Orders of the Day — Housing and Building Control Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:20 pm on 5th July 1983.

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Photo of Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse , Pontefract and Castleford 7:20 pm, 5th July 1983

I congratulate the hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Hayes) on his maiden speech. He is about the eighth maiden speaker today, and was less fortunate than others who were lucky to get away early. I think that the House will agree that the waiting did not reflect on his performance. One thing is certain. The confidence that he showed will stand him in good stead for the future.

The hon. Gentleman will understand if I do not agree with all of his speech, which was lively and confident. The other maiden speeches were also good. They all had their own political style and contributed greatly to the debate. The election has brought to the House new faces—some pretty and some not quite so pretty. It is a change to hear fresh voices and fresh views from people who have come direct from the hustings and have not been fastened down in the House over the past few years. I congratulate the hon. Member for Harlow and hope to hear much more from him in the near future.

Listening to the debate, one would think that no council houses had ever been sold before the Conservative Government came to office in 1979. That is not true. Before that time, local authorities had the right to sell council houses. About 250,000 council houses were sold before 1979 by local authorities deciding for themselves.

We must examine the Bill responsibly. There is no political mileage in just opposing some of the clauses on council houses. We must consider whether the Government are right in pushing forward with the Bill. I oppose clause 1 not simply because of the extension of the right to buy, but because local authorities are left as leaseholders between head leaseholders and the purchasing tenants. If the purchasing tenant defaults on his obligations, the landlord authority could be saddled with repair obligations. Therefore, the local authority may retain its obligations with none of the normal rights of ownership.

Clause 2 extends the right to buy to all disabled persons' dwellings except sheltered provision. I say categorically to the Minister that he has got that wrong. As he is well aware, in my constituency many paraplegic miners are waiting in a queue for homes for the disabled. They have to wait until someone passes on before they can enjoy the convenience of specially designed dwellings. If those homes are sold, there is no point in those people being in a queue. That aspect of the Bill should be looked at again. If the supply were sufficient to meet the demand, it would be different, but as the Minister must know, the supply is not there. To take away the present accommodation from disabled people who might one day enjoy those facilities is wrong.

Clause 3, which I also oppose, was introduced in another place during the previous Parliament. It increases the maximum discount to 60 per cent. The House will be aware that in clause 3(3) the Secretary of State gives himself the power to modify the cost floor date. The Minister will remember a classic difference of opinion in the Chamber between him and me the day after the clause went through the other place. I am convinced that the suggestion that I made then was right. At present, the date is 31 March 1974. Local authorities cannot discount the price to tenants below the costs incurred in any properties built after that date. The Secretary of State will now have the right to decide whether a tenant can buy his house at a discount, whenever it was built.

The Secretary of State would have powers if new housing were built on an estate. It might cost £25,000 or more to build each new house. The Secretary of State has given himself powers to sell those houses with a 60 per cent. discount. That cannot be right. The Secretary of State might not intend that, but he is giving himself that right, and he should not do so.

I am fundamentally opposed to clause 6 because it would give the Secretary of State the power to decide what it is and what it is not reasonable to include within conveyances. At present, local authorities draw up their own conveyances and there is always in the background the test of reasonableness in the courts. I am even more concerned that the effect of the clause is retrospective, so that the terms of conveyances for houses already sold can be changed.

I also oppose clause 7, which is a further unnecessary extension of the Secretary of State's power and in which he is considering intervention. He would single out local authority officers, rather than take action against the local authority. Therefore, officers would have conflicting loyalties. That is how I understand the clause will operate.

Clauses 9 to 14 deal with the right to a shared ownership lease. That is a further extention of the right to buy and will add considerably to local authorities' work loads in sorting out the administrative difficulties that are associated with those equity-sharing schemes.

One point of principle that should be pursued is that landlord authorities should have the right to buy back the purchasing tenants' share if they wish to leave. Such a clause was included in the Department of the Environment's model lease under the voluntary sale scheme. If local authorities do not have the right to buy back that share, an incoming purchaser—who will be a local authority tenant, in part—could be someone who either had no need of the equity-sharing scheme or was a former council tenant who perhaps had considerable rent arrears. Those points ought to be taken into consideration. I hope that they will be in Committee.

Clause 23 seems to be modelled on a recent departmental report entitled "Tenant Participation in the Repair and Maintenance of Council Houses". I understand that it featured in the London borough of Havering scheme, but there have been relatively few repairs under that scheme and it has not been in operation long enough to provide sufficient experience on which to base a national scheme. The clause purports to give tenants new rights, but it threatens to undermine their existing rights. The London tenants organisation has expressed its opposition to the scheme.

The clause is worded in such a way as effectively to remove the landlords' obligations while the scheme is in operation. A short-term rate advantage may attract tenants initially, but in the long term they will face substantial repair obligations.

The scheme is unlikely to be self-financing and, thus, may increase local authorities' costs. Setting-up costs will be considerable and new accounting methods will undoubtedly be needed. Moreover, pre and post-inspection work will have to be increased, as all costs will have to be authorised under the scheme. In some cases, especially in rural areas where travelling distances are great, the cost of administration will exceed the cost of the work.

No doubt, some tenants who take advantage of the scheme will do a good job, but that will reduce the volume of work available to public and private contractors and, thus increase unit costs. Tenants unable to carry out the work themselves, such as the elderly, the disabled and single-parent families, are therefore likely to face higher repair costs.

Many authorities are embarking on decentralised housing management on priority estates, but that presupposes a certain volume of work to justify setting up the offices. This allows direct contact between the tenants and the repairs officers and operatives. The new scheme, however, will add to the fragmentation, if not the disintegration, of repair services.

I am also worried that some tenants will do the work badly. It will then have to be put right, presumably at the local authority's expense.

I recognise that many council tenants are dissatisfied with their repairs service, but if the Minister is genuinely interested in improving the service for the majority of tenants he must produce thorough and well-thought-out proposals rather than the narrow scheme now proposed. I therefore strongly oppose clause 23.

I should be less unhappy about the scheme if it came into operation only in the event of failure by the local authority to carry out works within a reasonable time or if the scheme was entirely voluntary so that authorities could operate it if they could make it work in their area. I should also be somewhat reassured if the scheme did not suspend the landlords' repairing obligations, as it now does.

I hope that two other matters will be pursued during the passage of the Bill. First, there should be an amendment to allow local authorities, on the application of either party, to apply to the court to end a tenancy in favour of one party in the event of the breakdown of a relationship between the tenants, including cohabitees. That would not especially benefit the local authority, but it would greatly assist tenants when divorce proceedings are in progress, but they have not yet resolved the future of the matrimonial home. It would also help to solve the matrimonial home problem in the case of cohabitees.

Secondly, under the Housing Act 1980, the Secretary of State determines applications for exemption of elderly persons' accommodation on a very narrow basis. More than 90 per cent. of the cases determined by the Secretary of State have been refused, so most of the aged persons' accommodation subject to such applications is liable to be sold. An amendment is needed to define aged persons' dwellings in more generous terms.

Part II of the Bill is a matter for great concern. I shall not dwell long on the subject, as it has been mentioned by many hon. Members. The building control system in England and Wales is primarily intended to ensure that new buildings and extensions are erected to high standards, are safe for those who occupy them and for those who pass by them and are thermally efficient. District councils and outer London boroughs responsible for the building regulations have administered them effectively, drawing on the expertise of practical and experienced building professionals. Although there has been criticism of the detailed drafting of the regulations, the ability of the system to ensure the safety of new buildings has rarely been questioned and even now is not challenged by the Government, despite their intention to provide for the transfer of much, if not all, building control work from local authorities to a myriad of so-called independent inspectors.

The building control provisions of the Bill are drafted in a very general way, although their overall implications are clear. The word "prescribe" is perhaps the most frequently used term. Parliament is asked to give wide powers to the Secretary of State to introduce a certification system. How the system will work, if indeed, it can work, is not made clear in the primary legislation. Parliament is asked to take on trust a new system, to replace one that has proved inherently safe and effective, without any evidence that the system intended to complement the existing system can maintain such high standards and survive without threatening the viability of local authority building control.

If certification is introduced on the lines suggested in earlier Government consultation papers, there will be a direct threat to the safety of buildings. Although the new private inspectors will be "independent"', they may rely on a few developers for their work and may thus become less than independent. That might inhibit them from rigorously ensuring that plans and building work conform with the building regulations. There is nothing inherently wrong about the close commercial relationship, but when one party is required to control the work of the other the system must be above reproach. Local authority building control officers are independent and do not owe their position to any one developer. Anything less than that is unacceptable.

If developers are allowed to go to independent inspectors, it will be difficult for local authorities to establish their work load in any year. Authorities will therefore not be in a position to respond to substantial increases in the amount of work or to deal with developments originally privately certified, but subsequently returned to the local authority for control. If certifiers cannot be found to operate the scheme, local authorities will be left with complex and contentious schemes. Their own experienced building control staff may have joined private firms, further reducing the authorities' capacity to deal with more complex developments. That, too, must involve a possible threat to safety standards.

Under the proposals set out in the Government's last consultation paper, an independent inspector may refer a development back if he withdraws from it for any reason. If things have gone badly wrong with the development, the local authority will be expected to pick up the pieces. The Government proposals therefore leave much to be desired. Their latest proposals require the local authority to allow completion of work that is in breach of building regulations if an independent inspector certified the plans as conforming with the regulations. An authority might also be required to certify completion of a development when earlier stages of the development were inherently unsafe if those stages were certified by an independent inspector.

Those two examples illustrate the clear limitations of the Government's latest proposals and suggest to local authorities that the proposals cannot work. So far, there has been little evidence of firms or individuals being interested in taking up the new powers. Moreover, despite lengthy negotiations, there is no sign of the insurance industry being willing to provide a scheme for independent inspectors—presumably because the insurers, too, are not persuaded that the scheme can work.

That is my view. It is also the view of the Association of Municipal Authorities and the local authorities. In a submission dated 20 September 1982, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors took a similar view. It said: The Institution's considered view remains that it would neither be in the public interest nor that of the building industry to remove building control from local authorities. The changes now being proposed in the form and content of the building regulations will take some time to implement and it would be wise in our view to defer any further consideration of private certification until the new regulations and the options stage and conditional approvals have become familiar to users and until the matter of liability has been considered by the Law reform Committee. When these issues have been settled it may be easier to see whether there is any demand for private certification and whether insurers are willing to provide the necessary cover. The AMA has also said that it is premature to suggest radical changes before the building regulations are radically redrawn. I share that view. I hope that the Government will, and that they will not press on with the Bill.