HC Deb 24 March 1950 vol 472 cc2410-20

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. R. Adams.]

4.1 p.m.

Brigadier Prior-Palmer (Worthing)

I want to raise this afternoon the question of the housing situation in Worthing. My first point is the impact of the 10 to I ratio on a community such as exists in Worthing. I want the hon. Gentleman to realise that the community of Worthing is composed very largely of retired people and of people who earn their living in London. I suggest that the need of such a community is entirely different from that of people living in industrial areas and large centres of population. The only way in which to judge a situation like this is on the basis of need and demand.

The 10 to 1 ratio has produced an anomalous situation. There are on the housing list at Worthing a large number of people who do not want to occupy council houses. There are many who have served in the Forces and who have families. They have risen to the top of the housing list, but because there are no other houses available they have to accept council houses. I make the point that these people can afford, and well afford, another type of small house, and yet they are forced to occupy, through lack of any other type of house, a council house. In a council house they are being subsidised by the Government and through the rates by many people who are living in far worse accommodation, and who would gladly live in a council house. That is the sort of anomaly that is arising.

There is another aspect of this matter. Owing to the fact that there is a virtual prohibition on the building of small houses, there are in Worthing a large number of large houses occupied by people who would like to get out of them if they could only build small houses in which to live. These large houses could then be readily converted into flats, and, at small expense in manpower and material, housing units could be speedily provided. These are some of the effects of the 10 to 1 ratio on the community of Worthing where the greater demand is not for council houses.

The result, as I have said, is that many people, some of them young married couples with children, both of whom have probably been in the Forces, and who are at the head of the housing list, do not want to live in council houses and can well afford to live in small houses which they are ready to build, buy or lease. They are keeping out of council houses the very people for whom these houses are designed.

Another aspect of this matter—and I hope that I shall get an answer to it—is in relation to Circular 92/46, under which a council is permitted to build a certain number of houses. The Minister clearly stated at the Dome in Brighton in November, 1949, that he had no objection to people being permitted to purchase these houses. That statement has not been implemented. I urge today that permission should be granted to my local council to sell these houses to either incoming or existing tenants. In the first place, the Government are immediately relieved of £16 10s. a year subsidy and the local rates of £5 10s. These, of course, are borne by the local ratepayers in both instances, the ratepayers being taxpayers at one and the same time. The tenant purchaser is relieved of his share in the housing management expenses, and finally it would strike a severe blow at the high prices being asked at the moment for pre-war houses. For all these reasons, I hope that we shall have a favourable reply.

The housing position in Worthing is as follows. As a result of a check, carried out on ministerial instructions 12 months ago, the waiting list was reduced to 1,966. Since then, it has risen to 2,373. There were 600 applicants last year, which is two and a half times the number of houses of all sorts that are being built. There were 174 applications for private licences, mainly from young married couples who want to start having a family. In a large number of cases the husband and wife are not even living in the same house. There are also older people without children who are living in large houses that could easily be converted into flats. Neither of these two categories has an earthly chance of getting a house, as things stand at the moment, because there are others on the list with far greater qualifications. It will be ten years before the housing list is cleared, and that is without taking into account any further additions.

I want to emphasise at this juncture that we are not pleading for palaces for the rich or super-cinemas, as the Minister has so often said, but for small houses. If only the Parliamentary Secretary had to go through some of the things I have to go through in my interviews and heard some of the pathetic cases that are put to me ! In one case five families are living in a six-room house. It may be said that I should blame the local council and ask them why they do not do something about it, but in every one of these cases both the local council and myself have tried to do everything in our power to see what can be done and to ensure that there is fairness all round. I have given some of the solutions which I consider would alleviate the situation.

There is another matter which is even more important, and that is the implementation of the housing scheme in the Limbrick area. Under circular 152, 1945, which is after the Labour Government came into power, the council, with the knowledge and approval of the senior officer of the Ministry of Health, agreed to a long-term programme of new municipal houses. A plot in Limbrick was purchased at £25,000, and, again with the approval of the regional officer, the council entered into negotiations for land to the west of Limbrick for the erection of municipal houses and the provision of educational facilities and community centres on a planned basis. A covenant was entered into for drainage, road work and so on. The owner of the Field Place Estate, which comprises the land, has spent in the past few years a sum of no less than £98,000 in building roads and putting down sewers. They actually built a railway bridge, which they are now having to maintain, and they transferred overhead cables to underground cables.

I want to emphasise that all of this land was zoned by the Minister of Town and Country Planning as a residential area. It is no good the hon. Gentleman shaking his head because I have proof of the fact. He may have been misinformed on the subject. These plans received the approval of the Ministry of Health officer, and the education authorities were assured that all recreation and educational facilities would be incorporated in the plan. A very experienced architect was employed to design the whole layout.

After all this money had been spent, in June, 1946, the council were informed that the Ministry of Town and Country Planning would not view with favour the development of this land, and as an alternative they suggested that small areas of land within the borough of Worthing should be developed instead. Is that what is known as modern, good planning? Are we to take little bits of land here and there and build three or four houses on each? Where are these people going to send their children to school? Is that the basis to modern planning? Surely we should have a balanced estate with all the amenities like education, community centres, railways and so on.

The most ridiculous aspect of this was that some of these areas suggested as suitable for houses within the borough of Worthing were marked green on the map. They are in fact, market gardens, the oldest industry in Worthing. It is highly cultivated, fertilised agricultural land. Is it suggested that these are the areas which should be used for house building?

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health (Mr. Blenkinsop)

I think the hon. and gallant Member is now speaking of the land that was refused clearance, and the particular site which the local authority had hoped to use for housing, but unfortunately it could not be proceeded with. That is the best agricultural land of all.

Brigadier Prior-Palmer

The position is precisely the opposite. Permission was refused on the grounds that there were other areas within the borough of Worthing which were ripe for development. The hon. Gentleman cannot have been listening to me, Is it good planning to put three or four houses here and there on small sites within the borough boundaries? As I have said, some of these sites are, in fact, right in the middle of the town and market gardens have been there for several years. It is not suggested surely that they should be removed outside Worthing in order that houses should be built?

At this juncture a new nigger appeared out of the woodpile—and this is the point about which the Parliamentary Secretary rose—when the utilisation officer of the Ministry of Agriculture stated that the land under discussion was good agricultural land. It was his objection which influenced the Ministry of Health in this matter. This land having been zoned as residential land, why has it taken all these years to discover that it is good agricultural land? I further ask that question because just south of the railway there is exactly similar land where houses are to be built at the order of the Ministry. Why did the utilisation officer not object to that land being used, land which was exactly on the same level and of the same nature as that which has now been declared good agricultural land?

I have taken a great deal of trouble over this matter, and I am not quoting anything that is not a fact. All I am asking is that this matter should be looked into. There is just one further matter, the effect on the owners of the land. It must be realised that they are risking everything that they have ever put into the property, which has been scheduled for re-development for a long period. It is apparently not the intention of the planning authority to apply to the Minister for revocation of the permission which they give. They wait for individual, detailed plans as and when they are submitted; they then refuse them. I want to quote some words of the Minister himself on this matter, he stated the general principle as follows: Where a permission for development which has been granted subject to a time limit is lost through circumstances beyond the control of the developer—e.g., where it becomes impossible to carry out development during the period specified owing to a war intervening—if an application for renewed permission is made at a later date the local planning authority should not then refuse permission so as to deprive the developer of any right to compensation, even if their views as to the development in question have altered. The correct procedure in such a case is for the authority to grant planning permission and then if on planning grounds they consider the development should not proceed they should revoke the permission and thus enable the developer to claim compensation. In other words, that is a technical method which has been produced by the Minister for getting out of the difficulty. I hope that in the case I am raising these circumstances will be taken into account.

Into the middle of this groaning machinery another spanner has been flung in the shape of an instruction relating to the importation of a large number of Inland Revenue officials. The result has been that the whole question was re-opened. This matter of the Lim-brick Lane Estate was examined in the presence of the Regional Housing Officer, Mr. Charlton; the Town and Country Planning Officer, Mr. Ward-hill; and an official of the Ministry of Works, Mr. Egerton Banks. The whole matter was gone into, in detail, and it received their complete support. Since then, two further meetings have taken place and it has now been made clear that the development will not be sanctioned. I think my story has revealed a typical example in which five Ministries are all pulling in different directions. This matter has been hanging fire ever since 1945, and the only people who are really suffering are the poorer people of Worthing. I hope that the Minister will give me his attention and that he will not continue his conversation. This is a very serious matter.

Mr. Blenkinsop

The hon. and gallant Gentleman is doing me an injustice. I have been paying attention to his speech all the time.

Brigadier Prior-Palmer

I am coming to the most important part of my speech and it is a little disconcerting to see the hon. Gentleman carrying on a conversation with his colleague. I want him to hear every word, because I have cut down my speech to the bones.

There is another aspect of the matter to which I hope he will give attention. The West Sussex County Council are opposed to the development of this land. I hope the hon. Gentleman will remember that the expansion of Worthing is not in the interests of the West Sussex County Council, for reasons which may have something to do with the future county borough status. I shall say no more than that. When the hon. Gentleman receives an objection from the county planning authority I hope that he will bear that point in mind.

I wish to conclude by saying that I hope that there will be a review of the 10 to 1 ratio, as it affects a specialised community such as Worthing, and that permission will be granted for the sale of houses built under Circular 92/46. I hope also that the Minister will receive a deputation from the council, who will put the whole of this case to him about the Limbrick Lane housing estate. It is a curious reflection on Socialist centralisation that, apart from the amount of money already spent, an enlightened council such as Worthing, which has done everything in its power to implement the Minister's own long-term policy in regard to balanced communities, is now frustrated through having done so.

4.20 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health (Mr. Blenkinsop)

The hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Worthing (Brigadier Prior-Palmer) has made two main points in raising this matter. In the first place, he is asking for special consideration for the needs of Worthing, particularly in regard to the 10-to-1 ratio of houses built for rent by the local authority as against houses to be built for sale by the private builder. I should like to draw his attention at the commencement to the fact that so far from a 10-to-1 ratio having been established for Worthing, Worthing is clearly having special consideration. Since the end of the war the local authority has been responsible for some 640 houses and the private builder some 370 houses for sale.

Brigadier Prior-Palmer

Has not the 10-to-1 ratio been in operation only since last October?

Mr. Blenkinsop

The hon. and gallant Gentleman is raising the point that Worthing requires special consideration, and he is presumably dealing with the whole question of the needs of that area over these last years and its needs in the future. It is absurd to look merely at the allocations for an individual year without looking at the allocations for the whole of the period under review. He must accept the fact that the local authority has built 640 houses as against 370 by private builders. In addition, as he admits, the waiting list for council houses in Worthing is just over 2,000, including, I understand, a little over 1,700 of those who have no separate homes of their own.

In contrast to the figure which he gave of 180 applications for private licences to build houses, the figure I have is something under 400. Whichever it is, it i6 perfectly plain that, even making some allowance for some on the council house list who may be willing to purchase a private house, the main need in Worthing is houses to rent. Until more progress is made with houses to rent it would obviously be quite intolerable to devote a disproportionate amount of the building labour and materials available to building houses for sale where the need is perfectly clearly for houses to rent

The hon. and gallant Gentleman said that people who do not want to occupy council houses are forced to occupy them I have already pointed out that a very large number of houses for sale have been built privately in Worthing since the end of the war, and even now, particularly in connection with the transfer of a section of the Inland Revenue Department to Worthing, we are making, a special arrangement so that Worthing shall have a higher proportion than only one in 10. I assume that the hon. and gallant Gentleman knows that something over 50 extra private licences have been granted, which means that the ratio is nearer one in five than one in 10. I assume that he knew that before he came to the House to raise this matter today.

The other point is that hon. Members continually say that it is intolerable that those who can afford to purchase small houses should continue to receive State subsidies. I have pointed out continuously to hon. Members in all parts of the House that, if it is felt to be intolerable, there is no reason why the local authority should continue the practice, because subsidies for local authority houses can be used in whatever way the local authority desire. They can either spread the subsidy equally over every one of their houses or, if they prefer, they can provide special rebates to particular groups of their tenants, as many local authorities do. It is up to them to decide.

Brigadier Prior-Palmer


Mr. Blenkinsop

Hon. Members opposite should deal with the practical problem. They say at one time that they do not think subsidies from the State should be made available to those who can afford to pay for houses, and at another, when it is pointed out that the council does not need to apply the subsidy to those people, that it is a means test. They cannot have it both ways and it is no use their interrupting on that issue. It is clear, therefore, that the local authority do not need to pay out those subsidies to those who feel they ought not to be receiving them. They can use them to bring down further the rents of those houses—

Brigadier Prior-Palmer

I really must ask the hon. Gentleman to allow me to interrupt. I gave way to him.

Mr. Blenkinsop

But he wants an answer to the other point.

Brigadier Prior-Palmer

Would it not be much better to allow those people to move to small bungalows which are for sale and to allow those who cannot afford small bungalows to move into the council houses?

Mr. Blenkinsop

The real issue is that from the waiting list it is clear that there is an urgent need for more houses to rent, and we insist that as that need is much more urgent than the need of those who wish to purchase houses it should be met first. We have given permission to the local authority under Circular 92/46 to enable small private builders to build houses which they then sell to the local authority in order that the local authority shall have full control.

Brigadier Prior-Palmer

The tenants are not allowed to buy them.

Mr. Blenkinsop

The tenants are certainly not allowed to buy them. There is no provision in this circular for the buying of houses. I pay great tribute to the local authority for what they have done to use this circular to enable small builders to build houses which would otherwise not have been available for Worthing people, and I am glad that has been possible. In Worthing there are no building trade workers unemployed today, so it is perfectly clear that if the hon. and gallant Member wants more houses built for sale, there must be fewer houses built to rent. He must face that alternative.

The hon. and gallant Member was particularly anxious that I should say something about the position of the Limbrick Lane West site. I know the difficulties which the local authority have had to face. I hope the hon. and gallant Member will pay some attention to this since he was particularly mettlesome about my remark on the Front Bench while he was speaking. I hope he will pay the same courtesy to me. The Limbrick Lane West site was refused clearance in 1946 for the reason that we still maintain is the reason today, namely, its high agricultural value. It is just not true to suggest that we have brought up this excuse of high agricultural value within these last few months or years.

It is true, as the hon. and gallant Member has said, that some of the houses which are being erected in Worthing on the adjoining site are also on land of high agricultural value. That does not mean that we should go on building houses in our present economic position on land of high agricultural value. Indeed all hon. Members have rightly insisted that both in housing and in water schemes we should pay careful attention to the agricultural needs of the community.

Is the hon. and gallant Gentleman saying now that if it is true that that land is some of the highest agricultural value in the country, it would be right to destroy that value by building houses upon it? It is certainly true that in the past, without any planning control, much of our finest agricultural land was used for house building, but it is equally true that there are other sites in Worthing, inland from the coast as well as on the coast line, that are much more suitable for housing and which can be developed.

It is true there are difficulties as there are with almost every site, and my own officials are most willing to discuss with the local authority the possibilities of other sites that might be made available. I suggest that here, as in so many other cases, we must pay attention not only to the needs of housing but to the needs of agriculture. Otherwise we shall be sacrificing the basis of our life in this country. In Worthing as elsewhere, we shall find that there are other sites of much greater value for housing that can be developed without danger to our agricultural needs.

The Question having been proposed after Four o'Clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Twenty-nine Minutes to Five o'Clock.