HC Deb 12 February 1973 vol 850 cc1068-99

7.50 p.m.

Mr. Alec Jones (Rhondda, West)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important debate at a reasonable hour. I am sure it is not the intention of the Minister to be absent. It is a quirk of fate which will be corrected if I speak at sufficient length to enable him to arrive.

My subject is house improvement grants under the 1969 and 1971 Acts. Hon. Members on both sides of the House I am sure equally appreciate that house improvement grants are a most valuable means of improving our housing stock, improving houses which are structurally sound but lack amenities. We realise that the alternative to improvement grants—the replacement of houses—is costly in money and time, and is often completely unacceptable to the people who live in them.

I take the 1971 figures, accepting that they will have improved since then but that the overall pattern remains the same. At the end of 1971 in Wales 250,000 houses, 27 per cent. of our housing stock, were built before 1891, a further 200,000, representing 20 per cent., were built between 1891 and 1918 and a further 150,000, 16 per cent., were built between 1919 and 1944. The age of the houses suggests that in December 1971 about 16 per cent. of the houses in Wales were likely to need improvements, and a large proportion were likely to need major improvements, to meet the needs of the families living in them.

When I compare the improved houses in 1972–73 with the house in which I lived as a boy—with no hot water, with the toilet at the top end of the garden, involving mysterious journeys late at night in cold weather—I appreciate the value, to the families, of the improvements which have been carried out in Rhondda. I use the figures for Rhondda because it is easier for me to get those figures than any others, but what I have to say is equally true of industrial South Wales and probably of most of Wales.

In Rhondda 5,000 grants have been made. This means that 5,000 homes have been modernised and saved and that the lives of 5,000 families have been considerably enhanced. That is why we welcome the 50 per cent. grant and why those who live in the assisted areas welcome the 75 per cent. grant. The provision of the 75 per cent. grant has resulted in a considerable acceleration, almost an artificial acceleration, in the number of applications submitted to Welsh local authorities. Applications for the 75 per cent. improvement grants are pouring into the council office at Pentre, in Rhondda, at the rate of 105 each week, and this represents a massive increase. For the first time older people and those on relatively small incomes are able to improve the living standards in their homes. That is of importance in Wales, which has a high proportion of owner-occupiers, and of especial importance in my constituency, in which 70 per cent. of the people own their own homes.

Having painted the background of the picture I refer the Minister to the real purpose of this debate. Two defects in the present arrangements threaten the success of the scheme and lead to unfairness between one owner and another. The first defect arises from the time limit, whereby the 75 per cent. grant is payable only to those who are able to find a builder to complete the work by 23rd June 1974. The second defect is that local authorities have no power to increase the grant to cover cost increases which arise between the date of final approval and the completion of the work.

These two defects can be dealt with separately, but they are inter-related. The existence of a rigid time limit artifically accelerates the rate at which applications pour into local authorities. Everyone is anxious to get in his application before the time limit expires. With a constant building force available this means that there is bound to be an ever-increasing delay between the time the grant is approved and the start of the physical work. This delay leads to higher costs. I have here estimates based on the Rhondda figures. If the Minister says that my figures are wrong I shall be delighted to hear it, but I am sure he will appreciate that although I cannot be absolutely precise I have tried to paint an accurate overall picture.

If the time limit of June 1974 is adhered to it will mean that at least 2,500 people in Rhondda whose applications are in will be denied the advantages of the 75 per cent. grant. That is the figure for Rhondda and there must be many thousands in the other industrial valleys of South Wales who will be similarly affected.

I have looked with some concern at the figures appertaining to my constituency. About 2,500 claimants are awaiting final approval or commencement of the work.

Mr. Raymond Gower (Barry)

Does the hon. Gentleman mean that a number of applications will lapse owing to the physical limitations of the department that has dealt with them?

Mr. Jones

I shall not dodge the point raised by the hon. Gentleman. I shall develop it as I go along, because I am sure that there is no disagreement between us on this issue.

The 2,500 in the pipeline are applications which have received final approval by the council but are awaiting commencement of the work. In other words, the builders are not able to take on the work. In addition, there are 1,500 applications at various stages of being serviced. Of these 1,500 applications, I assume that about 500 may not be proceeded with; that for various reasons the applicants will withdraw. I have selected that figure in order to be as generous as I know how. That means that there are about 3,500 live applications in the pipeline.

Without building forces working at full stretch we have been able to complete about 250 improvements per annum. Even if we were to double the rate of completions to 500 a year there would still be enough work in the pipeline for seven years, but the time limit of June 1974 gives us only 16 months.

There are two factors which underline the seriousness of the problem. First, I have assumed the ability of the building force to double its rate of completions, and that is a generous estimate. Secondly, I have ignored the fact that from now until 1974 there will be further applications. It seems that in Rhondda, anyway, all those who have applied for the 75 per cent. grant will not be able to get it. There is enough work to keep the building industry busy for seven years, but all the work must be completed within 16 months.

In Rhondda it is extremely difficult to get a builder to do minor repairs—or even major repairs—because of the heavy concentration on doing work under the improvement grant system. We are using the building force not only within the boundaries of Rhondda, but also outside. The trouble is, of course, that by doing that we deplete the availability of builders in those areas. They suffer, though we may gain.

There are certain unfortunate byproducts of the long waiting lists—and I use that phrase with a certain amount of latitude. First there is a tendency on the part of certain builders—I put it no higher than that—to be selective in the jobs that they undertake. They are more likely to accept a job if the would-be improver is able to pay his 25 per cent. in cash rather than have to get the money by some other means. The builder has a chance to pick and choose, with the result that certain people are left behind.

Secondly, because of the pressure on builders—and I am not criticising them for this—there is some danger of defective work creeping in. If the claimant, the council and everyone concerned is badgering a builder to get on with the job, and complete it so that the grant can be made available, the emphasis on speed tends to lead to less sound and less satisfactory workmanship.

Thirdly, a study of the people being left behind shows that it is not the young and active, who are able to look for a builder and badger him to start work, but the old, the infirm and those who are not able, for one reason or another, to chase around looking for builders who are affected. I have here a letter from a constituent, an old lady who has struggled to buy her home. Her grant has been approved and I have been trying for some months to find a builder who is willing to do the job for her. She says: Thanks for your letter. No, I have not had a builder yet. I am daunted now."— "daunted" is a very good valley expression— I went without so much to buy a house. I have had the grant now but it seems to me that all the young ones are getting theirs done. I cannot find a builder to help me. That is the kind of person who is being left out.

The fourth by-product of the long waiting lists is that this increasing gap between the date of final approval and commencement of the work means that the estimate originally submitted to the authority, and on which it gave final approval, is out of date, and in many cases useless. In the hands of some unscrupulous person the difference can be boosted considerably. I have three examples to illustrate what I mean. I could have brought many more, but there is no point because these three make the case.

Early in 1972 approval was given for an improvement grant of £1,890. The builder now says that the total cost will be £2,713. In the middle of last year final approval was given, in another case, for £2,800. The present cost is £3,200. In a third case final approval was given, in June 1972, for £2,300. The present estimated cost is £2,900. Those are round figures. The actual increases are £400, £600 and £820. In each case there is no doubt that part of the increase is due to the fact that there was a pay award in the building industry. Another part is due to the rising cost of building materials. However, the very size of the increases suggests that the time limit is forcing certain applicants to pay more than the normal reasonable cost in order to qualify for the 75 per cent. grant. If they say "No" to a builder, that is the end, and they have to start back again in the pipeline. It means that the builder is in a favoured position if he cares to exploit it by increasing his estimate and people tend to say, "We must pay. If we do not we will not qualify and benefit from the 75 per cent. grant."

Local authorities should have some discretion to revise the amount of grant. By that I do not mean to cover everything. However they should be allowed to revise the amount after the date of final approval so as to lift the grant at least to a figure which will meet genuine increases in labour and material costs. Some formula on these lines is desirable and it should not be beyond the capacity of the Government to agree to it. If it is not done, many applicants will be forced to forfeit improvements to which they have been looking forward. Morally there is no reason why applicants should be made to bear considerable additional expense without the aid of supplementary grant, having regard to the fact that as applicants they have no control over events which may lead to increases in costs.

My own council has been in consultation with the Welsh Office on this very point. Reference has been made to Section 4(3) of the Housing Act 1969. But that is not a real solution to the problem that I describe. The section allows grants to be revised only to take account of works unforeseen at the time of the approval. I am not talking about that. I am talking just about cost increases. What is more, if it meant grants being withdrawn and applications resubmitted they would have to go through the pipeline again and be revalued. They would end up so far behind that there would never be any hope of the people concerned having their work completed.

The Government announced the 75 per cent. scheme with a great flourish. I make no complaint about that. People throughout South Wales responded to it with enthusiasm and, in common with my own, most authorities in South Wales acted promptly and in accordance with the advice that they were given by the Welsh Office. Paragraph 3 of the Welsh Office Circular 126–71 said: The Council are asked to do all they can to ensure that full advantage is taken of the higher grants by private house owners … The circular went on in paragraph 12: Local authorities will need to ensure that their administrative arrangements are adequate to deal speedily with the number of applications for grant which may be expected to arise under the new provisions. But it does not matter how speedily the local authorities can deal with applications for grant if builders cannot physically do the work. That is where the problem arises at present.

We in Rhondda have acted in accordance with the advice contained in the Welsh Office circular. Practically the whole of our existing public health inspectorate and technical staff in the surveyor's department are fully engaged on improvement grants. That means that other work needing to be carried out by these people tends to be forgotten, and the day will come when it cannot be put off any longer. However, the local authority engaged additional staff for the purpose. It took on an extra quantity surveyor, two more building inspectors and a clerk. All the work done by the authority, all the money spent on new staff and all the time spent by the staff, old and new, will be abortive and a complete waste of time and money unless we can get some reappraisal of the scheme itself.

In my view additional discretionary powers should be given to local authorities to review grants so as to cover genuine increases in cost. Secondly, we ought now to be asking the Government to extend the time limit, or to remove it altogether. As long as it remains we shall run up against these problems again and again.

Without the two changes that I have described, or something like them, many people in South Wales needing to carry out improvements and being in a financial position to do so will face considerably increased costs. They will represent an added burden for many years if loans have to be paid off. Many of them, such as the lady who has written to me, are among the most needy in the community and will never be able to afford the improvements that they require. If this happens the quality of our housing stock in areas like Rhondda inevitably will deteriorate. Housing stock does not stand still. Either it is improved or it deteriorates. If it cannot be improved with the aid of the 75 per cent. grant there will be a marked deterioration in housing conditions.

Basically this was and still is a good scheme. It would be a pity if it foundered in the tremendous discontent that I see building up in my constituency. In Wales the improvement grants were the one bright spot in a dismal housing picture. It would be a pity if that one bright spot were to be darkened by the Government's reluctance to act as I have suggested.

8.19 p.m.

Mr. Raymond Gower (Barry)

I can largely support what the hon. Member for Rhondda, West (Mr. Alec Jones) has said, though naturally he has selected for most of his illustrations the difficulties in his own constituency. However, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that the subject has a fairly general application throughout the rest of Wales and the United Kingdom.

Support for the point of view expressed by the hon. Member for Rhondda, West is not confined to the Opposition benches. I agree most cordially with his views. Indeed, the matter has had the support of sucessive Governments, and the growth in the number of applications for these grants has been quite astonishing. Last week my hon. Friend the Minister of State answered a number of Questions about the increase in the number of houses improved. I thought that the figures given by my hon. Friend were remarkable. He said that in 1972 the number had risen to about 28,000. I am not sure what the figure was. My hon. Friend will correct me if I am incorrect.

The Minister of State, Welsh Office (Mr. David Gibson-Watt)

That is correct.

Mr. Gower

About 28,000. Indeed, there are circumstances where a grant of this nature can be deemed—I hesitate to use the term—superior to the erection of a new house, whether a council or a private house. In most cases people like to move into new homes, whether private or council property, because they have all the latest equipment, are well appointed and recently built, and will be less expensive for maintenance, and so on. The paramount advantage of the improvement grant means that the owner-occupier or tenant will not need to leave the neighbourhood where he or she or the family have lived for a generation and where their friends are. In many ways this is of paramount advantage to them.

The hon. Member for Rhondda, West referred, I think, to 100 applications per week.

Mr. Alec Jones


Mr. Gower

This is a formidable figure, as he intimated, in one constituency. The picture is not dissimilar in many other parts of the Principality. In my interviews with constituents I meet people who are engaged in improving their houses in this way.

I sincerely hope that my hon. Friend will consider with great sympathy the main purport of the hon. Gentleman's argument. There is a strong argument for extending this time limit. That was the hon. Gentleman's main point, although he made others. It would be unfortunate if we stopped the grants now. Such grants are a formidable part of the provision for maintenance of homes. Indeed, adding together the total of new homes, private and council, and improvement grants of this kind, I understand that in 1968 the figure was about 26,000 houses. Last year that figure had risen to 41,000. If we took away the contribution of these grants it would be a sad blow to the total provisions of homes. I hope that this provision can go on and be extended. I believe that it is just as important as, if not more important than, building new houses. Therefore, it would be unfortunate if at this stage we discontinued the contribution which has been made by grants of this nature.

In many parts of the Principality houses of fundamentally sound construction but built many years ago need only modest improvements to extend their usefulness for a considerable time. In the long run, the provision of grants is a better and economic way of providing houses for the next decade than building only new houses, which will cost more. So, although 75 per cent. grants may appear to be a formidable contribution from Government funds, balanced against the expense of providing new houses it would be a bad policy to discontinue them.

I support the hon. Member for Rhondda, West, not necessarily in every detail, but broadly in his appeal to my hon. Friend. I should imagine that all parties support the provision and maintenance of good homes in buildings which need relatively small expenditure to conserve them. I hope that as a good Conservative my hon. Friend will accede to this request.

8.27 p.m.

Mr. Neil Kinnock (Bedwellty)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda, West (Mr. Alec Jones) not only on managing to get the Adjournment debate tonight but on persuading at least 625 Members of Parliament to pack up before eight o'clock and thereby provide us with a great opportunity to discuss this matter of such importance to thousands of people in Wales.

It is in the nature of my hon. Friend and of Adjournment debates not to introduce too much contention, but it is only fair to try to analyse why there has been such a boom in the use of improvement grants in recent years.

The first and obvious reason is that the supply of such grants creates demand, and the more they are provided, thankfully, the more they will be used. Consequently, we can look forward not to a diminishing use of these grants but to an increasing use until practically every house in Wales that was built before the Second World War has been the object of improvement of one kind or another.

Although my hon. Friend drew attention mainly to pre-war housing and its deficiencies, many houses in Wales built since 1945 leave a great deal to be desired in the form of creature comforts which people in the better paid section of society accept as the normal attributes of housing while for many thousands of Welsh people they are still thought to be matters approaching luxuries. I speak simply of central heating, an adequate bathroom and an indoor toilet. These are not dramatic illustrations of the shortcomings of houses in Wales. For many people, even young people, it is a normal part of life that houses should be deficient in these important respects.

Another reason for the boom in demand for and use of improvement grants is that in the modern housing sector—I use the word "modern" advisedly by "modern" I mean just about anything built after the First World War—there has been an unprecedented inflation in prices. Many young married and engaged couples are applying for these grants because they are the most direct publicly assisted form of house purchase that now exists. They can buy terraced houses in the valleys of South Wales for £3,000. It is a ridiculous figure, because most of these houses are an absolute shambles. Many have been uninhabited for many months, and even years, and when vacated the properties were inferior. A good deal of money needs to be spent on them, but because the general prices level is so high they provide some alternative for housing. Certainly the grants available make a notable contribution towards subsidising the purchase of these properties both by private individuals and by the councils with the good sense to buy them. This applies to many of the National Coal Board houses which are now on the market.

The reason for the explosion of demand is twofold: first, that the grants exist, and, secondly, that for many thousands of people in Wales, especially young married couples, it is the only type of house that presents itself at a price which they can just afford.

The shortage of builders is a nationwide problem and does not apply only in South Wales, and there appears to be no easy solution. With the high rate of unemployment among construction workers in Wales, which last year amounted to 9,000, I believe that the trade unions should set up agencies to make this labour available at market rates to be employed by those who wish them to carry out house building in South Wales. The only alternative will be to have further mushrooming of the labour-only sub-contracting system, commonly called "the lump", in which people often with inferior qualifications in terms of building skills make themselves available. Householders are only too glad to obtain the services of anybody to improve their houses, and often the labour-only system has led to inferior work.

The whole system is unsatisfactory and arises because of the shortage of building skills. I believe that many of the men who at present are unemployed in the construction industry could be used to carry out housing improvements and could be given a very good wage in worthwhile employment in areas not too far from those in which they are living. This seems to me to be the only way to meet the situation. Even if the current scheme of improvement grants were extended, this would still leave a problem which would stretch many years ahead since we cannot contemplate the growth of a labour force with the requisite skills to cope with future work.

Mr. Neil McBride (Swansea, East)

Is my hon. Friend aware that in my home town of Swansea there is a serious shortage of joinery craftsmen, and that many employers are not maintaining a proper craftsman-apprentice ratio? This has had a bad effect on the situation at present and is bound to have its effects in future. The situation has caused one highly-respected firm in my constituency, a firm with a superb standard of craftsmanship, to refuse a Crown contract worth £300,000. I submit that the Government are falling down on the job.

Mr. Kinnock

I agree with my hon. Friend. The general depression in the building industry has led to a stagnation in the growth of building firms in terms of recruitment, and has led to a shortage of skilled building workers at a time when we most need them. One answer is to translate the would-be construction worker or the unskilled worker into a skilled grade by setting up a gigantic training programme directed specifically at the improvement of building skills. I appreciate that the Government have put forward additional training proposals, but they have yet to come into being.

Mr. Gower

Can the hon. Member advise me whether the building trade unions would readily accept recruitment of steeplejacks and other workers he has mentioned to the building industry?

Mr. Kinnock

In general, trade unions have long since extended their rules and introduced procedures to bring additional workers into this and other industries so long as they undertake Government training which the unions recognise to be first-class and which would not lead to dilution of the standards of skill which the unions demand. I do not think there is any difficulty in recruitment of this sort.

Having proffered a rather hopeful answer to the difficulties of insufficient building firms and personnel in South Wales, I wish to move briefly to one or two points about the general problems which spawn from the improvement grants system as it exists. There is the obvious need to extend the date. I was fortunate, or unfortunate, enough to be on the Standing Committee on the Bill which extended the system by another 12 months. It would be unfortunate if the House had to spend time every 12 months renewing the powers under the Housing Acts to provide extensions of this measure. I hope that in the next 12 months the Government will introduce a Bill to extend the powers for three or four years, or will introduce a permanent Statute so that the industry and potential householders may have the assurance that there is no need to panic because there is some fixed date which affects the pric- ing of contracts and services in the improvement sector.

We see three factors in the inflation of building costs. First, there is the general across-the-board pay award which has been reflected in higher prices. There have been many increased building costs which are not within our control because they are import costs. This has an effect on prices in contracts. There is a restricted supply and an intensity of demand. There is a deadline watch adds fuel to the flame, and the consequence is that builders feel freer to lump on another £200 or £300 to the contact in the knowledge that people are so desperate that they will pay that price.

I do not say that the Government can legislate all this out of existence, but extension of the date would have an effect and would give people more choice. It would make the market less imperfect.

There is a need to extend finances for other reasons. Obviously, the figure of £2,000 introduced by the Government in 1971 has now become unrealistic simply because of inflation. This week I received a letter from a constituent about this specific difficulty. I have sent it on to the Minister. With the fall in the value of money in the last two years, this limit would take us back to square one—the position we were in in 1971. For safety's sake a special allocation is needed for re-wiring premises. Frequently fairly extensive renovation has taken place but there has been only partial or inadequate re-wiring and that causes danger. If the Government stipulated that £250 should be set aside specifically for thorough re-wiring of a three-bedroomed house which was being improved, that would go a long way towards safer housing.

The Minister knows that frequently ground landlords are found to be reluctant to give permission for their tenants to extend or to improve their property. The Government should bring the weight of their influence to bear on these ground landlords and insist that, if they have no reasonable excuse for withholding permission for improvements, improvements must be allowed to proceed with all haste.

Recently in my constituency a ground landlord, by prevaricating, almost endangered a constituent's application for a grant to the point of disqualification. There was the possibility that unless the landlord's permission was forthcoming in the shortest possible time there would not be a builder available and the constituent, although full qualified and having full permission, would be unable to qualify in the specified period.

For this large collection of fairly catholic reasons, there is need to extend the date, possibly to make it a permanent fixture, to increase the amount available, and generally to pay attention to the details whereby individuals can either take advantage of the scheme or delay its use so as to make it virtually useless.

8.41 p.m.

Mr. Michael Roberts (Cardiff, North)

I have some sympathy with the arguments advanced by the hon. Members for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock) and Rhondda, West (Mr. Alec Jones) in favour of the extension of the period for applying to qualify for this grant. The hon. Member for Rhondda, West referred to the special case of young people about to marry. I declare an interest, because my son is in such a position and I know that he would welcome the possibility, next autumn, of applying for an improvement grant in the hope that it would be granted.

I was delighted that the hon. Member for Bedwellty objected to the fact that the market forces were being distorted. I would not have expected that argument to emanate from him. However, the hon. Gentleman rightly asserted that if the market forces are interferred with to the extent that a time limit is imposed it will tend to lead to an increase in price. If a subsidy or grant is introduced into the house improvement field it distorts the market forces. Therefore, there are two factors—the distortion of the market forces, which the hon. Member defended, and the fact that the market forces would keep down the price of improvements.

Mr. Kinnock

The hon. Gentleman is in faint danger of misrepresenting my general position on market forces and their effect. I said that their effect is worsened by the existence of a deadline. The hon. Gentleman's own experience in South Wales will convince him that if this business were left to the market forces there would not be any improvements or improvement grants.

Mr. Roberts

The hon. Gentleman makes my point. I concede that if we had only market forces operating and no improvement grants, and therefore no time limit, many fewer jobs of house improvement would be done. The hon. Gentleman, by the very nature of his remarks, must agree that the introduction of non-market forces in terms of a grant and an extension of time means that the market forces, which at least have the advantage of reducing the price, do not operate effectively. I am therefore glad to find the hon. Gentleman for once seeing some virtue at any rate in the operation of market forces. The hon. Gentleman argued, and I was impresed with his argument, that at some point last year 9,000 construction workers were unemployed. He did not specify the time, but I took the point. The question is: at what point are they available today in the Rhondda?

This debate, although it has spread over the whole principle of the money available for improvement grants and the time in which the work must be done, started and must rest with the situation in the Rhondda Valley. The hon. Member said that they had not only utilised the whole of the building resources of the Valley domestically within the Valley but had sucked in building resources from surrounding areas. Presumably the resources were also sucked in from the capital city of Wales, which is why I am now speaking.

But I must ask the hon. Gentleman how many of those steeplejacks residing in the Rhondda, and how many of the riggers to whom the hon. Member for Bedwellty referred, could be brought in. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that a significant improvement could be made in the pace of house improvement work if those steeplejacks were brought into the jobbing building labour force?

Mr. Alec Jones

The hon. Member started off by indicating some support for my general line, but he has now mixed my argument up consistently with that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock). If the hon. Member wants to put pressure on the Minister and agree with my line, the quicker he draws to a conclusion the better.

Mr. Roberts

I am not surprised that any speech made by the hon. Member for Bedwellty should confuse the hon. Mem- ber for Rhondda, West. And it would indeed be odd if the hon. Member for Rhondda, West believed that my sole purpose was to support him. Whilst I am prepared to give him an occasional crumb of comfort by way of support I must look critically at some of the things he said, as well as some of the remarks of the hon. Member for Bedwellty.

The hon. Gentleman spoke of the tremendous activity in the building trade in the Rhondda Valley. He referred to between 2,000 and 2,500 house improvement applications having had official approval. He referred to 1,500 new applications, of which he seriously thought about 1,000 would reach agreement and completion. That makes about 3,500 applications and approvals in all. I hope that he will bear that figure well in mind when next he criticises Government housing policy. He said—and how true it is—that housing does not stand still. In that respect it is like education: it either advances or it goes back. But part of the Government's case in terms of housing success has been that the grants have done a great deal to improve our housing stock. What is more certain is that houses thus improved will provide good homes in 10, 20 or 30 years' time, whereas they would otherwise have deteriorated into uninhabitable dwellings. It is no good saying that this is just a question of maintenance it is a question of improvement.

I suggest to the right hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. George Thomas) that the next time we talk about housing figures, council houses and the construction of new houses, we should have no charges from him and his hon. Friends about rigging the books.

Mr. George Thomas (Cardiff, West)

I am always ready for a party ding-dong, but is the hon. Member aware that my hon. Friend has initiated a debate on a grievous human problem? Hon. Members on both sides are eager to find an answer to it.

Mr. Roberts

The right hon. Member for Cardiff, West should know—as the people of Cardiff know—that I am as concerned as he is with human problems. If I am as concerned with human problems as the right hon. Gentleman, that rates me highly. However human or however great the problem, it has never inhibited the right hon. Gentleman from bringing into the subject an element of what he calls "the party ding-dong". I am concerned tonight with human problems and also with the whole nature of the problem of building houses and of the use of improvement grants. One of the most significant things that the hon. Member for Rhondda, West said was that the whole of the building force of the Rhondda Valley was completely involved. Many people in my constituency tell me, and I hear throughout the city of Cardiff, that whereas improvement grants are an excellent thing and obviously meet with the approval of the people, there is the other side of the coin, which is that if the building industry is deeply occupied on improvement work in the Rhondda Valley and is sucking in resources from the adjacent areas it cannot build many new houses at the same time.

I am attracted to the idea of extending improvement grants, but if they are extended is it not possible that in the period up to, say, 1976 or 1978 the building industry will be entirely absorbed on improvement grants work? Everyone knows that the building improvement grant and its extension were not entirely for making better homes, although that was a major point. Another aspect was that there was high unemployment in the regions, and therefore it was necessary to give them an incentive for employment.

I support the hon. Member for Rhondda, West in saying that there is clearly a case for the extension of the period, but my hon. Friend must—because his is the responsibility—balance the need for new council housing and new construction to provide housing with the continuation of improvement grants. Therefore, it is not a matter that he can rush into. I urge my hon. Friend to give sympathetic consideration to the extension, but to bear in mind those factors which clearly militate against it.

Mr. McBride

Never in my experience of economics have I heard a more distorted argument than the hon. Gentleman's argument about market forces. He cannot blame the success of the housing improvement grant system for the abysmally small numbers of council houses built for rent last year. He has said nothing about that which exacerbates the position, that which is a Welsh national disgrace, the price of land and the price of the traditional Welsh terraced house. In my constituency such a house with no inside toilet was sold last week for £2,800. The whole problem stems from the Government's inactivity in house building and the inflationary policy they have pursued. They should extend the time limit.

Mr. Roberts

I should have known better than to give way to the hon. Gentleman. At this stage of the debate not to have mentioned land, when no one else has, is hardly a grave omission on my part. I do not see why the hon. Gentleman should make that invidious reference to me. And to be told that my remarks on market forces do not mean much to the lion. Gentleman hardly impresses me, when he did not say why they did not impress him. As to whether the resources of the building industry have been diverted from council house construction and private house construction, the fact that the hon. Member for Rhondda, West has said that the whole of the Rhondda building industry is absorbed in that way, and that it is sucking in the resources of other areas, is proof in itself.

8.58 p.m.

Mr. George Thomas (Cardiff, West)

My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda, West (Mr. Alec Jones) has served the House well both in the presentation of his case and by the very fact of drawing the attention of the House to what is a major anxiety in the Principality. The Minister of State must be thoroughly aware that a deep anxiety is building up among all those who will not be able to benefit by the improved 75 per cent. grant if it comes to an end next June.

It was during my period as Secretary of State that we took the survey of our housing in Wales. I well recall that when I gave the House the figures recounted again by my hon. Friend I was appalled and ashamed at the number of families in Wales who have to live without a bathroom, without hot and cold water, and without indoor sanitation.

I grew up and spent by early manhood in a home in Tonypandy which had no hot or cold water. We had no bathroom and no indoor toilet, but we had a wonderful Christian home. In my time the miners would come home black from work. They had no bathrooms. However, there is not a prouder people in the world than the Welsh people when it comes to the home. They keep their little cottages like palaces. Our women folk work so hard polishing, brushing and scrubbing in a way that is almost unnecessary, but the pride in the home is there.

The aim of the improvement grant scheme is to give a fuller life to our people and to preserve in Wales a stock of good, solid houses that will fall into disuse if we do not continue with the scheme.

I realise the difficulties of the Minister of State. I have been in his position in my time and I know the difficulties. It is probably impossible for the Minister to promise us the extension for which my hon. Friends have asked. However, I hope that he will convey within the Government a sense of urgency about the problem. It is only fair to local authorities in Wales to know whether the date is to be extended and whether they should continue to recruit staff to deal with the problem. Clearly, the Government would have no difficulty in getting the support of the House if they proposed to extend the period or to take the advice of my hon. Friend the Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock) and make it for an indefinite period, as I think we should do.

This is not only a Welsh problem; it is a problem in industrial and rural England and Scotland. My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda has presented the House with a serious picture of the building industry at full stretch. Work might already not be as good as it should be because of the rush to get the work done. Therefore, the Welsh Office has a responsibility to give serious consideration to the question of training for an expanded building force. As far ahead as we can see we shall need a larger army of qualified building workers in the Principality. No doubt urgent talks will be held both with the trade unions and with the employers to seek to expedite an increased stock of trained building workers in Wales. My hon. Friend the Member for Bedwellty made a constructive and useful suggestion in that regard.

I know that the Minister of State will have to battle with the Treasury, but it is an issue for the Government and, indeed, for all of us who have the honour and the privilege to speak in this House on behalf of those people who make this country what it is. We should set out to ensure that the homes of the working people of Britain are brought up to the minimum standard of civilised living that is possible with the resources that are made available.

9.5 p.m.

Mr. J. R. Kinsey (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

I apologise for introducing a rather flat Midlands accent into the debate, which has so far been so well-tongued with lyrical and musical tones on this very pressing problem, which applies not only in Wales but, as the right hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. George Thomas) rightly said, to England as well. I take part in the debate because I want to see that these grants are applied throughout the whole country, whether it be in Wales, England, or Birmingham in particular. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Welsh Office, but I ask him to look at this subject as an international concept.

Mr. Gibson-Watt

I remind my hon. Friend that I, too, come from the West Midlands.

Mr. Kinsey

We all recognise what an excellent qualification that is for my hon. Friend in carrying out his present job, because we have many Welsh people in the West Midlands. We also get our water from Wales, and we are grateful to the Principality for it.

The improvement grants vary from area to area—from the Principality to England and even, to my surprise, within areas and within divisions of those areas. This is one of the reasons why I keep on bringing to the attention of the House the differentials which apply in what should be a fairly applied grant. After all, the money all comes from the same source and the grants are all for the same purpose—to improve the stock of housing in the country.

The right hon. Member for Cardiff, West spoke about cottages without baths, without water and without other indoor facilities. I wish to speak in the context of houses built immediately before the war which have indoor hot water facilities, indoor sanitation and indoor baths but are still in need of improvement.

Pre-war council houses in my constituency are being modernised very well indeed to create an equal modern standard for all residents in the city of Birmingham. For their modernisation, the local authority drew improvement grants from the Government. Houses built in the 1930s are very prolific in the Birmingham area and the grants are being used to bring standards up to one which I am certain many people in Wales would envy and admire and would like to have. Indeed, such houses are among the most popular in the Birmingham area.

The improvement grants also apply to those houses which have been sold to sitting council tenants, who have thus become owner-occupiers in Birmingham. These people have similarly modernised their homes with the help of improvement grants. To bring in the toilet from outside and to improve the bathroom they get a grant equivalent to the one allocated to the local authority, and rightly so. But the other half of my constituency is owner-occupied, and I am surprised that these houses, with the same need to be brought up to modern standards, do not have the improvement grant available to them. It is good policy to keep our homes up to standard and only fair that the improvement grant should apply to all homes in similar areas and certainly in the same area, not only in Birmingham but throughout England and Wales.

The need for such modernisation is apparent when we look, for example, at the electric wiring. It needs replacing. Often untorched roofs have snow blowing into them during the winter. Homes need to be brought up to the sort of standards that were not possible when they were originally built. Improvements to kitchens are particularly needed. The kitchens in many homes in my constituency are small and need considerable enlargement to bring them up to the standards of council houses. Yet these people are denied the grants.

I find it amazing that we can give these grants to council house tenants and to those who have bought what were council houses and yet deny them to another class of constituent in the same division. The city council has recently discussed this and turned the proposal down. I have many times asked it to review the position and to be fair to all citizens. I must again ask the Minister to intervene and direct that there shall be fairness.

This is a policy aimed at preserving a good stock of homes. I cannot think of any more worthwhile legislation than that which brought about the improvement grants for which hon. Members opposite, rightly, take credit. The system must be applied throughout because the grants are playing a vital part in preserving the housing stock and ensuring the future happiness of many. Let us see this system applied in Wales, Yorkshire, Scotland and Birmingham with fairness.

9.12 p.m.

Mr. Gwynoro Jones (Carmarthen)

I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this Adjournment debate. I shall devote my remarks to a problem which is increasing in intensity in Wales, receiving a good deal of Press publicity, and causing local concern, certainly in the tourist and rural areas of Wales. I refer to the question of second homes, or holiday cottages, and the improvement grants provided for those purchasing these holiday cottages.

The Minister will be aware that there is a group of people in Wales who believe that the way to change the system or to stop what is taking place in the Principality is to take direct action. I do not support that type of action taken by this group—the Welsh Language Society. The salient point is that we cannot pick and choose the laws with which we will agree. In a democracy we must be careful not to pick and choose the laws which we will obey and attempt to take direct action against those we detest. However, the Minister must be aware that there is a problem. I do not say that the purchasers of these homes are not entitled to buy them. Indeed, the great majority of these dwellings have been empty for as much as 30 years, as a result of rural depopulation, economic circumstances and lack of job opportunities. Those people in the Principality who say that the cottages must be kept for Welsh people are forgetting that they could have been bought 10 years ago for £200 or £300. Because they are now going at ridiculously high prices to English people and to English-speaking Welshmen we must not say that they must not go to them, although there are groups in the Principality who take that view.

Nevertheless there is a problem, and the Minister should bear two points in mind in considering the argument about the extension of improvement grants. First, the prices which these cottages—and derelict cottages—are fetching at the moment is out of proportion when considering the condition of the cottages. I could quote figures from Carmarthen-shire; the prices are out of all proportion and are astronomically high. Certainly they are out of the reach of ordinary people in my constituency or anywhere else in Wales. People whose income is £20 to £30 a week cannot hope to buy one of these cottages or derelict houses. The land and house speculator has come with a vengeance. It is not, however, just a question of price. Where the system is absolutely wrong is that maximum improvement grant is given to a person who purchases one of these cottages for which the selling price a year afterwards escalates alarmingly, putting the house out of reach for lower paid and young married couples looking for a home.

The Government have a clear choice. They can allow the system to operate as it now does, allowing speculators to put derelict cottages out of the reach of the ordinary person, even at the first purchasing price and even further out of the ordinary person's reach after improvement grant has been acquired and spent on the house. The Government can let that system continue or they can now say that, while they will not prevent payment of improvement grant the receiver of the improvement grant may not sell the cottage or the house for a given period.

I am not talking of improvement grants to owner-occupiers or to a person in Carmarthenshire or anywhere else in Wales to improve his own home where he has lived for many years and has every intention of living for many years more. I am talking of grants being given to people who buy cottages in rural west Wales and make a rather fat profit out of public funds within a year or two.

Clearly, the Government cannot allow the present profiteering system to continue if they are serious in their professed concern about rising house prices or about providing more housing stock. One thing which the Minister of State could convey to his colleagues in the Government is this that if a grant is given for the improvement of a holiday cottage or derelict house, that house or cottage must not be sold for a given number of years—say, five years. Alternatively, legislaion could be introduced empowering local authorities to purchase these cottages and houses and improve them, and then, either include them in the public sector and allocate them to people in their vicinity or sell them themselves. The Government could give lavish grants to local authorities prepared to do this.

We cannot allow the present system to continue. It is not that we do not welcome the people who come to live in the cottages. I strongly disagree with those who do not welcome Englishmen who come to live in the Principality. Some of the cottages have been empty for a generation and the new occupants bring back activity to the community, especially those who live there for most of the time. It is those who bring activity for a month in the year about whom we are complanning most.

The Government should not allow to continue a system whereby people get a fat cheque from public funds to improve a derelict country cottage for use as a second home and then sell it at an inordinate price that is out of reach of local people who want a first home in which to live. I ask the Government to consider the imposition of a time limit of five years before sale on the people who do not live in the houses or empowering local authorities to purchase the cottages and either include them in the public sector or sell them after they are improved.

9.21 p.m.

Mr. David Mudd (Falmouth and Camborne)

Not for the first time I find myself going a great deal of the way with the hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Gwynoro Jones). He expressed similar thoughts when we dealt with mineral workings and mineral development, the depopulation of rural areas and the crea- tion of ghost villages. On that occasion, as now, we reached a point of agreement.

The depopulation to which the hon. Gentleman referred as being two or three decades old in Wales is actually happening now in Cornwall. We are seeing the depopulation of many of our prettier rural villages with the result that what was even two years ago the dream tin miner's cottage, the dream fisherman's cottage or the dream farmworker's cottage at £500 is now the speculator's dream cottage at £5,500, it having been brought to a state of acceptability and respectability under the grants system.

I do not decry the grants system, which is of vital importance to those of our less fortunate brothers and sisters who have as much right to a decent home as the rest of us who are able to afford it out of our own pockets. Therefore, I welcome the improvement grants system. The real danger, particularly in Cornwall, is that the grant goes not to the man from Bude but to the man from Birmingham, not to the man from Hayle but to the man from the other end of Britain.

Mr. Kinsey

Does my hon. Friend realise that sometimes the Birmingham man does not get a grant when he should?

Mr. Mudd

I hope the gentlemen in Birmingham are missing nothing that they feel they should be getting, but my argument relates to Cornwall.

This policy encourages the erosion of the spirit of community life in some of our smaller villages. I listened carefully to the fair comments made by the right hon Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. George Thomas). In Cornwall we, too, have great pride in polishing our Cornish ranges and scrubbing our granite steps. We are increasingly worried by the way in which houses which we believe should be made available to Cornish people are being put beyond their reach, because these improvement grants are not providing cheap houses for the people who should get them. Instead, they are having the effect of putting lucrative bait on the market to encourage speculators into the area.

In Cornwall we have the embarrassing situation of a young local family trying to get a first home of their own finding themselves competing against their own parents, because frequently it is the parents, with a lifetime of saving behind them, who can afford to put down a deposit on a new home. Let us have improvement grants, but do not let them be a disincentive to the rights of young families to live somewhere decent.

The point has been made that the debate has not touched on the question of the availability of land, but the fact is that the whole kernel of improvement grant deals with the question of land availability because we are here creating habitable, decent, solid houses without taking an inch of additional building land. The improvement grants are working towards that end.

A third important point that has struck me during the debate—and I apologise for not being here for the beginning of it—is that the grant should be extended for an indefinite period. I say that it should, for two basic reasons. First, there is such a terrific backlog on local authorities that many people are beginning to panic and despair of ever getting to the top of the queue and getting a grant.

Secondly, because of the vast backlog of work many people with an eye on the mysterious termination date on the calendar are tending to accept a higher estimate from a builder in the hope of getting the work through in time rather than having a realistic cost and saving the Exchequer money in the knowledge that time is on their side.

I hope, first, that we shall look into the question of making the grants indefinitely. Secondly, I hope that we shall consider the speculation aspect. Thirdly, I hope that consideration will be given to the point made by the hon. Member for Carmarthen, that if these modernised properties come on to the market they should go to the sector which needs them rather than to the over-full bank accounts of the speculators who hover over many of our rural areas waiting for a cheap and easy kill.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

In many areas it is the local authority that is preventing more people in humble homes, perhaps designated as redevelopment rather than improvement areas, from obtaining a grant. If only local authorities would redesignate these areas, which often lie in some of our less desirable cities and towns, houses which are basically sound would qualify for grant and people would live in them.

Mr. Mudd

I am sorry, but I cannot go along with my hon. Friend in that premise, because in Cornwall our local authorities are becoming increasingly sensitive and embarrassed about what they are expected to do when their better knowledge and experience tells them that a contrary course would be far more worldly and equitable.

9.29 p.m.

The Minister of State, Welsh Office (Mr. David Gibson-Watt)

I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Rhondda, West (Mr. Alec Jones) on initiating this debate. It has turned out to be extremely interesting and wide-ranging, and a number of points have been made by various right hon. and hon. Members. It has been highly constructive. As has been said, this matter is of such concern and importance that there is not much division in the House about it. Few of what I call hard political points have been made during the debate—a point that was referred to by the hon. Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock).

I shall try to answer some of the points raised by the hon. Member for Rhondda, West. As the right hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. George Thomas), with his experience of housing in the Welsh Office, knows, in an Adjournment debate it is difficult for a Minister of State to give all the answers that an hon. Member may want.

From the Opposition benches we have had speeches by the hon. Member for Rhondda, West, the hon. Member for Bedwellty, the right hon. Member for Cardiff, West and the hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Gwynoro Jones). On this side of the House we have heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Barry (Mr. Gower) and Cardiff, North (Mr. Michael Roberts), both of whom apologised to me before leaving the debate. Then we had two excellent contributions from my hon. Friend for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Kinsey) and my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd).

It is not my responsibility to deal with housing matters in English constituencies. I am sure that my hon. Friends will realise that. But, equally, I am sure that their points will be read by my right hon. and hon. Friends who are responsible, and I have no doubt that some of my own remarks will apply as much in England as they do in Wales.

Of course, the links between Cornwall and Wales are ancient and well known. The links between Birmingham and central Wales are fairly strong. For my part, they are very strong. In the area from which I come the Birmingham Corporation is very well known. If I do not deal with the English problems raised by my hon. Friends it is not because I do not want to but because I have no responsibility there.

The hon. Member for Rhondda, West was clearly anxious, as were other hon. Members, to extend the period during which housing improvements may take place. I am aware of the keen interest that the hon. Gentleman and others are taking in the progress of this vitally important campaign of improvement which is being conducted in our various constituencies. It is an interest which is shared not only by hon. Members who have taken part in the debate but by many others who are not present. That campaign is a part of the successful action being taken in Wales to transform older housing into better homes. I am glad to acknowledge the impetus given by the Housing Act 1969 and I am happy to see the right hon. Member for Cardiff, West in his place, because at that time he was Secretary of State for Wales and undoubtedly played a great part in bringing this legislation to the Statute Book.

Having said that, when the scheme first started, like others of this kind its impetus in the initial stages was limited not by the level of grant but by the proportion of cost which could be paid in grant, and when this was increased to 75 per cent. in the assisted areas—which means the whole of Wales—there was a swift reaction. The annual total number of grants before the 1969 Act had been running at about 7,000. The 1969 Act pushed that up to more than 10,000, and the 1971 Act took it to 28,000 in 1972.

The Rhondda council deserves a tribute for the positive way that it has set out to improve its older houses. The number increased from 209 in 1970 to 726 in 1972. It is not surprising that such an upsurge in activity has brought its problems to these areas. I agree with the hon. Member for Rhondda, West that the difficulties in the Rhondda to which he rightly called attention are the more serious because of the great need for improvement and the council's determination to set about its provision. It underlines the fact that the council deserves great credit for the way in which it has used the Act for the benefit of its community.

Both the building industry and the council's own administrative machinery are being stretched to the limit. The point that the hon. Gentleman has made tonight, as I see it, is that the deadline set on the completion of works qualifying for the 75 per cent. grant has so overloaded the building industry and the local authority machinery for handling grants that the full intentions of the legislation are not being realised, that delays and rising prices mean that the grant is less than 75 per cent. of the real cost, and that pressure on the building industry has meant that some improvements are not up to the standard they should be.

The hon. Gentleman has expressed the opinion that the only solution is to abolish or further extend the deadline.

I am in difficulty in answering that point, because this matter is being debated in another place during the course of a Bill. I can refer only to what administrative means there may be to help resolve the problems of the hon. Gentleman's constituency. Having said that, I am not oblivious to the real point at which he is driving. The fact that I cannot answer him does not mean that I have not heard him, or that what he said will not be passed on to my right hon. and hon. Friends. However, as the matter is being discussed in another place I am debarred from debating it with him tonight.

The delays mentioned by the hon. Gentleman are in processing applications and in getting the work done after approval has been given. One way to cut down delays at the earlier stages of the process is to strengthen the local authority machinery for dealing with grants. The hon. Gentleman referred to this matter. The council has already taken steps to do this by taking on extra temporary staff and by putting out some of its work on grants to an independent quantity surveyor. I hope that this will go some way towards easing the problem.

Another major factor in getting improvement work done quickly and well is the building industry. I have heard complaints of shoddy work not only from the hon. Gentleman's constituency but from other parts of Wales. However, in case anybody should belabour the building industry—hon. Members on both sides were generous in understanding this—it is fair to say that the industry has suffered considerable difficulties in the past. There have been times when restriction of credit at the bank has not only made it difficult for small builders but has put them out of business. It is the small builders to a large extent whom we want in this sphere, so I should not like it to be thought that the House is criticising the builders.

As I shall show later, my officials have discussed these problems with representatives of the National Federation of Building Trades Employers, who are as concerned as the hon. Gentleman and I that the increase in improvement work has brought into the market casual builders whose standards are not up to those that the National Federation and the councils would like.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North made the point—it is reasonable and fair to repeat it—that if in places like the Rhondda a high proportion of the building industry is being used on improvement work it will obviously have an effect on the amount of work outside in other forms of building which it is able to take on. I do not want to pursue the point tonight. The right hon. Member for Cardiff, West and I may be able to pursue it on another occasion. It was a point well worth making, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North for raising it.

Mr. Kinnock

The hon. Gentleman says that he will not pursue the matter, and I see his point, but I am sure that he does not wish to equate the use of building resources in improvements with the fall in the building of housing in the public sector. I am sure he does not blame the fall in council house building on the fact that workers are being employed in increasing numbers to carry out construction under improvement grants.

Mr. Gibson-Watt

I would certainly say that both the building labour force and building materials—which, as the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. McBride) knows, are in short supply—are affected. The total number of houses in both the public and private sectors is to some extent being affected by the number of people and the amount of materials employed in improvement grant work.

Representatives of the National Federation of Building Trade Employers have had informal discussions with officials of the Rhondda Borough Council. I understand that they asked for some revision of the schedule of rates. For various reasons some builders are reluctant to take on improvement work, but I am sure that strengthening of the council's machinery, to which I have referred, will help to overcome some of their reluctance. There may be something to be gained by further discussions between councils and builders. If the builders wished, I am sure that the NFBTE would be willing to meet them. The same applies to my officials in the Welsh Office, who will give all the assistance they can to help councils to get on with the excellent job of improvements in their areas.

The subject which we have discussed in this Adjournment debate is one in which the very success of housing improvement grants has created a problem.

Before I conclude I want to reply to two points which were raised by the hon. Member for Carmarthen. On the question of grants for holiday cottages, I wish to underline the fact that whereas councils have to give standard grants they have discretion whether to give an improvement grant to second homes and holiday cottages. Although I hope to see as many houses as possible improved I would not wish to disagree with those councils who will not give discretionary grants for this purpose in certain areas.

The hon. Gentleman also touched on the question of restricting the sale of a house after payment of grant. I do not wish to make a political point, but would remind him that this restriction was removed by the 1969 Act.

Mr. Gwynoro Jones

I take the Minister's point, but surely he would agree that in the last three or four years there has been a growing momentum towards the purchase of these derelict cottages and country houses which have been empty for decades. We face a new situation in this respect. The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd) spoke about speculators moving into rural areas. That is something which cannot be denied. Therefore, merely to hark back to the 1969 Act does not meet the point. On the question of the restriction of the sale of houses which have been awarded grant, I was not referring to the owner-occupier, or the person who lives in the house, but to somebody who comes there speculatively, obtains public funds and makes a whacking profit overnight out of the cottage which he has purchased. Surely common sense demands that there should be some limit on that sort of sale.

Mr. Gibson-Watt

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, since what he has said allows me to underline what I said a little earlier, namely, that whereas I hoped to see as many houses as possible improved I would not wish to disagree with those councils who would not give discretionary grants for this purpose. We must leave it to the councils.

The debate has ranged fairly widely and I am grateful to all those who have taken part. What began as a Welsh de bate became a far wider discussion, and I am grateful for the many interesting contributions.