Orders of the Day — Requisitioned Properties

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 13th February 1959.

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

4.26 p.m.

Photo of Mrs Joyce Butler Mrs Joyce Butler , Wood Green

Under the Requisitioned Houses and Housing (Amendment) Act, 1955, the use of requisitioned houses is to end by 31st March, 1960. In figures given in the OFFICIAL REPORT for 9th February the Ministry of Housing and Local Government revealed that whereas on 6th June, 1955, there were 55,217 properties under requisition, on 31st December, 1958, there were only 16,390 properties still under requisition.

The properties have been released from requisition in the following ways. In the first place, landlords were invited to take over the licensees as their statutory tenants, and on 31st March last year 24,409 of them, according to the OFFICIAL REPORT, had done this. It will, therefore, be seen that a very large proportion of the properties which have been released from requisition were properties where the landlord took over the licensee as a statutory tenant.

In the second place, some licensees made their own arrangements. Sometimes they have moved away to other areas, or the properties have become vacated through death or for other reasons. Other requisitioned properties have been purchased by the local authorities and they have taken over the licensees as their own tenants. In other cases still, the local authorities have bought properties which became vacant and have moved licensees into those properties. As a last resort, the Minister gives local authorities who cannot release properties in any other way permission to apply to make compulsory purchase orders so that they may acquire properties for the use of families who come from requisitioned properties.

As to the first two categories, where the landlords take over the licensees of requisitioned properties as their tenants, and where the licensees make their own arrangements for vacating requisitioned properties, I would suggest that this provision has virtually come to an end. It would seem that all the landlords who intend to take over licensees as their tenants have virtually agreed to do so and there will not be very many more who will now be expected to do that.

In the second place, I think that most licensees, realising what the position with regard to requisitioned properties is, and able to make their own arrangements, will already have done so. They have had three and a half years since the Act came into operation and most of them who could buy other properties or get away by other means have done so.

The problem now is for local authorities which have requisitioned properties which they have to clear by March of next year either to purchase the requisitioned properties themselves or to purchase other vacant properties for use by families from the requisitioned houses. The Minister has given them assistance in doing this under Section 11 of the Requisitioned Houses and Housing (Amendment) Act, and they are able, when they purchase such properties, to receive a grant. I do not wish to go into the details of the grant, because the formula is very complicated. Very roughly, it can be said that the Exchequer pays 75 per cent, of the annual deficit after an allowance for loan charges over twenty years, an allowance for repairs, improvements or conversions, and the deduction of the notional rent income which, since the Rent Act, 1957, has been based on the Rent Act formula of two and a half times the gross value.

The Section 11 grant, as it is called by local authorities, has been extremely valuable, because it has enabled authorities to buy properties in their areas as they became vacant, to make the necessary improvements and conversions, and to charge a reasonable rent to families from requisitioned property.

The position in Wood Green, although it may not be typical, illustrates what is happening. In Wood Green, we have done something which may not have been done in other boroughs. We have surveyed all the requisitioned properties I myself have been in practically every one in the borough. These properties have been surveyed from two points of view, first, the suitability of each house for purchase and, secondly, the needs of the families in the house.

We have tried to look at both those matters. Sometimes, the council has felt that a house was not suitable for purchase, because it was not in good enough condition, but has later gone back to look at it again and has decided that, although its condition is not good, it should be purchased because of the extreme difficulty of coping with this particular problem. In addition, the council has two officials who report any vacant properties available in the borough. Inquiries are made immediately about purchase. Local estate agents inform the council if they have properties vacant which the council might like to purchase.

In Wood Green, however—I think this is typical of all areas which have a large number of requisitioned properties—it is being found that there is a good deal of pressure on vacant accommodation. Particularly since the Rent Act, properties coming on to the market for sale are few and far between. Very often, they are either extremely expensive or in very bad condition. There is not very much between the two extremes. This problem, I think, is a general one and is likely to continue.

It is of some interest that, in Wood Green, out of 142 requisitioned properties in 1955, the landlords of 59 have taken over the tenants. Twenty-two requisitioned properties have been purchased. Seventeen properties have been released because they were empty. Other properties which have been purchased number ten to date. Negotiations are going on about the purchase of further properties, but that leaves 34 still outstanding. Negotiations are being undertaken in regard to ten of those, and there are about 58 families in those 34 properties.

One of the factors which has to be borne in mind in dealing with requisitioned houses is that almost always there is more than one family in each property. Therefore, the number of properties under requisition is no indication of the number of families which have to be rehoused.

The figures in Wood Green are very encouraging. It would seem that the problem is almost solved. There is only one more year to go and it would seem that in that year the borough should have no difficulty in releasing the remaining properties. From the figures which the Minister gave in the OFFICIAL REPORT of 9th February about the position all over the country, particularly in the Metropolitan area, other authorities are having more difficulty in releasing their requisitioned properties than is the case in Wood Green.

The fact that some of them may not seem to have a large number left—between one-third and one-quarter remain to be cleared—does not give a true indication of the picture, because the remaining properties are the hard core. They are the ones which are difficult to clear, where the landlords will not take over the tenants and where local authorities do not want to buy because the properties are not in good condition. They are sometimes flats over shops which are not suitable for local authorities to acquire, and there are other reasons. Although it may seem—and I impress this point on the Minister—from the figures that there is a strong possibility of carrying on at the same rate and of solving the problem by March, 1960, I do not think that the figures give a proper indication. It will be much more difficult to clear the last more than one-quarter of the properties in one year than it was to clear the other less than three-quarters in three and a half years.

The grants which the Minister makes to local authorities for the purchase of houses for this purpose are extremely valuable. To get the grant, however, local authorities must fill in a form and give an undertaking, which reads as follows: Any dwellings in the property which were vacant at the date of acquisition have been or will be used to rehouse families from requisitioned properties in order that the latter, or some other requisitioned properties, may be released. My Council also undertake to use, for this purpose, any future vacancies in the property which may arise, so long as the requisitioning problem remains. In other words, the properties which they purchase will be used for families from requisitioned properties, either directly or indirectly.

That is one side of the picture. I want to put the other side to the Minister to get the matter in proper perspective. Many families in requisitioned properties have been there for years. Out of those remaining in Wood Green, 21 properties have been occupied since the 'forties—some since 1942, some since 1944, some since 1945 and some since 1946—and most of the others since the early 'fifties. But I think it must be fairly general that there are many families who have been in these properties since the end of the war. This was makeshift accommodation at the time which they went into it. Often the property was old and there was little or no adaptation of the premises to house the two or three families to be accommodated in them.

We all know what conditions were like when the properties were first requisitioned. I do not think that it was in anybody's mind that this should become a permanent arrangement. I am sure that most of the licensees thought that it was temporary accommodation, and in some areas the housing officers at that time actually said that the accommodation was only for the time being and that eventually the people concerned would get council houses.

Everybody hoped that at the end of the war the housing problem would be solved very much earlier and that these properties would all have been cleared in the normal way by the erection of more council properties and the movement of these families from those houses. In fact, these people in requisitioned properties have been on a sort of housing waiting list of their own. They have always hoped to get into council houses and they have seen families much more recently on the council waiting lists getting council houses while they have had to stay in requisitioned property, because the pressure on the councils has been such that nothing could be done for them. There have been frequent applications by these families for transfer to new accommodation.

The composition of the families has changed over the years. Sometimes a family has grown up and left an elderly couple in the property, while sometimes the family has increased and grown too big for the accommodation. Thus, the families tend to feel that they have lost all hope of ever getting permanent self-contained accommodation if they are left in requisitioned property when the council purchases it, or when they are moved into another vacant but still old and not self-contained property if the council purchases that.

The Borough of Wood Green—and I think that this will apply to many other authorities, too—would like to be able in certain cases, where everything fits, to be able to have a Section 11 grant for the purchase of some of this older property, to be able to move the licensees from requisitioned property into new council properties or into casual vacancies in older council properties which fit the size of the family, and to put a family from the waiting list into the house purchased with a Section 11 grant.

I think that the Minister will realise that that will give a fair deal to the people who have been in requisitioned properties for a long time. It would be valuable to people on the housing waiting list, because it would be made quite clear to them when they went into this property that it would be a permanent arrangement. There would be no suggestion that it was temporary, but it would be a great improvement on what some of them now have.

It would also mean that while the property was vacant proper adaptations could be carried out and in some cases, such as those of which I know, two flats in a building could be made completely self-contained while the property was empty and while the transfer was taking place. It would mean that a council could make the best use of all its available accommodation. It could put elderly people into elderly persons' flats, large families into larger houses, and it could benefit two families instead of one in every case where this was done.

However, at present, if local authorities do this, they lose the Section 11 grant. The Minister wants to use Section 11 for the release of requisitioned properties to the fullest possible extent and I ask him to consider this point to see whether it would be possible to find a formula to enable councils to do this where they have suitable cases. It would facilitate what he wants to do by giving greater flexibility in the movement of families and an added incentive to local authorities to complete the clearing of requisitioned properties, as we all want to do.

Nobody, local authorities, the Minister, the owner or anyone in the houses, wants the present requisitioning arrangements to continue. Greater flexibility and a greater incentive would seem to be the way to enable local authorities to clear this hard core of requisitioned houses between now and March of next year.

4.45 p.m.

Photo of Mr Henry Brooke Mr Henry Brooke , Hampstead

I hope that I can help the hon. Lady the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) and if there have been any misunderstandings about Section 11 arrangements, in Wood Green or elsewhere, I will endeavour to clear them away.

The hon. Lady opened her speech with a brief review of the derequisitioning progress under the 1955 legislation, and I want to refer to that before dealing with the specific matters which she raised. When the 1955 Act became law, there were nearly 90,000 dwellings under requisition. By the action of local authorities, that number has been reduced to 28,000. There is a little over a year in which those remaining 28,000 must be derequisitioned. It must be done. I have no power to extend that final date of 31st March, 1960. Indeed, I am at this moment considering issuing a circular to local authorities which still have dwellings under requisition, urging them to review their programmes afresh and to make absolutely certain that they are taking the necessary action so that they will have the whole of the derequisitioning process completed by that date.

As the hon. Lady correctly said, Section 4 and Section 11 are the two principal instruments provided in the Act to assist local authorities in carrying out their task. I think that the hon. Lady was a little premature in suggesting that Section 4 had exhausted itself. Naturally, that was the first instrument to use and it was not until the spring of last year that I sent out a circular urging local authorities to give vigorous attention to the possibility of leasing or purchasing properties. I was acting on the assumption that, up till then, they would mainly have been seeking to use the Section 4 powers. I should like to tell the hon. Lady and the House that Section 4 is not exhausted and that local authorities are still finding some owners of property willing to take advantage of its provisions.

The hon. Lady, quite rightly, said that there were generous financial grants under Section 11 when a local authority decided to lease or buy property. There has been a certain amount of leasing, but not much. I wish more local authorities had throughly studied the possibilities of leasing. Most of it has been done by purchase. The grant that is made under Section 11 is conditional on the local authority satisfying me, first, that they need to purchase the house; secondly, that they need to purchase it in order to secure the settlement of a licensee family; and, thirdly, that they need to purchase it so as to release a dwelling from requisition.

The hon. Lady's point was, as I understand it, that a local authority might have difficulty in establishing its claim for a Section 11 grant unless the existing licensee family from the house that was being derequisitioned went into the house being purchased. I can assure her that our practice is not so rigid as that. Indeed, so long as it is quite clear that there is a genuine connection between the movement of the families, a Section 11 grant will be paid. I can assure the hon. Lady that there will be no difficulty if her council arranges a direct exchange with an existing council tenant, the existing council tenant going into the newly-purchased property and the licensee family going into that or another vacated council dwelling. That will certainly qualify for a grant, subject to one condition which I will come to in a moment, and it is not a difficult condition to satisfy.

We are prepared to go further than that, and to consider for grant a case where a local authority puts a family from its own waiting list into a property which has been purchased under Section 11, so long as it rehouses the licensee family in one of its council houses or flats. The two moves must occur within a reasonable time. There must be some link, or it would be impossible to establish the relationship. I can assure the hon. Lady and her council, and all other authorities, that in both cases we should be willing to pay a Section 11 grant.

There is one condition. The council must be buying a property which is not bigger or more costly than it really needs to rehouse the licensee family. We could not contemplate paying a Section 11 grant on a four-bedroom house when the licensees concerned were a man and a wife who were moving out of a derequisitioned house. But I do not think that that was the kind of difficulty which the hon. Lady had in mind. I understood from what she said that she wanted an assurance that the Section 11 condition about rehousing would not be interpreted so strictly that it was impossible for a local authority to arrange what I might call a triangular move.

That assurance I can give her, and I should like to say that, so far as I am aware, local authorities are not finding difficulties in the exercise of their powers in connection with Section 11. My Department has not received any complaints from the Wood Green Borough Council about the administration of Section 11 grants; indeed, we are not aware of any serious administrative difficulties in connection with any provisions of the 1955 Act. We are aware that some local authorities are having to grapple with considerable difficulties in carrying out their derequisitioning duties in general, but they have not been complaining to us either about the financial or administrative requirements.

I hope that this short debate will serve to get on the record for all local authorities who are concerned with what the practice of my Department is, and I can assure the hon. Lady that we shall take a reasonable view over these Section 11 grants, subject to the condition that I have mentioned. We shall certainly not wish to tie down a local authority so strictly that only by moving a licensee family direct into a purchased house can it claim the grant. I hope that the assurances that I have given will relieve the hon. Lady's mind about the point that she has taken the opportunity to raise.

Photo of Mrs Joyce Butler Mrs Joyce Butler , Wood Green

I have tried to follow the Minister's assurances, and I think that they meet the point I have in mind. I shall study with care what he has said and if, as I hope, they meet the point that I have in mind they will be of great assistance to local authorities.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes to Five o'clock.