Local Authority Capital Expenditure

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:20 pm on 19th December 1984.

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Photo of Mr Barry Jones Mr Barry Jones Shadow Secretary of State 6:20 pm, 19th December 1984

As the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) has illustrated, the debate has been both contentious and lively. Indeed, it has been a Back Benchers' debate. The pity of it is that many hon. Members sought to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, but were prevented from speaking by the pressures of time.

In his opening speech, the Secretary of State undoubtedly nailed his colours of Thatcherism to the mast. But I believe that many hon. Members on both sides of the House rejected that academic defence. Many of us thought that we saw the very bankruptcy of the Government's policy throughout his speech, just as we saw it yesterday when he delivered his statement. The response of hon. Members on both sides of the House demonstrated that. After a searching examination by hon. Members from all parties, there was precious little support for the principles that the right hon. Gentleman had attempted to expound from the House.

The right hon. Gentleman's speech was replete with many revealing phrases, such as "public expenditure plans", "the overspend", "the contingency reserve", "the PSBR", "the cash limit" and "public sector resources". It was the dry as dust, unfeeling, intellectual approach of the Treasury Minister in exile. But we would say that housing is about people, and that is what was missing from the right hon. Gentleman's speech. Indeed, it was a speech made with the Chancellor of the Exchequer at his side, looking for all the world like a veritable minder. Many of us, particularly in the Opposition, believe that yesterday's statements, which have scandalised opinion within and without the House, were effectively constructed inside the Treasury. Indeed, housing Ministers seem to be the prisoners of the Treasury.

From the point of view of statecraft and of good, just government, the state and the Government should not pass up the chance to create good housing. The aim should surely be to lessen the divide between the haves and the have nots, and between those in good and those in wretched housing. If Cabinet Ministers will not tackle the rotten housing in our great cities, but instead seek to strangle the efforts of housing authorities to enhance the lives of the underprivileged, the badly housed and the unwaged, they are accomplices to the storing up of immense social and economic problems for future Governments.

I shall briefly outline some of the problems that we face in Wales. They are desperate problems, which it will take a long time to put right, even if we were in the ideal situation of having all the resources that we asked for. The Welsh housing problem is both unique and extremely worrying. It is worrying not only to those forced to live in conditions of increasing squalor but also to the various sectors of the Welsh housing industry which view the next 20 years with profound trepidation. They believe—as I do — that unless a properly planned, long-term programme of housing investment is launched very soon, we shall need to undertake massive slum clearance schemes by the end of the century.

The problem is as simple as it is serious. We have a vast stock—much larger than the average—of older houses that are now in need of urgent repair. About 39 per cent. of our total housing stock was built before 1919, compared with a figure of 29 per cent. for Britain as a whole. Indeed, 9 per cent. of Welsh homes are described as chronically unfit and another 18 per cent. need immediate renovation work. Thus we say that the Government have failed to tackle the housing crisis effectively.

I beg the Government to reconsider their inflexible approach. We have major human, social and economic problems in our valleys and in the great seaboard of towns of Swansea, Cardiff and Newport. In our valleys, one in five men are jobless. In south-east Wales health problems abound and are well above the average. As hon. Members will concede, the environment is frequently most unsatisfactory—to put it mildly. Our transport facilities are poor. In effect, the debate must be about the quality of life of those who live in the valleys of south-east Wales.

We say that it is unjust of the Government to deny those communities the prospect of a better life. Good housing is needed for that better life but it is not promised by the Government's promises as enunciated today. Housing allocations, and allocations for all other services, have in Wales taken a reduction in real terms of more than £60 million. The Welsh districts now claim an effective reduction of nearly one third in capital housing expenditure over the past two years. The reduced prescribed proportions of housing capital receipts and of other capital receipts have reduced those districts' spending power next year by £50 million at a stroke.

I say to the Secretary of State for Wales that a veritable mountain of sales receipts is staring him in the face. He should use it. He should not forget that, under his regime, a housing crisis of mammoth proportions has arisen. That crisis has paralleled a mass unemployment crisis, to which he has also contributed. We say that he has neglected the social and economic needs of the Welsh people as much as he has attacked and restricted the freedoms of local government.

Despite the Secretary of State's claims, at current rates of allowance for capital expenditure, it is estimated that it will take 40 years to improve the housing stock of the Cynon valley. That is an example of how the right hon. Gentleman has starved housing in Wales. I say to Conservative Back Benchers that Ministers clearly have not moved an inch from yesterday's much-condemned statements. Conservative Members have no doubt listened hard to find reasons for supporting the Government tonight, but if they objected yesterday to the Government's policy, they will surely object to it tonight. They should remember the many homeless, the unemployed building and construction workers, the many tenants, and particularly — perhaps from their point of view — the hard-hit owner-occupiers, who should be given grounds for hope.

For those reasons, I ask hon. Members to support us in the Lobby.