HC Deb 08 July 1952 vol 503 cc1099-106

3.53 p.m.

Mr. A. Hargreaves (Carlisle)

I beg to move, in page 2, line 41, to leave out "eight pounds," and to insert "six pounds five shillings."

This Amendment seeks to reduce the amount in the housing repairs account from the £8 provided in the Bill to £6 5s. The Minister will no doubt be aware that he has received representations on the basis of the Amendment. I would apply the effect of the Amendment to the Bill, as it affects all the housing authorities in the country.

I am aware that the figure in the Bill was arrived at in consultation with associations representing local authorities throughout the country, but it cannot possibly be anything like the average figure. The last figures provided by the housing authorities of the amounts placed by them in the repairs account show that those amounts vary from £4 to £21. I am taking the figures from the statistics for 1950–51 issued by the Institute of Municipal Treasurers and Accountants. In Carlisle, £6 5s. is at present being placed in the repairs account. It has been at that figure for 12 months only, having been raised then from a lower figure.

Under the 1936 Act, the Minister had power to vary the strict operation of the figure placed in the Bill if he was satisfied that the amount to be credited to the housing repairs account by a local authority was sufficient for the purpose for which it was carried. The point that must exercise the minds of officers concerned with this matter on the housing authorities is this: on what basis does the Minister arrive at or justify his discretion in connection with the figure of £8?

What kind of a case must a housing authority make to the Minister? Would the Minister consider, if a repairs account had a sufficient amount in it to represent an expenditure of £12 or £10 per annum for everyone of its council houses, that that was a fair basis for exercising his discretion? At the present moment, housing authorities have no means of ascertaining the basis upon which the Minister would exercise his discretion.

At this moment, the amount per council house in Carlisle represents £10 per annum. If the £8 referred to in the Bill comes into operation at the date provided, 1st April, 1952, local authorities who are in the same position as Carlisle and who are not now making the minimum provision laid down in the Bill, will obviously be unable to provide for this increase, either by an increase of rates at the beginning of the municipal year or by an increase of rents. I should be very much obliged if the Minister would deal with this special case, which is worthy of consideration.

I am well aware that to many housing authorities the figure in the Amendment will appear ridiculous, notably to a housing authority which is spending £21 per annum on each of its council houses. Yet all of us must know that practice and custom in various districts varies a great deal. In the southern part of the country tenants appear to expect the housing authorities to do everything in the way of internal and external decoration and a good deal of repairs. I have heard of cases where, if the washer on a lap needs attention or a pantry window is broken, an immediate message is sent to the repairs depôt of the housing authority.

That certainly does not operate in the northern districts so far as council houses are concerned. It is also the case that many tenants of privately-owned houses as well as council houses in the North of England never have internal decorations done by the landlord. Indeed many of those tenants would object strongly to any landlord telling them what kind of paper or decoration should be used in their homes; they much prefer to undertake their own decorations, and certainly would not accept any proposal which might be made by the maintenance depôts of the local authorities.

That goes for a great many of the amenities in the homes provided by the various housing authorities throughout the country. For instance, Ascot water heaters and electric heaters are fairly common in the council houses provided in the South of England but not in the North. Again, the provisions for space heating and cooking in the South are totally different from those in the North. That is probably due to the fact that in many areas in the North the housing authorities are providing houses in close proximity to the coal fields, where fuel is abundant and fairly cheap. Therefore many housewives much prefer a kitchen range which can be fed by coal and which will give them all the cooking and heating facilities they need.

I am making these points because they are all reflected in the repairs account of the local authority. The more electric, gas and other gadgets are available in the homes provided by housing authorities in the South of England, quite obviously the higher will be their maintenance costs. There will thus be fewer complaints from tenants of council houses in the North of England, who are not receiving what might be termed the advantages in council houses in the South, because those people are much too independent to rely upon the maintenance depôts of the local authority.

Another point which might explain the wide variation in repairs costs is that repairs funds were built up during the war to a high level because neither labour nor materials were available on which to spend that money in maintaining the properties of the housing authorities. So in large housing authorities especially there were repairs funds that, by 1946, 1947, and in some cases 1948, had reached enormous sums.

What happened to those large repairs funds? Just as the Chancellor of the Exchequer in this House at times has looked around for funds to raid, so the chairman of a finance committee of a local authority is tempted when he finds that the repairs fund has reached enormous heights. Thus there are available means whereby such a contribution made by a local authority can be reduced in order to reduce that large fund.

Another danger presented itself at that time and we are seeing the effects of it even now in 1952. Those large repairs funds were used by some housing authorities for the establishment in each of their housing estates of a maintenance depot. May I describe some of the things that follow from such a development? In certain cases maintenance depots on local authority housing estates mean new premises, new stores, a superintendent, administrative and clerical staff and inspectors, apart from the tradesmen employed, such as foremen, painters, joiners, electricians and plumbers. In each of those housing areas there has been built up a little kingdom of the superintendent, maintenance—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I must draw the attention of the hon. Member to the fact that his Amendment is fairly narrow. It is only a matter of the House deciding between £8 and £6 5s. I find that what be is saying is in a sense relevant, but he must not go too much into the organisation of local authorities for conducting the business of repairs.

Mr. Hargreaves

I am much obliged, Sir, and quite obviously I cannot develop that point. My main purpose in drawing attention to the development of the maintenance schemes of local housing authorities was to point out to the Minister the need that exists for an examination of the difference between an expenditure of £4 per house per annum, on the one hand, and an expenditure of £21 per house per annum, on the other hand.

4.0 p.m.

The Minister ought to be able to make this differentiation for a city like Carlisle—there are many other housing authorities in precisely the same position, whose housing department is concerned to deal with its houses on the basis of central maintenance, whose stores are centralised and whose transport to and from the estates is reduced to a minimum. In places like that, there is an obvious need for a difference between the average and the proposed figure, which is considered to be fantastic in the example I have instanced, in relation to a housing authority whose repair and maintenance problem is totally different from that which exists elsewhere.

The Minister ought to be able this afternoon to give the assurance that where a local authority has made no provision from April of this year to meet this new charge, he will use his powers under Section 131 of the 1936 Act so that local authorities are spared the need for making what is considered to be an unnecessary provision under the Bill. I hope that the Minister can safeguard the position of housing authorities in that way and that he will be able to give the assurance for which my local authority has asked.

My second point concerns the variations in the cost of repairs. I ask the Minister to consider giving some real help and guidance to authorities whose expenditure on repairs is of the lower order to which I have referred. Some guidance could be forthcoming from the Department, after an inquiry which the Minister's technical officers might hold, as to some reason for this enormous variation. If the Minister could assist housing authorities by giving them guidance as to the standard of maintenance for local authority houses, he would be helping them immensely.

To summarise, I ask the Minister for an assurance that local authorities who do not need the additional sum will not be forced to make this provision; in other words, that the right hon. Gentleman will exercise his discretion and his powers under the 1936 Act. Secondly, does not the right hon. Gentleman consider it advisable to hold a technical inquiry on the enormous variation in cost of repairs as between one housing authority and another, so that guidance and real help can be given to a housing authority to lay down standards for the maintenance of the properties for which it is responsible?

Mr. Ellis Smith (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

I beg to second the Amendment.

The Minister of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Harold Macmillan)

The hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Hargreaves) has moved the Amendment in a very moderate way and with some interesting reflections. I hope he will not think me discourteous if I do not go into some of the wider aspects that he raised, partly because I take note of Mr. Speaker's warning, and I should not like to stray from the strict matter of the Amendment.

As the hon. Member knows, there has always been a fixed minimum sum which has to be placed to this account. The only question is what that sum should be. There have, of course, always been variations from one part of the country to another, and from one authority to another. Nevertheless, since we have to deal—as in the subsidy itself, so with the conditions surrounding it—with averages, we have to take a fixed figure and to work upon that—there is no other way of doing it—giving power to the Minister in certain conditions, if he is satisfied, to approve of variations which might be suggested. Generally speaking, however, there must be, and always has been, a fixed figure. It was £4; it is now proposed that it should be £8. This reserve is necessary in order to make sure that the heavier cost of repairs, as it may become in later years, is adequately provided for and that there is a really sound financial basis.

The experience of authorities varies. As the hon. Member rightly said, many local authorities are allocating larger sums than either the present statutory £4 or the proposed statutory figure of £8. Sometimes it is as much as £13 for new houses, and possibly more for old houses. The proposed minimum of £8 was one of the matters which I and my officials discussed with the associations. We took it as a fair figure, and it was agreed without any dissenting voice.

There is another aspect also. The subsidy calculations assume a figure of £12 per house to cover both repairs and management. It has always been accepted that the repairs and maintenance accounted for about three-quarters, and that one-quarter went in management. Therefore, if £12 is the correct figure, £8 is the right figure to include for the repairs and maintenance. If the hon. Member argues that it is too high a figure, he is really asking me to re-open the negotiations and not to give as much as £12, but to give some figure of which his lower figure would be the proper proportion. At this stage it would be too late in the day for me to do that, nor would I be very popular with local authorities if I were to press that argument to its full logical conclusion.

Mr. James MacColl (Widnes)

I may have misunderstood the Minister's calculation. He said "£12" and "three-quarters." Should not the figure be £9 instead of £8?

Mr. Macmillan

I am sorry—the fraction should be "two-thirds." We have only put in a minimum figure. We have given a little latitude, but we have said that we must insist upon the two-thirds, although we allow some variation.

The hon. Member is asking me to go as low as £6 5s. I do not think that that would be the right way to deal with it. The best thing is to continue with the minimum and to have it related to the agreed new figure of £12, and then for me to exercise the discretion which is given to me and to my successors under the 1936 Act, in the event of the repairs account being more than sufficient, or appearing to be built up to be more than sufficient, for future needs. In that event, directions could be given for the reduction, or even for the suspension, of annual contributions and for the disposal of any unnecessary moneys standing to the credit of the account.

I will certainly look into the wider problem the hon. Member has suggested that I should take up with the local authorities, but so far as this Amendment is concerned, I hope that he will regard the provision in the Bill, as I think the local authorities and their representatives do, as a fair all-round arrangement and a logical consequence of the larger sum upon which the larger subsidy is calculated.

Mr. Hargreaves

May I ask a question arising out of the assurance that discretion will be exercised in certain circumstances? Can the Minister give some indication as to what basis will be used for the exercise of his discretion in the case of a local authority which at the moment is spending £6 5s. per annum and has in the fund at present £10 per house?

Mr. Macmillan

The hon. Member knows that in the short time I have held office I have tried to give as much local discretion as I could, and I believe in that. At the same time, I have a duty, and my successors have a duty, just as the local authorities of the day have a duty to protect their ratepayers and their future ratepayers. I therefore think it would be very difficult to say here what precise sum or precise situation will enable me or any other Minister exercising a purely administrative function to allow for some reduction. That will be taken into account with the character of the house, the conditions, and the whole situation. That right of release, as it were, does exist, and I think the House would be well advised to keep the principle of a fixed minimum and to rely upon any administrative method if it were found proper and reasonable to make some relief.

Mr. Geoffrey de Freitas (Lincoln)

I intervene to make the position of most of my hon. Friends clear on this matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Hargreaves), in moving the Amendment, has given rise to a short and interesting debate, but whereas we can all agree that it was an important little debate, we would not agree with the figure he suggested.

As he and the Minister pointed out, the housing figures shown throughout the country and the sums allocated to the repairs fund vary and are very much lower in the north than they are in the south, due to the difference in customs in regard to decorating and the liability of the tenant. Since there is this variation and since there is a minimum figure, the question arises of what the figure should be. The Minister says that £8 is the figure that the local authorities agreed. Because that is so, we think it is the best figure which could be arrived at, and I hope that my hon. Friend will not press the Amendment.

Amendment negatived.