HC Deb 25 June 1974 vol 875 cc1315-24
Mr. Peter Rost (Derbyshire, South-East)

I beg to move Amendment No. 73, in page 4, line 27, at end insert: '(2) In exercising their powers to provide dwellings under subsection (1) above, the Corporation shall arrange so far as practicable for the provision in any such dwellings of chimneys or flues capable of serving Class I appliances within the meaning of the Building Regulations 1972 (hereinafter referred to as "Class I appliances"). (3) In exercising their powers to improve dwellings under subsection (1) above, the Corporation shall take such steps as are practicable to restore and put in order chimneys and flues serving Class I appliances'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this amendment we are to take the following amendments: No 74, in page 42, line 9, after accommodation', insert: 'and the restoration and putting in order of chimneys and flues serving Class I appliances'.

No. 75, in page 42, line 12, at end insert: '(3) In exercising their powers to provide housing accommodation by the construction of building under subsection (2) above, the local authority shall arrange so far as practicable for the provision in any such buildings of chimneys or flues capable of serving Class I appliances. (4) In exercising their powers to improve or repair h )using accommodation under subsection (2) above, the local authority shall take such steps as are practicable to restore and put in order chimneys and flues serving Class I appliances'.

No. 76, in page 51, line 17, after section ', insert: '(d) that all chimneys or flues capable of serving Class I appliances are restored and put in order so far as is practicable;'.

Mr. Rost

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for having selected this group of amendments in my name. It reflects on the wisdom of your judgment in deciding what is important and what is less important.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I am always willing to have reflected glory. In this case it belongs to Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Ros

I have no doubt that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, have had some say in these matters. No doubt this group of amendment s would still have been selected even if the Opposition Front Bench had added their names to it, adopted it and added their support to it.

The group of amendments attempts to impose some obligations on the Housing Corporation to see that the trend of building in the public sector, whereby chimneys and flues are regarded as irrelevant and unnecessary, is reversed.

There are many of us—not necessarily only those who are anxious to promote the indigenous coal industry in this country, but many other people, for other reasons—who feel that we are moving the wrong way in now building in the public sector vast numbers of houses and other accommodation without flues or chimneys.

The coal industry and the Coal Merchants' Federation have a special interest here. I need not declare an interest, because I have no interest. I nevertheless mention this.

It is disappointing that hon. Members opposite are not in attendance in strength to deal with a matter which I would have thought was of extreme concern and interest to them. They are extremely interested in promoting the coal industry. Here is an important area of legislation where it seems that without these amendments we could obtain an increase in building without flues or chimneys.

There are one or two reasons why I believe these amendments will be supported by the Government. We should be keeping our options open in the future with regard to our energy supplies. We may or may not have adequate electricity and gas. We shall have, or are planning to have, adequate solid fuel. Therefore, it seems ridiculous that we should be building more and more of our public sector housing without the ability to burn this fuel. One cannot burn smokeless fuel, or use anthracite central heating burners or normal grates, without flues or chimneys. There is no inducement for local authorities—nor would there be for the Housing Corporation unless we pass these amendments—to provide chimneys and flues.

In the private sector housing the individual who buys a house has a choice. He can order the building firm to provide chimneys. He can ask the architect to ensure that they are incorporated in the construction of the house. No doubt he would pay extra for it. This is a consumer choice which I think is desirable. This choice is increasingly being removed from those who are necessarily accommodated in the public sector. That is a most undesirable trend, particularly in the light of the recent unsatisfactory Government decree that the price of electricity for night storage heating was to be increased substantially—a decree that was reversed, thanks to the vigilance of the Opposition in the Division Lobbies. This is another example of what can happen if there is no option. If there is no freedom of choice the poor consumer is obliged to use electricity or gas for his heating, because he has no flue or chimney.

If we are to pump vast sums of public money into the future of the coal industry and the development of more efficient methods of burning solid fuel, with the use of smokeless fuel and other improvements, it is important to maintain a substantial domestic market for our solid fuel. I cannot see what future there can be for such a market if we allow more and more public buildings to be constructed without facilities to burn solid fuel.

I have no doubt that the Government will be wholeheartedly in agreement with the amendments, because their purpose must be in complete sympathy with all that the Government support.

Mr. Robert Redmond (Bolton, West)

Thank you for calling me, Mr. Deputy Speaker—and the thanks are due to you entirely, not to Mr. Speaker.

I was alerted to the problem so well stated by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Rost) by the Bolton Chamber of Trade, which was acting on behalf of the local coal merchants. My name should be on the Amendment Paper as one of the supporters of the amendment. I suppose that the reason for its not appearing there has to do with the printing difficulties, and I shall not press the point.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, and I do not want to repeat what he has said. He spoke about buildings in the public sector. I have in mind a relatively small estate of owner-occupied houses in my constituency. Some months ago the owners, in a body, asked me to visit them because they wanted to obtain a supply of gas. The houses are built to take only oil-fired central heating. The gas board cannot connect. The owners asked me "If we cannot have gas, can we please have solid fuel? If nothing else can be done, can we please have a fireplace? We cannot afford the oil central heating with present oil prices."Those people are saying that the only alternative in the present situation is electric heating, which is expensive. They would welcome one fireplace in their houses.

The point of the amendment is to give consumers that choice. Nothing will happen to help the people on that estate if we pass the amendment, but it should prevent anyone else having that problem in the future.

Although not many of their supporters, particularly Members from mining areas, are present, I hope that the Government will accept the amendment. I speak in its support as someone who comes from near the Lancashire coalfield, which I have always supported in a long period in politics.

Mr. Emery

The amendment has been urged upon many hon. Members by those who support the coal lobby. It is understandable that those concerned with the mining of coal should want to try to ensure that in housing today facilities for the burning of coal are kept in the forefront of the minds of consumers of energy. I fully understand that, and it is right and proper that we should discuss the matter as we debate the aspects of improvement grants under the Bill.

However, it would be wrong of me not to say that the problem is not quite so easy as just to affect the coal lobby. In certain houses the problem of overall thermal insulation is much greater than the problems of providing grates.

We should consider in this context chimneys and flues used not only in the burning of coal but also, as I come from Devon where there is no coal but where we cut wood, in the burning of wood—which is very nice too. However, where fireplaces are not used, considerable insulation problems can be created and problems can also arise where fireplaces have to be closed.

I hope that the Government will take the view that where people opt for a fireplace in the living room that should be their right, and that where local authorities wish to provide fireplaces because they detect a demand, the Government should do nothing to hinder this. However, to make it obligatory that chimneys and flues should be provided in all new houses would probably be going much too far. If action were to be taken in this way I would urge the Government to consider much more fully the use of their powers of grant to encourage thermal efficiency, particularly in the construction of houses.

I was aghast to see a report from the Association of Industrialised Building Component Manufacturers stating that the heat lost in British housing today was about 3,500 BThUs per day greater than in most housing in Europe and that, with proper thermal insulation, we could without a great deal of cost or without much difficulty reduce the thermal loss by at least 20 per cent., and probably more.

I fully understand the views expressed in the amendment, and it is right and proper that we should not forget the National Coal Board's need to be able to market domestic coal—although I must point out, bearing in mind that I used to have some responsibility in this connectior, that too often the National Coal Board finds that it is short of domestic coal and so has to import coal. The ordinary coal consumer should be allowed to have a fireplace in his living room if he wishes.

Provided that we can get an understanding from the Government that their approach will be in accordance with the points I have mentioned, I hope that my hon. Friend will be content with such an assurance and that he will not wish to press this matter to a Division.

Mr. Tyler

I wish to add my voice, on behalf of the peat lobby, to the speeches we have heard on behalf of the log and coal lobbies. The point which the hon. Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery) raised about thermal insulation is much more important than the mere question of flues and chimneys, and I hope that the Minister in reply will not deal only technically with the amendments but will range a little wider over the much more serious problem of terminal insulation which in the past has not had the attention it deserves from the House.

8.45 p.m.

Mr. Kaufman

What an interesting evening this has been. The Conservative Party has now become the party of the leaseholders and the coal miners, all in a few minutes. The hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi), who has an agreeable knack of being impartially party political, when I tried to congratulate his party on its conversion to causes with which it has never been signally associated, told me—

Mr. Redmond rose

Mr. Kaufman

No, I shall not give way. I shall refer to the hon. Member in a moment. He will not escape my attention.

We welcomed the speech of the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Rost). He has campaigned on this issue, and not only in this Parliament. He holds it dear for a number of reasons. I will not reflect on them all, but when he says that he has no interest to declare I recall that his constituency has a number of coal miners in it and that he can be overturned on a narrow swing. Just as he was very judicious in his attitude during the coal dispute that his Government continually stirred up, so, now that he is in opposition, he is maintaining a consistent attitude.

The hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Redmond), with a majority which is only a minute fraction even of that of the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East, is right to wish to placate any residuary coalminers there may still be in his constituency.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I think that that is a fair exchange of courtesies. Perhaps we might now come to the amendment.

Mr. Kaufman

I am grateful to you for your protection, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I take very seriously what the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East has said, but the Bill is an inappropriate vehicle for achieving the objects of the amendment. If it were considered necessary to require the provision of flues and chimneys it would be better to do so in respect of new and improved dwellings generally and not to deal merely with dwellings to be provided by the Housing Corporation or by local authorities or those which are the subject of improvement grants.

The amendment is particularly ineffective since it relates only to houses provided or improved by the Housing Corporation acting directly on its own behalf and not to the far greater number which would be provided or improved by housing associations. The place of coal in future domestic heating is in any case more likely to be predominantly through the production of gas and electricity and in district heating schemes rather than in open fires.

The general points raised are apposite because they are matters that the Government are considering seriously. For instance, we are considering the question of thermal insulation in the Department. But I would go further. The hon. Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery), with his experience in the Department of Trade and Industry, will realise that these matters fit into the much wider context of energy conservation. He will know that the Secretary of State for Energy has issued a statement on this matter today and will be making a wider statement which will deal, apart from other implications, with energy conservation through forms of heating and insulation.

If coal is to be used to produce heat in houses themselves rather than through district heating schemes, it is likely to be by a single domestic boiler or boiler-backed open fire for which a flue could be provided as and when necessary. The expense would hardly justify the compulsory provision of chimneys in all dwellings.

I would tell the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East that his Amendment No. 74 is unnecessary since the term "repair" clearly embraces the restoration of chimneys and flues. We would regard Amendment No. 75 as undesirable since it is clearly inappropriate, in this clause dealing with general powers to provide housing accommodation, to try even for the worthiest motives—and I accept the hon. Gentleman's reasoning—to prescribe design details or to prescribe one form of heating rather than another.

We do not deride the hon. Member's objective. We take it seriously, for precisely the reason he has advanced, namely, that we wish to see a market for domestic coal. As my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Marks) and I know, in our constituencies many people still burn coal in open fires and when one visits people there one has an extremely pleasant atmosphere from those fires. Therefore, I would ask the hon. Member to accept that while we have to resist his amendment, if pressed, we do not resist the general import of his argument.

Mr. Rost

I must admit I find the hon. Gentleman's reply most disappointing. I do not think I have ever heard a more disappointing answer to a reasonable and sound case than we have just heard. He says that he wishes to see a market in domestic coal promoted, advanced or continued. He has an opportunity here at least to give some encouragement following the vast sums of money that the Coal Board is spending on research for domestic appliances to burn fuel more efficiently in the home. The Coal Board is spending millions of pounds of taxpayers' money not just on research but on sales and promotion of domestic appliances.

I cannot for the life of me see why the hon. Gentleman should want to resist these amendments in principle. Amendment No. 73 simply suggests that the Housing Corporation shall arrange, as far as practicable, for the provision in any dwelling of chimneys or flues. It does not force it to do so. It merely gives the corporation a directive to do so if it is desirable, if there is a demand. I only wish that some of the hon. Gentleman's colleagues from the back benches were here this evening, particularly those who are vociferous when coal industry matters are being debated. If they could have heard his reply—and I shall make sure they do hear of his reply—I believe he would be in severe difficulties. I think he could have done a lot better. When did the hon. Gentleman last go back to the coal face?

Mr. Kaufman

I am asked when I was last at the coal face. I was there only a few months ago when I last visited a coal mine. I do not know when the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Rost) was last there. With regard to what he has just said, I shall be happy to circulate my speech to all my hon. Friends who are members of the miners' group because they are the people who have consistently shown an interest in and a care for coal and do not need to be told by any hon. Member opposite about their responsibilities to the coal industry.

Mr. Rost

I am most obliged for that comment. I have no doubt the hon. Gentleman will keep his promise to do just that and I shall be interested to hear the response he gets. No doubt I shall put down Questions to prompt him as to what the Coal Board says on the reply he has given tonight, and, of course, what is said by the Coal Merchants' Federation and all other parties interested in this country who wish to see consumer choice maintained and to see a sensible energy policy followed.

The hon. Gentleman's argument is quite unsatisfactory, because it rests entirely on what he has put to the House, that just because the corporation is to be responsible for only a small sector of housing, therefore it does not matter. Surely, what we suggest is exactly the type of lead that is required. It is quite unsatisfactory that the hon. Gentleman should read out a brief presented to him before he entered this debate and defend an indefensible line of argument which is entire y inconsistent with his own Government's policy. I find it most regrettable.

Amendment negatived.

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