HL Deb 21 July 1960 vol 225 cc629-42

5.35 p.m.

LORD GREENHILLrose to ask Her Majesty's Government to what extent advantage has been taken in Scotland by local authorities and private individuals of the grants available towards the cost of improving and modernising houses, and how it compares with that of England and Wales. The noble Lord said: My Lords, although this is the last item on the Order Paper for to-day I think I am justified in saying that it is by no means the least important. It would appear as though this were a minor facet of a much larger problem—such matters as the housing position, town planning, the distribution of industry and a host of others. But although this may be a small facet in this much larger problem, it is nevertheless a most important problem.

The questions I would ask the noble Lord the Minister of State for Scotland to answer are these. To what extent has advantage been taken of the many grant-attracting opportunities which have existed from the passing of the Act of 1949 until the more recent Act of 1959 to conserve, through these grants, the vast number of repairable houses which could be made reasonably habitable for, say, some ten or fifteen years? Secondly, to what extent has advantage been taken of the 1959 Act, which imposes a duty upon local authorities to make grants for certain improvements, by occupants of houses lacking the five basic minimum requirements specified in that Act? Thirdly—and this is the tail end of my Question—what explanation can the noble Lord offer for the wide disparity in response which appears to exist between applicants in Scotland and applicants in the rest of the country?

My purpose is not to criticise or blame our forbears for the legacy of decrepit properties which this generation has inherited, nor to censure this or any other Government for their sins of omission. The situation, as I see it, is far too serious to indulge in any such criticism. I confess that I should have confined myself immediately to the purpose of my Question but for the fact that in last Saturday'sGlasgow Heraldthere appeared a short article by their Parliamentary correspondent suggesting that in the course of to-day's debate on this particular matter it was likely that there would be a good deal of criticism of Labour-controlled town councils on the grounds that, because local authorities would receive only one-quarter of the cost of the grants, they would be lukewarm and lacking in enthusiasm in supporting these grants which are available for improvements and conversions. Due to that statement, I want to make it clear that I do not stand here in the position of a rebel to my own colleagues or members of my Party.

With your Lordships' permission, I should like to quote from the policy statement known asHomes for the Future. On page 25, under the heading of "Modernisation", this policy pamphlet says: Our main concern to-day "—

"Our" referring to the Labour Party— is with the improvement and maintenance of existing houses, and this must be done irrespective of the ownership of the property. Most people desiring to buy a house would also wish to put it into as good a condition as possible.

The pamphlet goes on to deal with a repairs fund and so on. If it should be objected that that refers mainly to conditions in England, it may be interesting to point out that in a Party political pamphlet calledLet Scotland Prosperthis is what is said under the heading of "Home Ownership": All over Scotland there will be those, and we hope they will increase in number, who will wish to own the houses they occupy. Helping the owner-occupier is an important part of Labour's policy.

The statement goes on: …many present owner-occupiers need help in bringing their houses up to modern standards. Many owner-occupied houses, sound enough in other ways, are without amenities such as an internal supply of hot and cold water. The cost of modernising is frequently beyond the means of the owner.

I wish to impress upon noble Lords that what is being asked in this Question is part and parcel of the recognised policy of the Party to which I have the honour to belong. I think it is necessary on two grounds to dispel any suggestion of partisanship. First, it is the avowed policy of the Labour Party to encourage modernisation, as I have already explained; secondly, if there be any truth in theGlasow Heraldsuggestion, it would be only to the extent that some Labour-controlled local authorities are not acting in the spirit of Labour Party policy. So I feel on very safe ground in asking my Question.

The second ground, however, is one of wider implication. When we speak of building houses as part of town-planning activities, we are apt to assume that town planning is solely concerned with the building of new houses. It is often overlooked that, in the process of providing new houses, a necessary part of the planning is to conserve as many as possible of such older houses as are fit to remain occupied, at least until such time as new accommodation can be found for those occupiers. This, I may add, applies particularly to sites in the central part of cities, where there is an understandable reluctance on the part of the older inhabitants to leave their long-established social groupings; their wish is to be left undisturbed. This does not mean the continuous sterilisation of more and more of our diminishing virgin sites. It is surely the negation of planning to wait until older houses fall into so bad a state of disrepair as to make even temporary habitability impossible, or, as so frequently happens, to leave them in so dangerous a condition that they fall down of their own accord, often, as we have read, to the injury of members of the general public.

This is not to suggest or to imply that the building of new houses should in any way be slowed down. On the contrary, it should be speeded up. For one danger is that, having regard to the quality and materials of which the earlier post-war houses were built, they, too, will rapidly be reaching a state of disrepair similar to that of the still older houses with which we are concerned to-day. Why, I ask, has there been so disappointingly small a response to the offer of these grants? Although some 400,000 new houses have been built in Scotland since the war, we are still far short of the number required to satisfy present demand, and the need to adopt every possible avenue to keep up the supply remains. One indication of the continuing need is the fact that, from 1955 to the end of December, 1958, more than 22,700 houses have been closed, although of these closed houses 15,700 still remain standing and have not yet been demolished. In the same period, more than 19,000 houses have been demolished, the occupants having presumably been re-housed. Considering the numbers of people still to be housed, what steps are being taken to improve the many thousands of existing houses which, with a little cost, could be made habitable for some few years more?

I sometimes think that what has been achieved has been brought to my notice not only by what has been done in England, but also by what has recently been done in Scotland. Two cases come to my mind which I think are worth mentioning, for the reason that there have been two different lines of approach. For the first illustration of what I have in mind, I am deeply indebted to my old friend, Sir Patrick Dollan, recently retired from the Chairmanship of the East Kilbride Development Corporation and still a very active public-spirited man. He gave me a copy of a works magazine issued by the Lithgow Group of companies—the summer number of 1960—in which there appears an article headed "Port Glasgow", showing both by letter press and by beautiful photographs what can be done by way of improvement grants in houses which otherwise lack either attractiveness or amenities. Secondly, my attention was drawn to a Paisley newspaper which contained a description of a piece of reconstruction and improvement, also illustrated, which showed what great things can be done to make a one-time disreputable-looking lot of houses into something really habitable. That was a scheme which the noble Lord the Minister of State for Scotland had the joy of opening, and I hope to hear some reference to both those schemes in the course of his reply.

The question is: how can public attention be increased towards this very necessary kind of work in these days of house shortage? The Department of Health for Scotland have for some years published a series of interesting, accurate and well-drawn-up pamphlets giving details of these improvement grants and conversion grants; how they can be obtained; what has to be observed, and what can be done. Although these pamphlets are well drawn up, I say with great respect that they are not making the desired impact upon the minds of those for whom 'they are intended and who are to benefit from these schemes. Obviously, such things as advice bureaux—which a number of local authorities have—television and radio publicity, Press publicity, and the kind of drives such as the anti-polio and anti-tuberculosis drives, are all desirable and helpful. But I still feel that they do not make the impression upon those who are mostly concerned, and for whom they are primarily intended.

The reason, I suggest, is that these men and women are not accustomed to consult architects, to employ contractors, to make their wants known or to fill up forms of some complexity. What is required is someone who is in intimate and close touch with these people, someone to whom these people can go almost as a matter of course. I very respectfully suggest—and I hope that my motives will not be misconstrued—that the people most appropriate for these purposes are the elected local representatives. At election times they take great care to persuade the electors that they have the capacity and the will to do all they can for those who return them to power in the local authorities, and it would seem to me that here we have a source of close contact, intimate contact, whereby people who can be made interested in these matters can be referred to people who understand their outlook; who can fill up forms for them; who can explain the complexities of these particular schemes. They are the ones, I suggest, to whom these people should be sent, in order that these matters can be explained to them, and in order that encouragement can be given, for their good, so that during the comparatively short period in which they are occupying places which to-day could be improved that improvement might, in fact, be made available. I do not want to develop that particular aspect too much, but I think that there may be a connection between the complaint of apathy on the part of local electors, of their failure to take an interest in local elections, and a kind of impression that the electors are not getting what they hoped and expect to get from the promises of those who stand for local elections.

I have so far not said a word about the attitude of the landlords of rented houses, who should also come into this scheme, because I feel partly that, in these days of high and soaring prices of properties and sites the incentives offered are not sufficiently attractive. A number of these landlords, whose public spirit is by no means what it should be, descend to different kinds of devices—for example, constructing limited liability companies, with very small capital, for different individual properties, so that if they incur a liability to a local authority they can more or less evade responsibility by ceasing to be liable as individuals and leave it to a limited liability company without any assets to be attached in order to meet the situation. I think that in places like Glasgow and Edinburgh that particular kind of operation has reached the magnitude of a scandal. Although I cannot for the moment suggest any particular kind of remedy, it seems to me that if some kind of alteration could be made in our existing legislation which would tighten our powers over that kind of ownership it would do a great deal of good. By what I have said, I have, as it were, supplemented my Question, and I shall listen with great interest to any remarks and observations that the noble Lord may make.

5.55 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to say a word on this matter. They sometimes say it is a brave man who dares to interfere from South of the Border on a Scottish debate, but I have been very interested in the subject for many years. The noble Lord, Lord Greenhill, has pointed out that his Party are as much in favour of modernisation of houses as our Party are, but the Acts of Parliament in England—and I think in Scotland they are identical—are permissive and not mandatory on the local authority. The local authority have to put up a certain amount of money. The owner puts up 50 per cent. and the other 50 per cent. is shared between the central Government and the local authority. Many local authorities have "played ball" very well and have done all they possibly could to try to get as many as possible of these very necessary modernisations done. But I am sorry to say a good number have not. There have been a lot of local authorities, some Labour controlled, who do not seem to like to put up public funds for improving private properties. Nothing can be done unless the local authority will help in this matter, because, as I say, the Acts are not in any way mandatory; they are entirely permissive. I think a great deal has been done in England—I do not know much about Wales—on owner-occupier houses.

It is much more difficult where there is a landlord owning a group of these houses, because the rents, as the noble Lord, Lord Greenhill, knows, have been very low, and there is hardly enough money coming in rents to keep a roof on these houses, let alone do modernisations. Now the rents have been increased somewhat, one is hoping that landlords are trying to be good landlords and modernise houses. In a great many cases the local authorities have acted in a co-operative spirit and a great deal has been done for owner-occupied houses and also houses which are farm service houses which the landlords have modernised. I was very impressed at the Agricultural Show where the Ministry of Housing and Local Government had a special exhibition to show what has been done, how these modernisations have been done and also how people can get grants. It is quite a technical process, because you have to bring a house up to a certain standard laid down under the Act of Parliament before you can get a grant, and it needs expert advice from an architect, a surveyor or a builder. Plans have to be put in front of local authorities and certain conditions complied with. My only reason for getting up is to say that I hope, as the noble Lord, Lord Greenhill, said, that his Party are trying to make the Act work as much as ours are. I hope he will do all he can to use his good offices to see that local authorities do their duty in this respect, give these grants wherever possible and do not be obstructive, as they have sometimes been in the past.

5.58 p.m.


My Lords, I am greatly indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Greenhill, for having raised this important matter, and for the way in which he presented it. I welcome the opportunity he has afforded us to give further publicity to the grants which are available for improving and converting, our older houses in Scotland. I should like to refer to Lord Wolverton's point about the giving of the grant being permissive and not mandatory. As he says, it is an unwise thing sometimes to step in on Scottish debates, but we are glad he raised the point. This time it was wise, because it gives me the opportunity to give the answer. I can assure him that, whether the local authority is Labour-controlled or not, in Scotland at any rate it makes no difference. We have no reason to be dissatisfied with the support given by the Scottish local authorities to the principle of the grants, and certainly it is not on political lines so far as Scotland is concerned. As the noble Lord said, this is not a Party issue either.

Everyone agrees that our stock of old but sound houses must not be allowed to fall into decay. There is no reason why they should, when they can be improved or converted to modern standards, often at less cost than new building. This is a social as well as an economic problem. It is nothing short of scandalous that in this age of jets, motor cars and electronics there are still so many families in Scotland who may have a T.V. set in the living-room or even a car at the front door but who still have to share a toilet with other families. How can we, as a nation, expect people to give of their best, and how can people hope to get the best out of life, if they live in a home with no bath, no proper hot water supply or no inside toilet?

How big is this problem? As the I noble Lord has said, vast numbers of new permanent homes have been built since the First World War, but still something like half the total of our Scottish houses were built before 1919. We cannot do without them; we cannot pull them down in one quick operation and replace them with new ones. Furthermore, many of them—perhaps half a million—are not yet in the category of slums. All they lack are modern amenities. Hundreds of thousands of these houses must be worth modernising and preserving. The Government are right to offer inducements to owners to modernise these houses. This is sound economics and sound sense. A converted hp-to-date home is good for the tenants, good for the owners, good for the ratepayers, and good for the country as a whole.

In his Question, the noble Lord asks for a progress report and bow our record compares with that of England and Wales. Before the 1959 Act, grants to local authorities in Scotland for conversion and improvement of their own properties were being approved at an average rate of about 335 a year, as compared with almost 2,000 a year in England—a ratio of 1 to 6. Since the 1959 Act, and up to June 30 of this year, 555 grants to Scottish local authorities have been approved, as against 8,226 in England—a ratio not of 1 to 6 but of I to 15. So the Scottish local authorities are falling behind. In the case of discretionary improvement grants to private owners, the ratio as between Scotland and England before and after the 1959 Act has remained the same—1 to 13. The figures of standard grants are most disappointing. So far 1,266 standard grants have been approved to private owners in Scotland as against no fewer than 47,000 in England—a ratio of 1 to 37.

That is the picture: the Scottish local authorities falling behind; nothing like the same use being made of the standard grants; and no change in the private owner improvement grant rates. This is a disappointing and alarming state of affairs. We are grateful to the noble Lord for drawing attention to it, and we must look for the reasons. After all, there must be some reason for a Scotsman not to take advantage of something for nothing. But we must be realistic. Certainly the difference in traditional structure presents a greater challenge in Scotland than in England. It is, for example, in general easier to add a toilet and a bathroom to a typical English terraced house, perhaps as an extension in the backyard, than it is to add such an extension to a flat three storeys up in the smaller typical Scottish tenement. As a generalisation, one could probably say that what in England would tend to be done as an alteration or addition with standard grant aid, in Scotland would tend to be done by throwing two homes into one or three homes into two, for which improvement rather than standard grant is applicable. So we must be dissatisfied, too, with having only maintained our improvement grant ratio with England. Our goal cannot be to match proportionately England's figure in any particular category: our goal must be to make sure that every house in Scotland which can be modernised will in fact be modernised, and this is not the trend now.

The noble Lord raised the point: have we failed to publicise these grants sufficiently? Does everyone know about them who should? Very considerable publioity has already been given and this pressure is being kept up. Leaflets and posters have been widely circulated and displayed, a short film has been offered to the Scottish T.V. networks, a demonstration of improved houses has been held in Paisley and hope others will follow in other parts of Scotland. A stand has bean taken at the "Modern Homes" Exhibition in Glasgow's Kelvin Hall in October. I think we should be grateful for the help of Sir Patrick Dolton, who has personally done more than any other person, I think, with no connection other than his own, to help in this way. I assure the noble Lord that we will take every opportunity we can get to publicise the advantages of these grants, and I hope the present debate will serve a useful purpose in that respect. But while we remain dissatisfied with the use made of these grants, we must remain dissatisfied with our own publicity efforts. As the noble Lord, Lord Greenhill, said, we are not making 'the impact—those were his words. We must keep on trying, and trying harder, and this we will do.

There are three agencies concerned with the improvement of these properties: the local authority, the private owner of rented property and the owner-occupier. To each the Government, in the unusual guise of fairy godmother, has given a magic wand of grants. Properly used, the wand can change houses into homes. Let us look at each agency in turn. First, the local authority. As the noble Lord pointed out, local authorities can get improvement grants paid to them by the Exchequer for improving houses they own or acquire. The grant is three-quarters (seven-eighths in the Highlands and Islands) of the estimated annual loss for the life of the house, subject to a maximum of sixty years. In many cases this is a better bargain than demolition and rebuilding. From the results so far I wonder how many local authorities have really applied their minds to the social and financial advantages.

But there are some who have. I had the privilege in April of opening a demonstration of houses improved by Paisley Town Council with the help of Government grants. They did not quite agree with the Government about the amount of the grant, but that is a proper argument between the taxpayer and the ratepayer. This demonstration showed very well how typical old Scottish tenement houses of the room-and-kitchen or two-rooms-and-kitchen type can be converted into comfortable, convenient modern homes. I am sure that all those who saw the exhibition, which showed houses both before and after conversion, were impressed, as I was, with the wonderful transformations which can be brought about by splitting up rooms, or joining small houses together. Houses like these exist all over Scotland. There are immense possibilities to give people the chance to get modern homes in the districts and in the very streets in which they have lived all their lives.

Everyone knows that, as the noble Lord said, the almost universal picture in our Scottish towns is of new housing estates on the outskirts and decaying old property in the centres. The time is overdue far a full scale drive to redevelop our city centres, by slum clearance and redevelopment on the one hand, and by improvement and conversion of the sound properties on the other. It was for this reason that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland issued a circular recently calling upon Scottish local authorities to make an appreciation of their housing situation and to change the emphasis of their policies in favour of more central redevelopment, rather than our continuing to build houses an green fields ever further and further away from traditional centres, as we have been doing ever since the war.

Then there is the owner-occupier. In his case there are two types of grant. The local authority have discretion to pay him a cash grant of half the cost of his improvements—that is the discretionary grant referred to by my noble friend—up to a maximum of £400, and to claim back from the Exchequer three-quarters of the annual loan charges on the grant over 20 years. The second type of grant—the standard grant—was introduced by this Government in the House Purchase and Housing Act, 1959. In Scotland, though not in England, it is available only to private owners, either landlords or owner-occupiers, and consists of half the cost—up to a maximum of £155—of installing five basic amenities: a bath or shower in a bathroom; a washhand basin; a hot water supply; a water closet and facilities for staring food. The whole idea of the standard grant is to make available to people a simplified form of grant which they may obtain as of right from their local authority (it is not, as my noble friend said, discretionary) with the absolute minimum of fuss and bother. No elaborate plans or specifications are required—just a simple statement of the work to be carried out, with confirmation that the occupier has consented to the making of the application. The Exchequer refunds to the local authority 75 per cent. of whatever they pay out by way of standard grant.

These then are the two types of grant: a standard grant available for certain specific works with the absolute minimum of formality, and a larger improvement grant for more complicated work of improvement and conversion. While we in central Government will continue to do all we can to publicise these grants among owner-occupiers—and I support the noble Lord, Lord Greenhill, in his plea—I hope that the local authorities, too, will consider it part of their civic duty to improve the conditions under which their ratepayers are living—and, incidentally, the rateable value of their area. They know where the houses are, and they know the people living in them. They should make it their duty to ensure that wherever possible advantage is taken of these very generous grants.

But there is one word of warning that I must give to intending owner-occupiers. I do plead with anyone who is thinking of buying an old house that he should do two things before buying. The first is to seek professional advice as to whether the house is a sound investment, and the second is to ask his local authority whether the house is likely to be subject to a closure or demolition order. I know of several young people who have lost their hard-earned savings by buying a house which was subsequently demolished or was just not 'worth the money. The circular I have mentioned also asks local authorities to help in this matter, as I am sure they will, by providing the fullest information in reply to requests by prospective buyers about the future life of the houses they propose to buy.

Finally, my Lords, I come to the third category, the private owners of rented property. They have available to them the same grants as owner-occupiers, but with provision for increases in rent once the house is improved. It is from the owners of rented properties that we must expect the most effeotive contribution if we are to succeed. Let me tell your Lordships more of one who made use the magic wand to which the noble Lord referred: the work of Lithgows at Port Glasgow. This is, I think, the most ambitious scheme of improvement by any private owner in Scotland.

Messrs. Lithgows are at present engaged in modernising five complete tenement blocks—originally 443 houses —in the Clunepark scheme at Port Glasgow. When the scheme is completed there will be 430 modern homes (a loss of only 13) at a cost of just under £800 each. The total cost of the scheme is estimated at £330,000, of which some £140,000 will be met by improvement grant. The original houses were mostly of the room and kitchen type, with no bathrooms, while the improved houses will each have modern plumbing, with new sinks and, of course, bathrooms. The whole scheme is a fine example of what a private landlord can do in co-operation with a local authority; for I am glad to say that Port Glasgow Town Council have made houses available to tenants temporarily displaced while the work of improvement is going on. I understand that wherever possible the former tenants are offered back their old flats after modernisation.

This is an example of the sort of thing I should like to see happening all over Scotland. I think it provides at least in part an answer to the noble Lord's point about the use of grants by landlords. Lithgows have shown what a private landlord can do, particularly when he has the co-operation of the local authority. I understand when the scheme was launched Sir William Lithgow was reported as describing it as a challenge to other landlords. It is a challenge that I hope many other Scottish landlords and local authorities will accept, and I commend this example to them.

Everything noble Lords have said this evening will be most carefully studied. The Government are all the time keeping the situation under close review and are most anxious to take steps to improve the response and make the schemes more attractive; so all constructive suggestions—and we have had some this evening—are welcome. We must all be deeply concerned in this matter, and not only because we see our precious national stock of houses deteriorating: we must remember the plight of the unfortunate tenants who are condemned to live in these obsolete houses that might be modern homes. As the noble Lord said, successive Governments have provided the essential basis of legislation. Now it is up to the Government, the local authorities and the private owners to do better in the interest of the nation—which is their own interest—and in the interests of the tenants themselves.


My Lords, the code is that we do not indulge in further debate, but I should like very much to thank the noble Lord, Lord Craigton, for his very full Answer and for the favourable response he has made to my Question.