HC Deb 08 December 1982 vol 33 cc842-3
16. Mr. Joseph Dean

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what is his latest estimate of the total number of unemployed construction workers.

Mr. Stanley

The latest figure available is 366,400 and is in respect of May 1982. This figure takes no account of those currently working in the construction industry on a self-employed basis.

Mr. Dean

Are not those figures a condemnation of the policy that has been pursued by the Government since they took office in 1979? As one of the main planks on which the Conservatives fought the general election was that they would reduce unemployment, and as the building industry accounts for a large number of those who are normally gainfully employed, will the Minister say when he expects to see a substantial dip in those figures and, as a result, the achievement of the Government's target of reducing unemployment to the figure that prevailed when they took office in 1979?

Mr. Stanley

There are a number of promising signs of a significant revival in the construction industry. The House will be glad to know that private building starts are up 20 per cent. this year for the second year running, that public house building starts are up 45 per cent. this year and that home improvement grants paid in the last quarter were the highest since 1974. I announced on Monday the start of a national enveloping home improvement scheme. Yesterday I announced that local authorities can plan ahead on the basis of HIP allocations in 1984–85 being at least 80 per cent. of those next year. Today I am announcing that 164 local authorities in England have so far received additional housing allocations for this year totalling up to £109 million.

Mr. Alton

Does the Minister accept the findings of the House of Commons Select Committee inquiry showing that there will be a shortfall of 420,000 homes by 1984? What sense does it make to leave construction workers idle when there will be a major shortfall of that size?

Mr. Stanley

That is why we have been increasing the provision for housing for this year and next year. We hope very much that local authorities will make full use of the increased provision made available.

Mr. Richard Shepherd

Is it not sad to reflect that some of the fall in unemployment in the construction industry has been occasioned by the need to take roofs off industrial buildings? Is that not a compelling reason for withdrawing the option from local authorities of levying rates on empty buildings and making up the shortfall in their funds from central Government?

Mr. Stanley

My hon. Friend is, I think, referring to the rating system. That question was answered earlier by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Environmental Services.

Mrs. Ann Taylor

In view of the Minister's boast a few moments ago, will he say when he expects the number of local authority housing starts to reach the level achieved in the last year of the Labour Government? Will he confirm that housing starts generally under the Government have gone down such an extent that they are now at the level of 1924?

Mr. Stanley

The hon. Lady must take into account the totality of the housing programme, both new building and home improvements. There is a substantial recovery in house building starts in both the public and the private sectors. We have now one of the highest rates of home improvement for nearly a decade.