HC Deb 20 May 1974 vol 874 cc100-57

(By Order)

Read a Second time and committed.

7.0 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead)

I beg to move, That it be an Instruction to the Committee on the Bill to reduce the sums mentioned in Item 10 of Part I of the Schedule (Page 6) as follows: —

  1. (a) in column 3, by leaving out "£142,601,000" and inserting "£87,601,000". and
  2. (b) in column 4, by leaving out "£82,605,000" and inserting "£55,605,000".
I ought to make plain at the beginning the reasoning behind the instruction, because that certainly will not be clear from the documents that I have seen emanating from that building over the water. It is quite simply to prevent the Greater London Council from carrying out a massive and widespread programme of municipalisation.

The plans of the Greater London Council, as set out in the money Bill to which we have just given an unopposed Second Reading—as most people in the House would have expected—would, if we accept the proposal in the particular schedule, take off the market permanently a substantial number of homes that might otherwise be available for young people to purchase.

I want again to make it clear that I hope that there will be no misrepresentation of the views of my hon. Friends and myself in moving the instruction. Our instruction to the Committee contains no impediment to the construction by the Greater London Council of new homes.

It contains no impediment to the purchase of what are known as seaside homes, and no impediment to the purchase of up to 100 or so large houses which the GLC wishes to purchase for large families.

I should like to remind the House that the GLC is the only local authority which has to come to this House to get its money.

Mr. Christopher Mayhew (Woolwich, East)

I should like the hon. Gentleman to clarify the purpose of his instruction. I read in this evening's newspaper that London boroughs and the Greater London Council may get the chance to buy at bargain prices the vast private flats empire of Mr. William Stern. Will the hon. Gentleman make it quite clear that the effect of his instruction will be to prevent that?

Mr. Finsberg

I was once chided by the right hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Stewart) when I quoted from a newspaper. That newspaper said that the Labour Party at County Hall would fly the Red Flag on May Day. I do not always believe what I read in newspapers. But I shall come to the very fair point raised by the hon. Member a little later.

I was saying that the GLC is the only local authority which has to come to this House for its money. When I was on the Government side of the House, and when the GLC was Conservative-controlled, I said that this was quite wrong, that I did not believe that it was genuine local government, and that what we had to try to do was to deal with this matter in the context of local government. The mandarins of County Hall disagreed with me. I know that the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved) will disagree.

Mr. James Wellbeloved (Erith and Crayford)

Hear, hear.

Mr. Finsberg

None the less, it is an absolute anomaly that the GLC should have to come here for its money. Perhaps it ought to come here for its powers, but not for its money. Local government should be local. For that reason, among others, I oppose the GLC's attempt in the money Bill to buy up properties both inside and outside London.

I am, and have been for 25 years, a borough man. This policy of acquisition should be left to the boroughs in London, buying within their boundaries. This would be an ideal way of buying up the Stern empire, for example, about the iniquities of which I have waxed somewhat loudly for a considerable time. The existing powers which lie with London boroughs have been sufficient to allow them by agreement to purchase large blocks of flats and have allowed them to apply for compulsory purchase orders on other properties where there has been, in their view, either a grave neglect of the property or some allegation of harassment of tenants. Nothing has prevented the London boroughs from doing this work.

My local authority—which, alas, is Labour-controlled—has carried out a policy along these lines. In many cases I have supported it because I felt it to be right, particularly in cases in my constituency. I am, therefore, in no way opposed to these purchases. But they should be done by the borough and not by the county. If this instruction is carried out it may force the GLC to stop buying houses and blocks of flats to improve them or to prevent harassment. I believe that those two kinds of activity are essentially local. If there is a case for them, it is for the local authority and not for the county strategic authority, with its vast bulk and empire to intervene.

I realise that the GLC has belatedly— it is not the GLC's fault that it was belatedly—presented a petition which would increase the figures in the money Bill. But if the House is wise enough to accept the instruction to the Committee, which I hope it will, we can ignore the petition because, if that happens, the petition from the GLC becomes otiose, and if it does not, it still might not pass the examiners. But I do not propose to refer to the petition other than to say that it would increase still further the figures which are printed in the Bill.

It is not as if there were insufficient land in inner London to get on with a massive job of rehousing. There are 5,500 acres of dockland lying fallow because of the internecine warfare, squabbling and party bickering of the Labour-controlled GLC and five Labour boroughs. There is plenty for those boroughs and the GLC to do on 5,500 acres. The Housing Action Group has identified a mass of land in inner London on which building could take place.

There is, therefore, no question that the GLC's housing construction programme could even slow down if it got on with the job. I hope very much that the Minister or his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will stop this messing about over dockland. I used roughly the same words to my right hon. Friend, who I thought was being slow on the matter. If agreement cannot be reached by the end of next week, I suggest that the time has come for the Minister to state that dockland will be redeveloped by an authority which is neither the GLC nor the boroughs. The situation is much too grave to allow this warfare to continue. The people of London can be rehoused, and the money in the Bill is sufficient for the GLC to make a start if it wants to do so. If it does not want to make a start, someone else ought to be allowed to do that.

It has been said on many occasions that municipalisation does not add to total housing stock. I thought that the one thing which was clear above everything else was that what everyone requires, irrespective of whichever quarter of the House they occupy, is to see more housing available. Municipalisation does not help this aim. Our one objective should be to get more houses. [An HON. MEMBER: "To rent."] Of all kinds. Municipalisation may be a very good theory, but it is not productive of new extra houses.

If the GLC goes ahead with its proposals, it will enter the market to buy houses many of which are at the lower end of the market and many of which would otherwise be bought by first-time purchasers. This would be an unfortunate state of affairs.

I have said on many occasions—this is an entirely non-political point, and I am certain that several hon. Members opposite with local government experience agree—that existing council tenants, whether with a Labour council or a Conservative council, have suffered for years from the failure of the local authority to carry out adequate maintenance quickly enough. We all know this. It is not a party issue. None of us has found the answer when we have had the chance to control a local authority. But it underlines the point I make, because, if local authorities are not now able to do the job, are not able to accede to their tenants' requests to repair a lavatory seat, to redecorate a property or whatever it may be, on their existing housing stock, they have no justification for asking for a larger supply of housing where the maintenance would be worse.

In January an interesting document, "Home Ownership for Lower Income Families", was published by the Housing Research Foundation. An interesting analysis is made, and one of the points clearly brought out is that it is cheaper to allow people to buy their own homes than to have them become council tenants. Taking an average house at £10,000, including the cost of land, a new council house costs about £900 a year in subsidies of all kinds, the option mortgage costs about £275, and tax relief to the owner-occupier is about £280. Thus, in purely economic terms, it is cheaper to provide three owner-occupied houses than one council house. I imagine that most people want to get on with the job of providing houses and increasing the share of properties available for owner-occupation.

There is a case for both the Government and local government helping in the problems caused by the reduction in the size of the rented sector. I do not believe that this Bill will be the right answer. It would use that need to help to arrest the reduction in the rented sector as an excuse for municipalisation.

Mr. Wellbeloved

Will the hon. Gentleman give the source of his figures or the calculations upon which they are based?

Mr. Finsberg

I did—"Home Ownership For Lower Income Families", published by the Housing Research Foundation on 4th January 1974. As far as I know, the foundation is a nonprofit-making body, which issues extremely good reports and represents various bodies, local authority associations and the like.

A GLC monopoly of rented accommodation would lead to further examples of inefficient monopoly management. It would penalise the young, the mobile and the single, who, as we all know, have virtually no priority on any local authority housing list. It would not, therefore, help them in their problems at all.

If the GLC had a bottomless purse, or if the proposals in this Bill would give it such a purse, it could aid only the developer, who would be able to get what he wanted because he would know that the GLC was waiting with cheque book in hand merely awaiting countersignature in order to relieve him of his problems. This would remove still more properties from the privately rented sector, and it would remove more properties from the open market in general, because, once a property has been acquired by a local authority, very seldom-—save where enlightened authorities sell council houses— does it return to the open market.

The housing development chairman of the GLC has made clear that not all the money now asked for would be spent in Greater London. But many people are homeless just because they want to live in London, and our public services are creaking because of manpower shortages. It would be of little help to the public services in London if the GLC went out and bought a vast estate in Bedford or Peterborough, for people would merely have to travel in to London to man the essential services, which are already overcrowded, and then travel out again.

This is where dockland comes in. It provides most of the land we could possibly want in the centre, and it is land which is not expensive.

Mr. A. W. Stallard (St. Pancras, North)

Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that the greatest need—this is certainly true in inner London now—is for rented accommodation, especially for young couples who could not afford to purchase a house in London? The average price of £10,000 to which he referred would not buy a one-bedroom flat in his borough. The need is for people who cannot, and will not be able to, get a mortgage. They need rented accommodation, and the only way they can get it is from the local authority or the GLC. The Bill would give the GLC powers to provide such people with accommodation of that kind. Mr. Finsberg: The hon. Gentleman overlooks, for example—he refers to my constituency—a scheme known as central Hampstead redevelopment. This scheme applied to virgin land, railway land, which has been the subject of council proposals ever since 1964. It was possible on that land to build cost-rent properties, and possible for the council to build for sale at a discount, in that way meeting the needs of young people. But precisely when control of that council changed in 1971 the scheme, which was almost ready for signature, was torn up. That land is still vacant, and people are still waiting for homes. So I think that we can pass that point by.

The GLC says that its scheme would help the building industry to thrive—that is the word it uses. In reality, it would help the developer and harm the home buyer.

We received today from the GLC what is called a "Further Statement". This statement makes one or two rather strange points in the context which I have just outlined, when, as I say, much of what is proposed in this request for money ought to be done by the boroughs and not by the GLC. We are told: The main aim of the programme will be to retain dwellings in tenanted occupation which would otherwise be lost to the rented sector …". That can be done just as easily by the borough. Next, to give tenants security and better prospects for the future …". That can be done just as well by the borough. Next, to provide sound management and maintenance standards …". That can be done just as well, or just as badly, by the borough.

Mr. Arnold Shaw (Ilford, South)

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it might be done just as well by the borough, but what happens when the borough refuses to do it? In my own area, it is just not being done. I know that there is objection to the GLC coming in, but the main job is to provide houses for people to live in, and if the GLC can do it, good luck to it.

Mr. Finsberg

The hon. Gentleman says that his borough is not doing the job which it should be doing. Plainly, that view is not accepted by the electors, who had their chance to throw the council out on 2nd May. They did not do so in that borough, so they must have been satisfied with its housing policy.

The statement goes on: to improve the standards and amenities of the dwellings…". That can be done just as easily by the borough, or, indeed, by the private owner with the aid of improvement grants. I suggest therefore that the further statement in support of the Bill does not take us very much further. Its arguments are really summed up by saying that the boroughs can do the work just as well as, if not more effectively than, the GLC could.

I remind the House that it was the Conservative Housing and Planning Bill, introduced in February this year, which gave the boroughs power to create housing action areas and acquire substandard properties. That shows quite clearly that there is no dogma on our part against trying to improve the housing situation. I do not believe that the GLC proposal, if it was allowed to go to Committee without the instruction, would serve any purpose other than a narrow party political one. If that is GLC policy, so be it, but it requires Parliament's approval, and the GLC must, therefore, fight to get Parliament's approval.

Our opposition does not hamper the genuine search for a housing construction policy in London which will work. Instead it stresses our support for what is basically good and exposes the rest for the humbug that it really is.

7.22 p.m.

Mr. Ian Mikardo (Bethnal Green and Bow)

The longer I listened to the hon. Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg) the more difficult I found it, with the utmost good will and charity, to see any logic in the argument he was putting forward. A good many of his arguments were self-contradictory, or mutually contradictory. For example, there was a long passage in the middle of his speech and one or two others a little later which constituted a general criticism of municipalisation of housing. He kept arguing that the job could best be done some other way other than by municipalisation. In the first part of his speech, and again in the last part, he persisted in saying that the job would be better done by the boroughs than by the Greater London Council. In the name of Heaven, if its being done by the boroughs is not municipalisation, what is it? Of course, that is municipalisation; but the hon. Member is saying that he is against municipalisa- tion but that he is so prejudiced against the Bill that he would sooner have someone other than the GLC doing the municipalising.

Mr. Finsberg

I went over this point before the hon. Member entered the Chamber. I was dealing with a point concerning the purchase of the Stern empire, and I dealt with the matter to my satisfaction, but whether to the hon. Member's I do not know.

Mr. Mikardo

It is true that I missed a minute or so, but no more, of the hon. Member's speech and that, therefore, I have only something like 95 per cent. of the pearls of wisdom which fell from his lips. I reiterate, however, that he cannot with any sort of logic say that he is against municipalisation of housing and that he wants the boroughs to do the job which the GLC will be able to do under the Bill.

The Bill makes it clear that the powers of the GLC will be used to reinforce the work of the boroughs. It will lend the money to such boroughs as want it, and the boroughs are not compelled to take that money or any other help. The final discretion remains with the boroughs. The question, then, of whether the GLC should have any part in this matter by reinforcing the work of the boroughs—that is to say, whether we use only one instrument of help for the homeless or all the instruments that are to hand, namely two— depends on how much urgency we attach to the need to help those who are homeless or very badly housed.

Hon. Members are certain to be influenced in their estimate of that urgency by the part of London they represent. My point is illustrated by the constituencies of the six hon. Members who have put down this instruction. The constituents represented by the hon. Members for Hampstead, Chelsea (Sir M. Worsley), Ravensbourne (Mr. Hunt), Streatham (Mr. Shelton), Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) and Surbiton (Sir N. Fisher) do not feel very burned up about people who are homeless or very badly housed. I invite the hon. Member for Hampstead to bring his five hon. Friends on a tour of East London and some other parts of London that are not, unhappily, so well off in this matter as Twickenham, Surbiton, Chelsea, and Hampstead.

If the hon. Member represented those parts of London where the needs are very great, where the people are living and have lived for a long time in awful circumstances, he would not want to circumscribe the number of agencies, the number of methods and the amount of resources that can be brought to bear to deal with this problem. When up against a tough enemy one's best tactics are to bring up all one's ammunition from the howitzer down to the peashooter and fire all at once.

A good deal of what the hon. Member said about the virtues of municipal enterprise as against those of private enterprise in housing are absolutely irrelevant to the purpose for which the GLC is seeking these powers. It is not seeking them in order to prevent private development. There are no powers in the Bill to enable it to do so. Nothing in the Bill would stop all the people who want to from building housing for owner occupation all over London.

The situation is urgent in that regard because no one is in fact doing it. That sector of housing is moving rapidly into a state of collapse. It is not my business, and I have no expert knowledge with which to judge who is to blame for that, if any one person can be blamed. The private sector is, for whatever reason, not doing its stuff. There is nothing in the Bill to prevent it from going ahead, and I should like it to do so. I want more and more housing so that the appalling pressures which exist can be relieved. I do not have, and I wish that the hon. Member did not have, as he manifestly has, any doctrinal inhibitions in the matter. I simply want more roofs over more clean, decent rooms into which more people can be decently housed, however that is done.

However, I draw the hon. Member's attention to the fact that a great deal of the reason for the Bill and the powers in it is to fill houses which have been standing empty for a long time. It is no good the hon. Gentleman's saying that this sort of action does not add to the stock of houses. An empty house is not in the stock of houses. It might as well not be there so far as people who are badly housed or homeless are concerned. If we fill a house that is empty we add one house to the stock of houses.

It is clear enough from the terms of the Bill what the GLC wants to do. Even the largest amount of money that has been quoted does not allow it to acquire property all over London. It would not have 1 per cent. of the money required for that, even on the highest estimate.

The hon. Gentleman very fairly listed the actions which the council will take. One of them is to put people in a building that has been empty for a long time and looks like going on being empty. Another is to bring up to standard a substandard dwelling in which people are already living. That does not add to the total stock of housing, but it adds to the total stock of good, livable, pleasant housing.

I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman is a kindly man. I am sure that he is not saying—if he were, it would be doc-trinally monstrous—" I would sooner the joint were privately owned and empty than municipally owned with a family in it." That would be the effect in at least some cases if the House gave the Committee the instruction the hon. Gentleman seeks. It would be the case, because it would mean that the extent to which the GLC would be able to buy up empty houses to put in families, and to buy up run-down places in order to bring them up to standard, would be limited to the extent that the instruction would limit the resources available to the council.

Although I have nothing like the hon. Gentleman's immense local government experience—I wish I had, and on many aspects of local government I am prepared to sit at his feet—I have been more closely involved than he has in what is going on in the dockland area. I found his picture of five boroughs in the GLC quarreling absolutely fanciful. Nothing of the sort is happening. The joint committee was set up only a short time ago, and the so-called expert report, with its five options, is valueless in terms of the real needs of the area. That is-where the time was wasted, and money too. Allowing for all that, I think that that joint committee has got down to the job very well.

The hon. Gentleman is not being altogether fair to the committee, although he is by no means alone in suggesting that a body other than the local authorities might deal with the matter. Although the hon. Gentleman is not alone in suggesting something like a new town development corporation for the area I beg him to understand that if there were such a body there would be so much objection, from the people who live in the area, that the progress it could make would be very limited. The hon. Gentleman, with his local government experience, must know much better than I that in the end it is the people whom the citizens elect who are best capable of judging what is good for them, what is best for their needs, rather than an appointed body which does not necessarily have any members with roots in the area or any understanding of the area.

Dockland is a big problem. I hope that nobody will believe that we can just say that there is a lot of land there, that it is very cheap, and that all we have to do is to send down a lot of bricklayers and excavators tomorrow and start building. It is not as easy as that. First, it is not all that cheap. I invite the hon. Gentleman to discover the attitudes of the Port of London Authority to the part of the territory which it owns. Secondly, a great deal of the land, to put it paradoxically, is water, and has to be filled in. There will have to be a great deal of extremely expensive preparatory work.

There is a more important point. When one sees the way in which the part along the north bank of the river, the only part of which I can speak with authority, stretches from Tower Bridge right down towards the eastern end of the borough of Newham, one realises that the idea of the work being carried out in separate parcels by the separate borough councils, each looking after its own patch, is not scientific, when it is possible to have overall strategic planning allied to the representations of the grass roots representatives of the people about the interests of the people.

A large part of the hon. Gentleman's speech would have been a good speech in support of a different motion, that we should not have in London two sets of housing authorities. One day we may want to debate whether we should have the boroughs as housing authorities and the GLC as housing authority, but for the moment we have them, and for the moment the matter is not in dispute. So long as we have them both, it is natural that in dealing with a major problem which spills over into five boroughs it would be idiotic not to involve in its solution the one local authority which has powers in all those five boroughs and 20-odd more. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman's saying "Let us leave it to the boroughs "will not stand up in this context.

I said that the dockland problem is not easy to solve. Many areas in the country, some even in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, have suffered from blight of one sort or another for years, but this area has suffered for many more years than almost any other from a number of different sorts of blight. For example, the Isle of Dogs, which is at the heart of the problem of the dockland area, suffered first from the blight of bombing, of war damage. It was a long time before anybody seriously managed to tackle on a large scale the problem of putting right that damage. Then it suffered from a blight that people do not often think about, the blight of building. Large-scale building in itself causes blight, because it is necessary to block roads. There are piles of rubble, and people's houses are made uninhabitable by the din of excavators. There are tower cranes and the rest. People slip about in mud patches.

Now we have the danger that unless the matter is tackled properly we shall have a third blight—namely, a planning blight —which will mean that nothing can be started until everything has been planned. There is a great danger that we may get into a situation regarding the dockland scheme in which the perfect is the enemy of the good and in which the whole is the enemy of even a decent part.

That is why I believe it is no good setting up a new town corporation or a dockland area corporation, getting a Bill through the House, getting the corporation appointed and getting people recruited, and then having to establish relationships with the local authorities. If such a relationship were not achieved there would not be the co-operation of the local authorities and I would not give tuppence for such a corporation doing anything. It is no good waiting for all that because we shall then have legislative blight in addition to bombing blight, housing blight and planning blight.

I believe that the job can be handled by people who understand the needs of the area and those, such as the six-part committee, who are determined, with the help of the Government, to get on and do something.

I want to try to be as non-partisan as the hon. Member for Hampstead tried to be. I beg him and his friends to withdraw. I beg him not to divide the House. I beg him not to put himself and his hon. Friends in a position in which it may be said of them that they were willing to throw away one of the instruments that could help some people, who otherwise would remain unhoused or not decently housed, to get housed or decently housed.

I wish that the hon. Gentleman would not put himself and his hon. Friends in the position in which it could be said of them that they would sooner have a privately-owned flat empty than a publicly-owned flat accommodating a family. I do not believe that he is any less appalled by the tragedy of homelessness and bad housing than I am or any of my right hon. and hon. Friends are. If that is the truth and I believe it is he could show his true position by seeking the leave of the House to withdraw his motion.

7.43 p.m.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg) I cannot claim to be borough-minded. However, I am proud of the fact that for six years I was a member of the Greater London Council, which I regard as the greatest local authority in the world. It is staffed by many officials of high calibre. Its chief officers and some of its senior officers are often distinguished people who are at the peak of their professions.

Over many years, and under the administrations of different political parties, I believe that County Hall has done a good job in such services as the fire brigade and flood prevention, which is a matter of great concern in my constituency. It has also done a good job in its housing and planning activities, in building main roads, in providing traffic management, and in many other ways.

I go further, and say that it is high time that the country, the Government, and perhaps Buckingham Palace, gave rather greater recognition to the Greater London Council and recognised its chairman as a civic head of the people of Greater London, and gave rather less recognition to the Lord Mayor of London, who is the mayor of the commercial quarter only.

I must disagree with the reference that has been made to Twickenham. It was implied, first, that there was no serious housing shortage and, secondly, that if there was such a shortage there was very little concern about it. That is not the case. There is a substantial waiting list in Twickenham, as in most other parts of outer London. That is a list with which Richmond Borough Council is dealing energetically. It is building up its council house provision to a level in excess of what it achieved during the 1960s.

I believe that taken generally the housing shortage in Greater London is a major social evil. It has been said that those of us who tabled the amendment are not burned up about it. Well, I feel burned up about it, for one, and I think that we must do all we can to relieve the housing shortage and mitigate its social effect.

There is no doubt that nearly 30 years after the end of the war the housing shortage is causing a great deal of misery and unhappiness to the families that it afflicts. We must look at the basic causes as well as the symptoms. There is no doubt that Greater London is a magnet for employment. That greatly exacerbates the housing shortage. There are people coming into London not only from the Commonwealth and Ireland but from the provinces and others parts of south-east England. They do so because of the employment opportunities. That is nothing new. We must remember that Dick Whittington went to London to seek his fortune many centuries ago.

That attitude is not unique to this country. We have only to look across the Channel to see an even more pronounced tendency for the young Frenchman to live and work in Paris. The housing problems that that causes are there for us all to see.

We must face the basic cause of the housing shortage in Greater London. I am often astonished and amazed when Labour hon. Members resist any attempt or tendency to move employment out of Greater London. It is hopeless to demand and useless to expect that the housing shortage in Greater London can ever be solved while London continues to act as a magnet of employment to people outside.

Mr. Harry Lamborn (Peckham)

Surely if the hon. Gentleman had been a member of the Greater London Council and had any knowledge of the workings of local government in London since the war he would know that it was the GLC and its predecessor, the London County Council, which were responsible for a new and expanding town policy and for setting up a special committee to concern itself with that policy. Some people in London, and particularly in inner London, are now considering whether we have not moved too much light industry out of London, and whether we are making inner London merely an area of large office accommodation. They are considering whether we have done too much.

Mr. Jessell

That point has a number of implications. I supported the policy of the Greater London Council in the past to move industry out of London. I suggest to the hon. Member for Peckham (Mr. Lamborn) that in recent years that policy has become rather soft-pedalled. In debates in this House for the last three years Labour hon. Members such as the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown) and the former Member for Acton, Mr. Spearing—not so much the hon. Member for Peckham —have often bewailed the movement of industry out of London without facing the fact that unless that happens the housing shortage can never be solved.

It is surely a basic economic fact that as the standard of living since the war has tended gradually to rise this generation has spent an increasing proportion of its increasing income on services provided by banks, insurance companies, building societies, estate agents, solicitors and others. A smaller part of this generation's income is now spent upon goods. It is natural for the places that provide employment to reflect that trend. It is absurd to expect people to tolerate a situation in which housing conditions are improving although they continue to work in Dickensian offices.

Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)

That is true, but does not the hon. Gentleman agree that it is possible for offices, like factories, to be built in parts of the country other than London, and that it was the Labour Government of 1964 who first introduced office development permits for precisely the reason he has been advancing?

Mr. Jessel

That is possible. I am not saying that all office development is good everywhere. I would not want to see any major office development in my constituency, which is a pleasant suburban area, but lots of people want to work in offices, which do an essential job, and it is madness to imply, as some people do sometimes, that there should be little office development anywhere.

There are two basic needs in Greater London. One is for council housing, both for those on the waiting list and those in clearance areas. The other is for those who want to buy their own homes—and here I am thinking particularly of first-time or young buyers, because it is largely they who find it most difficult at present. I was not impressed by the reasons, given at some length by the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Mikardo), why the dockland development of about 5,000 acres has not yet come about. There is this colossal area in East London, and the authorities concerned should have their heads knocked together for not getting on with it faster.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead made a strong point when he suggested that a new authority should be set up to get on with the job if the existing authorities do not do so. But, of course, it is not only a question of dockland. Every day, thousands of my constituents travel by train to Waterloo and can see, out of the windows, quite large empty sites, in places like Wandsworth, Battersea and Vauxhall, which have either been left lying derelict or, in some cases, were even bomb sites. A determined approach to deal with these many old bomb sites and railway sites in London could provide a great deal of land which could house a large number of families.

Mr. Jay

Will the hon. Gentleman tell me of any large unused site in Batter-sea, visible from the railway, other than that being developed by the Covent Garden Authority?

Mr. Jessel

I cannot tell the right hon. Gentleman overnight the addresses of these places, because I do not go on my railway journeys equipped with street maps, but I should be happy to tour the three districts which I mentioned with the right hon. Gentleman, and I think that we should be able to find some.

It seems to me entirely wrong that first-time buyers of houses should have their prospects undermined and threatened by the GLC because it is buying 3,000 or 4,000 properties a year instead of concentrating its energies and attention on increasing the quantity of new council houses, which is what it should be doing.

Presumably, the GLC can buy 3,000 or 4,000 private houses a year only by the process of instructing estate agents to look out for them and coming into direct competition with first-time house buyers. This can only increase the demand for houses, force prices up and so increase the cost of mortgages to the young people who would otherwise be able to buy them. The GLC is causing a conflict of interest between would-be council tenants and would-be home owners. I therefore support the instruction, and I hope that the House will do so.

7.55 p.m.

Mr. Ronald Brown (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

I am sure that the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) will forgive me if I do not follow very much of what he said. He and I have been rowing and arguing for the last 10 years. 1 did not agree with him 10 years ago, and what he has just said does not encourage me to agree with him today. It is tragic that he has not bothered to read the motion moved by the hon. Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg). Presumably that is why he was demoted from the top of the list of sponsors to the bottom, and his speech shows that it was right to do so.

Hon. Members opposite are indulging in a dangerous practice. This matter concerns how much money is to be raised by the GLC. It was determined at a meeting of the council on 6th November 1973. It was fully debated for many hours and was voted upon. Now, hon. Members opposite are attempting to intervene in that democratic process. I remind them that the people of London voted for those they wanted to be in control of the GLC; yet, because the GLC has come to a view different from that of hon. Members opposite and of the people who were defeated in the GLC elections last year, the opposition is being carried into this Chamber.

If hon. Members opposite win this evening—and I am doing nothing other than recording my vote—I warn them that the City of London has as much chance of getting a Bill through this House as a cat in hell. If hon. Members opposite choose politically to intervene in the democratic process, while they have chosen the GLC tonight, some of us will choose every Tory-controlled authority which wants to put Bills through the House. I believe that that situation would be anarchy, and I urge hon. Members opposite to consider what they are doing. It may give them some pleasure to play in this way tonight. They might gain some satisfaction from defeating the GLC tonight. But what they would achieve by defeating the Bill would be far from democratic, although I thought that they had come here to preserve the democratic processes.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg

I am sure that, if he thinks about it, the hon. Gentleman will admit that he did not intend to make that threat. He should realise that more Labour local authorities are likely to introduce Bills than Tory local authorities.

Mr. Brown

The hon. Gentleman has taken my point. I said that it would be anarchy. It would be rather silly and undemocratic. I am calling upon hon. Members opposite to reflect. The hon. Gentleman is entitled to have his say tonight, but to take this sort of thing to a Division in an attempt to intervene in the affairs of the GLC or any other local authority in this way is the negation of democracy.

Mr. Norman Tebbit (Chingford) rose——

Mr. Brown

I would rather not give way again. I do not want to take up too much time.

Secondly, it would be better if hon. Members opposite had taken the trouble to study what the GLC is raising the money for. The total amount is about £155 million, which is the amended figure. More than half of that is for advances to people to buy their own homes in London; in other words, the GLC wants to loan £85 million to people who cannot get mortgages anywhere else. Instead of being the last resort for borrowing, the GLC is now the first resort because building societies are unable to help.

I understand that this means providing about £2 million a week to people wishing to buy their own homes at a cost of £10,000 or less per house. That means 200 families each week, or 10,000 a year. That hon. Members opposite can regard that as being offensive or worth trying to defeat the Bill appals me. Surely the GLC ought to be congratulated on this action; it certainly does not deserve a vote of censure.

The balance of £70 million is to be split between three items. Are hon. Members arguing that £70 million is too much for poor quality property that is not yet unfit but is seriously in need of care and improvement? Are they arguing that this should not be done? Are they arguing that the purchase of blocks of property where tenants feel threatened by their landlords is wrong when the landlords aim is to convert to owner-occupation or to sell with vacant possession? I assure them that very many people in London are threatened by landlords in this way. Speculators are buying up property, converting it into flats and offering the flats for sale, but the flats are still vacant— and examples can be seen in my constituency. Are Tory Members arguing that the GLC should not step in and do something about that?

Thirdly, there are vacant properties to be regularly let. Is it argued that they should be left empty while in my borough 10,000 families are on the waiting list and in adjoining boroughs there are waiting lists of 9,000, 10,000, or even 12,000? It is outrageous that hon. Members do not address themselves to these problems.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Mikardo) mentioned the five signatories to the instruction and the areas from which they came. I have done my homework and discovered that last year Richmond made a great contribution to society in London by building 82 homes. That is disgraceful in view of the problems of other areas—I am doing Richmond a disservice; the number was 72. By any yardstick, for the hon. Member for Twickenham to sign the instruction is disgraceful.

Mr. Jessel

If the hon. Member wagged his finger a little less fractiously and took more trouble to get the facts into perspective, we should get a more accurate picture of what was happening. As he is aware, over the past six years the borough of Richmond has given nearly 400 lettings to families from inner London nominated by the GLC. If all 20 outer London boroughs had acted similarly, they would have made a significant dent in London's housing problem. About 400 new lettings were made last year, and the programme is to build 1,400 new dwellings in the next four years.

Mr. Brown

The figure for 1973 is 216 under construction. The year before only 155 were built, and the year before that the figure was 235. The borough is capable of 400 a year, but last year the number completed was only 72. There is no dispute between us about that, and that figure is disgraceful.

Bromley did rather better than Richmond: it built 82. Bromley went to town! Kensington did even better than Richmond and Bromley and built 84.

In spite of those figures, the hon. Members from those areas have the effrontery to sign an instruction that would take £55 million from the GLC, which is trying to provide homes for the people of London. Hon. Members opposite are doing a disservice to housing and to local government. The GLC is providing this enormous sum for house finance. It is enabling people to buy property that the builders would not otherwise sell, so that the builders are saved from facing bankruptcy. Am I to understand that Tory Members do not care about the small builders and the jobbing builders and the men who are building speculatively, who are now going out of business? Have they changed their argument? The GLC is giving an impetus to the building industry itself.

I have heard nothing this evening to persuade me that this instruction to the Committee is based on fact. It is doctrinaire party politics to the nth degree, and when they hear about it, the people of London will be as disgusted as we are.

8.5 p.m.

Mr. Norman Tebbit (Chingford)

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg) and the other signatories to the instruction. Before dealing with that, however, I should like to comment on what was said by the hon. Member for Poplar and the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shore-ditch (Mr. Brown).

The hon. Member for Poplar was on his best behaviour this evening. One could not have heard a more cheerful, sanctimonious old hypocrite in the whole of Westminster. He implied that there was a lack of interest among my hon. Friends. Perhaps he will pay a little attention to the debate before he joins his hon. Friends who intervened and then walked out.

It might be unfair to turn that argument on its head and to suggest that, because all of my hon. Friends who signed the instruction are from constituencies whose housing problems are rather less than those in the hon. Member's constituency, my hon. Friends are more interested than is the hon. Gentleman in ensuring that there are no constituencies with housing problems. That would be an unfair argument, but it is as logical as the hon. Gentleman's particularly stupid and unfair comment.

Mr. Mikardo

I give the hon. Gentleman an undertaking that I shall pass on his observations to the hon. Member for Poplar whenever we have in the House an hon. Member for Poplar. As the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow, I shall be glad to pass that information to him.

Mr. Tebbit

I am grateful for that correction. The hon. Member was described by most of his hon. Friends who have spoken in the debate as the hon. Member for Poplar, but, clearly, he was not then listening.

He advanced the delightful theory that only the local people of dockland have the right to say what form development there should take. It is not a theory offered by the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch to the people of Croydon, Surbiton, Twickenham, or Finchley. There, any form of development that suits the Government may be foisted upon the people, who have no right to objection.

The hon. Gentleman may do the House a courtesy and his constituents a favour if he thinks again about whether it might be an advantage to have a new town type of authority to develop that land. Whatever he says about it and whatever excuse he may make, this has been land not barren and empty but in urgent need of redevelopment for a quarter of a century.

Mr. Ronald Brown

Not that long.

Mr. Tebbit

The hon. Member mentioned bomb damage. To the best of my belief, not many bombs have fallen on dockland in the last quarter of a century. It has been in need of redevelopment for a long time, but very little has been done, except to produce brochures and arguments among the boroughs.

The hon. Member also had much to say about whether the House had the right to amend the Bill. He suggested that if we dared to amend the Bill on its merits from now on he and his hon. Friends would attempt to stop any Bill by any Conservative-controlled authority.

Mr. Ronald Brown

On its merits.

Mr. Tebbit

The hon. Gentleman did not say "on its merits". He made the 100 per cent. cover-all pledge about all such Bills, the nature of which he has not seen, so that he has not been able to judge their merits.

The hon. Gentleman expects us on this side to accept that although we have the right to discuss the Bill we do not have the right to vote on it. Now all of us in the House know to where a great deal of the power is drawn. It is not to Brussels but to somewhere much closer to Westminster. This is taking it a darned sight too far, and the hon. Gentleman knows it. He was carried away, as he often is, by his own exuberance. He could not have meant what he said, namely, that, regardless of merit any Conservative-controlled council's Bill which comes before the House would be opposed if we vote against this Bill. I am sure that he could not have meant that.

I turn to the main point which my hon. Friends are proposing. It is to prevent the excessive use of public money competing against the home buyer in purchasing properties. [Interruption.] The matter has been established this evening by the way the hon. Member nodded wisely when the hon. Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew) spoke; he spent only two or three minutes with us, flitting in and out. He made the suggestion that it was to save Mr. Stern from bankruptcy. I am damned if I want to save Mr. Stern from bankruptcy. If he cannot sell property to anybody, let him pull down the price. What is the sudden compassion of Labour Members for Mr. Stern?

Let us have more compassion for my constituents who want to become home owners and who see houses up for sale which the builder cannot sell because he paid too much for the land a couple of years ago. Well and good, let him bring his price down, even if he loses money. He will not do that while there is a bottomless purse over the river, a purse which appears in the form of a gentleman from County Hall and who bids the price up again. Constituents of mine have been negotiating to purchase a house and ran into trouble getting a mortgage. They went to see how much money they could raise but then in stepped the local authority with the cheque book. The cheque is written out and away they go—

Mr. Ronald Brown

The hon. Gentleman should not go to church this weekend.

Mr. Tebbit

The hon. Member asks me not to go to church this weekend, but I am perfectly willing to take him with me We could go together. The sort of situation I have described is what is happening and it is putting up the price of property.

There is nothing in the motion to prevent the GLC from buying properties which are in decay and in dire need of purchase to bring them up to standard. All we have had is the old story of the empty properties which are supposed to be available in the country. Let us look at some of these famous empty properties. The borough of Hammersmith for instance decided in 1972 to investigate a large number of properties in the borough which had been kept empty for up to three and a half years. The investigation started with those properties which had been empty the longest. The council's housing committee considered 120 properties and over a quarter of the supposedly empty properties turned out to be occupied. At least half of the properties had builders in carrying out improvements and a few were the subject of compulsory purchase negotiations by another authority, the GLC, six were blighted by the threat of demolition, three had been demolished and a dozen more were owned by housing associations and were either occupied or were to be occupied shortly.

When we get down to it all this talk about empty private property is nothing more than a myth. Many of these properties are already owned by local authorities. We find, for instance, that Lewis-ham Council has issued a warning to house owners regarding houses they were not living in but which, it was said, were deliberately being kept empty. In one case it was found that a house at 40 Mallam Road had been bought by Lewisham Council in June and was still vacant in September. This is the sort of thing we have to fight against—the bureaucracy and the incompetence of council after council which owns property but forgets about the property and so does nothing about it.

I hold no brief for the incompetence of many of the London borough councils in this matter, but we should admit that my hon. Friend was right when he said that the Greater London Council would be even worse at it. I am surprised that hon. Members on the Government side, who must have more constituents coming to see them about housing problems than I do, are not aware of the dreadful problems which arise between the GLC and the boroughs relating to the matters which we are considering. Hon. Members on the Government side should know full well of the troubles and problems that arise when a person wants to move within London from the area of one authority to another. There are even problems within the same borough, for there is no medium of communication between the housing manager for the local borough and the mandarins of County Hall.

If the Bill were to go through unamended it would pour more money into the housing market at a time when the supply is not being expanded. As we have seen from bitter experience, that would result only in the prices of houses going up. Let us concentrate upon increasing the supply of houses. Then we can discuss whether they should be owned by one body or another. If the Government's efforts to improve the supply of money for private house purchase through the building societies are successful, well and good. People will be able to buy their houses and we shall be out of much of this trouble, but if the Government are serious in their efforts there can be little sense in the Bill.

I shall support my hon. Friends in the Lobby tonight. When hon. Members opposite think about the matter a little longer they may prefer that the whole Bill should be discussed in Committee, but without that £50 million. Let us see whether the GLC can spend efficiently the money which it is to get without the £50 million.

I should in these difficult times declare two financial interests in this matter, which could conceivably affect the issue. The first is that I am an adviser to an insurance company which is seeking to go into the mortgage business and seeking to introduce new forms of funding in mortgages, which could relate to the matter which we have had under discussion. Secondly, I am a council tenant in inner London, and I take an interest in these matters.

8.17 p.m.

Mr. Harry Lamborn (Peckham)

I follow the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown) when he remarked on the significance of the fact that three of the boroughs which are represented by hon. Members signing this motion are boroughs with the worst building record in the whole of Greater London as far as local authorities are concerned——

Mr. William Shelton (Streatham)

Will the hon. Gentleman substantiate that remark, with reference to Lambeth?

Mr. Lamborn

Lambeth was not one of the boroughs named by my hon. Friend, who particularly quoted three boroughs where last year the building record for a whole year was 72, 82 and 84—namely Richmond, Bromley and Kensington and Chelsea.

That must shock the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel), because he was not only a member of the GLC but a member of the old metropolitan borough council and he knows the problems of inner London boroughs, such as the present borough of Southwark. He will know that the problems of inner London can be solved only by an effort from the outer London boroughs to make a contribution towards the overall housing problem of London. This is why I was rather amazed by the answer given by the hon. Member, that the councils should build instead of buying. Unfortunately, in an area like Southwark we can build only where we first of all pull down. But boroughs such as Richmond and Bromley, where there is space, should be making a contribution in order to solve the problems of inner London. Surely the whole concept of the London Government Act was to create a larger area in order to solve the overall problems of London.

Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst)

Would the hon. Gentleman agree that when we are considering the relevance of housing in outer London it depends on how many houses were built not merely in one year but over a period? Would the hon. Gentleman care to quote how many houses are owned by the GLC in Bromley?

Mr. Lamborn

I could not give a figure, but I would say "not nearly enough ". I was a member of the Greater London Council at the time when the GLC was trying to get Bromley to make a greater contribution to the housing pool to solve the problems of inner London, and I am afraid that it was not a London borough with which we were particularly successful.

The object of the Bill is first to enable the GLC to provide a pool of money for two purposes. One purpose is house purchase. It is nonsense to suggest that this Bill would discourage house purchase when the GLC is making the largest single contribution in history of any local authority towards mortgage advances.

In boroughs like mine in inner London we have two problems. The first is to provide properties to cater for the overspill in development areas. Unfortunately, in Southwark not only do we have a housing waiting list of 9,400 families but on every development site we displace many more people than we put back. It is only the contributions made by the GLC in dealing with the overspill of inner London boroughs such as Southwark which make it possible for the redevelopment and modernisation programmes to go ahead. Certainly the pool of property which the GLC is buying, in addition to assisting with the overspill problem, will give some ray of hope to the 9,400 families waiting for houses in my borough, many of those families in desperate need of housing, young couples with two or three children living in one room, whom the council cannot assist because the whole of the housing accommodation which becomes available is needed for the next clearance area.

I welcome the GLC taking this initiative in buying up houses which we all know are empty in London. I can take hon. Members opposite to houses in the London area, selling at £11,000, £12,000 and £13,000, which could be converted conveniently into two flats each and could make a substantial contribution to the solution of the problems of inner London boroughs such as Southwark.

Mr. Ronald Brown

Would my hon. Friend remind the House that, while he may have 9,400 families on the waiting list, his authority has been among the foremost in the country in supplying homes, and in the last three years has been averaging 2,000 homes a year?

Mr. Lamborn

Yes, indeed. I am obliged to my hon. Friend. I was, indeed, coming to that point to illustrate that, in contrast to some of the figures which have been mentioned by hon. Members sponsoring this reduction in money for purchasing houses, Southwark has one of the finest building records in the country. However, building houses does not solve the problem in areas like Southwark. As I said, our housing waiting list is 9,400, as high as it has been at any time since the war. We look to the GLC for assistance. I urge hon. Members opposite to realise that one cannot live in an isolated community on the perimeter of London and ignore the housing problems of people in the centre. People in the centre are providing the services to keep the City and the institutions of London in being, and housing has got to be provided.

Mention has been made of the dockland area as a solution to London's problems. In my borough there is one area of dockland, the Surrey Docks, in which redevelopment could take place independent of work on the other side of the river. There has been the closest consultation with the GLC on this. A consultant's report has been prepared. In addition, and most important, there have been consultations with representatives of the community in the area to get their views about how the docks should be developed. We must ensure that London boroughs can purchase dockland at a price which would enable them to build houses there and make a substantial contribution to solving London's housing problems.

This Bill will provide immediate relief to many hard-pressed London boroughs. It would be a disgrace if it were rejected or if the amount were reduced as suggested.

Mr. Wellbeloved

My hon. Friend referred to the dockland scheme. He may recall that during the speech of the hon. Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg) a serious allegation was made; namely, that the Greater London Council could not reach an agreement with the five London boroughs so that that development might proceed more speedily. Will my hon. Friend comment on this, because it is a rather serious allegation which ought to be refuted by someone with the experience and local knowledge of my hon. Friend?

Mr. Lamborn

I agree with my hon. Friend. The time for which it has been suggested the dockland area north of the river has been vacant is quite wrong. Some of it which will come within the overall 5,000 acres is very much operational at the moment. Consultants have been planning in advance of the dockland area becoming available. In my area the boroughs are well ahead in discussions about the future of the area, and not only as it affects private housing.

In my borough of Southwark the area of the dockland which is on the perimeter of the borough is referred to as "downtown". It is very difficult to reach. One of the essentials in the dockland development programme is the provision of lines of communication. Without these we cannot develop large communities on the perimeter of the river.

The hon. Member for Twickenham spoke of the need to move more industry out of London. Side by side with the redevelopment of housing in dockland there must be an influx of light industry or similar enterprise which will enable those who live in the community to work there. Certainly in my borough, and I believe this is true of other boroughs, there has been a running down of light industry. As I have said, we have perhaps gone too far in inner London in running down industry and creating conurbations.

Mr. Guy Barnett (Greenwich)

I am particularly interested in that point. My constituency is not far from my hon. Friend's and has suffered in the same sort of way. I wonder whether a contributory argument to this situation is that South-East London has a long tradition of skilled labour in the engineering industry. It is all very well for Tory Members to talk about moving industry out of London. They are, however, talking of moving jobs directly relevant to the skill of our constituents. Would my hon. Friend not agree that this is a strong argument for retaining a healthy engineering industry in South-East London?

Mr. Lamborn

I agree with my hon. Friend. This problem has been increasing in inner London in recent years. I am certain that in the redevelopment of the dockland area some regard has to be paid to providing occupational employment opportunities, other than office work, for residents. We have perhaps gone too far in moving industry out. The hon. Member for Richmond seemed to suggest that we had not made enough progress in moving people out of London together with industry. In my borough prior to 1950 there were nine parliamentary constituencies. At the last election there were only three constituencies. This shows the movement of population that there has been away from inner London.

I return to the question of the tragic effect which the carrying of this motion to reduce the amount of money available for purchasing would have on the housing situation in London. It would not have any effect on Bromley or Chingford, but it would have an effect on inner London boroughs such as mine.

Mr. Tebbit

It would have an effect on Chingford if we did what my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg) wants us to do. It would prevent the GLC from using its great big heavy boots to compete against people who want to buy their houses, thereby keeping up the price of housing when it should be falling. Perhaps the GLC will mind its own damn business and keep out of my constituency.

Mr. Lamborn

That is typical of the attitude that I am talking about. The attitude is "Never mind about the problems of inner London, or the disgraceful conditions in which people are living, or about young couples with two or three children living in one room. Don't you dare come into my area of Chingford and buy property." Such an attitude is an absolute rebuttal of the purpose of the London Government Act and typical of the motives of hon. Members opposite in tabling the motion. I ask hon. Members to reject it.

8.37 p.m.

Mr. William Shelton (Streatham)

I am very pleased to follow in debate the hon. Member for Peckham (Mr. Lamborn), with whom I served with great pleasure on the Greater London Council. I hope that after he has read his speech in HANSARD tomorrow he will write to me and withdraw his remarks about Lambeth. He will see that the boroughs represented by the five signatories of the motion——

Mr. Lamborn

I understand that there are six signatories.

Mr. Shelton

That is even more. That does not alter the fact that my name is among them. I represent a constituency in Lambeth. Lambeth has an excellent housing record which came to special prominence between 1967 and 1970 under Conservative control. Perhaps when the hon. Gentleman has looked again at the figures he will give my borough and myself an apology.

This debate is about municipalisation Like many of his hon. Friends, the hon. Member for Peckham has forgotten the law of supply and demand. If the GLC has £140 million with which to buy property in the housing market, much of that property will already have people living in it. We are therefore talking about change of ownership and no more. If the council buys that property, other people will not be able to buy it. The law of supply and demand means that, despite the attitude of hon. Members opposite, it will have to pay more for it than would have been paid had a private person bought it. I am explaining the point as simply as I can, but the law of supply and demand has been explained to hon. Members opposite for the last two or three decades and they still find it difficult to grasp.

I do not like widespread municipalisation. I accept the rôle that council housing, perhaps GLC housing, must play. I have enough housing problems in my part of London and enough contacts with the local borough to know how helpful the authorities are and how hard they try. Nevertheless, I do not know of any law that ordains the fact that ownership of rented accommodation must be by the municipality, whether the GLC or the boroughs.

The object of this money is set out in the further statement by the Greater London Council: The main aim of the programme —in other words, the money that we are talking about— will be to retain dwellings in tenanted occupation which would otherwise be lost to the rented sector

Mr. William Handing (Woolwich, West)


Mr. Shelton

This further statement was sent to me by the Greater London Council as an expression——

Mr. Handing

It does not say that.

Mr. Shelton

Perhaps we can talk afterwards and I will refer the hon. Gentleman, who spoke from a sedentary position, to paragraph 3 on the first page, which states: The main aim of the programme will be to retain dwellings in tenanted occupation which would otherwise be lost to the rented sector; to give tenants security and better prospects for the future; to provide sound management and maintenance standards; to improve the standards and amenities and so on.

That is the object. In a situation where the Labour Government are promising or threatening—it depends which way one looks at it—to give security of tenure to tenants in furnished accommodation and the Greater London Council and the boroughs have these vast sums of money to buy houses in the private market, bit by bit tenanted accommodation in the private sector must inevitably disappear.

Mr. Hamling

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in my constituency when the local council buys houses it is mainly because the people concerned want to sell them, not because the council wants to buy them?

Mr. Shelton

I cannot speak of the hon. Gentleman's sector, but I can speak of my own. When my council buys a house it is usually because a compulsory purchase order has been placed upon it, there is a delay of six months, one year or two years before an inquiry takes place, the people concerned get bored and move away, the house is under blight, and in desperation they plead with the council to buy the house—and they are usually unhappy with the amount that they get.

My point is that if we give security of tenure to tenants in furnished accommodation and approve a great deal of money for councils to buy property in the private sector, privately tenanted accommodation will be driven from the market. Therefore, we must accept that there is inevitably some logic in municipalisation as a resort.

There are alternatives: not to give security of tenure for furnished accommodation, as indeed was the majority recommendation of the report that studied the matter; to give more aid to housing associations; and to bear in mind that municipal accommodation has an extremely low mobility rate—about 2 per cent. per annum compared with 6 per cent. or 7 per cent. in the private sector. In the rented sector, whether municipal or private, surely we need mobility so that people can move in or out as they wish. People do not like to give up council houses. That is why there is such a low mobility rate.

My major concern about giving this vast sum of money to the GLC to purchase property is the difficulty of management that the GLC will have to an even greater extent than at the moment. We know the staff shortages in the boroughs and the GLC. Perhaps the Minister could tell us about the surveyors and legal staff of the GLC. I believe that the number of surveyors is inadequate to cope with the present work load, even without the number of properties which would flow in were this extra money spent on housing.

The financial control of these houses is becoming increasingly parlous. In April my borough of Lambeth was about £500,000 in rent arrears; for Southwark the figure was £325,000, for Waltham Forest £250,000 and for the GLC £2 million. We should like to know the rent arrears on the property that the GLC manages at the moment. With this vast influx of new accommodation into what is probably the biggest property empire in Europe, how would it be able to manage?

Labour Members have made great play with empty houses and flats, talking about the wicked, cruel Conservatives taking from the people of London £50 million which would have been spent on empty properties into which families could move immediately. Were this true, my colleagues and I would not have put our names to this motion. I am speaking only for South London, because that is the only area of which I can speak with any authority. Three months ago I undertook a questionnaire about empty property. Every house in the constituency received a copy, and I had over 1,000 replies.

The largest single block of empty properties in the constituency is called Cubitt House, in Poynders Road. It contains 200 empty flats and is owned by the GLC. The GLC is modernising those flats, which is admirable, but they have been empty since 1972. Why could not the council have left the families in for another two years until they were ready to modernise? The reason is that its property empire is so vast that it cannot control it properly. So a block of 200 flats, built in 1936 or 1937, has been boarded up since 1972. I do not know how much longer it will be before moder- nisation starts, and I do not suppose that the GLC knows either.

Mr. Marcus Lipton (Lambeth, Central)

Would the hon. Gentleman also tell us how many empty properties in his constituency belong to Lambeth Borough Council? How does he reconcile his argument with that of his hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg), who said "Take this money from the GLC and give it to the boroughs."?

Mr. Shelton

I do not believe my hon. Friend was advocating a gift of £50 million to the boroughs. I understood his point to be that if municipalisation is to take place because of the difficulties that I have mentioned, it may be better done by the boroughs, which are more in contact with local needs.

As for empty properties owned by Lambeth, I can speak only about Streatham because it was in Streatham that I conducted this questionnaire. The GLC had few empty properties other than this vast estate, because it had few estates in the borough. Lambeth borough had 25 to 30. In the private sector there were 80 to 90.

Mr. Handing

The hon. Gentleman has been talking about properties which were empty for a year from 1972 to 1973. He will recollect that the Labour Party regained control at County Hall only last year, so these properties were empty for 12 months under the Tory Party. Will he explain why?

Mr. Shelton

The hon. Gentleman is mistaken as to which year he is living in. We are in 1974. The properties were empty in 1972. Therefore, they have been empty for at least two years. Unhappily, Labour gained control at County Hall in 1970, not in 1972.

Mr. Lamborn

The hon. Member has his facts wrong. I was a member of the Greater London Council until May 1973. From 1970 the Conservative Party was in control. Labour took control in May 1973.

Mr. Shelton

I thought that the hon. Gentleman was referring to the county borough which changed control. Unfortunately, I lost my seat in 1970, and I well remember what happened. [Interruption.] I again remind the hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Handing) that we are in 1974 and not 1973.

We are faced with a proposition, which I shall certainly support tonight if there is a Division, that £50 million could find a better use than in the transfer of ownership from one set of owners to another set in London, especially when by transferring it to the GLC we should be transferring it to a vast property empire which already has tremendous problems of property management.

8.53 p.m.

Mr. Bryan Davies (Enfield, North)

At one stage last week there was a rumour in the House that the Opposition proposed to vote against the totality of this money Bill. That would have been scandalous, given the range of facilities that the GLC intends to provide with the money. It is even more scandalous that it is now clearly identified that the Opposition propose to staunch the flow of funds to housing. If there is one issue on which both sides should be able easily to reach agreement it is that the most appalling social problems in London arise in housing, particularly in rented accommodation.

It is all very well for the Opposition to trace the advantages of owner-occupation and the extent to which we should encourage it to solve the problems of many Londoners. We are well aware that due to the extraordinary rise in house prices in the past few years we are, in seeking this solution, identifying as the greatest area of need people with incomes of almost £4,000 a year, because these alone are in the market for mortgages.

We are also disregarding, by this solution, the vast range of housing need which is identified week in and week out by good constituency Members not only on the Government side of the House but among the Opposition. Who is it who can hold a surgery in London as Member of Parliament and not identify the extent to which housing is the social problem?

Mr. Hamling

The hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Shelton) can.

Mr. Davies

My local authority is some distance away from having the worst record in the London area. About 6,000 people are on the waiting list. Last year that authority built less than 300 houses. The previous year's figure was also less than 300. We have to go back six years, to the time when the Labour Party controlled the authority, before we see the figure of 1,000 houses being built in a year—which even then was not sufficient and even now would not be sufficient to meet the colossal need identified in my constituency.

We have had an extraordinary range of arguments from the Opposition this evening. One hon. Member said that he thought that the GLC would come tripping with delicate feet—or hobnailed boots—into various areas and buying up vast numbers of empty properties and then, a little later, he quoted figures right, left and centre saying that those empty properties did not exist. Therefore, presumably the threat is somewhat negatived.

Another hon. Gentleman gave us a most interesting lesson in economics I struggled for a number of years trying to cope with the complexity of economics. I am not sure that I made a particularly good job of it. However, from the residual knowledge I have, I maintain that anyone who argues that while building societies in this country are lending £3,500 million a year in order to provide opportunity for owner occupation, the GLC, coming along with its vast resources of £55 million, will somehow produce a marginal shift in house prices of such dimensions that we ought clearly to oppose it in order to ensure that house prices will stay down, is arguing nonsense. What kind of nonsense is it?

Mr. Ted Graham (Edmonton)

Tory nonsense.

Mr. Davies

It seems that the first basic argument being advanced by the Opposition is that the municipalisation proposed in the Bill by the GLC will not increase the housing stock. My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Mikardo) identified the way in which municipalisation will increase housing stock—by no means to the dimensions that are necessary to meet the real housing need in London but, nevertheless, by that marginal amount that would see present vacant properties brought into some form of occupation.

Secondly, it has been contended that the GLC ought to be frustrated in its ambition to help to solve this aspect of London's problem by leaving it to the boroughs. What confidence have we in boroughs with the kind of appalling housing record and the low priority that they have clearly given to housing in a whole range of outer London boroughs, which has been identified this evening in a series of statistics?

Here is another example of the way in which the municipalisation of rented property could marginally help with some housing problems. A short time ago, a group of students came to me with figures showing how they had identified numbers of empty properties in the London borough of Enfield, and they sought ways by which they could temporarily fill this accommodation, it being vacant for the time being for all sorts of reasons commonly associated with planning, planning blight, and so on.

With the best will in the world, the local authority could not help in that area of significant housing need. We all know that some of the casualties of the housing problem in London have been among people with low incomes. Students, even with their welcome recent increase in grant, are still in desperate difficulty with regard to rented accommodation. The local authority was not able to help be-because only a small proportion of the accommodation was under its control— 90 per cent. of it being in private hands. There was no way in which that imaginative scheme, which would have helped in the short term to meet an acute housing need, could be implemented.

The Opposition argue that owner-occupation must be encouraged, and they say that the threat of municipalisation is somehow a threat to such initiatives. What nonsense. This Government have given clear indications of the way in which they propose to increase the potential for owner-occupation. They identified housing as a major priority and they fought the last election on it. This is widely recognised. What is more, there is nothing in the Bill which would in any way frustrate that endeavour.

Mr. Ronald Brown

The great thing is that the Government asked local authorities to do exactly what the GLC is now doing, namely, to provide money for the purchase of empty properties.

Mr. Davies

I am grateful to my hon. Friend; that clarifies the point I was making.

I do not wish to be any more doctrinaire than other hon. Members are, but it is well known that one man's dogma is another man's principle, and I think that it needs saying that in certain respects the issue of owner-occupation involves serious problems. I have identified one aspect, namely, that we cannot pretend that we are solving the problems of greatest need in Britain's capital city on the basis of increasing owner-occupation while house prices are at their present astronomical level.

Second, many of those who own their own homes, and many other owner-occupiers, do not automatically slip into the basic Tory philosophy that the making of gains by an individual on a fixed asset such as a house is necessarily to be applauded. Some of us, while carrying on a responsible job on behalf of the community and earning a medium salary of, perhaps, £2,500 or £3,000 a year, actually found it morally offensive that society should pay us for owning our own home, virtually as much as we were paid for making a real contribution to society.

Let not hon. Members opposite mislead themselves into believing that owner-occupiers live under the illusion that they are the State beneficiaries of such developments. Everyone knows that if he wants to move to another house the price of that, too, will have risen, and, if he looks forward to a situation in which he may eventually benefit, he knows also that that raises a social problem in its turn, since in a period of rapid inflation of house prices one generation is exploiting the next. A whole range of major problems in the London area is clearly identified by young families who have been priced out of the owner-occupation market. These are the people who know that, however much talk there is about increasing the London allowance for local government workers and teachers, it will get nowhere near resolving the basic crisis of the capital city, which arises from the fact that it is too expensive for a whole range of people to live in.

On that basis London's housing problems cannot be resolved without a great increase in the amount of rented accommodation, and I greatly welcome the Bill as a contribution towards that end.

9.5 p.m.

Dr. Rhodes Boyson (Brent, North)

I cannot claim to have been a member of the GLC. Nevertheless, I have served six years as a borough councillor in one of the boroughs in London which had housing problems, and I have worked for the last 13 years in Tower Hamlets and Islington, which certainly know what housing problems are all about. I do not doubt the good intentions of the Labour Members who have spoken so far and favour an advance of municipalisation, but, looking back over the last 60 years since Governments first began to interfere in the housing market, it seems that with every pound they have put in they have increased the problems instead of lessening them.

Subsidies first appeared in 1914, and shortly after the First World War council houses came along. Then there was the great destroyer of rented accommodation in our cities, the council bulldozer and redevelopment. While all this has been happening, London's population has decreased and its housing problem has got worse. Labour Members seem to hold the peculiar view that by increasing municipalisation they are doing something to solve London's problems. They are completely honest on that, of course, but misinformed, and they will serve only to increase the problems.

There has been reference to empty houses. At the time of the General Election there was a council house in my area of Brent which had been empty for so long that it was featured in a newspaper. If hon. Members were interested I could take them today to speak to neighbours who would testify as to how long it had stood empty. If we increase municipalisation we shall only produce huge ghettos on the American pattern, and in 30 years' time we shall have to reverse the process and sort it all out. There is already a flight to the suburbs.

Most people, given the chance—and we hope we may get mortgage rates right before long—would buy their own homes. Surveys have shown that 85 per cent. to 90 per cent. of people would prefer owning their own homes to having semi-tied cottages, which is what council houses are, which they cannot exchange for houses elsewhere. The turnover for council house properties is only 2 per cent. a year as against between 7 per cent. and 9 per cent. for private property. My hon. Friends have also made the point that the buying up of existing housing stock in London adds not one house to that stock but simply changes ownership.

I am surprised that Labour Members, in view of what they have said about house prices, should now want to adopt a line of action to increase municipalisation which will mean that house prices will never drop, thanks to the bottomless purse of the GLC. The hon. Member for Enfield, North (Mr. Davies) said that the inflation of house prices had put owner occupation outside the range of many people's pockets, and I can vouch for that from my own experience in teaching. A teacher on an ordinary salary, or even on a deputy head's salary, cannot get a mortgage for a house in London because of inflation. Now that houses are becoming vacant in the private market, and just when prices might drop, a new power is now appearing in the form of the economic law known as the "support price". Prices will drop no lower than a support price, if the seller knows that somewhere there is a buyer with a large purse. There has come to my attention a case in Havering of a young couple buying their first house for £11,400 and then being gazumped by a Labour council, which paid £900 more. I believe they still have not got a house.

Mr. Bryan Davies

What would the hon. Gentleman consider to be the reserve price of properties of the Centre Point type? How far does the price have to drop before it becomes necessary to fill them?

Dr. Boyson

I did not think that Centre Point was in Havering, but I take the hon. Gentleman's point. He and I both come from north-west London. The giving of only a limited number of development certificates for office accommodation in London, coupled with inflation, was what gave such properties their high prices. I believe that the development rights for Centre Point were given by a Labour council. Let the responsibility be placed on those who were in at the beginning. Obviously, the hon. Gentleman was touched to the quick by my reference to gazumping by a local council.

The council at Brent bought new Georgian houses with two bathrooms at a cost of £25,000 each, which means that the families in them are being subsidised by the ratepayer and taxpayer to the tune of £50 a week. I was astonished by the council's action, and there has been a great deal of controversy there and elsewhere about it. I may be asked why council tenants should not live in such houses. As an optimist, I look forward to a time when everybody can live in houses of that type. I do not want the poor to be downtrodden, but spending £50 a week and more to subsidise those houses will mean that money is not available elsewhere to subsidise other accommodation or for council house building.

The extension outwards from London should mean a fall in house prices. If a builder has paid a high price for land and has built on it a house he cannot sell, that is his look out. As a believer in a free market, I accept that. A fall in the free market could bring properties within reach of the ordinary person once again.

It also seems to me that a cut in local government expenditure will be a good thing at present. High interest rates have been produced by inflation and have not happened naturally. One of the big reasons for inflation has been the increase in local government spending. Between 1955 and 1972 it increased twice and three times as fast as central Government expenditure, from 10 per cent. to 15.5 per cent. of the gross national product.

We shall never achieve a stable currency and settled prices, so that my constituents and those of the hon. Member for Enfield, North can afford to buy their own houses, till we can hold down expenditure and balance the budget without borrowing or printing paper money.

In a desire to help those who, I hope, will eventually be able to buy their own houses, including many people in central London, I support the motion.

9.14 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Latham (Paddington)

I should like first to put on record, for the sake of at least one Conservative Member, that the Greater London Council was very much controlled by Cutler and company, under Tory domination, between 1967 and 1973. Therefore, when we hear accounts of events which took place in 1972, when there must have been preparatory work before that, when we hear accusations of bad management and bureaucracy, when we hear of a shortage of surveyors, as one of the arguments to try to justify not proceeding with the GLC's municipalisation programme, let it be understood that the Labour-controlled GLC has been in office for only a little more than one year. It cannot be argued, in all fairness, that all the problems are a result of the policies that the present administration at County Hall is pursuing.

Mr. William Shelton

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that for the last 30 years Labour has been in control of London except between 1967 and 1973?

Mr. Russell Kerr (Feltham and Heston)

The Tories have been in control for six of the last seven years.

Mr. Shelton

If the hon. Member for Paddington (Mr. Latham) had listened to me he would have understood that I am not criticising the political control of either the Labour Party or the Conservative Party. My criticism is that a single empire trying to control 270,000 houses cannot do so successfully.

Mr. Latham

There is the central point concerning the difference between democratic control of a fine property empire, as it is described and the lack of public accountability of the vast property empires, such as Freshwater, which afflict my constituency. The democratic control of housing and the rights of tenants are fundamental to the policy which the GLC is now pursuing.

I am well aware that the GLC is a comparatively new body—it came into being in 1964. I know of the existence of the LCC before that. I note that the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Shelton) is nodding in agreement. Perhaps he will also know, as a former member of the GLC, of the record of Mr. Cutler, as Chairman of the GLC Housing Committee, in getting rid of properties, reducing the housing programme, trying to get out of the housing business, lowering the standard of repairs and maintenance and treating tenants as a nuisance rather than as people. I know that full well, as an active councillor in an outer London borough and as a Member of Parliament for an inner London borough. If we are to consider the record of the GLC in six years of Tory control, let us ask some of my tenants in Paddington what they thought about that period.

It seems that some Conservative Members start with a basic prejudice against municipal ownership. Let them be clear that the change of control within County Hall in 1973 and the ousting of Plummer, Cutler and company, was the decision of London voters. A paramount consideration in the way that they cast their votes was the Labour Party's programme for extending municipal ownership of houses in London. The House must ensure that the GLC is enabled to fulfil its policies following the change in 1973.

We have had a series of false arguments offered in support of the prejudice of Conservative Members against the programme of municipalisation. Considerable nonsense has been talked about the rent arrears of GLC tenants. Does it not occur to the hon. Members who made that point that the accruing of rent arrears might have less to do with management and more to do with the tenants' ability or inability to pay? Have they not heard of the Housing Finance Act? Have they not heard of the many tenants whose rents have been forced up and who in many cases are not prepared to subject themselves to a perpetual means test? Might it not be more sensible to conclude that large rent arrears are an indication that the level of the rents has been taken too high, rather than anything else?

Mr. Shelton

I expect that the hon. Gentleman's constituents will wish to know whether the hon. Gentleman is condoning GLC tenants' rent arrears of £2 million?

Mr. Latham

I am not condoning the rent arrears. I am condemning the cause of those arrears, which I believe is the Housing Finance Act and the deliberate wish to force up local authority rents to the level of those obtaining in the private sector. That is what I condemned in Committee on the Housing Finance Bill. I shall be one of the foremost in welcoming the Bill, which I hope to see shortly, which will get rid of the Housing Finance Act and allow us to return to a situation in which local authorities can determine reasonable rent levels.

Nor do I understand the argument about the effect on the owner-occupier market. Hon. Members opposite talk as if a local authority has an open chequebook, can write in any sum of money it wishes and is not subject to any valuation control at all. Anyone who has been in local government knows that the general experience is very different from the example of Havering, which has been quoted. Very often, when a local authority ought to have the opportunity to buy, it is gazumped by private interests because it is restricted in its expenditure by valuation control. The idea that a local authority can go into the housing market and simply pay whatever price it pleases, regardless of valuation, is false and a nonsense.

The Bill and its provisions for municipalisation will, I am sure, be very much welcomed by a large number of my constituents. In Westminster, about 7,000 people are on the housing waiting list. A building rate of less than 200 new homes a year is not going to offer any prospect of decent housing for the vast majority of them. We have heard apologies and excuses from hon. Members opposite about empty properties. Not even the Tory Westminster City Council denies that there are thousands of empty properties in the City of Westminster, but one knows in advance that if the opportunity occurred for the council to acquire those properties it would share the same prejudices as are shown by hon. Members opposite.

Unless the GLC has the opportunity to intervene, those properties will remain vacant. Many of them are vacant in an attempt to negotiate leases subsequently at inflated rentals; many of them are left empty in the hope of making a quick profit. They are not kept empty on housing grounds, or for improvements, such as in the case of the Cubitt house, which has been quoted. They are being kept empty for speculative purposes while many people are homeless.

Like my hon. Friends, I am constantly distressed by the housing cases which come to my advice bureau. It is not uncommon to hear of people who have been on the waiting list for 11, 12 and 16 years, but still have no prospect of being housed. Only last week, 1 met a couple who lived in one room when their children were born. After seven years, they moved into what was still inadequate accommodation. They have been on the waiting list for 15 years. Their two children, aged 15 and 12, have never had a decent home in their lives. Many even worse cases can be quoted, not only in my constituency but in many others.

Alongside that housing situation, my constituents, like many others in the west of London, have seen the activities of the First National Finance Corporation, which has bought 110 blocks of private flats, affecting some 9,000 tenants. It bought them for £52 million and sold them within three months for £76 million, making a profit of £24 million without contributing one single thing towards improving the housing conditions of the people living in my constituency. When one is talking about inflated house prices and inflated rents, this deal by the FNFC worked out at £2,333 per tenant. Immediately following the transaction, new rent registrations were being applied for and accepted, for rent increases of £200 and more a year. Thus, the £24 million profit made by the FNFC before the eyes of my constituents and the homeless and badly housed in Paddington will be coming, in effect, directly out of the pockets of the tenants of those flats.

I do not know whether the hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) would approve of all the FNFC's activities, but if the GLC had acquired those properties, that £24 million—even if it had been made—would have gone to the benefit of the ratepayers of London as a whole or, more likely and preferable, would have remained in the pockets of those 9,000 tenants.

Mr. Tebbit

What is more to the point in my constituency—is the hon. Gentleman advocating that the GLC should compete for houses which come on to the normal market with the ordinary sale as between owner-occupier and owner-occupier? Does he think that the GLC is being helpful by competing in these sales?

Mr. Latham

It would be extremely helpful to the people in the most distressing housing circumstances in my constituency if they were offered some housing accommodation in Chingford.

The size of the sum being allocated will not set up the GLC as the total property owner of the whole of the greater London area. There is a strong case, which has been put to the GLC and which I hope it will accept, for diversifying its purchases. It is argued that it would not do any harm for the GLC to own a few properties in Chingford and in some of the other happier areas of London, happier in terms of environment and housing pressure.

The hon. Member for Chingford offered to take one of my hon. Friends to church with him; by no kind of Socialist or Christian or other ethic is there any case for the people in Chingford saying that they wash their hands of the problems of people in London and do not care what happens to people in Paddington, Lewisham, Lambeth, or wherever it might be. The main contribution that the people living in Chingford could be asked to make towards solving the overall housing problem—I hope that on Sunday morning they will reflect upon this and regard it as their good deed for the week —is to permit some properties in their area to be used to help those in distressed circumstances in the inner London housing conurbations.

Alongside the kind of transactions made by the FNFC and the kind of run-down of services that was made under the Tory-controlled GLC between 1967 and 1973, my constituents are faced with four other problems that are relevant to the instrument. There is a loss of residential accommodation. The number of owner-occupiers in Westminster as a whole is less than 5 per cent.—the lowest to be found in London. The loss of residential accommodation, not the problems of owner-occupation, faces my constituents. It is not simply that residential accommodation is converted for business purposes; unfurnished accommodation is converted to furnished, so that the present Rent Act safeguards may be subverted, furnished accommodation is developed into bed and breakfast accommodation and from that into small hotel accommodation. All this adds constantly to the pressures on accommodation within Westminster.

Mr. Tebbit

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the way in which accommodation is disappearing in this way in central London is a serious problem. He might like to berate his hon. Friends in the previous Labour Government who gave a subsidy of £1,000 a room for hotel building in London, with the result that there was a rash of hotel building and a subsequent loss of tenanted accommodation, particularly when hotels were built with a public subsidy and the hoteliers then bought the houses round about to push out those tenants and replace them by hotel staff. All that sprang from an unneeded subsidy to build unneeded hotel accommodation in London.

Mr. Latham

One must not digress too much. [Interruption.] I shall deal with that. There was a case, in terms of the tourist industry and foreign exchange planning, for some such provision. However, I do not hesitate to berate the Labour Government if I feel that something has been done against the interests of my constituents. In the neighbouring borough, the Royal Borough—some call it the rotten borough—of Kensington and Chelsea the record is even worse than in Westminster in some respects, and yet the authorities there have put their foot down on further creeping hotelisation. It is up to Westminster to draw the line much more firmly.

The legislation to which the hon. Gentleman referred does not account for the new threat of the large group moving in and wanting to demolish small hotels —about which we have just had an exchange—and to impose further pressure for more hotel accommodation, and its ultimate effect, in general, to deny and reduce the existing stock of residential accommodation.

The scourge of Rachman was discovered in Paddington and we now have a form of latter-day Rachmanism. We have a number of extremely bad landlords whose sins are high rents, bad repairs, illegal evictions, harassment, or a combination of any of these. In all these matters of the loss of furnished and unfurnished accommodation it is an inescapable conclusion that whatever legislation may be possible it is likely to be less effective in protecting the existing tenant than if a public body which is democratically accountable to the electors has ownership and full control. In such circumstances there need be no loss of rented accommodation or planning arguments about conversion from one use to another, and there will be the public body to which to make proper representation about the state of repair and the rent and—these two matters should not arise—issues of illegal eviction and harassment.

My constituency in Paddington, unlike those of many of my hon. Friends who represent Labour constituencies with Labour London boroughs, is different in that it is the Cinderella within the City of Westminster. The policy decisions affecting that London borough as a whole are made by the predominantly Tory ugly sisters, Marylebone and the City of Westminster. People with housing problems, living in dire circumstances, worried about the landlord's action and their rights, and asking what redress they have in the courts and what protection they have, all along wish that someone would come along and do something. "Will the local council perhaps help us", they say.

There is no chance in either the present or the foreseeable future political complexion of Westminster City Council of that sort of protection coming from within, so my constituents, in the circumstances, look for a fairy godmother to do what the two ugly sisters will not do for the Cinderella of Paddington. They want a fairy godmother in the same way as the Official Solicitor on one occasion appeared in that role, or in the way that Mr. X acted as a fairy godmother to get the National Industrial Relations Court off the hook. Therefore, my constituents look to the GLC in this matter—not for a fairy godmother, which is a mythical figure, but for a real body which is likely to have their interests at heart and will intervene on their behalf. I believe that these people will welcome the intervention of the GLC in connection with their housing problems.

I draw to the attention of those Opposition Members who may not previously have bothered to read them, the aims of the Greater London Council as set out in a further statement in support of the Second Reading of the Bill. Part of the statement says that The main aim of the programme will be to retain dwellings in tenanted occupation which would otherwise be lost to the rented sector … does the hon. Member for Chingford see anything wrong with that?— to give tenants security and better prospects for the future …— does the hon. Member for Chingford see anything wrong with that?— to improve the standards and amenities of the dwellings; to relieve overcrowding and multi-occupation and to make the best use of the acquired housing stock in the interests of London as a whole." Can any Opposition Member seriously dispute that these objectives are sound and are in the interests of the homeless and badly housed of London?

Mr. Tebbit

I do not wish to prolong the debate, but it is not these provisions to which we are objecting. The provisions to which we have clearly said we would object relate to competition in the owner-occupied market between the GLC and the minor buyer. We do not want to end the whole of the GLC provisions; we merely wish to reduce them by an amount commensurate with our objectives.

Mr. Latham

The hon. Gentleman ought to re-read the amendment. He ought also fully to read the further statement of the GLC and the earlier statement that I have quoted. He will see that he is objecting not merely to one limited area but to the financial provisions for all the purposes that I have described. As for the private house aspect—the newly-built properties—I can see nothing wrong, when we consider the vast number of homeless in the whole of London, in the GLC's buying what will amount to a very small proportion of these to satisfy what is a far greater need and a far greater demand than exists in the owner-occupier market.

I hope that the House will encourage the GLC in its activity because I believe that it will serve the interests of my constituents and many other people. It will save a loss of accommodation and enable the authorities to take over from bad landlords. It will make it possible to make better use of empty accommodation. Last, but by no means least, once the hangover from the six years of Tory rundown at County Hall can be overcome, and once we get a much better attitude in management, we can develop a form of tenant participation in management and control of properties. We shall then be able to see that these properties are not only controlled in the interests of the community but that the community has a far greater part in controlling them. I only wish that the sum were larger and the GLC could do more.

9.37 p.m.

The Minister for Housing and Construction (Mr. Reginald Freeson)

Perhaps it might help if I were to express a Government view at this stage. I suspect that before very long I shall be suffering from the same "politicians' throat" as one or two hon. Members suffered from earlier. I want to put the matter into context and expose one or two of the fallacies that have been raised by Tory Members in seeking to prevent the GLC from spending up to £55 million for particular housing purposes.

Before doing that I must place on record that I consider it to be, to put it mildly, a piece of effrontery that any Tory Member who has had experience of three-and-a-half years of Tory Government, during which we witnessed the biggest slump in house building for 14 years, should seek to delete from a GLC money Bill provisions which will allow it to carry out much-needed housing activities.

Hon. and right hon. Members opposite can take a sabbatical on this question of housing programmes. The longer they do so the better it will be for the House and the country. They have very little to tell the House or the country about how to run a sensible, humane and progressive housing programme in view of the inheritance they left us. We inherited a shambles.

Let me state the national position against which we can put the Greater London Council position. I do not know whether many hon. Members are aware that when we took office we found that the estimated provision for local authority housing starts for this year had been provided for, in the public expenditure survey document published towards the latter end of the previous Government's period of office, at a rate of 70,000 housing starts. That compares with something approaching 200,000 a year which they inherited from us. In the private sector, about which we have had a great deal of miserable talk, dealing with provision for owner-occupation, we inherited a position in which, at the most, there were likely to be only 120,000 housing starts this year. It is more likely that the figure will be 100,000.

We inherited a situation in which there were fewer than 200,000 prospective housing starts, and hon. Members opposite have the effrontery to come to this House and seek to initiate a major debate in order to prevent the GLC from getting the money which they think they should have, having discussed the matter with the Government, in order to carry out important housing activities. They should be much more careful in the future, for a very long time to come, before they raise such matters in this manner. After three and a half years they are trying to prevent the largest housing authority in the country from carrying out its responsibilities.

I view the position in London against that background. There is a mixture of reasons for the present situation in London. I shall not spend a lot of time going through the history or the causes, any more than I have evaluated the causes of the major slump in housing which the present Government have inherited. The position in bold factual statistics is that, whereas three to four years ago the net additional housing provision for local authorities, the GLC and others in London was running at about 25,000 housing starts a year, a figure already too low—I am speaking of net figures because one must allow for demolitions—we inherited a situation in London where the figure was a little over 15,000.

I have stated that I do not believe that the figure four years ago was satisfactory. There was a time when it reached a level of 30,000 to 32,000 housing starts a year by local authorities in London. It will take a while to get back to that figure, but the sooner we do so the better.

I must make it clear that, quite independently of the matters which we have been discussing today, we shall take steps —not just make noises—to see that those houses which London needs are built on land which we know exists and could be used. I am not speaking at the moment particularly about docklands. There is a vast area of land available in the London area which could be brought into use. It is nonsense to keep on trotting out docklands and the new fruit market on the other side of the river, to which one hon. Member opposite referred thinking that it was a housing site. To trot these out as panaceas for London is all nonsense.

Anyone who knows these docklands and other sites which were mentioned will be aware that it is not as simple as developing a green field site of 5,000 acres. I would say in passing that urgent attention must be given to that aspect of London's problem. There is plenty to do in innner London. The land which is actually available in green field terms, for the most part, in London—apart from redevelopment sites, docklands and other sites—is primarily in outer London, and that is where the prime irresponsibility has lain for the most part—not with all authorities, but for the most part—for some years.

It is about time that, instead of collecting information about land which is available and establishing the needs in London, we in this place, in national and local government, should get together and take action. We intend to take some initiatives on that score, although it will be a matter for another occasion to spell some of those out.

What is the position facing us in London—the situation with which we are supposed to be dealing and in which the GLC is seeking to play some part? I am not going through the whole situation. I shall just identify those elements of the situation in London which are most relevant to the issues which have been raised in the debate today.

There are about 2½ million dwellings in Greater London. About 500,000 of them are substandard, ranging from those which are virtually unsuitable for habitation to those which are relatively marginally substandard—by which I mean, for example, dwellings which do not have bathrooms for individual families where the dwelling is shared. The situation in this respect ranges from very serious to serious. The vast bulk of the 500,000 substandard dwellings are concentrated in inner London. The figure of 500,000 should be viewed in the light of the total stock of about 11/4 million dwellings in the inner London area. Therefore, roughly 45 per cent. of the housing stock in inner London is in this sort of condition.

Overall, there is a crude shortage to about 100,000 dwellings in London, probably more. Various estimates have been made, some ranging up to 200,000, but I put the most conservative and moderate figure on it. We shall have to get more information on this point. Between 25,000 and 45,000 or 50,000 rented dwellings are going off the market each year. That is a "guesstimate" because no accurate research has been done on this matter An examination is being undertaken in the Department now.

There are, therefore, 500,000 seriously or very seriously substandard dwellings in Greater London. There is a crude shortage of 100,000 or more dwellings. Between 25,000 and 50,000 rented dwellings, chiefly in inner London, are going off the market each year. At the present rate of house improvements—this is the next statement of fact of central significance to the issue being debated—in Greater London per year, it would take, assuming that the figures remain at their present level, about 20 years or more to eradicate substandard housing in inner London.

The most serious area of deficiency in take-up of improvement grants is by owners of seriously substandard rented property. In recent years the biggest single proportion—this is true nationally —of improvement grants has been taken up, as is traditional under all sorts of improvement grant systems, by owner-occupiers, increasingly by local authorities improving their 1920s and 1930s estates, and, to some extent, in certain pockets of London and of other cities by speculators who have been making considerable sums of money with the additional help of improvement grants—a matter being tackled in the Housing Bill which is now in Committee.

What are the needs viewed against the background I have described? Certainly there is a need for increased house building. I have referred to the need particularly to tackle the question of green field sites which are available in outer London. I intend to take steps to urge the need for speeding up the take-up of sites in inner London requiring redevelopment. About 124,000 dwellings could be provided in London on sites available for development or redevelopment. The biggest proportion of that estimated figure of 124,000 could be provided on land which it is known is available in outer London, quite apart from dockland, railway land, and so on.

The next objective is to hold the rented market. Never mind about increasing it for the moment, although we want to do that as well. If radical action is not taken, the rented market will disappear at an ever-increasing rate. Only one instrument can satisfactorily be used to take action quickly, and that is the public authority. No one else is immediately available and willing to take action. I am putting this matter in the most unideological way possible. I could argue on other occasions—if need be, tonight— the principles and ideology of social ownership in this sphere. I have been doing it for many years. Events have overtaken the ideological argument, but right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite have not yet learned the lessons from it. If we do not take action through public authorities we will not have a private rented sector left. To put it more accurately, properties at present rented will cease to be rented. They will disappear from the rented market. The only agencies that can hold these properties to any large extent are public authorities. I will deal with that matter in more detail later.

Closely associated with the holding of the rental market is the fact that if there is to be any drastic stepping up of the improvement programme that we need in London—I would say much the same for other parts of the country if they were being discussed—the only way to get radical and speedy action in the years immediately ahead to raise the level of activity in that area of accommodation that is most gravely in need of improvement and gets the least attention will be by social ownership of the rented accommodation concerned.

For a variety of reasons—I will not spell them all out—good, bad or indifferent, the work is not being done by landlords, except where large profits have been available by the disposal of these properties on the market, often taking them out of the rented sector.

Mr. S. James A. Hill (Southampton, Test)

It started with the rent freeze.

Mr. Freeson

It did not start with the rent freeze introduced two months ago. It has been going on for years. Anybody who studies the facts in central London or other cities knows that it is nonsense to suggest anything like that.

The total of £142 million, plus a little more, is to be spent on increasing house building and the assembly of sites necessary for that purpose, to increase social ownership to hold the rental market, and to increase the improvement programme in the worst areas of housing in inner London which will require ownership to get it undertaken. About £85 million is being provided for building and the assembly of sites for building and £40 million is being provided for buying existing rented properties.

The GLC, with our full approval, after consultation, wishes to take a further initiative which this instruction, if carried, would kill—namely, to spend up to £30 million on the acquisition of newly-built and unsold properties on the market for families in need, despite the rather obscure and questionable economics that we heard from some hon. Gentlemen opposite.

Mr. S. James A. Hill

Will all the properties which are to be purchased be in inner London or will there be purchases on the South Coast, as has been happening for some years, with the GLC unloading most of its housing commitments on other authorities?

Mr. Freeson

I would guess that most of them would be bought within Greater London, but I expect and hope that where the GLC can buy the properties that it needs to house people on the coast it will do so, just as it has been building homes on the coast in certain areas. Provided that it is done in a properly planned fashion and in full consultation with the social service and welfare departments of the local authorities, I can see no objection to that. I can see every reason why they should add to housing stock if they have the resources. If that means buying up houses which would otherwise stay empty, we welcome it and are prepared to make provision for it, as we did under the Government's circular issued two or three weeks ago.

The result of this motion would be twofold. Not only would the GLC be unable to buy rented properties; it would also be unable to by unsold newly-built properties. Whether hon. Members want that or not, that would be the result of their motion. As a result, not only would houses remain empty which could otherwise house families in grave need, but we would continue to have a lack of the cash flow into building which we so much need.

The main immediate difficulty of the building industry is lack of cash flow. That is why builders are not continuing to build and why houses remained uncompleted at the end of the last Government's term of office. That is why we took an immediate initiative to enable builders to continue to build. I have not met one builder who objects to what we are doing. In fact, I happen to know that they were urging the previous Government to do precisely that, and the previous Government would not. Builders are saying publicly as well as privately that they welcome this initiative.

Do the Conservatives want to stop the GLC building and buying more sites? Do they want to stop the purchase of properties which would otherwise disappear from the rented market? Do they want to stop the stepping up of the improvement programme in that area of the market which is most in need? Do they want to stop the GLC, exceptionally among local authorities, buying unsold newly-built property? About 30,000 or 40,000 homes were standing empty when the last Government left office. We want a large number bought and put into use to get the building industry building again.

These are our objectives. This is what the GLC wants to do and what the motion would prevent it from doing——

Sir Marcus Worsley (Chelsea) rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.

Mr. Speaker

I am not prepared to accept that motion.

Mr. Freeson

I turn now to some of the specific fears expressed about municipalisation. The policy which the GLC will pursue is no secret; it was published in a Government circular which presumably no Conservative Member has read, to judge from their speeches. The GLC will use their money to buy existing rented properties. Acquisition is to be made in pursuance of a confirmed CPO or to meet a statutory obligation to acquire a particular property—for example, a purchase notice. Is it desired to stop that? There is to be acquisition, particularly in areas of acute housing stress, of tenanted properties where the local authority has clear evidence that tenants are in need as a result of bad housing——

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.