§ 3.8 p.m.
§ The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Michael Heseltine)
It is, Mr. Speaker, the privilege of the Opposition to choose the subjects for discussion in the debate on the Gracious Speech. I am delighted that the responsibilities of my Department should come before the House at this very early moment. If I have one hesitation in the choice of housing and local government, it is that it perhaps gives an imbalanced emphasis to the work of the Department of the Environment.
The creation of the Department of the Environment by the Conservative Government of 1970 recognised that the protection and enhancement of our environment required a degree of co-ordination not possible under the previously fragmented Whitehall arrangements. To that side of my responsibilities that deals with the quality of the built environment, the preservation of the heritage and the protection of the natural estate, I attach particular importance.
The Department has a central and crucial role in these areas, but I also believe that one of the most important consequences of our changed taxation policies will be to recreate a climate where the private citizen, the individual patron and the voluntary organisation will play an increased role not only in protecting the 397 inheritance they did so much to create but in making a more individualistic contribution to the inheritance that we shall pass on Not only will our tax policies stimulate individual opportunity, but alone they offer the prospect of an economic performance in Britain without which the resources will never be available on the scale that will be necessary to enable us to meet the environmental standards that society will demand and is entitled to expect.
I turn to the subjects chosen for today's debate, housing and local government. The right hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Freeson) had the distinction of being the longest serving Housing Minister there has even been. That was not the only record that he and the former Secretary of State established during their period of office.
In a period of high interest rates, the right hon. Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore) presided over a record level of building society mortgage rates in 1976. The higher interest rates on mortgages over the last five years have cost families with mortgages an average of £250 extra a year compared with the 1970–74 period.
Home improvements have declined from 300,000 in 1973 to only one-third of that figure today. The number of houses available for private renting kept on falling by 120,000 dwellings a year.
Perhaps the most significant of all the achievements of former Ministers in the Department of the Environment is that they managed to reduce the entire new house building programme to the levels last seen in Britain 30 years ago.
It is not for me to conjecture what those two Ministers might have gone on to achieve if they had stayed in office any longer. It is difficult to think of any single thing that emerged from the Department of the Environment during the past five years to improve the construction of new homes or the improvement of old homes.
The Community Land Act and the excessive rates of development land tax have created a shortage of land for building in many areas. Little attempt was made by the previous Government to streamline the planning procedures, and 398 the Rent Act 1974 diminished the availability of houses to rent.
Perhaps it is the position reached in rented accommodation that shows the former Ministers at the Department of the Environment in their least favourable light. The evidence abounds. All hon. Members now in Opposition constantly drew the attention of the House to this fact when they sat on the Benches behind me. Evidence abounds that some of the harshest cases of poverty exist in the stress areas of inner cities where privately rented accommodation offers the most likely prospect of a home for many of the poorest, the oldest and the immigrant communities, as well as for the young and the single.
In November 1975 the former Secretary of State for the Environment announced a review of the Rent Acts. Between the announcement of the review and publication of the consultation papers associated with the review, 14 months later, there were 145,000 fewer dwellings available to rent.
In June 1977 we were told in the Green Paper:The Government's main conclusions should be announced by the end of the year.But on 21 June 1978, when we debated these matters, the Secretary of State said:I make no apology therefore … for rejecting facile answers, or for considering with care what effect on people and homes any changes might have. When I have reached my conclusions I shall, of course, report to the House."—[Official Report, 21 June 1978; Vol. 952, c. 501.]But there were still no conclusions, and in the meantime another 180,000 homes had gone from the private rented sector.
Once more, on 5 March 1979, the House was told:The decisions reached as a result of our review of the Rent Acts, on which I shall report to the House as soon as possible, will also require legislation—but not in this Session."—[Official Report, 5 March 1979; Vol. 963, c. 926.]Thus, between the announcement of the review and that epic statement three and a quarter years later, the sector of privately rented accommodation had shrunk by over 400,000 dwellings. We waited and waited, but there were no decisions and no action in what, by the definition of hon. Members opposite themselves, is regarded as one of the most difficult and stressful areas of housing.
399 It was the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), in one of his more enlightened contributions to the House—
§ Mr. Heseltine
This was one of the hon. Member's more enlightened contributions. In December 1976 he said to the then Secretary of State:Does he accept that it is no longer good enough for him to blame the Tory Government, the weather or the thousand and one other things that Ministers constantly trot out? Does he accept that he and his Department are responsible for throwing building workers on the dole and having millions of bricks stocked?"—[Official Report, 8 December 1976; Vol. 922, c. 437.]If the hon. Gentleman was right in his allegations in 1976, how much more right he is today.
There are no alibis for the Labour Government's record. On present showing, new council housing is now at a level where this year approvals will be for little more than 50,000 new homes. Last year, the figure was only about 60,000. The former Secretary of State, of course, tried to blame the Conservative authorities. In fact, up to December the average spent on council capital housing in all Labour authorities was within one percentage point identical to that in all other districts. The final figures for the year are still coming in, but what do they show? In North Tyneside and Sheffield—Labour authorities—one will find the same cutback as in all non-Labour authorities.
While the former Secretary of State, with his bleeding heart, talked at this Dispatch Box about stress, it was Labour councils in those areas that were cutting back, reducing budgets, for the same tired old reason, that under central Labour Government one simply cannot afford the expenditure to pursue any other policy.
§ Mr. Joseph Dean (Leeds, West)
Will the Secretary of State give the record of the Leeds building authority's programme, under Conservative control, showing how it has dropped in the past three years?
§ Mr. Heseltine
The hon. Gentleman is a fair-minded observer of the scene. As 400 I have shown the House that the average of all Labour authorities was virtually identical to the average of all Conservative authorities, what does he think he gains by one highly selective statistic about one authority in this country?
§ Mr. Heseltine
I am sure that the whole House will await with interest the moment when the hon. Gentleman may share with it the secrets which he wishes to put before us.
If we turn away from houses built or modernised to the problem of land supply, we find the situation no better. The Community Land Act, with its attendant bureaucracy and the prohibitively high rates of development land tax, has contributed materially to the difficulties of land shortage now of increasing concern to the building industry in certain areas.
§ Mr. Heseltine
There is a limit and there may be other points which hon. Members wish to take up with me, but, of course, I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman.
§ Mr. Welsh
I wish to put to the Secretary of State a point regarding the Community Land Act. It was an open secret, and I should like the right hon. Gentleman to tell us of the Tory authorities which implemented that Act. In fact, the Tory authorities did not implement the Act in their local areas, so they themselves are to blame for any shortcomings under it.
§ Mr. Heseltine
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman finds it uncomfortable that he cannot name any Labour authorities which were able to produce any record of success by using the Community Land Act. It is quite obvious that it was not the local authorities at fault; it was the nature of the Act itself.
§ Mr. Heseltine
I am not altogether sure, Mr. Speaker, that the hon. Gentleman could pursue the argument anyway. As I have already said, the problem of land supply, as both hon. Members and the building industry have constantly reminded us, is now of increasing concern.
I turn next to the question of our planning processes, which have now contributed to a state of affairs in which in Britain it takes longer to design and complete homes than it does in most other countries similar to ours.
I have just listed some of the more conspicuous features of the inheritance which this Government took on from the Labour Government. It took five years to create that situation, but over a period of time and by the steady application of our priorities—the provision of homes, a better deal for tenants, action on land supply, freer powers for local authorities, all within a framework of more value for money and the elimination of waste—we can, I believe, gradually reverse and then improve on that record.
I wish now to set out some of our early intentions in certain specific respects. First, I take local government. Every hon. Member recognises that national Governments elected with a mandate have certain policy priorities with which local government must be expected to comply. Certainly, this is the case in our policy towards the sale of council houses, and, as my right hon. and learned Friend said yesterday, in many of our attitudes to education. However, within that obvious qualification which has underlain the attitudes of every Government of which I have had any experience, we believe that there has been under all Governments, and over a long period, increasing centralisation and a degree of intervention which is expensive and time-consuming.
First, we are determined to reduce substantially the number of bureaucratic controls by central Government Departments over local government activities. An urgent and rigorous review has already been commissioned, and all controls which are not absolutely essential will be swept away. Second, we shall send out many fewer Government circulars and 402 those other documents with which local authorities have been deluged.
In addition, the Government have already decided that in future any circular sent out by the central Government will first be cleared by the Treasury and the Department of the Environment and it will carry on it an estimate of both the manpower and the financial implications for the local authorities concerned.
These policies will have two results for local government. They will give them more choice and flexibility and enable them to save money and manpower. I hope that they will encourage members of local communities to feel that, because local government will have more responsibility, there is additional point in taking part in local elections and in coming forward to offer themselves as candidates.
In December 1978 the former Secretary of State for the Environment told the House that he believed that local government should plan for modest increases in expenditure. I warned the House at that time that that was unrealistic and that the Secretary of State's forecast of 5 per cent. wage increases and single figure rate increases would prove delusory. So they have. We have inherited from the Labour Government a real danger of another rates explosion next year. That is the consequence of the growth in the volume of expenditure by local authorities that the previous Government had planned, of the need to pay for all the pay settlements and the cost of many of the Clegg awards to be decided later this year. There will be no choice but to deal with these problems by seeking to reduce the volume of local authority current expenditure. Our action on controls will save some money, but much more will be saved through greater effectiveness in the use of resources by local authorities.
§ Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)
Will the right hon. Gentleman consider the whole structure of the rate support grant system, including the regressive analysis formula that was introduced by the 1970–74 Conservative Government? Is he aware that not much time is left? Does he agree that the system has given rise to anomalies? Is he prepared to review the situation?
§ Mr. Heseltine
There are immense anomalies. I believe that the anomalies 403 were aggravated by the manipulations of rate support grant of the former Secretary of State. As the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) rightly says, time is not readily available for the next rate support grant decisions and consultations that are shortly to begin. I share his concern about the methods and the results, but I cannot promise that they can be dealt with practicably at an early opportunity.
§ Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)
The right hon. Gentleman has stated that there will be a cutback in public expenditure for local authorities. What estimates have he and his hon. Friends made of the number of workers who will be put out of work as a result of his statement?
§ Mr. Heseltine
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has just as much experience of these matters as my right hon. and hon. Friends. When he voted for exactly these policies three years ago, he must have given them a great deal of thought. I realise that a Labour Government have two sorts of supporter. They have those who vote for them and those who do not vote for them but who sit on the Benches behind the Treasury Bench. The hon. Gentleman moved from the Government Front Bench to the Back Benches. He was sometimes with them and sometimes against them. We know clearly where his heart lies. I merely draw his attention to the record of the previous Labour Government and the action that was carried out rapidly in 1976.
§ Mr. Heseltine
I shall do exactly what I have announced. I shall have consultations with the local authority associations to reconstitute the attitude of restraint that the Labour Party was compelled in crisis to introduce in 1976. In my view it was a great lapse of judgment on the part of the former Secretary of State to encourage them to depart from that attitude in the autumn of 1978.
We shall be looking for new reductions in expenditure.
§ Mr. Heseltine
We shall ensure that proper comparisons may be made between authorities of the cost of the services that they provide. To encourage 404 that, we shall give every support to the work of the advisory committee on local government audit. That is an important part of our determination to allow greater freedom. The electors must have greater opportunity to judge how that freedom is being used.
I cannot predict what effect any of that action may have on rates next year. It will clearly take time for some of the effects of our new approach to work through. However, it is urgent to our reappraisals and policy initiatives. We shall begin discussions with local authorities in the immediate future when I meet the consultative council in June.
Value for money is nowhere more important than with direct labour organisations. They spend £1,405 million a year and employ 17 per cent. of all construction employees. However, they produce only 9 per cent. of the total output of the construction industry.
There is an urgent need to bring local authority direct labour under firm control. The CIPFA report recommending that was published as long ago as 1975. Over the years the district audit inspectors have uncovered alarming examples of waste and inefficiency. For example, twice in the past two years the Wandsworth direct labour organisation has been the subject of an adverse report. The auditor has identified losses totalling over £2 million. The Wigan direct labour organisation has also been the subject of two critical reports in the same period, as has the Hammersmith organisation. However, both Wandsworth and Hammersmith are Conservative-controlled and we can deal with the matter. There are many authorities where there is not Conservative control, and it will be necessary to take a more rigorous appraisal of the activities of direct labour departments.
The previous Government recognised the problem. They talked about it. They promised action in this area as in so many others, but they did nothing. In contrast we shall act in this Session. Our legislation will have two purposes. The first purpose will be to introduce a tight and effective accounting system. The second purpose will be to ensure that a larger proportion of building work is carried out by the private sector.
Our legislation will require local authority direct labour organisations to keep 405 proper accounts, to keep them separate from the rest of their parent local authorities' activities, to show the percentage return on capital employed, to keep them so that all appropriate costs are properly identified and allocated, and to produce promptly at the end of each year a detailed report which will enable their performance to be judged.
We shall also require local authorities to test the efficiency of their direct labour organisations in the market place by requiring them to put work out to tender. Authorities will no longer be able to give work to their direct labour organisations merely because they exist. They will have to get the building work done in the cheapest and most effective way. There is no doubt that these disciplines will result in a contraction of direct labour activity as local authorities come to appreciate the relative cost and advantages of direct labour and private contractors. The net economic effect will be a better use of resources, a healthier and more efficient construction industry and a reduced burden for ratepayers and taxpayers.
§ Mr. Allen McKay (Penistone)
In introducing legislation, will the right hon. Gentleman take into consideration not only the efficiency of direct labour departments but the quality of work that they carry out and contrast that with the work of most private contractors?
§ Mr. Heseltine
I appreciate that we are asking the House—this is especially true of the Department of the Environment—to shoulder a heavy burden of legislation this Session. However, I have to introduce measures that my party considers important and catch up with all the measures that the former Secretary of State said that he would introduce but failed to do.
Local planning authorities have a responsibility for getting enough land for development released through the planning system. The community land scheme has been a hindrance, not a help, in that objective. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said on Tuesday, that measure will go this Session as we promised. We shall leave with local authorities the powers that they have long had for land assembly. We believe that local authorities should regard it as part of their normal responsibilities to have 406 meaningful discussions with builders on the availability and marketability of land for private house building, and to reach a modus vivendi with them. Development land tax is obviously relevant, but it is a matter for my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
We must find ways of releasing land at present held by local authorities and nationalised industries with no real prospect of developing it or finding a use for it at an early date. The former Secretary of State will say that he has already done all this. I asked the Department on my arrival how much land had been released as a result of the approaches made by Ministers a year ago. I was told that the Department did not know, with the exception of 88 acres in Liverpool. A more certain and effective policy of land release is necessary. That is essential if we are to make some impression on a problem that has been exercising every observer of the inner city scene for so long. Releasing land is a first step. Obtaining planning permission is the second step.
We need to ensure that everyone concerned with the handling of planning applications works with all reasonable speed. I have no intention of upsetting the balance of interest between conservation and protection of the environment on the one hand and the need for development on the other. But slow decisions are not automatically good decisions, and every unnecessary delay prevents the creation of new jobs, new rateable values and often an improved environment and working climate.
The sad legacy of the years of Labour Government is, alas, all too visible in many areas of our inner cities. Many of the policies I have mentioned have an important role to play in the regeneration of the inner cities—land release, house-building, a new deal for council tenants, more freedom for local government and the speeding up of planning procedures. Of course, other main programmes—education, health, industry and employment—have a major role to play, too.
Against this background we will be discussing with local authorities what steps may be needed in particular areas. I have written to the leaders of the inner city partnership authorities proposing discussions at the next round of the partnership meetings. When we have gained 407 first-hand experience of the arrangements, and had an opportunity to take the minds of the local authorities, we can decide how best to proceed. Certainly, we shall aim to cut down on interference from bureaucracy, while ensuring that the necessary policies in specific areas are properly carried through.
Finally, I want to talk about the vital issue of housing. We intend to provide as far as possible the housing policies that the British people want. Unlike the Opposition, we recognise the inherent limitations of Government action. We propose to create a climate in which those who are able can prosper, choose their own priorities and seek the rewards and satisfactions that relate to themselves, their families and their communities. We shall concentrate the resources of the community increasingly on the members of the community who are not able to help themselves.
In terms of housing policy, our priority of putting people first must mean more home ownership, greater freedom of choice of home and tenure, greater personal independence, whether as a home owner or tenant, and a greater priority of public resources for those with obvious and urgent need.
We believe that our economic policies in general will create conditions in which it will be possible for more and better-quality homes to be provided by new building, conversion and rehabilitation.
As for specific policies, I have announced the direction of policies to combat the land shortage. We want to speed up and simplify the planning system. We shall repeal the Community Land Act. We shall also be talking to the building society leaders on the subject of mortgage funds for house purchase. We will be looking at a new subsidy system for public sector housing which will direct help where it is most needed. We certainly intend to ensure that local authorities are able to build homes for those in the greatest need—and I have in mind especially the elderly in need of sheltered accommodation and the handicapped.
We intend to act rather than to talk on the private rented sector. As a first 408 step—and as foreshadowed in our manifesto—we will introduce as a major element in this Session in our Housing Bill a new system of shorthold lettings. Existing lettings will not be affected. But landlords letting under the new scheme will be able to do so without the fear of having a sitting tenant for life. Under a shorthold the tenant will have security of tenure for the agreed period. The effect of this new scheme will be to encourage people to let property which they have previously kept empty. This we believe will provide additional accommodation for the thousands of young single people who are seeking it, particularly in our cities.
At this point, let me say that we intend to simplify the relationship between Government and local authorities in housing.
I abhor the multiplicity of forms—required often in triplicate or quadruplicate—and unnecessary double checking by parallel teams of officials. We intend to talk to the local authority associations to find ways and means of cutting through the infrastructure of housing controls. If we can achieve this, we will release the energies of local authorities—elected members and officials—to deal more effectively with their housing problems. I also believe that it will enable my officials at the Department to concentrate much harder on questions of improving the quality of the environment and securing better value for money.
I want to talk now about tenants in the public sector. The House is obviously well aware of the mandate which this Government obtained to introduce sweeping reforms in the rights and opportunities of tenants of local authorities, new towns, housing associations and the Scottish Special Housing Associations.
I want to say two things of a general nature about these policies. First, I believe that, in a way and on a scale that was quite unpredictable, ownership of property has brought financial gain of immense value to millions of our citizens. As house prices rose, the longer one had owned, the larger the gain became. The average-priced new house in the early 1950s was worth about £2,000. Anyone who bought it now has an asset worth approximately £16,000. Simply to have bought a house a year ago meant that the purchaser has seen the value of that house increase by 25 per cent. in a year.
409 It is not my purpose to argue whether the rate of gain has exceeded the rate of inflation or whether people have simply preserved their own original asset in real terms. What it is my purpose to argue is that this dramatic change in property values has opened up a division in the nation between those who own their own homes and those who do not.
The further prices advanced, the further the tenant fell behind, and no tenant fell further behind than the public authority tenant. Yesterday the Leader of the Opposition accused my party of encouraging a division in society. He conveniently omitted any reference to the greatest division of them all. And it is this division in the area of housing to which, in part, our legislation this Session will address itself.
My second general point is that this policy also carries great economic advantages. We are a society where one of our greatest natural resources, our working people, is rendered immobile—unable to move from one part of the country to another as a consequence of the rigidity of the bureacratic control over 5 million homes.
The owner can sell and move. The local authority tenant faces virtually impossible obstacles to movement. Trapped as he is by waiting lists, he is also subjected to a range of restrictions as to improvements, pets, lodgers, decoration and a range of pettifogging details that no freeholder would ever be expected to tolerate. Often maintenance is inadequate and the environment neglected.
We have the distressing phenomenon of millions of our citizens living in an environment from which they would like to escape but cannot, and administered by well-meaning officials who would, in the main, never dream of living on the estates that are their responsibility.
Too many of our people are forced to accept the restrictions of tenancy. We are determined to give them the freedom and opportunities of freeholders. There will be two stages: first, a more liberal consent under which authorities which wish to sell will have greater discretion to do so; secondly, we shall introduce a Bill giving local authority and new town tenants the right to buy their own homes.
I am able under existing legislation to widen the discretion and terms under 410 which local authorities which wish to sell council homes are able to do so. I shall be bringing a new consent into force next week. Local authorities will then be free to sell council homes on the following terms.
Tenants of under three years' occupancy may be offered a discount of 30 per cent. After three years, tenants may be offered discounts starting at 33 per cent. in their fourth year, rising to 50 per cent. at the rate of 1 per cent. extra for every additional year that they have been a council tenant of that or any other local authority. There will be a safeguard on resale so that an authority has the right to buy back at sale price if the purchaser wishes to move within five years.
Local authorities will also be able to offer dwellings to people other than tenants wanting to buy a home for their own exclusive use. If so, the discount will be either 20 per cent. or 30 per cent. depending upon whether there is a preemption right for the authority to buy back within five or eight years. I shall be writing likewise to new town corporations, enabling them to offer their homes to tenants on similarly generous terms. I am therefore revoking the mean and restrictive consent brought in by the Labour Government on 16th March, five weeks before the election.
The House will note that all of these terms are conditional on the willingness of local authorities to sell. I profoundly hope that they will all do so. The Government have a mandate for this policy. The people have expressed a clear view in support of it.
The second stage will come when we introduce legislation giving the tenant a positive right to buy. There will be generous discounts allowed under that right as well, subject to safeguards on resale. It has been distressing to notice that some Labour authorities have threatened already to frustrate our intentions. I deplore this flagrant disregard of the electorate's wishes.
An article by Joe Gormley in yesterday's Daily Express summarises my attitude to the Labour-controlled authorities which have already expressed their public reservations. He said:But the fact is that the people of Britain—including a hell of a lot of trade unionists—voted Mrs. Thatcher into office. We would 411 have to be damn stupid not to recognise she is there by the democratic will of the electors, and will be here for the next five years.In resisting, as they so often do, the sale of council homes, the practice and position of the Labour movement on this issue is nothing less than humbug. In Coventry, the Labour chairman of the social services committee bought his own council home. In Grimsby some time ago, a leading member of the Labour group, when in opposition, bought his own council home, publicly declaringIt's too good a bargain to miss.His Labour council when it took control of Grimsby, then stopped all other council tenants from buying their own homes.
In Slough, two Labour councillors, having bought their council home when the Tories controlled the council, then voted to stop all further sales when Labour took over. I am glad to say that they subsequently lost their seats.
The recently departed hon. Member for Bristol, North-West, Ron Thomas, bought his council home and, as the whole House knows, so did Jack Jones. The story is the same elsewhere. In the Labour movement, for councillors, for MPs and for trade union leaders, it is really a case of "I'm all right, Jack, but the rest of you will he kept down as tenants to bolster the appetites for power of petty Labour bosses."
I can conceive of no piece of legislation which would give me greater pride to introduce in this House than that which embodies the measures I have described. It is no less than a framework for a social revolution. It provides an opportunity of dramatic and immediate benefit to our people. I cannot fail to notice that, when we genuinely seek to spread wealth widely among working people, it is the Labour Party which frustrates it. The people have spoken, and we shall bring new hope and new opportunities to them.
§ Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am aware, as we all are, of the difference between order and courtesy in the House, but I hope that you will, as Speaker, point out that it is very unusual for a Front Bench speaker, when making a proposal, not to give way at all.
§ 3.43 p.m.
§ Mr. Peter Shore (Stepney and Poplar)
The proposals affecting the environment which we are debating today must be seen in the context of the whole of the Gracious Speech, itself a cold, hard document and presented with such chilling vehemence by the Prime Minister in her speech on Tuesday. The content and, still more, the spirit which animate the Gracious Speech will grievously affect all our affairs, and none more harshly than those of the Department of the Environment, in the years ahead.
The wordsrestricting the claims of the public sector on the nation's resourcesset the scene. The Department of the Environment is, by its nature, a large spending Department. The financing of community and social services through the rate support grant, meeting the housing needs of our people and protecting the natural and built environment—to which I am glad the right hon. Gentleman made reference—in all its different facets, are all costly yet essential to the wellbeing of our people. There should be no surprise that so little is said about them in the Queen's Speech.
There is not a mention there of local government finance. There are a few words about housing policy, as distinct from a paragraph on housing sales. There is not a word about subsidies and rents. There is not a reference in the Gracious Speech to the inner cities. I shall come back to these later.
It was the same during the election campaign. When Conservative leaders were challenged again and again about expenditure cuts they wisely chose to be silent. It is, of course, at the Department of the Environment that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is now looking, and I say for certain that there will be cuts in housing expenditure, in housing subsidies and in the whole range of local government services. Having listened to the right hon. Gentleman, it is clear to me that he and his team, even if they had the skill and muscle to resist, certainly have not the will to do so.
I shall concentrate on three specific issues: first, the proposed legislation for promoting greater efficiency in local government; secondly, inner city policies; and, thirdly, housing, including the new 413 proposals to give public sector tenants the right to buy their homes.
I do not think that we heard anything particularly dramatic today on the subject of local government efficiency. We shall have a review, as it were, of circulars, and the circulars are to contain some estimate of manpower costs if they invite local authorities to undertake new tasks. Good. Let it be. The local government audit committee, which we established a short time ago, is to be consulted. Good. I have no objection at all to that, but for the architects of the Local Government Act 1972 to use the word "efficiency" shows, if nothing else, a remarkable insensitivity. Not only was that structure deeply offensive to local democracy and enormously expensive to establish—it meant an increase of about 200,000 local government employees in the period from 1972 to 1975—but the continuing muddle, duplication and diseconomies of size have greatly increased the running costs of local government ever since.
It was for this reason that, with the backing—to use a currently fashionable word—of the non-sycophantic Tory district councils throughout the land, we proposed a measured reform of the system and the transfer of a range of functions from county councils to district councils where the latter were both willing and able to take them on.
If the Government are really serious about promoting greater efficiency, let them swallow their pride and get on with the job of local government reform. Let them solve the present muddle over planning. Of course, there is a muddle over planning, because it is a divided responsibility. Let them solve it by transferring all but one or two defined categories of development control to the district councils. Let them transfer traffic management as well. Let them also have a good look at the arguments for transferring at least non-strategic highways. Let them bring back social services in line with housing, where they really belong, to the district level.
On this efficiency theme, the right hon. Gentleman has given us his views on direct labour organisation. They are extremely tendentious, and the figures he quoted are highly misleading, if only because, as the House well understands, 80 per cent. of all the work undertaken 414 by DLOs is maintenance work, which is highly labour-intensive—it is repair and maintenance work—whereas 80 per cent. of the work undertaken by building firms generally is on new construction, which clearly has a very different cost structure. Let him not jump to absurd and premature conclusions about that.
If the motive is genuinely to promote efficiency, well and good. We proposed legislation to implement the recommendations of the CIPFA report, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, on accounting, charging and tendering. But at the same time we proposed to remove the unfair restrictions which now prevent direct labour organisations from undertaking new construction work for neighbouring local authorities, housing associations and new towns in their localities and further to empower them to undertake improvement and maintenance work to private houses. The aim of reasonable and fair competition between the private and public sectors is one thing, but if the motive is simply ideological prejudice against DLOs and a political response to the massive contribution made to Tory Party funds by CABIN and other private building organisations, that is a different matter altogether. The truth is that we need to promote greater efficiency throughout the construction industry just as much in the private as in the local government sector.
I turn now to the inner cities. I listened to the exchanges between my right hon. and hon. Friends and the Prime Minister on Tuesday. It was obvious to me that she has never turned her mind to, let alone engaged her sympathies with, the problems of these areas. It is all very well to talk about general policies for promoting small business, education, housing and health provision, but the essence of inner city policy is the need for a special and concentrated effort and additional resources to tackle the immense problems which exist.
Let us be quite clear about this. There isno way in which this problem can be solved by easy application of free market forces. Mr. Milton Friedman has only to take a short cab ride from his university in Chicago to see what free market forces have done to some districts of that city—If firms have a choice, they will not go into areas of high crime where there is a lack of skilled workers and managerial talent and where there are few decent facilities and much bad housing. We 415 either neglect these districts or we put in considerable resources"—[Official Report, 9 February 1978; Vol. 943, c. 1717.]Those are not my words but those of the present Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on 9 February 1978 during the Second Reading of the Inner Urban Areas Bill.
Policy under the Labour Government developed more rapidly, and there have been more substantial increases in expenditure on the inner cities since we launched that programme two years ago that in any other comparable Government programme. The seven partnership areas—Liverpool, Manchester, Salford, Birmingham, Newcastle, Gateshead, London dock-lands, Hackney, Islington and Lambeth—have each embarked upon rolling three-year programmes involving hundreds of millions of pounds of new investment, including in the first three years £250 million from the urban programme alone.
Industry and commerce, including small and medium firms, have a major part to play in inner city revival, but it will not take place until there is substantial public investment in infrastructure, transport, housing, social services and environmental improvement.
At least the right hon. Gentleman is going to talk to the chairmen of the partnership committees. I hope that he will make that a rule, as it were, in his dealings with the many clients with whom he will be dealing in the Department of the Environment. Although they will no doubt have useful proposals to make about how the organisations could be improved in the partnership schemes, I believe the right hon. Gentleman will find a virtual unanimity of view not only from Labour councils but from Conservative and Liberal ones that the partnerships should continue and that the inner city policies should be sustained.
The first thing that I want to know, as do the people throughout the partnership and programme areas, is not only that the right hon. Gentleman will see and talk to them but whether the allocations of money to which I have referred will continue.
Secondly, I want to know whether the right hon. Gentleman accepts what we looked upon as the deathbed conversion of his predecessor in determining the rate support grant on 22 January 1974, when 416 he said thatif—as we believe we should—we are to help the cities with their special problems both with general expenditure and housing, the counties must accept that that will to some extent throw a greater burden upon them, given the same total expenditure."—[Official Report, 22 January 1974; Vol. 867, c. 1474.]The inner cities may seem distant and unfamiliar places when viewed from Henley and Finchley, but I warn the Government that failure to act upon these problems will bring far more costs in vandalism, crime, unemployment, social distress and racial tension than the investment needed to bring about their revival.
§ Mr. Nicholas Scott (Chelsea)
The percentage of municipally owned properties and the level of economic activity in the inner London boroughs is almost exactly in inverse ratio. What lesson does the right hon. Gentleman draw from that?
§ Mr. Shore
Not the simple one that the hon. Gentleman is seeking to suggest. As he knows, there was always a peculiar concentration of squalid landlord property in East and North-East London which could not be put right without substantial clearance, though perhaps not the wholesale clearance that those local authorities undertook.
I turn now to the proposals in the Gracious Speech which relate to housing. This must be the first Gracious Speech at the opening of a Parliament in which a newly elected Government have not seen fit to refer to the primary task of meeting housing need. There is not one word about that subject in the Gracious Speech.
I know, and I have said, that Britain, through the work of successive Governments, can now rightly claim to be among the best housed nations in Europe. While we now have 18 million homes, as against only 12 million 25 years ago, and while, in some areas, pressures are undoubtedly easing, it is a fact that, as the housing policy review established two years ago, and as last year's national dwelling and housing survey confirmed, there are still about 2 million families living in seriously unsatisfactory conditions. That problem should and could be eliminated in the next decade, and, indeed, substantially eased in the course of this Parliament. If this prospect is not to be chucked away, there has to be a substantial programme of house building and house improvement, 417 with particular concentration on areas of housing stress, which are mainly, but not exclusively, to be found in our big cities and conurbations. Since it is poorer people who have to bear the brunt of bad housing, provision must include a substantial programme of housing for rent.
All that we have in the Gracious Speech is the proposal to give local authority and new town tenants the right to buy the houses that they occupy. I want to turn to the argument on this aspect in a moment, because it is clearly an important part of what the right hon. Gentleman proposed.
§ Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch and Lymington)
As the right hon. Gentleman starts this part of his speech, will he make clear on behalf of the Labour Party that if this Parliament, this free House of Commons, passes legislation which gives individual local authority tenants the right to buy their homes, even if the local authority is Labour-controlled and unwilling, he and his party colleagues will not deliberately frustrate the law of the land as passed by this Parliament?
§ Mr. Shore
It would be sensible for us to await the production of the Bill so that we can see what the Secretary of State proposes. Like other organisations, local authorities obey the law when it is established, but that does not mean that they are not free, and would not be anxious, to use all the remedies and opportunities available to them under the law to resist policies which they believe are wrong in the interests of their people.
Changes in tenure, which are at the heart of the Secretary of State's proposals, will do nothing to increase the supply of housing or to meet housing need, either directly or indirectly. The 2 million families who still need decent homes will not be able to purchase them on the open housing market. The right hon. Gentleman is proposing a major reduction in the supply of rented accommodation. That must be the effect of any successful and substantial campaign for the sale of local authority rented property.
We must therefore assume that it is the view of the Government that we no longer need to increase the supply of rented housing and that, indeed, we are in a state of substantial surplus. Is that what the Government believe?
§ Mr. Heseltine
I stated clearly that there are some areas of acute stress and that we intend to concentrate the limited resources available to any Government more upon those areas. That is precisely what the right hon. Gentleman suggests ought to happen.
§ Mr. Shore
How can the right lion. Gentleman say that he accepts that there is a substantial shortage of rented accommodation, particularly in areas of housing stress, and at the same time bring forward proposals to make compulsory sales to sitting tenants and others in those areas?
We had better turn to the real argument between us and to the consequences of what the Government's proposal entails. The argument is not about being for or against owner-occupation. The Labour Party not only recognises the wishes of an increasing number of people to become owner-occupiers, but has done more to assist them in the past 20 years than have any Conservative Government.
A Labour Government introduced the option mortgage scheme to help the lower paid who wished to become owner-occupiers. The previous Labour Government negotiated increased lending by building societies—£400 million this year—to those with low incomes. That Government also enacted the first-time purchase scheme, which provides loans of up to £600, interest free, for the first five years after purchase. In addition, there were 800,000 more owner-occupiers in 1979 than when we took office in 1974.
Moreover, successive Labour Governments have preserved the freedom of local authorities to sell their properties on favourable, but fair, terms where, in their judgment, the need for rented accommodation has been substantially met. The argument is not about encouraging owner-occupation but about the Government's proposal for the compulsory selling of local authority rented property.
§ Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South-West)
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the electorate took a rather different view from that which he is putting forward? Is he also aware that Mrs. Shirley Williams ascribed her defeat to, among other things, the popularity and good sense of the Conservative proposals in this area?
§ Mr. Shore
That is precisely the sort of electoral consideration that I would expect the hon. Gentleman to put forward. We are, presumably, engaged in a discussion of how housing policy can best meet the needs of our people. That is what we shall continue to talk about.
The Secretary of State must face some basic problems. How does he reconcile the freedom of democratically elected local authorities to determine their housing policies, including housing sales policies, with the compulsory right to buy? Yesterday, one Secretary of State was saying how much the Government deplored central Government regulation and interference in the discretion of local government. A day later we have the most serious intrusion into the rights of elected councils that we have ever seen in the area of housing policy.
How can the Government reconcile with the right to purchase the obligation placed on local authorities since the Housing Act 1957 to consider housing conditions in their districts and the needs of the districts with respect to the provision of further housing accommodation? Where demand and supply for rented accommodation are in balance, the right hon. Gentleman can say that there is no insuperable problem, but how can he argue the case for the right to buy in areas of housing need, particularly the big cities and great conurbations?
In London, 70 per cent. of local authority tenants live in flats. The Government know that only a handful of flats will be sold, but a considerable number of the houses with gardens will certainly go. Has the Secretary of State never heard of families living in high-rise flats or on older estates whose main hope for the future lies in seeking a transfer to a local authority house with a garden? What prospect will they have now?
Does the Secretary of State not know that 41 per cent. of local authority tenants are receiving either rent rebates or supplementary benefits, or that more than 50 per cent. of council tenants have as the head of their household someone who is unemployed? Is the right hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that the right to buy has any meaning at all for those public sector tenants?
What about the financial effects of the Government's proposals? I shall not go over the weary and well-worn arithmetic 420 of gain and loss on council house sales, but the right hon. Gentleman knows at least three things. First, the sale of capital assets always gives short-term advantage, but it is not an advantage which continues, particularly when tax relief on mortgages is taken into account.
Secondly, it is the better and more easily managed estates where most sales will take place. The remaining unsold stock—and it will be by far the larger part of the local authority sector—will, by definition, include those estates where management costs are above average.
Thirdly, if the loss of rented property is to be made good and if the capital released by sales is to be applied to help finance new building, or if other arrangements are to be made—as the right hon. Gentleman seemed to suggest—the replacement building is bound to be at a higher cost than that of the stocks that are sold. The effect of that alone on rents is bound to be a substantial upward movement.
Does the Secretary of State intend to finance the extra building which will be required in areas of rented housing shortage if those areas lose stock as a result of house purchases? What special provisions does he intend to make? Does he really believe that economies will follow if he has to underwrite the building of extra housing in order to meet extra needs?
Not content with all that, the Secretary of State has gone still further. I noted what he said, though I shall wish to study it more carefully, about the detail of his proposal, in advance of legislation, for the revocation of the amendments to the general consent which I published and brought into effect about six weeks ago.
I find it extraordinary that the right hon. Gentleman is still prepared to make council housing available—and at a discount—to those who are not sitting tenants. That is unfair to owner-occupiers, who do not have the same advantage, and outrageous to the thousands of families still in need who cannot afford to buy and who will thus be deprived of the opportunity to obtain decent rented accommodation.
When the right hon. Gentleman speaks of what he calls my mean restriction, let me remind the House precisely what 421 it was that I stopped six weeks ago. I did not stop councils from selling to sitting tenants. What I stopped was what I thought was a misuse of local authority freedom, namely, as they came to completion thousands of new council houses, nearly all with gardens, built by Government finance and under local councils of different political complexions, being sold on the public market to anyone whose purse was long enough to afford to buy. Is that really what the right hon. Gentleman thinks is right for a local authority to do? If I had not limited sale to sitting residents who had been there at least two years, what would have happened? People would simply have moved in and, at the first opportunity, bought their home and denied it to those in need. I do not believe that this is right.
This whole approach to housing illustrates only too well the general approach and appeal of this Government. It is an appeal to greed. They have not even set out to meet needs. Indeed, if right hon. and hon. Members scan the Gracious Speech, particularly the section dealing with the whole of domestic policy, they will not find one use of the word "need"—not in educational policy, not in references to the social services, not in dealing with unemployment policy, not in housing.
It is precisely the abandonment of the concept of, the interest in, and the priority for need that most clearly marks this new Government from that which they have followed. I believe that their appeal to greed and their abandonment of need, however successful they may have been in the short run, will be looked back on with shame by the British people and will be rejected at the next general election.
§ 4.12 p.m.
§ Mr. Bob Dunn (Dartford)
Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for calling me to speak today.
I begin by paying tribute to my predecessor, Sydney Irving, who represented Dartford from 1955 to 1970 and from February 1974 until the recent election. During my four and a half years as parliamentary candidate we met on several occasions, and I found him at all times courteous, polite and extremely sensitive to the needs of an opponent. Though in the election we met on few occasions, I am glad to say that the courtesy we had 422 shown each other throughout the campaign was manifest on election night, when he was the first to congratulate me. I know that hon. Members on both sides of the House share regard for Sydney Irving, and I wish him well in his endeavours.
I am pleased and honoured to represent the Dartford constituency. It gives me pleasure to speak following the speeches of two famous members of my party, one being my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who started her political life in Dartford, and the other being my right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker), who stood in 1955 and 1959. They both failed, and ended up here. I succeeded, and I am still here.
Dartford is a diverse constituency, stretching from industrial Thameside down to the centre of Kent, where the rolling fields and the oasthouses dot the countryside. Dartford has changed over a period of years from a market town into an industrial town with suburbs and some agriculture.
The town has always contributed to the welfare of northern Kent, and I hope that it will continue to do so. Historically, we are very proud of our associations with Anne of Cleves, who lived there, and with Wat Tyler, that medieval Tribunite, who was born there. When they were revolting, the men of Kent always used the town as a base to attack London. I must admit that if a rebellion were to take place now I should be somewhat concerned that the contingent from Dartford would be late, because of our unique one-way system. However, I am sure that no rebellion will take place within the next few months.
The constituency has heavy industry; we have paper making, cement making, pharmaceutical works and engineering. Although we are part of the golden triangle of the South-East, hon. Members should understand that there are special problems in Dartford that will need attention. After many years, unemployment, which the South-East had escaped, has finally come to us. Hall-Thermotank, one of our leading employers for many years, has started to lay people off. Seagers, a long-established employer, has just closed down. Therefore, we shall be looking to the Government to instil in the business community a sense of well-being 423 and welfare to create new jobs for the people of Dartford.
Forty per cent. of my constituents commute into town every day. Any hon. Members who are up at seven o'clock in the morning and listen to the news will hear British Rail announce a list of cancellations, and they will probably note that the longer the list, the greater the number of times Dartford is mentioned.
I shall join those hon. Members from Kent—my hon. Friends the Members for Gillingham (Mr. Burden) and for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain)—in pressing British Rail to improve the services. We are no longer prepared to put up with cancellations, delayed services, dirty compartments and increasing fares. It is only right to give notice that in the time during which I am here I intend to press for an improvement in the services and to make British Rail answerable in Parliament for the lack of those services that it insists on not providing.
I am pleased to address my first remarks to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, because I shall soon ask him to take a decision on the report of the inquiry into the application by Associated Portland Cement Manufacturers to develop Darenth Park. It is a matter of great contention within my constituency, because, although we have been an industrial town for many years, many people have now accepted that enough is enough, and we are not prepared to take any further industrial spoliation of our green belt. I hope that when he takes his decision my right hon. Friend will bear in mind that enough is enough and will listen to the people of Dartford when we say "Do not allow any further development of our green belt."
I should like to spend some time on the question of home ownership—the right to own the house in which one lives. Last year my Conservative association conducted a survey among the 8,000 tenants in Dartford, who were asked to answer certain questions about their aspirations and about repairs and maintenance, but mainly whether they wanted to own the houses in which they lived. About 93 per cent. of those who replied said that they wanted to buy them. The other 7 per cent. did not want to do so, because of old 424 age or simple political expediency. We have Labour councillors who live in council houses and who therefore felt obliged to say "No".
The election has shown that there must be a change in attitude towards home ownership. The council tenant is no longer prepared to be treated like a tied cottager. He wants the right to buy the house in which he has lived and brought up his family, and for which he has paid rent for many years. Indeed, it makes economic sense. Why pay rent when one can buy? This concept appeals greatly to many of my constituents.
I am glad to hear that the announcement has been made today that legislation will be introduced. In some ways I consider that it is not coming soon enough. I should like the legislation to go forward at the end of this week, but I realise that with the limitations of time that is not possible.
In Dartford, 57 per cent. of all houses are owner-occupied. There is very little private rented property. The rest is in the hands of the council. As a rather nineteenth-century Conservative, philosophically, the concept of giving people a stake in society appeals to me greatly. I shall support any legislation that is introduced to assist in this.
I should now like to address a number of specific points to my right hon. Friend. First, I am concerned about the ability of local authorities to process applications quickly enough. It has come to my attention that one London council has had 3,000 applicants to buy, that the applications have been in for over a year, and that only 200 houses have been sold. That is due mainly to the inability or reluctance of the officers of that council to process the applications fast enough. I hope that the Minister will consider that.
Many elderly parents are reluctant to take on extra financial responsibility but wish their adult sons and daughters who live with them to have the right to buy. I hope that that will be included in the legislation. Other tenants in my constituency are concerned that in the past few years they have changed from single to joint tenancies. They want reassurance that their tenure will not be affected by the joint tenancy in the application of a discount scheme. I further hope that the 425 Secretary of State will assess the needs of inner city authorities on land hoarding and make land available, especially in areas such as Southwark. That land should be released for houses and industrial building.
In conclusion, although the election was extremely clean, I should like to mention one traumatic experience. It was at the end of the campaign, in Central park, which the Prime Minister will know, where I met three old ladies. The first said that she found me a bit like that nice Geoffrey Howe, the second that I looked a little like Clive Jenkins, and the third that she was would vote not for me but for that nice Mr. Dunn, the Liberal candidate. Sounding like Geoffrey Howe is a good thing but looking like Clive Jenkins and being taken for a Liberal is not in my favour.
There is a story that has some longevity in my constituency. A former hon. Member in the nineteenth century who was here for 35 years made only one parliamentary speech. That was "Do you mind closing the widow? It is draughty in here." I hope that I shall make a better mark than he and continue to serve my constituents as well as many hon. Members have served theirs. I am grateful to the Chair for the kindness and tolerance that I have received.
§ 4.22 p.m.
§ Mr. Joseph Dean (Leeds, West)
On behalf of the whole House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I congratulate you and wish you a successful term of office in your rather exalted position.
I compliment the hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn) on his maiden speech, which was in the best traditions of the House. He was right to refer to his predecessor, Sydney Irving, as a most distinguished Member of this House. He served the House well and was respected by both sides. There are, at times, election casualties who are a loss to the House and to democracy as a whole. The loss of Sydney Irving is such a case. Having listened to the brief maiden speech of the hon. Member for Dartford, I am sure that he will frequently speak in the House and make his presence felt.
First, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may I have your guidance on a point of order? I wish to refer to a Minister who, by the grace and favour bestowed by the Prime 426 Minister, is in another place. In the past he has received widespread press publicity, and he has appeared in political broadcasts and made certain claims. I shall refer to the matter only obliquely, but some time ago I raised in an Adjournment debate the matter of services in the city of Leeds. The Minister was the leader of that city council, but he saw fit not to answer the points that I legitimately raised. I shall not deliberately transgress but I hope, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that if I do you will correct me.
We have just gone through the trauma of a general election, and Tory Ministers have reminded us of their party's success. Some of us on the Labour Benches are entitled to speak of our successes. We fought as Labour candidates on the record of the Labour Government and their manifesto, and our results went against the swing. It is significant that the great cities of the North did not move towards the Tory Party, although the South in the main did. The Tories turned a blind eye to the North of England and Scotland, as they have done in the past.
I was pleased with the results in my constituency. My vote substantially increased and went against the general swing, as did a number of results in the North. The sergeant-majors and lance-corporals in the Conservative Party—the councillors—in the early hours of the morning were whooping it up in contemplation of a Conservative victory. When the ballot boxes were counted at 11 a.m. for the council results, it was a different situation. Some of the town halls were being emptied of Conservative councillors. That process will continue, as the trend is always against the Government in office.
Conservative losses have been massive in some large conurbations, and people have voted two ways. My vote was 3,000 more than any local government party aggregated in the constituency. Although a Conservative Government have been voted to run the higher strategy of the economy and some of its policies, the town halls may be filled with Labour councillors to protect the country against the worst excesses of such a Government, for instance in the domestic field, as was done with the Housing Finance Act. I was prominent in the battle against that Act, but I did not and do not 427 believe in defying the law. The Tory Party is in a state of euphoria, but let me say some words of caution. When the town halls are controlled by Labour councillors, I hope that they will be as co-operative as Tameside was with the previous Labour Government if compulsory sales of council houses are rammed down their throats.
The Secretary of State referred to the inner cities. The present Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was the first Secretary of State to coin that phrase. He set up a commission of inquiry into the needs and stresses in inner city areas, and then did nothing about that. His only hallmark was the appalling mess of local government reorganisation and its cost. I do not believe that anyone in the Tory Party could consider that a commendable exercise. I hope that he will be more successful as Minister of Agriculture in halting the common agricultural policy.
The argument on inner cities is about resources. I do not say this as a criticism of Ministers in the Department of the Environment, but in this House none of them comes from a major conurbation, apart from the hon. Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg). His background of local government is not dissimilar to mine.
I should like to go back to the period in 1972 following the previous Conservative Government's Housing Finance Act. Figures were produced showing conclusively that the rate support grant, as then composed, was viciously anti-large city and anti-large conurbation. The London boroughs were not getting their share of the cake, nor were the remainder of what we call the original big five—Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham. Broadly speaking, authorities were supposed to receive 60 per cent. of their reckonable expenditure and to find 40 per cent. from the rates. Because of the way in which the rate support grant was composed under the previous Conservative Government, at the time when the right hon. and learned Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon) was Secretary of State for the Environment, the converse was happening. The big cities and the London boroughs, which needed the resources, were drawing 40 per cent. and having to find 60 per cent.
428 A deputation went to meet the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath), who left the Chamber a short time ago, on the matter. The case that there was an injustice and a bias against the large cities, mostly in the Midlands and the North, was fully accepted. The Minister who handled the problem was the right hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Page). Within the global figure of what was to be made available, it was seen that putting the injustice right could be done only at the expense of the shire counties. One of those counties, Hampshire, was drawing £6 million more in subsidy than it was able to spend. It was drawing that amount on its educational budget alone. These figures can be checked.
I am worried because in the fight for resources for the environment of the inner cities the Secretary of State represents a minor authority where little squalor exists. Nor has the new Minister for Housing and Construction, who is listening to the debate, a housing problem of any dimension in his area. The one person on the Government Bench—I do not want to divide him from his colleagues—who represents an area that has seen the full blast of deprivation and squalor is the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Hampstead.
We are told that there will be public expenditure cuts. If there are to be massive public expenditure cuts, it follows that the programmes of the high-spending Departments will be cut. One of the highest-spending Departments is that of the Environment. I wonder what sort of fight will be put up by Ministers at that Department when the Chancellor of the Exchequer starts to make up his Budget and decides on the disbursements to different Departments.
I want to refer obliquely to the Minister in another place. With so many able Back Benchers who have served the Conservative Party well in Opposition, it is strange that the Prime Minister should appoint someone who will not be answerable to this House on some important problems. If I were a loyal Back Bencher on the Conservative side, after taking that appointment into account and also that of a Labour renegade as Minister for Social Security, I should wonder what price loyalty was. But that is not the argument today.
429 The person going to the other place, who may have already arrived, was blatantly trotted out two or three years ago by the present Prime Minister in political broadcasts on local government to show how a major city should butcher its rates and provide services. I saw it as my job, as a Member of Parliament for that city, with a large deprived area, to check the facts. I put down a series of questions to Ministers to show that spending in the city of Leeds, in relation to the big six—as fair a comparison as one could get—was monumentally below what was required. In my constituency there are still schools between 108 and 110 years old. That is part of the legacy left by the Minister to whom I have referred, yet he has been put in the House of Lords to show how local government can be run efficiently. God help us!
At one time Leeds led the field in the building of council houses. In 10 years, the majority of which were under Conservative control, Leeds dropped from top to fifth out of six. One authority, only two-thirds its size, was building three times as many houses.
I think the House will agree that one of the most important services is the education of our youngsters. The same league table shows that Leeds, in terms of expenditure on schoolchildren, per capita was sixth. The authority in fifth place was spending £50 a year more on each child at school. I accept that there may be ways to improve efficiency, but the sums of money written off in Leeds were far too substantial and colossal to support that theory. There are children in my constituency who are still bearing the burden of that policy. I cannot see the person whom I have mentioned fighting for resources, only for the dissipation of them. When I took the right course as a Member of Parliament and challenged those figures in this House, that gentleman's reply in public debate was to ask "Why do you not get back to where you belong? You have no right poking your nose in". I considered that it was my job to poke my nose in. It is my job to inform the House and the country of what has happened.
I want to deal with the sale of council houses. I am glad that the Secretary of State referred to the 41 per cent. of people who receive some form of financial help 430 to pay their rents. I believe that that figure is a little low. The last figure of which I am aware was nearer 50 per cent., and it was rising. If one is talking about people buying council houses, one can discount 50 per cent. straight away. Social security or rent rebates will not underwrite a mortgage. That has to be found from people's own salaries or wages. I also mentioned in an Adjournment debate the boast by Leeds that it sold 4,000 council houses a year. There is a waiting list of over 20,000 families. If council houses are sold, from where will Leeds get the money to replace those properties?
I have heard the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister say that houses should be built with the money obtained from the sale of council houses. One does not have to be a mathematical genius to know that if houses are sold for £7,500 when they cost between £13,000 and £15,000 to build, one has to sell two to build one. That is a fine prospect, even if the money is used for immediate capital purposes, for the 22,000 families on the waiting list. If one is selling a council house and replacing it through the normal procedures of the Public Works Loan Board over a 60-year period, one is talking about selling houses for £7,500 and paying £75,000 to £80,000 to replace them. If it is the boast of this man who has gone to the other place that he wants to sell 4,000 houses a year in Leeds, he will load on to the housing revenue account in that city a minimum of £300 million. Those are the economics about which the Government are talking.
I do not want to take any more time, because some hon. Members wish to make their maiden speeches. I have always been interested in the Department of the Environment, with my background in housing and in serving people. Those whom I represent, who did not vote Tory but returned me with an increased majority, are grateful for the services provided by the public sector. They have no recourse to private funds. They cannot go into the market for private medicine and private education. They rely entirely on a caring society to look after them. In view of the composition of the present Department of the Environment, and in view of what I have heard from the Secretary of State—despite his capacity to swing a mace in anger—I fear for them.
431 I issue a warning. In every sphere where I and my party can have an influence, I will, within the law, oppose the things that the Government try to do. I will stop them where I can.
§ 4.41 p.m.
§ Mr. John Page (Harrow, West)
It is a great pleasure for me to add my tribute to those already paid to the maiden speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn). It was remarkably debonair, well-informed, interesting and confident. I liked the description of his constituency because I used to live in Kent and came into London at Charing Cross. It was always the Dartford loop line that had a cross against its name on the departure board. I still listen to LBC in the morning and hear about the troubles there.
My hon. Friend exactly followed the advice that Mr. Harold Macmillan once gave to me about making a speech in the House of Commons. He said "Speak in the same voice as you would at a cocktail party, no louder, and do not make more than two jokes or you become a 'turn'". My hon. Friend made two jokes in an interesting speech. So he did well. I hope that we shall be listening to him as the Member for Dartford for the next 20 or 30 years.
Yesterday I raised the first point of order in this Parliament. It is interesting to leave one's footprints in the sands of time, irrespective of the size of one's shoes. But my point of order had a specific purpose—to draw attention to the wide scope of debate possible on the Gracious Speech. I resent the fact that, throughout this debate, we are supposed to concentrate on certain subjects on certain days. It is much better that this entire debate should be a Second Reading debate on the Gracious Speech as a whole.
§ Mr. Page
I am delighted to have the hon. Lady's support on this occasion at least.
This is one occasion when Back Benchers can afford the àla carte menu instead of having to stick to their usual fare of table d'hôte. Therefore, I shall not speak very much about the Secretary of 432 State's speech, although I shall touch on it later.
I am asking the question that we all ask from time to time—what is the objective of our making speeches here? To whom are we addressing the pearls of our wisdom? I would arrange my answer in ascending order of importance.
First, I do not believe that our main objective should be a couple of paragraphs in the local newspaper. I am second to none in my admiration of the readership of the Harrow Observer and I value greatly the occasions when that journal reports my speeches. One of my most distinguished constituents, the former Home Secretary, is, I know, an avid reader of it. So I appreciate the moderate advertisement I get in that way. But that should not be the main objective of a parliamentary speech, although it is vital for one's constituents to know what one is talking about—as the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford will learn when they read about his speech today in the local and national press.
I also believe, although this might mean that I shall be condemned to perpetual dumbness, that a 30-second spot on the radio should not be the ultimate objective of our speeches—although we should be grateful when we are reported on the radio. However, I would add that sound broadcasting of our proceedings has brought more disrepute upon this honourable House than anything else over the past few hunderd years.
The third reason for making speeches here—this is important for those who have not yet made their maiden speeches—is to be able to impress one's party leaders with the breadth of one's knowledge and experience, one's debating skill and general knowledge of the subject. Parliamentary prowess and performance should lead to promotion and patronage. That brings me to the crux of this argument.
The main objective of speeches should be to influence the Government of the day, the leaders of one's party and one's colleagues with one's views on a particular subject. One might occasionally have the excitement of actually altering the direction of an event or events while they are moving. If that is not the main reason, there is not much point in our being here and making speeches at all.
433 That is why I now come to a slightly sad criticism of Ministers. Most of the Government Front Bench, if not all, are honoured and respected friends of mine, for whose talents and ability I have the highest opinion; nevertheless, I feel that Ministers do not pay enough attention to debates. The Department of the Environment has a Secretary of State, two Ministers of State and two Under-Secretaries, yet on the Front Bench we see only one Minister of State.
§ Mr. Page
Yes, the Solicitor-General for Scotland, but only one Minister from the Department of the Environment.
My speeches have occasionally been reported in the Yorkshire Post and The Tablet—neither, probably, very widely read in my constituency. I am delighted that the Solicitor-General for Scotland is here. However, since this is a wide debate, I should like to see a Minister from every Department here throughout. I should like the Whip to pay attention because even he does not seem to be listening to my speech. I should like him to pass to the Chief Whip and the Leader of the House—and the Minister of State to pass on to the Prime Minister—a suggestion for a new directive from No. 10 Downing Street. My suggested directive is that when a debate on a Department's work is taking place in the House all appointments of the Ministers in that Department for that afternoon and evening should be cancelled. If those that are considered to be too important cannot be cancelled, the Leader of the House should be informed.
I deprecate the Minister who makes a great speech from the Front Bench, listens and perhaps interrupts the speech from the Opposition Front Bench and, as soon as that is over, bustles out with his papers and his Parliamentary Private Secretary, giving the impression that he has undertaken a necessary chore. His anxiety is to return to his ivory tower block at the Elephant and Castle or Mill-bank to continue with the day's "proper work".
Such a Minister usually drops in for five or ten minutes at the cocktail hour, nods and sees that everything is all right and, as soon as I rise to speak, disappears behind the Speaker's Chair, as did my 434 hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg), the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment. Such a Minister returns at 9.15 p.m., gives a deprecating nod to the Opposition Front Bench speaker and sits in his place to listen to the closing speeches.
This is not the way in which Ministers should treat the House. With the splendid new broom at No. 10 Downing Street, those old attitudes should be swept aside. I hope that the previous Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees), will forgive me if I do not refer to him at this stage, but in the past couple of years two people showed outstanding diligence on the Front Bench. The first was my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister when she was Leader of the Opposition. She was much busier than the rest of the Shadow Cabinet but she spent far more time listening to her colleagues than other Shadow spokesmen. The second was the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Foot), who, when he was Secretary of State for Employment, sat through debates, hurrying out for perhaps only five minutes during the period 3.30 p.m. to 10 p.m.
§ Mr. W. Benyon
The reason for this does not lie with the Ministers but with the Back Benchers. Ministers are so certain of our votes that they think that there is no reason to pay attention to us.
§ Mr. Page
My hon. Friend is right. He has reminded me of part of my speech which I forgotten. The success of Ministers and their policies depends upon the Back Benches. I am one of the few who, because of my deep friendship with Ministers, can make this mild reproof. I hope that it will not be taken amis.
My second argument takes us back to an old tradition. Ministers are now bombarded with more letters from hon. Members than they used to receive. In those far-off, ancient, horse-bus days when I first became a Member of Parliament, Ministers used to write to us and answer questions which we raised in debate. They would pick up a point and one would receive a letter automatically thanking one for one's speech and drawing attention to the question raised. If Departments can answer 300 or 400 letters a day from hon. Members, they should be able to answer the 10 or 15 questions that are asked each day.
435 We should also make a rule that Ministers do not address hon. Members by their Christian names in letters unless they have actualy spoken to them. It is difficult to know whether an hon. Member wishes to be called "Mr. Bloggs" "Bloggs", "John Bloggs" or "Bert Bloggs". My choice is that Ministers should use the phrase "Dear Bert Bloggs" if they do not know the hon. Member well. I hope that I am not boring the House too desperately, but this is the only occasion when I can make such a speech.
I hope that Ministers will come to the House for a meal or a drink at least twice a week. It is good to be able to talk to Ministers in a familiar fashion, especially when they have escaped the guard dogs of their Departments. One can then talk to them in a more friendly way. However, some Ministers appear in the Division Lobby only when there is a three-line Whip, like some parliamentary coelacanth which has been dredged up for that occasion. That concludes my advice to my ministerial colleagues. I hope that they will take it to heart.
I welcome what my right hon. Friend said this afternoon about the sale of council houses and shorthold lettings. A reform of the rating system is absent from the Gracious Speech, perhaps because nobody knows the best way to deal with the problems. Obviously, it is unfair for the same rates to apply to a house in which five earners live and one occupied by two pensioners. That is illogical.
I hope that my right hon. Friends will be brave about Southern Africa. The dangers of delay in recognising the new Rhodesian Government are likely to be worse than the dangers of quick action. With the support of the United States Senate, France, West Germany and other European countries, we can give a pretty definite view that sanctions will be removed. I feel that in that respect I am losing the support of the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Short).
As Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, there is a danger of "semantic infiltration". We use phrases such as "liberation movement", which are used by totalitarian regimes. We can be influenced in our perceptions by using such words. The 436 words "Patriotic Front" and "Frontline Presidents" should not be used by the Government Front Bench or in any future official communiques on Southern Africa.
The last matter I should have liked to have seen in the Gracious Speech is a nod towards the holding of future referendums. I give notice to the Home Secretary that this is something which I shall try to raise in a Friday debate fairly soon.
I apologise for having strayed from a particularly narrow path this afternoon. My reason for doing so was my belief that the present Government will be in office for the next 10 or 15 years. Therefore, I want my right hon. and hon. Friends to get their procedures in the House absolutely right from the start.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bernard Weatherill)
Before I call the next speaker, my I say that it is entirely in order to refer to any matter during the debate on the Loyal Address. However, if an answer is required, it is likely to be more forthcoming if the subject raised falls within the responsibilities of the Minister for Housing and Construction.
§ 5 p.m.
§ Mrs. Renée Short (Wolverhampton North-East)
The hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Page) put forward some interesting advice for members of the Government Front Bench. This has obviously worked, because when he was making his speech there were two Members on the Front Bench and that has now increased two and a half times. Quite clearly they were listening somewhere. I do not know where they were, but they were listening.
The suggestions that the hon. Gentleman made about Ministers having the courtesy to listen to the debates all the way through, or more or less all the way through, is sensible. I often thought the same about my own Front Bench. However, he said it and I think that he did well to do so.
As Mr. Deputy Speaker said, we are not restricted at all during the debate on the Gracious Speech. We can raise any subject that we wish. I am sorry that I was not in the House yesterday. I was attending the mayor-making in my constituency. As the youngest member of 437 my now Labour-controlled council—I am glad to say—has been honoured by being made mayor, I was there to support him.
During the debate yesterday on education I was concerned that no reference was made to the fact that there is not one word in the Conservative Party manifesto about nursery education. There is no commitment. I find that rather surprising, because it was the right hon. Lady who, when she was Secretary of State for Education and Science, included several paragraphs in the White Paper which she produced on the need to defend the cause of nursery education. I am very disappointed that she appears to have hauled down that flag.
Contrary to the Conservative Party manifesto, we are very concerned about nursery education. I should like to read to the House what we said in our manifesto. I believe that it is worth referring to as it will be something that I shall be pressing on the Secretary of State for Education and Science during the lifetime of this Parliament, as I did with my own Front Bench. We said:Under this Labour Government the proportion of three and four-year olds in nursery classes and schools has doubled. Local authorities will be encouraged to do much more.That was a bit weak, but it was the best that we could get in.Our aim is to provide nursery education—this is the important part—for 90 per cent. of our four-year olds and half of our three-year olds by the early 1980s.I regret, as I have said, that there is no commitment in the Conservative Party manifesto or in the Gracious Speech to developing nursery education.
§ Mr. John Wells (Maidstone)
It is my recollection that there was a brief mention in the manifesto about nursery education. There is nothing in the Gracious Speech because, as the Prime Minister rightly pointed out, this is a programme for 17 months and our manifesto deals with a five-year period. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Page) pointed out, the programme is for a 15-year period.
§ Mrs. Short
I do not think that the latter remark is true. Perhaps the hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. Wells) would like to go through his party's manifesto again. My recollection is that it was not mentioned.
§ Mrs. Short
If this is an important part of education—I certainly believe it is, and in all honesty I believe that there are right hon. and hon. Gentlemen on the Government Benches who feel the same way about nursery education—it is disappointing that there was no reference to it in the manifesto. It looks as though it has been wiped off the agenda. I hope that that is not so, but we shall see.
I am disappointed with the whole content of the Gracious Speech and the appeal that it makes. Exaggeration and extravagant claims appear to be the essence of the rhetoric of the Conservative Party. We are apparently to believe, according to the Prime Minister, that the path that she intends to take—as she said during the election campaign—is the path that the people have chosen. I do not wish to spoil the right hon. Lady's euphoria at the beginning of her term of office, but before she and her party get carried away by the cries that she is uttering it would be wise if they were to dwell on the fact that 56 per cent. of those who voted did not vote for her party. Indeed, her share of the popular vote was smaller than that achieved by any Prime Minister taking office with a secure parliamentary majority since Bonar Law in 1922. The Tory Party does not have a great deal about which to crow.
Before the myth takes root in the collective Tory mind that the Government have a mandate to do what they wish, they should remember that their victory is not quite all it may seem to them.
Only four people out of every 10 are with the Government, even at this stage of their term of office. If we take the 25 per cent. or so who did not bother to turn out and vote, it is even fewer than four out of every 10.
§ Mrs. Short
I have not come prepared with those, but no doubt the hon. Gentleman can work them out for himself. I am talking about the position as at present and the claims of the Prime Minister that hers is the path that the people want to take.
If we look at the inspiration—that is not really the right word—at the mentality that inspired this legislative programme, it is best summed up on page 7 of the Tory manifesto, which stated:We in the Conservative Party … think we have the one answer that matters most. We want to work with the grain of human nature.I wonder what particular grain of human nature the Prime Minister, in all her zealotry, extols? It is the grain of human nature that finds satisfaction in hate, greed and envy. Working with the grain of human nature, according to the Government, means saying to three out of four children at the age of 11 that they must have an inferior education, with inferior resourcees, in an inferior environment, so that the social barriers which grammar schools preserve can be maintained. There is not one scrap of educational research that supports the separation of children into sheep and goats at the age of 11. We went through that years ago before the comprehensive principle was accepted, and the Secretary of State and his predecessors know that full well.
The grain of human nature that this Administration want to foster is apparently how to claw and exploit all that one can, to let greed run riot, and that profit is the god. The Conservatives shriek freedom for market forces, yet with typical hypocrisy the Conservative Party chairman has operated a price-fixing ring. It is the grain of human nature that wallows in selfishness and cares not a fig for controlling prices, yet the Conservative Party bleats about the consequences of this for old-age pensioners and those on fixed incomes. It is the grain of human nature which sees nothing wrong in creating a first and second-class Health Service—something which we shall oppose very bitterly indeed—and sees no injustice in queue-jumping for an operation, and no distaste in the idea that health care should depend on what one has in one's pocket and not on the need for the kind of treatment that is being sought.
440 Working with the grain of human nature, according to Tory philosophy, is depriving poor and needy families of decent modern local authority housing in the interests of promoting and reinforcing the mentality of property ownership. We are not against property ownership, but we are against financing some people in this respect at the expense of others who have much greater need for decent housing.
Working with the grain of human nature, so we are to believe, is reinforcing racial prejudice by shrieking that 96 per cent. of the population is being swamped by 4 per cent.
The grain of human nature, so we are to believe, wants to see unemployment rise by ending subsidies to industry, by boosting unemployment by curtailing local authority direct labour organisations and by boosting unemployment by withdrawing help from industry.
The grain of human nature which the Government are out to satisfy is selling to their friends in the City companies in the National Enterprise Board which needed taxpayers' money to save them from going bankrupt and thus saving jobs, again, and now, having nursed them back to profitability, they are to be given back to the very merchants who were both greedy and incompetent and who helped to make them bankrupt in the first place. How can anybody support that kind of Tory philosophy?
Finally, and probably most important of all, the grain of human nature that the Prime Minister and her party seek to inflame is hate. Find a section in society and inflame hatred against them is their policy. Trade unionists, those whose political philosophy one does not agree with, people on social security, young offenders and juveniles, are all groups against which the present Conservative leadership is bent on inspiring prejudice.
As they sow, so shall they reap, so the good book tells us. A Prime Minister who incites hate will in turn suffer from that. A Government who set out to encourage greed and envy will in time find that greed and envy turned uncontrollably against them. One cannot fool all of the electorate all the time. If one inspires the worst passions in people, as the new Conservative Administration are to do, it will be no good crying when 441 things get out of control, as inevitably they will under the present Government once the honeymoon is over.
No doubt we shall be told—perhaps in about a year's time; I give the Government about a year—that the unions are not playing fair—we have already heard that—and that they are demanding wages to keep up with spiralling prices. We shall be told that workers are holding the country to ransom, that wreckers are undermining our way of life, as the Tories are prone to call it. We shall be asked "who runs the country—the democratically elected Government or trade union leaders?" Fleet Street and most of the other media will, of course, side with the Tories, as they generally do.
Working people will be criticised as traitors and as selfish and greedy. The Prime Minister will throw up her hands in horror and complain that some awfully wicked people are out to wreck her Government but that the people of Britain support her. She will forget, as she seems to have done already, that six people in 10 who can vote did not vote for her at this general election.
I do not believe that the majority of people in this country believe in the absurdity that cutting the tax of the rich by 25 per cent. and cutting that of the vast majority by only 2 per cent. will, as the Gracious Speech puts it,lay a secure basis for investment, productivity and increased employment in all parts of the United Kingdom.That is just rubbish. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh".] If hon. Members do not believe me, let them tell that to the shipyard workers and the steelworkers. The West Midlands steelworkers have suffered from various Governments' policies, as have railway workers and miners. It did not work the last time the Tories tried it, and it will not work this time. We all know where the money that is generated will flow. One can already see it in the asset strippers, spivs and property speculators, who will be getting ready to cash in on the boom when more money is injected into certain parts of the economy.
We are told that small businesses are the keystone to less unemployment and to more jobs. But the reality of what the Government intend will mean that the big boys will gobble up the little ones, as they always did before. The magic formu- 442 lation "rationalization" will throw more people out of work. The only way to encourage small businesses is to cut down on the tax privileges of the large companies.
However, one should look at the members of the Government Front Bench—the Chancellor of the Exchequer, with his previous activities within EMI and Sun Alliance; the chairman of the Tory Party, with his connections with Trust Houses Forte and many others; the Secretary of State for Employment, who had connections with United Biscuits and, of all things, Avon Cosmetics—that was a very appropriate one, was it not?—and the Foreign Secretary, and Cadbury Schweppes and Rio Tinto-Zinc. These are not friends of small businesses, nor are the firms with which they are involved.
The other major item in the Gracious Speech, which is the attempt to shackle trade unionists, will not do anything to improve industrial relations. I cannot think that any Conservative Members really believe that. The Government think that working people should be prepared, in this day and age, to kowtow to unjust laws, but I am sure they know that that will not happen. We shall get peaceful industrial relations only when wealth is distributed fairly and when skill and loyalty are properly and fairly rewarded.
Therefore, I think that it is clear that the Gracious Speech sets the style for the Government during the next few years, and I am very depressed at what will be the results of the legislation that the Government intend to introduce. The rich will be made richer. The poor will be made poorer. Privilege is to be reinforced. Workers will be told to shut up, to obey and to do as they are told. That is the grain of human nature that the Prime Minister seeks to promote.
When the Prime Minister opened the debate on Tuesday she started off on a bad footing. I hope that she will not take it amiss if I venture to offer her a gentle word of advice. She was bullying and hectoring during the whole of her speech, and I think that the Government Benches must understand that they rely on Opposition Members to help them to operate the House, to help things to run smoothly. I do not believe that that co-operation will readily be given unless the Prime Minister tempers her tone when she addresses the House.
§ 5.17 p.m.
§ Mr. Peter Fraser (South Angus)
I rise with great pleasure, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to address this House for the first time as Member of Parliament for South Angus—not out of any sense of personal gratification that the electorate of South Angus should have returned me as their Member of Parliament but because, for the greater part of the time that I was merely a prospective candidate in that constituency, it was the confident prediction of those people who claimed to know what was going on in Scotland that by 1980 there would not be a Member of Parliament for South Angus in this House.
This last general election was to have been the independence election, at which the forces of separatism were to be triumphant. They have not been triumphant, and, with my six hon. Friends in constituencies from the Mull of Galloway to Peterhead, I am proud to have played a part in turning back that flood tide of separatism and to have reasserted that it is both possible to be Scots and British and, at the same time, to be proud to be both.
My predecessor, Mr. Andrew Welsh, said when he made his maiden speech in this House that he and his colleagues were physical manifestations of a remarkable and fundamental change in Scottish politics. If that claim was true then, by the same token the regaining of seven seats from the Scottish National Party is an equally remarkable reversal of fortunes.
The Conservative Party in Scotland may have had to learn an electoral lesson in Scotland, and, indeed, there are hon. Members on the Opposition Benches who may feel that they, too, have had to learn a similar lesson. But we have now learned our lesson, and never again shall we leave it to any one party in Scotland to claim a monopoly of the right to speak for the people of Scotland.
It is not for me to attempt to assess the value of the contributions to the debates and proceedings that were made by my predecessor, Mr. Andrew Walsh, during his time in this House. But I note, and I am quite happy to record, that he certainly sought to represent the interests of his constituency. His defeat at the general election was not caused by any lack of personal endeavour on his part, nor was 444 it caused by any lack of care or concern for his constituents.
I now have the honour of representing a constituency which I believe has the finest blend of what is essentially Scottish. Some of the richest and best-worked agricultural land in all Europe lies within the constituency, set against the backcloth of the Grampians rising up behind Strathmore and into Aberdeenshire. On one of my first tours of the constituency into the glens, I met a hill farmer who said to me "Dinna bother lad, travellin' ony further from here to Her Majesty's estates at Balmoral—they're aal yours". Confident of that enormous amount of electoral support, I must confess that I neglected it for some time until I discovered that from there to Her Majesty's estates at Balmoral there were one shepherd and two stalkers. If the general election had fallen in February rather than in May, they certainly would have been unable to get to the polling station.
In the burghs of Angus there is a continuing tradition of skill in both engineering and weaving, carried on almost entirely without any industrial dispute or confrontation. They still talk in awestruck terms of "the strike" which lasted for 35 minutes in Forfar. The workers were back within the hour. Perhaps it was not surprising that a misplaced sense of nationalism reasserted itself within Angus, because, after all, it was in 1320 in Arbroath that the great Declaration of Independence was made. It was a moment of great history, but history it was and history it will remain.
To the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson) I should say that I look forward next year to associating myself with the re-enactment of that great moment of history in pageant form. But I hope that both he and others of his friends will forgive me if I give them this gentle reminder. At that great abbey, the patron saint is the most English of all saints—St. Thomas à Becket.
While, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I hope you will understand my pride in representing the constituency of South Angus, I have to say that it is not without its problems. I anticipate that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland will have to take a very difficult decision on a proposed petrochemical development at Barry Buddon. It may be the largest single industrial development in Scotland 445 for at least 20 years, and it may provide much-needed jobs in Tayside. But at the same time the river Tay is possibly the largest unspoilt estuary in the United Kingdom, and it and its environment must be protected at all costs.
While I come to this House both with great pleasure and relief, I do not come with a wholly uncritical eye. I am relieved that the Gracious Speech refers to the repeal of the Scotland Act. I consider that it was a divisive, costly and bureaucratic scheme which would not achieve the true devolutionary changes that Scotland requires. But I welcome the prospect that has been held out of all-party talks on devolution. The success of those talks remains to be seen, but I believe that in the calmer, more reflective atmosphere that now prevails in relation to devolution, there is a far greater opportunity to bring about the changes that people in all parties in Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom wish to achieve.
I also welcome that passage in the Gracious Speech which refers to the opportunity to be given to hon. Members to examine their own procedures and to examine ways in which the work of the Government may be more effectively scrutinised. If this is meant to include a specific reference to the setting up of Select Committees, I particularly welcome it.
The two passages relating to all-party talks on devolution and Select Committees are not linked. However, I believe that they are more closely interrelated than appears at first sight. If the Scottish Office is subjected to scrutiny by a Select Committee in Edinburgh, with all the glare of publicity, many of the changes we need will, I believe, have been met. If that is done, we shall be demonstrating to the people of Scotland that Westminster government, which in some senses has become a dirty word, both cares and works.
I sense that it is the mood of this House that it in no way wishes to have the next Session filled up with business involving devolutionary changes for Scotland. But I urge—if not this year, certainly before 1983—that the matter should be looked at again. It should not be wholly neglected. We may have cooled the temperature of politics in Scotland, but what at present may appear to be 446 firm ground will turn out to be simply the crust of lava over a volcano which may erupt again unless we do something about it.
§ 5.26 p.m.
§ Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)
I listened with considerable interest to the hon. Member for South Angus (Mr. Fraser). He has certainly shown himself to be a fluent speaker. I once went on a parliamentary delegation to his constituency, and I found it a most interesting and admirable place. I look forward to paying a return visit, but not on a delegation. I am sure that we shall hear a great deal from the hon. Gentleman, to whom we all listened with much pleasure.
I now turn from praise to criticism. I believe that the policies which have been put forward in the Gracious Speech are a recipe for disaster. There will be great concern in many parts of the West Midlands and part of the Black Country over the Government's intention and attitude towards job saving, job creation and the role of the National Enterprise Board. I have a feeling that we are back to 1970. I have very little doubt in my mind that the Government will be forced, by various pressures, to do U-turns.
I confine my remarks mainly to certain aspects of housing, which is the subject of today's debate. It is a matter of concern to me that a large number of people are in considerable housing need and stress. This should be the main concern of all of us in the House of Commons. There is very little indeed—if anything—in the Gracious Speech which deals with housing need, the sort of housing need mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore). A myth has been fostered and encouraged that council housing is really no longer required for most people and that, if anything, council housing should be provided only for the very poorest and, perhaps, certain disabled and elderly people in a community. I take a completely different view. I believe that many people in this country, certainly many of my constituents, rely on council accommodation. They have no other way of resolving their housing difficulty, except by being rehoused by the local authority. I also take the view that there is absolutely nothing wrong with this whatever and that 447 it is a fine system of public sector housing whereby people can be rehoused by the local authority. I see nothing shameful about that at all.
Therefore, because I recognise that so much housing need remains, I take the view that there should be a large, sustained council house building programme. Of course, I have very little hope that that type of council house building programme will be encouraged by the Government who are now in office. I have some reason for optimism that local councils which recently changed hands, and which are now Labour controlled, will indeed be embarking upon the type of council house building programme which I believe necessary, although I have very little doubt in my mind that that type of policy will in many ways be largely undermined by the central authorities.
There are other people who have been rehoused by the local authority but who find themselves living in unsatisfactory accommodation. A great many people in my constituency, for example, live in high-rise flats. Some of these tenants have young children, and they have come to see me at my surgeries wanting transfers. It should be pointed out, of course, that people living in such accommodation will not be queueing up to buy it, no matter what the right hon. Gentleman may say. Many people living in high-rise blocks of flats seek year after year to transfer to better accommodation, sometimes with very little hope. They will be worse off because the amount of accommodation available to them will be reduced as a result of the proposals advocated by the Government.
It should be a matter of concern that so many families with young children are living in high-rise blocks of flats. I should like to see a little more concern expressed by the Conservative Party.
I also take the view that a new deal is required for council tenants, mainly as outlined in the Labour Government's Housing Bill which fell with the onset of the general election. There is a need for security of tenure for council tenants. I have always accepted that private tenants should have security of tenure. Why should not council tenants have the same advantage? It was, of course, pro- 448 missed in the Labour Government's Housing Bill.
There should be an obligation on local authorities to provide a framework for tenants' participation in matters affecting their interests. That is also very important, and one or two progressive local authorities have already provided the sort of framework which is necessary for such participation.
I also believe that there should be better machinery for enforcing repairs. There are many council dwellings in my constituency and elsewhere in need of repair, and on occasions it is very difficult for the tenants to get necessary repairs done quickly. I have received a number of complaints from tenants about the long time that they have to wait for repairs to be done. There is no queue to buy their accommodation. They simply want their accommodation to be looked after properly. There have been complaints, for example, about modernisation. Tenants are very pleased that their prewar dwellings are being modernised. They are not so pleased about the frequent inconvenience involved which can stretch to weeks and months before the work is completed.
There is another aspect affecting council tenants which should be mentioned. In my view, the time has come to remove the stigma attaching to a council tenancy. There is the feeling that a council tenant is a second-class citizen. My fear is that this stigma will grow as a result of the Government's policy. The large majority of council tenants who will not want to buy their accommodation will be looked upon in a worse light than even now by the Conservative Party. If it is suggested that I am exaggerating the Government's attitude and that they do not have any such view of council tenants, I remind hon. Members of the letter sent from the office of the then Leader of the Opposition. It was not signed by her, of course, but there is no doubt that it was sent under her authority.
A council tenant wrote to the right hon. Lady complaining about some repairs to her accommodation. The reply from the right hon. Lady's office was as follows:I hope you will not think me too blunt if I say that it may well be that your council accommodation is unsatisfactory, but considering the fact that you have been unable to buy your own accommodation you are lucky to 449 have been given something, which the rest of us are paying for out of our taxes.That is a genuine letter and not a forgery.
§ The Minister for Housing and Construction (Mr. John Stanley)
I am very sorry that the hon. Member has chosen to omit to mention a fact which was well known to the Labour Party during the election, which is that my right hon. Friend, as Leader of the Opposition, wrote immediately to Mrs. Collingwood as follows:A member of my staff has just shown me your letter and the reply which was sent from my office. I was very upset indeed to read what was written on my behalf. I do not hold the views set out in that letter. It was offensive and lacked understanding of the views you expressed. I can only apologise for the hurt it must have caused.I am very sorry that the hon. Member has not seen fit to refer to that.
§ Mr. Winnick
But it is quite clear that the Prime Minister—then Leader of the Opposition—would rush in to apologise. It was the eve of a general election and, of course, every step was taken by the right hon. Lady to apologise as quickly as possible. No one was surprised about that. However, there is no escaping the significance of the original letter.
§ Mr. Neil Carmichael (Glasgow, Kelvingrove)
Another aspect which perhaps my hon. Friend has overlooked is that the person who wrote the letter stood as a Conservative candidate, and he was not repudiated or reprimanded in any way by Conservative Central Office.
§ Mr. John Heddle (Lichfield and Tamworth)
Is the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) aware that his party's workers put a copy of that letter through the majority of council house doors in the West Midlands, and that clearly the recipients of that letter voted with their feet against what he is now saying?
§ Mr. Winnick
We do not know what percentage of council tenants voted Conservative. Such figures are not available. What is more important is that this type of letter shows the contempt which is undoubtedly felt by many people 450 in the Conservative Party towards council tenants, and, what is more, it is the attitude taken by many Tory-controlled local authorities. As far as I know, no Conservative Member of Parliament or candidate has said that such a letter should never have been written in the first place. But, of course, the Prime Minister apologised, for the reasons that I have stated already. So I stick to what I have said.
There is the possibility that, as a result of public expenditure cuts, housing subsidies will be reduced. That, of course, will mean substantial council house rent increases. As a result of the proposals outlined by the Minister today, it may be that those tenants who are not very keen to buy will feel themselves under a certain amount of pressure. As rents continue to rise, the feeling may be expressed "If you do not like paying more and more in rent, you must buy your accommodation." There will, in other words, be a form of inducement to unwilling tenants to buy their accommodation.
Housing is one of the most crucial issues for ordinary people. If employment is the first issue—the right to get a job, to work and to have job security—the second is to have a decent home. I take the view that it is right to encourage owner-occupation, and my party has done so. It brought in the option mortgage scheme in the Parliament in which I served. It introduced more recent proposals. It is right to do all that can be done to encourage owner-occupation. It is also right to give protection to private tenants. Many private tenants, as a result of legislation passed by the last Government, now have the security and protection which they lacked before. But it is also right that people should be able to be rehoused by a local authority and pay a reasonable rent rather than being forced to live in conditions where rents go up constantly and people have to wait a long time to be rehoused.
Therefore, while the party opposite has a tendency to encourage competition and to say, in effect, that council house tenants are being subsidised and owner-occupiers are not, we take a different view. I believe that it is right to give tax relief to owner-occupiers and to have financial schemes to encourage people to become 451 owner-occupiers. In the same way, however, I believe it is necessary to sustain and build on the public rented sector. I do not want to see a diminution of council dwellings. I want to see a sustained building programme so that those in need and stress, and those who are desperately waiting for accommodation should have the opportunity of being rehoused as quickly as possible.
§ 5.41 p.m.
§ Mr. W. Benyon (Buckingham)
I join with the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) in offering my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for South Angus (Mr. Fraser) on his maiden speech. I know his constituency fairly well, and undoubtedly he sits for one of the most beautiful parts of the United Kingdom. We were most impressed by his fluency and the well-thought-out nature of his speech. I hope that we shall hear him many times in future.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Page) has taken the opportunity of this debate to offer a certain amount of advice to the Government Front Bench. I hope that he will not take it amiss if I follow his example to this extent in offering you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, my congratulations on assuming the Chair. I hope that you and the other occupants of the Chair—I say this with great diffidence—will consider the fact that it might be a good idea to make it known that if hon. Members spoke beyond a certain time limit they might find it difficult to catch your eye on another occasion. I believe that this would do much to make our debates more interesting and more vigorous. I hope that this will be considered in the right quarters.
As we have just returned from the hustings, I must start by regretting a measure that is not in the Gracious Speech—the need to reform the Representation of the People Acts 1949 and 1958. My constituency now numbers 104,000 people—nearly five times greater than the smallest constituency in England, let alone those in Scotland and Wales. This is a negation of democracy. It is a scandal. What I am really talking about is not the acceleration of the pending report of the parliamentary Boundary Commission but amending the law so that when the 452 electorate of a county area or metropolitan area rises or falls by the average figure for constituency numbers in England or Wales or Scotland, the Boundary Commission should be under a statutory duty to revise the seats within that area.
I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will look very carefully at this matter to see whether we can avoid the sort of anomalies that have now arisen. When this legislation was first brought in, there was no idea of the sort of growth rates that I have experienced in my constituency, where up to 10,000 new voters a year come on to the roll. Therefore, in 10 to 15 years there should be not one extra constituency but two in that area.
I turn to the subject of housing. I realise that the new Government face a chronically bad situation. Demand for houses has outstripped supply and we heard only two days ago that house prices rose by 28 per cent. last year. Construction costs have accelerated, and land is being almost completely removed from the market by the Community Land Act.
The Secretary of State said that it was absolutely vital to get on to the housing market land which was not being used by the local authorities or statutory undertakers. I warn him that it is no good trying to make a burglar into a policeman. He will not get the statutory undertakers or the local authorities to do this off their own bat. He will have to find some other way of doing it. He will have to find some other organisation—perhaps the Housing Corporation—which can step in and say that the land is under-used and that it must be taken and made available to the market.
Even if building increases dramatically from now on, we face a very difficult two-year period ahead. It will be necessary to ensure that there is no great acceleration in house prices. The Government must be very careful that no action of theirs artificially boosts this demand until there is a greater supply to the market. Therefore the Government must look particularly at the short-term solutions.
The first of these—it is envisaged in the Gracious Speech—is to squeeze as much as possible from the private rented sector. This will not be easy. It will be like liberating occupied territory, and the 453 poor inhabitants of that territory will be lookin gover their shoulders the whole time wondering whether the brutal conqueror will come back. Therefore, we must not expect great miracles on this front. Nevertheless, it is worth doing and I warmly welcome the proposals for short-term private letting. In this connection I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir B. Rhys Williams), whose espousal of the idea of shorthold tenancies has been prolonged and is now at last bearing fruit.
Secondly, I repeat the suggestion that I put to the last Government—although I did not get much response at the time—that the Government should take powers to remove certain parts of the country from the operation of the Rent Acts. They should consider those areas where supply and demand are roughly equal and take powers to remove them from the provisions of the Rent Acts and see what happens. If it does not work, these orders can be revoked, but if, as I think, the market acts perfectly properly, this form of creeping decontrol can continue elsewhere.
Thirdly, the Government should encourage building and renovation for sale by the Housing Corporation. This is particularly important in inner city areas. The last Government allowed the Housing Corporation to raise certain finance in the market, and I hope that that power can be greatly extended. I know all the Treasury arguments against this form of financing Government agencies, but it is undoubtedly a fact that it produced the great success that the Federal Housing Agency in America achieved. It has borrowed large sums of money without any recourse to public funds. This is a method of bringing much-needed private finance into the housing market and I hope that it will be considered sympathetically.
Fourthly, it is in the areas of existing property where the best and quickest results lie for the Government. Renovation and modernisation are essential, particularly in the inner cities. The latest figures show that renovations last year dropped by nearly 50 per cent. and the amount of property that is now lying derelict and wasted, much of it owned by local authorities, is an absolute scandal. This can only be changed by giving the necessary incentives to landlords, owners, 454 local authorities and the Housing Corporation to carry out this work.
These incentives obviously differ according to each group. In respect of landlords, they involve taxation measures and grants, and in the case of owners, grants. In the case of local authorities it is a matter of restructuring the subsidy system. The Housing Corporation should have different methods of finance, some of which I have already mentioned.
I wish to remind my hon. Friends that when Mr. Macmillan set out in 1951 to build 300,000 a year he named a target and set out to achieve it by a vigorous and efficient administration. Targets at present are unfashionable and one can understand why, but efficient administration should not be unfashionable. Mr. Macmillan worked with existing institutions by getting rid of bottlenecks and helping authorities, owners and builders with their various problems.
This brings me to the vital question of relations with local authorities. In this respect I have considerable reservations about one proposal in the Gracious Speech, namely, the compulsory sale of council houses. Nobody supports more strongly than I do the desirability of council and new town tenants being able to purchase their own homes. I support that absolutely. They and the councils should he given every incentive to put this into practice. However, I believe that it is quite another question to force democratically elected bodies to pursue policies in direct contradiction to those on which they were elected. Obviously we must await legislation, but these authorities are democratically elected bodies, and however much we may disagree with their policies we must accept that fact. If we do not do so, we enter those realms of barren conflict of which we have seen far too much over the years in respect of housing.
In the last Parliament I put it to my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi), who was in charge of housing in the Shadow Cabinet, that there was no difference between a Labour Government forcing a Conservative council to bring in comprehensive education and a Conservative Government forcing Labour councils to sell council houses if they did not want to do so. My hon. Friend turned on me and said "Just because of an accident of geography, why 455 should a tenant in Leeds be able to buy his house and a tenant in Newcastle not be able to do so? It is purely an accirent of geography." The answer is that it was equally an accident of geography for a parent in, say, Buckinghamshire or Kingston who wanted a child to go to a comprehensive school but it could not be done.
Although I have always been a supporter of comprehensive education, I have fought strenuously in my local authority area for the right of that local authority to decide for itself the form of education it should pursue. How can I now stand on my head and say that the situation in housing is totally different and that the rights and desires of local authorities do not count? I cannot take a view on one aspect and reverse it on another.
There is another aspect of the proposed legislation which should be of far greater concern to those of us who sit on the Conservative Benches. People become tenants of council and new town property for a wide variety of seasons, but they all become tenants knowing the facts. They know the terms of their tenancy and enter into that tenancy with their eyes open. In this respect they are no different from the tenants of private landlords.
There are two parties to an agreement—tenant and landlord. To make one of those parties renounce his contract against his will is another nail in the law of contract. That should not be undertaken lightly by the Conservative Party. How, in terms of equity, can one argue that what is right for a municipal tenant is not right for a private tenant? This is an important factor, which must be considered before the legislation is drafted. However, in any event this compulsion is unnecessary. First, every incentive should be given to both tenants and councils to enable sales to take place. I am glad that this action is to be taken next week and I welcome it very much indeed.
Secondly, the House of Commons authorises the Government to pay housing subsidies. It has always been my view that this subsidy should be paid not on a house basis but on a deficit-financing basis, as is the case in new towns. But that is another question. It is obviously quite proper for the House 456 of Commons to vary subsidy policy to take into account sales or potential sales to tenants, just as, in my view, it was perfectly proper for the Labour Government to refuse to finance the extra cost of selective education. It was the fact that they tried to force councils to do something they did not want to do which I was unable to accept.
The Government could take powers, if they wanted to do so, first to calculate the subsidy on the basis of a percentage of sales each year and, secondly, to calculate the subsidy on the basis of certain rent levels and a balanced housing account. I believe that the Government will have to take this latter step in any event. Those two measures together will provide the stick where the carrot perhaps is not very effective, and will also save Government expenditure into the bargain.
It is vital to remember that the housing situation varies tremendously from one area to another. This is why it is so important to operate closely through the local authorities which should know the needs of their own areas. I beg the Government not to get into a situation of barren, doctrinal conflict, because this has bedevilled the housing scene for so long.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment is very fortunate. He comes to office at a time when the housing situation could hardly be worse. He therefore has the opportunity to make great improvements, which will be of tremendous benefit to many of our fellow citizens, but I submit that he will not do so if he spends his time and energy in unnecessary and unrewarding disputes with the local authorities.
§ 5.57 p.m.
§ Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)
I thank the Chair for calling me to make my maiden speech this afternoon, even if it is slightly later than I thought was the original intention.
I begin by paying tribute to my predecessor in Cathcart, Mr. Edward Taylor. It is not easy to pay tribute to political opponents, but it is fair to say that Mr. Taylor was a hard-working and conscientious constituency Member. I know from my own experience in the campaign that one factor which lost me some votes was Mr. Taylor's work as a constituency Member. I know that his absence from Parliament will be much regretted. I am 457 sure that he would have taken his place on the Government Front Bench as Secretary of State for Scotland. I cannot say that that is a matter of any great regret to me, but I am sure that it is regretted by his Conservative colleagues. I wish Mr. Taylor the very best in whatever profession he now chooses to undertake.
Not only do I follow Mr. Taylor as the Member of Parliament representing Cathcart, but—a matter which will be of particular interest to Labour Members—I follow in this House an illustrious relation, the late Jimmy Maxton. That is a name that is, perhaps, well known to many hon. Members but, as a man, he was not known personally except to a few who came to the House in 1945. In following both Mr. Taylor and my uncle to this House, I intend to emulate Mr. Taylor as a conscientious, hard-working constituency man, but it is my uncle's philosophy that I shall pursue rather than that of Mr. Taylor.
I turn now to the subject of housing, particularly as it affects my constituency at Cathcart. I begin by asking a specific question of the Government. The Secretary of State for the Environment implied that the legislation that he intended to introduce on housing covered the whole of Britain. That is not the case. The legislation will cover only England and Wales. I assume that the Secretary of State for Scotland will, during this debate, say whether similar legislation is to be introduced to cover Scotland. The Cathcart constituency is divided neatly into two halves, one of which consists entirely of owner-occupied houses and the other a very large housing scheme called Castlemilk, which is one of the largest schemes in Britain. Indeed, many of my constituents who live in that scheme claim that it is the largest housing scheme in the whole of Europe. It has a population of 40,000—the same size as the town of Perth.
The problem to which I should like to address myself concerns that of the council house tenants who live in a scheme of that nature and the effect which the proposals being made—I assume that they will be made in Scotland as well—will have upon them and how they will benefit. The Secretary of State for the Environment said that Britain approved of the proposals and that that gave his 458 Government a mandate for the proposals. The electors in Castlemilk living within Cathcart rejected those proposals resoundingly. It was a very clearcut issue in the campaign that I fought. People were coming to me voluntarily and saying that they did not wish to buy their council houses in Castlemilk. Not only did they not wish to buy them, but they were afraid of the proposals that were being made because their choice would be limited by the selling of council houses in other areas of the city of Glasgow. That was a genuine fear which they felt.
The Conservative Party has made great claims about the freedom of the individual and the right of choice. The freedom of choice of my constituents in Castlemilk will be severely limited if council houses are sold in Glasgow. Houses in the better schemes in the city will be sold but they will not be sold in Castlemilk. Some tenants in Castlemilk who wish to move out or transfer into better schemes will not be able to do so.
My constituents in Castlemilk also objected to the proposals because of the nature of the houses which they occupy. None of them is a separate house. They are either in multi-storey blocks, tenement blocks or terraces. None of them stands as an independent house in its own right. Let me give the House an example in which there are eight houses standing of a tenement block in a terrace of other similar blocks. One tenant may buy his house and the other seven tenants may not. There may be serious vandalism in the common close, as we call it in Scotland—there is a vandalism problem in Castlemilk. There may be many windows smashed, paint sprayed on walls, and that tenant who owns one-eighth of the property will face a bill for repairs which he will have to meet from his own pocket. That bill could be considerable.
That is one of the reasons why the tenants will not purchase their houses—they see the problem of repair bills which are common to a whole block, a multi-storey building, or houses which are contiguous to them. Therefore, the problems of an area like Castlemilk cannot be solved by selling council houses. They cannot be solved by giving the tenants charters. The problems of Castlemilk are not about the individual housing unit within the community but about the problems of a whole community.
459 There has been a failure on the part of all Governments to tackle and solve those problems. They cannot be solved by a return to a private enterprise free economy. Private enterprise has already failed those schemes. Castlemilk has a population of 40,000 and there is not one bank in the whole scheme because there is no profit to be made by a bank in a scheme with a high population but a low income. What is required is massive public intervention. Money should be available to regenerate life within such areas and there should be greater participation by tenants in their lives. We should give tenants a greater say in their own affairs, not by the selling of council houses but by bringing them together into tenants' co-operatives so that they can solve their own problems.
§ 6.5 p.m.
§ Mr. Anthony Steen (Liverpool, Wavertree)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) on his illuminating and interesting speech about a matter that concerns all hon. Members—the problems of tenants in council houses. The hon. Gentleman bears a most distinguished name and I am sure that we all hope that he will live up to the name of his illustrious predecessor. He has also displaced an extremely popular Member who was held in great affection by Conservative Members—Mr. Teddy Taylor. We all hope that it will not be long before Mr. Taylor resumes his seat in the House.
Today's debate on the Gracious Speech concerns the environment and housing. It covers a wide spectrum of life. The Ministers in the Environment Department have a great opportunity to take on where the previous Government left off to improve the quality of life, especially of those living in large towns and cities. The majority of Britain's population live in urban areas. Ministers in the Environment Department should be concerned more about people than about buildings.
I wish to address the House about the need to take a more emancipated view of the environment in relation to people. The environment concerns the place we live in, the plans for new developments, and what we see around us. It has a profound effect on our 460 everyday lives and it is the concern of all of us that we should live in a pleasant and agreeable environment.
The Gracious Speech concentrates on the need for industrial renewal and the strengthening of our economy. Some say that this is a prerequisite for all else. In many ways they are right. Without the rejuvenation of our economy there will not be the resources to plough into urban areas. However, I do not believe that we should wait until the economy is revived before we improve the environment. Man is not an automaton—he is not plugged in to start whirring. We should not wait for jobs to be developed, but we should discuss tonight how we can help man to produce better-quality goods and a better life for himself and how we can improve industrial relations.
Family life is an important aspect of the development of the urban environment. Man will produce his best only if he is in the right conditions. I believe that the stresses of living in large towns and cities and the anxieties created by vast soulless council estates militate against achieving a satisfied and creative work force. To talk about reviving the economy without improving the environment is to mistake the nature of the problem. There are areas in the environment which must be tackled first, alongside industrial rejuvenation. The environment is not an appendage; it is the essense of our daily lives.
I believe that the cities should be the hub of wealth creation, the place to which we look for the rejuvenation of the economy. What a mess our cities are in today. The diagnosis of city decline is contained in endless Government reports, and is condensed in the White Paper published by the previous Government, spelling out their policy for the inner city. We know from that, as we knew before, that there was a population exodus from the inner areas to the outer wards. In Glasgow, for example, in the 10 years to 1976, 21 per cent. of the population moved from the inner areas to the outer areas and to the new towns beyond. Liverpool lost 21 per cent. of its population, Manchester 22 per cent. and inner London 18 per cent.
A greater proportion of the people who left the inner cities were skilled, and those who are left in the inner areas are those 461 who could not get out—the old, the ill and the unemployed. The inner city is therefore a depopulated area in most cases rather than the place in which the majority of the population live. Massive slum clearance and demolition programmes meant that a lot of the small firms which created the jobs that the people in the inner cities used to do disappeared with the demolition. I think that 6,000 small firms were destroyed in the Birmingham area over the last two decades of demolition. The picture is the same all over the country.
There is a further problem, which is that the companies that were located in the inner areas that were demolished did not return to the inner areas but went out to green field sites on the edge of the cities where the land was cheaper, and where the problems of infrastructure that would have arisen in the inner areas did not exist.
The devastation of our cities has continued for the last two decades, but it was not until about 1968 that the then Government under the right hon. Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson) woke up to the size of the problem. They suddenly became aware of the need to try to save the inner areas and halt the urban decline. There was a switch of the rate support grant from the rural to the urban areas. The general allocation within the rate support grant was switched to the special grant category. That resulted in millions of pounds going from the rural to the urban areas and to the principal cities. That was the basis of the urban aid programme by which the Government offered a 75 per cent. grant to the urban areas that could provide the remaining 25 per cent.
In many ways this was pinching from Peter to pay Paul. The scheme provided a cosmetic finance which allowed some of the larger urban authorities to do some of the things they were going to do anyway. It did not provide a new source of finance which would change the endemic decline of the urban areas. It merely provided a smokescreen of activity while doing nothing to change the underlying problems of urban deprivation.
The urban aid programme was an example of a new kind of scheme, which was produced in 1968. It was followed by the community development projects and the educational priority areas.
462 These were based on the same formula of 75 per cent. Government money and 25 per cent. local authority money. The idea was that the problems of the urban areas could be explained away in terms of a kind of hereditary disease transmitted from generation to generation and to which the old, the unskilled and the unemployed were especially vulnerable. It was confined, as the then Government said, to pockets, to areas of special social need which, treated with the right medicine, would rapidly disappear. But they did not.
By 1970, with the change of Government, it was thought necessary to change the medicine, many millions of pounds having been spent on the operations. The then Secretary of State embarked upon a new kind of operation which he said was based on a total approach as opposed to the "pockets" theory. He set up neighbourhood schemes, urban guidelines studies, inner area studies, and the cycle of poverty and the quality of life studies.
However, urban deprivation did not disappear and so the Government started the urban deprivation unit which was intended to co-ordinate all the other urban programmes. By 1974, with the change of Government, there was another change of approach. Labour decided that the total approach was wrong, as had been the "pocket" theory. The last Government proposed to introduce the comprehensive community programme. It was the new solution which was based on the belief that intense urban deprivation would remain until a new order of priorities had been worked out, with some administrative juggling by local authority bodies and the reallocation of resources. But in spite of "A New Approach" in 1974 unemployment continued to rise, homelessness nearly doubled and Government grants to housing action and general improvement areas dropped.
It was not therefore surprising that in 1977 a new programme was introduced by the Government called the partnership. The Government White Paper heralded in this new remedy which would solve the problems of our principal cities. The idea was that all that had gone before was a mistake and that a new kind of mix between central Government and local government was needed. The local authorities, particularly the poorer ones, upon which the partnership schemes would 463 be based would be invited to subscribe at the same level as for the urban aid programme based on the 75 per cent.-25 per cent. formula. This meant that the poorer local authorities would have to borrow in order to provide the 25 per cent. which they needed if they were to attract the 75 per cent. from central Government.
The partnership committees were to be chaired by a Minister. That meant bringing Whitehall down to the local level, and that was done because Whitehall did not trust the local authorities. It also meant the exclusion of anyone not involved in public work. That meant that councillors, Ministers, various officials and civil servants and even the Health Service were represented on the committees. Some people, however, felt that it was curious that there were no industrialists or trade unionists on the committees, and that the community, which was what the partnership was all about, was totally excluded.
The partnership confined itself to a specific area which was slightly larger than the pockets of deprivation envisaged under the original urban aid and community development projects, but not quite as large as the entire city area. This, then, was a mix of the pockets of deprivation theory and the city as a whole theory. The Government said that money was to be pumped into the inner areas. However, less money has been pumped into the inner areas than was taken away by successive cuts in public spending on, for example, improvement grants. Therefore, the Government took with one hand and gave back with another, and the end result has been a build-up in bureaucracy, an increased number of meetings and committees and no radical proposals for changing or improving the inner areas.
The Inner Urban Areas Act gave local authorities and industry powers to borrow money on advantageous terms. However, it has meant only that industry in the inner areas has moved from out-of-date premises to new premises, leaving behind derelict factories. There has been no inflow of new wealth creators, jobs or industry.
My belief is that our urban areas have continued to decline because successive Governments have based their cure for 464 urban ills on Government intervention. They believed that by making small amounts of cash available to people living in inner city areas they would solve the problems. Solving the problems of our urban areas can only be done by involving the communities themselves and by recognising that plans to rejuvenate our inner cities have to be seen as part of a total package or charter. Merely to put teams of research workers into an area is not the answer. There were so many research and community workers in Liverpool in the last decade that one could scarcely move more than 200 yards without bumping into one of them, and they departed once their report had gone to the Secretary of State. Therefore, that approach will not solve our problems.
Likewise, we will not solve such problems by injecting money from outside subject to Government controls in the belief that we can change the underlying disease. That is why I declared during the election campaign, and do so again now, that what was needed to rejuvenate our major towns and cities, such as Liverpool, was a charter, which the Conservative Party in Liverpool, the county council and leader of the Conservatives on the city council and Conservative candidates in both local and parliamentary elections supported. This kind of combined approach, which does not depend on Government intervention, is more likely to succeed than all previous schemes put together.
First, we must offer a new opportunity of restoring prosperity to city centres, for the return of private enterprise and the creation of new job opportunities. This approach, though particularly pertinent to my city, would be of relevance to major towns and cities such as Manchester, Huddersfield, Newcastle upon Tyne and Bradford which have inner city problems. I believe that we should set up old town corporations along the lines of the new town corporations which would take the inner areas out of the rates.
One of the difficulties in rejuvenating the poorer areas is that they depend upon the middle and outer areas, where the people live, for the income to continue providing the essential services for people left in poorer areas. We must take the inner areas out of the rates somehow. If we are going to build on unused land to provide homes to which people may 465 return from the outer areas, we must set up old town corporations perhaps on new town corporation lines, with private as well as public money.
This would release inner area land from housing control by the local authorities and would allow derelict land to be used for the building of factories and warehouses. That is one view. I also take the view that the other way of dealing with this problem, which many people favour, is that local authorities should have increased powers to do this.
I think that in the case of ports such as Liverpool, which face west towards the United States rather than towards Europe, the creation of free ports would be an attractive proposition. This would correct the geographical disadvantage of ports such as Bristol and Liverpool, which face away from Europe. The creation of such free ports would result in the docks becoming a tax-free zone. Within a certain perimeter, raw materials shipped in from abroad could be made into goods on the docks and then shipped out again.
This would create new jobs in such cities as Liverpool, would increase the flow of cash, would inspire the free movement of trade and make more land available in an area such as the south docks, in Liverpool, by the infilling of disused docks. Private share capital might finance a marine complex of shops, offices and residential accommodation, as has been done in many parts of the world.
We are not going to make our inner city areas prosperous without releasing some of the land held by the nationalised industries. There is land hoarding by public authorities and nationalised industries. We will not get rid of that unless we do something far more dramatic than the action suggested by the Secretary of State in the last Parliament. He suggested that they should be written to and invited to release or declare their holdings.
We must auction off that land. We either get old town corporations to auction off the land to the highest bidders or we compel the owners of such land to develop it within a period of, say, two years or hand it over to private operators. We must change the environment by creating old town corporations. We should have free ports in areas where there is a potential growth for jobs, and we must get rid of derelict and disused 466 land. So far, this would not cost the Government very much money. The difficulty would be in changing the method of operation and the attitude of the people involved.
We also need a new priority for the use of regional funds, which have tended to bring companies to deprived areas. Those companies go there because the subsidies are so enormous that they cannot afford not to go there. This creates artificial jobs, with the result that as soon as the economy goes into reverse the industries decline and move off and jobs are lost. We therefore need to reverse the regional fund programme so that the money is specifically earmarked for small companies. They are the ones that will revive the inner areas and which will get the regional subsidy if they establish their businesses in the inner city areas.
In the last decade or two, 100,000 jobs have moved out of central Liverpool right to the edge of the city. Unless we build factories in the inner area and bring people back, we will not rejuvenate the inner city.
We must also change our priorities on green field sites. At the moment it is more attractive for the new entrepreneur to buy land outside city boundaries. That means that they pay rates to the rural, not urban, areas. By buying green field sites they extend the suburban sprawl outwards. Unless we discourage building on green field sites—until inner city area land which is derelict has been fully used—it means that we will continue a policy of outer development rather than inner area development. I have not covered all the points in the charter, as I see that many other hon. Members are waiting to speak from the Opposition Benches. I may have opportunities to explore the points that I have not covered later.
I want to deal with council housing because I am deeply concerned about the vast estates that appear on the edges of most of our large towns and cities. Different Governments have been involved in the building of these vast estates. None of us knew how offensive the high rise flats would be to tenants until we built them. We have found that many of the large soulless estates are creating further problems. More people 467 are on tranquillisers. More people find themselves without jobs, and more people are devoid of community. We must ban the building of vast council estates in future. No local authority, unless there are exceptional reasons, should ever be allowed again to build the vast council estates that have been built in the last 10 years.
We also need a more compassionate and caring housing programme so that families and communities are not split up. When the inner areas were demolished, people and families were broken up and put into estates in different areas, thus creating additional problems. The selling of council houses in some areas may help but on the vast, uncaring, soulless estates very few people want to buy a house, flat or maisonette. These estates present a new problem, and one of the ways we can deal with the situation is by putting their management into the hands of the communities themselves.
We should provide a budget for the people who live on those estates for the maintenance of their buildings, and tell them that if they save on that operation they can spend the money on other community facilities. We should not expect people who live on these enormous estates to be pawns in a political game, to be directed by a housing department, staffed by people who do not live there but who are remote from them, in some town many miles away.
I believe also that this Government should introduce a new code of practice for the environment, laying down minimum standards per 1,000 homes. We have a Parker Morris standard for houses, laying down how many bathrooms there should be, how many rooms there should be, and what space should be provided Why should we not have a Parker Morris standard for the environment, laying down how many play schemes or play areas there should be for every 1,000 homes, how many community centres for every 2,000 people, how much open space, how many youth clubs and how many local shops?
There are many things which an imaginative Secretary of State for the Environment can and, I am sure, will do. I do not believe that they will cost large sums of money, but unless we take a much more enlightened view and look at 468 the city as a whole and declare our charter for improving it, nothing much will happen. By taking away the partnerships we shall not improve the situation unless we replace them with something more expedient.
I have troubled the House for far too long, but I felt that it ought to hear what I hope the Tory Party, now in Government, will consider as policy objectives for the revival of towns and cities such as my own in Liverpoool.
§ 6.30 p.m.
§ Miss Sheila Wright (Birmingham, Handsworth)
I thank you at the outset, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me an opportunity to speak in a debate on a subject with which I have been concerned for a number of years, and especially in the area covered by my constituency.
In the past week I have been given considerable help and advice by hon. Members on both sides, all friendly and helpful, if sometimes a little contradictory. Indeed, I feel that if I were to try to make a speech taking into account all the advice given to me in the past week, I should be likely to deliver a collection of snippets which would not be readily comprehensible to many hon. Members.
I have come to the conclusion that the best advice that I ever had was that given to me many years ago by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Silverman), part of whose old constituency of Aston I now have the pleasure and honour to represent after parliamentary reorganisation. At a time when I was a new and very green member of the local authority for his area, he said to me "Take up issues in which you believe, be clear and concise, and remember that humbug will always be found out." Not being perfect, I have not, I think, always been able to live up to that, but it remains the precept which I have found to be the truest of all ever given to me.
I wish therefore to speak for a few minutes on an issue in which I believe very strongly, an issue which concerns many of my constituents in Handsworth as well as many individuals living in inner area constituencies in many other large cities. One or two hon. Members have suggested that perhaps there is some particular problem in our inner cities 469 which is in no way connected with the history of this country. I suggest that the problems of the inner cities stem straight from the inheritance of the Industrial Revolution, that heyday of untrammelled free enterprise which left a legacy of miserable housing, worse environment and considerable ill health to the descendants of those who created its wealth.
Most of the back-to-back housing and communal wash-houses and toilets are gone, at least from Birmingham, but we still have the cramped streets, the overcrowding, the damp and crumbling century-old houses, and there are still the children who die earlier and more quickly than do children in the outer suburbs. There are still the poorer health care facilities. There is still the lack of any reasonable sports facilities and many other amenities, together with a mass of other deficiencies inherited from the past century and before.
We have just heard from the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Steen) a comprehensive list of the ideas which have been brought forward and tried by successive Governments over the past 10 to 15 years. From what I have heard today I should not have quite recognised the situation in my part of the country, where there has been at any rate a measure of inter-party agreement on urban renewal policies over the past decade and where we now have money being spent on a large range of local needs—housing grants, sports halls, the reclamation of derelict land and so on. This, I suggest, is a direction in which there must be a considerable injection of public money, for without it the derelict land will not be reclaimed. We have seen this happening. Something is now being done with public money, with three-party support, in the West Midlands, and without that support neither industry nor housing will come back to the derelict land.
This money, with the money which we are trying to use to encourage industry to come back to the inner areas, is being spent together with the local authorities, but we must not forget the possibility of joint financing between the health authorities and the local authorities, which can—though I do not think that much has been done yet—produce much-needed help for the young and the old as well as for the sick.
470 None of us knows what the result of present policies will be, but at least in my part of the country, in the inner city of Birmingham, there is a tentative though none the less visible improvement, and there is, even more, an increase in hope in some of the crumbling back streets.
But we are worried in Handsworth, and I am sure that hon. Members and their constituents elsewhere in the country are worried, too. Many people in the inner cities, through no choice or fault of theirs, live on the poverty line or below it, whether employed or not, and we are worried about precisely what will be the effect of the much-vaunted list of public expenditure cuts of which we have heard.
Will there be cuts in the rate support grant? That sounded more than possible from what the Secretary of State said today. If there is a cut in the rate support grant, either there has to be an increase in the rate levied or there will be less money for the environment, less money for home helps and services for the elderly, less money for the schools in which our children learn and work, less money for the district nursing services, and even less money to sweep our roads, let alone to repair the holes in them.
It seems to me that there is a clear choice before the Government and the House. Are we prepared to continue to fund our inner city renewal policy as a public commitment and as a matter of concern to the nation as a whole? We hear of proposals for fee-paying for a small proportion of our children and for the retention of the 11-plus. In an area such as the one which I represent, and where I live, the chance of children passing highly selective tests at an early age is minimal. We know what this will mean. Unless more money is put in, there will be less for our schools and less opportunity for the great majority of our children.
We hear of greater opportunities for people to pay for their own health care. That is no great consolation to people in the inner city areas, to those who have to contend with the problem of long waiting lists and poor provision. We hear of tax reductions, and many of us wonder what difference they will make when we do not pay tax now or pay very little even if we are in work.
We hear of support for industry and services where we work being phased out, 471 and for many of those whom I represent the future seems bleaker and more desperate than it has seemed in the past.
There is no possibility that the quality of life in our inner cities can be improved without a massive commitment from, I would hope, both sides of the House. That commitment must include expenditure, and it must be made on behalf of the rest of the nation. Those of us who represent such areas will continue fighting for them both individually and collectively. I hope that the Government as well as the Opposition will realise that it is not a commitment that the rest of the nation dare neglect. The commitment is based on concern for those living in such areas and in the interests of the well-being of the country as a whole.
§ 6.40 p.m.
§ Mr. Michael Latham (Melton)
First, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I extend my congratulations to you on taking the Chair. I am sure that the whole House will greatly welcome your appointment. You and I, Mr. Deputy Speaker, have for some years been members of a Church of England committee and we have had some good times together. The whole House will be greatly guided by your wisdom.
I express the traditional but sincerely felt congratulations to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Miss Wright), who has just made her maiden speech. The hon. Lady spoke deeply and feelingly about inner city problems, of which she has great experience as a member of the Birmingham city council and the county council for many years. She spoke with great authority, and I know that the House will want to hear her again. She was fluent, and she gave us proper warning about avoiding humbug. I am sure that that warning is right and proper. I wish that she had had a slightly fuller House to hear her. I am sure that the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees), who has great experience, will tell her that the present rather small attendance is not an unknown feature of our affairs.
The hon. Lady's predecessor was Mr. John Lee, who was well liked in the House in many ways. He was an extremely forthright and controversial Mem- 472 ber. He was never afraid to speak his mind. He was popular with many in the House because of that. I am sure that he will be missed.
I understand that the hon. Lady's hobbies are anthropology, the theatre, and reading. She will have a chance to experience all those hobbies in the House, and certainly theatre. Of course, hon. Members have to do a great deal of reading.
I express my personal congratulations to my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench, especially my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction. My hon. Friend and I have had many good times together in the past. His appointment is extremely well deserved. I am delighted to see him in his present position.
I am sorry that the right hon. Members for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore) and for Brent, East (Mr. Freeson) are not in the Chamber. I ask the right hon. Member for Leeds, South to convey my thanks to them. The right hon. Member for Stepney and Poplar was most helpful to me in a major constituency problem when he was Secretary of State for the Environment. The right hon. Member for Brent, East, with whom I was in regular discussion and correspondence about housing problems, always gave me the most courteous and full replies. Although I did not agree with many of their policies when they were in office, they approached their great responsibilities with thought, concern and a firm conviction of the need to deal with bad housing in an effective and realistic manner. I hope that the right hon. Member for Leeds, South will pass on my comments.
Before talking about housing I shall say a few sentences about rates and water charges. I know that the Conservative Party manifesto did not promise any early action in that regard but it left rating reform on the agenda. I accept that nothing is said about that in the Gracious Speech. I stress to my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench that matters cannot be left as they are. I see no reason to proceed with the current rating revaluation. I trust that there will be no question of a rating revaluation on a capital value basis Ministers would be ill advised to ignore the strength of public feeling about only 473 a small proportion of adults paying rates direct. The time for inquiries is over. We need some action, and that involves political decision and political will. I hope that Ministers will give the Department clear instructions to produce concrete plans for a broader tax within six months with a view to introducing legislation in the next Session.
It is clear that there needs to be a relationship between water charges and consumption now that direct billing has been introduced. The water authorities must become more responsive to public concern. Surely it is not beyond the wit of man to devise a system of direct elections for their members and for elections to take place on the same day, for example, as county council elections. Officials who are members of such public bodies are regularly elected in the United States of America. Why should not that happen in the United Kingdom? The public do not regard the present arrangements as satisfactory. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will not leave the matter in the pending tray. The public feel strongly about it and they want something done.
The ability of Ministers to make change in housing is limited. In the private sector the Chancellor of the Exchequer is far more influential directly than any Environment Minister. The level of interest rates, including mortgages, the strength of consumer purchasing power and the confidence of builders that they will have a steady flow of customers and an adequate supply of resources are crucial factors over which the Department of the Environment has almost no control. I should have declared earlier my interest as a builder. As the House knows, I always make the declaration. I am also a member of the board of Shelter.
I hope that Ministers will not bother too much about how many new houses are built in one year. That is an irrelevant criterion when new construction represents only a small proportion of the total dwelling stock. Nor should we fall into the trap that was fallen into by the Conservative Government of 1970–74, who wrung their hands because private builders responded cautiously towards an expansionary move and did not start to build as many new houses as Ministers wanted.
474 Private builders will not step up production levels sharply unless they are sure that that production can be sustained and that replacement supplies of land will be available at reasonable prices. There is room for low-cost sponsored housing on local authority-owned land, as has happened in Liverpool, Swindon and elsewhere. That could make a greater contribution if the political will existed locally for it to do so. However, that activity will always be marginal compared with the total stock of dwellings.
Ministers know that house prices are now on a sharply rising trend. Some of the prices being paid for land by builders over the past few months have been suicidal. Control of the flow of mortgages does not lie in jaw-boning the building societies through the joint advisory committee, as has been done by the previous two Governments. To do that is no more useful than to pretend that one does not have a temperature because the thermometer has been placed in the refrigerator rather than in the mouth.
The building societies do not cause house prices to rise. They do not even exacerbate existing trends. If mortgages are artificially restricted at a time when the societies are flush with funds, they will lend more money for extensions, improvements or for builders to finance construction. The solution lies in the Treasury. If Ministers control the money supply and the borrowing requirement, they will engender confidence in the housing market. Fancy schemes such as equity sharing have some limited value in improving conditions of tenure, but they achieve nothing if the economy is not in balance. If the joint advisory committee is to continue, I hope that Ministers will insist that builders are represented on it. It seems absurd to have a committee of building societies and civil servants solemnly discussing finance for home ownership in the absence of the producers. It is as ridiculous as if the Department of Trade had a committee of bankers and civil servants to discuss finance for the export of cars with no car manufacturers represented. The present arrangements should be changed at once.
That brings me to an area where Environment Ministers can make a difference, namely, the supply of land. I 475 do not agree with those who favour the mass release of green field sites, which is a destructive use of an essential agricultural resource and which destroys inner city policy, as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Steen) and the hon. Member for Hands-worth have outlined. However, we all know that Britain is full of land involving what Dr. Alice Coleman has called the "urban fringe", which has no agricultural or amenity value. The Civic Trust reported recently on that issue.
I warn my hon. Friend the Minister of State that he will find great inertia in his Department as regards land release. As a member of the Environment Sub-Committee of the Expenditure Committee in the previous Parliament, which was under the chairmanship of a former hon. Member, Mr. Arthur Jones—my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury) was a member of the Committee—I was appalled at the negative and unimaginative attitude deployed by the Department of the Environment's witnesses on several occasions.
The Jones report and the Dobry report, the latter produced by Mr. George Dobry, QC, should be taken out of the departmental file straight away. The proposal in the Jones report to introduce planning assessors to monitor the performance of local councils in carrying out development control is vital. However, it went down like a lead balloon with local government. If I may mix metaphors, the previous Administration kicked it firmly into touch.
Similarly, the previous Administration ignored the need to reform the structure planning system. That system is fast becoming a serious scandal of delay and futility. The proposal in the Jones report, for a nine-month review, is essential. I hope that Ministers will override the advice of their officials on this matter. The structure plan review should be set in motion at once and assessors from outside local government should be appointed as soon as possible.
That brings me inevitably to the Community Land Act. Although this was not mentioned in the Gracious Speech, the Prime Minister promised its repeal in her excellent speech last Tuesday, as 476 did my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State this afternoon.
What an abysmal record on land policy Parliament has had since the war. In 1947 we had the Central Land Board and the 100 per cent. development charge, subject to the £300 million compensation fund. In 1953 and 1954 the compensation fund was abolished and a two-tier market in land was established. In 1959 it was back to market value only. In 1962 we had a short-term gains tax. In 1965 there was a long-term gains tax. In 1967 there was a betterment levy of 40 per cent. and the Land Commission. In 1970 there was no Land Commission, but we were back to the capital gains tax. In 1973 and 1974 there was the development gains tax, in 1975 and 1976 the Community Land Act and an 80 per cent. development land tax, with the threat of a 100 per cent. rate.
Clearly those regular policy changes, let alone all the changes in the tax rates, make nonsense of any prospect of stability in the land market. The Community Land Act has been a dismal flop. It made a trading loss of £32 million in England in its first two and a half years, and resulted in the purchase of 2,300 acres of land but the resale of only 185 acres.
I give a few random examples of the poor performance of county areas, including the district councils, in turning over their land stocks—some Labour-controlled, some Conservative-controlled and some whose control has changed. Let us take 1976–77. I take some names at random from the list of information provided by Ministers in the previous Government.
In 1976–77 the South Yorkshire county area, including district councils, acquired 234 acres of land but resold only six acres. The West Sussex county area acquired no land and disposed of no land. The same goes for Avon and Buckinghamshire. Greater Manchester acquired 23 acres and disposed of none. Staffordshire acquired 224 acres and disposed of none.
In 1977–78—again taking examples at random—the Cleveland county area acquired 100 acres and disposed of none. Tyne and Wear acquired 22 acres and disposed of none. West Midlands acquired 16 acres and disposed of 10. Those are 477 bad figures. There is no political significance in them as they relate to local authorities of all political complexions.
In view of those figures and the record of the Community Land Act, there can be no future in land policy down that road. Obviously the Act must be repealed. It is absurd to think that local authorities are fitted, either by training or inclination, to act as the main or even the monopoly suppliers of building land, as the framers of the Community Land Act intended that they should. It is undesirable that there should be too close a link, let alone an actual identity, between the organisation that hunts for and buys land on a speculative basis and the organisation that grants planning permission. It was the intention of the Act that the local authorities should do both. In this "naughty world", as the Prayer Book says, Parliament should not put unnecessary temptation in the way of public officials.
If the Community Land Act did work as its framers intended, it would be potentially dangerous. In practice, it cannot work. It is simply an expensive and time-consuming nuisance.
What should be the basis of land policy? I believe that it should rest on five pillars. First, the planning authority and the developer should be at arm's length in normal circumstances. Secondly, the best way for land to come on to the market for building is by entrepreneurial activity without State intervention, by the builder finding land for himself, buying it and applying for planning permission.
Thirdly, there is a case for a back-up role for local government, in conjunction with private enterprise, to assemble large sites, as happens now for inner cities and new towns. Compulsory purchase power should be available as a last resort by an amendment of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971. Fourthly, the rate of betterment tax should be in excess of normal corporation tax levels, but no higher than 60 per cent. Fifthly, the betterment tax should be waived in rundown inner-city areas where redevelopment is taking place, but the developer should pay all the costs of infrastructure and make substantial social provision within his scheme.
If we can agree on something along those lines, perhaps we can defuse this 478 land issue which has bedevilled our housing policy continually since the war—and indeed before that.
The new Ministers start with considerable good will from the construction industry and its related professions. I hope that they—especially those with practical experience in the industry outside Parliament—will be open to a wide spectrum of advice. I know that they will bring fresh and lively minds to our problems. Certainly they will have my strong support.
§ 6.55 p.m.
§ Mr. K. J. Woolmer (Batley and Morley)
I wish to refer first to the previous Member of Parliament for my constituency, the late Sir Alfred Broughton, who represented Batley and Morley for 30 years. He was a man of the utmost kindness and consideration to everyone. It is no exaggeration to say that he was loved by his constituents, a great many of whom he had cared for, literally from the cradle, as the family doctor in Batley. His sad death, in almost unique circumstances, was a tragic irony for someone who served his party and his constituents so loyally for so long. His passing is felt deeply throughout the constituency which I now have the honour to represent. He will be remembered for many years to come.
There are a number of important matters in the Gracious Speech that have immediate relevance to my constituency. I intend to dwell upon two or three this evening.
Not least is the problem of employment and support for local industries. In the Batley area male unemployment approaches 10 per cent. Jobs for women have declined dramatically in recent years with the rapid loss of jobs in the wool textile industry. The Labour Government helped greatly in my area in supporting jobs by means of the wool textile investment scheme, schemes under sections 7 and 8 of the Industry Act, the temporary employment subsidy and short-time working schemes. Youth opportunity programmes have helped school leavers. The backing for the textile industry in multi-fibre arrangement negotiations has been greatly appreciated. However, the fact remains that the wool textile industry in West Yorkshire shed 75,000 jobs over the past 15 years. Nearly 40,000 479 jobs have been lost in that industry in the past 10 years. Those are extensive losses for any industry, let alone one so heavily concentrated in the valleys of our Industrial Revolution.
It is vital to my area and to the communities affected that the problems of inner cities and industrial policy are seen as applying not just to the great cities but to the old industrial valleys, the places that built up this industrial country.
My constituency is divided between two metropolitan districts—one of the many quirks of the Local Government Act 1972. There are two education authorities. In Morley, which is in Leeds, I am faced with a fully comprehensive system. In Batley, which is in Kirklees, I am faced with a system which still retains selection at 11, together with a secondary modern school system. The only boys' grammar school in the town is an independent school, to which the local authority sends children and pays fees.
In the spring of this year, after a long rearguard battle by a Conservative council, the local authority eventually submitted proposals for comprehensive education in Batley. Those proposals, based on the 11-to-18 secondary system within the Batley township, had the overwhelming support of teachers and governors, and—even with a general election in the offing—I suspect, that of the local Conservative Party and the parliamentary candidate. I view with dismay the opportunity now being opened up for further prevarication and delay in establishing a fully comprehensive system in this part of my constituency.
The present situation is demoralising for the children. It is demoralising for the teachers. How can the secondary modern schools attract and retain the best teachers when the brightest children in the town are creamed off at 11? How can it happen when extra resources are given to the grammar schools, one of which is private? How can it happen when no one knows what will be the prospects of a rewarding career within these schools when virtually all the rest of the country is comprehensive?
More than 80 per cent. of the children in Batley do not have a choice of the type of secondary school to attend, and, frankly, I have been appalled at what I 480 can only describe as humbug in this Chamber over the last few days when Conservative Members have spoken about freedom of choice. Eighty per cent. of the children in my constituency do not have freedom of choice in the school that they attend. They are faced by compulsion in secondary modern education. Meanwhile, the Conservative council wishes to pay between £600 and £650 a place to send the 11-plus pass children to the local private boys' grammar school. This will commit that council to about £250,000 a year in supporting a private school. It will strengthen privilege and division within that community.
Where, I ask Conservative Members, is the freedom of choice for the rejected majority of 80 per cent.? Where is that freedom of choice to those parents and to those children? I sense a real danger that the preservation of selection and of a divided secondary education system may have become a symbol of the recent general election. I regret the backward-looking proposals for education in the Gracious Speech. I hope very much that a calm and considered view can be taken now that the election is over. I hope that we shall give genuine equality of opportunity to all our children. We must not, after the election, cling to selection and privilege for 20 per cent. and ignore the compulsion which gives a second-class education to 80 per cent.
I turn now to housing policy. Despite the fine phrases ringing from the Government Benches about freedom of choice, the reality on the ground is totally different. Both housing authorities in my constituency, Leeds and Kirklees, are under the control of the Conservative Party, and have been since 1975 and 1976 respectively. In Morley, part of the Leeds local authority, the housing waiting list has risen by more than 40 per cent. since 1974. There has also been a substantial rise in the number of those seeking transfers within council housing.
Faced with an increasing waiting list of people who have expressed their freedom of choice in the direction of council housing, what has the local council done to meet the wishes of those people? It is fair to say that the Conservatives in control of Leeds city council have built virtually no council houses in my constituency. When people freely choose 481 to have a council house, and a council does not build them any houses, I regard that as an absolute denial of choice. The council has, in fact, sold houses, and they are always good family houses. In Morley, the truth about choice has been a rising waiting list, with virtually no council houses built, and a selling of council houses. That, I suggest to Conservative Members, is a blatant denial of choice and freedom, and in no way at all can it be regarded as assisting choice in housing.
With more council houses being sold than are being built, the exercise of choice has actually diminished, and the sad human reality is reflected in the increasing housing list. What is so clearly demonstrated in practice, at the sharp end of policies, is that Conservative freedoms are not available to the majority. Indeed, they actually harm the prospects of important sections of the community. What is so dangerous about the speeches and statements of Conservative Members on housing and education is that they often seem positively to dislike council housing. They often seem positively to dislike comprehensive schools.
Since I have been a Member, I have not heard in this Chamber from Conservative Members any full-hearted recognition of the tremendous boost to real personal freedom and opportunities provided by good council housing and good comprehensive schools. This is why, in practice, in my constituency Conservative councils have stopped building council houses, despite rising waiting lists. They have kept secondary modern schools for 80 per cent. of the children, while putting extra resources into fee-paying private schools. This is the very denial of choice to the majority of people whom I represent, and it is not helping them.
There is a basic contradiction, and Conservative Members have not been able to explain why councils are to have the freedom to decide on education policy but are to be compelled to sell council houses. This is a contradiction, and no one can get away from it. In reality, education is a matter of truly national concern. The children of 80 per cent. of the people in Batley will have to compete in a country in which 85 per cent. of the children nationally have had the opportunity of comprehensive education. It is wrong that 80 per cent. of the children 482 of Batley should start their lives at a disadvantage. The detailed implementation of housing policy must depend on local circumstances. Whereas educational needs should be considered within the national framework, housing policy at the detailed level needs flexibility. The Government have got their emphasis totally the wrong way round. They are proposing freedom for local authorities in education but compulsion in housing.
I should like to draw attention to the dangers of conflict, which look very large in relation to the sale of council houses. A number of the aspects of the compulsory sale of council houses are blatantly unfair, and will be seen as such. The compulsory sale of council houses, when there is a rising waiting list, will be seen and felt to be blatantly unfair in those communities. It will be regarded as being forced upon those communities from Westminster and Whitehall. That will breed resentment, and it will grow and grow.
As I understand the position—I hope that the Minister will clarify it when he replies to the debate—it seems that the suggested discounts, rising to 50 per cent. after so many years, are to apply to people and not to houses. If that is the case. I assume that someone will be able to get a 50 per cent. discount for having been a council house tenant for many years. I assume that that will apply even if someone buys an empty house which is the best in the street and in which he has never lived. That is not giving people the right to buy their own council house. That is the right to buy someone else's house. There is bound to be someone on the housing waiting list who needs that house and who has every moral right to it. There will be uproar when the best houses in the street are sold, time and time again, at a huge discount to people who haw; never lived in them.
The reality of the sale of council houses, as we who work and live in our communities know, is that the best houses on the edge of the estates, the best houses at the end of the street and at the end of the cul-de-sacs, will be sold. There will be uproar in those communities when homeless people are told that they cannot have a house and someone who already has a nice house is able to take his pick of available houses at a 50 per cent. discount. That is not subsidising need. That 483 is subsidising privilege. I hope that the Minister will be able to clarify whether the discount will relate to the length of tenancy of a tenant rather than to the tenancy of a specific house. Clearly, that will be extremely important.
My constituents have very little to gain from these divisive policies. I hope that Ministers, despite their election promises and pledges, will tell people that the comprehensive system is good. With respect to the Conservative Member who is shaking his head, I have not heard anyone on the Government Benches say that comprehensive schools are extremely good. I want Government supporters to tell my constituents that comprehensive schools are good and that council houses are good. If not, we shall create the feeling that council tenants and comprehensive school pupils are second-class citizens. I cannot believe that is the deliberate intention of the Government.
§ 7.11 p.m.
§ Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Edge Hill)
First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Batley and Morley (Mr. Woolmer) on a confident and eloquently delivered speech. I also congratulate you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on your appointment.
We have heard a number of speeches about the sale of council houses. The Secretary of State for the Environment opened the debate by talking about his scheme for the sale of council dwellings. We on the Liberal Bench would like to add our support in principle for the sale of council dwellings, but with certain reservations about the scheme being proposed by the Secretary of State.
I believe in the sale of council dwellings. Homes owned by people in the community help to breed responsibility. They give people a stake in the community and ensure that they are more concerned about the environment in which they live. It also makes economic sense.
There are many examples in authorities, such as my own in Liverpool, where the maintenance division is constantly called upon to carry out trivial repairs which should normally be done by the householder. No one can justify a unit cost of £7 to put a washer on a tap in a council house. Most people take the view "Why should we bother doing repairs such as 484 that, considering the rents that we have to pay?" That is a different matter to which I shall return.
I think it is inevitable that the best housing stock will be sold first. However, the question of tenure is different from the quality of the stock which is available. Bad homes should be replaced or modernised. If we need more homes, we should build them. The question of tenure is not relevant to the argument whether people should be allowed to buy their own homes. I believe in the principle of people owning their own homes. But that principle should be extended to people in the private sector, too. This is where I shall probably find myself in disagreement with the Government Benches. I believe that every tenant in private property, if the landlord refused to carry out basic modernisation or repairs, should have the right to serve notice on the landlord that he wishes to buy the home in which he lives.
The conflicting demands of owner-occupation and tenancy are matters with which every local authority has to wrestle. This should not be a question of compulsion on local authorities. The Secretary of State said that he believed in more freedom for local government. If so, we should not make the sale of council dwellings compulsory. Indeed, many local authorities, particularly rural authorities, might find it undesirable at this stage to embark on the sale of council dwellings. But in urban areas, where there are many hard-to-let and empty properties owned by local authorities, it is not only right to sell them at a discount but highly desirable virtually to give them away.
In my constituency some properties owned by the local authority have been empty since 1964. There are about 3,000 empty council dwellings in Liverpool. A quarter of the housing stock, which totals about 80,000 dwellings, has been listed by the housing manager as hard-to-let property. By injecting more owner-occupation into our council estates and giving people pride of ownership in their community, we can stem the increasing number of properties which become hard to let. Where property has been empty for many years, we should give people the opportunity of buying them and turning them into decent homes.
485 There is a great difference between rural areas, which may have small numbers of council dwellings and long waiting lists of people, and large cities which have long waiting lists but large numbers of council dwellings, many of them built in recent years, which have become hard to let.
Giving an example that I know best, I think of the Netherley estate in Liverpool, built only in 1969, which the former Secretary of State will know. Properties there, which are now only 10 years old, are standing empty and derelict. You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will also know of examples of properties built in recent years which now stand rejected by potential tenants. If people want to take over, repair and maintain and live in those properties, such self-help should be actively encouraged.
I do not believe that market values should necessarily be a guide to the sale of council dwellings. That will inevitably mean anomalies and discrepancies in different authorities and, indeed, in different parts of one city. Some properties built in recent years will have high market values but will be undesirable. In such instances, we should look at specific local circumstances and give local authorities the opportunity of deciding for themselves.
I think that using the length of time served as a factor in deciding whether someone should get a particularly large discount when deciding to buy his council dwelling will lead to anomalies. Someone who has lived in a four-bedroomed house for 20 years may decide to move into a two-bedroomed house because the children have grown up and moved away. Such tenants will presumably forfeit their right to a large discount. Because they have moved to smaller accommodation to make larger houses available for other families, they will no longer have the time-served element built into the discount system. This aspect must be looked at carefully, because it will lead to the under-occupation of property.
Insufficient has been said by the Secretary of State about the promotion of more low-cost build-for-sale schemes. We should give active incentives to local authorities to work in partnership with private enterprise to build low-cost homes for sale with special incentives to existing tenants to move out of council accom- 486 modation into low-cost homes where they are made available.
In Liverpool 3,000 low-cost homes have been put into the pipeline. Despite the fact that Labour Members here and Labour councillors in the city of Liverpool believed that those homes would never sell, they have sold like hot cakes. Many council tenants have moved to estates throughout the city of Liverpool because they have been offered financial help to cover removal and legal expenses. In that way people have been encouraged to move out of council accommodation into low-cost homes for sale. That is a highly desirable way of creating more council accommodation at very little cost to the local authority and of encouraging people who want to buy their own homes to move out of council dwellings.
It is disappointing to me that there is little mention of the reform of housing finance in the Gracious Speech. At the moment about 60p out of every pound which council tenants pay in rent goes to the moneylenders. It is the economics of the madhouse when it costs £150,000 to build one three-bedroomed council house.
The pendulum has swung too far and we need to re-examine the way in which we finance local authority schemes. We also need to look at the way council housing investment programmes are financed. Over recent years housing investment programmes have caused many local authorities major problems. To lurch from year to year on figures which one never knows until three months in advance of their probable implementation means that capital programmes which are being implemented by local authorities are unable to meet the target set by the Department of the Environment. I hope that that will be looked at by the new Secretary of State.
Little was said in the Queen's Speech about the improvement of down-town areas in our inner cities. While the Secretary of State mentioned it in his speech, I believe that we need some tangible evidence of his desire to raise grants from the present 50 per cent. which is available in full grant areas to something in the region of the 75 per cent. grants which were available under Administrations prior to 1974.
There should also be reforms to protect mobile home dwellers and houseboat 487 occupiers, and we need to speed up the compulsory purchase order procedure. These are matters which do not appear to have been mentioned to date, but I am sure that there will be plenty of opportunity for the Secretary of State to discuss such matters in the future.
Little has been said about the future role of housing associations. I should like to see more emphasis placed on the role of housing associations in providing specialist accommodation such as homes for the elderly, and sheltered accommodation for the elderly and handicapped. The housing associations are specially equipped to deal with the problem of empty and derelict property in our inner cities.
Legislation is also required to enable local authorities to set up housing co-operatives and to encourage more self-build schemes. Where we in Liverpool embarked on such schemes we were thwarted, sometimes by Government and sometimes by trade unions. I believe that it is desirable to have on the statute book authority for local councils to establish housing co-operatives and self-build schemes.
The rating system was briefly mentioned during the course of debate this afternoon, but so far no proposals have been made by the Secretary of State for its reform. I hope that he will soon come forward with such proposals. No doubt we all agree that the present system works in an iniquitous way and leads to a great deal of lace-curtain policy. It seems totally wrong that an old lady, living in an area where she has been left with the family home, should have to pick up a large rates bill each year when, perhaps in the adjacent property, a family of wage earners is paying the same amount. Rates should be based on ability to pay and not on a fixed, notional, arbitrary value.
The Gracious Speech also mentioned public expenditure cuts and the savings to be made in local government. I should like to see a start made in, perhaps, some of our Conservative-controlled local authorities. Possibly, the Merseyside county council could consider abandoning the £40 million inner ring road it intends to build through the heart of the city of Liverpool, which will result in 488 the loss of as many as another 2,000 jobs and certainly several hundred homes. This would be a retrograde step. As the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Steen) said earlier, the city of Liverpool has been blighted in the past by the scorched earth policies of motorway planning, when planners' dreams have turned into people's nightmares. The time surely has come to stand back and look again at the foolhardy approach of building roads which people do not necessarily want and when there is no proven need for them. I hope that the Secretary of State will take the earliest possible opportunity to look at the urban extension of the M62, which again will go into the heart of Liverpool. It is schemes such as these which result in acres of derelict land in our inner cities which cannot then be used for anything else, because there is a question mark hanging over their future.
The Secretary of State mentioned earlier the future of direct labour. While I take the view that direct labour organisations are sometimes inefficient, I believe that it would be rash to forget that they often have overheads with which private enterprise does not have to contend. I can quote examples of rehabilitation schemes which have been carried out on two sites, where direct labour has been 40 per cent. more expensive than private enterprise on the adjacent site. I accept that "lump" labour is sometimes used by private enterprise and that there is no rigorous enforcement of the health and safety at work legislation by many private contractors. Therefore, they do not have the same overheads as direct labour organisations. I am in favour of the introduction into direct labour organisations of a far better accounting system.
In conclusion, I turn to the general question of the environment we are planning for the future. It should all come back to giving people a stake in their community. We should talk about the size and style of future government. The emphasis should be placed on returning to smaller units within the community, smaller local neighbourhood schools and hospitals—small villages, perhaps, in the city, such as those that we have pioneered in Liverpool, where rented accommodation can exist alongside property for sale. We should promote small businesses to 489 help regenerate the business life in our inner cities. New emphasis should be placed on beauty and sensitivity and returning to the idea that people and their place in the community are the most important consideration. I hope that the Secretary of State for the Environment will not abandon the inner city partnership schemes which his predecessor set up.
It would be wrong for me to conclude without paying some tribute to the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore), for the way in which he personally chaired meetings of the inner city partnership scheme in Liverpool. I hope that his successor will do the same. I think that we all gained by this direct contact between the inner city and the Department of the Environment. I hope that the work inaugurated by the right hon. Member for Stepney and Poplar will be continued by the new Secretary of State.
§ 7.27 p.m.
§ Mr. Anthony Nelson (Chichester)
May I add to the tributes and compliments that have been paid to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by wishing you well in the Chair? I had the privilege of being under your watchful eye in Standing Committees upstairs. It is a pleasure to see you in the Chamber.
While paying compliments, may I also say how pleasant it is to find somebody speaking from the Opposition Benches with whose views I almost entirely agree I compliment the hon. Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. Alton) upon his broad support for the measures on housing and the environment announced in the Gracious Speech.
I greatly welcome the inclusion of measures in our manifesto, the Queen's Speech—and now, I hope, in full legislative form—which will extend the property-owning democracy and give us a really dynamic housing policy. The time has come—I do not think that it is just idealism which should prompt one to hope so—when we can work towards an improvement in the modus vivendi on housing policy. For far too long housing has been a political football, in the same way as nationalisation and many other issues, where a party coming into office thinks of a new idea and, seemingly just because it is a new idea, the other party opposes it.
490 There are very good reasons for what we are proposing. Even the most ardent Socialist should fully support what the new Conservative Government are proposing. I hope that in the course of debate, and in Standing Committee, we shall be able to put these views forcefully. Let us, for heaven's sake, beware of people who say that everything about a proposal is right or everything about it is wrong. Most things in life are usually a shade of grey.
There will be problems with the proposals. It may well be that some minor amendments will be needed in Committee. However, I hope that we can have more open-mindedness about proposals that genuinely seek to produce a more dynamic housing policy than we have had in the past.
§ Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)
I entirely agree with the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson), but if I had to select one Member of this House who is least able to recognise that there is some virtue in the case put by the other side I would select the right hon. Lady, the present Prime Minister.
§ Mr. Nelson
The hon. Gentleman will not begin to expect me to agree with that.
However, let me refer back to this question of modus vivendi. I remember well in the last Parliament that we had the Housing Rents and Subsidies Bill, which eventually became an Act, and there was great dissension on both sides of the House. We have had the rent legislation, on which there were partisan, almost ideological differences between the two sides. I regret to say—this is, perhaps, a guarded criticism of my own party—that I detect some weakening in support for the housing association movement. Following the recent report on the finances and workings of the Housing Corporation, I hope that we shall not weaken in our resolve to give to the housing associations and the Housing Corporation the resources and the ability to deal with the pressing problems of homeless and disadvantaged people. I hope that in these areas, with a new Parliament, we can begin to try to find a way forward.
My own view, which I tried to expound during the election campaign and for 491 which I found a broad measure of support in the council housing estates in my constituency, is that it is really madness to have a situation in which we have a house with a family living in it, the man wants to buy his own house, he can raise the money to do so, and yet we refuse to let him buy his house. We subsidise the rent that he pays, and we pay a large amount for the maintenance of his property, yet at the same time there is a homeless family desperately in need of housing.
For heaven's sake, if the man wants to buy his house, let him buy it. Realise some resources from the sale of that property. We then have a choice with those resources. We can either reduce the cost of subsidies on all ratepayers and taxpayers, or we can divert those moneys into the acquisition of other properties to provide homes for the really homeless.
I call that dynamic. What is more, I challenge even the most ardent Socialist to refute the case for concentrating limited public resources on those most in need. It must make sense to release resources from the man who does not want to be subsidised and is willing to part with resources to provide for those most in need.
In my own district, in Chichester, last year we had over 2,000 families on the waiting list. Of those, 1,000 were what are known as "in immediate need of housing". Of those 1,000, just under 500 had served their full time on the waiting list. Yet, as I have been around the district I have found many people who are just begging for the opportunity to purchase their own home. I really think that this makes a great deal of sense.
Of course, there will be differences of opinion. There will be discussion as to how one applies the moneys that one realises from sales of these properties. It may well be that there are those who argue that it should be used to pay off the loans fund and should not be diverted into new housing. This is an area for the proper discretion of local authorities. This is where, as the hon. Member for Edge Hill said, the whole question of the housing investment programme and its financing comes in.
492 I for one would like to see credit points given to local authorities which are able to sell properties to tenants, in terms of such sales not being offset against the amount of funding for a housing investment programme in the future.
It may have been the Opposition's spokesman who said earlier that one would not be realising the full market value of the property because, with our discount scheme of from 30 per cent. to 50 per cent., we would be actually reducing the amount of capital. The point is that the capital released will enable one either to reduce the current cost burden on all ratepayers and taxpayers or to provide for the homeless family. There is little point in tying up an even larger amount of capital when the members of the family are going to live in that house perhaps for the rest of their working lives.
If they are able and want to release the money tied up in that property, why not apply it for the purchase of another house?
§ Mr. George Cunningham
Quite obviously, if one is selling a house to the sitting tenant at a price well below the market value, the proceeds will not permit the local authority to build another house and house the hon. Gentleman's notional homeless family. Will the hon. Gentleman also take into account the fact that the people who are on the waiting list are, almost by definition, unable to raise the mortgage in order to buy a house in the private market, whereas the person to whom he referred, who is able to raise the money, who is sitting in a council house at present, is probably able to do exactly that? Therefore, is not the sensible thing to do to let that person in the council house move into the private market—we are all in favour of that, in all parts of the House—and house the homeless family in the council house which has been vacated? Is that not at least as sensible a proposition as that which the hon. Gentleman has put forward?
§ Mr. Nelson
That is undoubtedly one solution—let him go into the private market and buy for himself his own house. But another solution is what we propose. It does not rule out the first solution that the hon. Gentleman mentioned but it is 493 an alternative option in terms of his being able to provide his own home. But to deny him that right by law is the worst of both worlds in a way, because then we are refusing to release resources for those in need.
The hon. Gentleman says that it is not possible with the proceeds of the sale of one house to buy another, but the fact is that if the local authority does not sell the house to the tenant, one does not realise any money. One keeps the money tied up in the property and the family will probably be there for the rest of their working lives. No money at all is realised. At least, if one sells the house to the tenant, one raises, say, 70 per cent. of the market value of the property. There are plenty of council houses in my district where 70 per cent. of the market value would be more than sufficient to buy at least one flat to provide for an aged or homeless person desperately in need.
That is a much more dynamic policy deserving of the support of all hon. Members who want to concentrate limited resources on those most in need.
I do not want to detain the House much longer, but perhaps I may mention one other area to which I made short reference earlier—housing associations. I declare an interest. It is not a paid interest, but I am a member of the management council of the Stonham housing association. This is one of the 2,500 housing associations in Britain which receive financial support by way of grant and loan funding from the Housing Corporation, and it applies that money for the provision of low-cost housing for many disadvantaged people. Indeed, the housing association with which I have a particular interest generally tends to provide housing for the rehabilitation of offenders, but, by and large, more than half of the housing associations in Britain provide low-cost housing for the aged and the disabled.
Despite the criticisms of housing associations' activities, financing and management which have been voiced and published in the last week or so, particularly of the Housing Corporation, I believe, as a Conservative—not a nineteenth-century Liberal—who believes that there is a role for the Government in supporting endeavour and the housing of those most in 494 need, that we must succour the housing associations and find ways of making the Housing Corporation work more efficiently, particularly in its accounting and the collection of information from the various associations for which it supplies funds. If we fail to do this we shall be storing up for ourselves a cauldron that will eventually burst. We shall also find that the housing lists of local authorities will be even longer than they are now.
Therefore, during the next few months, when we have opportunities to discuss the report on the housing associations and the role of the Housing Corporation, I hope that we shall look on the positive side and recognise the role that they now play and the fact that in a very short time housing associations have built up a property portfolio of about 250,000 properties. These not only provide desperately needed accommodation for those in our society least able to provide for themselves; they are an important addition to the armoury of local authorities in providing for this important area of social need.
With those comments, I give a very hearty welcome to the inclusion in the Queen's Speech of our proposals on housing. I express again the hope that they will be received with a little more of an open mind than seems to have been displayed so far in the debate today. I for one certainly wish the Bill, with all its new measures, speedy and effective progress through the House.
§ 7.39 p.m.
§ Mr. Michael Martin (Glasgow, Springburn)
It is a privilege to represent the Glasgow, Springbum constituency. I have lived in the constituency for more than 13 years, and before that I resided in the neighbouring constituency. Therefore, I know of the good work that my predecessor, Dick Buchanan, has done for the area. I was pleased to learn that he was held in high regard in the House. He had many fine qualities. I was always impressed by his willingness to give service to the community. As a young man he was a shop steward in the local railway workshop, and he fought for, and succeeded in getting, better conditions for his workmates. When he was city treasurer in the old Glasgow corporation he was responsible for many projects which are still of benefit to the people 495 of Glasgow. I am sure that the House will join me in wishing him well in his retirement.
At one time Springburn had a thriving railway industry which produced steam locomotives. In fact, Springburn made more than half the number of steam locomotives produced in the world. Many of them are still in use in Africa, India and South America. The industry not only employed thousands of skilled and semi-skilled workers but provided work for the smaller firms in the area. I am convinced that had the private railway companies ploughed their profits back into the industry Springburn would not have the unemployment problem that it has today. I hope the Government recognise the need to strengthen the Scottish Development Agency so that it can bring new industry to Glasgow and to places such as Springburn. My constituency needs industrial revitalisation to prevent its becoming an industrial graveyard.
The constituency has various types of housing. In the Dennistoun district there is a mixture of private and local authority tenements. In Petershill we have the highest multi-storey dwellings in Europe—33 storeys high. In Germiston, Balornock and Barmulloch we have mainly council housing stock. The Cow-lairs area consists of private tenements, where many of the tenants are suffering from landlords and property owners who have neglected their properties and refused to carry out repairs for more than half a century.
Recently an organisation known as Norman Properties operated in the area. Its activities were questionable, to say the least. Young couples, desperate for a house of their own, had to pay as much as £1,000, only to find that they had no legal rights when the local authority introduced compulsory purchase schemes. The good people of Cowlairs deserve better, but the private sector has failed them miserably.
The only hope for the people in this area is for council house building to be speeded up and for encouragement to be given to community-based housing associations, which have an expertise in the modernisation of older tenemental properties. I hope that the Government do not intend to make cuts in the Housing 496 Corporation's budget, because it does an excellent job in building up such organisations.
Reference is made in the Queen's Speech to the sale of council housing. It worries me considerably that the Government may feel that they are giving some sort of freedom to the sitting tenant. Have they considered what it will mean to the types of tenants whom I have just described? The sale of council housing will mean that the good-quality housing stock will go to the highest bidder and not to those in need. Have the Government considered the consequences of selling houses in a city such as Glasgow, which consists largely of tenemental properties? Who will ensure that the owner-occupier maintains his share of the council tenement? Who will ensure that the owner-occupier looks after the communal facilities, such as the back greens and the drying areas, or even the paths leading up to the tenements? Who will make sure that these communal facilities are looked after? I foresee many practical difficulties in the proposal to sell council housing.
I should like to bring to the attention of the House the fact that less than a year ago every party on Glasgow district council called upon the Government to make Glasgow a special case. Glasgow has many problems, and it needs a massive injection of capital to revitalise the city and attract new industry. I hope that the new Government will give Glasgow such consideration.
§ 7.46 p.m.
§ Mr. Tony Durant (Reading, North)
I welcome you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to the Chair. I am delighted that you have received this honour, and I am pleased to serve under you in the Chamber. I know that many congratulations have been offered, but I should like to offer mine as well.
I also congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Martin) on his maiden speech. He obviously showed deep knowledge and great sincerity for what he feels about housing. He comes from a stress area which has enormous housing problems. We welcome the hon. Gentleman to this debate. He has made his maiden speech on a subject which he obviously knows deeply and about which he feels strongly. I very much supported 497 his feelings about the housing associations, and that is something on which I would go a long way with him. Glasgow has had a long and difficult record. I do not know his city very well, except as a matelot towards the end of the war when I used to spend my weekends in Glasgow. But that was not in a political context—I was merely enjoying myself. I welcome the hon. Gentleman, congratulate him on his speech and look forward to hearing him many times, probably in housing debates.
I want to touch on three aspects: first, on housing secondly, on local government, and, third, on rates. One of the things that I found distressing in the last election was the Labour Party's approach. Mention has been made of the famous leaflet that was distributed among the council estates. I felt that that was a deplorable leaflet. It intimidated people and made them fearful. A great deal of the Labour Party's election campaign did scare people, and that is no way in which to run a democratic system. I came across an old railwayman who believed that we as a party would cut his railway pension. When we get old people in tears like that, things have got to a pretty low ebb. I had a bitter feeling about the way in which many aspects of the compaign were run, but enough of that.
I welcome the Queen's Speech and the decision on the sale of council housing. I have always been an advocate of this. When I served on a local authority, I was the only person on that authority who believed in it initially. I worked for three years to persuade my own party that it was a good idea. Gradually we began to introduce the idea into my own local authority.
However, we must look at this very carefully, because there is merit in the argument that if one is not careful the local authority will be left only with the bad bits of the council stock. That will create problems. The new Government must look at this very carefully. As one who believes in local government, I think that we must allow local government to have as much choice in this matter as is possible, because local government knows its own areas and its demands. Therefore, local government should have the opportunity to be involved in the decision.
498 I was disappointed by the Gracious Speech in one or two respects, however. First, there is not enough acceleration being given to a review of the Rent Acts, which, in a sense, is a more urgent problem. In my own constituency, for instance, in the autumn of the last university year it came to my notice that 114 students were sleeping on the floor in various buildings of the university because of the shortage of single-person accommodation. This was a direct result of the Rent Act 1974, and the new Government must look at this urgently. During the election campaign, I was shown rooms by a number of different landladies which they owned and were prepared to let on a short-term basis Due to bad experiences in the past, however, they were not prepared to let the rooms under the terms of the present Act. They refused to let them to anyone because of the difficulty of getting people out if they proved to be bad tenants.
The previous Administration produced a White or Green Paper about the Rent Acts. In fact, it was bound in yellow, so I am not sure of its correct description. But it was a useful document, and I am sorry that it was not implemented. I hope that the new Government will look at it very seriously, because it was an in-depth study of the Rent Acts.
I welcome the proposition for a charter for tenants. I should like to see greater participation of council tenants in the running of their estates. There is a clear desire among local council tenants to have more say in running their own affairs. There is a difficulty with all residents' associations, however. Usually it is quite easy to find a chairman and possibly a treasurer. The problem is to find someone who is willing to send out notices and to book halls in which to hold meetings so that matters may be discussed. A great many of us have started residents' and tenants' associations only to find that they last for about six months and then disappear. The local authorities may be able to help in this connection by administering those residents' or tenants' associations in order to make them a practical proposition. This is always the difficulty if a certain amount of control is handed over to such associations. I should like to see more of them, but there are problems.
499 I come next to another important omission from the Gracious Speech. In my view, we must look again at these vast council estates which are quite soulless, with no children's facilities, no proper play areas, hardly any trees and merely lines and lines of houses. This is the most killing area for any family to grow up in. I am fortunate in not having large areas of this kind in my constituency, but there are one or two, and the difficulties on those estates are enormous I should like to see more consideration given to making our council estates more human places in which to live Council tenants like living on estates. They like to know their neighbours and to be there. But they want better facilities.
One of the reasons why I am in favour of the sale of council houses is that I like to see mixed communities. I do not like it when people point in one direction and say "They are all council houses over there" and then point the other way and say "They are all private houses over here", as though there were different species of human beings. They are, in fact, the same, and in my view it is better to have mixed communities. I am all for rented accommodation on private estates, and I am all for the sale of council houses on council estates. It creates mixed communities, and I think that they are very important. I welcome the proposal for a council tenants' charter.
I want urgently to see the abolition of the Community Land Act. In the South of England, house prices have again gone through the roof, and all estate agents tell me that the main problem is the desperate shortage of land for building purposes. The Community Land Act has had a deterrent effect on the amount of building land available.
I should also like to see the Government giving careful consideration to the state of the construction industry. It has taken a real pasting in the past few years. In my own area, a number of very reputable house-building companies have gone bust, which is surprising. This has been due to the variations in demand and the industry being used as an economic indicator. That has had a very bad effect on the construction industry, and a little stability in the industry would make a considerable difference. There is no doubt 500 that it has been through a very difficult time in the past five years.
I hope very much that the Government will not interfere with the building societies. The building society movement is one aspect of our society which actually works. The last Government were starting to fiddle with them and put their little fingers into the building societies. They have done a good job for ordinary people, and they need support. I hope, too, that the Government will not interfere with the present tax arrangements in respect of mortgage relief. There have been rumours in the press. I hope that they will be denied.
In my view, we must look at housing regionally. In a place such as Reading the housing position is entirely different from that of Glasgow, for example. They are as different as chalk and cheese. We need different policies for different parts of the country. We have to get away from national housing policies and look much more regionally than we have in the past.
We have to find an answer to mobility. We have modern technology, and there ought to be better ways of helping with mobility. There are a great many work opportunities in my constituency, but it is impossible to attract people there to work because of the housing difficulty. Skilled men could get jobs there tomorrow. The unemployment rate is only a little more than 1 per cent., which is phenomenal. We need people, but the housing shortage stops them coming, and housing mobility must be looked at afresh.
I come, then, to local government. Unlike almost every other hon. Member, I was not against local government reorganisation. However, we made a fundamental mistake in not starting with the money side of it. We reorganised local government without considering how we were to raise the money for the various units of local government. But we have to look at the powers of the different levels of local government. Some tidying up is required. I take highways as an example of what I mean. Some district councils cannot even mend one small road without reference to the county council, and this is nonsense. I am very fortunate that there is a good relationship between my borough and the county, and there are agency arrangements. I think 501 that a circular should be issued to local authorities showing them that there are better ways of administering highways.
We also need to tidy up our planning arrangements. We have more complex planning regulations today than ever before. It is no small wonder that there are delays in housing. It is possible, too, that some elements of the social services could revert back to the district councils. However, I do not want to see my right hon. and hon. Friends adopt the last Government's proposals for "organic" change. It is a ghastly phrase, anyway, and there would be a ghastly mess if we adopted the idea. There are ways of doing this by co-operation.
I hope that the new Government will look at local government waste as well as at central Government waste. They have appointed someone from Marks and Spencer to look at national Government waste. I hope that they will also consider local government waste, because there is no doubt that it exists. My own local authority is no exception. For example, new civic offices were built for council officials. It was decided to buy new desks. Instead of British desks, German desks were bought at an additional cost of £45,000. The German desks were preferred because it was said that the trunking inside the legs would suit the telephone cables. However, someone forgot to ask the Post Office whether it would install the telephones making use of the trunking. Unfortunately, it did not prove possible, with the result that the German desks meant an additional and unnecessary £45,000 on the rates. That is the sort of maladministration which must be looked at in local government.
I come finally to rates. I still believe that we have to reform the rating system. It is unfair and unjust. It is the only tax in this country which is not paid according to ability to pay. It has been pointed out already that it is not unusual to find in two adjoining houses a family with five or six wage earners and a woman looking after her elderly parents managing on her own income. That is not a fair system of taxation. I hope that my party has not dropped the idea of reform from its thinking. I appreciate that it could not go on with its idea about rating reform during the election because of the priority of reducing income tax, which I support. But it should still be part of 502 our policy, and I shall continue to press for rating reform.
The pressure is also on the Government to look at the water rates. I have taken this matter up constantly in the House. I was not averse to direct billing. I think it is a very good thing because it enables people to see what they are getting. But the way in which the water authorities implemented direct billing was nothing short of a scandal. They put on this enormous direct charge when there was no need to do so. I am glad that the Thames Water Authority's new chairman has taken note of this and is now doing something about it. The water rates have now become a considerable burden to many old people.
I welcome the general approach to the Queen's Speech. I would like to see better facilities on council estates as part of our policy. I would like to see more done about rate reform and the water rates, and I would like some aspects of local government reorganisation to be looked at again—but not with new legislation, God forbid. However, we could have sensible circulars to make it all work better. I support the Queen's Speech and I hope these measures will begin to make progress towards more sensible local government and housing policies.
§ 8.2 p.m.
§ Mr. Tom Benyon (Abingdon)
I have a daunting task in adequately representing the constituency of Abingdon, because of the example of the late Mr. Airey Neave, who served his country so magnificently in time of war, served his constituents so well for 26 years in time of peace and then died at the hands of assassins five weeks ago. They were not even soldier enough to face him. During the election campaign I was incredibly impressed by the number of Mr. Neave's constituents who knew him so well and spoke of him with such affection, warmth and love in their hearts. He would presumably have been a Cabinet Minister had he lived. He specialised in Northern Ireland affairs for the last years of his life and he did magnificent work in his constituency. He further helped those over 80 to obtain pensions. I am sure that we are all immensely impressed by and would wish to acknowledge the great dignity and bravery with which Mrs. Neave has shouldered 503 her grave loss. His death is a loss to the entire country.
My constituency is a mixture of both town and country, and is very beautiful. It has many small businesses as well as some large ones. Many British Leyland workers live in my constituency, and therefore I am deeply conscious of that company's problems. I have considerable work to do in acquainting myself with the vital work of the Atomic Energy Authority, Harwell, and the Rutherford laboratory, which are in my constituency. I believe that these concerns are in the vanguard of British enterprise. It is surely the intention of the Government to give every possible encouragement to all aspects of nuclear energy in all its fields, because this is one area in which the future of our country lies.
Both district councils in my constituency have embarked on the sale of council houses during the last three years. As an ex-district councillor, helping my colleagues to spearhead through the council the policy on the sale of council houses, I applaud the initiative of our Government in this area. To use Disraeli's phrase, there are still two nations in this country. There are those who are rich and those who are poor, but, even more importantly, there are those who own property and those who do not.
I believe that the sale of council houses is important, for three reasons. First, it will give those who are at present without a property a stake in our property-owning democracy. Secondly, it will give considerable pride of possession. These people are possibly without wealth now, and once they own a house they will not feel so predisposed to go on wildcat strikes because they have something to lose—a stake in our society. Thirdly, it will rectify one of the problems facing our country—that of an immobile work force. Once a person loses his job in Oxford, he cannot sell his council house tenancy and move to work in Bristol. His council tenancy could be his only asset, but, tragically, it could also act as the ball and chain round his feet. There is no system of interchange between council tenants. On the other hand, if a man owns a house in Oxford and loses his job he can sell his house and move to another place where there is work. For those three reasons I applaud 504 the initiative of the Government in allowing council tenants the same rights of purchase as those enjoyed by tenants in the private sector. The discounts that will be offered are in line with the discounts that can be negotiated in the private sector.
There is a tremendous amount of misunderstanding about the sale of council houses. Many people seem to believe that once a council house is sold the ground opens up and the house is swallowed, thus depriving people who otherwise could have lived in it. That is palpable rubbish. If a man and his wife live in a council house, they are unlikely to move out of it for many years. Therefore, all that we are doing is transferring ownership from the district council to the people who own the house. That makes sense.
I also emphasise the considerable ac-vantage in saving maintenance costs and bureaucracy among councils. Many councils get snowed under with bureaucracy in running properties. However, I see a considerable problem facing the Government over the sale of council houses. Under our district council, which was Conservative controlled, it took on average eight and a half to nine months from the time of the inquiry to the time the council house was sold. This was because of the lack of motivation on the part of the housing officers to get rid of the house. Possibly they regarded the sale as an erosion of their power. In my council offices, which I know well, there are 13 different departments through which the request for the sale must bounce before the lucky tenant actually becomes the owner. That was the problem that we faced with a Conservative-controlled council. I am appalled at the thought of the problems that we shall face with Labour-controlled district councils. I believe that the delays in the machinery of administration will stretch well over a year. We must consider this and think about the introduction of possible incentives to council officers to get these sales through.
I applaud the programme that my party has advocated. We must ensure that each council advertises the rights of council tenants to purchase their houses. It is not enough to have the councils relying on the local newspaper. When the rent books go out they must contain a sheet of 505 paper showing precisely the rights of each tenant. We must ensure that that is done, because although one can lead a horse to water, one cannot make it drink with enthusiasm. I am sure that if sabotage is allowed to affect our plans, it might be enough to sink them unless we prepare very carefully to ensure that that does not happen.
§ 8.10 p.m.
§ Mr. Fred Silvester (Manchester, Withington)
I begin by adding my congratulations and best wishes to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on your appointment. I hope that the time that you spend in the Chair will be wholly enjoyable.
It is a great pleasure to speak following the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Benyon). It was a difficult task for him when speaking of his admirable predecessor. We all share the feelings that he expressed about our late colleague, Airey Neave. Judging by the remarks of my hon. Friend the new Member for Abingdon, the gracious way in which he spoke about his predecessor and the knowledge of housing that he brings to our debates, we know that he will be a worthy representative of Abingdon, a man of whom Airey Neave would have been proud. We look forward most sincerely to future occasions when he will join us in our debates.
The Queen's Speech is full of good and exciting things—and certainly that is true of housing. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment spoke of the effect of some of the proposals as a social revolution. Those of us who have watched the dreary effect of the depressing housing policies of successive Labour Administrations, particularly of Labour councils, know what an awful effect such policies have had on our great cities.
I represent part of the city of Manchester. Although big cities have many problems, some not of their own making, there is no doubt in my mind, and in the minds of those who have examined the history of great cities since the war, that the continuing attempt by Labour councils to increase their control over the housing in those cities has been one of the most important factors in the decline and depression of those cities.
Let me give a few examples. I hope that the House will forgive me for the 506 fact that they come from Manchester, but they could be true of any other great city. It is as well to try to illustrate what has actually been happening. To take one example, we will in the course of this Parliament be discussing what will happen to policies on the inner cities. In the last Parliament some of the initiatives of the Labour Government received support from both sides of the House, but there was a continuing burden of criticism.
The burden of criticism was twofold. One criticism was that under Labour the organisation was extremely bureaucratic and considerable sums of money were being filtered through a vast operation. Curiously enough, the partnership areas, which were supposed to break down that bureaucracy, in turn created their own bureaucracy. In Manchester we had the absurd situation where, because everybody wanted to consult everybody else, the consultation procedure created its own bureaucracy. We experienced the partnership bureaucracy talking to the local authority bureaucracy, which in turn talked to the consultation bureaucracy. So it has gone on.
The effect is that there has been a vast flow of money into the inner city areas, but those areas have been closely defined. A city is not a number of units. It usually ends up as a number of convenient wards for voting purposes, but a city such as Manchester is a unit. There have been gifts of money to projects which are certainly not essential simply because they happen to relate to geographical centres of the city. There are other projects, such as youth projects of great need in a housing area in the outer part of the city, which have been totally neglected. I hope that when the new Administration review these policies they will bear in mind the important factor that one can create new depressed areas by diverting all resources to existing areas of deprivation.
Let me give a specific example in my constituency. The village of Withington has now been under planning blight of one kind and another for 13 years. It has been the subject of two different inquiries. It has now an action area, parts of which are not working. Bits of the village that are not action areas and that we thought had been sorted out are 507 now subject to a different blight, because the council has decided that it may or may not build a hostel there. The whole matter is "up for grabs" again; the whole planning procedure is being opened like another bag of worms. Heaven knows when we shall actually have a decision and when the sods will be turned and the area reinvigorated.
As a result, what, 10 years ago, was a thriving centre, with busy shops which people visited in large numbers—a place in which there was great pride, and in which people had lived for many years—has experienced a deterioration. That area is not in the city centre; it is five or six miles from the centre. One is creating in that area, away from the city centre, another area that is going gradually downhill. It is another centre of major discontent and social stress. We must examine the situation in our cities and see what we are doing to them. I was delighted that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment backed proposals to speed up the planning procedure in order to shake out all the bugs that are jamming up the works.
Allied to all this—this matter has not received a great deal of attention in the debate—is the sad and depressing decline in the number of housing improvements that have occurred in the last few years. Improvements, more than anything else, have done something to help the city. This programme, of which we were all proud when it was going forward at such great speed, has provided new life to places that had almost given up. It has provided a flow of private money into places that previously relied solely on public sources. It has been a splendid scheme, and it has been allowed to fall into disuse partly because of the effect of inflation on grants, and partly—in places such as action areas—because some people who undertook to carry out improvements have failed to do so. I hope that we shall be able to look at ways in which improvement areas are operating to see that the powers are sufficient.
If a person is asked to improve his own house and to spend a good deal of money on it, it is not fair to that person if he finds that his next-door neighbours are still not pulling their weight and the whole area is not being jacked up. These people seek a fair deal and we must see 508 that they get it. These are two areas that are of special interest to cities such as Manchester, although they have a wider application in the country in general.
I now wish to deal with two matters that are of importance to the whole country. I refer first to the rating system, which was dealt with by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, North (Mr. Durant). I appreciate that the Government are not able to do much about it at the moment. However I, together with many of my colleagues, was elected—not only at this election but in the previous one—in the belief that we would do something about the rating system. The people who support me still believe that it is a necessary reform.
I do not believe that it will be easy to get rid of the domestic rating system. Not only will it be expensive: it will be a long, slow job. However, I wonder whether we can tackle in a more pragmatic way—before the complete rating system is tackled—for example, the "net curtain poverty", as it was described by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. Alton), that is, the case of the house where the occupancy has declined in number and is now down to one, usually an elderly person. The housing rates have gone up steadily year by year, but the drawing upon the local government services has been minimal. It is demonstrably unfair and I find it impossible to make any form of justification to anybody who raises that matter with me.
We cannot continue to pretend that one day something will happen when most of these people, judging by past experience, will be dead by the time something does happen. Although this is not an original recommendation—it may be controversial in other ways—I suggest that a rough and ready solution could be achieved if we turned our attention to a poll tax. If the domestic rate were maintained but its total level were lowered by making an additional imposition according to the number of adults in the household, although the problem would not be solved there would be some recompense to those living on their own. Some approximation of payment according to the number of wage packets going into a household would be achieved. I do not believe that it would be difficult to administer, because it could be done through the electoral roll.
509 However difficult the problem is, it is no good continuing to sit on our hands. The problem has become more difficult because of the water rate, which has brought the unfairness to our attention. I support the idea of metered water, but I understand that there are complications and that it would be expensive. Rebate does not apply to the water rate, and so the pinch has been felt more sharply.
The Government have a lot on their plate. I do not deny that the hours will be long and that the candle will be burnt low, but I feel that the Government should pay some attention to an improvement of the rating system. It is not something which can be postponed ad nauseam but it is something to which we should be committed and obliged to give a degree of priority.
§ Mr. John Page
My hon. Friend has reached the same conclusion as myself about a poll tax. I shall be grateful if he will tell me whether he has done any sums on the matter. Has he compared it with the removal from the rates of, for example, 90 per cent. of the cost of education?
§ Mr. Silvester
I am a great believer in the fact that the Civil Service is much better armed with people able to do the sums than I am as a Back Bencher. A much quicker and simpler way would be to transfer expenditure from the rates to income tax and central Government funds. That would diminish the problem but would leave the burning question of the sense of unfairness, though less so because the unfairness springs from the fact that a lot of the money goes on education and most of those who are hard hit do not use the education services. It is an alternative, but I do not advance the poll tax as a solution or the Holy Grail for which we have all been searching. However, whichever way we prefer, something should be done about the rating system.
I should like to return to the main subject of today's debate—the sale of council houses. I should like to quote to the House remarks made by the leader of the Manchester city council in Tuesday's Manchester Evening News. He clearly confirms what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon among others, that it will be a long-hard 510 battle where there are Labour councils. The leader of the council said—and he was not beating about the bush:If the Secretary of State makes any changes in the regulations and conditions they would not affect Manchester because we would just ignore them.He goes on to speak about possible legislation:Manchester will not be alone in defying the Government. Every large city in the country will do so and here will be a national conflict.That is a clear and concise warning. It follows from that that we who believe in the sale of council houses, as I always have, must understand that speed and the power to act even when some councils are unwilling are the essence of our policy. It is no good the Government's thinking that this issue can be allowed gently to roll on through the parliamentary timetable. It is a matter of immense urgency, because we shall need a great deal of time to put our policy into practice.
If we simply rely on the procedures being enforced with good will by those local councils, they will not be enforced. If we rely on those councils giving 100 per cent. mortgages and provide no backup, they will not be. We shall come to the end of our term of office and I shall have to tell my electors that although they trusted me to enable them to buy their houses I have let them down. It will be no good saying to them that I did my best but that the council would not permit them to buy their houses. They have known that all along. In Manchester the issue has even been fought in the courts. One case was won and one case was lost. The electors are therefore well blooded in this whole matter.
It is fundamental to our whole policy that the weight and authority of a Government fully and clearly elected on this issue should be made to apply in all parts of the kingdom with no exceptions, and quickly. As will be shown when the psephologists have done all their sums—and anyway there is no doubt in my mind—on the council estates there was a substantial movement in favour of the Conservative Party. That happened for very good reasons—not only, as I am sure Labour Members will say, because of the glint of gold in their eyes.
511 Many people fail to understand that administering very large estates such as exist in Manchester, where about 40 per cent. of the housing stock is owned by the council, is a totally different ball game from handling small estates. The situation is reached in which the housing department is an ogre, and it is difficult to do much about that. The estates are badly run, and the lettings are badly organised and unjustly allocated. It is no good pretending otherwise. People know these facts from the allocations to their neighbours and their friends. They know that housing improvements are absolutely appalling, and they know that getting jobs done is well nigh impossible.
This happens not because the people who operate in the town hall are evil. It happens because when an authority controls 40 per cent. of the housing stock it is in an almost impossible position. We would therefore need to break up the big estates, even if our proposal were not an excellent social policy in its own right a policy to get people on the ladder of home ownership.
With those two pleas—the first on the question of rating and the second on the need to be aware of the dangers to our policy on the sale of council houses and to be forceful in our attack upon them—I give a hearty welcome to the parts of the Gracious Speech dealing with housing.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Richard Crawshaw)
Order. I think that the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) spoke yesterday, and since this is one debate I understand that it is not possible for him to speak again today.
§ 8.29 p.m.
§ Mr. Merlyn Rees (Leeds, South)
May I congratulate you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on your occupancy of the Chair and on assuming your office?
I wish to say a word about the large number of maiden speeches that have been made, but first I wish to comment on the interesting points made by the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Page)—he represents an area in which I pay rates but do not vote—about points of procedure and the presence of Ministers. We have heard from others about the need for parliamentary reform. In 512 the course of today new Members will perhaps have learned one thing. If they are cast in any role, it is not one in the film about the Charge of the Light Brigade but, perhaps, in some debates, more in the role of the Lone Ranger and Tonto.
The problems to which the hon. Member for Harrow, West referred have certainly not occurred today. If we go in for Select Committees on the American model, or at least if we go in for more Select Committees, an interesting subject for study would be the Layfield report. I do not think that to-ing and fro-ing across the Floor of the House is a good way of discussing those matters.
I chaired a committee of the Cabinet considering Layfield in the last Administration. I sat up long hours and kept telling myself, as I read more and more, that they started in 1890 with the whisky money and after 80 years here we were with Layfield. A Select Committee approach would be an admirable idea though perhaps it would lead, in the present context, to this place being left permanently empty, simply as a place for tourists. There are problems with parliamentary procedure and I accept that it is a complicated matter. As the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Silvester) suggested, a detailed investigation is perhaps the best way.
With regard to maiden speakers, I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) will forgive me if I regard him, in the modern phrase, as a "retread" rather than a truly maiden speaker. There have been a number of interesting speeches. I mention first my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Morley (Mr. Woolmer), who is a neighbour of mine, a leading member of Leeds city council, a former leader of the Labour group on the West Yorkshire county council, an economist at the university, fitting into the pattern at Leeds university, where apparently young teachers are given time off to work in local affairs. That is an admirable thing. My hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Morley will have a contribution to make.
I was sorry to be absent during the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Martin), who replaced Dick Buchanan. He had valuable things to say on jobs and housing. My hon. Friend the Member for 513 Birmingham, Handsworth (Miss Wright) spoke with practical knowledge of a down-town area. My hon. Friend the new Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) spoke generously about Teddy Taylor. I thought that at the time of his political defeat Teddy Taylor's demeanour on television was admirable. Indeed, I think that that demeanour was not in the usual tradition, because I think that most of us would not have been as generous as he was, and as Shirley Williams was. With my hon. Friend the new Member for Cathcart—a nephew of Jimmy Maxton—we are obviously in for interesting times, and I shall pick up one of his points in a moment.
The hon. Member for Abingdon (Mr. Benyon) has the most difficult task of any new Member. Until five weeks ago fighting an election campaign would not have been in his mind. I think he knows of our high respect for his predecessor, Airey Neave. I knew him closely. His death affected the country, and it must also have affected the constituency. It must have made the hon. Member's candidature not the easiest of tasks.
The hon. Member for South Angus (Mr. Fraser) said—I was glad to hear—itthat whatever one's political views he was glad to represent a group that did not wish to see the break-up of Great Britain, although he spoke with great generosity of the previous SNP Member.
The hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn) spoke movingly of his predecessor, Sydney Irving. It is not just form when we speak in this way in the House. I remember that when I first came to this place a colleague, now in the other House, said to me "This House of Commons is a funny place—there are great political arguments, but there is far less politics here than there is in local government." I have often reflected on that. Perhaps in local government the battles are harsher than they are here, though that does not mean that there are not fundamental disagreements between us.
As I say, the hon. Gentleman spoke very movingly about Sydney Irving. Sydney and I were ex-Service students at university after the war—Major Irving and Squadron-Leader Rees spending their demob money, which we spent very well, I seem to remember—and I am sad that Sydney Irving is no longer here, though 514 his successor spoke very well of him and showed a great knowledge of his new constituency.
On the subject of housing, all parties have an overall belief or philosophy to which they subscribe. Despite what is said on the hustings, I am not sure that either of the major parties in this country ever has that clear philosophy which one finds in other countries. Perhaps that arises from the nature of this country, where we are far more pragmatic in approach.
However, what is far clearer is the view of the new Government and their belief in free market forces. I remember reading a year or two ago an article by Reggie Maudling—not on the subject of housing but on free market forces—in which he said that one of the things that worried him was the belief in some people's minds that there was once a day when free market forces worked perfectly and then along came the wicked Socialists and stopped them. The truth is that the free market economy did not work.
It might be argued from the Government Benches that one has gone too far the other way, but the belief that there was a halcyon day when free market forces worked, especially in housing, is quite false. I think back to my experience in my own northern constituency, and here I take up a point made by the hon. Member for Withington. I may say that we there had the best result ever, and from the local authority estates, so everyone can draw his own conclusion from his own area, and I suspect that we draw the conclusions which we want to draw for electoral purposes.
But, in terms of housing, when I first went to my constituency 17 years ago, despite a great deal that had been done in the past, I saw what free market forces had done. I do not believe that there is some halcyon day to come when the State will run everything, and I do not therefore believe that there were halcyon days under the operation of free market forces. We have to look somewhere in between—not just taking the middle way because we think that there is no other way to go, but picking and choosing our way, recognising that there is no nice simple system on which we can call.
In any event, free market forces cannot offer the way to deal with education. I 515 spent 10 years in university, and if I had been dependent upon free market forces I would not have got very far. I managed it without going to a private institution of any sort, and in a part of the country where private institutions of education are not very much to be seen anyway. But the free market would not have helped, it would not have helped my people, and it will not help in health, either.
The free market does not offer the answer to the inner city problem, and I shall now devote a few moments to that since I represent an inner city area. Although we hear references to Manchester and other such places, it is not easy to define an inner city area. I am south of Leeds, and, oddly enough, the old Leeds finished one and a half miles from the city centre, so that, wherever one was, one was almost in an inner city area, but by taking hardly more than a few steps in an inner city area one was out in the county. Things are different now because of local government reform, but not by much.
When, as Home Secretary, I was looking at this matter in the context of the urban programme and what one should do—we decided eventually that it should go to the Department of the Environment—there were, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore) will recall, many of our colleagues who represented small towns which by no means could be said to be heavily built-up urban areas and which asked 'What about us? We have housing problems, too"—perhaps in small towns on the side of the Pennines and elsewhere. There are these housing problems which are of the same nature, though smaller, in the mining valleys of Wales, too.
Therefore, when we talk as we do of the inner city areas—it has now become the "in" phrase—I sometimes wonder precisely what we mean. When one speaks of Manchester and Liverpool, perhaps the thing can be more clearly seen, but I think that the glib definition which we all fall into using could lead us to make wrong decisions. I do not believe that the State will do it all, but I believe that free market forces will not be able to do it.
516 Labour's planning policy which developed under my right hon. Friend the Member for Stepney and Poplar has revolved around the problems of the inner city areas and I believe that it is the right approach. In such areas there are more people with low incomes than elsewhere. They are more disadvantaged. There is a heavy reliance on old-fashioned industry, although oddly enough that is not true in Leeds by a long way. There are greater housing and education problems in these areas. That is why the inner city programme is the right policy.
A reappraisal of the new town programme is needed. That is especially important in the South, where for 20 or 30 years there has been a positive policy to move people and firms out of the London area. If, for example, we guide industry out to Hemel Hempstead from the Islington area and offer grants and special conditions, it is not surprising if there is no small industry, or not nearly as much, in the inner London area. That is not a surprise because that is what the State decided to do under the influence of the new town philosophy. It is right that there should be a reappraisal. It is true that extra money has been provided.
I was not clear what the Secretary of State was saying this afternoon. In my view, laissez-faire policies will not work. Enterprise zones are not the answer. There is a role for private industry but I do not believe that that is the answer. What has been said to local authorities? Is there to be a hiatus? What about the partnership and programme areas? Leeds is one such area. Are the allocations to continue for the moment? Is there the idea that they might stop? Is the idea to play it cool until there has been a reassessment? It is important that the programme and partnership areas know where they are going.
As for rate support grant, I am reminded that one of the right hon. Gentleman's predecessors, in determining RSG on 22 January 1974, said:if—as we believe we should—we are to help the cities with their special problems both with general expenditure and housing, the counties must accept that that will to some extent throw a great burden upon them, given the same total expenditure."—[Official Report, 22 January 1974; Vol. 867, c. 1474.]It is a difficult analysis to make. However, if the pot of money is the same, or a little smaller—we shall know when the 517 Budget is introduced—and if there is to be more money in the inner city areas, other areas will automatically have less money. I know that there is some worry in Leeds about what will happen to the inner city programme. It would be bad if there were a hiatus.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Stepney and Poplar made clear our objection to the Government's policy on the sale of council housing. It was made clear in the Labour Party manifesto, which states:Labour does not oppose the sale of council houses to sitting tenants of two years' standing who want to buy so long as such sales are at a fair price and do not damage a local authority's ability to meet the demand for decent homes to rent. But Labour will continue to oppose the sales of council houses in areas of serious housing need.Some hon. Members have said that they cannot understand what difference it makes if the occupier of a house owns it or is a tenant. I shall return to that argument in the context of the area that I represent. It is not surprising that the Opposition are not opposed to home ownership. I own my own house, or at least mortgage it, in the same way as my father who was a coal miner before becoming a factory worker. Who am I to object to home ownership?
In the mining village in Wales in which I was brought up, the fight went on for years to obtain leasehold reform so that the people might own their own houses. It is the technical aspect that is important rather than the philosophical aspect. I have many examples of what my right hon. Friend has done to help home ownership.
I refer to what the hon. Member for Harrow, West said. My children have grown up in Harrow. They are a good deal beter off than I was at their age. At their income, when first entering a profession, if they want to buy a house in the Harrow area, they will not find it at a price that they can afford. It is no good my saying to them "Become home owners, my boys". They must leave the area. The must go to, for example, Milton Keynes, but not just the new town. They might end up in the owner-occupied estates that we see alongside the M1. It is no good saying to them "Buy a house in an affluent outer suburb." They may 518 move back after a period. It is not a question of poverty, by a long chalk. It is a question of the necessary money to buy even a maisonette.
In Harrow a three-room maisonette with kitchen costs £25,000. It is difficult for someone who is just qualifying to find a deposit. It is no good saying that owner-occupancy is the answer to every problem—just as I do not say that council tenancy is the answer. There is no simple answer to these questions. One must look at the whole area. The area represented by the hon. Gentleman is completely different from mine, where, for £24,000, one may do well when buying a house.
§ Mr. John Page
I hope that this will not be considered too much of a constituency show. The advice I give to people such as the right hon. Gentleman's sons and my sons is to move inwards and start doing in Willesden what people did at the World's End in Chelsea. They should move back to the depleted inner city areas and bring them up. That is the cheapest way for the right hon. Gentleman's sons to acquire houses, rather than go to Hemel Hempstead.
§ Mr. Rees
Great minds think alike. It shows that there is another solution. I merely make the point that home ownership is not just another answer to solve all the problems in the world.
I was interested in the reason that Mr. Teddy Taylor gave as to why he lost the constituency of Glasgow, Cathcart. The Conservative cry "Sales of council houses" in Scotland did not do him any good. The reason he gave was that those in the older council houses were waiting to get out and move to something better. The argument that those houses were to be sold off, under whatever scheme, did him a great deal of harm, he said.
I relate that matter to my area. It is an "inner city area". I believe there is another in Manchester, but Manchester can speak for itself. There is a three-tier system of housing in my area that has been there since 1963. It was erected like Meccano. It was based on sociological research into the background of the area. It was the background of Richard Hoggart and the "Uses of Literacy", which was the title of his book. It has not worked. Most of the people 519 coming to see me on my Saturday interviews say "For God's sake get me out of here." Their electricity bills are high. Gas cannot be used, although the houses were designed for gas. The electricity bills are higher than that of any Chelsea penthouse in which people like to keep themselves warm. A caller can feel the heat coming out when he knocks on the door. The system does not work. I am meeting of the chairman of the electricity board to do something about it. The tenants receive the most fantastic bills. There is growth on the walls. There are problems with lifts and vandals. It is incredible. However, nobody does anything about the problem. Now that I have more time I am carrying out research, with the aid of able people in the area, to find a solution to the problem. I know what will happen to this large area. It will be knocked down—but it will not be knocked down yet.
One of the problems is finance. There are 1,249 houses and 3,000 to 4,000 people must be put elsewhere. That is what most of them would like. I understand that only one person applied to buy a flat. He or she is an entrepreneur to the nth degree who is hoping for a future gain if the flat is pulled down.
What about the financing of the system of selling council houses? It is related to knocking down Hunslet Grange. I understand that in the first four or five years it can be proved that there is a gain in selling the council houses. I think that "getting rid of" was the phrase that was used. What about the position after that? What about the 60-year loans which have been made? Who will pay for all that? According to my arithmetic, after four or five years the rest of us will be paying for this. It is a very good subsidy for somebody. I believe that there is a problem in Manchester, with a similar three-tier complex. Why cannot something be done to get rid of this sort of thing? If there is money to be spent on subsidies, why can it not be spent in the right area? If this sort of thing had happened in the Soviet Union, whoever had planned it would have been shot. If it had happened in the United States of America, there would have been a presidential-type inquiry. But here we do nothing until the project is prohibitively expensive.
520 Indeed, the amount of money being spent on the Leeds scheme now is astronomical. The gentleman who was leader of the Conservative group on the Leeds city council—I believe that he is now a noble Lord—could give advice on it. One of the problems is that nobody north of the river ever visits the area south of the river. The council officials are excellent, but it is not an area at which people take a look. It is not because it is dangerous but simply because it is that part of the city to which people do not come. If the problem arose at the north end of the city, something would be done. Unfortunately, the south end is not an area from which people write letters to The Times, The Daily Telegraph or the Yorkshire Post. But if money is available, it ought to be used in dealing with this kind of problem, which ought to have priority over such matters as the sale of council houses.
In an ideological way, we are in favour of the sale of council houses but, speaking for myself as a Member of Parliament, I am the only person who, together with the councillors, bothers about the people in the area concerned. No one else bothers, and that is not true of many of the other issues of the day. I am glad that I do not have to supply the £150, £160 or £170 to provide electricity for which the project was not designed. Apparently a block of flats blew up in East London. These buildings are only of three storeys and it is not possible to have gas in them. It is an incredible situation and I would be interested to know more about the cost aspects.
I relate this matter of the inner cities to the problems of the ethnic minorities, because it is in the inner cities that the bulk of the ethnic minorities live. What is to be done for these groups? In my view, there is far too much talk about immigration. Immigration is falling. Immigration, in statistical terms, is something that everyone talked about 15 years ago. That is no longer the case. But people can be made to talk about it, especially in areas in which they have not seen a coloured immigrant in their lives.
I once canvassed in Cambridge during a by-election. The more I went round middle-class areas, the more I began to feel that there must be black people walking up everybody's street. When I 521 went to the committee room and asked how many black people were living in the area, I was told that there were a few princes living at the university but that there was no problem at all. It seemed to me that the residents were all worried stiff because they thought that hordes of immigrants were landing on the beaches and heading towards Cambridge.
Immigration is not a problem. The problem relates to the people who were born and bred here and who live here, with the racial disadvantages which exist. I know that the problem does not fall under the Department of the Environment, although there are those who think it ought to. I hope that those in the right places will fight the right battles to ensure that it does not. Section 11 of the Local Government Act 1966 gave 75 per cent. grants to help fight racial disadvantage. The 1966 formula is now out of date. The Select Committee pointed this out and so did almost everyone else. The basic weakness in the definition is that it said that the money should be paid to immigrants. It cannot possibly be, because the people concerned were born here. I do not know what legal basis the definition has, and possibly there could be a court action on the matter. The problems are not simply those of language. There are the problems of West Indian youth. There is also the problem that the old scheme does not cover capital expenditure. The present Minister of Agriculture waxed eloquent about the need for this.
We issued a consultative document to 4,000 people. Everyone said that it was necessary to change it. I should like to know what is to happen about the replacement of section 11. It has been one of the most valuable pieces of legislation in the past 13 years. It has been extremely valuable in the inner cities, particularly in Birmingham, where, whatever the political persuasion of the city council, the money has been used. Something must be done about this matter quickly.
There is the problem of the ethnic minority groups. I am not arguing that there are not problems for white people. There certainly are in my area. The urban programme in a wider sense and the programmes initiated by my right 522 hon. Friend the Member for Stepney and Poplar are designed to deal with everyone. However, there is a particular problem here. The quicker that all of us start talking about the need to deal with some of the problems of the ethnic minorities, particularly the West Indians, the better it will be. The law of supply and demand will not solve this problem. I saw it when I first went to my area, and I saw it in the area in which I was brought up. The law of supply and demand will not solve the problems in education, housing and training. It requires public expenditure.
The immigrant groups are worried about the Government's programme. Because of the argument about being swamped, we are against the register. There is chapter and verse why that is complete nonsense. Anyone at the Home Office will soon find out why the quota is not necessary and why we do not believe in a policy on fiancees, particularly black fiancees, not those who marry Americans or anyone else. The fat really would be in the fire if it were right across the board. We shall fight those policies in Parliament when they come before us.
With some grim amazement or amusement, I hear that there is to be a Nationality Bill. I look forward to that in the next 18 months. We shall see what happens when it comes to talking to the Commonwealth countries about nationality. Going to the Chinese Government and saying "We propose to treat the Hong Kongese as if they are Hong Kong citizens" would be a turn-up for the book. That would have the old Foreign Office sending telegrams around for a month or two. However, it is all to come in the next 18 months. All I say is that we shall see. When I went to the Home Office from Northern Ireland, I thought "Right, a Nationality Bill." A week later I was still saying "A Nationality Bill" I was still saying it, but somewhat more weakly, a month ago. We shall see.
The other question is that of crime in inner cities. There is a problem of a particular kind of crime in inner city areas. One thing which worried me during the election campaign was an advertisement, which no doubt came from that eminent firm of advertising agents, proclaiming that since the war crime had 523 risen twice as much under Labour Governments as under Conservative Governments. I have the figures here. It is not true. It is nice to be free to talk about this matter. I had the statisticians carry out an interesting analysis of what happened during the periods of all Governments since the war. It is interesting to see the kind of crime which arose under Conservative Governments and that which arose under Labour Governments. I do not believe very much in any of it. However, crime has not doubled under Labour Governments. Some crime has fallen in the past year, but not all crime.
It is interesting that the crime of murder in London fell by 17 per cent. last year. I am prepared to take the credit for that. Of course, if it had gone up the blame would have been put on me. Sex crimes in the country as a whole fell last year. I am prepared to take the credit for that as well.
When the statistics are looked at, only one thing will be sure: that Messrs. Saatchi & Saatchi did not get them right. Crime did not double under Labour Governments. I shall be looking at the statistics for next year. On the day that I left the Home Office, crime was still falling. It fell last year and it is still falling. I shall get the credit for that, because it was falling when I left the Home Office. I shall not allow anybody else to get the credit for that. Once crime starts to rise, the Home Secretary had better watch out. It will be his fault.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Trade (Mr. Reginald Eyre)
What about the under-21s?
§ Mr. Rees
The crime rate as regards the under-21s also varies. I do not have all the figures but I can say that they were no different under a Labour Government than under a Conservative Government. It is as though an iron lady is walking into No. 10 saying "The crime rate—stop it." It does not happen in that way in any part of the world. Therefore, under-21s or not, the point I make is that it does not matter a toss who the Government of the day are.
An interesting point is—I was not in the inner city area but on the fringe of it—that some lads came into a meeting 524 I attended. They had not said a word, but as I was talking about law and order I said "What do you think about this problem?" They replied "Well, if someone would only give us something to do." It was a small estate and a dream to administer, but the telephone box was in ruins. So it matters not whether the area is big or small. The planners had thought of everything except the young people. There was not a word about that. However, I can see the problem.
That brings me to the question of vandalism. It is my last point and it is related to inner cities. About two years ago I held a conference attended by all those people who knew everything about vandalism. There were teachers, policemen, planners, housing managers, and representatives of the Association of Municipal Authorities there and they all had a reason for the incidence of vandalism. There were those who said that it was due to commercial television. Vandalism got worse from 1951 onwards. Therefore, statistically one can prove that it is due to commercial television. I can see that hon. Gentlemen will say that that is not true.
I believe I told the House previously that I received two reports which plopped on my desk the same day. One said that vandalism was due to violence on television and the other said that it had nothing to do with violence on television. My own view is that television plays some part. But what came out of the discussions that we had is that it is no good having conferences in London. Vandalism must be dealt with locally.
One area I visited had, I thought, achieved something. There was a central reporting point on the local council so that anywhere where there were signs of vandalism, someone reported it. There are places where it is never reported. Unless someone is caught committing a crime and the police are involved, it goes on for a long time before anything is done. If only somebody in an area knew that vandalism occurred in one place more than another. Why not call in the teachers, the probation service or the tenants' association to discover why vandalism is worse in one particular area? Most people have not got a clue about the amount of vandalism that there is in their area. All that is known is that 525 the more we talk about it, the more we can talk ourselves into believing that the problem is far worse than it is.
The problem of vandalism will not be dealt with in the Department of the Environment, with all the conferences on earth, or conferences such as that which I ran. I listened very eagerly. I pick up a point made earlier, which is that if the architects and planners were sent to a court and were sentenced to living in the areas they had planned, it might be a good idea in the long term. Most local authorities plan a vandal's dream. They make it easy for vandals to commit petty crimes.
There are great regional differences, as was shown by the last election. There is a great difference between the North and the South. The Secretary of State said on television a fortnight ago tomorrow "Ah, but that is an inner city area" when somebody did well for the Labour Party. He is absolutely right. In the North we are dealing with problems which go back to the Industrial Revolution, where free market forces were tried in every way and they did not work. I hope that this problem will not be looked at with South suburban eyes. It works the other way. I am now a northerner by adoption, a Welshman born and a suburbanite by no option at one pitch, and it is very easy to look at the South and make generalisations. I accept that. But people in the North are not all northern Alf Garnetts who live on council estates. There is no great snobbery effect in the North because one lives on a council estate. There is such an effect in the South. I accept that. There is a superiority. The moment that one has a cheque book, a little car and one's owner-occupied house, one is next in line for admiral in the South. It is not the same in the North.
Labour voters are not people who are scrounging and trying to get the next benefit out of social security. I have the greatest difficulty with my people in getting them to claim what is their right. There are real problems in the North.
Overall, the Government, very properly, sit in the reflected glory of an excellent general election result. There is no denying that. In my view, however, they have not got it right. I repeat: there is no bygone age that wicked Labour Governments have ruined. It is true in the 526 economic sector. It is true in the social sector. Election victories must be justified.
I first stood for Parliament in 1955. It was the 1959 general election that the Labour Party did not win because of the words "You have never had it so good". It was a very good slogan. It did not look so good by 1962 and 1963. So, what will all the Saatchi & Saatchi slogans and all the euphoria of the next few weeks look like in two or three years' time? Sell a few council houses—but the social and economic problems will still exist. There will still be the problem of the ethnic minorities. There will still be problems in the inner cities.
The Government have not got it right, however much they like to think so at present. All I say to them, like Mr. Asquith, is let us wait and see. I know what the situation will be when we wait and see. The Government have not got it right in their ideology of "free market forces". We have heard it all before.
§ 9.6 p.m.
§ The Minister for Housing and Construction (Mr. John Stanley)
It is a great pleasure to add my congratulations to a considerable flock of new Members who have spoken today—I think a total of seven. I am particularly glad that the first was my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn), a near Kent neighbour of mine. He spoke very wittily. I was delighted to hear him say that he would be campaigning hard on behalf of the commuters in Dartford. I only say that I hope he has more success in trying to improve British Rail services than I have had. I welcome the fact that we have him in the ranks of the campaigners on behalf of commuter rail services.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Angus (Mr. Fraser) spoke in a compelling and thoughtful way about Scotland and his constituency. He made a pertinent remark when he said that his election was a vindication of the fact that it is possible to be both Scottish and British and to be proud to be both. I am sure that he will find that sentiment echoed almost everywhere in the House by almost every hon. Member.
The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) spoke forcefully about the housing problems in his constituency and in a way which, I am sure, would have pleased his uncle. We particularly 527 appreciated the sincerity with which he spoke about his predecessor, whom we recognise as an outstanding constituency Member of Parliament and as a person for whom we have the highest regard. We hope that he will be rejoining us on the Government side of the House before very long.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Miss Wright) spoke most constructively and with great feeling about her experience of the inner city problems of Birmingham.
The hon. Member for Batley and Morley (Mr. Woolmer) spoke with much knowledge of the problems of his constituency in education, housing and the wool textile industry. He posed me a specific query about the housing legislation which we shall be bringing forward regarding the right to buy, and I should like to do my best to answer him.
We shall have to await the detailed provisions of the Bill as and when it is published, but our thinking at present is that the discount for the right to buy will attach to the tenant, but the right to buy will attach to the property in which the tenant is presently residing. It means that there may have to be some provisions for a transfer to an equivalent property in the case of flats, but basically the right to buy will apply to the property in which a tenant is living, which avoids the difficulty to which the hon. Member referred.
The hon. Member for Glasgow. Spring-burn (Mr. Martin) also spoke with great knowledge of the problems of Glasgow.
We then had the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Benyon). I am sure that the whole House appreciated the great feeling and sincerity with which he spoke about his predecessor. I am sure that my hon. Friend would rather have come to this House by any other route than the one by which he came. However, we look forward to hearing more from him, and from all the other new hon. Members who spoke.
This has been a wide-ranging debate. The House has been encouraged by the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Page), who urged hon. Members to regard the menu for this debate as being à la carte rather than table d'hôte. Certainly, he followed his own advice and gave Ministers a guide 528 to good relations with Back Benchers. Since he enjoined us all to follow it, I suggest to my colleagues on the Front Bench that perhaps we should take my hon. Friend's speech to bed for bedtime reading and see how we can ensure that we have the best possible relations with our friends on the Back Benches.
A number of speeches have covered different subjects, but in the main I should like to refer to housing. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Melton (Mr. Latham) made a speech of characteristically high quality about the problems of the building and construction industry, on which he is an expert. He raised the question of the degree of co-ordination between the Department, the building societies and the building industry. I can tell him that we are very much apprised of his point that it makes little sense to discuss the whole question of housing finance separately from that of the building of the houses for which the finance will be used. He asked also about the rating basis, and I assure him that we have no intention of moving to any form of capital valuation for rating purposes.
I was most interested in the speeches by two hon. Members from Liverpool. We shall want to consider carefully the constructive and well-thought-out proposals advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Steen). There was also an interesting contribution from the hon. Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. Alton). We were glad to hear that there is much in the Government's housing proposals that finds favour with his party.
The right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) made a particular reference to the inner cities. I assure him that there is no doubt about the Government's firm commitment to deal in the most effective way possible with the problems of the inner cities, as was made abundantly clear by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and, indeed, by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. As to the future of the partnership schemes, my right hon. Friend made it clear that he is involving himself personally in the partnership scheme meetings. When these have been concluded he will indicate to the House what is thought to be the best way forward.
529 I now turn to the housing provisions in the Queen's Speech. First, I should like to comment on my right hon. Friend's important announcement about the new discounts that will become available next week. I am sure that the new arrangements, which will enable longstanding tenants of 20 or more years to buy their homes at a 50 per cent. discount, will be warmly welcomed by the great majority of local authority and new town tenants throughout the country. We consider that a 50 per cent. discount is fully justified for someone who has been a sitting tenant, paying out rent year after year, for 20 years, and who, even after buying a new town or local authority house, will not be able to realise the full capital appreciation for a further five years. In those circumstances, we believe that a 50 per cent. discount on the open market valuation is entirely reasonable and fair. I hope that local authorities will give the most careful consideration to the new consent which my right hon. Friend will be issuing and that they will pay close regard to the interests and aspirations of those who wish to buy.
As from next week the local authorities and new town corporations will be able to sell at these increased discounts, depending on the length of the purchaser's time as a tenant. Later on in the Session, if Parliament approves our legislation, the intending purchaser will have the same right to buy his house at the same discount as he can now, but there will be one material difference. If he exercises his right later under the legislation, as opposed to exercising it under the consent, in the intervening period the price of his house may have gone up and he will be saddled with additional mortgage liabilities.
I hope, therefore, that local authorities will heed the advice of my right hon. Friend to consider implementing this circular. If they do not, the result will be that purchasers who are denied the right this year to purchase at these discounts will, in all probability, pay more next year than they would have done this year. If that proves to be the case, it must be made clear that those who are responsible for making certain that purchasers have an additional mortgage debt around their necks are the elected councillors in the authorities concerned.
530 Before coming to the public rented sector, I turn to the privately rented sector, which has been the subject of great contention over many years. It has also been the subject of difficult legislation and difficult problems. I stress that the legislation that we shall bring forward will have no effect on existing tenants. Our proposals will be limited in their scope.
I hope that our proposals on shorthold will command widespread support in the House. I suggest that what we propose is eminently reasonable, eminently beneficial and necessary to meet an urgent housing need. We feel impelled to bring forward these proposals. Under the present system, large numbers of single people are crying out for rented accommodation. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of homes are empty. It is morally indefensible not to take legislative steps to try to bring the two together. For the last five years we have had a continuing demand for privately rented accommodation. We have also had a growing volume of empty homes. Nothing has been done in legislative terms to unite the two.
We have to take a different view of the privately rented sector from that of the Labour Party. The previous Government regarded the privately rented sector as being in a position of irreversible decline, and they seemed happy that that should continue. We suggest that that is fearfully wasteful and a self-defeating policy.
What is the sense of continuing to build additional rented housing in the public sector when, at the same time, we are allowing privately rented accommodation to disappear almost as fast? The figures for the last five years are very sobering. They show how almost self-defeating has been the policy for the provision of rented accommodation. In the five years between 1974 and 1978, completions in the public sector averaged 149,000 dwellings a year, and during that period, 125,000 dwellings a year were lost from the privately rented sector. The net gain in the form of rented accommodation from all the effort and expenditure which went into the publicly rented programme was precisely 24,000 additional rented dwellings a year. That is why we feel that this policy was so self-defeating. It was almost like going on trying to fill a bucket with a hole in the bottom. It does not make any sense to allow 531 rented accommodation to wither away and at the same time to build additional rented accommodation. Surely we should try to conserve that which we are losing.
§ Mr. Shore
The Minister must have looked at figures beyond the last five years. He will find that the decline in the private rented sector has continued at the rate of 100,000 a year without pause since 1957. A substantial reason for that decline is that people who previously rented have been able to buy the houses that they rented. If I understand the philosophy of the Government, they are in favour of a still more rapid decline in the number of rented homes available. The only difference appears to be that in the public sector they intend to make it compulsory, whereas in the private sector they intend to leave it alone.
§ Mr. Stanley
We have said nothing whatsoever to support what the right hon. Gentleman has just said about producing an overall decline in rented accommodation. The point that I have been making is that it is extremely wasteful when one is creating rented accommodation to pursue policies which allow rented accommodation to fall into decay and disrepair, and thus be lost.
§ Mr. Stanley
That is not the case. One cannot say they are being sold when there are literally hundreds of thousands of empty properties. They are not being sold; they are being withheld. This is because there is not the legislative framework to bring them back into use, and it is that framework that we seek to bring forward this Session.
I stress again that this is a new form of tenure and in no way does it affect any existing tenancy arrangements. We believe that it will meet a significant need, particularly in urban areas, for those who want relatively short stays in rented accommodation. There is a tremendous need for rented accommodation for single people in their early years while they are training and at the start of their careers. There is an enormous need for it for people who, for all sorts of reasons, may have to spend a year or two in a town or city. There is a particular need for young couples who want short-term rented 532 accommodation while they are saving to buy their first house or waiting for permanent rented accommodation with the local authorities. All these people need short-term rented accommodation, and it is exactly this form of accommodation that has become so conspicuously scarce as a result of the policies and legislation of the last Government.
Therefore, we shall bring forward our shorthold measures and we believe that they command as high a priority as the other housing proposals we have put forward. We shall seek to bring them forward in the same Bill as that which will give the right to buy to council tenants. I stress that we attach the highest possible priority to the creation of these additional opportunities for renting in the private sector.
I could not leave the subject of short-hold without referring to the tremendous contribution made on this subject by my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir B. Rhys Williams). Undoubtedly he has been the author and apostle of shorthold. Hon. Members who have just joined us for the first time may be encouraged to know, as they wait on the Back Benches—often with frustration—to make a major contribution, that my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington introduced his first Ten-Minute Bill on short-hold in the 1974–75 Session. He persevered with it year after year and now, five years later, he has the pleasure of seeing the concept formally enshrined as Government policy in a Government Bill. There can be few hon. Members who, in the post-war period, have singlehandledly pioneered such an important piece of reforming legislation, and we congratulate him on his achievement.
I turn to the public sector. I begin by dealing with a subject which has received little attention in this debate—namely, the tenants' charter. The commitment to such a charter has been Conservative policy for four or five years. I acknowledge the contribution made by my hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea (Mr. Scott), who did a great deal of the early thinking about the specific proposals to be included in a tenants' charter. That work was invaluable for us to build upon.
There is a particular feature of my hon. Friend's tenants' charter, to which I should like to refer. One of the most 533 worrying features of our local authority housing system is the great difficulty experienced by tenants in moving from one part of the country to another. Many have difficulty in moving nearer to relatives and friends. We all regularly receive letters from constituents who are desperately anxious to move nearer to their children or to relatives or friends in other parts of the country. Such people have great difficulty in arranging transfers. We also know that tenants wish to move because of work reasons. Sometimes they wish to move to an area in which there is a greater availability of jobs to match particular skills. My hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon referred to the difficulty of mobility.
One suggestion put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea in his tenants' charter was for a computer-linked exchange system, under which one could bring together the maximum amount of data about transfers and availability of accommodation and make that available as widely as possible to local authority tenants. The House may wish to know that I have asked the Department to examine the possibility of carrying this suggestion forward, because it would have enormous social and human benefits.
§ Mr. Woolmer
Does the Minister recognise that in terms of numbers the problem is much greater in our large cities for those who wish to move about within a city? Any attempt to deal with this problem would obviously bring the Government face to face with questions of fairness of treatment, and I simply wish to draw the Minister's attention to this aspect of the matter. Many people would like to transfer from one side of the city to another because of work difficulties or because they wish to be nearer to their relatives. Will the Government also examine that particular problem when they are examining the situation nationally?
§ Mr. Stanley
We are concerned with the whole problem of the mobility of local authority tenants. It is that much more easily soluble within the context of an individual city, particularly where there is a single local authority. That local authority should have better information about relative availability, vacancies, and transfer possibilities within a 534 particular city. The Greater London Council has tried to achieve a greater exchange of information between London boroughs. If we can build on that and establish much more national information going across the major local authority boundaries, it will be of great value.
I wish to refer to the important contribution made to the tenants' charter by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Eyre), who introduced the first legislation to establish a statutory tenants' charter. I wish to point out to the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), in view of his totally unacceptable suggestion that the Conservative Party regards council tenants as second-class citizens, that such a philosophy has never been part of Conservative policy. I must tell the hon. Gentleman, who has been absent from the House for a few years, that during that period the Conservative Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Hall Green was the first to enshrine a statutory tenants' charter.
That Bill was voted down on the recommendation of the then Under-Secretary of State for the Environment. Perhaps the Labour Party now regrets that move, because it could have supported the Bill and it would have become legislation in 1977. However, it took two more years for the Labour Government to come forward with their proposals and their Housing Bill. They paid the penalty for delaying so long because the Bill did not reach Second Reading before the Dissolution and it has since been lost.
We shall be producing our legislation for a tenants' charter in the first Session of this Parliament rather than the last Session, as the Labour Party did. We shall make it available not only to local authority tenants but also to new town tenants and housing association tenants. There has been a range of suggestions about what might or might not be included in the tenants' charter. My hon. Friend the Member for Wavertree made more suggestions during the course of today. We shall be looking constructively and positively at the suggestions that have been put forward and we hope that the tenants' charter will, by and large, be non-controversial. I fear that the only controversial element will be that, for our part, we would regard any tenants' charter 535 as being glaringly incomplete if it did not confer on each and every tenant the right to buy his council house.
I turn to that most important issue—the right to buy. I shall set out our approach to the right to buy and I shall try to deal with some of the arguments that have been put forward against it. The House will know that the policy of selling council houses is about 27 years old and dates from the first consent that was issued by Mr. Churchill's Government in 1952. The House may also recall that the first significant use of that general consent was made in the mid-1960s by a Conservative local authority, Birmingham. What started as a pioneering local initiative is now blossoming into a national right to buy, and my hon. Friends and I should remember with gratitude and much affection the pioneering leadership of Birmingham at that time under Sir Frank Griffin.
During the last 10 to 15 years particularly, the policy of selling council houses regrettably has been a policy of considerable political contention. It is a historical fact that the aspirations of those council tenants who wanted to buy their homes have been consistently supported by the Conservative Party. Those aspirations have also, so far, been consistently frustrated by the Labour Party.
However, in the last year or so the Labour Party has changed its national tune a little. In the Green Paper and in the Labour Party election manifesto it was beginning to suggest that it did not oppose the sale of council houses in principle. Perhaps the Labour Party was beginning to realise the obvious attractions of the policy. Whatever the reason behind that slight change of national tune may be, the truth on the ground is that the Labour Party at council level—indeed, nationally—has been as strongly opposed and inflexible in its determination to try to thwart the sale of council houses as it has ever been.
Conservative local authorities throughout the country have been selling council houses for many years but I am aware of very few Labour councils doing so. However, one such council is encompassed within the constituency of the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn). I hope that I have not dealt him a 536 mortal blow in any leadership stakes by revealing that fact. I am glad that there is a good Tory practice going on in that constituency. The argument about the sale of council houses has been raging for many years, and I do not think that there is much doubt about who is winning it. It is certainly not the Labour Party.
One of the most revealing polls taken during the election campaign was a survey carried out by The Observer of Labour voters' attitudes towards Conservative policies. It came up with the remarkably accurate conclusion that on almost every major issue the majority of Labour voters were Tories at heart, which was prophetic. Those interviewed were asked whether council tenants should he given the right to buy their homes with discounts for people who have lived in them for three years or more. No less than 75 per cent. of Labour voters thought that the answer was that they should.
That opinion poll foreshadowed what happened on 3 May, when on one council estate after another, and in one new town after another, former Labour voters showed that they had had enough of having their hopes of home ownership frustrated and that they wanted the right to buy. That was how they voted. So at a time when nearly 250,000 council and new town tenants have already bought their homes, and when tens of thousands, or probably some hundreds of thousands, more may wish to do so, the first and fundamental argument we put forward in favour of having a clear right to buy is that it is a right for which there is a persistent and growing demand from the people we represent.
§ Mr. Maxton
Will the Minister deal with the matter of Scottish legislation on this subject? Does he agree that in Scotland there is no such mandate for the sale of council houses?
§ Mr. Stanley
I was not aware that the hon. Member for Cathcart was a member of the Scottish National Party. We have always regarded the House of Commons as representing the United Kingdom as a whole. I had made a note to deal with the hon. Member's query, and I apologise for its having slipped my attention. We shall bring forward legislation to reflect the same right to buy in Scotland as in England and Wales. That will require 537 separate legislation, which will be running in parallel during the Session.
A further point that I wish to make in favour of having the right to buy is that this is a policy for which the clearest possible mandate exists. The right-to-buy policy was spelt out in the clearest possible terms for some years before the election. It was spelt out equally clearly during the election campaign. I do not think that there can have been many council or new town tenants who were not aware when they voted that this was one of the major issues of policy. Now it is for Parliament to decide whether to approve the relevant legislation.
I get disturbed when I receive letters such as the one that I received yesterday from a council tenant of about 30 years' standing. She was outraged by a report in a local newspaper that Labour councillors would resist all attempts by the new Tory Government to force them to sell off council houses. She wrote across the cutting that she sent me the following pertinent comment:It seems pointless to vote.There can be no more damning comment on a democracy from an individual citizen than that she should have to write such a comment. I hope that should Parliament decide to approve the legislation no one will thereafter try to deny council tenants their legal rights as given by Parliament under the law.
§ Mr. Alton
Will the hon. Gentleman clarify a matter that I raised earlier? It concerns tenants who have lived in a property for a number of years and decide to move into another property. If someone has been a tenant for 20 years in a four-bedroomed house and decides to move to a two-bedroomed house—moving from under-occupied property into smaller accommodation—how will the discount he receives be affected?
§ Mr. Stanley
The discounts that we offer will attach to the length of time that people have been local authority tenants. If a tenant moves home, it will be the aggregate amount.
§ Mr. Shore
If that is to be so, the hon. Gentleman must face the fact that what will happen is that the more attractive local government housing will be sold off. On the original proposal it was simply a lucky dip. If one lived in a house with 538 a garden, one had the right to buy, and one exercised it. Now the hon. Gentleman is saying that if someone is not in such a house he will have the opportunity of moving into it and have the right to buy. What happens to the residual stock, and the people who inhabit it, under the hon. Gentleman's proposal?
§ Mr. Stanley
The tenant will have a right to buy regardless of which property he is in. If a tenant wishes to move, he will have to apply for a transfer in the normal way and the local authority must consider that transfer application along with others. The position will be no different from what it is now. The tenant will have the right to buy the property in which he or she resides. That seems perfectly reasonable. The right hon. Gentleman says that all the best properties will go. This is not the experience with home ownership. Properties which are less attractive will have a lower valuation and therefore will be within the purchasing capacity of many more people. In every constituency there is an enormous range in the value of properties, and the same pattern will be found on local authority housing estates. Certainly in my constituency, where there is considerable variety of local authority housing, sales have been spread broadly over the whole constituency.
§ Mr. Woolmer
Does the hon. Gentleman recall that on this matter he gave me an answer that is diametrically opposed to the one that he has just given? Let me paraphrase what I understood his answer to me to be. He can then clarify the situation and say whether I am right or wrong. I raised the same issue from the opposite point of view and asked the hon. Gentleman whether the discounts would apply to the tenant and length of tenancy or to the property. The hon. Gentleman's answer gave me the distinct impression that the discount would apply to the length of tenancy of a specific property and not to the property itself. This was in relation to my specific point concerning the possibility that after living in one property for 20 or 30 years someone might wish to buy a different property. I wanted to know whether the discount would apply to his length of tenancy.
§ Mr. Stanley
The hon. Gentleman did not understand my earlier answer, which 539 is totally consistent with what I have just said to the right hon. Gentleman. That is that the discount attaches to the period of time that the purchaser has been a tenant. The right to buy applies to the property in which he or she is currently residing.
I now take up a point which I know has exercised some of my hon. Friends, including my hon. Friends the Members for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Silvester) and for Abingdon, who asked what the position would be if Parliament should approve our policy and the right to buy became law. They stressed that it should be possible for that law to be put into effect. I assure my hon. Friends that we are fully mindful that, if we give a clear right to buy, it is not sufficent merely to ensure that the Bill reaches the statute book. The Bill has to be constructed in such a way that the right to buy which belongs to the tenant can be exercised and cannot be frustrated or obstructed by a third party. We are totally apprised of that.
I turn now to some of the arguments raised against the right to buy. Some have asked why the right to buy should be made statutory and why we should not continue with the present system under which local authorities have discretion. Our answer to that is simple. We regard the right to buy as so fundamental for each and every tenant—new town tenant as well as local authority tenant—that it is a right which should be available throughout the length and breadth of the land regardless of the political complexion of the local council.
There is nothing new in taking up such a position. When they legislated on rent rebates, the previous Conservative Government made them available to all council tenants regardless of where they lived. In the previous Parliament, when the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) introduced his Bill to deal with problems of homelessness, that measure was designed to apply to homelessness regardless of where the person concerned was made homeless.
In our view, just as it is right to protect the interests of tenants in financial need regardless of the authority area in which they live, and just as it is right to protect the interests of the homeless regardless of where they are made homeless, so 540 should we make the right to buy available anywhere. It cannot be fair or reasonable that the opportunity to buy a council house should be permanently available to some yet be permanently denied to others.
§ Mr. Merlyn Rees
If it should apply in principle—there is no disagreement on that in particular cases—to corporation tenants, why should it not apply to private tenants in the same way?
§ Mr. Stanley
There is a basic difference between the relationship of a Government to public sector assets and their relationship to private sector assets, and on the whole we do not believe—if this is the right hon. Gentleman's proposition—that private property assets should simply be taken away from people by legislation at a price—again, if this is his suggestion—which bears no relation to their true value. Therefore, our proposals are confined to the public sector.
Moreover, I must tell the right hon. Gentleman that if we should ever go down the route which he seems to suggest, I could not think of any more certain way to ensure that such privately rented accommodation as did become available disappeared, so that we should merely be adding still further to the problems of those in housing need.
I should say a word also about the problems of those who face the frustration of finding themselves in an area covered by a Conservative-controlled local authority at one moment and a Labour-controlled authority at the next, thus losing the right to buy. I was reminded of this by the article which appeared in the Daily Mail last week telling the story of the unfortunate Mr. Gibson in Manchester who had an offer to buy his local authority house from the Conservative-controlled Manchester authority in 1970 but who found that the local authority changed hands after he had been offered a price for it. He has been battling now for eight or nine years through the courts to try to sustain his right to buy.
I believe that there should be no more Mr. Gibsons, and if the House approves the legislation which we shall bring forward there will be no more by the end of this Session.
§ Mr. W. Benyon
Why is this right so much more fundamental than the right 541 exercised about education which we have fought so bitterly to protect in Buckinghamshire?
§ Mr. Stanley
I listened to my hon. Friend's speech, and I know that he takes a different view from us on the question of the right to buy. We believe that we should try to reduce all forms of control and to enhance the position of individuals and the degree of responsibility and opportunity that we give to individuals. Just as it is right that we should be trying to reduce the degree of control that central Government exercise over local government, so we believe that we should do all that we can to try to reduce the degree of control exercised by local government over individuals. We regard the right of tenants to buy their council houses as a basic individual right that should belong to each and every tenant.
The central argument that has been advanced again and again is that we should deny each and every local authority tenant and new town tenant the right to buy their council houses because purchase would jeopardise the interests of those on waiting lists. I shall examine that argument carefully. It has serious and fundamental weaknesses. The argument does not hold water for the simple reason that dwellings already occupied by council tenants and which may be available for them to buy are not, by and large, dwellings that will become available to those on the waiting list for many years.
That is not an area of supposition or argument but hard fact. I remind the House of the Department of the Environment's figures. The percentage of the total stock of local authority housing that becomes available for reletting in any one year is only about 3 per cent. Obviously the percentage of relets varies from one local authority to another, but if only 3 per cent. of the stock is becoming available a year it means that the average time that it takes for a council dwelling to become available to someone on the waiting list is 16 years. That is why the waiting list argument against the right to buy does not hold water.
In the authorities with serious housing problems, we cannot begin to meet housing need by relets alone as they do not occur fast enough. The overwhelming proportion of housing need has to be 542 met in other ways, such as new building, by opening up new opportunities for renting such as shorthold, by shared purchase schemes, by imaginative schemes such as the GLC's homesteading scheme, by saving dwellings by improvement rather than allowing dwellings to disappear from the housing stock. That is the real answer to housing need—not in denying lock, stock and barrel the right to buy to each and every council house tenant.
The waiting list argument does not stand up to close examination. It is sometimes used merely as a pretext to deny tenants the right to buy by some who are determined that council tenants shall not ever have the right to buy the homes in which they are living.
I am glad that the debate has focused so much on housing need. I totally repudiate the suggestion of the right hon. Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore) that there is no reference to housing need in the Gracious Speech or in our housing proposals.
Above all, we are addressing ourselves to housing need. We support the view that there can be no greater social evil than bad housing. There is nothing more corrosive and destructive to family life than bad housing. There is no greater source of family instability, delinquency, real human unhappiness and worry than bad housing. There is no part of my responsibility to which I attach more importance than trying to meet housing need in all its various forms.
It is entirely right and proper for the House to judge the proposals that we have put in the Gracious Speech by the yardstick of housing need. I argue strongly that the measures that we have put forward will do far more to alleviate housing need than the policies pursued over the past five years by the previous Administration or those set out in the Labour Party manifesto.
Our granting of the right to buy will mean, as the Daily Mirror stated yesterday,a dream come true for thousands of tenants".Our granting of the right of an option to buy will give another marvellous route to home ownership for those who cannot afford to buy now and who are determined to do so later. Our support of shared purchase schemes provides further 543 opportunities for those who want a halfway house on the way to full home ownership.
Our tenants' charter will give to council tenants, new town tenants and housing association tenants new rights and new freedoms. Our creation of shorthold will, I hope, make available thousands more dwellings for renting to those in housing need—empty and under-occupied dwellings that are ready and available for those in need but withheld because the previous Government failed to create an instrument such as shorthold to bring them into use.
Our proposals are designed, above all, to meet housing need—both the needs of those who want to rent and the needs of those who want to buy. We look forward to introducing the necessary legislation to carry them into effect.
§ Debate adjourned.—[Lord James Douglas-Hamilton.]
§ Debate to be resumed tomorrow.