HC Deb 18 May 1976 vol 911 cc1237-96

4.29 p.m.

Mr. Timothy Raison (Aylesbury)

I beg to move, That this House calls on Her Majesty's Government to give positive encouragement to local authorities to sell council houses to their tenants and to withdraw their ban on the sale of New Town houses.

Mr. Speaker

I have to tell the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

Mr. Raison

On 28th April, I moved a motion saying that the new councils which were about to be elected would best serve both ratepayers and taxpayers through, among other things, the sale of council houses to tenants. We lost the vote that evening, but we decisively won the vote on 6th May. That was a remarkable victory. A string of great cities and districts have come under Conservative control—Birmingham, Nottingham, Cardiff, Southampton, Dudley, Leicester, Oldham, Derby, Oxford, Exeter and many others. Leeds, of course, has come fully under Conservative control.

Commentators have tended to interpret the results in line with national politics. I have no doubt that a substantial part of the reason for our successes relates to our policies for local government. There were different issues and campaigns in each area across the country but we stressed certain themes in debates in Parliament and in party political broadcasts.

Mr. Andrew Welsh

(South Angus) rose—

Mr. Raison

We have only two-and-a-half hours left for the debate, and I cannot give way.

We stressed certain themes in Parliament, in broadcasts, in speeches and in election literature. One of those themes was the sale of council and New Town houses to tenants. The public clearly responded and are still responding with enthusiasm. There is no doubt about the impact of our policies in cities such as Birmingham, Southampton and even the Prime Minister's own town of Cardiff. We did particularly well in New Town areas where the Government's ban on the sale of new town houses has seemed particularly doctrinaire. Bracknell, Northampton, Peterborough, Redditch, West Lancashire, Chorley, Corby, Milton Keynes, Welwyn and Hatfield and Dacorum—all New Town councils—came under Conservative control. That makes my first point—that the sale of council houses and new town houses is a popular policy and it is none the worse for that.

There is ample evidence of what I am saying from research but what is more impressive is the evidence of what people do when they are given the chance to buy. Under the last Conservative administration, council house sales were 16,000 in 1971, 45,000 in 1972 and 33,000 in 1973. Under our administration sales in the New Towns were 2,700 in 1971, 15,500 in 1972 and 7,200 in 1973. What happened when Labour came to power? Last year only 2,089 council houses were sold in England and Wales and the Government have introduced an absolute ban on the sale of New Town houses.

Sir Thomas Williams

(Warrington) rose—

Mr. Raison

I shall give way just once but we have only two-and-a-half hours for this important debate.

Sir Thomas Williams

The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) is taking great pride in the number of New Town houses which have been sold. Will he acquaint the House with how vast was the increase as a result in the number of weeks people had to remain on New Town waiting lists? As a result of that policy many people were asked to wait as long as 65 weeks.

Mr. Raison

I shall come to that, but I cannot agree with what the hon. and learned Member has said.

The attitude of the Government is only one factor. Economic factors and the price of houses are also important. A Government can do much to encourage or discourage. We encouraged sales while the Labour Government have discouraged them and in the New Towns have forbidden them altogether. They have checked people from doing what they want to do.

The sale of houses is a popular policy but it is not the only reason for it. In adding to the stock of human happiness, the sale of council houses does not diminish the overall stock of houses and it does little to diminish the stock of publicly owned houses. Sales are to sitting tenants who live in the house and who will mostly remain there. Some would move but the number of re-lets in the public sector is low.

In an article in the Financial Times of 12th May Joe Rogaly said that the number of re-lets was between 3 per cent. and 10 per cent. and that if 100,000 houses were sold in a year the total so-called loss would be only between 3,000 and 10,000 out of a total stock of 5 million. The pre-emption clauses are also an important way of preserving the council's house stock where there is a need to do so.

There are other major advantages, in particular the commitment to maintain and improve houses, which is a common characteristic of those who buy their own council houses. We are all worried about the quality of our housing stock and there is ample experience to show that when people buy their own house they have an added commitment to keep it in good shape. There is also an added sense of independence amongst those who buy their own houses. We all know about Frank Field's remarks about the "serfdom" of council tenure. Joe Rogaly made a similar point in an article in the Financial Times. He said: The financial point of selling council houses is to shift the responsibility for management and maintenance from inefficient councils to inevitably more efficient individuals. The main social purpose is to give the tenants, most of whom are treated like recalcitrant children, the same dignities and security of tenure as owner-occupiers or borrower-occupiers". Maybe Mr. Field and Mr. Rogaly stated their cases colourfully, but there can be no doubt about what they say. who cannot be worried by the municipal quasi-monopolies that we see in some areas, and by the sheer lack of choice. In some parts of the country, particularly in New Towns, we desperately need to

achieve a better social balance. The sale of houses is an effective way of bringing that about.

What about the financial aspects of the argument? At least, the removal of the cost of management and maintenance represents a significant saving which is estimated at about £100 per house a year. I am not arguing that the total cost would disappear but there would be a significant saving. It is also true that the payment which people make when they buy these houses has a positive effect on public expenditure. Revenue from sales in 1972–73 amounted to £351 million. By 1975–76 it had fallen by over £300 million at 1975 survey prices.

Against that, substantial mortgage money will be needed to finance sales, and much of that will come via the local authority out of public funds. That money has to be repaid over the years and revenue will therefore be coming in and will not be the same as the outgoings on these houses by local authorities. It is important to point out that the Building Societies Association has no qualms about a policy of selling council houses. In evidence to the Government's Housing Finance Review the Association said: The Association recognises that the sale of council houses must form an integral part of housing policy if the wishes of the public are to be transferred into reality'. In The Guardian of 15th May, Judy Hillman says: Analyses have shown that sales have little impact on rent pooling. But it is the social and human advantages that really matter, including the ability to let people achieve home ownership without having to move. Why are the Government being so pigheaded about it? Why do they not realise that their obsession with social ownership deprives many people of what they want? Evidence for their pig-headedness is to be found in the way they introduced a total ban on the sale of New Town houses in 1974. As the Minister for Planning and Local Government knows, the waiting list argument on which their theory was based has largely disappeared. [HON. MEMBERS: "Rubbish."] The hon. Member for the Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) asked a question about waiting lists on 31st March. Let me reveal to hon. Members who shout "rubbish", that the waiting time for a house in Bracknell is two to four weeks, in Milton Keynes it is eight to 12 weeks, in Northampton four to eight weeks and in Peterborough one to two weeks. What possible justification can there be in such areas for refusing to sell the New Town houses?

Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that a family on the housing list in a London area can obtain a house in those New Towns in the time he has just described?

Mr. Raison

I am indeed. The problem is that the Government's economic problems have produced a situation in which such people cannot obtain a job, but there is no reason why the houses should not be sold there.

In the Standing Committee which has been considering the New Towns (Amendment) Bill the Minister for Planning and Local Government has acknowledged that in some areas the figures have fallen dramatically, but he is still not prepared to do anything about the matter. The Government are being almost equally mulish about the sale of council houses, backed by their friends in local government, many of whom, happily, have now been dismissed.

As we have seen in the Press in recent days, there may be signs of a change of heart by the Government. In an article headed Home Rule for Council Tenants", the Daily Express said last Friday that apparently the Prime Minister is giving orders to his colleagues to go ahead on the sale of council houses. That story has been denied, but that there may be something in it. I suspect that the Prime Minister is rather worried about what happened in Cardiff.

It is interesting that the Prime Minister dodged the issue when my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition raised it at Question Time on 11th May. My right hon. Friend asked: Does the Prime Minister recollect that towards the end of his speech he spoke not of controlling inflation but of creating other values which are generally appealing? Does he accept that as the recent local elections show, many council tenants wish to own the homes they live in? Will he give the House an assurance that his Government will do nothing to prevent the sale of council houses to council tenants?".—[Official Report, 11th May 1976; Vol. 911, c. 224] The Prime Minister did not answer but ducked those questions as best he, could. That lends support to the view that some- thing may be stirring in his mind. If something is stirring, our motion gives the Government a chance to announce a change of policy today. We have phrased it with the greatest moderation, and the Government have only to accept it. There will then be rejoicing for the sinners that repent.

However, the Government have produced an amendment that I can only describe as vacuous and platitudinous. I shall simply comment on three points. First, the Government say that they want to see the widest possible choice of tenure". I quite agree with that. Our criticism is that the Government are not encouraging choice. They are blocking it in this respect and others.

Mr. Bruce Douglas-Mann (Mitcham, and Morden)

is the hon. Gentleman talking about selling council houses at market value or giving away the better houses to better-off tenants at a discount? Obviously the latter course will be very popular. But he does not seem to be clearly advocating it, though it is the course his friends in local authorities have been pursuing. What is he talking about?

Mr. Raison

If the hon. Gentleman will wait a moment, he will have an answer.

Secondly, the Government say in their amendment that decisions should be made "locality by locality". But they are not implementing that belief. There is no locality-by-locality decision to allow the sale of New Town houses. No New Town houses are being sold and there is no encouragement to sell in local authority areas where there is no shortage.

Thirdly, the Government ask the House to welcome: Her Majesty's Government's continuing examination of this matter". There certainly is a continuing examination of the matter. It sounds to me rather like a Fabian version of Trotsky's permanent revolution. What we need is not continuing examination but a little action.

The Government's amendment does not stand up. Our motion gives the Government the chance to get off the hook and to use the existing conditions of sale to sell houses. Perhaps that is as much as we can hope to obtain from the present Government, unless the Daily Express is right. I confess that I am rather gloomy about getting even that degree of common sense out of them. After all, the new Secretary of State has made his parliamentary reputation as a defender of one lost cause—refusal to enter the Common Market. It would be rather sad if he espoused another.

The right hon. Gentleman also has a reputation for Socialism through misery to add to that of the Minister for Housing and Construction. It is rather like bringing in the melancholy Jaques to jolly along Malvolio. We can but hope that the Government will see the error of their ways and accept our motion, which gives them the chance to get off the hook.

In fact, my party believes in going further. We are committed, and have been for some time, to establishing a right for council tenants to buy in normal circumstances. For flats that may mean leasehold, and there are certain special forms of housing—for example, for the disabled or old people—which it may not be appropriate to dispose of. Moreover, many tenants will not want to buy. There will be an important continuing role for local authorities and a continuing substantial local authority housing stock. But the broad principle of the right to buy is one to which we are fully committed.

The terms will certainly not be less favourable than the present terms—that is, the 20 per cent. discount, the preemption clause which allows local authorities to buy back during the first five years, and the rule that the price must not be below the original cost of the house. But The Times said in an interesting article today that there is a case for a somewhat greater discount. Indeed, approximately 30 per cent. Off is what we have in mind. We must remember that in the private sector there is normally a substantial discount for a sale to a sitting tenant.

The sale of the houses is only one aspect of total housing policy. There are other major needs, including the need to ease movement generally into home ownership, the necessity to build for special needs, and the need to restore sense to the private rented sector, which is one way to increase the rented stock.

Moreover, I entirely accept that a full-scale programme of sales will represent a substantial task if it is to be implemented effectively. We shall have to work hard to make sure that mortgages are available and to develop new ways of borrowing for those whose incomes are on the border line. But at least we are assured of the building societies' support in principle. Interesting experiments are already taking place to try to help low-income groups into home ownership.

I do not want to encourage those who cannot afford home ownership to buy homes. But of the supreme desirability of the goal for very many I have no doubt. We can take a major step in that direction today by passing the motion and rejecting the Government's stale red herring of an amendment.

4.49 p.m.

The Minister for Planning and Local Government (Mr. John Silkin)

I beg to move to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof: recognising the desirability of encouraging the widest possible choice of tenure including owner occupation, equity sharing, co-operatives and renting, considers that the question of whether public sector houses should be sold to their occupiers should be decided locality by locality in the light of serious and unbiased consideration of the housing needs of the area concerned and welcomes Her Majesty's Government's continuing examination of this matter both in relation to local authorities and to new towns. Let me start by saying what this debate is not about. Whatever the Opposition may say, ii is not about the principle of owner-occupation. Most people dream of having a home of their own, and why should they not? All the same, the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) has in the past related the Opposition's attitude to the sale of council houses to an implication that the Labour Party is opposed to owner-occupation. Forget the rhetoric. Examine the facts.

The Labour Government of 1964 inherited in England and Wales an owner-occupation figure of only 45 per cent.—and this after a period of 13 uninterrupted years of Tory rule. By 1970. when Labour left office, the percentage of owner-occupation had risen to 50 per cent. In the four years of Conservative rule that followed, the figure of owner-occupation went up to just over 52 per cent. It has in our short two years risen to over 53 per cent. Incidentally, someone one of these days will explain to me why the Tory Party, which now passionately advocates the sale of freeholds to council tenants, should have spent so many years opposing the Labour Party's policy of enabling leaseholders to purchase their freeholds.

Again, it is all very well to talk about encouraging owner-occupation, but any increase must depend upon an ability to buy. As the hon. Member for Aylesbury said, the Tories do not intend to encourage to buy those who cannot afford to buy. We know where they stand on that. So, let us examine the figures here. When the Conservatives took office in 1970, the average price of a new house in the United Kingdom was £4,975. By early 1974 this had leaped to nearly £11,000—an increase of 118 per cent. Or, if we take the South-East Region which includes, incidentally, quite a few of the New Towns which are the subject of this motion and the amendment, the average price had leapt from £6,223 to just under £14,000 by early 1974—an increase of 124 per cent. It is additionally to the credit of the Labour Government that they have from early 1974 to the end of 1975 reduced the rate of increase to just over 10 per cent., and in the South-East Region to 6 per cent.

These facts alone make hollow the Conservative Party's allegations that it is the party of owner-occupation and that the Labour Government are opposed to it. No. It is in the context of a Government who believe in owner-occupation and do not have to prove their credentials that the Government look at the whole housing question—and look at it responsibly. A responsible Government must always have two factors in mind—need and choice.

First, then, as to need, we believe it important to consider this matter in the light of local circumstances and needs. It is wrong to have an indiscriminate approach. In each locality we have to consider the housing needs before we can take any decision whether public sector housing should be sold. The New Towns provide a good illustration of the problem. In New Towns, as in the local authority field, the position varies from locality to locality.

Since I stopped the sales of rented houses just over two years ago in the New Towns we have seen the period for which people have to wait for a house come tumbling down. This was what we set out to do, and we have done it. I have all along made it clear that I would keep the situation under review and that we would consider starting sales again where this could be done without harm to those people whose only hope of a decent home is a house or flat for rent. Those words come from the consultation document of December 1974. There is nothing new about that.

I shall discuss with the New Town chairmen the arrangements for looking at the situation in each New Town individually. If in any New Town the average waiting period for those eligible for a New Town rented house is less than three months if the development corporation wished, we could, subject to proper consultations, start resuming sales. We would, of course, need to establish what conditions might be applied to such sales. For example, there might be a case for limiting them to tenants who had lived in a corporation dwelling for not less than, say, five years or some such period, and I shall be interested to learn the views of the New Town chairmen.

It will also be important to monitor the sales policy regularly so that we do not find ourselves again in the situation which I inherited from the Conservatives, with swollen waiting lists and lengthening waiting periods. Every quarter, therefore, we would look at each town individually to see whether, in the light of any changes in the average waiting period, sales ought to be slowed down for the time being—or resumed—or whether we should continue as before.

In the consultation document on New Towns which we published at the end of 1974 and from which I have quoted many times in the House, we spoke of the need for the New Towns to give more direct help to those in greatest housing need in the inner cities—those living in conditions of housing stress, the elderly, the disadvantaged, single-parent families and so on. I recently set out new tenancy allocation guidelines for the London New Towns to help meet that need. The sales of rented houses to those who are fortunate enough to be able to buy the house they live in will provide capital receipts for the development corporations. Those in turn will help to finance further investment for the needs of the disadvantaged from the inner cities.

With this sort of all-round policy in the New Towns we shall have achieved the right balance between helping those who wish to own their own houses and making sure that there is a proper supply for those others who are looking for a house to rent, including more particularly those in greatest need.

In the light of that clear and unequivocal approach we are entitled to ask—and this time to get a reply—whether the Tory Party is advocating the right of tenants indiscriminately to purchase their houses without any proof that any provision will be made for housing the needy or that a single public-sector house will be added to the existing stock. For that is the implication of its argument and that is the implication of the embarrassed silence of the hon. Gentleman when my right hon. Friend and I pressed him three weeks ago in the debate on local government upon this very point. The silence, today, is as deafening as it was three weeks ago. We can draw our own conclusions.

Now, as to choice. It is quite remarkable how hon. Gentlemen opposite have taken to quoting Mr. Frank Field's latest pamphlet—or at least one small selected sub-paragraph from it. Now, this freely-bandied-about quotation contains a reference to the serfdom imposed on tenants by their council tenancies". Of course, it is the characteristic of serfdom that a serf is "attached to the soil" —that is, that he is unable to move from the area in which he lives. Certainly the Government accept that there should be as few obstacles as possible in the way of movement. To pretend, however, that freehold tenure is the only way to achieve that mobility is dishonest.

If the ownership of freehold is the only way out of serfdom, there are a very large number of hon. Gentleman living in happy serfdom in the large blocks of flats within a stone's throw of the Palace of Westminster.

Certainly, freehold tenure is one answer, but it is not the only answer. There are a number of other possibilities. The Government's amendment mentions some of them. We need to consider all such possibilities in our examination, including equity sharing and co-operative housing. We need to examine the extension of transfer arrangements between authorities so that tenants may move more freely to different parts of the country if need be, and the handing over of management of the housing estates to the tenants themselves.

As the House knows, the Government are looking at all these issues as part of the Housing Finance Review. But I want to give one word of warning. It is all very well for hon. Gentlemen opposite to pretend that they are the apostles of the property-owning democracy. They have done precious little to make it come about.

Fortunately for both owner-occupiers and council tenants, Britain elected a Labour Government in 1974, and by our policies we were able to reduce the appalling rise in house prices. The passing of the Community Land Act and the imminence of the Development Land Tax —the necessary Socialist remedies to correct the Tory ills—will assist in this process—and, incidentally, will in particular provide additional land for owner-occupation and thus assist that very mobility between the public and private sectors for which the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) has called in his unselected amendment.

Not only should we remember how house prices rose under the Tories. Everyone buying his house through a mortgage will remember how only a very few years ago under the Tories mortgage interest rates rose from 8 per cent. to 11 per cent. in less than 18 months.

Even if the rise in house prices and the consequent rise in repayments is halted, that does not help the would-be purchaser if he cannot get a mortgage. The impudence of the Opposition never ceases to amaze me. In February 1974, there was no rush to buy houses. New houses had stood empty for months because nobody had the money to buy them. The Labour Government ended the mortgage famine by producing £500 million for the building societies—the biggest fillip to owner-occupation in the history of this country—and by encouraging the local authorities to buy empty houses as well.

It is one of the ironies that it is our very success in stabilising prices, in building houses, in rescuing the mortgage market, that has given plausibility to the Tory propaganda of today.

Mr. Michael Latham (Melton)

On a point of record, would the Minister say when the number of private starts or completions achieved under his Government will even remotely approach the level of the three full years of Conservative Government?

Mr. Silkin

The four years of Conservative Government? The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well, perhaps better than most of his hon. Friends, the low base from which we started. We are doing very well, and the country knows it.

I hope that in supporting the Government in their amendment, the House will show its contempt for a party whose only achievement has been in the record number of disasters for which its housing policy is remembered.

5.3 p.m.

Mr. Julian Amery (Brighton, Pavilion)

Not for the first time, the House has heard a historic speech from a Member of the Silkin dynasty. I listened with great interest to what the Minister said, because it seemed to me that his speech marked a historic step forward. The whole tone of the speech was a defence of a property-owning democracy and, indeed, an advocacy—admittedly not unconditional—of the transfer of property from the council to the individual or, as in the case of New Towns, from the State to the individual, where this can be properly arranged. We all welcome this. Whether it is an attempt to pinch our clothes while we are bathing or whether it is a true conversion remains to be seen.

I was very glad to hear the Minister eating his words about the prohibition on the sale of New Town housing. When I was at the Ministry of Housing, the Chairman of the Basildon Corporation did great work in facilitating the sale of housing, and I am glad that after a certain interval the Minister has returned to what I might call "the Amery way".

There is a growing feeling in the House that opposition to the sale of council houses is out of date. People expect to own their own television sets, their own motor cars and their own washing machines. Not to be able to own their own houses is an out-of-date idea. It puts them in the position of being under the orders of a local authority on whether they can keep pets or whether they can have their relations to stay. All these things are rather out of date.

There is also a growing understanding that subsidies, when they are given, should be given to people and not to bricks and mortar.

Even before 1972 and the Housing Finance Act, for which I was responsible, rents were going up steadily. Between 1949 and 1972 they increased by between 13 and 17 per cent. a year. With increases of that kind coming forward, it was unfair to ask people to pay them and be left at the end of the day with no right to an asset.

There is growing understanding that home ownership provides an opportunity to change one's job and go elsewhere, or to meet a misfortune if one arises. It is not the only means of mobility, but it is one of the greatest. If a person can trade in his house, go to the other end of the country and be sure of getting another house on a mortgage, or a second mortgage, this will help mobility. If a man cannot do that, all the retraining schemes count for nothing.

In his opening speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) said that this debate could give the Minister a chance to get off the hook, and up to a point he has tried to take that chance. But we have to be careful on this side of the House. When I was at the Ministry of Housing, my target was to set in motion a process which would take us from 50 per cent. owner-occupation to something like 75 to 80 per cent. My right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker) and I did everything we could to promote the sale of council houses as a means to that end. We had support from outstanding local government leaders such as Mr. Fieldhouse in Manchester, who first convinced the Department of the Environment that the sale of council houses at a 30 per cent. discount was appropriate and financially sound. There were also Sir Francis Griffin, who first applied this idea, and the local authorities in Southampton and Basildon, which also put the concessions we were able to make into practice.

Even so, we only managed to sell 45,000 out of 5 million houses in 1972. Yet all the evidence was that the demand was a great deal higher. There were very big difficulties in our way and some of these were technical. The apparatus and bureaucracy in local government made it extremely difficult to get through the process of valuation and the transfer of deeds in the legal department within any reasonable time scale. Then there was the problem of cost. Even with 100 per cent. mortgages—at the time I am speaking of, the average value of a house was £4,000—and at a 10 per cent. mortgage rate, this was getting on for £8 or £9 a week. Even with a discount this was quite high.

With inflation today the problem is very much greater, and it will be much more difficult for people to find the £60 or £100 a month which would be required before discount. Even with the discount the sum will be very considerable.

It is not right to exploit tenants when wages are frozen by insisting on the market value, which in many cases is very much greater than the individual or pooled historic cost of the house in question.

There is no need for the authority to make fat profits. There will be a continuing need for some council housing, but there is no need for the authority to make a big profit as long as it makes sufficient to enable it to keep going. The aim should be to provide an equally good bargain for the tenant today as we could have provided in 1972, and one which at the same time will help to dismantle some of the enormous bureaucracy which is engaged in the management of local government housing.

We made a big step forward in 1972 when we went to the 30 per cent. discount in the sale of council houses under certain conditions. The Minister has sensed the mood of the country; and many of his colleagues are studying these questions very carefully. We should be cautious and beware of the danger of having our clothes pinched by the Labour Party while we are bathing, but I do not think that that will be the case because a much more radical approach is needed than that advanced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester and myself in 1972.

I ask my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury and his colleagues to look carefully at the proposals which my right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester has put forward for giving away council houses where the tenant has been in occupation for 20 years or more, and to study the implications of the entire scheme which he has been developing. I understand that my right hon. Friend will not be speaking today because he has not yet developed all the details.

There are, of course, difficulties of principle about giving away public assets and difficulties in practice, particularly where newer properties are involved. I am not committing myself to my right hon. Friend's scheme, but there are variations on his theme which will require very careful study. For example, if a property is given away free after 20 years the different terms on which properties can be made over on a 10, 15 or 12-year basis need to be studied carefully.

I can say with some certainty from my experience that there are many cases where a discount much higher than 30 per cent.—perhaps 40 per cent., 50 per cent. Or even 60 per cent.—would be justified in terms of individual and pooled historic costs.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi) will not only endorse the human, social and economic factors which make for our advocacy of the sale of council houses to tenants but will make it clear that neither bureaucracy nor inflation should defeat our purpose. We must, of course, lay it down that any tenant has the right to buy; but we shall also have to take a quantum jump to make sure that he can exercise that right in practice.

5.13 p.m.

Mr. Ron Thomas (Bristol, North-West)

The decision that I and my wife made five or so years ago to purchase our council house was one which many of my hon. Friends, whose opinions I respect, cannot accept. They feel that the sale of council houses under any con- ditions or at any price should not be supported by the Labour Party. I shall return to that point in a moment, but first I shall spend a few moments to deal with the Press campaign which was sparked off by the so-called revelation of our decision.

I am one of those—and there are many among my lion. Friends—who have one local newspaper in their constituency which spends its time in a personal smear campaign against the local MP. The newspaper in my constituency never discusses policies. It deals only in personalities. Day after day it reveals the rampages of what it calls "Red Ron" and it is preoccupied with reds under the bed or perhaps Marxists on the mattress. But that of course is one of the risks that we as politicians have to face, and I accept that.

We have a right, however, to expect that while we are away at the House of Commons our families are not harassed by newspapers such as this. I say to the Conservatives who put down the silly motion concerning my ownership of a council house that they should reflect how far they have contributed to that harassment of my family over the last few days.

When the newspaper decided to expose the story—there was no secret about the facts because many of my friends and colleagues knew of them over a considerable time—it presumably did so because of today's debate. But it did so in a way which suggested that there were all kinds of possible implications which prompted telephone calls suggesting that I had nipped into the council house as a Member of Parliament and had bought the house through some kind of unscrupulous deal. It was then suggested that I had bought it as a Labour member of Bristol City Council, which position I had held. It was then suggested that, having bought it, I voted to stop other people buying their council houses. All of these allegations were downright lies. Rightly or wrongly, Bristol City Council, under both Labour and Conservative control, has sold its council houses since 1960.

When the other local newspaper, the Bristol Evening Post, which treats these matters honestly and objectively, published my reply to the accusations, the attack shifted. It became bizarre if not ludicrous. It was said that "Red Ron" had become a capitalist. It appears that a reporter, having looked a this desirable property, decided that it was worth at least £8,000. That is the sort of sum that Conservatives might use as a deposit for the luxury London flats which they purchase on a 50-year mortgage.

If the reporter had had all the facts or had checked the agreement he would have seen two names on it—those of myself and my wife. He would have seen that "Red Ron" was a capitalist to the extent of £4,000—but I should be so lucky! It was not as simple as that. If we can keep up the mortgage payments for the next 20 years, I might have a half a roof over my head. That is the extent to which "Red Ron" has become a capitalist.

The council house in which I live has been photographed so many times that I am considering opening it to the public at the weekends. I am thinking of asking some Conservatives to advise me how to go about that. Perhaps they will be able to tell me what to do with the Chippendale chairs, the Picassos and the other objets d'art which adorn my residence. I have decided not to do so, however, because the gardens and the lawns of the council houses were laid by the direct building department of the local authority —probably set out by Mr. Capability Brown and he might be upset to think of so many visitors walking over them.

I have lived in a council house all my married life. I do not suppose that many Conservatives get very close to council houses, and it might do some of them a bit of good if they lived in them, whether buying or renting, and got a bit closer to those who create the real wealth of the country.

Those who live in council houses are on a hiding to nothing: if they pay rent, they are being subsidised, and that is wrong. Some argue by implication that there ought to be a big placard saying "No one on this estate earns more than £25 a week." If council house tenants consider buying, they are told "You had better get out now and go into the private sector."

In Bristol the house-building record is second to none. Those who signed the Early-Day Motion might have done a little bit better for people who want houses if they had tried to get on to the Tory local authorities in the South-West and began to emulate the achievements of Bristol Council.

In Bristol there are about 1,600 houses under construction, or approved, with more to come in a massive housing drive up to 1980. Bristol has produced a Green Paper on housing which reveals a very important fact and emphasises what the Minister said about having to try to determine this matter locally. It is that more than 80 per cent. of our waiting list of some 4,000 require one-bedroom and two-bedroom units of accommodation. Therefore, it is essential that there should be local determination. This figure highlights that.

I know that many colleagues would disagree and would say that there should be no sales whatsoever of council houses. But under the Bristol scheme anyone buying a council house and wishing to sell it later has to offer it back to the council right through a period of 21 years. That provision ought to be strengthened.

There are three aspects to the problem. First, there is the question of deciding locally in terms of the housing needs in the particular area.

In many parts of the country no council houses at all should be sold, and I do not regard it as hypocrisy on my part to make that comment in relation to the housing needs in particular areas.

Mr. Michael Brotherton (Louth)

Will the hon. Member tell the House how he justifies the humbug of his position as deputy chairman of the Tribune Group with buying his own council house? He is a complete, utter and total humbug unless he can justify that.

Mr. Thomas

I have already said that the decision I took five years ago had nothing to do then with being chairman of the Tribune Group. I am making it quite clear to the hon. Gentleman that in the Bristol situation, with the Bristol housing programme, I support the Bristol Labour group's approach to the sale of council houses. I have made it quite clear, and it has nothing to do with being in the Tribune Group or anything else.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch and Lymington)


Mr. Thomas

But I should like to see—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Did I hear the word"hypocrite"? If so, it must be withdrawn, because it is an unparliamentary expression as applied to an hon. Member. Do we know who said it?

Mr. Adley

I willingly own up to using the expression. If it is unparliamentary, I withdraw it. I wish that I could find another word to replace it. Perhaps you could advise me, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Brotherton

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I substitute the word "humbug" for "hypocrite"?

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman may not, and this is not the sort of tone in which to conduct our affairs.[Interruption.] Order. There may be high feelings, but the hurling of abuse by Members at each other adds nothing at all to the debate. "Humbug" is an unparliamentary expression when applied to an hon. Member.

Mr. Thomas

I repeat that I should like to see the Bristol kind of scheme strengthened, and to see a situation in which, if a tenant buys a council house in which he is living, whenever he leaves that house it goes back into the pool. The council should buy it. The council should be under an obligation to buy it back.

I fully realise that the fundamental and powerful argument, the main argument, against sales of council houses is that they cut down the housing stock. I completely accept that. But I believe that there are ways in which that can be dealt with, as I suggested earlier.

The Conservative Party tries to pretend that it is the friend of council house tenants, and yet it is the party which introduced the pernicious Housing Finance Act. It would like to take all the subsidies off rent and force rents through the roof. It would like to cut back public expenditure and increase unemployment. Its building record is absolutely appalling. It shouts its belief in a property-owning democracy, but what it fears most is democracy-owning property. We shall see this tomorrow when we discuss nationalisation. None of its Early-Day Motions or any other nonsense will stop me from doing what I can in this place to fight for the kind of Socialist Britain that I want to see.

5.25 p.m.

Mr. David Penhaligon (Truro)

One of the things that first struck me on being elected to Parliament was the overwhelming number of people coming to my surgeries with housing problems. Despite the publication of the waiting list for the new towns, I am afraid that at least in Cornwall there has been very little improvement. The main cause of the growth of the council house waiting list in my area has undoubtedly been the obscene increase in the price of the privately purchased house available to the ordinary people in my locality.

In my constituency—it is typical of many outside the main cities—there is an owner-occupiership of about 60 per cent. I welcome that situation and look forward to an increase in the figure. But I think that the Conservative Party today is rather simplifying the situation in constituencies such as mine—I speak for many rural constituencies in some of the more attractive areas of Britain—by saying dogmatically that it will give the right to any council tenant in any situation to buy the house at a 30 per cent. discount.

The economics of building a house for £15,000 and then selling it for £10,500 are new to me, especially when that comes from those who claim to understand business matters rather better than hon. Members in some other quarters of the House. It just does not make sense to sell a house for £4,500 less than it costs to build it.

In some of the rural beauty spots in Cornwall, or in other parts of the country, near areas with substantial secondary attractions, if the council housing stock is sold, there is just no way in which it can be replaced. It is not fair to argue in that situation that the money produced by these sales could be used to build second houses. I might go with that argument in some instances, but not in the sort of situation that I have been describing. The beauty of such areas can be destroyed by further and further building. If we wish to maintain their attractions, we have to maintain the building level at about what it is now.

In some parts of the country local authorities may well be justified in selling some of their houses, but the decision

must be left in the hands of the authorities concerned. They alone can possibly know their own areas well enough. There can be a great difference even between one village and another as little as six miles away. Only the people of the locality should be allowed to make the decision.

It is interesting that in a county such as Cornwall, where all the councils are under independent control—some of us may reflect on what the word "independent" means, but these councils are certainly not tied by political dogma—every council refuses to sell council houses. It is a reflection of the feeling of the local people, who understand the local situation. Although there are places in which I might criticise them for it, I can well understand the pressures that cause it.

The district council where I live has only 42,000 voters, yet there are 1,450 names or). the council house waiting list. I rather suspect that in percentage terms that beats any of the big cities. I know from talking to right hon. Members and hon. Members in my own party that this situation is only too true in rural areas where the income level is much below the national average. It is often reflected in many of the seats which my party wins at subsequent elections.

I welcome the Government's statement on the sale of council houses. I am still a little confused by the amendment, but if they clearly mean that the sale of council houses will be permitted when the local authority and community want that situation, I welcome it and will encourage my right hon. and hon. Friends to support the Government on that matter.

The sale of council houses is an issue which the Conservative Party is trying to use to buy votes in areas where it has virtually no support. This matter is more complicated in many districts than the Opposition would have the House believe. By all means let us sell council houses, but let us also maintain the local prerogative. I do not believe that there is any other logical position.

5.30 p.m.

Sir Thomas Williams (Warrington)

What I have to say I will try to say shortly. Over the last 20 years a good deal of research has gone into the problems of housing and, particularly and acutely in more recent years, into problems related to council housing.

As long ago as 1962 Baroness Sharp summed up the then position as being one in which private enterprise no longer had any part to play in building for letting and that research into owner-occupation showed that only a relatively small proportion of our people could afford to buy houses. As things stood, said Baroness Sharp at that time, the only real alternative to owner-occupation was municipal housing, and any attempt to reduce the number of municipal houses available would be bound to create greater hardship.

Since that time there have been growing problems related to municipal housing. But I listened in vain to the spokesman for the official Opposition for any evidence that they had taken the slightest interest in the research which had gone on into the real problems of municipal housing. The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) said that he would put forward the policy of the Conservative Party. The hon. Gentleman put forward not a policy but a shibboleth.

Those of us who represent large conurbations in the North-West know about the real problems of municipal housing. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would be ashamed to make the kind of demagogic speech that he made in the light of the vast amount of poverty, suffering and need in that area. Saturday after Saturday, every constituency clinic brings tragic pictures of people who wait on housing lists not for weeks or months, but for years to get houses in which they can live with decency and dignity.

The real problem of the housing programme concerns the cost of building, the cost of repair and maintenance, and problems of an immediacy which make a mockery of the general cry by the Conservative Party that council houses, regardless of the situation, should be made available for sale. Bearing in mind the increased costs of both building and maintenance, if council houses were largely and indiscriminately sold throughout the country, such a policy would in turn bring major problems of a kind which would increase rather than reduce the tragedy of the lack of housing about which we often hear. If we reduce the pool of council houses, large numbers of people who are still on housing lists will be left with even less possibility of obtaining houses.

It is not true that, as the hon. Member for Aylesbury said, sales of council houses would not increase rents. If those council houses were replaced to maintain the pools in areas such as mine, rents in local authorities where costs are spread among tenants in pre-war, post-war and new houses would be bound to be increased. The cost of replacing council properties sold at discounts of 20 per cent., 30 per cent. and 40 per cent.—indeed, the right hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery) referred to 60 per cent.—would tremendously increase the burden upon local authorities faced with large housing problems.

It would not be right or fair to new owner-occupiers facing increased costs to load them with a substantial burden of maintenance and repair—a problem which is causing tremendous anxiety within local authorities.

Mr. Raison


Sir T. Williams

I promised to finish within 10 minutes. I am willing to talk to the hon. Gentleman about this matter at any other time, but not now.

I address no longer the Conservative Party, which seems in this context to be doing something purely political and totally irrelevant to the real problems facing us, but the Minister. If it is the Minister's wish, and if it is to be part of Government policy in future, that in certain areas houses owned by municipalities and New Towns should be made available for owner-occupation, I commend to him most strongly the alternative of co-operative forms of housing. The situation would be improved, because it would enable those who become owner-occupiers within co-operative associations to undertake the burdensome cost of repairs and maintenance at levels which would not, for them, become too over-burdensome and perhaps would avoid an increase in the number of ghettos and slums which may result if we put on owner-occupiers burdens that they cannot bear. Little has been done, although Governments of all completions have toyed with the idea, to consider the extent to which housing associations and cooperative housing can assist in overcoming the real problems for which the cry for the sale of council houses is too facile a proposed solution.

I have given what I know is an inadequate description of the matter that I wanted to make the substance and body of my speech. But, having thrown out the idea, I shall leave it to the Minister and give others an opportunity to speak.

5.35 p.m.

Mr. Andrew Welsh (South Angus)

I shall try to be brief. I noticed that the official Opposition spokesman did not once mention Scotland. This follows hard on the heels of a debate on local government on an official Opposition Supply Day when, again, they excluded Scotland. It is a callous disregard of Scottish needs.

In looking at house tenure and ownership in Scotland, it is crucial to introduce the maximum possible flexibility of approach to the problem. Such flexibility should always be designed to meet the needs of individuals and families within the total national housing stock. I say "needs" deliberately rather than "circumstances". Ideally, the lowness or poverty of a person's income should not prevent that individual and his or her family from enjoying the benefits of decent housing and a decent environment in which to bring up children. This is especially true in Scotland with its sad history of low wages, urban deprivation and massive housing problems. The elimination of this long-standing combination of poor conditions must be an essential part of Scottish housing policy.

The mechanisms whereby the needs can be matched by existing resources exist in embryo. What is required is a balanced approach to home tenure taking into account changing tastes, desires and rising expectations among the Scottish population.

With the growing individualisation of families and their needs, should come a widening range of choice so that we have straight rentals, rental purchase, outright ownership, half-and-half mortgage schemes and co-operative ownership. The old system of only public renting or private ownership should give way to a multiplicity of forms of tenure designed to suit individual needs and to allow families more say in deciding their own affairs in their own ways. It is within a more balanced approach to Scottish housing that the debate concerning the sale of council and new town houses should take place.

For historical reasons, Scotland has one of the most lopsided patterns of tenure in Western Europe. The vast bulk of our tenants live in publicly-owned houses. As Scotland moves to self-government, which will break the bonds of our past economic and environmental poverty, so should we be planning for the changing expectations and circumstances of our people.

Publicly-owned housing will rightly maintain an important place in our future housing, but its contribution must be added to a host of other possible forms of tenure which are freely available as an option to the citizens of Scotland to allow the maximum freedom of choice for families. Thus the sale of council houses will take its part in the broader picture which I hope will change the whole basis of Scotland's housing tenure under self-government.

There are strong arguments in favour of selling council housing where appropriate and with adequate safeguards. Such purchases can act as a form of saving and investment for council tenants who otherwise face a lifetime of reluctant rent paying with no end product, apart from current use, in sight.

Private house owners already know these advantages and the benefits which accrue from them. On the psychological level, private ownership is a significant motivating factor for families which should not be overlooked.

Among those who wish to purchase their houses and to improve them by their own efforts, this can be seen in better maintenance and speedier improvements. The end results benefit not only themselves, but the whole community.

Mr. Alexander Wilson (Hamilton)

Let us suppose that an area has thousands of people waiting for rented housing because they cannot afford to buy their own homes. Catering for such people was the original purpose of municipal housing. How does the hon. Gentleman think the sale of council houses will help poor people who are still waiting for rented property?

Mr. Welsh

I take the hon. Gentleman's point. Help must be given to those poor people. That was the whole tenor of what I was saying earlier. Selling council houses is only one part of Scottish housing needs. Sales can release a valuable source of revenue for housing authorities which, in turn, can be put to good use elsewhere in the community. These funds can be used to help others.

Those who argue that public assets are being put into private hands should accept that this is being done at a price and realise that this money will be available for recycling for the benefit of the whole community. By creating these new and varied forms of tenure, we are giving people an opportunity and an alternative to the present system. We give ordinary people the chance to break out of the paternalism and dependence of the present system of publicly-owned housing and we give the opportunity of meeting changing needs, wishes and tastes. In addition, we will give much-needed increased mobility in Scotland.

The outlook and aspirations of present-day young couples can be very different from those of their parents and grandparents. A more flexible house tenure and ownership system is needed to match the changing outlook as we move through the last quarter of the twentieth century.

A more balanced approach to house tenure would certainly be a step in the right direction to prevent social segregation. At present, there are exclusive zones of purely public or purely private housing estates—separated by wide gulfs. Any balanced approach would bring about a mix of housing and create a much healthier social situation.

In advocating the sale of council houses and in extending other forms of tenure I realise there must be adequate safeguards to avoid the obvious pitfalls. Each local authority must establish the likely demand for tenant purchase and prepare programmes for the sensible release of properties related to the supply of new homes so that the stock is not allowed to shrink precipitately. I think that covers the point made by the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Wilson).

Local authorities should not be left with only the least desirable houses. Any reduction in the number of homes in public ownership should be designed to keep back a continuing supply of good quality homes for those who prefer this form of tenure. There must also be "buy-back" clauses with suitable time limits.

While we believe in the right of tenants to buy council houses, we firmly believe that the decision should be in the hands of the local authorities involved, since only they know the complete background and important factors in each area. The Government's role should be encouraging rather than dictatorial.

I cannot completely accept either the motion or the amendment. The Opposition are too narrow-minded in their approach, while the Government at least take into account the need to look at the broader aspects of this problem.

I am recommending to my hon. Friends that we support the Government amendment, but I do so only on the understanding that it does not go far or fast enough in the direction of supporting and encouraging local authorities wishing to make available houses for sale to their tenants.

5.46 p.m.

Mr. Eric Moonman (Basildon)

It is difficult to follow the hon. Member for South Angus (Mr. Welsh). His dilemma is primarily of his own making because of the way Supply Days are used.

I know that the Opposition are in some distress and that Supply Days are a terribly important part of the function of an Opposition. We have had some very good debates in the past. However, when one looks at the wording of today's motion, one must wonder whether this is the most serious charge the Opposition can raise against the Government. It is a reflection of the extraordinary schizophrenic state of the outlook and structure of the Conservative Party. It has seen better days and will no doubt see better days in future. In the meantime, we see no improvement in the quality of Supply Days or the contributions from the Opposition Front Bench.

One understands that within a political atmosphere such as we have in the House there will be some criticisms of Government policy, but when we are talking about New Towns, the Opposition spokesmen should remember that some of us know about New Towns and what goes on there. It should not be claimed that the results in recent local elections were caused by the fact that the Conservative Party fought on a policy of allowing tenants to buy their own homes. There were reasons quite unrelated to that fact for those results.

If the Oposition really want a bit of political fun, let us put the record straight. Let us remind them that their record on home ownership is pretty spotty. They opposed the Labour Government's leasehold reform legislation of 1967 which would have enabled occupiers of leasehold property to buy their own homes. Let us remind them that under the last Conservative Government house prices soared. The average price of a new house in Great Britain in 1970 was £4,975. By early 1974, it was £10,871. That was a good increase by any Tory standards. It was an increase of 118 per cent.

Let us remind ourselves that under the Tory Government mortgage interest rates increased from 8 per cent. to 11 per cent. in less than 18 months. Let us remind the Opposition that the Tory Government created a mortgage famine and new houses lay empty for months because people could not afford to buy them. For the Tories to talk in a specific way about the right to buy one's own houses is quite revealing. It underlines everything that we have felt—namely, that it is not need that has been the basis of their housing policy but ability to pay. That is what the whole argument is about.

We should put on record a matter that my right hon. Friend was not able to argue in detail in the short time available to him at the beginning of the debate. Let us point out that the Labour Government have done more to encourage home ownership than the Tories. I am not at all defensive on this matter. The rate of increase in house prices in the United Kingdom has been reduced in the past two years to a little over 10 per cent. In the same period owner-occupation has risen to just over 53 per cent. The Labour Government have ended the mortgage famine—which the Tories created—by producing £500 million for the building societies. That is the sort of thing that has to be stated if we are to indulge in Supply Day fun and games.

It must be stated that many of the problems that we now face in the housing sector go back to the extraordinary and inglorious 13 years of Tory rule. There has been considerable reference to New Towns. They have many features that are worthy of consideration. If some of us feel some concern about the way in which they have developed, it is not merely because of the right of those who live in them to own their own house.

It would be wrong in any debate in this House to take up any one narrow sector of new town life, but let us bear in mind the way in which new town folk elect their representatives and take decisions for themselves. That is why an important decision was made by the Government enshrining a promise to ensure that there would be a transfer of assets from the development corporations to the local authority. That is the basis of a Bill that is now passing through the House.

This is not an academic consideration. It is a matter that happens to have great relevance in all the new towns. It means not merely a transfer of assets from one authority to another, but the relating of decision-making to one authority. That is an important step. We shall thus avoid duplication and reduce, to some extent, the bureaucracy which inevitably arises with an agency such as a development corporation, however good it is.

The Bill also means that those who live in the New Towns will have the same rights as those who live in any other part of the country. Those who live in London and Manchester, for example, know what they want to do when they vote in a certain way at elections. Those who live in the New Towns have not had that right. The Bill that is now proceeding through Parliament will ensure that they have the same rights.

We have not said very much so far about the extent and scale of the New Towns. There are 2¼ million people living in the 33 new towns. There are many arguments that one could make about the way in which the New Towns have developed, but they are important features of our society. The New Towns owe their way of life to the way in which Labour took a decision many years ago to encourage them. Britain's New Town development has been a source of great interest throughout the world.

I have one quotation about the life that exists in a New Town. It is regrettable that the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison), implied that there was something lacking in New Towns. It was pointed out by Taylor and Chave in an important study on the environment in New Towns that by conventional standards a new town is a good society. It is happy and healthy. Its families have good homes. Its children have good schools. Work is varied and close at hand. Working conditions are good. There are wide facilities for active recreation. The strains of industrial life are reduced to a degree not achieved in unplanned communities. In all the studies that have taken place so far, no real reference has been made to whether people can buy their own houses. That is an important particular. My right hon. Friend has said that if people want that choice they should have the right to choose. But what is significant is that there is no breakdown in the New Towns because of anything that this Government or any other have done.

The reference to New Towns in the motion does not take into account the circumstances in the old communities. It must have escaped the attention of the Tories that such a position can be adopted only if one is convinced that waiting lists in the New Towns will be reduced and that some of the housing problems in the old cities will be solved. How can an isolated decision be taken about the New Towns and the way in which they sell their housing stock when we have not solved the problems in the inner city areas?

For example, let us consider the position in my old borough of Tower Hamlets. One finds, despite all the efforts that have been made, that the rate of rehabilitation of the authority's stock in the past seven or eight years has averaged only o2 per cent. of a housing stock of which 25 per cent. was in poor or unfit condition. An enormous problem has been left behind in the old city areas. The concept of a New Town is not merely to create attractive areas 30 miles or 40 miles away from the conurbations. It was intended that at the right moment we should refurbish the old cities. If that is not done, we shall be making the great mistake of creating New Towns which ultimately will have the same sore look as the old cities.

The hon. Member for Aylesbury, or one of his hon. Friends, should give a moment to answer the questions that are in the minds of many of my colleagues. When the Tories talk about the sale of council houses it is difficult to find out what they really mean. Many of my colleagues have raised this point throughout the debate. Would the Tories force local authorities to sell? Would they take away from local authorities the responsibility and the right to devise policies in the light of the needs of their locality? Are they saying that there must be a blanket approach? If they advocate a blanket approach, that is a complete departure from something that they have believed in in the past—namely, that a local authority should take its decisions for itself.

Those are questions that have some relevance if the Tories are at all serious about the proper use of their Supply Days. If they are not serious, they should learn a little more about the way in which Supply Days were used in the past.

5.58 p.m.

Mr. Teddy Taylor (Glasgow, Cathcart)

The speech of the hon. Member for South Angus (Mr. Welsh) is a good example to us all of how to make a speech on a controversial issue without offending anyone. I hope that his tactic of arguing for the motion as a justification for voting for the Government will not deter the Minister from referring to certain matters in his reply.

In Scotland things are quite different. The Minister has referred to the level of owner-occupation in Scotland and Wales being 53 per cent. He said that he hoped to improve upon that. He will know that in Scotland the level of owner-occupation is only 30 per cent. If action is called for in England and Wales, a lot more is called for in Scotland.

The housing situation in our cities is also different. There are substantial waiting lists in some areas and desperate housing shortages, but there are many towns in Scotland where the waiting lists are occupied by as many as 25,000 to 30,000 people. Many post-war houses are empty and they are not able to be left. The problem is one of environment, not so much the sheer provision of housing.

As I have said, things are different. That is why it must be said that it would be wrong to think, as some do, that the life of a council tenant in Scotland is a happy, subsidised life of bliss. It is because things are so different and difficult in Scotland that an increasing number of people want to change the situation so that they may be able to buy their own homes.

Any suggestion that sales should be related in any way to pooled historic costs is dangerous. There is no doubt, as I think the Minister will accept as both he and I represent substantial housing schemes, that if we are to base sales on pooled historic costs, the situation will have no relation to reality. The kind of houses that are popular and in demand are those built between the wars at prices of between £300 and £400. Those not in demand are those being built at prices of £16,000 to £20,000 in our few housing areas outside cities.

The one thing that worries me about sales of council houses and the one thing that we cannot ignore is that with the possibility of going ahead with such plans we might create great ghettos in our city areas, because the demand for the sale of houses will be in the settled outer areas and there will not be such a great demand elsewhere. By pursuing a policy of trying to free them and give people more opportunity and the right to own their own homes, we shall create ghettos in some areas, such as those peopled by problem families, the unemployed, the sick and the disabled.

In some degree this could be made worse by what is again a well motivated scheme—namely, the rent rebate scheme. Ever since we introduced the rent rebate scheme, a substantial number of tenants have been paying little or no rent. As well as providing a great deal of help, this scheme has caused great resentment on the part of people working for a wage and paying full rent when they see those with the same facilities paying little or no rent at all. If we go on as we are without trying to make any provision to create a social mix in some of our large council areas, we are in danger, for the best of reasons and with the best of intentions of making things worse.

That is why I hope that in their policies the Government will make it clear that pooled historic costs will have no part to play in the assessment of the price to be paid for a council house. Obviously, a house might have been built at a cost of £400 between the wars and be worth as much as £1,600 but in the Glasgow or Deeside perimeter areas the cost of a new house might be as much as £14,000 to £15,000 and the market value as little as £3,000. I believe that if sales take place they should be made throughout the council areas so that we can create a social mix. If there is to be a weighting on price ing, the weighting should be to offer houses at cheaper prices where there is a danger of creating a ghetto.

It seems that in Scotland the situation is totally different from that in England and Wales. My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) said that in England and Wales there was a ban on sales of New Town houses. In 1975 only 24 council houses were sold in Scotland and 247 New Town houses. However, the real pattern that emerges is that whereas under the Conservative Government between 1971 and 1973 the number of public authority houses sold rose from 259 to 2,200—a pretty small figure—in two years flat the present Government have succeeded in bringing down the figure again to about 250.

I should like the Government to make an announcement about what their new policy on the sales of public authority houses in Scotland will be. Are the Government to provide more freedom, particularly bearing in mind the special problems that we have with a lower rate of owner-occupation? Have they any plans to deal with the multitude of Socialist-controlled authorities in Scotland which are simply not prepared to sell any public authority houses, irrespective of the guidance of Government, the views of planners and so on?

The Minister will be aware of the present troubles of the city Labour Party in the Glasgow district. Some members are saying "Things are ridiculous; we must offer some houses for sale, otherwise we shall have a situation of hardly any owner-occupation being available in Glasgow", and, on the other hand, some members are saying" We must not do this because it is not Socialism".In Scotland, having such a low rate of owner-occupation, there is a case for the Government to give directions to local authorities on what should be done in particular circumstances.

I support the sale of council houses and public authority houses, for reasons that I have mentioned. In these days of high rents, coming under Tory and Labour Governments, it is obviously a mug's game to pay an ever-increasing rent but ultimately to have nothing to show for it.

We need more mobility in Scotland, where we have a very serious unemployment problem and declining industries. It is almost impossible in the West of Scotland to get a transfer from one council house to another if one's job has gone elsewhere.

The rate of owner-occupation in Scotland is about the lowest in Europe. It is only about 30 per cent. We desperately need the sale of council houses also for social mobility. The creation of municipal ghettos is not merely a housing problem. It is also an educational problem.

Mr. John Robertson (Paisley)

Will the hon. Gentleman say how he can solve the basic problem of someone employed on manual work getting a loan from a building society in order to purchase a house, bearing in mind that the price of housing in Scotland now is astronomical and even higher than that in some London areas?

Mr. Taylor

It was precisely for that reason that I was suggesting that we should have a clear indication of market values, fairly fixed. The market value of some council houses would be extremely low based on the kind of prices for houses that are obtained in the West of Scotland. However, I believe that every council tenant should receive a statutory notice from his local authority saying what the monthly repayment would be if he were to buy his house.

6.8 p.m.

Mr. J. W. Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

I have placed on the Order Paper a few modest words as an amendment to the Government's amendment, because in my view the Labour Party and particularly the present Labour Government have been slow to hit back in the propaganda battle in which it has been said that we are the party opposed to owner-occupation. I was gratified to hear my right hon. Friend the Minister refuting the charges made against the Labour Government and pointing out that it has been Labour Governments who have brought forward the mortgage option scheme, who have stabilised building society funds and who brought about the Leasehold Reform Act. How can a party which brings forward that sort of measure be accused of being anti-owner-occupation?

The same goes for Labour-controlled local authorities, such as that of Birmingham. My remarks apply only to Birmingham. I know nothing about New Towns, and still less about Scotland. However, Birmingham, as a Labour-controlled authority until a couple of weeks ago, wished to have the maximum number of different types of tenure available to the citizens of that city. In 1972 it proposed the half-and-half mortgage scheme. That scheme is now followed by many towns throughout the country.

Birmingham further proposed the purchase and improvement mortgage scheme for selling what were council-owned properties built before 1919, along with an improvement grant as part of the mortgage. Both those schemes were held back by a Conservative Government, the so-called flag-wavers for owner-occupation. Both those schemes from a Labour-controlled authority would have led to more owner-occupation but were held back by a Tory Government. It does not make sense, therefore, for the Labour Party to hold back, nationally and locally, from defending itself against the propaganda put forward by the Opposition in this Chamber, as well as outside in the council chambers throughout the country.

I do not wish to be dogmatic. We have heard from the Front Bench and it is implied by the Government's amendment that the Government support the status quo. So from Westminster we are not going to stop, ban or centrally restrict local authorities, whether Tory or Labour, disposing of properties within their control.

I wish, however, to deal with that part of the Government's amendment which refers to public sector sales being: decided locality by locality in the light of serious and unbiased consideration of the housing needs of the area concerned". I take this in its broadest possible sense. I look upon housing needs as being also the needs of existing tenants, and looking at this from the point of view of my constituency one of these needs is the need for adequate and speedy housing repair and maintenance. At the present, however, because of the overloading of our direct labour department and the overloading, believe it or not, of private enterprise contractors, we have a planned maintenance scheme for housing repairs. The result is that in response to my inquiries on behalf of constituents I receive letters saying" Our workmen will be around that particular area in 1978"—or it may be 1979 or even 1980—and I have to send such letters to my constituents.

Obviously, urgent repairs will be tackled under the maintenance scheme, but what a tenant may consider urgent and what a local authority housing department inspector may consider urgent is an extremely subjective area. There is, therefore, considerable room for dispute. I am never sure about how London organises itself, but Birmingham is probably the largest single housing authority in the country. Certainly, in Birmingham we have the bureaucracy to go with it.

Many of my constituents who work for the housing department, as painters, decorators and builders, complain bitterly about the numbers of inspectors who are employed supposedly to go round checking their work. At the same time I have tenants who complain to me that, when the corporation has used private enterprise contractors, no inspectors come in to check the quality of their work before it is paid for, and when subsequently defects are found in the work no real recompense is available because the firm has disappeared, gone bankrupt or has no money available.

It is well known, as has been stated. that in the period from 1966 to 1972 when Birmingham was Conservative-controlled it pioneered the sale of council houses under Sir Francis Griffin. I do not know the full statistics, but I know from personal experience that a great majority of the people who purchased during those six years are still living in those houses today. That is irrefutable and is something no one can deny or would wish to deny. Those people purchased their houses because they had every intention of remaining in them. There is no beating about the bush on that. That is why they are still there.

Those houses, therefore, would never have gone back to the housing stock or pool for reletting in any event. Consequently I do not subscribe to the argument that we must fix the housing stock and then heaven forbid our altering that particular figure, because the term "housing stock" means different things. It is not the total housing stock but the stock of houses available to let which is arguable. The nub of the argument in the Birmingham situation is what is to happen in the city in the next two years while the Conservatives are in control. We have a housing waiting list of 30,000. It is admitted by both the outgoing Labour administration and the incoming Conservative administration that there is in reality a live list of only 15,000, as I see another Birmingham Member agrees.

For the second time in 10 years, therefore, the Labour authority in Birmingham has bequeathed to an incoming Tory administration a massive house-building programme with the land, the contracts and everything geared up. There is a commitment to build 5,000 homes a year for the next four years, or 20,000 homes in all in that period. If the live housing application list stands as it does currently at only 15,000—one presumes that the expensively employed housing officials have done their sums, and we have to take their word that the total is only 15,000—clearly, if the programme bequeathed by the Labour authority to the Conservative administration is carried out, we should be in a state of housing equilibrium in Birmingham at the end of a four-year period, with no great waiting list in terms of need or homelessness.

On that basis, given the rule that where a council property is resold within five years it must go back to the council—I do not understand the reference to a 21- year-old period in Bristol when it is five years in Birmingham—provided that the plans of both parties were carried out, the housing problem in Birmingham could be solved acceptably to the benefit of those wishing to buy and those wishing to continue renting, because, whatever hon. Members opposite may say, in the six years of Tory administration in Birmingham, of something like 150,000 dwellings, at a time when anyone could apply to buy, only 10,000 were sold. When that administration went out there were 4,000 in the pipeline; but the sale of 10 per cent. of the total housing stock over six years is not very great. It does not lead us to believe that the great mass of 5 million council tenants—

Mr. Reginald Eyre (Birmingham, Hall Green)


Mr. Rooker

I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman. If I did, I would only prevent someone else being called to speak, and the winding-up speeches will begin at about 6.30.

We appear to hang ourselves on a dogmatic situation where we do not seem to take account of the reality of a particular locality. That is why I support the Government's amendment and what my right hon. Friend has said, since he has implied regard for the needs of locality. But if the promises and plans laid down by Labour-controlled local authorities are then completely cast aside by the Tories when they come in and they proceed with a policy of diminishing the housing stock, we shall reach a situation when the queue of those who are waiting and those who are now homeless will continue to grow, as obviously it did in the New Towns. Therefore, if such planned policies are actively carried out I for one would not hang myself on the hook of opposition to sales, as many others have sought to do. I would follow my hon. Friends into the Lobby in support of the Government.

6.18 p.m.

Mr. William van Straubenzee (Wokingham)

I believe it will be generally agreed that this has been a fascinating debate in a number of ways, because clearly there has been a rethinking of the whole question of selling New Town and council housing. The ably-expressed speech of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) to which we have just listened was an example of that. It has been an interesting debate because we have had total self-destruction by the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Thomas). I do not think I have ever heard of a man pouring a can of parliamentary petrol over himself so effectively and then personally setting light to it. That is his business, however, and I have no doubt that the fires of wrath will descend on and about him.

The most interesting speech was that of the Minister for Planning and Local Government. For connoisseurs of ministerial speeches, it was of very great interest. First, the right hon. Gentleman is well known and appreciated in the House as a very great parliamentary performer. Except on very detailed matters, he rarely follows his notes. But I was watching him with great care, and I saw that on this occasion he read every single word of his speech. That showed quite clearly that it was a very skilfully and carefully drafted speech.

Mr. John Silkin

I am grateful to my old friend, colleague, enemy and adversary. The reason why I read my speech was that I realised that we had a short debate and that I had to get it out in 10 minutes flat.

Mr. van Straubenzee

The right hon. Gentleman is admirable at thinking up quick excuses. It was always one of his skills when he was chairman of the Young Socialists in Westminster. However, the real reason was clearly not that.

I can almost visualise the Home Affairs Committee of the Cabinet Office preparing for this debate. The discussion probably went broadly like this: "The Minister would like to be able to move considerably in the direction of indicating the Government's interest in the sale of council and New Town houses. He would propose to speak broadly in this sense. "Then others with different views advocated caution. The result is that we have been granted today the trailer for a change of policy but that it has been thought that politically it cannot be done all in one fell swoop.

What has finally brought this situation about is that from up and down the country it has been understood by all that the last time the people had the opportunity to express themselves at the ballot box they did so decisively. If I may quote from my own New Town, to which I shall return in the few moments that I shall devote to New Town problems, the Labour Party was in firm control of the district council for Bracknell. It is now reduced to a total representation of three. There has been a quite dramatic change, and since that time there has been a steady stream of inquiries—my own office in the constituency is probably the best focal point—asking when the change of policy which so attracted the voters will be put into practice.

There are few New Towns where there is greater resentment at the Minister's decision in September 1974—the famous Circular 371—which said that there must be no further sales of New Town houses. I wonder whether hon. Members who do not represent New Towns—these new and very interesting social developments —understand the change which has come about in the social outlook of so many people, especially young people, who have moved into them. The shibboleths of former days are no longer appropriate. People look for something new and something different.

I reject totally the argument we heard from the hon. and learned Member for Warrington (Sir T. Williams). He argued that the waiting time for new houses in New Towns had been cut overwhelmingly because of the decision to suspend the sale of houses. That does not accord with the facts in the town of Bracknell, which I know. The reason for the fall there is the downturn in the general economic climate and, therefore, the greater difficulty in attracting employment both of a manual nature and of an office nature to the New Towns. If a New Town is designed as a London overspill New Town and not merely to act as an out-county housing estate, it is necessary to attract to the town people's employment as well as their homes. What really matters is the general economic state of the nation and not whether houses can be sold.

I was delighted to hear the Minister say that he intended to consult the corporations and to inquire whether in their circumstances it would be wise for them to restart selling houses. In that connection, I want to look closely, but not tonight — I make only a glancing reference tonight — at the composition of the New Town corporations. In my own case, there are nine members on the board of the Bracknell Corporation, four of them appointed from members of the district council. All four district council representatives were Socialists. There was no Tory representative. Three of the four have lost their seats. There is now only one who is still a member both of the district council and of the development corporation.

On other appropriate occasions—although it is relevant to this debate if there are to be discussions with the Minister—I want to be sure that the representation from the district councils represents more closely the areas from which these councillors come. The Minister is being very foolish only to appoint members of his own party in this respect because, with the swings of the electoral pendulum, those people demonstrably are no longer representative and ordinary justice requires that they, too, should change.

I happen to believe that good estate management requires that men and women, some drawn locally, should take long-term decisions and have a reasonable period of appointment regardless of party. But the corollary is that there must be fairness and justice as between one party and another.

I come next to a matter about which I know that I am slightly out of step with the majority view in my own party, though, of course, I go along with the corporate overall view. It has been said already that, under a Bill at present before the House, the assets of the New Towns, including the housing stock, will pass to the district councils. When my party comes into office, assuming that the Bill is then law, I believe that it may wish to look very closely at that. It is not true to say, as the hon. Member for Basildon (Mr. Moonman) suggested, that in that respect the New Towns will only be on all fours with their sister towns up and down the country. There is no sister town where the entire rented housing stock vests in a monopoly situation in the elected district council.

Of course, I want to see fully-developed local government services. But my principal fear is that, in the transfer of housing stock from development corporation to district council, we shall see the buildup of a new bureaucracy at district coun- cil level which is not accompanied by the disbandment of the existing bureaucracy of the successors of the development corporation. It is my great fear that we may build a duplication of bureaucracy and not see the elimination of one of them as a result of the assumption of power by another

Mr. Kenneth Lomas (Huddersfield West)

All that we are hearing from the hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) is a load of codswallop. We in the Labour Party believe that council houses should be sold where there is a surplus of council houses. But, inevitably, council houses are built for those who need them. The hon. Gentleman is wrong, and I regret that he is taking this line.

Mr. van Straubenzee

It appears that I was unwise to give way to the hon. Gentleman. He has not been present during the greater part of the debate. Indeed, I do not think that he was here at the beginning of my speech. Clearly he has not grasped the fact that I am discussing New Towns. However, I shall be glad to assist his education in some more convivial atmosphere.

As I was saying, I have that reservation and I have voiced it. I recognise, however, that the agreement in principle to the Bill of my right hon. and hon. Friends who have these difficult decisions to make and who handle our affairs so ably is accompanied by a firm belief that it should be linked with a right of purchase of a house by a New Town tenant. That I understand and welcome. I can tell them that in Bracknell—and in this I believe that I can speak for the overwhelming mass of those in the town—the people do not want their town to become a council house town. They believe in ownership and relish the independence which ownership gives. They welcome the pledge given by my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) and they will look upon this debate as giving a further example of their aspirations being met by the Tory Party.

6.31 p.m.

Mr. Bruce Douglas-Mann (Mitcham and Morden)

I am grateful to the two Front Benches for allowing me a few minutes to speak.

I was disturbed to hear my right hon. Friend the Minister talk as though there were some definite gain to public funds, under any circumstances, from the sale of council houses. I can assure him it is not the case. Although it is true that the subsidy to owner-occupiers, in the first years of mortgage on a new house, is initially lower than that of the subsidy on a new council house, I remind him that the subsidy to the council tenant diminishes steadily over the years and we are making a profit on pre-1960 houses whereas the subsidy to owner-occupiers continues indefinitely. My own house, built in 1850, still a public subsidy on it.

I would also remind the House that the supply of mortgage funds, the capital for investment, is not unlimited and that when we draw more of it into the owner-occupied sector there is less available for investment in other sectors. I would also point out that the sale of public assets at less than their value is bound to be popular to the recipients, but it is not a policy which I would wish to see pursued by the Government. I accept that there is a right for local democracy to carry out its wishes, provided it is not giving away a public asset on which the homeless must rely if they are to have any chance of being rehoused. This should also be vehemently discouraged by the Government.

There are 167,000 relettings a year, which is approximately three-fifths of all new tenancies allocated by local authorities. If we sell these houses, there will be no chance of the vast number of people on waiting lists who need houses being housed in the future.

6.33 p.m.

Mr. Hugh Rossi (Hornsey)

In his opening remarks my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee), in an admirable speech, said that this was a remarkable debate and that the most remarkable thing was the manner in which the Minister addressed the House. That was not the way in which I found it remarkable. What I found remarkable was that gone was the right hon. Gentleman's suave, almost avuncular, manner in which he used to lecture us on the niceties of the Community Land Act. However, the Community Land Act was something in which he believed utterly and completely. He could be absolutely relaxed when explaining to us lesser mortals the intricacies of that measure.

Today, however, the right hon. Gentleman spoke in a passionate, aggressive manner, the colour rosy in his cheeks, his chin jutting out. One got the feeling that he was seeking to defend the indefensible and to persuade himself, as well as us, that he believed all that he was saying. The right hon. Gentleman was trying to reconcile, in his own mind, two mutually incompatible thoughts—one the belief, which he holds passionately, in social ownership, and the other the right of individuals to own their own parcel of land and the house which is built on it.

In a way, the right hon. Gentleman's speech was similar to one we would expect from the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton), if he came down to persuade the House that he was more royalist than the king. The right hon. Gentleman was trying to persuade us that he was the great champion of home ownership, and always had been, yet he is the Minister who brought in the most Socialist measures which the present Government have ever introduced. He sought to divert attention by raking over old battles—the old "anything you can do, I can do better "syndrome, which we hear so often from the Labour Party and which did not advance his argument one jot or tittle.

But let us look at the record in respect of the sale of council houses. The Minister knows that this has always been the policy of this side of the House and that it was a Conservative Administration who introduced the policy and gave encouragement through a series of circulars. He knows that it was the last Labour Government, by their circular of 1968, who put a complete damper upon the sale of council houses by restricting the sales to ¼ per cent. of the stock. That dealt a death blow to many local authorities which were beginning to sell on a large scale—the Greater London Council, for example. Not content with doing that, the present Administration, with their Circular 70/74, said that it was generally undesirable for local authorities to sell. On top of that, there has been a complete ban on the sale of New Town houses.

The right hon. Gentleman has said that he will rethink that policy and that he will have consultations to see whether it is right, in some circumstances, to sell.

We are grateful for small mercies. He has emphasised that, above everything else, he wants to leave the matter to local decision. Of course, there is the rub: he knows that so far as local decision is concerned, if the decision is in the hands of Labour-controlled councils tenants will have precious little chance of buying their own houses. He does not mean that an authority will look at the matter and decide according to needs. What he means is that the authority will decide, if Labour-controlled, according to its bias and prejudice, not to enable council tenants to buy on any appreciable scale, because this is the history and the record of Labour-controlled councils.

In 1973, when the Labour Party swept into power in a number of local authorities, it stopped the sale of council houses. In 1972, under a Conservative Administration, over 45,000 council houses were sold. In 1973, the year in which local elections took place, the figure dropped to 34,000 houses. However, in 1974, when the full affects of Labour policies were felt, there was a drop to 4,153 sales, and in 1975 a drop to 2,000.

If the right hon. Gentleman really will leave this matter to local authorities, that will ensure that hundreds of thousands of council tenants, in those 90 authorities newly under Conservative control, will be given the opportunity to buy their houses. We wish those district councils god-speed in the pursuance of those polices.

The right hon. Gentleman criticised our concept of giving a man the right to buy the freehold in order to create mobility. He knows as well as every other hon. Member that, once a tenant is placed in a council house, invariably he remains there until he dies or his widow succeeds him. The turnover by way of voluntary movement out of council properties is very small indeed, because the council tenant, once in a council property on a highly subsidised rent, is of course economically trapped.

We say—this is very much the basis of our thinking on this matter—that the council tenant should be given the right to buy his own home. Then, towards the end of his days, he will have something to show for the rent that he has been putting into the local authority. If he wants to retire, to move out of

inner city area to something more pleasant and rural in which to end his days with his wife, he will have an asset that he can dispose of which will enable him to do just that, instead of remaining in the inner city area. That property, which would otherwise remain in his hands and those of his widow, will be released and made available to young families wanting to move into the inner city area because of the job opportunities that it offers. That is the kind of freedom that we should like to give council tenants.

The Minister also asked how we dared talk in these terms when we were so much opposed to leasehold reform. We were not all opposed to leasehold reform. [Interruption.] I entered this House and did all I could to promote leasehold reform. The Minister for Housing and Construction, who is now sniggering at me, will recall how embarrassed he was when, during the debates on the Housing Act 1974, I introduced an amendment extending the right of leasehold enfranchisement to people in the inner London area whose homes had a rateable value of £1,500 or more. I adhere to that because I believe that monopoly ownership of other people's homes is wrong, whether it be in the hands of a private individual or even in those of the State. The way in which I see this right for council tenants is very much a form—an analogy perhaps—of leasehold enfranchisement.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery) said that when he was Minister he had great difficulties in promoting the sale of council houses because of a variety of obstacles raised by local authorities and also because of the procedures concerned. Extending this analogy of leasehold reform, I would see our policy, when we introduce it, operating in the following way.

A council tenant who had lived in his house for, say, three years—to that extent, we should be advantaging him over the leaseholder, who has to reside in his home for five years—would then, like the leaseholder, have the right to serve a statutory notice upon the local authority, demanding the transfer of the freehold of that house or flat to him. The effect would be to give an immediate right, actionable in the courts of law, as in the private sector in leasehold reform, to that council tenant. The transfer of the legal right would then be a matter of certification and lodgment in the Land Registry, without any difficulty whatsoever. The machinery can be made to overcome the obstacles which I know taxed my right hon. Friend so hard when he sought energetically to pursue policies of this kind.

My right hon. Friend also mentioned the question of price and urged us to he as generous as we possibly could. He referred to the proposals expounded by our right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker), who suggests that we should give the houses away. I can understand that argument, because in many areas the rents being obtained by local authorities scarcely cover the costs of maintenance and management. There is a tremendous loss and burden to the taxpayer and the ratepayer. When those circumstances prevail, giving the houses away would be far cheaper than anything else. I can therefore understand that point of view.

That argument, however, is perhaps more valid in considering the level of rents, as the Government are doing at the moment in their housing finance review. When they have completed that review, that argument may not be quite as valid as it is today. In any case, if we were to give away council houses there would be tremendous resentment throughout the country among people who are struggling to buy their own homes on mortgages, because they would be seeing a dissipation of assets which they had created through payment of their rates and taxes. I do not think that that is something that one would wish to do or to see done.

But there is a case, when a tenant has resided in a council house for a number of years, for being more generous even than the 30 per cent. discount which my right hon. Friend posited—because, in terms, it would be older stock and the cost to the authority would be that much less.

What we would seek to do—again drawing on the analogy of leasehold reform—is to equate the situation with that of the sitting tenant in the private rented sector. A landlord selling to his sitting tenant sells at the market price subject to a substantial discount, depend- ing on the age of the house and the length of time that the tenant has been there. That is a concept that we can bring into this sector for the benefit of the tenant.

My allotted time has almost run out simply in dealing with the important matters that my right hon. Friend put to me. I would ask other hon. Members to forgive me if I do not have time to answer the points they have put.

We on this side are firm in our policy on the sale of council houses to council tenants. This is something that I believe the people want. Over 80 per cent. of the people in this country wish to be home owners. It makes economic sense along the lines that we discussed a few minutes ago, and—this is something which should attract the Labour Party—it is one of the greatest measures that one could devise for the redistribution of wealth.

6.47 p.m.

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

Let me start by stating the Government's position on this matter as clearly as I possibly can before I discuss various aspects of it. We refute the view that local authorities should sell their houses indiscriminately regardless of the local housing situation. The first duty of a local authority is to ensure an adequate supply of rented dwellings. In areas where there are substantial needs to be met for rented dwellings, as in the large cities, we consider that it is generally wrong for local authorities to sell council houses.

There may be areas where the sale of council houses into owner-occupation is appropriate in order to provide a better housing balance, but that should not be done so as to reduce the provision of rented accommodation where there is an unmet demand. Indeed, there are many areas where there is an inadequate supply of rented accommodation relative to the supply of owner-occupied houses.

There may be circumstances in which, in addition to municipal rented dwellings, local authorities should sponsor tenants' co-operatives as well as housing associations. We consider that local authorities should build directly for owner-occupation where they can usefully contribute to meeting a demand for houses for sale. Similarly, local authorities should consider building for long lease for housing cooperatives. Such activities should not, however, prejudice local authorities in their primary duty to provide rented accommodation.

I should be interested to know whether there is any Opposition Member who will stand up and deny the basic policy which I have just stated on behalf of the Government.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Eyre

I should like to put it to the Minister that his explanation is insensitive. We know that on great estates, in massive areas like Birmingham, tenants will occupy their houses for all the years ahead. Those houses will not become generally available. Yet there is a great desire among those people to exercise ownership and to develop family assets. I ask the Minister not to prevent it.

Mr. Freeson

The hon. Gentleman reached the end of that speech after much effort. He has not denied the basic proposition that not only is it the position of the Government now but it was our position when we came into office. I have virtualy quoted directly and explicitly from the policy circular we issued one month after we came to office in March 1974. That remains the policy of the Government. I am almost tempted to leave it at that, but I am sure that the House would like me to educate the Opposition Front Bench a little further.

Mr. Victor Goodhew (St. Albans)


Mr. Freeson

I cannot give way, because I have only a short time in which to make a number of points and I intend to deal with the matters that are of more interest to those who attended the debate than to those who have just come into the Chamber.

The circular from which I have quoted like other policies issued since, was concerned with a range of housing needs. It was concerned, first, with giving the highest priority to providing more new and modernised housing for all kinds of tenures, which was not mentioned by either of the hon. Gentlemen who have spoken from the Opposition Front Bench. They made no mention of the need for local authorities to provide more housing, irrespective of arguments about the nature of tenures.

Secondly, our policy is to expand the scope for owner-occupation for those for whom it is the most suitable form of tenure. Thirdly, it is to diversify social ownership and tenure. Fourthly, it is to maintain the first duty of local authorities to ensure an adequate supply of rented accommodation, and to oppose the indiscriminate sale of rented houses regardless of local need. Fifthly, it involves the need to develop housing strategies based upon objective studies of the physical, tenure and economic conditions of the local authorities concerned. Where, by objective standards, there is a need to build, buy and modernise more dwellings for rent, for owner-occupation and for other forms of tenure within existing estates, there is a general duty on local authorities to act under the 1957 and 1969 Housing Acts. Only where disposal of council dwellings or buildings for sale is sensible in the light of that overall duty is it right to carry out such sales.

Unlike the Opposition, we give top priority to providing new and improved housing. Public expenditure on housing is running at over 20 per cent. in real terms above that prevailing in the last year of the Tory Government. Starts and completions have been about 50 per cent. higher. There has been a massive expansion in housing association activity, which has nearly quadrupled in two years. We have sponsored co-operatives all over the country and there have been many inquiries about how we may sponsor and expand this activity.

The rate of public sector new building is crucial and will remain so for a long time. That is why we give it such a high priority. As a result of our policies for the benefit of home owners, we now see a return of confidence which is reflected in improved private house-building figures. Starts last year were 40 per cent. up on 1974. That is continuing this year.

Owner-occupation is the right form of tenure for many people. On present policies I would expect the figure for England and Wales to rise from 55 per cent. to over 60 per cent. by 1980. But it is not necessarily the best or most suitable tenure for everyone. There will remain a widespread desire and need for publicly-rented housing.

In some quarters it has become fashionable to decry council housing. I refer not to criticism of problems—such as managerial, financial and architectural—which have arisen, but to the constant denigration, distortion and ignorance put about by the Opposition and by some people in the media. Notwithstanding the problems which have arisen, this country has a proud record in public sector housing. It is housing, for the most part, which would not otherwise have been provided. It is housing with a social conscience, housing which has the important quality of improving living standards for millions of people and which, overall, is counter-inflationary in its cost effects. It is a policy which has sustained the rented sector and avoided the decline which would otherwise have taken place throughout the country.

After half a century of public authority housing, it would be surprising if we did not expect to make changes in the way in which we develop policies of social ownership. That is why we, and not the Opposition, have pushed ahead with housing co-operatives, tenant participation, shared equity schemes and improved housing management. Each of those issues was set aside by the previous Conservative Government. The Birmingham scheme for shared equity and various forms of providing owner-occupation was geld up for two years until we came into office.

There are those who do not wish or cannot afford to become owner-occupiers but who wish to have an equity stake in their home or a say in its management. It is for those people that we wish to pursue other kinds of alternatives to conventional rented accommodation or

owner-occupation. That is not a second best to owner-occupation, but it could in many circumstances be an advance in housing policy and community involvement. We wish to see a growing involvement by tenants. We are applying these policies. The previous Government did nothing, but we have been active. Ever since we came to office we have wished to pursue this further, and we are now involved in studies which will lead to Government action. We have put a lot of effort into this policy by day-to-day contact, study groups, seminars and policy circulars. [An HON. MEMBER: "Action, not words."] The action is in the building of houses and the making of better conditions for people to live in. Local authorities must set any policy they have for selling off the stock of council houses against the needs and demands for rented accommodation. They should not sell if there is clear evidence that by selling off the stock they put at risk people who would otherwise have the opportunity of relets of vacated properties. That is the type of examination which local authorities should make. We are attempting in our policy to go across the board and to look at public enterprise in rented accommodation, co-operatives, shared equity and owner-occupation. We want to ensure that the first duty is sustained and not subject to attacks of stupid rhetoric by the Tories. We intend to call upon the House and local government to support our policy. I believe that we shall get the support of local government.

Question put, That the amendment be made: —

The House divided: Ayes 287, Noes 257.

Doig, Peter Latham, Arthur (Paddington) Rodgers, William (Stockton)
Dormand, J. D. Leadbitter, Ted Rooker, J. W.
Douglas-Mann, Bruce Lestor, Miss Joan (Eton & Slough) Roper, John
Duffy, A. E. P. Lever, Rt Hon Harold Rose, Paul B.
Dunn, James A. Lewis, Arthur (Newham N) Ross, Rt Hon W. (Kilmarnock)
Dunnett, Jack Lewis, Ron (Carlisle) Rowlands, Ted
Eadie, Alex Lipton, Marcus Sandelson, Neville
Edge, Geoff Litterick, Tom Sedgemore, Brian
Edwards, Robert (Wolv SE) Lomas, Kenneth Selby, Harry
Ellis, John (Brigg & Scun) Loyden, Eddie Shaw, Arnold (Ilford South)
English, Michael Luard, Evan Sheldon, Robert (Ashton-u-Lyne)
Ennals, David Lyon, Alexander (York) Shore, Rt Hon Peter
Evans, Fred (Caerphilly) Lyons, Edward (Bradford W) Short, Rt Hon E. (Newcastle C)
Evans, Gwynfor (Carmarthen) Mabon, Dr J. Dickson Silkin, Rt Hon John (Deptford)
Evans, Ioan (Aberdare) McCartney, Hugh Silkin, Rt Hon S. C. (Dulwich)
Ewing, Harry (Stirling) McElhone, Frank Sillars, James
Ewing, Mrs Winifred (Moray) MacFarquhar, Roderick Silverman, Julius
Faulds, Andrew McGuire, Michael (Ince) Skinner, Dennis
Fernyhough, Rt Hon E. Mackenzie, Gregor Small, William
Flannery, Martin Mackintosh, John P. Smith, John (N Lanarkshire)
Fletcher, Raymond (Ilkeston) McMillan, Tom (Glasgow C) Snape, Peter
Fletcher, Ted (Darlington) McNamara, Kevin Spearing, Nigel
Foot, Rt Hon Michael Madden, Max Spriggs, Leslie
Ford, Ben Magee, Bryan Stewart, Donald (Western Isles)
Forrester, John Mahon, Simon Stewart, Rt Hon M. (Fulham)
Fowler, Gerald (The Wrekin) Mallalieu, J. P. W. Stoddart, David
Fraser, John (Lambeth, N'w'd) Marks, Kenneth Stott, Roger
Freeson, Reginald Marquand, David Strang, Gavin
Garrett, John (Norwich S) Marshall, Dr Edmund (Goole) Strauss, Rt Hon G. R.
Garrett, W. E. (Wallsend) Marshall, Jim (Leicester S) Summerskill, Hon Dr Shirley
George, Bruce Mason, Rt Hon Roy Swain, Thomas
Gilbert, Dr John Maynard, Miss Joan Taylor, Mrs. Ann (Bolton W)
Ginsburg David Meacher, Michael Thomas, Jeffrey (Abertillery)
Golding, John Mellish, Rt Hon Robert Thomas, Mike (Newcastle E)
Gould, Bryan Mendelson, John Thomas, Ron (Bristol NW)
Gourlay, Harry Mikardo, Ian Thompson, George
Graham, Ted Millan, Bruce Thorne, Stan (Preston South)
Grant, George (Morpeth) Miller, Mrs Millie (Ilford N) Tierney, Sydney
Grant, John (Islington C) Mitchell, R. C. (Solon, Itchen) Tinn, James
Grocott, Bruce Molloy, William Tomlinson, John
Harper, Joseph Moonman, Eric Tomney, Frank
Harrison, Waller (Wakefield) Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe) Torney, Tom
Hart, Rt Hon Judith Morris, Charles R. (Openshaw) Urwin, T. W.
Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon) Varley, Rt Hon Eric G.
Hatton, Frank Moyle, Roland Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne V)
Hayman, Mrs Helene Mulley, Rt Hon Frederick Walden, Brian (B'ham, L'dyw'd)
Healey, Rt Hon Denis Murray, Rt Hon Ronald King Walker, Harold (Doncaster)
Heffer, Eric S. Newens, Stanley Walker, Terry (Kingswood)
Henderson, Douglas Noble, Mike Ward, Michael
Hooley, Frank Oakes, Gordon Watkins, David
Horam John Ogden, Eric Weetch, Ken
Howell, Rt Hon Denis O'Halloran, Michael Weitzman, David
Huckfield, Les Orbach, Maurice Wellbeloved, James
Hughes, Rt Hon C. (Anglesey) Orme, Rt Hon Stanley Welsh, Andrew
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Ovenden, John White, Frank R. (Bury)
Hughes, Roy (Newport) Owen, Dr David White, James (Pollok)
Hunter, Adam Padley, Walter Whitlock, William
Irvine, Rt Hon Sir A. (Edge Hill) Palmer, Arthur Wigley, Dafydd
Irving, Rt Hon S. (Dartford) Park, George Willey, Rt Hon Frederick
Jackson, Colin (Brighouse) Parker, John Williams, Alan (Swansea W)
Jackson, Miss Margaret (Lincoln) Parry. Robert Williams, Alan Lee (Hornch'ch)
Janner, Greville Pavitt, Laurie Williams, Rt Hon Shirley (Hertford)
Jay, Rt Hon Douglas Pendry, Tom Williams, Sir Thomas
Jeger, Mrs Lena Perry, Ernest Wilson, Alexander (Hamilton)
Jenkins, Hugh (Putney) Phipps, Dr Colin Wilson, Gordon (Dundee E)
John, Brynmor Prentice, Rt Hon Reg Wilson, Rt Hon H. (Huyton)
Johnson, James (Hull West) Prescott, John Wilson, William (Coventry SE)
Johnson, Walter (Derby S) Price, William (Rugby) Wise, Mrs Audrey
Jones, Barry (East Flint) Radice, Giles Woodall, Alec
Jones, Dan (Burnley) Richardson, Miss Jo Woof, Robert
Judd, Frank Roberts, Albert (Normanton) Wrigglesworth, Ian
Kaufman, Gerald Roberts, Gwilym (Cannock) Young, David (Bolton E)
Kelley, Richard Robertson, John (Paisley)
Kilroy-Silk, Robert Robinson, Geoffrey TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Kinnock, Neil Roderick, Caerwyn Mr. James Hamilton and
Lamond, James Rodgers, George (Chorley) Mr. A. W. Stallard.
Adley, Robert Awdry, Daniel Benyon, W.
Aitken, Jonathan Baker, Kenneth Berry, Hon Anthony
Alison, Michael Banks, Robert Biffen, John
Amery, Rt Hon Julian Beith, A. J. Blaker, Peter
Arnold, Tom Bell, Ronald Body, Richard
Atkins, Rt Hon H. (Spelthorne) Bennett, Dr Reginald (Fareham) Boscawen, Hon Robert
Bottomley, Peter Hawkins, Paul Osborn, John
Bowden, A. (Brighton, Kemptown) Hayhoe, Barney Page, John (Harrow West)
Boyson, Dr Rhodes(Brent) Heath, Rt Hon Edward Page, Rt Hon R. Graham (Crosby)
Braine, Sir Bernard Heseltine, Michael Pardoe, John
Brittan, Leon Hicks, Robert Parkinson, Cecil
Brocklebank-Fowler, C. Higgins, Terence L. Penhallgon, David
Brotherton, Michael Holland, Philip Percival, Ian
Brown, Sir Edward (Bath) Hooson, Emlyn Peyton, Rt Hon John
Bryan, Sir Paul Hordern, Peter Pink, R. Bonner
Buchanan-Smith, Alick Howe, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Price, David (Eastleigh)
Budgen, Nick Howell, David (Guildford) Prior, Rt Hon James
Bulmer, Esmond Howells, Geraint (Cardigan) Pym, Rt Hon Francis
Burden, F. A. Hunt, David (Wirral) Raison, Timothy
Butler, Adam (Bosworth) Hunt, John Rathbone, Tim
Carlisle, Mark Hurd, Douglas Rawlinson, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Chalker, Mrs Lynda Hutchison, Michael Clark Rees, Peter (Dover & Deal)
Channon, Paul Irving, Charles (Cheltenham) Rees-Davies, W. R.
Churchill, W. S. Jenkin, Rt Hn P. (Wanst'd & W'df'd) Renton, Rt Hon Sir D. (Hunts)
Clark, Alan (Plymouth, Sutton) Jessel, Toby Renton, Tim (Mid-Sussex)
Clark, William (Croydon S) Johnson Smith, G. (E Grinstead) Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon
Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe) Johnston, Russell (Inverness) Ridley, Hon Nicholas
Clegg, Walter Jones, Arthur (Daventry) Ridsdale, Julian
Cockcroft, John Jopling, Michael Rifkind, Malcolm
Cooke, Robert (Bristol W) Joseph, Rt Hon Sir Keith Rippon, Rt Hon Geoffrey
Cope, John Kershaw, Anthony Roberts, Wyn (Conway)
Cormack, Patrick Kimball, Marcus Rodgers, Sir John (Sevenoaks)
Corrie, John King, Evelyn (South Dorset) Rossi, Hugh (Hornsey)
Costain, A. P. King, Tom (Bridgwater) Royle, Sir Anthony
Crouch, David Kitson, Sir Timothy Sainsbury, Tim
Crowder, F. P. Knight, Mrs Jill St. John-Stevas, Norman
Davies, Rt Hon J. (Knutsford) Knox, David Scott, Nicholas
Dean, Paul (N Somerset) Lamont, Norman Shaw, Michael (Scarborough)
Dodsworth, Geoffrey Lane, David Shelton, William (Streatham)
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James Langford-Holt, Sir John Shepherd, Colin
Drayson, Burnaby Latham, Michael (Melton) Shersby, Michael
du Cann, Rt Hon Edward Lawrence, Ivan Silvester, Fred
Durant, Tony Lawson, Nigel Sims, Roger
Eden, Rt Hon Sir John Lester, Jim (Beeston) Sinclair, Sir George
Edwards, Nicholas (Pembroke) Lewis, Kenneth (Rutland) Skeet, T. H. H.
Elliott, Sir William Lloyd, Ian Smith, Cyril (Rochdale)
Emery, Peter Loveridge, John Smith, Dudley (Warwick)
Eyre, Reginald Luce, Richard Speed, Keith
Fairbairn, Nicholas McAdden, Sir Stephen Spicer, Michael (S Worcester)
Fairgrieve, Russell McCrindle, Robert Sproat, Iain
Farr, John Macfarlane, Neil Stainton, Keith
Fell, Anthony MacGregor, John Stanbrook, Ivor
Finsberg, Geoffrey Macmillan, Rt Hon M. (Farnham) Stanley, John
Fisher, Sir Nigel McNair-Wilson, M. (Newbury) Steel, David (Roxburgh)
Fletcher, Alex (Edinburgh N) McNair-Wilson, P. (New Forest) Steen, Anthony (Wavertree)
Fletcher-Cooke, Charles Madel, David Stewart, Ian (Hitchin)
Fookes, Miss Janet Marshall, Michael (Arundel) Stokes, John
Forman, Nigel Marten, Neil Stradling Thomas, J.
Fowler, Norman (Sutton C'f'd) Mates, Michael Tapsell, Peter
Fox, Marcus Mather, Carol Taylor, R. (Croydon NW)
Fraser, Rt Hon H. (Stafford & St) Maude, Angus Taylor, Teddy (Cathcart)
Fry, Peter Maudling, Rt Hon Reginald Temple-Morris, Peter
Galbraith, Hon. T. G. D. Mawby, Ray Thatcher, Rt Hon Margaret
Gardiner, George (Reigate) Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin Thomas, Rt Hon P. (Hendon S)
Gardner, Edward (S Fylde) Mayhew, Patrick Townsend, Cyril D.
Gilmour, Rt Hon Ian (Chesham) Meyer, Sir Anthony Trotter, Neville
Gilmour, Sir John (East Fife) Miller, Hal (Bromsgrove) Tugendhat, Christopher
Glyn, Dr Alan Mills, Peter van Straubenzee, W. R.
Godber, Rt Hon Joseph Miscampbell, Norman Vaughan, Dr Gerard
Goodhart, Philip Mitchell, David (Basingstoke) Wakeham, John
Goodhew, Victor Moate, Roger Walder, David (Clitheroe)
Goodlad, Alastair Monro, Hector Walker, Rt Hon P. (Worcester)
Gorst, John Montgomery, Fergus Walker-Smith, Rt Hon Sir Derek
Gower, Sir Raymond (Barry) Moore, John (Croydon C) Wall, Patrick
Grant, Anthony (Harrow C) More, Jasper (Ludlow) Walters, Dennis
Gray, Hamish Morgan, Geraint Weatherill, Bernard
Griffiths, Eldon Morris, Michael (Northampton S) Wells, John
Grimond, Rt Hon J. Morrison, Charles (Devizes) Whitelaw, Rt Hon William
Grist, Ian Morrison, Hon Peter (Chester) Wiggin, Jerry
Grylls, Michael Mudd, David Winterton, Nicholas
Hall, Sir John Neave, Airey Wood, Rt Hon Richard
Hall-Davis. A. G. F. Nelson, Anthony Young, Sir G. (Ealing, Acton)
Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury) Newton, Tony Younger, Hon George
Hampson, Dr Keith Normanton, Tom
Harvie Anderson, Rt Hon Miss Nott, John TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Hastings, Stephen Onslow, Cranley Mr. Spencer Le Marchant and
Havers, Sir Michael Oppenheim, Mrs Sally Mr. Michael Roberts.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.

Resolved. That this House, recognising the desirability of encouraging the widest possible choice of tenure including owner occupation, equity sharing, co-operatives and renting, considers that the question of whether public sector houses should be sold to their occupiers should be decided locality by locality in the light of serious and unbiased consideration of the housing needs of the area concerned and welcomes Her Majesty's Government's continuing examination of this matter both in relation to local authorities and to new towns.