HC Deb 29 June 1994 vol 245 cc802-4
7. Mr. Spellar

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the effect of material shortages and increasing land prices on the revival in the construction industry.

The Minister for Housing, Inner Cities and Construction (Sir George Young)

There is very little evidence at present of widespread or significant shortages of building materials or land. Construction output is now increasing and new work orders are 6 per cent. higher than they were a year ago.

Mr. Spellar

Is not that either an ill-informed or remarkably complacent reply? If the Minister talks to building companies—particularly those in the house-building sector—they will tell him that lead times for the delivery of bricks a month ago were 10 weeks, but are now 18 months. The brick mountain has gone, many of our brick companies have been mothballed and we are facing a severe crisis in building materials. Should not he and his Department be taking action to make sure that any upturn in the building industry is not constrained by major supply shortages?

Sir George Young

At the moment, there are 893 million bricks in stock—enough to build a 6 ft wall between London and China. I would be amazed if any shortage of bricks held up the recovery in the construction industry.

Sir Michael Neubert

Would not it be an extremely cost-effective contribution to the revival in the building and construction industry if greater attention were given to the declining and deteriorating condition of many hundreds of thousands of existing properties, and if greater priority were given to reversing that decline in those national assets?

Sir George Young

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. There is a great deal of value for money to be obtained in making far better use of existing housing stock. The public sector has a role to play with improvement grants, but the prime responsibility for maintaining buildings in good condition must rest with the owner. Building societies and insurance companies have a common interest, and I should welcome any initiative launched by the house-building industry to generate interest on the part of home owners in maintaining their properties in better condition. As my hon. Friend has said, that will feed through to the building materials industry.

Mr. Henderson

Will not the right hon. Gentleman for once bury his newly acquired dogma—the dogma of the Government for 15 years—and be honest? The Government tell the building industry that they want to see it boosted. Is not the simple, sensible and obvious way to do that to release the £5.5 billion that councils have from the sale of their own assets to allow them to build badly needed homes, and to provide badly needed jobs for thousands of unemployed building workers?

Sir George Young

A recent survey of the building industry revealed that 94 per cent. of respondents believed that the construction market would be in a better condition in 12 months' time. For all of us in the House who are worried about unemployment, the good news is that more than 70 per cent. of firms expect to increase their staffing levels.

Mr. Allason

Is not one of the obstacles to the recovery of the construction business the length of time that it takes to get permission to start building? Is he aware of the difficulty that has been experienced by Paignton zoo in my constituency? It has put in an application for a review by the Department of the Environment, which will not be answered until September, although the original inspector's report was ready by April.

Sir George Young

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Planning has taken steps to reduce the delay before a planning inquiry is set up and before a decision is announced. The response time is now falling. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister listened closely to the question from my hon. Friend, and that he will take it up.