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.