HC Deb 31 March 1981 vol 2 cc154-61
The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Michael Heseltine)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement about the transfer of GLC housing to certain London boroughs.

In May 1980 the Greater London Council requested me to make an order under section 23 (3) of the London Government Act 1963 transferring the council's housing stock in the London boroughs of Brent, Camden, Hackney, Haringey, Hounslow, Lambeth, Lewisham and Waltham Forest to the borough councils. These boroughs were unwilling to accept the transfer of the stock. In these circumstances, the Act required me to consult the boroughs before reaching a decision.

There have been intensive consultations. I am now satisfied that it is right for the housing to be managed at borough level. I also believe that terms can be determined that will not only enable the stock to be assimilated smoothly but will lead to more effective housing management in London. My Department is today conveying this decision to the borough councils.

I shall be making an order transferring the stock to the borough councils on 1 April 1982, and intend to lay it before Parliament in the near future. A copy of the decision letter has been placed in the Library, together with a draft of the proposed order. The order will take into account the boroughs' views on the GLC's proposals, and in particular will impose an obligation on the GLC to bring the property up to an acceptable standard over 10 years.

The needs for housing mobility in London have changed considerably. The GLC's own mobility scheme for the transferred stock, together with the inter-borough nomination scheme, which is now to be part of the national mobility scheme, provides an adequate framework for meeting these needs, without the necessity to retain the GLC as a housing management authority. These transfers, together with those taking place by agreement, will largely fulfil the recommendations of the Herbert commission in 1960 that, to the fullest possible extent, council housing in London should be owned and managed locally by the borough councils.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Ardwick)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his statement conceals more than it reveals?

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House how many dwellings are being transferred?

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the property being brought up to an acceptable standard. Is it the Parker Morris standard to which these houses were originally built? What is an acceptable standard? Will he decide it, will the GLC decide it, or will the boroughs decide it?

The right hon. Gentleman said that he is satisfied, after intensive consultations, that it is right for the housing to be managed at borough level. Is that still being done against the wishes of the boroughs?

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us what is the reaction of the Greater London Council to his arrangements? Is it not true that the council has asked the right hon. Gentleman for guarantees that its housing investment programme allocation will be arranged in such a way as to ensure that it has the £450 million that it estimates is necessary to bring these houses up to an acceptable standard?

Is it not a fact that the Greater London Council has asked for an assurance that is its grant-related expenditure will be adjusted in such a way as to free it from the penalties of the taper that it could incur because of the increased expenditure that will be necessary on these houses?

Will the right hon. Gentleman say whether the housing investment programme of the receiving boroughs will be adjusted to take account of the consequential costs that will face them?

Will the right hon. Gentleman say whether the rate support grant allocation for the Greater London boroughs, hypothecated to the housing revenue account, will be adjusted to take accunt of the increased costs of administration that will face the receiving boroughs?

Will the right hon. Gentleman say—[Interruption.] I have to ask these questions, Mr. Speaker, because this information is not in the statement. Will the right hon. Gentleman say whether the housing subsidy of these boroughs will be adjusted to ensure that the base amount is not artificially reduced in future financial years?

Finally, is it not a fact that the right hon. Gentleman is undertaking a gross political manoeuvre, and that he is deliberately bringing the order before the House before a possible change in the political control of the Greater London Council on 7 May, when a Labour GLC would not wish to have these arrangements at all?

Mr. Heseltine

The right hon. Gentleman knows full well that this process has been going on for 20 years. He knows full well that the Greater London Council has been considering this policy and working on it since 1977. A significant part of that period was when the right hon. Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore) was responsible for my Department.

The number of houses to be transferred is 53,428. The standards to which they will be maintained are the 10-point standards applicable to improvement grant applications.

The programme will be carried out over 10 years, and that should lead to the houses then having a minumum expected life of 30 years.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me whether the order was against the wishes of the boroughs. It is a compulsory order, and it is to be put forward in that context. The rest of the houses—the 163,000—were transferred to 24 boroughs on a voluntary basis. This represents the last part of the programme, to complete the exercise.

There have been long discussions with the GLC and the London boroughs about the various terms upon which the transfers are to take place, because I have to put the order before the House and to satisfy myself about the terms. Obviously, one had to have consultations in order to bring the matter to a satisfactory conclusion.

The GLC has made requests of me, as one would expect, but the terms of the requests that it has made would assume that I am able to give commitments about the housing investment programme allocations for years to come. That is quite without precedent, and I cannot do it.

The housing needs of the boroughs and the GLC, in the light of block grant and housing investment programme allocations, will reflect their statutory duties, and their statutory duties will include responsibility for the transferred houses. All these things will be taken into account. I hope that the House will feel that this will be a logical conclusion to the recommendation of 20 years ago that it is desirable that housing should be administered as close as possible to the people who live in it.

Mr. Tim Eggar (Enfield, North)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his announcement will be widely welcomed throughout London by Londoners who have severe housing problems? Does he also recognise that the announcement is the fulfilment of yet another pledge given by the Tory GLC at the last GLC election?

Mr. Heseltine

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. I am sure that this will be seen as a sensible step forward in the administration of housing. I am pleased to confirm that it fulfils a pledge made by the Conservative GLC, in the way in which one would expect the Conservative GLC to carry out its pledges.

Mr. Christopher Price (Lewisham, West)

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell Lewisham council how it is to find the nearly £1 million necessary to equalise the existing rents of the GLC with those of Lewisham? Why has he chosen this time to give a slap in the face to his friend Horace Cutler, in refusing to give any guarantees to the people of London that these houses will be brought up to the standards that he is making it a statutory duty of the GLC to achieve?

Mr. Heseltine

The hon. Gentleman must realise that the leader of the GLC, Sir Horace Cutler, has requested me to make these orders. He knows full well that I am not able to commit this or any future Government over a period of 10 years with the degree of precision implied by the hon. Gentleman's question. As for the rent policies, it will be for the London borough of Lewisham to take the essential decisions in the light of Government policies about subsidy and to decide how to phase in its new tenants with its existing tenants.

Mr. Bruce Douglas-Mann (Mitcham and Morden)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the existence of the GLC housing stock provided the most important source of mobility within the Greater London area and that the inter-borough nomination scheme is a very inadequate substitute for it? Will he acknowledge that there is no housing case whatever for what he proposes and that the order is political not only in the sense outlined by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman) but in the sense that many of the outer London boroughs did not wish to relieve the housing stress of the inner London boroughs, and it is to exclude them from. that obligation that the whole of the GLC's housing management scheme is being abolished?

Mr. Heseltine

I think that when the hon. Gentleman has had a chance to consider the situation in more detail he will realise that his analysis does not stand up to investigation, particularly as six out of the 14 Labour boroughs have voluntarily accepted the transfer of this stock. If those six could see the virtue of this, it cannot be described in such partisan terms as the hon. Gentleman has, regrettably, tried to inject.

The hon. Gentleman may not be aware that my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction has today announced a very significant national mobility scheme, which overtakes the existing arrangements. the deficiencies of which the hon. Gentleman was right to draw to the attention of the House, although he might have pointed out that the Labour Government made little attempt to rectify them.

The House will be pleased to know that under the new arrangements the GLC will retain 50 per cent. of nominations for the transferred housing and that there is a new arrangement today, agreed by the AMA, the ADC and the London Boroughs Association, in conjunction with the Government, whereby 1 per cent. of national vacancies are available for mobility purposes to people with social and economic cases from outside the areas concerned.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that from now on it will be impossible, without legislation, for the GLC to acquire land for housing purposes, particularly by compulsory purchase powers?

Mr. Heseltine

The questions raised by my hon. Friend are important, but he will appreciate that no changes in the statutory powers of the GLC are involved in what I have announced today. With the transfer of a very substantial part of the housing organisation of the GLC, a review of the GLC's housing powers might well be appropriate, but nothing that I have announced today should prejudge that issue.

Mr. Ronald W. Brown (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that when, in May 1980, the Secretary of State was asked by Sir Horace Cutler to transfer the stock, Sir Horace was not aware of the enormous costs involved? Since Sir Horace has found out those costs he has asked the Secretary of State not to transfer the properties. The Secretary of State had that letter in February. He know that that is the case. He is misleading the House. He knows that Sir Horace is aware that the cost factor over the 10 years will be £1,000 million or more and is now saying that the Secretary of State is wrong to carry out this proposal. Why does the Secretary of State persist in rebuffing Sir Horace by putting this burden on the people of London?

Mr. Heseltine

I think that I can help the hon. Gentleman. If Sir Horace should ask me to withdraw this compulsory order, I should, of course, be prepared to do so.

Mr. K. Harvey Proctor (Basildon)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. Will he comment on the effect on council house sales, as many inner London boroughs are going very slow on sales? Will he also give further thought to the fact that the London borough of Waltham Forest is going exceedingly slow on council house sales? Is he aware that that council owns 600 homes in my constituency and that my constituents cannot buy them? Will he do something to get those houses transferred to Basildon district council, which will sell them?

Mr. Heseltine

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I can tell the House that of the houses covered by the order some 700 are subject to right-to-buy applications by the tenants. The House will realise that the date of transfer is April 1982, so there is plenty of time for the right to buy to be completed within that time scale. For any houses that are subject to a right to buy at the date of the transfer, the legal responsibility—indeed, the duty—is of the authorities concerned to carry out the implementation of right to buy will transfer from the GLC to the London borough concerned at that time.

My hon. Friend also raised the subject of inadequate progress in certain local authority areas. My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction dealt with this matter on Saturday, when he expressed very clearly the Government's concern at the lack of progress and made clear that it can now be only a short time before we have to take further, decisive steps in this matter.

Mr. Reginald Freeson (Brent, East)

Are not the two most important factors to bear in mind against the background of this proposal the need for more housing provision to be undertaken, whether by new build or by rehabilitation, by the GLC as well as the boroughs, and, secondly, the need to ensure that there is adequate mobility? On the first question, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there has been a collapse in housing provision at GLC level? On the second, is he aware that in my borough, which is not a major receiving authority, there has been a reduction in nominations out of the borough through the GLC over the past three years from about 400 to 500 transfers per year to less than 100 currently? How can it be argued that the mobility arrangements in London are working effectively when there has been a reduction of three-quarters in mobility from a borough that is in the greatest need of all because it does not have major GLC estates within it?

Mr. Heseltine

I share the right hon. Gentleman's concern about the mobility arrangements in London. He is, of course, particularly aware of them, as he was responsible for administering them. I do not think that they have been operating as effectively as we would wish. We wish to improve the arrangements. I believe that my hon. Friend's statement today is a significant step in that direction. But the procedures necessary to bring about these improvements are administrative procedures, and we shall be paying attention to that aspect.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the collapse of GLC housing provision. He will be familiar with the phenomenon of the decline in council house building, as he presided over one of the biggest declines since the war. He will therefore wish to join the Government in urging local authorities in London and throughout the country to release the maximum amount of land in order to allow private builders to continue the upsurge in private building that has now begun.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

Can my right hon. Friend say whether any housing stock will remain under the control of the GLC, and, if so, roughly how much?

Mr. Heseltine

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. A small number of houses will remain. They are largely centred in Thamesmead, where there are special problems. That is something to be considered at a later date. There are also some small housing areas in Covent Garden, as well as the seaside and country homes. However, the total number is small. I shall give my hon. Friend the precise figure in a letter.

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras, South)

Setting aside all party political considerations, does the right hon. Gentleman not accept that he has announced a perfect formula for irresponsibility in housing management? I represent tenants on the GLC Ossulston estate, in Somerstown. Is it not the case that when they complain to their new landlords—Camden council—the council will be able to say that the GLC is responsible, and in turn the GLC will be able to say that the Government are responsible for not providing the money to bring that estate up to scratch? The right hon. Gentleman ought to have come forward with a formula that was acceptable to everyone, because only that sort of formula will look after the interests of the tenants who are being transferred.

Mr. Heseltine

I am interested to learn that the hon. Gentleman has so little faith in the London boroughs to which the houses are being transferred. I take the view that the local authorities do the best that they possibly can in difficult circumstances. Under the terms of the orders that will be laid before the House, the hon. Gentleman will find that a substantial amount of money is built into the arrangements in order to bring the houses up to standards that are higher than currently exist. The hon. Gentleman should have more faith in the Labour boroughs to which the houses will be transferred.

Mr. Robin Squire (Hornchurch)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement. Will he confirm, I suspect for the umpteenth time, that it would make no sense at all for a minority of the housing previously run by the GLC to remain in its ownership when the vast majority of London boroughs have already accepted their share? Secondly, and more important from the point of view of actual and would-be tenants in the areas concerned, does he agree that it would make more sense to have but one landlord, prospective or actual, rather than two?

Mr. Heseltine

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Twenty-four London boroughs reached perfectly amicable arrangements, which left only the last eight. The House will be invited to conclude the arrangements to bring about the coherence of local housing administration that makes sense for the people concerned.

Mr. Laurie Pavitt (Brent, South)

How will the order affect the Greater London Secondary Housing Association? Will that also be dispersed? The right hon. Gentleman will know that I have been in correspondence about the period of consultation. Has that period how been extended? With whom will the consultation take place? Will it be a tripartite consultation between his Department, the GLC and the London borough of Brent? What is the possibility of altering the numbers that are to be transferred?

Mr. Heseltine

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are dealing only with the GLC housing stock. Other organisations are not affected by the orders that I shall bring before the House.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call those hon. Members who have been rising, but I shall call London Members first.

Mr. Roland Moyle (Lewisham, East)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that among the many defects in his statement is a complete absence of any reference to what will happen to the employees of the GLC and the London boroughs? Will he review the decision not to meet a deputation of the trade unions concerned? There is grave disquiet among the trade unions about the industrial relations aspect of this problem. Will the right hon. Gentleman meet the trade unions in the near future, because by doing so it could well be that he will save both himself and the GLC a great deal of trouble?

Mr. Heseltine

I have great concern for the anxieties of the employees affected. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will help to reassure them that there is a time-honoured practice for transferring employees within the public sector. First, the arrangements are laid down in the Greater London Council Housing (Staff Transfer and Protection) Order 1979, presumably with the support of the right hon Gentleman, who was a Member of the House when that legislation was enacted. Secondly, there is a London housing staff commission to deal with any problems. This is a well-precedented activity within the public sector, but of course I shall keep an eye on it.

Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)

The right hon. Gentleman said that if the present leader of the GLC requested him to withdraw the order he would do so. Will that promise hold good after 6 May?

Mr. Heseltine

As the hon. Gentleman is perfectly aware, this policy has been pursued and advocated for 20 years. The present GLC was elected in order to bring about that policy, and it is entitled to see that policy brought to a satisfactory conclusion. The policies that will be pursued by the GLC after the elections are a matter for the new GLC. The hon. Gentleman and many of his right hon. and hon. Friends should wait and see what happens before making forecasts about the policies that will be pursued.

Mr. Thomas Cox (Tooting)

How many estates in the GLC area has the right hon. Gentleman visited? Is he aware of their condition? Houses are boarded up and many are absolute dumps. No one would want to live in them. How long will that continue? Will it be the Department's policy to advance moneys to the boroughs to bring those properties back into habitable condition, or will they remain for years to come in the condition in which the GLC has allowed them to remain?

Mr. Heseltine

The hon. Gentleman cannot have been listening to what I said. Part of the arrangements within which the compulsory transfer is to go through is that within a 10-year period those houses will have been brought up to the standards of the 10-point improvement grant scheme. This is a real improvement either for those living in the areas or those who may find access to currently unused houses. It ensures a significant increase in standards.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Edge Hill)

Is this not just another example of the high-handed attitude with which the Secretary of State deals with local government? It is rather like Thomas Cromwell and the way in which he dealt with the monasteries—first, list them, and then bust them. When the right hon. Gentleman meets local authorities, his idea of consultation seems to be "Tell them what I think, but do nothing about what they think". What consultation has the right hon. Gentleman had with the tenants who must live on these estates?

Mr. Heseltine

I thought that the hon. Gentleman was complaining about my attitudes to local government, but he then asked a question about consultation with the tenants. The GLC was elected on this programme. It is its housing stock, and it is entitled to see the policy carried through. During the last four years the GLC has had widespread consultation with the local authorities in the London boroughs, the majority of which, including a significant number of Labour authorities, reached voluntary agreement. We are now left with eight, which for the bulk of the period when consultation was available were not prepared to get involved in the consultation process. That has forced me to come to a conclusion on this matter and to ask the House to act.

Mr. Frank Allaun (Salford, East)

I put the question in simple terms. Is it not unfair and class-biased to deny the people of overcrowded, poorer inner city areas access to the land that they desperately need in the more spacious areas of outer London?

Mr. Heseltine

The hon. Gentleman will be fully aware that that is one of the arguments in favour of a mobility scheme. I have told the former Minister for Housing and Construction that he must see how we can improve the administration of that scheme. It is not easy to do. Presumably, that is why the complaints mentioned by the hon. Gentleman are so deeply held—because the previous Government were quite unable to achieve a way of improving the scheme. I do not disagree with the concern raised by the hon. Gentleman, and we shall continue to do what we can to help.

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