HC Deb 22 July 1968 vol 769 cc221-6
The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Dr. J. Dickson Mabon)

I beg to move. That the Scottish Special Housing Association (Limit of Advances) (Scotland) Order 1968, a draft of which was laid before this House on 11th July, be approved. The purpose of this Order is quite simple. It is to increase to £170 million the limit of the aggregate amount of advances which may be made by the Secretary of State out of the National Loans Fund to the S.S.H.A. so that it can continue its housing operations.

The hon. Member for Moray and Nairn (Mr. G. Campbell) will recall that the statutory limit was increased to £145 million in the 1967 Act, with provision for a further increase to a maximum of £170 million. The total of advances made to the end of the financial year 1967–68 was £124 million. Since then advances of about £3.5 million have been made. Having been Under-Secretary of State in 1964, the hon. Member will readily understand that we have already got commitments against which no advances have yet been made of £10.6 million and projects which are on the point of approval add about £2.5 million, bringing the total to about £140.6 million. We are also planning by the end of September to add another 1,000 houses, which will bring us up to, if not a little over, the £145 million allowable under the Act. Bearing in mind that we must take approvals into account as well as actual advances made, it is thought likely that, by that time, we will have exhausted the limit. It was thought necessary, therefore, to put this Order before the House.

The overspill programme is going well, not just for Glasgow but for Scotland as a whole, as I indicated in the previous debate. Houses for industrial development are going even better.

12.40 a.m.

Mr. John Brewis (Galloway)

We all welcome the fine work which the S.S.H.A. is doing. Most of its building is for incoming industry, about two-thirds of which is going on the new towns and only about one-third outside. Virtually all its work is taking place in the central belt. As far as I can see, there are only two small burghs in the whole of Scotland which are getting any contribution from the S.S.H.A. and only one county—Berwick, which is getting 10 houses.

Should not the S.S.H.A. build many more houses in other parts of Scotland? I have in mind, for example, Invergor-don, which we hope will soon become a centre of industry. Industry is going to Campbelltown and Dalbeattie in my constituency, but places outside the central belt are getting very little help. How does a local authority set about getting the help of the Association. It is desirable that the Association should come in and help, as it relieves the ratepayers of the cost of building houses.

The Minister of State mentioned 1,000 houses. Is this to do with Tweedbank, the Borders development? I suppose we do not know what will happen there for the moment, but if this is not approved by the county council this may well alter the plans. On the multi-storey question, is the hon. Gentleman sure that the constructions which the Association is erecting are thoroughly sound so that there is no risk of a disaster occurring of the type that occurred at Islington a few months ago?

12.42 a.m.

Mr. Gordon Campbell (Moray and Nairn)

As the Minister of State said, this is not a controversial issue on which we shall spend much time, but we want to take the opportunity of asking the Minister for answers to one or two points. When the Housing (Financial Provisions) Scotland Bill, 1967, was passing through Committee, we discussed Clause 15, under which the Order is being made, at some length. As the Minister of State pointed out, it was foreseen that the total amount would be raised from £145 million to £170 million. The Minister made some prophecies which I am glad to say have come out almost right. On 1st December, 1966—I refer to column 287—the hon. Gentleman said that he expected the limit of £145 million to take us to March, 1968. We are now a little beyond that, but that has worked out reasonably according to the hon. Gentleman's prophecy. The hon. Gentleman also said that he expected that the increased amount of £170 would last for about 1½ to 2 years. Does this mean that there will have to be another Bill in about 1½ years' time to cope with the situation then? Does the hon. Gentleman foresee the amount having to be increased further, as he clearly did in December, 1966?

When at that time we discussed at length what the S.S.H.A. was engaged in and was likely to be engaged in, the Minister said that the main problem then facing the Association was that of finding sites. Has this problem receded since then?

As my hon. Friend the Member for Galloway (Mr. Brewis) said, we agree in the House about the value of the work which the S.S.H.A. is doing, particularly for new and expanding industry, but there is a point of concern in the concentration of its work in certain parts of Central Scotland. In the latest Annual Report of the S.S.H.A. which is available, that is, the one which came out last September, it was said in the foreword that areas in the Highlands, the Central Belt and the Borders will all benefit from this capital investment". The Report seemed to foresee activity by the S.S.H.A. in the north of Scotland, in the Highlands as well as in the industrial areas.

From what I have discovered about approaches to the S.S.H.A. regarding the possibility of its building in the North of Scotland, it seems that the Association cannot embark on such projects unless a considerable number of houses or flats is to be built. Could the Minister comment on that? I do not know what the critical figure is, but it seems that, unless there are, say, 400 or so houses or flats to be built, the S.S.H.A. cannot sensibly or economically go into action somewhere in the North of Scotland far from the Central Belt. If the Minister could tell us something more definite about that, it would help us to see the problem in perspective, particularly in the light of the Association's declared wish to be able to operate in any part of Scotland.

We note with regret that costs of building have increased, not only interest rates but, with devaluation, the increased costs of materials and so on, together with growing transport costs. This, no doubt, is making the operations of the S.S.H.A. more expensive. Can the Minister tell us whether it is still aiming at building 5,000 houses a year in 1970, which is the target which the Association and we have discussed in the past, or is that figure affected by the reductions in housing targets which were announced at the beginning of this year?

12.47 a.m.

Dr. Dickson Mabon

I am much obliged to the hon. Member for Moray and Nairn (Mr. G. Campbell) for touching on a point which, in a way, answers a question raised by his hon. Friend the Member for Galloway (Mr. Brewis), namely, the expensiveness and, indeed, the impossibility of the Scottish Special Housing Association building in small packets. I should not like to give the figure off the cuff, but it is obvious that one cannot ask an Association of this kind to take heavy equipment up to build half a dozen or 20 houses. The number must be substantial.

That is why I was anxious that the local authorities in the North should be willing to join in consortia. For all kinds of reasons, some of which I fully understand, they did not come forward on that line, although there are earnest attempts still being made, based on Aberdeen and Arbroath, to try to get some kind of consortium into being. The formation of consortia is valuable not only for the convenience of the S.S.H.A. but also for the convenience of the large builders, many of whom operate in the Central Belt and will stay there so long as there are no large programmes in the North.

The small builders are coping reasonably well, but they certainly could not carry out a large programme such as, for example, at Invergordon, with the kind of infrastructure, as it is called, in roads, services and the rest as foreseen in the Alness structure plan described in the Moray Firth Report which the Jack Holmes Group published recently. If that kind of project were to be carried out in the future, it would have to involve the S.S.H.A. as well as other contractors.

I take the point about the change in the character of the S.S.H.A. It has moved from being a social ambulance unit helping the ratepayers to being a body servicing overspill and economic expansion. But there are severe difficulties about sites.

We have often been chastised over the S.S.H.A.'s leaving Glasgow, but in 1962 it built no houses in Glasgow. In 1963 it built 392, and that figure has steadily risen to 1,359 in 1966 and 1,156 in 1967. It must be obvious to anyone who knows Glasgow that the number of houses the S.S.H.A. can build in Glasgow is limited by the acute shortage of sites, which will create a very difficult situation in 1970. That is why Erskine, the fourteenth amendment to the Renfrew Development Plan, was approved by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State some time ago, after the public inquiry. It will give us about 6,000 houses in the public sector to be built outside the city in that one out-county estate.

Mr. G. Campbell

May I ask the hon. Gentleman about building away from the Central Belt. He talked about penny packets of 10 or 20 houses. From what I have heard it seems that even if there is a project to build 100 or 150 houses in the North-West of Scotland that is still not enough to be worth while. But if there is a major development at Inver-gordon, as many of us hope, would not there then be definitely a case for a sizeable building programme which would be worth while for the S.S.H.A. to undertake?

Dr. Mabon

The S.S.H.A. is building in Kelso and one or two other small places. It often does so through agents; although the houses are S.S.H.A. houses they are built by local contractors or agents who may be building nearby.

Erskine is a case where we have a successful development in preparation for 1970. It takes a great deal of time in planning and site preparation and so on before one starts to erect the first house. In the case of Darnick we are held up by the negotiations prior to the compulsory purchase order which may prove to be necessary. I am not in a position to comment on that. That has already cost us 15 months.

The 1,000 houses to which I have referred are half last year's figure, and one-fifth the figure the hon. Gentleman mentioned as a target. Those 1,000 houses for economic expansion comprise about three-quarters, if not slightly more, of the total programme. That is the measure of the emphasis on economic expansion. This emphasis will inevitably lead to a decreasing number for overspill and general needs.

A point was raised about building standards. The Scottish Local Authorities' Special Housing Group has engaged in detailed technical consultations not only about standardisation of components but about building standards, and information is being pooled. The disaster in London, which we all deeply regret, has lessons for others besides the English authorities and builders. The S.S.H.A., as a pioneer of good building in Scotland, will learn these lessons.

Mr. G. Campbell

Is the target of 5,000 a year unchanged? If the hon. Gentleman cannot tell us now perhaps there is some way of informing us later.

Dr. Mabon

I am hopeful that the S.S.H.A. will get very close to 5,000, but there are reasons why it may not —and Tweedbank is a good example. We did not think that Invergordon was coming along. If it does, it is a bonus which might offset that. I cannot say anything about that tonight. I would hope that we should get over 4,000 at any rate in 1970.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Scottish Special Housing Association (Limits of Advances) (Scotland) Order 1968. a draft of which was laid before this House on 11th July, be approved.