1. Mr. Carter
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on his attempts to improve the house building programme.
The Minister for Housing and Construction (Mr. Reginald Freeson)
There are encouraging signs that local authorities are responding to the initiatives we have taken to increase their house building programmes and extend social ownership. Extension of building and acquisition by housing associations together with the loans being offered to building societies should also improve the housing programme.
I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that as a result of the previous Government's disastrous housing record there are now 30,000 people on the waiting list in Birmingham, and more broken homes and split families than in the last 20 years? Will he assure the House that if there are to be cuts in public expenditure in the future, housing will not be affected by them?
My hon. Friend's observations on the situation in Birmingham—a situation that applies in many other parts of the country—go to the root of our deep concern to get something done about housing—to climb out of the mess we inherited. So far from cutting housing expenditure the Government have increased it and will maintain it at the levels we raised it to recently in order to get more houses built.
In his consultations with local authorities will the Minister give full emphasis and encouragement to schemes for sponsoring low-cost housing? That could be of great assistance to lower-income couples seeking home ownership and could also provide work for small building companies.
Yes. Indeed, the present Birmingham authority has a very good record in that respect. Provided that the provision by local authorities [column 1591]of housing for sale for owner-occupation, preferably at the lower end of the market, does not mean a reduction in the number of houses built for rent by those authorities, we shall certainly back any moves in that direction.
Is my hon. Friend aware that we cannot and will not build sufficient houses to meet the people's needs if we allow other types of lower priority building to go ahead? To build houses requires men, materials and capital, but these are also needed by the less important projects. In that context, therefore, will my hon. Friend take steps to stop the building of the proposed 29 yachting marinas, possibly costing upwards of £1,000 million, projected for the coasts around Britain? If that sort of development goes ahead we shall not solve the housing problem.
The provision of yachting marinas and other similar facilities does not come within my scope as Minister for housing, but I shall consult my hon. Friend in the Department on the point raised by my hon. Friend.
Will the Minister give an estimate of the increase in the number of starts that will take place this year as a result of the new policies of the Government?
No, not yet. This is no laughing matter, and two Conservative Members should be the last to laugh about it. We inherited the worst disaster in housing construction in 40 years. I shall be able to give some estimates in the not too distant future. There are positive signs, certainly in the local authority sphere, that there will be considerably more starts than were prepared for by the previous administration, as set down in their public expenditure survey document published in their last year of office. That document forecast 70,000 local authority housing starts in this financial year. We shall certainly be well above that figure.
EEC Road Transport Permits
2. Mr. Grylls
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what action he is taking to seek an increase in the number of EEC road transport permits allocated to the United Kingdom for 1975; and if he will make a statement.[column 1592]
The Minister for Transport (Mr. Frederick Mulley)
I am considering the Commission's recent proposal. This would give 272 EEC permits for 1975 and 318 for 1976—a considerable improvement on the present allocation of 129.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his answer, and an improvement is obviously welcome, but will he confirm that that allocation is connected with our policy on heavy lorry axle weights within the EEC, and that as Minister he will continue to follow the firm line of my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) and resist and further increases, as proposed by other members of the EEC? I believe that if an increase is allowed the people in our villages and towns will revolt, because they do not want bigger juggernauts.
I do not accept that there need be any link between the number of Community quotas and the question of the dimensions of lorries. We have had no meeting of Ministers since I took office, but I have met other Ministers individually, and I confirm that we are opposed to any increase in the dimensions of lorries.
Highcliffe Castle, Dorset
3. Mr. Adley
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will now call in proposals to develop the site of Highcliffe Castle, Dorset, listed as a Grade I building by his Department, and hold a public inquiry.
The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Mr. Charles R. Morris)
A planning application—for 30 flats—is being referred to my right hon. Friend and he will consider whether it should be called in for his decision.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that reply. Is he aware that over a period of seven years his predecessors, the county council and the local authority all did everything they could to prevent development on the site? Will he keep a sharp eye on the buccaneers—until recently anonymous buccaneers—who bought the property? If they succeed in their aim, there will be great disillusionment in my constituency about the power of Governments and local authorities to stick to plans which they have set.[column 1593]
I have noted the substance of the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question. Bearing in mind the possibility that there could be an inquiry into the application, I hope that he will understand if I make no further comment on it.
Mr. Robert Cooke
Does the Minister agree that there is a national object lesson to be learned from the steady decline of Highcliffe Castle and its surroundings, which have already been seriously encroached upon by modern buildings of one sort or another quite unsuited to the setting of a major historic building? Is he aware that it is not too late to preserve the best of the ruin and the vista to the sea, and the trees? If, as a nation, we took more practical steps, we should not find ourselves in such situations.
I shall have regard to that point of view in our consideration of the matter.
Sewerage Rates (Cornwall)
4. Mr. Dixon
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will now make a statement about sewerage rates in Cornwall for 1975–76.
The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Mr. Denis Howell)
Under the Water Act 1973, the South West Water Authority is responsible for fixing such charges for sewerage.
Will the Minister elaborate on statements made by his ministerial colleagues to the effect that in 1975–76 there will be a reduction for people who are now invited to pay a sewerage rate but who are not on the main sewerage system? Can a concession be introduced for 1974–75 as well?
I answered that question in an Adjournment debate two nights ago.
Will my hon. Friend emphasise that sewerage has always had to be paid for through the rates? Does he not agree, however, that it and the other activities of the water authorities should now be transferred to the national Exchequer, out of the rating system?
There is considerable discontent about water and sewerage charges, exactly as we predicted when we were in opposition. The setting up of an administration taking those services out [column 1594]of local government is costing a great deal of money. We predicted that, and it has happened. I very much regret that this Government came to office much too late to stop this trend.
Will the Minister confirm that the 150 per cent. increase in my sewerage rate and in the sewerage rates of my constituents in Cornwall is a direct result of the Water Act, which was supported in the Lobby by the hon. Members for Truro (Mr. Dixon), St. Ives (Mr. Nott) and Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd), and the then hon. Member for Bodmin, Mr. Hicks? Will the hon. Gentleman also confirm that it is as a direct result of the previous Government's proposals that we are suffering a massive increase in water rates at the same time? Will he and his colleagues reconsider the Act, and if possible get rid of the unfortunate effect it is having on rural areas?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that all this was predictable, and it was predicted. We voted against the Act, and we very much regret its effects. But we came into office three weeks before the new service was implemented, and there was hardly time to change it. We are stuck with it, and we must do the best we can and see how, as the years pass, we can improve matters. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman's sewerage rate increased by such an abnormal amount. The highest figure I have for Cornwall is 61.2 per cent. which is bad enough. It seems that in Liberal households there is a need for even greater increases.
Bromsgrove Eastern Bypass
5. Mr. Hal Miller
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what replies he has received to his letter of 16th April to those participating in the public inquiry following his inspector's report on the inquiry into the proposed Bromsgrove Eastern bypass; and if he will make a statement about his intentions in regard to the modified proposals.
To date 18. No decision can be reached on the modified proposals until these and any other representations which might be made have been considered.
Whilst I thank the Minister for his reply, I must point out that[column 1595] these proposals have now been delayed——
Order. The hon. Gentleman may not point things out; he must ask questions.
I was coming to my question, Mr. Speaker. Whilst I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his reply, may I ask him to observe that there has been a considerable delay over the construction of both ends of this road? When may be come to a decision on the question whether a further public inquiry is needed?
The question of a further public inquiry will arise only if modifications are required. The timing of a decision about the road is largely a matter for the county council.
Advanced Passenger Train
7. Mr. Berry
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment when he expects the advanced passenger train to be introduced into service; and if he will make a statement.
39. Mr. Teddy Taylor
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the progress made in the advanced passenger train project.
49. Mr. Leslie Huckfield
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will make a statement on the introduction into service of the advanced passenger train.
I am considering the board's proposals for the construction of four prototypes, which could be in trial service from 1977.
Is the Minister aware that I hope he will take into account the environmental results of the trains? We welcome their earliest possible use, but the effect on those living nearby will be serious, and must be considered. Will the right hon. Gentleman say something about the attitude of the unions, particularly ASLEF, following the report in the Daily Mail earlier this week about the high-speed diesel train and action which may have lost us considerable exports to the United States? It is an important matter, and I hope that the Minister will consider it seriously.[column 1596]
The decision involves a number of difficult matters, which is why it is taking a little time. The environmental aspects are among those that must be considered. I understand that there have been no problems about the train or the high-speed diesel train running for trial and experimental purposes, but the union has put a ban on their use for the carriage of passengers. I understand from the Chairman of British Rail that that is why the difficulty arose earlier this week.
Is the Minister aware that there is great enthusiasm in Scotland about the advanced passenger train, which will revolutionise transport from Scotland to London? When does the right hon. Gentleman expect the Edinburgh—London and Glasgow—London services to start? Is it the policy of the Government or the Railway Board to impose a surcharge for the faster journey?
The hon. Gentleman wants to jump a large number of hurdles all at once. The first need is to get the train into production and have satisfactory trials before we can give firm dates for the start of particular services. The question of fares policy will not arise until we are in a position to go firm on particular services.
8. Mr. William Hamilton
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he is yet in a position to make a statement on investment plans for the modernisation and extension of the Scottish railway system.
The electrification of the main line to Glasgow has been completed. I am considering the board's programme for further work.
Is my right hon. Friend seized of the urgent need to get the matter right, in view of the increased prospect of getting more and more North Sea oil, with the consequent increase in heavy traffic, which is quite unsuitable for the road system? Will he make representations to the Scottish area of British Rail to ensure that there is more and more electrification on both fuel and environmental grounds?[column 1597]
It is still a little too early to say whether fuel costs will substantially strengthen the case for continuing electrification programmes. I accept what my hon. Friend says about the importance of doing all that is reasonably possible to transfer freight from road to rail. I shall, as he wishes, discuss the Scottish aspects with the chairman of the board.
Mr. Douglas Henderson
In his conversations with British Rail will the Minister ask the board to reflect on the past folly of having closed railway lines which would now be beneficial to the community? With reference to the developments that are taking place in North-East Scotland, will he ask the board to carry out a feasibility study of the reopening of the Aberdeen to Peterhead and Fraserburgh lines, which would be beneficial to the whole community?
There is not much benefit to be gained from trying to go over past history. When we consider the substantial sums that would be required in terms of both revenue support and investment, it is probably not easy to go back and reopen a lot of lines. I shall see that the hon. Gentleman's point is brought to the attention of the board.
Mr. Teddy Taylor
Will the Minister give us a clear assurance that there will be no question of the Government's cutting the substantial investment programme for the Scottish railway system which was approved shortly before the General Election?
I am not sure what investment programme the hon. Gentleman has in mind. My predecessor made a statement of his intention on 28th November but there was a cut of 20 per cent. within a fortnight. I have made it clear that it is our intention to support the broad investment strategy of the British Railways Board plan that was before us last year. I cannot now give the details but it will be noted that I am introducing a Bill today which will deal seriously with the whole problem of railway finance.
Road Haulage Industry
9. Mr. Ralph Howell
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he can now say when he proposes to [column 1598]announce details of the Government's plans to nationalise sections of the road haulage industry.
Not at present, Sir.
Is the Minister aware that serious damage is being caused by the uncertainty that is hanging over the road haulage industry? Does he appreciate that it is important that he should make a statement very soon?
I have no evidence of any damage due to uncertainty. Of course, I am considering the extension of public ownership of road haulage in the context of the criteria that we set out in our election manifesto.
Mr. Tom King
Will the Minister give an undertaking that before considering the nationalisation of the haulage industry the interests and views of all those who work in it will be consulted?
Naturally before taking any decision of this kind there will be full consultations with all those concerned.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give the House some idea of the proportionate cost to the taxpayer of road building on the basis of usage by the road haulage companies? For example, will he tell us, on that basis, what a motorway costs per mile? The road haulage companies use motorways extensively in the pursuit of their business.
I cannot give an answer off the cuff. It would be difficult in any event to give a figure of the cost of a road strictly in the road haulage sense, because all our roads are used by different categories of transport. For a dual three-lane motorway the cost per mile is approximately £1 million.
10. Mr. Skinner
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he can now announce his conclusions on proposals to abolish the system of tied cottages.
Not yet, Sir, but I hope to be able to say something after my meeting with union representatives on 20th June.[column 1599]
Is my hon. Friend aware that on the very day that we met certain union representatives—he may well be meeting them in the near future—one of the most privileged members of our society was allocated a mansion with countless bedrooms? At the same time we hear lurid stories of the cold, ruthless and efficient way in which the roofs were being removed from over the heads of agricultural workers' families and from the homes of some miners. If my hon. Friend has difficulty in getting legislation brought to the Floor of the House, will he adopt the measure that my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) will introduce next Wednesday?
I am not responsible for allocation policy for council or other dwellings. Therefore, I cannot comment on the allocation to which my hon. Friend has just referred. That must be so whatever views my right hon. and hon. Friends may have on the matter.
Following the meeting that I shall have on 20th June, I shall consider legislation in consultation with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. There are various forms of legislation which could be used and we shall consider the best form to use to tackle the abolition of tied cottages.
I hope that the Minister will keep in mind the immense problems that the untying of cottages would cause the agriculture industry. Will he suggest how dairy farms can be run without tied cottages?
I have little doubt that the NFU will express its views in detail on the various options that we shall consider in tackling this matter. Let there be no doubt that the Government are committed to abolishing the tied cottage system.
Football Match (Ministerial Visit)
11. Mr. Dalyell
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on his official visit to the England versus Northern Ireland football match.
Mr. Denis Howell
This match was played at Wembley on 15th May 1974. It was an interesting and well-conducted match, marked by sportsmanship and enthusiasm on all sides. England won by one goal to nil, scored by Mr. Keith Weller [column 1600]in the 72nd minute. I do not wish to be too parochial but I am sure the whole House will wish me to send good wishes to Scotland as it enters the World Cup.
Now that the Northern Ireland Executive has fallen, will my hon. Friend agree that there is no longer any need for circumlocutory Questions? Those of us who recently visited the Shankill area of Belfast, Long Kesh and the prison at Armagh wonder whether the appalling lack of facilities in Belfast is not in some way connected with all these drillings of 17–and 18–year-olds in the Long Kesh prisoner-of-war camp?
I think that my hon. Friend is asking a serious question, which is concerned with the part that sport can play in unifying a country such as Northern Ireland. I am happy to say that I share that belief passionately and I shall, in the new circumstances, consult my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to see whether we can do all that I would like to see done through sport to bring the communities together.
Is it the Minister of State or someone else in the Government who is delaying the reintroduction of the Safety of Sports Grounds Bill?
The reintroduction of the Bill has been promised and will take place as soon as time permits.
(Local Authority Purchases)
12. Mr. Stanley
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many newly-built unsold private houses have been purchased by local authorities since 28th February.
Full information is not yet available. Circular 70/74, which contained details of the Government's initiative in this matter, was issued only on 19th April. A number of proposals have, however, already been approved and local authorities are in negotiation with builders on a substantial number of schemes.
Is the Minister aware that the unfortunate but predictable result of the Government's policy is that private developers are tending to withhold estates from private purchase and, instead, are [column 1601]seeking to protect their profit margins at public expense by sales to local authorities? Instead of the Secretary of State instructing local authorities to extend municipalisation to these properties, will he instruct private builders to reduce their profits?
I am tempted to use a rather blunt word in answer to the comments which we have just heard. The hon. Gentleman's remarks are totally at variance with the facts. What is more, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the house building industry has welcomed this initiative, as it is a means of getting properties in use which, under the previous Government, were remaining unsold and uncompleted under construction to the extent of approximately 30,000 dwellings. The important objective which the Government set themselves was to get the cash flow moving and to get such houses into use, so that the builders could continue to build.
We have also taken steps, which the hon. Gentleman seems to have overlooked, to try to get mortgage funds flowing more rapidly after they had sunk through the floor as a result of the previous Government's ignoring the problem for about six months before we came into office.
In considering this policy, will my hon. Friend look at the sordid series of events in my constituency, where the Conservative Government prevented the purchase of land by the local authority and allowed a private purchaser to buy the land and then sell it to another private purchaser, with the result that the newly-built houses on the Failsworth golf course, built by private enterprise, cost £2,000 or £3,000 more than if they had been built by the local authority, and are now being offered for sale to the local authority by the private purchaser, who cannot sell them? Will my hon. Friend ensure that the kind of abuse and profiteering permitted by the Conservative Government is not allowed to continue.
I am aware of the case to which my hon. Friend refers and his sustained concern and interest in it. He raised it in the House during the last Parliament. We cannot undo what has [column 1602]been done and what we have inherited. The Government's proposals for land policy are primarily being prepared by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Planning and Local Government, and will, when eventually put before the House and approved——
Mr. Jeffrey Archer
The hon. Gentleman will not be here much longer.
Order. That sort of intervention only delays Question Time.
Does the hon. Member for Louth (Mr. Archer) want to take us on? We should be glad for him to do so. The kind of sordid events to which my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Rose) has referred will be taken care of in the proposals for land policy which we intend to introduce.
But if the hon. Gentleman is anxious to help first-time purchasers, why does he provide grants to local authorities to purchase the very houses which those first-time purchasers want to buy?
The right hon. Lady should stop talking nonsense. The average number of dwellings remaining unsold at the end of any particular year in the private sector has usually been about 10,000 spilling over into the following year. The figure we inherited at the end of last year was about 30,000. Our task was to get those houses into use as quickly as possible. It was also to try to get mortgage funds flowing more rapidly again. It was also to get house building in the public sector on the upturn again. In all three directions we have taken the initiative, and they are all related. They will all assist in getting the country's housing situation out of the disastrous mess in which the Conservative Government left it.
13. Mr. Sainsbury
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what proportion of privately rented accommodation is provided by landlords letting part of the building in which they themselves live.
According to figures derived from the 1971 Census, approximately 5 per cent. of all privately rented [column 1603]lettings in England and Wales are provided by owner-occupiers or by tenants who sublet part of their own tenancy.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the valuable rôle played by the private rented sector, especially in certain areas, as indicated in Supplementary Table 6 of the report of the Francis Committee? Is he further aware of the amount of accommodation which is now vacant because of the continued discouragement given to private landlords? Will he, therefore, give early consideration to allowing the landlords to recover the increases in costs of services that they provide to tenants?
I am not aware of large numbers of properties standing empty as a result of rent increases, if that is what the hon. Gentleman is referring to. There has been a steady decline in the rented market for some years. That decline has increased in recent years. It has been running at the rate of about 130,000 a year over the last five or six years. We need to take steps to prevent a continued decline in the rented sector, and our municipalisation and socialisation policy will help us to do just that.
Mr. George Cunningham
Is it not necessary to distinguish between a house in which an owner-occupier lives and lets off one or two rooms and, at the other extreme, a block of flats where the owner lives in one of the self-contained flats? Will my hon. Friend assure us that the Government will not commend to the House any legislation which, in the latter circumstances, will remove security of tenure from the tenants?
The Rent Bill is already going through Parliament. It is being dealt with in another place and will soon be introduced here. It will be best to leave detailed consideration of its terms to that occasion.
14. Mr. Andrew F. Bennett
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will publish in the Official Report a list of all the local authorities which have not completed definitive footpath maps for their areas; and what action is being taken to encourage those local authorities which have not done so to complete such maps.[column 1604]
Mr. Denis Howell
Yes, Sir. My Department is urging the local authorities concerned to complete action on definitive maps for the outstanding areas—eight former rural districts, two former county boroughs and one former municipal borough.
Does not my hon. Friend agree that all those people who use the countryside for work or leisure are extremely concerned that the definitive maps were not completed a long time ago? Does he not also agree that now that the Ordnance Survey has adopted new signs and symbols on its maps it is particularly urgent that these definitive maps should be completed?
I agree that it has taken a long time—25 years. I shall try to bring the matter to a head as soon as possible. There are two appeal cases in progress which are nothing to do with the local authorities. One is in Bedfordshire, where there are 150 appeals to the Secretary of State against the local map. The other is on Humberside, where there is an appeal to the court. My hon. Friend can rest assured that we shall try to complete the matter as soon as possible.
Will my hon. Friend give encouragement to the Ramblers' Association and other bodies in their campaign on this issue, recognise the enormous value of walking both to health and as a non-inflationary measure, and tell local authorities to get on with the job of producing these maps?
We shall do all we can to encourage the Ramblers' Association. I am glad to say that its former general secretary has been put on my working party to advise on future sport and recreation policy.
15. Mr. Tebbit
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will ask local authorities to make to him a return of the numbers of residential properties unoccupied, the cause of the unoccupation where that can be established, and the ownership of such properties.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that most of us on the Opposition [column 1605]side of the House will regret, even if we are not surprised at, that negative attitude? If we are to have informed discussion in the House on housing matters, it would be helpful if we had these figures. Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that hon. Gentlemen opposite see only unoccupied privately built houses, and perhaps some of my hon. Friends see only the vast areas of council property left vacant and unused in London, and that it would be helpful if we had the right figures?
The kind of return for which the hon. Gentleman has asked would not be worth the tremendous effort and cost that would be involved. However, I can give him figures which will be of use to him. On the basis of a sample survey which involved about 700 authorities, undertaken by my Department not long ago—[Hon. Members: “When?” ] During the time of the last Government. [Hon. Members: “What date?” ] It seems that hon. Members opposite, having left a disaster behind them, are not interested in listening to answers.
Mr. Jeffrey Archer
Do not be so nasty.
I am, after all, giving a reply to one of their hon. Friends. The figures are a 1 per cent. vacancy rate for local authorities as compared with a national average, according to the last available census, of 4 per cent. in England and Wales and 3.8 per cent. in London.
Mr. Frank Allaun
Are not vast numbers of desperately-needed private houses being kept empty for long periods, usually because the owners are holding out for high prices or high rents? In consequence, is it not the case that these houses are being ruined by vandals and in many cases have to be demolished? Will my hon. Friend introduce legislation to permit local authorities to requisition houses kept empty for over three months without good reason?
Before taking steps of that kind—which have already been considered in the Department in one form or another during the last three months—I should like to see the results of initiatives we have taken through the recent circular that has been issued, and [column 1606]other housing advice that has been given to local authorities. We should also like to await the results of the Housing Bill which is currently in Committee and which will encourage local authorities to extend their ownership of houses available to let. This should help to resolve the kind of problems that my hon. Friend has raised.
New Towns (House Building)
16. Mr. Michael Morris
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what is Her Majesty's Government's policy regarding the proportion of homes built for sale and rent in new towns.
The Minister for Planning and Local Government (Mr. John Silkin)
As I said in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Mr. Newens) on 10th April [Vol. 872, c. 175]—policy on this matter is under review and my right hon. Friend will be making a statement in due course. He will not anticipate this statement, except to say that the main need at the present time in the new towns is for more houses for rent.
In view of that statement, is the right hon. Gentleman prepared to explain why the manager of the new town of Northampton, at least, has been instructed to stop the sale of any houses for the moment because the ratio is changing from 50/50 to 75/25 in favour of rented accommodation? Is the Minister aware that young families moving into new towns like Northampton have the greatest objection to the withdrawal of a facility that they thought would be their right when they applied to come to the new town?
The ratio policy is under review. What we are concerned about is future house building and getting the right balance between the numbers of houses built for sale and the number built for renting. It is certainly true that many young couples would like to move to the new towns and buy their own houses. There will be such houses. But the vast majority at the moment need houses for rent. We have to see that these, too, are available.
Is my right hon. Friend aware of the need to compel development corporations to make houses available for renting to local people who are now homeless as a result of the difficulties [column 1607]placed in the way of the public building sector following the activities of the last Government?
It was the realisation of this that caused my right hon. Friend and myself to undertake this review. It is the tragedy of the long waiting lists in the new towns that has pressed the issue.
Since it was the last Labour Government which introduced this concept of 50 per cent. of new town houses for renting and 50 per cent. for owner-occupation, what justification can there be for changing it? Is it that the Government want new towns to be different from the rest of the country? Do they want them to have nothing but tenanted homes?
It was in 1968, or perhaps a year or two earlier, that the 50/50 ratio was suggested under a Labour Government. The hon. Gentleman might look at the housing figures of that year. He will find that at that time the highest number of houses ever built by any Government in the history of this country had been built. The position last year was calamitous, and something had to be done about it.
Building Societies Association
17. Mr. Michael Latham
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what progress is being made by his joint advisory committee with the Building Societies Association; and whether he will make a statement.
33. Mr. Frank Allaun
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what progress is being made by his joint advisory committee with the Building Societies Association.
44. Mr. Ioan Evans
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what further discussions he has had with the Building Societies Association; and if he will make a statement.
At the meeting of the joint advisory committee on 6th June the Building Societies Association was offered the third tranche of short-term loans of £100 million at 10½ per cent. out of the total of £500 million to be made available if necessary. The Council of the Building Societies Association will consider this offer at its meeting on 14th June.[column 1608]
Has this expert body yet estimated the likely amount of mortgage finance which will be available during 1974 and, if so, on what level of private house building is any such estimate based?
I am not aware of any such estimate having been made by the Building Societies Association or the joint advisory committee which would involve consultation with officials of the Department.
Will the Minister lend more money to local authorities at the favourable rate recently granted to the building societies, so that they can provide more mortgages—100 per cent. mortgages if necessary? Will this not be possible when the building societies repay the £500 million or, as is possible, do not take up the third part of that sum? Will my hon. Friend not do more for the local authorities?
If there were any difficulty about the flow of funds into local authorities for mortgages we might have to consider how to stimulate that flow. This was the position with the building societies. For the first time in living memory there was a net outflow of funds. This is not the position with local authorities. There is no limit on lending by them and, so far as I am aware, there are no difficulties for them in raising money for granting mortgages. Should there be difficulties we shall be glad to consider ways of dealing with them.
Will the hon. Gentleman say whether any discussions are taking place dealing with a voluntary stabilisation fund within the societies? Now that funds are flowing in, would it not be a good thing if the Government were to exercise their influence on building societies with a view to eliminating or at least mitigating a future mortgage famine?
This issue has been the subject of discussions which have covered other aspects of the problems facing us. We shall be pursuing this aspect of policy.
Does my hon. Friend realise that he and his colleagues are to be congratulated on the action they have taken? Is he aware that if there had not [column 1609]been a change of Government those buying houses today would be paying a 13 per cent. interest rate? Will he continue with this policy of giving hope to those struggling to buy their homes? Is it not a fact that while the Conservative Party talked about creating a property-owning democracy, what it did was to create a money-lenders' paradise.
I thank my hon. Friend for those observations. What we have been doing on a number of fronts is to take an immediate initiative to get out of the current situation, which we inherited. As to the future, there will be some careful medium—to long-term studies of a variety of policies. This is one such area. We shall be coming forward with substantive administrative policy proposals and legislation in due course to deal with the problems inherent in the situation.
Mr. Walter Johnson
Is my hon. Friend aware that the vast sums being loaned to the building societies at favourable rates of interest for the purpose of keeping down interest rates are being reinvested in the City at considerably increased rates of interest? Is this not a disgraceful misuse of public funds?
No. The object of the exercise is to maintain the level of funds which building societies have available for lending and to maintain their liquidity levels so that they can grant mortgages at a reasonable level and at an increased rate. The money was flowing out of building societies. That was why we carried out this exercise. The result has been that, far from there being a net outflow of funds, which would have threatened the supply of mortgages, there is now a net inflow and we can rely on mortgages being issued in future.
Are not the people who are taking money away from the building societies the local authorities and the Government, both of whom are offering a higher rate of interest to the saver?
The right hon. Lady has raised an important point about the structure of the borrowing and investing market. We have a situation which was created by her Government—I make no party point about that—which threatened building societies as far back as October last year, and it grew worse as the months went by. We have taken immediate steps [column 1610]to tackle the situation. With regard to longer-term reform, we shall come to that in due course.
New and Expanded Towns
18. Mr. Arthur Jones
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he is considering further financial support for new and expanded towns.
Mr. John Silkin
My right hon. Friend is considering the problems of local authorities in this field—though without commitment at this stage.
I know that the right hon. Gentleman recognises the burden which falls on ratepayers in those counties with town expansion schemes, such as Northamptonshire, which has no fewer than four. Does he recognise the particular circumstances for Northamptonshire and is he prepared to consider some special grant from central funds in recognition of these difficulties, in the second half of the current financial year?
The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I have a great deal of sympathy for new and expanded towns. I know of the difficulties that they are under. The trouble is that with things as they are in the present system the giving of funds to one authority must be done at the expense of another. That is the way it goes. Having said that, however, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I am looking closely into the question whether any help can be given in the special circumstances of expanded towns.
Mr. Ronald Atkins
Is my right hon. Friend aware that if Government funds are available for local government purposes they are needed even more in the older towns in support of the rates, in connection with the housing programmes which the Government have urged us to carry out? I raise this point as a Member from a new town.
My hon. Friend has clearly and eloquently put the other side of the equation which I was trying to suggest a moment ago. I think we shall have to get local authorities to see themselves what is the best and most reasonable way to answer the problem.
Sir Harmar Nicholls
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his first answer was the best? Its tone and approach gave much encouragement. In areas of [column 1611]new towns, such as Peterborough, where there is a doubling of the population of an old-established, traditional city, the influx of people from London has undermined the hospital and education services. Does he agree that the only way this can be remedied is by having a direct grant to take this into account, as distinct from the normal regional channels?
I am aware that all my answers, all the time, are always the best and are always reasonable. I am trying to put the facts as they seem to be to me. I understand the necessity of helping those towns which are taking in increases in population and which have greater services to deal with. I also understand the problems of those towns which are old and decaying, and which must be helped. The trouble is that all are to be helped from the same fund of money.
19. Mr. Awdry
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a visit to Chippenham in order to discuss the problems of the local ratepayers.
Mr. Charles R. Morris
My right hon. Friend has no immediate plans to visit Chippenham; nevertheless, the problems of ratepayers in this type of area will receive full consideration in determining the 1975–76 rate support grant.
Does the Minister not understand that the vast majority of my constituents consider the present rating system unacceptable and grossly unfair? Will he give an assurance that the Government intend to have a major review of the whole system as a matter of urgency?
I appreciate the concern of ratepayers in Chippenham at the present level of rates, but the hon. Gentleman can help in this regard by explaining to the people of Chippenham that by increasing the domestic element of the rate support grant from 6p to 13p this Government have made the largest single contribution ever to assist the domestic ratepayer.
With regard to a review of the rating system, I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government are considering the scope for the reform of the rating system generally.[column 1612]
Does the Minister recall that his hon. Friend the Minister of State, when speaking in the Adjournment debate on Monday night, said that he doubted
“whether it would be legal or ultra vires for water authorities to refund charges properly demanded and collected under the collection of charges order” .—[Official Report, 10th June 1974; Vol. 874, c. 1381.]
That order is Statutory Instrument No. 448. If what was said is so, would it not be a simple matter for the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the statutory instrument and bring in a more satisfactory one, which either inserts in Article 9(2), after “hereditament” , the words “in receipt of the service” or, alternatively, makes provision for a retrospective payment for such hereditaments when they have been identified?
As the hon. Lady will observe, the Question on the Order Paper refers to a visit to Chippenham. In this context, if I may comment on the general point which she made, if we were to accept her thesis and solution we would leave the water authorities dry, financially.
Local Government (Finance)
20. Mr. Durant
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment when he proposes to publish a White Paper on the reform of local government finance.
25. Mr. Biffen
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what further consideration has been given to the appointment of a Royal Commission on the financing of local government expenditure.
38. Mr. Pardoe
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will publish a White Paper on his proposals for the reform of the rating system in 1975–76.
Mr. John Silkin
I cannot yet say what further studies of these matters the Government may undertake, or when the results will be published, but I am well aware of the extent of public dissatisfaction with the rating system in its present form. My right hon. Friend does not rule out the possibility of a more thoroughgoing long-term examination of local government finance.[column 1613]
Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that this is a disappointing answer, in view of the statement made by the Secretary of State in his speech on 25th March in the House, when he implied that there was going to be a thoroughgoing rate review? Unless the Minister is made aware of feelings in the country the next strike will be a rates strike.
I have much sympathy with the hon. Gentleman. I sometimes do not even myself listen to my replies, but in fact I said—if I may repeat the reply for the hon. Gentleman's benefit—that my right hon. Friend does not rule out the possibility of a more thoroughgoing long-term examination of local government finance—and that, I suspect, is what the hon. Gentleman was asking about.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that something must be done before next year because we now have a situation in which there are increases of rates of the order of 96 per cent., which some of my constituents have had to bear and which are completely intolerable in this type of economic climate?
Of course something must be done. One must do it with what weapons and tools are available, which take the form of the rate support grant. This situation has arisen through four factors: first, the greatest inflation in our history; second, the highest interest rates in our history; third, the reorganisation of local government; and, fourth, the reorganisation of water and sewerage services. During the time of the last Government all the opposition parties warned what would happen, and it has been our unfortunate lot to have inherited the chaos.
Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that the size and style of the domestic residence is increasingly unrelated to the taxpaying capacity of its occupant? If that is his view, is it his hope that the studies which may be in prospect will bring about reforms which will take cognisance of that?
I said that my right hon. Friend would not rule out a study of the whole situation. The trouble is that there [column 1614]have been studies before—for example, there was the famous Green Paper not long ago, when the hon. Gentleman's party was in Government. It was, as my right hon. Friend has just said, rather a shambles. There seem to be so many possibilities that I agree that the case is rapidly being made out on the lines that we need to consider the whole system again.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the present crisis in the rating system and in local government finance is a direct result of the criminal lunacy of reorganising local government without at the same time reorganising its finances, and that this represented a triumph for Whitehall civil servants, aided and abetted by the Conservative Government, who have long wished to destroy local democracy? In his proposals for the future will he now consider scrapping the rating system and allowing local authorities to raise their money in any way they think fit, thereby abolishing all central Government grants to local authorities with the exception of a contribution to the provincial or regional equalisation fund?
On the final point, I reiterate that my right hon. Friend has not ruled out a long-term study of the whole situation. On the first two points, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on having read most of my speeches in Committee on the Local Government Bill. I commend to him every other speech I have made in the House.
I accept completely my right hon. Friend's statement about where responsibility for the situation which we have inherited should lie, but does he not agree that there is a wide consensus that we must give far more attention to the possibility of raising funds by means of income taxation as being preferable to and fairer than the rating system?
I should be very dim indeed if I were not aware that there was a feeling in the country to that effect.
Is the Minister aware that his constant repetition of the statement that his right hon. Friend has not ruled out the possibility of a long-term inquiry [column 1615]is wholly unsatisfactory to the overwhelming majority of ratepayers? Will he impress on his right hon. Friend the absolute and immediate urgency of a full-scale inquiry into the whole system of local government finance?
I am sure that my right hon. Friend has his own ideas and is well aware of the situation without my informing him of it. However, I undertake to ensure that he is made aware of the feeling in the House.