HC Deb 18 December 1987 vol 124 cc1426-32 1.58 pm
Mr. Alan Meale (Mansfield)

Hon. Members will be aware of the concerns that I have raised about British Coal housing in recent times. The debate gives me a chance to pay tribute to hon. Members on both sides of the House, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes), for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) and for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse), and on the Conservative Benches I see the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart), who I hope will be able to contribute to the debate.

I should like to outline a little of the background to this subject. Since the 1970s British Coal has dispensed with over 68,000 of its 80,000 houses in the coalfield communities. Most of those houses have been sold to the tenants, local authorities and housing associations. However, some have been sold to what can only be described as bad housing directorates, property and land speculators. That has caused terrible turmoil for the tenants living in those houses. Almost a year ago to the day, auctions took place in the Connaught and Hilton hotels in London, where whole communities were auctioned off and houses sold without the knowledge of the tenants. Indeed, some properties went to Spanish and Greek purchasers, and that cannot be satisfactory.

Some of the sadness is revealed in the fact that more than 90 per cent. of the tenants remaining in those houses are over retirement age. Indeed, 90 per cent. are over retirement age in the county that I represent. A recent document published by the Nottinghamshire Federation of Coal Tenants describes in detail some cases in my area which highlight the plight of the tenants as a result of the privatisation of their properties. I commend that document to the Minister.

Some of the tenants involved include Mr. Bob Stoddard, who left the industry in 1977. He was a miner for 30 years and had to leave the industry on health grounds. May and Ted Gelsthorpe are in their 80s and have lived in their Coal Board house for more than 56 years. Mr. Stan Bruce, who is 83, has lived in his present home for 64 years. Mary Penfold is in her late 60s and has lived in her home since 1926. Arthur Wilton is in his 80s and was a miner for 52 years. None of those people want a mortgage or to buy their own homes, even if they could find a mortgage broker who would raise or offer them money. They do not want the insecurity in old age that that would offer.

It is a sad fact that British Coal has dispensed with its responsibilities to the tenants in my constituency in Nottinghamshire. Some 11,500 houses have been sold in the past few years, with the remaining 2,000 or so ready to be sold to another company. My concern in raising the matter today is that a deal is under way between British Coal and an organisation called the Lancaster housing association. That is a fine sounding name. However, I want to explain in this short debate today that the name of that organisation does not exactly match the amount of responsibility that the association will have to accept for those elderly tenants in the near future.

I have examined some of the documents relating to that association, and I commend them to the Minister. The last registered accounts for the organisation were registered with the Registrar of Friendly Societies as long ago as 1982. The association's board members have no expertise in housing management. The board of directors includes a retired stockbroker as chairman, a baker and a catering manager. One wonders whether it also includes a candlestick maker and a butcher.

The association is so small that it is currently based on someone's home. At present it manages only 27 properties. I spoke to the director, and he admitted openly that it is a very small association. It is not an association that one would at first glance consider suitable to take on 1,860 houses occupied by elderly tenants. It does not employ any staff. It relies completely on volunteers. That may be all very well in respect of 27 units, but it is not satisfactory for nearly 2,000. Nor is the association registered with the Housing Corporation which is the national body that lays down the regulations and guidelines to monitor organisations to ensure that standards are adhered to.

As I pointed out, I have already spoken to Mr. Henshaw, who admitted that it is a very small outfit. He also admitted that the main source of repayment of the £9 million-plus offered for the properties is the sale with vacant possession of the properties. I can well imagine that Mr. Henshaw, with his stockbroking abilities, has the expertise to gain the best possible price for the properties and thereby pay back the money, but it is an enormous sum, and an enormous number of properties will have to be taken off the rented market for that to be achieved.

Mr. Henshaw also admits that he has, to a large extent, been used as a pawn by British Coal against the consortium of housing associations that have established themselves, according to the proper standards and guidelines, to look after the tenants. Worse still, British Coal has negotiated a very good deal for itself, in two respects. First, it has managed to persuade the friendly society to take on board all the employees of British Coal currently looking after the properties, which means that it will have no problems over redundancies and so forth. Secondly—this is of serious concern to me, and to other hon. Members in the area—it has added a clause to the contract of sale, stating that it will not be under any obligation to repair any subsidence damage that has occurred prior to the date of sale.

I have a Bill down for debate on 12 February about subsidence damage, which is prevalent in Nottinghamshire — especially in north Nottinghamshire. In my constituency a school and a hospital have closed, and thousands of houses have been damaged, because of subsidence. It is inconceivable that serious subsidence damage will not have occurred in any of 1,860 homes. British Coal has not been honest with its broker or with the organisation. Moreover, the deal will seriously harm the future security of the elderly tenants. Given the large amount of money involved in repayment, they will be unlikely to obtain the expensive repairs necessitated by subsidence damage.

That is not the only respect in which British Coal has not been entirely honest in its dealings. The consortium of housing associations is made up of a good many organisations, including the East Midlands housing association, the Northern Counties housing association, the Leicester housing association, the Nottinghamshire community housing association and others. They have the backing of all the local authorities, and, indeed, of the Nottinghamshire Federation of Coal Board Tenants, which has been striving for security for the tenants. The consortium has repeatedly been refused permission by British Coal to become deeply and sincerely involved in finding a financial solution. I have a letter that makes it plain that it was willing to negotiate upwards its offer of £7 million. I should like the Minister to look at that.

Finally, let me put to the Minister some questions to which I should like detailed replies. Will the Minister give an assurance that British Coal will sell houses only to organisations and associations which have the financial strength and reserves to meet fully any future contingencies, and which can fulfil their obligations and responsibilities as a landlord? It should be borne in mind that, in the Nottinghamshire area, over 2,000 properties are involved. Will he also give an assurance that any new landlord would manage and maintain the properties in accordance with the standards laid down by the National Federation of Housing Associations for housing management in a document published this year?

Will the Minister instruct British Coal to resume its negotiations with the consortium of housing associations, which is prepared to negotiate at a higher figure than has already been suggested? Will the Minister intervene in the current negotiations between British Coal and the Lancaster housing association? The aim of that would be to investigate and establish whether the Lancaster housing association, which currently manages only 27 houses, has the capacity and the resources to fulfil its landlord obligations and responsibilities to the 1,400 tenants whose homes are subject to the first part of the bid that I have mentioned. Does the Minister agree that it would he an advantage to sell the remaining British Coal houses to local landlords with proven track records, rather than to remote organisations which are not familiar with the area or the people?

Will the Minister instruct British Coal to reduce the asking price of the 1,830 properties from its current £9.5 million to a sum within the reach of the consortium that will allow it to go ahead and purchase the properties, thus bringing peace of mind and security to the thousands of British Coal tenants within the Nottinghamshire area? Alternatively, will he make representations to his hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning to provide direct financial assistance to the consortium so that it can purchase the properties?

Will the Minister make representations to the Minister for Housing and Planning for money to be made available to local authorities to enable them to reinstate the properties which are subject to the Housing Defects Act 1984 and which have been purchased after the cut-off date? That should include properties purchased by local authorities and sitting tenants. Will the Minister ensure that he investigates the contract clause inserted by British Coal, which I mentioned earlier, which denies any responsibility for subsidence damage that may occur in any of the properties concerned?

This is a serious subject, and I have already said that I hope that the hon. Member for Sherwood will participate briefly. I also see in the Chamber my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford, who I know has serious concerns in this matter. I hope that he can also participate.

Over 3,500 elderly ex-miners or miners' widows live in those properties in Nottinghamshire. They do not want or need a mortgage. They need security in their old age. They need to be looked after. It is the responsibility of British Coal to look after them. Those people were promised that during the time they worked and slaved in the industry. Now British Coal is seeking to get rid of its responsibility and cast them aside. I ask the Minister to talk seriously to British Coal in order to provide a solution that will offer security to those people in their old age. The Minister should offer them a future and reopen the negotiations with the consortium.

2.12 pm
Mr. Andy Stewart (Sherwood)

I thank the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) for allowing me the time to speak in his Adjournment debate. We may be poles apart in our political philosophy but we are united today behind the Nottinghamshire Federation of Coal Tenants. The hon. Member for Mansfield has outlined, in a short time, what has happened. I can tell you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that if the debate ran for three hours there would still be hon. Members queuing up to tell the House about the difficulties and tragedies that have befallen the tenants of British Coal.

It is supposed to be the season of good will to all. However, British Coal's housing policy makes Scrooge look like a philanthropist. Tonight I am the guest at a pensioners' Christmas party. They are constituents who have given their lives to the coal industry. What sort of a party will it be when they hear that British Coal is preparing to sell their homes to a rooky housing association from London, whose credentials are very suspect?

Let me ask the Minister; how can the Lancaster housing association, with only 27 houses, have the expertise to manage 1,800 homes 150 miles away in Nottinghamshire? How can it afford £9.4 million, when the experts say that the offering price of a socially acceptable landlord would be £6.5 million? The only way that it can make it pay is by asset-stripping. We have not experienced this sort of problem in Nottinghamshire before and, having read the book, "Pits and Mortar", we are more determined than ever not to allow it.

The past chairman of British Coal, Sir Ian MacGregor, had his critics, but his word was his bond. I am sorry to say that that is no longer the case at Hobart house. North Nottinghamshire Members of Parliament were given a promise that they would be consulted before any deal was done, yet to date no invitation has arrived on our desks. However, we have been informed that an agreement has been reached.

I ask the Minister to use what powers he has to postpone this proposed deal and to allow the housing consortium, which has the blessing of the Housing Corporation — in other words, this Government — and the local district councils, with whom they have worked for many years, to resume negotiations. Both organisations are prepared to give a grant of £1 million to bring this about.

As a result of British Coal's dismissive attitude towards the housing consortium personnel, Roy Lynk, the president of the Union of Democratic Mineworkers, is prepared to take the chair if and when negotiations start. I want to hear a statement from the Minister that will enable the elderly people who have given their working lives to the coal industry to have a happy Christmas and a worry-free future. The way that British Coal has treated my constituents and their Members of Parliament is nothing short of a disgrace. In the light of this experience I should like to send a message to Mr. John Walsh, who wishes to become the next president of the NUM: do not bother; British Coal deserves Scargill.

2.17 pm
Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) for allowing me the opportunity to express my concern, as I have on previous occasions, about this matter.

The nothing short of callous attitude of British Coal over the sale of these houses should be highlighted and the Minister should take action.

In Castleford travel-to-work area and the Wakefield metropolitan district, houses have been sold off to new owners in London, 200 miles away, of whom the tenants are not aware. Within days, ownership was transferred.

In the Townville estate in Castleford, an ex-miner, who has no possibility of purchasing his property, after a lifetime in the industry, has been cast aside and left at the mercy of those landlords. The landlords have not bothered to repair the houses but, rather kindly, they have provided a few tools and a bit of material and told the tenants on the estate to get cracking.

There is a serious problem in this matter with regard to the Housing Defects Act 1984. On that same housing estate, the Wates-type houses are defective. Some 70 ex-miners bought houses on that estate, which consists of 400 properties. Now, because the houses are defective, they are not an attractive proposition on the market and because the new tenants of the rest of the houses are neglecting those houses — many of which are now empty and boarded up — the properties that the ex-miners purchased are worthless. The council cannot act in accordance with the 1984 Act because the value of the properties is far less than the amount it would take to repair them.

In Wakefield metropolitan district area, there are 800 British Coal houses left to sell. Will the Minister have discussions with his hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning to enable the local authorities to use some of their assets, gained through the sale of council houses, to purchase those properties rather than allow them to be purchased by racketeer landlords? As a result of those discussions, will some assistance be offered to the housing associations that are interested in those houses?

The current tenants are retired miners — many of them elderly—who, when they retired, did not enjoy the attractive redundancy payments that have been enjoyed by miners for the past two or three years. They are in a hopeless situation and are living more or less in squalor. British Coal and the Government have an obligation to those people. I hope that the Minister will do all in his power to persuade the Minister for Housing and Planning to assist local authorities such as Wakefield to purchase the remaining British Coal houses.

British Coal gave itself a three-year period in which to dispose of its housing stock. It has 10 months left and it is hell-bent on getting shot of those houses and selling them to whoever it can. In some areas it appears that some people are moving in to buy those properties in the hope of making conditions so difficult for the tenants that they will move out as quickly as they can. Therefore, the buyer has got prime building land and, despite the value of the properties, has not paid the true price for that land.

2.21 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Michael Spicer)

I begin by paying tribute not only to the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) who raised this matter, and to the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse), but to my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) who has also spoken today. The House will be aware that my hon. Friend has, for many weeks, worked tirelessly to ensure that there is a satisfactory outcome of this matter for his constituents. In answer to the hon. Member for Mansfield—given the shortage of time available to me, my answer must necessarily he brief — I have to say straight away that the sale of British Coal houses is a matter for both the ethical and commercial judgment of British Coal.

For some weeks my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood and Labour Members have made me aware of their understandable concern to secure the future wellbeing of those who are presently British Coal's tenants. This short debate has served to underline their concern.

I have spoken to Sir Kenneth Couzens, deputy chairman of British Coal, to ensure that the concerns of parliamentary colleagues are known to him. He has given me his assurance that the British Coal Corporation is making every effort to ensure that in this case, as with the disposal of all its properties, the sale is made to a responsible landlord.

Furthermore, Sir Kenneth Couzens has written to a number of hon. Members with interests in Nottinghamshire in the following terms: the Lancaster Housing Association, which is a registered charity and member of the national federation of housing associations, has now agreed to buy 1,821 Nottinghamshire houses at prices reflecting current market values. They have told our Area Office that they intend to establish a local office to manage these properties and will continue to offer houses to sitting tenants, with the possibility of 100 per cent. mortgages. They have also said they would welcome meetings with the tenants' associations and discussions on how to deal with repairs and general management. As the hon. Member for Mansfield said, British Coal has sold 76,000 of its houses since 1976, which represent about 85 per cent. of its original total stock. Seventy per cent. of them have been bought at half the market value by sitting tenants and, to answer the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford, 20 per cent. have been bought by local authorities.

I understand that the organisation to which British Coal intends to sell the 1,800 houses which are the subject of today's debate has satisfied British Coal as to its financial support. That organisation has been registered as a charity for 20 years. It is listed with the Registrar of Friendly Societies, to whom it is obliged to submit annual reports and accounts, and it is a long-standing member of the Federation of Housing Associations. The hon. Member for Mansfield commented on the way in which the accounts had been registered. The Registrar of Friendly Societies has confirmed that the association has regularly returned its accounts, which are up to date.

The hon. Members who have raised this matter are wholly within their rights to do so, but they too must concede that British Coal has a public duty—it is the recipient of large sums of public money—to achieve at least a fair market price for its houses. An independent valuation carried out in the past few weeks by a firm of local surveyors estimated the value of the houses in question at slightly more than the sum that British Coal seemed likely to achieve. Every opportunity has been given to the alternative bidder to increase his offer, and he chose not to do so.

Mr. Andy Stewart

If I may refresh the Minister's memory, the negotiations were to take place, and the person speaking for British Coal said, "Unless you put on £9.5 million, you are wasting your time." So the consortium had to leave, because it did not have £9.5 million. The letter saying that British Coal would negotiate if asked is on record.

Mr. Spicer

There have been many allegations about who wants to offer how much and who does not. However, this is a negotiation entered into freely between British Coal and various people who have made various offers. All I can tell my hon. Friend is that no revised offer above the original £7.3 million made by the alternative bidder has been received by British Coal.

Mr. Stewart

I went a fortnight ago to British Coal and asked if it would see the housing consortium yet again. I was told, "No, Sir, we do not want to see it ever again."

Mr. Spicer

My hon. Friend has put that statement on record, but negotiations require one side to come forward with an alternative offer. I must repeat to my hon. Friend that offers made to him are not offers made to British Coal. I have received a categorical assurance that no revised offer above the £7.3 million has been received by British Coal. This is a free country, and it would be perfectly open to organisations to make such an offer, but I repeat, for the third time, that no such offer has been received.

Mr. Meale

I beg to differ from the Minister. Once again, he is being misled by British Coal. There seems to be a problem between British Coal in Nottinghamshire and the Housing Corporation. I have a letter, dated 7 December, which states that British Coal is prepared to continue negotiations with the consortium after 4 December. I shall pass on that letter to the Minister. There is a problem. The consortium is willing to bid, and I beg the Minister at least to stall the sale until we can get back on stream.

Mr. Spicer

The hon. Gentleman has made his point. Others have heard other allegations and suggestions that have been made about offers that might be floating around. In a negotiation procedure that has gone on for many months, it is up to someone who wishes to bid up on an offer to come forward, and not to run around to the hon. Member for Mansfield or to my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood saying that he might or might not be coming forward.

It is a straightforward matter: in a negotiation, one puts forward another offer, if one wishes to. No alternative offer has been made. In these circumstances, British Coal is clear that it is right to settle for the higher offer. When the transaction has taken place, tenants will continue to be fully protected under the landlord and tenant and fair rent legislation.

It was absolutely appropriate for hon. Members to raise the matter and I hope that, in the short time that was available to me, I have answered their points satisfactorily.

It being half past Two o'clock, the Motion on the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.