§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 11.10 a.m.
§ Mr. Reginald Eyre (Birmingham, Hall Green)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I regret that the printing strike prevented the Bill from being printed and distributed in the usual way, I am particularly sorry that tenants' associations and other interested parties had difficulty in obtaining copies.
The Bill will have a beneficial effect for council tenants throughout England and Wales. It will operate to raise the dignity and status of council tenants throughout the country, because it will establish a relationship of landlord and tenant, as specified in Clause 1 of the Bill, upon the basis of a tenants' charter, the details of which can be prescribed by regulations under Clause 2 of the Bill.
It has to be acknowledged that there is need for a tenants' charter setting out the rights and freedoms that tenants of local authorities can reasonably expect. Mr. Frank Field, director of the Child Poverty Action Group, has referred to what he described as the serfdom of the council estate. In a report on council housing on behalf of his group in December 1975, Mr. Field said:Some people will argue that municipal housing as such is a very good thing. That certainly does not tally with my experience of being on a council for four years when we were not receptive to the needs of many ordinary families.I shall return to this point, because I think it is within the experience of every hon. Member who deals with these matters that in many cases the council is not, and sometimes cannot be, receptive 1768 to the needs of many ordinary families. The system itself needs looking at critically.
In further support of the need for a standard or model form of tenancy agreement, the report of the National Consumer Council, published on 9th September 1976, said that council tenancy agreements were oftenone-sided, primitive and incomprehensibleWe know that many councils do better than this, but the effect of the standard or model form of agreement and tenants' charter would be to bring up the standard of all council agreements to the standards of the best. In particular, security of tenure could be increased in appropriate cases by longer-term lettings under agreement.
In the schedule to the Bill we have set out a number of matters having a practical and important effect upon the daily lives of tenants. I must admit that the schedule is incorrectly headed, because its contents are not intended to deal comprehensively with what would be the contents of the tenants' charter. The actual form of the charter would be prescribed by regulations. The schedule sets out the various items which should most certainly be included in the proposed charter.
With regard to the schedule, it will be noted that paragraph (ii) refers toThe vesting in tenants of responsibility for minor repairs.In many appropriate cases that could be in return for increased security of tenure under a longer-term letting. There is no doubt that we have to involve the tenants and give them better opportunities to have their say in the way in which repairs and maintenance work to these properties are carried out.
Paragraph (iii) of the schedule refers toThe granting to tenants of reasonable freedom in the decoration of the interior and exterior of their dwellings.We all know of circumstances in which the imposition of dull uniformity has unduly restricted the rights of tenants in those respects.
Paragraph (iv) of the schedule establishes the right oftenants to take in lodgers subject to safeguards against overcrowdingThe provision would usefully add to the accommodation which is available and 1769 needed in many areas. This applies particularly to the large industrial towns where men move about to take jobs, sometimes for temporary periods. There is a need for more lodging accommodation of that kind.
Paragraph (vi) of the schedule refers tothe elimination of petty restrictions and regulations relating to the use and occupationof council dwellings. One has in mind restrictions, sometimes of an extraordinary nature, such as those prohibiting flowerpots on window sills. Paragraph (vii) deals with a matter of considerable human importance: the right of a tenant to keep domestic pets, subject to reasonable safeguards, which would, of course, involve consideration of public health.
I should like to refer to paragraphs (i) and (v) of the schedule more particularly in connection with points that I shall shortly make. They relate to the situation in large towns and cities where, I believe, special circumstances apply. The provisions that I have mentioned so far would undoubtedly be of universal benefit to council tenants in whatever part of the country they may live, as would the provision in Clause 1 and Clause 2 (c) dealing with the right of any tenant to purchase the freehold or long leasehold of his or her dwelling.
I should like to make clear that the right to purchase would be at the market value of the property, with a substantial discount allowed—a reduction in the market value price. That discount or reduction would certainly be not less than one-quarter of the valuation figure. Additionally, there should be a sliding scale of discount, increasing in value to take account of the length of occupancy of the tenant. That would introduce an element of fairness and take account of the payments made by a tenant who had been in occupation for many years, allowing a further discount on the price that he pays.
The evidence is that more and more council tenants wish to become owner-occupiers. A frequent result of such a purchase is that considerable improvements are made by the new owners, who take great pride in their homes. The Opposition believe in widening the spread of wealth. Home purchase by council tenants is a valuable way of encouraging 1770 people to bulid up family assets during their working lives. That increases their personal and family independence and freedom.
Under the provisions of the Bill, houses should be sold freehold and flats should be let on a long leasehold basis. Clause 2(d) quite properly gives the council the right to buy back the property from the tenant on what would be a fair basis taking account of the improvements carried out by the new owner should the new owner wish to sell within a period of five years. It is right for the council to have a right of pre-emption for a property offered back by the former tenant should he wish to sell the property within five years, but after that period of restriction the house should be able to go on to the market in the normal way.
I realise very well that not all tenants will wish to become owners and that those who continue as tenants will, we believe, feel that their status and rights have been enhanced under the proposed charter.
I now come to the parts of the Bill—Clause 2(a) and (b) and paragraphs (i) and (v) of the schedule—which refer to the participation of tenants in the management of their estates and the transfer of tenancies. In the smaller towns and villages and in small council estates, tenants experience much less painful difficulty over management, because small is nearly always beautiful. It is so much easier in smaller towns, smaller communities and smaller estates to take account of human needs when the scale of the problems is more obviously understandable and manageable.
In my experience, the problems and the needs of council tenants can be seen in most dramatic form in the large towns and cities and particularly on the vast council estates which accommodate so many of our citizens and their families. All too often these estates have been badly planned and developed. In so many of our large towns and cities in the post-war period, many millions of people have been moved from the inner areas and they have settled in the huge new council estates in the middle and outer rings of our towns.
Slum clearance was absolutely right, but after that the uprooting of whole communities, sometimes from sound, 1771 small older houses that were capable of improvement, was wrong, and the displacement of so many families with children to fiats in tower blocks was grievously insensitive, producing much loneliness and stress. Too often on these huge new estates insufficient community facilities and play and recreational spaces have been made available.
The Druids Heath Estate in my constituency yields many examples of that kind of failure to meet the needs of a large new community brought from other parts of Birmingham and settled on the outskirts of the city. Alongside the Druids Heath Estate, the Monyhull Estate is being developed. The Government are providing finance and the Socialist council has made these decisions and gone on with the housing with no regard for the needs of the community which has been established and with a terrible insensitivity towards the problems that the families face. It is simply not good enough to carry on redevelopment in this way.
The modernist, municipal designs of houses on some estates that I have seen, not so much in Birmingham, have been much less acceptable for family living and neighbourliness than the small streets of terraced houses that they replaced.
The vast council estates created in our large towns and cities provide some of the worst examples of impersonal bureaucracy. However hard councillors and officials try, administrative difficulties and failures inevitably flow from the sheer size of the task. In a large city with council estates totalling more than 150,000 houses, it is beyond the capacity of the system for those estates to be administered in a really humane way which takes proper account of the needs of the tenants. Control of life on these estates is too much by officialdom and not enough by individuals.
Any hon. Member who regularly holds advice sessions on these huge estates will know of the great number of tenants who attend with numberless complaints about the repairs done or not done, about the delays in getting essential repairs carried out, or about the problems of transfers. It is so difficult to take account of the needs of families—the understandable desire to move nearer to mother or 1772 to the married daughter and her children. Our system is insensitive and inflexible about all these natural needs. One sees it very much with the large number of single-parent families, where there is a very strong need for contact with parents. Somehow this vast machine operates at enormous expense with everybody trying very hard, but it does not take account of the real needs of the people actually living on the estates.
One receives almost unbelievable complaints about the actions of a small number of really serious problem families who can create havoc in a block of flats. In my constituency there was a fire-raiser operating a fortnight ago, setting fire to rubbish chutes and causing terrible disturbance to other tenants. I have been told some hair-raising stories about the anti-social acts of serious problem families. These people can make the lives of their neighbours a complete misery. In my view, a new approach is needed in these council estates. A new administrative and consultative system should be considered.
Clause 2(b) is relevant to this situation. It refers to:the establishment in suitably sized areas of local authority housing of Neighbourhood Tenants' Associations through which tenants can participate in matters affecting their interests and with whom the local authorityhave full and regular consultation and to whom the local authority where appropriate shall delegate powers of management and organisation relating to the dwellings within any of the said areasI should like to see a new neighbourhood emphasis on these large estates in our towns and cities. Schemes should be devoloped to divide up the large town council estates along natural boundaries with the aim of creating a better neighbourhood or village feeling among the families living within a neighbourhood association area.
For example, in the large towns and cities there are large wards, often with electorates of 20,000 or 25,000. Sometimes the percentage of council housing within a ward can be as much as two-thirds of the total housing supply. Some extremely large estates have been created. Looking at a ward of that kind, I would think it desirable to choose natural boundaries and to divide that huge area into four neighbourhood areas with the idea of trying to establish a feeling of belonging 1773 to a recognisable area which people can understand. The concept of a ward is too big. The Minister will understand this.
If we could create that feeling of neighbourhood, perhaps establish a name for it and bring people together so that they recognise that they belong to that neighbourhood within a particular ward, I am sure that it would have a beneficial effect. A simple, more representational, structure could more closely relate to these neighbourhood associations. This could be made up of local councillors, representatives of residents and local community groups relating to the local council and to the officials. These associations would provide a basis upon which people could get together and devolve their own organisations through which they could exercise greater control over their own lives.
Consideration should also be given to encouraging tenants' co-operatives and co-ownership schemes wherever possible and desirable within the neighbourhood association areas. For blocks of fiats, it would be very desirable for a block to be administered on a tenants' co-operative basis rather than continue with the sometimes appalling lack of standards that is developing under the present system. Within the neighbourhood association area, I should like as much ownership with as many council houses sold as the tenants wish to buy. Those owners would take part in the neighbourhood association. The tenants and the residents together would be part of the neighbourhood association.
There is no doubt that the great majority of responsible tenants on these estates wish to make their neighbourhoods better places in which to live. They also wish to take a more positive view of what they can do to improve the appearance of their surroundings. They need encouragement and support in that and in their desire to keep up proper standards of behaviour, cleanliness and apearance on the estates.
Amenities which are important to family life, such as play areas, should be considered on that neighbourhood basis. It is essential for a young boy to be able to play in a space where he can kick a ball about. It is as simple as that but it is extremely important. Somehow we neglect that kind of requirement. Therefore, 1774 amenities such as play areas, which are important to family life, should be considered on a neighbourhood basis.
Social events to raise funds for tree-planting or similar improvements would gain support in these areas. Through continuing self-help and their own initiatives, people could seek ways to make things better for themselves and for their neighbours. The neighbourhood atmosphere would certainly help to develop more natural restraints upon anti-social behaviour which causes complaints. I have mentioned problem families and vandalism, which causes great concern to people who live on these estates.
Strengthened by the support of their neighbours, they could develop more effective co-operation with the police in countering the destructive waste caused by vandalism. In connection with paragraph (v) of the schedule, the kind of management we contemplate would certainly help us to move in the right direction towards developing better participation and closer relationships of the kind we need.
I should now like to say something about transfers. The matter of a transferred tenancy is extremely important in towns and cities. It is sometimes difficult to obtain a transfer of tenancy from the south side of a city to the north side. Although that is difficult enough, if a man comes to change his job and wants to move from one industrial city to another it is almost impossible for him to get a transfer of tenancy under the State system which has developed.
We must have a better system with which to deal with this problem, because in the present unemployment situation it could be of enormous importance to a man and his family, and to the country's economy, that he should be able to move from one city to another to take a job. That is why we make this provision and emphasise the importance of developing a better system of transfer to match the needs of tenants.
I acknowledge that the Bill could be improved in Committee, but I believe that it sets out in a clear and understandable form the basic approach that we have towards establishing landlord-tenant relationships for all council tenants throughout the country and for adding to them, by way of the tenants' charter, a much better status and an enhancement of the 1775 rights of tenants on matters which have often been long neglected. It can, therefore, be said that the Bill has a good purpose and effect in that regard. Additionally, it gives rights to tenants to enfranchise, should they so wish to buy their houses or flats. Many of our citizens wish to exercise that right. The Bill prescribes a formula for a fair, reasonable and attractive price to be paid with the right of every council to buy back within a five-year period should that be necessary.
On the basis of the Bill, we could take strides forward which would begin to help us to deal with these problems. With the big estates in large towns and cities, the situation cannot be transformed overnight. I believe that everybody now trying to deal with the situation does his or her best to bring about a change to a neighbourhood system. The Bill will enable us more effectively to take account of the needs of families, especially as we go on beyond the present dire state of need. There is evidence that the supply of housing is now more equally matching needs, but we must make more intelligent use of our stock within that situation to take account of the needs of families.
The system that I am advocating—a neighbourhood area association—would greatly improve the administration, because the system of officials could be related to the situation on the ground in the neighbourhood areas. They would know much more about the repairs. There could be a neighbourhood repair yard. The officials would know more about the situation concerning repairs, the true situation of families, the need for transfers and the need of families to come together—to be near mother, as I have explained, so that the young wife could go to work and, later, help to look after her mother when she grows old, perhaps keeping mother in the family home rather than in an expensive institution. Out of all these things could come a distinct improvement and a chance to prevent the feeling that people have of belonging to a large anonymous area where they feel that nobody knows or cares about them.
I hope, therefore, that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading, as I believe that it could contribute towards giving us a better approach to all these problems.
§ 11.40 a.m.
§ Mr. David Weitzman (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)
In the usual Friday style I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Eyre) on introducing the Bill in the way in which he did. I saw the Bill only a short time ago, so I am indebted to him for the careful manner in which he has gone through its provisions.
The first words of Clause 1 are:The relationship of landlord and tenant shall apply to a local authorityI suppose the intention is to give greater security of tenure to the tenant. I do not know how necessary that is. At present, if a council wishes to evict a tenant or obtain an order for possession it goes to court and presents the case. One must remember the position of the council against the tenant. I am in favour of security of tenure being given to a tenant but I do not see how those words can help the tenant. It might be said that the provisions of the Rent Act should be examined.
A county court judge, dealing with an application by a council for possession of premises, will take all matters into consideration. I do not see why the first part of Clause 1 is necessary.
The clause also contains provisions to deal with the purchase of the freehold or long leasehold of the dwelling. The Bill is like the curate's egg. It is very good in parts, but there are certain other parts to which I object strongly.
I turn to the provisions in the Bill with which I agree. I like the idea of a tenants' charter and I like the reference to a standard form. But there are difficulties. By all means, let the Department issue suggestions, in the way of regulations or otherwise, which can be submitted to the various councils for consideration. The hon. Member for Hall Green will recognise that councils differ considerably in the administration of their estates. A standard form may work for one but not for another.
It would not be right to have a regulation requiring the Secretary of State to draw up a standard charter which, presumably, would be imposed on councils. I approve of the hon. Member's idea of a charter and guidelines from the Department about the way in which estates should be managed. I am in favour of 1777 that, particularly when I look at the way in which the hon. Member has drawn up the paragraphs in the schedule.
The first paragraph in the schedule provides forThe establishment of an exchange system facilitating the transfer of tenancies.I am in favour of that. Many people in my constituency come to me in the most difficult circumstances. They say that they want a transfer, but when one takes up their cases one finds that a long time elapses before anything is done. One has to write to the council again and again and press the case upon it. It may be difficult for the council, because it has to deal with a large number of people. It has some very hard cases. It would be a good thing if the system could be improved by an exchange system and the publication of information showing where to apply for transfers. I am in favour of telling tenants where they can apply or where they can get in direct touch with people who want an exchange.
Paragraph (ii) of the schedule refers toThe vesting in tenants of responsibility for minor repairs.That is a good idea, which should be encouraged. Paragraph (iii) of the schedule refers toThe granting to tenants of reasonable freedom in the decoration of the interior and exterior of their dwellings.That is a commendable proposition.
I also like the provision to grant permission to tenants to take in lodgers. We often hear of cases where tenants have taken in relatives or others and the council has objected. It would be a good idea if something could be done to help councils make arrangements in order to allow that freedom.
Paragraph (v) refers toThe inclusion of tenants in the formulation of estate management policies.I also agree with the provision to eliminate petty restrictions and regulations. One hears of people who have kept small pet dogs for years. Nothing is said until, suddenly, the council realises that there is a provision that dogs are not allowed. In those circumstances, a council often says that it will evict the tenant if he does not get rid of the dog. Something should be done about that.
Clause 2(b) provides for 1778the establishment in suitably sized areas of local authority housing of Neighbourhood Tenants' AssociationsThat is a commendable idea. Tenants should be encouraged to look after repairs, make suggestions about the management of the estate, playground facilities and matters of that kind.
I now turn to the provision to which I object. I have a grave suspicion that the hon. Member for Hall Green is anxious to insert a provision in the Bill by the back door. I am talking of Clause 2(c), which refers tothe entitlement of a tenant to purchase the freehold or long leasehold of the dwelling occupied by him at the full market priceI agree that in many cases council tenants should be allowed to purchase their homes. I am in favour of encouraging that. However, it is wrong to put an obligation of this kind upon every council, as suggested in that clause.
In my constituency we have a housing waiting list containing over 14,000 names. That situation cannot be remedied for many years. It is a desperate one. We have a certain stock of housing available. In the present economic situation it is difficult to build new houses or to acquire property to create more stock to deal with tenants' needs. How on earth can a borough like mine approve a provision that the Secretary of State shall make a regulation entitling a tenant to purchase the freehold or long leasehold of his dwelling?
Perhaps some councils and boroughs in certain parts of the country could accept that easily. We should encourage them where it is possible. The owner-occupier idea is splendid, but it is entirely wrong to put a provision of this kind in a Bill. That is why I say that the Bill is good in many parts but that because of that provision it will not do. The best course to take is for the Department to consider the excellent suggestions in the Bill. By advice and circular the Department should seek to persuade local councils to deal with many of those suggestions.
§ 11.50 a.m.
§ Mr. Anthony Steen (Liverpool, Wavertree)
I am always surprised that there is such uproar and heated reaction from the Labour Benches—although I agree that there has not been that reaction on this occasion—whenever modest proposals are put forward for the sale of council houses. 1779 Understandably, my hon. Friends have not gone as far in the Bill as some of the suggestions that have been made in the past. I can always understand criticism about details of drafting, but I hope that that will not be used as an excuse to defeat a Bill where the intent and the spirit are right.
On the Labour Benches there appears to be a deep resentment over the spirit and purpose behind the sale of council houses. Perhaps Labour Members will explain what is wrong with believing that people should have control over their own lives and participate more fully in the decisions that involve their future. That is one of the principal aims of the Bill.
Only a few years ago approval was given on the Labour Benches to the Skeffington Report, which recommended sweeping changes in the operation of our planning laws and the way in which people participate in planning arrangements for their localities. It sought to involve the people in the whole planning mechanism. Only a few months ago the Bullock Report made equally widespread suggestions about how people should participate more fully in the industrial way of life.
I always have difficulty in understanding why the Government object to a concept which aims to get people to participate more fully in running their own homes and neighbourhoods. When I use the word "participate" I mean not merely consultation and discussion but actual power and control.
It is not only the lack of control over a person's own home that segregates a tenant on a council estate from the rest of the people in our cities. Another extremely important factor is the uniformity that is imposed on tenants by the local authority, which robs them of security of tenure and often subjects them to the tyranny of bureaucratic pettiness and restrictions, however well-intentioned some of the local councils may be. The social consequences of the segregation are evident. Tenants become apathetic. They develop a sense of helplessness that can ricochet back on their family life and their working life.
The basic problem for tenants on the vast council estates is that they have no powers and no control over matters affecting their home environment. They cannot 1780 even paint their own front doors as they would wish. They find it painfully difficult to get repairs carried out. The transfer of tenancies is fantastically complicated. In all, their status is similar to that of serfdom.
Perhaps the simplest solution is that suggested by my right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker)—namely, to give council houses away. Attractive though that suggestion may be, I believe that it would be fundamentally wrong and would exacerbate the problem even further. It would perpetuate the belief that the State provides all. There is no doubt that State provision intervenes in our lives and robs us of logical reasons to fend for ourselves, but we must not allow that process to go any further. That would result in initiative and independence being completely sapped.
Home owners have sacrificed a great deal by buying their own homes, and the giving away of council houses would cause widespread anger and distress to those who have already purchased their own homes or are trying to do so. However, it is good business sense to allow council houses to be sold on favourable terms to those already living in them. That is good business sense and something that could easily be extended and encouraged.
Such a policy would free people from living under the dominance of one State agency. It would increase the mobility of labour between towns. It would offer the opportunity to wage earners to acquire a stake in their community for the benefit of themselves and the benefit of their families. It would result in a mix of tenure. As not everyone would want to buy, the vast estates would lose their uniformity and a true mix would result.
It is somewhat curious that the Government are so keen on a true mix in comprehensive education and are prepared to consider any device to achieve that end yet are happy to allow one group of people to live on council estates in spite of the fact that the sale of council houses would result in a true mix. The Government are rightly concerned about the rights of the underprivileged and the rights of minority groups, but what about the majority's rights? What about the majority's obligations?
The creation of vast council estates has been one of the biggest social dividers 1781 of all times as tenants are segregated from others within their own cities. The tenants on one of the estates in my constituency suffer the indignity of having to pay their rent through iron bars when they go to the local housing office at Camberley Drive. They queue in a building where every counter has iron bars in front of it. If anyone wishes to see the manager, he has to go through door after door, each one being locked and bolted. It is more like a prison than a housing office which has the aim of helping tenants.
That is one of the consequences of living on a council estate. Tenants suffer the indignity of having to subject themselves to that sort of procedure. I can understand that cashiers receiving rent payments are behind iron bars, but if a tenant is asking for repairs to be made, or for a transfer to be effected, why should he meet an official in conditions that give the impression that the meeting is taking place in a cell? That is beyond my comprehension.
We are concerned about the dignity of the individual. We want to give him rights and we want to ask him to take responsibilities. Private tenants have innumerable rights against their landlords, but the council tenant is deprived of any rights against the public authority, his landlord, which always seems to know best.
The purpose of the Bill is to maintain and raise the quality of life in some of the country's worst and most depressing areas. We must realise that some of the newest estates on the outskirts of our major cities have already been declared disaster areas. People on one estate in my constituency—it won an architectural prize—are desperate to get out. The fittest, the strongest and the healthiest leave at any cost. The new council estates have already become twilight areas of the future.
The tenants on such estates often blame the council, sometimes with good cause. They see vandalism on the increase, windows being broken, playgrounds that are devastated and lifts that are not working. But the approach of the tenants is fundamentally misconceived. What can the council do about it? It is not an issue of more money or of rejigging the priorities. Tenants often think that by writing petitions and creating pressures they will 1782 get more money to relieve the distress on their estate. There is a basic need for a change of attitudes, for the taking of responsibilities and making tenants on council estates feel part of the neighbourhood.
We must give people the opportunity to adopt that approach. We must give them hope. One of the best ways of doing so is to give them a chance to control their lives, to choose what happens to them and to choose what happens in their homes. They want a stake in the future of their neighbourhood. If they feel that they do not have a part to play and that their contribution is not valued, there will be no motivation for doing anything or caring for anything.
The Bill offers a greater incentive for self-help. We must encourage greater participation by council tenants in the management and control of their estates. Already neighbourhood councils have set the pace by demonstrating how people can help each other at far less financial cost to the ratepayer. As the House will know, in one Liverpool ward 44 voluntary block and street councillors keep an eye on 800 old people, the handicapped, the young and the children at risk. Eleven mothers are employed part time to co-ordinate the operation. People living alone receive at least a weekly visit, and those with special needs have daily contact.
I am not advocating that every council estate should have a neighbourhood council, but the Bill would provide a framework within which differing approaches could be tried in order to help people to increase their self-respect and take a genuine interest in their neighbourhood.
Perhaps one of the most important tasks—the Bill offers an opportunity here—is to breathe confidence into those whose lives have become humdrum. Through the imaginative creation of smaller neighbourhoods and offering opportunites for involvement, areas which have become devastated and soulless could assume a new vitality. I he greatest threat to this country is that we have lost our sense of identity and national pride. We must understand that life can be made better and that it lies within each one of us to make it better, not for the State to do so.
1783 Vandalism can be reduced if there is some incentive for people living in these neighbourhoods to reduce it, and one of the best ways is to give them a stake not only in their own home but in their community. I often think that there is not so much wrong with high-rise blocks of flats. Some of the most luxurious flats in London would be described as high-rise. It depends, therefore, on the attitudes of the people living in them and on their having a stake in making them better.
As I said at the outset, the Bill is a modest attempt to improve life for many millions of people living in public housing. In Liverpool alone, over 50 per cent. are now living in public housing of one kind or another. Not all that housing could be described as slum, and not all the people are apathetic, but as long as we continue with a policy which deprives people of a sense of involvement, of participation and, above all, control over their own destiny, communities will continue to fire not on four but on two cylinders.
§ 12.1 p.m.
§ Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)
I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Eyre), who made the opening speech on the Bill which he and his hon. Friends have introduced. I am not altogether certain that in its present form the Bill is precisely the one required, but I know that a Bill is required.
Many years ago my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. Edwards) brought forward a Bill calling for a tenants' charter. I supported that Bill, and I believe that I did right to do so. I think it regrettable that Back Benchers on both sides, under different Governments, have constantly to raise this matter in the hope that perhaps one or other of their Bills will see the light of day. I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench to recognise that it is high time a Government brought in a Bill themselves so that it could have the full authority and support of the Government throughout its passage.
There are tremendous problems on council estates in great cities such as Liverpool. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Steen) represents a number of council tenants, and I repre 1784 sent many more. I was for many years a councillor in Liverpool, and I live almost daily with these problems. I live in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. I know that there are vast differences in working-class areas in his constituency, not only council estates, and I regard the present state of affairs as very sad. It is equally true that in certain working-class areas in Liverpool people want to get out at the earliest possible opportunity because they are living in slum property, and any council dwelling is better than the appalling conditions in which they are living now.
Nevertheless, we must be concerned with more than just getting people out of slum property and into accommodation owned by the local authority. We must ensure that, once the local authority estates are established, the tenants themselves are properly involved in housing management. This is the key issue. It is more than a matter of just putting them in and then leaving things to a great bureaucracy.
One of the problems is that people living in council housing are not quite sure who it is they are talking to. I am constantly coming across this on my interview days at what are known as my surgeries. Only last week I had three council tenants come to me and say "I have put in for repairs and had a note saying that the work would be done in a month, but nothing has been done for 18 months." They go to the office. They see a clerk there, who may well be sympathetic, but there is a vast bureaucracy.
§ Mr. Steen
Will the hon. Gentleman therefore agree with one of the main objectives of the Bill—that is, to create smaller units, so that one could employ local tradesmen living on the estates and probably working in the local neighbourhood to get the work done, thus making the whole business smaller and, therefore, more caring? Would he go along with that?
§ Mr. Heffer
No, I do not agree. Obviously, the hon. Gentleman is again introducing the basic Tory philosophy that a works department cannot be local and cannot meet the needs of the local people. I do not accept that. Many of the local small firms to which he refers are regarded in Liverpool, as he well knows, as thorough "cowboys". That is 1785 not true of all of them, but I have known many of them to move in and leave things worse after they have gone than they were before they started. If the hon. Gentleman knows anything about private property and privately—rented property, he will know jolly well—he ought to have had some experience of this, as I have—that that sort of thing has happened throughout Liverpool. After tenants have had these small traders come in, they have had to go to law or take what other steps they could in an effort to clear the matter up.
I am not saying that that is true of all. It would be quite wrong to say that. Some are first-class tradesmen and first-class small business men doing a good job. But I must emphasise that the staff and the skilled craftsmen are there to do repairs. The job can be done and, when it is done, in most cases it is done very efficiently and well. The trouble comes from the long delays and the bureaucratic set-up. People feel that they are, so to speak, talking to ghosts. Nothing happens, or a very long time passes before anything happens. That is the problem, and it must be overcome. That is why I want to see tenants' associations with real responsibility so that people can take decisions themselves regarding repairs, tenancies and the question of transfers.
I entirely agree that there is constant difficulty when people have a genuine case for a transfer of tenancy. For example, the husband dies and his young widow is left with three or four children, or, vice versa, the wife dies and the husband is left with the children. Mum lives on one council estate, and they live on another estate 10 miles away. They want to live near mum because she is prepared to help during the day by looking after the kids while the parent goes out to work to earn a living. Nothing is done. The difficulties are enormous.
I have people coming to me in my surgeries and saying "We are not asking for much. All we want is a chance to move when a house comes empty so that we can be near mum"—or, in other cases, so that they can visit mum because she is now ill and old and they feel that they have a responsibility to help her. There must be more humanity in the housing management policies and practices of local government.
1786 If the tenants had more responsibility, they would see the problems and sometimes understand them better, and they could have a say in trying to overcome them. I entirely agree with the idea of tenants' associations with real responsibility.
Let us consider some of the problems. I have already mentioned the question of housing repairs. In addition, on many estates where there used to be good fencing the fences, hedges and so on have disappeared. One often sees places that resemble cultural deserts, and people ask "Who wants to live in these conditions?" There is vandalism on a large scale. We must overcome the problems and get the balance right.
Where possible, when we remove slum houses, as is happening in my constituency, we should have a policy of trying to ensure that the people are rehoused in the same area if they wish. This would maintain the community spirit, which is very important in dealing with the problems of housing and housing management.
The hon. Member for Wavertree, I think, spoke of uproar on the Labour Benches caused by the suggestion that council houses should be sold. I do not know whether my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Mr. Weitzman) and I have caused any uproar over this matter. My hon. and learned Friend felt that there was no real case for sliding that matter, which is regarded by Conservative Members as one of principle, into the Bill. I think he was absolutely right. The hon. Gentleman may be surprised to learn that I am not against the sale of council houses as a matter of principle, but I am against their being sold in areas where we have enormous waiting lists consisting of people who cannot afford to buy council houses or houses of any other kind.
The hon. Gentleman must know that in areas such as Liverpool, particularly with a level of unemployment that is far too high and a long housing waiting list, the demand from people who come to our surgeries is "I need a house. I am living with my mother-in-law, father-in-law, or grandmother. The kids are growing up. We have nowhere to live. I cannot raise a deposit for a house. Can 1787 you contact the local authority on my behalf? I am already on the list, but perhaps it can be speeded up". One does one's best and discovers that the people concerned have a certain number of points but are way down a long list. We must provide houses for those in real need, and that is why we oppose the selling of council houses by authorities with long waiting lists—not as a matter of principle, but in order to meet the needs of the people in those areas.
As a matter of fact, council tenants have bought their houses over and over again. That is a problem of housing finance. We have a crazy housing finance system. It is ludicrous that a big authority such as Liverpool must borrow money to pay the interest on the money it borrowed before, and before that again, in order to build more houses. The housing finance problem grows bigger and bigger and the rents grow bigger. If we do not deal with the matter, sooner or later the whole thing will collapse.
§ Mr. Heffer
I am reading the right hon. Gentleman's book. I am reviewing it, so he had better watch out. I have found it very interesting but also very annoying in one part where the right hon. Gentleman suggests that hon. Members from the Liverpool inner areas rarely raise these questions. I have never stopped raising questions about Liverpool. My hon. Friends have said "Oh, Liverpool again! You are a proper bore about Liverpool." Therefore, the right hon. Gentleman is being slightly unfair about hon. Members raising questions about their cities.
§ Mr. Heffer
Housing finance is a real problem. Rents constantly go up, and, no matter how much subsidisation there is by central Government, the problem remains. We must deal with it by financing our housing on a totally different basis. We must ensure that low interest is paid, as in West Germany. We must get round to such a system.
The hon. Member for Wavertree, who represents Liverpool, as I do, must know that the reason why we on the Labour 1788 Benches are opposed to selling council houses in areas such as Liverpool is recisely the long waiting lists and the need of those who are desperate for accommodation but cannot afford to buy.
§ Mr. Steen
But would the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the problems in Liverpool and in other large cities is that the private landlord has stopped letting his rooms? As a result, the waiting lists are growing longer and there is less mobility. If we started to sell off council houses in a big way at competitive rates, we should start the whole movement again so that mum could live near her daughter, whereas at present she cannot.
§ Mr. Heffer
The hon. Gentleman must also know that the practice of private landlords ceasing to let houses and, as they become empty, selling them off has been going on for a long time. Very rarely do private landlords let houses once they become empty. They do them up and sell them. This is happening increasingly and has meant that the stock of houses for letting has gone down. The only answer, unfortunately, has been the local authorities.
§ Mr. Robert Mellish (Bermondsey)
May I put to my hon. Friend another point about the sale of existing council property, which I also oppose? I do not oppose the right of councils to build houses for sale, which is quite different.
In the area that I come from—inner London—we have 400 or 500 housing problems solved by transfers. This is an extraordinary development. Because of the large stock of housing, there is a movement across the border. Let us consider what happens if we sell the house or flat—there are no houses in my area. A man and wife living in a three-bedroom flat on their own may want only a two-bedroom or one-bedroom flat. If their present flat is sold to them, it is off the market. Does that happen in Liverpool?
§ Mr. Heffer
It happens, and it is a problem. I was coming on to the question of how we deal with it. Many older people are living in three-bedroom and sometimes four-bedroom houses. We have not provided enough one-bedroom or two-bedroom flats for them to move into so that the housing stock that they are occupying can become available for 1789 people on the housing list. Those people may be from slum property or may require new accommodation because they are married with two or three kids and are living with mum and dad at home.
These are the real problems that we should be concerned about. The tenants' associations could have some say on such matters in their locality because they are as aware as anyone else of what goes on. These are the real issues, rather than ideological questions of whether we should or should not sell council property.
We must remember why council houses were built in the first place. They were built by the 1924 Labour Government, under the John Wheatley Act, and they were built to meet the needs of people. Essentially they had to be built because this was the only way that the terrible housing problem could begin to be solved.
Friedrich Engels wrote a book about the housing problem based on Manchester more than 100 years ago. We still have that housing problem in this country. We have done an awful lot to alleviate it, but we have not solved it by any means. No Government have solved it, and the Government who eventually solve it will remain in office for an awful long time. That is one of the key questions that we must face.
I have spoken much longer than I intended. I give qualified support to the Bill but I cannot agree to supporting Clause 2(c). This subsection is unnecessary, it has been introduced for ideological reasons, and I hope that it will not be accepted. In principle, however, I give qualified support for the measure because I have supported Bills of this kind from hon. Members on this side of the House in the past. I believe that there is a need for a Bill of a similar kind, if not this one in its exact detail.
§ 12.22 p.m.
§ Mr. Robin Hodgson (Walsall, North)
I hope that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) will forgive me if I do not follow that part of his speech which referred to the sale of council houses. However, I underline what he said about the sense of helplessness that pervades residents on big council house estates.
1790 A metaphor that has been put to me in relation to this problem is that it is rather like punching a pillow. One tries very hard to improve the situation, but, despite one's impact and the fact that one is well received by the local council housing department, the remedial effect on the environment is fairly small.
I am particularly pleased to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Eyre) on bringing forward this Bill today, because it contains proposals that will affect vitally many people throughout the country. Labour Members often say that Conservatives do not necessarily have any real experience of the problems of council house tenants. I have a very high proportion of council house tenants in my electorate—75 per cent. to 80 per cent.—and therefore I am vitally interested in the proposals in this Bill.
One thing about which all hon. Members who have spoken in this debate are agreed is that the present situation of council house tenants is plainly unsatisfactory, from two points of view—from the personal economic point of view of the tenant and from the point of view of the effect of the present structure of council housing on the environment in which council tenants have to live. The proposals in the Bill weigh heavily on these two problems.
Let us look at the personal economic situation of council house tenants. Many tenants want to buy. It is a persistent and recurring theme among all councils throughout the country that tenants want to buy the freehold of the house in which they live. Principally there are three main reasons for this. The first is a desire to own one's own home. It is said that an Englishman's home is his castle. That is a rather trite and over-used saying, but it expresses a feeling of privacy and personal security. A person has a desire to own a home that no one can take away—a home that is his freely in law.
Secondly, there is the preparation for old age and the desire to have a capital asset which will secure one's old age so that one can live out one's life in peace and quiet.
Thirdly, there is the desire to leave something for one's children—an asset to be passed on to succeeding generations.
Are such motivations not to be encouraged? If people want to get on and 1791 to better themselves by buying a house and paying for it over a time with a mortgage, should this not be encouraged? There is a strong desire for the acquisition of a personal capital asset instead of paying rent for many years with nothing to show for it at the end of the day.
The lack of entitlement to purchase has led to an ever-changing situation at local level. The right to purchase has become a political football—a football which contains not just the policy but the hopes and aspirations of many tenants. That is why I support the proposal that this right should be imposed from the centre instead of being left to the good sense of local councils. Over the years the right to purchase has greatly altered, depending on the local political situation.
I shall give a graphic example of this. In my constituency I have two council tenants, Mr. and Mrs. Millington. Their case brings to the fore every fault that exists and will continue to exist if there is no statutory entitlement to buy the freehold.
Mr. and Mrs. Millington became council tenants on 8th November 1971. On 20th March 1972 they applied for permission to purchase the freehold at an agreed valuation. On 29th March 1972 they completed and submitted the appropriate forms, but before this could be acted upon the control of the local council changed hands. On 17th July 1972 the Labour-controlled council passed regulations that restricted the sale of council houses to people who had lived in them for more than three years. Therefore the Millingtons could not buy their house in the summer of 1972. They had to wait out the three-year qualifying period until November 1974.
In early 1974, knowing that the time was approaching when they would be entitled to buy, they applied again. However, on 25th March 1974 the Labour-controlled council introduced further regulations restricting the sale of council houses to people who had lived in them for five years. Therefore, instead of being able to purchase in November 1974, the Millingtons had to wait until November 1976. It was not until May 1976, when control of the council changed back to the Conservatives and house purchase was freed again, that the Millingtons were able to proceed. Plainly that is an 1792 extremely unsatisfactory situation, irrespective of one's political point of view on the desirability of selling council houses.
This family had their hopes raised, dashed slightly, dashed again and finally raised, before they were able to purchase. In the five-year period before they could buy, the value of the house went up enormously, and they have been struggling with the problem of the increased cost. They have had considerable financial difficulty in raising the down payment on the house, which they should rightly have been able to purchase years before.
It is interesting to speculate why the Labour-controlled Walsall Metropolitan Borough Council did not entirely shut off the sale of council houses when it was in power. Several Labour councillors were purchasing their houses at the time through the council, and perhaps it was not thought wise to shut off sales completely.
This is a graphic illustration, and that is why I am so pleased to support the clause that gives council tenants the statutory right to purchase the freehold of the houses in which they live.
But obviously there are some people who do not want to buy their council houses. Some are too old, and others are fearful of the responsibility of ownership—the problems of maintaining the structure and all the other difficulties that go with ownership. Let us be honest and say that those who live in the poorer areas of council housing will not wish to purchase. So we must see what we can do to improve such people's environment.
The Bill strikes at this very point. Council housing estates are great slabs of territory, often featureless, shopless, with one road, let alone one house, indistinguishable from another, the whole merging into an amorphous mass. Regulations covering this mass of housing are in part bureauratic, in part niggling, and in part unnecessary. I have no reason to suppose that Walsall council housing regulations are in any way worse than those that exist anywhere else, but one can get some idea of the situation if I read one or two of the provisions of those conditions:The tenant shall be responsible for the maintenance and replacement of the gas poker (or any part thereof) and flexible tubing. The tenant shall deposit all refuse in the receptacle provided. The tenant shall not drive any nails 1793 into the walls or woodwork of the premises…The tenant shall not erect any fowl-pen, pigeon-loft, pig-sty, shed, hut, wireless aerial, mast, television mast, or other building structure or fence…That is the kind of petty intrusion that is imposed, and it does not give tenants any sense of responsibility. As Mr. Joe Rogaly said in the Financial Times, in an article on council house tenants, such tenants are treated like recalcitrant children.
Everybody has pride in his own individuality and personal pride in his own home. One has only to go down a street of council houses where some have been sold to sitting tenants to see the truth of that remark. One sees how the houses that have been sold to tenants have been personalised and have brightened the neighbourhood, because they have been made to look more attractive and desirable. Therefore, such a facility should be open to all council tenants. I am pleased to see that the schedule to the Bill seeks to alleviate such petty regulations.
There is also a need to create a feeling of community and neighbourhood as ways of improving an estate's environment, cutting down vandalism and creating also a sense of local participation. These matters have already been fully discussed.
I also wish to emphasise that national economic benefits will flow from ending restrictions on the supply of the housing stock. Obviously there is a release of money in the refinancing of council housing by building society and other means. There is the question of mobility of labour. There is the improved use of housing stock because of the increased amount of accommodation. It enables one to match family size more closely to the housing available. The hon. Member for Walton mentioned the difficulties of elderly people, many of whom live in two- or three-bedroomed council houses. Many of them cannot move out, because they cannot obtain proper transfers. If they owned those homes, they would be able to sell them and purchase others of the correct size, thereby releasing the larger homes for use by younger families, who could make better use of these facilities. Then there is the consideration relating to reductions in the cost of repairs, management and maintenance, 1794 now running at over £100 per annum per council house.
These are the benefits, but, significant though they are, they are not the main purpose of the Bill. Its main purpose is to give the tenants, most of whom are treated like recalcitrant children, the same dignities and security of tenure as are enjoyed by owner-occupiers. The Bill has many attractive features, and I commend it to the House.
§ 12.35 p.m.
§ Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, Central)
Since this Bill has been published only in the past 24 hours, we have not had time to consider all its implications and complexities.
§ Mr. Hamilton
I understand what the hon. Gentleman says. I am not apportioning blame, but I am seeking to emphasise some of the difficulties that we face in debating these matters, in view of the shortage of time that has been available to us to study the matter.
I notice that the Bill does not apply to Scotland. I wish to intervene on the Bill as a Scottish Member. I wish to emphasise that although I represent a Scottish division. I am an Englishman, I live in England, and therefore I know something about the problems that have been referred to by English Members. However, since this is a United Kingdom Parliament, I feel no inhibition in speaking as a Scottish Member on a Bill that refers specifically to England.
I have no complaint about the laudable aims that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Eyre) has in mind in his Bill, but I wonder whether, if a Conservative Government were now in power, the hon. Gentleman would be so enthusiastic in bringing it in. When the hon. Gentleman was a member of a Conservative Government I do not remember that he showed a great deal of enthusiasm for such a tenants' charter as he is now bringing forward.
I believe that council tenants have legitimate grievances in a variety of ways 1795 and want greater control over their housing environment. However, it is a little like saying that we are all in favour of industrial democracy. We are in favour of it in principle, but when we get down to the nuts and bolts of the matter we find that it is somewhat complex. It involves central Government in providing the great part of the finance, and it involves local government, tenants and all kinds of people and organisations.
I speak with some knowledge of the problem, because council tenancies are far more numerous in Scotland than they are in England. In general, local housing authorities are undoubtedly the best landlords in the country. They are elected and accountable for what they do, and a tenant with a grievance has a right to make representations to his Member of Parliament or local councillor. A case can be made directly to the manager of the housing department or the chairman of the appropriate committee.
Some abuses are inevitable, as they are in all relationships between tenant and landlord, but in general the system works reasonably well both for tenants and local authorities. The local authority has social responsibilities over and above the responsibilities to individual tenants. It has social responsibilities to those on housing waiting lists and to those who are not in council houses, and a variety of conflicting interests must be taken into account when the local authority is running its housing programme.
§ Mr. Steen
I am amazed that the hon. Gentleman says that the housing authority is a good landord, and better than any other. The most miserable people in my constituency are those living in new council estates. They say, without exception, that they were far happier living in inner city areas with private landlords, even though they may not have had an inside loo or a bathroom. At least they had the dignity to come and go and to do what they wanted. Now, when living on large council estates they have no control over their environment or their home, and they are pushed around. How can the hon. Gentleman say such things?
§ Mr. Hamilton
Not for the first time the hon. Gentleman is talking a whole load of codswallop. He has made an 1796 absurd generalisation, namely, that all tenants in council houses are completely miserable and that they were utterly happy when living under the Rachman principle. That is an absolute absurdity, and the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Steen) must know it. If he does not, I shall personally take up the challenge and meet those tenants and ask them why they would prefer to be housed by Rachman and private landlords than by a responsible elected local authority.
§ Mr. Hamilton
The hon. Member for Wavertree has disclosed what I suspect is the ultimate aim of the Bill and of the Tory Party campaign. Not many years ago, in a housing debate in the Scottish Grand Committee, Conservative Members said what they really thought about council tenants. Lady Tweedsmuir, who was then a Tory Member and who subsequently became a Minister, described them as "shiftless tenants". Another Scottish Tory Member referred to them as "second-class citizens". I suspect that many Tory Members still believe that council tenants are somehow second-class citizens. The basic purpose of the Bill is to get council tenants—
§ Mr. Hamilton
The hon. Gentleman is trying to cover up, but a great many Tory Members and Tory councillors believe that council tenants are second-class citizens, who must be treated harshly because they are somehow living off the taxpayers and the ratepayers. The facts and figures deny that. The people who receive tax concessions on the interest they pay on their mortgages are obtaining far greater concessions from the Revenue than are the bulk of council tenants.
In general, expediting the sale of council houses would be anti-social and would create far more hardship than anybody could contemplate. One has only to look at average earnings and to estimate the average cost of running and maintaining a house with a mortgage repayable over 25 to 30 years to realise that the average working family would find it extremely difficult to meet the commitments that they would be called upon 1797 to accept if we put them in the position of paying back a mortgage.
I can give an example that could be multiplied thousands of times over in London. As a result of the drought many house owners have been faced with bills for subsidence damage, amounting to many thousands of pounds. Very few insurance companies cover subsidence in their policies and the bulk of those that do will accept the risk only if the policyholder agrees to foot the bill for the first 3 per cent. of the total amount for which the house is insured. In the case that I have in mind a home owner had to fork out£900 towards the cost of repair of subsidence damage.
Many houses in London are now faced with this problem. However, it is even worse than that, because, as I heard on the radio this morning, householders who have had this enormous expense are now facing the reverse problem. Following the extremely wet winter and spring, houses that have had repairs for subsidence carried out are now so soaked that they are moving back again, like rising dough, and the damage is recurring. That is not covered by insurance policies. Imagine those problems being faced by a fellow who is taking home£30 to£40 a week. How on earth could such a person be called upon to pay such charges?
I suspect that the Tory Party wants to get off the nation's back what it regards as the extortionate cost of housing subsidies and to put that cost on to the backs of people who have been conned into buying their council houses. When the new Tory-controlled local authorities try to con their tenants into buying, I suspect that most tenants, particularly in London, will not buy. They will not do so because it is becoming increasingly impossible for ordinary working people to buy their own houses under present conditions.
I gather that all the problems that are related to council housing and housing generally are being examined by the Housing Services Advisory Group. I do not know when it will report, but I hope that it will be soon, so that the Labour Government can legislate and act upon its recommendations. If a Tory Government are able to legislate, they will do no good for council house tenants.
1798 Council house tenants are extremely suspicious of the policies that any Tory Government would pursue in this matter. They have good reason for being suspicious.
The National Consumer Council has made at least five criticisms about the way in which the relationship between council tenants and local authorities now operates. Of course we understand that there are problems, but they certainly cannot be dealt with through the medium of a Private Member's Bill. They must be tackled through Government legislation. The only merit of today's debate is that it has enabled us to air the problems. It is recognised on both sides that there are problems, but there are also fundamental differences of principle and ideology between the two sides of the House as to how the problems should he tackled.
On the Government Benches we believe that, in general, the housing problems of the United Kingdom—although the Bill refers specifically to England—cannot he solved without a great proportion of the effort made being public effort in the provision of council houses, new town housing and public corporation houses.
In Scotland, we have an organisation that would be the envy of England. It is the Scottish Special Housing Association, which is a public concern that builds public housing with public money. It is controlled by the Treasury and has built some extremely good houses and has some extremely good tenants. There is no comparison between that organisation and the private landlordism that has demonstrably failed in this country, north and south of the border.
There must be a mixture of private and public building and tenancy. We on the Government Benches emphasise the public sector while Tories, for their own good reasons, emphasise the private sector. Tenants' problems remain—that is undeniable—but they will be best resolved if the tenants are in the public sector rather than the private sector.
§ 12.50 p.m.
§ Sir George Young (Ealing, Acton)
I intervene briefly to support my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Eyre) on his enlightened and imaginative Bill.
1799 I reassure the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) that it is no part of our case that those who are currently housed in council accommodation should be moved back to the privately-rented accommodation from which they came. We say that in the wholesale movement from privately-rented accommodation to large council estates something has been lost—the human element about which many hon. Members have been talking. The Bill tries to inject that missing element into some of the large council estates.
I think that we all tend to look at the Bill in terms of the council estates in our own constituencies. They vary from the very good estates to which people wish to move, where there is a stable population living in houses, with gardens, built between the wars, to the very bad estates, which people wish to leave. I am particularly concerned about the more difficult estates and how we can improve the confidence and morale of people living on them.
I look at the Bill in terms of what it can do for the difficult estates in my constituency. Those who spent some time in the past week or two canvassing during the county council elections were reminded of the problems facing tenants on those difficult estates. In our surgeries, day after day, we see wives whose doctors have prescribed for them valium and librium to overcome the tension that they experience on those estates. We see doctors' letters. These people desperately want to get away from such estates. The harsh reality is that those estates will be with us for many years.
The worst estates are those comprising tower blocks, built mainly in the 1960s. It is no consolation to tenants to say that those blocks were a great mistake and that we shall not build any more. There are 500,000 people still living on those estates, and it is our responsibility to try to improve their conditions.
The Bill addresses itself to various problems. People feel that the town hall is remote. In many instances it is many miles away and difficult to get to. If people ring up, they are transferred from one department to another in a way that totally destroys public confidence in housing administration. There are tremendous delays in getting minor maintenance 1800 carried out. Again, when people ring the town hall they are told that the work ticket has been issued and that the work should be carried out in the near future, but nothing happens for week after week.
The main complaint is that estates are neglected. The lifts are not repaired, the grass is not cut, maintenance is way behind schedule, and the graffiti about Queen's Park Rangers is not removed from the communal parts of the tower blocks. There is a general feeling that people, particularly at the town hall, do not care.
I must take up one point made by the hon. Member for Fife, Central. I do not believe that people on council estates are second-class citizens. They have come to believe it because of the way in which they are treated by their town halls. We must overcome that problem. That is why people often approach their Members of Parliament to intervene on their behalf to make the town hall more sensitive to their problems.
The Bill deals with tenants' associations. It is a tenants' charter. There is a good history of tenants' associations on council estates, but the more successful tenants' associations are on the good estates, where there are fewer problems. In my constituency, tenants' associations on the more difficult estates have a rough time, mainly because the town hall expects them to deal with all the problems—dogs being kept illegally by tenants, cars parked in the wrong places, vandalism, broken swings and the parking of lorries.
The town hall has tried to devolve all these problems on to rather weak tenants' associations which are trying to get going. The associations have collapsed, because they have had responsibility forced upon them without any powers. The Bill tries to give the tenants' associations some powers, so that they will have the confidence to tackle some of the problems. That has been the missing link in the past. We have not managed to devolve responsibility for the estates on to the people who are trying to help by joining tenants' associations.
In terms of democracy and accountability, some of the proposals in the Bill are more important than the right to vote in local authority elections. Having a say 1801 in how the immediate environment is to be controlled is more important than voting in local elections.
If we could support tenants' associations by saying "We are happy to hand over part of the budget for running the estates", we would start to solve the problems. That does not mean more money being spent on estates. I think that we could spend the existing budget more efficiently if the enthusiasm and resources of the tenants were harnessed and if some of the administrative back-up at the town hall were devolved into efforts on the ground.
I gather from listening to speeches made by Labour Members that some of them are minded to oppose the Bill. If so, that will be bitterly resented by millions of council tenants throughout the country, who will rightly interpret such opposition as resistance to giving them a greater say in how they manage their affairs. The Labour Party has problems enough on council estates without being further handicapped by an intransigent and paternalistic approach, which is what would happen if Labour Members voted against the Bill.
§ 12.55 p.m.
§ Mr. Hugh Rossi (Hornsey)
I should like to add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Eyre) on seizing his good fortune in obtaining a place in the Ballot to present a Private Member's Bill and using it for this important subject. From the response that has been given to the Bill by hon. Members on both sides of the House, although certain reservations have been made about certain aspects it would appear that there is a general welcome for this matter being ventilated today.
This is the first positive step in this Parliament to advance the concept of a tenants' charter, although there has been discussion about this proposition for some time. The Labour Party manifesto contained a solemn undertaking to give council tenants security of tenure. Three years have passed since then, but we have not seen any legislation to that effect. My hon. Friend has put forward a positive proposition, which will give a great deal of help to council tenants, and we welcome that.
1802 Criticism of the Bill has come from Labour Members. We can understand that because of their attitude towards public ownership and the desire that the State should control and own everything. They dislike the concept of the sale of council houses. Without exception, one Member after another from the Government side has said that that was the aspect of the Bill that he disliked most.
We should look at the Bill as a whole. It would be wrong to talk in terms of a charter unless it liberates council tenants—I think it was Mr. Frank Field who spoke of the feudalism or serfdom to which they are subject in this day and age—from the paternalism of the tenure of property on the estates on which they live. Therefore, we must take steps to ensure that a fundamental change takes place.
The Bill rightly seeks to deal with both the enfranchisement of council tenants and the plight and conditions of those who do not wish to exercise that right and who decide to remain. Therefore, the terms and conditions for their well-being are proposed in the schedule.
The hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) sought to chide my hon. Friend the Member for Hall Green for not having introduced this matter when he was a Minister. The hon. Member for Fife, Central will know that time in Opposition is an opportunity to take stock, to rethink and to study problems of this kind. I assure him that, as soon as we are given the opportunity by the electorate, within a very short time he will see a Bill of this kind introduced for consideration by Parliament. I cannot say that the Bill will be in exactly this form, because a great deal of detail has to be spelt out, but in general outline this is the form of legislation that my hon. Friend can expect from a future Conservative Government.
Having said that, I should like to deal with some misconceptions about some of the proposals in the Bill which have been previously announced as Conservative Party policy. The first is the sale of council houses, the proposition which has attracted most of the attention of hon. Members this morning.
It is not the intention to impose upon council tenants an obligation to buy. It 1803 is a right to buy. The option will be purely that of the council tenant whether he wishes to buy the home in which he lives, be it a house or a flat. We draw the analogy from leasehold enfranchisement legislation. A leaseholder with a long lease has the right in law in certain circumstances appertaining to rateable values and the length of the lease to serve upon his freeholder a notice obliging him to sell his interest to his occupying tenant upon a formula laid down in the Act.
The principle has been established already in the private sector. Our approach is that a council tenant is very much a life tenant. Although he might pay his rent weekly or fortnightly, once he occupies a council house he is there for his life and his widow for hers. We are talking, in leasehold terms, of life interests. The proposal is simple: that in an occupancy of that kind there shall be a right to buy.
As for price formula, again drawing on the analogy in the private sector, a landlord may have a protected tenant whom he cannot get to leave except through a difficult legal process and who pays a fixed rent. If the landlord wishes to sell that house, he will find that there is a vast difference between the price that he will get in those circumstances and the price that he would get if he sold with vacant possession.
A local authority is in much the same position. Although there is no legal bar against a council evicting a tenant, in practical and political terms more than anything else it is a right which cannot really be exercised. Thus, once a tenant is in, he becomes virtually de facto a protected tenant for the rest of his life. The discount argument about the value of the property is therefore equally valid in the public sector as in the private.
Making further comparisons, we should like to give a council tenant who has been in occupation for three to five years a discount of 30 per cent. on the vacant market value of the property. That can happen at the moment. The Secretary of State has power to allow local authorities to sell council properties at a 30 per cent. discount. However, that is a power which the present Secretary of State does not exercise, for dogmatic reasons.
1804 I should like to go further. Serious consideration is being given to the suggestion that the longer the tenant has been in occupation, the greater the discount he should get. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heller) said that old council tenants have often paid for their houses many times over. On low historical cost houses, the rents of which have increased regularly over the years, it can be true that the tenants have paid for their houses. We are, therefore, considering extending the discount of 30 per cent. on a sliding scale up to a maximum, I should think, of 50 per cent. where the tenant has occupied the property for 20 years.
I know that this suggestion in itself gives rise to certain other misgivings. Although these terms appear to be extremely attractive to the tenant who is given the opportunity to buy his own home at much below the market price and to share in the capital wealth of the country, other people, who are not council tenants and who are struggling to buy their own homes while paying rates and taxes towards council house provision, feel that they are being unfairly treated. Therefore, contrary to what the hon. Member for Fife, Central said, the Tory Party would be treating a section of the community not as second-class citizens but as highly privileged citizens, and the remainder might feel some resentment.
That is something that we have taken into account. We have carried out close studies of the figures. I have with me figures prepared by the treasurer of a city council, taking a range from pre-war unimproved houses, through houses built in 1955 to houses built in 1972.
An example is a pre-war unimproved house whose historic cost to the authority was£500. Today the value of that property is£3,875. A discount of 30 per cent. would show in the books of the council a profit of£2,712, a cash gain enjoyed today in capital terms on the sale of the property. Even with a 50 per cent. discount, the capital gain would be about£1,900.
The pre-war house has an outstanding debt today of£274 on the original cost of£500. The debt charges conic to£331 per annum and management and repairs come to£85, so the total outgoing is£416 per annum. Against that, the rent is£201. Thus, there is a deficit for both 1805 the housing revenue account and in terms of the Exchequer, the taxpayer subsidy. If that property were sold, there would be an immediate surplus of£205 per annum to the housing revenue account for the benefit of the hard-pressed ratepayers and an Exchequer saving of£10 per annum.
In a composite form over the life of that property, deducting loss of rents not earned, if there is an immediate sale at a 30 per cent. discount, and taking into account a notional increase of the rents on a basis of 5 per cent. per annum, the gain on the sale of the property will be£1,824, divided as£188 to the Exchequer and£1,636 to the local authority. That is the gain to the community on the disposal of the property.
Similar calculations have been made for houses built in 1955, on which there is a gain to the Exchequer of£955 and a gain to the local authority of£2,300 on the sale of the property. If we take houses built in 1972, if they were sold at a 30 per cent. discount the gain would be even more significant. We have carried through these figures with discounts ranging from 30 per cent. to 50 per cent.
To members of the public—house-owners like myself—struggling to buy their own houses on mortgage and struggling to pay their rates and taxes, I say that, having studied the figures carefully, selling on the discount proposals that I have outlined, there is a considerable cash benefit to every individual taxpayer and ratepayer. By relieving local authorities of the terrible burden of capital debt that has hung around our necks, by relieving the local authorities of the costs of maintaining a vast administration for the management of the estates and by relieving local authorities of the burden of carrying out repairs to these properties, we should all gain. The community as a whole would benefit from the scheme, and certainly the individual tenant would benefit because he would be getting an opportunity which he would not otherwise have in his natural life, the opportunity of gaining access to a valuable capital asset which would be his to do with as he liked.
Instead of remaining economically and socially trapped on an estate, the tenant has a choice. The point may come in his life when he wishes to retire and move 1806 from an inner city area into the country, or to the seaside—something he could not possibly contemplate unless he won the pools or had some extremely good fortune in his career. He is trapped on the estate. His chances of moving are remote. If such a person can sell his house, he can make his own choice about when and where he wishes to move. For sociological as well as economic reasons, I cannot see what possible objection there can be to the concept of the sale of council houses—bar one. I refer to an ideological obsession with the concept of social ownership. That is all. That is the bar to the concept of the sale of council houses put up by Labour Members.
Labour Members cannot out-argue us either on the figures or on the social desirability of doing these things. All that they can say is that in their hearts they believe it is right for the State to own and, therefore, they will not allow a position to arise whereby that situation is eroded. Arguments are put forward that if council houses are sold the stock is run down, with the result that there will not he accommodation available for those on the housing list. We are talking not about the disappearance or destruction of these houses but about the change in nature of their tenure and holding. We are also talking about a situation in which greater mobility is to be created by giving the individual the freedom to move out. I have put to the House the proposition "Once a council tenant, always a council tenant"—for life, for the widow's life and in some areas for the lives of the children too. To allow such a tenant to purchase his house would not deny accommodation to those on the waiting list. That accommodation would not be available anyway.
If a tenant is willing to buy his house, it is because he likes living where he is. That in turn argues logically that if we do not change the nature of his tenure he will still carry on living there anyway. I do not follow the argument which suggests that running down council house stocks in this way means that fewer people can be housed. What is being done is to bring about a diminution of demand at the same time as supply is being reduced in a particular form of tenure. The people who will be willing to move into a council estate and buy a house there 1807 will be people who would otherwise be on the council list, waiting to go in as tenants. Instead, we let them in as owners. We are not depriving them of accommodation.
The important thing is to make sure that it is within the ability of the tenants to move in. If Labour Members study the Conservative Party's proposals in "The Right Approach", they will see that we have a number of schemes aimed at making home ownership easier and accessible to a wider section of our community than it is today. I refer to our schemes, for example, to pay grants towards the deposit for first-time buyers and for equity mortgages. I refer to the proposal for a ceiling on the maximum mortgage interest rate. All these devices are ways in which we shall make it easier, depending upon the economic situation as we find it when we enter office, for people to purchase their own homes.
Our proposals, our positive intentions, are to expand home ownership and to make it as widely available as possible. There is a great desire in the country for home ownership. The surveys we have taken, and those taken by NEDO, have shown that, certainly among the younger people, in the 20 to 30 age group 80 per cent. wish to buy their own home rather than be someone else's tenant.
I hope that the proposals we have put forward, and which we intend in time to enshrine in legislation, will be treated a little more seriously by Labour Members. They say that they have no objection in some cases to the sale of council houses but that it should be left to the local authority to decide. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Hodgson) has already shown that that is unsatisfactory. A change in the political control of an authority can result automatically in a scheme for the sale of council houses being stopped—not because it was not right to sell the houses but because of the dogmatism of the incoming political party concerning the concept of sale.
Again, there is the obsession with State ownership. We envisage a situation where the ability, or right, of a tenant to buy his house will not depend upon the accidental 1808 result of an election, upon the political colour of a council at any time. The individual tenant will not be able to determine the matter because the rest of the electorate has to be taken into account. It is wrong that there should be areas of the country where some council tenants will have this right and other areas where they will not, purely because of the accident of political control. We think that our proposal is right because of our experience in the past about how some authorities arbitrarily and without justification have refused their tenants permission to buy. We will make this an absolute right for tenants in future.
I have spent some time elaborating our thoughts about the sale of council houses because this subject has attracted the interest of the House to a greater extent than any other subject during the debate on this excellent Bill. That is not to say that I do not equally welcome the parts of the Bill that deal with the position of tenants who do not wish to buy their own home. They may feel that they have reached a stage in life where owning the freehold is of little interest to them or where the responsibility of doing so deters or frightens them. So be it. If they do not want to buy the freehold, there is no reason why they should. However, there is a need to help such tenants where they wish to remain as tenants.
A number of hon. Members have spoken about the paternalism of some local authorities, the way in which unnecessary, pettifogging restrictions are imposed upon tenants, and the way in which some local authorities are negligent in the use of their powers of management and do not attend to repairs properly or expeditiously. All of us representing constituencies which have local authority housing estates in them know the complaints that arise. I acknowledge that the quality of management varies greatly from one authority to another. The censures that we have heard today can be applied validly to some authorities but not to others.
All the indications are that a standard needs to be posited so that tenants have a better environment, a better milieu in which to live out their lives. We on this side greatly welcome all the proposals contained in the schedule to the Bill and we assure my hon. Friend of our support.
§ 1.23 p.m.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Eyre) did the House a service by presenting his Bill and enabling the debate to take place. He has had a long experience in housing matters. He once occupied the desk which I occupy at Marsham Street. He has had a continuing interest in council estates and tenants' rights. I therefore read the Bill with great interest and attention.
I agree with most of what the hon. Gentleman said in highlighting some of the problems that arise on council estates and some of the ways in which council tenants are treated. I do not think there is a great division of opinion about those matters. We are all becoming expert at diagnosing certain problems and listing all the difficulties. The real problem begins when we try to put them right.
In housing, and particularly in public sector housing, there are no easy answers. It is very difficult to delineate the division of responsibility between central and local government. That is why we are having a full-scale review not only of housing finance but of housing management.
For a number of years I was a member of a local housing authority. The predominant theme at every meeting, apart from assessing the needs of various applicants, was to get the greatest number of units of accommodation, as they are described in circulars from the Department. It was the numbers game, so to speak. In those days we thought that when we had a certain number of houses most of the problems would be solved.
Great progress has been made in providing the number of houses. But we now realise that only by bringing housing management, the rights of tenants, involvement and participation and a sense of personal responsibility to each individual householder shall we begin to provide for everybody the most important social quality. Stable family relationships are the basis of a good society. To have stable family relationships, we need adequate housing for every family.
The hon. Member for Hall Green said that some areas suffer because the political colour of the council changes. That is what democracy is about. I was amazed to hear the hon. Gentleman say that a change of policy was the result of 1810 an accident in an election. Presumably housing features predominantly in any local government election. If the electors decide that a particular political party must have control, it is no good talking about ideological dogma. If the party has campaigned on a certain policy, that party has the right to carry out its policy.
The hon. Gentleman put forward the strange doctrine that Whitehall should prevent changes in policy and tell local authorities what is good for them in certain aspects of policy. That is a dangerous road to follow, but I acknowledge that it is not an easy road for the hon. Gentleman.
§ Mr. Armstrong
I should like nothing better than to detain the House by talking about comprehensive education. The hon. Gentleman knows from his experience that we are faced constantly with the serious dilemma of how far a blanket circular or a decision taken in Marsham Street is applicable in Birmingham as well as to Northumberland, in Easington as well as to East Anglia.
There was a tendency even this morning in this debate to label council housing in a general sort of way. I was glad that the hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi) contradicted that when he said that there were authorities which were managing their estates in a sensitive way and that there is not a general feeling that council tenants are serfs.
On the other hand, we know that there are authorities with too many petty rules and regulations. However, our experience does not lead us to believe that the House can put that right by legislation. No aspect of social policy has suffered more than housing from piecemeal legislation. I was glad that the hon. Gentleman did not chide me about the review today, although I rather expected him to do so. It is because of the way that housing has suffered that we are having a full-scale review. That is why I do not apologise for it taking rather longer than we expected to produce the result of the review. We want to get it right this time.
Both sides recognise that the best policy lies in the intelligent use of our existing stock of houses. That involves enabling 1811 transfers to take place, enabling people in houses that have become too big for them to move, assisting the mobility of labour and using our existing stock to the best advantage. Those are the aims of both sides of the House.
One cannot impose democracy from above. We want people to be involved. We want them to feel that they are in charge in their own homes. We want them to live in dignity and with self-respect. To write an Act of Parliament to ensure those aims is another matter. Some elements of the Bill are to be commended. I do not wish to be patronising, because hon. Members have accused local authorities of taking a patronising attitude. The hon. Member for Hall Green has raised issues which occupy the minds of Ministers every day.
The idea of a tenants' charter is not new. For many years people have been conscious that this growing proportion of our population does not enjoy the same freedom and the same rights in the housing sense as members of other housing groups. But we have reached no agreement on how to tackle these differences. The term "tenants' charter" means many things to many people. It is no secret that the Government are formulating proposals of their own for a tenants' charter, that these will form a significant part of the housing policy review and that the aim is to create a new relationship between local authorities and their tenants which is in keeping with the needs of a modern society.
Some of the central features of the hon. Member's Bill closely correspond with the Government's aims. Our reservations are centred on the way that the issues should be tackled and on the timing rather than on the questions of principle. However, there are, of course, details and complications which could be awkward and even controversial. Nevertheless, on one issue—that of a tenant's right to purchase the property he occupies—the reservations are of a somewhat different order.
This proposal is part of Conservative policy which has been pushed again and again by right hon. and hon. Gentlemen. The Government's view is that this is a rigid approach cutting right across an authority's ability to fulfil its real housing 1812 responsibilities, which must be the cornerstone of any responsible housing policy.
The sale of council houses cannot be considered in isolation. It should be just one clement in the overall housing strategy of a local authority. Housing conditions vary from district to district. That is why we believe that local authorities are in the best position to judge the right sales policy for their districts, giving full recognition to local conditions and needs. A tenant's right to buy must be likely to compromise the efforts of local housing authorities, especially in the stress areas.
We are in favour of owner-occupation. Our record bears this out. We have said thatOur policies will increasingly be aimed at involving people in their own homes. The housing policy review will put forward some ideas to encourage the further increase in home ownership, particularly for less well off families who are just on the edge of house purchase.At the same time, we are equally determined that the continued expansion of home ownership will not be detrimental to the interests of those who cannot afford or do not wish to buy. This is why we emphasise that local authorities which contemplate sales should ensure that they will not prejudice the adequate supply of rented accommodation where there is a continuing need and demand for it.
The hon. Gentleman, as I understand it, is proposing that any council tenant, at any time, will be able to require his local authority to sell, regardless of the nature of the house concerned, regardless of the local housing situation and regardless of any co-ordinated policy that the authority might be trying to achieve.
I draw the attention of the hon. Member for Hornsey to a speech made by one of his hon. Friends in a censure debate. On that occasion the hon. Member for Chelsea (Mr. Scott) said:I have a question mark about whether to give every council tenant the statutory right to buy the house or flat in which he happens to live at a certain time. In particular, I have a question mark about this idea because of the special conditions in central London…In Central London there will continue to be a need for a substantial chunk of publicly-owned rented property, and if the houses that now exist are sold other properties will have to be provided at vast expense.Although we ought to try to give local authorities an incentive to sell a percentage of 1813 their housing stock, they ought to have flexibility to decide what level of stock they wish to maintain, which flats or houses they wish to sell, and whether they wish to maintain certain blocks or estates in public ownership. The statutory right to each tenant would be likely to end up in a slightly messy situation."—[Official Report, 21st April, 1977; Vol. 930, c. 447–8.]That is a reasonable view from an hon. Member who has taken a continued interest in the solution to our housing problems.
§ Mr. Rossi
It is the view of my right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker) that we should give away every council house to every tenant. The fact that views are expressed in a democratic dialogue between members of political parties does not mean that every view expressed by each individual is necessarily the view of a party as a whole. There are extremes of views on this issue in my party, as there are in the Labour Party. What matters is that which finally evolves as the official policy of a party.
§ Mr. Armstrong
The hon. Member could not have expressed himself better. It has been suggested, however, that certain views are dogmatic and ideological. I receive many representations from Labour groups up and down the country who are in a minority situation. They say that their local council is following an antisocial housing policy. They ask why the Government do not step in and ban certain activities or prevent certain actions being taken. We have to reply to those representations in the way in which I am replying to the debate.
Once local people have made a decision about who should govern them in the town hall, the folk in the town hall must defend their policy. They should not expect the central Government to say arrogantly that they know better. If the hon. Member reads his speech, he will see that that is the attitude that he struck.
Viewpoints often seem more convincing when they come from a slightly unexpected source. That is why I quoted the remarks of the hon. Member for Chelsea. They were in marked contrast to the Conservatives and emphasis on their proposed "sale of the century" during the GLC elections. The hon. Member for Chelsea bravely, albeit somewhat mutedly, identified the side effects of a tenant's 1814 right to buy. This would seriously reduce a local authority's capacity to respond sensitively to local housing need.
That is why I commend to the House—and it is our policy—the need for flexibility when authorities approach their housing policies and problems. We have encouraged authorities to consider building houses for sale or lease to those who desire home ownership but who can only afford to buy at the lower end of the price spectrum. We have encouraged schemes for housing co-operatives, co-ownership and equity sharing as further options available to an authority to help widen the scope of the housing strategy.
However, we cannot expect authorities to take up these initiatives, or to fulfil their other and overriding responsibilities to meet housing need, if we place unnecessary impediments in their way. Almost every speaker in the debate has talked about the need for sensitivity. That is why we are considering legislation. We have to tread carefully in trying to get it right. That is why we are having the widespread review that is now taking place.
§ Mr. Eyre
I should be grateful if the Minister would assure the House that the Government will have completed and announced details of their housing policy review and the proposals that the hon. Gentleman has referred to in respect of a tenants' charter before the House rises for the Summer Recess.
§ Mr. Armstrong
That is a very fair point, but the hon. Gentleman will know that I cannot give guarantees. I shall be most disappointed if we have not announced and published our review before the Summer Recess. I cannot give guarantees, although the lion. Gentleman has every right to press us. The matter has been going on rather longer than we expected.
We believe that in many places a tenant's right to purchase, come what may, would be an impediment to a local authority in its broad housing strategy. I hope the hon. Gentleman will understand that the Government cannot accept a proposal for legislation that runs right against this approach. In any event this is not the time. As the House knows, we have been reviewing our policy on sales in parallel with the housing policy 1815 review. It would be premature to entertain any isolated policy proposals at this stage.
I turn to security of tenure. This is a matter on which the Government have every sympathy with the natural wishes of tenants and everyone else to live in quiet and uninterrupted possession of a home. A manifesto commitment of 1974 makes our position quite clear. It stated that the Government had no intention of going back on their promise although they had not been able to bring it forward in their programme so far.
However, it must always be remembered that local authorities are, on the whole, responsible landlords. They do not evict unnecessarily, and it is often argued that their tenants do not need the protection of the law in such circumstances. We welcome generally the idea of security for all tenants, but we believe that it would be unwise to overlook the implications that this would have for housing management. That is why it is not, in the Government's view, desirable to proceed to legislation immediately. There must be full and detailed consultations with the local authority associations and other interested parties, including tenants' organisations. This will be complicated, and it will not be easy to find the right balance between the interests of the two sides.
In contrast to the private landlord, local authorities have social responsibilities that go wider than the needs or wishes of the individual tenant. They have a duty to manage their housing in the best interests of the majority of tenants and they have a duty to use their housing in a way that will bring the greatest benefit to the community at large. There must, therefore, be circumstances in which a local authority, however reluctantly, will need to move a tenant into a different property for the general good—for example, where redevelopment or renovation is proposed.
Another example arises where a local authority has taken into use for a specified period a private property for which the owner temporarily has no use. It is a practice that the Government wish to encourage to secure the better use of the housing stock. Here again, the 1816 local authority must be in a position to obtain possession when the time comes to hand back the property. If it is not in that position, owners will no longer be willing to release vacant property in this way and a useful, although temporary, contribution to the housing stock will be lost.
These are the sorts of quetions that we must examine carefully in the process of consultation and in framing the legislation.
In a similar way, the question of succession will need to come under scrutiny. It may well be that in the public sector the arrangements could largely follow the private sector, but, on the other hand, there may be certain serious snags for local authority management policies. All this will be carefully worked through, and for that reason legislation now, in advance of consultation, would be highly premature.
Security is only one element in improving the status of tenants and would achieve little by itself. The Government's proposals for a tenants' charter will include other items. One of them deals with improved tenancy agreements covering a range of topics relevant to the landlord-tenant relationship and another deals with the scope for tenants to make improvements to their homes. These more obvious signs of a better deal for tenants flow to some extent from the Government's concern to see an overall improvement in housing management standards. Everyone can make a list of his own particular worries, ranging from children in tower blocks and vandalism to allocation policies and the question of rooting out need and making the right provision for it.
About a year ago the Housing Services Advisory Group was set up. It represents a wide range of expertise in housing and has been instrumental in drawing together guidance on a series of issues in this area. Various reports are due to be published shortly. In parallel, the Department now employs a professional housing services adviser, who provides advice and guidance both to us and to local authorities on the many housing services issues that crop up in day-to-day work and as part of long-term policy development.
1817 We are anxious that good practice—there are outstanding examples throughout the country of good practice in housing management—shall be operated by every housing authority in the country. The Bill refers to improved administration and organisation. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that this is not a matter on which the Government have been idle. But at the end of the day the improvements will not be achieved by statutory means alone. They will he achieved by an enlightened approach on the part of authorities, by a willingness to involve tenants much more in the management of their own homes. Here there is scope for a variety of schemes, ranging from simple tenant consultation to full-scale co-operatives and allowing tenants the maximum freedom to do what they wish within their homes.
It should not be assumed that all these problems can be resolved through legislation. Much can be achieved through a better understanding of the needs and wishes of tenants, by closer co-operation
§ Question accordingly negatived.1818
§ between them and their local authorities and by their increased involvement and participation in the management of their homes. The introduction of new tenancy agreements that recognise fully the rights and obligations of both the landlord and the tenant has no need of legislative support. As I have said, we shall shortly benefit from the advice of the Housing Services Advisory Group on this subject.
§ It is important—I give the hon. Gentleman this assurance—that we should study the proposals set out in the Bill with great care. After full consultation we shall consider the need for legislation in the context of an overall strategy that will be outlined in the Green Paper shortly to be published. That is why I urge the rejection of the Bill's proposals in favour of the considered approach that the Government are advocating.
§ Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time:—
§ The House divided: Ayes 24, Noes 32.1817
|Division No. 138]||AYES||[1.48 p.m.|
|Alison, Michael||Griffiths, Eldon||Stainton, Keith|
|Atkins, Rt Hon H. (Spelthorne)||Knight, Mrs Jill||Stanbrook, Ivor|
|Bell, Ronald||Langford-Holt, Sir John||Thorpe, Rt Hon Jeremy (N Devon)|
|Biggs-Davison, John||Lawrence, Ivan||Young, Sir G. (Ealing, Acton)|
|Brown, Sir Edward (Bath)||Le Merchant, Spencer|
|Crouch, David||Mayhew, Patrick||TELLERS FOR THE AYES:|
|Eyre, Reginald||Montgomery, Fergus||Mr. Robin Hodgson and|
|Gardiner, George (Reigate)||Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon||Mr. Anthony Steen.|
|Goodhart, Philip||Rossi, Hugh (Hornsey)|
|Grieve, Percy||Scott, Nicholas|
|Anderson, Donald||Howell, Rt Hon D. (B'ham, Sm H)||Sandelson, Neville|
|Armstrong, Ernest||Jackson, Miss Margaret (Lincoln)||Sedgemore, Brian|
|Atkinson, Norman||Jay, Rt Hon Douglas||Snape, Peter|
|Bates, Alf||John, Brynmor||Spearing, Nigel|
|Clemitson, Ivor||Johnson, James (Hull West)||Varley, Rt Hon Erle G.|
|Cocks, Rt Hon Michael (Bristol S)||Kaufman, Gerald||Walker, Harold (Doncaster)|
|Cunningham, Dr J. (Whiten)||Kelley, Richard||Ward, Michael|
|Duffy, A. E. P.||Luard, Evan||Weitzman, David|
|Eadie, Alex||McCartney, Hugh|
|English, Michael||Madden, Max||TELLERS FOR THE NOES:|
|Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife)||Moyle, Roland||Mr, Ted Graham and|
|Harrison, Walter (Wakefield)||Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn (Leeds S)||Mr. Thomas Cox.|