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Local Authority Housing

Volume 100: debated on Wednesday 25 June 1986

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5.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment when he next plans to meet representatives of the local authority associations to discuss ways of reducing the backlog of repair work identified in his Department's inquiry into the condition of the local authority housing stock in England.

I will be meeting representatives of the local authority associations to discuss various housing issues at the Housing Consultative Council meeting on 8 July.

Does the Secretary of State accept the Audit Commission's estimate that about £900 million is added each year to the council house repair bill? Does that not mean that, at the present rate of investment, it will take us about 90 years to bring all council housing up to an acceptable standard?

In view of the seriousness of the problem, what steps is the right hon. Gentleman taking to ensure that local authorities display greater interest in co-operating with the private sector in the repair and rehabilitation of council estates?

I have barely received, let alone had time to study, the report. If that proves to be the case, it must be said that local authorities have for many years failed to keep their housing stock in good order.

It is extraordinary that, after decades of managing local authority housing, local councils have now come along with a capital problem, which appears to be great, because of their neglect to keep rents at a level which would enable them to keep their houses in good order. Further evidence of that is the fact that spending per house on repair and maintenance and on capital improvements was abysmally low when we came to power. Since 1980–81 spending per house has gone up by 21·5 per cent. in real terms. We now have figures of £2·5 billion a year on maintenance. £1·2 billion on capital and £1·4 billion on revenue expenditure, which are far better figures than when we first came to power. It is that which has gone wrong in the past. Not enough has been spent to maintain the houses, and that is why we have such a bad situation of disrepair.

Is it not a national scandal that so many local authorities are keeping many council houses empty for so long? Is not their negligence contributing to the misery of homelessness? Does my right hon. Friend agree that one solution to the problem is to allow do-it-yourself experts who are waiting for council houses to take over those council houses for a rent-free period and do them up at their own expense, because the local authority would have left them empty in any event?

I agree with my hon. Friend. He has made a sound point. The fundamental problem is that those houses have been allowed to exist without being repaired and the local authorities have not had sufficient revenue to do so. Whether the repairs are done by allowing the tenant to do it at his own expense, or whether the tenant pays more so that the local authority can do it, is a secondary issue. The point is that it should never have been allowed to happen in the first place.

As the Government's own estimates of the backlog of repairs or cost is about £19 billion, how can the Government justify further constraint on money for repairs by local authorities?

I take seriously the appalling situation of disrepair in local authority houses. That is something I shall he looking at to see how we can best deal with it. I should have thought that the whole House would agree that we should not allow further disrepair. We should avoid the mistakes of the past in failing to maintain houses as we go along out of the housing revenue accounts.

Will my right hon. Friend consider allowing local authorities to use a greater proportion of their capital receipts, perhaps returning to the 40 per cent. level which was the figure until the beginning of last year, as a means of addressing this problem?

That is something that I am busy studying at the moment. The areas where the main disrepair has been allowed to grow tend to be in large municipal housing estates where there are small accumulated receipts. Areas where there are large accumulated receipts tend to be where the local authority has kept its housing in a much better state of repair. There is a serious mismatch between resources and needs.

Does the Secretary of State accept the need for substantial additional resources to be made available to those inner city authorities which have the greatest concentrations of problems? Will he possibly even consider using those capital receipts, which are available elsewhere, to help those authorities with the greatest need?

My hon. Friends will be delighted to hear that the Labour party thinks that the prudent housekeeping of many Tory district councils, which has resulted in accumulated receipts, should be forcibly taken away from them and given to spendthrift authorities which fail to keep their housing in good order.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that those local authorities which have gone out to private contractors to have the housing stock maintained have spent their money more effeciently and cost-effectively? Is it not a fact that one of the principal problems with the maintainence of the housing stock is the inefficiency of the direct labour organisations in many areas? Is that not aggravated by the refusal of Labour-controlled local authorities to accept the lowest tender from private contractors?

I do not believe that the reason my hon. Friend gives is the only one. It seems to me that the essential need is for a local authority to get itself sufficient resources and to use those resources to secure the greatest value for money possible, to make sure that its housing stock does not deteriorate. It is not only rates and grant that are available to a local authority; it is the tenants' income itself, which could be spent on the tenants' houses, if there was a proper level of rent.

May we take it that we have therefore elicited from the Secretary of State that he agrees with the Audit Commission that there is a crisis of serious proportions in the condition of our local authority housing stock? If that is so, and the right hon. Gentleman talks, as he did recently when he was appointed, of prudent housekeeping how can it be prudent housekeeping when local authorities which have a legacy of system-built houses and non-traditional homes are sometimes not allowed to spend their own money to keep together houses that are literally falling apart? Surely it is just ideological nonsense to suggest that any help from the public sector will not solve the enormous problem identified by the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, the Audit Commission and his own Department.

The hon. Gentleman must not put words into my mouth. I did not accept the Audit Commission's description of a crisis. As I said, I have not had a chance to study its report yet, and I am not commenting on it. I accept that there is a large element of disrepair in some local authority housing estates as well as in municipal estates. I should like to make just one point, that that disrepair should not have been allowed to arise. We have two things to do now. First, we have to see how best to clear up the areas of neglect of those local authorities. Secondly, we have to put it fairly on the line that local authorities should not allow further neglect and deterioration. Because several local authorities have neglected to keep their houses in a fit state for their tenants to live in the hon. Gentleman turns round and blames the Government. He should be blaming the local authorities, and he knows it.

It does us all good to have our names forgotten at times.

Will my right hon. Friend accept congratulations from the Conservative Benches on attaining his distinguished office, to which I am sure he will lend his originality and interest? We shall watch with fascination his progress. Does my right hon. Friend accept that one of the problems that we have is that many of us are exactly and entirely behind the sale of council houses, which gives people choice, but feel that that money should then be available to repair the stock of council houses? If we delay spending £250 this year, it will be £400 next year and dereliction the year after. Could we not encourage both sale and repair, which would be to the benefit of all the people?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his welcome and the even more attractive adjectives than those used by the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham). As Question Time goes on it gets better and better.

I agree with my hon. Friend that the combination of privatisation and repair of council houses is what we want, but on several estates the condition of the council houses is such that I do not believe that anybody would want to buy them as they are. That is a special problem, to which I intend to turn my attention, but let it be absolutely clear that I am saying only that I recognise that there is a problem in certain areas. At the same, time I believe that we must make sure that we do not get into a worse position, by ensuring that local authorities take their responsibilities seriously.