HC Deb 24 July 1964 vol 699 cc955-68

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

3.46 p.m.

Captain Walter Elliot (Carshalton)

In raising the subject of the allocation of houses in the St. Helier Estate, Carshalton, I know that a strict interpretation of procedure might have ruled me out of order, and I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for allowing me this opportunity to speak about a human problem which must affect many people, not only in Carshalton, but all over the country. In all, there are about 9,000 houses in the St. Helier Estate and the allocation of these houses to tenants is entirely controlled by the London County Council. The Greater London Council will, of course, shortly take over these powers.

In reply to a Question on 14th July, my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government underlined this when he said: … responsibility for the management of local authority houses is reserved by Statute to the authorities themselves, and it is not for him to intervene in the detailed exercise of this responsibility."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th July, 1964; Vol. 698, c. 1008.] With the passing of the London Government Act, 1963, the position is not so straightforward. For one thing, Carshalton, formerly in Surrey, is now part of London and, prima facie, there is therefore a case for treating Carshalton people, although living on the outer fringe, in exactly the same way as Central Londoners.

Secondly, Section 23(4) of the London Government Act says: The Greater London Council shall submit to the Minister by such date, if any, as the Minister may at any time after 1st April, 1965 require and in any event by not later than 1st April, 1970 a programme for any transfers of housing accommodation vested in the Council … A responsibility is, therefore, put on the Minister, if the Minister cares to exercise it, to expedite the transfer of the control of the houses in St. Helier from the London Council to the local council by 1970, or at least to call for a programme to transfer control. If the Minister does not exercise his power, no programme needs be submitted before 1970. Inevitably, there will then be further delay after that date, which may amount to years, and the problem is far too serious for that to happen.

I should like to pay tribute to the vicar and his staff of St. Peter's Church, St. Helier. By their initiative and hard work they have focused attention on this problem and collected much valuable information.

I do not want anything that I say to be taken as criticism of the London County Council. I have had the most courteous letters from that body explaining its position, and I fully realise the difficulties which it faces in housing Central Londoners. At the same time, the principle under which the L.C.C. allocates houses in St. Helier not only fails in the long run to help Central Londoners, as I shall show, but creates serious problems for the present occupants of the houses.

The St. Helier Estate was built in the late 'twenties and early 'thirties, and with the passage of time the original tenants have grown old. The children have grown up and are getting married. Once they get married, automatically they are ineligible to go on the St. Helier housing list, and they are forced to move out of the area where they have been born and bred. The effects of that are twofold: first, I am sure that it is generally agreed that after thirty years it is wrong to look on a housing area, which until recently in this case anyhow was outside London, as a sort of enclave of Central London. It is, or it should be, an integral part of the borough in which it is situated.

In fact, that is not the case. The L.C.C, with exceptions which I shall state, allocate vacant houses to Central Londoners so that there is a constant stream of newcomers to the area, and the St. Helier young marrieds are forced out. It is this which causes the real problem. Quite apart from the effect on those who have to move, the community life of the area is upset, and I should like to quote a few observations which have been made as a result of investigations.

First, Trevor Beeson, under the heading the "New Area Mission" said: It is too early yet to assess the long-term effect of the breakdown of the three decker family tie, but it clearly causes considerable unhappiness to many families during the years immediately following the move to the new area and the loss of family care in time of crisis may well turn out to be more important than the planners have realised. Secondly, Derek Palmer, in an article entitled "All Things New" said: … when people speak of loneliness and isolation and the lack of community spirit, they are often bemoaning lack of kith and kin … the tragedy is that this pattern of break up is being repeated afresh on the estates: when the young people grow up there is nowhere for them to live and the whole process starts again. Thirdly, the London County Council, in a Press release on 18th March, 1964, said: … the housing committee are aware that for many authorities the problem of married children is acute and grows worse as the estates grow older and as the land for further housing development by the local authority becomes more difficult to find. There are other effects, too. The running of local groups and organisations needs people who have had links with those organisations. It is easier to find youth club leaders if those who have earlier ties through those organisations live nearby.

I said earlier that the present system of moving in Central Londoners and thus forcing out the young marrieds does not solve the L.C.C. problem, and for this reason. A valuable survey was carried out by St. Peter's Church of the young people there about to get married. Perhaps I might quote just one of the findings. It said: At least a fifth of the couples married are going to live in the L.C.C. area, and it is possible the figure may be as high as a third. Those couples may either join an L.C.C. housing list, or they will be taking rented accommodation thus accentuating the housing problems of the L.C.C. area. Meanwhile the L.C.C. are moving other couples from London into St. Helier who have no roots in this area. Therefore, the effect is to uproot people from St. Helier. Others are moved in who have no roots there, and the net gain to the L.C.C. is probably negligible.

Two concessions are made by the L.C.C. First, if the district council provides smaller alternative accommodation for any elderly tenant of the L.C.C. that council is prepared to accept a new tenant of the vacated property by means of nomination by the district council. Arrangements have been made in Carshalton in two such cases. But two households are negligible. In any case, that is not the solution. Resettling elderly people away from where they have lived all their lives creates its own problem. Those people want to remain among their friends and children.

The second concession is that married children of tenants living with them sometimes have the tenancy transferred to them on the death of their parents. Twenty to 30 such transfers take place annually under this scheme in the St. Helier Estate, but I submit that in an area of 9,000 houses, that is not many and will not solve the problem I have outlined.

Recently the possibility of a third concession has arisen. As a result of negotiations initiated by the Carshalton Council with the L.C.C, it has agreed in principle that an annual allocation for nominations of married children of tenants living on the estate and on the local authority housing list shall be made, although no precise figure has been set. That is promising, and I should like to make one proposal about it.

The L.C.C. points out that the influx of new tenants is about 100 annually, and it does not consider that that is excessive. I agree to a certain extent. The real problem is not those coming in—although they are important—but the number of young married people who have to move out. In addition, the number of houses becoming vacant in the next few years, and therefore the number of households being moved in from Central London, will rise sharply as the elderly people of the first generation die. If 100 houses annually could be made available to the sons and daughters of St. Helier, that would largely solve the problem. Nor would Central Londoners get any fewer because of the increasing number of houses becoming vacant. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will note that figure when he considers the programmes which will be submitted to him in due course.

When I raised this question during the Committee stage of the Greater London Government Bill, my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary gave this assurance: I can assure my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Carshalton (Captain W. Elliot) that we accept the general principles put forward by the Royal Commission that, ultimately, the boroughs will be the housing authorities for providing houses and owning houses."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee F, 14th February, 1963; c. 258.] I accept that. I also accept that it cannot be implemented at once or without taking into account the problems of Central London. If the Conservative Government ultimately honours that assurance of my hon. Friend, St. Helier's problem will be solved. The life of this Parliament is coming to an end. It is possible that a Socialist Government may assume power.

It being Four o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Captain Elliot

I served on the Standing Committee of the Greater London Bill, and the impression that I got—I said it in Committee, and I do not think that the party opposite would deny it—was that, on the whole, the Socialists wanted to give the Greater London Council more power at the expense of the boroughs, and they may extend this to housing.

If the hon. Member for Fulham, (Mr. M. Stewart), who I think might speak this afternoon, cares to deny this, I shall be delighted. But, after all, centralised power is part of Socialist philosophy. If I am right, then the vague wording of the Act will allow a Government to delay the transference of housing control for many years, even if it is done at all.

Today I ask my hon. Friend to renew the undertaking that it is the firm intention of the Conservative Government at the earliest practical moment to call for a programme from the Greater London Council for the transfer of houses to the control of the boroughs. If this is done the human problem of housing the young marrieds of St. Helier will be solved and I do not think that the problem of housing Central Londoners will be made more difficult.

4.2 p.m.

Mrs. Freda Corbet (Peckham)

The hon. and gallant Member for Carshalton (Captain W. Elliot) gave me notice that he was going to raise this matter and said that he was raising it in a friendly manner. I am sure the House will agree that that is just what he has done. I, likewise, want to speak in the same friendly manner and I propose to say to him publicly now, as I did then, that this kind of problem is one that is not peculiar to any borough. I have this problem in my borough of Camberwell, which is an inner London borough, and the sons and daughters of my constituents who live in L.C.C. tenancies or, indeed, in Camberwell borough tenancies, or in Lewis Trust tenancies or Peabody Estate tenancies, or in any other tenancies, can have no assurance at all of being able to live in Camberwell when they marry.

I understand from my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green (Mr. Holman) that this applies not only in his constituency but in Surrey as well. In fact, I would suppose that, except for certain towns and country districts where the housing problem has been solved, there can be very few sons and daughters who can hope to live near their parents.

The London County Council has viewed this problem very sympathetically. The House is well aware of the problem because my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker) has raised it on a number of occasions. In fact, the L.C.C. has made an arrangement with that borough and adjoining boroughs to make an allocation to sons and daughters of existing tenants.

St. Helier and, I believe, Merton and Morden both applied last year to the L.C.C. for sympathetic consideration on the same kind of grounds. I think that the L.C.C. has already regarded Dagenham as a very special case, because it went there in the early 1930s and used up all the available land on which it built an enormous L.C.C. estate so that there was literally no land for the local authority for their own housing needs. Therefore, the L.C.C. regarded it with extreme sympathy.

In my girlhood days, when I haunted the area of Merton, Mitcham and Morden, there was lots of land. I used to go on blackberrying excursions and things of that sort, and I used to go scrumping in orchards which were in a more or less rural district. A great deal of land available for development has been developed, largely by the London County Council, but also by private property interests.

The same conditions do not apply here as in the Boroughs of Dagenham and Romford. Nevertheless, the London County Council feels for the problem of these tenants and recognises the need to try to help them. I am able to say that there will be some assistance and that it is not very far off. But I must say also that this help cannot be on the scale asked for by the hon. and gallant Member. For this area of Carshalton, Merton and Morden, on both sides of the estate, there are only 144 vacancies. Of these 54 now go to sons and daughters of tenants, which leaves 90. If the hon. and gallant Gentleman asks for 100, he is asking for what does not exist. Presumably for Carshalton his quota would be only about 50 and he is asking for 100. It is obvious, therefore, that the County Council is in no position to make over all the vacancies to the local borough.

Captain W. Elliot

It is difficult for me to separate the St. Helier Estate, because it is in the two constituencies. The figure of 100 which I obtained from the London County Council I took to apply to the whole estate and I certainly would not ask for all of that for Carshalton.

Mrs. Corbet

I accept that, but even then the hon. Member will see that there would be nothing left over for the London County Council to deal with its own severe housing problems.

I must remind the hon. and gallant Member that the County Council has a great need for houses. It also needs much ground to accommodate elderly people, invalids and large families. It cannot afford to give away all the vacancies on this one estate because if that were to happen, other out-county estates would demand the same privilege. This would mean that there would be no county accommodation available for the rehousing of Londoners.

A more hopeful sign is that if the Greater London Council materialises, eventually the slum clearance programme of the London County Council will end and the demand for vacancies to deal with slum clearance will not be so great. It may well be that something will be left over which can go to the boroughs. I understand that the Greater London Council, if it had surplus over its own requirements for road, open spaces and educational developments, would make some sort of allocation, by arrangement with the boroughs, and probably with the 32 Greater London boroughs, so that Carshalton would have a chance to put its case to the Greater London Council for as large an allocation as would be justified. There must be justification according to the number of families which need to be rehoused and the number of other properties which may be available to these areas so that the allocation would not be on a proportionate basis.

I admit that all the things the hon. and gallant Member said are very cogent. It is right and proper that parents should have their sons and daughters settled as near to them as possible. It is right that if a youngster grows up as a youth leader that should be possible. I know one who has had to move away and give up her activities. I hope that any Government will be able to try to deal with these social problems, but at the moment the difficulties are extremely great. Many people are aware of them and all of us will do our best, but it must be a rather long-term programme.

4.10 p.m.

Mr. Michael Stewart (Fulham)

I should like to add a few words before the Parliamentary Secretary replies to this debate. We have here a real problem which has arisen in the past from a conflict of duties. London County Council built these estates and was financing them and had an obvious duty to its own ratepayers. On the other hand, they were in the territory of other boroughs and the children on the estate were the citizens of those boroughs. There was a problem of finding homes for them.

We should notice that at that time it was not considered proper for the central Government to try to intervene to solve the problem. If it was not proper then, it would be even less suitable now because now the people of Carshalton will have what they did not have in the past, a vote in determining the composition of the greater authority. Part of the difficulty and the natural feeling in the past was that this estate was ruled by the L.C.C. and the people of that borough had no vote in L.C.C. elections. Now the people of Carshalton and similar estates at least have a voice in determining who is on the G.L.C. and what its policy should be. So the case for any positive intervention by the central Government is somewhat less.

I was not quite convinced by the argument of the hon. and gallant Member for Carshalton (Captain W. Elliot) about the policy not helping housing in Central London. He did not give any figures to enable us to answer the question about the young married people of St. Helier and other estates and how many in fact go into the L.C.C. area compared with the number of Central Londoners who are housed on out-county estates. Unless we have figures of that kind we can reach no conclusion at all on that problem.

The hon. and gallant Member indulged in certain speculations of what Labour Party policy may be. There was no need for him to speculate because it was made quite clear in the Labour Party's election address for the Greater London Council elections. We made it clear that it would be the policy of the G.L.C. to increase allocations to deal with this problem. If the hon. and gallant Member wanted to draw attention to Labour Party policy, he might have mentioned that. In view of that, it would be right to let the G.L.C. itself express a generous intention to go ahead on this problem and for the powers in the Act to stand as they are now. It would be hardly suitable before the G.L.C. has even begun to do its work for there to be any further intervention from the central Government at this point. I think that both the Minister and the hon. and gallant Member will find that the G.L.C. is fully aware of the problem and will not be ungenerous.

4.14 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. F. A. V. Corfield)

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Carshalton (Captain W. Elliot) has raised a problem which we all recognise as difficult. I think we recognise it as difficult both for the local authority and for the L.C.C.

I certainly would not wish to inflict upon anyone the task of reading any of my old speeches and I certainly shall not attempt to do so myself, but my recollection is not that there was any great rift between the parties on this particular aspect of housing. I was delighted to have the modest commendation by the hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. M. Stewart) of the London Government Act and the suggestion that this situation might be helped from a democratic point of view in that these out-county estates in many cases would be in boroughs which would have a vote in the allocation of housing by the G.L.C. I felt that that was an advance towards the merits of this remarkable Measure.

The problem which arises is to try to hold a balance betwen the very natural demands, indeed the needs, of the boroughs and the needs of the central local authority, the L.C.C. and now the G.L.C, on a pool of housing to meet the pressures within its own area and particularly from Inner London boroughs which in many cases are even more landlocked, so to speak, than Carshalton and others further out in the country. That is the problem.

The Carshalton case is a particularly strong one, because I understand that part of the estate in Carshalton represents something like 22.4 per cent. of the total houses in the local authority's area. From the receiving authority's point of view one is up against the problem, which is a never-ending one at least in theory, that as people grow up and marry they come on to the local authority's list and vacancies in the L.C.C. estate are taken up by new tenants who by natural increase again increase the population of Carshalton and increase the demand for housing.

Nevertheless, as the hon. Member for Fulham said, one cannot quantify that unless one knows the movements the other way or indeed the movements out of London altogether. Clearly there is a tendency for the problem to become more acute as time goes on rather than less. I think that in the short term the proposals, to which the hon. Lady the Member for Peckham (Mrs. Corbet) referred, of the L.C.C. to make allocations of relets to many boroughs where there are large estates will help. She mentioned Dagenham as one of the first estates to which this policy was applied. I understand that it has made quite clear that it is prepared to extend this to other estates, particularly including the St. Helier estate of which Carshalton is a part.

In the middle term, the proposals in the London Government Bill will undoubtedly help to get a better balance. One of the problems—I do not think this is a criticism of the London County Council; I think that it probably would be willing to criticise itself for this in retrospect—is that so many of these estates were so very large and therefore they absolutely dominate the local authority areas in which they were built. Dagenham is a case in point, but there are others such as Becontree, and this estate at St. Helier is obviously very dominant and large in Carshalton.

I would hope that the G.L.C., which certainly as yet has not given any evidence that it is either ignorant of the problem or lacks the willingness to look at it, will, at any rate in the early stages, propose the allocation of part of these estates to the boroughs, particularly the very large estates, so as to get a better balance and give the local authorities concerned—the London boroughs—a better chance to cope with the needs of citizens of their own boroughs; it is true, but citizens who have come there indirectly because their parents were London County Council tenants from another part of London.

In the long term, I am certain that the only way in which we shall deal with this problem is by more effort to get Londoners and potential Londoners, whether people born in London or people who would wish to come to London but who might otherwise be deflected, housed in the new towns, the expanded towns, and, in the context of the South-East Study, the new new towns. Here we were up against the problem mentioned by the hon. Lady and on which my hon. and gallant Friend laid some stress of the sort of mobility which will be forced upon us. Whatever party we happen to be and whether or not we be Londoners, it is increasingly obvious that London will simply not hold its natural increase, even if a bar were put on all forms of immigration into it, which would clearly be impracticable and indefensible.

There are, therefore, these social problems to which the hon. Lady and my hon. and gallant Friend referred. We must face the fact that the population as a whole is rapidly becoming much more mobile and, even if children getting married cannot live very near their parents in distance, there are many circumstances in which they can live close to them in time.

The hon. Lady said that young people getting married in Camberwell, Bethnal Green, or wherever it might be, might have no assurance of being able to find a house in those parts. That is true, but it is not true of many provincial towns, where there is considerable expansion. This is certainly taking place in my own constituency at a rate which will take up the natural increase of Bristol as well as the people attracted into it, at any rate for the time being. Curiously enough, the most exact parallel with the London borough is very often the village of particular charm. There are grave objections to expanding such a village, but nevertheless the population will expand. Its pattern changes when people live in it for a different purpose than that for which people previously lived in it. In the past the population worked there. Now they tend to be commuters and tend to have a different age group, which makes it more difficult for a young couple to find a house there. It is rather curious that in the two extremes, the great conurbation and the village, one has substantially the same problem from that point of view.

I can assure my hon. and gallant Friend that this is a matter to which my right hon. Friend attaches great importance, but I agree with the hon. Member for Fulham, at least to this extent, that at this stage it would be right to let the G.L.C. get into its stride and study the problem itself. In any case, the council will have to put forward a programme and I hope that it would put forward a programme, even though a relatively modest one, at a very early stage without necessarily being asked by my right hon. Friend or by his successor. If the Council should take a different view, my right hon. Friend will be keeping in touch with the problem and would, if necessary, ask for the programme to be submitted to him. We ought to allow the G.L.C. to have the chance and the opportunity to study the problem for itself.

The whole problem is to try to keep a balance. The hon. Lady referred to slum clearance. There will be many other forms of redevelopment in Central London as we have to take more and more account of the motor car. This will in many cases create rehousing prolems wholly beyond the resources of the particular inner London borough with already a fairly high density of housing and an almost complete lack of any land, other than by clearance of existing houses, on which to expand.

I assure my hon. and gallant Friend that this is a matter in which both sides of the House, I am sure, recognise the very great difficulties and the genuine claims of the boroughs in which these estates are, as well as the needs of the L.C.C. or the G.L.C. It was because the needs of the G.L.C. were recognised that the London Government Bill anticipated that, even if the G.L.C. hands over a large proportion of the existing estates to boroughs, it is likely to have to go on building more new houses for its own purposes for a considerable number of years ahead. Therefore, the G.L.C. will remain the owner of a substantial pool, whatever happens to its existing estates, for quite a long time and will, indeed, need to do so.

I do not think that I can usefully add to what I have said, except once again to assure my hon. Friend that we recognise the problems and are fairly confident that the new G.L.C.—which, after all, has not been in operation for very long—recognises them to.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes past Four o'clock.