Council Houses

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:50 am on 11th June 2003.

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Photo of Mr Alan Hurst Mr Alan Hurst Labour, Braintree 9:50 am, 11th June 2003

I congratulate my near neighbour, Bob Russell, on having brought this matter before the House. I agree with the thrust of his argument, minus the invective, and I hope that some common ground can be found on how we might restore a decent housing situation.

Last Saturday, I went, as I do each year, to the Braintree and Bocking carnival. Not everybody is familiar with those twin towns, but in the Bocking part there is a 1950s council housing development. The carnival wends its way and eventually reaches a field called Meadowside. That is the central part of the development of sturdy, three-bedroom houses with adequate gardens that overlook the meadow. The development is on a hillside, and from many points one can still look out across open countryside. The verges to the roads are broad, ancient oaks have been preserved along them, and the whole effect is exactly the kind of housing that was envisaged in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.

In those times, the two main political parties competed avidly with each other over who built more council houses. My party said that it had built 1 million between 1945 and 1951, and the Conservatives promised to build more—and they did. The argument then turned on whether Labour's houses were better; they probably were. The debate over standards—more and better, better and more—went on until the 1970s. During that period, almost any working family could anticipate decent housing, through either rental in the council sector or the ability to buy with a mortgage from a building society or local authority.

The hon. Member for Colchester gave some figures. From memory, I believe that in 1953, 200,000 council houses were built—more than the total number of houses built in 2000. By 2000, only 20,000 units of what is now called, rather condescendingly, social housing—we should think of a better term—were built. At one time, Braintree district council had 14,000 council properties for a much smaller population. Now it has only 9,000 and falling.

We should also look at the cost ratio. What would it take a working family to buy a house? Some time ago, I was fortunate in securing an Adjournment debate, which the hon. Member for Colchester was good enough to support. Shortly before that, I met a man in my advice surgery who had bought a house in Witham, under the build for sale scheme run by Witham urban district council, when he was a recently-married factory worker earning £1,500 per annum. He bought a house for £4,250 with a 100 per cent. mortgage. His wife was not working at the time. The cost of the house was less than three times his sole salary. It was a three-bedroom house, with gardens at front and rear, and a garage. It is still there now; it is a delightful house, and I suspect that it will sell for £170,000 or £180,000, which is way beyond the reach of people in a similar position to his today.

The Rowntree study that the hon. Gentleman mentioned makes fairly complicated arithmetic equations, but I shall try to break the matter down in my simple mind and compare the position now to the situation I described in Witham in 1968. I believe that a police officer's salary is about £23,000 a year. The cost of even a modest house now is six times that salary. It is also six times a teacher's salary; for a nurse, it is more than seven times. In many ways, those people are rather higher up the scale than the factory worker that I mentioned earlier. Those people are in a far worse position than they would have been 35 years ago.

Is there an answer? The hon. Member for Colchester wishes to return to a mass council house building programme. I see the merit in that, but of course there is the question of the right to buy. The issue reminds me a little of the recitation of "Albert and the Lion" by Stanley Holloway. I cannot remember the exact words, and other Members may have better accents for quoting from it than I do, but the point of it was, why go on producing children to feed them to lions? We want more houses, but we want them to be contained as far as possible in a situation that repeats itself for further generations.

There will always be a case for the rented market, but I want to think again about the build for sale scheme. Usually, with such schemes, no one has to worry about the right to buy problem because there is no right to buy, as the houses have already been bought. Build for sale operates on the basis that local authorities build houses on land that they acquire. They then sell the house to an approved purchaser, who is a member of a family in need, and they grant a 100 per cent. mortgage. That mortgage should be constructed so that the repayment is similar to an affordable rent. When the family move on, they sell the property and keep the profit, as they would in the private housing market, and the mortgage goes back to the council to be recycled on another property.

Such a scheme certainly needs a large infusion of Government money to pump-prime it and boost it in the first instance, but once it is moving along, it will start to provide affordable housing, owned by the people, in repeating patterns over a wide area of this country.