ROOF Magazine - September 1998

On the same day Gordon Brown announced the outcome of the Comprehensive Spending Review, I praised the Government "to the roof" for the huge increase in funding for university research. The Government whip on duty, who had looked disturbed at the prospect of my speaking and who muttered throughout my speech, disappeared from the Chamber when I had finished, presumably needing a stiff drink at the shock of this unexpected applause. Yet the extra support for science rated special mention in newspaper reports alongside the good news for health and education. Sadly, those living under the many dilapidated roofs across the land have less to look forward to. Once again, the needs of the poorly housed have received only token recognition.

Despite the headline hype, there is more Iron Chancellor than Flash Gordon about the public expenditure plans. The Government's own figures show that, taken over the life of this parliament, growth is a modest 2%, leaving spending levels below 40% of GDP, compared with a 43% average under the Tories. Hardly a spending bonanza. In fact, once the figures have been adjusted to take inflation and the three year spread into account, though we can remain generally pleased with settlements for health, education and science, the rest is very disappointing. Whilst lip-service is paid to the need to improve the quality of public sector housing, the resources allocated are woefully inadequate.

Figures from the House of Commons Library show that housing spending next year will be only about £200 million more than in the last Tory year. Even by 2001/02, housing investment will scarcely have returned to the level achieved during the mid-eighties, a time when, as Housing Chair in Birmingham, I railed at the brutal Tory spending cuts. Given the legacy of years of under-investment, it is astonishing that the Chancellor should think that one and a half million homes can be modernised at £2,400 a time.

Tackling poor housing conditions ought to be a priority for a Labour Government. And it can be afforded. The plan to double public sector net capital spending by 2001, due to the abnormally low spending since 1996/97, only takes the spending level to 1.4% GDP and an average for this Parliament of 1.04% - well below the 1.63% Tory average and miniscule in comparison with spending by pre-Thatcher Governments. Overall, government debt will fall from 41%GDP this year to 38¼ % in three years time. This compares with an EU average of 78% and the Maastricht target of 60%!

Bearing down on Government debt in this way may reduce interest charges, but the costs of continuing deterioration in the housing stock or the more expensive private finance route to investment will far outweigh these savings. Not so much prudence as unnecessary waste.

By placing so much importance on increasing the science budget, the Government has recognised that such investment is not only good for its own sake but essential for the nation's economic health. The science lobby has been more effective than the housing lobby. Perhaps we can learn from them. The organisation Save British Science represents the whole science community, from Nobel Prize winners to lab technicians. Surely a similar campaign for housing, bringing together housing professionals and tenants' groups, has greater potential to impress and pressurise ministers. By reducing the number of documents sent to MPs it might improve the chance of them getting read. At best, it could help empower and embolden individual tenants to argue their own collective case. There is nothing so effective in motivating politicians as challenging constituents with a justified grievance.

Who will take up the challenge?

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