Does that answer not demonstrate that the Government's complacency is outstripped only by their negligence? Is it not clear that if present policies are maintained, houses built today will have to remain in a habitable condition for longer than the life of even the oldest occupied building in our islands? Do houses built today have a life expectancy of 1,000 years?
That is a rather naive question, because it does not take into account the age of the stock that we are considering. The rate of demolition has been falling for a number of years, not least because local authorities perceived the social damage that resulted from wholesale demolition in the 1960s. Under this Government the rate of demolition has continued to decline, but there has been a dramatic escalation in expenditure on improvement grants. Those trends should be commended rather than deplored.
Does not the freezing of council assets produce problems of principle out of all proportion to any theoretical benefit that the Treasury might derive? Will my hon. Friend confirm that one of the main points of selling council houses is to give to local authorities the capital that they need to meet their many and various requirements, particularly in housing?
My hon. Friend has raised a slightly broader point, which we debated at length on, I think, 19 December. For next year we have made available about £3 billion for public investment in housing. That is broadly the same amount as was available this year and, indeed, in the two preceding years. Within that figure I hope that the local authorities will be able to tackle the essential elements that need attention within their housing stocks.
Why does the Minister pretend that he is not cutting housing investment programmes? Does he not realise that there have been massive cuts in the amount of money available for improvement grants and new house building, and that the Government's policies will lead inexorably to the return of the bulldozer and to massive slum clearances? Why has Sefton council, a Conservative-controlled authority which introduced a moratorium when the Minister requested restraint, had a massive cut in its housing investment programme, and why has it received only 30 per cent. of what it asked for? Housing will continue to decline, stocks will become worse, and yet improvement grants will not be given.
Perhaps I can refresh the hon. Gentleman's memory. In the last year of the Labour Government £90 million was spent on improvement grants, while the figure for the last year was £900 million. That puts the hon. Gentleman's figures into perspective. The major cuts in public sector investment in housing took place between 1974 and 1979, when such investment fell by 45 per cent. after allowing for inflation. The hon. Gentleman should bear in mind that the comparable figure for this Government is 17 per cent. I hope that he will redirect his criticisms.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is quite disgraceful that a Member of Parliament should be unable to obtain figures from local authorities for the number of council properties in their ownership that have been empty for up to 12 months? Is it not incumbent upon us to know the figures and to know what problems are so that we can see how to solve them?
I agree with my hon. Friend, and that is one of the matters that may be considered by the inquiry to which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has referred. About 25,000 units have been empty for more than a year and it is essential that we do all that we can to bring them back into use. I regret that Norwich city council has not considered it necessary to give the Department essential information about its housing stock.
The Minister has told us that expenditure last year on improvement grants amounted to £900 million, but why did he not go on to say—as he said in a letter to me yesterday — that this year the level of expenditure on improvement grants is likely to be £700 million, meaning a reduction of £200 million? Does that not mean the return of the bulldozer to many of our cities? What will he do to ensure that the limited housing improvement grants are used in housing action areas?
If the figure of £750 million were achieved, it would have to be compared with the figure for the last year of the Lib-Lab pact, which was £90 million. There is an element of hypocrisy in some of the questions that are directed at the Government about expenditure on improvement grants. That expenditure is at a record level.