HC Deb 26 April 1960 vol 622 cc171-80

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

10.41 p.m.

Mr. Compton Carr (Barons Court)

I take this opportunity tonight of saying a very few words about the housing situation in Fulham and Hammersmith, because I am in the happy position of representing a constituency which bridges both these areas.

I do not intend to make any attack or cast any aspersion on either of those local authorities. I do not even intend to say anything which will rouse the anger of the Parliamentary Secretary. But there are some things in Fulham and Hammersmith which, in fact, belong to the whole of London. Fulham and Hammersmith, as constituted at any rate in Barons Court, share all the faults and all the hopes of London in housing. We have flats which are almost luxury flats; we have small, old type working-class dwellings which merely lack amenities to be really habitable again; we have the gently mouldering Victorian premises which London has in abundance; we have very many back and front garden middle-class dwellings, as one might put it, and we also have our quota of slums.

In the two areas we have, of course, as in the rest of London, thousands of people on the housing list. All that can be done for them is literally to rehouse a handful of families—the numbers rehoused can be counted on the fingers of both hands—each year from that list. Something must be done about this. I am sure that the hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. M. Stewart), who is in his place, and the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Tomney), who is not present, would agree with me that we cannot at present see our way through the tangle of housing troubles in Fulham and Hammersmith, nor, indeed, anywhere else in London.

I am afraid that people are now reduced to flapping their hands and saying, "Yes, it is certainly true, but what can we do?" Indeed, I have here a letter from one of the directors of housing in the constituency. I do not propose to disclose which director it is. In his letter dated last month he says: I agree with you"— speaking of a case which I had referred to him— that this is a classic example of overcrowding, but my council does not grant priority for this. That is not due to hardness of heart in the council. That is a mere statement of fact which has become commonplace today in Fulham and Hammersmith and, again, in the whole of London

All that I ask from the Parliamentary Secretary is that he should give an assurance that this problem will be looked at again.

We are told time and time again that lack of sites is the trouble, yet we in inner London and in the areas to which I have referred still see buildings going up, not, I hasten to say, dwellings but office buildings. I am right behind anyone who wants to clear offices out of the dead centre of London and out of the West End, but I wish that people would now start to look at the periphery, at places which are really dormitory and pour thousands of people into the centre of the city daily, and seek to draw on those sources of labour. This would help the housing situation in central London and help people on the outskirts of London to make more out of their weekly wage packets instead of having to spend large sums on travel.

Yet we in Hammersmith and Fulham still see these buildings going up. There is one 30 storeys high on the Fulham side, and there are others all round Hammersmith Broadway. There is still need for office property of one kind or another, but I am sure that I speak for everybody in these two boroughs when I say that it is not right to pull down habitable houses in order to build offices. It is not right that sites completely open for redevelopment should be used for this type of building. Some way round this problem must be found. I ask that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary should give me, and through me the thousands of people who will read his words, some hope of being rehoused somewhere in central London.

I think that again the hon. Member for Fulham will bear me out in saying that we are not surrounded in our constituencies by people who are determined to cling to the parental perch and will not move out of Fulham or Hammersmith. We are faced with people who do not know where to go. Many of them say, "I am in a job which I can take up anywhere, but where can I get a house?". A man will say, "I can get a £15 a week job, which is £1 more than I am getting. It is out in the country where money will go further, but I cannot go there because my wife and children cannot join me for at least six months." This is not merely a London problem. A solution would help people to get out of London as well as help people to live in London.

I feel that we underestimate the younger family man. He is able to save. I hope that the hon. Member for Fulham will forgive my mentioning him so often, but he is a neighbour of mine and I am dealing with a borough which he knows a great deal better than even I do. He will know, and I am sure the Parliamentary Secretary will agree, for he also knows the area, that there are large numbers of young family men in our constituencies. There are large numbers of men who are able to save singularly large sums even during their married life, and I sometimes wonder how they do it. They say, "I want a house", and when I say, "You have not much hope of a council house", they reply, "No, but I have saved £300." One is full of admiration for any young man with a family who today can save £300. We used to decry young men for not saving during their engagement period a sum of money to spend on obtaining a house. Now they can save but they cannot find any place on which to spend their savings. That is a grave difficulty which my constituents have to face.

Many of them do not know about opportunities for obtaining mortgages. In any case, many of them have incomes which are just on the borderline. They may be earning only the national average of £12 or £13 a week, and if they have young families, they are not very acceptable to most building societies, and it is not every local authority which is prepared to grant mortgages, let alone large mortgages of 90 or 100 per cent. Some of these youngsters are tied to these horrible single rooms and to the sort of places I have mentioned. I know of a young couple who have been on the housing waiting list for twelve years in one of these boroughs. They are living in a place which has the toilet in the yard and they are compressed into two or three small rooms.

Those are the sort of people for whom I am seeking some words of hope. It is not sufficient to say that they must do something themselves. I do not want to be political about this, and there is a subject which I hesitate to mention, but in fact I feel that rent rebate schemes ought to be considered by every council in London. In that I have the support of a very prominent constituent of mine, Mr. Morgan Phillips, and the Daily Herald. That is one of the ways to help, but it is not the only way.

I should like my hon. Friend's comments on one or two suggestions, I should like to see overcrowding byelaws taken in hand. We should now start laying down conditions about crowding, so that not so many people can be crowded into spaces so small. If that were done, people intending to come to London would find that there was nowhere for them to live and they would then not come—and at the moment they are still pouring in. The question of sites should also be carefully studied.

Another suggestion concerns a word which in other places would be considered dirty, but which is not out of order here—densities. It is a word which is not regarded with favour in some places. I am sure that we have to increase densities until they bear some relation to the facts and to the actual numbers of people living in areas.

I also wish that we could have some genuine move towards building upwards in this city. I know that that is a very touchy subject, but I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will give some encouragement to local authorities to do something constructive about helping young and old people—I know that old people are already being helped through the subsidies—so that they can live in decent conditions instead of squalor in an area of London which they and I regard with the very greatest affection.

10.54 p.m.

Mr. Michael Stewart (Fulham)

I intervene only very briefly to say that I listened to the hon. Member for Barons Court (Mr. Compton Carr) with interest. It seemed to me that at one time the direction in which his argument was pointing was that to make it easier for people who wanted to get out of London and make their homes elsewhere the Government must look again at the question of new towns and encourage the L.C.C. in the building of its new towns and the expansion of new towns generally.

In view of the situation in Fulham, all of us in Fulham are surprised by the Minister's recent decision not to confirm a scheme which the borough council has in hand in the northern part of the borough. The refusal was motivated, I understand, by the belief that there ought to be more provision for middle-class housing. I recognise that all classes have their housing problems, but in the main the problem in Fulham is one of people of about average-sized income, and I am bound to say that the Minister's decision is very hard to understand or to justify in Fulham.

10.56 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Sir Keith Joseph)

This is an unusual though short debate, in as much as all three hon. Members who are taking part in it have an intimate knowledge of the area under discussion. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barons Court (Mr. Compton Carr) on the very clear and cogent, yet moderate, way in which he spoke of what is a continuing and very serious problem.

My right hon. Friend said in the debate on London housing in June, 1959, that he regards overcrowding as the most serious single housing problem left in London, and I assure my hon. Friend that this problem is very much in the Minister's mind. Although my hon. Friend cannot, perhaps, perceive it month by month or even year by year, I should like to tell him, and through him the citizens of the two boroughs of which he spoke, that overcrowding, though still serious, is less than it was. The annual figures of the Registrar-General show that there has been an annual decline of about 1 per cent. in the population of both Fulham and Hammersmith and that over the last nine years there has been a fall of about 10,000 in each of those two boroughs.

This is masked to the ordinary inhabitant by the constant sight of new faces coming into the area which nearly, but not quite, replace those which have left, and there is an impression of an increasing population because people see the newcomers but of course do not see those who have left. These figures are, I think, reliable, and they show this falling population. It is interesting, although I admit not definitive, that the Medical Officer of Health for Fulham did not even mention overcrowding in his last annual report. The Medical Officer of Health for Hammersmith listed 212 households which in his view suffered from overcrowding, and I think we can be sure that if he listed those, then there are a large number he would like to list as overcrowding if we could permit higher standards to be maintained. I accept the comment of the hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. M. Stewart) that if we are to tackle overcrowding there must be adequate provision for overspill outside London.

The waiting lists to which my hon. Friend referred are still large, but not enormous. In Fulham the figures are 2,500 and in Hammersmith 1,700. The densities of which he speaks are constantly in the minds of all concerned with housing. They flow in London from the L.C.C. development plan. The L.C.C. five-yearly review, which is before my right hon. Friend, increases the densities in certain parts of London, although not in these two areas. It must be remembered, however, that an increase in densities seldom produces a dramatic effect in itself, because the more people in any area the more provision there must be for schools and open places.

I assure my hon. Friend that every effort is being made to reduce the number of offices and works in central London. We and the L.C.C. are constantly trying to steer industry and offices to the peripheral areas of which my hon. Friend spoke. As I am sure he recognises, there is pressure for new offices, and if there is an area such as that to which he referred, where a site lies between an exhibition hall and a coal yard, where there has always been some sort of industrial use, it can be argued that it is more suitable for offices than for housing. But I assure my hon. Friend that every site is considered on its merits, with an incentive towards moving offices to areas which are not much troubled with offices already.

The heart of the housing provision for a conurbation such as London is to get some movement of tenancies. It is the continuing tenancies, where tenants stay on and on, long after they need that kind of accommodation, which stop people who require housing from getting it.

There are several ways in which local authorities can help. I should like to list three. The first is by paying particular attention to the increasing number of elderly householders. My hon. Friend referred to this. They can do this not only by new building for the elderly, which both Fulham and Hammersmith are doing, on the limited amount of empty sites, but also by converting large houses for the use of the elderly. I draw this to their attention for priority consideration.

The second thing local authorities can do is to adopt sensible rent policies. It has now become common ground that if all houses are offered by a local authority at bargain basement prices, with no account taken of the income of the tenant, there is no incentive to those who can afford to look after themselves to move out and make way for those who cannot help themselves because they have not enough income and are just left on the waiting list.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, some time ago Hammersmith took an excellent and admirable initiative in starting a rent rebate scheme. One could cavil at the fact that the scheme has not been revised since it was set up. Perhaps the figures on which it is based are slightly out-moded by the rise in earnings which has occurred, but I should like to pay tribute to Hammersmith's initiative, vigour and bravery in putting forward this proposal and carrying it through against a good deal of opposition. This is a policy which should be adopted by all local authorities.

The third thing to which I should like to draw the attention of local authorities is a vigorous policy to reduce under-occupation by means of transfers. The trend towards smaller families which the whole nation is revealing means that there is a danger of under-occupation if families are allowed, without any persuasion by local authorities, to remain under-occupying accommodation that they no longer need.

It is true that in London there is just not enough empty land to permit local authorities to neglect these weapons. Fulham and Hammersmith both have a considerable building programme this year. Fulham is building about 350 houses, and Hammersmith about 83. Many of these houses will be wanted for occupants of houses which are slums or which have to be pulled down to make way for road improvements, schools, or the like.

Re-lets are absolutely vital. Up till now, re-lets, however many have been achieved, have had to be used to a large extent to look after the de-requisitioning problem. That problem is now behind the boroughs of London in most cases, and certainly in Fulham and Hammersmith. Therefore, the re-lets which occur will be available to help the waiting list. This should make a very considerable difference.

Here a surprising contrast emerges. Hammersmith and Fulham have about the same quantity of housing. Both have between 3,000 and 3,500 dwellings. Yet the number of re-lets made by the boroughs in a year is surprisingly different. I cannot give an interpretation of this. Hammersmith has about 350 re-lets per annum, which is about 10 per cent. and well above the national average. Thus, Hammersmith is able to help 350 households a year from its waiting list or from desperately overcrowded conditions which, with a waiting list of 1,700, is a very sizable slice.

Fulham says that it has only about 30 re-lets a year. I find this figure surprisingly low. It is about 1 per cent. of the dwellings. Perhaps the figure will be revised. Even if it is revised to a certain degree, there will still be a very large gap between the number of re-lets in neighbouring boroughs. I wish that I knew the reason. Perhaps there is a reason which does not help us forward, but there is that extraordinary contrast.

With the building programme limited by the availability of sites, re-lets play a very important part in serving the waiting list. With the number of re-lets Hammersmith seems to have, it should rapidly overtake its present waiting list.

I point out to my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Fulham that the boroughs for which they speak are popular boroughs and there will be a flood of new people coming in so next year, the year after and in ten years' time the waiting list will be just as large, but I hope that it will be composed of quite different people.

The fact that both boroughs revise their waiting list each year means that they tend to have actual waiting lists and not frozen, unrealistic waiting lists accumulated from long ago. These two boroughs are popular. Largely because of that, and the availability of work, they are overcrowded, but sizably less overcrowded each year, despite any impression to the contrary. The fact that the nation's population is now breaking into smaller households means that this reduced population has much the same demand, in terms of householders, as the larger population had but, within households, there is less overcrowding because of the smaller number of people in the households to be housed each year.

I have tried to indicate that action on all fronts is necessary, and that in nearly all oases action on all fronts is occurring; that is, facilitating the moving out by providing room by overspill, and by the surge in housebuilding that we know has occurred; by facilitating the better use of accommodation by building and converting for the elderly, for the convenience of the elderly and, at the same time, releasing family dwellings for the families who need them; by having sensible rent policies that encourage those who can look after themselves to move out and so make room for these on the waiting list; and by converting, improving, and building wherever possible. By those means, I believe, both boroughs are trying to help their waiting lists, and, to a large extent, are succeeding.

Behind the picture of the waiting lists there is, in fact, a rapidly changing population. Although my hon. Friend has produced individual cases of people who have been a long time on the waiting list, I believe that those are, in fact, individual cases. The waiting lists take into account, in their points system, the time on the waiting list. I understand that Hammersmith does—but as my hon. Friend shakes his head I shall look into the position again. However, I believe that, in human terms, the problem is being solved rather more quickly than he indicates. Whilst I agree that overcrowding is a very serious, and, in individual cases, often a tragic situation, I can assure my hon. Friend and the House that my right hon. Friend has the solution of this very much in his mind.

Mr. M. Stewart

Will the Parliamentary Secretary say anything about the Minister's refusal to confirm the order?

Sir K. Joseph

I hope the hon. Gentleman will excuse me on this occasion. I am not in a position to answer him on that.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eight minutes past Eleven o'clock.