HC Deb 25 June 1974 vol 875 cc1406-9
Mr. Stallard

I beg to move Amendment No. 5, in page 91, line 3, leave out Clause 98.

I am still puzzled about the need for this clause. I am not normally suspicious, but I find that the clause was Clause 121 in the original Tory Bill, and had that Bill gone any further I intended to move to delete that clause. The original clause now appears verbatim as Clause 98, and I have therefore moved the amendment to delete it.

I discovered that the previous Government had included the clause giving the Secretary of State powers of veto over local authority spending in providing dwellings by the conversion of houses or other buildings because they were concerned and a little alarmed about the activities of some inner London boroughs, including my own, in operating that provision. The then Government were worried, to say the least, about municipalisation, and in order to stop or curb the expansion of this process they sought to control the spending of local authorities by still more intervention.

I repeat that I am still a little worried about this clause appearing in the Bill in the same form as it did in the previous measure. I thought that the Labour Party was pledged to encourage municipalisation. That being so, rather than impede local authorities in that process we should provide finance and encourage them to municipalise.

What kind of criteria will be used by my right hon. Friend in deciding whether to intervene? Will he allot a certain amount of money per local authority, or will he decide on a number of dwellings per local authority? On what criteria will he decide whether to interfere? I hope I am wrong in thinking that the present Government would like to stop the process of municipalisation, which is what the previous Government hoped to do.

Last year my borough purchased 1,227 units of accommodation, and in the first four months of this year it has bought 1,431 units. We should encourage that process. I accept that the previous Government wanted to stop this process and therefore they wanted this clause, but do we need it?

12. 45 a.m.

Mr. Ronald Brown

I support my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard) in the amendment. I, too, find it difficult to understand what lies behind the clause. This is clear intervention by the Secretary of State. Will it be intervention on quality of conversion? If it is the case that quality of conversion is to be maintained, I can understand that and will support it.

I think of the days when the right hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker) was Secretary of State. If any projects had been submitted to him I imagine that he would not have been upholding the quality of conversions. I am sure that my hon. Friend as Minister will use all his skill to ensure that conversions are generally of the quality we would expect. However, he will not be there for ever. He may well be elevated to higher office. I am anxious to hear from him what protection there will be for local authorities which regard conversion of properties as an important part of their activities.

This type of work is being increasingly undertaken. The next development will be application after application awaiting the Secretary of State's approval. In the case of conversions there will be complaints from local people. There will be complaints of harassment and difficulties about squatters. The whole matter becomes impossible once this further control is fed in. The control cannot be fed into the Department until the houses are purchased. When the houses are purchased, many of them will be empty. By the time approval is obtained from the Secretary of State, the house will be derelict. Therefore, the original propoals which have been approved by hon. Friend will be out of date in any event.

I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to explain to us why, in his strategy of trying to proceed with conversions as quickly as possible, he believes that feeding in this element of control will help.

Mr. Freeson

The clause in no way -limits expenditure on acquisition of pro- perties. Municipalisation of social ownership can in no way be frustrated by the clause. The clause could not even be used in that way by a Conservative Government, should one ever succeed us.

The clause is not intended to operate to establish control over detailed expenditure on particular acquisitions by way of improvement. It will empower the Secretary of State to control the flow of resources to different parts of the country and into different activities in broad brush annual budget terms, but the manner in which this can be done will have to be discussed with the local authority associations.

This is not a clause under which the Secretary of State will interfere in the detailed local assessment of priorities and programming, let alone in the detailed application of improvement policy to groups of houses purchases. The fact that the clause empowers the Secretary of State to influence the flow of resources in broad brush annual budget terms will be important as we move further into the field of local authority sponsored improvement to ensure that resources are going primarily into priority stress areas, as compared with the flow of resources which has sometimes gone into areas which, however desirable it may be to improve them, could not be described as requiring first priority treatment in the private sector.

It is also possible that we may wish to influence the flow of resources away from large-scale improvement of local authority estates if there is greater priority for improving seriously substandard properties. This has not been worked out in detail, but it is an area of influence that we must have to ensure that resources go to improve properties which have escaped improvement although the improvements policy was primarily designed for that purpose.

The most seriously substandard private properties over the years have received the smallest proportion of resources from the total improvements programme. A large proportion of the expenditure has gone on local authority estates of the 1920s and 1930s and on owner-occupied properties in relatively good condition. Only a very small proportion of the expenditure has gone on properties in the twilight areas which are in greatest need of improvement, the very properties which one expects local authorities to give priority to when working out programmes of acquisition, so that they can be improved and not allowed to decline into slums. The broad policy intention is to get the flow of resources into areas of highest priority rather than to interfere in detailed programmes or the detailed management of particular schemes.

Mr. Stallard

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his explanation of how he sees the clause operating, but I am not 100 per cent. satisfied. I suspect that the intention of the original clause in the previous Bill introduced by the Conservative Government was to attempt to control the conversion and improvement of older properties by local authorities and so to counter the move towards municipalisation. I accept the sincerity of my hon. Friend in his interpretation of the clause. I am still a little worried that the operation of the clause might fall into someone else's hands, but that is not likely in the foreseeable future.

I accept my hon. Friend's explanation. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Forward to