Orders of the Day — Housing Programme

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 15th May 1969.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr George Rogers Mr George Rogers , Kensington North 12:00 am, 15th May 1969

I am not at the moment concerned with any other part of Britain than my own constituency. I am concerned with Notting Hill, the area which is specially dealt with in the recent report, and with no other part of the country.

The first speech that I made as a young propagandist was in Notting Hill about its housing conditions. That was over 40 years ago. As I am nearing my swansong in the House, if this is not my swansong, it looks as if my last speech will be about housing in Notting Hill.

If we forget the period before the 1914–18 war when the social conscience of the country was not very alive to the bad housing of the workers, we must seriously consider what happened in the period after the first world war. We all know that up to the end of the first world war workers were still thought of as the lower orders who did not need bathrooms; if bathrooms were given to them, they would put coal in them or use them for such purposes. That attitude was very prevalent. I even came across that attitude when I was a young member of the borough council in Wembley after the first world war.

It was not until the Chamberlain and Wheatley Acts, indeed not until the Wheatley Act which the first Labour Government brought in, that any real effort was made to provide the kind of accommodation that the average working class family needed. It was not until the Labour Party began to dominate the councils in London that the hideous warrens of the poor in the East End areas like Shoreditch began to be cleared away. Just as unemployment was never raised in the House until Keir Hardie appeared, the housing needs of the people of Britain were not made a prominent factor in housing policy until the Labour Party gained strong representation. The reason this problem has not been solved in Kensington is that the Labour Party has never had sufficient representation to dominate the council's policy.

What happened between the two wars with the Tory borough council in control? Under the Acts that I have mentioned the council built two small cottage estates and one or two blocks of flats. It then decided to have an agreement with the Tory-controlled London County Council to leave housing to the Kensington authority. When the council got that agreement it left it all to housing associations and did nothing itself until after the second world war. The whole of the council's approach to the housing problem was lacking in imagination and energy.

After the second world war, this council was the last council to get under way. When the first report on housing results in London was prepared, the Kensington council was shown to have the worst result. A year or two ago when a report was produced on the housing records of London authorities, the Kensington council had the worst record.

When the London County Council—as it then was under Labour—tried to come into the area to build houses to help to make up for the deficiencies of the local authority, the local authority fought the Council; it objected to the building of council houses on Camden Hill because, it said, this would lower the tone of the area: the value of the houses would fall. Nothing of the sort happened. The value of the houses did not drop by one iota. In fact, the value rose. The people who lived in those council flats were just as well-behaved as any others.

The Abbotsbury Road site became available. We wanted to build housing for the people on it, but permission was refused by the local authority and the land was sold to private developers, who erected the most expensive dwellings in the area at that time, as hon. Members who know Abbotsbury Road well will know. There has been all along this lack of understanding, this lack of energy, this lack of desire to solve the problem.

Now we have a new lot of members on the borough council. I do not think any of them were there when I first became active in Kensington politics. The leader of the council says that he is prepared to do all he can to solve this problem. I am prepared to give him a chance. But I must be a little reserved, because when my right hon. Friend who is now the Chief Whip was Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government he offered the Kensington Council the maximum financial assistance to deal with this problem. My right hon. Friend tells me that the council declined on the ground that land was too dear. If this is an argument, the problem, clearly, will never be solved, because land in London will not get cheaper; it will get dearer. This was a wholly negative approach which seemed to show that the council had not moved in the attitude it had had for the last 50 or 60 years. I can quote instance after instance where opportunities to solve this problem have been given to the council and it has refused to exploit them to the maximum possibility.

In North Kensington, strange as it may seem, there are many pleasant places. There are many pleasant squares, some of the nicest in London. On the whole, with the present plans, the solution to the area's problem is not terribly difficult. The borough council has completed a scheme in Kensal New Town. The London County Council, which, I admit, was slow to get off the mark in North Kensington after the war, also had a scheme in progress in Kensal New Town. There are also the Lancaster West scheme on the eastern side of Ladbroke Grove and a G.L.C. scheme more or less completed in the Latimer Road area. That side of the Ladbroke Grove, the western side—which is the spine of the constituency—will not be too bad when the schemes have been completed.

That leaves that part of the borough covered by the Notting Hill project report, that is, the rest of the Golborne Ward and part of the Pembridge Ward down to Colville Square, Powis Square and so on, the kind of area where we had so much trouble.

With drive, an imaginative and large-scale scheme could get rid of the problem in another ten to 15 years, if the Govern- ment and the council really made up their minds to take Notting Hill off the housing problem map once and for all. I hope that in his conference with the G.L.C. and the borough council my right Friend will see to it that they mean what they say and present him with early plans to solve the problem. If he is not satisfied that this time they will tackle it seriously, I hope he will consider taking drastic action to take the responsibility for housing out of the hands of a borough council which has never shown itself capable of dealing with it.

I have some sympathy with the hon. Member for North Fylde (Mr. Clegg), who spoke about the possibility that the local authorities may not be the best bodies to deal with housing. He has something when he talks about a more democratic approach to the administration of housing, the part to be played by the tenants, and so on. Some villages being built by a housing society in Wales are examples of this idea. They have a large measure of democracy in their administration. We have some very good housing societies in North Kensington. One established since the race riots is doing very well, but we have nothing on a large enough scale. There is the Peabody Trust, which does good work, but it has to raise its own finance. If, in consort with the local authority, the Minister could give the housing societies more financial help and encourage them to think on a bigger scale, they, in parallel with the local authority, might precipitate an end to the housing crisis in Notting Hill.

All who come to North Kensington, especially people who are asked to canvass there at election times, are appalled by the sordidness and misery of these streets. It is time that this stain on the housing of the nation was removed once and for all. If the problem had not existed we should have had no racial troubles, because there would have been controlled housing. Had there been a proper solution years ago when it should have been found, there would have been no Rachman and his kind, because there would have been nothing for them to exploit or, at least, not on anything like the same scale.

Therefore, I ask my right hon. Friend to bend his energies and his will to securing a solution to the problem. All of us in Kensington will be deeply grateful if he can help.