HL Deb 05 February 1970 vol 307 cc750-7

3.17 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The main object of the Bill is to increase the amount which may be advanced from the National Loans Fund to the Scottish Special Housing Association. The Association plays an important part in the Scottish housing programme. Its capital finance for housebuilding comes from these advances, which it repays with interest over the lifetime of the houses. Parliament sets a limit on the aggregate amount of advances: the limit is at present £170 million, having been increased to that figure by the Housing (Financial Provisions, Etc.) (Scotland) Act 1967. This sum relates to the aggregate of all loans made to the Association ever since the beginning of its operations before the last war.

Where a limit of this kind is set, no commitments may be entered into which may cause the limit to be exceeded. The amount actually advanced to date is of the order of £146 million, and about £15 million more is already committed, while the £9 million remaining within the present limit of £170 million is likely to be committed during the next few months. To enable the Association's work to go on, the limit needs to be increased. We are satisfied that there will be a continuing need for the Association's housing operations, and that provision should be made for the further sum of £120 million, which is the amount estimated to be required over a period of five years. As in the 1967 Act, the Bill fully authorises half of this sum, and the remaining half is to be made available in one or more instalments by ministerial order.

There are two subsidiary provisions. One is aimed at removing doubt. Section 25 of the 1968 Act authorises advances for the "provision of improvement of housing accommodation", but it is not entirely clear that that covers some work which ought to be met from borrowing; for example, major renewal of the fabric, such as the complete replacement of a roof. The Association now owns more than 70,000 houses, some of which were built many years ago, and is beginning to encounter expenses of this sort. Subsection (1) of Clause 1 therefore allows advances to be made for such work as the Secretary of State, with the consent of the Treasury, may approve. The other subsidiary provision repeals a proviso under which the sum within the overall borrowing limit which can be applied to the improvement of houses is not to exceed £1 million. This proviso was thought necessary in 1962, when the Association first came into improvement work, but we consider it to be needed no longer.

Your Lordships are well aware of the importance to Scotland of this unique housebuilding organisation. The Association has been in the forefront of new developments throughout the last quarter of a century. Since 1965, its housebuilding programme has been increasingly directed towards building houses in support of economic and industrial growth and it is perhaps not too much to say that, but for the assistance of the Association, some of the major industrial developments which have taken place in Scotland over the past few years might have been lost. The Association has also contributed substantially to meeting the need for houses for Glasgow's overspill population and its work in this field continues. I commend the Bill to your Lordships.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a. —(Lord Hughes.)

3.20 p.m.


My Lords, I am glad that this additional money is being provided for the Scottish Special Housing Association. This unique housebuilding agency was the creation of the late Walter Elliot, who I think was the most active-minded and imaginative Secretary of State for Scotland we have ever had, and under whom I had the privilege of serving as Under-Secretary. He saw that bad housing conditions in Scotland could never be put right if we continued to rely entirely on the local authorities and for construction purposes mainly on traditional or conventional building methods, which at that time meant brick, because the building unions in Scotland would never permit enough new apprentices to be admitted into the trade to do much more than keep pace with normal wastage. Therefore, little real progress could be made.

In the latter part of 1937 Walter Elliot persuaded his ministerial colleagues to set up this new Association, the sphere of which was at first confined to the special areas, though it was soon extended as he intended it should be eventually, to other parts of Scotland. When the Association began to operate it was instructed to concentrate mainly on nonconventional types of building, chiefly at that time prefabricated timber, which was then a novelty in Scotland, although common in Scandinavia and in Canada where housing conditions are generally far better than they are in Britain.

I am sorry that my noble friend Lord Kilmany is not able to be here to-day because he is away on a visit to Australia. I think he has established a record in being the only Conservative to win the constituency of North Lanark at two successive General Elections. I have been looking up the Parliamentary Reports for the 1938 Session, and I find that on average he put down one Parliamentary Question every month, demanding to know when this Special Housing Association was going to start building houses, and how many it was going to build in his constituency of North Lanark.

In fact, the Association made a reasonably good start in its first year. Then in 1939 the war put a stop to all housing progress; and since the war our balance of payments problem, which has continued right up to now, has made it difficult to get the materials from abroad— such as timber—which are required for most types of prefabricated or industrialised houses.

So now this Special Housing Association builds houses of all types of construction, and I think I am right in saying that it has reached a total of 70,000 houses. These include a few which the Association has acquired and reconditioned, but 65,000 or so have been built by the Association. In my recollection, that is just about 25 per cent. of the figure which Walter Elliot envisaged ought to be built by this Association in the first 30 years. In fact, he had hoped, or dreamed, that the whole Scottish housing problem might have been overcome in a slightly shorter time than that; but we have all had equal experience of the difficulties which have supervened.

In the last fifteen to twenty years I have sometimes been faintly amused to find that some officials in the Treasury and in the English Ministry of Housing and Local Government have never heard —or pretend they have never heard— of the Special Housing Association in Scotland. I suppose to a bureaucratic mind it is an untidy thing. Sometimes I have been disappointed by the slowness of some, though not all, local authorities in Scotland, and their reluctance to cooperate eagerly with the Association in getting it to build more houses in their areas: because it does not cost the local authority anything. It is paid for entirely by the Treasury, and I think I am right in saying that the houses that are built in any area in Scotland impose no burden on the local rates.

I am glad that more money has been voted for the expenses of this Association. It is money which I think will be a good investment, and not inflationary in character, especially because the Special Housing Association carries out a realistic rent policy—or at least much more realistic than most local authorities do in Scotland. As your Lordships know, one of the strongest reasons why we cannot make better housing progress is the fantastic gap between economic rents and actual rents, especially in Scotland. But in the case of those houses which are being built by the Association, the gap between the economic rent and the realistic rent is much smaller, and one gets far better social value in the shape of more houses built for every pound of public money that is spent.

In addition, I think I am right in saying that the Association has the power to sell as well as to let houses. I am not going to bother the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, with this point at this moment, but I hope that in future this power will be exercised. I know that the Government for the last three or four years have been using the Special Housing Association principally to build houses in the new growth areas for the new workers who are coming in. That is absolutely right. If these new workers require houses to rent, then we must build them. But, as many of your Lordships know, in countries like Canada it is fairly normal for the married industrial worker to own his house, and when he moves (if he does) to another area he usually sells it at quite a good profit; in the new area he buys another house, and he is seldom out of pocket over the change.

I hope very much that we shall encourage the Association in future to sell more houses, if it can, because I think we ought to do everything possible in Scotland to redress the present imbalance between rented and owner-occupied houses for all classes of the community. I should like this Housing Association, when it builds a new house for a new worker, to be encouraged to offer a choice between renting and purchasing, at least wherever it can. This is a Money Bill and I expect your Lordships will wish to negative the Committee stage, but I think we ought to welcome it on Second Reading.

3.31 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, on putting forward this Bill, and also to thank the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, for his reminiscences about the beginning of this policy. I well remember the start of the Scottish Special Housing Association. I was not in your Lordships' House, but I was the wife of the Minister who put through the Bill. I did not think at that time that I should ever stand in this House and support it, something like thirty years later; but I do support it and I congratulate the Government very much on their policy of housing for Scotland.

I am only too delighted that this Bill, which was only an act of faith at the time (we did not know whether it was going to be a success, but we were appalled by housing conditions in Scotland at that time; and indeed I feel strongly about them now) has been a help. The noble Earl, Lord Dundee, who was at the Scottish Office at the time, has told me the story of the beginning of this policy and its continuation and success. If it had not been for the war and the cessation of building, no doubt it would have made an enormous difference to the housing situation in Scotland.

Now I would say, as a member of the Roxburgh County Council, that this Housing Bill and Association is going to be used actively in the Tweed-bank development, and I hope the noble Lord will look favourably on the demands that will come from my own county for help in building houses in that area. If the money we are voting today is used in this connection I shall be only too delighted. I hope very much that the noble Lord will use this Housing Association to the full, and he will have the support of all those who work and live in Scotland.


My Lords, I should like to join with my two noble friends in thanking the noble Lord, the Minister, for having brought this Bill before your Lordships' House. Your Lordships have heard of the extraordinarily good work that this Association has done. I can assure the House, from my own knowledge, that its work is carried on with the utmost economy, and it has always been in the very forefront of housing progress, in construction and otherwise. It would perhaps be becoming, if your Lordships were so inclined, that we should ask the Minister to convey to the Association our congratulations on the extraordinary contribution it has made to housing in Scotland.


My Lords, may I add one word to say how glad I am that this Government are supporting the work of the Scottish Special Housing Association? It adds flexibility to the housing organisation in Scotland, which is extremely valuable. I had the honour of being concerned with its origin when serving under the late Sir Walter Elliot. The question arose, to give an example, whether or not it was proper that people should to-day live in wooden houses. A wooden house was considered degrading and a shamble unfit for human occupation. We built two extremely good wooden houses which were obviously entirely suitable for their purpose. That is one of the objects: that new methods should be tried. May I put one question to the noble Lord?—it was touched on by my noble friend Lord Dundee. I suppose that the Association has power to sell. Does it use this power, or is the figure of 70,000 the total of houses which have been built, with none sold?

3.35 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful for the welcome given to the Bill. I am particularly grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, for his comments on the origin of the Association. He is obviously in a much better position than I am to know what was in the mind of the late Walter Elliot in getting the Association started. As he said, it started off in what were then known as the special areas.

The first task that the Association was given in March, 1938, was to build 5,000 houses in those special areas, but later that same year its remit was extended to the whole of Scotland, and another 20,000 houses were added to the programme. In addition, it was given the task of building 8,500 houses by special methods—the sort of experimental thing to which the noble Eard, Lord Selkirk, has just referred. So its total target in 1938 was 33,500. Those are the facts on which the dream was to be implemented; and on that point the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, obviously may well be party to what the late Walter Elliot thought the programme would be. But in fact the war intervened and only some 1,700 houses of the 33,500 had been built by 1944.

After the war, Tom Johnston was imbued with the same enthusiasm in the subject as Walter Elliot. I should say, with regard to the 33,500 houses, that no period was specified during which they should be built, but it would presumably be as soon as possible. When Tom Johnston came on the scene he gave the Association a target of 100,000 houses to be built in 10 to 12 years, and by 1953 the Association had reached a figure of 5,000 a year. Unfortunately, Mr. Elliot was unable to ensure that his enthusiasm remained with all his Conservative associates in later years, because the programme fell, and in 1962 the Association completed fewer than 1,000 houses. We have been trying again to get it back to the 5,000 figure, and the Association is doing very well.

It was not very long ago that the Secretary of State officially opened the 70,000th house which the Association had erected, and next month I shall be opening the 20,000th house which it has built through its own direct-labour building organisation. The rest of the programme has been done through contractors. I think your Lordships would probably wish me to take that opportunity of expressing to the Association the congratulations which the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, said should be conveyed to it on behalf of your Lordships.


My Lords, can the noble Lord say whether the Association has power to sell?


My Lords, I am sorry; there are two points I should have mentioned. The Association has the power to sell, but with one of two exceptions it has not been exercised. I would not wish to comment upon what the future policy in that direction may be. The other point I was asked about was made by the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot, on the subject of the use to which the Association would be put in the Tweed-bank development. As she knows, we are rather bogged down in procedural matters there. I think the latest stage is in the Court of Session, and it would be quite improper, therefore, for me to make any comment on what may happen there.

On Question, Bill read 2a: Committee negatived.