Post Office (Housing Rents)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 30th January 1959.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Brooman-White.]

4.2 p.m.

Photo of Mrs Lena Jeger Mrs Lena Jeger , Holborn and St Pancras South

I wish to raise the question of the increase in the rents inflicted by the Post Office on certain residential properties in my constituency. There is, however, the wider question of the thousand or so tenancies for which the Post Office is responsible, but I am particularly concerned with houses for which if is responsible in my constituency.

I have in mind twelve houses in Calthorpe Street near Mount Pleasant which belong to the Post Office, and I hope that one of the results of this brief debate may be for us to get from the Department a clear statement of its intentions about these houses. Locally there is a general impression that it is the intention to demolish them for extensions to Mount Pleasant, but that has been contradicted from time to time, and it affects the question of their condition because, if it is the intention of the Department at an early date to demolish them, I suggest that the sooner it re-houses the tenants and gets on with the job the better. If, on the other hand, people are to continue to live in the houses for any length of time, the Post Office owes it to its tenants to put the houses in decent and proper repair.

It is not part of the normal duty of the Postmaster-General to act as landlord. One appreciates that, and I understand that most of this work is dealt with by the Ministry of Works acting as agent for the right hon. Gentleman. Where, however, for any reason a Government Department finds itself acting in the capacity of a landlord, it is essential in the public interest that the Department should behave as a model landlord and set an example to private landlords.

I would not have used the machinery of the Adjournment debate had I been able to get this matter dealt with otherwise. I first raised it in the House at Question Time on 17th December, when I was told, in column 1106 of the OFFICIAL REPORT, by the Postmaster-General that he was having urgent inquiries made and that he would write to me as soon as possible. I heard nothing further. I sent him a reminder on 14th January. I received only an interim reply. I therefore put down another Question, when I was told that the condition of these properties was under discussion with the Ministry of Works. The Minister said: Where we find that the condition of the property does not justify the rent increase, or where specific repairs are needed to put the property in good condition, then we will behave as a good landlord should."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st January, 1959; Vol. 40, c. 177.] I welcomed that answer and was delighted to find the other night when I visited these houses that I could hardly get in for workmen because the place was full of bustling activity. I do not feel, however, that it should need action of this kind to get, for instance, a defective roof mended in a house owned by a Government Department.

While I appreciate that the Minister has said that the condition of the properties will be investigated before the rent is increased, I must point out to him that the letter to the tenants informing them that the rent was to be increased contained no statement about the condition of the property. The letter, which was sent to several of my constituents, was dated 28th November, and the first paragraph was as follows: I am sorry to tell you that it is necessary to put your rent up. The Rent Act, 1957, and related Acts do not apply to Government Departments, but it has been considered right for Government property as a whole that charges should keep in step with rents for private property, and we are therefore putting up rents in the same way as other landlords are doing under the terms of the Rent Act. At the same time all occupiers are being made responsible for internal decorations and minor repairs, and the new rents have taken this into account. The tenants were asked to sign this agreement by 8th January. I very much hope that none of them will be penalised for having taken my advice in one or two cases and refusing to sign where I felt the condition of the property did not warrant the increase.

It is significant that the letter makes it clear that there is no question of the provisions of the Rent Act applying, but it is most important that if a Government Department is taking advantage of the passing of the Rent Act to raise rents, it should also respect the liabilities which the Rent Act places on private landlords. What disturbed me about these cases was that on inspection by the local sanitary inspector in one case there were found 16 defects which could properly have appeared on a certificate of disrepair had the house been owned by a private landlord, and in another case 13.

In respect of No. 40, Calthorpe Street, for instance, the sanitary inspector had to serve intimation notices under the Public Health Act, on the District Postmaster, Western Central District. Government Departments which own residential property should not put themselves in a position where the local authority has to serve intimation notices. I would rather they took some pride in ensuring that the condition of their property was of such a standard that the necessity for the health authority to take this action did not arise.

No. 40, Calthorpe Street, is a house in multiple occupation. I am particularly concerned with the tenancy of the basement and the ground floor, let as one tenancy. The present rent is £1 3s. 6d. It is to go up to £1 11s. for six months, and it is then to rise to £2 3s. 7d. The accommodation consists of two basement rooms of which the back one is virtually unusable because the lower sill of the window into the garden area is below the level of a drain just outside the window, so that if the window is open the drain in wet weather overflows into the room. There is no bathroom in the whole house. There is only one lavatory in the house for all the tenants. One of the items to which the sanitary inspector refers is the basement kitchen under the entrance steps, which he says is in a dirty condition and should be dealt with.

When I went to see the housewife the other night I could not help thinking of the pride the Postmaster-General takes in his own kitchen and the importance that he attaches to the latest devices and labour-saving methods being available in this most important room in any accommodation. I wish he would go and see the conditions in which Mrs. Lawrence has to work in this little basement alcove under the area steps, which is the only kitchen accommodation in this tenancy. I think it is rather ironical that the new agreement places on the tenant responsibility for the internal decorations and repairs, because the only internal decorations which have been done for the last few years have been done by the tenant, anyhow.

In the case of No. 34, Calthorpe Street, I wish to draw attention to the tenancy at the top of the house, where there are four rooms, two on one floor and two on another. Again, there is no bathroom in the whole house, and one lavatory on the ground floor for all the tenants. The tenants of the upper floor have to keep their coal in the attic, because there is nowhere else to keep it, and so this family is in the position of having to get the coal carried from the street to the top of the house, and then carried down to the rooms in which they need to use it.

The tenant here has himself done all the internal decorations. He has put in a sink at his own expense, so that he has tried to make the best of the accommodation and to provide some facilities for his wife in carrying out her work. The electric wiring in this tenancy is in a very doubtful state. There is no electric point other than for lighting in any of the rooms. It is quite impossible to put on an electric fire, and if the wireless is used it has to be plugged into the same socket as the light. This is a house where there are thirteen defects as listed by the sanitary inspector, including, what I consider the most serious, a defective roof, because that is the sort of job which obviously the owner should take very seriously.

This rent is to go up from £1 6s. 10d., first to £1 14s. 4d., and then to £2 10s. 4d. I submit that £2 10s. 4d. for accommodation of this kind is excessive. I know that it is within the rough yardstick which has been suggested for uncontrolled accommodation, which is between two and three times the gross value, but it is considerably in excess of the rents which are charged for nearby council flats, which are self-contained, which have bathrooms and private lavatories and proper kitchens. I should have thought that this yardstick should not be applied automatically, but that, where there are conditions such as, I submit, there are in this property, they should be looked at individually.

I know that the Assistant Postmaster-General may well say that some of the tenants have signed agreements, and I know that they have, but I think that should not be taken as implying any satisfaction with the agreements. It is only natural for a man to do whatever he can to keep a roof over his head, and there is tremendous competition in this part of London for accommodation of any kind. I could wish that a Government Department would not take advantage of the scarcity of accommodation, but that it would, on the other hand, try to set some kind of example and take a pride in dealing with its own property.

The Minister of Housing and Local Government, during the debate on the Rent Act on 28th March, 1957, said this: It is also wholly untrue that landlords of controlled properties under the Bill— that is the Bill which became the Rent Act— —will be able to get increased rents without putting their property in proper repair."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th March, 1957; Vol. 567, c. 1476.] I know that these houses are not legally controlled, but my submission today is that morally they are controlled and that they should be treated with more care than if they were, in fact, legally controlled.

It may be that it was the intention of the Department to get all these things put right before the new rents started on 8th March. If so, the tenants were quite unaware of this. Moreover, if the houses were to be brought up to modern standards, to which we often refer in this House as the minimum, then there will have to be some capital expenditure of a kind for which provision ought to be made.

I think that we would all expect as a minimum standard that any tenancy nowadays should include a bathroom, lavatory and decent kitchen. We have passed legislation to help private landlords to bring their property up to such a standard. Unless there is some early intention to demolish these houses, I hope that the Postmaster-General will consider the possibility of doing something drastic to make this row of houses into decent homes.

I want briefly to refer to one other matter. I said in a supplementary question the other day that the Postmaster-General might be attempting to hide behind Crown immunity. I shall be very happy if the hon. Gentleman will refer to that about these houses. There is another house owned by the Postmaster-General in my constituency, in Crowndale Road. There again, the medical officer of health has had to serve a notice under the Public Health Acts. This was issued in respect of a requirement to lay water on the tenant's level. This is a want or defect of a structural character notice of which must be served on the owner under paragraph 4 of the Fifth Schedule of the Public Health (London) Act, 1936.

There has been much correspondence about this place. I do not want to press it too far today, because I hope that we can settle it amicably, but I shall be very distressed if there is any question of Crown immunity in respect of the requirement of a local authority to lay on water for a tenancy. If that were persisted in, it would mean that the Government owned a house of substandard quality under the terms of the Public Health Act, 1936, and I am sure that no Minister of the Crown would want to be responsible for owning property in that condition.

For the sake of the people who live in these houses as well as for the sake of providing an example to other landlords in this district and in the country generally, I hope that the Minister will be able to promise to take steps to remedy the sincerely felt grievances of these tenants.

4.18 p.m.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Thompson Mr Kenneth Thompson , Liverpool, Walton

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mrs. L. Jeger) for drawing attention to this matter and for the restrained way in which she has done so. So many of the breezes which blow from St. Pancras are heavily laden with rent controversy, that I quite expected that I should be greeted by a torrid blast, and I am grateful to her for the zephyrlike tones in which she has put what she has had to say.

This is an important matter and it is somewhat complicated. The Post Office owns a good deal of property which is privately occupied and a good deal of property which is occupied by those who work in the service. We are accustomed to regarding ourselves as the landlord of property occupied either as part of Post Office premises by Post Office servants, or as Post Office premises which are let off, but nevertheless looked after to the standard that the Post Office, or any public authority, ought to attain. So we regard ourselves as good landlords almost by definition.

However, in the course of our normal operations and in pursuance of our programme of smooth development and modernisation, we have here and there acquired property with a view to its future development. These are the odd patches in our estate and the hon. Lady has drawn attention to one of those odd patches; the house in Crowndale road is another.

We acquired the property in Calthorpe Street with a view eventually to pulling it down and rebuilding on the site extensions to our Mount Pleasant establishment. I hope that that will help to dispel any rumours that we have either other good or other bad intentions for it. We do not want to keep it as housing accommodation. We want to use it for the purposes of the postal services.

It is by no means clear when we shall be ready to proceed with the demolition of the property and the development of the site for our own proper uses, and that presents us with our basic problem, with the dilemma in which we find ourselves. If we could pull the property down at once and arrange for the rehousing of the tenants who are there at present, no difficulties would present themselves. Equally, if we knew that they were to be pulled down in ten years' time and that the property was to continue in normal habitation for that length of time, no problem would present itself. Unfortunately, we are not able to say precisely for how long we shall require to keep this property in its present form of occupation.

As the hon. Lady said, if it were to continue as residential occupation for a reasonable length of time we should be justified in spending a fair bit of money on putting the property into a good habitable condition as a good landlord should and charging an economic rent, either in accordance with the formula of the Rent Act or in accordance with market values obtaining in the same neighbourhood.

What we intend to do is to try to strike a fair middle road. We recognise that tenants have their rights and we intend to see that their rights and proper interests are respected. It is not right that tenants should be asked, whether by a private landlord or by a public landlord, to live in conditions which are subject to the kind of criticism to which the hon. Lady has drawn our attention this afternoon. We are quite anxious that we should put this property in a reasonably habitable condition and do away with some of the defects to which she has drawn our attention.

We are not unaware of these difficulties and defects. Part of our difficulty, and part of the difficulty to which the hon. Lady's constituents have drawn her attention, arose from the fact that this is just a small corner of the residential estate owned by the Post Office. We had to adopt a procedure which would enable us to inform all our tenants, most of whom, as I have said, live in good, well-kept property, that on 1st March their rents would be increased in accordance with some recognisable and broadly acceptable formula. A letter was sent out, and in the case of almost all our properties, with the exception of about 150, the letter was correct, the formula was right and the procedure was accepted by the tenants. In the case of these few houses, however, the letter might perhaps have been drafted in different terms, which would have allayed the initial fears of all those concerned.

The procedure which we propose to follow is a procedure as near to the certificate of disrepair procedure, the Form G procedure, as we can possibly manage. We cannot avoid the fact that we are subject to Crown exemption. There it is, and we have to live with the facts of life as we find them. Nevertheless, we intend to try to live as harmoniously with them as possible.

Where we come across legitimate complaints by tenants of defects which can and, in the circumstances which I have described, should be put right, then we will put them right, within the broad limitation that there is a ceiling on the expenditure beyond which we could not properly go with public funds in the case of property which has a limited expectation of life.

We have had a good deal of correspondence from some of the tenants and a good deal of work has been done to try to put the property in a reasonable condition prior to 1st March, although that is not a deadline. If we were operating under the Rent Act, as the hon. Lady knows, then from the date at which the new rent became payable, a landlord under the Rent Act would have six months in which to put right the things of which the tenant had complained.

We intend to try to do better. Where we can reasonably put right, at reasonable cost, the defects to which the tenant draws our attention, that we will do. We may then find ourselves faced with a situation in which much of the property is in good habitable condition and may reasonably command the rent that the Rent Act formula would lead us to suppose was right for that property.

Nevertheless, there may be some properties in Calthorpe Street, and other parts of the hon. Lady's constituency which, even after we have done all that, may still present us with a situation of some complexity; where, although we have spent what we can justifiably spend in view of the limited life of the property, it is rather less adequate for its purpose than a good landlord would desire.

In those cases, we propose to look at the general market value of similar properties in the area, and if we can, in those circumstances, reach a rent that is acceptable to the tenant and will enable us to keep the property in good repair, we shall try to do so, and ask the tenant to sign an agreement accepting it, and the conditions going with it.

The hon. Lady was good enough to say that she had difficulty in getting into the property because our boys were milling round trying to put right some of the defects. That is true. I should like to pay my tribute to the Ministry of Works, its senior officials, and the men who work on their behalf in trying to keep pace, with a very large publicly-owned estate, with putting the properties into decent condition. I should also like to pay tribute to those in the Post Office who, as the hon. Lady said, are acting quite outside their normal range of duties in looking after the tenants and carrying back and forth messages about the varying conditions of the property.

I should also like to pay a tribute to some of the tenants of the properties that I inspected the other day, who have maintained decorative repair of a very high order, and have managed to make comfortable properties that present a considerable challenge. We shall do our best to set an example as good landlords.

Photo of Mrs Lena Jeger Mrs Lena Jeger , Holborn and St Pancras South

Before the hon. Gentleman sits down, can he say if that means that there is room for negotiation over the rents set out in the original letter?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Thompson Mr Kenneth Thompson , Liverpool, Walton

The hon. Lady would be better advised to let her constituents follow the path that I have described. That would be much better. I am quite sure that they will not find us bad landlords. I hope that she will allow us to do the best we can, in the circumstances I have described, to put the property in as good order as it now merits, and then, as good landlords, to offer the property at rents based either on the formula of the Rent Act, or on the market value if that is the appropriate level for that particular property. It would be quite wrong of us to enter into a process of haggle and market bargaining over every rent. That would place the Department and its officials in a quite impossible position.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Four o'clock.