HC Deb 15 February 1971 vol 811 cc1440-99

3.38 a.m.

Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)

I shall try to respond to your invitation, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, as I raise on the appropriate Vote the Government's responsibility for housing in Greater London, a matter which is of interest to hon. Members on all sides.

The problem of housing in London remains the greatest curse of our capital city. Homelessness, overcrowded housing conditions, unfit dwellings and a housing shortage constitute the current plague of London. It is a plague that seems to be without cure and to increase in virulence year by year. The total despair, degredation and unhappiness which poor housing causes defies description. This is a plague which debilitates and shames London and must be stamped out. That is where the responsibility of government, central and local, lies.

To illustrate the total of the problem, of 2,600,000 households in London 204,000 share a dwelling and 186,000 live in conditions where there is more than one person to a room. One family in 13 do not have the privacy of their own home and have to spend much of their lives in conditions where the noise of one household in the dwelling impinges on another, and we all know the nuisance of the television turned on too loud and of waiting for the second boot to fall to the floor above, of children to live where there are several families in a single house and the enormous problems of sharing a kitchen, often leading not only to unpleasantness but to physical violence.

If one uses the South Eastern region unfitness figure of 18 per cent., of the total of 2,200,000 houses in London there are 380,000 houses unfit, but the Inner London Borough of Lambeth carried out a survey of that typical Inner London borough and discovered that 60 per cent. of dwellings in Lambeth were unfit.

Even if one takes the optimistic figure and projects the South-East Region figure, one finds 1,000,000 people in the capital in unfit accommodation. If one packed every football ground in London with people living in unfit dwellings, there would be queues outside waiting to get in.

There are almost 200,000 families on waiting lists, and that is 800,000 men, women, and children, on the waiting lists of the London borough. Those statistics underestimate the total demand for housing, the total need. An investigation in Lambeth showed that only 14 per cent. of families in housing need went on the housing register, so that the figure of 200,000 on the list is probably optimistic. If one puts the figure in a modest light, one family in ten is in an almost hopeless queue at the local town hall. One should add to that 8,000 families registered as homeless, which represents less than the total because some will not register, but stay on stations, stay with relatives and sometimes go from place to place.

The total of these figures shows a problem of almost unbelievable magnitude in the 1970s. Unfortunately, estimates of deficiency in London housing grow worse and not better. Housing list figures and other estimates of London housing deficiencies some years ago showed a deficiency of 200,000 dwellings.

The South-East Regional Economic Planning Council estimated in 1967 that, in addition to the slum clearance programme, the deficiency for London was 200,000. I thought that figure was optimistic and now the chairman of the G.L.C. Housing Committee puts the figure at 365,000. Projecting the South-East Region figure for 1968, the figure for the whole region is 380,000. I think that is an underestimate and that the figure is now near or higher than 400,000. That is a terrifying total, and I do not think the word "terrifying" is too dramatic, but if the problem is terrifying and growing, then at least we expect that urgency should be the watchword of the Government and of local authorities which rely on Government subsidies to meet the challenge. But in many quarters there is no sense of urgency and local authorities have a sense of complacency which would have astounded even Nero.

With the active encouragement at one time of the Secretary of State for the Environment, many local authorities are turning a crisis into a catastrophe. It was the right hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Peter Walker) who told the chairmen of Conservative housing authorities that they should no longer go on building council houses for all sorts of seemingly good purposes, and many local authorities, particularly those in London, took him at his word. It is true that in 1970 a record number for Greater London of 36,556 dwellings was completed. But that is a reflection of the efforts in housing construction which were begun about three years ago and, therefore, it is not the completions figure which is welcome, and which is a record, that one needs to consider but the starts figure. It is in this figure that one sees the turning of a crisis into a catastrophe.

In 1969 the completions figure for the whole of London, including private dwellings, was 33,303. But the starts figure was down to 31,848. If one takes the local authority public sector completions and starts, in 1969 the completions were 23,013, but the starts were only 22,502—not a very large discrepancy, but it gets worse as one sees the effects of Tory local authorities beginning to gather. In the first quarter of 1970 the completions were 6,449, but the starts were only 3,379. The total for the first three-quarters of 1970 was 19,000 completions and 16,000 starts. Therefore, there was a very worrying drop in the number of houses started. That is the thing which worries people concerned about housing in London.

Mr. Ronald Brown (Shoreditch and Finsbury)

Is my hon. Friend aware that I put a Question to the Department for the Environment on this matter and I was told that the Department is not interested in starts and has no record of starts?

Mr. Fraser

That surprises me, because the figures are published. Perhaps the Department does not want to know about the figures rather than admitting the figures are available because anyone with any connection with the Department knows that the figures can be obtained by telephone from the local authorities.

These are worrying figures when we need to go on increasing the supply of housing in Greater London. That is bad enough. Local authorities have taken Ministers at their word, and some of them have taken them too literally.

These figures—the degree of need, and the drop in starts—give cause for grave anxiety; but worse still is the proposed cut in housing subsidies of about £200 million a year. Many London boroughs are hard pressed. Rents are not low in local authority houses in London. Many authorities are saying publicly—and the Minister must realise this when he goes round the London boroughs—that they need a greater supply of money from central Government. In my borough there is a deficit of almost £2 million a year on the rates. In Southwark it is nearly £3 million a year. A cut in housing subsidies would have the effect of cutting the programme. What is worse, the Government do not only propose a cut in the subsidies; what is left over is to be shared between the public sector and the subsidising of private tenants. I do not discuss that matter now, but even less money will be made available as a result of the cut in housing subsidies to provide for the housing so badly needed in London.

The Government cannot go on pretending that council housing in an area like London should be just for the sick, aged and handicapped. Anybody who has any inkling of London's housing problem will know that it is shared by a substantial mass of London's population. It is a problem, not only of the sick, aged or handicapped, but of newly married couples, of people trying to bring up a family in decent conditions, of finding accommodation for children to do their homework. It is a massive problem and it needs a solution of massive proportions.

We need a programme of construction. We need a strategy for the whole of London. I will illustrate what I mean by this. One can take six Outer London boroughs, all Conservative controlled, and look at their under-construction figures in 1970 as published in the—I think it was—November Journal of Housing Statistics. Let us take Bexley, the seat of the Prime Minister, a borough, incidentally, which failed to start even one single public dwelling-house in the first nine months of 1969. Let us look at the figure of houses under construction: 229. Or Harrow, which, I think, sports another Minister: 135 under construction. Or Havering, 261; Hillingdon, 232; Kingston-upon-Thames, 325; and Croydon which, I think, sports a Whip, 145. That is, six Conservative Outer London boroughs have under construction at the moment a total of 1,327 dwellings. Southwark, under Labour control, has 4,209, and has much less land and much fewer resources. It has done three times as well as six Outer London Conservative councils which have less of a problem. Or Hackney, which has under construction 2,738; and Wandsworth has 2,285; and Lambeth, 1,845.

How can we say we have a strategy in London when six Conservative boroughs with more land to start with, and less demand upon their resources, cannot even between them match the achievement of one Inner London borough? Till we resolve to treat the problem of London's housing as one problem for the whole of the Metropolis we are not going to solve it.

I cannot pass these figures without mentioning a borough which deserves I do not know whether one would call it the Walker Cup or the Selsdon Trophy—the Conservative Borough of Sutton, which, according to the latest statistics, took the Minister of Housing quite literally and has started in the first nine months of 1970 minus one house! It really took the Minister at his word.

Mr. Ronald Brown

Would my hon. Friend recall that in the proposed transfer of G.L.C. property Sutton gets a quite substantial holding of desirable maisons and that the intention is to destroy them and sell the land so that developers can build some other type of property on the site?

Mr. Fraser

I appreciate that.

If we are to solve the problem of London's housing we must, as it were, make war upon the problem; it has to be tackled as though it were a battle. All the efforts must be co-ordinated. It is no good having 33 divisional commanders, some, like the ones at Sutton, acting as saboteurs. The problem must be treated as one for London as a whole. That is why the question of transferring housing is so important; if we transfer it to local authorities the houses will no longer be available to serve the needs of London as a whole, and that will be a great disservice to many families now on housing waiting lists. It is really a scandal that London can be split up into 33 different areas, each one acting, very largely, independently. One has got to have a housing list for the whole of London, with allocations as between one borough and another. Southwark has an enormous housing problem. There is no reason at all why boroughs such as Sutton or Croydon should not act together in housing programmes for boroughs wanting to be helped like mine at Lambeth. Croydon is but a few yards from the edge of my constituency. How can it be said that in London, which has an enormous problem, one borough should not help another?

The G.L.C. is not doing its job properly. It is not building in the Outer London boroughs; it has not asked the Minister to exercise his powers to allow it to build in Outer London where local authorities do not want it to build. We need a central authority, central direction, to solve the problem.

The Inner London boroughs have the biggest problems. Many are running out of land. Many run huge losses on developments both in money terms and in the numbers of dwellings provided. Every time they clear a site they decant, and there are often less dwellings provided after redevelopment than before. To allow other boroughs to take the cynical view that Central London's problem must be left to it alone just simply is not good enough.

I will illustrate my point by comparison again. Lambeth, which stands next to Croydon, started 1,248 houses in the first nine months of 1970. Next door, a borough which could be helping to share the problem, started 155. Wandsworth started 1,168; Kingston, next door, available to help, started 14 houses. How any member of a housing committee can stand up in public and confess to those figures I do not understand.

The G.L.C. must build more houses. Its figures have dropped back appallingly; it does not provide nearly enough to meet the problem with which it is faced. We need a general increase in the level of building in London.

The figures which I gave at the beginning of my speech are staggering enough, but set against housing achievements elsewhere they look worse. London builds about four new houses per year per thousand population. The figure of construction for the whole of the United Kingdom is about six houses per year per thousand population. The national figure for West Germany is about 10 houses per year per thousand population.

The magnitude of the housing problem in London is immense. Nobody can promise a new roof over the heads of all those who have waited so long. The least that the Government can do, with the immense resources at their command, is to replace despair with hope. I hope that we shall see a directive to the local authorities of London and a plan and strategy for the whole of the Metropolis to remove this slur and shame which has existed for far too long.

3.58 a.m.

Mr. A. W. Stallard (St. Pancras, North)

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. John Fraser), in a wide ranging speech, has covered much of the aspects of London's housing problem with which I should have liked to deal.

I welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate. I will be brief because, as Mr. Deputy Speaker has pointed out, there are a number of debates yet to come and many hon. Members still wishing to take part in them.

We have heard that London's housing is fraught with problems, many of which will be dealt with in future debates in some of which I hope to participate if I am fortunate to be called.

At this late hour I will confine myself to one aspect of London's housing problem which is causing me concern. I refer to the operation, certainly in my constituency, of the improvement grant scheme. I know that other London Members are similarly worried about this problem.

I will illustrate the type of case which frequently arises in surgeries in the London area. It is not, unfortunately, an isolated case, nor as exaggerated as it may appear when first heard. Controlled tenants must be middle aged or elderly. There can be no such thing as a young controlled tenant, certainly in my area, through the operation of the 1957 Rent Act. Because of their age and employment situation, which is precarious and is becoming more so as the Government's policy unfolds, or because of their social security position, these people are especially vulnerable to pressures from landlords and some councils over improvement grants.

I know one elderly couple who, having unsuccessfully asked their landlord's agent to fix a faulty window, were rightly advised to ask the local health inspector to view the property. He inspects the window and probably the rest of the flat, thereby finding many more defects, including perhaps damp or dry rot. He discovers that there is no bathroom or hot water and that the toilet is outside. With the best motives, he notifies the landlord of the situation, and advises him of the possibilities of an improvement scheme.

He may serve a statutory notice, although that does not always follow at this stage. But he may advise the landlord to visit the improvement specialist, which many councils are now setting up. The landlord discovers that it is possible to include the statutory repairs in an overall improvement scheme, thus qualifying for a substantial public grant and a rent increase as well. He is advised, no doubt, of the need to discuss this with the tenants and the rent officer.

Many landlords faithfully and religiously carry out these instructions, resulting in a much improved house and satisfied tenants, but others do not take this trouble. The next the unfortunate tenants hear is in an official letter from the town hall about improvement grants, often including the green booklet about their rights. They may later receive a solicitors' letter from the landlord, telling of his intentions, and outlining the procedures for agreeing a fair rent. I have a case in hand where the landlord estimated a rent and then, in advance of discussions, charged it. This situation should never have been allowed to arise.

The receipt of an official-looking document can have extremely worrying effects on old people. They shy away from discussing these issues with what they regard as officialdom and consult neighbours, friends or relatives, which often results in their receiving the wrong information. I had a case recently where the landlord was able to gain possession of a flat, and the council was obliged to rehouse the tenant. Financial inducements are often offered to controlled tenants to vacate property. In my experience these sums range from £100 to £2,150. But what good is even £2,150 to an old-age pensioner who is trying to find accommodation in Central London? Unfortunately people are often led to believe that they are being offered a reasonable deal.

If the landlord is successful, his property will be improved at public expense, the tenancy will come out of control and he can relet at a much higher rent. The improved property cannot be let to those most in need and certainly not to the people who were previously in occupation. Indeed, there appears to be nothing to stop a landlord from selling the improved property almost as soon as it is improved. This cannot be right.

Mr. Ronald Brown

If one can believe rumours circulating about the Francis Committee, we will be faced with a situation in which it will be proposed to take all property of about £250 rateable value out of control.

Mr. Stallard

I hope that all these matters will be thoroughly debated when the Francis Committee's report is presented.

One can argue that improvement grants are being abused and that they are sometimes used in lieu of carrying out statutory repairs under the various housing and health Measures. I am not concerned at this stage to apportion blame. Too many loopholes exist and we must fill them. I might argue that hon. Gentlemen opposite are to blame because of their desire to get as many houses as possible out of control, to encourage councils to boost their statistics and prove that they have made excellent improvements, listing them all as statistics irrespective of people. One could go on developing similar arguments, but I am here not concerned so much with whose fault it is as with what has gone wrong and how, and how to put it right. I hope that the Minister will thoroughly investigate the position in London, and that he may be able to issue a circular in the interim advising local authorities of their responsibilities in regard to statutory repairs, and suggesting how they might improve their public relations with controlled tenants who find themselves in this difficult situation. Then, in the long run, we may be able to come forward with some positive amendments to the existing legislation and so avoid further abuse of the improvement grant scheme.

Mr. Michael Stewart (Fulham)

I am the third successive hon. Member whom you have called from the Labour side, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am sure that you would have preferred to follow the usual fair practice of alternately calling hon. Members from the two sides. You are debarred from doing so by the fact that of the 47 Conservative Members who sit for London constituencies none apparently wishes to take part in this debate. Even allowing for the fact that some of them are Ministers, and are thereby debarred, it is still remarkable that not one Tory back bencher is present. I hope that the general public will not fail to notice this fact.

Since you have called me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the particular aspect of housing in the Metropolis to which I should like to call attention is this. One fact that is true more or less of all great cities, but exceptionally true of the capital, is that in such a city there are a number of very wealthy and comfortably off people but that also, if the city's work is to be done, there are a number of people doing work which does not command very large incomes but who, somehow or other, have to live in the city, sometimes on land which at market prices would be extremely dear.

The public has been sharply reminded in recent months that there are such people as the postmen and the dustmen, that they have human needs like other people, and that they often find it extremely difficult to make ends meet. One of the reasons for that, if they live in London, is that the great purchasing power of the wealthier London citizens tends to thrust the price of houses up and up, and we are left with the question: where are those who do the work in this great city—work of a kind which does not command large incomes—to live?

The answer in the last century was partly provided by private charities. One sees in parts of London, on sites that would normally be occupied by very highly rented property, some properties in which people of small or moderate incomes can live as a result of past private charities. But this kind of work, honourable as it was, is not big enough to meet the whole of the problem, and the only way in which one can meet it today is by having a substantial amount of council building for rent, because we surely ought to have grasped the fact by now that private enterprise will not now provide houses to let at rents which people of small or moderate incomes can pay.

It ought, therefore, to be an agreed objective of Government policy in the housing of the Metropolis to see that the supply of council houses for rent is stimulated rather than discouraged, and that the practice of selling council houses and thereby reducing the store of houses available to rent ought to be discouraged rather than encouraged. I am not now speaking of the country as a whole. I believe that it would be possible to produce some areas of the country where the sale of council houses or the production of houses by the council originally for sale might make sense. I doubt if there is a single borough of Greater London where this policy can make sense because of the overwhelming need to provide reasonable accommodation for people of small or moderate incomes.

As an example of this problem I quote the Borough of Hammersmith in which my constituency lies. For nearly the last three years Hammersmith has had a Conservative council. Before then it was the policy of the Labour council to build steadily and to buy properties for the use of people on the council waiting list. During the last three years building has languished, the policy of buying has been pretty well abandoned, and more and more people on the waiting list are getting advice from the council to the effect that there is a nice property for them if they can buy it for the price of £8,000 or that if they can pay a rent of £10 or £11 a week there may be something suitable for them. Even with the working of a rebate scheme, the amount of rent that they are asked to pay bears less and less relation to what they could reasonably be expected to afford.

It seems to be the policy of the Hammersmith Council—I quote it merely as an example; I think that it is a fairly general policy, certainly in Inner London—to see this part of the Metropolis gradually handed over to comfortably off people buying houses at inflated prices or sometimes paying very high rents, and leaving working people with small or moderate incomes either to be pushed further and further out, with an agonising problem of the cost of travel to their work, or to be obliged to live in the oldest and least attractive quarters and be desperately overcrowded because they cannot afford enough room.

I believe that that is what is actually happening in a number of London boroughs. The Old Testament prophet said: Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place. This is the situation of more and more people of small or moderate incomes in London—there is no place left. This is bound to happen in a metropolis through the sheer pressure of market forces unless there is a deliberate Government policy to see that there is an adequate supply of houses to let at moderate rents.

I know very well that it is a good thing in many cases that people should own their own houses, but there are many people for whom, for a variety of reasons, this is neither a possible nor a desirable solution. It is extremely undesirable that people should be sometimes driven to become owner-occupiers and take on a burden beyond their means because it seems to be the only way of getting a roof over their heads.

Therefore, we are driven back again to the need for deliberate Government policy to see that there are sufficient houses available at moderate rents.

I have mentioned a local authority, but this debate is about the responsibility of the Government. I want to mention a few ways in which the Government can influence this problem, and, in so far as they can influence it, they are responsible for it if the problem is not solved.

In any housing legislation which the Government bring before this Parliament, if they are concerned for the London problem they will see that that legislation is of a character which promotes council building and which discourages, except in a few and exceptional circumstances, the sale of council houses. As far as we understand, this is not the Government's philosophy. I think that if they will look at the real facts of London, they may find cause to change their thinking on this subject.

Second, they can influence the matter by the giving or withholding in some cases of permission to use land. Again, the Borough of Hammersmith had in its possession land which I think had previously been railway land and required ministerial permission for the way it was to use it. It proposed originally to use the land almost entirely for better-off people and for commercial purposes. To my great pleasure, my right hon. Friend, Mr. Greenwood, as he then was, declined to let that authority use it in that way. It has now produced a modified but still unsatisfactory scheme, and I am sorry to say that the present Government seem to be allowing it to get away with it.

Third, as we all know, there are a great many ways in which Governments can make their wishes known to councils and exercise considerable influence on the general direction of council policy. But which way are the present Government going to bring their influence to bear?

There is a fourth way in which the Government can help the London housing problem, and that is by ensuring the continuance of the policy of the last Government, of preventing the intolerable multiplication of jobs in London which attracts the population in from all over the country. It was the last Government who put a halt to the continual multiplication of office jobs in London. Before my party came into power we were told that it was administratively impossible to do that. In fact, we showed that it could be done. The latest figures of population show, fortunately, that there is at last some halt to the pouring in of population from other parts of the Kingdom to London. But this is something which the Government ought always to watch. A fifth way in which the Government can influence the matter is that described by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. John Fraser) when he spoke of a London strategy. One of the evils of the London Government Act which the last Conservative Government introduced was that it weakened the possibility of an all-London strategy for housing. This was partly because of their detestation of the old Labour London County Council, and anything which reduced the power at the centre was, in the eyes of that Government, good. Unhappily, the result of this has been that those more fortunate boroughs in London with a fair amount of space where there might be building are in a position to resist any suggestion that some of their space might be used to help their poorer and overcrowded fellow Londoners in the less fortunate districts of the Metropolis. Somehow or other the Government have got to put this right. My hon. Friend gave examples, comparing some of the more fortunate and less fortunate boroughs.

I think I have said enought to suggest that there is a problem here which, although it has to be dealt with by local authorities, is also a problem for which the Government cannot escape responsibility. There are several ways in which the Government could be helpful. If they are not helpful, the position of people of small and moderate incomes in London—I think particularly of inner London—will become more desperate, and the Government ought to pay attention to this before it is too late.

4.25 a.m.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Acton)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. John Fraser) for painting a general picture, and to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Michael Stewart) for outlining the particular problems that they spoke about.

I want to do three things in my speech —to look at the question in relation to the homeless as well as to housing, to look a little more closely at the sort of internal market mechanism in London to which my right hon. Friend referred, and to match some of the policies we have heard about from the Government with the needs, as I see them, and to test how far they will meet the present problem.

The debate follows to some extent the Adjournment debate on 17th December last year, in which the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment who is to reply also took part.

The points I wish to make have been raised mainly at constituency surgery. They are definitely from what is called in journalistic language the grass roots. I shall be as brief as possible, but I make no apology for putting these points in the way I do, because the problem is one of the great problems of this country. What is happening in London is happening to a smaller extent in other urban centres, and if we can get on top of the problem in London we might do something for the rest of the country too.

In the debate in December the Under-Secretary said that he hoped that the Greve Report would be ready in mid-January and would be published shortly afterwards. We have not yet had the report, and a number of other reports to which I shall refer later. But rumours have circulated in Sunday newspapers and elsewhere of what those reports contain, and there have been increasing rumours of the numbers of homeless in London. In a Written Answer on 11th December, 1970, the Secretary of State for Social Services said: My information relates to families in temporary accommodation maintained by local authorities. Returns from authorities in England and Wales … gave a total of 4,860 families … in temporary accommodation." —[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th December, 1970; Vol. 808, c. 205.] Yet a Written Answer yesterday to my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. Clinton Davis) showed that the number of such people in London alone was 12,866. I know that the total for the nation was of families, but, even allowing 4.5 people per family, that gives a total for the nation of 20,000, compared with 12,000 in London today in the accommodation referred to.

The figures must be treated with caution. Statistics can be misleading. I shall refer to one or two of the figures given yesterday, because they deserve a great deal more publicity than they will probably get in a Written Answer. First, the numbers for the London Borough of Islington have risen from 621 in 1965 to 1,930 on 30th September, 1970. That is a very big increase. The London Borough of Bexley has been mentioned. On 31st December, 1965, there were no people in that borough in local authority temporary accommodation, but on 30th September, 1970, there were 238.

It is worth noting that the London Borough of Bexley did not see fit to give evidence for the London Boroughs Association bulk evidence to the Francis Committee on the ground that there was not much rented accommodation in that borough. It seems to have a homeless problem, nevertheless, and I am sorry that it did not give evidence to that important Committee, whose report we anxiously await.

Those figures may be only partial. Various voluntary agencies have suggested that the numbers of people who apply to local authorities—are greater than the number accepted. It is suggested that in Inner London those accepted are only one in four and in Outer London one in seven. I have no means of checking those figures. The Government and the local authorities should tell us more about this. One of the voluntary agencies—Shelter—is of opinion that the other three and the other six families are, somehow, either absorbed with relatives, move out of London or are housed elsewhere. I admit that these figures may be misleading, because if a good borough provides accommodation it may be filled up. The global figure of 12,000 does not indicate the numbers coming in, because one must also look at the rate of turnover.

We know some of the reasons why people are evicted. Often, they are legally evicted from furnished accommodation. They may be illegal tenants in the sense that they have no rent book. The landlord might, quite properly, require the accommodation for his own family and, therefore, he legally requires the tenants to move. They may be in arrear with rent, which is a big problem, with associated social difficulties. There are all sorts of other reasons as well. One of the terrible features, however, is that illegal evictions are on the increase. Beneath this is the vast amount of harass- ment which it is difficult to pin down and prosecute.

The Greater London Council Annual Abstract of Statistics for 1968 dealt with the figures of two years ago. For the whole of Greater London in that year, there were 8,000 applications by families to the London boroughs for temporary accommodation. One-quarter of them, or 2,000, came because of court orders, because the court legally evicted them. One thousand were in unauthorised occupation. What is the position today? Has it become worse? Can we be given the figures, so that the rumours which circulate in the Press can be either discounted or shown to be correct?

On 2nd February I put down a Question to the Secretary of State for Social Services. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment may not be able to answer for his right hon. Friend, although I told the Department that I proposed to raise this matter on an associated Vote. On that date the Secretary of State for Social Services told me that he was setting up a working party to consider steps to be taken with regard to the problems of homelessness in London. The following week, in a Written Question, I invited the Secretary of State to tell us who would be members of the working party, when it would publish its results and what additional evidence it would take on homelessness in London in addition to that already contained in published reports. Unfortunately, the Secretary of State could only say I have nothing at present to add to my reply to the hon. Member on 2nd February." —[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th February, 1971; Vol. 811, c. 43.] That is unfortunate, because it shows that while the Government are doing something, they have done it rather late. I am sorry that the Secretary of State for Social Services has not been able to give us more details of this most important working party, in whose activity, when it becomes better known, there will be great interest.

Mr. Ronald Brown

Has my hon. Friend postulated a reason why the Department went ahead in setting up a working party on which, apparently, none of the local authorities and none of the local authority associations have been invited to serve? Who is this high-powered working party which is to find more information than we have been able to get?

Mr. Spearing

I do not know whether it is high-powered. I hope that it is, but we cannot tell, because we do not know who is giving evidence and who are the members. I hope that we can soon get an answer and that, if necessary, the Minister will make a statement in the House. Not only is it a matter for London, but it creates great interest, quite properly, in the rest of the country.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Fulham spoke about the displacement of population. One of the anomalies in London is that whilst there is a declining population, with an even faster decline in the inner parts, they are the very places where there is increased housing stress. However, the situation is not so anomalous when one realises that, while the population is going down, numbers of households are increasing. That can be understood when one takes into account rising standards of living of some people.

It was my right hon. Friend who put his finger on the spot when he spoke about market forces. We all know what happens in London. Over the years, those of us who live here have seen it happening faster and faster. People have different salaries and different social wants. Single people living together in flats in inner London can afford relatively high rents. So can people with large salaries. But the man who has to keep a wife and family on a relatively low salary is in direct competition with them. That is where the trouble starts.

While the numbers may be declining, we have a changing social and occupational structure of the population in inner London. I commend this point to the Minister and to the members of the working party set up by his right hon. Friend, assuming that it has not occured to them already. No doubt if they make arrangements to get the census figures when they become available, the trends for 1961, 1966 and 1971 will pinpoint what is happening.

The high-salaried occupations to which my right hon. Friend referred are probably on the increase in London. The city is a great centre for growth indus- tries, the communications industries, the media of all sorts, the headquarters of many different types of firms, national and international, including those involved in new techniques like computers. One of the biggest industries in London is what might be termed the academic industry. There are many new academic occupations. People with high incomes come here from abroad, many of whom receive direct or indirect assistance to meet their housing needs. The result is that the market is inflated, and the competition to which my right hon. Friend referred is becoming even greater.

The word "competition" is a favourite among right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite. I suggest that they look at it more objectively than they have before. The inevitable consequence is what might be called a housing vortex in London, where the competition is faster and the rate of displacement is even greater. My right hon. Friend referred to the situation where older houses which years ago would have been occupied by relatively large numbers of people on low incomes are now being "tarted up" and are changing hands at inflated figures. We have seen this happening more and more in the last 10 years. What are we to expect in the next 30?

We have great difficulty in Ealing. People who have lived in the area for many years find that they cannot get accommodation within their means. When they apply to the borough, they have to undergo a means test, and it is set at such a level that it excludes those who are deemed capable of purchasing their own homes. In practical terms, this leaves a gap. While people may be deemed capable of purchasing their own homes, and in theory they may be able to, building societies turn them down when they apply. A constituent of mine was offered the modest house in which he lived as a tenant at a price £1,000 below the market value. He could not get a mortgage. The result was that he was liable to come under a new landlord, and he feared that he might be evicted from the house which had actually been offered to him for sale.

I refer to mortgages. We hear, and are pleased to hear sometimes, that the global total of mortgages over the country is going up, but if hon. Members refer to Social Trends, 1970, they will see a table showing that in 1968 no less than 37 per cent. of those taking up mortgages were already owner-occupiers in another property. I say "No less than 37 per cent.", because 18 per cent. had no stated previous ownership, and the percentage might therefore be 40 or more.

This percentage figure does not take account of value, and it is possible that more than half the moneys advanced by the building societies were to those people who wanted a second mortgage to get a second house. If we are to use private purchase properly, and the Labour Party believes in all types of occupation and ownership, particularly in London, we have to see whether these funds are being used effectively.

Because of all these difficulties, we have in London what might be described as a housing musical chairs, but the pace is increasing because of the effects of inflation and social factors. Every time there is one house fewer, the homeless and those under pressure suffer. But when the music stops, it is not those who by chance happen to be by the empty chair who get it; it is those who already have the capital saved up, those on high incomes and those coming in from outside who are able to purchase homes for themselves. What happens is that the people already in London, many of them living here, many who on first getting married went into unfurnished, or, more usually, furnished accommodation, find, as in the famous "Cathy Come Home" film, that as their families grow they are caught and drawn up into the vortex in which they could do little.

The situation is even worse than hon. Members may realise. Some of the political friends of hon. Members opposite have been giving evidence to the Francis Committee via the London Boroughs Association. Not only is there harassment, not only is there the difficulty with furnished accommodation which we all know about, but there is evidence of unlawful eviction. The London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea says: Eviction is an offence which takes place with impunity and the police appear to lack adequate powers to deal effectively with the distress caused". Hammersmith says: Unlawful evictions still take place. The legislation to deal with this matter is now effective as it should be. Westminster says: Attention is drawn to the ease with which a furnished tenant may be evicted by the simple expedient of locking the door particularly in the case of properties where the landlord does not reside on the premises". Havering says: It is very difficult if not impossible to prevent a landlord from effecting an unlawful eviction if he is determined to do so". It is the view of many people in London that the situation there is worse than ever it was at the time of the Milner Holland Report.

Mr. Ronald Brown

My hon. Friend has referred to the London Boroughs Association. Is he aware that the evidence which he has quoted would never have been given to the Francis Committee if the Tory majority had had its way, and it was only after a long argument that it was decided to send the evidence to the Francis Committee?

Mr. Spearing

I am obliged to my hon. Friend for that information. I am shocked to think that there was any debate about providing this evidence to any committee looking into the facts. I am sorry to hear that some boroughs were not willing for these facts to go forward.

What we are dealing with in London is not just a housing problem; it is housing as an integral part of planning. Across the river there is an inquiry into the Greater London Development Plan. Some of the things that have come out there have been concerned with employment. I suggest that when the hon. Gentleman looks into this he should tie up not just housing but the whole strategy of employment and associated salary levels. If this vortex of which I have spoken gets faster with more and more people coming in from all over the place, with the market forces getting stronger, then we will have to take a look at our strategy.

In Opposition the Conservative Party tended to sabotage the policy of the last Government, and there is ample evidence of that. In my constituency, starts in the first nine months of 1970 were 22. There were another 21 for public sector, non-council, giving a total of 42 for the borough. That gives my constituency 10. That is the sort of problem we are up against showing the sabotage of the encouragement given by the last Government in solving this problem.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwood made great play about this dichotomy over the inner and outer boroughs of London. The Government have a policy for this, and we are glad to hear about that. The Secretary of State for the Environment went on a Lambeth Walk and made some pronouncements, and we look forward to seeing what he will do to persuade these outer London boroughs to accept a larger proportion of council building. My right hon. Friend the Member for Fulham mentioned that in the Inner London boroughs there are people with higher incomes taking over and going into areas which previously they had not looked at. If this is happening, then, on a quid pro quo basis, why cannot the opposite happen in the Harrows, Croydons and Ealings?

The Francis Committee—and this is just a Press rumour—is recommending decontrol of a certain number of controlled tenancies. This will mean that the people concerned will be tipped into the vortex which means that more will be pushed out, adding to the other 12,000. It is also suggested that there would be a defreeze on registered tenancies. If the Government are to act upon these recommendations, they have to look at the implications in the same light as my hon. Friends and I have done. If they act upon this recommendation without looking at the consequences the harvest will be a bitter one.

The hon. Gentleman said in no uncertain terms in HANSARD on 17th December last: What we want to do. above all, is to have a fair rental policy in both the private and public sector …."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th December 1970; Vol. 808, c. 1708.] What does a fair rental policy mean. To whom is it fair?

Is it fair to the person who is putting capital out—in other words men with high rates of pay—or is it fair to those with a low incomes—the dustman, the bus driver, the electrical power worker? My hon. Friend mentioned that if it is to be fair, a massive financial programme will have to be instituted in opposition to the trend in this country over the last 50-60 years. If support is to be for people rather than property as indicated in Government policy, there has to be a system of rebates or allowances. The Government claim that that is what they are going to do, but according to the Government's new policies on public spending, the total spending on housing will be £100 million to £200 million less. If so, where will the rebates come from? Supposing the number qualifying for rebates is higher than they think, will the money come from the rates or from the Exchequer?

These are some of the things people are asking about Government policy. If the money is to come from the rates, there will be a great disequilibrium and if it is to come from the Exchequer how will the Government spend £100 million or £200 million less?

In London, in the Borough of Barking, 67 per cent. of dwellings are under the local authority and in Tower Hamlets 57 per cent. If the rebate comes off the rates there the situation will be quite impossible.

If the Government introduce more of a free market system, how will it help with what my hon. Friend rightly called the utterly desperate situation in London? Let us see that the free market is going to meet some of the problems we have been talking about.

The Secretary of State for the Environment wrote in a "Shelter" newsletter article last autumn: What needs to be done is to see that each family prosperous enough to do so devotes a good proportion of its income to better housing, leaving the Government and the Local Government to make sure that those now bady housed and unable to provide themselves with tolerable housing conditions are given the help and assistance that is required. What does the Secretary of State mean by "a good proportion"? Has he not forgotten that the lower the income of the person, generally the higher the proportion he has to give to housing and that if one increases people's living standards, a marginally lower proportion has to be spent on decent housing conditions?

It seems that the Secretary of State was not clear what he was at. In the preface to the Conservative election manifesto last June the Prime Minister wrote that the Government should deal honestly and openly with the House of Commons, the Press and the public. Some of the questions asked require decent, honest and open answers.

Apart from the general questions, I hope the hon. Gentleman will answer these particular questions: When will the Greve, Cohen and Francis Reports be published? Can he answer my questions, put on 8th February, about the Working Party on London's homeless? Who will be on it, what evidence will be given and when will the report be published? I now add a fourth question: what are its terms of reference?

Will the Minister ensure that the powers made available by the Labour Government in various housing Acts for local authorities to look at housing as a comprehensive study in their areas are used?

Will the Minister investigate what my right hon. Friend the Member for Fulham and I have described as the London vortex, particularly the effect on workers such as those in London Transport, Post Office and power stations? London depends on people in this type of occupation and I use them as examples—particularly those who are getting married at 25 and are in the housing market.

In "A Better Tomorrow" we read that courage and intellectual honesty are essential qualities in politics". Those were the words of the Prime Minister, who said at Eastbourne recently that the Government must get rid of their illusions.

I hope that, with its traditional policy of competition on which it is a great expert, the Conservative Party will have a look at competition in housing in London and the effects it is having now and will have in future if it is not controlled and directed in more constructive ways. If it does not do that. there will be incoherent, inarticulate and many protests coming from a large number of people who are already fed up with democratic government as we know it today and as they have experienced it. There will be a further erosion of confidence in parliamentary procedures. I look forward to the precepts of the Prime Minister, admirably expressed in the manifesto, being put into action by the Government in respect of housing problems in London.

4.56 a.m.

Mr. Ronald Brown (Shoreditch and Finsbury)

Regrettably, my constituency is covered by three authorities for housing, each Conservative controlled, each designing its policies to make sure that it builds as few houses as possible. The Greater London Council is making it clear that its purpose in life is not to build any houses at all. It is pursuing as fast as it can go the transfer of housing from itself to the London boroughs.

The London Borough of Hackney is an area which is grossly overcrowded and causes considerable problems. I have frequently written to the Hackney Borough Council about cases. I have written to the Minister and his predecessor on many occasions. I wish to give, not a one-off, unusual example, but a typical example of a man, his wife, son and six daughters. They have three bedrooms. The ages of the children range from a boy of 21 and girls of 18, 17, 16, 14, 12 and a younger one. I am told in a letter from the housing manager: The family, as you will know from previous correspondence, occupies three-bedroom property without modern amenities. The overall points award, however, only enables the case to be included in category B of the waiting list, and as you will know from previous correspondence, I am not yet in a position to deal with applications listed in category B of the waiting list. I do not know for how much longer the family is expected to remain in category B.

Another typical case has been subjected to lengthy correspondence between the Hackney Borough Council and myself. It concerns a man, his wife and six children —three sons aged 19, 17 and six and three daughters aged 15, 10½ and three. They all live in four rooms. I have been to visit the rooms. The word "room" is a misnomer. One cannot open one door without closing another to get through, but the accommodation is technically four rooms. There is no bathroom. They have exclusive use of a toilet, but it is at the end of the garden.

The Hackney Borough Council writes: The difficult circumstances under which this family is living are fully appreciated and have been adequately reflected in the points value of the application, which has been placed in category B requiring a five-bedroom unit of accommodation. As you are already aware, this Council has extremely heavy rehousing and other commitments, which means that only a small number of applicants can be housed from the waiting list. There is also a number of applicants on the waiting list in the same bedroom group with a higher points value who, in all fairness, must receive prior consideration and there is little prospect, therefore, of my being in a position to deal with this application in the foreseeable future". That was from Hackney. So I proceeded to the G.L.C. valuer, and got a reply which told me that Ormsby Street area, in which the family was located, was the subject of a clearance order known as the Shap Street area. I was told: It will probably be two or three years before rehousing from this area will begin. So I went back to Hackney and said, "You cannot leave this family in these conditions for another two or three years. "The reply was, "It is not our job. This is a matter for the G.L.C." The Minister will be aware that the G.L.C. is not a housing authority as such, only for its own purposes or for nominations from housing authorities. Hackney knew and understood all about that case, though. It is deplorable that that family should be in category B and nothing done about it.

In 1965 the authority was doing some housing, it is true, but there occurred in 1968 what I regard as a disaster. The council had been planning, acquiring land and building 2,000 units, but in 1968 the council's political control was changed, and the new council decided, notwithstanding all the problems, that it would cut back from the programme of 2,000 units a year to only 600. There is no guarantee that it will ever build 600.

I pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State because I know, from information given to me, that he himself is seized of the very point I am making and I understand he went to Hackney and gave the council a talking to. That is to his credit. I know the difficulties, and I do not want to exacerbate the situation in political terms, but I must draw attention to the fact that the council was aware of all this before ever the hon. Gentleman went to see the council. It has no intention, it has never had the intention, to address itself to the housing problems facing Hackney.

It is a disaster that it has not only refused to tackle the housing problem but has divested itself of as much land as was assembled by its predecessors. I hope that in May there will be a change of political control in Hackney, but even if there is, my colleagues in the borough will be faced with the almost impossible task of trying once again to assemble land in order to put forward a programme which will marry up to the demands I have indicated by mentioning those two typical cases.

My colleagues will also be faced with the difficulty that was originally there before 1964, because the then Government were refusing to give any help whatsoever to local authorities. The Minister will, no doubt, be aware that the Government redevised the subsidies way back in 1957, and refashioned them by reducing them to zero for general housing needs. It was only as the General Election of 1964 approached that they decided, about 1962, to re-establish subsidy for general housing, and it amounted to £24 a unit. That made it impossible for the boroughs of London to address themselves to the problem as well as they would have otherwise done. The Labour Government were elected in 1964, and by 1965 housing authorities were obtaining £250 a unit in subsidy. That was an incentive and a help from a Government who understood the problem, and the boroughs went ahead assembling their land as I have mentioned.

I am sure that my hon. Friend was right to quote the attitude of the Secretary of State for the Environment. I know that the right hon. Gentleman has taken time to deny that that is what he said or meant to say; but there is clear evidence that people in places like Hackney believed that that was what he said, whether he said it or not. It is no use the Minister denying that he said it. What is more important is that people following him thought that he said it and acted upon it.

Hackney is a classic example. The Minister has been there, so he knows that I am not exaggerating. I have produced evidence to the Department. I have called for a public inquiry. I think that the housing policy is a disgrace. I have called it from time to time almost chaotic, because the council has little or no idea what to do. But, above all, it has decided that it will not build council homes if it can avoid doing so.

I hope that the Minister will continue to put pressure upon that authority, because it is a disastrous situation. Until the local authority is able and willing to build the necessary homes I, on behalf of my constituents, shall continue to press very hard indeed.

I emphasise that the cases which I have illustrated are not isolated examples. I can produce dozens. I have met the chairman and officials of the housing committee. We keep arguing. I cannot even get answers from them now; they just will not take the trouble to reply. I have spent hours with them discussing matters in detail. One can wait a year or more and still get no reply. They are so incompetent that they just do not bother to reply to arguments put before them. This is a serious matter which needs to be watched closely. Local authorities just do not respond to any pressure from Members of Parliament on behalf of their constituents.

The boroughs are taking their example from the G.L.C. The boroughs are trying to obtain an interview with Mr. Plummer of the Greater London Council about concessionary fares. It is like trying to get an interview with Her Majesty. I think that he believes he is even higher than Her Majesty in terms of trying to get an appointment. This is a second tier authority dealing with primary units of local government and the leader of that authority takes no notice; he completely and utterly refuses to see representatives of any London boroughs.

The London Boroughs Association desires to have words with his majesty. That association is composed of boroughs controlled by people who are his friends, but he puts a flea in their ear, too.

Who is this man? What does he do? I was delighted to see that he was not included in the Honours List. I anticipated having to call him Sir Desmond. I only hope that he is not being transferred to another place. However, I am bound to observe that if he did go, leaving the G.L.C., I should support his moving. It is a dangerous situation if public representatives are allowed to behave like this.

I should now like to turn to the other side of my constituency. Islington has a very good idea of how it desires to go on. It has done its best to get rid of the land which its predecessors had ac- quired. Much the same thing happened there in 1968 as in Hackney: there was a change of political control. Islington did its best, in a more sophisticated way than Hackney, to divest itself of its property.

Classic examples are again available in the Minister's office, because of complaints which I have made on behalf of my constituents, of the authority offering land for sale. I raised this matter in the House a year or 18 months ago. The authority did a wonderful deal, which I still have not worked out, because it fell through as a result of my raising it in this House. It was a wonderful deal. Islington Borough Council owned land on which to build 21 one-bedroomed units. It decided against doing it, because it was a Conservative-controlled council, and its shadow Minister, as he was then, had advised it not to go in for council building. It decided to find a housing association to which it could hand it over.

The housing association had no money, so the council offered it the money if it would build to its standards, and then hand the units over to the council. I ask now, as I did then—who wins from that exercise? When there is an enormous housing department in the borough, how will this benefit my constituents who are living in the conditions I described?

The housing association itself was an even bigger issue. I discovered that seven of its eight committee members were members of a construction company and the eighth was the company's accountant. I pay credit to the then Ministry and to my hon. Friend the Member for Willesden, East (Mr. Freeson). I do not know where he leaned, but the deal did not go through. A lot of time was wasted when the desperation in my area is for one-bed-roomed units, because it is an ageing population. This site could have been made available much earlier.

The authority also decided to try to sell any houses it built. I have commented before on a block of flats put up for sale at £7,000 to £7,500—something modest, which my postmen or chaps working in the meat market can afford? Nine months later, the council have had to call it off, because it has not sold one. But all the ratepayers' money which was spent did not provide the housing which was necessary while this silly, doctrinaire, party political issue was taken through by the council.

But the biggest issue of all was the block of flats which the G.L.C. and the Islington Borough Council wanted to pull down, Many such blocks need pulling down in my constituency and after great pressure from me on behalf of my constituents, the G.L.C. decided to put a compulsory purchase order on it. Because the owners objected, an inquiry was held in September, 1969, and its report submitted to the Minister in 1970. Anyone who knew anything about it was sure that the Minister's decision would have to be clear-cut, and that, by all reasonable standards, he would have to confirm the order. The G.L.C. and Islington Council, both Conservative-controlled—this is not a political issue—thought the same thing.

On 3rd August of last year the Minister took an extraordinary step. At 11 o'clock in the morning I was informed of the right hon. Gentleman's decision—if I may call it a decision. He said he would give the owners an opportunity to submit to the G.L.C. a scheme for improving these 100-year-old properties which had been described in the inspector's report as being unfit for human habitation.

I was obviously angry about this because, like the Islington Council and the others concerned, I thought it a silly non-decision. I could not understand why such a non-decision had been made and I made investigations. Nobody seemed to know very much about it. I began to use the agencies which all hon. Members have available to them when they want to know what is going on in their areas.

Gradually some facts began to filter through to me. For example, I discovered that the objectors to whom the Minister was giving special privileges, in that they were being asked to come forward with other proposals—proposals which had not been put forward at the public inquiry—had all sold out. In other words, I found that the freeholders had sold out to the G.L.C. between the time of the inquiry and 3rd August, 1970, the day on which the Minister made his peculiar decision or non-decision.

They were obviously satisfied that they had not made a case and that they could not possibly have done anything with these old properties. As a result, they had decided to take their money and go. That was the position, and after being in control of these properties for many years, they had decided to get rid of them. But let us consider the circumstances.

On the morning of 3rd August, when the Minister made his peculiar decision, the leaseholders sold out to a speculator. One was left wondering who would purchase old junk like this, particularly when it was, we thought, about to be pulled down. In other words, why would a speculator wish to purchase property which it was everybody's expectation would be the subject of a compulsory purchase order which would be confirmed by the Minister?

I investigated further because I wanted to discover the firm of speculators. That in itself was quite an exercise. I went through about 40 names, but I kept coming back to one street, which was Maddox Street. I discovered that there were a series of what one might call £100 unit companies, many of which had gone broke and started up again. The names of three or four people kept cropping up.

I contacted the Minister and suggested that perhaps these were not the sort of people with whom we should be dealing, but the right hon. Gentleman's view was that these speculators could now be regarded by him as if they had been the original objectors. I was horrified at that and I wrote a series of letters to the Minister pointing out that all my researchers, into the 1957 Act and other related Acts, showed that the right hon. Gentleman had no grounds for the view he had taken in the matter. As far as I am aware there is nothing in the Act which allows the Minister to nominate a speculator who purchases property subsequent to a public inquiry, and before the Minister has made his decision, to be treated as though he were an original objector.

I again wrote to the Minister telling him that all he was trying to persuade me was that his lawyers were arguing that he had such rights. His lawyers may or may not have been right, but I submit that such rights as the Minister had must be enshrined in the Act. I do not think that he has the power to go outside the Act. I told the Minister that I thought that this was a case for the Ombudsman to find out why the Minister was allowed to go outside the Act. We are now talking about August, 1970, when the speculator bought out the objector.

The speculator was allowed to produce proposals to the Greater London Council by 2nd November for redeveloping and refurbishing these old houses. Then the G.L.C. was expected to consider those proposals from the speculator by 18th December. I objected to that. As the hon. Gentleman will know, I thought that it was the wrong thing to do, but I was happy at least to play along, because I thought that the inevitable view would be that the properties were not capable of being properly refurbished and modernised.

Then I discovered a most extraordinary thing. The speculator having sent plans to the G.L.C., the G.L.C. then had to send back its comments on the plan to the speculator, and the speculator then had to send back his comments on the G.L.C.'s comments to the Minister by 15th January. All this time my constituents were living in conditions described in the report as being unfit for human habitation.

The Minister was very kind, and I pay tribute to the fact that in our discussions he and his Department have been most helpful and cordial, but I am sure that I will be forgiven for feeling very strongly on the issue, because my constituents have been forced to live in the most appalling conditions. The speculator was unable to do the ordinary repair work, and the medical officer of health has had a tremendous job trying to get the properties made wind and weather proof.

I accept the argument: why spend money on the houses if they are eventually to be pulled down? Nevertheless, I suggest that it was an unusual situation for a speculator to be able to purchase property of such magnitude unless he had some idea that what eventually happened would take place, because I cannot conceive of anybody being ready to spend money on junk like this unless he was pretty sure he would get away with it.

In the end the Minister made the right judgment, and last Friday he decided to confirm the compulsory purchase order. I am very grateful to him, and my constituents are delighted. In fact, if I were not here now taking part in this debate I would probably be drinking sherry with them, so delighted are they by the Minister's decision.

But is not this a case for the Ombudsman? A great matter of principle is involved. If any speculator has the right to do what this man did—purchase property on the theory that he would gain something—we are very unwisely opening an avenue, and I can find no authority for doing so.

I was concerned that in the judgment that the Minister gave in his quasi-judicial capacity he confirmed that payment should be made to allow for the fact that certain of the properties had been well maintained. To whom are these payments to be made—to the speculator, who has not spent a sou on the place, or to the tenant? If it is suggested that these payments should be made to the speculator, it is disgraceful. The argument that he has paid good money to purchase the properties and should get something back is untenable. The Minister should recognise that payments for well-maintained properties should go to the tenants who have spent considerable sums in keeping the properties in good repair.

I hope that the Minister will indicate how he sees the future of housing in London. Neither Islington nor Hackney is able to take any properties back from the G.L.C. They already have enough difficulties. The Minister knows that I have been concerned on the London Boroughs Association in the negotiations as regards transferring housing, parks and open spaces from the G.L.C. The Minister knows that I have made it clear from the outset that I regard the draft Order to transfer homes from the G.L.C. to the boroughs as wrong. It is wrong in principle and will be disastrous in practice, it will hinder housing development. In the two and a half years of negotiations no argument has been put to me to show how transferring those houses will enable the cases I have referred to tonight to be re-housed.

The other dangerous situation is on costs. After many months of arguing with my colleagues, they have obtained an equalisation scheme that sounds plausible. I have shown time and time again that it is less than plausible and that boroughs such as Islington, Hackney and Southwark will suffer badly as a result. I have sought an assurance that there will be proper maintenance services available in boroughs that have refused to take their houses over. I believe that when the various units of the G.L.C. staff are handed over to the boroughs that have taken the houses over, those that have not taken houses over will find that there will be no staff available to carry out repairs. There is ample evidence that the repairs service for the G.L.C. is deplorably low. Insufficient moneys have been put in for this task. In my area there are still G.L.C. properties with baths in the kitchens. In 1971 there is no justification for the G.L.C. having properties in that state.

I hope that when the Minister considers the draft Order for the transfer of these houses he will be well seized of the arguments. It will not be sufficient to say that it arises under the 1963 Act. A much better answer is required from a housing management point of view. I should like to be told how it will help the housing situation in Shoreditch and Finsbury. To us in London, this housing problem has always transcended political issues. We have tried hard to find solutions, and we must continue to try. We cannot sit back and let things drift on.

I do not believe that a case has been made for the rôle that the borough councils have been playing since 1968. The answer is alleged to be that some other agencies must be responsible. We have been told that there were insufficient agencies of this kind. I have found it hard to accept the suggestion that in order to find such agencies many Conservative councillors should set themselves up into housing associations so that they could act as if they were not councillors. This is the antithesis of what we on these benches had in mind. It was the pursuit of this doctrinal party policy that did a great deal of harm to housing associations, which I have favoured. They have a role to play, certainly in an area where the local authority has failed to do anything. But the use which has been made of them since 1968 has led me to have very serious second thoughts as to whether I am in favour of them.

As to future housing finance, which no doubt we are all guessing at, if it is anything like what I have been led to believe it is I can understand the story that the Conservative authorities have protested vigorously to the Government about it. If there is any truth in these stories that one hears, they convince me that the Government really have not understood housing problems, certainly in areas like London.

I have tried in a few words to sketch the problems facing Shoreditch and Finsbury. I hope the Minister will continue to press both those authorities to continue building and, above all, to be prepared to give more money to them so that they are able to get the housing problem under control as soon as possible.

5.32 a.m.

Mr. Reginald Freeson (Willesden, East)

Despite the hour, and despite the fact that the speeches in this debate have come from one side of the House, I hope the Minister will agree that it has been a worth-while debate.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Paul Channon)

indicated assent.

Mr. Freeson

My hon. Friends who have spoken—and one particularly congratulates my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. John Fraser)—have traversed familiar ground, but, none the less, ground which needs to be covered again and again, not only because we must continue to press for adequate answers to a great complex situation in London but because as we go over this ground time and again more information and more understanding are revealed.

During the course of this debate, I think it is right to say that in all the speches most of the major elements of the London problem have been brought out, even if only briefly. I support my hon. Friends. I have made it my business to be here because I believe that the situation in London, and particularly inner London, is virtually a disaster—I am choosing my words with deliberation—and because I believe that the way in which this situation is being handled at present by most—not all—local authorities—the G.L.C. and London boroughs—is disgraceful. I shall not say anything now that I would not have said had I remained in the office that the Under-Secretary now holds.

The situation in London is very complex. In a relatively short time I cannot go into it in detail, but I want to summarise in statistical terms, boring as they may be, the central issue, without all the fine points that have been rightly raised and which are essential to studying the subject in depth.

As I see the position, after studying the facts and figures as best I could, both whilst I was in the office of junior Minister and since, we have a slum clearance problem in London of about 150,000 unfit dwellings, which are in a shocking condition and which by and large are incapable of being made fit economically. It is not worth spending the money on them. That figure has come out from the Planning Department of the G.L.C., and is now broadly accepted, although when, as a member of the previous Administration in the Ministry of Housing, I suggested about a year ago that there were over 100,000 slums in London, and not the 22,000 being officially quoted by the G.L.C., I was denounced publicly by the then Chairman of the G.L.C. Housing Committee. Today, on the basis of the figures known to the Department and published in the working party's report, the total is 150,000. This comment is in no sense critical of the officials, but already that is an outdated report, and it was becoming outdated when it was published.

There are in London obsolescent dwellings, seriously sub-standard properties that are capable of being modernised and improved and converted into decent flats, totalling between 200,000 and 250,000. I believe that for the purposes of new roads, schools and similar public needs, at least 26,000 dwellings will be demolished on the present known schemes. The present Chairman of the G.L.C. Housing Committee has publicly stated recently that there is a crude shortage of 348,000 dwellings. That is the surplus of families over the number of dwellings in Greater London. The total of those figures is 774,000.

When we consider what is being done, we see why I have stated that we are verging on a disastrous situation in Greater London. I believe that total local authority housing starts are now running at 20,000-21,000 a year. I am not sure that the figures are not down to 19,000 and on the way down.

I believe that improvements are running at about 4,000 a year. That can only be a broad estimate, and it is of those registered for grants. A certain number of properties may be being improved without grant, but they will be a minority of the total. As a result of these improvements, about 4,000 additional self-contained flats or dwellings are being made available. Private building is running at about 10,500 a year, with a slight marginal upsurge in certain outer districts. I understood that the figure for London's new towns at the time I left office last June was running at approximately 5,000 dwellings a year; it might be a little higher or lower. We therefore have a total annual provision of, roughly, 44,500 dwellings as against a total need of 774,000 needing to be provided in one way or another.

If we were to translate that 774,000 into a 10-year programme, aiming to try to get the main part of this complex of problems resolved by 1981, we would require in total, by way of improvements, new construction and the like, on the list which I have just given, something like 77,000 a year. There is, therefore, a shortfall of about 33,000 a year.

I am the first to accept that statistical sums of this kind are crude and that one cannot run a housing programme or policy in this precise way. I do not suggest that this is any kind of targeteering. I do not believe in targeteering as such in housing. I took that view before my party decided on adopting such a policy in 1964. These are, however, first-class guidelines reflecting a situation which needs to be met and, therefore, cannot be ignored.

The situation is even worse if one looks at it in context over a period. I have recently been checking some figures, as no doubt, the Under-Secretary is aware, by way of Parliamentary Questions, as well as referring to the various volumes of housing statistics. Whatever the Government may do towards the end of this year or next year with their housing legislation by way of reform of housing finance and the like, it is clear, as I had come to realise when I was in office, that the rate of slum clearance in London during the next five years will drop. It is dropping, and it will continue to drop.

The rate of representations to the Minister, which were already worrying us when I was in office, are continuing to drop. There are always the two stages. One must first make representations for the slum clearance areas to be approved by the Minister. There is then a three to five or six-year gap, putting it optimistically in many instances, between confirmation of the order for slum clearance and the physical demolition after the people have been rehoused.

The figures are extremely disturbing because, after a few years of a steady rise, there have now been several years of levelling off and then a drop. In Greater London, the number of dwellings included in slum clearance area representations to the Department for the London boroughs has fallen from over 6,500 dwellings in 1967 to something over 2,000 in 1970. These are very serious figures, and I do not think that I exaggerate the position when I use the word "disastrous".

In the case of the G.L.C., the situation is not quite so serious. However, the figures are fairly low, anyway. In 1967, there were 1,131 representations. Last year, they were running at the rate of about 1,400 or 1,500. The figure for November is the latest that I have, when it stood at 1,328, so it cannot have been much more than about 1,500.

Between 1968 and 1970, the figure for the Greater London Council was roughly level, whereas there was a sharp drop in the London boroughs.

Much the same happened in the physical clearance of sites. At the moment in Greater London, the clearance rate is running at 5,500 a year, against an estimated figure of 150,000 unfit dwellings incapable of being economically modernised which, according to the planning department of the G.L.C., have not a life of more than 10 years.

When seen in cold print, these figures bore people. I can understand that. But they reflect the realities of the London situation. The G.L.C. and the London boroughs can and should be starting to build at an annual rate of 40,000 dwellings, and I say now no more than I said when I was in the Ministry. The figure rose steadily until about 1967–68, when it reached about 31,000 starts. Since then, there has been a steady drop to below 20,000. All over London, with two or three marked exceptions, there has not been a continuation of the rise in construction which was essential if we were to get up to something like the 40,000 figure. Again, I do not use that figure as a target. It is based on the needs of London and the local government capacity. It has not even levelled off. Instead, there has been a sharp drop.

The situation is even worse. The Greater London Council, which originally had a programme of something like 9,000 to 9,500 housing starts a year, failed to achieve it from 1968 onwards, although there had been a steady climb until then. But in January of last year there was a disgraceful decision by the G.L.C., the major housing authority for London, to cut back its programme from over 9,000 housing starts to about 7,000, possibly with a further cut-back three or four years later.

That was disgraceful enough. But not even that programme has been achieved. There has been a drop to just over 6,000 starts in the last 12 months or so, and there is no prospect of making up the backlog. In total, this greatest housing authority in the country has cut 12,000 housing starts from its current housing programme.

It is even worse than that. Land has to be assembled in order to maintain a going housing programme, and it must be assembled on the basis of a supply for five years in the pipeline, because that is roughly the period between purchase and the preliminary work of construction, particularly in built-up areas such as London. I am still probing the position, as I tried to do when I was in the Ministry, to see what the land position will be, because beyond 1974–75 no land will be available to the G.L.C. if it manages to achieve somewhere near its present housing programme, that is, if it manages to reach the lower programme of 7,000 houses. There will be one or two marginal sites, but virtually no land bank left to the G.L.C. If it does not achieve 7,000 housing starts and keeps the level down to 6,000, which is the figure down to which it appears to have come, it could add another year, and the 1975 programme would be seriously at risk despite achievements in the Surrey Docks and so on, because we do not yet know what is to happen to them.

It is not that land is not available, for it is. I do not know whether the Minister has tried to get any sampling of the situation and potential in the London Docks. Land is available for thousands of families to be rehoused in the Greater London area, but that land is not in Inner London where vast ruins of filthy, broken down property must be cleared because of overcrowding and so on, but in undeveloped green field sites, or at worst sites with only a few properties, in areas thinly populated.

There is public resistance by local authorities in these Outer London areas and no sense of participation in solving London's problem as a whole. The only way in which the situation can be dealt with is for the G.L.C. to undertake the kind of strategic action which my hon. Friends have mentioned in these boroughs as part of a coherent policy for London as a whole, not only for the sake of putting up houses, but in order to relate what admittedly should be a bigger figure in Inner London to the development of Outer London.

The programme may be built up so as to include clearance of rotten and obsolescent areas of Inner London, or based on the capital assets of all kinds of houses, owner-occupation, housing associations and large-scale rented accommodation, to provide a social mix, which is what people need and to provide a balanced mix across the city, across the whole of Greater London.

The G.L.C. has made virtually no efforts beyond a few hundred properties, but no approach whatever along these lines in recent years. I do not know whether it will ever be persuaded to do so. I can speak only for those people in my party who are interested in these matters, in county hall and outside it, but not for the majority in control of county hall. The ones for whom I speak are not in control, and even if they were to become so, it would be several years hence. What must happen now, if the G.L.C. will not do this, is that the responsibility must rest with the Government. Although it is easy to say this with hindsight, I assure the hon. Gentle- man that I am being genuine when I say that had we remained in office we would have taken this seriously on board. It was already seriously on board, and some of the Minister's officials may confirm this if he has discussions with them, even if under constitutional rules, certain documents have to be kept under lock and key.

If the G.L.C. cannot be persuaded, and I hope that it can, to take a strategic, executive rôle in housing for Greater London as a whole, then the Government must consider creating the necessary agency to do the job. This is not something confined to the G.L.C. It is not confined to its failure to build up a land bank, which is something that must be persuaded to begin. This policy is to be found among most local authorities except for two or three in London. Either it is the outer boroughs, not interested in building a few hundred dwellings—sometimes in a year—or it is the Inner London authorities which have been slashing their programme.

We know that the Minister is traversing familiar ground. Although the then Opposition poured scorn upon us when we as a Government stated that we would make contact with those authorities in London and around the country which had been falling down on their housing work, we know that since the Government came into power they have, either through Ministers or through officials in the Department of the Environment, repeated the exercise, trying to bring pressure to bear on local authorities to improve their housing effort. They have also been seeking to get the outer London boroughs to make land available and to participate in the Greater London housing effort.

I hope that such efforts will produce results but I am not optimistic. There will have to be new techniques investigated by Government, new techniques whereby the Minister can really use the reserve powers available under the 1957 Act, which I shall not detail. I know the difficulties involved, but they must be overcome in resolving the housing problems of London. In the meantime it is not sufficient for the Minister to accept better programmes from a number of local authorities which are "phoney" in the extreme. I know that my hon. Friends are having this experience. There are many hon. Members on this side who know that this is going on as a result of the consultations that officials are having with the staff of the boroughs and as a result of the legislation which the Minister has been laying. There will be many boroughs which have been sending in programmes but are now saying, "We agree, we will start again." It must be remembered that those boroughs, if they are to go ahead with a bigger programme in the next few years, will only be making good, so some extent, the cut-back and the delays which they deliberately embarked upon in the last two or three years since the change of control in 1968.

Even if they have put paper plans forward, they need more probing, with respect for the officials in the Department for whom I have great regard in the difficult job they undertake so vigorously in this sphere. They can be misled, and there has been an excellent example of this, indicated to the House by the Minister in a recent Question hour. I will use this, not because I want to have a go at my own borough but because it illustrates some of the worst aspects of what is going on in London housing and particularly the point I have just been making.

The Minister will recall that in the exchange at Question Time when my hon. Friend the Member for Willesden, West (Mr. Pavitt) asked about the borough's housing programme and the cut-back on housing, the Minister said that the House would be pleased to hear that there had been a firm or pretty firm programme of 2,000 houses. These were tenders for 1971 and the programme for the following two years. I do not question that the Minister gave the information to the House in all sincerity, but I have the Council minutes which set out the programme in detail, and I have to tell the Minister that if he or his officials have been given the impression of a firm programme they have been seriously misled.

I am convinced that that is an illustration of the kind of thing that is going on in London, and hon. Members for London and particularly for Inner London are having that kind of experience. The Minister could check it.

Of 1,997 houses, 995, according to the Council, will not be started until 1972. What is referred to as Stonebridge 4a has been delayed for two to three years. His officials know it, and there is much correspondence.

There is a cut-back from the programme of two or three years ago. What is—more, the council minutes said that the site would be available in 1972, subject to the people on the site—several hundred families—being rehoused as a result of previous programmes. There are 186 young children in Church End and South Willesden in "B" housing. We know what happened at Chalkhill. There are hundreds of families in these areas who should have been rehoused last spring and summer in Chalkhill, but they are still living on the site, and 846 houses cannot start until the families are rehoused, and there are no plans for that so far.

A housing association scheme is included in the borough list, which can hardly be described as a municipal programme. It is rather a "phoney" figure. I could go on to 1972, when, the Minister said, no doubt on the basis of information from the local authority, that there was a programme of 500 houses, while its figures show 376 for 1972. Of that number, 125 are housing association houses and 360 are on land subject to purchase and which the council has not even minuted a decision to go ahead and buy. It if does not get the land, it will not get the houses on it. The same exercise has been undertaken for 1973.

I have gone into some detail to show and the minutes are available and I should be glad to pass them on to the Minister, or he can get copies of them from the local authority—that what he and his officials may believe, as a result of conversations they have had in London, to be firm programmes are paper exercises. I will not pursue the political point from a public relations point of view for the local authority between now and the May elections; I leave it stated as a point without elaboration. All over London boroughs have been doing this. I could name them. Boroughs which I visited prior to the General Election when I was at the Ministry and some which have been mentioned tonight are failing in their duty.

I started by saying that the situation is threatening to become disastrous. I hope that I have shown in summary terms by a few examples and a number of figures that local authorities are not doing the job—and not simply because they are in financial difficulty. I accept that they are in difficulty. The Government are carrying out a full scale investigation into the future of their financing of local authority housing. It was not started with the change of Government. We have yet to see whether we shall agree with the results. I make that point to show that we were as much concerned and aware of the financial problems of local authorities. I personally interviewed several of them when I was at the Ministry. I know that London boroughs like Lambeth and Camden have serious problems.

But it is significant that authorities with the biggest financial problems and biggest housing problems are making the greatest effort, under whatever political control they may be. Lambeth is pursuing a bipartisan policy. It is among the most progressive housing authorities in the country. It is invidious to say that a housing manager is the best in the country, but Lambeth has a first class administration and policy. There has been no break between the Labour administration and the Conservative administration. One can also say of other local authorities that those with the greatest financial and physical problems are those with the greatest housing programmes. I use the phrase which I used before we left office: they have the political will to carry on with the job and others have not. The other have decided to opt out of housing.

It is a serious thing that at the very time in parliamentary history when we have legislated to give greater powers and responsibilities to local authorities to treat the whole of the housing problems in their areas rather than just to build council house estates and issue health Act notices—and I have in mind particularly the Town and Country Planning Act, 1968, with its action area concept, and the Housing Act, 1969—local authorities in London and in other parts of the country under the control of the Conservative Party have decided virtually to opt out of the housing effort, many of them completely, others very largely. They have sliced their programmes and are having constant reviews.

Mr. Ronald Brown

My hon. Friend has not seized the point of another aspect. The G.L.C. has had clearance orders on areas in my constituency since 1963 and 1964. It is delaying work on houses which should have been cleared because it wants to try to hand the whole issue back to the boroughs on 1st April, resulting in houses not being cleared as the boroughs will not be in a position to clear them.

Mr. Freeson

It is even worse, certainly in some parts of London, than my hon. Friend suggests. I think this is true to some extent of Islington. It is worse because the G.L.C. is not only planning to pass over some of its responsibilities in this respect, but those which it is still maintaining it is slowing down on considerably. I think Islington has some problem in this respect, and is some six to twelve months behind the G.L.C. slum clearance programme. But it is also, of course, because the G.L.C. will be handing over potential schemes, which could be done rapidly, to authorities some of which are conducting the same kind of policy as the G.L.C. has been conducting, slowing down their own rate of clearance.

I quoted pretty stark figures, and I am not going to go over them again, but I think it is fair to say that they underline the seriousness of the situation. It is not getting better; it is not even stabilising: the housing effort in London is becoming abysmally low. We, when we were in Government, were traversing the same ground as the Minister is now having to traverse.

The question is whether the Government are going to investigate ways in which they can take the necessary action and use the power which they have in reserve to get the housing effort in London upped, at least to the 1967 level, or the level of round about that period. That should be the first objective, to get back at least to the 30,000 housing starts, to get back at least to the 6,000 to 7,000 clearance representations instead of the 2,000-odd per year, to get back to a much bigger rate of actual clearance, and also to step up—this a point which I have not elaborated this evening very much because of the time—the considerable effort in the housing improvement field—in addition to slum clearance, not, to repeat what I have said at Question time, in place of it, as is happening up and down London today. These things go together—slum clearance representation and slum clearance itself, alongside reconstruction of areas which are not the most suitable areas for improvement anyway—reconstructing all areas which, under the 1969 Act, should be demolished and rebuilt.

These are the things which need to be done, and they need to be done urgently, because if we do not get the housing effort upped in London, ultimately to that 40,000 a year London housing starts and also 40,000 a year housing improvements —not the one in place of the other, but both together—by the end of the century we shall have the same problem as we have now, and 10 years from now there will be something like 1 million people in London still living in these disgraceful conditions.

The figures speak for themselves. If we carry on at the present rate of clearance in London with almost 150,000 slums and with the sub-standard properties which, not being improved rapidly enough, will slip into slumdom, then by the end of this century we shall still have the main bulk of our slums standing in London, added to by the many, many thousands of properties which will not have been improved rapidly enough by the local authorities, whether borough or G.L.C., because they will not have organised themselves effectively to get the job done. They will not have done this, will not have organised themselves, because they have not the political will.

This evening I have avoided any reference to the political changeover which may take place between now and that period. The reason why is that although I believe that were there to be changes, as I believe there will be, to some extent at least, in May, at the municipal elections, which could result in an improved housing programme, what I have seen in the last few years has done so much damage to the municipal housing effort in London that it will take many years to recover the leeway we have lost—

Mr. Ronald Brown

And the money.

Mr. Freeson

—under Tory control. Even when we have made up that leeway, we shall be nowhere near the rate of construction and improvement of slum clearance we should have achieved by now had we maintained the progress which was built up until about 1968 when the political changes took place.

For all these reasons, I believe that it has been right to have this debate. Let there be no fear that it will not be repeated and that we shall not carry on this issue at much greater depth and length on other occasions both inside and outside this House.

We have a disastrous situation in London. If action is not taken soon, I fear that we shall have a situation arising which has shown itself very much a real issue in many of America's great cities. If that day comes, many politicians in town halls, as well as here, will have a lot of responsibility on their shoulders for the social disaster which they will have helped to create.

6.15 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Paul Channon)

The hon. Member for Willesden, East (Mr. Freeson) and, indeed, all hon. Members who have spoken in the debate are entitled to raise this subject at any hour of the day or night. Indeed, I welcome the fact that the hon. Gentleman, in his concluding remarks, said that we shall have more debates on the subject.

No one on either side of the House can deny that the housing situation in London is simply ghastly. It is one of our major social problems. It is one of the most serious social problems which will confront not only this Government but whichever party is in power for a very long time.

It is certainly right that, even at the risk of going on rather long this evening, we should have had a debate of some length on the appalling problem of London housing. I hope that I shall cover most of the points which have been raised in what I have to say without being too long. If I miss some points, I hope that, at this hour of the morning, I shall be forgiven, and perhaps hon. Members will get in touch with me later and I shall do my best to answer them.

Although the hon. Member for Willesden, East spoke last, some of his points are fresh in my mind, so I will deal with one or two of them now. I should not like to be thought to be accepting the hon. Gentleman's figures without carefully checking them at a better time of day. However, I must point out one or two errors which occurred to me as the hon. Gentleman gave his figures.

It is true that slum clearance representations are down, but the forward programme is ahead again. If authorities fulfil this programme the representations will increase again and later the slum clearance will go up.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about 150,000 unfit dwellings. They are not necessarily unfit now, but they will be unfit in about eight to 15 years if action is not taken in that time.

It is true that last year approvals—not only G.L.C. approvals—fell below 20,000. But there is evidence to assume that approvals this year will be higher than last year, although not nearly as high as any hon. Member would like to see.

As a preliminary start to my remarks, I can tell the House that the G.L.C. is already undertaking a fresh survey of housing land availability in connection with the development plan inquiry to which hon. Members have referred in their speeches.

I thought that all hon. Members spoke about this subject with the great seriousness which it deserves. However, I cross swords with the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. John Fraser), who raised this subject, when he attacks my right hon. Friend about his remarks a year ago. My right hon. Friend has answered this attack very fully in an Answer to the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Frank Allaun), who raised it in the House. I think that my right hon. Friend's answer is conclusive on the point. If the hon. Gentleman has any doubts, I suggest that he should consider my right hon. Friend's actions since he has been in office. My right hon. Friend has said many times—I think that I can claim the support of the hon. Member for Willesden, East on this—that we need a vigorous housing programme for areas of great need, and we all know that London is one of them. So I hope that the hon. Member did not mean that attack to be taken with the seriousness of the rest of his speech.

While trying not to be too partisan, I shall have to answer one or two of the partisan points which have properly been put to me tonight. It would be foolish of me to try to lay the blame for what has happened at the door of the last Government. It would be even more absurd for anyone to lay it at the door of a Government who have been only eight months in office. I shall try to discuss objectively the intractable problems which face us and where the best line of advance lies.

Both major political parties have been in charge of our affairs for roughly half the post-war period and we both bear an equal share of credit or blame for what we find in London today, as the right hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Marsh), the Opposition spokesman on housing, more or less said the other day in a speech in the constituency of the hon. Member for Shoreditch and Finsbury (Mr. Ronald Brown).

As hon. Members have said, in spite of its diversity, London still has a unity. All its activities bear upon one another. Many people living in Outer London and beyond London altogether draw their sustenance and support from commerce and industry near the centre, which in their turn requires their hands and brain.

It is obvious that the London housing problem must be treated as a whole. There is no doubt that the housing needs of Inner London are beyond its own capacity to cope with, for two main reasons—first, the increased pressure on the inner areas, arising from increased traffic, tourism and 1001 other reasons, and, second, the fact that when old, unfit houses are cleared away in the inner areas it is rarely possible to get more or even as many new houses in replacement, especially when one has to allow for schools and open spaces as well as decent standards of new housing.

Outer London, too, has its problems, but it has been clearly shown that the position will be getting a little easier in the next few years. There will be problems, of course, in Outer London, but I believe that we will be seeing it helping Inner London, with its pressing and continuing needs.

All this was set out in the third Report of the Standing Working Party on London Housing. These figures are formidable, even on the working party's own estimate. They saw a deficit of 100,000 dwellings in Inner London and another 150,000 sub-standard dwellings. In my view, those figures were optimistic rather than pessimistic and the situation may well be worse than this. All hon. Members will regret it, but we must face it as a realistic fact.

My right hon. Friend, now the Secretary of State, sent out this report in July last. I well remember reading this report. It was almost the first thing handed to me by officials when I arrived at the end of June or early July at the Ministry of Housing. It was not a pleasant document to receive in those circumstances. When he sent it out, my right hon. Friend asked London housing authorities to take note of four things. The first was the need to pursue a vigorous building programme; the second the need for Outer London to help in easing the housing needs of Inner London; the third, the importance of improvement grants in reducing the number of houses without basic amenities or which were otherwise unsatisfactory; and the fourth the help which the proper provision of a Housing Advisory Service might give in providing information as to ways in which new housing can be obtained outside the Inner London area.

Local authority housing is obviously not the only answer, and I was glad to hear hon. Members say this. Private enterprise can help, as can housing associations and societies. However, we all appreciate that there are extremely difficult problems no matter which way one builds in London. First and foremost is the difficulty of finding land and the high cost of the land once it has been found.

For this reason my right hon. Friend told the London authorities, in effect, "We want to encourage all these agencies to build, but we beg you not to let your efforts flag in the meantime." In other words, we must do all we can to help these agencies, and we are studying the evidence which was submitted to the Cohen Committee. On the private enterprise building side, my right hon. Friend is now having discussions with the building societies on the question of home ownership, so that there is little that I can add on this aspect now. Local authorities are also up against this problem of cost.

I wish to allay some fears that have been expressed, and I am confident that the facts will, in time, bear out what I say. Although we may disagree across the Floor of the House about the reform of housing finance, the proposals which my right hon. Friend announced in November and which are now under discussion with the local authority associations are designed to put the boroughs with the most problems in a better position to face those problems. I accept that the boroughs with the worst problems in the country are the boroughs of Inner London. The Government's financial help will be directed to places where it is most needed and where it will do the most good.

At the beginning of his remarks the hon. Member for Norwood vigorously attacked some Conservative-controlled local authorities. I thought it ironic that he referred, when quoting instances of good authorities, to Lambeth, Wandsworth, Hackney and Southwark. Of those four, three are controlled by the Tories. I trust, therefore, that hon. Gentlemen opposite will accept, as I do, that there are good and bad local authorities belonging to all political parties. As I say, with the exception of Southwark, the boroughs he mentioned are Conservative-controlled. I do not want to labour this political point because it is always boring to say who did better or worse since, say, 1965. We must concentrate on doing better in future.

The hon. Member for Willesden, East was right to describe Lambeth as one of the best housing authorities in London. Indeed, it is one of the best in England. For what it is worth, it is building a great deal more now than when it was Labour-controlled. I do not make much of this point, and I mention it only to show that there are no clear black or white answers to this problem.

Lambeth has done a number of other things of which we approve. For example, its housing aid centre is a model of its kind and may turn out to be the pioneer of many other such centres throughout the country. Perhaps I should refer to it as a possible joint pioneer because equally good, though quite different, is the Shelter housing advisory centre in Kensington. Lambeth's register of multi-occupation properties could well have a profound effect on housing in the area, and I hope that similar schemes will be started elsewhere, especially when the success of the Lambeth scheme is fully appreciated. So I must ask the hon. Gentleman not to be quite so partisan. Even on his own statement there is an example universally recognised as one of the best authorities which is not controlled by his own party. We are not all devils, even by his own standards.

The hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing) had some harsh things to say about Ealing. I do not have with me now the figures relating to all the London boroughs, but I am informed that Ealing is now back to a programme for 1971–72 of 1,000 dwellings a year. If that programme is fulfilled the House will have reason to feel gratified about it. I must point out that despite the strictures of many hon. Members opposite more houses are to be built by local authorities in London in 1971 than in 1970, and the G.L.C. will have a very substantial programme as well.

Mr. Freeson

The hon. Gentleman is now dealing with a very important point, and there is one thing that he must not slide over. The fact that there might be an increase in 1971 over 1970 must be set against the much more important fact that the figure for 1970 is considerably lower than the housing effort of three years ago. There has been a sharp drop. So whatever increase there may be it is nowhere near what should be going on at present.

Mr. Channon

I said earlier that this was not nearly as much as we hoped for, so to that extent I must accept what the hon. Gentleman says. Although I am sure that the House is delighted that the figures will be up in 1971, the whole House also knows that in the face of this ghastly problem the figures are not high enough. We can all agree about that.

At the risk of being rather disjointed, perhaps I can turn to some of the various points that have been made in the debate. The hon. Member for Norwood asked about housing starts. The figures are collected in the Department and published in the Local Housing Statistics from which the hon. Gentleman quoted. He will find the housing starts if he wants to.

I hope that the House will not expect me to go into great detail tonight about G.L.C. house transfers. It does not prevent them being used for London's needs, as 65 per cent. of voids are reserved for the G.L.C., and Professor Cullingworth has said that Phase 2 of the transfer is acceptable.

The hon. Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard) raised important points about improvements. I was sorry that he felt that the 1969 Act was not successful, but I will see whether there is widespread evidence of what he says. What I think he is saying is that in Camden and St. Pancras a number of unscrupulous landlords are driving a number of tenants to do away with their legal rights. If they obey the letter of the law, the hon. Gentleman's constituents should have no complaint.

It is a small minority, and I emphasise that it is a small minority, of landlords who behave in this way and who bring so much of our housing legislation into disrepute. We all know that there is a small minority of very bad landlords and we all know that there is a very small minority of bad tenants. The Francis Committee, to which the hon. Gentleman the Member for Acton referred, is dealing in its report with the whole question of bad tenants and bad landlords.

I can assure the House that the Government are determined to do all they can to track down and attack the activities of the bad landlord if it can humanly be done. The hon. Member quoted some comments showing how difficult it was to do this, but where there are ways the Government are determined to use them. We can claim as at least prima facie evidence that we mean what we say in the fact that almost the first thing we did on coming to office was to increase publicity of tenants' rights. Hon. Members may have seen quite a large national campaign on these lines in the last few months.

The landlords to whom the hon. Gentleman refers are bluffing their tenants. If they are controlled tenants and the improvements are carried out, they become regulated tenants. They do not lose their security of tenure, and anybody who tells them that they lose their security of tenure is wrong. The hon. Gentleman helped pass the 1969 Act through the House. He must tell his constituents that they are having their bluff called, and he must help them get round this problem if he can do so. I accept that it is a very difficult problem.

It is nice to have the right hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Michael Stewart) back in housing debates. It is a long time since he took part in one. Many years ago when I was a very young back bencher and took part in such debates the right hon. Gentleman led for the Opposition on housing matters. I will certainly note what the right hon. Gentleman says about the Borough of Hammersmith, though I do not accept everything that he says about it. I will study the very important points the right hon. Gentleman raised.

On the question of railway land, the West Kensington Goods Yard scheme, which I imagine is the one to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, is now going ahead. I understand that there are still some problems. I hope that they can be resolved, but the great thing is that the scheme is going ahead under the London Borough of Hammersmith. We can all be pleased that the borough has taken that decision.

The House knows that the Government take a different view from the right hon. Gentleman on the question of the sale of council houses. I do not know whether the House would want me to go into the argument in detail tonight, because we all take fairly rigid different views on it. My point is that selling council houses does not in effect reduce the stock, because if the practical facts are faced those who are in such dwellings are almost certain to remain there for the indefinite future. Someone else is not thereby being deprived of the chance of going into the property, because the property will not be vacant, anyway. The right hon. Gentleman takes a different view about this, and we shall have to agree to differ on this point. I am sure that we shall be debating the question on many occasions in the future.

The hon. Member for Acton rightly asked me when we would see the trinity of reports coming out—Greve, Cohen and Francis. The question of the publication of the Greve Report is not for me, alas. I wish it were. The question of the publication of the Greve Report is for Professors Greve and Cullingworth. It is for the research team to publish the report. I understand—it is not for me to say whether it is accurate; it is not my report—that it is to be published fairly soon, I hope within the next month or six weeks. If the hon. Gentleman wants an authoritative answer, he must ask the authors rather than me.

Mr. Ronald Brown

Am I right in thinking that the Department has had a copy of the report? Is the Department examining the Greve Report? What action is it proposed to take on it?

Mr. Channon

I intend to come to that question.

I hope that publication of the Cohen Report will not be long delayed. This report is not in the same form as most reports. It is the collation of the evidence of the former Cohen Committee. We shall have to decide on the most appropriate way of publishing it. It is a very complicated document which I am sure hon. Members will want to study.

The Francis Report has been received and is being printed. It is being studied and I hope that it will be published shortly—certainly within the next month, perhaps much sooner. It is a very long and detailed report, and hon. Members will find the arguments it contains well worth studying. It is an extremely important report which will have far-reaching effects on London housing, and the Government and the Opposition will have to reach important conclusions as to whether they accept the recommendations in the report. For that, we shall have to wait until the report is published.

Dealing now with the question asked by the hon. Member for Shore-ditch and Finsbury, we have seen a copy of the Greve Report and this is one of the reasons why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services has set up the Working Party on Homelessness to take action on some of the things mentioned in the report. I wish I could tonight tell the hon. Gentleman the terms of reference and the details of the working party which he asked for. I will inquire whether I can do that, but as of tonight I am not in a position to do that. I will make inquiries to see whether that information can or cannot become public knowledge. I do not know the reasons which have led my right hon. Friend to that conclusion. Certainly this subject is largely the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services. He takes the problem of homelessness very seriously, for it is an extremely serious social problem.

One other matter which the hon. Member for Acton raised was the duty of local authorities to survey the housing needs in their areas. A wide duty is placed on local authorities by the 1969 Act, and we shall be encouraging local authorities to cover all aspects of their housing needs. I hope that I have dealt with the four questions that the hon. Member asked me. If not, no doubt he will be getting in touch with me.

The hon. Member for Shoreditch and Finsbury raised many points. I admire the stamina of his constituents drinking sherry at 5.25 in the morning. I do not know whether they will be doing so at 6.40. In reply to his point concerning Farringdon Road compulsory purchase order, I do not think that I should go into that in detail, especially as he intends to refer the case to the Ombudsman. I hope that the hon. Member will not think that everything is utterly wrong. The procedure that the Minister took made it possible to produce a final decision earlier than the Inspector's procedure, and in the event the compulsory purchase order was confirmed. I had better not go into the details without being very carefully briefed on this very important matter, although I have, of course, seen the papers relating to it.

I have had a pleasant discussion with the London Borough of Hackney, at its request. I am in continuous touch with the London Borough of Hackney about a whole host of matters—

Mr. Ronald Brown

Would the hon. Gentleman be able, even by writing me a personal letter, to tell me something about the situation in South Shoreditch? I am very concerned about the private developers' proposals there. I believe that he has discussed this issue with Hackney. I am advised that he said that he could not make any comment. I am concerned about the proposal to erect a £2,500,000 office block in the area, which would be scandalous. I hope the hon. Gentleman will let me know that this is not his Department's policy.

Mr. Channon

I must be careful about commenting on what the hon. Gentleman has said. For all I know, this may be the subject of a planning application and it may be unwise for me to commit myself. All I can say now is that I note what the hon. Member says. If it is proper for me to discuss this matter with him I shall do so, but I cannot be sure that it would be proper.

The hon. Member for Willesden, East said that he thought he was in danger of boring the House with figures. I can assure him that he was not in any such danger. He made an extremely valuable speech and we shall study it with great interest.

Not all the points have been covered. Even the hon. Member for Willesden, East left out a few. I must not delay the House for more than a few more minutes, but may I turn to the subject of improvement? Improvement and conversion, in spite of what the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North said, can help greatly, as the Minister's letter made clear. The Government have already stepped up the promotion of this work by campaigns all over the country, and we are preparing the ground for a massive improvement campaign in London. I hope that we shall be able to use the full resources of Press and television to get the message across to the many thousands of people who must be desperately concerned to improve London's older houses.

I hope that we shall involve local authorities, local societies, voluntary bodies and all those who have a part to play. I am confident that with their co-operation the result will be nothing less than a crusade changing the houses of thousands of Londoners for the better.

I know that the House will be pleased to see the increase in the number of grants by local authorities. In 1969 the total number of grants was just under 109,000. That figure increased by over 43 per cent, to 156,400 in 1970. In no other place is the improvement scheme more necessary than in London. It is clear also that many London boroughs are getting down to the job of encouraging house and area improvements in an excellent way and are setting an example in improving their own older property. I certainly believe that it is essential that we should improve areas that can be improved. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should not improve areas that are really slums. If he has evidence of that happening I hope that he will bring it to my attention.

I believe that more scope exists for housing associations, particularly in conversions and improvements. We shall see the results of the Cohen Study in due course. The G.L.C. has given massive support to housing associations in the past three years.

My right hon. Friend has acted on housing aid centres, and a number of local authorities have set them up. Lambeth is one, and there are others in London. I hope that there will be many others before long. Apart from day-to-day expertise and direction on housing, rents, landlords and tenants, a housing aid centre can often steer people to a radical but acceptable solution of their difficulty, such as a move to another town. Evidence from one such centre shows that nearly one in three applicants ends up buying his own home. That is a remarkable figure. My right hon. Friend had discussions about this with representatives of the Greater London Council and the London Boroughs Association in October.

Apart from the question of new towns, the housing problem is not local but is of regional importance. The South-East Joint Planning Study, published last year, showed how the inner London housing problems were a matter of regional significance involving a future strategy for the whole metropolitan region. Housing stress in inner London figures in the strategic policies embodied in the Greater London Development Plan, which it would not be appropriate for me to comment on now.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of new towns but omitted town development schemes, which are providing homes for the overspill programme for 5,000 to 6,000 London families annually. We look to a growing contribution from the new towns at Milton Keynes, Northampton and Peterborough when they come into full house-production at the end of the decade.

We need help not only in the form of contributions from the outer boroughs to the problems of the inner boroughs, and seizing opportunities for future redevelopment which may, for example, emerge in the docks, but a sustained overspill programme as a prudent and sensible measure to provide its own relief to the housing stress in inner London.

The private sector is terribly important, but has not been mentioned very much in the debate. By "the private sector" I mean the private landlords and tenants, who include many of those who most need our understanding and sense of fair play, and I am thinking of the landlords as well as the tenants when I say that. Some people seem to regard all private landlords as an evil institution or at best an anachronism who should be loaded with all possible restraint and injustice. Even if the Government held that view, which they certainly do not, the folly of it from the tenants' point of view should be obvious to any moderately intelligent person. So long as millions of our fellow citizens lawfully rent accommodation from private landlords—and the previous Government did not provide any alternative—restraint and discouragement of the landlord which goes beyond a fair balance with protection of the tenant reacts against the tenants' own interests, by decreasing the supply and depressing the quality of the accommodation available to them. We have seen this happening for a very long time. We shall bring these dwellings very rapidly into a fair rent system, and we shall also make sure that private tenants who need help with paying their rents will also be able to get aid. That is a terribly important reform in housing policy, and it is desperately important in London above all places. A much greater proportion of Londoners are private tenants than are people anywhere else.

Mr. Spearing

Could the Minister answer my question as to whether those grants will be from the rates or direct from the Exchequer, or does not he know?

Mr. Channon

The whole question of housing finance, in the public and private sector, is under consideration. I cannot answer questions about changes in it until negotiations are concluded. I am sorry that I cannot answer the hon. Member's question about that tonight.

The Francis Committee's Report is being printed and will be published as soon as possible.

As I said in an earlier debate, we must improve the situation in a way which is fair to both sides, to make sure that we punish the tiny minority of bad landlords and the tiny minority of bad tenants, both of which give the system a bad name. Incidentally, I hope that other boroughs will follow Islington's excellent example of prosecuting far more rigorously than, I think, some boroughs have done.

In trying to find new and better ways of tackling London's housing problem, none of us—I mean, local authorities and the Government acting together—can neglect to make the best use of the powers that we already have to build, clear slums, improve, convert and do all the other things that are available to housing authorities and the Government.

The problem is utterly ghastly. It is a nightmare for any Government to be faced with on arrival in office. I am sure that it was a nightmare for the last Government, too, when they arrived in office. It will be a continuing nightmare to successive Governments for a long time. I believe that, one day, we will see the problem of London solved, but it will take a long time. There are bound to be political differences between the two parties about how it should be solved. I assure the House, however, that the Government are determined to do what they can and to follow policies which, they believe, will have their effect in trying to improve the ghastly situation that all of us know exists in London and which is still a scandal to our capital city.

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