HL Deb 31 March 1981 vol 419 cc129-35

3.49 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Bellwin)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. The Statement is as follows: In May 1980 the Greater London Council requested me to make an order under Section 23(3) of the London Government Act 1963 transferring the council's housing stock in the London boroughs of Brent, Camden, Hackney, Haringey, Hounslow, Lambeth, Lewisham and Waltham Forest to the borough councils. These boroughs were unwilling to accept the transfer of the stock. In these circumstances the Act required me to consult the boroughs before reaching a decision. There have been intensive consultations. I am now satisfied that it is right for the housing to be managed at borough level. I also believe that terms can be determined which will not only enable the stock to be assimilated smoothly but also lead to more effective housing management in London. My department is today conveying this decision to the borough councils. I shall be making an order transferring the stock to the borough councils on 1st April 1982, and intend to lay it before Parliament in the near future. A copy of the decision letter has been placed in the Library together with a draft of the proposed order. The order will take into account the boroughs' views on the GLC's proposals, and in particular will impose an obligation on the GLC to bring the property up to an acceptable standard over 10 years. The needs for housing mobility in London have changed considerably. The GLC's own mobility scheme for the transferred stock, together with the Inter-Borough Nomination Scheme, which is now to be part of the National Mobility Scheme, provides an adequate framework for meeting these needs, without the necessity to retain the GLC as a housing management authority. These transfers, together with those taking place by agreement, will largely fulfil the recommendations of the Herbert Commission in 1960 that, to the fullest possible extent, council housing in London should be owned and managed locally by the borough councils". My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, may I thank the Minister for repeating to us the Statement which has been made in another place. Having said that, I fear that I must first point out that the Statement contains very few details. I have only just this moment been able to get a copy of the decision letter, which I have not even had a chance to finish reading, but having had a glance through it I see that this also does not cover many of the very important and relevant points. I should first like to ask the Minister this: What is the hurry about this? Having asked him that, I think I can give him the answer. It is the GLC elections coming up next month, when the greater probability is that there will then be a Labour GLC whose hands will be tied by this statutory instrument. That is the reason for this.

In the third paragraph of the Statement there is a reference to "intensive consultations". As I understand it, 5,000 units out of 100,000 units of accommodation were costed, and I would not call this intensive consultations. Further down in the same paragraph, the Secretary of State says: I also believe that terms can be determined which will not only enable the stock to be assimilated smoothly but will also lead to more effective housing management in London". The word "can" raises a great many doubts and queries. Certainly it does not appear to us that the Secretary of State has the total understanding and agreement of the boroughs and the GLC.

It has been estimated that it will require £450 million to bring the stock up to standard. I should like to know from the Minister whether the Secretary of State is prepared to make this sum available, and to make it available without any cuts in the HIP. Further, will any increased expenditure that will be required both on housing and on staff, and on other expenses, be exempted from the RSG? As to the equalisation of rents, as I saw from my brief glance at the decision letter there is a reference to it there, but, again, it is rather oblique; and I would point Out that the GLC rents are higher than borough rents, and the borough rents will have to go up. Although there is a reference to it in the decision letter, it still says that something like 15 per cent., I think it is, will not be covered if that goes towards rehabilitation expenses, or something of that nature.

Since 1976 over 16,000 lettings have been made by the GLC to tenants moving across the borough boundaries; and by 1979 the number of moves declined to 10,760. The GLC has been Tory-controlled since 1977, as we know, and part of the decline has been due to cuts and the sale of houses. But what is quite clear is that if there is not a mandatory statutory mobility scheme, then the chances of people from the inner London boroughs having a chance to live in houses or flats in outer London boroughs are going to be nil. In fact, it is true that the number of those which are empty has increased among those boroughs which have already entered into the scheme and have left, so to speak, the GLC. The reason given by people—not only Labour members of council, but Tory members as well—is that under the present GLC scheme this is computerised, and it is far easier to make these changes and to enable mobility to take place, whereas under the new system the whole thing is so much more clumsy and long-winded that the mobility will not work.

The whole purpose behind this scheme, it seems to me, is to take away the powers of the GLC and to take them as far as possible right out of housing. This is going to be a tremendous loss to the tenants in the inner London boroughs, who are going to have precious little chance of being able to move out from the buildings that they are in at the moment and housing conditions which they do not enjoy—they certainly do not enjoy them—into some of the boroughs in outer London.

3.56 p.m.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is the Minister aware that we welcome this Statement in principle as transferring the control of housing to the boroughs, where it is closer to the people who are meant to be served by it, but that we are concerned that in so far as it is humanly possible to do so the consent of the boroughs should be obtained? There is some ambiguity in the Statement as to that. The noble Lord will recall that it says that the views of the boroughs will be taken into account, but it would appear that the final agreement has yet to be forthcoming. Do the boroughs have any veto under Section 23(3), or in the last resort could the Secretary of State make this transfer against their will?

With regard to the consultations, can the Minister say whether they have also discussed these matters with the tenants concerned and with the associations which represent them, particularly in view of the remarks made by the noble Baroness on the differentials in rent, which could affect some of these tenants who find themselves, after the modernisation which is promised in the Statement, faced with enormous rises? Further, is the figure of £450 million which was mentioned by the noble Baroness anywhere near correct? How is this to be financed? Is there to be a special provision transferred by the GLC to the boroughs, and will they recoup the £450 million, or whatever the sum is, from the savings that they make on their housing administration? Can the noble Lord say whether any calculation has been made on that matter?

What is to be the acceptable standard to which these houses are to be brought, and who is to judge that? Might it not have been better, in fact, to have left these matters to the boroughs, since they are going to be the controlling authorities for housing, and simply to require that the GLC would make available whatever money is required for the boroughs to bring them up to the standard?

Finally, the Statement mentions that housing could be managed more effectively at borough level, and I accept that that is correct in general, but recently the noble Lord has given the House figures of the large number of vacant properties in certain areas; and in particular there were several London boroughs which had more than 1,000 dwellings lying vacant for over 12 months. I am sure that the noble Lord takes this as seriously as do the tenants and the people on the housing waiting lists in these areas. Is he satisfied in making these transfers that the boroughs will pull their socks up and will make sure that these properties, like some of the others that they own, are not kept vacant for long periods of time pending their modernisation?

3.59 p.m.

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, asked what the hurry was, and she then answered the question herself by saying that it was the GLC elections. I would respectfully suggest that that is not necessarily the case. The fact is that these discussions started about a year ago. A formal request was made by the GLC under Section 23(3) of the Act, and I would not have thought that a year or so later we should be talking about "a hurry". In any case, so far as the GLC elections are concerned, that is not really the point because the Secretary of State in fact has powers and could make such an order if he wished, regardless of the outcome of the GLC elections.

On her point about consultation I would only say that the GLC requested these transfers in May 1980. The boroughs have used as many delaying tactics as they could. They have twice taken the matter of consultation to the courts and have been unsuccessful. My department gave an additional two months' extension of the period of consultation on the principle of transfer from September. In recent consultation on detailed terms, we offered to consider an extension if the period allowed turned out to be too short and, in the event, the boroughs asked for, and we gladly gave, only an extra five days.

As to the important point about the cost of updating the stock, may I say that the proof of the pudding is in the eating? The boroughs have extracted favourable terms on the matter of updating the properties. The order will require the Greater London Council to bring all the properties to acceptable standards over ten years, to deal with all serious design defects and to carry out environmental and external work to the estates concerned. The GLC will be required to cover the boroughs' transitional costs such as new depots, computerisation of records and so on, and the GLC will make adequate financial provision to cover the additional cost to the boroughs of making up for the shortfall in maintenance and management input by the GLC in the price.

On the point of rents, it will be for the receiving authority to determine the appropriate relationship between the rents of existing and transferred stock. The councils will wish to balance carefully the interests of all the tenants and the ratepayers in determining the appropriate rent levels. On the mobility scheme (which is a very important aspect of this) I would say that these transfers will not inhibit mobility. The GLC has the right to nominate tenants to up to half the vacancies arising in all its transferred stock—and by that I mean the 112,000 houses additionally which have been transferred voluntarily, including stock transferred by the other agreement. This arrangement, with the inter-borough nomination scheme, provides an adequate framework for movement within London. I look forward to seeing the GLC scheme and the inter-borough nomination scheme tied in with the new national mobility scheme which is to be announced today. We are anxious on this matter of mobility. It is important, and, with the three aspects covered in that way, we are taking care of it.

I was pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, welcomed the principle. His party are always anxious that the level of control shall be as near as possible to the people concerned; and in this case we are talking about tenants. I was glad that he welcomed that. He asked whether the boroughs have a veto. They do not. As to the tenants' views, I gather that discussions have taken place with the tenants. The Secretary of State would say that he has had regard to those in reaching his decision. But it would be fair and proper to say that some tenants have expressed doubts about the effect of the transfer. That is very understandable. I am confident that, under the more local management and given the obligations on the GLC to bring properties to acceptable standards, the tenants will benefit from the transfer.

I take the noble Lord's point about vacant dwellings. That is important. Hopefully, this should enable better management. It is true that some ofthe boroughs concerned will, as I said in the Statement that I made yesterday, be getting some of these properties, but they are properties which are occupied. In any case, we are now involved in taking on the whole vacant premises matter, and we hope that will help not only these dwellings but the whole of the lettings of council houses.

Lord Stewart of Fulham

My Lords, will the noble Lord agree that in capital cities there are a number of specialised problems—people coming in for employment, students and people from overseas—and these affect some of the London boroughs much more than others and, consequently, they cannot be dealt with solely on a borough basis? This was the whole point of having a housing authority in the capital city other than in the boroughs. If that is too remote an authority, that was simply because the Herbert Commission created this monstrous GLC instead of the London County Council which was doing the job very well.

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, that was precisely why the GLC are retaining the right to make transfers and allocations (if you like) to the extent that I mentioned previously.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that in the better opinion of those experienced in London government—and by that I mean those who agree with my point of view!—the Statement that he has made today represents a very retrogade step in more ways than one? Is he aware that local government in this country can scareely be deemed to be democratic local government where the Minister has to announce that when the GLC called upon eight local authorities to take a transfer of the housing stock, all eight of them declined to do so; and the Minister has decided, after what is termed, somewhat euphemistically, consultation, to order them to take the stock. Is that what he means by consultation? Is that what he thinks is democratic local government?

I will not refer to the old LCC—and I was going to do so—because my noble friend Lord Stewart of Fulham did so in moving terms. I would merely say, God rest its soul!

So far as the GLC, which took over the Herbert Commission recommendation, is concerned, is he aware that the splitting up of staff in the children's department and in various other departments has been catastrophic in spoiling a real specialist department which was in the service of London? Is he aware that that is likely to be the same situation in regard to housing. May I put my last question before the noble Lord loses patience with me? Does he not know—and has he not had sufficient experience to verify the statement that I am now making—that bureaucracy in local government is unfortunately in this day and age a very cumbersome affair? Does he really think that mobility is going to be strengthened, or even equalled, if one has to leave it to the inter-bureaucracy of the local authorities to have the spread of housing which the GLC was able to have?—and, as part of that final question, is he aware that one of the great uses of the GLC—

Lord Denham

My Lords, the noble Lord is stretching the Orders of this House which call for brief questions for elucidation.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, I am sorry if I embarrass the Front Bench opposite by an elasticity that I promise to bring to an end. Is the Minister aware that one of the great advantages in regard to the officers of the great GLC—not as great as the old LCC but still great—was the ability to offer housing to officers who otherwise might not be available in the service of London? Will that not be spoiled by the present order?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, that he does not embarrass me in the slightest by the points he raises. He knows that I would not have agreed for a moment that this was a retrograde step. On the contrary, I consider it to be a great step forward. I have never found local authorities in the normal way to be unwilling to take on additional responsibilities. Certainly, if that means managing houses within their own geographical borough area, then I would normally expect they would only be too pleased to do so. The fact that in this instance they are not, I suggest reflects the matter of the discussion on terms and conditions. If the consultation period to which the noble Lord refers has not, he feels, resulted in the answers that the boroughs may have liked and therefore the Government have taken action, I respectfully suggest that there is no shortage of precedent for that. As to the effect of the bureaucracy on the mobility possibilities, that is a matter of opinion. I am not worried about the mobility side in view of what we now have and what we are announcing today regarding a national scheme, the inter-boroughs scheme, plus the right of the GLC to go on making nominations to the extent that I mentioned earlier. It will be much better than it has been in the past.

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, I have two brief questions for elucidation. When the noble Lord the Minister said that the boroughs did not have a right of veto, surely that is only another way of saying that they had no right of consent, either? This means serious inroads on the democracy of local government. It is one more example of the apparent intention of this Government completely to destroy local democracy.

My second point concerns figures. I am very bad at figures and I was trying to follow the financial implications of the Statement. Am I right that the total cost to the GLC of this exercise is something like £450 million over the years? Is that to come out of the pockets of the ratepayers of London, or are the Treasury going to make this money available over and above the existing finance?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, if I may answer the point on the figures first, it is correct that it will be £450 million spread over 10 years. The funds obviously will come from the GLC which will raise their money in the normal way. They receive grants in one form or another in the normal way. Regarding the extent to which this is, if you like, an impingement on local democracy, an erosion of local democracy, I would only say that when I look around and see all the things that are taking place today in local government I, with my great interest in it, have considerable fears for the future of local autonomy and therefore local democracy. But it is not because of the kind of steps that we are taking today in this matter.