HC Deb 27 January 1970 vol 794 cc1304-21

8.30 p.m.

Mr. Christopher Ward (Swindon)

I am very glad to have this opportunity of raising the problem of the decline in house-building, because housing, its availability and its cost, is undoubtedly the most important problem that my constituents in Swindon have been bringing to me since my election to this House.

In Swindon, we have one feature which may exist in an exaggerated form when compared with other towns. It is a very high turnover rate in council houses. Swindon is an expanding town where large numbers of council houses have been built over the past decade or so. A fairly large number of people have moved into those houses, perhaps from London, for a fairly short period and then moved out to buy houses for their own occupation. That is a feature to which I shall return later, because the turnover recently has dropped sharply leading to the council house waiting list lengthening.

The demand for housing is well known in this House. It derives from those who are homeless and those in greatly substandard accommodation. It arises from the ever-growing population of the British Isles, and it arises from people marrying and having children earlier. When one talks about new house construction, this last factor is perhaps one of the most important. It has been said by the Ministry that the occupancy of newly constructed houses for sale is as low on average at 2.2 persons. They tend to be occupied by newly married couples who have children shortly after moving in.

It is my belief and that of right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite that a construction programme of about ½ million houses a year is necessary to solve the problem. That is exactly what was pledged, promised, stated and repeated often over the years by right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite. When they made those promises, it was difficult to see how they could possibly fail to hit their target of ½ million by 1970. When they ca me into office, they took over an accelerating house-building programme. They took over 432,000 houses actually under construction. The number of houses started had gone up year after year, and I think that it is the figure of starts which, very often, is more significant than the figure of completions. One fact is quite certain. One can only have houses at some stage after they have been started. But, over a period of a few years, by accelerating completions it is possible to produce an artificial view of the way in which the housing programme has been going.

It is true that the number of houses completed between 1964 and 1968 rose slightly each year. No doubt right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite will keep on referring to that. However, the significant point is that in each of those years the number of houses started fell slightly. That was the true underlying pattern in the housing programme. Except for 1967, which was a freak year when builders were trying to beat the betterment levy, since 1964 the number of houses started fell each year. The starts in 1968 were 394,000. It had declined to that figure. In its statement today, the Ministry does not say what was the figure of starts for the whole of 1969, but it is reported that it was 344,000, which represents a decline of 50,000. That is the proper measure of the decline of the housing programme at the moment.

The figure released this morning for completions in 1969 is 367,000. I assume that hon. Gentlemen opposite have come to apologise to the House and the country for such a dreadfully low figure, to explain what went wrong and why they have not been able to hit their target of ½ million, and to explain to the 130,000 families who need to be rehoused from slum accommodation but who cannot be because of their failure why their plans have gone so awry. The figures announced today will be greeted with sick despair by those 130,000 families, who will suffer badly as a result. What is even more alarming to everyone is that the White Paper on Public Expenditure holds out no hope of increased public expenditure in this direction over the next few years.

At the same time as the number of houses started has been declining in this fashion, the cost has been going up alarmingly. In 1964, the average house cost £3,500. Today, it is £4,800, and it is still going up. There are many reasons for it: devaluation; £150 in selective employment tax; the interest rates that builders have to pay, which are often 15 or 16 per cent., always assuming that they can borrow enough money to finance their activities; betterment levy; petrol tax; national insurance contributions—the list goes on for ever.

It is not only the capital cost of a new house which makes it so difficult for people who want to buy. The Government's financial policies have pushed up the mortgage interest rate from 6 to 8½ per cent. over the same period. A 90 per cent. mortgage on an average house which would have cost a purchaser about £20 a month in 1964 today costs £34 6s., which is a rise of more than 50 per cent. It is no good talking about increases in wage rates, either. After increased taxes and food and other prices, certainly there is not a 50 per cent. rise left over, or anything like it. The fact is that people cannot afford to buy houses, and that is the reason why the council house waiting list in Swindon has lengthened to the extent that it has.

The phenomenon to which I referred was caused by people moving out of council houses to buy houses of their own. However, because fewer houses are being constructed for private ownership and because the cost has risen to levels where people cannot afford it, people are tending to sit tight in their council houses whereas before they would have moved into houses of their own. Therefore, the turnover has dropped. The number moving out of council houses in Swindon for private ownership in 1969 was less than half the number in 1968. That is how fast the decline has been. That is how bad the situation is and the reason why the waiting list for council houses goes up and up. My constituents are caused hardship as a result, which is why so many complain to me about the waiting time.

The country was promised½million houses by 1970. It will get 130,000 fewer than that. It was promised cheaper house prices. They have gone up by £1,300. It was promised favourable interest rates. Mortgage repayments are up by 50 per cent. These promises will not be forgotten—

Mr. R. W. Brown (Shoreditch and Finsbury)

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not wish to mislead the House. He will accept that borough councils get finance for their new building at 4 per cent., irrespective of what the total interest rate may be. I am sure that he will take that into account when he says that no help is being given. That is not in accordance with the facts.

Mr. Ward

The favourable interest rates to which I was referring, which right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite promised people at successive elections, related to interest rates for owneroccupiers—mortgage borrowers. It is those interest rates that have gone up alarmingly from 6 to 8½ per cent. The people who have to pay rates of that kind do not regard them as favourable.

The people who took out 25-year mortgages at 6 per cent. when about 35 or 40 years old, expecting to pay them off before retirement, and now find that their repayments may go on until they are 75 years of age do not find those rates favourable. They regard them as a great hardship. They do not know how to deal with that kind of situation for which right hon. and hon. Gentleman opposite are responsible. Indeed, the Government are responsible for the whole economic climate, for the whole assault on the building industry and for the escalation of interest rates which has led to the decline in house-building and has had such serious implications for families waiting for houses.

8.40 p.m.

Mr. David Winnick (Croydon, South) rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Sydney Irving)

Order. The hon. Gentleman has not indicated that he wished to speak. This is the Consolidated Fund Bill.

Mr. Winnick

I said earlier to Mr. Speaker that I might try to intervene in the debate. I am sorry if I did not actually put down my name.

I suppose that it is inevitable that the Opposition should try to cash in on the housing figures which have been published today. Indeed, there would be some surprise if they did not take every opportunity of trying to exploit the figures published by the Ministry of Housing.

We on this side are deeply concerned about the housing figures. We have always had, and will continue to have, a deep and passionate interesting in housing. If, before the war, unemployment was the No. 1 problem for so many people, then certainly housing in the postwar years has been the No. 1 problem for so many people who have been able to solve their employment problem but have not been able to find adequate accomodation. So we are, and must remain, concerned about any fall in housing figures.

I should like to make one or two points which were not mentioned by the hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. Christopher Ward) in opening the debate. Just before we broke up for Christmas, I expressed anxiety, in a short debate which I initiated, at the way that a number of Conservative-controlled councils have cut down their house-building programmes. I am concerned about council housing—I will come to owner-occupation later— because people on the waiting lists; in acute housing distress, who are not in a position, even if the obtaining of mortgages was easier, to obtain a mortgage, can solve their housing problems only by being rehoused by the local authority.

It appears that a number of councils, which have recently become Conservative-controlled, are drastically reducing their council house-building programmes. It may be argued that this is inevitable because of the general economic climate, because of land prices and difficulties over sites. It seems, however, that a number of councils have been reducing their housing programmes purely and simply for political reasons. For example, the main Conservative spokesman on housing made clear that in his view it was desirable to drastically reduce the number of council houses being built.

Let us consider the Greater London Council. We know of the acute housing problem in Greater London. Yet the chairman of the housing committee of the council went on record saying that there is a need to reduce council house dwellings in London not for economic reasons, shortage of sites and all the rest, but for other reasons. Unfortunately, it seems to be a political objection to council houses being built.

I am aware that my right hon. Friend has been chasing up a number of local authorities which have been reducing their council house-building programmes. When the Joint Parliamentary Secretary replies to the debate, perhaps he will be able to tell us what action is being taken against those local councils which are obviously not carrying out their responsibilities. I am particularly concerned about the position in the Greater London area. If the London boroughs and the G.L.C. are not willing to carry out their obligations, I should like to know what further action will be undertaken by the Ministry.

I am also concerned about places where huge exclusively private developments are taking place where there is no kind of council development. Has the Ministry any power to intervene in such cases? It seems undesirable that, in areas of acute housing need—certainly, in the London area, where large private development is taking place—the local authorities should be contracting cut of any responsibility. This has happened in my constituency, and I am sure that it has happened in the constituencies of many of my right hon. and hon. Friends.

We are particularly concerned about housing, and must remain so, because so many problems are associated with inadequate housing. Recently, a report came out about children coming from socially deprived backgrounds. Most of the difficulties arise from inadequate and poor housing, so there is a tremendous need to relieve the housing burdens of so many people by providing council dwellings.

Having made that point, I want to refer now to the situation in the private sector. I said that the Opposition would exploit the housing figures—I am not surprised at that—but we on this side of the House remain concerned about the cutback in the private sector as well as in the public sector. I do not see any contradiction in being a champion of council housing and, at the same time, wishing to extend owner occupation.

For example, the Government introduced the option mortgage scheme, which has helped many people to become owner-occupiers. It cannot be said that we have some kind of ideological dislike of owner-occupation, otherwise we would not have brought in the option mortgage scheme.

We know that arising from the Government's economic policy there has been a severe credit squeeze during the last two to two and a half years. I shall not go into the arguments about the Government's economic policy at the time. I should probably be ruled out of order if I did. When the Government introduced certain Measures two years ago, it was obvious that the housing programme would be adversely affected, but now that the Government have achieved a great deal of their aim in their economic policy I suggest that the time has come to lift the credit squeeze as it affects the housing market. The time has come for an easing of credit restrictions so that we can once again build the number of houses, in both the public and the private sectors, which we would like to see.

We on this side have always claimed that housing should receive priority. Perhaps, inevitably, because of the economic climate, it was necessary for a cutback to take place, but now that the situation is improving I hope that every effort will be made by the Government to relax the credit squeeze and ease some of the difficulties with which people have been confronted in trying to get mortgages.

Mr. Ward

I am pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman say that. Will he ask the Government to give a higher priority to relaxing the credit squeeze on builders than on some of the other things which have been asked for; for example, the abolition of prescription charges? Which has the higher priority?

Mr. Winnick

I shall not debate the difference in priority between the abolition of prescription charges and housing. I do not consider that there is competition between the two. When we debate prescription charges, I shall let the hon. Gentleman know my view. What I want to see is an easing of restrictions on the housing market, because it is obvious that many people are facing tremendous difficulties in obtaining mortgages. I should like to see the position restored in which more people are once again able to get a mortgage from their local councils, something which stopped because of the economic climate.

The Opposition will make the appropriate noises, and we expect that, but we who are not baiting the Government recognise the difficulties confronting many of our constituents, and again I say that we need council dwellings. These are necessary for people on the waiting list who cannot solve their problems in any other way, but many people would be able to solve their problems if they were able to obtain mortgages. There is, therefore, a need for a general relaxation on finance in the building industry and for mortgages generally.

There is a need for many voluntary organisations to come into the housing market. I should like to see trade unions taking a more active role by using their money to form housing associations to help their members. I had a long argument with the Chairman of the G.L.C. Housing Committee. I said that housing associations could not be a substitute for council dwellings, and that remains my view. Council dwellings are still required, and will be for many years to come.

At the same time, I should like to see the development of housing associations. To a certain extent, we have not done as much in this particular field as I would like to have seen done. A number of voluntary organisations, the trade unions and others, could be using their finance to very useful social purpose in the housing market.

I understand that on Thursday next there is to be a debate on housing, initiated by the Opposition. Regardless of the playing of politics by the Opposition, we on this side will remain concerned about housing, just as before the war Socialists were concerned about unemployment. I beg the Government to recognise the feelings of so many of our people who are not concerned to play party politics and relax the squeeze on credit for housing purposes.

8.51 p.m.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

If anyone is playing party politics, it is the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Winnick). If he reads some of the figures which have been given in recent debates he will see that they show that Labour-controlled councils have had to pull in their horns just as much over council housing building as the Conservative-controlled councils.

It was the deliberate and admitted policy of this Government when they took office to run down the private sector so that the resources might be devoted to increasing the public sector. Now we see that the policy has totally failed and there has been a rundown in both sectors.

The housing figures which have been announced today are absolutely shattering—shattering to the hopes of tens of thousands of homeless and unhappily housed, shattering to the elderly, the newly-weds and the big families, and shattering to the last thread of confidence which anyone could have had in this Labour Government. "Half a million new homes a year by 1970" was the general election pledge solemnly made by the right hon. Gentleman the candidate for Huyton which won him the position of Prime Minister of this country. Fewer than 350,000 new homes a year in 1970 will be the fact which will deprive the right hon. Member for Huyton (Mr. Harold Wilson) of his position as Prime Minister.

Never have a Government let down the country with such a crash as this Government have done in the matter of housing—in their failure to provide homes for the people. Each year there has been a failure to reach the rising target which would have brought the promised figure of ½ million a year by 1970. I know that the figure was abandoned about two years ago, but why, if we were told in the last two General Elections that ½ million houses a year by 1970 were necessary, are we now told, rather complacently I thought, by the right hon. Gentleman the Minister today, that if we produce 370,000 houses a year until 1973 we shall have a surplus of homes.

It must be nonsense to suggest, when one looks at the conditions of many of our homes, the conditions in which people are living, that building only 370,000 houses a year would produce a surplus of homes over households by 1973. If indeed that is the policy of the Government let us have it stated clearly. Is it really the policy of the Government only to build that figure in the next three to four years in the hope that they will have solved the housing problem? In any case, they will not be in office for that time.

In the same breath, the Minister tells us that the reduction in house building and the terrible figures this year are very sad but it is all due to the economic situation, which is the Government's fault, and mortgage interest rates, or just the interest rates, which, again, are the Governmeint's fault—and he adds, for good measure, that we must blame the Ronan Point disaster. That implies that he wishes that there could have been ½ million new homes built a year. How can he then say that only 370,000 are necessary? There is a great contradiction there.

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

He did not say that.

Mr. Page

I withdraw what I have said at once if the newspapers are wrong, but that is what I have read today—that if we went on building 370,000 houses a year we should have an overall surplus, a crude surplus, whatever it is called, by 1973. If that has not been said, and the Minister cares to deny it, I shall be only too happy to withdraw and to accept that it is not his policy, for it would be a disastrous policy if it were.

The figures for this year show that the Government have let the country down. True—these figures will, no doubt, come in the hon. Gentleman's speech—more houses have been built in the past five years than were built in the last five years of the Conservative Government. But this Government took over a rising trend in house building. The policy was laid in 1964 by the number of starts. It had been decided, before this Government took office, that this was the time at which the country could devote more resources and give greater priority to housing.

That was clear from the number of starts in 1964, and, indeed, it was why the promises were made by both parties at the time of the 1964 election. That was the hope of all of us, that the stage was set for an increase in house-building up to ½ million a year. Now, the Labour Government have let the country down.

8.57 p.m.

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

The Government will not be judged on their housing policy by just one year's completion figures. They will be judged by their total record on housing since coming into office, a good record and far better than that of any previous Government. In so far as we have fallen short, we have fallen short of the standards which we set ourselves as a Labour Party. We have not fallen short, nor are we falling short, of the standards supposedly set by the party opposite.

I do not know to what extent the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page), who always seems happiest when the situation is saddest, has had personal experience of the housing situation in the worst areas during the years preceding the change of Government. Some of us—more on this side than on his—have had a great deal of experience of these problems.

Mr. Graham Page

I do not know what the hon. Gentleman is implying. He accuses me of knowing nothing about housing before his Government took office. Over many years, I have fought elections in constituencies, and lost them —that type of constituency—and I have held what are called "surgeries". I know about these things. The hon. Gentleman accuses me, and I give him the answer. Of course I have had knowledge of housing, and over many more years than he has had.

Mr. Freeson

The hon. Gentleman ought not to misquote and distort statements and then put them in the mouths of others. If he had heard me out, he would have heard me say that hon. Members on this side have had more personal experience of trying to administer housing services and deal with housing problems in the worst parts of our cities under preceding Governments than he has had.

Let me point out some of our experiences which led to the situation which we faced when we came into office. Much play has been made, and was made just now by the hon. Gentleman, with the level of housing construction in 1964—by a happy coincidence, the last year of the Conservative Government, General Election year. We had experience of the many years which preceded it, when statements were made by then Ministers of Housing representing the Conservative Party that as from 1955 on slum clearance was being given first priority. But, by an odd coincidence, at the same time as they were making those statements in the House and elsewhere, which I recall very clearly, the level of local authority housing construction dropped year after year until we approached the 1964 election.

I do not propose to bore the House with a long list of statistics—they are available, as the hon. Gentleman knows —to show how we dropped to the level of about 100,000 local authority houses each year in the years before the 1964 election.

Mr. Peter Mahon (Preston, South)

Would my hon. Friend not agree that the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page), who, for many years, has never seemed to be anything but a fair-minded man, has been guilty of a singular omission tonight in making his accusation? I am sorry that I did not hear all his speech. But the leader of his own council, Crosby Council, recently paid public testimony to this Government's record, which has enabled that council to build a record number of houses, not only for letting but for mortgage purposes.

Mr. Freeson

I am grateful for that intervention. No doubt it will, to some extent, set the record straight in regard to the hon. Member.

This was the kind of situation which we faced, among many other factors, when we came into office. I will discount the sudden rise of housing construction in 1964—[An HON. MEMBER: "Why?"] Because it has nothing to do with the many years which preceded it, in which, with the exception of four or five years out of the 13, even a target of 300,000 was never achieved, despite the great pledges—

Mr. Graham Page

It was.

Mr. Freeson

If the hon. Gentleman will check the record, he will find that in only a minority of the years during which his party was in office was that figure achieved or exceeded—

Mr. Graham Page

Is the hon. Gentleman talking of the United Kingdom figures—or just those of England?

Mr. Freeson

The United Kingdom.

Mr. Graham Page

Well, it was exceeded: of course it was.

Mr. Freeson

I can only refer the hon. Gentleman to the record, where he will find that he is wrong.

We said that we would achieve a rising figure in both the private and the public sector, despite what the hon. Member for Crosby sneeringly referred to as our prejudices against owner-occupation. In our period of office, we have done just that. I will come to the present situation, but, taking the period as a whole, there is no denying that there has been nearly a 25 per cent. increase in housing construction in this country during the past five years of this party's rule—consistent, despite the fact that now we are in a difficult year.

It is for this reason, as well as a number of others, that we will be judged on our total record and not just on one year—

Mr. Ward

The hon. Gentleman says that this has been a consistent increase. Does he agree that the number of houses started has fallen every year except for 1967? Is that consistent?

Mr. Freeson

It is not possible to have a consistent drop in the number of houses started each year if at the same time one is increasing the number completed up until a year before.

Two million dwellings have been completed in the past five years, and that represents an increase of 24 per cent. to 25 per cent. on the preceding five years. Hon. Gentlemen opposite may try to interpret that in various ways and may endeavour to wish it away for political purposes, but it is a statement of fact and a fact of life which they must accept.

I come to the present position. There is no doubt, as has been said tonight and on previous occasions, that from about two years ago, when the 500,000 figure was set aside as a target as a result of the economic decisions made at that time and continued since, a change occurred in the house-building programme. We have seen this in the last 12 months or so, and much publicity has been given to the figures. That has given rise to this debate—what one might call a mini-debate—and will be reflected in the debate which will take place on Thursday. It has been largely an economic matter, centainly for the private sector, and nobody has denied this.

In so far as it has been necessary to take these measures to get the economy right and to get a balance of payments situation unexampled in the years since the war, we have been providing the basis for a sound housing policy as well as for sound other policies for Britain in the years ahead. If there is to be expansion arising from this economic achievement generally in the economy, then that is bound to affect the housing situation.

Other factors have, of course, been at work, in addition to those which understandably and justifiably have been mentioned tonight, particularly in connection with the private sector. The remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Winnick) were particularly relevant in this connection.

Reference has also been made to the public sector and the policy that has been adopted by a number of local authorities. I was invited to comment on my experiences in visiting a number of local authorities about whose housing policies we have been concerned. I do not propose to give a detailed statement tonight on this issue. It would not be appropriate for me to make such a statement because this round of visits is not yet complete. They are not conclusive visits. They intentionally leave open the prospect of a dialogue continuing between Ministry officials and officials of the local authorities concerned with a view to getting their programmes improved and getting other aspects of housing policy advanced on a scale which has not yet been achieved by these authorities.

In addition to the 20 local authorities first listed in October, there may be other authorities which we would wish to contact by visits. Authorities already come to the Ministry and with them, although they come to see us on particular issues, we discuss wider aspects of their housing programmes and policies. This is one sphere in which we can seek to persuade and influence authorities to improve their house-building programmes.

Despite this background of economic difficulties facing our housing programme, slum clearance has been running at a record rate. If we are to deal with the slum clearance and related problems, it is, of course, on public enterprise that the greatest emphasis must be placed.

Mr. Winnick

I appreciate the efforts which my hon. Friend and his colleagues in the Ministry are making in persuading local authorities to carry out their proper obligations. If persuasion does not succeed, for instance in the London boroughs and the G.L.C., have the Government anything further in mind to make local authorities carry out their obligations to people so desperately in need of housing?

Mr. Freeson

I shall take the opportunity of at least touching on that point later in my remarks.

In the meantime I wish to comment further on the position where we are attempting—and I am personally involved in very intensive visits in the country—to get local authorities to improve their housing programmes where forward projections show marked signs of dropping. But, while we are doing that, what do we have from leading spokesmen of the party opposite despite their crocodile tears about the homeless? Their leading spokesmen are calling on local authorities to cut back their house-building programmes.

We have had the same echoed by some, not all, chairmen of Conservative housing authorities. We have had a certain right hon. Gentleman who always seems to be leading the party opposite from the sidelines, not echoing, but giving the lead and urging that there should be a dismantling of local authority housing. I have heard leading spokesmen for the Conservative Party outside this House saying that they agree with such a policy even if they cannot implement it immediately. This is one of the reasons—I am not saying it is the only reason—why a number of local authorities under Conservative leadership in the last few years have been cutting back on house-building programmes and housing starts from time to time.

Mr. Graham Page

Does the hon. Gentleman realise that he is taking only one half of the argument? The other half is that housing societies and housing associations can take up a very large part of the responsibilities of housing those people whom councils would otherwise house.

Mr. Freeson

It is not possible—I speak quite categorically, in general for housing societies or housing associations, which are a somewhat different category of organisation—to handle slum clearance problems. If necessary I am quite prepared to discuss this in detail on another occasion and I will refer to it in brief tonight. I do not say that as any antagonist of housing associations. As my hon. Friends know, I have been active in the housing association movement, what is now known as the co-ownership movement, for many more years than I have been in this House. I am still a great proponent of what is sometimes exaggeratedly called the third arm in the housing field.

Let us have no illusions; the main responsibility for slum clearance and the complex of urban renewal programming must continue to lie with local authorities, including those which are now cutting back on their house-building programmes not always for sound social financial reasons but because they have not got the policy or political will to carry on with those programmes and extend them.

It is suggested that we are making it difficult for local authorities to do this, but never before has there been such a level of Government assistance, both financial and advisory in terms of money and in terms of expertise, made available to local authorities. There has been effective legislation introduced under this Government which will take its place in the housing field in years to come well beyond the simple concept of building houses. It is we who introduced the Housing Act, 1969, which provides the greatest flexibility and potentially one of the greatest instruments for urban renewal we have yet seen in this country if it is used imaginatively and willingly in conjunction with other legislation such as certain powers under the Town and Country Planning Act. 1968. and other developments of policy in housing.

I go on to deal with these points because, whatever has been the record of the past five years, there is no intention to sit back smugly and rest on our housing policy. We shall continue to press for an expansion of public authority enterprise in urban renewal. We are investigating possibilities, including that of establishing a public agency to deal with the provision of housing and urban renewal services, not only where local authorities may unnecessarily fall down on the job, but also to service local authorities which would willingly wish this kind of assistance to be provided.

Recently my right hon. Friend issued a circular on slum clearance programmes projected forward into the mid-1970s, asking local authorities to make their returns on an annual programme basis by the end of this month.

There have been the new developments in new town and new city plans. There has been the expansion of housing societies and housing association work. We are examining the problems that have emerged as the years have passed, and as housing societies and housing associations have gained experience, to see how there can be a further expansion of this activity. We are also examining the question of the potential of owner-occupation in solving urban renewal problems—which we think has a special significance for the future health of our cities. We are studying the possibility of expanding the services which the National Building Agency can provide in housing to local authorities.

There is also the possibility of further sources of information and understanding of the housing problems which we are seeking to establish. Hon. Members will know of the National Sample Survey of the Condition of Properties, which was undertaken in 1967 and was the first of its kind in Britain. Since then we have embarked upon a series of conurbation studies to get much closer to the realities of slum clearance and obsolescence problems.

Let there be no mistake about it: these problems have been consistently under-estimated, much less so by this Government than by preceding Governments. Before I entered the House in 1964, I heard time and time again the proposition from the then Government and their Ministers that Britain had about 600,000 slum houses. We always challenged that figure. Our studies and examination have established that the figure is much nearer 1½ million than the figure which was smugly and complacently accepted by the Tories.

It is for these reasons that we are concerned to see an expansion of public enterprise and of housing policy in the communities to cover the whole field of owner-occupation, municipal development, housing associations, new construction, modernisation, and improvement areas under the Housing Act, 1969, to quote just some of the things which we have initiated since coming to office.

None of this is said to underplay the disappointment we have felt this year at seeing, after the first four years of record housebuilding, that we have dropped back below the 400,000 we had built up to and exceeded in our first four years. Taking the totality of our record, though, there is no question that —this can be said without smugness or complacency about the problems yet to be dealt with—this has been the finest record in house building and other aspects of housing policy that any Government have achieved in Britain.

Mr. Speaker

Does the hon. Member for Shoreditch and Finsbury (Mr. R. W. Brown) wish to speak in this debate?

Mr. R. W. Brown (Shoreditch and Finsbury)

I had intended to, Mr. Speaker, but, having heard the speech of my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, I am prepared to forgo that pleasure.