HC Deb 17 April 1951 vol 486 cc1781-92

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Popplewell.]

10.8 p.m.

Mr. Gilbert Longden (Hertfordshire, South-West)

Tonight, I want to take the attention of the House from local and county issues and transfer it to national issues. I want to raise particularly the subject of house ownership in general and the ratio of private licences in particular.

I feel that I must put it on record from the start that, in my view, in the whole catalogue of failure which His Majesty's Government will have to present to the bar of history there is no blacker page than their failure—not to solve, for that is not the proper job of government, but to create conditions in which the building industry can solve the housing problem for them. The housing policy of the Socialist Government seems to me to have been lacking both in common humanity and in common sense. Shelley was 100 years before his time when he wrote: All things have a home, but one— Thou, Oh Englishman, hast none.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)

He wrote worse than that.

Mr. Longden

And better. This problem to my mind is quite as grave as was the problem of the unemployed in the thirties. Today, well over a million people are living in damp and dismal hutments like sardines in a leaking tin, in cold and comfortless caravans and with uncongenial and unstable companions. This, I think, is the biggest single cause of the matrimonial unhappiness, juvenile delinquency and disease, particularly tuberculosis, which are all so sadly on the increase today. It is a very grievous thing that these conditions should still exist six years after the war; that a problem which, according to Sir Stafford Cripps, in 1945, could be solved in a fortnight, is still 20 or 30 years from solution.

I simply do not believe that if it had been tackled with vigour, and even with average administrative ability and without doctrinal prejudice, it could not have been solved before now. But it is not solved, and let us admit that the stringent economic conditions in which we find ourselves today make it necessary for the Government for the time being to control capital expenditure and to decoy labour and materials to other spheres. Nevertheless, they have declared that they can build 200,000 houses a year. We say that that figure, which utterly fails to match need, could be bettered, but that is another story and this is bedtime.

The present system, as hon. Members know, is that annual allocations are made to local housing authorities who may build that number of council houses and no more; that out of every five council houses which they build—for some time the number was 10—they may allot one licence to a private citizen who wants to build his own home. The systems for deciding these priorities differ in different areas, but that also is another story, which I hope one of my hon. Friends will take up on another occasion.

I should like to take this opportunity of paying tribute to all those local councillors throughout the country who voluntarily undertake the arduous and responsible duty of trying fairly to assess the needs of the unfortunate applicants. In the case of the four local authorities whose areas I have the honour to represent in the House, an average of some 300 houses per annum has been built in the past four years, but out of a total population of about 70,000 there are still 2,100 unsatisfied applications for council houses and 500 unsatisfied applicants for private building licences. Every hon. Member will have similar figures for his own constituency, and I quote these only because I have them at hand. I stress, however, that they are by no means to be taken as typical, because they are much better than in many other areas.

I hope the Minister will not jump to the wrong conclusion and say that I am decrying the need for council houses. There will always be a need for these, for many reasons, of which to facilitate the mobility of labour is but one. I think it was right for the Government in time of national emergency to make the local authorities their agents for solving the immediate need, but I do not deny that on these benches we had hoped by now to see local authorities engaged mainly in the task of slum-clearing and preventing overcrowding, and that we look forward to the day when there will be roughly one council to every five new houses, and not the other way round.

Whom do we find today in council houses? We find many tenants who would gladly build their own homes and thus leave those houses free for others who would not.

Mr. Fernyhough (Jarrow)

What is the percentage?

Mr. Longden

It varies in different places. If the hon. Member is interested, I can give the percentage in my constituency, but as time is short I should like to finish my speech. We find many other tenants whose incomes are such as to make it exceedingly inequitable and grossly uneconomic that the rents they are paying should be subsidised by their fellow citizens, many of whom are much worse off.

That is a typical illustration of the flouting of a principle which is one of the main themes of our recent publication, "One Nation": namely, that the paramount object of the social services should be to help those in need, and that we cannot, at the moment at any rate, afford to help those who are not in need. That is the measure of the unbridgeable gulf between the Socialist philosophy and ours.

The result of flouting this principle is that the Government's housing policy is costing the Exchequer and rates far more than it need. This extravagance is also beginning to be felt by the tenants and I warn the Minister that Nemesis awaits his successor in 10 or 15 years' time unless these policies are changed. I am quite sure that it would be for the benefit of the individual, of the Exchequer, and of the rates, if more people willing and able to do so were allowed to build their own homes now. I therefore welcome, as far as it goes, the recent reply of the Minister intimating that he would consider sanctioning a higher ratio than one in five in certain districts.

I would like to ask two questions, of which I have given previous notice. How many authorities have applied for a higher ratio and how many such applications have been granted? I beg hon. Members opposite to realise that I am not appealing for the well-to-do. One of the most farcical examples of the new era of "Fair shares for all" is the fact that anyone with £4,000 or £5,000 in his pocket, or of sufficient standing to be able to borrow it, can get a house tomorrow. The people affected by these building restrictions are the people in a small way. They have not got £4,000 or £5,000 or anything like that. They simply want to invest £1,500 or £2,000 in a home of their own in which to bring up their families and even if most of the purchase price has to be borrowed the borrower pays no more than an economic rent and in 20 or 25 years the house is his.

Thus the Exchequer benefits because it will not have to produce so many subsidies. The ratepayers benefit because there is at least one person whose rent they do not have to subsidise. Indeed, if the council advances the money under the Small Dwellings Acquisition Act, or the Housing Act, not only is such a scheme not a charge on the rate fund, but it might even make a contribution, by reason of the difference between the rate of interest charged to the authority and that which it charges to its borrower.

Moreover, in towns at any rate, such houses would tend to be built where roads and services already exist and manpower and cost would be saved in constructing them while the rateable value would probably be higher than that of a council house. Another person who would benefit is the small builder, the man who does not work for the council but whose scant business consists in repair and jobbing work and would willingly contribute to the filling of this most urgent of national needs.

The problem, granted for the time being the necessity for a ceiling in capital expenditure, is how to get as many houses with as little cost to the taxpayer and the ratepayer as possible while maintaining quality and as much satisfaction to the occupier. I appeal to the Minister to appeal to his right hon. Friend, who brings to the solution of the problem a fresh mind, to consider the following suggestions. First, until control ceases to be necessary, can he not leave the proportion of private licences entirely to the discretion of local authorities? "Trust the people" is a good motto, but "Trust the people on the spot" is a better. After all, if his trust is misplaced there are two sanctions. The electorate can visit their displeasure on local councils annually and, on the other hand, the Minister can annually review the record and change the ratio as may be necessary.

That is the principal thing I ask the Minister to do. If he is not prepared to go as far as that, I ask him to publicise widely to all authorities the fact, which I am sure some of them do not know, that he will sympathetically consider their applications to issue a larger number of private licences. After all, it must be obvious that a rigid ratio cannot be equally proper everywhere.

Even in my small part of the world one of the local authorities has a longer list of those who wish to build their own homes than its list of people wanting council houses; whereas in the case of its immediate neighbour the reverse is true. Especially in rural areas and by the sea a much higher percentage of private licences is reasonably required. Rigidity in this, as in practically all other matters, is illogical and absurd; and the scheme of transfers, though sound in theory, has, I think, not worked out in practice.

Hon. Gentlemen opposite have complained that the ownership of property is concentrated in too few hands. If that is so, this is a way, and the best way, to spread the load. Let us so contrive that everyone may, if he so wishes, own his own home and look to himself and his own honest efforts to keep it, instead of sponging on his fellows. Independence and self-reliance are what we need most in this country today. It is those qualities which are most likely to bring the happiness and contentment which they deserve; and which are most likely to be found in a man who has a home he can call his own. For the exclusive benefit of the hon. Member for East Ayrshire—

Mr. Emrys Hughes

The hon. Member's geography is as bad as his economics.

Mr. Longden

—South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) I shall conclude with a verse, if he will excuse my accent: To make a happy fire-side clime"—

Mr. Hughes


Mr. Longden

To weans and wife, That's the true pathos and sublime Of human life.

10.22 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Local Government and Planning (Mr. Lindgren)

We have just listened to what is typical Toryhumbug—

Mr. Alport (Essex, Colchester)

Hypocrisy, call it hypocrisy!

Mr. Lindgren

I sat quietly while the hon. Gentleman was making statements which were completely wild. Now therefore hon. Members opposite should just take their medicine and let me hit back. If they cannot take it on the chin they ought at least not to start to scrap. Some of us from the working classes have suffered from the slums of Toryism and they cannot wonder if we get a bit hot under the collar when we hear statements such as were made by the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, South-West (Mr. G. Longden). I can take the hon. Gentleman to his own constituency and show him slums resulting from Toryism over the last 100 years about which no Tory Government did anything at all.

I thought that the hon. Member was opening a reasonable case, or attempting to open a case, for a change of ratio. Instead he went into a virulent attack on the Labour Government for not having cured in five years the ills of Tory landlordism over the last 100 years.

Mr. Iain MacLeod (Enfield, West)

They said they would do it in a fortnight.

Mr. Lindgren

That may be the view of the hon. Member—

Mr. MacLeod

That was the view of Sir Stafford Cripps, it was never mine.

Mr. Lindgren

We have never in fact had this country housed properly. As a member of a local authority in Hertfordshire, year after year I have led deputations from this local authority to the then Tory Minister of Health asking for permission to increase council house building. On every occasion the Tory Minister of Health refused the application unless there was a greater number of un-housed persons on the list than the number of houses in our application. If we had 100 applicants on the list, no more than 50 houses would be granted. So every local authority was under-housed when the war broke out in 1939. Over and above that, we lost one-fifth of the houses in the country from enemy action during the war—

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Wolverhampton, South-West)

That is an absolute misstatement, and the Minister knows it.

Mr. Lindgren

I think it is true.

Mr. Powell

It is completely untrue. The Minister should know perfectly well that the number of houses lost by enemy action during the war was less than half a million. Four million were damaged to a slight extent, but the number put out of occupation by enemy action was 450,000.

Mr. Lindgren

I repeat that one-fifth of the houses in the country were either destroyed or damaged to such an extent as to require war damage repair. Let us deal with the problem. It is, within the capital resources of the country, to build as many houses as possible. That must be done in relation to our national resources. It has been the policy of the Government to build houses to meet needs, and what really upsets the Tory Party is that those houses have been built, as a change from Tory times—

Mr. I. MacLeodrose

Mr. Lindgren

I will not give way.

Mr. Alport

You cannot take it.

Mr. Lindgren

Hon. Gentlemen opposite cannot take it. Every time a punch is coming they try to guard themselves.

Lieut.-Colonel Elliot (Glasgow, Kelvingrove)

A punch!

Mr. Lindgren

What upsets the Tory Party is that this Government have built the houses—

Lieut.-Colonel Elliot

Few and far between.

Mr. Lindgren

Whilst the Tory Party built houses for those who could afford to buy, we have built houses for those who could afford only to rent. We have attempted—and we have succeeded—to meet the greatest need.

Mr. I. MacLeod


Mr. Lindgren

I shall deal with the figures in the constituency of the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, South-West, and we shall deal with any other constituency about which hon. Gentlemen care to put down Questions. The allocation has been on the basis of the building trade resources of the area concerned and the need in the area. My right hon. Friend has stated repeatedly that where a local authority, by performance, proves that it has the resources within its area to build more houses, the greater will be the allocation to that area.

Mr. Alport

Then where does need come in?

Mr. Lindgren

Resources, plus need.

Mr. Alport


Mr. Lindgren

Let us take the hon. Gentleman's constituency. After all, he has raised in particular the question of ratio. If I miss out one of the rural or urban districts in his constituency, perhaps he will mention it and I will give the details. I am not certain whether Elstree is in the constituency.

Mr. G. Longden


Mr. Lindgren

In the rural district of Watford there are 746 applicants for houses to rent and 180 applicants for licences to build. That is a ratio of four wanting to rent to one wanting to buy. Therefore, that meets with the general allocation of one in five. In Rickmansworth, strangely enough, the number wanting to rent is 746, and the number wanting to build for themselves is 92, which is a ratio of eight to one. In the Bushey urban district the number of applicants for houses to rent is 525 and the number of applications for licences to build is 51, which is a ratio of 10 to one.

In Chorley Wood the number of applications for houses to rent is 154 and the number who want to build is 151.

Mr. G. Longden

The number is 182.

Mr. Lindgren

The figure I have is 151. Chorley Wood made an application for a variation. It has been known to all local authorities, right from the time of the introduction of allocations, that if they had a special case for a change of ratio it would be considered. That information was contained in a circular. Chorley Wood took advantage of that, and we said, "You have got applications for 154 to rent and 151 to build. That seems strange. It is quite different from the national average. Let us see what the real need is in the area."

When it was analysed for the purpose of providing separate accommodation for those who had no separate accommodation, it came down to a real need for 65 houses to rent and 27 for private building. That is a ratio of three to one. So the Minister immediately agreed that there was a special case and that the local authority had proved their case for a ratio of three to one, and he approved. The Minister approved an increase in the ratio of private licences and made it three to one. That is the Minister's general practice.

Let us take the hon. Gentleman's own constituency. The total number of applicants to rent was 2,082 and the total number of applicants to build 350, a ratio of six to one. If the hon. Gentleman says he was not speaking for the rich, he was asking for preference for 350 people over the other 2,082, irrespective of their relative needs. [Interruption.] This is not a Scottish, but an English argument. Let us fight our English war for the moment.

Lieut.-Colonel Elliot

A Socialist council in 16 years has done nothing to remove this grievance.

Mr. Lindgren

The answer which the hon. Gentleman wanted was the number of special applications made for a change in the ratio, and the number granted. There have been 79 applications made and nine granted.

Mr. Alport

That is sympathetic consideration.

Mr. Lindgren

We give sympathetic consideration wherever the need has changed. Let me say quite frankly that we are not prepared to allow Tory authorities to permit private enterprise building for their own folk who can afford to buy while neglecting their duty to those who can only afford to rent.

Mr. I. MacLeod

Will the hon. Gentleman agree that the rich people of this country, in whom I am no more interested than he is, have no housing problems? Will he also agree that poor people coming to take the lease of a council house cannot afford the rent under Socialism?

Mr. Lindgren

Rich is a relative term—and the hon. Gentleman need not be personal, because I can be personal also if necessary. It is equally true, and I am prepared to admit it, that I am better off than I was before. That is by no means due to the fact that the Tory Party has ever been in power in this country, but to the fact that we have had to fight for our existence for generations against Toryism and that, in the struggle, some of us have come out a little higher up the ladder than some of our colleagues.

Mr. Alport

Fair shares.

Mr. Lindgren

I am only a working class lad and had only an elementary school education. When I see the behaviour of hon. Members opposite with all their education and breeding, I am glad of it, because at least we can behave ourselves, unless we are unreasonably provoked, and even then we come clean.

He would be a very foolish person who would say that the person who has the resources to satisfy a bank to enable him to borrow money to buy a house, is not substantially better off financially than the average worker who can only afford to rent. Generally speaking the need of these people is greater because when people have resources, even though they are not big resources, they are in a better position to make arrangements for housing accommodation than are those who have no resources. Our duty is to provide for those with the greatest need, and those with the greatest need are those who can only afford to rent.

For those who can afford to buy, if the authorities show their willingness to provide houses for those who can only afford to rent, then by the mere operation of the ratio they will be provided with an increase in the allocation of private licences because of the increase in the houses provided by the authority for the ordinary person. Over and above that, where there are special circumstances as Chorley Wood has shown, then my right hon. Friend is quite prepared to give special consideration. But, I should be misleading the House if I gave the impression that that means that we are prepared to allow local authorities to neglect one of their primary duties, which is to provide houses for those who are in the greatest need—not those who have the greatest means.

Reference has been made to the "small" builder; but what is really being said is that the "small" builder has not been patriotic, or alternatively that the local authorities have not been doing their job. But I would remind the House that Circular 92 of 1946, issued by the then Minister of Health, which was sent to local authorities from one end of the country to the other, urged that "small" builders should be asked to build one, two, three or four houses, and that the local authority should then buy them. There is scope for the "small" builder to build on behalf of the local authority.

Miss Ward (Tynemouth)

Some local authorities will not buy.

Mr. Lindgren

I did not know that, but that is not a criticism of the Government. It is a criticism of the local authorities concerned who have not taken into account the resources of the "small" builders in their areas; or it means that the "small" builders have been so unpatriotic that they would not build houses when they knew they would be watched by a clerk of works, who would be on the site carefully seeing that specifications were carried out but preferred to build for others who would not watch so closely.

Lieut.-Colonel Elliotrose

Mr. Lindgren

Really, if hon. Members will keep interrupting—I know it is late in the evening, but not so late—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Twenty-two Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.

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