Orders of the Day — Housing and Planning Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 5th February 1974.

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Photo of Mrs Sally Oppenheim Mrs Sally Oppenheim , Gloucester 12:00 am, 5th February 1974

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.