HC Deb 04 December 1967 vol 755 cc1093-104

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

10.17 p.m.

Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, West)

I applied for this Adjournment debate because I feared that no hon. Member of the Opposition would apply for it. They have been strangely quiet about Scottish housing for a long time and the reason is not far to seek. If they had so applied, they would have had to eat many words which they have uttered in Scottish housing debates in the last three years.

For example, the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward M. Taylor), who is not present, forecast last November that fewer than 35,000 houses would be completed in 1966. In fact, 36,029 were completed. This year, the 1967 figure, I guess, will probably be higher still and may be up to 38,000 or thereabouts. Next year should see the highest post-war figure of completions, exceeding the 39,000-odd of 1953. In the 13 years of the Tory Government, there were not 35,000 completions except in three years—1953, 1954 and the election year of 1964. This Government have exceeded that figure in 1965, 1966 and will, no doubt, 1967.

In the public sector, building completions in 1966 totalled 28,159, compared with fewer than 19,000 in 1962—after approximately 11 years of the previous Government. One has heard, too, over the last three years a complaint about the discouragement of private ownership or privately built houses in Scotland and the figures are in fact revealing even in that sector. In 1954, the number of houses built by private owners was 2,608. In 1963, that had gone up to 6,622. In 1966 it was 7,780. Thus, even in the private sector there is a substantial increase in the number of houses completed.

There was a lot of grumbling about the reduction in house starts early in 1966 and it is true that in the first quarter of that year only 6,767 houses were started. To that extent the complaint was legitimate and valid. But there was quite a substantial pick up in the subsequent quarters of that year, and in the first three quarters of this year according to the latest quarter's return there were 32,649 starts.

In parenthesis, I want to make a criticism about the way in which the figures are published. I realise that this is not my hon. Friend's responsibility. The figures are no longer available in the Vote Office. One can get them only in the Library, and that is very unsatisfactory. Every Scottish hon. Member should have the right to a copy of these figures at the Vote Office and to keep them in his personal possession. I do not know the reason for the present situation, but I hope that it will be put right in the not-too-distant future.

I should like my hon. Friend to give me the latest figure for starts beyond the figure given in the latest returns. But even from the first three quarters one finds that the total starts is greater than the whole of the starts in 1951, 1952, 1956, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961 and 1962. That is a record which deserves a good deal of publicity.

If one takes the figure under construction one finds well over 55,000 under construction. In fact, in the second quarter of this year it was nearly 56,000–55,935—and in the third quarter it was 55,852.

These, I believe, are the highest figures of starts ever recorded in Scottish history and they compare with the record in 1961, for instance, when the number of starts was just over 31,000 and even in 1964, again in the election year, it was just over 43,000. These figures highlight the stupidity and the irresponsibility of the hon. Member for Cathcart who said only last November, As every return comes in it is the same story of dismal failure …"—OFFICIAL REPORT, Scottish Grand Committee, 13th November 1966, c. 80.] If this is failure, let us have a lot more of it and let us have no more success like the Tories—and here I quote the hon. Member for Cathcart again—" trafficking in human misery "depicted by the figures in the late 1950s and the early 1960s.

At this point it is appropriate for the House to pay tribute to the Scottish Special Housing Association, one of the most successful public enterprises of the post-war era. I do not think that English Members are aware of what the Scottish Special Housing Association does and what it is. The Government have invested over £130 million in this unique organisation since the end of the war in 1945—extremely wise and sound investment in the future of Scotland. It is right that the Government have plans to increase it from the present £10 million a year to about £25 million, I think, by 1970–71.

I understand that the target of the S.S.H.A. of completions this year is 2,500 rising to 5,000 by 1970. What is at least as important as the number of houses completed is the number of houses started, and the Association state that they will start 3,500 this year. I should be glad if my hon. Friend would confirm that.

In the November debate the hon. Member for Galloway (Mr. Brewis), speaking on the Scottish Housing Bill, complained that the record of the S.S.H.A. was poor on the number of tenders approved. At that point his complaint had some validity. There were only 810 houses approved in the first three quarters of 1966. But he will be glad to know and the House will be glad to know that in the first three quarters of 1967 the number of houses for which tenders were approved was 1,653, almost exactly double the figure for the comparable three quarters of last year.

I could quote the local authority house building programme, new towns and the rest. From all the evidence available it is undeniable that a very great deal has been done in this field. It is clear that the enormous, almost terrifying housing problem of Scotland is being tackled with greater energy, greater determination and greater drive than ever before in history. The completions in the first three years of this Government will be 109,000 to 110,000—give or take a thousand—and that, I think, is the best three years' performance in the last 12 years. It is exceeded only by 1953–54–55, and not exceeded by very much even then.

Clearly, tremendous tasks lie ahead. In answer to a Question on 23rd November we were told that in Scotland we still have 700,000 houses over 50 years old out of a total stock of 1¾ million and that 200,000 of those were built before 1875, so that roughly one in every ten houses in Scotland is over 100 years old. This represents a massive indictment of private landlordism in Scotland over the last century. The Government's target of 50,000 completions a year by 1970 is ambitious by any standard. It means an increase of about 50 per cent. on the present figures over three years. I want to ask my hon Friend, can it be done? What new policy have the Government initiated to achieve the target?

I have a string of questions which I must put to him as briefly as I can. It is clear that local authorities in Scotland are having to concentrate more and more on slum clearance and redevelopment, which is both more difficult and costly than building on clear open sites. The figures for slum clearance show that this work was running, between 1961 and 1964, at an average of 12,000 a year, while it is now running at an average of 16,000 a year. Is anything being done to help local authorities in this extremely difficult exercise?

Is the Minister of State satisfied that everything is being done to eliminate, or at least reduce, administrative bottlenecks in the approval of local authority building proposals? What action are the Government taking on Reports of the Scottish Housing Advisory Committee, which was revived by the Labour Government after it had been placed in abeyance in 1951? Its Reports make extremely fascinating reading and contain a wealth of information, which is essential if one is to understand the magnitude of the problem which faces us. It would be a tragedy if these Reports were to find their way into some dusty pigeon hole in St. Andrew's House, although I am sure that that will not happen.

While building more and more new houses is fine, exciting and essential work, just as important is the need to ensure that the existing houses, both public and private, are used to the best possible advantage. What new measures or policies have the Government to ensure that this happens? I had intended to ask my hon. Friend about the possible repercussions on existing housing subsidies of the increased Bank Rate, but I assume that the subsidies bill will be increased to take care of that.

What progress has been made with the option mortgage scheme in Scotland.

The housing record in Scotland in the last three years is inspiring by any test, but it cannot be allowed to engender any trace of complacency. There is still a tremendous job to be done to remedy a century of neglect, slums and squalor, which must be wiped from the face of Scotland.

10.32 p.m.

The Minister of State for Scotland (Dr. J. Dickson Mabon)

I am obliged to my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) for approaching this matter in such a constructive way. I am only sorry that previous contributions from elsewhere have not been made in the same spirit.

I confirm that the Government's target of 50,000 houses by 1970 still stands. However, despite all we say. Governments do not build houses. The contractors and operatives do that, after orders have been placed by local authorities, new towns, the Scottish Special Housing Association and private developers.

I take my hon. Friend's last question first; about the Option Mortgage Scheme? While I confess that it does not concern as many people in Scotland as it does in England, we are doing our best to impress, by advertisements and other means, its importance and to bring it to the attention of all those who do not pay Income Tax at the standard rate and who could profit by the Scheme if they are engaged in, or are considering, buying a house now.

I have always believed that the development of the private market was one of the most important things for any Government to try to achieve, and that applies particularly at economic times like these. Our intention is to reach the target of 50,000 houses by 1970 and, of that figure, we want to see local authorities ordering 28,000, the new towns—which are directly in the hands of the Government—5,000, the Scottish Special Housing Association 5,000—and I confirm what my hon. Friend said about the objective and about how well the S.S.H.A. has done this year compared with last—and to get 12,000 houses from the private sector.

This is, perhaps, the greatest challenge for the Government. That is why I confirm that the Option Mortgage Scheme and everything else, with the working party of builders, and so on, has been directed to getting the private sector to reach this figure, for if we do not get 12,000 from the private sector, we may have to resort to getting a compensating increase in the local authority sector.

Mr. Gordon Campbell (Moray and Nairn)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Secretary of State for Scotland has been unable to answer Questions of mine about the operation of the Option Mortgage Scheme in Scotland, which means that at present it does not seem possible to assess what effect the Scheme is having in Scotland? Cannot something be done to improve this state of affairs?

Dr. Mabon

We have been discussing this position with the builders and building societies. The trouble is that out of 200 or so building societies, only two operate with headquarters in Scotland. It is difficult to get the figures broken down. We estimated the figure to be about 20,000 at the beginning of the Scheme, but we cannot be certain about that. I accept that it is reasonable that we should try to see how the Scheme is working, but at present we have to rely on the figures for the United Kingdom as a whole.

I must not be led away from answering the questions asked by my hon. Friend. He put a number of questions to me and I have so far answered only one.

The Government accept that responsibility. They have not just announced a target and then hoped that it would fulfil itself. They have gone out to the local authorities and other public sector agencies, and to both sides of the building industry, and have established day-to-day co-operation in a way which has never before been attempted, let alone achieved, in Scotland. This is a new, positive concept of the Government's rôle in a field such as this.

In 1965, 35,116 houses were completed and, more important for building up a programme, 42,228 houses were started. And when we asked local authorities, for the first time—I repeat, for the first time—to plan house building programmes five years ahead and to tell us what they proposed, they put in some very big programmes. They had been encouraged by the very much improved subsidies which the Government promised, and which we put into Statute form in the Housing (Financial Provisions Etc.) (Scotland) Act, 1967.

But in the first quarter of 1966—as the Opposition were quick to remind us—there was a fall in the number of houses started. The orders were not being placed. The Government acted immediately on this warning, and tried to find the reasons for the shortfall. Much of the trouble seemed to be lack of planning far enough ahead in sufficient detail and not enough allowance for the inevitable difficulties in redevelopment schemes. I know this is not easy, but many local authorities are taking up the challenge of critical path and net work analysis.

Let me say a word about specific Government action. First, we have had a continuous series of Ministerial meetings with the housing convenors. This has been very good. I held two such meetings in May and September of last year, my noble Friend, Lord Hughes held another series in February, 1967, and he proposes a fourth series of meetings, probably next January. Nobody appreciates these meetings more than the housing convenors. They feel that they get contact with Ministers and officials, and misunderstandings are ironed out. Secondly, Ministers have made personal visits to a large number of individual authorities to discuss their particular difficulties.

Thirdly, local authorities were asked, at the end of 1966, to move their five-year programmes one year forward into 1971, to make their returns in much greater detail, and to give us target dates for each stage in the house building process. The idea is to get sites coming forward in steady sequence.

Again, the building industry has been given information, from these detailed reports, about the size and geographical distribution of housing programmes which should enable the industry to plan the use of its resources more efficiently.

I cannot praise too highly the officials of the Scottish Development Department, who have all worked very hard. I am delighted to say that we now have progress officers. The Secretary of State has agreed to their appointment. Although this may be criticised as meaning more civil servants, these progress officers will be vital in the battle to get rid of Scotland's bad houses and to get a really strong build-up of houses in Scotland such as we need.

Orders are now flowing in again. Starts are well up this year—in the public sector, 28,397 as against 22,813 last year, which is an increase of about a quarter. This work is now just beginning to be seen coming out at the other end in terms of completions—nearly 25,000 public sector completions in the ten months so far, against 20,902 for last year, an increase of one-fifth.

Of course, the Government inherited a situation in which more houses were completed than started. In 1964, although we had a very good number of houses completed—37,171, as we are constantly reminded—only 35,902 houses were started. It seems to be inevitable logic that what one starts one can usually finish, but that what one does not start one cannot ever finish. This was a falling programme which we inherited in 1964. Perhaps we were optimistic in what we sought to achieve in 1966, but it is, nevertheless, quite remarkable to see the change in public opinion about this. We are now quarrelling over figures of 35,000, yet these were incredible figures in the period from 1953 to 1964.

But let me stick to the results. During the first 10 months of the year—

Mr. Ian MacArthur (Perth and East Perthshire)


Dr. Mabon

No, I must finish. I still have to deal with three points, and I have only five minutes in which to do so. During the first 10 months of this year to the end of October the approval of tenders for public sector housing was up by 39 per cent.

During the three years since October, 1964, 109,636 houses were completed, compared with 88,224 in the three years before October, 1964, and 82,522 in the three years before that again. So even in terms of completions, three years of this Government show 24 per cent. and 33 per cent. increases over the two three-year periods before that under the previous Government. With approvals and starts now going up, it is clear that the falling programme which the Government inherited has been checked and reversed.

It is strange that the 36,000 houses built in 1966 are regarded by hon. Members opposite as inadequate when in any of the nine years from 1955 to 1963 inclusive that figure would have been hailed as a marvellous achievement. There was no consistent effort in this field. The average output was only 29,850, taking the good and the bad years together. By contrast, this will be the fourth successive year in which 35,000 houses have been completed and the starts this year guarantee even more comple:ions next year.

Mr. MacArthur

In March, 1966, the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues promised a completion rate of at least 40,000 a year.

Dr. Mabon

The hon. Member should wait until we get to the target year. We must complete more each year. Hon. Members opposite were wrong last year. To their intense disappointment we completed more houses than in 1965. I am sure that a few more of them will be disappointed this year when we complete more than last year.

We are seeking to complete more each year so that by 1970 we can get to 50,000. I like this peaceful rivalry between us if it is a rivalry of expectations and not of fluctuating figures such as we had under the party opposite. It murdered the Scottish Housing Advisory Committee.

To study the problems of the existing stock we revived the Committee and in the last three years it has produced three excellent Reports. There has been the Report on Scotland's Older Houses—the Cullingworth Report—the Kay Report on Local Authority Allocations, and the Clark Report on Housing Management. Each will be discussed by local authorities and the Secretary of State will take decisions on each as the full Housing Advisory Committee reports to him.

My hon. Friend asked about the Cullingworth Report on clearing away the slums and dealing with substandard houses which are worth saving. The Secretary of State will make a detailed statement on this early in the New Year. I cannot anticipate that statement because you, Mr. Speaker, would rule that out of order as it would be a matter involving future legislation. All I can say at this juncture is that the Secretary of State is very much in sympathy with the objectives and we shall seek to achieve them. The Committee has done valuable work on the other Reports and the Secretary of State will make a statement on them after the evidence has been submitted to him.

The other Reports deal with allocations and concern mobility of labour as well as the justice of allocation of houses, and the better management of housing estates. I am sure that in addition to providing more houses and the right jobs this is of importance to get the right social ambience and amenities so that we can see that we are on all fours with the United Kingdom.

10.44 p.m.

Mr. Gordon Campbell (Moray and Nairn)

There is no disappointment on this side of the House when there are good results in housing. What we are worried about is when Ministers and hon. Members opposite make bland statements that something will happen and something far short of it happens.

There has not been an argument about the figures, but of the statements made by the Government as compared with the results. The question which now arises is why it has taken so long for houses to be completed. The hon. Gentleman is able to produce a huge figure for houses under construction but this is because it seems to be taking longer and longer before they are completed. I will gladly give way if he can explain that. It is completions which matter, not just the number under construction. That is what we are worrying about at the moment.

Dr. Dickson Mabon

The major concern we had was over multi-storeys, which take a very long time to come up in these figures. It takes nine months from the start of a multi-storey and the laying of the foundations before we can count it as a start, whereas with low-rise houses this take only a few months. One-third of the programme in some places—certainly one-quarter of the whole programme—are multi-storey, which show a delay in recording of figures.

Mr. Campbell

I am glad of that information. But the Government are discouraging multi-storey houses. The House passed an Act in the last Session to discourage them. There were more of them in the previous housing programmes. I accept what he has said—it is obvious—but it is no explanation of the very long time being taken. The hon. Gentleman was also asked about the high Bank Rate—at 8 per cent. it is the highest for a very long time—and its effect on the housing programme. Although he had time, he did not answer the point. I know that under the present subsidy system—

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

Adjourned at thirteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.