Greater London Council (Money) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 20th May 1974.

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Photo of Mr Ian Mikardo Mr Ian Mikardo , Tower Hamlets Bethnal Green and Bow 12:00 am, 20th May 1974

It is true that I missed a minute or so, but no more, of the hon. Member's speech and that, therefore, I have only something like 95 per cent. of the pearls of wisdom which fell from his lips. I reiterate, however, that he cannot with any sort of logic say that he is against municipalisation of housing and that he wants the boroughs to do the job which the GLC will be able to do under the Bill.

The Bill makes it clear that the powers of the GLC will be used to reinforce the work of the boroughs. It will lend the money to such boroughs as want it, and the boroughs are not compelled to take that money or any other help. The final discretion remains with the boroughs. The question, then, of whether the GLC should have any part in this matter by reinforcing the work of the boroughs—that is to say, whether we use only one instrument of help for the homeless or all the instruments that are to hand, namely two— depends on how much urgency we attach to the need to help those who are homeless or very badly housed.

Hon. Members are certain to be influenced in their estimate of that urgency by the part of London they represent. My point is illustrated by the constituencies of the six hon. Members who have put down this instruction. The constituents represented by the hon. Members for Hampstead, Chelsea (Sir M. Worsley), Ravensbourne (Mr. Hunt), Streatham (Mr. Shelton), Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) and Surbiton (Sir N. Fisher) do not feel very burned up about people who are homeless or very badly housed. I invite the hon. Member for Hampstead to bring his five hon. Friends on a tour of East London and some other parts of London that are not, unhappily, so well off in this matter as Twickenham, Surbiton, Chelsea, and Hampstead.

If the hon. Member represented those parts of London where the needs are very great, where the people are living and have lived for a long time in awful circumstances, he would not want to circumscribe the number of agencies, the number of methods and the amount of resources that can be brought to bear to deal with this problem. When up against a tough enemy one's best tactics are to bring up all one's ammunition from the howitzer down to the peashooter and fire all at once.

A good deal of what the hon. Member said about the virtues of municipal enterprise as against those of private enterprise in housing are absolutely irrelevant to the purpose for which the GLC is seeking these powers. It is not seeking them in order to prevent private development. There are no powers in the Bill to enable it to do so. Nothing in the Bill would stop all the people who want to from building housing for owner occupation all over London.

The situation is urgent in that regard because no one is in fact doing it. That sector of housing is moving rapidly into a state of collapse. It is not my business, and I have no expert knowledge with which to judge who is to blame for that, if any one person can be blamed. The private sector is, for whatever reason, not doing its stuff. There is nothing in the Bill to prevent it from going ahead, and I should like it to do so. I want more and more housing so that the appalling pressures which exist can be relieved. I do not have, and I wish that the hon. Member did not have, as he manifestly has, any doctrinal inhibitions in the matter. I simply want more roofs over more clean, decent rooms into which more people can be decently housed, however that is done.

However, I draw the hon. Member's attention to the fact that a great deal of the reason for the Bill and the powers in it is to fill houses which have been standing empty for a long time. It is no good the hon. Gentleman's saying that this sort of action does not add to the stock of houses. An empty house is not in the stock of houses. It might as well not be there so far as people who are badly housed or homeless are concerned. If we fill a house that is empty we add one house to the stock of houses.

It is clear enough from the terms of the Bill what the GLC wants to do. Even the largest amount of money that has been quoted does not allow it to acquire property all over London. It would not have 1 per cent. of the money required for that, even on the highest estimate.

The hon. Gentleman very fairly listed the actions which the council will take. One of them is to put people in a building that has been empty for a long time and looks like going on being empty. Another is to bring up to standard a substandard dwelling in which people are already living. That does not add to the total stock of housing, but it adds to the total stock of good, livable, pleasant housing.

I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman is a kindly man. I am sure that he is not saying—if he were, it would be doc-trinally monstrous—" I would sooner the joint were privately owned and empty than municipally owned with a family in it." That would be the effect in at least some cases if the House gave the Committee the instruction the hon. Gentleman seeks. It would be the case, because it would mean that the extent to which the GLC would be able to buy up empty houses to put in families, and to buy up run-down places in order to bring them up to standard, would be limited to the extent that the instruction would limit the resources available to the council.

Although I have nothing like the hon. Gentleman's immense local government experience—I wish I had, and on many aspects of local government I am prepared to sit at his feet—I have been more closely involved than he has in what is going on in the dockland area. I found his picture of five boroughs in the GLC quarreling absolutely fanciful. Nothing of the sort is happening. The joint committee was set up only a short time ago, and the so-called expert report, with its five options, is valueless in terms of the real needs of the area. That is-where the time was wasted, and money too. Allowing for all that, I think that that joint committee has got down to the job very well.

The hon. Gentleman is not being altogether fair to the committee, although he is by no means alone in suggesting that a body other than the local authorities might deal with the matter. Although the hon. Gentleman is not alone in suggesting something like a new town development corporation for the area I beg him to understand that if there were such a body there would be so much objection, from the people who live in the area, that the progress it could make would be very limited. The hon. Gentleman, with his local government experience, must know much better than I that in the end it is the people whom the citizens elect who are best capable of judging what is good for them, what is best for their needs, rather than an appointed body which does not necessarily have any members with roots in the area or any understanding of the area.

Dockland is a big problem. I hope that nobody will believe that we can just say that there is a lot of land there, that it is very cheap, and that all we have to do is to send down a lot of bricklayers and excavators tomorrow and start building. It is not as easy as that. First, it is not all that cheap. I invite the hon. Gentleman to discover the attitudes of the Port of London Authority to the part of the territory which it owns. Secondly, a great deal of the land, to put it paradoxically, is water, and has to be filled in. There will have to be a great deal of extremely expensive preparatory work.

There is a more important point. When one sees the way in which the part along the north bank of the river, the only part of which I can speak with authority, stretches from Tower Bridge right down towards the eastern end of the borough of Newham, one realises that the idea of the work being carried out in separate parcels by the separate borough councils, each looking after its own patch, is not scientific, when it is possible to have overall strategic planning allied to the representations of the grass roots representatives of the people about the interests of the people.

A large part of the hon. Gentleman's speech would have been a good speech in support of a different motion, that we should not have in London two sets of housing authorities. One day we may want to debate whether we should have the boroughs as housing authorities and the GLC as housing authority, but for the moment we have them, and for the moment the matter is not in dispute. So long as we have them both, it is natural that in dealing with a major problem which spills over into five boroughs it would be idiotic not to involve in its solution the one local authority which has powers in all those five boroughs and 20-odd more. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman's saying "Let us leave it to the boroughs "will not stand up in this context.

I said that the dockland problem is not easy to solve. Many areas in the country, some even in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, have suffered from blight of one sort or another for years, but this area has suffered for many more years than almost any other from a number of different sorts of blight. For example, the Isle of Dogs, which is at the heart of the problem of the dockland area, suffered first from the blight of bombing, of war damage. It was a long time before anybody seriously managed to tackle on a large scale the problem of putting right that damage. Then it suffered from a blight that people do not often think about, the blight of building. Large-scale building in itself causes blight, because it is necessary to block roads. There are piles of rubble, and people's houses are made uninhabitable by the din of excavators. There are tower cranes and the rest. People slip about in mud patches.

Now we have the danger that unless the matter is tackled properly we shall have a third blight—namely, a planning blight —which will mean that nothing can be started until everything has been planned. There is a great danger that we may get into a situation regarding the dockland scheme in which the perfect is the enemy of the good and in which the whole is the enemy of even a decent part.

That is why I believe it is no good setting up a new town corporation or a dockland area corporation, getting a Bill through the House, getting the corporation appointed and getting people recruited, and then having to establish relationships with the local authorities. If such a relationship were not achieved there would not be the co-operation of the local authorities and I would not give tuppence for such a corporation doing anything. It is no good waiting for all that because we shall then have legislative blight in addition to bombing blight, housing blight and planning blight.

I believe that the job can be handled by people who understand the needs of the area and those, such as the six-part committee, who are determined, with the help of the Government, to get on and do something.

I want to try to be as non-partisan as the hon. Member for Hampstead tried to be. I beg him and his friends to withdraw. I beg him not to divide the House. I beg him not to put himself and his hon. Friends in a position in which it may be said of them that they were willing to throw away one of the instruments that could help some people, who otherwise would remain unhoused or not decently housed, to get housed or decently housed.

I wish that the hon. Gentleman would not put himself and his hon. Friends in the position in which it could be said of them that they would sooner have a privately-owned flat empty than a publicly-owned flat accommodating a family. I do not believe that he is any less appalled by the tragedy of homelessness and bad housing than I am or any of my right hon. and hon. Friends are. If that is the truth and I believe it is he could show his true position by seeking the leave of the House to withdraw his motion.