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Private Housebuilding: Development Plans

Volume 415: debated on Thursday 4 December 1980

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3.5 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what steps are being taken in consultation with the construction industry to revive the private housing sector.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment
(Lord Bellwin)

My Lords, the prospects for private housebuilding, as with so many other sectors, depends ultimately on the establishment of a soundly based economy, which is the Government's main objective. The Secretary of State for the Environment and his colleagues have met representatives of the industry on several recent occasions, to discuss the state of construction and of private housebuilding. As interest rates come down, this will help the industry. Unnecessary constraints on development are being removed. A circular on development control has just been sent to local authorities, advocating a vigorous and positive approach to the needs of developers, including housebuilders.

My Lords, while thanking my noble friend for that reply, may I ask whether he would agree that a critical factor in any housing programme is the release of sufficient land? Can he comment on the availability of land at the moment and the intentions of the Government in that regard? Can he also say what encouragement the Government are able to give to first-time buyers?

My Lords, I agree entirely that availability of land is a vital factor in this matter. As to what the Government are doing, we have asked the local authorities to co-operate with housebuilders, when asked, in carrying out detailed site-by-site studies of just what land is genuinely available for development. We have taken powers in the Local Government, Planning and Land Act to ensure that this happens. The first of such studies has already been received. We have called on the local authorities to maintain a five-year supply of house-building land consistent with development plans at all times. We have taken a number of steps to streamline and speed up the planning system, including development control, in a circular which has just been published. In the next few days, we shall be laying an order designating the first 21 districts which are to have land registers under new powers in the Local Government Act to ensure that unused and under-used public sector land is identified and released.

Referring to the point my noble friend raised in connection with help for first-time buyers, I would go on to say that we are urging local authorities to sell land to builders for starter homes, to tender partnership arrangements with builders to provide starter homes on council land which is retained by the council until the houses are sold and to offer shared ownership so as to bring home ownership within the reach of those on low incomes.

My Lords, when the Minister refers to the circular sent out asking for vigorous action on the part of the developers, is he referring to the circular that says that aesthetic considerations are subjective and that local councillors should not seek to impose their aesthetic values on developers?

No, my Lords. I was referring to the circular which emphasised the serious cost to business of planning delays, whether due to inefficiency or nit-picking involvement in irrelevant detail. The circular urges the need for realism in talking about land supply and puts the onus firmly on the planning authority to provide a good reason for refusing a planning application.

My Lords, may I ask whether that phrase to which I referred has been eliminated from the circular? It certainly appeared in the draft which went round and it seemed to me (and to many people, I may say) that the Government were envisaging a lower standard of planning.

My Lords, I do not know of the particular wording to which the noble Lord refers. I would suggest that it is somewhat outside the context of the Question; but if he likes to take it up with me separately, I shall be glad to discuss it with him.

My Lords, will the noble Lord kindly look to that part of the Question which deals with how to revive the private housing sector? Is he aware of the bulldozers which roll through our cities blowing up and knocking down thousands of houses which, with a small payment, could accommodate young couples? Could not some method be devised by which small builders will get grants and loans to encourage the maintenance of the properties which are called slums and which are now being vandalised more than ever before? Will he look into that? If we have to wait until the soundness of the economy occurs, none of us will be alive.

My Lords, we are indeed seized of the need to rehabilitate—that is the "in" term—and upgrade the existing standards of dwellings rather than the massive demolition that pertained in the past. It would also probably be fair to say that there was in earlier years a greater mass of problems regarding slum clearance than there is now, and that the dwellings today are far more likely to be those which will lend themselves to rehabilitation than much of what was demolished in the past. In general, I agree with the noble Lord.

My Lords, has the Minister considered the disastrous consequences to small builders of the savage cuts being made in grants and loans to housing associations?

My Lords, I think that we should make this clear: cuts have not been made to the housing associations at all. What the Government have said is that they are concerned at the possibility of an over-spend of the amount which has been allocated, some £420 million. It is because of the grave concern to ensure that there is not this over-spend that there is at the present time the moratorium. Once we have the position clear, once we are certain that there will not be an over-spend, then everything can continue.

My Lords, the Minister in his first reply blamed the decline on the high interest rates and industry is blaming its decline on the high rates. Can the Minister tell us what good the high interest rates are doing?

My Lords, I did not blame anything on the high interest rates in my first reply. What I said was that as interest rates came down they would help the situation. That is so.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that unless we have a fairly speedy reversal of the financial and economic policies followed by his right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the right honourable Lady, the Prime Minister, we shall soon have no construction industry at all?

My Lords, I cannot think of anything more likely to lead us to not having a construction industry at all than to do as the noble Lord suggests, and that is to reverse the policies upon which we are now embarked which most of us feel are the only hope of ensuring that we have the kind of economy that we need.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that as well as urging local authorities to deal sympathetically with proposals to develop building for private housing, he should also urge them to conserve the amenity aspects of their areas and choose areas for development which fit in with that and with the use of local resources? If new developments are made in conflict with either of those considerations, the loss to the community will be greater rather than less.

Yes, my Lords. I am grateful to my noble friend for putting the question in that way. This is for each authority to decide in the light of its own particular circumstances and situation. In general terms, I entirely agree with what my noble friend has said.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that a Government dominated by his party coming into power at the end of 1931 completely reversed the policy of the previous Government, reduced interest rates to 2 per cent., converted War Loan from 5 per cent. to 3½ per cent. and started the biggest housing boom in British history? That was a complete reversal of previous financial policies and did not lead to the kind of disasters the noble Lord mentioned just now.

My Lords, I am not sure quite what the question is. If there is no question, the noble Lord will excuse me if I do not answer.