HC Deb 30 July 1951 vol 491 cc1127-38

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

12.4 a.m.

Mr. Russell (Wembley, South)

I want to raise tonight a number of urgent housing problems. I am sorry this matter has come up at this late hour, but that is the fault of neither the hon. Gentleman who is to reply nor myself. The first problem is of nation-wide interest—namely, the raising of the selling price of houses dealt with under private licence in proportion to the increase in the cost of building. Secondly, I want to raise some problems which are causing acute misery to individual constituents of mine, and I think other hon. Members will be familiar with these problems from the letters they receive and from their contacts with constituents.

On the question of the selling price, Section 43 of the Housing Act, 1949, allows a supplementary licence to be issued under certain conditions, one of which is if an addition is made to a house after the original size has been decided. What the Act does not allow for is any increase in the selling price if the selling price of the house rises after it is completed.

That means that a man who had a house built in 1948 when the cost was, I understand, 30s. a square foot, and who now has to move to another town, as is happening, cannot sell it for more than the price fixed in 1948. If he wants to buy another house in the town to which he moves, he will have to pay today's price, that is, 36s. a square foot. During the passage of the Housing Act, 1949, my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Kelvingrove (Lieut.-Colonel Elliot) moved an Amendment which read: Provided that the local authority (as defined by section eight of that Act) in the area in which the house is situated shall have power upon application made to them by the owner of the house and having regard to the market price of comparable houses in the locality in which the house is situated, to modify or cancel any condition limiting the price for which the house may be sold."— [OFFICIAL REPORT. Standing Committee C. 10th May, 1949; c. 2104.] That Amendment was rejected on a Division.

When I asked the Minister of Local Government and Planning on 17th July if he would amend that Section of the Act, he gave a categorical "No." When I asked him, in a supplementary question, whether he realised the hardship that was being caused, he evaded the issue, and added that the nearer we could get to a price freeze the happier he would be.

But there is no sign of a freeze, so the hardship continues. I asked the Minister why he would not amend the Act, and the Parliamentary Secretary, who is to reply to this debate, said that it was because it would lead to profiteering. How can there be any profiteering if the owner obtains no more for the house he sells than he has to pay for the new one?

Hardship is being caused not only to purchasers but to building firms by the restriction. I have heard of a building firm whose houses last November were fixed at a price of £1,310, but because of delay in the supply of steel pipes, and also because of bad weather, by March the cost had increased by £250. No supplementary licence has yet been issued. The local authority concerned is not Wembley, but I will not mention it because I do not want to pillory them. Much time has been wasted in correspondence between the firm and the local authority. All this is inconvenience and a waste of time for the firm, which is trying to get on with the job of building houses.

This brings me to the problem of a constituent of mine who owns a house in Wembley, but whose employer has moved him to Blackpool. He wants to sell his house in Wembley and to buy one in Blackpool. Half of his house in Wembley is let to a family which is on a housing list but has not got sufficient points to justify its being housed. If the owner sells without vacant possession, the price will not be enough to pay for a similar house in Blackpool, or elsewhere, for that matter. What is this owner to do? Meanwhile, he himself is living in rooms in Blackpool and his wife is living in the house at Wembley. Periodically he pays a train fare, which is expensive, to come and visit his wife, and see whether he cannot do something about selling the house.

I next come to families who have no residential qualifications. I have one case where there is a family of four children, three of whom are in Dr. Barnardo's Homes because there is no room for them in the room in which the family is living. The other child is living with the mother, and the father is in hospital suffering from tuberculosis, which is alleged to have been accentuated by the poor housing conditions in which they are living. They have moved from place to place, and that is why they have no residential qualification.

Another case is of a family with three children living in two furnished rooms and sharing a kitchen. They came to Wembley a few years ago, and because they have not got the five years' residential qualification which the Wembley Borough Council requires, they have unfortunately no home. I am not blaming the Wembley Borough Council for placing a residential qualification, because if they did not do so, they would find their waiting list increased by another 1,000 or 2,000 families.

The third family is a family of Czechs with one child, who came to Wembley after the Communists seized power in Czechoslovakia in 1948. They are naturalised British subjects, but they have no housing qualifications. I wonder what can be held out to that family, along with the other two, in the way of some chance of being re-housed.

A few months ago I wrote to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health, which was then responsible for housing, asking him what families like those I have mentioned were to do and what hope they had of obtaining accommodation. Two sentences in his letter stand out as a little bit inconsistent with the Welfare State. He says: I am afraid families in those circumstances must rely on their own efforts. And another sentence is: I suggest that they look around for themselves, These families have been looking around for themselves for several months, and we all know how hopeless a task that is, particularly for a family with a large number of children.

Lastly, there are two problems concerning private building licences very different from the aspect which I raised at the beginning. A constituent of mine wants to build in Harrow. He has lived in Harrow for 17 years, but due to his father's employment the family moved to Wembley. When he first applied for a licence in Harrow, he was given to understand that he would be granted one, but before the matter had moved very much further, the Harrow Urban District Council passed a resolution laying down a 20 years' residential qualification for building houses in Harrow. He had 17, and as he has left Harrow he cannot acquire the extra three years. It is difficult to blame the Harrow Urban Council, because without this qualification presumably many more people would be added to their list of applicants but it is hard indeed on this man to have this condition imposed upon him after he had begun negotiations for an application for a licence.

The second problem concerns a constituent who has a delicate son, and because of that he has been advised to move further out into the country. He has been more fortunate in that the Wembley Borough Council granted him a licence and allowed him to transfer it to another area. He has an option on a plot of land and a builder ready to undertake the building. Unfortunately, the local authority concerned will not at the moment accept transfer of the licence. Meanwhile, there is the danger of the licence expiring, although if that happened I rather imagine that it could be transferred to another family and another licence issued to the original applicant. There is also danger of the option on the plot of land being withdrawn, and every day that is wasted the more the house is likely to cost this man. That is another burden upon him.

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to hold out a little more hope than the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health did in a letter a few months ago. I hope also that he will be able to give advice to citizens faced with these appalling problems. When hon. Members on this side of the House complain of conditions today, we are often met with the retort, "What about the mass unemployment before the war?" But I want to make this point. I am certain that the shortage of houses today is causing every bit as much misery as did unemployment before the war to the people who are affected. Moreover, the number of unemployed before the war was being gradually reduced. I wish that there were as great a reduction in the number of applicants on the waiting lists for houses.

So I hope that if the hon. Gentleman cannot give much consolation to those families, he will at least promise, on behalf of the Minister, to reconsider the whole of the operation of Section 43 of the Housing Act, 1949, so as to end the injustice to people who built a house three or four years ago, and who now have to sell it, not getting for it the price which they will have to pay for a new one.

12.17 a.m.

Wing Commander Bullus (Wembley, North)

I am glad to have a brief opportunity of supporting my hon. Friend in this important subject. I must confess my surprise that there are so few hon. Members here when such an important topic is being dealt with, for I have no doubt that, like myself, other hon. Members have had hundreds of urgent housing cases brought to their notice.

On my constituents' nights, I take the precaution of having with me a borough councillor, because almost invariably all the cases coming before me are urgent housing cases. Almost invariably reference to the local housing department confirms the details of the individual cases, and it is always a case of a long wait, or one of hopelessness, because an applicant cannot fulfil the conditions necessary to qualify him for a municipal house.

One of my cases concerns a man who urgently needs a three-bedroomed house. He has the necessary certificate of health and points. The Wembley Council has just recently completed the building of three-bedroomed houses, and now has begun to build two-bedroomed houses, so that this man may have to wait a considerable time. Another man telephoned to me on a Saturday at noon, at which time it is usually too late to engage the local authority's attention. In this case the man, his wife and child had been turned out of the home of a long-suffering mother-in-law, and they were literally on the streets.

The tragedy is that one cannot do anything in these cases. I did not feel any less responsible in the matter when I learned that the man concerned belonged really to the division of my hon. Friend, the Member for Wembley, South, he having concluded that he was in the North Wembley Division because he lived near North Wembley station.

I understand that my hon. Friend originally balloted for the opportunity to raise this subject under the title, "Hopeless Housing Cases." I think that we may still speak of hopeless housing case, because there are those wanting houses who do not fulfil the necessary qualifications to enable them to get on to any municipal housing list. Therefore, their cases are hopeless. There are others who are well down the waiting list, and who can have no chance of getting houses in the desired area.

This month, in the minutes of the Housing and Town Planning Committee of the Wembley Borough Council, it is stated that Wembley have only 750 sites remaining available for building houses in the borough. This means that thousands on Wembley's waiting list can have no hope whatsoever of a house in Wembley. That is a position not peculiar to Wembley alone. There are other authorities in Middlesex—Edmonton, Tottenham, Finchley, Harrow—which are similarly placed. I suggest that these authorities have an especial interest in the new towns, and it is to be hoped the Minister will give sympathetic consideration to their obvious needs.

While taking note of these hopeless and urgent cases, do not let us forget to be just to those who, as my hon. Friend has mentioned, have occasion to leave the houses they have built themselves. My hon. Friend has put the case very clearly. A man might have built a house for £1,400 just after the war. Three or four years later, through no fault of his own, and probably because of a question of health or of a posting to other employment, he has to leave and is not allowed to sell his house for more than £1,400. Yet, he will have to pay, for a similar house elsewhere, £3,200 to £3,500. I am not suggesting that he should be allowed to sell his £1,400 house for £3,500, but it is reasonable to expect that he might be allowed to sell for the amount it would cost to build such a house at the time he is selling. The obvious solution is the building of more houses and once again I urge that upon the Government.

12.22 a.m.

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

May I thank the hon. Member for Wembley, South (Mr. Russell) for his courtesy in giving me very early notice of this Adjournment debate. Even Parliamentary Secretaries like to make arrangements ahead sometimes, and it is a little, disconcerting when an Adjournment debate occurs at short notice and upsets those arrangements. The hon. Gentleman's courtesy is very much appreciated, and I am sorry that I cannot, after starting in that good mood, met him a little more on the points he has raised. His points were on two issues. One concerned those who have a house built under licence for their own occupation and who want to sell, and the other dealt with people waiting for houses to rent.

The hon. Gentleman was right in referring to Section 43 of the Housing Act, 1949. Previously, controls had been under the Building Materials and Housing Act, 1945, when the period of control was four years. Under the Act of 1949, it was extended to eight years. He referred to the Amendment moved during the passage of that Measure by the right hon. and gallant Member for Kelvingrove (Lieut.-Colonel Elliot) in regard to local authorities being given certain powers to vary the licence.

There was also an Amendment moved by the right hon. and gallant Member for reducing the period from eight years to five. That Amendment was resisted from this side of the House and the Opposition did not press it to a Division, although they did not withdraw it. The reason they did not press it to a Division was because they were impressed by the arguments used by my hon. Friend the then Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health, which was then responsible for housing. The arguments my hon. Friend used in 1949 are just as valid today.

Both hon. Gentlemen have made their speeches tonight in moderate terms, and everybody will agree—I do not disagree—that there is a very desperate shortage of houses. We may disagree whether or not some of that housing need can be met in a better way than it is being met. It is the Government's policy to do their utmost to meet the shortage, and they are doing it on the basis of need, making provision first for those who have the greatest need. There are, firstly, those who wish to rent houses and, secondly, those fortunate enough to be able to build a house under licence. The determination of need is done by the local authority.

Wing Commander Bullus

What about those who are not the responsibility of a local authority and whose need is urgent?

Mr. Lindgren

There is no such thing. There are some local authorities who do not accept their responsibilities in the way they should. Hon. Members opposite, as elected representatives, ought to be very careful before they ask us to start being dictators to local authorities. They will remember our debate on local government last week. The function of this House is to provide opportunities for local authorities, and it is for the local authorities to use those opportunities. If they do not use them, it is for local electors to deal with them at the local elections. In housing, the opportunity is there for the local authorities to deal with every person in the country. Some do and some do not, and the varying standards in which local authorities deal with the problem, I agree. aggravate the position in which hon. Members find themselves in dealing with cases of their constituents.

I want to deal with the argument put by the hon. Member for Wembley, South. First, he will agree that a local authority in issuing a building licence takes into account the need of the individual and gives preference to the most deserving cases. If there is a man with three children he gets priority over a newly married couple. The man who gets a licence is in a privileged position from the start, because he gets a house in a period of scarcity.

The surprising fact is that it is cheaper to build a new house—in spite of current building, labour, and material costs—than it is to buy an old pre-war house. That shows there is excessive exploitation; exploitation of scarcity value by house owners. A person who gets a building licence is in a privileged position compared with the person who has to buy on the open market. The person who buys on the open market is, some of us think, exploited to a very unreasonable extent. If a person who gets a house in that privileged way were allowed to do what the hon. Member suggests, we would be adding to the exploitation which is going on. Why should a person selected by the local authority on the basis of need to have a licence and build a house for £1,400 and then be allowed three or four weeks later to sell it for £3,500?

Mr. Russell

The hon. Gentleman knows I was not suggesting anything of the sort. What I was suggesting is that a man who builds a house should, three or four years later, obtain the price he would have to pay if he had to build at that time.

Mr. Lindgren

He has only eight years under the Act as it is. Where are we to draw the line? The case quoted by the hon. Member was that a person had to move, because of his job, from Wembley to Blackpool. It is quite possible that a man who has been on the Wembley waiting list for two years finds that when the house is built he has to go to Blackpool because he may have been appointed pier manager there. But he is in exactly the same position as the person who has had a house for four years. He is, in fact, no worse off than if he never had a licence; he will, at least, get back the money he originally paid. He has lost nothing. if he comes to the new area he is in exactly the same position as a person who has not got a licence.

Mr. Russell

He will have no qualifications and will be at the bottom of the list.

Mr. Lindgren

He only had his privileged position where he was because he had certain qualifications of need there. Why should he, just because he had certain qualifications, be able to exploit the community. That is really what the issue is. What the hon. Member is saying is that we should add to the existing exploitation by removing restraint from those who have had the privilege of a building licence. We do not say that at all. We feel that we should reduce the exploitation that is going on by keeping the price of a new house at the figure that was paid for it, and if the owner got a privilege over the rest of the community by having a building licence, then he should not exploit it by selling the house at a higher price.

I know hon. Gentlemen opposite do not want to make it possible for exploitation to go on unnecessarily. This suggestion tonight opens the door to it, and where is one going to stop? Not only the selling price of new houses, but their maximum rentals are controlled, and if one concedes the case for an increased selling price, one has equally got to concede an increased maximum rental.

Wing Commander Bullus

In the case of the man who moves from Wembley to Blackpool, whose responsibility does he become? Which local authority accepts responsibility for placing him on a waiting list. He is worse off than when he started.

Mr. Lindgren

Of course he is worse off. But he would not go there unless it suited him. I was a railwayman—

Mr. Russell

He might be posted there —bank managers, for example.

Mr. Lindgren

The same applies as to railwaymen—we agreed that we would serve anywhere in the country. We agreed to move, particularly to accept promotion, and if one accepts promotion one expects to put up with what it entails. Many people resign themselves to their present situations and will not accept promotion because of the present housing shortage. If one accepts promotion and goes somewhere else, one must accept the consequences of it. No one would expect to go into a new area, whether on account of work or residential choice, and then immediately become a priority case in that area in exactly the same way as he was, say, two years before a priority case in the place he has left.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Wembley and Harrow. Far be it from me to enter into differences between two adjacent authorities, but the situation strikes me as a little curious. You can throw a stone from Harrow into Wembley, and if a man's job was moved from Harrow to Wembley and he really wished to move his house from Harrow to Wembley—I should have thought that he ought to buy a bicycle.

The Question having been proposed after Ten O'Clock on Monday evening 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-Six Minutes to One O'Clock a.m.