HC Deb 24 November 1977 vol 939 cc1731-3
5. Mr. Watkinson

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he remains satisfied with the level of house building in the Province.

Mr. Carter

I would hesitate to use the word "satisfied" about any aspect of housing in Northern Ireland. A great deal of progress has been and is being made in the provision of new public sector housing outside Belfast. My chief concern is with speeding up necessary new building in the redevelopment areas, especially in inner Belfast, and the improvement of older houses. I am disappointed at the level of private house building in the lower price bracket. I trust that measures now being taken or contemplated will reverse the downward trend.

Mr. Watkinson

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply. Have there been any signs of an increase in private house purchase as a result of the wide range of new measures which he is introducing, and can he foresee any material improvement in the house building programme in Belfast in the very near future?

Mr. Carter

In the private sector, I have announced the introduction of the option mortgage scheme, and we are currently looking at the prospect of equity sharing in the private sector. We know from figures available to us that there are about 7,000 houses in the private sector under construction. That figure will not necessarily translate itself into 7,000 completions in a given year, but all the signs are that at least in the private sector we shall be picking up.

We are in some difficulty in the public sector because we have now switched our policy from greenfield development towards the redevelopment of the centre of Belfast. That will take some time, because redevelopment is not as easy. In redevelopment areas we have to cope with the problems of acquisition, vesting, and so on. Until we acquire expertise in that field we shall not be able to move quite as fast as we want to.

Mr. Kilfedder

Have not the Government created a scandalous situation whereby, on average, compared with the rest of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland has more people, particularly young married couples, living in overcrowded and substandard housing? Is the Minister aware that the Government have created only two records: first for the number of jobs for officials; secondly, for the level of unemployment in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Carter

This is a serious subject. Anyone who looks at the history of housing in Northern Ireland cannot lay all the problems at the doorstep of the Government in the way that the hon. Gentleman has done. Of course, there are problems, historically and otherwise, but we are trying to cope with them. My officials, myself and everybody in housing, the Executive, the building industry, and the trade unions are trying to do what we can to overcome all those problems that were erected in the past. Contributions such as that from the hon. Gentleman simply will not help.

Mr. McCusker

Does the Minister agree that the record of 1968, 1969 and 1970 shows that it is possible to build substantially more houses in Northern Ireland than are currently being built? What is he doing to motivate the Housing Executive to meet its responsibility?

Mr. Carter

The hon. Gentleman is right. In the past few years we have not been building as many houses, publicly or privately, as we were 10 years ago. But, as I have explained—and the policy has been approved and accepted by hon. Gentlemen opposite—we have now switched the public sector drive away from greenfield development towards inner city redevelopment, particularly in Belfast. We simply cannot move in that area as fast as we should like, for obvious reasons.

We have taken considerable initiatives in the private sector. The option mortgage scheme, equity sharing, and so on, will all stimulate private sector activity.

Mr. Thorne

Can the Minister tell us how many hon. Gentlemen opposite who are raising the problem of the shortage of houses voted in the House against public expenditure cuts?

Mr. Carter

I do not wish to rub it in Hon. Members opposite know that there is no subject in Northern Ireland that is surrounded with more difficulty than is housing. Only two days ago I announced legislation repealing Acts going back to 1917 that restricted rents to 50p a week. Hon. Gentleman opposite had been going along happily with those Acts of Stormont—and possibly of this House also—for many years. We are now trying to put matters right.

Mr. Speaker

I must ask for shorter answers, otherwise we shall not reach Questions that could be reached.

Forward to