I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
In my view, the Bill deals with some of the most crucial housing issues that confront our country. It is a long Bill, but, in spite of its length, it cannot deal with all aspects of housing; but any of us would agree that it would be wrong to imagine that all housing problems can be settled by legislation. If they could be there would be no housing problems left today. There have been enough Bills on housing in the last 50 years to sink a battleship; nevertheless I hope that the House will not underestimate the importance of the present Bill but will accept the chance it offers of doing something effective about some of our worst and most intractable housing difficulties.
As the House knows, the measures outlined in the Bill were largely foreshadowed by two White Papers last summer which have subsequently been followed up by consultations with, amongst others, the local authority associations and representatives of the voluntary housing movement. Of course, there is no point in having consultation unless people are prepared to make changes, and there have been a number of changes from the original proposals which I will explain in a while.
I suspect that every Housing Minister since the war has had broadly the same aim, that of providing more decent housing for an ever-wider section of our population; but what I have clearly learned during my period in this position is how widely problems vary in different parts of the country, and how important it is that any housing measure should be sufficiently flexible to deal with the local variations that occur. It is generally accepted today that there is no longer a national housing problem but a series of differing local problems, some of quite different kinds. This was made even clearer in the consultations that have been held.
Apart from the statutory consultations that have taken place, I have visited a number of the larger local authorities and discussed with them the proposals in the White Paper to try to ensure that they covered as far as possible the problems of different parts of the country. Of course, I shall be delighted to remain in touch during the passage of the Bill with the local authorities which have given me valuable help in its preparation. I must at this stage also thank the Expenditure Committee for its report on house improvement grants and, in particular, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Allason), Chairman of the Environmental and Home Office Sub-Committee of that committee. The Government have been able to accept many of the recommendations of that report, and I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend and his committee.
No doubt there will be other occasions for a general housing debate, and so I will confine myself to a few words about the wider approach of which the Bill forms part. Ever since this Government came into office one of their principal aims in the housing field has been to try to direct help to the areas and people whose housing need is greatest. There are many controversies between the two sides of the House about the Housing Finance Act. I do not intend to deal with that today; nevertheless, I believe it is a fact that as a result of its passage 2 million needy tenants now receive rebates or allowances, 800,000 of whom would not be eligible for similar help from supplementary benefit; and the number now being helped is about three times greater than the number receiving rebates under local authorities' voluntary schemes before the Act came into effect.
We now have a consistent and, in my belief, secure basis for determining rents in both the public and the private sectors. But one of the most important steps towards taking this policy further and towards dealing with areas of housing need is, clearly, to improve the appalling older housing that still disfigures too many of our cities. The 1967 House Condition Survey showed that about 4 million dwellings at that time lacked at least one of the basic amenities. The whole House was gratified to learn that by 1971 there had clearly been a substantial improvement in the average housing stock of the country. The figures then showed that the total lacking a basic amenity had dropped by 1 million during those four years. However, no one can be complacent about this matter—though there has been considerable progress since the 1971 House Condition Survey. It appalls me to think that nearly one family in six in this country still live in housing conditions which are simply not acceptable in a civilised society today. Of course, as we all know, there are pockets of really intolerable housing conditions in the centres of some of our bigger cities.
In the light of all this, it has been a deliberate act of policy of the present Government, ever since we came to office, to put greater emphasis on the improvement of our older houses. I pay tribute to the Housing Act 1969 which was passed by our predecessors and on which we have been building during the past few years. I am very pleased that during this Parliament 2 million decent homes have been provided by either new building or improvements. The results of our improvement campaign have been widely welcomed, although from time to time there have been some criticisms. I shall deal with those criticisms shortly.
In framing new policies on housing there are several lessons which ought to be borne in mind. The first is clear enough. I have long believed that where it is at all possible in economic terms for older houses to be improved, that should be done. The right hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland), in the last housing debate, broadly accepted that proposition. The days of wide-scale redevelopment with houses which could be saved being torn down should surely now be nearly over. Where there are real slums, of course, they must be cleared, and the sooner the better; but where houses can be saved enormous social benefits can be gained from doing so. First, in housing terms, it is usually— though not always—quicker and cheaper to improve the houses. Second, in conservation terms, it is a tragedy when decent old housing, particularly in established areas which have a style and character of their own, is pulled down. Third, and most important of all in human terms, it is monstrous, if it can be avoided, to break up existing communities and force people against their will to move and to live miles away from the area which they have come to regard as their home, and—not so much now, but in the past—to move people to soulless tower blocks. Very few of those, thank goodness, are being built today. I think it is common ground in many quarters of the House that the emphasis must be on improvement where that is possible.
We are all agreed about improvement grants. Does the Minister agree that improvement should be in addition to and not in substitution for new building? If he does agree, how does he explain that, although £106 million a year will be spent under the Bill in improvements, the Government's survey for the next four years, which has just been published, shows a reduction of £351 million a year in spending in the public housing sector? It seems, therefore, that fewer houses will be built, which will be a disaster.
Of course I agree, as does everyone, I think, about the need both to improve older houses and to build new houses. Both are extremely important to people living in terrible housing conditions. The hon. Gentleman knows that better than anyone in the House, in view of the conditions which, alas, still exist in parts of his constituency. What the House has to recognise is the fact that at a time when there must inevitably be serious cuts in public expenditure, housing expenditure so far has not been cut. Indeed, as the explanatory and financial memorandum to the Bill makes clear, the result of this measure will be that public expenditure on housing will be increased by about £100 million in England and Wales and £6 million in Scotland when the impact of the measures has been fully experienced in four or five years' time.
That is my answer to the non. Gentleman. Naturally, he will have a chance to make his speech later, and we shall try to deal with the points that he raises.
I return to the question of improvement, which is a key factor in the Bill.
The second lesson is that it is necessary to concentrate resources on the areas of worst housing stress and, in particular-though not wholly—on the inner city areas. We all know of the appalling housing and social problems that exist in the centres of so many of our cities. Many studies are being made of the problems of the inner areas. No doubt much more far-reaching action will be required in the future. But what is absolutely clear is that action is needed now to tackle the housing problems.
I accept that better housing in isolation is an incomplete answer, but any solution that ignores housing will never work. There needs, therefore, to be a concentration of resources by both central Government and local authorities to tackle these appalling housing problems. The powers given to local authorities in the Bill will prove both effective and flexible. That is my belief. We must ensure that existing resources are used properly, both for improvements and for different matters, for example, for offices, with which the Bill also deals.
Regarding improvements, it is wrong that grants should be paid in cases where they are unnecessary or where the improvements would in any event have been done. We are, therefore, providing in the Bill that grants will be made available only for owner-occupation—and not for the most expensive houses at that— or for letting. They will not be available for second homes, nor for developers who wish to improve houses and then to sell them.
Regarding offices, it is a waste of resources to build offices and to leave them empty. Part IX of the Bill contains powers to deal with that matter. In the same way a few months ago, when there was evidence of a waste of resources in a similar way in land, the Government then proposed a land hoarding charge so that people with planning permission should not hoard land which could be used for housing. The situation has now changed. There is now no evidence of any hoarding of land by those with planning permission, so the Government have decided not to proceed with the land hoarding charge. [Interruption.] If any hon. Members have found evidence to the contrary, we shall be glad to have it. But if they have, they would be a unique body of men, because no one has been able to produce evidence on this matter so far.
Regarding improvements, the Government propose the creation of housing action areas. They are deliberately named "action areas" because they must be areas in which action will take place. There is no point—though some local authorities would like to do it—in a local authority declaring wide areas of its borough to be an action area and then not having sufficient resources in manpower or time to tackle it effectively. What we want is for local authorities to decide what they can realistically tackle, to mount an urgent rescue job to save people in desperate housing need in the worst areas. It must be the local authority, for its members are the people who know the area best and know what the priorities will be in any particular area. The idea of central Government laying down what are housing action areas and what are not would be completely doomed to failure.
The third lesson to be learned is that the decline in the privately rented sector —we do not need to go into the reasons why it has occurred—has led to a situation in which people's choice has been lessened rather than increased. It is essential to try to provide some choice of rented accommodation and not to compel people either to buy their own house or to swell the local authority waiting list in their area and add still further to the problems of the local authority. That is why one of the aims of the Bill is to support and extend the powers of the voluntary housing movement, which Governments of all political persuasions have encouraged. The Bill will provide a realistic framework for the expansion of the voluntary housing movement. I think that this will be welcomed.
Those are the themes which run through the Bill. I do not intend to weary the House by dealing with every clause in detail. I suspect that many points will be raised in Committee. I shall, however, deal with some of the salient points, although I hope that there will not be too many of them.
I must say at the beginning, however, that I am sorry the Opposition have chosen to divide against the Bill. As I understand the terms of their amendment, they suggest that because everything cannot be done in the Bill it should not receive a Second Reading. That does not strike me as a reasonable attitude. If by some mischance the right hon. Gentleman were ever put in charge of the housing situation again I doubt whether even his ingenuity could produce a Bill that could deal with every aspect of the housing situation at once.
I accept that there will be points for criticism, and that some of them may be important, but I believe that there is a great deal in the Bill that can be welcomed by people in all political parties with an interest in housing. In my view, there has been far too much doctrinaire and dogmatic disagreement between political parties on the housing front in the last half century. Where we must disagree, of course we shall continue to disagree, but I hope that where we can agree—and I think we can on a lot of this Bill—we shall try to work together to pursue common goals. I believe that most of the policies in the Bill are acceptable to the vast majority of hon. Members on both sides of the House.
I understand the reasons why the Opposition may wish to vote on their reasoned amendment, but I hope that, after full and reasonable debate, they will be prepared for us to proceed with the Bill with reasonable dispatch, because there are many people outside the House who are watching its passage into law with considerable anxiety. I shall introduce the Bill as quickly as possible but I know that hon. Members will probably want to debate it fully in Committee.
As I have already said, the decline of private renting and the often intolerable pressures that this decline gives rise to call for positive measures to increase the stock of other rented accommodation. What we all want to see is a continuing pool of well-managed and well-maintained fair rent accommodation, catering for a variety of needs and able to meet the demands of particular groups. Much of what needs doing to achieve this must, and will, increasingly fall to local authorities. But I do not believe that they should become the exclusive landlord, the only suppliers of rented accommodation; and I believe that this view is shared by many on both sides of the House.
Parts I, II and III of the Bill are, therefore, concerned with expanding the voluntary housing movement, not in competition with local authorities—let me emphasise this—but to help in the drive for a wider choice of housing accommodation and in the attack on housing stress, and to supplement the activities of the local authorities.
The Bill includes proposals, in Part III, for a new subsidy system for housing associations to enable them to engage in new building schemes and in acquisition and improvement work in the confidence that the schemes will be viable.
Some safeguards will, of course, be needed. In the voluntary housing movement there are housing associations, particularly some of those operating in London and Liverpool and the other city centres, which are already making a very real contribution towards better housing. To such associations we would all wish to pay tribute. On the other hand, in a movement so diverse there are associations whose impact is negligible, and there may be a few whose practices we would all deplore.
Part II of the Bill, therefore, contains radical and far-reaching proposals to set up a registration system for housing associations, to limit the privileges of access to public funds to registered associations only and to control the disposal of property by housing associations. It also gives selective powers to intervene in the management of associations.
My right hon. Friend intends by these measures to ensure that there exist housing associations of proven quality and expertise in whose capacity and reliability people can have confidence. I hope that local authorities, particularly those declaring housing action areas, will seize this opportunity, as many authorities have already successfully done, to develop close relations with particular associations. There are many places, as I have seen on my visits to local authorities, where housing conditions demand the help of every possible agency.
This wider rôle for housing associations will be led—I might almost say "inspired"—by the Housing Corporation, under its Chairman, Lord Goodman. I should like to pay tribute to the contribution which Lord Goodman has made in the comparatively short time he has been chairman of the corporation. He has, I know, met many local authorities to ascertain where the corporation and the voluntary housing movement can help. I emphasise "help": the corporation wishes to co-operate and supplement the efforts of local authorities. For example, it is co-ordinating with the Greater London Council and the London boroughs the provision of additional housing in London on surplus railway land to meet the needs of essential transport workers.
Part I of the Bill gives the Housing Corporation new and wider powers. It includes, for example, powers to build houses for sale as well as for rent and powers to acquire the securities of any corporate body. These powers are required if the corporation is to build or sell even one house or acquire just one share. Most of the powers given to the corporation are in the form given to nationalised industries.
What my right hon. Friend and the corporation have in mind is that these powers should be used primarily to promote the provision of rented housing by housing associations, in particular in the areas of stress.
I must say that I am beginning to have doubts about Clause 6, but I can assure my hon. Friend that this is a common form in a number of nationalised industry Acts. Indeed, I do not see why it should give rise to any concern, but, in view what has been said, I will give it my careful attention during the passage of the Bill in Committee.
What my right hon. Friend has in mind is to promote the provision of rented housing by housing associations, and it seems sensible that the corporation should also have the power to join in a consortium of housing associations to deal with large schemes or to raise private finance, as well as being able to set up its own subsidiaries. There are, of course, statutory limits on its borrowing powers, and it will be subject to normal controls over public expenditure.
Lord Goodman tells me that he has had a number of talks with the building industry to ascertain whether he can offer a stable load of work on behalf of the housing associations to help with the forward planning of the building industry. This has been widely welcomed by the builders to whom he has spoken. There may also from time to time be occasions when there is a mixed development of renting and owner-occupation when it would be right for the corporation to be able to dispose of some houses for sale. It will be, of course, crucial for the corporation to work in harmony not only with the local authorities but with the building industry.
I hope that in general the House will welcome these three parts of the Bill, which will stimulate and regulate the voluntary housing movement. Of course, it is unrealistic to look to the movement for instant solutions to all our housing problems. But I believe their contribution should be encouraged and built upon as part of a wider policy for encouraging more rented accommodation and better management of it, and for keeping some diversity in the housing market.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Greater London Council has written to virtually all housing associations in London indicating that it has run out of capital, and that many housing associations which have contemplated purchasing property will have to defer their activities until April? Will he undertake to engage in consultations to ensure that this situation does not stop the activities of the voluntary housing movement?
That is not a point which has been raised so far by the GLC, but, in view of what the hon. Member has said, I will make immediate enquiries into the point he has raised. I join him in welcoming provisions which will stimulate the voluntary housing movement.
Turning now to Part IV of the Bill, it contains perhaps the most novel and important provisions, which deal with the creation for the first time of housing action areas—areas of housing where the physical state of the housing will be poor and there will also be serious social problems such as overcrowding, multi-occupation and the other difficulties that we all know so well exist in the centre of some of our cities. They, clearly, will not be areas of slums. If there are many slums, slum clearance will be the appropriate course. Nor will they be general improvement areas, which should in future be areas of older improvable housing with a longish life in front of them and with no acute problems of housing stress.
Within these housing action areas, we believe, the local authority should have a wide range of new powers, and there should also be a preferential rate of improvement grants. The Bill deliberately does not spell out in detail the criteria which should govern the creation of housing action areas. It is deliberately flexible, as housing conditions vary in different parts of the country. Naturally, there will be consultations with the local authority associations on the guidance which will be given to them about this. The aim is clear: to secure that local authorities with the real problems —mainly, but not exclusively, the big cities and towns—can tackle their really bad areas.
The principal factors to be taken into account, in addition to the lack of basic amenities, will include the amount of tenanted accommodation; overcrowding and multiple occupation; large families; the number of elderly people, including elderly owner-occupiors; and the need to preserve existing communities. This last factor is particularly relevant to certain areas in Wales.
In a housing action area the local authority will be given powers for a limited number of years, while it is an action area, to give higher improvement grants. For example, 75 per cent. will be the normal rate, and it will be possible to give up to 90 per cent. in cases where owners cannot afford an improvement grant even at 75 per cent. At the same time, the local authority will have the power given to it in a much simplified form compulsorily to improve the property if the owner is unwilling to do so. Furthermore, in a housing action area any landlord who wishes to claim an improvement grant will have to certify if the local authority requires, that he will keep the property available for letting at a registered rent for a period of seven years.
My right hon. and learned Friend will have heard what the hon. Member said. I would not wish to comment in detail on what may happen in Wales, but in England that would be rare. I would not entirely rule it out, but it would be rare. What we want is smallish areas of older housing which can be improved progressively. But I will say something about that.
I really must emphasise to the House that there is no point in declaring a housing action area if one does not have the resources to tackle the area within a five-year period. Coming to the hon. Member's point, I well understand the views of those who wish to see large parts of the authority's area declared housing action areas as soon as possible. The key element will be the ability of authorities working together with registered housing associations to secure better living conditions in the short term. The only realistic way to get things done is for authorities with a number of potential housing action areas to make a start quickly and deal with problem areas progressively.
No one should imagine that a housing action area will be easy to deal with. It will demand a great deal of local authority involvement, dedication, resources and management. The normal duration of a housing action area will be five years, but the Secretary of State will have power under Clause 37 to extend it for a further two years, should this prove necessary.
The major criticism that I have read of the Bill has been that it is alleged that the powers to be given in housing action areas represent a watering down of the original proposals in the White Paper. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I must ask the House to read the Bill carefully on this point. The powers that were in the White Paper which have subsequently been dropped were these. The first was that when tenanted housing property became vacant in a housing action area the landlord should by statute have been obliged to offer first option to purchase to a registered housing association or failing that the local authority. Having thought about this extensively, I have come to the conclusion that it would require an enormous number of clauses and would still be easy to evade. There would be no watertight solution. For example, without actually selling a house, it would have been possible to sell a company which owned the house and simply transfer the equity.
Naturally, I hope that landlords will be encouraged to offer properties to housing associations in these areas when they become vacant. But, with regret, I think the power of compulsion would not have worked.
Second, we have decided not to proceed with the powers to nominate a tenant to vacant property in such areas. The local authorities felt that this was inappropriate, and the more I think about it the more I am sure that they were right. To foist a tenant on an unwilling landlord is a certain way of increasing social conflict rather than reducing it.
The third proposal was that local authorities should be under a statutory duty to rehouse all tenants displaced by improvement in housing action areas. Let me make my position quite clear about this. I strongly supported the inclusion of this proposal in the White Paper, and I believe it is essential that in housing action areas the local authority concerned should give the highest priority to rehousing people. It was only after the strongest assurances given by the local authority associations that I felt somewhat reluctantly able to accept their viewpoint on this issue. The local authority associations have assured us that they will give the highest priority to rehousing people in housing action areas; and they feared that a blanket rehousing obligation might encourage people to move into potential housing action areas in the hope of easily securing rehousing.
Accordingly, I have agreed that these assurances enable me to drop the statutory duty which the local authorities represented very strongly would be counterproductive. The House will see, however, that we have provided in Clause 91 an extra safeguard for tenants. In cases where the local authorities themselves exercise their compulsory powers they will be under a duty to agree with the tenant his future housing arrangements to make sure that his interests are properly protected and to obtain his written agreement to the course they propose. I hope the House will feel that on balance this is a wise way to proceed.
What I am determined to do and what the Bill sets out, however, is to secure by an alternative method the same protection for the residents of a housing action area as was originally envisaged but in a different way. Indeed, I believe that more important than the improvement of the housing stock in a housing action area is the interests of the people who live there. Therefore, for the first time in Clause 34(2)—[Interruption.] Both are important, but if we had to pick one or the other, that would be my priority.
The House will see that, for the first time, in Clause 34(2) local authorities will have new power to make a compulsory purchase order within housing action areas for a variety of reasons but in particular
to secure … the well-being of the persons for the time being residing in the area".
Such a power, naturally requiring confirmation by the Secretary of State, goes well beyond anything so far given to local authorities in this country—
I do not believe that. I believe that Clause 34(2) is a significant new power for local authorities. There are a number of things that they can do, and one of the most important, in my view, is the obligation to secure the well-being of residents in the area. That is a big new power. I hope it will not prove necessary to use it frequently but it gives tenants and residents in a housing action area a greater measure of protection than they have ever had in the past; and I can assure the House that orders made in these areas will have an extremely high priority in the Department so that there will be no unnecessary delay. During the interim period, once an order has been made, the courts will have the power to defer recovery of possession. This is set out in Clause 40.
The House will see that the Secretary of State reserves the right, but I hope will not have to use it, to require local authorities to dispose of properties acquired in a housing action area to a registered housing association. This is, of course, a reserve power since, in my view, the whole essence of a successful housing action area will be the co-operation of the local authority with a responsible housing association working in that area. Should this not prove possible in rare circumstances, I do not believe that the housing action area can work satisfactorily.
The new arrangements for house improvements grants are set out in detail in Parts V and VI. Apart from the important changes which I have already mentioned, the Bill contains two other major proposals on improvements. First, the local authority will have a discretionary power to attach a further grant condition to ensure that a letting is on a regulated tenancy or—if a furnished letting—at a registered rent. This can also be applied to any dwelling which was let at any time during the year prior to the application for grant.
The other major change we are proposing is the introduction of preferential rates of assistance in general improvement areas and housing action areas. The rate in housing action areas is to be 75 per cent., with grants of up to 90 per cent. in cases of hardship. In general improvement areas the rate of grant will be increased to 60 per cent. This means that the maximum discretionary grant in housing action areas could be as high as £1,800, while in general improvement areas it will increase to £1,200. Never before has such generous grant-aid to house improvement been given. Moreover, the Government share of the cost of grant in both types of special area will be increased from 75 per cent. to 90 per cent., thus relieving local authorities of all but a small fraction of the burden of grant expenditure.
I would also draw the attention of the House to the new proposals in housing action areas and general improvement areas for repairs grants. These are contained in Clauses 65 and 66. Outside these areas, the new intermediate grant which, subject to certain basic conditions, is available as of right throughout the country will also incorporate a new element of aid towards repairs.
The Bill also contains in Part VII a revised improvement grant scheme for Scotland. The changes being made in the Scottish provisions are designed to make the scheme more selective, and are broadly similar to those being made in England and Wales. Housing action areas are also being introduced for Scotland, but here there are considerable differences between the Scottish and English provisions.
The Scottish housing action area is founded on the existing housing treatment area procedure, and enables local authorities to deal with areas of substandard housing by improvement or demolition, or a mixture of the two. The housing action area marks an advance on the old housing treatment area in several respects. In particular, it extends beyond the very worst housing, because houses above tolerable standard can be included in a housing action area and improvement above that standard can be secured.
Second, the local authority will arrange to rehouse those temporarily or permanently displaced by work in the area. Third, there will be a specific incentive to improvement in the shape of 75 per cent. grants. Lastly, the local authority will be obliged to consult the people living in the area about its plans before any final decisions are taken. This greatly improved procedure should enable local authorities to make rapid progress in improving or clearing the areas of bad housing in Scotland.
Regarding the question of local authorities in Scotland being responsible for rehousing tenants who are displaced because of housing action area operations, will this apply where an owner has applied to the sheriff to obtain termination of the tenancy? Will it then be the responsibility of the local authority to rehouse the tenant or will the responsibility rest with the owner?
I shall ask my right hon. and learned Friend who will be replying to the debate to give the hon. Gentleman a definite and clear answer. It would be unwise of me to give an off-the-cuff answer to a question which I recognise as being important.
I shall now deal quickly with the final parts of the Bill. Part VIII of the Bill introduces new powers of compulsory improvement in housing action areas and general improvement areas. These powers have long been requested by local authorities and will enable them, where necessary, to take quicker and more effective action to secure that tenanted properties are provided with at least the basic amenities.
However, it is crucial that if this process is started by local authorities the tenants should be fully protected. I have already referred to the housing arrangements provision in Clause 91 which is designed to protect the interests of tenants affected by compulsory improvement schemes. Any tenant displaced as a result of compulsory improvement will be entitled to both home loss payments and disturbance payments by an amendment of the Land Compensation Act 1973.
Part IX of the Bill deals with the measures announced shortly before Christmas by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment when he said that he proposed to seek powers to take over compulsorily and to manage office premises which remain substantially unoccupied for a considerable time.
Part X deals, among other minor matters, with four topics which are important and which I ought to draw to the attention of the House. First, Clause 122, coupled with Clause 31, deals with the Government's proposals to provide new hostel grants. I shall not go into details now, but for the first time there will be adequate financial support from the Government for the provision and management of hostels whether by local authorities or by housing associations.
We are all aware of the importance this might have in alleviating homeless-ness among single people. This will be one modest way of helping to tackle that problem. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services and I hope in the next few days to be able to send out a circular to local authorities dealing with other ways which may help alleviate this difficult problem of homelessness.
One of the complaints that have been made to me on many occasions is that many tenants, particularly in London, do not even know who their landlord is. This is wholly indefensible. Clause 125 puts a duty on those who collect the rent to make available the landlord's name on request, and it will be a criminal offence to fail to do so. I am sure that this will be warmly welcomed by tenants of private property, particularly those living in large blocks of flats.
Another crucial point put to me by many people, including, in particular, the Conference of Private Residents' Associations—to whose good work I pay tribute —and by many of my hon. Friends representing inner London constituencies is the lack of a provision to challenge the unreasonableness and standard of service charges levied upon tenants. Therefore, in Clause 126 we give for the first time a statutory right to tenants to query both the amount of the service charge and whether the work has been carried out satisfactorily.
This new right will be limited to long leaseholders since tenants already protected under the Rent Acts are covered by other provisions.
Finally, I draw the attention of the House to Clause 127. As the House knows, it was announced last week that the Government did not propose in the present circumstances to proceed with the proposals for a compulsory infrastructure charge. Nevertheless, local authorities are already able to make voluntary agreements with the developer for him to provide the necessary facilities to enable him to do work or contribute towards the costs. I have in mind, for example, the provision of roads, public open space, land for schools and so on. I hope that local authorities will take advantage of this. The clause seeks to make the agreements more successful by binding successors in title and by giving local authorities powers to take action themselves where the developer fails to honour the agreement.
The guts of the Bill are, as the Minister emphasised, in the provisions for housing action areas. Why, if it is intended to help those in housing need rather than developers, is it proposed that certificates of occupation and the conditions attached to grants should allow Part 6 lettings—furnished lettings at virtually uncontrollable rents—which will not meet the needs of any people in housing stress areas? If the Bill is to achieve any housing purpose will the Minister look at this matter, so as to ensure that the Bill is of some use?
There will be a discretionary power under which the local authority can require someone letting furnished lettings who applies for an improvement grant to certify that he will keep the premises available for letting at a registered rent for the next seven years. It is a substantial step forward. If that person fails to comply he will be liable to repay the improvement grant in full. I shall study the hon. Gentleman's point, and if I have misunderstood him I shall get in touch with him. However, the proposal represents a considerable advance on the present position.
The Bill is a major attempt to switch resources into areas of housing need. It will help the voluntary housing movement to play a progressively larger part in housing. It will give local authorities and housing associations the chance to tackle the most acute and worst housing problems in the country. It will provide a major opportunity for a big attack on the problems which we all know still exist in our cities. Now is the right moment to deal with the problems and to take action in housing action areas to improve existing standards.
All of the country's housing problems cannot be solved in one Bill, but the Bill represents a major step forward. I hope the House will give it a Second Reading and allow it to proceed to Royal Assent within a reasonable time so that we can improve the conditions of persons living in these areas of the country.
I beg to move, to leave out from "That" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof:
this House declines to give a Second Reading to a Bill which fails to deal adequately with the fundamental causes of the steadily worsening housing situation.
Contrary to what the Minister said, we do not propose to vote against the Bill. We propose to vote solely on our amendment, on the grounds set out in the amendment.
The Bill is being debated against a sombre background of a tragically worsening housing situation. Prices for new houses have gone up by another 12 per cent., there is an unprecedented mortgage rate of 11 per cent., as well as a mortgage famine, and both private and council house rents continue to rise. Above all, while demolition continues at a rapid pace, the housebuilding programme is in a state of virtual collapse.
Completions last year were the lowest for 14 years, since 1959. The figure for completions was 16 per cent. below that of 1970, which was the year on which the previous Secretary of State used to deride us for our poor performance, and the completion rate is still falling. Most ominous of all, starts in both council and private sectors are falling. Starts in both sectors were lower in the third quarter than in the second quarter and lower again in the fourth quarter than in the third quarter. They were even lower than a year ago. The housing waiting list is growing longer and longer, not only in London but all over the country, and homelessness has spread from stress areas to other parts of the country.
We think back to the rosy optimism and the blithe words of the previous Secretary of State in our debates two years ago, and we must conclude that he and other Ministers either were fools in a fool's paradise or were grossly deceiving themselves, the House and the country.
However, this is not the occasion upon which to discuss the whole national housing situation, and so I shall turn to the Bill. One thing at least which can be said about the Bill is that it does not make matters worse. When one thinks of the other Government measures relating to housing, this is a blessing not to be counted lightly.
There are a number of things in the Bill which we warmly welcome. Our main reaction to it, however, is that it is a missed opportunity. There is a feeling of let-down and genuine disappointment. The Bill is much less radical than the June White Paper—and that did not go nearly far enough.
It is interesting that this is also the reaction of virtually the whole of the serious Press. The Guardian talks about how the Government "has retreated."
The Financial Times describes it as:
a watered-down housing Bill… The Government has missed its opportunity.The Times calls it:
an enfeebled version" of the White Paper.
This sense of retreat, disappointment and missed opportunity applies with the greatest force to what the Minister rightly described as the central feature of the Bill, the proposal for housing action areas. I want to analyse this proposal in a little detail. Potentially, it is an exciting conception. Certainly I greatly welcome the recognition that we need to concentrate our efforts and minds on the worst stress areas of our inner cities and towns, that rehabilitation is preferable to widespread demolition and wholesale clearance, that the private landlord—this is a real concession—can no longer play a major rôle in solving our housing problem, and that we need a combination of incentives and improvement grants on the one hand, and, on the other hand, stronger powers of compulsion if we are to solve the problem in the worst stress areas.
I especially welcome the stronger emphasis on compulsion, and here I am a little more optimistic than one of my hon. Friends because I detect an important shift of emphasis in Government thinking. This is important, although there must be a firm Government commitment actually to use the additional powers with which they have armed themselves. So far so good. All of that we welcome. But we have some extremely serious criticisms not only of the original concept of housing action areas but, still more, of the attenuated version presented to us in the Bill.
The principle of concentrating resources on the worst area is an excellent one which we wholly accept. But, at least if we are to judge from the White Paper—and the Minister cast some confusion over this this afternoon— typically the housing action area will be small, covering 400 to 500 houses, and there will be a very limited number of such areas in each local authority area. If this is to be the concept, it is totally inadequate.
Generally, this goes against another equally important principle, the principle of a total approach to our housing problems. We have too much fragmentation in our approach to the stress areas, both geographically and in terms of separate services. So we have action areas which will be tiny islands—this is not the nature of the housing problem— and which add yet another priority on top of the educational priority areas and the other measures of urban aid already in existence. If we are to solve this problem we must have a much more co-ordinated approach.
I come to more specific points. If we consider the inner London problem, the fact is that it is not concentrated in a series of tiny, isolated areas. It is much more spread. It is scattered over a wider area. We find that typically the black shades into grey which shades into black again. I take the example of Islington not out of any particular sense of devotion but because we have recently had the impressive report from Mr. Chris Holmes, the new Deputy-Director of Shelter.
In this study of Islington he pointed out that to solve its housing problems would require 30 housing action areas in Islington alone. This would imply the need for 400 to 500 in London as a whole. It is for this reason that Labour Members, and I imagine one or two Conservative Members, agree so strongly with paragraph 84 of the report of the Expenditure Committee. I join in the tribute paid by the Minister to the authors of this report. In paragraph 84 they say:
We think that the H.A.A.s, as at present proposed, will do little or nothing to the 'chequerboard' problem of bad housing scattered throughout relatively large urban areas, as occurs in some Inner London suburbs.
I will not read the rest of the paragraph, although I strongly agree with it.
The danger of the present policy is that it will create a patchwork city with the problem being shifted from one area to another without ever being finally solved. There may be a dramatic improvement in a tiny number of places, but the bulk of London's housing stress areas will be left either to continue to decay or to the sort of "gentrification" which is growing in the area where I and my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington, North (Mr. Douglas-Mann) live. Incidentally, if Islington is to have only two or three or four action areas it is hard to see where in the Bill there is an element of positive discrimination.
I come now to the position outside London. It tends to be very different from the inner London problem. I take my constituency of Grimsby, which is typical of a large number of towns in the North in this respect. In Grimsby we have cleared at any rate the worst of our slums. Our problem now consists of streets of older terraced houses which could be improved and which, in my view, should be improved and in which the present residents are determined to continue to live. But, to improve effectively, the local authority needs both the powers and the financial incentives which are conferred in the Bill on housing action areas.
As I understand the Bill, I very much doubt whether we in Grimsby shall get housing action areas on the necessary scale. I conclude that housing action areas should often be larger than is currently proposed, and, without any doubt, should be much more numerous.
I turn now to the question of powers and ask whether these housing action area powers are sufficient to do the job. We need powers in these areas for two reasons. First, we need them to stop the continued loss of cheap rented accommodation and, secondly, we need them effectively to improve the condition of the housing stock.
As for the first, the loss of cheap rented accommodation, the background to that is that we are still in the middle of a disruptive rundown of the whole private rented sector. The supply of private rented accommodation is falling by about 10 per cent. a year. Within that declining total the amount of furnished accommodation is increasing relative to unfurnished accommodation. "Gentrification" is going on apace in large parts of London, and so we face a continuing and disastrous loss of low-income rented accommodation.
The question is: will the housing action areas stop this process and save such accommodation? I fear they will not. I greatly regret the abandonment of the White Paper's proposal for a housing association or local authority to have first option to buy rented property in such areas when that property comes on the market. I was not convinced by the Minister's explanation of the abandonment of this proposal this afternoon. This is a matter which has been gone into by counsel hired by independent bodies, and they do not agree with the Minister that this was legally impossible. The loss of this first option provision is an important abandonment of a necessary power. In Committee we shall seek as hard as we can to restore it.
In addition, housing action areas seem likely to be so few and so small that much of the damaging decline in the private rented sector—I do not mean that I regret the passing of private renting; I welcome it, but I regret the decline in the amount of low-income rented accommodation that goes with it—is occurring outside any possible housing action area and thus will not be touched by the Bill.
There is then the important question of improvement grant safeguards. As far as it goes here the Bill is good, but it does not go far enough. What is happening is that for the moment the steam has gone out of the market for evicting, improving and selling. The popular thing now is to evict, improve and rent furnished at £30 a week. The conditions on improvement grants need to be stricter still to take account of this change in many stress areas.
The danger of this continued loss of low-income rented accommodation is the greater because the Government have once again, scandalously in my view, refused to grant security of tenure to the furnished tenant. Without this security, housing action areas will be full of dangers for existing furnished tenants.
For example, the local authority serves a compulsory improvement notice. The landlord responds by trying to get his tenants out so that he can sell with vacant possession. True, the local authority could then put on a compulsory purchase order, and the Bill provides for the county court to give 12 months' security to tenants in those circumstances. But in this shadowy world of furnished lettings, how many tenants will be prepared to take their case to the county court? I suspect that they will just move on to furnished rooms elsewhere, if they can get them, and once more we shall have failed to provide improved housing for the people in greatest need.
In previous debates we have heard again and again the familiar argument that to give security to furnished tenants would dry up the supply of privately rented furnished accommodation. The Opposition believe that they have answered that argument on an equally frequent number of occasions, and it has been answered particularly effectively and most recently by Mr. Holmes in his paper "Priorities for Housing Action".
The other power that we want for housing action areas is the power needed to secure the necessary improvement of the housing stock. I very much welcome the new wider CPO powers in these areas —let us say, the wider articulation of these powers compared with previous legislation—which allow CPOs to be granted to improve the management of property, or to protect the present residents, as well as for housing gain. Certainly, the Government have come a long way since the day when the previous Minister for Housing and Construction could say with a solemn face to the House:
most landlords are doing a very good job ". —[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd November 1972; Vol. 845, c. 472.]
But the Government still have not answered the crucial question, which is how quickly and how readily will the Secretary of State approve these CPOs? Our fear is that the answer will be "slowly and grudgingly", that he will not grant them on the wide scale necessary if local authorities are to get the positive control which they will need for a crash improvement programme.
As to compulsory improvement, of course we have had compulsory improvement in previous legislation—Section 19 of the 1964 Act, for example. But it has always been a failure. Landlords have not been co-operative because improvement is not profitable enough for them, and the job of compelling them to improve under statutory procedures takes up too much of limited local authority manpower —public health inspectors, solicitors, and so on. By far the best way of proceeding would be to allow the local authority to serve CPOs in housing action areas immediately and on a massive scale.
That would have a number of vital advantages. It would give immediate protection from harassment for the tenant. It would mean much easier management of the improvement process—for example, the local authority could move tenants temporarily into vacant property which it takes over in those areas and move them back when the work on their old property is complete. It would enable local authorities to fit tenants more easily into the available space. The family overcrowding a small flat could be moved into a house which was perhaps previously occupied by one old lady who was no longer able to cope with it. The old lady could be given a smaller flat better suited to her personal needs. It would allow the local authority to control the standard of improvement in the light of the total resources it had available. It would put directly on to the local authority the responsibility for rehousing any tenant who was displaced as the result of the improvement. That responsibility has disappeared since the White Paper, but it could be reimposed if we adopted the policy I am suggesting.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would also give the local authority the opportunity of controlling not only the standard but, where necessary, the carrying out of the work? One of the great difficulties with improvements is that it is hard to get builders, and when one does one gets shoddy "lump" labour. Many people are left for months without any work being done with their houses an absolute shambles.
I agree strongly with my hon. Friend. This all adds up to a case for two essential aspects of Labour Party policy: one is municipalisation and the other is the expansion of direct labour departments. Those two aspects are part of the sum total approach to the problem which we are discussing. I should like to hope that the Government would approve CPOs on a scale that would realise the objectives I have described, but I have my doubts.
There is one other thing about all this, and that is what is to happen when it is a question not of the Government refusing to approve CPOs but of a Tory authority refusing to suggest them in the first place. What are are we to do in Kensington and Chelsea or Westminster? There must be strong and sufficient default powers which have the effect not of making it merely permissible for councils to act in this way but of imposing a duty on them to do so.
I turn from powers to the question of whether there will be enough resources available to do the job we have in mind. The first resource needed for area improvement is a decent supply of local authority housing for rent, otherwise the problems of rehousing tenants who are displaced as a result of the improvement programme will be insurmountable. But, of course, after three-and-a-half years of Conservative Government a decent supply of local authority housing is precisely what we do not have.
In the last year of the Labour Government—which was one of our less successful house-building years—187,000 council houses were completed. Last year the figure had plummeted to 108,000—more than 40 per cent. down. In the large conurbations where the problems are greatest local authority completions fell by 20 per cent. in 1973 alone.
If the Government intended to make resources available so that improvement could get off the ground and the objects of the Bill could be realised, they would be projecting a major increase in their housing expenditure. But, according to the Public Expenditure White Paper, Cmnd. 5519, table 2·7, local authority investment in land and new housing is projected to fall from £907 million in 1972–73 to £774 million in 1977–78. That is the reality behind the Government's claim that housing is exempted from the public expenditure cuts.
Next, we need construction industry resources, and this links with the comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer). Improvement is labour intensive and skills intensive, but the Government have done nothing effective about the disastrous labour situation created in the construction industry by the "lump", and have done nothing to restrict less essential building so that more resources are available for the housing drive— indeed, the reverse.
In London the Government have stoked up the property boom to the point where contractors' orders for offices increased from just over £27 million in the last full year of the Labour Government to a staggering £126 million in 1972. No wonder there are no builders left for housing. Unfortunately, there is not much hope in the Secretary of State's recent announcement about office development permits because there are so many ODPs in the pipeline already J granted that the reversal of the policy will not reduce the demands of the commercial sector on building labour for several years to come.
Then, we need financial resources. The financial memorandum to the Bill quotes increased expenditure of £106 million by 1977–78. But, if we study the figures more carefully, we see that the Government do not intend to increase spending on improvement—indeed, the reverse. Housing improvement is one of the main sectors in which the Government intend to save money. According to the Public Expenditure White Paper, total improvement expenditure is not due to rise. It will actually fall from £422 million in 1974–75 to only £273 million in 1977–78 —in other words, it is down by 35 per cent., more than one-third. That is the reality, not the £106 million mentioned in the financial memorandum to the Bill.
We on this side of the House accept that we should have a redistribution in favour of the areas of greatest need—yes —but it must be a redistribution in the context of a generally rising rather than a generally declining programme. In this context I want to put in another plea to the Government to look again at the effects of the ending of the 75 per cent. grant in the regions. I recognise the Government's argument that the higher grant proved a somewhat indiscriminate weapon which has put some strain on the construction industry in certain places. But that was their misjudgment. Now they plan to make residents in those areas who responded to the higher grants pay the penalty for that misjudgment. The residents are those who applied for the improvement grants at the 75 per cent. rate, who got the work started, but who now find that their overworked builder cannot complete the work before the June deadline.
The Expenditure Committee recommended in such cases that a local authority should retain the discretion to pay the 75 per cent. grant. The Government have rejected this out of hand. With respect, their excuse is highly unconvincing. They claim that they rejected it so that greater resources could be concentrated in the housing action areas. But the Expenditure Committee's recommendations referred only to cases in which work had already been started. That work will be completed, grant or no grant. The only saving that will be made is a small amount of public expenditure, and it will be at a shocking cost to those who made their plans on the basis of a 75 per cent. grant.
I make it clear that we shall try hard to amend this part of the Bill in Committee. I hope that some of the Government back benchers will have enough sense of justice to force the Minister to reverse this extremely harsh decision.
However, the Government have finally seen the light on improvement grant conditions. These are now to be reimposed for three years on improvement grants in general and for seven years in the housing action areas.
Looking back, what a battle we have had over the years to convince the Government about it! By 1972 there was overwhelming evidence of the abuse of grants by speculators, especially in inner London. Many of my hon. Friends were producing constant and overwhelming evidence but we could never persuade the Government that such an abuse was occurring.
In April 1972 the previous Minister for Housing and Construction, who lived in a world utterly remote from the country's housing problems—[HON. MEMBER: "He still does."]—no doubt, still—said of capital gains made with the help of improvement grants:
I have heard reports of enormous capital gains made in this way out of one or two dwellings, but I have looked into these reports and, believe me, they relate to exceptional cases.
On 2nd November 1972 the then Secretary of State, who was also living in a dream world of his own, dismissed the reimposition of grant conditions as "administratively hopeless", and as late as March this year the present Secretary of State said that we were "irresponsible" to suggest that there had been a great misuse of grants.
Would the right hon. Gentleman not admit that it was an error on the part of his administration not to continue to require improvement grants to be repaid if a property changed hands in a 20-year period? He will recall that earlier legislation required improvement grants to be repaid if property changed hands in a 20-year period and that a proportionate repayment of the grant should be made.
It is absolutely clear, looking back and being wise after the event, that the 1969 Act did not impose sufficient conditions. But as soon as the evidence of abuse appeared we began to argue for an imposition of those conditions while the Government went on blindly year after year denying that any such abuse was occurring. At the end the facts got through to the Minister and we got the predictable U-turn which we welcome in the Bill today.
I turn briefly to Part I—
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would, in fairness, agree that within three weeks of my taking office I had already suggested in this House that local authorities should not give improvement grants in those circumstances.
No, it was made too hard for the local authorities to do this. The Minister knows that the conditions could be effectively reimposed only by Government legislation. This was known to every local authority in the country.
I turn briefly to the Housing Corporation and the housing associations. I welcome the provisions in Parts I, II and III of the Bill. I am only too well aware that in my party there has traditionally been a certain suspicion of the voluntary housing movement. Some housing associations in the past and at present have appeared to be more money motivated than public spirited, more interested in earning fees than in housing the homeless. Many smaller housing associations have been an incompetent nuisance. Tory Ministers and the Tory GLC have often given the impression that this movement was to be a substitute for municipal responsibility.
I support the movement, not as a substitute, but as a complement. It should not, never will and cannot possibly take over the main responsibilities for rented housing. It is important not to give the movement a rôle beyond that which it can carry. But it does provide a wholly desirable element of choice and variety of tenure.
Three things have been needed, and all are provided in the Bill. Firstly, it provides stronger central direction. I welcome the new range of powers for the Housing Corporation in Part I, and I particularly welcome, for the reasons which made the hon. Member opposite nervous, Clause 6, an admirable clause which will have our strong support in Committee. It could be the basis for a large-scale competitive public enterprise in the construction industry.
Secondly, we need the enforcement of higher standards, and I therefore welcome all the registration powers in Part II. I welcome, too, the subsidy provisions in Part III, which, incidentally, will often have the effect of relieving the rates. They replace the subsidy provisions in the Housing Finance Act, which my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. John Fraser) spent hours proving, correctly, would collapse within a short space of time.
I do not like Clause 41, which appears to be ideological and objectionable, but I will not go into it for reasons of time. I just add this point. The housing association movement should be, and be seen to be, more democratic than it is at the moment. There should always be local authority representation on the committee of an association, and there should always be a strong element of tenant participation in management.
Lastly, I turn by way of light relief to Part IX. Hopefully, this marks the final chapter in the "will-they-won't-they?" saga of the Government v. Mr. Harry Hyams. The House will recall how it began. Amid mounting public anger at the sight of the empty Centre Point, the former Secretary of State donned his crusader's armour and came to the House on 26th June 1972 to proclaim:
Some major developments have remained empty for many years. … I believe that the time has come to bring an end to this highly undesirable practice. Therefore, I have decided that, unless those responsible take action to ensure that the practice ceases within the next few months, I will be ready to introduce legislation to guarantee that these existing blocks
are suitably occupied".— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th June 1972; Vol. 839, c. 1094.]
Those were his heroic days before he went into total oblivion and eclipse.
Mr. Hyams paid about as much attention to the former Secretary of State's bluster as the rest of us have now learnt to pay to his pronouncements about the energy crisis. A few jolly, well-publicised letters were exchanged, on the lines of "Dear Peter" and "Dear Harry". The next few months went by and a few more months still, and then the rumours began to leak out—that the Government could not find a way to do it, it was too complicated, the parliamentary draftsmen could not cope. We had all the classic excuses of a Conservative Government contemplating the dreadful prospect of interference with private property rights. Eventually last November the present Secretary of State came clean and, in a burst of candour, wrote to Camden Council telling it that he did not intend to take any legislative action to get the empty offices occupied and we all settled down.
I think that this was generally thought to be the purport of the letter. I am praising the Secretary of State—first, on his candour and, second, on his change of mind.
Finally, the Secretary of State's own supporters began to revolt against his indolence and joined the Labour Opposition in attempting to use the new Local Government Bill to enforce a change. The Secretary of State suddenly woke up and rushed to the House on 21st December to deliver Mr. Hyams' Christmas present. After 18 wasted months, he acted so fast that he did not even have time to give the Opposition the usual notice of his statement. Well, better late than never.
I am not satisfied that this Bill goes about the matter in the right way. The procedure is too liable to legal obstruction, and I do not really see why Mr. Hyams, having forced the Government to let Centre Point for him, should still under Clause 118(1) receive the net rent from the letting. But at least the Bill does something, and we must be grateful for that.
There are other points in the Bill which need close examination. For example. Clause 121 appears to imply a cost yardstick for local authority repairs and has some disturbing implications. But even more serious is yet another retreat from the White Paper. I did not hear the Minister refer to the matter this afternoon, but the Government have dropped —presumably under pressure from developers—the proposal to give local authorities power to charge developers for roads, sewerage and infrastructure work put into new housing sites. The White Paper's proposal was widely welcomed in the planning world, but we have had no explanation this afternoon why it was dropped. If it has been dropped at the instance of private developers, this is a serious matter and we shall demand an explanation.
We shall not vote against the Bill because it contains a numbers of proposals which we support. We shall attempt to improve the Bill in Committee, although we shall certainly not obstruct the Committee's work—that is, if the Prime Minister allows us to have a Committee stage at all. But I repeat that if we have a Committee stage we shall seek to make improvements. Meanwhile, we shall vote for our amendment to demonstrate our sense that a great opportunity has been tragically lost.
I am grateful to be permitted to intervene briefly in this debate, and I do so with none of the expertise possessed by many hon. Members who will be taking part. The only expertise I have in this subject arises from what I have learnt from the situation in my constituency in the past three-and-a-half years.
I am glad that so far this debate has taken place without any of the usual implications by Labour Members in housing debates—the implications may well come later in the debate—that it is the Opposition who have a monopoly of all the interests of council tenants, whereas Conservative Members have no interest in the public sector of housing or in helping people with acute housing needs in general. I have always found that to be a rather curious point of view, and I wonder what kind of constituents those Labour Members represent. I represent only one kind of constituents —human beings, who want to have a roof over their heads that does not leak, or walls which do not let in the water, floors which are not infested with rodents, and adequate accommodation for their families, whether they be council tenants, private tenants or home owners.
I do not need to remind the House of the fact that housing problems are the most fundamental of our social problems or of the needs that arise from the lack of adequate housing and certain housing conditions which create the worst social problems that we encounter. Bad housing conditions cause poor health and loss of peace of mind, and in many cases they can break the entire fabric of the family unit.
One of the most welcome aspects of the Bill is that it will give maximum encouragement to local authorities to be flexible in their approach to housing needs in their areas. I automatically exclude from the rest of my remarks the conditions in large cities and in metropolitan areas since my remarks do not necessarily apply to them and their problems are more severe. Equally, the Bill will encourage local authorities to use their initiative. It will give them the means—although it cannot give them the will—to do so. This is an important factor to bear in mind.
Among the most welcome provisions in the Bill is the encouragement given to the voluntary housing movement. If I had in my constituency three times as much voluntary housing movement accommodation, this provision still would not be sufficient and would not meet the wishes of the people. I have people coming to my surgery with housing problems who realise that they will have to go on to a long local authority housing waiting list. They cannot afford to buy their own houses, and I should like Labour Members to see their faces light up when one tells them of the possibility of accommodation within the voluntary housing movement, and particularly in the co-ownership scheme which exists in my constituency. This scheme is extremely popular and is subject to none of the misuses to which reference has been made and which may exist elsewhere.
Another important bearing of the Bill lies in the housing action areas. This will help to prevent decay of accommodation which can be preserved and improved. This is particularly important in small city centres, since it keeps a city centre alive if residential accommodation is allowed to remain there. It prevents a city centre becoming a soulless, concrete jungle of office blocks; it prevents properties decaying altogether into slums.
One problem which has worried me in the past year or so is the fact that when magistrates make an order for repairs to be carried out they are often reluctant to enforce it. This often happens because the rents are so low in non-regulated tenancies that the magistrates know that landlords cannot possibly afford to carry out repairs. I regret that magistrates have not brought it to the attention of the landlords that they can apply for grants to carry out improvements as well as repairs and that they can raise their rents without inevitably impingeing on the tenants since the tenants can for the first time apply for a rent rebate. If magistrates were to bring these matters to the attention of landlords, I feel that magistrates would be less inhibited about enforcing repairs which should take place.
The Bill, most important of all, recognises the kind of problems encountered by local authorities and takes account of the fact that the problems vary in different parts of the country. It recognises that all such problems are not uniform. Many of the problems are medium term. Many of the measures in the Bill will help where there are housing shortages, particularly in the medium term. I know that many Labour-controlled housing authorities regard the only solution to housing problems as lying in the direction of the creation of vast council estates. I, like the right hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland), regard such estates as socially and environmentally undesirable and believe that the smaller mixed type of development is much more desirable.
I should like to pick up the right hon. Gentleman on a few points in his speech. He mentioned the question of options to purchase and compulsory purchase powers in the housing action areas. Local authorities do not need a compulsory purchase order to purchase properties which they consider will provide a useful addition to their housing sector. They can take action by buying the houses in the open market. Often older properties can be purchased at reasonable cost and can be turned into useful units of accommodation. It is often a great deal cheaper to buy this sort of accommodation in that way and to convert it into useful accommodation than to build new units of accommodation or vast council estates. This is the kind of flexible approach which I should like to see many local authorities adopt.
There are a number of other steps which local authorities with medium-term housing problems can take, and which indeed the Bill encourages them to take.
I should like to draw attention to the housing problem which has grown up in my constituency over the past 20 months and how it could have been dealt with in a more flexible manner than it was. This problem grew more acute for a number of reasons and a combination of circumstances.
First and foremost, the price of housing accommodation to buy had gone up and mortgages were difficult to obtain and costly to repay. I admit that this was a major contributing factor to the problem. It was also created because private landlords were becoming extinct in the area for a number of reasons. For example, those with furnished accommodation to let, which is still valuable to tenants who need that kind of accommodation, were selling their houses and evicting tenants so that they could take advantage of a rising market.
I take issue with the right hon. Member for Grimsby because whenever an eviction takes place in my area it has to go to the county court before the person who is evicted can be considered for the housing list. Whether that is right or wrong, that is the situation. Therefore, there is no fear that if this happened in future such cases would evade the county court.
My local authority was caught in a situation of an acute housing crisis being suddenly thrust upon it, of worsening housing conditions and people having to stay longer under those conditions than they had expected, with a large comprehensive development already planned, approved and about to start, and with several developments for elderly people being completed in the city centre. Yet, even without the welcome provisions of the Bill, the local authority could have dealt with this medium-term problem far more flexibly than it did.
The local authority could have purchased many older properties which came on to the market and improved them with the aid of a grant to provide good units of accommodation which were not provided. It could have purchased derelict single plots and, with the aid of the Exchequer grant, built small blocks of flats which would have been ready for occupation today. It could have given encouragement to the voluntary housing movement, which it did not do, and thereby helped to solve part of the long-term problem.
Worst of all, in that situation, with council accommodation remaining empty because the repairs were not carried out, the local authority did not contract out the work. Had it done so, the repairs and decorations to empty council properties could have been carried out far more quickly.
These are just a number of the measures that could have been taken, many of which are further encouraged by the provisions in the Bill. Had those measures been taken at that time, 150 families living in deplorable conditions today could have been rehoused by now.
The Bill deals with a number of these matters, with the flexible approach by local authorities to housing needs, and with consideration as to whether they are medium or long term in making decisions. As I have said, this is very much a medium-term problem in many parts of the country, especially in areas where long-term developments are nearing completion and where it is to be hoped that house prices will ease and mortgages will become easier to obtain.
I particularly welcome that the many parts of the Bill dealing with housing action centres are fairly loosely drafted. This will make them more adaptable in many areas. I feel that this is an advantage rather than a disadvantage.
Most of all the Bill will help to relieve some of the intolerable conditions in which many tenants are living in private accommodation who, because they have no hope of having their conditions improved, automatically turn to the housing list as their only alternative. I hope that the Bill will provide that alternative for them. I am worried about the lack of provision for these people while repairs or improvements are being carried out. I recognise the practical difficulties described by my hon. Friend. They are real difficulties. However, we are left with an omission from the Bill that we may yet come to regret.
In general, I welcome the provisions of the Bill. I congratulate the Government on its introduction. When the benefits of the Bill are known throughout the country I think that they will be welcomed by all tenants, would-be tenants, local authorities, and housing associations, and that the Government will reap the gratitude of such people.
When I listened to the Minister's opening remarks, in which he stressed how widely the problems of housing vary according to the locality, I was encouraged to hope that perhaps the Bill would provide a means by which we could preserve the character and variety of accommodation in my constituency. But, as he went on, the impression that the White Paper gave was reinforced— namely, that the Bill has been drawn up overwhelmingly with the problems in mind of the South, of London and of the inner areas of our conurbations with their problems of private tenanted accommodation, overcrowding, furnished tenancies, multi-occupancy, and the rest. The Minister's speech reinforced the impression given in the White Paper, because his illustration of the way in which the housing action areas would work came back time and again to these criteria.
Certainly in the North, and in my part of the North-West in particular, there is a different type of problem which we are concerned will not be dealt with by the provisions in the Bill. Our problem comes from different traditions. In Blackburn there is a tradition of working-class individuality, independence, and the struggle to acquire one's own home.
I want to intervene only briefly this afternoon, because many of my hon. Friends are anxious to speak, in an attempt to adjust the balance in what might otherwise be a different line of argument.
No. I must be brief. That means that I must not give way unless challenged on fact. I am sure that my hon. Friend is in agreement with me, but I do not want to protract my speech.
Blackburn has a situation whis is probably not rivalled anywhere else. About 63 per cent. of our homes are owner-occupied and about half of those—
I am told that the situation in Rhondda and Merthyr is similar. There may be other areas, too. However, such a situation leads to a particular type of problem which we want the Bill to meet. Although the problem may be the same in Merthyr and Rhondda—
And Burnley, too, as my hon. Friend said. I shall get on eventually. This is becoming like a geographical obstacle race. I am sorry to find that I am not so unique as I thought. I repeat, of these owner-occupied homes 50 per cent. are owned by members of working-class families. The pride of ownership is expressed in the fact that large numbers of quite humble people have taken out improvement grants to improve their homes. They have been able to do that only because Blackburn is an intermediate area and the grant has been running at 75 per cent.
The Government must know that this Bill has thrown intermediate and development areas into great uncertainty. The 75 per cent. grant, which is supposed to embody the whole heart of the Government's policy, is to go relentlessly, remorselessly, in June this year with no guarantee about what will be put in its place.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland) said—and I warmly endorse his comments about the reduction in the improvement grant— even families which put in applications for a grant 18 months ago may yet find their financial help chopped off in June because the work has not been completed by then. I have a case before me, set out in a letter which arrived only this morning. In it a woman pleads with me to appeal to the Government to help people like her. She put in an application in December 1972. For various reasons,
and not entirely through the fault of the local authority, the grant was approved only last October. She says:
Now the builder says he is having difficulty in obtaining materials and experiencing long delays between ordering and delivery. All this, plus VAT, means that our share of the cost will be at least twice as much as we originally bargained for if the work can be completed in time to qualify for the 75 per cent. grant. If we are really unlucky and the grant has to drop to 50 per cent., we shall have to find about 3 times as much as we originally expected.
It is not just that local authorities have delayed. The grant staff in my constituency has been increased. It is that the contractors are simply failing to keep pace. In Blackburn they are completing an average of only about 110 improvements a month and they simply cannot catch up with the applications by June.
I therefore beg the Government to extend the 75 per cent. grant until work on existing approved applications has been completed. That is minimum justice. If the Government were really serious in talking about helping people to improve their own homes, they would go further than that and extend the 75 per cent. grant until the local authority has had time to define and get approval for its housing action areas. Unless that happens the Bill will actually make the position of owner-occupiers in my constituency much worse.
Thousands of humble people, who, after a life on a low wage, have retired in their own homes to live on a pension, will not now get, in spite of the Government's great charter of help to them, a 75 per cent. grant unless their houses are included in a housing action area. My local authority is deeply alarmed at the Bill's failures to meet the sort of problems that the housing action areas are designed to deal with, particularly in view of the criteria initially outlined in paragraph 20 of the White Paper. These criteria lay enormous emphasis, as did the Minister today, on problems which are not our problems—problems of multi-occupancy, private rented accommodation, large families and overcrowding. Our problems are those of ordinary-size working-class families who want to live in their own homes and who want Government help on an adequate scale to enable them to bring their homes up to a standard at which they can take pleasure in occupying them.
Clause 34(3) is a blank cheque for the Government. They say that a local authority in identifying housing action areas
shall act in accordance with such guidance as may from time to time be given by the Secretary of State".
The Minister's speech today gave no hint that in all his peregrinations round the country in preparing the Bill he ever visited North-East Lancashire. We certainly did not have the benefit of his presence in Blackburn. It would be a great pleasure to show him around, or if he prefers we would be happy to come and see him.
Perhaps I may describe to the Secretary of State the sort of difficulties which housing action areas must meet if the problems of some of the northern and Welsh areas are to be solved. We must provide for the pockets of better quality older houses, or better-maintained older houses, which are in the heart of or near to clearance areas. Perhaps this will involve merely a terrace or two. They may not be a conservationist's delight but they are solid enough homes and they are the delight of those who live in them. Then there are small areas of mixed quality housing. In intensive surveys of the problem in our area we have discovered streets of generally well-maintained or fairly solid houses which are interspersed with houses that are falling into decay because they represent the life savings of old-age pensioners who are determined, if possible, to end their days in them but who cannot afford to improve them even if they are offered the most generous percentage grant.
Again, there are streets of reasonable quality houses that could be improved but will never reach a suitable standard merely by internal improvement because they are in a bad environment. They are the terraced houses with the old decaying backs. I saw one family turning its tumbledown back yard with its crumbling stone wall into a patio. Such houses may face on to little bits of derelict land where the children play or where the neighbours dump refuse which never seems to be cleared away. One side of the street is good enough to save and the Other side, everyone agrees, is so crumbling that it must be pulled down. When it is down the houses left standing will face only the gasworks.
It is nonsense to talk about housing action areas meeting stress problems in all our localities unless the Government have a policy hand-tailored to meet conditions like this. If the Government's policy is to be so hand-tailored there are one or two suggestions they must consider. First, I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Grimsby that the Government's policy is fragmented. There should be more comprehensive plans in which there will not be bits of problems dealt with in a bitty way. But if this Bill is the best that the Government can do we must be careful not to end up with the worst of both worlds. We do not want housing areas that are not comprehensive enough because they are too small, but at the same time we do not want a minimum number of houses to be specified. In the White Paper the Government say that, ideally, there must be 400 or 500 houses in such an area, but it may be necessary to deal with isolated streets or even individual houses.
Second, the Government's policy will be meaningless unless provision is made for the sort of owner-occupier to which I have referred, namely, the old-age pensioner who cannot find even 10 per cent. of his or her share of the grant, notwithstanding that 90 per cent. is given in hardship cases. The 10 per cent. share might be £70 or £200. I hope that the Government will consider that matter seriously. We might, for instance, have a provision in the Bill whereby a local authority could acquire such a house at a value which would take account of the fact that it was guaranteeing life occupancy to an old-age pensioner, and even an annuity. Those are the sort of details which are overlooked in the Government's policy.
Third, we must be flexible about the five-year period. All right, we want action, but it is nonsense for the Government to say that they will not approve housing action areas unless it can be guaranteed that the work will be done in five years. That is not a matter only for the local authority but a matter which comes very much within the power of the Government by the way in which they control building and construction policy and deal with the problems of the building industry.
Finally, there is the question of eligibility for intermediate grants and what is meant by Clause 60(4)(b). The Minister said today that if there are slums they must come down. That has been a great source of trouble in my constituency. The public health inspectors, operating under the 1957 Act, with its criteria of what is "unfit for human habitation", have declared a large amount of property to be unfit. Is that what the Minister means by "slums"? The owners of the houses which are automatically scheduled as unfit bitterly resent their homes being called slums. That is particularly so when many of them have had all sorts of little improvements done within their homes to the limit of their capacity. I accept that there may be some structural instability and in many cases there will be some dampness. But what exactly does Clause 60(4)(b) mean? Does it mean that a local authority can, at its discretion, give an intermediate grant even though the work that is done on the house will not bring it within the criteria of the 1957 Act?
Will the Minister help us to solve the problem which is so acute in northern and Welsh areas of the type which I have described? Will he tell my constituents what he means by "slums"? Will he send my constituents a message of hope? Will he tell them that their homes, although technically unfit under the old standards, will be examined again; that they are not slums, and that these people, along with their homes, will be given new help and a new hope?
I must declare an interest as an owner and manager of domestic property in a small way.
I find it depressing that nearly 30 years after the war, and with a fifth of the work force of Britain engaged in the construction industry, we still have so much poor housing. I share with the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) a dislike for the term "slum". We have been using the term for a long time. At least we now have a programme which means that the present slums will be wiped out by 1982. It is a 10-year programme which began in 1972.
It is true that many aspects of housing have been improved. We can use improvement grants not only to introduce necessary amenities where so many are missing but also to deal with one of the worst features of bad housing, namely, dampness. Utter misery is caused by dampness even when there are present all the facilities necessary for a decent home. I am referring to structural dampness and not the dampness which results when people will not have proper ventilation in their homes.
Repairs constitute another necessary aspect of housing matters. They have already been spoken about by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Sally Oppenheim). There will be increased ability to get repairs done.
I am grateful for the tributes that have been paid to the sub-committee of the Expenditure Committee which worked on house improvement grants from January to June 1973. Twenty-two recommendations were made and most of them have been accepted by the Government. I draw the attention of the House to Recommendation No. 22, under the heading "Improvement Versus Redevelopment", which says:
The Departments should give close attention to monitoring the social effects of alterations in housing policies and should attempt to develop criteria for judging the relative merits of renewal and improvement (or the approximate mix within a programme) taking into account both social and economic factors.
Part D of the Expenditure Committee's Report sets out the present criteria of the Ministry for judging whether it is right to demolish and rebuild or to improve. I am alarmed at the cost of demolishing and redeveloping. In London the figure for building costs per unit, excluding site cost, is £20,000. That is not exceptional in London. In Birmingham the corresponding figure per unit, excluding site cost, is £10,000. Until inflation is conquered we shall have high interest rates and enormously high economic rents. An economic rent in London would be approximately £60 a week. I am not suggesting that that should be charged to a tenant, but it is charged to the public less what can be recovered from the tenant. That is almost unacceptable. We must consider the matter carefully and try to find a solution to the problem of ever-increasing expenditure which produces ever-decreasing results.
One of the solutions is not to go in more and more for improvements. That was the object of the 1969 Act. That Act put a greater emphasis on improvement at the expense of clearance and redevelopment. For reasons which seemed good at the time the then Labour Government decided not to impose any conditions but to encourage the grant to be given to as many people as possible by abolishing what had been the established position, namely, that if a person obtained a grant and then sold the property, he should refund the grant.
I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland) is not present. He said, I think, that the Government have seen the light on improvement grant conditions. That is a little unfair, when we consider that it was the right hon. Gentleman's Government—a Labour Government—which abolished the existing conditions in 1969. It was in 1972 that it became apparent that there were matters of unsatisfactory management in the 1969 Act. That was one of the reasons why, in 1973, the Expenditure Committee decided to examine the improvement grant system.
One or two boroughs imposed conditions of their own volition under the régime of the 1969 Act. Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that in so far as they were discouraged from doing so and were persuaded that it might be illegal, it was the present Government that discouraged them and persuaded them of its illegality?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would never encourage a local authority to act illegally. I know that some Labour Members do, but surely not he. We received evidence that his local authority was acting illegally. The law is to be changed to deal with that authority and many others, but at the time the hon. Gentleman's authority was acting illegally in imposing conditions.
That was the advice we received. There were no powers to impose conditions then, but the Bill contains such powers.
It was not necessary for local authorities to give improvement grants. At the time of the criticism in 1972, they were being told by the Government, "You do not have to give the grants. Inquire into them and see whether they are justified."
On the evidence we received, I felt that the grants were not necessary for developers. Developers who bought empty property and then improved it and sold it were making their profit without receiving an improvement grant. Any improvement grant they were given was additional, unnecessary profit. In those circumstances it was up to the local authority not to give the grant.
The Bill introduces the possibility of imposing conditions and also closes a loophole in respect of second homes. We received considerable criticism because of the fact that second homes were the subject of improvement grants. The Government are ending improvement grants for second homes.
In about 1971 the Government introduced the 75 per cent. grant in special areas. There will be a certain amount of pain and grief when it ends in June. That grant was given to encourage the construction industry to provide employment in development areas. We received evidence that it had been too successful, in that everyone wanted a 75 per cent. improvement grant, and the builders could not meet the demand, as we have heard from the right hon. Member for Blackburn. That created a problem, and it is right that the 75 per cent. grant should cease where it was given for that reason, because it more than achieved its purpose.
However, I am worried by the kind of case the right hon. Lady described. She will find that we refer to it in paragraph 64 of our report. The Government should consider the problem of people who instructed a genuine builder back in October, as soon as they obtained approval for the grant, and whose builder has fallen down on the contract. I am thinking of the bona fide contract to carry out the job by June, not a bogus arrangement. It will be very harsh if people lose the grant that they confidently expected. We shall want to discuss the matter in Committee.
It is right that there is to be a 75 per cent. grant in housing action areas, because an element of compulsion enters into the equation there. The reason for housing action areas is that although we have had great success with improvement grants they have not penetrated to landlords in the worst areas. It appears that compulsion is the only way in which to have rented houses in private ownership improved. Therefore, it is right that there should be a higher rate of grant in those areas.
I disagree with the analysis of the right hon. Member for Grimsby on the size of the housing action areas. He said that in his constituency an area as small as one street might need improvement. I believe that it might well be found that if one street needed improvement the next would need improvement, and two streets together would make a good area to be designated a housing action area.
The hon. Gentleman is misunderstanding my right hon. Friend's case. He was saying not that the Government's proposed housing action areas were too large but the reverse, that they were far too small. Their object should be largely to achieve a total approach and enable us to work on the basis that many of us have been advocating for a long time in the city areas.
The right hon. Gentleman was saying that he would like virtually the whole of Grimsby to be made a housing action area to achieve that object. He said that, for example, there needed to be 30–40 housing action areas to cope with one borough in London, and that that proved that there needed to be 400–500 in the whole of London. It does not necessarily follow that because 30–40 are needed in one borough the situation is the same in other boroughs. The right hon. Gentleman admitted that in a few boroughs there is a peculiar need for a series of small areas.
The objection to having the whole of Grimsby or the whole of a borough designated a housing action area is that a large area then qualifies for the 75 per cent. improvement grant. We should judge whether we are then concentrating our resources in the best possible place. The figure of 75 per cent. is pretty generous, and it should go to the areas which need it most.
We have just heard that last year about 450,000 houses were improved, in addition to just on 300,000 new houses being built. That is a total of 750,000 good homes provided in a year. I congratulate the Government on a welcome contribution to the attack on poor housing conditions. Therefore, I warmly support the Bill.
In introducing the Bill the Minister said that it
… will do something effective about some of our most intractable housing problems.
When one strips away the verbiage one is left with a Bill which has very little flesh on it. It is always easy to talk about housing, and it is almost as easy to produce a Bill. But what kind of Bill is it that we have?
Today, The Times says:
It is a Bill which could be strengthened. …The second reading of the Bill is taking place under the shadow of the worst figures for house building since 1959.
In another part of his speech, the Minister said:
There is no longer a national housing problem but a series of local housing problems.
I have news for him. It is a national problem in Scotland. It is not just a little aspect of a series of local problems, as he tried to suggest.
It is nothing short of a tragedy that, after three and a half years of Conservative Government, we in Scotland are in this desperate housing position. I do not know how young couples today manage to get accommodation. Two days ago, one of Scotland's Sunday newspapers reported an investigation which it called
The shocking fate of no-home families.
It told of families who were buying slum flats at inflated prices and of how people were forced into buying them because they had no choice. Last year, according to the Government's figures, only 17,818 houses were built in the public sector in Scotland. It was the lowest figure since 1946. Even in 1947 we managed to produce more than 19,000 public sector houses.
Two Scottish newspapers recently carried a series of letters in their correspondence columns criticising the London allowance, which is the additional amount paid to people who work in London. It was explained by a Government spokesman that the London allowance was necessary because the cost of housing and transport was greater in London than elsewhere in the United Kingdom. But housing costs in Scotland are higher than in many parts of England. For example, they are higher than in the north of England, in Yorkshire and Humberside, in East Anglia, in the West Midlands and in Wales. It is well known that if anything, the cost of living in Scotland is slightly higher than it is in England. If there is a London allowance, why is not there a Scottish allowance or even a graded allowance? No wonder there is an upsurge of national feeling in Scotland.
Scotland needs urgently at least 50,000 new houses a year. In Scotland there are still nearly 200,000 sub-standard houses. Although we welcome the latest figures which show an increase in home ownership in Scotland, we believe that this should be in addition to and not replacing public sector housing. Most people in Scotland want houses to rent. Last year, 12,000 private houses were built. That would make much more acceptable reading and be a better contribution if the Government had also been able to show the construction of at least 30,000 houses in the public sector—in other words, roughly the average figure reached during the six years of the last Labour Government. But tragically the situation in Scotland is worse now than it has been for 27 years.
As for the home improvement proposals in the Bill, of course it is to the advantage of the nation and the community that we retain our existing good housing. Experience of house building since the war has shown that it is not a desirable situation to create large housing schemes which are very often soulless and lacking amenity. But house improvements should not be used as an excuse for not building houses. After all, even housing schemes can be improved. They can be given the amenities which many of them so badly lack, and, as I say, house improvement should be in addition to and not as a substitute for the construction of new houses.
I suggest that the proper tackling of Scotland's housing necessities requires the application of four principles. First, finance must not and should not be a barrier. There should be no problem about the availability of the money to build houses. Second, local authorities must have adequate powers of requisition and must be prepared to use them. Third, there must be a speeding up of all planning applications, and that includes compulsory purchase procedures. Fourth, there must be a concentration on house building instead of on office building. It is an obscenity which ranks alongside all obscenities to find an office building in the heart of London which cost £5·5 million to erect today worth £65 million.
I believe that the astronomical increase in housing costs over the past few years to be the most important single factor in the causation of our inflation spiral. I young couples have to pay £12, £15 and even £20 per week merely to repay the mortgages on their homes, the pressure for higher wages is enormous, and it is not surprising that we have an inflationary spiral beginning.
I remember when I was first elected to the Glasgow Town Council more than 23 years ago. Even then our greatest problem was housing. There was tremendous pressure on the City Fathers to get on with the building of houses. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Gorbals (Mr. McElhone), who joined me shortly afterwards, will recall how active he and I were on the housing committee and the planning committee trying to have houses built. It is a tragedy that the housing problem in Scotland today shows so little improvement, despite our valiant efforts.
Between 1964 and 1970, under a Labour Government, some progress was made. We reached the figure of more than 43,000 houses in our last year of Government. But since then we have slipped back year by year, and I am afraid that this Bill will do very little, if anything, to stop the rot. It hardly shows the radical approach that the country requires if the housing problem is to be solved in as short a time as possible.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland) said, we are not opposed to the principle of the Bill. We are not opposed to any attempt to increase the housing potential and the number of houses built. We feel that an opportunity has been lost to make the Bill more applicable to the times in which we live, and we shall seek hard to improve it in Committee.
I hope the hon. Member for Glasgow, Kelvingrove (Dr. Miller) will forgive me if I do not follow him into the realms of Scottish housing, for I do not claim to know anything about the problems of his great city. I am surprised at the attitude of the Opposition in deciding to put down their amendment; I would have thought that their own record was so bleak that they ought to applaud any such efforts. I remember solemn pledges about housing figures which were callously broken. I would have thought that the Opposition would have welcomed particularly a Bill which helps the Housing Corporation and housing associations.
I regret that the right hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland) spoiled his speech by a cheap gibe against my right hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery). We could make cheap gibes against the right hon. Gentleman, but we do not choose to do so, for it does not help housing. I welcome the Bill and its main principles, although, like other speakers, I hope to see some alterations as it proceeds through committee. If I may deal first with service charges, I am grateful that my right hon. Friend has been able to redeem the pledge which was given to me some time ago, which will help many thousands of my constituents, after the battles I have fought in this House for over two and a half years to give private tenants the right to challenge in court their service charges. This clause may need strengthening.
I should like, for example, to see that as far as reasonableness is concerned, the landlord should have to produce a competitive estimate for work, not one that may have come from one of his own subsidiary companies.
I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not give way, as I want to be very brief and I know he is going to speak. On the question of strengthening the service charges clause, I hope tenants will be given an opportunity of knowing the kind of insurance cover there is on their property. There is some worry expressed that where fires occur in large blocks of 40- or 50-year-old flats, this may be due to faulty electrical wiring; and tenants want to know who will pay for their temporary rehousing whilst work is carried out if there as a fire. I should like to see that clause strengthened.
I welcome the principle of action areas and the new rôle that is envisaged for housing associations, but it must be sad for those Labour councils like Camden, for example, which in their first rush of power thrust aside voluntary housing bodies with which Conservative councils had been operating. There are cases on record in Camden where compensation for fees for abortive work done by housing associations had to be paid because the council decided that it would do all the work. They have now changed their policy and are bringing back the housing associations because their own architects' department cannot do the work. I welcome that change of policy on the part of Socialist councils.
I also welcome the clause giving the Secretary of State the right of disposals to housing corporations or housing associations, because I believe many local authorities already have far too many properties to maintain in good order. This applies to councils of both political parties. We have all had complaints from tenants of local authorities, either Labour-controlled or Conservative-controlled, who have waited months to have necessary maintenance work done. If local authorities are to increase their stock of houses they must realise that they take on obligations to their tenants, Too many councils, again of both parties, disregard this important aspect. I hope that during the passage of the Bill through Committee my right hon. Friend will decide to drop the clause giving the Housing Corporation power to build new properties. I am afraid I do not go along with that, nor do I go along with the clause which would allow the Housing Corporation to buy a shareholding in private companies. Although this happens to be a standard clause in nationalised corporation Acts, that is no reason, in my view, why it should necessarily appear in a housing Act.
I wish to make three points about improvement grants. First, I hope my right hon. Friend will be flexible on rateable value, which he allows for improvement grants, particularly in the Greater London area where I am not certain we are able to have the kind of restriction that is being talked about. I hope there will be positive encouragement to local authorities to give improvement grants for thermal insulation—a subject that has been brushed aside too casually by the Department so far, because the Department does not necessarily think it as important as many others believe it to be.
I am worried about Clause 15, which talks about the right of appeal of a housing association that is to be struck off. I am wondering why it is necessary to put a voluntary housing association to the cost of having an appeal to the High Court. I would merely say at this stage that the appeal might be to the Secretary of State or the county court, which would certainly cost less. I merely make that point for consideration. Clause 125 makes it a duty for the name of the landlord to be supplied. I stress to my right hon. Friend that I hope this will be the ultimate landlord. We have far too many examples of the Berger-type organisation, which operates about 17 companies. Whenever a statutory notice is served on one, as has happened in my constituency with Crestwood, for example, the company starts disposing of the property to the next company.
We need to know the name of the ultimate landlord. Equally, when a public health notice is served and a company is then sold and resold, that should not matter. The statutory notice should lie on the first company and the time limit should exist on that company. If that company sells to another it should have the responsibility and should not be able to shuffle it off. I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to improve that point in the Bill.
I welcome Clause 121. I hope it will prevent some local authorities purchasing properties indiscriminately without inspection. There are authorities who go to auctions and buy without any interior inspection at all, so that they do not know the liability of cost they are landing on their ratepayers. No prudent authority would wish to do that but there are some authorities who do so and I am glad the Secretary of State is taking power to prevent it.
It is clear that there is broad agreement on much of the Bill. There are going to be battles and disagreement on some items in it, and I have to tell my right hon. Friend that the battles and disagreements will not all come from the Opposition. On some matters of principle concerning tenants the battles will come from the Government side.
I believe that the Bill is a valuable contribution to the totality of housing policies. No Government since the First World War has been able to solve the housing problem. Whatever paragons of virtue have occupied the Ministry— whether it be the right hon. Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish), who wanted to stand Labour's housing policy on its head in three weeks in office, or Mr. Greenwood, the then Member for Rossendale—nobody has been able to solve the problem. Each in his way has tried to make a contribution.
We should make more progress if the Opposition would recognise that this is not a matter that, in the end, will be achieved by party dogfights. The right hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. George Thomas) laughs. I always welcome his laugh, because he smiles so pleasantly. It does not necessarily help our argument, but I welcome it. I am certain that when this Bill goes on to the statute book it will be appreciated much more by the man in the street than by the party opposite.
It ill behoves the hon. Member for Hampstead (Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg) to refer to cheap gibes coming from the Opposition. On the last occasion on which I had the pleasure of speaking immediately after him, he made one of the cheapest gibes of all by referring to my constituency as being mean and squalid. That has not been forgotten. Some of the hon. Member's references to housing problems proved conclusively the existence of two nations, two sets of housing problems and two sets of people.
It is not surprising that at present the Conservative Party would like to take housing out of politics. If the hon. Member for Hampstead cares to read "A Better Tomorrow" he will find that all the promises about low mortgage interest rates, more house building, easier housing provision and low prices have been broken. The situation today is a complete contradiction of all those promises of the Conservative Party.
The Minister said that there was not a national housing problem but that there were a number of local problems. But it is clear from the debate that there is a national housing problem. Far too few homes are being built, in Glasgow, London or Merthyr Tydfil. That is the national problem. It is not an accident. It has not been created by some mysteriious power which is not within the control of Government. It is a deliberate policy and a commitment of the Conservative Party to reduce local authority house building. That has collapsed in Britain —certainly in Glasgow, Merthyr Tydfil and parts of central London.
In 1972 and 1973 we had the lowest council house building figures for Wales since 1946, only a year after the shortages of the war. Now the hon. Member for Hampstead, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Allason) and my hon. Friends are referring to large housing queues and growing numbers of people attending their Saturday morning surgeries to raise housing matters. This is a direct consequence of the Government's decision to restrict the influence of local authorities on house building.
The Bill should also deal with particular regional problems. The Minister said that there were a number of problems. Anyone who listened to the moving speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) will realise that there is a regional problem. The Minister paid lip service to that idea. The Bill does not offer alternative solutions or strategies towards the problems of the regions. If the Bill is tailor-made for London, it is inadequate; it is not tailor-made at all for the provinces. It does not begin to meet the problems about which my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn spoke.
South Wales is involved in those problems, too. That is why an all-party committee—the Public Expenditure Committee—recommended a completely different approach for housing outside London. It said that the housing action area approach and the powers associated with that are totally irrelevant to the requirements of, for instance, the old owner-occupier housing areas of South Wales or the northern region. What we need is merely to give an incentive to the 60 per cent. or 70 per cent. of working class owner-occupiers living in the valley communities or in the old industrial parts of the northern region. But that is what the Bill does not do. All that the Bill does is to make sure that we now have to go through the most tortuous and devisive process of defining a housing action area.
The problems in London may be considerable; but in a closely knit community such as Merthyr Tydfil it will be almost impossible to draw boundaries around part of an area when the problem of older housing stretches throughout the constituency. I believe that the Secretary of State for Wales—who has scarcely listened to the debate since the two opening speeches—is to visit Merthyr Tydfil at the weekend. I should like to ask him to show me how he would define a housing action area there. There are no housing action areas there. The whole area is a housing action area, together with Rhondda and all the valley areas of South Wales. South Wales has a common problem of large-scale, working class owner-occupier houses which are between 80 and 100 years old and between 30 per cent. and 50 per cent. of which lack one of the basic amenities, such as a bath or an indoor lavatory.
The solution to the problem was the 74 per cent. improvement grant. We were doing very well. When Welsh Office Ministers came to the House they boasted of the value and success of the grant. The Government are now taking away that grant. In its place they are putting a piece of legislation which could be extremely divisive. It will divide communities such as that of Merthyr Tydfil. When an authority draws up a housing action area, some householders of similar means and with identical housing problems who live just down the road will find that they are entitled to 25 per cent. less grant than those who are just inside the area. How will that be explained? Will the Government tell elderly people that if they happen to be in a housing action area they will get a repair grant but if they live just down the road they will not? What about the distortion in house prices which will be caused by such adjustments? What we shall have now is a very odd system. Obviously, housing inside a general improvement area or a housing action area will have a value higher than housing outside such areas.
It is. My hon. Friend may think that it is barmy in terms of London. In terms of the South Wales valleys we do not want compulsory purchase powers, or the sort of measures, limited as they are, which are described in the Bill. We simply want the right to get on with the job of improving old homes—the job which was being done by both Governments and which began with the Housing Act 1969 in a big way. It gained increased momentum from the 75 per cent. grant. To try to terminate that grant in June this year and to deprive people of 25 per cent. of it is criminal.
Regarding the Housing Corporation and housing associations the measures in the Bill do not apply to communities such as mine, where there are no housing associations. Lord Goodman paid a flying visit to Cardiff. He did not have the decency or courtesy to invite any hon. Members from the valley communities to meet him, and he offers no hope at all. The Housing Corporation and housing associations have not penetrated or done any work in the valleys, and I doubt that they will.
Only one kind of body will solve our housing problems—our local authorities. Instead of cutting back and obstructing the progress of local authority house building, the Government ought to let us get on with the job of improving our own homes. We can do it ourselves if we get the right measure of preferential grant, which made such an impact and allowed local authorities to make progress with house building. Given that, we can make provision for our young families waiting in the housing queue today.
I do not accept that the Bill is a watered down version of the White Paper, as was claimed by the right hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland). I wish to welcome the Bill mainly for two provisions: first, for the encouragement that it gives to the voluntary housing movement; second, for the new concept of housing action areas.
For about the last six years I have been a member of a Select Committee that has visited areas of acute housing stress in not only London but many cities all over this country. I have been greatly impressed by the record of achievement of many local authorities in those areas, not only in the clearance of bad housing but in their rebuilding programmes. But, with hindsight, many of us would have wished that they had seen earlier than they did the possibilities of saving many sound but rundown houses and rehabilitating them and, by so doing, preserving the character of those areas and the feeling of the neighbourhoods in which people who belong there would have felt better able to live comfortably—in which they would have felt less alienated than they have done in some of the new style housing, especially in high rise flats.
In other areas—I was deeply impressed by the achievements and the outlook of Lambeth Borough Council—the local authorities were beginning to take into effective partnership the various voluntary housing associations. They were, I believe, making better use of resources by so doing and providing housing of good standard which was, by and large, more acceptable to those who were living there.
These voluntary housing associations can also have a valuable social effect. They help to associate many local people with meeting local housing needs. They provide a valuable focus for skills and good will, and opportunities for wider public participation in meeting acute social needs. In the rural areas also housing associations can help to meet housing needs. I should like to take one example from my own constituency. In the beautiful village of Ockley there is an enthusiastic and effective housing association which is making a most valuable contribution to the rural housing need. It is at the same time proving a focus for work by people of all income groups in the service of this village community.
In general, I welcome the encouragement that this Bill gives to the voluntary housing movement and the opportunities that it gives to local authorities to make far more effective use of such associations.
To return to the areas of greatest housing need, the decaying urban areas, here I believe that the concept of housing action areas is on the right lines. The wide range of new powers that will be available, when this Bill becomes law, both to the central Government and to the local authorities, should enable them to tackle the housing need with greater vigour and greater resources.
For a moment I should like to dwell on housing needs in the metropolitan green belt and, in particular, in the constituency which I serve. The Secretary of State has recently made demands on the green belt for additional land for housing in the South-East. Some months ago the Minister for Local Government and Development praised the Surrey County Council for the plans that it had made to allocate additional land for housing. I dealt with this in the debate on 6th November. I hope that the Secretary of State who will be winding up tonight, will also show his concern for maintaining and enlarging the statutory green belt. He can do this in many ways. Tonight I seek two reassurances from him.
First, in return for the blocks of additional land allocated by the county for housing I hope he will help the county council by refusing appeals on its planning decisions to prevent piecemeal development which can spell the end of the green belt.
Secondly, I ask him to take action now to agree to including in the green belt the areas of Surrey which the county council has for some years administered as green belt and the other areas which it is now recommending.
I would add a special plea for the inclusion of two areas in my own constituency: Charlwood, which today, in another place, took one step nearer its welcome return to Surrey, and the two parishes of Ockley and Abinger, about which a local preservation society has written to me today.
In conclusion, my belief—it is shared, I think, by many in the House—is that this country is faced with an acute social need for more housing of acceptable standards. There is considerable unrest, especially among the young who are seeking their first homes in which to begin their families. This need is felt not only in the decaying urban centres but in the rural areas. In my view, the Bill provides a good framework of powers and opportunities, but what the country will demand is that the Government and local authorities shall exert the will to use these new opportunities to produce results more quickly and on a far wider scale.
I am grateful to the last four hon. Members who have spoken. I think they averaged under 10 minutes each. If we can go on like that I think I shall be able to call everybody who wishes to speak.
Not only has there been a disastrous fall in council house building but, as I intend to show, the Government plan to reduce it still further. I wish to repeat the question I put to the Minister for Housing and Construction and which he did not answer. I am going to ask the Secretary of State, who is to make the concluding speech, if he will answer it, and I should like it to be conveyed to him that if he does not do so I intend to interrupt his speech.
The question is this: do the Secretary of State and the Minister accept that housing improvement must be in addition to, and not in substitution for, new house building? If so, since the Bill prepares to spend £106 million a year on improvement, how do the Government justify a net cut of £351 million a year or 17 per cent. over the next 4 years? I am quoting the figures in the Government's own survey of public expenditure. This clearly means that most ordinary families, who must depend on council housing, particularly with house prices and mortgage interest rates at their present level, are going to be in dire difficulties.
Secondly, the Bill states that £106 million a year is to be spent on improvement, yet again the Government survey prepares for a reduction of £178 million in grants for improvement over the next four years. The Minister really must come clean on this. The house building situation is, as has been stated, the lowest for 15 years, and in council housing the lowest since the 1930s. Yet the Government—again I am referring to the survey —propose, I repeat, a cut of 17 per cent., or £351 million a year. Therefore, it is planned to fall still further.
It is not just a matter of a few bad housing spots. These tragic waiting lists exist in almost every town in the country. The White Paper on which the Bill is based said:
In certain areas there are still many families who wish to rent but cannot find a rented dwelling suited to their needs.
The Minister can say that again. Where are there not these tragic housing lists? I can think of very few places.
About the need for improvements, no one is more emphatic than I. There are 9 million men. women and children going to bed in Britain tonight without a bath, hot water or inside lavatory. Thus, on a cold, wet night like this, an old lady or a young child must go outside to use the lavatory. I have said before but I shall say again that when Bloody Mary died the word "Calais" was written on her heart. When they dig me up, the words "baths, hot water and inside lavatories" will be found inscribed on mine.
The break-up of communities can be avoided by improvement. Engine drivers who have to be at their depots at three o'clock in the morning cannot possibly be moved to overspill towns miles away and still get to work on time. Where houses are structurally sound they should be improved; where they are not, they should be demolished.
There axe still some hon. Members in the House who, 19 years ago, together with Harriet Slater, pressed for improvement of old houses and pointed out that, despite the 1949 Acts, most landlords just would not take the trouble. At that time we pointed out that only one in five improvements was being undertaken by landlords; the rest were from owner-occupiers and councils. This was despite the fact that landlords got a grant of half the cost plus 12½ per cent. return on their investment.
So, in 1969, the then Government raised the return to landlords and let them take their houses out of rent control if they improved them. Some of us voted against our own Government on this matter. But still most landlords would not act. The Government are now granting 75 per cent. in most areas. If the Minister looks up his own figures he will find that, still, four out of five grants are going not to landlords but to owner-occupiers and council tenants. The Bill proposes, again, 75 per cent. in some areas. I suggest that the landlords will still fail to do the repairs.
Therefore, through bitter experience, some of us have been driven to the conclusion that the only way to get this work done is to let the municipality take over rented property and put in the baths. There is one qualification: there must be adequate direct labour departments to do the job; otherwise, tenants will be dissatisfied. In many towns, private firms have been encouraged to improve council houses on a big scale—thousands at a time—and are getting very well paid for it. In some towns they get £3,000 per house for improving council houses which already have bathrooms.
I am staggered by the charges made, for in some parts of the country bathrooms have been installed for £200 and tenants are delighted with them. Moreover, although there are some good exceptions, many of these private firms are inefficient and grossly overcharging. Indeed, they sometimes do a whole area at once and leave the tenants for months with no windows, and with their houses in a shambles. Irrespective of who does the job, experience teaches that perhaps five houses at a time should be improved before the contractors move on to the next five, so that the tenants are not kept in intolerable conditions meanwhile.
In certain respects the Bill gives preference to housing associations over local authorities. With some exceptions, housing associations are not so well qualified, and cannot be so well equipped, as local authorities to do the job. They lack the land, the planning authority, the expertise and the qualified men; and they cannot operate on a big enough scale. Also, local authorities provide houses in accordance with the priority of need, so that those in the greatest need come first on the list. That is another reason why local authorities should do the job.
It has been said that we do not want to create a monopoly for local authority houses, because if, for instance, a local authority unjustly evicted a tenant, he would have nowhere else to go. Surely the answer is to stop unjust evictions and also prevent what one or two local authorities now do—take a tenant to court and automatically acquire power to evict. Although very few do that, it should be stopped unless there are tremendously long and avoidable arrears of rent.
Some big housing associations are headed by men whom I would not have thought are altogether altruists. They have secured millions of pounds of loans from their local authorities to build houses, yet I cannot see them as working for nothing. There must be something in it for them. Perhaps the building contractors, who are constantly engaged by these associations, are in collusion with them. Perhaps the main contractors get discounts from the sub-contractors. Perhaps the architects', solicitors' and rent collectors' fees more than cover the time which these professional men spend on the job.
The White Paper proposed charges on land and property kept unoccupied. There were obvious loopholes. The Financial Times said, the day after the White Paper was published, that speculators were not in the least worried, and there was a rise in the Stock Exchange quotations of the firms concerned. This proposal does not appear in the Bill and I weep no tears for that. But it has not been replaced by a satisfactory alternative, by something more effective. There is no substitute at all—nothing. The real solution, which we shall come to sooner or later, is public acquisition of land at exisiting use value. This, like other great housing reforms, will have to wait until we have a Labour Government.
When examining any housing Bill, and this one in particular, we should first put it into the context of the problem it seeks to solve and then assess how well it will achieve that result. At this stage, it might be timely to recall the pledge of this Government in their 1970 General Election manifesto, "A Better Tomorrow":
New drive and impetus is urgently needed to reverse the biggest decline in the housing programme for a quarter of a century.
None of us would disagree with that. Perhaps the moral is that tomorrow never comes.
Last week's announcement of the 1973 housing figures shows that, far from reversing the previous decline, the Government's promised drive and impetus is actually speeding it. The Department's Press notice last week said:
In the fourth quarter of the year, after discounting seasonal movement, private sector starts were down 17 per cent. on the previous quarter and 28 per cent. on the fourth quarter
of 1972. Private sector completions were down 10 per cent. on the third quarter and 14 per cent. on a year earlier. In the public sector, making similar comparisons, starts were 3 per cent. and 12 per cent. down, and completions were 9 per cent. and 6 per cent. down. Total starts were down 13 per cent. on the third quarter and 23 per cent. on a year earlier, while completions were down 9 per cent. and 11 per cent., respectively.
It is clear from the Government's own statement that their "new drive and impetus" is taking us in only one direction—downwards. At the root of the problem in the past has been continued underestimation of the size of the problem with which we are trying to deal.
I was pleased to see in the last White Paper that the Government acknowledged that there were 3 million substandard dwellings in England and Wales. Reference has been made to London and its housing problems. [Interruption.] I am pleased to see that the House welcomes the presence of my right hon. and hon. Friends. If there were now as few hon. Members on the Government benches as there were a few minutes ago we would be outnumbering them. A few moments ago there were only two Conservative back benchers present and there are only seven now.
In 1965 there was the Milner-Holland Report and in 1972 there was the Lay-field Report, both of which carefully analysed the size of the problem in London. Much has been said, rightly, about housing problems in stress areas of inner London. I do not in any way belittle housing problems in inner London, but I should be failing in my duty to my constituents if I did not point out that there is also very much a problem in outer London. The Minister for Housing and Construction was good enough to visit my constituency a week or so ago. I hope that the chairman of our Conservative housing committee drew the Minister's attention to the council's recent survey of properties in my borough. In one ward of my constituency, which is a relatively affluent outer London suburb, 18 per cent. of dwellings have only an outside WC, 10 per cent. have no bath or shower and 8 per cent. have no hot water.
I do not pretend that this is any worse than many other areas, unfortunately. But if this is the situation in a comparatively affluent outer London suburb, where most of the property was built between the wars, it gives a good indication of the sort of problem with which we are trying to deal.
Will the hon. Gentleman therefore give an unqualified and warm welcome to the massive, threefold increase in the number of improvement grants given in the past three years and express the hope that the trend will continue?
I certainly hope that the trend will continue. I wish it was continuing much faster. It is welcoming to see that one trend at least is on the way up while the other trends seem to be on the way down.
The Secretary of State has often said, rightly, that housing must be a top priority. It is timely to remind the House of a passage from the Layfield Report which said:
It will be necessary to make changes in policies of a hitherto unimagined scale if the 1981 stock of dwellings is to provide acceptable housing.
Does the Bill measure up to this challenge? It gives me no pleasure to conclude that it does not. Even if it achieves all that it sets out to achieve the difference which it will make to the situation will be only marginal. It is not a bad Bill, but I am hard pressed to say that it will really get to grips with the problem. It is scratching around on the surface of the problem and is failing to get to grips with some of the fundamental issues in housing.
The Bill is not entirely bad, by any means. I join the right hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland) in welcoming the provisions in Part I for the encouragement of the voluntary housing movement. This movement has a valuable part, but only a part, to play in helping with the housing problem.
I am aware that there are a number of housing associations—unfortunately, far too many—which are not philanthropic organisations, though they might claim to be. These organisations do great harm to the many good bona fide housing organisations. I was therefore pleased to see in Part II of the Bill provision for the registration of housing associations. This is an excellent proposal, which I welcome.
Much has been said in the debate on the provisions in Part IV for housing action areas. I also welcome these provisions. However, reservations have been expressed in the debate, and I share many of them. One reservation in particular, which has not been mentioned but which worries me a little, is the possible effect of the provision in Clause 37 for bringing an end to the housing action area before the statutory period expires. I fear that with the present economic climate, which I fear is likely to continue —with cuts in public expenditure being made almost willy-nilly—it may be found that housing action areas are left only half finished. I hope there will be comment on this in the Minister's reply.
Many of the problems relating to improving the housing stock revolve round the difficulty of persuading landlords to undertake comprehensive improvements. Therefore, I welcome the provisions for compulsory purchase powers. A major cause of concern, on both sides of the House, is the time it takes to get compulsory purchase orders confirmed. There must be a forum for objections to compulsory purchase powers —no one would dispute that—but if the process is to be effective it must be speeded up. The present situation is most unsatisfactory.
I also welcome proposals for the use of compulsory improvement notices, but these notices should require the improvement to be made to a full 12-point standard and not only to an intermediate level as stated in the Bill. Standards should not be reduced in this way.
I turn to Part X and, in particular, to Clauses 125 and 126 which deal with the disclosure of a landlord's identity and the tenant's right to challenge service charges. These clauses are excellent, as far as they go, and are long overdue. But they serve to highlight a grave omission from the Bill; namely, its failure to give security of tenure to tenants in furnished accommodation. I fear that these two clauses will be useless to tenants in furnished accommodation who may be living in fear of eviction by their landlords, if they try to exercise their rights. Therefore, the tenants are not likely to attempt to do so. These clauses will not be effective in making the sort of provision they are designed to make for tenants of furnished accommodation.
The Financial Memorandum to the Bill says that there has been an increase in the amounts paid from the Consolidated Fund of about £80 million by 1977–78. Although welcome, this is woefully inadequate to deal with what we all recognise to be a top priority matter. I shall be interested if the Secretary of State can give a breakdown of the expenditure and state, for instance, how much is to go to the housing corporation, how much will find its way to housing associations, and how much will go to local authorities.
It is with some regret that I have to say that my right hon. and hon. Friends and I will be supporting the Opposition. I think the Bill is missing a good opportunity to do far more. Here I echo the sentiments of the right hon. Member for Grimsby. I do not feel that the Bill will adequately overcome the defects in Government policy which have led to the lowest house-building figure since 1959. Nor do I feel that it will repair the damage caused by previous legislation and Government policy. For these reasons we shall be supporting the Opposition amendment.
I must declare my interest in the Bill, in that I have represented a construction company for more than 40 years. It is incumbent upon me to declare that interest. However, I have now reached the sere and yellow in construction work and am no longer particularly interested in the professional side. Notwithstanding that, I support the Bill. Any measure that can be taken on the Floor of the House to eliminate the squalor in housing must be welcome.
Not only does that squalor create human misery; it creates dereliction, which develops a life that is unacceptable to our people after so many years of failing to cope with the housing problem. For many years Governments have tried, inspired by the highest motives, to build more houses and improve the general standard of living. Unfortunately, for varying reasons, we have never been able to deal with the fundamentals.
No matter how we superimpose upon existing agencies for the development of housing we will not, by that means, deal with the real problem. We have many agencies providing homes. There are local authorities, housing societies, housing associations, State Departments such as the Defence Department, and the private sector. None of them can succeed unless we deal with the fundamentals.
I support the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle), who dealt with the problem of housing improvement grants. She rightly drew attention to the serious situation that could develop if we took the action which is envisaged. I should like to give an account of the experience in my constituency. My advice bureau is inundated with problems concerning housing improvement grants and the inability of my constituents to obtain them in the necessary time. When I go to the local authorities I find that they are flooded with applications. The very success of the improvement grant system has created its own problems. Local authorities cannot deal with the applications because they are understaffed. If they worked night and day for the next three months they would not be able to deal with all the applications before them. It would be grossly unfair if my right hon. and learned Friend decided to chop off applications already in the pipeline. It is not their fault that their application has not been dealt with; it is the failure of the agency to deal with it in the correct time. We should not penalise those whose applications are now before local authorities.
I have had many letters from my borough architect and from the engineering department saying, "We are sorry, but we have such a backlog of applications that we are unable to deal with them." I would hate to think that my constituents did not get improvement grants for that reason alone. I suggest that any application in the pipeline up to and including 30th June should qualify. I trust that my right hon. and learned Friend will support that proposal.
The central theme of the Bill is the provision of more and adequate housing. Is it a fact that there are not sufficient agencies to provide housing facilities, or is there something else basically wrong? I submit that the problem confronting the construction industry and those who provide homes is one of resources. It does not matter how many dozens of agencies are superimposed on the existing structure—the system will break down because of a lack of resources. If the Housing Corporation decided to expand its activities it would first come up against the problem of inadequate supplies of labour and material.
It is no use creating a new agency to provide homes if the supply of materials is on a 12-months' delivery basis. For instance, plasterboard is in frantically short supply. This is creating difficulties throughout the country. It does not matter how many agencies are set up; the supply of plasterboard will not be eased. The same is true of bricks. The real problem is the shortage of land on which to build houses and the labour with which to build them.
If we do not resolve those two problems first, the agencies will merely go through an academic exercise. We must create the basic resources and then we can let loose the new agencies. If we do not do so there will be more people chasing fewer goods and a reduced labour supply. I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to give the most serious consideration to this.
The proper rôle for the Housing Corporation immediately after the passing of this Bill would not necessarily be to obtain a piece of the action as envisaged in Clause 6. Its main rôle in the first instance is to help iron out the corrugations and clear the blockages in the system. The corporation could do a wonderful job if it took on the responsibility which a previous Government took on just after the war, when a man named Sir Percy Mills was appointed by Harold Macmillan as a pace-setter in industry. He was instructed to go out and find where the problems were.
The problems with which Sir Percy Mills had to cope have not been lessened with the passing of time; indeed, they are greater today. At least in those days the nation was geared to recognising that housing was a national problem. Today we seem to have lost that impetus. Perhaps we should ask the corporation to develop a programme for the rapid supply of materials for home building. It should be its responsibility to discover the bottlenecks and clear them. It could also assume a rôle as a land chaser.
The corporation could go round local planning authorities and find out what amount of land had been released for housing. It could investigate training procedures in the construction industry and discover whether there was an adequate labour force being trained. From 1968 to 1971 nearly a quarter of the building industry labour force went into other industries.
There was a time when the recruitment problems of the industry were no different from those in the mining industry today. Men were leaving the industry rapidly to find more lucrative employment. They saw a scaling-down of building activity. There was no future for them. The corporation could be useful in ensuring that there is a future for those trained in the industry and that an adequate amount of labour is being trained. Once it has ensured an adequate labour force and an adequate supply of materials some momentum may be achieved.
With respect, I shall not go into that territory, which will be adequately debated on another occasion.
The building industry will not fear competition from the Housing Corporation, but it will fear unfair competition. If the corporation is able compulsorily to acquire land and the private sector is not the corporation will have a distinctly unfair advantage. We must ensure that the corporation assists, and does not create difficulties. It must not be seen as a rival organisation, competing for a diminishing supply of raw materials. It must be seen to be an organisation that can create a climate in which we can accelerate our housing programme, eliminate bottlenecks and surge forward in housing construction.
I do not regard this as a national problem, but it is a serious one in the stress areas. The problem exists in the major cities, but it is not national. I can think of areas where the land price indicates the demand for housing. In some areas in the North-West land is being sold at between £50,000 and £60,000, and over. Within 15 miles land is priced at £10,000 an acre, and within 60 miles it is priced at £5,000 an acre. The price depends upon the demand. Land purchasers will reflect that demand in the price they pay. If there is a fantastic demand for housing in a certain area the price of land will correspondingly rocket. It is the stress areas for which we must legislate. I give the heartiest welcome to the Bill if it will produce better housing figures—and only if it will do so.
The housing improvement grant scheme has been criticised by some hon. Members and applauded by others and the housing programme has also been criticised. How many hon. Members realise the extent to which the success of the housing improvement grant scheme has siphoned off resources from new construction? We cannot complete millions of pounds worth of building in terms of labour and material for improvement schemes without affecting the new housing programme. A balance must be found that will not decrease the number of new starts and at the same time will maintain the housing improvement impetus.
I have seen massive competition for the labour that has been used for housing improvement. The scheme has not been so diligently supervised as it might have been, and I have heard people in the construction industry use the ugly phrase, "It is money for old rope". We want to eliminate these distasteful experiences. We have been so anxious to press on regardless that some less desirable schemes seem to have been allowed to get through.
I urge my hon. Friend to realise that we cannot get a quart out of a pint pot. No matter how we deploy our resources, it is the totality that counts. We must improve the labour supply through training, and I would welcome a crash programme on training. Whereas there used to be 1,250,000 in the industry there are now only 1 million, yet there is a fantastic housing shortage, and many people are desperate because of the misery caused by the lack of a home. The first charge on any nation should be to see that its people are properly housed.
When we were alerted to the dangers of war in 1939, it was decided that unless we took serious action we should be swamped. One great Prime Minister resigned and another great Prime Minister was appointed—
Appointments were made to deal with the problems. We had insufficient fighters and insufficient bombers, which were two essential factors for maintaining our independence in the world. There was a drive to overcome these shortages. I lived near the Hawker-Siddeley plant, where people were working night and day, and all the bottlenecks and obstacles were removed.
Why cannot we recognise that housing in the 1970s is a similar problem? Every obstacle should be removed and housing should be taken out of the political arena for ever. There is no mileage in continuously, decade after decade, squabbling across the benches about housing problems. Why do not we resolve to see an end to it now, so that housing is never debated in a political context in the 1980s? That is possible. If we have the will to do it, it will be done. The tragedy is that in spite of our protestations and actions we have never displayed the will. With the Bill and the will of my hon. Friend and his right hon. and learned Friend we can succeed in eliminating the housing problem once and for all, and I accordingly support the Bill.
There was much in the speech by the hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Idris Owen) with which I agree, especially his proposition that the country needs to repeat the process we went through in May 1940 and swap one Prime Minister for another. I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not follow his other comments.
It would be useful on this occasion to consider the Government's total record on housing. This is almost certainly the last housing Bill we shall have from the Government, and the figures which were produced last week by the Department of the Environment give us an opportunity to contrast the promises and hopes which the Conservative Party held out in the document humorously entitled "A Better Tomorrow" with the Government's performance in the intervening years.
Without going too much into the housing statistics, during the Government's three years of office they have completed fewer houses than were completed during the period of the Labour Government. The average of the Conservative years compared with the average of the Labour years for England and Wales, taking completions rather than starts, shows a one-sixth fall. That is a record in which no Conservative can take pride.
There are many features of the Bill on which we shall need to go into detail in Committee. A major defect is the failure to provide security for furnished tenants. That defect will undermine many other provisions of the Bill, for it means that landlords will be able, by using that loophole, to obtain improvement grants and continue to secure the benefit largely for themselves rather than for their tenants. That will happen despite the provisions in the Bill which strengthen the conditions applied to improvement grants.
The core of the Bill is in the provisions for improvement grants in housing action areas. In the last three or four years improvement grants have been the easiest way to get one's hands on a lot of other people's money without doing anything to deserve it. That has been the case irrespective of the wealth of the applicant for the improvement grant. Indeed, most of those who have benefited have been property companies whose directors and shareholders are almost by definition relatively well off.
In areas like mine in Islington the system has provoked evictions and winkling —getting out tenants, not illegally, but by misleading or buying them out, or offering them allegedly suitable alternative accommodation. In paragraph 13 of their White Paper, the Government claimed that the improvement grant system had been generally helpful in the right way. In my area—I understand it is true of the areas of many other hon. Members—improvement grants have contributed to a worsening of the housing situation, not to its improvement. Some of the blame can certainly attach to local authorities which too readily approve applications for improvement grants, at least in the early years. But the blame attaching to them is accompanied by much greater blame attaching to the Government for their incitement to local authorities to award improvement grants.
The Minister knows that at the end of 1970 and throughout 1971 circulars were issuing from the Department of the Environment which encouraged local authorities to give an improvement grant if it was remotely in accordance with the statutory provisions, positively misleading them about their discretion to refuse to give grants. The blame for that, as the Minister implied in an interjection, does not belong to this Minister. This Minister is the best housing Minister that the Government have had. Since his only predecessor was the worst housing Minister that the country has had, that is a very qualified compliment. But I sincerely make it in the hope that, in accordance with that reputation, he will have an open mind to the proposals for improving the Bill upstairs.
When one looks at the new arrangements for improvement grants proposed in the Bill there are certain defects. For example, no account is taken of the wealth of an applicant. I agree that it is difficult, but it would not be totally impracticable to do so. When we are talking of providing £1,500 of public money for one operation in a housing action area, it is legitimate to ask the Inland Revenue to spare some resources to certify what has been the wealth of an applicant over the previous year or two. To some extent the Minister may argue that the point is taken care of by the proposals for limiting improvement grants to properties with a single rateable value. We do not have the Government's ideas on that rateable value limit. The Government's first thoughts were obviously mad and were said to be wrong by the Expenditure Committee. I am glad that the Government have accepted that our criticisms were valid and have withdrawn their suggested earlier figures. But we do not yet know their new ideas. I would have thought that it would have been right for the Government to present proposals about that before the Bill had its Second Reading. Whatever the figure, what about an area like Barnsbury in Islington, which is going up, as they say, where we have a lot of people who are badly off, living in houses which, because it is now a popular area for well-off professional people, have a high rateable value? One would be denying improvement grants, perhaps, to people who are badly off because they happened to acquire a house for a low price when it was not such a fashionable area. There must be some way round that difficulty when the Minister comes to set his rateable value limits.
We come to the new proposals on conditions to be attached to improvement grants. In some ways the Bill is going backwards on this. I hope that that is appreciated in the sense that, while the Bill requires certain conditions to be attached to the grants and permits local authorities to attach other conditions, it prohibits them from attaching any conditions which are not specified in the Bill as permissible or required. That means that some of the conditions which sensible boroughs like Camden and Glasgow have applied in the past will be prohibited in future.
The wording adopted by the Bill is, clearly, directed at the practice of Glasgow and Camden, which have used, in the case of Glasgow, a personal bond, and in the case of Camden, a contract, legally in my opinion but not in the opinion of the Minister's advisers. In future, they will be prohibited from doing so. That is a backward step. The result will be that those local authorities will say "No" when an applicant asks for a grant. If the Minister doubts that he can look at some of the evidence that the Expenditure Committee took when this question was put to many local authority witnesses: "If you are not allowed to impose conditions which you think right, are you likely to refuse grants?" The answer was: "Yes." By this over-rigidity the Minister may well be causing some people not to receive grants which they would otherwise be able to receive on more stringent conditions.
The Bill has a curious discrepancy— one among many—between the conditions applying to England and Wales and those applying to Scotland. In Scotland not only will it be possible for the local authority to recover a grant if the conditions are breached, but it will be possible for it to get an interdict to require fulfilment of the conditions. I fail to see why the option between those two possible methods of enforcement should not be open to authorities in England as well.
We come to the matter of percentages, where I disagree with many of my hon. Friends. I believe that the 75 per cent. grant should be the normal grant, irrespective of whether the hardship of the particular applicant is excessive. It distorts the choice between improving a place and pulling it down and rebuilding. That distortion can be shown most graphically if one compares the level of Government subsidy for the two operations. If we assume that on the one hand a person is building a house, he would get tax relief through mortgage interest—in normal circumstances a 25 per cent. subsidy on his costs—but if he is improving his house with £2,000 expenditure, and it is in an action housing area, he will get 75 per cent. and 25 per cent. in tax subsidies on the remainder, making a total of 82½ per cent. The improvement is subsidised by the Government to the tune of 82½ per cent. and new building to the tune of 25 per cent.
With the Government subsidising the two activities with that differential, there must be a distortion of choice. In many cases it must be more profitable to build afresh, but for the individual his personal costs will be lower if he improves. It is bad in principle to make something more profitable for the individual and less profitable for the community. I shall be interested to hear arguments from the Conservatives benches if it is thought that I have got the situation wrong.
I wish to say a word or two about housing action areas. This concept is the core of the Government's solution to areas of housing stress. The very wording of the Bill suggests that in these areas there will be a kind of activity that is quite different in degree of intensity from what has gone before. I regard the proposals for housing action areas as bogus—first, because of their permitted size and, second, because of the power which the Bill proposes to give them.
What will happen when an area becomes a housing action area? Three things only will happen. First, repair grants will be permissible up to £600—a very good provision. Secondly, grants will be available for external works where they are not available elsewhere— again a good provision. Thirdly, it will mean that normal improvement grants will be available up to 75 per cent., and 90 per cent. in the case of hardship, compared with 50 per cent. and 60 per cent. elsewhere. This is all that a "housing action area" means. I leave aside for the moment compulsory purchase powers, but I wish to stress that in fact a housing action area in terms of "action" amounts to very little.
Are the differences in compulsory powers significant? I intervened in the Minister's speech to suggest that, while the words in the Bill suggest that local authorities will be able to get CPOs in housing action areas more readily than they have been able to obtain them elsewhere, local authorities can go for CPOs at the moment under existing legislation for exactly the kind of consideration for which in future they will invoke the provisions of this Bill. If they are unsuccessful at the moment, it is only because the Minister turns them down. All it amounts to is that the Minister is saying that in future he will be more ready to approve CPOs. This is a very good thing, because his refusal to approve CPOs has been a major stumbling-block. However, this does not justify all the fuss which has been made about the Bill. Therefore, the powers in housing action areas are bogus and amount to but a little improvement on what now exists.
One difficulty that arises is how on earth a borough such as Islington is to choose between one area and another as an action area. How will one justify a woman at one end of the street obtaining £1,000 to carry out an improvement and a woman at the other end of the street obtaining £1,500 or £1,800 if she is badly off? What would happen if the badly-off woman was the one who was receiving only £1,000 just because she was outside the housing action area. No one can justify such a discrepancy.
I believe that the proposal for housing action areas has come forward because the Minister's conception of the situation has been wrong. He has wandered through cities and seen balconies and cobbled streets and everything in the garden lovely—and he then comes across one or two dirty and untidy streets. It is a bricks and mortar problem, but at least in London the authorities do not face that problem. They face the difficulty of housing people from one part or other of their total area. Those authorities usually wish to use their powers not only for the benefit of those living in, say, a proposed housing action area but for the benefit of people who are badly housed outside that area. The Bill does not allow local authorities to take action on those lines.
In the interests of brevity, I conclude by saying that we shall pursue many of these points in Committee.
Before the debate continues, I appeal to hon. Members to keep their speeches down to the bare minimum. I think I can say, on behalf of all hon. Members who still remain to speak, that a duration of 10 minutes for each speech would be ideal.
I give a qualified welcome to the Bill, especially to the concept of housing action areas. I wish to speak in a Scottish context, since Glasgow Corporation has felt aggrieved at the delay in the number of approvals given by the Scottish Office to certain treatment area projects and at the delay in obtaining compulsory purchase orders for these schemes in my constituency.
I should like to welcome the help given in the Bill to housing associations and also to any action that may be taken to deal with unoccupied office premises in London and other parts of England and Wales. I must point out that the Explanatory Financial Memorandum mentions only England and Wales. The Bill appears to make no mention of Scotland. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for development at the Scottish Office, who is now present on the Government Front Bench, will take on board the legitimate complaint voiced by many people in Glasgow. We have over 500,000 sq. ft. of empty office space, and some of this accommodation has been available for over two years. I do not see how the Bill can assist in terms of empty office accommodation in Scotland, since the memorandum which I have already mentioned appears to leave Scotland out of consideration. This is utterly wrong, and this point must be pursued in Committee.
The Bill as it affects Scotland is a bad piece of legislation. It is full of anomalies and there are some glaring and serious omissions from its provisions. It will do little to help solve the housing problem in my constituency or in Scotland as a whole. It betrays once again the ignorance and insensitivity of Tory Governments in respect of housing policy.
Before the hon. Member for Glasgow, Gorbals (Mr. McElhone) goes any further with his remarks about the Government's insensitivity I should like to point out that the Bill's provisions apply to the United Kingdom as a whole.
I do not want to take up unnecessary time in debating this point, but I refer the Minister to the first paragraph of the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum, which reads:
and to make arrangements for the management of unoccupied office premises in England and Wales.
The memorandum does not mention Scotland. I should like the hon. Gentleman to consider that point, especially if he becomes a member of the Standing Committee. Some of the Scottish Members of Parliament feel very strongly that there is no separate Scottish Bill on this occasion. After all, we have had two separate Scottish White Papers, we have had a debate in the Scottish Grand Committee, and it was only fair and reasonable to expect a separate Scottish Bill. Many of our housing Acts are separate and distinct from United Kingdom housing legislation, and this point should be borne in mind.
I should like to refer to the Goschen formula. I am disturbed to see that expenditure over a period of four or five years will amount to a maximum of only £6 million. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Kelvingrove (Dr. Miller), who was a planning convenor in Glasgow, will confirm the fact that, having regard to present housing costs, a figure of only £6 million over a period of four to five years is a nonsense. Furthermore, it contradicts the formula which has always been operated. I understand that the Goschen formula worked on a principle of a figure of 11/80ths, so that by virtue of that formula the figure of £6 million should be increased to £11 million. I hope that when concluding the debate the Minister will explain that point for the benefit of Scottish Members.
I should also like to comment on the problems of social mix and the problems of community in housing. The hon. Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Sally Oppenheim) referred to vast housing estates and their problems. Glasgow has estates of 30,000 to 40,000 people. I should like powers to be given to the Minister to try to persuade new housing associations to start up within these large housing estates or on the periphery of large municipal housing estates so that we can obtain a better social mix. We tend to sterilise communities when they consist of 30,000 to 40,000 council house families.
The White Paper, "Homes for People, Scottish Housing Policy in the 1970s", Cmnd. 5272, in paragraph 5 states that local authorities should try to assess their housing needs comprehensively. It also talks about the social provision of shops, schools and community centres. I am in favour of 500 houses in housing action areas being brought up to standard, but the whole idea of community and housing falls down if we do not provide community centres, schools and shops. What makes a nonsense of the Bill is that local authorities are told to review their needs in a comprehensive fashion but at the same time to cut back on public expenditure. Scottish local authorities have been informed that they must cut back by at least £80 million this year.
The Bill lacks purpose because there is no incentive for either housing associations or local authorities to consider extra accommodation for the disabled, sheltered, or other specific types of accommodation which are necessary in large urban areas.
The Bill lacks imagination, because it gives no incentive to young families by developing schemes for home ownership or making it possible for people facing crippling mortgage rates somehow to overcome the present 11 per cent. rate which many are now paying.
The indicative cost procedure operated by the Scottish Office was a scheme to keep housing costs within certain limits. In my area—a new development area— in large numbers of new multi-storey blocks of flats and maisonettes the cutting and paring of costs has meant that the bedrooms on one side of a maisonette are below the corridors, and because the concrete floor has no tiling the noise is unbearable for anyone in those bedrooms. The entrance halls in multi-storey blocks are another bad example. They are often dirty because of the shabby entrances to these massive blocks containing 180 to 200 houses.
The local authority must go back to the Scottish Office and beg for extra grants to try to increase the standards of these relatively new houses. Otherwise, we shall reduce the morale of the people living in them. It is only by virtue of an aggressive but reasonable tenants' housing association in my area—the Hutcheson-town Tenants' Association—which looks after 2,000 houses, that standards have been kept up at all.
I should like the Under-Secretary of State for Development, Scottish Office, to convey to the Minister who is to conclude the debate on one or two points pertinent to Scotland. I understand that under the Bill a tenant can lose his rights regarding rehousing if his house comes under improvement clearance or development schemes. Under all legislation that has so far taken place high priority has been given to anyone whose house was taken from him for either development or rehabilitation. I understand that under the provisions in the Bill he has no rights for rehousing. With a normal, reasonable local authority there need be no fear, but there are apprehensions about local authorities in other parts of Scotland. This point must be taken on board.
The Bill, at page 138, line 6, states that a tenant can be made to vacate his house within a period of between two weeks and four weeks, on a sheriff's order. This is a serious matter in any Bill. If a tenant cannot be guaranteed rehousing in, say, the city of Glasgow, how can it be said that on a sheriff's order he and his family can be put out on the street within a period of between two and four weeks? That is wrong. It makes it difficult for people, particularly those with large families. That is one matter that must come out of the Bill.
The Bill will have to be amended substantially in Committee. I want to see in it a provision for the speeding up of planning procedures and of approvals by the Scottish Office. If we do not have such a provision and do not provide the proper finance it will turn out to be a bad measure and an albatross round the necks of Scottish local authorities.
As is the convention, I must declare my interest as an architect and planning consultant. Having studied as best I can this complex and comprehensive Bill with 132 clauses and 13 schedules attached to it, I realise that that interest is professional rather than financial. But the Bill certainly has a constituency interest for me. I welcome it as a sizeable step forward in trying to grapple with the acute housing problems facing the nation.
I should like at the outset to take up one point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Idris Owen). Few people would doubt the good intentions of successive Governments in trying to tackle the housing problem, but what has plagued them in their determination is the stop-go economy. Whenever there is a depression or deflation the construction industry — the most important industry in this country, spending thousands of millions of pounds a year, with 1½ million people directly working in it and hundreds of thousands producing materials for it—always suffers and that puts back the housing programme.
If we study the programmes of successive Governments in the last 60 years we see that they hoped to clear slums first by 1960, then by 1970, then by 1980, and now I understand that the latest date is 1982. We must devise some system whereby we can ensure that, whatever the economic constraints may be, the construction industry has more of a rolling programme.
The President of the Royal Institute of British Architects, Mr. Fred Pooley, put the point well and in the right jargon when he said:
The hand operated tap that used to produce stop-go in the building industry must be replaced by an automatic ball valve designed to allow sufficient work to flow to the industry to keep it working at the right level.
I want to refer to three particular aspects of this comprehensive Bill. The first relates to the widening functions of the Housing Corporation. I do not disagree with this proposal. I concede that the Housing Corporation must be given extra finance and wider powers to acquire, to develop and to dispose of land and buildings. I do not object to the borrowing powers being raised to £300 million with the possibility of up to £750 million, but, to take up another point that was made, this agency by itself will not solve the housing problem. We need not only adequate finance and proper administration but the materials and the skilled labour.
I particularly welcome the tightening of the control of voluntary housing associations. I do not wish to be misunderstood on this. The associations have done magnificent work since they were set up, particularly in my constituency, but much of their work, although well intentioned, has been piecemeal and I have always regarded them as I regard industrial systems of building. I can speak only for a corner of Birmingham, but there we have had too many of them to be effective and I hope that there will be a rationalisation of their number and the scope of their work. The methods of financing them through grants and loans has been wrong because it has created a bad side effect in the tendency—for financial reasons— for them to convert a typical Victorian house which should have been made into three seperate dwelling units into four or five in order to make the most of financial resources available.
I particularly welcome the setting up of the housing action areas. I can see the problem that they may be too small or too large, but if we are able to solve the housing problem we have to discriminate in favour of certain areas, particularly in our large cities, and that means giving preferential treatment. If that is done, a line must be drawn somewhere, and I take the point made by the hon. Member for Islington, South-West (Mr. George Cunningham) about improvement grants. Obviously, however there must be a division somewhere, and I suppose it depends on which areas are made housing action areas.
I fear that many of us will be disappointed when the areas are designated because we shall obviously want more areas in our own constituencies. I do not share the criticisms by some hon. Members about the designation of the housing action areas and the five-year period. Although it is a different concept, the matter must be approached in the way that Operation Eyesore was tackled. The local housing authorities must have an incentive to get moving on these areas, and if the incentive is that they must be able to complete their programmes or get them under way in five years, this is crucial to the problem. This arrangement is probably more flexible than it appears because, as I understand it, Clause 37 gives the Secretary of State power to extend or curtail the period. I agree that the Secretary of State, perhaps regrettably and reluctantly, must have the power to approve housing action areas. If he does not, many local authorities will, for very understandable reasons, declare too many areas and the problem will not be tackled in the efficient way that it must be.
I listened with great interest to the hon. Member for Islington, South-West on the question of improvement grants. He is something of an expert because he is a member of the Expenditure Sub-Committee which has been dealing with the problem. Nevertheless, I disagree with him in one respect. The main criticism of the existing system is that it is too inflexible and that it has been helping people who do not need help while not giving sufficient help to those who need it.
I should like to join other hon. Members in supporting what the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) was saying. I feel most strongly that there is a case for honouring—and that is the word we should use—the intention of the local authorities to give improvement grants. I believe I am right in saying that Blackburn is an assisted area, and I hope that the right hon. Lady's constituent who fears losing the 75 per cent. grant if the work is not completed by the end of June will at the least get a 60 per cent. grant under the general improvement grant arrangements or, if not, at least a 50 per cent. grant. I should be grateful for any clarification about that.
The idea that in a housing action area the improvement grant will be 75 per cent., or up to 90 per cent. in cases of hardship—and that is a means test which is right in a situation such as this—is the way to tackle the problem, recognising also, as it does, that even the remainder of the amount needed to effect general improvement works could be obtained in the form of a loan. It seems that we are at last providing adequate financial resources to tackle these problems.
I cannot understand why a limitation on improvement grants should necessarily be put on buildings erected before 1961. I accept the general thesis that these grants should be for older rather than for modern buildings, but I should like to know why 1961 has been chosen. I agree with the legal requirement in the Bill that anyone in breach of the conditions of an improvement grant should be liable to repay the full cost of that grant. That is reasonable because the amount of grant should be based upon the desirability to renovate the property and the ability of the owner or the occupier to pay. For that reason I do not object to a limit based upon rateable value of the house. It is high time we got rid of the ridiculous and abused system of giving improvement grants for second homes.
I know that other hon. Members wish to speak and I, therefore, limit my remarks to these few points. Nevertheless the Bill is a step forward. There may be points which can be improved, but I give the Bill my support and I hope that it gets a Second Reading.
My experience of the housing situation was gained in the great city of Birmingham, of which the Under-Secretary is a representative. As chairman of the housing committee of Birmingham City Council I faced many of the problems mentioned today. When it was dissatisfied with what the Government allowed or did not allow, Birmingham City Council brought forward legislation to this House to obtain powers to enable it to do things that other local authorities could not do. Birmingham's record is probably second to none in slum clearance and the redevelopment of outdated areas.
I think that only Birmingham adopted the policy of "patching up" houses that were acquired under slum clearance compulsory purchase orders. Under that patching-up procedure thousands of houses were dealt with. Now they have been demolished and new properties stand in their place. The cost to the ratepayer of that patching-up operation was £1,250,000 a year. A similar procedure is envisaged for the housing action areas.
Some of the aims of the Bill will be nullified by the shortage of labour. It is disappointing that the Government have not sought to counteract that shortage with legislation putting beyond the pale labour only sub-contracting, which has serious effects upon recruitment to the building industry. The "lump" means that training which should be taking place through apprenticeships is not being done. This will have a perpetual effect. It will not be with us merely this year next year and the year after; it will still be with us in 10 to 15 years' time because the boys are not being trained now.
I do not want to dwell upon the housing figures, but it is wrong for the Government to shelter behind their appalling housing figures and use improvement grants as a base for their argument. Conservative Members who welcome the Bill, say that it will increase the number of improvements taking place. Then we hear the counter-argument that the same labour force will be involved in improving existing houses and building new houses. The people who are waiting for houses will have to be told that they must wait longer as the building industry is having to make good slum properties as well as building new houses.
I shall not dwell on the abuses of improvement grants which we all know have taken place. We have all seen the blatant misuse of public money for private profit. I hope that the provision requiring all owners who breach the conditions of the improvement grant system to repay the grant in full will be used without fear or favour.
The contribution of housing associations has been valuable. However, we must recognise that they operate in a narrow area. Only about 1·5 per cent. of Britain's housing stock comes under the housing associations. I do not dismiss what they have done. They have done excellent work for specialist agencies such as the handicapped, ex-prisoners, single persons and the homeless. They have saved many Victorian properties by converting them into decent housing accommodation. It would be wrong to think that the associations can take over the rôle of the local authorities. That would be an impossibility. They have too small a base to enable them to take in urban renewal. Perhaps the Government are placing too much emphasis on the rôle of the associations, particularly so in city areas of real stress.
For that reason the Government should be considering alternatives to the housing associations. In particular, they should consider selective municipalisation of certain properties in inner city areas. It is clear that the private landlords will not do very much more to increase the amenites for their tenants. We must accept much more municipalisation because we must remember that in the long term the rehousing of people living in poor conditions will be the responsibility of the local housing authorities. Greater municipalisation will enable authorities to offer a greater variety of housing to many people living in large social groupings.
Homelessness is a reflection of inadequate housing. If we are to relieve bad social conditions and their concentration in some areas there should be included within the Bill planning measures spelling out clearly that the relatively privileged areas should accept some of the responsibility for housing people who live in areas of extreme housing stress. Many local authorities which have serious housing problems in large cities, such as London, Birmingham, Manchester and Sheffield, could be helped considerably if they had less selfish neighbours in their more affluent surroundings. I should have liked to see in the Bill some compulsory measures to involve the more affluent authorities in relieving people living in stressful conditions.
The problems of poor housing conditions tend to concentrate in the inner rings of our large cities. Such areas should not be considered only as housing action areas. The general environment, the decay and the deprivation, which is apparent to anyone, must also be considered. Such areas tend to be called different things and given posher names as time goes on, but those names mean exactly the same thing. We must try to bring some opportunities to the people who live in them. They should be considered as a whole and not only as housing action areas. Very often they will be adjacent to a redevelopment area and close to a housing improvement area. Therefore, we must consider them not in isolation but as urban renewal areas. The health department, the social services and the leisure services should be introduced so that ultimately a complete community is produced.
That is what I am looking for in the Bill, but, unfortunately, if we are to have cut-backs in the social services we shall leave in isolation and in social deprivation the people who live in housing action areas. The title of the Bill suggests that the planning which it contains would be much more imaginative and of a broader concept. We welcome certain provisions of the Bill, but many aspects of it will need a great deal of debate in Committee.
I make no apology for reminding the House that my constituency is one of the top 20 in Britain with the worst housing problems. Fifty-nine per cent. of households in my constituency have exclusive use of all amenities, compared with 83 per cent. nationally; 27 per cent. have a shared bath or no bath, compared with 12 per cent. nationally and 27 per cent. have no inside toilet, compared with 11 per cent. nationally. Overcrowding is nearly twice as bad as the national overcrowding level. My constituents want to know what the Bill will do to put things right. I regret to say that the answer is "Not enough".
What are the problems in my constituency and other similar inner city constituencies? The first is unfit houses which are incapable of improvement. In Manchester such houses are being demolished and replaced rapidly. Provided money is available, that is now the easiest housing problem to solve in Manchester, and we are getting on with it very well. Indeed, the controversy in the city now is on the question whether too many houses are being demolished rather than whether enough are being demolished and replaced.
The second problem in a constituency such as mine is that of private landlord houses and owner-occupied houses without all the standard amenities but nevertheless capable of longer life if improvement takes place. They can be helped by individual or group improvement. In the light of that problem, I welcome the powers in Part VI to prevent what is described as "inappropriate" declaration of general improvement areas. If they had been introduced in earlier legislation, such powers would have prevented thoughtless designation of general improvement areas, such as the one by the council, when the Conservatives in Manchester had control of the Brailsford Road general improvement area in my constituency, which has brought about minimal improvement and maximum dissatisfaction among the residents of the area.
The new concept of housing action areas, which I welcome, has aroused great uncertainty in areas in my constituency where improvement is taking place. I take as an example the area that is called the Groves, in Chorlton upon Medlock in my constituency—a small island of terrace houses which are not to be demolished and which are now surrounded by a sea of dereliction. They form a little island in the wasteland of clearance. Some of the owner-occupiers there are trying to improve the houses under existing legislation. Owing to delays which are no fault of theirs, the improvement may not be completed by the end of June, when the 75 per cent. grant runs out. The grant will then fall to 50 per cent. But when the Bill is enacted the Groves area may well be declared a housing action area. There is great pressure among the residents for that to happen, pressure which has my support. If it happens, the grant will go up to 75 per cent. again. But when? There is no date in the Bill for the housing action areas to come into operation. When the Bill comes into effect there will be a delay before a housing action area can be confirmed.
We therefore have a ludicrous situation in which an area which now has 75 per cent. grant, and which may well receive 75 per cent. grant again, will fall between the two 75 per cent. grant periods, and the householders will be put to needless expense. Will the Government consider amending the Bill, either by allowing the 75 per cent. grant on all work started by 30th June or by allowing the designation of housing action areas before the Bill is enacted, and giving the measure an operative date of 30th June so that the grant periods run smoothly on from the old legislation to the new?
That is the second kind of problem in my constituency. We have a third, for which the Bill does nothing. I refer to the old council estates and the old blocks of council flats. I should like to mention three in my constituency, to which I have often referred in the House before —the Heywood House block of flats, the Greenwood House block of flats and the Union Street estate. They need concentrated attention of the kind which will be available under the housing action area provisions. The blocks of flats are 40 years old and falling into appalling dereliction of the kind described by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Gorbals (Mr. McElhone), yet the Bill excludes specific help for them.
If the Bill works, as I sincerely hope it will, many parts of the inner cities will bloom again, but not those areas which are serious areas of housing stress just as much as private residential areas. I believe that the Government should allow appropriate council properties to be declared housing action areas, with the safeguards which are rightly set forth in the Bill, and also provide the necessary finance for allowing such action areas to be created in council estates of the kind that I have mentioned.
There are other detailed matters that need attention. In my view, Clause 95 is not tough enough on enforcing improvements. A starting date as well as a completion date should be required for improvements.
I received a letter only this morning from a constituent of mine who wrote to tell me that he was 70 years old and had had his left leg amputated above the knee. He said that he was unable to take a bath at home because he had only a tin bath in his house and his landlord would not provide him with a bath under the improvement provisions which are available. If the Bill enforced a starting date for such improvements, my constituent, a septuagenarian who has had a leg amputated, would be entitled to facilities of the kind which everyone should expect.
I also ask that Clause 126, providing the right to challenge service charges, be extended to leaseholders as well as tenants. Leaseholders are often exploited by service charges when they cannot be exploited in any other way.
The Bill could have provided the framework of a new deal for our cities. As it stands, I regret that it is quite inadequate. The Opposition will try to improve it, and we hope that the Government will be receptive to our suggestions for improvements. If they are not, the Bill will be enacted as a monument to a missed opportunity.
I begin by referring to what I believe to be one omission from the Bill, and it relates to the problems of the occupiers of houseboats, who, taken with caravan dwellers, are the one section of the community who have no security of tenure in their homes.
In my constituency there are a considerable number of residents of houseboats along the banks of the Thames, and there are many thousands of houseboats in rivers and canals or by the coast, taking the country as a whole.
I have written to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, and he has replied saying that it would cause difficult problems of navigation in certain rivers and canals were househoats to be given security of moorings. I am not entirely satisfied with that answer. I believe that there are many places where there would be no such problem, perhaps in the majority of mooring sites. I have written again to my hon. Friend, and I hope that the Government will take another look at the problem. Not everyone regards houseboats as desirable, although many people regard them as picturesque, but I am sure that it is the wish of everyone to treat their occupants as human beings.
That omission apart, I welcome the Bill, and intend to vote in support of it. I welcome especially the added support which is to be given to housing associations, which can make a substantial contribution to the solution of our housing problems, despite the doubts expressed by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Mrs. Doris Fisher).
I also welcome the right which is to be given to tenants to know the name of their landlord. I am certain that this provision will assist both local authorities and Members of Parliament when they are attempting to deal with what I believe to be a minority of landlords who sometimes still act in an uncivilised manner towards their tenants.
I turn now to rent allowances. I believe the provision of rent allowances to the tenants of private furnished and unfurnished flats and houses to be a major achievement of the present Government. For years it has puzzled me, and, I believe, a great many other people, why it should be thought that council tenants who were in need of help with their rents should get it and private tenants could not.
I wish to ask my right hon. and learned Friend about the take-up of rent allowances. In common with all other hon. Members of this House, I received a couple of months ago, extracts from the results of the 1971 Census. It showed that the owner-occupied houses in that year in the country as a whole represented 48 per cent. The number of council tenancies was 30½ per cent. and the number of private tenancies, furnished and unfurnished, totalled 21 per cent.
The figures for my own constituency are rather different from the national average. The figure for owner-occupied houses in 1971 was 59 per cent., for council houses 11½ per cent. and for private tenancies, furnished and unfurnished, 29 per cent. As there are about 30,000 dwellings in my constituency there must be about 9,000 private tenancies. I was recently told by the housing manager that about 900 or 1,000 rent allowances were being paid in my constituency. I would expect about one quarter, one-third or even 40 per cent. of private tenants to be eligible for rent allowances.
Despite the considerable efforts, both by Government and by local authorities, to publicise the fact that many people are eligible for rent allowances, there are still a substantial number, not only in my own constituency but throughout the country, who are entitled to these allowances and not yet getting them. I believe the Government are to have a new publicity campaign on this in the next few weeks, as spelled out in the Act. I hope they will do everything they can to step up what they are doing in this direction and so provide those who are entitled with the benefits of this important new right.
Next, I should like to ask my right hon. and learned Friend if he would hasten an important decision with possible housing implications in my constituency, a planning decision over the so-called Hampton Nursery lands. I fully appreciate that I cannot now ask him to comment on the merits, one way or the other, of this planning problem since he is acting in a quasi-judicial capacity. I would merely say that this decision has been awaited for many months. It is of considerable importance from a housing point of view because it could provide about 1,200 new dwellings, partly private, partly council, partly housing association, with a considerable amount of open space, about 35 or 40 acres. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will decide to act soon to end the uncertainty that has obtained in the district while we have been awaiting his decision on it.
Next, I refer to the question of municipalisation, which was raised by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood, who urged more municipalisation of housing. I am particularly interested in this in a London context because in April of last year, after the change of control, the Greater London Council announced that it intended to spend about £100 million on purchasing existing houses in the private market.
The hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Leonard) thinks that is very good, but I do not see how he can justify spending £100 million of ratepayers' money, a colossal sum, in a way which adds not one single housing unit to the total stock of housing in London; and it is the total stock that matters most of all, because there is a shortage of both private and of municipal housing and it is surely important that both needs should be met.
I understand that the GLC has already spent £3 million of ratepayers' money on purchasing properties, including some in my constituency. I hope my right hon. and learned Friend will take firm and determined action before long to ensure that the GLC and other housing authorities in London spend their resources, and, in particular, that part of their resources available for housing, in such a way as will add to the housing stock and so relieve the housing shortage.
My speech will differ from that of the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) in at least two respects. First, it will treat with matters dealt with in the Bill; second, it will, I think, keep within the time limit which you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, are rightly seeking to impose.
I wish to speak about the provisions in the Bill—mainly in Part II—which deal with housing associations. I believe that housing associations have a distinct and necessary rôle to play in housing provision but I also believe that that rôle will be more effectively played if its necessary limitations are clearly recognised. The worst service that anyone could do to housing associations, or to people who have a housing need, is to suggest that housing associations can replace local authorities, or to try to set off housing associations against local authorities.
A number of Tory councils tried to do that some years ago, including my authority of the London borough of Havering which, in the period between 1967 and 1971—when it was under Tory control— drastically reduced its housing programme on the pretext that the difference would be made up by housing associations. Of course, they did no such thing; nor was it ever conceivable that housing associations could move in and suddenly take up all the slack which was let out by the Tory authority in Havering.
The result has been that though, since 1971, the new Labour-controlled council has taken very energetic steps to increase its housing provision, thousands of my constituents still have a severe housing problem because of the doctrinaire and short-sighted view of the Tories when in control in Havering.
It is essential that not only local authorities but the Government and both political parties should see the matter in perspective. They should recognise that both housing associations and local authorities have an important part to play in the provision of rented housing, but that the major rôle must be played by the local authorities. The rôle of the housing associations is essentially supplementary. I wonder whether the Government recognise that.
In various parts of the Bill nasty indications of a doctrinaire, anti-local authority tone creep in, which must cause profound misgivings. I refer, for example, to Clause 41(4), which not only gives local authorities the power to transfer any housing land which they acquire in housing action areas to housing associations but gives the Secretary of State the power to require local authorities to hand over to a registered housing association any parcels of land which he selects. The Minister for Housing and Construction said that this was a reserve power, but it is extremely widely defined in the Bill. It is a sign of a dogmatic and doctrinaire suspicion of local authorities. I should be much happier if the Minister did not reveal such a suspicion.
I am all for a Bill which is designed to give legitimate assistance to reputable housing associations but I cannot vote for a Bill which is meant to clobber local authorities.
I warmly welcome the general purpose of Part II. If housing associations are to receive extra financial and other assistance from local authorities and from the Government, it is entirely proper that there should be closer control of their activities than there has been hitherto and that Parliament should lay down the conditions under which they should be registered. Two years ago my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, West (Mr. Horam) proposed, in the Standing Committee on the Housing Finance Act, that there should be a register of housing associations. Even if it is two years later I am very glad that the Government have finally seen the wisdom of the arguments which he advanced then. I think, though, that there is a severe risk that an opportunity will be missed of laying down appropriate conditions which would improve housing associations and make them much more responsive to their members than many of them have been in the past.
The man who has been left out in the provisions of this Bill, as he has so often been left out by this Government in the past, is the tenant. There is no word in Part II of the Bill about requiring housing associations to conform to minimum democratic criteria. There is no provision that local authorities shall be represented on the management bodies of the housing associations. There is no provision that there should be open meetings of the tenants, or that tenants should be represented on the management committees of housing associations.
This part of the Bill, in fact, appears to be a charter for paternalism. I believe that most reputable housing associations would now be prepared to go much further in the direction of introducing democratic participation than is required by the Bill. I think that this is a very severe shortcoming of the Bill and I hope very much that it will be radically amended in Committee.
I join those who have spoken in support of housing associations. I had some opportunity to examine this subject as a member of the Cohen Committee during the period of the Socialist administration. [Interruption.] An hon. Member says "What a committee that was". It certainly was not able to complete its work, but we established a great deal of useful information which has been a guide to the present Government. It is in that context that I welcome the appointment of Lord Goodman to incorporate the work of housing associations and to join together the very wide fields of responsibility lying with the Housing Corporation and the National Building Agency.
Having said that, I question whether we have an adequate institution to deal with the areas of dereliction in the great cities which were referred to earlier by the hon. Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman). I am thinking in terms of the London Docks, Liverpool District 8, which I saw as a member of the Select Committee on Immigration and Race Relations; I saw the dereliction there, and I note the examples that have been quoted during our debate on this Bill.
I think what we should be seeking is to build up a powerful institution which can take a substantial areas of a city and bring redevelopment proposals of a substantial character to the scene. This is in no way intended to detract from the idea of housing action areas, but I see these on a very much smaller scale. In the institution I am thinking of—this is in contradiction to what the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Leonard) had to say—I would look for arrangements by which it would be substantially devoid of a political content. They should be able to bring professional and local government experience, certainly, but in no way linked to political machines. I want to see continuity of objectives unaffected by changes in political control. In this way I see an opportunity for a continuity of programme established on criteria from which the political differences between the main parties are absent.
I also want to see limited objectives in development terms and in terms of time scale. In these circumstances, there are great attractions to the professionals upon whom the success or otherwise of a scheme must depend. We have seen this type of development in expanded towns and development corporations, and it has an application to areas of dereliction in our great cities.
I am sorry to see the political content, for example in the appointment of the committee to run the London Docks. I have had a reply only today to a Question that I put to the Secretary of State on this matter. We should be looking to different institutions, in addition to those which are supplied by local government, the private sector and the housing associations. We should be trying to group together the housing associations under the new organisation for which Lord Goodman is to be responsible, so that we could join the larger contractors in solving this problem and could appoint project management teams.
It is said that the housing problem is always with us. When one considers some of our cities and reflects that they have been under the same political control for many years while the problem has remained unsolved, one realises that we should be giving our minds to differing institutions to help solve this problem.
In the short time remaining I shall avoid repeating the points made by other hon. Members and also the many constituency points that I could have made. I shall concentrate on the concept of the housing action areas. The Opposition have been a little too ready to welcome this concept because it was born in the context of a comprehensive housing policy presented to us in the two White Papers, "Widening the Choice" and "Better Homes: The Next Priorities".
In "Widening the Choice" were set out the first three principles which the Government outlined. The first was securing a greater stability in the flow of more mortgage funds. We know that there have been leisurely consultations with the Building Societies Association, but nothing has happened or is likely to happen in the immediate future.
The second principle was to secure supplies of building land sufficient to enable the industry to use its capacity to the full. There has been an appeal to the outer boroughs to supply the land, but to a great extent only the Labour authorities are responding. In the London borough of Merton, for example, where the local Labour authority has made some land available, two of the local Conservative Members of Parliament have been tramping around the bounds of the private playing fields involved to protest about it, despite the fact that over 25 per cent of land in the borough is open space.
The third principle was the land hoarding charge, and we know what has happened to that.
In "Better Homes: The Next Priorities", the concept of housing action areas was outlined. They were to have certain characteristics. In paragraph 27 we were told that it was intended
to empower local authorities to require landlords selling tenanted property within the area to offer first refusal … to an approved housing association ".
The Minister said that he had decided that this was impracticable because, after all, they could always sell the company.
But there are very few "one-house" companies. If a house is to be transferred from one company to another, that is a transfer whereupon the right of preemption could become available.
It was also proposed to allow local authorities to nominate a tenant for vacant rented accommodation. I can see that it would be unsatisfactory to put in an unwanted tenant though most of my constituents have become unwanted tenants, but what is needed is for the local authority to acquire premises that an owner is leaving empty. The provision in the White Paper does not appear in the Bill.
It was also proposed, in this same paragraph, to place local authorities under a statutory duty to rehouse anyone displaced. Instead of that obligation, we have Clause 91 which is totally ineffective and inadequate.
The concept of housing action areas could be satisfactory if they were areas in which the power to carry out improvements compulsorily and the powers of compulsory acquisition were concentrated, and if they were used as areas in which to concentrate the energies of public health inspectors—of whom, goodness knows, we are very short—those areas which need improvement most could be improved rapidly. Specialised building and improvement teams can work more effectively in areas where they can work their way up a street. But having heard the speeches of my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydvil (Mr. Rowlands) and of my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) I am by no means satisfied that the concept of housing action areas is right in this Bill, in so far as it results in discrimination in relation to improvement grants.
Looking at the Bill in detail we find that measures which might have enabled it to be of some real effect have been taken away. It is window dressing of an empty shop. As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South-West (Mr. George Cunningham) suggested, the Minister is perhaps the best Minister of Housing this Government have had, but his predecessor did not care about what he did not understand. We know that this Minister does understand, but we are forced to the conclusion that either he does not care or his care and his weight are not sufficient to carry the contents of an effective Bill against his colleagues.
If I read the political portents aright, we are in the dying days of this Parliament. It may be that it will limp along for a little while, but at any rate it is a fair assumption that this measure is in this Parliament the Government's last word on housing. We therefore have an obligation to study this measure against the background of our current housing situation.
That is why the Opposition tabled the amendment which Mr. Speaker indicated he was prepared to call and which proposes that the House
declines to give a Second Reading to a Bill which fails to deal adequately with the fundamental causes of the steadily worsening housing situation.
The house-building programme has collapsed. It is going from worse to worse. There is no issue which comes before us here that is more fundamental than the question of the housing of our people. If there is one single issue which attracts people into politics—on either side of the House—it is the belief that the decisions we take can affect the quality of life of our people.
It is understandable that in the debate today the measure has received tepid support—
It is my burning anxiety to be fair, as the speech will reveal as I go along, but I am surprised that an hon. Gentleman of such experience as the hon. Gentleman has should mistake the speeches to which we have listened for speeches of warm enthusiasm. There have been suggestions from both sides of the House for serious amendment to be made to the proposals in the Bill. We have heard particularly from the Conservative side a demand for a new approach to our housing problem. The outlook for 1974, as seen by experts in the industry, gives cause for anxiety. The National Federation of Registered House-builders said in its annual report for 1973:
There can be no doubt that a failure (by the Government) to take immediate steps to stimulate demand will lead to a disastrous fall in housing starts and completions in 1974.
Mr. Ray Beazer, the president of the federation, has warned that the monthly rate of housing starts in the private sector in 1974 could fall to 14,000. He has commented that the Government's proposed low-start mortgage scheme would do little to bring about the necessary stimulous for the market.
My first condemnation of the Government is that at this stage in their period of office they have produced a measure which basically assumes that all is well on the housing construction front. The Minister is one of the most courteous people in the House and has had plenty of compliments tonight. No doubt more will follow—of a less rich quality. He tells us that there is no national housing problem now. There may be local problems here and there, but he says there is no national problem. He might be a young man but he sounds like Henry Brooke.
That was not very good. If I were still a schoolmaster I would have said only two out of 10 for that.
The Bill does nothing to initiate a new drive for the houses which the country needs. It does not seek to give comfort to the homeless, nor does it seek to refer to the problems of the homeless which exist today in every town and city. The Secretary of State for the Environment is aware that there is a problem. He had something to say about it on 6th November last, in a most remarkable speech. His solution for the homelessness of our people was:
If we are to provide more rented accommodation for those who need and want it, especially single people and young married couples, we should be encouraging those with spare rooms to make them available"— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th November 1973; Vol. 863. c. 836.]
It is shameful. It is enough to make a Methodist blaspheme. For the senior Minister responsible for the housing of our people to suggest that the answer is for people to take rooms with other families is an indication of how far apart he is from ordinary people. Neither he nor his family, nor anyone on the Tory benches, would contemplate taking rooms with other people, but that is a typical Tory attitude to the problems of working people.
We welcome in principle the proposed housing action areas. It has been made perfectly clear that this proposal is fraught with difficulties. My hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydvil (Mr. Rowlands) reminded us of the problems of the industrial valleys of South Wales. The Secretary of State for Wales, who goes through them from time to time, will have some passing knowledge of these areas. He will know that in our valleys in South Wales there is not one valley where the rate of owner-occupation is lower than 70 per cent.
No one in these islands takes a greater pride in home ownership than the people of Wales. But those houses were built at roughly the same time, just over 100 years ago. How is the local authority in Rhondda, Aberdare, Merthyr Tydvil or the western valleys to say that one part shall receive a 75 per cent. grant but another part shall receive only 50 per cent.? It is putting them in an impossible situation.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle), in a most moving speech, said that the same problem extends across the border. It is not only a problem in South Wales; it is a problem in England and, no doubt, in Scotland. In Clause 35 the Minister keeps to himself the power to say which area shall be a housing action area. The local authority has to submit the details to him, and if he does not like them he can alter the area. My advice to the local authorities in the valleys of Wales would be to include the whole of the valley. Let the Secretary of State say who is to get the 50 per cent. and who is to get the 75 per cent.
We welcome the help for the housing associations. I recently had occasion to wait upon the Secretary of State for Wales in his luxurious room at Gwydyr House to discuss the question of housing associations. Our experience is that more power is required in the control of these housing associations. We welcome the help that is forthcoming. My hon. Friend the Member for Willesden, East (Mr. Freeson) has for years campaigned for a national urban development agency. We are committed to it. It looks as if it will not be long before we shall have to introduce it. It would be a big mistake to overestimate the contribution that the housing associations can make.
We particularly deplore the decision of the Government not to continue the 75 per cent. improvement grant beyond June next. The Minister can have no comfort here. His hon. Friends have been as anxious as mine because they meet the people who feel cheated, the people who have been awarded the grant, started the work but cannot get it completed through no fault of their own. It is amoral to tell these people that they will have only a 50 per cent. grant. The inequalities that will exist between neighbours, one of whom gets a 75 per cent. grant and the other a 50 per cent. grant, will create a sense of injustice.
The Minister for Housing and Construction acknowledged with courtesy the valuable contribution made by the 1969 Act which was introduced by the Labour Government. In return, may I say that we are glad that the Government have built on that Act. With the passage of time we expect improvements on measures that have gone before. As the Secretary of State for Wales—who has elected to be silent tonight, which is nothing new—will know, we have had a wonderful response to the 75 per cent. improvement grant schemes, which is understandable. Almost half the houses in Wales were built before 1914. More than 60 per cent. were built before the last world war. We therefore have a vested interest in seeing that the improvement grant scheme succeeds.
Of course that scheme is essential, but it means nothing for the homeless people. It is sheer dishonesty for the Government to link the house construction figures with the improvement grant figures as though they represent in total new homes for the people. It is a lot of nonsense.
I lived in a home without hot and cold water, without a bathroom and without an indoor toilet until I reached the age of 40. It was a good, dry house and, I am pleased to say, a happy home. When hot water, a bathroom and an indoor toilet are brought in we do not feel that we have a new home; we know only that there is an improvement in our old home. It is no comfort to the homeless for the Government to seek to fudge their failure by linking these figures together. Their performance devalues the word of politicians because it is a deliberate attempt to deceive the public.
I turn now to Wales. The Department of the Environment, as is traditional, on 31st January issued a statement on housing construction during last year which gave us all the details. The Secretary of State for the Environment and the Minister of Housing and Construction have no more to do with housing in Wales than has the President of the Methodist Conference. The responsibility for housing in the Principality belongs to the Secretary of State for Wales. It is his job to negotiate with the Treasury. It is his job to decide what is the Welsh target. I take a poor view of the fact that the Secretary of State for Wales, who has complete autonomy on Welsh matters, should opt out of this debate.
The Secretary of State for Wales has presided over a disastrous decline in the Welsh housing programme. During the last General Election, not the Secretary of State, because he was too busy at Hendon, but the propagandists of the Conservative Party complained bitterly that we had built in 1969 only 17,304 houses. In every year since, when the Secretary of State for Wales has had his faltering finger on the controls, we have built fewer and fewer. As for the public sector, which represents the sector of greatest need—the houses built for rent—there has been a fall since 1969 of over 51 per cent. In not one year have the Government equalled the poorest year in our period in office. During the General Election the Prime Minister came to Cardiff. He shed crocodile tears that left a trail of water from the Sophia Gardens to Cardiff General railway station, breaking his heart for the Welsh people who had not been rehoused by the Labour Government. He told us—these were the words of this man of principle:
We will reverse the decline in building and make home ownership easier again.
That was hard to believe. But he had more to say. He continued:
The last Conservative Government kept all its promises, so will the next.
The Prime Minister is exposed as the biggest humbug in the business, because that promise was given as the Leader of
the Conservative Party and it has been dishonoured in every details. To say that the Government are going on with our 1969 Act, improving it and bringing up to standard our old properties is in no way to escape from the indictment that they have betrayed their trust in our people.
I think of the capital city of Wales. Last year council houses built in Cardiff totalled 263. The target for 1974 is 274. While 263 council houses were built last year, 201 houses were demolished, which meant that there was extra accommodation for just 62 families. There are roughly 4,000 families on the housing list in the city of Cardiff, and the Conservative chairman of the city's social services committee, in an outstanding article in the South Wales Echo, said that there are another 4,500 families who cannot even get on to the council waiting list because they are living in what are regarded as habitable properties although they might have leaking roofs. The social services committee chairman estimates that there are 30,000 of our people who are homeless in Cardiff, and the Minister expects us to say that the Bill measures up to our housing needs.
That is not the end of the story as far as South Wales is concerned. The Government's handling of the economic situation has resulted in thousands of would-be home owners being priced out of the market. Housing costs in Wales have rocketed, as in other parts of the country.
When the right hon. Gentleman took my place in the Welsh Office—soon, I trust, he will give it up without a struggle —the cost of a three-bedroomed semidetached house in Wales was £4,000. Now, as we come to the dying days of this Parliament, the same house costs £8,000. Mortgage repayments have more than doubled since the Conservative Party took over. Local authorities in the valleys and in Swansea are faced with the problem of house waiting lists. We heard last night that Newport is similarly troubled. It is the same story of long and growing waiting lists through the Principality, of people asking only for a decent home in which to live.
At the same time what does it now cost a local authority to build a council house? Our prices are not like those of London, but in Cardiff the prices have rocketed to double what they were when the Government took over. Today, without counting land costs, a council house costs £8,080, and over a 60-year period, at 8½ per cent. interest, a local authority would pay over £60,000 for one council house. But the cost of building land also has rocketed. The council has to pay up to £60,000 an acre, so that every council house built costs the local authority at least £12,000. It may be that the Government blame this on world prices.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda, West (Mr. Alec Jones) comes from my home village, Tonypandy, and we think alike. I agree with him that the Government probably blame the miners, too.
The Secretary of State's predecessor came to the House when the Government got rid of the Land Commission, with the explanation that because the Land Commission had failed to stabilise prices it must go. But on that day the Government gave the green light to land speculators all over the country. They took the brakes off the price of land, and since then the landowners of Britain have had a bonanza. It is the party of the landowners. There is no phase 1, phase 2 or phase 3 for them. There is nobody to tell the landowner that his increase must be limited by phase 3.
The Tory Party's philosophy is revealed in its attitude to housing and in this miserable measure which it submits to us as the ultimate answer to the housing needs of our people. The Bill does nothing to check the greed of the speculator and the free market in land is death to our hopes of stabilising housing costs.
Our plan to take over all the development required at existing use value is the only way to deal with land profiteers. The Bill does nothing to restructure the building industry, and we shall not solve the housing problem until the building industry is restructured The Government should have legislated against the "lump", for that would have been a useful move. They should have provided incentives to local authorities to develop and expand the direct labour force. They should have required developers to contribute to infrastructure improvements. They should have changed the subsidy system to ensure that at least the same Exchequer help would be given to council tenants as is given to owner-occupiers.
In conclusion, I wish to return to the Secretary of State for Wales. The right hon. Gentleman was born in an optimistic mood; in the blackest of circumstances he can always see a ray of light. He has been busy telling us that we need not be worried about the housing problem and that the Government have the matter well in hand. He said
The Government are doing all they can,"—
that does not mean much—
in consultation with the building industry, to control the cost of house building. To help the intending purchaser who is confronted with high house prices, the Government have taken steps to make mortgages more readily available "—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th January 1974; Vol. 867, c. 802.]
In my lifetime it has never been harder for a working family to own their own home; it has never been harder for a working family to get a rented house. But the Secretary of State, in an interview with a Western Mail reporter, kindly gave us an explanation of his attitude. The article is headed "Peter Thomas the 'unknown Welshman' from Whitehall".
I do not quarrel with that description. He is the Tory who would be safe to walk in the Rhondda unmolested because they would never know him.
The Secretary of State for Wales in an unguarded moment—I suppose that even the most careful of people have unguarded moments—told the reporter some of his innermost feelings, and they are very surprising. The report states:
Secondly, he has determined to avoid 'stirring' controversy.
He has succeeded there, because he has stirred nothing at all.
His aim, he says, is to make quiet but practical progress without clouding issues with acrimonious debates.
He does not like them.
In this he sees the fact that he represents an English seat—Hendon South in Middlesex—almost as a secret weapon.
It is not so secret now. This is the serious point for the House and for Wales:
Divested of any direct Welsh constituency pressure he can more easily make difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions.
That is an affront to the democratic rights of the Welsh people. I believe that because we do not have at the Welsh
Office Ministers who, when we go to the hustings, will have to seek the suffrage of the Welsh people, we have seen our housing figures fall so catastrophically and our rights and interests neglected.
Whilst we will not vote against this measure tonight, we shall support the amendment in the Lobby because we are convinced that Her Majesty's Government have not dealt with the fundamental issues.
Order. Just after I resumed the Chair the right hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. George Thomas) used the word "humbug". I do not want to make heavy weather of this; nevertheless, I would make it quite clear that so far as I am concerned hon. Members are perfectly entitled to describe an argument as humbug but certainly not another right hon. or hon. Member.
I think that we all recognise the right hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. George Thomas) as a non-blasphemer and careful in his choice of language. Therefore, I am sure that he rose to say that he was sorry for what he said. We on the Government side are grateful for what he described as a tepid welcome to the Bill. From him, somewhat of a prophet of doom, that might be regarded almost as an enthusiastic welcome. Of course, the right hon. Gentleman became almost evangelical in his peroration.
I think that most right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House have given a general welcome to the Bill, though critics say either that it does not go far enough in some respects or that it goes too far in others.
The Bill deals with certain important problems of housing that arise in areas of greatest housing stress. It does not cover every aspect of housing policy. No one suggests, as the right hon. Gentleman indicated, that it is the ultimate answer to all our housing problems, but no one, either in this House or outside, should underestimate the new resources and powers that are made available to local authorities and the Housing Corporation.
The Bill applies to the whole of Great Britain, and the White Paper has emphasised that it was proposed to deal effectively with the problems of Wales. I am sure that the right hon. Member for Cardiff, West will accept that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Wales, who has been present during a large part of the debate, is not mute of malice. But we cannot both speak at once. My right hon. and learned Friend is determined, as we all are, to see that the needs of the Principality are met in a suitable way.
Many people have said, and it is true, that certain aspects of our housing policy are national. On the other hand, many right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House have acknowledged that problems vary from area to area and that the Bill provides flexibility in dealing with them. For example, the right hon. Member for Cardiff, West spoke very movingly, as he always does, of the special problems of the valleys. Both for historical reasons—such as the large number of owner-occupiers—and for geographical reasons it is not always possible to replace existing houses with new properties. The old dwellings are basically sound, and the best way of dealing with the problem is by improvement. In many cases the local authority might suggest that the whole of a valley should be treated as a housing action area, and I see no difficulty about that. That is why my right hon. Friend said that we had in mind sending out to local authorities in due course a circular indicating the sort of criteria which might be applied. There may be further discussion on that. Of course, different criteria may be applied in Wales than in central London, but that is the purpose of the Bill. It will help very much in Wales to deal with the problem of owner-occupied houses which need improving.
The number of improvement grants in Wales rose from 10,000 to 30,000 between 1970 and 1973. On the other hand, it is fair to say that the number of completions of new houses fell from 15,000 or so to 14,000 or so in 1973. No one would argue that there should not be a proper balance between the two sides of a housing programme, and I believe that both aspects must be taken together.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman has made an important statement, on which I should like clarification. He said earlier that when the criteria were being devised for South Wales and other areas they could include the possibility of a housing action area taking in a whole valley or a whole authority. This is an important issue. Is that what the Secretary of State intended to say?
In Scotland the improvement grant scheme is broadly similar to that operated in England and Wales, but there are substantial differences in the treatment of the Scottish housing action areas. This is because Scotland has been a step ahead of the rest of us. The Scottish housing action areas will be based on the Scottish housing treatment areas. That is one reason why £6 million— although that is not necessarily the limit —is indicated as the likely increase in expenditure on these matters in Scotland. Throughout the Bill we are building on the base provided partly by the 1969 Act and by our own achievements since then.
I must point out to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Gorbals (Mr. McElhone) so that there may be no doubt about it in Scotland, that the rehousing obligations of the Scottish local authorities in housing action areas are quite clear and unaffected.
Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman have a word with the Leader of the House about one aspect of the Bill? He says that there are differences between Scotland and England and Wales. For example, there is Clause 47, the whole of Part VII, embodying Clauses 79 to 89, and Schedule 4. Will he ask the Leader of the House to consider the advisability of sending those parts of the Bill to a Scottish Standing Committee for consideration? This has been done before, and I believe it would be desirable if it were done again.
I shall certainly convey to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House the right hon. Gentleman's expression of view.
Our purpose on both sides of the House is the same—to provide better homes which, more than anything else, matter to the people in terms of human happiness and welfare. The stock of new and improved homes continues to rise. It is not true, as the Opposition amendment says, that the housing situation is steadily worsening. In most respects it is getting better all the time. In the last three years over 1 million new houses have been built in addition to 1 million improvement grants.
In those three years about 1 million new houses were started but there were fewer than 400,000 improvement grants, so that the score, in terms of decent houses, is better by about half a million. However, the statistics offer barren comfort to those who are still in need of decent homes. Successive Governments have made a contribution, although no Government, it may be argued, have done enough. Certainly the statistical position varies from year to year. There are earlier marriages, rising standards of life and labour, and smaller households, which all increase the housing demand. The demands are varied and differ from area to area. There is overcrowding in the cities, and there are too few convenient dwellings for the single, the elderly and the large family. There is a large unsatisfied demand for owner-occupation and rented accommodation.
The Government want a wider choice, and the public, largely through debates in the House—
I have been absent for only a quarter of an hour. The right hon. and learned Gentleman said that not enough had been done. He was not making a party point, and I shall not do so either. It is true that more needs to be done. Will he explain why, according to Government publications which have been published within the last one or two weeks, there is intended to be a reduction of nearly £1,000 million in housing investment in new construction or in improvements in the next four years? There is expected to be an average reduction of £60 million a year in improvements.
I was going to deal with that point. It has been raised by many hon. Members. I do not accept the statistics which the hon. Gentleman has given or the interpretation which he places upon them. We must consider the way in which the Bill attempts a substantial switch of resources into the worst areas of housing. It complements the emphasis which we put in the distribution of the rate support grant on the inner urban areas of the cities. It is part of a strategy and part of a redistribution and redeployment of resources and money. We must bear in mind as my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction said, that more and more people want to live and work in our cities. The result is that our cities now face the loss of many skilled and semi-skilled workers who are essential to the life of the community. To some extent we have been over-doing the decanting of the overspill from the conurbations. People either commute back into the cities or else there is a permanent loss of skilled and semiskilled workers and a hard core of social problems. Unless we deal effectively with the problem it is one which will get worse.
It is sometimes possible to have a major and exciting project such as the London docklands, which involves both the GLC and the London boroughs, which lasts for many years, but the aim, whether in the London docklands or in the housing action areas, should be to preserve as far as possible the existing community in its own environment.
Many people have misunderstood the financial provisions of the Bill. They look at the Financial Memorandum and say that another £100 million in England and Wales and £6 million in Scotland annually towards the end of the period is inadequate. Of course, we have deliberately switched resources in the deployment, for example, of the improvement grants.
One of the reasons for them going down is that the figures show that the local authorities have been big contributors over the past few years and that the problem is diminishing. In the local authority sector only about 6 per cent. of the housing stock needs repairs costing more than £500, and only 2 per cent. lacks basic amenities such as a bathroom. The problem is being tackled effectively—
I must get on. Many question have been asked, including questions from the right hon. Lady, which I should like to deal with.
The emphasis is shifted from the improvement grant totals to the enhanced rôle of, for example, the voluntary housing movement and the Housing Corporation.
There will not be a restriction on local authority housing. Local authorities are still free to build and receive the generous subsidies offered by the Housing Finance Act 1972. One of the more encouraging features of the present situation is that in the first 11 months of last year local authority tenders accepted and approved were up by 28 per cent.
We should also note that the Housing Corporation's wider powers offer a prospect of private money coming in. That is in addition to the increased borrowing powers, which the right hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland) welcomed. They are up to £300 million in the first instance, and they can by order, with the approval of the House, be increased over a period to £750 million. I believe that that is the right way to proceed. The best way of putting in perspective the effect of the Bill is to say that overall the aim is to provide by 1977–78 about £500 million a year for the housing programmes most relevant to the Bill.
The changes in improvement grants have been generally welcomed, although concern has been expressed on both sides of the House because we have not extended the time for the 75 per cent. grant. We have already extended it by a year, and we have sent out two circulars warning people that the final date is to be 1st June this year. We asked local authorities not to approve work if it was unlikely to be completed by then. In any event, those concerned will be entitled to the 50 per cent. grant. The problem is one that arises every time any Government pick a date limiting a special payment. The House will understand the difficulties.
Some hon. Members, including the right hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Idris Owen), would like the 75 per cent. grant to be retained in assisted areas. But it should be noted that in one respect we have gone further than the Expenditure Committee's suggestion that there should be a 50 per cent. grant across the board except in housing action areas. We are keeping the 60 per cent. grant in general improvement areas.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead (Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg) asked about the prescribed rateable limits. They can vary from area to area, and can be prescribed by order. I believe that my hon. Friend's point can be taken.
The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Tope) said that the Bill did not meet the challenge in Layfield with regard to London. Layfield said that a new effort on a hitherto unimagined scale was needed. But over the past two years the annual average of grant-aided improvement in London has been 30,000 compared with the forecast of 15,000–20,000 up to 1981. Once again the Liberal Party is behind the times—1965 and all that.
The concept of housing action areas has been generally welcomed. We have had very much in mind the views expressed by the Layfield Panel of Inquiry into the Greater London Development Plan. It said:
we lean towards much larger programmes of rehabilitation being the right policy to pursue in the housing problem areas.
I think that both economically and socially that is the right concept. But it also said that general improvement areas were not sufficient. It suggested further legislation or administrative action. I think that it was right. But the right hon. Member for Grimsby said that they would need to be on a sufficient scale. That ignores the fact that they are an additional weapon in the armoury to the general improvement areas.
The concept of the housing action area is that it enables something to be done within five years. That is the limit. The general improvement area has an expected life of 30 years. It is of a rather different order. The advantage of the housing action area is that it enables effort to be sufficiently concentrated in a relatively small area, and this in itself eases the rehousing and disturbance problems.
My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction dealt in advance with most of the criticisms which have been expressed about the change in the Bill compared with the White Paper. The compulsory nomination of tenants has gone. The rehousing obligations on local authorities have apparently been watered down. We see the abandonment of the first refusal on sales to housing associations. We have considered all these matters carefully in the light of the representations made by the local authorities and others.
The local authorities were bitterly opposed to the nomination of tenants. They said that it would have a corrosive effect if there were unwilling landlord and unwilling tenant relationships. But the Expenditure Committee, which was chaired so ably by my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Allason), most of whose recommendations we have accepted, also expressed considerable reservations about this power.
As for rehousing, the local authorities said quite unequivocally that they had sufficient statutory and moral obligations. Moreover, although we have not gone for the powers that we indicated in the White Paper, we have not dropped the objective of giving protection to tenants, and therefore we have substituted other means for achieving it. I well understand the anxieties expressed on both sides of the House, by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Sally Oppenheim) and others, about the protection of tenants of housing action areas.
The compulsory purchase powers will be effective. The right hon. Member for Grimsby said that they must not be used slowly and grudgingly. I agree with him that they will have to be used quickly and willingly where appropriate, and we shall have to consider what expedited procedures can operate in these areas.
In one respect the right hon. Member for Grimsby was misled by or misunderstood The Times. Where there is compulsory improvement, local authorities have to satisfy themselves that proper arrangements have been made for rehousing the sitting tenant. If he is displaced, he has a statutory right to rehousing and to a home loss payment. One of the real protections for tenants in these circumstances is that a much tighter policy is possible in this more restricted area.
I have already paid tribute to the work of the Expenditure Committee, and so did the right hon. Member for Grimsby. As I have said, we have accepted a wide range of recommendations. I ought also to say that we accept the need to monitor very carefully the results of the proposed housing action area powers and procedures. We accept that recommendation. We shall also watch the social effects, as the committee recommends. With a new concept of this kind, it is important not only to discuss it fully in Committee but to monitor it carefully after we have set it in hand.
The Bill lays the foundation for a substantial expansion of the voluntary housing movement. Fears have been expressed about the wider powers of the Housing Corporation. I do not deny that it is a stronger animal than the Housing Corporation and the National Building Agency set up by the Conservative Government in the early 1960s. But it is a natural extension of the powers. I do not think that the fears which have been expressed are justified, but no doubt we can try to allay them in Committee.
I noticed that he National Federation of Building Trades Employers has welcomed the main aims of the Bill. One suggestion which might be constructive was that the Housing Corporation should make early use of its new powers to buy completed private houses for which prospective purchasers were unable to obtain a mortgage and let them to families in need. That may be a case where the corporation can help builders. But where enabling powers of this kind are taken they should be as flexible as possible, and the way in which we need to use them will vary as the housing situation changes from time to time.
I believe these wider powers are important and are fundamental to rapid expansion of the voluntary housing movement. Here again I would agree with the right hon. Member for Grimsby that they must be complementary to and not competitive with local authorities, because it really is only a genuine desire to co-operate between Government, local authorities, the Housing Corporation and others that can enable us to get the progress we want.
One further power which is important is the power to provide new revenue subsidies for hostel deficits. Here again, as the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, the nature of the problem in London, as elsewhere, varies and we have to try to meet it as best we can. I was glad to see that on neither side of the House was there any important criticism of the powers that have been taken in respect of empty offices substantially unoccupied for two years after construction. I do not think we need to be alarmed over, or critical of, delays in introducing legislation because, whatever happened, any legislation would have had to allow a period of that order, two years or so, in order to enable someone who has put up a new office building to have reasonable time to find a tenant. But there is no doubt that these powers are necessary in the present circumstances. They do not amount to nationalisation or confiscation. This provision has the very simple purpose of securing that large office premises are effectively used, and no one should complain as some have done about the Secretary of State having to act in the manner of a trustee in these matters.
Both the right hon. Member for Grimsby and the right hon. Member for Cardiff, West referred to the abolition of the land hoarding charge and the infrastructure charge and regretted that there was no infrastructure charge. I cannot add to the answer I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Mr. Sydney Chapman) on 25th January, but I would draw attention particularly to the strengthened powers relating to agreements between developers and local authorities. The strengthening of Section 52 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1972 and Section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972 by Clause 127 is a way of making these agreements effective and binding.
There are two other minor points to which I might refer. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead said we ought to get the name of the ultimate landlord. We will look at that. The hon. Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman) made a point that may be valid about service charges and leaseholders.
I would say in conclusion that this debate has rightly concentrated not on the rather tendentious terms of the amendment but on the fact that this is a valuable Bill, with new powers, which merits careful consideration in Committee and will make an important contribution to the solution of several aspects of our housing problem. The right hon. Member for Grimsby was a bit tendentious, but it is a little odd to say "We are not going to vote against Second Reading but we are going to vote for an amendment which says the Bill should not be given a Second Reading." He demanded more radical measures, though not very enthusiastically. But that is not surprising.
The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Cardiff, West gets a little more excited about land nationalisation, municipalisation and direct labour, but it does not ring many bells outside the inner circles of the Labour Party because people do not want a municipal monopoly. They want a wider choice, which is why we are concerned with the provisions of the Bill, which are designed to give a wider choice. That is really the main difference between the two sides of the House. We do not mind whether a house is owner-occupied or council; but the Bill deserves to be commended to the House because it speeds up the progress of important aspects of the housing programme.
|Division No. 46.]||AYES||[10.00 p.m.|
|Abse, Leo||Grant, George (Morpeth)||Mulley, Rt. Hn. Frederick|
|Allaun, Frank (Salford, E.)||Hamilton, James (Bothwell)||Oakes, Gordon|
|Archer, Peter (Rowley Regis)||Hamilton, William (Fife, W.)||O'Halloran, Michael|
|Armstrong, Ernest||Hamling, William||O'Malley, Brian|
|Austick, David||Hannan, William (G'gow, Maryhill)||Orbach, Maurice|
|Bagier, Gordon, A. T.||Hardy, Peter||Owen, Dr. David (Plymouth, Sutton)|
|Barnett, Guy (Greenwich)||Harper, Joseph||Padley, Walter|
|Barnett, Joel (Heywood and Royton)||Harrison, Walter (Wakefield)||Palmer, Arthur|
|Baxter, William||Hart, Rt. Hn. Judith||Pannell, Rt. Hn. Charles|
|Benn, Rt. Hn. Anthony Wedgwood||Healey, Rt. Hn. Denis||Pardoe, John|
|Bishop, E. S.||Heffer, Eric S.||Parker, John (Dagenham)|
|Blenkinsop, Arthur||Hooson, Emlyn||Pavitt, Laurie|
|Boardman, H. (Leigh)||Horam, John||Prentice, Rt. Hn. Reg.|
|Booth, Albert||Huckfield, Leslie||Prescott, John|
|Bottomley, Rt. Hn. Arthur||Hughes, Rt. Hn. Cledwyn (Anglesey)||Radice, Giles|
|Brown, Robert C. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne, W.)||Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen, N.)||Reed, D. (Sedgefield)|
|Brown, Ronald (Shoreditch & F'bury)||Hughes, Roy (Newport)||Rees, Merlyn (Leeds, S.)|
|Butler, Mrs. Joyce (Wood Green)||Hunter, Adam||Roberts, Albert (Normanton)|
|Campbell, I. (Dunbartonshire, W.)||Irvine, Rt. Hn. Sir Arthur (Edge Hill)||Roberts, Rt. Hn. Goronwy (Caernarvon)|
|Carmichael, Neil||Jenkins, Hugh (Putney)||Robertson, John (Paisley)|
|Carter-Jones, Lewis (Eccles)||John, Brynmor||Roderick, Caerwyn E.(Brc'n&R'dnor)|
|Castle, Rt. Hn. Barbara||Johnson, James (K'ston-on-Hull, W.)||Roper, John|
|Clark, David (Colne Valley)||Jones, Dan (Burnley)||Rose, Paul B.|
|Cocks, Michael (Bristol, S.)||Jones, Rt. Hn. Sir Elwyn (W. Ham, S.)||Ross, Rt. Hn. William (Kilmarnock)|
|Cohen, Stanley||Jones, Gwynoro (Carmarthen)||Rowlands, Ted|
|Concannon, J. D.||Jones, T. Alec (Rhondda, W.)||Sheldon, Robert (Ashton-under-Lyne)|
|Conlan, Bernard||Kaufman, Gerald||Shore, Rt. Hn. Peter (Stepney)|
|Cox, Thomas (Wandsworth, C.)||Kelley, Richard||Short, Mrs. Renée (W'hampton, N. E.)|
|Crawshaw, Richard||Kerr, Russell||Silkin, Rt. Hn. John (Deptford)|
|Crosland, Rt. Hn. Anthony||Kinnock, Neil||Skinner, Dennis|
|Cunningham, G. (Islington, S. W.)||Lamborn, Harry||Small, William|
|Cunningham, Dr. J. A. (Whitehaven)||Lamond, James||Spriggs, Leslie|
|Davidson, Arthur||Latham, Arthur||Stallard, A. W.|
|Davies, Denzil (Llanelly)||Lawson, George||Steel, David|
|Davies, G. Elfed (Rhondda, E.)||Lee, Rt. Hn. Frederick||Stewart, Donald (Western Isles)|
|Davies, Ifor (Gower)||Leonard, Dick||Stewart, Rt. Hn. Michael (Fulham)|
|Davis, Clinton (Hackney, C.)||Lestor, Miss Joan||Stoddart, David (Swindon)|
|Davis, Terry (Bromsgrove)||Lever, Rt. Hn. Harold||Stonehouse, Rt. Hn. John|
|Deakins, Eric||Lipton, Marcus||Strang, Gavin|
|Delargy, Hugh||Lyon, Alexander W. (York)||Swain, Thomas|
|Dell, Rt. Hn. Edmund||Mabon, Dr. J. Dickson||Thomas, Rt. Hn. George (Cardiff, W.)|
|Dempsey, James||McBride, Nei1||Thorpe. Rt. Hn. Jeremy|
|Dormand, J. D.||McCartney, Hugh||Tope, Graham|
|Douglas-Mann, Bruce||MacDonald, Mrs. Margo||Tuck, Raphael|
|Duffy, A. E. P.||McElhone, Frank||Urwin, T. W.|
|Dunn, James A||McGuire, Michael||Varley, Eric G.|
|Dunnett, Jack||Mackenzie, Gregor||Wainwright, Edwin|
|Eadie, Alex||Mackie, John||Walker, Harold (Doncaster)|
|Edelman, Maurice||Mackintosh, John P.||Wallace, George|
|Edwards, Robert (Bilston)||Maclennan, Robert||Watkins, David|
|Edwards, William (Merioneth)||McMillan, Tom (Glasgow, C.)||Weitzman, David|
|Evans, Fred||Marks, Kenneth||Wellbeloved, James|
|Ewing, Harry||Marquand, David||Wells, William (Walsall, N.)|
|Faulds, Andrew||Marsden, F.||White, James (Glasgow, Pollok)|
|Fernyhough, Rt. Hn. E.||Marshall, Dr. Edmund||Whitehead, Phillip|
|Fisher, Mrs. Doris (B'ham, Ladywood)||Meacher, Michael||Whitlock, William|
|Fletcher, Raymond (Ilkeston)||Mellish, Rt. Hn. Robert||Williams, Mrs. Shirley (Hitchin)|
|Fletcher, Ted (Darlington)||Mendelson, John||Williams, W. T. (Warrington)|
|Foot, Michael||Millan, Bruce||Wilson, Alexander (Hamilton)|
|Forrester, John||Miller, Dr. M. S.||Woof, Robert|
|Freeson, Reginald||Milne, Edward|
|Freud, Clement||Mitchell, R. C. (S'hampton, Itchen)||TELLERS FOR THE AYES:|
|Galpern, Sir Myer||Morgan, Elystan (Cardiganshire)||Mr. Donald Coleman and|
|Golding, John||Morris, Rt. Hn. John (Aberavon)||Mr. Ernest G. Perry.|
|Gourlay, Harry||Moyle, Roland|
|Adley, Robert||Beamish, Col. Sir Tufton||Brewis, John|
|Allason, James (Hemel Hempstead)||Benyon, W.||Brinton, Sir Tatton|
|Amery, Rt. Hn. Julian||Berry, Hn. Anthony||Brown, Sir Edward (Bath)|
|Archer, Jeffrey (Louth)||Biffen, John||Bryan, Sir Paul|
|Astor, John||Biggs-Davison, John||Buchanan-Smith, Alick (Angus, N&M)|
|Atkins, Humphrey||Boardman, Tom (Leicester, S. W.)||Butler, Adam (Bosworth)|
|Awdry, Daniel||Boscawen, Hn. Robert||Campbell, Rt. Hn. G. (Moray & Nairn)|
|Baker, Kenneth (St. Marylebone)||Bossom, Sir Clive||Channon, Paul|
|Baker, W. H. K. (Banff)||Bowden, Andrew||Chapman, Sydney|
|Balniel, Rt. Hn. Lord||Bray, Ronald||Chataway, Rt. Hn. Christopher|
|Churchill, W. S.||Jopling, Michael||Rees, Peter (Dover)|
|Clark, William (Surrey, E.)||Kaberry, Sir Donald||Rees-Davies, W. R.|
|Cockeram, Eric||Kellett-Bowman, Mrs. Elaine||Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon|
|Cooke, Robert||King, Evelyn (Dorset, S.)||Ridley, Hn. Nicholas|
|Cooper, A. E.||Kinsey, J. R.||Rippon, Rt. Hn. Geoffrey|
|Cormack, Patrick||Kirk, Peter||Roberts, Michael (Cardiff, N.)|
|Costain, A. P.||Kitson, Timothy||Roberts, Wyn (Conway)|
|Crouch, David||Knight, Mrs. Jill||Rossi, Hugh (Hornsey)|
|Crowder, F. P.||Knox, David||Rost, Peter|
|d'Avigdor-Goldsmid, Maj.-Gert. Jack||Lane, David||Royle, Anthony|
|Dean, Paul||Langford-Holt, Sir John||Russell, Sir Ronald|
|Deedes, Rt. Hn. W. F.||Le Marchant, Spencer||Sainsbury, Timothy|
|Dodds-Parker, Sir Douglas||Lloyd, Rt. Hn. Geoffrey (Sut'nC'field)||Sandys, Rt. Hn. D.|
|Dykes, Hugh||Longden, Sir Gilbert||Scott, Nicholas|
|Elliott, R. W. (N'c'tle-upon-Tyne, N.)||Loveridge, John||Scott-Hopkins, James|
|Emery, Peter||Luce, R. N.||Shaw, Michael (Sc'b'gh & Whitby)|
|Eyre, Reginald||McAdden, Sir Stephen||Shelton, William (Clapham)|
|Fenner, Mrs. Peggy||MacArthur, Ian||Shersby, Michael|
|Fidler, Michael||McCrindle, R. A.||Sinclair, Sir George|
|Finsberg, Geoffrey (Hampstead)||McLaren, Martin||Skeet, T. H. H.|
|Fisher, Sir Nigel (Surbiton)||McMaster, Stanley||Smith, Dudley (W'wick & L'mington)|
|Fletcher, Alexander (Edinburgh, N.)||Macmillan, Rt. Hn. Maurice (Farnham)||Soref, Harold|
|Fookes, Miss Janet||McNair-Wilson, Michael||Speed, Keith|
|Foster, Sir John||McNair-Wilson, Patrick (New Forest)||Spence, John|
|Fowler, Norman||Madel, David||Sproat, lain|
|Fox, Marcus||Maginnis, John E.||Stanbrook, Ivor|
|Fraser, Rt. Hn. Hugh (St'fford & Stone)||Marten, Neil||Stodart, Anthony (Edinburgh, W.)|
|Fry, Peter||Maude, Angus||Stuttaford, Dr. Tom|
|Galbraith, Hn. T. G. D.||Mawby, Ray||Sutcliffe, John|
|Gardner, Edward||Maxwell-Hyslop, R. J.||Tapsell, Peter|
|Gower, Raymond||Meyer, Sir Anthony||Taylor, Edward M.(G'gow, Cathcart)|
|Grant, Anthony (Harrow, C.)||Miscampbell, Norman||Taylor, Frank (Moss Side)|
|Gray, Hamish||Mitchell, David (Basingstoke)||Taylor, Robert (Croydon, N. W.)|
|Green, Alan||Monks, Mrs. Connie||Tebbit, Norman|
|Griffiths, Eldon (Bury St. Edmunds)||Monro, Hector||Thatcher, Rt. Hn. Mrs. Margaret|
|Grylls, Michael||Montgomery, Fergus||Thomas, John Stradling (Monmouth)|
|Gummer, J. Selwyn||More, Jasper||Thomas, Rt. Hn. Peter (Hendon, S.)|
|Gurden, Harold||Morgan, Geraint (Denbigh)||Thompson, Sir Richard (Croydon, S.)|
|Hall, Miss Joan (Keighley)||Morgan-Giles, Rear-Adm.||Trafford, Dr. Anthony|
|Hall, Sir John (Wycombe)||Morrison, Charles||Trew, Peter|
|Hall-Davis, A. G. F.||Mudd, David||Turton, Rt. Hn. Sir Robin|
|Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury)||Neave, Airey||Vickers, Dame Joan|
|Hannam, John (Exeter)||Normanton, Tom||Waddington, David|
|Haselhurst, Alan||Nott, John||Walker-Smith, Rt. Hn. Sir Derek|
|Hawkins, Paul||Onslow, Cranley||Walters, Dennis|
|Hayhoe, Barney||Osborn, John||Ward, Dame Irene|
|Heath, Rt. Hn. Edward||Owen, Idris (Stockport, N.)||Warren, Kenneth|
|Hicks, Robert||Page, Rt. Hn. Graham (Crosby)||Weatherill, Bernard|
|Hiley, Joseph||Page, John (Harrow, W.)||Wells, John (Maidstone)|
|Hill, John E. B. (Norfolk, S.)||Parkinson, Cecil||White, Roger (Gravesend)|
|Hill, S. James A. (Southampton, Test)||Peel, Sir John||Wiggin, Jerry|
|Holland, Philip||Percival, Ian||Wilkinson, John|
|Hordern, Peter||Peyton, Rt. Hn. John||Winterton, Nicholas|
|Hornby, Richard||Pike, Miss Mervyn||Wolrige-Gordon, Patrick|
|Hornsby-Smith. Rt. Hn. Dame Patricia||Pink, R. Bonner||Woodhouse, Hn. Christopher|
|Howell, Ralph (Norfolk, N.)||Pounder, Rafton||Woodnutt, Mark|
|Hunt, John||Powell, Rt. Hn. J. Enoch||Worsley, Sir Marcus|
|Iremonger, T. L.||Price, David (Eastleigh)||Younger, Hn. George|
|Irvine, Bryant Godman (Rye)||Proudfoot, Wilfred||TELLERS FOR THE NOES:|
|Jenkin, Rt. Hn. Patrick (Woodford)||Raison, Timothy||Mr. Walter Clegg and|
|Jessel, Toby||Rawlinson, Rt. Hn. Sir Peter||Mr. David Walder.|
|Jones, Arthur (Northants, S.)||Reed, Laurance (Bolton, E.)|