HC Deb 02 July 1971 vol 820 cc789-848

Order for Second Reading read.

Mr. Speaker

I have not selected the Amendment in the names of the hon. Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman) and of his hon. Friends— On Second Reading of the Housing Bill, to move. That this House declines to give a Second Reading to the Housing Bill, on the ground that it excludes from its provisions the city of Manchester and other areas of serious housing need. Of course, if the hon. Member or any of his hon. Friends catch my eye it will be in order for them to put the arguments which they might have used if the Amendment had been called.

11.5 a.m.

The Minister for Housing and Construction (Mr. Julian Amery)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The object of the Bill, as the House will know, is to step up, in the development and intermediate areas, though for a limited time only, the help that is already given towards house improvement. The Government's proposals for the reform of housing finance may, in due course, give rise to some controversy, but I would hope that what I am proposing this morning will command the support of hon. Members and right hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Grants in aid of house improvement were first introduced in 1949 when Mr. Aneurin Bevan was responsible for housing. They received a notable stimulus 20 years later in the 1969 Act introduced by Lord Greenwood. We seek to build on these foundations.

We believe, as I think the previous Government did, that house improvement is one of the most important elements in our national housing policy. It makes it possible for local authorities and private owners to bring older houses often up to, and sometimes even above, Parker Morris standards, and to do so for a fraction of the cost of building a new house. It thus reduces the burden on the taxpayer and the ratepayer.

But even more important than the economic are the human considerations. We are dealing, after all, not with units of accommodation but with homes and people. Where a dwelling is clearly unfit, those who live in it have to be decanted, to use the jargon, and rehoused elsewhere. At the end of the day they will, of course, get better homes, but the process can be a very painful one. They are uprooted from the surroundings they know; separated from their neighbours; taken away from the shops, pubs and clubs which have formed the background to their daily lives. Objectively looked at by sociologists the end result may be better, but, in my experience, it has often meant frustration and loneliness for the people especially for the older ones.

How much better, therefore, if, where a house is still structurally fit, through improvement grants and the declaration of general improvement areas we can bring people's homes up to modern standards and at the same time let them go on living in familiar surroundings.

The Government have, therefore, put their full weight behind the house improvement campaign and stepped up the funds available for it. My hon. Friend and I spend a substantial proportion of our time opening house improvement weeks. This does not seem to have done the campaign any serious harm. Indeed, the response to our pilgrimages has been on the whole encouraging.

In 1970 approvals of all grants in England and Wales for house improvement work were 45 per cent higher than in 1969. Approvals in the first quarter of this year show an increase of 42 per cent. over the first quarter of 1970. Initially the bulk of this was taken up by private house owners, but latterly local authorities have seen the opportunity and have been taking up improvement grants for their own houses on a substantial scale. The take-up of improvement grants has, of course, varied from one part of the country to another.

Applications and approvals are by no means always in proportion to an area's needs. I have not been too concerned about this hitherto. A home, after all, is an individual family dwelling; and what matters is to get as many individual homes improved as possible. All the same, our researches show that in the development and intermediate areas of England and Wales the increase in grant approvals in 1970 was quite dramatically below the general increase of approvals. It was about half.

There are, no doubt, many reasons for this; some material, some psychological. Money is tighter in the development areas. Local authorities and individual owners find it harder to put their hands, even given loan facilities, on the cash contribution which they have to make themselves towards a grant. Perhaps even more important is the psychological factor. Uncertainty about the future of the area in which they live may well have led people to put up a little longer with the sub-standard conditions in which they have been living.

We have accordingly decided to give the improvement campaign in the development and intermediate areas a shot in the arm. Our hope is that those who live in those areas will now take up the increased grants offered in the Bill at least to the same extent as the rest of the country is taking up the existing grants.

The broad lines of the Bill are simple. We propose that private owners or local authorities in development or intermediate areas should be eligible for the increased grants described in the Bill. These grants are, first, the discretionary grant for modernisation or conversion; second the standard grant for installaling basic amenities like bathrooms and indoor sanitation; third, the special grants for additional work in multi-occupied houses.

Broadly speaking the public sector contribution to the grants will be increased from 50 per cent. to 75 per cent. The Exchequer contribution to local authority grants will be increased from 75 per cent. to 90 per cent. The grants will be available on condition that applications for them were made on or after 23rd June of this year and that the work is completed before 23rd June, 1973.

There are arguments for and against setting a rigid time limit to the grants. But I am sure the House will agree that to leave them open-ended in time would give little inducement to authorities or individuals in the development areas to bring forward the work of improvement required. A meeting I had recently with representatives of local authorities and the building industry in the northern area confirmed me strongly in this view. Nor would it be fair to the rest of the country if we set no time limit. People living outside development areas will, I think, readily accept that special inducements should be given to get the improvement campaigns going inside the development areas. But they would rightly resent it if the preference were given for an indefinite period.

So far I have spoken about individual home improvement grants. But we are no less concerned, and indeed in the development areas perhaps more concerned, in stimulating applications for general improvement grants. All our experience shows that people are much more likely to put their own money into improvements if they have confidence in the future of the area in which they live. Nothing helps so much to build up their confidence as evidence that their local authority is itself spending money on general improvements. The Government will, therefore, increase their contribution to general improvement areas from £50 to £75 a house in the designated area concerned.

The Bill, which applies to England, Wales and Scotland is a short one—five clauses in all. Clause 1(1) says that the works which qualify for grant under the 1969 Act will qualify for the increased grants now proposed. These works have to be carried out in a local government area which on 23rd June, 1971–the relevant date—is wholly or partly within a development area or an intermediate area. The application for grant must have been made on or after 23rd June, 1971. The works themselves must have been completed before 23rd June, 1973.

Subsection (2) allows the Secretary of State, by order, to direct that any local government area which becomes part of a development or intermediate area, after the introduction of this Bill, should also qualify for the increased grants.

Subsection (3)—

Mr. Frank Allaun (Salford, East)

On subsection (2), before the paeans of praise become too deafening, may I, as one of several Labour Members of Parliament who has pressed for improvement grants over the last 16 years, ask this question? Is the Minister aware that Members all over the country are receiving letters from tenants in their constituencies who dearly want bathrooms and lavatories but are now resisting them because their rents are being trebled in consequence. Moreover, they are being compelled to undergo this unless their income is below £10 a week single or £12.25 married. I therefore give the Minister advance notice that we intend to put down an Amendment to the effect that if the landlord, in accordance with Clause 1(2), gets such a huge bonanza the rent officers must take this into account when subsequently fixing the rent.

Mr. Amery

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of the Amendment which he and some of his hon. Friends will put down. I will not anticipate discussion of it until I see it.

Subsection (3) provides that a local government area need not still be part of a development or intermediate area when the works eligible for grant are completed,

Clause 2(1) sets out in a table the increases that can be made in the rate of grants by local authorities to house owners. These, as I have explained, rise from 50 per cent. to 75 per cent. An increase from 75 per cent. to 90 per cent. is made in the rate of Exchequer contribution to annual loan charges arising from local authority expenditure on grants. This is to ensure that no extra burden falls on the local authority. Here I must emphasise that if a local authority makes an improvement grant of less than 75 per cent. of the approved cost, it will receive the present rate of contribution only from the Exchequer. Government contributions towards annual loan charges for local authority expenditure will be raised from three-eighths to three-quarters. Subsection (2) increases the cash limits for standard and other grants and contributions.

Under Section 22 of the 1969 Act the Secretaries of State have powers to make an order varying the contributions that the Exchequer makes towards house improvement generally in England and Wales. Clause 2(4) of the Bill ensures that such an order could maintain the preferential treatment extended to local government areas in development Areas and intermediate areas as expressed in the Bill.

Clause 3 is concerned with the changes in the provisions of the Scottish legislation, corresponding with those which I have described in the legislation for England and Wales.

I commend this measure to the House, first and foremost as a means to stimulate the take-up of improvement grants in the development and intermediate areas. I do so because I believe it will encourage local authorities to get more houses improved and generally create a better-built environment for their people. But then, as well as being Minister for Housing, I am Minister for Construction, and I welcome the opportunity to put a little new work in the way of the small and medium-size builders in the areas concerned. They have not had an easy time in recent years. They are not yet sharing in the revival which the industry is beginning to experience in other parts of the country. Here is a great opportunity for them. But if they are to take full advantage of it they must not sit back and wait for the work to come to them. They must go out and look for it. Of course, finance is a problem for their clients and for them, but most local authorities are now prepared to make loans for house improvement. So are many building societies.

The House will also have seen that the National Federation of Building Trades Employers has recently arranged with a finance company, Forward Trust Limited, to make building loans available to their customers specifically for house improvement. Private owners and landlords therefore have a number of sources of finance to which to turn. I would hesitate to try to estimate with any accuracy the value of additional work for the building industry which this Measure may provide. But I am advised that, extrapolating from past figures, It could well be of the order of £50 million over the two years ahead. In purely material terms expenditure on this scale would make no decisive difference to the situation in the development and intermediate areas. But the condition of people's homes has a profound impact on their morale.

I commend this measure to the House, therefore, not just as an instrument for improving the nation's housing stock, but even more as a means of reviving self-confidence in those parts of the country which have suffered most from the recession of recent years.

11.20 a.m.

Mr. Reginald Freeson (Willesden, East)

Anything which will make housing improvements policy more effective is to be welcomed. And anything which will ameliorate, even to a minor degree, the economic depression in the development and intermediate areas must be done. Therefore, the Opposition will support this Bill. Nevertheless, the way in which the Bill was launched, and some of its ambiguities, omissions and even contradictions, raise some misgivings and questions which those of us who originally fathered the Housing Act, 1969–which we consider to be a most important piece of legislation—will wish to put to the Minister for a reply.

The Minister in opening the debate was not very informative on figures. As I understand him, and judging from reports which have appeared in the Press when the prospect of the Bill was recently announced, the case for the Bill in its present form is that the response to the Housing Act, 1969 has been less lively in development and intermediate areas, which have some of the worst housing conditions, than in the more prosperous areas of the country. Therefore, the new scales of grant are meant to counterbalance this situation.

Is this the true situation? The Minister gave only scant figures. During the past week I have been trying to get up-to-date information on the level of grant take-up on a regional basis. Understandably, the Ministry has not been able to give this information right up to the last week or so covering the first six months of the year, but I have checked the figures so far as they are available and they flatly contradict what the Minister said and what has appeared in the Press.

The next issue of the Government's quarterly housing statistics show in the table on improvement grants approved on a regional breakdown basis for the whole of 1970 the following figures—I must weary the House with them because they are important to my point. In the Northern Region 14,069 grants were taken up last year; Yorkshire and Humber-side, 21,893; the North-West 17,198; East Midlands, 12,983; West Midlands, which is almost entirely excluded from the Bill's provisions, 16,739; East Anglia, wholly excluded from the Bill, 7,533; Greater London, wholly excluded, 17,022; South-Eastern Counties, excluded, 10,500; the South-West, 14,597; Wales, 10,420; Scotland, 23,400–a record figure for the country.

These figures show that the take-up of improvement grants is broadly the same in most regions within a reasonable bracket, except in Scotland where the take-up is outstandingly good. In fact, with the varying disposition of population, in terms of take-up the regions covering the development and intermediate areas have done rather better than the more prosperous areas. I do not understand how researchers in the Ministry could show the position to be other than I have stated, unless there has been some mysterious drastic change in the situation during the first few months of this year. No evidence of such a change has been announced so far or has been indicated by the Minister today.

The truth behind the Bill is that the Government are in a mess over the regions and development areas. They have been busy dismantling policies developed by the Labour Government, but they have not thought through their own policies other than by veering towards Powellite economics. There is, consequently, growing depression, unemployment and fear for the future in these areas.

At the same time the country is now feeling the full impact of Tory municipal housing policies of recent years. The Tories took control of most of the town halls in 1968. In 1967, the last year of Labour control, 178,000 new homes were started and nearly 78,000 slums demolished; and these efforts were not enough. They should have been increased. Instead, after three years of full-scale Toryism, the housing effort dropped to 105,000 starts last year, and 67,000 slums cleared. It will be some time before the fresh plans of the new councils elected in May will show themselves in terms of bricks and mortar. Meanwhile, the number of local authority houses started this year will drop still further. I estimate the figure will fall to about 95,000, and in terms of slum clearance to 60,000. If I am wrong on these figures, I ask the Minister to give us his official estimates. We are now half way through the calendar year and, despite constant questioning in the House, we have failed to get the Ministry's own estimates of local authority housing starts in the current year.

The present position is that there is serious under-spending on the Government's allocation of public expenditure in this category. This is the truth of the matter. Hence, this Bill is a minor piece of ad hoc panicking to deal with the twofold situation I have described. They under-spend on slum clearance and on building new homes, and then put a bit more money into improvement grants and pretend that some great extra benefit is being given by the Government to the housing effort.

A number of specific questions arise to which we should be given answers. Is the whole of the £46 million quoted in the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum to the Bill extra Government spending? If so, extra on what? How much was originally allocated for improvement grants within the figure of public expenditure on housing for 1971–72 in last January's White Paper on public expenditure? The total expenditure on houses for the current year was given in the White Paper as £1,144.4 million. Does that figure now become £1,159.7 million, with the addition in the Bill spread over three years, or is the £46 million to be included in the original figure? If the figure is to be included in the total expenditure laid down in the White Paper in January of this year, this will mean that there will be a further reduction, rather than an increase, this year in the building of homes by local authorities. If he Finan- cial Memorandum means what it says that it will result in increased public capital expenditure of the order of £46 million spread over the three financial years ending 31st March 1974 it means that this is to be extra money over and above the level previously planned and published in the Government's White Paper on Public Expenditure.

Table 2.11 on page 30 of the White Paper gives the following figures of estimated expenditure; I am afraid I must weary the House with these figures as they are important to my argument. The estimated expenditure for 1971–72 is £1,144.4 million; for 1972–73, £1,167.5 million; for 1973–74, £1,129 million. Will the Minister confirm that with the passage of the Bill these estimates will become for the three years in question covered by the Bill £1,159.7 million, £1,182.8 million and £1,144.3 million respectively? We need that confirmation in order to meet the suspicion that the less charitable of us towards the Government have—that once again the public are being conned and that the promise should not have been taken seriously.

Mr. Frank Allaun

My hon. Friend is putting a most important question which I hope will be answered. May I ask a related question, to which I hope also to receive an answer? How much of the figure of £46 million announced for expenditure on improvements will go into putting bathrooms and lavatories into ordinary houses, and how much—I suspect that it is a very high proportion—will be going to luxury houses, which was not the original intention of the proponents of the scheme?

Mr. Freeson

Perhaps researches within the Department will be able to indicate such a breakdown. I am unable to give the information about the present position, whatever it might have been a year or more ago.

Does the £46 million include expenditure out of the rates as well as from the Exchequer? The Bill does not spell out the position. Nor have we had any observation by the Minister on this point. If the Bill includes rate expenditure, what is the real estimate of so-called extra Government spending? When the Housing Act. 1969, was introduced, it was estimated that it would give rise to public expenditure approaching £40 million annually by 1972, which is less than six months away from us. Is that level of investment in improvement grants still planned by the Government for next year onwards? What progress has been made so far towards the £40 million annual target? What is the Government's estimate of expenditure in the current year? As far as I am aware, no figures have been given to the House on this point and the Minister did not give any information on it today.

May we take it that, with this Bill, the Government plan an annual expenditure of £55.3 million on improvements in the next two years—that is, the original £40 million estimated in the 1969 Act's Financial Memorandum and the share of the £46 million per year over the three-year period ahead of us? These figures are most important if we are to get at the realities of what the development and intermediate areas may actually expect, not just in increases for percentage contributions towards improvement expenditure but in terms of housing effort, of which this is an inseparable part.

I turn now to the basic intention of the Bill, which is to discriminate in favour of certain areas of the country suffering economic and related difficulties. I do not quarrel with such positive discrimination. It was undertaken on a considerably bigger scale by the last Government. Nor do I quarrel with the idea of linking other social policies, such as housing, with the regional development area and intermediate area policies. On the contrary, this lies at the centre of Labour Party thinking, and did so when we were in office. What I quarrel with is the narrow approach of the Bill.

What needs to be done is to apply such positive discrimination to all areas of housing stress. Yet the Government have deliberately excluded some of the major conurbations with the worst and most expensive housing problems, from the provisions of the Bill—for example, London, Birmingham and Manchester and some other areas which could be named. When the last Government left office, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, as it then was, had in hand a major review of housing finance. Central to that review was the concept of applying increased public funds primarily to those areas and people in greatest need. The Conservatives inherited the study and we are soon to see how they have handled the work put in hand towards the policy of positive discrimination in this sector of public affairs.

We had also established in the Department a rough list—I accept that it was rough because it was put together to deal with an immediate situation—of housing priority areas, where local authorities got more favourable treatment on housing investment, subsidies and programmes. This housing priority area list was subject to review to make it a more accurate instrument to deal with areas of housing and social stress. Again, the idea was more effective and positive discrimination. I do not know what the present Government have done with that review, but the omission of major stress areas from the Bill goes counter to all recent progressive thought on housing policy. It cannot be sensibly justified and I hope that the Government will think again.

The level of obsolescence is so high in the three cities I have mentioned and in similar areas that extra help must be given if the problem is to be more speedily tackled. I will not quote statistics for London and Birmingham. The figures are available to the Department, however. The Department knows what the level of obsolescence is in Greater London. The figure is broadly in the region of 250,000 in addition to prospective slum clearance properties. The figure for the West Midlands is in the region, taking slums and obsolescent properties together, of about 700,000. In my own London Borough of Brent there are 20,000 obsolescent properties.

No one can tell me that these areas are better off in this respect than the kind of areas listed in the memorandum attached to the Press release in connection with the Bill. I make it clear that I do not question the intention so far as the development and intermediate areas are concerned, but that I am quarrelling with the exclusion of several major areas of housing stress.

It must be central to our policy—and I say "our" advisedly because I mean all of us who are public representatives—to get this problem more speedily tackled in the worst areas of housing stress. This becomes even more essential with the recent rapid decline in the value of the grant figures set down in the Housing Act, 1969, and, indeed, in the figures in this Bill. The building industry has recently pointed out that costs are going up at the rate of about 1 per cent. per month. The value of the £ has dropped nearly 10 per cent. in the past year. This means that, by the end of this year, the original £1,000 grant limit in the 1969 Act for improved dwellings will be worth about £800 in real terms, and that the £1,500 under this Bill—the increased grant limit—will be worth about £1,200 by the time the Bill expires.

With the sharp decline in the value of the £—I do not say that it is going on only now; it has been going on since the 1969 Act was introduced—and which is now going on at an increasing rate, it Amendment of Section 5 of the Housing becomes essential to pay attention to the Act, 1969, in order to bring it into line with Section 37(5), which laid down that the Minister could, with the consent of the Treasury, change the amount of £100 per dwelling in general improvement areas for environmental grants, subject to the decision of Parliament on the basis of an Order presented by the Government.

By the end of this year the £100 will be worth about £80 in real terms. Therefore, I trust that we may soon see the necessary Order to increase the figure placed before the House with the consent of the Treasury. I wish good luck to the Minister in the negotiations which he will no doubt wish to have with the Treasury in this respect. I trust that we shall get that Order before the value of the grant, whether increased percentage-wise or not, drops so low as to lose its incentive value in environmental improvements. I urge the Government to seek power speedily—I should wish it to be done by Amendment of the Bill—to increase the amounts of improvement grants generally in place of the fixed limits laid down by the original Act. Increased percentage contributions by the Government, while welcome in the Bill, are not good enough. It is the loss of the value of the cash figure limits in the original Act which will inhibit the growth of the housing improvements campaign which we all wish to be a success.

An alternative to what I am suggesting would be to include powers in the Bill—the Government could perhaps put down their own Amendment on this score—whereby it could be extended beyond the present time limit laid down in the Act. I do not suggest that they should be automatic powers. Orders could be placed before the House to extend the provisions of the Act beyond 31st March, 1974. This would be a second-best. I do not think that the percentage increases are the real issue when we have a sharply declining value of the £. The important thing is to take powers to increase the limits in the original Act from time to time as costs go up.

We cannot afford to tinker with the problem of obsolescence. We are all agreed on this point. There are about four million substandard homes in Britain, many of them veering towards joining the estimated 1½ million slums. This means that even the present increased take-up of improvement grants, which was to be expected in the first year following the 1969 Act, is by no means good enough. If we are to solve these problems within the coming decade, our rate of slum clearance needs to be about 150,000 demolitions a year, the rate of improvements about 350,000 to 400,000 a year, and local authority house-building about 200,000 a year. We are in fact running at well below half these figures by and large. It may be that, apart from the financial incentives, we shall soon have to look searchingly and urgently at the way that we organise to deal with urban renewal.

We have yet to see the White Paper on Housing Finance within the coming month, but, no matter how well reformed housing finance and housing financial incentives are, if we do not get ourselves organised administratively to handle this problem in our urban areas it will not be tackled effectively. I was convinced of that when I was in the Department. I remain of that view today. However, this matter is not to be pursued in detail today.

I urge the Government meanwhile to accept that, welcome though the increased financial help to development and intermediate areas is, the Bill is but tinkering with a serious problem. We should seek to amend and extend its scope so that housing improvement policy is not undermined by the constant erosion of money values and so that all areas of housing stress as well as the particular areas dealt with in the Bill get the extra help they need.

11.44 p.m.

Mr. Norman Tebbit (Epping)

My initial reaction to following the hon. Member for Willesden, East (Mr. Freeson) is one of sadness. His example was not so much how to look a gift horse in the mouth as to how to kick it in the teeth whilst patting it on the back. The hon. Gentleman spent more time kicking it in the teeth than patting it on the back.

I give general support to the intent and purpose of the Bill. Its purpose is to bring our existing stock of houses up to modern standards of amenity comfort. It not only expands the help given to private owners but it doubles the grant aid to local authorities. I should have thought that the Opposition would have gone out of their way to emphasise that point.

The Bill goes further towards discriminating in the payment of benefits. I cannot make sense of the figures given by the hon. Gentleman by way of comparative increases. How one can make a judgment on comparative increases of one year's figures I do not know, and I do not think that he does either. I wonder whether the discrimination in favour of the intermediate and development areas, solely on the basis that financial reasons prohibit all the take-up there directly, is the whole story.

In some parts of London there is a fine stock of attractive late eighteenth and early nineteenth century housing. This kind of housing has given a great deal of take-up, but there is not nearly such a good stock of it in the intermediate and development areas. Indeed, there is not the fashionable housing which has attracted so much support for the grants, in those areas. The magazine House and Garden has not penetrated Manchester yet in some respects.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Ardwick)

A few houses in Manchester have gardens.

Mr. Tebbit

We have a much better take-up in some areas because the houses are very attractive. In the intermediate and development areas there is not so much of this extremely attractive housing.

Mr. James Bennett (Glasgow, Bridgeton)

That is not true of Scotland.

Mr. Tebbit

This point may be true of Scotland. Perhaps that is why the take-up has been good on the hon. Gentleman's figures. This is part of the story, apart from the financial aspect.

I turn now to my points of criticism. I hope that my right hon. Friend will deal with the cases which sometimes arise where a house is improved with the benefit of the grant and, shortly afterwards, is demolished because planning consent has been obtained for a profitable development. It seems wrong that public money which has been invested should, shortly afterwards, go to waste when a house is demolished.

Mr. Frank Allaunindicated assent.

Mr. Tebbit

I note the nod of approval from the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Frank Allaun). We should consider this matter.

I turn now to the two-year limit. Will my right hon. Friend consider what can be done in that respect? Could he not amend the requirement that the work should be completed within two years to one that it should be approved within two years? When I owned a house in fashionable nineteenth century Islington I applied for and obtained an improvement grant with the great co-operation and help of the officials of the London Borough of Islington. They were extremely good in processing applications. Everything went charmingly until the building operations started. It was then a different story. The completion date was set back by a multitude of misadventures and unexpected snags and difficulties. That is normal with this kind of work. It would be most unfortunate if the two-year limit on completion meant that when jobs encountered these unexpected snags the applicants found that they were running out of time and had committed themselves to expenditure which they could not afford. This could happen due to late delivery of materials. The proposal with a two-year limit on completion would in such cases be a temptation to botch the job to get it done in time. The effect on the budgeting of local authorities in these areas where a long delay is perhaps encountered can be quite serious. With these reservations—I believe we should look again at the two-year limit, and I believe my right hon. Friend would help if he could give some firmer indication of the thinking beyond the end of the two years—but without any carping meanness on my part, I welcome the Bill.

11.50 a.m.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Ardwick)

My hon. Friend the Member for Willesden, East (Mr. Freeson) has a signally charitable disposition. He welcomed the Bill with what seems to me to be characteristic benevolence. I am afraid it is not possible for me to be so amendable. I regard it as a furtive little Bill, smuggled into this House by means of a planted Question from the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward). Now it has received a muffled launching on a slack Friday and a cursory speech of 15 minutes from the Minister who introduced it.

Furthermore, it is a phoney Bill. The help it holds out is largely sham. It is a political version of the "Bunny Club", seeming to promise everything and delivering hardly anything at all. It pretends to do something for assisted areas. The Explanatory and Financial Memorandum talks of £46 million over three years. Indeed, it might be interpreted as an act of contrition for the abolition of investment grants, but it will almost certainly do very little for the assisted areas. We shall expect, in March, 1974, from this Government or from the incoming Labour Government which may have replaced them, figures to show how much of this £46 million has been spent.

The Bill pretends to do something about housing improvement, but the areas of real and serious housing need are mainly excluded from the ambit of the Bill. The Press notice issued last week by the Department of the Environment listed, among the main items which could be installed as a result of the provisions of the Housing Act and this amending Bill, a new bathroom, a water closet and a hot water system. Using the findings of the 1966 Census—since when there have been some changes but it is still largely reliable as a guide about households which have the exclusive use of hot water, a fixed bath and inside water closet—we find that there are five major areas in need of housing improvement. These are Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, London and Glasgow.

Of these, Manchester, Birmingham and London are excluded from the provisions of the Bill. Liverpool and Glasgow are included. Still using the same criteria from the 1966 Census, if we take the 50 Parliamentary constituencies in Great Britain with the greatest housing improvement need in terms of hot water, fixed bath and water closet, we find that of these 50, only 16 are included in the provisions of the Bill. More than two-thirds, 34, are excluded.

There is an even more nonsensical aspect if we take the 52 constituencies of least housing need. I take the 52 because there are three constituencies which tie for fiftieth place. Of the 52 constituencies where housing is in the best condition in the entire country, with the best amenities. 20 qualify for aid under the Bill. We have the lunatic situation whereby more areas which do not require aid qualify for it than areas which desperately need it.

The hon. Member for Epping (Mr. Tebbit) was able to speak—and we know of his interest in housing matters—as a representative of one of the top 20 constituencies in the country in terms of housing standards. It is an interesting fact that of hon. Members in this House today who have come because they have a particular interest in housing, there is no one on the Government side, with the exception of the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, whose constituency is affected by the Bill. There is only one of my hon. Friends in addition to my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock (Dr. Dickson Mabon) whose constituency is affected. This is the ludicrous distortion involved in the Bill. That is why I say that a great deal of this £46 million will never be spent; that is why I believe the Bill is a piece of cynical charlatanry and that a wooden spoon should be awarded to whoever dreamt it up.

Was it ever submitted to the Central Capability Unit? Was Lord Rothschild ever asked what he thought about it? We are told he is an expert in spermatazoa. Perhaps he could have used his microscope to see whether there were any traces of embryonic life in the provisions of the Bill.

To those relatively few areas of need which qualify under the Bill, I say "Good luck". But for Manchester, part of which I represent, the Bill is doubly hurtful. It is hurtful first because its provisions apply to intermediate and development areas and Manchester is involved at the moment in the general plea of the North-West region to be given intermediate area status. So far that plea has been turned down. The Prime Minister has twice refused even to meet the North-West Industrial Development Association to discuss its request and has taken his time even to reply to its letters. If he would step ashore for a moment he would be told the facts, and how ominously the unemployment situation in Greater Manchester has deteriorated since "at a stroke" day a year ago.

If we take the figures from June, 1970 to June, 1971 in the Manchester travel-to-work area the total of unemployed in the area is up from 15,017 to 22,084. The number of wholly unemployed is up from 14,884 to 21,207. The number of male unemployed—breadwinners out of work—is up from 13,212 to 19,839. The total unemployed is up 47 per cent., wholly unemployed by 42 per cent. and unemployed men by 43 per cent. We have had an increase in June in the figures not just the percentages.

Mr. Tebbit

Even on a Second Reading debate, to get on to the unemployment figures for the Manchester area, for the benefit presumably of local papers again this week, seems a little far away from the discussion.

Mr. Kaufman

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I would guess that not only is his constituency one with the least housing needs, but it is also one of great prosperity and employment. The Explanatory and Financial Memorandum talks in its first paragraph about local government areas wholly or partly within development areas or intermediate areas. I have been claiming that the intermediate area status should be accorded to Manchester for unemployment reasons in addition to it qualifying under the Bill. I am sure that Mr. Speaker would have called me to order had I been out of order.

Our unemployment situation is getting worse. Redundancies are being declared regularly. Men in their early twenties to the late fifties are affected and the shadow of Irlam is hanging over the whole situation, as the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Churchill) would agree. On our unemployment record we submit that we qualify for intermediate area status. If Manchester were granted intermediate area status it would qualify for the benefits of the Bill—and we in Manchester desperately need the extra aid that the Bill will give, in some cases to areas which do not need it.

The housing situation in Manchester is desperate. That is not an understatement. On Wednesday, in answer to my Written Question, the Under-Secretary of State—the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon)—gave a remarkably slovenly answer which, among other things, put Hitchin in Humberside. The answer contained a number of other errors which, I trust, the hon. Member will have corrected for the bound volume of the OFFICIAL REPORT. His answer shows that 228 constituencies are covered by the Bill, of which only 14 are in a worse situation than the least needy of Manchester's worst housing areas. Yet although these 214 areas receive help under the Bill, Manchester—including my constituency, which is one of the worst stress areas of the city—does not.

Mr. Frank Allaun

I support the case that my hon. Friend is making, but do I take it that he wants to see help under the Bill extended not to inner Manchester alone but to the greater Manchester conurbation, including such cities as Salford, Oldham and Stockport, which are probably the worst-housed areas in the country? I take it that my hon. Friend is willing to extend his request for those areas to be included.

Mr. Kaufman

Certainly. My hon. Friend will recall that in the Amendment which Mr. Speaker, in his wisdom, saw fit not to call, I mentioned not only the City of Manchester but other areas in serious housing need. My constituency is one of the worst-housed in the country, partly because of the slum situation. We have many slums to be cleared—four years of Conservative control of Manchester have left a terrible legacy of heartbreak and neglect for the new Labour council to clear up—but many other areas in my constituency are not scheduled for slum clearance, although they are in dire need of help and improvement.

I want to take three different categories which would qualify for help and give specific examples from the many hundreds of housing cases that form a predominant part of my postbag. I want first to deal with the owner-occupier category. In one house about which I have been in correspondence this week, in the West Gorton area of my constituency, four people, ranging from a woman aged 41 to a small baby, are all sleeping in one bedroom. There is no bathroom, and no indoor toilet. The report of the Medical Officer of Health refers to the house as being "in poor repair generally". The report talks of some bulging of the front main wall and other defects, but goes on to say that it is not in such a state of disrepair as to warrant demolition and rehousing of the occupants. That house is not affected by the clearance proposals. It is regarded as being good for at least another 15 years. An increased grant of the kind provided in the Bill might help the owner to make improvements.

The next category comprises private tenants. There are two houses about which I have been negotiating with the landlord for more than two months. They are without an indoor lavatory, and without hot water. In one of them an arthritic old lady lives. I am making no progress, although the house qualifies for improvement under the Housing Act, 1969. In another house, where a woman lives with 10 children, the rain comes in through the roof into bedrooms and on to the landing. The bath is in very bad condition. The children are constantly ill. But that house is basically sound, if only its defects can be dealt with, and it is possible that better improvement grants of the kind provided in the Bill to other areas would impel the landlord to deal with this house.

My third category comprises local authority property. I have in my constituency three vast blocks of flats, each of which is about 40 years old—Brook House, Greenwood House and Heywood House. I have been in correspondence with Manchester Corporation about one or other of these blocks of flats ever since I came into the House. They are dilapidated and in desperate need of repair, both in respect of living accommodation and environment.

Whenever I visit these blocks of flats—as I do frequently—the tenants bombard me with new complaints about them. The water closets are unsatisfactory, as are other sanitary arrangements. Inadequate parking facilities lead to great hazard for the many children living in the blocks of flats, and there is a chronic lack of play space. Yet the housing manager of the Corporation told me, with regard to one, This is one of a number of pre-war blocks of flats which the housing committee wish to improve. It is likely to be a very costly programme and the Housing and Works Committee are hoping shortly to carry out a pilot scheme in the north area of the city to ascertain costs and what grants may be available and what other difficulties may be encountered. There is to be a pilot scheme in the north area of the city: my constituency is in the south of the city. It brings little comfort to my constituents to hear of a pilot scheme, with possible good results, being carried out at the other end of Manchester. The extra grants provided under the Bill could make all the difference in improving the quality of life for the many hundreds of people who live in these three blocks of flats.

I wish good luck to all who can obtain some benefit from the provisions of the Bill, but the exclusion of Manchester—Salford—to which my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East referred—Bristol, Leicester, London, Nottingham and Birmingham is an affront to the people to whom this Bill could bring aid and hope but does not.

This Government must have brought home to them the fact that for millions of people throughout the country, and thousands in my constituency, the improvement of housing conditions should not be the excuse for a glib public relations exercise. It is an urgent daily need.

12.8 p.m.

Mr. A. P. Costain (Folkestone and Hythe)

I welcome the Bill and the way in which it was introduced by my right hon. Friend. I am quite amazed that the hon. Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman) should complain that the Minister made a concise speech explaining his Bill and then himself make a rambling speech complaining about the inadequacies of the Bill. He complained that only some services were accepted for priority grant. It seems to have escaped his notice that the Bill is in much the same terms as that which his Government introduced when in office. I accept the need for modernisation of property, but I emphasise that the situation has been made more urgent because, in spite of their promises, once they got over the success of the provision of Conservative Government starts the last Government allowed the housing programme to run down.

The hon. Member takes great delight at all times, both night and day, in referring to my right hon. Friend's "at a stroke" speech, which he often misquotes. I want to quote something to him. Even with only one year of Conservative Government we have seen an uplift whereas we saw a decline during the Labour Government's period of office.

Mr. Kaufman

The hon. Gentleman might care to accept an invitation to come to my constituency, where he will see what a combination of one year of Conservative Government and four years of Conservative control has done to the living conditions of many of my constituents, some of which are literally appalling.

Mr. Costain

I am always willing to come to the hon. Gentleman's constituency. Indeed, I was recently invited to attend a meeting of Manchester Corporation to hear about the problem at first hand. The hon. Gentleman may not be aware that I was born in Liverpool and have close connections with both Liverpool and Manchester. I recall from my schooldays the old rivalries that used to exist between the two cities. One was always trying to get the better of the other.

We welcome the Bill and appreciate the uplift it will give to small builders and others, as my right hon. Friend explained. It will give them ample opportunity to resuscitate their businesses, which were run down under Labour rule. Hon. Gentlemen opposite have a bee in their bonnet about small businesses. They see no reason to support them.

It is in this connection that I should, perhaps, declare my interest as being a builder. I am a director of a building company—

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South-West)

But not a small one.

Mr. Costain

I am a director of a small building company in Liverpool. I am also a director of a larger building company in London. I can, therefore, speak with knowledge of both types of organisation. I can also speak with experience of the difficulties encountered in altering and modernising houses. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington referred, from practical experience, to these difficulties as a result of modernising his own property.

Mr. George Cunningham

His hon. Friend, whoever he may have in mind, does not represent Islington, a part of which I represent.

Mr. Costain

I apologise to the House. I was referring to my hon. Friend the Member for Epping (Mr. Tebbit).

Hon. Members who recall the debates some years ago about the alterations to 10 Downing Street will appreciate how difficult it sometimes is to be aware of all the snags that are likely to crop up when beginning to modernise property. However, the snags encountered when modernising a terrace house are usually the same as those that crop up in other terraced houses. It is, therefore, cheaper and faster to have a run at modernising properties and, if possible, alter a whole street as part of one exercise.

My hon. Friend the Member for Epping referred to the two-year period laid down in the Bill, and I hope that the Minister will not limit his powers to that period. The trouble with such a limiting period is that while many people will be anxious at the outset to make a start on improvements and alterations, because they are anxious to get the grant—which is probably what my right hon. friend has in mind—towards the end of the period there is a drastic slowing up, with people being reluctant to start for fear of not completing the alterations within the time schedule laid down in the Bill. I hope that a provision will be inserted in the Bill giving the Minister power to prolong the two-year period.

Hon. Members will be aware of the difficulty of giving a completion date for the carrying out of this sort of work. A ridiculously small item might not have been completed—for example, an electric light switch might not have been affixed—and it could be said that the work on the house as a whole had not been finished and that the grant should not be paid. May we have an assurance that the payment of grant will not be delayed by Treasury officials saying, "The work has not been completed" when it is obviously virtually completed?

Shortly after the war I had experience of modernising 12,000 houses overseas. The problems we encountered were not precisely the same as those found in this country, but they were similar enough to make the cases comparable. We found that we could reduce the cost of alterations by 50 per cent. if we could get a clear run at the work. In other works, if the people living in the houses were moved out while the work was being done we could modernise a whole street of houses in half the time it took to do the work with the people living in them.

Hon. Members will be aware of the difficulties faced by builders when people are living in the houses on which they are working, not to speak of the danger to children, and this particularly applies to properties in multi-occupation. I appreciate what my right hon. Friend said about people wishing to live where they have always lived and wanting to be near their local pubs, fellowships and churches. However, we must do what we can to get this work completed in the quickest possible time.

I suggest that we look upon the whole question of modernising property as a military exercise and approach it in the way we dealt with bomb damage immediately after the war. In other words, we should find temporary alternative accommodation for the occupiers of the property being modernised. If we think of this on a short-term basis, many alternatives can be considered.

I hope that one suggestion I wish to put before the House will not be misunderstood. Some empty docks and surrounding dock land could be made available for this purpose. We might establish transit camps to which local authorities could send people while their homes are being modernised. These camps could be used time and again. I had even thought of the possibility of berthing a ship or two at, say, Surrey Docks for this purpose. All the necessary facilities would be available.

Mr. James Hill (Southampton, Test)

Is my hon. Friend aware that what he is suggesting was done as part of a general improvement scheme in Southampton? One of the first projects to be completed was a block of flats. Elderly people and others were able to live in them on a temporary basis while their homes were being modernised.

Mr. Costain

That seems an excellent idea, except that one denies immediate occupation of the flats to those who will eventually occupy them. My idea is to provide extra accommodation without interfering with the building effort. I am sure I have said enough to give the Minister a few ideas, and I trust that he will give the matter due consideration.

I was delighted to hear my right hon. Friend refer to the effort which the National Federation of Building Trade Employers has made to enable builders to have finance to go ahead faster. Most of the people about whom we are talking are small landlords, possibly widows who have been left a bit of property, who do not have the ready finance to pay for this work.

When they hear that the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Frank Allaun) has intervened, to say that while tenants want these improvements they are not prepared to pay extra rent for them, these small landlords, who are very often no better off than their tenants will not be greatly encouraged to undertake the work.

Mr. Frank Allaun

I can take the hon. Gentleman to rows of houses where, under the old scheme, a bathroom and lavatory were put in at a cost to the tenants of 8s. a week, something in which the tenants rejoice. But if we are to tell tenants, "Your rent is to be taken out of control, and trebled," there will be the strongest objection from them. I agree very much with some of the schemes which the hon. Gentleman has suggested, but I do not think that private landlords can do this work. This sort of improvement will need a military operation conducted by the local authority which can put people temporarily in other houses while whole streets are improved in this way.

Mr. Costain

We are having such a number of interjections from the hon. Gentleman that I can hardly wait to hear his own speech: he cannot have left much to say. But, again, hon. Members opposite always show this political bias which makes them believe that if such an operation is put forward it can be put forward only by the local authority. If they really want to see houses made available to rent they must learn from the years of their folly, when private landlords were reduced in numbers because of just that attitude.

The hon. Member for Salford, East, must realise that if we want houses to rent we must keep in mind the effect on the private sector. My own group had to go abroad to build houses to rent because of the threats that were always being made by hon. Members opposite that when they got back to power they would see that there was not a fair deal for landlords. I thought that during their years of office hon. Members opposite were beginning to learn how wrong they were—there were some indications that the light was dawning—but I was a little worried to hear the hon. Member for Willesden, East (Mr. Freeson), who was an Opposition Whip before going to the Department of Housing and Local Government under the former Administration, say that he would turn the housing policy on its head.

If we want houses to rent we must support this operation in all sectors. What would be wrong for a widow with perhaps two houses saying, "I can alter these now, thanks to the finance which has been arranged by the National Federation of Building Trade Employers"? Would it be a terrible crime for the local authority to say: "We have this transit arrangement, please use it for your tenants"? But the hon. Gentleman's interruption rather makes me believe that the party opposite does not want to do that.

Reference has been made to the fact that a number of us here today do not represent development areas affected by the Bill. What better example could there be to hon. Members opposite of the great anxiety we in the more fortunate areas feel to do all we can to help those in the development areas?

Mr. Kaufman

I was not casting a reflection on the scheme, but making the point that hon. Members opposite who were interested in housing, or who had housing problems, and who were listening to or taking part in the debate, did not include many from the development areas, because the problem there was not as great as the Bill would imply.

Mr. Costain

The hon. Member has had so many years training in the Press that he just has to treat any statement with some political bias. He must learn that he as a Member of this honourable House is making a speech and not writing a biased political leader. He seems to think that a debate here is merely an occasion for making a speech fit for the hustings. I suggest that some of his interventions would be more constructive if he left his political bias in his constituency, except at the weekends.

This is a really progressive Bill, but if my right hon. Friend will, after the "chopper" date, see that his Department gets busy and effective in producing a transit scheme, we will see a great increase in building.

12.25 p.m.

Mr. James Bennett (Glasgow, Bridgeton)

I welcome the Bill—I make no bones about it—because it will lead to improved housing for Scotland. I can understand my hon. Friends criticising the Measure more for what is left out than for what is in, but I make no apology for being parochial. I welcome the Bill in the hope that something which is very badly needed will be done for Scottish local authorities. I welcome it also because it is an extension of a principle introduced by the Labour Government.

I, too, am concerned about the two year limit. In my constituency in Glasgow, at a very conservative estimate, 60 per cent. of the houses are substandard, and whilst I should like to see improvement on a national scale, I cannot see anything being achieved to meet the needs of even that one constituency within two years, bearing in mind that Glasgow's shortage of land is so serious that the building of new houses is almost prevented. That means that there is ample scope for the improvement of old houses.

In this connection, it is nothing short of tragic that the city's previous Tory administration has run down to a mere token the direct labour force which would have made the Bill even more effective. Unfortunately, that Tory administration did not have the foresight to realise that as a result of lack of ground for new houses there was ample scope for the improvement of old houses.

The standard grant is £200, and the Bill lays down that it covers the provision of such things as inside toilets, fixed showers or baths, hot water supply at bath and wash hand basin and sink with hot and cold water supply. The maximum improvement grant is £1,200. I believe that because of the change in money values those maxima should be increased. Although the percentages to builders and local authorities are being increased, I believe that if the present maxima obtain the Bill can have only a limited effect on improvements. I welcome the increases, but I would welcome them even more if a more realistic approach were taken by the Government to present day costs. A maximum standard grant of £200 fixed in 1969 has hardly any relationship to 1971 costs, nor has a £1,200 improvement grant fixed two or three years ago. Therefore, the right hon. Gentleman should give much more cogent reasons than merely saying that the two-year period has been fixed to stimulate local authorities. I should prefer it if he would look at the picture of what is so badly needed in these development areas, again referring to Glasgow, and realise that the period of two years imposes a limitation on such local authorities. If a local authority embarks on any improvement scheme but fails to complete it within two years, what happens? Will the local authority be involved in a penalty clause? What additional cost will fall on ratepayers if that is so? Again, it will have a limiting effect on what the local authority tries to do.

I hope to have an opportunity of improving this Measure. I began by saying that I welcomed it, but I recognise its limitations. In my brief remarks I have tried to be fair in that respect. I welcome what is being attempted, although I have doubts as to what it will achieve. Therefore, together with my hon. Friends, I look forward to a later opportunity when we can seek to improve the Bill to meet the conditions existing in our own areas.

With its tremendous problems, Glasgow has often been referred to as the worst housed city in Europe. I get tired of hearing that because tremendous strides have taken place in the city—to my cost, I add. The development of the city under the Labour administration has done something that the Conservative Party never managed to do. It has unseated me. The Labour administration in Glasgow have been so successful in their rehousing policy that this has led to an elimination of two constituencies, one of which is mine. But I do not mind that. It is an example of the progress made by the Labour administration in the provision of new homes.

Although there is a lack of ground, there is tremendous scope for the improvement of old houses. I trust that the Scottish Under-Secretary will agree that a great deal more could be done if we deal with the fabric of buildings as well as the interiors. There are many old properties in Glasgow that, possibly with a new roof, could be given 10 to 15 years' additional life. But the amount of grant involved at present could never extend to the provision of a new roof. I should like the Minister to bear these points in mind.

I hope to have an opportunity of taking part in the further deliberations on the Bill and of seeking to amend and improve it.

12.34 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of Slate for Health and Education, Scottish Office (Mr. Edward Taylor)

Following the excellent contribution from the hon. Member for Glasgow, Bridgeton (Mr. James Bennett), perhaps the House may forgive me if I briefly refer to the relevance of the Bill to Scotland. All of us were interested to hear the hon. Gentleman commenting so forcibly on the housing situation in Glasgow. It was particularly interesting to hear his reference to the rehousing of his constituents and the removal of a constituency. As far as I can see, most of those rehoused have been moved to my constituency. To that extent, I will try to look after them as well as the hon. Gentleman has looked after them. It is true, as the hon. Gentleman said, that the Bill will be of real help to Glasgow and to other parts of Scotland.

Broadly, the present improvement grant arrangements in Scotland are the same as those in England and Wales, and the changes made by the Bill will be the same. There are a few minor differences, as the hon. Member for Greenock (Dr. Dickson Mabon) will be aware, mainly of procedure, which I need not go into at this stage. The effect in Scotland, as in England and Wales, will be to increase from 50 per cent. to 75 per cent. the maximum proportion of the improvement grant and standard grant payable by local authorities to private owners; to increase from 75 per cent. to 90 per cent. the Government's contribution to local authorities towards the cost of making these grants; to double—that is, from three-eighths to three-quarters—the Government contribution towards the approved cost of improvement work done by local authorities, development corporations and housing associations; and to increase from 50 per cent. to 75 per cent. of eligible costs the Government contribution towards expenditure on improving the amenities of residential areas.

The scope of the application of the Bill is the same in Scotland, covering the two-year period from June of this year to June, 1973. But, since all districts in Scotland had development area or intermediate area status at 23rd June, the Bill will apply throughout Scotland.

Improvement of the existing stock of houses can make a very valuable contribution to meeting the housing need, and nowhere more so than in Scotland. There has been a substantial and very welcome increase in improvement activity since the 1969 Act. By a substantial publicity campaign and in discussions with local authorities, my right hon. Friend has been giving every encouragement to improvement in all its aspects, particularly to bring houses which are basically sound up to modern standards for an extended life.

It is interesting to note that in 1970, the number of discretionary grants approved in Scotland increased by 60 per cent., and the number of standard grants approved increased by 21 per cent. over the number approved in 1969. The number of public sector houses in improvement proposals approved increased by 59 per cent. This was a reflection of the increases in grant provided for in the Housing (Scotland) Act, 1969, in which I know the hon. Gentleman played a very big part and he has taken a very great interest in the development of this improvement work. On top of that improvement, the Bill will provide a further substantial stimulation to the improvement of Scottish houses.

On the particular points raised by the hon. Gentleman, these apply to the whole of the country and I know that my hon. Friend will be endeavouring to deal with these points in his speech.

What I have said shows that the Bill will be welcomed in Scotland, and because of our development area and intermediate area status throughout Scotland, it will be a real help throughout our nation.

12.38 p.m.

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South-West)

In principle, I have great sympathy with the purposes of the Bill because in my part of London, Islington, there is a great need for the improvement of old accommodation along with the building of new accommodation. But I find it odd that the Government, after more than a year of cogitation, should find it possible to come forward without shame with this Bill, called the Housing Bill, as their first Measure to deal with the housing situation. I shall have to say to those in my constituency, "Although it is widely recognised that you suffer from one of the worst housing situations in the country in all respects and the worst housing situation in some respects, after more than a year in office the Government are not bringing forward in this their first housing Measure anything which has any relevance to the situation in London."

I should have thought that the Government would have put more speed into their activities on the housing front generally and then brought in a Measure like this as part of a general Measure or as a consequential Measure after getting on with the infinitely more inportant matters of the future of housing subsidies and the rebate scheme for private tenants, two things which we have been respectively threatened with and offered, but on which we still know none of the details.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman) that the Bill would provide assistance to some of the areas of least housing need and would refuse it to some areas of greatest need. If we are calling this a Housing Bill and providing up to £46 million for housing, it is incumbent upon the Government to offer that money to those areas which are suffering most from housing stress. The Bill is certainly not doing that.

I should like to comment on the general value of improvement grants as experience has shown that value to be since 1969. There are many houses, certainly in the London area, where improvement grants used by private owners, local authorities, or housing associations, greatly benefit people who have long been waiting on a housing list, but I should like to see the figures for the take-up of improvement grants as between private owners continuing to occupy a whole house for their own purposes and private owners letting their houses.

It is my impression that in my area improvement grants to a large extent, I cannot say mainly, have been used for the benefit of owners who are in no need of help from anyone. The effect may have been to produce an environmental improvement in the area, and it may have been to make houses look better and be better in some respects, but it has not been that flats in multi-occupied houses have been improved. For every case which I come across of a landlord letting to private tenants using improvement grants to improve the quality of the flats and their facilities, I come across probably ten when tenants want the landlord to use the improvement grants for that kind of purpose, but when in fact he has not used them.

It is time that we thought about the possibility, when improvement grants are offered in a Bill of this kind, of giving an additional incentive towards their use in those houses where there are private tenants and a disincentive for those houses occupied by the owner. In so far as the owner has this facility available, it adds to the support which he receives from the State in the way of tax relief on the interest on money borrowed for property, and that kind of person normally does not need assistance from the State. If we want the thousands of private tenancies in London and elsewhere to be improved, we will have to find some ways of providing additional incentives to landlords to improve their flats, or some degree of compulsion.

I should like there to be an examination of the possibility of providing local authorities with a power similar to that which they now have when a landlord does not put a house into a fit condition by health standards, so that they could take upon themselves, if necessary, the job of improving the accommodation, making use of the funds available through this kind of Measure. If we had that kind of provision in the improvement grant system, it would be an assistance throughout the country for persons most needing help. At the moment, many thousands of people, certainly in my area, regard the improvement grant system as yet one more facility available to people who do not need it, while it is not available to many who do.

12.44 p.m.

Mr. James Hill (Southampton, Test)

Most hon. Members will probably recollect that it was on 10th February, 1969, that the then Minister of Housing and Local Government, moving the Second Reading of the 1969 Act, said that there were 1¾ million unfit houses in England and Wales and 4½ million which, although not unfit, were clearly in need of repair, and lacking basic amenities. We are all agreed, therefore, that it is a gigantic problem.

I have been dismayed this morning by some of the churlish remarks from Opposition Members, who have suggested that the expenditure of £46 million was a confidence trick or a public relations exercise. I do not think that since I have been in the House I have ever heard that said about the Housing Act, 1969, from which all this stems.

I was chairman of a housing committee in Southampton when the 1969 Act came into operation. It was implemented in August of that year by the local authorities and the first allocation of money from the Government, intended to last 12 months, had gone in two. It was an extremely good Act, but there was little money provided to implement it. We had tremendous local problems, because there had been massive publicity, even ahead of the implementation of the Act, so that we were flooded with applications and many people had to get in line.

Mr. Freeson

Would the hon. Gentleman elucidate that a little further? I was in the Department at the time and I do not recall any attempt to impose any limitation on any local authority in this respect. In practical terms, it would have been impossible to do so in October, 1969, quite apart from any objections in principle.

Mr. Hill

That may have been the view of the then Government, but we were restricted and our allocation was completely taken up in the first two months, with the result that there was a bottleneck.

We have now all studied that Act, and several of the initial flaws have been mentioned this morning. One has been the fact that anyone who had taken up an improvement grant before the coming into force of the Act was barred from getting a discretionary grant.

On 2nd March, I asked the present Minister of Housing and Construction whether he would take steps to increase the number of items in the list for standard grants by including, for instance, obsolescent and dangerous fittings, such as gas geysers, the replacement of perished or non-existent damp courses, roof repairs and faulty electrical wiring. Unfortunately, I did not get the reply I should have liked. He said: Discretionary grants are available for more comprehensive schemes of conversion or improvement and for any necessary repairs and replacements carried out at the same time."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 2nd March, 1971; Vol. 812, c. 402.] My whole point was that if the original improvement grant had been taken up, the applicant would have been excluded from a discretionary grant. But a house with a poor roof, or with faulty wiring, or without a damp course, would not and could not last for 15 years.

General improvement areas, transit camps and so on, have been mentioned. In this respect the present legislation is more generous to the local authorities. However, I should like my right hon. Friend to look again at the limit of £100. It is within his discretion to increase it and in present-day terms £100 per dwelling in a housing development area of some 500 houses, for instance, could not possibly go far towards closing roads, planting trees, making additional car parks, providing car parking space at the backs of terraced houses, and making all the other provisions required to bring an area up to the desired standard.

Again, I asked a question of the Secretary of State for the Environment, whether he would increase the amount from £100 to £300 per dwelling so that local authorities can expedite all the provisions of the Act concerning improvement areas He quite categorically said: I have no proposals at present for increasing the Government contribution …"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd March, 1971; Vol. 812, c. 402.] Perhaps later he may look at that again. One of the greatest problems in general improvement areas is not so much the improvement of the houses as improvement of the environment, and one of the worst aspects of the environment is that of factories, dumps and scrap yards built up over the years in these run-down areas, and yet there seems to be no Government contribution to local authorities for resiting of these unsightly things outside of general improvement areas. I may be wrong about that and I shall be only too pleased to be corrected.

In conclusion, I would put out that Southampton is not one of the intermediate areas and I cannot say that Southampton has a serious housing problem. Nevertheless, I would have thought that in the not too distant future this excellent Housing Bill could be enlarged to cover the rest of the country.

12.51 p.m.

Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West)

I join this debate as one of those who, like my hon. Friends the Members for Salford, East (Mr. Frank Allaun) and Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman), who spoke so eloquently about the Manchester conurbation, represents an area which outside some parts of London and Glasgow, has probably the worst housing in the country, and at which it might have been expected that the Bill would have been pre-eminently directed, and that area is South and South-East Lancashire. The various special housing survey reports undertaken by the Ministry in 1969 show that South-East Lancashire has the highest proportion of unfit housing in the country, a proportion which, at 15 per cent., is one-seventh of the total and more than a quarter above the national average level.

Nor is it merely a matter of downright unfitness. The lack of amenity is just as serious. Oldham, which is part of my constituency, has the dubious distinction of being almost top of the league in terms of the proportion of houses which lack a fixed bath, a hot water tap or an inside lavatory. Less than four-fifths of the families in Oldham have a hot water tap. Only 11 other districts in the country are worse off in this respect. Only two-thirds of the families in Oldham have a fixed bath and only 10 other areas out of 1,500 or so are worse off. Only just over half of the households in Oldham have inside water toilets, and only 13 other areas are worse off. As many as 6 per cent. of the families in Oldham are still obliged to put up with a shared outside toilet, and the only other areas in the country with even half that proportion of families in this situation are all in South-East Lancashire.

The people of South-East Lancashire, therefore, had every reason to expect that top priority would be given to them by a Bill of this kind. What is so shameful, as was so eloquently said this morning by my hon. Friend, is that that area is utterly excluded from all the benefits of the Bill because it is outside any development or intermediate area. Yet it is precisely this neglect and terrible legacy of bad housing in the North-West which makes it so difficult to attract developers and industrialists to obtain that take-off as a growth area without which the only alernative is a slow but remorseless decline.

The Government have missed a golden opportunity to leaven the granting of aid in such a manner as to spread the distribution of the limited resources available over a much wider spectrum of grey areas than at present encapsulated by the narrow definitions under Section 1 of the Local Employment Act, 1970. Yet the chance was certainly there be- cause all the statistics of housing stress, of unfitness, of lack of amenity, are all available on a regional and local basis. Yet it is these direct pointers which have been ignored and it is the indirect criteria of unemployment levels which have been used instead, clearly because this Bill is less a serious and committed means of obtaining the purported objectives than a piece of ad hoc-ery to rejig the local economy in the more stagnant regions.

If the Bill were really addressed to remedying the inadequacies, the uneven-ness, in house improvement work its measures would be much more closely geared to the asymmetries which exist. It would aim to reverse the anomaly whereby the average number of grants per 1,000 of population is almost twice as high in the Yorkshire-Humberside region as in South-East Lancashire, although the incidence of housing inadequacy runs to some 25 per cent. greater in the latter.

The Bill should also have been much more closely aimed at redressing the unjustifiably large local variations. What is being done about the fact that one local authority with a high and very commendable slum clearance record averaging 7.1 per 1,000 population achieved a rate of only 0.35 in improvement work while a nearby local authority with a similar slum clearance record averaging 6.89 attained a rate of improvement work of 1.48 which is four times greater though very much less than the national level? Achievement in improvement grant work has varied nationally, according to the official statistics, between 0.3 and 4.3 per 1,000 population with an overall mean of 1.45 and a probable minimum requirement on the national scale of at least 5 and preferably 10. What is being done to iron out local variations of this quite enormous degree?

Surely it is this shortfall below the level of national requirements even of the best authorities which is a crucial yardstick for judging the adequacy of this Bill. Judging from the euphoria of the Minister one might have been excused for thinking that we were in the midst of a break-through in remedying the appallingly low standards of so much of our housing. It is not immediately obvious that the reason why the Minister is so anxious to pedal faster is that the house improvement machine is still, if not in reverse gear, at least moving backwards.

This is not the impression he seeks to convey by his statistics. He said that 156,000 improvement grants were made last year compared with 109,000 the previous year, an increase of 45 per cent. in the year. The April figures alone, for one month this year, have been set at a Press conference at 14,600. What the Minister did not add was that even if this best month's record were maintained for a full year the annual rate of 175,000 would mean only a 12 per cent. increase over last year; in other words, an increase very fast levelling out.

Like all statistical magicians, the Minister lacks perspective, or at least he shuns it. He conceals that the annual increase he so proudly proclaims is built on a base that is absolutely minute in relation to the size of the problem. The national survey of housing conditions undertaken by public health inspectors in February, 1967, showed that there were 4½ million houses which, whilst not classed as unfit, nevertheless needed at least £125 spent on repairs, or lacked one or more of the basic amenities. This means that, even if last year's record level of grants were maintained, it would take at least 30 years to remedy these substandard properties but, in the meantime, many more properties would have been falling into disrepair. Some G.L.C. projections have assumed a compound annual growth of unfitness of 10 per cent. and even if, modestly, we allow a rate of deterioration of only half that rate, this would imply a pace of obsolescence 50 per cent. in excess of the pace yet achieved in the annual rate of improvement work.

The same point can be made in terms of cost. It was stated at the Press conference held by the Secretary of State that over £80 million was spent last year on grants. By restricting the upgraded cash grants to householders only in the development and intermediate areas, it is hoped that the extra cost of £46 million will actually double the outgoings on improvements in these areas. This again appears impressive until it is related to the official estimates of the overall national housing repair bill. The figures given on page 26 of the 1968 White Paper, "Old Houses into New Homes" indicate that comprehensive repair to the stock of fit housing in England and Wales would cost about £3,450 million. So far from justifying the enthusiasm of the Minister, these figures suggest that the boost to the improvement drive that has apparently so sparked his imagination is doing little more than seeking to inflate a set of flatulent tyres with a bicycle pump.

This is a little Bill, a puny Bill. Whilst even little and puny Bills are not necessarily for that reason entirely unwelcome, one hopes that the Minister will in future show the courage of his declared conviction and bring forward new measures which are significantly related to the real objectives of house improvement, which this Bill certainly is not.

1.3 p.m.

Mr. Robert Redmond (Bolton, West)

Some of the points I intended to make on the subject of what I call the "grey areas"—I remember the Hunt Report even if the members of the former Government do not—have been made for me by the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), perhaps at greater length than I should have done. Arising from what he has just said, if in Bolton, which is my main concern, there is a better situation than in Oldham, I put that down largely, without knowing anything about Oldham Corporation, to the activities of Bolton Corporation. That is why it is a great pity that the hon. Member for Willesden, East (Mr. Freeson) showed such venom against Tory-controlled councils which have been doing so much to implement the improvement grant legislation.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman) spoilt quite a good case by overstating it in one of the poorest speeches I have heard in my time in Parliament. The hon. Member should go back to writing other people's speeches for the Labour Party conference; they would go down much better there. He showed great interest in where we live. I come from the north-west of England, I have lived there all my life, and I am jolly proud of it.

I give a general welcome to the Bill, which I regard as a step in the right direction, but I hope we shall soon have another Bill which will deal with the grey areas, which include Bolton. In Bolton there are a large number of good houses which could be given a new lease of life, which is what the people who live in them want. They do not want to be moved out to housing development areas, corporation property and so on. It is therefore no good saying, as the hon. Member for Ardwick said, and as he put down in the Amendment that has not been called, "If we cannot have something nor can you". That is why I support the Bill, but, nevertheless, give notice to my right hon. Friends on the Government Front Bench that I shall keep on pressing for Bolton until they give us the aid to which we are entitled.

I was impressed by the practical speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain). He is a man with years of practical experience in the building industry, and he told us some of the facts of that industry. He made me think of the terraces of Bolton houses and the problem that can be created by the improvement of one or two of them with the result that the rest of the terrace looks pretty grim. Often, as I have seen in my constituency, two or three houses dotted along the terrace have been improved with the aid of improvement grants, whereas the rest of the houses in the terrace have been so neglected that the whole terrace has to come down. This problem should be examined by the Government and measures to deal with it included in the future legislation for which I ask.

Hon. Members opposite have asked the Government to say that the two-year limit is not meant seriously. It would be fatal for the Minister who is to reply to answer that point. If he were to say that the two-year limit had been imposed to make local authorities get a move on, but when the two years was up we should renew the provision, that would put local authorities back where they started and they would have no incentive. I hope that he will not reply to that point. It is far better that what I have said should come from the back benches than from the Front Bench.

In debating this type of legislation hon. Members opposite adopt the posture that profits are immoral and the wicked landlord must not make a profit. That is the attitude that has created the slums and the need for improvement grants. If we could get rid of that posture the whole country would be better off. I support the Bill within the limitations of what I have said.

1.07 p.m.

Dr. J. Dickson Mabon (Greenock)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Redmond) on his wonderful circus performance of riding two horses going in opposite directions. It was a treat to hear him doing this. He is probably, though he may not know it, the most formidable opponent the Government have to face on this Bill. He spoke of a Bill still to come, an urgent Bill, very much needed in Bolton and other important places. That is the great sorrow of this Bill. It could have been a great Bill, well thought out and just as significant as, if not more significant than, the 1969 Acts on which it is founded.

Mr. Redmond

My point was that we should not be making speeches about the grey areas if the former Government had taken notice of the Hunt Report which they commissioned and which they threw away before the ink was dry. If we had had action on that Report we should not now be asking for legislation on the grey areas.

Dr. Mabon

That is where the hon. Gentleman is wrong, but I will come back to that point in a moment. He is, as I say, one of the most formidable opponents of the Bill, because this should have been a substantial Bill and not a fly-by-night Bill. He said that because the aid will be given for two years local authorities and everyone concerned will make a wild dash to get the money before it is cut off. That is an attractive debating argument, but not true.

The best answer to that was given by the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain) who was no doubt arguing on behalf of the National Federation of Building Trade Employers. I do not detract from that at all, he is not the only hon. Member associated with the building industry. I am myself associated with a building company which designs many more houses than it builds directly in the United Kingdom. The hon. Gentleman was arguing that within the next two years what the Minister seeks to achieve would not be achieved because there was not enough elasticity in the legislation. He thought that the word "approved" might be better than the word "completed" and I agree. But why stick at a period of two years? Why not three or more years? The 1969 Acts passed by the Labour Government became operative only in August, 1969. The present Government are rightly seeking to improve on those Acts but are not seeking to go beyond a period of two years.

Could we not have had a comprehensive piece of legislation which would have appealed to the hon. Member for Bolton, West and other hon. Members who complain about the exclusion of their own areas from the Bill? None of them can be charged with exaggerating the needs of their constituencies and yet they are excluded from these provisions. Salford, for example, has been cut out of the Bill, yet we all know the housing need in that area. Manchester, Oldham, Southampton, and even London, are cut off from the benefits of the Bill. It is surprising that it is called a Housing Bill at all. It should be called more accurately the "Unemployment (Building Trades) Bill since it is designed to deal with unemployment in the construction industry. To that end we should look to see what the Bill really does.

If the Minister wishes to dispute that this is an unemployment Bill, he should examine the Written Answer given by the Secretary of State for the Environment on 30th June about the so-called winter works programme. The Minister then acknowledged that the increase in the roads programme and this Bill were the answer to the winter works problem. The cat is out of the bag, and it proves that this Bill is designed to deal primarily with unemployment. Let us look to see how the Bill seeks to achieve a cut in unemployment.

Mr. Costain

Surely the point made by the Secretary of State was that because the work could be carried out under a roof, it was perfect work to be carried out during the winter.

Dr. Mabon

Although the hon. Gentleman is still a loyal ex-P.P.S. to the Minister, he cannot be allowed to get away with that one. That is not what the reply meant, as he will see if he looks at it. It is set out in the OFFICIAL REPORT on 30th June in c. 123. The Minister was not arguing strictly in terms of a winter works programme.

Mr. Costain

I thought that is what the hon. Gentleman said.

Dr. Mabon

No; the Secretary of State was answering a Question. He was answering a question. He was comparing the present Government's winter works programme with the programme of the former Administration.

I turn to the figures. The hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe, among other hon. Members, deplored the high level of unemployment in the construction industry in May, 1970. I have the figures before me and they show that the total number of unemployed in May, 1970, embracing all the trades and professions in the construction industry, such as carpenters, joiners, shutterers, bricklayers, painters, electricians, steel erectors, and so on, was 99,779. In May, 1971, one year later, the figure is 119,450. Therefore the unemployment situation in the construction industry which was so deplorable last year is now 19,671 higher. So much for dealing with unemployment at a stroke! Perhaps this Housing Bill is now part of "the stroke".

It is interesting to break down the 19,671 increase in unemployment figures since May, 1970. My hon. Friends from Scotland will not be surprised to know that of that figure of 19,671, some 7,885 are to be found in Scotland. This is to be compared with the situation in May, 1970 when the present Under-Secretary of State for Health and Education was denouncing the Labour Government for having so many people unemployed. The hon. Gentleman is now faced with a figure of 7,885 additional unemployed in the construction industry in Scotland and carries that on his conscience. Since this is an unemployment Bill which will seek to deal with the unemployment in Scotland, and indeed is comparatively speaking generous to Scotland, I do not complain on that account.

To turn to the North-West of England, the unemployment figure for building workers is some 3,036.

Mr. Redmond

Does that include Merseyside?

Dr. Mabon

It includes the whole of the North-West. It is a classification laid down by the Department of Employment. It is strange to me therefore that the Bill should seek to apply only to those areas which come within the Local Employment Acts. It is a foolish contradiction. Since there is an unemployment problem in the building trades in, for example, Manchester, and there is surely a need to improve houses in that area something should be done for this city. If the intention of the Bill is to relieve unemployment, why cannot the Bill be modified to take in areas such as Manchester and others which are affected?

The hon. Member for Bolton, West suggested that because Manchester had such a difficult problem, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman) was suggesting a rejection of the Bill as a whole. If the hon. Gentleman had been longer in Parliament, he would know that what my hon. Friend had done was to employ a parliamentary device of Amendment to draw attention to his own constituency problem. The meaning of what he sought to do was not clear to the layman from the wording of the Amendment, and when the hon. Gentleman has been in Parliament a little longer he will know that. I am not being patronising to the hon. Gentleman, but it is wrong that he should put forward an argument of the kind he used without knowing the true situation. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman himself might have to employ a similar device on a future occasion in regard to his own area. If he seeks to do so, I hope that he will not be accused unjustly by our side of the House of behaving in a way he did not intend.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ardwick most surely wants this Bill to be enacted, but he wants it to be more effective, to cover a greater period of time, and to embrace more money.

Mr. Redmond

If I wanted to make a speech in support of a Bill, I certainly would not make the sort of speech that was put forward by the hon. Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman). It sounded to me like venomous opposition, and I thought from the terms of the Amendment that he opposed the Bill. I am usually honest in the way I approach a Bill.

Dr. Mabon

There are certain parliamentary conventions and my hon. Friend's was a legitimate form of protest to make his points on the Bill. The test is whether my hon. Friend opposes the Bill when it comes to a vote.

Mr. Redmond

He certainly sounded as though he was opposed to it.

Dr. Mabon

The only true answer to this argument, quite apart from what anybody says, lies in the Division Lobby. [Hon. Members: "Oh."] And when we come to entry into the Common Market, we shall see into which Lobby the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Education goes.

In the Northern Region there are 2,093 more employed than in May, 1970 but they are rightly brought into the Bill. What about the West Midlands area? We see from the figures set out in the table that the rise in unemployment in the building trades in the West Midlands was 2,180. In other words, the unemployment situation in the West Midlands in terms of building trade workers is more or less equal to that in the Northern region and in some other sections of the country, and is close to the situation in the north-western area in terms both of unemployment and of housing improvement need. Yet how much of the West Midlands is included in this Bill? Well, there it is The bottom two inches, as Leslie Hale once said, of the hand-out. Only North Shropshire and Oswestry.

Mr. Kaufman

I will amplify what my hon. Friend is saying about the West Midlands. In an answer about the parliamentary constituencies affected, I was informed that the only constituency in the West Midlands is Oswestry—the hon. Member for which is totally against any regional discrimination of aid.

Dr. Mabon

It is one of the ironies of parliamentary life that that is so. If that is the result of the Bill, then it is wrongly cast. I ask the Minister to look at this again because I know that he has a certain flexibility of mind. I hope that he will take into account unemployment among building trade workers wherever they are.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to tell us more about the two-year period. Is it the case that this unemployment is expected to fall within the two years? Is there something behind the Government's argument for two years? This is obviously a collective decision by Ministers influenced by the Treasury, but why two years? Is something interesting and wonderful expected to happen in those two years? If the Minister cannot be completely confident that the unemployment will disappear over the two years, he should amend the Bill and make the period three or four, or five years, rather than pretend that in two years he will be able to sort this problem out.

We want to ask also about money, because we have had some rather obscure answers from the Secretary of State for Scotland and other senior Ministers. I do not expect the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland for Health and Education to answer on this matter, because he is not in charge of Scottish housing. Although he made grand speeches in Opposition he does not seem even now to know much about it. I never got any money answers out of him either. His colleagues are bound to know how anxious we are about this aspect. Is this money in additon to what is currently being spent on housing improvements? Can we have the Great Britain figures for housing improvements this year and the estimates for next year and the year after? Can we have a breakdown of this £46 million spread over the three years? And modestly, as a Scotsman, may I ask for the Scottish figures alongside them?

What we are not sure about is whether these figures given already are simply a cover-up. If this £46 million is an additional sum, then we welcome it. If it is not, then we condemn the Government's decision. We want to see more money put into this work. I was told by the Under-Secretary of State for Development on 22nd June that there is no question of housing improvements being regarded as a substitute for new house building, and that in our view is the correct attitude. So I hope that this Bill is not regarded as a substitute for new house building by any Minister.

What is to be the position in 1974, in view of the October budget, the announcement of the Secretary of State for the Environment about housing subsidies in the future and the forthcoming White Paper? What will the situation of housing expenditure be in 1974? Is the Chancellor going to "save" £200 million from the housing budget? That is what he told us he would do when he brought in his mini-budget. Has the money in this Bill been affected by that statement? Are the Government still going for a reduction in housing? Are we being asked to vote for housing improvement money at the expense of new houses? We must know.

If this were a good Bill and a well-thought-out Bill, the Government would not be rushing it through as they seem to be doing. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galbraith) is an old Scottish parliamentary colleague of mine. He was a Minister in the Macmillan Government and a very good one in many ways, although at times I disliked many of the things he did. I remember him pleading with me in the Scottish Standing Committee, considering the Housing (Scotland) Bill on 20th May, 1969. He said then: It is not only the Committee to which the Minister must pay attention. Each of the Bills that my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. Monro) has mentioned affects local authorities. Local authorities have points they wish to make. They have to discuss them in their committees, pass them to us, and we have to discuss the points with them. At the rate at which the volume and bulk of legislation is now being put before this House, it is not possible to do that with the care that the importance of the legislation merits. I ask the Minister to bear that in mind. It is not good government to proceed like this."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, First Scottish Standing Committee, 20th May, 1969; c. 4.] The hon. Gentleman was right. But we introduced that Bill, to which this is a successor, on 5th February, 1969. The Second Reading was in the Scottish Grand Committee on 18th and 20th March, and on 20th May the Bill went into Committee. Yet the hon. Member for Hillhead complained quite genuinely about that timetable.

The time table for this Bill was announced in the Scottish Grand Committee before the English Minister made his announcement. It is understandable. The Secretary of State for Scotland has a hard time of it these days because of closures, unemployment and the falling house building programme. We see in Scotland a drop in the Government's house-building programme of 14 per cent., over the last 12 months which is catastrophic. That is, I agree, quite unlike the situation in England. In an earnest to defend himself, the Secretary of State made his announcement about this United Kingdom Bill on 22nd June. Today is 2nd July and yesterday it was proposed on the Business Statement that we should dispose of all stages of the Bill by 9th July.

It makes nonsense of any ideas we may have had of trying to reflect the points of view of our local authorities. We simply have not sufficient time to ascertain their views properly. The only represenation we have had has been, commendably, from the National Federation of Building Trade Employers. I have no doubt that there will be many comments after the Bill has left us, if we stick to the Government's proposed timetable, and that Parliament will regret having rushed the Bill through in this way.

There is no need to rush the Bill through. The date has been announced. The figures have been announced. Surely the Government could not reduce the figures, but, hopefully, we might be able to increase them. This Bill is welcomed by the Opposition and we wish to improve it. Let us not rush into the actual legislation quite so fast. The builders put two very good points in their memorandum, one of which I have already mentioned. It would be better if builders, landlords and tenants and the public in general—for it is the public's money we are using—were entitled to comment on the Bill.

I have had an interesting letter from a constituent who is not I believe a landlord and does not live in one of the properties which could be improved. He is generally commenting on the scheme we introduced in August, 1969. It refers to what is true of my constituency and many others—the wonderful homes we see inside crumbling tenements. The people look after these homes extremely well, but the moment they leave their doorsteps they emerge on to eroded stairs and beside festering walls. My constituent argues that we need a better scheme to improve property common to all but distinct from the individual habitations of the families. It may be that there is provision in the previous Acts or in the Bill. If so, I should like to know more about it. It may be that we should improve it.

It would be a great compliment if the Minister were to say: "The scheme which the Labour Government devised in 1969 is perfect. It is only a question of getting more applications in. There is nothing wrong with anything in that scheme. The administration is perfect." However, I could hardly believe that even the Labour Government were 100 per cent. perfect. Perhaps 99 per cent. or maybe at worst 90 per cent. But surely we could not have been 100 per cent. perfect. Surely there are defects in the system of administration, some of which may be born of the Statute, and therefore as Parliamentarians we must turn our attention to it.

Should we not take more time over this matter? Should we not try to understand a little more of this process and look at what has been the outcome over the last year or so? Finally, I believe that a Bill of this kind should apply to the whole country. I understand from the Government that there must be priorities, but these are the wrong priorities. It would be better instead for the Bill to apply to the whole country, for it not to be for two years but for the foreseeable future. It would have been better had it been introduced earlier or, now that we have it, had we taken longer to discuss it than to rush through every stage in a matter of a few weeks.

On the whole, while we welcome the Bill, we feel that the way that the Government have rushed it is deplorable. They have prepared the way badly for what could have been an earnest endeavour on their part.

1.32 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Paul Channon)

I am glad that hon. Members on both sides have welcomed the Bill. The welcome has been somewhat muted from time to time, but in general hon. Members are in favour of the general principle of having such a Bill.

I shall try to deal with some of the points which have been raised. If I omit any point, there will be opportunities in Committee when I shall have had the advantage of reading what hon. Members have said and be better able to answer them.

The first purpose of the Bill, which is common to both sides of the House, is to help the further expansion of improvements. That is a bipartisan policy which hon. Members on both sides welcome and will continue to welcome.

Why are we so keen on improvement in general? The 1967 house condition survey figures are now a bit out of date. At that time about 4 million houses—nearly a quarter of our housing stock—were lacking one or more of the basic amenities. There were then 3 million houses lacking internal lavatories, slightly more than 2 million lacking a fixed bath, and 3 million lacking a wash-hand basin.

As my right hon. Friend said, we spend a great deal of time visiting potential improvement areas up and down the country during "improvement months". I frequently recite these figures. Every time I recite them I am appalled at the thought that in 1971, after years of beneficent legislation by both political parties, millions of our fellow citizens are still living in appalling conditions.

Mr. Frank Allaun

After the tremendous hand-outs to the landords, the problem still remains.

Mr. Channon

The hon. Gentleman raises a particular point about which he feels strongly, but I think that he is wrong. Whether he is right or wrong does not affect the general argument that there are still millions living in inadequate conditions.

It is a desperate task to increase the number of improved houses in this country. It is important socially as well. Often older people who have no wish to move from their houses are involved. It makes economic, social and housing sense to go in for a large-scale policy of improvement. I refute those few people—none in this House today—who suggest that improvement is a mistaken policy. I believe that most people are becoming increasingly aware of the need for improvement. The Bill will give a tremendous boost to improvement in certain parts of the country which have some of the worst housing and derelict land problems.

The main point that has been argued today, and it is understandable, is the noticeable absence of many hon. Members from the development areas. They are pleased with the Bill. That is why they have not bothered to attend today. Only those who are displeased with the Bill have turned up. I exempt the hon. Member for Glasgow, Bridgeton (Mr. James Bennett), who supported the Bill with great forthrightness, and many of my hon. Friends who have shown their usual farsightedness, for although the provisions of the Bill do not help many of their constituents, they see the great benefit which it will bring to other parts of the country.

I will give some figures for improvement grants in England and Wales. In 1969 there were about 109,000, in 1970 there were 156,500 and in the first four months of 1971 there have been 55,500. The 1970 figure showed an increase of 44 per cent. over 1969, and the increase in the first four months of this year is 34 per cent. over the same period in 1970.

Unfortunately the take-up in intermediate and development areas is not as good as in the rest of the country. In these areas taken together the total number of grants approved in 1970 was only 25 per cent. above that for 1969. It is not so much the numbers which have been given with which the hon. Member for Willesden, East (Mr. Freeson) was dealing in his speech; it is that the rate of increase has been much lower in the intermediate and development areas than in the country as a whole. Approximately 32,000 grants were approved in 1969 and just over 40,000 in 1970. That is little more than half the increase in England and Wales as a whole. I accept that the Scottish position is different.

If we were to introduce a Bill to help housing in the development areas in England and Wales and excluded Scotland on the ground that the improvement figures were good, the hon. Member for Greenock (Dr. Dickson Mabon) would not take kindly to it.

Dr. Dickson Mabon

The Government could have introduced a Scottish Bill. The two previous Bills were: one for England and Wales and another separate one for Scotland. If we had done that today we could have given more money to the Scots.

Mr. Channon

We could have done that. I think that the Scots get a lot of money. The hon. Gentleman can raise these points on another occasion with those more qualified than I to answer.

I understand the feelings of hon. Members who say that housing conditions in their constituencies leave a great deal to be desired and therefore that they should be included. Any Bill of this kind is inevitably rough and ready. I believe that a sharp, short attack on poor housing conditions in these areas and their surroundings, which otherwise are not likely to be improved for many years, will pay dividends.

Mr. Freeson

The Minister will no doubt accept that no one is objecting to such a sharp, short, or indeed longer, attack, which is what we would prefer. The objection is that that attack is not being increased in other parts of the country which have even worse housing conditions.

Mr. Channon

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. I shall deal with the London position later, because that is slightly different. I think that whatever area had been chosen there would inevitably have been criticism. Whatever time limit was chosen would also have been criticised. I can imagine that if we had suggested three years, hon. Members would say that it should be four, three, two or six years, or whatever suited them. We live in an imperfect world. Whatever period we choose may be wrong. But we must have a period, and I think that two years is reasonable.

The hon. Member for Greenock referred to unemployment in the construction industry. It is inevitable that as a by-product the Bill is bound to be of some help to the construction industry in the intermediate and development areas, especially to the small builders referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain). It will have some effect in increasing, incidentally, the attractions to incoming industry.

Hon. Members have asked whether the expenditure is extra. The Financial and Explanatory Memorandum says that on the best estimates the Bill will result in an increased public capital expenditure of the order of £46 million. No one can be exact, it depends on the take-up. It can only be an estimate. This is the best estimate that can be made and it is in addition to the original announcements. It is not in substitution of anything, it is an extra item of expenditure.

Mr. Freeson

Can I get it clear that the figure of £46 million spread over three years is in addition to the three figures for those years announced in the White Paper on public expenditure? Will there be an overall increase in the allocation made available by the Government irrespective of the actual take-up?

Mr. Channon

Yes, I can give that assurance. That is the position. My understanding is that that is exactly the situation. It is an increase of £46 million on the best estimates that can be made.

Mr. Kaufman

Would the hon. Gentleman give a commitment that at the end of this period his Department will publish separate figures showing what the take-up has been so that we may measure the success of the precise objects of the Bill?

Mr. Channon

I would like to think about that. There are some difficulties in quantifying every development in the intermediate areas in view of the way in which the figures are arranged. I will look at that and give the hon. Member an exact answer in Committee.

Hon. Members representing London constituencies have very wisely said a great deal about the extreme difficulties of the London housing situation. Other hon. Members have referred to the difficulties elsewhere. I wish that I was in a position to give details of the housing finance review and the discussions which have been taking place with local authorities over the past few months. I am not in a position to do that. My right hon. Friend has said on a number of occasions that he wants to make a report to the House of the fullest nature when the talks are concluded. As we have said repeatedly, one of the main purposes of the review is to divert resources to those areas and those people most in need. No one could deny that Islington is one of the areas most in need. I hope that hon. Members will agree when the review is completed, that it meets the criterion we have set and gives extra help to those most in need.

Mr. George Cunningham

Can the hon. Gentleman say whether we can expect the statement before the Summer Recess?

Mr. Channon

I cannot give an absolute assurance about that. I am certain that my right hon. Friend is only too anxious to make a report at the earliest possible date but these are complicated matters.

The Bill provides big incentives for people to get on and do the job fast. If people do not do the job fast, the take-up will not be successful. I believe that they will do things fast and that is why I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Redmond) that it would be no good having a short, sharp effect and then saying that we can go on with the grants for all time.

Therefore, a time limit is necessary. Whether two or three years is right is a matter of opinion. I believe that two years will be a reasonable time. My right hon. Friend was in Newcastle last week and he has pointed out that the general reaction was that two years seemed a perfectly reasonable time. I went to Blackburn last week and found that two years seemed to be generally acceptable to the local authority representatives and builders whom I saw.

Next week I will go to Liverpool, and I hope that again I will have discussions with local authority representatives and builders in that area. So far I have not found the general view to be against two years. There may be areas where that is the view, but that could be true of any time limit. So far, the reaction to two years has been reasonably favourable.

My hon. Friend the Member for Epping (Mr. Tebbit) made a point about demolitions following an improvement grant when the building has a life of 30 years. There are occasions when a building may be demolished, but I do not understand the point about it being demolished shortly after the grant has been given.

Mr. Tebbit

There has been a case in my constituency recently which gave rise to some concern, and I will bring this to the notice of my hon. Friend. Before he leaves the two-year point, will he deal with the question of those cases where an applicant genuinely thought that the work would be completed within two years but where, because of circumstances beyond his control, the work overruns that period? This will be a great difficulty towards the end of the period.

Mr. Channon

At the end of the two years it will be for the local authorities to decide whether the work has been completed. We shall certainly have to give them some advice about the criteria to be adopted much nearer the time. I will bear in mind the point raised by my hon. Friend and other hon. Members. It is difficult to change the two-year period, but we will have to consider carefully what sort of advice to give local authorities.

Mr. Thomas Cox (Wandsworth, Central)

Would it not be easier to say that providing approval was given within the two years the work should be allowed to continue? I know from problems in my constituency that it can often take three or four months before final approval is given.

Mr. Channon

I would be against a system in which the final date depended on approval rather than completion. It would be much better to have an end to the system when work is completed on a certain date. As for time and local authorities dealing with applications, the hon. Member for Greenock (Dr. Dickson Mabon) will be glad to learn that, although we warmly support the provisions of the Housing Act, 1969, we have found one or two administrative difficulties in its operation. Next week a Circular will go out to local authorities advising them on ways of speeding up the administrative arrangements under the Act. We do not think that there is any need to amend the terms of the Act, these will be administrative improvements. I will see that hon. Members who are interested have a copy of the Circular before the debate next week.

Local authorities vary in the way that they administer the Act, but most are now beginning to speed up their procedures. This is something that can be improved upon. I hope that in these matters local authorities will deal with applications very speedily. The Bill will not be a success unless local authorities, builders, builders' merchants and the applicants get on with the work as quickly as possible.

I have found that people are only too anxious to get on with the work, and I believe that there will be a great many applications. Admittedly, this is a false figure to some extent, but in Liverpool, where the normal rate of inquiries is about 70 a week, it has boomed up to 600 since the announcement was made. My right hon. Friend has arranged special publicity, and there will be a great deal of advertising in local newspapers. There will also be door-to-door distribution of leaflets and visits by mobile exhibitions. My right hon. Friend has visited Newcastle and I shall be making further visits. We have already circularised local authorities about the Bill, and there is the other Circular to which I have referred which is going out next week.

I am glad that the Opposition has not argued that because it cannot apply everywhere, it should not apply to some areas. No doubt we could devise other lists of areas and other arrangements, but there is no doubt that in the intermediate areas there is a high proportion of old buildings, which constitute an enormous problem that we must tackle. There are many other matters to be dealt with, and I welcome the chance of explaining the somewhat complicated Clauses in Committee.

In conclusion, I want to say what changes are being made. It may be that not all hon. Members have taken them in. For example, the maximum amount of the discretionary improvement grant under the 1969 Act was £2,000. The person applying receives a grant of £1,000, or 50 per cent., of which the Government pays £750 and the local authority says £250. The applicant will now be able to receive a grant of £1,500, of which the Government contribute £1,350 and the local authority £150. That means that the local authority's share will go down from 12½ per cent. to 7½ per cent.

There will also be an increase in the contributions to improvement work carried out by local authorities in their own houses. The percentage that local authorities will have to provide will fall from 62 per cent. to 25 per cent. In terms of the cost of work, if £2,000 is spent there will be a Government contribution of £1,500. There will also be extra contributions by the Government towards the cost of the standard improvement grant.

All in all, these are very generous provisions. I hope that they will have a dramatic effect in these areas, and in areas outside them. I am glad to say that there has been a considerable take-up of improvement grants—grants that are already generous. Some hon. Members have pressed for higher grants and some, such as the hon. Member for Willesden, East, want increases in the G.I.A. contribution. Local authorities can however spend more than £100 but they do not get a grant on the extra amount.

There is no evidence that the upper limit of the discretionary grant has proved a barrier to people in terms of obtaining grants or being able to do the work. At present the average figure of grant given is very much lower than the maximum amount. There is provision for my right hon. Friend to take extra powers if necessary, and he will have no hesitation in doing so if it can be shown that there is a general need for a higher maximum. As I have said, there is no convincing evidence at the moment; there may be isolated cases.

Mr. Freeson

I agree that powers exist in respect of amenity grants but I am not aware of a power to vary upwards the general improvement grant under the provisions of the 1969 Act. They are fixed figures.

On the question of expenditure, may I press the Minister to answer an important point that I made in opening? May we now expect that the estimated expenditure allocated by the Goverment is running at £55.3 million, as compared with the £40 million originally estimated under the 1969 Act?

Mr. Channon

The hon. Member is not right about the 1969 Housing Act, but I had better check the exact situation and get in touch with him later. My information is that the maximum may be raised by Order.

As to the amount of money in respect of improvement grants, individual figures of forward estimates of public expenditure are not published in detail. The housing statistics for February, 1971, showed that for England and Wales in 1970 £11.9 million was paid out in discretionary grants to private owners, and £7.2 million in standard grants. There is a general forward estimate for housing as a whole but it had not been the custom of Governments in the past to break these down into details and sections.

I cannot give the hon. Member any further details, but I expect a great increase in improvements, because the figures are increasing constantly. I cannot give the hon. Member an estimate.

Mr. Freeson

This is a very important point. If we are talking about extra expenditure we must know what it is to be expended on, otherwise we cannot know the facts of the position. There must be available in the Department in general—if not in breakdown terms—a figure showing the estimates for improvement grant expenditure by public authorities in the coming year. We cannot operate extra expenditure under the Bill unless we know what it is extra to.

Mr. Channon

I can appreciate the point of the hon. Member's remarks. A general estimate for housing as a whole is provided, but it has not been the practice of successive Governments to break the figure down into specific items of expenditure. I shall look into the matter, but I do not think that the practice has changed. If there is any further information that I can give the hon. Member I shall have the opportunity to do so when we discuss the Clauses next week. I am advised that there has been no change in practice, and at the moment I cannot go further than that. If I can give the House any further particulars next Friday I shall do so.

I understand the feelings of hon. Members who want the Bill to go further. It is right that they should press the Government on behalf of their constituents for further increases. I believe that the Bill will be of help to the intermediate and development areas. It will be a great help in terms of modernising and improving the stock of our old buildings—a task that hon. Members on both sides of the House would like to see tackled. I hope the House will be good enough to allow the Bill to receive its Second Reading.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. Monro.]

Committee upon Monday next.