HC Deb 16 January 1974 vol 867 cc511-8
1. Mr. Thomas Cox

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will give the number of houses built in the United Kingdom during 1973.

2. Mr. Greville Janner

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what steps he proposes to take to increase the rate of municipal house building in 1974.

3. Mr. Frank Allaun

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will state separately the number of private and public houses started and completed in 1973 or, if not yet available, his estimate for that year ; if he will give the comparable figures for each of the preceding five years ; what steps he proposes to increase the programmes in both private and public sectors ; and if he will make a statement on the future of the housing programme.

4. Mr. Horam

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he is satisfied with the current rate of house building.

5. Mr. Skinner

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what, at the latest date, are the figures for house building, public and private, for 1973 ; and what are the comparative figures for 1972.

12. Mr. R. C. Mitchell

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many houses were completed in 1973 both in the public and private sectors ; and how this compares with the previous five years.

The Minister for Housing and Construction (Mr. Paul Channon)

The latest house building figures, to the end of November 1973, were published on 31st December and are in the Library, as are copies of Housing and Construction Statistics which contain figures for previous years. Figures for the whole of 1973 are to be published on 31st January.

The Government have never placed any restriction on the number of houses a local authority may build. The changes in contracting practice which I announced on 20th December should result in more tenders and keener competition for public sector housing. Housing is exempt from the reductions in public expenditure announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 17th December. This again illustrates the high priority which the Government wish to be given to house building.

As the House knows, agreement has been reached between the Government and the Building Societies Association about the establishment of a joint advisory committee and also about the introduction of a scheme to help first-time purchasers. We are maintaining close contact with the Building Societies Association about the availability of mortgage finance.

Mr. Cox

In view of that lengthy reply, would it not have been better for the Minister to have stated the figures? Is he not aware that housing completions last year were the worst for 20 years? Does he realise that the electorate will be able to see at first hand the utter incompetence of the Government, while those figures will continue to mean for people living in my constituency and many others the absolute human suffering that they have to endure to find somewhere to live? Is housing to be given priority, or is this to be another issue from which the Government will run away?

Mr. Channon

The hon. Member asked me why I did not give the figures. I did not do so because I do not have them for 1973. I have already told the House that the figures will be published on 31st January. When they are published, no doubt the hon. Member will wish to table a Question in February, when I should look forward to answering him.

Mr. Allason

Does my hon. Friend recall that when we last had a severe economic crisis house building was severely hit? I refer to 1968. Will he ensure that in future such difficulties do not fall on the house building industry? Will he attempt to have a rolling programme for housing to ensure that it continues to maintain a high priority?

Mr. Channon

As I told my hon. Friend—I am sure he agrees—housing is exempt from reductions in public expenditure. That shows the high priority which the Government attach to house building, in both the public and the private sectors. The Government will take every possible step to try to help house building during the present difficult situation, but it would be misleading the House to pretend that it can be wholly exempt from the situation presently confronting the country.

Mr. Allaun

Will the Minister admit that the Government cannot blame the miners for the collapse of the building programme? Council house building is the lowest since pre-war and it should be stressed that many local authorities, including Manchester, are now forced to offer 13¾ per cent. per annum on short-term loans and that for building firms there is an even higher rate of interest. What will the Minister do to stop the further reduction in the housing programme which will result from this factor? [HON. MEMBERS: "Nothing."]

Mr. Channon

The most important thing that any of us can do to try to maintain the momentum of the house building sector, which I believe both sides of the House are genuinely anxious to achieve, is to create a situation in which it will be possible for the essential materials to be provided and so make it possible for people to work to achieve the desired number of houses that we all want.

Mr. Skinner

Is the Minister aware that we have now had 15 months' operation of the Housing Finance Act, which was introduced with the theme that more houses would be built as a result of the increased rents which the Government sponsored? Is he further aware that what we have seen is the worst housing slump in 20 years, with £320 million being put into the pockets of Harry Hyams and other property speculators and with 11 per cent. mortgage rates of interest—and that that cannot be blamed on to the miners?

Mr. Channon

If the hon. Member wishes to take that line, let me give him the facts. In our first three years, over 1 million houses have been completed and nearly 1 million improvement grants have been given to enable people living in obsolete accommodation to get decent homes. That means that, in the first three years of this Government, nearly 2 million decent homes have been provided, either by new homes or by improving older homes. That is nearly half a million more than when the last Government were in power.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles

While one recognises all that the Government have done and are doing in this important sector, may I ask my hon. Friend whether he accepts that results could be even better, particularly in rural areas, if planning permission were more readily and quickly forthcoming? Will his Ministry circulate local authorities again to encourage local planning committees to be less obstructive in this matter?

Mr. Channon

As my hon. and gallant Friend knows, new planning guidelines were recently issued which I am sure local authorities will wish to follow. My right hon. and learned Friend last week received the interim report by Mr. George Dobry. My hon. and gallant Friend's views will certainly be noted in this important matter.

Mr. Horam

Is it not remarkable that, when we have a Labour Government at Westminster, a state of affairs which may not be too long delayed, and Tory councils throughout the land, we have good private housing and terrible public housing figures, and that when the situation is reversed, as it is today, we have housing figures which are saved from total disaster only by reasonable public housing figures? I wonder, is there a moral in this?

Mr. Channon

The hon. Gentleman's hon. Friend was complaining just now about public sector figures. I am very glad to have the hon. Member's support in that respect.

Mr. Kinsey

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is rather coincidental that, since we have had Socialist-controlled local authorities, we have had such deplorable rates of building?

Mr. Channon

I think it is remarkable that the Labour Party, when it was out of power in the local authorities, said that it would build many more houses. Then it came into office, and it is now seeking every excuse for its lamentable failure. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. If the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, Northwest (Mr. Greville Janner) wishes to ask a supplementary question, he must rise. I thought he had a Question on the Order Paper which was being answered with Question No. 1.

Mr. Mitchell

Is the Minister aware that in most of the large cities large blocks of offices remain empty at the same time as housing waiting lists are getting longer and longer? Second, will he give an absolute undertaking that the house building figures for 1973 will be published on 31st January and not get lost, like other figures?

Mr. Channon

I know of no other figures that have been lost. I have already said that the house building figures will be published on 31st January. That is the practice which has been followed under successive administrations. The subject of office building raises different issues and my right hon. and learned Friend has already made a statement about that matter.

Mr. Arthur Jones

My hon. Friend referred to the difficulty of supply of building materials. I think general opinion has it that the general success of the Government's improvement and conversion policy has led to shortages. Is not this a difficulty with which the building industry is having to cope?

Mr. Channon

That has certainly been a problem, as has been the obtaining of skilled labour in certain areas because of the great success of the improvement grant policy. It remains a fact, as I said a few moments ago, that nearly 2 million decent homes have been provided, either by new building or by improvement grants. That is a great deal more than was achieved in the previous three years.

Mr. Janner

On a point of order. Was your reference just now to my putting a supplementary question, Mr. Speaker, an indication that Question No. 2 was taken together with Question No. 1, or that I could put a supplementary to Question No. 1?

Mr. Speaker

The Minister said that together with Question No. 1 he was answering Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 5 and 12.

Mr. Janner

I did not hear that, Mr. Speaker. In that case, on Question No. 2, is it not correct that, dealing specifically with public sector housing, the figures are approaching an all-time low and that this is yet another disgraceful example of the Government's total failure to protect the worst-off sections of the community from the price rises which they assured the electorate, particularly in Leicester—the Prime Minister himself did so during the election—they would hold down? What do the Government propose to do about public housing, if they are given any time to do it anyway?

Mr. Channon

The hon. and learned Member is wrong and he should be fair about this. [An HON. MEMBER: "He will not be."] He should be ; whether he will be is a matter for the House to decide. In spite of the tendering difficulties which applied throughout most of the year, the number of dwellings in tenders accepted by local authorities in England and Wales in the first 11 months of last year was 28 per cent. up on the corresponding period of 1972. I did my best before Christmas to announce new tendering and contractual procedures, notably the reduction for a trial period from two years to one for firm price tenders. I think that that will have an effect on local authority housing and I am sure the hon. and learned Gentleman welcomes the fact that numbers in tenders have risen so considerably.

Mr. Crosland

The Minister is certainly not being fair: he is evading every question that has been put to him. Is he aware—indeed, he must be—that extrapolation of the figures for the first 11 months of last year shows that the total of completions last year will almost certainly be under 300,000? In which previous year were house building completions under 300,000? Second, in view of all his claims about what the Government have done—no Government cut in the house building programme was necessary, since it is falling anyway—will not the hon. Gentleman agree that, in almost every part of the country now, in contrast to two years ago, homelessness and waiting lists are increasing and that in housing the whole of the Government's policy is in total ruins?

Mr. Channon

The right hon. Gentleman will not expect me to agree with him on that last point. Nor do I think I am evading the questions that hon. Members are asking. I do not choose to speculate about what figures will be released for the whole year, because I do not know what the completions will be. The whole House will be able to form its judgment on 31st January when the figures are published. [HON. MEMBERS: "Evading."] I cannot evade about figures that are not available yet. In normal times, no hon. Member would ask me to comment on figures which had not yet been provided. How can I possibly do so?

What is important is to have both an adequate supply of new building and the improvement of older dwellings. All I am pointing out is the remarkable achievement under the present Government of 2 million homes having been provided. Of course, Labour Members always seek opportunities to criticise and carp. Let them face the fact that that is half a million more than they achieved in their last three years of office.

Mr. Crosland

Let me rephrase my question. The Minister knows what the completions were for the first 11 months of last year. Can he tell us in what previous year the figure of completions for the first 11 months was lower than the figure for last year?

Mr. Channon

If one takes the figure of the first 11 months for completions and improvement grants approved one sees that the figures for the completions in the first 11 months of 1973 were 270,000. The figures for improvement grants approved were 342,000. The House will be interested——

Mr. Kaufman


Mr. Channon

Those are decent houses being provided by the provision of improvement grants. When the Labour Party introduced the 1969 Act, it seemed to be in favour of improvement grants ; now, Labour Members jeer at the achievement in that field. The figures mean that, in the first 11 months of last year, over 600,000 people had better housing conditions as a result of either new house building or the approval of improvement grants.