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Rented Accommodation: Government Action

Volume 476: debated on Wednesday 11 June 1986

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2.57 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they are taking to increase the availability of rented accommodation.

My Lords, in the next Parliament we hope to introduce legislation to reform the Rent Acts in order to encourage the supply of homes for renting in the private sector. More immediately, in the current Housing and Planning Bill we are seeking to extend the assured tenancy scheme for new property so that it will cover also property that has been improved, repaired or converted. We continue to encourage local authorities to bring empty properties back into use and to give priority to people with special needs, and we provide substantial funding for housing associations.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I greatly welcome his undertaking that the Rent Acts will be amended and also that empty accommodation will be made available to occupiers? Is the Minister aware also that, excellent though owner-occupation is in many ways, it will never solve the problems of the homeless, and that in addition to the admirable projects he has mentioned, there must be more resources made available to provide accommodation for renting?

My Lords, I am grateful for the noble Lord's welcome of the announcement I have just repeated. So far as concerns homeless families, which I understand to be the noble Lord's particular worry, finding permanent accommodation for homeless families is of course a major priority for local authorities in the few localities where homelessness is a serious problem, and it is taken into account when making HIP allocations.

New building, however, is not always the best answer. A great deal can be done to improve utilisaton of existing housing, both public and private. In some cases there are far too many empty dwellings, and that is an affront to the homeless. The Audit Commission has estimated that if authorities could improve their reletting times by around 20 per cent. an additional 20,000 dwellings could be made available for occupation.

My Lords, in considering further legislation will my noble friend bear in mind that many more premises, or parts of premises, would be let if it were not so difficult to get rid of tenants who turn out to be unsatisfactory or are unable to live happily with other occupants in the same building?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend to the extent that our aim must be to create conditions in which landlords have the confidence to let, to improve their property and to provide more rented accommodation. Equally, the tenants must have a measure of security, and it is that balance which we need to achieve.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that it is utterly futile to talk about the mobility of labour unless adequate rented accommodation at reasonable rents is made available?

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that it is very welcome news that the Government are to grasp this nettle of the Rent Act? Will he bear in mind, when framing the legislation, the very admirable report by His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh and the admirable debate we had in this House, from which many good lessons emerged which could be incorporated in the legislation?

Yes, my Lords, I confirm to my noble friend that both the report of the inquiry into British housing chaired by His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh and the recent debate on that subject, and linked subjects, are undergoing great scrutiny by my honourable friend.

My Lords, will the noble Lord accept that I agree with what the Minister said about the necessity of providing for lower paid workers? Is it not rather remarkable, however, that this year the housing associations, to which the Minister has paid great tribute, are in real terms receiving less money than last year? Moreover, as the allocation is, quite rightly, being given mostly to the inner cities, many of the local housing associations are this year in great difficulties. They do not have sufficient allocation even to keep the staffs they have built up over the years. As housing associations are a means of providing proper accommodation at a reasonable rent for lower paid people can the Minister at least consider refunding the money that has been taken away from so many housing associations so that the position can be improved?

My Lords, it is true that this year's provision for the housing associations' gross programme is the same, more or less, in cash terms as for last year. Some housing association schemes will, of course, also be funded by local authorities. The problem to which the noble Lord has drawn my attention is, I confess, new to me and I will certainly look into it.

My Lords, has the noble Lord noticed that at this very moment the Government are busy advising African nations that the best way to produce more food is to remove restricting laws which inhibit the proper working of agriculture? Is not sauce for the goose sauce for the gander?

My Lords, I am afraid I find it rather difficult to identify the relevance of that supplementary question to the Question asked by the noble Lord opposite.

My Lords, the Minister referred to the Government's intention to repeal the Rent Act, but is he not aware that the last time a Conservative government did that, in 1957, no extra houses for letting were produced at all? All that happened in taking away the protection from the tenant was to force up rents and introduce Rachmanism, which no one wants to see return. Since the Government took office there has been a loss of 820,000 properties for rent in all sectors, the waiting lists have increased from just over 1 million to 1.2 million, the homeless have increased from 53,000 to 83,000, and requests for sheltered and wheelchair accommodation now stand at a quarter of a million. Does not the Minister agree that the measures outlined in his Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Grimond, are totally inadequate to deal with the problems we now face?

No, my Lords, I do not see that at all. What I do see is the ability of your Lordships' House to identify and learn from the lessons of history. I have no doubt that we shall also do that on this occasion.

My Lords, in regard to the further steps that the Government are taking, may I ask that they do not overlook the need to increase the availability of rented accommodation for university students in urban areas, bearing in mind that many are in desperate difficulties and that some are being outrageously exploited?

My Lords, we most certainly will not overlook that. There are, of course, special housing associations to look after this problem which in certain university and polytechnic towns and cities are meeting the problem very well.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that a councillor from the London Borough of Southwark recently admitted that over 2,000 dwellings were ready for occupation but were empty? If my noble friend is aware of that fact will he draw the attention of the housing Minister to it?

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. I was not aware of the statement by the councillor and I will most certainly draw the attention of my honourable friend to the facts that my noble friend has revealed. This goes to show how important it is to have the downtime on let properties as short as possible so that more people can be housed as rapidly as possible.