Housing: Availability and Affordability - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:58 pm on 12th October 2017.

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Photo of Lord Horam Lord Horam Conservative 12:58 pm, 12th October 2017

My Lords, many noble Lords may recall the name Lord Harmar-Nicholls, now sadly no longer with us. I remember him when we were both Members of Parliament along the corridor, when he was the MP for Peterborough. He famously retained the seat with a majority of 12, on one occasion, and subsequently with a majority of three. He always said that his ambition was to double his majority. I mention him because, as the humble Mr Harmar-Nicholls at the Conservative Party conference in Blackpool in 1950, he raised the cry, “Three hundred thousand houses a year must be built”. The noble Lord, Lord Smith, in his excellent introductory speech referred to this occasion. That cry was taken up from the hall enthusiastically and, as the story goes, Lord Woolton, a famous chairman of the Conservative Party, was listening intently and whispered to the head of the Conservative research department sitting next to him, “Can it be done?”. The word came back, “In theory, yes, it can be done”. Lord Woolton terminated the debate by saying, “This is magnificent; it should be done. It should be Conservative Party policy”. Imagine it: a conference where Conservative Party policy was actually decided at the conference—those were the days. And so it was. It became Conservative Party policy.

In 1951, the Conservative Government were elected and the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, called on Harold Macmillan to be his Housing Minister. As the noble Lord, Lord Smith, again rightly pointed out, Harold Macmillan had really wanted to be Minister of Defence, but Winston Churchill said to him, “Harold, you’ll be loved in every humble home in this land if you can deliver 300,000 houses a year”. A glint came into Harold’s eye—he was not without ambition, as noble Lords will be aware—he realised the possibilities and got to work. He renamed the department the Department of Housing and Local Government, sacked the Permanent Secretary and brought in Evelyn Sharp, a famous civil servant. He brought in Sir Percy Mills, who had been a prominent industrialist in the Midlands during the Second World War, and appointed Ernie Marples, who had experience in construction, as his dynamic Parliamentary Secretary. He divided the country into 10 regions and got to work. In 1954, 317,000 houses were built. Not all of them were great houses, I have to confess. There a bit of rubbish there as well, but that target was achieved.

I mention all this because, obviously, it has been done. The target has been achieved, and I do not believe that it cannot be achieved again. It also shows the sort of drive that is needed to get something like this achieved. Crucial in all this was the fact that Harold Macmillan got the full-hearted support of not only Winston Churchill, who was then Prime Minister and for whom it became a personal commitment—as it is of our Prime Minister today—but Rab Butler, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Ironically, in view of future political events, Rab gave him full authority to raise the money to get on with building these houses. I fear that the problem today is the Treasury. Why was there a limit of £2 billion and 5,000 houses a year in the recent statement at conference? It is the Treasury—the dead hand of the Treasury. The fact is the Treasury is limiting this, and the reason it will give is that we have a deficit of 80% of our GDP at the moment and how can we possibly add to that. Well, in Harold Macmillan’s time, the deficit was 250% of GDP and they still did it. They did not worry about that too much then. The reason is the Treasury today is making no distinction between current and capital expenditure. I am all in favour of balancing current expenditure over the economic cycle, making some allowances, and indeed paying off some of our deficit. That is absolutely right and, as a Conservative, I totally support that. But it is madness to include capital expenditure in that.

As the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, pointed out in his speech, we should be borrowing against our assets. We are creating assets, against which the local authorities should be able to borrow. The noble Lord, Lord Cashman, may be interested to know that, in today’s Financial Times, there is an article making this very point: they make a distinction between current and capital expenditure in the Treasury in New Zealand and, therefore, New Zealand has a long-standing patient infrastructure programme, which we have never had in this country under any Government. So this is a problem for the Treasury, I think. We are also facing the possibility of a recession in 18 months or two years’ time. This would be a counter-cyclical policy, so it is good not only on housing grounds but economic grounds.

The House may remember that there was an excellent book produced by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe, The Blunders of Our Governments. I think I will produce a sequel: “The Mistakes of our Treasury”—unless it gets some sense in all this and behaves like an ordinary private company would. A private company would never get away with one number as the deficit; it would obviously have an account that would take into account the fact that it was spending money on development, research and building up assets. My plea to my noble friend, when he replies, is that he takes the views expressed in this debate today, with the urgency in which they have been made, to the Treasury. The job can be done, but it will not be done unless we get the Treasury right behind it.