§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Harper.]
§ 1.14 a.m.
§ Mr. Robin F. Cook (Edinburgh, Central)
I make no apology for raising, even at this late hour, a matter of limited interest to those outside my constituency. It is, however, a matter of the greatest importance to a large number of my constituents. 1622 It is customary for those who have held a relevant post to declare an interest before the commencement of the debate, and I suppose that it is only right that I should declare an interest in that I formerly held the post, unpaid, of chairman of the Edinburgh housing committee. That is partly why I raise the matter, because I have been especially pained over the last year to see so much of what had been done in the previous two years by the Edinburgh Council undone in the first year of the Edinburgh District Council. If the measures we had put in hand in the two years before had been allowed to come to fruition I believe that we would have been well on the way to having a revived community in the centre of the city. As it is, they have not been allowed to carry through to fruition because, since May 1975, the control of housing policy has been under the Conservative group that dominates Edinburgh District Council—a group that appears to have taken the view that the less it does about housing in the city, the happier it will be.
I want to draw the Minister's attention to the distress that this has caused in my constituency and urge on him to put whatever pressure he can on the local authority to reverse this disastrous trend, which can lead only to the extinction of the city centre as a living community and residential area. As the Minister knows, the principal decision of the Conservative group on the housing committee in Edinburgh has been to restrict expenditure on housing well below the amount for which the Government are prepared to grant loan sanction.
This has affected the programme of modernisation of council houses. As the Minister is aware, from an answer to me two or three months ago, Edinburgh is spending only £1 million on modernisation, although the Government are prepared to give borrowing consent for £4 million. This leads to the interesting contrast that while Edinburgh is spending £1 million, Glasgow—this will warm the Minister's heart—is spending £25 million, and even Motherwell is spending £3 million. It is a ludicrous situation that a town one-sixth the size of Edinburgh is spending three times Edinburgh's budget on council house modernisation.
That has a bearing on many of my constituents, because most of the council 1623 houses in my constituency are pre-war council houses. I wish the Minister to concentrate his mind on Tron Square, a council block built not just before the last War but before the First World War. It is a square of three blocks, one of which has been entirely emptied of tenants in preparation for modernisation, which it seriously needs. Since Edinburgh's voluntary cut-back in its housing budget, there has been only a token amount left for this modernisation work, which means that work will start only in the final months of this financial year. That means that the block will stand empty, in an area with the most acute housing shortage, simply because the council is not prepared to borrow the money for which it has consent. The scandal is made worse by the fact that when the council gets round to carrying out the work, because of vandalism to the property meanwhile the eventual cost will be higher.
I ask my hon. Friend to draw the attention of the authority to the fact that it is not taking up the full amount of loan allocated to it, and to express concern that we have council property empty, not because plans are lacking, or because of doubt about the ability to be relet after modernisation, but simply because the authority is not prepared to take up borrowing consent.
I also draw the Minister's attention to the way that this has reduced such new building as might be going on. The number of sites in the city centre is limited, as I would be the first to admit, but, precisely because of their limited nature, it is important that we progress with the sites available to us. I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the site at Lauriston Place, at Tollcross. I mention it with personal pride, because it was the first site we obtained for council house building on land rescued from the road programme.
That was three years ago. Three years later no building has started on the site. I was appalled to learn recently from Labour councillors on the housing committee that the Conservative group deleted the budget provision for the design and planning costs of the site, so that there will be a further unnecessary delay on the site.
If the houses went ahead I accept that they would make only a limited contribu- 1624 tion to the housing shortage in the city, and only a limited contribution to the shortage even in Central Edinburgh. But the provision of housing on that site would be important not just in itself; it would be important because it would provide encouragement to the local people, giving them hope that their area had a future.
As it is, the people of Tollcross, instead of seeing new building going on, will daily have to pass an enormous hole in the ground, surrounded by a very ugly barricade and dominated by the torn, unfinished mutual gable end that sticks out over the site.
I invite the Minister to give me an assurance that this project, or a similar one, will not be held up because of any reluctance on the part of SDD to grant the borrowing facilities necessary to progress the design and architectural fees.
I ask the Minister also to express his concern that here we have a prime central site allowed to lie empty and sterile because the local authority appears reluctant to undertake the necessary expenditure.
I wish now to turn to the question of older property within my constituency—property that is affected by action under the Housing Acts. The two types of property are intimately connected, for so long as the owner-occupiers in the older property see that the corporation is not modernising its own houses, and so long as they see the corporation failing to carry out any new building on the sites open to it, owner-occupiers will naturally be reluctant and lack encouragement to invest money in modernising and repairing their own property.
I now have four or five housing action areas within my constituency earmarked for improvement. I appreciate that these are being dealt with under new legislation, and that every local authority is necessarily feeling its way in operating this legislation, but I have been deeply disturbed by the comments expressed to me by both constituents and community organisations from these areas. The field of complaints is very wide, but I shall concentrate on two particular areas of complaint to draw the Minister's attention to them.
First, there are repeated complaints about lack of information from the local authority. My hon. Friend will have 1625 seen the paper presented to his office by the residents of Downfield Place, in which they point out that, in Circular 67 from his Department, local authorities are advised to provide an explanatory note with the draft resolution that they send to every resident. That was not done in this case. The ordinary resident was left grappling with the legal terms. The ordinary resident has been informed that his house is to be brought up to a specified standard, but he has not been advised what it is. He has been advised that some residents will be entitled to 90 per cent. improvement grants. He has not been advised which type of resident will be entitled to that amount of grant.
It would appear that the local authority is deliberately relying on local associations carrying out its communication and explanatory work for it. It is a mercy, a piece of good fortune, that every housing action area in my constituency is now covered by a very active residents' association. Each of these is doing its best to contain the situation. But, in all honesty, it is surely grossly unfair to expect the voluntary officers in their spare time to carry out the essential work of communicating information to the residents and co-ordinating the work on mutual repairs.
I again ask the Minister whether he will consider the issue of a further circular on this matter, couched in stronger terms than Circular 67 and emphasising the need for local authorities to take an active rôle in communicating the meaning of the housing
action area order.
The second major area of complaint from the housing action areas is the decision of the local authority neither to rehouse nor to decant those affected by improvement work. I must tell my hon. Friend that this is causing considerable distress to many residents in the housing action areas.
I refer to a surgery that I held only last week, in which two residents from a housing action area came to see me. The first was a single person of 75, elderly and largely housebound. The second was a woman who lives with her husband in a room and kitchen in a housing action area. The husband is entirely bedridden. Both these households are living in very small properties. Both are facing con- 1626 version work which involves the installation of a bathroom and, conceivably, the removal of an internal wall. It strikes me as most unreasonble to expect people of this age and in this kind of situation to live through such improvement works. I suspect that the local authority is sailing fairly close to the wind in, possibly, failing to carry out a statutory duty to offer rehousing to residents affected by a housing action area order. The 1974 Act is not explicit on this matter, but I note that the draft resolution which the local authority passes in these cases, a copy of which is sent to residents, contains these words:The local authority resolves to recommend houses for rehousing of persons to be displaced in consequence of action following the draft resolution.Therefore, I ask my hon. Friend whether he can give some guidance on the statutory obligation resting on local authorities in this matter, and whether he will be prepared to issue guidelines on the policy he would consider most suitable on rehousing from housing action areas.
I want before concluding to say a few words to express my concern about the role of the Housing Corporation in Edinburgh. I mention it primarily because of the intimate link that has been forged between the Edinburgh office of the Corporation and the Conservative group on the Edinburgh District Council.
As I understand it, the housing committee has granted about one-third of its future rehabilitation programme for action by housing associations. However, when it took that decision, it did not designate which associations should undertake the work. As far as I am able to gather, this was settled at a subsequent private meeting between Councillor Waugh, the chairman of the housing committee, and the Edinburgh staff of the Housing Corporation. At that meeting, it was agreed that only four housing associations in the city would be allowed to participate in this work. It is curious that of those four associations, one is chaired by Councilor Waugh and another by Councillor Drummond-Young, who might be described as the eminence grise of the housing committee. None of the four housing associations involved has any genuine roots in the community organisations in the areas where they operate. What is worse, the existence of 1627 these four associations and the monopoly rights that they have been given over their areas has precluded housing associations based on the local residents' associations from gaining recognition.
I refer my hon. Friend to the struggles of the South Side Association in my constituency. This is a respected organisation, which has existed in the area for some years and has done considerable community work. For nearly 12 months, it has been striving to obtain recognition and registration of a housing association by the Housing Corporation. Consistently, it has been refused. Happily, it appears at last to have achieved a suitable and satisfactory arrangement with the local housing association, which has been approved by the Housing Corporation. But I cannot understand why we resist rather than encourage housing associations based on such residents' groups.
Another curious fact is that the arrangement which Councillor Waugh has come to with the Housing Corporation in Edinburgh appears to give him even more autocratic power over its decisions than that which he exercises in the housing committee. I refer my hon. Friend to a letter passed to me by the South Side Association, which it received from the Housing Corporation. In the course of it, the Edinburgh officer of the Housing Corporation refers to an application from a housing association in Leith that was not successful in obtaining registration. In his letter, the officer says:…the question of the 'Registration' of an additional Association for Leith did not arise as the Edinburgh District Housing Cons crier's negative view was made know as soon as the idea of an additional Association saw the light of day and it was not therefore pursued.
§ Mr. Andrew Welsh (South Angus)
Have they offered any explanation whatever for the decision on the association. or the criteria used in reaching that decision?
§ Mr. Cook
I have been unable to obtain an adequate explanation. The comment made by the officers of the Housing Corporation is that they have to work with the four housing associations that have been approved by the local authority, and they are interpreting Councillor Waugh as representing the authority. It is not my reading of the 1628 1974 Act that the Housing Corporation is limited to recognising only those associations that have the blessing of the local authority. The whole rhetoric of the debates on the 1974 Act was that we were providing a means whereby there was an alternative form of housing provision to that of the local authority.
It would appear that the Housing Corporation has allowed Councillor Waugh to exercise an absolute veto on the application from a community-based housing association. The particular irony of this case is that the application came from an association which is active in Leith, and Councillor Waugh is the chairman of the existing association in Leith. It strikes me as strange that a semi-Government organisation has allowed a political figure to exercise a veto in this fashion.
I ask the Minister for an assurance that it is Government policy that housing associations should, wherever possible, have genuine roots in the community in which they work. Will he discuss this matter with the Edinburgh office of the Housing Corporation?
I realise that, in the first instance, most of these issues are matters for the local authority, but they vitally affect my constituents, perhaps more directly and profoundly than many decisions taken in this Chamber. It is therefore proper that we should consider them. I should be most grateful for any steps that the Minister could take to encourage a more positive attitude to them on the part of the local authority and the Housing Corporation.
§ 1.33 a.m.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Hugh D. Brown)
I have listened with great interest to the eloquent attack that my hon. Friend has made on what he regards as the failures and errors of Edinburgh District Council's housing policies. I know he speaks on this subject with great authority, arising from his own experience as the housing convenor. I am sure that Edinburgh District Council will read his remarks with interest, and I hope it will profit from them.
As my hon. Friend recognises, most of the matters of which he speaks are matters for the local authority and not for me. I am afraid that I have to 1629 resist the temptation to criticise the Edinburgh District Council. It is hard to resist it, but nevertheless it would be unwise for to criticise it, considering the relationship that we have tried to build up by giving local authorities freedom in matters such as rents. The relationship between central and local government is always delicate. We do not like to be accused of instructing anyone where there is no default in the exercise of statutory powers.
My hon. Friend has made many valid points. I shall deal with some of them, and read everything that he has said.
I gave specific figures on capital investment. There is a system of allocation, and for 1976–77 Edinburgh could have had £4.7 million. In fact it asked for only £1 million. I did not like the way my hon. Friend said "even Motherwell", because Motherwell is quite a good authority in this regard. I am concerned about it, but it is not part of my job to encourage any authority to spend more money. I make the point now, and I have made it publicly, but not as a public criticism, that if Edinburgh does not want the money there are many other authorities that are able, willing and competent to use it. My hon. Friend was right to draw attention to this matter.
I am also concerned about the new housing programme. I do not have time to go into the qualifications. There is no restriction on the building of new houses, in terms of the financial resources. The length of the waiting list is a factor to be taken into account, but it is not the only criterion, and no authority—certainly not Edinburgh—can say that we are holding back resources that could be used for a programme of new houses.
I thought that my hon. Friend was a little unfair in his reference to Lauriston Place. Our information is that there has been difficulty in acquiring the site. The compulsory purchase order procedure may be invoked, and that may be the reason for the delay. I cannot comment further on that, because it is for my right hon. Friend to adjudicate on the matter. It may be that the district council has some knowledge that there will be some delay, but if so, I am not privy to it. It may be that the procedure to be gone 1630 through is the reason for the delay. I am being very charitable when I say that that may be the reason why the council has taken this out of its programme of design work. I assure my hon. Friend that it is not the Department that is holding things up, and if further inquiries would be helpful I am willing to make them.
My hon. Friend referred to housing action areas. As I have made one or two implied criticisms, it is only fair to say that the two authorities that are doing the most work in this field are Edinburgh and Glasgow. It would be unfair not to recognise that. Out of the 78 housing action areas so far declared in Scotland, 13 are in Edinburgh, and of the 3,254 houses included in such areas for improvement, 1,074 are in Edinburgh. This is welcome, and shows that the district council is beginning to tackle this difficult problem. Nevertheless, there are still problems, and I think it has to be appreciated that we have changed the policy for improvement grants. We are making them at a much higher level in housing action areas, and we are being more selective, rather than using the rather generous provisions—one might almost say the mis-use of resources—for which the Conservative Government were responsible.
My hon. Friend raised one or two fundamental points about housing associations and he related these to Downfield Place. I am aware of the difficulties and the submission made by the residents' association. It seems to me—and I have some experience of this kind of thing—that there has been a lack of sensitivity on the part of the district council, coupled with perhaps a little bit of aggression on the part of the local association which has resulted in an attitude with which I am familiar in my constituency. It would be a pity if what is basically a sound concept were spoiled because of the lack of information. I could not agree that the district council has failed in its statutory duty or to comply with the circular, and I do not think a further circular is necessary.
In the general context, I am most concerned that there should be the maximum amount of co-operation between local associations and the individuals concerned when this procedure is adopted. 1631 It may well be that we have lessons to learn, or that we can benefit from the experience of Edinburgh and the residents' association in ways that may be useful to other authorities who want to take advantage of the provisions for housing action areas.
My hon. Friend also said that there might be a failure of statutory duty in terms of the lack of decanting facilities. I question that, but in a spirit of cooperation with Edinburgh District Council, if there is any specific case I shall be interested to hear the details. If there is a doubt in the mind of my hon. Friend it is only fair that it should be cleared up, because there is a responsibility to ensure that the circular and the law are specific.
§ Mr. Brown
I have already given an assurance that I would regret it if there were undue concern in the mind of any individual because of a lack of information. We have had long discussions about the way in which a housing authority should communicate information. There is a legal requirement, but legal jargon is sometimes both unintelligible and frightening to ordinary people. I 1632 should deplore it if any authority were so insensitive as merely to go by the book, without injecting some humanity into its dealings with people. I do not suggest that that is what happened in this case.
I have no knowledge of the South Side Association. The recognition of housing associations is entirely a matter for the Housing Corporation, but in the general context of the problem—because fairly generous resources are being made available to the Housing Corporation and, therefore, to housing associations—I sometimes feel that the Government do not get enough credit.
If some of my hon. Friend's experiences are flinging up doubts about the relationship between the parties concerned, or about the problem of recognition, without wishing to criticise Edinburgh District Council I shall be very willing to hear about them and to discuss them with the Housing Corporation.
I hope that I have answered all my hon. Friend's questions. I am indebted to him for raising this constituency matter, which is nevertheless important to Edinburgh as a whole and to many of its citizens. Because housing policy is a matter of interest and concern to me, I shall be very ready to help within the limits of my responsibility.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at seventeen minutes to Two o'clock.