HC Deb 07 May 1968 vol 764 cc379-88

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

11.47 p.m.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

The issue of whether to sell council houses has aroused strong feelings in the City of Manchester. My hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government can be in no doubt of this after his encounter with the deputation I took to see him at the Ministry in April. He will certainly recall the strength of feeling expressed by the recent ex-chairman of Manchester's Housing Committee, Councillor Mrs. 'Winifred Smith; by Councillor Dr. Michael Taylor and by two respected trade unionists from Manchester, Mr. Griffiths Berry and Mr. Keith Roberts. I know that he will recall the emphasis which they and others have placed on seeing this issue as one, not of party tactics, but of important political principle.

My hon. Friend will be aware, from my recent correspondence with him, that the Conservative majority on the Manchester City Council is not only pressing ahead with its scheme for the sale of council houses, but is now claiming that the scheme does not run counter to the advice given by the Minister when renewing his general consent in Circular 24/67. This Circular, under the heading "Housing Acts: Sale of Council Houses" and dated 20th March, 1967, informed the local housing authorities of the Minister's view that: '…in areas where there is still an unsatisfied demand for houses to let at moderate rents, they should not sell their existing houses except where there are special reasons in the case of a particular property. To do so would postpone; the time when an adequate supply of rented housing becomes available; and could mean that families on the waiting list, who are among the most inadequately housed, would have to wait longer for a vacancy. If this advice does not apply to the City of Manchester perhaps my hon. Friend will tell me if there is anywhere in the country to which it does apply.

In Manchester there is a desperate shortage of houses to let at moderate rents. There are now 13,536 families on the city's housing waiting list, all too many of whom have been waiting for years for a home of their own. As my hon. Friend must know, there is also an acute shortage of land for the building of houses in Manchester and there has been pressure over many years for overspill sites outside the city.

Moreover, the city suffered much more than most others from the hard-faced and grasping landlordism of the past. The legacy of this is such that the estimate of dwellings unfit for human habitation has to be reckoned in tens of thousands. Most of these dwellings are occupied by decent, hard-working people whose need now, as in the foreseeable future, will be for houses to let at moderate rents.

It is first against this background that I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to comment on the Manchester Conservatives' claim that their scheme does not run counter to the advice given by the Minister in Circular 24/67. In considering his reply, perhaps he will also note that the sale of council houses is but one facet of the Manchester Conservatives' housing policy. To their utter shame, and acting unworthily of the reputation of a great city, they have slowed down Manchester's slum clearance programme and cut the building of new homes.

My hon. Friend will recall that Circular 24/67 went on to say: …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 of putting extra charges on the general ratepayers, or both. Local authority tenants who wish to move to a private house can be given every encouragement and assistance to do so. The authority can then relet to a family in need. This passage in the circular recognises the financial folly of selling existing, cheaply-built houses and building new and more expensive houses in their place. The price received for an old house will never be enough to build a new one, least of all in an area of desperate housing shortage. The effect of selling council houses must, therefore, be to increase the rents of the authority's remaining tenants. This consequence of the policy of selling council houses is causing serious concern among enlightened and informed opinion in Manchester.

My hon. Friend knows how warmly I have welcomed both the record levels of new house building under the present Government and the dramatic increase in housing subsidies. In 1967–68, the housing subsidies paid to Manchester, £1,744,004, were almost twice as generous as those allowed by the Conservative Government in 1961–62, £927,808. The difference in approach is even more marked when one compares the housing subsidies paid to the city during the first three years of Labour Government, £4,703,475, with those paid during the last three years of Conservative Government, £3,005,203.

But the Conservative majority on the Manchester City Council has been moving in an opposite direction to the Labour Government. While we have been increasing housing subsidies, the local Conservatives have shown their deep antipathy for council house tenants by freezing the rate subsidy. As my hon. Friend will agree, the support given to the housing revenue account from the rates is a town planning subsidy and not a rent subsidy. The city's slum areas must be cleared, and an increasing share of the cost of this tremendous burden will now have to be borne by Manchester's council house tenants. Many thousands of these tenants once lived in the city's slum clearance areas. This is, therefore, a case of the victims now being made to pay for the crime. This added burden alone will mean substantial and totally unjustified rent increases.

In addition, if the selling of council houses has the effect on rents which the Minister foresaw in Circular 24/67, then the anger of Manchester's remaining council house tenants could become extremely difficult to contain. My hon. Friend will have been able to judge the temper of Labour opinion in Manchester about rents from the information that I have given him on certain action taken last Friday by Alderman Sir Robert Thomas, the leader of the Labour group on the Manchester City Council. He may also wish to know that I have been approached in recent days by some highly responsible citizens of Manchester, including men who have given long and distinguished service on the City Council, who would be prepared to lead a rent strike if the Conservative majority at Manchester Town Hall is allowed to defy Government policy by unnecessarily increasing rents.

I must make it very clear that these people regard Circular 24/67 as a statement of Govenment policy, which has the intention, among others, of preventing avoidable increases in council house rents. It would be helpful if the Parliamentary Secretary will confirm that it is still the Minister's view that the sale of council houses can result in unnecessary rent increases. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend can also say whether he agrees with me that the need to prevent such increases is of even greater importance now than it was when the Circular was issued on 20th March, 1967. There is one further statement in the Circular to which I wish to refer. Paragraph 4 argues: The principal consideration is that the sale of existing council houses reduces the stock of houses that can be let at moderate rents. Most authorities find that they are able to re-let between 2 per cent. and 5 per cent. of their houses each year as vacancies occur. In the big cities and towns there is also a continuing demand among tenants for transfers and exchanges—e.g. as tenants change their place of work or want to move to a larger or smaller house as their family commitments change. Any reduction in the stock of rented houses both reduces the chances of families on the waiting list and restricts the opportunities for transfer and exchange among tenants. Thus a valuable element of flexibility in the management of the council's housing stock is diminished. Day after day, throughout the years that I have been active in the public life of Wythenshawe, for nine years as Labour's candidate and for four years since then as the Member of Parliament, I have been asked to help countless families living in blocks of flats, to transfer to homes with gardens. For the most part, they have been families with young children and elderly or sick people, who were no longer able to climb several flights of stairs. For a number of years I lived in one of the council's blocks of flats and I know, from first-hand experience, the stresses and strains which arise in families with young children. There are very few problems which cause me deeper concern today.

For many parents there is nothing more heartbreaking than the prospect of their children spending the whole of their childhood in a block flat. The human problems, especially for young mothers, have to be endured really to be understood. Instead of having their younger children always under their feet, as our Manchester saying goes, or playing on the stairways, or passageways of flats, there are thousands of mothers in my constituency who would like their children, even in winter, to be able to play safely just outside the home, where, in Shelley's words: The warm sun is failing, the bleak wind is wailing, The bare boughs are sighing, The pale flowers are dying. There are now 9,122 families on the city's housing transfer list, everyone of them with some human problem awaiting a solution by public authority. This figure is more than 3,000 above that for 1961 and a high proportion of those awaiting transfers are young families urgently seeking to move from flats to houses. I should appreciate it if the Parliamentary Secretary will comment on this aspect of the city's housing problem and if he will say whether it is still the Minister's view that: …any— and I emphasise the word "any"— …reduction in the stock of rented houses… will reduce the opportunities for transfer and exchange of the tenants of Manchester Corporation, now living in blocks of flats.

I come now to some of the more general considerations involved in the sale of council houses in Manchester. The issue is not whether people should own their own homes. By pretending that this is the issue, the Conservative party is merely trying to throw dust in the eyes of working people. There are, fortunately, some Manchester Conservatives who have been prepared to let the cat out of the bag and admit that this is not really the issue. One of them, Alderman Sir Richard Harper, the Chairman of the Housing Committee, has publicly conceded that the Labour Government …are bending over backwards to geteasier mortgages so that more people can own their own homes. Without in any way endangering the stock of houses to rent in areas of housing shortage, the Labour Government's option mortgage scheme now brings home ownership within the reach of more people than ever before. I pay the warmest possible tribute to my right hon. Friend and his predecessor for their important work in this sphere.

The real issue at stake in the sale of council houses, in Manchester as in other areas of acute housing shortage, is whether houses paid for out of public funds should at any time be sold or re-sold for private gain and to the detriment of families in the greatest need. But who can deny that this is what will happen in Manchester? After a period of time, anyone reselling a council house would not have to sell it back to the local authority or to the family in the greatest need. On the contrary, there could be queue-jumping. The house could be sold to someone well down the waiting list, or even to someone who was not on the list. In fact, it would most probably be sold to the highest bidder, whoever he was, and quite regardless of his need compared with that of the families on the waiting list. This would inevitably cause very bitter feeling among families on the housing waiting list and those awaiting transfers. Young married couples with children, now living with in-laws, would be passed over. So would the family who have lived for many years in a block flat in the hope of a transfer one day to a house.

My hon. Friend will recall that there was a great national outcry about the T.V. play "Cathy Come Home." For Cathy it had to be a house to rent or nothing, since she had no prospect of buying a house. I must emphasise to my hon. Friend that if the sale of council houses in Manchester were to mean that one Cathy had to wait a day longer for a home of her own, there would be very widespread and bitter and justifiable condemnation of the policy which allowed it to happen.

To sell a council house is to dispose of a home which can be offered to the needy when it becomes vacant, when the tenant goes away or buys on the private market. The sale of council houses reduces the already inadequate assets of the public system, and there are very few places where these assets are more inadequate than in Manchester. For this reason alone, which has been fully documented by the disturbing figures I have given the House tonight, I trust that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will speak in the strongest possible criticism of the policy now being pursued by the Conservative majority on the Manchester City Council. I trust that he will also endorse my view that, in the circumstances of Manchester's desperate housing shortage, their policy is not only socially unjust, but also impermissible.

I am, of course, familiar with the argument that this aspect of Conservative housing policy was intended only as an electoral gimmick; that it has proved a huge and expensive flop in areas where it is already in operation; and that it is not for the Government to save their opponents from the consequences of their own folly. Certainly the selling of council houses has flopped very badly in Greater London. I am informed that of the first list of 13,735 tenants who were offered the chance of buying their council houses only 400 said that they were still interested after preliminary inquiries had been made, and that the number of actual sales is derisory. One calculation I saw during last year showed that the G.L.C.'s offer would mean paying an increase of £3 3s. 2d. a week for living in the same house—from £4 4s. 6d. to £7 7s. 8d. Nor was this increase of £3 3s. 2d. the highest. It was a concessionary one for those who, having lived in their council houses for the past 18 years, felt that they had already paid for them in rent.

There are those who feel strongly that the real intention of Conservative policy is to popularise the sale of council houses by imposing even further increases in rents. But the "concessionary" offer to G.L.C. tenants shows why Londoners are rejecting this aspect of Conservative housing policy as a bad joke. Against the background of our extremely serious housing problem in the City of Manchester, I feel sure that most reasonable people would take the view that the sale of council houses there would also be a joke in very bad taste.

12.6 a.m.

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

I disagree with very little of what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Alfred Morris). I think that one has to get the picture into perspective. Since 1960, which is when we began returns for the sale of council houses, on average 2,600 houses have been sold per annum. That sounds a lot, but it has to be compared with a stock of 4 million houses. The average increase every year has been 160,000. The loss is a small amount in comparison.

My hon. Friend gave what he thought were the main objections to the sale of council houses in places of great housing need, and I agree with him. Where there is an unsatisfied demand for houses to let, it is essential, if we are to avoid in other towns the horrors which the Milner Holland Report exposed in London, that we increase the supply of houses to let. As my hon. Friend said, we have to watch the effect on rents if the supply goes down. If we sell off the cheaper houses and have to replace them with more expensive ones, this is bound to have a bad effect on rents.

I assure my hon. Friend that my right hon. Friend does not take the view that because the Prices and Incomes Board said that rent increases should be phased, and that the increases should be kept down to 7s. 6d. a year, that means that that can be done and no questions will be asked. That has to be regarded as a maximum, and my right hon. Friend is most anxious that local authorities should not raise rents when it is not necessary to do so.

My hon. Friend mentioned re-lets. These are essential for helping general housing need. My hon. Friend referred to Cathy. That is the kind of case that will not be helped by buying, nor will it be helped by getting a new house immediately. The "Cathys" depend on re-lets being available for rehousing, and good housing management means having a pool of re-lets if there is to be the necessary flexibility.

To sell centrally placed houses and then to search for land for overspill to replace homes sold in the centre of towns is pretty improvident and will not be popular with one's neighbours. If someone goes around Cheshire and Lancashire—or any other part of the country—saying that he must have land for rehousing to enable him to clear slums, he will find it difficult to defend his attitude if it is known that he has been selling cheap houses in the centre of the City. Manchester has thousands of slums which have to be cleared. In addition, as my hon. Friend has said, there is a long waiting list and a great need for rented houses.

I assure my hon. Friend that my right hon. Friend is not shutting his eyes to what is going on. He has not made a decision about waiving the general consent and doing nothing about it. He receives regular monthly reports, and is watching very carefully what is happening.

As my hon. Friend said, there is owner-occupation and we have done a tremendous lot for it, and nobody—I think particularly the private builders—would take kindly to the sale of council houses to the kind of people who could become owner-occupiers if they wanted to. The builders say it upsets their programmes if they have got this competition. I think that there has been this change of emphasis. This originally was meant to be a tremendous move of social revolution which was going to make owner-occupiers out of council tenants.

With the very small results that have come from this activity, and all the effort that has been made, there is much more talk to the effect that it does not matter how many houses one actually sells as long as people have an opportunity to buy if they want to. I think that is probably a rearguard action. It is true that probably this year there may be some increase, as the previous arrangements gather momentum. Last year, the number of houses sold was 3,138. That was lower than in 1966, when the number was 3,788, and after the initial flush of sales which comes after houses are first offered for sale, demand dies down.

It has always seemed likely that the total number of sales would increase as some of the larger authorities began to offer houses for sale. My right hon. Friend has kept the situation under close review and, while the number of sales may increase this year, there is nothing to suggest that overall this would represent a significant reduction in the total local authority stock of well over 4 million houses. But if the rate of sales in particular areas of housing need were to increase sharply, my right hon. Friend would certainly consider using his powers to withdraw the general consent and to reissue it in a more restricted form, possibly excluding altogether authorities in areas of continuing housing shortage.

The case for doing so will have to be judged in the light of the general trend in sales.

I would say to my hon. Friend that I have no quarrel with the criticism he has made of the policy. My right hon. Friend has said that again and again, and made his position clear. But his position up until now has been that he does not want to use a steamhammer to crack a nut, and unnecessarily interfere with the autonomy of local authorities. But if they cannot be relied upon to act responsibly, my right hon. Friend may have to have another look at the situation.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes past Twelve o'clock.