HC Deb 11 June 1980 vol 986 cc684-90
Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)

I beg to move amendment No. 94, in page 13, line 6, at end insert— '(i) (a) it is in good repair and suitable for occupation ; or'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 95, in page 13, line 9, at end insert 'although it is in good repair and suitable for occupation'.

Mr. Maxton

I am aware that in the Tea Rooms and Dining Rooms the natives are getting restless. Therefore. I shall keep my remarks reasonably short. I shall speak long enough to enable the annunciator operators to change the in- that appears on the screens. According to the annunciator, my right hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Millan) has been speaking for the past 10 minutes. I shall speak long enough for my name to appear around the House.

The purpose of the amendment——

Dr. Brian Mawhinney (Peterborough)

The annunciator has noted what the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) has said. The hon. Gentleman is all right now and he may resume his seat.

Mr. Maxton

The amendment relates to the discretionary sale of council houses rather than the mandatory sale that we have been discussing so far. The clause allows district councils to sell property that is unoccupied if certain conditions are met. I am proposing that one further condition should be set—namely, that before a district council may sell an unoccupied property it shall be in good repair and suitable for occupation. That strikes me as being a reasonable requirement. It does not go to the heart of the Bill or act against the principle of the sale of council houses.

A district council as a public body has an obligation to ensure that when it sells a property, especially if it is selling it to someone who is to take up occupation in it, it should be in a state that is suitable for that person to move into. That does not mean that it should be in good decorative order, but it means that there should be no basic faults in the building and that it is suitable for a person to move into, and, perhaps, to alter according to his taste.

9 pm

In Committee, the Minister made some remarkable statements. He suggested that young couples would grab at the opportunity of buying a property that had been standing empty. Such properties have to remain empty for at least three months and have to be on restricted offer for that period. I have reservations that young people will be desperate to grab at such properties, even at low prices. The rents on those properties are not high, and if young couples are not prepared to rent, I do not understand why they would grab at the opportunity to buy. However, it is remarkable that the Minister should ex- pect a public body to sell a property that is not suitable for the purpose for which that building was originally designed. That is what the Minister suggested. I wonder whether he would suggest that car dealers should be able to sell cars that are not in a suitable condition to be put on the road. That is an analogy that could be made.

We should not merely be concerned about the condition of the single dwelling-house. A large proportion of the buildings in Glasgow are tenemental or multistorey blocks, and perhaps the overall structure of the building is not suitable. A young couple who buy a flat or house at a knock-down price may be taking on a house for which they will be faced with enormous repair bills because the local authority has not ensured that the property is in good repair at the time that it was sold.

Mr. O'Neill

I am conscious that this would appear to be the application of enterprise zones to the housing market. Properties that cannot be got rid of by any other means will be hawked around among unsuspecting house purchasers. I imagine that those houses will be in areas that are not particularly attractive, and that this will simply be a means of getting rid of the property.

The idea behind the sale of council houses was to enable those local authorities which did not take their responsibilities seriously to abdicate that responsibility by selling the property to unsuspecting tenants. In this instance, it is more extreme. It is simply a matter of getting rid of houses in areas of decay and dereliction for a variety of reasons—and certainly as a result of the inability of the local authorities to face up to their responsibilities as landlords. Local authorities would be more socially responsible if they looked at the possibility of improving the environment of the area. It is clear that the type of houses that they cannot sell are invariably in the areas where people do not want to live. I believe that some radical measures should be taken.

Labour Members would assume that radical measures would involve continuance in ownership, investment in the area, and improvement in the general condition of the neighbourhood. This measure gives local authorities an opportunity to abdicate their responsibilities and to turn their backs on the other parts of the neighbourhood. In the larger conurbations, such as Pilton and Drumchapel, there are some pockets of very good housing where people take a great deal of care and pride in the locality.

However, around them one finds that there is nothing but dereliction and decay, especially, I imagine, in areas such as Edinburgh, where the Tory-controlled local authority is always looking for opportunities to get off the hook. It has been doing that in recent months with Martello Court, in relation to which it has anticipated the legislation and has sold a multi-storey block which stands as a monument to bad housing management. The authority put the wrong kind of tenants into the wrong kind of property, and it allowed the whole thing to crumble. In that instance a responsible and sensible authority could have made a lot more of what was at one stage a very attractive multi-storey block.

In these instances, I would imagine that all that we shall see from the legislation is yet another opportunity to let Tory authorities off the hook and to allow them not to meet their responsibilities as good landlords, good city fathers and good local authorities, able to improve the environment and the social fabric of the areas for which they are responsible.

Mr. McQuarrie


Mr. Hugh D. Brown

In theory, we should be supporting the principle in the amendment, because it gives a discretion to the local authority and lays down certain conditions. Therefore, I am somewhat ambivalent in my approach. My hon. Friends would not disagree with me that the amendments are not really the important things. They are a way of trying to draw attention to something that we are doing in this legislation. All that I ask the Minister is whether there is still a requirement on an authority that wants to demolish houses to seek the Secretary of State's consent.

I appreciate the concern that there will be a temptation wherever possible to get shot of a problem. I do not think that any of us has the answer to this matter. Therefore, I am not blaming the Government. However, in some of the problem areas—the Minister was in one of them in my constituency on Friday, so at least he will recognise that I know what I am talking about—the temptation is to pull down houses because they are too big a problem for the authority. In some cases authorities are selling them off as a package deal. I do not object to that as an experiment. What I am apprehensive about is that in giving this discretion to the authority—which I normally would welcome—the authority may be tempted to take the easy way out because it is not facing up to what has created the problem initially.

I do not think that there is anything between the Minister and myself on this matter. Therefore, what I am asking is whether there is any safeguard, by way of monitoring, to see how this provision operates in case there is cause to remind authorities of their wider obligations.

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Brown) is correct when he says that local authorities require the Secretary of State's permission to abolish council houses. There is nothing in the Bill that will remove tht obligation.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) used the example of the motor car salesman selling a defective car. There is nothing necessarily wrong with a motor car salesman selling a defective car as long as he does not conceal the fact that it is defective and that the price reflects the quality of the article that he is selling. That is very much on all fours with the situation with which we are dealing.

Before Opposition Members get too upset about this aspect of the matter, I think that they should reflect on what was said by the hon. Member for Provan and what Labour-controlled authorities are saying. I visited Glasgow district council last Friday. One of the points that the council put to me was that it was anxious to encourage homesteading among young people and to offer for sale to young people properties in a very poor condition, which it could not find tenants to occupy but which a young person with access to an improvement grant might be only too happy to take over.

There is no obligation on anyone to purchase such a property. There would be no question of people not knowing the condition of the property. The price that they will pay for it will reflect that condition. Therefore, this seems a very sensible and reasonable attitude on the part of local authorities.

From experience in some parts of the United Kingdom, particularly London, we know that homesteading is a very attractive option, particularly for young married couples who cannot afford to purchase a house and who may have little priority for the allocation of a council house. It is, therefore, a discretionary matter. Local authorities cannot offer any house for sale. The house must be difficult to let according to the criteria in the clause.

Young people, or any group of people, may wish to buy property that is in poor condition and improve it, knowing that they will benefit from the work that they do. That occurs in the private sector and in many of our city centres. If local authorities have houses that are in poor condition and do not have the resources or wish to modernise them, it is right that they should be offered for sale.

In Glasgow there is an overall surplus of certain types of accommodation. It is right that local authorities should have the means to do whatever possible to find people to occupy houses that would otherwise lie derelict and vandalised. Those houses are of no benefit to the community.

Mr. Maxton

I had expected that answer. It was similar to the answer that the Minister gave to a debate in Committee. It is equally disappointing. Public bodies have a greater responsibility—perhaps they should not have—than private bodies in similar circumstances. Most of the houses will be in a state of disrepair, because they are in areas of general decline. I doubt whether local authorities will be able to sell those houses. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Brown) pointed out that it might be possible to sell those houses on a large scale for demolition and redevelopment. However, if an individual were to buy such a property he would not only buy a property in a bad state of repair but—in a sense—buy an area of general decline.

Mr. Hugh D. Brown

I do not wish to be at odds with my hon. Friend. The amendment refers to property in good repair and suitable for occupation. In my constituency hundreds of houses are being pulled down, although they are in good repair and are fit for occupation. That is part of the problem.

Mr. Maxton

I accept that that is part of the problem. The exact wording of the amendment may not be suitable for dealing with the problem as a whole. Perhaps we shall have to ask our friends elsewhere to look at the wording. However, if local authorities are allowed to sell unoccupied houses, in a bad state of repair, to individuals, some people will be sold a pup. They will not see a return on their money. As I have some reservations about its wording, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. George Robertson

I beg to move amendment No. 96, in page 13, line 15 after ' 25 ', insert ' (4)'.

I was tempted to come to the Dispatch Box and to say that I was moving the amendment because the Minister had told me to do so in Committee. I was further tempted to quote the Minister's words in Committee. He said : If the hon. Gentleman feels very strongly about his point, he may like to table an amendment for a further stage."—[Official Report, First Scottish Standing Committee, 4 March 1980 ; c. 917.] I was tempted to add that if the Minister would not accept my amendment he should make clear why he sought to renege on that commitment. I have resisted that temptation.

There was a slight textual error in the amendment submitted to the Table Office. I exonerate the Table Office from any blame, apart from the fact that the amendment was selected. The amendment should relate to clause 25(6). In its present form it makes little or no sense. It must have baffled a number of those who supply notes to the Minister. As there is no immediate technical means of rectifying it, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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