Local Authorities (Capital Expenditure)

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 4:41 pm on 27th February 1985.

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Photo of Mr John Heddle Mr John Heddle , Staffordshire Mid 4:41 pm, 27th February 1985

I am, of course, excluding the Front Benches.

I declare an interest as a vice-president of the Building Societies Association. It is not a pecuniary interest, but an honorary one, but one that I feel I ought to declare in view of what I have to say. I applaud the sentiments that my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing expressed, and I applaud also the Government's dedication to restricting the country's overdraft — the public sector borrowing requirement. High borrowing means higher inflation, which means high interest rates, which means more distress for industry and commerce and every borrower, including home owners.

I must confess that I find an element of contradiction — although I am not an economist, far less an accountant—in the Government amendment. However, I am prepared to listen to both sides of the argument and not to be strangled by the collar of mongrel political dogma. There is an answer to the problem. Local government finance is beset with a myriad of contradictions and mysteries resulting from what I understand is called annuality, which means that in any 12 months a sum of money still in the council's bank account must be spent before the end of that year, otherwise the council will not get more in the next year. That is not how industry and commerce runs its affairs, or how right hon. and hon. Members run their domestic affairs. That is why I applaud the statement that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made in October at Brighton, when he said that he was prepared to examine local government finance, not simply the rating system. If we can find a solution to that problem, those which we are debating today will not arise.

I am definitely a "don't know" and shall listen carefully to both sides of the argument and cast my vote accordingly. However, I shall not cast my vote with the Opposition, because nothing that they have said has a vestige of originality. They say that we should spend more on home improvements and build more council houses, not overnight, but in the lifetime of a Parliament or two. They believe that that will resolve the crisis, but it is nonsense. Building more council houses has not reduced waiting lists. The nation's housing crisis will be resolved only if greater use is made of our existing housing stock and if more local authorities take the trouble to examine the tenants' charter enshrined in the Housing Act 1980.

If more single people on council house waiting lists took the trouble to find the many elderly people who live in three-bedroomed council houses and who would dearly love the company and rent of such people, and if local authorities took the trouble to spell out the rights which the Government have given to every tenant, there would not be such a housing crisis.

I am not attracted by the crocodile tears of Opposition Members who talk of the reduction in money spent on home improvements in the past two Parliaments. Six short years ago, £90 million was spent on home improvement grants. How much was contributed by the ratepayer and the taxpayer in the last financial year? Twice as much? Five times as much? The answer is 10 times as much—£900 million — and yet Opposition Members bleat that not enough is being spent. Of course, enough can never be spent on the nation's housing stock. It is our heritage. Nevertheless, we must find a means of investing the money which ratepayers and taxpayers provide to the maximum public effect.