HC Deb 16 January 1974 vol 867 cc613-42

7.11 p.m.

Mr. Neil McBride (Swansea, East)

It falls to me to raise a subject which affects the happiness of thousands in my home city of Swansea and thousands of good Welsh men and women throughout the Principality. In these days of cut-backs in housing, particularly in the public sector, and the inability of many Welsh people to secure a mortgage from either a building society or a local authority, it follows that the improvement grant is a matter of the first importance in preserving the existing housing stock.

The improvement grant was designed to add to the amenities of houses whose fabric is sound and by so doing to extend the existing useful life of those buildings. But two things, separately and together, will defeat the intention and frustrate the legitimate wish of many people in Wales, particularly those in Swansea, which is the second city of Wales. The first of these is the shortage of materials, and the second is the blind insistence of the Tory Government that all improvement work done under improvement grants shall be completed by 23rd June 1974. Here I must couple with the Tory Government the Secretary of State for Wales, because he has executive responsibility for housing.

That date is a matter of grave concern because Wales has the largest percentage of owner-occupation in the United Kingdom. The Government's insistence on the completion of works financed by discretionary grants by 23rd June is shortsighted and will add to the frustration of these owner-occupiers who believe that a discretionary grant automatically entitles them to achieve a lifetime's ambition by adding to the amenities already possessed by their houses, which are among the best-maintained in the United Kingdom.

The shortage of materials might be the deciding factor in carrying the completion of the discretionary grant works beyond the announced completion day. That is the fault neither of the builder nor of the owner-occupier. They are the victims of circumstances over which neither has control.

Another factor that merits consideration is that discretionary grant work might be completed to everyone's satisfaction by 23rd June but for a vital sewerage connection that cannot be made until after the completion date. That is the fault neither of the people concerned nor of the local authority, but it involves a cut of one-third in the discretionary grant. I cite a case in Cefn Road in the Llansamlet ward of my constituency. I am assured that the works will be completed by the nominated date but for a vital sewerage connection. I absolve the Swansea City Council from any blame. My constituents wish for a better phased-out completion process for the discretionary grant work than the chaos which has been caused by the Government's insistence that all the work must be completed by the nominated date. I have here a letter from the City Estate Agent to the constituents concerned which bears that out.

For an orderly planned phasing-out of work approved for a discretionary grant entitlement there should have been an announced date beyond which applications would not be accepted. The Tory Government have created in peoples' minds the belief that the application for and the award of a discretionary grant are the necessary preludes to house improvement, and the realisation later by many applicants that non-completion of the work by 23rd June will deprive them of one-third of the grant has hit them like a thunderclap.

I remind the Minister that finding another 25 per cent. of the moneys required for discretionary grant work is a vastly different matter from securing 50 per cent. of these moneys if the work is not completed when £1,000 is the value of the average current discretionary grant. For many people in Swansea and in Wales as a whole this is a tragedy. Many families will be affected, yet the Government are bereft of compassion.

Another factor which militates against an applicant meeting the deadline of 23rd June is when the builder to whom the applicant entrusts the work in all good faith to complete to proper standards takes on work which over-taxes his capacity. The Government have not thought out this scheme.

It is of vital importance that as many discretionary grant projects as possible be completed, in view of the tight mortgage position. That would be an insurance for the future against the ever-lengthening council house application lists. The owner-occupier believes as I do, that with remedial work the useful life of his well-built house will be extended for a considerable time. If there is no extension of the scheme beyond the announced completion date, in the next year or two houses will fall into decay and there will be more applications for council houses and mortgages and yet more pressure on local authorities to build council houses. Many people are unable to undertake the financial commitment of a mortgage because of the uncertain industrial and economic position of the country, for which the Government are fully to blame.

I draw the Minister's attention to paragraph 4 of a letter dated 14th December 1973, signed by Mr. T. Rees, from the Welsh Office to the Swansea City Council, which emphasises that the higher rate of grant was never intended to do more than give a short, sharp boost to house and area improvement in the development and intermediate areas. Bui the people of Wales wish to take more advantage of this facility, as is shown by the number of applicants.

I asked the right hon. and learned Gentleman for information, but in a painfully brief answer which was not entirely accurate he said that he was unable to give this information. I shall tell him. In the first half of 1973 16,839 dwellings were improved under the scheme. In 1972 a total of 27,923 houses were improved. This shows how much the scheme has been used and how valuable it is. The right hon. and learned Gentleman must bear full responsibility for housing affairs in Wales. The failure of the Government's housing programme is shown up by the desire that has been generated for the improvement of existing houses. In the first three months of this year only 648 public sector houses were started and only 788 completed. These figures are absolutely disgraceful.

This makes it all the more necessary for the Government to have a change of heart and grant an extension to the final date for applications. This would be a good insurance premium, reducing local authority housing lists and building expenditure while retaining in good repair houses which have shown a remarkable ability to withstand wind and weather. There are miles of terraced houses in Wales which could benefit.

In a letter dated 14th December and addressed to my city council it was stated that the Government were determined to concentrate resources in areas of the greatest need. I thought that the construction and maintenance of good buildings capable of withstanding the elements was a first priority. Perhaps I was wrong. The Welsh people have a good record of family life. They like to improve their homes. This would be a step in the right direction.

In a letter to the Welsh Office dated 12th December Swansea City Council requested special provisions for applicants unable to complete improvements before 23rd June. I support this without reservation as the Minister knows. Many local authorities in Wales hold a similar view. Earlier I requested information from the Minister, but before I asked for it I already had the answers. If brevity is the soul of wit the answers we received from the Welsh Office are indeed soulful.

Applications are being received in Swansea at the rate of 80 per month. Those in the initial stages, awaiting inspection, represent a total value of £110,000. Those applications pending approval, awaiting details from the applicants, represented a total value of £1,576,000.

About one-third of all applications may not be proceeded with for various reasons. Taking this into account, the applications total 2,600. Probably 1,180 applicants will be unable to complete the improvement works before the terminal date. There are also 1,000 applicants actively interested but unable to complete the work. If we take an average figure of £1,000 in grant and there are 2,180 applications in Swansea, it will be seen that this amounts to £2,180,000. If people fail to complete the necessary works in time the grant will be reduced from 75 per cent. to 50 per cent. The sum involved here is £726,000. This is a serious matter illustrating the great demand for a continuation of the scheme.

The Government have never apparently heard of the old adage about spoiling the ship for a ha'porth of tar. I commend the moral to them but perhaps I should not commend morality when allegations of immorality come from behind the Minister on other occasions.

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Thomas)

What does that mean?

Mr. George Thomas (Cardiff, West)

Ask Enoch.

Mr. McBride

Swansea City Council has approved 1,000 standard grants and made payments amounting to £79,600. This information could have been obtained as a result of my Written Question. But it was not. I am a realist. I accuse the Welsh Office of slothful ineptitude.

In a joint circular of 14th September the Secretary of State recommended that local authorities should pay careful regard to the capacity of builders. In paragraph 5 of that circular responsibility was unloaded on to the applicant. Coming from a Government who have shown an amazing ability for shunning responsibility, this was not an unpardonable sin but a necessity.

The figures for the award of improvement grants are thrown into bold relief if we look at the percentage income figures for Wales as at the end of 1972. A total of 9.7 per cent. of the population had incomes of less than £1,400, 22.8 per cent. had incomes of less than £1,600 and 47.3 per cent. had incomes of less than £2,000. The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows better than anyone else that Wales is a family nation. This scheme is a method of helping the family to maintain a good home. If an improvement grant is not given and a man is forced to take out a 25-year mortgage on another property he may well find difficulty in keeping up the payments. If he takes an extended repayment period he will be required to continue his payments for 57 years 2 months. Today's young people will be grandmothers and grandfathers in the next century before they have paid off their mortgages.

The alternative is to get grants to modernise and improve houses of this kind. In Wales, where houses are cheap, it is impossible to secure mortgages for these dwellings. It must not be forgotten than 61.8 per cent. of houses in the Principality are valued at £6,000 or less.

So it is that the Tory Government and the Secretary of State have a unique opportunity to undergo a change of heart and to provide for many people in Swansea and the Principality in general by giving them better housing tomorrow—which, after all, is what they promised—by extending the period from 23rd June, as public pressure demands. They can do it by passing another Housing (Amendment) Act. They have the opportunity. There is no reason for them to have an election to govern. What could they do better now when they have a majority than they could in the future?

This seems to be good sense at a time when builders are not rushing to tender for local authority house-building contracts, especially when the local authority house-building index has increased from 100 in the third quarter of 1970 to 180 in the second quarter of 1973 and when the Public Works Loan Board interest rate to local authorities varies between 12⅞ per cent. and 14¾ per cent.

All this throws into bold relief the necessity for an extension of the completion date for house improvement in Wales. There should be a less rigorous control of the improvement grant system, and the Secretary of State should make special provisions. I believe that applicants obtaining these grants should have a discretion extended to them after the announced date for the final receipt of applications so that work may be finished by 23rd June.

We live in a period when inflation, high prices, high rents and lowering living standards are described as "normal" by this Tory Government. However, the electorate may soon be asked to give their views, and it may be good electioneering if the Secretary of State announces that he will reconsider the possible extension of the period. I am sure that he is aware of the heavy ground-swell of opinion which favours this being done.

We are a family nation. The Secretary of State has been round the Principality and knows it to be self-evident that the people of Wales believe that the Government made a gross mistake in fixing the date at 23rd June. After all, he is a good politician who admits that he is wrong and redresses his error.

7.34 p.m.

Mr. Brynmor John (Pontypridd)

If the Secretary of State were emboldened to introduce new legislation to amend the Housing Act so as to extend the time of the improvement grant system, he could do it very quickly The Opposition would welcome it, and it could complete all its stages in a very short time, even though the Prime Minister may be poised on the starting blocks to run away from Britain's other problems.

In considering improvement grants we have first to identify the problem. In that connection perhaps I might quote a few statistics relating to the town of Pontypridd. The 1971 Census revealed that one house in every eight lacked hot water, that more than one in five had no bathroom, and that many still had outside toilets. In addition, in the case of houses which are owner-occupied or privately-rented, we find that houses which were built in the immediate aftermath of the war, when expectations in housing were lower and when materials were very much scarcer than they are today and with much better reason, need renewal and modernising to bring them up to standard by the addition of central heating, the installation of indoor toilets and so on.

It is clear that one of the most deprived classes of all is those occupying privately-rented homes. Unless there are improvement grants, there is no incentive for private landlords to modernise their property and make privately-rented accommodation tolerable for those who tenant it.

Privately-rented accommodation has declined as a percentage of the total housing stock every year this century. This is a hangover from the last century. Nevertheless, there are still many people in our valleys living in privately-rented accommodation who desperately want the standard of that accommodation made tolerable for them. As the improvement grant disappears, they see their hopes disappearing with it.

As regard owner-occupiers, we face the virtual collapse of the Government's housing policy. New housing starts are very much down. Completions are disastrous. Prices are escalating. There is every reason why the old terraced houses in our valleys should be preserved, modernised and made fit to live in in the 1970s. I ask the Secretary of State to bear in mind the one in five and the one in eight which have not got what we regard as decent facilities in a modern society.

Then I ask the Secretary of State to consider the councils. Many councils owning houses have embarked upon ambitious general improvement schemes. They have undertaken to put in central heating and to install such facilities as indoor toilets. They are half way through those schemes. Because of two factors to which I will refer in a moment, they are desperately worried that the artificial time limit now put upon the end of the scheme will penalise them heavily.

The two factors are these. First, because of the shortage of labour, it was becoming very difficult to get work done by the date set. Builders were overburdened by the volume of work that they found. Once an improvement grant was approved in principle, the work had to be done, and as a result people had long searches for builders to carry out the work.

The second factor is a new phenomenon. It is the chronic shortage of materials afflicting the building industry. Items like asbestos and chipboard are in very short supply, and the absence of them delays work which may already have been started.

In the Cowbridge rural district the local authority has embarked upon quite large renovations to its council housing stock. The absence of coal bunkers in order to move coal from one coal house which is being converted into a ready-made repository is causing a great deal of misery. It is causing work to hang round for much longer. It is causing disruption to householders whose lives are made a misery by the absence of materials, of labour and of quick completions.

It may be that the Secretary of State will say that he is not responsible for the shortage of labour and materials. However, it is an odd situation where a Government who come to power pledged to manage the economy better than any other in fact mismanage it to an even greater extent.

Granted that the Secretary of State has no responsibility for these shortfalls, he can help if he is willing to extend the time by which improvement grant works must be done so that they may continue without hardship staring many people in the face when they are denied the opportunity to modernise their homes. I ask the Secretary of State, in any new improvement grant system, to remedy two factors. I want to direct his mind to the future as much as to the present. The case for extending the time is overwhelming. I have never seen the justification for the date June 1974 which has been thrust upon us.

The first factor is that it should no longer be possible for a landlord or the owner of a house—certainly not a development company—to get improvement grants to renovate houses for sale, often moving out tenants for this purpose. This is particularly so in London, but it is not unknown anywhere else. They should not be allowed to effect improvements with the aid of improvement grants and then sell the houses at inflated prices.

The ability of local authorities to refuse to give improvement grants for second homes should be strengthened and underlined by the Welsh Office. I do not accept the Nationalist argument that the only owners of second homes are Englishmen who come across our borders. After all, many distinguished Welshmen, including the Chairman of the new Welsh Language Commission appointed by the Secretary of State, are second-home owners in Wales. Many Nationalists also have holiday homes. That is not an argument that I find attractive, but at a time of admitted stringency in public expenditure we have the right to prevent the expenditure of improvement grants on second holiday homes. The Secretary of State would do well to look at that matter closely.

The second factor is that the vast majority of builders who have carried out improvement grant work have done it pretty well. But a minority of unskilled jobbing builders without qualifications have entered this sphere. I can list horrifying examples in my constituency of people who come to do work which they leave half done, saying that they will be back tomorrow, but are back a month tomorrow after pressure. Their work is unsatisfactory. The wrong pipes are connected up, and so on, floors are uneven, and doors do not fit. Some builders, a minority, are incapable of reaching the desired standard of improvement grant work.

Therefore, I hope that in any extended scheme that the Secretary of State may announce in answer to the debate he will also announce that councils will be given a better system for licensing builders to carry out this work and a greater ability to intervene to see that the desired work is carried out. I ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman to accept that shoddy work of this kind, when people are expecting to transform older homes into new houses, causes great heartache. People have been driven to the verge of a nervous breakdown by the struggle to keep builders to their tasks. Therefore, I beg the Secretary of State to tell the House that he will extend the date for completion of improvement grant work and will continue a system which has been in operation since 1949 for the betterment of Wales as a positive contribution to the solution of our housing problems.

7.44 p.m.

Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydvil)

My hon. Friends the Members for Swansea, East (Mr. McBride) and Pontypridd (Mr. John) have referred to the practical problems that we hear about almost every Saturday morning in our surgeries.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd struck a chord in me when he spoke about the shoddy builder—the chap with whom one tries to get to grips and to whom one writes letters to which he does not reply. Such a man is not covered by the National House Builders' Registration Council as is a new house builder. When one goes to the weights and measures department one finds how inadequate are the powers to control the practices which are indulged in.

My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East put the debate in the context in which it ought to be taken—housing. There is no doubt that this winter we could face one of the worst housing crises in Wales for many years. I do not say that in any spirit of political partisanship. It emerges week after week from listening to people's housing problems.

During the last 18 months to two years the housing queue in my constituency has continued to grow. In my Saturday morning surgery I hear of many young married couples who are unable to obtain houses from the local authority or are unable to afford to buy one and improve it. The threat of homelessness or concealed forms of homelessness in Wales is extremely serious. It cannot be brushed aside by quoting and bandying about figures as the Minister of State has done periodically at Question Time. We must face this serious problem.

One form of concealed homelessness in Wales is what I call the "front room" family—the young married couple with perhaps a small child who have gone to live in the front room of their parents' home, usually a council house, creating overcrowding which leads to tension within the family, often the bust-up of the marriage, and one or other returning to his or her family. We have got not only a housing but a marital and domestic problem. I have heard this painful story many times in the last few months.

In 1972 and 1973 we witnessed the lowest council house building programme since the war. In those two years fewer council houses were built in Wales than in any year since 1946, the year after the war, with wartime shortages. It is an incredible situation.

The Government's defence has been that private house building has been making up for any shortfall in council house building. Whatever the figures over the past six or nine months have shown, I know from what people have reported to me that private house building in Wales is coming to a halt. House builders are not building. Indeed, some do not intend to complete houses that are half-built. The situation is disastrous. Council house building has fallen to its lowest figure since the war, and the alternative, private housing, which is not an alternative in most cases in our valley communities, is collapsing under the pressure of high interest rates and a mortgage famine.

In this context we should look closely at the withdrawal of the 75 per cent. improvement grant. It would be nonsense at this stage to withdraw it. My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd said that he could not understand the fixing of the date or the time conditions for the 75 per cent. grant. The grant was introduced originally because of high unemployment in the building industry together with the need for a rapid improvement in our housing stock. The reason for withdrawing the grant, according to Ministers who gave evidence before the Expenditure Committee, on which I was privileged to serve, was the overheated building and construction industries and the fact that during the last 12 months builders have not been available to do the work. That argument does not now stand. It looks as though the building and construction industries now face a deep recession with considerable unemployment. Therefore, the argument that the building industry is overheated is not valid.

Accepting the overheating argument, surely we should not impose artificial time limits for the completion of improvement work. It is not the fault of the owner-occupier who, in good faith, enters into an agreement with the local authority and a builder to complete works and pays for the improvements if he finds that the work cannot be completed by 23rd June 1974. The Expenditure Committee—an all-party Select Committee—recommended that authorities should have discretion to extend the deadline in all cases where work has begun but cannot be completed by the given date. What many householders in our areas face is the fact that on 24th June 1974 they will have to find an extra 25 per cent. of the price for improvements to their homes. That will be the effect of removing the grant on this arbitrary basis.

Our argument on improvement grants goes further. We see the improvement of older housing stock as a crucial part of any housing policy. We acknowledge the success of the 75 per cent. grant scheme, and we have come to plead the Government's policy for them. We have come to see this as a success story, and because of the backlog of work our contention is that this idea should be continued. The Government's fig-leaf is the housing White Paper by which they intend to replace the 75 per cent. grant by preferential grants in housing action areas aad in general improvement areas, but that is no answer to the problem. What is more, that was the conclusion of the all-party Select Committee on Expenditure.

In its Tenth Report, the Expenditure Committee said that the housing action area approach and discrimination in favour of giving improvement grants only to those houses inside general improvement areas would lead to a lot of tension and arguments. One area just outside a general improvement area would get a 50 per cent. grant, while a similar area, with similar problems, would get a 75 per cent. grant because it was inside a general improvement area. The Committee saw no case for that distinction.

The Committee's view was that whole areas such as those in South Wales should be treated on a similar basis. It said in paragraph 65 of its report: Equally the unified approach of GIA would cover too small an area. A sufficient solution would be a voluntary approach with a generous grant to aid the poorer owner-occupier. The Committee found that there was an overwhelming case for maintaining the preferential grant not for parts of a local authority, or for areas of a local authority which are almost impossible to define, but for whole regions, such as South Wales. That was the Select Committee's view, and it is a view that has been confirmed in all the evidence that has become available to us.

My hon. Friend referred to the 1971 Census. No one wants to deal in misery and difficulty. My hon. Friend referred to Pontypridd having one house in five without at least one major amenity. The figure for Merthyr is 30 per cent.—one-third of the total—without one of the major amenities, such as an indoor toilet, a bathroom, and so on. The problem is not confined to parts of the borough or to certain areas. It is a general problem in the valleys.

The idea of restricting preferential improvement grants to small defined areas such as general improvement areas or housing action areas which will be part of a local authority, or possibly the whole of a local authority area, is wrong and will not solve the problem. In my view, the Governments of both parties have adopted the right solution, which is to provide a strong inducement to get people to improve houses. The best value in housing in Wales is house improvement. The 75 per cent. grant scheme has proved a success, and it should be allowed to continue to operate.

But improvement grants should not be regarded as a substitute for new house building. At Question Time the Minister of State trots out figures for the number of improvement grants that have been applied for—it does not mean that the work has been completed ; merely that grants have been applied for—and says that they represent a marvellous success story for housing. The fact is that it is a sick joke in our areas where housing queues are growing and where the problem of homelessness is a serious threat to our valley communities.

A Bill could be rushed through in the next 24 hours—there would be all-party support for it—if the right hon. and learned Gentleman were to decide to alter this absurd deadline of June and extend the policy which both parties have supported, because house improvement is a major plank in any effort to solve the housing problems of Wales.

7.55 p.m.

Mr. Alec Jones (Rhondda, West)

I am sure that Opposition Members will appreciate my reason for drawing attention to the absence of certain hon. Members from the benches opposite. I refer in particular to the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Nicholas Edwards), who is well known for fallaciously drawing attention to the apparent—not actual—absence of Opposition Members. I say that in passing, knowing that my good words and felicitations will be conveyed to the appropriate quarter.

It is important that once again we should discuss this matter of improvement grants in Wales, and we are indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. McBride) for giving us the opportunity to do so. It is true that my hon. Friends accent is not quite Rhondda Valley, but it is equally true that he speaks with the sincerity and knowledge of a true son of Wales on these housing matters. The Secretary of State for Wales bears a heavy responsibility for the housing of the people of Wales, and it would pay him well on these occasions to listen to the true voice of Wales, whether it comes from Swansea, East, from Pontypridd, from Merthyr or from Rhondda, West.

I begin by referring to an answer given to me by the Minister of State. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is unwell and not able to be present. I am sure that the Secretary of State wishes that his hon. Friend were here so that he could take some of the burden off the right hon. and learned Gentleman's shoulders. The hon. Gentleman is becoming accustomed to carrying the burdens of the Secretary of State, and I am sure that our best wishes will be conveyed to the Minister of State.

In the reply to which I have referred the Minister of State said: Many young couples today look to our older housing stock to provide their first house, often taking the opportunity to improve their new home with the generous grants available.''—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 9th April 1973; Vol. 854, c. 910.] A truer statement was never made by the Minister of State, and the Opposition agree with everything that he said in that answer because there is a great dependence on improvement grants throughout Wales. There is a greater need than ever for generous improvement grants, and the Government should continue with at least the present 75 per cent. rate if the older housing stock of Wales is ever to be modernised.

It is important to consider the reasons why there is this tremendous dependence upon improvement grants in Wales. Why are we so dependent upon them? First, it is because in Wales there has been a catastrophic slump in council house building. That is not because councils do not want to build houses. In the main, it is because the present cost yardstick is totally unrealistic if councils are to build on the sites that are available.

The second reason why we depend on improvement grants is the fantastic rise in house prices. The statistics say that it is over 35 per cent. I remember what I paid for my terraced house in Tony-pandy. Similar houses to that for which I paid £1,300, which I thought exhorbitant, have risen in price to over £6.000. That is some indication of how even a typical Welsh valley terraced house has shot out of the reach of ordinary people in Wales. There is a massive increase in not only the price of older houses but the price of new houses. Some estate agents tell me that there has been a slight fall or steadying of prices recently, but from my observations in Rhondda it appears to me that even if that is so it is an insignificant movement. There is no indication that prices are returning to a reasonable level for the type of accommodation offered.

The third major calamity facing would-be house buyers in Wales is the rise in mortgage interest rates. If a young married couple manage to find a suitable house—which is not so easy—and if they are then fortunate enough to find a building society which is able to give them a mortgage, after making the calculations they find that the repayments required are far too high for them to contemplate. This affects not only new borrowers but existing borrowers, who thought that they knew the limits of their repayments. Borrowers find that mortgage repayments, instead of being an open sesame to home ownership at some time in the future, have now become millstones around their necks.

The Government cannot be absolved from blame for this problem. They published a pamphlet in 1970 entitled "A Better Tomorrow". It is a pamphlet which we shall use a great deal in the next few months. I am not sure whether it was a printer's error. "A Better Tomorrow" was the manifesto of the Conservative Party. On the subject of housing it says: The increase in the cost of new houses and the highest mortgage interest rates in our history have prevented thousands of young people from becoming owners of their own homes. All those thousands who must have been deprived under the Labour Government must be on their knees every night praying that the next Government will be a Labour Government and that the people who wrote that pamphlet will explain why all their vague and empty promises have been torn to shreds. The Government have failed to deal with rising house prices and mortgage interest rates. We now find that local authorities and people in housing need are being forced to depend on improvement grants as the only hope of having a house which is fit to live in.

It is fair that we spend some time examining how these grants are working, what changes are needed and what changes the Government propose. Until some divine inspiration comes from somewhere, we must assume that the present Parliament will continue. The longer it continues, the bigger the disaster ; nevertheless, that is how we must act. In trying to ascertain what changes are proposed by the Government we at least have the advantage—if it be an advantage—of Cmnd. 5339, entitled "Better Homes—The Next Priorities". I hope that they will be a lot better than the last priorities.

This White Paper was apparently a statement of Government intent. The Government refer to areas in Wales which are not subject to the same kind of concentrated housing stress characteristic of the worst areas in England but are nevertheless, for social and economic reasons, in need of special treatment to main-fain them as living communities". We are, therefore, looking forward this evening to hearing some news of special treatment so that the communities in Wales can be maintained as living communities. At the conclusion of that White Paper appears one of the Government's famous promises: Legislation to implement the proposals in this White Paper will be brought forward as quickly as practicable. I want to know how quickly is "quickly" and how possible is "possible". We are sure (hat tonight we shall be told of this special treatment to which the people of Wales can look forward—we shall welcome it with open arms—for the housing problems to be dealt with as quickly as is practicable.

We need legislation. The problem is urgent and it is growing. An indication of the extent of the growth of the housing problem in Wales is that in Rhondda just over two years ago there were about 200 people on the housing waiting list. There was no sudden influx of people into the valley, yet we find that our housing waiting list is now one of 1,500 people. Similar increases have occurred in Merthyr, Pontypridd, Newport and almost any part of the Principality. The housing need is greater now than at almost any time since the war. It is no good the Secretary of State for Wales having responsibility for housing in Wales if he acts only as a duplication of the measures taken to deal with the problem in the rest of the United Kingdom. The problems are not identical. There is no overall United Kingdom problem. There are many differences. We need a considerable degree of flexibility in fixing improvement grants to meet not only the different needs of England and Wales but the varying needs within different areas of Wales.

For evidence of this need one only has to turn to the 1971 Census. The percentages in each case may have changed slightly, but the proportion is roughly the same. Regarding households without hot water, without a fixed bath and without an inside water closet, in Penarth urban district there were only 14 per cent. of such houses. In Pontypridd urban district there were 32 per cent. In Porth-cawl there were 8½ per cent., and in Port Talbot there were 18 per cent. In my own borough of Rhondda the figure was 50 per cent.

It seems evident that if different areas have such variations, the improvement grant scheme must somehow be tailored to meet these differing needs. The 1971 Census shows—I accept that there were marginal improvements then—that in Rhondda 21.8 per cent. of the houses had no hot water, 36.7 per cent. of houses had no fixed bath or shower, and 44.9 per cent. had no inside toilet.

We talk about "one nation". That is a phrase of which we shall soon hear much, as we did in 1970. We talk of this mystical "one nation" which was to be created by the Conservatives. It is an obscenity that these housing conditions have to be tolerated today. Those percentages mean that up to 50 per cent. of Rhondda's housing has no hot water, fixed bath or inside toilet. They mean that 15,000 families lack basic amenities and parents are prevented from raising their families properly.

We want to improve the houses of both owner-occupiers and the council. In the last four years about 4,700 applications for grants have been received in Rhondda alone. But it is grant completions that matter, and not grant approvals. At the present rate of completions, if we approve 1 million grants tomorrow it would not improve the housing stock unless many of them were completed quickly. In Rhondda we have boosted our rate of completions to about 300 a year. That is as far as we can go unless there is a considerable increase in training facilities for workers in the building industry. That is something to which the Secretary of State must address his mind. At the same time he might look at the "lump" system and remind his right hon. Friends that it is time they did something about it. At the present rate it would take 50 years to bring all the homes in Rhondda up to a reasonable standard. The figures I quote are not mine and they are probably accurate to 01 per cent. No one can suggest that this is the time to reduce the 75 per cent. grant. It is absolutely essential that the June 23rd deadline this year be extended.

We have heard about the shortage of building materials, which means that many people who have started the work will be unable to complete it in time. Surely those who have started it and are delayed through no fault of their own should in accordance with the Select Committee recommendations be allowed an extension of the deadline. There are thousands of applications in the pipeline. Some of them have been approved, some are being considered and on others work has started. If these people fail to meet the deadline they will lose one-third of their grant and that will make it impossible for many of them to afford the improvements. Many of those who will be hit will be the elderly and those on the most modest incomes. If that happens there will be a hue and cry throughout the valleys at the unfairness that those who managed to jump in first were given 75 per cent. and that those who for financial or other reasons could not meet the deadline are to lose.

The fixed deadline puts considerable pressure on the applicants, the council and the builders to speed up the work. The applicant rushes in sometimes without the fullest consideration being given. The council, by speeding up its process as recommended by the Minister, merely crams more and more cases into the pipeline without any extra work being done.

The most worrying aspect is that builders are put under considerable pressure to speed up, and even the most respectable and most responsible of them is forced to cut corners. In addition, there are in South Wales large numbers of "cowboy" builders who flit in and out of the valleys and whose only interest is not in the quality of their work but in extracting as much money as possible. Every week I find cases arising which I never had to deal with before where these "cowboy" builders take part payment—sometimes they even get the full payment —and carry out completely unsatisfactory work. In such a situation not only is the owner-occupier forced to pay extra but there is a considerable waste of public funds.

There is a growing and considerable gap between the date of approval and the date of completion of work and that means that the grant lags behind the ultimate cost. In such cases the council should at least have the discretion to revise the grants to meet genuine increases in the cost of materials and possibly the cost of labour. I would have expected by now that the Government would have published their full intentions concerning changes in improvement grants.

If the deadline is not extended the Secretary of State will have failed in his duty towards the people of Wales. If the local authorities are to act fairly and sensibly they must be able to revise the grants, and the deadline must be extended if the people are to be properly housed. I hope that tonight the Secretary of State will not simply trot out the number of approvals and say that because the number is high everything is fine. I hope that he will give some reasonable answers.

8.16 p.m.

Mr. Donald Coleman (Neath)

I should like to draw attention to the absence of the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Nicholas Edwards). Normally I would not concern myself with the hon. Member's absences, but as a result of his political mischief just before Christmas I have been compelled to enter into a great deal of correspondence. I wonder about his absence tonight. It is certainly not because he is considering a request from my hon. Friend's for assistance with a problem in their constituencies, as was the case before Christmas.

The House is grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. McBride) for initiating the debate today. Like my hon. Friends the Members for Pontypridd (Mr. John), Merthyr Tydfil (Mr. Rowlands), and Rhondda, West (Mr. Alec Jones), my hon. Friend has clearly stated the problems which are to be found in South Wales. One theme has run clearly through the debate—the necessity for extending the deadline on these grants. If that is not done, considerable hardship will befall the people of South Wales.

I should like to underline one iniquitous feature of this operation. My hon. Friends the Members for Pontypridd and Rhondda, West have referred to the practice of some, though not all, builders. My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda, West called them "cowboys". I have to be a little more blunt. I call them crooks. These people are battening on to the elderly and the widows, taking money for work which they fail to complete and which they never intend to complete. These "cowboys" ignore the efforts of Members of Parliament, local councillors, council officials and others who try to get assistance to help those who are being rooked and cheated. I hope that the Secretary of State listened carefully to the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd for some form of licensing of those engaged in improvement work. I hope also that he will ensure that improvements continue. I hope that he will persuade his right hon. Friends to bring forward a measure which will extend the period in which the grants are available.

8.20 p.m.

Mr. George Thomas (Cardiff, West)

The Secretary of State has had a bad hour. If he has not had a bad time he must be more unfeeling than I thought he was. No one could listen to my hon. Friends without realising that we are debating a deep human problem.

The Secretary of State and the Minister of State—whose ill health I deplore and to whom I wish a speedy recovery—are lucky. They never have to sit in a surgery in Wales, they never have to face the sort of people we have been talking about, they never have to listen to the harrowing tales of good hardworking people who are asking only for a home of their own.

If speculation proves to be true, we are in the dying days of this Parliament. The mass media, at least, seem to believe that we are on the edge of a decision. The Prime Minister cannot keep playing with the country much longer. He must say that the election will be in the spring, or soldier on. If we are on the verge of an election, this is the right hon. and learned Gentleman's last chance to do something about the improvement grants about which my hon. Friends have spoken so effectively.

I have never believed that the Secretary of State is an unfeeling man. I have doubted his judgment, and experiance has proved how right I have been, but I have never doubted that his instincts are all right. It is to his feeling that I appeal. He is our mouthpiece in the Cabinet. There is no one else from Wales who can do this job. It is his job to see that the dateline for improvement grants is extended and to see that the 75 per cent. grant is kept.

It is not without significance that we have not heard a single appeal from the Government benches in support of the case made by my hon. Friends. I hope that the people in Pembrokeshire will get the message loud and clear that their hon. Member does not seem worried about improvement grants in that part of the world. He has not even looked into the Chamber. If he has, it was through a telescope. As for the Liberals, there is no one here from Montgomeryshire. The Welsh people have a right to know who are concerned about this issue. We had for a fleeting moment the presence of the new knight from Barry, but even the hon. Member for Barry (Sir R. Gower) lost interest after a moment or two. I share the universal pleasure at the hon. Gentleman's honour, but I do not want to say anything more on that question.

My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. McBride) has for a long time been responsible for campaigning on this question. He has been supported by my hon. Friends the Members for Merthyr Tydvil (Mr. Rowlands), Pontypridd (Mr. John), Rhondda, West (Mr. Alec Jones) and Neath (Mr. Coleman), who have participated in the debate. So far we have had nothing but stalling from the Government.

I know that the Secretary of State will be able to tell us in a moment how the figures for improvement grants have escalated, but the escalation started before the right hon. Gentleman took up his post. Our memory goes back just over three years, and so does the memory of any good Welshman. Why have the figures escalated? It is because the Welsh people are amongst the most house proud people in the world.

When my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda, West was talking about houses in the Rhondda without bathrooms, indoor toilets or hot and cold water, I thought of my own home in Tonypandy. I grew up in such a house. It was a good house. But in those days people were content to be without those amenities that today are regarded as normal. Existing good houses ought to be brought up to modern standards. It is to the credit of our people in Wales that they have taken advantage of the house improvement scheme in such large numbers.

But we all know that the people of Canton, in Cardiff, as well as Riverside and parts of Llandaff, will be unable to get the improvement work completed by next June. I hope that besides giving us a list of figures relating to the past, the Secretary of State will assure us about the future.

My hon Friends have appealed also—this is a major point—for flexibility in the grants. It is a patchy picture that the Principality presents. When I think of Llandaff, where most people are well housed compared with parts of Riverside and Canton, I see the inequality of it all. If politics means anything, it means that we are concerned with the quality of life of our people.

It is unfair for the Government to stick to the date and the figure they have given. We expect the Secretary of State, in the eleventh hour of this Government, to do the decent thing and extend the date. If he does not, he will be leaving the privilege for us, and we shall not be slow to take the opportunity.

8.29 p.m.

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Thomas)

The right hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. George Thomas) suggested that I have had a bad hour listening to the debate. I join issue with him on that. I have thoroughly enjoyed the debate, and I, too, pay tribute to the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. McBride) for having introduced the subject, which is very important to us in Wales.

The right hon. Gentleman very courteously, as I would expect, said how much he deplored the ill-health of my hon. Friend the Minister of State. I am happy to say that the indisposition from which my hon. Friend is suffering is purely temporary. I welcome the fact that it has given me the opportunity to take his place tonight.

I have another debate later, probably in the early hours of the morning, on housing in Wales. I look forward to the opportunity in that debate to reply to some of the points made in speeches in the present debate. I do not think that it would be right for me to enlarge this debate to the extent to which it could be enlarged.

It is true that, as the right hon. Gentleman said, I do not at present have to sit in a surgery in Wales, but he knows that I sat in surgeries in Wales and listened to complaints about the housing situation there between 1945 and 1951. I sat in a surgery in Wales when the Labour Government were returned in 1964 and inherited a very good housing situation. When I came into office in 1970 I found that local authority housing and the plans for local authority housing were declining. I am glad to say that approvals on tender by the Welsh Office for 1973 are twice as high as last year and higher than at any time since 1969.

The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydvil (Mr. Rowlands) mentioned private housing in Wales. When I took office in 1970 the figures for private housing were becoming alarming. There was a decline, and many of the builders referred to in this debate were suffering bankruptcy.

Mr. George Thomas

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that the average number of houses built during the period in office of the previous Labour Government was 19,000 a year, the highest ever since a public house-building programme began, and 40 per cent. higher than the average under the previous Tory administration?

Mr. Peter Thomas

We have had these discussions before. The right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that an incoming Government inherit the programme initiated several years before by their predecessors. His Government inherited a good, rising housing programme, and failed to carry out the programme in their manifesto. The right hon. Gentleman also knows perfectly well that I inherited a declining programme.

It is by the introduction of measures such as we have been discussing, including the increase in house improvement, that we have been able to give the people of Wales their present housing situation.

I shall refer to some of the points made by the hon. Member for Swansea, East. We are all anxious that we should exploit the encouraging climate which has developed in Wales as a result of house improvement policies initiated, I agree, by the Government of the right hon. Member for Cardiff, West in the 1969 Act and improved, as I have no doubt all hon. Members will accept, by the present Government in 1971. We must ensure that we preserve as many of the older houses as we can. We have always regarded house improvement as worthy of the highest priority. That is why we were determined to build upon the initial impetus which was achieved, I accept, by the Housing Act 1969. That is what we did in 1971.

The 1971 Act, which in effect we are now discussing, was designed to give an added boost to the assisted areas. The 75 per cent. was to be found just in the assisted areas. It was never intended, and it was never suggested, that it should be for an unlimited time. We set a time limit for the 1971 Act because we intended primarily to encourage private owners and local authorities to bring forward quickly extra house improvement work. For that reason we made it a condition, to which reference has been made, that a higher rate of grant would be given if the work was completed within two years from 23rd June 1971.

The results were dramatic. Right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned them. It was during 1972 that we recognised that the pressure to get work done by June 1973 had overloaded the local authority administration and, in some areas, the capacity of the building industry. Before this debate I read the Adjournment debate which was initiated by the hon. Member for Rhondda, West (Mr. Alec Jones) on that subject. It was for those reasons that we decided to introduce fresh legislation to extend the Act for one year to 23rd June 1974.

Mr. McBride rose——

Mr. Peter Thomas

In so doing we emphasised repeatedly that it was a once-and-for-all-extension.

Mr. Elystan Morgan (Cardigan) rose——

Mr. Peter Thomas

Ministers stressed the need for all concerned to press ahead as quickly as possible to derive the maximum advantage from the increased grants. Hon. Members will remember that a circular was issued at the time to all local authorities which made it clear that it was a once-and-for-all extension.

Mr. Morgan

I do not in any way deny that it was made clear at the time that the higher grant in the assisted areas would be for a limited period. Was it envisaged by the Government at that time that there would be such an acute housing shortage as now exists in Wales? When the Government set that time limit did they foresee that in 1973 there would be fewer houses built in the public sector than in any year since 1946? If they did not foresee those matters, does not that situation demand that the Government should reopen the question of that time limit which was imposed in 1972?

Mr. Peter Thomas

I think that the housing situation was well appreciated. It was not considered that the extension of the Act, which referred only to assisted areas, was the answer. It was considered necessary to have a housing policy to meet the real needs to which reference has been made. It was our intention that the 1971 Act should induce a short, sharp boost in house improvement capacity. That was successfully achieved. Labour Members have referred in glowing terms to the success of the Act. Indeed, if it were not successful they would not be asking for it to be continued.

Mr. McBride

I listened with interest to what the Secretary of State said about the Housing Act, passed in 1971 when there was overheating in the building industry. No doubt he will have read the article in the Local Government Chronicle which said that builders are not now rushing to tender for local authority houses. If the Government really want to deal with the problem and achieve success, why do they not remove the very things that debar success?

Mr. Peter Thomas

I see the hon. Gentleman's point, but there was no overheating in the building industry in 1971 when the Act was passed. Indeed, the Act was passed to meet the problem, and the idea was to give a boost to economic activity in the assisted areas.

I mentioned that the legislation had been a success. The current level of improvement activity in Wales has never been equalled. The hon. Member for Swansea, East asked me for some figures and said something about my figures being inaccurate.

Mr. McBride

No, I did not.

Mr. Peter Thomas

Perhaps I may have misunderstood the hon. Gentleman, but he may be interested in having those figures. Up to 1970 improvement grants awarded in Wales held steady at 7,000 to 8,000 a year. In 1972 the figure rose to 28,000, four times that number. Although I have not the final figures available, it is almost certain that in 1973 the number of improvement grants awarded will exceed 30,000. Of the 7,000 improvement grants awarded in Swansea since 1967, nearly 5,500 have occurred since 1971. The figure for Wales in the last three years for improvement grants amounts to nearly 70,000. This represents 70,000 houses rescued from their descent into unfitness, and means 70,000 families with higher standards of living. This is a policy which has been highly satisfactory and very encouraging.

The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydvil will say "Why not carry on with it?"

Mr. Rowlands

Why not?

Mr. Peter Thomas

And the hon. Member for Swansea, East will ask "Why not bring in another housing amendment Act?" Time and again we have made it clear that we cannot always work against deadlines. We must move on to a more coherent, long-term policy in respect of areas of older housing. This is what we propose to do. The Government are determined to tackle the problem that remains, but we are convinced that the right approach lies in being more selective than we have been in the past.

Our proposals have been published in a White Paper which the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydvil said we have used as a fig leaf ; the hon. Member for Rhondda, West (Mr. Alec Jones) also tried to pour scorn on the White Paper. But that White Paper describes a new range of measures designed to tackle the housing problems in those areas where living conditions are worst and to change the improvement grant system to benefit those whose needs are greatest. This surely should have the approval of those Welsh Labour Members who are present. [Interruption.] Reference was made to one of my Conservative colleagues being absent from this debate. I have a list of the majority of Welsh Labour Members who are absent from this debate.

The hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John) referred to the conditions in his area which he said were intolerable. The same sort of thing was said by the hon. Members for Rhondda, West, and Merthyr Tydvil. They all selected their own areas as being areas of great need, instead of referring to the 1971 Housing Act which, by reason of the changes made in assisted areas, applies to the whole of Wales. Throughout Wales one now thinks in terms of selecting areas of greatest need. The measures which were described in the White Paper centre upon a new concept of housing action areas, and, as hon. Gentlemen have mentioned, general improvement areas with preferential rates of grant.

Mr. Rowlands rose——

Mr. Peter Thomas

I am happy to give way for I appreciate that the hon. Member disagrees with this method, as he has already stated in the House, but in formulating these proposals the Government have had the advantage of consultation with local authority associations and other bodies, and, in particular, we have taken note of the views expressed in the Tenth Report of the Select Committee on Expenditure, of which the hon. Member is a distinguished member.

The hon. Member for Rhondda, West said that we must not in Wales just duplicate everything that happens in England, but if one looks at the White Paper one can see that that is not our intention and one can see that Wales has certain special problems which are recognised by the Government and mentioned by the Government. We are determined that these, with those identified in other parts of the United Kingdom, will be effectively dealt with by the proposed measures. We recognise that the problems arise particularly in those areas of Wales which are not subject to the same kind of concentrated housing stress characteristic of the worst areas of England but which are, nevertheless, for social and economic reasons, in need of special treatment to maintain them as living communities, as hon. Members have been urging they should be.

Mr. Rowlands

I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way. He is on an important, practical point of concern to all of us, but is he suggesting that under the White Paper a local authority should define all its area as a housing action area or just part of it? That is one of the issues on which the all-party Committee quarrelled with the Government.

Mr. Peter Thomas

A Government Bill will be published very shortly—it will be laid before the House shortly.

Mr. George Thomas


Mr. Peter Thomas

I cannot understand why right hon. and hon. Members keep talking about an election.

Mr. George Thomas

Someone ought to tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman.

Mr. Peter Thomas

I can only say that their anticipation of one has enlivened this debate, because we have probably heard from the hon. Member for Rhondda, West the first speech of an election.

It is the Government's belief that it is far more sensible to concentrate resources on those areas of special need than to apply them indiscriminately and less effectively over much wider areas, and legislation embodying the Government's proposals will be introduced shortly. It is clear that I, in this debate, am not able to anticipate that legislation.