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.