I accept the Minister's apology in the spirit that it was given. I hope that this will not happen again.
Mark Twain once said of one of the guests at his house party that the more the man talked of his honour the more they counted the spoons. The more the Minister for Housing and Construction talks about housing, the more we recognise that houses in public ownership will diminish in number. This new clause, in a small way, is no exception to that.
The Opposition have no objection to security of tenure being given to the tenants of county councils, with the exceptions that the Minister has now sensibly put in the Bill. As I understand them, they work in this way: if a person is employed by a county council—for example, as a school caretaker or as a police officer — on a service tenancy, where the occupation of a dwelling is a necessary consequence of the job, unless he lives within the curtilage of the building, once he has been in the job for more than three years, he has security of tenure. If the person is living within the curtilage of the building, that is a different matter. A school caretaker, for example, needs to live within the curtilage of the school. It would defeat the object of providing that accommodation if after three or four years that caretaker was able to have both security of tenure and the right to buy his home. I understand that there have to be exceptions in such circumstances.
The Opposition support the proposition contained in the new clause that the tenants of county councils should have security of tenure. However, we differ from the Government about extending the right to buy to those given security of tenure. Apart from specialist employees, those who live in county council owned accommodation as tenants in a sense will be there accidentally. They will be the tenants of houses which have been bought by a local authority in advance of a school building programme or a road widening programme or in anticipation of some other exercise of the county council's functions. They will be in that accommodation only until the county council wants to use the land for the prime purpose for which it bought it. The tenants will be occupying that accommodation as council tenants simply by accident.
Although the Opposition support the extension of security of tenure, we have reservations about the right to buy. In general, the right to buy has proved popular amongst some tenants. It is not popular amongst all, but it is popular amongst those who live in the more popular dwellings. That is how it has panned out. The better housing has been sold. The less attractive housing—flats especially—remains in council stock.
Throughout the Bill the Opposition have not sought to reverse the rights granted by the 1980 Act. But we have sought to take a much broader view of housing than simply the Government's fetish about public asset stripping. Their concern is not about the provision of more accommodation or about improving the condition of accommodation. Their obsession and fixation is about getting rid of the better housing accommodation to those who wart it and often at extravagant and absurd discounts.
In housing it is not tenure which is the most important matter. It is not even the type of dwelling. The two golden principles are adequate supply and adequate choice. The object of housing policy should be that every person and every family is able to choose to rent or to buy a home of reasonable size at a price which it can afford and that the exercise of one person's right to housing is not a denial of another person's right.
The objection which comes from some areas of the country to the right to buy is not an objection to owner-occupation or a demand for any kind of restraint on the legitimate desire of many people to own their homes. It is a concern about the broad objective of housing policy to ensure that one person's exercise of a right is not the interference in the exercise of a right of another person.
The clause illustrates that the Government do not take any broad or rounded view about housing policy or about local government policy. It is concerned largely with stripping public assets and financing their present housing programme on the proceeds of those sales.
We have a major crisis in housing at the moment with 1·5 million people on the waiting lists and thousands homeless. But I warn the House that that crisis will get very much worse in two or three years. If we look at the HIP allocations published only a few weeks ago we see that virtually one half of all housing capital expenditure is being financed from the sale of council houses. Earlier today hon. Members were told in answer to a question that about 600,000 dwellings had been sold, and about 40,000 in the housing association sector. That was simply the first flush of the operation of the 1980 Act.
This Bill is about reviving a dying trend. The tendency of people to buy their homes is dying off. Those who wanted the best homes and had the ability to buy them have opted to do so, and those houses have passed into private ownership. Those purchases are now dying away. If in the year 1984–85 one half of all housing capital expenditure is coming from the receipts of sales of council houses, what happens when the sale of council houses has died away altogether? Will the Treasury provide the other £1,500 million or so for council capital expenditure on housing, or is the present catastrophically low figure of new construction to die away even further? If this policy continues, in two or three years there will be an even greater catastrophe than we have at the moment.
I come to the objectionable details of the clause. I have no quarrel with the proposal to give general security of tenure to the tenants of county councils. However, the clause also gives the right to buy in circumstances which could be absurdly costly to local authorities. A local authority could buy land with housing on it in advance of the construction of a school or the widening of a road. If it let those premises to a tenant for more than a temporary period, the tenant would receive security of tenure. When at some future date the authority wanted to go ahead with its school building programme or its road widening programme, it would have to buy back the house from the tenant at a price at least 50 per cent. higher than the selling price to the tenant.
If a house cost £20,000 and the letting was for more than three years, it could hardly be said that it was exempted by schedule 3 of the 1980 Act, paragraph 4 of which provides:
A tenancy is not a secure tenancy if the dwelling-house is on land which has been acquired for development … and … is used by the landlord, pending development of the land, as temporary housing accommodation.
If the local authority buys land and lets the accommodation on it for three, four or five years, that can hardly be described as a temporary letting. The tenant will not only become secure but will have the right to buy. The house will pass into the hands of the tenant. If the local authority wants to acquire the house back again for the purposes of its proposed development even a month or two later, it will have to pay at least 50 per cent. more than the price at which it sold that house.
That is absurd. It is the sort of proposition illustrated by this legislation. It is wasteful and an absurd incursion on good planning by local authorities in buying land in advance and making it available for letting. That is why the Opposition oppose the new clause.
There is another way out for the county council. It is to leave the premises vacant. But, given the scale of housing need, to leave housing vacant is quite unjust and an absurd use of housing assets. We suggest that security of tenure should be given to those who occupy county council accommodation. But if the land is needed for further requirements, the way in which the 1980 Act is drafted is not wide enough to protect the county council. That being so, the right to buy should not go along with the security of tenure, which we welcome.