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London

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:26 pm on 1st July 1983.

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Photo of Mr John Wheeler Mr John Wheeler , Westminster North 1:26 pm, 1st July 1983

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not mind if I do not give way, as time is short and others wish to speak. It is important that I press on.

My primary concern is for the inner London area. The establishment of the GLC demonstrates how difficult it is to define the London area. London is really the inner London area under the jurisdiction of the inner London boroughs. One of the outer London boroughs—Croydon — is the seventh largest English city by population. Why should the Croydon area be included in the GLC district? That is nonsense. There is no common interest between the needs of Croydon and the needs of central London as represented by Westminster city council.

Although I advocate the removal of the middle tier of government in London—the GLC—it is essential for this Parliament to resolve several key issues that affect the better administration of London, of which housing strategy is one. Each year Westminister city council submits a housing strategy and budget for approval by the Department of the Environment. It then needs separate approval for every project in that strategy despite the fact that the council is responsible for obtaining the finance. The result is delays and bureaucratic duplication. I cannot help but think that if we get the administration of London right by removing the GLC, we must also get the administration of the Department of the Environment right in terms of its relationship with the 32 London borough councils.

Recently the Department obstructed proposals for the repair of properties owned by the Monmouth road housing co-operative in my constituency because the cost would be 7 per cent. above the total indicative costs. The Department totally ignores the housing corporation's system of local variations to total indicative costs to take into account the average costs and values of rehabilitated property in the city of Westminster. It also ignores the fact that the properties are mostly grade 2 listed historic buildings, with extensive restoration features. The Department appears to have no scruples about obstructing such home ownership, which is supported by the Conservative party, and has caused the obstruction for five years. The co-operative itself was opposed by the Left-wing Socialists on the GLC. If the position continues, the people in the co-operative will face another winter without work being done on their property, which could be disastrous for the fabric of the buildings and the morale of the residents.

As we consider the administration of inner London, we must develop policies for what I call the big clean-up in the way that we administer ourselves and in the way that people live, especially in connection with housing and the environment. In that context I draw to my hon. Friend's attention the sensible recommendations that have been widely agreed by those who have considered the report of a working party set up by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors on the management and control of mansion block flats.

One recommendation is that legislation should be introduced requiring foreign landlords to provide an office within the jurisdiction on which notices of proceedings can be served. I even question whether it is right for foreign residents to own residential, tenanted property in inner London, because of the great problems that can arise from it. Some of my constituents who live in Inverness terrace in Paddington have been exposed to the most appalling duress by a landlord who has escaped responsibility by being registered abroad. Living in that landlord's property has been made almost impossible. Gas and electricity are shut off intermittently, hot water was unavailable for four months, repairs are overdue and water is coming into the basement fiat. By being registered abroad, the landlord has managed to escape identification. He is not registered at the Registry of Business Names at Companies house, and all that his tenants know is that he has an office somewhere in Liechtenstein.

The working party recommended that schedule 19 to the Housing Act 1980 should be amended to allow a tenant to challenge the appointment of managing agents. At present, tenants can do little about an inefficient managing agent who is foisted on them except to refuse to pay the service charges, which are often in dispute. However, that does not do much good if the necessary repairs are simply not being done. It is reasonable that residents should have some choice in the appointment of managing agents so that those appointees can demonstrate their efficiency not only to the property company that employs them but to the residents of the property. There are many other very reasonable recommendations made on mansion properties in the report and I hope that the Minister will give them early attention.

As the years have passed, inner London's interests have been sadlly neglected, regardless of who have been the Government in Whitehall. Certainly those interests have not been protected or advanced by the GLC under the existing local government structure in London.

With further reference to home ownership in inner London, there is a need to extend the Leasehold Reform Act 1967. It is essential that people who live in blocks of flats or properties that are divided should have the same right to enfranchise themselves as those who live in ordinary dwelling houses. If my party is to continue to extol the virtues of home ownership, as it does, and which I support, we must also bring within the fold of home ownership those who are subject to the difficulties of living in mansion properties.

I know that the Law Commission, under the chairmanship of Mr. Justice Ralph Gibson, would be perfectly willing to create a form of structure in the law for a right to buy applicable to a wider range of dwellings such as flats, maisonettes and divided houses, but the Law Commission awaits the triggering of such an inquiry from the Government. I urge upon the Minister and his right hon. Friend the need to invite the Law Commission to begin that examination as soon as possible.

I should like to refer briefly to the operation of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 in inner London. It is a very well-intended Act. The trouble with it is that, in the inner London area, because of the natural pressures that arise in any great capital city, many people tend to flood in, and under that Act they have to be housed, with the result that in inner London we are creating ghetto estates of poor and deprived people. It is socially and morally wrong that that should be so. It is wrong, too, that the children of people who were born in inner London should cease to have the opportunity to be housed by their local inner London borough council because of the operation of the Act.

I will give briefly the example of the experience of the city of Westminster, which serves the very heart of the capital. Last year the council offered 605 people permanent homes under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act, using its own housing stock—485 compared with 359 in 1981.

It is clear that if a council is having to use all its available stock under the Act, something is wrong. There should be some balance in respect of the inner London borough councils. It is not unreasonable to say that in the heart of the capital the inner London borough councils, regardless of whether they are Socialist controlled or Conservative controlled, should have the right to ensure some balance in the way that the Act operates.

I should like to conclude by mentioning one or two points which need to be explored in the course of this Parliament, and again I put the case for an examination of the way in which the London rate equalisation scheme works. It is unacceptable that the ratepayers living within the city of Westminster, not all of whom are wealthy and a large number of whom are pensioners living on fixed incomes, on retirement pensions and on invested income, should pay such high rates while the city council has to distribute a substantial sum of money under the equalisation scheme to other London boroughs.