HC Deb 16 January 1974 vol 867 cc655-68

9.25 p.m.

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

In Class VIII, Vote 1, the sum required on account for housing in England is £250 million, and in Vote 7, for Central Administration (Department of the Environment) a further £15 million is required.

The Department of the Environment is a vast Department but well worth the creation, and it has made great progress in many areas, though I feel that sometimes we could do with a few more Under-Secretary's of the calibre of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary who is to answer this debate—that is not flattery ; I mean it—because it is such a vast Department. My hon. Friend would then be able to give even more attention to the matter which I want to raise tonight, and, for that matter, to a number of other things on which he has had to answer me at the Dispatch Box.

It is a pity that we no longer have a Minister of Works. Many of the things with which a Minister of Works, with the proper leisure and a Parliamentary Secretary of his own, used to deal now have to be dealt with in a vast Department. Sometimes they get a little lost. A long time ago I was a Parliamentary Private Secretary to a Minister of Works. I thought that it was a most interesting job, but it was abolished. That has been one's fate throughout life.

I return to the central point—for housing in England a sum of £250 million. Despite this enormous expenditure we have seen a decline over the years in privately-owned rented accommodation. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will know that I have asked a number of Questions on this subject, some of which he has had the good fortune to answer. Only this Tuesday I asked him the principal reasons for the decline in the total of privately owned rented accommodation since 1945 ; and if he will take steps to reverse this trend. My hon. Friend replied—I am paraphrasing him a little— there seems little doubt that the various restrictions imposed on landlords"— my hon. Friend might also have included here the owner-occupier, who may technically be a landlord if he lets part of his house, but is very different from the image of a landlord, which is not a very happy image, perhaps, in some places— for the protection of tenants have made a substantial contribution"— that is, towards the steady decline. My hon. Friend went on to direct me to the Government's proposals for tackling the resulting shortage of dwellings to let. These were set out in paragraphs 37–42 of the White Paper "Widening The Choice: The Next Steps in Housing" (Cmnd. 5280, 1973). My hon. Friend said that they were to be implemented in the Housing and Planning Bill to be introduced within the next few weeks."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th January 1974; Vol. 867, c. 64.] It may be that "the next few weeks" will have to be stretched a little. However, I am sure that we can return to that Bill before too long.

I read the whole of the White Paper and not just the paragraphs to which I was directed. I discovered within it that The ultimate aim of housing policy is that everyone should have a decent home with a reasonable choice of owning or renting the sort of home they want. No one could disagree with that. I also learned that the country was making progress towards achieving this social aim. Indeed we are, but on the renting side of it we are experiencing certain difficulties. The Government's aim is to widen the choice, and there is a shortage of good dwellings in many areas. In West Bristol I represent an area in which there is great pressure on the existing stock of housing, though that stock of housing could be better used. That is why the subject that I have chosen to raise on the Consolidated Fund Bill is the use of housing resources.

The White Paper goes on: the proportion built to rent or buy must reflect the needs and wishes of the people in the area and the prices they can afford. They do not at the present time, and this is not entirely the Government's fault. Extraordinary factors have made the whole situation infinitely more difficult in recent months. There are other remedies which could be applied. The Government have decided, according to the White Paper to take further steps to meet social needs by widening the choice. Then we are directed to various suggested solutions. But in the section entitled "Home ownership" the Government say Most people want to own their own home. I question whether that is true at the beginning of life. In the end no doubt everyone wants to own a home of his own. At the outset, however, a married couple must be infinitely mobile.

If the man is to make a success in a job he often has to be prepared at a moment's notice to go to the branch in Newcastle, or wherever, and he does not want to be tied to a home which he has bought on an expensive mortgage which because of the state of the market he cannot sell for enough to redeem the mortgage and thus be completely stymied. There may be an element of truth in this sentence but it is not the whole truth. The Government believes that the demand for new houses will need to be met mainly by private building for sale. That is a laudable aim but again because of the economic circumstances forces outside the United Kingdom are having a considerable effect. The oil shortage is certainly one of them. What are the Government to do to keep up the impetus of building? The local authorities must reluctantly open the floodgates and build, often at higher densities than people want and the sort of houses most people do not want to live in. The result is most unfortunate.

The White Paper says: cyclical movements have prevented the house-building industry from operating effectively. and it refers to the difficulty over building society finance. No one would want to see a repetition of the £50 million arrangement which was produced at a particular moment in order to deal with a particular situation. Although it was a laudable move in one sense in that it dealt with a problem affecting some people, many others who did not benefit from it must have thought it somewhat unfair. This is the trouble for any Government when they see a difficulty. The heart of the nation bleeds for a particular section which it sees in difficulty, the Government provide public money to help that section and are told by others that they have not been helped. The White Paper says that a greater stability in the flow of mortgage funds would be desirable. There have been consultations with the building societies, but they are not their own masters when economic forces come to bear upon them.

In the section entitled "The Voluntary Housing Movement" we find a paragraph which appears contradictory to an earlier paragraph. Many people prefer to rent their home or cannot afford to buy it. Taken with the earlier sentence, that is, if not a contradiction, certainly a qualification. It continues: They, too, must have adequate choice of decent accommodation. We echo that. The Government admit: The private rented sector continues to decline. The Government believes that the trend towards a municipal monopoly of rented accommodation it unhealthy in itself. But that is what the Government are being driven into at the moment.

The White Paper says: The Government will continue to support improvement of the quality of private rented dwellings. That is fine, and let no one be justified in attacking any Government for using public money to improve the quality of homes. If someone makes an incidental profit out of it, and if that profit is not big, that does not matter as long as the quality of the stock of homes and the quantity are improved. Public money is well spent on that. The Government also admit that the decline in the number of private rented dwellings is unlikely to be reversed. The White Paper goes on to talk about housing corporations and says that this is not the solution to the problem.

In Chapter 12 the Francis Committee Report says: The London Boroughs Associations state that 'the system of regulated tenancies has not had the effect of bringing further rented accommodation on to the market.' Surprise, surprise! That does not surprise some of us who have studied the matter. A succession of controls and restrictions all with the laudable aim of protecting the tenant from exploitation has driven the private house-owner—I will not use the emotive word "landlord"—right out of the picture. No one in his right mind would let an unfurnished part of a house that he lives in under the present restrictive legislation for fear of being stuck with a tenant that he could not get rid of.

I shall refer to a couple of cases given to me in recent weeks, giving only the outline in each case. The House will appreciate that I do not wish to give specific details. These cases are typical of what is happening. One concerns a woman living with a handicapped daughter in a house in which she had some spare space. Because of the uncertain state of the law she did not want to have a regular tenant, so she thought that it would be a good idea to have people on a temporary basis. She was so wrong. A young woman who was nicely dressed, well-spoken and polite told her that she would like to stay three weeks and that she had a student occupation.

The three weeks' rent in advance was all that my constituent got out of that young woman. She was a prostitute. There was no question about it. She was well known to the vice-squad, not only in Bristol but in the neighbouring counties. She stayed at the house on and off, threatening my constituent, for 19 weeks, despite an appeal from my constituent to the police, who told her that they could do nothing. The tenant had security. The woman used £27-worth of electricity, which my constituent had to pay for.

Eventually, the cumbersome process of the courts was taken to its extremity and the tenant went, only to start the performance on some other unsuspecting constituent not far away. That constituent has yet to come to me with the tale, but I know what is going on.

Another of my constituents, with a coronary condition, is stuck in an upstairs flat. Her life is shortened and she will eventually die through having to climb the stairs to her flat, which is over a flat in which a well-paid couple have a protected tenancy at an absurdly low rent, even under present legislation. My long-suffering constituent has been legally advised that because she cannot provide a minor aspect of self-contained-ness she cannot win in the court against the people who sit downstairs and sap her very life blood.

I am not suggesting to my hon. Friend that we upset the existing arrangements, even though they are unhappy. That would stir up a lot of trouble and would be the wrong way to go about it. But statistics which we have discovered over lengthy parliamentary questioning and other processes of the House show the problems. I found on Monday that two out of five houses in the same road were occupied by widows living alone because they feared that they would be stuck with someone they could never dislodge.

An owner-occupier with spare accommodation who creates a new unit of accommodation which has not previously been let under existing law should not be subject to the existing restrictions. The tenant would have no security of tenure beyond the terms of a lease freely entered into.

If we must have a governess or nanny to safeguard the situation let the apparatus of the rent officer be brought in to see that the initial agreement is fair and reasonable. But let there be no cumbersome court process by which someone who is not prepared to abide by the terms of the lease can stay indefinitely without paying rent, eventually being evicted, but only after immense, if not irreparable, damage to the owner by depriving him of the use of the premises as well as causing him a lot of personal misery.

My hon. Friend has answered Questions about that suggestion on a number of occasions. I detect a glimmer of hope, and just a glimmer is great progress, because the wheels of Government take a little time to move, even with the impetus given by my hon. Friend and my right hon. and learned Friend, who has answered a number of debates initiated by me on a wide variety of subjects. As a result of the initiative of my right hon. and learned Friend's predecessor, we sorted out the Somerset House problem and the Whitehall problem, and we shall sort out many other problems that my hon. Friend knows about.

I have asked my hon. Friend to estimate the number of houses which are now occupied by single persons or by one family and which could be subdivided to provide accommodation for an additional family of two or three persons. He has said more than once that there is no material available on which to base such an estimate, and that he doubts whether such a survey would be justified. The answer is to set this whole unused body of accommodation free, to set free those who have surplus accommodation, and see how they get on.

My hon. Friend cannot argue with me when I tell him that I have had an estimate from a most reliable source in London that 100,000 extra homes in London—rented private accommodation units, if I must use the technical jargon—could become available within a very short time if that new freedom were given to owner-occupiers. It can easily be calculated that about 1 million extra homes could be provided in the country at large without much delay.

So far I have not ventured onto a political theme, but I know that my hon. Friend might be tempted to reply "What you suggest is perfectly reasonable. Indeed, it is the solution in the short term to the problem of getting more accommodation on to the market. But there is one stumbling block—the inhibition which many people in public life have against interfering with a situation that has grown up over many years, and the fear that if the Government enacted what you ask for, another Government of a different political complexion might immediately repeal it. People might let others into their home thinking that they retained control of the home and then find that another Government slapped on a control and that they were in the same pickle as the people who had let part of their home before your proposal was enacted."

It would be reasonable to say to our political adversaries "We respect your view about protecting tenants, and we do not on this occasion propose to interfere with what has gone before, although we reckon that many grievous injuries result from it. But surely you cannot disagree with letting an owner-occupier do what he likes with his own home, letting him share it with another person, with proper safeguards." Let us say that to our political adversaries and see whether they accept the challenge. I have heard some of the more extreme Labour Members— their views on many matters seem extreme to us—say that the owner-occupier must be king of his own castle. I respect the views of those Members. Let us throw out the challenge to them. Let us ask them "Would you frustrate the laudable process of bringing more homes on to the market, when they are so desperately needed?"

I do not suppose that it is necessary for me to give more statistics, but I will quote one of my right hon. Friends in aid, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services, in an exchange we had on 8th May last year, when I managed at Question Time to make a point about under-occupation. My right hon. Friend said: My hon. Friend tempts me out of my present responsibilities. When I was Minister of Housing, under-occupation was one of the great factors in the housing position."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th May 1973 ; Vol. 856, c. 193.] How right he was, and how still that is a problem.

Earlier this week I put to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment a series of Questions—namely, Written Questions 133, 134 and 136. My hon. Friend, instead of answering my Questions separately, answered them all together. He said: My hon. Friend is always ready to consider measures designed to encourage the supply of more homes, but has, however, no immediate plans for legislation of the kind my hon. Friend has in mind."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th January 1974; Vol. 867, c. 63.] Perhaps no one outside Parliament would believe that that is immeasurable progress. All that I received on the last occasion was a cold "No." On 15th January my hon. Friend said that there were no immediate plans. That is progress. That is the glimmer of hope for which I was looking. I only hope that my hon. Friend will be able to go a bit further than that. Perhaps more progress will be made. Perhaps the momentum of the whole political system is speeding up. If I could have put off the debate until tomorrow evening perhaps my hon. Friend would have been able to go even further. Perhaps it is another matter to consider what would happen if the debate were to take place next week.

I hope that my hon. Friend will move towards setting free the under-occupied owner-occupier. I do not believe that anybody in his right mind, with the present state of the law, would let part of his own home unless he had the ability to retain control. Let us at least try. There is a potential which is desperately needed. Let us delay no more. Do not let us be afraid of the threat of control which has been bandied about in previous years. I believe that a measure of agreement could be obtained. Sometimes Governments can say to their opponents "This is a matter about which we have always disagreed. We have had our battles about what has gone before, but this is something new for which we could both get a certain amount of credit".

There is no real shortage of accommodation in many of the areas where there are enormous pressures. The accommodation is available and people in desperate need can see it. There are at this moment young couples walking up and down the streets of Bristol, West knocking on doors and asking "Have you some rooms to let?" Probably they have heard from neighbours that someone has rooms to spare. Indeed, they can tell from the electoral register roughly who lives where. They can also determine the position from their own observations. In the next street they may know of half a dozen houses where they could find a home and where they would be welcome with open arms if only we could change the law.

It has taken quite a long time to get as far as we have. In 17 years in this House I have learned that it takes a long time to achieve anything worth while. I hope that we shall make sufficient progress to take another step forward this evening. Who knows, before long we may go the whole way.

9.49 p.m.

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

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke) for raising the important matter of the best use of our housing resources. I know from his numerous Questions, to which he has referred, and from his diligent correspondence, as well as from the extremely able speech which he made last October, that it is a matter about which he has a sustained concern.

The Department is equally interested in any means of increasing the stock of dwellings, both by new construction and by the fuller use of existing accommodation, such as householders contemplating the improvement or subdivision of their homes so that parts can be let. Local authority grants are already available for such purposes under the Housing Act 1969. In some respects they are to be increased by the housing and planning Bill which is to be introduced later this month.

I know that my hon. Friend will be glad to recognise that a householder who proposes to install say, a bath or shower and a lavatory for the use of a tenant of part of his home would now be eligible for a grant of £80, and a householder who plans to convert his house into two dwelling units, one for his own occupation and one for letting, would be eligible for a grant of half the conversion cost or £1,000, whichever is the less.

Mr. Cooke

This is a suitable inducement, but it is not enough. I am grateful for what my hon. Friend says about this aspect, but the vital matter is that of control of a home once it has been subdivided. I am sure that my hon. Friend will come to the control side of the question.

Mr. Eyre

I was anxious to mention one or two points which would please my hon. Friend as well as to survey some of the more difficult aspects of this matter.

It should also be remembered that for a person who lets furnished—the mode of letting which is probably the most likely to appeal to somebody letting off part of his home—there is already a safeguard against the risk that an unwanted tenant, by obtaining temporary security of tenure from the rent tribunal, might remain in occupation long after the lessor wants him gone. Perhaps this is the greatest deterrent affecting the mind of the would-be landlord. This safeguard provides for the landlord to let on a contract for a fixed term. This applies only to furnished premises, but when a contract is for a fixed term the expiry date is settled. If and when, in the effluxion of time, the contract expires and the tenant refuses to leave, the landlord is entitled to apply to the court for an order for possession.

Mr. Cooke

What my hon. Friend says is most useful, but he cannot put his hand on his heart and say that the present administration have never flirted with the idea of controlling furnished premises. There have been pressures on them to do so and there have been severe threats from the Labour benches that this area would be controlled by them, but I think he would agree that this is not the whole answer.

Mr. Eyre

My hon. Friend quite fairly referred to suggestions which have been made by the Labour Party about furnished tenancies and those proposals would have their effect on security of tenure. Ministers at the Government Dispatch Box have often explained the considerable practical difficulties that would arise if that kind of change in the law were brought about. The Government fear that it would result in the eviction of a large number of tenants in furnished houses and the loss of a considerable amount of accommodation. This is entirely contrary to the argument pursued by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West who wishes to increase in some way the supply of accommodation.

My hon. Friend referred to the number of under-occupied houses. I have already said that it is not known how many owner-occupied houses are both under-occupied and suitable for letting off, with or without physical sub-division, of a part. From the 1971 census it is possible to estimate that about 40 per cent. of the owner-occupied properties, amounting to 3,320,000 houses, have in occupation fewer than one person to two rooms. But that does not fully answer my hon. Friend's question because he wishes to know the exact number of owner-occupied houses which are under-occupied and which are suitable for letting off. This information could be secured only by means of a special survey. I tried to indicate this in the reply I gave to my hon. Friend.

Not only that, still less is it possible to estimate how many under-occupying owner-occupiers are unwilling to let under the law as it now stands but might be willing to let if the relevant legislation were altered on the lines my hon. Friend suggested tonight. Even to assess people's views on that matter a further survey by questionnaire would be needed. It so far has not appeared to be the case that the cost of undertaking such studies would be justifiable.

It is recognised by those who are experienced in these matters that the restrictions which the Rent Acts impose on landlords for the benefit of tenants have probably contributed substantially to the loss of privately rented dwellings.

Mr. Robert Cooke

My hon. Friend said "probably". If it is not probably the case, to what else is it due?

Mr. Eyre

My hon. Friend will have noticed from figures which I have supplied to him that there has been this steady lessening over the years in the number of privately rented houses available, but there has also been a growth in the number of houses owner-occupied, and in part tenants of those private houses have wished to promote themselves to a form of ownership of the houses and that is a psychological factor.

Mr. Cooke

The increase of one has doubled the decline of the other.

Mr. Eyre

It has indeed. I am saying that I agree with my hon. Friend that the restrictions which the Rent Acts impose have been a factor in the steady decline in the number of rented properties available, and possibly, therefore, the easing of some of these restrictions in the Rent Acts, for new lettings of part of the lessor's own home, the landlord's home, might encourage lettings of parts of their homes by some owner-occupiers who at present do not occupy them fully.

The restrictions in the Rent Acts, however, were imposed for the protection of tenants in a situation in which the shortage of dwellings to let makes it difficult for a tenant to find alternative accommodation. In many parts of the country this shortage still exists and is often acute. There can be no question of depriving sitting tenants of the protections they now enjoy, and I know my hon. Friend has not suggested that for a moment, but even the creation of a new form of tenancy for the future—this new letting of part of the landlord's own home which would not be subject to these restrictions—would be a matter for very careful consideration. That is because first of all the restriction on eviction without a court order for possession is an obligation so fundamental to the protection of tenants that it is doubtful whether its elimination could be contemplated in any circumstances.

I was sorry to hear of the two sad cases to which my hon. Friend referred, and I accept that there are serious difficulties in certain landlord and tenant relationships. Certainly the reduction in the statutory protection for tenants in unfurnished lettings of any kind—I am concentrating my remarks on my hon. Friend's proposals for new lettings of part of an owner-occupied house—would be a serious matter.

The matter is more serious than where furnished lettings are concerned. I ask my hon. Friend to think about this in circumstances of housing in areas of serious shortage. Alternative furnished lettings are less difficult to find than unfurnished lettings, so that the position of the tenant of furnished premises who has to leave is probably less difficult than that of the tenant of unfurnished premises, simply because unfurnished lettings are in such short supply. From that, one could say that the tenant of furnished lettings tends at present to be more mobile than the tenant who has taken unfurnished premises, who has furnished that temporary home and who then loses it and cannot find another unfurnished letting, because he may be obliged to store or sell his furniture.

Mr. Robert Cooke

My hon. Friend has taken a long time to tell us that it is rather more difficult to walk along the street carrying one's furniture than it is if one does not have any furniture. Can we now get on to the point?

Mr. Eyre

I hope that my hon. Friend will not take that aspect too lightly, because it is of practical concern to someone who is in that difficult position. It has been my duty to survey some of the difficulties which apply to this subject and to try to explain why such careful consideration has to be given to the matter.

Nevertheless, I certainly share my hon. Friend's desire to increase the quantity of accommodation available. That aim is very desirable. My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction also shares that aim. We should be pleased if we could ease the situation of many people who are seeking accommodation of the kind that my hon. Friend has described. Having mentioned some of the difficulties which we have to consider, the Minister and I will give serious attention to all these points. Our aim is to improve the situation.

Mr. Cooke

If my hon. Friend cannot go the whole way, would he seriously consider producing an experiment in this direction? He and I cannot reconcile our arguments. He does not know how many are available. I think that it is a great many. Could he experiment? He could perhaps devise a way of doing so.

Mr. Eyre

I should like to be able to answer immediately but the legal implications make that impossible. However, my hon. Friend and I will pay serious regard to these suggestions and search anxiously for some way of making progress towards providing more accommodation for the kind of people on whose behalf my hon. Friend has been speaking tonight.