Housing and Land

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 6th November 1973.

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Photo of Mr David Austick Mr David Austick , Ripon 12:00 am, 6th November 1973

I am grateful, Mr. Speaker, for your indulgence in allowing me to speak now.

I count it an honour to be allowed on this occasion, which is for me unique, to pay a short but sincere tribute to my predecessor, Sir Malcolm Stoddart-Scott, who was a Member of the House from 1945 until this year. Twenty-eight years in a long period over which to give faithful service not only to a constituency but also to the House, and I know that I voice the feelings of many hon. Members when I remember Sir Malcolm as a man of many virtues and of great courtesy, a man who did not seek high office but who was as assiduous in his parliamentary work as he was in his work in the Ripon division. It was fitting that he should have been the first Member of Parliament for this great division and I salute his memory.

I must not fail to mention Sir Malcolm's great sense of humour which, while never raucous, was ever present. I am sure that he must be chuckling still to think that my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) and I both started our parliamentary careers with a two-and-a-half months paid holiday by courtesy of a Conservative Government. I am pleased that the electors of Berwick-upon-Tweed can look forward to parliamentary representation at last—and I think that it will be Liberal representation at that.

Several right hon. and hon. Members from both sides of the House made a pilgrimage to the Ripon division on the occasion of the by-election in July. They will know that I represent one of the most beautiful constituencies in the United Kingdom and that my constituents are among the warmest hearted in the land. We in Ripon are a proud people. We are proud of our heritage as Dales-men, where the old values of honesty, sincerity, integrity and hard work are counted of greater importance than is either material advancement or economic growth.

We are proud of our history and of those who years ago built our cathedral in Ripon, our abbey at Fountains, our churches and chapels in the villages and towns and our cottages up the dales and on the moors. We are proud of our industry, our hill farming, our lowland agriculture, our factories and mills. It was from our factories that Wharfedale printing machines were once despatched all over the world. Our paper mills have survived savage competition because all who work there respect the ability and worth of their fellow men and women.

The towns of Ripon, Otley, Ilkley and Pateley Bridge are pleasant places in which to live and Ripon is a wonderful constituency to represent, but the people of Ripon have not sent me here to paint pretty pictures. I come with a message from the people of Ripon and the Yorkshire Dales; we are disturbed by the attitudes of recent Governments, are worried about promises which have been cast aside and are awaiting a lead from this House. We look for a new sincerity and determination to bring this House and the people closer together.

Unlike the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight), who spoke in this debate on a previous day, I find the Gracious Speech most unimaginative and lacking in vigour, particularly on the subject of housing. If the high priority shown by Ministers in previous years is anything to go by, we are in for a lean time for many years to come because, despite the inevitability of a change of Government, housing policies cannot be changed with the same speed.

We have heard from previous speakers about the crisis in our cities and the monstrous situation of houses being demolished faster than they are being built. The bulldozer mentality of the Government seems to have spread into housing as well. Does this indicate that Ministers are giving high priority to housing matters? Like Nero, they are fiddling whilst houses fall around them.

The housing crisis is not restricted to the cities. It is perhaps more obvious there because more people are gathered together in cities, but the rural areas are suffering in different ways and it is upon this subject that I wish to comment.

Why does the Gracious Speech contain no mention of the withdrawal of mortgage relief on second homes in rural areas? I am pleased to note that the Minister intends to withdraw improvement grants on second homes, which is something we have been wanting for a long time. I hope that this will be done soon. I know of one village in Nidderdale where 20 per cent. of the property is occupied only during the summer and at weekends. although newly married teachers in the area are unable to find a home near their village school and have to travel up to 20 miles a day each way. Why should the taxpayer subsidise the wealthy to the detriment of rural communities?

Why is there no indication in the Gracious Speech that the Government are determined to tackle the abuses of the so-called voluntary housing movement? True, there is a welcome suggestion that additional help will be given to housing associations, but when and how will it be given? Will the Minister assure us today that his Department will ruthlessly root out parasites in the housing movement who are using that movement to cloak their own gain? This matter should be investigated as a matter of urgency.

What does the Minister mean to do about improving living conditions in rural areas? Does he know, for example, that in my constituency there are 30 properties owned by the Leeds City Council which have no proper sanitation? The people living in them are still using pail closets, despite the high priority to improving living conditions to which the Gracious Speech refers.

Why is there no reference in the Gracious Speech to the bureaucratic nightmare caused by the Government's insistence on the outdated and ridiculous method of fixing what are so unfairly called fair rents?

Is the Minister aware that elected representatives, local government officers and members of the public are being put to quite unnecessary work and expense in an attempt to comply with the terms of the Housing Finance Act, and are then being told that they do not know what they are talking about. This is what it amounts to when a report comes back from the rent scrutiny board overturning a carefully prepared assessment. In my constituency there are three urban district councils each of which has spent considerable time in preparing a considered assessment of properties as required by the Act. In each case the rent assessment board has changed the assessments in quite incomprehensible ways and the whole procedure has to be gone through again.

For example, out of a total of 76 sample rents of council-owned properties in Otley, the fair rent of 25 of those properties, or 30 per cent., was increased by the rent assessment board to a figure higher than had been suggested by a local estate agent employed to advise the council. This is incomprehensible. The Minister refuses to intervene and says that the only recourse for an aggrieved local council is through the courts. Just imagine the frustration behind this passage written by the Treasurer of the Otley Urban District Council: The work involved in assessing fair rents is substantial, and in Otley's case involved the engagement of a professional valuer, the assistance of myself and my staff and much councillors' time. That the rents should be virtually reassessed seems to be a complete waste of manpower and expense, and the task undertaken by this authority in assessing provisional fair rents would appear to be a waste of time. That local government official believes that it is all a waste of time, and that is the feeling of many local authorities.

A further example of exasperation is contained in this extract from a letter from the Ilkley Treasurer: It is therefore most surprising that at a time when price increases are required to be strictly justified and when the Government itself is actively concerned to contain infla- tion, rents in the public sector are increased beyond what is necessary or reasonable at present. As mentioned in the council's representations, pay and pension increases are based on actual rises in the cost of living, and the council cannot see why rents should be fixed on the basis of anticipated rises in the cost of living. These are not comments by emotionally disturbed politicians, but from hardworking non-political servants of the public.

I make one last reference to the application of the Housing Finance Act. It has already been said that there is an element of inflation to be included in the rents suggested by the rent assessment boards. I wonder how many people were aware that this was to be the case. Is the private sector of industry expected to take that line? Are the nationalised industries allowed to adopt that attitude, because it must be said that local authorities have never done this in the past. Why should they be forced to do this now? I feel that this is being undertaken to satisfy bureaucratic fancy, and it certainly seems to me to be a bit of bureaucratic nonsense. Therefore, I ask the Minister to re-examine, as a matter of urgency, the terms of reference of the rent assessment boards.

I feel certain that this decade will go down in the history books as the blackest period in local government history because the present Government have forced on the nation the implementation at one and the same time of two complicated pieces of legislation. They have insisted on their implementation within the expected life of this Government, and we can only assume that they have done so for political reasons. I shudder to think what future generations will say.

It might be thought that I have spoken with a greater degree of feeling than is expected of a new Member, but I make no apology, for this is how I am. If at any time I am unable to speak with feeling for the ordinary man and woman, and to ask that their views shall be respected, I shall count it to my shame.

In closing I wish to refer to a report of the Commissioners issued in 1835 concerning the City of Ripon. The report in four foolscap pages covers such wide subjects as police and paving stones, navigation shares and charity property. Among these subjects there is one short paragraph I should like to read and it is headed "Lighting": A sum of £25 a year was left for the purposes of lighting the town. It was customary for each of the two Members who represented the borough in Parliament to subscribe £25 more and this sum, with the aid of voluntary subscriptions, served to light the town. The subscriptions are now withdrawn, and the town is not lighted. I can assure the House that that situation no longer exists and that the electors of Ripon are no longer lost in darkness. They are now happily enlightened.