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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 Mrs Millie Miller Mrs Millie Miller , Ilford North 12:00 am, 28th April 1976

I take as an earnest of the sincerity and wild enthusiasm of the Opposition for local government the attendance of their Members in this debate. However, it is a great improvement on the last time that I addressed the House. Their average attendance has increased by 500 per cent.—from none to five. Perhaps my arithmetic is at fault, but the last time I spoke the only occupant of any Opposition Bench was the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith) who, like the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) today, was supporting the Government's view on local government. This attendance is a rousing start to the Conservatives' intention to take over vast areas of local government in a few days.

There were moments during the speech of the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) when I thought that we were entering the realms of farce rather than of serious discussion of vital local government matters. As he talked about slackness, over-spending and increases in manpower, my mind went back to the origins of those evils. They were begun and encouraged during the disastrous period of Conservative Government from 1970 to 1974. Much as I wish to resist the temptation, I shall have to go back over at least a few of the causes of the present situation.

I earlier asked the hon. Member what had precipitated the vast salary increases. He vaguely admitted that they had been going on for a year or two. Of course they have. They began when the Conservative Government told local authorities what salary structures were to be and when, against the strongest protests, they fixed structures which involved, as I have said before, sometimes doubling the salaries of chief officers.

Then the whole of the local government salary structure moved up to accommodate differentials and to create a promotion pattern. Without doubt, in many ways that started the drive for increased wages. The fact that local government professional salaries are now so much higher does nothing to destroy my case that they set off the inflation in wage demands which we are still trying to overcome in many areas of industry and the public service.

The Conservatives talk about value for money, but there is another way of looking at that—that we pay for what we get. If local government services are cut or extended in a profligate way, we are bound to run into disaster. In this way, one fixes a pattern of expectations of more than can be provided, or of dejection at what is provided, which distorts the pattern of relationships between local government and its electors.

The Conservatives talk of brutal treatment of local government organisations by this Government. I recall the AMC Policy Committee tearing its hair month after month at the absolutely arbitrary decisions forced on it by the previous Government. Recollections such as that make me think that the Conservatives must have been living in cloud-cuckoo-land during the terrible years 1971, 1972 and 1973.

It was then that the Housing Finance Act was imposed on this country. I shall say more about that later because I am freer to say it now than I have been in the past. It was then that the National Health Service was being reorganised, when the water reorganisation and the second round of local government reorganisation were being proposed. Much of this was decided against the opposition not just of Labour councils but of Labour, Conservative, Liberal and independent councils and councillors throughout the country.

When we hear snide references to the opposition of many people throughout the country, including Conservatives, to the iniquitous Housing Finance Act, I cannot avoid mentioning Lord Devlin's attitude to conscience. I willingly admit that I was opposed as strongly as it was possible to be to the Government's measure—as were hundreds of my colleagues throughout the country—and I never asked to be let off the hook. I opposed the then Government on this matter because I sincerely thought, as did my colleagues, that they were deliberately imposing penalties on council tenants to keep them in line with the exploitation of property values which was otherwise distorting our economy.

Part of the pattern of rents which was proposed was to keep council rents in line with the impossible costs being imposed on the whole community by gambling in property—one of the worst features of the previous Administration. Now that the Government have decided to deal with this matter as they have, I say that if a Government impose a measure such as the Housing Finance Act which is contrary to the conscience of those who oppose it, such people have the right in conscience to show their opposition. I make no excuses for that.

Implicit in this is the fact that the then Government had powers in their own hands to end any so-called abuse right from the outset through the mechanism which they had devised of the housing commissioner but which they forbore to use. They therefore share responsibility in this matter.

In the reorganisation of the health and water services, the country has been overburdened with additional expenditure, particularly on administration. I agree absolutely with the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight in what he said about the Conservatives' continual demands for public expenditure cuts. What exactly would they cut? Would they sack all the chief officers or all the office boys? Would they take away all pension entitlement or would they get rid of the home helps? Public expenditure cuts must come from somewhere and the Conservatives are not ready to say where.

There is a tremendous well of endeavour in local government that is still untapped. Large numbers of people have tremendous enthusiasm to improve the situation in their own areas. They will not be encouraged by not the words of the Opposition motion, but the intention behind it that we have heard from the hon. Member for Aylesbury.

Of course everyone wants the best value he can get for every penny he spends. There is nothing very original in that. But cuts in public expenditure are not quite as simplistic as the Conservatives would have us believe. The Opposition are merely being, as they have been in the past, penny wise and pound foolish.

If there is a surplus of council housing, it is fair enough that there should be an opportunity for people to buy their homes. But even in new towns with short waiting lists there are serious considerations about the future. Today's new town, composed almost entirely of young and active families, may be a domitory area in 20 years' time if everyone gets the opportunity to buy his new town house today. There will be no mobility. People are not keen to move about. They do not want to tear up their roots and go elsewhere. After the war the London County Council built a vast estate in my constituency to house the young families of that time. Today it is almost entirely an old people's dormitory. The sale of council houses in that kind of area would be a serious deterrent.

There is another point about owner-occupation generally. Two days ago the Nationwide Building Society issued its latest occasional bulletin on housing trends and told us among other interesting facts about the growing number of people taking on mortgages at a more advanced age than in the past. A serious problem is in store for us, because the older the age at which a person takes on a mortgage, the greater the problem when that person reaches pension age. If people buy council houses, even at cut prices as in some areas, and if they take on a mortgage equal to 54 per cent. of their current income, when they get to pension age and their income is halved—because the coming generation will not benefit from the recent pensions legislation—they will be able only to afford to pay the remainder of their mortgage. That is a serious warning for the future.

Local authorities have been bedevilled in recent years by Government pressure. The structuring of the rate support grant, and the way in which successive kinds of circulars introducing new legislation have been putting additional pressure on local government services have made it extremely difficult for people working in local government, especially in a voluntary capacity, to cope with the complications. Stop-go policies have meant that councils which sincerely plan ahead to do certain task suddenly find their opportunities of doing the work being undermined. That is especially so in housing.

To get the best possible use from the available housing stock we in the Labour Party have repeatedly appealed for the use of empty housing. It is no use asking councils to acquire empty houses. The councils which do not do so—the Conservative councils—often have the largest stock of empty property. One only has to look at Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea to know that the pressure areas in inner London will not be relieved by the voluntary acquisition of empty property. Young couples should have the opportunity to spread out. But the opportunity exists for them on their own doorstep, where their jobs and families are, if it were only taken.

I deeply regret that the Government have taken so long in their short lifetime to start thinking up a proper policy for housing which will benefit from the use of all the housing stock. Much more should be done on council estates to use the housing stock properly. There are many opportunities for co-operation, better management and imaginative use of the properties which already exist. If only the Government will come off the hook about this and say that they positively want local authorities to act in this sphere, without changing their mind half way through and taking away money that they have already indicated will be available, if we had a consistent policy on housing, we should begin to see a breakthrough.

Housing is a subject about which many of us on the Labour side have talked, dreamed, and had nightmares for many years. I believe that everyone has a right to a house and that housing is a social service. As a former member of a local authority, and as a Member of this House who has served on Select Committees such as that on violence in marriage, I know how terrible are the pressures of inadequate housing. I know what it means to a woman on her own, or a couple trying to bring up children in an inadequate home, and how much that adds to the social costs of society.

We used to talk a lot in local government about cost benefit analysis. If only we could talk about social benefit analysis and look at the way in which we spend our money; if only we could ask whether value for money is being obtained by the right spending! I am not talking about cutting expenditure, but about using it in areas where of greatest need. I am talking about cross finance, not merely between, for example, the Department of Health and Social Security and the National Health Service, but between other Government Departments and local authorities.

Local government is a subject on which there are many experts in this House. I shall therefore take only my allotted time. I could say so much more. The Government have shown in their two years, in spite of my serious criticism on housing, that they have made great strides and shown an understanding of the needs and the problems of local government. As vice-president of the AMA I know how much this has been appreciated by the bigger local authorities, and I hope that the Government will not draw back from the path on which they have set themselves—that of developing this excellent relationship and make the whole of Government and the democratic system far more fruitful for all concerned.