Orders of the Day — Social Policy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 1st November 1974.

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Photo of Mr John Watkinson Mr John Watkinson , Gloucestershire West 12:00 am, 1st November 1974

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak at this early stage in my parliamentary career. I apologise to the House for being absent from the early stages of the debate. I was, unfortunately, called away on urgent constituency business.

My constituency is West Gloucestershire. It is sometimes thought that only hon. Members opposite enjoy the benefit of having great beauty spots in their constituencies, but West Gloucestershire is one of the fairest and most beautiful constituencies in the country. It contains the old Forest of Dean area. The people in the constituency are famous for their independence of spirit and judgment. Those are two characteristics which my predecessor, Mr. Charles Loughlin, possessed to an unusual degree. He was no one's man but his own. He spoke frequently in the House. Having recently shared a platform with him, I can assure you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that he has lost none of his intensity or zeal for public speaking.

When I was elected, I was asked what was the principal social problem in my constituency, and I had to reply, "Housing". It may be that that subject falls outside the ambit of this debate, but I crave the indulgence of the House to refer to it because it is of pressing importance in my constituency. During the election, on only one occasion was I offered votes for sale, and that was by a young couple who were touting their votes among the candidates because they were so desperately in need of housing. Constitutional propriety, and my inability at that stage to do anything about it, enabled me to turn down their offer, but it indicated the extent to which people are suffering from the grave housing shortage.

Since I have been a Member I have found, as no doubt other hon. Members have found, that the principal element in my postbag consists of letters connected with housing. I sometimes think that our people have become anaesthetised to the problems of housing. Is it so long since that celebrated programme "Cathy Come Home" was on television and had such an effect? Yet the circumstances which gave rise to that programme still exist in our society. The figures can be and have been rolled out, but they seem not to have the effect that they should.

It is necessary for us to accept and acknowledge that there is a grave national crisis in housing. It is a fact that, proportionately, we are spending less of our national expenditure on housing now than 20 years ago. It is also a fact that we have one of the worst house-building records in the whole of Europe. We have already heard in the debate of the falloff in house building during this year.

The real need in housing is indicated by council house waiting lists. In my constituency there are 3,000 people on the waiting list. The numbers may not be as great in other constituencies, but if we add that waiting list to lists in other parts of the country we find that the level of waiting is of fearsome proportions.

One of the sadder aspects of the waiting list in my constituency is that many people who are now on that list would in former times have been able to buy their own houses; but, because of the desperate spiral in house prices in the early part of the 1970s, young couples simply cannot obtain mortgages. It is a simple fact that in order to obtain a mortgage for a £9,000 three-bedroomed house it is necessary to earn over £50 a week. Only 14 per cent. of manual workers in this country earn anything like that amount.

I welcome the work done in the housing sphere by housing associations, I welcome the attempts of local authorities to buy existing properties, and I also welcome the improvement grants which have been made to house owners. However, the fact is that this country needs an extension and an expansion of house building in both the private and the public sectors.

Because of the grave shortage of housing we on the Government side could not and cannot countenance the sale of council house property. I welcome the injection of £350 million which the Government have made available to local authorities to extend council house building. But whenever local authorities initiate schemes they come up against those twin task masters—the yardstick and that Parker Morris standards. It is right that the Parker Morris standards should be set high, but they are frequently set so high that local authorities are unable to meet the yardstick provision, which is set too low.

If we are to have an extension of house building there must be an improvement in the situation in the building industry. That industry is notoriously subject to cyclical fortunes. It is, in terms of its employment, subject to the misfortunes of the "lump". That is something which we on this side of the House are determined to do away with. The industry lacks effective training schemes. If any industry cries out for some form of planning agreement with the Government it is the construction industry.

I also urge upon the Government the necessity for some form of stabilisation of mortgage funds. I have referred to the fact that in the early part of this decade there was a mammoth increase in the cost of houses. That was largely connected with the fact that funds were available at a time when the housing stock was not expanding. It is necessary that the building societies should be subject to some form of stabilisation so that the quantity of funds coming on to the market for housing is consistent and in line with the amount of housing that is available. There should be a link between the two. When development land is taken into common ownership, that, too, should have a beneficial effect on the cost of housing.

As a member of the Multiple Sclerosis Society I welcome the directions that have been given to local authorities by the Government to provide more housing suitably adapted for the disabled. Through contacts with the Multiple Sclerosis Society I have seen the suffering that ordinary people have had to endure because their houses were not suitably adapted to accommodate their disease. I welcome this move by the Government.

The housing problem can be solved. We do not need to await the appearance of some magician who will provide us with the answers. The answers are available to us. All that is lacking is the political will to bring about a marked increase in our house-building programme. I urge upon the Government the necessity of establishing as a first priority a commitment to increase dramatically the building programme. Only by doing that can we rid ourselves of one of the gravest social ills of our time.