HC Deb 13 November 1973 vol 864 cc468-78

2.51 a.m.

Mr. William Molloy (Ealing, North)

The London borough of Ealing has a very serious problem, in that, despite the valiant efforts of the local authority, it cannot adequately house no fewer than 8,000 families. Even worse, the number of homeless families in the borough is increasing. The housing committee, the officers of the borough, the councillors and the aldermen are all very much aware of the seriousness of the problem, but despite their efforts the situation is getting worse and before long will reach crisis point. I am raising this issue now in the hope that nothing like it will happen again.

The problem in Ealing has been grossly aggravated by the appalling behaviour, the disgraceful behaviour, the absolutely disgusting behaviour, of the previous Conservative administration. I should like to give the facts to the Minister, who has a much more sensitive and realistic approach to the problem of the 8,000 on the housing register in Ealing, and the 140-odd families who are homeless, than the previous Conservative administration, which treated this matter in a heartless and brutal manner.

My evidence for what I am saying is contained in the report of the Committee on Estimates which, in 1968–69, examined no fewer than 1,199 local authorities and selected 14 which were deliberately cutting back their housing endeavours, despite the fact that there was a threat of a growing housing register. Included among those 14 boroughs which were specially named by the Estimates Committee was Ealing. The efforts of the present administration might not have been so hopeless if there had been a human appreciation of the growing problem, and I am being as charitable as possible when I say that the previous Tory administration were not so much heartless as suffering from appalling myopia.

No hon. Member can be happy with the grievous situation in London generally. I know that the Under-Secretary is concerned about it, and I compliment him on his concern. In future, irrespective of party, we must ensure that what happened in Ealing under Tory administration never happens anywhere else in the country.

I am encouraged, because in my constituency there has been an improvement in the situation which was inherited by this administration. For example, in May 1971 the preparations for new units totalled 64. By November 1972 that had increased to 742. If that had been the average endeavour in my constituency, let alone in the whole borough, from 1968, it is not unfair to say that the grievous situation which now exists would not have been so serious—not if there had been a spark of humanity in the previous administrators.

The First and Second Interim Reports of the Action Group on London Housing contains this statement on page 2: However, it soon became apparent to the Group that shortage of land was likely to be a major problem facing the London housing programme which had to be overcome as a matter of priority if the housing shortage was to be eliminated. This statement appears on page three: But authorities will need to consider whether they have really identified all the available land, whether they are doing all that is necessary to secure its early development and to realise its full potential, and whether they are pursuing a sufficiently positive programme of land assembly. I have paid a fully justified compliment to the present local authority in Ealing. I must say equally that it is about time that it took to heart the words I have just read from the Action Group on London Housing and ensured that it enhances its good name by appointing a land officer to ensure that it knows where every plot of land in Ealing is, so that it can do two things—fulfil the requirement which has been urged on the authority by the action group and therefore add additional lustre to its own activities in tackling the housing problem.

All over Britain, ever-increasing property prices result in fewer and fewer ordinary people being able to buy their own homes. Mortgage rates are now so high as to be a serious deterrent. The combination of these two factors makes an increasing number of people appeal to local authorities for housing for themselves and their families. As a result, housing registers are lengthening.

Then there is the problem of the increase of overcrowding. Young married couples naturally want a home of their own but, if they were to delay marriage before they had a home of their own, they might wait for a lifetime. They have to live in two rooms, or sometimes in just one room, with their parents. After a time, children come along, and then they are living in overcrowded condtions. Although they are overcrowded, it is not a feasible proposition for them to leave their parents' home. Family tensions develop, and there is growing unhappiness, but they have to put up with that state of affairs because we are unable, for some reason, in this modern State of ours to provide ordinary people with the homes to which they are entitled.

The incidence of homelessness is another dimension of the problem which we have experienced. People who do not meet the local authority's housing requirements move into Ealing and take furnished accommodation. Because of unemployment in Scotland or some other part of the country—I know of just such a case—a man comes down to London with his family because he can find work here. He takes furnished accommodation because he wants work. After a time, he is evicted. I have seen this happen with a family of five children.

In such circumstances, the local authority has no option but to place the people in one of its houses. Immediately that happens, however, I get a score of letters and requests to see me personally from people who have been on the housing register patiently waiting their turn. They ask, "Is that what we should do? Shall we get into overcrowed premises, or take furnished accommodation for a few weeks, and then get put on the street, so that the council will provide us with a nice new house or flat?" That gives some idea of the seriousness of the problem.

As I say, the borough of Ealing has failed in only one respect, in my view, namely, in not thoroughly checking on what can be done with all the land in the borough. But in spite of what it does or can do, there will come a time when there is little land left.

I come now to another aspect of the matter which makes ordinary people very bitter and, what is more, makes them lose faith in democratic national and local government. There is a massive housing shortage, but there is virgin land apparently available for use. This land, however, is zoned for industrial use and the local authority cannot build homes on it. I ask the Minister to take particular note of this. In an area where the housing register stands at 8,000 and there are 140 families living in all sorts of makeshift accommodation, including what is called bed-and-breakfast accommodation, there is virgin land apparently available. We say that the borough has no land, but people ask, "What is that great piece of land doing vacant?" We have to tell them that because of our country's laws warehouses can be built on it but not homes for the people.

What sense of priorities is that? Goods and chattels can be housed in a warehouse building, people say, but not British families who need homes. This sort of thing is going on almost ad nauseam in my constituency, and it is not just virgin land that is in issue. Warehouses are going up faster than homes are. Despite its magnificent record—I do not know from where it gets its advice if it is not from its chief officers—the council now seems determined to make Ealing a depository for depositories. Whenever a factory comes down, instead of a school or housing taking its place, another warehouse is built. It is the only blot on the otherwise superb record of a magnificent council.

I said that there were 140 homeless families. The total in emergency accommodation is 400. The council is now spending £1 million not on those on the housing register but on those made homeless as the result of evictions, and so on. Those on the housing register are forced to conclude that the way to jump the queue is to be evicted from furnished accommodation. One understands the bitterness of ordinary people in this situation.

I appeal to the Minister to take cognisance of one respect in which he can help. Ministry of Defence land is available in Ealing. I have appealed to the hon. Gentleman's right hon. Friend, but I shall not do that any more because I am not enamoured of bashing my head against a wall on the ground that it is nice when I stop. The hon. Gentleman has more understanding.

I live in the middle of my constituency and I know every inch of it. I assure the hon. Gentleman that there are large tracts of land used only to accommodate a small hut required for purposes connected with Northolt. The gas industry, British Railways and London Transport are among those with large patches of land that could be used to help to overcome the housing shortage.

The Minister may say that these problems occur in other parts of London, but in Ealing they are exacerbated by the fact that people come to the area because they know that the council is efficient and so they stand a better chance of being rehoused than they would have elsewhere. However, because of the desperate situation that we now face, despite the authority's best endeavours, the housing register is growing and the homeless register is growing. The council can no longer build quickly enough even to keep pace with current trends. So the situation is going from bad to worse, and I implore the Minister to give all the assistance he can.

3.8 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Reginald Eyre)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Molloy) for raising the subject of housing for homelessness in Ealing. I appreciate that when we categorise London boroughs as inner and outer, there is the difficulty that a borough such as Ealing, which is very much on the dividing line, will be between the two categories. Clearly, from what has been said tonight, there are specific problems in Ealing and I wish briefly to set out what the Government have done and propose to do to enable Ealing council to make a sustained attack on the housing problem.

The hon. Member is well aware of the problems of Ealing and of the housing problems of London as a whole, and he will understand when I say that Ealing does not appear to be as badly placed as many other London boroughs. Indeed, it is very much the case that it is the council, as the housing authority, which must decide on the way in which its problems can be best tackled on the priorities involved. Having said that, I wish to make it clear that there is a continuous dialogue between the Department and the council which is designed from the Department's side to give all the practical help possible to the council to deal with its problems.

Perhaps I may, at the outset, draw attention to the fact that the council has accepted tenders for 1,152 dwellings. That is at a time when obtaining an acceptable tender in London is not an easy task. It is to be congratulated, but I also think that it is a measure of the success of the Government's flexible approach, by the use of market force allowances in the yardstick cost control system which has enabled the council, which sees the maintenance of a large local authority house building programme as an essential contribution to solving its difficulties, to make such progress. It is particularly important that a number of the schemes are on sites which were not previously occupied by any dwellings, and so represent a total housing gain. It is also worth pointing out that the council has been able to let all the tenders which it has brought to the Department. Finally, I welcome the fact that during this period starts have been made on 53 dwellings in the private sector and 130 dwellings in a large housing association scheme. I must admit that I would have liked to see more of those.

In my capacity as the Chairman of the London Housing Action Group I have been very interested to see the results which have come to the group from its exercise on land availability. The situation as far as we know it in Ealing is that, looking at the period 1972–75, there is a potential of 170 acres, some of which is doubtful but a lot of which is firm, which will provide space for some 5,000 dwellings. The situation from 1976 to 1981 is, however, less promising, in that only about 37 acres have been identified and all this is in the doubtful category. It is in this period that the action group and its secretariat is pursuing the question further with the council to clarify the situation.

I am aware of the council's feeling that the further land can only come from the green belt. While the Government's commitment to preserving the principle of the green belt remains undiminished, a search for 2,000 acres in the metropolitan green belt has been put in the hands of the Standing Conference on London and South East Regional Planning and the local authorities, which can be expected to know and to take account of local conditions. I am sure that the representatives of the Ealing council will have made proposals in the light of their specialised knowledge of their area in connection with this exercise.

The hon. Member raised the case of Northolt Airport. I must explain that there are difficulties. Representations have been made about the release of this defence land, but the Nugent Committee which has been reviewing the question of the Services land holdings, has come down firmly on the need for the retention of this aerodrome.

Mr. Molloy

The land which is involved in Northolt Aerodrome is in my constituency but quite a distance from the aerodrome. The aerodrome is not in my constituency. It is land which the Ministry of Defence says is related to the aerodrome. I cannot see what rôle it plays.

Mr. Eyre

I have noted what the hon. Gentleman has said. However, I must point out that the Nugent Committee considered all these matters in great detail and came down firmly with the decision that there is a need for the retention of the aerodrome.

The White Paper in which the review is announced—"Widening the Choice: The Next Steps in Housing"—contains a number of other expressions of Government policy which are particularly relevant to the London borough of Ealing. For example, it is stressed that local authorities, with the help of housing associations, must be responsible for ensuring that adequate and suitable accommodation for rent is built in areas where it is needed. We have announced that we would strongly support those councils who get on with the job and give them every encouragement, having created what we consider are the conditions in which they can operate. Under the Housing Finance Act the help is available to a council which is in need.

In that connection, it seems unfortunate that the Ealing council has for its own reasons not felt able to support housing associations which are buying up and improving dwellings in their area. The result has been that they have forfeited the nominations, which have gone to other boroughs who have supported the housing associations in the absence of help from Ealing. I do not think that the council can complain about that, but I take the point that if the council is now prepared to support housing associations it is reasonable for it to expect that the other boroughs will not use their powers to compete in Ealing. Competition of this kind can only result in a waste of resources. There is also the danger of competing housing associations adding to inflation by increasing the price of dwellings.

A second White Paper—"Better Homes: the Next Priorities"—contains our proposals for dealing with the problems of areas of housing stress. We intend to secure a better distribution of improvement grants than at present by directing help to those persons and those areas which are most in need. The new housing action areas will be identified by reference to a number of both housing and social factors flexible enough to cover a wide range of bad housing conditions. Within housing action areas special powers and incentives will apply. This is a package which we hope housing authorities will use but the question of whether or not there are areas in Ealing which would justify the use of the new powers which are proposed in the White Paper is, of course, for them to decide.

I should like now to say something about the question of homelessness in Ealing. I accept that the London borough of Ealing shares a considerable and growing problem of homelessness with many other London boroughs, particularly those in inner London. The latest figures we have show that for the 12 months ending in March 1973, there were 540 applications from families claiming to be homeless in Ealing—4 per cent. of the total for the Greater London area.

The social services department in Ealing is currently providing for about 300 families in hostel or intermediate accommodation; in addition it has had recourse to bed-and-breakfast accommodation for 170 more. These figures are a considerable increase since the beginning of this year when there were about 230 families in the council's own social services accommodation and about 100 in bed-and-breakfast. This is the sombre situation with which the Ealing Borough Council is endeavouring to cope.

It is only right and proper that the question should be asked: what encouragement and help can the Government offer to Ealing and other hard pressed authorities—not all of them in London—who are wrestling with this evil of homelessness?

In the White Paper which I referred to earlier—"Widening the Choice"—we recognised homelessness as the most glaring of all special needs and said that the Government would shortly concert with all local authorities a campaign to improve the condition of the homeless and to reduce the incidence of homelessness". We also recognise the difficulties of the single homeless and expressed our intention to introduce new financial aid for those who provide accommodation for them.

The only long-term answer is to provide enough houses for everyone to have a decent home at a price they can afford. This is easier said than done, particularly in London. But, as I have explained, there is a determined and considerable house building programme in Ealing which is going forward with the Government's full support.

I should like to refer at this stage to the dilemma which was mentioned by the hon. Member, which any conscientious local authority finds itself in when faced with a homelessness problem of this size. On the one hand, there are the pressing claims of those unfortunate people—many of them, I must stress, not social misfits or Londoners evicted by wicked landlords, but people who have come to London to fill the jobs which must be manned if the capital is to function properly. These pressing claims can be met in the present situation only at the expense of other deserving cases, who have lived in unsatisfactory accommodation, or who have been on the waiting list for a long time. Only the local authority, however, is in a position to assess priorities, and this is why successive Governments have decided to leave allocation of accommodation entirely in their hands.

We are now well on with establishing, with local authorities and voluntary bodies, more effective ways of tackling homelessness. Our object, in consulting widely, has been to establish a common approach: one which involves central and local government and the voluntary bodies in both the housing and social services fields. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Social Services announced on 26th October, we shall soon be issuing a joint circular, and we want it to be a practical document, which can start to make changes right away. Our main aims are to secure that more is done to prevent homelessness and to improve the conditions and the prospects of those who are homeless. I am glad to say that a housing aid centre has been established.

The fullest use needs to be made of existing accommodation in both the public and private sectors. Too many houses are empty, including "short life properties" which stand unused pending development. We need to be more compassionate, and more efficient in managing and allocating the existing stock of housing, recognising that homelessness is almost always the extreme form of housing need.

I was heartened to hear that in Ealing there is close co-operation between the social services and the housing departments of the borough. Some families who become homeless are re-housed directly into council dwellings and I am informed that the council is contemplating the acquisition of a number of houses specifically to relieve the homelessness problem.

Mr. Molloy

The Minister could also help in cases where an area is scheduled as industrial. It is possible that some of the land there could be used for housing, but the local authority is stymied because of the nomenclature.

Mr. Eyre

That is mainly a matter for the local planning authority. No doubt the hon. Member will take that up with that authority.

The main doctrine in the circular derives from a joint official working party on homelessness in London and many of the London boroughs have already adopted its principal points. I understand, however, that in Ealing the prime responsibility for homelessness remains with the social services department.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Tuesday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

[Adjourned at twenty minutes past Three o'clock a.m.