HC Deb 15 February 1967 vol 741 cc753-66

Motion made, and Question proposed, That his House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Walter Harrison.]

9.43 p.m.

Mr. Frank Allaun (Salford East)

On Sunday mornings when I visit my constituents who have moved from slum houses into new council houses I find that their chief joy, particularly among young mothers, is their bathrooms. But what about those left behind, still living in the older houses?

It is unfair that mothers should be forced to bring up their children in houses without baths, hot water or inside lavatories. It is wrong that when a worker comes home from his job, maybe a dirty job, and wants to wash his feet he must ask his wife to put the kettle on and bring the old enamel basin out of the cupboard. I know of one home in which two children have been seriously scalded because every drop of hot water must be heated in a saucepan on the gas stove in the overcrowded kitchen.

It is not very nice for mothers in some towns who do not have lavatories in their homes to have to take a pail across a square to the w.c. or who must even go down the street with it. Nor is it right that very young or old people should have to go out at night, in cold or wet weather, when they wish to use the lavatory. Families will be living in homes such as these for the next 40 years unless sweeping changes take place. The purpose of this debate is to urge that those sweeping changes be made.

There are 820,000 houses officially condemned as unfit for human habitation, and these must be pulled down and replaced as quickly as possible. Including those houses, altogether there are 3 million lacking a bath, and most of them lack hot water and an inside lavatory as well. These are the homes of 10 million men, women and children, or one family in five. This is in the year 1967, in the age of the alleged affluent society and the equally alleged Welfare State.

I want to make it clear that this is a national problem. Even in the wealthy Metropolis of London, there are some boroughs where one in three families lives in a house without a bath. Half of these bathless old houses are concentrated in 24 local authorities, mainly in the Lancashire and Yorkshire industrial towns. A quarter of all unfit houses are to be found in four cities—Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Sheffield.

It is significant that the Ministry decided to hold its survey in depth of the problem in Deeplish, Rochdale. This is a Coronation Street area, deep in the heart of Granadaland. Incidentally, I understand that this is the first time that the Deeplish Report has been mentioned in debate in the House.

That Report showed that one in two houses in Deeplish lacks a bath, and a high proportion are without inside w.c.s. and hot water. The worst evil is the all-pervading dampness of the houses. The residents are mostly on low incomes, and in fact one in three are receiving under £10 a week. Of course, that includes oldage pensioners. The majority are owner-occupiers.

Even if we reach our housing target, many of those three million houses will have to stand for 30 years or more. Moreover, large numbers of them are structurally sound. It is the lack of the three essentials—bath, hot water and inside w.c.—which make them so undesirable to live in.

Many of the residents, given those three amenities, do not want to move. Take the case of a railwayman living near his work who starts work at 3 a.m. How can he move to overspill, perhaps eight miles away, and get to his job at that time in the morning? Then again, many of them do not wish to lose contact with their relatives nearby, some of them possibly invalids whom they help to look after; nor do they wish to move away from neighbours whom they have known for years.

I need not point out the saving financially. The Deeplish Report estimates £400 for a typical improvement. That is ridiculously high. I am happy to say that Salford, which improved 200 houses last year, averaged £190 per house, half of which is paid by the landlord, to cover the full improvement cost. In contrast, a new flat, including land, may cost £3,500.

Generous grants are now available, for up to half the cost of £310, from the Government and local authorities. In addition to that £155 grant, which increases the value of their assets, landlords are allowed to raise their rents by 12½ per cent. of their share of the cost. This might be thought to be a gift for the property owners. Owner-occupiers and councils with old houses lacking bathrooms have very sensibly made good use of the grants, but, with a handful of honourable exceptions, the landlords will not be bothered.

Only 103,000 houses were improved last year. Of those, only about one in five were private landlords' houses. I estimate that about one in 27 of owner-occupiers in structurally sound houses needing improvements are actually improving them, against about one in 200 of private landlords.

Why has there been such an abysmal failure? It is not through lack of desire by the occupiers in the overwhelming mass of cases. "Having one's own bathroom is an impossible dream for ordinary people like me," says one widow. In Sheffield, no fewer than 22,000 people visited a demonstration of improved houses in the city, and another 6,000 went to a special exhibition, so widespread is the longing. Yet I doubt whether 100 landlords in Sheffield applied for improvement grants in the following 12 months.

The experience of many tenants of private landlords, I regret to say, is that it is exceedingly hard to get them to do urgently needed repairs, never mind make these desirable improvements.

Mainly as a result of pressure by local M.P.s, the Conservative Government were induced to pass the Housing Act, 1964, which in certain circumstances gives a local authority the power to compel landlords to improve their houses, where the house is suitable, if it has a life of over 15 years and the tenant requests it. With some splendid exceptions such as Leeds, Salford, Liverpool, Birmingham, and Norwich, little use has been made of these compulsory powers, and the numbers improved are still utterly inadequate.

In Leeds, 11,000 houses have been improved, thanks to the drive of the Housing Committee and its Chairman, Councillor K. C. Cohen. They have used persuasion, backed by the right to compel as the last resort, which they seldom need to use. In Norwich it is mainly old council houses which have been improved.

Why do not landlords respond? I repeat that many of them just will not be bothered. There are other reasons, too. In such areas as Deeplish there is a high proportion of elderly and poor landlords with perhaps one or two houses who cannot raise even their half of the cost. There are elderly tenants or owner-occupiers who do not want to be disturbed by the necessary alterations to their houses. Some progressive councils such as Salford have put tremendous effort into improvement schemes, but have been delayed and have encountered the need for additional staff and expense because of the extremely cumbersome and lengthy procedure which has to be followed. The Public Health inspectors may have to make up to seven visits to an individual house, and have to get up to 24 forms completed before they can finish the work.

I understand that the Ministry is preparing to launch a big new drive to improve these older homes, and is considering fresh tactics. This is most welcome, and I hope that we shall hear a little more about it this evening. A real sense of urgency is what is needed. May I ask the Minister, his Joint Parliamentary Secretaries, and their staffs, to consider the following proposals. Some of them are included in the report by the Advisory Committee "Our Older Homes", some in "The Deeplish Study", some come from Salford and Leeds, and some are my humble own. They might be considered as the "Ten Pillars of Wisdom", though whether my hon. Friend will regard them in that light remains to be seen!

First, the minimum length of life of a house required before the grant is made should be reduced well below 15 years. The Advisory Committee recommends seven years as far as a w.c., a sink with hot water supply, and a food store are concerned. I agree with the seven years for these, but why not a bath, too? Is it good enough to expect a mother to live for 15 years without a bath in the house? By that time her children will have grown up and missed the proper childhood to which they were entitled. In any case, it is very difficult for many local authorities to guarantee that 15 years hence the house will still be standing, and thus they are often unable to provide the grants.

Secondly, I do not agree that a ventilated food store is a necessity. Indeed, when I have visited houses fitted with them I have often noticed that the housewife has boarded up the ventilation to stop dust and dirt getting in. They are the least appreciated of the improvements, and should be optional. Many residents would prefer to pay for a refrigerator.

Thirdly, there should be 100 per cent. loans for small landlords without the means to pay their half of the improvement. The local authorities are the best people to administer this. I suggest, in addition, that the Government should help to provide these loans, not at the current market rate of 6¾ per cent., but at 4 per cent., as the Government are prepared to do for new council house building under the Housing Subsidies Act.

Fourthly, there should be a drastic curtailment and shortening of the present procedure which local authorities have to follow in getting the work done. I should like to send the Minister a long list of constructive proposals on this point made by the public health inspectors of Salford. One of the most radical of these suggestions is that the declaration of an improvement area should follow the lines of either a clearance or a smoke-control area. In those cases objectors are dealt with at a local public inquiry at one period of time. Failure to comply with the conditions of the area are dealt with by the simple service of notice, and if necessary by default action by the local authority.

Fifthly, in the case of those tenants or owner-occupiers over the age of 60 who may not wish to be disturbed, there should be no compulsion until the house changes tenant.

Sixthly, the proposal made recently by my hon. Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Gardner) that the grant should also cover replacement of old and faulty electric wiring is an excellent one.

Seventhly, the Minister should ask all local authorities with houses lacking hot water, baths and an inside w.c. to submit schemes to him within a given time limit. There are plenty of backsliders.

Eighthly, publicity should be used, particularly on television, to show tenants, occupiers and landlords how homes can be transformed; the grants now available; and the right to compulsory improvements in given circumstances.

Ninthly, much greater use should be made of the knowledge of that devoted body of men, the public health inspectors. It is astonishing that there is not a single public health inspector on the permanent staff of the Ministry, yet these are the men with personal experience of the problem. Six out of eight who gave evidence to the Advisory Committee were public health inspectors, but not one had been included on the Committee.

Tenthly, I would strongly resist pressure from some quarters for an increase in the present 12½ per cent. of the cost by which landlords are allowed to raise their rents. This would discourage tenants from agreeing to improvements, because it would further raise their rents.

Admittedly, a dramatically big and successful drive will cost money, although only a fraction of what would have been spent on new houses. This money must be forthcoming and it is a real priority need. The Minister knows where I think that the money should come from—drastic arms cuts. For the cost of refitting the "Ark Royal"—£30 million —Government and local authorities between them could improve no fewer than 300,000 houses. People would say that bathrooms should come before bombers and aircraft carriers. For the cost of four Polaris submarines—£370 million—3.7 million houses could be improved, which is more than the total number needed to be improved.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Robert Mellish)

The economics of my hon. Friend are almost too simple for me, and the idea that we could abolish the "Ark Royal" and have all these improvements overnight is a somewhat doubtful one.

My hon. Friend has shown a long and continuous interest in this important issue. Indeed, since October, 1965, he has asked about a dozen Questions about the need to get more of our older houses improved, or on related topics. I do not complain about that, for not only has he helped to keep me on my toes: more often than not he has brought me to my feet and kept me there. Tonight, therefore, I may be excused if I do not rehearse too many statistics that my hon. Friend and the House by now know full well. I will give enough only to put the problem in its true perspective.

Over 1 million houses have now been improved with the aid of grant, since the Labour Government in 1949 first introduced the improvement grant system. This is a creditable achievement, but it is by no means good enough. Probably at least another two million houses with lives of at least 15 years need improvement with the provision of basic amenities, like a bath, hot water and an inside w.c. We will know with a good deal more certainty what that figure is when our national sample survey of the conditions of our older houses is completed in the Spring. But whatever the precise figure, we appreciate already that there is a formidable task of house improvement ahead.

To consider more clearly how we should tackle that task it is helpful to have a closer look at the existing grant system: to see where it is working well and where it might with advantage be streamlined. My hon. Friend has pointed out some of the defects that now hinder unimpeded improvement and the provision of basic amenities, and I will also mention some others.

I should first like to remind the House what an attraction improvement grants have been to owner-occupiers. Indeed, in the last five years improvement grants of all kinds made to owner-occupiers have represented about half the total, including those for local authorities improving their own houses. Owner-occupiers have been especially interested in the standard grants, introduced in 1959, which authorities have a duty to pay for the specific provision of the basic amenities that the house lacks.

Every year they get about three-quarters of all standard grants made by the authorities, and by now well over a quarter of a million owner-occupiers have improved their own homes—put in baths, w.c.s, hot water systems, wash basins, food stores with the help of the standard grant. I congratulate them on their achievements.

I should like to say to those owner-occupiers who have not yet taken advantage of the standard grant scheme that they will find the effort of application repaid many times by the benefits and comfort that the extra amenities will provide. They should get in touch with their local authority, who will advise them how to set about getting a grant and they may also find that the authority is ready to lend them their own share of the cost of improvement.

The record of house improvement by private landlords is, frankly, disappointing. At this juncture I will apportion no specific blame because the situation is complicated, but I am sure that they could have done better. As I have implied, the landlords account for only about a quarter of the standard grants being paid to private owners and their record in respect of discretionary grants for all round improvements to a higher standard is not that much better——

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

On this question of discretionary grants, too many local authorities are refusing them and many landlords feel that they would like to carry out the greater work because the small work standard grants are not good enough.

Mr. Mellish

There is no party argument on this. I propose to tell the House how our minds are working. I have said before and I repeat that some local authorities are inept. If they would show more energy in applying the existing legislation instead of talking about new legislation, I would be much obliged. Some local authorities have done a first-class job.

I was saying that the record of landlords over discretionary grants for all-round improvements to a higher standard is not that much better.

Except in 1965, they have been taking up about 40 per cent. or less of the discretionary grants paid to private owners. But, in all fairness, we must accept that the landlord is not as a rule a free agent, and I have known of cases where tenants have exercised their right to veto improvements that the landlord wanted to carry out. In some instances no doubt —where, for example, the loss of a needed bedroom would have been involved—the exercise of the veto was reasonable, but sometimes there is a reluctance to accept change, even change for the better.

I have talked to a great many tenants who have had their homes improved and, whatever may have been their apprehensions before, none of them has wanted to go back to the previous state of affairs with its consequent loss of comfort and a standard of everyday living that nobody in this country should accept as satisfactory for themselves in the second half of the twentieth century.

Some tenants are, I also know, reluctant to agree to rent increases, modest in themselves or in comparison with existing rents, which normally result from improvement. As the law now stands, a landlord may, as a rule, increase the rent by 12½ per cent. of his share of the cost of improvements. There is a great deal of argument about whether that is a reasonable return in view of all the circumstances of a house with perhaps a limited life ahead of it. Obviously a fair number of landlords and tenants find that it is and get on with the improvements, but it is asking too much to expect private landlords to behave in every respect as if they were social workers.

In some circumstances, a rent increase reflecting 12½ per cent. of the owner's costs deters the landlord, and for this evidence I have no less an authority than the Milner Holland Report. So much depends indeed on individual circumstances that it is difficult to generalise, but I can and do ask landlords and tenants alike to examine carefully whether, with good will, it would be possible to improve the house to the benefit of both parties.

In view of my last remarks it is, perhaps, surprising that, in the far from easy year of 1966, figures for grant approvals remained remarkably buoyant, with one exception. Despite the undoubted fact that well over 1 million houses have been improved, there is evidence of a strong determination among our house owners and tenants to have improvements carried out. There was practically no difference in the number of discretionary grants approved—about 40,000—compared with 1965, and standard grants to private owners at a level of about 52,000, dropped by about 5,000 in 1966.

The really significant decline last year occurred, oddly enough, in the case of standard grants for the improvements of local authority-owned houses. The figures I have indicate that, in 1966, fewer than 16,000 council houses were included in standard grant approvals, compared with about 26,000 in 1965. This gap of 10,000 is the major contribution to the decrease in the total grant approvals last year which, at about 107,000, were about 16,000 fewer than in 1965.

There was emphatically no restriction upon the numbers for which authorities could obtain approval, but their improvement record did not match up to their really excellent achievements in new housebuilding. Yet it is estimated that local authorities own about half a million houses that lack one or more of the basic amenities, despite having improved already well over a quarter of a million.

My Department's regional offices have in fact engaged upon an intensive campaign to encourage more authorities to improve their houses, and results are beginning to show. It is indeed often unrealistic of an authority to expect owner-occupiers and, more particularly, private landlords to improve their property when the council does little or nothing to improve its own.

My hon. Friend, as a good constituency Member, is rightly very concerned with conditions in Salford, and so am I, but he will appreciate that I must also take a wider perspective and so perhaps produce overall a different impression from one with a more local basis. Whether, for example, Salford Council owns houses that could reasonably be improved up to the discretionary or standard grant level is a matter that it is in the best position to judge. Certainly last year it received approval for the improvement or conversion of 26 houses it owns with the aid of discretionary grant. Private owners in the same period received approval for over 200 standard grants, including 138 to landlords.

Subject to correction by my hon. Friend, I understand that there are still some 2,000 fit houses in Salford that lack one or more of the standard amenities. I know that the council has in the past done all it can to stimulate private owners to improve their houses, and about two years ago my hon. Friend himself opened a local publicity campaign to encourage improvements. I hope that later on this year it will he possible once more to include Salford within the Department's own publicity campaign to encourage improvements in the North-West.

So far, I have been dealing with what has been essentially the improvement of houses taken individually and where the initiative towards improvement has been with the landlord or owner-occupier. But local authorities have, as my hon. Friend knows, important powers to compel improvements in areas which they declare to be improvement areas. Owner-occupiers, rightly or wrongly, are exempt from these compulsory provisions which date from the Housing Act, 1964, but Salford Council, to its credit, has now declared three areas containing 665 improvable houses and work has already been completed on 33 of them.

My hon. Friend asked for a statement of the Government's thinking about the future. What I have been talking about so far is the past. We have been considering for some time what sort of legislation is required. I promise that I shall keep strictly within order. I am merely stating what is in the Government's mind. I am not suggesting that this will come about. These are improvements we are thinking of.

I accept my hon. Friend's argument; I believe that the 15 years' life which it is argued is necessary for these grants should be reduced. There is an argument as to whether it should be 10 or whether it should be 7 years. There is a case for considering whether we should talk about legislation for environmental improvement. We should talk about making it compulsory in some areas. Certainly we should talk about grant aid by local authorities to enable this to be done. Certainly we should talk about stepping up grants. I think that it will become abundantly clear that a case has been made for there being stronger powers to get repairs done.

My hon. Friend talked about public health inspectors. I assure him that in all this we shall carry them with us. We shall be advised by them to a large extent on what we should do.

I believe that local authorities, pending the legislation I have talked of, which must come in the future, should start getting out a plan of action now. Areas should be reviewed, and authorities should be determined that when aid is available they are ready to receive it. I hope that what I have said tonight will not result in some of the rather bad areas doing even less than they are doing now, because there is so much for them to do, not only in the private field, but also in their own field.

Other hon. Members are interested to know whether electrical wiring will be included. This will not be ignored. If we are to get the true value out of our housing, we should accept that money spent in the immediate future on the improvement of so much of our property can save the nation a great deal of money in the longer term. It is money wisely spent.

I am obliged to my hon. Friend for raising the matter. He has done the House a service, and his whole record on these questions does him great credit. I assure him that, when the review is completed and we are able to consider the problem as a whole, we shall not be unmindful of the views which he has expressed tonight.

10.11 p.m.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

I join the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Frank Allaun) in urging that more effort and more money be spent quickly on saving houses rather than demolishing them. Too many local authorities think that it is spectacular to build tower blocks of flats, nice new-looking houses and so on, whereas they could with advantage put an effort into something a little less spectacular, the saving of old houses.

Terrace houses house more people than tower blocks. This has been proved in many clearance areas. When a terrace of houses is cleared, one is left with an extra family in three, I think it is, to house elsewhere than in the replacement blocks.

Every hon. Member has had experience of improvements required in houses in his constituency and of the difficulties which the ordinary person, be he owneroccupier or landlord, small landlord or big landlord, has in filling in the forms, getting the approvals, and knowing what to do. At one time, the Government put out a good pamphlet on this subject. Will the hon. Gentleman look at it again and see whether it can be reissued in a fresh form, in nice plain terms, so that everyone will know what to do and how to do it?

Mr. Mellishindicated assent.

Mr. Page

As the hon. Member for Salford, East said, many of these people are elderly and with small means. They are, perhaps, the people who block a series of improvements in a whole street. Although an improvement could be carried out in a long terrace by one builder on, as it were, a mass production basis for bathroom units, sink units, and so on, one or two elderly landlords without the means or without the knowledge of how to go about it——

The Question have been proposed after half-past Nine o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at thirteen minutes past Ten o'clock.