Orders of the Day — Housing and Building Control Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:40 pm on 5th July 1983.

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Photo of Sir Nicholas Lyell Sir Nicholas Lyell , Mid Bedfordshire 7:40 pm, 5th July 1983

The hon. Gentleman has simply dug himself in deeper and shown that the Labour party does not understand the individual. It is the individual who lives in the house, who will have the opportunity to buy it and will therefore have the incentive to improve the front door or the windows or tidy the garden. It is the individual who will be able to provide a nest egg for his children when he finally passes on to a better world where there is no Socialist control. I hope that I shall be forgiven for injecting a tiny element of humour.

The Bill also extends the right to buy to occupiers of flats and public property on leasehold. I know, from having represented Hemel Hempstead in the previous Parliament, and Kempston and Biggleswade now, that there are many people in flats who have been deprived of that right, especially in areas that are under Labour control. They will benefit enormously from the Bill.

The introduction of the right to shared ownership will encourage even the Mid-Bedfordshire district council. It has not explored shared ownership with its customary caution. Shared ownership suits those who are putting their foot on the first rung of the house-owning ladder. It is of immense value in areas such as Basildon and Billericay and closer to London. where council houses are comparatively expensive and councils have taken up the idea. I am glad that the Bill makes it a right rather than an opportunity.

Private certification is a huge advance. If he reads my speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Mr. Finsburg) will remember that I bombarded him in the early years of the previous Parliament about the need to modernise the building control system. I am glad that we have returned to this imaginative approach to the problem. As I have moved house more than once and done up my house several times, spurred by the incentive that I have mentioned—I did not have the opportunity or need to purchase a council house—I am aware of the problems associated with the certification of building developments.

It has always seemed utterly illogical that one should have to go to a local authority employee to provide the certification in these cases. There can be few examples of something that can be better or more responsibly done by the private sector. It can be done with complete confidence and security, and it is the insurance and legal liability aspects that provide that security, certainly far more than the right to have the inspector approved by the local authority, and who is put in as a precaution. To carry out these tasks, a person must have public indemnity insurance. They may be liable for very large sums indeed if they do not do their work properly.

Those hon. Members who have practised at the bar, as I have, and have had the misfortune to come across a badly surveyed house, will be familiar with the case of Anns v. London borough of Merton in which, following earlier cases, it was held that a local authority official who had certified a property could be held liable for damages to future occupants of the dwelling.

One must insure against that. It is the kind of firm that can carry large insurance, and if a person must renew his insurance if there are claims against him from time to time, he will perform those functions with much more care than someone holding a public office for a limited period. In no sense am I running down public officials, most of whom do a good job. However, people who do it privately as part of their normal practice will have every incentive to do it well, and I believe that they will do it much more efficiently than the present system. That option is opened by the Bill and it is greatly to be welcomed. I am sure that it will be welcomed by the entire building industry and that it will be widely taken up.

My key point concerns the missing clause—formerly clause 2—which in the earlier legislation gave housing association tenants the right to purchase their property. Several thousand tenants are involved. I am not sure of the overall figure, but I believe that it is at least 10,000, perhaps more. These are tenants of charitable housing associations. The position of tenants of non-charitable housing associations was dealt with successfully in the 1980 Act, and that should be carefully borne in mind.

I was deeply disappointed that another place, overborne by a campaign that misunderstood itself and was misunderstood by Members of the other place, should have led to the overturning of clause 2 towards the end of the last Parliament.

In simple terms we are dealing with houses built by charitable housing associations, the money for which came either wholly or overwhelmingly from the public purse. When I say "overwhelmingly" I mean 85 per cent. or more from the public purse. We are dealing with the tenants of those houses, and it is our duty as parliamentarians to look at this from the position of the individual. Those individuals—many of them were and .are my constituents — went into those houses off the council waiting lists believing that they were entering something which to all intents and purposes was a council house. They believed that they would have the same rights, liabilities and prospective opportunities as a council tenant. They looked forward, in due course, to being able to purchase their council house in the event that a Conservative Government were returned. I am sure that many of them voted for such a Government, although many who voted Labour would nevertheless wish to take up that opportunity.

Although they have the opportunity under existing law, two things have happened. First, and sadly, a number of housing associations that said, "Yes, we will allow you to do it," have for years dragged their feet. I have sheaves of correspondence on this subject, which I could show hon. Members, attempting to get certain housing associations, which I shall be kind enough not to name, to do something apart from making pious comments. The second problem is that other associations are run by convinced Socialists—everyone is entitled to his view—who believe that it is wrong to sell council houses in any form and utterly refuse to do so. The people who went into these council houses believed that they would have the same rights, and it is our duty to see that they do.

I should like to examine the counter-arguments raised in the other place. The first, which was widely misunderstood, was that substantial charitable funds were involved. In a number of cases virtually no charitable funds were involved, but I repeat myself to emphasise that in no case were the charitable funds more than 15 per cent. and usually much less. Every penny of that money put forward by the charity rather than by the public purse is to be refunded in modern terms, to use Lord Bellwin's expression. That means that if the money was put in several years ago and its value has increased due to inflation, the charity will get the modern value to reinvest.

It was also argued that in some instances tenants went into this housing knowing it to be charitable housing provided for social need. That is true of only a very small number of cases. The vast majority went in believing that it was identical to council housing. However, they got no particular benefit.

Let me examine this argument from the point of view of the individual who was poor, went into such a house and perhaps paid a slightly lower rent than would otherwise have been the case but who is now better off, who would now like to purchase that house and enjoy the benefits that that would bring. Are we to be dogs in the manger and say, "No, you can't," when the vast amount of the funds came from the public purse? That is wrong in principle, and I join Lady Faithfull, who always takes an independent view on such matters, who supported us strongly and rightly in the other place when this issue was debated. She made the point that if someone was now in a position to buy, he should not be prevented from doing so and should be allowed to get his foot on the ladder.