Experience of the civil war made Colchester a town of religious and political tolerance and diversity. It has become a town where a man can come from, for example, Northern Ireland, and few will worry whether he be a Catholic or a Protestant. Sir Antony taught me not merely that it would be a privilege to sit here but that it would be a privilege to represent all the people of North Colchester —of all classes, colours, creeds and politics. That was in the tradition, I might add, of my noble Friend Lord Alport, also a former Member for the town. They have set me a fine and difficult example to follow. The people of North Colchester hold them both in remarkable affection and esteem. Sir Antony also distinguished himself here, in that after years of argument and controvery over defence, for example, it is due to people such as he that we can now look socialists in the face with pride and say, "You now subscribe to our views."
My succession, however, was not universally acclaimed. North Colchester overlaps two boroughs, Colchester and Tendring district, which are both Liberal Democrat-controlled. Colchester borough council welcomed both me and my hon. Friend the Member for South Colchester and Maldon (Mr. Whittingdale) with a somewhat barbed congratulation to work
in a spirit of partnership to overcome the Borough's worsening housing crisis".
How bad that crisis is is a matter of opinion, but they may be surprised; I am most happy to oblige the councils of both Tendring and Colchester and to work, as is my duty, in that spirit alongside them.
I invite them to examine with me the possibilities of working to expand the role of housing associations in the area, which currently represent only a tiny proportion of the overall housing stock. In particular, I invite them to explore the possibility of seeking large-scale voluntary transfers of council housing stock to the private sector —some 12,500 homes.
In Colchester borough's motion, councillors call for the release of local authority capital receipts. Under this Government, or in reality, any Government, that is a blind alley, leading back to the general failure of councils as providers of housing, let alone to all the public expenditure implications. Therefore, I urge them, through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to put aside all party differences. Let us see what we can achieve to help the people whom we are all elected to represent.
There have been many exciting developments in housing during the last 12 years, or even longer. When Sir Antony Buck was first elected to the Colchester division in 1961, home ownership was already reasonably high, at 48·4 per cent. Today it is well over 70 per cent. Tenants' rights in the public sector and, to a certain extent, in the private sector have been dramatically enhanced. We see exciting opportunities for mobility in housing between the rented and owner-occupied sectors through schemes such as rents-to-mortgages.
The real test of Government policy, however, whether local or national, is how well opportunities can be made to match the aspirations of the people who most need to improve their circumstances, whether the urban or the rural poor. Let us not talk merely in materialistic terms. Great visions are based upon great values. People's well-being depends as much upon the ability to control their own destinies, to make choices, as upon bricks and mortar and state handouts. We need to raise aspirations as much as funds.
I was delighted by the Minister's comments and urge him to continue his mission to increase tenants' rights—not just for council tenants but for housing association and private tenants. There is something of a paradox in urging north Colchester's council tenants to move to the housing association sector given that future tenants—not so much existing tenants—may have fewer rights than they would enjoy in the public sector at present. There is a need for a level playing field between public and private sector landlords.
The early large-scale voluntary transfers can really only be described as 50 per cent. successful. Many of them were far too large. In Colchester and Tendring, let us look for small multiple voluntary transfers and let us try to preserve and to enhance the rights of existing and future tenants in the process. Nor should we ignore the public expenditure consequences. There is some concern that voluntary transfers of public housing stock can have bad consequences for taxpayers generally.
It has become a cliché to say that an Englishman's home is his castle, but I invite all councillors in North Colchester to work together to that fundamental and, indeed, democratic end. It will be a rewarding privilege to help them to pursue that end in this citadel of democracy, this sovereign Parliament, and to continue Colchester's historic development, not least as an important gateway to Europe. I am reminded that, not long after the Romans left Colchester, the Danes arrived. Long may that partnership also thrive.