HC Deb 12 December 1961 vol 651 cc226-9

3.53 p.m.

Mr. Robert Jenkins (Dulwich)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide powers to enable lessees and tenants occupying residential property, or the site and curtilage thereof, at low rents, under certain leases, and occupying sub-tenants of tenants under such leases, to obtain extensions of such leases or sub-leases; and for purposes connected with the matters aforesaid. My proposed Bill is intended to be a natural extension of the Landlord and Tenant Act, 1954, which was brought in by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—then Minister of Housing and Local Government—and which had the effect of restricting the powers of ground landlords and of giving some security to lessees.

I want to make it quite clear that the Bill does not advocate leasehold enfranchisement. The National Association of Leaseholders, of which the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Skeffington) is president, has recently abandoned its primary object of leasehold enfranchisement and is now supporting the Bill.

The purposes of the Bill, shortly, are to enable lessees to apply to the courts for extensions of their leases for periods of not less than fifteen years and not more than forty-five years, at a new ground rent to be fixed, if necessary, by arbitration or by the county court. Incidentally, if the Bill is given a First Reading a formula will be incorporated in it for the guidance of the courts. Alternatively, instead of an increase in the ground rent a small ground rent could be arranged, with a capital payment. Furthermore, it is suggested that the lessee making the application, or his family, must have been in residence for a specified number of years.

The Bill contains certain safeguards for ground landlords. Before the court can grant an extension it will have to be satisfied that the redevelopment to take place after the termination of the tenancy and after the obtaining of planning consent from the local authority will make an improved contribution to the housing needs of the neighbourhood; that the landlord has acquired the reversion not less than three years before the expiry of the lease, as a residence for himself or his family; and that reasonable accommodation, reasonably suitable to the needs and means of the tenant and his family, living with him, will be made available at the term date.

There is adequate precedent for the last-named provision. Local authorities engaged in slum clearance have an obligation to provide reasonable alternative accommodation for dispossessed tenants, and it seems reasonable that if houses which are unfit for human habitation are pulled down, and the tenants are rehoused, tenants of demolished houses which were of good structure should be given the same statutory right.

I wish to introduce the Bill because hundreds of thousands of leases will fall in during the next few years. The building of homes is not keeping pace with the demand, and it would be tragic if, during this period of intense shortage, tenants were uprooted and forced to join the end of the queue on local government housing waiting lists. Developments of sites and the consequent demolition of houses are taking place in built-up areas, especially in Greater London, Wales and in our large cities, and the grave land shortage in these areas has forced up values of sites to an exorbitant extent. The proposed replacements by some ground landlords are often shops and offices, and, even if new houses or flats are built on the sites where the property is to be pulled down, the rent or the premium required is, in the vast majority of cases, not within the purses of the people who occupied the sites previously.

It is surely contrary to public policy, during a severe shortage of land, to tear down houses which would have a useful life for many years to come. I believe that the public conscience would support a Measure of this kind, to allay the fears of scores of thousands of tenants, many of them elderly, who have spent a lifetime in their houses and who would otherwise find themselves without a home.

Incidentally, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government will no doubt be obliged to the House if it passes a Bill of this kind, because it would prevent the exacerbation of the housing situation which other wise lies ahead. Furthermore, the extension of these leases at this moment will maintain for a considerable period the Conservative doctrine of a property-owning democracy.

It is natural that some outside bodies should show some apprehension at these proposals. Lawyers are certain to do so. During the last few years I have attempted to study the problem profoundly, and I know practically all the arguments that lawyers are likely to raise. I will mention only one, which is frequently advanced by the legal profession. It relates to the sanctity of contract.

Surely a contract entered into ninety-nine years ago is not necessarily just in 1962. In any case, the passing of the Rent Restrictions Acts, the Town Planning Acts, the Landlord and Tenant Acts, and the Rent Acts have blown that argument sky-high. Furthermore, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, when he was Minister of Housing and Local Government in 1954 and was noted for his human approach to problems affecting people—and he is still noted for it—did not accept such an argument in relation to leaseholds.

Some of the possible objectors have entrenched and vested interests. There are the benevolent, charitable and educational institutions, schools, universities, and hospitals. The Bill would vastly increase their income—not as much as if the present trend was to continue, but, nevertheless, to a great extent. Incidentally, it would also increase their capital. Generally speaking, these institutions have boards of governors which constitute a benevolent squirearchy. Then there are the religious foundations, such as the Church Commissioners, and also the insurance companies which, as most hon. Members will agree, are some of the best freeholders of all. In that connection I must declare an interest, inasmuch as I am a director of one of them.

There are, however, some very greedy landlords, who see their chance to make a financial killing free of tax. These are the people who will squeal most when they are no longer allowed to take the maximum out of a property which is theirs by virtue of their long lease. Then there are the land speculators, usually the worst kind of operators in the property market.

It is to be hoped that none of them will use his influence in any way to attempt to kill the proposed Bill, which. I am confident, will be a great step forward in social justice. I have received many hundreds of letters from leaseholders throughout the country, and especially from Wales, and I have with me a Petition addressed to all hon. Members asking them to support the Bill. The Petition comes from 2,600 lessees in Dulwich.

I trust that the First Reading of the Bill will not be opposed. My colleagues and I who have formulated it are not Parliamentary draftsmen, and if a First Reading is given to it further opportunities will be available to the House to amend and improve it during the course of its further stages.

Finally, I submit that the ownership of land, bricks, mortar and money should not be allowed to determine the future hapiness or otherwise of so many families. This is a matter for Parliament to decide.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Robert Jenkins, Mr. Burden, Brigadier Clarke, Mr. Gower, Mr. Hale, Mr. Lipton, Mr. Marlowe, Mr. McAdden, Sir L. Plummer, Mr. Skeffington, and Mr. G. Thomas.