HC Deb 26 June 1969 vol 785 cc1795-802
Mr. Ifor Davies

I beg to move Amendment No. 59, in page 23, line 24, leave out 'taking £100 for each of the' and insert 'multiplying £100 by the number of'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Sydney Irving)

With this Amendment, it will be convenient to discuss Amendment No. 60, to leave out '£100' and insert '£150';

Government Amendment No. 62, Amendment No. 63, in line 34, leave out '£100' and insert '£150'.

Amendment No. 61, in line 24, after '£100' insert 'or in the case of Greater London £200'.

Amendment No. 64, in line 34, after '£100' insert 'or £200'.

Mr. Ifor Davies

Amendments Nos. 59 and 62 will meet a point raised by the Greater London Council. Clause 40 enables the Minister to pay a contribution to a local authority towards expenditure incurred by it under Part II of the Bill in respect of environmental improvement. As drafted, the aggregate expenditure which may be approved for this purpose may not exceed the sum arrived at by taking £100 for each dwelling stated by the local authority to be in the area at the time that it is declared to be a general improvement area. The Government contribution is an annual sum equal to one-half of the annual loan charges referable to the approved expenditure and payable for 20 years.

The Greater London Council has pointed out that, in a general improvement area where large old houses are converted into flats, there could be appreciably more dwellings in the area when it has been improved than at the time that it was declared.

The Amendments would allow this sort of increase in the number of dwellings to be taken into account. It means that in each case the contribution would be related either to the actual number of dwellings in the area at declaration, or the number which it appears to the Minister will be in the area when improved.

The local authority will decide on what basis to claim grant. It will then want to know before starting the work how much grant it will get, and subsection (1) of the Clause is framed accordingly. In any case, it would not be a practical proposition to leave the decision until all the conversions had been carried out. This, indeed, may take several years. Therefore, it is proposed that the Minister should decide what the increases are likely to be; that is, additions as a result of conversions less any houses which might be demolished. Information about the conversions and the unfitness of individual houses should appear in the report which the local authority will have before it when it declared the area a general improvement area and a copy of the report will be sent to the Minister.

Mr. Rossi

We are grateful to the Minister for meeting the representations of the G.L.C. I am certain that this will be of great help to local authorities throughout the country. I say "local authorities throughout the country" because, as the Clause stands, accepting the Minister's Amendment, it will be of universal application.

That brings me to Amendment No. 61 which seeks to make a special provision for the G.L.C., raising the figure from £100 to £200. I will not belabour that point because it has been foreshadowed by an earlier debate in which much emphasis was laid on the increased costs in the Greater London area in dealing with work of this kind.

I hope that the Minister, if he has power to make regulations increasing the figure from time to time and has a discretion, will follow the line that he indicated he would take in earlier discussions.

Mr. E. Rowlands

I am sure that the Amendments moved by my hon. Friend will be useful to local authorities, especially where there is much multi-occupation, where it is likely that, through conversions, there will be an increased number of dwellings.

Amendments Nos. 60 and 63, standing in my name and the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda, West (Mr. Alec Jones), anticipte a different problem. They look towards the problem of environment suffered by many South Wales valleys and deep mining valleys throughout Britain. The general impression of local authorities and people desperately keen and involved in the attempt to improve the environment around the houses in our valleys is that £100 per house will not be sufficient.

The houses in the mining valleys and communities are not likely to be converted into multi-occupation. Therefore, decisions of local authorities to institute area improvement schemes are likely to result in a net loss in the number of dwellings. Our plea for an increase in the grant to £150 is based on knowledge of the difficult environment of many houses in mining valleys and by information and evidence that has been brought forward. Recently, a National Coal Board official, who is concerned with the large number of houses owned by the Board, said that for improvements in environment he thought £100 was meagre. Many hon. Members with South Wales constituencies share that view.

I should like to know what is included in the environmental grant of £100. To improve the area environment, it might be necessary to remove one or two houses in a street of terraced houses to make room for the improvement. Is the expense of demolition and compensation to people who would have to be moved included in the environmental grant of £100, or does it come from a separate source?

While appreciating that grants to clear derelict land in the immediate neighbourhood of many mining communities will be valuable, we feel that £100 a house spent by a local authority—often a poor local authority—will not be sufficient.

7.45 p.m.

Mr. Fred Evans (Caerphilly)

I rise only to give the strongest possible support to the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Mr. E. Rowlands).

I should like to quote the kind of imaginative concept which certain local authorities in South Wales have embarked upon. One, embarked upon a long time before the Government envisaged a Bill of this kind, concerns a local authority together with a committee of local people. They drew up a concept for recasting the total environment of a small Welsh valley, including two reasonably sized townships which were falling into decay and where the mining industry was dying. Indeed, it is now completely dead in one of those towns. The concept includes other forms of Government help, for which we are extremely grateful.

The housing problem is severe. My hon. Friend mentioned National Coal Board housing, which also raises a great problem. We feel that with the difficulty of hill sites in South Wales valleys and problems set up by mining subsidence, for the recasting of a total environment housing must be one of the key issues. Therefore, I strongly urge the Government to give due consideration to increasing the grant by £50.

Another local authority in my constituency envisages taking a very difficult hillside site and trying to recast the immediate housing environment of 300 houses. With rateable values and the products of rates in South Wales, the capital expenditure involved in this kind of exercise is tremendous. The imagination and the willingness to do the job is there. The willingness to create the necessary labour force, especially as we are now getting Government training centres on an increasing scale, will make this possible.

I have quoted only two instances, but there are a multitude of other instances, not only in South Wales but in all industrial areas, where this kind of approach will most certainly be made by imaginative officers in local government. They should not be held back. Realising the difficulty of our present economic circumstances, I still ask the Government to give consideration to my hon. Friend's Amendments.

Mr. R. W. Brown

I want to refer to Amendment No. 59. While I appreciate what my hon. Friend said he was trying to achieve, I should like to draw attention to the dangers in areas like my constituency where the local authorities are completely and utterly incompetent to handle their housing situation.

Some families with five, six and seven children are being forced to live for many years in two or three rooms. Only today I have had petitions from hospitals and doctors asking me to help. I have been trying to get the local authorities to help in some cases for months, but they will not. Neither will the G.L.C. which has been so anxious to get things included in the Bill. The G.L.C. and the local authorities wilfully refuse to help. Even when families are in areas which ought to be designated by the G.L.C. they will not house them.

Consequently, if the remaining houses in the area which could be made into one-family units are to be encouraged to be converted into two-family units, it will mean that these families will not be helped because the council will not have any four, five or six-bedroom properties. The last chance of any progressive local authority buying up one of these big houses and using it for a particular family will be lost.

I urge my hon. Friend to bear in mind that somewhere in the Bill we ought to have the caveat that local authorities have a responsibility to take care of these large families who are unable, under any circumstances, to be taken care of by anyone else.

Mr. Alec Jones

I rise to speak in support of Amendments Nos. 60 and 62. The concept of the environmental grant is one with which we all agree. Paragraph 16 of the White Paper says: Whole areas and streets cannot be brought up to proper standards unless something can be done for the environment, as opposed to the interiors, of the houses. That is almost a noble concept, but the Bill does not live up to it, because it says that the grant-aided expenditure is to be limited to £100 per house. I doubt whether £100 will enable us to live up to the ideal expressed in the White Paper. I doubt very much whether it will enable us, certainly those in the older industrial areas, to do the job which the White Paper says needs to be done.

Whatever we can do for the environment of an area must depend partly on the existing conditions in that area. The more salubrious new towns and new areas may not need much environmental improvement, but the problems facing the older industrial areas, and particularly the local authorities there, are much more serious.

Environmental improvement is essential for my constituency, and my area of Rhondda. This was pointed out to us at length in a fine report issued by the Civic Trust and it was referred to again by a team of consultants now advising the Rhondda Borough Council on the whole aspect of Rhondda's future. But pointing out the steps which need to be taken is not enough. If the job is to be done properly, it will be necessary to provide much more than the suggested £100.

My hon. Friend is not asking for a vast increase in the amount of grant. He is asking for a modest increase to £150 to allow for the greater needs and the more pressing problems of our older industrial area. I can think of many parts of my area which would benefit from the provisions envisaged in the White Paper, such as children's playing spaces, parking spaces, the planting of trees, and so on. There is no doubt that £100 will be of some help—it is better than nothing—but, in the end, it might be a case of spoiling the ship for a ha'p'rth of tar.

Our older industrial areas are in urgent need of environmental improvement. The suggested grant of £100 is not sufficient, and I should like to feel that my hon. Friend, having met the point raised by the G.L.C., will meet the point of the special needs of the older industrial areas of South Wales.

Mr. Ifor Davies

I am obliged to the hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi) for his opening comments. I should like to emphasise the point made by my hon. Friend about the responsibilities of local authorities in this matter. I hope that the G.L.C. will take note of what has been said, and will take advantage of the opportunities provided by the Amendment. I thought that my hon. Friend made a valid point when he talked about the responsibilities of the larger authorities.

My hon. Friends have questioned the adequacy of the proposed level of grant. This has been questioned many times, but experience with experimental schemes has shown that quite a lot can be done within the cost limits envisaged. Certainly, environmental improvement is one of the outstanding features of the Bill, and my right hon. Friend feels that the Deeplish scheme was carried out within these limits and provided for traffic management, some street works, and tree-planting. Moreover, the introduction of a completely new grant should in itself do a great deal to encourage environmental work. My right hon. Friend is very satisfied with the indications so far that local authorities fully appreciate this point.

I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Mr. E. Rowlands) that the matter he raised will qualify for the £50 grant. The kind of alteration to which he referred will be included in the environmental improvement. The grant of £100 is in any case not a limit on expenditure in a general improvement area, but only a limit on what will be grant-aided. There is nothing in the Bill to stop a local authority spending more on this if it wants to do so.

When we were discussing Clause 40, in Committee, I emphasised that Ministers would not hesitate to use their powers under subsection (5) if it became clear that a higher level of grant was called for. This is important. The payment of experimental grant will be made more flexible by the Amendment. It will enable the number of dwellings likely to be produced by the conversion of houses or other buildings as a result of the action of a local authority in a general improvement area to be taken into account in calculating the amount of contribution payable. I hope, therefore, that the Amendment meets some of the points which have been made in an effort to improve the Bill as first drafted.

Mr. Rossi

The Minister has not dealt with the point that I tried to make in Amendment No. 61. Can he say whether the Minister will be prepared to exercise the discretion given to him under subsection (5) to make regional variations where the costs are perhaps higher than in other parts of the country? The Minister has a general discretion under that subsection. Where he is satisfied that improvement costs more in one region than in another, will he be prepared to make the necessary Order?

Mr. E. Rowlands

In the areas we have described the cost yardstick for housing subsidies recognises regional differences, and those areas receive this addition. I think that there is a good case for including a similar provision in the Bill.

Mr. R. W. Brown rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Sydney Irving)

Order. We have already had one intervention too many.

Mr. Ifor Davies

I appreciate the point raised by the hon. Member for Hornsey, and by my hon. Friend. I take note of the emphasis which has been laid on it, but I cannot in this debate say that it is probable that my right hon. Friend will accede to their request.

Mr. R. W. Brown

Do I understand that, in an area such as mine, where the local authority can be persuaded to improve a house for use as a family house, it will get the same grant as it would have got if it had gone ahead and converted that house into two units?

Mr. Ifor Davies

That is another point, which probably arises under the amenity issue, but we shall see what can be done.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendment made: No. 62, in page 23, line 26, after 'area', insert: 'or, if it appears to the Minister that there will be an increased number of dwellings in the area, by that increased number'.—[Mr. Ifor Davies.]

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