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 Michael Latham Mr Michael Latham , Melton 12:00 am, 21st June 1978

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.