David Winnick – 1985 Speech on Housing

Below is the text of the speech made by David Winnick, the then Labour MP for Walsall North, in the House of Commons on 1 July 1985.

I beg to move,

That this House deplores the Government’s very substantial reduction in housing public expenditure which has occurred in the past five years, and which has resulted in considerable hardship and indeed misery for so many unable to be offered rented accommodation; also recognises that much essential improvement and major repair work cannot be undertaken by local authorities, or owner-occupiers on limited means because of the cuts; and calls on the Government to reverse its disastrous housing financial policies and to allow local authorities and the voluntary sector the means to build the necessary accommodation as well as allowing urgent improvement work to be carried out in both the public and private sectors.

This debate takes place against the background of an acute housing crisis. A large number of families and single people are now without adequate and secure accommodation, and many are forced to live in substandard housing and often overcrowded conditions. Homelessness is continually increasing.
In London alone, bed and breakfast accommodation is costing the boroughs £1 million a month — a sum that would be sufficient to pay off loan charges on 3,000 new council dwellings. In England and Wales, 1·25 million homes are now unfit for human habitation, and 1 million homes lack one or more basic amenities such as an inside toilet, bath or hot water. Across the country 2·5 million homes are seriously affected by damp, and 3 million homes each require immediate repairs that will cost £2,500 or more.

Between 1979–80 and 1985–86—the current financial year — there has been a 68 per cent. reduction in real terms in housing public expenditure, from £4,522 million to £1,431 million. The figures for central Government subsidies to local authority housing show that in 1980–81 —a year after this Administration came into office—the amount spent was £1,423 million. In the current financial year, it is just £400 million, a reduction of more than £1,000 million. Those figures explain why there is now a housing crisis and so much housing hardship and misery, so much of which stems from the lack of rented accommodation.

Ministers are fond of saying—we shall no doubt hear the same today—that cuts took place under the previous Labour Government. I do not deny that. There were cuts, of some of which I would not approve. It is unfortunate that the housing programme was adversely affected during the last two or three years of the previous Administration, but one should compare those cuts with the cuts made under the present Government. There can be no doubt that the present cuts go much, much deeper. Moreover, they are part of the philosophy adopted by the Government towards public sector housing.

I have accepted that there were cuts under the previous Labour Government, but it is interesting to note that in 1978 — the last full year of that Government — the number of new public sector starts was more than 107,000.

Mr. Terry Dicks (Hayes and Harlington)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Winnick

Not yet. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will allow me to continue for a while longer, especially as a number of hon. Members wish to take part. I shall give way, but not at the moment.

The number of new council dwellings started last year was the lowest in peacetime — 39,500. However, the ​ estimate for the current year is that just under 32,000 new council dwellings will be started throughout the country. When one compares those figures with the 107,400 starts in the last year of the Labour Government, one can understand what I mean when I say that the housing cuts carried out by the present Government go so much deeper than anything that occurred under the Labour Administration. In addition, fewer private dwellings were started last year than in 1978.

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)

Perhaps I can reinforce and bolster my hon. Friend’s already powerful argument. In the last two years of the Labour Administration, the Government persistently overprovided for housing sums that were not taken up and spent on new housing by the predominantly Conservative district and borough councils which existed then.

Mr. Winnick

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who had responsibility for such matters during the last Labour Government. We know of his deep concern on this issue.

Because of Government diktat, local authorities can now spend only 20 per cent. of their capital receipts whereas about two years ago the Prime Minister told us that local authorities should spend on new capital projects. She explained why it was necessary for local authorities to do more. Now not all the money that local authorities raise themselves can be spent. As a result, about £5 billion is frozen at a time when there is such a desperate shortage of adequate housing.

The Minister for Housing and Construction (Mr. Ian Gow)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if the policy on which the Labour party fought the last election were in operation today there would be no capital receipts at all?

Mr. Winnick

I anticipated the Minister’s question. Two points should be made. One, as my hon. Friends and I have asked time and again, is that if it is right for local authority tenants to buy, why is it not right for private tenants? Secondly, under a Labour Administration, there would have been, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) has explained, a different approach to housing from that adopted by the Minister and his colleagues.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

My hon. Friend is aware that there are differences of opinion within the Labour party about the sale of council houses, but those of us who advocated the sale of council houses did so on the basis that new funds would be available for local authorities to spend on new projects. We were arguing that by selling, councils were forgoing the possibility of reallocating accommodation in the future for cash now, but that that cash should be spent on replacing housing stock. Is not one of the deceits of this Government that they adopted that policy and sold it on that basis, but have ratted on that commitment?

Mr. Winnick

My hon. Friend is right. The Minister would be in a stronger position, even allowing for the fact that we all know why private tenants are not allowed to buy, if he said that the Government believe, and have acted accordingly, that council tenants should be able to buy but that there is a responsibility on the Government ​ to make sure that that which is sold off can be replaced. However, as my hon. Friend explained, the Government have done the opposite. They have been keen to sell at a large enough discount to encourage people to buy but, far from trying to ensure that such buildings are replaced, the very opposite has been the Government’s policy.

The number of people employed in the construction industry is 300,000 fewer than in 1979. That figure can be compared with the labour force survey for 1983, the last figures that are available. That shows that some 257,000 unemployed people seeking work had been employed, as their last job, in the construction industry. That figure will, I am sure, have increased in the past 18 months to two years.

When I spoke about the Conservative Government’s attitude I had in mind a particular point. I had thought it proper to give the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) notice of this, and I believe that he was trying to come to the debate, but perhaps he has been prevented from doing so by various duties. The hon. Gentleman was, during the time of the Labour Government, the Tory spokesman on housing and construction. He gave an interview to the National Builder in which he was asked a number of questions on the basis that his party could win the May 1979 election, as it did. He is quoted as saying:

“Thus, in our view, local authority activity should be directed towards helping those sections of the community that by definition cannot help themselves. The emphasis will be on sheltered housing for the elderly, special housing for the disabled and for the very poor who just cannot manage … the need is not there.”

In many respects, the hon. Gentleman is to be commended, because he was as frank as one could wish. In the main, Ministers do not use such frankness. The hon. Gentleman set out what is now Conservative Ministers’ philosophy—local authority dwellings are not necessary, there is no need for them except for the poorest and the elderly, and the rest can get a mortgage. In essence, that sums up Ministers’ attitudes and that is why we are facing such a housing crisis.

It is a myth, and a very dangerous one, that, except for the very poor, the rest of the community can simply get a mortgage and purchase its own accommodation. Owner-occupation has grown, and I welcome that. In the 1960s, the Labour Government took certain steps that assisted people on limited means who could not otherwise obtain a mortgage to get one. We have always been in favour of encouraging people, if they so wish, to become owner-occupiers. What is far from the case is that everyone except the very poor can solve housing problems by going along to the local authority or building society and obtaining a mortgage.

For the first-time buyers, the average dwelling price in Greater London last year was £32,635. The average advance was over £26,000. In the west midlands, as one would expect, the figures are lower. The average first-time price was £18,429, but the average advance was over £16,000. To quote building society statistics, the average income of people who have borrowed for the first time in 1984 in London was nearly £13,000. In my part of the world, the west midlands, it was £8,555.

Even when one takes into consideration that there may be two incomes in the household—often, although the wife’s income is taken into account, when the children come she may stop working — and even if one leaves aside, as I have no intention of doing, the level of ​ unemployment, particularly in the west midlands, it must be pretty obvious to Ministers, especially the Prime Minister, that a large number of people are simply not in a position to purchase. They are not earning enough to get an advance so that they can afford to purchase in London or the west midlands. They do not earn that sort of money now, and Ministers are of course saying that there should be low, or no, wage increases.
A large number of people, whom I would not describe as very poor and who manage to get by as long as they are permitted to work by the Government, have a fairish income. However, they do not have the sort of income that would qualify them for a building society mortgage. They do not have sufficient income to pay off such a mortgage over 20 or 25 years, pay rates on the property and keep it in full repair and maintenance. That is my point.
Therefore, there remains a clear need for rented accommodation. That need will not be met by the private sector. It is another myth that if one allows the private sector to revive through encouragement, it will meet demands. It will not, and there is no evidence that it will.

Mr. David Ashby (Leicestershire, North-West)

Two points need to be made. The hon. Gentleman talks about the private sector, so I shall be interested to hear what he has to say about housing associations, which cater for a real housing need in the areas about which the hon. Gentleman has talked. The other point is that, now that he has told us about people on low incomes, I should be interested to hear about those who are on high incomes but living in municipal accommodation.

Mr. Winnick

That is another one of the Tory myths. We all know about Tory propaganda about a Rolls-Royce and perhaps even a Daimler as well outside the council house, owned by people who are going on holiday four times a year to all parts of the world. Perhaps I am naive, but I had believed that at least that Tory myth was no longer in circulation. However, the hon. Gentleman has shown us that, when it comes to council houses and tenants, the Tory mind has not changed much.

The Minister boasted about shorthold tenancies, but is there any evidence that that is doing anything to satisfy housing need in London or elsewhere? Why are so many people now in bed and breakfast accommodation? Why are local authorities spending the sums that I quoted at the beginning of my remarks if shorthold tenancies are the solution? The truth is that people will invest in the private property market only to the extent that they get a rate of return that they would not get elsewhere. They have no wish to provide accommodation at the level of rents that ordinary people can afford.

Mr. Allan Roberts (Bootle)

Perhaps my hon. Friend will ask the hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) whether he suggests that quite wealthy people who live in council housing which is now unsubsidised and from which the Sefton council makes a profit should move into owner-occupation so that they may receive large subsidies and income tax relief from the Exchequer.

Mr. Winnick

My hon. Friend has asked an interesting question to which I am sure the hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) will want to respond. The hon. Gentleman made a valid point about housing associations, but they form part of the ​ Opposition’s argument because, like local authorities, their funds have been cut so deeply that they cannot do their job.

In the borough of Walsall, no contracts for council dwellings have been entered into since 1979. Nor is there any hope under existing policies that there will be any such contracts. I ask the House to imagine a borough of the size of Walsall with no contracts having been entered into for six years because the council simply has not sufficient finances. Land owned by the council is being sold because it cannot be utilised by the authority. A great deal of work needs to be undertaken on older and mainly pre-war dwellings in the borough. Again there is not the money to do it.

In passing, I mention the Rosehill estate in Willenhall in my constituency. It was built before the second world war. The tenants have waited for years for their properties to be modernised. The conditions there are terrible.

I have written to the Minister a number of times asking whether he would be willing to meet a deputation from the Rosehill estate. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State has replied saying that it is not a matter for him. His view is that it is purely a matter for the local authority. The local authority tells me that it simply has not the cash to carry out the necessary work. It so happens that the tenants intend to come to London this month on a deputation and to go to Marsham street. I wonder whether the Minister will be courteous enough to see them — or will he remain indifferent to their plight and, even though they have travelled down from my constituency, will not spend some time putting forward his point of view and listening to theirs?
I have mentioned my area, but Birmingham has nearly 25,000 council dwellings in need of modernisation and major repairs. Only 40 are being attended to this year, again because of the financial crisis.

Local authorities have the added headache of putting right the defective prefabricated concrete dwellings in their ownership. The work has to be done out of the annual housing investment programme. On top of all their other difficulties and headaches, local authorities have to rectify the defects in concrete dwellings that require urgent action. No extra money has been provided. The Minister says again that it is up to the local authorities.

I do not deny that there was a substantial increase in the money provided to owner-occupiers for improvement grants. It helped many people buying their own homes who in many cases would not have had enough to improve them. However, once the Tories won the general election of 1983, they were not interested. Today, as a result, we have a large number of defective houses whose owner-occupiers, many of them pensioners, do not have the means to put them right and to whom local authorities say, “We are sorry, but we have not the cash to give you improvement grants.” What sense is there in that? I remind the House that when the necessary work is eventually undertaken, it will be much more expensive. I cannot understand why the Government will not give owner-occupiers on limited means the chance to put their houses right and to make them adequate for the coming winter. But, again, there is no response from the Government.

In the last published data on housing investment in different countries, Britain is seen to spend just 2·1 per cent. of its gross national product on housing. That figure has to be compared with 6·1 per cent. in West Germany, ​ 5·7 per cent. in France, 5·6 per cent. in Italy and more than 5 per cent. in the Netherlands. It is difficult to find an advanced country spending as little as we do on housing investment.

I suppose that in some respects today’s debate is a trailer for the inquiry into British housing whose report is to be published on 25 July. That inquiry was under the chairmanship of the Duke of Edinburgh. There has been one leak concerning a possible recommendation about mortgage interest relief. But it would be unfortunate if that was the only attention that the media gave to that report. I have not seen the report, of course, but I have seen the evidence to the inquiry. That shows the damaging state of British housing and the need for the type of investment about which I have been speaking.

When the report is published, it should provide the opportunity for a debate not merely in the House but in the country and an awareness of what needs to be done, of the terrible condition of so much of our housing stock and of the misery and hardship of so many people who desperately require decent housing.

Mr. Dicks

How does the hon. Gentleman define housing need? Does he differentiate it from housing desire? The very definition often dictates a building programme the cost of which can be extremely heavy on the public purse. Will he define housing need?

Mr. Winnick

The hon. Gentleman is, I believe, the former chairman of a housing authority. I am myself a former member of a housing authority. When, as a Member of Parliament, I undertake my surgeries and when I receive letters from young married couples desperately in need of accommodation who have nowhere to live and no chance of buying their own homes, I understand perfectly what need is. I remind the hon. Gentleman of the huge numbers of people in bed and breakfast accommodation and the many people on housing waiting lists who desperately need accommodation. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that there is little housing need, it shows only too well that he is unaware of what is happening, probably in his own constituency.

Mr. Willie W. Hamilton (Fife, Central)

Why should my hon. Friend expect a sympathetic reply from a Government headed by the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) who in the last few weeks has been photographed with her husband, Denis, looking at private houses built by Barratts adjacent to Dulwich college at prices of from £350,000 each? Is she in need of housing?

Mr. Winnick

I do not know whether the right hon. Lady is in need of housing, but I know that a great many of our constituents are, including many constituents of Government supporters. It does those constituents no service to try to minimise the need, the hardship and the housing misery that so many of them have to face.

This year marks the centenary of the Royal Commission on working-class housing. Its report 100 years ago revealed the ghastly conditions in Victorian Britain. It may be that some Government supporters believe that those were good days and good times.

I make no apology for repeating in this debate that there are two matters of the utmost importance to ordinary ​ people which, apart from personal happiness and good health, affect their lives more than anything else. The first is the chance to earn a living and the second is to be able to have decent and secure accommodation. The accusation against this Administration is that by their policies they have taken away the opportunity for many people to have jobs and have denied many an opportunity to have proper and adequate homes.

All that we are asking from this side of the House, as we have done on so many previous occasions, is that the Government should allow local authorities to build and modernise the accommodation that is needed. It is no use Ministers coming to the Dispatch Box to say that it is a matter for local authorities. It is futile to argue like that when local authorities like mine and so many others are prevented by Government financial policy from doing what is necessary and from carrying out their statutory responsibility.

How can I criticise my council, which is not under Labour control, for not doing what is essential when all the figures prove that it does not have the means to do so? The responsibility lies with the Government, with the Cabinet, and with those Ministers sitting round the Cabinet table in 1979 and 1980 who made decisions on housing that have caused so much housing hardship. That is where the responsibility lies and that is why it is so important that the matter is debated.

Time and time again Ministers have refused to accept the immense harm that their housing policies are causing. Part of our accusation today is that they have shown at times callous indifference to the housing plight. They are not interested. They boast about the number of dwellings that have been sold in the public sector, but they are completely lacking in interest when it comes to new build, modernising, or assisting now — not before the last general election but since — those owner-occupiers who do not have the means to carry out essential work such as roof repair.

I have no illusions. When I was interviewed by a local radio station about today’s debate I was asked if I was likely to convince Ministers. I said, “No, I do not have the power.” With all due respect, I do not believe that any of my right hon. or hon. Friends have the power to do that. The Government are blind, dogmatic and indifferent to the sort of problems that we are raising today. I do not believe we shall change Government policy, or that there is any possibility of change until we turn this Administration out, but, as Labour Members, our responsibility to our constituents is to raise these problems, and to use the House of Commons as a forum to explain the hardship and misery of our constituents and the desperate need for more rented accommodation.