Tenants (Consultation)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 16th June 1982.

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Photo of Mr Allan Roberts Mr Allan Roberts , Bootle 3:31 pm, 16th June 1982

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to give the Secretary of State and local authorities and housing associations duties to consult organisations of tenants when formulating housing policy affecting tenants, and to give tenants' organisations certain rights; and for connected purposes. The Bill will have three parts. First, it will require central Government to consult national and regional tenants' organisations before introducing changes in housing policy, practice and legislation. This is something that I have already done myself in preparing this draft legislation. Such tenants' organisations are given in the Bill the right to nominate a member of any committee advising the Secretary of State for the Environment, and the Government will be required to provide funds to enable the tenants' organisations to function properly.

Secondly, the Bill requires local authorities and housing associations to consult tenants' associations in a similar way when formulating their policies and practices. Thirdly, it will enable tenants to make representations to district management teams where they exist, and actually to take over some of the management of their own estates.

Safeguards are laid down in the legislation on what constitutes a bona fide national tenants' organisation, and the proposal to allow tenants to take over part of the management of their own estates should be done only where a reasonably viable scheme is produced from a properly constituted and representative tenants' association.

I have purposely included housing associations within the provision of the proposed legislation, as well as council housing, in order to ensure that these too, provide for participation and consultation. Many of these housing associations, which were formed to be more responsive than local authorities to the needs of their tenants, have grown to the extent that some are larger than local authorities. Furthermore, they have become less accountable as their management committees, self-perpetuating oligarchies, are not elected, or accountable to the electorate, in the way that councillors elected to a local authority housing committee are. As the housing association movement grows, its democratisation is, I believe, essential.

The Bill will be a major step forward in providing for tenants' self-determination, and will give many council and housing association estates the sovereignty they require to become desirable places in which to live.

I believe in the revitalisation of public sector housing as the only real means of solving the nation's ever-growing housing crisis. That crisis is manifest in ever-increasing council housing waiting lists, a growing backlog of council repairs—£10 million-worth in Liverpool alone—an all-time low in the number of houses being built for rent, and increasing numbers of homeless people.

Neither I nor the Labour Party can justify enormous faith in public sector housing while we allow paternalistic housing management to continue, and until we have given council tenants the same rights and freedoms to control their own environment as those enjoyed by owner-occupiers.

Some progress was made in the Housing Act 1980, which implemented some of the tenants' charter provisions of the previous Labour Government. The 1980 Act is weak on tenant participation and consultation. The Act merely put a duty on councils to produce its own proposals for consultation. No method was stipulated. No requirement to fund or to help establish tenants' associations was provided. No method of enforcement was instituted. The whole process, I regret to say, has been treated with contempt by council after council. A new law is clearly necessary.

There was a requirement on housing authorities under the Housing Act 1980 to produce new and progressive conditions by 3 October 1981, and to consult tenants about those conditions 13efore their implementation. Although new tenancy conditions are being produced, real consultation is taking place in few areas.

What has to be realised is that 30 per cent. of the population of the United Kingdom live in public sector housing. Despite the give-away right-to-buy provisions, of the 1980 Act, many do not wish to buy, or cannot afford to buy, their council houses. Those who remain tenants should have rights and freedoms, too.

Some might consider my proposals far-reaching, or not very practicable, but much more than the Bill would introduce has already been implemented by some progressive local authorities and housing associations. The provisions for Government participation, with national and regional tenants' organisations, is commonplace in other countries. In Sweden, rent levels are negotiated between public and private sector landlords. Tenants' organisations produce negotiating teams in the same way that trade unions produce negotiating teams to debate and discuss wage levels.

Council tenants have been taking a battering in recent years. Few new council houses have been built. Waiting lists have grown. it has also become much more difficult for families with children living in flats, and others who are inadequately housed in the public sector, to get transfers. No Member of Parliament who holds art advice bureau or surgery can deny that cuts in services have made it impossible for council tenants to be provided with a decent repair and maintenance service in almost all parts of the country. Consultation on all those major policy issues is essential, as it is on rents.

Since 1979, council tenants have been penalised beyond all measure. Between 1979 and 1982, public sector rents have increased by a massive 117 per cent. and housing subsidies have been cut by 42 per cent. Some councils—again thanks to the 1980 Housing Act—now make a profit on their council tenants. They charge rents which produce surpluses on the housing revenue accounts. Surely it is time that the balance was redressed?

Council and housing association tenants are crying out for a fair deal. The Bill will help to correct that imbalance. If action is not taken soon, public sector housing in the United Kingdom will continue to decline, with the best houses being sold off, and with tenants having no real control over their own homes and the environment in which they live. Without new freedoms and the provision of adequate finance to ensure that those new freedoms have meaning, public sector housing might deteriorate into ghetto housing on the American model.