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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 893: debated on Wednesday 11 June 1975

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Environment

Local Government Services

1.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many additional duties have been placed on local government since February 1974 by central Government.

Local government services have been steadily expanding for many decades in response to the needs of society. But our present economic circumstances require us to limit public expenditure as a whole and this is one reason why we have established the consultative council—to discuss the implications for local government.

I appreciate what the Minister has said, but will he accept that more and more local authorities regard it as most unfair that they are required to carry out certain duties on the instructions of central Government, without being adequately financed by central Government? Will he consult with his colleagues to ensure that adequate finance to implement fully any future legislation, in particular the important Children Bill, will be available?

Certainly the hon. Gentleman has a point. Over the past few decades Governments of different political persuasions have, I agree, been off-loading new duties on to local authorities. However, the consultative council, with which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is so urgently concerned, is intended to ensure that the matter is kept in balance.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that many of the problems which face local government still arise from the reorganisation carried out by the previous Conservative administration? Does he agree that some of the services which were transferred from first tier to second tier might have been more appropriately run at local level? In particular will he consider, in circumstances where agencies have not been granted, reexamining the library service, with the possibility of restoring it to local level, because local authorities, especially in in the North-West, have great pride in their libraries?

Yes, Sir. If I were to consider all the implications of local government reorganisation on local authorities, there would not be time for any more Questions this afternoon. I take the points that my hon. Friend has made. Undoubtedly, many difficulties arose from the reorganisation. However, to be absolutely fair, some duties were taken away from local authorities, for example, the personal health services and the regional water services. Therefore, there was a mixture both ways.

Local Government Expenditure

2.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what measures he plans to ensure that Her Majesty's Government's policy that the limit of 1½per cent. growth in local government spending in 1976–77 is adhered to.

We have already issued, or are issuing, the circulars needed to ensure that every authority is clearly aware of the inevitable restraints on local authority expenditure. I am exploring in the rate support grant negotiations and with the new consultative council the consequences of these restraints for individual programmes.

Although local government expenditure is now equivalent to about 20 per cent. of the gross domestic product and is the fastest growing area of Government expenditure, and although the latest Treasury report indicates that the borrowing requirement this year will be between £10 billion and £12 billion is it not the case that if the Minister does not curb local government expenditure now, this country will tip over the brink into hyper-inflation?

I have made my views on local government spending clear and in recent weeks I have articulated them rather firmly. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman will know my views on the general subject. I agree that local government spending has been increasing faster than total public expenditure, the gross national product and, indeed, any measure one can take, and that the increase that has occurred in recent years simply cannot continue under present economic circumstances.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that before the social services are cut at local level there may be a moratorium on ostentatious spending, such as the hospitality accounts of local councils? Although my right hon. Friend may, while eating a meal at the expense of the ratepayers, have described the cost of that as trivial, the ratepayers do not see it that way.

The character of the meal which I enjoyed on that occasion was not a matter for my decision; it was a matter for the decision of the local authority whose guest I was. On the general point, there is of course, quite naturally and rightly, as my hon. Friend says, criticism of excessively lavish hospitality. I accept that and agree with it. But as regards cuts in social services, no, there is no reason why there should be cuts in local government services. What we are asking for is not a cut in local authority services but a containment of the rate of increases.

Is it not clear that the increase in local authority spending in the current year is at least twice the Government's target of 4½ per cent., and does not this make the 1½ per cent. increase target for next year almost impossible to achieve?

No, Sir. I hope to make an announcement on the first point in the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question. It looks to me as though the spending increase will be above 4½ per cent., but nothing like double 4½ per cent.

On the second point, I have made it absolutely clear to local authorities that to the extent that they overrun the agreed increase this year, they will be worse off next year than they would have been.

Local Government Staff

3.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what is his latest estimate of the total number of administrative employees in local government in England and Wales.

The latest figures published by the Department of Employment for local government staff in England and Wales relate to June 1974, when the total was 2·44 million. The published figures do not separately identify administrative employees.

Is the Minister aware that there is genuine concern throughout the whole country that there are far too many administrative employees in local government? Will he institute a report in this respect and, if necesary, take action?

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point of view. There is one reservation that I should mention. When one deals with technical staff—for example, planners—it is a little difficult to know quite whether they are there as technical staff or as administrators. They do overflow, as I say. But certainly what we shall be able to do with the new curb—the new watch on local authority manpower, which will he by both central Government and local government together—is to watch the difference between non-manual and manual employees. Perhaps that will meet the hon. Gentleman's point.

Will my right hon. Friend give at least some estimate of the increase in planning staff since local government reorganisation? Also, may I congratulate him on his vigorous appearance after last night?

I thank my hon. Friend. The fact is that I have narrowly avoided counting local government administrative officials jumping over red tape. It is a very good way of keeping awake, at any rate. But it is a little difficult to calculate the staff question since reorganisation. I think that I said in answer to an earlier Question that there were movements both ways. However, what I can say is that an essential feature of the 1975–76 rate support grant settlement was that there should be no expansion in staff other than obviously inescapable commitments.

Is the Minister aware that despite the obvious adequacy of extra capacity in the building industry, Newcastle upon Tyne local authority has recently advertised jobs, technical and otherwise and administrative and otherwise, representing an extra burden of £80,000 a year? Will the Minister use his influence on local authorities to cut down on direct labour organisations in the name of national economy?

This is a very different matter. I am afraid I shall have to disappoint the hon. Gentleman in that regard.

Empty Houses

4.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what is his latest estimate of the number of empty council houses in England and Wales.

The Department's last survey showed that at 31st December 1973 less than 1 per cent. of council dwellings were vacant and available for letting. Information relating to end 1974 will be collected later this year.

Is the hon. Gentleman satisfied that the means of calculating this figure is accurate? As there is some doubt about this, will he consider establishing a new means of calculating the figure?

One can never be totally satisfied about the accuracy of methods of calculation. On the other hand, it is clear that our methods of calculation are about 10 times as good as those of Messrs. Booker and Gray, who got their facts totally wrong in the Observer.

What is the average period between the time when a council house is vacated and when a new tenancy is taken up? What steps are local authorities taking to reduce this period? This is a matter of concern in my constituency and in many others.

Including my own. I very much agree with my hon. Friend that although facts of this kind are not easily ascertainable, it is incumbent upon local authorities, despite the very low vacancy figure I have given, to make sure that every house is fully occupied throughout the year.

8.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will propose the introduction of short terminable leases as a means of bringing empty residential accommodation into use.

I would refer the hon. Member to the answer my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction gave on 6th March to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Silverman)—[Vol. 887, c. 512.]

Is the Under-Secretary aware that in some areas, of which my constituency is one example, there are many converted flats which will remain unused because of the lack of local authority mortgage finance? Why is he not prepared to consider a method to bring those flats on to the market which has been widely welcomed?

I am aware of two facts. The first is the hon. Gentleman's continual obsession in attempting to deprive tenants of security of tenure, which manifested itself during the passage of the Rent Bill. The second is that the Opposition attack the Government for public expenditure and then ask the House for additions to public expenditure, such as increases in local authority lending.

Does my hon. Friend agree that a home without security is not a home at all? Does he also agree that in view of the information which he has just given to the hon. Member for Leek (Mr. Knox) about the relatively small number of void council houses it would be preferable to withdraw the circular which has just been issued relating to the acquisition and municipalisation of the empty properties now available on the market? Would he also consider an increase in the void rate to encourage owners to sell or let such property?

I should like to draw my hon. Friend's attention to what the Minister said in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mrs. Jeger) about the various methods the Government are considering to achieve the necessary objective of bringing empty houses into occupation through tenancy.

The Under-Secretary must surely be aware that there are 9 million owner-occupiers in this country who now feel that their security—the security of ownership which they have bought—is severely and seriously threatened by the present law. If the situation continues there is little likelihood of a large section of that housing ever being made available for rent in circumstances where it is in the interests of both the owner-occupier and the lessor. Must not there be a change in the law now?

I am not clear as to the law to which the hon. Gentleman refers. If he implies that if it were not for Rent Act security 9 million owner-occupiers would rush forward to let empty rooms, and if he will bring that evidence forward, we may consider a change in the law.

Houses For Sale

5.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will seek to reduce the costs of house purchasers and sellers by encouraging local authorities to provide easily available lists of private houses in their area for sale: and if he will make a statement.

I sympathise with my hon. Friend's underlying objective, but when this approach was tried out between 1966 and 1968 the results were disappointing.

Does not my hon. Friend accept, however, that perhaps too little energy was devoted under the previous experiment in this direction? Does he not agree that it seems that the estate agencies appear to be only a burden on both the house purchaser and the house seller, and that the basic facilities for this sort of work are much more available with the local authority? Could not there now be closer co-operation between the local authorities and the building societies, irrespective of what ultimately may happen to the building societies?

Our new plans for cooperation between local authorities and building societies on mortgage lending should help. I very much agree with my hon. Friend about the need to make house purchase easier. He has put this point to my right hon. Friend the Minister, who has responded favourably but cautiously. But I am afraid that when we examined the outcome of the previous experiment it was found that, although that experiment covered a total of 20 councils, known sales of houses amounted to only about 30.

Is the Minister aware that people can perfectly well use the columns of the newspapers in this matter and do not have to employ agents? Agents get a return on only about 20 per cent. of the properties on their books, and the rest is abortive work.

There are various ways of making available knowledge of properties for sale. What my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Mr. Roberts) is admirably attempting to do is to help people buy houses and help people to sell houses to people who need them.

Local Government Finance (Consultative Council)

6.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many times the Consultative Council on Local Government Finance has met.

I welcome the Minister's reply, but it is disappointing that the council has not met more often than that. Does he not agree that we need to make cuts in Government expenditure this year? When will he send out the second circular, which was mentioned in the first circular, No. 51/71, for which many local authorities are waiting in order to take steps to make the necessary economies in their next year's budgets?

I hope that the consultative council will meet again before the summer holiday period. Certainly the first meeting was very helpful and constructive. I have promised before, and I underline it now, that I hope to issue another statement shortly setting out the implications for different local authorities' programmes for the reduced rate of growth this year and next year.

When may we expect this further very important statement, which I take it will include new guidance about ways of limiting local authority expenditure? Will the Minister also confirm that one of the greatest threats to local authority finance at present may be pay claims which are in excess of what the local authorities can bear and what the social contract can bear?

On the first point, I hope to issue the new guidance very shortly indeed. On the second point, it is of course the case with local government, as it is with industries, that excessive pay claims at the end of the day cause threats to employment rather than an increase in the real standard of living.

As the Secretary of State used the word "suicidal" when referring to wage claims at Grimsby recently, does he realise that ratepayers themselves are feeling suicidal about rate increases? When can we expect some action from the Government?

I am happy to see that the hon. Gentleman looks far from suicidal. He looks extremely chirpy this afternoon. We are delighted to notice that. I regret to have to tell him, however, that I have made it clear on many occasions—I make it clear this afternoon—that after the unprecedentedly generous rate support grant settlement of last year, ratepayers cannot expect any further help this year.

Local Authority Committees

9.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will introduce legislation designed to ensure that the membership of local authority committees fully reflects the balance of political parties in the parent councils.

No, Sir. I think such matters are best left for each local authority to decide for itself.

Is the Minister aware that, with the generosity typical of my party, I have received a complaint from members of the Liberal Party in the Bromley area that members of the Labour Party were excluded from membership of the policy and resources committee of that borough by the controlling Conservative group, and that this practice unhappily occurs in different parts of the country'? Is not that compounded by the fact that one, at least, of the new authorities in Scotland has decided to pay its members an attendance allowance of £10 a day at party meetings? Should not that be looked at afresh by the Government?

The Scottish illustration mentioned by the hon. Gentleman is obviously a matter for the Secretary of State for Scotland. I should welcome not being concerned with that.

On the other part of the hon. Gentleman's question, I appreciate his generosity, and I thank him for it. However, there is one difficulty. It is customary, as I think he probably knows, for the policy and co-ordinating committee of a local authority to come from the ruling party. If that were not done, and if the membership were divided out, my feeling is that we should tend to get less open government, that discussions would go away from the centre, and take place behind closed doors. Frankly, I am against that.

Is the Minister aware that the exclusion of the Labour minority in Bromley followed the leakage of confidential information by that group to the local Press, and that in any case that minority group has its full right of debate within the council chamber?

I was not aware of the situation in Bromley. However I am aware that my Department, with my full-co-operation, assent and willingness, recently issued a circular to all local authorities calling for more open government, and for more co-operation with the Press.

Road Safety

11.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what progress he has made in implementing the Government's policy with regard to improving road safety.

Six thousand, nine hundred people were killed on the roads last year and 82,000 seriously injured, nearly 45 per cent. in cars. These figures show a welcome reduction on previous years, but the most important measure we could take to reduce them still further would be to enact the Road Traffic (Seat Belts) Bill.

Has the Under-Secretary received any information on the effect of road safety of the recently applied 50 mph limit, whether advantageous or otherwise? Secondly, will he report on the progress made on the Green Paper on the proposed new Highway Code?

The 50 mph and 60 mph speed limits were originally imposed to save fuel. However, a reduction in speed results in a fall in the number of accidents. I shall be reviewing that matter later in the year.

I hope that we shall be able to bring the Green Paper forward for discussion in the House fairly soon, before the publication of the Highway Code. I expect that the total time taken between the beginning of the discussion and the ultimate publication to be about six months.

Does the Minister agree that the recent coach crashes have highlighted the need for the imposition of a speed limit of 60 mph on coaches using motorways, and that coaches should not be permitted to use the outside lane? I am sure the Minister will agree that unless something is done now there will be a disaster situation on a motorway. I urge the Minister to take urgent note of this matter.

We are all concerned about the recent serious accident in which a coach was involved. However, I do not think that we should base everything on one accident. The inspectors are looking at this. We shall learn everything possible from this tragic occurrence.

Does the Under-Secretary agree that the sign "Blind Summit, No Overtaking" should be placed on the offside, not on the near side, of the road, on the ground that a person overtaking, who does know that it is a blind summit, can see only the offside?

A great deal of trouble and research goes into deciding the placement of signs. I shall draw this matter to the attention of the people who deal with road signs.

Is my hon. Friend aware that many coach trips occur every weekend, especially in our part of the country, and that more and more travellers are becoming apprehensive about the condition of the structure of some of these coaches? Will he say whether, after studying the details of the recent tragedies, special observations will be made as to the roof structure of these coaches before they are licensed to convey passengers on these tours?

My hon. Friend will know that coaches are subject to MOT and other vigorous inspections. I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend to the second point. Of course we shall obtain as much information as possible arising from the recent tragic accidents.

Public Transport

12.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether his plans for the improvement of public transport are based on the assumption of an increasing or decreasing incidence of car ownership.

The latest departmental forecasts indicate that car ownership will continue to increase.

As the Road Research Laboratory forecasts a greater road usage per car and an increase of 20 per cent. in the number of cars during the next five years, will the Minister assure the House that better roads will form a major part of any future transport plans?

The hon. Gentleman should be aware of the basis on which the road programme takes account of the national economic situation. Roads are provided when it is believed that the traffic which will be generated over the next 15 years will necessitate roads of a particular standard.

If my hon. Friend's Department has a desire to improve public transport, may I inform him that it is the opinion of many Labour back benchers that it has a strange way of showing it? Is he aware that, for example, the West Midlands County Council regards his Department's instructions to increase bus fares as not only being unlikely to improve public transport, but as contradicting the election pledges on which Labour county councillors were elected?

Without going into the question of subsidies for public transport at the fares level, my hon. Friend should be aware of the distinct change in the percentage spent by the Government on public transport compared with roads over the last two or three years.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that there is general scepticism about the acceptance by his Department of these projected traffic figures, in view of the massive increase in fuel prices and other burdens on the motorist? Will he confirm that future policies of his Department will not be based on figures which are suspect in many quarters?

All projections must be continually revised as new facts come forward. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has read the paper from the Transport and Road Research Laboratory and the Director-General of Highways' assessment of it, which is a slightly lower level of expansion than the TRRL suggested. The figures are the best which can be got from the available data, but, because we are dealing with a volatile subject, we must and will continue to revise them.

Does my hon. Friend recognise that many local authorities have been placed in considerable difficulties, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) said, because last year they were encouraged to proceed with fairly ambitious transport policy and programme schemes and now they have been told that everything must be viable? Does he recognise that the real key to successful public transport planning in future lies in the calculation of a proper planning price for energy use so that we shall know how much car use will cost in 10 years?

I agree that we must get our figures as clear as possible. On the question of car use and cost, one point which came out clearly in the report was that individual personal transport can take a large increase in expenditure before people are willing to forgo it. One way of increasing the use of public transport, as well as increasing the cost of private motoring, is to restrain private motoring in certain urban areas.

Housing Schemes

13.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many local housing authorities have applied to operate a half and half housing scheme.

A formal inquiry has been received from another authority and several others have inquired informally about Birmingham's scheme.

Does my hon. Friend accept that if the Birmingham scheme were launched nationally it could make a significant contribution to the housing needs of this country in that it provides less call on public funds? Will the Department take urgent action on this matter and not let it lie on the shelf, as the previous administration did?

It is because of legislation passed by this Government that the admirable scheme that Birmingham has initiated has been made possible. That being so, we hope that other local authorities will study it to see whether they could introduce it.

Is the Minister aware that any helpful measure of this kind which can be made to work in practical terms is to be welcomed? Does he realise, however, that the helpfulness of this scheme is limited by the restriction which has recently been imposed on local authority funds for this purpose and that that restriction will have particularly unfortunate consequences in large towns and cities? May I also stress that another factor is the willingness of councils, particularly Socialist councils, to make land available for sponsored low-cost housing, so that the fund of houses for purchase by low-income purchasers can be increased rather than reduced under municipalisation plans?

The hon. Gentleman has made yet another suggestion for increased public expenditure. I concur in his general sentiments, however, which will be greatly improved if some local authorities not under Socialist control do not sell off their housing land.

Council House Building

14.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what new plans he has for the financing of local authority house building.

This is one of the matters which is being considered in the comprehensive review of housing finance which I am now undertaking.

Does my right hon. Friend recall that in our election manifesto we said that housing subsidies would be increased to the point where they were equal to the tax concessions given to owner-occupiers? Since that is not a practical possibility either now or in the foreseeable future, will my right hon. Friend divert his attention to the build- ing of timber frame houses, for instance, which I have advocated in this House for some time, on the ground that they would be much less expensive than the prohibitive prices now being asked of local authorities, and also much quicker to build?

The total subsidies to local authority housing have roughly doubled in the last two or three years.

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend about timber frame houses. There are a number in my constituency. They are extremely popular and, as my hon. Friend said, quicker to build than traditional houses. My hon. Friend will have noticed that in our most recent circular, "Housing Needs and Action", we have attempted to give a further boost to the sensible use of systems like the one that he has in mind.

Does the Secretary of State agree that due to the high cost of subsidies and the enormous length of loans that local authorities have to take for local authority building there is no hope whatsover of solving our housing problems through local authority house building alone? Would it not be honest of the right hon. Gentleman to say so and to take more direct steps to assist the many people who would rather buy their own homes than rent them permanently?

If I may say so, that was a particularly stupid question. The hon. Gentleman must know perfectly well that no one on the Government side of the House has ever suggested that our housing problems could be solved solely by local authority housing. Further, the hon. Gentleman must know that this Government have taken a number of crucial actions—as anybody in the private house building industry will tell him—such as the loan to the building societies and other measures, in an attempt to boost the private house building programme.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that local authority house building has an enormous contribution to make in solving our housing problems? Does he accept that we can never solve our house building problems unless we have a new form of borrowing for local authorities which is much cheaper than they are able to obtain at present?

Perhaps I may make a major statement on the Government's housing policy. We believe that both local authority and private house building have a critical part to play in solving our housing problems.

Does the Secretary of State accept that the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry) was in fact extremely pertinent? While there is an important role for local authority housing, the fact is that its soaring cost is such that the Government must do far more to bring in the private sector, both in terms of home ownership and private rented accommodation. Will he please tell the Under-Secretary of State not to take such an arrogant and blind attitude towards the possibility of new lease arrangements?

My hon. Friend is noted not for blindness but for clear sightedness, and not for arrogance but for modesty.

On the substantive point of that supplementary question, the Government have taken many measures to encourage the private house building industry, and the hon. Gentleman will be as pleased as I am to note that the recent statistics show a marked upturn in private house building.

18.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on his proposals for the future of the council house building and improvement programme, council rents and subsidies.

I have nothing at present to add to the reply which I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Cartwright) on 5th May.—[Vol. 891, c. 308–9.]

Will my right hon. Friend accept a practical proposal? Is he aware that many local authorities, faced with extortionate charges by building firms, wish to use the highly successful direct labour departments of neighbouring councils but are not at present permitted to do so? How soon will he relax that restriction, which I believe he has stated he is prepared to consider but on which he is taking a very long time to act?

My hon. Friend will be aware that we have relaxed the provisions which were causing particular difficulties in certain of the metropolitan counties—for example, in Sheffield and Manchester. He is right in saying that I have made it clear that I would like to see further relaxation of other restrictions on direct labour departments, and I hope to introduce a measure as soon as legislation time permits.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the contribution of the rates to housing revenue accounts has become completely excessive? What are his predictions for council rents next year, and how do they compare with what the rent levels would have been under the fair rents system of the Housing Finance Act?

I cannot predict what the level of rents will be next year without a very much clearer idea of the rate of inflation next year, which I profoundly hope will be much lower than this year. As to what I understood to be the substantive point of his question, the hon. Member is right in saying that over the last few years rents have covered a substantially decreasing proportion of total housing costs, and we are likely to reach a situation in which the taxpayer and ratepayer combined will simply say "We cannot go on indefinitely footing the bill".

Will my right hon. Friend indicate what advice his Department has given to the Liverpool City Council and the other councils in the Merseyside Metropolitan District in relation to the housing programme? Is he aware that about 30 per cent. of unemployment on Merseyside—a very high proportion—is of construction workers? In an area like Merseyside it is important that there should be the fullest support for the local authorities in order to get the housebuilding programme going.

I understand that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has seen a deputation from Merseyside to discuss exactly the points which have just been put. He told the Merseyside local authorities in the strongest possible manner that he thought they should increase their housebuilding programme as rapidly as possible.

I appreciate the generous reply which the Secretary of State has given to this question. Will he accept the following proposition? The whole point of council house programmes must be one of resources related to demand. Therefore, should right hon. Gentlemen not take a look at reducing standards in council house building in order to provide more homes for the homeless? Is it not wrong to cut back on local authority improvement programmes? Those houses which need improvement this year, at whatever the cost, will need it just as badly next year, but at a much higher cost. Will the right hon. Gentleman consider a reduction of standards for council house building and institute a total reappraisal and reassessment of the improvement system for local housing authorities?

I have made an adjustment on council house improvements by switching £100 million from local authority lending substantially to council improvement schemes. I think the hon. Member missed the point when he referred to lower standards of house building. It is clear to me that we can build houses more cheaply and more quickly while maintaining standards at the level we wish to see. This comes back to the question we were discussing earlier, from one of my hon. Friends, which was discussed in the circular "Housing Needs and Actions". We must build houses more quickly and more economically, while maintaining standards.

Homeless Persons

15.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a further statement on his latest plans for helping the homeless.

The Government Departments concerned have now issued a joint consultation paper, as my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction announced in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Mr. Douglas-Mann) on 22nd May.—[Vol. 892, c. 531.]

Although that answer is hopeful as far as it goes, is it not obvious that the best hope of getting immediate help to the homeless lies in greater use of empty properties by Government and local authorities? Although I know that the Minister, whatever his other qualities may be, is personally concerned over the problem of homelessness, can he not put more urgency behind this crucial aspect of it?

I can certainly assure the hon. Member that bringing empty homes into use is a crucial way of dealing with homelessness. That is why we welcome some of the proposals of local authorities with regard to joint management schemes with private landlords and other methods. We are actively pursuing this matter, but the best way of dealing with homelessness is to build more new homes. Housing starts have risen markedly since we came to office.

We accept all that my hon. Friend has said, but can he assist local authorities who at the moment take a slightly ambivalent attitude to the homeless? For example, to one-parent families in which the parent is divorced or separated, their attitude appears to be that they cannot even be accepted on housing lists. This means that the very authorities that should be most concerned with finding suitable accommodation for a wife and children are themselves having to put some people ahead of the existing housing list. This means that they are very ambivalent and cannot make up their minds to whom they should give precedence.

I generally accept what my hon. Friend says. I hope that local authorities, in considering these problems, will adopt a more flexible and humane attitude than they sometimes do within their admittedly difficult housing management programmes. Housing management rules are not laid down on tablets from Sinai; they are really flexible, and should be used as such.

With up to 1 million houses empty, is the Department conducting researches into the effect of successive Rent Acts on this situation? Will the Minister also take up the point of the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) about short-term leases?

We are certainly, first, monitoring the effect of the latest Rent Act, second, considering the whole question of Rent Act legislation, but, third, turning down the Conservative proposals about depriving people of security of tenure.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the difficulty and distress caused by the split of responsibility which still exists between social service departments and housing departments, particularly in areas with two-tier local government, where the departments may be in different authorities? Will his Department undertake to reimpose on housing departments the duty to help the homeless?

I am well aware of the difficulties which are being caused in some areas. We have made clear the view within the Department—many local authorities are accepting it—and we hope that when the consultations are concluded on the paper which we have circulated, we shall be able, if that is seen to be necessary, to bring in definitive legislation to clarify the position.

In the context of the homeless, is the Minister aware that the area of the United Kingdom with the greatest social deprivation is Scotland? Should there not be an annual increase——

Order. Is this a matter within the ministerial responsibility of this Department? I do not think that this Minister has any responsibility for that. Mr. Allaun.

Order. Will the hon. Lady raise the point of order at the end of Question Time?

Will my hon. Friend inaugurate a great housing expansion. as we are still building at only half the 1967 rate? Does he agree that, far from this being an inopportune time, it is a good time to do so, since we have 182,000 unemployed workers in the building and related industries? Will my hon. Friend note that Germany and Italy, faced with growing unemployment, have started such a vast new deal in house building?

We have launched a great new housing drive; the increase in housing starts since this Government came to office is evidence of that. But, as my hon. Friend will know, we are far from complacent about this. We know that a great deal more needs to be done. I would take advantage of his question to draw the attention of local authorities to the fact that they are able to build without a subsidy ceiling and that many local authorities could be building far more if only they had the will to do so.

Housing Subsidies

16.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will update to current prices the following totals for housing subsidies in England in 1975–76 which are at constant 1974 prices: total housing subsidies, including rate fund contributions and rent rebate allowances, given as £1,014·5 million, improvement and renovation grants, given as £102·3 million, and local authority improvement investment given as £210·8 million.

I shall, with permission, circulate the figures in the Official Report.

That does not help us today. But in the context of the Secretary of State's reply to an earlier Question, that housing subsidies have doubled in the last two or three years and his reply to another Question, that he was concerned to contain local government expenditure, am I right in thinking that the level of housing subsidies must become of considerable concern to the Government? How do they propose to contain housing subsidies? What and where are their proposals in this respect to contain the use of taxpayers' money by the use of indiscriminate housing subsidies?

The subsidies are not indiscriminate. Nevertheless, I accept that this is a matter which needs to be examined carefully. My right hon. Friend has instituted the most far-reaching housing finance review which has ever been conducted. The results will be available within the next year.

Can the Minister estimate the magnitude of the total deficit on housing revenue account in England and Wales at present? Is this not a matter of the greatest seriousness, about which something will have to be done very quickly?

I accept that there are problems here. I cannot give the figure without notice. However, as a result of our legislation, any surplus on a housing revenue account will not be filched by the Treasury as it was under the Housing Finance Act.

Following is the information:

Revalued from 1974 to 1975 survey prices the figures are as follows:

£ million
Total housing subsidies, including rate fund contributions and rent rebates and allowances1,218·4
Improvement and renovation grants116·6
Local authority improvement investment240·3

Since the publication of Cmnd. 5879 I have increased the provision for local authority improvements this year to £290 million.

Local Government Administration

17.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he has any proposals for the improvement of local government administration; and if he will make a statement.

Local authorities are themselves responsible for their own internal administration, within the framework laid down by Parliament.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that many people feel alienated and isolated in the new giant authorities created by the Conservative Government's Act? Does he agree that the creation of lavish public relations departments to counteract that alienation is not the solution? Will he urgently consider some form of decentralisation, especially for areas like Keighley, which are geographically remote from the centre? Will he ensure, for example, that they function like the old excepted areas for education? Finally—

The kindest thing that I ever said about the prospect of local government reorganisation when the Bill was going through in 1971 was that it would be an expensive disaster. However, the difficulty that one is in is that although it has been a disaster and has unquestionably created an enormous upheaval, it has been in operation for only 12 months, and so much has taken place during that time that it is difficult to see what changes could be made at this moment. But I take my hon. Friend's point that remoteness and lack of accountability are the major difficulties in local government today.

Is the Minister aware that it would be a "best buy" in comparison with the land nationalisation Bill which he is pushing forward? Will he confirm, as he said earlier this year, that he has no plans in the foreseeable future for changing the present reorganised set-up of local government? Surely we can all agree that their job now is to get on and make the thing work.

The answer to the second question at least flowed from what I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer). It would be an even more monstrous upheaval at the moment and would be quite wrong. To the first question, about land being publicly owned by local authorities, the answer is, "No".

When does my right hon. Friend expect to be in a position to inform the House about the take-up of cases by the local government ombudsmen over the last year?

That is an example of a fairly cost-effective organisation. I think that the take-up is running now at about 80 cases a week. It obviously started at very much of a trickle, because, under their constitution the local government ombudsmen were permitted to deal only with matters of maladministration as from April last year. The take-up is therefore on a rising peak. I think that the figures are correct, but if I am wrong I shall write to my hon. Friend.

I agree with the right hon. Member that this is mainly the local councils' job, but I disagree with him when he says that reorganisation was disastrous. Is there not a field in which he could assist local authorities and others by seeing whether the agency arrangements are being carried out to the full, so that there is no duplication of work between the two spheres of local government? Can he give greater advice on the agency arrangements than has so far been given by his Department?

That is certainly one of the difficulties, but it was a difficulty—as I hope the right hon. Gentleman will, perhaps reluctantly, agree—which was inherent in reorganisation. It arose out of a lack of clear definition in the right hon. Gentleman's reorganisation proposals. But of course we are constantly trying to improve that situation. These matters flow quite naturally into the Community Land Bill under Clause 19 and into the land acquisition and management schemes.

Building Societies Association

19.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what recent discussions he has had with the Building Societies Association.

My Department keeps in close touch with the Building Societies Association on a wide variety of topics. In the most recent discussions which we have had, the building societies have indicated their willingness to help make good the £100 million switch from local authority mortgage leanding for home ownership.

Is the Secretary of State not just a little apprehensive that with the arrival of the Government's new index-linked savings scheme directed at those who traditionally invested in building societies, there might be a considerable effect on the funds of building societies, with a consequent effect on the availability of mortgages? In any of the discussions he has had with the Building Societies Association, has it ever been suggested that the Government, as they did with the Save-As-You-Earn scheme some time ago, should be prepared to underwrite a similar sort of index-linked system, but tied to building society investment?

I am a little apprehensive about what the Treasury does under any Government. I have discussed this matter with the building societies, and although no one would be so foolish as to dogmatise about it for the future, both we and they for the moment believe that neither that scheme nor the reduction to 7 per cent. in the borrowing rate will unduly jeopardise the inflow of funds. However, this is something to be watched from month to month.

On the wider question, I am sure that as part of the long-term review of housing finance we shall have to consider ques- tions like indexation, and others of the sort the hon. Member mentioned.

Is it not unacceptable that at present building societies have an abundance of money that they are able to lend at gross rates of 11 per cet. while local authorities are having to pay nearly half as much again for the money they borrow to finance public authority building? What step does my right hon. Friend intend to take to deal with that situation?

I have said many times in the House that the crux of the difficulty concerns local authorities whose mortgage rate is above 11 per cent. About 50 authorities are entitled to lend above the building society rate of 11 per cent. This problem has troubled me a great deal in recent months, but without finding an additional subsidy, which I am not prepared to do for this purpose, there is no way in which I can help the authorities concerned.

Does the Secretary of State agree that local author-ties can play an increasing part in the granting of mortgages? Would it not be better for them to spend the money they are likely to have to lay out in buying up development land on providing mortgages for first-time buyers instead?

I want to see both local authorities and building societies as actively concerned as they can be in the granting of mortgages to first-time purchasers.

Is it not possible for a scheme to be devised under which building societies can, if necessary, take over some of the existing local authority mortgages thereby avoiding the increasing numbers of authorities who week by week, are having to charge rates of 12 per cent., 13 per cent., 14 per cent., and 15 per cent.? If this situation continues it will lead to disaster.

I take that point. We have spent a lot of time examining that possibility. At the moment the main priority in discussions between ourselves and the building societies must relate to the much wider and larger question of the £100 million switch in local authority lending. There will be regional discussions on this matter between the local authorities and the building societies, but whether out of these discussions can come a solution on the lines my hon. Friend is suggesting we shall have to wait and see.