Orders of the Day — Housing and Building Control Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:45 pm on 5th July 1983.

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Photo of Mr Andrew Bennett Mr Andrew Bennett , Denton and Reddish 8:45 pm, 5th July 1983

I would have more faith in the beliefs of the hon. Member for Berkshire, East (Mr. MacKay) if he wanted to give the right to buy to everybody instead of just to council tenants. I would believe him more if he wanted to give the right to buy to people in the high-rise flats or maisonettes that he finds so unattractive by allowing tenants to buy terraced or semi-detached houses elsewhere. Many of my constituents are bitter that they are stuck in unattractive council property when others are able to buy attractive council properties that they would like to move into if, without the discount, the tenant had bought a house in a private estate. If the hon. Member wants to be evenhanded, he should argue in favour of giving discounts to everybody, not just to council tenants, so that people have the right to buy all rented properties. That would be a fairer solution.

I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Hayes) making his maiden speech. I join him in his tribute to Stan Newens. He will be sadly missed by Opposition Members, by many people in the Third world and by people in countries that do not enjoy our freedom, for whom he was a champion.

I ask the indulgence of the House to refer to my new constituency. I represented the Reddish part of the area for nine years. I have not represented Denton before. Ken Marks represented Denton. I pay tribute to him. The House listened to him with pleasure when he spoke in the Chamber. He was fortunate in that he represented Denton on the local council, won a famous by-election and served in the House for 15½ years, being a Minister in the Departments of Environment and Transport. He will be remembered with affection by my hon. Friends. He will be remembered in Denton with a great deal of affection. Throughout the election campaign people came to me to express their thanks for the work that he did as their representative in the House. I hope that I shall represent the Denton part of the constituency as well as he did. I am sure that he will continue to work hard for the Denton area and maintain his long record of public service.

My constituency contains two local authority areas and an overspill area. The Manchester overspill, Tameside and Stockport housing authorities do not do justice to tenants in terms of repairs. Increasingly, the local housing associations fail to do their repairs as well as they should. A major scandal in public housing is that no local authority or housing group manages to give tenants satisfaction in the efficiency of housing repairs.

I examined clause 23 with interest to see whether it would solve the problems by giving the tenant the right to carry out repairs. I would welcome a measure along that line, but the clause will not do the job. In a sense, we experienced such a provision in relation to the old medical officers of health before local government reorganisation in 1974. The old medical officers of health and public health inspectors were able to serve notices on private landlords and insist that repairs were done. In theory, officers still have the powers to serve notices on local authorities, but they rarely use those powers. Unfortunately, in many local authorities the housing and environmental health officer has those powers. Whereas in the past the public health inspector would have served notice on a local authority that failed to bring a house up to standard, and would have done it quickly, the new environmental health officers are reluctant to solve the problems that come within their responsibility. I hope that the measure will solve some of those problems, but I fear that it will not. First, it is absurd that when a tenant announces that he will do the repairs himself because the local authority has failed to do them, he should be made responsible for all repairs. Therefore, if a tenant who is especially disgruntled because the local authority has failed, for example, to repair the back door for some months does it himself, he will then be responsible for repairing his roof if it blows off. The clause will be a major disincentive to tenants to carry out repairs.

The other problem is that there will be no guarantee of standards. A tenant's friend might offer to do the job—perhaps on the cheap—the repair might not be done adequately and there would be no improvement.

In my area we face a major problem with people who tout loft insulation. I am afraid that in the same way people will go round council estates telling tenants that certain items of repair have not been done by the council and offering to do the work instead. That, again, could produce unsatisfactory results.

One of the major points of neglect in council house estates is the communal areas. It is difficult to understand how the clause would apply to such repairs. Would an individual tenant serve notice on a local authority that because a particular communal area repair had not been carried out he intended to get it done instead? Or would all the tenants jointly serve notice on the council? I am not sure how it would be done, but it is one provision about which there is considerable concern.

A particular problem arises in Stockport where the local authority takes the view that the tenant should be responsible for a substantial proportion of repairs. The authority feels that the windows, the gates, toilets, wash basins, and many other items are the tenants' responsibility. Stockport, a Tory-controlled authority, believes that its attitude will make tenants more responsible. However, it neglects to consider that a large number of its tenants are hard up and that they live on benefits. Such people are expected to replace a broken double-glazed window, a garden gate or other items out of supplementary benefit, but it is almost impossible in those circumstances, for the individual to save up sufficient money to do that. That is a major penalty on tenants.

Tenants who live in Tameside, the other half of my constituency, are under an authority that carries out the repairs. The rents may be marginally higher, but the tenants can claim that back without argument through supplementary benefit.

I hope that during the passage of the Bill the Minister will examine the problem whereby tenants in some areas are expected to pay substantial sums for repairs which they cannot afford because of their low incomes.

There have been many representations from my area, particularly from people who work in the local authorities, about the effect that the privatisation of the building regulations machinery will have on standards. The hon. and learned Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Lyell) said that there would be no difficulty because the professional person would take out indemnity insurance. What guarantees are there, however, about the insurance companies? There has been trouble in the past when insurance companies have gone out of business. This is one of those areas where the whole question of professional indemnity must be examined to ensure that there is a guarantee that if a particular inspector is negligent the money will he forthcoming to carry out the repairs and make the property satisfactory. At least under the present arrangements, everyone believes that if it can be shown that a local authority building inspector was negligent the local authority would have the money available to carry out the work.

The Bill fails to improve conditions for council house tenants. It does not improve the opportunities for people to own not only a home, but the sort of home that they want. I hope that the Government will quickly bring forward other measures that will give council house tenants real rights to live in houses that are well maintained, well repaired and of which they can be proud.