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Council Houses (Sale)

Volume 961: debated on Wednesday 31 January 1979

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8.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what proposals he has for extending home ownership, by accelerating the sale of council houses and flats to their tenants; and if he will make a statement.

20.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will review the policy of his Department concerning the sale of council houses to sitting tenants.

I have no proposals for accelerating the sale of council houses. Existing policies for sales have been reviewed, and I hope to be able to consult the local authority associations very soon about proposed changes.

Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity of confirming that it is the Government's policy to extend home ownership in whatever way they can assist in that task? What opinion does the right hon. Gentleman have of the decision of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, announced earlier this week, to sell 53,000 council houses on a sliding scale, giving a better advantage to those who have been tenants for the longest time?

It is certainly no news to the House that we are very much in favour of extending home ownership. What has divided the House on this issue—it is the only difference that I can think of—is that we believe that we can extend home ownership principally by encouraging people in the private or public rented sectors to purchase houses in the private sector—either new build or existing houses. We have made many arrangements to assist in this, including the special facility for first-time purchases.

The hon. Gentleman and his party take the view that the most important approach to the extension of home ownership is to encourage authorities to sell local authority houses, regardless of the need for rented accommodation. I do not believe that that is the right policy to pursue, particularly if it is pursued in an ill-considered way.

My approach has always been that one must judge the situation district by district and area by area. I cannot answer for Northern Ireland, but I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend will be only too pleased to do so at the right time.

Since a large number of council tenants would like to buy the houses which they at present rent, and since this would make good economic sense, will the right hon. Gentleman introduce legislation to make it easier for these people to fulfil their ambition?

There is at present, and has been since 1970, a general consent whereby local authorities which have the responsibility of providing rented housing, and a broader responsibility for the housing need in their areas, have the permission to sell houses where they think and judge it right to do so. Therefore, I cannot accept what the hon. Gentleman says. The facilities are there. Indeed, they are quite generous, and many tenants are able to take advantage of them.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in some areas, for example, Southampton where council houses have been sold on an extensive scale and no new houses have been built to replace them, many families with children find it completely impossible to transfer from a council flat to a council house? As a result, these children will be condemned for many years to come to live in unsuitable conditions.

My hon. Friend has put the point very fairly. If one were seriously looking at the situation of an individual authority, and if one were judging a sensible policy about sale, one would want to take account of whether that authority was building at the same time. What is particularly deplorable is the situation where there is a clear need for rented accommodation and a council is not building and is at the same time selling off its existing stock. This is particularly deplorable where sales of houses with gardens are taking place in authority areas where, overwhelmingly, local rented accommodation is in high-rise flats.

If the Secretary of State believes that the sale of council houses should be dealt with on a district by district basis, subject to local conditions, why is he turning down those local authorities that wish to sell at a 30 per cent. discount and apply to him for permission to do so?

Because I do not believe that—[Interruption.] I have not changed the level of discounts, and I can see some advantage in them, provided they are linked to the right of a local authority to buy back over a period of years at the price at which it sells. But given the lack of considered approach by many councils at the present time—I fear that there is altogether too strong a political element in their judgment—I should not want to encourage them simply to offer houses on conditions which would amount to a loss to the ratepayer and taxpayer.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Conservative Opposition's policy on this matter represents a disgraceful attempt to buy votes by giving the opportunity to a lucky few to purchase public assets at a discount? Does he accept that hon. Members with the experience of the hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi), and others, must be aware that the cost to the public, the taxpayer, the ratepayer and those in need of homes must vastly outweigh any short-term advantage to the lucky few? Will he condemn this in rather more specific terms than he has done?

I have made it clear that I condemn an indiscriminate approach to council house sales. I have said that, I believe, on every occasion that I have come to the Dispatch Box. But I do not intend to engage in a kind of Dutch auction with the Opposition, and I do not believe that it is in the long-term interests of our people that either political party should follow that route.