HC Deb 13 May 1959 vol 605 cc1387-96

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

10.34 p.m.

Mr. W. A. Wilkins (Bristol, South)

I should like to express my appreciation to you, Mr. Speaker, for permitting me to change the subject of the Adjournment debate tonight and also to thank the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government for his willingness to come here to answer the points which I propose to raise.

I am sorry that it will be necessary for me to adhere more rigidly to my notes than I normally like to do, but I want to be sure that the things I say are what I intended to say. Local government elections were held last week. Generally speaking, comparing results with three years ago, which is the right comparison, one might say that nothing particularly startling happened, with perhaps three exceptions.

One of these exceptions was in the City of Bristol, my own city. There we had a swing in the elections of nine seats to the opposition. Where there is a swing of that character there is generally a cause for it. It is probable that in Bristol there were two, maybe three, factors which contributed to the Conservative victory. What however, will not be denied is that the overwhelmingly predominant issue was that which I am taking as my Adjournment subject tonight.

I am seeking to obtain from the Government a declaration, or, what I think would probably be a more accurate description, a restatement of their slum clearance policy. I have been in politics for a fairly long time, long enough to learn that whatever one may feel about misrepresentation, recrimination gets one nowhere. When I feel that way I try to remind myself that politics are as dirty as one stoops to make them and as clean as one likes to keep them, and that, in the long run, no one in politics or in business ever profits from ill-gotten gains.

So I forget the result of the election and I examine the cause. Official advice which I have received from our local authority—at my request, of course—up to Monday morning of this week shows that there have been confirmed by the Minister 52 compulsory purchase orders involving 980 "pink" properties, that is, properties that are regarded as being unfit for human habitation, and 332 "grey" properties, which means, of course, that they could be occupied perhaps for a short time in the future.

In those properties there are 1,358 families of which 338 are owner-occupiers. The first question that I want to ask the Parliamentary Secretary is whether it is in conformity with Government policy that unfit houses should be demolished and whether those 52 orders are justified. If the answer is "No", then I would ask why the Minister confirmed them.

The second point which arises is that there are now 11 orders which await the Minister's confirmation. They comprise 839 "pink" properties and 453 "grey" properties with an estimated number of 1,254 families, of which owner-occupiers number 527. The question which I want to ask the Parliamentary Secretary is whether, in view of the campaign conducted by some Conservatives—I emphasise the words "some Conservatives"—in Bristol, resulting in the setting up of organisations to resist compulsory purchase orders, which also appear to have been endorsed by the electors, the Government feel that they should abandon their slum clearance programme not only in Bristol but throughout the country and not proceed with these confirmations.

Of course, I do not want to give the Minister the impression that all Conservatives in Bristol are disloyal to him on this vital issue. I shall quote to him, in context, a paragraph which appeared in the Bristol Evening World of 7th October last. It was written by the present Conservative candidate for Bristol, Central, and, broadly speaking at any rate, I confirm it as my own experience. This is what he said: When after an extensive recent canvass I am asked what is the main interest of the people on whom I called and I answer ' Housing' then the silence is broken by a scream of abuse from Wedgwood Benn. I have raised this subject of housing in Bristol because it is vital and urgent. I am at present in correspondence with the Bristol (Socialist) Council on the matter and have been invited to meet the housing authorities. They at least appear able to treat the discussion with rational calm. Meanwhile, I say to Benn that if he comes out with me in Bristol and visits streets at random I will prove to him that the first consideration, as one goes from door to door, is not Quemoy or even how insulting Socialists can be to the Queen but, Can you tell me when this street is coming down?' I now wish to quote some of the things said by Conservatives before and during the campaign, and by some of the victors afterwards. A very well-known Bristol alderman, who has been prominent in the formation of the home defence associations, speaking before the election in Easton, Bristol, said: Those people who have voted for compulsory purchase orders on the Housing Committee have signed and presented, in my opinion, their own death warrant. And how right he was. At the same meeting, the chairman said: This is about the last chance we have to show our disgust about C.P.O.s. If Mr. Brewer is not successful in the election it will be the green light for the council to carry on as they are doing and even much faster. Another ex-councillor of one of the wards in my own constituency—who, again, has been prominent in the build-up of the home defence associations —said: Make no mistake, Mr. Brewer is going in. I say that the C.P.O.s are no more, and no less, than one dirty land-grab. After the election, we have the gentleman who is probably now, or will be, within a day or two the leader of the opposition in the City Council in Bristol, saying, in the newspaper report: Bristol… was 'sick and tired' of many Socialist policies and their complete abuse' "— complete abuse— of compulsory purchase and clearance orders. In my judgment, if that is right it is not merely a reflection upon what the council is doing in Bristol, but a reflection on the Minister who has confirmed the orders that have been submitted to him. One of the candidates, I suppose in a moment of ecstasy on Friday, said, as the newspaper put it, that he …will be keeping a watch on any legislation affecting independent retailers —and particularly on compulsory purchase orders. C.P.O.s? I hate them,' he briefly said. I could go on quoting for quite a time all these things said before, during and after the election, but I want now to refer to what I believe to be the crux of the whole matter. I believe that there would be little, if any, trouble at all if compensation payments bore any resemblance at all to being fair.

Compensation payments are made under different Acts and in three ways. First, there is the dwelling that is considered to be completely unfit for anyone to live in. That dwelling is considered to have no value at all except the value of the site on which it stands. Hence, quite frequently, we have this nominal payment of £1. Secondly, there is the house in the clearance area that is considered "well maintained," and has a "well maintained" value put on it by the district valuer, albeit it is not usually a very high value. Thirdly, there is the house that does not come into the unfit category at all but happens to be situated on a site that must be totally cleared so that the new development may take place. Compensation is paid on that house at market value. Of course, all three of these values are contested on grounds of inadequacy, but undoubtedly it is the first category which creates the greatest sense of injustice, particularly to those people who are owner-occupiers.

I wish that I had the time available tonight to explain how some of these people have come to buy these properties. I have not got the time, but they are, in fact, the real victims of our present Acts of Parliament. We here in Parliament understand how this £1 site value payment came into being. It was brought in to catch up with property speculators who bought up slum dwellings in order to cash in on compensation payments. But today it is catching, in the main, innocent people—people who were persuaded to buy the house in which they live because, as they were told, "It will only cost you half a crown or so more a week than the rent you now pay on a mortgage of £200."

If we take these people's houses from them they have not only to liquidate their outstanding mortgage, but also to meet the rent of another dwelling, which is usually a corporation house. I do not believe that any local authority really wants to treat its citizens in this way. But it is only here in Parliament that we can put this matter right.

Mr. Speaker

Order. It seems to me that we can only put it right by legislation.

Mr. Wilkins

I was not going to suggest legislation, Mr. Speaker. In a moment's time I was going to suggest that on a future occasion we might look at some of the Sections in the Acts which apply to this subject, but I am not asking for any legislation tonight. I am aware that I cannot do that.

Members of local authorities, our councillors, are just as much the victims of our Acts of Parliament as are the people who are involved in the clearance areas. They can do no more than they are doing. We really ought to consider these compensation provisions again, and I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will say tonight that that will be done soon.

I have time for only one further reference and it is to the Town and Country Planning Bill, which has left this House and is now in another place. That is not really the answer and it is wrong that people should be given the impression that it is. At the most, it will give the equivalent of gross rateable value as compensation. In how many cases would this exceed £15? I suggest that it would be very few indeed. The property owners' journal, known as Property, claims that it gives nothing at all. Last month's journal said: The purpose of the Bill is to establish fair market value as the basis of compensation when property is compulsorily acquired for public use, but it excludes from this new basis all property that is required for slum clearance. Finally, I suggest that as clearance of areas under compulsory purchase orders may be spread over a number of years —perhaps even up to ten years—a local authority should be enabled to remove tenants who want to go on a voluntary basis, leaving those who prefer to remain until the last possible moment before site redevelopment must take place. But, of course, there is a snag about this. I understand that the housing subsidy which the Government give for slum clearance projects is paid to a local authority only at the point in time of the demolition of the house. I therefore suggest for the consideration of the Government that if the subsidy were made payable at the time when the tenant is placed in a new corporation dwelling, it would certainly facilitate this voluntary method of transfer. Under present arrangements, local authorities have to carry too much financial obligation.

Mr. Speaker, I hope that I have been fair. I have tried to put the case objectively. On 12th March, two months before the elections took place, I wrote to the Minister of Housing and Local Government about this subject. I reminded him of what had transpired on the Report stage on the preceding day; and also told him of the activities of certain people in Bristol in connection with these compulsory purchase orders. I concluded my letter with these words, which I would like to put on the record tonight: I am never the one to object to a fair battle. I support the slum clearance drive and am certain it would be carried out with less friction and greater speed if we all endeavoured to emphasise its ultimate benefits to the community. In this case, it happens to be a Labour-controlled council which is endeavouring to carry out your wishes. It could, of course, be a council of a different political complexion. Whoever's responsibility it may be, it is our job to help them, not hinder. It is so easy to inflame the passions of people who feel aggrieved, as we politicians well know. I would do everything in my power to secure justice in the way of compensation for those who lose their houses, but I do object to this issue being brought into the political cockpit by people who are your alleged supporters. That I believe to be a true statement of fact.

I hope that tonight, as a result of what I have said here, at least it might be pointed out clearly to the people of my city where blame, if blame there be at all, rightly rests. It is for us here in Parliament to make the decisions that we will give better opportunities and better compensation, if necessary, to those people whom we want to remove from dwellings which many of us right down deep in our hearts will admit are not fit for people to live in and to give them a far better chance in life.

Only a few days ago, I drove through an area of my city which, in my time, had often had to be policed by three policemen at a time. It was one of those areas where few people would go and walk. There is now being erected—it is almost nearing completion, I believe—as fine a block of flats as anyone could wish to see anywhere. I find it incredible to believe that people really do not want to have the opportunity of occupying places such as that in preference to those which they already have. Indeed, our experience, as a result of the canvassing we do, is clearly that the majority, probably 75 per cent., of these people are only too anxious to get out of those places and to accept these new buildings which are built by the corporation but which, in the main, are supplied under the slum clearance Acts.

I thank the Parliamentary Secretary for being good enough to agree to answer this Adjournment debate tonight.

10.55 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. J. R. Bevins)

I am most grateful to the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Wilkins) for mentioning the subject of this Adjournment debate to me before this evening. Fortunately, my right hon. Friend has no administrative responsibility for the ups and downs of political parties in Bristol or elsewhere, and I ask the House to believe that what I am about to say is in no sense dictated by political considerations of any kind.

My right hon. Friend has, of course. a very large responsibility for slum clearance throughout the country. Between 1956 and the end of last year more than 138.000 houses had been pulled down in England and Wales and more than 400.000 people have been transferred from slums to decent homes. By the end of last year we had achieved our target of rehousing in Great Britain—not only England and Wales—as many as 200.000 people every year from the slums. I would say straight away to the hon. Member that it is the firm intention of Her Majesty's Government to see this operation through, and that the Government have no wish at all to create any obstacles which would impede the progress of slum clearance.

On the whole, I think that it is true to say that local authorities have been very successful in getting on with this job with relative smoothness and more or less with immunity from complaint. I am not saying that compulsory purchase is popular with the public. We all dislike compulsion in any form, but sometimes it is unavoidable. One thing that the Government are now in process of doing is to take at least some of the sting out of compulsory purchase by going over to the compensation formula of market value.

Turning to the case of the City of Bristol, I would, first, take up the point made by the hon. Gentleman on the question of leaving certain houses in clearance areas in occupation until such time as the local authority can provide the tenants with new housing. The position there is that slum clearance subsidy is payable in respect of each new dwelling which is built in order to secure the rehousing of a family moved from a slum house. I understand that since June of last year the Bristol Corporation has been deferring the completion of purchase of certain houses in clearance areas until the occupants have actually been rehoused. That is in line with the policy which my right hon. Friend is, and has been, advocating to local authorities up and down the country.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned one or two figures about compulsory purchase orders and clearance orders for the City of Bristol. My information is that since the beginning of 1956 we have confirmed 38 compulsory purchase orders and 53 clearance orders. Some of these orders, of course, have not been confirmed as submitted by the local authority. As hon. Members on both sides will know, many orders are confirmed by my right hon. Friend subject to certain modifications, some of which allow for cases of hardship. and others commonly provide for the exclusion of "grey" land which the Minister may consider is not essential to the redevelopment which the local authority has in mind. At present, there are 13 compulsory purchase orders and 14 clearance orders which are outstanding and which will, of course, be considered on their merits.

In Bristol, for reasons into which I do not want to go too closely tonight, there has undoubtedly been a good deal of public disquiet over administration of compulsory purchase as a preliminary to slum clearance. I have looked at the matter with some care, and I should like to say a word or two about why I think this public disquiet has arisen.

Mr. Wilkins

In Bristol?

Mr. Bevins

Yes, in Bristol.

Originally, the Bristol City Council proposed, I understand, to clear 10,000 slum houses in a period of ten years, but with the advent of the Housing Subsidies Act. 1956, which abolished the general needs subsidy, the Corporation had second thoughts and decided to speed up the period of clearance to within five years so as to get the best financial aid for the replacement of the old houses.

I do not comment on that. The Corporation was a free agent to do that or not to do that as it wished, but the decision to accelerate the pace of slum clearance meant that clearance, and compulsory purchase, orders had to be brought forward more rapidly than originally expected. I think that all hon. Members will agree that that put a good deal of strain on all those concerned with this operation in Bristol. That, in turn, led to the criticism that the Corporation was acting with rather more zeal than discretion.

I think that one can fairly say, without being political or biassed, that until a year or two ago not enough attention was paid to some of the human problems involved. For example, I understand that in almost every case the City Council, no doubt motivated by the best of intentions, to get a move on and make progress, embarked on compulsory acquisition without attempting to make purchases by agreement. Again, I am not saying that it is always possible or feasible to undertake purchase by agreement, but very often it is in the case of relatively small schemes.

It was also said that the valuations undertaken by Bristol's own valuers were not on the generous side, although I agree that the figures were influenced by the widespread existence in Bristol of rent charges which had the effect of bringing down values. As a result of all this, compulsory purchases were hotly contested and a good deal of resentment developed in the city.

It is only fair to add that more recently the Corporation has sought to meet some of the earlier criticisms and has been anxious to avoid individual hardships and I understand that it is now attempting to negotiate purchase by agreement in the case of relatively small sites. There is no doubt that the payment of nominal sums of £1 to the owners of unfit houses has exacerbated feeling in the city.

That was recognised by Bristol Corporation and hon. Members put several Questions to my right hon. Friend some months ago. It was represented, as it has repeatedly been represented by some of my hon. Friends, that the site basis compensation for unfit houses ought to be changed. That change is to be made under the Town and Country Planning Bill, now before Parliament, to the extent that owner-occupiers who do not benefit under the Slum Clearance (Compensation) Act, 1956, and who are liable to receive only derisory compensation, will not in future get less for the site than the gross value for rating purposes.

I was a little surprised to hear the hon. Member refer to this change in the compensation provisions as being inadequate. After all, we are here dealing with houses which are unfit and which Parliament, for many years, has recognised should not be compensated for the structure but only for the land. It would surprise me if the hon. Gentleman could get the support of his hon. Friends for going beyond what has been proposed by my right hon. Friend.

In addition, it will continue to be the case that if a house has been well maintained in spite of its inherent defects, well maintained payments may be directed by the Minister. Those will not be less than nine times the rateable value of owner-occupied houses or four-and-halftimes the rateable value of rented houses. Houses which are acquired as "grey" land, that is to say, land outside that covered by an order but needed by the Corporation for satisfactory redevelopment of that area, will in future be assessed for compensation at full market value.

Mr. G. R. Mitchison (Kettering)

If these orders were oppressive for so long, why were they confirmed by the Minister?

Mr. Bevins

I thought that I made that clear at the outset when I said that quite a number of orders which were confirmed were confirmed subject to modifications, to eliminate features which seemed to my right hon. Friend to be undesirable.

I was about to say, in conclusion, that I am sure that the general public and certainly my right hon. Friend want to see progress with slum clearance maintained. Given the changes in compensation which are now in train and an understanding approach by local authorities—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at five minutes past Eleven o'clock.