Housing

Part of Orders of the Day — Supply – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 21st June 1978.

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Photo of Miss Joan Lestor Miss Joan Lestor , Eton and Slough 12:00 am, 21st June 1978

My constituency is well known for several features, an outstanding one of which is that it has a huge and thriving trading estate which, over the years, has attracted from many parts of this country and from abroad large numbers of people seeking, and, happily, finding work. Unfortunately, for various reasons the constituency has never been able to meet the demands that being a magnet of labour has put upon it.

We are also fortunate in being an area of very high employment. We do not have the problems experienced by Merseyside and other areas of large-scale unemployment. It is therefore understandable that many people should come to Slough looking for work. Clearly, that places enormous strains upon the housing resources of the local authority, and it would do so even if the authority were hell-bent on solving its housing problems. The fact that it is working in the opposite direction makes increasingly difficulty the plight both of people who have lived in Slough for many years and those who have come there more recently. I have been to see my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about this matter more than once.

I was struck by the strength of advocacy of the sale of council houses advanced by the right hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery) and the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine). I have noticed no clamour by my constituents to buy the council houses in which they live, but perhaps that is another story. The sale of council houses in an area such as mine is indefensible.

I should be interested to hear the views of the right hon. Member and his hon. Friend about a local authority that builds council houses for sale and then advertises them outside its own area. That is what has been happening in Slough. Few people, even among those who live in council houses, have taken the opportunity of buying council houses in the area. But even given Tory Party policy on the sale of council houses I should have thought that the activities of the Slough Council merited a few sharp words from the Opposition. In spite of our housing problems, the only houses being built in Slough for the local authority are those that were started when the authority was under Labour control.

Because of the peculiarities and difficulties of my constituency I welcomed the Housing (Homeless Persons) Bill when it was introduced by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross). That Bill subsequently became part and parcel of Government policy. When it became law one of the local newspapers in my constituency carried a headline which, in effect said, in quoting one of the councillors, "New Dehli, Heathrow Airport and a No. 81 Bus to a Slough Council House." I sent a copy of that headline to my right hon. Friend and he wrote to me about it.

The intention of the person who made that statement and of the sad reproduction of it by the local Press was to give the impression that people coming to this country would automatically qualify for a council house. It was designed to drive a wedge between the sections of the community in my constituency.

When the Housing (Homeless Persons) Bill became law the Slough council passed a resolution to the effect that the borough council should adopt a restricted interpretation of the Act in order to protect the interests of all the residents of the borough. Since it adopted that strict interpretation the council has been censured by the local government ombudsman for trying to avoid its responsibilities towards one family that came before it. Ultimately it had to rehouse that family. The authority has also got itself into great difficulties with Shelter, an organisation for which I have a great deal of respect and time, because of the way in which it dealt with a number of cases that Shelter had brought to its notice.

The local authority in my area is behaving in a way that will make a bad situation much worse. Because of the effect of industry in attracting labour to the area it should be pursuing a policy that will solve the local housing problems. The passing of the homeless persons Act is being ignored in my area, an area where it could have greater application than anywhere else in the country because of the number of people who come there looking for jobs.

Many people have come forward, either because of the activities of various agencies or of their own free will, seeking rehousing. They believe that they qualify, but judgment has been passed upon them that they do not. In some respects that judgment is correct, while in others it blatantly is not so. Although the numbers seeking rehousing have increased, since the Act was passed, the numbers being rehoused have not. It is pointless for the House to pass legislation to protect people such as these—people who, through no fault of their own, become homeless in an area where they are seeking work—if the local authority in question is determined to apply a restrictive interpretation to the application of the Act. My local authority has taken the best legal advice it could get in order to avoid its responsibilities under that Act, and is is avoiding those responsibilities.

This leads me to suggest that my right hon. Friend should be monitoring the working of the Act because it is not doing anything like the job it was intended to do. He should give some time and thought to the problems of areas such as mine, which have a strong industrial base and which will continue to attract labour from all over the country for many years—no one is quarrelling with that—but which need an urgent housing policy to cope with the problems that that situation is bound to throw up. If something is not done in respect of both of these things, I fear the consequences.

There is a company in my constituency which wishes to expand its activities in the area, which would provide an increasing number of jobs. If the expansion ultimately takes place, obviously it will attract labour from other parts of the country, because we do not have enough labour in Slough. The company has said to me "If we cannot find the means whereby we can see that these people will be able to be rehoused, rather than increase the incredible number of people who will be homeless in the area we shall seek to expand our activities in one of our subsidiaries in the EEC".

I do not want to see that happen, nor do I think anyone else does. However, given the activities of the Slough Corporation and the expansion of the industrial base of Slough, on which we have built our whole economic buoyancy and which has done such a great deal for the economic well-being of the surrounding area, I believe that urgent consideration needs to be given to the future housing policy of Slough, to couple it with the expansion of its industry.