HC Deb 23 February 1981 vol 999 cc720-6 8.16 pm
Mr. John McWilliam (Blaydon)

I wish to raise the problem of the acquisition of police houses by Gateshead metropolitan borough council. A total of 31 police houses were declared surplus to the police authority's requirements. Because of the problems of housing being left empty and of vandalism, the council and the Northumbrian police authority agreed that Gateshead should acquire them. To combat vandalism, it was also agreed that tenants would be put into the houses as quickly as possible and that the transfer value would be the value ascribed to the houses by the district valuer.

Nineteen of those houses were satisfactorily transferred to the council and are fully occupied. A further 12 were applied for, of which three are still vacant, five have temporary occupation and four are occupied. There is no permission to transfer any of those 12 to the council. The problem is with the four which are currently occupied in order to combat vandalism. The district valuer took so long to come up with a valuation for those houses that the Government moratorium on housing intervened. Those four houses are now occupied by people who would have to be evicted if the Government did not agree to the transfer of the houses at valuation.

Two of those four houses are occupied by people with medical priority for council housing and one was even slightly modified by the borough council to enable its disabled occupant to use it as effectively as possible. It seems that the civil servants in the Department have not fully appreciated the effects of a simple transfer being stopped. A little flexibility would have allowed those four houses to be accepted. In present circumstances, those four families could become homeless almost overnight—and two of them are the families of disabled people.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cowans) was the chairman of the Gateshead district housing authority at the time of the decision to acquire the 31 houses and I am sure that he will supplement the historical reasons why we felt it important to bring them into local government ownership.

The object of the exercise was, first, to relieve the police authority of the responsiblity for empty houses, for which it had no further use, and, secondly, to guard against vandalism.

I respectfully ask the Minister to consider fully the implications of the decision not to allow the transfer of those four houses to Gateshead at valuation. I ask him to think carefully about the consequences of that decision on the four families involved. I ask my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central to enlighten the House about the historical reasons for the houses being acquired by the local authority.

8.20 pm
Mr. Harry Cowans (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam) for raising this matter. I have the honour to represent Newcastle upon Tyne, Central, but for many years I was chairman of the Gateshead metropolitan district council housing committee. We have listened to many debates about vacant properties and have heard many remarks about local authorities in that respect. I could argue that case, but it is not the matter now before the House.

The historic position is that certain houses were unoccupied, overgrown with weeds, and radically vandalised at a time when there were long housing waiting lists. As chairman of the housing committee, I visited many of the houses. There was great justification for what was being said about them. The local authority took the view that it should open negotiations with the Tyne and Wear county council, the police authority for Northumbria. It agreed to take over all 31 houses. That presented some difficulties, because a small number were still occupied. However, it was informed that they would soon become unoccupied. The local authority thought it best to deal with the problem by phasing the taking over of the houses by first taking over those that had been vandalised, were unoccupied, or were unkempt. By that time the remainder would have become vacant. It carried out that programme succesfully in respect of about 18 or 19 houses. But Gateshead being what it is, and with the time that it takes the district valuer to assess a situation, it was inevitable—although this was not known at that time—that it would be caught in the moratorium on housing.

To save money, the local authority reached an agreement with the Tyne and Wear county council to move in tenants prior to the actual taking over of the houses. That policy prevented further vandalism because people were looking after the premises. By the time the houses were taken over the programme would cost the district council less money because people had occupied the houses and looked after them. That arrangement worked well until the local authority was caught in the moratorium.

The local authority could grant only temporary tenancies to those moving into the properties in advance of it actually taking over the houses. That was acceptable, provided that the houses were eventually taken over. Due to the delay of the district valuer—I am not placing blame on him as such matters take time—the subsequent moratorium and the delay of the Department of the Environment, the local authority had granted temporary tenancies for houses that it did not own. If nothing is done about that, and the previous decision is not now honoured, two problems will arise. The local authority is in a dilemma because it has tenants for houses that it does not own. If the police authority now says that the local authority cannot buy those houses, what will happen to the tenants? The local authority gave an undertaking and fully expected the full transaction to take place. It will have to rehouse those tenants. With the greatest humility, I suggest to the Minister that those houses will become vacant again, will be vandalised and will become unkempt. While the decision-making process is taking place, the amount of money subsequently involved in making the houses habitable again will be out of the question.

I plead with the Minister to consider the matter sympathetically. The decisions taken were caught up by subsequent decisions. Unfortunate people are involved, even though they were not parties to those decisions. The matter does not involve millions of pounds, but it does involve ordinary people. If the Minister looks favourably on the matter, he will not only help the local authority but will ease the minds of the tenants temporarily accommodated. He will also save a great deal of money by usefully utilising the houses rather than returning them to their unoccupied state.

8.26 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam) on his good fortune in obtaining an additional Adjournment debate. That happens from time to time. It has one snag. As someone who has raised such a debate, I am fully aware of it. If the Minister does not know about the subject until six o'clock at night, he does not have much information at his disposal. He does not have a detailed brief to study, and he must take a judgment and act on his initiative. That does not upset me in the least. All I hope is that I can give the hon. Gentleman enough information to make him feel that it has been a worthwhile exercise. I am grateful also to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cowans) for filling in those historical points.

From the limited amount of information that I have been able to obtain, I believe that the case is not as straightforward as the two hon. Gentlemen suggested. I accept the remarks of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central in his historical analysis of the events that took place, and the reason why Gateshead followed a certain practice with the Tyne and Wear county council, the police authority for Northumbria. There is, perhaps, only one matter that divides us tonight on his historical analysis, and that is the fact that time has moved on. A new Government are now in power with a new policy on municipalisation. The days when it was simple to acquire scores of properties—I am not necessarily referring to the hon. Gentleman's authority, but to authorities in many parts of the country—frequently unsurveyed and without proper financial consideration, are over. They ended in June 1979. The facts in this case were known fully to the Gateshead council because the ban on municipalisation took effect from June 1979.

Gateshead, like all local authorities, was told of this fact, and it was reaffirmed in the HIP allocation letter issued on 21 February 1980—more than a year ago. I repeat that all these facts were known to Gateshead. It has, however, proceeded as though the situation had not changed. I can only say that the local authority has either been naive or has wilfully chosen to disregard the fact that we specified when we sent out the HIP allocations, the categories of municipalisation that were to be permitted.

Mr. Cowans

I accept what the Minister says. One fact stands between us, however. The information to which he refers was not known when the original decision was taken. That is the crucial point. Had it all been available before the decision was made I would agree with him, but it was not.

Mr Finsberg

I was coming to that point in the course of my reply, which I stress is based on the limited information that I have. I strongly believe that municipalisation adds nothing to the housing stock. It merely transfers from one public body, or, sometimes, from a private individual, to a public authority, an existing house or flat. It does not add to the total stock of housing. The Government are strong believers that what matters is not the division but the totality of that stock. Our policy is clearly to advise all public authorities which own accommodation that is surplus to their requirements, that they should dispose of it.

Both hon. Members made a very fair point about the difficulties caused when properties remain empty and become vandalised. I have seen some of the vandalism in Gateshead because until I was transferred to my present position I visited Gateshead about every second month. I therefore know the problems. I have seen them elsewhere. Leaving aside local authority property, there should be no reason, when a public authority is disposing of its property, for it not to do pre-planning so that it will know that in, say, five months' time it will be ready to dispose of a property. At that stage it should start the process of valuation through the district valuer, getting a price, instructing an agent or getting ready for auction so that people can view the property while it is still occupied and the transaction can take place almost the moment the property is vacated.

That is what the two hon. Gentlemen and I would do if we were contemplating getting rid of the homes we might be fortunate enough to own. We would not wait until we had moved out before starting the process. But that is what happens in the case of too many public authorities. I leave aside the local authorities, which are in a separate category.

Again, with my responsibility as a Minister for the Property Services Agency I am trying to impress upon all Government Departments that if they have properties that are surplus to their requirements they should let us know well in advance so that we may be ready to dispose of them and avoid what the hon. Gentleman rightly says are the problems caused by empty properties—broken windows and vandalism.

I have not seen the properties in question, but I know this part of the world. I am told that they are good quality inter-war houses which are highly marketable. There should, therefore, be little or no difficulty in disposing of them. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central said that much of what he has recounted happened before the rules changed. I hope that I have the right dates, because a photocopy of some pencilled figures is difficult to read. My information, however, is that of the four properties we are discussing, which are tenanted properties, the property in Southend Road, Beacon Lough, was not tenanted until October 1979, after the June ban on municipalisation. Crawley Gardens, Whickham was tenanted in February 1980 and Duckpool Lane, Whickham in November 1979.

They all occurred after the ban on municipalisation. The house in Lobley Hill Road, Gateshead, was acquired in December 1978, under the previous Administration.

Mr. McWilliam

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. However, I am sure that he will accept that it is also fair to say that, permission having previously been given to this agreement—and in the case of Whickham modifications having been made to accommodate a disabled person—there is the likelihood that there may have been an overrun. I should stress that permission had previously been given. Although the circular had withdrawn that permission, the local authority in the meantime had reviewed the housing stock. The housing allocation machinery had taken its course and people were allocated accordingly.

Mr. Finsberg

I am trying to be helpful. June 1979 was the time when local authorities were told that municipalisation as it had been known had come to an end, and no local authority should have assumed that properties would still be available to it. However, it was after that date that the houses were tenanted and that is the important point.

The local authority knew full well that it would not qualify for municipalisation permission as a result of the change of rules. Yet it put in the tenants in the full knowledge that different rules were now operating. I must go by the dates which I have been given, even though I have only had a chance of studying them for an hour-and-a-half, and they are written in pencil.

However, the Lobley Hill Road tenants were put in by the local authority in December 1978. In that case, provided that the transaction does not take place in this financial year, I am prepared to agree exceptionally that, because there was a hangover and because it was tenanted before the change, that property can be acquired out of Gateshead's HIP allocation for the next financial year.

Mr. Cowans

I am grateful to the Minister, and I know that he is trying hard to be helpful. I accept the date of the circular. However, he will recall a phrase in the speech relating to the phasing-in of tenants as property became available and as there was agreement. I accept the validity of the argument that if a circular emerges from Government subsequent to that date, one should not do other than what the Government document says. I am grateful to him for accepting my argument in relation to the 1978 acquisition. However, our reasonable point is that we had already obtained agreement for these houses prior to the putting in of tenants. No other houses were acquired following the June 1979 circular. The properties had already been acquired. The tenancies were part of the phasing-in operation. I would fully accept what the Minister is saying had we acquired houses following the June 1979 circular.

Mr. Finsberg

The hon. Gentleman and I must remain somewhat apart on this one. I can only try to put myself in the position of the chairman of the Gateshead housing committee. Like the hon. Gentleman, I spent a long period in local government. I would like to think that I would have seen the circular in June 1979 and I would have asked my chief officer "What effect will this have on the outline agreement that we obtained with the police authority?" He would have said "Well, sir, I think that this is now going to stop us acquiring but I shall find out." That was not done. If it had not been done, I should have said "We had better play safe. We shall put people in on a temporary basis, but we shall not asume that they will be there permanently." I am not speaking only as a Minister. I spent a quarter of a century in local government and I dealt with housing for a long time in a stress area—namely, the London borough of Camden. I do not believe that I would have acted as Gateshead acted.

However, I am prepared exceptionally to agree to the one property being acquired in the next financial year out of Gateshead's HIP allocation. My Department will write to Gateshead to confirm the decision that I have reached. I do not think that I can go any further with the other properties.

Mr. McWilliam

The Minister is being very fair. However, will he accept that the accident of a delay in a decision by the district valuer that caused three families to become homeless is not one which he and I, as officials in housing administrations in the past, can accept as inescapable? I suggest that if the hon. Gentleman or I were officials in the same housing administration, we would in fairness grant tenancies to the other three tenants in the circumstances. We are worried not about the 12 houses but four houses, two of which are occupied by disabled tenants.

Mr. Finsberg

I hope that I have demonstrated that I am prepared to be flexible in considering the rules. However, there has to be some limit. To proceed until 1980 and to put in tenants at that stage demonstrated a total disregard and disbelief in the Government's policy. I do not know about the delays of the district valuer.

Mr. Cowans

They were substantial.

Mr. Finsberg

The district valuer does not come under my Department. If there were substantial delays, I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will want to hear about them. Even if there had not been delays that caused the properties, or some of them, to be caught in the moratorium, permission would not have been given because the situation differed once the June 1979 position had been adopted.

I think that responsibility must rest squarely on the shoulders of Gateshead and certainly not on my Department. I can only suggest that urgent negotiations take place between Gateshead and the police authority to ascertain how quickly Gateshead can rehouse the tenants in the three properties for which I do not find it possible to give permission. Gateshead will have to accept that they are a priority upon their housing resource allocations. They will have to be rehoused by Gateshead.

I am extremely upset that this has to happen to individual tenants. However, it is an inescapable consequence of Gateshead not accepting that there was a policy change and proceeding to implement policy that was perfectly acceptable under the previous Labour Government but unacceptable under this Government. I fear that I can go no further than giving my agreement to the one property to be acquired.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes to Nine o'clock.