Ken Hargreaves – 1986 Speech on Housing in Hyndburn

Below is the text of the speech made by Ken Hargreaves, the then Conservative MP for Hyndburn, in the House of Commons on 28 February 1986.

I thought for some considerable time before I decided to bring the housing problems of Hyndburn before the House once again. I should hate to be responsible for the borough council being thought of as whingeing or complaining. However, because the constituency is and always has been my home I receive daily reminders of the problems that we face. As I hope to live in Hyndburn long after I have ceased to be a Member of Parliament, I should be distressed if failure to deal with those problems were to be a memorial to a lack of effort on my part.

The twin aims of the Government’s housing policy are to make Britain the best housed country in Europe and to increase owner-occupation. Both are laudable aims, and, though we are a long way from achieving the first aim, impressive progress has been made. If the Government were to announce before the next general election that they had achieved 80 per cent. owner-occupation, it would be regarded as a major triumph. In Hyndburn we already have that remarkable percentage. The problem for those of us concerned with housing in Hyndburn is to ensure that we maintain it at that level and do not allow it to go into reverse.

I do not need to rehearse before the Minister the statistics of which he is well aware—Hyndburn’s 80 per cent. owner-occupation, per capita resources below the national average, despite having the 28th highest per capita general needs index score, and the borough’s inability to generate capital receipts. These facts have been set out previously in discussions, debates and documents.

I want to draw the Minister’s attention to the increased difficulties which we now face as a result of the reduction in the housing investment programme allocation for 1986–87. In previous housing debates, I have paid tribute to the Government for their interest in and help with the problems which Hyndburn faces. The extra resources, visits and meetings with the Minister did much to reassure the anxious local authority that the problems it faced were understood by the Government. Therefore, it came as a shock when the HIP figures for 1986–87 were announced. Hyndburn’s allocation had been reduced from £0·410 million in 1985–86 to £2·572 million for next year. That reduction is serious in itself, but is aggravated by the fact that the Government expect local authorities to make up 42 per cent. of total spending by using capital receipts compared with 25 per cent. in the current year.

Hyndburn’s inability to generate capital receipts means that available receipts are unlikely to increase total spending by more than 14 per cent. I regret that arguments which Hyndburn put forward on previous occasions and which had the support of the Department of the Environment at regional level have apparently been ignored at the national level. I accept that there is no possibility of an increase in Hyndburn’s HIP allocation for the coming year. I am therefore anxious to explore other ways to ensure that the borough can attract more resources. I also wish to seek assurance for the future.

The authority has never believed in using Government restrictions as an excuse for inaction and it has tried virtually all the new opportunities presented over the last ​ few years. Many have not proved of any great help in an area where market forces reduce the potential for private investment. I believe that the borough council has been progressive and is worthy of encouragement. The council introduced the volume sale of its relatively few council houses prior to the Housing Act 1980. Improvement for sale and homesteading have been used to sell local authority housing for owner-occupation. Both proved useful in specific circumstances but had comparatively little potential. Partnership housing developments were undertaken with significant private investment, but, after almost three years, some of the houses remain unsold. The private sector shows great reluctance to build on redevelopment sites.

The authority believes in a block renovation approach and is now initiating block repair schemes. The need for more responsive estate management has been accepted and a priority estate project is about to start on the largest problem estate and is to be followed by similar projects elsewhere.

The special needs of the elderly have been recognised and the council has taken up with enthusiasm the recommendations made by Dr. Anthea Tinker in “Staying at Home” and has just inaugurated its first warden call scheme in council houses. This will be extended shortly to the private sector. The council has also developed extra care provision in sheltered housing to ensure that the frail elderly are able to remain there rather than have to move into residential homes at a greater cost to public funds.

It remains the authority’s policy to encourage housing association activity as an integral part of its housing strategy. The council’s initiatives show that it is willing to try anything to help to alleviate the problems and to prevent the even greater difficulties that we foresee arising in the future unless action is taken now. The council has proved that it uses its limited resources effectively and imaginatively. It is worthy of support. Whatever form the support may take this year, it will only limit the damage done as a result of the reduced HIP allocation, but it could, if coupled with some reassurances about the future, do much to reduce anxiety felt by councillors, officials and householders.

The council responded quickly and positively to the announcement of the establishment of the urban housing renewal unit and it has worked closely with its officials and advisers to prepare a package of measures which would improve an estate and bring in private finance to redevelop part of it. A reasonable response to the council’s bid for funds would be an immense help to the problem estate involved, a great support for the priority estate project initiative and release much needed funds for use elsewhere in the private sector.

A favourable response to the council’s approach for Community refurbishment scheme funding for Huncoat would improve houses and encourage people in the area, which has the highest unemployment in the borough. Although help with urban housing renewal unit schemes and CRS would remove to some extent the immediate financial worries, the council is anxious about possible changes in Housing Corporation funding and the rumoured moves away from the HIP system.

The criteria for Housing Corporation investment have recently been changed to priority areas only — it is priority based on arbitrary criteria which result in authorities with similar GNI scores having scores that vary from 22 to 88. Hyndburn scored 22 which, for 1986–87, ​ is a cut-off point. We are worried that Government pressure for a higher cut-off point could lead to a loss of Housing Corporation investment in the borough, which would be a most bitter blow. May we be assured that less arbitrary criteria will be used in future and that the council can anticipate Housing Corporation investment?

Rumours of moves away from the HIP system are worrying. The principle of HIP — allocation in accordance with needs—is sound, and the GNI system, while flawed, is a good basis to work on and reasonably comprehensible. Can my hon. Friend assure the council that HIP allocations will continue, that they will be based on a reasonably sophisticated index of needs and that they will include some means of weighting to take account of potential for private funding to replace public funding needs?

My constituents are suffering from poor housing conditions, which are prevalent in many parts of Hyndburn. They know from experience that only a Conservative Government is likely to help them. They are aware that, during the last year of the Labour Government, only £223,000 was spent on improvement grants, whereas we spent £1·8 million last year. The people of the borough were shocked and amazed by the recent episode in the council chamber, which showed the lack of concern of Labour and SDP members. The two parties voted that the director of housing and the chairman of the housing services committee should not be allowed to accept an invitation from my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction to meet him to discuss Hyndburn’s undoubted housing problems. The decision was made because Labour and SDP councillors were not included in the invitation.

Do they really believe that the people who desperately need home improvement grants, for example, are interested in who talks to the Minister as long as he gets the message and Hyndburn gets the money? Fortunately, because of the courage and determination of the chairman of the housing services committee, Councillor Mrs. Elizabeth Court, who, like me, is willing to go anywhere and talk to anyone if it will help in any way to reduce our housing problem, the meeting with the Minister went ahead, as Mrs. Court attended in a personal capacity and not as housing chairman. Although we were denied the contribution which would have been made by the director of housing, Mr. Edgar Bignell, the meeting proved most useful and I hope that, as a result, Hyndburn’s case for UHRU and CRS was reinforced.

Because of the reduction in the HIP allocation, it is vital that we find other sources of funding. I accept that the progress towards making this country the best housed in Europe depends largely upon the provision of a sound economic base and the creation of real productive jobs, and not just the making of artificial jobs. I look to the Government to provide a balanced programme for housing, to provide the public finance necessary to pump-prime housing strategy, and to do it in a way that attracts additional private investment. Time is short. Local authorities are increasingly dependent upon capital receipts. The amount of those capital receipts will steadily diminish over the years and the Government must take account of that.

I support the Government’s policy of reducing public spending, but their housing policy runs contrary to that aim, as it does not reduce public spending, but simply postpones it. Such a postponement will lead only to the need for far greater spending in the not too distant future. ​ The Government should switch more resources into housing and must ensure that the money is used to greatest effect.

I commend to the Minister the neighbourhood revitalisation service. At present there are four pilot schemes in operation in Sheffield, Oldham, Bedford and Gloucester. Their purpose is to demonstrate that a properly co-ordinated partnership between public and private sectors, with a small amount of public sector investment, can generate a gearing ratio of private sector investment in the housing stock. That concept can be developed to include business investment in the area.

It is too early to say what the gearing ratio should be, but it is expected to be in the ratio of 1:3 over a period of time. Such schemes are an effective use of scarce resources and additional money allocated to similar schemes would be well spent—not least in Hyndburn, which would be one of the areas to benefit from an expansion of NRS.

I urge the Government to look closely and urgently at the whole question of improvement grants. I hope that they will seriously consider declaring housing stress areas into which additional capital from revenue resources could be invested to concentrate spending on areas with the highest levels of owner-occupied properties that are substandard and in need of repair.

Such concentration of resources would be justified, as it would protect individuals who have invested their limited resources in their own homes. It would be cost-effective and would create much needed jobs because improvement grants are labour-intensive. Given that investment in improvement areas has all those advantages, it is disappointing and hard to understand why the Government have not moved more resolutely in that direction.

Lent is a time for repentance and a time to examine exactly where we stand. It would be a good time for the Government to do just that in relation to their housing policy.