Over a long period of time, the hon. Member is probably right. I think it equally fair to state that now—and certainly over the last few years—there has been a great advance in private enterprise house building, largely to make up for the arrears incurred between 1946 and 1951.
The hon. and learned Member for Kettering and his hon. Friends quite clearly resent these reductions in local authority building programmes. We realise as clearly as they do that many family, human and domestic problems are involved in the whole range of the housing programme. An understanding of these problems is not the monopoly of any one political party. As hon. Members on both sides of the Committee know, political parties are sometimes driven into courses of action which they dislike in order to avoid more unpalatable consequences. I hope I may be forgiven by right hon. and hon. Members opposite if, very gingerly, I remind them of what happened when their Governments were faced with economic difficulties in 1947 and 1949.
They not only jammed the brakes on very hard against the building of private houses, but they planned to reduce council house building. At the time of the economic crisis, late in 1947, they applied a 20 per cent. housing cut, which revealed itself in a very sharp fall in housing completions in 1949. Immediately following the devaluation of the £, in 1949, they announced a cut in the housing programme of £35 million, partly in the private sector and partly in the public sector. I do not think that it is any use either party in this Committee pretending that any responsible Government, faced with economic difficulties, can allow the housing programme as a whole to move along as it has been doing without any interruption or modification.
I wish to say a word or two about the future. My right hon. Friend will continue to urge local authorities to concentrate their efforts primarily on slum clearance. We shall also continue to do all we can to expand the building of dwellings for elderly people. For some time past we have been asking local authorities to build more dwellings of this sort. The average percentage of old people's dwellings in the whole postwar period has been about 9 per cent. It has now risen to approximately 23 per cent.
Even so, we are still not satisfied. We feel that local authorities in general should be doing a great deal more to provide for the special needs of the elderly. That is partly because—as hon. Members know—we have an ageing population, and partly because of the scope which now exists for local authorities—and indeed for others—to make better use of existing accommodation, provided that we have the required number of one-bedroom dwellings available.
My right hon. Friend has been giving most careful thought to this matter. Although a measure of restraint on housing investment is still necessary to combat inflation, he is, nevertheless, anxious to encourage new building for old people as much as he possibly can. In the circular and booklet about flatlets for elderly people which he is addressing to local authorities today, we have asked authorities to tell us what they propose to do. In those cases where the authority is faced with a special problem which calls for urgent attention my right hon. Friend is prepared to look again as sympathetically as he can at their present building programme and consider whether more provision can be made for the benefit of elderly people. In this way we hope to be able to do something to give immediate help where there is unusual and pressing need. I believe that action by my right hon. Friend will commend itself to right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the Committee.
In addition, my right hon. Friend has urged local authorities, by circular and otherwise, to do all they can, both by purchase and by transfers, to help in the process of getting property more fully occupied. As the Committee knows, it is more important than ever, when we have restrictions on capital expenditure, to make the best use of existing accommodation.