HL Deb 09 November 1976 vol 377 cc305-11

[Nos. 1–5.]

Clause 3, page 5, line 5, after "scheme" insert ", in addition to the matters referred to in section (Right of tenants to purchase dwelling houses) of this Act, ".

After Clause 3, insert the following new clause: .—(1) A transfer scheme shall include the statutory right for a tenant of a dwelling house which is managed by a new town corporation, as defined in this Act, to purchase that dwelling house provided he has been a tenant in a dwelling house managed by that new town corporation for the three years immediately preceding the purchase. (2) The purchase price of a dwelling house mentioned in subsection (1)of this section shall be twenty per cent below the current market value with vacant possession, a further one per cent being allowed for each year of tenancy in that dwelling house up to a maximum of thirty years preceding the period of three years mentioned in subsection (1) of this section, provided always that the purchase price would not be below cost.

Clause 17, page 15, line 24, at end insert— "dwelling house" means any building or part of a building occupied, or available for occupation, as a separate dwelling".

In the Title, line 4, after "obligations;" insert "to confer upon tenants of dwellings the interest in which is to be transferred, a right to purchase them".

The Commons disagreed to these Amendments for the following Reason:

Because new clause (Right of tenants to purchase dwelling house) is irrelevant to the scheme of the Bill.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I beg to move that this House doth not insist on their Amendments Nos. 1 to 4, to which the Commons have disagreed for the Reason numbered 5. The Opposition have made it clear at every stage of the Bill's passage that they are not opposed in principle to this measure. The Bill represents an important step towards the normalisation of our older new towns, and as such the Party opposite have agreed that it is a useful and desirable piece of legislation.

However, a large part of our debate, both in this House and in another place, has been taken up with the discussion of a subject which, setting aside any intrinsic philosophical interest, is irrelevant to the purpose of this Bill. The New Towns (Amendment) Bill is concerned with the transfer of rented housing from new town corporations to districts councils. I would urge noble Lords opposite to recognise that this is the case and to acknowledge that there is no place in this Bill for providing, tenants with a statutory right to buy their houses. Indeed, I believe that the difficulty which the Opposition have experienced in drafting an effective set of Amendments on this subject bears witness to this fact; and I do not think that noble Lords will be surprised to learn that the Amendments are still defective in a number of respects.

It is clear from our discussion of the present set of Amendments, as well as from the debate on earlier Amendments of a similar purpose, that the Opposition's real concern is the Government's policy on sales as a whole—not just sales in the context of new town housing transfer schemes, or even, indeed, sales in new towns generally. I believe they would accept that. I can only repeat the Government's policy. While we think that sales will be right in places where the public sector stock is more than adequate to deal with pressing housing needs, we are nevertheless, as my honourable friend said in another place, opposed to the indiscriminate sale of publicly-owned rented dwellings by way of a statutory right for tenants to buy. Sales are not in themselves a universal panacea. Our housing problems in this country are, regretfully, more complex, and the selling of council houses and new town rented dwellings represents only one aspect of the whole housing picture. That is a most important point.

In another place, when these Amendments were discussed it was suggested that the Government have not come clean on their policy and that these Amendments will bring the matter to a head. That is perhaps an understandable tactic, but it would be precipitate. The question of sales, as I have just indicated, must be considered in its wider context; that is why the Government are considering this question in parallel with the Review of Housing Policy. No one has put forward a convincing argument for jumping the gun on this one point. And, as we have said, we hope that the Review will be completed by the end of the year.

The Opposition have claimed to see in the Government's approach to sales a movement towards their own point of view. They attribute this to the pressure which they have been putting on us over this issue. Now we have, admittedly, decided to relax the ban on development corporations selling rented houses. I take this opportunity to report to your Lordships that three development corporations—Milton Keynes, Corby and Northampton—already have consents for the resumption of sales.

But this does not imply a new approach. It is rather a reflection of the Government's continuing policy, set out for local authorities in the Circular issued in 1974 soon after we returned to office. This advice has remained in force, and both our 1974 ban on new town sales and our recent relaxation of that ban are part and parcel of the same approach. It is circumstances which have changed, not our policy. We believe in owner occupation. But in our judgment a blanket approach is not the right answer. The critical factor—and we have stressed this time and time again—is housing need and it is on local housing needs, and on the particular local circumstances, that we shall decide any sales applications that may be submitted to us by the new towns in the period ahead.

The enactment of this Bill has been delayed by some months with the result that the date of implementation of the first transfer schemes has had to be postponed from 1st April 1977 to 1st April 1978. I see no purpose in apportioning blame for this. I know that the spokes-man for the Party opposite in another place wrote to The Times saying that his Party had had no desire to delay the Bill. I accept that statement. However, I hope your Lordships will agree with me that what we must all do now is to work together for a speedy and successful implementation of the transfer of rented housing in our older new towns.

It may well turn out that the date of 1st April 1978 for the first transfers will prove to be administratively more sensible and will afford more opportunity to ensure that the staff protection provisions can apply over a longer period of time. One thing is certain, however: We must now put our differences behind us and bring an end to uncertainty surrounding this Bill. We owe this, not least, to those staff in new towns who have been facing anxiety about their future for a longer time than any of us would have wished. I am sure the noble Baroness opposite will agree with me in this for I well recall her concern during our earlier debates for the welfare of staff likely to be affected by this measure. I urge your Lordships to accept the reasons given by the Commons and to restore this Bill to a state in which it can be enacted.

Moved, That this House doth not insist on their Amendments Nos. 1 to 4, to which the Commons have disagreed for the Reason numbered 5.—(Baroness Stedman.)

8.53 p.m.


My Lords, we greatly welcomed the moment last July when, whatever the noble Baroness says, Her Majesty's Government did in fact yield to the pressure that had been exerted on them, not only by us but chiefly by the council tenants for so many months, and by so many tenants. That was the moment when the Secretary of State wrote to the chairmen of the new towns and authorised them to allow the sale of houses to their tenants. In effect, noble Lords opposite and their honourable and right honourable friends in another place lifted their ban and resumed the Conservative policy that they had interrupted.

A circular in between does not alter the fact that the policy they are now pursuing is the policy which we started, and that was excellent. I should like to add, "Hurrah!" for Milton Keynes, Corby and Northampton. However, after the cheers and the welcome, I have to go on and to regret that, while the noble Baroness professes the conversion of herself and her Party to home ownership, her honourable and right honourable friends give effect to that policy in such half-hearted, partial and arbitrary ways. One would have thought—just to take one aspect—that when the savings on both current and capital expenditure were so significant in pursuing this policy, a Government that is in such straits as her own would have embraced home owner-ship far more wholeheartedly, as the electors certainly have done!

My noble friend Lord Sandys gave your Lordships figures on the Report stage which show that the average difference between the cost of tax relief on house purchase mortgages and maintaining council house subsidies is no less than £500 to £600 per house per annum. That is just on the current side. There is of course the benefit of the capital of the sale. Of course, owning their own home is what the majority of tenants aspire to. Many of them are now capable of doing that. One would think on those grounds alone, let alone the social policy, that Her Majesty's Government would take every opportunity to urge, to encourage and to provide for home ownership, for the sales of new town houses and council houses to occur wherever it was possible. Here, in the need for this Bill, was such an opportunity. I agree that it is only one of a number of opportunities.

Legislation, as the noble Baroness explained at much greater length at an earlier stage, is now needed to provide for blocks of houses and associated property to be transferred from the new town corporations which built and developed them to the district councils which are the democratically elected bodies which normally manage them. However, in the course of providing for this, Her Majesty's Government's concern has been with the administrative convenience and the wishes of those statutory landlords. That has had to take pre- cedence over the known wishes of their tenants, whose interests these bodies were appointed and elected to serve. We regard that as a travesty.

However, this is not one of the Bills and sets of Commons Reasons that we are disposed to resist and to delay; I am sure that that will be a great relief to the noble Baroness. But we are greatly consoled in taking this heavy decision by a message which I received from one of the Parliamentary candidates only this morning in one of the Welsh new towns, Cwmbran. He was naturally interested to know what we were about to do. He pointed out to me—and this is the great consolation to us—that every month that goes by in his constituency, with council and new town tenants being denied the right to buy their homes by local and national Socialist policies, our Parliamentary and local government candidates are enabled to collect the support of more and more voters who might well otherwise be expected to continue to vote Labour. These are people who are already becoming disillusioned with the Government's economic policies and now know also that it is only doctinaire Socialist housing policies that stand between them and their most cherished dream of owning the home in which they live.

8.58 p.m.


My Lords, I intervene only to say this, because I am a chairman of a new town. I do not want to intervene on the merits or demerits of this particular item, but I urge the noble Lord not to have some starry-eyed ideas about the effect of this proposal, which I welcome and am espousing in my own town, to sell houses. In the case of my new town, the last time round the number of houses actually sold could be counted on one hand. Secondly, even some of those were sold back to the Corporation in the end. Let him not think that this will bring some flood that is going to be released of a demand to own new town houses. There is no great pent-up demand in my new town, as the previous experience showed. Therefore may I ask the noble Lord to moderate slightly his enthusiasm.

I think that the better procedure, as we are doing in my new town, is to look at the issue of home ownership in every possible way—whether by increasing the opportunity for private development or by equity sharing on the lines of the Birmingham example. Whatever it is, let us lead people into home ownership by every means we can—this Party is in favour of that—but please let us not imagine that there is a great pent-up demand to own, as of right, thousands of new town houses. It will be a small demand. I think that it should be met. I am delighted that we can meet the demand, but I plead with the noble Lord not to exaggerate it.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord not to suppose that this is something which his Party is pioneering. This policy was adopted while I was in the Department of the Environment and the figure of people in new towns who want to own their own homes runs into thousands.