HL Deb 02 December 1980 vol 415 cc346-53

4 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Elton)

My Lords, I beg to move that the Draft Housing (Northern Ireland) Order 1980, which was laid before the House on 5th November in the last Session of this Parliament, be approved.

This order consolidates, with amendments, over 30 housing enactments dating back to 1890. The majority of the provisions retain the wording and arrangement of the original legislation. However, in a number of instances this has not been possible and some minor amendment has been required. A few substantive changes have also been made. These include a number of specific amendments which have been made to the order since it was published for consultation in July 1980. There is not much point in discussing the measures of consolidation, other than to welcome an improvement which will make the law a much more weildy instrument, ready to hand for a great many more people than could hitherto make use of it. I therefore intend, with your Lordships' permission, to confine my remarks to outlining the substantive amendments embodied in the order.

The first of the changes made since the publication of the order occurs in Article 2, where the definition of "owner" has been extended to make clear that where notices are served under the order these can be served on an agent where it is not possible to trace the owner. This change was made in response to requests made during the consultation period.

Part II deals with the constitution and financing of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. Your Lordships will note in Article 15 a further change from the published order in that the limit on the executive's borrowing from the Consolidated Fund is being raised from £850 million to £950 million. This is intended to meet the executive's likely borrowing requirements up to midsummer 1982. That is the only new provision in Part II.

In Part III, which provides for the development functions of the Housing Executive, Article 29 is new. It clarifies the power of the executive to produce and supply heat to its tenants and to others. It is based on Sections 11 and 12 of the Great Britain Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976. This puts beyond doubt the power of the executive to supply heat under a district heating scheme to ancillary buildings such as schools and health centres as well as to its houses. This obviously makes economic and practical sense.

Power to enable the executive to revoke declarations of proposed redevelopment or clearance areas and clearance, demolition or closing orders have been provided in chapters II and III of this Part. These are on the lines of the powers already available to housing authorities in Great Britain. In addition, Article 49 now provides for the executive to amend a redevelopment scheme in a significant way if this proves necessary.

This brings me to a further substantive change which has been made following the consideration of comments received during the consultation period. The published draft order proposed that the executive's powers to take action to secure the demolition or improvement of unfit houses should become discretionary. This was because of the practical and financial difficulty facing the executive in dealing with the large number of unfit houses there are in Northern Ireland. This proposal has however, proved unacceptable to a considerable body of opinion in Northern Ireland. It has, therefore, been decided to leave the law as it stands for the purposes of this order and the executive will continue to have a statutory responsibility.

Part IV provides for a system of grants payable by the executive for the improvement, repair or conversion of houses. Under Article 85 the executive may carry out improvements or repairs with the agreement of house owners. Another substantive change to the order since its publication has been made in this part to take account of changes in the grants structure provided for in the Housing (Improvement, Intermediate and Repairs Grants) Order (Northern Ireland) 1980, which came into operation in August 1980. Consequential amendments have been necessary in Articles 68 and 72 and in Schedule 5. Parts V and VI are as published in the original draft and incorporate no significant changes in the law.

Part VII provide a code for the information, administration and financing of housing associations. This, again, is merely a measure of consolidation and clarification. However, I now come to the final change which has been made to the order since publication. Article 117 of the published draft order provided for the transfer of authority to make loans to registered housing associations from the Northern Ireland Department of Finance to the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland. In order to give effect to this change, which clears the way for a more effective method of financing associations, certain consequential provisions have been necessary. These take the form of powers to enter into loan agreements and to secure loans on the revenues of an association. In addition, Article 123 places a restriction on an association's power to mortgage its property and makes that restriction a charge to be registered in the Statutory Charges Register in accordance with Article 161. I believe that this order will be welcomed by those who press for consolidation of legislation generally, and especially by those who have to use planning legislation every day. I commend the order to your Lordships and beg to move that it be now approved.

Moved, that the draft order laid before the House on 5th November be approved—(Lord Elton).

4.6 p.m.

Lord Blease

My Lords, first, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for a very comprehensive and helpful explanation of this considerable weighty draft order. It extends over a considerable period of years. It brings into consolidation 90 years of legislation which, I agree with him, will be welcomed by the general public and by housing practitioners alike. I should also like to take this opportunity to congratulate all those who have contributed to the completion of the task, which was initiated by the last Administration.

However, unhappily in my opinion, the timing of this order for parliamentary approval gives rise to a considerable degree of irony. On the one hand, one could say that the Government now propose to make clearer what are the functions of the Housing Executive and housing associations. But, on the other hand, is it not ironic that at this very point in time they have also determined to deny the resources adequately to fulfil those functions?

As a result of recent Government cutbacks and Statements, a great deal of confusion now exists among both the general public and housing practitioners, and I am sure that, when it is proposed to simplify the legislative framework, the Minister will welcome the opportunity further to clarify the Government's intentions with regard to the financial limits within which these legislative functions are performed. One would hardly need to go further than Article 6 of the order which describes the general functions of the Housing Executive and which says: The Executive shall—

  1. (a) regularly examine housing conditions and need;
  2. (b) submit to the Department for approval its programme for such years and in such form as the Department may determine for meeting housing needs".
Perhaps the Minister would like to comment on recent press statements and articles by the chairman of the Housing Executive, Mr. Charles Brett, by the Chief Executive Officer, Mr. John Gorman, and by the Chairman of the Housing Council, Mr. Norman Ferguson. These three, along with others, referred to the functions of the Housing Executive. On 21st October, speaking on behalf of the entire Housing Council, which represents each of the 26 elected district councils, Mr. Ferguson stated to Mr. Philip Goodhart, the Minister for Housing: Essentially what we wish to say to you, and through you to the Prime Minister and her Cabinet, is that present funds for housing in Northern Ireland are insufficient to meet the need". Mr. Ferguson, who is an Official Unionist in the South Down constituency, pointed out: We understand that what we seek is in fact a larger share of U.K. funds. We make no apology for this, for just as we are frequently reminded that the per capita expenditure is substantially higher here than in other parts of the U.K., we may fairly remind all concerned that so is our share of bad housing". Mr. Ferguson stated that the anticipated number of new buildings started for 1980–81 was 1,083 houses. This compares with 5,136 in the last financial year under the previous Labour Administration. Last month there were over 13,000 construction workers unemployed compared with 8,200 in July this year. This takes no account of the spin-off effect on workers in allied construction industries and trades.

Since the business we are considering today is to clarify the legislative framework, I am sure the Minister will be able to elucidate a number of points that arise concerning landlords, tenants, owner occupiers and construction workers, all of whom are expected to operate within the framework of this substantial draft housing order. Mr. Charles Brett, the chairman of the Housing Executive, stated on 16th October that at a very minimum they need an annual building programme of 5,000 new dwellings, 1,200 rehabilitated houses and 350 cottage improvements. Anything less than this will see a further serious deterioration of the housing position in Northern Ireland.

Politicians of all parties have supported Mr. Brett's call for a clarification of the Government's housing policy. May I ask whether the Government are committed to helping those areas in the United Kingdom which have higher levels of unfitness in housing to catch up with the rest? I am aware that in parts of inner London, Manchester, Glasgow and Liverpool conditions may be as bad as in parts of Belfast. But the question must be asked: is it not part of the Conservative Party's declared social philosophy to concentrate resources where they are most needed? If it is, can it be genuinely claimed that Northern Ireland is getting its fair share of resources for housing?

I am sure that the Minister will agree that there is a great deal of disaffection in the Province at the moment on the subject of EEC funds. Perhaps the noble Lord may be in a position today to indicate the Government's views on the question posed by Mr. Brett on 16th October when he addressed the Northern Ireland Housing Council. He said: As to the availability of EEC funds, I am frankly bewildered by the discrepancies between the recent statement of Mr. Burke, the EEC Commissioner, on this subject, and those coming from the Government. Is Mr. Atkins prepared to say plainly whether the Government is prepared to accept, and pass on to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, additional funds for housing in Northern Ireland, if it transpires that these funds are indeed available? As regards the tenants of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, may I ask the Minister whether he will clarify the Government's intentions in respect of the Secretary of State's much canvassed principle that rent increases must be in real terms? Are rents to be increased by highly inflationary amounts? If so, will the money he available to carry out the much needed management, maintenance and modernisation? For, as the Minister will already know from existing reports, very large numbers of public authority houses in Northern Ireland have not been well maintained for the past 30 to 40 years.

I should also like to draw to the Minister's attention that it appears that there are a large number of tenants in Northern Ireland who may qualify for rent and rate rebates but who do not claim these rebates. It has been stated by some that in England 80 per cent. take up the rebates to which they are entitled compared with only 40 per cent. in Northern Ireland. Could the Minister indicate whether the Government will commission research in Northern Ireland, such as has been undertaken by the Department of the Environment for England and Wales, into the reasons for this apparently confused area of rent and rates rebates?

Finally, since the order brings together so much recent legislation on improvement grants and on housing action areas, could the Minister tell us whether he is satisfied with the level of private investment in older houses? Now that the Government seem to be setting their face against bringing under public ownership these older type houses, can we be assured that private landlords, or the owner occupiers, can save this important part of the housing stock in Northern Ireland? Or, if this assurance is not forthcoming, are we to conclude that the consolidation of this legislation is sadly irrelevant when so much of it will not now be activated?

What we have here is an order which will be welcomed by the public and practitioners, as the Minister has said, but they all declare with one voice that the Government's public expenditure policies are creating waste and deterioration of resources which will set back housing conditions by years. This is the shared view of the 26 district councils, the local political parties, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, the construction industry, and the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trades Unions. They have all declared that, notwithstanding the legislation that is there provided, the fact is that these cutbacks and the Government's policies concerning housing will mean a deterioration of the situation. All of them know that there can be no justification for a situation where 14 per cent. of houses are statutorily declared unfit; 30,000 people are on the housing accommodation waiting list, and yet we have over 13,000 unemployed construction workers.

From this side of the House we support the order, but with the reservation that we need to be further convinced that the Government have the will to activate and implement the provisions of this legislation.

Lord Hampton

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for going over this somewhat complicated order. I wish to speak very briefly. I have listened with great interest to what the noble Lord, Lord Blease, has said, and it is sad to hear confirmation of what one believed to be the case—of the deterioration of the position. I should like to support the noble Lord, Lord Blease, in his query. Can the Government confirm that they are committed to special aid for Northern Ireland? If the Secretary of State says that increases must be in real terms, how is this to be enforced at the present time of mass unemployment? Apart from that, I think we must go forward and support the order.

4.18 p.m.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Blease, and to the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, for their support for this order. The noble Lord, Lord Blease, used the occasion, having welcomed the undoubted gains of clarification and consolidation, to call into question the economic policies which lie behind housing policy, and their implications for the people who live in the houses. He criticised Her Majesty's Government for not devoting sufficient financial resources to the housing programme of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and the voluntary housing movement.

The Government's economic priority is to reduce the level of inflation, and to keep it down. Your Lordships' House will be aware that the rate of inflation is coming down, but constraints on public expenditure are inescapable if this process is to continue. Housing services have already had to bear a proportion of the reductions and will, I am afraid, have to continue to do so over the next few years.

Noble Lords will remember the review of public expenditure priorities which we held in Northern Ireland last summer, following the particularly harsh impact of worldwide recession upon employment prospects in the Province. Following that, the Government redeployed resources to meet the demands for new industrial development and to place the Province's industry in as competitive a position as possible. To make this process less painful and more effective, Her Majesty's Government agreed to release a further £48 million from the United Kingdom contingency reserve. This does not increase the overall level of public spending in the United Kingdom as a whole, but it does represent a further very significant response by the Government to the particular needs of Northern Ireland. The Government believe that in providing support for the electricity industry and in maintaining support for existing manufacturing industry and for new investment, both of which mean jobs, they are steering a sensible course.

To help meet the needs on the economic front, it has been necessary to claw back some resources from services which have improved their relative position in recent years. Housing is a case in point. Even allowing for the reduction in monies announced in August 1980, the Housing Executive will still be spending nearly £295 million on revenue and capital needs in the current financial year. Over and above that, the Government will be assisting the programmes of the voluntary housing movement by some £12.8 million, which answers another question asked by the noble Lord. Beyond that, a further £3 million will be spent on other housing services, including administra- tion. This means that a total sum of about £310 million will be spent on housing services in Northern Ireland in 1980–81. That is no small sum. The problem is not small, but nor is what we are doing about it.

The noble Lord asked whether Her Majesty's Government would give preference to areas of greatest need, and the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, is interested in this as well. I must point out that on a per capita basis, public spending on housing in the Province continues to be 50 per cent. higher than it is in Great Britain. Furthermore, the number of starts in the first 10 months of this year was 300 more than it was in the same period last year. Prior to this year, one in every 35 houses in the public sector started in the United Kingdom was being built in Northern Ireland. During the current year, one in 18 starts is being made in the Province. If special treatment is asked for, it is certainly being given. The Government are clearly committed to help solve the housing problems in Northern Ireland. Given their overall economic policy, to which I have referred, the financial resources allocated to housing services are sufficient to sustain a reasonable volume of housing activity. When enough will have been done, I do not know. We can only do what we are able to do without prejudicing the whole of the economy, and that in my belief we are doing.

The noble Lord then quoted Mr. Charles Brett and others in another context, but again in connection with the financial situation, and this relates to the EEC. The Government have kept the Commission fully informed of the evolution of their thinking on integrated operations and certainly intend furnishing the Commission with the finalised version of the integrated operations memorandum as soon as the present round of consultations is complete. But the noble Lord I think believes that there is £100 million available in somebody's hand to scatter about the streets of Belfast, Londonderry, Omagh and elsewhere. So far as the Government are aware, no new financial instrument has been or will be created to channel funds into integrated operation areas. That being the case, the Government do not understand how funds which would not be earned by the United Kingdom as a whole—for example, the United Kingdom's share of the Regional Development Fund or the rebate on the United Kingdom budget contribution—are to be made available for Belfast or elsewhere in the Province.

Until we know in what form and through what financial instruments the Commission proposes to make money available for projects within the integrated operations framework, it is not possible to answer questions of the sort the noble Lord is asking. However, if the Commission's estimate is based on funds which would in one form or another be available to the United Kingdom in any case, this revenue is already taken into account when deciding levels of public expenditure. If that is the case, then, as my right honourable friend has already said, there is no crock of gold waiting to be dug up in Brussels.

The noble Lord then referred to the rates of rents at present and in the future. On a comparison with those in England and Wales, I can say that the current average rent of a housing executive house is £7.23 per week. The average for council houses in England and Wales is about £1 per week higher than that. The Government are considering the implications for Northern Ireland of the consultative document on council house rents issued by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment on 25th November 1980. That addresses itself to the wider problems which the noble Lord mentioned and discussions will shortly take place with the Northern Ireland Housing Executive on that question.

The noble Lord then brought to my notice the question of the uptake of the rent rebate scheme. At 30th September of this year, some 73,000 tenants were receiving assistance towards their rental payments. That included 23,000 tenants receiving rent rebates under the executive's scheme and a further 50,000 tenants assisted with their rents through supplementary benefits. I should add that the executive publicises the rebate scheme very widely indeed. It has gone to the length of advertising in the media and circulating information leaflets and application forms to all tenants, and in fact each rent book includes a rebate application form. The executive is presently reviewing again what further steps it can take to increase the take-up.

I think that deals with all the specific questions the noble Lord asked. I should as a matter of courtesy thank him for giving me notice of a number of questions. Noble Lords who may have noticed the thickness of the combined files beside me will realise that I could not have answered in such detail had I not known what the noble Lord was going to ask me.

On Question, Motion agreed to.