Orders of the Day — Housing and Building Control Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:59 pm on 5th July 1983.

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Photo of Mr Martin Redmond Mr Martin Redmond , Don Valley 4:59 pm, 5th July 1983

I compliment the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo) on an excellent maiden speech. The content of his speech, and the deliberation that led to it, show that he will be a great asset to the House. I look forward to hearing his future contributions. I do not agree with all that he said, but I welcome his enlightening speech.

I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me early in the debate. The fact that you have done so shows that compassion is one of your many qualities. I would have been at some disadvantage if I had been bouncing up and down until about 9 o'clock tonight.

It is a privilege to make my first speech in a debate in which I am sure many right hon. and hon. Members wish to make contributions. It is also a privilege to represent the electorate of the Don Valley constituency. In the previous Parliament it was represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Welsh). At that time Don Valley was one of the largest constituencies. As reconstituted, it forms one third of the metropolitan borough of Doncaster. The other part of the Doncaster area is ably represented by you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I offer you my congratulataions on your appointment to such a high office. It shows the esteem that tight hon. and hon. Members have for your parliamentary acumen.

The main industry in the Don valley is coal mining. The south Yorkshire coalfield is a long-life field. Being relatively new in historical terms, the coalfield enjoyed a higher standard of planning and housing than the norm in some of the older, traditional mining areas.

The Minister referred to the high percentage of miners purchasing their houses. Perhaps he could make a contribution to enable them to make improvements. Most National Coal Board houses are 80 to 90-years-old and need to be brought up to modern standards. I hope that when he dishes out the allocations he will see that areas with high NCB stocks enjoy a higher percentage of the HIP.

I come to the House after service as a member of Doncaster borough council. I had the honour of leading that council. Housing was a key service then and it remains so today. My constituents expect good housing. It is the responsibility primarily of the local authority to take action so that the housing conditions are adequate and meet the aspirations of the people. That function should rest fairly and squarely with the local council, but the Government will not allow that.

I come to the House as an advocate of local democracy. I have, therefore, examined the principles of the Bill. Sadly, I have come to the conclusions that it will do very little to solve the main housing problems. Some parts of the Bill, if enacted, will lead future generations to ponder about the wisdom of the House approving such a measure.

For far too long, the Government have spent too much time telling local authorities to reorder their priorities to accord with Government policy, yet at the same time I have heard Ministers preach about the need for local democracy and how the Government are committed to local government. The uncertainty in local government on housing matters and the complexity of the systems introduced by the Department of the Environment led last year to a massive underspend of housing capital of about £800 million. Much of that capital had come from receipts from the sale of municipal housing.

The Bill seeks to extend the right to buy local authority accommodation. It also extends the right to discounts. No doubt we shall be told of the Government's commitment to a property-owning democracy. How much better it would be if the Bill extended the right-to-buy provisions to tenants of property owned by the Government or to tenants of their landlord friends in the Private sector.

The mining areas of this country have more than a fair share of physically disabled people. One of the priority areas for local authority building in those parts of the country has been the provision of special accommodation adapted for use by the physically disabled. Despite the improvement in mine safety, we have to recognise that the demand for specially adapted accommodation for the disabled will not diminish. I therefore wonder about the wisdom of allowing that accommodation to go into owner-occupation. The consequences will be further heavy expenditure by local authorities in providing replacement accommodation. My preliminary thought is that that practice will increase public expenditure. A much simpler approach is by way of improvement grants for the adaptation of private houses, for the benefit of the physically handicapped.

The remainder of the Bill is concerned with the building control function. I am aware that the House has already spent many hours in debate and consideration of this most complex draft legislation. I do not know whether to call it daft legislation.

I was one of the many people serving on local councils who opposed the introduction of fees for dealing with applications for consent under building regulations. At the time, I saw it as yet one more step towards the Government's objective of reducing the rate support grant. That happened, and local authorities were given the task of administering a charging system of a complexity that could have been devised only by the British Civil Service. A whole new bureaucracy was created. Relationships between local government and the public deteriorated.

There was a fear in local government that the need to pay fees would encourage people to go ahead with work without the necessary approvals under the building regulations. We did not hear too much about privatisation. We were naive and thought that the Government's motivation was simply to extract more money from the general public and reduce the rate support grant. The deepening of the recession has caused many business-people and professionals to search hard for new sources of income. Now companies are wildly enthusiastic about the task of collecting household refuse. I wonder where that initiative and drive were to be found before the recession.

We are discussing another piece of draft legislation which, if it is passed, will put fees into the hands of a new inspectorate, and will take them away from local authorities. It is clear that there will be no action by the Government to make good the loss with extra rate support grant.

I am against the appointment of outside inspectors. Building regulations are complex secondary legislation. Understanding and interpretation of those regulations comes only with years of detailed training and experience. Even then, many local authority building inspectors question the complexity of the regulations and their relevance to much present-day building construction.

The legislation does nothing to solve the basic housing problems of this country. I fear that it will add to those problems, because the abolition of local authority building control is a charter for the jerry builder. That must be avoided at all costs. The public's investment in house purchase is of primary importance to them for their future welfare. There have been too many examples of jerry building and malpractice in the British housebuilding industry.

Careful thought must be given to the possible consequences of the Bill. Had the House looked into a crystal ball many years ago and seen the present Prime Minister, the suffragettes might not have won their well-deserved victory.