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House Building

Volume 932: debated on Wednesday 18 May 1977

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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.