§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Lennox-Boyd.]2.30 pm
§ Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)
This week has seen the anniversary of the implementation of the Housing Defects Act 1984. A great deal of legislation has gone on to the statute book since 1983 when I became a Member of the House, and I have profoundly disagreed with and voted against much of it for many different reasons. I do not think that any legislation has caused more problems that the Housing Defects Act—problems for the local authority, for home owners in my constituency whose homes are classified as defective and for the tenants living on estates which have also been classified as defective.
I said in a previous debate that the legislation put the cart well before the horse. As every month passes, in my constituency and in the constituencies of many hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber, that cart is further in front of the horse.
There is no current scheme in Rother Valley for reinstatement or repurchase of the three different types of houses for which the local authority could give grants. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) tabled a parliamentary question on 7 May 1985 asking the Minister for Housing and Construction when the reinstatement schemes would be accepted by PRC Homes Ltd. and would be approved, so that the Housing Defects Act 1984 could be implemented by the local authorities. In his answer the Minister said:I hope that the first approvals of repair schemes can be given this summer and that the first repairs to PRC houses under the scheme can be completed before the winter."—[Official Report, 7 May 1985; Vol. 78, c. 300.]
The Airey houses have had a scheme of reinstatement since 1981, but it took until 6 November 1985 for the National House-Building Council to give good news to PRC Homes Ltd., saying that the first two repair systems had been accepted. The Minister said in May that he thought the homes would be repaired by the winter of this year. That is another example of where the Minister who brought forward the legislation and the Conservative Government have fallen foul of promises made under the Act.
The major problem facing my local authority is in relation to the reinstatement scheme, which means that houses can be repaired and mortgages granted. More than that, under the Act, when a house has been given a grant and the scheme has been accepted, the house has to be "saleable", so that it can be sold on the open market and the cost of repairs recouped.
Section 3(4)(c) of the Housing Defects Act 1984 gives a clear instruction to my local authority and other local authorities with such houses. It says thatgiving assistance by way of reinstatement grant is justified having regard, on the one hand, to the amount of reinstatement grant that would be payable in respect of the dwelling in pursuance of this Act and, on the other hand, to the likely value of the freehold of the dwelling with vacant possession after the work required to reinstate it had been carried out".That gives us major problems in Rother Valley. I am sure that Rotherham metropolitan borough council, given money from the Department of the Environment through the Exchequer, would be able to keep up standards on its estates, on houses which it owns, which have not been sold. On the estate at Laughton Common in my 599 constituency, 190 houses were bought by Rotherham metropolitan borough council from the National Coal Board a while ago, and nine have since been resold to the occupiers. I have no doubt that when there is a scheme, and if the local authority is given money, the authority will put right those nine houses and they will become resaleable by their present owners. The local authority is responsible for making sure that the other 181 houses on the estate are reinstated, so that we have a good housing estate.
My local authority also owns some Unity and Tarren houses. I have had discussions with local building societies, which believe that mortgages will become available when a proper repair scheme is implemented. There will be no problem about that, but there is a problem in three estates. One estate is in a village called Aston, where there are 151 Reema houses, 71 of which were sold by the owners—the National Coal Board—to sitting tenants. The second is Kiveton Park, which has 150 houses owned by the NCB, 34 of which have been sold to sitting tenants. Thirdly, at Maltby there are 250 Reema houses on the estate, of which 98 were sold to sitting tenants. The coal board has told me by letter, and when I have met representatives, that it intends to do little about the housing that it owns on those estates. Even if there was a scheme, my local authority could not put the Act into effect because of the section that I mentioned about the saleability of the houses if money is spent on them.
If £10,000 were spent on those homes to bring them up to standard so that they were no longer classified as defective, the owners who bought the properties from the NCB in good faith only a few years ago would have to find £1,000—that is, 10, per cent. of the cost of the reinstatement of those dwellings.
The coal board wrote to me on 6 September, saying:As I believe you know, the Board's policy has been and continues to be to dispose of its housing stock to its sitting tenants, usually on favourable terms, or to local authorities.
I told the NCB that the houses were blighted by the Act and by Ministers' attitudes, and that the authority was unable to implement a scheme to repair the houses.
On the estate at Maltby, the houses are being boarded up, and there are almost slum conditions there. In the letter of 6 December the board said:When Reema houses have become vacant, therefore, we have had no choice but to board them up pending their future sale or re-letting. It seems this is only likely to come about when the outstanding points on the Housing Defects Act are resolved.
The Housing Defects Act does not affect the NCB. It was introduced as a short stop-gap measure, and under it people who have bought council houses and houses from local authorities and other public bodies are offered help when these houses are classified as defective. The Act does not offer the NCB any help for the reinstatement of the houses that it owns. As a result, there is a great deal of uncertainty in the Rother Valley about the NCB's attitude, which seems to be one of inaction. The uncertainty of the NCB and of my local authority, which cannot make a decision because of the saleability section, has led to mistrust and the growth of residents' associations in the three villages.
I have extremely good contact with the residents' association at Maltby, but the associations at Aston and Kiveton Park have had little contact with me, although I am their Member of Parliament. In May they visited my surgery, and I arranged a meeting with Rotherham metropolitan borough council for 7 June. The meeting was 600 helpful, but the council said that it could not take any action over reinstatement schemes, or over the provision of money for the local authority to enact its liability under the Act until the Government had acted.
The council also told us that the Department of the Environment had produced a booklet for owners only in June 1985, which was four months after the Department said in answer to parliamentary questions that it would produce a booklet for owners, to allay their fears. I know that that is true, because I tabled parliamentary questions on that matter. It was nine months after the Bill was enacted that the booklet was sent to my local authority. The Department and the Minister should have ensured that the booklet and as much information as possible was provided prior to the implementation of the Act.
I am sorry to say that the residents' associations, except for the many people in Maltby who have kept in constant contact with me, have been used by other organisations. The Social Democratic party has used two of the organisations in an attempt to create problems in my local authority, while playing political shenanigans in my constituency. I have a press cutting which said:SDP MP pledges Reema support.It refers to a visit made by the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright) to my constituency. I have given him as much notice of my intention to mention this matter in the House as he gave me of visiting my consitutency in October. My local paper said:He wasn't too pleased at the type of reaction we had been getting from the Borough Council … He has agreed to raise the matter in Parliament … He did make a definite promise that he would do whatever he could to assist in a national sense by putting questions down in the House of Commons".
On 10 October the hon. Gentleman may have travelled 170 miles from his constituency to the Rother Valley, but this morning I went to the Library to check exactly what has been put on the official record by the hon. Gentleman since his visit. The answer is absolutely nothing. The hon. Gentleman comes to play political stumps 170 miles away, but he cannot even attend a debate on the very matter about which he was showing concern when it is held in the Chamber, which is only a few miles from his constituency. That has been the consequence of the introduction of a Bill which was far too premature and which should not have been introduced until the Government had conceived of something more substantial to put in its place. The legislation, which promised so much but delivered so little, has increased the incidence of blight, not its solution.
On behalf of the owners and tenants of those homes, I wrote to the Minister twice this year. In October, he replied saying that the NCB was responsible. It is obvious from the letter that I read earlier that the NCB will do nothing about the problem until the details of the Housing Defects Act are resolved. In both letters I asked the Minister to visit the Rother Valley. I did not make my invitation public, because I wanted the Minister to visit my area without publicity and to try to resolve the serious difficulties of those who live in such homes and of my local authority. I wanted him to see for himself the conditions on those estates and to meet representatives of the local authority. I ask the Minister again to meet urgently representatives of my local authority and of the National Coal Board.
Public confidence on the estates will not be restored easily, if at all. I urge the Under-Secretary of State to ask the Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction 601 to reconsider his decision and to visit Rother Valley to see the problems created by Housing Defects Act 1984 in my constituency, and to help to ease the burden of the tenants and home-owners on the estates in those three villages.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir George Young)
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) for initiating a debate on the operation of the Housing Defects Act 1984. He said that the Act has caused problems, but I wonder what would be the reaction of the 267 private owners of defective houses in Rotherham if the Act was not on the statute book. He said that homes have been blighted by the Act. The homes were blighted by a series of reports stating that the houses suffered from structural defects. The Act was a genuine response by the Government, supported by hon. Members on both sides of the House, to give reassurance and compensation to many people who, in good faith, had bought their houses from public bodies, which sold them in good faith.
The hon. Gentleman ended by asking for a visit and meetings. I have visited Doncaster at least twice, met owners of PRC houses and spoken to representatives of the local authority. But if he believes that it would be helpful, of course, I shall consider either a visit or a meeting with the hon. Gentleman, representatives of his local authority and his constituents who are in difficulty.
§ Mr. Barron
Another problem is the attitude of the NCB. Although the Minister has no responsibility for the NCB, will he try to include its estates department in discussions? If its houses remain in their present state, my local authority will have great difficulty in reinstating those houses under section 3 of the Act.
§ Sir George Young
Responsibility for the NCB rests with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy, and I shall ensure that the hon. Gentleman's remarks are brought to his attention. The hon. Gentleman was good enough to send me copies of his correspondence with the NCB. He is right to say that the Act does not cover the NCB. The rights are given to the owners who have bought houses from the NCB, and those rights are exercised against the local authority by way of reinstatement grant or repurchase.
Difficulties face one or two authorities when it comes to implementing the Act, especially during the interim period, while the repair methods are still being developed. I fully recognise that, for example, statutory obligations under the Act might place additional strain on local authority resources, but the problems facing Rotherham are not unique and other local authorities have even more houses covered by the Act.
On resources generally, we made provision for capital expenditure of £2,324 million in the current year. That comprises an additional allocation of some £1,600 million, plus reserves for supplementary allocation and provision for local authorities to augment that with spending from their own receipts. We recognise that the Act could place additional obligations on local authorities and we introduced an indicator into the generalised needs index for 1985-86 to reflect the need for expenditure on these houses. That increased the generalised needs index of 602 authorities with a large numbers of such dwellings, and that is directly reflected in the allocations that they get from central Government.
Even so, we recognise that there could be particular problems this year in implementing the Housing Defects Act, and we have invited local authorities to submit bids for additional allocations. In August, we announced that we would make an extra £37 million available to help 28 local authorities, including Rotherham, to meet their obligations under the Act.
At that time it was difficult to know with great accuracy how much money would be spent this year and we decided not to specify formal extra allocations until actual expenditure was known at the end of the financial year. In deciding that level of resources, we had to take account of the overall capital spending by local authorities and the need to keep public expenditure under control. We looked at those authorities with firm contractual commitments and at their statutory obligations under the Act. We shall be monitoring closely the position on the extra allocations, and we have invited all 119 authorities that have sought assistance, including Rotherham, to submit an updated return at the end of this month setting out their best estimates at that date of their likely expenditure this year on obligations under the Act. For next year, we have increased the gross limit for local authority expenditure on housing by £200 million. We have again taken account of obligations under the Act in making the allocations. We hope to announce those shortly.
The hon. Member raised a specific problem about Rotherham. My Department is aware of the special problems in Rotherham arising from defective housing. We have had annual housing investment programme meetings between the Yorkshire and Humberside regional office and the borough council. We have seen the bid by Rotherham for additional resources, and I have looked with care at the correspondence from the hon. Gentleman. My urban housing renewal unit visited Rotherham on 5 November and, although it was looking at local authority housing, at the request of the council, it visited one of the NCB estates—Maltby—to which the hon. Gentleman referred.
We have recognised Rotherham's difficulties in its HIP allocation, and Rotherham has done moderately well. Over the current year it has been allocated £7 million of the initial resources available for allocation in Yorkshire and Humberside. This represents more than 5 per cent. of the allocation for the region, which is in excess of the allocation set out for Rotherham by the generalised needs index.
We have allocated an additional £117,000 this year to help the council to meet its obligations under the Act. It asked for more, but that assumed that it would have to meet all its obligations on the 208 properties this year, whereas the reality is that expenditure will be spread over a number of years. In those cases where repurchase is an option, the owners have nine years in which to exercise that option. Not all the money incurred under the Act will have to be met this year or next year.
§ Mr. Barron
The allocation made to Rotherham this year was welcome, although it was not what Rotherham asked for. If it had had a reinstatement scheme on the Reema houses, it could have given a reinstatement grant on between 17 and 20 this year, given that the average is £14,000, according to the Act. Would the Minister like to 603 go to my constituency and knock on the door of somebody who had bought such a house and tell him that his home will not be reinstated and brought up to a reasonable standard for another eight years?
§ Sir George Young
I have met owners of property in Yorkshire who have bought these houses. I said that they have nine years in which to exercise their rights under the Act. If they want to do so, they can exercise those rights at any time. I hope that we are making progress with an approved scheme for Reema houses, but it is most unlikely that Rotherham will have to find all the money this year under the provisions of the Act. It was on that basis that Rotherham made a bid for £3 million. The reality is that it will take some time to establish the reinstatement grants and the programme of expenditure will be spread over a number of years. If Rotherham has to spend more money this year, we shall take it into account at the end of the financial year and will make a retrospective allocation.
As for the problems that face some of the hon. Gentleman's constituents, he said that they might have to find £1,000 when their properties are reinstated. He is quite right about the fact that there is a basic 90 per cent. grant, but in hardship cases there can be 100 per cent. grants, up to an expense limit of £14,000. The hon. Gentleman criticised the delay in approving a reinstatement scheme. I hope that he accepts that we must ensure that the repair methods are effective. We do not want to have to go around this course again. It is taking slightly longer than we wished to get repair schemes approved, but PRC Homes Ltd. has recently approved a number of schemes and it hopes to approve more in the near future.
If I may refer to the problems that have been experienced on the Maltby estate, houses there have been vandalised. This has caused great concern in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. I understand that a private sector party is interested in acquiring a considerable number of the National Coal Board's empty Reema properties in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. I can give the House the good news that agreement has now been reached on the sale of 21 vacant NCB houses in Maltby. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be as pleased as I am to hear that news.
I hope that there will he an approved repair method for Reema houses when PRC Homes Ltd. has looked at the applications. We shall need to examine how its approved repair method works and I cannot prejudge the outcome. However, I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that we are now making progress towards getting approved systems of reinstatement on the road.
604 My Department met the Rotherham borough council on 5 November when it was agreed that the council would write to my regional office with full details of the NCB's estate problems. When we receive that letter from the borough council, we shall have to consider its contents carefully in the light of the latest developments and decide whether the problems identified by the council could usefully be taken forward at a tripartite meeting—a suggestion that was made by the hon. Gentleman—involving, as necessary, my Department, Rotherham borough council and the NCB. My regional office is ready to help in whatever way it can. My collagues in the Department of Energy will monitor progress carefully to ensure that we do all that we can to find a satisfactory solution. If the hon. Gentleman feels that a ministerial meeting would be useful in helping to bring this matter to a satisfactory conclusion, we should be happy to consider it.
The hon. Gentleman criticised the delay in issuing information once the Act was on the statute book. On 7 November 1984 we issued a circular on the Act to all local authorities. It was fairly comprehensive and illustrated what the Act involves. The reason for the delay in the publication of the booklet was that we hoped to include details of the approved repair methods. We held back publication so that when owners received the booklet they would also have the latest details of the reinstatement grants. For a number of reasons, it has taken slightly longer than we expected to get this on the road.
The schemes are now coming through. Those for Airey and Cornish unit houses have been approved and licensed, and information about them has been given to the local authorities. There are now 49 other schemes in the pipeline. Eleven of these are for Airey, Cornish unit, Unity, Reema and Woolaway houses which are currently being appraised. A further five schemes have recently been received by PRC Homes Ltd. for assessment. A further 33 systems are currently being prepared by builders and designers for submission to PRC Homes Ltd. They cover Airey, Boot, Cornish unit, Orlit, Parkinson, Stent, Tarran, Unity, Wates and Woolaway house types. I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that this represents considerable progress. We anticipate that several more approvals will emerge in the near future.
I have outlined the action that the Government are taking to deal with the problems that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. I hope that the news about the sale of some of the houses in Maltby will be of some consolation to his constituents.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Three o'clock.