Orders of the Day — Housing, England and Wales

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 2nd May 1962.

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Photo of Mr Eric Lubbock Mr Eric Lubbock , Orpington 12:00 am, 2nd May 1962

In thirteen years' time we shall reach the centenary of the Public Health Act, 1875. That Act enabled local authorities to pass byelaws regulating the structure of walls and foundations of new buildings on health grounds and not merely on grounds of stability and fire prevention. It was followed by a series of model byelaws in the late 1870s, and the houses that were erected after 1880 conformed to a higher standard than those built before that date.

For this reason most experts look upon the year 1980 as a sort of watershed, because it is generally considered that houses have a useful life of about a hundred years The Minister has said that himself—although there is no overriding reason for taking a hundred years as being the figure for the life of a house any more than 80 or 60 years. Taking these two factors together, this has been treated as a kind of watershed.

Mr. Needleman has been quoted widely already. In his article he said that by 1980 we shall need 5·7 million new houses. Other experts have given different estimates and the hon. Gentleman the Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page), whose opinion is valuable, referred to 10 million, for if I understood his comments aright and if my arithmetic is correct he said that we should need 500,000 houses a year, and I have simply multiplied that figure by twenty. The Town and Country Planning Association has said 6 million, while the Alliance Building Society has put forward the figure of 8 million.

There are two points one should notice about these estimates. One is that they differ widely and the other is that the Government are apparently content to leave the assessment of our housing needs over the long term to private organisations and individuals, none of whom can possibly have resources equal to such a task. If the Government are to pay more than lip-service to the idea of planning, surely this is one of the problems that should be tackled first. Or are the leaders of the Tory Party still engaged in trying to combat the belief which they encouraged for so long that planning must be equated with Socialism?

Top priority should be given to a definitive survey of the long-term housing needs of the nation. That is the only way to set targets for the building industry—something which has already been stated as being necessary by all hon. Members who have spoken—and to avoid a repetition of the situation which arose last year when arbitrary restrictions were placed on building by local authorities, while at the same time the activities of the speculators were allowed to continue unhindered.

The resources of the Registrar-General could be used to make an estimate of the number of households and occupied dwellings twenty years hence and local authorities should be invited to cooperate by compiling housing lists on a common basis and by making housing returns which could be collated centrally. The Minister could then announce his policy for the replacement of obsolete dwellings, bearing in mind that, with a rising standard of living, older houses are likely to be considered to be obsolete, even if structually sound. The problem facing us is not so much a matter of how many houses are needed. It is also a question of where they are to be situated. We have not even begun to tackle the problem of urban sprawl and the Government's laissez faire attitude to this will be regretted by future generations.

If present trends are maintained there will be another 200,000 jobs in the Greater London area in the next ten years. Where are these people to live? The shortage of houses is already acutely embarrassing in the Greater London area and in my constituency alone the population has risen from 61,000 in 1951 to 80,000 in 1961. In the next ten years, at this rate, it will rise to 100,000. Where are these people to be housed?

An undertaking has been given that the Green Belt will not be violated. How is this to be done if we are to abide by the Third Schedule of the 1947 Planning Act under which owners can enlarge existing buildings by 10 per cent. or increase cubic content by 10 per cent. upon rebuilding? More and more people will be attracted to the magnet towns—and London is the biggest magnet of the lot—and these people must be given somewhere to live. Direct control should be exercised by the Board of Trade over new office building projects. The Town and Country Planning Association's plan for financial disincentives for people to build in these magnet towns merits careful study.

Even if no additional employment is created over the next few years in the large cities, a great job will remain to be done in redeveloping congested city centres at density levels acceptable to today's standards. In 1956 the Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government stated that, taking a fairly conservative view, the number of people to move out might be approaching 500,000 from the congested areas of Greater London, 240,000 from Manchester, 200,000 from Birmingham, 150,000 from Liverpool, 70,000 from Leeds and nearly as many from Sheffield.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing stated on 7th March last that strap-hangers to and from work in London should regard new towns as the "commuters' dream". They do, but since the Tories came to power only one new town has been designated in England and Wales, let alone built. In their place we have the policy for expanded towns, which has been singularly unsuccessful.

There are, of course, economic advantages which accrue to firms willing to move out into the expanded towns, as well as amenity advantages to their employees. But the inertia of most employers when faced with a decision of this kind has not been sufficiently appreciated and new means of persuading them must be found if major cities, London in particular, are to avoid slow strangulation. I am talking about the long-term solutions of our housing problems first, because I freely admit that no complete solution can be found in the short-term. We could not suddenly double the capacity of the building industry, even if it were economically desirable to do so. There are, however, one or two measures which could be taken at once which would alleviate the shortage—although they would not cure it.

I agree with the contention of the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Kenyon) that anyone who has served as a member of a local authority cannot view this situation merely as a set of figures showing a tiresome imbalance between demand and supply. The harmful and sometimes tragic effects on the lives of individuals one has tried to help impresses one with the reality of the crisis in a way which no statistics could possibly do. I could quote many cases similar to those about which we have already heard; about a family with four children living in a caravan and about evictions of old-age pensioners who must go into council homes. There are many cases one could quote. In fact, I could quote them all day.

Clearly, under these circumstances, we should not tolerate more vacancies than are absolutely necessary to cater for movements of population. One obvious means of discouraging landlords from allowing their houses to remain untenanted would be to levy rates on vacant property. Apart from increasing the availability of houses, this would also help to stem the rise in property values, which is the delight of the speculator. Landlords would not be so likely to hang on in the hope of securing higher rents if they were paying rates all the time. The same applies to those who are trying to sell their property. Furthermore, if rates were levied on vacant property the burden falling on the genuine occupier would be eased to that extent.

As has been pointed out, the shortage of houses falls entirely on those who are having to live in rented accommodation. In recent years the expenditure on private housing has accounted for a steadily increasing proportion of the total. As we have heard, very little of this private housing is for renting, and the Rent Act has failed to achieve, as one of its declared objects, an increase in the supply of private rented accommodation at economic rents.

Therefore, the position should not have been aggravated last year when restrictions were imposed on house building by local authorities as part of the Government's measures to meet the economic crisis. I suppose that is an example of the Tory freedom that we used to hear so much about. If there were valid arguments in favour of these restrictions, why were they not applied to private developers as well as to local authorities? Can it be that such a measure would have lost them even more votes than the measures which were actually taken?

Bearing in mind that private developers account for nearly two-thirds of the expenditure on housing, the application of restrictions in this sector would have been a far more effective means of relieving the pressure on the building industry.