HC Deb 09 March 1966 vol 725 cc2286-92

12.32 a.m.

Mr. Christopher Norwood (Norwich, South)

I wish to raise a subject which, to some extent, has already been discussed during this Session, namely, leasehold reform. I do so not because the debate a few days ago was incomplete, but because it is a matter of considerable interest to many residents in my constituency.

I say at the outset that I welcome the Government's proposals in their White Paper, and I am only sorry that the curtailment of this Session has made it impossible for them to find their way into legislation at this stage. Traditionally, of course, the arguments about leasehold reform are concerned particularly with the North-East—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman may not in this debate argue the need for new legislation. This debate is to call attention to administrative problems of government. If the problems which the hon. Gentleman seeks to raise can be solved only by new legislation, he is out of order.

Mr. Norwood

I do not think that these problems require new legislation. Perhaps I was in error in referring to the White Paper and implying that it was a matter for legislation. This is not necessarily so. At least, I think not. No doubt, you will correct me if I am wrong, Mr. Speaker.

I wish to draw attention to problems which already exist in my constituency and which, I think, do not necessarily require legislation, although in some cases—again, Mr. Speaker, you may correct me—they may. We have had one instance, which was the cause of some conflict at the last General Election, where in Grove Road, in my constituency, at the time of the falling in of the leases—they all fell in together—42 houses, oldish, but of substantial construction, were demolished by a developer, with the administrative consequence that the families from them were required to be rehoused by the local authority. The capital cost to the local authority, in respect of the 42 families, could not have been less than £100,000. Under the present arrangements, it is not possible for the local authority to receive special assistance in this regard.

In other words, the ratepayers of the City of Norwich were required to undertake a debt burden, for which they will have to pay over the next 60 years, of £100,000 in order to rehouse the people displaced from those properties. As a responsible authority, the corporation rehoused them and incurred this burden. It also happens that the houses built in the place of those knocked down have not proved easy to sell, but that is merely a matter of the developer's miscalculation. What has happened under the present arrangements is that the local authority and, therefore, the ratepayers of the City of Norwich have been required to bear the burden of a developer's efforts to make a profit by demolishing perfectly adequate houses.

Over the last year or so I have had a substantial number of letters from my constituency, and particularly from certain areas, especially in the Town Close Ward, which may not be easily identifiable to the House but will be well understood in the city, from people who are in occupation of adequate, substantial and in some cases relatively modern housing, who have never been given more than 75-year leases and in some cases less, and who are in a state of very considerable uncertainty and doubt about the future of their houses. I do not know how far I can refer to the White Paper—

Mr. Speaker

I have been very kind to the hon. Member. I have listened very patiently to him. So far, it seems, however, that what he is asking for is some legislation to deal with the grievance that he is raising.

Mr. Norwood

I see, Mr. Speaker. I must be very careful. I do not wish to go beyond the bounds of what is permissible in this debate.

Mr. Speaker

I am not asking the hon. Gentleman not to go beyond the bounds of order. I am asking him to come within them. He has not been within them yet. He must now come into order.

Mr. Norwood

I see, Mr. Speaker. At least, I hope I see.

The letters which have been written to me are not necessarily asking for new legislation, and, again, I suppose that the matter could be dealt with administratively. The problem is that numbers of these people are in possession of houses of which they are, in effect, the owners, although in the course of a number of years they will lose them. It is my assertion, although I cannot ask for new legislation, that any possible action that may be taken which would enable them to enjoy in the full sense the occupation of the property which any average or normal person understands as his own is fully to be desired.

I am excluded by your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, from saying something that I wish to say. I do not know whether this is permissible. I trust that it is. I have received a further letter from one of the major charities in the city. This charity argues that if the present arrangements are altered in any way—in other words, if it becomes permissible for an individual to obtain the freehold of his property—it would mean damage or, to quote the actual words—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member is now discussing some sort of problem posed by the new law that is to be, which we cannot talk about in this debate.

Mr. Norwood

This letter was prior to the introduction of either the White Paper or any suggestion about the reform of the leasehold system. It was written in March. It states that were there to be any change in the present arrangements—looking through it quickly, it does not refer to legislation—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Whether the letter was written in March, before or after the publication of the White Paper, is not the fact which inhibits the hon. Member. We are on the Consolidated Fund Bill. The hon. Member is entitled to raise grievances concerning the administration of a Department of State. He cannot advocate legislation, or propose the modification of legislation which is proposed. There will be other opportunities for that.

Mr. Norwood

I trust that there will, Mr. Speaker, God willing. That appears to close the quotation, although the words used were that were there to be any changes, they could mean the ruin of the area. That would include administrative as well as legislative changes—at least, that is the implication of the paragraph as I now look at it.

The point I wish to make—and I appear to be somewhat limited by the rules of the House as to the points I can make—is to the effect that the present arrangements impose substantial injustice upon large numbers of people, of whom there are a considerable number in my constituency, who are the occupiers of houses but are not in law the owners. They desire to see changes. I fancy that it matters not greatly to them whether the changes are made in an administrative way or legislatively. Nevertheless—and I have no wish to refer to any impending legislation, Mr. Speaker, since you have ruled that out of order—they would like to see the subject discussed. I can only say that if there are proposals, I cannot comment on them although I know them to exist.

There is a substantial feeling of injustice. I could, for instance, mention cases under the existing law in which, in my view, the ground landlords have wilfully and unreasonably withheld consent for a sale of the freehold against the leaseholder and have done so because they anticipated that future legislation would not be possible. I have had a number of people come to me who have dearly wanted to buy the freeholds of the houses which they had bought—

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member is very ingenious, and is getting almost into order occasionally, but he must leave the case he is putting now and come to what is an administrative responsibility of a Department of the Government. At present, there does not appear, from what he has said, to be one.

Mr. Norwood

Yes. I should have thought that under existing legislation there must be responsibility in some Department. Whether it lies among the Law Officers, or with the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, I would not feel myself competent to say. Even under the existing law there are people who could reasonably expect that their landlords would be prepared to deal with them by offering the freeholds—at some price.

Of course, it is a matter for future legislation, which may or may not be impending, depending upon the General Election, what sort of price it ought to be, but, nevertheless, under present arrangements there must be some sort of price. In one case at least of which I know the trustees of an estate have wholly and completely refused to negotiate with a man, a constituent of mine, who has indicated he was prepared to negotiate at a reasonable level.

I am greatly confined by the rules of debate and I can make only two more points. They are these. First, this is a matter about which I feel strongly. Secondly, even if I did not, I should feel obliged to raise it because it is a matter brought to me by a number of my constituents, and it is a matter which will, no doubt, be sorted out at the election. I have no desire to propose additional legislation. I know not what form it will take. If it comes, it comes, and I hope it will come. I can only say that under the present arrangements I know of a substantial number of cases in Norwich in which, I am well satisfied, injustice has been done to people merely because they were leaseholders.

12.48 a.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Land and Natural Resources (Mr. Arthur Skeffington)

I am sure that the House realises that my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Norwood) has been in some difficulties in deploying grievances which he would have liked to have been able to deploy. He has been in difficulties because of the rules of order which, I think, we all understand. There were two definite grievances which seemed to me, from what he said, to arise from existing legislation, and I may perhaps be permitted to comment on them, because they are the responsibility of the Government in general.

My hon. Friend instanced a number of houses in one street in his constituency, houses which had been demolished at the end of their lease, with the result that a number of people—I believe I am correct in saying 42 families—had to be rehoused by the local authority. The point of grievance is not only that those individual families lost their homes, but that the cost of providing new homes fell upon the ratepayers, and the rehousing may, of course, have had some effect on those on the local authority's housing waiting list. What my hon. Friend was really doing, then, was to draw attention to an obvious defect under the Landlord and Tenant Act, 1954.

That Act gave certain protection to occupying and residential lessees when their leases were up. In certain circumstances, those individuals could claim to become statutory tenants. This did not mean to say that the homes which had been theirs, which they had paid for, and, in some cases, had built—or which their ancestors or, at any rate, their predecessors in title had paid for—would become eventually theirs.

What happened under the 1954 Act, in circumstances where someone could remain on as a statutory tenant, was that he could stay in residence at a rack rent until the tenancy terminated either on the death of the tenant or because he moved away. The house, which had either been built by the predecessor in title of the tenant or by his ancestor, then went to the landowner who had never paid a penny for it. So that all that the 1954 Act did was to delay for a time the return of a building to someone who had never paid a penny towards its construction.

Many of us thought at the time that that was a very unfair way of dealing with the situation. But a much worse defect of the 1954 Act was that if the landlord or freeholder could prove to the satisfaction of the court that he intended to redevelop the property, the occupying lessee had no right to stay on in his home. He found himself on the street, in many cases saddled with a heavy bill of dilapidations.

Obviously, my hon. Friend is right to draw attention to what has happened to his constituents, and it is something which has happened to many others. I can tell him of a case in Swiss Cottage, in North London, of a large number of rather attractive houses of quite elegant design which had 40 or 50 years' life left in them and which were destroyed at the end of a lease. Much more expensive properties were erected in place of them, and the original tenants had to fend for themselves, having lived there for 50 or 60 years in some cases. Those more expensive houses having been erected, one then had a double loss, in that people who had previously had homes lost them, and the houses were replaced by more expensive properties which did nothing to meet the housing need.

I would be out of order if I tried to explain how the Government hope to remedy the grievance, but I can assure my hon. Friend that it will not be overlooked.

The other difficulty is in the case of well managed leasehold estates. It is a great mistake to assume that all leasehold estates are well managed. A great many have not been well maintained and, right from the early days of the Report of the 1884 Royal Commission down to examples which were given in the Report of the Jenkins Committee in 1950, there are many examples in the other direction. It is right that the House should bear in mind that the instances go both ways. From some of the comments in the professional journals recently, one would imagine that all leasehold estates are well managed but it must be realised that that is not the case.

What is exercising my hon. Friend and some of his constituents is that where there happens to be a well-managed estate and there are amenity covenants appreciated by everyone so that the houses themselves are kept in a pleasant condition—there may be flowers, trees and other amenities—these should be maintained if in any way the system were to be changed in the future. Again, I cannot comment on that, but I assure my hon. Friend that the position of well-managed estates, with considerable advantages to those who live in the properties, is something that the Government will bear very much in mind.

I cannot reply further to my hon. Friend. I think that he understands the position and knows that both the points that he has made will be borne in mind by the Government.

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