It is always a pleasure to speak after the hon. Member for Northants, South (Mr. Arthur Jones). I go along with most of what he said, and on one point in particular I agree with him to an especial degree, namely, the question of railway land and railway land idle at the present time. There we are dealing with an area such as there is in Wandsworth, in my constituency of Battersea, South. Stretching from Vauxhall to Mortlake is an area of railway land of literally hundreds of acres. Some has already been given for the erection of the new Covent Garden Market, but, to my knowledge, not one single acre has been given to municipal housing or other housing. In my opinion there are dozens of acres which could be used for that purpose.
I would say to the Secretary of State, with his long knowledge of local government, having been the first citizen in a London borough, that he must know the problems of the inner London boroughs, and know that they are very important, severe and paramount, and that he should try to help the inner London boroughs with the question of the railway land.
I want to take up a point made by the hon. Member for Epping (Mr. Tebbit). I am sorry that he is not present at the moment. He is rather a will-o'-the-wisp; he flits in and flits out of the Chamber. He is not here at present, but that is not my fault. I want to deal for a few moments with the question of the housing record of the last Labour Government. The hon. Member made great play with the fact that we did not reach our target of 500,000 houses in one particular year. It is true that we Id not reach our target of 500,000 houses in one year, but there was a reason for that. In 1968 a large number of councils returned a Tory majority, and the predecessor of the present Secretary of State, when he was leading for the Opposition on housing, actually implored Tory councils throughout the country to curtail the numbers of municipal houses they built. If it had not been for that I am quite sure that we would have achieved our target of 500,000. That is all I want to say about what the hon. Member for Epping said.
I want now to bring up three specific points, on which I ask the Minister for information and help. First there is the question of grants. We hear a lot about improvement grants. Some owner-occupiers are making practical use of them. Others are buying up property through estate agents and taking advantage of improvement grants by selling the properties afterwards at excess prices.
I want particularly to bring to the Minister's notice what is happening in my own constituency, in a road which I will name. It is Gayville Road, in which most of the houses are owner-occupied. I shall mention three houses where there are three sets of retired persons living. In two of them there are pensioners, a husband and his wife in each. In the third there is a single lady, retired and receiving a pension. In all these cases the people occupy the ground floor and have let, in single rooms, the top floors. They are doing a social service by charging people reasonable rents of £3 or £3·50 for a single room. Therefore, they are not exploiters. They are doing a fine job, and they should be helped.
Under Section 16 of the Housing Act 1961 regulations are now being put into force in Wandsworth whereby these old-age pensioners, who to some extent rely upon income from their houses to keep them going—they are not relying on supplementary benefit or social security—are faced with bills for the implementation of fire regulations. In one house I went into two old-age pensioners had just paid £321 for the house to be made fireproof. The other families are faced with the same problem, and the prospect of paying similar sums.
It is all right to pay millions of pounds in improvement grants, which I welcome, but surely some means can be found to give people who are rendering a public service a 50 per cent. grant, or something like that. I implore the Minister to look into this and see what help can be given to people who are helping to solve our housing problem in London.
We have heard today quite a lot about the prices of houses and the average percentage increases throughout the country. In my constituency of Battersea, South—I do not exaggerate here—three years ago one could buy a house near Clapham Common for between £6,000 and £7,000. Only this week one of the houses was sold for £20,000.