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 Dafydd Elis Thomas Mr Dafydd Elis Thomas , Merioneth 12:00 am, 28th April 1976

I am coming to that. Part of the problem in Wales is that we have a higher figure of owner-occupancy, but much of that owner-occupied sector is in property which is substantially in need of improvement. Therefore the need for public expenditure on housing in Wales is greater than it is in the United Kingdom generally. There are comparisons which can be made with other regions in England, such as the North-East in particular.

There is to be a real reduction in the housing allocations to local authorities in Wales despite the fact that 45 per cent. of our housing stock is pre–1918. The fact is that one in seven of all houses in Wales has been officially classified as unfit, in the house condition survey. We have more than 61,000 people on Welsh council house waiting lists–11,000 more than 12 months ago.

What is the Government's response to the Welsh housing crisis? We saw a peak figure of 17,236 new houses completed in Wales last year, the highest since 1969. I give credit to the Government for that figure, which is a substantial improvement on the annual performance of the Conservative Government, who managed to build only 4,000 public sector houses annually in Wales.

But if that figure is compared with the international league table, we find that Wales is the lowest in Europe, with the exception of Italy. The United Kingdom figure for dwellings completed per 1,000 of the population compared with European Community and OECD countries is extremely low, and this is where we must make up the leeway in the course of the next five years. But there is no indication from the Government that they intend to make up this leeway in house building or house improvement, despite the wording of the second part of their amendment. That is what I meant by saying that I supported the amendment in the hope that the Government took it seriously.

Time and time again, the research department of Plaid Cymru has put forward the figure of 25,000 new houses per annum if we are to tackle our housing problems in Wales—problems not only of an older housing stock with the consequent need for improvement, but such problems as homelessness and other serious matters like housing stress through the over-occupancy of properties. This figure has not been challenged by the Welsh Office and, when we present it with yet a further study of housing needs in Wales—we hope tomorrow—this again bears out the discrepancy and the inequality in the housing position in Wales compared with the United Kingdom as a whole and other European countries. Therefore, we want to see a relative increase to meet that gap in the allocations to district councils in Wales both for new building and improvements and not the kind of reduction that we see in the public expenditure White Paper.

I am concerned about the Welsh Office's latest attitude, which is to say that it is giving priority to new building rather than to house improvement. We were told last year when we had the totally unexpected and unjustifiable freeze on local government lending that these reductions in local authority mortgages and the reductions coming this year in the money available for improvements both to the councils' own stock and the improvement of private housing stock were due to a new priority which the Government were giving to house building. This is a totally wrong attitude.

When dealing with a situation in Wales where there is a preponderance of older housing stock with its need for improvement, we require not only a programme of new building but a parallel programme of improvement, otherwise the existing housing stock gets worse, with the result that the problem of new building in future years will be even worse than it is now. In other words, the shortfall in real terms will be worse in future because improvement has been neglected.

I press the Welsh Office to look again at this. Many arguments have been put forward that good, cheap improvements are more beneficial in the short term for an improved housing stock. I am certain that, bearing in mind the situation which is likely to exist in 1977–78, the Welsh Office must review its allocations.

I am not happy about the way in which these allocations have been set out in the circular to local authorities dated 27th February. The Welsh Office has lumped together all the categories for the improvement and conversion of dwellings, acquisitions from the private market, environmental work and capitalised repairs. The argument put forward by the Under-Secretary of State for Wales was that this was being done to ensure that local government had more flexibility. But the true result is that local government has been given more flexibility but substantially fewer resources with which to be flexible.

What has happened is that in Blaenau Ffestiniog, for example, the district council planned to acquire 40 empty properties which had come on to the market but now cannot do so. What will happen to them? They will become second homes, and the housing crisis in the town will be made even worse. I press the Under-Secretary to talk to his colleagues in the Welsh Office about this issue and about the needs of certain district councils with older property and second home problems in their areas with a view to seeing whether the Welsh Office cannot be more flexible in its approach.

The Government's present tendency is that which was reflected in a parliamentary answer which appeared in column 639 of Hansard of 3rd March to the right hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. Hughes). The tendency is that these allocations are arbitrarily based on last year's performance in terms of what is achieved by various district councils and not on real need.

The housing crisis in Wales will be a major issue in the present campaign in the district council elections. Since other hon. Members have referred to the candidates representing their respective parties, the least that I can do is briefly to follow suit.

We are fielding more than 360 Plaid Cymru candidates throughout Wales, not only in the industrial valleys—like the Rhymney Valley, where we are fighting to gain control for the first time—but in rural areas where many independent candidates are now fighting under a political label as a response to what they see to be the increasingly arbitrary interference of the Welsh Office in the policies and priorities of district councils. Naturally, I wish them well. I hope to be able to return to the House next week after the local government elections with a Plaid Cymru control in at least three authorities in the industrial valleys.