HC Deb 19 March 1970 vol 798 cc794-807

1.16 a.m.

Mr. Laurence Pavitt (Willesden, West)

I wish to discuss the £98,000 increase in administration shown at page 189 of the Civil Supplementary Estimates, 1969–70. I am aware that in dealing with that small part of the total Estimates I am on very small ground. In ancient theological times there was the question of how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. My problem tonight is to find how many devils will dance on a very small amount of the total Supplementary Estimates.

My contention is that a good deal of this increase in administrative expenses, especially on travel and subsistence, has arisen since preparation of the original Estimates because of changes of policy by local authorities. The Government bear a heavy responsibility for slum clearance and redevelopment, and have naturally had to engage in greater administrative activity when local authorities pursue changed and inadequate policies.

I am very concerned with my area of West Willesden. As an example of the changes which have occurred, there was in 1964 and 1965 in the area represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Willesden, East (Mr. Freeson), the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, a clearance area in South Kilburn of 342 unfit, slum houses, but it was not until 27th January this year that I got an Answer from the Department that 320 of those houses were still standing.

This and other similar matters have caused a good deal of administrative interplay between the Ministry and my borough. Ministers have visited the borough and in recent months deputations have attended the Ministry. During the 10 years that I have been a Member of the House, the housing problem as it affects my constituents has been the most important problem that I have had to bring to the attention of the House. During the last six months, there has been more interplay and activity between the Ministry and the local authority because of changes of policy in this regard, brought about by the change of philosophy which came with a Tory majority at the town hall.

My main area of concern has been three development areas which were previously agreed but which, in recent months, have had to be re-discussed. I refer to Stonebridge, Church End and Willesden Green in my constituency, and South Kilburn in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Willesden, East. Stonebridge still has 350 designated slums occupied by 700 families.

Part of the discussion is about what constitutes a slum. It is Government policy to urge local authorities to get rid of slum areas as speedily as they can, but many years ago the then local medical officer of health, Dr. Leff, pointed out to me that there was no point in designating more slums in Willesden, because the problem was so great that designation would simply increase the number of statistics while not improving the houses.

Last Sunday morning, as were so many of my colleagues, I was canvassing for the Greater London Council elections, and I visited three flats within a short time. At Denton Road I went into an upstairs flat of two rooms. There were many children. The flat was running with damp. This made the wiring dangerous, so electricity could not be used. The owner's name was not in the rent book. Although the situation was appalling, the flat was not designated a slum.

The second, in Barry Road, was occupied by a couple who were doing their best to make it comfortable for their two children. But the two children were sleeping in one bed, one at one end and one at the other, and one was suffering from bed wetting. The result may b imagined. This is in the Stonebridge redevelopment area.

Within 200 yards of my Labour Hall there is furnished accommodation about to be cleared as part of a redevelopment programme. Because the property is furnished, there is no security of tenure for the tenants. In one room there lived a mother and father and daughter of 21. The mother was deaf and dumb; the father was deaf and the daughter did not seem as bright as one would hope. All three slept in the same bed. The conditions of living were appalling. This, too, was not designated a slum.

Is the additional expenditure involved in the Bill to cover instructions to the district valuer not to evict these people so that the owner receives a higher rate of compensation? That is the kind of problem that is causing concern.

There have been changes in the redevelopment situation since I last addressed the House on the subject. At this time last year there were 6,943 people on the waiting list; today there are 8,184. Last year, there were 1,604 suffering from medical disability on the waiting list; this year, there has been an increase of nearly 20 per cent. to 2,130. The number of premises statutorily deemed to be overcrowded has risen from 988 last year to 1,218 and the number of families broken up has increased from 236 to 298.

Does this increased expenditure mean that more help will be coming from County Hall from the housing programme of the Greater London Council to deal with the problem? Have the exchanges of the last few months led us any nearer to starting Stage 4 of the Stonebridge redevelopment scheme? Have the negotiations with the Minister when he visited the Borough of Brent about these matters in January resulted in our being able to decant from areas of redevelopment into the 2,000 units which are available in the Chalkhill Estate which was especially built for that purpose and which the local borough council undertook at various public inquiries would be available for such a purpose?

Last time I raised this matter, which was after the original Estimate was put forward, my hon. Friend said that 1,281 flats were ready for occupation and 12 were ready for letting, but I understand that none has yet been allocated. That was within the last two months. Do the administrative expenses we are asked to approve tonight mean that we are able to bring more pressure to bear to see that these places are occupied by the people for whom they were intended?

There have been discussions arising from the Curzon Crescent renewal scheme, which is crucial to the redevelopment of Church End. Stage 1 means shifting 138 families in the next 12 months, stage 2 means shifting 82 families and stage 3 means shifting 206 families. This whole area needs renovating in order to fit in with the redevelopment plan for Church End. Do the administrative expenses we are being asked for tonight mean that pressure has been brought to bear in order that this may go forward quickly? When will it begin?

I wrote to the town clerk on 18th December and received a reply on 29th December saying that there would be no further delay. That was three months ago. Can my hon. Friend say whether the administrative money involved here has anything to do with this delay, or will it enable the scheme to be brought forward? The scheme for Church End, which was approved some time ago, covers 50 acres comprising houses built between 1875 and 1900.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harry Gourlay)

Order. I admire the ingenuity with which the hon. Gentleman is trying to meet the requirements of the rules of order, but I must point out to him that it is out of order to raise on a Supplementary Estimate the whole question of policy involved in the original Estimate, unless the new money asked for is very substantial—that is, of the same order of magnitude as the original Estimate. The figure the hon. Gentleman is trying to relate his remarks to is an increase of £6,000 on a total of £300,000. Therefore, he must relate his remarks more specifically to the Supplementary Estimate about travelling expenses, etc.

Mr. Pavitt

I will seek to narrow my remarks, but I could also contend that the £6,000 has been spent entirely on administration in negotiations with Brent and in organising the points which I am raising tonight. But there is a further matter which is to do with the Estimate on page 190. The borough, because of its great housing problem, has had a complete review of management services. Although the figure is £15,000 in total, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I accept your Ruling that a substantial amount is not involved, but it adds to the force of the argument that, unless this additional money is spent on achieving the results I am seeking, it should be withheld.

If we pass the increase asked for, will it, first, help the Minister to enable the council to acquire the necessary land? Secondly, will it accelerate the negotiations which have gone on since and before the original Estimate with regard to land at St. Raphael's Way and mid-Harlesden goods yard, which are small areas which could, nevertheless, give room for substantial numbers of houses at least 400? Thirdly, will it have any effect on the cut-back on housing starts and the shortfall of 1954 recently announced?

It was expected in the borough that 1,978 dwellings would be started in 1969 but, according to my latest information, only 24 were started.

I would submit that the House has a responsibility here. In passing money for administration, I have a responsibility to my constituents to ensure that the purpose of the original Estimate is not being thwarted by the Supplementary Estimate. I have a problem in that the largest number of immigrants live in my constituency. There are twice as many there as in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell). This does not increase my housing problem, because that is there already. We have dealt with it extremely well and any primary school teacher in Willesden could give the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West some lessons of how to deal with difficult problems with compassion.

I want to know, in connection with administrative arrangements, with central Government and in pursuing central government policy, what the Ministry is doing in relation to the town hall in my borough. I am afraid that the policy originally put forward by the previous Labour council is now being altered out of all recognition as a result of the change at the town hall. What is the exact position as a result or recent negotiations? What are we getting for the extra expenditure? I want a complete reversal of the Borough of Brent's housing policy so that they put homes first, before this obsession with rates and antagonism to council tenants, which amounts almost to a psychological neurosis.

It is on a narrow point that I am seeking to judge responsibility. I ask for some consideration of the grievances of family after family in my constituency and that the policy changes shall be put right in their interest.

1.32 a.m.

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

I have a deep understanding of the feelings which lie behind the introduction of this subject by my hon. Friend the Member for Willesden, West (Mr. Pavitt), because, as the House will know, and as my hon. Friend has indicated from time to time, I stand here not only as a junior Minister in the Ministry of Housing and Local Government but as the representative of Willesden, East, which contains some of the housing problems my hon. Friend has so effectively outlined this evening. My hon. Friend has been very closely asso- ciated with trying to tackle some of the problems in this district for many years.

Before taking up the particular points my hon. Friend has put, may I remind the House of the position of Willesden which is now part of the London Borough of Brent. The position is today virtually what it was when the Milner Holland Report was presented to the House: it is one of half a dozen areas of Greater London which suffer more housing stresses than any other boroughs of the 32 making up this city.

Although much was done in the years following publication of the Milner Holland Report, between 1965 and 1968, to increase the rate of house building in the borough, it remains the case that Willesden, or many parts of it, encompass some of the worst housing problems we have to handle in Greater London, and it typifies the worst of the problems as seen in other parts of the city and in the whole country. This is so, notwithstanding the build-up of house building which occurred from 1965 to 1968, an increase which I calculate as 275 per cent. The dwellings put into tender in each of those years were equal in number to the total construction in the four years before the amalgamation of Willesden and Wembley. This was the result of long-term planning, purchase of land and of all else that goes with a housing programme.

Turning from the general background prior to 1965, as reflected in the Milner Holland Report, to the position which has been queried by my hon. Friend this evening, the question is, what has been done as the result of increased activity by the Ministry in housing with particular reference to priority housing area authorities which have shown a marked reduction in their house building activities?

The Borough of Brent has been visited by my noble Friend Lord Kennet, the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, and it has been the subject of considerable correspondence, telephone inquiry, and meetings between officers of my Department and officials of the authority. Turning to the results of all this I have to say that we are continuing the pressure, the contact which we have with the local authority, in order to get it to change the policy which it has embarked upon since May, 1968, of cutting back to a major—to a drastic—degree on its housing efforts in the borough, which remains one of considerable housing stress.

As my hon. Friend has said, there are over 8,000 families on the housing list. He made a minor breakdown of the figures. I want to say this. When we speak of 8,000 families on the waiting list, or of any number of families on the waiting list of any borough—and we are particularly concerned with the priority housing authorities with which the Ministry has been very active during the past six months or so—we are speaking of figures which reflect only part of the problem. I grew to learn before I came to this House, when I was on the local authority, but I have learned much more since going to the Department, that housing lists, up and down the country, reflect only part of the problems of the districts with which we are concerned. This is one thing one realises more and more.

I would illustrate that by saying, having visited many local authorities which have slum clearance areas, that only something like 20 per cent. to 25 per cent.—may be a little more—of the families living in areas of great housing need—otherwise they would not be slum clearance areas—may be on the housing list. That, in itself, is a good enough illustration of the fact that housing lists, while they are useful guides, are only limited in their usefulness, and can only to a limited degree show the seriousness of the housing situation in an area.

When we speak of these 8,000 families, when we speak of the many hundreds of families suffering from health disability in their midst, or of husbands and wives living apart, when we speak of the 2,000 at the top of the list in priority categories, we are still speaking of only a small part of the total, and of the total problem of the borough, and I wish this would be taken aboard much more by those authorities of the kind we are speaking of this evening, which have been cutting back on their housing activities.

In addition to that, of the 60,000 households in Willesden, 25,000 are sharing accommodation with other families. There are between 43,000 and 44,000 dwelling units in the area, but there are about 60,000 households, which is a guide-line to the number of substandard and obsolescent properties, and that goes well beyond the actual number of classified slums which should be pulled down in the area.

My hon. Friend mentioned a series of points which have been the subject of negotiation, correspondence, telephone calls and meetings between the Ministry and the local authority and which are covered by the sort of administrative expenditure under the Bill. Resulting from those contacts, I am sorry to tell my hon. Friend that, as things stand, the position does not show progress. That is the position following those negotiations and since the special meeting of consultation in February of this year.

At that meeting the local authority was asked for information about its house building programme. It made it clear that it had no house building programme beyond the year 1970. It said to my hon. Friend Lord Kennet, the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, who chaired the meeting, that in this year's programme 2,000 dwellings would be put out to tender. However, many of those have fallen out of the 1969 programme.

When nearly 2,000 should have been put to tender on the year's original programme, only 24 went to tender. Three hundred, or perhaps a few more, were included, but they were short-falls from the previous year. While we were told that 2,000 would go to tender in 1970, we were informed that there would be nothing to follow. We are considering the implications of this for a borough of this sort and with the problems it has, and we shall be making further contact with the authority.

My hon. Friend will be aware that I speak with great sadness about this, not just as a junior Minister but as a colleague who represents a borough with serious housing problems. Unfortunately, on the information which we have Departmentally, that figure of 2,000 starts in 1970 will, in practice, prove false, since, if our information is substantiated in the coming months it will prove to be a formal programme which will not be implemented.

There are two big schemes, both of which my hon. Friend mentioned, which we consider are unlikely to materialise in 1970; that is, Stage 4 of the Stone-bridge redevelopment scheme, for 1,191 dwellings, and Stage 1 of the Church End redevelopment scheme, comprising 400 new dwellings. I understand that these will be considerably delayed by further reviews being requested by local authority officers and as a result of the policies being followed in respect of Chalkhill, a matter to which I will return. It is extremely unlikely, with the council's present mood, that there will be more than a few hundred dwellings going into tender in 1970.

My hon. Friend asked about the result of our negotiations on land assembly to get future programmes going. There is no land assembly going on in the borough at present for any future programmes. What is more, there have been sales of land which are of vital importance to housing development.

One important site which was cut from the 1968 programme was St. Raphael's Way, to which my hon. Friend referred, which will provide over 300 dwellings. No moves have yet been taken to buy this land, which is still available for purchase by the authority, despite the fact that, ahead of any negotiations being restarted, the Department has told the local authority that it would be prepared to consider this piece of land for expensive site subsidy.

As far as I am aware, no move has been made on the mid-Harlesden goods yard site, which would provide more than 70 new homes in a part of the borough which is in great need.

I indicated that I would touch on Chalkhill. This estate of 1,500 dwellings is the key to future progress in the borough. The failure to make use of that estate, which is nearing completion, to rehouse families from areas awaiting redevelopment will kill any expanding programme for the future. We are still seeking to persuade the authority to use the estate by way of rent pooling and applying a rent rebate scheme, which so far it has refused to do, to rehouse the families for which the land was originally bought to provide new homes and get redevelopment and slum clearance speeded up.

My hon. Friend placed great stress on what success, if any, we had had in getting the local authority in on these negotiations by our officers and by Ministers to build up on their slum clearance efforts. The last slum clearance areas were those in South Kilburn, represented by the former Willesden Borough Council, covering over 400 dwellings and confirmed by the Minister in 1966. Of the 450 dwellings concerned, 322 are still standing, of which 224 are still occupied, 95 per cent. of them being in multi-occupation by three or four families, and 98 are boarded up awaiting demolition. Most of the families are eligible for rehousing, which means that 550 families are still living in disgusting conditions in properties included in clearance areas nearly six years ago.

As my hon. Friend said, there are also 350 properties in the earlier Stonebridge compulsory purchase order area, which are virtual slums, still occupied by 700 families.

Mr. Pavitt

Is my hon. Friend saying that there are families which need rehousing and that there are empty places in Chalk Hill in which they could be put?

Mr. Freeson

There are a number of empty dwellings in Chalk Hill. I am not suggesting, however, that the major part of the estate has been completed. I understand that the major part of the estate is due to be completed in a matter of weeks. Since the change of political control in 1968, the intention of the council has been not to give priority use of this estate to rehousing families from the very slum clearance and redevelopment areas for which the land was originally bought when this long-term planning was undertaken by the then Willesden Borough Council before London local government reorganisation. The properties will be completed. It is the biggest housing scheme that the borough has seen, and one of the largest in the London area.

It was designed as the key to speeding up slum clearance and urban renewal in this seriously stressed part of London but, as things stand, unless the council agrees to the views which we have been pressing on it, that a rent rebate scheme should be applied to the estate, and that it should be rent pooled with the general run of estates, the majority of the properties there will go to families not in the gravest need. In fact, as things stand, we have a situation which, so far as I am aware, is unique in the country—a massive estate for which the borough council governing an area of serious housing need has been advertising generally throughout the whole of London for tenants who may come in as if they were coming to a private estate agent.

This is a serious situation. I know that the authority has the matter under consideration following our representations. I hope that at the next council meeting it will accept the representations which we have been making and apply rent rebates for rent pooling so that the estate can be used as originally visualised, and that it will then get ahead with further slum clearance.

If Brent were to rehouse people from South Kilburn and Stonebridge on the Chalkhill estate as originally intended, many of the South Kilburn and Stone-bridge slums could be cleared within 12 months. Many acres of land would be released by way of further clearance for redevelopment, which in turn would allow other slums, as yet undeclared, to be cleared, as well as clearing some of the urgent cases on the housing list. Furthermore, it would allow the first stage of the Church End redevelopment, which would otherwise be held up, to go ahead more rapidly. And thus the 1970 programme could be accomplished, which it will not be on present policies.

I end by referring generally to the position of slum clearance and future programming because this has been a major part of the representations on which my hon. Friend has been seeking information from me. I have said that as things stand there is no housebuilding programme beyond 1970. We shall be making further representations to the borough with a view to getting it to change its ideas.

It is a central part of any such representations that if there is to be a further housebuilding programme it must be related to the need to get ahead with further declarations of slum clearance areas, but we have the ironic—if that is not too mild a word—perhaps I should say shocking position that in recent times the council, through its chief officer, the town clerk, has said that there are no slums in Brent, and this in an area which is among the six worst housing areas of Greater London. According to our information in the Ministry, we estimate that there are at least 1,200 to 1,300 slums requiring immediate clearance, but as yet undeclared, in addition to those standing in previously declared slum clearance areas.

That figure is based on a sample survey undertaken by Greater London Council in co-operation with the local authorities to see what the physical housing conditions were like in Greater London. We in the Ministry do not accept that the survey, which produced figures for Greater London as a whole from which this 1,300 was projected, was adequate. It produced a figure of about 22,000 classified slums in London as a whole. We regard this as a gross under-estimate of the situation in London. It is nearer 100,000. If one projects the more realistic total for a borough such as Brent and a district such as Willesden, we get figures running into several thousands. From my personal experience of the district, I believe there are several thousand in the borough.

It is very urgent indeed that the local authority should further investigate slum clearance areas and get on with declaring those areas which are in immediate need. Unfortunately, the local authority has not even made a return in answer to the Minister's slum clearance circular issued to local authorities throughout the country. The reason for the delay may be because it has publicly stated the view that there are no slums—a fantastic view in the face of the housing conditions to which my hon. Friend has referred and of which I and the Department, and the chief officers of the authority are aware.

We have shown in representations to the borough in all these negotiations, correspondence and meetings that there is a very serious situation in the district. It has lasted a very long time and allows of no complacency or self-satisfaction. It requires urgent action to re-establish the kind of redevelopment programming and house building programming that had been building up to a very good level until 1968. It was almost quadrupling previous housing efforts of the two boroughs which preceded the London Borough of Brent under the London government reorganisation.

This is the urgent need for the district and the many thousands of families living in disgraceful conditions. I hope that note will be taken of the views expressed by my hon. Friend in support of representations we have been making to the authority and that it will very quickly switch its policy to get ahead with some more extended housing activities in terms of construction, improvement of old properties, and conversions to modern flats for which many thousands of families on and not on the waiting list are in great need.

Forward to