Orders of the Day — Housing Defects Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:41 pm on 26th April 1984.

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Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies , Caerphilly 7:41 pm, 26th April 1984

It is a pity that the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Chope) decided to end on a sour note, because the earlier part of his speech was constructive, although critical. The point about the problem of blighted houses was a valuable one and I support it. It is disappointing that the hon. Gentleman, who made a valid point, lapsed into the perennial Conservative habit of attacking local democracy, local authorities and people who voluntarily give their time to serve communities.

The hon. Gentleman almost fell into the trap into which the hon. Members for Norwich, South (Mr. Powley I and for Leicester, South (Mr. Spencer), who cannot have been listening to the debate, fell. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) made the Opposition's position clear. The Opposition's amendment makes it clear that we accept 100 per cent. the principle of offering support to those who purchase. There is no dispute about that We are not discussing the merits of owner-occupation or of the right-to-buy provision. We are discussing the way in which the Government intend to respond to a particular housing crisis.

Labour Members welcome the Government initiative as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. The Government have selected 10 per cent. of those who are living in defective housing and are offering them support, while ignoring the 90 per cent. of those who have similar and equal housing problems. That is arbitrary, prejudicial and indefensible. Therefore, I shall vote against the Second Reading.

I have some points to make about the principle, the detail and the applicatin of the Bill. I welcome the presence of a Minister from the Welsh Office. We have discussed these matters together, and shall continue to do so. On the general principle of the Bill, my local authority, Rhymney Valley district council, has 1,096 defective houses. Of those, 142 have been sold, mainly in estates in Hengoed and Penyrhoel in Caerphilly. There is a great deal of concern among ex-tenants about whether the Bill's provisions will act fairly and properly and whether their housing problem will be resolved. I am sure that the Minister will understand that the local authority w ill give every assistance to those ex-tenants in trying to solve their problems.

I am concerned that, although 142 people who have purchased will be assisted, there remain 954 tenants in the public sector who are living in extreme squalor. If hon. Members have not seen the effects of this housing, I suggest that they visit some of it. The Welsh Office Minister knows that he has an open invitation to come to Rhymney valley to see the conditions. I know that he has seen deputations from some of those tenants. The problems are those of damp penetration and condensation, with the result that windows are rotting, walls are peeling, roofs are leaking and families are living in squalor and misery. There is no justification for the Government to say that they will take action, welcome though it is, to support those 142 families while at the same time they are denying resources to 954 families. That is the essence of our objection.

In an intervention in the speech of the Minister I put the problem that we face in Rhymney valley with our HIP allocation. I repeat that point and I hope that it is taken up by the Minister for Housing and Construction and by the Welsh Office Minister. Our HIP allocation this year is just over £6 million. There are 142 dwellings that need repair. Let us assume that the average cost is £8,000 and that all houses are repaired and none of them is repurchased. The cost will be more than £1 million.

The local authority has two choices. It can put back some of its HIP allocation programme, sacrificing new build, on capitalised repairs and improvement grants, at a time when we have a waiting list of £15 million for the improvement grant programme. Secondly, it can tell the 142 families who, as a result of tonight's debate, will be given help that no matter what the Government say or what the debate in the House of Commons has been about, although they are entitled in theory to have a full improvement grant, in practice, because the Government are not making the money available, they will not have the grant.

That is the hard choice facing the local authorities which will have the responsibility of implementing this legislation. I appeal to the Minister and the Welsh Office to recognise the problems that have been created. Additional legal responsibility is being put on local authorities but the financial wherewithal is not being provided to discharge it. This must be looked at closely.

An additional burden is being placed on local authorities but no additional help is being given to them. The explanatory memorandum relating to clause 4 lists the requirements to be placed on local authorities. I remind the Minister that these are the local authorities that the party have been vilifying since they were elected in 1979. The Government have been castigating local authorities for their inefficiency while cutting resources and placing additional responsibilities on them. Now a completely new set of responsibilities will be placed on the administrators in local government and there is not one jot of financial support being given to enable them to discharge these burdens. Their needs are dismissed on page V of the preamble, which says that the demands, "it is expected", can be contained within existing levels of manpower. How on earth can the Minister say that the expected demand can be contained within existing manpower levels? I am talking about 142 improvement grants. Who will do the detailed survey and handle the repairs? Who will carry out the inspections? Who will be responsible for ensuring that the repair grant money is spent properly and that the works satisfy the demands specified in the Bill? Local authorities have cut manpower levels over the past five years. The Government dismiss the extra burden on local government as if it is something that can be picked up on a Monday morning at no cost.

Local authorities have a choice. Rhymney valley has a £15 million waiting list for home improvements. I remind the Minister of the recent findings by the Welsh house conditions survey which shows that about 8·8 per cent. of houses in Wales are unfit. About 90,000 dwellings are involved. In Mid-Glamorgan 10·5 per cent. of the housing stock is classed as unfit. The Minister says that priorities must be decided. He says that people entitled under the Bill should come forward on the waiting list and that the 10 per cent. of people who have lived for up to 25 years in unfit housing must wait their turn and be put back on the list for another five years.

The Government's attitude is unfair on the people whose expectations have been raised by the Bill. It is unfair to residents who have been on housing waiting lists for a long time and whose expectations have also been raised by the Government's propaganda campaign for improvement grants. It is also grossly unfair on local authorities which will have to make the choice. They might have to say to a disabled person, to a family with a disabled child, or to a family with a leaking roof, "You cannot have an improvement grant because we must give the money to someone who has recently purchased their council house." That is one of two principal weaknesses in the Bill.

First, the Bill applies only to the private sector and not the public sector. Secondly, the Government have come up with a good idea, but they are not providing the money to implement it.

The hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Chope) talked about blight. In my area the demand for housing is slackening and there is difficulty in maintaining the housing stock. Many houses have been sold and purchasers, or ex-tenants, have already experienced the impact of blight. Prospective purchasers are unable to obtain mortgages on property, not because it shows signs of defect, but because it is known that latent defects might be present. What are such owner-occupiers to do?

The Bill provides that local authorities may repurchase houses which cannot be improved at a viable cost. We heard interesting exchanges between the Minister and the hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Durant), both of whom gave entirely different interpretations of compassion and of conditions under which local authorities will be allowed to repurchase. I hope that the Minister will make it clear under what circumstances local authorities can repurchase. If a family living in a house which shows no sign of defect but which may have latent defects cannot find a buyer for their house, will the local authority have the funds to repurchase? That is a simple and straightforward question. It is no good the Minister saying "It all depends upon the circumstances."

I was intrigued to hear the Minister mention people who have to move because of their job. I am talking about 10,000 people in my constituency who will not move because of a job. What will happen to them if they want to move two miles down the road for social convenience reasons? Will they have no recourse to go to the local authority and require it to repurchase?

I have discussed the matter in detail with my local authority to see how it would cope with the legislation. A paragraph from a letter from the director of environmental services of the Rhymney Valley district council puts the matter in perspective. It states: The bill provides for assistance 'to deal satisfactorily with the qualifying defect, and includes any other work reasonably required in connection with that work' ". So far so good. I ask the Minister to pay particular attention because the letter is written by someone who is responsible for implementing the legislation, not for putting it through the House with a majority. The letter continues: This may be too restrictive. The remedy of defects will involve major disturbance and it is reasonable that works not strictly required to remedy the defects but necessary to bring the property up to modern standards should be done at the same time, it being both economic good sense and in the occupiers' interests that this should happen. The definition should, perhaps, be widened to allow this to happen by adding words to the effect 'or properly carried out in association therewith'. I hope that the Minister will pay attention to that. I am sure that Government Members, with their keen desire to ensure efficiency and value for money, will recognise that it would be the height of folly to put public money into the improvement of private houses but to restrict the nature of works so that general works are not done to make the property fit and safe.

My final argument is a little technical. People who come within the ambit of the legislation will seek professional assistance. I hope that the Government do not think that the corner cowboy outfit should carry out the work. We do not want someone on the dole or someone who has set himself up as a builder with 10 sheets of headed notepaper to do the work. The work is detailed and technical. Specialists will be needed.

The Minister should at least consider allowing local authorities, with proper funding, to play a more constructive role. If local authorities are involved, they can ensure proper standards and that specialist consultants do the complete job. Local authorities can achieve concessions for ex-tenants and ensure that all the necessary work is done properly.

If the Government were sincere in tackling the task as a housing problem, they would have considered such a provision. I come to the reluctant conclusion that the Government do not regard this as a housing problem. Despite the Government's stated concern about the needs of individuals who have exercised the right to buy, they regard this problem as a distortion of market forces. They argue that they allow market forces and freedom of choice to operate and that now problems have arisen. They are attempting to resolve the problems of people who have bought their houses rather than the problems of the remaining 90 per cent. in the public sector.

The argument can be summarised no better than it was in the New Statesman of 13 April: But defects are clearly not the government's main concern, as illustrated by the preamble to the new bill which explains that suspected houses have been 'substantially reduced in value'. For the government, the purpose of the Housing Defects Bill is to paper over cracks in the right to buy. If the Government were sincere in tackling this housing problem they would not have restricted themselves to 10 per cent., and they would not have restricted the involvement of local authorities when the opportunity exists to tackle what is a major housing crisis in many local authorities. The Government have failed to meet that requirement, and that is why I and, I am sure, many other Opposition and Conservative Members will vote against the Second Reading.