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Housing (Stoke-On-Trent)

Volume 171: debated on Tuesday 1 May 1990

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

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

10.20 pm

It is precisely because of my experience at constituency surgeries over the past few months that I have been prompted to seek the Adjournment of the House to debate what is a most important issue in my constituency. Anyone who had seen the huge number of homeless people who have come to my surgeries, who have families and who have nowhere to live, would be left with no alternative but to bring the matter urgently to the attention of the House. I know that the Minister who will reply to the debate has in recent weeks had the opportunity to visit Stoke-on-Trent, North and I know that he has seen at first hand some of our many problems. I hope that we will have a constructive response from him which will enable the city council of Stoke-on-Trent and the borough council of Newcastle to go a considerable way in dealing with the huge problem of homelessness. Roughly one third of Stoke-on-Trent comes under Newcastle borough council and the remaining two thirds under Stoke-on-Trent city council.

Of all the problems of the area, housing is one of the major ones. I stress that both councils are Labour-controlled and will remain so. Both are equally committed to deal with the acute and growing housing crisis which is easily the worst since the second world war. Both councils are doing the very best job that they can under the impossible constraints imposed by central Government. Neither council is able to invest either in new house building or in the improvement of existing housing on the scale which is now both necessary and urgent.

I stress that it is the scale of the problem that is so important. New and improved homes are urgently needed. Both councils are working in close partnership with the Government on specific schemes, and we welcome them. We have seen some progress. But it is important to state that, although there have been some improvements, far more are needed. My surgeries have shown me that homelessness is now a serious problem that we must tackle. I hope that I can persuade the Government that more resources are needed and that, if they cannot be provided this financial year, it is essential that the Government plan to make them available in the next allocation of housing money to the two councils concerned.

North Staffordshire is no different from most other parts of the country in this respect. Last year Channel 4, in consultation with Shelter, produced an important documentary about homelessness. I felt that it should have had the status of the documentary "Cathy Come Home". Wanting to dispel the false assumption that only London has a problem of homelessness, the makers of the programme selected North Staffordshire as an average area not normally associated with rising homelessness. The documentary confirmed beyond all doubt that, after 10 years of Tory policies, it is not just in London that people are made homeless and are without homes; homelessness is an everyday reality for thousands of people throughout the country. Families as well as single people are without a place to live. The situation is intolerable. I want the Minister to answer for the misery that his Government's policies are causing to my constituents and others in the west midlands and the north-west.

In the west midlands in 1989 as many as 14,250 households were homeless and came under the responsibility of the local authorities, under the provisions of the Housing Act 1985. Similarly, in the north-west in 1989 as many as 21,210 households were homeless and local authorities had to accept responsibility for them.

Returning to a constituency level, and taking Newcastle first, how does the Minister account for there being as many as 59 families with children in lodgings, 24 eligible transfer applicants and 17 approved cases, all awaiting rehousing in two or three-bedroomed houses—not in the whole area of Newcastle but just in the Kidsgrove area of the borough, including Talke, Talke pits and Whitehill? How does he account for there being only five houses available for re-letting in that area during the past three months; and how does he account for the waiting time for eligible applicants being more than one year?

It is difficult to imagine what it must be like for applicants who have to come to my surgeries time and again and who are told by the council that despite its best efforts there are no houses available for letting in the near future. It is difficult to imagine the fear that their children will be grown up before they have had any chance of providing a secure home for them. It is difficult to imagine what it must be like for families feeling guilty about the extra pressure that they are placing on ageing relatives when they have to share their accommodation and use only the downstairs living room because the remainder of the house is already overcrowded with the rest of the family living there. Surely it is wrong that these people have no home of their own in the area to which they belong and in which they have strong community links, and where they want to stay, with decent accommodation.

Just in case the Minister had thought of intervening to say that this is purely a matter for the local council to sort out, I should like to remind him of some figures. Newcastle council spent more on housing in 1988–89 than on anything else, yet its housing service has been increasingly restrained by Government legislation and reductions in finance. After the past 10 years in which the council's borrowing allocation for housing work has been reduced, its ability to improve its properties or to build new ones has become progressively limited. By 1989–90 the council's basic allocation as a percentage of its actual bid was 14·5 per cent., and the Housing Act is set further to restrict the council's ability to satisfy the area's many housing needs.

This year, the council's bid for a housing allocation was for £8·863 million—a figure based not on some wild dream but on the justifiable housing needs of the borough and on what the council knew it could realistically spend. In return the council received approval to spend a mere £2·8 million, which is not enough, given the scale of the homelessness problem.

I know that when the Minister visited the area he had every opportunity to reassure himself that the allocation from the Government was being properly and efficiently spent. I wonder why the Government are so blinkered and determined. Why do they insist that market forces alone can deal with housing policy? Why do they prevent councils from building much-needed family houses?

I am worried about the new provision that allows purpose-built accommodation for elderly and disabled people to be sold off. In the long term that is making matters worse. It is ludicrous that councils have not been allowed to spend all the money from council house sales on building new homes for people on the waiting list.

In Kidsgrove we have an area known as Birchenwood, which is reclaimed land; we are pleased to have had Government support, in conjuction with the local council, for reclaiming that land. Of the 37 acres of derelict land that have been reclaimed and are now ready for development, 12 were originally earmarked for council housing, but they have already been sold to the private sector.

Twenty-five acres remain. Outline planning permission has already been given for housing. I would like to hear from the Minister a commitment that he would consider both public and partnership housing bids on that site for a housing allocation for the future. It is nonsense to expect people who are on the housing waiting list and who are homeless to be able to afford houses which cost £60,000 to £80,000 new. It is also regrettable that the Housing Corporation, which could help with housing on that site, has had its money reduced so drastically. I want the Minister to take that into account when considering the bids for Newcastle for next year.

The Housing Minister has visited Kidsgrove and is familiar with the area. I should like him to acknowledge that there are special problems on Galleys Bank estate caused by British Coal's failure to tell people that houses built for miners who moved into the north Staffordshire coalfield were defective under the housing defects legislation. Will he accept that, unless the Government step in, the local council does not have the cash to make good all the houses belonging to the so-called eligible and non-eligible owners? Does he accept that that in itself would go a considerable way towards easing the specific problems of the homeless in that area? If he can give an extra £637,000 and then an additional £690,000 to the neighbouring Conservative-controlled Staffordshire Moorlands council to assist owners of designated buildings there, surely he can treat Newcastle in the same way.

In Stoke-on-Trent, where traditionally the council has provided a large number of houses and there is a great need for repairs to older stock, homelessness is also increasing, as the documentary on Channel 4 showed. The crisis of homeless families is deepening. The council rents out 28,000 houses. Approximately 7,000 have been sold. The main concern is that the council has not been able to replace the houses that have been lost.

During the Minister's visit to Stoke-on-Trent he could see that the council has proved over and over again that it will co-operate with central Government and that it is prepared to have partnership schemes where there would be a considerable improvement in conditions. Certainly the Minister was able to take advantage of the opportunity to see the good progress being made in Tunstall and Chell Heath, which I welcome, and which has been the result of extra money.

None the less, Government economic policy, leading to mortgage repossessions, and the refusal to allow councils to build affordable houses, are having their effect on a once-stable community. The housing chair in Stoke-on-Trent, Councillor Jean Edwards, told me that for the first time ever people are queueing to get into the family homeless unit. The only lettings that the council can make are to homeless families. Couples and single people do not stand a chance of being housed, Homelessness is a major problem in Stoke-on-Trent. The local councils are doing the best they can. They know best what needs to be done. The fact remains that, in 1989–90, £36 million was needed to deal with the housing problem but only £9 million was agreed by Government.

In the week of the local government elections voters all over the country will be voting for Labour-controlled councils which have pledged to deal with the shortage of affordable accommodation for rent and for sale. When even the Tory-controlled Association of District Councils pleads for more cash to invest in housing we know that the Government are in deep trouble. The Government have created a crisis. I welcome the opportunity of the Adjournment debate to hear from the Minister precisely what his proposals are to tackle the growing problem of homelessness; and especially how he proposes to assist councils which have to deal with homeless families in Stoke-on-Trent, North.

This is a week, too, when North Staffordshire district health authority and other organisations are meeting for the first time to discuss the report on the health profile of Stoke-on-Trent commissioned by the city. The report confirms that health throughout the city is considerably worse than the national position. The city has a death rate 25 to 30 per cent. above the comparable national rate. Within the city there is not a single ward that does not suffer excess mortality.

I commend the report to the Minister. Bearing in mind the relationship between good health and good housing, and the effect on ill health of high deprivation and housing conditions, I gladly present him with a copy of the report, if he has not already seen it. I ask him to bear it in mind when considering the housing allocations for my constituency. We owe it to those who are homeless to give them the basic right to a home of their own. I hope that the Minister will take account of the report on the health profile of Stoke-on-Trent.

10.36 pm

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

I am sorry that the speech of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms. Walley) has been so negative. I am sure that the hon. Lady will agree that housing conditions in Stoke-on-Trent are immeasurably better now than they have ever been; and there have been dramatic improvements during the past 10 or 11 years. That is not to say that there is not room for further improvement and I shall draw attention to some of the enterprises and joint ventures that are taking place in the partnership schemes.

It is a pity when people come to the House and adopt a thoroughly negative approach. That was not the spirit in which I visited Stoke-on-Trent exactly five weeks ago today. I enjoyed the visit. It was constructive, and I looked closely at the problems drawn to my attention. I know that as a result of that visit Stoke-on-Trent city council is going to send forward a more detailed submission. Stoke's bid for resources has to be considered alongside other bids, but Stoke has not done badly out of the housing investment programme. In fact, it has done rather well.

This year, in 1990–91, the housing investment programme allocation in Stoke-on-Trent is £16·605 million. That compares with £5·798 million last year. It has gone up by almost three times. For the hon. Lady to suggest that the Government are mean in their allocations to Stoke-on-Trent is unfair and is not borne out by the facts.

I should like to correct the Minister and point out that I welcome the partnership schemes that have got under way. If he reads my text when it appears in Hansard tomorrow, I do not think that he will find anything to contradict the fact that I welcome the partnership schemes that are taking place between the two councils involved and the Government. For the Minister to suggest otherwise is unfair.

This year there is an improvement in the housing allocation to Stoke-on-Trent, but the point that I made was that during the past 10 years we have had a progressive reduction of money available which has led to an accumulation of problems that we now need to tackle on an urgent basis because of the homelessness problem in the city and in the borough of Newcastle-under-Lyme.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for confirmation of her support for the partnership schemes. The Government are determined that they will play a full part in supporting the continuing improvement of housing in both the public and private sector in Stoke.

The mechanism by which local authorities formulate their housing strategy is, as the hon. Lady knows, the housing investment programme review. They publish their detailed proposals, including their bids for resources, and my Department responds, following discussions with the councils, with general and specific allocations of resources for the financial year in question. It is too early to start talking in detail about allocations for next year, but councils are already thinking ahead and preparing their thoughts on allocations and bids for next year. I am sure that Stoke is far up in the field in doing so.

Stoke has one of the largest increases in resources of any local authority in the west midlands. That surely demonstrates the Government's commitment to supporting the drive to improve housing conditions in Stoke arid will enable the city to continue with the programme for substantial improvements generally to their own housing stock and to older privately owned housing, as well as to designated defective housing, to which I shall return.

Over and above the yearly allocations of housing investment programme resources, we have made very substantial resources available to improve run-down council estates by means of the Department of the Environment's estate action programme. That is an additional source of funds for the local authority. In close co-operation with my Department, the council is invited to work up detailed proposals to improve its run-down estates. Wide-ranging objectives are set, including improvements to the fabric of the houses or flats, environmental improvements, local estate-based management and employment initiatives.

When I visited Stoke I saw the Chell Heath estate action scheme and I was very impressed with the progress that has been made. It is a major success story, where a partnership between the city council and the priority estates project has benefited from £6 million additional investment from the Department of the Environment for improvement work. A further £1·2 million has been set aside for this year's programme. That is an improvement programme on an existing estate, and we might well ask rhetorically how it was ever allowed to get into such a state. Now those major improvements are being made. If resources are put into improving the housing stock, often that has to be at the expense of building new houses. I am sure that the hon. Lady agrees that it is important that the existing housing stock should be improved so that it provides the best quality housing conditions.

An especially encouraging feature of the Chell Heath project is that the council is firmly committed to the establishment of an estate management board, whereby tenants will have a major say in decisions on the way the estate is managed. Since the declaration of Chell Heath as a priority estates project, the benefits are already becoming clear with falling void rates, better control of repairs and a decrease in the number of abandoned properties.

Stoke has a comparatively high proportion of older housing in private ownership, much of which, although in need of improvement, remains substantially sound and where the occupants, both owners and tenants, wish to preserve their local communities. The provisions of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 in respect of an area renewal approach and the new standard that will determine whether a dwelling is fit for occupation will be significant for Stoke-on-Trent.

A new system for renovation grants will be introduced on 1 July. It will provide financial help to those who can least afford to pay for essential works to their properties. For those who qualify, the grants will apply whether they are an owner-occupier, a landlord, a long-lease holder or a tenant. The underlying principle of the new system is to focus assistance on bringing properties up to a new standard of fitness. That will be of great value in tackling the remaining problems, especially of the older private housing in Stoke and similar areas. I shall explain in a moment how it is also of value to the occupants of defective precast reinforced concrete houses.

An important element of the new system is to enable local authorities to declare renewal areas, which will form an integral part of many authorities' strategic plans. Declaration of an area will not only provide a way of concentrating public resources to maximum effect, but will stimulate private investment by giving residents and others such as developers, housing associations and financial institutions confidence in the future of the area.

My Department has recently invited Stoke-on-Trent council to bid for a share of the substantial additional resources that have been set aside for that purpose, and no doubt the authority will be considering how it can best take advantage of the new measures to improve conditions in all its private housing estates, both old and not-so-old, traditional and non-traditional construction.

The first pilot scheme in the country leading up to the legislation was set up two years ago in the city in the Tunstall area. I had the opportunity to see the progress being made there during my visit in March. It has proved a very successful scheme and has led to partnerships with local businesses, financial institutions, housing associations, the neighbourhood revitalisation service, community architects, residents and others to tackle the problems of the area. The Government have put additional support into the Tunstall scheme totalling £250,000 in 1988–89, £800,000 in 1989–90 and £1·6 million in the current year.

The hon. Lady will know that the Government look to the housing associations for the provision of new subsidised housing for rent. We have substantially increased the amount of resources available nationally to the Housing Corporation for that purpose, and over the last three financial years a total of £15·6 million has been allocated by the corporation to housing associations for new housing for rent in Stoke. A further £3·5 million has been allocated for housing for sale. For 1990–91, the proposed programme for housing association funding for new housing for rent and sale is £6·8 million and £850,000 respectively, and I expect the level of investment to be maintained in future years. That is a further demonstration of the Government's commitment to fund new housing association developments in Stoke, and I know that is welcomed by the council.

In view of advice that I received this afternoon from officers of Newcastle council, can the Minister let me know, now or in due course, what opportunities there might be for housing associations to build family housing in the Kidsgrove area of Newcastle and whether any of the new money to which he has just referred can be used for that purpose?

I shall certainly write to the hon. Lady about that. As she will have gathered, my response is based on housing in Stoke-on-Trent, which is the subject of tonight's debate. I know that some parts of her constituency come under a Newcastle local authority, but I hope that the House will forgive me for concentrating particularly on the city of Stoke-on-Trent.

Turning to the problem of defective precast reinforced concrete houses which I saw on my recent visit to Stoke, as the hon. Lady knows, the properties were originally built by British Coal for its employees. I was encouraged to hear from the city council that it is involving residents, owner-occupiers and tenants in working up proposals to improve conditions. The hon. Member and the leader of the city council left me in no doubt about their concern for the future of the particular estate we visited at Weston Coyney, where there are both Cornish and Wates type houses.

I support the council in its declared intention to adopt a much more pro-active role in future. It has already served more than 200 statutory repair notices and more than 20 houses have had work carried out by default. In addition, the council has tried to ensure that houses are kept in a reasonable condition; that vacant properties are made secure; that the estate is visited regularly by council officials; and that privately owned common areas and gardens are cleared of rubbish regularly. The council has also intervened in disputes with landlords and is working to foster a community spirit where it has been instrumental in establishing and helping to run residents' and tenants' associations. My discussions during that visit showed that a variety of solutions appropriate to the estate were being considered. They fall into a number of categories, and the leader of the city council said that he would write to me with more details of the city council's proposals.

At the end of my visit to Stoke I had constructive discussions with the hon. Lady and with the leader of the council. As a result, there is a feeling of confidence that the Government are committed to improving housing conditions in Stoke in addition to the magnificent record of improvement over the past 10 years or so. However, it remains for the city council to decide its own priorities on housing. That is what local democracy and accountability are all about, and no doubt there are arguments in Stoke as to what those priorities should be.

During my visit some concern was expressed about the number of houses that had been demolished by the city council, as that obviously reduces the housing stock. Some but not all those houses were obviously unfit. More recently, the council has adopted a different approach and has decided to refurbish more houses rather than demolish them. It is always easy to be wise after the event, but if there had not been so much demolition earlier on there would be more houses for people in Stoke-on-Trent. Those were policy decisions taken by the city council and the city council has to remain accountable to the local people for those decisions.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes to Eleven o'clock.