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Housing Improvements (Localauthority Expenditure)

Volume 888: debated on Friday 14 March 1975

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(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if, in view of the likely effect on homeless families, he will make a statement on his plans to use his powers under Section 105 of the Housing Act 1974 to reduce by half the allocation available for the improvement of local authority dwellings.

Our control of improvement expenditure by local authorities under Section 105 of the Housing Act 1974 should have no effect on the housing of homeless families if sensibly managed. We plan to keep expenditure in England in 1975–76, in real terms, some one-third below the 1974–75 level. Within this total we shall shift resources progressively to those authorities buying substandard dwellings from private landlords, thereby helping disadvantaged families in the worst housing conditions—rather than continuing to improve, at past levels of expenditure, purpose-built council houses erected between the World Wars which already possess the basic amenities—with which the housing improvement schemes of past years have been designed to deal.

How many schemes for conversion or improvement does the Secretary of State intend to vary by his announcement, and what are the amounts involved? Is he aware that there is great concern amongst local authorities because they believe cutting back the conversion and improvement of substandard houses in public ownership, following closely upon Circular 171/74 requesting local authorities to cut back on maintenance and repairs, will be highly damaging to the housing stock, particularly in view of the disastrous building programme last year?

Is it not ludicrous that local authorities should be spending vast sums in changing over from private to public ownership of houses—a policy which creates not one new unit and not one new home—when he now proposes to inhibit the essential rescuing of obsolescent housing? Will the Minister allow local authorities to resell houses they cannot improve so that the capital thereby released may be used for proper improvement?

I do not think the hon. Member was listening closely enough to my answer. Contrary to what he suggested in the latter part of his supplementary question, and whatever differences of view there may be about particular levels of expenditure, the policy of the Government is to shift expenditure, over a period, from major works to properties already having basic amenities and well above basic amenities, to the modernisation and improvement of acquired substandard dwellings. It is not, as the hon. Member suggested, to withdraw expenditure from the improvement of old properties. Our policy is to shift expenditure.

In recent years expenditure on improvements nationally has been running at about £400 million a year. Of this, £300 million has been spent by local authorities primarily on existing estates built in the 1920s and 1930s, not on the worst obsolescent properties in our urban areas. Our policy is to get that level of expenditure shifted progressively to the worst properties.

As to the policy on municipalisation, I have already indicated that contrary to what the hon. Gentleman is saying, we intend to ensure that the works on such properties are speeded up, even if we have to cut back on expenditure on properties with existing amenities.

The broad figure for London—I should need notice to quote national figures—of acquired properties expected to receive improvement treatment in 1975, according to figures received from local authorities, is about 10,000. That does not include local authorities' purpose-built estates.

On analysing the figures and the provision being made, I understand that, whatever the cut-back on the bids put in by local authorities, the provision made by the Government will allow for works to continue for which there are contracts entered into by the end of this financial year in readiness for the 1975 financial year. It will also allow for additional expenditure on some other properties, although that will be on a lower level, in total numbers, than the local authorities have made bids for.

Is my hon. Friend aware that his announcement has come as a shattering blow to the London borough of Lewisham, reducing a bid of over £10 million to less than £3 million? Is he aware that those London boroughs that took the Government's policy seriously and bought up substandard houses in large numbers in order to do them up and create general improvement areas, have been worst hit by his new policy? Will he undertake to receive a delegation from me and people from the Lewisham council so that we may explain to him the special difficulties of the inner London boroughs as a result of his announcement?

I have already arranged to see representatives of the London Boroughs Association on the question of Section 105 expenditure allocations. I believe that the Greater London Council will be joining them at the meeting. In the light of those discussions, which will cover the grounds which my hon. Friend has referred to, I shall consider how best to handle representations by individual local authorities. I should certainly welcome receiving details from my hon. Friend about the position in Lewisham.

My understanding of the position, subject to any detailed representations that may yet be considered, is that committed works on properties acquired will be covered by the allocations made. I should make it clear that properties which are purchased and upon which works are carried out immediately in association with the purchase, bringing them up to proper standard, will not be covered by Section 105 allocations. If sensible management procedures are adopted it will be possible to bring many of these properties into speedier use than has sometimes been the case when they have had to be kept standing, in some instances for long periods, awaiting major works of improvement costing considerable sums of money.

When one investigates the detailed financial and physical management problems involved in dealing with old properties, one finds that the somewhat exaggerated fears expressed in some quarters in the last day or so, and this morning, will not stand up to close examination. But the problem can be resolved by certain management practices within the scope of local authorities' powers and without interference with Section 105 allocation procedures.

Is the Minister aware that the Greater London Council has some 50,000 units of accommodation awaiting modernisation and rehabilitation? How will they be affected by the scheme? Does he not think that it is monstrous that the Greater London Council should be spending £70 million of public money this year to buy up private property in London at a time when housing authorities are being told to make cuts? Does it not show that the Government have not thought out their basic housing priorities?

I am not clear what Conservative Members are expressing concern about. On the one hand they criticise the Government for cutting back on the level of expenditure, a cut-back which they fear—although I hope I have corrected at least some of their fears—will hold back expenditure on sub-standard homes. On the other hand they tell us that we should prevent the Greater London Council, and no doubt the London boroughs, from spending money on buying sub-standard properties in order to modernise them to rent.

We take the view, subject to the financial constraints which the Government inevitably have to operate under, that the policy of social ownership of such properties is right. We advocated it and are now pursuing it. When the economic situation is better it will be possible to expand the scope of the social ownership of rented properties in need of modernisation. We do not wish to cut back and stop this policy. We wish to back it.

The hon. Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend) mentioned a figure of 50,000. The total figure in the bids put to us by local authorities on the improvement of acquired municipalised properties for 1975 was approximately 10,000, and not 50,000.