HC Deb 12 June 1953 vol 516 cc642-8
Mr. Hay

I beg to move, in page 8, line 17, to leave out from "eleven," to the end of line 18.

We have moved very quickly to an entirely different Clause and a much different matter. Clause 10 gives local authorities power, which they do not at the moment possess, of making closing orders in respect of the whole of a building under the Housing Act, 1936, Section 11, whereas up to now they have had power only to make closing orders for part of a building. The subsection of the Bill to which I draw the attention of the House is subsection (3), which provides: Where a closing order has been made by a local authority under this section in respect of a house, the authority may at any time revoke that order and make a demolition order under the said section eleven. Then come the words I seek to omit— without further compliance with the provisions of subsections (1) to (3) of that section. Subsections (1) to (3) of Section 11 of the Housing Act, 1936, contain the provisions for objection to an order being made by an owner or by an occupier if a closing order is sought to be made by a local authority. Those subsections provide the check between the decision of the local authority to make an order and its final carrying out. By the two lines of the subsection with which we are now dealing that check is completely removed.

1.15 p.m.

We discussed this matter in a roundabout way and not directly in Standing Committee, but now we ought to look at it with greater care. I think this check is an important one. If an owner is suddenly to be deprived of the use of his property because a closing order is to be made, everyone would agree that it is right—and Parliament has assented —that there should be some appeal procedure if he thinks the local authority are acting unfairly. He may think the property is not in such a bad condition. The Bill would give the local authority, having gone through that procedure and made a closing order, power to convert that closing order into a demolition order and to pull the whole building down without the owner having any further right of objection.

It may often be that an owner is not averse to a closing order being made in respect of a house he owns. The house may have become thoroughly insanitary because it is old and decrepit, but it may not necessarily be unfit for any use. It may be unfit for use as a house for people to live in, but not completely unsuitable as a warehouse, a garage, a store, or something of that kind.

If this Clause goes through without these words being taken out, the local authority may make a closing order because the house is unsuitable for occupation. The owner may not object, and the tenant may be rehoused by the local authority in other premises; and the owner has the right to use the building which continues to exist. But then this subsection may give the local authority power without a word of warning to convert that closing order into a demolition order to pull down the building, whatever use the owner may be making of it. I therefore think we ought to reimpose this check, which is not a difficult or substantial one and places no hardship on local authorities.

I do not need to detain the House by dealing at length with the position of an owner who will be deprived of the investment value of the property, although it is not a big value, nor with the question of the mortgagors dependent on the owner's right to the building. But where a demolition order is made there ought first to be a further opportunity for the owner to complain or appeal. As I said in Standing Committee, demolition is a step from which there is no retreat. Once the building has been pulled down, that is the end of the matter. An owner who might not have objected to a closing order ought not to be deprived of his investment and rights of occupation of the building without so much as "By your leave" by the local authority.

Mr. Finlay

I beg to second the Amendment.

Mr. Mitchison

This Amendment has some substance in it. It is not a mere question of language. It was discussed in Committee. Let me reassure the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Hay) at once; I distinctly remember him saying, when the Amendment was withdrawn, that he would raise the matter again on the Report stage.

We are here dealing with houses which ought to be demolished, that is to say, houses in respect of which the statutory conditions are fulfilled and which are not demolished only because the effect of pulling them down would or might be to let down the house next door also. That is what this Clause is about. Accordingly, before any question of the order being made is reached, there has to be a report that the house is unfit for human habitation and that it cannot be made fit at any reasonable cost.

In those circumstances it is then contemplated, by this Clause, that because the pulling down would damage or endanger the buildings next door, that a closing order should be made for that reason and in that type of case instead of a demolition order, which would otherwise be made. The closing order having been made, the house is no longer used for human habitation, but it can be used as a garage, or the like.

What the hon. Member is seeking to do is as follows. When the matter is first gone into and the question arises of making the first order—generally a demolition order under the Section— the owner of the house has an opportunity of coming to terms, if I may summarise the position, with the local authority by making such repairs, etc., as will satisfy them. It is only if that opportunity under the statute is not taken that any order is made, whether for demolition or closing. We are dealing with a house in respect of which, when the opportunity has been offered it has not been taken, and in respect of which a demolition order would in an ordinary case be made, and in respect of which the owner knows perfectly well that if a closing order is made it is made under the provisions of the Section and in substitution for a demolition order only because of the risk to adjoining premises.

All that having happened, what is asked by this Amendment is that when this order is turned—I summarise the procedure—into a demolition order, all the hoops should be gone through again. That is quite unnecessary. I think it is putting a quite unreasonable burden on the local authority, which would have pulled the house down long ago in the case which the hon. Member has in mind but for the fact that that would have let down the house next door. What is there that leads one to suppose that that which was unfit for human habitation before, which the owner did not think worth repairing or mending in order to avoid any of these orders, will become fit for habitation by reason of being used as a store?

Mr. Hay

Not fit for habitation; the hon. and learned Member does not understand me. It may be much more useful or valuable as a store, warehouse or garage. The owner does not want it to revert to use for human habitation because it is old and decrepit and he has converted it to a different purpose. Why should that purpose be completely frustrated without so much as "By your leave" by the local authority?

Mr. Mitchison

Because we need new houses in this country; I ought not to have to tell the hon. Member that.

Further, the hon. Member talks about the house having been converted by the owner. I think he has forgotten that that can only be done if the local authority allow it, and for such purpose as they think suitable. In practice this is a question of whether, when a closing order has been made, any use can be made for the time being of what is really meant to be a house which has proved to be quite unfit for that purpose in the course of time.

I ask the hon. Member to remember the interests of the people concerned with housing in this country, and the duties that local authorities have to discharge, and not seek to put in the Bill a double set of precautions, as would be necessary if this Amendment was carried, in a case in which the one set provided by statute is really ample protection. As to whether these two rather elaborate sets of precautions should be gone through twice in every case, when it would only be in the most exceptional case that the existence of this second set of precautions would be of any avail whatever to an owner, that is something about which, on balance of public convenience and private interests in this matter, I have no doubt whatever: the right thing to do is to treat the single set of precautions, which is what the owner would get if there were no risk to adjoining property, as fully sufficient for the purpose.

I hope that the hon. Member will, in the light of that explanation, withdraw his Amendment. I cannot possibly accept it, and I feel certain that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, who is in his place, will feel the same about this matter from the practical point of view as well as from the administrative one, and having regard to the vital responsibility of his Ministry in housing matters.

Mr. Marples

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Hay) will withdraw his Amendment, because the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) is making in this Bill a substantial advance on the present law. If a house is unfit for human habitation, a demolition order is made and it is pulled down. That has happened at Portsmouth in particular and has left the retaining wall—the party wall—exposed to the wet. These walls were never built to be weather-proof and are in danger of coming down and certainly are in danger of letting in the weather and the rain.

Under this Bill that position is altered, and the local authority, instead of being compelled to demolish the house, can now say, "We will close it for human habitation but to pull it down would destroy or damage the houses on each side. We will allow it to stand, and we may allow it to be used for some other purpose or allow it to stand empty as protection for the adjoining houses." If a house is not fit for human habitation and should be demolished, and that has been decided, and it is allowed to remain standing for a number of years longer, it is hardly likely that it will then suddenly become fit for human habitation unless a great deal of money is spent on it. It would impose an unnecessary burden on local authorities to ask them to go through the procedure again when the owner has had a fair crack of the whip, if I may put it that way, in the first case.

I can assure my hon. Friend, who has moved this Amendment with persuasiveness—I know he goes into these matters very carefully indeed and gives great thought to the question of local authorities and property—that administratively his Amendment would make matters extremely difficult for local authorities. I hope that with that explanation he will withdraw the Amendment.

1.30 p.m.

Mr. Hay

The hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) said I did not appreciate the difficulties of housing authorities. I appreciate those difficulties very much. I think the argument which he put forward would be much stronger if we did not see so many of these vacant sites all over the country. How often does the local authority demolish a house which is unfit for human habitation and promptly put up a new one on the same site? Very rarely. As we go through the streets we see very many vacant spaces, like gaps in a row of teeth. They are not being used and built up as they should be. Thank goodness that under the guidance of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government and his Parliamentary Secretary that state of affairs is speedily improving.

I certainly appreciate the difficulties of local authorities and housing authorities, but I also appreciate the difficulties of people who may have made an alter-natve use of the unfit house—a use which is of value to the community as a whole as well as to him personally. That is why I put down the Amendment—which is my last. In view of what my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary said, rather than in view of what the hon. and learned Member for Kettering said, I will not press it. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.