Skip to main content


Volume 932: debated on Wednesday 18 May 1977

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

House Building


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what are the latest housing figures, public and private; if he is satisfied with them; and if he will make a statement.

The figures for March show that, in Great Britain, there were 12,100 starts and 14,500 completions in the public sector; private sector starts were 10,300, with 10,500 completions. These figures are an improvement on the low February figures and I hope that that improvement will continue.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that in order to get an even greater improvement we shall need to renegotiate the cuts that were agreed with the IMF, especially the so-called £300 million cut which is due to take effect in the next financial year? Does he accept that we must also look again at the cuts of last July, which are now affecting house building, especially in the public sector? Does he agree that pressure should be put on the building societies to reduce mortgage interest rates in order that in the private sector, too, there can be a surge of house building in order that we can have as many—

Order. If everyone takes as long as that we shall be lucky to reach Question No. 6.

There seem to be six questions incorporated in that one, but I shall do my best to answer them. On the public sector side, I favour increased allocation of resources for house building and other housing investment as soon as the economy permits. As for the current situation, while the moratorium imposed as a result of last July's controls has caused a slow-down in the number of starts coming through for approval on tender, that of itself would not account for the recent slow-down in the figures, a slow-down about which my right hon. Friend and I have expressed concern in the House before.

I hope that the provision that we have made, which will allow for about 150,000 housing starts in the public sector, will be implemented by the local authorities which have immediate responsibility in this area.

Does the Minister think that the greater availability of mortgages will lead to an increase in the number of houses in the private sector, and is not that greater availability being made possible largely because the building societies have not brought down their interest rates further?

The hon. Member puts his finger on a rather delicate point of balance concerning the timing of changes in interest rates in relation to the inflow of moneys to building societies which enables them to maintain their outflow. I hesitate to give a full reply about the direct effects of this factor on the rate of new building in the private sector. It is important to consider profit margins, the state of the market and price levels of all new building as well as the outflow of moneys for general lending purposes.

What pressure is my right hon. Friend putting on local authorities to get the correct mix of dwellings? Is he aware that it is no good building vast numbers of houses, for example in Birmingham, if the mix is wrong? There, elderly couples are destined to live the rest of their lives in three- or four-bed-roomed houses that they cannot look after and that the council will not repair. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is essential to get the correct mix of dwellings, so that such people may be more suitably housed?

This is an important point, to which we have given a great deal of attention in the last two or three years. We have had results, but they are not sufficiently good yet. There needs to be a switch in emphasis, in the public and private sectors, in the type of housing being provided. Far too many three-bedroomed houses are being provided when there is a much greater need for small units. We are using our best endeavours to influence a change in that direction, and with some success.

What does my right hon. Friend say about a Tory-dominated council, such as that in Leicester, which has an acute housing shortage in an area regarded as a stress housing area but where the council, with absolute disregard of the needs of the population, has sliced the housing programme in half?

I can only express the hope that there will be a change of view in Leicester and that the local authority will change its policy on house building. On the general point, it is particularly important in areas with stress, such as the one my hon. and learned Friend referred to, that an overall strategy and programme be developed which will relate not just to new building generally but to new building for down-market occupation and other aspects of housing such as rehabilitation, conversion and the provision of the right mix of dwellings referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker).

Will the Minister confirm that the target that has been reduced in Leicester was a figure that was clutched from the air by the previous Socialist Administration? Does he not wish the local authority in Leicester to use its own judgment about priorities in housing and how the money should be spent? This is in conformity with the latest declaration by the Secretary of State about independence in local housing?

I have no evidence whatever to support the hon. Gentleman's claim, and I suspect that he does not have any, either. Leicester, like a number of other authorities, has been included as a stress or priority area in housing. We expect such authorities to use their judgment with honesty, and to study and analyse the situation. We expect them to use their judgment in preparing an overall strategy for housing problems. If Leicester has welcomed and accepted its listing as a stress authority—as no doubt it has—it should proceed with investment in house building.

Greater London (Population)


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what discussions he has had about reducing the population of Greater London.

Will the Secretary of State talk to the Minister for the Civil Service about this matter? For years London has been steadily losing jobs. Therefore, it does not make sense to press ahead and spend £500 million or more on moving thousands of civil servants out of Greater London, with all the resulting domestic and administrative upheavals. Will he think again about this matter?

I understand the hon. Member's point, but I have been trying to give emphasis to inner city revival in examining the dispersal plans. These plans can play a very important part because, while I am concerned about the inner city areas in London, I am also concerned about the inner city areas in other parts of the country. It would be wrong to lose sight of the balance that needs to be struck. It is relevant to look at the time scale over which these planned dispersals are designed to take effect.

Is the Secretary of State aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) does not need to worry too much about this problem? I received an answer to a parliamentary Question which showed that the sum total of Government activity on the Hardman Report was that 0·001 per cent. of civil servants were being moved to development areas.

The hon. Member has made the point that I was making about the time scale being very relevant to this issue.

Is the Secretary of State saying that he wants civil servants living on the outskirts of London to have their jobs moved to deprived areas of the country so that they can live in inner cities there?

We want to strike a balance in the distribution of office and Government employment in different parts of the country. We are acutely aware of the present problems in London, but we must look at this situation over a considerable period of time and adjust the balance, which in the past has been heavily centred on London.

Housing Policy Review


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will set out in full in the Official Report, giving references and dates in each case, every official forecast made in the House by either the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State or other Ministers at the Department of the Environment on the publication date of the Housing Finance Review, subsequently renamed the Housing Policy Review, since that review was first announced, including his current forecast.

Yes. The Green Paper on the Housing Policy Review is to be published just as soon as it is ready.

Does the Secretary of State accept that there has been an extraordinary delay over this report, for which house builders have been asking for some time because it affects their policies? Can he give a firm indication instead of a waffle answer?

The first part of the hon. Member's question discourages me on this occasion from giving too precise an answer. That is why I carefully couched my answer in the terms I did. I do not accept that there has been an unnecessary delay. On the contrary, it indicates the considerable importance that we attach to getting the housing policy right.

If the hon. Member reflects on two of the major housing White Papers and Acts that were produced by his own party in the post-war period—the 1957 Rent Act and the 1972 Housing Finance Act—he will be bound to conclude that the case against being over-hasty is immense.

When the review is published, will the Secretary of State resist the Conservative clamour to slash council house building and subsidies, thereby increasing rents? When rents are increased, trade unionists regard it as a reduction in their real wages. Will the improved financial situation encourage the Secretary of State to restore the cuts that have been made in housing?

The second question is one on which my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction has just commented—the possibility, as the situation improves, of doing more in house building. On rents, it is my hope that in terms of the Housing Policy Review, when the whole matter will be laid before the House, we shall be able to bring forward proposals that are seen to be sensible and fair.

Will the Secretary of State explain why he has totally failed to answer the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, North (Mr. Durant), requiring references and dates of repeated promises of publication of the Housing Policy Review? This is not a question of being over-hasty. The fact is that the conclusions of all the experts are incompatible with and unacceptable to this Government. That is why the review has not been published.

We shall see how unacceptable the conclusions are. We shall see—I hope it will not be long—just how right or wrong the alleged experts are. I counsel the hon. Member to be more patient. In relation to the dates, I was asked to put an answer in the Official Report and I am doing so.

Following is the information:

The following list contains references to statements made in the House on the publication date of the Housing Policy Review.
  • 15 January 1975: Secretary of State (the former right hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland)), Vol. 884, col. 100 (Written Answer).
  • 12 November 1975: Minister for Housing and Construction (the right hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Freeson)), Vol. 899, col. 703 (Written Answer).
  • 14 January 1976: Secretary of State, Vol. 903, col. 371.
  • 15 March 1976: Minister for Housing and Construction, Vol. 907, col. 382 (Written Answer).
  • 30 June 1976: Minister for Housing and Construction, Vol. 914, col. 168 (Written Answer).
  • 14 July 1976: Secretary of State (the right hon. Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore)), Vol. 915, cols. 634–5.
  • 4 August 1976: Secretary of State, Vol. 916, col. 1693.
  • 3 November 1976: Secretary of State, Vol. 918, col. 1391.
  • 9 November 1976: Minister for Housing and Construction, Vol 919, cols. 105–6 (Written Answer).
  • 8 December 1976: Secretary of State, Vol. 922, cols. 431–3.
  • 19 January 1977; Secretary of State, Vol. 924, cols. 314–6.
  • 27 January 1977: Prime Minister, Vol. 924, col. 1697.
  • 16 March 1977: Secretary of State, Vol. 928, cols. 189–90 (Written Answer).

Council Houses (Cost)


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what is the current average cost of a newly-built council house, including land, in England and Wales.

The current average cost of a newly-built local authority dwelling, including land, is £13,000.

In view of the size of that figure, does the Minister accept that it would be far cheaper for the Government to help less-well-paid families to buy their own houses—which they would prefer—than to build more council houses for them?

I would not accept that allegation. The truth is that a great number of people do not wish to buy their own homes and there are others who cannot afford to do so. Each local authority has a duty to see that these people are adequately housed.

Will the Minister explain why Conservatives so often bash council houses, ignoring the all-party role which in the past regarded assisted housing as the most important of all social services, basic to all other social expenditure?

I would not dream of trying to explain the philosophy of the Opposition. That is not my job, thank goodness. Housing is a great social need which calls for a community responsibility as well as an individual responsibility.

Can the Minister tell the House what the average cost of £13,000 represents in terms of annual subsidy from ratepayers and taxpayers? Inas much as the figure is an average one, what are the minimum and maximum figures for council house building costs in the country at the moment?

If the hon. Member wants details—and he has every right to them—he should table a Question. I shall then answer it. The average subsidy from the central Government rate fund for council dwellings is running at £212 and the average tax relief and mortgage subsidy per mortgagor is £214.

Will the Under-Secretary answer the question? What is the subsidy on new council house building in the £13,000 average cost?

If the hon Gentleman thinks he knows more than the experts, I suggest that he tables a Question, when I shall given him a detailed answer.

Commission For The New Towns


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what is the current capital value of (a) the commercial assets and (b) the industrial assets of the Commission for the New Towns.

Regular revaluation of the commercial and industrial assets of the Commission for the New Towns does not take place, but a provisional estimate by the Commission of their capital value is of the order of £100 million. This figure does not take account of reversionary values and should be treated with considerable reserve. The true figure is likely to be higher.

I recognise the Minister's carefully chosen words, but he will recognise that current values are substantially in excess of historic valuations. If my memory serves me right in regard to the resources available for inner city areas, the Secretary of State was prepared to consider the sale of new town assets. I see that the right hon. Gentleman assents to that remark. Is the Minister prepared to make a statement and to let us know what progress has been made in this respect?

My right hon. Friend said that he was considering the matter, but the House must bear in mind that these assets appreciate in value and represent a sound investment of public money. Such consideration is taking place on that basis.

Will my hon. Friend assure the House that he has not lost sight of the fact that the Labour Party conference went on record in favour of the transfer not merely of housing assets but of industrial and commercial assets, subject to conditions to preserve the national investment, to appropriate local authorities? Will he give an assurance that we shall not regard the early wind-up of development corporations, the transfer of assets to the Commission, and, thereafter, their possible sale, as being of advantage in terms of local democracy?

I know that my hon. Friend recognises that these assets have been financed by the Exchequer, and ultimately by the taxpayer. He will also know that my right hon. Friend has undertaken to examine whether in due course local authorities should be able to acquire these assets if they have the resources to manage them. Those matters are being carefully considered, but I am well aware of the Labour Party view and policy on this matter.

Is the Minister aware that in the new towns there exist over 96 million sq. ft. of industrial space, over 12 million sq. ft. of office space, and 12½ million sq. ft. of shop space? Will he accept that the figure he gave the House is a gross underestimate of the current market value of that space, which amounts in total to 120 million sq. ft.? Does he not accept that the real value is more like £1,000 million? Therefore, will he obtain an early valuation of these assets?

The hon. Gentleman is inviting me, as are other Conservative Members, to indulge in unnecessary expenditure. It would be an expensive job to undertake a full revaluation of assets. The purpose of revaluing them presumably is to sell them. That is not the Government's present intention. Therefore, I do not see the purpose in proposing it.

Will my hon. Friend tell the Secretary of State for the Environment, if he needs telling, that it would be a classic example of muddle-headedness even to consider flogging off profit-making public enterprise in the new towns? Will he also consider the fact that if these industrial and commercial assets are to continue to be controlled by the Commission for the New Towns a directly elected element should be put into local committees, which as now appointed are accountable to nobody?

I can only repeat that this is a sound investment of public money. In that respect I would be totally opposed to the sale of such sound investments.

On the other point, I am very well aware of demands for people in the new towns to have a full democratic say in the future of these assets. Obviously we are considering the way in which this might be achieved.

Before I call the next Question, I wish to point out that a number of hon. Members have now come into the Chamber who did not hear my earlier appeal for brief questions and answers.

Heathrow (Fourth Terminal)


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will cause a public inquiry to be held into the proposal of the British Airports Authority to establish a fourth terminal at Heathrow Airport.

In the light of the views being received from the local authorities which have been consulted, my right hon. Friend is urgently considering whether it would be expedient for him to make or approve a direction to make the BAA's present proposal the subject of normal planning control. This would be an essential first step towards any statutory public planning inquiry.

But an Article 4 direction does not necessarily produce a planning inquiry, does it? It is not the necessary preliminary to a planning inquiry, is it? Therefore, will the Minister use his inherent authority to order a public inquiry, or will he employ his statutory authority, following an Article 4 direction, to ensure that there is a public inquiry into a development of this magnitude, which has aroused such strong reservations in all the surrounding areas?

I beg to differ with the hon. and learned Gentleman. The possibility of building a fourth terminal lies within the general development area of the British Airports Authority, but it is open to any of the local authorities—of which there are a number involved—to make an Article 4 direction, or it is open to my right hon. Friend to do so. But before my right hon. Friend determines whether to make an Article 4 direction, we must see that each local authority concerned is properly consulted. We are expecting to take in those views shortly. On that basis, and on that basis alone can the question of a public inquiry arise. At that stage, it becomes part of the normal planning process.

The Minister talks of local authorities having to be properly consulted. Is he aware that there is grave concern about the fourth terminal in Outer London, and that no consultation whatever has taken place with the London borough of Richmond upon Thames? Will he explain why that has not occurred?

There are a number of local authorities whose planning powers are directly involved. Those are the planning authorities which have been consulted. I wish to make clear that two of those authorities are the Greater London Council and Surrey.

Further to the supplementary question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Surrey (Sir A. Royle), is the Minister aware that the London borough of Richmond upon Thames, which includes Twickenham, is very near to Heathrow but does not touch it? If the purpose of planning consultation is to ascertain whether people will be adversely affected by any development, it must be right that people who will be heavily overflown by additional aircraft that might result from the fourth terminal should be consulted through their local authority? Will he bear that in mind in deciding whether to hold a public inquiry?

The hon. Gentleman must bear in mind that we are talking of an Article 4 direction. It is open to certain authorities to make such a direction. That is the reason why, pre-eminently, they are being consulted. The boroughs to which reference has been made obviously can make their views known through the GLC.

Will the Minister assure the House that the Secretary of State will reach his decision on this matter by the end of June?

I am not my right hon. Friend, but I am sure that he will make his decision as expeditiously as he can.

In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the reply, Mr. Speaker, I beg to give notice that I shall seek to raise the matter on the Adjournment at the earliest possible opportunity.

Local Authorities (Direct Labour)

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment when he proposes to introduce new legislation on local authority direct works.

The Local Authorities (Restoration of Works Powers) Bill was given a Second Reading yesterday. Unfortunately, comprehensive legislation on local authority direct labour organisations is not possible at present.

As the Government agreed to emasculate the original Bill in return for Liberal support, and as most Liberal Members did not bother to turn up last night to vote for the Liberal version of the Bill, does it not mean that the Liberals have broken their side of the bargain? Does this not justify the Government in telling the Liberals "We have had enough of any pact with you"? Is it not time to return to our original Socialist commitment and to tell the Liberals that they are a bunch of skivers?

We have not gone back on any commitment. The Government are committed, and in due time will bring in legislation to enable efficient direct labour organisations to expand. That will be done. As for the hon. Gentleman's comment about the Liberals, that matter is not within my responsibility.

Has the Parliamentary Secretary had a chance to reflect, since last night's discussion, on the extraordinary statement that was made from the Treasury Bench that the Government agreed with the CIPFA recommendations—as, indeed, does the whole House—but refuse to include them in the Bill?

The hon. Gentleman, who was present throughout yesterday's debate, must have heard it stated categorically that bringing in the CIPFA recommendations for those 25 authorities with which the Bill is solely concerned was not a practical proposition.

Why, then, did the Government not bring in the CIPFA regulations for all direct labour training? That would have been perfectly acceptable to both sides of the House.

If the hon. Gentleman had not approached our proposals for direct labour organisations in such a biased way, and if he had read them carefully and made an objective appraisal of the situation, he might have been in favour of the original Bill.

Urban Blight


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what resources he plans to make available for relieving urban blight in areas other than those included in the partnership arrangement.

As I said in my statement on 6th April, outside the partnership arrangements authorities will be able to prepare inner area programmes, and the Government will consider linking urban grants to those programmes, though necessarily on a modest scale in the early years.

While not in any way wishing to increase public expenditure, may I ask whether the Minister is satisfied that he has the policy right within existing proposals? If one takes London as an example, is the Minister aware that I could take him to half a dozen areas in which there is greater deprivation than in Lambeth? How far have the Government viewed the recommendations of the Community Development Project—which cost about £5 million—in formulating this limited and unfair policy?

I note what the hon. Gentleman said about public expenditure, and that is welcome. He seems to have joined the growing ranks of converts on both sides of the House. In reply to the first part of his question, I must point out that so far we have made only a preliminary determination. The areas that we have announced are firm, but I have made it clear that we shall be discussing with local authorities the possibility of including a limited number of additional areas in the partnership arrangements.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the scheme is gaining support among local authorities, particularly in the areas already referred to? Does he further agree that the degree of flexibility that is being applied to the problem in some areas offers exciting possibilities of co-operation. Will he pursue this line in the areas that have been designated for these purposes?

Yes. On the whole, the response has been good and local authorities have certainly been attracted by the number of proposals that we have been able to make so far. I hope that as we work out the ideas in partnership and through the other arrangements there will be a possibility of achieving something of great benefit to the people of inner cities throughout the country.

Does the Secretary of State accept that the reception of the proposals in Newcastle upon Tyne was bad? Will he take it from me that the exclusion of that great city from the list of those in the partnership agreement was badly received locally, and will he seek to rectify the omission?

I understand the feeling there. Indeed, it has been indicated to me by a number of hon. Members who represent that city. I have said that I am willing to receive a deputation from Newcastle to discuss the scheme with them, and I hope to do so soon.

Will my right hon. Friend utterly and decisively reject any proposal to divert money from Lambeth to Harrow?

I understand the limitation on resources, but does the Secretary of State recognise that there is genuine concern about the criteria that the Government have used in establishing priorities? Will he particularly remember that there are decayed areas in outer areas of cities, as well as blighted regions, in the Black Country and Midland towns and in the industrial areas of Lancashire and Yorkshire, that will not share in the arrangements? Does he realise that these areas feel neglected?

I understand that, but the House must face this problem realistically. I am prepared to broaden the criteria as soon as the House as a whole is prepared to give me more money to spend to deal with the problem of urban decay. To the best of my ability, I am applying to the areas of greatest need the inevitably limited resources now available.

Local Authorities (Partnership Schemes)

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what are the implications for the local authorities concerned of the partnership arrangements recently announced by the Government.

The partnerships will involve local authorities, Government Departments and agencies in drawing up and implementing joint programmes of action. Extra help will be available through main programmes and from the enlarged urban programme. I hope to discuss in the near future the arrangements with the authorities for the areas announced in my 6th April statement.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the local authorities concerned are worried that the Government will spend the £100 million that has been granted purely on building new houses, while the local authorities feel that most of the money should go on refurbishing and renovating existing houses in order to preserve intact the character and the communities of the inner areas?

I should be surprised if there were genuine anxiety. There ought not to be any, because the areas that I have already designated as partnership areas are ones of housing stress. There will be no interruption in their new building programmes. As for the allocation of the money, I am most anxious to hear the views of the local authorities on that matter. I shall not impose on them any preconceived ideas about how the money could best be spent.

In his consultations with the partnership areas, will the Minister not forget those small urban areas that are not included in the scheme? Will he instruct his officials to look sympathetically at the relatively small demands for housing and other such relief of urban deprivation that may be requested by such areas—especially in view of the fact that towns such as Swadlin-cote, in my constituency, do not have the advantages of the big cities but have just as much urban deprivation?

I understand the concern about this, but I shall not forget about the smaller urban areas. Following the transfer of the original urban programme to my Department, I shall be looking at that programme to see how far I can help other areas as well.

Will the Secretary of State say whether the partnership arrangement for the London docklands will be with the local authorities or the joint committee? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that if the arrangements are made separately with the local authorities the chances of effective action will be diminished?

The hon. Gentleman has made a good point. There is a special arrangement in dockland and I hope shortly to discuss with dockland representatives the appropriate arrangement for partnership in that area and with the special organisation.

Does the Secretary of State realise that he could help in a major way in the inner city areas without spending a penny of Government money? Is he aware that in these areas there are vast amounts of disused dockland and railway land, some of which has not been used for 10 to 20 years and the current use value of which is nil, in spite of which the local authorities are being asked £20,000 or more an acre for this desperately needed land?

I agree that there is much disused land in inner city areas, particularly land that is no longer needed for port operations that have ceased. I am most anxious that such land should be released. However, one must take account of the authorities that hold that land. For some of them it is important collateral for their own financial arrangements, but I shall be anxious to encourage them to release at an early date land that they do not need.

In view of the Secretary of State's answers to this question and a previous one, will the right hon. Gentleman recognise the need for a rapid and urgent programme for the sale of commercial and industrial assets in the new towns so that resources may be speedily released to help deal with these serious problems?

I must warn the hon. Gentleman that he is exaggerating this possibility. I was asked whether it would be possible to raise money on some of the assets of the Commission for the New Towns and whether we could use those resources for other public expenditure purposes in inner city revival, and so on. I said that I am prepared to look at the possibility, and I shall do so.


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment when he expects to publish his White Paper on partnership schemes for inner city areas.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his announcement that £17 million will be available for investment in the London docklands has been welcomed in East London? Bearing in mind his announcement today that he will seek discussions with the Docklands Joint Committee on the body through which that money should be spent, can he indicate the nature of the items on which it could be spent and the time scale involved, assuming that the discussions are satisfactory and quick?

Now that the £17 million has been allocated to docklands, it is for the dockland authorities to establish their priorities for expenditure. They can start spending the money as soon as they have agreed on what they wish to spend it. As the authorities are linked in the dock-lands arrangement, I think that they will wish to consult each other and, as far as possible, make the spending proposals fit into the general context of the dock-land strategy.

Will the right hon. Gentleman make plain in the White Paper what steps he is taking to ensure that inner city areas are making use of their increased rate support grant that has been taken from county areas? Since the county areas have suffered this deprivation, may we be satisfied that the money is not being used just to hold down the rates, but is actually doing something for these inner city areas?

I certainly hope that the inner city areas that are partnership areas will look at the extra resources available to them, not only through the enhanced inner city grant but through the rate support grant. It would be irresponsible if the authorities regarded cutting back the rates as an alternative to getting on with inner urban reconstruction.

As it seems that we shall not reach Question No. 21, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman—?

I was just making the point, Mr. Speaker. Will the White Paper on inner city areas cover the problem of empty properties? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that at a recent public inquiry two inner London areas, one of which was Lambeth, were shown to have more than 4,000 empty properties? Should not local authorities be encouraged to co-operate with housing associations to get these properties occupied?

I do not have details of the authorities to which the hon. Gentleman has referred, but better use and improvement of the housing stock in inner city areas is an important part of our general strategy.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the initiative taken in the London borough of Brent, where my council recently called a conference on unemployment and has this week held a conference on the development of the Park Royal estate? Will my right hon. Friend consider, in the White Paper, giving encouragement to local and other authorities that are trying to participate with the Government, business and trade unions to secure solutions to the inner city problems?

I am pleased to hear of the initiative being taken in Brent and I believe that initiatives have been taken by many other authorities in the last two years. I hope that the White Paper will be completed fairly shortly and I hope to indicate in detail what we meant by extending the powers of local authorities to give assistance to firms in their areas.

As the right hon. Gentleman continually stresses how little money, relative to the problem, is available for inner urban development, why did his Under-Secretary say earlier that the Government were not even prepared to undertake a valuation of new town assets so that the House could have a real dialogue on whether priority should be given to the sale of those assets and their rolling over into inner urban areas?

I do not see any contradiction between what my hon. Friend has said and what I said a short time ago. I said that I had received a proposal from the hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi), who, as we know, puts forward proposals in a most serious way. I have replied by saying that I shall consider it. I am not prepared to take the matter any further than that at present.

Improvement Grants

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will increase the eligible cost limits for improvement grants.

I have no plans for an immediate general increase in eligibile cost limits for improvement grants, but I shall consider increasing the limits in particular areas to enable essential rehabilitation to proceed. I shall consider, too, the case for increases in the rateable value limits in areas where rateable values are particularly high.

Is the right hon, Gentleman aware that his answer will be profoundly disappointing to many thousands of occupiers of older properties? Is he aware that it is more than two and a half years since the limits were increased and that during that time of Socialist Government the cost of living and the cost of building have increased by more than half? Does he realise that his refusal to increase the eligible limits must be damaging the programme of rehabilitation?

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman was listening to my answer. He must have come prepared with a supplementary question to an answer that he did not get. I said that we had no immediate plans for a general increase, but in the meantime I shall be prepared to consider increasing the limits in particular areas to enable essential rehabilitation to proceed and to consider the case for increases in rateable value limits in areas where those values are particularly high. I should have thought that that was a helpful answer. We shall consider the general question at another time.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his answer will be very welcome, particularly if, as I hope he will ensure, it is applied to Liverpool? Is he aware that I hope that it will be implemented at the earliest possible opportunity in areas such as Liverpool, because it will help the many thousands of construction workers who are now unemployed? Will he consider a limit of more than 75 per cent. in some cases and up to 90 per cent-in special cases? I realise that there would then have to be arrangements about rents.

I should clarify one point made by my hon. Friend. I shall consider applications from Liverpool and elsewhere along the lines that I have indicated, but my answer related not to the percentage of grant aid but to actual cash limits. Grant aid is already running at 75 per cent. in housing action areas and 60 per cent. in general improvement areas. As to future developments and the possibility of assisting repair work and the installation of amenities, I should prefer to await the outcome of our Housing Policy Review, because this matter is being looked at in the review.

Why did the right hon. Gentleman's answer refer only to particular areas? Do these particular areas include Dorset? If not, why not? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we are getting increasingly suspicious of references to "particular areas", because rural areas are always left out when that phrase is used?

The answer to the hon. Gentleman is incorporated in my original reply. I said that I shall consider the possibility of increasing the limits in particular areas to enable essential rehabilitation to proceed. That related to the original question about the costs incurred in those areas being somewhat higher—and sometimes sharply higher—than elsewhere. Similarly, rateable values are much higher in some areas than in others. We are prepared to look at individual applications, but we are not making a list of areas. We are awaiting applications and we shall consider them.

As this is a matter of great interest to the House and great anxiety outside, can the right hon. Gentleman indicate when he will be able to make a positive statement on the limits to which he has referred? Will he stop coming to the House every six months and saying that another six months are required before the housing policy review can be completed?

The hon. Gentleman has got the import of my answer a little wrong. I said that we shall be prepared to consider applications along the lines indicated in my original reply. It is not a question of my coming here to make a statement listing a number of authorities that will be included. Individual requests will come to us and we shall have to look at them carefully because we are operating under tight public expenditure constraints. We shall receive the applications and, on the basis of the information given to us, we shall make our judgments. Some people will be disappointed, but I hope that we shall be able to help others.

In view of the unsatisfactory nature of that reply, I beg to give notice that I shall seek to raise the matter on the Adjournment at the earliest opportunity.

European Community Regulations


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many EEC regulations and directives have been imposed upon the areas of work covered by his Department since 1973.

The Council has adopted 21 directives and regulations on matters for which my Department has a major responsibility.

What is the cost of implementing these regulations and directives, and how many extra public employees are involved? Does the right hon. Gentle man agree that it is important to watch the breeding capacity of the Brussels apparatchik in over-creating further civil servants in this country?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's attention to this aspect of Community affairs as they affect this country, and especially my Department. Without notice, I cannot give him a detailed answer on cost. However, I can assure him that I am conscious of the general tendency to extend Community competence and the dangers that this may pose for us in terms of additional costs and burdens and the diminution of our legislative authority. We look upon all such proposals most carefully and critically.

On balance, does my right hon. Friend think that the regulations and directives have done any good?

In my area they are, by definition, of a somewhat different character. They are concerned mainly with environmental pollution. In that area, where increasingly the problems of pollution cross national frontiers, there is the possibility of coming to commonsense agreements and arrangements that we would have wished to conclude whether or not we had joined the Community.

How many of these regulations has the right hon. Gentleman initiated, and how many have been initiated in Europe and imposed upon the United Kingdom as part of the process of standardisation?

I am not aware of having initiated any, but I am aware of having been caught, as it were, in the onward flow of proposals that emanate from Brussels. I have done my best to cope with that flow and to ensure that no proposals are accepted unless they accord with the interests of this country and with the general rule of common sense.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I ask you to rule that Question No. 18 is hypocritical or ironic, in view of the fact that it comes from a member of the Opposition.

Order. The hon. Gentleman is guilty of the sin for which he is confounding others.

Local Authority Mortgages


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he or one of his Ministers will make arrangements to visit the Royal borough of Windsor and Maidenhead in order to discuss the effects of the reduction in money available for local authority mortgage loans.

No, Sir. I am aware of the difficulties that many local authorities are experiencing as a result of the further reduction in their mortgage lending quotas, but the additional funds that the building societies are making available under the support arrangements will enable the Royal borough to maintain its lending broadly at the 1976–77 level. In addition, the new arrangements, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced on 6th April, will enable it, if it wishes, to switch up to £500,000 to lending from other programmes.

I am grateful to the Minister for that full answer. Is the hon. Gentleman aware of a real problem—namely, that building societies are reluctant to lend money on older property? Does he appreciate that the reduction from £2·4 million in 1975 to £620,000 in 1977–78 is having a real impact on those who wish to buy older property? That is reflected by the amount of money that the building societies are prepared to advance.

I do not disagree with anything that the hon. Gentleman has said. We have indicated to local authorities and building societies that we want the money to be allocated to the special priority categories, which include the very ones that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

Has my hon. Friend calculated the amount of money that is being spent by building societies in Windsor and Maidenhead on decorations for the Silver Jubilee? They are spending a great deal of money on such decorations—money that could be devoted to more useful purposes.

No. I am afraid that I have not spent time undertaking that calculation.

Building Societies Association


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


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment when he next proposes to meet representatives of the Building Societies Association.

I met the chairman and the chairman-designate of the Building Societies Association on 6th May. I am ready to meet the new chairman again whenever the need arises, and my Department maintains continuing contact with the association.

Is it not now clear that if the building societies had yielded to Government pressure three months ago to reduce their lending rates to the level likely to prevail after next month, the amount of money available for new mortgagees this summer would be substantially less than it is now likely to be? In those circumstances, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the building societies must keep a balance between investors, existing borrowers and new borrowers? Is that not an indication that less Government pressure on the building societies in future would be welcome?

I think that the hon. Gentleman is right, in that there is clearly a need for a balance of considerations in the building societies' policy on mortgage interest rates. I do not know where he gets the idea of the building societies yielding or not yielding to Government pressure. I take the opportunity of making plain my own view. I believe that mortgage interest rates should be determined, and are bound to be determined, by the building societies. I cannot do that. However, my wish is to see determined as quickly as possible the lowest level of rates consistent with a flow of funds sufficient to meet the demand for mortgages in the foreseeable future.

Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that good enough liaison machinery exists between the building societies, the monetary authorities and himself to ensure that building society rates do not get too far out of line for too long? In that context, what advice is he now giving building societies about interest rates for the next six months?

Views are exchanged on these matters. The building societies are conscious when they are out of line with competing monetary rates. If they are out of line one way, they suffer a considerable loss in the inflow of funds. If they are out of line the other way, they have a considerable influx. They take account of both those situations in determining their interest policy.

Does my right hon Friend agree that the wide discrepancy between general interest rates and mortgage rates, which adversely affects many of those who want to buy a house, indicates clearly that the crazy system that the building societies operate should make way for a nationalised system in which local authorities, or Government agencies, may lend the money on a more equitable and reasonable basis?

I did not really follow my hon. Friend's argument, which inevitably was advanced in a terse form, as it was put in a supplementary question. I am not clear in which respect he thinks that the system is insane. As long as housing finance rests largely on one group lending money and another group borrowing it, clearly interest rates will have to take account of the interests of both. That is what building societies do. We can argue about the practices of building societies, and we have had many such exchanges. The House knows that I am anxious to get the building societies to take a more positive view, especially in helping those with lower incomes and avoiding the practice of red-lining.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the practices of the building societies are totally influenced by the climate of the Government's financial performance? Is he aware that there have been about 52 changes in minimum lending rate in the past four years? Does he accept that earlier this year the Government were offering 8·78 per cent. net of tax interest, which took about £150 million that otherwise would have gone to the building societies?

I am not sure that I can confirm that. Obviously we want to encourage a certain stability in the building societies' lending policies, both in terms of the quantity of money that they have available to lend and the interest rates that they are charging. That is a different consideration from the inevitably shorter-term movements of MLR.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the principal fault of the building societies is that they are always reluctant to reduce rates when interest rates are down and only too willing to raise them when they are on the way up? Does he also agree with the criticism of many hon. Members who represent inner city areas that the building societies are reluctant to lend money on older properties?

I understand and agree entirely with my hon. Friend on the second point.

On the first point, the House should remember that in 1973, under the mismanagement of the Conservative Government, the building societies suffered from a serious mortgage famine, which was far more disruptive to would-be owner-occupiers and, indeed, to the house construction industry than if they had pursued a policy that maintained their lending rate in a more orderly way, even though interest rates have had to go up.