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Council House Building

Volume 973: debated on Wednesday 14 November 1979

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asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many units of council housing he expects will be started in 1980; how this compares with the average number of starts over the last five years; and if he is satisfied with the progress made.

The average of new house building starts by local authorities in England over the five years 1974 to 1978 was 92,000. The level of house building in 1980, and the progress made, will depend upon the decisions made by each local authority.

Does the Minister accept that that answer is totally evasive? Does he agree that when the figures are revealed they will represent an absolute disgrace? Is he aware that many thou-stands of families have no bath and no hot water and have to go through somebody else's living room to get to the lavatory? Is he also aware that thousands of families do not enjoy normal marital relations because they have no privacy? Families are living in the most dreadful conditions, yet the Minister will announce a deplorable lack of starts next year. He is willing to be complacent and do nothing about that.

The lack of starts is a reflection of the fact that we inherited the lowest house building programme for 30 years when we took office. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to make such criticisms, he should address himself to the performance of the local authority in his constituency. In the last two years of the previous Labour Government Haringey underspent by £4·4 million.

Instead of worrying too much about the absolute level of council housing, will my hon. Friend address himself to the problems of London boroughs such as Islington, Haringey, Lambeth and Camden, with their thousands of council properties that remain empty? It seems that no pro gress is being made to deal with that situation.

I agree with my hon. Friend that it is imperative that local authorities make the best use that they can of their existing housing stocks. I deplore the fact that there are some high levels of vacancies in certain London authorities.

When considering next year's starts, will the Minister distinguish between Conservative and Labour—controlled local authorities? If he does that he will note that the tardiness in new housing starts comes mainly from Conservative-controlled local authorities, such as Wandsworth in my constituency.

The underspend is similar between authorities of different political complexions.

Would it not be more cost-effective to divert scarce resources into improvement and renovation rather than apply them to the building of council houses?

As my hon. Friend will know, one of the most unfortunate developments during the past five years has been the serious decline in the improvement programme. As a result of the new provisions that we look forward to bringing to the House on improvement and repairs, we hope to be able to reverse that trend.

I revert to the original question. Is it not correct that the figures published in the recent public expenditure White Paper are based on an assumption that there will be about 45,000 to 50,000 housing starts by local authorities? If that is correct, does not the hon. Gentleman consider that disgraceful as an intended policy?

One of the important changes that we shall be making, which will, I hope, help to reduce the appalling levels of underspend that took place when the right hon. Gentleman was a member of the previous Labour Government, will be to alter the present system of housing investment programme allocations so that local authorities have a single block, which will enable them, I hope, to make the best use of the allocations.