HC Deb 26 March 1975 vol 889 cc635-44

11.57 p.m.

Mr. George Gardiner (Reigate)

The Banstead Hall site covers a substantial area very near the centre of Banstead in the borough of Reigate and Banstead, and is owned by Surrey County Council. The buildings on it comprise Banstead Hall, which was built originally as a large boarding school; near by is Banstead House, which is also quite large, containing further dormitories and a self-contained flat, and further half-dozen houses originally accommodated teaching staff, and there are several large workshops.

My argument tonight concerns not Banstead Hall itself but the other buildings on the site.

In 1937 the whole complex of buildings became an approved school and continued in this use until severely damaged by fire on 17th March 1974. But already the county council had judged it to be surplus to its needs and so not worth restoring. The last boy accordingly left the establishment last October.

However, as a community home it was—and, indeed, still is—listed as such in the regional plan prepared by the Children's Regional Planning Committee for South-East England and approved by the Secretary of State for Social Services. This puts the county council under a statutory duty to operate it as a community home unless the Secretary of State authorises an amendment to the regional plan.

In fact, as far back as November 1973 the regional planning committee decided to apply for just such an amendment, but the Department refused on the ground that there was an acute shortage of community homes to serve the London boroughs.

At a meeting with the Under-Secretary of State on 2nd May 1974 the county asked again for the plan to be amended so that the site could be disposed of to help meet the pressing housing need in the area. But the Department indicated that it would be prepared to agree to the deletion of Banstead Hall from the south-east regional plan only if it became incorporated instead in the regional plan for London. So the county council felt that it had no choice but to open nego- tiations with the London borough of Croydon, which wished to use Banstead House and the adjoining buildings as the nucleus of a community home of its own, and those negotiations have since proceeded.

However, the point I want to stress is that, in making that decision in May of last year, the Secretary of State was concerned only with weighing the scheme for further community home facilities for the London boroughs against the claim for further building land in this belt of Surrey. She was not concerned—since it was not then brought to her attention —with the totally different and far more pressing need to make some provision for the homeless in this part of Surrey. For my part, I must admit that I did not make this clear in my letter to the Secretary of State as recently as 25th February this year—for which I duly apologise to the Under-Secretary.

But it is because of the emergence of this new and chronic factor that I ask the Under-Secretary tonight to reconsider his Department's decision of last year. Unless he does, I am afraid he will inflict great misery on people who are perhaps the most vulnerable of my constituents—those families who find themselves without a home.

I should like to explain our local crisis over homelessness in a little greater detail. At this moment Surrey County Council is responsible for providing a roof for our homeless families. But in his Circular 18/74 the Secretary of State for the Environment expressed his wish that this responsibility should be taken over by the district and borough councils. I stress that there was no statutory requirement on them to do so, but the district councils of Surrey agreed together to cooperate with the Secretary of State for the Environment and to work together to take over this responsibility.

Accordingly, on 1st April—in just six days' time—Reigate and Banstead Borough Council takes over responsibility for housing homeless families within our boundaries. But what is the situation that it is taking on? A number of these families come together with the houses in which they have already been placed. But a total of 26 parents and children are in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Another seven are in temporary accommodation and must be transferred into bed-and-breakfast accommodation next Tuesday. A further 21 are in different temporary accommodation which must be vacated by 31st May. So by that date no fewer than 54 parents and children will be living in bed-and-breakfast rooms.

Let us not imagine that these will be all. I have the evidence from my own Saturday surgeries of couples—often under notice to quit tied commercial premises—coming to me and saying "Whatever can we do? Wherever can we go?" I am afraid that the truth is that there is nowhere for them to go. I do not want to make a political point, but since last year's Rent Act absolutely no private rented homes are coming on to the market in Reigate and Banstead. For some time the price of a private house in this band of Surrey has been way above such a family's reach, and those currently being allocated council houses have been five years on the waiting list.

In my view there is no doubt that this problem of homelessness will grow. But for the moment we know that next Tuesday 33 parents and children will be in bed-and-breakfast accommodation and by 31st May at least 54. I wonder whether the Minister really understands what it often means to live "bed-and-breakfast" with young children—the mother leaving after breakfast, with the kids following behind, a carrier bag stuffed with the day's needs, perhaps leaving her children at a welfare centre while she spends the day walking the streets or sitting in bus shelters. The sheer social harm inflicted by this living pattern is denied by no one.

There is also the question of costs to the borough. This was a duty taken on voluntarily, and its cost must be borne by the general rate fund. But the average cost of putting one homeless family in bed-and-breakfast accommodation in Reigate or Banstead is £2,500 a year—for just one family.

However, I am sure that it is the social damage which must worry the Under-Secretary most. By next week, as I said, 33 parents and children in my constituency will have no homes between breakfast and bedtime. Yet meanwhile the buildings attached to Banstead Hall, which could house every one of them, are lying empty. The Minister must recognise that this is nothing short of a scandal.

This is the human crisis of which the Minister's Department was never aware when it decided that these buildings had to go to a London borough for use as a community home. I ask him to take it very seriously into consideration now, for it makes the choice before him a totally different one.

Surrey County Council certainly appreciates it, even though it was not apparent to it last year. It is perfectly prepared to negotiate the sale or lease of this whole site to Reigate and Banstead council for this purpose. But it is blocked by the Under-Secretary's Department's decision.

It is also possible that part of the extensive grounds of this site could be used to build some of the old people's flatlets we so desperately need, but I concede that that is a different question. Of course, the old Banstead Hall could be sold or leased to Reigate and Banstead Council but this building needs considerable reinstatement after the fire, and there would be no chance of that being available to house homeless families for a long time.

The Minister must frequently have to make an evaluation of relative social need. That does not make his job easy. I would be the first to recognise that. Surely in this case he must recognise that the social need of these families, many with young children, is at least as great as those of children coming before Croydon Juvenile Court. I recognise that Croydon has a real problem. But I am not at all convinced that if its borough council knew that the Banstead Hall site was not available it could not find an alternative by looking hard within its own borough.

The Under-Secretary must recognise also the anger felt over this in my constituency. All three political parties are represented on our borough council and they are united in pressing this demand. Having agreed to the Government's wish that the council should assume responsibility for the homeless, they now feel that they are being let down.

Surely an asset of this kind, in the midst of our community, should be available first to meet our own real and pressing problem, which is at least as great as the need for a community home by another borough which is not even within the county of Surrey. I acknowledge that this was not a factor when the Minister's Department made its initial decision on the future use of this site last year. But it is a critical factor now, and the Minister still has time to act, even at this eleventh hour.

If the hon. Gentleman would but do so I can assure him that he would prevent untold misery to homeless families and children in my constituency while giving the London borough of Croydon the signal to search far more thoroughly for another building within its boundaries. I submit that it makes absolutely no administrative or moral sense to rob the homeless of Reigate and Banstead to help the juvenile training authorities of Croydon. That is effectively what his Department is doing. I cannot believe that it is knowingly a party to that situation. I appeal most earnestly to the Minister to take a broader view and think again.

11.10 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Alec Jones)

From the outset I would assure the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Gardiner) that I and the Department as a whole are concerned about this matter, and about his wish and the wish of local authorities in the area—it is also my Department's wish—that this whole site should be put to the best possible use.

We might have some differences in defining what is the best possible use and that is the crux of the matter. We have a clash of two essential interests. The hon. Member said that he was aware that the needs of one were at least as great as those of the other. I think he used those words. That is the problem which, basically, we arc faced with: whether we shall allow the site to be used as accommodation for the homeless or as a community home. It is not true to suggest that the Secretary of State is concerned only with its use as a community home. My right hon. Friend and I are aware of the problem of homelessness in general and in this area in particular. I have spent some time visiting the homeless in the London area who are subjected to this bed-and-breakfast- routine, and we agree that this is no solution to homelessness.

I shall deal with the history of the matter in order to place on record how the Department sees the problem.

On 1st April 1973 Banstead Hall, which was formerly an approved school, became a community home with education on the premises in accordance with the provisions of the Children and Young Persons Act 1969. This Act provided, among other things, for the abolition of the courts' powers to order a juvenile to be sent to an approved school. It established the machinery by which schools in the centrally controlled approved school system would come under the direction or supervision of local authorities as part of a comprehensive system of community homes for the accommodation, care, and treatment of children in the care of local authorities. Responsibility for planning and providing this new system was devolved to local authorities which were required to establish regional planning committees to plan on a regional and inter-regional basis the provision of a comprehensive range of residential accommodation for children in care. In the course of their planning the committees had to decide how the approved schools, which were geographically unevenly distributed between the regions, should be shared. Some regions, like the South-East, were relatively well endowed with approved schools but others, such as London, had too few within their boundaries to meet their needs, and it was an essential part of the job of regional planning committees to provide through their plans arrangements for co-operation in the use of these specialised facilities by authorities within the region and with authorities and homes outside the region.

At the time the regional plans were being drawn up Surrey County Council, which was responsible for three approved schools, one of which was considered to be surplus to the region's requirements, was negotiating the disposal of Banstead Hall to a London borough. These negotiations had not been completed by the time the regional plan was submitted for the Secretary of State's approval, and Banstead Hall was included in the plan for the South-East Region on the understanding that it would be used mainly by authorities in the London region, and in the expectation that it would eventually be transferred to a London borough. When subsequently these negotiations broke down Surrey continued to run the home but uncertainty about its future led to loss of staff and to a drop in the number of boys it could accommodate. This led the county council to decide in September 1973, by which time the home was more than half empty, to seek an amendment to the regional plan to delete Banstead Hall from it. This would have enabled it to close the home and would have freed the site for other uses such as the hon. Gentleman has suggested. The regional planning committee endorsed the county council's proposal and in January 1974 sought the Secretary of State's approval of the amendment. At this stage the national demand for places in community homes of all kinds, the acute shortage of places in community homes with education on the premises and the particular needs of London, which has the greatest number of children in need of accommodation in community homes with education on the premises and too few such homes to meet the need, all these circumstances made it necessary to ensure that the loss of places resulting from the proposed deletion of Banstead Hall from the plan was unavoidable.

The hon. Member will be aware that many hon. Members on both sides of the House are frequently drawing the attention of the Department to the need to provide extra facilities for these children in community homes throughout the country.

Officials of the Department accordingly discussed with Surrey County Council and representatives of the two regional planning committees concerned the need for the replacement of the places that would be lost and the possibility of arrangements being made to ensure the continued use of Banstead Hall as a community home.

Following these discussions, the London borough of Croydon began negotiations with Surrey for the purchase of part of the Banstead Hall site. Its intention then was that it would immediately update part of the property known as Banstead House, for use as a community home providing accommodation for about 15 boys, and that over the next few years it would provide purpose-built units in the grounds to accommodate in all about 40 boys needing places in community homes with education on the premises.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that that was a worthy aim. No one can dispute the need for those homes, nor that this was a sensible proposal.

The part of the property subject to negotiation amounts to less than half the Banstead Hall property and does not include the Hall itself, which, I understand, is not considered suitable for continued use as a community home but which Surrey is prepared to make available, together with part of the land adjoining it, to the Reigate and Banstead council. The negotiations with Croydon have reached the point where the county council has informed Croydon of the terms on which it is prepared to grant a seven year lease on the property with an option to purchase at the end of this term. This offer is to be considered by members of the council in early April.

As the offer is to be considered by the council in early April, it is somewhat late in the day to begin withdrawing the basis on which negotiations have taken place.

I sympathise with, and share, the concern of the hon. Member about the need to provide accommodation for the homeless, but the need to provide accommodation for children in the care of local authorities, as the House recognised in the debate on 9th December, merits equally pressing priority. This is a dilemma with which I am constantly faced. It is necessary to decide between equally worthy causes.

The proposal to use the Banstead Hall site for housing the homeless did not arise until negotiations for its continued use as a community home had been under way for some time, and these negotiations are now expected to be concluded shortly. In the circumstances, while my right hon. Friend will be prepared to look at the matter again sympathetically in the light of the decision of the London borough of Croydon, she does not consider that it would be appropriate for her to attempt to intervene at this late stage.

The position has not been finalised, and cannot be finalised until Croydon has taken a decision. Even if Croydon acquires half the land for a community home, part of the remainder could be available to Reigate and Banstead for accommodation for the homeless.

I am sorry that we cannot accede to the hon. Gentleman's request. I appre- ciate his sincerity and recognise the need in the area. It is a question of balancing equally pressing needs. We must remember that these negotiations have gone on over a fairly lengthy period. It would be unwise to withdraw at this stage.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes past Eleven o'clock.