HL Deb 06 July 1967 vol 284 cc878-90

8.55 p.m.

THE EARL OF KINNOULL rose to ask Her Majesty's Government, in view of the result of the recent sample survey of unfit houses in England and Wales, what action, if any, they intend to take to improve the situation. The noble Earl said: My Lords, yesterday, with the permission of the House and with the consent of the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, I withdrew this Unstarred Question owing to the lateness of the hour. It was then, I recollect, 8.30. To-night I see it is five minutes to nine, and I feel that I should apologise to the House for not withdrawing the Question. However, I feel that if I do so I shall have lost an opportunity to put it down again. I feel, furthermore, that it is a subject which warrants a debate at any hour of the day or night.

The reason for my putting down this Unstarred Question on unfit houses stems directly from a Written Reply on June 26 by the right honourable gentleman the Minister of Housing in another place. In his reply the Minister gave brief details of the result of a sample survey which had been taken during January, February and March of this year in regard to the condition of housing in England and Wales. Although the survey covered only a small, minute fraction of the total number of dwellings in England and Wales—something less than 0.0003 per cent.—the results of the survey indicate an astonishing deterioration in the standard of housing over the past few years, if previous survey figures can be relied on.

The two most recent housing surveys that I have been able to trace, in order to compare figures with the 1967 survey, was the Housing Census of 1961 and the Housing Survey in 1965. The survey of 1965 was based, so far as I know, on a collection of questionnaires sent out to all local authorities by the Ministry of Housing. The result of this survey showed that in England and Wales at that time there were known to be 824,000 dwellings classified as unfit for human habitation under the standards laid down in Section 4 of the Housing Act 1957. When one bears this figure in mind, it will come as a severe shock to many people to find that the 1967 survey discloses that the number of unfit houses has swollen to over double the 1965 figure, to a total exceeding 1.8 million dwellings. On top of this, a further 4.7 million dwellings are described as "unsatisfactory"—a term which I presume implies that they are unfit but capable of repair at a reasonable expense.

The natural reaction to the startling increase in these figures is that somebody's mathematics must have slipped up, either in the 1965 or the 1967 survey. It is therefore the more surprising to find in the Ministers reply on June 26 the following statement: This survey is the first to provide reliable information about the state of repair of houses."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons col. 40, 26/6/67.] How this bold statement can be made from the results of a minute sample survey covering only 6,000 dwellings out of 15.7 million is difficult to understand, particularly when one learns that the inspectors spent on average only two minutes in each dwelling. However, no doubt the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, will convince us, when he comes to reply, how such accuracy has been achieved and what has caused this rapid deterioration in housing standards.

The cause of the increasing number of unfit houses and the Government's answer to the problem are the crux of my question to-night. Is it due to the very large number of old houses that are reaching the end of their life? I believe that there are in England and Wales at the moment over 6 million pre-1919 houses. Or is it due to a lack of maintenance and modernisation? Or is it due to a deterioration of environment of houses which so often lead to "twilight areas". Does the fault lie mainly with the private landlord, the owner-occupier, or with the local authority? These are questions on which I hope the noble Lord will give some guidance in his reply.

The only way in which to turn this rising tide, as I see it, is for the Government to create in their promised legislation a number of incentives to encourage the private sector of housing—which still represents over 60 per cent. of the total market—to get on with improving their existing stock of houses. At present the improvement grants do not offer the incentives needed, and on top of this the owner-occupier and the landlord are often caught between the penal grasp of recent legislation—the Rent Act 1965, the Land Commission Act 1967, and now the Leasehold Reform Bill. If improvement grants are to be used as an incentive, they must be increased to a more realistic figure. At present, I believe the maximum grants stand at £350 for the standard grant and up to £500 for the discretionary grant. But what with building costs rising in 1966 alone at the rate of 10 per cent., the value of these grants due to inflation must be whittled away.

A further encouragement to the maintenance and improvement of tenanted property would be to transfer those properties which are still under the old controlled tenancies to the new regulated tenancies set up under the 1965 Rent Act. I would remind the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, that this was promised by the Government at the time of the passing of the Rent Act, and I hope he may have something to say about this when he comes to reply.

Government assistance in the public sector should, I suggest, include a streamlining in the procedure for redevelopment areas, which it is well-known many local authorities consider very cumbersome. I hope that Her Majesty's Government will be prepared to look again at the compensation that is currently payable to owners of houses in such areas, particularly when a house is deemed unfit for human habitation. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, is well aware that hardship can arise in such cases where an owner receives only site value less demolition costs, irrespective of whether he has just purchased the property at market value. Even an allowance such as excluding the cost of demolition would bring some relief to cases of hardship.

The House will be aware that a number of other suggested improvements to combat the problem of unfit houses were set out in the excellent Report, published in 1966 under the title Our Older Homes, A Call for Action, of a Committee under the very able chairmanship of Mrs. Evelyn Denington. Many features of the Report were severely critical of the serious lack in the past of accurate information on housing figures in the Ministry of Housing. We were told that this was due to the differing interpretations put by local authorities on standards of fitness. I trust that this, again, will be put right in the future.

One of the more contentious recommendations in the Report was to increase the local authorities' power to compel landlords to modernise their older properties. The House will be aware that local authorities already have such powers, which were given to them under the Housing Act 1964 by a Conservative Government. Whether or not these powers have been sufficiently used over the past two years I do not know, but the figures published in this recent survey, particularly in regard to the provision of bathrooms and hot water systems in dwellings, suggest that local authorities have not used the powers sufficiently. Again, I hope the noble Lord may comment on this and advise us how often, to the Government's knowledge, these powers have been used.

The use of compulsion by local authorities is, in my opinion, normally only justified in cases where the community interest is inadequately served by voluntary action. If a private owner, for instance, allows his property to deteriorate into slums, then there is a clear justification for compulsion; and here I agree with the Report that local authorities should be allowed to control the standard of maintenance in their areas. But how they will operate this control is difficult to see, unless they considerably increase their staff. But at least such a power might well prevent areas slipping into the standard of "twilight" areas all too soon.

I am sure it is every Government's intention, whichever Party is in power, to try to improve the standard of housing, to reduce the number of unfit houses, to reduce the number of unsatisfactory houses and the unsatisfactory environments which can surround houses. I hope the noble Lord will take this opportunity, even at this late hour to-night, in the light of the results of the sample survey, to spell out exactly how the Government intend to tackle this problem. We know the Government's present declared intention and target of 500,000 houses a year by 1969–70. Again, it would be of interest if the noble Lord could comment on whether the Government still expect to reach this figure, in view of the stagnant figures of the last two years.

Are the Government going to set targets of, say, seven to ten years for local authorities to deal with all the unfit houses in their areas, as the Report suggests? Do they intend to give more compulsory powers to hasten improvement and maintenance of houses? Do they intend to streamline the machinery of clearance and redevelopment areas which, as I have said, local authorities consider so cumbersome? All these questions and many more are relevant to the enormous problem which faces the Government, particularly after the results of the sample survey which I am sure will have shocked all those who care about the standard of housing in this country.

9.6 p.m.


My Lords, I must ask your indulgence at this late hour, but I particularly welcome the opportunity which my noble friend Lord Kinnoull has given me to put the case for the private landlord in this set of circumstances. I must declare an interest here, both as a landlord and also as a trustee of the Worcestershire Building Preservation Trust—a body which will be particularly overjoyed this evening with the news of the passing of the Civic Amenities Bill.

The core of the very strong argument in favour of improving old houses may be found at page 25 of the Report entitled Our Older Homes, A Call for Action, which has already been referred to by my noble friend. Perhaps I may be allowed to quote from Chapter 4 on maintenance, paragraph 58: If houses are allowed to become unfit when this could be prevented or delayed, they will have to be replaced, usually by the local authority, and thus at substantial expense to the community. If this loss of houses could be avoided, the same resources might be used to reduce the shortage of accommodation or for other urgent needs. We consider, therefore, that there is a public interest in ensuring a reasonable level of maintenance for all houses and that repair and improvement should be looked at as part of the same effort to preserve the national assets represented by the stock of existing houses". In particular, I should like to refer to the "Note of reservation" at the end of this report in regard to compulsory powers for the improvement of old houses. I think the case for compulsory powers for maintenance is clear enough, but that for improvement is a little more obscure. Once again, with your Lordships' indulgence I should like to quote. This is from paragraph (6) on page 38 of the Report: Improvement grants are now running at a rate of about 120,000 a year. This is not an insignificant achievement. Unfortunately only about a third of these are being taken by private landlords; yet privately rented property is the most in need of improvement. In my view the evidence strongly suggests that private landlords are deterred from undertaking improvements because the costs which they have to bear are too great". This, of course, is a most significant reason, but in my view there are four other reasons why, in present circumstances, landlords do not undertake improvements on a scale which might be thought necessary. The first reason is the difficulty in obtaining a fair return in rent on the net cost to the owner of carrying out improvements. The second is the protracted delays and cumbersome procedures which are necessary to obtain planning permission and which are involved in applications for grants and permission to proceed with the contract. Thirdly, there is a new factor altogether: the betterment levy and its particular application. Fourthly, and possibly the most significant, there are the 1965 Building Regulations. I will touch on each of these four very briefly.

In regard to the fair return on a landlord's capital invested in an improvement, an average and moderate return is reckoned at 122 per cent. on the net cost. Why is it difficult to obtain agreement? Very frequently the tenant will say that he or she does not want the improvement carried out because the rates will be proportionately increased with the rent. So the landlord, who is in any event obliged to continue the tenancy, is left with his unimproved property falling into a state of an uneconomic building—and he has still got the same unco-operative tenant. In regard to my second point, the report quotes the figure of applications for grants of 120,000, of which only 40,000 are in the private sector—not a very large number. But delays of up to six months or more are very frequent in the case of those making application to local authorities. I feel that it will be particulary welcome if the procedures can be speeded up; and the recent White Paper gives an indication that this will be done. I am sure that it will be welcomed by private landlords, such as myself, who are greatly interested in improving their property.

The third point, as to the betterment levy, is much more obscure. There have been two recent Government publications which will enable landlords and builders to discern more easily exactly what this means in relation to their property. I feel overall, though, that the betterment levy is a great disincentive. Fourthly, there are the 1965 Building Regulations. The operation of these Regulations falls with special severity upon those who wish to improve their old property. How can a house built in, say, 1867 fulfil the structural requirements of 1967, and still less those built in the years previously? To comply with those Regulations the property must very nearly be reconstructed from the foundations—the windows are too small, the staircase is too narrow, or perhaps it is too steep, and so on. These Regulations are very difficult to comply with, and I think there is a case for their relaxation in certain instances. I would plead, my Lords, that local authorities should show much more imagination when dealing with applications from private landlords; and with that I will terminate my remarks.

9.13 p.m.


My Lords, I am really rather grateful to the noble Earl for putting this Question down and to the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, for contributing his interesting observations on it. It comes at a moment when the Government are not in a position to give any final answer to this problem: not that there ever could be a final answer, but they cannot even give a definitive, interim answer. Still, I welcome the opportunity of talking about it, even at this late hour.

The sample survey of house condition in England and Wales, about which we are talking, was carried out earlier this year by 26 public health inspectors which were lent to my Ministry by their local authorities. My right honourable friend the Minister is grateful both to the inspectors and to their employing authorities for making this possible. The results of the survey justify the very considerable effort and technical skill which went into it. The noble Lord said something about the survey being carried out on a tiny fraction of the housing stock. But let us put it the other way round. No fewer than 6,000 dwellings in 262 local authority areas were surveyed. This sample was big enough to provide a reasonably accurate indication of the condition of houses in the country as a whole. It was not designed—and I must emphasise this—to reflect purely local conditions and variations.

The full analysis of its results will still take some time to produce, but, as noble Lords know, my right honourable friend was able to give the broad results to the House of Commons on June 26. The House may like to be reminded of what these are. They go a good deal wider than an assessment of the total number of unfit dwellings. Of the 15.7 million permanent dwellings in England and Wales, about 9.2 million are in a satisfactory condition. About 1.8 million dwellings are unfit, as assessed by the criteria set out in the Housing Acts. Another 4.7 million dwellings are unsatisfactory, but their condition varies very widely between those which are almost all right and those which, on any reckoning, are not likely to be worth saving. Many of these unfit dwellings are in places that we all know as "twilight areas".


My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Lord? When he speaks of 1.8 million houses unfit for use, does that mean unfit and incapable of repair at a reasonable expense?


No, not necessarily. I shall come to that. Unfitness can be rectified either by demolition or by making fit.

To continue, the sample survey gives a picture of conditions at one point in time. It does not tell us what the rate of change in those conditions has been or is likely to be. The sample survey was a "snap-shot" not a "movie"; we hope in time to produce a "movie". The survey was the first attempt, so far as I know, by any Government of this country to produce really reliable figures on a uniform basis of the various physical conditions of our housing stock. We took great care to ensure that there was uniformity of assessment. That is what is new. We did it by intensive briefing and investigation, by tests on location before the survey began and by spot checks during the survey itself. As an additional and, I think, natural precaution, no inspector surveyed places in his own local area.

To put this in perspective we must know what was believed before this survey. Some information derived from the censuses of population and housing already existed about certain aspects of housing conditions. This survey broadly confirms the information from this source. Thus the survey shows that about 2.9 million dwellings in England and Wales have no internal w.c.; 2.1 million have no fixed bath; 3.4 million have no hot and cold water systems; 3 million have no wash basins. Of course, these categories overlap; so that in all, 3.9 million dwellings lack one or more of the basic amenities. These findings correspond well to those derived from the 1961 Census. But the survey also shows that many of these 3.9 million dwellings are already unfit for human habitation under the Housing Acts criteria. As the noble Earl pointed out with some force, the extent of unfitness disclosed by the survey exceeds that formerly known. Returns made by the local authorities themselves in 1965 suggested that there were about 800,000 unfit dwellings in England and Wales. It also appeared that over half of them were in the areas of only 24 local authorities, with the greatest concentration in Lancashire, Yorkshire and the West Midlands. The sample survey, on the other hand, shows that not only have we one million more unfit dwellings than the returns of the local authorities suggested, but also that they are less concentrated.

The noble Earl used the words "astonishing deterioration". He asked about this "astonishing deterioration" in the situation. Here we come to the whole point. There is no reason to believe that there has been any deterioration; there is no reason to believe that the number of unfit houses has increased. What has increased is our knowledge of the true situation. It may be that there were 1.8 million unfit houses in 1955 when we thought there were only 0.8 million; just as we now know that there are 1.8 million, when a few months ago at the beginning of this year we still thought there were only 0.8 million.


My Lords, would the noble Lord substantiate that? He said it may be that there were 1.8 million in 1955; that that could have been the exact figure. I do not see how he can argue that.


My Lords, the point about this is that at the beginning of this year we thought there were about 0.8 million unfit houses. We then carried out a survey which was very much more efficient than any survey that had ever been carried out before, and we discovered that there were 1.8 million. Ten years ago we also thought there were 0.8 million houses. If we had carried out as efficient a survey ten years ago, we might have found that there were 1.8 million then. There can be no certainty about this: there will never be any certainty about it; but my point is that it is not the number of unfit houses that has increased, but the efficiency of our surveying techniques.

As the House knows, good progress has been made in the clearance and closing of unfit dwellings. In the last two years we have been greatly assisted by the increased emphasis that the Government have placed on the provision of dwellings to let by local authorities. Last year was indeed a record year; getting on for 67,000 unfit houses were cleared or closed, and 177,000 persons were moved from them. This year ought to produce even better results. Officials of our Ministry have visited about all the authorities which have serious problems of unfit houses and discussed plans for accelerating the clearance; and of this we shall do more.

At this stage I think it would help if I put the question of slum clearance in a rather wider context. The essence of Government housing policy, as it appears in the White Paper The Housing Programme 1965–70, is to give housing greater priority than it has had for many years. That was even before we had this new evidence that there were many more unfit houses than the local authorities had themselves returned. In the light of the White Paper, the Government decided to concentrate new house building in the areas where it was most needed, for these very reasons, that is, where there was a lack of accommodation or because of obsolescence. They selected 141 local authorities known as the "priority rolling programmes", which I have described within recent months to the House, and so I do not think I need take your Lordships' time with that any more.

In view of the urgency of the results of this new national survey, because we found the sad truth out better than before (not that the truth was any sadder in itself), in this year's annual review of the forward programme the Government will be giving a new special weight to slum clearance. The position was described by my honourable friend the Joint Parliamentary-Secretary, Mr. Mellish, when he addressed the Urban District Councils Association at Paignton only a week ago. As he said, last year, when we were settling long-term programmes for the first time ever, we indeed took account of the relative needs of different authorities in terms of unfit houses to clear, shortages to be made good, and housing for old people. But our aim can now be to relate these authorities' long-term building programmes far more closely than hitherto to slum clearance programmes, because we are already beginning to aproach the time when, outside London and a few other big cities, the crude shortage of houses will have been overcome. When that time comes, we can increasingly concentrate on the quality of our housing stock.

I do not need to remind those few experts who have remained in the House at this late hour that the most satisfactory way of dealing with an unfit dwelling is not always to demolish it. Of the 1.8 million unfit dwellings disclosed by the survey which we are talking about, 1.1 million are in potential clearance areas. The remaining 0.7 million are certainly susceptible to more individual treatment The quality of the housing stock can be greatly enhanced by an effective policy of rehabilitation; and further analysis of the sample survey results will, I hope, show how many of the unfit dwellings can be brought up to a decent standard at a reasonable cost. We should also like to get more information about how many of the further 4.7 million unsatisfactory dwellings are worth saving.

The Denington Report, to which both noble Lords have paid their obeisances, in which I join them, and the national sample survey which we are discussing tonight, are integral parts of a general review which the Government have undertaken of the problems and legislation affecting older houses and their environment. As the Denington Report said, environment is hardly less important than the condition of the houses themselves. In co-operation with the local authority concerned, the Ministry have recently studied the improvement potential of the Deeplish area of Rochdale and a pilot scheme for the improvement of the environment of part of that area is already under way. We shall learn much from that. We have also had recommendations from outside expert bodies. The Halliwell Report, the private enterprise report made by Hallmark Securities on the development possibilities of part of Bolton, was particularly helpful to us. Improvements must run together into a single whole in order to achieve the general revival of our older housing areas.

The Government's review is proceeding quite fast these days. I had the honour to take the chair at a private study conference held at New Hall, Cambridge, only last week. Some fifty experts from universities, professions, local authorities, the building industry and the Ministries concerned, took stock of work so far done and discussed the remaining problems. We discussed every conceivable approach. The Government can now move forward towards the decision stage of this review. The full results of the sample survey we are discussing tonight will be a vital factor in that process.

I think that with confidence I can put the view that the Government have already acted energetically to tackle the housing needs created by long standing reservoirs of unfit and other outworn housing, and that local authorities have been encouraged to press ahead through the provision of more generous help in the Housing Subsidies Act, recently before your Lordships' House. Council building programmes will be increasingly framed to take account of slum clearance programmes, and we are planning to introduce new legislation to help local authorities to treat comprehensively the problem of their older houses and their environment. I cannot say yet what it will provide, but we are increasingly convinced that the key of success is in learning to handle clearance-cum-redevolopment hand in hand with improvement. Local authorities must be able to carry out those operations in penny packets side by side. We must develop a conception of urban revival which will mean this close interweaving of slum clearance with the improvement of those houses which we want to keep, and of their environment.