HC Deb 13 July 1971 vol 821 cc426-40

Question proposed, That the Clause stand part of the Bill.

Dr. J. Dickson Mabon (Greenock)

I do not press for specific answers to my points tonight, but merely seek from the Under-Secretary of State for Development Scottish Office, the assurance that he will consider them when we debate other matters later on today, when the White Paper for Scotland is published following that for England and Wales yesterday. I welcome the hon. Gentleman to our discussions. The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Education was here for the Second Reading, and his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Home Affairs and Agriculture has been here. It is nice to have a variety of Under-Secretaries from time to time.

No doubt the Clause and its implications for Scotland will be reflected in the Bill that is to come before us. I have reserved my hon. Friends' position, just as my hon. Friend the Member for Willesden, East (Mr. Freeson) did on behalf of his English colleagues, on the practice in the present rent system in Scotland. We do not go along completely with what the Francis Committee says. There is evidence since the publication of its Report to show that a number of assumptions are wrong.

The principle that if a tenant has done work on the house he may be given an amelioration in his rent by the landlord is already written into the present system. It is fair to argue that that landlord should not exact a higher rent when he has had public money. There may be other principles that we must debate, and the Under-Secretary may well promulgate a few more in the White Paper.

I have an earnest correspondent in my constituency who was fascinated by our exchanges on Friday and wrote at once to give me other suggestions. I shall put them to the Minister, and my hon. Friends from the Glasgow constituencies will probably want to put a few more ideal into his head.

Tenement properties are the most difficult to improve. The trouble is multiple ownership, which was one of the great headaches at the time of the storm damage. It was not easy to find where the authorising responsibility lay, never mind the person who benefited. The answer to question 4 on page 3 of the hand-out encouraging people to apply for improvement grants shows that they must give a guarantee that the home has a life of at least 15 years. That cannot be done where a person does not own the common stairs and the fabric of the property above and below and does not have complete control over the plumbing—not just the existing plumbing but the extra plumbing that may be required under the new water board regulations and so on. There may not even be majority control by a combination of owner-occupiers. We must see whether there is another way of helping people who want to carry out improvements but who are in a sense vetoed because a landlord may be reluctant, or have elderly tenants who are reluctant to opt into the improvement scheme.

In the Labour Party we do things extremely well. If I were told that the improvement grant system was 90 per cent. correct, I should be delighted. I pressed the hon. Member to say whether it was 99 per cent. correct, but I never expected him to say that it was 100 per cent. correct. It is not ; there are defects in the improvements system and this is one. There are others which I shall mention on another occasion. Perhaps I ought to send this letter to the Under-Secretary and let him reply to it.

There is an unfair distribution of money for discretionary improvements. There ought to be a comparison between the practices of authorities to see whether some are fairer, or less unfair, than others in giving money. This is an important matter. It is rather like valuation in Scotland, although this criticism does not apply to England—we want some kind of referee to make sure that the discretionary grant system is reasonably fairly operated, even though by its nature it has a discretionary element which gives rise to variation.

I shall content myself with those remarks. We are anxious that Clause 3 should become part of the Bill, but I assume that the practice of fair rents will be radically considered, especially if the Government are to found their new policy for the private sector on the fair rent system more formidably than before. In defence of the history of this matter I remind the Government that the improvement grant legislation came after the fair rent legislation and to that extent the latter did not anticipate what the former would be. Now it is to be done the other way round and we should look at the matter again.

If the Minister takes refuge in the argument, and I must confess that it is good argument, that the situation in England will be so diverse and fragmented because of the restriction, which we do not like, in the Bill in development and intermediate areas, let the argument stand : my hon. Friend the Member for Willesden, East (Mr. Freeson) can tackle that. But that argument cannot be used about Scotland, and it is important that the Under-Secretary should acknowledge that there is no such argument there.

Mr. McElhone

I, too, welcome housing improvements. Speaking parochially, it is a pity that in my constituency we could not have prevented many of the concrete jungles in our new municipal housing projects, as we could have done if many years ago we had had the foresight to have housing improvements. There is some fine tenemental property in the constituency and, with some foresight and the expenditure of some cash a decade or more ago, it could have been greatly improved, thus sparing the local authority and the Government many thousands of pounds.

What I fear about housing amenity is its sameness, the barrack type of dwelling, the monotonous type of construction which we seem to have perpetrated in our housing improvement schemes. There are reasons for this—the haste to build, the shortage of ground, the rush for housing, particularly in the post-war period.

Will £15 million be enough for Scotland considering that housing in Scotland is much more expensive than in the rest of the country and that, because of the higher standards which we set ourselves in housing, repairs and renovations and improvements are more expensive, too.

One of the main difficulties in implementing the scheme will be getting planning permission from local authorities. If there is any major reconstruction to be done, it will certainly need planning permission. As often as not, because of the archaic system of planning controls, many months and sometimes years are taken up with getting planning permission. If we have a spate of planning proposals, the resulting delay and the fact that a scheme must be undertaken within two years of receiving planning permission will militate against people taking advantage of the money allocated to Scotland.

Does the Minister envisage any of the £46 million being spent on the older municipal housing estates? They were built in great haste because of the pressure for new housing and a great deal could be done to improve them, particularly in the peripheral areas of Glasgow where they lack amenity and are depressing places. Could part of the money be used to make them more pleasant? As rents increase and with transport difficult and expensive, they could become municipal deserts.

People may find it easier to purchase a home with a mortgage than live on these estates. In the older parts of my constituency people are living in tenement homes often without water and certainly without light for weeks and even months in some cases. It is not because they cannot get homes but because they are offered only houses in these peripheral areas which they are most reluctant to take. They would rather undergo these privations in the hope of getting a house which is more acceptable without the difficulties of travelling.

Would the Minister agree to the money being spent by local authorities on prewar obsolete housing because these homes contain a great fire risk which Glasgow local authority is dealing with. Obsolete electrical wiring, installed when people had only a radio and an iron, is one of the main reasons for the danger. Glasgow has over 100,000 municipal houses built in the 1919 period. Many families have put in extra plugs for fires, refrigerators and other appliances and this throws a burden on the circuit which it was never designed to take. The large number of fires in these homes have compelled many local authorities to take action, but some are reluctant to meet the challenge. I hope the money could be used to deal with this danger.

Another point which comes close to my heart is the question of improving the housing of the chronically sick and disabled. As I have told the House before, I am conducting a door-to-door survey in my constituency. It is now coming to a completion and is providing useful information. It shows the need for improvements and aids for many chronically sick and disabled people living in older property. Many of them would perhaps qualify under medical priority for new housing, but just as important as new housing is the companionship and friendship they have in their neighbourhood. Because of this, many of them are reluctant to take a new house. In many cases also, the older houses can be made perfectly adequate for them by the provision of a ramp or of a certain type of toilet, for example.

I hope that the Government will give more thought to this aspect, including perhaps the installation of warning systems which do not cause a great deal of money but allay the fears of disabled or chronically sick people living on their own and perhaps seeing only a home help for a couple of hours in the day. I would like to think that the right hon. Gentleman will have regard to the position of the chronically sick and disabled under the Bill. My survey suggests that the estimated figure of 270,000 people in Scotland with some form of disablement is a gross under-estimate by Government reports.

Perhaps the Minister could also allude to the problem of people living on long-term socia security benefits old-age pensioners and other people with small incomes qualifying for improvements. I would like to think that people in more necessitous circumstances could enjoy a little more comfort. As they do not qualify for new housing because of overcrowding or redevelopment, they have to endure many privations in the old-type tenemental dwellings. By arrangement with the local authorities or the Department of Health and Social Security, perhaps we could provide financial assistance under the Social Work (Scotland) Act which would benefit people living in such circumstances.

Many people will be reluctant to take advantage of this type of scheme because of their fear that their rent will go up. I do not want to elaborate further on the lessons of the storm damage, but paramount in the success of a scheme like this is adequate supervision, because otherwise many unscrupulous operators could find in the system a gold mine in repair work, particularly on roofs, which is hard to estimate by the ordinary tenant or owner-occupier. I hope that there will some form of supervision so that the public money to be spent achieves everything that the Minister intends.

To many Tory councils with many prewar and rather ancient council houses under their control, this scheme could be a get-out whereby they can improve the property and then sell. It is a distinct possibility. Local authorities are not too happy with this type of dwelling, and under this Bill could improve it to the required standard and then, under the other legislation which, I am glad to say, is not working very well, could sell it, taking them out of the public housing stock. The 1957 Act caused a great deal of hardship. I hope that this Bill, by a more sophisticated means of increasing rents, is not the 1957 Act in another form. We must rethink the question of a fair rents policy. I support my colleagues on the Front Bench who have warned the Government that, while they may accept this Bill, the legislation which we are to have very shortly will come under the closest scrutiny and we shall try to ensure that the people we represent get the maximum advantage from what I think will be disastrous legislation.

I should like the Minister to give us assurances on this matter. I fear greatly—and it is a genuine fear which is shared by nearly all my hon. and right hon. Friends—that the statement on Scottish housing finance which we shall have later today, which will impose penal rent increases on many people, will discourage many people from taking part in any of these schemes. This Bill, involving £46 million for the whole of the United Kingdom, represents the tinsel concealing the package of real misery which future Tory housing legislation will bring.

Mr. Tom McMillan

I believe that the Clause will be welcomed in Scotland. It is an extension of the work carried out by the previous Administration. However, where I part company from the Govern- ment is that they have not looked at the working of the previous legislation. Under previous legislation, people made beautiful houses more beautiful, which did not help to solve the housing problem in Scotland, especially in the Highlands. The two-year Clause in the Bill will help those in Glasgow's public sector no end, but the Bill will do nothing about the worst housing problem in the whole of Europe. The previous Administration wanted to see how their Bill worked with a view to adapting and changing it to suit the problems of Glasgow.

The first thing which we shall have to do in Glasgow in the private sector will be to get the people out of the huge tenement blocks. Only two-thirds of them will go back. It will take from 12 to 18 months to house them, and yet we must get the project finished in two years. What help will this be to Glasgow? We may offer people grants, but the outside structure of the buildings is such that they take a chance if they invest the Government's and their own money in them. I hope that the Minister will be able to point to some project in Glasgow where assistance has been given in two years. The Bill will not bring any relief in the sector in Scotland where it is most needed.

The previous Administration were wrong in not accepting Glasgow Corporation's proposal that the houses which stood in house treatment areas should be counted. I am now in the horrible position of being attacked by the council and by the Press for demolishing buildings and getting people housed, and I now have to run round saying "Keep the buildings up", because I have to make a survey for the houses to be treated. This is vitally important in my sector where about 25 per cent. of the houses are condemned and cleared. I am now sorry I cleared them.

2.15 a.m.

Will the Minister extend the two years to four years for Glasgow? Rehabilitation in a standard tenement means evacuation of the tenants, knocking three houses into two and building bathrooms. This is a long-term job taking about two years, and it would be of great assistance if four years could be allowed.

I do not fall out with the selling of houses, but I am concerned about the rackets in Glasgow. A young couple about to be married went into the factor's office. They were offered a house for £400. On asking what its life was they were told to ring up the planning deptment of the Glasgow Corporation. They did so and were told that the house would not be redeveloped until 1980. The couple thought that they would get ten years out of the house, and they spent £300 on decorating it, only to find that it was condemned before they ever moved in. The house became dangerous, and on returning from their honeymoon they had to go to Forest Hall.

A huge property firm is involved in this racket. As soon as a tenement building becomes empty the firm buys it for £75 and then sells it for £400, when the life of the building is nothing.

A period of two years is useless and will do nothing to help Glasgow's housing problem. I hope the Minister will look carefully at this and, if not in this Bill, in a later Bill, bring in an extension in the private sector in Glasgow to give a longer term.

The Under-Secretary of State for Development, Scottish Office (Mr. George Younger)

We have had an interesting and short debate, which has covered rather wider ground than the Clause we are discussing. The Clause does for Scotland what previously was done in the provision for England and Wales. There are no substantial differences in the Clause which differentiates it except that it is different in slight matters which are necessary to fit in with Scottish practice. There is special treatment for the Highland counties, which has always been the case, and this is preserved in the new grants.

The object of the Bill and of the Clause is to reinforce success. I have often in the past complimented the Labour Party on having brought in improvement grants in the 1969 Act. That Act is working extremely well and we believe that this dramatic increase in the money available will make an already good scheme work even better.

I was asked by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Tom McMillan) whether the scheme could be extended beyond two years, particularly in regard to Glasgow. I am afraid that I must say that we do not intend to do so. The whole point of the Bill and indeed of the Clause is to see that the work encouraged by these higher grants is concentrated in the next two years. I take the opportunity to urge everybody concerned with housing in Scotland owners—owner-occupiers, landlords and local authorities—to move now, and move quickly, to take advantage of the special two-year system which is being brought in with the express purpose of encouraging work to be done.

Mr. Tom McMillan

I know the hon. Gentleman means well, but possibly I did not get my point over to him. First, if we wish to rehabilitate people we have to rehouse them. Those people want corporation houses, and they want to go to particular places. This takes a long time, and by the time the people are rehoused, a year to eighteen months have gone before work has started. Two years means nothing to the people of Glasgow.

Mr. Younger

I should have resisted the temptation to give way. I was just about to cover the point made by the hon. Gentleman in his original speech. I would be the last person to underestimate the difficulties of improving properties ; every job tackled is different from the previous job. There is also the complication of multiple ownership and the difficulties which arise because people do not want to have their houses improved and will stick out and hold back other people. But accepting these difficulties—and they are probably schemes which will take longer to do—there are many cases in the City of Glasgow where work could be put in hand fairly quickly.

Mr. Tom McMillan

Name one.

Mr. Younger

No. There are many individual cases involving houses all over the city where work could be gone ahead with. The corporation has set up a special department to progress the house improvements programme, and I hope that it will do well and that the corporation will press ahead. Of course, there will be many cases which may be impossible to do within the time scale, but there are also many cases where work can be done quickly. It is up to everybody to get on with the job and to try to get it done.

The hon. Member for Greenock (Dr. Dickson Mabon) made a number of interesting points, many of which, as he said, will come up for discussion on other legislation. I do not want to go into them now, but I assure him that when we come to discuss housing legislation in general we shall be glad to look at any suggestions he would like to make for improving the system. We are agreed that this is a particular Bill which has a particular purpose and that this is not the place to debate, for example, the basis of fair rents or any other methods of housing policy. I take the hon. Gentleman's point and we shall be happy to look at any suggestion he cares to make.

The hon. Gentleman then raised the difficulties which are involved in improvement, which is a matter on which I have already touched. One of the main points in the 1969 Act was to give local authorities power to deal with unfit houses by improvement of the houses in an area. If a landlord refuses to improve his houses to the tolerable standard, or, indeed, if he does not co-operate with the other owner-occupiers or landlords in the area, the local authority can step in and acquire the houses for improvement if it so wishes. I recognise that this is sometimes difficult.

The hon. Gentleman referred particularly to page 4 of the booklet which we published about house improvement which relates to the 15 years life which is expected to be required. This is the normal requirement that can be made. However, local authorities can, if they wish, give standard grants for a lesser period down to seven years, and even less, with the consent of the Secretary of State.

Dr. Dickson Mabon

What about multiple-owned properties where one cannot say who is the owner of the stairs or the fabric above and below or the plumbing? This is important.

Mr. Younger

Local authorities can be flexible on these matters. The normal practice is 15 years. The hon. Gentleman will find that local authorities can be flexible to a certain extent and can also get permission from the Secretary of State in particular cases.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Gorbals (Mr. McElhone) asked whether the total sum of £46 million for the United Kingdom as a whole could be spent on municipal estates. It certainly can. We are encouraging local authorities to modernise their stocks of municipal houses, and a substantial number have been and are being done. The statistics show that out of a total of 17,508 houses in local authority improvement schemes in 1970, 15,429 were done to houses built with subsidy. Grant is available for putting in an adequate electrical power supply, and it has been used for this purpose in a large number of cases.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Gorbals also referred to houses being specially adapted for the disabled and chronic sick. We all know of his interest in these matters. If a house owned by a disabled person qualified for an improvement grant and, because of that person's particular handicap, a more expensive type of fixture was required—for instance, a recessed or sunken bath—the local authority has power to grant-aid the cost of the more expensive fixture. I hope that local authorities will do this in cases of such need, and I shall do whatever I can to encourage them to do so.

Mr. McElhone

I mentioned modernising old municipal houses, especially in Tory-controlled local authorities, and such houses being sold. I am concerned about the principle of the matter. I think there is a great deal of sympathy for the point expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Frank Allaun). Has the Minister any observations to make on that point?

Mr. Younger

I want to be brief. This question goes much wider than the Clause. It is most unlikely that a local authority, controlled by any party, would want to go to the trouble, expense and difficulty of improving houses, for which it gets a grant in the form of a Government subsidy over many years, and then sell them for a "quick profit". In any case, the proposals which are in train for the sale of council houses apply to sales to sitting tenants, not sales of vacant houses to anyone who comes along, unless there is no waiting list in the area and then only by special permission of the Secretary of State. Although it is technically possible, I think that it is a most unlikely thing to happen. This is a matter which we can look into in due course.

I do not agree with the hon. Member for Glasgow, Central when he says that the Bill will do nothing for Glasgow. Glasgow's programme, agreed to by all the parties concerned, is to try to improve no fewer than 10,000 houses by 1980. That is a formidable task, and though it has got under way well, it is a long way from being guaranteed to achieve 1,000 houses a year, which is needed if the targets are to be met.

I believe that the Bill will provide a splendid impetus to Glasgow's programme to improve 1,000 houses a year over the next ten years. Many people in Glasgow will look at the Bill in that way, and they will have every help to get the improvements under way. I hope that the Committee will approve the Clause, just as I hope the House will approve the Bill in due course.

2.30 a.m.

Mr. Ross

I rise only because of some of the comments of the hon. Gentleman about the Measure of which I was the author. I am happy that the hon. Gentleman paid tribute to what was done, because most of the improvements that have been carried out to houses have been done under the provisions of that Act. I notice that hon. Gentlemen opposite are always careful not to mention their 1964 Act, which was going to solve all these problems. I do not suppose the hon. Gentleman knows anything about it. If he is frank, he may say that he does not. It was never used. Hon. Gentlemen opposite do not have a very bright past in this matter, and it would be as well if they were to listen to some of the criticisms advanced by my hon. Friends about this Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Tom McMillan) spoke about the special position of Glasgow in relation to the limitation of the period, but he was not talking about the same kind of houses as the hon. Gentleman was. The position of these tenemental properties is unique. There is the special position of multi-ownership and of varied ownership. Some are owner-occupied, while others are tenant occupied, and it is sometimes extremely difficult to get agreement to do some of the things about which my hon. Friend spoke. I think that there was a misunderstanding about the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock (Dr. Dickson Mabon).

It is tragic that the Bill is being debated at this hour. It should not have been taken in a Committee of the whole House. It should have been considered in Committee upstairs, followed by a Report stage in the House. I am sure that some reasonable Amendments, if not the four years for which my hon. Friend has asked, could have been accepted.

It would have been helpful if the Bill had not contained this provision about the work having to be completed within two years. After all, it is now 14th July, and the Bill is not yet an Act, yet its provisions take effect from 23rd June. Does the Minister think that the people concerned know about the Bill? The right hon. Gentleman expresses the hope that they do, but if there had been more time in which to consider the Bill there would be no doubt about that. The Government have been late in introducing the Bill to achieve the maximum effect.

Every city in Scotland is affected, because the whole of Scotland is either a development area or an intermediate area, and therefore the Bill covers both Edinburgh and Glasgow. Will the Minister ask local authorities how long it will take them to process some of the work that he wants them to do? I am sure that they do not have rolling plans for improvements, even though I should like to think that they have.

The Minister is limiting the beneficial effects which we all want to achieve by limiting the period. If, instead of saying that the works had to be completed before the expiration of two years, he had said that they had to be started within that period, that would have provided a certain amount of overlap. That is a reasonable Amendment and I would be prepared to move it if the hon. Gentleman is prepared to accept it. It has been done before. I managed to achieve it during the passage of the Caravans (Site and Control of Development) Act in 1960.

If hon. Gentlemen would come here more often they would learn how to do things. These benches should be packed instead of merely Famine, Death and Pestilence in the form of the three hon. and right hon. Gentlemen on the Government Front Bench giving us the benefit of their knowledge about housing improvement in England, Scotland and Wales. I am disappointed that the Secretary of State for Wales, or his representative is not here. The hon. Gentleman has under-estimated the problems of the private sector in Scotland.

When I was Secretary of State I was concerned about the extent to which we were spending money, not just repairing storm damage but the damage of generations. My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock, who was Minister of State then and who handled, very well, the problems of storm damage in Scotland will bear me out. I was concerned that some of the properties would be sold.

Mr. Tom McMillan

They have been.

Mr. Ross

I felt then that some Bill should be introduced to stop this. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has investigated the extent to which people have repaid Glasgow for the money spent. I was being attacked at that time by hon. Members opposite because this was not being pushed enough. I was told, "Make this a wartime effort, spare nothing". We are getting very little back from these people.

If a local authority exercises its power to improve a house there is nothing on earth to prevent it from selling that house in the same way as any other house. It is to be hoped that it gets a better price from the sitting tenant. The hon. Gentleman spoke about the Secretary of State exercising authority if there is no waiting list in the area. I am glad to hear that. I wonder whether his right hon. Friend agrees. As far as I know they were prepared to sell any local authority property, irrespective of the sitting tenant or the waiting list. The whole idea is to sell to sitting tenants, not to empty council houses to sell them. I do not want to prolong this but the hon. Gentleman should be more careful about the words he uses, even at this time of night.

Mr. Younger

The right hon. Gentleman has not heard correctly. The ques- tion whether there was a waiting list refers to any request to sell a vacant council house and not to sell houses to a sitting tenant. That is the difference.

Mr. Ross

I have a bad habit of writing down what hon. Members say. The hon. Gentleman did not say that. He did not get it right. I have no doubt that suitable changes will be made—I hope they will be—to ensure that nobody who reads what the Minister said will be misled by his words.

In general, we wish the Clause well because we want to see these improvements made. I only regret that it is limited to a two-year period, with a carryover in respect of expenditure incurred. My hon. Friends and I would have liked to have spoken at length on a number of issues raised by several Amendments that we had tabled, but because of the hour and other considerations, we are having to curtail our remarks.

We could have spent a great deal of time speaking about fair rents. What about the Francis Committee? The Lone Ranger, if I may call him that—the one Scottish member of that Committee—would certainly not have accepted every dot and comma of its Report as being applicable to the Scottish position. We could do with some more information about that, but I suppose that can wait until we debate our new Scottish tartan version tomorrow. Meanwhile, I advise my hon. Friends not to oppose the Clause, despite its shortcomings.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 4 and 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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