HC Deb 22 May 1952 vol 501 cc830-40

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Butcher.]

11.53 p.m.

Mr. Frank Beswick (Uxbridge)

I want to deal with a problem involving about 250,000 people. That is the estimated number of our fellow-citizens who are today living permanently or semi-permanently in caravans. That number is in addition to the holiday-maker or recreational caravan occupant. I understand that about 15,000 additional caravans are being made and sold annually.

Within the boundaries of this problem we have an element of exploitation and downright racketeering. We have some individual site tenants taking as much as £2,000, £3,000 or even £4,000 a year for the provision of a few acres of parking space and primitive facilities. On the other hand, we have thousands upon thousands of decent, law-abiding citizens who only want, and are entitled to ask for, a site on which they can live, either until a conventional house is available or, in some cases, because they prefer the open-air, healthy life which some enjoy in a modern caravan.

I must also say that there are, within this whole picture, reputable firms making and distributing good caravans, and who are only too anxious that the industry generally should be rid of the unsatisfactory features and allowed to play a useful part in our economic and social life.

The County of Middlesex is especially concerned in this matter, partly because there are so many caravans sited within the area and partly because it already has an excess of population over the number suggested in the County Development Plan. Yiewsley and West Drayton Urban District, for example, expect to have by 1954 a surplus of 1,250 families and fear that, as things are, they will be moving out residents of long standing at a time when new families in caravans will be arriving. Nevertheless, it is not feasible to deal with this problem in one county alone, at least not without squeezing it into neighbouring counties.

There are two initial propositions to which I invite the Parliamentary Secretary to agree. First, that here is a national problem with which the Government must necessarily deal. We have somehow to fit this new development into our social picture. Secondly, although the Government and the local authorities need to be armed with adequate powers, present experience suggests that these powers are not now available.

Two illustrations support this second proposition. There is within the Uxbridge urban district about 20 acres of open land reserved for residential development. An individual secured the tenancy of this site in November, 1949. He put two caravans upon it and charged 10s. 6d. a week for site rent. When the caravans increased to about a dozen, the local authority found out about it. They wrote to the site tenant and the individual occupiers pointing out that they had not obtained planning permission. There was no reply and caravans continued to arrive.

There was some difficulty in making absolutely certain who the actual tenant was, and to make sure they were dealing with the right person the Council served the man whom they believed to be the tenant and the individual occupiers of the caravans with a notice requiring them to state their interest in the land. The individual occupiers disclosed the name of the tenant and the tenant himself did not reply.

All this time more caravans had been arriving. A summons was taken out against the tenant for failing to answer the notice and to give information about ownership. He feigned ignorance but eventually supplied the necessary information. Meanwhile, more caravans had arrived. However, with the necessary evidence about ownership the Council then served an enforcement notice. On the last day before it became operative the tenant put in a planning application. By this time there were 100 caravans on the site. The Urban District Council refused planning permission and on the last day before that refusal became effective the tenant entered an appeal to the Ministry. There were further delays. A hearing day was fixed, and adjourned. Meanwhile, more caravans arrived. Eventually, the Ministry's decision was given, and it advanced temporary planning permission of 18 months. That permission ends with September.

I can appreciate why this temporary permission was given because to withhold it would not only have entailed considerable hardship upon caravan occupiers, but also presented an insuperable problem for the urban and county authorities of providing alternative accommodation for so large a number of homeless families. But this problem will still exist at the end of 18 months. Can the Parliamentary Secretary say what action he expects the Urban District Council to take on 1st October when the permission expires and about 100 families are supposed to leave this site?

Another case, at the other end of my constituency and within another urban district, also illustrates how the present law can be flouted. Application was made in March, 1951, for planning permission for a site of seven acres. There were no caravans on the site when permission was requested but, while the appeals machinery has been slowly ticking over, there are 56 caravans and 56 innocent families drawn up there now. In the words of the Clerk of the Uxbridge Urban District Council. who perhaps has as much experience of this problem as any man, it is as difficult for the local authority to operate the provisions of the 1947 Act as it is easy for the developer to evade it.

There is, of course, the Middlesex County Council Act of 1944 which also contains some provision about moveable dwellings. This might be thought to provide some solution, but the provisions contain some snags with which the Parliamentary Secretary is probably familiar. The principal weakness of this Act is that it lays down that a caravan must not be used as a sole means of habitation for a period of more than three months in any one year. This means there must be a delay of at least three months before any action can be taken. Then there are appeal procedures which mean that the unscrupulous person can use the time for accumulating a large number of unfortunate families, and then present the courts with a problem which, if dealt with rigorously, means hardship and suffering to the innocent occupiers.

This is the kind of problem with which we have to deal. What are we to do about it? I have said all along in previous correspondence with the Parliamentary Secretary's Department that I do not think it is possible to deal with the unsatisfactory features of this business unless we make some provision for the orderly development of proper caravan sites in suitable and approved places. I know that the Minister cannot direct local authorities to provide sites, but, of course, he has considerable powers of persuasion

I believe that the Minister should positively encourage the provision of a number of properly equipped, properly organised, and fairly rented sites either directly by the local authority or under licence from the local authority. The use of caravans as sub-standard housing accommodation is likely to persist for at least another decade. In any case, one thing that has impressed me is the number of caravan occupiers who have told me how much they enjoy and have come to prefer that manner of living.

I can well see that on the outskirts of London and other cities, even after the housing situation has eased, decently equipped sites on which visitors or holiday makers can park a caravan for two or three weeks, while they went into the city on pleasure or business, would be an asset to the local authority, and an offence to no one.

The majority on the two local councils in my division do not necessarily agree with the proposal I now put forward. I know they certainly would not consider the provision of sites unless they were certain of powers to control the unscrupulous type of site developer with whom they are already afflicted, and the question is whether these powers can be granted. I do ask the Parliamentary Secretary to look into that. I also suggest that one of the unsavoury features of the present situation is the way in which the unscrupulous caravan distributor—and there are only a small minority in an industry which wants to put its house in order—sells his caravans by misleading the purchaser to believe that authorised sites are available.

Would it not be posible to compel a caravan vendor to give, with each caravan sold, a statement of the law as it relates to the parking of caravans? This would at least prevent the shady dealer exacerbating this human problem by misleading a home-hungry family and selling another caravan which cannot be parked without committing an offence.

I know that the Parliamentary Secretary's officers have given much thought to this matter. But I ask him to look at it again as an important and urgent social problem. I hope he will make this dual approach: first, on the matter of properly equipped and controlled sites; and, second, the prevention of unsuitable development. Finally, I hope that it will be possible to satisfy the good principles of town planning without causing any further unnecessary hardship to those citizens who now regard their caravan as a home.

12.4 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Ernest Marples)

The House will be grateful to the hon. Member for raising this matter, because it cannot be disputed that in the Uxbridge area in particular, and in Middlesex and the Home Counties, there is undoubtedly a grave problem caused by caravans. In the case of Uxbridge, it has been rather unfortunate that one particular individual has exploited the situation—and I grant the hon. Gentleman that point—but the reasons for that individual being able to exploit it are that there has been a shortage of sites, and the local authority has been reluctant to provide them, and, of course, the grave housing shortage which is accentuated in this particular area because places such as Slough and the London Airport want workers, and they have no accommodation for them.

I think the hon. Gentleman has slightly overstated the case because, from the inquiries I have made, I fancy that the matter is now under control. The authorities have been very lenient with caravan dwellers who were in possession with their caravans before March, 1951. After that date, they got rather rough and tough with any caravan dwellers who went into their area.

But when we move the caravan dwellers we are faced with the question of where they are to go. It is not easy to go to a person living in a caravan and say, "You must move somewhere else," unless we tell them where they can go. One of the difficulties which have arisen in Middlesex is that they evicted a lot of their caravan dwellers to neighbouring counties, which were a little disturbed at the number exported from Middlesex.

The scale of the problem in Middlesex is not, however, as great as the hon. Gentleman makes out. In Middlesex there is a population of 2 million, and only between 800 and 900 caravan dwellers. He asked certain specific questions. The first was, would we in the Ministry treat this as a national problem? I gathered that he wanted the Minister to lay down standard lines and prescribe those lines of treatment from Whitehall so that there should be uniform treatment over the country. But that would be wholly inappropriate, because the problem is not spread evenly over the country. It is worse in the Home Counties, Midlands and Lancashire and those big centres where there exists a dense population, such as Slough and Coventry and where the population is great in relation to the number of homes available.

It varies according to the progress of the local housing programme and the employment situation. The hon. Gentleman started by saying that he thought it affected 250,000 people. It is difficult to say how many caravans are used as permanent homes. The National Caravan Council estimates the number at 50,000, but the Ministry officials who have been dealing with this problem for years are not able to accept that figure. The figure they have in mind is nearer 25,000 caravans, but it is difficult to get an accurate figure, although the 25,000, which the Ministry accept as being nearer the correct figure, is compiled from returns made by the local authorities.

Mr. Beswick

But the hon. Gentleman will admit that one of the difficulties here is that while we have no proper sites a lot of people are parking illegally?

Mr. Marples

I will go on to the provision of sites as my next point. The real point in these cases is what we are to do with the families. It is a choice of evils. It is a question of which is the greater hardship—to shift a family from the caravan where they are living, or to let them stay. It is like the county court judge who is faced with some appalling problems when he has to decide which family will suffer the greatest hardship when they are both seeking to get possession of the same house.

The hon. Gentleman asked if we in the Ministry would give more positive encouragement for the provision of sites for the orderly development of these caravan dwellings as permanent homes. There is nothing to prevent local authorities either allowing camp sites to be developed or owning their own sites. They have all the powers they need, and some counties have already organised their own sites or allowed commercial firms to have properly organised sites. Hertfordshire, Berkshire, Essex, Warwickshire, and so on have their own sites. We in the Ministry will help in every possible way any county which wants to organise its sites properly.

The initiative must come from the local authority. It will not come from Whitehall. My right hon. Friend will follow the lines set down by his predecessor in this matter. He will not actively encourage the provision of residential caravan sites. The hon. Gentleman will probably want to know why. The caravan is sub-standard accommodation. If we encourage the provision of organised sites, we will in effect encourage the provision of sub-standard accommodation on a far greater scale than at present. People will tend to buy caravans knowing that there are organised sites.

The hon. Gentleman said that caravan dwellers like their accommodation and like living in them. I grant him that. He must remember that the Opposition, in wilder and less generous moments, have often attacked this Government by saying that the people's house is sub-standard accommodation. This house was started by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Dalton) in early 1951, and there was absolute silence from the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan). When, after the General Election, he was transferred to the Opposition, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ebbw Vale launched a tirade against my right hon. Friend. We had torrents of emotional words accompanied by much jabbing of a forefinger at my right hon. Friend for building a house which, in the opinion of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ebbw Vale, was sub-standard.

What would the hon. Gentleman's right hon. Friend say now if the Government encouraged caravans as a permanent form of home? He would inject a certain amount of venom into his remarks. It would not be agreeable, though it might be amusing, to listen to him. Once we start on sub-standard houses it is my right hon. Friend's opinion that we cannot stop. Even if we say that it is to be temporary, in effect they become permanent houses. We had the temporary prefabricated bungalows which are dotted all over the countryside. They were expensive to erect. They are expensive to service, and more expensive than a permanent traditional house. They are now expensive to keep in repair.

Mr. Beswick

I propose that these sites should be provided for the caravans that are now causing the problem. Once the municipalities have the sites, they can control the numbers that come on to them. I do not suggest that there should be extra sites for additional sub-standard accommodation.

Mr. Marples

If a local authority wishes to get a properly organised site it has all the necessary powers to compulsorily acquire land, to organise the sites, and to take over the caravans which are now spread about in disorderly fashion in their county. My right hon. Friend will help in every possible way, but the initiative must come from the local authority. It will not come from Whitehall.

Even if we dictated from Whitehall, most local authorities would not agree. They dislike intensely this form of development. I do not think that it would help very much. Some are even reluctant to provide sites where the existing ones are very badly kept. The hon. Gentleman wanted to know whether our powers were adequate. I realise that in an Adjournment debate one cannot discuss legislation. It is up to the hon. Gentleman to show that they are inadequate, and in what respect he wants additional powers. He is skilful enough, because he held office in the previous Government, to skate very carefully on thin ice. I am sure that he is dialectically skilful enough to have got away with introducing here and there whatever his suggestion may have been.

The existing powers are in the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947, the Health Act and the Middlesex Act. The Middlesex Act requires permission from the first day, whereas under the Town and Country Planning Act the period is 28 days and under the Health Act it is 42 days. The complaint of the hon. Gentleman was that the procedure was too slow. In certain cases a person who takes advantage of the housing shortage can delay proceedings by appealing to the Minister before the last day of his enforcement notice, and so on; but he can only do that once.

I should like to make one suggestion in answer to the hon. Gentleman and that is, that if the Uxbridge local authority would care to consult with the Minister, or send a deputation, we should be glad to meet them and help them on this particular problem to which he has referred, where I think planning permission was given with regard to the site in question in September last. We should like to meet them as early as possible to discuss what can be done with the 70 caravans which are there now. I hope the hon. Gentleman would let the local authority know that we would like to meet them if they would like to meet the Ministry, and we should be glad to help them in every possible way.

But the enforcement of these existing powers does mean hardship, even though in some cases it is delayed. It is not easy. We have to face up to the problem that if the existing powers could be applied even more severely than they can now it would still mean finding a way of dealing with the families, and the shorter the notice that one gives a person when ejecting him from a house or caravan, the greater the hardship caused.

I must not make reference to proceedings upstairs in Committee, but I remember, on the Second Reading debate of the Housing Bill, which my right hon. Friend is now introducing, that there was great agitation because certain agricultural workers had been given short notice to quit their tied cottages—3, 4, 5 or 6 months. Great indignation was expressed by some hon. Members that this notice was not long enough. If we are to give local authorities more powers so that they can act more speedily there will be greater hardship. I think that on the whole it is better to be slower; and I think that if one is slower one acts more justly, because when one is dealing with homes one is also dealing with human beings—and even if the homes are substandard they are, to the people living in them, their homes, and it is difficult to move them at short notice.

I think we have to accept the fact that the caravans that are with us are an evil. The real answer is not to give more powers but to build more houses, and my right hon. Friend is setting about that task very vigorously, and we hope that that will be an answer to the hon. Gentleman's problem of caravans in his own constituency.

I should just like to refer to the question of houses in the industrial areas, where we have re-armament problems. This is a very grave question, and my right hon. Friend would much rather see an increase in non-traditional houses than the introduction of these substandard caravans. A non-traditional house takes possibly 50 per cent. of the man hours which are taken with the traditional house, and it can be erected very speedily.

In the case of those factories which have recently been started to assist rearmament the real answer is to build those non-traditional houses and have a block licence so that the builder can start at one end of a site and go right the way through, build a large number of houses and get the rhythm necessary to bring down the cost. I hope that if any local authority has that particular problem it will consider my right hon. Friend's suggestion that non-traditional houses should be erected in these areas.

I conclude by saying that the local authority at Uxbridge ought to be very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this matter and if he will be kind enough to extend an invitation to them to come and see the Minister and his officials we shall do what we can to help them with that particular site.

Adjourned accordingly, at Nineteen Minutes past Twelve o' Clock a.m.