HC Deb 29 November 1963 vol 685 cc737-48

Motion made, and Question proposed. That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. J. E. B. Hill.]

3.57 p.m.

Lord Balniel (Hertford)

One of the most pleasing features of housing policy in recent years has been the surging expansion of home ownership in the country as a whole. Today, about 42 per cent, of the adult population, or one in every two, own the homes they occupy. The point I want to raise this afternoon is not so much the general question of home ownership in the country as a whole as the specific question of home ownership in the new towns. In the new towns, these exciting attempts to build happier and better modern living conditions, one finds that for various reasons, in practice, very little emphasis has been placed on the building of houses for home ownership. For instance, instead of one in every two of the population owning their own homes, which is the case for the country as a whole, in the new towns the proportion is, on average, as low as 7 per cent, of the total number of houses built both by private enterprise builders and by the development corporations.

I am not making this comparison between home ownership in the country at large and home ownership in the new towns in any sense as a criticism of the work of the development corporations, because I fully realise that they are faced with rather special problems concerned with bringing industry into areas which often have not had industry before. It seems to me that, as we are embarking upon the building of a new generation of new towns, we should try to take this opportunity to distill the experience which has been gained in the past and use it so as to secure better living conditions and make greater improvements in the existing new towns. From our experience of the past we should try to meet the wishes of people living in the new towns and bring additional benefits to the new towns which will be built around the great cities of Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow. My impression is that in the country as a whole there is a steadily growing desire among families to own their own homes. This is particularly true among young people who, when they get married, wish at the same time to purchase their own homes and bring up their families in the security which home ownership can give.

It being Four o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. J. E. B. Hill.]

Lord Balniel

The growing desire of people to own their own houses is indisputable. One need only consider the increasing number of advances that are being made by building societies and the steadily rising number of houses being built for sale. This steadily developing trend of a property-owning democracy is a feature which, as a Conservative Government, we should do our utmost to foster and encourage.

Despite this, when one looks at the new towns one cannot help questioning whether the efforts being made to meet this demand for home ownership are adequate. I do not wish to weary hon. Members with a mass of figures, but if we consider one or two specific new town areas we can see how far short they are falling of the kind of proportion of home ownership which is being obtained in other parts of the country.

If one examines the number of houses built for sale as a percentage of the total number of houses built by private enterprise and the development corporations together, one sees, for instance in Stevenage—which is probably the largest new town—that only 4.5 per cent., or 54.5 houses, have been built for sale compared with 11,649 built to let. Harlow, another extremely large new town, has had 6 per cent., or 938 houses built for sale compared with 14,791 built to let.

Two new towns lie in my constituency. In this area there has been a long tradition of selling houses on long leases. This was initiated by the original Welwyn Garden City Company and the figures of sales are somewhat higher than in some other areas. In one of my two new towns 161 percent, 859 houses have been built for sale, as opposed to 4,474 built to let. In the other new town 9.3 per cent, have been built for sale.

I am sure that the Government share my feeling that we should do our utmost to foster and encourage home ownership. All hon. Members must be aware of the satisfaction, pride, security and high standards of house maintenance which often accompany home ownership. As we look to the future of the new towns and try to get their destiny into perspective, we must consider whether these extremely low proportions of houses built for sale are to be the ultimate figures obtaining in the new towns. I wonder, therefore, whether my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government intends to take steps to give equal opportunities of home ownership to people living in the new towns.

The other day my right hon. Friend gave me a personal undertaking in the House to do his utmost to encourage the new town development corporations to build houses for sale in larger quantities at prices which their tenants can afford to pay. I hope that this is not just a vague phrase of general good will but that, in fact, he will pursue this extremely vigorously. If he does so, he will be responding to what I believe is a vital mood in society today. If he fails, he will be failing to meet the hopes and expectations of many hundreds of people who live in the new towns.

I can give my hon. Friend an example of how strong is the demand for home ownership in the new towns. The development corporation in Welwyn Garden City has, with quite considerable enterprise, embarked on a scheme to build 500 houses on what is called the Panshanger Estate. These are houses of the weekly-rented type, or so-called artisan type. They are being sold on 99-year leases at prices ranging between £3,450 and £4,025. The average ground rent is £25 per annum. These prices ensure an adequate capital return for the development corporation. There is a waiting list of 900 would-be purchasers.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will not just turn his attention towards encouraging—indeed, instructing—the development corporations to build more houses for sale. I hope that he will not just encourage—indeed, instruct—the development corporations to set aside land for private enterprise houses for sale. I hope that that will be done, too, because my own belief is that private enterprise, on the whole, builds rather more cheaply than do the development corporations. I should like to see houses of a price of £3,000 made available for sale, but I should also like my right hon. Friend to turn his attention to encouraging the sale of existing rented houses to sitting tenants who would like to purchase their own homes.

I realise that there are some administrative difficulties. Equally, I realise that some of the development corporations, though not the development corporation in my constituency, could well be reluctant to lose control over the houses they have themselves built. I realise all that but, to my mind, there administrative difficulties weigh very light indeed in the scale when set against the social happiness that can come from home ownership. That fact has been recognised most clearly by the Minister in his declaration that in the new towns that are to be built round Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool there is to be a far higher proportion of home ownership than obtains in the existing new towns.

As the standard of life rises, and as opportunities widen, it is one of the most normal human wishes to become the owner of one's own home. Often a great deal of work has been done by tenants. They have maintained their properties, they have painted them, and have turned into gardens the sea of mud, rubble, bricks and clay that the builders have left behind. It is a very natural wish to want to leave one's home to one's child.

Home ownership often gives a great sense of participation in the life of a town—a sense of having a stake in the town's well-being and success. I can assure my hon. Friend, from conversations I have had with many people living in the new towns, that there must be many hundreds of persons living there who, if given the chance by the development corporations to purchase their own homes at a reasonable price, would be only too delighted to do so.

There is a rather special reason why I hope that the Minister, in reply, will not merely give a general expression of good will but will take active steps to help sitting tenants to purchase their own houses. As the standard of life rises in the new towns, where there is only a tiny proportion of houses which are available for sale, those who wish to own their own homes, if they are to fulfil their ambitions and find a house for sale, have to uproot themselves, leave the neighbourhood and, as so many are doing, leave the new towns where they have made their homes and seek houses for sale in the villages outside the new towns.

This seems to me to be a very sad fact, not only because it involves uprooting families and their leaving their neighbours and friends but because it contradicts one of the major purposes of developing the towns as balanced communities of society and a cross-section of age. The crucial question is not the administrative difficulties which face the development corporations. These difficulties can and must be overcome by the Minister and by the corporations. The crucial question is the price at which the houses should be sold.

I want to see home ownership brought within the reach of ever-widening circles of the community. I feel that it is unnecessary for the Ministry to extract the full market price from the tenants. The price of these houses has risen substantially since the tenants first came into them. The tenants themselves have spent quite a lot of money on maintaining and improving the houses and in paying the rent. The general principle which I believe should be adopted by the corporations and by the Ministry in selling their houses to existing sitting tenants are the principles which were enunciated by the Ministry in a circular to local authorities in February, 1960.

The Ministry wrote to the local authorities as follows: Local authorities have a general responsibility for meeting the housing needs of their areas and one way in which they can effectively do this is by helping those of their tenants who have the necessary means to become owner-occupiers. The Minister hopes that all authorities will aim to go as far as they can in this direction without prejudice to their housing activities or the interests of their ratepayers. Here the Minister is calling on local authorities to go as far as they can in encouraging home ownership, and I want to see the Minister not only urge local authorities in this direction but instruct the development corporations in similar terms to undertake similar tasks.

The circular continues: The crucial question will commonly be the price at which houses should be offered for sale. Municipal houses are one of the ratepayers most valuable assets and it would be wrong to offer them at sacrificial prices, but sale at something less than market value can be justified in the case of persons needing a house for their own occupation. When my right hon. Friend, as I hope he will do, instructs development corporations to seek ways of selling houses to sitting tenants I hope that he will use the same principle in determining the price at which the houses should be sold.

I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Allason) is present. He also represents a new town and will no doubt wish to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, and advocate the same course as I am advocating.

I end by expressing my hope that the Minister will issue instructions to the corporations, just as he has urged local authorities, to help sitting tenants become owner-occupiers if they wish to do so. I want him to call on the corporations to undertake a thorough review of all their monthly rented accommodation as well as large sectors of their weekly rented accommodation, calling on them to do this with the positive intention of helping sitting tenants to purchase the homes in which they are living.

I trust that I have not delayed the House for too long, and I hope that we shall have not just general expressions of good will from my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government but positive action following this debate.

4.16 p.m

Mr. James Allason (Hemel Hempstead)

I support what my noble Friend the Member for Hertford (Lord Balniel) has said. There are many people in the new towns who would welcome the opportunity to purchase the houses in which they are now living. At present, if they wish to buy they have to move, possibly, to a larger house which they do not want. As my noble Friend has said, most tenants have already spent a great deal on their homes and gardens, and they would lose this if they left their present houses.

Yet there seems to be an objection within the New Towns Commission and within the development corporations to the idea of owner-occupiers being interspersed among their tenants. The stated objections are that management is made more difficult, that future redevelopment is compromised, that the cost of home ownership is greater than the rents paid or that home owners do not wish to mix with tenanted houses.

With regard to management, if the Commission wants to impose uniformity of colours and so on upon us it can impose restrictive covenants. In the light of modern experience there need be little legal difficulty about responsibility for such things as party walls. From my experience, it is possible to manage a terrace of houses with gaps in it.

The objection about future redevelopment, while valid in an estate nearing the end of its useful life, is not relevant to a new built estate, particularly if 99-year leases are granted instead of actual freeholds.

The objection that the cost of buying a house is greater than the cost of renting it is undue paternalism. Surely the householder can be trusted to decide whether he can afford to buy his house or must continue to rent it. Also, he can be trusted to decide whether he wants to live among other rented accommodation or to be segregated.

I have not yet met any valid reason for not meeting the wishes of tenants in this matter. Indeed, they should receive every encouragement to own their own houses. To refuse this is to drive our from new towns the most prosperous and go-ahead tenants, the ones who are likely to add most to the public life of the towns.

4.19 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. F. V. Corfield)

I am not sure that I shall be able entirely to satisfy my noble Friend and my hon. Friend because the time is a little short to explain why I am not prepared to go much further than what they may regard as generally to express good will.

There is no clash of policy issue between my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friends, nor is there any clash of ideological issues, but the plain fact is that the new towns were developed for a specific purpose—to get both industry and population out of London. That is so for the first generation of new towns. The new towns which are coming along elsewhere will serve a similar purpose for the other towns in the Midlands and North. It therefore follows that one of the first obligations of a new town corporation is to ensure that there is enough housing accommodation for the workers in the industry which has moved in. I am sure my hon. Friends will appreciate that while one can build a factory to employ 500 to 1,000 people in about a year, it is a very different matter, particularly if one gets bad winters and so on, to build the housing accommodation for perhaps 500 new families. The new town corporations feel that this is their first obligation and that they must have a fairly large proportion of their housing under their own control in order to fulfil it. In the older new towns, which have been most developed, there is a fair turnover of accommodation—about 5 per cent, per annum. This gives a measure of re-letting ability which they find valuable and in many cases essential in meeting their obligations to industry.

My hon. Friend quoted, in particular, Welwyn Garden City, and it is significant that he could find the best results from one of the oldest established of the new towns, because the whole operation in which he is interested—that of providing a fair proportion of owner-occupied houses—is essentially a second phase operation for the reasons which I have given. The first phase must be concentrated on ensuring that there is enough accommodation for the workers in the industries which we want to move out there; and if the industries are to move out to these places we have an obligation to see that they have living accommodation for their labour. It is bound to be true in these circumstances that the proportion of owner-occupied houses will be very much less than in the rest of the country.

But my hon. Friend should also bear in mind that it is in the new towns, and almost exclusively in the new towns, that there is a very large number of houses to rent other than local authority houses. It is possible that the preference which people show for owner-occupation in the country as a whole is greater than it would be if there were more houses, other than local authority houses, to rent elsewhere. This is one of the aspects of Part I of the Housing Bill which we discussed yesterday and on which, I am afraid, I sent the hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl)to sleep, as I am doing now. It seeks to test the market and to fill the gap in rented accommodation.

It must also be remembered that once a corporation sells a house it has very limited control as to whether it will house somebody working in the new towns. Most of those corporations which sell their houses—and they all do to some extent—try to preserve an option to re-buy if the house is resold within a specified period but it can reasonably be only up to five or ten years at most, and there is therefore only a limited control which can be exercised.

We should also remember that the new town corporations are required to balance their overall housing account. They are able to do that because the houses built in the first phase were built very much more cheaply than those being built currently. By pooling rents they are able to show a balance on their accounts while at the same time not putting up the rents of the newer houses in many cases beyond what people for whom they are built can afford to pay.

If the corporations were to be obliged to sell a very large proportion of their housing, this could very much upset the balance of their accounts, particularly if they sold the older houses, as would probably be the case, partly because they would be cheaper and partly because they would probably be occupied by people who had been longer established in the new towns and who were therefore particularly anxious to stay there and to dig their roots there by owner-occupation. In every new town land is being set aside for houses to sell, either developed by the corporation and sold by the corporation or developed and sold by private developers.

In these cases the private developer is controlled to some extent by a con- dition that he should at least try to get something like 80 per cent., in some cases 100 per cent, of his purchasers from people who have a genuine reason for living or working in the new towns, generally, because they have jobs there and want to move there from elsewhere. But the response from the various new towns has been variable.

In some cases builders have come back and said that they simply cannot fulfil the condition of 80 per cent., while in others they have done so very easily. In some cases, perhaps, the areas set aside have been developed at over-generous densities, with houses rather beyond the range of the market. This may be true, but I am satisfied that every new town corporation is fully aware of my right hon. Friend's wishes and policy in this matter and that all are making provision for owner-occupation.

My hon. Friend dismissed a little lightly the management arguments against his proposal. In many of the new towns the earlier houses, and particularly those around the centre, in order to give a fairly dense development and sense of community, have been deliberately designed in either closes or terraces, with communal grassland in front and with various communal facilities. There are strong management objections to splitting up that type of development into individual ownerships.

I am sure that credit will be given to the great contribution which has been made to London by the well-managed private estates which have retained the freeholds and retained the London squares and so on, as happened in many of them. It seems a little odd that we should demand the breaking up of estates laid out in a similar manner because they are owned by a new town corporation when none of us would wish to see that happen with some of the great private estates which have contributed so greatly to the capital city.

On the subject of price; as I understand it, the considerations which are imposed upon new town corporations, should they wish to sell their houses, are precisely the same as those for local authorities about which my hon. Friend mentioned a circular. However, whereas local authorities are rightly enjoined not to carry out this policy at the expense of an increased burden on their ratepayers, the corporations have no ratepayers; but, nevertheless, they have many rent payers and the same policy must and ought to apply.

The right approach is that there should be enough houses to satisfy local demand for owner-occupation, but I would not go as far as to say that any tenant should have a right to buy the house he happens to be in, because management considerations must be taken into account. I agree that it is for the prospective purchaser to decide whether he can afford to buy, but it has to be borne in mind that these houses lose their subsidy as soon as they are sold and become owner-occupied. Because of that, the price in terms of a weekly mortgage payment can be considerably more than the present rent.

I am satisfied that the new town corporations are aware of the need, and as they move into the second phase they will provide for the local demand for owner-occupation. My right hon. Friend would be very reluctant to give any instructions in that sense at this stage. The new town corporations have done and are doing a good job. This is largely because we have left them to develop as strong managerial teams, without looking over their shoulders. I hope that I shall not be pressed further on that, but I can assure my hon. Friend that we will watch the situation and that every new town has this matter very much in mind.

The newer new towns—I am thinking particularly of Runcorn and Redditch—will start with a much bigger nucleus of existing building than did the first batch of new towns, and therefore their proportion may be a little higher. But it is a second phase job.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine Minutes past Four o'clock.