I have not selected the amendment in the names of the hon. Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman) and others:
That this House declines to give a Second Reading to a Bill which places an absurd and arbitrary time limit on additional financial assistance for housing improvement in areas of especial housing need, including the City of Manchester.
There are two purposes to the Bill. First, the Bill proposes to extend by one year—to 23rd June 1974—a higher rate of grant and Government contributions towards house improvement which for a limited period have been provided within the development and intermediate areas by the Housing Act 1971. Secondly, it gives the Secretary of State power to allow or require local authorities to attach conditions to the sale of council houses for a period longer than the five years imposed under existing legislation. I should like to say something about the whole system of improvement and to give some of my views and then within that framework hon. Members will have the opportunity to judge the merits of the Bill.
I think that we can all concede that the Housing Act 1969 was a radical and imaginative measure which effectively provided this House with adequate tools for making a determined and sustained attempt to improve the living conditions of millions of our fellow citizens.
We can all agree that it is appalling that in 1967 nearly one in four of the dwellings in England and Wales lacked a hot water system, one in seven lacked a fixed bath and nearly one in five were without an inside lavatory.
The House will agree that these figures are appalling. These dwellings included thousands of homes which were not slums within the legal definition of that phrase.
Up to and including 1969 the rate of house improvement grants remained static, with slightly over 100,000 grants in England and Wales being approved each year. Therefore, one in five of our citizens lived in homes the conditions of which were quite unsatisfactory. Today there are still far too many people living in conditions of that kind, but there has been some improvement.
On taking office in 1970, one of the first decisions taken by my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State was drastically to step up publicity and knowledge about improvement grants. Many visits were made by ministers to all parts of the country. There was a nationwide publicity campaign, and every effort was made to step up the rate of improvement. The results have been very encouraging. Last year we conducted a second National House Condition Survey throughout England and Wales which showed that the number of dwellings lacking one or more of the basic amenities had dropped from the 1967 total of 3·9 million to 2·9 million. Of that total a good number are to be found within existing or potential clearance areas, so that the number of improveable houses is effectively down to 2·3 million in England and Wales.
During the same four-year period the total number of slums in England and Wales had fallen from 1·8 million to 1·2 million. Not all this drop can be accounted for by slum clearance; about 20,000 unfit houses each year have been restored to fitness with the aid of grants.
The underlying growth in grant approvals confirms this healthy and encouraging trend. Grant approvals in Great Britain rose from about 180,000 in 1970 to 234,000 in 1971. In the first nine months of this year, over 263,000 grant approvals have been made throughout Great Britain. But, up to 1971, the rate of increase in improvement activity in the assisted areas had been well below the national average. As my predecessor pointed out in the Second Reading debate on the Housing Bill, in the development and intermediate areas of England and Wales the increase in grant approvals in 1970 was about half that achieved elsewhere in the country.
This situation was confirmed by the National House Condition Survey, which showed that in 1971 the percentage of the housing stock in the north of England lacking one or more of the basic amenities was as high as 19 per cent.—nearly one house in five—whilst in the South-East it was considerably lower—13·7 per cent. A similar position was found as regards slums. There is no doubt that in those regions covered by the 1971 Act, housing conditions in physical terms are worse than they are in the rest of the country.
It was for precisely this reason that the 1971 Act was introduced and was intended from the outset to provide a short, sharp boost to rehabilitation activity in the assisted areas. The results have been dramatic. During the first nine months of 1972 in England and Wales, a total of 122,000 grants of all types were approved in assisted areas as against 104,000 outside. Thus, more grants are now being given in assisted areas than elsewhere. For example, in the Northern Region, the whole of which has been subject to the 1971 Act provisions from the outset, the number of grants approved in the first part of 1972 was over two-and-a-half times as high as the figure for the same period in 1971.
From lagging well behind the field, therefore, the assisted areas are now making a vigorous effort to catch up. Of course, nobody can accelerate so swiftly without a certain amount of strain. Many authorities in the assisted areas have run into difficulties, partly arising from the inability of the building industry to cope with the sharp, localised increase in demand for improvement work. In addition, local authorities have brought to our attention the fact that they have been unable to deal as quickly as they would have wished with the flood of grant applications received. Earlier this year the Government accepted these arguments and agreed to extend the provisions of the 1971 Act by a further year. Hence the Bill we are debating.
I know that some hon. Members, especially the hon. Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman), feel that the proposed extension, though welcome, is still not enough, and I understand his view that the extension should be for an indefinite period. But when my predecessor announced on 21st April that a further year's extension would be given, he stressed that this was a once-for-all extension and emphasised the need for all concerned to press ahead as fast as possible if the maximum advantage is to be derived from the increased grants.
The purpose of the time limit, in which I strongly believe, is to give a necessary stimulus to early action. I agree that as the new end date approaches similar problems of pressure on resources may arise. But surely three years is a reasonable time within which to enable those private owners who wish to do so to benefit from the increased grants, and it should also enable local authorities to prepare schemes and to complete works on council estates. Many local authorities plan to have completed major improvements schemes on virtually all their pre-war council estates within the deadline. It is not as though grants will be withdrawn altogether at the end of this period. Grants of 50 per cent. will continue to be available as in the rest of the country, and I hope that all concerned will continue to take advantage of them.
There is also a further point in relation to improvements carried out by local authorities on their own council dwellings. The Housing Finance Act will greatly help here. I will not weary the House by going into the full details, but if I am pressed I can go into the matter in greater detail.
I am conscious of the fact that, in the interval between my leaving the Department of the Environment in the spring and my return in the autumn, a good deal of attention has been focused on possible abuses of the improvement grant system. I have read the views of some hon. Members in the House and also have heard the comments of people outside the House in relation to improvement grants and possible abuses. We must first have a proper sense of perspective. During the first six months of this year nearly four in five of all grants in England and Wales—79 per cent.—went to owner-occupiers, local authorities or housing associations. The percentage which went to landlords was 21 per cent.—just over one in five—which is less than they received in 1971.
During the third quarter, figures for which have only recently been received, the percentage going to landlords fell to 19 per cent. In the assisted areas—and the Bill deals only with these areas; it does not relate to London, in which I know many hon. Members who are now present are interested—the proportion going to landlords is a good deal less than the national average. In the Northern Region, for example, only 13 per cent., or one in seven, of the third quarter's approvals went to landlords.
I am sure nobody would wish to imply that we should equate all landlords with speculators. The typical landlord is a person owning only one or two houses which he finds very difficult and expensive to maintain properly. There are some people who speculate, and I hope that the local authorities will use their powers to cope with the situation. I hope that the House will accept that it is precisely in the privately rented sector where the worst housing conditions are to be found; it is precisely the small landlord whom we wish to encourage to go ahead with improvements. Indeed, it is the same sort of landlord—so we are told by local authorities and by the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Frank Allaun) in his recent book—whom it is difficult to persuade to improve his houses. Furthermore, we want to help landlords to make use of the higher grants provided in the Bill.
One hears a certain amount of criticism about the use of grants to improve country cottages and the like for people who already have one home and who can afford to acquire a second for recreational or leisure purposes. I agree that on the whole there is little justification for making grants available in this type of case. But this is a matter which any competent local authority is capable of handling in the light of local housing conditions and policies. I have no evidence to show that local authorities display reluctance in deciding what line to adopt in dealing with this type of grant application.
Recently we inquired of some 50 rural district councils throughout England about the policy that they adopted towards grants for second homes. We discovered a variety of results. Some 21 per cent. do not rule out the possibility of giving grants for second homes but would do so with varying degrees of reluctance. About 7 per cent. treat each case on its merits and have no predisposition either way. Nineteen per cent. definitely do not give grants. It is up to the local authorities, and they have been given the discretion. But in my view there is little justification for making grants in these cases, though I cannot forbid any local authority from doing so if it thinks fit. Indeed, at the moment I have no powers to do so.
This is one of the issues which we shall take into account as part of our policy review. We are looking especially at ways in which the improvement grant system can be modified in order to concentrate help on areas and classes of people most in need.
We are looking very carefully into alleged abuses. My predecessor informed the House that during the summer he has asked for a study to be made of the social implications of improvement within the stress areas of inner London. The survey is now in progress with the co-operation of the local authorities concerned. This is scarcely connected with this Bill. Most of these allegations about improvement grants arise in London. I have read of very few allegations in assisted areas. If hon. Members have evidence of specific cases I hope that they will pass it on to me.
When I have the results of the study of course I shall consider them carefully. The Government will not hesitate to take whatever steps they think necessary to deal with any abuses which come to light. In the meantime, I look to local authorities to exercise their already considerable discretionary powers to deal with the problem of undue speculation and harassment of tenants. Local authorities have the power to refuse improvement grants in such cases, and I hope that they will exercise them. If they do not, they are failing in their responsibilities.
The House will know that a circular has just been issued to local authorities asking them to make sure that whenever an improvement grant is approved for tenanted accommodation the tenants are advised fully of their statutory rights. I hope that this will help to overcome many of the problems which some tenants have encountered and will serve again to emphasise that local authorities, when giving improvement grants, should do so with an awareness of the total housing aids and priorities of their districts.
We should make every effort to identify where and to what extent abuses are taking place and then deal with them. But let us not, to use the old phrase, throw out the baby with the bath water. We must not lose sight of the fundamental need for housing improvement.
It is of the utmost importance to get substandard houses improved so that within the foreseeable future no one, whether he be an owner-occupier, a land-lord or a tenant, has to live in conditions totally unsuited to the second half of the twentieth century. It is intolerable that so many of our people still have to do so in spite of the extraordinary success of improvement grants in the past few years.
It is clear that we need to concentrate our efforts and resources increasingly on those parts of the country where areas of substandard housing remain. My predecessor invited local authorities last May to join a drive to ensure that within 10 years no one was required to live in an unfit or substandard house. He asked all local authorities to review the age, condition and tenure of their existing housing stock, to review their present plans and to draw up a strategy for dealing with the problem within the next 10 years. We have received some of these reports, and they provide a clear indication of where and how we need to develop new policy approaches.
As for slum clearance, the results have been very encouraging. We learn that Manchester plans to be rid of its existing sums by 1975 and that Birmingham and Liverpool will have cleared theirs by 1980.
Beyond that, we have received very useful information about local strategies for house improvement programmes. I can now inform the House that this information, together with the results of other studies which have been put in hand, will form the basis of a major and comprehensive review of housing policy condition of older housing on which we have embarked recently.
As its starting point, it will take the need to examine ways to ensure that help towards the improvement and repair of older houses is directed to those groups of people and those areas with the greatest problems. The issue of alleged abuses of the present grant system will be dealt with fully as part of this process of reappraisal.
All this lies strictly outside the scope of the Bill, but I feel sure that the House wanted to have an indication of how my right hon. and learned Friend and I, arriving fresh to the problem, view it. Our immediate concern tonight is to extend the additional help within the assisted areas of England and to Scotland and Wales, and I trust that hon. Members on both sides will be able to give this measure their unqualified support.
As I have already pointed out, much has been achieved in the assisted areas since the Housing Act 1971 was introduced. I believe that the extra year provided by this proposed legislation will enable further considerable steps to be taken towards our ultimate objective of providing everyone in the country with decent living conditions.
Turning to the second proposal in the Bill, Clause 2 is concerned with the conditions which can be imposed by local authorities when selling council houses. I will not go into the merits of this policy. We all have strongly held views about it one way or the other.
Council houses are sold under Section 104 of the Housing Act 1957 and local authorities need the consent of the Secretary of State to sell. Over the years it has been the practice under both Administrations, with some exceptions on which I will not elaborate, to give local authorities a general consent to sell. The general consent in operation at present was given in Circular 54/70 issued on 30th June 1970.
That consent gives local authorities the choice of selling their houses either at full market value or at up to 20 per cent. less if certain conditions are imposed on the sale. Those conditions provide that, for a period of five years after sale, the House shall not be resold for more than the tenant paid for it and that, if he wishes to sell the house, it must first be offered back to the council.
The effect of the conditions in valuation terms is to reduce the full market value of the house by up to 20 per cent. Thus all houses sold under the general consent are sold either at full unrestricted market value or at restricted market value.
Some local authorities have sought consent to sell houses at up to 30 per cent. below full market value. We consider that where there have been exceptional rises in the prices of council houses in the area in question it is right that authorities which want to offer this higher reduction in price should be allowed to do so, provided that the conditions imposed reflect the higher reduction on full market value. This can be achieved by extending the period over which the present conditions restricting the purchaser's freedom on resale apply beyond the five years at present provided for. The appropriate period in present circumstances is eight years. It is therefore necessary to amend Section 104 to enable the conditions to be applied for a longer period.
There is no intention to issue a new general consent to local authorities. They will continue to be able, as at present, to offer houses for sale at up to 20 per cent. below full market value when imposing conditions lasting for five years without reference to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State. That period will continue to be the normal one, and applications to apply extra reductions in price coupled with longer periods of restriction on resale will be considered on their merits.
Since 16th August a few consents have been given to local authorities to sell at a reduction of 30 per cent. provided that conditions were imposed for the eight-year period. This gives rise to the need for the retrospective provisions of the Clause.
There is certainly no question of our regarding longer pre-emption periods as desirable in themselves. Where a local authority satisfies me that reductions of up to 30 per cent. in full market value are justified, I hope that in offering its houses for sale to tenants it will give the choice of purchase at full market value without restrictions, at up to 20 per cent. less with the appropriate five-year period for the conditions, or at the higher reduction with the longer period of restriction.
This is perhaps the least important clause in the Bill. The main purpose of the Bill is to further the sharp attack on Britain's bad housing conditions. There have already been dramatic results from the Housing Act 1971. I hope that a further 12 months will achieve a great deal more in tackling the problem of substandard housing which exists in such great proportion. I hope that the House is united in wishing that to be done and that it will unite in supporting the Bill.
In Committee on the Housing Bill 1971 I said this:
I do not believe that the Bill will allow this £46 million to be spent. Indeed, I do not believe that the Government themselves are fully confident that, within the narrow terminology of the Clause
—that is the clause which was before us at that stage—
such a sum can be taken up. I repeat that it is not sufficient to introduce a Bill and declare that £46 million is available unless we can have the disposal of the money monitored and reported on to the House and the public."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 9th July 1971; Vol. 820, c. 1738.]
This issue loomed large in our debates on Second Reading and in Committee on the original Act. In the Bill before us this evening one notices in the paragraph in the Explanatory Memorandum dealing with the financial effects of the Bill:
On the best estimates that can be made, the Bill will result in increased public capital expenditure (i.e. grants to private owners, and local authorities' or housing associations' work) of the order of £41 million spread over the financial years 1973–74 and 1974–75.
I do not want to pursue the matter in too pernickety a way, but I find it odd in the extreme that a Bill which was introduced to run over a two-year period, with great confidence on the part of the Government in 1971, leaves £41 million unexpended towards the end of the period, or within the forecast end of the period now before us, so that the Government are compelled within the terms of the original Act to come before the House and seek an extension of one year to get £41 million of the original £46 million forecast taken up. I do not believe that this is an adequate way of
handling a problem of this kind. We said as much at the time and I say so again tonight.
That is not to suggest that we reject the Bill. We accept and welcome what we know a considerable number of local authorities have been asked for and, indeed, what we asked for originally when the Bill was first before the House in 1971. That was that there should be a longer period. I go further and say that I do not believe this one-year extension will be adequate.
I am not going to rehearse all the arguments which were set out on Second Reading and in Committee on the previous occasion, but to bring this forward at this stage when we have the largest bulk of money to be spent is not the right way of handling this policy. That is my first reaction.
My second reaction is to pick up a number of the points which the Minister has put to the House, as a general backdrop to what we all recognise is a small amendment to the present position. I have very grave doubts about the accuracy of the latest figures arising from the housing conditions survey. If the figures of the 1967 national conditions of property survey were reasonably accurate—in all these cases one acts on good samples and no more than that, and there is a margin of inaccuracy—I do not believe that we can now have a position where there has been a dramatic drop in the figures for substandard accommodation and slum accommodation and the scale produced by this latest survey.
On the basis of the 1967 survey there were 1,800,000 slums estimated to exist in this country, and about 3½ million substandard dwellings in addition to the slum figures. We are now told on the basis of this latest survey that we are down to something not much over two million substandard dwellings and 1¼ million slums. I might accept that we were approaching the figure of 1¼ million slumes if we had a static situation, but we have not a static situation because, in addition to the 1,800,000 in 1967, there has been, and there continues to be, a constant seepage from substandard dwellings into slumdom year by year. The longer these dwellings are not repaired, improved and modernised, the more rapid is the movement from substandard into the statutory slum category.
For example, it has been estimated that in London alone there is a seepage of about 15,000 dwellings per year out of the twilight bracket, to call it that, into outright slumdom, and we are not clearing slums at that rate in London, let alone the rest of the country. Much the same will be found elsewhere.
I do not, therefore, accept the slum figure as accurate. I think that there has been some basic inaccuracy. I do not suggest dishonesty, but I suggest that it is important to ascertain the methods used in the follow-up housing condition survey recently conducted.
Much the same applies to substandard accommodation. I just do not believe that we have improved and modernised 1 million dwellings in four years. I should love to believe that the 1969 Act had been working so well and been taken up so extensively that we had raised from substandard to modern condition I million dwellings in the four years between the 1967 survey and the most recent one, but I do not believe it, and I ask the Minister not to accept that figure.
I note with interest what the hon. Gentleman says. It is just possible, I suppose, that the 1967 survey was wrong. How do we know which it was, if there be a discrepancy, which I do not at the moment accept?
I prefaced my remarks by saying that, if we accept the 1967 survey as reasonably accurate, allowing for the margin of inaccuracy which a sampling method always entails, I could not believe that the figures now given were correct. I do not believe that there has been that much physical activity in the country preventing seepage into slumdom of that number of substandard dwellings. If the Minister now raises a query over the 1967 figures, we must go back and check the methods used there. All I am saying at the moment is that I cannot believe the figures now presented.
The survey in 1967 was the very first national survey using these methods. It had been very much a matter of guesswork previously, based on fairly accurate local sample surveys. What is more significant in the present context is the history of these figures. Every time any Minister—I make no party point here—tried to ascertain what the position was, later investigations showed that there had been serious underestimates. I recall the time when we were told that we had only about 600,000 slum dwellings. That was in the days of the Minister who is now chairman of the BBC, and I am sure that he was being perfectly honest, with no desire to mislead the House.
Whenever similar figures have been given, each time a check was made in later years it was found that mistakes had been made. On that basis alone, therefore, I am prepared to accept the somewhat gloomier figures in the 1967 survey, particularly bearing in mind that there had never been a national survey of that kind before. If the methods were wrong, let us look into it and use better methods in future.
I turn now to the rate of improvement which has been going on. I wish nothing I say to be taken as "knocking" the improvements policy. I was an advocate of improvements policy long before I was ever thought of as a possible candidate for this place. I remember going on deputations as leader of my old borough council to the then Ministers and civil servants, urging action along these lines to enable local authorities to step up their work generally in what we now call the twilight areas of our cities. I am a keen advocate of improvements policy if it is carried on in the right fashion and is kept constantly under review.
The Minister has told us of dramatic increases in the areas covered by this Bill and the 1971 Act. He is right. There have been increases. But where have they taken place most markedly? Let us cast our minds back to the figures used by the Minister I am not now challenging the statistics. In 1967 there was an estimated 3,500,000 substandard twilight properties not classifiable as slums. It was largely because of that constant problem with which we never seemed to get to grips sufficiently well that action was taken which led eventually to the 1969 Act and to many other policy actions. The act was aimed primarily though not solely at that section of housing accomodation.
I agreed with the Minister when he said that the biggest problem over the years has been to get private-tenanted property improved, even under the old improvement legislation, rather that owner-occupied property. The position has changed somewhat in that there has been a total increase. But look at the proportions. Look at where the biggest increases are still taking place and where the biggest take-up of grants is occurring. The figures are not given and I regret that, and I put my protest on record again at the omission.
The housing and construction statistics show not only a breakdown between local authority take-up of grants and private owners and housing associations, but owner-occupiers, private landlords and housing associations. The Minister has confirmed tonight that not more than about 20 per cent. of all grants are being taken up by private landlords. The figures that are available show that the solid increase has taken place in local authority work. Although there will be some exceptions to my observations, generally speaking local authority improvements are taking place on estates built in the 1920s and 1930s.
There will be exceptions because some local authorities have purchased existing old properties—some more than others. In my authority area there are about 3,500 such properties which will become subject to this kind of improvement. But by and large most of the improvements undertaken by local authorities are on such estates as I have mentioned. That means that the vast bulk of the grants attributable to local authority work do not relate to the 3,500,000 substandard and obsolete accommodation revealed by the housing survey in 1967.
With a small margin of error we must delete virtually the whole of the local authority grant figures from the rest in order to show the true picture of what is happening in the twilight areas of the cities as distinct from the relatively modern local authority estates, no matter how much they may need improvement—and I accept that they do. I am seeking to get at the realities, and the reality here is that although there has been a welcome increase in improvement work, it has reached nowhere near the necessary scale in the sector which primarily gave rise to the 1969 Act. It is about time that those who talk about improvements stopped kidding themselves, whether they be Ministers or my hon. Friends, and stopped kidding the public that there has been a dramatic increase in the improvements in the twilight areas. There has not. There has been some increase, but not a dramatic increase, in the intermediate and development areas. The biggest increase has been on the 1920s and 1930s local authority estates, not in the twilight areas with which we are mostly concerned in this area of policy.
We must not become smug about the matter. The Minister may think that what I have to say springs from ideology. It does not. It is a view arrived at over years of experience gained before and since I entered the House. On purely realistic grounds, irrespective of political philosophy and ideology, the only way to bring about a dramatic increase in housing improvement in the twilight areas of our cities is by a massive expansion of local authority, co-operative society and housing association work, with the councils in the lead.
The Government may put off that day for their own political philosophical reasons for as long as they like, but sooner or later in our cities we shall have to place the responsibility for action on the shoulders of the public authorities and enable them to go ahead and do it. The Government may use the terms, "municipalisation", "social ownership", "local authority purchase" or any other that they care to use, but it is the only way to achieve a massive expansion. We have been told that a policy review on the matter is starting. That question will lie at its centre.
I come to the specific question of extending the terms of the 1971 Act. Everybody welcomes that, though I do not believe that the Bill will be adequate.
What I have to say next must be related to what was said when the original measure came before us. The Minister has been at pains to say that it was essentially a housing Act. We were at pains when it was introduced to make the point that it was nothing of the kind in origin, that it was an employment measure. It did not relate to housing conditions.
The Minister skipped quickly over his statistics about housing conditions. I shall not bore the House with a lot of statistics, because the facts in the Department's own published papers and surveys show clearly that there are areas covered by the original Act and by the Bill with housing conditions nowhere near as bad as those of areas which have been excluded. I shall not labour the point about Greater London, the most notable stress area in England and Wales. It needs only to be stated for us to be aware that the conditions there are most greatly in need of action and of additional assistance such as will be extended under the Bill to other areas.
If the extension of grant aid from up to 75 per cent. of the agreed figures is correct in the development and intermediate areas, there can be no housing policy justification for excluding stress areas like Greater London. Areas like Greater Manchester were brought within the ambit of the Act not by virtue of housing policy through the Department of the Environment but by action of the Department of Trade and Industry based on regional unemployment policy. It happened because Manchester was classified as an intermediate area on economic grounds.
I could go through a whole series of statistics showing that there are development or intermediate areas with housing conditions which, while not marvellous, are relatively better than those in areas like the West Midlands and Greater London—
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman intervened. On my original notes I had a reference to this. About half of the relatively known slums—because this is based on sample survey work—are believed to be, if not entirely in rural areas then certainly in the sprawl of such areas between the central conurbations. I do not know what the figures are for substandard housing but they are considerable.
This is not a housing measure. If there is to be a genuine review of policy in tackling obsolescence, neither the original Act nor this Bill is good enough, welcome though they may be for the areas concerned. There must be a much more fundamental appraisal of our methods in central and local government for dealing with twilight city area problems.
This goes well beyond housing. We shall come back to this soon, I hope. It is about time that this House had a debate on the problems of our urban areas as such, with housing at the centre. There is a whole mesh of related problems. This is where the policy review needs to be directed.
There is one other reference to improvements which I must make, concerning a point raised at the time of the original Act. I make a further plea to the Minister, relating not just to the areas covered by this Bill but to the country as a whole. He will recall from reading the record of the Second Reading and Committee proceedings that I was at pains to press the need for extending the grant levels. There was some difficulty in following certain points. It was claimed that the Minister had to upgrade grant levels in accordance with the depreciation in value of the £. It was said that although general powers did not exist there were powers for groups of local authorities. It was argued that there was no evidence that the depreciation of the £ since 1969 was having a marked effect on improvements.
I made the point then that I did not know how this could be shown unless there was a drastic reduction in improvement grant take-up. It was not possible to show that there would not have been a better take-up and more work done if the grant levels had been upgraded in line with real values. The figures were £1,000 for a single dwelling or £1,250 if converted from a single dwelling into three flats or more. What have those figures come down to today? I do not think that £750 would be far out for the £1,000 figure and the same sort of reduction will be true for the £1,250.
If we are to make any reality of improvement policy it is about time that the Minister used his powers, even if they are not satisfactory, to upgrade grant aid levels, not just in the intermediate and development areas but throughout the country. Serious thought must be given to extending the environmental grants. They too have become about £60 per dwelling when they used to £100.
If this situation continues there may be a subtle but nevertheless real reduction in real values. Even if, without a revision of grant levels, there is no marked reduction in take-up of improvement grants there is no question but that standards in dwellings will be reduced. It is my view that, good as the 1969 Act was, and great as the campaign to raise standards has been, the standards being sought were not enough. I believe that three or four years after the event we should review those standards. Those standards should be raised drastically in accordance with modern demand, but if we do not upgrade the level of improvement grants then we shall not only not improve standards but in many cases we shall also depress them because there will be less money available in real terms.
I would urge that, even if nothing can be done in this Bill, any review which is directed at this policy should be dealt with quickly. I hope that the Government will consider the two or three fundamental points which I have outlined and that we shall see a genuine housing Bill embodying an improvement policy for the future.
I regret that the extended convenant period does not apply to dwellings which are sold at normal market prices. I understood the Minister to say that the extension of time beyond the five-year period and other covenanted conditions would apply where there were 20 or 30 per cent. reductions in market prices on the sale of property. This is not good enough. If we are to maintain a successful social control, there should be greater discretion to apply conditions and covenants on the resale of council houses to the original tenants, whether or not there has been any reduction in market price. I hope that the Minister will give serious thought to this matter. We all know that in the past local authorities have embarked on council house sales and have imposed conditions and covenants irrespective of the price charged, and that they have then found difficulty in maintaining control over the situation in their areas once the five-year period has elapsed.
My main concern tonight has been over the inadequacies of the Government's consideration of housing improvements rather than in terms of the extension proposed in the Bill for development and intermediate areas, an extension which I welcome.
There is something a little contradictory in the situation when the hon. Member for Willesden, East (Mr. Freeson), speaking from the Opposition Front Bench, says that it is only the local authorities which can proceed with large-scale modernisation of housing in their areas and then, almost in the same breath, condemns any large-scale operation by the private sector to use improvement grants for work on the houses which it controls. Such an approach by the Opposition does not make sense.
On the other hand, I tend to agree with some of the hon. Gentleman's arguments on the Bill itself. This amending Bill relates to the intermediate and development areas. In opening the debate my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction illustrated how much sense improvement grants make in bringing the country's housing stock up to the mark. I do not see such provisions as only employment boosters in certain areas. I want to see them applied generally throughout the whole section of housing in cities such as Birmingham and other densely populated areas. In this direction they should be universal and something which can be related from area to area. The Government should determine a yardstick throughout the country so that people know exactly how these grants can be applied. Between-wars houses are treated differently from authority to authority and area to area, and even differently within the same authorities.
In my constituency there are immediate pre-war houses which are showing their age which have all the facilities of hot water and a bathroom and offer good general living conditions. But they are inadequate in terms of modern standards. Some authorities give grants for the improvement of such houses and others do not.
There is an anomaly in my area because council houses of that age qualify for grants for modernisation whilst private houses do not. The local authority has decided that if that type of council house comes into private ownership the house should qualify for a grant. It is wrong that two similar houses in the same area should be treated differently. What is fair for one should be fair for the other. I ask that the matter be locked into and that some direction should be given to local authorities.
I am sorry that the Minister has been timorous and put in the Bill only a slight amendment concerning the sale of council houses. He could have gone a little further and improved it by providing for the sale of council houses as of right to sitting tenants. That provision should have been included and it is an omission which my hon. Friend should regret. Holding back helps to put such houses outside the range of some of the older tenants. The 50- and 60-year-olds should be considered. The price of housing is increasing, and even with the 30 per cent. discount people of modest means are still being left outside the range of purchase.
We want to see an expansion in the rate of ownership. I am afraid that the Department's circular is to some local authorities, simply another piece of paper—they just ignore it. Since the change of control, Birmingham City Council has tightened up on the sale of council houses—in fact, it has stopped it [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Hon. Members opposite show a complete lack of sympathy for council house tenants by shouting "Hear, hear." It is rubbish for them to support the view that council house tenants should not be able to buy their own houses. Many people in my area completely disagree with the Socialist point of view. My mail proves it. This morning there are letters in my mail about the refusal of the local council to sell its houses.
Many of my constituents wish to buy their council houses, and I hope that the day will come when that is possible. I do not see why it should not be done. But in Manchester we shall not sell council houses until everybody is decently rehoused. If the hon. Gentleman cares to come to my constituency he will see the utterly unspeakable conditions in which people are living. He would agree, after seeing those conditions, that the council stock should not be reduced by one unit until everybody has been properly rehoused. When that has been done, council houses should be sold.
What a lot of rubbish that is. That will not contribute one house to the housing list, and hon. Members opposite well know it. But we are getting down to some of the arguments that we do not want raised tonight. It has been proved time after time that there is this difference between us.
The Birmingham authority promised to deal with houses for sale which were already in the pipeline—that is, houses which had been valued and the tenants of which had signified their wish to purchase. The council has now gone back on that undertaking. Houses which have been valued only are not being proceeded with, and that is unfortunate. The authority has also stopped the sale of houses in respect of which it is discovered that the guarantor is a son of the family or some other near relative living in the same house.
I wish the Minister to deal in the Bill with the situation in which council tenants in some areas have the right to purchase and council tenants in other areas do not. It is entirely wrong that we should treat people differently in that way. It seems that council tenants in Manchester will never have the chance of purchasing their houses because of the lame-brained thinking of the city council. There has been a tightening up of the situation in Birmingham since the change to a council which is equally lame-brained. I hope that we shall progress towards a position in which all council tenants have the right to purchase.
I do not think anyone is against the extension which is provided for in the Bill. The hon. Member for Willesden, East (Mr. Freeson) has made it clear that the Opposition do not challenge it. My concern is with the remarks which the Minister made when referring to the question of the improvement of country cottages. I wish to say a few words on that subject particularly in connection with Cornwall and rural areas like it because we have country cottages and seaside cottages and, therefore, a double demand for the kind of cottages I have in mind.
Whether or not the original purpose of the grants was to create employment, there is a perfectly good housing raison d'être behind them. Their purpose is to solve the housing shortage and to improve housing standards by improving the existing housing stock and ensuring that it does not deteriorate. That is a splendid aim with which all parties would agree. But grants for holiday cottages or seaside cottages do not fit that aim. Grants inevitably drive up the price of cottages in areas like Cornwall above the level which those who live in the areas and wish to occupy the houses full time can pay. Cottages whose prices have been driven up as a result of improvement grants are not available for people with no homes.
I draw the Minister's attention to a warning given to one of his predecessors in a letter from the Camelford Rural District Council dated 10th March 1970. It was addressed to the Secretary, Ministry of Housing and Local Government and it stated:
The implications of the new Act however go beyond this in that the Council may now be driven to make grants, as the Housing Authority for improvement of property which will be used solely for holiday purposes or for holiday lettings. The Council has agreed in principle that improvement grants should not be made on properties which are to be used as holiday cottages or for holiday lettings but doubts whether this can he enforced under the Act as it still exists".
That doubt has been fully borne out because local councils can try to place an embargo on improvement grants for second homes, but how are they to enforce it? Should they ask whether it is a second home? Suppose that somebody does not declare that it is a second home.
Should it be said that a local council will not give grants to people with two homes? Should the council say that it will not give a grant on either of the two homes; or will it be given on one, and, if so, which one? Will it be on the principal residence? If so, how does one define "principal residence"? I must not ask the Minister to define "principal residence" because we have tried to do that in connection with the question of where people should have their vote.
I should declare a political interest here because very recently the chairman of a local Conservative association said that the only way his party could get rid of me in North Cornwall was by importing more Englishmen into the area as it was well known that the English voted Conservative and the Cornish voted Liberal. I sometimes think that improvement grants are a kind of plot to get me out of my constituency!
In no circumstances should a grant be given on a house that is not the principal residence and which is not occupied for the greater part of the year. A home occupied for only two or three weeks, or even only two or three months, is certainly not helping to solve the housing shortage. We constantly complain about the under-occupation of council houses and we seek all manner of ways in which to solve that problem: how can one possibly accept the under-occupation of houses occupied for only a few weeks in a year?
I should like to quote a letter that is typical of many I have received from constituents on this subject. My constituent was writing in August 1972 and she said:
The point is that so many of the properties, cottages, etc., coming up for sale in the North Cornwall area are being sold to people who claim the Improvement Grant and immediately let them at high rents to holiday makers, leaving them empty in the winter months…".
That is typical of the attitude to improvement grants that is now prevalent.
I do not suggest that we can forbid the ownership of second homes. It is only a matter of degree whether ownership of a second home is worse than ownership of a second car or a second television set. It is simply a matter of how people spend their money and of internal budgetary priorities.
But whether or not we forbid people to own a second home—and I do not think we can legislate against it—there is no case for subsidising people to own a second home. There is no case for using the taxpayers' money to encourage people to own a second home. Yet that is what we do, not only through improvement grants, with which we are explicitly concerned tonight, but through tax allowances on mortgage interest payments.
My party's conference this year, arguing for the replacement of tax reliefs on mortgage payments and rebates by fixed housing allowances under the credit income tax, demanded that only one allowance be given per householder and that that should be payable on the principal residence. We also demanded that improvement grants, both statutory and discretionary, should not be available for second homes.
The Minister may say, as he said this evening, that local authorities have discretion, but how are they to exercise it? How does an authority in Cornwall find out whether a house is a second home? How does it tell whether a house is occupied for only two months of the year? If it lays down a condition, how does it enforce it?
At what point does a local authority take action if, having laid down for how long the house must be occupied, it finds that it is not occupied for the greater part of the year? Does the authority take action against the person who recovered the improvement grant after the house has been empty for one month, two months or three months? What army of snoopers would it have to employ to prove its case? The law has to be firmly on the side of the authorities and it has to make it illegal to accept an improvement grant on a second home. Without that, the authorities will be unable to enforce their conditions in practice.
It has to be asked whether a man who can afford two homes needs an improvement grant. If he has resources that enable him to buy two homes, he certainly has resources enabling him to ensure that one of them is improved to a sufficient standard, and he can sell the other.
I am in sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but the practical difficulty that I meet in trying to resolve the problem is the question of selling on.
I shall come to that because that is another problem in my constituency. I have a letter from St. Enoder Parish Council, typical of many, written in September of this year and saying:
This council feels that there is a lot of misuse of the improvement grant in that agents and speculators are paying high prices for old properties, obtaining grants and selling again quickly such properties at excessive prices".
Again, the clerk to the Wadebridge and Padstow Rural District Council, who has
been involved in giving many improvement grants, in a letter written to me in October this year said:
The earlier Housing Acts required owners to repay a proportionate part of the grant if they sold before twenty years had elapsed; under later legislation it was reduced to three years. This requirement was abolished by the Housing Act, 1969 and, in spite of intense and continuing pressure by local authorities, the Government have refused to reintroduce the condition. I feel this is poor public relations, as the condition prevented developers from making a quick profit at the expense of the rate and tax payer".
The time limit should be reintroduced. Many councils impose conditions but these are unenforceable. The Government must legislate to enable local authorities to do their job properly and to exercise their responsibilities correctly.
The hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe) has made a case against the use of improvement grants for the conversion of cottages into second homes, but the proportion of improvement grants used for this purpose is very small, especially in big cities, where there are few, if any, second homes. Would the hon. Gentleman rather have these cottages fall into disuse? More often than not the owners will spend thousands of pounds over and above the amount of the improvement grant in making the place into a good asset for many years to come. He will probably occupy it for holidays for a year or two—
The hon. Member asks a straight question: whether I should like to see these cottages fall into disrepair. No, I would not. I would pay the improvement grant to local inhabitants who wish to use the house for all-the-year-round living in, to add to the stock of housing. No house is an asset in national and social terms if it is left unoccupied for eight months of the year.
I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but before improvement grants were introduced no one was prepared to spend money on the houses. Now people think that it is worth while.
I am concerned that the situation arising in Cornwall arises also in Suffolk, a lovely county. There are numerous ghost villages, one of which rejoices in the name of Kettlebaston and has three houses permanently occupied and a dozen at weekends.
I said that I took the point, and there is something in it, but I still say that the percentage of improvement grants used in this way is infinitesimal. It is something we may have to suffer unless a taxation solution can be found. I agree with the hon. Member for Willesden, East (Mr. Freeson) that the level of the grant should be looked at from time to time. This has been a success story, but unless the levels are raised it will not be such a success in future.
The hon. Member for Willesden, East said that the figures he advanced about local authority houses compared with privately-owned houses were based on his own experience and nothing more. My experience with local authority houses and others goes back a little further than the hon. Gentleman's and when he says that these grants for local authorities are taken up to be spent on houses built in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, that is just not true. Many of these grants—a very large proportion of them—are spent on houses built in the last century, houses taken over by local authorities. That applies to what is by far the largest proportion of them. This is a question of the hon. Gentleman's experience against mine; but if that is the basis of his case, it is simply a question of two differing points of view.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman misunderstands me when he speaks of my experience. I had referred to experience in local authority work, but my comments on that score were about the statistics provided by the Ministry. They related to broad figures of council ownership of acquired property as distinct from council-built property. Extensive travel, looking at improvement work undertaken direct by local authorities, has shown me that the vast majority of cases I have seen, when I was at the Ministry and since, have been of work undertaken primarily on council-built estates and not on council-acquired property.
The hon. Gentleman will have to produce more substantial statistics than that if he wants his case to be accepted. He has quoted his experience and I have quoted mine.
I want to reinforce the point put by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Kinsey) about the sale of council houses. The Minister may say, with justification, that this is not the Bill to deal with this matter, but it refers in Clause 2 to the sale of council houses, and I and many of my hon. Friends cannot see why the Bill could not be used to give tenants the right to buy their council houses.
I shall join other hon. Members in refraining from rehearsing the case for that and from saying what I have said several times in this Chamber about the right of tenants to own their homes, but the day will come when this will have to be accepted, and my hon. Friend who introduced the Bill has given some encouraging answers to Questions.
I suppose that my hon. Friend wants to see how the recent circular is operating. However, like my hon. Friend the Member for Perry Barr, I am not optimistic about that circular. I am glad that the Minister has sent it to local authorities, but we have heard tonight that Manchester says that it will ignore the circular and not act upon it.
I have had many letters from Manchester council tenants who think they have a right to buy their houses and are disgruntled at the refusal of the local authority to sell. Hon. Members opposite may have to think again about their policy before the next General Election. Some of their constituencies comprise 60 or 70 per cent. council estates, and judging by the hundreds of letters I have received the Opposition might have to change their attitude. Everyone should have the right to own his own home, whether he be a council tenant or any other kind of tenant, and I hope that my hon. Friend will not overlook the fact. I congratulate him on the purpose of the Bill and I agree with everything he has said.
I will be brief at this late hour because other hon. Members wish to speak. I want to explain why we think that the Bill's provisions should be extended beyond a year.
We should look at the problems of local authorities and other property owners in deciding on a scheme in the first place, getting estimates and then having the job done. It is not as easy as it may seem. For example, Denton Urban District Council in my constituency decided to improve a council house area and got a builder to do a specimen job. It then received an estimate but now it cannot get the job done unless it pays more than 30 per cent. over the original estimate. The same applies to local private owners.
The same authority agreed to rehouse people who will have to move when a motorway goes through the town. It means the erection of 500 new houses. The estimate has been submitted and approved, but the cost yardstick of the Department means that the houses will not be built in time. Unless the yardstick is raised, then the motorway will not be built.
My constituency takes in part of the city of Manchester and two urban districts. The Minister mentioned that Manchester hopes to get rid of its slums by 1975. The latter stages of that operation are in the main in constituencies like mine, on the boundary. They are not areas where wholesale clearance will take place but where some houses will be removed and the rest will require improvement. That stage will come at the end of 1974 and the beginning of 1975. Owners of property in those areas do not know exactly what the improvement areas are going to be; they do not know whether the council will compulsorily purchase to carry out improvements; they do not know what the cost of improvements will be or whether they will get 50 per cent. or 75 per cent. grant. If the Government allow an extension of the proposed 12-month period, it will materially assist these people in coming to the right decisions and budgeting for the job.
At the other end of my constituency are huge blocks of council flats, Brook House and Compton House. At the moment they are in the Manchester, Ardwick constituency but the area is in process of being transferred to mine. These flats were built 30 years ago and the council Is having to decide whether, since they are so much below modern standards, they will have to be demolished or whether they should be improved. An undertaking of this kind cannot be done overnight. The job will have to wait until the slum clearance programme is finished at the end of 1975. I strongly urge the Minister to think of these problems which face local authorities and individual owner-occupiers and accept that there is a genuine argument for an extension of these provisions beyond one year.
In these debates on housing improvement, I have discovered that pressure on the Government pays. That is why my hon. Friends and I have tabled the amendment to the motion, and why I warn the Minister that what he may reject tonight, assuming that he is unwise enough to do so, he will have to come back to the House and accept. That is the history of this legislation.
I remember, during the Second Reading of the original Housing Bill of 1971, pressing for the city of Manchester to be included in the provisions of that Bill, I pointed out, as has been pointed out tonight, that many areas not included in the provisions of that Bill had housing conditions which were far better than those of my constituents and those of the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Marks).
I pressed the Minister on Second Reading. I was turned down. I pressed him repeatedly month after month. I was turned down. Suddenly, the Government capitulated. We were included because our unemployment rate had risen so much under this Government that we were declared an intermediate area. That capitulation took place at the time of this year's Budget. However, by then much of the time for the increased improvement grants had elapsed. Therefore in the Budget debate I asked for the time limit for these increased improvement grants to be extended. I received no reply in the debate. I wrote to the Minister. The Minister did not reply to me, but he planted a Question on his hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale (Mr. Bray) in which he announced that what I had asked for would be done. This Bill is the outcome.
Now that my previous campaigns on increased improvements for the city of Manchester and on the extended time limit for them have succeeded, I come again to ask for more. I ask for more for the same two reasons that I put forward originally. The reason for bringing the 1971 Housing Act before the House was to provide employment for Manchester building workers on a long-term basis. We have an intolerable unemployment position among building workers in Manchester. There are 2,560 of them out of work, and there are only 143 vacancies. It means that there are 18 unemployed building workers for every vacancy in the city—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Enfield, West (Mr. Parkinson) may laugh—
The hon. Gentleman has an extremely low unemployment rate in his constituency. He cannot deride the impossibly serious unemployment problems of Manchester, details of which were given me by the Department of Employment in Manchester. The unemployed in Manchester do not find it a laughing matter—
I smiled for two reasons. The first is that I have some connection with a building company in Manchester which has been advertising for the past five months for labour and cannot find any. The second reason was that I was called to order by Mr. Speaker last week and reminded that I was not allowed to read a newspaper in the House. It so happened that I was looking at the situations vacant column in a Manchester newspaper which advertised vacancies in every single branch of the building industry. My attention was drawn particularly to an advertisement offering jobs to carpenters at £14 a day.
Hon. Members from the comfort of Enfield and Buckingham may jeer about Manchester's problems. It will be noted in Manchester what honourable Conservative Members from the South of England think about our appalling unemployment problems. I answer it by giving the hon. Gentleman the statistics which were given to me today by the Department of Employment, Manchester office. We have 2,560 building workers unemployed and 143 vacancies. If hon. Gentlemen think that is funny, my unemployed and ill-housed constituents do not, and they will note with a great deal of interest the comfort with which hon. Members with building employment interests can take their unemployment.
Would it help my hon. Friend in his observations, and indeed help the observations and reactions of other hon. Members, if I draw attention to the fact that there are about 140,000 registered unemployed building workers, although there is a shortage of certain skills throughout the country?
No, I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman again. His callousness towards Manchester's unemployment problems is such that I have no intention of wasting time on him again. If he wishes to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and explain why he regards the unemployment in Manchester as a laughing matter, that is his concern.
So I say that one of the reasons I seek an indefinite extension of these increased improvement grants is the very serious unemployment among building workers in Manchester on which I have quoted official Government figures. I ask for this, second, because Manchester, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gorton will agree, and especially at present my constituency of Ardwick, is an area of especial housing stress.
The problem cannot be solved in a 30-month rush operation cut off abruptly in June 1974. I want all the householders and tenants in my constituency to have a chance of improving their homes at the increased grant rate. Further, I want Manchester Corporation to be given the opportunity to conduct a survey—a survey conducted in a sensible manner, not in a rushed manner—of all its own properties and to decide which merit improvement in a coherent way.
It is true that in some cases properties may have to come down, just as a decayed tooth is not worth saving. Often, if the opportunity is given a property can be saved just as a tooth can be saved by repair and improvement. At present, Manchester Corporation is considering the future of certain huge blocks of flats built before the last war of which three are in my constituency—Greenwood House, Heywood House and Brook House, which is to pass from my constituency into that of my hon. Friend after the next election. We have had a petition from the people of Brook House and, as a result of that, my hon. Friend and I have invited the Secretary of State for the Environment to visit these three blocks of flats to see whether he is willing to live in them for any period of time at any price, let alone at the monstrous rent increase of 92p a week he has imposed upon them. So far we have had no reply. So tonight I repeat that invitation to the Minister for Housing and Construction.
The hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe) mentioned the abuse of improvement grants in holiday areas. I invite the Minister for Housing and Construction to come and spend his holiday in Ardwick in Heywood House or Brook House or Greenwood House and to put up with the conditions with which those tenants must put up and when he has done that to say whether he does not believe that these increased improvement grants shall be available until Manchester Corporation decides whether they can be used to make these municipal slums habitable. It may be that Manchester Corporation, after it has surveyed these blocks of flats with care, will decide that they must come down, but it may well be that they can be saved. The Minister's predecessor said when he introduced the Housing Bill 1971 that it was preferable to save properties if that could be done. I am sure the Minister agrees. That is why he is so proud of the statistics, whether disputed or not, that he has mentioned tonight about improvement grants. I am sure that he will agree that the improvement job on these huge blocks of flats in which hundreds of people live is an immense undertaking. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gorton said, it cannot be seriously considered that the grant should be suddenly chopped off part way through the operation.
Therefore, I should like from the Minister a positive reply to my request, as well as to the invitation which I have extended to him to come to Manchester with my hon. Friend and myself and go round these blocks of flats. I advise him not to say "No" hurriedly because he and his colleagues in his Ministry have done that before when I have made requests on this subject, and they have had to change their minds and accede to my requests.
If the Minister cannot say "Yes" immediately to my request for an indefinite extension of these provisions, I ask him to say that he will consider the matter carefully. If he does not do so now, he will have to do so in the review which he has announced tonight.
I tell him also that by agreeing to what my hon. Friend and I have asked for, he will not be losing face. He will be giving renewed hope of a decent home to thousands of my constituents.
I congratulate the Government on what I regard as one of their most successful achievements since 1970. Certainly in the area which I represent these improvement grants have been acted upon and the whole area has benefited from improved housing.
All I would say to my hon. Friend is that Southampton is not a development area, and certainly not an intermediate area. I can see no difference between a landlord wishing to improve a building in my area and a landlord wishing to improve a building in Manchester or even the Orkneys. The same problems arise—the same problems of finding the necessary finance. I only hope that this scheme will be enlarged to cover all areas because I think that this is an inequality which is unfair to all landlords, and certainly to owner-occupiers.
I should like to utter a word of warning about these improvement grants. I have tabled a Question to my hon. Friend. I believe that certainly in the London area there has been an abuse of improvement grants, and I am particularly concerned that the Government should act. I was amazed that the previous Government, in their wisdom, allowed improvement grants to be taken up by developers with no restriction at all on repayment if they sold the property in the short term. In my Question I ask my hon. Friend to say whether a developer who makes full use of improvement grants and sells the property within three years should pay at least 50 per cent. of the grant to the local authority. This seems only equitable and it would have no effect on the number of improvement grants taken up. The sole purpose of improvement grants is to improve property. Therefore, it would be unfair to put the developer at a serious disadvantage such as having to pay the full 100 per cent. or making the length of time longer than three years.
As regards the sale of council houses by local authorities, I think it a wise move to take the five-year pre-emption still further. In its wisdom, a local authority may then, if it wishes, bring down the price of council houses by lengthening the pre-emption. There could be almost no limit to it. If, for instance, a young couple are determined to buy their council house and they are willing and able to take a pre-emption of 15 years, the council should correspondingly lower the price.
I welcome the various provisions in the Bill. The housing improvement scheme has been a great success story for the Government, and I should like to see it broadened still further.
I support the request for a debate on the important question of urban renewal, and I am sure that, if we had such a debate, the improvement grant would loom large as one of the subjects discussed. I was sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Willesden, East (Mr. Freeson) poured a douche of cold water on the Minister, who is able always, with great charm, to generate optimism and enthusiasm from any odd bundle of statistics. But, leaving that aside, for I wish to take only a minute or two, I shall direct the hon. Gentleman's attention to our experience in Stoke-on-Trent.
Stoke-on-Trent is yet another category of underprivileged derelict land clearance area. I suppose that that would give the kiss of death to almost any area, but we survive it. Our problem is that, although improvement grants have been taken up, where they are taken up outside general improvement areas— this is my experience as a member of the local planning committee and as chairman of the urban renewal joint committee—they can easily become a planner's nightmare. One can have areas with slum clearance and compulsory purchase order, with a demolition order, with a closure order, with three houses subject to improvement grant, and so on. What to do about such an area sometimes presents the planner with a great problem.
Within a general improvement area, it is all right to say that improvement grants are being taken up, as, indeed, they are, but what most authorities find is that, after a lot of marketing of the idea of general improvement, one reaches a point at which 50 per cent. of the dwellings have had improvement grant taken up and then there is, as it were, a plateau, almost tantamount to stalemate.
If the Minister could tell us how, perhaps by everyone getting 75 per cent. or 85 per cent., we could make a breakthrough in this general improvement area problem, I should be very happy to hear of a solution. I fear that, unless we can do something, we shall in the end have no proper answer. We shall have the same streets, whether in an improvement area or outside, in which a number of the houses, perhaps half of them, have grant and many have not, and the rotten apples will inevitably spoil the barrel.
This is the central problem. It is no good saying that there has been an increase in the general uptake of improvement grants if, at the end of the day, we cannot have areas in which the image has been definitely improved for almost every house, not just for 50 per cent. of them. Otherwise, apply all the environmental cosmetic treatment we like, we shall still be halfway towards future dereliction.
May I repeat what I said to the hon. Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman) when I interrupted him? I do not find, and never have found, that people who are out of work are a subject for mirth. What I find a subject for puzzlement is that all over the country builders are looking for workers. In the Bristol area where I was recently speaking to 300 builders I found that they all had a labour shortage. In the Manchester area I can say from personal experience that we cannot find building workers. In Hertfordshire and Hampshire the same situation applies. Builders are having to begin turning work away because they cannot find labour.
All over the country builders are looking for labour and starting at the unemployment statistics. They do not believe them. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Idris Owen) showed me a local newspaper containing column after column of vacancies for building workers in the Manchester area. Perhaps the notified vacancies and the people out of work do not correspond because builders have become sick of notifying vacancies to the labour exchanges and they are now trying some other method. Perhaps that is why we both draw different conclusions from the same statistics.
I welcome Clause 2. In my constituency and in the surrounding areas we have a particular problem. We are custodians of a very large segment of London's green belt. Very many people want to live in our areas but there is simply no space to build new houses. The net result is always the same. There is a tremendous growth in demand, a limited supply because of the green belt policy and the price of houses, including council houses, has rocketed. That is not a matter of pride to anyone. It is the inevitable consequence of saying that in a certain area around London there will be no building because London needs a lung.
There is no land for building in Enfield, West and the surrounding constituencies, apart from a little bit of unfilling, and there is an almost unlimited supply of sensible people who want to come and live in my constituency, not because I am the Member but because it is a pleasant place in which to live. The situation has caused prices to escalate beyond the means of the people who live in the council houses unless a discount is given on the price. A limit has been imposed on the discount and will possibly be lifted in certain circumstances as a result of Clause 2.
I want people who live in council houses in my constituency—many of whom have done a great deal to improve their homes and to make them how they want them—to have the right to buy them. At the moment, through no fault of their own but because of national policy which says that there must be a worthwhile green belt, they are being deprived of that opportunity. I believe that Clause 2 will make it easier for more people to become owner-occupiers of houses in which they have lived and which they have made to suit themselves over the last five to ten years. I can think of many other good reasons for welcoming the Bill, but Clause 2 is sufficient justification. It is the reason why I rose to speak, and why I support the Bill with enthusiasm.
I will be very brief. I support what my hon. Friends the Members for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Marks) and Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman) said in pleading for an extension of the one-year period under Clause 1. This is a very little Bill. No doubt we should be grateful for even a very little from the present Government, but I believe that a one-year extension of the period for obtaining improvement grants is utterly inadequate in view of the task faced in areas such as those that I and my hon. Friends represent.
Apart from the central stress areas in Inner London and some of the inner areas of the major cities, the worst housing in the country is found in South and South-East Lancashire. The various special housing survey reports undertaken by the Department in 1967 revealed South-East Lancashire as having the highest proportion of unfit housing in the country, which at 15 per cent. of the total housing stock is more than a quarter above the national average.
I should like to spell out briefly how desperate is the situation in the area, to show how inadequate are the proposals in the Bill. Oldham, which is half my constituency, has the dubious distinction of being almost at the top of the league for the proportion of houses without a bath, a hot water tap or an inside lavatory. Fewer than four-fifths of the families in Oldham have a hot water tap. Only 11 other districts in the country are worse off. Only two-thirds of the families in Oldham have a fixed bath. Only 10 other areas are worse off. Only just over half the households in Oldham have inside water toilets. Only 13 areas are worse off. As many as 6 per cent. of families in Oldham still have to put up with a shared outside toilet, and the only other parts of the country with even half that proportion are found in South and South-East Lancashire.
That shows the seriousness of the situation in Lancashire, with which the Housing Act 1971, after the delayed extension of intermediate area status to the area in March 1972, will have to deal. I do not believe that the Bill goes anywhere near providing a sufficient answer to this magnitude of obsolescence, or that the Minister, if he has seriously considered the matter, could argue that it did.
I want to be fair about what the extension of intermediate status, in conjunction with the Act, has provided. It has led to some increase in the take-up of grants. Applications rose initially by about three times in the immediately following months, but in recent months they have levelled off at about double. It looks as though in the 12 months to March 1973 over a thousand applications will have been received, whereas in the period before March this year the average rate of take-up was about 350 to 400. This may seem a considerable increase, but the important point is that it is still scarcely enough even to counter the compound rate of obsolescence.
I should like to spell out how sizeable is the task, to show just how little is provided by the Bill to meet it. It is estimated by the local authority that in the town there are 7,000–8,000 older-type properties that are incapable of improvement up to the 12-point standard laid down by the Department, and a further 3,000 suitable for the standard grant improvement. But, worse than that, it is estimated that in the new local authority, 12G, into which Oldham will go, there are as many as 18,000 older-type houses that are worth improving. In this situation I support the argument that my local authority, together with a number of others I think, has made in reply to the Department's circular 50/72.
Unless hopes of prolonging the lives of older houses by repairs and improvement are realised—and that will demand a far bigger extension than one year—a second wave of clearance programmes within the next ten years is a distinct possibility. Quite simply, it seems clear that if the 75 per cent. grant system does end, as is proposed, in little more than three months from now, all that might have been achieved by improvement and repair of older houses will simply not happen. This will bring in its train the more complex and increasingly expensive problems which attend clearance and re-housing. I ask the Minister to reconsider whether he will accept the amendment to extend this one-year period substantially. If he regards this Bill as a serious attempt to meet the deep-seated problems of obsolescence in South-East Lancashire and other areas, he will do so.
Some of the interesting questions raised in the debate are somewhat outside the scope of the Bill while others are more suitable for detailed discussion in Committee, which promises to be a long-lasting stage. I will try to reply to the points of general principle which have been raised. I would like first to stress that the essential purpose of the first part of this Bill is to provide, for one further year, increased help towards the improvement of houses in those parts of the country where the need is greatest.
The 1971 National House Condition Survey—and I appreciate the reservations of the hon. Member for Willesden, East (Mr. Freeson) about the strict accuracy of the evidence—showed conclusively that the poorest housing conditions were to be found in the assisted areas. Just under one in five of all houses in the North of England lacked one or more of the basic amenities. This survey amply reinforced the case advanced by my right hon. Friend, the then Minister for Housing and Construction, that the assisted areas had been falling badly behind the rest of the country.
What we have just heard from the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) is evidence of that serious situation. They are falling behind in the task of bringing their housing stock up to a decent standard. The Bill is aimed at giving those areas one extra year, and it will be limited to that, in which to take advantage of the higher grants to private owners and higher Exchequer contributions to local authorities to raise the living standards of thousands of families.
The Bill will give substantial benefit in areas which need help. I will try to show that the one extra year will not by any means be the end of the matter in the sense that further policies will be necessary to continue the process of dealing with these serious problems. The hon. Member for Willesden, East—and I appreciated the general words of welcome which he gave to the Bill—raised the question of expenditure and estimates that were made before the 1971 Act. It is difficult to estimate the direct effects of the 1971 Act in retrospect. On available evidence the extra expenditure in the first year of the Act in the assisted areas of England and Wales was at least £20 million. It is felt that this is not inconsistent with the original estimate. The Government acknowledge that the rate of improvement, especially in the local government sector, has exceeded their expectations, agreeably so. Hence the need for one extra year, which has become necessary to prevent undue frustration.
The hon. Member questioned the figures in the National House Condition Survey. He raised matters which were really questions of administration, and admittedly there is a margin for error. But I suggest that the same margin of error applied in 1967. I have noted the hon. Gentleman's reservations, but as he fairly described himself as a long-lasting enthusiast for improvements, I am sure he will agree that the purpose of the Bill is to make further inroads into the nature of the problem disclosed by the housing survey—whatever the figure may be.
I was concerned to ask the Minister to challenge the methods which were used rather than to accept the outcome of such figures. According to Government statistics, there have been in total only 7,000 improvement grants issued since 1968, and a high proportion of those have been for local authority estates which are not part of the original twilight area figures in the 1957 survey. These are important queries. They are not queries in terms only of accuracy, but they relate to certain fundamental interpretations which officials may have honestly used in carrying out their duties in pursuing these surveys.
I have noted the hon. Gentleman's comments and I promise that I shall bear them fully in mind.
The hon. Gentleman then went on fairly to acknowledge the increased figures of improvements in the public sector, but he looked critically at the twilight areas of cities where, he said, the main problems were in terms of the private sector. I appreciate the difficulties in the industrial towns because I have met them myself, but I must point out that the hon. Gentleman's claim that all the increase in improvement activity is largely due to local authority effort is not entirely accurate. Certainly this is where the main stimulus has been observed, but the increase in improvement in the assisted areas in the private sector has been quite healthy.
We can see how this figure has risen it we look at the Northern Region. The number in 1971 was 4,600, and in the first six months of this year it has risen to 11,300. The figure in the North-West area in 1971 was 7,300 and this year it is 12,300. There is a slight complication there because the area is only partly an assisted area. The figure for London in 1971 was 7,600 and in 1972 it was 10,400. The total in the first half of 1971 was 57,000 and in the first half of 1972 the figure was 88,300—an increase of 55 per cent. I am sure the House will acknowledge that that is a considerable and useful increase which will benefit tenants and owner-occupiers in the private sector.
I admit that there is a difficult problem in the industrial areas which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. Part of the purpose of the review which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction is to examine this situation, and in due course we shall bring forward our proposals by which we seek to deal with this problem.
The hon. Member for Willesden, East also referred to the fall in the value of grants. It is interesting to look at the average discretionary grants during the first half of 1972. The hon. Gentleman is right; there has been a fall in the purchasing power of money. But the average discretionary grant given during the first half of 1972 was £866 inside an assisted area and £725 outside. We are watching the situation closely, but the level of demand indicates that no constraints are operating in a manner which would seriously affect the position.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the environmental grants which, he will know, were doubled on 28th April to £200 per dwelling in general improvement areas. Happily that has resulted in giving a stimulus to the declaration of further improvement areas.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Kinsey) raised a practical point about the applications for grants in his constituency which he said had been refused. I appreciate my hon. Friend's feelings. I know that he tries hard to champion the interests of the people in his constituency in every way. But he will admit that his constituency includes in the main a more modern part of the city, great areas having been built since 1935 or 1936. My hon. Friend will appreciate that an order of priorities is necessary for the use of resources in building matters of this kind. It would, therefore, not be unreasonable that the local authority should seek to give some priority to the modernisation work which has to be done to the old stock of houses in Birmingham.
I now follow my hon. Friend's point. It would appear to a disinterested observer to be an anomaly. Central Government welcomes the improvement of stock wherever it takes place. However, we will try to take account of my hon. Friend's point and try to ensure that fairness applies. We will try to see that further steps are taken to accelerate the process of modernisation of the other houses to which my hon. Friend has referred.
My hon. Friend was strongly supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Gurden) when he mentioned progress in the sale of council houses. I know that both my hon. Friends believe that the purchase of council houses represents a substantial mode of bringing about social progress, particularly in industrial areas such as the city of Birmingham. I listened carefully to what my hon. Friends said on this important matter. I know that both of my hon. Friends will wish the matter to be further discussed in Committee and I confidently expect that that will happen.
The hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe) described the search which takes place in his constituency for country and seaside cottages. He described what happens in his locality and the problem of second homes. The hon. Gentleman asked how rules applicable to restrictions on improvement grants for second homes could be determined. The local authority could ask all the pertinent questions which the hon. Gentleman asked. I should expect a local authority such as the hon. Gentleman's to have a detailed knowledge of local housing conditions, and it should be capable of handling the situation which he described. I emphasise that the local authority has a total discretion, so that if the proposal which came before it was likely to lead to excessive profit or was related to a business activity such as letting—in other words, if people wished to convert houses for business purposes—I should expect it not to give a grant. It would be perfectly entitled to say that it would look very critically at the situation. I should have thought that the circumstances which I have described could well be within the knowledge of the authority.
Also, the general test which the local authority should apply would be whether the proposed improvement of a property would help to improve the local housing stock and to satisfy the local housing need, and I should have thought that if it were not satisfied on that score it would be entitled to refuse a grant.
The local authority should engage itself more positively in giving help to young local people in solving their housing problems. There are many ways in which the authority can give direct and practical help to young married people. I hope that that will be considered by the local authority of the hon. Member for Cornwall, North.
The hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Marks) asked why the extension was for only one year. He was strongly supported by the hon. Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman). It was made clear when the 1971 Act was introduced that the higher grants were intended to provide a short, sharp boost to improvement activity in the assisted areas. That remains the position. The extension of one year is needed to give proper effect to this objective since, as the Government have freely admitted, it has become clear that the result we were aiming for could not be fully and satisfactorily achieved within the original two-year time span. But this is no reason for providing an open-ended commitment.
On the one hand, we hope that the review of improvement grants policy will show ways in which we might in future make a more selective assault on the remaining areas of substandard housing. On the other hand, we see no reason why, with the right degree of enthusiasm and organisation, local authorities should not get on top of the task within the time available. We never claimed, nor indeed expected, that local authorities would be able to improve all their older council houses within the period laid down in the 1971 Act. The aim was to bring the rate of improvement in those areas up to a more acceptable level instead of progressing at only about half the rate achieved elsewhere. In this we have certainly succeeded.
Several authorities in the North West and the North East will have virtually completed the improvement of all their council houses by June, 1974. This is the result of good planning and lively initiative on their part, and I applaud their achievements. I know that in the North West both Blackburn and Sale will have concluded their improvement programme by June, 1974. Many local authorities in the North East will have modernised virtually every pre-war council house by June, 1974. These include Newcastle, Sunderland, Gateshead and Tynemouth.
The hon. Gentleman will realise that every authority he has mentioned was an assisted area when that Act was introduced but that the city of Manchester did not become one until many months after and is that much behind, as is the borough of Oldham.
I appreciate the practical nature of what the hon. Gentleman says, but when one looks at the tremendous progress in the boroughs I mentioned—and this is a matter of good planning and applied energy and enthusiasm—it is a matter of sadness to me to discover that in the first nine months of this year Manchester Corporation has managed to improve a sum total of nine council houses while neighbouring Salford Corporation has not improved a single council house. This compares unfavourably with others. It must be relevant to the employment situation in Manchester because extra jobs could have been created. Birmingham did not have the benefit of the higher rates of grant the hon. Gentleman has mentioned but it has improved 1,500 council houses in the same period.
The Minister will appreciate that the clearance of slum houses has been going on at a tremendous rate of 4,000 a year and that there has been concentration on that. Unless we get an open-ended clause, a number of people owning houses and wanting to improve them may be delayed in that through no fault of theirs and they may find by June 1974 that they will not get the 75 per cent. grant for which they have budgeted but only 50 per cent.
I am glad to hear the hon. Gentleman tell me about the slum clearance, but when he talks about an open-ended commitment, he should realise that on the basis of the slow rate of progress we have been examining, it would take Manchester until 5305 AD to complete its programme of modernisation.
The Minister is missing the whole point. Manchester has been clearing central areas in Hulme, Ancoats and Beswick, where there have been few houses worthy of improvement. This has to go on through Ardwick and Openshaw. But now it is reaching areas where there are more houses capable of improvement, such as Gorton, Levenshulme, Longsight, and Withington. Now improvement can go on as well as clearance. The Minister should not criticise the city for concentrating on vital wholesale clearance first.
The question which has to be considered by Manchester Corporation about the three enormous blocks of flats I mentioned is whether to improve or to demolish. These are such enormous developments—far larger than single housing units—that it is a major consideration which has to be assessed with great care. There are literally hundreds of dwellings to be decided—
I understand the argument, but similar major decisions have to be made in other areas in the North. I understand that these decisions are difficult, but there is no reason why a local authority that has prepared itself properly for the task should not have made substantial inroads into the modernisation of its council estates within the time scale proposed in the Bill.
If the hon. Member thinks that all that is required are organisation and enthusiasm, which I think were his words, would he explain how an authority like Oldham, which has tripled the rate of take-up of improvement grants—because it has 8,000 older properties, cannot improve them even at the higher rate in less than eight years, let alone the 2½ years that he mentions?
My comments have naturally related to local circumstances, and local circumstances vary. I accept that the quantity of absolescence in Oldham presents a long-term problem, and I will come to that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. James Hill) made a suggestion about the repayment of part of the improvement grant in certain circumstances. My hon. Friend will see that that view is considered in the total review of the problem now proceeding.
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Cant) asked why Stoke, for example, had not had the benefit of grants in the way that the system had been applied in assisted areas. I am aware that outside the assisted areas it is by no means difficult to find areas suffering from extremely poor housing conditions. The needs of these areas have not been overlooked, but the 1971 Act was introduced in order to cope with the situation that assisted areas as a whole were manifestly falling behind the average rate of improvement achieved elsewhere.
The Government had sufficient evidence to indicate that these conditions, that is, widespread substandard housing, were most general and prevalent in the assisted areas, and it was right and proper that help should have been concentrated on them. The Bill seeks to consolidate the splendid progress that those areas have already achieved.
However, having said that, I have to say that the needs of people living in substandard housing in inner London and the Midlands, for example, are very much in the minds of Ministers. Their problems will be considered in the comprehensive review of policy of house improvement and related matters on which we are now embarked. This review will pull together a wide number of studies of the problems associated with older housing and will also consider abuses of the improvement grants.
I appreciate the news about the work of the review. When the subject of abuses, as they are loosely called, has been raised in the House recently, it has been said that an examination was taking place inside the Department of the problem of displacement, which is what frequently occurs, that is, when tenants are pushed out. Are we to get the results of that examination on their own, quite apart from the general review of policy which will incorporate examination of alleged abuses?
I cannot tonight express an opinion on the timing of the review which will take account of the two strands mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. A working party is operating on one strand, and a study of the social implications is also being made. Each matter will be reported upon. Whether the reports will come together or at different times I cannot say.
The hon. Member for Stoke on Trent, Central illustrated the difficulty of getting a complete take-up of grants in general improvement areas. From my own knowledge of industrial areas I agree with him. I acknowledge this to be a problem which causes serious concern in the long-term, and my hon. Friend and I will try to find an answer to the problem.
My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, West (Mr. Parkinson) described the difficulty caused in his constituency by rising house prices. I appreciate the welcoming words he used about Clause 2, which he fairly described as giving help to council tenants in his constituency who wished to achieve home ownership.
The hon. Member for Oldham, West spoke of the housing problems in his constituency. I listened with great interest to what he said because I am taking part in the study of urban problems in Oldham. I noted his views on the obsolesence which has persisted in Oldham for many years, and I acknowledge the seriousness of the problems there. I quite understand—and so does my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction—that a sustained programme of continuing improvement is necessary. I assure the hon. Gentleman that one of the aims of the review we are undertaking is to consider how that can be achieved. That sustained effort cannot be merely for a matter of a year, as the hon. Gentleman said. An effort over a considerable period is required to make good the neglects of the past.
In the assisted areas there can be little doubt about the benefits which the Bill will bring. The dramatic progress that has been made in those areas since the introduction of the 1971 Act will, I trust, be maintained. The terms of the Bill extending the higher grant provisions for a further year will encourage all those who, like the Government, are determined to see an end to substandard housing within a decade.