HC Deb 02 February 1951 vol 483 cc1300-12

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

4.0 p.m.

Mr. Albu (Edmonton)

I am very glad to have the opportunity of raising this matter so soon after the Minister of Local Government and Planning and my hon. Friend have acquired responsibility for both aspects of the problem with which I shall deal. I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry will excuse me if, so shortly after his accession to this responsibility, I raise points to which he is not entirely ready to give a full answer.

I can best illustrate the problem on which I should like to have his attention, by describing the situation in the borough of Edmonton, which I represent. Like many other boroughs in the London area, and indeed in others of our larger cities, there is a considerable number of people on the housing list. The list is something over 4,000, of which something over 1,200 are families living in one room. The situation is being made rather worse by the increasing number of eviction orders. People today, in an endeavour to get houses, are very often willing to buy a house if part of it is vacant. Thereafter, they obtain from the county courts an eviction order and the tenant of the other part of the house then becomes the responsibility of the local housing authority.

Like many other authorities, Edmonton in fact has done a first-class housing job. Over many years, since the '20's, it has had a direct labour building force of something like 300 men. I believe it was one of the first building organisations to institute a system of bonuses, which has resulted in a considerable reduction in housing costs. As a result, very largely, of really first-class management of the building force, it has succeeded in building houses with very great efficiency.

Part of the trouble in these overcrowded boroughs arises out of inability to control the inflow as the houses are vacated for various reasons. For instance, if people are housed in new towns it is not possible, in present circumstances, for the housing authority to control the letting of the houses vacated. Where there are old people in houses which are really under-occupied, and the local authorities house those old people in aged persons' dwellings, they cannot control the re-letting of the houses so vacated.

That this is a serious problem is shown by facts which I think can be repeated throughout the country. The number of persons per house in Edmonton has continually gone done. In 1929 the number was 4.9 per house. In 1939 the number was 4.0, and in 1949 it was 3.75 persons per house, and it is still falling. This obviously indicates that there are a very large number of houses which are under-occupied. It rather makes one wonder whether some sort of tax on under-occupa- tion of houses might be a useful Measure, but perhaps I should be out of order if I pursued that now.

Obviously, re-development of these boroughs is going to contribute to this problem; but there is a very high density of population in parts of them, and this cannot be done because during the reconstruction period there must be an outlet for the people displaced from the existing houses. It is therefore essential that for this purpose such boroughs should have an outlet outside the boroughs themselves.

Since the end of the war, the Edmonton Borough Council has built very nearly 400 houses on land obtained outside the borough, and they are still trying to obtain land in areas outside. Consideration is now being given to one or two opposed applications for compulsory purchase orders. I fully admit that they receive every help and consideration both from what used to be the Ministry of Health and from the Department which my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Local Government and Planning has so long and ably represented. They are making no complaint about the consideration which they receive from the new combined Department. In fact, I have heard today that they have just received sanction to one of their further applications.

Nevertheless, it is becoming more and more difficult for these London and Greater London boroughs to obtain land outside their own boundaries for development to assist their overcrowded populations. This is because of increasing opposition both from the local authorities in the areas which they wish to develop and from the local planning authorities. The ultimate solution of the problem of London and of the outer London boroughs is the development of the new towns, but this is really too slow a process at the present time, and I am afraid that in view of the recent announcement on defence expenditure it may well be even further delayed—

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Local Government and Planning (Mr. Lindgren) indicated dissent.

Mr. Albu

I see that my hon. Friend shakes his head. I hope we shall get a satisfactory answer to that point, because we are all extremely interested in it. It is a very difficult problem. The development of the new towns does not immediately solve the problem in the boroughs concerned, partly because of the difficulties to which I have already referred of dealing with vacated premises in cases where people are re-housed in the new towns, and this applies not only to the houses themselves but also to the factories which have to move, too.

The whole object of a new town is that the industries and the population should move together; but even if arrangements are made to move a whole factory, together with its employees, from an overcrowded district, there are at present no means by which one can prevent the factory from becoming immediately reoccupied and the houses of the previous employees being taken over by people from outside the borough in question. I should, however, like to know whether increasing steps are being taken to persuade industries to move from overcrowded areas and take with them their populations to the new towns.

The point which I think is of immediate importance and of the greatest urgency and to which I should like a reply, is the question of the easing and speeding up of the means of obtaining land for development by these authorities in the green belt area in particular. The Minister of Town and Country Planning accepted the report of the Advisory Committee for London Regional Planning, which was based on the original Greater London plan, by which a certain number of towns in the green belt area should be built up to a certain population size. It is in these towns that immediate relief can best be found, and I think what is needed is a clearer statement of policy from the Minister, which would ease the position and perhaps do away with some of the opposition from these local authorities, and more particularly from the local planning authorities, to the acquisition by compulsory purchase order of land in these areas.

I therefore ask the Minister to let us have a statement of the policy which his Department intends to pursue in this matter, and to tell us whether it is possible to speed up the procedure by which this land can be obtained. I have recently seen a statement of the steps in the procedure which must be pursued in order to obtain land. There are about 12 steps, and it may well take over a year from the time that the original idea is put in motion to the time when the development of the land for the housing estate first takes place. If the policy of the building up of these towns in the green belt area to a certain size were more clearly understood, the resistance would be less, and probably the time taken to obtain approval and to start the development would be very much shorter.

I am very much afraid that unless something is done very quickly in this matter these boroughs with very successful direct labour forces will find themselves unable to maintain them. In Edmonton it is already becoming difficult to see how its excellent force can be maintained. If it cannot be maintained, then a very useful amount of experience and skill will be wasted. I hope the Minister will be able to give some indication of the policy of his Department in the immediate future and of the steps that he proposes to take to make the implementation of that policy easier.

4.11 p.m.

Mr. Weitzman (Stoke Newington and Hackney, North)

I am sure the House is indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Albu) for raising this matter. I represent the borough of Stoke Newington and a substantial part of the borough of Hackney, and both those boroughs can well be described as overcrowded. In Stoke Newington we have just over 3,000 requiring re-housing and in Hackney a waiting list of about 8,000. For a long time both boroughs, like the borough represented by my hon. Friend, have done everything they can by requisitioning and building to deal with their particular housing problems, and, as in the case of many of the metropolitan boroughs, a very great difficulty is the lack of space.

In Hackney practically all the space has been exhausted, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it will be exhausted in the near future. In Stoke Newington practically all available space has been built upon except for slum clearance land and, of course, if modern flats are built upon slum clearance land the new tenants will merely replace those who are at present occupying these slum areas. It is true that the London County Council have made a great effort in their im- mense building programmes and have helped the local authorities to a considerable extent, but the difficulty of space is a very serious one.

A second point I would make is this. I would like to ask the Minister what is his policy with regard to redevelopment in the boroughs. I respectfully suggest that redevelopment in the boroughs should be encouraged and assisted as much as possible. There are two reasons for that. First, redevelopment means that many people who are on the waiting list are dealt with and, second, it would add advantageously to the rateable value.

I desire to add a third point. I am not to date greatly enamoured of private enterprise and its efforts, but there are in the boroughs some small bombed sites with which the local borough council find too expensive to deal. I suggest that if this can be done advantageously, private enterprise should be encouraged to deal with the development of these bombed sites.

I know that other hon. Members are waiting to speak and I shall not, therefore, take up further the time of the House, but I would point out that the housing question is very important and that anything which can be done in the way suggested here should be seriously considered in an effort to deal with this tragic and urgent problem.

4.13 p.m.

Mr. John Hynd (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

I want to add only a few words to the debate, because I know that the Minister would like an opportunity to reply to the main points. The debate has concentrated on London problems and I want to tell the House that the same problems as those elaborated by my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Albu) exist in the large provincial towns in equal degree. The question of space for building within the city boundaries is just as acute in Sheffield as it is in any of the London boroughs.

The Minister is familiar with the case and I do not want to elaborate it, but for the information of the House I would point out that there is no building space available in Sheffield and that that city is already trying to meet its great housing problem by building on land compulsorily purchased outside the city boundaries. where it is subject to the ordinary restric tions of the county council planning authority involving, among other things, cutting down the number of houses per acre to be built on that acquired land.

There is no solution of the problem except that of extending the city boundaries. I want to emphasise this tremendous problem and also to emphasise that, as in the case of London and throughout the whole country—as the former Minister of Health showed in his recent broadcast—the housing problem today is not a problem of fewer houses to the number of the population than before the war, but is a problem of a greater demand from the population. In Sheffield, as in Edmonton, there are many more houses in relation to the population today than there were before the war, and yet there are no houses available for the ordinary people.

One factor contributing to that situation is the adamant refusal of many landlords to agree to reasonable exchanges of premises by their tenants. I know of cases in my constituency of elderly couples whose families have grown up and left them with large houses they no longer need. In many cases, perhaps. the husband has died, and his widow is alone in a large house. In some cases the houses have six or seven rooms. On the other hand, there are young couples in small houses who are already beginning to develop families and who require more room, and who are prepared to exchange their smaller houses for the larger ones with seven rooms and if an old lady in a seven-roomed house could exchange hers for the smaller house of a young couple with a growing family, she would be relieved of the larger rent she is paying and go to a smaller house more suitable to her.

These exchanges could be arranged. But they are impossible because the landlords with the bigger houses try to squeeze out the existing tenants of them so that they can sell the houses at the very high present market prices. There must be many thousands or hundreds of thousands of such cases all over the country. They constitute one reason why, while there is more housing space for the population than ever before, there is also greater clamour for houses and greater difficulty in finding accommodation. I hope my hon. Friend will turn his attention very seriously to that aspect of the problem, and I hope sincerely that, whether by requisitioning powers or by some other means, the Government will find a solution of that aspect of the problem.

4.16 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Local Government and Planning (Mr. Lindgren)

First of all I should like to say to my hon. Friend the Member for Attercliffe (Mr. J. Hynd)—and I am sure he will take it in the right spirit—that while I appreciate that the problems of Sheffield and of a large number of other provincial cities are most acute and very disturbing, they are totally different from those which face us in connection with the decentralisation of London. If I do not deal with his points in particular it is partly because, as my hon. Friend knows, there is now an application by the Sheffield county borough before the Minister in regard to an extension of the county borough boundaries, and I should not like to say anything that might be taken by one side or the other as prejudicing consideration of the matter. However, I have in mind the points he has made, and I will consider them.

I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Albu) on the excellent case he made out for his borough. It was a plain, straightforward, factual case to which I take no exception, and about which I make no reservation at all. In fact, as was proved by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman), the case made out by my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton could be made out for the majority of the London boroughs, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton quite generously said, this is a London problem and not only an Edmonton problem. I should like to deal with it from that point of view for just a moment or two.

We have to face the facts, and those facts really are—and I can say this, as a Cockney myself—first, that London has grown to be a monstrosity, and, second, that it ought never to have been allowed to reach its present size. It got to its present size because of extension after extension after extension, so that its area spread and continued to spread. Even more tragic, perhaps, than this unwieldy growth of London and of London's boroughs is the fact that in the inter-war years, through economic pressure, men and women, boys and girls from South Wales, from Durham, from Cumberland, from Northumberland and the North-East coast, drifted into London to get work because they could not find work in the places where they were born and bred. They added to the concentration of London in the inter-war years.

That we allowed industry and population to concentrate in the London area and in the South-East generally was very tragic indeed—tragic for London, and even more tragic, perhaps, for the North-East coast and South Wales and the other areas concerned. We are trying to correct that by the redistribution of industry, but the problem is there and we must face it. We can and must say that it is to stop; there cannot be this continuous expansion; it is anti-social and it is not economic. Even if we take the worst view—one to which I do not like referring, but it is there and we must face it—even from a defence point of view it is disastrous, because decentralisation and dispersal are essential if we are to have an effective defence machine, and a concentration such as London is a target which we ought not to offer to any potential enemy.

Our good folk in London, now living in the greater London boroughs, much as they enjoy the amenities of the borough of their birth—the church and chapel they attend, the school they went to and the sports associations to which they belong, must be prepared to move away from those old associations and go and find new ones elsewhere. That is something we and they must accept. I think most would agree that work and home should be as close to one another as possible. The national and personal waste in time, money and physical energy in travelling to and from work by some of our London folk is appalling.

I can say that with some personal feeling, because I was one of the worst offenders. I advocated garden cities in the old days; I went to Welwyn Garden City and had a share in building it up, but my own behaviour was the exact opposite of what Welwyn Garden City stood for—of work and home together in pleasant surroundings—because I travelled from Welwyn Garden City to Stratford to work, taking two hours each way a day, with three changes on the way—Welwyn Garden City—King's Cross, King's Cross—Liverpool Street, Liverpool Street—Stratford. Therefore, from the personal point of view, apart from acceptance of the general theory, I have this problem very much at heart. It is monstrous that people should burrow through the earth like worms, coming up now and again for air. That problem must be dealt with, and as far as possible home and work should be close together.

However, that ideal cannot be reached right away, and so far as I can see there are only three ways in which to tackle the problem. The first was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton, that of the new towns. The joint transfer of industry and population to new towns makes it possible for home and work to be together in ideal surroundings. My hon. Friend said, with complete truth, that up to the present time, the progress in those new towns has not been as quick as he would have liked, and it has certainly not been as quick as my right hon. Friend and I would have liked. The reason for this is that the building trade labour can be used only once.

To the very great credit of the London County Council and the London boroughs, there has been a very heavy concentration of building development in the London boroughs. Until some of that ceases, perhaps even in the borough of Edmonton, which has the excellent record which my hon. Friend quite rightly claimed for it. and some of that building trade labour is released and made available for the new towns, building in the new towns will not be quicker. There is evidence, now that we have the plans made and the contracts let, of a possibility of certain additional labour coming to the new towns, so that progress will be quicker.

But the problem is—and this is why new towns are not always as attractive as they might be to a particular borough—that if we took a factory from Edmonton and re-sited it in one of our new towns, the people moving out with that factory would very likely come from Wood Green, Enfield, Hornsey, Islington, Waltham Cross, and other areas as well as Edmonton. So the movement of a factory from a particular borough relieves the problem for a large number of boroughs. Edmonton might be able to help North Hackney in that way.

Two very valuable points were raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton. One was that as accommodation becomes available because of the movement of factories or houses, the local authority in the area does not gain the houses as an addition to its general housing pool. Each vacant house provides an opportunity for a landlord to make hay while the sun shines by getting a price for the house well in excess of its material value and to include within the sale price a scarcity value, at the expense of an incoming occupier. This alteration, as tenancies are given up, from a letting to a selling proposition hampers the general policy of the provision of houses for those who need them most, which is the basis of council housing programmes.

But I will promise this: appreciating the point of view of my hon. Friend, we will look at it. I have not the slightest doubt that it has already been looked at by the predecessor of my right hon. Friend, but we will look at it again and see whether we can meet the point made, and also the point quite rightly made also by my hon. Friend the Member for Attercliffe. It is true that there is a large number of people who are now in houses which are much too large for their own personal needs, and are governed by the Rent Restriction Acts. The occupiers will not move, even sometimes for their own sons or daughters. It means that the landlord will take advantage of an opportunity to force a sale in the market. There is also the question of factories. It is obviously foolish if we are to move manufacturers from an area, to allow their vacant factories to go back into production because it means, among other things strengthening the demand for houses within that area. That is all I can say about new towns in the time available.

The other alternative is the expanded town, and I will deal with the problem of outborough building. The desirable thing is that areas which have land should make it available for development, irrespective of whether it is for people within that area or people from outside. Equally true is it that there are people who have not a sense of loyalty to the larger community. One of the failures of our local government system is that as fast as a good local spirit is developed it excludes. even within the county, all interest in the good of the whole community. 13 some areas that cannot be classed as expanded towns, out-borough building has to be allowed because it gives the opportunity, even to boroughs like Edmonton, to allow people whose jobs, status and incomes might have led to their being a dormitory population, travelling between two points, to move from their own borough.

I can speak with feeling on this point also, as a former railway worker. It is much easier to travel and get to work at 9 a.m. than it is at 2 o'clock in the morning, if one's job and income are adequate. While it is not economical or physically desirable, a dormitory population might have to be allowed. A number of boroughs should get together with their county councils and see whether they could come to—

The Question having been proposed at 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 Half-past Four o'Clock.