I am grateful and honoured to have been successful in catching your eye, Mr. Speaker.
I hope that the House will not think it excessively precocious of me to leap in so early in a parliamentary career. I have two motives. One is that I suspect that this Parliament may not last all that long, so I want to take advantage of my presence here as quickly as possible. More seriously, there seems to be no opportunity later in the debate on the Gracious Speech to discuss housing, so I was compelled to try to catch your eye today.
My predecessor as Member for Bodmin was a devoted and diligent constituency Member. We admired him for that and were grateful to him for the hard work he put in on behalf of the division. He will be missed, I fear, from the House for an additional reason: I understand that he had the best batting average of any hon. Member. I must confess that cricket is not my game and that even if the House manages to stay together until the cricket season, I shall not be performing in that way.
The constituency that I have the honour and privilege to represent may be known to many right hon. and hon. Members. I hope that it is known to you, Mr. Speaker. I know that it is an old parliamentary game to try to lure the Prime Minister into one's constituency, but I should be much more glad to lure you into mine. The Prime Minister, I understand, frequently travels through my constituency at speed by railway. I would far rather have your presence, Mr. Speaker, so that I could demonstrate to you that it is the most beautiful constituency in the United Kingdom.
More than that—it is at the moment a comparatively prosperous part of Cornwall. I say "comparatively" because the Duchy of Cornwall has not found it easy to keep pace with the rising cost of living in the rest of the country and we have consistently lagged behind in terms of incomes under successive Governments in the last 25 to 30 years. However, for a short time there was a more positive approach to the problems of low income areas and my constituency was fortunate enough to obtain new industry, particularly light engineering. As a result, small market towns have been enabled to expand.
Unfortunately, in the last three-and-a-half to four years, this expansion has slowed up—not just because of a lack of interest among potential industrialists, but because of the housing situation. On this subject, I have considerable sympathy with the hon. Member for Paisley (Mr. Robertson). The housing shortage is now a major social evil again. Perhaps for the first time, it is not just the central urban areas that are feeling the effect of the housing crisis. Certainly a rural area with comparatively small towns, such as South-East Cornwall, feels this now excessively, so much so that it is having a major impact on our whole economy.
Although five or six years ago, young people often had to leave the area because of lack of jobs, the reason now all too often is the complete lack of any suitable accommodation. Any hon. Member representing a large constituency must receive in his postbag details of many sad, unfortunate housing problems. On reaching this place, I certainly found myself engulfed in such a postbag. I know that the previous Member did a great deal of valuable work, but I suspect that my postbag is that much greater as a result of what has happened in comparatively recent months.
The sad fact is that the national and the local housing programmes have collapsed. The former Minister for Housing and Construction announced at the end of January that the figures for completions in the private sector had fallen to 186,100 and in the public sector to 107,500—decreases of 10,200 and 15,400 respectively, giving a total of 293,600 in 1973 compared with 319,100 in 1972. These are alarming figures.
The Natonal House-Building Council has already announced that in the first month of this year there has been a further drop in the private sector of 40 per cent. compared with the previous year. Judging from our own local experience, we in South-East Cornwall are experiencing this situation with the same gravity as that with which we meet all major economic, social and housing problems in the country. When the country gets a cold, we in Cornwall, I fear, seem to catch double pneumonia.
In the West Country in 1973 council housing completions were down by some 75 per cent. on the preceding 12 months. In East Cornwall the council house building programme is almost at a standstill. Very few family houses are being built. Only a handful of old peoples' dwellings are being built. At the same time, the private sector is finding that it has no purchasers for the houses that it completes.
There are two or three immediate steps which the new Government could take. I think that I have my right hon. and hon. Friends with me in suggesting that this is something which the new Government should look at as a matter of urgency. First, it is now possible to give more responsibility to the local housing authority. Some of us had grave misgivings about the passage of the Local Government Act 1972, but its one merit was that in giving additional size and status to the new district councils, the new housing authorities, it should have been possible to trust them a little more. The first way in which I would seek to trust them a little more, to decide what their local needs are and then to meet them, would be to abolish the housing cost yardsticks.
As the House will remember, the housing cost yardsticks were introduced by a previous Labour Government in 1967. They tie down the local housing authority to an immense degree and to minute detail. They have all sorts of unfortunate side effects. Much of the condensation problem in recent council house building has been caused by the fact that the housing cost yardsticks provide for only partial home heating. The result has been that in the long term a great deal of remedial work has had to be undertaken, costing thousands or millions of pounds. The first step would be to abolish the housing cost yardsticks and to lay the responsibility fairly and squarely on the housing authority to undertake the sort of building that it needs for its own purposes.
Secondly, on the mortgages situation the Gracious Speech contains a splendid non sequitur. It states that
Urgent measures will be taken to reverse the fall in house-building".
and goes on to elaborate other policies which are totally unrelated to that objective. Certainly at present the mortgage situation should be a cause for grave alarm on the Treasury Bench.
The Liberal Party has promoted for some years the idea of low-start mortgages. It is nothing new. Many hon. Members in all parts of the House now support that concept. But why is it that, when we have had an official report making it quite evident that it is possible to run such a scheme, it takes this country two or even three years to put it into operation? The National Economic Development Council produced a report at least two years ago, setting out in detail the financial implications of a low-start mortgage scheme, but it is still not fully operational.
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Cant), who has now left the Chamber, referred to the role of building societies. I believe that building societies are too cautious. The Government should be in a position to encourage them to be much more open-minded and much more liberal with their funds. At the same time, the building societies should be encouraged actually to build. In the Scandinavian countries and in West Germany the building societies build houses. That is a role which would do a great deal for the societies and for the whole question of the finance of housing in Britain.
Thirdly, and very importantly, I believe that there should be immediate action to channel public funds to those most in need when it comes to buying a house. We must now wait for the Budget. It would be fair to say, however, that my right hon. and hon. Friends will be looking to the Chancellor of the Exchequer for some explicit statement or action to try to make sure that the tax allowances for house purchase go to those who are most in need of help.
The time has certainly come when we must regard housing as one of our biggest social problems. From this problem derive so many of our social difficulties. At the same time, we must not forget that it is a question of quality as well as quantity. We must be building to last. We must not be building the slums of tomorrow. The cost yardstick, sadly, has done a great deal to produce substandard homes in the longer term.
But the financial system which ensures that loans are raised for a period of 60 years, and then after that period we forget about the structure of the buildings, has also ensured that we have moved inevitably towards more and more throw-away building in the last 20 to 30 years. That process must now be reversed, because the energy crisis and the material crisis mean that a house or any building today must be built to last if we are to get good value from the public money which we invest in them. Buildings must be built to last at least 100 years, if not 150 years.
We must hope that the new Government will look again at the subject of housing. I fear that the brief reference in the Gracious Speech does not encourage me to think that the Government will approach this subject with a freshness which will enable them to insist that the particular representatives of our community, who are responsible for planning the shelter of our citizens, should look at the subject in the interests of all future generations. It is not good enough to build just for here and now. We must be building for a generation after the next generation. If we are to do that, we certainly cannot continue with the present hand-to-mouth financial restrictions which prevent local housing authorities from doing a good job for their community.
The time has come to trust the people and the representatives of the people. That must mean less Whitehall interference, rather than more.