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Local Government

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 28th April 1976.

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Photo of Mr Peter Shore Mr Peter Shore , Tower Hamlets Stepney and Poplar 12:00 am, 28th April 1976

I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman now. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Planning and Local Government has the most enormous expertise in new towns policy. I shall ask him specifically to deal with this question when he winds up the debate.

The third part of the Opposition motion calls for a strict limitation on municipal trading and direct labour. This is predictable stuff, and I do not propose to spend time going over ground so heavily trodden in past debates. I do not recall any major initiatives on the practice of direct labour when the Conservatives were last in power, apart from the miserable decision not to allow direct labour departments to build houses for sale. Our view is that local authorities know best their own requirements in this respect, and we propose to make certain changes so that direct labour departments may operate across the boundaries of their own authorities where this will lead to a better use of resources.

On municipal trading, I suspect that there is a more serious division between the two sides of the House. The division is between those who believe that local authorities should be encouraged to expand their activities for the good of the community in a spirit of initiative and enterprise and those who wish to see authorities limited to a list of closely defined functions. If the speech of the hon. Member for Aylesbury is any guide, gone from the Opposition Benches is that spirit which inspired local authorities in the past to develop essential services like gas, water and electricity or which led Neville Chamberlain to work for the establishment in Birmingham of the Municipal Bank. Of course, local authority enterprise must be organised on sound and efficient lines, but let us look forward to its expansion, not its restriction.

So much for what is in the Opposition motion. But what I find much more interesting and much more significant is what was omitted. First, I am sure that the House and the country will have noted that in the Opposition's advice to the newly-elected councils no reference is made whatever to the need to add to the housing stock. There is not a word about new house building. We know that during their last period in office local authority house building fell year by year until, in 1973, they achieved the lowest figure of housing completions that we had known in any year since 1947 and the lowest level of public housing starts since long before the Second World War. Are we now to infer that their policy is to improve still further on their previous performance by building still less? Indeed, are we right to deduce that local authority house building is to be the prime target of Conservative public expenditure cuts if they were to be returned to power?

I pause. The hon. Member for Aylesbury has his moment. Am I right in assuming that the absence of any mention of the need to expand the stock of houses in the Opposition's official motion is evidence of the fact that it is their intention to build still fewer houses than they did in 1973 and to focus upon house building one of the main thrusts of their attack upon public expenditure?

Obviously, there is to be no response from the hon. Member for Aylesbury. In that case, we are entitled to draw appropriate conclusions.

The second omission from the hon. Gentleman's motion—I assume that he was responsible for it—follows closely from the first. It is the failure of the Conservative Opposition yet again to take this opportunity of telling the nation just where their local authority expenditure should be cut. I understand very well why Opposition spokesmen are shy about these matters, but it really is not good enough for the Shadow Chancellor to complain week after week about the excesses in public expenditure without telling the country, himself or through his hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury the orders of magnitude which he proposes to retrench in local authority spending.

Of course, we know the drift of the Shadow Chancellor's thinking. In the public expenditure debate on 9th March 1976, he mentioned the figure of £4 billion and in his list of specific complaints he included housing subsidies and the acquisition of building land. This is a splendid opportunity for the hon. Member for Aylesbury to tell us precisely what he and his colleagues intend. We are not prepared to be lectured about public spending in general and nor shall we take notice of particular complaints unless and until the honourable Gentleman and his colleagues have the courage to tell us what it is that they really propose.

Let us have an end to waffle and cant of the kind that we heard earlier this afternoon and let us know what is really in the mind of the hon. Member for Aylesbury. I agree with the Shadow Chancellor, who has addressed himself to these matters before, that this is a time when the political parties have to come clean. They have to tell the people what it is that they believe has to be done.

We have said what we think, and we have backed our judgment. We have put it in print. We have gone through a long process of debate. We are now entitled to have a response from the Opposition.