HC Deb 04 April 1979 vol 965 cc1302-6
7. Mr. Viggers

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what recent representations he has received on his policy towards the sale of council houses.

20. Mr. Flannery

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he is satisfied with the steps he has taken so far to ensure that the basic housing stock of local councils is being preserved for rental to those people who need houses to rent.

23. Mr. Gow

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what representations he has received about the sale of council homes and flats by local authorities following his speech in the House on 5 April; and if he will make a statement.

24. Mr. Tim Smith

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what represenetations he has received from councils in response to his circular on council house sales.

Mr. Shore

Since I prevented the sale of vacant and newly built council houses. I have received several representations expressing views both for and against the present policy. I am satisfied that my present policy is justified.

Mr. Viggers

Is the Secretary of State not yet aware that most people want to own their own homes? Is he aware that many council tenants cannot do that unless they are given every encouragement by the local authority and the Government? What will the Secretary of State do to help those council tenants who wish to buy their own houses when they are given the opportunity? Will he continue to be an impediment to their attempts to buy their own houses?

Mr. Shore

I am well aware of the wishes of many people to become owner-occupiers. I have implemented a range of measures since I have been Secretary of State designed to assist and facilitate that, including providing help for first-time purchasers. Our wish to encourage owner-occupation is not at issue. I said in my redefinition of policy that sales to a sitting tenant of two years' standing can proceed.

In areas where there is a clear need for rented housing—usually new ones or houses with gardens—I am not prepared to accept that houses which become vacant should be allocated on the basis of whether a person can afford to buy them.

Mr. Smith

Is the Secretary of State aware that Ashfield district council still refuses to sell houses to its tenants? Does he understand that these people regard these houses as their homes because they have lived in them since they were built? Why does the Labour Party continue to deny these people the opportunity to buy their homes, when the proceeds could be used to build much needed accommodation for the old and disabled?

Mr. Shore

With respect to the hon. Member, that is nonsense. Local councils, which are elected bodies and which have a duty to look after the housing needs of their areas, should decide broadly on these matters. Provided that they behave in a generally responsible manner, as most do, that is all right.

The hon. Member suggested that the effect of selling off council houses will be to release money so that councils can build new houses and meet housing needs in a more spacious and urgent way. That is contradicted by the facts. In nearly every case where there are large-scale and, in my view, irresponsible sales of council houses, local authorities cut back on their new house building programmes.

Mr. Flannery

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a deep worry in the country about the housing stock because of the threats made by the Tories? Is my right hon. Friend aware that people who have for generations struggled to achieve a housing stock for those who urgently need houses feel deeply threatened by the sale of council houses?

Mr. Shore

I understand the anxieties, but they must be put into perspective. We are talking only of a minority of desirable council houses. The rest will not be sold, whatever the Opposition wish. Under the Tories' policy, people living in flats in the inner cities will find it increasingly difficult to find the houses with gardens which so many of them want when they have children. That would be the result of the Tories error of judgment. They would do better to turn their minds to the general improvement of local authority housing, as we propose in our new housing Bill, which will help millions of those council tenants who will not be able to take advantage of any kind of house sale policy.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

Does the Secretary of State recognise the inconsistency between the policy of that great supporter of the Labour Party, the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society, which is selling off homes on its estate, and Greenwich council, which is also a supporter of the Labour Party, but which refuses to do that?

Mr. Shore

I do not see any inconsistency. It may be entirely appropriate. It depends on the condition of stock and the policy which it believes to be right. It is wrong to think that the same rules and considerations should apply to a particular body as to local councils which have statutory duties.

Mr. Litterick

Is the Secretary of State aware of the satisfaction and pleasure in Birmingham at the announcement of his policy to restrict the sale of council houses to tenants of two-years standing? Is he aware that this is particularly so because of Birmingham council's decision to cut its expenditure on house building, house acquisitions and renovations to a sum which is far below the grant offered by the Government?

Mr. Shore

My hon. Friend has made almost precisely the point that I made earlier. It is an extraordinary coincidence that those councils which are most vigorous in selling in an indiscriminate way are at the same time cutting back on new house building in areas of clear stress for rented accommodation.

Mr. McCrindle

Is not one of the reasons why purchasing one's council house is so attractive that the average price of ordinary owner occupier houses has gone up considerably as a result of the intervention by the Secretary of State in lending by building societies?

Mr. Shore

We have exchanged views on this matter before. The movement in house prices under our so-called intervention in the building societies in the past five years is about one-quarter of what it was in the period 1970 to 1974, when the Conservative Government made no such attempt to intervene.

Mr. Rooker

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in Birmingham his policy of allowing tenants of two-years' standing to buy their council homes and preventing the sale of empty and void property is welcomed? Is he further aware that the Tory council is crookedly getting round that policy by leasing and licensing empty, void properties so that people can jump the queue and be allowed to buy the property after two years? Surely that is not the intention of his policy.

Mr. Shore

I deplore any attempt to evade the effects of the amendment to the general consent which I issued a short time ago. It must not be assumed that the devices—some of which I have had a chance to study—will stand up in a court of law if they are challenged.

Mr. Eyre

Is the Secretary of State aware that the blatant attempt by Left-wing Members to oppose the spread of wider home ownership in Birmingham will be much resented?

Mr. Shore

It is nothing at all to do with Left-wing Members. It has to do with responsible policy and meeting the needs of our people for decent homes.

Mr. Spriggs

What will it cost the occupant of a three-bedroomed council house to purchase it if he has been a tenant for the last two years and if the house was new when he took on the tenancy?

Mr. Shore

House prices vary from region to region. If I were to pluck a figure out of the air, I would say that it would cost about £8,000.

Mr. Heseltine

Does the Secretary of State understand that we regard his explanation of why his party is against the sale of council houses as nothing more than humbug? Does he understand that the only consequence of any scale of the doctrinal opposition of the Labour Party to the sale of council houses is to deny to millions of British people the opportunity to share in the benefits that property ownership involves?

If people in the lower-value council houses do not want to buy their own homes, why was it so desirable for the Labour Party to give people in much the same value homes the opportunity to buy under the leasehold enfranchisement Act?

Mr. Shore

That is a different matter. I do not believe that people who are able to buy a leasehold house, which is nearly equivalent to owner-occupation, are necessarily in the same economic circumstances as those who rent council houses.

I must correct the hon. Member on two matters. First, I have not stopped the sale of council houses. I have stopped the sale of empty and newly built council houses which are available for rent. Secondly, what I have done enjoys the de facto support of the majority of Conservative councils which do not sell vacant houses, despite being urged to do so by Opposition Front Bench spokesmen. I have not stopped the proper and responsible sale of council houses, but I have stopped the activities of those who have an ideological hatred of council house tenants.