HC Deb 24 November 1955 vol 546 cc1795-802

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

11.2 p.m.

Brigadier Terence Clarke (Portsmouth, West)

I am most grateful to you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, for having chosen this subject for the Adjournment tonight. My subject is unfit houses and slum clearance. This is a serious problem, both for people living in unfit houses, for the owner of the houses, and for the local authority responsible for declaring them to be unfit. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will be here in a moment to reply to my points. I want him to decide when is a slum a slum. We all know when a slum is not a slum, but at present there are very many people living in slums who have had their houses declared unfit when they feel certain that they are living in excellent accommodation.

Many inhabitants of places scheduled as slums are far from convinced that they live in slum property. If, for example, I may take the case of Portsmouth, there are 7,000 houses there stated to be unfit according to the official publication issued recently by the Minister of Housing and Local Government. These 7,000 houses represent nearly one-tenth of the total houses on the island of Portsmouth. Of these, nearly 1,440 are due to be pulled down in the next five years.

I do not deny that there are a large number of houses in Portsmouth that are unfit for human habitation and should be pulled down, but I doubt whether there are 7,000 houses that are so unfit. In the areas scheduled for demolition, and in the unfit houses, there is a fair number of houses that are fit for habitation by all standards except that applied by the medical officer of health. I understand that the medical officer of health is guided by a strict set of rules from which he cannot or does not waiver. A house can be made unfit for a number of reasons. First, it can be made unfit because it has no damp course. I understand that very few houses over 50 years old have got a damp-course. On the other hand, some are not subject to damp and they are quite reasonable houses in which people may well expect to live for a long time.

To provide a damp-course for an old house is a very expensive business if the house is due to be demolished in the near future. Assuming that the owner is willing to provide a damp-course, he still finds himself in possession of an unfit house if it has not got, for example, reasonable storage space for food. People living in a sort of semi-slum house in a place such as Portsmouth do not need to store a large amount of food, and in fact, they do not. In consequence, when these houses were built there were not larders as are necessary by modern standards.

Again, a house can be made unfit because it has no bathroom or no inside lavatory—although the lavatory may be just outside the back door and only a matter of a step or two around the corner. I understand that these unfit houses can be scheduled as fit only if they can be made fit with a reasonable expenditure of money. Then I come to the question of what is "reasonable expenditure." That is a matter of opinion and must vary from area to area. Further, I understand that these houses are fit if the amenities I have mentioned can be provided at a reasonable cost. The words "reasonable cost" I would like my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to define tonight.

I would also like my hon. Friend to say whether a house in a good state of repair is not scheduled as unfit to save money at the owner-occupier's expense. We are, let us say, demolishing a large area. In that area there are bound to be houses which, by every standard except that provided by the local medical officer of health, are fit and reasonable. I would like my hon. Friend to say that he will so instruct these medical officers of health that they do not schedule a house as unfit just because it has not got a bathroom or a lavatory inside the house, or because it has not got a damp-course—when, in fact, there is no damp. It is extraordinarily expensive to provide a damp-course and very unprofitable if the house is to be pulled down because the area is scheduled for demolition.

Will my hon. Friend inform local authorities that they must take a generous and reasonable interpretation of the existing Act? That is what I ask him to do. At the moment, if a medical officer of health feels so inclined, he can erase a large number of houses and show, for purely technical reasons, that they are unfit. That will cause immense hardship to a large number of people. I am sure that is not the Minister's wish. I feel, therefore, that tonight my hon. Friend can say that he is going to issue instructions to local authorities to be reasonable and generous in their interpretation of what is fit and what is not fit as regards these houses.

I would remind the Parliamentary Secretary that 7,000 houses in Portsmouth were demolished during the war by bombing. People returning from the Armed Forces were desperate for houses. They made reasonable inquiries through the local authority about slum clearance and were told that there was no slum clearance in certain areas, and they subsequently bought their houses through building societies. We know that building societies are not philanthropic societies and do not lend their money very easily. They make inquiries.

Once they had an assurance from the local authority that there would be no slum clearance in the area and had got the necessary money from a building society, these people thought they could reasonably expect that they had bought houses in which they could spend the rest of their lives. However, many of them now find they are in houses scheduled as unfit for one of the reasons I have enumerated.

This sort of thing will cause immense hardship. I am not sure that it requires legislation to deal with it. I believe it merely requires a direction from the Minister that the local authorities must be more reasonable in their condemnation of the houses. I should be out of order if I asked for legislation, but I have been assured that legislation is not required, and I have been particularly careful to keep within the bounds of what I promised. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to give me some hope that these people will not be dispossessed of good houses, and that if they are dispossessed, they will receive reasonable compensation.

11.12 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. W. F. Deedes)

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Portsmouth, West (Brigadier Clarke) has done a service in raising the subject, which, I am glad to say, will generally speaking be of increasing concern to a very large number of people. I am glad of the opportunity to clarify one or two of the very important points which he raised.

I would start by saying something rather general on the subject, and then I will try to deal specifically with his questions. I am very grateful for the notice of the questions which he gave me earlier today.

He said a good deal about the general hardship which results from the reopening of the slum clearance campaign. I should remind him that, for all practical purposes, the machinery of slum clearance stopped just before the Second World War and that it is only very recently that it has been set in motion again. It is not really surprising, therefore, that during the intervening years there has been a tendency to overlook its existence. That lies at the root of some of the hard cases which he has in mind.

I do not want to go through the history of the legislation—it is a long history, and yet a very consistent one—which has led to a good many of the principles on which we operate today. I should like to mention one or two of the basic principles, arising out of the legislation which really started in 1919, on which we are operating, very few of which it has yet been found necessary to modify. This will give my hon. and gallant Friend the background before I answer his specific questions.

The first general principle is that it is the duty of the local authorities to deal with the houses in their areas which are unfit for human habitation. The second general principle is that in the case of an individual house they must first attempt to secure its repair unless they are satisfied that it is beyond repair at reasonable cost. Only if the attempt to secure repair fails and they cannot agree with the owner on works of renovation are they empowered to make a demolition order under Section 11 of the 1936 Act. In that case, the owner has the right of appeal to the county court.

The third point I would stress is that where there is a number of unfit houses the local authority must be satisfied, first, that the houses are unfit for human habitation, and, secondly, that the most satisfactory method of dealing with the conditions in the area is demolition of all the buildings in the area. If it is so satisfied, it must resolve the area to be a clearance area. It may then decide whether to acquire the area and develop it, or proceed by a clearance order which requires the owners to undertake demolition.

The fourth point, which is very relevant to what my hon. and gallant Friend said, is that where a compulsory purchase order and clearance order is made, the Minister's confirmation is required before the authority can proceed. That does not rest with the authority alone. Objections against either type of order can be lodged. If they are, there are arrangements for a local inquiry to be held, and for inspection of the properties involved. The decision of the Minister is reached in the light of the representations at the inquiry and the inspector's report. I would stress that that is not a light assurance.

I see these orders before my right hon. Friend does. We have the benefit of the inspector's report, which is written in great detail, and often has involved inspection of every one of the properties, with a separate detailed report on each one. We also have the inspector's observations on the properties, his conclusions since the inquiry, and his recommendations. These are considered, first, by myself, and then by the Minister. I assure my hon. and gallant Friend that these reports, especially those involving large numbers of houses, are not treated lightly or quickly.

The fifth principle is that if the unfit houses, and the land on which they stand, are bought compulsorily, after a public local inquiry, inspection, and consideration by the Minister, the total amount of compensation payable should be restricted to site value, apart from payment in recognition of good maintenance.

The sixth point is that the local authorities already have substantial powers to mitigate hardship. They have the obligation to rehouse people displaced through their operations, and they can adjust rent to take account of personal circumstances. They can pay removal expenses, and where a business is being carried on in a house due for clearance, make a discretionary payment towards loss sustained. These are six principles of legislation extending from 1919 on which we base much of the work today.

I now turn to the points which my hon. and gallant Friend specifically raised. He asked first for the definition of a slum. I refer him to Section 9 (1) of the Housing Repairs and Rents Act, 1954, which says: In determining for any of the purposes of the principal Act"—that is the Housing Act, 1936—"whether a house is unfit for human habitation, regard shall be had to its condition in respect of the following matters, that is to say—(a) repair; (b) stability; (c) freedom from damp; (d) natural lighting; (e) ventilation; (f) water supply; (g) drainage and sanitary conveniences; and (h) facilities for storage, preparation and cooking of food and for the disposal of waste water; and the house shall be deemed to be unfit as aforesaid if and only if it is so far defective in one or more of the said matters that it is not reasonably suitable for occupation in that condition. We have further interpreted that in Circular 55/54, and I only wish to call the attention of my hon. and gallant Friend to paragraph 37, which refers to Section 9, and which says: A decision that a house is unfit may be based either upon a major defect in one of the matters listed"— that is, the matters I have just read out— or upon an accumulation of smaller defects in two or more of them. I think that is about as close a definition as I can give my hon. and gallant Friend in answer to his question.

He asked about the standards applied by the medical officer of health, and I think I should stress that his opinion is, of course, subject to confirmation by the court in the case of a demolition order, or by the Minister on a compulsory purchase order or a clearance order. I should also stress that, in the case of the compulsory purchase order or a clearance order, although the decision on unfitness rests in the first place with the medical officer of health, the process through which it goes, ending up with my right hon. Friend, ensures that a common standard is observed throughout for all.

Then my hon. and gallant Friend made some remarks about the storage space for food, and the point about the bathroom. I do not want to suggest that his criticisms there were exaggerated, but they do put the severest construction on Section 9, which I have just read out. To be faulted on one point only a house must be so bad in all respects as to be unfit for human habitation—and that is really the point—on that ground alone. I can assure my hon. and gallant Friend that no evidence has reached us that local authorities are construing the definition in this high-handed way.

My hon. and gallant Friend asked for a definition of "reasonable cost". I can only say that has got to be decided on the facts of the individual case. Then he asked for an assurance that houses in a good state of repair would not be scheduled as unfit to save money at the owner-occupier's expense. I can give an unqualified assurance that no fit house will be accepted by the Ministry for inclusion in a compulsory purchase order or a clearance order as unfit. I should like to stress here that, after the inquiry has been held by the inspector, very often modifications are suggested by the inspector in the light of his personal inspection of the individual property, and those modifications are considered in really very great detail by the Department. No individual house is taken for granted everything is read and considered in the light of each individual case. I think I can give him an assurance on that point.

My hon. and gallant Friend also raised the question of the hardship that is applied particularly to the owner-occupier. There is always a risk that large-scale operations by public authorities, however carefully safeguarded, will result in some hardship to the individual, but the position of the owner-occupier now threatened by the resumption of slum clearance does present a special problem—one entirely due to the shortage of houses in the post-war years when people who urgently needed somewhere to live did not always look too closely into the condition of a vacant house or cavil at an inflated price. It has been pointed out on both sides of the House that site value, even where there is no reasonable doubt whatever that the property is unfit, bears very hardly on the owner-occupier if he is a mortgagor. This is a new problem to which my right hon. Friend has made reference, and I know my hon. and gallant Friend does not expect me to add anything to that tonight.

In conclusion, I wish to call the attention of my hon. and gallant Friend to Circular No. 54/55 which recommended local authorities to remind the local public, through the Press and in any other way they thought proper, of the fact that they are preparing a comprehensive programme of slum clearance, to make other statements from time to time as they think fit, and to be ready to advise those proposing to buy older houses in the district to make inquiries at council offices to find out whether they will be affected by the slum-clearance programme.

That circular was prepared in consultation with the local authority associations, who gave some valuable advice based on their very wide experience in these matters. We have every reason to think that the local authorities concerned are co-operating fully in that matter, and it should now be very unlikely that anyone will buy an unfit house in ignorance of the knowledge that it may shortly be made the subject of clearance operations.

Therefore, although we recognise that there is a problem from the past, which is to be dealt with as my right hon. Friend promised, we hope that, from now on, we may avoid adding in any way to the problem, to a part of which my hon. and gallant Friend has referred tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes past Eleven o'clock.