HC Deb 12 April 1978 vol 947 cc1363-6
1. Mr. Ovenden

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what is his estimate of housing completions and starts in the public sector for 1978.

19. Mr. Watkinson

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he remains satisfied with level of investment in house building in the public sector.

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Peter Shore)

About 200,000 public sector homes are under construction in Great Britain, which should lead to about 150,000 completions, of which roughly 132,000 will be in England, in 1978. We have made provision for a public sector programme of 137,000 starts in England in 1978. I am acting to encourage the full use of the housing expenditure provision.

Mr. Ovenden

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many Labour Members regard with some degree of pride the contribution that the Government have made to tackling the housing problem, especially the fact that 130,000 more houses have been completed in the public sector in the past three years than were completed during the last three years for which the Conservative Government were responsible? However, in view of the start figures in the public sector and the disappointing figures so far this year, does he think that it is time to take some drastic action to ensure that the Government's record is maintained? What action will he take against the Tory authorities that refuse to build in the stress areas?

Mr. Shore

The problem with public sector starts is a serious one, at least as regards last year. As I have said, we shall be taking measures to encourage local authorities to avoid what appears to be one of the principal problems, namely, slippage during the past year. It is true that the great majority of local housing authorities are not now under Labour control. That means that housing programmes are greatly influenced by the policy decisions of local housing authorities. If the local leaders of Conservative councils have listened to advice from the Opposition Front Bench, we shall not get the number of houses that we need.

Mr. Watkinson

Will my right hon. Friend be a little more explicit about the acute problem of underspending? Is his Department monitoring the problem closely? Is it possible for funds to be rapidly switched to other areas when authorities will not spend? Is he keeping under review the number of authorities that he designates as stress areas? Will he consider other areas, such as the Forest of Dean, in my constituency?

Mr. Shore

We have moved on a bit from the rather rough and ready stress area and non-stress area approach that I introduced in the summer of 1976. We have moved on to the new housing investment programme and policy approach that begins to try to assess the needs of individual authorities instead of the rather crude provision that we had before.

We are watching closely and monitoring the progress of local authorities. Wherever there is the possibility of switching from one authority to another, we shall make use of that power.

Mr. Rossi

In view of the figures that have been bandied about on the Labour Benches, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that, comparing 1971–1973 with 1974–76, starts were down by about 122,500, the greater percentage of those being in the private sector and not the public sector? Will he inform the House what was his estimate at this time in 1977, and what was the actual outturn? What does he regard as being responsible for the discrepancy?

Mr. Shore

When we took office in the beginning of 1974 there was the almost total collapse of private sector building. The reason was well understood, and nobody had any doubt about it. The reason was gross financial mismanagement, leading to a total famine of building society money. The situation was so bad that we had only 100,000 private sector housing starts, the lowest figure since the early 1950s. That was the result of the failure of the Conservative Party. There has been a substantial increase in the public sector housing programme in the past three years, in terms of completions, as compared with the three or four years of Conservative Government.

Mr. Frank Allaun

Is my right hon. Friend aware that despite the desperate shortage, council house building has been more than halved in areas that are now controlled by Conservative councils, such as Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Leicester and Liverpool, which is controlled jointly with the Liberals? The notorious Tameside authority has not built a single house. Will my right hon. Friend intervene and get tough with these authorities? Will he do something about it?

Mr. Shore

I very much deplore, of course, the cut-back on policy grounds in local authority house building below the levels which we have been able to allocate to local authorities. I regret it all the more in areas in which there are actual clear shortages of rented housing.

As to what I can do, there is the whole problem of the relationship between central Government and local government. Unless my hon. Friends want to encourage me to repeat the errors of the Conservative Party and put commissioners into the town halls of England, which I do not intend to do, there are obvious limits to what I can do. However, I shall do all that I can with persuasive powers and the use of the Housing Corporation to help to deal with that problem.

Mr. Rossi

Will the right hon. Gentleman stop distorting the figures and confirm that private starts last year were 60 per cent. down on the last year of the Conservative Administration? Will he now answer my question regarding the deplorable result of 1977 in both sectors?

Mr. Shore

I do not accept that. We completed just over 300,000 houses last year, which is very much the same number as we completed in 1976 and 1975—

Mr. Rossi

The worst record for 15 years.

Mr. Shore

—to the great benefit of our people. It was over 300,000 houses. That is not bad. I should like us to do better, but I am not at all ashamed of the achievement that we have had.

As for the hon. Gentleman's arithmetic, it is a waste of time to try to deal with his carefully selected figures.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I must now appeal to the House for shorter supplementary questions. I know the overwhelming temptation, but it is always good to resist it if possible. We shall not reach Question No. 12 if we do not move faster.