The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Tope) will forgive me if I do not follow his arguments. One of the interesting things one finds in a debate of this nature is that the problems faced in one part of the country are not the same as those faced in another. I cannot honestly say that one of the major problems facing us in North-East Lancashire is a problem of empty houses, except to the extent that nuisance is sometimes caused in a street when one house is left empty and decays because the owner is lackadaisical and dilatory in making application for an improvement grant.
There are two matters on which I am sure most of us would agree. First, one does not reduce the price of a commodity by putting a tax on it. If the Land Commission were still in existence land prices certainly would not be any lower than they are and almost certainly would be rather higher. I know that it is galling to see someone making a packet out of the sale of land, but although a further tax of that kind might gratify those who believe in the politics of envy it would not do a ha'porth of good to the ordinary person looking for a house.
The right hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne Central (Mr. Edward Short) went on a great deal about the price of land but did not put forward a single suggestion as to how it might be reduced at the present time. Nor did he, as I understood him, make any suggestion which would lead to a reduction in the price of land, even in the long term.
Secondly, most people would agree that more people than ever before are in the market wanting to buy houses, and that in itself is bound to have an impact on prices, as, indeed, the willingness of building societies to lend money over the last two years has had a great impact on prices. This is not a state of affairs about which we should be too ready to complain. We should, indeed, take pride in the fact that in the first nine months of last year 285,000 mortgages were entered into by first-time purchasers, compared with 221,000 in 1970.
We should also take pride in the fact that more young people—more people under the age of 25—were enabled to enter into mortgages in the first nine months of 1972 as compared with the first nine months of 1970. These figures, which have often been quoted, illustrate the growth of national prosperity over the last two years and give the lie to all the nonsense we hear from the Opposition about the poor beaten-down British workman starving as a result of Tory policies. We have only to look at the housing figures to see that more and more people are beginning to be able to enjoy more of the good things of life. This is something in which we can take justifiable pride.
There are two aspects of the present situation, however, which worry me a great deal. The first concerns improvement grants. At present it is extremely difficult to get a terrace-type house in my constituency. The reason is simply that some local estate agents have been snapping up these houses as soon as they have come on the market and applying for improvement grants with a view to resale. Of course, I appreciate that as a result of the easy availability of improvement grants there has been a significant im- provement in the environment, which would not have come about to anything like the same extent if more restrictive policies had been pursued over the last three or four years. But there is no doubt in my mind that as a result of grants being available to other than tenants and owner-occupiers, terrace-type properties, unimproved but providing adequate accommodation, have tended to become beyond the reach of people of really modest means.
In my constituency it is not easy to pick up such a property, because as soon as one comes on the market it is bought by someone who believes that he has a reasonable chance of getting an improvement grant, thereby improving the house and eventually offering it for resale. It is in these circumstances that some local authorities have already decided to put to the top of the queue for improvement grants owner-occupiers and tenants and to put at the bottom of the queue those who come within neither category. I would not quarrel with any local authority in my neighbourhood which adopted that approach.