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.