Totals of 99,549, 133,528 and 153,366 new council dwellings were started in Great Britain in 1973, 1974 and 1975 respectively. A total of 36,762 was started in the first quarter of this year. Taking the public sector as a whole, starts were up 22 per cent. on the same period last year.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on those results. Is he aware that they are unlikely to continue because so many Tory councils which have been elected to power have been celebrating their victories by threatening to cut council house-building programmes? Does he not deplore any such cuts? Will he confirm that the Government's top priority in council house building is to provide homes for those who need them most?
I thank my hon. and learned Friend for his opening remarks. I am fearful of what may take place in a number of areas as a result of policy changes. I shall be watching the position closely. I hope that the fears expressed in some quarters and, indeed, the desire expressed in some Tory quarters—that there should be a cut-back in house building by local authorities—will not be substantiated. I hope that we shall see the present levels sustained as they have been in the past two years. I look forward to hearing some specific and positive encouragement from Conservative spokesmen on this subject.
Is it not the case that, seasonally adjusted, council house starts fell by 14 per cent. between February and April this year compared with the previous three months? Does the Minister agree with the view of spokesmen of the house-building industry that that fall is likely to continue for industrial reasons?
Does my hon. Friend agree that Conservative-controlled authorities, which have never shown any enthusiam for council house building or their tenants, will be tempted to substitute a policy of selling council houses for one of building them? What steps are to be taken in that situation?
I am not in a position to say what steps we shall take. I have indicated that we shall be watching the situation very closely and that I hope that the fears will not be realised. I repeat that I should welcome an exhortation from leading Conservative spokesmen nationally in favour of continued and increased building of local authority housing by local authorities throughout the country.
Will the Minister now acknowledge—[HON. MEMBERS: "Answer"]—the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Melton (Mr. Latham) that there has been a fall of 14 per cent. in public housing starts over the past quarter compared with the previous quarter? Is he aware that in a recent publication Shelter estimated that the Public Expenditure White Paper indicated that council building would fall below 150,000?
I repeat my question—[HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."] I shall repeat it no matter how much shouting there is from the Opposition Benches. I repeat my request that leading national spokesmen of the Tory Party should call upon their fellow members of the party in local government to sustain the house-building programme.
Now I shall deal with the points that were put in order to dodge the question that I put to the leading spokesmen of the Tory Party.
Variations in quarterly figures have been mentioned by the hon. Member for Melton (Mr. Latham) before, and he has proved to be inaccurate every time. The annual national figures have continued to rise. Subject to the concern about the future conduct of Tory-controlled councils, we hope and believe—and certainly the Government will make the resources available for this—that local authority house-building programmes will be sustained at their increased level of the past two years.
The question of the figures in the White Paper has been raised by the hon. Gentleman before, and we have had detailed correspondence since. There are no figures in the White Paper to support any suggestion that there will be a reduction in local authority housing starts so far as the Government are concerned. The only source of anxiety on that score must be the action of members of the Tory Party nationally and in local government.
Is it not completely nonsensical to talk about a fall of 14 per cent. which has already taken place and lay the blame on the results of the district elections held since then?
The house-building programme by local government will be sustained at its present level so far as the resources projected in the White Paper on Public Expenditure are concerned. We shall provide resources that will sustain the present increase. It is no answer to that to suggest that because there is a drop—[HON. MEMBERS: "Ah."]—in one particular quarter compared with the previous quarter the annual figures will go down. There are always variations between quarterly figures throughout the year.
I return to my question: does the Tory Party intend—[Interruption.]—to sustain the house-building programme? We must take the answer to be "No."