Orders of the Day — Housing and Building Control Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:11 pm on 23rd November 1982.

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Photo of Mr Edward Graham Mr Edward Graham , Enfield Edmonton 9:11 pm, 23rd November 1982

I regret very much that time did not allow my hon. Friend the Member for Dunbartonshire, East (Mr. Hogg) to contribute to the debate. He sat through the debate from its beginning. It is evidence of the interest of both sides of the House that, unfortunately, he was squeezed out at the end.

I begin by commenting briefly on the speech of the Secretary of State, which was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard). The Secretary of State invited Labour Members to go outside among the people and talk to them in the real world. He said that a social revolution was going on that, apparently, Labour Members had not seen. Credentials have been paraded publicly and honourably from both sides of the House. Opposition Members have declared interests nothing greater than membership of housing associations or the fact that they are owner-occupiers or involved in housing. Conservative Members have declared their interests as architects, as estate agents, as members of development companies, as members of the Conservative Central Office at some time in the past, as directors of house building associations and as surveyors. A variety of qualifications have been paraded during the debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Mrs. Taylor), in a forceful and successful speech, exposed substantially the yawning gaps which have been revealed in the Bill during the debate. It has been mentioned time after time, not only by Labour Members but by Conservative Members, that elements of the Bill have not been thought through. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West dealt effectively with the attempts of Conservative Members to deride the genuine concern of Labour Members for those in housing need and for public safety.

We cannot divorce the thrust of the Government's intentions in the Bill from their broad philosophy and strategy across the whole area of housing endeavour. Historians will look back on the case made out for the Bill in the present housing crisis as a joke in the worst possible taste. It fails completely to measure up to the needs of the people. It sets out to give those who already enjoy a home and a good landlord, or a good landlord-tenant relationship, the opportunity of a free gift—the accrued and enhanced equity of the home in which they live—even though this has been created by others as well as themselves. The Bill chooses to do this at a time when there are millions of families in desperate housing need. They have been made to suffer as a result of the Government's cuts and restrictions.

The second Tory housing goal in the Bill is a continued attack on the public service. The first part of the Bill seeks to promote and encourage greed. The second part seeks to reward those in the private sector who profess to have an interest in the health and safety of those who occupy a building or who pass by a building. In reality, their prime interest is to make money out of the building to the detriment of long-standing, well-tested and respected procedures.

The Bill has been foisted on the House and the country but it has been shown to be unloved and unwanted. It has been insufficiently thought through and it is a monument to a cynical disregard for advice that has been tendered. That advice has been ignored or emasculated and tendered as consultation.

The housing association movement, for cogent reasons, is greatly distressed by these proposals. First, the peg used by the Secretary of State to act so destructively towards housing associations is their receipt of public funds. However, private landlords have had millions of pounds of public money to use to improve their properties. The Bill does not provide private tenants with the right to buy. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) drew attention to the hypocrisy and imbalance of the Government's policy. Housing association grants are eventually repaid so why should the Government change the rules in the middle of the game? What gave the Government the right to apply retrospective conditions?

Secondly, it is a disgrace for the Government to attack charitable housing associations. Until the introduction of the Bill, a charity has been obliged to sell its assets at the best possible price and only when disposal would be financially in its interests. I trust that the Minister will tell the House how he can square these primary objectives with provisions that force charities to sell their assets. I hope that he will recognise that charities have obligations and responsibilities in perpetuity. They act as custodians for the tenants of today and for tomorrow's homeless and disadvantaged.

I have been advised by Hackney charitable associations—the Under-Secretary and I listened with great care and concern to their representations only the other day—that in Hackney, charitable associations provide 7,000 units of low-rent accommodation to those in housing need, most of them being those in need of rehabilitation. The total stock is increased by 300 units a year. If the take-up of the right to buy is the same as the local authority right to buy, 50 per cent. of the annual output will be lost through sales in the first year after the Bill's enactment. This will mean that the associations will cease to be able to achieve a significant impact in providing accommodation of the sort that is most needed. The capacity of associations generally to offer help to those in the greatest need who are on borough waiting lists by means of nomination will be curtailed. Staffing levels will become unplannable and it is more than likely that properties bought by tenants will be in good condition and relatively maintenance-free while the rest will be left for housing associations to take up.

The London borough of Enfield has no claim to be different from many other councils. Like many other local authorities it is saddled with a Tory majority. Last month, Enfield council was told that the positon was getting worse. The housing committee reported to it: There are more applicants competing for a dwindling stock of vacancies … We are becoming almost entirely dependent on 'incidental' vacancies in the existing housing stock, now that the new programme is almost at an end. In 1979, new build in Enfield—a Tory borough under a Tory Government—was 321 and in 1982, it was 44. Vacancies from all sources in 1979 were 1,999 and in 1982 they were 1,443. The waiting list in 1979 was 5,483 and in 1982 it was 7,292—an increase of 1,809.

If I were asked by the Minister whether my interest, legislation, and public money should be consumed in ensuring that those who are already well-housed should be given the opportunity to buy, or whether time and money should be spent to those on the waiting list, I should not spend the resources on those wishing to buy council houses.

Enfield authority controls the Klinger estate in Edmonton—referred to more than once tonight—where the Tory GLC decided to sell the houses that were built for rent, with the connivance of the local Tory council. The recession caused by the Government led them to abandon the plan and now the properties will be rented.

Whatever benefit it might bring to those who decide to buy their own homes, the first part of the Bill will be a disaster for the housing association movement. I am especially worried about the effect of clause 20 onwards. The proposals in parts II and III are a grave threat to the standing and integrity of health and safety in construction terms.

Two main themes form the basis of the Government's advocacy of this part of the Bill. First, the Secretary of State is anxious to ensure high standards. Through the clause, the Secretary of State asserts that he wishes to ensure high standards and the reputation of local authority officers who will preserve high standards of integrity and a comprehensive oversight of health and safety standards. However, in pursuit of the Government's declared long-term aims to introduce self-certification, regardless of the lack of evidence to support such a policy, that part of the Bill seeks to destroy the present long-respected system.

I again ask the Minister to produce the evidence, to which he has alluded more than once in correspondence, that shows that a substantial majority favour the proposed legislation. I shall produce evidence of those who oppose the Bill and the Minister has a duty to name those who are in favour of it. To be fair to the Minister, he has not been too dismissive of the functions of local authority building inspectors. It is right that he should acknowledge their crucial role in co-ordinating a whole range of services. Local authority building control authorities do not operate in isolation. They work closely with architects, fire brigades, environmental health officers, solicitors, engineers, education, social services, planning and finance. Local authority building inspectors liaise with outside bodies, including private architects, contractors, house owners, developers, builders, the GPO and national utilities. A crucial role performed by the local authority is as a repository of local records—plans that give details of building and construction for many years, which have proved invaluable to architects, surveyors and builders. What is to replace this comprehensive service that has always been available and very useful, other than the rights or slogans of individual organisations? Where is the evidence that the present system is inflexible, time-consuming and insensitive to builders' needs?

Where is the evidence that there is an overwhelming demand for such a change? The second main theme in parts II and III is to maximise self-regulation and to extend the privatisation of public safety standards. What is at present a service for the public good will be turned into an opportunity for private profit. That response by the Tory Party to the small minority of builders and designers who do not understand the regulations and who, rather than trying to comply with them, complain of their existence, is a sell-out and a betrayal of public trust.