Housing

Part of Orders of the Day — Supply – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 21st June 1978.

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Photo of Mr William Benyon Mr William Benyon , Buckingham 12:00 am, 21st June 1978

No, I will not give way. Perhaps if we had more co-operation from the other side of the House I would, but I cannot do so because we have too little time.

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.