§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 7.0 p.m.
§ Mr. Ted Graham (Edmonton)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Representing as I do a London constituency, it is with a great deal of pleasure that I move the Second Reading of the Bill on behalf of the promoters. From time to time there is argument about whether the procedure by which we manage the money matters of such a large authority as the Greater London Council is a proper procedure, but hon. Members will know that the procedure has been the same for more than a hundred years.
The London Government Act 1963 lays upon the House the duty to have presented to it, thereafter to debate if necessary and then to approve the sums of money which have already been approved by the GLC and the inner London Education Authority. As always, the sums of money which we are considering tonight are for a 12-month period from April 1975 and for a further six months thereafter. Unless the sums which have already been agreed by the GLC and the ILEA are approved, serious consequences, if not catastrophe, will fall upon London and Londoners in September.
I stress that the global sums which appear in the estimates are sums which the authority contemplates will be required. The estimates have been carefully considered and pruned. They have been drawn up by the respective authorities and are presented to the House by the GLC. They are estimates of the money which the authorities expect to require for the provision of services and the performance of duties which have been entrusted to the GLC and ILEA by Parliament. Apart perhaps from arguments on one or two issues, we have little choice but to go through the procedure and accept the duty that has been laid upon us by Parliament.
The moneys are required to be raised not only directly for the use of the GLC and the ILEA but also for the use of other public authorities and for authorised purposes such as housing associations and 803 individuals in accordance with the Housing Acts. The purposes for which the money is required are specified in the Bill, and I shall briefly go through those purposes to refresh the memory of hon. Members.
The first main purpose is concerned with improving and acquiring refuse disposal plants and depots. I am sure that all hon. Members will regard that as a worthwhile purpose. The GLC plans envisage that by 1985 substantial overall improvements will have been made in the provision of depots and plant. I am advised that during the period we are discussing improvements are contemplated at Barnet, Bromley, Greenwich, Hillingdon, Hounslow, Kingston, Newham and Sutton. Compared with the previous year, the uplift is from £2,250,000 to £4,200,000. I am sure that hon. Members will agree that that is a modest uplift, in the light of inflation, and that the money will be well spent.
The estimates for road building and improvement show an uplift from £5,100,000 to £13,735,000. That is a substantial sum, but more than £3 million of it is for compensation and noise insulation works stemming from the Land Compensation Act 1973. I am sure that no one will cavil at money being raised for that purpose.
The Fire Service is a vitally necessary public service for all people who live in Greater London. The money is required for new sites at Upper Thames Street and Beckenham, the replacement of obsolete buildings, specialist appliances and improvements in the communications system. The uplift is from £680,000 to £1,100,000.
Next come the judicial services. The money is required for new court houses and probation offices at Merton, Enfield, Croydon, Newham, and Ealing, and for hostels for the rehabilitation of offenders. There is an uplift from £1,100,000 to £2,200,000—again modest sums for a worthwhile public service.
The items which relate to flood prevention will be of interest to the House. By 1973 London's interim defences against floods which cause damage to property and loss of life had been completed. In accordance with the Thames Barrier and Flood Prevention Act 1972, the GLC is engaged on a major scheme 804 involving the building of a Thames barrier at Silvertown with associated permanent bank raising. That work is now proceeding, and the uplift in respect of flood prevention is from £8 million to £13 million.
The estimates include contingency items, and this money will eventually be used for loans or assistance to the London boroughs, London Transport Executive, the Lea Valley regional park, housing associations and individuals. The uplift there is from £115 million to £125 million. For the moment I will not deal with the items in the estimates which relate directly to housing because they will be more properly explored later in the debate.
I conclude my presentation of the estimates by referring to the overall picture. The GLC does not escape the effect of general inflation on its costs, its ambitions and its programmes. The spiralling costs which it has had to bear and the increase in its wages bills show that the GLC is a creature of our time and, on occasions, of the will of the Government, which in effect is the will of Parliament. Many of the works that the GLC carries out are taken on at the behest, and sometimes on the instructions, of Parliament, and they put into operation vital Government policies. The recent Budget will undoubtedly impose further costs on the GLC.
The global sum indicates that the total uplift—despite inflation, the extension of services and the determination to provide sound value for money—has increased from £820 million to only £868 million. I believe that this is a modest uplift and that failure to secure the passage of the Bill tonight cannot but bring hardship not only to London but to the Londoners whom all hon. Members present serve. Therefore, I have great pleasure in moving the Second Reading of the Bill.
§ 7.10 p.m.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Graham) on his debut as the spokesman for the Greater London Council (Money) Bill. This is clearly a pleasant departure from tradition, although it is interesting that Enfield appears to have had a lion's share of presenting the Bills, because the Greater London Council (General Powers) Bill 805 was presented most eloquently by one of the hon. Gentleman's colleagues. [Interruption.] The mantle may fall on the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved), although I doubt it.
I can put the hon. Member for Edmonton out of his uncertainty by saying that it is not the intention of Conservative Members to oppose the Second Reading of the Bill. We shall adopt a posture, similar to that which we adopted last year, of confining our criticism to particular aspects set out in the Instruction on the Order Paper.
I want to say a little about the Bill as a whole. It is obviously virtually impossible either for the hon. Gentleman or for any other hon. Member to give the detailed consideration to the Money Bill that Parliament should give when it is considering facilitating the expenditure by any local authority of this sum of money. I say now, and I shall say later, that the Greater London Council must be on notice that sooner or later it will have to conform to the rest of local government in this country and not have the privileged position of presenting its own Money Bill, which takes up parliamentary time. Moreover. very few of us are in a position to scrutinise the Bill in any sensible detail, because we have not been present at the chairmen's meetings which worked out the amounts. I have said from both sides of the Chamber that the sooner Parliament ceases to be a rubber stamp in this form, the better it will be for Parliament. It may present more problems for the Greater London Council, but it will, I hope, have other problems to contend with at a later stage.
I should like to say what an extremely helpful statement the House has had from Mr. Harold Wilson. Mr. Wilson should be congratulated on the detailed statement that he has submitted to us showing what the Greater London Council intends to do with the money, should it be granted to it. I think it is likely to get most of that money. The way that the statement has been set out is a model to any local authority. I am sure that the House would not wish the occasion to pass without saying that this statement, at least, has made its task somewhat easier.
The House is entitled to expect the Greater London Council to conform to 806 the wishes of Governments, irrespective of their parties, and where there is a national financial problem the Greater London Council, more rather than less, should frame its estimates in the light of the national financial situation. I say more rather than less because the GLC is coming to Parliament for blanket approval whereas local authorities have to go through a far more tortuous process.
Having looked through the Money Bill in as much detail as possible, I am not completely certain whether the Greater London Council can say not that every item in the Bill is desirable but that it is essential. There are many things which all of us in our local government reincarnations think are highly desirable, but there are times when they cannot be called essential, especially when the ratepayers of London have had the swingeing increase of 79 per cent. That point was rather well avoided by the hon. Member for Edmonton, who merely spoke of the amount of money that the Greater London Council was asking for by way of capital. However, the ratepayers have had the swingeing burden of 79 per cent. on top of 80 per cent. last year. Perhaps it is a pity that Greater London is not being given the chance of deciding matters today at the polls, as the metropolitan districts are, because otherwise there would have been no need for Dr. Haseler to resign—he would have found himself out, anyway.
The hon. Member for Edmonton must remember that eventually the sums which the GLC is asking for by way of capital will have to be repaid through the rates, and none of us knows what the rate of interest is likely to be. Certainly the home loan borrowers from the Greater London Council have been badly let down by the Minister, whom I am glad to see present. Building societies and those who borrow from them are being helped but, despite the protestations that the Minister is doing all he can, it is not a very good "can". Those who are borrowing from the Greater London Council, and many other local authorities, are paying substantially more than those who are borrowing from building societies.
§ The Minister for Housing and Construction (Mr. Reginald Freeson)
Would hon. Gentleman care to develop the point that he is making? Is he suggesting that 807 more public money should be made available for this purpose?
§ Mr. Finsberg
It is for the Government, who made their pledge on which they say they won the election, to say why they have reneged on their pledge. Certainly it is not for the Opposition to say how they would do it, when they do not know how much money is left in the till after many people have got their hands on it and spent it rather rashly. When the time comes, the hon. Gentleman may expect a very clear statement from my right hon. Friend and others.
§ Mr. Finsberg
It is up to the hon. Gentleman. If he would like to advise the other Mr. H. W.—the Prime Minister—to seek a dissolution, he might get an early answer.
I turn now to the Bill itself. Looking at paragraph 5 of the statement which was circulated to us by the Greater London Council, I am not completely convinced that every single item in the estimates was scrutinised as carefully as I believe it should have been. As I said earlier, I do not know how the House can give a detailed judgment on this. I merely enter the caveat that I am not certain that the estimates have been looked at pro-properly. I do not know whether the House can tell that the Greater London Council budget is well or badly balanced, whether it has got the right or wrong priorities, whether there is enough emphasis on value for money—I doubt it—and whether there is too much emphasis upon the pursuit of Socialist dogma. I shall be developing later some of the statements made by the resigning chairmen, which certainly indicate that Socialist dogma has played a very important part—more important than priorities when one considers the ratepayers.
Surely a better, politically balanced budget would be smaller? Surely too much emphasis has been placed on subsidies and not enough on investment? If the Greater London Council had a politically balanced budget, it would help to reduce public sector expenditure borrowing requirements and achieve better social benefits.
As I have indicated, on the broad canvas of the Bill the Opposition do not 808 intend to oppose the need for the Greater London Council to have this money. Later we shall be asking for certain alterations. But the whole House—under either Government; and Ministers must have been equally embarrassed—is not able to have the full facts of the Greater London Council thinking—if there is any—on the make-up of the Money Bill.
For all those reasons we shall allow the Second Reading to go by, but the Greater London Council must at some stage expect a more difficult passage. I hope that the time will come when it will not be able to have such an easy ride as this House in the end has to give it, because the House cannot—as the hon. Member said in his penultimate words—in the end take the responsibility of withholding from the Greater London Council the money it needs. In my view the method is wrong, and the sooner it is changed the better.
§ 7.20 p.m.
§ Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)
The last time a GLC Bill was before us just six weeks ago—the General Powers Bill—I severely criticised the GLC's housing mangement for its incompetence and administrative inefficiency. I do not take back a word of what I said them. Indeed, I have a few words to add. Many of the complaints which I made then, in general and about particular cases, I could reiterate today. I could say that not a thing has been done about many of the individual cases since I raised them in the House six weeks ago.
I make no apology for referring to individual cases. In particular, some of my constituents on the Bemerton Estate in South Islington are still suffering a severe danger to public health through the failure of the GLC office to deal with the problem of sewage which is coming up through their kitchen sinks. I make no apology for going from the high finance of the hon. Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg) to the sewage coming up through the kitchen sinks, because a local authority which cannot stop that happening probably makes a muck of other things as well.
The GLC had better get that fixed really quickly, otherwise I shall take more direct action than raising it here in the House. The GLC officials who are listening to the debate will recognise the case 809 I am talking about. I seriously considered trying to block the passage of this Bill. At the end of my speech on 13th March I said:I intend to use the next opportunity when a GLC Bill comes before the House not just to require that it should be debated but to do my very best to ensure that it does not pass until there is a reduction in this kind of grievance."— [Official Report, 13th March 1975; Vol. 888, c. 912.]There has been no reduction in that kind of grievance. The most serious of the grievances that I mentioned then have not been dealt with. My request to pay a visit to what I hope must be the most incompetent of the GLC's housing management offices, that in Chalton Street, not only has not been dealt with but has been totally ignored. The request was made in a letter dated 18th March, shortly after our previous debate.
If my vote is needed to pass the Bill tonight, it will not be available. Unfortunately it will not be needed on this occasion, but there will be other occasions.
It is not right that the GLC, which depends upon the House for the passage of this kind of legislation, should deal with the specific complaints of hon. Members in this way. The hon. Member for Hampstead said that it was untidy, illogical and altogether unsatisfactory that the GLC alone among local authorities had to come to the House, usually twice a year, with this kind of Bill. Of course it is unsatisfactory, but as long as there are thousands of my tenants suffering from the administrative incompetence of the GLC I should prefer it to have to come to the House, so that I have an opportunity at least to air those grievances and, in the not-too-distant future, to do something more than simply to air them.
I want to raise two other issues which I believe are relevant to the Bill, which contains provision for providing money for housing associations. My point relates to the rents which housing associations are required to charge because they have received assistance from public authorities. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Minister responsible for that subject as well as for dealing with the GLC is present.
As a general rule, housing associations in receipt of public assistance in that way 810 are required to charge fair rents. My understanding, confirmed in a letter from my hon. Friend the other week, is that a housing association is required by the Department to charge fair rents in respect of any dwellings for which it has received housing association grants. I believe, however, that many associations think that they are required to charge fair rents for other dwellings as well. I hope that the Department of the Environment will clear up the point. There is a discrepancy between the Housing Act 1974, which is in very general terms, giving power to the Minister to take decisions, and, on the one hand, the circular issued by the Department, which creates the impression that housing associations must charge fair rents for all their dwellings, and, on the other hand, the letter I received from my hon. Friend, which seems to make it clear that they are required to charge fair rents only in respect of those individual dwellings which have been the beneficiary of housing grant.
I believe that many tenants are paying fair rents unnecessarily. I think particularly of the tenants of the old-fashioned housing trusts, which frequently did not borrow money to build but saved it until they had enough to build without borrowing. For the purposes of balancing their books, housing associations do not need to charge fair rents, but some of them think that there is a technical obligation to do so and, as a result, they are charging higher rents than would otherwise be necessary.
I also question whether it is right for my hon. Friend to use his powers to require fair rents to be collected at all. A fair rent is one which should generate a slight profit, a rent appropriate to a private landlord. Therefore, in the case of a housing association, which should not make a profit, there should be a provision that it charges fair rents minus X, X being the deemed profit element. I saw my hon. Friend's little smile when I said that, and I know he may say that fair rents do not generate a profit. That entirely depends on what the owner paid for the place. He should have paid such a price as will generate a profit with a fair rent.
The second subject I want to mention is the London rate equalisation scheme. 811 Unfortunately, when the subject is discussed there are nearly always a majority of outer London representatives present, as there are tonight. There is a severe difference of interest on the subject between inner London and outer London Members. It is our money that the others are taking from us. The inner London case is not sufficiently often put, and it is usually unsuccessful when it is put.
Hon. Members may have great difficulty in laying hands on a copy of the current London rate equalisation scheme. I am not sure that it can be done. So far as I know, it is not published in any readily available document My hon. Friend is authorised by the London Government to make such a scheme. I under stand that it is mandatory. It is not something that the London boroughs are free to reject. But it is very difficult to lay hands on the details of the scheme.
In the past couple of years a great change has been made in the scheme, with the result that there is now a simple shift from the inner London boroughs, those covered by the ILEA area, to the outer London boroughs. The inner London boroughs now pay over the equivalent of a 2½p rate to the outer London boroughs. The result is that my very deprived and needy borough of Islington is paying over money to Bexley, Richmond, Croydon and so on, a situation which on the face of it seems to be highly questionable. I thought I saw the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) denying that. If he wishes to set me on the right path. I shall give way to him.
§ Sir George Young (Ealing, Acton)
If the hon. Gentleman says that his constituents in Islington are subsidising my constituents in Ealing, he is very much mistaken.
§ Mr. Cunningham
The hon. Gentleman will perhaps agree with me if I put the case more factually. There is a transfer of money from the ILEA boroughs to the outer London boroughs. That is expressed as the equivalent of a 2½p rate.To give an example, in the case of Islington that means about £1 million. That amount will go into the pool from Islington and will be distributed among the outer London boroughs according to 812 a formula which takes account of deficiencies.
§ Mr. Norman Tebbit (Chingford)
As a Member of Parliament representing a London borough which is technically outer but stretches virtually to the inner city—Waltham Forest—I have a certain amount of sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman says. Would he not be more accurate, however, if he said that it was primarily the ratepayers in the City of London rather than those living in Islington who were providing this money? My constituents, rather than those of the hon. Gentleman, provide the money which moves out.
§ Mr. Cunningham
Let us take it a step at a time. The transfer is from the inner London boroughs as such. The hon. Gentleman says that there is another consideration which makes up for that which I have mentioned. A subsidy—in the case of Islington, £1 million—goes to the outer London boroughs. There is a slight preference for those outer London boroughs which have inner London characteristics. I think that four of those receive an especially high allocation of such funds. On the face of it, it is preposterous that a borough such as Islington should contribute to Richmond, Bexley and Croydon.
The justification that is advanced for this otherwise incredible arrangement is that the inner London boroughs, simply because they are in ILEA, have the advantage of having their education costs, which form a large part of local authority costs, subsidised by the extremely high rateable values of the city of Westminster and others. The city of Westminster forms a large part of this.
In this country there is a system whereby we charge a rate over the whole of the area which the authority covers, while the GLC precepts, the ILEA precepts and the Home Office precepts for the Metropolitan Police also cover that area. That is odd because all those areas are different. If we had started from scratch, we would never have devised such a scheme. As long as we have such a scheme, however, the natural course is that ILEA should spread the burden of its costs according to rateable values throughout its area, which is exactly what happens now.
813 We do not argue that Finsbury is subsidising the rest of the borough, although in a sense it is, because the rateable values are higher there. We say that because they are all within one borough we must apply the rate equally to the rate values in the whole area, and that we must do the same with ILEA, with the GLC and with the Home Office police precept. I see no case for applying those rates and precepts and saying "This produces a distorted situation which would not exist if ILEA did not exist and, therefore, we shall take money from the inner London boroughs and give it to the outer London boroughs". After all, we in the inner London areas have high rateable values compared with the outer London boroughs. But, my God, we have problems which are out of keeping with those of the outer London boroughs.
The needs element does not take account of the great needs which are concentrated in the inner London boroughs. I therefore hope that by next year the inner London boroughs will come together and will argue that there is no need in future for any London rate equalisation scheme. The rate equalisation needs element and the like is a job for the rate support grant. Perhaps the Layfield Committee will come up with a much better way of doing all this. Let us therefore wait for Layfield. I do not think that there is any case for anticipating that by adding to a national scheme of transfers another one especially directed to London, which takes account of different resources but does not take account of the different needs of the various London boroughs.
§ 7.35 p.m.
§ Mr. Neil Macfarlane (Sutton and Cheam)
Many of the items listed by the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Graham) when he proposed the acceptance of this Bill this evening are correct. However, there are certain aspects which the hon. Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg) highlighted, which we seek to amend.
There is one stark feature in tonight's debate which affects all Members of Parliament representing the greater London area. I say that because that is against a backcloth that London is in a deep financial crisis. I do not believe that any hon. 814 Member seriously doubts that that is, alas, the unfortunate situation. Some of the serious aspects will have to be discussed at some length, perhaps outside this Chamber. But at the moment I think it is right that we should discuss some of the problems which exist and which I believe will cause many problems to the Secretary of State for the Environment, to the Treasury and to every person living in this capital city.
This Greater London Council (Money) Bill is the annual ritual by which Parliament authorises GLC expenditure without the need to obtain ministerial consent on each occasion. I think that perhaps the London Government Act 1963 requires amending urgently so that the Government can begin to play a far more executive role in the needs of London. I hope that London will be worthy, in view of the traumatic events of the moment, of the title of the greatest capital city in the world. It has held that title for a long time. However, I believe that all hon. Members must be concerned at the warning signs.
I suppose it is not outrageous to say that London could become another New York—in other words, flat broke, seemingly ungovernable and perhaps the graveyard of several ambitious politicians currently working there.
I should like to see the Department of the Environment take over direct responsibility for London, and with these huge amounts of money which are currently to be voted. The Treasury must take a closer look at this if public expenditure is to be seriously cut, which is obviously what the Chancellor is keen to see. I do not believe that the Evening Standard banner of Wednesday 23rd April was an exaggerated piece of journalism when it saidLondon on the Rocks—Housing, Transport in deep trouble—Rates, Rents and Fares Crisis".That kind of headline reflects the seriousness of the situation in London in 1975. It reflects the 20 per cent. inflation growth rate experienced by this country. It has produced a marked growth of consternation amongst our constituents and throughout all the London boroughs. There is an appalling scene when we see the lengthy list of items which create a loss-making situation for the taxpayers in the past financial year.
815 Looking at the system of fares, in this financial year the Greater London Council is spending £79 million from the rates on keeping fares down, in addition to a £53 million Government subsidy. There can be no doubt that last year's window-dressing between the February and October General Elections, when a freeze on fares was ordered, was largely responsible for the near financial disaster. With inflation running at 20 per cent., it is likely that after the county elections taking place today fares will be increased substantially. Despite the massive injection of ratepayers' money to subsidise the low fare policy, last year's deficit ended a run of four years of profit making.
As regards housing, it is likely that council housing rents must be doubled over the next two to three years. However, the serious argument which I hope will be answered by the Minister this evening is "Why does the GLC accept the huge rent arrears of council house dwellers?" We understand that in March of this year 69,000 council house dwellers owed the massive sum of £2,216,000, so that the responsible occupants of council houses who pay their rents and rates regularly pay for those irresponsible people to take a free ride. In April 1973, when Labour took control of the Greater London Council, rent arrears totalled £900,000. Once again it looks as if last year's election window-dressing held back normal rent increases. What is more, the Labour majority on the GLC knows this to be the case, and that is one of the reasons for the recent spate of resignations and sackings which have plunged London into further turmoil.
Apart from hitting the cash flow of the GLC, these huge rent arrears prevent other council housing development plans proceeding, and in some respects it affects the programme for building new homes. At the moment, we know that the GLC could build some 50,000 homes. It has enough land. But it is building only 5,000 a year. Yet this year the council intends to spend £69 million on the acquisition of private dwellings, which is a massive wasted programme of municipalisation. The £69 million is broken down into £30 million on new property and £39 million on existing property.
816 The other day I received from a constituent of mine a copy of a letter which he had received from Mr. A. D. Collins, the Director of the Valuation and Estates Department at County Hall. The letter is addressed to "The Owner". It reads:Dear Sir/Madam, as you will no doubt be aware, this Council has purchased Sutton Court, Beauclere House and the sites of numbers 6 and 8 Cedars Road and consideration is now being given to the redevelopment of part of this land.I should be glad to know whether you would be interested in selling your property to the Council. In the circumstances, if you care to appoint a surveyor to act for you and agreement is reached with him resulting in the sale of your interest to the Council, in addition to the open market value of the property, you would be paid a surveyor's fee in accordance with Table 5(a) of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors' Scale of Professional Charges, together with other items of claim which would normally arise from a compulsory acquisition.Perhaps I may have your views at your early convenience.This is the kind of profligacy which is going on at the moment. It is municipalisation for political dogma, and it is one of the reasons why we have to discuss these matters in open debate tonight. There is no doubt that the ratepayers of Greater London are angered by the profligacy being perpetrated by the Labour leaders of the GLC.
Only on Wednesday I heard the Deputy Leader of the GLC urging that the nation should have another festival based on the 1951 Festival of Britain. In principle, it would be a good idea to put the nation on show. However, at present there is not a great deal to crow about, and I hope that Mr. Harrington and his colleagues are not deluding themselves that London would be the best place for such a festival and that they would be the best people to organise it. If they are the result will be even more financial chaos than we have at present.
We have the deepest crisis of all time affecting our capital city, and it must be understood by the Labour Government that they have to act, and act speedily. The direction of London at present is disastrous. The Labour leadership at County Hall is unable and unwilling to act, and at this moment matters are worsening daily. Expenditure is unmatched by revenue, heavy borrowing is taking place, and drastic action is required to cut expenditure.
817 In my own constituency there are many examples where we should be happy for the GLC to make cuts in some of its schemes. For instance, the GLC has a proposal to widen the A217 from four to six lanes on the Sutton bypass at the Cheam Village crossroads. My constituents raised a petition asking whether, if the road was to be widened to six lanes, pedestrian "Cross Now" lights could be installed. 1 took the matter up with County Hall, and I received a lettter saying that the vehicle-turning ratio was not worthy of the installation of "Cross Now" traffic lights. I wrote back questioning the wisdom of widening the road in the first place. To date, I have received no reply. The scrapping of this and other schemes in my constituency could save £500,000 over the coming financial year.
It is clear that all is not well with the Labour majority at County Hall. Total disarray appears to be the order of the day. The next collapse is likely to come from the ratepayers themselves, who will not he able to pay their rates. There is no justification for them to think that they can break the law, but there is justification for them to think that total disaster lies ahead of them. It would be in London's interest if a coalition could be formed between the two parties in County Hall to see the GLC through until 1977, by which time plans might have been laid to trim down the massive bureaucracy represented by the GLC at present.
That is why all hon. Members tonight could take a tremendous step in the correct direction by voting in favour of the Instruction to the Committee and thereby giving a clear indication to our constituents that we are aware of their problems and that we are seeking to cut public expenditure substantially. Unless we do that, within six to nine months the Minister for Housing and Construction and his colleagues in the Department of the Environment will be forced to introduce urgent legislation to save London from bankruptcy. They will have to introduce a new Act to give greater autonomy to London's boroughs. Unless we get this right, disaster is what London will see.
§ 7.47 p.m.
§ Mr. Graham
By leave of the House. Mr. Deputy Speaker, perhaps I might make a brief reply to this short debate.
First, I wish to say on behalf of my colleagues how grateful I am for the assurance from the hon. Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg) that the Second Reading of the Bill will not be opposed. There may be differences on the details in the Bill, but I accept the hon. Gentleman's assurance that he recognises that we have no alternative procedural method in this instance. However, it was the London Government Act passed by the hon. Gentleman's own Government in 1963 which laid upon this House and upon the GLC the obligations which we are attempting to carry out at present. I am not competent to argue about better procedures, and the odd whiff of alternatives which floated across the Floor of the House did not achieve unanimous support. If the present procedure has its faults, we may be assured that any change will be challenged as being equally unsatisfactory.
In this short debate we have had the idetinfication of a direct interest from many hon. Members representing London constituencies in the affairs of London. I might say to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington. South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) that I was as sad as most other hon. Members were to hear the details he gave of the way in which he had been treated. However, I have reason to believe that there are those listening to this debate who will circumvent the failure of correspondence to achieve the desired result and to give proper attention and respect to a Member of Parliament who has every right to he interested in the matters which my hon. Friend raised.
§ Mr. George Cunningham
I am grateful for that. However, the same people were listening to the last debate and precisely the same situation existed then. I hope that my hon. Friend will allow me in this intervention to make sure that the point gets across that what is needed—and I hope that having followed this debate my hon. Friend will support me—in Stranraer Way on the GLC's Bemerton Estate in South Islington is 819 urgent action, by which I mean within 72 hours, to make sure that sewage ceases to come up through people's kitchen sinks, and I hope that the two London evening newspapers will send people tomorrow to photograph the situation.
§ Mr. Graham
That plug will come in handy in more than one way. We did not even get on to the barrier issue.
We have had a useful Second Reading debate. The points which have been made will have been well taken. Therefore, I have pleasure once again in commending to the House this Second Reading.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ 7.50 p.m.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg
I beg to move,That it be an Instruction to the Committee on the Bill to reduce the total sum of £868,648,000 on page 9 of the Schedule by £83,000,000 by:I suppose that one way of achieving what the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) wants is for no hon. Member to act as sponsor for any GLC Bill. That would rapidly bring the council to its senses.
- (1) reducing the sums mentioned in Item 10 of Part I of the Schedule (Page 6) as follows:
- (a) in column 3, by leaving out '£ 187,700,000' and interst '£ 137,700,000'. And
- (b) in column 4, by leave out `£86.350,000' and inserting `£61,350.000' and
- (2) reducing the sums mentioned in Item 25 in Part III of the Schedule (Page 9) as follows:—
- (a) in column 2, by leaving out '£60,000,000'and '£64,000,000' and inserting '£56,000,000' and '£60,000,000', and
- (b) in column 3, by leaving out '£30,000,000' and '£32,000,000' and inserting '£26,000,000' and '£28,000,000'.
§ Mr. Finsberg
I should be interested to see what would happen if no one were prepared to put forward the council's case.
820 The Instruction is drawn widely. Because it covers housing and deals with the contingency item, it allows the debate to continue to range widely. It also means that no one could accuse us of blocking the Bill as a whole.
There were three ways in which the Opposition, who were dissatisfied about certain aspects of the Bill, could have proceeded. There could have been a straight vote against Second Reading. That clearly would not have been intelligent. There could have been a reasoned amendment, but that would have had the same effect. The third, therefore, is the Instruction to the Committee. We have decided on this course because it enables us to concentrate on specific issues, having given fair wind to what I should call the major strategic plan which the GLC has put forward in its document.
The popular Press has referred to what it calls the budget of the Chancellor of London—a certain Mr. Illtyd Harrington. I recall that on 13th March the Patronage Secretary, who was as incensed as all of us about the words used by Mr. Harrington on that day, intervened and said:I undertake that in correspondence I am now having with Mr. Harrington I shall ask him to write a letter to the hon. Gentleman and, I hope, retract some of the remarks which he made in the article yesterday. The hon. Gentleman rightly said that he referred to 92 hon. Members, and that was a bit sweeping even for Mr. Harrington."— [Official Report. 13th March 1975; Vol. 888, c. 893.]I should tell the House that I have the permission of the Patronage Secretary to say that, despite the sending of a second letter to Mr. Harrington, there has not been even the courtesy of an acknowledgment for either the Patronage Secretary or, indeed, hon. Members on this side of the House. That is precisely what that particular person thinks of Parliament. I should not wish to cross the Patronage Secretary. I am surprised that Mr. Harrington wishes to do so. I fear that Parliament will remain in the dog-house as far as Mr. Harrington is concerned. Indeed, it might have a spin-off.
It is a long time since any GLC measure has been before this House with such a blaze and fanfare of publicity in all the newspapers in the country. I suppose that it could be described as more than a little local difficulty. I made some reference to this matter earlier, as 821 did my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Macfarlane). It is a fact—this needs to be examined—that two gentlemen in two major posts, the chairman of the general purposes committee and the vice-chairman of the housing development committee, who must have been highly thought of in the first place or they would not have been appointed, have resigned because they are dissatisfied with the financial conduct of the Greater London Council.
I doubt whether I could have found stronger words to use about the GLC than those of Dr. Haseler. He was very clear. He said:I intend to go to the back benches to offer constructive criticism of the GLC which I believe is failing London during a momentous financial crisis by indecisiveness, vacillation and compromise.Explaining his resignation, Dr. Haseler said:There is mounting financial crisis in London and although the leadership understand it their reaction has been too slow and too late. They should have taken measures months ago.Dr. Haseler said that he wanted to see a "slim-line" GLC. He said:County Hall should shed some of its huge bureaucracy.I am sure that the hon. Member for Islington. South and Finsbury will say "Hear, hear" to that. Dr. Haseler said:Some of its housing management functions should be disposed of.I do not think that anyone on either side would describe them so bluntly, but borough councils are more capable of running housing estates than the GLC has ever proved to be under either party's control. I have maintained that in this House ever since I came here, and it has never been denied by hon. Members who understand London local government. It has never been a party issue. We all know the inefficiency of the GLC housing machine. It is not only the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury who fails to get sensible answers; it is virtually every hon. Member who writes.
§ Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)
As the hon. Gentleman has made that statement, I should not like this opportunity to pass without asking whether he includes the Royal borough of Ken- 822 sington. From all that I have heard, there are defects in every housing department, and I think that that one is worthy of note.
§ Mr. Finsberg
Strangely enough no one has adduced individual cases, unlike the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury, who has. The House can judge if cases are brought up. I am sure that there would be a suitable opportunity, perhaps through a General Powers Bill, for a clause to be inserted at the request of the Royal borough.
I have mentioned Dr. Haseler. I should like to give a quotation from Mr. Eden, the vice-chairman of the housing development committee. He said that the Labour leadership was "fiddling while London burns". I think he is perfectly right. It might, therefore, be better, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam said earlier, if the GLC's chancellor spent more time putting London's finances right than thinking up grandiose new ways of spending the ratepayers' money with yet another Festival of Britain.
The monument to the late Herbert Morrison, whom many of us respected as a very great—perhaps the greatest—local government man, was somewhat marred because in his last days in power he appeared to be more interested in fixing the price of doughnuts for the Festival of Britain than many other items.
§ Mr. Finsberg
The Minister mutters "Cheap". It is not, I pay great tribute to the late Herbert Morrison but suggest that he spoiled himself by that kind of action. Mr. Harrington cannot spoil himself by that kind of action.
Our main attack on the GLC's housing programme set out in the Bill is not on its new building—I stress that as vehemently as I can—but on the wasteful and doctrinaire policy of municipalisation which, unlike new construction programmes, adds not a single home to London's total housing stock.
In our last debate on this measure, which was, as it were, a dual debate because it was held on 20th May and further on 19th June, we had a very long and interesting speech by the Minister for Housing and Construction, who is 823 with us again tonight, in which he set out in great detail how the GLC was to spend its money on municipalisation. He rested his case—it is an arguable case; I am not disagreeing—by saying that it would be doing it strictly in accordance with Circular 70/74. The Minister went into great detail, as reported at columns 615 and 616 of Hansard of 19th June. The hon. Gentleman was quite clear. We did not disbelieve him because, whilst he is not always our favourite Minister, if he believes something he says it. However, we did not believe the information that was given to him by the GLC, and we did not believe, either, that, given the vast spending powers that were contained in the last Money Bill, the GLC would honour the criteria which the Minister had listed for us, and I shall come to that in a moment. We did not believe that the GLC would operate within the spirit of Circular 70/74, and we have been proved right.
Let me quote two examples. On 30th April 1974 the GLC purchased Rayleigh Court, Kingston-upon-Thames, at a cost of £255,000. All the flats were in good condition, and only nine of the 38 flats were vacant. The GLC is now negotiating to buy Hill Court and Emerson Court, Wimbledon, for about £250,000. Of the 62 flats involved, all of which are in good condition, only 15 are vacant. Those are but two of the examples that one could quote.
Clearly, the Minister is not prepared to be snubbed as he has been by the GLC, and the worm—the generic worm, the Department, not the Minister, as I am sure he will accept—has turned, and I should like to quote the letter from the Department dated 14th April 1975 to the Director of the Valuation and Estates Department of the GLC.
The letter says:Purchase of dwellings:
- (1) Queens Club Gardens, Hammersmith.
- (2) King's Court, Carmel Court, King's Drive and Dane and Empire Courts, North End Road, Wembley.
- (3) Various properties in Longridge Road, Nevern Road, Earls Court Road, Philbeach Gardens.I refer to your earlier correspondence regarding proposals for the purchase of the above properties under the provisions of Circular 70/74.824As you are aware, I have been unable to reply earlier in view of the Minister's interest in your request and his recent correspondence with Mrs. Dimson on the same subject.I am afraid that on the information you have given us we do not think that acquisition should proceed on the basis you suggest. Requests for authorisations under Circular 70/74 have been very substantial; indeed, they have been so heavy that we are now having to examine"—the operative word is "now"—requests critically to see whether they fall squarely within the categories defined in paragraph 30 of that Circular and to reject them if they do not.That means that until then the assurances given to us by the Minister were only partly being carried out by the Department, because the letter says that it is only now that it is examining requests critically. The letter goes on to say:We realise, of course, that the GLC have their own Money Act and are of course grateful to your council for entering into the agreement whereby you come to us for our approval; but we do not think that the existence of these. separate powers enables us to approve acqlsitions by the GLC while turning down exactly the same sort of proposals by other housing authorities—and I am sure your council would not want it otherwise.I am not so sure, but I am glad the Department of the Environment is. The letter continues:So far as the Queen's Club Gardens are concerned"—the figures are important—"I understand that 60 out of 556 flats are vacant and we would therefore be content for the GLC to acquire the empty flats in order to secure the opportunity for early lettings.In that case there were 60 flats vacant out of 556, there were 9 out of 38 vacant at Rayleigh Court, Kingston-upon- Thames, and 15 out of 62 vacant at Hill Court and Emerson Court. To put it bluntly, those should never have fallen within the strict definition of Circular 70/74.
§ Mr. Ernest G. Perry (Battersea, South)
The hon. Gentleman has given some interesting figures. I cannot recall the cost to the GLC of the purchase of the three blocks of flats which he mentioned. Will he give us the details?
§ Mr. Finsberg
I did give the figures. The cost of Rayleigh Court was £255,000, and the cost of Hill Court and Emerson Court was about £250,000. The acquisition of the properties as a transaction was one thing, but I am trying to say 825 that that was outside the spirit of Circular 70/74, which the Minister commended to us when he spoke in May and June of last year.
Let me continue with the letter, because there are some other interesting figures:But although the conditions in the other flats"—in Queen's Club Gardens only 60 flats were vacant out of 550—may not be good it does not appear that they are so bad as to fall clearly within paragraph 30 of the Circular and it is for that reason that we feel unable to approve the acquisition.So far as the Bovis Estate is concerned we would again agree to the purchase of the empty flats but it k Jai from clear that acquisition of the remainder would be justified within the terms of the CircularThe same sorts of considerations apply to the properties in the Longhridge Road area.Now comes the understatement of the year:We realise that this reply will disappoint you but we do consider that acquisitions which would not concentrate resources on the prevention of evictions, harassments and homelessness in the areas of more acute housing stress should, for the time being, be forgone.I endorse every word of what the Department of the Environment said. My only regret is that these strict criteria were not insisted upon by the Minister at an earlier stage, because I am convinced that a number of acquisitions have taken place under Circular 70/74 all over the country where the correct procedures have not been followed and where the acquisitions have not fallen squarely within the point which the Minister rightly made. The Opposition would not object to acquisitions in the event of harassment, eviction or appalling conditions where landlords are not doing the necessary work. One hopes that there will be a strict application of the procedures in future, and this of itself ought to reduce the amount of money which the GLC is asking for in the Money Bill for this purpose.
§ Mr. John Page (Harrow, West)
I missed the date of the extraordinarily illuminating letter which my hon. Friend read. There has been a remarkable purchase in my constituency of 71 dwellings, only 19 of which are empty. This was approved by Mrs. Dimson on 3rd March. Was that before or after the letter?
§ Mr. Finsberg
That was before. The letter was dated 14 April and it was received at the GLC on 15th April—remarkably quickly. It was written a day before the Budget— intelligent anticipation.
I believe rumour has it that the GLC will be asking to reduce the sums in this money Bill. If it does that, so much the better, but the cuts then made should be in addition to those proposed in this instruction.
There are some fascinating revelations, and I ought perhaps to let you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the rest of the House, of course, into them. I have here a Press release No. 169 dated 30th April 1975. The heading is:GLC cuts growth element on housing programme,and it says:Sir Reg Goodwin,"—a man whom we respect, and it is pleasant to have a statement from him—Leader of the GLC, said today:'In view of the chronically heavy weight which interest charges are imposing on local government, the GLC's Housing Programme for this financial year 1975–76 will be trimmed by £50 million to about the level of our housing expenditure last year.The consequences of inflation and high interest charges make an economy of this order to our planned programme essential if we are to protect the ratepayer, the farepayer and the rentpayer from having to pay next year the phenomenally high charges which this extra borrowing would entail.The Housing Strategy Plan remains our firmly planned policy for the years ahead.'That is his direct quotation, and then there is an explanatory note with no attribution.The cuts will be made by restricting the amount available for home loans,"—I would not have thought that was particularly sensible—reviewing the amounts to be spent on acquisition of sites and dwellings"—precisely what the instruction is about—and examining the amount to be made available to Housing Associations.in, I would have thought, clear contradiction of what the Secretary of State has been telling us about the need to encourage housing associations. It concludesNew constructions will not be affected.Another interesting revelation is that at a meeting of the GLC finance board 827 today the Conservative spokesman raised the question of this official Press release. The chairman and vice-chairman of that board, obviously both labour, were not aware that Sir Reginald Goodwin had made this official statement. This is the committee which decides on home loans. The meeting was interrupted for its members to take time off to read the statement. Does anyone need any further proof of the utter incompetence of the Greater London Council's "Cabinet" when the leader does not even tell his colleagues that he is authorising a cut in the bill that they have put their names to and which we are being asked to pass tonight'? I do not think that anyone in his right mind can believe that the GLC is efficiently run, and perhaps that is one of the reasons why its stock issue was so heavily undersubscribed.
The GLC should be concentrating on improving its own assets and putting into good order what it has. It should be lending more money to housing associations and to individuals to buy their own homes. Housing associations and individuals look after their properties very carefully, and the GLC does not.
I confess that my mind is still running back to what was said by the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury. I cannot imagine how for months sewage could be coming up through a sink without someone serving a notice under the Public Health (London) Act or its successor. I should have done something if I had been on the local Press if I had been aware of the situation. I wonder whether the bowers contained in the Housing Act 1974, by which the court can compel a landlord to meet his obligations, could not be used against the GLC to put the sinks right.
I hope that we shall be kept abreast of this "Pearl White" saga and that we shall know within 72 hours whether anything has been done. If the hon. Member wants a bipartisan visit with photographers from the Evening News and the Evening Standard, I shall be glad to accompany him to these homes and perhaps even to take samples of the sewage.
The GLC therefore should be giving money to those who will look after their properties, and if it is to make the right sort of effort the housing associations 828 represent one of the answers to the problem. As my hon. friend for Sutton and Cheam said, the GLC already owns enough land to build about 58,000 dwellings. Its present rate of building is between about 5,000 and 6,000 dwellings a year. Those figures give an opportunity to examine the facts about the GLC's housing construction record.
Let us quote from Labour's manifesto for the 1973 GLC ejections. It is a gem worth repeating and noting.
The Tory record on housing is lamentable. In 1972 the GLC set a target of 5,000 new houses less than the number of slums demolished and even that derisory figure was not reached.The target set in the 1974–75 budget provisions was 8,250 a year, giving an idea of what it thought it should be aiming at. In fact, the number of starts in 1973– 74 was 2,512. During 1974, which was the first full calendar year of Labour control, the number of housing starts was 5,821, which compares with an average of 5,925 constructed during the five full years of Conservative control. However, of this 5,821 some 3,600 were made up of provisional tenders approved by the council in the last nine days of 1974. In many cases the tenderers had not even been informed, and the procedure was changed from the year before. In other words, some 40 per cent. of the starts were not starts at all but an administrative device to make the figures look attractive. The contention that many of these last-ditch tenders were approved against officers' advice has not been challenged.
Therefore with land for about 58,000 dwellings the GLC has enough for more than 10 years' housing programme at the current rate of 5,000 to 6,000 dwellings a year. Yet it wants to go on grabbing with sticky fingers more land just to lock it up in its bank. We all know that the local authorities are the biggest hoarders of land. Their procedures are too slow, and both major parties share the blame for this. No one has so far been able to tackle it, and I hope that the Dobry Report will be able to give some idea of how we can speed up these matters.
Let us consider how much all of this is costing. Current maintenance and management costs on a GLC dwelling average £200 per annum, and rent income some £250 per annum. Rent 829 increases of 50p a week as of next October, not April—which it should have been according to Dr. Haseler and Mr. Eden—will not cover increased costs. The point will be reached this year when it will be cheaper for the GLC to give its houses away to the sitting tenant.
No one has disputed the statement that rents currently do not cover running costs. The GLC usually points out, as was previously pointed out in connection with the prospectus for its last loan, which, as I said, was undersubscribed, that its capital debt is £1,936,848,000. That figure is amply covered by assets of 200,000 council houses. It is clear that to retain these houses is a liability and that sold on a selective basis they would ensure a flow of funds to sustain further housing activities. Some 3,000 of these 200,000 dwellings sold at £10,000 a time would represent a capital inflow of £30 million, but the GLC is so blinkered by political prejudice that it will not do this.
Occasionally we discuss the situation of the young marrieds, bearing in mind that it is not only the old who have to be considered. We need to keep the young married couples in London to maintain a balance in our population. and they are finding it difficult to find new homes because local authorities are acquiring any houses they can like magpies, which means that they do not become available to young marrieds in the normal market.
The case is made out clearly for all to see that the present direction of the GLC's housing policy, excluding its construction—because none of these proposals is designed to interfere with that— is a failure.
The second part of the Instruction deals with contingencies. I think that they are in line with common sense. Our proposals for 1975–76 reduce the contingency provision by about 7 per cent. and for 1976–77, which is the six-month hangover which the GLC always has, by about 10 per cent. I have made it clear that the GLC may well be asking the Committee to reduce the amount of money it wants. I am optimistic in that I believe that the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Graham) might at some stage tell us that he is prepared to accept this amendment on behalf of the GLC. It is clear 830 that the words of Sir Reginald Goodwin were anticipated by my colleagues and me and should have been anticipated by any intelligent person at County Hall.
On 15th April the Chancellor of the Excequer said that he envisaged a cut in capital spending in the public sector of 10 per cent. in 1976–77. We do not yet know where the cut will fall. We are waiting to hear the details but I imagine that it will not fall on new housing construction. For my part I would be unhappy if it did. That means that it ought to fall somewhat more heavily, as a result of the area being smaller, on these acquisitions of unnecessary land going well beyond the 10 years that the Government talked about and the acquisition of these flat blocks, which the Department is stopping, only 10 per cent. to 15 per cent. of which are unoccupied. The way to achieve the capital spending cuts is by making a cut in contingencies. It may only be a paper reduction because of the historical record.
The hon. Member for Edmonton told us the purposes for which the contingency fund was used. May I enlighten the House about what has happened to the contingency fund? In 1971–72 there was a £15 million contingency provision. The drawings for that year were £0.51 million. In 1972–73 there was again a figure of £15 million for contingency provision and the drawings were £0.7 million. In 1973–74 the contingency fund went up to £20 million. Of that, £10,600,000 was drawn, and £10 million of that sum was for municipalisation by the new Labour administration. In 1974– 75 the £20 million of the previous year had risen to £50 million, of which £4.4 million was drawn. Yet this House was solemnly asked to believe that the GLC needed more than double the amount it previously asked for.
I do not know who does the arithmetic at the GLC, nor do I know in how much detail the committee chairmen examine it. In common with some other hon. Members, I have been a council leader and a finance committee chairman. 1 am not prepared to believe that any of us in that position—looking at the contingency provisions for previous years and seeing that with one exception less than 10 per cent. had been spent—would have allowed the contingency provisions to be even £50 million for this year, let alone £64 million. This is a nice, simple way 831 in which people put up figures which they know will never be spent. They can then say "We asked for £868,648,000 and—haven't we been good?—we haven't spent —60 million of it?" It is fraudulent to come to this House and say that this contingency figure is needed.
By no examination of the record can it be shown that the GLC has ever needed more than half. In the light of the Chancellor's firm direction to local authorities, how can the GLC imagine that this year it will be allowed to spend 20 per cent. more than it asked for last year?
I do not understand the methods used by the GLC. I hope that some of the stories we have been reading in the national Press and in the London Press, in which the Government and the GLC appear to be realising that London cannot do without the private rented sector, are true. I hope that the same can be said of the sort of stories attributed to Mr. Stutchbury, a distinguished member of the Labour Party—another of "Goodwin's Cabinet"—who said that it might be necessary to give financial assistance to the private sector to help it remain in existence.
I hope that the GLC is realising that it cannot do without the private rented sector. What it must do is to give a reasonable and secure return to the providers of such accommodation who apparently keep their property in better condition than the GLC, certainly in the constituency of the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury. These providers must no longer be treated as social outcasts.
I hope that the logic of the arguments I have been seeking to put before the House is clear. The statement of the leader of the GLC and of the Chancellor add up to one thing—that the GLC knows that it has not a hope of getting this total sum this year. The Government will stop it. The GLC will say to the Committee "Please reduce the amount of money we have asked for." It would be much better and save a lot of time if the hon. Member for Edmonton were to be sent a little note telling him "Accept this." It might save the time of you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the staff of 832 the House, as well as hon. Members, who would be able to go home somewhat earlier.
What is clear is that the GLC has been practising a policy of doctrine and dogma. In housing as in much else there is no substitute for policies and realistic priorites. If Labour learns this, at least the ratepayers of London will be better off.
§ 8.28 p.m.
§ Mr. John Moore (Croydon, Central)
It is with great pleasure that I follow that outstanding speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg). I have seldom listened to such a shattering indictment of a complete loss of control in one of the major areas of government in our society. I had intended to concern myself specifically with the relationship of my constituents in Croydon to the GLC. However, my fundamental worries have been extended beyond that area by that impressive indictment.
I agree with the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) that when we are talking about a budget of £868 million it is extremely important for hon. Members on both sides to have some opportunity to question the validity of the expenditure of Greater London. I welcome the opportunity to do so.
We are being asked to approve, on behalf of our constituents, increases in the amounts being spent. Therefore, I must ask: is the GLC carrying out, without duplication, the strategic functions that it is supposed to carry out in regard to Croydon, Central? Before 1965 Croydon was a county borough and carried out its own strategic functions. Therefore, I must examine whether the GLC is carrying out these strategic functions adequately. If there is duplication, it is clear that excessive amounts are being used than are needed.
As an ex-councillor who has sat on the council of the London borough of Merton and watched planning submissions go to the GLC again and again, I really wonder at the strategic nature of the GLC.
I should like to refer to two small and simple incidents that occurred in Croydon that might help us to understand the total absence of a strategic function. The first 833 is a highway problem in my constituency. At the bottom of Featherbed Lane in South-East Croydon there was, tragically, in November 1972 an accident involving a coach, unfortunately carrying handicapped children. The Croydon Council acted rapidly to propose minor road improvements and to introduce a pelican crossing. That happened in November 1972. This minor issue is still to-ing and fro-ing between the GLC and Croydon Council. It is absurd that a strategic planning authority is involved in such miniscule details.
Far more shocking is my second example in the planning field. It is an extraordinary example of the degree to which we are talking about detail, not strategic planning. In my constituency a miniscule site in Mapledale Avenue, covering 1.07 acres, is owned by the council. It was used in the war for allotment purposes and scheduled under the initial development plan as "allotment land". This land went into desuetude. In March 1973 the local council, seeking to build more houses in conformity with other houses in the area, submitted a plan to build on this land. As Croydon was no longer a strategic planning authority, it had to go to the GLC for a zoning change, as all of us involved in local council work know. Informal negotiations between the officers of Croydon Council and the officers of the GLC suggested that approval would be given easily. However, the members of the GLC rejected this application, not on zoning grounds but on the grounds that the density proposed for a site of 1.07 acres was too great. This happened in March 1973.
Since that time the issue has gone backwards and forwards between the local council and the GLC. Eventually, the local council took note of the Department of the Environment's Circular No. 142/73, which endeavours to streamline planning, because it was very frustrated —it wanted to build homes for people. It approached the Minister in August 1974. The Minister immediately—I thank him for this—told the local council that it was right. The GLC continued to object but its objection was not upheld.
This is a bureaucratic nightmare. What on earth do my constituents elect local government for if not to decide on sites of l.07 acres? Do we have to go through 834 two years of argument and negotiations, eventually obtaining the approval of the Minister, before we can overthrow this sort of nonsense?
I return to the question which I asked at the beginning. If this is the sort of detail we are discussing. why does the Croydon Council need the GLC? We should examine the relationship of the GLC with Croydon 10 years after Croydon became a London borough. Croydon has a population of 350,000. It did very well as a county borough. We should ask ourselves why Croydon is not independent. In 1975 its GLC rates bill was £5,890,000. Now, with massive economies, it is over £10 million. [Interruption. ]
An ex-Minister, the right hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Stewart) points out that the changes were made by a Conservative Government. Some of us would like to draw attention to the fact that times do occasionally change. Some of us are willing to recognise the mistakes of the past. In local government, if a monstrosity is created which includes the London borough of Croydon, and I want to represent my constituents by changing it, I will try to do so. I do not want to be referred to 1963, 1953 or 1853,
What do my constituents get for this 80 per cent. increase to£10,584,000? On this subject, the GLC representative for the Croydon Central area, Mr. David White, wrote a public letter to my constituents, in which he gave some extraordinary answers. He did not say that the GLC was economising or that we needed to cut our coat according to our cloth. He said:The main reason for the rises, apart from inflation, is the failure of successive Governments to make available sufficient resources to meet London's needs.After the damning indictment of my hon Friend the Member for Hampstead, he is saying that they need more money, not less.
Mr. White's final words to my constituents were intolerable:I have serious doubts about whether the present economic system is able to make the necessary resources available. It is for this reason that I regard as essential the transformation of our society from a capitalist one to a socialist one. The first steps towards this must be the bringing into public ownership of key sectors of the economy and a redistribution of wealth and power in our society. The question of the current rates835 crisis cannot be divorced from this fundamental economic issue."
[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] That sound of agreement from Labour Members shows the total irrelevance of that type of rhetoric to the rates bills being received by my constituents.
My conclusion is simple and straightforward. Croydon does not have a strategic authority in the GLC. I see no reason for it to be involved with the GLC. My constituents would be much better off if we were an independent borough again and did not increase the money spent by this profligate organisation.
§ 8.37 p.m.
§ Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich, East)
Before seeking to follow the hon. Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg) in some of his more detailed criticisms of the administration of the GLC. I should like to raise one particularly important local issue. This matter concerns also my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing). I refer to the Thames barrier, and particularly the question of safety during its construction.
I have had a number of meetings with Trinity House pilots working on the river who have expressed grave concern about this matter. They tell me that under the 1913 Pilotage Act, which, believe it or not, is still in force on the river, it is possible for a number of vessels, depending on size and location, to come up the river from Woolwich Reach without the advice, guidance and assistance of trained river pilots. Apparently, the qualification is of the vessel and not of the master. Pilots tell me that it is not unusual for a vessel to come un the river at some speed with a foreign master who has never been through the river before and suddenly to come to a line of buoys which reduces the channel to 400 ft. wide. This situation presents grave risks.
The Port of London Authority says that there is no cause for concern, because there is a barrier control which contacts all ships coming up the river in these circumstances. The only difficulty is that the control uses VHF radio, which is not mandatory on vessels. Not all ships using the river have this receiving equipment. Also, although understandable, it is not very sensible that 836 these broadcasts are made only in English. Foreign masters do not always have a good working command of English.
There is obviously a dangerous situation here. There is a risk of collision with the actual barrier works. It should be remembered that while the barrier is being constructed a large number of men will be working at the river level and in some cases even below water level. Since the channel will be extremely narrow during construction, there is also a risk of collison with other vessels.
I am told by the Department of the Environment that there are between 80 and 100 movements of vessels through Woolwich Reach every 24 hours. Not only that, but I am told that every day between 5 per cent. and 10 per cent. of the vessels using Woolwich Reach carry dangerous cargoes. They are carrying either petrol or dangerous chemicals. Between eight and 10 vessels a day ply through that dangerous stretch of the river, through all the construction works, carrying potentially dangerous cargoes. That might not be too bad on a bright sunny day, but it is much more hazardous on a dark night or in bad weather. It seems to me and to the Trinity House pilots that while the construction is taking place there is a strong case for compulsory pilotage arrangement.
I have put this point to the GLC at the highest level. I did so in February, and I received a courteous answer six weeks later. That is rather better than the performance of the GLC in other instances. Whoever is in control of the GLC, six weeks is not too bad. Sadly, the answer that I received referred me to the Port of London Authority, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department of Trade. I now have to plough through those bodies before action is taken on the question of safety while the barrier works are taking place.
I do not want to be an alarmist but it seems that there is a potential risk about which we should do something when people as responsible, skilled and expert as the pilots who ply the river say that there is a safety hazard about which we should do something. Given that situation, I should like to have seen rather more speedy attention to the problem than has so far been shown.
837 Having discharged my constituency duty, I turn to some of the other, rather broader issues raised by the hon. Member for Hampstead. I was sorry that in an attack upon the GLC's housing policy the hon. Gentleman did not refer except briefly and in passing to the GLC's "Strategic Housing Plan" for London. It is a very important document. Perhaps I should not be surprised that the hon. Member did not refer to the fact that the Labour Party in the GLC, together with the Labour Party in the boroughs, is attempting to work out a strategic plan for London's housing difficulties. When I think of the situation between 1967 and 1973, I recall that there was little sign of any strategic housing policy developing. The Conservative Party, which was then in control, wished to dismantle as much of the housing programme as possible. [HON. MEMBERS: "Rubbish."] Conservative Members may shout "Rubbish", but we can all recall the famous comment of the gentleman who now leads for the Conservative Party in the GLC that he wanted local authorities to get out of housing. We can all recall that, and it is on the record. Conservative Members should remember this before they start to shout "Rubbish".
§ Mr. Tebbit
Is the hon. Gentleman quite sure that the document which he held up so proudly has any validity after the latest outburst of feuding, fighting and squabbling in County Hall between his Labour Party colleagues?
§ Mr. Cartwright
That is a typical comment from the hon. Gentleman. I shall return to the document and say a little more about its present status and about some of the problems which I see for its future development. If the hon. Gentleman will be patient, I shall return to it later.
In discussing the "Strategic Housing Plan", I should say a word of appreciation for the work of Gladys Dimson. I was involved in a number of detailed discussions between the GLC and the London Boroughs Association. I have also seen Gladys Dimson involved in discussions at borough level on difficult housing issues. I put it on record that I have the highest admiration for the contribution she has made. I pay tribute to her understanding of local government and 838 her willingness all the time to seek to cooperate between the GLC and the London boroughs.
As a borough-produced local government man, I have always accepted that there is a need in greater London for an overall strategic housing plan. I do not believe that 33 sovereign, independent housing organisations at borough level can hope to solve London's overall housing problem. London is one city and not 33 separate units. Londoners do not often understand why there are different standards operating in different boroughs. Of course there are different systems of dealing with housing applicants in the different boroughs. We know from experience that housing progress varies very much from one borough to another.
It is a sad fact but true that those boroughs with the least problems make the smallest contribution to overall housing achievements in Greater London. It is also true that the areas with the biggest housing problems—the stress areas in inner London—are in a situation in which they cannot solve their housing problems by their own efforts within their own boundaries. That is quite impossible.
Therefore, we must approach the problem of the areas which are desperately under stress in the centre of the city by looking at London's housing problems as a united whole. The London boroughs two or three years ago set up the London Housing Office. That was an attempt to obtain co-operation at borough level to enable them to work together to overcome their housing difficulties. It was an imaginative concept which was sadly sabotaged by the fact that the outer London boroughs, which had available stocks and supplies of land and which could have made the greatest contribution towards housing desperately placed applications in inner London, sought not to join the London Housing Office and, indeed, played a great part in seeking to sabotage it.
I accept the strategic rôle of greater London as being imperative in tackling London's housing problems. There must be a GLC back-up on housing to tackle the areas which are too large for an individual borough to undertake, particularly redevelopment, and also to tackle situations when individual boroughs arc not willing to make their proper contri- 839 bution towards the overall housing needs of the city.
I hope that the new regime which may emerge in housing on the other side of the river will understand that this sort of approach can be carried out only by co-operation and that the boroughs are the primary housing units. There will be progress towards a strategic plan only if there is understanding and co-operation between the GLC and individual boroughs. I hope that the chairman of the housing development committee at County Hall will accept that the London Boroughs Association has a major rôle to play in securing that co-operation and will seek to involve the association in that sort of development.
The GLC has said that it is willing to transfer more of its estates to individual boroughs. I agree with the hon. Member for Hampstead that housing management is a local function. We all know from our constituency experience that mistakes and crises occur even in borough council housing. It is very much simpler and easier to deal with those matters by going to the town hall or seeing the chairman of the housing committee speedily than to have to go to the Greater London Council. This avoids people being pushed from pillar to post in trying to get something done.
I emphasise that housing management is very much a local function, and I hope that we shall see progress and development in the future transfer of housing estates from the GLC to those boroughs which are willing and able to take them over, but on a fairer basis than happened in 1969–70. What happened then was that the Greater London Council off-loaded its most difficult estates on to boroughs and gave them the task to deal with. This was what happened in my own borough.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg
I was involved in the details of the transfer. The GLC was trying to be fair. It tried to off-load part of the bad and to balance it with part of the good. There was certainly no wicked intention. It may have worked out badly in the hon. Gentleman's borough, but that was not the overt intention of the GLC.
§ Mr. Cartwright
I am always prepared to accept that there is good in anyone 840 and I certainly accept that point of view. In relation to my own borough, I would mention that when I went back to the GLC and pointed out the condition of one estate the decision of the GLC was to demolish it rather than hand it over to the borough council. That is an indication of how bad was its condition.
I agreed very much with one comment by the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Moore) when he suggested that after 10 years there might well be a need for a review of the functions of boroughs and the GLC. That is a point which would command a lot of support after 10 years. I also agreed with the hon. Member when he said that those who were comparatively new to this House ought not to be bound by decisions taken by their predecessors 10 or more years ago.
All I would say, in all fairness, is that the same mistakes as were made in the 1964 reorganisation of greater London were made again in the 1972 reorganisation of areas outside London—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]—and that is less than three years ago. Now, my colleagues in local government outside London are saying to me the same things as we were saying to the GLC in the mid-1960s. It seems to me that we in this country do not always learn by our mistakes.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg
Would not the hon. Gentleman agree that at least outside London the lesson of the mistakes about housing were learned? It is the metropolitan districts, not the counties, which have the power. Equally, it is the metropolitan districts, which have education functions, and not that vast abortion of ILEA.
§ Mr. Cartwright
I would not accept that ILEA was an abortion, but if the housing mistakes were learned the mistakes about planinng were not. The hon. Member will know of the problems cropping up over the split functions of planning. In passing, I want particularly to mention in this discussion of GLC proposals for a strategic housing plan what I regard as a very imaginative proposal for a common allocation system which would try to ensure that Londoners were housed on the basis of need rather than on the good or ill fortune of wherever they happened to live.
841 It will be well known to hon. Members that there is a varying position in housing from one borough to another. It is perfectly possible for somebody in my borough, Greenwich, to be in a very much less desperate housing situation than someone living in Hackney, Tower Hamlets or Islington, because the housing situation in my borough is much more fortunate. It seems that there is a strong case for trying to evolve towards a common allocations policy whereby it is the overall needs of London that are met, so that people are not housed on the basis of their good fortune in happening to live in a borough which has a limited housing problem.
There has been a great deal of discussion on this and a certain amount of progress has been made, but a great deal more has to be done. Clearly, there are problems on aspects like finance, because if Greenwich is to be asked to house people from Hackney, Tower Hamlets or Islington we would want some financial contribution from those boroughs towards the substantial cost involved.
§ Mr. Ronald Brown (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)
Before my hon. Friend leaves that point, he should know that it is very unlikely that people will be going from Hackney to Greenwich. Usually we have people coming from Greenwich to Hackney and then trying to get back afterwards.
§ Mr. Cartwright
That arises under the GLC housing operation. People constantly tell me that Greenwich is at the end of the world, but with the GLC development at Thamesmead we are finding that a substantial number of people, even from as far away as Hackney, are prepared to come and live in sunny Thamesmead. It is certainly an area to which people are prepared to come when they need housing.
A substantial and deep-rooted attack was made by the hon. Member for Hampstead on the municipalisation programme. He virtually condemned it as being an ideological kind of policy, based not on sense but on political dogma. I totally reject that approach. In my experience of municipalisation programmes, admittedly very much smaller than those of the GLC, I have found that they make very good sense.
842 For example, my authority has been able to buy completed houses put up by private builders much more cheaply than it can build for itself, starting from scratch, in the present inflationary situation. All local authorities receive a regular stream of circulars, letters and appeals from private builders saying that they have a nice development in Bexley, Bromley, or even in Sittingbourne, Rain-ham or Gillingham, and asking whether the borough would like to buy those houses which are all empty and available. They do that before finishing the building. Before putting them on the market, they offer them to local authorities.
§ Mr. Robert Taylor (Croydon, North-West)
Does the hon. Gentleman support the proposition that the GLC should acquire occupied properties?
§ Mr. Cartwright
I am coming to that. I am arguing that the purchase of new properties from private builders makes good sense. As to the purchase of older tenanted properties, I dispute the statement made by the hon. Member for Hampstead that that practice adds not a single home to the overall provision of a local authority. In my experience, by acquiring tenanted property it has been possible to make much better use of that property. Many hon. Members must have had experience of a local authority purchasing a three-bedroom house tenanted by a single or widowed lady, rehousing her in a small purpose-built one-bedroom flat, thus making her life much simpler and happier, and enabling the house to be used for family occupation. That kind of policy is made possible by a programme of municipalisation which includes the buying of tenanted property.
§ Mr. Michael Neubert (Romford)
Does not the hon. Gentleman know that the GLC has one of the worst records for the under-occupation of properties?
§ Mr. Cartwright
That problem is one for all local authorities. In my experience there is a problem of under-occupation whether a local authority is Conservative-controlled or Labour-controlled. Many authorities tackle it by building one-bedroom flats and doing all they can to encourage tenants to move out of larger premises, but if those tenants do not want to do that, what is to be done? Does the 843 hon. Gentleman suggest that they should be compelled to get out?
§ Mr. Tebbit
I am amazed that the hon. Gentleman's recipe for improving matters is the municipalisation of more property, which would impose on an even larger sector of property in London the problem of under-occupation which exists with council property. The hon. Gentleman has it the wrong way round. The right way to improve the level of occupancy is to sell council houses, not to buy private houses.
§ Mr. Cartwright
I do not know how the selling of council houses helps the widow in an under-occupied house who wants to get rid of it, has a problem in maintaining it and is worried. My authority has a queue of people wishing to sell to the authority and willing to accept in return a one-bedroom flat. That is a step forward and in no sense does it create the problem to which the hon. Gentleman referred.
§ Mr. John Page
We are all touched by the story of the widow in a three-bedroom house, but it does not tie up with a local authority buying 71 dwellings of which only 19 are vacant and spending £500,000 on the property. I am interested to learn why a local authority should do that.
§ Mr. Cartwright
A great deal depends on the type of property that is being acquired. There may not be elderly ladies living in the property acquired by the GLC in the case quoted—I do not know. The acquisition of property which is good value for money can never be a mistake. It is always an investment for the future.
The hon. Member for Hampstead accused all local authorities—although I assume that he meant only Labour-controlled authorities—of trying to acquire all the land in sight and, with sticky fingers, trying to buy up every home available. One had the impression that this was purely a piece of municipal hoarding and that local authorities wanted to get all these homes and land to gloat over them and to see their acquisition figures constantly rising. I have seen no evidence of that. In the authorities with which I have been involved, the purpose of programmes of acquisition. whether of land or of houses, 844 has been to meet a rapidly rising housing problem.
There have been many occasions when the Greater London Council and my borough council have both gone after the same piece of land. We have always been able to reach amicable agreement as to which side has the land. I reject the suggestion that the GLC is a great monster gobbling up all the land in sight in order to gloat over it in its land bank.
I turn to the question of housing associations, of which the hon. Member for Hampstead made such play. I declare my interest as a member of the committee of the London and Quadrant Housing Trust, which is one of the biggest in the country. Housing associations have a tremendous job to do in supplementing what local authorities do in housing and in complementing it but not competing with or seeking to replace it.
Great harm was done to the housing association movement in the years between 1968 and 1971 in London where in borough after borough, under Conservative control, sites were sold off to housing associations and the view was constantly developed that housing associations were a replacement or an alternative to municipal housing. That did a grave disservice to the housing association movement, because it was involved unwittingly in a political battle. The scars of that period will take a long time to heal.
If I may be permitted to draw on my own experience. I can remember a Conservative housing chairman saying, as the hon. Gentleman did, that local authorities were very worthy organisations in the housing field but extremely slow-moving and slow in developing their sites. Because my own authority at that time had some sites available, the chairman argued that we should release them to the voluntary housing movement which was straining at the leash and desperately trying to get hold of some land on which to build. Our experience in every case was that the development was much slower than it would have been had the local authority developed the land itself. I can cite a case in which land was released to a housing association in 1970, but only recently has the building work been started, and that work will not be finished until the end of this year. That is an indication of the errors which sometimes creep in if one seeks to use housing 845 associations as a battering ram to hit local authority housing programmes.
I hope that the House will reject the proposition put before it by the hon. Member for Hampstead. I should have thought that all of us would have good reason, as London Members of Parliament, to recognise the massive social problems that face our city. I believe that housing is the biggest of these problems, and we should place on record our appreciation of the work which the GLC is trying to do through its strategic housing plan. We should not seek to hinder the Greater London Council in grappling with the problem. We should show it the green light and tell it to get on with the job by rejecting the proposition which is before us tonight.
§ 9.4 p.m.
§ Mr. Michael Neubert (Romford)
During Questions this afternoon the Chancellor of the Exchequer, using a well-known device, sought to answer one question by asking another. When challenged on the scale of public expenditure and the need to reduce it now, he asked Opposition Members where they would make cuts. He was so deafened that the proceedings came to a halt and order had to be restored by the Speaker.
We have something of a similar situation tonight in that we disagree wholeheartedly with the level of expenditure which has been exacted by the Greater London Council. We propose measures by which that expenditure should be reduced. Members of the Greater London Council have made it their proud claim over many years that their budget exceeded that of several of the smaller countries in Europe. They are in danger of setting a new record soon—that their budget will exceed the capacity of Londoners and taxpayers generally to pay for it.
We have reached that situation after a Labour Council has been in office only since 1973. In that time the precept on local authorities in London has more than trebled. If I may cite my own borough of Havering, there the precept has risen from 5.2p to 16.4p. It seems an innocuously small amount expressed in pence, but in hard cash it means that an extra £5 million has had to be found. That is 846 the level of expenditure which is out- raging the public at large in London.
If I heard the Chancellor of the Exchequer correctly this afternoon, he was concerned about his inability to monitor the effects of the Budget, and in particular to keep control of public expenditure. He put his hopes on a new consultative council, which will no doubt work miracles that have not been achieved so far.
The right hon. Gentleman cited as a reason for his concern the fact that local government expenditure has apparently been rising at about 8 per cent. a year for three successive years. What would he have thought if it had been drawn to his attention that one local authority, Greater London, had trebled its demands on the ratepayers in that time? What other commodity or service provided for the public has increased by that amount without uproar? It is unjust, and it has thrown into question not just the rating system but another matter.
Many of us have thought that the rating system could not survive savage increases in public expenditure, controlled only by the sanction of three-yearly elections in which perhaps only 25 per cent. or at most 40 per cent. of the electorate take part. But at least with such a principle of local government the councillors are accountable to their voters at regular elections. They present the bill and are judged by it, and no doubt will be judged at the next election. But in the case of the Greater London Council increases of this magnitude call into question the whole principle of precepting, because it is not the GLC that is presenting this trebly-increased bill to the electors of London. It is the unfortunate London boroughs.
Apart from the injustice of that, and the lack of accountability, there is the complete disruption of priorities of the London boroughs' own programmes. I wish to give an example of the kind of economies that the London borough of Havering has had to make to come within the Government's requirements set out in Circular 171/74, in which councils were asked to keep their expenditure down to inescapable commitments. As the GLC and precepting authorities were clearly included in his strictures, is the Minister satisfied that the GLC has 847 honoured that request and kept to inescapable commitments? There is every reason for doubt in the Bill.
The kind of economies that my local borough has had to make, which I am sure are emulated in many other London boroughs, are as follows. Libraries are to close one day a week. Street lighting in side roads is to be switched off at midnight, except at danger points. Street sweeping of residential roads is to be reduced from two to four weeks. Grass cutting of street verges is to be done every 10 days instead of seven. Flower beds in streets are to be eliminated, and there is to be no floral decoration of public buildings. Maintenance standards of parks are to be reduced, except where fees are paid. The holiday scheme for the elderly, though not for the handicapped, is to be reduced. Certain physical education options, such as riding and golf, are to be reduced.
I make no apology for wearying the House with these trivial and pitiful policies that have had to be adopted. I hope that they are wearisome and tedious, because they underline my point about how little scope the London boroughs have to judge their own priorities on behalf of their residents and ratepayers, because the money available in the public purse is being mulcted by the precepting authority, notably the GLC. The level of expenditure is intolerable and must be decreased.
Substantial reductions in expenditure should be made, as for example in the municipalisation programme, either in the acquisition of new buildings built for sale or in the programme of rented property acquisition. I can reveal to the hon. Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Cartwright) that it is a political programme of property acquisition in London, with the aim that eventually all rented property will be available through the local authority. It is not a question of our placing housing associations and private landlords in the political battlefront. They are there. They are a gradually diminishing area of alternative choice in housing.
§ Mr. Cartwright
Surely the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that housing associations are a diminishing area. Their growth has been phenomenal in the past few years.
§ Mr. Neubert
I was relating that remark to the question of the private landlord providing rented accommodation. Housing associations, encouraged by Conservative and Labour authorities alike, are growing, but that is not a political manoeuvre. It is to sustain an alternative source of housing. People do not want to be faced with the alternative of home ownership or council tenancies. There should be some provision for people in between. Rented accommodation should be available for people who find that their circumstances are most suited to rented accommodation.
There is a programme of acquisition on a vast scale. It amounts to £70 million a year for two years. I found the statement made by the solicitor and parliamentary officer to the Greater London Council disingenuous. He pointed out that the programme for the acquisition of existing dtwellings allowed for no increase over last year. Last year was sufficient for most of us. Even allowing for some reduction in real terms, because of the effect of inflation, this programme is still too large. The borrowing of £70 million at 15 per cent. interest means £10½ million in yearly interest charges alone. Presumably that was the burden, to which Sir Reginald Goodwin referred, which completely undermined the strategic housing plan, which is just about dead and buried, or at least on its way to being interred. I am sure that the departure of Mrs. Dimson must signal a change in housing policy at County Hall. We shall see.
Municipalisation is a wasteful use of public money. Apart from the price paid for the property, it is an expensive way of providing accommodation. The £40 million spent last year will have housed, according to the GLC, fewer than 5,000 people. For the same amount of money we could buy and build dwellings to house 17,000 people. But here we come to the point. That money cannot be turned into extra homes for people because of the dilatoriness of the GLC's own housing programme. The GLC owns land on which construction is proceeding, or is envisaged in some distant future, for 58,000 dwellings. Its housing programme is now producing 6,000 dwellings a year. Why does the GLC wish to acquire more properties, without creating a single new home, and involve the public of London in an immense new expenditure of that order?
849 Municipalisation is bad because it has the effect of sustaining house prices on the open market to the detriment of prospective new house purchasers. That fact is undoubtedly true. Whatever may be said about the agreement between the local authorities, the fact that the Greater London Council, with its virtually bottomless purse, is in the housing market has kept up the price of houses after a period when they were beginning to fall. Those prices might well have come within the reach of people who would have liked to purchase houses. The scandal of the situation is that the GLC is not able to accommodate all the extra properties which it has purchased.
The Opposition are constantly chided about Centre Point. That is the great symbol of the inadequacy of the construction policy in this country. But there are Centre Points in my constituency. They may not be quite as high, or ambitious, or architectually exciting. They are simply properties purchased by the GLC or by the local authority and left empty month after month, because the programme of acquisition is far too ambitious.
It is a source of considerable resentment amongst people seeking new homes that such properties remain unoccupied even though they are in public ownership. Many people come to my constituency "surgery" asking whether I can help them to find a home. I say that I shall gladly put their case to the local authority but point out that the local authority has a housing list in excess of 5,000 families. People say "Do you not know that there is a house round the corner which has been empty for month after month?" When I go to the local authority and say "What about this house, as it is suitable for this person?", it says that the house does not belong to the local authority—the inference being that it belongs to the GLC. But there are now large numbers of houses in public ownership in London which are unoccupied. Therefore the problem of homelessness is not solved by such a policy.
Thirdly, there is the difficulty of maintaining such properties and of managing properties scattered over wide areas. This is a liability for the future, and it is an illustration of the policy of expediency to 850 which this Government came but from which they are now withdrawing.
In the public expenditure White Paper, provision was made for a larger programme of acquisition of dwellings, at the same time cutting back on the renovation of present dwellings. The two paragraphs in that circular have the effect of causing the present controversy. However, we read in tonight's Evening Standard that some of the cut will be restored and that the reduction in the GLC's estimate for renovation from £20 million to £11 million will perhaps be made good. We are told that the justification is that it needs to be done. However, the way in which it will be done is by cutting home loans This is very significant. Once again the Government seek to advantage public housing at the expense of private housing If the Minister does not believe that, he has only to look at the Evening Standard, where he will see that that statement appears next to a photograph of an all-night queue of mortgage hunters outside the town hall in Erith. They were trying to secure loans from the council out of the £1 million which was to be made available. When I saw that photograph, it occurred to me that the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved) could have got up a little earlier this morning and made them a cup of tea—
§ Mr. Neubert
It shows that there is still a vast unfulfilled demand for mortgages, and it is quite wrong for the Minister to seek to cover up this confusion and to look for the source of new funds by reducing the amount of money available for home loans.
§ Mr. Ernest G. Perry
It may very well be true that a large number of people were lining up hoping to obtain mortgages from a local authority. No doubt those same people applied to building societies and were unable to obtain loans from them, despite the enormous funds of the societies, because the houses which they wished to buy did not come up to standard or were built before a certain date. Is not that grossly unfair on the part of building societies to people hoping to buy homes in London?
§ Mr. Neubert
I do not feel that that is relevant to the case I am making. The 851 London boroughs are known to be sources of borrowing of last resort. No one questions that. That is their job in life. We are discussing the amount of money available for people to purchase homes of the kind that the hon. Gentleman has referred to, because not everyone can be so ambitious as to have the highest standards in their housing requirements. We need desperately to use the accommodation that we have already before we embark upon the grandiose schemes of redevelopment which the hon. Member for Woolwich, East would like to see the GLC undertaking.
If the Minister's purpose is social ownership, which is his current euphemism for "municipalisation", let him say so. But it will be resented by large numbers of Londoners who would like nothing better than to own their homes.
§ 9.18 p.m.
§ Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)
The hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Neubert) mentioned Mrs. Gladys Dimson, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Cartwright). I join my hon. Friend in saying that anyone who knew Mrs. Dimson was in no doubt about her dedication to improving the housing conditions of people in London. Although a number of Opposition Members may have disagreed with the way in which she went about it, I am sure that the whole House will agree with that sentiment at least.
In this debate it has been striking that two of the most interesting speeches have come from two hon. Members who in the past were leaders of London borough councils. My hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, East was leader of the Greenwich Council. I support him strongly in opposing this instruction and I back wholeheartedly almost all that he said.
The hon. Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg), in an interesting speech—the House always listens to him with great interest—forgot that when the Conservative Party was in power at County Hall it rapidly sold off a lot of properties to people who were certainly not building homes for people. Indeed, his advocacy of selling off council houses ignores the cash flow. The hon. Gentleman mentioned a sum, but the sum that could be obtained for those houses would not 852 replace them in view of the costs of modern building.
§ Mr. Ronald Brown
The situation was even more cunning than my hon. Friend suggests. The Tories sold off only good stock, leaving a residue of the worst possible properties.
§ Mr. Spearing
Indeed. Not only that, but the Conservative-controlled council wished to sell off only detached houses. which are the most popular for those who can afford them. However, we know that those who can least afford to buy houses need them for their children to give them space during the time when they would otherwise have to be in tower blocks, which hon. Members on both sides of the House deplore.
Referring to the changing of housing policies, I remind hon. Gentlemen opposite that it was the policy of the Tories to build a vast number of ringways in London. Had they won the election not long ago at County Hall, they would have been busy building those roads for fewer cars and pulling down thousands of houses in the process, thereby making the terrible problem facing us today worse still.
Perhaps the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Moore), who talked about people changing their minds, will change his mind on that point. I suggest that, on the GLC's relations with the boroughs, he might also have a word with his hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young), who is sitting next to him, because the hon. Gentleman and I sat for a long time on the planning committee of the GLC. We both had an interest during that time in the old Acton constituency. We know that there is often an overlap of borough and GLC matters. Certainly then, and no doubt now, when the planning committee or individual planning boards looked at applications concerning an hon. Member's constituency, that Member could sit in. Therefore, the hon. Member for Croydon, Central must see his GLC opposite number regarding the 1.2-acre parcel of land about which he epressed concern and get all the information from him. I am sure that, whatever party is in control at County Hall. there will be that overlap. I suspect that squabbles of that kind are a reflection of policy over something more fundamental. 853 Whatever the defects of the Local Government Act 1963, surely there is a proper reflection of the wider regional and more local interest. The fact that they often clash is not necessarily bad, because the representation of interests is at the heart of democracy. That clash is sometimes reflected in different bodies.
I understand the feeling about the loss of the county boroughs. My constituency contains a large part of the old county borough of West Ham, which certainly is a place of great individuality and local loyalty. Through action on the planning committee of the GLC I was able to question the safety of some of my constituents at Wembley. I am glad to inform the House that, due to the representations I have made, the Wembley Stadium authorities have now said that they will allow the crowds heading out of the stadium on Saturday, after West Ham has won the Cup—
§ Mr. Spearing
After West Ham has won the Cup—to use the car park route as well as the overhead walkway. I hope that everybody will be satisfied about that.
Item 15 in the schedule refers to piers and landing places on the river. Perhaps part of the contingency funds can be devoted to purchasing some of the properties there. I hope that hon. Gentlemen opposite will not oppose this.
The way in which the Thames and London have been separated in the past through planning and flood defence works is one of the tragedies of our city, and it is time that this was changed. The GLC has great powers—or so the Government say—over matters relating to the Thames, and this is to be welcomed. The only thing about which I have any hesitation is that I understand that this purchase is being done not by the Thames Waterways Board but by the transport committee, and if it is to do its job the board, rather than the transport committee, should have the £500,000.
For the rest of my speech I shall refer to where the Thames ought not to be—that is to say, overflowing. I now join my riparian neighbour my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, East in mak 854 ing one or two points about the Thames barrier.
The barrier is likely to cost even more than the money mentioned in the schedule to the Bill, and it could go way above some of the contingency funds that we are discussing here. The reasons for this are set out in the Third Report of the Public Accounts Committee, Session 1974, House of Commons Paper No. 303.
The barrier, as is well known, is of unique design. One like it has never been built anywhere in the world to this size and scale, and there are many scientific problems to solve almost as one goes along. In these circumstances extra cash is always necessary, and because it is of such vital significance to London, and particularly to my constituency, there is a difficult problem of cash control. The Public Accounts Committee referred to this in its Third Report, and I shall come back to that in a few moments.
The real cruciality of the Thames defences, both the barrier and the walls, is brought out by information which is not always well known in London or in my constituency. The fact is that 85 per cent. of my constituency is below the 1953 flood level, and I am told that if, before the defences are finally completed, there were an overtopping of the walls by only 2 ft more than in 1953, for one and a half hours, inside my constituency there would be a lake two miles long by one mile wide stretching from Silvertown in the south to the District line in West Ham in the north, and it could stay there for two or three days.
I am not being alarmist in any sense, because I am also told that the chances of this happening are one in 380. They are, in a sense, very long betting odds, but occasionally such odds come up. That is why proper precautions need to be taken, because if that sort of disaster ensued, not only in my constituency but elsewhere, if that sort of condition arose before the barrier was in position and working, the result can only be imagined. I emphasise that this chance is present only until the raising of the river walls has been completed. This is the problem which confronts the GLC, which confronted the consultants and which confronts this House to some extent because of the question of inflation.
855 The Public Accounts Committee which looked at this matter was rather disturbed at the increase in costs. Because this work is so vital and necessary, one is in something of a quandary when one is asked to pay more. The PAC in its report at page xxxvii goes into this in some detail. One of the recommendations that it made in paragraph 107 was thata future Committee of Public Accounts should examine the effectiveness of these controls and should look more closely into the basis on which consultants fees are calculated.I am sure that the Opposition will support me here. Where there is a large sum of money—well over £250 million, and it will probably top £300 million by the time the work is finished—and where there is an inflation factor and consultant's fees are a fixed percentage, after they have done their work they sit back and take in the money.
This matter was raised in the Committee's proceedings by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Cant). At Question 437 he asked exactly how much the consultants would get for their work. The witness did not have the figures with him and did not know the amount. The question was not pursued, except that the witness was asked whether it would be 10 per cent. of the cost, and he repliedOh, no, much less than … four per cent.Let us assume that the cost was only 2 per cent., although it could be more. Two per cent. of £250 million is £5 million, which is a substantial sum. I know that a lot of work is involved in the job, but the consultants are not dealing with the material; they are being paid for their expertise. As the Public Accounts Committee said, as the costs go up, so also does the percentage being paid to the consultants. We are told in paragraph 104 of the Committee's report thatthe Ministry's formula for determining consultants' costs conformed largely to conventional practices … current discussions with one of the three main consultants for the Flood Barrier were taking place on the basis of a slightly lower percentage to take account certain inflationary factors which had occurred since the negotiations first started.I hope therefore, that Conservative Members, bearing in mind public expenditure, will have a look at this with us on a non-party basis. This sort of thing happens not only in this kind of work, 856 which is of substantial capital value, but with public authorities anywhere which are employing civil engineeering consultnts and who take a fixed percentage of the job cost. After their work is done the cost inflates, as is normal in modern times, and they take more money, even though the work has already been done.
I doubt whether my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr Graham) will be able to give me the figure I seek. If he cannot give it at the end of the debate, I have no doubt that he will be able to supply it in due course.
§ 9.33 p.m.
§ Dr. Rhodes Boyson (Brent, North)
I can assure the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), who has been very concerned about the Walkway in Wembley, that I shall be attending on Saturday to make sure that all is well there and that West Ham has a fair share of the referee, like Fulham. I am a Lancastrian living in London, and it would be difficult to find a more detached observer than that.
I express my concern about the municipalisation programme of the Greater London Council, to which special reference has been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg). I would dispute its use on two grounds. First I do not think it will solve, or even help to solve, London's housing problem. Secondly, the financial burden it will put upon the GLC and upon the country's public finances will only mean both the GLC and the country coming nearer to bankruptcy.
There is a genuine difference of opinion between the Labour and Conservative benches on the question of municipalisation. I do not question the good motives of the Labour Members. I always think that one must lack arguments if one is forced to dispute the motives of one's opponents. Those who favour municialisation are not do-gooders; they are basically well-meaners. The end products of the two are the same.
The more the State has become involved since 1914—and local authorities actually began with rent control at the beginning of the First World War—the greater the difficulties. The more the artificial markets have grown, the greater the shortages have become. This has led to more restrictions and, in turn, to even more severe shortages. 857 May I refer to the example cited on the question of private rented property? In the 1973 Labour Party manifesto, on which the Greater London Council elections were fought, these words appear:This policy will aim, once and for all, at removing the scourge of the private landlord in our cities.That was specifically spelt out. What has been the result when the private landlord has been bought out by the GLC or the London boroughs? In every case there has been created a tied cottage or tied fiat situation with less mobility and a move towards a stagnant and controlled economy.
The figures I have show that there is only a 20 per cent. movement in council house property compared with the movement in privately-owned property. Basically when a person has a council property he holds on to it. We can see a situation when that person will leave it in his will to his children and grandchildren. That does not make for mobility. For a party that opposes the tied cottage, it is odd that the Labour Party should be in support of a "metropolitan tied cottage ".
There is now a continual shortage of rented property which holds up the mobility of the population. In the cities students, transients, young people and single people have the greatest difficulty in finding rented accommodation. The more property that is bought up the more difficult the situation becomes. Those of us who know New York know that it often means a three-month wait, getting up at five o'clock in the morning to get the first editions of the papers, before one can obtain a private rented flat. This is because of the constant control which is exercised there.
My second point concerning municipalisation was also mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Neubert). It is that such a policy keeps up the price of property. There is the bottomless purse of the State. The same is true of industry. As long as workers in industry believe that the State will bail out when an industry goes bankrupt, irrespective of wage claims, they cannot be blamed for putting in the ultimate in wage claims.
If there is this bottomless purse of the Slate via the. GLC or the local 858 boroughs, the price of property will never drop to a level at which more people can buy their own homes. There is a case in the borough of Havering, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Romford, which has come to my notice of a house being bought by a couple as their first home for £11,400. They were then gazumped by the local authority, which bought it for £900 more. There must be hundreds of similar cases. This policy of municipalisation removes houses from the market. No matter what Labour Members think, there is a great desire among people to own their own homes. Every survey shows that about 80 per cent. of the people prefer to own their own homes and to have a stake in their own community.
My next point bears out what my hon. Friend has already said. In 1974, according to my figures, the GLC bought 3,170 dwellings, of which only 1,117 were vacant. If we divide that number into the price paid, it means that £8,000 was paid for every man, woman and child rehoused in those dwellings last year. It is a fantastic cost. The Minister shakes his head. That was my advice. Perhaps we can meet behind Mr. Speaker's Chair later and add up the figures.
Municipalisation will not solve the problems. I accept the genuine concern of Labour Members, but we must also bear in mind whether the country can afford the great cost of an increased municipalisation programme at present. I am not here to defend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. but we have to decide whether this would be in line with his Budget Statement.
In the London boroughs and in the GLC there is a large municipalisation programme. Some of the money for the boroughs is provided by the GLC under various loan arrangements. The borough which I represent has plans to build 454 houses at a cost, including land, of £30,000 each. Only 15 per cent. of the cost will be covered by rent. For 60 years 85 per cent. will have to be covered by public subsidy from the Government or the local authority. The Bible says that the sins of the fathers are passed on to their children. These debts will be passed on not only to our children but to our grandchildren before this great incubus is lifted from the backs of the people of London.
859 With the help of the GLC, 1,000 private houses were bought last year in Brent.
§ Dr. Boyson
My hon. Friend, in whose constituency I live, is paying close attention to my comments. The borough in which is my constituency last year bought 1,000 houses, and the subsidy for each of those houses per year—presumably this will be for 60 years—is £1,150. This subsidy will come from the local authority and the Government. We shall not solve our financal problems this year. We shall be landed with them for many years to come if we adopt this policy.
One reason for our financial crisis is that local authority expenditure under the last Conservative Government and under the present Government has got out of public control. We shall need a body like the Public Accounts Committee to control it or it will break the back of any Government. Between 1955 and 1972 the share of public expenditure expended by local authorities increased from 25 per cent. to 31 per cent. Its share of the gross national product increased from 10 per cent. to 15 per cent. during that period. This is one of the problems which will rest upon the desk of any Chancellor for a long time.
A large share of the external deficit, with which we are all concerned, arises from having to finance the capital investment of the GLC and other London boroughs.
It is a question of the straw that breaks the camel's back. The level of taxation and local rates in this country is crippling the initiative of our people. Every hon. Member must he concerned about the heavy and rising burden of rates, especially of the GLC, which have trebled in two years.
Heavy taxation always causes revolt in any community. The American War of Independence was based upon a taxation revolt. The great battles of our history of 1381, 1450, 1549 and 1642 were all about heavy taxation. Heavy rates are moving people towards a revolt against both local and national government and against all parties.
I disagree in principle with the usefulness of municipalisation. It does not 860 solve problems; it increases problems more than it solves. I do not doubt the motives of Labour Members, but the result will be against their wishes. We are in the middle of a major financial crisis, and if we do not make these cuts now they will be made by the Chancellor within the next three or six months We are here to help him. The madness must stop some time. The coach will become a pumpkin at the stroke of midnight or whenever it comes. I must not mix my metaphors any more. However, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and I shall be surprised if we do not get unanimous support from the Government benches
§ 9.45 p.m.
§ The Minister for Housing and Construction (Mr. Reginald Freeson)
Perhaps I might intervene for a few minutes on behalf of the Government. I will not follow in too much detail much of what has been said in this debate, since it has ranged far beyond the points at issue either in the Bill or in the Instruction sought by the Opposition.
So far as hon. Members have discussed financial problems in local government. whether in housing or in other matters. these are being examined closely by the Layfield Committee, which is investigating local finance generally and, so far as housing finance is concerned, by the special housing finance review which we have set up in the Department and is being monitored by an appointed steering committee of outside persons. As I have said before, that review will deal not simply with local authority rents and subsidies but also with a wide range of fundamental housing finance matters, covering points raised tonight, among others. So I will not pursue those points now.
I should like to concentrate on the burden of complaint and criticism by the Opposition about municipalisation—the social ownership of rented property. I regret that once again many Conservative Members have tried to raise the phoney battle of owner-occupier versus tenant. That is not the Government's view of the situation. After all, when this Government came to power a year ago, they deliberately and effectively ended the mortgage famine they found, to the benefit of owner occupiers. We have a 861 long way to go yet—I make no mistake about that—but if we had been as we are described by the Opposition, we should have done nothing to assist.
It is contrary to the facts and to policy intentions which the Government have made clear, as well as to actions we have taken since February last year, still to try to persuade people that there is a party political division on the subject of owner-occupation. It is time that this nonsense stopped.
§ Mr. Cyril D. Townsend (Bexleyheath)
I was wondering how the Minister would explain that philosophy to the hundreds of people who were about to buy their GLC houses and were unable to do so because the Conservatives lost the GLC election.
§ Mr. Freeson
I should be happy to enter that discussion when we discuss the general housing situation on other occasions. At this moment, I would say only that, whether or not this Government had come to office, the financial state of the housing market was such that that source of house sales was drying up anyway. The hon. Member can ask any local authority representative around the country, Tory or Labour, and he will find that that was the case. The policies pursued by this Government and adopted by both Labour and Tory authorities were the proper policies in the circumstances.
We are opposed to the wholesale, indiscriminate sale of rented properties. It was the policy of the Conservative Party in government, and I understand that it still is, to allow indiscriminate sales irrespective of the housing situation in individual areas.
§ Mr. Freeson
We can discuss these issues in detail on another occasion. Per haps I might be allowed to continue.
§ Mr. Freeson
Does the hon. Member wish to intervene? He has only just come in. Perhaps I might be allowed to continue with what I was saying before I was interrupted by the hon. Member for Southgate (Mr. Berry), who I believe 862 is a Whip. Perhaps I may be allowed to continue with my own remarks. I shall happily give way to the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Ravens-bourne (Mr. Hunt), when I have done so.
I turn to the specific issues that are before us. I thought that I would deal with one or two preliminary points first before coming to my main observations. Suggestions have been made by certain hon. Members that in some constituencies hundreds of dwellings have been acquired which have been standing empty for months and even years on end. Romford has been quoted. I recall that there were similar references of a more generalised kind by other hon. Members.
I specifically and genuinely invite hon. Members who have made such statements to write to me and to give me the facts. I assure them that we shall have them probed and that in so far as it is possible to get action taken it will be taken. I also invite further details about the 3,000 properties which were bought by the GLC when only 1,000 were vacant. I should welcome further details as to the breakdown of the figures and the source of the figures. I would be interested to probe them. We shall seek to take early action as far as it is possible to do so.
Similarly, I should like to have information about the location of the sites held by the GLC that would provide 58,000 dwellings in a relatively short time if the GLC organised its housing programme more effectively. My remarks will be on the record and no doubt hon. Members will read them and get in touch with me. Having made these points rather briefly, and before turning to the main burden of what I have to say, I gladly give way to the hon. Member for Ravensbourne.
§ Mr. Hunt
The Minister has passed on from the point he was making about which I wanted to ask a question. He was saying that the climb-down on the sale of council houses to sitting tenants was in part due to the general state of housing finance. Can we take it from his remarks that if and when that situation improves the Government will look favourably upon the sale of council houses to sitting tenants?
§ Mr. Freeson
I am afraid the hon. Gentleman was not listening to what I 863 was saying. I said that irrespective of whether the Government had come into office that was what would have happened. This is what would have been said by any local authority representative throughout the country. I went on to say that the Government have made it clear—and I make it clear again—that we are opposed to the foolish policy of the indiscriminate sale of properties irrespective of any survey or understanding of the local housing situation.
It is necessary to examine the housing needs and demands in any area before deciding on the correct balance between rented accommodation, owner-occupation and other kinds of tenure which the Government are seeking to push. I shall make some general references to indicate our thinking on this matter, although tonight is not the occasion for a major philosophical discussion about the basis of our future housing policy.
The housing policy which the Government are putting forward is far removed from the kind of picture painted by people who do not even bother to listen to what we are saying. They do not bother to read about the actions we are taking, the policy documents we are putting out and the guidance we are giving to local authorities. If they did so, they would not make statements that attribute to the Government certain intentions and policies which bear no relation to the facts and no relation to the negotiations and contacts that we have with local government and the building industry throughout the country.
§ Mr. John Page
It was in March that the Greater London Council arranged to purchase 71 dwellings, only 19 of which are vacant. Does the Minister regard that as sensible action for a local authority to take?
§ Mr. Freeson
I shall come to some general observations about the purposes of the municipalisation of rented houses. If the hon. Gentleman writes to me with details of the transaction which he has in mind, I shall probe the point as a matter of policy, as I have done concerning a number of other properties which have been referred to me in discussions on the Floor of the House.
Let me try now to deal with some observations which have been made in this 864 debate and seek to put them against the policy background. Tonight's debate is largely a repetition of last year's debate, at a similar time in the year, when the same hon. Gentleman—the hon. Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg)—sought to reduce provision in the Greater London Council (Money) Bill. The hon. Gentleman's main target was the policy of municipalisation. His efforts failed then, and I hope that the House will reject the motion tonight.
I should like to sketch briefly one or two basic facts in the background connected with municipalisation and social ownership policies. The facts will indicate the reasons for that policy.
There are about 2½ million dwellings in greater London. It is difficult to be sure between census returns, but of that figure there are about 400,000 houses in greater London which are substandard in one form or another. They are either short of one basic amenity or seriously obsolescent. If they are not dealt with in the next few years they might, if we are not careful, reach into slumdom and be irretrievably lost in terms of providing decent conditions.
Most of those 400,000 houses are concentrated in what used to be known as the London County Council area—the inner area of London—in which there are about 1,250,000 dwellings. In other words, 40 per cent. of the dwellings in inner London are in one form or another substandard. Whatever the history may be, and there may be various arguments about how this situation came about, the position now is that people have been living in those conditions and children have been growing up in such homes decade after decade.
We must also consider a further set of facts. Again this will be a "guesstimate" since we are between censuses, but there is probably a loss of 30,000 rented dwellings from the market each year in London. There has been no great variation in areas in terms of greater control or security of tenure. The pattern has been fairly consistent: the figure has been up in some years and down in others. But the figure of loss is roughly as I have outlined, irrespective of arguments about security of tenure and so on.
Most of what has happened has come about as a result of all sorts of economic 865 pressures. In the last few years since the slump in housing starts in mid-1973 there has been a considerable outflow of property from the market simply because owner-occupation became desirable in itself and also profitable. More and more properties were being sold in certain areas of London, and elsewhere in the country, which previously had been rented. This was the largest single factor which led to the loss of rented accommodation—and in the past two years it has been on a somewhat larger scale than normal. We have been losing rented accommodation, for one reason or another, over a number of years. The accommodation which is left with us is to a large degree in a substandard condition.
We also have a net shortage of housing in London. Between 1969 and last year the net shortage figure rose from 100,000 to 130,000.
§ It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.
That the proceedings on the Motion for an Instruction relating to the Greater London Council (Money) Bill, set down for consideration at Seven o'clock this evening by direction of the Chairman of Ways and Means, may be proceeded with at this day's Sitting, though opposed, for a period of one hour after Ten o'clock.—[Mr. Thomas Cox.]
§ Question again proposed.
§ Mr. Freeson
There are all kinds of reasons for this into which there is not time to go this evening, but that is the estimate we make. Those are the basic facts, over-simply stated, of the London scene.
In that kind of situation it is essential, broadly speaking, to do three things. We must increase the rate of house-building in London. We must do something to reduce the rate of loss in the rented sector, though we shall not be able to do so completely as there are different demands in our time for different kinds of tenure than there were years ago; but we need to reduce the rate of loss of rented dwellings from the market, particularly in inner London, but elsewhere, too. And as far as we can make up the loss by new building and converting older properties brought into appropriate ownership, we must do so.
This has nothing to do with ideology. I have an ideological view about rented property, but irrespective of ideology 866 this will not be achieved unless in one way or another we extend social ownership and social intervention into this field. That is the only way to hold the rented market and to get properties modernised, improved and converted wherever it is desirable to do so, to provide not only additional accommodation but the right kind of additional accommodation on the London scene, which is different from the demand that existed for that accommodation a few years ago.
We need many more smaller units because of the demographic changes which are taking place. There is no evidence, for whatever historical reasons, to suggest that if we keep pushing at the private market we shall succeed in this achievement. To make a further point, if nobody believed this until the inquiry into the Greater London Development Plan I would have thought that by now, across the party lines, as a result of the evidence and recommendations that came out of that major inquiry—there has never been one like it in this country before—we would all have accepted this. It had been put forward previously. The Milner Holland Committee came to the same conclusion, and special reports produced by Grieve and others and by Collingwood on the London housing scene some 10 or 15 years ago have pointed in this direction.
The most notable report to reach this conclusion was the Layfield Committee's report, which found that the only effective way to hold the rented market at a reasonable level in London and to get properties improved was by social action. Whether it is done by municipalities, housing associations, co-operatives or some other form of social action is a matter of detailed argument and balance. It is that basic conclusion that lies at the centre of the present Government's thinking. and I would have hoped that by now, whatever detailed differences there might be, it would have been broadly accepted across party lines and that we would have ceased treating this matter as a party political football. Of course, it will always be political because independnt evidence has pointed in the direction of this policy being right.
§ Mr. John Moore
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I take his point. I have listened to him with great care. I have great sympathy with and no doubt 867 would agree with much of what he says. My difficulty is in jumping from the ideological to the practical. Will the hon. Gentleman connect what he has said, with which I personally have great sympathy, with the specific properties referred to by my hon. Friend on the Hill in Wimbledon which have no relevance to the discussion?
§ Mr. Freeson
I was not being ideological. I was taking pains to point out that many independent bodies have looked at this subject from a non-ideological viewpoint, whatever the Labour Party's views might have been over a long period.
Certain properties were referred to in the debate. Government policy is to give priority to putting resources into the worst kind of properties. Those are the properties we want to deal with mainly. If things were a little easier one might take a more flexible view of social ownership. Properties such as the one standing on the hill in question or properties in a valley somewhere else have been broken up and sold by owners—not all but some of them. That is a characteristic of even the better-off rented market in London.
The hon. Member for Hampstead will be well aware of a particular empire that has been involved in this exercise in a big way until relatively recent times. I do not want to get involved in detail for tactical reasons. There is a lot going on in connection with that empire in inner London. The hon. Member for Hampstead and others will be aware that until bad times hit the property market this process was going on at an ever increasing rate. Rented properties in blocks of flats were broken up and sold speculatively or for owner-occupation. It is to prevent that process that certain Labour authorities such as the GLC have turned their attention to purchasing.
I hold the view on behalf of the Government that we must direct the resources we have available for municipalisation and social ownership to the priorities the Government have stated, which in the main have been followed.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg
Will the Minister say whether he will help, or continue not to help, the tenants of the Stern Group in my constituency who wish to buy the properties from the receiver?
§ Mr. Freeson
The hon. Gentleman should know perfectly well—as I think he does—that we are doing precisely that. His question is a little unfair. He knows that a lot of work has been going on quietly behind the scenes. I do not propose to get involved in the details. It would do no one any good to discuss the details on the Floor of the House. The time will come when we shall state our intentions and conclusions. The objective is to get certain properties into some form of social ownership, by whatever means, by whatever instrument. I hope that there will be no disagreement on that score when it becomes known what we have been trying to do over many months and are still working on.
To return to my summary of the factual background, social ownership and control of rented housing is essential to any strategy for solving London's housing problems. It is not the be all and end all, but it is an essential part of solving London's problems and those of other big cities. It is central to Government policy, notwithstanding the immediate economic situation which constrains the resources we can devote to that policy.
That is why we are making available in our public expenditure budget sufficient capital at least to maintain the level of municipalisation which was achieved during our first year of office. We have made no cut in that programme, and as soon as economic difficulties permit we shall step it up. In addition, we are expanding the programme of social ownership through housing associations.
I am considering two ways of widening the scope of socialising rented housing which do not involve capital spending and other costly burdens on Government and local government. Social ownership remains, as we have been assured by the Leader of the GLC, the long-term aim at County Hall. It is my hope that the council will be able to reconsider any proposed cut in capital spending on municipalisation of all private rented property. The Government are making the capital available for maintaining the present level of municipalisation within our total housing budget. It is important that local authorities in the stress areas undertake the programme for which we have provided to the fullest extent possible. Against the background of housing needs 869 the programme is a modest one. It is not this picture of a gigantic bulldozing instrument of policy that has been painted for us by the Opposition—not for the first time.
London's housing problem remains extremely serious. The stock has increased overall over a number of years in relation to the number of households being formed. However, there still remain the shortages and the bad conditions to which I referred earlier, and most of these, as I have indicated, are concentrated in the inner city area. There will have to be a determined drive for many years before shortages and poor quality can be overcome.
I repeat that social ownership and control is vital to this objective, as has been recognised by practically every serious observer of the housing scene for many years past. If the motion that is before us succeeds, the effect will be to prevent the Greater London Council from doing what is postulated in the Bill. It will prevent the GLC from adopting any kind of flexible review of its policy, such as I suggested a few moments ago, during the course of the year. The Opposition's proposal would reduce the provision for 1975–76 to well below the provision authorised by Parliament for 1974–75.
The provision for capital expenditure in last year's Money Act was £158 million. This year's proposed total is some £30 million more. This increase reflects primarily the welcome increase in the GLC house building programme during 1974. It has been indicated during the course of the debate that the council accepted tenders for building a little under 6,000 houses by the end of the year compared with a little over 2,500 the year before. There have been agreements with private builders to acquire nearly 2,000 new dwellings under construction.
What the GLC has been doing in terms of both new building and social ownership has been the echoeing of a pattern that has been properly emerging under Government policy throughout the country. We have a long way to go in housing, especially in getting private owner-occupier housing up further than it is running at present. We have a long way to go on local authority housing, but there has been a considerable increase in 870 the past 12 months and the GLC performance is a reflection of what has been achieved nationally.
Turning to municipalisation, the total housing provision in the Bill includes £40 million. It is the same as the amount provided in last year's Money Act. In the light of the problem of the rented sector in London, nobody can say that this is other than a modest proposal. It is a modest move in this direction. Because of public expenditure limits we cannot move as fast as I would wish. We are moving in the right direction, and we are doing so by ordering our priorities. This is true of socialising old properties as well as of getting new housing under construction. The priorities all relate to stress conditions and empty properties. When we come to issue further policy guidance in pursuit of the circular that was issued for 1974, we shall be stressing this once more to local authorities throughout the country. Given the limits within which we are operating, first call must go on stress area properties, housing action areas, general improvement areas, priority neighbourhoods and, generally, properties that will meet the first priority housing need in terms of accommodation and getting them rehabilitated.
Section 105 does not come into this because such rehabilitation as can be initially undertaken to get properties into speedy occupation is provided for under the Housing Rents and Subsidies Act, under the municipalisation programme itself, and, provided it does not concern major conversion and improvement, it is not covered or restricted by Section 105. It is covered by the Act. That is a deliberate matter of policy.
Some figures have been bandied about. Let me give some of the figures to see what has been going on and what is likely to happen if the Bill goes through as proposed and is acted upon by the GLC. I accept that there have been exceptions, but let us not generalise from them, because several thousand properties have been bought. About 14,000 have been bought in London as a whole—not a major figure, but a sizeable one.
§ Mr. Freeson
Against a background of 400,000 substandard properties? Really!
871 About 14,000 properties have been bought in London. The GLC bought about 3,000 and housing associations bought 6,000. There was a total approaching 20,000 bought by housing associations, boroughs and the GLC together. Even that, because of the constraints on resources, I regret to say is only a small inroad into a major problem. We must at least maintain that level of activity. If we do not, the problems will overtake us in London and other cities. [Interruption.] If they are, we must step up, not cut down, as the Opposition have proposed. As soon as we have the economic resources, we shall do that. But let us not start cutting back now on the modest effort we have been putting into this programme.
872 We must get old properties brought into social ownership and rehabilitated, modernised, before they fall to pieces. It does not matter whether it is done by municipalities, the GLC, housing associations or various other means of social enterprise that we shall be examining in the coming months.
That is the burden of the case against the Instruction that the Opposition request. We want to maintain the programme that has been established. I hope that we shall have backing from all hon. Members. We want to stop this being a party football. There are housing needs that must be met. Properties must be modernised and families given proper conditions. The sad thing is not that too much is being done but that we cannot do enough. I hope that the House will be united in future in supporting the policy.
§ 10.18 p.m.
§ Mr. Norman Tebbit (Chingford)
There is much that I should like to say about the GLC tonight. I do not think that any of us would claim that what was done 12 years ago, in 1963, has worked out as we would have hoped. I am sure that we intended it to lead to a better London, to a better system of London government, and I doubt that it has.
I should like to say a great deal about what my constituents think about a GLC which, having bitterly opposed road growth in London and the improvements in roads that we need in North-East London, has now proposed a heavy lorry route on one of the most dangerous hills in North-East London, a route going through a built-up area, past schools and through shopping areas. My constituents think a good deal about a Labour council that does that. They remember bitterly some of the talk about a Labour GLC caring.
There is a great deal to be said tonight on the broader aspect of the GLC's policies. Because of the nature of the Instruction which my hon. Friends and I seek to send to the GLC, we shall be talking about its housing policies. We are fortunate to have the Minister here tonight, because he can take note of some of the things that are said. Will he tell us some time—I am disappointed that he did not tell us tonight—whether he will continue to allow rents in the GLC to fall so far below a realistic level that day-to-day management charges are not being met?
It seemed to me that the Opposition had raised an important issue with regard to the GLC. The Minister said not one word about that. I do not know whether he thinks that that does not matter. I do not know whether he thinks that he does not have the power to do anything, and that, therefore, he should say nothing about it. I do not know whether he is happy with the standstill on GLC rents, which has continued for two years in an inflationary situation.
I am sorry to see the Minister looking at his watch. The time is only 10.20 p.m. and I have barely started. [HON. MEMBERS: "Watch it."] Never mind. The Minister has not answered that question, but at least I have attracted his attention.
874 Will the Minister say whether he is, content to allow the GLC rents to fall below the level at which they cover the day-to-day running charges? Presumably, from his continued silence, neither the Minister nor the Government holds an opinion on this matter, yet the Minister is prepared to sit back and watch it happen.
Council tenants pay only 32 per cent. of the housing costs in London, ratepayers pay 18 per cent. and the taxpayers at large pay 50 per cent. How much longer are the Government prepared to allow that trend to continue?
It is quiet in the Chamber tonight. Normally when we ask the Prime Minister a question like that he jumps up and says "How long would you allow it to continue?" The Minister does not even have the energy to do that. The Minister does not know the answer to my question. Increasingly he reminds me of Lewis Carroll's cat. His speech also reminds me of that cat—if I look at it twice there is nothing left except the sneer. In the case of the Minister it is a sneer, because I have never seen him smile.
§ Mr. Townsend
How long will the Minister tolerate the fact that one in three of the GLC tenants is in arrears with his rent at the moment?
§ Mr. Tebbit
Even if I asked the Minister he would have no opinion on that. I shall gladly give way to him if he wishes to express an opinion whether this is a desirable state of affairs or is one about which something should be done. He seems to have no opinion. I fancy that those ratepayers and council tenants who do pay their rents will not be amused at a Minister who complacently views the situation without offering any comment. Those constituents of the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown) who pay their rents will not be pleased that the hon. Gentleman finds it amusing that a large number of tenants do not pay their rents. The Minister does not seem to give a damn about that.
§ Mr. Ronald Brown
The sensible answer to the question asked by the hon. Gentleman is that the matter he raises 875 is one for local government. That is what local government is all about. If the hon. Gentleman is now adducing the argument in favour of getting rid of local government he had better say so.
§ Mr. Tebbit
The hon. Gentleman misses the fact that we are discussing how much money local government must raise to expand a system of housing in which people do not give a damn whether or not the tenants pay tile rent. The scheme has been given the fancy name of "social ownership" by the Minister. I do not know what "social ownership" means. Perhaps it is a form of ownership which allows the sewage to rise in the sinks of the constituents of the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham), not once now and again but week after week. What is social about that? The hon. Gentleman seems to want to intervene again.
§ Mr. Ronald Brown
If the hon. Gentleman provokes me, I am more than happy to oblige him. The sewage problem also occurs in the Barbican, where the hon. Gentleman lives.
§ Mr. Tebbit
It does not happen in my part of the Barbican. If it did, I should have something to say about it. But the hon. Gentleman does not weaken my case. The Barbican is a council estate as well. It happens to belong to a local authority.
What is it that is so different about social ownership? If the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury had said that he had had no answer six weeks after writing to a private landlord to point out that sewage was coming up in a kitchen sink, I guarantee that there would have been some comment from the Minister tonight. But he makes no comment about this instance. As usual, there appear to be two standards.
In a speech which was powerful, reasoned, researched and impressive, my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg) made a number of telling points. Again, the Minister made no attempt to answer them. My hon. Friend said that in seeking to borrow money on the public market the GLC had called its housing stock an asset. But if rents 876 do not cover day-to-day costs, it is not an asset. On current account at least it is a liability. How long can this situation continue?
Clearly, investors are not willing any longer to lend to the GLC at other than a premium rate. That is what the market at large thinks about the GLC. It does so because there is a gnawing doubt in the minds of those engaged in the money market about the continuing ability of the GLC to meet its debt obligations. That would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. It would have been unthinkable even five years ago. Today the unthinkable is being thought.
The unthinkable is also being done. Inflation is now running at a rate of more than 20 per cent. against 8.4 per cent. when this Government came to power in October. A Socialist Chancellor of the Exchequer has included a target of 1 million unemployed in his Budget, and he has threatened that he would like to let it go higher and to slash public expenditure if wage claims are not reduced. All that would have been unthinkable five years ago. It would have been unthinkable last October at the time of the General Election. Yet it has happened.
Today people seriously wonder whether the day will come when the Greater London Council will be unable to meet its obligations. If that day comes, will Her Majesty's Government bail out the GLC? These are questions which it is prudent for this House to ask before it allows the GLC to continue on its Rake's Progress.
Many other issues have been raised in this debate. In one very odd passage in his speech, the Minister said that council house sales had almost stopped when his Government came to office. If that was so, why did he feel it necessary to issue an instruction to councils that they should not go on selling?
§ Mr. Freeson
Like so much else which the hon. Gentleman frequently emits in this House, that is quite inaccurate. No such instruction was issued.
§ Mr. Tebbit
Then are we to take it that the Minister is happy to allow councils to continue to s***l houses?
§ Mr. Tebbit
I am not in the least sorry to have brought the Minister to his feet. I am not in the least sorry to have established in this House from the Minister's own mouth that he has not stopped, and will not stop, a council from selling houses. Apparently, we have a new principle in Government policy. There is no reason why, apparently, a council should not sell houses. There will be a great many councils which will heave a sigh of relief and get on with selling again.
I notice that the Minister is performing his Cheshire cat act again. Is there any reason why councils should not sell houses? Has the Minister done anything to prevent them from selling houses? It is difficult to get answers out of this Minister.
§ Mr. Tebbit
I am not asking stupid questions. These are not stupid questions for many thousands of tenants who want to buy their houses. These are not stupid questions for many thousands in the new towns who want to buy their houses.
The Minister went on to a general discussion about London's housing position. He said that it was impossible to provide rented housing by any means except social ownership—whatever that means.
The hon. Gentleman prayed in aid a number of independent investigators, but he failed to mention that their investigations were made against the background of the known view of the Labour Party —that private landlords were a scourge to be eliminated and that they would not be allowed to make a profit on their investments at any time that the Labour Government were in power. Small wonder there was no anxiety amongst investors to come forward and invest in housing to rent.
The Minister read a statement very carefully—obviously anxious not to stray from its words—which still left doubts in the minds of many hon. Members.
I wonder whether he would now like to clear up one other small matter. Will 878 he, on behalf of the Government, pledge that the GLC and, indeed, the London boroughs will get every penny that they need to improve the houses that they have purchased under his programme of municipalisation? It is an interesting point. Will they get the money? Again, there seems to be doubt in the Minister's mind whether the councils will get the money that they need to improve their properties.
The hon. Gentleman did not answer any of the points raised in the questions posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead. In particular, he did not answer whether the circular on municipalisation was or was not being applied up to the day before the Budget when the letter, which was read by my hon. Friend, was issued by his Department. Was there a change of policy at that stage? Was the word "now" in that letter of significance or not? I think that the House is entitled to know. Obviously the Minister thinks it is of no account that the House should know.
The Minister made a speech tonight which I think he will be interested to re-read in 12 months when we have another of these Bills before the House. He seems to think that in the 12 months to come he will be able to carry on with his programme of public expenditure and that the local authorities will be able to carry on with their programmes of public expenditure unchecked by the Chancellor. Indeed, he seems to assume that all will go well and that the GLC will survive to come back in 12 months with demands for more money. I wonder.
The Minister is not prepared to answer any questions tonight. But I think that most of the questions that have been asked will be answered by events during the next 12 months. We shall see in 12 months whether the Minister is laughing or whether the whole country is in tears because of his policies.
§ 10.34 p.m.
§ Mr. Sydney Bidwell (Ealing, Southall)
This debate on the financial affairs of the GLC highlights more than ever the poverty of the Opposition. We have heard a great deal of wishful thinking by hon. Gentlemen opposite about what will result from the undoubted problems which beset Labour-controlled local 879 authorities and the GLC. But I believe that the working people of London will be stark, staring, raving mad if they ever return to a Tory-controlled GLC.
I call the opposition of Conservative Members irresponsible because they seem to bemoan the size of the GLC and the London boroughs without bearing in mind that the existence of the GLC as a wide-ranging entity was not a creation of the Labour Party. It was their idea, and it was resented in Middlesex and in inner London, and the Royal Commission which sat to opine on the re-organisation of conurbations and local authorities proposed a smaller entity of boroughs within a London setting.
We are suffering from the size of the whole operation in the sense that there is a gulf between the elected representatives on these authorities and the public at large, particularly in the boroughs. We know from our experience as councillors that very few people know how local authorities work. They seldom know the names of their GLC members.
I was struck by what the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Neubert) said about accountability and the democratic system. There was sonic substance in that aspect of the hon. Gentleman's speech, but I do not accept much of the rest of what he said. He said that there is accountability every three or four years in the London boroughs. In our case, in purely electoral terms, the span is longer. It was part of the aim of the Chartists to have annual Parliaments, and, therefore. annual accountability, but accountability should be a continuing process, and it is.
The present state of public understanding and knowledge of this subject leaves much to be desired, and the Opposition are trying to bemuse and confuse the public as a whole. All this is being considered against the background of an inflationary situation for which the Opposition, because of the policies which they pursued prior to the re-election of the Labour Government, must bear a heavy responsibility. I have been looking at the details of the Instruction that we are debating, and one wonders why these figures have been put forward. What justification is there for them?
Tory Members have talked about the detail of their attack this evening, but 880 there has been a noticeable absence of detail. What are they suggesting? What are they relating to? They are dealing with the matter in amorphous terms. My hon. Friend the Minister told the House what the proposed cuts would mean.
The Opposition have used this occasion to raise the old, sterile, hoary. idea logical question of owner-occupation versus municipalisation and rented property, and so on. I recall an old Socialist friend of mine saying that the Tories are very much interested in people owning their own houses and the one next door. That is their view, because if we were all owner-occupiers there would be no private landlords. No one can tell me that the Tory Party, which was cradled in the history of landlordism, has suddenly decided to abolish landlords. I ask Conservative Members to "come off it" because the people of London are too intelligent to be carried away by sterile arguments such as we have heard from them tonight. Difficult as the situation is, the people will not give control back to a party which has fetishes of this kind.
I thought that the hon. Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson) was going to use his notorious expertise in education to entertain us. Some of the proposals here are related to the GLC's education obligations. Instead, he and his hon. Friends concentrated on the municipalisation of property. The housing problems of London cannot be solved until there is a significant breakthrough in municipal provision. We do not oppose owner-occupation. I am not sure how many of my hon. Friends and their constituents own their own homes—very few in practice, I suspect, since they are probably mostly still in the hands of the moneylenders.
§ Mr. Bidwell
I cannot deal with a galaxy of interventions. Perhaps my Member of Parliament, the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby), will intervene later. I am aware of the agitation he has been causing in his constituency over the rate rises which are 881 attendant upon the inflationary situation. In fact, most of the people he has been stirring up against the Government get a better deal out of municipal expenditure than my constituents because his people live in happier surroundings.
§ Mr. Shersby
I am grateful to my constituent for giving way to me. It is a pleasure to have him as a constituent and to know that he is a freeholder in my constituency. I am sure that he will agree with me that it was a notable experience when about 5,000 constituents turned out in Uxbridge High Street last week to demonstrate against a 54 per cent. rate increase by the London borough of Hillingdon. Does he not agree that the increase in the rates levied by the borough upon my constituents is caused in part by the municipalisation programme being pursued by the Socialist-controlled GLC?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. George Thomas)
Order. It would be easier if the hon. Gentleman had tried to catch my eye.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. We are getting rather close to the finishing time, and interruptions should be kept brief.
§ Mr. Shersby
I am grateful for your guidance on these matters, as always, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I simply wanted to say that the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Bidwell) should have regard for the plight of his neighbours in Hillingdon because of the expenditure incured by the Greater London Council.
§ Mr. Bidwell
The Socialists in control of the London borough of Hillingdon are wise enough not to cut back on the social services. We hear terrible stories from Havering about the cuts in the refuse services and in expenditure on the parks. I hope that will never happen in the Socialist-controlled London borough of Hillingdon. It is the Tories in the borough who, by the manner in which they live, gain a great deal from municipal activity.
The continuation of Socialist control of the London borough of Hillingdon is made possible mainly by the intelligence of the working people of Hayes, the con- 882 stituency adjacent to mine. I believe they will continue to show that intelligence.
We are waiting for the Layfield Report on the rating system. We have to find a solution to the problem of inflation which could lead to reductions in public services and in our standard of living. Hopefully, Layfield will point the way to a solution. I hope we shall not have wholesale raffles to rectify an unfair taxation system.
It is the working class that gets the worst end of the stick and the middle class that gets the advantage from the rating system because that system is based on hypothetical rent valuations. People pay not on the value of the land they occupy but on the hypothetical rent value. We cannot have an ideal Labour movement until we deal with the ownership of land. Our memories go back to the iniquitous Tory Rent Act of 1957, designed to create shortages of rented property. Even the Tories had to mitigate its effects.
Only Socialist measures will suffice for London. I disagree with my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction who said that we should not make this issue a political football and fight an ideological battle over it. It is an ideological battle involving such issues as tenant exploitation, how much land a person should own, and whether there should be a leasehold system with Socialist ownership of land. My party has not yet taken all the necessary steps to deal with this. There must be sterner social measures against those who are a barrier to progress.
The hon. Member for Brent, North has become nationally famous for his old-fashioned utterances. I thought that he would entertain us about education because he knows a lot about that, but he did not—[AN HON. MEMBER: "He is getting a note] I am not getting a note. The hon. Member for Brent, North alluded to the growth of local authority expenditure and its relationship to the gross national product. He gave us a range from 1955— [Interruption.]
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I hope that hon. Members will not interrupt the hon. Gentleman who has the Floor, because their own hon. Friend is waiting to wind up.
§ Mr. Bidwell
The hon. Member is correct: that is poison to the Tory Party. They want private affluence and public squalor, as Nye Bevan put it. That is the hallmark of Toryism. We cannot reverse that trend unless we increase the weight of local authority expenditure.
§ Mr. Hugh Rossi (Hornsey)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is the courtesy of the House to allow the Opposition spokesman sufficient time to wind up on behalf of the Opposition. The hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Bidwell) appears to be denying my hon. Friend that opportunity. I wish to draw the attention of the House to that fact. I hope that the hon. Member will have regard to the due rules and conduct of the House.
§ Mr. James Wellbeloved (Erith and Crayford)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Are we to understand from that intervention that, for the first time in my memory on the proceedings on a private Bill, Her Majesty's Opposition are taking an official view? In your ruling, Sir, would you take account of the fact that in debates on private Bills, which are the responsibility of the Chairman of Ways and Means, it is most unusual for a political party to take a political stand on a matter which, according to the usual practice and almost to the Standing Orders of the House, is a matter for private Members?
§ Mr. Ronald Brown
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In your ruling, Sir, I hope that you will also understand that many hon. Members on this side have sat here all evening waiting to take part in the debate. In a matter which affects all London constituencies, and on which as the Opposition are trying to reduce the money for housing by £50 million, we are entitled to have our say.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. Let me answer the three others first. The courtesies of the House are well known to all of us. So far as I am concerned, the Front Bench speakers usually intervene on private business. That is all that I know of what has been taking place.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I have noticed the hon. Member—I have been glad of his company—but I can do nothing about that.
§ Mr. Wellbeloved
Further to the point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Just to clarify your ruling, Sir, is it a fact that the Opposition have a right to wind up a debate on what is after all private Members' business? Is it not proper that the time on private Members' business should be taken up by back benchers representing constituency views rather than consumed by Opposition spokesmen who merely wish to make petty party political points?
§ Mr. Rossi
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It will be noted that my hon. Friends who happen to be sitting on the Front Bench are members of the back benches. They are participating in the debate as back-bench London Members. No official Opposition Front Bench Member has intervened so as to give as many back benchers as possible an opportunity to participate. It is obvious that Government Members are determined not to allow the right of reply to Members who represent the opposite view in this debate. The general public can draw their own conclusions from that denial of the right of reply.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
The House is built on courtesies between both sides, and I hope we shall acknowledge them.
§ Mr. Ronald Brown
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. What has been said by the hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi) is a travesty of the truth. The hon. Gentleman has been in the House for part of the debate but many of my hon. Friends and I have been here throughout. Many of my hon. Friends 885 wish to contribute to the debate, and it is in their interests to do so.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is a fact that the hon. Gentleman was originally offered time to wind up for the Government but he did not wish to exercise that right. We are now in the position of having my hon. Friend the Member for Ravensbourne (Mr. Hunt) denied the right of reply.
§ Mr. Bidwell
I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I did not realise that there was any courtesy arrangement. When Conservative Members were interjecting, I anticipated that they wished me to keep going. I thought that they were interested in the contribution that I was making. I mean that quite sincerely.
§ Mr. Bidwell
We had an interesting speech from the Opposition Front Bench at the beginning of the debate from the hon. Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg), the Opposition's London spokesman. There was a great deal of substance in what he had to say. However, if it is of any advantage to the Opposition I shall sit down and let the hon. Member for Ravensbourne (Mr. Hunt) reply.
§ 10.58 p.m.
§ Mr. John Hunt (Ravensbourne)
I wish to protest most strongly at the way in which I, as a Member representing a Greater London constituency, have been treated by those on the Government benches. A clear undertaking was given and it has been breached. That is an affront to the House, to the Opposition and to those` who represent Greater London constituencies who happen to take a different point of view from those who sit on the Government benches.
§ Mr. Ernest G. Perry
On a point of order. Mr. Deputy Speaker. I should like to join the hon. Gentleman in his remarks—
§ Mr. Hunt
I believe that we should have been given the opportunity to wind up the debate. There are a number of important points which need to be made in opposition to the speeches that we have heard from the Government benches. It is clear that we have been denied that opportunity. A number of my hon. Friends put questions to the Minister, and in the course of his speech no attempt was made to answer them. I was hoping to have the opportunity to challenge him again on a number of matters and perhaps to elicit answers from him.
For me this is a most unfortunate debut on the Opposition Front Bench. This is the first time that. I have had the pleasure, after 10 long and weary years in the House, of speaking from the Front Bench. I now find myself in the position of being deprived of my right of reply. My speech has been truncated and I now have only half a minute in which to present the case against the policy of municipalisation. That is a policy which we believe is damaging, irresponsible and irrelevant to the housing needs of greater London.
This debate has taken place against the backcloth of the traumatic happenings across the river at County Hall. I was hoping that during my speech—
§ It being Eleven o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.