearer picture of how much money is needed to catch up with the backlog of repairs to local authority stock.

*The question was in fact asked by Mr. Holt. see Official Report, 11 July 1985, c. 1291.

My hon. Friend realises that repairs and maintenance are a serious matter for any city. The citizens who occupy council tenancies in Southampton are very angry with the Labour-controlled council because its repairs fund is underspent by £600,000, due mainly to a series of mistakes and omissions. Whatever may be the council's excuse, this is deplorable when one realises how much of the housing stock of some cities is in need of repair.

I hope that the electors of Southampton will wreak their vengeance on a local authority which has failed to spend the resources that have been made available to it. It is worth reminding the House that expenditure this year on renovating public sector housing stock is running at over £1 billion. That is an increase on the 1979 figure.

Does the Under-Secretary of State really need an inquiry to point out to him that the major social problem in many of our inner cities is the repair of houses, when people are constantly complaining about the condition of their houses? When the report is published there will be only one recommendation: that local authorities need money to help them to repair their housing stock.

I referred not to an inquiry but, to a survey. We require up-to-date, accurate information about what is needed to put local authority housing stock into a better condition. My Department has asked for this information to be made available in time for the public expenditure round. When we have the information we shall be better placed to make decisions and solve the problems to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred.

Is the Secretary of State confessing to the House and to the millions of people who live in substandard and inadequate accommodation that the Government do not understand the problems and do not have the information? If, when the survey is completed, the overwhelmimg evidence that is already available from the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, the Royal Institute of British Architects and others is confirmed, will the Government provide the extra resources that are needed to help the millions of families who are living in squalor, dampness and freezing conditions?

The problems to which the hon. Gentleman has just referred have not arisen only during the last four or five years. They are due to years of neglect and bad management of local authority stock. The Government are trying to obtain an up-to-date and accurate assessment of the resources that are needed. When we have that information we shall be better placed to negotiate the resources that are needed.