Orders of the Day — Public Services (Greater London)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 19th July 1973.

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Photo of Mr Keith Speed Mr Keith Speed , Meriden 12:00 am, 19th July 1973

I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. That is the type of matter which we would wish to be exploring in greater detail with London Transport and the GLC. My right hon. Friend's mind is not closed to any suggestions both of a short-term nature and of a longer-term nature to try to solve the problem which, although it is particularly bad at present, has also been experienced in past years and has tended to be a recurring one.

The question of parking meters and pricing restraint was mentioned particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Clapham and the hon. Member for Islington, South-West (Mr. George Cunningham). The proposal not to allow parking at meters before 10.30 or 10.15 a.m. is still a tentative one by the GLC and it will be up to the council to make a firm decision. I have some sympathy with the view that road space in London is a very expensive commodity and to put a ton or so of steel on a piece of road and charge very little for it to stay there does not seem the best way of sorting out our priorities.

In the recent debate on urban transport the House expressed the view that we must look at this, not only in Lon. don but in other major cities and towns, to see whether we can speed the traffic, particularly public service traffic which is so essential to the life of cities. These are matters in which the GLC and my Department are very closely concerned

The question of housing is principally one for my hon. Friends, but I want to make some comments on what has been said this morning, because public sector housing is one of the main services which the GLC and the London boroughs provide. As with the other issues I have mentioned, London's housing problems have been fully studied by the Layfield Panel of inquiry on the GDLP and the Government are currently considering the panel's recommendations. There are one or two aspects of the housing situation I want to mention without in any way prejudicing this consideration.

Since its formation in September 1971 the Action Group on London Housing has undertaken a great deal of constructive and valuable work. The land availability survey conducted by the London authorities at the group's request in the early part of 1972 was the most detailed study ever conducted in the capital. It provided a firm base upon which the group could make predictions about the progress being made in solving the problem. Work has continued on updating and revising the returns which have now been completed in respect of almost half the London authorities. This work has resulted in the identification of additional land and it is reasonable to expect that further gains will be forthcoming as the work progresses.

At the same time the Government have been playing their part by ensuring that all possible land that could be regarded as surplus to the requirement of Government Departments and the nationalised industries and was suitable for housing purposes was identified and released.

Action has also been taken on the recommendation of the Layfield Report that a review should be conducted of the green belt to identify land that could be released for housing purposes without detriment to the overall green belt policy. The Standing Conference on London and South-East Planning has been asked to conduct an urgent study and to identify up to 2,000 acres of such land.

The group has over the past year visited 14 of the London boroughs to discuss their individual housing problems, the policies being adopted to solve these problems, and what more could be done. This included the need for assistance to be made available to inner London. The group has reported on the outcome of its visits and on the revision of the land availability figures to my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction. I expect that the group's third interim report will be published before the House rises for the Recess next week.

For the future the group intends to turn its attention increasingly to the problems of obsolescence in London.

The hon. Member for Islington, South-West mentioned in particular the problem of homelessness. We hope that the GLC and the London boroughs will co-operate to spread the burden of homelessness more evenly over London because this should help to ease the difficulties which obligations to rehouse the homeless cause in respect of waiting lists.

We must not forget, as the hon. Member for Greenwich pointed out, that many recent arrivals in London came here because there are jobs in London for them in essential services which make the capital function properly. The hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling) referred to a family which came from Cornwall. I do not pretend that the solution is easy, but we believe that the London boroughs and the GLC in co-operation can spread the load from some of the hardest pushed. As the report of the Layfield Panel rightly observed, obsolescence and worn-out housing is likely to be a principal problem for the future in London. The hon. Member for Islington, South-West touched particularly on this point, and he gave a number of very interesting and disturbing examples from his constituency. Coupled with an overall shortage of accommodation, this obsolescent housing leads to the pattern of housing stress, which is certainly common and a problem in inner London, and all the side effects which arise from it.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the question of harassment. The recent White Paper, to which the hon. Gentleman gave, not a wholehearted but a guarded and cautious welcome, entitled "Better Homes: The Next Priorities" contains proposals which were drawn up with problems of areas such as inner London very much in mind and where the social evils of overcrowding, problems of bad landlords and evictions are extremely important, perhaps more important than the physical conditions of the houses. That is the concept of the housing action areas about which the hon. Gentleman had some critical comments to make.

The housing action area which the White Paper introduces is designed to give local authorities faced with the sort of evils which the hon. Gentleman described the powers to deal with them quickly and effectively and it offers a package of proposals—a mixture of inducements, powers and obligations—which the Government hope to give effect to in legislation to be introduced in the next session. The proposals and details are still very much open to discussion, and my hon. Friends will consult the local authorities about them. I hope—and if this message goes out from this debate it will be invaluable—that the London authorities and hon. Members will tell us how they think these proposals might be improved and, most important perhaps, I hope that local authorities and the London boroughs will draw up plans to make the maximum use of the new powers as soon as they become law so that no time is lost.

Harassment is a criminal offence and therefore is a matter for the courts, but I appreciate the point that there is a thin dividing line—sometimes it is not so thin —which makes it extremely difficult to judge whether it is a criminal offence. We have shown our determination that harassment shall be stamped out by recently increasing the penalties for such offences where they can be proved in the criminal courts. I am aware that cases still occur. I hope that local authorities will do all that they can to prevent them by ensuring that offenders are brought to book and that tenants who are threatened with harassment are aware of their rights. If this debate and the examples mentioned concerning tenants' rights can be given the widest publicity, and if local authorities, citizens advice bureaux and other bodies can give them wide publicity, it will be extremely useful.

To sum up, this has been a fairly wide-ranging, fairly brief but useful debate. The various problems of London are not unique to London, but inevitably they are on a much larger scale than they are in any other part of the country. I take the point that perhaps we do not discuss London sufficiently. I could say that we do not discuss the Midlands sufficiently, but we have time to discuss places such as Wales and Scotland. However, that is not a matter for me. The comments made about the problems of the police and education will be drawn to the attention of my right hon. Friends concerned.

The Government, together with the GLC, the London boroughs and the various statutory authorities, are tackling these problems energetically. I do not agree with the hon. Member for Greenwich that it is all crisis. The Government now have some exciting and worthwhile proposals about housing. In all these problems of transport and housing and in the problems of London we are taking action. I believe that it will be effective action, and we are backing that action by a great deal of hard cash.