HC Deb 30 May 1968 vol 765 cc2308-16

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

11.40 p.m.

Mr. David Watkins (Consett)

For several weeks I have been seeking the opportunity of an Adjournment debate, and I am particularly grateful that this evening I am able to discuss housing problems in areas of colliery closures.

The National Coal Board is the owner of thousands of houses, most of which it inherited from colliery owners of pre-nationalisation days who were past masters in the art of exploiting the tied cottage system.

The matter which I particularly wish to raise concerns the position of miners who, by virtue of their employment with the Board, are the tenants of these houses, and who become redundant when the pits at which they work close. This is very much a growing problem, as the programme of colliery closures is put into operation.

When a miner becomes redundant he is known as a licensee of his house, rather than the tenant of it. This means that for six months he pays a nominal rent for his house, which may be anything from 10s. to 15s. a week. After the six months' period he has to pay the market rent. Perhaps I might give the House an example of what this means by quoting the case of a constituent of mine who has recently become redundant. For the first six months he will pay 17s. 2d. a week in rent. In November, when the six months' period expires, his rent will become £2 6s. Id. a week.

In the North-East of England, which is the coalfield area with which I am particularly associated, the Board allows its emptoyees to live rent free in its houses. I think that I am right in saying that this practice is peculiar to that area, and that in other coalfield areas other systems operate for the payment of rents.

The North-East is faced with large-scale colliery closures. It falls singularly hard on a family if a miner who has lived in a rent free house for the whole of his married life loses his job and has to pay rent for it. Not all licensees of the Board's houses have recently become redundant. Many have been redundant for several months. In fact, in some cases the months are running into years. Starting from 25th May, all licensees' rents are being increased by the Board. It is difficult to quote a typical case, because there is a wide variation among houses.

On making fairly extensive investigations, I have found that often different rents are charged and different rises are applied to very similar houses. In so far as I have been able to check up in and around my constituency, that increase seems mostly to vary from between 3s. 6d. and 6s. a week, although one of my constituents has told me that his rent is being increased by 13s. 8d., from £1 5s. 7d. a week to £1 19s. 3d.

There is a widespread feeling of resentment among licensees about the imposition of these increases, particularly as they are being imposed in what is supposed to be a time of restraint in wages and prices. I repeat that it falls hardest upon those who become redundant and who, at the same time, have to pay rent. This is the problem as it presents itself to those living in the houses.

I turn now to the Board's side of the problem. I have made extensive inquiries of the Board, both at Hobart House in London and at area headquarters in the North-East. I pay tribute to the extreme courtesy and helpfulness with which I have been received at all levels by the officials of the Board. I am satisfied that the Board has acted with impeccable correctness in assessing and applying these rents. I have no doubt that the increases and the levels of the new rents are strictly in accordance with the law as laid down by the Rent Acts. I do not believe that any of these rents would be likely to be challenged by the county rent officers.

In maintaining these houses, the Board is compelled to run large maintenance departments. With all the commercial pressures upon it, and with all the costs of maintaining these houses, the Board is obviously compelled to charge something in the nature of economic rents. I believe that these houses are a growing liability for the Board. In about three years' time, when scores of collieries will have closed, the Board will have become, certainly in large areas of the North-East and in other parts of the traditional coalfields, an absentee landlord which will own thousands of houses in an area where it will have no industrial interest.

I come to the long-term problems which arise. Many of the houses are very old. By modern standards they are very unsatisfactory. There are rows of ugly back-to-back houses with virtually no amenities, judging amenity value by any modern standard. Most of the houses are small, with poky little rooms and with outside lavatories. Many are affected by damp and subsidence. Considering the standards being provided, the economic rents for these houses appear to be high.

In the long-term, there is urgent need to replace these old and unsatisfactory houses with modern and better homes. But the nature of the ownership of this property seems to make this impossible. The N.C.B. would no doubt be glad to be rid of these houses, but the local authorities can hardly be saddled with them, bearing in mind their age and the financial complications involved. Virtually nobody wants them. The N.CB. and local authorities do not want them and, if better homes are available, the people living in them do not want them as long-term dwellings.

Although I have posed these problems, I have not attempted to give the answers, mainly because I do not pretend to know them. Nor do I expect the Parliamentary Secretary to provide answers to problems that are so massive that they cannot be solved locally in the coalfield areas because there are not sufficient financial resources in the localities to tackle the difficulties of urban renewal and the replacement of these houses with modern dwellings at reasonable prices.

The N.C.B., with its difficulties and commercial pressures, cannot reasonably be expected to subsidise the houses or their replacement. The resources of the local authorities in the areas would be severely strained if they had this problem placed on them. It will, therefore, require a national effort for the urban renewal of these areas.

I hope that, by raising these matters, thinking on the subject will be initiated in the appropriate quarters about the nature of the problems involved. For those who are facing rent increases, these are immediate problems. For the nation as a whole, the problems of housing in areas of colliery closure are growing steadily.

11.59 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Power (Mr. Reginald Free-son)

I appreciate the spirit in which my hon. Friend the Member for Consett (Mr. David Watkins) has raised this difficult subject, and for the way in which he virtually commended the National Coal Board for the manner in which it has been handling what is a complicated problem involving some people in a generally difficult situation of redundancy. The best thing for me to do is to state the factual position, as we in the Ministry have ascertained it from the Board, and then to set the position out in regard to the policy of the Government and the Board against the background of the facts.

I want to assure my hon. Friend and any person on whose behalf he may be speaking that we realise the kind of anxieties that face people in this changing situation in the industry. This is one of the many kinds of anxiety with which we have to deal in a contracting and reshaping coal industry.

I said that I would start with a factual summary of the position regarding N.CB. houses. As my hon. Friend said, the coal industry has been providing houses for its workers for many years-it goes back well beyond vesting day, and there is a range of background histories to these housing schemes in different parts of the country. There are today 95,000 houses "vested" in the Board, and 24,000 dwellings which are run by the Coal Industry Housing Association. Many of these are of more recent date. In other words, a total of about 119,000 houses is involved.

About 51,500 houses, including 44,000 vested houses, are "controlled" under the 1957 Rent Act, 39,500 houses —including 23,000 vested nouses—are "regulated" under the 1965 Rent Act, and 28,000 vested houses are rent free, or charged at concessionary figures. These are mainly in Northumberland and Durham, and fall outside the Rent Acts. Of the 119,000 houses, about 80,000 are occupied by workers still in the industry, 32,000 are occupied by retired or incapacitated men, or by widows, and 7,000 are occupied by people who are no longer in the industry.

Houses controlled under the 1957 Rent Act are those which in England and Wales had a rateable value on 7th November, 1956 of less than £30 a year. Their rent ceiling is laid down by Statute at a top range of two and one-third times the gross value if the owner is responsible for all repairs and decoration. Under the 1965 Rent Act, rents of houses with a rateable value on 23rd March, 1965, of up to £200 can be fixed by a rent officer or a rent assessment committee.

Houses occupied under service licence are made available by service agreements with the Board—what in other circumstances are referred to as tied cottage arrangements. These occupiers have no protection as to rent or security under the Rent Acts.

I turn now to the Board's policy. As regards vested houses which were decontrolled by the 1956 Act, the Board requires tenants who are employees, retired employees or widows to pay less than the regulated fair rents recommended by the local rent officer. In a typical case about which we have been able to learn from the Board, a fair rent of 62s. weekly, exclusive of rates, has been fixed, while the tenant until recently has paid 34s. a week. Now, as a result of a recent increase, to which my hon. Friend referred, the rent will be 43s. 3d. There is bound to be some variation between the examples given over such a wide range, but not a great deal.

For the Housing Association houses to which I have referred, where the rent is not controlled by the 1957 Act, rents of employees, retired employees and widows are kept in line with local council estates, which are normally below the fair rents under the 1965 Rent Act. In a typical case, a fair rent of 74s. weekly exclusive of rates has been fixed, while the tenant until recently has been paying 45s. 11d. In this case, the increase which the Board proposes will bring the figure to 57s. 11d.

My hon. Friend referred to the decision that redundant miners should pay nominal rent for six months and that then it should rise to what he described as market rent. The position as I understand it is that tenants of either vested or Housing Association houses decontrolled under the 1957 Act, who wish to work in the industry, including people who have been made redundant, are normally required by the Board to pay the increased rent, but within the limit of the fair rent level. I appreciate that as between zero, or a small concessionary rent, and something even within the fair rent level, there can be quite an increase.

Licensed occupation is rather different and the Board's normal rent policy does not operate in this respect. There is a long tradition in Northumberland and Durham that serving mineworkers should be provided with a house rent free, but that retired employees and widows should pay a small rent. The Board also makes certain concessions to people over 60 who are made redundant.

Under the 1965 Rent Act, it is possible for the Board to convert licensed occupation into a tenancy by applying for a certificate of fair rent. As a matter of policy, the Board intends to convert the status of houses no longer needed for employees, but to keep the status of those which it still needs. I understand that about 4,000 applications will go before the Durham rent officer for certificates of fair rent.

The grant of a certificate creates a regulated tenancy, and thereby rent may be charged for the first time. The certificate of fair rent procedure does not permit a service licensee to make representations to the rent officer about the level of rent fixed, but by this procedure security of tenure is obtained for the first time under the Rent Acts. I believe that my hon. Friend will accept this as something much better than has happened in many instances when tied cottages have remained uncovered by the Rent Acts and when the tenants can be put out even under the present law.

It is evident, from what he has said, that my hon. Friend's interest lies mainly with licensed properties. In the North Durham area, the Board owns 10,000 such properties. Of these 5,000 are occupied by employees, 4,500 by retired employees and widows, and 500 by persons no longer in the industry. Being vested houses, and in many cases the subject of very long-standing agreements with the unions, most of these are old houses, but they are provided free to men working in the pits.

We must recognise from the figures which I have given that the Board is not only an employer, but also a landlord on a very large scale, with the problems which that entails. Declining manpower, therefore, poses a major problem for the Board as a landlord, as the percentage of houses no longer occupied by active mineworkers is rapidly increasing, and in many instances the Board is left with rapidly ageing property on its hands.

The Board is faced with the implications of charging what, in effect, are concessionary rents to a large number of people who have left the industry. When a person voluntarily leaves to take up other employment, the problem is not so acute, but, undoubtedly, as I accept and as the Board accepts, there are prob-blems both for the Board as employer and for the men when they are made redundant before normal retiring age.

I understand that the Board is in close touch with the unions on the whole subject of rents and costs of occupation of the Board's houses. This is a very delicate and complex matter as many of the agreements go back many years. As consultations and negotiations are now going on, it would not be proper for me on the Floor of the House to make any comment on what is essentially a matter of conditions and terms of employment. However, I am sure that, as far as possible, the Board and the unions will find arrangements which are as satisfactory as possible to all sides.

However, I ought to make the Government's position clear by stating four points. First, the Ministry of Social Security takes fully into account the level of rent payable by an unemployed person if a claim for supplementary allowance is made under the Ministry of Social Security Act. Secondly, the draft Redundant Mineworkers (Payments Scheme) Order, which was laid before the House on 21st May, and which comes before the House for debate shortly after the Recess—and my hon. Friend's chief concern is with redundant miners—provides that in certain circumstances an allowance may be payable for elderly mine-workers eligible under the redundancy scheme for increased accommodation costs for Board's houses in which they continue to live.

Thirdly, the Board, like any other landlord, is subject to the statutory controls of the Rent Acts. Fourthly and finally, the Board will be equally subject to Government policy, which we recently announced in the House, as it is reflected in the Prices and Incomes Bill now going through Parliament.

I conclude by referring to the general problem which my hon. Friend rightly mentioned—the problem of urban renewal. This is not a matter for the Ministry of Power, nor is it directly a matter for the Coal Board, which is a landlord by virtue of its being an employer in a particular industry. But there are big issues for the area which my hon. Friend represents and for surrounding areas. Bearing in mind the excellent White Paper on Government policy published by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government recently, "Old Houses into New Homes", it might well be worth while entering into discussions with my right hon. Friend in that Department on this general question as well as contacting local authorities, because it is in that direction rather than in the field of the Ministry of Power that problems concerning improvement areas, urban renewal areas, and redevelopment can be best dealt with, particularly as legislation will be introduced by the Minister of Housing and Local Government, at not too distant a time. from now, to implement the White Paper proposals to deal with old districts in big city areas.

I hope that my hon. Friend will accept my general assurance that this matter will be treated as sympathetically as pos sible and that we as a Department will keep in touch with it and be as helpful as possible.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes past Twelve o'clock.