HC Deb 25 June 1974 vol 875 cc1367-90
Mr. Cyril D. Townsend (Bexleyheath)

I beg to move Amendment No. 49, in page 44, line 31, leave out subsection (2) and insert— '(2) The Greater London Council may exercise the powers of a local authority under section 34 above, with respect to any area in Greater London, but only with the agreement of the London borough in which district the area, or part of the area is situated; and likewise London boroughs and the Common Council of the City of London may exercise the powers of a local authority under section 34 above, with respect to areas that are situated in other London boroughs but only with the agreement of the London borough(s) concerned.'

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this amendment it may be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 62, in page 44, line 35, at beginning insert: 'The Greater London Council may exercise the powers of a local authority under section 34 above with respect to any area in Greater London, but only with the agreement of any local authority in which district the area or any part of the area is situated; and in'.

No. 50, leave out Schedule 4.

Mr. Townsend

The clause and Schedule 4 give the GLC powers to declare housing action areas without the agreement of the boroughs concerned. That is the whole point. In addition, new powers are given in respect of general improvement areas. That was not even contemplated in the previous Bill.

With the best will in the world, I believe that the GLC would experience the greatest procedural and resource difficulties in dealing with housing action areas without the active co-operation and assistance of the boroughs in question.

My hon. Friends and I believe that the clause represents an unnecessary and potentially damaging departure from one of the basic principles which has so far been followed in London local government, namely, that in matters of local housing improvement the GLC should not act except with the consent of the borough concerned. Past experience in local government suggests that default powers such as these are largely ineffective. Normal persuasion and encouragement by a Government Department are usually sufficient to produce action.

Does any Member on either side of the House seriously imagine that the GLC would be able to operate successfully in a borough which is determined to oppose it? The treatment of action areas involves matters which are bound to remain of local concern—for example planning, building control and local environmental matters, and, more important, social and community work. Even if it could be done in practice—and I do not believe that it could—it would not result in more expeditious treatment of housing action areas.

It would be necessary to increase such staff as public health inspectors and building surveyors. Without their services the sort of schemes we are considering would be totally impracticable. The GLC would need to recruit specialist staff, of which there is already a considerable shortage. It would be necessary to poach such staff from boroughs by offering increased rates of pay, and as usual the ratepayers would have to meet the cost of these increases. Before the GLC could put forward proposals it would, presumably, have to compare the areas concerned with other areas in London. This would require extensive surveys throughout the stress areas. Where would the staff come from to do this? Local government knowledge would be essential in carrying out such surveys.

The Secretary of State, on Second Reading, talked about the GLC being a strategic authority. If we are to adopt labels, I claim to be a GLC man rather than a borough man. I have read carefully the Secretary of State's comments on the GLC as a strategic authority. I broadly agree with the Secretary of State. I suspect that he had in mind the numerous reports on housing in London, including the Greve Report, all of which emphasise the need for the GLC to be a strong strategic authority.

The GLC has tremendous tasks in the dockland areas and the stress areas, as well as a considerable rôle at Thames-mead. It is involved with the new and expanding town and seaside and country towns. The GLC is a strategic authority and is fully committed as a strategic authority.

My hon. Friends and I do not wish to detract from the powers of the GLC, but we do not believe that the change in power which is proposed is required by County Hall. The London boroughs should be required to prepare and submit to the Secretary of State programmes for dealing with housing action areas on a five-year basis, sending a copy of their plans to County Hall.

The LBA has made quite clear that the London boroughs are willing to do this. It has in addition promised action in any case of a borough being difficult. This is the way forward, through persuasion, not confrontation. Occasionally Opposition hon. Members use that phrase in a different context. Now I push it back at them and suggest persuasion, not confrontation in London housing.

Mr. Douglas-Mann

Does the hon. Gentleman know of any proposals by, for example, the City of Westminster for housing action areas? Is the City of Westminster proposing to take action by itself in relation to Pimlico? Does not the hon. Gentleman feel that it would be desirable to have elbow jogging of those London boroughs which are notoriously slow to take action of this sort?

Mr. Townsend

The elbow jogging should come from the LBA, not from the Government. Since 1964 there has been some friction between County Hall and the London boroughs and there is a danger of this attitude getting out of control I cannot omit from my brief contribution the fact that County Hall is particularly unpopular in outer London. The outer London boroughs detest the recent rate increases of the GLC and are scared stiff of the municipalisation programme which they feel will be highly damaging to them in the long run, so they are inclined to view County Hall's activities with the gravest suspicion. The very fact that County Hall is insisting on this proposal, against the advice of the LBA, suggests that something curious is going on.

11.0 p.m.

Mr. Freeson

May I assure the hon. Gentleman that we have received no pres sure whatever from the GLC on this part of the Bill?

Mr. Townsend

May I draw the Minister's attention to the letter he wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg), who unfortunately cannot be with us tonight, in which he said: The GLC have themselves said in the letter to my Department that they consider their reserve power vital.

Mr. Freeson

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has taken my point. We drafted the Bill without such pressure. What has transpired since in the discussions and exchanges is another matter. I am stating a fact: there was no pressure from the GLC on the Government to do this. It was a Government initiative.

Mr. Townsend

I cannot claim to have been party to the discussion between County Hall and the Government, but the letter I quoted seemed to me pretty clear. I also note that the Minister said in that letter: We see the GLC powers as a back-up, no more. That presumably is his case, but he is in danger of souring the relationships between County Hall and the London boroughs for a long time to come.

To the second half of the first amendment I have added something about councils preying on other councils. I will not go into detail, but at the moment Camden is in dispute with Barnet, as is Brent, and Lambeth is in dispute with Croydon. It is not exactly a case of "Happy families" in London at present. The wording of the amendment is required to stop the GLC from getting around the problem by using another borough to do its work for it.

I appeal to the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Tyler) to stir up the Liberal cohorts to support my hon. Friends in the Lobby. He will be supporting not only those hon. Members who have put their names to the amendment but also the unanimity of the Labour-controlled LBA and the views of the London boroughs, I suspect both officers and members. If the Minister went out into the streets of London tonight and put this issue basically to the people of London, I am sure that they would express overwhelming support for their boroughs as opposed to County Hall. Does he deny that?

In a nutshell, the Secretary of State is risking too much to achieve too little.

Mr. Arthur Latham (Paddington)

I am very glad that the amendment has been moved, because it gives me the opportunity to say on behalf of my constituents how delighted they are that the provision to which it relates is in the Bill. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Mr. Douglas-Mann) said, the City of Westminster, to understate the position, is not always as active as it might be in these matters.

Persuasion and encouragement have not achieved the results and my constituents are now in the unenviable position that, while they have a Labour GLC and a Labour MP and, in the northern part, entirely Labour councillors, the combined weight of Marylebone and South Westminster means that, despite the views and problems of the constituents in Paddington, north and south, they have to suffer the policies and the neglect of a predominantly Tory council. They will welcome very much the fact that there is an authority other than the City of Westminster to which they can look for positive action where it is not being taken. Persuasion and encouragement have not produced results.

Mr. Townsend

Does the hon. Gentleman believe that if the borough he has mentioned did not wish the GLC to move in, the GLC could do a proper job of work without its co-operation?

Mr. Latham

I was coming to that because I was interested in the hon. Gentleman's observation that it would be impossible for the GLC to operate in a place as close to its own central headquarters as Westminster if the city council were opposed to its intervention. The words he used were that the GLC could not operate successfully if the local authority concerned was determined to oppose it.

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that the respectable, dignified, traditional, convenional, orthodox City of Westminster Tory-controlled council will disobey the law and obstruct the Bill? We have heard much lately about carrying out the provisions of the law under the Housing Finance Act and I do not think that we shall meet the kind of obstruction the hon. Gentleman seems to believe Westminster City Council would offer.

What is likely to happen in the case of Westminster and Paddington in particular is that they will be so horrified at the thought that the GLC is likely to step in unless they get a move on and pull their socks up that that may be sufficient sanction in itself to produce results. First, they would object to the GLC doing it and, secondly, they would regard it as undignified for them to be in such a state of default that the GLC felt it necessary to intervene.

I support the clause as it stands and hope that the amendment will be defeated because within Westminster there are double standards. I invite hon. Members to visit The Mall and Parliament Square and then look at some of the worst roads and housing districts in West London, which exist in Paddington, and try to convince themselves that they are all part and parcel of the same London borough. It is because these double standards exist that this provision is needed to protect people such as my constituents, and I hope that the Government will use such power as a model for other housing legislation, because outside intervention is the only hope for many homeless or badly housed people living in housing conditions of appalling disrepair in my constituency.

Mr. John Moore (Croydon, Central)

I must first express my interest, although after the comments of the Under-Secretary of State I do not know whether, as a Tory, I am allowed to do so because I cannot speak for miners or one or two other interests. However, perhaps he will let me try to redeem myself by supporting the Labour-controlled London Boroughs Association. I do so as a resident and ex-councillor of Merton and as the Member for part of the London borough of Croydon. I do, therefore, have a strong interest.

This is an important and crucial matter. I will quote again from the letter sent by the Minister to my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg) and to members of the Standing Committee, because it says: The GLC have themselves said in a letter to my Department that although they consider their reserve power vital the Council have no desire to act against the wishes of a London borough and hope they will be able to proceed with the full co-operation of the Boroughs". That sounds terribly innocuous and very sweet, simple and sentimental.

May I draw the attention of hon. Members, however, to the intervention in Committee of my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Neubert), who said: can the Minister say, if he has this concept of a reserve authority to come in in default of the local authority, what provision he will make for cities other than London? "—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee B, 23rd May 1974; c. 244.] We must recognise that this is where the beginning of the nub of the problem lies. To what will this lead? In terms of London, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi) said: When we had reorganisation of London government in 1963 the intention was to give exclusive housing powers to all the new London boroughs. The GLC retained housing powers in a sense by accident because it was appreciated by the framers of that Act at the time that it was impossible to transfer overnight all the housing estates belonging to the GLC to the boroughs in whose areas they were."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee B, 23rd May 1974; c. 248.] By historical accident, therefore, the GLC was a housing authority.

I refer again to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Romford and the Minister's endeavour to answer it. The Minister said: For good or ill—I think ill—there are no housing powers given to the upper tier authorities in the Local Government Act 1972 … To put it another way, in London we are dealing with the GLC, but it is a housing authority in its own right… Elsewhere in the country —I draw the attention of hon. Members to the phrase "elsewhere in the country", though we are talking only of London now— that is not the position and, if we tried to write them into the Bill, we should be giving powers to authorities that did not have housing powers. There is a great difficulty there, which may have to be remedied by future legislation. How innocuous that seems. The historical accident has created in the GLC a housing authority, which is used in this case as an excuse to try to participate and take away the decisions from the boroughs. That is the key. This is a fundamental change. It has not happened in London before. We are endeavouring to take away from boroughs their decision-making ability. We are endeavouring to do it without their co-operation. [Interruption.] I shall return to the points made by the hon. Member for Paddington (Mr. Latham). In Committee the Minister said that the practicalities had to be considered and that the position would be at the least no worse than if the London boroughs were left entirely alone in such circumstances and the work was not done."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee B, 23rd May 1974; c. 245.] That illustrates the total impracticality.

I am not questioning the Minister's desires or those of the hon. Member for Paddington. But who will they use to set up these authorities? Which members of the GLC staff will they use? It is easy to say "We shall send in people to do this", but where are the public health inspectors? Anyone with any experience in local government work will know of the extreme difficulty in obtaining special technical officers and public health inspectors.

Clearly there is one area in which they can obtain them. To develop a housing action area, people must know intimately the local area, and to do that they have obviously to compete on the ground with the officers already in the local area. That will clearly mean that those in the area in other activities will suffer. By taking people away from one job, one does not make that job disappear. Unfortunately I was not a Member of the Committee, but from reading the report I find that the Minister gave no indication that resources would be provided to carry out this function.

Mr. Freeson

Regarding the point that the hon. Gentleman has been pursuing and, I gather, will still pursue, is he aware that the GLC already has such a department? If he cares to visit it, I am sure that the staff will give him a very interesting chat. On the Albert Embankment there is a department which deals specifically with improvement areas and is quite capable of extending itself into housing action areas.

Mr. Moore

The Minister must realise that I—like all citizens in the Greater London area—am aware of the degree to which that department is already overstretched.

The final point concerns the degree to which the basis of this proposal is totally undemocratic. We have here, supposedly, a Parliament which is concerning itself with the break-up of power from the centre. The London Boroughs Association is dominated by the Labour Party and is unanimous in disagreeing with this proposal. in spite of that the plan is to be pushed through. I ask hon. Members to join me in making sure that we rid our boroughs of central Government. London needs that help and the country will need it later.

11.15 p.m.

Mr. Douglas-Mann

I am glad that I have been able to entice the hon. Member for Chelsea (Sir M. Worsley) back into the Chamber. I was surprised, since we are also debating Amendment No. 62, which stands in the names of the hon. Members for Kensington (Sir B. Rhys Williams) and Chelsea, that both hon. Members, who had been here a few moments before the debate began, left. Their amendment would have provided that the Greater London Council could exercise the powers of a local authority under Clause 34 only with the agreement of the local authority in whose district that area was situated.

I think that I am doubly qualified to speak on the amendments before us having represented for 3½ years Kensington, North, a constituency in the same situation as Paddington—a Labour minority area, deprived in terms of housing and in a Tory-controlled borough. Now, however, I represent a part of the London borough of Morden which, having recently transferred to Conservative control, has decided virtually wholly to ignore Government Circular 70/74 and not to acquire housing under the terms of that circular, going ahead instead with the sale of council housing notwithstanding the representations in the circular.

If we leave to certain London boroughs the responsibility of carrying out the purposes of the Bill, meagre as some of us feel that the provisions are, the job will never be done. The hon. Member for Kensington is still not here—[HON. MEMBERS: "Yes he is." I beg his pardon. I am glad that he is here because he will know the position in the North Kensington area. It is the intention of the council in that area to declare only the Colville-Tavistock area as a housing action area. If it had been left to the local council, Swinbrook would have been left to the mercy of the private landlord, but the GLC has taken responsibility for that part and action is being taken there too.

The hon. Member will know that the measures taken by the London borough in that area are totally inadequate to meet the area's needs. I wonder whether the hon. Member feels that the Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council, on whose behalf Amendment No. 62 is tabled, is tackling the problems of the area adequately. I should be glad to hear him defend the council's position publicly.

The needs of that area have been neglected for so long by the borough council that it is likely that only pressure from the GLC will stimulate the council into doing the jobs that need to be done. For many years there have been in the Department of the Environment—and before that when it was the Ministry of Housing and Local Government—in the minds of civil servants categories of local authorities. There were Left-wing Labour boroughs, Right-wing Labour boroughs, Left-wing Conservative boroughs, Right-wing Conservative boroughs and the Royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea. It is for that borough that this provision is needed, and to a lesser extent the borough that is represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington (Mr. Latham).

Reserve powers are essential if the needs of the most deprived areas are to be tackled. That will not be done if the job is left to certain London boroughs. We know that they will not do so and that they respond only under the most tremendous pressure from above. I accept that the borough council of the area concerned is ideally the most suitable body to carry out the job, but if it will not do it the GLC must have reserve powers, and the provisions as they stand in the Bill are essential.

Mr. Michael Neubert (Romford)

In case there should be any doubt, let me declare that I am not only a London Member but a constituency Member for the London borough of Havering, and an outer London Member at that.

We gave this matter a working over in Committee, as a result of which the Minister undertook to give full consideration to the arguments which were put forward. In due course we received his letter indicating that he had decided on balance to leave things as they were. There was no surprise about that because he acknowledged that this innovation was his own idea. It was not prompted by the officials of his Department, nor was it part of the previous Government's Bill.

The amendment asks something of the Minister that will no doubt be painful to him—namely, to disown his brainchild, to cast it out and never to let it darken his door again. We must do so because there is a principle at stake. The Minister has given us his reasons for this variation in the Bill—namely, the intention to get things done if there is no other course open to him. That is all very laudable, but there are two essentials to achieve, one being the will and the second the resources.

I join with my hon. Friends in doubting whether the GLC has the necessary resources. To give one illustration, I refer to an area of activity in which it seems to be a little stretched. Is it not true that it has at the moment about 7,000 empty properties on its hands as a result of its purchasing policies and other policies that are under way? Ts there any evidence that it is able to cope with what it has already taken on? Would this provision not overstrain its resources.

The secret has come out more clearly tonight than in Committee. It is clear that this is a means whereby the Minister through the GLC could achieve his political will over a London borough that did not wish to carry out his policy. As a political instrument it will prove to be something of a bludgeon. My hon. Friends and I are apparently speaking for the London Boroughs Association. The boroughs are united in their contempt for this means of going about the matter. They would prefer encouragement and persuasion, whereas the hon. Member for Paddington (Mr. Latham), although he did not use the word, would favour coercion. We think coercion can only poison the relationships between the authorities in London.

Already there is evidence that the GLC is not averse to entering into sensitive areas of local authority responsibility. In the London borough of Bromley it is attempting to impose upon the local planning authority its idea of what housing densities should be. That is alien to the original concept of the GLC as a regional authority. It was not intended that it should hover over the boroughs. The GLC had a strategic rôle which was to be separate from the tactical rôle of the London boroughs. Both should have direct access to the Minister. The Minister should not call in aid an intermediate authority, particularly as he is not apparently making any plans at the moment to do so in other cities. That is the very point to which attention has been drawn.

The London boroughs have always jealously guarded the responsibilities assigned to them in the London Government Act. This is one step away from that original concept. It is not justified by the present situation. The Minister, in introducing this proposal, has brought into the Bill an element of controversy that would otherwise have been absent. In our view the Bill would be better without it.

Mr. Tyler

I am in the pleasant position, at this late hour, of being assiduously courted by both the Under-Secretary and the hon. Member for Bexley-heath (Mr. Townsend). The Minister was trying to drag me and my colleagues through the proverbial eye of a needle. If I ever do get through it I hope that I shall find myself in more celestial company than the present occupants of the Government Front Bench.

The hon. Member for Bexleyheath made an impassioned appeal to my colleagues. To the hon. Member I say that if he and his colleagues had adopted a slightly less shrill tone it might have been easier to support him. On different grounds, I believe that it is wrong in principle to establish in law a duplication of powers which may lead to the solution of problems falling between two stools.

All too often since the London Government Act we have seen that planning has fallen between two stools, because of the duplication of powers. Confusion, controversy and endless delay has resulted from the fact that the planning powers of the London Government Act were not clearly defined as between the two tiers in London. Those of us now suffering from the effects of the previous administration's Local Government Act in other parts of the country are experiencing the same duplication of powers.

It is for these reasons that, reluctantly, I regard this amendment as necessary. Were the régime of a few years ago still at County Hall, the Ministers would not now be putting forward this proposal. It is not good law to put forward a proposal for the here and now simply because the régime in some boroughs is different from that at County Hall. It is defeatist of the hon. Member for Paddington (Mr. Latham) to take the view that the borough council will never come round to the view he expresses on behalf of the people of the particular part of the borough he represents. It is not the right way to approach the problem to give reserve powers to the GLC.

Mr. Arthur Latham

If this amendment is not carried, and accepting what the hon. Gentleman said about my constituents, what alternative does he offer? Does he suggest that they suffer frustration until the ultimate time when there might be a change?

Mr. Tyler

The hon. Gentleman must know that we suffer occasionally from the problem of being in a minority. What we have to do is to make that minority into a majority. At every borough election in the Westminster City area it is possible for the policies of the council to be changed. We should change those policies through the ballot box. It is a clear function of Westminster City Council, like all the other boroughs of London, to exercise these housing powers. It is not a clear function of the GLC to exercise these particular housing powers.

Mr. George Cunningham

It is.

Mr. Tyler

Of course I know there are some housing powers which the GLC is specifically assigned. But exactly the same circumstance prevails in all the other metropolitan counties. It may be said that it is necessary, where there is a conflict of opinion about the desirability of a housing action area, to give reserve powers to the metropolitan county. The Minister is not suggesting that, quite rightly, because there would be the dupli cation and confusion to which I have drawn attention. It is a sad fact that this proposal would not have been made necessary if there were a different régime at County Hall. It is a sad fact that we may find ourselves passing bad laws, on the ground that the Minister cannot trust local authorities to do the job which they were given to do by the local electorate when they were elected.

11.30 p.m.

Mr. Ronald Brown

I have been provoked into taking part in this debate by the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Tyler). We are talking about London, and the hon. Gentleman has given offence by entering into this debate when his knowledge of the subject is so poor. I am a London boroughs man, and not a GLC man. I therefore regret that we have to do this, but the hon. Gentleman must understand that for years many of us warned the London Boroughs Association that the Tory boroughs would have this done to them if they did not do the things that they ought to do.

The situation in London is that because Tory boroughs are refusing to have housing action areas, people are moving into Labour-controlled constituencies where the authorities are doing the necessary work. Homeless families are moving into our areas because Tory boroughs will not do the work that they are supposed to do. I believe that the fault lies with the Tory Party on the old GLC for not having done the job properly.

Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)

I must spring to the defence of the City of Westminster on which I served as a councillor for 12 years. I represented a ward in the constituency represented by the hon. Member for Paddington (Mr. Latham). That was the Maida Vale ward which consisted of about 16,000 people, all of whom, whilst I was there, had a good relationship with both the old Paddington Council and the Westminster City Council, and I reject the suggestion that there are double standards in the City of Westminster.

Westminster is a first-class housing authority, and had the hon. Member for Paddington paid more attention to and indulged in more co-operation with the London borough of the City of Westminster during his tenure of office we might have had more dialogue. Whilst I was a councillor for the Maida Vale ward the hon. Gentleman distinguished himself by remaining aloof from the London borough of the City of Westminster so I reject his allegation that there are double standards in the city.

Mr. Latham

I am glad the hon. Gentleman has explained that he represented Maida Vale. He will know that six years ago the electors there had had enough and elected a Labour member with a majority of about 700, and they did an even bigger job this time. The remedy mentioned by the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Tyler) has materialised in Maida Vale, but it will take a little longer to happen in Meriden and Westminster.

Mr. Shersby

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The fact is that, for good or ill, the electors of the City of Westminster decided to elect a Conservative-controlled authority. That is their privilege, and we regard it as a tragedy that other London boroughs elected local authorities of their own political choice. It is wrong that powers should be taken for the GLC to intervene in the London boroughs in the way that is proposed here.

I shared with the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown) membership of the London Boroughs Association for a number of years, and I regret that the Minister has found it necessary to introduce these powers. London is still a sensitive housing area, and it will be for many years. London will overcome this problem—whether it be in central London or in outer London—only if the elected councillors of the boroughs are able to work together to produce the kind of housing results that are needed. Those results will not be achieved by the prospect of confrontation that will come about if the Bill is enacted in its present form. I want to see the time when the GLC and the Greater London boroughs can work together in harmony on housing matters. It is not good enough for the Government to introduce this type of clause into this type of Bill. It will do nothing but create bad feeling between the authorities concerned. For that reason, I have much pleasure in supporting the amendment.

Mr. Freeson

I will try to dispose of the illusory politics which, unfortunately, have been introduced by the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Tyler). I do not think that the hon. Gentleman could even have been listening attentively to some of the references which other hon. Members opposite made to the dialogue in Committee. I am not sure that he is aware of the politics of the situation. There is a Labour-controlled GLC and a Labour-controlled London Boroughs Association. This dispute—if dispute there is—is not along party lines.

I hope that the hon. Member for Bodmin will listen to what I am saying. I had the courtesy to listen to his speech. He made some falsely based submissions to the House. However much people may disagree with me, my judgment was not motivated by any feeling that now that we have a Labour-controlled GLC we should do this. I was concerned about the failure of housing strategy in London from very soon after the operation of the London Government Act. This concern has been present through the years when there has been different political control, both at County Hall and at London borough level. It is on that basis that I have reached certain views about housing matters as regards disposition of powers.

The hon. Member for Bodmin, having raised falsely based propositions, said that to introduce this kind of reserve power will result in our falling between two stools. I do not wish to become involved in a discussion on housing matters in London or any other city going beyond the scope of the Bill, because the hour is late. However, if ever there were a charge of strategic policy on urban renewal falling between two stools, if that is the correct phrase in this context, that is the charge which has been levelled by many people about the present disposition of powers in the Greater London area. I state that as a fact of the dialogue, without necessarily taking sides, because the question of the general disposition of housing powers and general housing strategy in London is not for debate tonight. We are concerned with one facet of the housing situation and not the general picture.

What the hon. Gentleman has described as prospectively arising from the reserve powers proposed by the Government in the Bill is not something which would arise then. People in increasing numbers over the years have been arguing that it is what is happening now in London and is the cost of getting an effective strategy going in this great city.

Mr. Tyler

The point I was making about duplication was that, where powers are duplicated between two tiers of authority, it is all too easy for the authority which should have the prime responsibility to pass the buck. As many London authorities have been happily passing the buck on housing—I will not mention what political belief they have tended to belong to—it is important to recognise that the very objective the Minister is seeking to secure may not be reached, and the situation may be made that much worse if the duplication of powers which he proposes is introduced.

Mr. Freeson

I will not pursue this matter too far, because it is a matter for more general discussion in the future. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not persist in using references and descriptions which do not define the position clearly. It is clear that the hon. Gentleman does not sufficiently understand—I do not say this critically—what is going on in London. If the paralleling of powers between district and upper tier or county authority is to be described as duplication, that is precisely what we have in London now. I am not arguing whether it is right or wrong, but I do not understand the drift of the hon. Gentleman's thinking. Both tiers are housing authorities now and have been for 10 years. The hon. Gentleman argues that there should not be duplication of powers but there is already duplication of powers going well beyond the small area of housing policy dealt with by the Bill. It is not a question of the duplication of powers but of how the powers are deployed.

I must correct a statement that I made in Committee. Under the Local Government Act 1972 limited reserve powers are given to county authorities. Section 194(3) empowers the Secretary of State to authorise the council of a county authority to undertake the provision of housing accommodation in any manner in which the council of a district within the county might do so. But county authorities are not housing authorities in the way that the GLC is a housing authority notwithstanding the observations of the hon. Member for Bodmin. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will give further thought to the grounds on which he based his argument, because they are erroneous. Whatever view he takes should be arrived at on the basis of facts and not of misconceptions.

I turn to the main body of argument which has been put forward. In Committee we had an hour's discussion on this issue on an amendment moved by the hon. Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg), who is unfortunately unable to be with us tonight. The opposition to these powers came from Opposition Members, on the grounds that default powers were ineffective in practical operation; that comprehensive action could be achieved only if a borough agreed to the GLC declaring a housing action area; that the GLC lacked staff, particularly of public health inspectors, of whom there was a shortage anyway; that there was long-standing rivalry and jealousy between boroughs and the GLC, and that default powers for the GLC in housing action areas, and in general improvement areas under Schedule 5, would only exacerbate that jealousy. They also expressed doubt about the capability of the GLC to take a better view of priorities than the boroughs and about the relevance of the GLC's strategic rôle to housing action areas.

The hon. Member for Hampstead outlined two suggestions which the London Boroughs Association had made as an alternative to the GLC's default powers. First, he suggested that the Secretary of State should put an obligation on the London boroughs to submit to him rolling five-year programmes of housing action areas and general improvement areas, a copy of which they would send to the GLC so that the GLC could express its view. Secondly, he suggested that the London Boroughs Association would be prepared to make every effort to persuade any individual borough to accept responsibility for a particular area. The hon. Member for Hampstead withdrew his amendments on an undertaking by the Minister that he would look again at the question of the GLC's powers.

I did so thoroughly. I then wrote to the hon. Gentleman in terms that have been partially quoted during the debate before the current amendments were tabled, and copies of the letter were sent to all members of the Committee. In that letter I said that, having thought carefully over the issues, I could not table an amendment to remove the GLC's reserve or default powers.

No new arguments have been tabled this evening, and I do not wish to put forward any new arguments. The relationship betwen the GLC and the boroughs is an issue on which set attitudes have often been taken up about the disposition of powers to ensure more effective housing policy in the twilight areas of our cities. This argument has been going on for 10 years, more strenuously now than in the early days, although arguments were advanced on the London Government Bill about the precise disposition of powers.

11.45 p.m.

The boroughs' position was plainly stated by the hon. Member for Hampstead on Second Reading, when, referring to the LBA. he said: It does not believe it to be in the interests of good local government in London that the GLC should be able to act as a 'big brother' … in a dispute between borough and GLC the borough's will must prevail.—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th May 1974; Vol. 873, c. 138.] The Government believe that the more constructive approach is to look at the question in terms of problems which have to be solved. I put this point to the hon. Member for Bodmin, who has shown keen awareness of this approach. It is that, at the end of the day, what we must decide is not the question of the disposition of powers as such, but whether the problems are being tackled in the way which my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington put forward.

There is more to the GLC's rôle as a strategic housing authority than the influencing of policies over Greater London as a whole in document form, in speeches or other forms, important though that kind of influence must be. It is both desirable and inevitable that it should have the means of implementing the priorities of housing action areas and other aspects of the housing problem.

Priority is what the housing action areas are all about. They are the most important of priorities. The GLC already has considerable resources and housing powers which can and should be used. It should be remembered that the LCC and the GLC have made a great contribution to slum clearance and new building over the years, and their potential in improvement and rehabilitation should be recognised by London Members. As my right hon. Friend said on Second Reading, There is quite enough housing stress in London for which the GLC, the London boroughs and the City all have their work cut out, without quarrelling over who does what."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th May 1974; Vol. 873. c. 51.]

Mr. Townsend

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for recalling those remarks. These are important differences. We do not want squabbling but if the hon. Gentleman persists we shall have it.

Mr. Freeson

There has been squabbling for the last 10 years and it is going on now. If hon. Members are honest with themselves, they will know perfectly well what I mean. We are not mounting the housing effort in London that we should be mounting, and this is largely because policy and power squabbles are going on all the time. The time must come when such squabbling must stop because the people of London cannot afford to leave these problems of housing untackled. We cannot afford just to leave twilight areas that need urgent treatment, or the question of building homes for people in need in areas which can provide them. The squabbling is there; the set differences of view are there. We must reach a stage where we move away from these things because there is a total London situation to be dealt with, and all parts of London must contribute to solving the problems of the worst areas. We are dealing with one aspect of the problem tonight.

The Government expect the GLC and the boroughs to work together in planning and carrying out a forward programme of housing action areas and general improvement areas as part of a common approach to London's housing problems. We hope that they will generally be able to agree on which areas should be declared and by whom and that, whichever authority formally declares them, each will work with and assist the other. We welcome the LBA's offer to use its good offices in promoting action by boroughs.

Without seeing any advantage in building into the Bill legislative requirements about the submission of a rolling programme, we see the idea of forward planning and discussion as valuable. But these offers, welcome as they always have been, do not destroy the case for the GLC's reserve powers. If agreement is not forthcoming where housing conditions are such that action under Part IV of the Bill is clearly called for, the Secretary of State has made it clear that the powers the clause gives to the GLC are there to be used. They must be used to get the job done. We cannot wait for more years or another decade for the work to be done where it needs to be done.

The procedure in Schedule 4(4) provides the maximum opportunity for agreement to be reached. Even after the Secretary of State has notified the GLC that it may declare against borough opposition, the borough is given an opportunity to reconsider its decision and to tackle the area itself. The fact that the GLC itself proposed that this further opportunity should be available cuts down to size the charge of its being the "big brother". The GLC has itself said, in a letter to the Department, that although it considers its reserve power vital, it has no desire to act against the wishes of a London borough and hopes that it will be able to proceed with the full cooperation of boroughs. We share that hope.

I have described the powers as a back-up, no more", and added: If all the London boroughs are able and willing to carry through work in this field as fully as one wants and hopes, and, I believe, for the most part they will wish to do, there will never be an occasion when the GLC will need to apply to the Secretary of State for the operation of the default powers … I hope that this situation will obtain … but I believe that at the end of the day such reserve powers to get the job done, if it is not being done, must be in the Bill. I could continue to argue this case more deeply on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of families in need. But I end by reinforcing or repeating a point that I put in Committee and on which I have touched today: At the end of the day it is not the susceptibilities between points of power in government at whatever level. It is what is done to enable people and their children to grow up in better housing and urban conditions."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee B, 23rd May 1974; c. 246–7, 243] That is the objective of the Bill as drafted. It is for that reason that we resist the amendment.

Mr. Rossi

I have listened attentively to the whole debate. I recognise at once the depth of feeling that exists in boroughs against interference in their area with their jurisdiction and powers by other boroughs, whether they be other district boroughs or the GLC. As has been adduced by hon. Members, a matter of principle is involved in that situation. However, the Minister has made it clear, both in Committee and in the letter that he wrote to members of the Committee, that this power is to be used only by agreement. The intention is that there shall be agreement between the boroughs and the GLC. If that is the objective we would not wish to press the amendment any further.

The debate, essentially, has been a quarrel between the London Boroughs Association and the Greater London Council. The proposal was originally put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg) in his capacity as representing the interests of the LBA in this House. He put forward its arguments competently and effectively. But this quarrel between the LBA and the GLC is essentially an internal Labour Party quarrel. It is no concern of ours.

Having listened to the Minister's assurances—

Mr. Arthur Latham

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Rossi

No, I will not give way. The hon. Gentleman has made his speech. I am trying to be brief. If I get sidetracked we shall go on for hours.

Mr. Latham

I want to intervene on that point.

Mr. Rossi

We shall watch the situation. If it develops in the way in which the Minister suggested, so be it. But if we see abuse of this reserve power by the GL,C and untoward interference by it in the boroughs' powers, when the time comes we shall certainly review the matter by looking deeply and hard at the whole of the GLC's housing powers.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

Question accordingly negatived.

The House divided: Ayes 45, Noes 139.

Division No. 54.] AYES 11.57 p.m.
Allason James (Hemel Hempstead) Johnston, Russell (Inverness) Stanbrook, Ivor
Beith, A. J. Knox, David Stanley, John
Benyon, W. Mayhew, Patrick (RoyalT'bridgeWells) Steel, David
Boscawen, Hon. Robert Miller, Hal (B'grove & R'ditch) Steen, Anthony (L'pool, Wavertree)
Bulmer, Esmond Mills, Peter Thatcher, Rt. Hn. Margaret
Butler, Adam (Bosworth) Morgan-Giles, Rear-Adm. Tyler, Paul
Chalker, Mrs. Lynda Morris, Michael (Northampton, S.) Weatherill, Bernard
Cooke, Robert (Bristol, W.) Neubert, Michael Winstanley, Dr. Michael
Dixon, Piers Parkinson, Cecil (Hertfordshire, S.) Winterton, Nicholas
Emery, Peter Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon Woodhouse, Hn. Christopher
Fisher, Sir Nigel Rossi, Hugh (Hornsey) Worsley, Sir Marcus
Fookes, Miss Janet Rost, Peter (Derbyshire, S.-E.)
Freud, Clement Scott-Hopkins, James TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Gower, Sir Raymond (Barry) Shelton, William (L'mb'th.Streath'm) Mr. John Moore and
Grist, Ian Shersby, Michael Mr. Cyril Townsend.
Howells, Geraint (Cardigan) Sims, Roger
Hunt, John Sinclair, Sir George
Allaun, Frank Flannery, Martin Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe)
Armstrong, Ernest Fletcher, Raymond (Ilkeston) Morris, Charles R. (Openshaw)
Ashton, Joe Fletcher, Ted (Darlington) Murray, Ronald King
Atkinson, Norman Fowler, Gerry (The Wrekin) Newens, Stanley (Harlow)
Bagier, Gordon A. T. Freeson, Reginald Ogden, Eric
Barnett, Guy (Greenwich) Garrett, W. E. (Wallsend) O'Halloran, Michael
Barnett, Joel (Heywood & Royton) Gilbert, Dr. John O'Malley, Brian
Bates, Alf Golding, John Park, George (Coventry, N.E.)
Benn, Rt. Hn. Anthony Wedgwood Grant, George (Morpeth) Parker, John (Dagenham)
Bennett, Andrew F. (Stockport, N.) Hamling, William Parry, Robert
Bishop, E. S. Hardy, Peter Pavitt, Laurie
Boardman, H. Harper, Joseph Pendry, Tom
Booth, Albert Harrison, Walter (Wakefield) Phipps, Dr. Colin
Brown, Hugh D. (Glasgow, Provan) Hatton, Frank Price, William (Rugby)
Buchan, Norman Horam, John Roderick, Caerwyn E.
Campbell, Ian Howell, Denis (B'ham, Small Heath) Rodgers, George (Chorley)
Carmichael, Neil Hughes, Mark (Durham) Rowlands, Edward
Carter, Ray Irving, Rt. Hn. Sydney (Dartford) Shaw, Arnold (Redbridge, Ilford, S.)
Carter-Jones, Lewis Johnson, Walter (Derby, S.) Sheldon, Robert (Ashton-under-Lyne)
Cocks, Michael Jones, Barry (Flint, E.) Skinner, Dennis
Coleman, Donald Jones, Alec (Rhondda) Small, William
Concannon, J. D. Kaufman, Gerald Snape, Peter
Cook, Robert F. (Edinburgh, C.) Kerr, Russell Spearing, Nigel
Cox, Thomas Lamborn, Harry Stallard, A. W.
Craigen, J. M. (G'gow, Maryhill) Lamond, James Stoddart, David (Swindon)
Cronin, John Latham, Arthur(City of W'minsterP'ton) Stott, Roger
Cryer, G. R. Lawson,George (Motherwell&Wishaw) Tinn, James
Cunningham, G. (Isl'ngt'n & F'sb'ry) Lestor, Miss Joan (Eton & Slough) Torney, Tom
Cunningham, Dr. John A. (Whiteh'v'n) Loughlin, Charles Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne Valley)
Dalyell, Tam Loyden, Eddie Walker, Harold (Doncaster)
Davidson, Arthur Lyons, Edward (Bradford, W.) Walker, Terry (Kingswood)
Davies, Bryan (Enfield, N.) Mabon, Dr. J. Dickson Watkins, David
Davies, Ifor (Gower) McElhone, Frank Watt, Hamish
Davis, Clinton (Hackney, C.) MacFarquhar, Roderick Wellbeloved, James
Dean, Joseph (Leeds, W.) McGuire, Michael White, James
Doig, Peter McNamara, Kevin Whitlock, William
Dormand, J. D. Madden, M. O. F. Williams, Alan Lee (Hvrng, Hchurch)
Douglas-Mann, Bruce Magee, Bryan Wilson, Alexander (Hamilton)
Duffy, A. E. P. Marks, Kenneth Wilson, William (Coventry, S.E.)
Dunn, James A. Marquand, David Wise, Mrs. Audrey
Dunnett, Jack Marshall, Dr. Edmund (Goole) Woodall, Alec
Dunwoody, Mrs. Gwyneth Meacher, Michael Woof, Robert
Eadie, Alex Mellish, Rt. Hn. Robert Wrigglesworth, Ian
Edge, Geoff Mikardo, Ian
Evans, Ioan (Aberdare) Millan, Bruce TELLERS FOR THE NOES
Evans, John (Newton) Milne, Edward Mr. James Hamilton and
Ewing, Harry (St'ling,F'kirk&G'm'th) Mitchell, R. C. (S'hampton, Itchen) Mr. Ernest G. Perry.
Fernyhough, Rt. Hn. E. Moonman, Eric
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