Housing

Part of Orders of the Day — Queen's Speech – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 4th November 1969.

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Photo of Mr Wallace Lawler Mr Wallace Lawler , Birmingham, Ladywood 12:00 am, 4th November 1969

I will do my best to meet the hon. Gentleman a little later.

To return to my point, I would like to see the Minister considering a crash programme which would involve the construction of small modern system-built instant homes. In Birmingham quite recently, the council carried out a survey on one municipal estate of pre-war houses. It was found that 40 per cent. of those houses are under-occupied and have two empty bedrooms. They are occupied by middle-aged or elderly people who would be glad to move out of them. They cannot be expected to move into the hostel-type new dwellings which we are building at the moment, but they would be prepared to move into small one-bedroom dwellings with modern conveniences.

In all other respects, such accommodation might not be entirely dissimilar from the prefab-type dwelling. It is amazing how many people come to Birmingham's advice bureaux asking if they might be considered for a prefab home, the life of which was supposed to have ended 15 or 20 years ago. Their reason for doing so is that such accommodation has a low rent and all the conveniences that they require, since they no longer want extra bedroom facilities.

There is surely something for us to explore here. It is obvious that the extent of under-occupation will continue until we have much more positive action at local level, and I suggest at Ministerial level, when looking at the plans submitted for large-scale housing projects, particularly, concerning one- and two-bedroom dwellings being included in all future developments.

Home owners have no remedy for spiralling interest charges on mortgages. They cannot even move to cheaper houses because the mortgage famine has paralysed the housing market. Councils are having to borrow at the usurious rates of over 9 per cent., and some are having to pay as high as 10½ per cent. Building societies are torn, because another rise in interest rates would cause real hardship. Yet houses and flats are empty because people cannot get mortgages, and the only way for building societies to get in more money is by higher interest rates. It is an appalling thought.

Grants for improvements have not been mentioned in the opening speeches today—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I have been here throughout the two main opening speeches and I listened attentively. Grants for improvements have been raised. But how are people to get the money to match each £1 of grant? Banks will not lend it to them, because of the squeeze, building societies have no money to spare, and people are frightened to use their dwindling savings. Who knows what will happen to prices next?

Some hon. Members have mentioned their concern about evictions. Both councils and private landlords are still evicting tenants. We all know this, but we do not mention it in the House very often. Perhaps we are ashamed and would rather not think what happens to people who are evicted because they have not been able to cope with the problem of high council or private rents. Are they supposed to find something cheaper in the private sector or to abandon themselves, as thousands of families have, to the purgatory of hostel or slum half-way house existence?

Private sector tenants have a lower average income than council tenants. Yet their landlords have no subsidised interest rates. Their landlords have no miraculous source of funds to match the available grants £1 for £1.

Despite the old grants, our housing stock became a disgrace. According to the medical officers of health survey, nearly a fifth of our homes are unfit. The new grants were essential for councils or our municipal housing would have become noticeably the disgrace of Europe. But the grants will not help the the private sector very much.

It is interesting to note that the Birmingham City Council, two years ago, with a great deal of fanfare, piloted through the House its Bill to grant rebates and assistance to tenants in the private sector. The powers available in that Bill lie on one side. Today, the council puts forward the excuse that it has not got the money from the rates to give equal treatment to tenants in the private sector.

Housing is becoming an explosive mess. It is all to the good that councils have subsidised loans for new houses and grants to improve the worst of their housing stock, which should not be in that state, but councils still need money for housing. Every time the Socialist Minister approved a Conservative council's rent increase he admitted that that council needed the money for repairs, for maintenance and for rent rebates for those in real need.

Costs are soaring. S.E.T. must be abolished for the construction industry. We have a housing crisis, yet this extra cost is still allowed to burden the industry. I take as an example Meriden. The hon. Member for Meriden (Mr. Speed) cannot be with us because he is at sea. I mean that in the nautical sense. If he were here he might tell us about the new town which is rapidly growing up in Chelmsley Wood, on which so many had set high hopes. Chelmsley Wood has thousands of new tenants paying post-war rents. Those tenants are beginning to organise tenants' associations, and those tenants' associations are saying. "Please reduce our rents and rates from £6 plus per week to £4 per week to fit in with what we can afford to pay."

How can the local authority possible do this when it is already operating a virtually bankrupt housing revenue account? If the only way that we can manage the economy is by the example of the present usurous interest rates—hon. Members may not like this very much; nor do I—then we had better face the facts and cut our housing standards. Better slightly less luxurious standards—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh, no."] Yes—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Even if some of my colleagues disagree, this is the stark reality. Better slightly less luxurious standards that people can afford than building Rolls-Royces with, for instance, magnificent heating systems that most of the people cannot afford to run. Hon. Members opposite indicated their dissent to that. But let them talk to the people who cannot afford to switch on their heating systems.

At this point I should like to refer to one of the inaccuracies which has aroused the curiosity of one hon. Gentleman opposite. In this book there is talk of providing overall heating in homes. I am willing to produce the page in that book, after the debate, to any hon. Member who might like to meet me outside. What is meant is the facilities for heating. Thousands of homes have expensive facilities for heating—expensive from a capital view point—but the tenants have never switched them on and dare not do so. Let those who say that there must not be the slightest departure from the present luxurious standards answer the questions that the tenants of those houses are asking.