Orders of the Day — Land and Housing

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 14th March 1973.

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Photo of Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton 12:00 am, 14th March 1973

The supply and availability of land have to date been spoken of as if they were the same, whereas they are not. I mention this en passant, because we are losing about 50,000 acres of our stock of land each year. Once that has gone unless and until the houses built upon it are in their turn demolished, it has gone for keeps. In Holland, on the other hand, there has been a net increase in the country's area as a result of land reclamation from the sea. I mention that because it is not the case that the total quantity of land is necessarily fixed.

With an increasing population and an availability of land which decreases yearly due to road and house construction, it is worth bearing in mind that some of the schemes which have been mooted for reclamation, in the Wash and Morecambe Bay in particular, could lead to a considerable square mileage accretion in useful land over the years. As land prices and the density of population rise we should keep our eye on this point because schemes which may not have been economically attractive when the demand for land was significantly lower may now become more attractive.

Availability of land for building implies availability of the services necessary for the land before it can be built on. It is not very helpful for local authorities to receive circulars from the Department of the Environment exhorting them to give more planning permissions for building, if they are then refused loan sanction for the sewage works without which they cannot grant planning permission. Similarly, it is not very helpful to exhort local authorities to grant more planning permissions if water boards are not allowed to increase their water rates to service loans to lay the pipes to connect the land with supplies of water, without which planning permission cannot be given.

In my part of the world—and this is doubtless true of other areas—large sums of money have been spent in constructing reservoirs the water from which cannot then be piped to land which is otherwise suitable for building, because of the interdiction on increased charges which servicing the loan to pipe that water would bring with it.

I was delighted when the Department of the Environment was set up to draw under one roof a number of different functions which ought to be co-ordinated and which used not to be. It ought to be one of the functions of the Department, in this case in conjunction with the Treasury, to see that these sorts of contradictions in public policy are not permitted to arise. I can assure hon. Members that this is a real source of the shortage of available building land in my constituency. I mean not potential land but land available now. That is undoubtedly one factor that has been forcing up land prices and, therefore, house prices.

Land use draws in two policy considerations. First, ought we to allow unlimited bungalow development, when we know that this is one of the most uneconomic uses of building land it is possible to conceive. To achieve a given square footage of accommodation requires a greater area of land with bungalow development than with any other form of housing development of which I am aware. I do not believe that sufficient attention has been paid to this. Incidentally I am told that it results in higher average use of building skills, because there is a greater area of roofing for the accommodation which it provides, and this in itself tends to involve more carpentry and tiling of the roof.

In the long run the demand for land, let it be remembered, is also affected by the question whether or not this country has a population policy, because prices respond not only to the demand at a given moment, but to what people anticipate it will be in future. If they see an extrapolation of an ever-increasing population, ever demanding more and more housing, then to those who are given to speculation it becomes a particularly attractive form of speculation not just against inflation but as a continuing, utterly predictable, trend. To the extent that the reverse is true—to the extent that the Government have a positive population stabilisation policy—this, in itself, could be a real factor in checking speculative increases in land prices.

The Government, since they were returned in 1970, issued a Green Paper—a consultative document—on rates, or, rather, on the financing of local government. I would be very grateful to my hon. Friend if, in concluding the debate, he could tell us what conclusions the Government have arrived at as a result of the consultations arising from that Green Paper, or, if that cannot yet be done, if he could give us the time scale in which the Government are minded to issue a White Paper giving their conclusions and to introduce legislation to implement them. For instance, for people living on fixed incomes, an amelioration, lasting one year, of half the difference between their previous rate plus 10 per cent. and the new rate demand is an anaesthetic rather than a cure; and it in no way answers the question of how they will, at the end of the period, be enabled to meet the increased rate charge falling upon them.

Another of the costs which fall upon the householder is that of maintenance, and here the imposition of value added tax on builders and painters is another cost which will fall upon the householder. After all, whether it is rent, rates, mortgage payments, or maintenance payments, it all has to come from the same source fundamentally, and therefore the inter- reaction of these should be considered together.

The House debated recently—and I will not reopen the subject at any length—the advisability or otherwise of controlling interest rates as a facet of general financial policy. I would merely observe that the arguments for allowing interest rates to fluctuate in response to demand for new loans are not the same as the arguments for allowing them to fluctuate on loans which have already been committed and mortgages which are already in existence, because by increasing interest rates we do not reduce the number of mortgages already out; the people have no option but to continue their mortgages and pay the extra payments—particularly if they are in conjunction with endowment policies—from incomes which only increase if they ask for increased wages, or some means of that kind, and that is antipathetic to the Government's general incomes policy.

Another drain on land availability is the requirement for car parking space. Many local authorities nowadays will not give planning permission without the provision of adequate car parking space as well, and, in some areas, not just one but two per unit of accommodation. The reason for this is entirely understandable and excellent, but it raises the question whether or not the Government should offer financial inducements to local authorities to enable them to provide vertical rather than lateral car parking. It is a very uneconomical use of land, particularly in areas which have a large though temporary tourist trade in the summer season, to devote to temporary car parking, to meet a summer peak, considerable and significant areas of land which could be used for building. The resources of these local authorities are inadequate in themselves to provide vertical car parking arrangements, which would not be self-financing. If we are serious about land conservation and use, this is another problem to which we should turn our minds in central Government as well as local government.

I have written to my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction about the technical problems which have arisen from the Housing Finance Act. Local authorities—in this case, my own, in Tiverton—have changed the system of charging council house rents from a 50- week basis to a 52-week basis. That change got caught up, unintentionally, in the Government's own formula for rent increases, with the result that council house tenants feel themselves, authentically, ill-used, however unintentional this may have been. I am looking forward to hearing a reply from my hon. Friend—not in this debate, for that would be an unreasonable use of time—as to the way in which problems of this kind can be obviated, possibly through the discretionary powers of the Minister.

I conclude by saying, first, that I exhort my hon. Friend and his colleagues in the Department of the Environment to make the individual items of their policy mutually consistent rather than mutually inconsistent. This would be particularly applicable in the provision of services which enable land to be released for building. Secondly, I exhort them not to forget that the total quantity of land in the country is not necessarily fixed, and that the increase in prices has definitely brought home to us the need to examine urgently the possibility of increasing by land reclamation the effective acreage of this overcrowded country.