Orders of the Day — Housing and Building Control Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:11 pm on 5th July 1983.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Eldon Griffiths Mr Eldon Griffiths , Bury St Edmunds 5:11 pm, 5th July 1983

The House has been fortunate today to hear not one, but three maiden speeches. One was from my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo), whom we are delighted to welcome to the Conservative side. Another was from the hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond) who spoke for his constituents with weight and, no doubt, perception. Thirdly, there was my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) as the new Minister for Housing and Construction.

You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will have followed closely the speech of the hon. Member for Don Valley as you are his neighbour. The House is fortunate to have yet another representative of the great mining industry which all hon. Members admire. I had the good fortune to grow up in a mining area, although on the other side of the Pennines. Many years later, in government, when we had some difficulties with the gentleman in question, I discovered that my first district councillor was the present Lord Gormley. I learned at least something from him about the mining industry. The hon. Member for Don Valley has worked on the surface of coal mines in his area. I am sure that he will contribute great knowledge to the Opposition.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South rightly reminded the House of the great breadth of industries and other activities in his constituency. He said that the hurdle of a maiden speech was high, but he soared over it with the same grace with which he soared over his opponents at the general election. He is most welcome not only for his personal characteristics but as a former chairman of his district housing authority. He will contribute mightily to the work of the House.

The third maiden speech that the House was fortunate to hear—I say this without any impertinence—was by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne. When we heard his mellifluous tones and carefuly marshalled arguments, those of us who had been Members of the House for some time realised that he had been quiet for far too long. The Prime Minister's loss of a Parliamentary Private Secretary is certainly the gain of the House of Commons.

My hon. Friend the Minister was entirely right to pay tribute to the splendid work done by his immediate predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Mr. Stanley). If anyone laid the foundations of a successful housing policy for a Conservative Government, it was he. If anyone is equipped to build upon them and to take the programme forward, it is my hon. Friend the new Minister. I was delighted, as I am sure were all my hon. Friends, to hear his robust statement of his philosophy as he approaches his challenging task. I was further gratified to hear him say—and mean—that he would seek to widen choice, which is the centre of freedom, and to roll back, wherever prudent, the frontiers of the state. Above all, I was glad to hear his commitment to the broadening of our capital-owning democracy, in particular through the medium of home ownership. My hon. Friend has made a splendid start and I am greatly heartened.

I start with the same advantage as my hon. Friend the Minister in that I did not speak on the previous Bill and I had the good fortune not to sit on the Committee. I should make it clear to any Whip who may be present that I hope to continue that record. I can thus come to the Bill with a fresh mind and some simple and fairly clear points.

First, in relation to the changes to be made in the building regulations and their administration, I very much welcome the move towards self-regulation and, in some cases, self-certification. Many, though not all, of our present regulations are out of date. They do not take sufficient account of the new materials and methods available to the building industry. It is high time that regulations framed as long ago as 1936 were brought up to date.

Secondly, I welcome the changes because the language in which many of the building regulations are couched is obsolete. It obscures rather than illuminates, to the point where the courts, let alone the ordinary citizen, cannot understand what is meant. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, who is a great expert in these matters, will seek to modernise and clarify the regulations. I count on my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction to simplify them, too, so that those who build and inspect our houses know precisely what they are supposed to achieve.

Thirdly, I welcome the changes because there is too much regulation of building altogether. I had some responsibility at the Department of the Environment when we introduced simpler arrangements for planning via the general development order so that people could make additions to their houses without having to go through the whole rigmarole of the planning laws. There should now be a similar move in respect of building regulations. Having recently built and modernised a house myself, I speak from some personal experience. I did not do the physical labour, but I took an active interest in it. I was mainly responsible for the demolition of what went before so that those more expert than I could carry out the reconstruction work. I also did the garden. When modernising old agricultural premises or the like, I believe that in principle the owner should be able to do as he pleases, within his own curtilage, provided that he does nothing to endanger his own or visitors' safety or to put the public at risk through pollution or the like.

Unfortunately, I and my local building inspectors do not agree. They have tried to go into that curtilage by telling me exactly what to do inside as well as outside. In that regard, the state is over-mighty. The council can be over-intrusive. I hope that my hon. Friend and his colleagues will consider this matter in Committee. I hope to represent it to my hon. Friend more effectively, in writing.

Overall, I welcome the changes, but I have some tiny reservations. With self-regulation and self-certification, we must ensure the selection of competent certifiers. We must also be sure that their performance is monitored properly.

My experience goes back to when I had some responsibility in the Ministry of Transport when we allowed certification of vehicle safety to be carried out by private garages. The three-triangle scheme was introduced. The important feature was and still is that the Ministry sanctioned a large number of private garages to carry out the certification on behalf of the Government. On the whole, the scheme has worked well, but the sanction behind it is that before a garage is put into the scheme it must satisfy the Department as to its equipment and the competence of its work force. Thereafter, if a garage proprietor transgresses or performs badly he can be thrown out of the scheme. Indeed, it frequently fell to me to consider appeals from garage proprietors against being thrown out of the scheme.

The analogy is less than exact, but it is important in the case of building regulations that the Government satisfy the public about the selection of the certifiers, the monitoring of their performance and the effectiveness of the sanctions that could apply if they failed to do their job properly.

I am a little worried, too, about my hon. Friend the Minister's use of the word "option". I take him to mean that there would be a two-way, rather than a one-way, option. In other words, there would be no obligation on a house owner to employ a private architect or builder; equally, however, the council should not be able to prohibit him from employing such people as he chooses, provided that they have been adequately certified. I am sure that my hon. Friend meant that it must be a two-way option.