HC Deb 13 November 1974 vol 881 cc381-6
2. Mr. Carter

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

9. Mr. Skinner

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what are the latest housing figures both public and private; and if he will make a statement.

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Anthony Crosland)

Up to the end of September 1974 the number of houses completed in the public sector in Great Britain was up by 13 per cent., houses started by 28 per cent. and houses put into contract by 35 per cent. compared with the same period of 1973. Comparable figures for the private sector show falls of 26 per cent. in completions and 52 per cent. in starts. I am deeply dissatisfied with these figures. Despite the rise in council house building and the much healthier flow of mortgages, the position is still highly unsatisfactory. I am urgently considering what further initiatives we might take.

Mr. Carter

I thank my right hon. Friend for that full reply. When I last put this matter to the Government before the Summer Recess, 30,000 people in Birmingham were on the waiting list. That figure, together with homelessness, overcrowding and broken families has now increased. Is there nothing that my right hon. Friend can offer in the short term to cities like Birmingham which are probably facing their worst housing crisis since the immediate post-war period?

Mr. Crosland

I accept everything that my hon. Friend said. His description could of course be applied to many other towns and cities. We took urgent action in two directions, by the £350 million made available to local authorities under Circular 70/74 and also by the loan to the building societies. I am certain that further action is needed and I would greatly welcome any suggestions from any hon. Member on this score.

Mrs. Knight

Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that perhaps the worst area of need in housing is of persons who have been isolated by redevelopment programmes and have been left quite alone or with only a few neighbours in an area which has been demolished? These people are plagued not only with vandals but with rats and other nuisances. Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that persons in this unhappy situation are put at the top of the priority list for rehousing?

Mr. Crosland

I think that the category described by the hon. Member is certainly one of the worst. Whether it is the worst is a matter we could discuss. My view, which I have constantly expressed, is that part of the problem arises because over the last 20 years there has been too much clearance and too much demolition. However, we face an overall housing problem of the greatest severity and we cannot look at only one aspect of it.

Mr. Beith

One of the least noticed but very bad features of the Housing Finance Act was the way in which it starved local authorities of finance for council house building. In rural areas particularly it is imperative that we move very quickly on this.

Mr. Crosland

I am aware of that effect of the Act but I do not want to single out rural areas. The entire housing programme, rural and urban, is in need of greater resources than it has now, despite the substantial enlargement this year of the financial resources available to it.

Mr. Mike Thomas

As well as house building, the revitalisation of old houses is important. Will my right hon. Friend say what progress his hon. Friend the Minister has made in the discussions he has had with Newcastle City Council about its proposals and the application of those proposals to the national problem?

Mr. Crosland

I understand that my hon. Friend has been to Newcastle and is now awaiting further reports from the council. Of course I strongly agree with my hon. Friend on his general point. Another disturbing element in the total housing picture which we are watching carefully is the sharp decline—sharper even than had been expected—in the number of improvement grants.

Dr. Hampson

Hon. Members who asked the Department for further information after hearing the right hon. Gentleman's speech calling for quicker and easier new means of housebuilding were sent an advertising circular from Blue bird Homes. Does this imply a commitment by the Department to a programme of using these prefabricated units?

Mr. Crosland

No, Sir. I have no idea what the communication was, so I shall be happy to look at the matter. There is no commitment to use any particular type of system or any other kind of building. The object of my speech was to raise for urgent and open public debate the question of whether we should be prepared to use unorthodox methods to build more houses more quickly and more cheaply.

Mr. Skinner

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have been informed that the Question which I tabled, Question No. 9, has been coupled with Question No. 2 [HON. MEMBERS: "Too late."] I was not late for Question No. 9. I came into the Chamber in the belief that Question No. 9 would be taken in its usual order and I assumed that I would be called to put a supplementary question.

Mr. Speaker

I have no intention of ever calling an hon. Member to put a supplementary question to a Minister's answer that the hon. Member has not heard.

8. Mr. Michael Latham

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment by what percentage private house building starts in Great Britain declined in the period June to August 1974 compared with (a) the previous three months and (b) the equivalent period in 1973.

The Minister for Housing and Construction (Mr. Reginald Freeson)

Total private housing starts in Great Britain in the period June to August 1974 were lower than starts in the periods March to May 1974 and June to August 1973 by 12 per cent. and 51 per cent. respectively, allowing for seasonal adjustments.

Mr. Latham

In view of those disastrous figures, which have become worse since August, why did the Minister say publicly in both August and October that the recession in private house building had at last been ended?

Mr. Freeson

I cannot be responsible for what appears in the headlines of newspaper reports. What I said then, and repeat now, is that after the most disastrous collapse in private house building and in the public sector that this country has seen for many years, which we inherited on coming to power, there are clear signs of a levelling out. But we have a long way to go to get back even to the unsatisfactory levels of one or two years ago in the total house building effort, private and public.

Mr. Skinner

Does my hon. Friend realise that if he wants to build more houses it is not sufficient to be constantly talking about it at conferences and so on but that we need to divert resources? Does he recall that in 1966–67 the reason why we had the biggest housing boom in this country was not that we were saying so but that we diverted resources from office block building? Will my hon. Friend now adopt the same posture and stop the building of the Channel Tunnel, saving cement and other resources in the process? Will he stop the building of marinas on the South-East coast? Will he divert resources—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman has already asked about three questions. He must not be so selfish. He must realise that he is taking up the time of other hon. Members. He is being very selfish.

Mr. Freeson

Certain of the points my hon. Friend raised are the subject of later Questions. On my hon. Friend's central point, however, I agree that there is a need to divert resources into more socially necessary expenditure, particularly on housing. We have embarked on that course in the past year by totals of hundreds of millions of pounds worth of resources, and we intend to continue along that road.

Mr. Scott

First, I apologise for the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon), who I think has written to the Secretary of State about his absence. The disastrous decline in house building reported to the House this afternoon is compounded by a further decline in the amount of improvement grants. What do the Government intend to do to reverse that trend?

Mr. Freeson

The biggest single cutback in improvements follows in the wake of the cut-off in June this year under the Housing Act 1971, which was the responsibility of the last Government but one, the Government formed by the hon. Gentleman's party. There are other reasons. The introduction of the Housing Act 1974 has resulted in a holding back of applications. We are in touch with local authorities and others involved to try to encourage the placing of applications even before the Act is implemented, so that there may be a steady build-up of applications being dealt with in the months and years ahead.