Orders of the Day — Requisitioned Houses and Housing (Amendment) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 15th February 1955.

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Photo of Mr Charles Gibson Mr Charles Gibson , Wandsworth Clapham 12:00 am, 15th February 1955

I want at once to tell the hon. and gallant Member for Buckingham (Sir F. Markham) that I think this is a rotten Bill and that I am opposed to it in every respect. The Bill is unfair to the tenant, nobody wants it, nobody has asked for it, and it passes on to the local authorities a big financial burden which at the moment the Treasury is bearing. From my point of view, therefore, everything in the Bill is wrong.

The hon. Member for Lewisham, North (Sir A. Hudson) was at pains to explain who, he thought, was in favour of the Bill. He said that none of the large property owners had asked for it, because they were doing very well on their present rents from the Treasury. Certainly none of the tenants have asked for the Bill. None of the borough councils have asked for it. Therefore, why are we having it?

I suspect that the birthplace of the Bill is the Treasury, in Whitehall. For years past, the Treasury has been struggling to get what it calls the burden—now £4½ million—of the cost of requisitioned premises pushed off its own shoulders, in the hope that some of it will come off the shoulders also of the well-to-do and will find its way on to the shoulders of the poorer people. That is all wrong. It is bad finance in any case, and it is especially wrong when the whole reason for the requisitioning problem is that we tried to do something for the people during the war and we are still in difficulties because of the war.

Hon. Members opposite forget that London had 80,000 houses completely destroyed during the war, and that we are only just catching up with that loss. In the meantime, many more houses have fallen into decay and have become slums. We are a long way from solving the housing problem, not only in the London boroughs, but in Birmingham and other places also.

The properties which were requisitioned have been extremely useful to local authorities in easing some of the most difficult and painful housing tragedies with which they have had to deal. The fact that, in spite of the efforts which have been made during the last 18 months to derequisition a large number of these houses, 30,000 of them are still requisitioned in London, housing 53,000 families, is a sign of the intensity of the housing problem, which hon. Members opposite seem completely to forget. They are much more concerned about the interests of the owners of properties than about the human problems that we all deal with when we meet our constituents, and which we hear about when people come to us about housing problems.

The London County Council still has a waiting list of about 160,000 families, over 50,000 of whom are in the A category, which is the category of worst-hit families, who ought to be rehoused tomorrow, if only we could find the houses. The "Evening News" tonight is perfectly correct when it says, in an article headed "Housing Crisis in London," that if the London County Council is able to build every house it wants to build and can build under its organisation up to 1960, we shall still be 10,000 houses short in respect of families in London, ignoring altogether the 30,667 requisitioned houses.

What is the sense of saying that the Bill is an attempt to solve the housing problem? It is nothing of the sort. It will intensify the problem in the London area, and I am very sorry that the Minister has brought it forward. I know that in the borough which I have the honour partially to represent, the right hon. Gentleman has made some inquiries. In Wandsworth, we have the worst problem of requisitioned houses, not merely in the whole of London, but in the whole country. The Minister represents a part of that area. Some of the requisitioned houses are in his constituency. I hope that the tenants who will be thrown out will remember it.

In Wandsworth we had 6,780 requisitioned units, as they are called, 18 months ago. I want to make this point because the political control of the council happens to be one with which I disagree. The council has made a valiant effort to get rid of requisitioned premises. How far has it succeeded? At the beginning of this year the council sent to 2,031 owners invitations to take over houses in accordance with the terms of this Bill. I do not know whether the council had any pre-knowledge of the provisions of the Bill.

The council invited the owners to take over the houses and accept the sitting tenants as statutory tenants. Not a single one of those owners replied to say that he agreed. There have been a few cases where the owner and the licensee have got together and made an agreement for the licensee to pay an increased rent. The council has derequisitioned such houses. But where, as the Bill lays down, the borough council invited owners of these properties to take them back and receive the compensation which is now laid down in the Bill, taking the tenant as a statutory tenant paying the same rent, but with the difference between the licensee rent and the proper rent under the Rent Restrictions Acts guaranteed, not one of the house owners accepted the offer of the borough council.

What is the sense, therefore, of trying to tell the House and the country that if we pass the Bill quickly, to provide that between now and 1960 borough councils can make arrangements for the landlords to take over the houses and accept the tenants as statutory tenants, everything in the garden will be lovely? The owners do not want that. Two houses in my constituency have stood empty for 12 months since they were derequisitioned. The landlords do not want them because it would cost more to make them fit to live in than anybody is prepared to spend. The only reason why the borough council does not pull them down is that the houses on either side might become unsafe if that were done.

It is against all experience as well as common sense to expect that these tens of thousands of houses which have been requisitioned since the war will be taken over under the terms of the Bill. The experience of my own borough council during the last week or two has proved that. Therefore, that part of the Bill, just as much as the financial Clauses, is absolute nonsense.

Why should the borough council pay 25 per cent, of the financial deficit? At present the whole financial loss is borne by the State, because the emergency was a national emergency. It was one for which none of us was responsible or could avoid, as I know. Seventy "doodle-bugs" dropped within half a mile of the house in which I lived. Hon. Members have asked what we on this side of the House have done. We had a working party which made certain proposals, under which there has been a slow but steady derequisitioning. There is no doubt that but for the extreme housing conditions in London we should have got rid of more derequisitioned houses than we have been able to do.

We want properties for rental to be owned by the local authorities. Hon. Gentlemen opposite tried to make a fuss about what we on this side of the House stand for. We have shouted from the housetops that if we win the next Election we shall give local authorities power to buy up vast areas of local property and to extend the principle of public ownership. We propose to do, in fact, what the London County Council has been doing in the last few months on a voluntary basis. It has bought three or four very large estates belonging to people like the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, and this week it has announced an ambitious and imaginative scheme for re-development. Birmingham has done the same sort of thing in its area.

I say, therefore, that we do not need this pettifogging, rather mean Bill to enable local authorities to get on with the housing of their people and to get rid of the slums. Derequisitioning must be done slowly, and there must be no injustice to the sitting tenant. No one on the other side of the House has replied to the point made earlier in the debate as to what is to happen after 31st March, 1960.

The Bill is quite clear. It says that no requisitioning shall be allowed after that date; and, presumably, the inevitable is bound to happen. Thousands of tenants still in requisitioned properties will then be illegally in those houses, and will be turned out. They will be without the benefits of the Rent Restrictions Acts. I hope that the Minister will say something about that aspect, because it is going to be a tremendous bone of contention in the next few months, particularly in London.

I do not want to use up all the time that is left, but I urge the Minister to do something about the Clause which deals with excessive expenditure, and tell us on what formula he is going to discuss it. I find that in the Borough of Wandsworth, as the Bill stands at the moment, the cost will be a 4½d. rate. I am sure that the local ratepayers' association in Streatham will have something to say about the Minister of Housing and Local Government imposing an extra rate charge on them, because they are already grumbling about the level of their rates.

It is proposed that we in Wandsworth should pay 4½d. in the £ extra, but for what purpose? It is to relieve the Treasury of part of a charge. In Lambeth, I understand, it will mean a 4d. rate, and already in that borough the burden is reaching breaking point. One hon. Member told us how, in Camberwell, it will mean a 6d. rate, and Poplar is grumbling about the inevitable increase in the rate charged for housing purposes. Before the Bill becomes law, the borough councils are entitled to know clearly and categorically on what basis the calculations are to be made in connection with heavy expenditure which would justify the Minister making additional grants.

It would be much better, however, if the Minister took the Bill back and buried it. Let us have another look at the proposals of the Working Party on Requisitioned Houses and see if we cannot get, in consultation with the boroughs which have the worst problem, some organised plan for getting rid of this issue without punishing the tenants and without adding the problem to the already heavy burden on the shoulders of the local ratepayers, who in the main are people in the back streets.

Unfortunately, owing to the way in which the Government Whip acted on Friday, I did not have a chance to say anything about the rate burden throughout the country. It is clear that there is a growing volume of opinion, not only among the people in the ordinary weekly-rented property, but among shopkeepers and businessmen of all kinds, protesting against the burden of the rates and against being saddled with a heavy charge merely because industry is excused 75 per cent, of its rate charges.

Now, apparently, they are to be charged another 4d., 5d., or 6d. in the £ rate, merely to enable the Treasury to dodge a charge which is properly a Treasury charge, and which was justified by the national circumstances at the time. But those circumstances do not entitle the Government to come along with this proposition for the purpose of passing over to the ratepayers 25 per cent, of the cost of the derequisitioned houses. This Bill is not wanted, it has not been asked for, and, so far as I can see, nobody will give it a blessing.