HC Deb 09 March 1966 vol 725 cc2140-79

5.10 p.m.

Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)

In my opinion, the last election was fought primarily upon the issue of housing. Other issues were raised, but that was the most important one in the mind of the average elector, and it is the one which will be in his mind in the coming election. The subject that I wish to raise today is precisely that.

As I said in my maiden speech, in my own constituency at the time of the last election, I came across a case of intimidation under the old law relating to private tenants. I am glad to say that under the Rent Act which we have passed we no longer could have such a system, and for that I congratulate my right hon. Friend.

Two things have been done for the private tenant by the Rent Act. We have instituted security of tenure and we have instituted a system whereby fair rents can be imposed upon tenants. But that is not enough. What we have to do in the case of most privately rented properties is to get rid of the bad ones. Not all privately rented property can be described as such, but in my own constituency most of it is property which is unsuited to human habitation by today's standards. Yet, like most other authorities, the city of Nottingham has always been in a dilemma. For every 1,000 houses built in the city, another 1s. a week would go on the rents of existing local authority tenants. That was the situation under the old subsidy rule.

The local authority has been in a dilemma. Was it to build more houses and clear slum areas, or was it to avoid doing so and thus keep down rents of existing local authority tenants? I am glad to say that by the new subsidy proposals for local authorities, by keeping down rates of interest to local authorities, my own authority has been encouraged to build again without imposing high rents upon their existing tenants. In the current financial year, there will be between 1,600 and 1,700 houses started in Nottingham. The chairman of the housing committee informs me that, by the financial year 1969–70, the proposal is to reach 3,000 houses a year, which, for the first time, will start to make a real impact on the problem in Nottingham. It may be said that it ought to have been done before, but it would not be illegitimate to point out that the city has had a period of Conservative government locally which has not exactly assisted the housing programme.

My right hon. Friend's Ministry has recently announced additional subsidies for cities such as Nottingham which have slum clearance of problems, but another condition attached to it is that they must have been doing something about them in the past above the average of other local authorities. Since that cannot be said of Nottingham, I want to ask my right hon. Friend whether, in circumstances such as I have just illustrated, where a local authority shows that it is willing to do something and does something about its slum clearance problem, he will extend his proposals to such a city, as well as those that he has announced in his programme for the slum clearance subsidy. He may not want to commit himself today, but I hope that he will not preclude local authorities from being ambitious in the direction of clearing existing bad houses.

The last point that I would like to mention is the position of owner-occupiers. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing has come to realise the extraordinary situation where the larger a person's income the higher his tax, then the higher the subsidy he got if he was an owner-occupier buying a house on mortgage. The situation of a poorer man who wants to become an owner-occupier or an owner-occupier with a family and, therefore, a relatively low tax rate has been deplorable, because he was the man who was unsubsidised as against even the local authority tenant or the man with a bigger income who was an owner-occupier.

I am glad to see that subsidies have now been introduced which will assist owner-occupiers, but what I should like to see and what I hope will be the case eventually is that the Ministry's policy will lead to a situation where everyone can either rent or buy a house as he desires without being over-influenced by the subsidy rate, that whilst the poor and needy are relatively subsidised, we do something to assist a general situation which has not been assisted in the past. A recent opinion poll showed that three times as many people want to rent houses as want to buy them. They were precluded from doing so in the past because, if they did what they wanted to do, they would have been subsidised to a lesser extent than if they did what they did not want to do.

I hope that my right hon. Friend's policy will be such as to encourage people to do what they want and assist the freedom of the individual, so that if a man wants to rent a house he will be able to rent it at a reasonable rent, and if he wants to buy a house he will be able to buy it at a reasonable cost.

For once, let us have a system which helps people to do what they want, instead of having imposed upon them some ideological policy that they must be owner-occupiers when they would prefer to rent properties. I hope that we can assist the freedom of the individual in that way.

5.17 p.m.

Mr. Ernest G. Perry (Battersea, South)

I wish to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) for bringing forward this subject for debate and discussion at the last session of our Parliament. I would like to congratulate the Minister of Housing and Local Government and his responsible officials for the way in which they have attempted to tackle the problems in the London area.

In 1965 we had a record number of houses or dwellings built in this country—a greater number than at any time in our previous history. It is to the credit of the Government that they were able to accomplish that in view of the legacy with which they were left. Their efforts now to reduce interest rates for local authorities and give some form of subsidy in the way of Income Tax relief to people of low earnings who wish to buy their own houses deserve the admiration of us all.

I am very glad that my own local authority, Wandsworth, is included in the authorities which are going to get a special subsidy because of their housing problems. I am glad to think that my own authority will benefit from that.

In the London Borough of Wandsworth there is still a large amount of railway land lying idle. If my right hon. Friend could see to it when he is returned that we get a supply of that railway land for building, we would be very much obliged. The situation in Battersea and Wandsworth is very difficult. There are over 7,000 people on the waiting lists, and an enormous task confronts the local authority.

I must say that there are many contributions made by other sources of housing which help reduce the amount of people on housing lists in local authorities. I thank the owner-occupiers in Battersea, South, for letting part of their premises to families in need of houses, and the thanks of the local authority, too, are due to them for the assistance which they have given.

Unfortunately, in my constituency and in the neighbouring ones there is an enormous amount of empty property. It is usually owned by absentee landlords who buy houses as an investment and have no intention of living in them. Invariably they look for houses with part possession. Having found such a place, they deliberately keep half of it empty, in the hope that the people in the flat upstairs—or downstairs as the case may be—will move out so that the property can be sold at a handsome profit. This happens all the time in London, and this is why I wish to quote two examples which have been brought to my notice in my constituency.

The first example is that of a house on the north side of Clapham Common. In September the house was sold to a property company. The tenants there have not paid any rent since then, because they do not know the name of the new owner. The local authority has been unable to obtain its rates from the owner, because it does not know who owns the property, and the tenants are now paying their rates direct to the council. In this case, a flat consisting of three rooms, a bathroom, and toilet has been empty since last September, while there are thousands of families in Battersea and Wandsworth who are living six in one room. It is scandalous that this sort of thing is allowed to continue.

The second example is that of a house in Eccles Road, Battersea. It is a six-roomed house. A man, his wife and six children live in two rooms on the ground floor, and they also have a kitchen and scullery. The flat upstairs is empty, and has been for 12 months. The tenant of the downstairs flat applied to the estate agent who controls the property for permission to occupy the whole house, but this request was refused. The conditions under which this family are living are so bad that the local authority wrote to the estate agent asking if he would be prepared to let the other flat to this family. Within 24 hours he replied that he could not consider that under any circumstances.

That is the sort of thing that is happening in London. The owner of the property to which I have referred—who may be the estate agent—is waiting for the council to rehouse the people who are living on the ground floor flat so that he can sell the house with vacant possession and make a handsome profit out of somebody's misery.

I hope that when a new Labour Government is returned to power the Estate Agents Bill which was introduced by the hon. Member for Northants, South (Mr. Arthur Jones) will be reintroduced and made Law, because I think that it is an admirable Measure. It was, of course, opposed by some hon. Gentlemen opposite in the Standing Committee. There was a split on the benches opposite on the question of whether estate agents should also have property interests. Members of the party opposite opposed the Amendment proposed by the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mr. Shepherd) that estate agents should not at the same time be dealers in property, but the Amendment was carried by 15 votes to 6.

I have brought these matters to the notice of the House because, whereas local authorities have a moral obligation to do all that they can to help the people in their areas, private property owners who do not live in their property can keep their houses empty for as long as they like while thousands of people have nowhere to live.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, West for raising this subject, and I hope that the Minister will consider releasing some railway land in Wandsworth for housing.

5.25 p.m.

Mr. A. P. Costain (Folkestone and Hythe)

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) on raising this topic. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for having to leave the Chamber for a few moments, but I had to go out to alter an appointment when I realised that he had been called to speak.

I gather that the hon. Gentleman was making a plea for an equal number of houses for rent and sale.

Mr. English

That is not quite correct. I was making a plea for equal treatment for those who desire to be owner-occupiers and for those who desire to rent houses. I was not making a plea for equal numbers of houses.

Mr. Costain

I thank the hon. Gentleman for correcting me on that point. In principle I agree that there should be equal opportunities, and if necessary equal financial opportunities, for people wishing to buy or rent their houses. Over the years I have pointed out to hon. Gentlemen opposite when they were on this side of the House that considerable restrictions have been placed upon respectable property companies. I am not referring to the few spivs to whom the hon. Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Perry) referred. There are spivs in every type of business. I am referring to the ordinary property company whose job it is to provide an investment for genuine investors, and to provide a service to the people. They have been restricted over the past 13 years because of the threat by the then Labour Opposition to bring in rent legislation. The hon. Member for Willesden, East (Mr. Freeson) laughs. This is a serious matter. People's homes are not things to laugh about.

Mr. Reginald Freeson (Willesden, East)

I was not laughing at the problem of housing people. I was laughing because I am getting a little tired of the nonsense that we hear from hon. Gentlemen opposite about people's housing problems in our worst cities. We need to hear a little more sense talked on this subject.

Mr. Costain

The hon. Gentleman will be relieved of that difficulty in three weeks' time, because he will not be here then. If he thinks that the problem of housing is nonsense, I assure him that a number of hon. Members do not agree with him.

If we are to provide houses to rent, we must give a fair deal both to the people who build the houses, and to those who occupy them. This is the point at issue. If, when in Opposition, hon. Gentlemen opposite had made clear their intentions over the Rent Bill, there might have been more buildings to rent. I do not think that they yet realise the implications of the Rent Act. Quite a number of rents will be put up if the rent tribunals do their job properly, and so they should. I am glad that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary agrees with me on that point, because I think that if more had been said about the Rent Act before it was introduced, more houses would have been built to rent.

I was amazed when I heard the hon. Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Perry) congratulating the Minister of Housing and Local Government on producing 50,000 fewer completed houses than the number which the Government took over when they came into power. If they think that this is a matter for congratulation, they should think again. It is a perfect scandal that we should have 800 million bricks lying in the brick yards, and 15 brick works closed down because of lack of orders at a time when the Government have produced 50,000 fewer houses. Eight hundred million bricks would build 50,000 houses, so the figures almost balance themselves.

Mr. Ivor Richard (Barons Court)

Is the hon. Gentleman denying that in 1965 more houses were built than in 1964?

Mr. Costain

I am not denying that more houses were built. I am making a statement of fact. When the present Government took office, there were 434,000 houses under construction, and they managed the miracle of completing nearly 50,000 fewer. I have made the point on several occasions. I hope that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will follow this with some care, because whenever he has wound up a debate on this topic he has been confused. [Laughter.] Hon. Gentlemen opposite laugh. They cannot take the housing problem seriously. A private enterprise house can be built within seven months, on average, while a public authority house, on average, takes 14 months to build.

Hon. Members opposite immediately say, "Why does not private enterprise build as quickly for public authorities as it builds for itself?". I will spell out in detail the reason for this. Once a public authority starts to build houses itself it produces a firm specification and firm conditions of contract. If there is then any shortage of materials the first thing that happens is that building is held up, because the specification cannot be complied with. When a private builder is building for himself, on the other hand, he can change the specification. He does not get paid for his house until it is occupied, and he therefore has every incentive for getting it finished on time. When he is building for a local authority payments are made on each section of the work done. There is not the same desire to complete the house quickly, as there is if he is building for himself. That is why it takes seven months when he is building for himself as against 14 months when he is building for a public authority.

Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that on that basis the private builder is interested in making quick profits by private building and perhaps not so quick profits from public enterprise building?

Mr. Costain

Hon. Members opposite always relate everything to profits. They take the view that "profits" is a dirty word. We could not finance our industries if profits were not made. I am not referring to profits; I am referring to getting cash in. A builder may have £2,500 coming to him when a house is occupied, but he is not receiving a penny until it is occupied, although he is paying interest to the bank in the meantime.

It is the doctrinaire principle of the Labour Government to cut down the number of houses built by private enterprise and to increase the number built by public enterprise.

Mr. Brian Walden (Birmingham, All Saints)

The hon. Member is making an extremely interesting point. Some of us on this side of the House are surprised that he does not see the logic of it, namely, that private enterprise, through the very operation of this profit motive—which may be a good thing—simply cannot build sufficient houses for renting. It will not and it never has built houses for rent that are most needed in constituencies like mine.

Mr. Costain

The hon. Member may not have heard what I said in opening. Had he been in the House when the present Foreign Secretary was shadow Minister of Housing he would have heard me promise him that if the then Labour Opposition would undertake to act fairly towards landlords and not introduce their Rent Bill if they were returned to power, I would guarantee that the company that I am connected with would build 5,000 houses to rent the next year. After I had made that promise another company rang me up and said that it would do the same.

If a Labour Government are regrettably returned to power I hope that they will learn that if they are to build the number of houses which the public want they must use the full facilities of private enterprise as well as public enterprise. They will have to be dissuaded from their present attitude, which favours building by direct labour. If hon. Members have any doubt about the direct labour point they should refer to the productivity figures and compare output per man under direct labour and under private builders. Under direct labour it is a little over £1,000 per man per year, but under private organised schemes it is a little over £2,000.

The housing problem can be solved, and it will be solved. I am delighted that my right hon. Friends have put forward proposals to build 500,000 houses a year by the end of 1968. That is the target. It can be done, but only by using the facilities and initiatives which a Conservative Government will apply to the housing problem.

5.35 p.m.

Mr. Ivor Richard (Barons Court)

As I understood the hon. Member's speech, he was putting forward two arguments. First, he was saying that somehow or other, despite the fact that the Labour Government built more houses in 1965 than were built in 1964, they completed less than the Conservatives did in their last year of office. I cannot follow that argument. Secondly, he was arguing—and this argument seems to be even more convoluted—that if only the Labour Party, when in Opposition, had pledged that it would not introduce a measure of rent control, the effect of which was to enable people to rent houses at rents they could afford, companies like that in which he is interested would have built houses for rent at rents which the people could not afford. With the greatest respect to to the hon. Member, that does not seem to be a very great contribution towards solving the problem of housing our people.

He might have built some delightful houses to rent at £8, £9 or £10 a week in my constituency. The only trouble is that not enough people in my constituency could afford the rents that he would charge.

Mr. Costain

I am sure that the hon. Member does not wish to misrepresent me. I did not say that the Labour Government did not produce more houses They could not help doing so because of the number already in the pipeline. The whole problem about rent is not the question of what rent would be charged, but the unfair deal which was promised to the landlords by the Labour Party.

Mr. Richard

It will not do for the hon. Member to say that. He is saying that we should have given a pledge not to interfere with the law of the market in respect of rented property. I assume that he and his party are still in favour of the operation of the law of the free market in rented property. If we had undertaken not to interfere, companies like his, apparently, would have gone round the country building vast quantities of houses to let. Given the level of rent and the cost of building under his party's administration, and considering areas such as that which I represent—an area in the centre of London—the only effect would have been that houses would have been built for letting at rents which the people could not afford. Therefore, it is nonsense for hon. Members opposite to say that the law of the market should operate and that, in perhaps 10, 20, 30 or 40 years, people who are now waiting to be housed in Hammersmith would be housed—not by the Hammersmith Borough Council but by the sort of company which he represents.

Mr. Freeson

Does my hon. Friend also recall that during the operation of the 1957 Rent Act the quantity of rented accommodation fell by 1,300,000 units?

Mr. Richard

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We have had the operation of a free market in rented property between 1957 and 1965. It is surprising that the hon. Member and his party should try to blame us, when we were not in office, for the fact that the free market did not work. I am surprised that he put up that suggestion. While the free market operated the supply of private rented property did not increase, as his party prophesied. It decreased. What is more monstrous about the policy of the party opposite is that at the time when they took the lid off rents and removed controls by the 1957 Rent Act, thus reducing the supply of rented property, they also reduced the supply of council houses, which meant that people at the lower end of the wages scale who were looking for rented council property, and had been waiting far too long, were faced with the alternative either of continuing to wait or of competing for the shrinking amount of private rented property available in our big cities. With the sort of nonsense which we have had from the hon. Gentleman—I use the phrase with the greatest respect that I can summon up for his argument—and from his party on this subject this afternoon, I trust that they will go on repeating it between now and 31st March, because it is an argument which can do my party nothing but good.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) on two facts. I congratulate him, first, on his Ministry in the last 17 months, and, second, because I understand that he has just become a grandfather. I would not like that occasion to pass without it being placed on record in the OFFICIAL REPORT that my hon. Friend has at last attained that blissful state of grandparent-hood which, I am told, is a pleasing one to reach—

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Robert Mellish)

I am a very young grandfather.

Mr. Richard

Since this is the last effective day of this Parliament, it is appropriate that one should think back to the position before the 1964 election and compare the housing position then with what it is today. Before the 1964 election, people in my constituency would come to see me, as the Labour candidate, with two main worries about housing. I invite the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe to pay attention to this.

These people in Hammersmith had two main worries. One was the lack of security under the Rent Act, which this party opposed. They were worried, therefore, if they had notice to quit from their landlord, about what would happen to them and where they were to go. Second, they were worried that they might not be able to afford, in the majority of cases, to pay the market rent being asked for the shrinking amount of private rented accommodation. These were the worries which time and again were put to me during the campaign and in the months and years ahead. I judge this on a personal and, perhaps, on a parochial basis.

However, the people in my constituency who come to see me in my "surgery" now are not worried about notice to quit being served on them by the landlord or, to the same extent, about the sort of rents which they might be asked to pay. There is a very simple reason for this: this party and this Government passed the Rent Act in 1965. The two main principles of that Act—I beg the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe to try to follow this part of the argument at least—which are of crucial importance to ordinary people are, first, they now have security of tenure in their own homes, which was not available under the previous Administration, and, second, there is now machinery for fixing fair rents and the local rent officer can intervene.

When we introduced the Act, it was said that it interfered wiht the law of the market and might diminish the amount of property to rent. Of course it is interference with the law of the market in rented property: it was intended to be. The effect of the law of the market in rented property in our big cities was that the amount available to rent went down and the rent of that which was available went up. In those circumstances, it is obviously right that a Government should interfere with the law of the market. The effect has been that rents are beginning to come down, to find a level below the market level. So they should: that was the object of the Act of 1965.

It is interesting to see how the Act is operating. One cannot yet give many accurate statistics, but such as I have been able to gather in my constituency indicate at any rate that rents are beginning to come down. I put it no higher than that. I find, for example, that the rental of a flat in a mansion block in my constituency for which the asking rent was £375 per annum has been fixed by the rent officer at £275 per annum: this has now been accepted as fair by the landlord. I find that a rental of five guineas a week for two rooms sharing a kitchen has been reduced to £3, and so it should be. The rent of a room which was £3 10s. has been reduced to 32s. 6d.

I even hear—I am afraid that I cannot confirm this figure with the same degree of authority as with the others— that a rent of £19 per week for a house in a road in my constituency has been reduced by the rent officer to no more than £6.

It seems to me, therefore, that the Rent Act 1965 is beginning to work. What will its cumulative effects be? I waited a long time in this Parliament to hear from the party opposite a logical attack on the principles behind that Act and a logical argument against the way in which the Government say it will work out. What will happen over a period is that the general level of rents being charged for private accommodation in an area, like London will come down.

The other effect of the Government's policy—this is of equal importance: one has to look at council housing and the private rental policy together—is that council building is not going down as it was for many sad and weary years under the administration of the party opposite. It is at last beginning to go up. Councils are fortunately beginning to plan a long time ahead. They are considering more imaginative schemes of council development than they ever could do in the last decade.

Ten years ago, a local authority knew that if it produced a large-scale development scheme, first, it could not afford the interest rate on its money, and secondly, it possibly could not afford the land and there was no certainty that the Conservative Administration would give loan sanction anyway. In my own borough, the Hammersmith Council, I am happy to say, has lifted its sights above the municipal gutter which was, unfortunately, the level of the horizon which so many councils were forced—I emphasise the word "forced"—to abide by under the last Administration.

They are in the process of producing an imaginative scheme which will, admittedly, cost money. However, I hope that in due course certain representations may be made in certain quarters to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, as a result of which the finance will be forthcoming. The result of the scheme will be that 3,000 families—10,000 people—can be housed on a site in west London. How is it that the council can now produce this scheme which it could not produce when hon. Gentlemen opposite were in Government?

There are three reasons. One is that it is being built over railway land and, under the party opposite, railway land was not released for council development. I hope hon. Members will remember that, when we came in in October, 1964, the available railway land in London was not capable of being released for council development. Why? Because the administration of the party opposite insisted that full economic prices had to be charged for that land before it could be released for any development, which meant that councils were priced out of the market. This scheme is being built over railway land—an imaginative, forward-looking scheme to house 10,000 people.

The second reason why it is possible is that it looks as if money will be forthcoming from a Labour Government which was not forthcoming from the previous Government. The third reason is that we are trying, in the Housing (Subsidies) Bill, to bring interest rates generally down to an even 4 per cent. I hope the country will note, when the election occurs, that the party opposite opposed the Bill. I have no doubt that in a few years—perhaps two or three—the party opposite will be taking credit for the fact that a Labour Government introduced a scheme whereby interest rates for council accommodation are kept down to an even 4 per cent.

However, at the moment, when it is only three weeks to polling day and the last time of settlement, it seems that the party opposite are in opposition to that scheme, on what doctrinaire grounds I have never been clear—

Mr. Costain

Is the hon. Member saying that a possible future Labour Government will keep interest rates up so high that the subsidy can go on?

Mr. Richard

What I am inferring is that, given the present situation, it is more helpful for councils to know that they can plan their housing programmes forward—knowing that there is an even interest rate of 4 per cent.—than it was under the system which hon. Gentlemen opposite enshrined in their legislation, whereby councils were never quite sure how much they would get or how much they would have to pay for it. Our system is more helpful for local authorities than the system operated by the party opposite. This scheme in West London seems to provide the possibility of a break-through in housing in that area, and I hope that in his reply to the debate my hon. Friend will say one or two things about it.

Finally, may I comment on the Government's whole approach to housing. It has been imaginative and it has been forward-looking. On what is it based? It seems to me to be based on three principles. One is that a target of half-a-million houses a year is attainable by 1970. Let the House note that that will mean an increase of about 20,000 houses a year between now and 1970. When an annual increase of that sort has been achieved, I can see no reason why that rate of increase should not continue well into the 1970's—unless hon. Members opposite think it impossible to attain a building rate of 650,000 to 700,000 houses a year. It is worth remembering that last year West Germany, with a broadly comparable economic base and broadly comparably in size, built no fewer than 623,000 houses. This is worth noting. One other notable feature is that the ratio between council house building and private development under the Government's White Paper will be fairer to the local authorities than was the ratio under the Conservative Government's policies.

The second principle upon which the Government's policy is based is that the private tenant needs protection in a situation where there are not sufficient private houses to go round—and this is the object behind the Rent Act, 1965.

The third principle is that owner-occupiers, whether of freehold or of leasehold property, need encouragement. Hence we have our leasehold enfranchisement proposals, which the Conservative Party seem to oppose, and we also have the new Government scheme for cheaper mortgages for those people who need more assistance to buy their own houses.

If by chance one walked out of this building at 1 p.m. tomorrow and was knocked down by a taxicab—I can think of no other disaster which would prevent one's return to the House—and if as a consequence one were not capable of returning to the House, it would still be a fact that the Government will go down in history for their humane, forward-looking, progressive, thoughtful and energetic approach to the whole question of housing the people. For the first time for many years we have a Government in office who have grasped the scope of the problem and are producing policies which will meet it which are realistic, practical and humane.

5.53 p.m.

Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)

I have no wish to detain the House for any length of time, because I am sure that hon. Members want to get back to their constituencies. But I have tried in practically every debate in this Parliament to speak on housing, and I think that I was lucky enough to catch Mr. Speaker's eye on one occasion only.

I particularly wanted to speak on housing during the course of this Parliament because the housing problem on Merseyside, and in Liverpool in particular, is our greatest problem. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Barons Court (Mr. Richard) that the one thing which the Labour Government have shown above all else is that they can tackle the housing difficulties. When we consider that for thirteen years under the Tory Administration the housing problem got worse every year and the multifarious problems grew in character, it is a great compliment to the Minister of Housing and Local Government and the whole of his Ministry that for the first time in those years we are seriously getting to grips with the many housing problems.

Housing is the greatest social problem that we have. I knew this in Liverpool long before I came to this House, because I was a city councillor in an area where every week I had men and women coming to me with housing problems. Sometimes at midnight I used to go from those interviews heartily sick because of the problems about which those people had told me. Some people were living in terribly overcrowded conditions, with married sons and daughters in the same house as their parents. Families were breaking up because of the impossible living conditions. Husband and wife were being set against each other, parents were being set against their children, women were suffering from nervous breakdowns.

This is what has happened due to neglect by the Tory Party in thirteen years of Tory control. But at last we are beginning to deal with these problems. One of the most difficult problems which local authorities have had is knowing where they would get the necessary money at a reasonable rate of interest. Now they know that they will be able to get it as a result of the Housing Subsidies Bill, which the Government introduced in this Parliament. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary upon the introduction of this Bill because it means that great cities such as Liverpool will know that they can get their money at 4 per cent. Incidentally, it should be remembered that the Conservative Party reduced housing subsidies to nil at one stage. Local authorities know that under a Labour Administration they will at least get a subsidy of £60 per house on houses which they build in future.

Four Liverpool Members went on a deputation to the Ministry, and they saw the Minister. We suggested that the conurbations—not only Liverpool but other great conurbations, too—should be given some special assistance. I am not saying that the deputation were responsible for the Government's action, but certainly we helped to point out the fact that it was essential, and I am delighted that the Government have clearly indicated that the great conurbations with special problems will get additional assistance. Every house completed after 25th November last year will rate for a subsidy. But there is something about which the country ought to be warned, particularly people living in the great conurbations: if—God forbid!—the Tory Party were returned to power at any time, this assistance would end. The conurbations would not get this additional assistance which they will get from a Labour Government.

I hope that the House has taken note of the speech of the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain) because he is only one example of many who represent the Conservative Party. One gentleman in Liverpool talked about the Rent Act giving the Labour Party their pound of flesh from the landlord. When I think of the pound of flesh which the landlords have had from the tenants in Liverpool in the past; when I think of the terrible exploitation of poor people which has taken place—poor people who had to go into one or two rooms, paying exorbitant rents, and in a sense happy to pay those rents because the alternative was no accommodation at all; when I think of those things, I am astonished by talk of a pound of flesh being taken from the landlords, particularly when some landlords have allowed their property to fall into a terrible state of disrepair. The situation has been appalling. Now the Labour Party are clearing the matter up. We have only just begun. It is understood in the country that this is the beginning of the road and that, step by step, we will finally crack this difficult housing problem.

When the Labour Party return after the General Election I hope that we will see an extension of industrialised building, not only by private enterprise but also publicly. In this connection, I want the Government to establish a public building corporation with mobile units which will operate in those areas with the most serious housing problems. For this purpose we may need to attract some immigrant labour to work in these units. We may have to do this to avoid overstretching the already far-stretched building industry.

Various types of building are going on in our large cities. In Liverpool, for example, we have the city centre development, the city's housing programme, a new docks system coming along and a new road building programme. Only a certain number of people are available in the industry and we must, therefore, develop industrialised building methods. I will only add, because I do not wish to delay the House, that we will also need to develop industrialised craftsmen, so to speak, who can utilise these methods. This is a trade union point which we can discuss at a later stage. I am glad to see that the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe agrees with me on this. It is about the only matter on which we shall agree. I am sure that, after the election, we will continue to tackle the difficult housing problem that faces the country.

6.3 p.m.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins (Putney)

My hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will recall that I came to see him and his right hon. Friend a few weeks ago to discuss the problem of council house rents. My local borough council found it necessary to bring its housing revenue account into a greater degree of balance and, to do this, it had to increase council house rents. This is the great dilemma which has faced many local authorities in the last few years.

During the period of high interest rates local authorities have had to decide whether or not to go on building council houses at high cost. Those authorities which decided, irrespective of the amount they had to pay to borrow the money, to go on building have since found their housing revenue accounts being badly in need of being brought into balance. Some of them have, therefore, found it necessary to increase rents.

If the party opposite had not hung on for so long in power and if the present Government had come to power earlier than October, 1964, it would have been possible to have avoided these rent increases. Our 4 per cent. has come rather late, but because of the 4 per cent. local authorities will be able to avoid making council house rent increases in future at the rate at which they have been forced to do in the past.

A word about private rents. I have been doing some investigation in my constituency, in which rent officers have been established. I have some good news for hon. Members who represent provincial constituencies and who are perhaps not yet in a position to discover how the Act is working. While some examples have been given, I can inform the House that in my borough, out of nine cases which have been looked into—that is, when I last examined the problem—six had had reductions in rent, two were the same and the rent of one had been increased. I hope that when the Joint Parliamentary Secretary replies he will give more figures.

Mr. Mellish

indicated dissent.

Mr. Jenkins

I regret that, because if some figures were available I think they would show that what is happening generally is the sort of pattern I have discovered in my constituency. Eventually I am sure that we will arrive at a rational rent structure in which the fantastic differences in rents which have disfigured the past will disappear. The absurd disequilibrium which has existed between private and public rents will gradually be evened out, though it may be a somewhat painfully slow process. To give an example of this; one rent of five guineas a week has been reduced to £3 7s. 6d. I fancy that changes of this order will be the pattern which we will see emerging throughout the country.

In my constituency and elsewhere in London there are large blocks of offices which have recently been constructed but which remain unoccupied. I am grateful that one of the first actions of the Labour Government was to arrest the building of office blocks. If that had not been done the amount of house-building which has since gone on would not have been achieved. It is unfortunate that this action was not taken some years ago so that the capital and labour which was put into these office blocks could have been channelled into the building of houses in which people would now be living. This is a great tragedy.

The time will come when the Government will have to say, "We must look at the office building limitation" because the present restriction will one day have to be removed. What will happen then? I suggest that in large towns, certainly in London—and I speak not without experience in this matter because I was on the London County Council's Town Planning Committee for some time—different steps will have to be taken. The action of the past few years has been entirely wrong. We have been zoning areas on assumptions which are no longer valid; zoning assumptions which refer to an industrial society in which industry and business are so noisome and unpleasant that we decided to separate residents from industry and business. This out-dated zoning procedure has been widely established and is today rigidly followed in the great conurbations. I hope that the Minister will consider whether this is still the right approach. Probably it is not. Because of the changes which have taken place in the nature of industry and commerce it may now be possible for this approach to be altered and for residents and commerce to be brought closer together. If we begin to think in this way a number of problems may be answered.

We would certainly begin to find the answer to our transport difficulties. One of the great problems of the separation in the zoning procedure is that first we push people into the suburbs and then we have to bring them in again each day to their offices in the centre. That is a fantastic and a frightening problem. If we were to accept that this is no longer necessary, that it is now possible for people to live adjacent to the places where they work and not be choked with smoke any more—because of the establishment of smokeless zones—if we were to follow the logic of our own developments, we would make quite a new approach.

Another question is that of the amenities of our civilisation. At present, in the heart of our great towns and cities a desert develops at night as people move out. The City of London at night is a complete desert. If it were possible to think of not regarding office blocks as places to be kept alone and separate from residential properties, we should make the centres of our cities more lively and attractive, and do much to solve our public transport and traffic problems.

When these changes are made, I hope that another possibility may be considered. Could it not be made a condition of permission to build an office block that the person building the block should provide, as part of it, an element of residential flat accommodation? Once again, if we could get away from the absurd zoning proposition, we would provide ourselves with the possibility of creating cities which would be more homogenous, more of a whole, and provide more possibility of beginning to meet our living needs.

I agree that the Government are beginning to tackle housing intelligently and competently, and that it is being tackled in that way for the first time for a long time. I congratulate my hon. Friend and his right hon. Friend, because they have tackled an extraordinarily difficult problem and one that has not really been satisfactorily solved in any country. The Government are on the right road. We shall encourage them. From time to time we may encourage them a little roughly, but if we push my hon. Friend rather hard from time to time, he must not think that we believe he is on the wrong path—we merely want to urge him along the right path that he is already following.

6.13 p.m.

Mr. John Boyd-Carpenter (Kingston-upon-Thames)

As other hon. Members have observed, on this, the last effective day of this Parliament, it is good to discuss the all-important issue of housing. Housing, as no one knows better than the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, has been one of the major issues of this Parliament, and there is a certain appropriateness in the fact that we should have—if, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you and others are not to be tried too far—a relatively brief debate, but still a debate, on this subject on this last day of Parliament.

To begin on a non-controversial note, I would express a good deal of agreement with what the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Hugh Jenkins) has just been saying on the approach to the future planning and layout of housing. The idea of everyone living a long way from their work, and subjecting themselves—particularly in London, but elsewhere, too—to the daily ordeal of rush hour travel, is a fairly new one. Certainly, even a century ago, a great many people lived quite close to their work, and I think that a mistake in planning is that we have tended to segregate work and living. We are paying a considerable price for that, and I believe that, for the future, there is a great deal in what the hon. Member has said on this point.

The hon. Members for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) and for Barons Court (Mr. Richard) both attached enormous importance to the Housing Subsidies Bill and suggested that it would make a marvellous transformation in the provision of accommodation to rent. It is significant that, even at this stage of this Parliament, this Measure has to be described as a Bill and not as an Act, and it is, perhaps, some weakening of the hon. Gentleman's argument that this Measure will fall as a casualty when Prorogation and Dissolution take place tomorrow.

The House may wonder why this is so, if this Measure is as important as it plainly is in the minds of hon. Members. The House gave the Bill a Second Reading in the middle of December—about the 15th, I think. There would have been ample tune for it to have been passed into law had the Government been prepared to give it priority. My recollection is that they never even sent it to Standing Committee; they preferred other Measures to occupy the time of our Standing Committees. Therefore, whatever credit hon. Members opposite may desire to draw from that Measure in the forthcoming contest must be qualified by this curious lack of enthusiasm for it by the Government which produced it. It could have been law by now, had the Government so wished, had they decided, for example, not to waste the time of the House with the Land Commission Bill. But in this case the Government, in a way almost unprecedented, put this housing Measure into cold storage, although it had a Second Reading well before Christmas. The House will want to mark that point—

Mr. English

When the right hon. Gentleman says that the Bill will fall, is he committing his party, should it be in a position to do so, to make sure that no such proposal is introduced?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

The hon. Member appears from that intervention not to understand Parliamentary procedure. This is a Measure introduced in this Parliament by the Government. They have not pushed forward with it. Therefore, automatically on Prorogation,—never mind on Dissolution—the Bill falls, and all the work of it is lost. That is a fact of procedure of which I should have thought the hon. Member would have been aware.

Mr. English

The right hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I did not make myself plain. When we on this side return after the election as a Government we will introduce that Measure. I am trying to ascertain whether, when he says the Bill would fall, he thinks that that would not take place, and that the party opposite would not then introduce the Bill.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I fully understand the hon. Member's apprehensions that his hon. Friends may not be here to introduce the Bill—if I may say so, that is a very sensible intervention. But the point to which I am inviting the attention of the House is that the Govern- ment, whose supporters are now seeking to get electoral credit out of this Measure, have, in fact and in substance, dropped it, and dropped it at the end of December.

The hon. Member for Barons Court was very critical of the records of my right hon. Friends in respect of the provision of council housing. He had a great deal of fun with the subject, but he cannot get away from the fact that during a period of Conservative Governments the amount of council house building that took place was without precedent in this country—

Mr. Richard


Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

The total doubled It rose from 2.9 million in 1951—

Mr. Richard


Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will allow me to finish the sentence before jumping to his feet as agilely as his physique permits him to do. It rose from 2.9 million in 1951 to 5.9 million—more than double—in 1964.

Mr. Richard

I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way; and for a remark from one who so obviously appreciates the same position, if I may say so.

Is it not the fact that council-house building under the party opposite started at a level of about 200,000 in 1951 or 1952, and dipped to a low of under 100,000? Then, though I speak from memory, from about 1961 onwards it started climbing again, but did not reach 200,000 by the date of the election.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

On the hon. Member's first point, I am but a humble follower of him on the weight-for-age formula. On his second point, council-house building could not have started at 200,000 when we took over, because the total of all sorts of housing completed at the time of the end of the last Labour Government was slightly under 190,000. But it is true that a large part of the very impressive figures I have mentioned were in the earlier part of the long period of history we are discussing. But the fact remains that at the end of the day there was the biggest contribution to council housing in the history of the country—from 2.9 million to 5.9 million. Therefore, it does not lie with the hon. Member to attack us for this merely because he may happen to disagree with the order in which it was done.

I am surprised that apparently he should resent the fact that we gave first attention in large measure in our earlier years in office to increasing the total. I should have thought, despite his criticism, that this was something which even in the present atmosphere he would have been prepared to applaud.

Mr. Richard


Mr. Freeson


Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

The hon. Member for Willesden, East (Mr. Freeson) has not yet made an intervention, but his hon. Friend the Member for Barons Court has made two interventions. However, if the hon. Member for Willesden, East desires, I will give way to him.

Mr. Freeson

The top rate on council house building was reached about 1954, when the total was in the region of 250,000 houses. Two years later the then Tory Government announced the beginning of a first priority slum clearance drive. It was so described and continued to be so described, but from 1954 to 1964, in the period when it was a first priority to get rid of the worst housing, council house building dropped from 250,000 to below 100,000 and crept up to 130,000 in 1964.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I am obliged to the hon. Member for his expertise, which shows that we built more council houses under the Conservative Government than a Labour Government has done or ever will. It is undoubtedly the fact that the largest part of this massive contribution was made in the earlier years of Conservative Government, when we gave priority to that particular need.

I come to one or two general comments on this subject. The hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) was quite right when he said that housing played a large part in the last Election. I think that it will do so in the coming one, although it will be very different indeed in effect. Right hon. Gentlemen opposite raised high hopes by the pledges they gave last time, very high hopes indeed, and those pledges no doubt affected the actions of our fellow countrymen. There was the pledge of the Prime Minister to treat housing like a military operation, as he said in his election address and in his speech at Wembley.

All that raised high hopes. It might be worth while reflecting for a moment on the extent to which those hopes have been fulfilled. The hon. Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Perry) made a most remarkable speech, in which he warmly congratulated the Government on their housing achievement. The hon. Member for Nottingham, West, said, with perfect truth, although with some selective emphasis, that the list of completions last year was 8,000 higher than in the previous year, and the hon. Member for Battersea, South referred to the inheritance which this Government had.

Whatever the inheritance of the Government may be claimed to have been in other spheres, no one knows better than hon. Members opposite that in housing the inheritance was an extremely valuable one. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph) left behind not only a programme of 400,000 houses for 1965, but 434,000 houses actually under construction. All that the present Minister of Housing and Local Government could do with that inheritance was to complete 382,000. 18,000 less than my right hon. Friend's programme and 50,000 less than had been left under construction.

Mr. Mellish

The right hon. Member is talking about the Conservative programme of 400,000 houses. Will he tell us where in the Conservative Party's manifesto of 1964 that figure was quoted?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

It was not necessary to quote a figure in a manifesto when we left something more concrete in existence, 434,000 under construction. If, instead of engaging in manifestos, the hon. Gentleman could leave such a concrete memorial, he would be in a better position.

My right hon. Friend the then Minister made clear that our programme for 1965 was 400,000 and left this solid contribution. After all the ballyhoo and psychological warfare and the Prime Minister's talk about military operations, the party opposite completed 18,000 fewer than the number in my right hon. Friend's programme and 50,000 fewer than those left under construction, and 50,000 fewer than most people in the industry thought could be achieved. That is the achievement on which the hon. Member for Battersea, South finds it possible to congratulate his Government.

The Minister of Housing and Local Government, in answer to a Question the other day, said that the Government would complete 400,000 houses this year, 1966. When he was asked why there should be any more likelihood—

Mr. Heffer

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

Not in the middle of a sentence. I will give way later. We have plenty of time; we have all night.

When the right hon. Gentleman was asked why there was any more likelihood that he would complete 400,000 houses this year than there was last year, he said that he was quite sure he would. It was pointed out, and it is very significant, that starts and completions in January this year were lower than in January last year. Therefore, it is quite clear that the right hon. Gentleman is starting very badly indeed.

There came further news, as no doubt the Parliamentary Secretary knows, last night from an impartial and authoritative source. A statement was put out, a routine statement on the new homes survey by the National Federation of Building Trades Employers. It stated: Home sales are still disappointing; fewer private homes are likely to be started and completed in 1966 than in 1965. It went on to say: The replies as a whole also pointed to fewer houses both started and completed in 1966 as compared with 1965. I ask the House to note the final sentence: The inquiry provides evidence, too, that since the publication of the Land Commission White Paper in September, 1965, land prices have risen and that less land is available for private house-building. We therefore start this year, not only with the disappointing record of last year, not only with the Minister's failure last year, but with every indication that that failure is to be repeated this year, and the further complication to which the building trades employers have drawn attention, of the folly of the Minister of Land and Natural Resources in persisting with a proposal to apply his Measure, if it ever comes forward, retrospectively to last September. Anyone who knows this industry knows how vital is the supply of land for building if there is to be any success with the housing programme and what a discouraging effect the bringing forward of this Measure will have on the bringing forward of land for development.

I am glad to see one consolation in the Labour Party manifesto, which says that if the Labour Party is returned it proposes to abolish the Ministry of Land and Natural Resources. Probably in his heart the Parliamentary Secretary shares my view that that is the most encouraging thing in the whole of that rather curious document.

Reference has been made by some hon. Members to the vexed question of mortgages. Again, hon. Members spoke as though something had been done, but, in fact, there has been only an announcement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, only the giving of another pledge. I am bound to say that a pledge is not redeemed just by giving another. Indeed, the failure to implement the first raises natural doubts about the second.

We know that even since this announcement the building societies have publicly expressed doubts about the workability of these proposals, which the Chancellor admitted had not been discussed with them. It becomes perfectly clear—and this, too, may be very discouraging for hon. Members opposite who are relying on it—that this announcement by the Chancellor was no more than an electoral gimmick, was not a properly worked-out proposal and was a pledge even vaguer and even less reliable than the original pledge given with happy ebullience by the right hon. Gentleman the First Secretary of State at the last election.

All we have is the fact that for nearly a year mortgage interests rates by building societies have been at 6¾ per cent., the highest in our history, and local authority mortgages, if one could get them, at 7 or 7¼ per cent. Those are the facts, despite all the fine words and fine pledges of right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite and despite all the optimism about it which they have expressed today. It has been made worse for the person who wants to buy a house by the fact that house prices rose last year by the unprecedented amount of 7½ per cent. —and those are official figures. [An HON. MEMBER: "Shocking."] The hon. Gentleman says "shocking", and it is shocking for someone who wants to buy a house and who finds that, despite Labour Party pledges, he has to pay 6¾ per cent. on his mortgage and that he has to raise a mortgage higher by that amount than ever before.

This is a poor story, this story of Labour Party housing performance in this Parliament. I am a little surprised by the complacency of hon. Members opposite who have spoken in the debate. The hon. Member for Nottingham, West was absolutely right when he said that at the last election housing played a very considerable part. High hopes were raised. High expectations were deliberately created. But the facts—not the further promises, the further pledges, the White Papers, the gimmicks, the statements at the Dispatch Box, but the facts—are the failure to achieve my right hon. Friend's total, the failure to carry out the pledge on mortgages, the rising prices. They mean that the housing problems of our people are now worse as a result of Labour party policy.

Those are the solid facts which are not obscured by statements about future pledges or promises. They are the facts on which our fellow countrymen will judge.

6.33 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Robert Mellish)

It is fair to say that during the next three weeks housing will be one of the main topics which will be debated throughout the nation. I, for one, with special responsibility in this Ministry, am looking forward to those debates.

I start with the one simple fact that we shall lay before the people and ask them for no more than a fair judgment on it. It is that on the day we took office we were confronted with the fact that there were literally untold thousands of our people who were suffering from insecurity of tenure of their accommodation, an insecurity brought about by the 1957 Rent Act which was imposed by hon. Members opposite and which they themselves had made no attempt to amend although they knew that hardships were being created.

One of the first things we had to do was to introduce emergency legislation to give protection and security of tenure to our people. When we came into office and announced in the Gracious Speech that we were to repeal the infamous Tory Rent Act, 1957, overnight thousands of people in London alone received notices to quit. The first legislation we introduced therefore, was emergency legislation to give security of tenure.

We followed it with our Rent Act. The hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain), who, I should have thought, would know a great deal about these matters, said that it was the Labour Government which created the situation which led to a shortage of rented accommodation in the great conurbations. I have never heard anything so foolish in my life. If he believes that it was the Labour Party attitude on this issue which created the shortage, he does not know what sort of world we are living in, because the whole purpose of the 1957 Rent Act was to create more rented accommodation. In fact, it achieved exactly the opposite and throughout that period more than 1 million properties which had previously been rented went off the market.

Mr. Costain

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not want to misrepresent me. I said that it was the Labour Opposition, not the Labour Government. Surely he appreciates that it was because of the threats to landlords that these premises were sold. It was pointed out during the passage of that Rent Act that unless we could get some security, new houses to let would not be built. That was the point which I was making.

Mr. Mellish

I do not deny that from 1957 onwards it was recognised by the country as a whole that the days of Conservative Government were numbered. There is no doubt that people recognised that a Labour Government was inevitable. We shall have this row throughout the country, but there is no doubt in my mind that by removing the 1957 Rent Act we have given people the sort of security of tenure which they have the right to expect.

We brought in a Rent Act of our own. I do not have the figures, and I did not intend to get them, of what rent officers are doing at the moment. We decided as a matter of policy that we should leave them alone and let them get on with their job, because their work is in its very early stages. Some of my hon. Friends have quite properly spoken from their own local knowledge of what has been happening to rents in their areas. From the information they have given it is clear that the tendency in the vast majority of cases has been for the very high rents to be reduced to proper proportions.

It is interesting to note that some rents have gone up. One of the things which the Labour Rent Act has done is to promote a different relationship between landlord and tenant. For the first time, landlords are now coming forward without holding the threat of eviction against the tenant and recognising that the tenants have some rights. As a consequence, there is a different relationship, and I hope and believe that many thousands of tenants who would have had to go to the rent officer will not have to do so because they will be able to settle a fair rent with the landlords themselves. I am advised by many of those in authority that the relationship between landlord and tenant is better than ever before.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English), who initiated the debate, began his speech by talking about the Rent Act. I have to tell him that we have not fixed a date when the rent assessments committee will start to operate in Nottingham, but I can give him the assurance that it will be in the very near future. The area covered will be Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Rutland and Northamptonshire and the headquarters will be at Nottingham. We have already appointed a president and vice-president and the committee will be starting in a matter of a few weeks. A rent officer service has already been arranged and will be largely staffed by appointments made by the county clerks.

My hon. Friend spoke about getting rid of much of the bad property in Nottingham. What he said applies to all the areas which have this appalling problem of slums. I can tell the right hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) that when I took office in October, 1964, with special responsibility for Greater London, we asked our civil servants to brief us on what the problems were. I give this information to the House to put the problems of Nottingham into their right perspective. I was told that there were 200,000 families without homes of their own, that there were thousands of slums and that I had to find homes for one million Londoners outside London by 1981. Whatever else the right hon. Gentleman may say, he left us that legacy and it had to be dealt with. We inherited that.

When we considered the problems of slums in the Nottinghams and the Manchester and the Liverpools, it became obvious that we had to give the local authorities special incentives to deal with them. That is why when we introduced our subsidies we decided to give the sort of subsidies which would not only encourage local authorities to go on building in future, but would make some recognition of the past efforts of some authorities with special problems.

My right hon. Friend selected about 135 high priority authorities with a special slum or over-crowding problem. To these authorities an even stronger yardstick was applied to ascertain whether there should be special attention given to them in our new subsidy proposals for houses completed after 23rd November. The first list has been announced. It does not at the moment include Nottingham. I cannot guarantee that it will. It certainly includes the whole of the inner London area, Manchester, Liverpool—

Mr. Speaker

Order. It would help the reporters if the hon. Gentleman would turn to the Chair.

Mr. Mellish

It certainly includes Manchester, Liverpool and areas of that kind and inner London, because these are those which, when the yardstick is applied, show enormous slums and problems of overcrowding. These will, therefore, receive a subsidy for everything that they now have in the pipeline. This finance will mean an enormous help to them, but it does not mean that my right hon. Friend rules out any other authorities. A case will have to be made out. I hope that when we return as the Government the case will be made out adequately and well by the Nottingham authority and others who desire this subsidy. Those cases will be considered on their merits.

My hon. Friend the Member for Batter-sea, South (Mr. Perry) spoke about railway land. This was a legacy left to us. In many instances the land was being sold to the highest bidder. The right hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames might take note of this. Defence land was being sold to the highest bidder. I had not been in office five minutes when I was asked to give authority for a firm of auctioneers to sell defence land which had become available. My right hon. Friend, acting on my advice, stopped this sale of land. We made sure that it went to the local authority which happened to be Conservative-controlled—and this shows my great impartiality in these matters—to build houses for the people on its waiting lists.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

Will not the hon. Gentleman accept that the biggest and best area of housing land in London was the Woolwich Arsenal site, which was made available for housing by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph), and that its use for housing was delayed by the efforts of the former Minister of Defence for the Royal Navy?

Mr. Mellish

That is not true as far as the completion of the Woolwich Arsenal site is concerned. The responsibility is that of my hon. Friend. We have debated this subject in the House and the right hon. Gentleman has not raised that point before. I gather that 31st March may tend to influence him to make all sorts of statements against the present Government.

The record of the present Government in the matter of Woolwich is first-class. We are building the first 1,000 houses on the site this year. I must say with great respect to the right hon. Gentleman that a great deal of the land there had to be forced out of the Ministry concerned. We had no easy task in doing that because of the legacy left us by the previous Administration, whereby all defence land went, if possible, to the highest bidder. This is something which we have stopped.

As for railway land, we have ensured that such land in the London area will be first offered to the Greater London Council which, in its turn, must consult the local authority to see how, with the G.L.C., it can make the best use of it. If my hon. Friend has problems about certain pieces of railway land I will see that they are dealt with.

There is a great deal of empty property in London and absentee landlords get away without paying rates. This is a matter with which we shall deal. There is nothing to stop a local authority putting a compulsory purchase order on empty property if it is bothered about such a house.

My hon. Friend the Member for Barons Court (Mr. Richard) referred to a vast redevelopment—the Wood Lane scheme—which is being proposed. It has not yet been finalised. My right hon. Friend may have to act as arbiter and, therefore, I do not want to commit him in detail. I cannot deny that this is a brilliant scheme in outline, in the sense that it has proposals for rehousing people in this very congested part of London. It is a tremendous credit to the local authority which is promoting it. If local authorities in London are to be of a size of 320,000 people, this is the sort of scheme which could justify such a size. It is ambitious although, I am told, very expensive. I shall help the authority to the best of my ability to ensure that it is achieved.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) referred to industrialised buildings. He will know that no Government has done more than we have done in trying to encourage this throughout local authority areas. We have insisted that a percentage of all tenders submitted to us shall have an industrialised building content, and we hope that by 1970 40 per cent. of all local authority building will be achieved by industrialised methods.

The hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe ought to know better, as the holder of a famous name in the building industry. He should know that 500,000 houses a year under a Labour or a Tory Government are not possible with the present building labour force. This is confirmed by people in the building industry. This is why it is so important for all local authorities and for private enterprise everywhere to understand that they must turn more and more to industrialised building. I hope that 500,000 houses when achieved will not be the end of the story but the beginning of even further effort in this country.

Mr. Costain

I never said that 500,000 would be built by traditional methods. A certain amount of industrialised methods will be needed. The hon. Gentleman knows that I said that and he must not misquote me.

Mr. Mellish

The hon. Gentleman had better read his speech. I understood him to say that to private enterprise the sky is the limit and that it could build anything. I say that the industry, whether building for local authorities or for private occupation, could not achieve the sort of targets that we and the party opposite are talking about when we refer to half-a-million houses unless there can be extensive industrialised building.

My hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Hugh Jenkins) spoke about rents of council houses. This matter causes tremendous bother inside and outside London. He will understand that we cannot do anything about the past inheritance of high interest rates charged to local authorities, which put their housing accounts in such a bad way. It is our responsibility to do something about the future. My hon. Friend's borough will qualify for the increased subsidy on all its houses in the pipeline. It would be a good exercise for him and other hon. Members representing London constituencies to ask their local authorities what the receiving of this subsidy for all houses now in the pipeline means to them.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins

I want to make it clear that the reproach which I was laying was certainly not against my hon. Friend or my right hon. Friend, but against their predecessors, who created a situation which my hon. and right hon. Friends are having to try to cure.

Mr. Mellish

I was trying to back my hon. Friend by saying much the same thing.

I say, through my hon. Friend, to those in London whose rents have gone up, in some instances by a tremendous figure, that this is due to a large measure to the high interest rates which progressive local authorities had to bear. The more progressive the local authority the greater the burden placed on its back. The result has been that rents have gone up more and more for those living in council houses in order to pay for new houses to come. It is our intention to ensure that the more progressive the authority the greater the subsidy will be. This is the future which I can offer to my hon. Friend and others in London who have this problem of increased council house rents.

We on this side of the House have been challenged on our housing record. This whole subject will, of course, be debated throughout the election campaign. I want now to give some figures which are not in dispute. The right hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames is quite right to say that there were 434,000 houses under construction on 1st January, 1965. His Government can take some credit for that, because they were in power until the previous October. It is true, also, that, at the end of 1965, we had completed 382,000 houses, that is. 8,000 more than were completed the year before by the previous Tory Government.

But it is fair to say—these are the facts—that 1965 was the best year for house building since the war. I have said that 434,000 houses were under construction on 1st January, 1965. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not be too distressed when I tell him that the number under construction on 1st January, 1966, was 444,000, that is 10,000 more. This is one legacy which the present Government will be leaving, greatly to their credit. Moreover, the figures available to us show that there has been a great increase in the public authority sector.

I am sure that there will be unanimity on both sides of the House in agreeing that the public authorities are the only people who can deal with slums. No one will do it, but them. I am delighted to tell the House that throughout the whole country there is an upsurge of local authority building, with a tremendous increase in the use of industrialised systems, which means that more houses will be completed that much faster. We all know that houses under construction are one thing, but actual completions are quite another.

Therefore, I go into this election—I hope that I carry all my hon. Friends with me in this—asking for no more than that our housing record will be compared with the record of the party opposite on the basis of what we have done for those who were in greatest need and those who were suffering the effects of the Tory Government's Rent Act. I want the country to look at the number of houses which we have built, the efforts we have made and are making to ensure that we achieve our realistic target of 500,000 houses by 1970, and our determination to do what is necessary for the people in greatest need. I ask no more than that the country pass its judgment on that.

6.55 p.m.

Mr. Frank Allaun (Salford, East)


Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Frank Allaun) seems to be trying to catch my eye. He will succeed at this stage only if he indicates to the Chair, as every hon. Member has had the prudence to do, the topic he wishes to talk about. Otherwise, he is precluding someone else from his proper place in the debate. Does the hon. Gentleman wish to talk about housing?

Mr. Frank Allaun

Just for two minutes, Mr. Speaker, yes.

Mr. Speaker

I hone that the House will understand that I am calling these debates in order in which notice was given. I am not calling vet any hon. Member who seeks to catch my eye in order to raise, on the Consolidated Fund Bill, any other subject.

Mr. Allaun

I am most indebted to you, Mr. Speaker, and I assure you that I shall not detain the House for more than two minutes. I have some facts which I think will be of interest.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am not questioning how long the hon. Gentleman speaks. I was indicating the method by which hon. Gentlemen indicate to the Chair in which debate they wish to speak.

Mr. Allaun

The fault was mine, Mr. Speaker. I should have intervened earlier in the debate before the two winding-up speeches, and I apologise sincerely for not having done so. I am grateful for the privilege which you are now granting me.

A fortnight ago, the Minister was good enough to give me some figures about rent reductions, and this afternoon he was good enough again to give me figures right up to date which are even more striking. Up to last Friday, 5th March, rent officers in London had received 5,053 applications, of which they had determined 693. Of the 693 cases, 528 resulted in reductions in rent, there were increases in 99, and there was no change in 66.

There have been even more dramatic results. A fortnight ago, I mentioned a house the rent of which had been reduced by £3 12s. I am very pleased to say that, after telephoning to the rent officers, I find that there is a house in the Borough of Brent for which a rent of 11 guineas a week, including 16s. rates, was being paid, and that this rent has now been reduced to £6 1s. a week, including 16s. rates. That is a reduction of £5 10s. It is a terrace house, one of seven in a row, with a living room and with two bedrooms on the first floor.

I think that, when this kind of reduction becomes well known, there will be a flood of applicants for rent reductions. It is interesting to note that, last week, 56 tenants who had applied for rent reductions withdrew their applications, apparently because the landlords had been to them and said, "I will offer you so much if you do not pursue the case". When this process spreads in other areas such as Hackney, which has had the largest number of applications of all London boroughs and where, in some cases, tenants are paying for a basement dwelling £6 10s. a week, we can expect some dramatic reductions.

Although the pattern in the rest of the country may not be followed exactly, as rents are so much lower in the provinces in any case, people in the provinces also will be able to look forward to considerable reductions, in most cases, on what they are now paying.

This is an actual achievement of the Labour Government, not something for the future. It is the result of the Labour Government's Rent Act which has done something effective to undo the injustices created by the Tory Government's Rent Act.

Mr. Richard

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the figures which I gave tentatively in regard to a rent of £19 a week for a house in Hammersmith reduced to £6 a week represent the true position there?

Mr. Allaun

In fact, my hon. Friend has understated the case. The reduction was from £19 to £5 10s. a week. The landlord offered a rent of £13, but this was not considered a sufficient reduction, and it was, in fact, reduced to £5 10s. It is a three-storey house not sublet but tenanted by one family, a father and mother, six children, and two sisters.