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House Building (Starts And Completions)

Volume 961: debated on Wednesday 31 January 1979

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asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he is satisfied with the level of new house building and if he will make a statement.


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what are the latest figures for housing starts and completions in the public and private sectors.

In November 1978—the latest month for which figures are available—there were 6,900 public sector starts and 13,200 in the private sector in Great Britain. There were 11,400 completions by the public sector and 12,900 by the private sector. I hope that the improved level of private sector starts will continue; but those for public sector starts are disappointing even bearing in mind the greater emphasis that many local authorities are now placing on gradual renewal and rehabilitation rather than demolition and new build.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Is it correct that 45,000 fewer new houses per year have been started during the lifetime of this Government than under the previous Conservative Government? If the record of the last Tory Administration had been maintained there would now be 200,000 more families living in new homes. How does the right hon. Gentleman square that with his February 1974 election pledge to reverse the serious housing fall? Will the right hon. Gentleman have a word with Transport House to repudiate the disgraceful party political broadcast earlier this month which said that no Government had built more houses than the present one?

We have had this kind of exchange before. The hon. Gentleman knows very well that the boom that was achieved in 1972–73 under the previous Tory Administration collapsed in 1974. It collapsed not, if I may say so, because of anything that we did. It had collapsed when we took over. What we have tried to do since is to maintain a reasonable, continuing and balanced new build programme between the public and private sectors. We had substantially succeeded, until the fall-out in public sector building as a result of changes in local political management in the past year.

Now that the combination of Treasury controls on house building and the indifference of Tory local authorities to their housing responsibilities have succeeded in reducing the public sector starts to the disastrous level of 1973, what action does my right hon. Friend intend to take to reverse the trend?

The actions that I can take are inevitably limited by the fact that housing is a locally provided service. Unless I were to envisage some major constitutional change in the relationship between central and local government, there are, clearly, limits to what I can do. I assure my hon. Friend, however, that I am giving every possible encouragement to local authorities to build. Where it is possible to switch from non-building authorities to those that are prepared to build I am willing to do it, and have done so.

How does the Secretary of State justify the broadcast referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and Lymington (Mr. Adley)? Did he write it? Did he approve every word?

Does my right hon. Friend agree that although the under-spending by Tory local authorities is a major factor in the decline in public sector building, the system of cash limits has resulted in a certain reduction in the activities of local authorities? Is he satisfied that this is purely a matter of teething troubles, and are there any steps that he can take to ensure that the effect of the system is diminished?

Cash limits, certainly in the first year after their introduction, may well have had some braking effect on the house building programme. But, as my hon. Friend will recall, we have greatly eased the situation, first, by agreeing about three-year programmes for housing allocation and, secondly, by allowing a carry-forward of 10 per cent. from one year to the next and an anticipation for the following year of the same amount. There is, therefore, considerable flexibility in the system.

So that we may keep the matter in proper perspective, does the Secretary of State agree that as well as the reasons that he has given for the hiccup caused through the change in the base of financing, local authorities have under-spent by only about 5 per cent. of the allocation under the housing investment programme? Does he agree that that is not a startling figure? If we are talking party politics, is it not true that Labour authorities such as Manchester and Sheffield were among those that did not spend their full allocation?

I assume that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the 1977–78 figures rather than the latest ones. I agree that a 5 per cent. underspend is not necessarily disastrous. But the figures that are emerging concern the crucial element, which is the number of approvals given. They determine the number of starts and completions in subsequent years. The number of approvals has fallen off uite sharply, and I am worried about it.