Orders of the Day — Housing and Building Control Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:26 pm on 5th July 1983.

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Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 6:26 pm, 5th July 1983

I am happy that Labour party Back Benchers do what their Front Benchers fail to do. I am happy that the Labour party is adopting Liberal party policy. That has often been our experience. Other parties regularly adopt our best policies and pretend that they are their own.

We welcome the leasehold entitlement in the Bill. We do not say that no disabled person should be able to buy because they may be specifically disadvantaged, but a particular category of housing is involved, which normally is needed to meet the needs of the disabled in a community.

We welcome the shared ownership provisions, although they may be complicated. We do not welcome the increase in discount from 50 per cent. to 60 per cent. That is unjustified. Given that six out of 10 people in some areas are in receipt of housing benefit, it is an unnecessary extension which will produce little good for those who already have the opportunity to buy.

We are happy with proposals that will make clearer for people who buy the service charges that councils may impose. In the originally named Southwark Sparrow, my borough council's newspaper, the borough issues a warning to those who are considering buying. It is part of its policy to discourage buying, so it warns that a typical two-bedroom flat in a block with central heating and a lift might cost £964·84 in service charges. There are some interesting heads of service charges, including the reserve fund. In other boroughs, there is a payment for the disposal of other than common refuse. It is important for tenants to know the implications of such charges.

We welcome the right to repair provisions to some extent, but they involve some disadvantages. The common law already provides the right to repair and the Bill proposes to make that statutory. The danger is that most tenants will have to pay in advance for a service that, as other hon. Members said, may be as bad a service as the often appalling local authority service. They should at least be given the option. They must not be deceived into thinking that payment for a private builder, who equally could botch up the job, would necessarily be an advantage. It would be best if the council repair service met the needs of those who pay the rents and rates, and if the service were improved many tenants would be happier.

One proposal in the Bill will illuminate for tenants the mysteries of their often enormous heating charges. For those tenants living on estates such as those in Southwark and Bermondsey, who are often old and occupying high-rise blocks, it is a grave imposition to pay enormous heating charges for often wholly inadequate heating. If the Bill succeeds in providing value for money for them and improved heating services on our council estates, it will in this respect be worth while.

When we debated motions on the Budget prior to the full debate last week, I was mystified that the Labour party did not support the Liberal party in its opposition to the Government's proposed and subsequently accepted mortgage interest relief threshold increase from £25,000 to £30,000. There is an increasing discrepancy between the subsidies of those in private sector accommodation and those in public sector accommodation. I hope that the Labour party recognises that its duty, which is also ours, is to ensure that those in the cheapest housing categories are given the advantage of the country's finances and that those who are given the right to buy are also given the chance to buy private properties at the lower price end of the market — which are the only prices that most of them can afford.

It is regrettable that although the London docklands development corporation will bring the opportunity to buy to my constituency, where only 2 per cent. own their own homes, it will provide a considerable percentage of those new homes to people who will have to pay at least £50,000 or £60,000 for them. That is an unacceptable misuse of the Government's opportunity to allow people on a limited budget a new start that will give them the independence all hon. Members have been saying they wish to give them.

On Third Reading of the original Bill in the previous Parliament my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross), said that we would oppose the proposals that would weaken the system of control of buildings, especially those in the public sector. He said that we would oppose it because, as is known in the construction industry —we have been given examples in recent weeks as in years gone by — commercial interests often take precedence over a good service and a duty to the housing stock, purchaser and tenant, and also because the Bill would probably lower the standards of building control. That is still our attitude.

In some cases the Government's proposals are amazingly naive. They propose creating a right for the Secretary of State to pass the powers given to him to an undemocratic body, which is not answerable to Parliament, for imposition of building regulations. The Bill will provide for the removal after certification—at present someone certifies that a building is of an acceptable standard — of any criminal sanction to be taken against the builder who, on breaching the building regulations, would normally be liable to prosecution by the local authority.

To take away the present entitlement of local authorities to monitor, supervise and ensure that the buildings in our country are of good standard, is a Government sacrifice on the altar of their privatisation desires. It does not take into primary account the fundamental need for people in this land to live in housing that they can be satisfied was, when built, reliable and capable of standing firm without enormous construction and other problems in the years to come.

I wish to give one example of the problem that bad building control can produce. In Bermondsey there is an estate called the Bonamy. It has been the subject of a recent letter to the Secretary of State for the Environment. It was built between 1964 and 1970 and comprises 918 dwellings of different types and with different numbers of bedrooms. Since 1978, it has been apparent that the estate has fundamental problems. I have the technical report produced by the technical services section of the London borough of Southwark housing department. The head of that section has concluded that within no more than 12 years of the construction of that estate, which houses more than 1,000 people in almost 1,000 dwellings, the only solution is to pull it down. The cost of rehousing those currently living there will be approximately £45 million. That is irrespective of how that is done—whether the estate is completely rebuilt on that site or elsewhere. Estates should not be built that within 12 years need to be pulled down. It should be part of the control system, which does not yet work properly, to ensure that many of our worst estates never become worst estates.

Rather than tinkering around the periphery, I hope that the Government will see it as their duty and objective to ensure that at the end of this term of office they leave the housing stock of Britain, which is currently an embarrassment for a civilised country, in a considerably better state than that in which they found it and in which, after four years and to the regret of millions of people, it remains.