HC Deb 27 November 1961 vol 650 cc198-208

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

11.18 p.m.

Mrs. Joyce Butler (Wood Green)

In the discussions which have taken place about homeless families in recent weeks the problem has been mainly concentrated on the problem in the London County Council area. In speaking about Middlesex tonight I want to draw attention to a problem which, although less acute than that in the L.C.C. area, nevertheless is a real one, and has some peculiar difficulties due to the arrangement of local authorities in Middlesex.

The problem is illustrated by the fact that in a 22-week period ended about the middle of November there were applications to the Middlesex County Council from 302 homeless families; 168 of those families—more than half of them—were told by the Council that it could do nothing for them. Among those families there were 235 children, and 137 of those children, having already lost their homes, had to be taken away from their parents and put into the care of the County Council because there was nowhere else for them to go.

These were children of ordinary, decent, hard-working parents, not problem parents, who were forced to take this action simply because of the lack of accommodation in Middlesex. No one can estimate, I suggest, what the effect of this separation will be on those children. It is a problem for the future.

But this does not give the whole of the picture, because since the County Council is not a housing authority, many families only go to it when they cannot do anything for themselves, or when their borough council cannot house them, and we have to add those cases which go to the district councils to those which go to the County Council.

A great deal has been done by the district councils. Boroughs like Wood Green and Tottenham, in my own constituency, have worked to the limit of their resources to help homeless families. In some cases they have bought the properties from which the families were due to be evicted. They have made mortgage arrangements on special terms to help them or have put them in temporary accommodation. Acton and Willesden in a very imaginative and helpful way have helped to finance co-operative housing schemes for tenants about to be evicted.

Mr. T. H. H. Skeet (Willesden, East)

Does the hon. Lady not agree that Willesden Borough Council could do a great deal more for homeless families?

Mrs. Butler

I am not in a position to criticise what local authorities have done, nor is any hon. Member, because we are all well aware how hard-pressed district councils are by their housing problems and the great difficulties there are in taking action to help homeless families.

In many cases nothing can be done. The property from which the tenants are due to be evicted is in too poor a condition for councils to consider buying it. Sometimes tenants are in a flat in a large block where other flats are controlled and it is impossible for the council to do anything. Sometimes—and this is a growing problem in Middlesex and, I believe, in London—landlords take summary action without reference to the county court and tenants are out before anybody can do anything for them.

The Minister advocates compulsory purchase orders but he must know that, in addition to other disadvantages, his predecessor refused to confirm orders where the rents were exorbitant in the view of the local authority or where tenants had taken over tenancies since the Rent Act came into operation in 1957. There have been a great many cases of that kind.

An analysis made of 60 cases at present before Tottenham Borough Council shows that 16 are homeless families because of the operation of the Rent Act. Nine are cases where the owner could prove greater need. Ten are unauthorised occupants, mainly people who take on illegal subtenancies in an effort to prevent themselves being homeless. Five are cases of expiry of lease, four of expiry of service tenancies and four only of arrears of rent, two only of nuisance and annoyance. Four were premises over shops and six were cases where the owner was selling the property.

I do not know how far these are typical of other authorities in Middlesex, but of the 60 cases in Tottenham those threatened with eviction under the Rent Act are clearly in the majority. It would seem that in trying to consider this problem it is like performing "Hamlet" without the Prince of Denmark if we consider it without reference to the Rent Act. Clearly, some limit on rents and provision for security of tenure are main considerations in dealing with this problem. In this respect the Minister has a major responsibility for the tragedy facing these families.

The Minister has also refused to consider requisitioning, but I continually receive letters from constituents who are well housed and who are unable to understand why properties can remain empty for months and even more than a year and the council has no power to requisition. Another but similar difficulty is that though local authorities can refuse to give permission to shop owners to change the use of flats above shops from residential to commercial purposes, they have no power to ensure that these empty rooms are used for residential purposes and, therefore, they remain empty. This is something else which the public finds very difficult to understand.

I assume that the Minister is remaining adamant on these two points—the Rent Act and requisitioning—but there is another suggestion which, I think, he has not considered as fully as he might. I have a number of schemes of private redevelopment pending in my constituency, and in these cases there are several families who will be evicted when the redevelopment starts. It seems quite unfair that under the Housing Act, 1957, not only local authorities but other undertakers carrying out redevelopment have to provide alternative accommodation for displaced families, while there is no such obligation on owners undertaking private redevelopment.

This is an increasing problem and these are some of the homeless families of the future. I ask the Minister to look at this very carefully and to see what suggestions he can make for dealing with it, because redevelopment is often carried out by private speculators who have no interest whatsoever in the families they displace and who add to the total of homeless families. As one of my constituents wrote to me the other day very feelingly, it is high time it was recognised that human beings are involved in housing. People, and not lumps of tin, lead and copper, are the stocks being sold, and that is not fully appreciated by many of the people who are carrying out, or seeking to carry out, redevelopment.

A point which the Government have made many times and which they made again recently in a letter which was passed to me was that they hoped that following the Rent Act there would be an increase in houses to let. They believed, and this is what the representative of the Ministry said in the letter, that a free market in housing would result in a greater variety of properties to let. The Minister must know that that is completely the opposite of what is happening and that since the Rent Act there has been a steady decline in properties to let as creeping decontrol has advanced and as properties which were formerly to let have been sold. If the Minister really means what he says about increasing the number of properties to let, I suggest that he tells all the local authorities in Middlesex that he is revoking his Circular 37/61, which, in effect, asks them to reduce their housing programmes. That is the first thing he should do.

In Middlesex, there is only a small amount of residential land left, land for about 15,000 dwellings. As things are, those acres are likely to be developed for houses for sale. I wonder whether the Minister has thought of looking at this problem of the small amount of residential land left in Middlesex. If he were to give it some such designation as residential land for building to let—rather slumsy wording, but I think that he will understand what I mean—that would enable the planning authority to designate suitable portions of that residential land as available only to appli- cants who were prepared to build houses and flats to let, and it would do a little to offset the progressive decontrol of rented properties under the Rent Act.

Some of it might be taken up by the local authority, which would be most satisfactory because the local authority allocates properties only to people already living in the county and, therefore, does not attract in any population from outside. Some of it might be available to housing associations, non-profit making, which would help a section of the community which is threatened with homelessness and cannot buy its own property. This is something which I think he should consider when there is such a small amount of residential land left in the country.

The South-East region, of which Middlesex is an integral part, attracted about 45 per cent. of the new jobs available between 1952 and 1959, although it has only 27 per cent. of the population. This involves the whole question of office location. Middlesex has for some years now pursued a policy of trying to decentralise office accommodation by approving office development on the periphery of the county, and hoping that firms in the centre of London would move out to the outskirts of Middlesex.

This policy has not been as effective as it should be for two reasons. First, the London area is not considered for planning purposes as a whole, and the Minister's rather belated attempts now to discuss with the planning authorities of the Home Counties area how this problem should be solved are too little and too late.

The second reason is that there is no control over the allocating of office premises in the centre of London, and, therefore, any policy pursued by the local planning authorities—London, Middlesex, or any other Home County—is vitiated by lack of control by the Minister, who has turned down office or commercial development certification. This is something which the Minister must tackle if we are to stop the pressure of families coming in from outside to find employment in the area and adding to the problems of homelessness.

We have to add to that the fact that the population of Middlesex is increasing much more rapidly than it was a few years ago. Last year, there were 12,000 more births than deaths, compared with 8,000 to 9,000 in previous years, and this is also making for great pressure, and will continue to do so, on the available housing accommodation.

The last point I wish to make is that without adequate overspill arrangements it is impossible for the authorities of Middlesex to solve their housing problems, both concerning families in need of better accommodation and those becoming homeless for the various reasons I have outlined. With the running down or completion of the schemes for Hatfield, Welwyn, Crawley and Hemel Hempstead, and even with the increase in accommodation at Bracknell, in the next ten years, on present estimates, the existing new towns will only provide for something like the overspill of Middlesex. I ask the Minister what progress he is making with providing a new town for the overspill.

In all these points, I have attempted to be constructive and to see some solution to the problem of homelessness. We are all in the Minister's hands. He has attempted to deal with the London problem by throwing the responsibility back on the London County Council. I assure him that in Middlesex he cannot, in fairness, throw it back on the Middlesex County Council, on the borough councils, whose hostels are already overcrowded, or on the district councils, who have done their utmost to deal with the problem. The Minister must take action on all these matters. I ask him what he intends to do about it, because, acute as it is at the moment, it is getting worse and not better.

11.35 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Geoffrey Rippon)

We all understand the motives of the hon. Lady the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) in raising this matter. It is an important one for all the people affected. For any family to be without a home of its own for any purposes is a tragic matter.

The causes of homelessness, as the hon. Lady indicated when she referred to the sample taken in Tottenham, can be many and varied. They can arise from evictions through rent arrears, lack of a legal tenancy, lost service tenancies, quarrels with landladies, or even at times with relatives, people moving in from other parts of the country, and so on. I suggest to the hon. Lady that there is no firm evidence on which to base her assertion that this is primarily due to the operation of the Rent Act, 1957.

Another factor is eviction from furnished accommodation. Some people say that this is increasing, but it is not affected one way or other by the Rent Act, 1957. It is very difficult to be dogmatic about this. I notice that in the short debate we had the other night on the subject of furnished accommodation the hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. M. Stewart) said: … increasingly, landlords letting rooms furnished are deciding that it is a better bet for them to let the rooms unfurnished instead. The hon. Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) said: … there is far more furnished accommodation than we have ever had before."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th November, 1961, Vol. 649, cc. 486–504.] As we know, the London County Council is dealing with this matter by having a survey into the causes. It may be that the Middlesex County Council would consider a similar survey in conjunction with the housing authorities. Rather than try to make a political case for an attack on the Rent Act, which cannot be sustained by the facts, it is better to regard this as a practical human problem which can be, and is being, dealt with by welfare and housing authorities in Middlesex as elsewhere.

The provision of temporary accommodation for families in urgent need, in circumstances which cannot be foreseen, is the duty of the welfare authority, and that is the Middlesex County Council. The number of homeless persons in the care of the Middlesex County Council has risen by 50 during the year. As the hon. Lady pointed out, the number of applications has risen considerably. I understand that in the six months ended 28th October, 1960, the number of applications was 364, and that in the corresponding period this year it was 545. In terms of families, there were 142 in the care of the Middlesex County Council at the end of 1959, 142 at the end of 1960, and 160 at 4th November, 1961. In the light of these figures, it is not surprising that the Middlesex County Council has made no representation that it is unable to deal with this increase.

As the hon. Lady pointed out, the housing authorities are also closely concerned with this matter. In this connection, she will no doubt recall that in March, 1959, a joint Circular No. 17 of 1959, was issued by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government and the Ministry of Health. This stressed the importance of the welfare authorities and the housing authorities co-operating closely in providing for homeless families, and made the point which the hon. Lady made, that the overriding consideration must be to make every effort to keep the family together.

The form of this co-operation must be governed by local circumstances, and I think that the arrangements in Middlesex between the County Council and the housing authorities seem to be working reasonably satisfactorily. It is important that they should, because, as the hon. Lady appreciates, admittance to Part III accommodation provided by the County Council should be as a last resort.

There is general agreement that older houses, suitably converted, provided by the housing authorities can contribute to much cheaper and more speedily available accommodation of an intermediate character. I think that those arrangements are being made between the county councils and district councils, bearing in mind that under the Local Government Act, 1958, the county council has power to contribute towards the expenses incurred by district councils in providing that intermediate accommodation.

Again, as the hon. Lady knows, 15 of the Middlesex district authorities have agreed to allocate one vacancy a year to the welfare authority. It is not very much, and perhaps some of them could do more. I am informed that in many ways co-operation has been improved. The county districts, under that scheme, do, I understand, accept families on an ad hoc basis for rehousing where there is an association with their own district. Some authorities with the worst housing problems seem to me, after study, to be making the best efforts to accommodate the homeless but I agree with the hon. Lady that it is invidious to single out particular authorities.

The Council Council can give help and does so by rehousing some families in its own properties. Although not a housing authority the Council acquires a considerable amount of house property for various purposes and before redevelopment it uses it for rehousing. After redevelopment, the district councils take over the responsibility.

On the immediate problem of homelessness, I wish to make two points. First, action to deal with homelessness must be regarded as the primary responsibility of the housing or welfare authorities, or both. Although, as my right hon. Friend has said, he is only too anxious to give all the help he can to both these types of authority within his existing powers, I do not think that it is correct for the hon. Lady to assert that particular compulsory purchase orders were not approved although the rent was exorbitant. I suggest that possibly the reverse was the fact. It is impossible to argue these cases in detail. We know that the existence of these powers has proved very helpful. Secondly, the housing and welfare authorities have power to tackle this problem in a variety of ways. They can purchase or adapt existing buildings, or, as the hon. Lady says they could get property for letting purposes, and there might be an opportunity for acquisition by agreement or by compulsory purchase. They could build some extra large houses for the families with a lot of children which provide the greatest problem. They could provide more temporary welfare accommodation. But whatever they do they should work together, using all the methods that they think suitable for their own areas.

On the question of private house accommodation I am sure that there are some authorities which can encourage the better off council tenants to make their own arrangements by having a differential rent scheme. On the other hand, there are some authorities who could do more to overcome under-occupation of their houses by arranging transfers to smaller units. But, of course, these are essentially local matters and must be dealt with in the way which is considered fitting.

The hon. Lady was right in saying that we must also consider the problem of homelessness in the wider context of the provision of better housing for all who need it. Comparing 1951 with 1961, the population of Middlesex has fallen by 1.7 per cent. The number of households has risen by 3.4 per cent. and the number of dwellings provided has risen by 11.9 per cent. These are the sort of figures that we see in the Greater London area. In Middlesex, the number of dwellings in the last ten years has increased by only 11.9 per cent. compared with 15 per cent. for the London area and 18 per cent. for the country as a whole. That may be partly attributed to the lack of land. It is also due in part to the effect of this relatively low density prevailing in Middlesex.

My right hon. Friend who is now the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, in Circular No. 37/60, urged local planning authorities to seek out all the available housing land to ensure its most intensive use. Something is being done in that direction in Middlesex. There is the Willesden—Stonebridge redevelopment scheme, which is planned for a higher density than was originally considered, and probably more could be done in that direction.

I agree with the hon. Lady, that the main solution lies in the direction of overspill. There are several new towns with which the Middlesex local authorities have a close connection which still have room for 30,000 more families. The London County Council has firm agreements on overspill under the Town Development Act, 1948, for housing a further 48,000 and a further 20,000 is in prospect. Some of the latter will be available for Middlesex. Middlesex authorities, the hon. Lady's constituency of Wood Green, Heston and Isleworth Borough Council and Ruislip and Northwood, have joined in a town development scheme at St. Neots which will provide 1,000 dwellings. Moreover, by the provision of Section 34 (2) of the Housing Act, 1961, a county council is entitled to contribute to development schemes both by financial contribution and by lending staff.

As to housing for letting, I hope that Section 7 of the 1961 Act will help in the provision which it makes. Other provisions of the 1961 Act relating to subsidies for town development and multiple occupation will, I hope, also help. As to private development schemes, I think the hon. Lady had in mind schemes when leases run out and the landlord wants to develop the property as a whole. Of course, then there is a great deal of time before the development takes place. Tenants know what is happening and the great majority are able to make provision for themselves. The control of vacated office premises raises a wide issue into which I can hardly be expected to go tonight. This is a planning issue. If action of that kind were taken it would involve considerable sums payable in compensation.

On the subject of homelessness generally, which is the main purpose of the debate this evening local authorities which are housing and welfare authorities have been given this responsibility by Parliament. My right hon. Friend has indicated that he is anxious to give them all the help he can in fulfilling this responsibility but there is really no evidence that local authorities in Middlesex—the County Council as a welfare authority or the borough and district councils as housing authorities—are unable to cope with these problems as a specific part of their functions.

Mr. Skeet

May I ask about the Stonebridge scheme which my hon. Friend mentioned? What is the position today?

Mr. Rippon

I cannot give my hon. Friend the exact details of that scheme.

Mr. Michael Stewart (Fulham)

There may be different opinions about why people are rendered homeless, but there is this further question. When a family finds that for some reason or other it has lost its home, why is it so very difficult—particularly in the Metropolitan region—to find any other home? That is where the Rent Act is relevant. It is because of high rents that it is impossible for people to find homes elsewhere.

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 twelve minutes to Twelve o'clock.