§ 2.52 p.m.
§ VISCOUNT BUCKMASTER rose to call the attention of Her Majesty's Government to the need for a revision of the Rent Restrictions Acts if the effect of the housing programme is not to be offset by the loss of houses which become uninhabitable through lack of the necessary repairs; and to move for Papers. The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name. It is at once my duty to declare that, as I think is well known to most of your Lordships, I have some personal interest in this matter. It is nine years since I first moved a Motion on these lines in your Lordships' House. Since then, the picture which the kaleidoscope presents has changed. The just demands of the landlord are no less—indeed, they may be said to have, increased. But, on the other hand, the demands of the community are more clamant than they were before. The people of this country are demanding to have their houses kept in a habitable state. On the previous occasions that I moved Motions on these lines I had the good fortune to have answers given me by a number of noble Lords who are now sitting opposite, but who then occupied a different situation in your Lordships' House. I should like to take this opportunity of thanking them for the courtesy and patience which they showed in giving those replies, even though they were, without exception, disappointing.
§ Nevertheless, although the answer in every case was "in the negative," I do not recollect that the noble Lords concerned ever denied that there was a case which needed answer, and I would ask your Lordships to understand that, to the best of my ability, I present this matter in a non-Party spirit. I do not feel that it is one in which the acrimonies of Party should flare up; nor do I see it as one in which there must of necessity be a conflict of interest between one side and the other. I am encouraged in this, I hope rightly, by a publication of the Labour Party which says that, in certain circumstances, which are not mentioned, money spent in repairing property might properly he the subject of some consideration in regard to an increase of rent. 902 I do not wish to take noble Lords opposite a single step further than they want to go, but, as I said before, I hope they may feel that there is at least some substance in the case which I shall present to your Lordships. Even if I were able to attempt such a task—and clearly I am not—no one in your Lordships' House would wish me to attempt even a brief statement of the law. To describe the mass of Statutes superimposed upon each other, or the chaos to which Her Majesty's judges have more than once referred, would be quite beyond me. It reminds me of the days of my youth when, wandering in the Maze at Hampton Court, I realised that I was lost; I escaped only with the assistance of a guide. When I involve myself in rent restriction every turning is a blind alley, and even with the most expert guidance I cannot find a way out. I had always supposed that it is a convenient, if not essential thing, for a man to know of whom his family consists. Indeed, rent restriction assures him that it is most important that he should possess this knowledge. But the law does not hesitate to say that he does not, and further that the law itself cannot inform him.
§ As your Lordships know, controlled property—I am afraid that I must say this, but I assure your Lordships that I shall be as brief as possible—falls into two halves. There is old controlled property, controlled by the Act of 1915 as re-enacted, and new controlled property, controlled by the Act of 1939. In between, there are two Acts, those of 1923 and 1933, which permitted decontrol, and as a result produced the discrepancies which make a solution at the present moment not easy to achieve. As your Lordships know, these old controlled houses were controlled at rents obtaining in August, 1914, or the last letting, however far back that may have been. An increase of 40 percent. was permitted in certain circumstances. At the present moment there are 4,000,000 houses controlled at rents going back to 1914 or earlier, plus the increase permitted in those cases. The total of 4,000,000 not only represents half the controlled houses in the country; it represents one-third of the total houses in the country. That may give your Lordships some fresh light on the magnitude of this problem. If we turn for a moment to the houses 903 controlled by the 1939 Act, they are controlled at the levels obtaining at September, 1939. I do not think it has been suggested that at that time, with the clouds of war overhanging us, rents were unduly high, but at any rate that is the level at which they are controlled.
§ My Lords, what has happened since? To what extent have building costs risen? The best information I can get (of course I will accept any other figure which your Lordships put forward as exact) is taken from The Builder, published in February of this year. There we are told that, taking the index figure as 100 in 1919, the comparable figure now is over 300. I accept that, and all those who give thought to this matter surely must accept, that there should be a control of rents in times of housing shortage. But I cannot accept, and I ask your Lordships not to accept, the proposition that rents should be controlled at a level which makes it utterly impossible for the owner to preserve his house in a habitable state. From such a situation unfortunate consequences must flow. The first is, of course, that the moment the owner secures vacant possession, he will sell. That in itself may not sound a harmful thing, but it means that, had he been given some slight added inducement, if normal conditions had obtained, he might have been prepared to let the house. As I understand it, all Parties are agreed that it is vital to preserve the supply of houses for letting yet, as we are, unless steps are taken, apart from council houses the supply of houses to let must certainly diminish.
§ Then there is the tenant who sells, subject to the rent-restricted tenancy. He sells, if he is able to sell at all, at a sacrificial price—an experience which some of your Lordships may have had. What is all too often the result in such a case? All too often such a property is bought by those who are not over-scrupulous. Their first action is to split the property into furnished rooms, with the minimum of furniture, and to sub-let it for the highest rent for which the unhappy tenant can be squeezed. They are guilty of that very rapacity and extortion which all responsible owners of property condemn. It is true that in such a case the tenant could go to the rent tribunal; but it is also true that there are powerful deterrents—he has no wish to quarrel 904 with his landlord; possibly he fears that he may lose possession as a result.
§ Let me take next the unfortunate man who clings tenaciously to his property, the man who has held on too long or has not executed the repairs, and who is now unable to sell it. As your Lordships know, in such a case the Housing Act (I think it is) of 1936 gives the local authorities power to serve notices requiring the repairs to be done. But, far from achieving their purpose, such notices accelerate the owner's intention to divest himself of his property. It is a sad thought that before the war these notices were comparatively easy to enforce and that there was little need for them. Now, there is very great need for them, but they cannot be enforced. The cruelty involved is far too great, and landlords are compelled, all too often, to resist them. Have your Lordships considered for a moment the situation of a man who is ordered to spend a great deal of money on a house which has already involved him in much loss, and which he would be prepared to put in order if he could live therein himself'? Yet he is denied the right of access to it and ordered to spend still further money upon it.
I had not meant to quote any letters to your Lordships this afternoon, but one arrived, quite unsolicited, this morning which seems so tragically to underline this particular point that I ask to be permitted to read one or two sentences from it. The man who has written it says—if I read his writing correctly:
My student son has no grant of any kind. He has been summoned to court to defend an action by the authorities to compel him to spend £644 on chimneys and roof repairs at an old property which he was given as a present.
To my mind that was not a very happy sort of Christmas present, or any other kind of present, to give him. I do not think that I need detain your Lordships by going further into the matter. I say simply that there is one simple unsolicited example of the havoc which these orders can wreak on unfortunate and quite unoffending persons. It is not surprising that in such cases many owners seek to give away their houses. They find that their property is, in effect, a shirt of Nessus—a torment while they retain it, yet something of which they cannot divest themselves without stripping themselves of their substance also. So we have the
position where houses are fast deteriorating and where the housing drive, which the Minister has conducted with such vigour and skill, and on which I feel sure that many of your Lordships would wish to congratulate him, is being offset by the loss of houses which are falling into complete decay and becoming uninhabitable.
§ It is not easy to say what the relevant figures are. If I were asked what we are losing on the one hand while we are gaining on the other, I should find it difficult to give a precise answer. I can only say that I am reminded of a sum or type of sum which was set to me in my days at school—a sum from dealing with which I hope the younger of your Lordships are now spared. The sum mentions a tank which is filled with water by pipes of differing sizes, while other pipes of varying rates of flow are rapidly emptying it. I am afraid that now, as when I was at school, the answer still must be "I do not know." But I do know the facts in one particular town which may help your Lordships to arrive at an understanding of this matter in relation to the country as a whole, and, with your Lordships' permission. I should like to refer to that town. I have in mind Brighton, a town in which slums were not conspicuous before the war, and in which the pre-war standards of housing were reasonably high. What do we find? Since the war, 4,000 houses have been provided, but there are still 5,300 families on the waiting list—I quote these figures from a responsible Brighton paper. Moreover, at the same time 1,500 houses are deteriorating so fast that they will soon be in the slum category. If the bulk of these houses were repaired and reconditioned, the waiting list would be cut by a quarter; and not merely would the waiting list be cut but there would be no small saving either. The cost of council houses, as your Lordships know, is approximately £1,500 each, whereas for roughly one-third of that amount houses, even in very poor state of repair, can be not only repaired but even modernised as well.
The Sanitary Inspectors' Association are so alarmed at what they have discovered in the country that in their Memorandum on Repairs of November last year they expressed themselves in terms—I use their own words—of "grave apprehension." If your Lordships will
once more allow me a quotation—it is the last one which I shall make to-day—I should like to refer to what certain local authorities have said arising from the Sanitary Inspectors' Report.
Manchester: "It is obvious that there is deterioration of property because owners cannot afford maintenance…. between six and seven hundred holies become dangerous every year.
Leeds: "Housing is bedevilled by rent restrictions… good properties with plenty of life left in them arc becoming derelict through lack of repairs.
Bedford: "The cost of repairs is up nearly 300 per cent. Unless we get rent increases there is going to be greater difficulty in getting repairs done.
These considerations, I would submit, alone compel the thought that some relief should be granted.
§ But there is one other matter which considerations of time compel me to touch on very shortly, and which I do not think has been put to your Lordships before in this connection, and that is the question of agricultural land. These houses which are falling into decay stand all too often in the centre of large towns, and instead of repairing them we are building outwards. Every year we lose 50,000 acres of land. In twenty years' time, if my mathematics are correct, we shall have lost 1,000,000 acres. Again, the problem was presented very clearly at Brighton where they determined to take a further 2,000 acres on which to build. But the Minister of Agriculture—and the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, I am sure, supported him—very rightly, said "No." The proposal then was that a satellite town should be constructed. But where would this lead us? It means that you gain production in one place only to lose it in another. And so, without fear of contradiction, I say that until we have restored and repaired and put into full use every house that stands on built-up land we should not sacrifice another acre of the agricultural land of this country.
§ My Lords, this question of rent restriction must, of course, be related to housing. With the tragedy that springs from bad housing it would be out of place for me to deal to-day, but there are many among your Lordships who are privileged to sit upon the bench and see, day after day and week after week, the results of unhappy homes springing from housing situations which are deplorable. 907 According to preliminary figures available from the census there are roughly 1,000,000 houses to-day without a kitchen sink, and 1,000,000 more in which the housewife has to share it with another. What a sordid picture of potential quarrels, strife and domestic unhappiness such a state of affairs must present!
§ What has been done? Noble Lords opposite in the last few years introduced legislation designed to relieve certain hardships for the tenant, and noble Lords on this side accepted those measures in principle and on no occasion voted against them on Second Reading. But those measures were not designed, and were not intended, to offer any relief to the landlord or to make it possible to execute repairs out of a slightly larger revenue. It is no use trying to give a tenant added security of tenure if the roof falls down about his head. Again, if we are to have piecemeal legislation—I venture to suggest that that is not the best way of dealing with this great problem, and I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd, agrees that it should not be dealt with by patchwork methods—then why should it be all on one side and never on the other? Why should not the landlord be allowed—as the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley (who I am sorry cannot be here to-day) and his Committee recommended in their Report—to recover the increased cost of services where these are provided? The cost of coal, uniforms, wages and electricity has gone up. It was recommended as an urgent matter that this matter should receive attention, yet nothing has been done.
§ Whatever the solution may be, it is clear that it cannot be easy to achieve. It may be helpful to consider this problem from three aspects—running repairs, major repairs and reconditioning. In regard to running repairs, the everyday repairs, there should not be too great a difficulty. Some increase on a percentage basis could be imposed, or one based on a formula such as that of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, which uses the statutory deduction for taxation, which is the difference between the gross and net values, as part of the basis of their formula. I would stipulate that some increase on these lines should be tied to an obligation to execute repairs. 908 I have never made a proposal in your Lordships' House on any other basis. I do not say that the landlord is not entitled to more than the cost of repairs. The 1920 Act, which gave a 40 per cent. increase for 1915 houses, declared that he was entitled to more. I do not say he is not justly entitled to a great deal more, but that is not what I propose. The difficulty arises in seeking to relate the obligation to repair to such increase as may be granted. As your Lordships know, the 40 per cent. permitted increase on older houses was related to that obligation. By adopting the proper procedure, the tenant was entitled to withhold the increase if repairs were not executed, but unfortunately the Act does not seem to be effective. It should not be beyond the wit of man to devise some procedure whereby no increase was payable to the landlord unless the house was in a proper state of repair.
§ When we turn to major repairs, we are in a considerable difficulty, for the cost of necessity is great. The Housing Act of 1949 provides for loans—not grants but loans—for major repairs. Unfortunately, advantage does not seem to have been taken of the Act. It may be that the owner cannot afford the interest charges involved. It may be that his house is already mortgaged. Be that as it may, it seems to me unfortunate that something along these lines cannot be done. Indeed, it may be that this Act provides a framework which, if expanded and suitably altered, would form the basis from which might be executed the task we have in mind. I do not propose to pursue this point further because my noble friend Lord Wolverton and my noble friend Lord Darwen (who unfortunately cannot be hereto-day) have given close and careful thought to this aspect, and my noble friend Lord Wolverton will put certain points before your Lordships in this connection.
§ When we turn to reconditioning, which cannot be divorced from improvement, the Rent Restrictions Acts offer some help, because they provide an allowance of 8 per cent. of the value of improvements done. But even with the return of 8 per cent., many landlords do not feel able to spend more money on improving their property. Moreover the 8 per cent. is a gross figure; from it must be deducted any added rates that may be 909 incurred, the cost of maintenance, management and so on. Here again it may be that the Housing Acts, which provide in this case actual grants, instead of loans, may be capable of being shaped to provide us with the solution which we seek. But whatever solution we achieve, I stress that action cannot be delayed. The very foundations on which we stand are crumbling. The situation is changing fast. Nor do I believe, although successive Governments are so timid—and I say it in all good nature to my noble friend—that there is any need for fear. I believe that security of tenure is a paramount consideration in most tenants' minds and that they realise that by denying himself the right to regain possession the landlord has made a real sacrifice. I want to stress that I do not propose that he should give up that sacrifice. I have never proposed any measure which at this stage would cause a tenant to lose his house. But I do believe that, having obtained security of tenure, tenants would not object to a reasonable increase of rent if it were related to the execution of repairs, though—and I am not afraid of weakening my case by saying it—since the cost of living has gravely advanced, there are some, the aged, the infirm and the suffering, who can no longer earn and who may not be able to meet any increase. But all landlords are not hardhearted, and with good will that side of the matter should not present a difficulty.
§ My Lords, we are faced with the situation that the people of this country on the one hand are clamouring for habitable homes in which to live, while owners of property on the other are claiming for the right to charge such added rent as would make it possible for them to provide these homes by keeping their property in a habitable state. I suggest that here there should be no conflict and that never could the call for action be more plain. I beg to move for Papers.
§ 3.18 p.m.
THE JOINT PARLIAMENTARY UNDERSECRETARY OF STATE FOR THE HOME DEPARTMENT (LORD LLOYD)
My Lords, in this House we are fortunate in numbering amongst our members men of deep knowledge and experience on many subjects. Nobody who has to stand at this Box can fail to 910 be aware of that, whether it be the subject of wild birds, as it was last week, or the subject of consolidation, which it was yesterday, or the subject of rent restriction, which it is to-day. It is this wealth of knowledge and experience which has earned for your Lordships' House their high reputation as a revising Chamber. We spend much of our time in trying to improve measures that come to us front another place, but I have never felt that the talents of this House need be confined to a mere revision of what has been enacted elsewhere. On the contrary, I believe that, on account of the very virtues to which I have referred, this House can render almost equally valuable service by offering constructive suggestions at a time when policy has yet to be finally formulated. Indeed, if we were as wise as we sometimes tell one another we are, and if all Governments were so enlightened as invariably to take our advice before they decide on their policy, it is possible that the need for our revising functions might be considerably reduced. It is, after all, before you decide to do something, and not after you have decided to do it, that you normally need advice.
It is certainly true to say that the views which your Lordships expressed last year, at a time when the Government were considering their policy on town and country planning, were most valuable. To-day, I will say quite frankly, the position is somewhat similar. I do not think my noble friend Lord Buck-master expected a statement of the Government's intentions this afternoon. I should make it clear from the outset that we are not yet in a position to make such a statement. Nevertheless, for the reasons which I have already given, we are most grateful to my noble friend for initiating this debate, for the moderate and reasonable way in which he moved his Motion and for giving Her Majesty's Government an opportunity of hearing your Lordships' views on this important and extremely complicated question.
My noble friend has already mentioned his own reactions at trying to wade through the Rent Restrictions Acts, and I am sure he will agree with me that to say that the subject is complicated is palpably to understate the case. There are in force no fewer than twelve Acts, nine of which were passed between 1920 and 1939 and three of which have been 911 passed since. I think it is fair to say that, as a result, the law is so intricate that it is difficult even for those well versed in it to understand it completely; and it is well nigh impossible for the ordinary layman to understand. The Ridley Committee, which was the last Committee to investigate rent control, suggested that all these things should be consolidated and replaced by one single measure in which the whole law of rent restriction could be set out. That, in itself, I suggest, would be a major undertaking on which it would be most difficult to embark. In that opinion I am happy to be fortified by the views of the noble and learned Earl, Lord Jowitt, when he replied to a similar debate two years ago. I should like to read to your Lordships what the noble and learned Earl then said. He said (OFFICIAL REPORT, Vol. 160, Col. 899):It is a tremendous task. I will take your Lordships frankly into my confidence and say that there arc two immense tasks at the present time which confront any lawyer. One is the consolidation of the Income Tax law; the other is the consolidation of the Rent Restrictions Acts. Both of them will take a very long time. Action in either case would mean that we should not be able to do any other consolidation for a very long time.I cannot have a better authority than the noble and learned Earl, Lord Jowitt, and on that matter I am certain that he is quite right—it would be a formidable task. Moreover, as he pointed out on that occasion, consolidation of itself would not really serve any useful purpose. The outstanding feature of the multiplicity of these Acts has been the creation of anomalies and discrepancies in standard rents. Thus to-day you find exactly similar houses which have been through the process of control, de-control and re-control and are let at widely differing rents. More consolidation would not solve our problems unless at the same time steps were taken to iron out these many anomalies. This, again—and here, too, I have the authority of the noble and learned Earl, Lord Jowitt—would be a most formidable undertaking.
For all these reasons, there is no doubt that a satisfactory long-term method of tackling the whole question of rent restriction would be to get rid of the need for rent restriction as a whole. Like many other tiresome things, rent restriction is a product of scarcity. With any commodity, whether it is food, 912 housing utensils or houses themselves, so long as there is a shortage prices will tend to rise sharply, and as a result restrictions become necessary in order to protect the poorer sections of the community from the rises which have taken place. Conversely, as soon as there is plenty, prices fall and the need for restriction disappears. Therefore, the fundamental, though, I agree, the very long-term, way of dealing with rent restriction is to abolish it; and the only way to abolish it is to build so many houses that in the end it becomes unnecessary. That, obviously, is a long-term policy, but it is the basic and fundamental policy, and I think it is worth saying so.
My noble friend Lord Buckmaster paid tribute to the Government's housing drive, and I think it is fair to say that by the zeal which my right honourable friend has imparted to his new housing drive he has already made no small contribution towards a solution of this problem. I feel it is rather important, when talking about this problem, to try and work out a little more what the problem really is. There is perhaps a tendency in some quarters to be a little over pessimistic; to give too little weight to the success of the Government's housing policy, and too much weight to the damage done by the Rent Restrictions Acts. Indeed, in some quarters it has been suggested that unless the Rent Restrictions Acts are revised, as many houses will become uninhabitable every year through disrepair as there are new houses built. What is the position? The Housing Summary published only last week, showed that from the beginning of this year up to the end of October 194,384 new permanent houses were comleted; and by the end of the year the figure must be well over the 200,000 mark. Next year it will no doubt be larger, because houses are like crops: before you can reap them you have to sow them, and there are now 27,000 houses in the course of construction.
As your Lordships will be aware, in many quarters it has been suggested that no less a figure than 200,000 houses a year are going out of use because of disrepair; and it is equally suggested that the reason for this is that the restrictions in the Rent Acts make it impossible for landlords to keep them in repair. This 913 figure of 200,000 has been widely quoted, but I must confess that I have been unable to find any statistics, official or otherwise, which would justify or support that figure. Housing statistics to-day are kept most elaborately, but, even so, they do not show the number of houses going out of use annually because of disrepair. I recognise that statistics, even official statistics, are difficult and unsatisfactory things to build around in many senses, and I am not sure that you ever entirely get to the bottom of the problem in that way. That is even more the case if you try to do the statistics yourself.
Nevertheless, knowing that my noble friend's Motion was on the paper, I endeavoured to go into the matter myself and to find out whether I could answer a question which the noble Viscount put when he said that he did not know how many houses are going out of use every year because of their becoming too decrepit. I have made an attempt to check this figure. I hope your Lordships will not mind my wearying you with a number of figures, because I have reached some conclusion on the matter. If you take the census return of 1931 it shows at that tune that there were 10,595,000 structurally separate dwellings. The Sample Census Survey of 1951, on the other hand, shows 13,312,000. If we take the 1931 figure, and add to that figure the 2,647,000 houses built in the years 1931 to 1939, add to that the 200,000 houses completed during the war, the further 1,022,000 houses built after the war until the time of the 1951 census, and the 137,000 new dwellings provided in that period by conversion and adaptation of existing premises, we get a figure of 14,601,000 dwellings. Noble Lords will have to accept my addition. I think it is right. From that you have to deduct 377,000 houses demolished in the years 1931 to 1939 under local authorities' slum clearance schemes, and 470,000 houses destroyed or irreparably damaged by enemy action during the war. That produces a figure of 13,754,000. If you take that against the census figure of 1951, it shows a theoretical deficiency of 442,000 houses over twenty years. I suggest that, if my calculations are even approximately right, houses cannot possibly be going 914 out of use at anything like the rate of 200,000 a year.
§ LORD SILKIN
I have tried to follow the noble Lord's elaborate calculation, but I think he has taken into account twice over the loss of houses between 1931 and the war, when he talks of the loss over a period of twenty years.
I do not think I have, but I do not want to weary the House. If the noble Lord will look at what I have said in Hansard to-morrow—I may have done the sum wrongly, because, as I say, this is my own effort to get to the bottom of this matter—and if he can find a fault in it, I shall be glad to make a public apology. Anyway, to the best of my own calculation there is no justification for saying that houses are going out of commission at the rate of anything like 200,000 a year. There is another figure I ought to quote to give another comparison. In the period 1945 to 1951, there were demolished by local authorities some 33,000 houses, and a further 10,000 buildings or parts of buildings were closed by them as unfit for human habitation. That is a total of 43,000 houses which were demolished or closed during six years. Again, I suggest that this figure of 200,000 a year is a little wide of the mark. It seems to be a paper or, perhaps I should say, a newspaper figure.
Having said that, I should like to make it clear that in our view there are a great many houses in occupation at the present time which we should be only too glad to see fall into disuse if there were anywhere we could put the tenants. It is difficult to obtain firm figures of the number of houses of various ages, because it was not until well into the present century that detailed statistics of the number of houses built and houses demolished were kept. But on a reasonable estimate, it seems clear that well over 2,000,000 houses in this country are over 100 years old and over 4,000,000 are over 75 years old. I do not suggest for a moment that, merely because a house is 100 years old, it is in bad condition. Indeed, if that were the case, many of your Lordships' historic homes would be in ruins, and many of your Lordships would be living in tents. Indeed, I have been told by somebody who has studied this question that houses built up to the Industrial Revolution were generally built by craftsmen and were soundly constructed, 915 and very often good for another 200 or 300 years, but it is the houses within a certain period after the Industrial Revolution, the houses 100 years old, that are very possibly falling into disrepair. I suggest that many of those houses that I have mentioned—the 6,000,000 between 75 and 100 years old—do not come up to modern standards of construction or amenity, and the sooner tenants can be moved out of them into new houses the happier we all shall be. That is, of course, one of the reasons why we are concentrating on our housing programme.
What I want to emphasise is that in those cases it is not the operation of the Rent Restrictions Acts which is causing the houses to fall into disuse or will cause them to fall into disuse in the future. The real reason—and I think we must face up to this—is that those houses are in any case coming to the end of their useful life, and no repairs could really patch them up adequately. I would make so bold as to say that building labour would be much better employed constructing new houses, or in repairing houses in better condition which would have a longer span of life. I am referring to this particular category of houses. Therefore, I do not think the picture is perhaps quite so gloomy as some people would think. On the other hand, the last thing I wish to imply is that it is a rosy one. It is very far from that. As has been said, houses are an important national asset, and I am sure that your Lordships' will agree that it would be bad State management to permit a national asset to deteriorate.
In so far as the Rent Restrictions Acts are not only preventing, but also actively assisting, the process of deterioration, they need revision. How they should be revised is one of the problems to which the Government are giving anxious consideration at the present time. As has already been said by my noble friend, it is no good pretending that it is a simple problem. It is not. It is an extremely complicated problem. It may be said that if it is a question of rents being too low, it is easy enough to pass the necessary legislation increasing them. But I think there is more in it than that. As I see it, three individual requirements have to be satisfied. On the one hand, the landlord ought to receive a reasonable recompense for his investment and enterprise 916 and, on the other hand, the tenant ought to have accommodation at a reasonable price and an assurance that it will be kept habitable and in decent repair. Last, but I do not think by any means least, our national resources of materials and labour ought not to be wasted in repairing houses which are really irreparable and which ought properly to be demolished. But unfortunately these three requirements do not always coincide. For that reason, I am quite certain that a simple, flat-rate increase in all rents is hardly a proposition which will commend itself.
Let me take just one example. A class of landlord who is probably most hardly hit by the Rent Restrictions Acts is the owner of old controlled houses. As my noble friend has said, his rents are still tied to 1914 prices subject, of course, to certain permitted increases. In equity, it might well be said that if any increase in rents were to be permitted he should be the first to be considered. Yet, on the other hand, all old controlled houses were built before 1919, and it is in this class of property, more than in any other, that one would expect to find the bulk of these old houses which are at the end or near the end of their useful life. In many cases, therefore, any increase of rent which could reasonably be permitted would still be quite insufficient to pay for repairing the house. The house itself would not be worth repairing, and it would probably be impossible to maintain it for any length of time in a state which the tenant has the right to expect. Therefore, a mere flat rate increase in rents is not going to achieve our object. It cannot be in the national interest to waste our limited resources in maintaining old and jerry-built houses. Our object must surely be to pull them down as fast as we can and to replace them by decent modern dwellings. On the other hand, where there are houses which, if repaired, could have another twenty to thirty years of useful life, then clearly it is in the national interest that they should be repaired.
To put it another way, if new building is the long-term approach to this problem, then I am quite certain that the repair and maintenance of this latter type of house—the one with another twenty or thirty years of life—is part of the short-term solution of this problem. Therefore, as I have already said, where 917 the Rent Restrictions Acts prevent the repair of such houses, they ought to be revised. Nevertheless, in any revision which may take place, let us bear this in mind—this, again, has been mentioned by my noble friend Lord Buckmaster, and I was glad that he agreed with the Government in this matter. We have had a long experience of rent control—some people would say much too long, but that is the price of war and consequent shortages. But if we have gained nothing else, we have gained a good deal of experience. I think we ought to profit by it; and one of the lessons that we may well learn for the future is that if an increase of rents is granted to enable houses to be kept in repair, there should be stricter and more effective safeguards to see that the houses are, in fact, maintained in proper order.
The noble Viscount referred to a number of anomalies which exist under the present Acts. As I have already said, the removal of all these anomalies presents a task of Herculean proportions; and though the Government naturally have all these anomalies in mind in their review of this problem, I do not think the noble Viscount will expect me to deal with them all to-day. But he mentioned two particular points on which I should like to say a word. First, he suggested that landlords ought to be relieved, by an amendment of the Furnished Houses (Rent Control) Act of 1946, in such a way that rent tribunals would allow an increase of rent where such services as central heating, constant hot water, et cetera, are provided. I think there is, without doubt, a case for such an increase. It was supported by the Ridley Committee, and I can assure my noble friend that the Government have this matter very much in mind.
The noble Viscount mentioned (and I was somewhat disturbed to hear the figure which he quoted) houses that are going out of commission in Brighton and elsewhere. Of course, in sanitary inspectors' reports, although they mention the houses going out of commission, they do not always give the reason; and it is difficult to know how many are houses which ought not to be repaired and how many are houses which could have another twenty or thirty years of life. I was certainly very impressed—or perhaps I should say depressed—by the figure 918 given by the noble Viscount, and I shall certainly look into that matter at the first opportunity. The noble Viscount said—and I think this is a thing which we shall all deplore—that facilities for loans and grants for the purposes of repairs under the Housing Acts are not being fully used. I entirely agree with my noble friend, and we all wish that they could be used a great deal more than they are.
Finally, I should like once again to thank my noble friend for giving the House an opportunity of discussing this subject this afternoon. I can assure him and other noble Lords who are to take part that the Government are anxious to listen to any suggestion, from whatever quarter it may come, which will assist them to deal with what is a most intractable problem; and I can assure noble Lords that we will pay the closest attention to the views they put forward, whether they reflect the difficulties of the landlords who are unable to keep their property in a proper state of repair or the difficulties of tenants, faced with landlords who cannot or will not maintain their houses. The problem is quite complicated enough by itself. If it could be freed from the additional complications of Party strife and partisan approach, that, I believe, would be a great advantage to the whole nation. The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, in a recent debate on housing, expressed a grave concern at this problem and at the way we were going. If he really meant that, as I am sure he did, I think he may agree with me that what is needed to overcome this very serious state of affairs is a national effort and not a Party effort. If that gesture of good will was made on behalf of the noble Lord's Party my right honourable friend, and indeed the whole Government, would be willing to respond to it. As I have said, I am quite certain that this matter should be taken out of the arena of Party polities. To do this would be to make an enormous contribution towards a solution. I am not going to pretend that a bipartisan approach alone will enable a solution to be found; there must be practical steps also. Any solution must deal with the psychological problem involved, which is that, to be effective, the solution adopted must be seen to be fair all round.
§ 3.45 p.m.
§ LORD SILKIN
My Lords, I am sure there is no one in this House who will in any way complain of the tone, temper or spirit, or even of the substance, of the speech of the noble Viscount who has introduced this Motion. He tells us that he first introduced a similar Motion nine years ago, and I imagine that he is becoming something of an old hand at putting this case forward. He tells us that on every occasion he has had sympathy from the Government but not much assistance. I do not know whether he believes that history is repeating itself to-day: he is certainly getting sympathy, but I did not think he was getting very much help. I did not imagine that the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd, was going to make a statement to-day. I do not know whether the noble and learned Lord who is to wind up is to make a statement on Government policy, but this is not a new problem. The noble Lord is not hearing about these difficulties to-day for the first time, nor are the Government—
§ LORD SILKIN
—and we should have expected that by now, in view of the ample notice they had, the Government would have been prepared to come forward more helpfully than they have done this afternoon. As it is, we are told that they are investigating the problem. They are very much aware of all the difficulties, but that is not going to get us very far.
The noble Viscount, in putting down this Motion, has deliberately restricted it to the narrow issue of the difficulty of repairs of houses becoming uninhabitable through lack of necessary repairs. Of course, he knows, as we all know, that the problem is a much wider one than that. It is not merely a temporary one. All these difficulties connected with the whole question of rent restriction have to be gone into. Rent restriction first started thirty-seven years ago, and I think it is agreed that it must continue until the nation has an adequate supply of houses fit for habitation, where they are needed, with reasonable provision for mobility. Until that time comes it will be impossible to get rid of restriction. At the present rate of building—and I know noble Lords opposite are very satisfied with themselves about it—it will take 920 a generation before those conditions obtain. Lord Lloyd has given figures, with which I do not quarrel, as to the number of houses which are in an unsatisfactory condition to-day. I think he said the figure was 1,000,000 (I myself should have put the figure somewhat higher) and all these will have to be replaced before we are in a position to say that the housing problem has been solved. But his answer to the noble Viscount who introduced the Motion was that we must obtain a sufficiency of houses. I hope the noble Viscount will note, therefore, that, before it is possible to do anything of a long-term nature, a generation or so will have to go by.
I do not want to interrupt the noble Lord. I said merely that the long-term solution obviously was to build enough houses.
§ LORD SILKIN
Both noble Lords who have spoken have dealt with the complexity of the problem, the anomalies that have arisen and the large amount of legislation that has taken place on the subject. I thought perhaps I could illustrate it by letting your Lordships see a well-known textbook, known to lawyers as Megarry on Rent Restriction, which was first published, I think, in 1946. That was the first edition. It has since then gone through a new edition almost every year. It has become a "best-seller." The last edition was in 1951, and a new edition is in print to-day. Perhaps your Lordships will look at the Third Edition, which I have in my hand. If you now look at the Fifth Edition, which I have here, your Lordships will notice how it has grown. Now look at the Seventh Edition, and there is another one in print at the present time. If we go on at this rate, it will be quite impossible for me to purloin these books from the Library. The rents themselves are anomalous. They depend on fortuitous circumstances as to when the dwelling-house became controlled, and so on. However, I do 921 not want to dwell on that side of it because that has been adequately dealt with by the noble Viscount who introduced the Motion.
There is no doubt at all that there is a very grave problem which urgently requires to be dealt with. While we may all have differing ideas about the size of the problem, there is no doubt that it exists. Incidentally, I should have liked to ask the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd, how the Ministry of Housing and Local Government are getting on over this matter, because I understood some three months ago that they had started a survey, with a view to ascertaining the number of houses that were being rendered uninhabitable. I thought that it was going to take them about three months to do it, so that by now we ought to be informed as to the size of the problem, without the necessity for the noble Lord to make these intelligent guesses or calculations—I emphasise the word "intelligent." I think it is very intelligent to collect all those figures and arrive at a solution. Indeed, if the noble Lord had carried it a little further, I think he could have proved, on his figures, that there was no problem at all.
I will tell your Lordships why I say that. It is because the noble Lord did not take into account the number of houses which, but for the war, would have been demolished as slums. I do not think he ought to take those into consideration: they ought to be ruled out. Thus, if you assume that the slums would have been demolished from 1939 to 1952 at the same rate as they were before the war, they would have amounted to many more than the 400,000 about which the noble Lord has been talking. Therefore, in fact it would appear that it is only the slum houses, which ought to have been demolished but which are standing, that account for this number, and that in fact no houses have been rendered uninhabitable through lack of necessary repairs.
I hesitate to interrupt the noble Lord again, but even if he added those figures into the sum, I do not think it would come to anything like 200,000.
I do not want to embark on this too deeply. All I am saying is that I doubt whether the noble 922 Lord's calculation really is sound, because it appears to arrive at an unreasonable result. I am convinced that, though the number of houses that are rendered uninhabitable may not be 200,000 a year, it is a fact that it is considerably more than the noble Lord has said. At any rate, there is no need for either of us to be speculating on the matter. This survey is being made, and we ought to have had the results of that survey before us this afternoon. If we accept the fact, whether the number is very great or relatively great, that there are a substantial number of houses being lost to the nation through the inability of landlords to carry out necessary repairs, and that these are houses other than slum houses, which would in any case have been demolished during these years, then the whole House will agree that something has to be done about it. A number of proposals have been put forward from various quarters about which I should like to say a word or two; then I want to make a suggestion.
The first proposal is the one that was referred to by the noble Viscount, namely, an immediate increase on existing rents to meet the additional cost of repairs based on the present-day allowance for repairs—that is, the difference between the gross and the net rateable values. That is a proposal which has the backing of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and of the Chartered Auctioneers' and Estate Agents' Institute. If I mention a number of objections to the proposal, it is only to support the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd, in his statement that this is a very difficult problem and not as simple as the noble Viscount, Lord Buckmaster, and others may make out. It is not so easy that it can be met by a straight increase in rents. It would be difficult, in practice, to secure that the increased rent was spent by the landlord on necessary repairs. In the statement by the surveyors, they refer to the provision in the Rent Restrictions Act by which, on a sanitary inspector's certificate that the place is not habitable, the rent can be withheld. Those of us who have had some experience of the working of that provision will know that it did not work out satisfactorily. It was complicated. Tenants were reluctant to go to the sanitary inspector. Sanitary inspectors were not always sympathetic. 923 It was quite a complicated piece of procedure to get a reduction in rent, and the result was not always that the repairs were carried out. It meant merely withholding the increase in rent until those repairs were done.
In many cases, the condition of the house is so bad that no increase in the rent which is likely to be acceptable to the tenant would meet the case. In some cases it would take ten or fifteen years' rent to carry out even the most elementary repairs to make these houses habitable. There is a considerable number of those cases. Indeed, I should say that in every case where the rent is of the order of 7s. or 8s. a week, or even under 10s. a week, no reasonable increase in the rent would enable the landlord to carry out the necessary repairs.
We have some indication of that in the case of Birmingham. Birmingham acquired some 30,000 houses which they would one day need to demolish in connection with their redevelopment programme, but which have a life of some twenty or thirty years. They have been carrying out simple repairs to keep those houses habitable in the meantime. Up to last year the average amount that they had spent was £100 a house. They were able to do it with their own organisation, and cheaply. But even £100 a house, as an average, masks a very wide range of figures. You can reach that average in cases where some houses might require £400 or £500 spent on them. So my point is that a straight increase in rent alone will not solve the problem of those houses which are in the worst condition.
Then there is the question of ownership. I think the whole of the noble Viscount's speech referred really to the pre-war owner, for whom all of us must have great sympathy, and particularly for the large number of persons who bought property as an investment in order to provide for themselves and their dependants, and who to-day find themselves not only without income but with the proceeds from the property not even sufficient to keep the premises in repair. But that is not necessarily the normal case. A large proportion of the properties that are rent-restricted to-day have changed hands. There are, as I know, large numbers of property companies which, in recent 924 years, have been going round the country buying up property at very low prices, sometimes for a mere song; so that they themselves, on their outlay, are getting quite a reasonable return for their money and, if they so desire, are able to carry out the necessary repairs—and no doubt are doing so.
To give a straight increase to persons who have gambled on a possible increase in the permitted rents under the Rent Restrictions Acts would not really be in the spirit of what we are seeking to do this afternoon; there would have to be some discrimination between the person who is suffering genuine hardship—the pre-war owner, or even the immediate post-war owner—and this type of person who, whilst I am not suggesting he is acting reprehensibly, is at any rate not deserving or particularly in need of assistance. I notice that many of these property companies, having acquired large numbers of rent restricted properties, are paying substantial dividends. One that I know is paying a 22 per cent. dividend. That is not bad, and there is no earthly reason why they should be put in the position of paying a 30 per cent. dividend. So we have to be extremely careful that any increase of rent is not provided in such a way that it gives benefit alike to the righteous and to the unrighteous.
I am here going to venture on a prophecy, which is always dangerous. I believe that we are reaching the summit of the high cost of repairs. I think the tendency in the future may well be for the cost of repairs to come down. There are some signs of it already. I am not going to give credit for that to Her Majesty's Government, but it is a fact that in some instances prices are coming down. The price of cement is coming down. Of course, the cost of labour is going up, but it may well be that we have reached the top and that henceforth prices will come down. If they do, there ought to be some provision by which rents will come down. I do not think we could agree to a fixed increase in rents which might be increased still further if prices went up, but could not be decreased if prices went down.
Again, in 1939, when control suddenly descended, there is no doubt that some rents were too high. I do not say that there was a large number of them, but 925 a proportion of them were high. Let me just remind the House of the circumstances in which this might well have happened. As your Lordships know, in the 'thirties a certain number of dwellings which had previously been controlled, were decontrolled. They were decontrolled when vacant possession was obtained by the landlord, and the landlord was then free tore-let those premises freed from control at any rent he liked. Therefore, although in 1939 they once more became subject to rent restriction, many of the rents were extremely high. Those are cases where it may well turn out that the rent which the landlord is getting, to-day is adequate to enable him to pay the increased cost of repairs. These cases would have to be looked at. There is the danger to which the noble Viscount referred, of piecemeal legislation. This is touching only one part of the problem. There is still the problem of people who are getting no income at all from their properties and who would still get no income, even if these increases were permitted to enable them to carry out repairs. After all, whatever one may think of landlords, they are not in the business merely to own property with a view to carrying out repairs; they do expect to get some return on their money. In many cases this proposal does not give them that return; it merely enables them to carry out the necessary repairs.
Finally, if would remind the House of the economic effect of such an increase in rents merely to carry out repairs. I would compare the proposed higher rents (that is, those which have been proposed by the Chartered Surveyors and Auctioneers) with the reduction in the cost of food subsidies. Curiously enough, it works out at something like the same figure, although the increase in rents that would be necessary would, if anything, be rather higher. In the case of the reduction in food subsidies, there was stated to be a quid pro quo. In many cases there was. There was an increase in the family allowance to those with more than one child, and there was some relief in income tax for those who were already paying tax. But in this case, the increase in the rents would provide no relief whatever to the tenants, and in the calculation that I have made the increase would, in the aggregate, amount to something like £200 to £250 millions a year. I do not think that is a figure which can be ignored. If 926 people are called upon at short notice to pay substantial increases in their rents, that is a factor which is taken into account in the cost of living figures, and there is very little doubt that some claims would be made for increases in wages which would once more result in the inflationary spiral, which we are all seeking to avoid, being set in motion. Those are very serious difficulties that arise with respect to the proposal of the Chartered Surveyors.
A number of other proposals have been made and I should like to touch upon some of them very lightly. There is the proposal for the acquisition of property by local authorities. Birmingham has done this on a large scale, and has burnt its fingers. I doubt whether other local authorities will be prepared to go in for this unless they get a subsidy from Her Majesty's Government; and whether Her Majesty's Government will be prepared to subsidise the acquisition of such properties, which, admittedly, have a relatively short life, I do not know. The noble Lord, Lord Lloyd, certainly gave no encouragement to that idea. It might well be that this is a task which housing associations or possibly even building societies would be prepared to undertake. Since the noble Lord is looking for suggestions—not having any ideas of his own—I put that forward.
§ LORD SILKIN
I put that forward as a possibility. I think there is a job to be done by housing associations, and I know that a number of them are actually doing it. But, of course, they will need some assistance, and I should say it may well be worth the while of the Government to give some assistance—not on a large scale —to housing associations or even to local authorities, to the extent that it might relieve them from providing even greater subsidies for new dwellings. Then the proposal has been put forward that additional tax allowance should be given in respect of the increased cost of repairs. That is just a subsidy in another form. Moreover, it would not benefit those small landlords whose income is so low that they do not pay income tax at all. And there would be the difficulty, furthermore, of ensuring that the repairs were actually carried out once tie tax assistance had been given. Then there is the proposal 927 of the Ridley Committee for asking tribunals to fix rents. That, I submit, would be exceedingly difficult administratively, and you would not solve the problem because you would still have to give some directions to the tribunal. They have to work on some principle to enable them to carry out their task. If you just left it to the tribunals at large, you would get an extraordinary series of anomalous results.
Lastly, as a long-term solution there is the proposal which I should favour—but only as a long-term solution—of having rents fixed on the basis of the new valuations under the Local Government Act of 1948. On the assumption that those valuations are going to be uniform throughout the country and centralized, and that they would take care of the differences in different localities, you have a basis upon which you can start a new series of rents which would iron out anomalies and make matters clear as between one dwelling and another. Unfortunately the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, who is sitting by the side of Lord Lloyd, only the other day brought forward a measure to put off the valuations indefinitely—at least, if not indefinitely, he says for three or four or five years; it is at any rate going to be for a long time. I thought it a great pity because we might have been able to solve serious problems of rent restriction by means of those valuations. I have put these varying proposals before your Lordships, not because I think it is possible for you to come to any conclusions on them to-day but to indicate how difficult and complicated the problem is, and to show that it does require a good deal of consideration.
Both noble Lords who have spoken have referred to the desire for getting a non-Party approach to this problem. I would agree. I would go further and say that there are a great many problems which would benefit by having a non-Party approach to their solution. Unfortunately, we have not had very great encouragement in the past to approach any problem in a non-Party and co-operative spirit. We are to-day dealing with housing and I know of no other matter which has been the subject of so much controversy, bitterness and Party strife in the past. I am not suggesting that one Party is any more to blame than 928 another. Though I have my own ideas on that matter, for the sake of peace I will assume that they are equally to blame. But noble Lords must not ask us, on this side, to make all the contributions towards a non-Party approach and non-Party action, without themselves being prepared to take a similar line. Having said that—and I thought it was right to say it—I would add that I think that this is a matter which does call for concerted action, if that is at all possible. The position is becoming rapidly graver and more urgent, and it is earnestly to be hoped that a non-Party approach will be agreed upon. It is going to be difficult from a political point of view—I can well understand that Her Majesty's Government might be reluctant to introduce measures for increasing rents, even for the purpose of enabling repairs to be carried out, and still more so for dealing comprehensively with the problem which is going to be with us. I think, for more than a generation.
If I am right in that, may I say, by way of interlude, that I much regret that the Government have apparently abandoned any idea of simplification of the legislation? We really cannot go on multiplying legislation on this subject, increasing indefinitely the number of cases, complex and conflicting as they are. Something ought to be done, however difficult it may be— and I admit the difficulties. We have stated on this side of the House that there are difficulties, but the question really ought to be dealt with more speedily. Unless we can be sure that rent restriction will come to an end within the next few years, I propose there should be a full inquiry into all the relevant facts with a view to putting forward, if possible, agreed proposals for a solution of the problem. I think that the inquiry should be objective and that it should not be carried out solely by Her Majesty's Government. In saying that, I do not wish to be provocative, nor am I implying that Her Majesty's Government are incapable of finding a solution, but I would say it is more likely to be acceptable if it is put forward by an objective tribunal, a committee of inquiry which has no axe to grind, which is not looking at the matter from a purely political point of view and which is concerned with ascertaining all the relative facts and with putting forward the right solution.
929 The inquiry should be in two parts. The first part should report as a matter of urgency, if possible within a matter of a few months—I would suggest within three months—upon the subject of houses that are becoming uninhabitable through inadequacy of rent. That is the urgent matter. The second part of the inquiry could report on all long-term questions of rent restriction which have been discussed in this debate so far. I would myself lay down in advance, in order to secure general agreement, that if any increase of rent is recommended as a result of the first part of the inquiry, such an increase should be clearly and definitely connected with the provision of necessary repairs by the landlord, and should be for no other purpose than to meet the increased cost to him of repairs since 1939; and there should be no increased rent where the owner is already getting an adequate return on his outlay. This is my own suggestion. I have already indicated what I think may well be a solution to the long-term problem, but this question of repairs cannot wait, particularly in view of the postponement of the national assessment.
As the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd, has said, this is a national problem. Our housing constitutes a large part of our national wealth. I estimate the present-day value of our rent-controlled dwellings at some £2,250 million to £2,500 million. That is a lot of money, my Lords. Apart from the human suffering resulting from bad housing, we cannot afford to waste this great inheritance. Yet, if nothing is done, and done quickly, Britain will become largely a land of slums. Already mere than half our existing houses are over 50 years old and a very large number are over 100years old—without speaking of houses of greater antiquity. They have reached middle age arid are approaching old age and they need great care. I am sure the patriotism, the good will, the courage and the good sense of all concerned will find a satisfactory solution.
§ 4.24 p.m.
My Lords, it would be ingenuous to imagine that most of the facts, figures and arguments that have been used this afternoon, or are likely to be used, are not already known to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. As we have been reminded, 930 there have been numerous debates, both in this House and in another place, on the subject of the Rent Restrictions Acts and the related subject of the decay of obsolescent houses. We had a debate as recently as last June which was distinguished by a remarkable speech by the noble Lord, Lord Silkin. That speech led to an extension of the Press campaign, in which practically all newspapers took part, including even Punch, and which was distinguished by a series of particularly cogent and well-informed articles in The Times. Then there have been reports by such bodies as the Association of Sanitary Inspectors and others. The outcome of all this has been to show that the housing shortage has been greatly aggravated by the large number of existing houses that are falling down.
The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, has just said that if nothing is done, England will become largely a country of slums. That is saying quite a lot. In view of all this, the question arises why so little has been done and so little has been promised. Presumably the answer is, first, the technical difficulties of doing anything and, secondly, and, even more, the political difficulties of doing anything. It is obvious to anybody who considers the problem superficially that there are great technical difficulties to be overcome. Even a small rise in rents will bear hardly on some people, particularly on the old, unless, of course, they repair to the National Assistance board. I think I am right in saying that over one million people receive assistance from the National Assistance Board in respect of rent, and undoubtedly that figure would be greater were it not that a number of proud people have a perfect horror of going to the Poor Law, as they consider it, even now. But some rather startling cases have come to my knowledge lately which show that others have not this inhibition and that some people are becoming expert in obtaining large sums of money in aid of rent from the National Assistance Board. It is undesirable to encourage this sort of thing, but it is difficult to avoid it.
Another obvious difficulty is to do justice between one owner and another. The question of justice for owners has not been a popular platform topic in recent years, chiefly, I think, because anything one can say from any angle is 931 probably true in certain cases. No doubt there are cases where there is profiteering, in spite of all the legislation protecting tenants, but surely there is ample evidence that, in the large majority of cases, landlords, so far from profiteering, are expected to bear an impossible burden. I happen to be President of the National Federation of Housing Societies. As your Lordships know, a housing society is limited by Treasury regulations in the profit it can make. Therefore there can be no question of profiteering in our case. Indeed, most of the older societies are semi-charitable in origin. I have had one or two figures submitted to me, and in them I find that one society, which is extremely well known and extremely well managed, far from making any profit in respect of a block of forty flats built between the wars, finds that the amount left over for repairs is about £164, just over £4 a flat. Your Lordships will know how much repairs can be done these days for £4. The society's report goes on to say:We are spending £4,720 a year more than we can afford; our reserves are nearly exhausted.Another of these societies points out that their expenses for wages and repairs have gone tip from about £14,000 in 1939 to £33,000 in 1951—that is, for comparable work—and their rents have not advanced in anything like the same proportion. They too have used up nearly all their reserves. These are the best-managed societies, and this is typical of the position in which such societies are placed. Some of them have managed to keep their properties in order by borrowing. But this kind of thing cannot go on, and if there is no alteration they will have to watch their properties deteriorate.
Obviously, great hardship must be involved, both to tenants and owners, in all these different cases. Obviously, also, it will be difficult to unscramble this position, and to ensure that concessions are spent on repairs, as I think most of us agree they should be. There are, in fact, numerous formidable technical objections. Formidable and complicated as these technical objections are, however, I do not believe that they account for the deadlock we have got into. The real stumbling-block seems to be political. It seems to be impossible to devise a 932 scheme which is technically sound and, at the same time, guaranteed not to lose votes; and the threat of the loss of votes is apt to cause dissension in the ranks of the Party introducing legislation. We were practically told this in so many words by Mr. Bevan in 1950, when I believe he said that it was impossible to consider the complete revision of the Rent Restrictions Acts until the Labour Party had a bigger majority. Although other Ministers may not have been quite so specific, that seems to be what they have been thinking ever since. I do not know that anybody can say that any Party will have a big majority in the near future, and the consequences of delay are serious.
My only suggestion is one that has already been made—namely, that there should be some collaboration between the two Front Benches in regard to legislation. We are often told that such bipartisan collaboration fails because the clash of Party principle prevents action being taken. Happily, in this case we need not fear that particular difficulty, because at the present time housing legislation is not based on Party principle or, indeed, on any other logical principle whatever: it is nothing but an accumulation of expedients. How can one really say that it is logical to spend vast sums of Government money on subsidising the rents of new houses and, at the same time, do nothing effective to encourage the improvement, or even the repair, of existing houses? As The Times leader of November 11 said:The greatest cost of all is the widespread, inexorable, cumulative decay to which millions of usable existing dwellings are being condemned by their owners' want of means to keep them in good repair. This enforced neglect of immensely valuable capital assets is assuming tragic dimensions. The nation cannot afford to pursue the hope of more and more new homes if the necessary price is to be the premature conversion of at least as many old homes into slum dwellings. Britain will not have a rational housing policy until she begins by taking proper care of the dwellings she has, rather than by sacrificing them for those she might have.My noble friend Lord Lloyd rather suggested that there was a good deal of misconception about this question of decay. If there is misconception, it is fairly widespread; and the sooner the real facts are presented the better. There is a lot that is illogical about our present housing 933 legislation. Is it logical that the subsidies now being paid for new houses should be met, in part, by the contributions of quite poor people living in these old houses; and that the contributions towards the rates should in many cases go to people much better off than those paying the contributions? I saw some cases reported at the annual meeting of the Rural District Councils' Association where certain subsidised houses were being let to people with incomes of over £1,000 a year. I do not know whether those cases are true—I have not been able to verify them—but they might well be. That is not logical. Nor are all these anomalies of the Rent Restrictions Acts which we are now discussing.
I feel that if there were some collaboration between the present Minister and his opposite number in the Labour Party they would find a great deal in common. They would probably have something to say about the extremists in their respective Parties: those on the Conservative side who want an increase of rents, quite unrelated to repairs, and those on the Labour side who, I understand, want to extend rent control to cover council houses, as well as those now covered. I feel that they could mutually agree as to the difficulty of getting Parliamentary time for controversial and unpopular legislation, and they could probably produce quite a number of constructive suggestions. This may all sound naïve, and perhaps presumptuous. In this case I am speaking not as an owner of property—though I do own certain agricultural property—but more from the point of view of an administrator, one of those many thousands of people who in local government are trying to implement the policies of all Parties, whatever views they may hold as to the Parties' merits.
What we find, particularly in the home counties, is this. We are asked to look after the housing needs of our own people. In addition, we are asked to supply houses for the overspill of neighbouring county boroughs and of London, notwithstanding the fact that we already have new towns in our midst. We know that when we accede to all these requests—when we have used up immense tracts of agricultural land, and spent a great deal of our money on housing, roads, services, water supplies, schools and so forth—we shall be no 934 nearer to finality than we are to-day. We know that we shall have just as long housing lists and just as strong pressure from our neighbours to take more of our houses. Really, what can you expect when a very large number of houses are falling down as fast as we build new ones? At times one may perhaps be forgiven for thinking that there are certain problems which, by reason of their unpopularity, cannot be faced up to by Parliamentary democratic government at all. I hope that that conclusion will be proved wrong. I know that we have a Minister of great capacity and great inventiveness, and I express the fervent hope that he will do something to get us out of the mess into which we seem to have drifted. Although I know it is the duty of the Opposition to oppose, I hope equally that in this particular matter they will make his task as easy as they can.
§ 4.42 p.m.
§ LORD MORRISON
My Lords, it is a long time since I listened to anyone making such a convincing case as the noble Viscount Lord Buckmaster, made this afternoon, and it is a much longer time since I heard anyone from the Government Bench make such a gloomy and depressing reply. Unfortunately, your Lordships' House does not meet on a Monday, but it occurred to me, while he was speaking, that it would have been a suitable speech to make on Monday when we were all fog-bound. I wish briefly to approach this question from a rather different angle. I do so—and I hope the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd, will give me credit for it—largely in defence of the Government. I think the noble Lord might have made a much stronger case of the fact that the Government do not appear to be in a position to take any action at all about this unless somebody else puts forward some suggestions as to something they think the Government could do.
I propose to make a small contribution in that respect. The angle from which I am going to approach this is the angle from which I am sure the Government ought to look at this question; and it is this. This matter was riot mentioned in the gracious Speech, and most people were very surprised. Personally, I was not surprised. The reason it was not mentioned, in my view, was that the present Government have an insufficient 935 majority to carry through any heavy legislation, and therefore they decided not to mention this subject. As a result, the amount of legislation which will be passed by the present Parliament will be greatly reduced. The Labour Parliament occupied exactly the same position: they had not a sufficient working majority for them to get through more than a very limited amount of contentious legislation. It seems to me that the present Government—although I am not going to make a scoring point of this—have added to the difficulty by deciding that their main legislation this Session will be to repeal two Acts of Parliament that were passed by their predecessors. It is obvious that if we are going to proceed like that, then we shall be passing Acts of Parliament and repealing them, Parliament after Parliament, until long after many of us are dead and gone. The Parliamentary time left, therefore, is insufficient for more urgently needed legislation, and when the noble Viscount, Lord Buck-master, comes along and makes out an almost unanswerable case the reply may be—and I think it would be a reasonable one—"lack of Parliamentary time." In other words, this Government are in the same difficulty as the last Government: they have too small a majority to do anything.
The question therefore appears to me to be this: Must this and other acute matters connected with housing be left to get worse, week by week and month by month, because of the difficult political situation? Is there any alternative? Of course, it might be said that there is a simple alternative—that the Government might resign. Well, we might as well be frank with each other, in this House at any rate, and I am going to be frank. Judging by the by-elections which have taken place, if a General Election were to take place now, the result would probably not be materially different from what it is at the present time—that is to say, there might be a slight swing of the pendulum. Nobody knows, and your guess is as good as mine. It might result in a Labour Government, again with a very slight majority, just as we have now. On the other hand, it might result in the same Government being returned in much the same position. The point I am making 936 is that I think we all agree that, which-ever Party won, the majority would be small; and a Labour Government with a small majority would be in a similar difficulty to that facing a Conservative Government with a small majority.
This position may go on for some years, and I believe that it is a dangerous position. It is a real challenge to what is often described as the political genius of the British people. The question I wish to ask is: Can British politicians once again rise to the occasion, or must they go on and on in the same way, with all-night sittings, slap-dash attacks on each other, weary and sleepy M.Ps. emerging from their futile labours as day dawns after nights of harrying tactics, to use the picturesque phrase of Mr. Boothby? Now that Mr. Boothby is on the Government side he says that it was a foolish remark to make. There is an alternative, and I am certain that an overwhelming majority of the public realise it, even if Members of Parliament do not. To use a Labour phrase, I suggest that we "face the facts," and the facts are these. This is the situation as I see it. The main political Parties are almost equally matched in another place, and, so far as one can judge, in the country. They may remain so for years to come. In the meantime, certain problems urgently require legislation. One of them is housing, particularly in its financial aspect. The noble Viscount, Lord Buckmaster, has brought one phase to our notice to-day. I have already said that his case for speedy action is unanswerable. I doubt whether any responsible Member in either House would deny that the revision of the Rent Restrictions Acts is overdue.
Another Motion dealing with the same phase of the problem has been on the Order Paper for some time in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Meston, from the Liberal Benches. Yet a third stands in the name of Lord Broughshane; another was raised recently by the noble Lord. Lord Silkin, in a speech which received much public approval, and he has already spoken to-day; and, if I may be pardoned for referring to the fact, I recently drew the attention of your Lordships to a new financial crisis which is now threatening nearly every local authority in Great Britain. I said then that with a little common sense and a spirit of sweet 937 reasonableness these urgent matters could be settled very largely on non-Party lines. I repeat that. I go further and say that, in my opinion, unless they are lifted above Party politics they will bring this Government down. Noble Lords may ask why I should worry about that I do not; but it will bring the next Government down as well; and, in either case, the success or failure of any political Party is of less importance to me than getting the housing problem straightened up, because it means so much for the future of the country—and, I might say, for helping to preserve the confidence of the people in democratic government.
I realise that neither political Party will easily lay off slanging each other, particularly on this issue—and they do it well and good; it makes good propaganda. But Government supporters have made many speeches claiming to be building more houses than the last Government. Opposition speakers have also made many speeches, casting doubt on these alleged achievements. Both the Government and the Opposition in the main continue to ignore the real problem, that houses are becoming unfit for human habitation at an ever-increasing rate. The Times on Monday last referred to this debate as:… a problem which has become a matter of increasing concern and is now being investigated by the Government….I can tell The Times—it is no secret—that the Labour Party Executive is also giving special consideration to this problem. In these circumstances I hope that both the Government and the Opposition will publish their conclusions as soon as possible for the benefit of the public, because the public are now becoming very impatient. It may be—I do not profess to know—that both Parties may be nearer agreement than some propaganda speeches would lead us to believe. It may be that both Parties will devise some method of revising rent control which would prevent the disaster of houses falling into complete decay because their owners cannot afford to repair them—I think this is one of the essential points—without such large increases in the rent for the tenant as would cause tremendous social disturbance. To sum up what I am trying to tell your Lordships, I see no reason—I am speaking on behalf of myself—why 938 this problem should not be lifted out of the arena of Party politics. I know that ardent politicians in your Lordships' House and in another place will tell me that this cannot be done. As an old and experienced politician I say that it can be done. In the first place it has been done in the past; and in the second place it is being done at present. I propose to prove this and to make a suggestion.
The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, suggested an inquiry. That would make three inquiries going on, and we might as well have one more. Perhaps I had better make my suggestion first and produce my proof afterwards. My suggestion is that we should form ourselves into a Working Party. I admit that to the public that is a somewhat unusual title for a party from your Lordships' House Many of the public find it difficult to believe that any of your Lordships ever do any work at all, and they would find it difficult to understand why we should suddenly decide to form a Working Party. I think, however, that a Working Party from this House, made up from political Parties, might be useful, if only to prove that your Lordships can do a real job of work and do it quickly and in a practical and workmanlike manner. The terms of reference, I suggest, would be: To consider as a matter of urgency ways and means by which the loss of houses becoming uninhabitable through lack of repairs can be arrested, and to seek all-Party agreement to the necessary legislation. The Lord Chancellor, in the event of my suggestion falling on fruitful ground, would, I hope, be willing to preside over its first meeting and start it off.
The question may be asked whether this is a practical proposal. I said a moment ago that it has been done and now I will prove that. In the year 1943 a Report was presented to your Lordships. Perhaps I may be allowed to read a quotation from it. The quotation is as follows:A Post-War Agricultural Policy for Great Britain.That is the title. Then it goes on:This memorandum is prepared by a group of Peers holding various political creeds. We have agreed to the following proposals containing something which each of us might find difficult, if not impossible, to accept if we did not feel the overriding importance of the goal.939 Do not those words express exactly the situation in regard to housing? The pamphlet goes on:…The task before us is not easy. If we want a prosperous countryside we must be prepared not only to accept, but actively to bring about, the changes that it entails. Happy-go-lucky farming, chaotic distribution and the land owner who is a mere rent receiver, these are not the things that we can enjoy or endure and at the same time have a prosperous countryside….The pamphlet is signed:
Eleven Members of your Lordships' House drafted this pamphlet in 1943; and, as everyone knows, our present agricultural policy is largely based on this Report. All parties—and this is equally important, two political Parties—are committed to it. Agriculture has in the main been lifted out of the arena of Party politics.
- "De La Warr (Chairman).
- Balfour of Burleigh.
The other statement I made was that it was being done to-day; and again the onus of proof is on me. Let me quote a passage from The Times. The passage refers to the Business for this week and is as follows:The Education Bill…is an agreed measure…Miss Horsbrugh, Minister of Education, will move the Second Reading of the Education Bill, which proposes giving financial assistance to the denominational schools.As a matter of fact, Miss Horsbrugh did not move the Second Reading; her Parliamentary Secretary did it. He said that there was very wide agreement and no Party quarrel. The leading speaker for the Opposition was an ex-Cabinet Minister, Mr. Chuter Ede. He said (OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons; Vol. 509, Col. 127):…my right honourable and honourable friends join me in giving a welcome to this Bill.He was followed by the Leader of the Liberal Party, who said (Col. 128):In the main…we accept this measure.I leave it at that. If a Bill to finance the building of denominational schools throughout the country can be accepted 940 and even welcomed by all Parties, what is there to prevent a similar arrangement for urgent housing problems such as we are now discussing? The noble Lord, Lord Lloyd, stressed the difficulties of this situation. Those of your Lordships who have taken an interest in this question of denominational schools will know that if it is a difficult problem you want, there are plenty of difficulties attaching to that problem—and yet they have been overcome. They have been overcome because outside interests have convinced all Parties that it is necessary. This is not a trivial Bill. It is an important measure. It has gone through the other place without any Party wrangling at all.
Finally, I think that these triumphs of common sense might be repeated. This would not only help to solve our housing difficulties but would go a long way towards fully restoring the faith of the British people in democratic government, and that is important. These are my alternatives. The noble Lord, Lord Lloyd, asked for constructive alternatives. I have endeavoured to put one, and stress that a similar device (if I may use the word) was very successful in regard to agriculture. I repeat my firm opinion that, in the present state of political deadlock, my suggestions would be welcomed by an overwhelming majority of the British people. Non-Party approach may be difficult for another place; it is not so difficult for the House of Lords. I hope that, as a result of this interesting debate, members of this House will at least decide to do something forthwith. I can think of nothing better, but perhaps other members will think of something better, than to set up a Working Party from amongst ourselves to treat this as a matter of urgency, so that we may give this Government some guidance as to what it is that we, as an all-Party group of members, recommend.
§ 5.3 p.m.
My Lords, I rise to support the Motion so ably moved by the noble Viscount, Lord Buckmaster. We on this side of the House have listened with great interest to what the noble Lord, Lord Morrison, has just said. I am sure that many of us feel that this whole question should be approached as a non-Party matter. I am bound to say that the noble Lord who has just sat down hardly referred to housing as such, and 941 did not refer to any possible solution of the problem. I regret that my noble friend Lord Lloyd is not in the House at the moment, because I think many of us were surprised at the difficulty he found in arriving at the figure showing the number of houses which are falling into decay, owing to lack of repairs and other reasons, because in another place it was said on November 6, 1950:The immediate basic fact which stares us in the face to-night is that building at the rate of 200,000 houses a year in no way solves the problem.Of course, that was said two years ago, when the rate was 200,000 a year. It appears now to be approaching 300,000 houses a year. But this statement went on to say:At the former rate we do not make any progress with re-housing the nation. We only keep level with houses which are already falling or have fallen into decay.
It was from a speech in another place. I can give the noble and learned Lord the paper afterwards.
I will quote another remark on this very subject, and that came from the Sanitary Inspectors' Association, in November, 1951. They said:In the case of most large towns, figures are available to show that the annual wastage substantially exceeds the new accommodation made available under the house building programme.That was only a year ago. So it is difficult to follow my noble friend's argument when he says that he thinks this figure is so largely exaggerated. I, for one, do not believe that it is largely exaggerated. It is difficult to follow the noble Lord's mathematical calculations, but this does appear: that the effect of the non-repair of rent-controlled houses is cumulative, and that although at the start of a period of years it is thought that only a small number will become uninhabitable within those years, at the end the effect is that of a snowball—hundreds of houses become uninhabitable in only one year.
I will quote only one more instance of this question of houses falling into disrepair. This was given by Mr. Ernest 942 Marples in another place in 1951 in a pamphlet he published:The hard fact is that 200,000 houses become obsolete each year in this country. If only 200,000 houses are built every twelve months, we do no more than replace those which he said:—and he refers to the late Minister of Health, Mr. Bevan—fall into decay.I have quoted quite sufficient to show that there is a conflict of opinion, at any Tate, between the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd, who I see has just come into the House, and the authorities I have quoted. I hope that the noble Lord will consult the gentleman whom I have quoted and try to arrive at a firmer figure than he gave us to-day.
The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, referred to the financial effect that the adoption of the scheme proposed by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors might have on the total finance of the country. There again (I am sorry that the noble Lord has left the House), I find it hard to follow his calculation. I have in my hand Appendix 2 of the pamphlet issued by this Institution which shows that, taking the average per controlled house, under their scheme the increase of rent would amount to approximately £10 a year. How many of these houses are there? There are 4,000,000 old controlled houses and 4,000,000new controlled houses—that is, 8,000,000. Then there appear to be 3,000,000 (and these figures are fairly well substantiated) post-1919 houses which are let at higher rents. If these are included it gives a total of 11,000,000 houses. If you take this scheme of the Chartered Surveyors and multiply their annual increase of rent of £10 by 11,000,000 you get a figure of £110,000,000 a year, and not £250,000,000 a year, the figure quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Silkin.
I would draw your Lordships' attention to the fact that on each individual (I am taking the average) the increase of rent would be £10 a year, or 4s. a week. I think very few of your Lordships would say, from practical experience, that occupiers of rent-controlled houses are unable to pay a further 4s. a week rent. If that 4s. were to be devoted to the repair of the houses in which they live, I am quite certain that they would be only too willing to pay that sum, or, if you like, 5s. a week, in order 943 to retain the tremendous benefits of living in a rent-controlled house. That I believe is absolutely true. The difference between the rent of a rent-controlled house and that of a council house to-day is enormous. People will do anything to remain in a rent-controlled house at a low rent.
I had proposed to say something about how the local housing authorities deal with this problem. Many noble Lords who have spoken this afternoon have said that this problem is so difficult that nobody can deal with it—neitherthis Government, the late Government, nor the next Government. But is that really true? The local housing authorities, who of course are dealing with uncontrolled houses and have something very good to let, take very positive steps to increase their revenues and raise their rents. To-day the fact is that we are living again in a country of two nations—those who live in council houses and those who live in rent-controlled houses. As the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, said quite recently, those who live in council houses receive a present of 13s. 9d. per week as a contribution to their rent, and up to £2 a week for a flat where land is expensive. I hope that I have not misquoted the noble Lord. Happy indeed are those who live under those conditions! They remind me of a character referred to many years ago in Book II, Ode X, by Horace. He described an individual as being well off when spared the squalor of a decayed roof, and equally fortunate when spared the upkeep of a lordly mansion.
I think it is very clear that those who live in council houses are, in some degree, fortunate. Of course, this system of indiscriminate subsidies, irrespective of need, is most wasteful of public money, and in many cases the poorer members of the community are actually subsidising wealthier persons to live in better houses than they themselves are able to occupy. Many cases have been quoted in this connection, and many also of people living in council houses where the household has up to and over £40 a week coming in gross weekly wages. Yet, through the housing rates of the local authority and the taxes, poorer households are paying to house those who are richer than themselves. This, of course, is demonstrably unfair as between individual taxpayers and individual rent payers, and 944 it is recognised as such by a large section of the Press, whatever their political views.
I propose, with your Lordships' permission, to quote very shortly the methods adopted, or proposed to be adopted, by local authorities to try to even out some of the anomalies that have arisen. I believe that your Lordships may discover how these methods can be applied to controlled houses in those cases where it is fair to do so. Let me take the case of one housing authority in whose district one house in five is a council house. There they have increased rents from a weekly total, including rates, of 9s. 4d. a week to 13s. 5d. a week, an increase of 4s. 1d. In regard to another set of houses, built since the war, the housing authority have increased the rent from 12s. 10d. per week, including rates, to 18s. 6d. a week, an increase of 5s. 8d. per week. Those are fairly substantial increases. Further, this housing authority have had to start a scheme of differential rents. They have made a special surcharge for extra wage earners in the family and for lodgers. Of course, none of these things can be done in regard to a rent-controlled house, but the local authorities find the burden of the enormous number of houses they have built to be such that something must be done in fairness to the other ratepayers. This authority of which I speak have a scheme to charge for an extra-wage earner in the family, at the rate of 1s. 6d. a week for a male, 1s. a week for a female, and 2s. 6d. a week for a lodger.
I will quote one other case—that of a housing authority which has increased its rents by the following amounts. First of all, those with a gross income of over £520 a year, which of course is £10 a week (and "gross income" in this respect includes the tenant's earned and unearned income, overtime, and profits, et cetera, but does not include a disability pension, family allowances, wife's earned income, or payments made into the house by children), have to pay the present standard rent, plus 5s. a week for a pre-war house, or 8s. 6d. a week for a post-war house. Again, that is a very substantial increase. If housing authorities may do these things—and we have not heard any tremendous outcry against them—surely, in order to keep the controlled houses in a reasonable condition, some small additions to rent might be made, similar to those suggested under the scheme of the Chartered 945 Surveyors, which, to my mind, is a scheme that would work. It is true that a safeguard must be included to ensure that the additional rent is used to keep the buildings in a proper state of repair. No one, I am sure, on this side of the House would wish additional rent to be paid unless the premises were kept in a proper state of repair, and I do not believe this would be a particularly onerous burden on the occupiers. Any of your Lordships who has this admirable pamphlet can see that the weekly amounts required are quite small. With regard to the additional cost of repairs, taking the index figure of 100 for 1939 and 293 for 1952 (that is the latest corrected figure the Royal Institute has) this means that the cost is now practically three times what it was in 1939. If you take that as your standard, the increase of rents will average something like 5s. to 7s. per week in the case of the large majority of the controlled houses in this country.
One further point I wish to make is on the question of rent levels. I believe that these houses must be valued, and my noble friend Lord Ridley and his Committee, in their Report, have suggested one method. The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, rather threw cold water on it this afternoon, but there are other methods which could easily be used. You could use the rating officials to do this work, or you could use those very gentlemen who have been assessing development charges so persistently over the last few years, and who now must have very little to do. It may be administratively difficult, but it is not impossible; and I believe that that is the first step to take in making any alteration to the level of rents. No one would wish to receive increased rent for a house that was not worth it, and only by such a valuation can you arrive at what is a proper and fair rent. The valuation being made, I believe that the very large majority of those who occupy rent-controlled houses to-day, would be willing to pay the increased rent recommended upon the valuation of an independent and impartial body.
Finally, my Lords, I wish to say this. These millions of rent-controlled houses are a national asset of enormous value. I do not believe for one moment that the State will ever be able, with the subsidies running to-day at over £42 a 946 year per house, to replace them with council or local authority houses. If there are 8,000,000 controlled houses, and you would have to pay £42 a year subsidy on the replacement of each of them, then those subsidies alone would be an overwhelming burden. You must therefore keep up and repair those houses which are capable of being repaired. These houses represent a vast capital sum for replacement, and it will be a national tragedy if they are lost through lack of the necessary legislation to enable them to be kept in tenantable repair.
§ 5.25 p.m.
My Lords, it was a Roman philosopher, I think, who said that while there was life there was hope. It is rather in that optimistic-pessimistic fashion that I approach the subject of to-day's debate. There is a great deal of rather wide talk about the necessity for consolidating and amending the rent restricting Acts, and this must not be allowed to obscure the real problem. There are thirteen Acts, or parts of Acts, in existence, and it would be most useful in every way to consolidate those Acts and to amend them so as to bring there into line with a number of recent important judicial decisions. But that in itself will not solve the problem of restoring and maintaining the bricks and mortar of some 8,000,000 houses which are controlled by those Statutes. Let me get to the point and make some concrete proposals—a thing which it is rather unpopular, generally, to do. In the first place, there are several millions of controlled houses in this country which are in a very bad state of repair but which are capable of being repaired and which ought to be repaired in order to make a contribution towards solving the housing problem in this country for the next fifteen to twenty years. I am exercised in my mind only as to how a percentage increase on the standard rent will go any distance by itself towards solving that problem.
Suppose that the standard rent is 10s. per week; suppose that Parliament, long after I am dead and long after all your Lordships are dead, has decided to increase that standard rent by 50 per cent. That will bring in another 5s. a week, or £13 a year. You cannot do very much by way of repairs on £13 in a year. The cost of first-aid repairs to a house of the description which I have indicated 947 amounts to about £180, and in my view the only way of solving this particular aspect of the problem is for the local authority to carry out the repairs and then to recover the cost of doing the same from the owner, both as to principal and interest, over a long period of years—say some fifteen or twenty years. I have not worked out the figures myself, but I believe that actuarially that is possible. There is one small point I might mention in connection with this proposition. Many houses which are controlled by the Rent Acts are also subject to a mortgage, and frequently a building society mortgage. If the local authority took a charge on the house for the repairs which they had carried out, and that house was the subject of a mortgage, then the local authority would take only a second charge, which might not be very valuable. But that is a minor point, and if minor points of that description are going to militate against attacking this problem, we might as well throw our hand in before we start.
Then there are several millions of controlled dwellings which are in a reasonably good state of repair and require merely day-to-day repairs to be carried out in order to keep them serviceable and habitable. Some people take the view that there should be no increase in the standard rent unless and until repairs are carried out by the landlord. Without wishing to quarrel in any way with that general proposition. I would point out that its practicable application is some-what difficult. In practice, one could hardly say to a landlord, "You must not have your extra five shillings or ten shillings, or whatever it is, this week, until you have put on so many tiles, or painted the outside woodwork of this property." I would recommend that the standard rent should be increased, to an amount which I will indicate later, and then the general problem of seeing that the day-to-day repairs are adequately carried out may be dealt with in this way. Every district surveyor should appoint an assistant who would make it his business to go round and inspect all the controlled properties in his area, and keep in touch with the tenants and, if possible, with the landlords of these properties. If any landlord deliberately and seriously failed to carry out his obligation to repair, the surveyor could make a report to the 948 county court, and the county court would order the parties to appear before it, and make whatever order was appropriate in the circumstances. I hate all forms of interference of that description, but if anybody has any better suggestion to make, I am sure your Lordships will be glad to accept it.
I next come to the question of the increase of rent. There are many very clever people in this country, of which I am not one—that becomes more evident every time I speak. However, looking at the problem from every point of view, I think the only practical thing to do is to have a percentage increase on the standard rent, and to have that percentage increase on a sliding scale. For example, and this is merely a suggestion I make, there might be an increase of 50 per cent. where the standard rent is 10s. a week or less, and the percentage increase might gradually decline to 10 per cent. where the standard rent is £2 a week or more. For the time being there should be no increase in the standard rent of controlled houses which were let for rent for the first time after May, 1945. Then there are some houses which became decontrolled between the two wars principally because landlords came into occupation of these houses. Some of these houses were subsequently re-let between the two wars at a higher rent than that which was charged for them before they became decontrolled. In all fairness, I think it would be best to calculate the percentage increase of rent in these cases on the standard rent which these houses enjoyed before they became decontrolled.
There are also a number of houses which do not require any serious degree of repair because the landlords have not only done their duty, but done more than their duty by carrying out the necessary repairs at their own expense, irrespective of any rent which they may be receiving. I am not sure whether noble Lords who sit on my left will agree with me when I say that I take the view that these landlords are entitled to a percentage increase on the standard rent in the same way as other landlords, even though for the moment no substantial amount of money will have to be paid out on repairs. I do not think it would be fair to penalise a number of landlords by depriving them of an increase in the 949 standard rent simply because they have kept their properties in first class condition, particularly out of their own pockets.
Then there are a number of property-owning companies. I am not a director of any of these companies, but I know that many noble Lords sitting on my left, who are members of the Opposition, are directors of very large property-owning companies. All these companies have repair organisations of their own, which enable them to carry out repairs far more economically than the private individual can do. Moreover, many of the properties owned by these companies are in good condition. Therefore, it may be said that a percentage increase on the standard rents of these properties will only swell the dividends already paid to corpulent shareholders. At this late hour in the evening I do not think it proper to make any suggestions as to how this matter should be dealt with, but I earnestly ask your Lordships not to allow this point to militate against people coming together and finding a solution of this problem.
As to the increased standard rents, let me point out at once that there is no hope whatever of obtaining either uniformity or fairness in this matter. We all know that there may be two houses standing side by side, identical in age and in size, in substantially the same condition of repair, and simply because of the incidence of rent the standard rent of one is 10s. a week and the standard rent of the adjoining house is £1 a week. It stands to reason that an arbitrary percentage increase of rent, even on a sliding scale, will leave a greater discrepancy between the amount of recoverable rent in every case. Therefore, my advice is not to try to achieve the impossible, because, short of reassessing the rents of 8,000,000 houses in this country, it will not be possible to iron out these inevitable discrepancies.
I will terminate my observations with three general propositions. The first one is that property owners should not press for an increase of rent apart and distinct from an increase which is justified by the greater cost of carrying out repairs. The second is that the principle should be generally accepted that an increase of standard rent on account of the cost of doing repairs should be actually expended on repairs. Thirdly, no attempt should be made to achieve absolute fairness in 950 dealing with the whole problem of repairs and increased rents as, for the reasons I have indicated, it is impossible to achieve such fairness. We hear a great deal about co-operation. To use the word "co-operation." by itself is as useful as to talk about Mesopotamia or Timbuctoo. It means nothing. Co-operation means putting forward definite concrete proposals. This afternoon I have heard a few proposals, but not many definite concrete proposals. I earnestly hope that before the debate continues noble Lords, especially those noble Lords sitting on my left, will criticise my proposals and say that they are all nonsense, and will put some others in their place. At all events, that would mean that we were really getting down to the problem. Merely to talk about co-operation in a wide sense gets us no-where at all, and I am sure that that is not the principal object of your Lordships' House.
§ 5.40 p.m.
§ VISCOUNT BRIDGEMAN
My Lords, I do not intend to follow either of the last two speakers in their detailed survey of this problem. For one thing, I am not well equipped to do so, and if I made the attempt it would be a very inferior imitation of the sound remarks which I heard from my noble friend Lord Hylton. Quite apart from that, I am beginning to have the feeling that the longer this debate goes on, and the more we plunge into the jungle of rent problems, the more we shall begin to be obsessed by the feeling which I seem to detect in my noble friend Lord Lloyd, or possibly his advisers, that a solution would probably prove too difficult: in other words, that all the weight of the argument would be against doing what my noble friend Lord Buckmaster suggested—namely, revising the Rent Restrictions Acts in order to make it an economic proposition to repair the houses which are now falling down. Does it not strike your Lordships what a paradox the whole thing is? Here we are with these Rent Restrictions Acts which were put into force in 1939 in order to see fair play and to make quite sure that people did not pay too much rent, but yet paid a fair rent. Have we not gone full circle and come to the position where these same Acts, without alteration or amendment, make absolutely certain in these days of changed economic conditions that the rent of a house built 951 before a certain time is absolutely and utterly unfair? Are we going to leave this debate this afternoon and say that although that is so, we cannot do anything about it?
I think it is agreed on all sides that it is not a reasonable proposition that any owner of a controlled house should be compelled under his covenant to put that house into repair when it is perfectly well known that the rent he is receiving will not enable him to do so, and therefore he can do it only if he has sources of income other than the rent he receives from that house. Several noble Lords have this afternoon given their opinion that the time has passed when this particular subject of my noble friend's Motion can be regarded as one which is likely to arouse political difference of opinion. There may be other aspects of rent control in that category, but I take it that the one we are talking about to-day—namely, the question of making it possible for a landlord to repair out of his rent—is one on which there is a high degree of common view. If that is so, then why talk about the political difficulty of putting such a thing over to the electors? Surely, it is the greatest insult to the intelligence of the electors, whom we all know to be in the great majority people of common sense and fairness, and who, if they see the proposition put as it has been put by my noble friend Lord Buckmaster this afternoon, will not hesitate to approve it.
Apart from that, there is another economic aspect of this matter—namely, that as we get rid of the effects of the world wars, whether it be the First World War or the Second World War, we should try (and I believe this is what Her Majesty's Government are trying to do) to remove artificial controls, and reach a stage when services or goods change hands for fair value. That is, in fact, what my noble friend Lord Buckmaster is asking should happen in regard to the control of rents of houses. I cannot see why this should be a difficult problem to face politically. We have heard a great many technical arguments this afternoon; I am sure they are all most sound, and I do not wish to set myself up in judgment on them. After all, two or three expert surveys of this problem have been undertaken by professional bodies outside this House, such as the 952 Chartered Surveyors' Institution, the Auctioneers' and Estate Agents' Institute and various other people, apart from the great volume of evidence which was put before the Ridley Committee. We have in front of us a number of different solutions, none of which will be perfect, of course—because this is certainly something upon which we cannot please everybody—but some of which must be sufficiently sound and flexible to make it politically possible for them to be put over by the Government of the day and approved, or at any rate not opposed, by Her Majesty's Opposition.
I should now like to come more particularly to the reason which prompted me to speak this afternoon. Are we really suggesting that it would be better to let a large number of these houses fall down because they are not repairable, and put up some nice, new council or private enterprise houses? That seemed to be inherent in what my noble friend Lord Lloyd said—or perhaps it is the opinion of his advisers. That looks very well on paper; it is all right on the drawing board, but I doubt very much whether it is all right as a general proposition, even if the figures were right—and my noble friend Lord Hylton threw some doubt on the figures. Mind you, it may be right in congested and old-fashioned urban areas, with back-to-back houses, and places of that sort: I can believe that there is really no answer other than to demolish those houses. But after all, as we get more houses, the pre-war procedure of condemnation will come back into its own and we shall reach a state of affairs where local authorities will condemn houses which they feel ought no longer to be inhabited.
I wanted to say a few words about rural houses. I am not going to talk about tied houses on the farms, which is a separate problem not strictly relevant to this Motion—no doubt we can talk about that at some other time, if the need should arise. I am talking now about the ordinary house in the country district, inhabited by a member of the agricultural community, drawing an agricultural wage, or by someone earning a similar wage, even though he may not be an agricultural worker. This problem is particularly acute, because, for different reasons which many of your Lordships 953 know, in 1939, when rent control started, these cottage rents were artificially low. There were a number of reasons for that: agricultural wages were much lower in proportion to those of the rest of the community than they are now, the Welfare State did not exist, and a number of landlords used the cheap cottage as a form of pension for someone who they thought wanted help. These village cottages (I do not want to confuse them with the tied cottages) start off with a great handicap. Of all types of cottages, these village cottages are probably the worst. There is probably a bigger gap between their rents and their cost of maintenance than there is in regard to town houses occupied by the same class of worker.
In the various plans produced by the expert bodies there are various devices of a make-weight kind which allow for this, such as the device that, however low the controlled rent really is, one starts with a notional figure that is a little higher. It does not matter exactly what those devices are. I do not want to spend time talking about them at this late hour, because my noble friend Lord Lloyd can find them in the evidence of the professional bodies, and I have no doubt that he and the Ministry know them already. I mention merely that that is a particularly difficult type of case, and I am saying that I should judge that most of that type of house is well worth repairing and not pulling down, even if only because it is usually standing in an area sufficiently large not to be congested and is capable of being added to.
Now let us turn for a moment to this problem of capital, because everybody knows that the mere fact of getting and keeping a house in repair is not going to solve the problem in regard to many of these houses at the present time. We all want them improved in order to make room for sanitation, bathrooms and all the rest of it, but then we come to this question of capital expenditure. There are a number of ways of spending capital, and I would say only this: that the one thing which will pave the way for capital expenditure is confidence. I believe that confidence will start on the day that the Government bring in a scheme to amend the Rent Restrictions Acts in such a way that the rent will pay for maintenance. At that point you get 954 rid of that worry, and after that I believe that there will be no real difficulty in getting the capital to improve the rural cottages about which I am speaking. However, that is only one small part of what every noble Lord has agreed this afternoon to be a very large, difficult and tangled problem.
I believe that the real question Her Majesty's Government will have to decide as a result of this debate is this. There are the difficulties, which are extremely formidable, and here is the present situation, which is extremely unsatisfactory. Are the difficulties of making these reforms going to be so great as to outweigh the need to get rid of the present state of affairs? Are the political and economic difficulties which are going to occur—because we can never get a scheme which will be fair to everybody and please everybody—so great that it would be better to leave the fling alone until that day in the distant future when we have so many houses that the Rent Restrictions Acts can come off? In other words, is it going to be a reasonable thing for any Government to let the present situation continue for thirty years, or whatever the time is, all the while balancing our increases in new houses by the number of houses of the kind we are talking about this afternoon which are tumbling down? I should have said that the weight of evidence was strongly on the side of tackling the problem and revising the Rent Restrictions Acts.
§ 5.54 p.m.
§ LORD AMHERST OF HACKNEY
My Lords, I think the first thing I should do is to say that I am an owner of property and declare my interest. We must concentrate on the urgency of this problem. I feel that we must quickly achieve some means of allowing the owner of property to carry out his repairs. I myself am rather attracted, on the face of it, to the scheme put forward by the Institution of Surveyors, which bases the increase in rent on the difference between the gross value and the rateable value. The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, cast one or two doubts upon this scheme, one of the most important of which was that he was frightened that, owing to the change of ownership of a lot of property since the war, a certain number of people might benefit unjustly from the increase. I personally 955 feel that, provided the rules and the supervision are strict enough to ensure that the repairs are adequately carried out, there will be little danger of landlords making an undue profit. Certainly my limited experience of that sort of property has been that at the moment the outgoings on repairs considerably exceed the rent received.
The other objection of the noble Lord was that it would cost another £250 million. The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, has disputed that figure slightly, but I feel that in any case it is not very relevant, because, on the whole, people who are living in the controlled houses are paying a lower rent than people living in council houses. Therefore, I should not have thought that would be a very sound basis for asking for an increase of wages to meet the increase of rent. The noble Lord, Lord Lloyd, was definitely against any general percentage increase. One of the grounds on which he opposed it was that in the case of a large number of the rent-controlled houses—the very old houses—it would mean that labour and materials might be diverted to those houses when they could probably be better used on new building, while no small percentage increase would solve the problem of those houses which ought, in fact, to be condemned. There again, I feel that provided the guarantees that the repairs were done were sufficiently strong, that case would not arise; because until the repairs were carried out that class of property would not benefit by the increases. The increase would be conditional upon the repairs being done.
One other different point was touched upon by the noble Lord, Lord Meston. That was the case of the house which it is uneconomic to repair but which it is socially desirable should be maintained. After all, houses, like everything else, grow old and expendable. In a way, perhaps it is a good thing that they do, otherwise we should never get improved houses and we should probably still be living in mud huts. That problem is really a social and a human one, rather than an economic one. The family who live in such a house must have a reasonable roof kept over their heads. Therefore, I feel that in those cases where it would be completely uneconomic for the owner of that property to carry 956 out his obligations, the local authority should be able to step in, with either loans or grants. After all, the amount that you can spend economically on a house is directly in relation to the rent of the house and the number of years of life that you consider the house has before it. In the case of a house which it is uneconomic to repair, then I feel that the local authority, if they want the house maintained, should help in some way to maintain it, because it is being maintained as a social service, rather than on economic grounds. I do not want to go into that aspect in detail, but I feel that there are grounds there on which a local authority might make some contribution to balance what it is economically sound to spend on that house with what has, in fact, to be spent on it.
Also, in the case of a small owner who cannot afford to find the capital for these repairs, the local authority might be able (I believe they are now, under the 1949 Act) to loan money towards those repairs. The important thing is that the roof should be kept over the family's head. Moreover, I think it is quite unreasonable in such cases to expect the owner to carry out that type of repair. I feel that if that were done, if in the future there were any general review of rents, based, say, on the 1948 valuation, or something like that, then if the rent of a house which had received this grant were raised, there should be some reconsideration of the amount given in grant, because obviously a larger sum could then be economically spent on that house. I do not wish to detain your Lordships any longer, but I wanted to make that one small suggestion. I feel that we must treat this problem as an extremely urgent one.
§ 6.4 p.m.
My Lords, at this hour I do not wish to elaborate too greatly the suggestions made on this national problem of repairs, which has been the subject of such an excellent debate initiated by my noble friend Lord Buckmaster, but there are one or two points which I should like to make. The first is this. I am sure that Her Majesty's Government have at their disposal all the necessary able technical advice required to enable them to produce a policy on this matter in the not far distant future. I cannot agree with the suggestion that the Government are lagging behind in their 957 proposals, and I am sure they will be ready to make their proposals at the time they consider suitable. This debate to-day will, however, have gone a long way towards assuring the Government that they have wholehearted support and backing for present requirements, and that they will certainly receive from all sides of this House all the necessary backing where their proposals are considered sound.
Now, having expressed my ideas as to the general purpose and results of this debate, I should like to go on to deal with two or three points which have occurred in my own experience concerning this question of repairs to both town and country property. I would divide properties into properties for maintenance, properties for major repairs, and properties for reconditioning—I speak of rent-controlled properties. I have studied the proposals of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and I feel confident that if, under the Government, those suggestions are correctly, firmly and fairly employed, day-to-day maintenance of both town and country property can be maintained. I am afraid that I cannot quite agree with my noble friend Lord Bridgeman that the differentiation is greater in the country than in London: I think that they are fairly close together. So far as ordinary maintenance is concerned, on the suggestions of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors this matter could be dealt with.
But now I come to a really serious point, namely, the phase of passing from ordinary maintenance to major repairs; and that is something which is increasing rapidly. I will give your Lordships an instance from a town property and another from a country property. About eighteen months after my return from the war I went to look over a dwelling in a part of West London, not far from Marble Arch. It was evident that certain repairs of a fairly large order would be required, dealing mostly with dry rot and that sort of thing. The property was then probably in the minor repair stage, but was about to pass into the major repair stage. For one reason or another it was not possible at that time to do anything, and I can assure your Lordships that the house has now passed from the stage of the £500 worth of repairs that were necessary then—in a 958 rent-controlled house, mark you!—to the stage when the amount of repairs necessary comes to £1,700. That is one instance in London.
Here is the country instance. The tenant of a certain cottage of a rent-controlled type, on a farm, was having trouble with the roof, and later with the windows; and there were also certain drainage problems. That was plain enough, and the necessary order for the work was given about six months ago. After careful examination of the interior, when we came to open up part of the wall which had a nasty crack, it was found that there was complete deterioration inside which stretched right down the main stairway of the cottage. The repair situation has developed from £250 worth to £1,000 worth. Those are just two instances, absolutely authentic instances, to show your Lordships how quickly the deterioration has been developing—deterioration not necessarily from war damage but due just to the lack of time, money and materials to keep things up to date. Therefore, I should like to stress the point that when it comes to major repairs the repairs necessary could not be met by even the best application of the Royal Institution's suggestions. There will be need for substantial assistance by loans or grants from local authorities, backed by the Central Government.
The other point that I wish to make this afternoon is on this question that has already been discussed—whether the building of new houses can ever replace repairs. There, I am afraid, I cannot agree that new buildings can do that. First of all, we cannot spare the land. Secondly, we cannot diversify our population to the extent that would involve—from their work, from their homes and from their home centres. Another thing, the most important thing of all, is that we have to think of our food production. The only way we can do that is to get used to the idea that eventually we shall have to build upwards in this country, and at the same time keep our repairs at a proper level.
§ 6.11 p.m.
§ THE EARL OF BUCKINGHAMSHIRE
My Lords, like previous speakers to-day I must declare a personal interest in this subject of rent restriction, being the owner of several rent-restricted properties in the country. If I may, I 959 should like just to give one or two examples from my own experience in support of Lord Buckmaster's Motion. The first case concerns a cottage with a rent of £9 4s. a year. Exterior decoration and minor repairs were carried out on this cottage, and they cost £28. The second case is of a row of four cottages, the total rent of which comes to£15 14s. a year. In this particular case, a sum of £113 was expended, again on exterior decoration and repairs. If your Lordships work it out—I hope that my mathematics are correct—it will be seen that in the first case it would take three years to recover from the rent the money spent and, in the second, seven years. I would emphasise that, in this case, it was external decoration and repairs only that were carried out. I would remind your Lordships that owners such as myself still have to continue to carry out ordinary maintenance, such as replacing loose tiles and repairing window sashes going wrong, et cetera, in the ordinary course of events, especially at this time of the year.
May I give your Lordships one further example of, in this case, an extreme anomaly that has occurred? Out of kindness to the widow of my old estate agent, I let her a house in 1937 at a rent of £50 per annum. This house at that time would have fetched probably at least £100 per annum, and to-day should normally fetch £200 per annum. She paid that rent right through to 1951, when she decided to give up the house, for health reasons. In 1939, as has already been mentioned by the noble Viscount who moved the Motion and others, came the Rent Restrictions Act which restricted rents of £75 and under. In that case, it means that to-day that house can certainly never be let, under the 1939 Rent Restrictions Act, for more than £75 a year. I may say that I have recently spent large sums on a house, which were very necessary, and it will probably take me the rest of my life to recover the amount of money spent on that house during the past year or two.
I have spoken about my own experiences, but my appeal is not for my own behalf as a landlord but for the small I owner. If those experiences that I have told you of are what I have found, what, will be the effect on the small owner, who 960 has little or no money to carry out repairs on houses which can and should be improved and which should have normal repairs and, if possible, improvements carried out? A small owner's house is surely likely to fall into decay much more quickly, for the simple reason that he has not the capital to carry out the necessary repairs. He is quite unable to maintain them out of the rent he gets. My appeal, therefore, is on behalf of the small owner that, from that point of view alone, the Rent Restrictions Acts should be revised.
§ 6.16 p.m.
§ LORD WOLVERTON
My Lords, in rising for a few moments to-night to support the Motion, so ably moved by the noble Viscount, Lord Buckmaster, I find myself in the position of not being a landlord but one who has great sympathy with landlords. I feel that something should be done at a very early date. My only excuse for rising to-night is that there is a proposition I should like to put forward to Her Majesty's Government indicating a way in which one might be able to consider dealing with the financing of these major repairs. I was very interested indeed to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, said about the Birmingham experiment, because I have been studying that lately. I think I am right in saying that in this experiment the Birmingham Corporation took over many thousands of houses at from £200 to £250 for people who could not afford to maintain those houses any longer. The Birmingham Corporation had to spend an average of £180 on each house. If houses having 1919 controlled rents or below are bought, a corporation has to go on controlling them; it is not allowed to put the rents up for those controlled houses. So these houses were still rent-controlled. The Birmingham Corporation could not increase the rents, although they had spent £180 on each of those houses. So that money had to come out of the ratepayers' pockets of the City of Birmingham. Of course, they did it with their eyes open, naturally, because, as was said to-day by the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, they hoped eventually to develop the whole of that middle area of Birmingham.
The same thing happened in the City of Glasgow, where a large number of houses were bought, and then the City of 961 Glasgow said they could not afford to take over those houses. It got so bad in Glasgow that in order to get rid of their liabilities owners had to form small companies, with the express intention of putting those companies into liquidation, because they were not solvent. When you get into that sort of position, something must be done. It is a question of how these repairs are to be financed. I feel that it will be much cheaper for the country as a whole to try to help in the financing of repairs to those houses which are worth while repairing, arid which the country will be prepared to repair only if they are capable of going for another twenty or twenty-five years, rather than replace them with houses which will cost three times as much and where a subsidy of at least 14s. per week has to be paid on each.
May I start by trying to put forward to your Lordships the effects of this financial aspect? If, for instance, you have to re-roof a house—perhaps the roof has been patched up to such an extent that it requires to be re-roofed, with the alternative that if you do not re-roof the house will go—it might cost you anything up to £200; or even more. For that £200, it will cost (I think it is) £15 18s. 8d. per annum—that is to say, practically £16 per annum—to borrow that money at 5 per cent, and pay it back at cumulative interest over twenty years. I do not think you can carry on a long-term process (if you can get a mortgage at all) for longer than that. That £16 a year would be quite unbearable for these small land owners or tenants in the present situation, even if it were achieved by equal halves.
The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, has already suggested that the State should help in some way or another in regard to these major repairs. I suggest for the consideration of Her Majesty's Government that the State should give a one-third grant, which would be somewhere in the neighbourhood of £67, and that the other two-thirds (£133) should be in the form of a loan from Her Majesty's Government at, say, 5 per cent. interest, repayable by the landlord over twenty years, which would mean something in the neighbourhood of £10 12s. a year. In my humble estimation, that would be manageable. It would mean that for this two-thirds loan the landlord would have to pay something in the neighbourhood of 4s. 1d. a week, and he would 962 be able to pass on half of that, 2s. 0½d., to the tenant until it is paid off. In that way the tenant would have the great satisfaction of having over his head a roof which will not leak. On top of that, of course, as has been said by many noble Lords on this side of the House, an admirable scheme in regard to small repairs was brought out by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, whereby one is allowed to add a percentage increase between the gross and the net rents which is not liable for taxation.
To sum up, in regard to some of the houses which need at least £200 in capital cost spent on them, it would mean that the tenant may find himself paying an increased rent of something like 6s. a week for both major and minor repairs. That seems a lot of money, but it is not unduly heavy, considering that for a new council house he would have to pay about 20s. rent, instead of the 10s. or 12s. a week he would have to pay for a greatly improved house. Having studied this question very carefully, I do not think it is possible to finance this question without some form of assistance in the nature of a grant of about one-third, plus a loan of the other two-thirds repayable by easy instalments. I am sure that it can and ought to be financed. I hope that Her Majesty's Government will give serious consideration to this matter. The sooner it can be tackled the better because I am sure that we cannot replace all these valuable old houses by new ones in a reasonable time. There is an extremely good book by the late Dr. M. J. Elsas, entitled Housing and the Family. I understand that Dr. Elsas, who died last year, was a great authority on this subject, so much so that he was given a prize by the Rockefeller Centre to enable him to carry on his researches. In Table C (1) on page 9 of his book he confirms what has been said to-night: that 2,331,000 houses are at least eighty-eight years old, that 484,000 houses are between seventy-eight and eighty-eight years old, and that 650,000 houses are between sixty-eight and seventy-eight years old. I am told that his figures are most reliable. Therefore, I feel that we must tackle this problem to see whether we cannot get some general agreement, at least in this House, on how the matter can be financed and carried out.
§ 6.25 p.m.
§ LORD WISE
My Lords, I think your Lordships owe a debt of gratitude to the noble Viscount, Lord Buckmaster, for initiating this debate, in which a great deal of interest has been shown. I hope the Government will take notice of what has been said. I thought the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd, had a very awkward brief to put forward to us. We did not obtain much information about how the Government stand in the matter. Various suggestions have been made which I hope the Government will consider. I think it is agreed that this is a most difficult matter upon which to legislate. We are faced with a number of Acts of Parliament covering a period of years. Apparently it has not been within the competence (if I may use that word) of any Government up to the present to consolidate them, or amend them as they should be amended. This is surely the work of the Government, and they should consider the problem very seriously and tackle it. In doing so, however, it is necessary that we should say that none of us in this House wishes the rights of either the owners or the tenants of property to be in any way jeopardised, and that any future legislation should be on a fair basis as between these subjects of Her Majesty.
Again, there are within the ambit of these Acts several anomalies which should be put right. In one or two instances they have been referred to this afternoon. Another point which I think of importance is that if in future legislation we bring new entrants under the control of the Rent Restrictions Acts, we must give them all protection. If I may speak my thoughts at this particular moment, I am thinking of the possibility that, sooner or later, we may have to protect the occupiers of agricultural cottages. I leave it there for the moment.
Of course, the ownership and occupation of property carries obligations and duties. We must bear in mind that landlords are not necessarily only rent receivers. As owners, they have obligations and duties in regard to upkeep. Equally, the tenants themselves are not just rent payers. They, in their turn, have obligations and duties, not only to the owner of the property and to themselves, but also to the State. If in the future we think in those terms, none of us will go very far wrong. I find myself in a little difficulty now. I happen to 964 be, I believe, the only Fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors in your Lordships' House. That being so, I had proposed, perhaps rightly, to speak upon a scheme which has emanated from that particular Institution, but I find that my noble friend on the Front Bench has rather condemned that scheme. That is my difficulty, speaking as I am from the Back Benches. But apart from the fact that one or two schemes have been put before your Lordships' House this afternoon, I think the scheme put forward by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors is the only scheme which is under consideration at the moment. When the Government produce their scheme, we shall be able to say that there is in existence another scheme. I am well versed in this matter. I know more or less what is in the minds of the professional members of the Institution, and I think that their scheme has its merits. Of course it has its difficulties, some of which have been mentioned this afternoon.
I must make one point with regard to the scheme, and it is that, of course, members of that particular Institution are essentially landlords' men, and it is true to say, I believe, that in that scheme they have sought, primarily and naturally, to protect the interests of the owners of property. I think we must all be agreed that the allowance—it has been referred to, generally, during the course of the discussion, as 40 per cent., but actually, in regard to repairs of property it is only 25 per cent.; the other 15 per cent. is an increase which was given to owners—in modern times is totally inadequate. So we have to devise some means whereby, without bringing undue hardship to the tenants by reason of additional rents, we can enable the owners of property to carry out repairs and honour their obligations as owners. It is obvious that at the present time this 25 per cent. is inadequate, and we have to find some other means of augmenting it. One consideration I wish to stress—and I say this in fairness to the members of the Chartered Surveyors' Institution—is that, whatever may be the outcome of our deliberations, either here to-day or at a later date, if increases are made in rents then there must be thrown upon the owners of property a direct obligation to spend that money on the upkeep of their properties. There may be ways 965 by which that can be brought about, but I believe that at the moment there is a loophole in the Acts and that there is no legal obligation on the owners. They can receive the 25 per cent—as no doubt they have done—and there is no obligation on their part to carry out repairs—
§ VISCOUNT BUCKMASTER
Will the noble Lord forgive me? I rise, not from any wish to interrupt him, but merely to try to elucidate the matter with which he has just been dealing. I believe the Act provides that on a certificate being obtained from the appropriate authority that a house is not in a proper state of repair, the permitted increase can be withheld.
§ LORD WISE
I was not unaware of that provision and I was coming to it. I know that tenants have the right, if they can obtain a certificate as mentioned by the noble Viscount, of refraining from paying rent until such time as the house is put into repair. The basis of the scheme of the Institution is this—and let me assure your Lordships that I do not wish to pick anyone up. The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, suggested that the figures mentioned by my noble friend in regard to the increases in rent were not quite correct; that they were a little too large. But the noble Lord himself made a mistake by adopting a percentage of 150, which is set out in the tables in the pamphlet which the noble Lord has. In fact, it is made clear there that the increased cost of repairs during the last two years has brought the figure up to 293, which is practically 200 per cent. above the index figure of 100 which was the basis of the noble Lord's 150 per cent. The effect of that is that the actual increased rent which would be payable would more nearly approximate to the figures given by my noble friend on the Front Bench.
In regard to the particular scheme I have mentioned. I think hardships may be caused. Generally, it is suggested that, on an average, increases in rent would be at the rate of about £10 a year—on premises with lower rateable values it would be less. On premises with a gross value of £5, a present rateable value of £3, and a statutory deduction of £2 (which is the difference between £3 and £5) the increase on a 200 per cent. basis would be an increase of £4 a year, which is approximately 1s. 6d. a week. 966 As you go down the table you find that in the case of premises with a gross value of £20, a rateable value of £12, and a statutory deduction of £8, the increase would be £16 a year—and so on up to the higher figures. Those increases on the lower scale may be thought to be small, but so many old age pensioners, people on fixed incomes and lower income earners are in occupation of these smaller houses that these particular increases, although not in any shape or form covering the expenditure which would be necessary for repairs, may hurt the tenants. Therefore, whatever we do in future legislation, we must try to protect these smaller people and, if necessary, make it possible for their additional rents—as is done in certain cases at the present time—to be paid out of funds which are disbursed by the State in such circumstances.
I do not want to detain your Lordships much longer, but I should like to emphasise what I said at the beginning of my speech to the effect that I am certain that this discussion will prove of value. As a result of it we have all obtained knowledge of what is in each other's thoughts and in each other's experience. Collectively, I think this House can be of definite assistance in the framing of legislation which it may be decided to bring into operation in future with reference to the subject of this debate. It has been mentioned that it may be necessary to set up certain committees or Working Parties, and, speaking from this side of the House, I think I can promise co-operation—that is a word which has already been used by my noble friend who was sitting on my right, but who is not now present in your Lordships' Chamber. I am confident that the House may expect the fullest co-operation from those of us sitting here who are interested in this particular aspect of legislation, and interested, both from the point of view of the owners and from the point of view of the tenants, to see that justice is done in the future.
§ 6.39 p.m.
§ LORD GREENHILL
My Lords, it is not because I wish to test the powers of endurance of noble Lords that I rise at this late hour; it is rather because I feel that unless a word is said with reference to similar conditions in Scotland it may be thought that Scotland has no similar 967 problem. But before I touch upon that matter, I should like to add my commendation of the case as stated by the noble Viscount, Lord Buckmaster. I thought he put up an excellent case, and if there is any difference at all between his outlook and my own I should be inclined to say that whereas his bias is in favour of the poor landlord, my bias is in favour of the poor tenant. But that does not dispose of the problem; the problem remains, and in Scotland not only is it a very serious one, but it is complicated by the fact that the rating system, under which owners' rates enter into the question, make it vastly more difficult to solve than it is in England, and one wonders how one can deal with a problem of this kind, remembering that someone has to pay for these improvements. This is a large social problem. If it be true that we are building houses at the rate of 200,000 a year, and if approximately 200,000 houses are going out of service every year because of dilapidation, it is obvious that we not only are not making progress but are leaving ourselves with a problem which demands an immediate solution. The question is how to do it.
In Glasgow we are repeatedly offered houses by owners because they cannot afford to undertake repairs. As noble Lords are aware, local authorities have power to condemn or to acquire by compulsory orders houses of a certain age and over. I think local authorities in Scotland might do more to acquire some of them were it not for the fact that on many of these old properties there is a question of the ground burden. I do not know whether this applies to England, but in Scotland it is a consideration. If, in acquiring old properties, there is a substantial amount to pay in feu duties, it does not pay a Corporation to acquire them. I think local authorities should be encouraged to make more use of the powers given under recent Acts and the grants allowed for the modernisation of old properties to make many of these old houses habitable, until we can increase the absolute number of houses available for letting. I am aware that a Government in power, and an Opposition which anticipate being a Government at some time, may hesitate to take a definite step, but I wonder whether it would be possible to get some kind of agreed White Paper, frankly outlining the difficulties, 968 stating the possible financial implications and even making it clear that some kind of contribution would have to be made by the tenants. Perhaps in that way we could arrive at some kind of agreed legislation whereby we could cope with this difficult social problem.
§ 6.43 p.m.
THE LORD CHANCELLOR
My Lords, my noble friend the Leader of the House, having regard to the importance and gravity of this subject, had himself intended to be present and to wind up this debate on behalf of Her Majesty's Government; but, as your Lordships know and as I have already said, he is so fully immersed in the peremptory duties which attach to his office that he has been unable to attend the House except for a short time to-day. Therefore, to his great regret, to my greater regret and to your Lordships' greatest regret of all, he has deputed to me the task of replying.
Let me repeat at once what the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd said, at the opening of his speech. I am not in a position to make any statement of policy on behalf of Her Majesty's Government. As he was well entitled to do, the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, poked a little fun at the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd, about it. His attitude was: "What, no statement? Surely we ought to have a statement of policy from Her Majesty's Government. They have been reflecting upon this for a year and more, and might well have been reflecting on it before." I do not propose to wear a white sheet because Her Majesty's Government are not yet in a position to make a statement of policy upon this enormously difficult and complex problem; and I am the less inclined to wear the white sheet, at any rate before the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, when I recollect that he was for long a member of the late Socialist Government, which for six and a half years had to consider this urgent problem, and, moreover, that that Government had the benefit of the advice of the noble Lard himself, an acknowledged expert on this subject.
Now that I have said that, and have said that I have no statement to make on behalf of Her Majesty's Government, your Lordships will appreciate that anything I say can be no more than an expression of opinion. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Wise, of course everything that has fallen from your Lordships 969 to-day will be considered and, believe me, it will have the greatest weight with Her Majesty's Government in their consideration of this problem. Except for a short interval I have sat here for four and a quarter hours; and I can say that I have learned a great deal from those who have spoken in the debate, and I believe that my right honourable friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government will get the same sort of benefit. Perhaps it may be invidious, but if I may select one or two speeches I thought that the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, was most impressive, both in the detailed knowledge of the subject which he displayed and in the value of the suggestions which he was able to make. I must mention also the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Morrison, who somewhat spoiled a valuable suggestion that there should be what I might call a Working Party by adding that he hoped I would be the first worker. Nevertheless, it was a valuable suggestion which will be taken up, of course, by my noble friend the Leader of the House.
I have a difficult task. I do not have to look backwards as many of your Lordships have, to the things that I have said on this topic, because I have never said anything about it. But for fifteen years it has been my duty in another capacity to endeavour to find out what is just under the law and to dispense justice; and it is in that sort of light that I have tried to see this problem. I think that all noble Lords on both sides of the House—the noble Lord, Lord Greenhill, for example, on that side and other noble Lords on this—are imbued with the same idea; namely, to find out what is just, not only to the landlord, not only to the tenant, but to the community as a whole. For this is an enormous problem, and I look beyond the landlord and the tenant. I claim a wider vision. We have to look forward to a time when every man can have a sufficient and comfortable house for himself and his family, and when, concomitantly with that, the slums which are a blot on our civilisation can be eliminated. That has been the policy of our Conservative Party since the first great Housing Act of 1890, and it is their policy to-clay. In planning any legislation let us believe that all we are doing is to meet a temporary emergency, and that we may look forward to the day 970 when there will be houses for all, when we can get rid of rent restriction and when slums can be eliminated from our midst. That is not a problem that can be solved in a day or a week, or even in the thirteen months during which the present Government have been in office.
It is common ground that to-day there must be some measure of control. The scourge of war has disrupted all economic laws. It is quite impossible to leave to the decision of the market the question of the price which shall be paid for the rent of a house. Accordingly, it is common ground between us that there must be some measure of control. What is the measure of control? Everybody seems to be agreed—and I feel that this must be right—that in the complex situation that has emerged it is impossible to obtain ideal justice for everybody. I do not believe that it is possible, in dealing with this matter, to do what is absolutely just to everybody; to eliminate all anomalies and to provide that everybody shall pay just the rent he ought to pay—unless, indeed, we adopt the suggestion which some people have advocated, but which I believe to be administratively impossible, that every house should be the subject of a separate rental assessment by some tribunal set up for that purpose. That was, I believe, an idea put forward by the Ridley Committee. It was seriously considered by the preceding Government and it was not entertained, for this reason among others: that you would get from different tribunals entirely different assessments of what should be paid in similar circumstances and you would never get what you hoped for—ideal justice for each citizen.
If that is not possible what is to be done? Various suggestions have been made and I am not going to choose between them. But I do say that you have to be careful to discriminate between the houses which were the subject of old control and those which are the subject of new control. That is a matter which will have to be carefully considered when legislation on this subject becomes possible. Secondly, I feel that I must say this. It is most important, in any scheme which we put forward, to keep our eyes on both aspects of the problem—I am looking for the moment beyond the community to the particular interests of the 971 landlord and the tenant. May I say, without being at all provocative, that I believe the real difficulty in which the Socialist Government found themselves was that they kept their eye only upon the aspect of the poor tenant, a matter to which the noble Lord, Lord Greenhill, referred just now? I feel that I am fortified in that by a passage in a speech which I heard the learned and noble Earl, Lord Jowitt, deliver. It struck my imagination at the time, and I have had the curiosity to look it up in Hansard. I am sorry that the noble and learned Earl is not here, but I know he will not mind my quoting what he said. Speaking on the Motion of the noble Viscount, Lord Buckmaster, in February, 1949, he said (OFFICIAL REPORT, Vol. 160, Col. 901):My Lords, in conclusion, the noble Viscount wanted to know what we are going to do. It this. We are going on with these reforms in order that we may bring under the shelter, under the umbrella of the Rent Restriction Acts, all those persons whom we believe to be in need of protection.That and nothing else. That is a very worthy idea, but it is dangerous to stop there, as the noble and learned Earl stopped and as the then Government stopped. He should look not only at the unfortunate tenant but at the unfortunate landlord. One thing I will say on behalf of Her Majesty's Government is this: that we shall not pursue the same course; we shall look at both sides of this question.
This further I would say—though I beg your Lordships to remember what I said at the beginning, that this is but my opinion and I make no promise on behalf of the Government. I do most sincerely believe that the idea which has found favour on both sides of the House, that any increase of rent in favour of a landlord should in some way or other be tied up with an obligation to repair, is essentially a sound one. There is no doubt that the somewhat similar right which was given to the tenant under the earlier Act has not worked very well. As your Lordships know—you have already been reminded of it—the tenant is in a position, if he obtains a certificate from the proper authority, to avoid the payment of the 40 per cent. increase which was allowed by the earlier Act. That has not worked very well, whether because the tenant does not care to meet the expense and the difficulty, perhaps, of getting such a certificate, I do not know. 972 I believe that machinery can and ought to be devised in order to link up any increase of rent with the obligation to repair. I say no more about it than that.
Another thing about which we have to be careful is this. Houses not only fall out of repair but become obsolescent, just as machinery not only falls out of repair but also becomes obsolescent. There are many houses up and down this country, particularly in some of the slums of our great cities, which have reached that stage, and upon which it would probably be a great pity that any money should be spent or any of our resources of labour or material expended. That is a matter which I feel has to be borne closely in mind, although it is difficult to do so unless you can see somewhere else to put the tenants of those houses. This debate has ranged over a wide area. At one time there was some little discussion about the number of houses which are falling out of repair. The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, has been good enough to put into my hands a document in which there are passages from speeches of honourable Members of another place which I should not like to dispute; there is one by Mr. Bevan and another by Mr. Churchill—you can take your choice. At any rate I do not want to enter into any controversy. There is no doubt that there are a great number of houses which are falling into disrepair and upon which the expense of repair ought to be made. So many points have been made in the debate that I cannot hope to deal with them all. The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, proposed an inquiry, to be divided into two parts, the one urgent and the other long-term. I need hardly say that, coming from the noble Lord, Lord Silk in, that proposal will receive special consideration. It links up in some measure with what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Morrison, and I feel again that it emphasises the harmony and good will with which this problem will be approached in this House. Other noble Lords dealt with the question of rural housing. That was a matter raised by Lord Bridgeman which I thought of particular importance and which deserves special consideration.
By and large, I thought that there were certain things which were agreed upon: the urgency and gravity of the situation; the difficulty of new houses catching up 973 with houses falling into disrepair; the consequent necessity that some steps must be taken to repair houses that are worth repair; the fact that many landlords—not all of them—cannot, out of the rents which they receive, make good the repairs that are necessary; the consequent necessity of one or other of these alternatives ensuing, that either the house must fall into disrepair, and be lost as a national asset, or the landlords must be helped in some way, either by an increase of rent or, as was suggested by some of your Lordships, by a grant or, it may be, a loan. However, some steps must be taken to help the landlords by way of increase of rent, or otherwise, as night follows day, those houses are bound to fail into decay. Every one of your Lordships on both sides of the House is agreed on that. I hope that it may go forth to the nation that noble Lords who sit on the Socialist Benches—if I may so call them—feel that just as strongly as those who sit on the other side of the House. As I say, I have no statement to make. In fact, I can only thank the noble Viscount, Lord Buckmaster, for giving the House the opportunity of discussing this matter with the ensuing benefit which Her Majesty's Government will derive from this debate, and assure your Lordships that all suggestions which you have made will receive full consideration.
§ 7.3 p.m.
§ VISCOUNT BUCKMASTER
My Lords, my first duty is to thank those noble Lords who have been good enough to take part in this discussion and for the generous remarks that some of them have felt disposed to make. If I attempt to deal with the answer which my noble friend Lord Lloyd has given, and that falling from the lips of the noble and learned Lord who sits on the Woolsack, I should not find my task a very easy one. I did not quite expect—though I may have misunderstood the sense—to hear quoted the very answer given in resisting a similar Motion by the noble and learned Earl who also at one time sat upon the Woolsack. I wonder really whether the terms of this Motion have fully been apprehended by Her Majesty's Government. I cannot conceive of anything more innocuous than the words:To call attention to the need for the revision of the Rent Restrictions Acts.There is no sense of urgency and no suggestion that action should be immediate. 974 That word was deleted to make the Motion more acceptable. None the less, Her Majesty's Government do not even feel, apparently, that in the terms of the Motion it is necessary to consider the matter. One cannot be surprised if I say —and y our Lordships, who are always more than generous to me, will forgive me if I show a certain prejudice—that I have to go back a long time before I remember a Motion couched in such innocuous terms, receiving, as it has, such wide support from noble Lords on both sides of your Lordships' House, which has received an answer giving such slight encouragement. My noble friend Lord Hylton was good enough to quote Horace. I venture to suggest, with great respect, that Her Majesty's Government have no need to be timid in. this matter. They should be stouthearted; they should make up their minds. They should be tenax propositi. I have no other course but to beg leave to withdraw my Motion.
§ Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.