HC Deb 09 August 1972 vol 842 cc423-7W
Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will now make a further statement on the work of the Action Group on London Housing.

Mr. Eyre

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction announced at his Conference of London Housing Authorities in September last year his decision to set up the Action Group to spearhead the drive against London's housing shortage. The Action Group is a representative body of elected Members and officers of London housing authorities, including Alderman Sherman, Chairman of the London Boroughs Association; Alderman Perkins, Chairman of the Greater London Council Housing Committee; Alderman Taylor, Deputy Chairman of the London Boroughs Association, and Councillor Dryland, Chairman of the London Boroughs Association Works Committee.

The group began its work under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Northern Ireland and it was my privilege to take over the chairmanship earlier this year. The group has now submitted two interim reports to my might hon. Friend, which he has agreed to issue today. Copies are available in the Library, and are being sent today to local authorities in London. The first report records in general terms the range of work which the group has undertaken since it was set up. However, it soon became apparent to the group that shortage of land was likely to be a major problem facing the London housing programme, which had to be overcome as a matter of priority if the housing shortage was to be eliminated. The group's second report is therefore entirely concerned with the results of a survey of land availability and land requirements for housing purposes within Greater London, covering the period 1972–81 but with special attention to the immediate period 1972–75.

The London housing situation calls for co-ordinated action on a number of fronts, including improvement, conversion, redevelopment, tenancy allocation and tenure. Among the most important aspects of the situation is land availability, and this report provides a valuable picture, the most detailed of its kind ever assembled for London, on this issue. For the short term it indicates that there is a large gap between housing need and firm supplies of land for the period up to the end of 1975. It estimates that additional land sufficient for 32,000 dwellings over and above what has already been firmly identified is required if the housing programmes already formulated or being formulated for that period are not to be held up to the grave detriment of the many thousands who still have to endure unsatisfactory housing conditions. It is clear that vigorous action is needed to make this necessary additional land firmly available at the earliest opportunity. Much of this action must come from local authorities. It will necessarily take a variety of forms, depending on circumstances in individual boroughs. But authorities will need to consider whether they have really identified all the available land, whether they are doing all that is necessary to secure its early development and to realise its full potential, and whether they are pursuing a sufficiently positive programme of land assembly.

The group is anxious to help authorities in this consideration and is now beginning to follow up the survey with a series of visits to individual authorities, designed to discuss their problems in detail, and any action that can be taken to eliminate these problems and to make the best possible contribution to the solution of London's housing needs.

Several of the group's recommendations are addressed specifically or primarily to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Among them are recommendations dealing with development in some parts of the London Green Belt, the release of land in the Dockland Study area and the release of land at present held by Government Departments, nationalised industries and other public bodies, some of which have already been the subject of decisions and action by my Department:

(1) The group refers to 500 acres of land which lie within the London Green Belt but which the boroughs concerned consider could be used for housing purposes. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has weighed very carefully the conflicting arguments for and against housing development on green belt land. He is very conscious of the acute pressures facing London housing authorities in their search for housing land but in his view these should not outweigh the environmental arguments for preserving the London Green Belt. Although he is prepared to consider individual proposals for the release of areas of green belt land on their merits, this must be done against the background of a very strict adherence to the designated green belt. He sees the regional strategy laid down for the South-East as the means of providing solutions for those London housing problems which cannot be met within London itself. The Government will take a view on the important questions of the future size of London's population, and the related question of the size of the overspill programme, in the light of the report of the inquiry into the Greater London Development Plan, which is expected later this year.

(2) As to dockland, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport Industries has been considering urgently with the consultants and with the Greater London Council ways of realising some of the housing potential of the Dockland Study area in the period up to 1975 rather than later. The Dockland Study team has now identified a number of areas which can be used for housing without prejudice to the final outcome of the study. These comprise about 37 acres in the Surrey Dock area, about 100 acres around Cubitt Town in the Isle of Dogs and about 40 acres in Beckton. These acreages include provision for ancillary uses, but I anticipate that about 140 acres should be provided for residential use. Discussions as to the implementation of this recommendation are being arranged as a matter of urgency with the authorities concerned.

(3) A series of meetings has been held between the British Rail Property Board and the London boroughs to discuss the release of surplus land for housing. At these meetings the board's land holdings in Greater London have been reviewed in detail, and subject to the successful outcome of negotiations, and in some cases to the relocation of existing operational uses, some 160 acres is expected to be made available for housing in the near future. I should like to acknowledge the co-operation of British Rail in this review. Discussions with it are still continuing and the board is keeping their requirements under review.

My right hon. Friend has welcomed the group's reports for their clear exposition of the important land aspects of London's housing problems and for their authoritative recommendations on what is needed for London as a whole. The problems are still considerable, but the reports provide grounds for some confidence that the overall shortage in London can be overcome within the 1970's, given co-operation and vigorous action by all London authorities.

The group has recognised that this co-operation between the differing and at times conflicting interests concerned in London is essential if the housing shortage is to be tackled effectively. In following up the survey the group will not be seeking to impose pre-determined proposals on individual boroughs. There are a variety of ways and many aspects in which the boroughs can make a contribution to solving London's housing problems, varying from increasing the stock of publicly-owned dwellings on the one hand, to promoting the construction of more houses for owner occupation, particularly in the lower price ranges, on the other; and including improvement work and measures to increase the contribution made by housing societies and associations. The group will wish to seek the co-operation of individual boroughs to establish which of the alternative activities will together enable them to make the best contribution, without losing their own essential characteristics.