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 Mr Arthur Latham Mr Arthur Latham , Cities of London and Westminster Paddington 12:00 am, 21st June 1978

I ask my right hon. Friend to make at least some passing reference to the current issue of the transfer of London housing estates from the GLC to the London boroughs. The London Labour Party conference early this year decisively expressed a view against the transfer of such estates, because it believe that this will militate against the interests of the inner London boroughs and that outer London has a moral obligation to play a part in London's strategic housing as a whole.

Is it still the Secretary of State's view that the transfer of such estates should not be on a piecemeal basis? If that is his view, can my right hon. Friend clarify what he would regard as piecemeal transfers? Secondly, can he agree that he would wish to safeguard the opportunities for mobility of labour and of tenancies within the Greater London area, and that any transfer must have adequate safeguards for the staff involved?

The hon. Member for Argyll (Mr. MacCormick) referred to differences in the kinds of housing that might be sold; some might be good purchases by tenants, and some might not be such good propositions. Given that there is equality of opportunity to buy property—which is not the case—if housing in London is sold it will mean that those who are now flat dwellers, particularly those in high-rise blocks, will have no prospect whatsoever of obtaining a house near the ground or with a garden.

One of the worries in inner London is that in its anxiety to opt out of its overall housing responsibilities the now Tory-controlled GLC will apply pressure, which will mean that if London boroughs do not readily take over the stock the GLC will try to sell off its existing housing stock to any comers, such as housing associations, squatting groups, and so on, which have been interested in such purchases.

The consequence of that will be the creation of an additional problem for inner London, and I am advised that whilst the Secretary of State is considering proposals that come before him the GLC may do its best to sell off what housing stock it can, on either a collective or an individual basis, before a decision is made by the Secretary of State about the transfer of estates under the London Government Act. If my right hon. Friend will not place a total embargo on council house sales in the London area, I ask him at least to call a halt to sales until the issue of the transfer of estates has been determined, so that the GLC does not get the opportunity to sell off property—and some of the best property—before a transfer takes place.

The right hon. Gentleman who has left the Chamber and whose constituency I cannot remember—I think he will he recognised if I say that he is the right hon. Gentleman who, when he was Minister for Housing and Construction, sounded for all the world as though he was still at the Foreign Office, and still does—spoke of the lack of equity in selling off council accommodation. The one question that is never answered is this: what responsibility does the present-day council tenant have to others who are on the waiting list? Is it not the simple fact that an average of 5 per cent, of council dwellings become vacant in the course of a year and contribute to meet the needs of those on the waiting list? It means that for every 20 council houses sold, one more family is deprived of the opportunity of which those purchasing the council houses were glad to avail themselves when they were on the waiting list. It is that moral question that needs to be answered in this argument.

I take this opportunity to congratulate my right hon. Friend on two matters. One relates to the security of tenure given to my constituents in furnished, privately rented accommodation. The evictions, in numbers and in circumstances, were appalling before the passing of the 1974 legislation. Secondly, I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction for his chivvying of Westminster City Council over the inadequacy of its housing improvement programme and its general housing provision. I place on record—I think that my right hon. Friend will agree with me—the tremendous service done to the homeless and badly housed in Paddington by the Paddington federation of tenants and residents in its publication "Home Truths", which I know was of great assistance to my right hon. Friend in trying to pursue the interests of those on the waiting list and in housing need in my constituency.

However, I remain extremely disappointed that the Government have still not responded to the proposals made by my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) in the Private Member's Bill which he sought to promote and which I had the opportunity to present on his behalf on one occasion. The Government have not responded to the tremendous scandal of the number of empty properties that still remain in the London area. I know that the hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi) argues that this is somehow a consequence of giving security of tenure. All I say is that if the supply of homes that was previously available as a consequence of evicting people has dried up, that is no loss.

In the areas of London with which I am familiar I have not seen the proof of cause and effect which the hon. Member for Hornsey claims. My understanding is that many properties remain empty simply because that enhances the selling price, especially of blocks of flats. If there are a few empty flats it enhances the market value considerably during a period of inflation. That is the motivation for keeping the properties empty, because the appreciation in value is greater than any rental income that is lost for the period during which the properties remain empty. Because of the desperate housing situation in London, one answer is to provide a system of compulsorily letting that accommodation so that we do not have this ghastly situation in which people are homeless, while nearby there are hundreds, or perhaps even thousands, of empty properties which they could occupy.

The major matter to which I am obliged to draw attention in this debate is the problem of the tenants of privately rented properties in my constituency and in similar areas. The Secretary of State may rightly say that he believes that the Rent Act is basically sound, but I can tell him—he has had much evidence from me in past years—that in my constituency the Rent Acts are working extremely badly against the interests of ordinary people. It is a problem that is not common to the country as a whole; it is peculiar to London, and only to some parts of London, at that.

I know that Kensington and Chelsea are similarly affected, as are Marylebone, South Westminster, some parts of Islington, some parts of Camden, and some parts of Battersea. I may not have identified all the areas. I have recently had some evidence from Streatham. It is a problem which affects certain areas which are subject to abnormal pressures. The pressures to which I am referring are those of the West End, of Central London, of creeping hotelisation, the demand for holiday lets, and the general explosion of the Oxford Street area to the west and north-west.

Another factor which cannot be ignored is the influence of Arab oil money coming into the southern part of my constituency, and Kensington and Chelsea, which has also helped to force up rent levels. The evidence is pragmatic, because one can drive round those areas, where, nowadays, one will see estate agents' notice boards outside properties with advertisements in both English and Arabic as a matter of course. This is the nature of the market and a measure of the demand. These are some of the pressures that are pushing up the levels of private rents to an excessive extent.

I ask for some kind of comfort, even if it be cold comfort, that there will be recognition in the course of the Rent Act review of the fact that within the London area there are some rent stress areas where the normal provisions of the Rent Acts do not adequately safeguard tenants.

I remind my right hon. Friend and tell the House of some of the examples. There are small properties which have been let until recently at £10 a week exclusive of rates—one room with a bathroom and a kitchen in Little Venice. Their rents are going up immediately to £30—a threefold increase.

A tenant who lives in moderate property came to see me last night. Previously, he paid £800 a year. He faces a rent increase proposal of £1,700 a year. It would have meant, under phasing, that he would have paid an additional £300 a year for each of the next three years. His immediate rent rise would have been from £800 to £1,100. He had the rent officer in to see the property. He fixed a rent of £1,525. The tenant assumed from that that he would be paying one-third of the increase in each year, which would have been £242 a year—in other words, his immediate increase would have been from £800 to £1,042— but, no. For the first time, there is a service element of £278 calculated in that registered rent, which applies immediately, and it is only the difference between that service element and the total increase which is phased over three years.

Although getting a reduction of £175 from the rent officer, that tenant will now be paying, because of that service element, not the £800 which he is paying now and not the £1,100 that he would have paid as the first instalment of a three-phase increase, but £1,227. His rent is jumping more than 50 per cent. at once, even under the phasing proposals.

I cannot accept that the Secretary of State and the Government can argue that the Rent Act is working satisfactorily when tenants face enormously excessive rent increases of that kind, and it does not make sense to try to explain to tenants how they can find this compatible with the current 10 per cent. pay policy, how they can find it compatible with the cumulative effect of pay policy over the past three years, or how this kind of increase can be justified even in relation to a cumulative rate of inflation over a three-year period. The experience in my constituency is that the £300, the £600 and the £900 increase over three years is far too common, and is not just the exception that can be quoted.

The problem now is that some of the biggest culprits in this situation are those from whom I hoped better, namely, the Church Commissioners. One would have assumed that they would have been less avaricious than some private landlords and that they would have had more regard to the social consequences and the break-up of the community as a result of increases of this kind, and would not have gone for the maximum permitted under the law. But, sadly, if someone asks me what is the difference between Freshwaters and the Church Commissioners, I have to answer "About £15 a year". There is that marginal difference between the rents that the two will charge and the increases that they will demand.

I have been making representations to the Church Commissioners, many of whom are members of the Government. Among the ex officio Church Commissioners are the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Home Secretary, the Attorney-General, the Solicitor-General and Mr. Speaker himself. I have made representations to them all. On a recent Friday, I asked each of them whether he would resign as a Church Commissioner because of his clear inability to apply any pressure over the rent levels being charged. With one exception, each of them explained that he was an ex officio Church Commissioner, as though that were the beginning and end of the whole matter. I had one little ray of hope, in that the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that he would reply to my question when he had considered the matter. Apparently, someone told him that he was an ex officio Church Commissioner, with the result that, 48 hours later, he gave me exactly the same reply as all the others.

What happens is that constituents and tenants say "Here are these Ministers, members of the Cabinet, who are Church Commissioners. Why are they standing to one side and allowing this to happen?". The truth is that there are about 100 Church Commissioners. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Walker), for his sins—perhaps that is an inappropriate expression in this context—is a Church Commissioner. The Archbishop of Canterbury is a Church Commissioner. I have been to Lambeth Palace to see him. It would be a marvellous place for squatters.

All the representations that I have made, all my pleas on behalf of tenants, have fallen on stony ground. What happens is that Church Commissioners, along with all the other private commercial landlords, put the blame back at the door of the Government and say "They are responsible for the Rent Acts. Therefore, they have responsibility for these increases."

I ask my right hon. Friend at least to say something that will reassure tenants that the Labour Government know about these special problems in these rent stress areas and that they intend to take some action.

Finally, I mention the possibility of the establishment of tenants' co-operatives. We find all the enthusiasm for selling off public housing stock on the Conservative Benches but less enthusiasm for the statutory right of the private tenant to buy from his landlord, especially on a co-operative basis. I gathered from the answer to a parliamentary Question which I tabled some time ago that the Government are thinking sympathetically in this direction.

It would at least offer a ray of hope to private tenants in my constituency and elsewhere if they could see the prospect of getting out of this rat race of rents, with landlords ranging from Freshwaters to the Church Commissioners fleecing them, and the opportunity of having some kind of democratic control of and accountability for the homes in which they live. I hope that my right hon. Friend will respond positively to that suggestion.