Orders of the Day — Housing, England and Wales

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 20th March 1961.

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Photo of Sir Keith Joseph Sir Keith Joseph , Leeds North East 12:00 am, 20th March 1961

Yes, and availability of land for overspill.

The hon. Member referred, also, to private enterprise housing. I am glad that he did so, because it would be very wrong in its concentration on local authority housing if the House forgot that private enterprise houses, which do so much to satisfy the huge demand for owner-occupied homes, also to a great extent cause, directly or indirectly, the release of decent housing for those in need. The hon. Member spoke as if house purchase were only for the wealthy. Yet samples taken by two large and experienced building societies, the Co-operative Permanent and the Alliance, suggest—and they are the only societies which have published these figures—that nearly half the buyers have incomes of under £15 a week and that more than three-quarters of them have under £1,000 a year. Moreover, the building society figures refer only to the incomes of the borrowers themselves and not to other earning members of those households.

The hon. Member permitted himself to say that many of these houses built by private enterprise will be slums in twenty years. Does he really think that building societies are so casual that they advance money on houses built like that? My right hon. Friend is extremely keen to improve the design and standards of private enterprise housing. The House knows that recently he reintroduced his housing medal to reward the best design which comes forward.

The gist of the complaint made by the hon. Member was that local authorities should go faster. He sought to pin the blame for their present speed on Government policy. The fact is that in no case where a local authority has a serious housing problem are the Government restraining in any way the number of houses it builds. It is said that interest rates reduce new building, but interest rates are one of the means by which the economy of the country is kept in balance. There is great competition for money and interest rates to a large extent reflect costs. It is easy to solve one problem by ignoring all the others. If inflation were to cause a balance of payments crisis all sorts of desirable projects would have to be cut.

No authority with a serious housing problem is being restrained by my right hon. Friend. My right hon. Friend and the Government want those authorities to build faster. It is said, "How can an authority build faster when interest rates are high?" The answer is simple No local authority can claim that it cannot build more houses because of interest rates when its rents are at a low level. In 1959–60, the average rent of county borough councils was 1⅔ of the gross value and the average rent of Metropolitan borough councils at that time was about the same. We all know that it is considered reasonable for a private landlord to charge twice gross value. There is all that margin for local authorities to get by way of income before they complain that interests rates are restraining their new building.

The hon. Member said that the rise has more than swallowed the subsidy, but he completely failed to mention—this was a major omission—that since the war and since 1951 something else has risen. That is earnings. Why did he not mention that? The fact is that any such local authority that does not have a differential scheme or rent rebates is not treating either its waiting list or its taxpayers or ratepayers fairly.

I recognise, of course, and so do the Government, that there may be, and are, individual families and households and tenants whose incomes have lagged, but there is ample help for them. For local authority tenants there is the £61 million of taxpayers' subsidy for local authorities to distribute as they think fit, and for tenants of private landlords there is the National Assistance Board.

The fact is that there may well be a relationship between indiscriminately low rents and long waiting lists, because, if rents are indiscriminately low, all sorts of people who can fend for themselves hang on to their bagains at the expense of those on the waiting lists who cannot fend for themselves. The public should recognise that the lower the rents charged to better-off local authority tenants the longer the waiting lists will be.

I hope that hon. Members have worked out for themselves the little sum in their own areas, but, over the big cities and county boroughs as a whole, if only 2 per cent. extra moved out annually from local authority dwellings to homes of their own, under pressure of differential rents and helped by local authority loans and grants, 20,000 extra families a year could come off the waiting lists.

The hon. Member for Widnes made some very important points about other difficulties in the way of local authorities, and I do not wish at all to avoid them. First, he said that in some places there was a danger of lack of sites, and that the overspill essential from many cities did not at the moment have a place to go. I can assure the House that at the moment there is no hold-up of building for this reason. There is not yet any hold-up of the preparation work for future building that is on the drawing boards. But in four or five years there will, in some cases be delays and holdups if more land is not made available.

My right hon. Friend has by circular already urged local authorities to seek out all the available sites that can be used properly. It is now generally accepted that in suitable places within a city redevelopment should be at higher densities. Neither of these two techniques, however, will suffice on their own. More land will certainly be needed, and, on the whole, that land can be found only in three ways. It can be found by private overspill to existing or newly-built houses outside the big cities. It can be found by expanded towns, and/or it can be found by new towns.

The hon. Member for Widnes said that he was delighted that my right hon. Friend has nominated Skelmersdale as a possible new town. I would point out that Skelmersdale has not yet been confirmed as a new town—the whole subject is under inquiry at the moment. The hon. Gentleman teased my right hon. Friend about delay in arriving at the decision. I hope that the House will recognise that this is not a simple matter of good will or ill will. There are a number of extremely difficult interests to be reconciled in each of these decisions, and all I can say is that my right hon. Friend and the Government intend to keep ahead of need so that there is no hold-up for lack of land.

I have referred to Skelmersdale which is, at the moment, at inquiry, and there is a search going on, as my right hon. Friend has announced, to see whether there is a suitable site, possibly, to help Birmingham. At Manchester, work is going ahead progressively with the preparation for a number of schemes, and discussions are going on with my right hon. Friend's Department to see whether any more is needed. In each case of need there are a growing number of expanded town agreements, including the promising trio in Hampshire for the London County Council, and I hope that I may be allowed to say that the Housing Bill before the House should help in the whole policy of expanded towns. In addition, there is the continuing trend of private overspill.

I think that the hon. Member for Widnes seriously weakened his case when he said that the pull of London remained as effectively dominant as before the war. That is just not true. The Government's policies have succeeded in slowing down the effectiveness of the magnetism of London. It is still a great magnet, but I hope that the figures I shall give will show that the policies of successive Governments in this respect have not been unsuccessful. It is absolute nonsense for the hon. Gentleman to say that the Government have made no effort to provide work outside London; the whole policy of the development areas, the whole policy of expanded towns, the whole success of the new towns shows what absolute nonsense that is.

The House may like to know the figures for Greater London. Since 1955—and I only have these figures in convenient form to give to the House—the population of Greater London has fallen by 80,000 people. In the same time—that is, since 1955—the number of dwellings in that same area has risen by 166,000, and another 56,000 houses have been provided for Londoners—actually for Londoners—in the new towns and in town development schemes. In addition to all these, tens of thousands of families have moved out and found homes of their own.

It is true that my right hon. Friend said that people who do not have to live in London and are seeking a home might be wise to consider moving outside of London, but he never made such an absurd statement as that those whose work and lives have to be in London should consider moving out.

The hon. Member made a very important point when he took up this question of lack of sites, which is at the heart of the housing problem, but my right hon. Friend and the Government are pledged to see that, where there is housing need, housing progress is not held up for lack of land. The hon. Member went on to make a point about the price of land. I would only comment that land is valuable, that there is competition for its use and that it is bound to have risen in price with the rise in earnings and prosperity. To bring down the price would require the release of so much land as to jeopardise planning objectives—and I am sure that the hon. Member for Widnes would not desire that.

The burden of higher prices on local authorities is, of course, eased considerably by the expensive-site subsidy which meets the cost above a certain level of the land that local authorities need to acquire. But the House should not imagine that land is at the same high price everywhere. There are many parts of the country where hon. Members only wish that the prices of land were rocketing because prosperity had reached them. I was very glad that the hon. Member for Widnes forbore in any way to advance his own solution of the problem.

It was very sad that in the whole of the hon. Gentleman's speech—which took, I think, about 40 minutes—he did not find time or interest once to mention the housing problem of the elderly. It is a problem that is very much studied by my right hon. Friend, and housing for the elderly has the double blessing that it not only provides accommodation to suit those in the last decades of their lives, convenient for their use, but it enables them, by moving, to release accommodation that is often suitable for families.

The House may like to know that, in 1951, 11,000 one-bedroom dwellings were built. Obviously, some of those were not used by the elderly, but, equally, some dwellings that had more than one bedroom were used by the elderly, so that I believe it to be a fair comparison to say that in 1960 the number had risen to 27,000.

The House may have seen my announcement two weeks ago that my right hon. Friends the Minister of Health and the Minister of Housing and Local Government had under preparation a circular about the co-operation that is so necessary between health, welfare and housing authorities in the service of the elderly. I am glad to say that this circular No. 10/61 was issued by my right hon. Friend's Department on 17th March, 1961.

I hope that I have covered the main points raised by the hon. Gentleman, and that I have pointed out to the House a number of the omissions in his speech. He failed to recognise that housing is not, and inevitably is not, the only use of building resources. I hope that the House recognises that the Government's capital programme stretches simultaneously and at record level across all the fronts of social, industrial and transport need. I hope that the House will recognise that the hon. Gentleman's speech failed to take into account the rise in earnings that has occurred since 1951. I hope that the House will recognise that the hon. Gentleman completely failed to take into account the rise in population and the fission which has occurred in a number of households.

I come at the end to a summary of what my right hon. Friend thinks is the position.