HL Deb 22 July 1971 vol 322 cc1192-205

7.0 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. This Bill gives effect to joint proposals by the Secretaries of State for the Environment, Scotland and Wales, announced on June 22, to stimulate house improvement in development and intermediate areas. The Bill provides additional financial assistance over a limited period to house owners, local authorities and housing associations towards the improvement and conversion of houses within the development and intermediate areas of Great Britain. It also increases over the same limited period Government assistance towards local authority costs of improving the environment of general improvement areas—in Scotland, residential areas.

The outstanding merit of house improvement is that it enables our stock of well-built houses still capable of modernisation to be nut to continued good use in providing better homes for those who live there without being uprooted from familiar surroundings. Houses which are clearly unfit for human habitation must be cleared away. House and area improvement is not an alternative to slum clearance—though in certain circumstances these different treatments can be used to complement each other to the advantage of a single area as a whole. But it is sad and wasteful that structurally sound houses should be left to decline gradually into slums, when a sensible programme of modernisation now could at relatively small cost provide comfortable living conditions for many years to come. Lord Greenwood's 1969 Bill recognised the importance of action now to save the best of our older houses in the increased assistance that it provided for this work and in the new concept it introduced of general improvement areas—that is, predominantly residential areas in which the benefits of house improvement are enhanced by improvements to their surroundings.

As your Lordships know, the Government have built on this foundation. House improvement is one of the most important elements of national housing policy and one to which the Government gave priority on taking office. The success of the concentrated publicity campaign that has been running since the autumn of 1969 under both Governments and in particular of the local publicity campaigns already held in many local authority areas can be seen in the dramatic increase in the numbers of applications for house improvement grants that have been approved. These figures are published in Housing Statistics for anyone to read, but I summarise them. Total approvals were 44 per cent. higher for England and Wales as a whole in 1970 compared with the previous year, 1969, and 29 per cent. higher in the first five months of this year as compared with 1970.

Against that favourable background it has, however, become evident that within the development and intermediate areas of England and Wales as a group, advantage is not being taken of the generous grants at present available to anything like the extent of England and Wales as a whole. In these areas the average increase in 1970 in the total number of applications approved in the public and private sector was little more than half the average increase for England and Wales as a whole. There are a variety of reasons for this. The fact that money may be tighter in these areas is no doubt one, but uncertainty about the economic future of the area must also be present, leading people to accept less satisfactory living conditions than their houses, with some improvement, are capable of providing.

What the Government seek to do by this Bill is to launch a short, sharp attack on these less satisfactory living conditions and, in the process, on the depressing effect on the environment of numbers of visibly run-down houses in these areas. The intention is to do everything possible to publicise the increased grants provided in the Bill and to encourage local authorities and private owners to take full advantage of them quickly.

The Bill itself is simple enough. Higher grants and contributions can be paid towards the cost of works eligible for assistance under the existing improvement grants legislation, provided they are carried out in a local government area which is wholly or partly within a development area or an intermediate area on the relevant date—June 23, 1971. In order to qualify, a grant application has to be duly made on or after this date and the works have to be completed within two years from the relevant date. That is in Clause 1. Seventy-five per cent. of the cost of the works, instead of 50 per cent., will be payable to private owners for all three types of grant concerned in England and Wales—the discretionary grant for modernisation or conversion, the standard grant for installing basic amenities like bathrooms and indoor sanitation and the special grant for additional basic amenities in houses shared in multiple occupation. The Government contribution to local authority expenditure on these grants will be increased from 75 per cent. to 90 per cent. The rate of Government contribution towards the approved cost of a local authority's own conversions and improvements and those by housing associations working under arrangements with authorities are doubled—that is to say, they rise from three-eighths to three-quarters. The rate of Government contribution towards the costs of environmental improvement work in general improvement areas goes up from 50 per cent. to 75 per cent. That is in Clause 2. Corresponding changes are made in Clause 3 to the Scottish legislation. For all practical purposes the effect of the Bill will be the same in Scotland as in England and Wales.

Improvement of housing and the special problems of the development and intermediate areas are common cause to both sides of the House. The Bill is designed through this stimulation of housing improvement to make a special contribution to improving the environment and to reviving the self-confidence of those parts of the country which have suffered most and need assistance most. I commend the Bill to your Lordships.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a—(Lord Sandford.)

7.8 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, for his very generous reference to my own efforts in the improvement field in the Housing Act of 1969, and I appreciate the kindly words that Mr. Julian Amery spoke in another place on the occasion of the Second Reading there. I am glad that the Government are seeking to build on the foundations that were laid in 1969. May I say how glad I am that in this Bill, though I think it has some imperfections, the Government are continuing and developing the policy which, for the reasons the noble Lord gave, can make such a tremendous difference to the lives of people who will be able to go on living in the familiar surroundings which mean so much to them, particularly in the later years of their lives, and will be able to do so with all the modern amenities that can now be provided. Therefore I very much welcome the increased provision that the Government are making.

The Bill was worked over extensively and intensively in another place and I do not propose to go over the same ground again or to make very heavy weather of the Second Reading in your Lordships' House. Nevertheless, there are four points which I should like to press upon the noble Lord, but I shall do so briefly. In doing so, I think that I should tell the House that I am a director of a building and engineering company, which has not been engaged, so far as I know, in the type of work covered by this Bill. I am sure that very many small builders will be helped by the Bill in what are rather bleak times for the industry. The noble Lord spoke of the distribution of improvement grants, and what has struck me over the last few weeks has been the apparently even spread of improvement grants throughout the various regions. Last year for, example, in the Northern Region there were over 14,000 grants; in the North-West over 17,000 and in the Yorkshire-Humberside Region just under 22,000. So already there has been a considerable impact in the development areas and intermediate areas. But I certainly do not begrudge those areas the additional help which the Bill provides.

Nevertheless, I think that all of us must have some sympathy with those parts of the country which, although they are not development areas or intermediate areas, are, from a housing point of view, priority areas. London and parts of the Black Country immediately spring to one's mind; and the latest figures of unemployment in Birmingham do not add to the cheerfulness of the situation. But I think I should tell your Lordships that the Housing Committee of the Association of Municipal Corporations has reacted very positively to this differentiation, and has asked that consideration may yet be given to widening the scope of the Bill. I can well understand that the financial implications may make it impossible to extend the scope of the Bill in the immediate future, but I wonder whether the Under-Secretary of State will perhaps consider amending Clause 1(2) so as to give the Secretary of State discretion to extend the scope of the Bill by order in a Statutory Instrument. I think that would be a great help to the Secretary of State. My noble friend Lord Jacques is to speak later in the debate. He has wide knowledge of Portsmouth, a city which greatly influenced my own thinking in the preparation of the 1969 Act, and I hope that perhaps he will be able to say something on the point that I have just raised.

Secondly, my Lords, both the A.M.C. and the Urban District Councils Association have questioned the wisdom of having so rigid a two-year limitation. I realise the reasons which led the Government to put on a time limit, but I hope that they will have a look at the matter again to see whether it would not be better to give themselves rather more flexibility than they are at present proposing.

A third point on which I should like the Under-Secretary to comment relates to the qualifying date. I am grateful to the Nantyglo and Blaina Urban District Council for bringing this to my notice through the Urban District Councils Association. The Bill provides in Clause 1(1)(a) that only applications made on or after the relevant date—which is June 23—rank for the new grants. The clerk of the Nantyglo and Blaina Urban District Council has pointed out that at the moment his authority has about 30 applicants who have received approval but have been unable to obtain a builder to proceed. In addition, there are some 60 applicants whose applications have been registered but have not yet been considered. The clerk to the council says: All 90 will be precluded from obtaining the benefits of the new proposals, which my council feels is most unfair. The Department of the Environment, in commenting on that letter in a reply sent to the Secretary of the Urban District Councils Association, says: As the Housing Bill is drafted, we are advised that there would be no objection to the withdrawal of a grant application made before 23rd June and the re-submission of substantially the same application, provided the original application had not been approved. I think that we are getting into really rather an absurd situation. I hope that the Government will seriously consider amending the Bill to bring it into line with Section 24 of the 1969 Housing Act. I know that it is not an exact parallel, but I think it would be desirable to take as the criterion whether or not work had actually started on the qualifying date.

Finally, my Lords—and I do this with some reluctance—I complain in strong terms, as I did when the noble Lord made his statement about the infrastructure grants, that there appears to have been no proper consultation with the local authority associations before the proposals were announced. This really is not good enough. It is, if I may say so with all good will, an unwise policy for the Government to pursue. The local authority associations are the repositories of great wisdom and experience. Their spokesmen are men and women of distinction and responsibility. I can say with confidence, and from my own personal knowledge, that never once has a Ministerial confidence been breached by the associations, even at times of bitter political controversy when the temptation must have been very great. I hope that this will be the last occasion when any of us in any part of your Lordships' House will find ourselves constrained to complain of lack of consultation, which is discouraging to the local authority associations and also, I think, damaging to the policy of the Government.

7.16 p.m.


My Lords, I rise to make a few brief comments on certain aspects of this Bill in the hope that it may be possible to persuade the Government, even at this stage, to accept or consider some Amendments. I shall be quite brief, because what I have to say is largely in support of what the noble Lord, Lord Greenwood of Rossendale, has so forcefully put before your Lordships. I would emphasise one or two of those points. In addition to authorities in the development areas or intermediate areas there are these other authorities with housing needs which would welcome the increased assistance now provided for the improvement of older, but still substantialy sound, housing stock. This would mean, as has already been mentioned, widening the scope of the Bill. Nevertheless, if because of limitations of available finance the Government cannot be persuaded to make the increased assistance more generally available, then perhaps it might be possible to do as the noble Lord, Lord Greenwood, suggested; namely, amend Clause 1(2) of the Bill so that the Secretary of State is not limited to bringing in local government areas which are confined to development areas or intermediate areas, duly specified after the relevant date. If, by order in a Statutory Instrument the Secretary of State could have discretion to apply the provisions of the Bill to any local authority which may make application to him, even when they are not within a development area or an intermediate area, this would at least give individual local authorities a chance to make their case for additional assistance and enable such assistance to be given without the need for further amending legislation.

Even where the provisions of this Bill do apply, some concern, as the noble Lord, Lord Greenwood, has already said, must be felt as to the two-year limitation. As this is defined in relation to the completion of the work, which in itself would seem likely to give rise to some complications, the time-table is likely to be a very tight one, especially if a greater number of applications increases the volume of administrative and procedural work. One has particularly in mind the desirability of associating an impetus in improvement work with the impetus in new general improvement areas. The latter, however, admittedly involve a lengthy procedure and in many cases are dependent on complicated property transactions. Applications for improvement grants cannot usually be made until the procedures are completed and therefore one may perhaps hope that with these considerations in mind the time limitation in the Bill could he extended. I have great pleasure in supporting and, I hope, reinforcing everything that the preceding speaker has said.

7.20 p.m.


My Lords, this Bill gives the benefit of increased grants to some local authority areas and not to others. Inevitably it leads to some anomalies, but one must accept that any Government is in charge of scarce resources and must exercise some selectivity. Therefore, anomaly is part of the price we pay for selectivity. But there is a limit to the price which should be paid. I suggest that where, in the application of a Bill of this kind, the Minister finds that there is a gross anomaly—so gross that it results in intolerable injustice—he should have the power to put an end to that anomaly by way of a Statutory Instrument.

If I may give an example, in the North-West there is the Runcorn Rural District Council. The extreme West of that district forms part of the development area, and the rest of it is outside. For the purposes of the Bill the whole of that district will get the benefit of the additional grants. The Warrington Rural District is nearby and, similarly, the extreme West of that district lies within the development area. In consequence, by the terms of this Bill the whole of that district will also get the benefit of the increased grant. However, wedged between these two rural districts and entirely encircled by them is the County Borough of Warrington, and the interesting thing is that the countryside around Warrington will get the benefit of the additional grants but the county borough will not. For example, in the designated area for the new town there is an estimated population of 130,000: 70,000 live in the old county borough and the other 60,000 live in these two rural districts.

As it stands, the Bill will have three effects in these cases. First of all, the old county borough will get no benefit, yet one of the purposes of the scheme for the new town was to facilitate the redevelopment and improvement of the old county borough, and this county borough is acting in line with the Ministry's policy. It has a special team to cope with housing improvement, and that team estimates that there are 5,000 houses in the county borough which would benefit from improvement. But it will receive no benefit from this Bill, while the surrounding area will receive benefit. It is obvious that the need for improvement is far greater in the centre of the county borough than on the outskirts.

As to the second effect, in Warrington, as elsewhere, there are factories, shops and offices. The higher-paid people such as the managers and professional workers tend to live outside the county borough while the lower-paid people—the labourers and to some extent the artisans—tend to live within the county borough. The higher paid will receive the benefit of this grant and the lower paid will not. Some of the higher-paid people who are working in Warrington and living outside the county borough can buy an old country cottage and get the benefit of these improved grants for the purpose of improving that cottage, but the labourer in the town who wants to own his own house and at the same time to live within his income will almost certainly find that he can only afford one of the houses within the county borough, probably one of the 5,000 that I have mentioned. Yet he will not get the benefit of this grant. A third effect will be that there are managers and owners of properties both inside and outside the county borough. They will obviously tend to use any monies which are available for improvement outside the county borough rather than inside it, so as to get the additional grant. Therefore, there will be an undesirable distortion in expenditure as a result of the Bill.

I would plead with the Minister to consider two amendments between now and the Committee stage. The first is a very modest one and very restricted in its application. I suggest that where the designated area of a new town is partly within a local authority area which will receive benefit under this Bill, then the whole of the designated area should also get the benefit. That will have extremely limited application and I therefore ask, in the name of elementary justice, that the suggestion might receive sympathetic consideration.

The second suggestion I should like to put forward for consideration is a little more ambitious. I hope that the Secretary of State might be given power, where he finds that the exclusion of a district would result in a gross anomaly leading to intolerable injustice, so that he could, by way of a Statutory Instrument, direct that the particular district should be included within the scope of the Bill. I admit that that is a less modest amendment than the first, but I nevertheless hope that it will receive sympathetic consideration.

7.28 p.m.


My Lords, I did not put my name down to speak in this debate, but I shall be only a moment. I should like to give an unqualified welcome to this Bill. Luckily, so far as I am concerned it is splendid; there are no boundary difficulties at all. However, it is a little late, because I am just converting my 29th house and although I shall get the benefit of the grant for this last house I did not obtain any benefit for the other 28.

May I raise one point for the consideration of the noble Lord? I do not know whether this is covered by the Bill. As I did not put my name down to speak my noble friend could not know that I would raise this point, so I cannot expect an answer. However, I hope that he may find it possible to consider what I am about to say concerning the administrative paperwork. A great deal of time is consumed with the necessary paraphernalia that one has to go through. The minor warrant procedure is very much quicker and simpler than the full procedure; but the minor warrant sum was fixed a very long time ago at £500 and it is now totally inadequate. For that sum you could probably have put on a new doorknob and letter box, and not much more. I suggest that if the sum were increased to £800 it would be possible to do away with an enormous amount of really useless administrative work and it would enable people to get on with the job much quicker than if they had to go through the full procedure for really quite small alterations which are done to the same standard. It is really a question of the paraphernalia that has to be gone through before a job can be started. If it is possible to increase the sum, it may be worth while.

7.30 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful for the widespread welcome that the general intentions of this Bill have had from all sides of the House. It bears out what I was saying: that house improvement as such is something about which we all feel enthusiastic. I should stress that this is not a Bill to give further encouragement generally to house improvement. It is certainly not a Bill which attempts to deal in any wide-ranging or long-term way with areas of housing stress. Since the Bill was published and began its way in Parliament the Government White Paper on Housing Finance has been published (on July 13), and a number of the points which noble Lords and others have raised on matters that this Bill does not cover will be dealt with by the policy outlined in that White Paper. I will enlarge upon that in a moment. So far as general encouragement for house improvement goes, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State feels that he already has adequate powers to increase, as necessary, the various cash limits in the 1969 Act. He can do this generally throughout the country by means of a Statutory Instrument. He can do it selectively under his power to approve or determine higher limits for particular cases, or for particular classes of case.

The Bill does not attempt to deal selectively with individual authorities where progress is highly desirable with special regard to housing stress. The policies outlined in the White Paper are what is relevant in this respect and deal with a great number of the points that have been raised. The White Paper sets out proposals for a thorough reform of housing finance in the context of the Government's other housing policies, especially those concerned with the general encouragement of house improvement and home ownership. These proposals will give the greatest help in the longer term to the areas of greatest housing need. These are not the areas with which this Bill specifically deals. Under the policies in the White Paper, it will be possible for subsidies to be concentrated in those areas where they will not only encourage house improvement but stimulate the clearance of slums and the building of new homes, and generally deal with all the problems of overcrowding and stress.

House improvement is referred to specifically in paragraphs 8 to 13 of the White Paper. Among the changes are those designed to simplify the procedure which a landlord, improving a controlled dwelling, has to follow before obtaining the right to charge a fair rent. That is the place at which the point raised by my noble friend Lord Stonehaven will be met. Nor is the Bill specifically designed to provide additional employment in the development and intermediate areas. I agree that it can be welcomed, as the noble Lord, Lord Greenwood of Rossendale, welcomed it, for the additional work it will create in a labour-intensive field and the additional work it will bring to people like small builders. I will not deny that there are benefits here; but that is not the main purpose of the Bill.

I will deal a little more specifically with the question of the time completion of the work, and also other points which noble Lords asked me to deal with. It has been suggested that the time limit laid down in the Bill could be extended. If this were a Bill designed to deal with housing in a broader way, and over a longer term, that would be a valid point, but it has the specific purpose of providing an immediate, quick, short-term stimulus in the development and intermediate areas. If it is to serve that purpose, noble Lords will agree that there must be a time limit in order to stimulate people to move, rapidly and briskly, to take the benefits that are in the Bill. Any extension of the time limit would defeat that particular object. I agree that that is not an object which needs to be followed in dealing with a number of our other housing problems, but it is the aim which the Government have set themselves in introducing this particular Bill.

There is the further proposal which the noble Lord, Lord Greenwood, mentioned, and which received the support of other noble Lords, that we should think again about the point of eligibility for these grants. I will undertake to look at this again, but it is not a point which has escaped us, or one to which a good deal of attention has not already been given. The proposal from the Urban District Council's Association that where applications have already been approved, but the work not yet begun, they should be eligible for the higher grant, runs counter to the intention of the Bill of encouraging people to bring forward new improvement work that might have been postponed, if indeed ever undertaken.

Comparison with the transitional provision in the 1969 Act which the noble Lord, Lord Greenwood, not unnaturally made, is a little misleading, since the circumstances of this Bill are different—particularly the circumstances of its introduction—from those in 1969. In that case it had been known for a considerable time that higher grants were to be provided by the Bill, and applications would have been dammed up without the provision in the Bill for them to be withdrawn and resubmitted so long as work had not been started. In this case, consideration of the present Bill is now already in its later stages within a matter of weeks of the announcement by the Secretary of State for the Environment of the intention to provide these higher grants. The noble Lord will recognise that quite different circumstances in timing are prevailing, and if we are to achieve the particular object of this Bill we have to draw the line at the right point, namely, of approval, in order to achieve our objective.


Before the noble Lord sits down, would he deal with the point about consultation with the associations. There is a good deal of unhappiness about this matter, and perhaps he could help to dispel it to-night.


My Lords, I am not sure that I can do so, but I recognise that it is important to have full consultation. The noble Lord will recognise that so far as the White Paper goes, consultations have been most extensive and thorough. Perhaps we were not as thorough over this particular Bill, and if not I am sorry. I recognise that consultation with the local authority associations is important, and is very much valued.


My Lords, before the noble Lord finally sits down, I would ask: is it not a valid point to make, with regard to the applications having to be submitted before the relevant date, that the effect of not conceding the point of the noble Lord, Lord Greenwood of Rossendale, and allowing the test to be the start of work rather than the submission of application, will mean that landlords, such as the noble Viscount, Lord Stonehaven, having a choice in the dwellings to be improved, will be able to say,"Just because I put in an application before the relevant date, if I am not going to get the increased grant in respect of that one, I am going to forget it for the time being and put in an application for another dwelling; then I shall get the higher grant." That is very wasteful. Is it not more sensible to say that the test date is not that of the submission of the application but of the beginning of the work?


My Lords, the noble Lord may have misheard me or misunderstood me, or I may not have made my point clearly enough. The dividing line in this particular case is drawn on the basis of whether or not the application has been approved. If that is borne in mind, I think that the validity of our point for this particular purpose is sound.


My Lords, may I answer the noble Lord, who mentioned me? The point that arose in my case was that I posted my application and all the documents to the sanitary inspector, but when I heard about this I nipped round to the office and grabbed them back again before they were opened. The second point is that this is the last house I have anyway, so I have no option.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.