HC Deb 14 March 1973 vol 852 cc1439-48

10.24 p.m.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a matter which is of considerable interest and concern to a large number of people in Greater London—the sale of council houses to council house tenants.

In the discussion earlier today the House discussed housing in a wider context. Both the right hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central (Mr. Edward Short) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment touched briefly on the question of the sale of council houses. This Adjournment debate gives us an opportunity to go into the matter in more detail, specifically in a Greater London context.

The council housing aspect of housing in Greater London is run by a two-tier system of local authorities—the Greater London Council and the 32 London boroughs, plus the Corporation of the City of London. In recent years it has been open to all those authorities to sell to sitting tenants should they wish to do so. They have done so to a varying extent. I am glad to say that the Richmond-upon-Thames Borough Council, in whose area my constituency is included, intends to make an announcement this week that it will introduce a scheme to sell council houses to its sitting tenants. As the Member of Parliament for Twickenham I have, over the last two-and-a-half years, received a considerable number of inquiries, both verbally and by letter, from constituents who are council tenants and who would like to buy the houses in which they live. I have put their requests to the borough council and I am delighted that at long last their aspirations have a chance of becoming reality in the foreseeable future—in the near future, in some cases. I hope that the scheme will be a great success and that it will have the full encouragement of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary.

Turning to the subject of Greater London as a whole, I pay tribute to the excellent record of the Greater London Council in its performance in selling council houses to council tenants. I am proud to have been a member of the council for the last six years, although I have not been a member of its housing committee. Since 1967 the council has sold nearly 15,000 houses to tenants despite obstruction by the Labour Government from 1968 onwards. In that year the then Government intervened to stop the scheme and succeeded in doing so for two years, until in 1970 the Conservative Government allowed the scheme to restart. Fifteen thousand houses comprise about 6 per cent. of the total housing stock of the council, so it is a significant proportion of the total.

I understand that at present 5,000 further applications are in the pipeline to the council and that about 250 more are being received each week. These, however, are all in jeopardy because of the forthcoming Greater London Council election on 12th April, the outcome of which is of crucial importance to applicant families. If the Conservative group, led by Sir Desmond Plummer, wins again, these applicants will have the opportunity to buy their houses. If the Labour group wins, every sale will be stopped—as has been repeatedly stated by the opposition party at County Hall—even of those houses whose sale is currently being negotiated. Such sales would be stopped forthwith, judging by the experience of 16 London boroughs which went under Labour control in the spring of 1971, when a ban on sales was immediately imposed.

Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)

Is my hon. Friend aware that in Hillingdon, for example, between 1968 and 1971 the Conservative-controlled council sold 290 houses, and that the number in the pipeline when Labour gained control and terminated the scheme was 545? Is he further aware that the number of inquiries received from tenants since the scheme terminated is more than 300? Does he not agree, therefore, that a total of 848 frustrated Hillingdon council tenants is in sharp distinction to the more fortunate Greater London Council tenants, 15,000 of whom have been able to purchase their own homes?

Mr. Jessel

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention, which has shown in a very telling way what can happen, in terms of the sale of council houses, when there is a change of political control in a local authority. I fear that the experience of his constituents in Hillingdon would be repeated for many Greater London Council tenants who wish to buy their houses were the Labour Party to gain control of County Hall next month.

When, two years ago, a number of London boroughs, such as Hillingdon, changed political control there were heartbreaking stories from many hundreds of tenants who had been expecting to be able to buy their houses but who found that the negotiations were stopped, often at the last moment, by the change of political control. Such conduct by local authorities has been roundly criticised by no less a person than the right hon. Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish), who was reported at the time as telling Labour-controlled councils which imposed a ban on the sale of council houses to "show compassion". The right hon. Gentleman went on to counsel about 250 councils which had come under Labour control to look with humanity and understanding on individual cases. He said that dogma should not be imposed where it causes hardship and suffering. The case for the sale of council houses is thoroughly well established nationally and in a London context. The first reason for it is simply that people want it. Surveys show that from 80 per cent. to 85 per cent. of those sampled would own their own houses if they could. In London, 84 per cent. of people thought that it would be a good idea for council tenants to be allowed to own their own houses. We had one prominent case last week, in Mr. Jack Jones, who has decided to avail himself of the opportunity to buy his council house in London.

Secondly, there is the argument as to what the purchase of a council house does for the family. There is the financial aspect. I quote from a leaflet issued by the Greater London Council to its tenants and signed by the council's director of housing: You will be losing the advantages you now enjoy as a tenant and you will probably face heavier financial commitments. But although your monthly outgoings as house-owner are likely to exceed the rent paid for a tenancy you may consider this a form of saving. You would be acquiring an asset which should appreciate in value and which would one day be free of debt. Purchasers of their council houses would not only be free of debt in their old age; they would have something substantial to leave to their widows or children, and would possess a measure of protection against inflation, thus benefiting their families, perhaps for generations.

There is also the psychological aspect of owning one's own home. A man who owns his own house can take a pride in it and in his surroundings, in a way he can hardly do as a tenant. It is worth his spending money on improvements, amenities, and decorations. It is worth his devoting his energies to looking after his house in a way which it would not be had he the status of tenant.

It is the heart's desire of many British families to own their own houses, as has been recognised in the Conservative Party for many years. This is perhaps best expressed in the old saying, "An Englishman's home is his castle." The alternative is to go on paying rent for the rest of one's life, with nothing to show for it at the end.

There is, thirdly, the economic aspect. From the community point of view, if a council tenant can buy his own home it eases the pressure on the remainder of the housing market. At the same time it raises funds which the local authority can use to re-house other people, to relieve the rates, or for any other purpose it thinks fit.

The Greater London Council scheme has already brought in about £5 million to the council, and a total of £50 million is committed. The Opposition have objected to the policy of selling council houses in view of the housing shortage, but it is difficult to see how this is directly related to the sale of council houses. If a man buys a house in which he already lives and in which he intends to go on living he stays in that house and he neither adds to nor subtracts from the total stock of housing. His house would not have become available to anyone else to use if he had not bought it, as in most cases he would have continued to stay there as a tenant. It must be acknowledged, however, that in the case of the GLC a small annual proportion, amounting to about 2 per cent. of its total housing stock, becomes vacant, either through death or for other reasons, for reletting in the normal course. Even of this 2 per cent. of the total stock each year, that part which has been purchased by the owners could still contribute to relief of the housing shortage and housing stress in Greater London generally, because the chances are that it will be inhabited either by the family of the previous occupant, who may by then have died, or will be sold by his family and occupied by other people. In either case it will still be a house for use in occupation.

The housing shortage to which Labour Members are right to draw attention is not merely a matter of council housing; it represents a situation which relates to the total quantity of housing and the total quantity of people who need to be housed.

Secondly, the Opposition frequently say—it was last said in the debate on the Greater London (General Powers) Bill eight days ago by the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing)—that they regret the decline in the total volume of manual employment in London and would like to see Government action taken to increase that volume. But the employment situation in Greater London is inextricably related to the housing shortage, and it is no use to urge an increase in the number of jobs in London on the one hand and, on the other, to complain about the housing shortage.

Thirdly, people who have made their home in a house usually develop roots in the district. Their children attend local schools and their wives have made friends locally and have got used to the local shops, and for a great variety of reasons do not want to move house. On large estates, such as those of the GLC, moving in order to buy a house normally means moving right out of the district. If people are not to be expected to tear up their local roots their only opportunity to own their own house is through the purchase of a council house.

In conclusion, I express the hope that the Government will continue to encourage local authorities, not only in Greater London but all over the country, to sell houses to sitting tenants, and that the electors of Greater London will weigh these matters carefully before they vote on 12th April.

10.40 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Reginald Eyre)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) for drawing the attention of the House to the important matter of the sale of council houses. I am grateful, too, for the support he has expressed of the Government's encouragement of sales as a means of encouraging owner-occupation.

Let me say at once that the encouragement of home ownership is a major objective of the Government's housing policies. More than half the homes in Great Britain are owned by their occupiers. The proportion has risen steadily over the years. In 1944 it was only 36 per cent.

This is a healthy trend, and one that we are determined to encourage. Nothing is more fundamental to a family's enjoyment of a full life than their home, and that enjoyment is immeasurably increased by the pride of possession which comes through owning it. Moreover, the family have acquired an asset which will stand them in good stead in the future.

My hon. Friend strongly emphasised the importance of that fact. It is absolutely clear that this view is shared by most of our fellow citizens. Demand for home ownership is higher today than ever it was. It says much for our people that they have wanted to devote much of their personal resources to the purchase of a home and the things which go into it. Clearly they have their priorities right, and it behoves us as a Government to help them by giving home ownership high priority in our policies.

I am glad to say that there has been a substantial increase in the provision of houses for sale by private builders. Starts last year reached 227,000—the third highest since the war and about 38 per cent. higher than in 1970. We want to see this rising trend continue, for many people have to look to new houses built for sale as a means of realising their aspirations to home ownership. As my hon. Friend has said, there is another important way in which these aspirations can be met—by the readiness of local authorities to sell to tenants. Home ownership has never been an easily-realised condition for the less well-off members of our society, but more and more want to realise that condition, and it is up to all those in whom is vested power and responsibility to try to ensure that owner-occupation is brought within the reach of more and more people.

Local housing authorities are in a unique position to help. They and the new town corporations now own about 31 per cent. of the national housing stock, and among their almost 6 million tenants there are many thousands who want to buy their homes. That is why, when we came to office, one of our first actions was to issue Circular 54/70, in which all local housing authorities were given a general consent to sell their houses, either at full market value without any restrictions or at up to 20 per cent. less if they imposed certain conditions limiting the resale price for a period of five years and requiring that if the house was resold it must first be offered back to the local authority.

The terms were, in fact, the same as those which had been applied under the previous administration, but the consent applied to all local authorities and thus removed restrictions on the number of sales which had formerly applied in certain areas.

We followed that up in June 1972 with Circular 56/72, which re-emphasised our view that local authorities should be willing to sell; indeed, that in considering the whole range of housing needs of their areas, as the Housing Acts require them to. they had a responsibility to take account of the wishes of their tenants who want to buy their homes.

As my hon. Friend has said, we have taken every other opportunity of encouraging local authorities in this matter. In the Housing (Amendment) Act 1973 we have taken powers which enable the Secretary of State to authorise reductions of market value by up to 30 per cent. where local authorities wish to make this greater concession and can show that there have been substantial house price increases in the area to justify it. I am glad to say that the results have been encouraging. In 1970 6,000 dwellings were sold by 244 authorities in England and Wales. In 1971, 17,000 were sold by 426 authorities. In 1972 over 45,000 were sold by 621 authorities.

The London figures show a similar pattern. Over the past three years the total number of sales in the Greater London area has increased from 2,089 in 1970 to 6,377 in 1972.

All this, as I say, is encouraging. But it is not enough. Far too many authorities still do not sell. In London, we have 11 authorities selling and 22 refusing to do so. I was unhappy to hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) said about tenants whose aspirations to home ownership were frustrated in Hillingdon, but was glad to hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham said about housing policy in the London Borough of Richmond. I was pleased to hear that the borough is among the sellers, and I hope that having decided to sell it may soon—if its scheme proves to be a success, as I hope it will—decide to offer higher reductions on unrestricted market value than the present 10 per cent. But that is a very good start.

I should also like to echo what my hon. Friend has said about the Greater London Council's encouragement of those of its tenants who wish to buy their houses. The council recently sought and obtained the Secretary of State's authority to offer up to 30 per cent. discounts, subject—as, of course, they must be—to a longer pre-emption period of eight years, instead of five. The London boroughs of Bromley, Kensington and Chelsea, and Sutton also have that authority, as have 32 other authorities elsewhere in the country. I am confident that as time goes on more and more authorities will see the rightness of adopting a positive attitude to selling.

This should not, in any view, be a party political matter, as it regrettably so often seems to be. A substantial number of Labour-controlled councils sell, and I am sure that the House would wish to compliment them on their vision and good sense.

Some authorities refuse to sell because they have long waiting lists of people who need houses to rent. I fully understand and share their concern for those who are not satisfactorily housed—and, of course, nowhere is that problem greater than in London. But the answer to meeting the housing need does not lie in refusing to sell to existing tenants. The right answer for those in housing need is to provide more accommodation to rent. The Government place no financial obstacle in the way of authorities which want to build; indeed, we are anxious that those authorities which need to build on a substantial scale to meet genuine need should do so.

As my right hon. and learned Friend has pointed out, and as my hon. Friend has emphasised tonight, stopping tenants who want and are able to buy from doing so is no help whatever to the family waiting for a house to rent. A tenant who wants to buy the house he lives in. That is his home, which he may have improved himself, in the area with which he is familiar and among people who are his friends. If he is refused the chance to buy the likelihood is that he will stay on as a tenant, so there is no vacancy and no help whatever for anyone else; the only result is unnecesary disappointment for the tenant. In the less likely event that he does feel impelled to move he adds to the demand in the private market. There is further pressure on prices, and one less house and one less mortgage for someone else.

I think that much of the reluctance of some local authorities to sell to their tenants derives from an outdated interpretation of local housing responsibilities. We want to see local authorities taking a wider view, in keeping with the wide powers and duties which Parliament has given them. That wider rôle goes much further than simply providing houses to rent and managing them. A local housing authority's duties extend to the assessment and consideration of all housing needs and conditions in its area. It is surely reasonable to expect it, therefore, to take account of the wishes of those tenants who want to buy. That, in the Government's view, is an important aspect of housing need and one which I hope more and more local authorities will recognise as time goes on. Their response to the legitimate wishes of their tenants is an important element in local democracy.

I am glad to be able to inform the House that figures have just come to hand of sales reported by local authorities for the month of January 1973. They total 6,674—by far the highest monthly total ever recorded. These figures and those for 1972, to which I have referred, seem to me to show not only that Government encouragement is bringing results but, perhaps even more, that councils hitherto reluctant to sell are being persuaded to do so by recognising the strength of local demand. It is up to all concerned—the Government, tenants wishing to buy, Members in their constituencies and local councillors who believe that selling is right—to continue to make sure that local authorities are left in no doubt of the strength of public demand.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for providing me with this opportunity of explaining the Government's views on this most important matter.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes to Eleven o'clock.