HC Deb 07 March 1979 vol 963 cc1240-2
9. Mr. Rooker

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many dwellings have been built in the public and private sectors in the past five years: and how many dwelling have been improved in the same period.

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

In the five years up to the end of 1978 1,479,900 dwellings were built in the public and private sectors. The figure for dwellings converted or improved with the aid of grant or subsidy from the beginning of 1974 up to the end of September 1978 is 1,037,300.

Mr. Rooker

I thank my right hon. Friend for supplying those figures. Is he convinced that the mix is right? Is he sure that enough smaller dwellings are being built in the public and private sectors so that those who are getting on in years who wish to move out of large three-bedroom houses, whether they be council or owner-occupied properties, have a suitable house to which they may move? If they have smaller dwellings they will have properties with lower rateable values, which in turn means lower rates and smaller sewerage charges. Contrary to what my right hon. Friend the Minister of State said a short time ago, rebates cannot be obtained on sewerage charges. If we can get the mix of dwellings right, everybody will be helped.

Mr. Freeson

I am not persuaded that enough smaller dwellings are being built in the public or private sectors. I have been doing my best in the past five years, as I did when not in my present office, to persuade local authorities and builders to switch over to providing many more smaller dwellings to take account not only of the needs of the retired, although I take strongly the point that my hon. Friend has made, but of the demographic revolution that has taken place. It must be borne in mind that 50 per cent. of households in Britain are now one and two-person households. Neither our existing housing stock nor the building programmes of the private or public sector meet the need that has been produced by demographic change throughout the country.

Mr. Michael Morris

Does not the right hon. Gentleman feel pretty ashamed of the results of his efforts of the past five and a half years? If he had only kept the level of total house building at the 1973 level, another 1 million families would be living in either new or improved dwellings.

Mr. Freeson

I am much in favour of doing more and more about housing, in whatever office I hold. I am not ashamed of what we have done against the background of the most major economic crisis that Britain has faced for 50 years. The hon. Gentleman has his facts wrong. If we had pursued the 1973 level—there were fewer than 300,000 completions in that year—throughout the years that we have been in office, we would have achieved less than has been done.

Mr. Molloy

Is my right hon. Friend prepared to cause an investigation to be made into the manner in which the London borough of Ealing is maladministering the conversion of a sector of homes in the Hanwell district of my constituency, which is causing grave distress to the tenants?

Mr. Freeson

If my hon. Friend will give me details, I shall investigate the matter. His supplementary question gives me the opportunity to say that I hope that more local authorities will consider the procedures that they adopt in handling improvement grant applications. There is a great deal to be done to streamline the procedures that are used in many areas.

Mr. Rossi

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the most dramatic and disturbing reduction in house building has occurred in the private sector? That has resulted in about 250,000 employees being thrown out of work. Is he concerned about that dramatic reduction, and what steps is he actively taking to improve the situation?

Mr. Freeson

Let us get our facts right. The hon. Gentleman is wrong again. The figure for the year following the collapse of the boom in 1973 in the private sector was just over 100,000 housing starts. Starts have gradually risen—not as rapidly as I would have liked—to 157,000 in 1978 and a prospect of over 160,000 in 1979. There has been an increase and not a reduction following the collapse of the boom that was our inheritance from the Conservative Government. My most immediate concern, which I hope the hon. Gentleman will share, is to deal with the reduction of housing activity by many local authorities throughout the country. That applies across the board. However, the majority of local authorities that have reduced housing activity happen to be controlled by members of the hon. Gentleman's party. I trust that the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) will join me in asking and urging Tory and other councils to do more and to take up the resources that we are providing.

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