Orders of the Day — Old Houses (Conversion)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 24th July 1968.

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9.10 a.m.

Photo of Mr Frank Allaun Mr Frank Allaun , Salford East

The White Paper "Old Houses into New Homes" will vitally affect millions of families—

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

Order. Will the hon. Gentleman please speak up. The Parliamentary reporters want to hear.

Photo of Mr Frank Allaun Mr Frank Allaun , Salford East

I apologise, Mr. Speaker.

It will affect them in the most intimate way—in their homes. If the best features of it are implemented, as I hope they will be, vital steps will be taken towards ending the present intolerable housing situation where 10 million men, women and children go to bed tonight—and some of us have not been to bed tonight, Mr. Speaker—in a house without a bath, hot water or inside lavatory—and not before time.

There is the worker who coming home from a dirty job and wanting to wash his feet has to ask his wife to put the kettle on and bring the enamel bowl out of the cupboard. There is the mother with several young children who needs the strength of an athlete to fill and empty the sl;pper bath with pans of water. There is the toddler or his grandmother who in rain or cold has to go outside to the lavatory at the bottom of the yard or even down the street to the communal W.C. All this in the so-called affluent society, in 1968, in the age of automation, atomic energy and space travel.

One in four of all dwellings in Britain —4·1 million houses—lack an indoor lavatory, a fixed bath or a hot and cold water system. Of these, 1·8 million are slum houses beyond redemption. This is a vast mass of heartbreak housing. The sooner the slum houses are pulled down and replaced the better. But many of the others at the present rate of building will still be occupied 20 years hence. Many of them are structurally sound. Their occupiers would be overjoyed if they could have a bathroom installed.

I have recently been visiting old houses which have become what the occupiers sometimes describe as "little palaces". They will proudly show visitors bathrooms of a splendour which one would expect to find in an American film star's home in Beverley Hills rather than in the back streets of an industrial town. They would greatly prefer their present houses with these amenities to being moved to overspill housing perhaps 10 miles away. This is not easy, as I need not point out, for an engine driver who has to be at his depot at perhaps three o'clock in the morning.

Moreover, the difference in cost is startling between, say, £4,000 for a new council flat and £400 for a new bathroom. Indeed, the average cost of converting boxrooms and bedrooms in Salford—the same applies to other places—is £230, including a bath, washbasin, thermo-static electric heater, W.C. and all the fittings. For some years generous grants have been available for installing baths, hot water, inside lavatories, wash basins and food stores. The owner can obtain a grant of half the cost from the Government and raise his rents by 12½ per cent. to cover the other half of the cost. Many owner-occupiers and councils have sensibly taken advantage of this grant, but, with a few honourable exceptions, private landlords have not.

Last year out of 113,000 houses improved in this way only 26,000 were privately rented homes. I calculate that last year one in 27 owner-occupiers installed bathrooms in their homes whereas only one in 160 private landlords' houses were thus improved. Many tenants say they had a struggle to get their landlords to do the repairs, never mind the improvements. Millions of tenants are not yet aware of their opportunities. Even though certain powers have been given to local authorities to compel landlords to apply for the grants and to improve their houses, few councils have used them. I propose to give some figures. The whole project is hanging fire. Families living in the four million bathless homes are still waiting. That is why I welcome the publication of the White Paper "Old Houses into New Homes" as a prelude to speeding up the process.

May I mention some of the excellent proposals, then deal with the bad features and finally put forward some additional ideas. The White Paper recognises that instead of treating houses one at a time, whole streets or areas will be dealt with in one go. That has been found the best way in Leeds, Salford, Birmingham, Norwich and other cities. It will no longer be required that a house must have more than 15 years of life before grants are made. Who would argue that families must live for 15 years in bathless houses?

The Government propose to make grants to councils to acquire houses for conversion and improvement such as are at present enjoyed—rightly so—by housing associations. Something is to be done at last not only to improve the inside of the houses but also to improve their environment. Grants of up to £100 a house will be made available for such amenities as children's play spaces and car parking spaces and for the planting of trees. Why should there not be trees in Coronation Street? There will be sweeping increases in the maximum grants made available, standard grants rising from £155 to £200, discretionary grants from £400 to £1,000 and conversion grants from £500 to £1,200 per flat.

For the "little landlord" who lacks the resources to provide even his half of the cost, loans will be granted by local authorities on an "interest-only" basis and recovered much later, mainly on the ultimate sale of the houses. Councils will have power to impose a time limit within which any work approved for grant must be done.

So much for the good proposals. Now for the bad. The most serious of these proposals, unless jettisoned, will mean that 400,000 tenants and their families will be faced with heavy rent increases. Generous grants are already available. Landlords receive half the cost for nothing. They receive rent increases of 12½ per cent. on their half of the cost and they benefit from a considerable rise in the value of their property. The White Paper would decontrol those houses which have controlled rents, provided that they contain a bathroom and are in a good state of repair. These rent rises would affect not only a house in which a bathroom was installed under the new proposals; they would also apply to houses already in that condition even if the tenant himself had been responsible for and had paid for the improvement—which is even more unfair.

Landlords would be permitted to take their cases through the rent-fixing machinery set up under the new Rent Act, 1965. Unfortunately it is now fixing rents at considerably above the former controlled rents. Certainly in London, Birmingham, Southampton and some other areas it is fixing rents at roughly three times the previous controlled rent. That is another subject on which more will have to be said in the Chamber on another occasion. Admittedly, the White Paper suggests that these increases would be phased although it does not say over how long a period. Nevertheless, they would become effective over a period.

Tenants in one working class area of London, living in terraced houses with no baths, have recently had their rents fixed at £4 7s. 6d. a week plus rates. How much higher still would the rents have been if baths had been included? Some of the occupants are taking home less than £11 a week to cover their family's total expenditure. In other words, more than half their wages goes on housing, even without heating, lighting and so forth. In my view, the Rent Act, 1965, is not being fairly applied.

Hiding behind the skirts of small, poor landlords—and there are many of them —are the big, rich ones. When the White Paper was published, theFinancial Times carried a report the following day, on 25th April, under the heading: Larger property owners pleased with rent plan", It was in the following terms: London City (and Westcliff Properties) itself believes that the Government's new step would be worth over £100,000 to it over a number of years. Little wonder that the National Federation of Property Owners, theFinancial Times, and many hon. Members opposite are delighted, for this section of the White Paper would mean granting what they have been pressing for ever since the 1965 Act came into operation.

Most of these controlled houses were built in the last century and have been paid for over and over again in rent. Their previous owners put nothing aside for depreciation—again, with honourable exceptions. In some areas, property companies have been buying rows of controlled houses for a song. In both cases there is little justification for a rent increase.

This section of the White Paper will defeat the main purpose of converting old houses into new homes, which is to accelerate the introduction of baths, hot water and indoor lavatories. The present miserable rate of progress will grind to a halt. In my experience, most tenants are willing to pay 6s. or 8s. a week extra on their rent to cover the landlord's share of the cost of installing a bathroom under the present arrangements, but they would certainly refuse the amenities if they knew that they would have their rents doubled or trebled in consequence.

It is true that the local authorities, under the White Paper, are to be given compulsory powers, but the tenants' resistance to compulsion in such circumstances would be so strong that I see few councils going ahead with them, and I urge my hon. Friend to realise the danger facing him. I know that his objectives are the same as mine.

At a time when there is pressure to keep down rents and other items of the cost of living, I cannot believe that the Government will proceed with this part of the proposed legislation. I am glad that many of my hon. Friends, whilst welcoming the White Paper in other respects, are showing their firm opposition to this particular part of it.

I am informed from several sources that a sharp fall is taking place in the number of improvements now being made. This is because property owners who had intended to make them are holding back until the White Paper's compensation terms are implemented in legislation. I urge my hon. Friend to make it clear again that the details of the White Paper have been published for discussion only—this needs stressing —and will not necessarily appear in the forthcoming legislation.

Now I come to an important objection of another kind, raised by those practical experts, the members of the Association of Public Health Inspectors. In the White Paper, the Government propose to repeal the existing powers of local authorities to improve an area by compulsory means. In their place, powers of compulsory purchase will be granted to councils where the owners refuse to improve their properties. Admittedly the present machinery of compelling owners to do this work is extremely cumbersome and time wasting. Mr. F. H. Robinson, Chief Public Health Inspector for Sal-ford, tells me that to improve one house sometimes involves filling up 20 forms and making 12 visits to the house.

The health inspectors nationally wish to streamline the procedure, but they do not wish to abolish it. Their association has put forward a simplified scheme. Many local authorities—the number has increased since the municipal elections—would refuse to make compulsory purchases of houses to improve them and it is essential, therefore, that both methods, compulsory purchase and the present method of compulsion without purchase should be provided as alternatives.

Many local authorities are lagging in this matter. In reply to a recent Question, my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary provided me with a list of the number of improvements carried out, with grant, in every borough council area. There have been some excellent performances; for example, Sheffield with 1,247 dwellings improved last year, Birmingham with 1,341 and Leicester with 620. On the other hand, there have been some shockingly low figures in the roll of shame—if I lived in one of these areas I would want to know why—such as only 129 dwellings in Liverpool with a bath, hot water and W.C. installed last year, 199 in Manchester, 41 in Wolverhampton, 39 in Cardiff, 32 in Brighton, 23 in Southampton, six in the City of Westminster, four in Tower Hamlets and four in Kensington and Chelsea. Councils should be asked to submit to the Minister not only the number of houses suitable for improvement in their areas but also their plans for carrying out the improvements within a given time— say, five years in most cases—with their annual programmes for that period.

The White Paper proposes that powers should be made available to remedy a defect in a house when it becomes "serious". Some health inspectors suggest that there should be compulsory maintenance of property to ensure that property does not reach a serious state. This would help to preserve property, it is pointed out.

It is obviously desirable that there should be access to the W.C. from inside the house, but this is not always practicable and should be required as a condition only in cases where it is practicable, or other valuable amenities might be prevented from being installed.

Property owners should receive loans not at the market rate of interest but at 4 per cent. by means of a Government subsidy similar to that available for council house building. This would be one way of encouraging landlords, without taking their houses out of control.

There should be an imaginative publicity campaign to bring to the attention of vast numbers of tenants, landlords and owner-occupiers the grant possibilities that exist. Many of them are unaware of these facilities. I would like to see the Ministry taking advertising time on television to show a mother struggling to wash her children in the sink or in the tin bath on the kitchen floor while, next door in an otherwise similar house, another mother is happily bathing her children in the newly installed bathroom.

I would also welcome the covering by all councils of those streets and areas most suitable for improvement with leaflets explaining the grants available. I suggest that the improvement grants be extended to cover the introduction of electric wiring in homes lacking this, and unfortunately there are many such homes. I have recently ascertained from the leading firm of bath manufacturers, Allied Ironfounders, that it has the capacity to meet a big increase in demand, so there is no difficulty on the score. If it is the view that there is a shortage of skilled labour to instal bathrooms and lavatories, I would urge the Minister to visit the Building Centre in London, where he will see a completely fabricated plastic bathroom, which can be installed in a few hours.

Slum clearance proposals are to be speeded up, but what about new houses to meet general need, that is to say the majority of cases? It would be tragic if the improvement of old houses was made a substitute for building new ones. Both measures are vital. The peoples' housing need is so great that we require 500,000 new houses, plus 200,000 improved houses a year. It would be inexcusable to set one against the other.

The Government proposes a big increase in compensation to owners. There will be supplementary payments for owner-occupied houses subjected to slum clearance. If the houses have been well maintained tenanted—unfit houses will attract payments of four times the rateable value.

I agree that there have been some hard cases in the past where slum clearance compensation for owner-occupiers has been inadequate. If better compensation is paid, it will become an unduly heavy burden on local authorities. Already many councils have to pay scores of thousands of pounds an acre when they clear a slum to build new houses. It is precisely those cities with the greatest need which will have those financial difficulties increased. Therefore, there should be increased assistance from the national Exchequer. Much as I welcome the fact—although it is not enough—that councils receive housing loans from the Government at 4 per cent. instead of anything up to the 7 per cent. they would have to pay on the open market—

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

Order. The hon. Gentleman must not think me discourteous, but I have appealed through the night, from time to time, for reasonably brief speeches. This is only the seventh of 28 debates on the Order Paper.

Photo of Mr Frank Allaun Mr Frank Allaun , Salford East

In response to your request, Mr. Speaker, I will finish in one minute. I feel that extra help will be required if cities with large slums are expected to pay higher compensation when clearance takes place. This drive to improve old houses must go ahead— and with all the determination that was employed in wartime to rush up great ordnance factories.

If I am asked where the money is to come from, I would say out of the £2,271 million which we are spending annually on the arms programme. We are spending £205 million a year on B.A.O.R., plus another £15 million on N.A.T.O. If the military "hardware" is included, this figure would be at least doubled to £440 million. Since box-rooms or bedrooms are being converted into excellent bathrooms for £220, of which half is covered by grant, for one year's military expenditure on B.A.O.R. and N.A.T.O. the Government could provide the grants for 4 million homes. In other words, for this one year's military expenditure in Europe, we could end bathlessness in Britain. I know which would be put first by millions of British people. It is in the interests of the nation and Parliament that there should be another and fuller debate on the subject at the end of October, and before the Bill appears.

9.35 a.m.

Photo of Mr James MacColl Mr James MacColl , Widnes

My hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Frank Allaun) began by striking a note which I think would be echoed by all of us—that we would all at this time of the morning be the better for a bath. We all appreciate the problems involving the bath. Among the many things which my hon. Friend has done in the House, he has devoted himself doggedly, persistently and constructively to improving the standards of houses and insisting—a doctrine not always regarded as one of Marxist purity—that it is important to think not only of the brand new, posh house, but of all the people who have to live in miserable conditions in houses which, as he says, with the best possible slum clearance programme, will last for many years.

I am glad that my hon Friend welcomed the intention of the White Paper and its proposals such as area improvement and amenity grants and the interest-only loans, which is a very practical proposal. I am sure that my hon. Friend will forgive me if I concentrate on those points on which we are not completely in agreement. As he said—and it is a perfectly fair point—there is not much point in having a White Paper unless it is discussed. The proposals in the White Paper were put forward with the intention that they should be examined.

I do not find my hon. Friend's attitude puzzling in that I know his views, but I find it very difficult to see in them the clarity which he normally brings to bear on these problems. I found it difficult to discover his attitude to compulsion. I understood what he said about accepting to a certain extent that local authorities should have wider powers of compulsory purchase. That is something which I would expect him to recommend. That means, however, without getting drawn along the paths of his peroration about alternative economies in other fields, that in our work in housing, if we are dealing only with compulsory purchase, there is a limit on the amount which we can spend and the amount of property which can be brought into municipal ownership and be subject to improvement. My hon. Friend did not consider the problem of what happens to them in terms of cost—who pays for the improvement. This is a difficulty which faces local authorities as well as the private landlord.

My hon. Friend made the point that the compulsory maintenance of property which is in serious disrepair was important. That is dealt with in paragraph 17 of the White Paper. I agree with him. I am sorry to wave a red rag at my hon. Friend at this time of the morning, but, whatever he may say about the recent rent regulation, the evidence is that in securing repairs it has proved far more effective and flexible than the complicated machinery of the earlier Acts, because it means that as soon as the landlord gets slack about repairs it is open to the tenant, on the basis of a change of circumstances, to get a new rent registered and a reduction in rent.

The evidence is that repairs have been much more closely controlled for the regulated tenant than for the old controlled tenant. This is the dilemma. I do not think that one can go very far in telling old controlled landlords that they must keep their property in repair and in pushing them into using the powers in the Act when there is not a rent coming in out of which the repairs can be met. That is what worries me about the present situation. If we are not careful, the whole of the old controlled sector of rented property will slowly sink more and more into disrepair. I ask my hon. Friend to think about this. As a result of our attitude to rents, we are in danger of precipitating precisely the problem which he is so anxious to avoid of more slums being created instead of our being able to maintain the property.

There is not much of a problem with owner-occupiers. There are obviously great advantages in their carrying out these improvements, because it increases the value of the property. In our new proposals for compensation, if they come over the line of unfitness owner-occupiers will get the full market value. The landlord will not get the full market value under the proposals. He will get only the increased, well-maintained, payment. That arrangement is designed specifically for this purpose. Whereas the owner-occupier is living in his home and is therefore entitled to reasonable compensation, the landlord ought to get increased compensation only if he is keeping the property in good condition.

My hon. Friend drew attention to the criticisms which have been made of the operation of the powers of compulsion under the 1964 Act. We will certainly look at this. This is one of the points which I mentioned on Tuesday. I think that the operation of this Act has been cumbersome. There are too many loopholes in it. I do not think that it will work.

I recognise the force of the argument that, if the landlord is given the incentive of an increased rent if he improves his property and keeps it in repair, we can talk in terms of compulsion; and, where there is no compulsion, we can talk in terms of municipal acquisition.

It is difficult to see how we could work out adequate incentives for landlords of old controlled property to keep it in good repair on an exiguous rent if they have no opportunity of getting a return on the money they will put into it. Landlords can recover a percentage of money spent on improvements. Even if that percentage was increased, I do not see that landlords would get an adequate amount.

We could concentrate on owner-occupied propery for improvement and forget the rest. I would think that that would be a shocking thing to do, because it is precisely in the field of privately rented property that the worst housing conditions and the worst repair conditions exist. I am certain that my hon. Friend and I would agree on that. We could decide that as soon as property comes into regulation it can be dealt with by means of registration and a fair rent applied. This would cover a small proportion of the total amount of privately rented property.

The problem is: do we say, "No compulsion either for tenants or for landlords in the case of privately rented property", which would be a tidy solution to the problem? Do we compel tenants who do not want to pay a higher rent or who for some other reason do not want improvements—some do not, for reasons quite apart from financial ones— or do we leave them and wait until a change of tenancy, when the property will become a registered tenancy and the problem will solve itself? Or do we try in some way to find a system which is acceptable to deal with the problem of the great mass of old controlled property that still exists?

I know that my hon. Friend wants to find a solution to these problems, as we do. I am glad to have had this opportunity of discussing them. I hope that as a result of our consideration we shall be able to find a solution which is more satisfactory to everyone.

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

I remind hon. Gentlemen who have just joined the all-night sitting that I have from time to time appealed for reasonably brief speeches.