HC Deb 26 October 1976 vol 918 cc368-430

8.12 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Ray Carter)

I beg to move, That the Housing (Northern Ireland) Order 1976. a draft of which was laid before this House on 5th August, be approved. I am sure that the House would want me to place on record our thanks to my predecessor the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon), who was principally responsible for drawing up this order, which is extremely complex by Northern Ireland standards. He carried out a lot of the negotiations with various individuals and groups. I merely present the order to the House tonight, and in doing so I would wish the House to recognise precisely the part that my hon. Friend played in it.

We have in the Northern Ireland Housing Condition Survey and the Northern Ireland Household Survey clear and irrefutable evidence of the extent and magnitude of the housing problems in Northern Ireland and, in particular, of the poor condition of much of the existing stock. The Government are currently looking at housing policy in Great Britain, and Northern Ireland has been associated with this review, as well as carrying out a re-examination of the particular policies which are needed in Northern Ireland.

There can be no doubt that housing as a whole must continue to enjoy a high priority. In particular, we must find more effective means—while recognising the constraints arising from violence and its consequences—to deal with the existing stock. This order represents a major step in that direction. Last week we published proposals for the future of the private rented sector, and yesterday a report on tenant participation and new forms of housing tenure was released.

In the past many people have tended to see the solution to Northern Ireland housing problems in terms of more and more new houses. Of course the new construction side of the work is and will remain important. But we have an existing stock of almost 460,000 houses and I am satisfied that we need to devote more attention to preserving those which are, or can be made, fit and to re-deploy our resources accordingly.

There is a massive programme of improvement and rehabilitation which must be given high priority, not only because it makes economic sense, but for the even more valid reason that it is right in social and human terms. I see the preservation of established communities as a highly desirable objective and one which is attainable through programmes designed to raise the standard of existing homes and the environmental quality of neighbourhoods—particularly in places like the inner parts of Belfast which are not affected by redevelopment. I also want to encourage people to play a greater part in meeting their own housing needs. I hope and believe that hon. Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies will support that line of approach to our problem.

The draft order now before the House is a measure of the Government's commitment to this task. It is also the main instrument by which results will be achieved. The order contains four major proposals. First, Parts II, III and IV will provide for an expansion of the work of the voluntary housing movement. Secondly, Part V will give the Housing Executive new powers to tackle areas of housing and social stress. Thirdly, Part VI proposes the introduction of a new structure of grants for house renovation in the private sector. Fourthly, Part VII will give the Executive new powers to deal with unoccupied premises. I want now to explain these proposals in more detail.

In the past housing associations have not played a significant role in Northern Ireland, largely because of the inadequacy of the financial help which was available. I want to see them playing a much bigger rôle, in particular in rehabilitating existing houses and building new houses for special groups like the elderly and handicapped. I hope also that housing associations will be prepared to experiment with new forms of tenure which will, in particular, help young married couples.

Parts II, III and IV of the draft order provide a new charter for the housing association movement in Northern Ireland. They follow broadly the provisions of the Housing Act 1974 as well as consolidating the existing Northern Ireland law on housing associations. The Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland will, under Article 4, play the rôle which the Housing Corporation plays in Great Britain in promoting the expansion of the voluntary housing movement and supervising its work.

Part II provides for the Department to establish and maintain a register of housing associations. Broadly the same criteria for registration of housing associations will apply in Northern Ireland as in Great Britain. Only registered associations will be eligible for loans from the Department of Finance and grants from the Department of the Environment. The Department will have wide powers to ensure that associations operate in a proper way. It will be able under Article 12 to acquire land on behalf of associations. Part IV sets out the financial assistance housing association grant, revenue deficit grant and hostel deficit grant—which will be available. These are based very closely on the grants which exist in Great Britain. Tenants in housing association houses will under Article 9 be elegible for rent rebates and rents will, under Article 8, be subject to the Department's approval.

Since the intention to prepare this legislation was first announced, there has been a considerable strengthening of the voluntary housing movement in Northern Ireland, assisted by my Department. A Northern Ireland Committee of the National Federation of Housing Associations has been set up; some of the existing associations have started to bring forward new schemes; successful associations in Great Britain have helped to sponsor new associations in Northern Ireland, particularly to deal with the needs of the elderly and the handicapped. In addition a number of new community-based associations have emerged and are beginning to have an impact in purchasing and rehabilitating older houses.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

The Minister said just now that Part IV sets out the various forms of grant available to housing associations. What it does not do, apparently, is to indicate the relationship of grants with costs, in contrast, for example, with Part VII. Will the Minister, either in the course of his speech or when he intervenes later in the debate, give more indication of the principles on which the grants will be available than appears to be in the face of the order?

Mr. Carter

Perhaps I may come back to that point when I wind up the debate. It is a fairly technical question and one upon which I should like to give the right hon. Gentleman a precise answer.

Part V of the draft order will enable the Housing Executive to declare housing action areas. Following the Housing Act 1974, these areas will be relatively small areas in which urgent action is needed over a five-year period to tackle housing, environmental and social problems. We have decided that, because of the scale of the problems of disrepair and lack of amenities in the housing stock in Northern Ireland, the housing action area approach should not be supplemented by general improvement areas and priority neighbourhoods which are provided for in Great Britain legislation. Also we have not thought it appropriate to follow the provision in the Housing Act, 1974 for compulsory improvement, though I shall want to reconsider this in the context of future legislation on the private rented sector.

In a housing action area the Executive would endeavour to encourage owners to improve their homes. It would, under Articles 36 and 37, itself acquire and improve houses. Efforts would also be made under the provisions of Article 38 to improve general environmental conditions and, in conjunction with the appropriate bodies, to upgrade social, community and recreational facilities. In suitable cases a housing association could undertake a major part of the task of purchasing and rehabilitating houses. In all this work, it will be essential to establish and maintain the closest possible liaison with the local community.

I hope that the housing action area approach will enable substantial progress to be made in arresting and reversing the decline of the twilight areas in Belfast and other towns. But I issue a word of caution against over-optimism. Many of the areas which most need action are in, or near, confrontation areas. They are in decline because houses have been damaged in the civil disturbances and because families are reluctant to live there. The task of rescuing such areas involves more than simply repairing and improving houses; it involves restoring confidence in the future of the area and this will be no easy task.

The Housing Executive has already embarked on a number of pilot rehabilitation schemes and I hope that it will be possible to move quickly to the declaration of the first housing action areas if Parliament approves the draft Order. If we can show fairly quickly that some of these areas can be saved, it should bring encouragement to other areas and will eventually do much to restore heart to many parts of Belfast.

Part VI of the draft order provides for a new system of financial assistance to be administered by the Housing Executive to encourage the repair and improvement of existing privately-owned houses. The new system will incorporate three grants—improvement, intermediate and repair. Improvement grants will be available at the discretion of the Housing Executive for works of a high all-round standard for the improvement or conversion—including repairs—of properties with a good life ahead. Intermediate grants will generally be obtainable by owners as of right for the installation of missing standard amenities and the execution of related repairs. Repairs grants, also available at the discretion of the Executive, will be payable towards works of repairs provided that the works are not associated with improvement or conversion.

The level of grant in each case will be fixed by reference to the "appropriate percentage" of the "eligible expense". The appropriate percentage for all three grants will be set generally at 75 per cent., while in a housing action area the Executive will have discretion to pay grants of up to 90 per cent. in cases of hardship.

The eligible expense will be the estimated cost of the works approved by the Executive subject to limits for each type of grant, and the maximum grants available will be, for improvement grant, £2,400 on works of improvement and £2,775 on conversion; for intermediate grant, £1,125; and for repairs grant, £600. Both the appropriate percentage and the limits of eligible cost may be altered by subordinate legislation.

The draft order also contains safeguards to prevent the abuse of grants and to direct grants to those in greatest need. First, all applications for improvement or intermediate grant will have to be accompanied by a certificate of owner-occupation or of availability for letting. These certificates are designed to direct grants towards those persons proposing to occupy dwellings after improvement or to keep them available as rented accommodation. The certificates will require owner-occupation or availability for letting for a period of five years from the payment of grant. In the event of a breach of this condition, the Executive will be empowered to require payment of grant with compound interest. Power will also be taken to prescribe by order grant conditions which will require to be registered.

The second safeguard excludes from grant under certain circumstances dwellings whose net annual valuation exceeds specified limits. Excluded from improvement grant are dwellings intended for owner-occupation whose NAV exceeds, in the case of improvement, £175 or, in the case of conversion, £350. I should add that the NAV limit for improvement works on a farmhouse remains at the£300 level imposed by the Housing on Farms (Northern Ireland) Act 1972. Excluded from repairs grant are all dwellings whose NAV exceeds £130 with the proviso that the grant will be available for all rent restricted property.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

Has the hon. Gentleman any intention of increasing the housing on farms grant?

Mr. Carter

Not at the moment. The principle behind the order is that our resources be directed wherever possible to those areas of housing requirement that are most in need. For the moment we do not anticipate increasing the sum.

The purpose of the NAV limits is to direct assistance to those dwellings in greatest need. I do not, however, propose to introduce NAV limits for improvement grants on dwellings to be kept available for letting—I have no wish to discourage an increase in the availability of rented accommodation—or for intermediate grants which are available—like their forerunner, the standard grant—as of right.

The new grant arrangements also include provisions designed to enable improvement and intermediate grants to be paid towards works necessary to make a dwelling suitable for the welfare, accommodation and employment of disabled persons. These proposals are based on the grants which were introduced in Great Britain in 1974, but with two important differences.

The first is that, while the levels of "eligible expense" are identical, the "appropriate percentage" in Northern Ireland has been set at 75 per cent. generally with a discretion to increase up to 90 per cent. in hardship cases in housing action areas. In Great Britain the appropriate percentage is set at 50 per cent. generally, rising to 60 per cent. in general improvement areas and 75 per cent.—or in hardship cases up to 90 per cent.—in housing action areas. The second is that the repairs grant will apply throughout Northern Ireland and not just on a restricted basis in housing action and general improvement areas as in Great Britain.

The justification for these differences can be found in the Housing Condition and Household Surveys which show very clearly the alarming state of the housing stock throughout Northern Ireland, particularly the scale of the problems of disrepair and lack of amenities in rural areas which are not amenable to treatment on an action area basis, and the fact that the people living in the worst conditions are the least able to help themselves.

While there may be a theoretical argument in favour of directing assistance to those in greatest need by some sort of means test, I am not convinced that this is a practical proposition throughout Northern Ireland. I shall, however, be keeping these grants under close scrutiny to ensure that abuses do not arise and I shall not hesitate to introduce tighter controls if they are shown to be necessary.

These new grants will provide a very valuable stimulus to house owners to improve their homes. They are essential if the housing stock in Northern Ireland is to be preserved and improved.

Part VII will give the Executive new powers to take more effective action to deal with unoccupied premises. These proposals are specially designed to deal with conditions in Belfast. Some 25,000 houses have been damaged by explosions, petrol bombs and vandals. These houses are frequently left vacant and cannot be sold or re-let; they have to be bricked up to prevent further vandalism or to protect adjoining property.

People living in the area are already uneasy about remaining there because of the disturbances and the general run-down appearance of the property. They start to leave. Often they or their landlords cannot readily sell or rent their houses and so these houses, too, become vacant, are vandalised or are used by terrorists for sniping or storing weapons. The houses are then bricked up. With quite alarming speed, an area of quite reasonable housing can decay. Hon. Members, and especially the Northern Ireland Members, will appreciate that the problem of unoccupied premises in Belfast is quite unlike that in, say, London.

Some of the measures I described earlier will help to deal with this situation particularly the housing action area approach. However, it is abundantly clear that one of the first steps in restoring confidence in these areas must be to arrest the physical decline, by securing vacant houses and by bringing houses back into use as quickly as possible. The Housing Executive is already endeavouring to do this, but the normal processes of finding the owner of a house, negotiating a price or buying the house by compulsory purchase take far too long. This is the sort of situation in which action must be taken in days and weeks rather than months.

Part VII will, therefore, do two things. First, Article 66 will strengthen the powers which are available to ensure that, where necessary, unoccupied premises are secured or demolished. This provision gives clearer legal authority to what has in practice been happening in recent years in Belfast, relying on public health or local legislation which is not really designed for this purpose. There is a power in the article for the Executive to recover from an owner the costs of securing or demolishing his property. This will only be used where the condition of the property is due to the owner's neglect rather than to the civil disturbances.

Secondly, Articles 63 to 65 will enable the Executive to take possession of unoccupied houses. This proposal has been welcomed in Northern Ireland, but I want to explain it fully to remove any possible misunderstanding. These articles do not provide for the requisitioning of property. What they do is to enable the Executive to take over the management of an unoccupied house and to use it for meeting housing need while the normal process of acquisition proceeds. The powers will be used in the twilight areas, largely in Belfast.

I can assure hon. Members that they will not be used in respect of second homes or of houses whose owners are on holiday or in hospital. The Executive will be able to take possession of a house if the house is unoccupied or if the owner is unable or unwilling to occupy or let it, and the house can be used for housing purposes. Once the Executive has taken possession of a house, it must immediately notify the owner and it must, within a month, apply to the Department to acquire the house compulsorily. In the meantime, the Executive can repair the house and let it to a tenant of its choice. The owner is entitled to full and proper compensation, both for the period during which the Executive has possession of the house and when the house is acquired by the Executive. Any dispute about the amount of compensation will be settled by the Lands Tribunal.

I am convinced that these powers are necessary to deal with the unique circumstances in Northern Ireland. I accept that they are unusual and would not be warranted in more normal times. I shall, therefore, be keeping a close personal eye on their administration. The provisions in Part VII will, in fact, lapse after five years unless continued by order. I give an assurance that, if a system of devolved administration has not been established in Northern Ireland within five years, Northern Ireland Members will be consulted before a decision is taken on whether to seek Parliament's approval to renew the provisions in Part VII.

Mr. Powell

May I be quite clear on that point because this is an important undertaking? I take it to mean that, although the renewal would be by statutory rule and order and although that would not be one of the small class of such orders as are "prayable", nevertheless the Government are undertaking that before making that "unprayable" order they will consult hon. Members who are interested. I apologise for intervening but it is a complex point and an important undertaking.

Mr. Carter

That is as I understand it. If I have it wrong, I shall deny it when I reply.

Part VIII of the draft order contains a number of miscellaneous amendments to the housing law in Northern Ireland. For example, Article 70 removes the somewhat outdated idea that public authority housing is intended only for "workers" and Article 73 clarifies the Executive's powers to make available rent rebates to its tenants.

This is a lengthy piece of legislation containing 80 articles and six schedules. In many respects, the provisions follow recent Great Britain legislation, but with some important differences which I have mentioned. I can assure the House that the proposals in this draft order have been widely discussed in Northern Ireland. The decision to prepare the legislation was first announced in December 1974, when my predecessor outlined in a speech the main topics which might be covered. Since then there have been lengthy and detailed discussions with the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, the Northern Ireland Housing Council, the Northern Ireland Committee of the National Federation of Housing Associations, and many other interested bodies. The proposal for a draft order was published at the beginning of June 1976, and further comment was invited. My predecessor met many deputations to discuss housing matters related to this legislation, and he also had a lengthy discussion at the start of July with some Northern Ireland Members about these proposals.

I believe that this draft order will enable substantial progress to be made in tackling Northern Ireland's housing problems. I am convinced that the policies of encouraging greater action to improve the existing housing stock and of stimulating the voluntary housing movement are correct and are well designed to meet the special conditions in Northern Ireland. I commend the draft order to the House.

8.36 p.m.

Mr. Airey Neave (Abingdon)

We on this side associate ourselves with what the Under-Secretary of State has said about this very important order, which is vital to Northern Ireland and implements the Housing Act 1974, which was based on a Bill, introduced by the Conservative Government, which fell in February 1974. The hon. Gentleman has explained the draft order very well. It is a complex measure and much of my speech, I am afraid, will consist of questions arising from what he has said and what appears in the order.

First, I welcome what the hon. Gentleman said about housing associations, which have not played a major role so far in Northern Ireland. They encourage one to think that they will do a great deal of good in the terrible housing problems that Northern Ireland has and which the Minister of State explained to the Northern Ireland Committee on 21st January, when we had a very full statement from him and he demonstrated the need for a new housing strategy. That was clearly needed, and we welcome it in the form of this draft order, which is a very large piece of primary legislation, even if in the form of an order.

The hon. Gentleman is right to give attention particularly to the 450,000 houses which exist. I am glad to note the provisions relating to that point and what the hon. Gentleman said about the various parts of the draft order. Housing associations can make a valuable contribution in the problems of Northern Ireland, especially in helping to meet the needs of the disabled and the elderly. I am glad, too, that the hon. Gentleman mentioned the expansion of voluntary housing associations, because voluntary effort and initiative are needed to help resolve the housing problems. This was dealt with in the Household Survey in 1975, which I have just been reading.

That survey is useful in showing how Northern Ireland differs significantly from Great Britain in terms of social and economic structures in housing. As the survey points out, the larger average family size in Northern Ireland creates greater overcrowding. It also shows that 35 per cent. of all households in Northern Ireland live on resources below the level of their needs, compared with 21 per cent. in Great Britain in 1974. There are, therefore, significant differences.

Now I come to the questions. In another place, Lord Melchett mentioned the question of rents and the fixing of rents. As I understand it, he said that housing associations would fix rents at a level comparable with those of Housing Executive houses. This raises the question of costs. Does it mean that the Government expect to pay a higher proportion of the initial costs of housing than they do in Great Britain?

At present, in Great Britain the capital cost of a house minus the rent income for one year is written off by the Government. This is known as the housing association grant. There is a housing association grant in the draft order which amounts to a percentage of the total cost. In Great Britain, a housing association has to pay off the interest on the remaining debt plus management and maintenance, but the rent is not fixed by the rent officer at the same level as for local authority housing. It is fixed on a fair rent basis and, therefore, is normally higher.

I am not saying that that should apply in Northern Ireland. I want to know the position regarding the initial costs of houses where rents are to be fixed in relation to Housing Executive houses. I understand that they are to be fixed at a level comparable with Housing Executive houses. Will the Minister deal with that point in reply or write to me about it?

Have the Government any estimate of the number of housing units which the housing associations are expected to provide to supplement the housing stock in this way? I understand that in Britain the figure was about 15 per cent. in 1975. If the Government have plans to allocate particular sums of money to this area, they must presumably have an estimate or assumption about the future significance of housing associations in Northern Ireland. Will the Minister indicate what that might be?

Will the housing associations work in housing action areas? It was not clear from the Minister's speech whether they are to work in housing action areas.

Mr. Carter indicated assent.

Mr. Neave

The hon. Gentleman is indicating assent, so that point is met. That will obviously contribute to the emphasis on improvement. That is all I have to ask about the part of the order dealing with housing associations.

I turn now to housing action areas and grants. We welcome the declaration on housing action areas, particularly in Belfast, where there is an urgent problem of unfit property, especially in the privately-rented sector. We also welcome the higher rate of grant for the renovation of homes in Northern Ireland from 75 per cent. to 90 per cent., compared with what obtains in Great Britain, and the application of the repair grant not only to Belfast but to the whole of Northern Ireland. Poor housing is a Province-wide problem. Therefore, the repair grant should be available throughout the whole of Northern Ireland.

Regarding improvement grants in general in Part VI of the order, will the Minister indicate the amount of take-up? Two years ago the Minister of State announced his intention to initiate what he called a new publicity drive on the availability of improvement and conversion grants, which were then being taken up at the rate of only 2,500 a year. Has that situation changed? Has the publicity drive been effective? I note that in Great Britain the take-up of improvement grants dropped by about 60 per cent. between 1973 and 1975. Is the hon. Gentleman satisfied that the proposals for Northern Ireland are adequately designed to prevent such a situation occurring in the Province? Perhaps he will deal with that matter when he replies.

Does the Minister agree that, if these new grants are to be effective in stimulating action in the privately-rented sector, they must be accompanied by action to deal with what in August last year, when commenting on the findings of the Porter Committee, he referred to as a vicious circle of low rents and lack of repair and maintenance?

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. J. D. Concannon) indicated assent.

Mr. Neave

The hon. Gentleman agrees. I remember his words quite well. We welcome the Government's announcement on 21st October regarding proposals to alleviate problems in the privately-rented sector by decontrolling rents and providing a fair rent system. I understand that 75 per cent. of houses in this sector have rents of less than £1. This is unrealistic. If the proposals in the order are implemented—I hope that they will be brought in with the utmost urgency—will the privately-rented sector be in a position to provide a valuable second force in dealing with housing needs?

The Minister made a number of interesting remarks about the powers of compulsory acquisition contained in the order. We accept the necessity for these powers in a serious emergency, but the hon. Gentleman will agree that every step must be taken to protect the rights of owners.

The Minister referred to the five years during which this part of the order will remain in force. What will happen at the end of the five years? Will the houses remain in public ownership or will they be returned to their original owners? We need more information about this.

How many houses are likely to be acquired in this way? May we have an estimate of the cost of acquisition? It is important to have a basis on which to assess this operation. On what basis will compensation to owners be calculated? Will it be the original cost and value of a house, were the area not affected by violence, or its market value as a derelict property?

All these questions need answers, but I congratulate the Under-Secretary on his introduction of an order which we welcome.

8.47 p.m.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Antrim, South)

My hon. Friends and I join in the tribute paid to the Under-Secretary's predecessor, the present Minister of State, whom we are pleased to see on the Front Bench. Although he is not directly involved in our deliberations, we appreciate the fact that he has taken the trouble to be here for the debate.

It must be admitted that progress with the housing associations has not been as great as one might have hoped. Indeed, it has been disappointing and we should like to know whether the order will do anything to improve the situation. Will it supply whatever has been lacking or remove any obstacles which may have existed?

My impression is that relations between the Housing Executive and the associations were formerly not as good as they might have been and we owe a deep debt of gratitude to the present Under-Secretary. Since he took office—and I am not saying that there was negligence by his predecessor—there has been an improvement in the liaison and relationship between these bodies. I hope that this not only continues but improves.

Areas of friction and rivalry may recur and, indeed, may not have disappeared in all cases. For instance, I was asked recently whether the Executive had given instructions to its staff not to seek a transfer to a housing association. I do not state this as an accusation, but it is a rumour which has got around. If it is incorrect, I hope that the Minister will scotch it.

Has there been any delay in arriving at decisions as to where the borderline of responsibility is drawn between the fairly limited operations of the housing associations and Big Brother, the Housing Executive? This applies particularly to the rehabilitation of existing houses, where progress is highly desirable.

In Parts II, III and IV of the order the housing associations' relationship to the Department of the Environment is set out very clearly, but perhaps there is a good reason for the relationship between the Department and the housing associations and the relationship between the Housing Executive and the associations not being defined quite as clearly. I hope that in the coming days the Minister will encourage the larger associations as they come into being and find their feet to tackle perhaps fairly major and ambitious schemes and not to confine themselves merely to consideration of more minor activities.

We welcome the trend expressed in various parts of the order, and clearly expressed in the Minister's speech, in relation to the need for the rehabilitation of existing houses. At a time of national financial stringency, we feel it highly desirable that economy should be a very significant consideration. A sub-standard home can very often be made habitable and comfortable by fairly modest expenditure. If expenditure can be restrained, it follows that the inevitable rent increase can also be kept to a reasonable level. This is very important, particularly for elderly persons.

The Minister has outlined and restated the schemes for rent rebate. My colleagues and I at diverse times have also tried to make known to our constituents the availability of this concession, but again one must admit that it is not always taken up and fully used as it ought to be.

The business of providing relatively economic accommodation for elderly people is vital on two grounds. First, a great many of them have no particular desire to move to an entirely new locality and into glass-walled housing and so on. They would far rather finish their days in their own locality with the friends and neighbours with whom they have lived most of their lives. Secondly, their income is often insufficient to meet the costs of the rent charged for the new housing, and it is often not quite sufficient, either, to keep up with the relatively high costs of running houses sometimes of very faulty design.

I should like to give an illustration of that. A Housing Executive estate in my constituency, in the town of Antrim, had—and still has—what was meant to be a very sophisticated type of electric central heating. It was some kind of blower device. In this type of house, the blower was situated on the bottom flight of the stairway that came down to the back door, and there was a very obliging gap of about an inch between the doorstep and the back door. This had the beneficial effect that in snowy weather snow never laid on the doorstep. However, it did not commend itself very much to the unfortunate tenant who had to foot the bill, which was quite an exorbitant amount, and who derived very little benefit—except perhaps by having his doorstep and lawn free of frost and snow.

Modern architects are not infallible. My right hon. Friend the Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) and I were sitting at Heathrow Airport on one occasion shut in by glass plate. He made the comment that the mediæval architects knew their jobs far better than modern architects because they got the relationship of walls to glass correct.

That could apply equally well to houses, because in these glass palaces it is not uncommon for the temperature to rise or fall depending on whether the sun is shining or has gone behind the clouds. Some of these architects ought to be grasped firmly by the ankles and brought down to earth with a bump. We must seriously consider all possible means of providing houses at prices that we can afford. I say "we". I mean all of us—taxpayers, ratepayers, tenants—who are responsible for advocating, as we do on this Bench, the control and reduction of Government expenditure.

We welcome the more realistic approach to private landlords which is reflected in the order and in the speech of the Minister. Indeed, it was evident in the thinking of the hon. Gentleman's predecessor. It is a line of thinking which has become more and more apparent on this side of the water. In tonight's Evening Standard there is a good article on this very topic.

The other day Councillor William Bell, a close associate of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Carson), who has taken a special interest in this aspect of housing, said: These improved grants would not only aid landlords to bring dwellings up to standard despite the low remuneration from fixed rent levels, but would also radically improve conditions for tenants and especially the high percentage of elderly people in this category. That is a view that one hopes will prevail in Northern Ireland.

At present some strange contradictions exist even within the structure of the Housing Executive itself. I think the Minister and his predecessor to their cost will identify the problem that I shall briefly give as an example. It concerns the town of Ballyclare in my constituency.

The district office of the Housing Executive in that town is doing its best to provide accommodation for young married couples. So far it has not been particularly successful because of the length of the waiting list. Many of those young couples, some with families, have been forced to live with their in-laws. Others have had to seek accommodation in remoter areas and to commute back to their home towns where they are employed.

I have every sympathy with the district office staff. They have been helpful to me on many occasions. But now their problems will be vastly increased by the action of another branch of the same Northern Ireland Housing Executive, which is in the process of condemning about a dozen houses known as Wilson's Row.

That branch of the Executive approaches the tenants saying "These are not particularly good houses. Would you like to live in a nice brand new shining house?". Half of those tenants, with that carrot dangled in front of them, said that they would think about it, but the other half firmly said that they did not want to leave. The position is that the two branches of the Housing Executive will contrive to add a dozen more names to an already lengthy waiting list. What is more they will give an added priority to those people who have been made homeless by their own actions. Those people will receive a higher priority than people desperately in need of houses but whose points will not match up to those tenants who have been displaced by the action of the Executive itself.

In fairness to those displaced tenants I should say that this is a degree of priority that they do not seek. Is it not possible for the Government to persuade the Housing Executive to make sure that spare capacity exists in all these areas to provide accommodation for those whom it displaces before it condemns or demolishes existing houses?

We welcome also the indications of a shift towards the repair and restoration of existing properties as opposed to the creation of vast new housing estates, which have proved social disasters. I hope that this thinking will influence the inquiry which began today on the proposed Poleglass development.

In case any hon. Member thinks that I am being gloomy, let me offer him this glossy booklet produced three years ago describing all the joys of moving to the new community at Twinbrook, which is also in my constituency. The hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) will agree that this is not a political or sectarian point. That estate was designed as an integrated estate—in other words, a person's religion would not be taken into consideration and people of different religions and political outlook would be encouraged to live and work together. As their Member of Parliament, I fully subscribed to that objective and did what little I could to assist.

But I doubt whether anyone on that estate is not now compelled in some way to co-operate with the Provisional IRA. That is a very sad picture and exactly the same will happen if the Government allow the Housing Executive to proceed with what it now proposes at Poleglass.

I do not wish to labour the point but it has been said that within the boundaries of Belfast there is, although not a great deal of space, certainly sufficient to house many of the people who urgently need accommodation. On one occasion, the hon. Member for Belfast, West agreed with me that such space existed within his constituency and within the city generally.

I am hoping that the Minister, who takes a keen interest in all these affairs will examine the possibility of using the relatively small areas in west Belfast for building new houses and that he will press on with his declared intention of restoring and rehabilitating existing houses, thus avoiding the development of huge housing estates anywhere outside the city boundary—I am not just thinking of Twinbrook and Poleglass.

I have had experience of the community to the north tof the city called Rathcoole. It is much older than Twin-brook but it has taken years for those people to put down roots and develop any community spirit. Speaking now of people on the other side of the fence, I would say that some of those who have muscled in on the control of the amenities on that estate are no great credit to the people of Ulster.

May we be assured that the scrutiny of expenditure to avoid waste will be applied to the workings and the administration of the Housing Executive itself? It has been the experience of all hon. Members that empires of that kind are difficult to control or supervise. While we are very grateful to the Minister and his predecessor for ensuring that the housing programme in Northern Ireland will escape most of the savage cuts being made elsewhere, we wonder whether some of the newly created and highly paid posts in the Housing Executive are necessary at this time.

Finally, as we give our support to the order we hope that there will be more co-operation among the authorities responsible for housing. If I wanted to be naughty I might add that we hope for more co-operation among the various formations and elements within the Housing Executive. I trust that everything will be done to ensure that money is well spent and that those concerned will bear in mind the need for economy in design, construction and running costs of new and improved houses.

9.6 p.m.

Mr. Gerard Fitt (Belfast, West)

Legislation such as this, designed to build up the housing stock in Northern Ireland, must be welcomed. However, I have reservations about one or two points in the order.

I have been in politics for a number of years in Northern Ireland both at local and central Government level at Stormont and as a representative in this House. I have never been aware to any great extent of the rôle played by housing associations prior to the reformation of local government and the creation of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. Most of the housing in Northern Ireland is run by local authorities and the Belfast Corporation.

How many housing associations are there in Northern Ireland at present? It may be interesting to find out who are the people involved in them. I remember some years ago in the Stormont Parliament questioning the bona fides of a person who was a member of a housing association and yet seemed to be in collision with the Belfast Corporation, as it then was, in its attempt to buy land at Knocknagoney on which to create a Belfast Corporation housing estate. There seemed to be a conflict of interest brought about by the price of the land. The corporation was being asked to pay what was regarded as an outlandish price for the land, which was being sold by a member of a housing association. In giving our support to housing associations we must at all times be aware of the personnel involved. We must be convinced that they are anxious from the social standpoint to try to create houses.

Will housing associations make a profit? The order does not make it clear. Local authorities make no profit, and the Housing Executive has not been making a profit. [Interruption.] There is no guarantee that the housing associations will not have to put up with the same builders as have been operating with the Housing Executive. If housing associations are to make a profit, will that be their function alongside the provision of homes? If profit is a motivating factor, I cannot see them opening up their big hearts to the people who will need homes.

An old couple who lived in a rented house paid their rent religiously every week to the estate agent. Fortunately, the husband was able to keep the house in good condition. Then the owner, through the agent, sold the house to a housing association. The first thing the tenant knew about that was when he received a notice from the new owners to the effect that as they now owned his house they would increase his rent. He told the housing association that he had signed an agreement with the agent, paid his rent every week and carried out his own repairs. He asked why the housing association should increase his rent by £1.50 per week.

I met the Minister of State about the case, and many figures were produced to justify the rent increase. It was said that the housing association owned a lot of bad property in Belfast on which it had to carry out repairs and, as a result, had a deficit in the accounts which justified an increase in the rents of all the houses it owned. That seems a little unfair. The tenant was not told that his house was being acquired. Then he was asked to pay a rent increase on his home, which was in good condition, because the housing association owned bad houses. That tenant was one year off retirement. He might have been able to afford a higher rent in his younger days, but it seems unfair to charge him a higher rent on the eve of his retirement.

The hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) said that Twinbrook was originally planned as an integrated estate to house people of all religions and none, but so also was Rathcoole. People of all religions lived happily there until the outbreak of the troubles five or six years ago. Now it is almost totally a one-religion estate. The Roman Catholics had to leave the estate just as the Protestants had to leave Twinbrook. It is a sad commentary on Northern Ireland when we have to talk about religion in the context of the provision of housing.

On the Shankill Road and the Falls, in North Belfast, and New Lodge Road—which is represented by the hon. Member for Antrim North (Rev. Ian Paisley)—there are numerous housing action associations. I do not know how legitimate they are and what their function is supposed to be, but crossing the political and religious divide from Westland Road to New Lodge Road, to the Falls and Shankill Road, strange personnel can be found dictating to the Housing Executive who shall and shall not get a house and who shall be evicted. I have always been opposed to the Housing Executive talking to such groups. In all the associations, right across the religious divide, people are telling the Housing Executive what it should and should not do. When they had the temerity to fight a local government election, they lost their deposits. However, the Executive is still talking to them.

The order provides that there shall be housing action areas. The association personnel may well think that that terminology gives them justification for saying "We are a housing action group and this is a housing action area. Therefore, we are the people who must be consulted." I urge the Minister, who has only recently taken up his appointment, to be wary of the different organisations which claim to be the voice of the ordinary people when it comes to discussing housing.

This is not a party-political point of view. This is a matter that affects all of us, particularly in Belfast, where elected representatives are being usurped by those who could not win an election. They are dictating what the Housing Executive should do in certain areas.

The hon. Member for Antrim, South mentioned the Poleglass scheme. Perhaps the best place to make known our sentiments is at a public inquiry. Should there be a reduced number of houses built there or should the number be increased? The houses have not been built so far, but there is a real need for houses to be built adjacent to the west Belfast area. I fully support what the hon. Gentleman said, but it is my information that there is still a certain amount of ground available in the West Belfast area which should be used for housing. I believe that the Housing Executive and the Minister would justify their case to a far greater extent as regards the Poleglass scheme if they built on any available ground. They would then be able to justify, if the figures so suggested, a further extension of the Poleglass development scheme.

I know that in West Belfast it is not only the Catholic areas that need to be redeveloped and declared. There are many areas with that need in the Shankill Road area and in North Belfast. If my party and I have any influence to bring to bear, I hope that we can make Poleglass an integrated estate. I co not want to see it develop in the manner of the other estates I have mentioned, which would mean that it would be under the control of one or other of the paramilitary organisations that we have in such abundance in Northern Ireland.

I welcome the order. I believe it is necessary to try to quicken the provision of more houses in Northern Ireland. If it gives some impetus to housing associations, I hope that it will not be to the extent that people are forced to the conclusion that the task is far too large for the Housing Executive so it must therefore be unloaded on to the housing associations.

Although it has its imperfections, I believe that the Executive has a necessary and worthwhile job to do, not only in Belfast but throughout Northern Ireland. I would rather have the Executive, given its imperfections, because it is answerable to us as elected representatives. The housing associations often have questionable motives or personnel. Will the Minister tell the House how many housing associations there are in Northern Ireland, what are their bona fides, and who are the personnel who control them?

9.20 p.m.

Mr. John Carson (Belfast, North)

I wish to associate myself with the remarks of the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and I join with my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) in congratulating the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon) on the pioneer work he put into this order. The hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) and I represent the worst housing areas in Northern Ireland—possibly in the whole of the United Kingdom. Therefore, we appreciate the Minister's efforts in trying to provide the best possible houses for the people of Northern Ireland.

I am delighted to see in the Chamber the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the present Home Secretary, and also his former Minister of State, the present Minister for Social Security. It shows that they still display an interest in Northern Irish affairs.

The housing grants covered by the order will go a long way to alleviate some of the problems in Northern Ireland, especially those faced by young married couples. On numerous occasions representations have been made to hon. Members in the area on behalf of these young people, and it is always said that they have a good chance of obtaining housing accommodation. However, I believe that the contrary is the case and that young married couples in my constituency have to be married a very long time before they are considered by the Housing Executive. Therefore, the 75 per cent. grant—or the 90 per cent. grant in housing action areas—will go a long way to help young married couples who wish to take over houses in a bad state of repair and spend money on them to make them habitable.

I was also pleased to learn that these provisions will assist the older generation. People who have spent 40 or 50 years in a house think twice before leaving. However, they fear that in future they will not be able to meet the rising costs in any new housing to which they may move.

My hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South has already mentioned the cost of heating in some new homes. An old lady constituent of mine recently moved from her small comfortable parlour house into a new house on the outskirts of Belfast and, because of the high cost of the electricity, she was forced to ask her son to disconnect the heating system, for she could not meet the electric lighting bill.

She was not like many other people in Northern Ireland who are determined to destroy its economy and to take everything they can get with nothing in return. She was an old lady of the old stock—and we should like to have more of her kind in Northern Ireland—who like to pay their bills and pay their way in life. However, she was forced to have her electricity cut off because she could not afford to pay for that heating supply as well as for her food and other essentials. I am pleased that the 75 per cent. grant will also assist other old people who find themselves in difficulties.

I wish to question the Minister about abuses of the grant system because he said that the situation would be taken care of. If a private landlord carries out renovations to a house and receives a grant, whether it be 75 per cent. or 90 per cent., will he be able to let the house for at least five years?

The landlord may well ask what grant he would be able to receive for that house. Will he be able to charge the same rent as the Housing Executive and the housing assocations, and will he be able to charge for repairs? Even after repairs have been carried out, essential amenities installed in the house and he has received the grant, he has to undertake maintenance.

This is a problem facing every private landlord throughout Northern Ireland. The Minister of State has said that some rents received by private landlords in Northern Ireland were not enough to buy a packet of cigarettes, and that is certainly still the case. Carrying out repairs over the next five years to the houses which will affect these grants will cost the landlords quite a lot of money. Would the Minister give an assurance that the landlord will be able to charge rents equivalent to those charged by the Housing Executive or housing associations?

Everyone from Northern Ireland welcomes the schemes for the rehabilitation of old houses. But over the past two or three years we have had the Housing Executive closing down houses and then blocking them up. When the Executive is asked when it hopes to start rebuilding and providing homes for people, it cannot give an answer. It could be as long as two years. In my constituency there are many thousands of houses which have been blocked up in redevelopment areas, and the Housing Executive cannot say when the people will be rehoused, or even when the houses will be knocked down and new ones built. This is forcing people to leave these areas. When the Housing Executive says that it will take over an area for redevelopment in the future, decent tenants start moving out and then many houses are blocked up.

We welcome the rehabilitation of old houses but there are some problems created such as the one in my constituency. An area of north Belfast comes under redevelopment area No. 7, some of which is included in a rehabilitation scheme. Just two weeks ago the Housing Executive, in one of the daftest actions I have seen, blocked up a house which had all the basic amenities—bathroom and toilet facilities, hot and cold water.

One of my constituents went to the Housing Executive office in the area and said he would be willing to rent that house rather than move to the outskirts of Belfast where he would face high costs of transportation in travelling to work. He wanted to sign for the house and move into it until the Executive took over. He was told immediately that the house was to be blocked up even though it had all the basic amenities. After two weeks, the Housing Executive came and blocked up the house, and the contractors removed the whole bathroom suite. No one knows where it went: it was not taken into the Executive's stock—I know because I made inquiries. I hope that if the housing association proceed with the rehabilitation schemes they will do so more effectively and on a more businesslike basis than did the Housing Executive. I hope that they will see that every house is properly looked after.

I am delighted that the housing associations are to make provision for elderly people. These people have been neglected throughout Northern Ireland and, I believe, the United Kingdom, too. We can never do enough to help the elderly. I visit many of them in my constituency. They live in terrible conditions, and often when I leave them I wonder how they will survive the winter months.

I would also welcome help from the associations for the handicapped. One family in my constituency—just one of many such families in Northern Ireland—have two children who are completely handicapped, a boy of 13 and a girl of 16. The Housing Executive refused the father permission to drive his car, which was necessary for getting the children about, alongside the house because that would have involved making a hole in the hedge and crossing a footpath. After making certain representations we secured that permission for them.

But we have not secured permission for basic changes to be made in the houses of other handicapped people, for example, to enable them to move their wheelchairs around and to make things easier for them in their bathrooms. I hope that the housing associations will press ahead with many homes for the handicapped and will help with the work that is already being carried out by parents and others responsible for handicapped children.

Is Article 14 sufficiently wide to control housing associations and to clarify their legal position? I fear that we could be opening the gate to something similar to what happened with the Housing Executive when it had a rehabilitation scheme which involved handing out work to certain building contractors in West Belfast. I need not elaborate on that this evening. Certain of my hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) brought this matter to the attention of the House almost a year ago and highlighted some of the things which were being done under this contract. This matter is now being investigated by the police and I hope that it will be dealt with in the proper way. I hope that we are not opening the gate to something similar with the housing associations.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Belfast, West has left the Chamber. He said that in certain areas of Belfast there were action groups, that there would be housing action areas, and that housing associations would be set up. A leaflet I have asked whether anyone can form a housing association. It says "The answer is Yes". I know that the Minister realises that many people in Northern Ireland are determined not only to bomb and kill but to destroy the Northern Ireland economy as part of the United Kingdom economy. These people will stop at nothing. They will even try to infiltrate housing associations and eventually to take them over. The grants those associations would receive from public funds would not go towards the good of Northern Ireland or towards the good of the people the associations are supposed to help. We must guard against those people who will try to take over housing associations, because that will not be for the good of the Northern Ireland people.

On Part VII the Minister said that there were 25,000 unoccupied houses in Northern Ireland. Almost half of those must be in my constituency. These houses have been blocked up. Immediately a house becomes vacant, vandals move in. Terrible vandalism occurs in every part of Belfast. Vandals remove a layer of the roof, take away copper cylinders and water tanks and the water pours into the house. If there is a decent house next door, it suffers damn as a result, which forces good tenants out. To block up such houses costs a lot of money. I have heard estimates from contractors ranging from £100 to £300, depending on labour, the length of contract and how the contractor feels. The Minister must take note of this situation.

I know of a number of houses that have been vandalised beyond repair and it would be the height of foolishness for the Housing Executive to block them up. They should be demolished. It would be cheaper to knock them down.

Many such houses are a health hazard. People dump rubbish in them and there have been complaints about the possibilities of disease. People living in such an area worry about rat-infested houses and the rubbish which is dumped over garden walls. Unoccupied houses which are beyond repair and rehabilitation should be demolished. With those comments I welcome the order.

9.38 p.m.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

The order is important. Once again, as representatives of the Northern Ireland people, we feel that this type of legislation should come before the House as a Bill so that hon. Members from Northern Ireland may have the opportunity not only for a full parliamentary debate but to move amendments to improve the legislation.

We know that all sorts of representations are made about parliamentary time, and we are all aware of the great pressures under which the Government are operating because of the actions of another place. We know that all of us will probably have to be here at strange hours to debate coming legislation before the Session ends. But as the debate before this one did not continue as long as it could have done, we are at least able to discuss Northern Ireland business before midnight, and for that we are deeply thankful. We trust that on similar occasions in the future the Whips will so arrange matters that the business which is to be taken before orders relating to Northern Ireland finishes early, giving us more time to debate these important matters.

There are 80 articles and six schedules in the order. I do not know how any legislative assembly in the world could adequately digest all of them in the time left to us. I know that, because of what happened earlier, we will have a little longer in which to debate this issue. If the preceding business had not fallen, we would have had only two and a half hours. The Under-Secretary has an important part to play tonight. He has been asked a number of questions, and no doubt he will do his best to reply to them. I see the Minister of State sitting beside him. He was really the father, if I may put it that way, of the order. I do not know whether the Housing Executive was the mother, but the hon. Gentleman was certainly its father. We appreciate all that he did.

The Minister of State has listened to many deputations. He must have been wearied listening to the story being told and retold. The story of housing in every constituency in Northern Ireland is almost identical. The names of the streets and the estates are different but the same conditions, alas, prevail. I am glad that the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) made it clear that bad housing—houses that are unfit and need urgent repairs—exists on both sides of the religious divide.

When I first came to this House, it was common to hear it said that while there were certain areas of bad housing in Northern Ireland there was good housing in the Protestant majority areas. In the heart of Protestant Sandy Row and in the depths of the Roman Catholic Falls Road, there is housing equally as bad, and I am glad that the House has learned this. It is essential that the people of Northern Ireland should have the opportunity to remedy that situation. Over 40 per cent. of the housing stock is substandard. Many houses are not fit for human habitation.

Perhaps the Minister will spell out the criteria he will be using for the definition of housing action areas. Who will make representations to him? Will representations be made by the people the hon. Member for Belfast, West told us about—self-appointed persons who feel that there is something in these housing associations and housing action groups that they can exploit for political and other advantages? Will the Minister deal only with the city of Belfast, or will he come into the rural districts?

I am reminded of the terrible state of affairs in my constituency, where 27.5 per cent. of the houses are unfit for habi- tation or are below standard. Yet North and South Antrim are looked upon as being the most prosperous part of Northern Ireland. I say that with respect to my right hon. Friend the Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell).

Unfortunately, the voice of Fermanagh is seldom if ever heard in this place. It is only right that we should stress tonight the terrible situation existing in Fermanagh. I believe that 40 per cent. of the houses there are unfit or below standard. We have a serious situation in the rural districts. We want the Minister to spell out the criteria to be used and how he is to proceed in the housing action areas, and also to tell us whom he is consulting. This matter is of vital importance to every Member from Northern Ireland.

As I have said, much of the present housing stock is below standard. Some effort must be made to bring it up to standard. Then there are the houses which have been forsaken, which were good houses and have now been vandalised. As a result, they have been bricked up. Then there is the de-bricking process, which has been very expensive. Houses which cost £300 to brick-up have cost £10,000 to de-brick in Belfast, and figures of £7,000 and £8,000 have also been quoted.

I am glad that the Fraud Squad is looking into allegations made in this House—allegations which were denied, especially by the former Leader of the Liberal Party, who suggested, because I mentioned these matters in Committee, that some sort of police action should be taken against me for daring to leak the vital information that the IRA was gaining ground through these large handouts. A member of the brigade staff of the IRA, Sheamus Loughran, was managing director of one of the firms concerned and he was getting about £7,000 or £8,000 for de-bricking a house. The cost of the material came on top of that. Therefore, houses built for £5,000 were costing perhaps £20,000 to £25,000 to put them in a proper state of repair. It is a sad and depressing story.

It should be added also that when the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight) made certain allegations, the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland shot them down in what was perhaps a rather discourteous manner. But the truth is now coming out. The truth will always out.

In the Northern Ireland Committee last January, my hon. Friend the Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker) pointed out some of the serious things about the housing in his area—and I remind the House that this sort of thing can happen in both Roman Catholic and Protestant estates. In Rathcoole the Roman Catholics were driven out, or it was made impossible for them to live their lives there; in Twinbrook the Protestant people were driven out, or it was made impossible for them to live there. We all know what is happening in Stewartstown Road at the moment. This is a terrible situation but it is the reality that we have to face.

My hon. Friend the Member for Armagh told the Committee: In my area, there are 500 empty houses. In Churchill Park, there are 145 vacant dwellings; in Obins Drive and Obins Avenue, there are 18 vacant dwellings; in Lurgan Tarry, there are 11 vacant dwellings; and in Ennis Close, there are 81. In Rathmore, 168 dwellings are vacant; in Meadowbrook, 18; in Drumbeg, 43; and in Wakehurst 11. The Under-Secretary knows why those dwellings are vacant. They are in notorious Republican areas. The murder of policemen and soldiers and petrol bombing—including one last week above Churchill Park—have driven out the Protestant community. There is no way in which I can convince people to go back to that area and live together. The only hope of sanity is integrated housing. There are 500 houses which are available only to one section of the community."—[Official Report, Northern Ireland Committee, 22nd January 1976; c. 68.] Those houses should be occupied. I should be in favour of their occupation even by one section only of the community. But not one house has been built by the Housing Executive for the Protestants who were driven out of those areas. That could be argued in reverse for the Roman Catholics who have been driven out. We are very concerned about this matter. The Minister must look at this terrible problem.

I do not know whether the Minister got the full strength of the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux). There is a conflict of interests within the Housing Executive because it administers the closing orders. Indeed, the closing orders are administered in very strange ways.

Some houses in my area are not fit for human habitation. I am not blaming the Housing Executive for that situation. The houses are the heritage of the old rural district councils—the Ballycastle Rural District Council, the Ballymoney Rural District Council and the Ballymena Rural District Council. Those three councils do not have a very good housing record. I am being charitable when I say that.

There are houses in those areas with no amenities: no lavatories, water or sewerage. When any electric wiring took place, those councils said to the tenants "As we have wired your houses, we shall add a charge to your rent." Even if the houses had three different tenants, they still paid the charge. That is why there is an uneven rent structure in North Antrim. One person living in a house might pay £2.50 rent whereas others in similar houses might pay £2.75. That system goes back to the old heritage.

Recently, one of my constituents said to me "Under the old council I needed a new fireplace. When it was put in, 5s. was added to my rent. That fireplace was installed 20 years ago. I have asked the Housing Executive for a new fireplace and have been told that I can have one, but I shall still have to continue to pay the extra 5s. which I have been paying all these years." These are some of the things that the Housing Executive is up against. People do not understand why a house should cost more because in the past electric lighting was installed by the council.

I have no time for such councils and the way they act. They have gone now. Some of them felt that they should not be called into question. When I was first elected to Stormont and raised this matter, one of the councils immediately called a special meeting and passed a resolution not to answer any letters from me about the houses in its area. That was what we were up against. That was not even under direct rule.

I am perplexed by the actions of the Housing Executive. In Duke Street, Ballymena, houses were bought by certain people and grants were given for improvements to be carried out. Now, the Housing Executive feels that all the houses should be closed. It asks tenants whether they would like to go to a new house with much better facilities, a house which is off the road and which has a garden for the children. The Executive tells the tenants that they will be far happier in the new property. Before they have had time to consider it properly, they consent and the Executive puts them on the emergency list and slaps closing orders on their houses.

Those who advise me on legal matters say that, as the law stands, there is no way of lifting an order. It is on for good. This is a serious matter. The Minister should take these points on board and consider them carefully.

The Housing Executive does not slap orders on its own terrible, hopeless houses which have no water, sewers or other facilities. I took the housing manager in my area and showed him a woman's home with no facilities. When I asked why he did not put a closing order on the property, he said that it belonged to the Executive. Yet if I were the owner of that house a closing order would be served. There is a conflict of interest here.

The Minister must find a way of preventing the Executive from having these two jobs. It cannot have the arbitrary power to close houses when it does not close its own properties which, if the same criteria were applied, should be the subject of closing orders.

I am glad that the Minister and his Department will be the bosses in the acquisition of land. I know that the housing associations have been kicking against the pricks, but I should be worried if they were given this power. I congratulate the Minister on keeping control in his own strong hands.

The associations can request the Minister to acquire land compulsorily and vest it in them. There is a strange anomaly in the provisions relating to vesting in Northern Ireland. If a Government Department vests land for a specific purpose and does not go ahead with the scheme, the original owner has no way in law to make the Department hand back the land. A Department may want land for housing, a school or a road. Land was acquired in Ballymena for the purpose of building a road, and the owner opposed the proposal. The only appeal in regard to money in these cases is to the Lands Tribunal. If an appellant wins his case, his expenses are guaranteed. If he loses, he loses everything and has to pay all the costs. It was eventually decided not to built the road in Ballymena. It was decided that there would be a change. The man concerned would like his ground back again. The Ministry admits that no road will be put there. However, that man cannot force the Minister on this. If the Ministry, in its good grace, says "Yes, we shall negotiate and resell the land to you", of course it must now be sold at today's price. Therefore, the man has lost his land. He did not want to lose it. His ownership was called into question by the Government, and they took the land. Having taken it and not used it for the stated purpose—the land could not be purchased without that being spelt out—they have let it lie fallow, and the Minister has no power to force the Department or the Government on the matter.

I should like an assurance that the Minister will look into this matter and safeguard the rights of owners. If an association takes land and does not go ahead and build on it, surely the owner is entitled to have it back again.

I never advise constituents of mine to go the Land Tribunal, because of the way in which it is set up and the compensation that is offered for property. Even when a man goes to the Tribunal, he is likely to fail. If he fails, he loses everything. That is not a fair redress for a person in such a position.

I am very sad that the Minister will not look more favourably on the farming community. Agriculture is the basic industry in Northern Ireland. We have had a serious move away from the land. It has not been helpful. More and more people will have to go back to the land. Increasingly, the position of the farming community will have to be borne in mind. When all other parts of the community are to get help, I do not see why the farming grant is not to be increased at all. The agricultural community will think that very strange indeed. After all, people are employed on the farms, and if their houses fall into disrepair there could be a drift away from agriculture again and a loss of employment.

In the past week in Northern Ireland, factories have closed. That brings sorrow to all of us. The queue of the unemployed has swollen. One factory made prefabricated houses. I should like the Minister to tell us something about its closure. It would seem that houses are needed in Northern Ireland. However, we suddenly hear that a factory that is making houses is to close. On the face of it that does not seem right.

I do not think that the Housing Executive has been very helpful by its statement. It simply said that houses must be up to a standard. That was as much as saying that the factory concerned could not make houses to the Housing Executive's standard and that, therefore, it would have to close. That is what I assume from the statement, although that may not be so. I see that the Minister does not agree. However, perhaps he could explain this and tell us how many houses the Housing Executive completed three years, two years and one year ago and how many it will complete this year. We need to know how the Housing Executive is getting on with its building programme. I think that there has been a fall in the number of houses that it has been completing.

Everyone who is prepared to put money into housing in Northern Ireland should be encouraged. If the public purse is not able to supply the wherewithal, those who want to build their own houses will have to be encouraged. In the debate in another place, the Minister said that the needs of Northern Ireland's housing would have to be specially tailor-made to meet the situation in Northern Ireland.

Planning will have to be looked at again. It is very sad that planners seek to destroy the small hamlets in Northern Ireland. I am very much opposed to that. We have been told tonight about the jungle of the vast housing estates on the perimeter of Belfast. It would be far better for people who have been brought up in the community, and who are already integrated into it, to be able to build in that community and continue to reside there.

I thought that when the rural planning proposals had been made—I understood that this was the objective—there would be some easing when people applied for planning permission. I have to attend many planning appeals and fight the cases of my constituents at those appeals, but the planning officer seems to think that his role is to keep everyone in a particu- lar area. All sorts of area plans are floating around, and these proposals have now almost become the law of the Medes and Persians. Immediately a case comes up for appeal, the planning officer says, "These are our proposals and you cannot build outside this area". The officers have no statutory powers, and their maps are only proposals for discussion.

In Ballymena there are people who want to build houses and replace old ones. I had one planning appeal at Ballycastle. The hon. Member for Belfast, West enjoys the sweet air of the glens of Antrim and he knows Bally-castle. In fact, we are told that he often plays a mouth organ in the glens. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has ever played "The Sash", but that is hardly something for this debate.

However, I recently attended an appeal in Ballycastle concerning a farm house which had not been lived in and was disused. A man who was brought up in the area wanted to replace that house and build a new one on the site. We know that a directive has gone out and that a house must have four substantial walls and a roof, and if it can be proved that it was lived in within the past five years it will be considered as a dwelling. This particular farm house had not been lived in for some time, and there was a hole in the old-fashioned chimney breast which had been built outside. The planning officer said that because of the hole and the state of the house he did not recognise it as a house, and he would not give planning permission. I asked him "Is it not a nice home?" He replied "It is not nice". I asked "If a new house was built, would it not be a nice home?" He said "We would prefer nature finally to demolish that building rather than have a new house built there."

How does a young man, who wants to put his money into that kind of house and bring his bride to it, feel when he walks out of a planning inquiry? There is an appeal system, and I am thankful that there is. I must say a word in favour of the Planning Appeals Commission. Those of us who take part in planning affairs know the good job that it is doing. But there are planners on the commission and there seems to be a great effort to keep development away from the rural districts.

I want country schools to continue. I want to see the country community continue. I want to see people brought up in those areas able to build there and live there. I want them to be able to bring their children to those areas, because they know those areas and they have had happy childhoods there. They could have a happy adult life in those areas and their children could have a happy childhood as well.

I hope that the Minister will look not only at the matters raised tonight by various hon. Members from Northern Ireland but also at planning and in some way try to help us in respect of these matters.

It is essential not only that the people of Northern Ireland are well housed but that they realise that they have a part to play in their own housing. I should like to see tenants taking more of an interest in the well-being of their estates. The Minister's suggestions in his recent publication are very helpful, and I hope that all those in Northern Ireland, whether in publicly-owned houses or privately-owned houses, will do their best to give their houses a face-lift so that all Northern Ireland will benefit and the world will realise that there are people in Northern Ireland who believe in its future.

10.11 p.m.

Mr. John Dunlop (Mid-Ulster)

The presence of a digital clock in the Chamber has an inhibiting effect on would-be speakers. To me it approximates to the green eye of the little yellow god. I shall therefore be very brief.

I want to talk about the temporary housing of the victims of bomb damage. Recently, the little town of Castledawson, only 15 minutes' drive from my home, was savagely bombed and practically destroyed, and many people were left homeless. I pay tribute to the welfare people who did their best in the circumstances to rehouse those affected. But there are some anomalies and I want to draw attention to one of them.

A baker who lives in the village and does a good job supplying the whole area with fresh bread had his whole establish- ment completely wrecked and his home destroyed. He was reduced to moving into a caravan in his badly wrecked yard. He has to attend during the night to ovens and so on which have to be kept at a certain temperature.

A good neighbour whose house was not too badly damaged offered the baker and his family the use of his house. The Housing Executive had already offered the baker a temporary house in the neighbouring town of Magherafelt, where, as a bombing victim, he was entitled to temporary housing. But that is five miles away. He could not afford to be that far from his business.

Therefore, the friend who had offered his house said that he would go to the Housing Executive house to facilitate Mr. Ditty. The local management of the Housing Executive said, "That is all right, Mr. Campbell. You give your house to Mr. Ditty. But we cannot guarantee to give you the house that we were going to give him." Mr. Campbell will have to take his place in the queue, and if he does not have sufficient points, he will not get the house because his is not an emergency housing problem. That is a monumental anomaly. Surely more flexibility should be allowed to the local management to determine such a case.

I wonder whether the Minister would remind the Secretary of State of his firm promise to visit that savagely bombed area. Some 250 lbs. of explosive was used—not home-made from fertilisers but gelignite—and it made an awful mess. The Secretary of State was not able to go to the village as he had promised. Perhaps the Minister would bring to his right hon. Friend's attention that promise which has not been kept.

I hope that the Minister will concede that it is an anomaly that a man who wants to live near his business is prevented from doing so by the monumental bureaucracy of the Housing Executive. I went to see the housing manager personally. He threw down the booklet with all the little coloured chequers and said that he could not in all conscience give Mr. Campbell the house that Mr. Ditty was offered. I said that I did not understand that and he replied, "Those are the rules. I cannot do it."

There should be a little flexibility. I know that some people and some hon. Members are afraid of any local control of housing. I am not asking for that. I am asking for local management to have some autonomy, contingent perhaps upon the approval of headquarters in Belfast, so that it may act sensibly to help people who have suffered grievously from bombing. I commend this idea to the Minister.

10.15 p.m.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

This is by any standards a substantial piece of legislation. Had it applied to any other part of the United Kingdom, it would have made a considerable hole in the Government's timetable for the relevant Session. However, that is not a point for the debate, except to recognise that within the procedures under the 1974 Act Ministers have made very large efforts to secure at any rate a shadow of the collaboration which we get in the passage of legislation in the ordinary sense.

There have been three months during which the order was in the form of proposals before hon. Members and before the public of Northern Ireland, and the previous Minister of State carried out a quite detailed consultation with my hon. Friend and myself. It is perhaps pertinent to inquire whether as a result of the consultations, and as a result of the prepublication in the form of proposals, there has been any difference at all between the proposed draft and the draft before us now. It would be interesting to know, because it would be surprising if legislation of this size got through the most benevolent Committee stage without the Government's recognising the necessity to make some improvements in it.

As we develop the procedures for considering these orders, which were suggested during the appropriation debate in the summer, I hope we shall find that we get quite substantial changes between the proposal stage and the draft stage where major points have been brought to the attention of the Government.

For the most part, the order brings about a far-reaching assimilation between the law in Northern Ireland and the law in Great Britain on the subject matter of housing grants and housing development. My hon. Friends and I would make no complaint of that. There are certain differences, which are fully justified; but in most respects this represents a drawing together of the procedures and law in Northern Ireland and in the rest of the United Kingdom.

The first of the four major matters which the order covers is an illustration of that; for the provisions which are being made for housing associations move away from the style of housing associations hitherto in Northern Ireland and apply almost precisely the law and practice as it stands in Great Britain. The Government are taking, if not a leap in the dark, at any rate a major initiative in seeking to make housing associations one of their instruments in Northern Ireland.

In winding up, the Minister might respond to the invitations which have been issued to him in the debate to expand a little upon the precise function which the Government hope that housing associations are to fulfil. Will housing associations bring a greater flexibility than the Housing Executive can to the work of housing? Will they attract into housing capital from non-public sources which would otherwise not be available? Will they contribute additionally to the managerial skill and enterprise in the housing field? I think that it would be a service if the Under-Secretary would dilate somewhat upon this.

Housing associations are to be an instrument of housing policy in Northern Ireland. Therefore we consider it right—in this respect the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) has been at one with my hon. Friends and myself—that the Department of the Environment should have full and proper control over the character and quality of the housing associations which are used. The rules, which are available in the form of a draft order, "Criteria for Registration of a Housing Association", of which the Under-Secretary of State was good enough to send advance copies to some of us, are impressive in showing how far the Department will he able to exercise control and surveillance over housing associations. For example, The association must be … so fitted and organised as to be an acceptable body for handling public finance. The calibre and quality of the persons exercising this control should be such that the affairs of the association are likely to be conducted in a responsible and effective manner. These are matters of judgment, which will be exercised by the Department; but it is far better that the Department should impose strict standards—after all, hon. Members will have the right to intervene in any case where it appears that such control is being unconscionably exercised—if housing associations are to play a bigger part in housing in Northern Ireland. They should be bodies fully competent for the purpose and fully respected by the public.

I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will respond to the question of which I gave him notice in an intervention in his opening speech and say more about the financial arrangements which are contemplated for the housing associations. Elsewhere in the order there are precise indications of the limits on the contribution which will be made by the Department towards housing operations. It is curious that the order is silent as to the criteria which will be applied in this respect. It is surely right that an indication of policy in that matter should be given by the Government before we part with the order.

One more provision dealing with housing associations, although it reproduces that already in force in Great Britain, should perhaps he referred to. That is the provision for deficit grants for hostels which appears in Article 30 of the order. As the article stands, theoretically it would be possible for housing grants from the Department of the Environment to housing associations to subsidise the conditions and the rent of persons in hostel accommodation. If that were so, an undesirable overlap would occur between the housing agency on the one side and the social service agencies on the other: for the support of the individual and his provision with what he needs if he is unable otherwise to obtain it is primarily a matter not for housing provision but for the welfare and social services. Perhaps, therefore, the Under-Secretary of State will be good enough to indicate the limits within which this remarkable provision for meeting the deficits incurred in the provision of hostel accommodation by housing associations will be exercised.

I turn to the second and third of the four main elements in the order. In doing so I observe that they are almost exclusively of relevance to Belfast. It is a reminder that Northern Ireland is not one place but two—namely Belfast and what is not Belfast. Many of the policies that have been devised to apply to the conditions of Belfast have little relevance to the rest of the Province, and vice versa.

As the Minister is relatively new in the Northern Ireland Office, I make a suggestion to him. Living, as Northern Ireland Ministers do, in Belfast and looking out from Stormont Castle over a part of the city, it is especially difficult for them to have constantly present in their minds a general perspective of the Province as a whole. It is important for them to make every endeavour to remember that when they are looking at Belfast and concentrating, as they often will be, upon its problems, it is not the only part—in some respects not a typical part—of the whole Province of Northern Ireland for which they are responsible.

These two provisions which are primarily directed to Belfast relate to the housing action areas and the emergency provisions in Part VII of the order. I reiterate that the housing action areas should not become merely Housing Executive enclaves. The Department should endeavour to use as many agencies as possible in securing improvement in the housing action areas. If they can get the owner-occupiers, the private owners of rented accommodation and the housing associations to take a hand in the action areas, the result will be far better than if the matter is merely left, for simplicity or any other reason, to the Housing Executive. It will certainly need more effort—it always needs more effort—to produce variety rather than uniformity, but the effort will be worth while. I hope that that will be recognised by the hon. Gentleman when he replies.

I turn to the emergency provisions in Part VII. We have been given a handsome undertaking that despite our legislative limitations these provisions will not be extended without representatives from Northern Ireland having the opportunity to discuss the proposal and, if necessary, enter objection. I emphasise again that it would be a bleak prospect if we were to accept that Part VII will be one of those cases where nothing lasts but the provisional. The acquisition and occupation—I think that "possessing" is the technical word—of property under Part VII will in practice bring property and land permanently into the hands of the Housing Executive. In the present circumstances in Belfast, none of us can say that that is not right and necessary. But we should jealously maintain the temporary and emergency nature of this power. As soon as possible, it should no longer be necessary and should not be permissible for the Executive to exercise the powers which it is given in Part VII.

Finally, I turn to the fourth of the major items. In some ways it is the most important of all the four elements of the order. Certainly it is the part which is most attractive—namely, the generous and extensive provision made for the repair and improvement of existing property other than the property of the Executive. I insert those last words because my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) did the House a service by reminding it that to discuss repair, improvement and rehabilitation of housing in Northern Ireland and forget the condition of so much of the stock belonging to the Executive would be the height of unrealism.

One cannot but be oppressed by the burden of the inheritance which the Housing Executive took over from the predecessor housing authorities, especially perhaps in rural areas like mine. One comes almost unawares upon little groups of houses here and there across the countryside where the living conditions are as intolerable as any to be found in the slums of the great cities. Yet this property is vested in the Housing Executive. As one talks to the people living in these houses, they naturally want to have some intelligent prospect of what their future may be. So one finds oneself in constant communication with the Executive at all levels about the repair and improvement of this inheritance. Very often the Executive has to wait upon other branches of the Administration. Very often it is water and sewerage which are the dominant factors in these operations of the Housing Executive.

Often—though this does not arise directly out of the order, the question of housing improvement involves it—it is of the greatest help if the Housing Executive is able, either through hon. Members or by other means, to give its tenants some view of a period of years ahead and of the manner in which improvements are expected to take place over that period. As a matter of simple public relations for the Housing Executive and the Department, it is really important to be able to tell the inhabitants of houses such as those I have described that this is a three-year job or that is a five-year job, that this can be done next year but that that will be a quite distant project.

We should never be afraid to obtain for our constituents and communicate to them that sort of projection of the future, whether or not it is agreeable in the particular case. I personally have received from all levels of the Housing Executive total co-operation in ascertaining projections and information about the prospects for this or that group of houses, this or that estate, in my constituency. I cannot but feel, however, that it would be helpful if at some stage these projections were pooled so that the tens of thousands of families—no, the hundreds of thousands—who occupy Housing Executive houses could see on a large scale that they too are to share in the process of repair, improvement and rehabilitation which Part VI of the order opens up for owner-occupiers and tenants of private property.

The provisions of Part VI are 50 per cent. better than the corresponding provisions in Great Britain, and all of us from Northern Ireland will say "So they should be". But it is worth emphasising how great is the incentive which is being given to owner-occupiers and, subject to certain conditions, to landlords to repair and improve their houses. The owner-occupier or the landlord will have to put up only one-quarter of the cost of doing the job at most, and in some areas only one-tenth. He gets the improvement; he gets his property, which is his responsibility, put back into repair, improved and rehabilitated for 25 per cent. or even only 10 per cent. of the cost of doing the job. That is a remarkably fine bargain. The fact that we are all prepared to justify it in existing circumstances is evidence of the stress that the House and the Government place on the maintenance of existing property.

One of the striking characteristics of Northern Ireland, and certainly of the part with which I am familiar, is the sheer volume of work which people do themselves on their houses. I do not believe there is any parallel in Great Britain to the readiness of people in Northern Ireland to turn to and carry out substantial building works in the improvement of houses and the conversion of buildings. It is quite common to find an ordinary member of the public, perhaps newly married, setting out to convert an old school house with his own labour and a little assistance from others into a home for his family. It is that sort of initiative which ought to be getting an impulse from Part VI of the order, and we will be very disappointed if it does not receive it.

This point underlines what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, North about the obsession of the planners in favour of housing development in large masses. Perhaps it is easier for someone who came to Northern Ireland from outside than for natives of Northern Ireland to see what a great asset the Province has in the pattern of distribution of its population. The structure of rural Northern Ireland, which at first sight appears to be a haphazard scatter of houses, but which, upon more intimate acquaintance, is seen to be the product of a long and characteristic history, will be a great asset for Northern Ireland in the coming years and one which ought not to be destroyed by the application of planning rules of thumb that might be very satisfactory on the outskirts of cities or in other parts of Great Britain. As the turnover takes place from agricultural occupation to industrial occupation, this distribution of population will be a source of great strength in enabling the people to turn from one type of life and employment to another without having to desert their rural background and without destroying the essential and characteristic heritage of Northern Ireland.

This will not happen unless the planning authorities in Northern Ireland are deliberately concerned not merely to maintain but to expand the existing nuclei right across the face of the country. Over and over again we come across cases where an additional house, a house for an employee—not a farm employee, for whom it is relatively easy, but an employee in one of the shops or small workshops in a tiny hamlet—is required, but where this is being resisted by the planning authorities on the ground that if the man wants a house he ought to move to Downpatrick or some other major area of population.

One is not pleading the case for sporadic development when one says that planning ought to be engaged in Northern Ireland in the preservation, maintenance and revivification of the typical groups of houses and hamlets which are its characteristic. I hope that the effect of Part VI will be to strengthen that characteristic spread of the population.

Finally, coming from owner-occupied to landlord-owned houses, there is of course a factor in all this which has been only lightly mentioned this evening, and that is rents. It is no use supposing that all the provisions in Part VI will secure the maintenance of the existing stock of rented housing unless rents are adequate to give the landlord a reasonable reward for the responsibility which he undertakes, as well as to cover the economic cost of keeping the property, once it is repaired and rehabilitated, in decent condition. We need urgently to have a debate upon rents in Northern Ireland. It is already about two years overdue. The Under-Secretary, we suspect, is anxious to have such a debate. Certainly it is time that something was done about the structure of private rents in Northern Ireland. My hon. Friends and I and, I am sure, the hon. Member for Belfast, West can assure the Government that in tackling that task they will have the technical support, the parliamentary support, as well as the policy support of Northern Ireland Members.

A large number of questions have been put to the Under-Secretary in the debate. There are some which he must in all fairness answer in the course of his windup speech. As to the rest, I am sure that he will follow the admirable standard his colleagues have set in previous debates of mopping up behind and ensuring that all the points that have been raised receive, sooner or later—and the sooner the better—a reply from him in writing.

10.42 p.m.

Mr. Carter

This has been an extremely wide-ranging debate. We have gone from Wilson's Row in Ballyclare to Dixon Street—I was not sure where that was—and from West Belfast to Fermanagh. This would tend to highlight the extent of the housing problem in Northern Ireland.

Since I have been responsible for the Northern Ireland Department of the Environment, we have issued a wide range of policy documents and discussion documents, and now we have the order. It has, therefore, in a very short space of time, given me an excellent insight into the housing problems of Northern Ireland. I am not an expert on European housing matters, but I would not mind hazarding a guess that Northern Ireland's housing problem is probably as bad as that anywhere in Western Europe and is probably a lot worse than most. The debate so far tonight has confirmed that.

To say that there have been 50 years or more of neglect in Northern Ireland may be considered by some to be too pointed an observation. One cannot direct a criticism at any one group or organisation. I suppose that everyone in Northern Ireland, with the situation as it is, has made a contribution of some kind towards the problem. The problems are enormous. They are problems of disrepair, lack of amenities and, of course, the dreaded problem of sectarianism—and, thankfully, we do not experience that in the greater part at least of Great Britain. No one in the debate has sought to underestimate its effects on the housing problem. None of us for one moment must ever try to underestimate its overall effect. I hope that this order and all the discussion documents which have been issued with it will mark the beginning of the long fight back. We must not deceive ourselves. It will be a long fight back. We have a long way to go. We must be optimistic but at the same time realistic.

We want to adopt a diverse approach. There is no monolithic approach to Northern Ireland's housing problems. If one takes out Belfast, Northern Ireland is still essentially a rural community and because of its nature any solution to the problems demands that the approach be diverse.

I assure hon. Members on all sides of the House that while I am Minister responsible for housing I shall devote all my energies to the housing problem. Even though I have been in office for less than seven months, I can see that many of the problems, be they social, economic or political, are based on bad housing. If we could get to grips with the problem of bad housing we might make a contribution to solving Northern Ireland's many other problems. Having said that, I do not underestimate the size of the problem. It is enormous, as the range of questions asked in the debate has indicated. I shall do my best to answer all of them. If I forget anything it will be dealt with later and the fullest possible reply will be sent to hon. Members.

The hon. Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) asked about housing association rents. As the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) said, this is to some extent a leap in the dark. We have Great Britain legislation in the background to which we can refer but for Northern Ireland it is an entirely new venture. We shall have to see how we go. We expect that the average grant will be about 80 per cent, but we stress that the grant will vary from scheme to scheme. With the range of housing and the range of people for which housing associations will cater, we cannot say what figure will be put on rents. We hope that housing associations will work in the housing action areas, for we want to see the most diverse approach to housing action areas.

We also want to see housing associations involved in the private sector. As hon. Members opposite know, much of the small terraced property in Belfast remains in private hands. We hope that with the availability of grants, much of the private property can be maintained and that we can get the most diverse approach possible.

The hon. Member for Abingdon also asked about the present take-up of improvement grants. It is not great. I will give him a detailed reply by letter but we hope, with the increased publicity that we shall be devoting to the whole subject of improvement, that there will be a much greater take-up. If there is not, the policy will fail. We shall do what we can to ensure that there is the maximum possible take-up. In that event the policy will be successful.

The hon. Gentleman pointed out that there are 25,000 properties in the private rented sector with rents under £1 and asked whether, in view of that, the private rented sector would be retained. It is our hope that a large part of it will be retained, but clearly there are great difficulties. Of the 60,000 houses in the private rented sector, 25,000 are currently regarded as unfit for human habitation. These are clearly candidates for a public take-over. We have to be frank about that. We hope that we can leave the rest in the private sector.

The hon. Member also raised the question of compulsory powers. He asked whether the houses would remain in public hands. The answer is that they will. There is no doubt, if the Housing Executive takes over a property, that it will remain in the ownership of the Executive. The hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) talked about the past difficulties of housing associations in Northern Ireland. To be honest, there has not been much of an effort in the past and no doubt there have been problems. We shall do what we can to ensure that housing associations play a major part in housing provision in Northern Ireland.

I was asked whether there would be encouragement to take up major schemes. If experience in Great Britain is anything to go by, housing associations will not be so involved. They tend to concentrate on smaller groups of housing. Once again, we shall have to see how we go. We never know. Housing associations in Northern Ireland, given the support of the Department, may well prove to be a greater success than in Great Britain as a whole.

The hon. Member for Antrim, South dealt with rent rebates and said that there was not sufficient take-up in many areas. I am told by the Minister of State that, with the assistance of hon. Members and of councillors, there has been an increase in the take-up. We value the assistance that has been given to us. The Department will do all it can, along with the Executive, to increase the justified take-up of rent rebates.

Housing for older people was another issue that concerned the hon. Member, as it does us. We hope that housing associations will play an important part in the provision of such accommodation. To a certain extent this has been a neglected area in Northern Ireland. With the wide range of instruments available to us—housing associations, the Executive and the private rented sector—we shall do all we can to assist here.

The hon. Member for Antrim, South was rather concerned about the standard of new housing, as is the Department. Given the fact that we have an enormous job before us in the provision of new housing, we must ensure that what we do build will last. We do not want to be constantly repairing and maintaining. We want to put up a house, leave it and get on with the job of providing more homes or renovating existing properties. The hon. Member raised a case concerning Wilson Road in Ballyclare. I will have the Department look at this and reply later to the hon. Member.

We are all concerned about the demolition of existing stock. But, to be fair, one must point out that the general demolition of existing housing has been the subject of some controversy in the United Kingdom as a whole. There is no doubt that we have gone much too far in destroying existing houses. Who is to blame, I do not know; the politicians have played their part. For 25 years we saw the solution to the problems of the inner cities in the removal of the older houses and the export of the people in them to new towns.

I live on the edge of a new town and have done so since I married 17 years ago. I know that in moving from an inner city area to a new town I escaped some problems, but I ran into others. Tragically, however, we have been able to learn only by experience. We have enough experience now. We have enough time before us in Northern Ireland, and we certainly have a big enough problem there. Where we can save existing houses, and in so doing save existing communities, we shall do all we can to achieve that end.

But it is not always easy. Sometimes the saving of old houses is much more expensive than the provision of new ones. I hope that we can all work together in this. The Department and the Housing Executive do not want to impose on any individual or community something that they plainly do not want. If people do not want to live on the 20th floor of a block of flats, we do not want to put them there.

One of the saving graces of the housing scene in Northern Ireland is that, with the exception of Belfast, we have the land available. That cannot be said of my own city of Birmingham. The right hon. Member for Down, South probably knows rather more about this than I do, having been a Member for an almost adjacent constituency. He knows that urban constituencies are circumscribed by boundaries from which they simply cannot escape.

The hon. Member for Antrim, South spoke also of new towns. He raised the question of Poleglass, which is the subject of an inquiry, so I shall not go further into that matter tonight. He also raised the question of Twinbrook. No doubt, if we had had long enough tonight, other hon. Members could have raised problems relating to new towns such as Craigavon. We know that there are problems and we shall not run away from them. We shall try to deal with them in the best and most rational and, above all, the most humane way possible. I know that everyone in Northern Ireland who is concerned with the housing problem is prepared to work in that spirit.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to scrutiny of the Housing Executive's expenditure. This is a new body. Obviously it will have to learn from experience. But if hon. Members opposite have cases which they feel are a criticism of the Executive, I know that the Executive will be only too glad to look at them, and the Department wants to look carefully at any problem put to it. We are all keen to ensure that we get value for money in housing because we have such a massive problem in Northern Ireland.

My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) asked how many housing associations there were. There are between 30 and 40 housing associations. If he wants a more detailed answer, I will send it to him.

My hon. Friend was concerned about the bona fides of both present and future housing associations. I am sure that he heard what I said about the powers that we have and intend to use to ensure that housing associations are run in a legitimate way by legitimate people. I have been at the Northern Ireland Office for only seven months. My hon. Friend has spent a lifetime in Northern Ireland and therefore knows the background of both past and present difficulties regarding voluntary associations. We are aware of these problems. We do not think that, because of the difficulties, we should jib at moving into an area which can make a considerable contribution towards relieving the housing problem. We have taken on board what he and other hon. Members have said.

My hon. Friend also referred to the difficulty that he and others have in dealing with housing bodies, tenants' associations, and so on. We are aware of this problem. We cannot hide the fact that these bodies exist. We keep a constant watch on this matter. Again, if hon. Members have information which will make our job easier, we would welcome it.

The hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Carson) stressed the need to make housing grants available to young married couples. We are concerned to ensure that housing action areas, particularly in Belfast, principally because of the smallness of the accommodation, do not become enclaves for old-age pensioners. We shall try to produce balanced communities. If young married couples are prepared to go into housing action areas and to take up accommodation which has only two bedrooms, that will be welcomed. We shall do all that we can to structure, if that is the right term, the community in the proper sense. We do not want to leave retired people behind in areas which have been renovated.

We are aware of the abuse of grants, but have power to oversee grants and we shall do all in our power to ensure that grants are properly claimed and used. Again, if hon. Members can provide us with information which indicates that things are going wrong, we shall welcome it.

The hon. Member for Belfast, North asked what system would be used to determine rents in the private sector. A document under my name was recently issued by the Northern Ireland Office making certain proposals. We await responses and ideas. The idea that we put forward was that there should be a multiplier acting on the net annual valuation. It is only an idea. If we receive a better suggestion from local authorities, hon. Members or any other groups concerned with housing, we shall be only too pleased to look at it. At the end of the day we want to produce a viable rent which will maintain units of accommodation in a proper standard of repair.

The Belfast community—I stress Belfast—must have a vested interest in maintaining property at a reasonable standard in areas in which it likes to live. In this sense there is no such thing as cheap housing. In fact, cheap housing in Northern Ireland has brought us to the stage at which we are now. If we had had economic rents in the private sector during the past 50 years, most of the houses which have been demolished would still be there. There is not much private rented accommodation left in Northern Ireland. We believe that a viable renting system is the best guarantee of its survival.

The hon. Member spoke about control of the housing associations. I can only repeat to him what I said to the hon. Member for Belfast, West.

Mr. Carson

Would the Minister not agree that although his Department had control over the Housing Executive in the past, millions of pounds of public money have been wasted on grants and contracts for rehabilitation which are now the subject of police inquiries? Could this not happen again even if his Department keeps a sharp eye on the housing associations?

Mr. Carter

The police are investigating certain matters and I do not wish to comment on them. We intend to act in the most vigorous way to ensure that abuses do not occur in future. I cannot stress that enough.

The hon. Member also raised the question of protecting vandalised houses. If we wish houses to remain in existence, we must take action to safeguard them, and in many cases this is costly. However, I do not believe that many people would agree with the hon. Member that demolition is the answer. Most people look forward to vandalised houses being used again. Knocking them down and rebuilding them would be infinitely more expensive than the current temporary steps which we are taking. In any case, the demolition for which the hon. Gentle- man is asking would not have been possible before we introduced this order.

The hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) complained about the lack of time, but this order has been chewed over for two years and housing has been before the Northern Ireland Committee. Given the round of discussions which have taken place, I do not think that anyone can complain about lack of time. The way in which we deal with certain Northern Ireland legislation may not be satisfactory, but on this occasion we have had a good deal of discussion and everyone has had ample time to comment on the proposals.

The hon. Member for Antrim, North asked how we would define housing action areas. This will be done in consultation with the Housing Executive, local authorities, hon. Members opposite and other parties concerned with housing. We want to get the greatest possible amount of agreement, though it is true that, particularly in Belfast, there will be little disagreement about what constitutes a housing action area.

Perhaps the hon. Member was wondering whether the principle would also apply in rural areas. The answer is "Yes". If he can point to a rural town which would benefit from this action, there is no reason why, with agreement, we should not move ahead there in the same way as we would in Belfast.

The hon. Member also dealt with a number of problems associated with the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. No one can deny that there have been problems. The Executive faces enormous difficulties. There were housing problems long before it was established. That is why we are here tonight. It would be difficult for any body to operate in a blameless and efficient way in this field. The Housing Executive has done a great job so far. With this order and other proposals that we have made, we hope that the situation will be improved.

Up to the limit to which I have referred, farm houses can benefit. The hon. Gentleman should not be under the impression that farm houses of any kind in rural areas are outside the scope of the improvements.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of TRADA houses. I have a long brief on the subject, but I shall not bore the House by reading it tonight. However, I shall give the general outline and write to the hon. Gentleman. When I heard the radio broadcast on Friday, I was rather worried and concerned, given the scope of the housing problem in Northern Ireland, but having looked at the matter I am satisfied that the Housing Executive has operated in the correct fashion here.

The original order was for 100 houses, but on an experimental basis. We could have bought those 100 houses here in Great Britain, but we decided, because of the unemployment problem in Northern Ireland, that we would get those 100 houses constructed in Ulster. We have to wait to see precisely how those 100 houses stand up to the test of time. In the meantime, however, we cannot produce any more.

When one sets the current concern alongside the factual background against which the order was placed, the apparent contradiction of having an enormous housing problem yet shutting down a part of a firm constructing houses can be understood.

Mr. Carson

How long does the Housing Executive allow for these TRADA houses to be tested? Surely the Minister must be aware that these houses have stood over a winter, and in fact a full year. How long will it be before he will be able to say that these houses have stood up to the test?

Mr. Carter

I would not have thought that a year was long enough. I should have thought that it would be about five years. Many people have moved into flats and have been quite happy for two or three years but have discovered after five years that they were not so pleasant. It is not only a matter of structural problems. There is also the question whether people are happy. I have been in one of these houses. The first impression is that people like them, but we shall have to wait longer than a year. If we can cut down the time, well and good. We are seeking an optimum solution. We are not trying to impose anything on anyone.

The hon. Member for Antrim, North then asked how many houses had been completed in each of the last three years. In 1973 the figure was 5,966, in 1974 it was 5,412, and in 1975 it was 4,885. In 1976 we hope that the figure will be about 6,000, so this year should be the best of the last four. That is how things stand at present.

The hon. Member went on to deal with the question of rural planning, about which I have heard a lot in the last few days. No doubt some of what I have said over the past few days has found its way back to the hon. Member. It was no more than three or four weeks ago that I first looked at the question in the Department. I knew that I would be meeting the Association of Local Authorities on a couple of occasions, on one of them specifically about rural planning, and that I ought to come to grips with the problem as soon as I possibly could because it is an issue of great concern in Northern Ireland.

I have some sympathy with the way in which people react to current planning matters in rural areas. I cannot be too specific tonight, but with the issue of planning notes within days rather than weeks, and guidelines on wider planning matters in the rural areas, I hope that for at least a year we can operate a slightly more flexible system. I have given the Association of Local Authorities an undertaking that it can come back on the matter—it will come back in a year's time—and that we shall look at the way in which the rural planning system has operated. If it is satisfactory we shall continue with it. If it is not, we shall look at it again to see whether we can refine it. All that we want to do is to ensure that the rural environment is protected. No one is keener in that respect, I would have thought, than those who live in the rural environment, but it must be said that those who live in towns may also have something to say about it. The countryside belongs to us all, not simply to those who live in it.

My initial feeling is that we ought to concentrate rather more on the small nuclear communities in the rural areas where services exist. That is only a general approach of mine at the moment. I cannot guarantee what outcome will flow from what I shall now say. Where small nuclear communities exist, such as hamlets and villages, I cannot for the life of me see any reason—given that the services are available—why we cannot extend those communities in a planned and orderly way. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I do not think that would conflict with wider planning, housing and population questions in Northern Ireland.

Even though some hon. Members opposite said "Hear, hear", I have no doubt that, probably in a few months, when the system is in operation, they will see certain objections to it. I do not think we shall find a perfect system for the administration of rural planning either in Northern Ireland or anywhere else in the United Kingdom.

Rev. Ian Paisley

We deeply appreciate what the Minister has said and we look forward to the implementation of some of these things. Would the hon. Gentleman say a word about these proposed plans which have no statutory power but which have been tightening their grip on certain areas such as the perimeters of Ballymena, Ballymoney and other towns?

Mr. Carter

The policy is currently under review. I do not think that I can go much further than what I have said tonight. If hon. Members opposite have ideas on this matter I would like to hear from them. I certainly hope to work in the closest possible way with the local authorities in this area. In fact, I have positively asked them to go away and look at their local authority areas and try, among themselves, to come to some agreement about where they think development will be most appropriate.

I would not suggest for a moment that we shall necessarily accept what they say to us, but hopefully we can have a productive dialogue. There is no reason at all why we should be at loggerheads.

I have already dealt with the question of housing on farms. Houses on farms will qualify for grants in precisely the same way as other housing will, up to the ceiling to which I referred before.

The hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Mr. Dunlop) raised a wider question, although he raised it in the context of a particular case—the problems of victims who suffer from bombing or being burned out. If the hon. Gentleman will leave that with me—I have not encountered the difficulty before—I will get my officials to look into it and send him a reply. If the hon. Gentleman is not satisfied in respect of the particular matter he raised, we shall look closely at it. Anyone would be concerned at the plight of people who have been forcibly thrown out of their home and, as a consequence, have housing problems.

The right hon. Member for Down, South raised two points in an interjection when I spoke at the outset. I would give him a detailed reply on the first point on housing associations. It is that housing association grants will be based on an overall appraisal of the scheme. The capital costs, on-going management costs, income from rents and the level of grants vary from scheme to scheme. This is the basic system which exists in Great Britain. We expect that the average grant will be about 80 per cent. but I would stress that the grant will vary from scheme to scheme. The revenue deficit grant and hostel grant will be based on an analysis of the revenue grants of the association. If that does not go far enough for the right hon. Gentleman I shall certainly send him a more detailed reply later.

On the question of the renewal of the powers in the order, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, I give the undertaking once again that discussions will take place before any attempt is made to renew them after five years.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether there was a difference between the draft published and the order as it now exists. As a result of the consultation process, a number of amendments, major and minor, were made. For example, the repairs grant was extended to cover all rent-restricted houses and Article 66 was extended to ensure that essential repairs were carried out to unoccupied houses to prevent damage to adjoining property. No doubt I could give more detailed examples, but that serves to illustrate what I said to the hon. Member for Antrim, North, that extensive consultations are taking place.

As to what the functions of housing associations will be, as the right hon. Gentleman said to some extent this is a leap in the dark. Their rôle will be as big as the potential for housing associations in Northern Ireland. They will be complementary initially to the activities of the public sector, but one never knows. Perhaps legitimate housing associations, properly run and organised, could have a bigger role to perform in Northern Ireland than elsewhere. We shall have to wait and see.

The right hon. Gentleman welcomed the control of housing associations. I can only emphasise again that the Department and I recognise the difficulties in this area. One would be foolish ever to try to ignore them. We are well aware of them and we shall do all we can to ensure that housing associations remain proper organisations in the sense of the legal definition and that they are run by the right people.

I have referred to hostel deficit finance. The right hon. Gentleman then referred to the difference between Belfast and the rural areas. I am well aware of this. Since I have been in Northern Ireland I have travelled over most of the Province. I have been to all the major communities, such as Derry, Newry, Down, Fermanagh, Enniskillen, Armagh and of course throughout Belfast. I have even been to Ballymena, but I think that I have been to most places in the Province.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Not Rathlin Island.

Mr. Carter

I have looked at it from Corrymeela. I hope one day to go there and meet the king himself. That is a pleasure yet to come, but I suppose there are many pleasures to come in Northern Ireland. I am certainly aware of the difference between Belfast, a major conurbation, and the rural areas. I hope that what I have said about rural planning will show that I am aware of the difference.

The right hon. Member said that housing action areas should not be Housing Executive enclaves. Once again, I have dealt with that. We sincerely hope that we can encourage a multiplicity of provision in a housing action area. We want to ensure that communities in Belfast—we are looking at Belfast specifically here—have a viability and social cohesion which can only come from diversity.

The right hon. Gentleman was worried about the emergency provisions. He has cause to be worried, but they are allied to the existing situation. We hope that as soon as normality returns to life in Northern Ireland the need for these provisions will disappear. In any event, I have already given assurances on how the Government will go about seeking any renewal.

Although there have been several references tonight to the improvement of property owned by the Housing Executive, it is the first I have heard of the difficulty. I shall see what can be done to ensure that, particularly in rural areas, Housing Executive property is quickly brought up to standard. I can think of some difficulties, but we must tackle them with a sense of optimism and hope and not leave them because someone suspects that they are incapable of solution. I do not believe that they are.

I have given the Department's view on how we might proceed over private sector rents. If hon. Members have ideas on the subject we shall be pleased to hear them. Our view is that the net annual valuation times a multiplier yet to be determined is perhaps the best way to go about the matter. However, we shall welcome views on that and on all the other housing proposals now before the people of Northern Ireland.

I believe that with two documents published in the past few days, on tenant participation and new forms of home ownership and on the private rented sector, together with the order, we can make a major attack upon, and hopefully find a permanent solution to, the problems of housing in Northern Ireland. It is a desperate problem, but one which the Government are determined to overcome. I believe that, with the co-operation of the Housing Executive, emerging housing associations, the local authorities and hon. Members, we can overcome the difficulties, no matter how big some people might think them to be.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Housing (Northern Ireland) Order 1976, a draft of which was laid before this House on 5th August, be approved.