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Homelessness (Leicester)

Volume 171: debated on Wednesday 25 April 1990

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

12.40 am

I understand that this is the first time that the House has debated homelessness in Leicestershire, but because of my constituency interest I have decided to concentrate on the city of Leicester and the crisis of housing in it.

In my weekly surgeries, whether they be in Northfields, Netherhall, Thurnby Lodge, Goodwood, Evington, Coleman, Belgrave or Rushy Mead, one issue dominates the work of my constituency—the problem of housing. It is a fundamental right of every citizen of Leicester to have a home that is warm, dry, decent and affordable. It is clear from statistics that that fundamental right is being breached every minute of every day for thousands of people who live in Leicester.

The debate is not only about statistics but about the human misery lying behind the crisis of housing. It causes anguish and despair. Men and women who have visited my surgery have wept openly because they cannot get a council house or be transferred to another. People have literally gone down on their knees and begged me to do something to alleviate the overcrowded and damp conditions in which they live. Letters, petitions and phone calls have been made to my staff, with appeals of such desperation that it is impossible not to be moved and to become emotional about their plight. The blame for that trauma lies with the Government. On an evening when we have discussed war crimes, in the war against homelessness the Government's inaction borders on the criminal.

The sickness that the housing crisis creates manifests itself in the breakdown of family life and in some cases leads to divorce, illness, abuse, violence and intolerable stress. It plagues parents and children and delivers them into a world of desperation and unhappiness.

I thank Leicester city council for the work that it does and acknowledge the assistance that I have received from Councillors Surinder Sharmar and David Brazier in my preparation for this debate. In addition, three officers, John Perry, Phil Howard and Christine Laird, have provided valuable assistance. I want to pay tribute to all who work in the sector and have the agonising task of allocating property, in particular Peter Jones and the Humberstone area office, who cope not only with diminishing resources but a Member of Parliament who demands everything yesterday. I make no apology for being over-zealous in protecting my constituents.

Leicester faces a severe housing crisis as a result of Government policies, which have systematically discriminated against the public sector provision of housing. There are over 11,000 applicants on the council's housing waiting list, many of whom face a wait of many years for properties in the areas of their choice. The number of vacancies is 30 per cent. lower than 12 months ago. There are significant parts of the city where no waiting list applicant has been rehoused over the past year. In many parts of the city, turnover rates are far lowr than required to service the waiting and transfer lists. The average stay for a tenant is now 25 years. Turnover rates are particularly low for three and four-bedroom properties; the average stay for a tenant of such a property is 27 years.

The lack of property to meet demand throughout most of the city is a clear sign of the combined effects of the Government's right-to-buy policy and the low level of activity in the private sector because of high interest rates. Over 20 per cent. of the city council's housing stock has been lost through the right to buy. That represents 9,000 dwellings. Conversely, high interest rates are producing additional demand on council stock because of the increased number of mortgage repossessions and owner-occupiers selling their properties because they can no longer afford mortgage payments.

The crisis in housing is particularly reflected in a marked increase in homelessness. An average of 57 cases per month are now being accepted—an increase of 32 per cent. on last year. That increase in activity is reflected in a commensurate rise in the average number of interviews carried out by the homeless and hostel section of the city council, which currently stands at 750 a month. Changes in the benefits system, including for people in board and lodgings and hostel dwellers, have helped to fuel the crisis. For council tenants, they have also contributed to a major increase in rent arrears.

There are simply not enough properties to go around. The Leicester structure plan proposed that 17,400 properties should be built between 1981 and 1986, an average of 1,160 a year. Only 323 completions were made from all sectors in 1988–89, making a total of 4,033 from 1981 to 1989. Due to financial restrictions placed on the city council by the Government, there has been no new build programme for the past four years, although the council is making major efforts to facilitate the provision of social housing by other agencies.

The condition of properties is also a major cause for concern, with 1,975 estate and 650 acquired properties that remain unmodernised. Parts of my constituency, particularly the Northfields estate, are a prime example. It would cost over £11 million to refurbish the estate properties on an elemental basis. Full modernisation would cost over £37 million.

Housing renewal is just as bleak. Nearly 3 million houses are in unsatisfactory condition, by the Government's own standards—15 per cent. of the en tire housing stock. There has been hardly any improvement since 1981 in the number of properties in serious disrepair. Over half the properties in poor condition are owner-occupied, often by people on low incomes who are least likely to do repair work. Any increased help through improvement grants must be set against the declining spending power of the poorest 20 per cent. of wage earners who increasingly cannot afford mortgage and repair costs. Private landlords are failing to invest in older housing. On average, privately rented property has twice as much outstanding repair work as other property, despite deregulation of rents.

The new means test for improvement grants which has been initiated by the Government will be far too harsh on people with modest incomes. It will not help those on the Norton estate who have been seeking to modernise their properties. At present rates of clearance, houses that are unfit now will still be awaiting replacement in 100 years' time. The Government have failed to grasp the need for more incentives to facilitate clearance of the worst housing by giving adequate compensation to dispossessed householders.

The Conservative-controlled Association of District Councils assesses the backlog of disrepair in England to be £50 billion and calculates that private sector support from local authorities will have to run at twice the present levels if unsatisfactory housing is to be eliminated within 10 years. I remind the Minister of the answer that he gave me in a written reply on 3 November 1989, which shows a massive drop in the housing allocation in real terms—£24 million in 1981–82 to £13·716 million in 1988–89.

A similar crisis is affecting the Housing Corporation and the housing associations. The Housing Corporation has reduced its allocation to Leicester from £13·5 million in 1989–90 to £9 million in 1990–91. Housing Association rehabilitation work has also been drastically cut in Leicester due to the problems being experienced with the new mixed funding regime. There were 80 such projects in 1988–89, while there were just 12 in 1989–90.

I shall tell the Minister just some of the comments that I have received since I told local housing associations that I would have this debate. Referring to the new grant regime, the chief executive of Leicester Housing Association Ltd. said:
"The new Grant Regime does nothing to assist the urban renewal process … the Total Cost Indicator Category for Leicester is appallingly low when one considers land prices within Leicester as compared to land prices within other areas of the country in the same Category … This further and substantially inhibits the viability of both 'New Build' and `Rehabilitation' schemes."
In a letter to me dated 23 April Mr. Tony Mawby, the director of ASRA, said:
"Those of us trying to provide homes for a very disadvantaged part of the Community of Leicester are especially vulnerable to the new funding regime introduced by the 1988 Housing Act."
Mrs. Pat Elderfield, the chief executive of East Midlands Housing Association, said:
"The new funding system therefore is not only reducing the number of new rented units but is likely to see a rapid reversal of private investment, an issue of wider national concern."
Denis O'Sullivan, the director of the Leicester Family Housing Association, John Walker, the director of the Leicester Federation of Housing Societies, and Harry Perry, the director of the Leicester Newark Housing Association, all raise new difficulties caused by the allocation by the Government. Mr. Perry refers to the case of a young homeless Wigston teenager who was found living in a shed on a railway siding. The council refused to rehouse her and she had to come to the city to be rehoused. He also pointed to the Education (Student Loans) Bill and the abolition of housing benefit as further examples of causes of decline.

Not only the housing associations but the voluntary organisations have raised the matter with me. In a letter to me, Mr. John Elliott, the chairman of the Leicester Shelter group, said that he ran an emergency telephone service on behalf of the Leicester Shelter housing aid and research project. He said that he recently received a call from a woman on a Sunday. He said:
"She was literally homeless that night. I could not find a single hostel vacancy, not even in the emergency Night Shelter.
All women are at risk at night—to sleep rough places them in a potentially dangerous situation. I am horrified that there is frequently no emergency accommodation in the city to offer shelter and protection."
Shelter's annual report published recently shows that the number of people who are homeless in the city has doubled. It dealt with 662 inquiries in 1978. In 1989 that figure was 1,351, an increase of 104 per cent. It says:
"The type of enquiries has become much more severe, with the number of literally homeless people rising from 86 in 1979 to 289 in 1989, a phenomenal rise of 236 per cent."
It concludes its report by saying:
"This desperate situation is not the result of an accident but is the predictable (and predicted) outcome of existing Government policy."
In letters that I have received from local people and councillors in the past few hours, it is clear where they believe that the blame lies. Mr. Les George, a former tenants' association committee member from Humberstone, asks what has been done about the amount of private properties that have been left unfilled. Local councillors in my constituency, including Andrew Parmas and Roy Stuttard in west Humberstone, Amu Devar and Merlyn Vaz in Charnwood, Dave Thomas in Coleman, Bhupin Dave of Latimer, Ramik Kavia and Mustapha Kamal of Belgrave, Mike Preston in Humberstone all talk about financial robbery by the Government of the city council.

A local councillor in Coleman, Mary Draycott, said that nothing was being done for the disabled. She said:
"Many disabled are forced to lead lives confined to rooms or even chairs like prisoners. Social Service funds cannot cope with the number of adaptations needed to improve peoples lives early enough due to lack of funds."
I pay tribute to the officers and committee members of all the tenants' associations in my constituency, including Frank Kerr, Arthur Padmore, Selwyn Williams, Carole Simpson, Lyn Lowells, Bill and Jean Cooper, Bob Smith and full-time workers Kevin Brown, Nirmal Bahsey and Adrian Waite who dealt with many of the problems brought to Members of Parliament and local councillors. They champion tirelessly the cause of tenants. Three of them wrote to me.

Ken Webb, chairman of the St. Mark's tenants' association, a non-political organisation, said:
"This Government have categorically, and consistently reduced the level of financing to City Council in respect of all housing requirements placed on City Council … despite pressure from the various organisations who wish to see a positive and constructive improvement in all aspects of housing in the City."
Walter Lindsay, the chairman of the Rowletts Hill tenants' and residents association, said:
"How can a council be expected to house homeless people without new build for rent at reasonable prices? You cannot keep putting rents up without a corresponding rise in wages and benefits. This is like moving the goalposts every time the ball comes near to them."
Diane Cank, the secretary of the Morton, Northfields and Tailby tenants association wrote about one of the worst parts of my constituency, which is in desperate need of further finance. She said:
"The standard of properties available has dropped dramatically, some properties on the Northfields and Tailby estates still have sandstone sinks and pumps in. Many properties are unfit to live in, modernisation of properties is often too long awaited for and when done of poor standard. Properties on the Northfields Estate suffer from cracking walls and ceilings, damp and subsidence."
If the Government need a memorial to their housing policies, they need look no further than the Hamilton estate in the eastern part of my constituency. It was planned for 4,000 homes; only 133 are built and less than 50 are occupied. The Government's disastrous economic policies have meant that people cannot afford their mortgages and homes lie empty. I wanted it to be a showpiece for my city, but the Government have stopped that happening.

It is as though we have entered a time warp—immovable waiting lists meeting the Government's inflexible policies, and resulting in social catastrophy. If we are truly to give people the homes they need, the Government must get off their ideological high horse and allow the council and housing associations to build and rent. The consequence of failing to do so is to condemn a generation of my fellow citizens to a life of despair.

12.56 am

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) on raising this important matter in the House, and I thank him for sparing some of his time. He, my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) and I find that our surgeries and constituency mail are overloaded with complaints from people suffering great hardship through homelessness.

The reasons for that are clear. There are only two types of housing: public and private. No new houses can be built in the public sector, and houses in existence are being sold. In the private sector, people cannot afford to pay their mortgages because of the high interest rates. There is high unemployment in the knitwear, hosiery and footwear industries and too many people are being driven on to the public market, which has a shrinking stock. The result is a growth in homelessness and people who literally do not have a roof over their heads.

There are not just 11,000 such people, but 11,000 applications. A growing number of people are suffering from the savage homelessness. That figure is, as my hon. Friend said, a direct result of the Government's housing policies in Leicestershire. I greatly hope that the Minister may provide some hope for the future for our people by saying that the Government will recognise the desperate nature of the situation and provide more central funding, which is so badly needed for many of our Leicester constituents in this awful predicament.

12.57 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment
(Mr. Christopher Chope)

It is a matter of regret that we have been treated this evening to an extraordinarily negative and whingeing speech from the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) and the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner). They failed to give credit where credit was due and have done the people of Leicester a great disservice.

Although Leicester city council is not run by the Conservatives—it would be much better run if it were—I shall not be so churlish as to suggest that everything that it does is appalling. Many of its actions on housing have been sensible and productive. The condition of the housing stock in Leicester has improved dramatically during the present Government's lifetime. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Leicester, East does not seem prepared to accept that, because it is a fact.

I was lucky enough to visit Leicester about a month ago. I was taken round by the chairman of the housing committee and saw many things on the ground. I was able to see the improvements that have been made in housing in Leicester. They have been made largely as a result of the Government's generosity and the far-sightedness of their housing policies, which have concentrated on providing the resources to improve the quality of the housing stock, both in the private and public sector.

Listening to the hon. Gentleman, one would not have thought that capital spending on housing in Leicester in the past two years amounted to about £75 million—a vast amount—and that this year the amount may be as much as £25 million as a result of a much increased housing investment programme allocation. If the hon. Gentleman suggests that all that capital spending has not produced any improvements, that is a sad reflection on the council's way of spending its money. A fairer view, however, can be taken. That money has been reasonably well invested in housing in Leicester, and as a result, housing in Leicester is much better than it would otherwise have been.

I do not think that we should have any truck with the negative approach adopted by the hon. Gentleman this evening. He does his constituents and the many people who work actively to improve housing in Leicester a disservice by suggesting that their efforts have been to no avail. Housing in Leicester has improved beyond all measure during the lifetime of this Government.

The housing investment programme allocation to Leicester this year is about £18·32 million. Out of 47 authorities in England with populations between 200,000 and 350,000, Leicester is the 16th largest, but it has the ninth largest housing investment programme allocation, reflecting its relatively high housing needs. That shows that the Government recognise those housing needs and, more importantly, that they are taking action to ensure that the resources are provided.

On top of the housing investment programme allocation, substantial special credit allocations are likely to be made. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there is also the money available from capital receipts from the sale of council houses. The hon. Gentleman made it clear that he does not believe in the right to buy. He resents those in Leicester who have exercised that right under this Government. A Labour Government would deprive people of the right to buy, because they resent the rights of owner-occupation, and the freedom that goes with it. With owner-occupation also goes a willingness of people to pay more towards the cost of their own housing, thereby ensuring that the taxpayer's resources can go to those in greatest need.

The Housing Corporation has made a generous allocation to Leicester. A total of £13·6 million has been committed to housing provision in Leicestershire during the past financial year, and at least 500 units of accommodation have already been provided. Another 130 are on the way. Of this funding, more than £12·5 million went to the city of Leicester-£10·7 million into rented housing, and the rest into low-cost housing for sale. Within these amounts, the corporation gives high priority to schemes for the homeless, but any house provided for rent should be of help to the homeless so long as the greatest needs are met first.

Leicester City is one of the areas in which we are providing support through the citizens advice bureau for additional advice to the homeless. That should help take pressure off the Leicester homelessness unit and help ensure that each person gets full attention so that the optimum solution to his problems is found.

We also have our targeted estate action scheme, through which we have helped Leicester city increase the attractiveness of some of its poorer housing estates, thereby reducing re-let times and vacancy rates. The turnaround at St. Peter's and St. Matthew's estates has been remarkable. I look forward to implementation of the plans at Mowmacre estate which I visited recently. These include more temporary accommodation for the homeless.

What can the Government do to help the city council build more council houses?

It is up to the city council to decide how it spends its resources. It has chosen sensibly to invest most of them in improving the condition of its existing housing stock, so that empty units are brought into use and the quality of its housing stock is improved. The hon. Gentleman implies that he disagrees with that, but it must be for the council to decide how to allocate its resources. The Government have put in substantial funds and we have provided a range of opportunities. One of the best bargains available to a local authority is to assist a housing association to provide rented accommodation in a mixed funded scheme.

In Leicestershire an association can raise about one third of the cost of providing family houses or bungalows on the private market. An authority can pay the balance, obtaining three rented houses for the cost of two. The amount it contributes is repaid immediately by the Housing Corporation, so there is no real cost, although the outlay counts against the capital expenditure programme. As far as I am aware, no Leicestershire authority has yet taken advantage of this provision. Any council still planning to build its own houses for rent ought to consider this most attractive alternative. I hope that Leicester city council will do that following this debate.

Councils can put in land at nil value, with the Secretary of State's consent, in order to help housing associations provide low-cost housing. Some Leicestershire districts have been making land available to housing associations in this way and have thereby been able to keep would-be home owners out of scarce rented housing. Often they have been able to arrange for some rented housing to go on these sites as well. Leicester city council has been working with a consortium of housing associations to develop several inner city sites. That is a constructive approach which bodes well for the future.

Another way to take pressure off the rented stock lies in our arrangement under the new capital finance provisions which permit local authorities to reinvest all the proceeds of houses that they build for sale. Where there is a shortage of low-cost housing for sale, councils should be able to set up self-financing rolling programmes or, if they can find some funding, programmes of shared ownership with a limited public sector input. In this way, too, they can divert demand from their waiting lists and free their rented housing for those who need it most.

Along the same lines we have introduced a cash incentive scheme whereby, with the Secretary of State's consent, councils can introduce schemes for paying cash grants to tenants who are ready to move into owner occupation. This is probably the cheapest way of producing a council letting for a homeless person. It is regrettable that hitherto Leicester city council has not made any application for such a scheme. It has the resources to pursue such a scheme and I hope that following this debate it will see that opportunity to try to improve matters.

The Government have a range of initiatives to facilitate the improvement of housing conditions, the better use of housing stock and so on, but at the end of the day it is for the housing authority to take charge of its own destiny. Leicester could do more to promote the right to buy, thereby releasing more capital receipts, and it could certainly do more for tenants through the incentive scheme to which I have referred. The resources and the opportunities are there. It is for councils to take them and to manage their own stock as efficiently as possible.

In Leicester city, vacancy rates have been falling. The Government have been critical of the high levels of vacancies in existing council stock. The figures in the housing investment programme return show that by April 1989 Leicester city had succeeded in reducing its void rate from 3·73 to 2·77 per cent. That is certainly progress, but every tenth of 1 per cent. that vacancies can be further reduced provides another 30 houses for the homeless in Leicester. There is a real incentive there for the authority to be even more efficient in turning round its voids.

In a determination under section 167 of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989, we have provided for local authorities to report on their stewardship to their tenants, giving key statistics on vacancies and other matters. I hope that that will be an incentive for greater efficiency in stock utilisation. All these measures are designed to increase the supply of rented housing and ensure that it goes to those who really need it.

The Government have a good record of assisting the housing department of Leicester city council and housing associations in Leicester and Leicestershire. I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman has not given us some credit for that, because credit is certainly due. From the emotional tone of his speech, one would have imagined that hundreds of families are in bed-and-breakfast accommodation in Leicester. Other housing authorities will certainly be interested to note that the figures for the last quarter of 1989 show that no households in Leicester were in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. When we compare that fact with the position in many council areas we see that, relatively speaking, the problems are nothing like as bad as the hon. Gentleman has suggested.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has given me the opportunity to draw attention to the Government's fine record of contributing to better-quality housing and a better quality of life for people in Leicester. Leicester city council is at its best when it is not keen on getting involved in ideology and putting that before the needs of its people. I am disappointed at the way in which the council recently put ideology first and gave a tender for a major contract to its in-house direct service organisation even though a lower contract was submitted by an outside contractor.

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock 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 ten minutes past One o'clock.