Housing

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 19th December 1969.

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Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen 12:00 am, 19th December 1969

As we come to the next subject and as I call the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Winnick), I remind the hon. Gentleman that he has a little extra time for this debate. However, I also remind him that this Adjournment must conclude at 4 o'clock.

3.6 p.m.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Croydon South

It is appropriate, before we adjourn for the Christmas Recess, that we should bear in mind the large number of families who are in desperate housing need and the fact that the housing problems faced by many people will be resolved only if those people are rehoused by their local councils.

I wish to make it clear at the outset that I am in no way opposed to owner-occupation. I welcome every move that will allow people who wish to do so to buy their own homes. I welcome the Government's Option Mortgage Scheme. However, the people with whom I am mainly concerned today are those on council waiting lists who will get decent accommodation only by being offered a council home.

In the last few years there has been, under the present Government, a substantial increase in the number of council dwellings built. The decline in council building which occurred under the Conservatives has been reversed during recent years of the present Administration. This, in practise, has meant that many more families have been able to be rehoused by their local authorities.

A matter of particulaly serious concern is the way in which a number of local councils—I regret to say mainly Conservative controlled ones—have deliberately cut down on their house-building programmes; and it is mainly for this reason that I have sought this debate.

I am sure that the Minister is as anxious as are my hon. Friends and I to chase up local authorities which have gone slow in their housing programmes. The Times ran a story last week stating that the Greater London Council intends to cut down on its house-building programmes, too. It appears that 20,00 fewer council dwellings may be built under the G.L.C.'s new development plan.

This is not a subject for just intellectual or political debate in the House of Commons. A large number of people who are desperately in need of council accommodation and who, in many instances, have been on local authority waiting lists for literally years could lose any chance of being rehoused.

I could appreciate the G.L.C.'s move if, in London, there was not a serious housing shortage. Nobody would blame the London boroughs or the G.L.C. for any action that they might take in this sphere if it could be shown that the housing problem was not acute. But what-every differences there may be between the political parties, nobody can challenge the fact that there is an acute housing problem in the London area.

I want to quote the waiting lists in some of the inner London boroughs. I know that the total includes families in desperate need and other families perhaps in less need, but it gives some indication of the housing need in Greater London. In Camden there are 8,500 families on the waiting list; in Lambeth 12,582; in Tower Hamlets, 7,150; in Islington 9,327; and in Hackney, 12,398. We also know that there are many people who desire council dwellings but who for one reason or another cannot even get on the waiting lists in the areas which I have mentioned. No one, therefore, can deny that there is great need for council accommodation. I therefore find it all the more difficult to understand the decision of the Greater London Council and of some of the London boroughs who have been cutting down their house-building programmes.

Next, I turn to the question of the selling of land. It is amazing that a local authority with land in its possession should try to sell that land—and in some cases local authorities have sold their land—to private developers. It could be argued that once the land is sold to private developers, accommodation is built on it—so why worry? But the people on the waiting lists, in the main, are not in a position to buy the newly-completed private accommodation. Even if the mortgage position were easier, most of the people on the waiting lists in the boroughs which I have mentioned would still find it virtually impossible to get a mortgage because of their low pay. I hope that in his reply the Minister will give some attention to the sale of land by local authorities. For any council to attempt to sell its land to a private developer when it has an acute housing problem shows a cynical disregard and a contempt for people desperately eager to be re-housed by the local authority.

The hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Peter Walker), who leads for the Conservative Party on housing and land matters, said recently—and he was quoted in the House—that under a Conservative Administration there would be a cutting down of council dwelling programmes. Following the usual custom in the House, I have indicated to the hon. Member that I intended to mention him in my speech. But it is not merely a question of a Conservative Administration, which may be a remote possibility, adopting that policy. It is a question of Conservative-controlled councils already putting Tory philosophy into practice on this issue. The cutting down of council house programmes, therefore, seems to be politically motivated. I do not know what connection there is between Tory Central Office and some of the Tory-controlled local councils, but it seems to be the case, certainly in the London area, that in the last year or 18 months a number of Tory-controlled councils, some of them only recently Tory-controlled, have deliberately undermined their council house-building programme.

I should like to mention the situation in my own borough of Croydon. I have been in correspondence with the Minister about it and have had a reply from the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry, my hon. Friend the Mem- ber for Willesden, East (Mr. Freeson). Referring to council houses in Croydon, he said that there had been a run-down in numbers from 507 in 1966 to 226 in 1967 and to 78 in 1968. If the Croydon Council says, "It is all very well criticising us, but where have we the land, the sites, on which to build?", I would point out that a huge development is taking place within my constituency, within the London Borough of Croydon, and that it is exclusively privately developed. It is a huge development, for which planning permission has been granted but in respect of which a large number of houses and flats have yet to be built.

I welcome a good deal of private development in my constituency and I am glad that people have the opportunity, usually by mortgage, of buying the accommodation which is being built by private development. But I am also concerned that the nature of the development is exclusively private, so that the people who write to me as their Member of Parliament, and who tell me in their letters what they tell me when they come to my surgery about their housing problems, will not have their housing needs satisfied by the private development to which I have referred.

My hon. Friend the other Joint Parliamentary Secretary, who is to reply to the debate, has stated that there will shortly be a meeting between his Ministry and the Croydon Council. When the meeting takes place I hope that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will put great emphasis on the way in which a large part of Croydon has been developed, leaving out entirely any form of council accommodation. This is a serious matter for many people of Croydon.

We all admire the way in which Shelter has recently carried out its job of spotlighting the situation of people in need. It has been critical of my party and of the party opposite, but it has done two good things. By collecting money from the people it has been able to rehouse many people in need of accommodation, and it has spotlighted housing needs in Britain. It has done a first-class job in showing the community that there are many people in housing distress.

Some local authorities are apparently trying to use Shelter as an excuse for not carrying out their own council housing responsibilities. I therefore welcome the statement of Shelter off 17th November, in which it said: Shelter would be forced to withdraw its assistance for that housing association and for that district where the local council are not willing to carry on house building. In other words, it is a warning to local authorities not to use Shelter as an excuse for not carrying out their proper responsibilities. I hope that local authorities will heed what Shelter has said.

I want the Minister to chase up those local authorities which are not carrying out their responsibilities. No fewer than 20 have been written to, but I hope that many more will be in the next few months. If some local authorities, despite warnings from the Minister, continue to default on their responsibility, I hope that the Ministry will be willing to use the powers which I believe it has to build in those areas and to make the local authorities take over the accommodation once the buildings have been erected.

I know that there is a housing agency in Scotland which does a good job of work. It may be that a special type of housing agency is required for the rest of Great Britain, but if local authorities with acute housing problems are not willing to carry out their housing responsibilities I hope that the Ministry will find ways of making them. Housing can never be a matter about which the House of Commons is not concerned. If the greatest curse that can befall people is unemployment, the second greatest is not being able to solve their housing problems. We can never be complacent so long as so many families are unable to find proper housing and have to live in wretched accommodation. I hope that the Minister has listened to what I have said, and that the Ministry will take strong action against councils who default.

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

There are 42 minutes left. There are four back benchers and two hon. Members from the Front Benches who wish to speak. They can all get in if they adopt the Christmas spirit of sharing.

3.19 p.m.

Photo of Sir Walter Clegg Sir Walter Clegg , North Fylde

I feel full of the Christmas spirit and I shall do my best to keep my remarks short. The hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Winnick) has just said that the Minister should chase local authorities. The man whom the hon. Member should chase is the Prime Minister, because he has made solemn pledges in the House of Commons which have not been fulfilled. That is obvious from the latest figures. It is no good the hon. Member trying to blame this failure on Tory councils; it is the failure of the Government's housing policy. We were told that this policy would provide 500,000 houses a year by 1970, and would be carried through whatever might be the economic state of the country. That was said specifically by the Prime Minister. That policy has not been fulfilled, largely due to the financial situation of the country.

The hon. Member is quite right to be worried about the fall in the housing figures. The Times of 11th December, reporting Ministry of Public Building and Works statistics in the third quarter of this year, indicated that the rate of house building was 13 per cent. below the quarterly average of the previous year. On a seasonally adjusted basis the housing output was lower in the last quarter than at any time since 1960.

It is not good blaming this on Tory councils. If the Minister it to write to Tory councils about their programmes he ought also to write to those local councils who have cut back their council housing programmes far more than the Tory councils. I yield to no one on the opposite side of the House or to anyone in this Chamber in my concern for housing the people. It is a tragedy that such a gulf divides the two sides.

This has meant that great sums of money which could have been brought in to provide housing have been denied. As long as this political battle continues to be fought between us, so long will these vast sums of money which are available be kept out. I do not think that it would be impossible to reach a balance between us. We can take it that the housing situation in different areas of the country requires different solutions. What is right for Liverpool or Manchester or London are probably different things, and the same point certainly applies to my constituency.

The hon. Gentleman talks about council housing lists. I can tell him that the reason I am getting an increase in those lists in the town of Fleetwood, which I represent, is because people are now no longer able to get mortgages because the amount that local authorities can lend is cut back, or because they no longer can provide the status they need to get mortgages. These are people who were normally being kept off council housing lists through buying modest homes of their own. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heifer) knows the sort of houses in the North, £1,500 to £2,000, perfectly adequate good houses.

People cannot now afford to buy these. This is the dilemma. We have the dilemma of high interest rates, and I cannot believe that any Government can really solve this problem in isolation from all the other economic problems they have to solve. That is one reason for the slowing down in both the public and private sectors.

At the end of the day even if the hon. Gentleman has his way, if we complete the sort of programme he wants it would mean increasing either direct or indirect taxation or the rates. I do not believe that, even if he wanted to, the Chancellor could help the hon. Gentleman and provide the public money or lower the interest rates sufficiently to affect the situation. I should like to see if we can get together. The fair rent system, which we did not believe in, has worked well. We acknowledge that. If we can get a guaranteed return for people putting their money into developing houses and free this from political interference we can get money to solve the problem. With those remarks Mr. Speaker, I wish you a merry Christmas and I hope that you have a lovely Recess.

3.24 p.m.

Photo of Mr Laurie Pavitt Mr Laurie Pavitt , Willesden West

The hon. Member for North Fylde (Mr. Clegg) says, "Do not blame the Tory councils", but I must do so, and in particular my own Tory council. This Christmas, in my area, 236 families will be apart. They will be in hostels because they are on the waiting list and cannot get accommodation. Parents will be in one hostel, children in another. One of the greatest tragedies I experience and have to face in my weekly surgery is when "Cathy Come Home" comes to see me. Young and attractive and with two small children she says: I am being evicted. I have no place, I am on a waiting list and I am going to be separated from my two small children. I would sooner go on the streets to earn enough money to get a place than be separated from my children. With 6,943 people on the waiting list in my area she has very little option between these stark alternatives. In my area, on the waiting lists, there are 988 families living in dwellings classified as statutorily overcrowded. Within these 6,943 on the waiting list, there are 1,604 with special points because of medical disability. I have had the situation where a woman has pleaded with me for council accommodation because her husband had a coronary thrombosis. They were living upstairs and she pointed out that, if only they could move downstairs, she would be able to preserve her marriage. Three months later, she came to me in widow's weeds, with her husband dead, because there was no way in which she could get accommodation through the local council.

So, if the hon. Gentleman says that we should not condemn Tory councils, I reply that I must condemn my own local Tory council. Tory councillors have a basic philosophic idea that there is something degrading and wrong in people having council tenancies. Originally, we were to have had 1,978 housing starts in Brent in 1969. The programme was for 1,978 dwellings to put out to tender this year. In a Parliamentary answer to my question my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary for the Ministry of Housing has told me that he understands that there will, however only be 24. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South says that there has been a cutback. In Brent, it is a phenomenal cutback. I cannot accuse the Council of being criminal, because it is not a crime, but it is nevertheless callous, heartless and barbaric and has reached the depths of degradation in any local administration.

I remind the House that, in the Milner-Holland Report, my area, Willesden, was top of the list for acute problems in housing. Yet we get this tremendous cut from 1,978 to 24 only, by my local Tory council. That means we shall be facing a bad situation for the next 10 years on top of the inherent problems that have faced the area in the last 10 years.

The only way out is by council housing. The hon. Member for North Fylde talked about local building in order to provide houses on mortgage. But if one lives within seven miles of London the high price of land, and its shortage, mean that private enterprise can only provide housing at rents beyond the means of most workers in my constituency. The result is, of course, that we are getting luxury flats being built which, while they enable commuters in good office or professional jobs to travel back and forth to London, mean that the 7,000 workers on the waiting list locally are still waiting and seem doomed so to do for years ahead.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South on introducing this subject and thank him for the opportunity to record the fact that, in London, where there is shortage of land, where it is so expensive, and where there is tremendous pressure on housing, unless there is a change of heart among these Tory councillors who are so anti-council tenants, then the prospects for 1970, 1971 and 1972 at least will be bleak indeed for those who's work in factories and in transport and other services keep this country prosperous.

3.29 p.m.

Photo of Mr Arnold Gregory Mr Arnold Gregory , Stockport North

We are indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Winnick). I followed his argument closely. We in the North-West are perhaps not dealing with the massive figures to which he and my hon. Friend the Member for Willesden, West (Mr. Pavitt) referred, but nevertheless the degree of human experience and feeling is obviously the same. The hon. Member for North Fylde (Mr. Clegg) defended Tory local authorities, although he made what was otherwise a fair speech, the latter part of which was extremely interesting. In my case, we are not dealing with a cut-back in council building. On current Tory policy we are, on the contrary, dealing with a dead stop in council house building. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not attempt to minimise that factor when defending the policy of his party.

Why has this happened? Stockport is one of the authorities to which the Minister sent his letter of 23rd October. There are about 6,000 unfit dwellings there according to his figures and he naturally pointed out that something should be done in tackling this enormous problem because, combined with it, is a relatively massive problem in terms of people waiting for houses. We are not here dealing only with a range of alternative dwellings. If people are on a council waiting list, their reason is specific—they are applying for a council dwelling. We are naturally interested in knowing what local authority policy is and if it is a Tory council and policy has changed, precisely how it is proposed to deal with these human problems.

Of course our figures are relatively small, but for us the problem is as gigantic as that in London and my constituents are equally worried, when councils appear to do little to reduce the size of the list, about how long the list will grow and how long those on it will have to wait.

A certain smugness is revealing itself among Tory councils about what has happened in areas such as my own, for instance, since they took control. In Stockport in particular, the Labour council had a first-class record. It reduced slums and tackled the problem of unfit houses and for about a decade had been dealing with the problem of substandard houses. We were reaching a position in which, even though the council is now Tory controlled, it has relatively little to do to deal with the overlap of slums, but there is still this smugness.

When the Joint Parliamentary Secretary visits Stockport as he is shortly to visit other towns in the North-West, I hope that he will ask those in control whether they intend to launch further large-scale building projects. In the absence of policy or the indication of a policy in this respect, we are grinding to a halt in the provision of essential houses.

Secondly, he will have to ask whether they intend to put forward policies of land sales and housing associations as an alternative. Tory councils have so far given little indication of what they intend to do about housing associations, but there is disturbing news that they intend to sell land at prices lower than those they paid for it. That will weaken the financial position of the rating fund and we know that we are already running into a deficit with the housing revenue account.

Unless some measure is taken to fill the gap in the financing of municipal housing, the position will become extremely weak. My hon. Friend must ask the Stockport authority whether it is satisfied with a suggested rate of 430 houses per annum for a borough with 150,000 residents, whether it is satisfied with a rate of re-lettings available of 550 per annum and with the present level of 750 houses under construction.

The town has a problem with high tower blocks which are a crippling burden on the authority. Having spoken in criticism of Tory policy, I must say that the council must be given help by the Government if it is to deal with the problem of high tower blocks. Blocks of flats have not been occupied and yet people are waiting to go into them. The local authority faces a burden of about £250,000. Is my hon. Friend suggesting that £6,000 at the declared 40 per cent. rate to be given in aid will begin to meet that kind of deficit. I hope that in his negotiations my hon. Friend will be able to eliminate this problem of costs for high tower blocks. If it is not eliminated, we shall have still greater housing and financial problems in the Borough.

3.33 p.m.

Mr. Eric S. Heifer:

Housing is the greatest human problem we have to face. As a city councillor of the great City of Liverpool, over the years I have seen more examples of unhappiness, nervous breakdowns and children not getting proper educational advantages because of bad housing conditions or overcrowding than for any other single reason. There now seems to be developing in Liverpool the myth that we are getting near the stage when the problem is likely to disappear. That is the point I should briefly like to make in this debate.

I pay tribute to both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party in Liverpool, because to a large extent they have kept this question out of the political arena. Both parties when they have been in control of the Liverpool City Council have tackled the problem vigorously within the limits of the overall economic situation. Naturally, we have all urged that more council houses should be built, but we have felt that within the limits both parties have done reasonably well.

But now a new philosophy seems to have developed within the Conservative Party in the City of Liverpool. We introduced the excellent Housing Act, 1969, based on our White Paper, "New Homes for Old". As a result we are to tackle the problem of the twilight areas; instead of including them in the slum areas we intend to rehabilitate the houses in them. This is right, because too often we have knocked down areas and pushed people out into cultural deserts. We have broken up communities and in giving people new houses have created other problems. There should be rehabilitation of vast areas which are not slum property but would become slums within a few years unless dealt with.

The Government need the fullest support for the Act, but unfortunately the philosophy seems to be developing in my city that because this is to be done and the Government will give financial aid there should be a slowing down or cutting back on the building of council houses. I had a fairly heated telephone argument with a leading official in the city who said that I did not understand the problem, because by 1972 there could be a surplus of tenancies. I looked into the figures, and I cannot see where there could possibly be such a surplus. We should continue to build at the same rate, and if we end up with a surplus of tenancies the whole city of Liverpool will be delighted. But we know that this is not likely to happen.

When I have interviews people give me chapter and verse on the overcrowded conditions in which they live. Every Member from Liverpool and every city councillor in Liverpool must find this when holding interviews, and they have them every fortnight. The people concerned are sometimes in private accommodation and sometimes owner-occupied accommodation, where the youngsters are still living with the families. Sometimes they are even in council accommodation. This problem will not be solved by 1972. It is a pipe dream to think that it will be. It is ridiculous, and we know that it is. The maximum pressure must be applied to the Liverpool City Council to see that there is no slowing down on the housing programme.

I accept the point of the hon. Member for North Fylde (Mr. Clegg) that there are young people nowadays who would buy the type of accommodation priced at £2,000 to £3,000 but cannot obtain mortgages. Despite the assistance given by the Government, this is a very real problem. Even in my city, there are too many houses which have the "For Sale" notices up and which should have young people and others in them.

But the real need is still for council houses. There are thousands of families in Liverpool whose only hope is a council house, particularly if they are casual workers. We know that no building society, or even a local authority, is keen to advance a mortgage to such people because of the casual nature of their jobs—and in Liverpool we have a great number of casual workers. Those from port areas know that this is one of our great problems. So the need is still for council houses.

There is need in my city to get rid of those vast areas in the centre which have been demolished and are like great deserts in the city yet to be rebuilt. For too long they have been left like that. There is need to rebuid and repopulate the centre of the city and make it once again a thriving area with real life and a real community.

I welcome the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Winnick) in raising this vital matter. I have not made a political speech, although I am not renowned for not doing so. I usually go out of my way to attack the party opposite. In certain areas, I think that they have cut down far more than they should have done. They have used the Government's policy as an excuse and a reason for cutting back because of their philosophy against council houses. The need is there, however, and it is vital that we should continue to build council houses, and on a bigger scale than ever.

If local authorities are not prepared to go ahead with the building of council houses, we as a Government have a responsibility to intervene. I have argued this many time before. My hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary knows this, because he was chairman of a committee which went into the question many years ago. The time has come to have a public building corporation to tackle the problem in the areas of greatest need. If the local authorities fail, we as a Government should step in and build the houses that the people need. This will be our greatest victory for the people.

3.42 p.m.

Photo of Mr Graham Page Mr Graham Page , Crosby

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Helfer) said that the housing problem is the greatest human problem which we have to face, and I agree wholeheartedly. It is no good talking about welfare or social services if we do not have decent housing. The hon. Gentleman was quite wrong, however, in assuming that Conservative policy is moving away from that fundamental political philosophy towards the social services: That decent housing comes first and must be the basis of all our efforts.

The hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Winnick) made great play of blaming the Conservative-controlled councils for deliberately cutting council house building. That completely disregards the phenomenal drop in housing production over the whole field. Council house production has fallen. Private sector production of housing has dropped. It is not one set of councils which is causing this, but Government policy, which has resulted in this drop in house production.

I do not want to go over all the figures that were given by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Peter Walker) in his speech in the House on 4th November. I notice, however, that taking the London boroughs, for example, in the period from June, 1967, to June, 1968, the four Socialist boroughs were building three times as much as in the period from June, 1968, to June, 1969. That is to say, they have dropped by two-thirds, when one compares those two periods. They—the Socialist boroughs—are, therefore, finding difficulty in keeping up their housing programme.

Incidentally, for the period from June, 1968, to June, 1969, the 28 Conservative councils have shown an increase over the period from June, 1967, to June, 1968. Even on the facts, therefore, the hon. Member for Croydon, South was wrong. Certainly, he did not take into account the difficulties that house building is experiencing in all sectors.

The hon. Member complained at the sale of land to private developers. He said that people on the waiting list are not in a position to buy houses. Four or five years ago they were in a position to do so. The average manual worker was earning sufficient to pay the mortgage instalments on the average house.

Photo of Mr Graham Page Mr Graham Page , Crosby

He was. I cannot stop to give the figure today, but in fact it about balanced and it certainly does not balance today. The average manual worker cannot today find the building society instalments because of the substantial increases in interest rates.

The hon. Member for Croydon, South referred to my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester. I apologise for the fact that my hon. Friend is unable to be here today. He asked me to thank the hon. Member for Croydon, South for his courtesy in notifying him that he wished to refer to him. In fact, the hon. Member took my hon. Friend's words out of context. At that time my hon. Friend was expressing the hope that we could get back to an average wage and average mortgage instalments which would enable a considerable increase in owner-occupation and in the purchase of council houses by the tenants of those houses. The hon. Member took that sentence considerably out of context.

One point of great interest in the hon. Member's speech was his reference to some other agency to carry out work for defaulting local authorities. He mentioned a housing agency. He knows, I am sure that in the recent report of the Public Accounts Committee on housing subsidies, reference was made to the Scottish Housing Association and the Government were asked to consider whether it was advisable to set up such an association for England. I wonder whether the Joint Parliamentary Secretary would care to comment on that. It is obviously a matter which should be further investigated.

We are all desperately worried about the formidable length of housing waiting lists. Over the period I have been a Member of Parliament, during which I have held "surgeries" almost every Saturday morning. I had hoped that the number coming to that "surgery" wanting housing accommodation would drop over the years. In fact, it has increased. There seem to be more now. Whether it is because the standard they demand has risen, I do not know—but I do not think so. It seems to me that we are not keeping pace with homelessness. I do not agree entirely with Shelter that we need to re-define homelessness. It has always been the same—the overcrowding and the terrible conditions in which many people live.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Croydon South

I have asked the Minister to chase up those local authorities which are defaulting on their council house building programme. Will the hon. Member give a pledge that the Conservative Party, that the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Peter Walker), will chase up those Conservative-controlled councils which are not building the number of council houses they should build?

Photo of Mr Graham Page Mr Graham Page , Crosby

It is no good chasing them up when it is the Government who have given them this difficult task. It is Government policy which has created this situation. I will give the hon. Member an assurance that Conservative policy would provide better opportunities both for public sector building and for private sector building and to that extent would increase house building production throughout both sectors.

I am afraid that as it stands I see no chance of council house building increasing. When one looks at the White Paper on Public Expenditure one sees that there is to be only a 3·7 per cent. increase in local authority expenditure over the next years. In those circumstances, how can local authorities get out of their difficulties in house building? How can they get out of those difficulties unless the Government settle the problems about cost yardsticks, which are holding back many local councils, and the problems about the Ronan Point type of high flats? There is also the insistence in the programme laid out by the Housing Act, 1969, that the £40 million a year on improvements should come out of the general housing expenditure and not be an addition to it. Of course it ought to be an addition. The expenditure on council house building should be maintained and these improvements should be an addition. No one would be happier than I if the Joint Parliamentary Secretary could rise now and repeat the sort of promises which the Prime Minister gave at the last two General Elections, promises which have been so callously abandoned since then.

3.50 p.m.

Photo of Mr Arthur Skeffington Mr Arthur Skeffington , Hayes and Harlington

Let me begin by saying that all of us realise that my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Winnick) has a very wide range of specialist interests, particularly in foreign affairs, but that he has never neglected or forgotten the interests of his constituents, particularly when they are faced with such very urgent human problems as housing and matters of that kind. We are all grateful to him that on this the last day on which the House will be sitting this year he has reminded the House about the housing programme and about human needs. It is appropriate that at Christmas time we should think about these things, because although everyone at Christmas makes the best of his affairs the fact is that we should not forget that, despite the massive achievements which have been secured, there are still some people, though, I hope, not too many, who will be seeing Christmas in a halfway house and some whose families will be separated in homes. That being the position we must never, never, for a moment, relax our efforts.

I say all that despite the fact that we have very massive achievements to our credit. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South has in his own borough a waiting list of some 5,000 people who require accommodation, about half of whom are on the A list according to the Council, which means they have a degree of urgency and priority. That list indicates, as waiting lists elsewhere indicate, that in many parts of the country, certainly in the great conurbations, there are still desperate housing problems for far too many people. I say that despite the fact that we have, I think, a massive achievement.

It is worth while perhaps at this time of the year remembering that it was because of the efforts made by my right hon. Friend the present Secretary of State for Social Services when he was Minister of Housing, and my right hon. Friend the present Minister of Housing—whatever figures were talked about at the General Election—that 40 per cent. more, or 400,000 houses in the last five years were built than in the five previous years. And they are better houses, because whereas in 1964 only about 14 per cent. of houses were up to the full Parker Morris standard, in 1969 not one house has been approved which is not up to standard and last year 70 per cent. were.

Furthermore, our policy has been to guide wherever we can resources into the areas of maximum difficulty, the priority areas. We know that last year, for example, over half the houses built were built in the areas of greatest need, something like 83,000 of them in the local authority sector. We have now provided a subsidy per house of £120 for 60 years —in some cases it goes to considerably more than that—as against a subsidy of £24. Let us have the figures; let us have the record put straight when we talk about housing and which party has done what. It is a proud record, as it is even in private enterprise, whose achievement last year was an all-time record of over 220,000 houses built.

It is perfectly true that, consequent upon devaluation and associated factors, the figures this year will not be so high, but taking the last five years they are 40 per cent. better. Add to that the fact that we have been able quite recently to make an addition to the sum to local authorities for mortgages for 1969–70, and have almost doubled the amount, to £55 million, and by next year we shall be adding another £45 million, making £100 million available.

In addition, as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heller) said, we have this year introduced the new Housing Act, which will help to make conditions much more tolerable for many people who have been living in old houses without proper amenities. These arrangements are not intended to be a substitute for new buildings but to make life more comfortable for the hundreds of thousands of people who live in basically good houses which need modernisation.

My right hon. Friend is deeply concerned, as he shows by always taking part in housing debates, about policy decisions which are taken not to build new council houses where it is possible to do so. As has been said, for many people a council house is still the only way in which they will ever solve their problems. I have no time to go into the building society figures mentioned by the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page), but I have been a Member of Parliament for nearly 20 years and there have always been people who could never qualify for a mortgage because they earned insufficient money. It is quite untrue to say that five years ago anyone could go and get a mortgage.

Reference has been made to the sale by councils of building land. Wherever there is a housing need, this policy is reprehensible. The level of house building will be endangered if such land is sold off, and this must be deplored. Unless the land was compulsorily acquired, or is being sold at less than the district valuer's valuation, my right hon. Friend cannot intervene, but in other cases we have made our attitude known, and I hope that this will not happen on a large scale. One reason why my joint colleague is not here this afternoon to answer this debate is that he is personally visiting one of a large number of councils whose building programmes appear to be lower than they need be. He would like to have had the opportunity of replying to the debate, but perhaps what he is doing this afternoon is even more valuable.

I was asked about the position where a council either would not, could not or did not build, and whether my right hon. Friend would consider using default powers. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton knows, I had a great deal to do with this concept a few years ago, and I am glad to tell both him and my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South that the Minister is examining the possibility of exercising default powers. He has set up an inquiry on this matter. It may also be that in this inquiry we shall be able to consider whether a building agency can be set up to help councils in general, not only those which are falling behind.

I am happy to give my hon. Friend the good piece of Christmas news that the matter is being seriously considered. On the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Gregory) I have not the details of that case, but will write to him.

In conclusion, I wish to thank all hon. Members for taking part in this debate.

It being Four o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Fitch.]