HC Deb 09 January 1985 vol 70 cc775-6
11. Mr. Winnick

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what representations he has received over the past three months regarding the state of the construction industry.

Mr. Gow

I continue to maintain close contact with the construction industry. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be discussing with the National Economic Development Council later today its recent report on the infrastructure. My right hon. Friend and I hope to meet the Group of Eight next month.

Mr. Winnick

When will the Government recognise the appalling housing plight of so many people who need rented accommodation, as well as those tenants who are living in pre-war council dwellings that need to be modernised? The Minister referred to the Labour Government. Is it not a fact that in 1978, the last year of that Government, well over 107,000 housing starts were made in the public sector, compared to an estimated 40,000 last year? This year the figure is expected to be even less. Why do the Government refuse to take action to help people who need somewhere to live?

Mr. Gow

As the House knows, total public sector provision for housing in the coming financial year will be £3,055 million. Of that, £2,324 million will be made available to local authorities. I think that the hon. Gentleman will want to join in a tribute to the private sector, which in 1984 completed 150,000 houses, the highest figure for 10 years. I must remind the House of what my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said earlier. Public sector investment in housing fell by 45 per cent. in real terms between 1974 and 1979, and between 1979 and 1984 it has fallen by 17 per cent. on the same basis.

Mr. Heffer

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Group of Eight is representative of all sides of the industry and that the employers' side is as much concerned, in fact even more concerned, than other sections of the industry? Is it not clear that he should make a stand on this issue? The press has said that he thought of resigning. Can he indicate whether he has obtained any concession from the Government so that in the coming year we may see positive results in the construction industry and not a further decline, such as we have seen over the last three years?

Mr. Gow

Of course, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that on the Group of Eight there are representatives of the trade unions as well as of employers. As I said in my earlier reply, my right hon. Friend and I keep in close touch with the construction industry and are looking forward to our meeting next month with the Group of Eight. In reply to the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question, it is wise not to believe everything that one reads in newspapers.

Mrs. Renée Short

All of us who represent industrial areas know very well that the housing stock needs to be renewed and replaced. It is not surprising that ancient houses, built 50 years ago under the first public housing legislation, are standing empty when they have not been modernised and brought up to standard. Is the Minister aware that there are 400,000 or so unemployed building workers and that large amounts of building and construction machinery are lying about unused all over the country? Why on earth does the Minister not get these people back to work and see that houses are improved, and new houses are built, for those on the long waiting lists in all industrial areas?

Mr. Gow

It is a great mistake to believe that the best way of creating further employment is by higher public expenditure. The way in which we shall be able to create lasting jobs is by having no inflation and a more efficient economy. Certainly the prospects for revived employment depend crucially on a strong private sector.

I want to say one other thing to the hon. Lady in response to her question. It is a continuing scandal that 25,300 houses and flats owned by local authorities—most of which are Labour-controlled—have been empty for more than 12 months. We would be able to make a significant contribution to solving our housing problems if we could bring that stock back into use.

Mr. John Fraser

Is the Minister aware of the words of the president of the Building Employers Confederation early in December? He said that it cannot be good husbandry to pay 400,000 construction workers to do nothing while the nations's building stock slides further into decay and even larger bills for the future are run up because of lack of maintenance now? The Secretary of State must be regarded as the £5 billion Judas by the construction industry and the local authorities after putting another 50,000 people on the dole as a result of his statement on 18 December. Has the Secretary of State received one letter of support from any part of the construction industry for the savage programme of cuts which he introduced that day?

Mr. Gow

The hon. Gentleman overlooks the truth that output by the construction industry on repair and maintenance has grown and continues to grow. In 1983 £8.4 billion was spent—nearly £500 million up on the year before. We expect output in the construction industry to continue to grow. It is a great mistake to believe that the only engine of growth is in the public sector.