HC Deb 05 March 1986 vol 93 cc331-3 4.45 pm
Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to give tenants in the public and private sectors the guaranteed right to establish housing co-operatives. The House may be tempted to wonder why such a Bill is necessary at all, but, as I described in an Adjournment debate on 20 December, council tenants in my city of Liverpool have been the victim of an interminable offensive calculated to destroy local housing co-operatives initiated there.

Vindictive and spiteful retaliatory measures have been taken against the leaders of the Eldonian co-operative in the Vauxhall area of the city and against other co-operatives. The city council was even prepared to turn away £6 million of public money, and the building jobs and new homes that were part and parcel of the Eldonians' plan for new dream homes on the site of the old Tate and Lyle factory, to support their own brand of dogma, became a nightmare as Labour Militants and fellow travellers such as councillor Tony Byrne set out to crush that group of mainly unemployed council tenants.

Sheer guts and tenacity saw the Eldonians through their fight, but other co-operatives without the determination and the inner strength of that group were ruthlessly smashed. Only today those Labour councillors have been disqualified from public office. For many people in Liverpool it is two years too late. The tragedy is that it has taken so long for the Labour leadership to wake up to the menace of the Militant Tendency. If Labour leaders had listened to the moderates in the Vauxhall ward Labour party, to the Liberals and to the housing co-operative movement, two years of tragedy for Liverpool could have been averted.

If we are to ensure that such things do not happen again, we must have a Bill to give tenants in the public sector the right to form housing co-operatives, a right guaranteed at law. It would also represent a realistic hope for ordinary people of becoming home owners, in a way that the Conservatives' right-to-buy legislation cannot, especially for the unemployed or less well off. The right to buy will never bring the most powerless people into a property-owning democracy, but the right to co-operate will. A Bill giving people the right to co-operate would break asunder the feudal vassal or serf-like status that so many tenants endure today.

However, this is a Bill for private tenants, too. For the Government, the right to become a home owner seems always to be reserved for the buyers' market, and for the sitting council tenant who can afford to buy, yet no such right to buy is given to sitting tenants in private accommodation. My Bill would give tenants in the private sector the right to take control over their homes, too. Far too often, the battle lines in the housing debate are drawn between the tenants' and the owners' camp. My Bill is based on a partnership between the two. It represents a genuine third choice for housing.

The Bill aims to give council and private tenants the automatic right to serve notice on their landlords that they wish to form housing co-operatives. The Bill will define clearly what constitutes a co-operative and what types of dwelling are suitable. It will ensure that landlords cannot unreasonably withhold from tenants permission to form co-operatives where two thirds of the occupants wish to do so.

My Bill will do six specific things. First, it will define the types of tenancy to which the right to co-operate will apply. Secondly, it will identify the dwellings that the right to co-operate will embrace. Thirdly, it will set out the circumstances in which the right to co-operate may arise and certain tests that will have to be satisfied. Fourthly, it will set out the circumstances in which the right to co-operate may be refused by a landlord, but will state that consent to the right to co-operate may not be unreasonably withheld; there might be an appeal mechanism to the Secretary of State for the Environment. Fifthly, the Bill will set out an economic incentive or restrictions that would go hand in hand with the right to co-operate. Lastly, it will establish the means by which the right to co-operate may be promoted. That might take the form of enabling legislation, possibly extending or reinforcing the powers of the Housing Corporation with associated funding or it might establish a new mechanism to promote co-operatives. Present funding for co-operatives is inadequate—in fact, it is derisory—and must be re-examined in the context of the Bill.

My Bill recognises the desire of many ordinary people to take control of their own homes from the planners and from the "we know best" politicians who have maintained a vice-like grip on entire communities. The Bill will encourage and protect those who want to form housing co-operatives from recalcitrant local authorities and unco-operative private landlords alike. It is high time the House recognised that the existing monolithic housing structures no longer meet people's needs and that an entirely new approach is needed. All over Britain council tenants are getting a shocking repairs service. Estates are disintegrating, and public money is being poured away as an Elastoplast solution is administered to the ailing patient.

Commenting on the growth of housing co-operatives in Liverpool, the Architects' Journal said that the greatest housing revolution in 60 years had been taking place quietly and unnoticed. The real testimony to the spectacular success of schemes such as Hesketh street housing co-operative in my constituency, which Prince Charles visited last year, and others at Leta street, Claudia street, Prince Alfred gardens and Southern crescent, is that council tenants who moved into those housing co-operatives say that they would never go back to being council tenants. These oases in the middle of so much dereliction, decay and neglect exude pride and confidence.

The story does not end there. Liverpool city council spent over £250,000 last year on a team of glaziers whose entire time was taken up in replacing broken windows in council owned properties. Those windows did not wear out; they were vandalised. In housing co-operatives we do not find broken windows, because people care about the homes they are living in. They have a stake in the community and feel a real sense of responsibility for those areas. Nor would one find the £11 million of rent arrears currently owed on council properties in the city. Nor would one find empty properties, unlike the 6,000 vacant council properties which are boarded up and which are an affront to the thousands on the housing waiting list in Liverpool.

Liverpool tenants get a second-rate service in dreadfully managed estates. That will not improve until the tenants are given responsibility for the ownership and management of their own estates and homes. Far too often the housing department behaves as if it is the master of the people instead of their servant. My Bill sets out to challenge that.

Liberalism is an enabling philosophy. That is why we do not see housing policy as simply a question of bricks and mortar or house building figures. The provision of homes is about so much more. It is the key to many people's aspirations. It is the solid result of years of effort. To have control of their homes rather than being beholden to municipal or private landlords can give people a tremendous boost in self-confidence and can lead to the removal of nagging fears about security. It can be the key to the successful creation of dynamic communities where people care about their neighbours and share in the decision making.

Housing co-operatives based on devolution of power, the creation of self-reliance and common concern and the widest possible extension of ownership are the epitome of all that my party stands for. Conservatives, too, should recognise in housing co-operatives the qualities of self-help which they admire. Socialists should rekindle the sharing spirit of the Rochdale pioneers. Housing cooperatives will enable communities to take power for themselves and to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. That is why I commend my Bill to the whole House and hope that I shall be given leave to bring it in.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. David Alton, Mr. John Cartwright, Mr. Simon Hughes, Mr. A. J. Beith, Mr. David Penhaligon, Mr. Geraint Howells, Mr. Clement Freud and Mr. Archy Kirkwood.