Before the debate begins, may I tell the House that there are more than 30 right hon. and hon. Members who have already indicated to me that they wish to participate? I make a very sincere and earnest appeal to right hon. and hon. Members who are called to exercise self-discipline and to remember that I also have a memory for those who do not co-operate.
It is of obvious importance that we should come back again to the subject of housing on this Adjournment motion, for it it at the centre of the social preoccupation with politics.
Every time that we have debated housing in recent months, we have done so against a deteriorating set of statistics in one way or another, and every time Ministers have sought to explain that there will be an improvement if only we give them a little longer for their policies to work their way through.
But as this Government have now had some four years in which their policies have had time to work through, it is important for us to start at the beginning and to remember that they came to office committed to reversing what they called the serious fall in the housing programme under the previous Conservative Government.
The fact is that there is a glaring distinction between what this Government have achieved and what they implied in their manifestos. Their best year in private sector housing completions is not even as good as the worst year under the last Conservative Government. The overall position of housing under this Government shows a very similar pattern. Last year. in 1977, fewer houses were started than in any Conservative year, including the difficult year of 1973. Last year, completions under this Government exceeded only the worst year under the last Conservative Administration.
Taking the average results of the four years of the last Conservative Government and the four years of this Government in each year this Government have on average seen the completion of 40,000 fewer houses than was achieved under the last Conservative Administration. Far from reversing what they described as the serious fall, the Government have made that serious fall a permanent feature of housing policy.
The housing industry, which was suffering, as all other industries were suffering, from a temporary relapse as a result of the oil crisis, has now turned into a permanent cripple.
Within that continuing and persistent decline, the Labour Government have sought to switch the emphasis of house building away from the private sector, which is in practice what the overwhelming majority of people wish to encourage, in favour of local authority housing. We have now reached the stage where the cost of subsidising local authority housing is so heavy that it has forced the Government to adopt economies in other areas of the housing programme where better value for money unquestionably could have been obtained and also in areas where the real hardship and difficulty is to be found. I am, of course, thinking of the older and unmodernised housing.
Let me give one example. In order to help finance the increased council house programme, improvement grants have fallen from 361 in 1973 to only 113 in 1977. In other words, as part of the price of getting the public sector housing programme up by some 30,000, 250,000 houses in a year go unmodernised.
No one could seriously reckon that that was an economic or a social tradeoff which a responsible Government should pursue.
Is it not a fact that although Labour supports both owner-occupation and council housing, most Conservative Members of Parliament are the enemies of council tenants? If the hon. Member denies that, will he give the House an undertaking that a Conservative Government would not cut council house building and subsidies? I ask that question because, on a previous occasion, the hon. Member avoided giving the answer. We want an answer to that question.
I am sure that the hon. Member will understand that the level of housing support has been cut very significantly under this Government in every direction. Therefore, for me to suggest that it will be possible for a Conservative Government automatically to reverse that trend on coming to power is irresponsible, and I am not prepared to do it.
However, the policies which we shall pursue for council tenants are incomparably more generous and realistic than anything that the present Government have on offer. I shall come back to this very important aspect of policy later in my speech.
In housing, we have found that in order to pursue the most expensive and, I argue, the most doctrinal aspects of housing policy, the Labour Government have been prepared to witness an overriding decline in the level of housing provision. In other words, the easy promises of the General Election have produced, as so often under Socialist administrations, dramatically worse results than the previous Conservative Government were achieving.
I must obey Mr. Speaker's ruling. I am normally very generous in giving way but, as Mr. Speaker said, there are more than 30 right hon. and hon. Members who wish to contribute to the debate.
I want to look at the Government's policies as they are reflected in both the demand for housing and, on the other side of the coin, the construction industry's ability to provide houses. On both counts, the Government's policies have undoubtedly contributed to the wider problems of the home construction industry. The demand for housing, like the demand for everything else, obviously is a reflection of people's ability to pay. As the real take-home pay of the average industrial worker is 3 per cent. lower than it was in 1973–74, it inevitably follows that the building industry and the demand for new homes have suffered along with all other investment areas.
Until there is a significant return to a rising real standard of living, it is cloud-cuckoo land to pretend that the home construction industry will be singled out for preferment and will see an upsurge in consistent demand for its products. The reality is that the moment there is any significant improvement in demand, as there was in the first quarter of this year, because the house-building programme in recent years has been so much lower than in previous years, there is a rapid increase in prices of the sort which created such panic in the Secretary of State's mind only a few weeks ago.
The Conservatives got houses built on an increasing scale incomparably better. Far more people bought their new homes under the last Conservative Government than this Government have achieved by their administration. That is the fundamental justification for what went on.
The prices relate to the incomes. The critical question is the level of real take-home pay. For the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heifer) to barrack me when he has sat behind the Government, of which he was once a member, who have presided over a consistent decline in the standard of living of the British working people is an affront if ever there was one. Let us agree upon one thing that is certain. Until there is a genuine improvement in the real standard of living of the British people, the demand for new homes will remain at a relatively sluggish level.
The Secretary of State of course faces the inevitable dilemma of the inadequate building programmes under his responsibility, for he saw that instant reaction in rising prices very dramatically the moment there appeared to be an increase in people's disposable income. He took the short-term expedient of choking off the supply of building society money by rationing mortgages. I would not deny that this is bound to have an effect in keeping prices under control in the short term. But equally, of course, it has the long-term effect of diminishing the construction industry's confidence in building new homes, and therefore one has a vicious circle of decline.
Until there is an adjustment of house prices, there will not be an increase in the number of houses coming on to construction stream. In practice, of course, the right hon. Gentleman need not have bothered to take the action he took to ration the level of mortgage provision, for it became apparent within a few weeks of that panic action that the Government's so-called recovery, so short lived, was already at an end, and the increase in the level of money supply and today's figures indicating the level of inflationary wage increases show that the economic strategy will have to be corrected in the relatively near future, which in itself will choke off any increase in houses prices anyway.
The Secretary of State's technique in bringing house prices under control has had the effect of once again reducing the demand for houses but has also in the short term caused an increase in their price levels dramatically faster than the rate at which real take-home pay was rising.
Not only has the Government's overall economic policy gravely weakened the housing situation, as all statistics indicate, but the detailed specific decisions taken by the Secretary of State within the environs of his own Department have consistently added to the problems created by the overall economic situation.
First, the Community Land Act is recognised widely as a major deterrent to the provision of land for new housing and to the confidence of the industry. It is without question the most oversold feature of the Government's housing programme. In its first year of operation, 32 acres of land were released. In the second year, between 350 and 400 acres were released. I calculate that, at 10 houses to the acre, that would enable in two years an additional 3,000 houses to be built when the overall housing construction programme for the country in that period was about 600,000. To suggest that the Community Land Act had anything other than an irritant effect in the provision of new houses is not borne out by the statistics.
I was surprised that the Government have become so concerned at the charges being made against the Act that only on 19th June they issued a circular claiming that Liverpool is to get 1,000 more homes thanks to the Act. If one reads behind the sensationalised healdines produced by the Department, one discovers that 87 acres of disused British Rail land have been rescued from dereliction and transferred to the local authority. Because that is claimed to have been done by the Community Land Act, it is claimed as a triumph for the Act.
But the fact is that there was nothing to stop the transfer of the land from British Rail to the local authority long before the Act was a gleam in a Socialist eye. What it proves is not that the Act is necessary but that my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi) has been consistently right in pointing out that there is far too much land in the city centres in the ownership of local authorities and nationalised industries, that too little of it is being released, that too little is known of the scale of the ownership, that the process of developing it should and could have been dramatically speeded up, and that that did not need the Community Land Act from beginning to end.
This piece of land is in my constituency. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that for many years I conducted correspondence with the then Conservative local authority and British Rail urging them to come to an agreement about it? The local authority was dragging its feet, and eventually there had to be Government-supported intervention before the land was transferred.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, Liverpool has not been under Conservative control for many years. There has been nothing to stop a Labour Minister from intervening at any time since 1974, but it took until 1978. It is unrealistic to suggest that the Community Land Act was in any way necessary in that process. The Press release sent out by the Department is a deliberate attempt to try to give credit to the Act for a piece of administration by the Department and nothing more.
The hon. Gentleman does not understand the situation. There have been four years during which the Tories were not responsible for the Liverpool authority at all. I am arguing that the Community Land Act was not in any way essential for the transfer of that land, despite what the Press release suggests. What we have argued consistently is that what is needed is not the Community Land Act but a very much greater sense of realism and urgency about the need to release inner city land. I am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman should have used his good offices to get that land in Liverpool transferred, but it is a drop in the ocean compared with the land owned in the public sector, a great deal of which should be put on offer for development, particularly in the private sector.
The second feature of the Government's policies which undoubtedly is already aggravating the house-building industry and will make the position worse is the proposal to move the development land tax up to 80 per cent. The right hon. Gentleman is aware that the concern in the building industry over the provision of land is growing, and that the large-scale building companies believe that by 1980. unless there is a significant increase in the stream of land, it will adversely affect the industry's capacity to provide new houses. The Government should announce at once that they have no intention of moving up to that level of taxation and ensure that under the taxation of gains the rate of the tax is pitched at a level acceptable both to those who own the land and those who seek to buy it.
Thirdly, the Government will argue that their new legislation to provide loans and grants for house purchasers is a significant contribution to young people's ability to buy their own homes. It is worth checking the facts.
The Home Purchase Assistance and Housing Corporation Guarantee Bill to provide these incentives to young people was introduced last February. Five months later, the price of the average new house has risen by well over £1,000 since February—the period that it has taken to get the legislation through the parliamentary processes so far.
What would the Government scheme contribute to anyone now wanting to buy those homes? A maximum grant of £100 and a loan of £600. Therefore, the Government's incentive scheme, and the time it took to get it through the processes of the parliamentary system, actually leaves average purchasers hundreds of pounds worse off at the end of the process than they were had they bought their home at the beginning of the process. The fact is that if someone manages to scramble together the resources to buy, it is almost certain that he will need to take out a substantial mortgage. Such a person will find that the average mortgage today costs about an extra £2 a week than is did a few weeks ago.
But, of course, mortgages always cost more under a Labour Government. If one takes the average level of mortgage interest rates under the whole of the four years of the previous Conservative Government and under the whole of the four years of this Government, one finds that approximately 2 per cent. extra is having to be found by everyone who has an average mortgage on a house.
Mortgage rates have just started going up under this Government. I would be fascinated to hear the Secretary of State tell us whether he sees mortgage interest rates coming down in the near future.
The averages are not nonsense. If the hon. Gentleman seriously intends to tell the people of this country that four years of Labour Government is worth an extra 2 per cent. on their mortgage interest rates, persistently year in and year out, I am afraid that he will find a very different response from the electorate. In other words, for every week in which this Government have been in power everyone who has an average mortgage has been paying an additional £2·50, simply for the extra cost of borrowing under a Labour Government.
The only thing of importance to someone paying off a mortgage, which is a long-term exercise, is the average cost of borrowing over any period of time. The important statistic is that for every week of this Labour Government £2·50 extra has been the cost of interest rates alone for every average mortgage holder.
The fourth decision for which this Government are responsible affects the future of the building industry itself. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Walton is present. If that industry did not have problems enough as a result of the Government's economic policies, in practice it now faces the uncertainties with regard to the State threat to nationalise companies within the industry.
I know that the House will be familiar with the campaign which is being launched by the construction industry under the name of CABIN, about which we have all seen Press coverage this week. I do not intend to argue the merits one way or another in this debate, because we can do that another time. What I do say to the Government is that if they think that they will get co-operation and enthusiasm from those responsible for the construction industry by allowing the impression to gain ground that nationalisation is always on the agenda, they have no concept whatever of the diversion of management time which is now being committed in order to persuade people in Britain that they should allow that industry to remain in the free enterprise sector.
The pattern is familiar. We have seen it happen in industry after industry, where the Labour Party is prepared to pursue its narrow doctrinal purpose regardless of the efficiency of the industry or the service which it can provide to the country at large. Regrettably, it has now moved on across the whole industrial spectrum to the construction industry and the material supplies industry.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way? [HON. MEMBERS "Not again."] The hon. Gentleman referred to me and surely I am entitled to ask a question on that basis. Will the hon. Gentleman explain what he means by "nationalisation of the construction industry" in view of the fact that the document in front of him—"Building Britain's Future" produced by the Labour Party, and which I hope all hon. Members read rather than just take from the employers' Press—does not propose nationalisation? What it proposes is the setting up of a national construction company based upon two major companies. That initially means that one begins with two and from then onwards that company expands and develops, but not taking over other companies. Would not the hon. Gentleman agree that his view is the same as it was when we set up the National Enterprise Board? Time and again he repeated in this House and throughout the country that the Labour Government intended to nationalise 100 firms. That was a lie, and it is a lie to say that we intend to nationalise the construction industry.
What the hon. Gentleman does not understand is that if we are misrepresenting the nationalisation plans of the Labour Government, it is in the gift of Cabinet Ministers to deny that there is to be any nationalisation of any companies in the construction industry. If the Prime Minister, when asked whether these plans are realistic, accepts that nationalisation is always on the agenda of the Labour Party, then it is realistic that we in the Conservative Party who are opposed to it will never cease to draw the attention of the country to the dangers involved. If we are distorting the Labour Party's plans, then all I ask the Secretary of State to say is that he does not believe in the policy. I ask him to explain why the Prime Minister, or any of his colleagues, did not deny its value at the Labour Party conference which opposed it.
I would be most grateful to understand why an unidentified Cabinet Minister had to go off to Sir Maurice Laing in order to try to persuade him—of course, behind closed doors—to drop the campaign. Why has that been done now that we are running up to a General Election campaign, when traditionally the Labour Party understands that nationalisation as an issue is widely unpopular with the public and will, therefore, do everything it can to suppress the contents?
Perhaps I can help both my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Walton. As it happens, a fortnight today I shall be addressing an anti-nationalisation rally in Durham. If the hon. Gentleman or the Secretary of State would like to join me there, to assure everyone that the Labour Party is not proposing any nationalisation in the building industry, I am sure that either of them would be very welcome. I should like a statement from the Secretary of State right now.
I have no doubt that if they care to give my hon. Friend a letter he will read it out for them in order to save them the trouble of going there.
If the hon. Member for Walton will calm down for a moment perhaps we can get on with the debate. As I want to talk about council tenants, who are of importance to his constituency, perhaps we can move to that part of what I want to say. The fact is that the economic growth climate of today will lead to an extension of the property-owning democracy on a scale slower than that which we first saw when it was first developed in the 1950s, simply because the real disposable income of the people will not permit the dramatic increase in private ownership on the scale which history once provided. But the council tenant and new town tenant give us the opportunity of extending the property-owning democracy perhaps faster than we have done even under the development of the privately owned house.
The first point is that a large number of council tenants want to own their own homes. The second point is that they understand that if they own their own homes they are likely to share in the rising prosperity of the country in a tangible way which is identifiable with themselves, their families and the saving which their homes represent. It is therefore obviously a major preoccupation, certainly of our party, that council tenants and new town tenants should have the right to buy the home in which they live. I cannot understand why, when my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Smith) introduced a Bill to give council tenants that right, the Labour Party and the Liberal Party voted against it.
It is a curious anachronism that the Labour Party always talks about transferring power to working people but that the moment someone actually proposes to let them own their own homes and enjoy the power that that gives in the most real and tangible way, thus enfranchising working people on a scale never attempted before, the Labour Party is determined that the closest that power will come to the British working people is the office of some bureaucrat up the road.
Therefore, let me repeat that we in the Conservative Party will give council and new town tenants a statutory right to buy their own homes if they choose to do so. We shall also encourage a flexible range of part-purchase and co-ownership schemes for those in the twilight position—not able to buy but wanting to start on the process of having a stake.
Will the hon. Gentleman give that statutory right in seaside resorts, many of which are represented by members of his party and where already there is a vast transfer of housing out of normal use and into summer lets? Does he recognise this difficulty? Would he give council tenants the right to buy at 20 per cent. off and then to sell to whom they choose? Does he recognise that seaside resorts will become void of housing for working people if such a policy is enacted?
What a curious thing. The hon. Gentleman wants to deprive the council tenants in his area of the right to become owners because otherwise housing could not be provided for tourist accommodation. What one should do is encourage those tenants to own and if necessary to sell their houses so that they move to areas where there are jobs, perhaps leaving houses which can be used to encourage tourists, thus bringing more jobs and prosperity to the people the hon. Gentleman represents. So the answer to his question is yes—our statutory right will apply to the very people included in his question.
Of course, our policy will not only give an identifiable stake to council tenants; it will also release resources which the local authority or the Government or wherever we decide the money should be allocated to concentrate on the areas of stress, which are or should be our prime concern. Thus, not only do we enhance the position of the council tenant himself but we encourage the community to provide solutions for areas where there are real problems.
Council estates are looking for new initiatives to change the type of life which so many people there have had to lead. It is obvious and accepted that large numbers of council tenants will not want to buy and cannot buy, and we must not neglect them. We want them to be much more involved in administering and playing a part in the management of their estates. There is a powerful argument for experimenting with co-ownership schemes on council estates to give the tenants a much greater identity of interest.
Above all else, as an act of priority—I cannot understand why the Secretary of State has delayed this so long—there should be a tenants' charter to set out their rights. That is a long overdue provision which this Parliament should put on the statute book. We shall do that, because we believe that it is necessary to involve those tenants more and more in the decisions which affect their lives. In reality, those decisions are so often taken by the bureaucrats who do not live on the estates on which the tenants have to live.
Therefore, my charge against the Government is twofold. First of all, with their policies on taxation and high Government expenditure, they have significantly damaged the provision of new homes. In every year that they have been in office, an average of 40,000 fewer houses have been built than were built by the Conservatives when in power. Secondly by their policy initiatives, their objectives and their administrative decisions, they have demoralised the construction industry, witnessed a dramatic increase in unemployment in the industry, and managed an inadequate programme of housing. On any of those grounds they would deserve criticism but on the combination of all of them, they cannot resist censure.
I greatly welcome this debate, which provides us with an opportunity to review the progress of housing policies. On this occasion it enables me to inform the House of our main conclusions on the housing Green Paper that we published just over a year ago and to outline the general aspect of the legislation that we intend to introduce.
I also welcome of course—one always does—the speech of the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine). His speeches are always lively. I sometimes find them a little difficult to follow, because he and I study the same mass of data and information and I sometimes puzzle how it is that we draw such different conclusions from them. Nevertheless, that is what we do. I should therefore begin by describing some of the matters on which we disagree. This is right, because it is almost a year to the day since we last debated housing on an Opposition Supply Day motion, in the context of reviewing the main developments of the past 12 months and the present outlook I am glad to say—I do not see how anyone could fail to be equally glad if he was interested in housing and in people—that in nearly every sphere of housing policy there has been a considerable improvement since our last debate.
First, we have been able to increase capital expenditure on housing. In the construction package of last October, the Chancellor announced a substantial increase in public expenditure. As part of that, we were able to allocate an additional £170 million to housing investment for 1978–79 and a further £100 million for 1979–80. As those who have studied this year's public expenditure White Paper will know, the housing investment programme is now rising again and the new level will be maintained over the whole period.
Secondly, we have enjoyed another year of moderation in rent increases in the public sector. On average, rents rose by just on 60p a week in 1977–78 and all the signs are that the rise is likely to be less in the current year.
Thirdly, in spite of the setback of 9th June, we have seen over the past 12 months a most welcome fall in mortgage interest rates. When the hon. Member addressed the House on 20th June 1977, the mortgage rate stood at 11¼ per cent. When the latest increase comes into effect, it will be 9¾; per cent. Of course I regret that increase, but 9¾ per cent. is a welcome change from the 1l¾ per cent. of a year ago and the 11 per cent. at which the rate stood when we took office from the previous Administration at the beginning of 1974.
Many millions of owner-occupiers have been helped in the past year by falling mortgage rates. They have been helped, too how the hon. Gentleman can deny this I do not know—by the growing number of building society mortgages which have been available. There were 786,000 mortgage commitments in 1977 and no fewer than 858,000 in the 12 months ending May this year. Both are record figures for mortgage advances.
Fourthly, we have introduced a new and valuable measure to assist first-time purchasers. It will provide for those qualifying—and we expect about 200,000 buyers a year to qualify—an interest-free loan of £600. This will be added to the normal mortgage advance. For many first-time buyers this will make all the difference in assembling the necessary deposit. Because the loan is interest free for five years, buyers will find their mortgage payments reduced by about £4 a month. On top of this, savers can also qualify for bonus of up to £110—which is cash.
Young couples setting up their first home will understand and appreciate the help they are getting—even if hon. Members opposite continue to lack both comprehension and appreciation. If, as I hope, we shall obtain Royal Assent in the next few weeks, the two-year saving period can begin in the autumn. From that date, prospective buyers can make their plans in the knowledge of the conditions they must fulfil and the help they will receive.
As the Secretary of State knows, we welcome these proposals, but would he put them in context? Would he agree with me that the £600 loan is rather less than the aggregate amount by which the net take-home pay of the average industrial worker has fallen from the levels at which it stood in February 1974? The net result of the Government's period in office, therefore, is that the average worker gets a loan of £600, having lost that much in cash.
The figure that we had in mind for the loan to be available to assist first-time purchasers was conceived only when we announced the measure—just eight or nine months ago. The real relevance of the figure is to the cost of house price increases. This is the significant thing—the relationship between the help that we are giving and the actual prices of houses for sale.
Fifthly, we introduced last year the system of local housing strategies and investment programmes. It requires authorities to prepare capital investment programmes in the light of a comprehensive assesment of their housing needs. These then serve as the basis for the allocation of capital resources by the Government, having regard to national priorities and the resources available.
The new system has only just started. With the help of the new Housing Consultative Council and the input of housing information from the national dwelling and housing survey we shall refine and improve it.
Is it not a fact that among the bigger local authorities. such Conservative-controlled councils as Leeds and Bradford have viciously axed their council house building programmes, whereas the Labour-controlled authorities, such as Sheffield and Manchester have maintained theirs? Since most councils are now Conservative-controlled, can my right hon. Friend do anything to prevent their cutting their housing programmes?
My hon. Friend has hit upon a difficult problem. I shall say something later about this. The ability of central government to persuade elected local authorities to build when they have not the will to do so, is extremely limited.
But is the Secretary of State aware that he has approved only 69 per cent. of the applications from local authorities to spend on council building'? In these circumstances, it is his Department—not the local authorities—that is remiss.
That will not do. I saw the astonishing Association of Metropolitan Authorities' release. It was astonishing for two reasons. First, I know for certain that the chairman of the AMA had not seen it, and he has since issued a statement repudiating it. That is quite remarkable in itself. Secondly, the use of figures in the release is so tendentious as to be beyond belief. The bids put in by all local authorities for the first round was for a total sum greater than has ever been spent in any single year on housing. Quite clearly, no Government will simply accept, as it were, the first-off bid of the local authorities. These have to be looked at and pruned down to a sensible size. In addition to that, when we actually know that they are under-spending what we have already allocated, we can only conclude that they have turned the whole thing into a propaganda exercise.
I was talking about the benefits that we have seen already from housing investment programmes. In fact £40 million of the additional £100 million allocation made to local authorities this year went to the North-West Region, in particular to Manchester and Liverpool—the great conurbations. I believe that this system will prove to be an increasingly valuable tool for local and central government alike in helping us to make the maximum impact on housing needs where they are greatest and where they can be most clearly defined.
Sixthly, we have taken two specific initiatives to increase the rate of home improvement. In August we made very substantial increases in the eligible expense limits for the various improvement grants. At the same time we increased the rateable value limits for discretionary grants for owner-occupiers. These improvements are being buttressed by a major publicity campaign which we launched in March.
I want now to comment on the level of new house building. The house builders' own recent Great Britain forecast for 1978 is for a figure of starts in the private sector totalling 165,000—a considerable increase over the 135,000 private sector houses started in 1977. In the last four months, private sector starts were 15 per cent. up on the same period of last year—not quite the miserable picture that the hon. Gentleman suggests.
In the public sector, however, while completions in 1977 were unaffected and totalled 162,000—almost exactly the same as the totals achieved in 1975 and 1976—starts and still more approvals both fell substantially.
Some of this was unavoidable last year given the measures and new procedures that we had to introduce in July and December of 1976. But what worries me is that, having substantially increased the allocations for housing investment this year, there is still no evidence—in spite of the tendentious stuff that has been quoted—that local authorities are actually increasing the rate of starts and approvals. I have strongly urged them to bring forward schemes, to programme ahead and to take account of the tolerance arrangements.
I do not dismiss the possibility that we are beginning to see a considerable switch into improvement and out of new building in some areas where housing stress is beginning to ease. But I have more than a suspicion that in some other areas where need is still manifestly high—including the Greater London area—unjustified, doctrinally motivated cuts are being made. We have certainly not been helped by the fact that the majority of all housing authorities are under the control of Conservative councils, many of whom have heeded the advice of the hon. Gentlemen on the Opposition Front Bench.
I mean policy-dominated—a policy which, in the circumstances of housing stress, denies the relevance of public sector building for meeting the need for housing to rent. I am not saying that this is the case with all local authorities, but on the record and evidence of what has been said by the leaders of the various Conservative-controlled councils, no one can dispute that this is precisely what they intend.
Is the right hon. Gentleman saying that when Labour councillors take action it amounts to economic prudence, but that when Conservative councillors take similar action it is doctrinal obsession?
I am glad to say that there is evidence that although, unfortunately, we control a considerably smaller number of councils than the Conservative Party controls, they account for a disproportionate percentage of starts.
I have been concerned about evidence of acceleration of house prices earlier this year. Therefore, with the agreement of the Building Societies Association the exceptionally high volume of mortgage lending was cut back from April of this year. There is now evidence that the acceleration of prices is decreasing. I do not believe we shall see the house price explosion feared by many people a few months ago. However, we shall continue to monitor the situation closely with the building societies and be prepared to adjust the volume of lending as events demand. I do not intend to sit on my hands, as my Conservative predecessors did, while house prices rocket beyond the reach of so many would-be purchasers.
Taking the longer period of the past four years—and I have spoken so far of all that has happened since we last debated this matter a year ago—we have undoubtedly made real progress in housing policy. One of our major national concerns throughout the whole of this period has been the defeat of hyperinflation. It is noteworthy that since March 1974 rents in both private and public sectors, mortgage repayments and house prices have all increased at a substantially lower rate than has the cost of living generally, and well below the increase in average earnings.
Let me give the House one vivid example. House prices have risen by an average of 8 per cent. per year—32 per cent. in four years from the spring of 1974 to the spring of this year. What a contrast that is with the experience of the four preceding years of Conservative Government when house prices more than doubled. If we are accused of not making adequate provision in our measures to assist first-time purchase, I must point out that if the country were to experience again the house price explosion of the kind that occurred when the Conservatives were last in power, no measure to assist first-time purchasers could stand the strain.
That is by no means all. During this four-year period over 1,200,000 new homes have been completed and a further 800,000 have been substantially improved. There are now 750,000 more owner-occupiers than there were four years ago and, with the co-operation of the building societies, we have during a period of general money instability avoided the feasts and famines of mortgage supply which characterised the period of office of the Conservative Administration.
At the same time we have eased the shortage of rented housing by a substantially increased supply of local authority and Housing Corporation houses. More than 600,000 have been completed in our four-year period. By extending security of tenure in the private rented sector through the 1974 Rent Act—which the Opposition did not vote against either on Second or Third Reading, despite all their carping since—we have substantially cut back on the number of people rendered homeless by eviction from furnished premises.
Last but not least, we have halted the dangerous and damaging land price boom. I do not know whether these figures have been quoted before, but I would point out that private sector housing land prices rose by over 200 per cent. between March 1970 and March 1974. Between March 1974 and March 1978 they fell by over 20 per cent. That is the measure of the difference between the attitudes of the two parties.
All this adds up to a formidable achievement. When I add, as I should, the provisions of the Housing Act 1974, which gave a new impetus to housing association activity, the Housing Rents and Subsidies Act 1975, which repealed the Housing Act 1972 and restored to local authorities the right to determine reasonable but non-profit rents, the Rent (Agriculture) Act 1976, which remedied a long-standing injustice suffered by farm workers, the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977, on which the Government gave full support to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross), and our Homes Insulation Bill, which is now under discussion in Parliament, it will be seen that our legislative record is most impressive.
A great deal has been said about the Community Land Act, and not least about the excellent Press conference held yesterday by my ministerial colleague. The truth about the Community Land Act, contrary to the absurd charges which have been made, is that we have had just two years of its operation. In the second year of that period, for reasons I very much regret, we have had to reduce its activities. We are now setting aside substantial new resources for that Act and we expect it to be able to fulfil many of the purposes orginally set out for it.
Against that background of achievement, what have the Opposition to say? Of course they carp and crib, but what are the distinctive alternative policies of the Conservative Party? Encouragement of owner-occupation is not a distinctive policy. The fact that the majority of households are owner-occupied and that the number is constantly growing owes just as much to the Labour side of the House as to the Conservative Benches and gives equal satisfaction. Indeed, since we are the authors of the Home Purchase Assistance Bill, I do not think our credentials can be doubted.
It is not a one-off measure. As anybody who has attended debates and Question Times on housing matters will know, one of the main matters of concern repeatedly expressed on this side of the House is mortgage availability in general and a special concern for the supply of mortgage money for low income families. Indeed, it is no accident that the last major piece of legislation extending owner-occupation was the option mortgage scheme introduced by my late colleague and friend, Richard Crossman, when he was Minister of Housing. Therefore, there is nothing between the two sides of the House in the wish to extend owner-occupation.
What then does divide us? It came out clearly from the remarks of the hon. Member for Henley. It is the Opposition's manifest and obsessive dislike of local authority council housing. The origins are clear enough. It is their long-held belief that the taxpayer and the ratepayer contribute too much and the council tenant too little to the cost of council housing. Is that not the case?
If the right hon. Gentleman is looking for an immediate answer, my answer will be different from his. The reason why I personally and my party are preoccupied with enfranchising the council tenants is that we believe that the owner-occupier has achieved a real personal stake in the value of his home. That gives him a degree of power and involvement which has been denied to the council tenant.
Let me give the Secretary of State one statistic. A man who bought an average-priced new house 20 years ago paid £2,500 for it. That house is now worth £13,000. That has opened a gap between the achievement of the owner-occupier and the council tenant that is becoming unbridgeable. That is why I want to give council tenants the right to own their own homes.
I am very much in favour of council tenants being able to become owner-occupiers, and I am glad to say that between 40,000 and 60,000 a year become owner-occupiers. The issue is not whether they should become owner-occupiers. We are to extend the provisions of our Home Purchase Bill so that council tenants can also make use of it. The issue is whether they should become owner-occupiers and take their houses out of the pool of rented properties. The hon. Member for Henley said that this is what he wants to do.
I have said that the major belief of the Opposition was that the taxpayer and the ratepayer contribute too much and the council tenant too little to the cost of council housing. So strongly was this view held in the last Conservative Administration that they took the extraordinary legislative powers in the Housing Finance Act 1972 to remove the right of local authorities to determine their own rent levels.
The same attitude is there today. No statement of Conservative economic policy is complete without a reference to the inordinate cost of council housing and the inclusion of housing subsidies in any short list of retrenchment measures to savage public expenditure. It is time that the country knew what the Conservative Party has in mind. I have heard a figure of £500 million mentioned. No doubt the hon. Member for Henley can confirm whether this is the order of magnitude of saving that they wish to make. Let me tell him that such a drop in housing subsidies would be equivalent to an increase of £2 a week in unrebated rents.
Let me tell the hon. Gentleman this too: it is simply not on for him to contemplate major reductions in subsidies to council tenants while, at the same time, the Conservatives pledge themselves to new and still more costly subsidies to owner-occupiers. I do not know whether the 91 per cent. building society mortgage rate ceiling which the Leader of the Opposition offered the nation at the last General Election is still Tory policy. Is it?
I am grateful for the chance to point out that if one wanted to save money on housing subsidies, as the right hon. Gentleman charges us with wanting to do, the most effective way of doing it would be to encourage council tenants to buy their own homes. I believe that it is statistically accurate to say that if every council house were sold for £2,500, no subsidies would be required.
I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman again. I gave way to enable him to answer a specific question and he refused to answer it. He need not have bothered to intervene.
The cost of the Opposition's proposal for a 9½ per cent. mortgage rate ceiling would have been about £600 million in the last four years and their grant proposals, offered as an alternative to our loans proposal for first-time purchasers, would cost at least an extra £350 million a year.
I can well understand why, as we approach the last Session of this Parliament, the Opposition should wish to say as little as possible about cutting housing subsidies and raising rents and I can see why the idea of mass sales of local authority dwellings appears to be rather more attractive. The hon. Member for Henley gave us his views today and reports of his speech to the annual Conservative Women's conference in London on 22nd May said that the hon. Gentleman told the conference that
people on council estates had to be attracted to the Tory party … Tories had to communicate with people on council estates and in new towns.
That is sage advice.
What are they now proposing? They propose a policy of large-scale and indiscriminate sales of council houses. They intend, they say, to introduce a right to buy which will be available to all council tenants. Indeed, such is their enthusiasm for this policy that we now have the hon. Member for Henley appearing, somewhat improbably, as the defender of the council tenant, solemnly proclaiming not that he is paying too little—the old and familiar cry—but rather that he is paying too much and is getting a raw deal.
I need to say only three things about this. First, I believe that the alleged financial gains to the Exchequer would prove to be illusory. The fact is that over time, the loss of rent income to the local authority and the cost of increased mortgage relief to the Exchequer would more than cancel out any supposed advantages in terms of reduced housing management cost and housing subsidy.
Secondly, I do not believe that, in practice, substantial sales would be achieved—certainly not on the basis of a reasonable selling price including the present discounts. Well over half of the housing authorities are in Conservative hands and yet they managed to sell only just over 12,000 houses in 1977.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that for every 1,000 council houses sold, the cost to councils of replacing them over the 60-year loan repayment period within which local authorities buy their houses would be a minimum of £70 million?
If the local authority had to start building new houses, it would lose all the advantages of historic cost and pooling and it would be much more expensive. My hon. Friend has made an important point.
I want to make plain that a policy of selling off council houses in areas of housing shortage—and they will inevitably be those most sought after because of their situation, their gardens and their amenities—would be socially irresponsible.
I think the hon. Member for Henley knows this to be true, which is why his hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi) recently went so far as to suggest that council houses should be sold at a 50 per cent. discount. They have almost caught up with the right hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker) who thought that they should be given away. I do not believe they have seriously reflected on what these proposals involve.
We do not intend to enter into a Dutch auction with the Conservative Party. We have pursued since the beginning of this Parliament a policy that local authorities, which have a duty to provide for the housing needs in their areas, should exercise responsibly the freedom given them to make decisions about the sale of council houses. We expect those in areas of housing stress to use that power with the utmost restraint.
Has the Secretary of State realised that the problems of council tenants, particularly in the large towns and cities, are the area of housing policy most neglected by the Government? Can he explain why Labour Members last year voted against my Council Tenants' Charter Bill and why this year, after I had introduced such a Bill, from which no one dissented, the Government Whips repeatedly blocked it every Friday so that we have never had the chance to debate those problems? That is real neglect of the people living in council houses.
I am a great admirer of the hon. Gentleman, but I did not think that his proposal was one of the better proposals that he has put forward. We have been working hard on a tenants' charter and it would have been absurd for us to attempt to erect what we wish to erect on a rather inadequate foundation.
I want to return from the rather dismal world of Opposition housing policies to the real world of housing and serious policy making. A year ago, the Government published a Green Paper on housing policy in England and Wales and issued a series of consultation papers on particular topics.
The Green Paper has attracted many responses from those concerned with housing throughout the country. I want to thank all those who have put so much effort into preparing the responses. We have given them serious study and it is right that I should now, before dealing with our specific proposals, tell the House the conclusions that the Government have reached.
First, and very important, we shall continue to provide general Exchequer assistance to both main housing sectors. We shall continue to subsidise local authority housing, and we shall continue to afford tax relief on mortgage interest to owner-occupiers. These are tried arrangements and have been the foundation of the major housing achievement that Britain has had under successive Administrations in the post-war era. Thus we oppose the pseudo-radical alternatives of market pricing and the doctrine of shared misery for home buyers and council tenants alike, both deprived of Exchequer support. Of course, we oppose the Opposition's proposals for a one-sided assault on public sector subsidies. In short, we shall not see millions of household budgets disrupted by rising rents and net mortgage payments through savage cuts in either subsidies or tax relief. Our approach is an even-handed one, because we genuinely recognise the value and importance of both sectors.
Secondly, we reaffirm the need for a more selective and discerning approach to housing policy designed to concentrate resources where needs are greatest—both as regards people and places—and the need to widen individual choice.
Thirdly, we reaffirm the importance of the public sector to the steady improvement of housing conditions.
Fourthly, we support the increasing and broadening desire for home ownership. We shall work with the financial institutions to ensure as stable and adequate a flow of mortgage funds as economic circumstances permit.
Finally, we shall increase our efforts to improve both the quality of the housing stock and the balance between rehabilitation and new construction.
The House will realise that a number of these proposals call for legislation and I want to say a word about the wide-ranging legislative proposals that we are currently preparing. There will be a new subsidy system resting on three cardinal principles. These will be the retention of the non-profit rule, the right of local authorities to settle their own rent levels and the extent of any contribution from the rate fund, and that average rents should rise no faster than average income.
Our aim is to recast the present subsidy system in order gradually to provide a more adequate share of resources for those authorities confronted with the most pressing needs and the highest costs. In doing so, we shall ensure that tenants are not faced with savage and unexpected increases in rents. The amount of subsidy that an authority receives would be based on the subsidy paid to it for the preceding year. That sum would then be increased or decreased by taking into account changes in their qualifying expenditure and the increase in their local contribution from rent and rates.
It would be helpful in the context of some matters that I wish to raise in the debate if my right hon. Friend gave some indication of what he regards as a savage and unacceptable increase in rent.
I have indicated that we have in mind a ceiling. That ceiling would be an increase in rent equal to the increase in average earnings. That is the main test, as it were.
We shall also take the opportunity to make appropriate adjustments to the subsidy arrangements for new towns and housing associations.
No, I shall not give way.
The new legislation will also provide a package—it is a matter of particular interest to many others—of legal rights for public sector tenants. The first of these is security of tenure, which the Government are already pledged to extend to public sector tenants. The second is a statutory right of tenants to carry out improvements and to apply for the same grants as are available to home owners. In addition tenants will have a right to a written tenancy agreement. We are also considering an obligation on the local authority to provide a framework for participation with their tenants on matters which affect their interests.
I also propose to safeguard the interests of people seeking council housing by requiring local authorities to publish their allocation schemes, as many do, and, in the interests of mobility, to ease but not abolish residential qualifications.
Statutory rights for public sector tenants must be supported with better management and better upkeep. The quality of the immediate environment of all our council estates needs continuing attention and we want a particular effort to be made to improve the management of our older housing estates and of the less successful of our newer estates, especially in our hard-pressed inner urban areas. I intend to make sure that the new subsidy system will give local authorities more scope to devote resources to management and maintenance and to concentrate them where the need is greatest. We shall be encouraging local authorities in these areas to consider new initiatives, including the linking of housing management with wider community and neighbourhood schemes.
For owner-occupiers I have already mentioned the Home Purchase Assistance Bill. We now envisage two further measures. First, we shall enable local authorities to keep their mortgage interest rates in line with those charged by building societies. At the same time we propose to strengthen the power of local authorities to provide guarantees to building societies where they lend to people on lower incomes or those who are buying cheaper, older houses.
I have already touched on some aspects of the private rented sector but the House will wish to know what progress we have made in our review of the Rent Acts.
As we said in the Green Paper, there is a long-established and deep-seated trend in the contraction of the private rented sector. However, there are some 2 million households still living in privately rented accommodation and so the sector will be of importance for a considerable period ahead. In particular, the sector is still an important source of accommodation for the young mobile as well as for certain other groups. There are wide-ranging and interlocking issues to be considered. The Rent Acts, as consolidated in 1977—a consolidation measure—run to nearly 200 pages of text. Well over 2,000 decided legal cases bear on the Acts' interpretation, and they continue to come in thick and fast. In spite of their origins as a temporary measure, the Acts have been part of the code of social legislation in this country for over 60 years under Administrations of all parties. I make no apology therefore—I say this to some critics on the Opposition Benches—for rejecting facile answers, or for considering with care what effect on people and homes any changes might have.
When I have reached my conclusions I shall, of course, report to the House. Meanwhile, I can give an assurance on two major points of immediate concern to all who live in private rented housing.
The first assurance is that on the weight of evidence I have seen I am certain that the principle of rent regulation should remain intact. It is basically sound and it contributes to a stability that we all want in family budgets.
Secondly, I remain committed to the principle of security of tenure for the tenant of what I might call the professional or non-resident landlord, though I believe there is scope for marginal adjustments designed to bring accommodation let with a business, such as flats over shops, back into use. I am also con- vinced that there is a considerable potential reserve of accommodation for letting available in owner-occupied homes. We must encourage its use. This is why I want to speed up the procedures under which resident landlords and owner-occupiers, who have moved temporarily away, sometimes abroad, may regain possession. I would add that I am giving closer consideration to means of stopping the loopholes which some professional landlords appear to be using to thwart the basic principles of the Acts.
I am also considering what further steps may be taken to improve the physical state of the private rented stock and ensure that necessary repairs are carried out.
Finally, on the general question of rehabilitation we now propose to take further statutory measures to make grants more readily available, to extend to both private and public sector tenants the right to grant aid for improvement works and to extend the availability of repair grants.
As the House will recognise, a substantial measure is in preparation and I want to introduce it at the earliest opportunity. We have done much, but there is still clearly much to do.
Good housing and choice of housing are essential to the contentment and wellbeing of our people. We shall not abandon those in greatest housing need to a market in which they cannot compete. We shall steer resources where they can do most good—to ensure that the needs of the weakest and most often overlooked are systematically catered for and to spread the benefits of good and reasonably priced housing as widely throughout this country as we can. We promised, in the very first chapter of the Housing Green Paper, to continue to give the high priority to housing that its importance merits. We have done so throughout this Parliament, and we shall continue to do so in the Parliament that is to follow.
I think that the whole House is grateful to the Secretary of State for the frankness with which he set forth the yardstick by which he proposes to measure the rate of increase in council house rents. He said that it should be roughly in line with the rate of increase in wages. I take that to mean that in the current year 15 per cent. will be about the minimum increase which we can expect. [HON. MEMBERS: "Ceiling."] If we had gone back to 1974–75, we would have been facing 30 to 40 per cent. increases.
I want to concentrate on the sale of council houses. I was delighted to hear the Secretary of State pay tribute to the importance of home ownership. That is one of the main aspirations of the majority of people in this country. There is at last a majority of home owners. It is to the Government's credit that that majority has become clearly established during their tenure of office.
When I was Minister for Housing and Construction I concentrated largely on the private sector and advanced the proposition, and secured acceptance from my colleagues, that council houses could be sold at a discount of up to 30 per cent. I did so primarily for social reasons. I thought it tremendously important that the individual should be given the opportunity to own his own home. As my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) pointed out, there is no better way of achieving a major transfer of wealth than the transfer of property owned by local authorities to individuals. I refer to the social reason for the sale of council houses. But they are not the only reasons.
Since my time at the Department of the Environment, we have come into a much deeper economic crisis. We all understand that increased productivity is the key to our economic recovery. We also understand that the one key to increased productivity is mobility. We shall get mobility of labour only if the working man in one part of the country is able to move easily to another area.
At the moment, the tenant of a council house is in a sense, a serf. He cannot lightly abandon the home in which he lives as a tenant, because he has no certainty of securing a home anywhere else. If he had a home to sell and he lived in the South, he could get a home in the North cheaper than he had in the South. If he lived in the North, he could get a home in the South but would probably have to spend a little more. However, he would have complete freedom of movement.
The United Kingdom has one of the highest tenanted populations in Europe, if not in the world—even including the other side of the Iron Curtain. I think that only Czechoslovakia is behind us in this respect.
It is clear from the figures which I have obtained that if there were no council housing at all the saving would be about £500 million to taxpayers and ratepayers.
It is not rubbish. I can substantiate that figure if the hon. Gentleman wishes me to do so. I have the figures here. At the moment, total rebated rents bring in £923 million. Management costs are £244 million, repairs £377 million and social security over and above the rebate £380 million. That leaves a deficit of £78 million on the overall account.
If we adopted the scheme advocated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker)—I am not saying, at this stage, that we should—rents would be £850 million in the first year, going down to about £800 million in subsequent years. The collection costs would be £43 million and the social security costs would be £350 million—almost as much as before. Therefore, there would be a saving of £457 million on my right hon. Friend's calculations, coming down to £406 million after 10 years.
I do not want to be unkind to a former Minister for Housing and Construction. However, dies he appreciate that the rental income from council housing rises each year? With any given stock of housing and with any degree of inflation, that income continues to increase. If we sell those council houses, there will be a subsidy on mortgage which, every time a house is sold—and a house is sold on average every seven years—will rise to a new level. That subsidy will continue into the future, growing greater and greater. If we built no further council houses, we would gradually move into a consistent level of profit from council housing. The right hon. Gentleman's figures are totally fallacious. I am surprised that he should present them.
We shall never make a profit on council houses. There is already a heavy deficit and there is every indication that it will continue.
How should we proceed to sell more council houses? I address myself more particularly to my right hon. and hon. Friends. Considering today's valuations, the 30 per cent. discount which I introduced would be quite inadequate to produce large-scale buying of council houses by council tenants. It is out of their reach in most cases, except at the lower end of the council housing scale.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester has produced his plan. His proposal is that anyone who has lived in a council house for 30 years should get it free and that other tenants should have their rents converted into mortgages. He claims that that would produce a national saving on taxes and rates of about £450 million, reducing to £406 million over 10 years. That would be an important relief in taxation and rates. It is about the figure for which the Chancellor is looking as a result of amendments that the Opposition have made to the Finance Bill. It would also make an important contribution to the increased expenditure to which the Opposition are committed on defence.
Would it be a burden on councils? It does not look like it. As I pointed out in reply to the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Mr. Douglas-Mann), there is an existing annual deficit of about £80 million on council house rents.
The main objection to the proposal put forward by my right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester is one of equity. Some people say that it is unfair on those who have been saving with building societies to buy their own homes that council house tenants should be allowed overnight, by a stroke of the pen, either to possess their houses free because they have lived in them for 30 years or to possess them as if they were their own, their rents being regarded as mortgage payments. That would be something of a dog-in-the-manger attitude, because if, as my right hon. Friend argues, there would be a saving of £450 million in terms of rates and taxation, clearly the public as a whole would benefit from it, and that would include mortgage holders. I recognise, however, that the contrary view is strongly held and that politics is the art of the possible.
We should, therefore, go as far as is practicable along the road that my right hon. Friend has indicated. Whether we do that by giving a much bigger discount—60 or 70 per cent.—on the sale of a house or whether we do it by some increase in rents for those who choose to adopt them as mortgages instead of rents, I do not know. That is something that my right hon. and hon. Friends can work out between now and the General Election. It is a matter for them. I am not dogmatic about how we do it. What I care about is that we should aim to make house purchase not merely attractive, but irresistibly attractive to the council house tenant.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester on having launched his idea. Whether his policy in total is acceptable is another question. The important thing is that we as a party should make it clear that a policy for the sale of council houses which is undoubtedly in itself popular in the country should not only be right in principle but should be practical. The policy today is not practical. The cost is too great. I therefore want my hon. Friend the Member for Homsey (Mr. Rossi), who is to reply to the debate for the Opposition, to indicate that we are committed to finding a way of making a policy which is not only right in principle but practical in application.
My constituency is well known for several features, an outstanding one of which is that it has a huge and thriving trading estate which, over the years, has attracted from many parts of this country and from abroad large numbers of people seeking, and, happily, finding work. Unfortunately, for various reasons the constituency has never been able to meet the demands that being a magnet of labour has put upon it.
We are also fortunate in being an area of very high employment. We do not have the problems experienced by Merseyside and other areas of large-scale unemployment. It is therefore understandable that many people should come to Slough looking for work. Clearly, that places enormous strains upon the housing resources of the local authority, and it would do so even if the authority were hell-bent on solving its housing problems. The fact that it is working in the opposite direction makes increasingly difficulty the plight both of people who have lived in Slough for many years and those who have come there more recently. I have been to see my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about this matter more than once.
I was struck by the strength of advocacy of the sale of council houses advanced by the right hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery) and the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine). I have noticed no clamour by my constituents to buy the council houses in which they live, but perhaps that is another story. The sale of council houses in an area such as mine is indefensible.
I should be interested to hear the views of the right hon. Member and his hon. Friend about a local authority that builds council houses for sale and then advertises them outside its own area. That is what has been happening in Slough. Few people, even among those who live in council houses, have taken the opportunity of buying council houses in the area. But even given Tory Party policy on the sale of council houses I should have thought that the activities of the Slough Council merited a few sharp words from the Opposition. In spite of our housing problems, the only houses being built in Slough for the local authority are those that were started when the authority was under Labour control.
Because of the peculiarities and difficulties of my constituency I welcomed the Housing (Homeless Persons) Bill when it was introduced by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross). That Bill subsequently became part and parcel of Government policy. When it became law one of the local newspapers in my constituency carried a headline which, in effect said, in quoting one of the councillors, "New Dehli, Heathrow Airport and a No. 81 Bus to a Slough Council House." I sent a copy of that headline to my right hon. Friend and he wrote to me about it.
The intention of the person who made that statement and of the sad reproduction of it by the local Press was to give the impression that people coming to this country would automatically qualify for a council house. It was designed to drive a wedge between the sections of the community in my constituency.
When the Housing (Homeless Persons) Bill became law the Slough council passed a resolution to the effect that the borough council should adopt a restricted interpretation of the Act in order to protect the interests of all the residents of the borough. Since it adopted that strict interpretation the council has been censured by the local government ombudsman for trying to avoid its responsibilities towards one family that came before it. Ultimately it had to rehouse that family. The authority has also got itself into great difficulties with Shelter, an organisation for which I have a great deal of respect and time, because of the way in which it dealt with a number of cases that Shelter had brought to its notice.
The local authority in my area is behaving in a way that will make a bad situation much worse. Because of the effect of industry in attracting labour to the area it should be pursuing a policy that will solve the local housing problems. The passing of the homeless persons Act is being ignored in my area, an area where it could have greater application than anywhere else in the country because of the number of people who come there looking for jobs.
Many people have come forward, either because of the activities of various agencies or of their own free will, seeking rehousing. They believe that they qualify, but judgment has been passed upon them that they do not. In some respects that judgment is correct, while in others it blatantly is not so. Although the numbers seeking rehousing have increased, since the Act was passed, the numbers being rehoused have not. It is pointless for the House to pass legislation to protect people such as these—people who, through no fault of their own, become homeless in an area where they are seeking work—if the local authority in question is determined to apply a restrictive interpretation to the application of the Act. My local authority has taken the best legal advice it could get in order to avoid its responsibilities under that Act, and is is avoiding those responsibilities.
This leads me to suggest that my right hon. Friend should be monitoring the working of the Act because it is not doing anything like the job it was intended to do. He should give some time and thought to the problems of areas such as mine, which have a strong industrial base and which will continue to attract labour from all over the country for many years—no one is quarrelling with that—but which need an urgent housing policy to cope with the problems that that situation is bound to throw up. If something is not done in respect of both of these things, I fear the consequences.
There is a company in my constituency which wishes to expand its activities in the area, which would provide an increasing number of jobs. If the expansion ultimately takes place, obviously it will attract labour from other parts of the country, because we do not have enough labour in Slough. The company has said to me "If we cannot find the means whereby we can see that these people will be able to be rehoused, rather than increase the incredible number of people who will be homeless in the area we shall seek to expand our activities in one of our subsidiaries in the EEC".
I do not want to see that happen, nor do I think anyone else does. However, given the activities of the Slough Corporation and the expansion of the industrial base of Slough, on which we have built our whole economic buoyancy and which has done such a great deal for the economic well-being of the surrounding area, I believe that urgent consideration needs to be given to the future housing policy of Slough, to couple it with the expansion of its industry.
Nothing which has transpired so far in the debate has changed my view that one of the most divisive aspects of society in the United Kingdom today is housing and the way in which society is divided into those who live in council housing and those who live in privately owned houses.
This is very sad. It has been shown already during the debate. It was instanced by the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) in his exchange with the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun). I am very glad that it is part and parcel of the Scottish National Party's policy on housing that
Housing should not be used to further any ideological end, or to punish or bribe particular groups or as a weapon in the Treasury's armoury of demand management.
I feel quite certain that this is the atmosphere in which we should be tackling the problem. From what has been said today, I am not convinced that the Conservative Party has a real and ideal counter to what it sees as being the present situation in council housing.
However, as I do not imagine that many speakers representing Scottish seats will be speaking in this debate, I should like to look briefly at the housing situation in Scotland. I suppose it must be obvious to anyone in the House, regardless of the part of Great Britain he represents, that the housing problem in Scotland is much worse than it is in other parts of the United Kingdom. It is not only very much worse; it is of a slightly different nature.
The Secretary of State said that the majority of people are home owners. That is not so in Scotland. I believe I am correct in saying that in Scotland the proportion of the housing stock that is publicly owned as council housing is higher than it is in any other country in Europe, this side of the Iron Curtain. That is not something in which we in Scotland take pride but it is something that we have to examine carefully if we are to find the right way to tackle the problem.
Not only is the nature of the problem in Scotland slightly different; the degree is certainly frightening in its intensity. I believe that there are still about 250,000 houses in Scotland lacking in the basic amenities. I believe there are still about 180,000 that are below the minimum tolerable standards. These are things in which, regardless of party, no one who represents Scotland or has the interests of Scotland at heart can take any pride whatsoever.
It is obvious to hon. Members that many of these conditions are often to be found particularly in urban areas. However, in view of one of the comments made earlier by the hon. Member for Henley about holiday resorts and rural areas, one ought to bear in mind that one of the things that the Cullingworth Report showed was that, regardless of how beautiful a facade a community might have or an individual house might have, often what lies behind that facade presents an entirely different picture and that, indeed, in some of the rural areas of Scotland, as is the case in some other parts of the United Kingdom as well, there are extremely bad conditions. In my own constituency of Argyll far too many houses are below the minimum tolerable standards.
As for council housing, it is a fact, sadly, that it is not just old council houses—those built prior to the Second World War—that are often below standard; even new council housing in Scotland, certainly in at least one instance in my constituency, falls far below what I should regard as being a proper environment for any person in this part of the twentieth century to live in.
I am probably correct in saying that Argyll is one of the most sparsely populated counties in one of the most sparsely populated countries in Europe, yet in my own home town of Oban there is a council housing estate, built just a few years ago, on which the density of people per acre is higher than in any similar project that has been carried out in Western Europe virtually within living memory. This is the sort of thing that is utterly wrong. If we as a society are using large sums of money to help in the provision of housing, we must be sure that we provide the right kind of housing—housing that people would want to buy. No one would dream of wanting to buy one of the houses to which I am referring, even if they were being put up for sale much more freely than is at present the case.
I want to make a few comments about home ownership and council housing. I believe, as I think everyone present believes, that as many people as possible should be encouraged to own their own houses, but I am not at all convinced that what the Conservative Party, through the medium of the hon. Member for Henley, says about the sale of council houses is either practicable or just. Clearly, in every place where council housing exists there are some extremely nice council houses, in what are called high amenity areas, and there are some simply awful council houses. It is a matter of common sense that were we to pursue a policy of simply saying "Right. We shall sell any house that anyone wants to buy," we would certainly be left with a situation in which local authorities would be lumbered with the worst houses and with deteriorating housing. That would offend my instincts of justice in the whole matter of the provision of what is, after all, the most important thing that any family is likely either to own or to rent.
There are all kinds of ways by which we can arrive at a happy medium concerning the sale of council houses, but there is no magic solution. There is no wand that anyone, be he a member of the Conservative Party or any other party, can wave to find an instant answer.
Indeed, I must say, in parenthesis, that one of the less educating aspects of the Conservative Party these days is that its members seem to believe that they can make instant policies for any given situation that arises, regardless of the cost in either financial or social terms.
The Secretary of State spoke about "savage and unacceptable increases in rent," and took pride in having avoided those savage and unacceptable increases, but we must remember that we are not all talking in terms of rent. In my part of Scotland, in the constituency of Argyll, many householders have recently been faced with savage and utterly unacceptable increases in rates. No debate on the subject of housing can ignore that situation. If, on the one hand, we are trying to encourage people to own their own homes, we must, on the other hand, make quite certain that we do not impose intolerable financial burdens on people who achieve that happy state of affairs.
Clearly, as a spokesman for the Scottish National Party, I look forward to the day when a Scottish Assembly is set up. I look forward to a time when we shall genuinely see the whole question of housing policy in Scotland removed from the worst aspects of political confrontation. I look forward with confidence to the setting up of a Ministry of Housing in Scotland which will be able to pay much closer attention to the problem than is paid at present.
I ask my right hon. Friend to make at least some passing reference to the current issue of the transfer of London housing estates from the GLC to the London boroughs. The London Labour Party conference early this year decisively expressed a view against the transfer of such estates, because it believe that this will militate against the interests of the inner London boroughs and that outer London has a moral obligation to play a part in London's strategic housing as a whole.
Is it still the Secretary of State's view that the transfer of such estates should not be on a piecemeal basis? If that is his view, can my right hon. Friend clarify what he would regard as piecemeal transfers? Secondly, can he agree that he would wish to safeguard the opportunities for mobility of labour and of tenancies within the Greater London area, and that any transfer must have adequate safeguards for the staff involved?
The hon. Member for Argyll (Mr. MacCormick) referred to differences in the kinds of housing that might be sold; some might be good purchases by tenants, and some might not be such good propositions. Given that there is equality of opportunity to buy property—which is not the case—if housing in London is sold it will mean that those who are now flat dwellers, particularly those in high-rise blocks, will have no prospect whatsoever of obtaining a house near the ground or with a garden.
One of the worries in inner London is that in its anxiety to opt out of its overall housing responsibilities the now Tory-controlled GLC will apply pressure, which will mean that if London boroughs do not readily take over the stock the GLC will try to sell off its existing housing stock to any comers, such as housing associations, squatting groups, and so on, which have been interested in such purchases.
The consequence of that will be the creation of an additional problem for inner London, and I am advised that whilst the Secretary of State is considering proposals that come before him the GLC may do its best to sell off what housing stock it can, on either a collective or an individual basis, before a decision is made by the Secretary of State about the transfer of estates under the London Government Act. If my right hon. Friend will not place a total embargo on council house sales in the London area, I ask him at least to call a halt to sales until the issue of the transfer of estates has been determined, so that the GLC does not get the opportunity to sell off property—and some of the best property—before a transfer takes place.
The right hon. Gentleman who has left the Chamber and whose constituency I cannot remember—I think he will he recognised if I say that he is the right hon. Gentleman who, when he was Minister for Housing and Construction, sounded for all the world as though he was still at the Foreign Office, and still does—spoke of the lack of equity in selling off council accommodation. The one question that is never answered is this: what responsibility does the present-day council tenant have to others who are on the waiting list? Is it not the simple fact that an average of 5 per cent, of council dwellings become vacant in the course of a year and contribute to meet the needs of those on the waiting list? It means that for every 20 council houses sold, one more family is deprived of the opportunity of which those purchasing the council houses were glad to avail themselves when they were on the waiting list. It is that moral question that needs to be answered in this argument.
I take this opportunity to congratulate my right hon. Friend on two matters. One relates to the security of tenure given to my constituents in furnished, privately rented accommodation. The evictions, in numbers and in circumstances, were appalling before the passing of the 1974 legislation. Secondly, I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction for his chivvying of Westminster City Council over the inadequacy of its housing improvement programme and its general housing provision. I place on record—I think that my right hon. Friend will agree with me—the tremendous service done to the homeless and badly housed in Paddington by the Paddington federation of tenants and residents in its publication "Home Truths", which I know was of great assistance to my right hon. Friend in trying to pursue the interests of those on the waiting list and in housing need in my constituency.
However, I remain extremely disappointed that the Government have still not responded to the proposals made by my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) in the Private Member's Bill which he sought to promote and which I had the opportunity to present on his behalf on one occasion. The Government have not responded to the tremendous scandal of the number of empty properties that still remain in the London area. I know that the hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi) argues that this is somehow a consequence of giving security of tenure. All I say is that if the supply of homes that was previously available as a consequence of evicting people has dried up, that is no loss.
In the areas of London with which I am familiar I have not seen the proof of cause and effect which the hon. Member for Hornsey claims. My understanding is that many properties remain empty simply because that enhances the selling price, especially of blocks of flats. If there are a few empty flats it enhances the market value considerably during a period of inflation. That is the motivation for keeping the properties empty, because the appreciation in value is greater than any rental income that is lost for the period during which the properties remain empty. Because of the desperate housing situation in London, one answer is to provide a system of compulsorily letting that accommodation so that we do not have this ghastly situation in which people are homeless, while nearby there are hundreds, or perhaps even thousands, of empty properties which they could occupy.
The major matter to which I am obliged to draw attention in this debate is the problem of the tenants of privately rented properties in my constituency and in similar areas. The Secretary of State may rightly say that he believes that the Rent Act is basically sound, but I can tell him—he has had much evidence from me in past years—that in my constituency the Rent Acts are working extremely badly against the interests of ordinary people. It is a problem that is not common to the country as a whole; it is peculiar to London, and only to some parts of London, at that.
I know that Kensington and Chelsea are similarly affected, as are Marylebone, South Westminster, some parts of Islington, some parts of Camden, and some parts of Battersea. I may not have identified all the areas. I have recently had some evidence from Streatham. It is a problem which affects certain areas which are subject to abnormal pressures. The pressures to which I am referring are those of the West End, of Central London, of creeping hotelisation, the demand for holiday lets, and the general explosion of the Oxford Street area to the west and north-west.
Another factor which cannot be ignored is the influence of Arab oil money coming into the southern part of my constituency, and Kensington and Chelsea, which has also helped to force up rent levels. The evidence is pragmatic, because one can drive round those areas, where, nowadays, one will see estate agents' notice boards outside properties with advertisements in both English and Arabic as a matter of course. This is the nature of the market and a measure of the demand. These are some of the pressures that are pushing up the levels of private rents to an excessive extent.
I ask for some kind of comfort, even if it be cold comfort, that there will be recognition in the course of the Rent Act review of the fact that within the London area there are some rent stress areas where the normal provisions of the Rent Acts do not adequately safeguard tenants.
I remind my right hon. Friend and tell the House of some of the examples. There are small properties which have been let until recently at £10 a week exclusive of rates—one room with a bathroom and a kitchen in Little Venice. Their rents are going up immediately to £30—a threefold increase.
A tenant who lives in moderate property came to see me last night. Previously, he paid £800 a year. He faces a rent increase proposal of £1,700 a year. It would have meant, under phasing, that he would have paid an additional £300 a year for each of the next three years. His immediate rent rise would have been from £800 to £1,100. He had the rent officer in to see the property. He fixed a rent of £1,525. The tenant assumed from that that he would be paying one-third of the increase in each year, which would have been £242 a year—in other words, his immediate increase would have been from £800 to £1,042— but, no. For the first time, there is a service element of £278 calculated in that registered rent, which applies immediately, and it is only the difference between that service element and the total increase which is phased over three years.
Although getting a reduction of £175 from the rent officer, that tenant will now be paying, because of that service element, not the £800 which he is paying now and not the £1,100 that he would have paid as the first instalment of a three-phase increase, but £1,227. His rent is jumping more than 50 per cent. at once, even under the phasing proposals.
I cannot accept that the Secretary of State and the Government can argue that the Rent Act is working satisfactorily when tenants face enormously excessive rent increases of that kind, and it does not make sense to try to explain to tenants how they can find this compatible with the current 10 per cent. pay policy, how they can find it compatible with the cumulative effect of pay policy over the past three years, or how this kind of increase can be justified even in relation to a cumulative rate of inflation over a three-year period. The experience in my constituency is that the £300, the £600 and the £900 increase over three years is far too common, and is not just the exception that can be quoted.
The problem now is that some of the biggest culprits in this situation are those from whom I hoped better, namely, the Church Commissioners. One would have assumed that they would have been less avaricious than some private landlords and that they would have had more regard to the social consequences and the break-up of the community as a result of increases of this kind, and would not have gone for the maximum permitted under the law. But, sadly, if someone asks me what is the difference between Freshwaters and the Church Commissioners, I have to answer "About £15 a year". There is that marginal difference between the rents that the two will charge and the increases that they will demand.
I have been making representations to the Church Commissioners, many of whom are members of the Government. Among the ex officio Church Commissioners are the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Home Secretary, the Attorney-General, the Solicitor-General and Mr. Speaker himself. I have made representations to them all. On a recent Friday, I asked each of them whether he would resign as a Church Commissioner because of his clear inability to apply any pressure over the rent levels being charged. With one exception, each of them explained that he was an ex officio Church Commissioner, as though that were the beginning and end of the whole matter. I had one little ray of hope, in that the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that he would reply to my question when he had considered the matter. Apparently, someone told him that he was an ex officio Church Commissioner, with the result that, 48 hours later, he gave me exactly the same reply as all the others.
What happens is that constituents and tenants say "Here are these Ministers, members of the Cabinet, who are Church Commissioners. Why are they standing to one side and allowing this to happen?". The truth is that there are about 100 Church Commissioners. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Walker), for his sins—perhaps that is an inappropriate expression in this context—is a Church Commissioner. The Archbishop of Canterbury is a Church Commissioner. I have been to Lambeth Palace to see him. It would be a marvellous place for squatters.
All the representations that I have made, all my pleas on behalf of tenants, have fallen on stony ground. What happens is that Church Commissioners, along with all the other private commercial landlords, put the blame back at the door of the Government and say "They are responsible for the Rent Acts. Therefore, they have responsibility for these increases."
I ask my right hon. Friend at least to say something that will reassure tenants that the Labour Government know about these special problems in these rent stress areas and that they intend to take some action.
Finally, I mention the possibility of the establishment of tenants' co-operatives. We find all the enthusiasm for selling off public housing stock on the Conservative Benches but less enthusiasm for the statutory right of the private tenant to buy from his landlord, especially on a co-operative basis. I gathered from the answer to a parliamentary Question which I tabled some time ago that the Government are thinking sympathetically in this direction.
It would at least offer a ray of hope to private tenants in my constituency and elsewhere if they could see the prospect of getting out of this rat race of rents, with landlords ranging from Freshwaters to the Church Commissioners fleecing them, and the opportunity of having some kind of democratic control of and accountability for the homes in which they live. I hope that my right hon. Friend will respond positively to that suggestion.
It is interesting to note that this is one of the better attended debates that we have had for some time, and I suspect that that reflects the importance of housing in most of our constituencies and the sheer volume of people who come to see us about the difficulties which they are experiencing.
At least one reference has been made to the quality of housing in some rural areas, and I should like to take this opportunity to underline it. It is not so long ago that a constituent of mine came to one of my surgeries to explain his problem. It seemed to revolve round the fact that his Elsan, which was his modern sanitation, had a hole in the bottom of it. I remember asking him, with a wry smile on my face, how he managed. He replied "It's all right, I 'ad an ol' milk chum at 'ome and I 'acked the top off 'e." He did not seem desperately worried for himself, but his wife thought that there was a rare chance of there being an accident. I recollect writing a letter to the landlord. My constituent got a new Elsan and, to an extent, that was one minor problem solved. My constituent was not expecting to be connected to modern sanitation; he was in some ways quite satisfied with the existing state of affairs. But for a while he could not even get for himself an Elsan without a hole in the bottom of it.
Rural housing looks picturesque, but in many ways it causes great difficulties, and I want to take the opportunity today to point out a specific problem which is peculiar to rural areas, especially tourist areas. Certainly it affects my constituency. I refer to what are known locally as "summer lets".
Summer lets are not second homes. When I first came to this House, I remember tabling a Question asking the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he was satisfied with the number of summer lets in Cornwall. The Department rang me up to ask me what a summer let was. I was asked "Do you mean a second home?" I replied "I do not mean a second home. I mean a summer let." It is property let by the week for a very high rent in a seaside resort which has a large tourist trade.
There is a great deal of money in this. It is not easy to find accommodation for four or five people in August in a resort such as Mevagissey. A great many people are prepared to sleep several to a room during their holidays in conditions that they would not be prepared to put up with during the rest of the year. A property in Mevagissey in August can fetch between £100 and £140 a week. There are many places where people are delighted to receive payment in cash—and we all know why.
One is made continuously aware of this trend. If one goes canvassing in my constituency and knocks at a door where someone lived whom one knew, one will often get no reply, but a neighbour will say "There is no point in going there now, Mr. Penhaligon. It is a summer let." There is no control over this situation. To pile insult on injury, these people even get domestic rate relief. I am not claiming that if that relief were abolished it would make all that much difference, but it is there.
The amount of property used for summer let purposes in my area is one of the main causes of the housing difficulties there, yet such property is actually given domestic rate relief. There is simply no control. I have had a lot of correspondence with the Minister about it, but he merely says that it is up to the local authorities to act. I have written to the housing officers of my local authorities and they say that they have no power or control. It is true that if they give planning permission for new houses they have some control over the use of those houses, and they may specifically allocate a house for summer let purposes or they may not, but they have no control over property that was built many years ago.
My view is that before this property can be used for summer lets it should be subject to planning permission for such a purpose. Someone owns a house, and wishes to change it to a shop. In such a case he has to apply to the local authority for permission to make that change of use. Very often the local authority in my part of the country—I suspect that this is true of others—will turn the application down on the specific ground that it is not prepared to see a reduction in the local housing stock because it has a housing problem. I often applaud a local authority for taking that line. But the use of that self-same property, owned by the self-same person, can be changed for ever and a day, for summer lets, without any planning permission being required.
In my eyes, there is no difference between using a property for selling chocolate or children's plastic buckets or cabbages and selling property by the week in summer as accommodation. I must try to convey the sheer magnitude of the problem. I can think of one village in my constituency where over 25 per cent. of the property is used for summer lets. This type of letting is spreading like a cancer—that is what it is in areas like mine. It destroys the community. The town becomes a winter ghost town—no one lives there, no one is seen there. This cancer is gradually spreading from the more attractive areas into the villages. It is happening throughout the West Country and Cornwall in particular.
I shall listen with great interest to what the Minister says about this situation, about which we have corresponded over the years. The situation is not acceptable. There will never be a solution to the housing problem in Cornwall if we allow the mass transfer of property from ordinary letting to summer let. There is no way in which my ordinary constituent who works in the clay industry, or worked until recently in the tin mines, can compete for properties used for this purpose. Rents in August in Mevagissey are, as I have said, between £100 an £140 a week, and the ordinary Cornishman cannot compete with that.
Now, to compound that great difficulty the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), speaking for the Conservative Opposition, today clearly stated that the Conservatives will give an inalienable right to anyone in my constituency or anyone else in tourist areas to buy council houses in which they live. If he gives council tenants the right to buy he also, quite rightly, gives them the right to sell to whomever they choose. In Portscatho there is a row of 20 houses overlooking the harbour. I cannot imagine my ordinary constituents being, able to compete in buying those properties. So there will be yet more people down from London and taking summer lets, occupying that important part of our community. I assure those who enjoy holidays in my part of the country that they will not be so keen then, because there will be no one left to make the beds in the morning or to man the shops or to clean the streets or to make the place pleasant, because there will be nowhere where ordinary Cornish people can live in these Cornish seaside resorts.
I assume that the hon. Gentleman wishes to continue the situation in which the only ordinary Cornish people who cannot let their homes when they themselves go on holiday are those who are unfortunate enough to live in council houses.
I do not see the relevance of that intervention to what I am saying. I want properties that are to be permanently used as a business concern for summer let to be subject to planning permission. That is all I am asking for, and is all that I have ever asked for. In Cornwall, we are not talking about the odd property in a case where, say, the husband has been sent abroad for a time and decides to make sensible use of his property while the family is away. We are not talking about the sort of property which becomes vacant for a year or so. The local council would clearly understand the background and would give permission for it to be occupied while the family was absent. We are talking about a real commercial enterprise in which there is real money, real profit and a real movement of property. I am talking of 25 per cent. or 30 per cent. of the properties in a town of 15,000 people.
If the Conservative Party gets its way and allows local authority properties in such areas to be too easily buyable by the tenants—the tenants are not fools, and will buy them because they will have a capital gain on their hands—in the long-term interests of the Cornish resorts and their communities, it will be nonsense. That is why I have always supported the argument that local authorities should have the right to decide whether council houses are to be sold. They are the ones that know the local situation. The Cornish local authority will know that the situation I have described will happen in Portscatho whereas if one sells the houses off in St. Austell it will not happen.
That is the logical way to make the decision. Each case should be looked at on its individual merit. It is for the local community to discuss the situation. There is no one in Cornwall who does not realise that, under this Conservative proposal, that is what will happen to the properties. People might desire that situation but no one in Cornwall does not recognise that that is what will happen.
I am trying to follow this new philosophy of Liberal control and I am amazed to find that my constituents who happen to live in Portreath or in Falmouth are, because they live in attractive seaside resorts, to have no rights as council tenants to purchase their own properties, whereas those who live in such places as St. Day are to have such rights. Are we really to create a subdivided community of council tenants, some with more rights than others, by the pure geography or the appeal of the area in which they happen to live?
That is precisely what we are going to have to do if we wish to maintain these communities as living communities, in which the people who have been born and brought up there are able to get properties they can afford to rent. I agree that it is a tragic and miserable choice, but I think that it is one that has to be made in Cornwall in the fairly near future.
Does not the hon. Gentleman think it peculiar that the Conservative Opposition talk only about forcing local authorities to put their houses up for sale but say nothing about the private landlords, although, if they are to be consistent in their argument, they should apply the same prescription to them?
That would be quite a popular policy in parts of my constituency. It is true that if one does it for one side one ought to do it for the other side. It is local choice which is required, and local authorities should be given the power to make their own decision within their own area, after considerable local debate.
The point that I was making related to the control of summer lets. I know that that does not directly relate to the council house issue. I am now talking about the properties to which the hon. Member for Falmouth and Cambourne (Mr. Mudd) referred. What happens is that, for reasons which we all understand, properties become vacant and the landlord regains possession. But in Cornwall the last thing he ever does, if the property is anywhere near the sea, is to advertise it as being let for anyone else. Instead, it joins the enormous number of properties which are used for summer lets.
When it comes to deciding the way which Liberal Members will vote tonight, I shall be listening very carefully to what the Minister says on this point.
Being mindful of Mr. Speaker's ruling about the length of speeches, much of what I want to say will be about the practicalities of the situation relating to public sector housing. As for the private sector, suffice it to say that many of us are disappointed with what has been achieved over the last four years. It was rather hypocritical of the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) to condemn the Government and in the same breath to say that the reason why the figures for 1973 were bad was the oil crisis. The situation that we inherited was something about which we had no idea when we talked about what we proposed in our manifesto.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction shares the frustration which I and others feel about the things that we have been able to achieve over the last four years, but the economic situation has made it very difficult for funds to be readily available for all the things which we believed were necessary as a result of the situation which we inherited. However, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State gave some helpful and hopeful signs in his speech. I hope that the Home Purchase Assistance and Housing Corporation Guarantee Bill will help many first-time buyers to obtain a home more quickly than they otherwise would. I also hope that his suggestions about making grant aid for improvement work more readily available will reach fruition very quickly.
Over the past few years the main complaint which I have had from constituents with regard to local authority mortgage rates is that when building society rates have fallen they have found themselves paying a higher rate to the local authority. Some means of regularising the situation is necessary, because on the face of it this appears to be rather unfair.
In the public sector, the problem faced by smaller housing authorities, such as that in the Kingswood district, which has the same boundaries as the parliamentary constituency, has been more noticeable during the last 12 months. The effects of the reorganisation of local government has been felt. I suppose that has been the case for many local authorities throughout the country. In Kingswood, the building plans which came to fruition last year were those which were left over by the previous housing authority. That left us with housing units which had been planned by smaller authorities to fill a very different need. It is true that people on housing waiting list now have a broader choice of where to live, but often the flats and maisonettes planned by the previous authority were either situated in the wrong place or were not required by the people on the combined waiting list of the new authority of Kingswood.
The districts where flats and maisonettes were provided have proved to be unpopular. Nevertheless, the district council has let over 400 of these properties. Some difficulty has been experienced, because many of the homes which were planned were for elderly people and were unsuitable for families, despite the fact that the majority of applications on the housing waiting list were from families. In order to accommodate those families I believe that in future we must concentrate on family units. I believe this is a problem which is similar to the problem of neighbouring authorities.
I understand that the Department of the Environment has approved new housing for the coming year, but that housing is mainly for the elderly. In Kingswood that is a cause for concern, because much of the land owned by the council is not in a suitable position for old people. That in itself will create a problem. Another problem is that those now on the waiting list, which is growing all the time, are young families who have to join the end of the queue. There seems to be a problem in that regard.
The Housing (Homeless Persons) Act was mentioned earlier. My impression is that it is an Act which enables quick and effective help to be given to many homeless people. I would not want it to be felt that any remarks I now make are against the Bill, because I am strongly in favour of it. I am sorry that the misrepresentation of facts about the Bill in remarks which have been made outside has made some people worried. Nevertheless, the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act, welcome though it is, has put pressure on local authorities to provide for people who find themselves homeless and has resulted in such people jumping the queue. That is a difficulty. Over the last six months, the Kingswood district has housed nine homeless families per month, on average, and only 11 families have come off the housing waiting list. There was also the odd special case, such as someone moving into the district for reasons of work, and so on.
That means that half the homes available were taken up as a result of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act. I believe that the Act has made more remote the chances of ordinary local people on the waiting list getting a home. I should like my right hon. Friend to say something about this, because resources need to be given to smaller local authorities such as Kingswood in order that they can avoid being faced with this kind of problem. It creates a difficulty when half the houses available to a smaller authority are allocated to families as a result of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act.
I should like to mention briefly two other points. The modernisation programme is something which needs special attention. In my own area, many council houses were built 30 years ago, just after the war. They now need to be modernised as a matter of urgency. The policy of the council in accepting the lowest tender has not always resulted in the work being done in the best possible way. Perhaps there is a need to look at the policy of the Department of the Environment with regard to the problems of modernisation of properties.
There has been a growth of private housing associations in the Kingswood district. They perform a valuable function in providing homes to let, but there have been problems with high rents and heating costs in some of their properties. Many tenants have complained to me about condensation. The housing association said that the reason was lack of heating, but when the heating was turned on people faced bills of £120 per quarter. This often meant that they fell into rent arrears, were evicted, and had to be rehoused by the local authority. I hope that this trend does not grow. Housing associations are new in our area, but we have come to suspect them because of these difficulties.
I should like to address a question to my hon. Friend as a constituency Member but also wearing his other hat as the Second Church Estates Commissioner representing the Church Commissioners. Do the Church Commissioners have properties in the neighbourhood that he is describing? Are the private housing association rents comparable with those levied by the Church Commissioners, and are the associations obliged to charge a maximum rent, as, I understand, the Church Commissioners are not?
The Departments will have to consider relaxing the yardstick for many of these projects. In Kingswood, things like landscaping have been cut out to keep down the costs of new estates. Many of us want much more expenditure on housing. The attendance at this debate shows the importance of the subject. In the more tranquil economic times to which we look forward the Government should inject a large amount of capital into housing. That is where the future lies. Housing is the right of all our people, and we must ensure that everyone has a home to dwell in.
It is my intention, for which I trust I shall have the forbearance of the House, to try to put the purely Scottish Conservative viewpoint on the vital subject of housing. Before going into the nuts and bolts of what our housing policy should be, it is right to remember our overall objectives.
The first objective must be to ensure that all our people have homes of a certain minimum standard. In this the record is good, although we must not be complacent. In 1971, 14 per cent. of households in Scotland still did not have the use of hot water, a fixed bath and an inside toilet. Perhaps 160,000 houses are of sub-tolerable standard. I would remind the right hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart), because of what he has just said about the Scottish housing position being worse than in the rest of the United Kingdom, of one or two facts.
The housing situation in Scotland is not worse than in the rest of the United Kingdom. In Scotland, by April 1971 the number of dwellings was larger than the number of households by 125,000. Scotland's homes are more modern than those elsewhere. Fifty per cent. of them were built after the war—a higher percentage than in any other EEC country except Germany and Holland and 5 per cent. more than in Britain as a whole. In comparison with 14 per cent. of Scottish households lacking the three basic amenities. 18 per cent. lack them in England and Wales. We can therefore be proud of our record.
The implication is that we no longer need to concentrate resources on building houses simply to house people but should concentrate on building homes to rectify those deficiencies. That involves bringing sub-standard houses up to standard, particularly by the use of housing improvement grants and also building houses for specialist requirements such as those of the elderly and the disabled.
Our second objective must be to ensure that houses are available where the jobs are available. In part, this is a matter of ensuring that workers in one part of the country can move to another. This is a particular problem in Scotland because of our high proportion of public sector housing, sometimes at low rents.
In Scotland, 54 per cent. of our people live in public sector housing, compared with 29 per cent. in England. But that is not the only consideration. There is no point in replacing houses in Glasgow in the hope that industry will follow in their wake, only to find that industry cannot expand where it wants to do so because the labour force is too small and there are no houses for incoming workers.
The North-East is the most obvious example of how a lack of houses is holding back development and forcing prices sky high, although I recognise the contribution of the Scottish Special Housing Association, which is providing almost 5,000 of the 10,000 homes that it is estimated will be required over the next few years.
This is particularly apposite in the North-East of Scotland, where my constituency of Aberdeenshire, West lies and where we have had probably the biggest increase in the electorate in the United Kingdom since 1974—about 10,000 people in the new communities in my constituency at Bridge-of-Don, Dyce, the fastest-growing airport in Britain, and Bucksburn, where houses are now required in both the private and the public sectors. Naturally, we are glad of the expansion of employment, but that brings its housing problems.
The third objective is to ensure a balanced mixture of types of houses. This is necessary in part to give people a genuine choice, but it is more important than just that. Different types of housing tend to meet different needs. The private rented sector caters for the young single person, moving away from home to find a job. The private housing sector appeals especially to young married couples who want to make an investment in their future and who might otherwise have to wait several years for a council house, perhaps living with their parents in the meanwhile.
Council housing will continue to be of value to those who cannot afford a home of their own, but even within the public sector we must have a mixture of types of house so that, for example the old widow is not left alone in a large house simply because nothing more suitable is available.
The fourth objective is to give people as much control as possible over their own houses. If they cannot even control the home in which they live, they have little real freedom. That is why we believe in home ownership and in tenants' participation in the management of estates.
While the first of these objectives has been substantially achieved, the others have not—largely as a result of Labour's desire to control the lives and votes of tenants in large, soulless council estates. So we have based our policies on two pivots—increasing home ownership and increasing the control of people over their own lives on their own estates.
We support home ownership because we believe that if people want to own their own homes they should be able to do so. All the evidence over the years shows that people want to own their own homes. In late 1965, an Opinion Research Centre survey found that 54 per cent. of Scots, given a choice, would prefer owner-occupation. In 1976 The Guardian reported that a survey for the NEDC building committee showed that nearly 80 per cent. of the younger age groups would ideally like to own their own homes.
Yes, as I shall explain later. Only 15 per cent. of the people in the survey chose to be council tenants. Given that sort of evidence, the fact that owner-occupation in Scotland is only 34 per cent. is a matter of great concern. It compares with 68 per cent. in Ireland, 56 per cent. in Luxembourg, 52 per cent. in Italy 48 per cent. in Denmark, 46 per cent. in France, 53 per cent. in Belgium and 53 per cent. in Great Britain as a whole.
In the surveys of which the hon. Member has spoken, it is not accurate to say that 80 per cent. of those who wanted to be home owners were saying that they would like to buy the house in which they resided. Nearly 70 per cent. said that they would like to buy someone else's council house, not their own. It is all right to talk about selling council houses, but when one asks the tenants in the houses if they want to buy the house in which they live the answer is invariably "No". Therefore, the solution to the problem is not as simple as the hon. Member presents it.
I am not saying it is simple. I shall come later to other surveys and to what the Minister responsible for housing in Scotland has said. Once a person owns his house, it is his property and the market is bound to loosen and become freer. There can then be no objection to buying and selling between people who own their own homes.
There are two other reasons why we believe in increasing home ownership. First, it helps to improve labour mobility between different parts of Scotland and the United Kingdom as a whole. Secondly, it gives people a stake in the community in which they live. This is of itself of value, but as a by-product it tends to discourage vandalism, which is a serious problem in Scotland. The incidence of vandalism is much lower on private estates than on public estates, because people have a vested interest in their properties.
Having been an elected member of a Scottish local authority for many years and for some years chairman of its housing committee, I remember those who came to us and asked why Scotland was so out of step with the rest of the United Kingdom and Europe over the proportion of State as against private housing. The answer is, of course, the predominance in Scotland of Labour-controlled local authorities.
One way to increase home ownership is to build more private sector houses. The only way to meet people's genuine aspirations is to give public authority tenants the right to buy the home in which they live.
The Scottish Minister concerned claimed:
There is no great demand from council tenants to buy their houses."—[Official Report, 17th May 1978; Vol. 950, c. 453.]
He cited the fact that in 1977 he received 406 applications to sell council houses and approved 350 leading to 59 sales. But that is not a realistic assessment. In 1973, 2,248 public sector houses were sold, including 708 local authority houses, 204 SSHA houses and 1,336 new town houses.
It is no good saying that people do not want to buy if the whole system is geared to discouraging them. For example circular SDD36 /1974 rescinded the previous circular of 1972 which gave local authorities a general consent to sell to sitting tenants. From then on, the Secretary of State's personal permission had to be obtained for each individual sale. What a job for the Secretary of State. That is hardly an encouragement. There would be quite a difference if mortgages were available readily. The hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Miss Lestor) discussed this and mentioned some difference in England which I am unable to accept or understand.
I suggest that local authorities should submit schemes for sales to the Secretary of State as they did for comprehensive schools. If a discount were given to take account of a certain number of years' rent, a very different picture would emerge. Rents could also be turned into more or less mortgage payments.
The hon. Member for Argyll (Mr. MacCormick) referred to two types of amenity. This is why we have asked for a tenants' charter and tenants' control. It amuses me to hear from the Liberals and the Scottish nationalists this talk of instant politics. We have heard one speech from the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) which was concerned mainly with summer lets. Is the Cornish summer holiday letting situation basically the way in which to treat the British housing problem?
It should be emphasised that not one person on the housing waiting list would be adversely affected by the sale of council houses. There is no evidence to show that if people did not buy they would vacate their houses for someone else.
The hon. Member has referred on a number of occasions to people buying the houses in which they live. He must know that a lot of Conservative authorities south of the border do not exactly apply that rule. They tend to transfer tenants into other council accommodation so that they can buy that accommodation. This means that a lot of tenants who are waiting in high-rise blocks for a transfer to better accommodation cannot get that accommodation because it has been sold. That really gives the lie to the point that the hon. Member has made.
I am sorry, I cannot accept that. There is no evidence at all that if people did not buy their houses they would vacate them for somebody else. That is the point that I have made.
We who believe in a property-owning democracy believe that when a person owns this or that council house he is entitled to sell it, swap it, change it or do what he wants with it. That is what it is all about—giving people choice, individuality and a stake in their own property. We Conservatives are determined to do this.
Of course a large number of people will stay as council tenants, and it is vital that they be encouraged to form schemes by which they can participate in the management of their estates. That will encourage them to take some pride in their estate and give them a sense of belonging. Too often housing managers, however good, are far too hard-pressed to have all the interests of the tenants at heart. It is too easy for them to become remote and bureaucratic. Once things start to slip, the sense of pride in the community is lost. Furthermore, it is important that transfers and exchanges should be simple so that people can move to more appropriate flats as their families grow up.
A fair and balanced policy on these lines is more likely to meet the real aspirations of our people than any lopsided, bureaucratic, centralist emphasis on one type of housing. Housing is about people, about life, about families, about the most cherished and personal values in life and our standard of living. My party in Scotland is determined to give our people real opportunities to achieve their aspirations in this field, and we believe that with our ideas and policies we are much better equipped to do this than the Labour Party can ever be with its doctrinaire approach to these human problems and hopes.
I wish to refer to one facet of the housing problem which has not been mentioned so far in the debate. This problem has arisen because of the massive post-war building programme. More than 4 million council house units of various types have been built since the war. The overwhelming majority of these properties are of a good standard that the tenants value and most of the buildings are of a high standard. However, I wish to talk about the "twilight" houses which are already showing serious defects not only in construction but in the social problems which they create.
Whether Labour or Conservatives form the next Government, they will not be able to turn their back on some of the problems which we as a nation have created in building those housing units. I am not blaming any particular Government, because successive Governments have been guilty in this respect.
I am aware that once the building programme got under way the target was set at about 300,000 houses a year. However, in order to inflate that figure industrialised housing was brought in with ministerial encouragement. I was involved at a local level at that time and I was bitterly opposed to the introduction of such development. I did not see the logic of industrialised housing unless it was brought in to meet a specific shortage of building workers in a particular area. I saw no reason for such a massive programme of industrialised building. The programme involved 100,000 units of low, medium and high-rise development.
I could not see the logic of that policy when there was such a huge reservoir of unemployed building trade workers on which to draw—and that is still the case. Furthermore, except for one short period, there has always been an adequate supply of building materials to top up the traditional house building programme. However, because of the pressures on local authorities and the way in which subsidies were offered for high density developments, those of us who were opposed to industrialised building lost the argument and it went ahead.
We have now reached a situation where in almost every city we see monolithic, concrete developments which are hideous to look at and which people do not want to continue to inhabit. I accuse the architects and planners of creating this position. I am referring to deck access type of accommodation. There is one such development in Leeds which is not in my constituency but in the area of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department. I told my right hon. Friend that I intended to raise the matter in this debate, and he was delighted that I intended to mention these problems.
There is a similar development in Manchester, the Hulme 5 development, which has been featured on television. That development is undesirable and has created massive social problems. Nobody wants to live there. What has happened is that the social problems have been moved from slums at ground level to roadways in the sky. We install lifts in those developments and we regard that as progress.
These developments are monuments of shame to the architects who designed them and to the planning officers who accepted the briefs. I believe that this country will carry the stigma of those developments for a very long time and the cost has been so enormous that it is impossible to demolish them, although that is what should happen. Wherever plans for industrialised buildings were put in, the figure always came out 20 per cent. higher than for conventional buildings.
When I knew that this debate was scheduled to take place, I contacted the director of housing in Leeds—a large authority responsible for over 100,000 properties, varying in quality from very good buildings to undesirable ones. The director of housing said in his report to me:
Basically, like many other authorities in the mid-60s, we embarked on building programmes which relied heavily on industrialised building
methods, new forms of construction, high density schemes, either in low rise or multi-storey form, all with the intention of increasing the flow of new properties to meet the housing shortage. With the benefit of hindsight, one can now say that what we did was to sacrifice quality for quantity and we are now paying, in more sense than merely financial, for our involvement in these types of development which, might I stress, were all subject to the blessing of central government in the striving for the attainment of new building targets.
The bills in respect of the maintenance of these industrialised houses and flats are astronomical. The director refers to a development at Hunslet Grange, and a low-rise development of 1,500 houses industrially built, and gives a figure for remedial treatment for these and similar developments of £8 million, which is the cost to the Leeds housing revenue account. The housing investment programme at present contains no calculation of the amount of money required for remedial treatment. When authorities are battling with this type of problem, will the Minister in future policies take account of their position? Obviously, this problem will be with the nation for many years and will increase in proportion. Indeed, I believe that it will assume a larger proportion even than the renovation of older housing stock. The capital cost involved in these developments is huge by any standards.
I am trying to be brief in my remarks and, in line with the requirements of the Chair I shall rapidly draw my speech to a conclusion. Before I leave the subject of industrialised building, I wish to make clear that because other schemes are under way we should treat them with care. They should be given low priority in building terms unless there are reasons of geographical shortage of labour and materials. There is no question but that, pound for pound, traditional building in bricks and mortar—and there is an ample supply of labour and material to do this work—is better value and the house-building figures would improve substantially if the finance were made available.
Last week, the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Morris) introduced a Bill on direct labour under the Ten Minutes Rule. Having listened to his speech, I conclude that he is probably the most ill-informed and uninformed hon. Member on direct labour. I do not go along with those who think that direct labour is a panacea and the answer to everything or that it should be given contracts on a plate, but in some of our cities which have large building departments working in competition with the private sector those departments have made an immense contribution to the 4 million houses that I referred to earlier.
I ask the Minister to ensure that the private sector is made to toe the line in future in the way that private firms tender for contracts. The answer to a Question that I tabled some time ago showed that the overwhelming number of contracts for building council houses are not subject to open tender. They are overwhelmingly issued on the basis of the selected tenderers procedure. Local authorities have three or four builders of repute which build for them and one of those firms usually gets the contract.
I hope that Conservative authorities will not behave stupidly because of political dogma and attempt to damage the successful direct labour organisations which are making an immense contribution in the building of good quality council housing, good quality public buildings and even schools.
In view of the shortage of time, I shall not comment on what has been said by other Members except to assure the hon. Member for Paddington (Mr. Latham) that I would support him strongly in moving to disestablish the Church of England.
I should like to concentrate on expenditure on housing within Wales and on the related issue of the expenditure being allocated to the Welsh Office for its housing needs. The Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Jones), will be familiar with my quoting statistics of public expenditure on housing per head by country in the United Kingdom and the fact that for the last year Wales was still £10 per head lower in its housing expenditure than the average per capita expenditure in the United Kingdom.
My major complaint is that the Welsh Office, instead of accepting the responsibility for the under-allocation of resources to Wales from the Treasury, has been conducting a well-organised campaign in the past year to blame Welsh local authorities for the housing position in Wales by accusing them of under-spending.
In reality, if we do a calculation of the real housing needs of Wales in terms of the amount of expenditure, we see that for the current financial year local authority capital expenditure on housing is just over £100 million. But if we calculate on the basis of the Department of the Environment's own indicators—namely, the need for house building, the number of houses unfit for human habitation, the extent of homelessness and overcrowding, the need for council mortgages on pre-1919 houses and the number of inner city programmes and partnership areas, and if we apply those six indicators to Wales, the calculation indicates that Wales should have received about £175 million in the current financial year's allocation.
Wales received only 4·1 per cent. of the total housing allocation for England and Wales although it needs about 180,000 new houses over the next 10 years. Whenever Plaid Cymru Members criticise the Government on their housing record and produce targets for the number of new houses, either new buildings or rehabilitations, needed in Wales over the next 10 years, we are always told that this figure cannot be quantified. When we came up with a figure four years ago of 25,000 new houses a year being needed in Wales, I was told by the Secretary of State that it was an interesting proposition from the point of view of research but that it was the sort of problem that could not be quantified.
I put it to the Government that on our calculations we need 180,000 new houses over the next 10 years if we are to tackle our housing needs. At present, we have 8 per cent. of the total number of pre-1919 houses in England and Wales and about 100,000 unfit houses—despite the boasting of the Secretary of State in a Press release on 2nd June which accompanied the belated publication of the house condition survey. We still have the appalling statistics of our major county, Mid-Glamorgan, where 20 per cent. of the population do not have an indoor toilet, 18 per cent. do not have a fixed bath in the bathroom and 18·4 per cent. have no wash basin. That is the position in the county represented by the Under-Secretary.
Not only do we have a failure by the Welsh Office to predict its housing need, but we have a failure to allocate resources from the Treasury to meet that need.
Can the hon. Gentleman explain how the Welsh Office can be said to have failed to allocate sufficient money when there is clear evidence that for two consecutive years Wales has failed to spend the money made available to it? It is not the lack of funds which is the problem but the inability to build the houses to match those funds.
I thought that the Under-Secretary would say that, and I was about to deal with that aspect. I shall do so now. It depends whether one takes the view that the Welsh Office housing division is a passive or aggressive department. If it is a passive department, the Under-Secretary, his ministerial colleagues and their civil servants sit back in Cardiff and wait for bids to land from Heaven—or, rather, from the 37 district councils. However, if, as my party suggests, there is a need for an aggressive drive in housing in Wales, we need an aggressive department which will take its programme to the housing authorities. We need an aggressive department which will get increases in the figures in the public expenditure White Papers for projected expenditure in Wales. No local authority will make bids when it is faced with public expenditure cuts in the total housing allocation from the Treasury in London to Wales.
Wales has 5·9 per cent. of the population of Great Britain, but we have never reached even 5 per cent. of British expenditure on housing in the present decade. The projections to 1980–81 indicate that there will be a decline in the total public housing expenditure in Britain as a whole and that Wales will receive a smaller share of the diminishing cake. By 1978–79 it will be reduced to about 80 per cent. of the 1974 level.
We have had a cut in the global allocation from the Treasury to the Welsh Office, and individual programmes within Wales have been more severely cut than in Britain. Local authority mortgage lending has been cut. The projections of the public expenditure White Paper indicate that local authority lending has been cut from £30·2 million to £3·8 million, a reduction of 87 per cent. Improvement grants have been reduced by 74 per cent. Expenditure on new council housing has fallen from £61·8 million to £54·5 million over the decade. I am projecting from the present through to 1981.
There is a continual reduction in new building and in the allocations being made available for other housing provision. For that reason, the housing policy of the Welsh Office was, for once, adequately described by the Western Mail. If I can avoid it I never quote the Western Mail in our debates, but on 31st January the housing policy of the Welsh Office was described in a strong editorial as
A tumbledown policy for tumbledown homes.
A major feature article in the Western Mail enumerated the facts on housing deprivation in Wales and the failure of the Welsh Office to tackle that need.
We talk about a lack of finance from the Treasury to the Welsh Office for new building, but we must stress the lack of finance for housing improvement. As Wales has such a preponderance of older property, we might expect increased expenditure on housing improvement allocated to Welsh district councils. Gwynedd, into which falls most of my constituency, is the only county in England and Wales which, on a calculation based on indicators and needs, is found to need more than six times the expenditure on house improvement that has been allocated by the Welsh Office. It is run close by Mid-Glamorgan, in which, on the indicators, all the districts need more housing improvement expenditure than is allowed by the Welsh Office. The Cynon Valley, Merthyr Tydfil, Rhondda, Rhymey Valley and Taff Ely districts in the county need six times more than the expenditure provided by the Welsh Office. The same applies in the county of Clwyd. The district of Glyndwr, which falls within my constituency, and all the districts in Clwyd need more. Glyndwr appears on the indicators to need six times the expenditure that the Government have allowed.
The allocation being made centrally by the Treasury to the Welsh Office is inadequate, and the Welsh Office accuses the authorities of underspending. I referred at the beginning of my remarks to the propaganda campaign waged by the Welsh Office to try to persuade the public that it is not the Government Department that is short of resources and that the local authorities are not spending their allocations. We have heard that again today from the Under-Secretary of State. What he does not tell us is why the underspend took place.
I shall not quote from the appalling document—it is one of the worst documents to emerge from even the Welsh Office—entitled "First Report of the Working Party on Housing Finance in Wales", but it suggests that the main reason for underspending was the heavy rainfall during 1976–77. However, the factor that caused the underspend was the telephone calls made from the hon. Gentleman's Department on 23rd July 1976 to every one of the 37 district councils in Wales telling them to stop everything, to stop all their programmes. It was a moratorium or a freeze on the total expenditure on housing in Wales. That is what caused the underspend.
The hon. Gentleman should be careful with his choice of words. It is not true—he knows it—that the moratorium, which lasted for three weeks, asked any council in Wales to stop anything. All it did for a three-week period was to say to councils "Do not let any new contracts, but continue with all the building that is in mind." The hon. Gentleman also knows that the report to which he refers did not emanate from the Welsh Office. It was a report to the Welsh Office, and 50 per cent. of those who made it were members of local authorities in Wales.
The hon. Gentleman says that the moratorium did not have the effect of preventing programmes from going ahead, but what housing authority can operate in an atmosphere in which in December 1974 the Under-Secretary of State's hon. Friend, the Member for Merthyr Tydfil (Mr. Rowlands), who is now Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, spoke at the North Wales housing conference urging local authorities to spend, only to he followed by the stop-go housing policy of the Welsh Office? As a result of the cuts, it was impossible in July 1976 for district councils to plan properly.
I ask the Under-Secretary of State and the Secretary of State for the Environment to cease trying to put the blame on Welsh local authorities for the failure to allocate public expenditure to meet the deepening Welsh housing crisis and to accept the responsibility themselves.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) has had to leave the Chamber. I did my best to detain him. I did tell him that it was my intention to refer to some of the things that he said, or did not say.
When I heard that the Opposition had chosen to have a debate on housing I had every expectation that we would hear from them some of the things that they would do if they were returned to office after the General Election. We know one of the threats held over us. We know that we would have the hon. Member for Henley as Secretary of State for the Environment. That is had enough, but we still have no knowledge of what he would carry out as Conservative housing policy in the event of a Conservative Government.
We had instead a pathetic mixture of misleading populist rubbish from the Shadow Secretary of State. The hon. Gentleman said that Conservatives would release resources through council house sales. When we hear the Conservative Party talking about council house sales, they appear to be taking place in cloud-cuckoo-land, in which everyone wins from the transaction. It is true that the tenant will gain who has the opportunity of buying a publicly owned asset at 20 per cent. below the market price. We heard the hon. Gentleman talking of selling at £2,500. That would not be a 20 per cent discount but a 66 per cent. discount.
If the hon. Gentleman had listened carefully to my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), he would appreciate that he said that if all the council houses in Britain fetched an average price of £2,500 there would be a total elimination of public sector debts in respect of those houses.
That is an average price of £2,500. The hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury) has confirmed what I understood the hon. Member for Henley to say. I believe that the average mortgage is over £7,500. Clearly the hon. Member for Henley is talking about a 66 per cent. discount. It is clear that the person who buys a public asset at a substantial discount is able to make money if he sells it and that he at least makes a gain. But no one else gains.
The local authority is unlikely to gain. So far as I am aware, the only serious statistical analysis of the effects of selling council houses was prepared by the Leeds City Council. This was perceptively analysed in "Roof" for May 1977. Leeds City Council was able to show a very small gain by comparing the amount that it would receive from sales and offsetting it against the rents and subsidies that it would lose. But it was able to achieve that gain only by working on the assumption that rents would rise at 5 per cent. per annum over the life of a house whereas repairs were estimated to rise at 10 per cent. In practice, rents rose by an average of over 25 per cent. the following year. That was cooking the books in a manner which is characteristic of the fashion in which the Conservative Opposition presented their case. However, it is no basis upon which a housing policy for the country should be prepared.
The local authorities' gain would be even less if, as would almost certainly be the case, the only people who were prepared to lend on the scale required were the local authorities themselves. They would be transferring from one pocket to another, and the extent of the debt would be increased.
If the balance for local authorities is fine—though the evidence is compelling that local authorities would lose rather than gain from the sale of council houses—the Exchequer would lose at a tremendous rate. The Opposition pointed out, on the basis of first-year figures, that they can show that the cost of the subsidy to a mortgagee is less than the cost of the subsidy to a local authority tenant in a new house; but the subsidy on a mortgage goes on for as long as the house exists. Each time that the house is sold in a period of inflation, the subsidy starts again at a new higher rate.
Council houses built 10 or 15 years ago are now showing profits to local authorities. If such a house were sold, there would be a subsidy on the mortgage, and when the house was sold again, on the basis of the rates at which house prices inflate—say, 30 per cent. over four years—the subsidy would start again 30 per cent. higher. On average, houses are sold once every seven years. Therefore, the subsidies from the Exchequer would be renewed repeatedly. Many people live in houses which were built in the nineteenth century and they are still being subsidised from the Exchequer through mortgage tax relief.
The Conservative Party's irresponsible and misleading proposal would impose on the Exchequer an endless and increasing burden. The proposal to sell council houses, far from providing financial rewards, would be financially disastrous.
Looking at the social effects, it is obvious that they would be even worse, in practice only the better-off tenants could hope to buy and only the better houses with gardens would be sold. Council tenants who could not afford to buy would be left cooped up in high-rise blocks and the poorer quality council accommodation. There would be a substantial reduction in the number of new lettings which could be made. Approximately three out of every five lettings are of houses which have been vacated. Even if those were the only houses to be sold, there would be no new lettings from transfers.
In my constituency I have had recent experience of a husband and wife and five daughters living in a GLC flat consisting of two bedrooms and a box-room. Four of the girls were in one small room. It had inadequate ventilation. Medical certificates were provided. The flat was damp, there were mice, and plaster was falling down. The family applied to the GLC for a transfer. A GLC official, in response to the application, wrote:
I very much regret that the position as far as houses are concerned has become more difficult in recent months because general properties are required to meet the Council's commitments under the 'Homesteading Scheme' and we are also required to set aside 50 per cent. of newly vacated estate houses for sale.
We do try to keep the larger ones for our tenants but four bedroomed estate houses are few and far between.
The Opposition would sell them all off and give a statutory right to tenants to compel reluctant authorities to sell such properties. The social effects of their policy—the only bit of policy that we heard today—would make our housing situation worse and the cost of meeting housing problems would be enormous. That was all that we heard from the hon. Member for Henley.
We did not hear what the Opposition would do about the Rent Acts. We constantly hear snide remarks by Conservative Members to the effect that the Rent Act 1974 dried up the supply of privately rented property. They are unable to produce any evidence to support that claim, because it does not exist.
I agree with the hon. Member for Hove that there are probably fewer properties now being offered to let, though not many fewer. Indeed, if he reads technical volume III of the Green Paper, he will find that confirmed. There may be fewer properties offered to let at the high rents which would be demanded, because families are still living in that accommodation.
I appeared on a television programme recently. The manager of a pop group who was moving into London said that he was willing to pay £50 a week for a flat, but he could not find one anywhere. I am sure that he did find one, but it was probably more difficult than it used to be because families which would have been evicted to make room for him were still living in their homes, thanks to the 1974 Act. The hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi) knows that very well. I accept that on occasions he has made clear in public that it would not be his intention to remove the security of tenure granted under the Rent Act. However, it is difficult to get him to say it in public now. I wish that he would.
I shall listen to the hon. Gentleman with great interest. The Conservative Opposition always give the impression to those who do not look carefully at the small print that they will sweep away the rotten Rent Act—except when they are talking to private tenants, of course. The Opposition have not given us an inkling of their policies. Perhaps the hon. Member for Hornsey will do that in his winding-up speech.
This debate has given my right hon. Friend the opportunity to announce a policy which I have been urging and anxious to see for a long time—a policy for an effective tenants' charter. The points made by my right hon. Friend which would be included in that charter were security of tenure, the right to carry out improvements, the right to improvement grants, the right to a tenancy agreement and the right to participate in and to have some influence over management. Those are rights of which council tenants have been deprived for too long. I hope that we shall be able to implement them in the near future.
I suggest that we should also include—this point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington (Mr. Latham)—the right of enfranchisement for private tenants of self-contained property. I also urge my right hon. Friend, in his review of the Rent Acts, to consider the need to review the definition of the scarcity factor in the assessment of rents.
We heard from the hon. Members for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) and Aberdeen, West (Mr. Fairgrieve) about the impact which a large influx of people into an area can have on local housing conditions. That applies to central London and many other areas. The scarcity factor is by no means adequately taken into account by rent officers and rent assessment committees in offsetting the market rent assessed under the provisions of the Rent Act. There is an urgent need for that to be done.
I should like to see the elimination of abuses because of loopholes in the law. There is scope for abuse by both landlords and tenants. That problem needs to be put right.
The policies announced by my right hon. Friend, in contrast with the emptiness of the Opposition's proposals, make clear to anyone who has any concern about the standard and provision of housing for those in need and the provision of reasonably priced houses for those who wish to buy that it is very much in their interest that we should retain a Labour Government in office.
The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Mr. Douglas-Mann) saw something in the Secretary of State's speech that I was unable to see—that is, a policy. I saw 45 minutes of platitudes. The Secretary of State excelled on his own Green Paper in terms of length without content. I was unable to detect any policy proposals, however.
I felt at moments that he exceeded even the answer that I received when I asked about the replacement of a much out-of-date circular on housing standards and costs for accommodation specifically designed for old people. I received the electrifying answer:
We intend soon to consult local authority associations".—[Official Report. 11th May 1978; Vol. 949 c. 616.]
I thought that today's speech was well up to the standard of his intention soon to consult, to bring forward, to review and to have under consideration. That approach is an excuse for a policy and a programme, and by it the Government have failed to deliver the sort of housing that people want.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) pointed out, the objectives of housing policy should be to provide for people the opportunity to have, to live in, to buy or to rent the sort of homes they want while obtaining value for money for the massive expenditure in which the Government are involved. There are many ways of obtaining better value for money. One about which the Secretary of State was invited to comment but failed to do so was nationalisation of the building industry and getting direct labour organisations under some proper form of cost control and scrutiny. I did not hear much in the Secretary of State's speech on those important subjects.
I wish to confine my remarks to the first objective that my hon. Friend outlined, which is giving people the chance to live in the sort of homes they want. People who make the sort of speech that we heard from the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden have no interest in providing the sort of home that fami- lies want to live in. They can see only that the selling of council houses takes something away from the public sector. They totally ignore the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, West (Mr. Fairgrieve) that the surveys show that people want to own their own homes, that people who live in council houses want to own their own homes and that newly married young couples setting out on family life want to own their own homes. They do not want to live in a council house, tied up with all the bureaucratic red tape and dependent on the council for repairs and approvals. When Labour Members speak of the sale of council houses, they show no appreciation of these facts.
On the basis of the statistics, it is at least arguable that there are far too many council houses, whichever way one looks at the matter. I refer particularly to the two- and three- bedroom accommodation in the council sector. We know that there is a crude housing surplus. There are nearly 500,000 more dwellings than householders. It is because there are other factors such as vacancies and second homes.
But we must bear in mind that there is an imbalance between the size of dwellings in the housing stock and the size of households. The imbalance is even more pronounced in the public sector. It is not easy to measure, but paragraph II.13 of technical volume part 1 of the housing policy Green Paper shows that in 1971, for which we had accurate figures, 61·2 per cent. of households were above the bedroom standard. Only 6 per cent. were below it. It shows that 22·1 per cent. of households were two or more bedrooms above the bedroom standard, and later evidence, such as it is, indicates that the disparity between the size of household and the size of dwellings in the housing stock has become even greater.
Paragraph 38 points out:
Although the totals for 1975 are rather uncertain since a firm…total of households is lacking, there is no doubt that there has been a considerable reduction since 1971 in the number of households that are short of space…there has been a further increase in the number of households with two or more spare rooms in terms of the bedroom standard".
This disparity is more pronounced in the public sector than in the private sector.
and yet councils, especially Labour-controlled councils, are still seeking to place all the emphasis on providing more and more two- and three-bedroom parlour and non-parlour houses, instead of directing their efforts, as the public sector should, at the areas where they are most needed, which is surely in providing accommodation for the elderly, especially accommodation with a warden and other special facilities, accommodation for the disabled and accommodation for single-person households. Those should be the priorities for the public sector.
I admit, and I think my hon. Friends will agree, that the private sector will not provide adequately in this area. It is abundantly clear, however, that the private sector can provide the family housing that the country needs, and it can do so far more efficiently than the public sector in terms of construction and maintenance.
We then come to the Rent Acts. They are carefully designed, reinforced and buttressed by the Government to deter anyone with spare accommodation from letting it off. In 1971 there were 1·5 million pensioners in one- or two-person households living in dwellings with five rooms or more. The general household survey of 1975 showed that 31 per cent. of one-person households lived in dwellings with two or more bedrooms.
The evidence, such as it is, shows that there is enormous potential for making use of under-occupied space, and yet we know—I certainly know from experience in my constituency—that, if someone has spare accommodation to let and seeks advice as to whether to let it, he will be told "Do not risk it." He will be told that if there is trouble with a tenant he will never be certain that he will get the tenant out, certainly not quickly and certainly not without a lot of cost. He will be told that if the tenant does not pay the rent he, the landlord, will stand no chance of getting the money back, and that if everything goes well the rent he will get will be kept down and he will be allowed to increase it only every third year—and even then there is no certainty. He will be faced only with discouragement.
Yet what did we have from the Secretary of State today? We had more platitudes about what might be done in the future. Did we hear about the review of the Rent Act 1974? If the right hon. Gentleman really cared, surely we would by now have seen that.
The Government's housing policy has totally failed to provide the numbers and the right sort of accommodation. They have wasted the public's money, and, above all, they have failed to provide encouragement for the country's householders to make the best use of the housing stock that is available to the advantage of those who are seeking accommodation.
This evening's debate has ranged widely over many of the aspects of the housing problem, but there is one matter to which I do not think attention has been drawn. I have not been here for the whole debate because, unfortunately, I had to be in attendance on the Finance Bill Standing Committee.
The subject which I am concerned about is gazumping. Governments of both major parties have regretted the existence of gazumping in the past but, regrettably, they have done very little about it. We now find that, as the housing market is becoming a seller's market, gazumping seems to be on the increase. I should like to give a particularly bad example from my constituency to support my contention.
A couple had arranged to buy a house from a building company. The company had completed the house last November. The company, P. T. Elimore Ltd., wrote to my constituents on 5th April accepting their £50 deposit as a sign of their intent to buy the property at a price of £16,925. The couple then received a letter on 19th May saying that the price of the house had been increased to £19,950—an increase of over £3,000 in a matter of a few weeks.
Obviously, it is a difficult problem for Governments to deal with, but part of the problem involves the length of time taken in actually completing the purchase and the fact that the price agreed between the buyer and seller when the property is under offer can be changed.
This is a problem which the Law Commission has considered twice—in a working paper in 1973 and again in the Law Commission's report in 1975. Having considered this matter, and having duly expressed its regret at the practice of gazumping, it simply recommended that no change in the law should be made, that no legal effect should be given to subject-to-contract agreements and that no civil or criminal liability should be imposed on the person who withdraws from such an agreement.
This is in spite of the fact that for most ordinary people—I am surprised that the Conservative Party does not attend sufficiently to this kind of problem—buying a house is a very expensive proposition indeed. To have to pay surveyor's fees for one's own surveyor and then, perhaps, surveyor's fees for the building society, and possibly to have to pay some legal fees to one's solicitor, only to find that the purchase has fallen through, can leave a person a couple of hundred pounds worse off. It can mean that a person is not in a position to buy the house that he had in mind, and it means, of course, that he has less resources at his disposal to buy the next house that he considers as a possibility.
The problem is that the Law Commission, which, of course, involves those who command a monopoly in conveyancing—the solicitors—is far too complacent. The solicitors not only command a monopoly but are themselves a closed shop, and all their efforts seem to be directed not towards providing a better service to the public but towards preserving their own position in the housing market and making sure that fees for conveyancing continue to flow into their pockets and to subsidise—it is alleged—other aspects of their legal work.
The Law Commission was much too complacent. It had plenty of other examples from other countries, some very near to home, of much quicker processes for conveyancing. In Scotland, for example, the average length of a completion is a week to 10 days. It can sometimes be done even more quickly than that. In the United States, at least in some of the states, I understand that a purchase can be completed in even less than one week.
When one looks at what a solicitor actually does in the process of conveyancing—apart from charging high fees—one finds that much of his work must surely be a repetition of work that has already been done. We have already heard that houses tend to be sold again, on average, within seven years Much of the information for which a solicitor looks must be the same information as was found by a previous solicitor when the house last changed hands.
The Law Commission did not really take seriously into account the possibility of speeding up the process of conveyancing. It did not really take into account the possibility of restricting and simplifying the way in which the solicitor got the relevant information together for completion of the contract. Nothing like that was done. Therefore, the evil of gazumping continues. Ordinary people, whom the Conservative Party particularly wants to be the people who buy their own houses—I certainly support that sort of freedom—suffer from the activities of the gazumper, and they suffer from the activities—or, rather, the inertia—of the legal profession, which is unwilling to change any of its ways and unwilling to find a speedier and more efficient method of house purchase in order to ensure that the possibility of altering the price before completion does not arise.
No doubt the Government, too, will have their part to play and ought to take more seriously the problem of gazumping. It is becoming widespread yet again. We suffered from it in 1972–73, the period of the last property boom, and now, as real incomes are beginning to rise and people are turning to house purchase, they are finding that once again they are bedevilled by this problem and that the resources for buying a new house can all too often be reduced or obliterated altogether when they find that yet again they have been gazumped.
In mentioning the problems of gazumping, has the hon. Lady also borne in mind that people sometimes say that they are going on to buy houses and then withdraw, and that this leaves the vendor in a difficult position? What has she to say about that? How would she deal with that aspect of the problem?
With other methods of setting about buying and selling a house—in Scotland, for example—obligations are imposed on both the buyer and the seller. The point is that the amount of time taken to complete the purchase must be reduced to prevent this sort of situation. I think that that answers the hon. Gentleman's point.
This is an area that could be made much more efficient and much less costly to the would-be house purchaser. The Government should look again at this whole matter and should again press the Law Commission this time not only to look at it but to come up with a solution.
I shall not follow the hon. Member for Thurrock (Dr. McDonald) into the byways of gazumping, but I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Eyre) was right to point out to her that a very different situation obtains in a falling market for houses, in which case the owner of a house can be gazumped, as it were, in reverse.
I wish to speak about housing in Wales. I have every justification for doing so, as the situation there is particularly grim, largely because of our high preponderance of old housing stock. Of the many housing problems in Wales, the one that has been concerning us most over the last two years or so is the apparent and, indeed, almost incredible inability of local authorities to use moneys allocated to them for housing, with the result that there has been serious underspending in this area of vital need.
I refer to the inability of local authorities to spend as "apparent" because I do not believe that the Welsh Office is as innocent in this matter as it would have us think it is. It simply does not appear to be able adequately to monitor housing expenditure in Wales. That is the crux of the matter. Consequently, housing starts last year were lower than they have been in any year since 1959 and 30 per cent. below the Conservative peak of 1972, which is a damning indictment of a Government who, shortly after coming to office, stated that their immediate aim "must be to get a crash house building programme going."
Those were the words used by the Secretary of State for Wales in the Welsh Grand Committee on 8th May 1974, as reported at column 13 of Hansard. We are still waiting for that programme, and the prospects for this year are hardly better.
This underspending has occurred when housing in Wales is receiving far less priority than it requires. Shelter argues—I was surprised that the hon. Member for Merioneth (Mr. Thomas) did not credit Shelter with the authorship of this argument—that if the total funds for England and Wales had been allocated according to an index of housing needs, such as that used by the Department of the Environment, Wales should have had a far bigger allocation of money for house building, improvements and loans in 1978–79. Over the preceding three years our expenditure per head on housing was noticeably lower than expenditure per head in England or Scotland. The problem is that we cannot, apparently, spend the little that we have for housing.
To give the Government their due, they did establish a working party on housing finance to investigate underspending, and it has just produced its second report, which is rather more illuminating than the first. One of the first points made is that the Welsh Office
should notify each authority of its allocations as early as possible".
The report goes on to say:
They were not able to do this for 1977–78 until 23rd December 1976 and the position for 1978–79 was only marginally better.
I understand that the Under-Secretary of State for Wales is worried that there might be an underspend yet again this year. There was an underspend of £28 million—that is about one-quarter of the total budget—in 1976–77 "despite all evidence to the contrary", said the Under-Secretary of State on 1st June. I should like to know what that evidence to the contrary was, and how on earth the Government could have misinterpreted that evidence so badly. On top of that £28 million underspend in 1976–77, there was an underspend of £16 million in 1977–78 and, as I said, a further underspend is to be expected in 1978–79. Three consecutive years of underspending in an area of crying need really takes some explaining.
The Government blame the local authorities, and of course the local authorities blame the Government. Why should there be this continuing problem? The working party refers again and again to "slippage" in the housebuilding programme and to various ways of dealing with it, but one has to go to the individual housing authority to see what are the causes of slippage. One major cause in a particular authority's case was the Government's ban on new starts in the summer of 1976. Another was cash flow problems encountered by contractors owing to delays and increased costs. Another cause of slippage was the delay in the granting of Welsh Office approval for schemes.
It is difficult not to suspect the Welsh Office of speaking with a forked tongue on this subject. I suspect, too, that the Secretary of State has been weeping crocodile tears over this underspending because, according to "The Government's Expenditure Plans, 1978–79 to 1981–82" Cmnd. 7049, Government expenditure on housing in Wales was scheduled to fall from a peak of £239 million in 1974–75, to £179 million in 1978–79. If one were being cynical, one would say that the fall was being engineered to the accompaniment of loud wailing from Ministers, such as one heard in the speech of the Under-Secretary of State to the National Housing and Town Planning Council at the Metropole Hotel, Llandrindod Wells on 1st June when he said:
I am very worried about the apparent inability of local authorities to spend the financial allocations given to them. John Morris is equally worried, particularly as he has to bear the brunt of the arguments with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury on the size of the provisions to be made for housing in Wales.
Is that worry genuine, I ask the Under-Secretary of State, or is it just smartalec talk?
The verdict of Mr. David Page, secretary of the Welsh housing associations committee, delivered in the Western Mail in January of this year is, I think, a fair one on the Government's housing record in Wales. He said:
There is no strategy. What policy there is has been ad hoc. Meanwhile a quarter of a million Welsh people are living in houses unfit for human habitation. If present policies are pursued this will still be the situation by the time we reach the next century.
The Government may point to the decline in the number of unfit houses—houses without one or more of the standard amenities and houses in disrepair—between the 1968 and 1976 Welsh house condition surveys. There was a decline from 32 per cent. to 18 per cent., which was a 14 per cent. decline over eight
years. The Government introduced a new category in the 1976 survey which reduced the number of unfit houses from 147,000 in 1973 to 100,000 in 1976. That large difference was out of line with expectations, and
it is hardly conceivable that 47,000 houses were either demolished or made fit in a three-year period.
Those words are from the survey itself.
Be that as it may, the previous Conservative Government's improvement grant policy undoubtedly contributed a great deal to what betterment there has been in housing conditions in Wales. In 1972, a record number of 27,855 improvement schemes were approved, and 31,586 schemes were approved the following year. But, alas, the present Government have failed abysmally to keep up with the pace that we set. The number of such schemes in 1976 was just on 7,000, and in 1977 it was 6,808—a fall of 78·5 per cent. since the Conservative peak of 1973. But I understand that the Government did increase the limit of eligible expense for improvement grants to private house owners last August, and they claim to have conducted a vigorous publicity campaign this spring, although I cannot say that I, personally, have been vividly aware of it.
Both the house condition survey and the Government point the finger of unfitness—somewhat unfairly in the way that it is stated and in view of the Rent Acts and the Government's poor record on improvement grants—at the private sector where, according to the Secretary of State,
97 per cent. of the problem lies".
That may be true, but I should not like the Secretary of State to run away with the idea that life is heavenly in the many mansions in the council estates in Wales, and those Welsh Members—alas I cannot see any here other than the Under-Secretary of State—who hold consultative sessions with their constituents will bear me out on this.
There may not be a high percentage of council houses that are unfit according to the Government's criteria, but there are many whose tenants say that their houses are uninhabitable because of damp and disrepair. This is the staple diet of complaints which most Members have to digest at surgery after surgery, and of course the councils are unable to carry out their repairs because of the position with regard to the rate support grant.
Of our 100,000 unfit dwellings, representing 9·8 per cent. of our total housing stock, just under half are owner-occupied—47,500—while the remainder are largely privately rented.
Owner occupation is very high in Wales, especially in the Rhondda, and the need for a vigorous improvement grant policy is obvious. So, too, is the need to make unfit houses fit. Here again, the Government's record is very poor—824 were made fit last year, compared with more than 8,000 in 1971.
With regard to the privately rented sector, what is really needed is a cost covering rent policy such as I believe exists in West Germany. It is a rent which allows for a reasonable return on capital outlay to the owner and which allows him to carry out repairs and maintenance and to recover the cost. Where subsidy is necessary, it should take the form of a housing allowance to the tenant. In this area, I thought that today's statement by the Secretary of State was very disappointing.
There is plenty of demand for privately rented accommodation in the real world about us, even if there is little room for it in the philosophy of the Labour Party.
We in Wales want to get rid of our unsatisfactory housing as soon as possible. I believe that we can do it if we direct sufficient help to those who need it and can make use of it. Our problem has been that the help was not directed to those who could make use of it. Therefore, let the Government put new life into their house improvement policy. Not only would an active policy of improvement improve the housing stock. It would also improve the employment position in the construction industry.
Meanwhile, confronted with the problem of old housing stock, the Government have engineered a slump in the number of house starts, in the number of houses made fit, and in projected Government expenditure on housing in Wales. Their housing record is a mean and miserable one, and it is high time that it was rammed down their throats.
The hon. Member said that this was a slump engineered by the Government. Can he explain why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has told every local authority in Wales "You complete your practical programme for house building and repairs as submitted to us, and we will finance the whole of that programme"? I do not regard that as engineering a slump.
I am sure that the Minister is aware of what I said earlier about planned Government expenditure on housing in Wales being due to fall. There is no doubt that the Welsh Office and its Ministers took steps to assist in engineering that fall. The fact is that the fall went further than they thought it would, and now they are busy trying to retrace their steps.
It has always seemed to me that housing was the one social problem that this country faced which could be remedied easily if the parties were willing to give it the kind of priority that it required.
It is difficult, perhaps, to overcome the problems of low-income families. It is difficult, perhaps, to overcome the problems of the disabled and the sick. It may, in present economic circumstances in the world, be difficult to overcome the problems of unemployment. To overcome the problems of housing, however, we need land, we need cash to finance the building or the improvement of houses, and we need a building industry which is capable of responding to the demands made of it.
The building industry at present is clearly under-employed and under-utilised. The land is there, depending upon the policy of the Government in making that land available and the willingness or otherwise of owners to bring it forward. The money is almost entirely a matter of Government policy. It seems to me that that really indicates a very high responsibility on the Government to engineer a position in which everyone lives in a decent home.
This debate is taking place in a much less controversial atmosphere than it would have done in 1951. We are discussing the subject in circumstances in which over the last two years there have been reductions in the amount of money allocated to housing in successive public expenditure cuts, which shows that the priority given to housing in Government policy generally—it applies equally to the Conservative Party—has fallen as against other areas of social spending.
If we decided that we would crack this problem, we are now nearing a position where it could be cracked. We have reached a position of crude surplus. It is true that the crude surplus does not indicate that the problems are ending, but it indicates that we are getting near to that position. The reason why this issue is now so much less controversial than it used to be is that we have got near to that position.
There are now more houses—it is true that they are not always well spread and it is true that they are not always adequate—than householders. The result is that we have come near to a position in which we can engineer the resources in such a way that they go to fill the gaps rather than toiling, as we were in the early 1950s and 1960s, to meet the absolute need for houses. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Dean) said, that had repercussions on the kinds of houses that were built and on the quality of houses which we are suffering from now and shall continue to suffer from in the future.
We ought now to consider seriously whether it is not right to allocate more of the gross national product and more of the resources in terms of the building industry and of labour to solving this problem once and for all, because it is capable of being solved.
Not only do we have a crude balance of housing. It is clear that, in the period between the 1971 census returns and the latest household survey, the quality of housing has improved immeasurably and that the number of houses which lack basic amenities has fallen considerably. Therefore, there is not only a crude surplus but better housing is available for our people.
If there is still a problem of housing, it is in specific geographic areas and in relation to specific kinds of demand in the country as a whole and it calls for a degree of sophistication in allocating resources. We have only just begun to tackle this.
I want to stress the importance of the new technique of the housing investment programme and what that means in allocating resources to the real areas of need, geographic and otherwise. What happened in the past was that subsidies were given by the Government on the basis of the local authority recouping money from the Government when it decided that it would build or improve. The housing investment programme now means that some kind of calculated judgment has to be made by the central Government about how to divide the cake between different local authorities. The first year's trial was obviously crude and to some extent was not entirely happy. A number of authorities thought that they were entitled to a good deal more than they got. There were some who got more than they asked for. The upshot of the exercise has been that everyone recognises that we need more sophistication in the way in which the investment programme is ordered and the way in which the allocation is made.
I listened with interest to what the Secretary of State said about the statement made by the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, and I am glad that it was repudiated. It is absurd to suggest that this new technique is a regression. It is seeking to make sure that the resources go to the right place, to the right kinds of housing and to the right developments in housing in a given local authority area. If we did not have it, the prospect of solving the housing problem would be even worse.
My point is that the sophistication ought to be increased. What the present housing strategy proposals do for a local authority is to outline the nature of its stock, the quality and the proposals for increasing or improving the stock. It is all an indication of information about the physical reality of the housing in a local authority area. But that is not necessarily what dictates the housing demand. Merely to know that there is a four-bedroom house available is not an indication that Mr. and Mrs. Bloggs, or Miss Bloggs or Master Bloggs, want that kind of house. The needs are sometimes dictated by requirements which are not capable of being assessed by the information which is available to the Government from censuses or that kind of enumeration.
What we need is some indication of what people want and how that is related to the housing stock in their area. I do not suggest that it is the only way of doing it, but the basis must be the housing waiting list. If people are waiting for a council house, this indicates that they at least have the view that they want to go into council accommodation. It may be that their need is paramount; it may be that their wishes are not urgent; it may be that they will be willing to wait a few years rather than take the first offer that comes. But it is an indication of the general requirements in that area.
The real difficulty, as I see it, of the housing investment programme as it is at present geared is that this kind of information is not fed into the totals and proposals of the local authority to the Government, and, therefore, the Government cannot take account of that kind of subjective need in the areas to which they are allocating. If one does not do that, I do not see how one can make a sensible allocation of resources.
To do it, one will have to act on criteria which are objective, and to be objective they must apply to every local authority area. To do that, the housing waiting list must be assessed by the same objective criteria in each area. That is not to say, of course, that the local authority needs to allocate its houses according to the waiting list in any way other than that by which it has decided by its own policy. But the way in which it assesses the need ought to be the same in every local authority area. Otherwise, to say that in York there is a waiting list of 1,000 whereas in Wandsworth there is a list of 16,000 is not to compare like with like.
The real difficulty is that at the moment that kind of uniformity does not exist. For instance, in York one cannot go on to the housing waiting list unless one lives in the city and has been there for six months. One cannot stay on the housing waiting list if one moves over the border to find a place in which to wait; one is immediately taken off the list. A married couple cannot go on to the list unless the wife is pregnant. It is not enough simply to be a married couple hoping to get a council house before starting a family.
That kind of restriction is not unique to York, but it is rare in the country as a whole. Perhaps the most alarming feature of our waiting list is that, if one refuses once, one goes to the bottom of the list. If that situation were applied in some of the London boroughs, there would be a howl of horror because in those places people can go on refusing for quite a long time until they get the house they want. It is not so in York. There, one takes the house that the director of housing offers, or one gets nothing and goes back to the bottom of the list.
I make no particular complaint here about my own local authority, because I make it in York, but it indicates the nature of the difference between one housing list and another. If the Government, looking at the information available, do not compare like with like, there is a real sense of injustice when one area gets more money than it seems it should get when balanced against the need of another area.
Therefore, I suggest that, contrary to the statement of the AMA, the Government should be pressing the local authorities to have comparable standards for the waiting lists, leaving it to them to decide how they will allocate their own stock. That is the next stage. I do not regard it as taking over local authority autonomy, because it is available only in order that the Government can exercise their responsibilities better and, in that sense, in a fairer way to the local authorities concerned. The local authority can still have the power of deciding to whom it shall allocate its stock, and that is its proper role. If we do that, we shall be a great deal nearer to eliminating this social problem, so that we can turn our attention more effectively to other poblems.
I want to concentrate on the appalling situation of the single homeless person. The matter has been referred to hardly at all during the debate. The agencies dealing with this problem believe that it is now greater than at any time since the First World War. A decade or so ago, a high proportion of the single homeless were homeless men, many of whom passed through a revolving door involving prison, psychiatric hospitals, Salvation Army hostels, night shelters, sleeping rough and then back to prison, for the cycle to begin again.
Today, this hard core of homeless men has been joined by many people who have become homeless for many other reasons, including reasons connected with the present economic situation. With 1½ million unemployed, it is inevitable that some of these will have lost their accommodation through difficulties in keeping up with the rent. Moreover, the tendency of many single people in a time of high unemployment is to move around in search of work, using hostels or cheap lodging-house rooms. A number of these men and women have joined the ranks of the single homeless and more seem likely to do so in the future.
The position has been worsened over the past 10 years by the very rapid decrease in the amount of cheap single-person accommodation available. Before the Second World War, there were over 300 reception centres throughout the country where a homeless person could obtain a bed for the night. Today, there are 21 reception centres, and in any event many single homeless people avoid using them because of the nature of the accommodation.
Cheap commercial lodging-house accommodation has been reduced tremendously. City centre redevelopment schemes and the building of inner city ring roads have led to the knocking down of many dwellings where landladies would take in a number of men for a few shillings a night. The Rowton Houses, which used to provide cheap, clean rooms for thousands of single people, have been upgraded into hotels to met the demands of the tourist industry. In London alone, this has led to the disappearance of about 2,000 cheap rooms.
As a result, a great deal has been left to voluntary organisations. I cannot mention them without referring to the Salvation Army, which provides about 6,000 beds nationally, and the Church Army, which provides another 2,000. But many homeless people try to avoid using such provision, being understandably reluctant to spend the night in a vast dormitory in the company of coughing, spluttering, alcoholic older men.
Apart from the Salvation Army and the Church Army, most help by voluntary organisations is of a specialist nature, aimed at specific sections of the homeless population. For example, I am pleased to be associated, though the National Association for the Care and Rehabilitation of Offenders and the Stonham Housing Association, with the aftercare hostel movement for ex-offenders. I would also like to commend the excellent work of the Lifeline organisation, in the provision of accommodation for women and girls who are pregnant and in difficulties.
The problem of homeless young people remains every bit as serious today as it was in 1975, at the time of Yorkshire Television's brilliant documentary "Johnny go home". Teenagers leaving school have faced increased employment problems and many have left home for the big cities. For instance, in one year, Centrepoint, an agency providing temporary accommodation in the centre of London, gave shelter to nearly 6,000 youngsters and even then had to turn away over 2,000. More young people are sleeping rough, and many later join squats as the only form of accommodation they can find which they can afford, which results in physical and moral dangers.
There has also been a sharp increase in the proportion of girls in this group. The agencies working with homeless girls find that most of them have run away from home or, alternatively, have left home to find work or accommodation and have failed to find either. Runaway girls often say that they have been thrown out by their parents, but on investigation it often turns out that reasons such as pregnancy, family disruption, a new stepfather or stepmother with whom the young person does not get on, or a resistance to discipline by parents have led to the young person running away from home rather than being thrown out.
In 1976, the DHSS established an interdepartmental working party, which reported in July 1976. Its recommendations included an increased provision of hostel and other accommodation for homeless young people; local co-ordination of services to achieve concerted action for the homeless; the establishment of information services and youth advisory centres, and an adjustment of public expenditure priorities within existing resources to accommodate the requirements. Those recommendations are, if anything, even more urgent today than they were two years ago, and I should like to see very much speedier progress with regard to the recommendations of that interdepartmental working party.
Several hon. Members referred to local authorities. Few local authorities maintain waiting lists for single people and sources of information on the single homeless are, therefore, varied and fragmented. Such information, however, suggests that the scale of the single homeless is far greater than is generally acknowledged, especially for those estranged from their families and at risk in one form or another. For example, a spot check earlier in the year in a youth club in Slough revealed that of the 70 youngsters present, 23 had nowhere to sleep that night. The period of homelessness varied between three weeks and five years. This is really an appalling situation.
Housing associations are particularly well suited to provide hostels and similar accommodation and, indeed, social support along with the accommodation, yet the Housing Corporation has earmarked only 5 per cent. of its total budget for this type of housing for 1978–79. I very much hope that it will reconsider the serious position that exists and substantially increase that amount for 1979–80. Local authorities should also be persuaded to contribute in this area, through their housing investment programmes. Single people have just as much right to a roof over their heads as have a family.
Finally, I draw the attention of the Minister to the fact that sheltered housing schemes under warden control, and residential homes for the elderly are, as he will know, bursting at the seams, with residents becoming increasingly frail and needy and requiring more care and attention. Unless a way can be found to finance additional care, local authorities will begin to waver at providing this invaluable type of accommodation.
In view of the national shortage of geriatric beds, I should like to feel that the Minister will ensure that close discussions are held with the parties concerned in order to develop such schemes, because I believe that the sheltered housing schemes, which could provide additional care and aid for the residents, are probably one of the most humane and dignified ways in which we can accommodate elderly people.
The main reason which prompted me to join the Labour Party, while I was still a schoolboy, centered around my view of the housing situation in Birmingham. At that time, capitalism's unacceptable face was in evidence everywhere. We had urban squalor, housing overcrowding, slums, condemned notices stuck on to rows of miserable streets which were long overdue for the bulldozer, Rachmanism, and little immediate hope for those in greatest need living in the courtyards and alleyways of our central areas.
The philosophy of the Labour Party was, and fortunately remains, that it should demand, and when in office work for, the provision of a home for every family provided by either the public or private sectors at a cost which could reasonably be afforded. During my maiden speech to the House, I made considerable reference to the problems confronting many of my constituents, with particular regard to housing and environmental matters. It is on those subjects that I have attempted to show a particular interest in my work in this place.
Within the Ladywood constituency—indeed, within the Ladywood ward itself—I have a situation where to the best of my knowledge no families are living in owner-occupation. There are all, save for a very small number who are tenants of private landlords, within accommodation owned by the local authority. That area was selected by the city council, along with four others, to be one of Birmingham's original post-war redevelopment areas. That redevelopment is now virtually complete. Only the unknowing or the ill-advised would disagree that as a result of that development my city remedied some of the poorest housing conditions in Britain.
In so doing, it was of the utmost importance to provide a great volume of municipal housing, and, in accord with the fashion of the times, large, impersonal high-rise flatted developments were under taken. In some neighbourhoods, the densities of habitable rooms to the acre were from 100 to 150, and even 200-plus in one extreme case.
Now, 20 years later, local social workers, housing officers, councillors, the present hon. Member for Birmingham, Lady-wood and previous Members of Parliament have concluded that that situation should be improved upon and that the situation of people living in that sort of density is unacceptable. In the light of our experience, some of those schemes now seem in some respects to have been ill advised.
Modern thinking leads many, including Ministers, to the conclusion that a density of about 60 habitable rooms to the acre is now the level that we should aim for. Birmingham and other authorities are being encouraged to develop housing at that density.
From those, including myself, who live in the inner city areas, there is a demand for environmental improvements, which will be undertaken only with great difficulty. For example, given that too many people live in too small an area, the need for open space, leisure facilities, sport and recreation is apparent. But the overriding difficulty is that no development space is available for these provisions, save in what now, in modern times, are regarded as small infill sites.
Local tenants' groups such as those in my constituency feel frustrated—justifiably—about the demands for improvements made upon them by local residents when at the same time all the land which would have been available has been used up and little is left on which the sort of environmental and leisure facility improvements which are demanded can be situated. Therefore, those municipal tenants seek tranfers to more satisfactory housing, which, paradoxically, often means properties far older than those they seek to leave.
The attraction of these older, often pre-war, houses is that they have gardens back and front in which their children can play, generally lower rents which they can more readily afford and a neighbourhood which will probably have a better allocation of open space and parks. The hopes and dreams of families desperately waiting to transfer to such housing are being dashed against the rocks of despair by the present, though temporary, Tory administration in Birmingham, through its policy of selling off the very properties to which these people seek to transfer.
Every corporation-owned house sold means that those waiting on the application lists for a first home have a longer wait, particularly if they are looking for a house, and that those on the transfer list living in high-rise developments will have to wait longer for a home of their choice.
I welcome the modifications made by my right hon. Friend to the structure plan. The plans were drawn up after considerable investigation in the various metropolitan areas. Birmingham's was the result of a lengthy process, which produced a worthwhile plan. My right hon. Friend has amended it, first, to show that the city should specify the general location of the major areas for residential development. That is long overdue, but the snag is that in the past two or three years the 20-acre sites referred to in structure plans have virtually dried up. The city has few such sites for development and most of the areas available when the list was compiled have now gone. I ask Ministers to look again at the problems of big cities in relation to available sites.
Secondly, my right hon. Friend has said that a policy related to the incorporation of housing in city centres should be considered favourably. That is obviously in line with the general proposal that life should come back to the centres of the big cities. Where it exists, very often the lack of leisure facilities and other amenities also exists. If we are to bring life back to city centres, we shall have to provide not only the housing but the general environmental facilities.
Birmingham's structure plan calls for the provision of about 38,000 dwellings in the area of the former county borough of Birmingham in the period 1971–81. The city is falling slowly behind that figure. With the details so far known, I suspect that the years 1981–86, which are the remaining years covered by he structure plan, will not see the development of the balance—8,000 or 10,000 houses—for which the plan called.
It is likely that the city will shortly be blessed again with a Labour administration, who will of course step up the housing programme. In the interests of those languishing on the housing lists now—who, to the best of my information, now number 11,500 for applications and 29,000 for transfers—who will obviously see their opportunity come
along, I therefore welcome the observations in paragraph 12.2 of the Secretary of State's submission to the Secretary of the West Midlands County Council. It refers particularly to the exchange arrangements which should be available in the area covered by the county plan. The Secretary of State says:
Structure plans should allow scope for the provision of a range of house types and tenures taking full account of the contribution that can be made by the voluntary housing movement. The policy on densities should help to ensure that the Plan has the necessary flexibility. The Secretary of State further agrees with the Panel that housing management measures could help to reduce the housing problems in the Six Plans area by minimising under occupation and by such measures as improved exchange arrangements for tenants in public sector housing both within and between housing authorities. But these are not strategic land use matters requiring his approval in the individual structure plans.
Therefore, there will be considerable local flexibility in the administration of exchanges and transfers. It is to that end that many people look to local authorities like Birmingham to do something for their particularly difficult housing cases.
Environment and Housing Ministers have greatly assisted those in Ladywood and similar inner city areas by calling upon housing authorities to produce submissions for the housing investment programmes. Birmingham's submission says that 100,000 dwellings—almost 30 per cent. of the stock—were built before the First World War and that there are now 50,000 substandard dwellings. It is to these matters that I am sure Ministers will give attention when considering the housing investment programmes for the big cities.
I think that Ministers have realised the importance of extending the consumer demand in housing and, I hope, will adopt a flexible approach, offering public and private tenants the widest possible choice of options in home provision.
Paragraph 12.1 of the housing Green Paper says:
There are quite large numbers of people who may face special difficulties in getting suitable housing. They include lower income households, homeless people, one parent families, battered women, the physically disabled, the mentally ill and mentally handicapped, old people, single people, mobile workers, ethnic minorities. In the last analysis, the effectiveness of any national housing policy and local housing strategy is likely to be judged by how
far it helps those facing the most pressing housing problems.
I am confident that this Government will continue to bear in mind those observations when they formulate a future housing policy. In so doing they will maintain the confidence and support not only of my right hon. and hon. Friends but of the British people.
I declare my interest as the owner of unfurnished rented property. I am sorry that the hon. Member for York (Mr. Lyon) has left the Chamber. He said that this problem could be cracked. I agree with him, but the tragedy is that it could be cracked so much more quickly if we had a bipartisan policy on housing. However, after eight years in this place I have given up all hope of that.
I begin by taking up the statement by the Association of Metropolitan Authorities which was so savaged by the Secretary of State. There are two very relevant points in that statement. The first is that Government approvals of improvements are roughly half those on new buildings. On the second, I quote from a report in today's edition of The Times:
If we are to get the housing programme moving again, local authorities must have the ability to plan for four years ahead, and have the freedom to determine their spending priorities within overall totals set by central government.
I do not believe that we shall get any further with the Labour Party on this issue. Therefore, I say to my own Front Bench that this must be our first priority when we take office. We must cut through the bureaucracy and red tape that at present surround the consideration of housing programmes by the Department of the Environment.
The yardstick and the application of it are the central point of the argument. I deal with two local authorities and one development corporation. The development corporation deals with roughly 2 per cent. of the entire local authority housing programme for the current year. It is the biggest in the country. The excellent officials in these 3 authorities run backwards and forwards to the Department ironing out details which it should not have to deal with at all. If these councils were given a set allocation and it was then monitored afterwards, the situation would be much quicker, easier and more efficient.
Now the Housing Corporation is getting in on the act as well. This corporation was envisaged as an organisation to control the voluntary housing movement. It was thought that it would operate on a shoestring to match the voluntary effort of the movement. It has now become a mirror image of the Department of the Environment. The voluntary housing movement has to go through two stages. It has to go to the Housing Corporation and then, in addition, it must go through the bureaucracy of the Department of the Environment. Therefore, it seems that the sole object of too many people who do not build one single house is to stop other people building them. At one point 18 months ago when the new scheme was started, I really thought that the Minister had got the message, but it seems that he is a prisoner of his own Department and the Treasury.
One can imagine the conversation going on at the Department with officials saying "Minister, you cannot do this, you cannot cut the yardstick because new building will drop away entirely and the Tories will be after you." That was why I was so sorry to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) playing the numbers game this afternoon. The fact is that very few statistics in housing are of any use at all. The only ones that are of any possible use are the improvement statistics. But all the easy rehabilitation has been done and only the difficult bits remain to be done now. So, naturally, the figures will go down because of that.
When we have 20 million homes and 18 million families and, therefore, we are in crude surplus, the problem is becoming more and more localised and specialised. The statistics do not show this. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Mr. Sever) has just been talking about his problems. They are totally different from mine, which are in a very large new town. That is why it is so necessary to give local authorities far greater freedom of action. They have the specialised staffs and the knowledge of the local area and, hopefully, they are responsive to local opinion.
On the sale of council houses, I listened very closely to my hon. Friend the Member for Henley. Nobody wants to see houses sold to tenants more than I do, if those tenants want to buy them. But I cannot contemplate or support this being done on a statutory basis. There seems very little difference between statutory comprehensive education being imposed by the Labour Party and the statutory sale of council houses being imposed by this side of the House. I am all for the greatest amount of inducement being given to councils to sell and to tenants to buy, but let us leave it at that. One can only hope that the example set by the more enlightened councils will be seen by the electors of the more bigoted councils. They will be green with envy and will take the appropriate action.
I turn to the private rented sector. I was most depressed to hear what the Secretary of State said about the review of the Rent Acts. This must be as a result of evidence given to the review by the Labour Party. It really makes most depressing reading. This review is not really necessary, because we all know what is wrong. We all know that the private rented sector is very unattractive and that there is no encouragement to let property except at the very top of the market.
There are two reasons why it is unattractive. The first is the unlimited security of tenure that is now granted, and the second is that the return given by fair rents is too low in relation to the investment value of the property. Therefore, as soon as the property becomes vacant most owners sell.
The Secretary of State and his Ministers are the only people in Britain who, at a stroke, could bring over 1 million more units on to the market today by agreeing to proposals for short-term tenancies. That one thing, done by the Labour Government—we would not get the same response if we did it—overnight would bring over 1 million units on to the private rented market and would help to solve the bad position in our large cities.
Secondly, it is very necessary in these inflationary times to move towards a more frequent review of fair rents, and to ensure that the return is brought nearer to the investment return.
I shall not bore the House with my ideas about registration of landlords but it appears that the Press has now been told in three different ways. First, there is the housing association aspect in which registration has been demanded. Then there are housing improvement grants, under which the landlord has, in effect, to register, and there is the Rent Act, itself under which cases must go before a rent officer and the tribunal. This process could be extended to include registration of landlords with local authorities so that they could be afforded special conditions and thereby extend the availability of rented property.
Municipalisation has failed. I shall not quote what was said in the Labour Party evidence to the review body, but that policy can succeed only by confiscation. I do not believe that even the Labour Party would opt for such a policy.
It is not a bad rule to go for what people want. The vast majority of people want to own their own homes and must be given that chance. The rest need choice and availability. At the moment they are locked into council accommodation. In this process the councils have a part to play, as do housing associations, co-ownership and the private sector. All have a part to play, and if one sector is neglected it will be to the detriment of the whole.
There are two points in the remarks of the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Benyon) with which I agree. I share his scepticism about any statistics advanced by the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) and I agree with him that both the public and private sectors have a part to play in solving our housing problems.
Having heard the speech of the hon. Member for Henley and the echo of its sentiments in the speech of the hon. Member for Aberdeen, West (Mr. Fairgrieve), we wonder whether we were listening to Conservative Party policy. So often the Opposition appear to feel that there is a conflict between the public and the private sector. They appear to take the view that it is impossible for Labour Members to support owner-occupation or to give help to owner-occupiers, but the facts speak for themselves and the record is there for all to see.
Labour Governments have given more help and support to owner-occupiers than Conservatives have ever afforded to such people. It was a Labour Government who introduced the option mortgage scheme, and it was a Labour Government who introduced the Home Purchase Assistance and Housing Corporation Guarantee Bill. In 1974 the Labour Government stepped in to stop interest rates rising from 11 per cent. to 11½ per cent., and thus avoid the crippling effect which such a move would have had on young married couples who wished to buy their first homes. In contrast, it was a Conservative Government who sat idly by while house prices rocketed and millions of young couples were forced out of the housing market altogether. The record is there for all to see and we do not need to apologise for our stand on this issue.
The Government's prime responsibility rests in the public sector. It is the area in which the Government have the most direct responsibility and control. Those who find themselves in greatest need will continue to look to the public sector for lie solution of their problems. They look to that sector because they are unable to solve their problems in any other way. Therefore, the Opposition's attitude on public sector housing is disturbing. We have yet to hear the speech of the hon. Member for Homsey (Mr. Rossi), but when he spoke a year and a day ago in a similar debate on 20th June 1977 he said—I take it he was speaking on behalf of the official Opposition:
We believe that local authorities should concentrate new building on the sectors of the community that are not able to help themselves—the elderly, the disabled and those in need."—[Official Report, 20th June 1977 Vol. 933, c. 1010.]
I do not know to what "need" the hon. Gentleman was referring; he did not say. Presumably, he was not referring to people in need of housing. I suppose he was referring to the deserving poor—the needy. This appears to be the Conservatives' attitude to public sector housing. They believe that it should play only a residual role. They see no place for the public sector in making a major
contribution to this country's housing problems.
It is evident from the hon. Gentleman's statement, and from similar statements made by the Opposition, that the re-election of a Conservative Government would mean a drastic reduction in the level of public sector house building. In a previous housing debate the hon. Member for Henley went almost so far as to admit that that was the case. The only figure on which he would not be drawn was the target figure at which a Conservative Government would aim.
It has long been the policy of Conservative Governments to support the rundown of local authority building. That was effectively demonstrated in the period between 1970 and 1974. It was the only area in which that Conservative Government demonstrated any great success. Their policy was extremely effective. They managed to reduce public sector house building to what was almost a postwar record low. That was the situation in which the Labour Government took over our affairs.
I congratulate the Government on their achievements in the first two years of office, when there was an enormous increase in the level of public sector building, but lately the trend has been somewhat disturbing. Last year public sector starts were the lowest since 1973, and the first four months of this year do not give many of us much cause for optimism. The reasons are debatable. I believe that the heavy hand of the Treasury, having descended a year ago on the building programme, had a more drastic effect than some of my hon. Friends are prepared to accept. I also believe that the advent of Conservative councils in many stress areas had an undeniable effect, in terms of cutting back the level of house building.
These issues are debatable, but the facts are inescapable. The fact is that we are allowing our building programme to slump. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench will not sit idly by and allow their policies to be undermined either by indefference or by sabotage on the part of Conservative authorities, but that they will try to get the nation back to a level of public sector building which we man- aged to achieve in the first two years of the present Labour Government.
This debate has been somewhat disappointing. It was called on the initiative of the Official Opposition and we thought that they would put forward some positive ideas. However, apart from a valuable contribution by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving), to whom I must pay tribute, we have heard little in the way of positive suggestions.
The hardy annual involving the sale of council houses has been trotted out. Whatever else the sale of council houses does or does not achieve, it must be said that it does not add one house to our stock. All it does is to transfer houses from the public to the private sector. In doing so, it undermines and gravely damages the prospects of those in greatest housing need. It is ludicrous for Conservative Members to argue that one can reduce the stock of public sector housing without its having an effect on the housing chances of those on the waiting lists.
I heard the hon. Member for Henley, in an unusually frank intervention, admit that the Conservatives are no longer claiming that they will use the money gained from sales to replace the properties that are sold. Few of us ever thought that they would, but that was their line until recently. The Conservative Party is committed to a reduction in the overall stock of public sector housing. That is an irresponsible and cynical attitude, which shows a total disregard for the interests of people in housing need. It is obvious that the only intention of their policy is to pick up a few cheap votes. That is what has seemed to motivate every suggestion from the Conservatives in the last few months.
I hope that tenants who may be tempted by that policy will ask themselves what would have happened if the Conservative municipal asset strippers had been in business 10 or 20 years ago, when those tenants were waiting on the housing lists in the hope of getting a council house. I can assure those tenants that if the asset strippers had been unloading council houses as quickly as they could, there would be no council houses for people to move into. Those who may be tempted to buy their council houses can rest assured that if they had been born 10 or 20 years later they would not have had the chance of even renting a council house, let alone buying one. I hope that tenants will respond and realise that the Conservatives' policy is a cheap, vote-catching gimmick, which undermines the hope of a decent housing policy and a decent chance for those in housing need.
The Conservatives' policy not only reduces the stock of council houses; it affects the balance of the housing stock. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Mr. Sever) referred to the problems caused to those in high-rise blocks by the indiscriminate sale of council houses. Of course the Conservatives are no longer talking just about sales to sitting tenants. The hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, West (Mr. Fairgrieve) did not seem to understand this point when I intervened in his speech. Tory councils are putting into practice policies that involve the transfer of tenants from one property to another which they can purchase.
This policy will mean that all the best and most attractive council property will be sold and the older houses and high-rise blocks will be left. The Medway Borough Council, which includes part of my constituency, has said that it will put on the open market all council houses that become vacant and will leave them on the market empty for weeks before offering them to tenants on the waiting list. That is a gross insult to people in great housing need and to those who wish to transfer to other accommodation.
Is my hon. Friend aware that I have been asked by a constituent to investigate the ludicrous situation in Birmingham, where it is alleged that a lady aged at least 75 has recently been granted a 30-year mortgage in order to buy a local authority property? That is how desperate the Tories are to sell properties in Birmingham.
The sale of council houses will never involve a recognition of housing need. Those with money and the ability to buy will benefit and those who do not have the ability to buy will suffer. However, the rest of the council tenants will also suffer from this policy as they have to meet the financial burdens outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Mr. Douglas-Mann).
I should like to see a ban on the sale of all council houses in areas where there is an unsatisfied demand for rented accommodation. The Government should act on those lines. They have stated in a circular that they believe it wrong that council houses should be sold in those circumstances. It is totally wrong for the Government, having stated that, to sit back and see their policy completely ignored by Conservative authorities that have no regard for housing needs.
If the Government feel that they cannot go that far, at least they should say that sales must be restricted to genuine sitting tenants. We should not have the auction of council houses that is taking place in many authorities. At least the Government should withdraw the 20 per cent. discount. It is irresponsible for a Government to say that the policy of certain authorities is undesirable and irresponsible, and yet to allow local authorities to subsidise that irresponsible policy. It is about time the Government came off the fence to make it clear where they stand. They have said where they stand, but they should put some action behind their words.
I welcomed the announcement of future policy made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I especially welcomed his statement about the ceiling on rents. It will be based upon the increase in average earnings, and rents will be kept below that level. That will be good news for council tenants, especially for those who have read the statements of the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer and know what is in store for them if a Conservative Government come to power. They now know what sort of rent increases are on the way for them.
The Government's record of looking after council house tenants and keeping rents down to realistic levels is one of which they can be rightly proud. The Secretary of State's statement will be widely welcomed throughout the country. However, I ask my right hon. Friend further to consider rents. Even with the ceiling in force, there are still many ways in which council tenants can be treated unfairly.
Council tenants can be faced with unnecessary rent increases because of the unfair burdens that in many areas are placed on the housing revenue accounts. I refer especially to the placing on the accounts of the whole cost of sheltered accommodation, which should be a charge against the community as a whole. The whole cost of the provision of community halls, open spaces, playgrounds and other such facilities are generally provided by the general rate fund but in some instances are loaded on to the housing revenue account when they cover council areas. Council tenants are paying for these services when paying their rates, as are other ratepayers. They should not be faced with having to pay for them twice as a result of the attitude of Conservative authorities that are placing unnecessary and unjustified burdens upon them.
I give a warm welcome to my right hon. Friend's announcement that councils will be enabled to tie their mortgage rates to those of the building societies. Many borrowers from local authorities have faced heavy burdens over recent years because of the level of interest charges that they have had to pay. Many of us have made representations to the Secretary of State and other Ministers. We are glad that the Secretary of State has listened.
We are talking mainly about those who are on lower incomes—those buying the lower range of property in terms of value. Those are the borrowers who have local authority mortgages. Those are the borrowers who have been bearing an unnecessary burden. I am glad that my right hon. Friend will give the local authorities the chance to put matters right. I hope that the local authorities that have been shouting so much over the past few years will take the opportunity and act to reduce the burden.
We have much to be proud of in our housing record over the past few years and months. However, we have nothing to be complacent about. If the Minister answers no other points that I have made, I hope that he will say a few words about the decline in public sector house building, which many of us find extremely disturbing.
As a director of a house building company I wish to talk about land, which has not been discussed so far. I take that course in taking up the remarks of the hon. Member for Gravesend (Mr. Ovenden).
The core of the Government's land policy is the community land scheme. The late Mr. Anthony Crosland described it in 1974 as
the beginning of the end of a lone crusade.
We know now what the crusade achieved in the first year of State trading—namely, 1976–77. In that year English local authorities bought 1,571 acres of land, of which 832 acres was for housing. They paid £12·1 million for that land. They resold 32·2 acres for housing for £295,000. They sold 0·75 acres for industry at an unrevealed price and resold one commercial property in Hampshire at an undisclosed price.
In Scotland 66·5 acres were bought for £427,000, none of it for housing, and none was resold. Meanwhile, 97 English and Scottish circulars, orders, directions and letters were issued by Ministers about the Act. That is a ratio of three to one in favour of paper transactions as opposed to sales of land.
Until last Monday, the Secretary of State had not favoured us with any figures for 1977–78, except for his estimate in the House on 21st March that a further 350 to 400 acres would be resold in England. We now know that the Department got that figure wrong. Only 800 acres was bought in 1977–78—half the total for the previous year—and only 100 acres was resold, of which 75 acres was for housing. The estimate on 21st March of 350 to 400 acres has thus become 100 acres by June. There is no apology and no mention of this in any guidance note to the Press.
All that one can say about the 100 acres is that it is three times as good as 33, and the total of 133 acres so far disposed of just about equals the number of Whitehall circulars and letters so far produced. We have good parity under this Government: one acre, one circular in the Marsham Street paper-chase. In any case, 133 acres is a pathetic contribution towards land needs. Of course, 75 acres of housing land resold this year is enough for 750 houses.
Unfortunately, it might take 221½ years, on the Goverment's estimate, to develop the land on which those houses will be built, because the Minister's brand new circular on land on Monday admits that
typical annual production on a large site is unlikely to exceed 30 houses.
So we have a net loss this year of £6½ million under the community land scheme and another £20 million loss in the previous two years to provide 133 acres of land in England, which is about the size of one-medium sized Wimpey site. But I should bet that if Wimpey had bought and sold 133 acres it would not have lost £26½ million on the deal and it certainly would not have lost £26½ million of taxpayers' money. That is the core of what it is all about.
Developers do not naturally look to local authorities to provide land for them. That is the vital flaw in the Government's land scheme. It is failing not solely because the Government cut back the finance in December 1976, nor is it failing because of the abysmally slow procedure of the structure planning system which is already so late. Certainly they are contributory factors, but they are not vital. The land scheme is failing because the only efficient and speedy way for land to come on to the market and to be developed is for the builder or developer to use his commercial expertise, to identify a possible site, to go to the landowner, to negotiate a price, to buy the land and then to put houses on it. If the price is right, a deal can be struck in days—sometimes hours—and the land is conveyed and work begins.
It is not like that with local government. With local government we have the full panoply of committees, investigations, councils, the district auditor and all the necessary requirements of public accountability.
The basic fallacy of the land scheme has always been the same—that the public sector could assist and expedite the flow of land by coming between the vendor and the purchaser. That is a contradiction in terms. That is why the duties imposed on local authorities under the Act to do their best to bring more land into public ownership or control are fundamentally hostile to private development, as their authors probably intended them to be.
There can be no progress that way. It is a blind alley—as blind as the Land Commission, which the late Mr. Richard Crossman rightly called "a total failure" and which his diaries reveal that he knew to be a failure from the very start of the scheme.
The main role of local government should not be to initiate land purchase for private development. It may have a useful back-up function in voluntary co-operation with private developers, just as it has done for many years in city centre redevelopment. Industrial sites in particular may also be assembled in that way. But it is undesirable in principle and unworkable in practice that the organisation to which Parliament has given the duty of deciding whether to grant planning permission should also seek to be the dominant force in the market for buying land. That is why the Community Land Act is failing and that is why it will continue to fail. That way—the State trading way—lies bad planning, slow development, the risk of corruption and the certainty of increased bureaucracy and expense.
The hon. Member for Melton (Mr. Latham) has given us a dissertation on the Community Land Act. My view is that the more I see Labour local authorities slapping compulsory purchase orders on properties the happier I shall be. We might be able to avoid some of the ramifications and difficulties that are inherent in that admirable Act if there is an absolute plethora of compulsory purchase orders.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Dr. McDonald) raised the question of gazumping. That same subject featured in a debate on the Estate Agents Bill, which is being reluctantly processed through the House at the moment. The hon. Member for Wirral (Mr. Hunt) raised the matter on that occasion. Both he and my hon. Friend in different ways have drawn attention to a problem that has exercised many of us for a long time.
It is a curious historic survival of an Act that was passed in the seventeenth century—the Statute of Frauds—whereby, at total variance with the position in contract law as a whole, the consideration of the stakeholder, being such as it is, does not represent a binding contract in the sale of a house.
This matter has been the source of no end of heartache, of disappointment and of considerable loss for many people. I have been the victim of gazumping in the past. We all know of people who have suffered in this way. It is the more extraordinary because it is clearly something that could be easily rectified by a simple Act.
It is worth remembering that as a general principle of contract law, if there is consideration for a promise, and the consideration moves against the promise, there is a binding and therefore actionable contract in the event of breach.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Mr. Lee) is well known as a practising lawyer. It is wrong of him to give the impression that legislation preventing gazumping could easily be entered into and that it is only the bias and incompetence of this House that prevents our passing such legislation. If we had any sort of legislation which did away with the necessity for evidence in writing the contract would be binding on both sides, and very great hardship would be done to many people who are prepared to make an offer on a house without knowing what legal and other difficulties may be involved.
I cannot see that it would cause hardship to anybody merely to amend the law to bring it into line with what is the fact in regard to options in other areas. One can have an option contract in regard to other matters not involving an interest in land. There are no great difficulties in evidencing it. In any event, the hardship that would be caused by a change in the law could be as nothing compared with the hardships that are involved when people deliberately breach an undertaking.
One does not look too closely for morality in contract, but if a bargain is a bargain in a whole host of other situations, and if a person can be acted against for ratting on a bargain, as he can, it would be perfectly feasible and right for that to be implemented in this respect.
I go a stage further and say that although an element of punitive damages has rarely featured in the law on contract, except in regard to bounced cheques—and there it applies because that is a form of constructive defamation—it would be reasonable if it were possible for some element of that to be involved in gazumping.
I am at a loss to see how the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) can make the points he does about evidence. Letters are always exchanged in these matters. One rarely comes across the sale of a house where there is nothing in writing. But that would not provide any difficulty. It would also act as an element of restraint upon the estate agents' profession, which is wholly in need of regulation. Whether the current Bill is the most appropriate way of doing that I know not. It is certainly a profession which needs regulation in relation to that matter, because estate agents are very often privy to the mean and unfortunate situations that arise time and again. As has been pointed out, in an inflationary situation the propensity for this abuse to occur is the greater.
I want to raise one other matter which is, in a sense, of a quasi-constituency character. I do not know whether my right hon. Friend will have time to refer to it in his reply. When a house is demolished under a compulsory purchase order, as part of a slum clearance or for any other purpose, and damage is done to an adjoining property, as far as I can see, unless there is evidence of negligence in regard to that, there is no claim that the owner of the adjoining property can levy on the local authority. Indeed, I had such a case in the Aston ward, in my constituency, where not only was this deemed to be the case, and the advice given to the local authority was to that effect, but when, rather honourably, the authority offered to make an ex gratia payment to compensate for the damage that had unavoidably been done to an adjoining terraced house the city's solicitor promptly advised that such a payment would be ultra vires and that if it were made there would be dangers of a surcharge from the district auditor.
I cannot think that that can be right. I should have thought that this problem would arise quite often. In the particular instance that was drawn to my attention some time ago, the person concerned was well able, financially, to provide for the repair, but the fact remains that there will be many instances where that will not be so, where hardship can be caused, and in respect of which I think it is only reasonable that there should be some amendment of the law so as to provide against that kind of injustice.
I want to make one or two general observations in regard to the debate. The Minister deserves to be commended for many things that he said in the debate, not least with regard to the desirability of a tenants' charter. Also, I was very pleased to hear that the Government are taking a stand against the sale of council houses, though not as strong a stand as I would wish them to take.
I should like to hear a little more about what the Minister thinks of the default behaviour of certain local authorities. Where a Conservative-controlled local authority has flatly refused to build housing on anything like a reasonable scale, is that not the kind of situation in which the default procedures might reasonably be brought into effect?
I remember, years ago, when the Coventry City Council was brought to book by a Conservative authority for failing to spend money on what we comically call civil defence, its powers in respect of civil defence were withdrawn. I should like to know whether the Minister would be prepared to face the row—I think that he would do so with equanimity—that might be involved in withholding funds from a local authority which persistently failed to build houses and persistently indulged in a policy of selling off local authority houses notwithstanding the fact that it had a long waiting list.
To illustrate that point even further, in the London borough of Ealing we have almost 300 homeless families and about 8,000 people on the waiting list. In three years of a Tory-controlled council it constructed 30 housing units. In the following four years of a wicked Labour Council the council managed to construct only 3,500.
I shall speak up, and very loudly, for half an hour if necessary. I hope that Conservative Members will listen to this. A Tory council was returned to power, and within a month one of the first things that it did—I must repeat this, because although we have heard some sincere statements from Conservative Members tonight they do not realise what some of their colleagues in local government, such as those in the London borough of Ealing—
Order. Had the hon. Member wished to make a speech he could have taken other steps to do so. A number of hon. Members have been sitting in the Chamber all day waiting to speak.
With respect, Mr. Deputy Speaker, although, quite rightly, you have called me to order for going on for too long, I find it remarkable that you were not a little more keen to prevent the interruptions which tempted me.
It is vital that we in this House understand that some of the sins committed by local authorities cause great pain to ordinary families. One set of Conservative councilors—
I am seized of the point made by my hon. Friend. His local authority is only one, alas, of many examples. The Minister will lose no popularity, and will, I suspect, gain a great deal if, when faced with blatant examples of the kind to which my hon. Friend referred, he is prepared to use his powers to intervene in the way that I have suggested. No doubt there will be squeals of rage from the Conservative Benches, but that is something that we can bear with fortitude.
I want to refer to the question of the nationalisation of the building industry. It is a matter that was avoided by the Secretary of State during his speech earlier today, and I suspect that the proposals that are contained in the document "Labour's Policy on Construction" are somewhat of an embarrassment to him. I sense that that is the case in respect of a number of Labour Members, and when the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heller) gets on his feet to talk about nationalisation it is always by way of trying to explain away the content of this document.
I have been interested to look through the Socialist Party's proposals for the building industry, the material producers and suppliers and the professions which create the activity and provide the support for about 2 million people employed in construction and related activities. For the last-mentioned, the so-called "constructional professionals", to use the jargon in the document, the Socialists propose that
their education should be taken out of the hands of professional institutions and controlled by a body representing the whole industry, perhaps the Construction Industry Training Board".
That proposal is contained in recommendation No. 54 of the policy background paper to which I have referred. It is an example of the fallacious and irresponsible submissions which appear throughout the document and in its 60 proposals to which, according to Mr. Ron Hayward in his foreword, his national executive committee
has given its broad endorsements to the basic policies set out".
The text is in no way attributed to its authors or those who comprised the study group.
We are told, again by the general secretary of the Labour Party, that Ministers, Members of Parliament, trade unionists and individual party members made available their experience and expertise. It would be helpful to know in what particular field their expertise lies. The absence of any reference to active responsibility for running a successful enterprise begs a question or two. Incidentally, no death-bed confessions are in evidence from any of the intended victims.
With a colleague, I have been in the building industry for about 30 years. We have never had more than 60 or 70 employees and have always backed our judgment with our own money or that which we borrowed from the banks. I assure the House that this document is no more than an academic exercise, put together, I suspect, in the main by those with little or no practical experience of the building industry or, for that matter, of anything else which is the subject of their research. Its purpose is to try to justify the long-term objective of active Socialists.
I quote from the booklet. Paragraph 6, under the heading "Public Ownership", states:
A central tenet of Labour's philosophy is the need to take out of private hands and bring into social ownership the 'commanding heights' of the economy.
There is no question, it should be noted, of building up State-owned companies. That would be the hard way of proving whether publicly owned enterprises could be made successful. Instead, the document suggests in paragraphs 43 to 46 that it should be done by the acquisition of a whole series of major and successful companies, including English China Clay, Redland, Consolidated Gold Fields—that clearly proved irresistible—Ready Mix Concrete, Hoveringham, Pilkington, BP Industries, Associated Portland Cement, one of a number of companies in the cement business which would be taken over, and London Brick. The Socialists had already promised us in their October 1974 manifesto that they would nationalise mineral rights.
We see no indication here of the costs involved. They do not tell us, the country and the taxpayer what it will all cost. A vast amount of money will be required from the British people by way of rates and taxes. It will be a forced investment for all of us and an outgoing commitment by way of undefined administrative costs.
No estimate is given of the outcome in building costs, an important factor here. Home and overseas output was £875 million in 1975–76. Therefore, what the industry is being threatened with is not only the takeover of its home-based operations but the risk to which a vast enterprise overseas will be subject.
Furthermore, we are told nothing about increased effectiveness of the labour force and the need for its mobility. Indeed, the competitive nature of the industry is deplored. Recommendation No. 22 says that competitive tendering should be used much less. This is really a sop to some direct labour organisations.
Among the recommendations, there are a number of real gems. In No. 14 we see:
The construction implications of public expenditure plans should be more effectively communicated to the industry, and procedures for assessing construction implications strengthened.
In No. 14 we have this:
The best forward planning systems for capital programmes already operating in the public sector should be extended more widely.
No. 16 is:
A proportion of future public expenditure on construction should be guaranteed against spending cuts.
How that is to be done, there is no explanation. We are not told how a Socialist Administration would have coped with the decline in the industry's output by 25 per cent. in the last four years.
Registered unemployment (seasonally adjusted) in construction as such rose from 80,000 in November 1973 to 214,000 in February 1977, including some 66,000 skilled craftsmen.
There is a summary going with the building materials sector on page 50, and it reads just like an academic exercise. It says:
We have outlined in this section a strategy for introducing public accountability into the building materials sector—a major sector of both of our manufacturing and extractive industries—and thus ensuring an adequate and planned supply of material inputs for the construction industry. We believe it will be an early priority of the new State holding companies in the contracting and building materials sector to investigate whether vertical integration between the production and assembly sides of the industry, which some large private contractors are already developing, can yield further improvements in efficiency and in planning.
That really is jargon of the worst description. I was hoping to intervene in the Secretary of State's speech to ask him to explain the word "oligopoly" which appears on page 36:
We note that there is a much higher degree of oligopoly"—
that rhymes with "monopoly"—
in the industry than is immediately apparent from the overall statistics of the number of firms.
I must confess that I had to look the word up, and I found that it is a
State of limited competition between a few producers or sellers".
That is an indication of the academic exercise with which we are concerned.
I recognise that the proposals in the document are not as yet, in their totality, Socialist Party policy. Whether they will be, I make no judgment. However, they are such that the country must be warned. They are the unavoidable face of Socialism and must be vigorously opposed by every proper means. The industry itself has an important part to play, as, indeed, have those who work in it. Two million people are affected; they must be fully informed. I judge that, if provided with the facts, they will scornfully reject them. This, I think, is an indictment of the document, and I can well understand the embarrassment of the Secretary of State and his senior colleagues and many Labour Members.
This has been a wide-ranging debate and the House will, I hope, forgive me if, rather than seeking to comment on the many and varied points made, I concentrate on the Secretary of State's speech, particularly as I understand that the Minister for Housing and Construction wants a full half-hour in which to reply.
The Secretary of State drew our attention to the Government's Green Paper on housing as representing the Government's objectives in housing. I derived much hope from this, since, with its technical volumes, the paper represents a deeply researched analysis by the Department into our housing problems. It showed that whilst the vast majority of our people are adequately housed—indeed, housed to a very high standard compared with the rest of Europe—there remain severe pockets of housing stress and of poor standards of housing, particularly in our older towns and cities. It showed, therefore, the need to shift the emphasis of public resources away from indiscriminate new building, tower blocks and large council estates, towards a sensitive revitalisation of our ageing and substandard stock.
It showed also that, given the choice, the majority of people in this country prefer to own their own homes rather than to be someone else's tenant, even of the most benevolently-disposed local authority. The Secretary of State knows that in the technical volume No. II a sample survey shows that 87 per cent. of our young married couples aspire to home ownership. But within the same sample, 49 per cent. believe that they will never be able to attain it. My belief is that the duty of politicians is to try to see that those aspirations are fulfilled.
The document also showed that public sector provision was a particularly expensive way of meeting housing need, and to that extent it reinforced the arguments shown in the "Neddy" report which the right hon. Gentleman will remember I had cause to leak a little while previously. That showed that for the same amount of public money, one could house three families in the private sector for every one family that could be housed in the public sector.
The Green Paper also showed that the public sector by itself, given the constraints of the economy, could not solve the problem in areas of housing stress, particularly for the homeless and the young mobile, and therefore reliance had to be placed on the private landlord, to whom encouragement rather than condemnation had to be given. Indeed, this was followed by the Government's own consultative document on the private rented sector, which emphasised that we had to help the private landlord if we were to solve our housing problems.
These are all conclusions to which the Conservative Party has long since adhered, and I saw the Green Paper as containing the seeds of a bipartisan approach to housing—something which I greatly welcome, since I have always deplored the use of housing as a political football in a game where the only losers are those in need of a decent home.
Therefore, I was much encouraged by the Secretary of State when he extended the Green Paper approach by the announcement which he made today. In the main, the legislative proposals are those which we can support and, indeed, which we ourselves would bring in. My right hon. Friends and myself have in recent years advocated a tenants' charter. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Eyre) has twice introduced a Bill which the Government have ensured will not see the light of day.
Part of our charter will, of course, include the right to buy one's own home, if a council tenant. But for those tenants who do wish to buy, or who are unable to buy, we shall provide a standard form of tenancy agreement spelling out their rights—something to which the right hon. Gentleman drew attention. We shall give them a greater say in the management of their estates. We shall give them the right to carry out improvements.
The only adverse comment that I would make of the Secretary of State's announcement is that in February 1974 the Labour Party offered a new deal for council tenants but nothing has happened in its four years in office. Here the offer is again taken out, dusted over and produced. Why? Possibly because we are now approaching another General Election. The right hon. Gentleman will forgive me if we approach that promise with a little cynicism.
I also welcome the proposal that local authority mortgage interest rates are to be kept in line with building society rates. But there must be a word of caution, because just as local authority rates come down more slowly than building society rates—because of the way in which local authority loans are financed—equally, they go up more slowly. If we bring into being a proposal of this kind, at some point in time borrowers from local authorities may feel themselves a little unfairly treated compared with the historical situation.
The proposal with regard to guarantees for mortgages by building societies through local authorities is also extremely sensible and long overdue. I should like an assurance that a guarantee will not continue to be treated by the Treasury as a loan of money and, therefore, part of the capital allocation. This is the way in which it has been dealt with up till now. Local authorities may well feel that they would rather loan money direct and help people themselves than use up that same capital allocation by underwriting building societies. Therefore, it is most important to ensure that guarantees are not treated as part of that allocation. I hope that the Minister will give us the assurance that this has been negotiated with the Treasury and that the Treasury now accepts this concept.
With regard to the Rent Acts, I can accept all that the Secretary of State said about this matter. Of course, security of tenure is of little consequence to the non-resident landlord. Provided he gets a reasonable return on his investment he does not mind who his tenant is. There is no need for anyone to seek or threaten to remove security of tenure. Inasmuch as the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Mr. Douglas-Mann) asked me, I give him the assurance on the Floor of the House—as I have done publicly in other places—that it is not the intention of the Conservative Party to remove security of tenure from those people.
I shall come to those points. I am conscious that the Minister wants a certain amount of time. But there is another problem with regard to the resident landlord. I understood the right hon. Gentleman to say that it is necessary to assist landlords in that situation to get back their property much more rapidly than they are able to under the law at present, when it is just and right that they should have it. Again, we concur.
There is also the lunatic situation today in which people leave their homes empty when they go abroad, or go to another part of the country, because they dare not let. Of course, an exception must be made to the provisions of the Rent Acts in order to cover that situation.
We are most conscious of the fact that, as the Green Paper says, there is a crude surplus of property over people requiring homes. We believe that that surplus exists mostly in properties which would otherwise be rented but are deliberately kept empty because it is felt that the Rent Acts are unfair. Therefore, we have brought forward the concept of short-holds and we shall legislate on this, so that, where a property is unlet when the legislation is introduced, if it is then let on a fixed-term tenancy it will not be subject to the security of the Rent Acts. In that way, we hope to tap this unused supply and bring supply and demand into balance.
As for rent regulation, of course it is necessary, particularly in areas of housing stress, to ensure that advantage is not taken of an unfair market situation. But there are anomalies. The rent officer and rent tribunal systems operate side by side, one applying fair rents and the other reasonable rents as a criterion. The Secretary of State did not mention that. Those two should be integrated, and a common criterion should be applied which gives a reasonable and fair return to the owner of the property to ensure that he is encouraged to let rather than discouraged from letting, the property, while ensuring at the same time that rogues cannot exploit a difficult situation.
A residential landlord who has let part of his premises is today subject to capital gains tax on that part of the property which has been let. Our evidence shows that, particularly in the university cities, that is a disincentive to letting to students. We would remove it. My hon. Friends are seeking to press an amendment to the present Finance Bill in Committee to achieve just that. It will be interesting to see to what extent the Government believe in helping the residential landlord by the attitude which they take to that amendment.
I also welcome what the Secretary of State said about improvement grants. However, we must first make sure that the conditions attached to the grants are relaxed. Far too high a standard is required by local authorities as to other works which have to be done in addition to that for which the grant is sought. When people face that additional expenditure, they do not take up the grant. Often, by any objective judgment, those extra works are not really necessary, but the local authority is compelled to require them by the form of the legislation.
There is also the question of rateable value limits, which should be relaxed. However, the Secretary of State's statement rings a little hollow when we consider that only 48 per cent. of the proposed expenditure in Block II for improvement grants in the private sector has been approved by his Department for this year. That does not seem to add up to the statement that he has made about his policy.
So far, sweetness and light, but I do not find the rest of the right hon. Gentleman's speech so attractive. Of course he has to rally the troops and raise their morale, since he is about to lead them into battle. But, as my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) said, the Government's housing programme has been a disaster, despite the brave face that the right hon. Gentleman placed upon it.
My hon. Friend spelled out the figures. Quite uncharacteristically, we had from the right hon. Gentleman a virulent outburst against the AMA because the Association had dared issue a Press statement to the effect that the Government were allowing it only 69 per cent. of local authority bids for capital expenditure for housing.
Of course, that kind of statement is very inconvenient when the Secretary of State is trying to persuade the House that the alibi for the disastrous programme is that the wicked Tory councils have not done their work. When someone produces figures to show that they have not been given the money to do that work, it becomes rather inconvenient. The Secretary of State then attacks the AMA and says that the secretary did not have the authority of his chairman to make that statement. I do not know how long that chairman will remain chairman. I understood that he was on his way out, and that his views did not represent those of the AMA at present.
If the Secretary of State does not like the AMA figures, perhaps I could refer him to the figures produced by the National Federation of Building Trades Employers. In its report and comment on the housing investment programme, it summarises its conclusions:
Local authorities in England wanted to invest £3,521 million in housing in 1978–79—an increase of 52 per cent. in real terms over what they were allowed to spend in 1977–78. Central government have approved only 69 per cent. on average of the local authorities' housing investment plans for that year.
It may well be that the Secretary of State will say that a 52 per cent. increase is far too large, and therefore he must cut back. That is all very well, but he cannot say at the same time that local authorities do not want to spend that money. He cannot have it both ways.
The report continues:
For the year 1978–79 the level of local authority housing investment approved by the Government is only 4 per cent. higher on average than the level of the previous year (which had been the lowest for many years).
If one looks at the Government's White Paper on public expenditure, Command 7049, one sees that the total authority investment capital expenditure in 1977–78 was the lowest for many years. One also finds that for 1977–78 it was lower than for 1976–77, which in turn was lower than for 1975–76, which was lower than
for 1974–75. It is still lower than for 1973–74 and for 1972–73. There we have the figures from this independent source which show that the Government capital investment programme is not what the Secretary of State would have us believe it is.
The Secretary of State decried our suggestion that we wished to sell council houses, or give council tenants the right to buy their own houses. That theme was echoed by some of his hon. Friends. He said this was because the Tories are against local authority housing. That is not the case. We wish to give people what they want. We believe that that is our duty. We want to help people to fulfil their aspirations. The fact is that 49 per cent. of the sample of young married couples who said they wanted to own their own homes said they could not ever see that eventuating out of their own resources.
The comment was made that this was a bad deal and that sales of council houses were not terribly successful, because the take-up was not good. On Friday I was in Nottingham and it was my pleasure to hand over the keys to the tenant of the 3,000th house sold in the past 18 months by the incoming Conservative council. That means that there are 3,000 happy council tenants who now own their homes.
The financial consequences for the local authority were very good. Capital sales total £23 million, showing a profit of almost £8 million on the original provision of those houses. That means £8 million additional worth of capital in the coffers of that local authority. The consequence on the housing revenue account is that a former deficit on the non-mandatory rate fund contribution of £1·2 million was reduced to nil in the next year. That is the consequence for the ratepayers of Nottingham. This success story could be repeated throughout the country and could transform the economy of local authorities.
One local authority told me that its housing stock was valued at £60 million. If the entire stock were sold, not only would it not be necessary to demand any subsidies at all from the Exchequer; the authority would not have to charge the ratepayers a penny rate. Indeed, it could give the ratepayers a dividend. The release of capital moneys in that way could mean the elimination of interest charges having to be paid by the local authority, the elimination of the responsibility for repairs, and the elimination of the need for maintenance and management. This could transform the economy of the local authorities and the nation dramatically. This is what the people want.
I am not saying that we do not see any role for local authorities in housing. Of course that is not the case. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury) said, there will always be those who do not want to become home owners, and provision must be made for them. There will be those who, because of their financial circumstances, cannot become home owners. The elderly will always need to be provided for, as will the disabled and the single who do not qualify under most points schemes.
This must be the function of our society—a compassionate society—to help those who cannot help themselves. But in respect of those who can help themselves, there is no need for them to remain a burden on themselves, through their rates and taxes, and on the remainder of the community.
I could go on to outline a number of features of my party's housing programme, which I feel is the best programme this country has seen in housing for at least four decades but my agreed time is up. I shall be proud to see it presented by my right hon. and hon. Friends at the coming election.
The Minister has already said that he does not want to enter into a Dutch auction on our proposals. Of course he does not want to do so. He cannot begin to compete with our proposals. I am sure that the people of this country will well realise this, and give their decision convincingly in the not too distant future.
We have all waited with great interest in this debate—a debate called by the Opposition—for the revelation of what the Opposition wish to put to the country. But all we have had is a rather empty speech from the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), one of the worst speeches I have heard on housing. It did no more than garble the statistics and reiterate, in a generalised form, the subject of a statutory right for the purchase of council houses by tenants.
Beyond that, we have had nothing from the Tory Opposition in this debate. The hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi), for a period of six or seven minutes, uttered constant cries of "me too-ism". He went through a whole series of the policy proposals which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment had listed in his speech and said "Me, too". He constantly said "We agree", "We agree", "We agree". He uttered not one dissident note on our proposals. He put one or two queries on their detail, but as for the general policy propositions we had advanced he did not put forward one note of disagreement.
What we have had in this debate, in essence, is garbled statistics, secondly, a reiteration of the argument about the indiscriminate sale of council houses, and, thirdly, a series of "Me, too" statements. We were told that we must await the revelation of a magnificent policy that will be the best the country has ever seen—but we know nothing about it. We have heard nothing about it except a series of "me too-isms". To call a debate on such an issue and not to reveal what is to be presented to the country with great drama and such positive pride is, to say the least, a little disappointing.
We await, with some disappointment, as will people interested in housing throughout the country, the publication of the great dramatic policy that will be the best the country has seen. We know not of it yet.
The Minister has accused me of producing garbled statistics. Can he give the facts that contradict any statistics that I gave?
I shall come to several of these points later. If the hon. Member for Henley wants a period of disappointing reading, he should look through Hansard tomorrow, because his speech will ook very impressive as the contribution of the Shadow Secretary of State on such an importantnot l subject.
It is extraordinary how little, apart from the series of "me too-isms", the Tory Party attitude to housing has changed in the last four years. There have been radical advances in housing policy in that time but only minimal changes in the content of Opposition policies. If anything, the Conservatives have retreated further into the backwoods from which they were emerging into the scrublands when we took office in 1974.
Contrary to what the hon. Member for Hornsey said about nothing having been done in the last few years and his claim that we were only now presenting our intentions, the real emphasis in housing policy has changed. By the late 1960s, the emphasis on meeting new house building targets as a singular test of success or failure by any Government was already out of date, but we had to wait until the last four years for this wider development in housing policy to take place. It is not that house building is unimportant, but we need to put it in the context of a much wider look at the real needs of people and not the needs for which politicians anticipate good Press coverage.
The work encapsulated in our housing Green Paper, which has been commended on both sides of the House, has already led to changes in policy and procedures as we have built up the work. We have not awaited the publication of the Green Paper or the policy statement that my right hon. Friend made earlier, on the basis of that Green Paper, before acting in these matters.
We shall bring forward the legislative proposals, but Conservative Members should mark the order in which action is taken. First, we establish the need by the most extensive study and analysis of housing problems in this country that has ever been undertaken. Secondly, we formulate and implement policy changes and, where necessary, carry them forward. The comprehensive Bill that my right hon. Friend outlined will do just that.
This wider development of housing policy has had a number of ingredients already. The first aspect is the quality of life. Hon. Members, not for the first time, have raised the question of high-density living, high-rise blocks and industrial building—the latter subject was raised, with much stress, by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Dean). Action was taken from 1974 onwards, within a few months of our taking office, to put a stop to high-rise building and medium-rise accommodation for families.
There are no tall blocks or even medium-rise blocks being planned for family occupation. When we came into office, such accommodation represented nearly 20 per cent. of the total programme. It now represents less than 1 per cent. That is a worthwhile achievement. We did not await the Green Paper or legislation. We did not even await the changes in density policies that some of the structure plans, under our influence, are implementing. We took action.
We have altered density policy, which is of great significance for future housing development in our urban areas. Coupled with that, we must deal with the existing stock by changes of management policies, which are already being put in train, which we are encouraging and upon which we are giving guidance. We have stressed, as my right hon. Friend did again today, the importance of housing management initiatives and experiments in neighbourhood management schemes. We have acted upon them in conjunction with local authorities throughout the country.
When I took office in 1974, the Department did not employ one adviser or consultant on housing management. We now have a housing services advisory group, and a housing management services unit is being set in post. We have issued a full series of reports. In conjunction with about 30 local authorities throughout the country, we have undertaken studies of the worst problem housing estates. We are implementing the results of the studies. We are not awaiting some new policy or new legislation before taking action. Action is being taken now.
I shall complete my references to housing management before giving way.
We have taken a series of steps in housing management as a preliminary to the further steps that will be anchored in the legislative proposals to which my right hon. Friend referred. We have taken matters further than that. We have initiated schemes that I know were lying on my predecessor's desk in the previous Tory Administration. Conservative Members have endorsed the schemes in the House and elsewhere, but they did not act upon them when in office.
Community leasehold schemes, shared equity schemes and co-operatives are now coming forward in their hundreds in various forms throughout the country. There are almost 150 co-operative schemes in the pipeline as a result of action taken only 18 months ago. The setting up of a Co-operative Housing Agency is another measure that we have undertaken. I could quote a series of other actions that we have undertaken in contact with local authorities and in sponsoring projects at official level and ministerially. That has been going on over the past four years. It is now producing the result that lead us to provide the framework in legislation that will carry matters further forward.
There has not been an increase in empty properties. On the contrary. I shall list some of the projects that have been undertaken in widening tenure choice and the management systems which have contributed to that.
There has been an increase in short-life property licensing arrangements. A series of community leasehold housing associations has been sponsored. Some of the associations are now converting themselves into co-operatives. There has been a range of measures, and we have been encouraged by the fact that 40 local authorities have agreed to undertake leasing schemes from private owners for short terms, or in some instances running up to 21-year leases on a review basis. There was only one local authority undertaking such arrangements when we came into office.
There has been a series of initiatives. We issued a report on these matters a few months ago. We collated all the different methods being applied throughout the country and issued the report to local authorities.
Where there is real, hard evidence of properties being unnecessarily empty, it behoves all public representatives, including Members of Parliament—I am now speaking as much as a Member as a Minister—to have direct contact with their town halls and to encourage actions that could be taken, either by purchase or by negotiating leasing arrangements of the sort to which I have briefly referred. Some properties will stand empty for various reasons. Some are on the market for certain periods. Others are subject to repairs. There are others that are unnecessarily empty. We must talk to the authorities and bring our influence to hear.
There have been the various initiatives to which I have referred. They have all been directed to widening the choice of tenure that is essential in housing. More than that, the schemes that I have outlined, and to which we have been giving a great deal of time in the past few years, introduce a community dimension to housing that has been missing for far too long. That is to be coupled closely with the kind of estate management and neighbourhood management experiments which we are sponsoring with a number of local authorities. Various authorities which are not directly associated with the projects which we are sponsoring are being advised about these matters. Many things are being done. We are widening choice and introducing the social dimension in housing at neighbourhood level.
I stress that one of the most important factors in widening choice is to be found in Housing Corporation and housing association work. Here I quote action, not rhetoric. For years Opposition Members, when in Government, spoke grandiosely about the third arm of housing, referring to the housing association movement. At most they produced about 9,000 or 10,000 dwellings a year. That was the figure which was operating in 1973. For most of the earlier period the figure had been about 6,000. In the course of four years housing association work has expanded to nearly 40,000 dwellings a year.
It was 32,000 last year. I am speaking of 1978. But 32,000 is a threefold increase on what went on under the Conservative Government. This year it will be a fourfold increase. The facts are that in 1978 we expect to see between 35,000 and 40,000 dwellings.
I said between 35,000 and 40,000 dwellings, which is nearly four times as many as under the Conservative Administration. That is an achievement of fact nor rhetoric.
The housing association movement is also moving more of its activity into inner urban areas where the greatest stress lies. It is purchasing properties for social ownership. It is modernising, repairing and converting and providing those properties at reasonable rents for people who are in the greatest need. It is also participating on an expanding scale in cooperative housing, community leasehold, shared equity and even down-market provision for sale. It has our backing and encouragement. We reject the idea that the Government are concerned with only one kind of tenure. We must aim for a variety of tenure. We do not want to see an indiscriminate eroding of rented property.
Time and again Opposition Members complain about the inadequate supply of rented housing. In fact, there are about the same numbers of rented dwellings now as there were 30 years ago. The difference is that the bulk were then privately owned and mostly sub-standard, whereas today the bulk of them are publicly owned by local authorities and housing associations and they are in mostly good condition. If we were to get rid of that kind of stock on an indiscriminate basis, which is the policy of the Opposition, we would undermine the provision of rented housing.
The hon. Gentleman is wrong in his understanding of the demography of the big cities. In London alone, the vast majority of single people are in accommodation. But there has been a tremendous increase in the numbers of single-person households and an inadequate total supply of housing stock in London to meet the needs of those households. There has been an increase, not a reduction, in supply, but it has been overtaken by an increase in the numbers of small households, not only in London but throughout the country.
The millions of homes now provided by local authorities and housing associations are far and away of better quality than those they replaced over the last 30 years. They are provided at reasonable rents and the majority of them are first-class homes. The fact that we are concerned to improve the standards of the worst should not blind us to the fact that this country has a proud record in the provision of decent housing and at reasonable rents. There are countries throughout Europe and many people in the Americas who would be delighted if they had anything like the provision we have made over the last 30 to 40 years. That is something not to denigrate but of which we should be proud and upon which we should build.
I turn now to the Conservative Party's policy on council house sales. Let me put to the Opposition one area of concern. It has not been this Government's policy to stop the sale of council houses. In our first policy circular in April 1974 we indicated that we had no intention of withdrawing the general consent. But we expressed the view, which we still hold, that it is wrong to undertake indiscriminate sales irrespective of the broad-based housing needs of the area and of the need to maintain a good stock of quality rented homes for those in greatest need.
That is the policy that we oppose, and that is what I ask the Opposition to consider when they talk of a so-called statutory right to buy. There already is such a statutory right. The real issue is whether there should be unqualified statutory compulsion upon local authorities indiscriminately to sell even where it can be shown that to do so would reduce the choice and reduce the number of good-quality homes for families to occupy, and even where it could be shown that there is an inadequate supply of rented housing.
We are entitled to put that concern to the Opposition when they advocate this kind of policy. We do not ask them to withdraw from a policy of council house sales as such, any more than we have withdrawn from it. We are, however, entitled to demand of public representatives who presume to take on executive responsibility in this place or in the town halls that they do not blind themselves to other needs or be so obsessed with one doctrinaire element of housing policy that they ignore all other needs It is that to which we are opposed, and if need he we shall act upon that when the time comes. We wish to see a variety of provision. That is our policy, and we urge it upon the Opposition.
Does not my right hon. Friend recall that during the last General Election campaign the Leader of the Opposition made the sale of council houses one of the strong planks of her party's platform? Is she aware that where Conservative local authorities are now offering council homes at 20 per cent. discount, the take-up is very small indeed?
Whatever may be said in this place and at Tory Party conferences, elsewhere a good deal more sense is being shown in this respect even by Conservative councillors. That is one of the reasons why the sale of council houses, of which two-thirds are already under the control of Conservative councils throughout the country, notwithstanding the windy rhetoric that we get on this subject from the Opposition, is in practice running at a very low level in relation to the total stock and the total additional stock that is being built.
In the last few minutes available to me I want to turn to another important aspect which concerns us and which should concern the Opposition and the country. We are glad to have received certain general assurances, at long last, about the Rent Acts in answer to questions that we have been putting to the Opposition on this matter for some time, and we take it as being on the record that the Opposition have no intention now of repealing the legislation on security of tenure or on rent regulation. That is what I understand from the statements that we have received. I hope that we shall see an end to the nagging, narking criticism of the Rent Acts that the Opposition now endorse.
Although I have said that we shall not repeal the Rent Acts and I have given certain assurances on security of tenure and rent regulation, that is not to say that there are not more than enough defects in the Acts that need putting right, and being put right very quickly.
I am all in favour of improving the Acts, but I am glad to have it on record that the Conservative Opposition, despite the years of nagging criticism and generalised opposition, and the undermining of people's confidence in this legislation, are in favour of security of tenure in law and of maintaining the system of rent regulation. At long last we have got that on the record, and we are glad to have it so.
Let me turn to another aspect of policy on which the Opposition have not yet come clean. That is the question of the level of investment. The hon. Member for Hornsey made much play of the bids under the housing investment programme system. He knows perfectly well, being in contact with the local authorities concerned, that some of those which have spoken so much about the bids that they have put in being cut are, in fact, at risk of underspending the sums that have been granted to them. A good deal of the bidding that went on was very questionable, to say the least. I have said frankly to local authority representatives in discussions with them throughout the country, that we want realistic bids and that we shall make sure that the investment is available on the basis of realistic programmes.
Our concern at present is that under the exhortation of leading members of the Opposition, in this place and elsewhere, Tory councils throughout the country are going short on the investment programmes that are being allocated. What we should like to have from leading spokesmen of the Opposition is a public statement that they wish to see an expansion of investment in public sector housing, not a contraction. Will they please give us that undertaking? Or is it their intention to cut?
Or do we have to turn to the other Shadow Housing Minister, the right hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East (Sir G. Howe), who, at a stroke, in 1978 wishes to cut by £150 million the investment programmes of local authorities under the housing investment programme system? He announced that only a week or so ago. Whom are we to believe—the Shadow spokesman here or the Shadow spokesman for the Treasury, who is the other housing Shadow? The right hon. and learned Gentleman says "Cut". Does the hon. Member for Hornsey say "Cut investment programmes" after having complained about "phoney" cuts that we are supposed to have imposed? Will he please tell us—I shall gladly give way—whether he will maintain the present level of housing investment in the public sector and whether, when economic circumstances permit it, he will support an expansion of that provision? I gladly give way. [HoN. MEMBERS: "Answer."] Well, we shall take note of this and come back to it on another occasion. The present Government will maintain the provision. We shall do our best to encourage local authorities to take up the programmes that have been allocated. It will be in new building for special needs and general needs—
Not now. The hon. Member had his chance.
We shall do our best to make sure that councils take up the resources that have been programmed on new build, on buying substandard housing for conversion and modernisation, and for special needs, and on their allocation for home loans—
|Division No. 236]||AYES||[10.00 p.m.|
|Altken, Jonathan||Boscawen, Hon Robert||Burden, F. A.|
|Alison, Michael||Bottomley, Peter||Butler, Adam (Bosworth)|
|Amery, Rt Hon Julian||Bowden, A. (Brighton, Kemptown)||Carlisle, Mark|
|Arnold, Tom||Boyson, Dr Rhodes (Brent)||Chalker, Mrs Lynda|
|Atkins, Rt Hon H. (Spelthorne)||Bralne, Sir Bernard||Churchill, W. S.|
|Atkinson, David (B'mouth, East)||Brittan, Leon||Clark, Alan (Plymouth, Sutton)|
|Awdry, Daniel||Brocklebank-Fowler, C.||Clark, William (Croydon S)|
|Baker, Kenneth||Brooke, Hon Peter||Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcllfle)|
|Bell, Ronald||Brotherton, Michael||Clegg, Walter|
|Bendall, Vivian||Brown, Sir Edward (Bath)||Cope, John|
|Bennett, Dr Reginald (Fareham)||Bryan, Sir Paul||Cormack, Patrick|
|Benyon, W.||Buchanan-Smith, Allck||Costaln, A. P.|
|Bitten, John||Buck, Antony||Crouch, David|
|Biggs-Davlson, John||Budgen, Nick||Crowder, F. P.|
|Body, Richard||Bulmer, Esmond||Davles, Rt Hon J. (Knutsford)|
|Dean, Paul (N Somerset)||James, David||Prior, Rt Hon James|
|Dodsworth, Geoffrey||Jenkin, Rt Hon P. (Wanat'd&W'df'd)||Pym, Rt Hon Francis|
|Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James||Johnson Smith, G. (E Grlnstead)||Ralson, Timothy|
|Drayson, Burnaby||Jones, Arthur (Daventry)||Rathbone, Tim|
|du Cann, Rt Hon Edward||Jopling, Michael||Rees, Peter (Dover & Deal)|
|Dunlop, John||Joseph, Rt Hon Sir Keith||Rees-Davles, W. R.|
|Durant, Tony||Kilfedder, James||Ronton, Rt Hon Sir D. (Hunts)|
|Dykes, Hugh||Kimball, Marcus||Renton, Tim (Mid-Sussex)|
|Eden, Rt Hon Sir John||King, Evelyn (South Dorset)||Rhodes James, R.|
|Edwards, Nicholas (Pembroke)||King, Tom (Bridgwater)||Rhys, Williams, Sir Brandon|
|Elliott, Sir William||Kltson, Sir Timothy||Ridley, Hon Nicholas|
|Evans, Gwynfor (Carmarthen)||Knox, David||Ridsdale, Julian|
|Eyre, Reginald||Lamont, Norman||Rifkind, Malcolm|
|Fairbairn, Nicholas||Langford-Holt, Sir John||Roberts, Wyn (Conway)|
|Fairgrieve, Russell||Latham, Michael (Melton)||Rossi, Hugh (Hornsey)|
|Farr, John||Lawson, Nigel||Rost, Peter (SE Derbyshire)|
|Fell, Anthony||Lester, Jim (Beeston)||Royle, Sir Anthony|
|Finsberg, Geoffrey||Lewis, Kenneth (Rutland)||Sainsbury, Tim|
|Fisher, Sir Nigel||Lloyd, Ian||St. John-Stevas, Norman|
|Fletcher, Alex (Edinburgh N)||Loveridge, John||Scott, Nicholas|
|Fletcher-Cooke, Charles||Luce, Richard||Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)|
|Fookes, Miss Janet||McAdden, Sir Stephen||Shelton, William (Streatham)|
|Forman, Nigel||McCrlndle, Robert||Shepherd, Colin|
|Fowler, Norman (Sutton C'fd)||Mocfarlane, Nell||Shersby, Michael|
|Fox, Marcus||MacGregor, John||Silvester, Fred|
|Faser, Rt Hon H. (Stafford & St)||MscKay, Andrew (Stechford)||Sims, Roger|
|Freud, Clement||Macmillan, Rt Hon M. (Farnham)||Sinclair, Sir George]|
|Fry, Peter||McNair-Wilson, M. (Newbury)||Smith, Dudley (Warwick)|
|Galbraith, Hon T. G. D.||MsNalr-Wllson, P. (New Forest)||Smith, Timothy John (Ashfleld)|
|Gardiner, George (Relgate)||Marshall. Michael (Arundel)||Splcer, Michael (S Worcester)|
|Gardiner, Edward (S Fylde)||Marten, Nell||Sproat, lain|
|Gilmour, Rt Hon Sir Ian (Chesham)||Mather, Carol||Stalnton, Keith]|
|Gilmour, Sir John (East Fife)||Maude, Angus||Stanbrook, Ivor|
|Glyn, Dr Alan||Maudllng, Rt Hon Reginald||Stanley, John|
|Godber, Rt Hon Joseph||Mawby, Ray||Steen, Anthony (Wavertree)|
|Goodhew, Victor||Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin||Stewart, Ian (Hltchin)|
|Goodlad, Alastair||Mayhew, Patrick||Stokes, John|
|Gorst, John||Meyer, Sir Anthony||Stradling Thomas, J.|
|Gow, Ian (Eastbourne)||Miller, Hal (Bromsgrove)||Tapsell, Peter|
|Gower, Sir Raymond (Barry)||Mills, Peter||Taylor, R. (Croydon NW)|
|Gray, Hamlsh||Ml8campbell, Norman||Taylor, Teddy (Cathcart)|
|Griffiths, Eldon||Mitchell, David (Basingstoke)||Tebblt, Norman|
|Grimond, Rt Hon J.||Moate, Roger||Temple-Morris, Peter|
|Grist, Ian||Monro, Hector||Thatcher, Rt Hon Margaret|
|Grylls, Michael||Montgomery, Fergus||Thomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)|
|Hall-Davis, A. G. F.||Moore, John (Croydon C)||Thomas, Rt Hon P. (Hendon S)|
|Hamilton, Archibald (Epsom & Ewell)||More, Jasper (Ludlow)||Townsend, Cyril D.|
|Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury)||Morgan, Geraint||Trotter, Neville|
|Hampson, Dr Keith||Morgan-Giles, Rear-Admiral||van Straubenzee, W. R.|
|Hannam, John||Morris, Michael (Northampton S)||Vaughan, Dr Gerard|
|Harvie Anderson, Rt Hon Miss||Morrison, Charles (Devizes)||Vlggers, Peter|
|Haselhurst, Alan||Morrison, Hon Peter (Chester)||Wainwrlghl, Richard (Colne V)|
|Hastlnga, Stephen||Mudd, David||Wakeham, John|
|Havers, Rt Hon Sir Michael||Neave, Alrey||Walder, David (Clitheroe)|
|Hayhoe, Barney||Nelson, Anthony||Walker, Rt Hon P. (Worcester)|
|Heath, Rt Hon Edward||Neubert, Michael||Walters, Dennis|
|Heseltine, Michael||Newton, Tony||Weatherlll, Bernard|
|Hicks, Robert||Normanton, Tom||Wells, John|
|Higgins, Terence L.||Nott, John||Whltelaw, Rt Hon William|
|Hodgson, Robin||Oppenheim, Mra Sally||Whitney, Raymond|
|Holland, Philip||Page, Rt Hon R. Graham (Crosby)||Wlggln, Jerry|
|Hordern, Peter||Page, Richard (Workington)||Wlgley, Dafydd|
|Howe, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey||Pardoe, John||Wood, Rt Hon Richard|
|Howell, David (Guildford)||Parkinson, Cecil||Young, Sir G. (Ealing, Acton)|
|Howell, Ralph (North Norfolk)||Penhallgon, David||Younger, Hon George|
|Hunt, David (Wlrral)||Perclval, Ian|
|Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)||Peyton, Rt Hon John||TELLERS FOR THE AYES:|
|Hurd, Douglas||Pink, R. Bonner||Mr. Anthony Berry and|
|Hutchison, Michael Clark||Prentice, Rt Hon Reg||Mr. Michael Roberts.|
|Irving, Charles (Cheltenham)||Price, David (Eastleigh)|
|Abse, Leo||Bean, R. E.||Bray, Dr Jeremy|
|Allaun, Frank||Benn, Rt Hon Anthony Wedgwood||Brown, Hugh D. (Provan)|
|Anderson, Donald||Bennett, Andrew (Stockport N)||Brown, Robert C. (Newcastle W)|
|Archer, Rt Hon Peter||Bldwell, Sydney||Buchan, Norman|
|Armstrong, Ernest||Bishop, Rt Hon Edward||Buchanan, Richard|
|Ashley, Jack||Blenklnsop, Arthur||Butler, Mrs Joyce (Wood Green)|
|Ashton, Joe||Boardman, H.||Callaghan, Rt Hon J. (Cardiff SE)|
|Atkins, Ronald (Preston N)||Booth, Rt Hon Albert||Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P)|
|Atkinson, Norman (H'gey, Tott'ham)||Boothroyd, Miss Betty||Campbell, Ian|
|Barnett, Guy (Greenwich)||Bottomley, Rt Hon Arthur||Canavan, Dennis|
|Barnett, Rt Hon Joel (Heywood)||Boyden, James (Bish Auck)||Cant, R. B.|
|Bates, Alf||Bradley, Tom||Carmlchael, Nell|
|Carter, Ray||Jackson, Colin (Brighouse)||Price, William (Rugby)|
|Carter-Jones, Lewis||Janner, Greville||Radice, Giles|
|Cartwright, John||Jay, Rt Hon Douglas||Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn (Leeds S)|
|Castle, Rt Hon Barbara||Jeger, Mrs Lena||Richardson, Miss Jo|
|Clemitson, Ivor||Jenkins, Hugh (Putney)||Roberts, Albert (Normanton)|
|Cocks, Rt Hon Michael (Bristol S)||John, Brynmor||Roberts, Gwilym (Cannock)|
|Cohen, Stanley||Johnson, James (Hull West)||Robertson, George (Hamilton)|
|Concannon, Rt Hon John||Johnson, Waiter (Derby S)||Robertson, John (Paisley)|
|Conlan, Bernard||Jones, Alec (Rhondda)||Robinson, Geoffrey|
|Cowans, Harry||Jones, Barry (East Flint)||Roderick, Caerwyn|
|Cox, Thomas (Tooting)||Jones, Dan (Burnley)||Rodgers, George (Chorley)|
|Crawshaw, Richard||Judd, Frank||Rodgers, Rt Hon William (Stockton)|
|Cronin, John||Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald||Rooker, J. W.|
|Crowther, Stan (Rotherham)||Kelley, Richard||Rose, Paul B.|
|Cryer, Bob||Kilroy-Sllk, Robert||Rowlands, Ted|
|Cunningham, Dr J. (Whlteh)||Kinnock, Neil||Ryman, John|
|Davidson, Arthur||Lambie, David||Sandelson, Neville|
|Davies, Bryan (Enfield N)||Lamborn, Harry||Sedgemore, Brian|
|Davies, Rt Hon Denzil||Lamond, James||Selby, Harry|
|Davies, lfor (Gower)||Latham, Arthur (Paddington)||Sever, John|
|Davis, Clinton (Hackney C)||Leadbitter, Ted||Shaw, Arnold (llford South)|
|Deakins, Eric||Lee, John||Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert|
|Dean, Joseph (Leeds West)||Lestor, Miss Joan (Eton & Slough)||Shore, Rt Hon Peter|
|Dell, Rt Hon Edmund||Lever, Rt Hon Harold||Silkin, Rt Hon John (Deptford)|
|Dempsey, James||Litterick, Tom||Silkin, Rt Hon S. C. (Dulwich)|
|Dewar, Donald||Loyden, Eddie||Sillars, James|
|Doig, Peter||Luard, Evan||Skinner, Dennis|
|Dormand, J. D.||Lyon, Alexander (York)||Smith, Rt. Hon. John (N Lanarkshire)|
|Douglas-Mann, Bruce||Lyons, Edward (Bradford W)||Snape, Peter|
|Duffy, A. E. P.||Mabon, Rt Hon Dr J. Dickson||Soearlng Nigel|
|Dunnett, Jack||McCartney, Hugh||Spriggs, Leslie|
|Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth||MacCormick, lain||Stallard, A. W.|
|Eadle, Alex||McDonald, Dr Oonagh||Stewart, Rt Hon Donald|
|Edge, Geoff||McElhone Frank||Stewart, Rt Hon M. (Fulham)|
|Ellis, Tom (Wrexham)||Mae Farquher, Roderick||Stoddart, David|
|English, Michael||MacKenzie Rt Hon Gregor||Stott, Roger|
|Evans, Fred (Caerphilly)||Mackintosh, John P.||Strang, Gavin|
|Evans, loan (Abeidare)||Maclennan Robert||Strause, Rt Hon G. R.|
|Evans, John (Newton)||McMillan Tom (Glasgow C)||Summerskill, Hon Dr Shirley|
|Ewing, Harry (Stirling)||Madden, Max||Swain, Thomas|
|Fernyhough, Rt Hon E.||Magee, Bryan||Taylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W)|
|Fitt, Gerard (Belfast W)||Mahon, Simon||Thomas, Jeffrey (Abertlllery)|
|Flannery, Martin||Mallalieu J P W||Thomas, Mike (Newcastle E)|
|Fletcher, L. R. (Ilkeston)||Mallalieu, J. P. W.||Thomas, Ron (Bristol NW)|
|Fletcher, Ted (Darlington)||Marks, Kenneth||Thorne, Stan (Preston South)|
|Foot, Rt Hon Michael||Marshall, Dr Edmund (Goole)||Tierney, Sydney|
|Ford, Ben||Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)||Tilley, John|
|Forrester, John||Mason, Rt Hon Roy||Tinn, James|
|Fowler, Gerald (The Wrekin)||Maynard, Miss Joan||Tomlinson, John|
|Fraser, John (Lambeth, N'w'd)||Meacher, Michael||Torney, Tom|
|Freeson, Rt Hon Reginald||Mellish, Rt Hon Robert||Tuck, Raphael|
|Garrett, John (Norwich S)||Mikardo, Ian||Varley, Rt Hon Eric G.|
|Garrett, W. E. (Wallsend)||Millan, Rt Hon Bruce||Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne V)|
|Ginsburg, David||Miller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride)||Walker, Harold (Doncaster)|
|Golding, John||Mitchell, Austin (Grimsby)||Walker, Terry (Kingswood)|
|Gould, Bryan||Molloy, William||Ward, Michael|
|Gourlay, Harry||Moonman, Eric||Watkins, David|
|Graham, Ted||Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe)||Watt, Hamish|
|Grant, George (Morpeth)||Morris, Rt Hon Charles R.||Weetch, Ken|
|Grant, John (Islington C)||Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)||Weitzman, David|
|Grocott, Bruce||Moyle, Rt. Hon. Roland||Wellbeloved, James|
|Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife)||Mulley, Rt Hon Frederick||While, Frank R. (Bury)|
|Harper, Joseph||Murray, Rt Hon Ronald King||White, James (Pollok)|
|Harrison, Rt Hon Walter||Newens, Stanley||Whitlock, William|
|Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy||Noble, Mike||Willey, Rt Hon Frederick|
|Hayman, Mrs Helene||Oakes, Gordon||Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)|
|Healey, Rt Hon Denis||Ogden, Eric||Williams, Rt Hon Shirley (Hertford)|
|Heffer, Eric S.||O'Halloran, Michael||Williams, Sir Thomas (Warrington)|
|Henderson, Douglas||Orme. Rt Hon Stanley||Wilson, Gordon (Dundee ET|
|Hooley, Frank||Ovenden, John||Wilson, Rt Hon Sir Harold (Huvton)|
|Horam, John||Owen, Rt Hon Dr David||Wilson, William (Coventry SE)|
|Howell, Rt Hon Denis (B'ham, Sm H)||Padley, Walter||Wise, Mrs Audrey|
|Hoyle, Doug (Nelson)||Palmer, Arthur||Woodall, Alec|
|Huckfield, Les||Park, George||Woof, Robert|
|Hughes, Rt Hon C. (Anglesey)||Parker, John||Wrigglesworth, Ian|
|Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)||Parry, Robert|
|Hughes, Roy (Newport)||Pavitt, Laurie||TELLERS FOR THE NOES:|
|Hunter, Adam||Pendry, Tom||Mr. James Hamilton and|
|Irvine, Rt Hon Sir A. (Edge Hill)||Perry, Ernest||Mr. Donald Coleman.|
|Irving, Rt Hon S. (Dartford)||Price, C. (Lewlsham W)|