HC Deb 07 April 1971 vol 815 cc648-54

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

1.29 a.m.

Mr. George Thomas (Cardiff, West)

I am deeply grateful to the Minister of State for being in his place at this late hour to answer this Adjournment debate. I am also deeply grateful to the Welsh Office for the courtesy with which it has treated me in supplying me with a copy of the relevant report.

For 26 years it has been my privilege and responsibility to represent in this House the people affected by the Canton clearance order. I know well almost every family concerned. I have watched their children grow up, marry, and have their own families. I have watched the middle-aged become the elderly. It has been my privilege to share their ups and downs and their joys and sorrows, and it is only because of their grievous anxiety due to this Order that I raise this matter tonight.

These planning decisions are among the most difficult with which the Secretary of State is faced. I do not underestimate the difficulties of the Minister in having to weigh the merits of a clearance order against the hardship caused to the people involved. This was the responsibility that I found hardest to bear when I served in the Welsh Office. Nonetheless, I had to face that responsibility. From time to time I approved clearance orders. The application for the Order under discussion tonight came to the Welsh Office in March, 1970, when I was Secretary of State. I arranged for a public inquiry to be held at the earliest possible time. Unfortunately, from my point of view, by the time the inquiry was held I was out of office. But it meant that I was free to represent my constituents at the inquiry.

I do not want to go over the material of the inquiry; the Secretary of State has made his decision, and I realise that it is final. No further appeal is open to my constituents. But in his letter to the Cardiff City Council announcing the decision, the officer who wrote on the Minister's behalf made certain references which I should like clarified. On page 3 of Annex 4 the Welsh Office said: I am to add that the Secretary of State has noted that from a total of almost 14 acres, the Council proposes to allocate just over six acres for housing, of which 4.3 acres is to be disposed of for private development. It follows that the Council itself proposes to develop residentially less than a seventh of the total area. The Secretary of State recognises that this land will be comparatively expensive for the Council to acquire and clear and appreciates that the Council must weigh carefully the economics of its redevelopment. Nevertheless, he invites the Council to reexamine whether, taking account of the social considerations to which the Inspector has drawn attention, enough land is being allocated for residential development by the Council itself; secondly, the Secretary of State asks the Council to pay close attention to the need for the greatest possible despatch in the housing redevelopment which it is under-taking, so that those who are to be rehoused in the area (and in particular the elderly among them) shall suffer the very minimum distress and inconvenience. The inspector in his report, which the Minister has published, in paragraph 385, says: I have no doubt that confirmation of the order will cause some hardship. This will apply especially among elderly people of whom there would appear to be a large number who have lived in the area all their lives. He then criticises the amount of land that the local authority proposes to develop.

The Secretary of State has made his appeal in good faith. I have no doubt of that at all. But the Cardiff City Council has a sorry record with regard to rehousing in the same area families displaced by clearance orders. It broke faith with the people of Riverside, a neighbouring area to that under discussion. This was done when I was Secretary of State. I well recall the Welsh Office advising me that I had no legal authority to prevent it selling the land which it had obtained for carrying out rehousing, but which it sold for £25,000 an acre to a private developer. I do not know one of the former residents of the Riverside area who has been able to return to that part of our city. The Minister has appealed to the Corporation, but from my experience it will be ready to promise him the moon but will be very unlikely to produce even a little star. For having obtained £25,000 an acre from private developers in the cleared Riverside area, it knows well that it will get anything between £30,000 and £40,000 an acre for the land it proposes to clear in the Canton area, and it probably will have more than that.

I have raised this matter because included in the 800-odd people affected in the area are people who have lived there for up to 60 years. Their friends are there; their community is there. I know that the Ministers in the Welsh Office appreciate this, or they would not have put in their report the recommendation to the City Council. But will the Minister take steps to make his request more firmly to the Cardiff City Council? Has he the authority to make it a condition of the granting of the order that council houses shall be built on this vacant land speedily, and that those who are being rejected from a part of the city where they wish to stay shall be given that right to do so?

If any hon. Member were to visit the Canton area today he would see in window after window a yellow sign which states I want to stay in Canton". We owe a great deal to tradition in this country. We owe a great deal to the loyalties that people have to communities like Canton, one of the most firmly established communities in the city. Since I am convinced that a mere appeal from the Minister is not likely to mean the rehousing of these people in that part of Cardiff, I ask him, knowing that he is a humane man and that he wants the best, whether he will make it a condition, if he has authority so to do, that these people shall be rehoused, that far more of the land shall be used for building council houses to meet the needs of these people? If he has not the authority, will he speak far more forcefully to the authority than he has done in the report which he has published?

1.40 a.m.

The Minister of State, Welsh Office (Mr. David Gibson-Watt)

I am glad to reply to the debate initiated by the right hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. George Thomas). I know that he will not think me pedantic if I set the record straight by giving the correct title of the order which is the subject of the debate. The right hon. Gentleman referred to it as the Canton Clearance Order. It is not a clearance order that is something different. It is the City of Cardiff (Riverside Areas Nos. 7 to 26) Compulsory Purchase Order. 1970.

Perhaps I should stress at the outset that any powers that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State possessed in relation to the compulsory purchase order have already been exercised. He has confirmed the Order with minor modifications after considering the objections lodged against the Order, the case made in support of it by the Cardiff City Council and the report of his inspector who visited the area and inspected the properties.

The inspector concerned is a qualified and experienced senior officer who has been employed in this work since 1959 and has held many inquiries into slum clearance orders. Having given his decision, my right hon. and learned Friend has no power to rescind or revoke it, as the right hon. Gentleman recognised. The validity of his actions can be challenged in the High Court within six weeks. This is a legal point. The right hon. Gentleman said that there was no appeal, but his actions can be challenged in the High Court.

Mr. George Thomas

As to the legality.

Mr. Gibson-Watt

Yes, it is fair to say that, but it is also fair to make the point. Otherwise the inspector's decision is final.

I am aware of the right hon. Gentleman's concern about this Order. He speaks as someone who has represented his constituency for many years and nobody knows these people better than he does. Indeed, he revealed at the public inquiry that when he was Secretary of State for Wales he explored the possibility of turning the Order away without a public inquiry—without, in other words, hearing both sides of the argument.

My right hon. and learned Friend has, like his predecessor, heard both sides of the argument and has studied the neutral and unbiased report of the experienced professional who has visited the area, inspected the houses and heard the objections. He cannot change his decision. but he would not if he could.

The basis of the right hon. Gentleman's opposition to the Order is that the area should be improved and not cleared. It is our declared policy, as it was the right hon. Gentleman's policy when in office, not to demolish houses unnecessarily but to use to the full the improvement provisions of the Housing Act, 1969.

Mr. George Thomas

I did not go into this in detail because I stated the case at the hearing and I advanced such arguments as I was able to advance and in which I deeply believed. My appeal to the Minister on this occasion is this: what will he do with the Cardiff City Council to ensure that these people return to live in the Canton area?

Mr. Gibson-Watt

I am aware of the right hon. Gentleman's concern about this matter, and I hope to deal later with his point.

How that policy is being carried out is demonstrated by the figures. There were nearly 11.000 improvement grants in Wales in 1970, more than 2,000 more than in 1969—an increase of 64 per cent. in the number of grants given to private individuals. This is good news. The concept of the improvement of whole areas is also gaining momentum. Sixteen areas containing nearly 4,000 houses have already been declared to be general improvement areas, and at least a further 20 areas containing 5,000 houses are being considered by local authorities in Wales.

The right hon. Gentleman's junior Minister in the last Administration, Mr. Rowlands, forcibly put the point at issue in this case in a speech at Llandudno in October, 1969 when he said: The Housing Act, 1969, must not be used as an alibi for postponing action on the clearance of unfit houses. Improvement and rehabilitation complement clearance; they do not substitute for it. I think that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that he himself made similar statements when in office.

This policy was spelled out in a Welsh Office circular issued by the last Administration in September, 1969. Speaking of the type of area suitable for improvement it said: A too bad area is more difficult to define; but it is necessary always to keep in mind that area improvement is not an alternative to slum clearance. This is a sound policy. It is not only one which we endorse but, as the confirmation of this Order demonstrates, it is a policy which we put into practice.

It is not an easy matter to decide when an area is worn out, when it makes sense to clear it away and start again. We do not take such decisions lightly. Clearance and rebuilding are expensive in human as well as in economic terms. We hate to see a long-established community threatened with break up. We hate the thought that our actions will cause distress and perhaps even hardship. We hate to turn proud owner-occupiers into reluctant council tenants and this is too often an accompaniment of slum clearance.

We all feel deeply about this problem. But it helps no one to prolong the life of worn-out areas and patently worn-out houses and 186 of the houses in this area were no longer fit to live in. The right hon. Gentleman himself said at the inquiry: All the houses in Canton suffer from dampness to a certain extent. The inspector found many of the houses he entered to be very damp and dark. Some had been very well looked after, but others were in serious disrepair. Sixty per cent. of these 186 houses had no back way in. Coal, dustbins and so on have had to be a carried through the house. The cost of making the house fit would be very high and in some cases exhorbitant. It was clear that the time had come to start afresh in these areas.

There was, it is true, an unfortunate feature to this Order in the comparatively high proportion of fit houses which had to be purchased to round off the areas to be cleared. Many of them are of the same age and type as the unfit houses, but better maintenance over the years has kept them fit. We considered most carefully whether any of these houses could be excluded from the Order, but they are so interspersed with unfit houses that this was not practicable.

The decision on this Order was not easy. There was one point to which our attention was especially directed. Our inspector has reported that confirmation of the Order would undoubtedly cause some hardship, especially to the many elderly people who had lived in the area all their lives. He felt that this hardship could be reduced if more people could be relocated in the Order area. In the letter conveying his decision to the city council, my right hon. and learned Friend directed its attention to these social considerations and invited it to consider whether enough of the land was being allocated for council housing.

This is a matter for the city council to decide. The law puts that responsibility on it. I have every confidence that it will weigh not only the economic but the human considerations. My right hon. and learned Friend has also asked the council to pay close attention to the need for the greatest possible despatch in the rebuilding for which it is responsible, so that the people to be rehoused, and in particular the elderly among them, shall suffer the very minimum of distress and inconvenience.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether my right hon. and learned Friend has the authority to make it a condition that council houses must be built there speedily. It will come as no surprise to him to know that the powers of the Secretary of State do not make it possible for him to make it a condition.

We have been speaking about slum clearance, and I stress that when I speak of slum clearance in Wales I use the phrase purely in its legal sense. We have very few properties in Wales which could be regarded as slums of the type found elsewhere in the country. Certainly these houses in Canton are not what most people would call slums.

We have very few slums but far too many houses which are no longer fit to live in—nearly 40,000 in potential clearance areas alone. We must get rid of them, and we are determined to get rid of them. We have found that there are 186 of them in the areas covered by this Order. This is why my right hon. and learned Friend has confirmed the Order. As I said, he has no power to change his decision, nor would he do so if he could.

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has brought the case of his constituents to the House tonight, and I am glad to have had the opportunity with him of speaking about this intensely human and difficult problem.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes to Two o'clock.