HC Deb 10 April 1967 vol 744 cc696-709
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Eric Fletcher)

I understand that the hon. Gentleman the Member for Southgate (Mr. Berry) has intimated to Mr. Speaker that, if time permits, he wishes to raise a second subject on the Adjournment and that he has given notice to the Minister concerned.

12.34 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Berry (Southgate)

I am grateful for an opportunity to raise the important subject of the sale of council houses. I had hoped at one stage that we might have a longer time for the debate, but the previous subject, naturally, had priority. I am grateful to Mr. Speaker and to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to raise this subject and to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, who is to reply at such short notice.

This is a very appropriate time to discuss the problem of the sale of council houses, since the latest guidance from the Ministry—Circular 24/67 in England and 20/67 in Wales—came into operation on 1st April, barely a week ago. This is the first time, therefore, that the House has had the opportunity of debating this highly important circular and it is certainly an opportune moment. Since my remarks will be mainly concerned with that circular I hope, although the hon. Gentleman has not had much notice of the debate, that most of the points I raise will be familiar to him.

The circular refers to both the Minister of Housing and Local Government and the Secretary of State for Wales, who is also a signatory. However, I shall refer only to the Minister of Housing and Local Government. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will have something to say about the Labour Party's inherent dislike of the sale of council houses to sitting tenants, even though the circular falls short of actually directing local authorities to stop selling them in anticipation of a new law to make such sales illegal. What a retrograde step that would be and it would be speedily repealed by us when we returned to power.

The original power to sell council houses was contained in the Housing Act, 1957, which was followed by a circular in February, 1960, when Lord Brooke of Cumnor was Minister of Housing and Local Government. That circular gave further impetus to the policy of selling council houses to sitting tenants, but stressed that councils should not ask "sacrificial" prices for them, although sales at something less than market value could be justified in the case of persons needing a house for their own occupation.

One local authority last year embarked on a most successful policy of selling council houses to sitting tenants. As I see my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Eyre) present, I shall say no more about that. Now I turn to the circular.

In the first paragraph, the Minister's own views become clear, for it says: Circular 5/60 and the general consent contained in it are withdrawn as from April 1st. The second paragraph refers to the sales of existing council houses, averaging about 2,300 houses a year compared with about 4 million houses owned by local authorities, and it also mentions that several authorities have considered selling houses on a wider basis than before. Since Birmingham alone is already selling council houses at the rate of 2,000 a year and, as a result of events later this week, other authorities may embark on this policy, it seems very likely that this figure will increase still more sharply.

I accept, therefore, that this was the moment for the Minister to make his abhorrence of such sales known both to the councils and to the public at large, and I count myself fortunate to have the opportunity of assisting him in his efforts to make his views more widely known. In paragraph 3 of the circular, he expresses the view that where there is still an unsatisfied demand for houses to let at moderate rents, in general council houses should not be sold because this would postpone the time when an adequate supply of rented houses would become available and families on the waiting list would have to wait longer for a vacancy. That is nonsense.

Mr. Ivor Richard (Barons Court)


Mr. Berry

I am making my own speech.

The argument used by the Minister is irrelevant and cannot be substantiated. Provided that certain minimum conditions as to price are met and other restrictions concerned with the letting or selling of houses built before 1945 within five years of the original sale are also met, these sales can be carried out in accordance with the 1960 circular.

These restrictions make it certain that, unless the Labour Party is preparing to evict tenants from council houses so as to make room for those waiting, the fact that a house is sold to the sitting tenant makes no difference. If the hon. Gentleman repeats that claim today, I shall be left with the inevitable conclusion that this is what the Government have in mind.

In the same paragraph of the circular, the suggestion is also made that the sale of a substantial number of the older houses and their replacement by new houses to let could have the effect of unnecessarily increasing the rents of the remaining houses or putting extra charges on the general ratepayers or both. This would only be the case if the purchase price was kept artificially low. As long as the councils keep the pre-emptive rights for five years, and sell at proper market prices, these sales would have no effect at all on the rents of other houses.

Another claim is that a reduction in the number of houses available to let would result in a smaller number available for those wishing to have transfers and exchanges. There is a substance of truth in this in that, under the Labour Government, a few more houses have been built. But this cannot be overcome by more restrictions, but only by more houses.

Next, the claim is made that the loss of rent income from the older houses and any Exchequer subsidy would be less than the savings of the repair costs and also some savings of management costs. The circular says that even if there is a benefit to the housing revenue account, it is unlikely to be sufficient to reduce the cost of new houses to the level of those sold, even allowing for the higher rate of subsidy on the new houses. This is a deliberately pessimistic and biased approach. It is my belief that the sale of council houses will release capital which can then be employed in new construction without further expensive borrowing at high rates of interest.

There will be reductions in management and repair expenditure. Others will benefit from the improvement, not only those who remain as council tenants, but the ratepayers as a whole. Anyone reading the circular might think that the Minister at this stage deprecated the sale of any more council houses, but he does not. He goes on to give examples of cases where it is approved of. As a London Member, I would like to see this consent given by the Minister adopted in London. As The Times rightly pointed out, on March 22: Mr. Greenwood's reasoning about the superiority of having large pools of council houses would be more impressive if the pool were not so often stagnant. In London, the re-letting rate is just under 2 per cent.… The great majority of men and women would like to own their own homes. Those who live in council houses and flats are an important part of the majority. I stand 100 per cent, in support of those who wish to have that opportunity, and I hope that through this brief debate we may know just where the Government stand. I have stated my own position and that of my party clearly.

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

The hon. Gentleman said that his party's policy was to sell to existing council tenants, both houses and flats. I would like to get this clear. Is that the policy of the Conservatives in the Greater London area, because it has already been said by them that they are concerned only with houses?

Mr. Berry

I was certainly stating party policy on houses. I would like to see the policy extended to flats in the not too distant future.

12.43 p.m.

Mr. Ivor Richard (Barons Court)

This is a useful debate for the one good reason that it gives this House, although somewhat sparsely attended, and the country, particularly the London electorate, an opportunity of realising once again how half-baked Conservative housing policy really is. It is founded upon one or two fundamental misconceptions. One has to do with the existing housing position of the country and another is about what any Government, of whatever complexion, ought to do.

The hon. Gentleman the Member for Southgate (Mr. Berry) quoted from the circular. It is interesting to observe that paragraph 2 states: From 1960 to 1965 annual sales of existing council houses averaged about 2.300 a year, compared with the total stock of some four million houses owned by local authorities. If it is now such a fundamental part of Conservative housing policy that local authority tenants should have the right to buy their own council houses, why was the rate so low during the last four years of the Conservative Administration? Why was it running at only 2,300 a year? Where is this great demand on the part of council tenants, all queuing outside the building societies, or the local authority offices, to get their mortgages? Is it a queue which has formed only during the last two years, or is it a queue which was there, but was unsatisfied by the last Conservative Administration?

Is the truth not that there is a certain demand, but as usual with the Conservative Party, when faced with an election, anything that smells as if it might have votes in it is grasped to the bosoms of hon. Gentlemen opposite in an attempt to win Londoners away from what is clearly the right allegiance.

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

The hon. Gentleman asked why this was not done under the Conservative Administration. It is perfectly simple: because Labour was in control at County Hall and the County Council owned the houses.

Mr. Richard

Is the right hon. Gentleman seriously telling the House that at that time the Conservative Government, of which he was a prominent member, sitting on the Front Bench, were advocating to the Greater London Council, or, as it was, the London County Council, that it ought to sell off its existing stock of council houses? I have been active in London politics since 1953, but I must tell the right hon. Gentleman that this Greater London Council election is the first in my experience in which this matter has played any major part.

Maybe the right hon. Gentleman was making clucking noises to the L.C.C. at the time. I do not know, but I do know that this has suddenly come into electoral prominence.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter rose—

Mr. Richard

The right hon. Gentleman must restrain himself. I will not give way again.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

On a point of order. Is it in accordance with the customs of the House for the hon. Gentleman to ask me a specific question and, when I rise to give him an answer, to decline to give way?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The right hon. Gentleman is aware of the conventions of the House as well as I am. Some questions are put rhetorically and others are not. There is a convention that if a direct question is put the hon. Member gives way, but there is no absolute obligation to do so.

Mr. Richard

I am obliged, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

If I may now return to the subject of this debate, originated by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Southgate, and supported by the somewhat impetuous interruptions of his right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter), it seems that what the Tory Party is advocating in the Greater London elections is founded upon a few misconceptions.

The first is that there is already in existence a sufficient stock of rented accommodation to satisfy the demand. Quite clearly, there is not. One of the first things that the present Government had to do when they assumed office was to try to reverse the direction in which council building had gone. During the first 10 years of the Conservative Party's guidance on these affairs, the number of council houses being built in England declined from a peak in 1953 to 1956 to the end of the decade, and only began to pick up again in 1962 and 1963. I know that in my own Borough of Hammersmith there is a large waiting list. The Greater London Council has a very large waiting list. I do not see how selling off part of the existing pool of rented accommodation aids the people on the waiting list.

It does not happen. What happens is that one more unit of accommodation is removed from the total number of units of accommodation available for letting. This seems to be a thoroughly retrograde step. The second misconception is that there is not a sufficient stock of houses available for sale in the private sector. On figures given recently in the House in connection with another Ministry, at any given moment in Great Britain there are between 80,000 and 100,000 houses available for sale. What a Government, and what an authority ought to do in those circumstances, is to make it as attractive and as easy as possible for council tenants, or anyone else, who wishes to purchase one of those houses already available for sale.

By all means let us give them 100 per cent. mortgages and cut legal fees on the conveyancing; by all means let us look at stamp duty. The two pillars upon which any sensible housing policy needs to be founded are, first, an attempt to increase, not decrease, the number of houses available for letting, both public and private. I accept that the private sector has a rôle to play. The second pillar is to make it as easy as possible for people to own their own homes by giving them Government mortgages, if necessary up to 100 per cent.

This is surely the sensible way to deal with this and I am bound to confess that the party opposite, all three of them—there are four of us—is basing its agitation, as we have seen before in connection with other London matters, particularly the timing of the elections, upon electoral motives. I have said before that no one is quite so good at wrapping up an electoral motive in a constitutional principle as the party opposite. This is another example of the rather blatant and hypocritical way in which its hopes to win votes at the elections next Thursday. I am happy and relieved to tell hon. Members opposite that they will fail.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

Before the hon. Gentleman sits down, may I ask him whether he is aware that the answer to the question which he put to me, but did not have the courage to give me the opportunity to answer, is that the Conservative Government, by their circular of 1960, gave a general consent to the sale of council houses by all local authorities and that that line is wholly consistent with the line which my colleagues are taking on the G.L.C., on the Birmingham Council and elsewhere?

12.50 p.m.

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

The right hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) would be the first to concede that since the circular to which he refers was published there has been a G.L.C. election. After the London Government Act had been implemented, and the Conservatives were convinced that they had so rigged the position that it was certain that they would win London for the first time, throughout the whole of the campaign in 1964, four years after the circular, not one mention was made by the Conservative Party, at either Government or G.L.C. level, about the sale of council houses to sitting tenants.

Therefore, my hon. Friend the Member for Barons Court (Mr. Richard) is absolutely right when he asks the Conservative Party why this matter has suddenly become an important issue. Why is it that at this time, when a G.L.C. election is progressing, the sale of council houses has suddenly become important to the Conservatives? Why was it not important in 1964? Speaking as one who has been a Member of the House for over 20 years, and who has watched the Conservatives mostly in power, I do not recall the right hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames saying a word on this subject. I know the right hon. Gentleman extremely well. He was a very lively and intelligent member of the Conservative Administration. I do not recall hearing great speeches from him urging local councils to review their policies and to sell council houses to tenants.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I do not ask the hon. Gentleman to remember all my speeches—I find that unexciting enough myself—but he will see, if he looks back to the housing debates of a year or two ago, that I made this point several times. Since he has been good enough to give way, may I also take up his point about 1964 and subsequently. I have a very clear recollection of this point being put from Conservative platforms at that time. It has been the practice of a number of Conservative-controlled local authorities.

Mr. Mellish

With great respect to the right hon. Gentleman, who is an extremely fair debater, he is talking a lot of humbug when he says that this was an issue at the 1964 G.L.C. election. I was very much involved in that election, as I am involved in the present election, and I would have been alerted to the fact if the point had been raised. The right hon. Gentleman knows that it was not raised.

I come now to the very important point which the hon. Member for Southgate (Mr. Berry) mentioned, the right of a man to own his own house. The idea seems to have got abroad—at least some hon. Members opposite are trying to put it abroad—that the Labour Government are interested only in people becoming council tenants and not in people becoming owners of their property. I want to nail that lie. It has been suggested that the G.LC., about which so much has been said in the last few weeks, particularly by the party opposite and some of its representatives who are trying to get power, is anti those who wish to own their own houses. Let me give the facts.

About £125 million has been advanced by the G.L.C. on its house purchase scheme. People have been queueing over Westminster Bridge to get loans under it. The G.L.C. is the most progressive council in the country when it comes to letting people have money to buy their own homes. This nails the lie that the Labour Government and their friends in local government are opposed to people owning their own homes. It is a fact that on the question of selling council houses to existing tenants the Government and, indeed, the G.L.C. have rested their argument on the simple point that the need for council property in London is overwhelming.

The hon. Member for Southgate, whom I have known for some time, and whom I regard as a very honourable Member, forgot the all-important and relevant fact that there are 125,000 people on the waiting lists of the various London boroughs crying out for local authority housing. It is criminal to sell council property when there is the likelihood that such people will be affected and their chances diminished.

Mr. Reginald Eyre (Birmingham, Hall Green) rose—

Mr. Mellish

I have only 10 minutes in which to speak and I have given way once

The hon. Gentleman says that the sale of council houses to existing tenants does not hurt people on the waiting list. Let me give some more relevant figures. The hon. Gentleman mentioned, almost as an aside, that the number of relets is only 2 per cent., or something like that, and that it is not important. Let me give him some figures. The number of relets last year alone was about 10,000. Even more important was the number of transfers within existing accommodation—the family growing up which needs larger accommodation and the family which is becoming aged and needs smaller accommodation. Here the figures are even more dramatic. Over 20,000 transfers took place right across the board.

Those running the G.L.C. election for the Conservative Party have said again and again that they are concerned only with houses. I do not understand this argument. If it is good enough for a person to buy his house, why is it not good enough for a person in my constituency to buy his flat? The G.L.C. Tories have said that they will not allow that. The Conservatives have raised this as a political gimmick at the time when the G.L.C. elections are to take place. I would say in the name of the 125,000 people on our waiting list that I believe this idea to be absolutely criminal.

A Gallup poll was published about a fortnight ago. The timing of it is interesting. From where did it come? It came from the Aims of Industry, which carried out a special survey which showed that 89 per cent.—a remarkable figure—of council tenants wanted to buy their flats and houses. I can only say from my experience—and I am a London Member—that that is not my impression of what is wanted by those living in council property in a constituency like mine. No doubt there are some, but nothing like the figures mentioned by Aims of Industry.

Mr. Deputy Speaker, you will not be surprised when I say that I very much suspect the Aims of Industry. I do not think that it is a reputable body. I believe that it is an appendage of the Conservative Party, and has been for many years. Its sole purpose is to destroy the Labour Party and to do all the harm and damage which it can. Therefore, any policy which it runs—

Mr. Eyre rose—

Mr. Mellish

I cannot give way.

Any policy which Aims of Industry runs is highly suspect. But the G.L.C. elections are now in full swing and the people will be asked to judge.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

Hear, hear.

Mr. Mellish

One thing which I have noticed with great interest is that this great passionate plea for the sale of council houses is not going as well as was suspected.

Mr. Berry


Mr. Mellish


The Conservatives running the G.L.C. election seemed to have dropped this plea from their curriculum. It is evident at the Press conferences each day that the Conservative Party has decided that this is not such an election winner as it thought.

Mr. Berry

Would the hon. Gentleman allow me to put one question?

Mr. Mellish

The average Londoner is very intelligent. That is why he has voted Labour since 1934. The Labour Party has been in control of County Hall since 1934, and it will remain in control. Londoners are too intelligent to stand for the sort of gimmickry which has been introduced in the last few weeks by the Conservatives, believing that they would get a lot of votes as a consequence.

The facts are these. There are 125,000 people crying out for council property. The G.L.C. has lent to the people of London about £125 million to enable them to own their own homes, which is a demonstration of the fact that the Labour Party is identified with the principle of people buying their own houses and becoming genuine, property-owning democrats. The Government have introduced a subsidies Bill in which we make it possible for the first time for those who wish to borrow money to get a lower interest rate by means of the mortgage option scheme. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] It is no good hon. Members opposite jeering. They were in power for 13 years and did not do anything about these matters. Now they jeer at what we are doing. For 13 years they had the chance to do all these things. In fact, they did nothing about them.

This debate, which I am glad the hon. Member for Southgate has raised albeit suddenly, gives me the chance to say as one with responsibility in the G.L.C. election that the election is now off the ground. The canvass returns make it clear that on Thursday, God willing and given decent weather and an improvement in the present state of apathy among electors—

It being One o'clock, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER suspended the sitting till half-past Two o'clock, pursuant to Order.

Sitting resumed at 2.30 p.m.