§ 2.43 p.m.
§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
THE LORD CHANCELLOR (LORD SIMONDS)
My Lords, it is my privilege to submit to the House for Second Reading this important Bill. I think that no one, wherever he sits in this House, can fail to realise that the housing situation—the housing problem, perhaps I should call it—imperatively demands, and has for a long time demanded, courageous action. By "the housing problem" I mean not only the provision of new houses, in which my right honourable friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government has proved himself an inspired and inspiring leader, but also the question of the maintenance and preservation of those houses still standing which are part of our national wealth and heritage and the problem of dealing with those houses which are not fit for human habitation but which in these dark days are still used for that purpose.
Many of your Lordships will recollect that in a debate in this House not very long ago the late Lord Morrison, a man honoured and respected on both sides of the House, made an appeal to me. He asked whether we could not get together in order, if possible, to find some means of retrieving the situation—by which he meant dealing with the housing problem which I have described. I cannot say that the Bill which I now present to the House represents any united effort of the Parties, but I submit it to your Lordships as a sincere, honest and courageous step in the direction in which we should all proceed to try to provide a decent home 279 for every family in this country. That was the objective which Lord Morrison had and which I think we all have, on both sides of the House. I submit this Bill to your Lordships as a Bill which, in a matter of great complexity, does its best, without fear or favour, for the whole community.
Since I do not wish to be controversial on this matter in any way, I shall deny myself the pleasure of reference to any such vegetable as a "mouldy turnip," or to a "gold mine," or to a "landlords' ramp" or anything of that kind. I will merely ask your Lordships to try, as I have tried, to judge this Bill impartially and see whether it does not make an honest and serious attempt to do what is best. I venture to ask your Lordships this question. We are all agreed that something has to be done. If there are any noble Lords who think fit to criticise—not in detail, because of course details there are to be criticised—and condemn in principle this Bill, then I venture to ask them to tell the House what is the principle upon which they and the Party to which they belong would found any measure to reach the goal at which we aim. I think we are entitled to know that, for at present this proposal and no other holds the field. Again in no controversial spirit, I venture to remind the House that for six and a half long years, during which this was a growing and vital problem, the noble Lords who sit on the Opposition Benches did nothing, put forward no policy to remedy this evil; and even in the two and a half years during which they have been in Opposition and therefore, having no responsibility, have been the more free to express a view, there has still not been a policy put forward on their behalf to meet this problem. With that prelude, which I hope is not unduly provocative or controversial, I come to the Bill which I submit to the House.
It falls into two clearly defined parts, both of them important and to some extent interlocked. The first Part of the Bill deals with those houses which are unfit for human habitation, though some of them are capable of being restored to a state adequate for temporary accommodation. It is barely intelligible, I think, without a brief reference to the Housing Acts upon which it is built, in particular the Housing Act, 1936, which 280 is still the law on this question, subject to one amendment, at any rate, to which I may have to refer. Therefore, if your Lordships will forgive me, because I know that this is a matter familiar to many of you, I will briefly refer to the provisions of the Housing Act, 1936, so far as they are relevant to the amendments which this Bill provides.
Under the Act of 1936 a local authority may serve a repair notice requiring the owner of a house which is unfit for human habitation to put it into a proper state of repair if it can be done at reasonable expense. That is one power which they have to-day, and it is a power which has been widely exercised; but it is always a little uncertain because there is the condition that the repair must be capable of being done at reasonable expense, a matter which will always give rise to controversy. Further, a local authority may make a demolition order in respect of a single house. It may also—and this is of much greater importance—declare an area to be a clearance area, on the ground that the condition of the houses or their bad arrangement, or whatever it may be, makes them unfit for human habitation. Having declared a clearance area, they may then make a clearance order, the result of which is that the owners of houses have (and here is the point) forthwith to demolish their houses. Of they may compulsorily acquire the houses within a clearance area, in which case, equally, the obligation is forthwith—and I repeat, forthwith—to demolish the houses. That is the law so far as it is for the moment relevant under the Act of 1936.
Between 1936 and the outbreak of the war in 1939 great strides had been made—indeed, there are people to-day who say that, but for the war, there would now be no need for such a Bill as this. There are people who say that the local authorities might have succeeded by now in altogether eliminating these slum areas. There are people, I suppose, who would say that a child might to-day have asked: "What was a slum?" When that question is asked, it will be a golden age, indeed. But came the war, and there was an almost complete cessation of work under the Act of 1936. Some trifling clearance orders may have been completed; demolitions that were begun were completed, and so on. But, practically speaking, before the end of the war there 281 was no work done under the Act of 1936. Other things were done, of course. But it is a poor consolation to all of us that the result of war was that in our great cities there was an indiscriminate blasting by the thunderbolts of war, instead of the orderly transformation of our cities by the diligent arts of peace.
At any rate the war came, and the war ended. But though the war ended, still no work was done under the Act of 1936. Again, I do not wish to be controversial in any way; I am merely stating the fact in the most objective way. It may well be that the decision that was made not to carry on with demolition orders under the Act of 1936 was a wise one. But, at any rate, the position was this: that the work of demolition was not only not encouraged, it was discouraged, and, as near as may be, disallowed. I call attention to this for the purpose of showing what is the position in which we find ourselves. On March 27, 1947, the Minister of the day issued a circular the material part of which, for my present purpose, reads as follows:The Minister is in general agreement with the recommendations made by the Committee and desires to make such standards effective at the earliest moment practicable. Because, however, of the need to concentrate on the erection of new houses for families without a separate home of their own as much as possible of the labour and materials available for housing purposes, it will not be practicable to require the execution of works to existing houses which would make substantial calls on these resources or, save in exceptional circumstances, to set in motion procedure for the demolition of unfit houses which would involve the provision on new houses for the persons who would be displaced from those houses.That was a problem which the Minister had to face. He came to that decision, and nobody, I think, can complain of it; though it is easy to be wise after the event, and say that perhaps it would have been better for some part of the labour and materials available to have been directed to saving our cities. However that may be, the position is that nothing was done as a result of this 1947 circular until the end of the late Administration, and very little has been done since.
But now things have changed: there are more labour and material available, and the Government are determined to make an assault on this problem in the most vigorous way. Accordingly, a circular issued on behalf of the present 282 Minister on March 22, 1954, quotes the passage from the earlier circular which I have just read and follows it with the words:That advice is now withdrawn.It goes on to urge, in the most emphatic way, that the powers under the 1936 Act should be implemented, so far as possible. But the view of Her Majesty's Government is that those powers are not adequate. Accordingly, in the first Part of the Bill which I submit to your Lordships, provision is made for more active measures on the part of the local authorities. Each local authority is required to submit within twelve months proposals for clearance and demolition. They are in particular, required in their programme to set out what they hope to accomplish in five years. For alas! it is only too true that we cannot hope that, with the best will in the world, there will not be many cities where it will take more than five years to complete the clearance of the slums. So they are required to make these proposals.
But here is the particular point where departure is made from the law as it exists to-day. I emphasised, in telling your Lordships what the law now is, that as soon as the local authority have acquired property under a clearance order, there is a positive injunction at once to demolish. The dilemma in which the Government and any local authority are placed is this: make a clearance order, observe the law as it is and at once demolish, and the inhabitants are thrown into the street and there is no adequate accommodation for them elsewhere. That is one horn of the dilemma. The other is this: make no order, and allow buildings which would be the subject of clearance orders to remain in a state of ever-continuing disrepair with, probably, ever-increasing degradation of the inhabitants themselves. That is the alternative.
How do we meet the problem? There is no satisfactory way of meeting it, but what we have done is to take power for the local authorities to do what may be compendiously described as patching; that is to say, patching a house which, according to all standards, is due for demolition, because it is unfit for human habitation, but which yet may be capable of being made temporarily adequate for accommodation. It is better, surely, that that should be done. Who with any 283 sense of realism—I think I would say, who with any sense of humanity?—would not say that it is better that that power should be taken, and the houses patched until they can be demolished—the corollary of demolition being the finding of other accommodation for the inhabitants—than to adopt either of the two alternatives I have mentioned? Accordingly, that is, if you like, a new power—not, I think, a revolutionary power—which we give to local authorities by this Bill, to patch houses. And just as they may patch houses within the clearance area, so they may acquire and patch houses otherwise fit for demolition, single houses, or two or three houses, as the case may be, which are not within a clearance area.
In submitting this Bill to your Lordships I have felt a great difficulty, because the principles can be clearly enough stated; and that, I believe, is what one should do on Second Reading. But many of the detailed provisions are of such importance that I do not feel that I should altogether leave them out, even from a Second Reading speech. One important feature of the Bill is that it simplifies the procedure for declaring a clearance area. Anybody who is familiar with this subject, as many of your Lordships are (and I see present the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, who is, I suppose, more experienced and learned in this matter than any of us), will know that there is often intolerable delay in getting the clearance order made and approved, owing to the difficulty of service on the people who have an interest and so on. So, without going into details, I can say that we greatly facilitate the service of notices, and we hope by so doing, to eliminate substantial delays. I do not think that anybody need shed a tear for a slum landlord, or anybody interested in a slum, who complains that he has not had sufficient notice. This, too, we do, which will, I think, in many cases expedite the transaction. At present, under these Acts a public inquiry is necessary if there is objection. Now that is wholly unnecessary where, it may be, there are only one or two objectors whose objections can be easily and summarily dealt with. Accordingly, we provide in certain cases for a private inquiry, which will be much easier and more expeditious.
284 One other matter which has been discussed a good deal and which, therefore, I ought to mention, is this. One of the problems which has always vexed anybody who has had anything to do with this matter is the question: What is the meaning of "fit," and what is the meaning of "unfit"? How do you determine whether a house is unfit for human habitation? In the earlier Acts there was little to guide one, and there has been much trouble about the matter with local authorities and the courts before whom the question has come. Well, nobody can achieve the impossible, and nobody can decide or define what, in all the circumstances, is fitness or unfitness. There was a sub-committee set up of a body known as the Central Housing Advisory Committee, a body which exists to advise the Minister and amongst other things to consider and make recommendations as to fitness. It did so, and substantially its recommendations are incorporated in Clause 9 of the Bill. I do not say that it will solve all difficulties, but we do believe that it will be of great assistance to the persons who have to decide what is fit and what is unfit by calling attention to the several factors which they have to bear in mind in coming to that decision.
One other matter at least with regard to the first Part of the Bill I should mention, and it is the question of finance. The Bill provides that the financing of operations by the local authority in the acquisition of unfit houses and in making their condition adequate is to fall equally upon the Exchequer and the local authority. There has been some criticism of that division, it being said that in at least some other matters the proportion is not one to one, but three to one—three to the Exchequer and one to the local authority. This is a matter which the Minister has considered with the greatest anxiety, and he has come to the conclusion that we must adhere to that proportion. It is not as if the proportion of three to one were in any way sacrosanct. There are many cases, apart from this Act, where the proportion is not three to one. But in any event, this is a matter which lies so peculiarly within the discretion and power of the local authority that the Minister feels it right that they who have to make the decision should bear one half of the expense. I think 285 there is something about this which goes rather deeper, for in a real sense there is in these matters a partnership, and an equal partnership, between the local authority and the State. The Minister thinks—and if I may say so with the greatest respect, I concur in his view—that that sense of equal partnership should be preserved by the burden of this expenditure being borne equally.
Before I leave Part I of the Bill, I ought to say something about a rather important provision which is contained in Clause 15. Your Lordships are probably aware that under the Act of 1949 local authorities were empowered to make grants for the conversion and improvement of houses—I am not dealing here with unfit houses, although this provision does, in fact, come in Part I of the Bill, but with houses which are sound and are capable of being made good, decent homes for families. Power was taken by the Act of 1949 for grants to be given to private persons. It may seem to some of your Lordships a little strange that this proposition should have come from the quarter from which it did. The local authorities were empowered to make grants to private persons for the purpose of improving and converting their homes for the purpose of letting. That extremely valuable provision has not been used to the extent it should. One of your Lordships, I know, has been good enough to invite my attention to this particular aspect of the matter, and I am in a position to say that only a few days ago the Minister circularised local authorities urging them to make fuller use of this provision; and I have no doubt that they will do so. In his circular—and I need not go into details—he makes various suggestions which will ease their task and simplify the procedure. The noble Lord who communicated with me will very likely have received by now a copy of the circular. If not, I shall be glad to let him have one.
Apart from that, there are two ways in which the position is to be eased. Under the Act of 1949, it was a condition of grant that the houses in respect of which the grant was made should be likely to subsist for thirty years. Secondly, the condition was that, although one-half of the expenditure would be provided by the local authority, that half should not exceed a sum which, in the event, came to 286 be £400. If the landlord, the owner of the house, spent more than £800 upon his house, he did not get a grant at all. If, on the other hand, he spent £800 or less, he could get a grant of £400. That was singularly inflexible and, accordingly, we propose in our Bill, as your Lordships will see, to alter both those qualifications, making it a condition that the house shall last for at least ten years and that the grant may be given up to a sum of £400, even though the total expenditure exceeds £800. That makes it more flexible. The discretion is still vested in the local authority. It is extremely unlikely that they will make any substantial grant if the House is to last for only ten years, and equally I should think it is extremely unlikely that they will make any grant at all if the proposed expenditure is a very large sum. But they have that discretion, and it is rightly vested in them.
There are many other provisions of Part I to which I may make passing reference later on, but those are the substantial provisions of Part I of the Bill, and I dare to hope that they will not be seriously controversial.
Now, my Lords, I come to Part II, which, no doubt, does provide grounds for a certain amount of controversy, and certainly a good deal of food for political propaganda; but we venture to submit this Part of the Bill equally to this House in the firm conviction that it is a courageous, sane and fair way of dealing with the problem. I do not believe that there is any noble Lord in this House who could say that there is any other way of dealing with the problem of preserving and maintaining our national heritage of, it may be, some 5 million houses, many of which will fall into decay unless the relief which this Bill offers is given. Here, I would venture to repeat what I said in my opening words: if there is any noble Lord who condemns the principle of an increase of rent let him tell the House how else he proposes that this heritage should be preserved. From expediency it is absolutely imperative that something should be done; it is absolutely certain that if nothing is done, these sound houses—not all of them but many of them—will decay; they will become unfit for human habitation; they will be a liability to the local authority and to the State. It is imperative I say, that something should be done, and 287 nothing has been suggested that could be done except the increase of rent for which the Bill provides.
Now let me assume that the House accepts the view that there must be some increase. The question arises, of course, what increase? This is a matter which is utterly incapable of precise and sound scientific definition, for quite clearly one house is not the same as another house. What is fair for one house will not be fair for another. The quantum of repairs for one house may be quite different from that for another, if for no other reason than that one may be a corner house and more exposed to winds and weather. We had to provide some rough-and-ready measure which will apply to all. Fortunately there was something at hand which gave us a fair guide. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors gave cogent evidence (I do not think that this will be disputed) that in the year 1939 the statutory deduction, as it is called—that is the difference between the gross value and the rateable value of a house—fairly represented the annual cost of repair. In 1953 the Girdwood Committee, a very distinguished and competent body of men, reported that what had in 1939 cost £100 would in April, 1953, have cost £316. That means that the cost of repairs had gone up something like three times. Accordingly, the measure of permissible increase of rent which this Bill proposes is an increase amounting to twice the statutory deduction—rough-and-ready if you will, not always so suitable to one case as to another, but providing a fair and equitable measure of increase; and, moreover, what we believe will be an adequate incentive to landlords to do the repairs.
Though that is the general measure of increase I must qualify it in this way. There is what has been called in debate, and can conveniently be called, a stopper—that is to say, there is to be no such increase of rent as will make the new rent more than twice the gross value. That is the stopper. The reason for that is that many houses were let in the 1920s and 1930s at a rent which was something like twice the gross value, or at any rate at such a figure that, if twice the statutory deduction were added to it, it would be more than twice the gross value. It is considered fair that in such a case as that, where the landlord gets such a rent, he 288 should effect the repairs out of his rent; and for all I know he has probably done so. But at any rate there is that stopper upon the increase: the total rent is not to be more than twice the gross value. I need not, I think, go into the intricate points of what constitutes the rent for this purpose. Obviously it is fair that certain deductions should be made—for instance, increases of rent which have been permitted by way of a percentage on improvements, and so on. You take the gross value and you look at the total rent in the way which I described.
Now I come to another question which I regard as a very important aspect of Part II of the Bill, and it is a matter upon which there has been a great deal of discussion and controversy and upon which (I will be quite candid) we have had some difficulty in making up our minds. That question is: What are the safeguards? It is the firm resolution of the Minister and of Her Majesty's Government that the increase of rent shall be linked with repairs, that the tenant shall be made aware—and made aware because it is a fact—that he is paying an increased rent because the repairs are being done. Accordingly, it is provided by the Bill that a landlord shall not give notice of increase unless he satisfies certain conditions. Those conditions are as follows. First of all, he must declare that the house is in good repair, and "good repair" is defined in the Bill as meaning in relation to any premises thathaving regard to the age, character and locality of the premises they are in good repair both as respects structure and as respects decoration.He has to make that declaration, and he has further to declare that the house is reasonably suitable for occupation, in conformity with the standard of fitness for human habitation to which I have already referred in relation to the unfit houses. As your Lordships will appreciate, a house may be in perfect repair but yet lacking many of the amenities which would make it fit for human habitation. It may be an underground chamber in perfect repair, but nobody would say that it was fit. Accordingly, the condition has to be satisfied that it is in good repair as well as the other conditions which I have mentioned.
In addition to that and as a mode of proof, or, if you like, as evidence of 289 good faith, the landlord has to satisfy the tenant that he has within the last year before giving notice of increase expended upon repairs an amount equal to three times the statutory deduction, or, alternatively, that he has within three of the last four years before giving notice spent six times the amount of the statutory deduction. It has been suggested that that is making it too easy for the landlord. It is suggested that he is an unscrupulous man who will make these declarations, gambling on the fact that the tenant will be afraid to challenge them and so on. I believe there is nothing in that at all, but in case there is I will tell your Lordships at once that I am proposing in Committee to move an Amendment further to safeguard the tenant making it a summary offence if the landlord makes a false declaration. He is already, I think, liable under the Perjury Act if, in making a declaration required by Act of Parliament, he makes it falsely, but an indictment under the Perjury Act would be rather a hammer to an offence of this kind. Accordingly, I propose to introduce an Amendment in Committee at this stage to make it a summary offence.
Now I must ask, what is the remedy of the tenant? When the tenant is served with this declaration of good repair, it is open to him to do several things. In the first place, he can go to the local authority and say: "I have been served with this notice and this declaration. I do not agree that my house is in good repair or satisfies the other conditions. Give me a certificate of disrepair." That is one course open to him. Another thing he can do is this. He can take no notice, and then the landlord will have to take the matter to the county court to sue for his rent. One of the tenant's defences may be, "Well, this increase of rent is not justified, because the conditions of the Act have not been satisfied." I think he would probably be rather foolish to do that because his easier course would be to get a certificate of disrepair. If he gets a certificate of disrepair, then no increased rent is payable unless the landlord goes to the local authority and gets that certificate of disrepair discharged, which of course he can do upon the evidence that he has put the house into repair again.
That does not seem to me to be an unfair way of dealing with the matter, 290 but it is suggested that in the case of each one of these 4½ million houses it should be the duty of the landlord to go, in the first place, to the local authority and obtain from it a certificate of fitness before he can make his application for an increase of rent. I believe that anybody who has any knowledge of local government will say that that would be putting an absolutely intolerable and impossible burden upon the local authority, particularly at a time when a number of other important duties are imposed upon it. Nor do I believe that it is in any sense necessary, for I think that the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. I believe that the vast majority of tenants of houses at low controlled rents, if they know that the increased rent is in respect of repairs which they see done, will not object to payment of an increased rent. Of course, there will be people to whom a few shillings extra will be a serious enough matter, but already, to many people, the rent is a serious matter. There are already many people who go to the National Assistance Board to ask for help with their rent. I do not think it is right to depart from what appears to be a fair, general principle because it may operate hardly upon some people who, under our system of social welfare, have adequate means of redress.
Those are the safeguards, to which I must add this. The tenant may within twenty-eight days of service of the landlord's proof of expenditure upon the house challenge it in the county court, if he thinks fit. In addition, there is this provision—and here again we seek to protect the tenant: the landlord is under an obligation, when he serves his notice of increase of rent, to send to the tenant at the same time a document, which will be in the form prescribed by the Minister, advising him what the effect of the Act is and what his remedies are. Those being the main features of the second Part of this Bill, I commend it equally to your Lordships.
I have already been, I fear, too long upon this complicated matter, but there are just one or two other things to which perhaps I ought to refer. I have less diffidence in omitting reference to any particular provision because the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, will be in a position, after hearing your Lordships' comments, to deal with the matter when he replies, 291 Perhaps your Lordships will forgive me if I refer to one or two other matters which I think are of great importance. First of all, I should mention this. Clause 32 of the Bill removes from the operation of the Rent Acts property which belongs to a local authority, a development corporation, a housing association or a housing trust which is subject to the jurisdiction of the Charity Commissioners. I ought, I suppose, in accordance with the usual custom, to declare a personal interest. My personal interest is not in respect of my flat in the Palace of Westminster, which I hold by a very precarious tenure, but rather this: that it happens that I have for long been a Governor of the Peabody Donation Fund which is exempted by this Bill from the provisions of the Rent Acts. I do not think anybody would dissent from the view that those bodies are properly exempted.
But also exempted from the operation of the Rent Acts—and this is a matter which has aroused a little more discussion, and even controversy—are new houses; not, of course, new houses which are built with the aid of a subsidy from the local authority, but new houses, and new flats made by the conversion of old houses. Those are exempted from the operation of the Rent Acts. For my part, I welcome the fact, and I think many of your Lordships will, too, that the day has come when it is possible to admit a little free enterprise in this matter. I do not think that there will be any serious diversion of labour and materials to these houses which might otherwise be used for the purposes of the local authority. In the course of my observations upon the increase of rent, I omitted to remind your Lordships of the fact that, even in regard to houses built by the local authority comparatively recently, it has been necessary to increase the rent. Many of your Lordships must be aware of cases where, to meet the increased cost of repair, rents charged by local authorities have been increased. The same treatment is now to be meted out to houses in private ownership.
This Bill makes provision for numerous other matters, some of them of importance. It deals with the question of assignments, and the payment of a premium upon assignment. Your Lordships are aware that there has been much difficulty caused by Section 7 of the Landlord 292 and Tenant (Rent Control) Act, 1949, which made stringent the prohibition of premiums in respect of controlled tenancies. It brought within its scope a number of tenancies which it was quite clear should never have been included. I need not go into details in this matter because, so far as I know, there was no difference of opinion about it in the other place. If your Lordships look at Clause 37, you will see what I am referring to. Clause 39 is an important clause, in a way, because it gives effect to a recommendation made by the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, as long ago as 1945. He suggested as a matter eminently suitable for decision by rent tribunals the question whether an increased rent should be payable for services rendered by landlords. That it is now proposed, should find its place in the Bill.
My Lords, there are, as I say, numerous other matters, but I fear I have detained your Lordships already for three quarters of an hour, which is probably more than your Lordships would wish; and if I may leave it to the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, to deal with any further matters, I will end where I began, by commending this Bill to the favourable consideration of your Lordships. As I have said, we believe that it will be a valuable step towards the provision of a decent home for every family in England; but I fear that that is a long way ahead. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now 2a.—(The Lord Chancellor.)
§ 3.32 p.m.
§ LORD SILKIN
My Lords, the noble and learned Lord need not have apologised for the length of his speech, because he had a very important and difficult task. This Bill is, I imagine, one of the most important Bills which your Lordships will have to consider in the present Session of Parliament. The subject matter is one in which we are all interested, and I suppose that at least half the population of this country is directly concerned with what we do under this measure. The noble and learned Lord said that this was a sincere, honest and courageous attempt to deal with a very grave problem, and I am not for a moment going to quarrel with any of those adjectives. He said that he was not going to embark on unnecessary controversy. However, he threw a few bricks 293 at this side of the House, and if I do the same I hope that he will regard me as being equally as objective as he has been. Nor am I going to refer to any vegetable or mineral in connection with this matter, although certainly I find it necessary to be somewhat critical and to examine this Bill with great care. The noble and learned Lord divided the measure into two parts, and I propose to follow him in that, but to divide the first part into three because it deals with three distinct subjects—slum clearance, the question of patching up and improvements, and conversions. I will say something under each of those headings.
As to slum clearance, the noble and learned Lord made great play of the fact that now at last we are beginning to do something about this problem. I think he appreciated that, until now, it has not been practicable to demolish dwellings, however bad they have been—and, indeed, the policy of the Labour Government was never criticised on that matter by noble Lords opposite. The noble and learned Lord referred to the circular that was issued in 1947 by the then Minister of Health, but I am not aware that that circular received the slightest criticism from the Opposition of that time—or since. One must assume, therefore, that, broadly speaking, the policy of the late Government was an accepted one and not open to any serious criticism. I do not propose to develop this point and at the moment we are not carrying out a post-mortem on the actions of the late Government. We have a Bill before us, and our duty is to consider this Bill and nothing else; and that is what I propose to do.
My main, broad criticism of the Bill, which I shall elaborate in detail, while giving the Government credit for sincerity, honesty and courage, is that the measures that they are proposing in this Bill are entirely ineffective for the purposes that they have, and always have had, in mind. There is no dispute whatever about the gravity of the problem. The Government issued a White Paper some months ago entitled Houses—The Next Step, which I imagine all of us have read with great care. That White Paper gives a number of figures indicating the gravity of the problem. I do not challenge those figures. In so far as figures are available, I think that probably these 294 figures are substantially correct. They indicate a very serious state of affairs. The noble and learned Lord has not thought it necessary to mention any of these figures, but the fact is that if one turns to page 5 of the White Paper and analyses the figures there (I do not propose to quote them in detail) one finds that half the people of this country are living in grave and unsatisfactory conditions. The question before us is whether this Bill is going to do anything of a substantial character to remedy these conditions.
The first clause of this Bill deals with slum clearance, and it is the only clause dealing with that subject. It provides for a survey to be made by the local authorities to ascertain the nature and size of the problem. As a matter of fact, Clause 1 of the Bill is wholly unnecessary: the information can be obtained under Section 5 of the Housing Act, 1936. It has been so obtained in the past; indeed the Minister himself has already taken steps to get that information, presumably under the Housing Act, 1936, by the circular which he issued in March, Circular No. 30, 1954, to which the noble and learned Lord referred. That is a circular issued under the Housing Acts of 1936 to 1952, and it does everything that Clause 1 of the Bill does. Certainly under Section 5 of the 1936 Act it is open to the Minister at any time to require local authorities to ascertain the gravity of the problem, and to give him information about it.
Whilst I should be the last to cross swords with the noble and learned Lord on a legal matter, since he shakes his head I had better read Section 5, which is a very short section. It is as follows:It shall be the duty of every local authority to cause an inspection of their district to be made from time to time with a view to ascertaining whether any house therein is unfit for human habitation, and for that purpose it shall be the duty of the authority, and of every officer of the authority, to comply with such regulations and to keep such records as the Minister may prescribe.
§ THE LORD CHANCELLOR
I think the distinction is that whereas Section 5 creates the obligation to give information and to keep records, the new Bill provides 295 specifically that the local authority shall make proposals of a definite, specific nature. That is the difference, and I think it is a substantial difference.
§ LORD SILKIN
I do not want to speak on this matter from personal knowledge, though I was chairman of an important housing committee for a considerable number of years, but that was exactly what was being done all the time. Proposals were being submitted under the 1936 Act setting out exactly the kind of information that Clause 1 of the present Bill requires. I do not want to make heavy weather of it, but the fact is that this is one example of putting into a Bill a provision which, in my view, is quite unnecessary, as it provides for something that is already provided for elsewhere. The noble and learned Lord and, I imagine, the Bill also, contemplate that it will not be possible to deal with the slums for some considerable time, and therefore the patching-up provisions are necessary. The noble and learned Lord challenged anyone who did not agree with those proposals to say what was his alternative, as if the only alternative to the patching-up proposals was to allow these places to remain as they are.
I want at this stage to remind the House of what is the definition of a slum. As the noble and learned Lord quite rightly pointed out, there may be an individual house which is a slum or there may be an area which constitutes a slum, and he set out the different methods of dealing with them. Let us take the individual house—and this is the type of house which it is suggested should be patched up. It was, by definition, unfit for habitation, which, under the 1936 Act was not defined, but which is now defined for the first time in great detail under Clause 9, and it was a house not capable, at reasonable expense, of being rendered so fit. So it had two conditions with which to comply in order to be a slum: first, it had to be unfit for habitation, and, second, it had to be not capable of being rendered so fit at reasonable expense.
Looking at the White Paper, I imagine there are possibly half a million houses which would come within that definition of houses unfit for habitation and not capable at reasonable expense of being rendered so fit. Of these, we are told 296 in the White Paper, about 140,000 had actually been condemned at the time of the outbreak of the war, and there are some hundreds of thousands more which are to-day, probably, ready to be condemned. So we know that at any rate 140,000 houses in 1939 already satisfied this condition. And they were houses which could not be rendered fit at reasonable expense. Since then, fifteen years have elapsed. These houses have not become any more fit since that time if they were unfit for habitation in 1939. I cannot find any words to describe their condition to-day, because I cannot imagine there are any landlords who, with the threat of demolition hanging over their heads, would have spent very much money on keeping these houses in a fit condition. If they could not render those houses fit at reasonable expense in 1939, how does the noble and learned Lord think they can be rendered fit, on any definition, to-day, when the costs of building are three times as high as they were then? And, according to the terms of the Bill, they have to be rendered capable ofproviding accommodation of a standard which is adequate for the time being.How is it possible, except by the expenditure of vast sums of money, amounting almost to what would be required for the complete reconstruction of the houses?
And even then, would it really be possible? If one looks at Clause 9 and sees all the conditions which have to be satisfied in order to make a house fit one must realise at once that it is impossible in the vast majority of these cases to do anything at all which would make those houses fit. For instance, I imagine that the majority of them were built a hundred years ago or more, at a time before there were any by-laws, and when there were no damp-proof courses. Those houses must clearly be condemned. There is nothing you can do about dampness except to build new damp-proof courses. Again, those houses mostly have low ceilings and walls which, no doubt, by now are hardly standing up. Their roofs doubtless need complete renovation—and so on. And this is the type of house which, after fifteen years, it is suggested should be rendered capable of providing accommodation of a standard which is adequate for the 297 time being. I would respectfully suggest to the noble and learned Lord that we are fooling ourselves if we imagine we can do anything of a substantial nature in dealing with these slum houses.
The noble and learned Lord asked, if we are not in agreement with the proposals in the Bill, what would we do. I do not know that it is necessary to answer that question. If the proposals in the Bill are wholly unworkable and ineffective, it is quite sufficient for us on this side of the House to say so; and even if we had no particular proposals to put forward it would not justify Her Majesty's Government in advancing wholly ineffective proposals. Nevertheless, we are to-day—and noble Lords opposite may say "thanks to the present Government" if they like; they are welcome to that retort—in a position where we have a substantial pool of local authority houses. According to the White Paper there were last September 2,500,000. Probably there are now getting on for 3 million local authority and new town housing association houses available for letting, and local authorities are building anything between 200,000 and 250,000 a year. A considerable pool of housing, therefore, is available and continues to be made available for the purpose of rehousing people who are living in slum dwellings.
Suppose Her Majesty's Government are right. The White Paper contemplates that there are several hundreds of thousands of houses falling into the slum category. Those who have any experience of local authority housing well know that out of the pool of nearly 3 million houses something like half a million houses become re-available for letting every year. People leave or die; for one reason or another vacancies occur, and straight away there is a pool of about half a million houses available for letting. If in addition there is a quarter of a million houses built every year by local authorities, that gives us between 600,000 and 700,000 houses a year, some of which—indeed, the majority of which—could be used for rehousing persons who are displaced from slum dwellings. In my view the right way to deal with the problem is to make a determined attack on it by demolishing houses over the next five years, and not by patching.
298 I am not alone in this view. On December 10, 1952, we had a debate in this House, initiated by the noble Viscount, Lord Buckmaster, on the Rent Restrictions Acts. I thought it was a very good debate. There was a speech made then from which I should like to quote (OFFICIAL REPORT, Vol 179, col. 915):What I want to emphasise is that in those cases"—The House will follow what that means—it is not the operation of the Rent Restrictions Acts which is causing the houses to fall into disuse or will cause them to fall into disuse in the future. The real reason—and I think we must face up to this—is that those houses are in any case coming to the end of their useful life, and no repairs could really patch them up adequately. I would make so bold as to say that building labour would be much better employed constructing new houses, or in repairing houses in better condition which would have a longer span of life.In another part of the speech the same speaker said very much the same thing; evidently it was very near to his heart. He said (col. 916):… our national resources of materials and labour ought not to be wasted in repairing houses which are really irreparable and which ought properly to be demolished.Those statements were made by the Government spokesman in that debate, the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd. I imagine he was speaking on behalf of the Government and expressing a view which at that time the Government sincerely and courageously held. I am sure it must have been so, because very soon after he made that speech he was promoted. Therefore, the Government must have been very pleased with that speech. Here was the noble Lord expressing clearly and concisely on behalf of the Government views which I am trying to express this afternoon by way of criticism of this Bill. That is the alternative—to get on with slum clearance and use our increasing pool of house for the purpose of rehousing the people who are displaced.
The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor referred to the financial provisions of the Bill. I think they are ungenerous to local authorities. In so far as they are ungenerous to local authorities, and the local authorities themselves believe they are, there will be a reluctance to work them. In particular, it will be difficult to persuade local authorities that they ought to expend labour and material 299 and vast sums of money in carrying out this impossible task—because it is an impossible task—of patching up houses for a few years only. If they are to be tempted to do so, one would have thought they would have been tempted by the provision of substantial grants from the Government, but, far from being substantial, these grants are ungenerous in the extreme. And that is the view of the local authorities themselves.
Then we come to the third Part of the Bill, upon which the noble and learned Lord touched—improvements and conversions. I believe that these could have an important part to play. I have a special interest in conversion because I was chairman of a committee of the Central Housing Advisory Committee which recommended a policy of carrying out conversions with Government grant which was eventually implemented in the Housing Act, 1949. It is an unfortunate fact that that policy of improvement, even with grant, available under the 1949 Act, did not meet with a great deal of success. Some 3,000 dwellings were converted over the whole country between 1949 and 1954 and some 700 new units of accommodation were provided. I think the noble and learned Lord must have tripped up in saying that the amount that could be spent was £800.
§ THE LORD CHANCELLOR
My Lords, I spoke subject to correction. I think that the sum was £600 or such other sum as the Minister should prescribe, and that this was subsequently altered to £800.
§ LORD SILKIN
The noble and learned Lord must have made a slip when he said £800 under the 1949 Act, but I think we are in agreement. I do not think that quotation, which represents only the increase in the cost of building between 1947 and 1954, will do the trick, nor do I think that the mere fact that landlords will be able to charge whatever rents they like will induce people to carry out conversion on a large scale.
§ THE LORD CHANCELLOR
My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt, but this is a difficult matter. I do not think it right to say that landlords would be able to charge what they want by way of rent.
§ LORD SILKIN
I was not speaking of those landlords who receive grant. I am 300 well aware that those who receive grant will have the rents controlled by the local authorities. But included in the 3,000 dwellings which have been provided as a result of conversion between 1947 and 1954 I imagine there are not only dwellings which have been in receipt of grant but also dwellings which have been erected without grant. I thought the noble and learned Lord was making the point that the Government were doing two things to increase the number of conversions—one was to increase the maximum sum which could be spent and the other was to remove rent restrictions.
§ LORD SILKIN
I was dealing with the second point. I am not quarrelling with the removal of rent restriction; I am merely on the point of whether it is going to provide a substantial incentive. In the cases of houses which were converted between 1949 and 1954, the local authority had to give a licence; and as a condition of granting the licence they settled the rent or the amount at which the house could be let. They there provided a reasonable profit for the undertaker, and therefore the incentive was already there. The profit they provided was anything from 10 to 15 per cent. on the expenditure. If, therefore, the undertaker had needed an incentive, it was already provided for him under the 1949 Act. But the fact still remained that, even in cases where there was no grant and where the profit of 10 to 15 per cent. was available, the work was not carried out. So I doubt whether we can expect very much from improvements.
I now come to the fourth head of the measures which are to be undertaken under this Bill—namely, rent restriction. I would say straight away that I have no objection to a reasonable increase of rent in respect of repairs carried out by the landlord, provided that it is quite certain that the repairs really are carried out, and that the conditions which the Bill lays down are satisfied; nor do I quarrel with the amount of the proposed increase, or with the stopper. Speaking for myself, and I believe for my noble friends, I can say that those things will not be the subject of controversy during the Committee stage. The real controversy arises in the fact that we believe 301 that an unfair burden is placed upon the tenant; that it is quite possible for the increases to be provided for the landlord without his satisfying the conditions. I believe, also, that while this increase is all very well for those landlords who have been fortunate in having reasonably good properties, and who have been looking after those properties and are now getting a reward for the care they have taken of them, they are wholly inadequate for the purpose of inducing bad landlords to carry out repairs in the future. It may be that the corollary of what I am saving is that the increases proposed are not sufficient—but I will deal with that point in a moment. The fact is that, as the Bill stands, I do not for a moment believe that there are sufficient incentives to landlords who have hitherto neglected their property, or who have been unable, for any reason, to carry out repairs, to do so to-day.
Let us take a simple case, one which must be familiar to nearly every noble Lord in the House—that is to say, the case of an ordinary country cottage which has been allowed to get into disrepair. It would be the easiest thing in the world to spend £100 in putting that cottage into good condition. The sum of £100 would not go very far—I see that the noble Lord, Lord Wolverton, agrees with me, and I am delighted to have his support. What would be the increase in rent that the landlord could get for that? I will not trouble your Lordships by working it out in detail, but it seems to me that it would be something like 2s. or 3s. a week. Surely, that can in no way be called an incentive. On that basis, it would be ten years before the landlord got back his £100—he would have to go on keeping the place in repair; it would not be an expenditure once and for all. That cannot be called an incentive.
Whilst I want to give the Government full credit for having tried to work out a scheme which would provide this incentive, in my opinion they have completely failed. I said a moment ago that there was not even a certainty that, where the conditions appear to be satisfied, they would, in fact, be satisfied, and that an unfair burden was being put upon the tenant. The noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack addressed himself to that question, and I was glad to receive some encouragement from him that the matter 302 was not finally closed. As I see it, the landlord will serve upon the tenant particulars and all the notices required under the Bill.
§ THE LORD CHANCELLOR
Again, I think I have been unfortunate in giving a wrong view. I hope that I did not say that it was not finally closed, or suggest that the matter would be reconsidered. I did not mean to say that.
§ LORD SILKIN
I hope that it is not finally closed, because the noble and learned Lord is himself moving an Amendment to this provision, and the House is entitled to express a view on that Amendment. Knowing the noble and learned Lord as I do, I am sure that he will be prepared to listen to anything that we put forward. In that sense, therefore, the matter is not finally closed. But this is the position. The notices are served upon the tenant. The tenant may dispute the validity of the notices, or he may say that the house is not in good repair and that the increase in rent is therefore not justified. He can go to the local authority and get a certificate of disrepair. But that is not the end of the matter. The landlord, if he chooses, can ignore that certificate; he can go on demanding his rent, and if the tenant does not pay can go to the county court and sue the tenant for the rent.
I hope that I am correct in what I have said so far, and I should like to pursue this a stage further. The tenant finds himself sued. I do not know whether the noble and learned Lord has ever had the misfortune to practise in the county court, but it is a rather forbidding sort of place, particularly for those who are not accustomed to it. But, apart altogether from that, the dispute may arise over a matter of 2s. or 3s. a week. Look at the ordeal with which the tenant is faced, apart from his fear of the unknown. He has to go to court and try to support this certificate. He has to subpoena the inspector who inspected the property. It becomes a technical matter in which the landlord will, presumably, give evidence and call witnesses—surveyors, and so on—to show that the house is in good repair. The tenant has to contest all that, and he will probably have to employ solicitor arid counsel. If he should lose his case—and in spite of the fact that he has a 303 certificate, he may well do so if the evidence which the landlord brings is overwhelming—it will cost him, I should say, knowing something about county court costs, £20 or £30. No tenant is going to face up to all that; in fact, if any tenant came to me and asked me for advice on it, I should advise him to pay whatever the landlord was asking, rather than go to the county court and take the risk of having, in the end, to pay not only the rent, but a large sum in costs as well. I cannot see why it has been necessary to give the landlord this conditional right.
The present law is that a certificate of the local authority is final and conclusive; there is no appeal against it. Surely, the local authority is in as good a position as anybody, even as a county court judge, to say whether the condition of the house is good or not. Why cannot it be left to the local authority's certificate? If they give a certificate, then the house is not in good repair. You might require them to say in what respects it is not in good repair. If they do not give a certificate, then the landlord is entitled to his increase. It is that which I hope the noble and learned Lord will consider again and see whether something cannot be done to help the tenant.
I have spoken long enough, but the noble and learned Lord invited us to say what our proposals would be if we rejected these. I have already stated what I think ought to be done as regards slum clearance, and I would just add this: if we really concentrated on slum clearance, with the available amount of accommodation in the pool and the amount of new building, I think we could practically get rid of the slums within five years.
§ LORD WOLVERTON
Would the noble Lord give way one moment? Does he really think that one could get rid of the slums in cities like Glasgow and Birmingham in five years?
§ LORD SILKIN
First let me deal with London, and then I will deal with Glasgow and Birmingham. As regards London, I was Chairman of the Housing Committee in 1939. We had begun dealing with the slums in 1934. I say this with a due sense of responsibility: by 1939 I was of opinion that we could clear the slums of London substantially within five years. I do not pretend that I have 304 made a survey of every city in the country, and I am not able to speak with personal knowledge of the conditions in other towns, but by 1939 we had made great inroads into slum clearance. I do not say this in a Party sense, because my predecessors—and by "predecessors" I mean people from the other side—had begun a slum clearance programme. We continued it more intensively and felt that by 1944 the slums would have been substantially cleared. In other places perhaps that was not the case. But you cannot deal with these proposals overnight; they will take time, labour and material. You could not patch up the slums of Glasgow and Birmingham overnight. You would be almost as long in patching them up as you would be in getting on with new dwellings and demolishing.
I was asked what we would do about the vast number of houses which exist today, which are privately owned, and where the existing incentive, or the incentive in the Bill, is inadequate to induce landlords to carry out these repairs. In my view, the time is rapidly approaching when the private landlord will be unable to carry out the task which has hitherto fallen upon him of providing dwellings to rent. After all, it is something which is in accordance with the movement of events. Fifty years ago, nobody would have dreamed that it was impossible for the private landlord to build houses to let at rents which the tenant could afford to pay. To-day, that is almost axiomatic. The Minister, I think, said that of the number of houses built by private enterprise last year only 6 per cent. were built to let. These included dwellings which were provided by farmers for their workers, and by industrialists and others for special reasons. In fact, as a business proposition, no private person would to-day dream of building houses to let for the workers. I submit to the House that the time is coming when even ownership of houses to let will become unprofitable—indeed, it is unprofitable already. Here is the dilemma which noble Lords opposite have to face as well as ourselves. It is a real dilemma. How are we going to get this vast mass of privately-owned rent-restricted properties into a condition in which it will pay the landlord to do the work and, at the same time, provide the dwellings at a rent which the worker can afford to pay? It is an impossible task under present 305 conditions. It has been solved in the case of new dwellings by the very large subsidies—in my view, intolerable subsidies—which are being paid out of public monies for the purpose of providing these dwellings.
It is not the function of this debate to-day to discuss the question of these subsidies. I think the time will come very soon when it will have to be discussed, because I cannot see that we can go on indefinitely providing these subsidies for a period of sixty years. We must come to a full stop before very long. I think it will be necessary in the future, if we are going to provide for people, at rents they can afford to pay, accommodation which we regard as really suitable, to do it by way of some form of subsidy and to have a pool of houses both old and new. That is the policy of the Labour Party. I know it is easy to ridicule it and talk of £3,000 or £4,000 million. It is not the policy of the Labour Party that these houses should be acquired overnight, nor would they cost anything like that sum. But we do believe that only by public ownership of this type of house can this dilemma be solved. The noble and learned Lord has put a question to us on this side. I ask noble Lords on the other side, and I ask the noble Viscount, Lord Buckmaster (who I am glad is going to speak, and who is a great authority on this matter) how he thinks this problem of providing for the private landlord a reasonable return for his money; of keeping the dwelling in good condition and, at the same time, doing it at a rent which it is reasonable to expect members of the working classes to pay, can be resolved.
The Labour Party have put forward a programme, and perhaps I cannot do better than conclude my remarks by reading out some of the things we say on this subject. Incidentally, I think the point that was made in the debate in another place was a fair one; that one of our difficulties in connection with the provision of new houses is that in many cases they are not fully occupied. In many cases one finds a small family occupying a large house, and local authorities are reluctant to do anything about it. Of course one gets the same thing with a rent-restricted house in a more accentuated form, because there the tenant is protected by the Rent Acts. One of the 306 advantages of public ownership of this type of house would be that one would be able to carry out exchanges, so that people with too much accommodation could be moved into houses quite adequate for their needs, and the larger accommodation could be provided for families needing it. I am quite certain that in twenty or thirty years' time this will be the normal policy. I am sure that we are moving towards it—indeed, in this very Bill we are moving towards a certain amount of additional public ownership of dwellings of this kind. I regard it as the only satisfactory solution in the end, and I hope that if the noble Lords opposite do not agree with me they will tell me what is the alternative.
This is what the Labour Party say:Labour will therefore instruct all local authorities to submit schemes for gradually taking over and modernising blocks of rent-controlled private properties within their areas.We go on to say that to a certain extent these powers already exist but that there would have to be additional powers. On the other subject that I have been discussing, the question of slums, we say:Labour will not take over and repair, at heavy cost, properties which are really slums. These must be dealt with by a vigorous slum clearance programme. Many local authorities may need financial help for thisand of course they will get it.
This is indeed a difficult Bill. I do not pretend for a moment that there is nothing in it that is of value. The noble and learned Lord, the Lord Chancellor, has made the most of those provisions that are good and reasonable, but by and large I regard this Bill as window-dressing. Now I do not mind window-dressing; I think window-dressing is very nice. All of us, especially during the war, used to satisfy ourselves by looking in shop windows. Those were the days when there was nothing in the shops; and that is the position here. Window-dressing is all very well if there are things inside the shop, but I regard this Bill as largely illusory. It would be foolish to say that it will achieve nothing. Of course it will achieve something, but having regard to the magnitude of the problem, and to the fact that half the population of this country is living in unsatisfactory conditions, this Bill holds very little hope indeed of a solution.
307 It is for these reasons that I have ventured to be critical of this measure. It is somewhat unfortunate that a measure of this kind did not receive all the consideration that it might have done in another place. That places an additional responsibility upon us, and I hope that the noble Marquess who is the Leader of the House will be willing to give us adequate time for the discussion of this measure in Committee and on the Report stage. I would suggest that we can reasonably expect as much time to be given to this important measure as was given to the Tate Gallery measure or is being given at this moment to the subject of birds. If we get as much time on the housing of the people as we have been getting on houses and on birds I shall be more than satisfied. I hope that there will be no attempt to rush this Bill through Committee and that the reasoned Amendments—and we hope to put forward reasoned Amendments for discussion—will be met in the spirit in which the noble and learned Lord introduced this measure.
§ 4.27 p.m.
My Lords, the question of increasing the rents of controlled properties in order to enable landlords to carry out their obligations to repair is pregnant with political dynamite, and therefore I think the Government deserve to be congratulated upon having tackled this very difficult problem. Having said that, I must strike a discordant note, or rather a series of discordant notes. Let me get to the point at once. In my view, Clauses 22 to 31 of the Bill will prove, for all practical purposes, to be useless and ineffective. I am loth to make such an obvious remark in a House which virtually abounds in juristic giants of every description, but it is a commonplace, both in law and in building practice, that you cannot keep a house in repair until you have put it in repair. If you apply that principle to about 4 or 5 million houses throughout the country which come within the ambit of Part II of the Bill, what do you find? You find that nearly all those houses are out of repair, for the simple reason that the landlords have not had the necessary money with which to carry out the current repairs, let alone any structural repairs. It is impossible to be definite on this point, but I do not think that I am exaggerating 308 when I say that the average cost of putting one of these houses into a good state of repair is about £180. The question then arises: who is going to find the £180?
The Lord Chancellor has stated, very fairly, that it is no good criticising the provisions of the present Bill unless some constructive proposals are made to take their place. My own view of the matter is that the Exchequer—that is, the taxpayer—should find part of the money, and that the landlord should find the other part. The landlord could borrow the necessary money from the local authority and repay it over a number of years. The money which the landlord has to find could be made recoverable by him from his tenant over a period of years by way of an increase in rent. Suppose that the sum of £180 was borne equally by the Exchequer and the landlord; the landlord would borrow £90 from the local authority. I am not an actuary or a mathematician, but I think that I am, broadly speaking, correct in saying that in order to repay both the capital and the interest on the £90 over a period of, say, ten years, something like £15 a year or 6s. a week, would be the measure of the landlord's repayment. The landlord could then increase his tenant's rent by 6s. a week until the landlord had repaid the loan to the local authority; and it would also be reasonable that he should make a further and a permanent increase of rent of about 4s. a week, or £10 8s. a year, to enable the landlord to do the necessary current repairs.
It may seem monstrous that the taxpayer should be asked to carry any of the burden of repairing houses owned by private individuals, and I have no doubt that the noble Lords who sit on my left, and who are members of the Socialist Party, will not be in agreement with me on this point. That, however, is beside the question. The main question is (I see the Lord Chancellor laughing now, which makes me even more nervous about pursuing the matter) how it is possible to put 4 million or 5 million houses into a good state of repair so that they can make a real contribution to the housing requirements of the country for another twenty to twenty-five years. One thing is reasonably certain: the majority of landlords have not this money with which to put their houses into a proper state of repair. Let us look at 309 it from the practical point of view, quite distinct from Party politics. The majority of landlords have not the necessary capital to put their houses into a proper state of repair and, therefore, will have to borrow the money. Who is going to lend money to a landlord of a dilapidated property on the security of a rent-controlled house which is occupied by statutory tenants? If anybody can answer that question, I shall be pleased to see him at any time. Under the Bill as it stands at the present moment, however, the great majority of landlords will be disqualified from obtaining any repairs increase. No repairs will, in fact, be done to those houses which are crying aloud for repairs, and the houses will rapidly fall into the category of slum houses. My old friend Aristotle used to say:Never argue about those things that must be so.The Government have not a large majority, though it is an adequate one, and they intend that this Bill shall pass, and that it shall pass substantially in its present form. So that must be so. Therefore, the best I can do is to make a few amiable observations as to how the Bill should be amended.
Perhaps your Lordships will look first at Clause 22 of the Bill. I shall suggest in Committee that paragraph (b) of subsection (1) is entirely deleted. In my view, the most that a landlord should be called upon to prove is that the house is in a good state of repair and is reasonably fit for human habitation. That ought to be sufficient, without the imposition of any conditions as to the amount of money which he has or may have spent upon the house within a certain specified time. I am under no illusions as to what will happen to this Amendment. I think that Daniel in the lions' den probably had a better chance of making an after-dinner speech than I shall have of getting this Amendment accepted by the Government. Nevertheless, I want to have this opportunity of voicing the opinion that this Bill, although nicely drafted in certain respects, is a purely academic measure and will prove of no practical value at all. The majority of landlords have not the capital with which to put their houses into a good state of repair. A great number of landlords will never be able to satisfy the necessary conditions as to the amount of money which they 310 have spent on the house within a specified time, and the result will be that nothing will happen. People who are evilly disposed towards landlords will say, "There you are. You gentlemen have got what you deserve." The tenant will dance with delight because he will have no extra rent to pay; and in the meantime the unfortunate house will go on falling into a state of disrepair.
There is one other consequential matter which I might mention, and that is the definition of "good repair," in Clause 47 (1). I suggest that the word "external" be inserted between the words "respects" and "decoration," so that the provision would read:'good repair', in relation to any premises, means that having regard to the age, character and locality of the premises they are in good repair both as respects structure and as respects external decoration.I think it is only fair that a landlord should be responsible for external decoration, but I think it is the duty of the tenant to be responsible for the internal decoration of the premises. There are many other matters which I could mention but there are many other speeches to be made, and we want the slum problem to be solved before the debate comes to an end. Therefore, I will not say anything more about this Bill. I understand that some noble Lords who will follow me are to mention the tax position. Let me say at once that I agree with what they are going to say. That may seem rather nonsense, but I know what they are going to say, and I am going to agree now with what they intend to say. They will say that, unless the repairs increase is made free of tax, it will be of even less value than it is to-day. Your Lordships' House has no jurisdiction in this matter. Furthermore, even if your Lordships' House had any jurisdiction in this matter, you cannot deal with tax matters in this House. Nevertheless, one can express an opinion. I have expressed my opinion. Therefore, I leave the matter for your Lordships to debate further.
§ 4.37 p.m.
My Lords, I find this a difficult Bill to debate because it seems to me, if not to the last two speakers, that it is only a step towards greater sanity in housing matters. We must all recognise that, despite the many anomalies and inequities of the present position, it is the system under which 311 many millions of people have been living for many years. It is obvious that any proposition demanding increased rent will cause suspicion and possibly give rise to claims for wage increases. Any suspicion that there may be will obviously be fomented by the Communists and other unscrupulous people whose interests in this matter go a good way beyond their concern for housing.
I feel we should pay tribute to the Minister for having the political courage to enter this field at all instead of saying, as has been said often in the past, that the time is not opportune to consider this question of rent restriction. Nevertheless, it has been truly said that this is a serious matter, that a great number of houses are deteriorating and many of them are falling down; and it is our duty, I think, to say, from such experience as we have had, what we believe the effect of this Bill will be. I am in a small way connected with housing from three points of view—as an owner of agricultural property, as a member of two local authorities and as President of the National Federation of Housing Associations. I should like to say a word or to from each of those aspects.
As an owner, I am, fortunately, not conscious of that bitterness of relationship between landlord and tenant that seems to exist in many big towns, if the speeches in Committee in another place are any real indication; but I am conscious that many of my tenants would like better amenities and would be prepared to pay more rent for those amenities. I am also conscious that previous Housing Acts were designed in part to aid in the provision of those amenities. Like many other landlords, I should like to see my tenants well housed, but where one has to rely on borrowed capital for improvements it becomes a question of mathematics. On one side of the account you put the loan charges, and on the other you put the rents that you are likely to receive, plus any Government grants that are applicable; and if the sum works out in such a way that you are not likely to suffer loss you probably put the scheme into operation; but if you think that there will be a loss you probably do not put it into operation. As I have remarked before, one of the curious oddities of 312 modern administration is that for some years past the sum has worked out much more favourably in regard to provisions dealing with improved accommodation for cows than it has in improving accommodation for human beings.
So far as the rural position in regard to maintenance is affected by this Bill, I cannot see that the professional agents and surveyors who study these matters are very confident that it will be improved. As the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, truly said, the assessments of these small cottages are so low that the scope is too little to make much difference. Incidentally, I notice that in my own county about 17 per cent. of all the houses are of £10 annual value or under. I do not feel quite so unhappy as the noble Lord, Lord Meston, with regard to the improvements side, although I find it extremely difficult to determine what the result of the calculations will be in any given situation. There are a number of calculations and factors involved, especially where tied cottages are concerned, and it is very difficult to prophesy what the effect of this part of the Bill will be. However I feel sure that owners will give it a very good try-out.
I am not familiar with the problems of urban owners, and therefore I should like now to turn to the local authority provisions. I am glad that the Minister has not seen fit to impose a number of new duties on local authorities, although he has resuscitated the old duty of dealing with slum clearance. I think that will meet with great acceptance by the majority of local authorities. In fact, many have been keen to get on with their slum clearance, provided that the word was given. I feel that all local authorities are glad that, owing largely to the efforts of our present Minister, the housing position has reached a stage where the number of new houses built has enabled a start to be made on a new slum clearance effort. I hope that slum clearance schemes and schemes for comprehensive redevelopment will not be too nebulous or long-dated. Nothing deters an owner from making improvements more than the suggestion—and it may be only a suggestion—that after he has spent this money his houses will be taken over at site value or at very low value. It would be doubly unfortunate if an owner took that view and then the 313 schemes were postponed indefinitely, as has happened with so many local authority schemes of recent years.
So far as local authority functions are concerned, the debate in another place seemed to me remarkable not so much for what the Government said as for what the Opposition said. From reading that debate, it certainly seemed to me that if returned to power the Opposition would contemplate the immediate transfer to local authorities of a large number of houses. The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, watered that proposal down and made it appear a much more reasonable suggestion. He emphasised that it would be a gradual process. But if it were going to be so gradual as all that, I wonder whether it would be effective in saving these houses. It seems to me that the longer this policy, even the alternative policy, is put off, the less effective it will be.
It is rather extraordinary that suggestions for such vast extensions of local government responsibility should be made without proper reference to the local authorities themselves. I am not so much concerned with political considerations as with purely practical considerations. Constitutionally, I suppose Parliament can place on local authorities any duties it likes, but I think there must be some limit to the amount of compulsion to be applied to voluntary workers. Surely the success of municipal enterprise depends eventually on the amount of time and hard administrative work that individual members of councils are prepared to devote to that work. Sometimes it seems to me (here I may be quite wrong) that there is a tendency in Parliament to presume too much on that voluntary spirit. At any rate, I feel that if any Government sought to impose not only greatly extended duties but also greatly extended obligations to spend the ratepayers' money, there would be a great deal of resistance from a number of local authorities. We praise the Chancellor of the Exchequer for keeping stability in national finances, but there seems to be precious little stability in local government finances. Of recent years the rates have been rocketing up, and there seems to be a spirit of revolt abroad which I hope will not grow. For these reasons I do not think that wholesale transference of rent-controlled 314 houses to local authorities is going to be a great success.
I agree that it is equally unlikely that private enterprise alone will in the future be able either to build houses to let at low rents or, indeed, to repair and recondition those with very low assessments. Fifty or sixty years ago many people with slender means used to invest in houses because it seemed to them that bricks and mortar were more secure than Government securities. Well, they have had great disillusionment. It has proved to be an extremely unsafe investment. With that experience in the past, and if, as now seems all too clear with the small houses, the provision of houses is to be regarded as a form of welfare service, it is difficult to see how such an investment could ever be turned into a profitable one. Therefore I am glad to see that the Minister appears to be turning to yet another voluntary agency for assistance in this matter—namely, the housing associations.
Reference has been made to Clause 32. It does not look a very spectacular clause, yet I venture to predict that it will be found eventually to be one of the most important in the Bill, if not the most important. I was glad to hear the remarks of the noble and learned Lord who sits on the Woolsack about the Peabody Trust. It seems to me that housing associations have a great many valuable assets in the present situation. In the first place, they have a good name; they do not evoke bitter memories of exploitation and so forth. Secondly, in the matter of subsidies they do not cost anything like as much as municipal houses cost. Thirdly, they are willing and anxious to undertake more work. Fourthly, they are a good deal more flexible in their operation than local authorities can be; they are not so much governed by red tape. During the last fifteen years, these housing associations have been greatly frustrated by the Rent Acts, and, as I have said before in this House, some of the best of them have exhausted their reserves and have had to watch their properties decay. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the contribution of the housing associations to the housing situation in recent years has not been very great. Even so, they have conducted some interesting experiments in various specialised forms of housing.
315 With their new charter—which is what I look on this clause as being—given time for experiment, and sympathetic treatment by the Ministry, I believe they will have a much bigger contribution to make both in the building of new houses and the reconditioning of old houses, than they have at present. Seeing that in certain European countries, such as Holland and Norway, housing associations are the principal agencies through which houses are built, I do not feel that this is altogether an extravagant expectation. At any rate, I am sure that the housing association world is grateful to the Minister for what he has done. I hope his confidence will not be misplaced.
We have been reminded that this Bill has been variously described as: "a landlords' ramp" and "a mouldy old turnip." I feel that it is more like the curate's egg or, if you like, the curate's turnip—in which some parts are better than others. It is submitted to us as a Bill with limited objectives. As such I welcome it. But these limitations make the question of amendment difficult. Nevertheless, we may be able to make some suggestions, and I join with the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, who has spoken for the Opposition, in hoping that we may be given a certain time for consideration.
§ 4.54 p.m.
§ LORD GREENHILL
My Lords, this is an English Bill, and I do not profess to have sufficient knowledge of English conditions to speak with any authority upon the details of it. Soon, as your Lordships know, a Scottish version of the Repairs and Rents Bill may be coming to your notice. I hope then, perhaps, to say a word or two appropriate to Scottish conditions. But even in this Bill there is, I think, sufficient of a nature similar to what underlies the other Bill to warrant a comment or two on the general principle. The noble and learned Lord who sits on the Woolsack has told us that the dilemma with which the Government were faced was, on the one hand, to overcome the difficulty of operating clearance orders, and, on the other, to patch up these dilapidated houses, of which, unfortunately, there is so large a number. As I see it, the dilemma with which the Government are faced is a different one altogether. It is a dilemma in which the 316 Government are trying, on the one hand, to carry out a very necessary social operation, and, on the other, to propitiate those landlords who, because of the operation of the Rent Restrictions Acts, feel that they have had a not very fair deal. And in trying to reconcile those two opposing difficulties the Government have had to manufacture this rather large and complicated measure.
I suggest that it is almost impossible to meet the two needs. The Bill as it is built up, as your Lordships know—and I think this is true of the Scottish Bill also—consists of two parts, one part which affects local authorities, and another which affects private landlords. In regard to the local authority part, so far as my knowledge goes, the local authorities are not satisfied on one or two grounds. The inability to demolish as rapidly as they would like has caused medical officers of health a great deal of concern. They would have liked to see very large demolition operations carried out to make way for houses more fit for people to live in. On the other hand, the official in charge of the demolition of houses (in Scotland, he is called the master of works) is faced, and has been faced, with the difficulty that although this additional duty, which in his view will require additional staff, is placed upon him, the Government have offered no additional payment to meet the extra cost to which local authorities will be put. On that one ground, they feel that they are entitled to better consideration than they have received.
There is also the question of the acquisition of properties for slum clearance. The local authorities are not satisfied, so far as my information goes, that they have quite the power or the facilities which the situation demands. They feel that, particularly where sites are to be bought by compulsion, or where the acquisition is to be by a process of arbitration, they are being made to pay more than they should be paying, and that in that way a heavier burden is imposed upon them than they ought to bear. It is true that the Government are making a contribution, and the contribution, as the noble and learned Lord who sits on the Woolsack told us, will be one of equal shares, forming a kind of partnership between the Government and the local authority. But if this scheme is 317 part of a larger housing effort, there seems to the local authorities no reason why in this particular kind of effort the proportions should be different from those with respect to new houses—that is, three to one. They feel that in that regard there is room for some improvement.
As to the repairs by private owners of property which can be made habitable for some years, one wonders whether the Government are going about this matter in the simplest or the cheapest way. Personally I do not think that they are. If there is some objection to the acquisition by local authorities of the whole of these properties, in order that they can repair them and obtain repayment from the tenants, why it is not possible, instead of having this machinery of certificates of fitness and unfitness, for the repairs to be carried out by the local authority, at their own cost, and for the tenant to pay the local authority the cost of the repair over a number of years, so avoiding the necessity of the landlord's using any of his own money for the improvement to his house? Noble friends of my own may object that we should then be giving the landlord, at no cost to himself, a more valuable asset than he possessed at the beginning. From a social angle, I feel that of these two evils that might be a lesser one than that suggested in this elaborate document. But, as I say, this is an English measure, and I feel that I am trespassing on foreign ground. When the Scottish Bill comes up I hope to deal in greater detail with what is applicable to Scotland.
§ 5.2 p.m.
My Lords, it is with much diffidence that I venture to address your Lordships on the somewhat complex Bill now before your Lordships' House. I can only hope that the total lack of political arid Parliamentary experience to which I must own will not place too great a strain on the indulgence which your Lordships habitually extend to the maiden speaker. However, I can and will be brief. Before proceeding, it is my duty to disclose a personal interest. Such comment as I shall make refers to Part II of the Bill; that is to say, to those clauses which are designed to encourage expenditure on the maintenance and repair of rent-controlled dwellings. I propose to discuss a point raised by other speakers as to whether the provisions as drawn are, in fact, calculated to achieve 318 their object—namely, whether property owners will, in fact, thus be moved to take steps to put their property in good repair. For there can be no doubt that the success or otherwise of this Part of the Bill depends upon the initiative of the landlord. I recognise that the Bill does not purport to rectify the economic position of the rent-controlled property owner; nor is it part of my argument that it should do so. There is, however, I submit, a certain relevance in noting what the Bill does not do.
The White Paper defines rent as being compounded of two elements—first, interest on investment and, secondly, cost of repairs; and it states categorically that the present legislation does not attempt to deal in any way with the former. As regards interest on his investment, the rent-controlled property owner is left precisely where he was. Now I do not wish to dilate on the plight of the landlord, but the fact is that for thirty years or more he has been called upon to subsidise an essential part of the community's expenditure without compensation—and not only without compensation, but to a large extent without acknowledgment. For the landlord does not, it seems, easily command sympathy. I do not know why this should be, for as an economic figure he is really rather a heroic one, suffering confiscation for the common good and showing, howbeit perforce, an altruism to which I think he, among all sections of the community, could lay sole claim were it not for the fact of the far minor rivalry on the part of clients of the G.P.O. and contributors to the Road Fund. However, it is not my motive to stir admiration or excite pity for the landlord. It is merely to direct attention to the fact that the landlords are unlikely to have at their disposal an abundance of cash resources, a circumstance which has a bearing on their ability to do what it is sought to induce them to do under Part II of the Bill. Of necessity, they will scrutinise most carefully any expenditure they may be called upon to make, and it seems to me that in some respects the qualifying tests laid down in the Bill are such that many property owners may be unable to see their way to carry out repairs which are desirable.
I should like to give, very briefly, a few examples of what I have in mind 319 It is difficult to be precise without tedious detail and definition, and I shall endeavour to make my points in general terms. First, the amount of permitted rent increase laid down in the Bill was calculated, I think, on the view of the Girdwood Committee, that the cost of post-war repairs was approximately three times what it was in 1939. Since the Girdwood Committee made their Report last year, to the best of my information, the cost of repairs has risen from three times to three and a half times the 1939 figure. Therefore, I suggest that the permitted rent increase will be insufficient to equate the landlord's expenditure, as it was intended to do. Secondly, whatever increase in rent the landlord may be permitted to make, the increase will be subject to income tax, and if he is compelled to rely upon the ordinary maintenance claim he will have to wait until the sixth year after his expenditure before receiving his full tax allowance. In other words, he will be out of his money, to some extent, for over five years. Again, even if the landlord has passed one or other of the qualifying tests, he may be precluded from charging the full permitted increase if the resulting rent amounts to more than twice the property's gross rateable value. This is known as the stopper, but it will cover many cases, and in all these there will be little or no incentive for the landlord to carry out repairs.
Again, the landlord who in the immediate post-war period put his property back into first-class repair may find that he does not qualify for any immediate increase in rent, since, by reason of his expenditure before 1950, he may well have found it unnecessary to spend in the last four years amounts which will enable him to comply with the expenditure tests. For such landlords and, ex hypothesi, they are the most conscientious, no immediate rent increase is to be permitted. Lastly, Part II of the Bill contains amendments to certain provisions in the Housing Act, 1949, and proposes that the landlord shall be permitted to add to his rent an amount equivalent to 8 per cent. of the money which he has contributed to improvements carried out in conjunction with the local authority. In view of the fact that the improvements with which the landlord will here be concerned will generally be equipment with a life of no 320 more than twenty years—for example, cooking and sanitary appliances—this 8 per cent., after amortisation over the twenty-year period, will represent in the landlord's hands virtually no income at all.
Some of these points are perhaps more suitable for a later stage of the Bill, but I mention them now to illustrate my main submission, that the inducement offered to property owners to carry out repairs may, in certain ways, require reconsideration. Virtue has its own reward, but whatever that reward may be, I think it would not be wise or fair to deny that by itself that will not provide a reliable incentive in this context. I am not advocating that things should be done for the enrichment of the property owner, but only that the propositions with which he will find himself presented should be such that an ordinarily prudent trustee, with reasonable regard for the income beneficiary, as well as the remainder-man, would find them acceptable. It is my anxiety lest this Part of the Bill should fail in its declared purpose, which is to secure repairs and preserve a national asset. It would be a pity indeed, if, through miscalculation of the landlord's position, this admirable purpose failed to be fully achieved. I do not, as some speakers have done, condemn the Bill; I regard it as a step forward in solving an intractable problem. However, I believe that it requires certain amendment to make it workable.
§ 5.12 p.m.
§ VISCOUNT BUCKMASTER
My Lords, it is my pleasure and privilege to congratulate my noble friend Lord Broughshane on the first occasion on which he has addressed your Lordships. On these occasions a few formal remarks are normally made, perhaps not always with complete sincerity; but on this occasion I can say—and I am sure I speak on behalf of all your Lordships—with complete sincerity, that we have listened with real interest to my noble friend. He was clearly audible in every part of the House, and his speech lost nothing from the moderate and temperate tone in which it was couched. I hope we shall hear him often again. If he will allow me to use rather more colloquial terms, I hope that, having crossed the first obstacle of the Housing Repairs and 321 Rents Bill, he will not be daunted by the Becher's Brook of town and country planning.
In this matter, as your Lordships know, I have a personal interest. Before I make any observations on this Bill I should like to thank the Minister for the most courteous observations he made in another place on the Motion on rent restriction in my name in December of last year, to which, also, the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, was good enough to refer. The first Part of the Bill shows that the Minister was able to give full thought to the suggestions put forward by noble Lords who have wide experience of the problems which that Part of the Bill involves, and I think that some of the suggestions made by noble Lords who were good enough to take part in the discussion on that Motion are embodied in the Bill. I hope that may be felt as a real encouragement to those who took part in the debate on that occasion.
I feel that a measure of sympathy should be extended to all noble Lords who venture anything in the nature of critical examination of this measure, more particularly when they are confronted with the powerful speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Silkin. His tone, as always, was temperate; he had a wide grasp of the facts, and he presented a case which, while I am confident I can answer it, none the less does require a certain measure of thought if one is, if not to defeat him, at least encounter him equally on ground on which he is an acknowledged master. This Bill, as the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack said, really falls into two parts; and I will follow his example and make my observations, which will be brief, on those two parts separately.
With the purpose of the first part I think few noble Lords will quarrel. The problem of slum clearance is one which, I believe—and in saying this I attach no blame to anyone at all; and I shall be corrected by the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, if I am wrong—is now larger than it ever has been. There are one million houses due to be demolished, and 140,000 of them were condemned before the last war. In addition to that there is a vast mass of houses—the figure anyone may guess—which certainly cannot last very long. Some two million families are sharing accommodation, and many others 322 are living under conditions which each one of us must deplore. While many of these families rise superior to those conditions—and one gives them every credit for it—it cannot be denied that the conditions under which they live encourage juvenile delinquency and foster every form of moral turpitude and vice.
The Bill proposes to stimulate local authorities into further activity in regard to slum clearance, and to help them by giving them the power to patch up houses which cannot be demolished at the moment. We must face this problem. It would be an admirable thing if, by some sweeping measure, some great constructive act, we could wipe away all those houses which are below the standards we consider fit. But it cannot be done. We have not the materials; we have not the men; and, above all—and I would stress this, as I have tried to stress it before—we have not the land. We cannot go on eating up our agricultural land and destroying ground which feeds the people for whom we are trying to build houses. Therefore, we can proceed only by a process of patching, demolishing those which can be dealt with immediately.
When we come to this question of patching, we have to ask ourselves whether the local authorities will be greatly attracted by what they are invited to do. They are asked to take over houses with a limited life, and to spend a large sum of money on them. I do not know whether the financial provisions of Clause 7, or any, other considerations, for that matter, will make it an attractive proposition to nurse this moribund patient until final death by demolition. But something must be done, because, unless local authorities are stimulated to play their part, very little, I fear, will happen under this Part of the Bill. I have not any great experience of local authorities, but I do not share the view of my noble friend Lord Gage that no further pressure should be put upon them. I should like to see it incumbent upon local authorities to take action not only in this regard, but also in the second connection with which I now propose to deal—namely, the question both of improvement grants and loans for repairs.
As your Lordships know, the Housing Act, 1949, provided for loans for repairs. That facility, I believe, has not been widely understood, and few owners have 323 taken advantage of it. It may be that some could not. Their houses were perhaps mortgaged and could not be offered as security. But, beyond that, I believe that local authorities have not been at all anxious to lend the money. I do not know why they should be. The question of grants, too, is linked up with loans, and these, as your Lordships know, are given for conversions and reconditioning of houses. Now the Minister has wisely eased the conditions on which these grants can be made, and has further eased them since the introduction of this Bill. None the less, I do not know whether local authorities will be prepared to make these grants. There are no fresh powers in the Bill to compel them to do so. The machinery is lubricated, the brake is taken off, but it is the same old engine. There is nothing more to make them act. I must admit—and this is a part answer to the searching question which the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, has posed to me, as to how I would attempt a solution—that I should like to see it obligatory on the local authority to make these grants and loans unless they can in each case show good reason why they should refuse. I do not think that is at all an unreasonable proposition, and I fear that unless it is acceded to very little in fact will happen.
I am not anxious to detain your Lordships, so I pass to the second Part of the Bill, which deals with the thorny problem of rent restrictions and which attempts to solve that which many of us feel scarcely can be solved. We know that in another place it has been described as so unattractive that it is a "mouldy turnip." It certainly does not offer any great temptation to the landlord, and while not a turnip, I do not consider it the apple out of the Garden of Eden. However, it certainly does offer an opportunity for the good landlord to put his house in order. The Bill adopts the formula proposed by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, but it does something which the Institute did not do—it imposes a ceiling. I personally have no objection to a ceiling. Noble Lords who have been good enough to listen to me on other occasions will realise that never at any time over the last ten years, when I have spoken on this subject, have I urged either the total removal of rent restriction or that the landlord should have something in his pocket unless he 324 gives something in return. Therefore I do not quarrel with the principle of a ceiling. But let us consider it for a moment. There is a vast mass of houses which are controlled by the Act of 1939 and which were not reassessed upwards to their full value. Those houses, many of them owner-occupied, would have a gross value too low to permit of the making of any increase. The stopper will stop them completely, and nothing will happen. Of those houses there is a very great number indeed.
Let us examine this measure for a moment from the tenant's angle. Much propaganda has been put forth, drums have been beaten, cymbals have clashed, and the tenant is called to arms. But what has he got to face? In the vast mass of cases, the increase will be moderate in the extreme, far below anything imposed by the local authority, and in many thousands of cases, as I have tried to show, there will be no increase at all. That does not seem a very dreadful prospect. Let us examine it a little more. I try to see these things from every angle, and there is a point which does give me some concern. If the tenant is aggrieved over the increase he has recourse to the county court. If the noble and learned Lord who sits upon the Woolsack will allow me to say so, the Bill is complex, and, I have no doubt through my own fault, I was slightly at a loss in following him. The noble and learned Lord spoke of the tenant waiting until the landlord took him to the county court; but in paragraph 4 of the Second Schedule it is laid down that the tenant has twenty-eight days in which to lodge his claim. It would seem to me, therefore, that if the tenant does not act within that period his position may be weakened. Your Lordships will appreciate that to elucidate these points in the course of a debate is not easy, but that is the point in my mind. I do not like the necessity for the tenant to go to the county court. I think that many small tenants will not want to do so, and will pay the rent instead. Then, if he is not happy about the condition of the house, as distinct from the money spent, he has to go to the local authority for a certificate of disrepair. If he does not think the increase for the cost of services appropriate, he has to go to the tribunal. Therefore there are three different bodies involved, but it is only the first one of 325 them—the application to the county court within the twenty-eight days—which gives me any cause for real anxiety.
Now on behalf of tenants it has been said freely outside this House that bad landlords have done nothing; they have accumulated large sums of money by taking the increases granted by the Act of 1920, putting them in their pockets, and doing no repairs. This proposition, I suggest, is devoid of any foundation. In the first place, when it is put, it is put on the basis that every landlord received an increase. Well, of course, he did not. It was only the old controlled houses, controlled by the Act of 1915 as at the rent paid in August, 1914, the rents of which were increased, and a vast mass of landlords received no increase. What they put in their pockets I really do not know. Let us take it a little further. Let us suppose that there are landlords who have done no repairs—and there are such, of course; economic necessity has forced many of them into that position. But what have they gained? From whence have they accumulated their wealth?
I am speaking again, I remind your Lordships, of the old controlled houses going back to before the First World War. What happens to a house like that if no money is spent? As your Lordships know, it crumbles, decays in the end and falls down. Any landlord who is unwise enough to have taken the increase and not spent it will have seen his assets deteriorate, decay and finally disappear. In addition, he runs considerable risks. The local authority can serve a demolition notice, a closing notice, or can order him to do the repairs and charge him with the cost. The noble and learned Lord who sits upon the Woolsack referred to those powers, but I am bound to say, with due respect, that I disagree with him slightly, in that I cannot feel that in the past those powers have been fully exercised. I think many local authorities have been extremely reluctant to make use of these powers, but I hope in the future they may be more active, because I am no defender of the bad landlord.
Now let us consider the position for a moment from the aspect of the landlord. I think this is a courageous attempt to deal with an incredibly difficult problem. Here again I will in part answer the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, when I say that I 326 personally regret that the Minister did not go a little further and decontrol those houses in the higher rateable value brackets within the Act. Your Lordships, I know, will give me credit for not saying that in any spirit of desire to see a wild scramble for accommodation at ever rising rents. I have no desire whatever to see such a thing. I say it for the reason—and I think the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, is on my side here—that I believe that if it were done accommodation would materially increase. I believe that a great many large houses are occupied by people at rents which are quite fictitious. If those houses were removed from rent restriction, accommodation would be freed, and under the provisions for conversion free of rent restriction in the Bill, much accommodation would be added. That would be one of the constructive suggestions which I would venture to put forward.
While many landlords will be grateful for the increase, and will employ it to the advantage of the tenant, and, of course, to their own advantage also, in keeping the property in repair, we are up against the proposition mentioned by my noble friend Lord Broughshane. The good landlord who has spent his money as quickly as he could, the man who, immediately after the war, as soon as he could, got a licence and repointed his house, something which he meant to last for many years, if he did it, let us say, six years ago, is punished. It seems to me a little hard that that should be so. Whereas I welcome the Amendment which provides that the period shall be three years out of four, I cannot feel it unreasonable to suggest that it should be three years out of the last five. I always dislike anything which tends to discourage someone who has tried to do his best.
Now, my Lords, we come to the searching question which the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, quite properly addressed to me: How would you yourself solve this matter? I would say that this Bill, properly interpreted, if full effect is given to it, if it is regarded as part of the great housing programme which the Minister has initiated, will in time solve the problem. This Bill must not be taken in isolation: it is part of a great housing drive. The clause which allows new building free of rent restriction, which encourages conversion, is related, of course, 327 to the announcement one saw only yesterday, I think, whereby the loans from building societies are to be made on more favourable terms. I have never heard the proposition disputed that it is only by building houses that the problem of rent restriction can be overcome. There is no other way. I believe that this Bill—relaxed in the ways that I have tried to show, though I do not suggest that the noble and learned Lord who sits upon the Woolsack will accept all my propositions—if taken in conjunction with the other measures which are now put in hand will in time, if the local authorities act as they should, solve this great problem. I believe the principles underlying this Bill are sound. I believe it to be in the common interest that effect should be given to them. I can only hope that all those who are affected, the local authorities, landlords and tenants, will accept in a spirit of co-operation and good will the parts which they have to play.
§ 5.34 p.m.
§ LORD WOLVERTON
My Lords, in rising to-night to support the Housing Repairs and Rents Bill now before the House, I should like to do so most heartily, though with a few reservations. It is particularly gratifying to me to be able to speak to-night because I had the honour of being one of his supporters in December, 1952, when my noble friend Lord Buckmaster was able to move in this House his Motion urging Her Majesty's Government to do something about this problem. To-night we have this great Bill before us, and I warmly congratulate Her Majesty's Government on bringing it forward. Of course, as has already rightly been said in this debate, it is only a further step forward to what we hope will be the eventual freeing of houses from rent restriction. I am one of those who sincerely hope that in a few years' time, when more houses are built—and the programme of the last few years has been very satisfactory—we shall be able to achieve the gradual decontrol of houses, as was done between the two wars, starting with the higher rated houses. But that must be something for a few years' time.
Turning to the Bill for a few moments, whilst I welcome the steps which the Minister has taken, I see that the only new law that the Minister is making in 328 Part I is on the all-important subject of deferred demolition. I am not at all against the steps he is taking upon deferred demolition but, speaking entirely for myself, I think (here I agree very much with what Lord Silkin said, and I apologise for interrupting him rather discourteously, but I wanted to challenge him on that one point) that it is not possible to clear away these houses in big cities like London, Birmingham and Glasgow, and so on in five years; because if one looks at the housing waiting lists—and they are building at a great rate now in Birmingham and Glasgow—it will take anything from fifteen to twenty years to clear up the housing waiting lists in those great cities.
What does perturb me rather—and I should like to see the Bill altered if possible in one respect—is that, as I understand it, there is no limit to the period. If these houses cannot be put in reasonable repair and have to be condemned, and then are given deferred demolition, there is no limit to the time for which those houses will have to stand. The only limit there is in the financial provisions under Clause 7, whereby the State and the local authority, in equal partnership, give, as the Lord Chancellor has said, £3 a year, which, in fifteen years, means a total of about £95. I do not know how much they are proposing to spend on top of that £95, but knowing what one does about local authority finance to-day, local authorities are probably not very anxious to spend more than their share; but they will get an equal amount. It is not a very generous amount but it is something. Therefore, I am one of those who hope that these houses will not have to remain up for longer than ten to fifteen years. I should like, if possible, to see in Clause 3 a provision limiting the number of years for which those houses will have to stand to, say, from ten to fifteen years. If it is not possible for them to be pulled down as deferred demolition houses in that time, there should be a request to Parliament for a Resolution of both Houses to be passed on the recommendation of the Minister, or some such procedure as that, because I do not like the idea that these houses should stand for twenty to twenty-five years, having had only £95 spent on them.
329 May I now for a few moments turn to Part II of the Bill. First of all, I welcome very much the Amendment, which I think the Minister is right in making to the 1949 Act, on improvement grants. I have always thought that the terms were too onerous. Fortunately, it has been shown by experience of the working of that Act in the last five years that owners of only about 3,000 houses in Great Britain applied for, and were given, modernisation grants. The Minister now has made it easier to get these grants. But, as my noble friend Lord Broughshane has rightly said to your Lordships, in an admirable maiden speech to-night, if we are going to make the scheme work properly we must get the economics of the problem right. The present Act offers the landlord, on his 50 per cent. part of the improvement, only 6 per cent. on his money, which he can pass on to the tenant. That is quite inadequate, and therefore the Minister has rightly gone up to 8 per cent.
I submit to your Lordships, however, that 8 per cent. is not enough, and I do so for the following reasons. If the landlord has to borrow his money at, say, 5 per cent., in the market or through a local authority, he must make a sinking fund to repay that loan over fifteen to twenty years. If he has a grant for his house which will now stand for longer, the period comes right down to ten years or so for a house which he hopes will stand for fifteen to twenty years, and it will cost him at least another 2½ per cent. to 3 per cent. on his sinking fund. Then he is put under an obligation to keep that improvement in proper repair. I put that as at least 1 per cent. more, so that makes it 9 per cent. And that includes nothing for the landlord himself, for his trouble in doing this work. So I think that anyway the proportion ought to be 9 per cent. to 10 per cent. We were shown in this House an admirable film on the Stockton test, where an examination of four houses in Stockton was carried out. Roughly, the capital cost was about £350. They did it on the old 6 per cent. basis, which they said was not adequate. On that, they were allowed to increase the rent by only 4s. The controlled rent was 9s. or 9s. 6d. and it went up to 13s. or 13s. 6d. Even if the rent went up by a 1s. or 1s. 6d. they would get a modernised house for somewhere in the neighbourhood of 14s., compared 330 with a new council house for which they would have to pay £1 or 25s. I hope that Her Majesty's Government will look at that point.
Another point is the improvement grants. I do not go quite so far as my noble friend Lord Buckmaster: I am one of those people who think that, if the landlord complies with the terms laid down by the Minister to get the improvement grant, he should then be given the full 50 per cent. grant. At the present moment, the amount that the local authority give is entirely permissive. The Bill does not say "If the landlord complies with the terms, he shall get it"; it says only that he shall get "up to 50 per cent." It may be 28 per cent., 30 per cent. or 45 per cent.: the amount varies in different cases. Sometimes the estimates were too much; sometimes perhaps there was not enough money in the local "kitty" because they have to contribute a small amount—25 per cent. of the 50 per cent. If we are going to get this scheme to work, it the landlords do comply with the terms laid down, they should then be granted the full 50 per cent., otherwise I am dubious whether many of these improvements will get done.
Finally, on the last Part of the Bill, which is much more difficult of course than the Part dealing with repairs, I welcome what the Minister has done. I think the formula worked out by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, to whom we are all indebted, is a good one. I am not against it. As has been rightly said by previous speakers to-day, of course they did not invent the ceiling clause of twice the gross amount. That has been put in by the Minister. I am not against that. I think that both the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors' clause and the Minister's "stopper" clause are slightly too low. I should like, if possible, to see the amount the landlord is allowed to charge in increased rents for these properties increased by from two to two and a half times the difference between the gross value and the rateable value, and also that the maximum rent under the "stopper" clause should be not twice but two and a half times the gross value. If Her Majesty's Government would consider those proposals, we could make this Bill work. It is vital 331 that it should work and that these repairs which are very much needed should be done. But, of course, as has been rightly said this evening by previous speakers, it is the landlords who have to do these repairs, and unless Parliament makes it possible for them to do them, not extravagantly but in a reasonable way, the repairs will not be done. I hope—I make a plea—that we shall have time to consider these points, that the Bill will not be too much rushed at Committee stage in this House and that any proposals which some of us may put to Her Majesty's Government will receive sympathetic consideration. With those few words, I beg to support the Bill and to congratulate Her Majesty's Government on bringing it forward.
§ 5.45 p.m.
§ LORD AMHERST OF HACKNEY
My Lords, like so many other noble Lords on this side of the House, I welcome this Bill. I think the Government have shown great courage in taking one more step in tackling this great social problem. It is wrong that, with the general rise in the standard of living, a standard which has been steadily rising over a number of years, and with the great improvement in the standard of new housing, in this year, 1954, millions of people should be condemned to live in houses which might have been suitable to the standard of living some sixty years ago: houses with no modern necessities, such as bathrooms, indoor sanitation, hot-water systems, and all the other things which nowadays we treat as necessities of life. While the new houses are improving, the old houses are at the moment falling further and further behind. There are many reasons for this, but I think one of them, and particularly lately, has been the results of the Rent Restrictions Acts. Houses are expendable. It is only right that they should be, and that when they are worn out they should be pulled down. But, as long as they are sound in structure, those houses should keep pace with the times and should have improvements done to them. As in the past they fitted the standard of living of that time, so they should improve with the times. After all, there may be many of your Lordships who would live uncomfortably if nothing had been done to your houses from the time when they were built many hundreds of years ago.
332 The first thing I should like to mention is the clauses on slum clearance. It does great credit to all concerned—the Government, the building industry and all those who have worked to build houses. The time has come when this vital problem can really be tackled. It is realistic to enable local authorities, where they cannot replace houses in a reasonable time, to have the right of patching. The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, made out that the slum clearance problem was nothing like so great as one had been led to believe, and that in a matter of five years, using the pool of houses that became empty each year and the houses which were being built, the problem could be solved. If that is so, so much the better. Then the problem will be solved without recourse to this clause, and local authorities will not be forced to spend money on patching these houses. But if, on the other hand, it cannot be solved, would the noble Lord then condemn those people who live in the decaying houses? Is it not better to do something to those houses than nothing at all and merely hope that the slum clearance problem can be solved in five years? I am sure that, if it can be solved in five years, the Government and the local authorities will do everything possible to ensure that that comes about.
The object of this Bill is not only to tackle slum clearance but to improve and maintain the great bulk of our houses. We come then to the rent increases for repairs. I think that the first essential in regard to rent increases is that they must be obviously fair—they must be linked with repairs. It is essential that the tenants should believe that they are getting a fair deal. I think there are some 4 million houses which come into this category, and if tenants generally are not going to accept the increases as fair and are all going to apply to the county court for certificates of disrepair, the whole administrative machine must fall down. Tenants must see that it is not a landlord's benefit; that anything that they pay will allow him only to carry out the repairs which are absolutely vital for the maintenance of the house, and that they are sums of money to which he is justly entitled. It should not be a landlord's benefit, and it will not help the slum landlord who, as one knows, buys up the tag end of leases, farms out those houses and then, when 333 they go back to the ground landlord, just disappears and there is nobody from whom to claim. That sort of person is not intended to be helped, and should in no way be helped, under this Bill—in fact, legislation should be passed so that he ends up in the criminal courts. But the Bill should help those landlords who are determined to keep their houses in repair.
At this point I must say that I regret that in the case of the rural house, with its very low rates, the increases will be so small that they will not encourage anybody to do much. I realise it is difficult to have one formula for one set of houses and another formula for another set, but, in fact, judging by the number who are quite prepared to pay the much higher rents which they have to pay when they move into a council house, most rural tenants would not mind a considerable increase in rent. They are quite prepared to pay the high rent provided they feel that they are getting something for it. Here I must declare an interest, as I own a certain amount of property in London, not, I must admit, extremely remunerative.
At this point I should like to say a word as to whether it is correct to have an increase in rent of twice the statutory allowance. I have got out the figures for 100 rather small houses over the last five years. I do not say that they are typical or anything like that, but the expenditure on repairs on those houses worked out on an average at £4 more than the net rent per house and five times the statutory allowance. Those are probably exceptional figures, because there is obviously the backlog of repairs from after the war, and in some houses there were large repairs though in others the repairs were small. I give those figures merely from the point of view of interest. If that is the average, obviously for some of the houses the figure must be considerably higher, and I cannot think how a small landlord who perhaps has one or two houses and no other form of income could conceivably meet his responsibilities. Despite that, as I think that for the scheme to work any increase must be shown to be manifestly fair, there is probably no real alternative to the adoption of the figure of twice the statutory allowance.
Lord Silkin's solution to the problem was that gradually the local authority 334 should take over all rent-restricted houses. In that connection there are two points that I cannot quite understand. First, I cannot see what advantage it is going to be to the tenants gradually to be taken over by the local authority. What we want is something which will start action now, and for a lot of people to do something at once. Also if the local authorities took over the houses, what compensation would they pay? I do not know if it is ethically sound by rent restriction, by preventing a person from looking after his property and by making it almost impossible for him to do the repairs, leading in time to a depreciation in the value of the property, then to step in and take it at its depreciated value.
§ LORD SILKIN
Perhaps I could satisfy the noble Lord on that point. The proposal is that it should be at market value—that is, the value at which these properties are freely changing hands at the present time.
§ LORD AMHERST OF HACKNEY
It is in fact really the market value at the end of the depreciation which is caused by the Rent Restrictions Acts, without there having been any chance for the landlord to improve the house in the meantime. That is the point. The solution suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Greenhill, was, I thought, most admirable. I think I have his suggestion rightly—namely, that the responsibility for the repairs should fall entirely on the local authority. I think it would be absolutely admirable, and I would support to the limit a proposal that the landlord should take the rent and that repairs should be done by the local authority.
§ LORD GREENHILL
I am sorry, but I did not quite catch the last part of the noble Lord's observation.
§ LORD AMHERST OF HACKNEY
What I said was that the landlord would get the rent and the repairs would be done by the local authority. I think that is what the noble Lord suggested.
§ LORD GREENHILL
The noble Lord has misunderstood what I said. I said that the local authority should have the responsibility of doing the repairs and should recover from the tenant the cost of those repairs, and that the landlord should keep out of this business and should not get any extra money at all.
§ LORD AMHERST OF HACKNEY
The tenant was to pay the local authority, and the landlord was to keep right out of it, merely taking his rent?
§ LORD AMHERST OF HACKNEY
I think that is a very sound solution, from the point of view of the landlord. I should also like to welcome the amendments to the 1949 Act, both the reduction in the thirty years and the increase to 8 per cent. I think that has great possibilities. The Stockton experiment has been mentioned. There is only one small case to which I should like to refer. I happen to be manager of a small school. Under the 1949 Act, with the new 8 per cent. and by borrowing money from the local authority, we have been able to improve the house, putting in bathrooms and hot water systems, and the increase in rent allowed will cover all expenses. After all, school managers are not people of great means; and, in this case, under that Act, they have really covered all their expenses, and at the end of it all the rent is increased only very slightly. I think, therefore, that there are great possibilities, provided that local authorities—and this has been mentioned before—make full use of their powers under the Act, because it has the great advantage of halving the increase of rent to the tenant.
There is only one other point which I should like to mention. This relates to difficulties in regard to small houses—I refer to the sort of houses which, if they were in Chelsea, would be modernised and let as most desirable residences, but which, in other parts of London, are looked upon with envious eyes by the local authorities who are wanting to carry out clearances. They are houses which, in many cases, are structually sound, which could be improved by grant, and which would then probably have a considerable life. But one of the difficulties is that in many cases they are not in one single tenancy, they are not big enough to be improved for two families, and there is great difficulty in finding somewhere to put the second family so that the house can be improved for the first. Of course, from the point of view of the local authority, it is difficult in a town, where land is 336 scarce, for them to be favourably inclined towards any scheme which will reduce the number of people living in a given area. I think this Bill attempts to solve a great national and social problem. Its success depends on a partnership between the State, local authorities, housing associations, landlords and tenants to improve the housing conditions of this country. It must not fail.
§ 6.3 p.m.
§ LORD BURDEN
My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Broughshane, will allow someone from these Benches to congratulate him on a lucid and informative maiden speech, admirably delivered. We join with those who have said that they look forward to the noble Lord's taking part in our debates in the future. Like most noble Lords who have spoken to-day, I have to declare an interest, strange as it may seem. I am a member of the City Parochial Foundation, with which I believe Lord Broughshane's father had some connection. I also have some small interest in a family housing estate. I should like, first, as we have had this long and interesting debate, respectfully to call the attention of the noble and learned Lord who sits on the Woolsack, and also that of the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, to the fact that not a single speaker has failed to be critical or to express some reservations with regard to this Bill. That is a matter to which I shall return later in my speech.
The noble and learned Lord who sits on the Woolsack paid a generous tribute to the late Lord Morrison—a tribute which we all very much appreciate. But I hope he will not misunderstand me when I say that to plead the name of our late colleague in support of this Bill—
§ THE LORD CHANCELLOR
Will the noble Lord forgive me for interrupting him? I thought I had expressly said that I did not claim that this was a joint effort.
§ LORD BURDEN
I am very glad to hear that, because the noble and learned Lord is saying precisely what I was going to say. Everyone who has spoken to-day has, I think, emphasised that if we can solve the housing problem in this country we shall have gone a long way towards solving many of our other social problems Bad housing, or lack of adequate 337 housing, goes right to the roots of many of our social problems. But I join with the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, in saying that I believe—and I had the words on my notes before they were used by the noble Lord—that, so far as slum clearance is concerned, this Bill is a piece of window-dressing; and so far as obsolete and obsolescent houses are concerned, I believe that for some local authorities it will make the position even more difficult.
One has only to make a tour of some of our London boroughs to see ravages caused by the war which are still needing attention. I remember the chief housing officer of a local authority with which I had some years of experience informing the ex-Minister of Health that if we in East Ham had no fresh applications (and so far as the building of houses was concerned the authority was a very progressive one), and if housing continued at the same rate, the housing list would be cleared in just a hundred years. And only to-day I have been informed with regard to another metropolitan borough, where there is a commission which I served in a voluntary capacity for a number of years, that there are still some 800 families living in requisitioned houses. The point I should like to put to the noble and learned Lord and his colleagues is: how will this Bill help in the solution of that very great problem? This is a very expensive matter. The occupation of requisitioned houses all over the country imposes a very heavy charge indeed on the national Exchequer.
Lord Silkin has said that this Bill is ungenerous to local authorities. I say that not only is it ungenerous, but that, in addition to that, it will add very serious complications and difficulties to those faced by local authorities in dealing with housing problems. Local authorities are always faced with great difficulty when they wish to place corporation rents on a reasonable basis, because of the difficulties which arise through the statutory housing revenue account. This account, which has to be maintained under Section 129 of the Housing Act, 1936, is not merely an account between the corporation, as landlord, and their tenants. It is complicated by the fact that it contains all the charges and incidental expenses of their capital expenditure, and, as is well known, heavy capital expenditure has to be incurred a long time before houses are available for letting. Then 338 we are all aware of the fact that, owing to the increased costs of building, rents that local authorities to-day have to charge are much higher, in spite of apparently generous grants from the Government. I venture to suggest that the problem of municipal rents is becoming a very grave one. This arises from the fact that municipal houses, unlike battleships, have to be built out of borrowed money and have to bear the additional cost of the interest on that loan.
The financial provisions of the Bill, referred to by my noble friend Lord Silkin and defended by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, are distinctly unfair to local authorities. May I ask noble Lords to look at the problem in this way? Assuming that the proposals in regard to slum clearance are a success, it will be the local authorities having the highest rates which will be faced with the greatest problem. There are no slums, or very few, in Bournemouth, in Southport, in Harrogate, and in low-rated towns of that kind; but in highly rated areas even 50 per cent. of the cost of slum clearance will be such that many local authorities will be most reluctant to place that additional loan on the ratepayers.
My Lords, what allowance is the noble Lord making for the Equalisation Fund in making a statement of that sort?
§ LORD BURDEN
The poorer areas are still the most highly rated areas, in spite of the operation of the Equalisation Fund. The people who live in these areas are the people who can least afford to pay high rates. The motor car and rapid transport takes people who can afford it away from industrial areas, and they do not live where they make their money. On top of that, industrial hereditaments have a 75 per cent. rebate on local rates. Therefore, I would ask that the financial provisions with which the local authorities are concerned shall be looked at again.
I may have misunderstood the noble Viscount, Lord Gage, but I thought he made reference to the famous curate's egg, which was "good in parts." I thought he used the simile the other way, but I am not going to say that this Bill has not some good features. Even the Conservative Party, with an admirable Civil Service behind it, could hardly fail 339 to bring forward a Bill which had not some good proposals. In view of the pressure (I use only a colourless word) put upon another place to get this Bill here, and of the inadequate consideration of many of the clauses, I hope that there will be ample time for its consideration on Committee stage in your Lordships' House. I think I can say this on behalf of those who sit on these Benches. We may be critical but we shall endeavour to be constructive, and there will be nothing in the nature of our trying to prevent the Bill from getting through. I am glad that the noble Marquess the Leader of the House is here; and as he has always insisted on our duty and responsibility as a revising Chamber, I should like to suggest to him that this Bill, which touches so many interests, should have ample consideration. If we have time for consideration, as I hope we shall have, I think this Bill will emerge from our consideration a far better Bill than it is at the present moment.
§ 6.10 p.m.
My Lords, I think your Lordships will wish to look at the Bill from a wider background than that taken by the last speaker. In his brilliant speech my noble friend Lord Buckmaster drew attention to the fact that the Bill covers only one aspect of the housing problem—the repair of houses. Noble Lords on the other side of the House have been talking this afternoon as if this Bill were the only way the problem was being tackled. Of course, that is an utter fallacy. The vital fact is that over 300,000 houses are being built every year in this country by local authorities, and it is a fact which has been referred to by my noble friend Lord Buckmaster.
This Bill follows on the White Paper, Houses—The Next Step. This step many of your Lordships will approve, while considering it, perhaps, as only a small one. In the difficult circumstances of dealing with these old houses and slum clearance, a first step is essential to wider and greater steps in the years to come. It is essential to make a small move on slum clearance, and even repair of many rent-controlled houses, while the larger housing programme is continuing. Noble Lords will have noticed in the Press—and I understand that the Minister has made a statement in another place this 340 afternoon—that a further and wider housing programme is envisaged by the agreement reached with building societies to reduce the amount of deposit which has to be put down as security for a new house. Yesterday I happened to meet a member of an urban district council who told me that in his particular housing authority a large number of applications were being received every month for loans to purchase small houses under the appropriate legislation. I believe that the building societies will find exactly the same position arising, and, in my view, many more houses will be built by private enterprise. Although this Bill does not contain everything that my noble friend Lord Buckmaster proposed in his Motion a year and a half ago, it contains much of real value.
The slum clearance proposals are obviously vital, because unless the centres of these ancient towns and great industrial cities are intensively cleared and rebuilt, the country cannot find the agricultural land outside them on which to build new housing estates. It is well known that if you take one acre of agricultural land, you take, at the same time, the food of two persons; and we cannot go on doing that indefinitely. I believe that the proper clearance and rebuilding of the worn-out areas of great cities is absolutely vital. It has so many advantages. It reduces that most unsocial thing, the long journey to work—and that, I believe, is an aspect that has been mentioned recently by the most reverend Primate. Work and residence should be as close as they possibly can, because the strain and cost of a long daily journey to work is very heavy. In addition, the persons who live a long way from their work have divided interests: they work at one place and live miles away in another. That is not a good thing.
I should like to deal briefly with the repairs increase. So much has already been said on this matter—and much was well said by my noble friend Lord Broughshane in his maiden speech—that it has really been fully covered. But it is clear that the low-rated house—the house rated from £8 downwards—is going to receive such a small increase, if the repairs have been carried out in the specified time, that it will be of no proper value. The length of time that it will take for anybody who has to undertake the repair before getting this small increase 341 is a large number of years. I believe that that aspect of the Bill is not satisfactory in its present form. Nor do I believe that the stopper which has been referred to by many noble Lords is satisfactory, because it means to say that many houses will be prevented from benefiting from this increase for expenditure on repairs.
The matter of improvements has already been covered, but its success depends absolutely on the co-operation of the local housing authorities. That has not been forthcoming under the 1949 Act, and unless it is forthcoming under this Bill, unless the Minister is able to induce local authorities to make these grants, then these clauses of the Bill will be non-effective, and improvements will not be made. I think there is no doubt that the smaller housing authorities in this country—that is to say, the small urban and many rural district councils—have already reached a point where they feel that they are already carrying a sufficiently heavy burden in respect of housing. I believe that the Government will find that they are not anxious to embark, in the later 'fifties—that is to say in two or three years' time—on large additional local housing schemes. If I am right in this assumption, it means that more reliance will have to be placed on this Bill to maintain the existing houses, either in an improved state or in a repaired state. If local authorities are somewhat allergic to suggestions that they should increase their housing liabilities, they will have to make use of the powers that they are given under this Bill, in order that the total number of houses in their district does not fall. They cannot, as it were, have it both ways. If they do not want to build additional houses, then they will have to agree to make improvement grants for existing houses; and I believe the Government will have to see that the repair clauses, as proposed in this Bill, really work. I should like to pay my tribute to the Minister for having got this Bill through another place and for the provisions contained in it, and I believe that in Committee it may well be improved.
§ 6.30 p.m.
§ LORD MANCROFT
My Lords, it now falls to my lot to try and wind up the interesting and good-tempered debate which we have had on this admirable and important Bill. My task is made the easier by the extremely clear and comprehensive 342 manner in which my noble and learned friend on the Woolsack has introduced it. Since it has become quite fashionable in the House this afternoon, perhaps I, too, should declare an interest, though not the same type of interest that most of your Lordships have declared. I live in a house in the centre of London, the house in which I was born. It has eighty-one steps between kitchen and nursery, and the basement floods regularly every winter. I think, therefore, it would qualify under paragraph 74 of Houses—The Next Step, as being a housebuilt for another age … too large for present-day conditions,and suitable for conversion. Had my noble landlord, Lord Portman, been in his place, I might have developed this theme in greater detail, but I feel that it would hardly be courteous to do so in his absence.
We have had to-day some extremely interesting speeches from acknowledged experts—from the noble Viscount, Lord Gage, and the noble Viscount, Lord Buckmaster, both of whom have given a great deal of study to this matter; from the noble Lord, Lord Meston, who has had to leave his place, and who is a great legal expert on the subject; and from the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, who, I suppose, knows as much about housing as any other Member of your Lordships' House. We have also had an excellent maiden speech from the noble Lord, Lord Broughshane, and I should like to join my congratulations to those which have been offered to him by other Members of your Lordships' House. To me it is a particular pleasure, since his father and mine were old contemporaries and, I think, sat together in another place for the best part of twenty years. It has been some time before the noble Lord has taken the plunge, but it has been well worth waiting for, as I am certain your Lordships will agree, and I hope it will not be long before he gives us the benefit of his experience again. The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, has told me that he has to go in a few minutes. I am sorry about that, because I was going to say some particularly nice things about him.
§ LORD MANCROFT
I should like to tell the noble Lord, for instance, how I spent my week-end. I spent my week-end in reading carefully every speech on 343 housing which the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, has made since he has been a Member of your Lordships' House. I found them most admirable reading. Many of us look back with horror at some of the things we have said in the past. The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, can have a perfectly clear conscience, as far as I am concerned at least, about everything he has said on this subject. I find that I have marked in the margin of many of his speeches "G.S."—"Good stuff," and, on frequent occasions. "V.G.S."—"Very good stuff." I found that I agreed with him on nearly everything he has said recently on major matters of housing policy. I naturally thought that his conclusions would be the same upon this problem as those to which Her Majesty's Government have inevitably been driven, but I was grieved to hear, in the course of his speech, that he has now parted his ways from ours and is no longer making those statesmanlike speeches, agreeing with everything Her Majesty's Government now hold, that he did in the days gone by.
The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, has attacked the Bill, but I could not help feeling, if he will allow me to say so with respect, that I thought his criticism was a little half-hearted. There did not appear to be a great deal of venom in his opposition. If I understood him aright, there are two points which are worrying him and other noble Lords opposite who are criticising this Bill, and they are these. The words "window dressing" have been used more than once. Their opinion is, in the words of the noble Lord, that the Bill does not do much to speed up slum clearance; its main concern is merely to defer demolition. The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, if I heard him correctly remarked that there were 140,000 houses in 1939 which could not be made fit for human habitation: how, then, can they be made fit now? Surely, we must look at it from another point of view. There are three courses open to us. We either pull the slums down; or we make them habitable so that they can be lived in until we can build some new houses; or we build new houses. We, the Government, want to do all three of those things. Most of all, we want to build the new houses, and I think we can say without fear of contradiction that we are doing that as fast and as well as humanly possible. We want 344 to pull down the slums as fast as we can and we shall do that. If we cannot do those two things fast enough in a particular area, what we must do is to patch up the slums and make them habitable until sufficient new building has taken place. What the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, advocates is none of those, but just doing nothing. I cannot feel that that is a proper solution.
Of course, it is broadly true that the Bill gives local authorities no extra powers to demolish slums. The powers are already there in the Housing Act, 1936. Incidentally, in the First Schedule the Bill does make certain minor amendments in the procedure for slum clearance, which should, I hope, simplify and accelerate progress. What the Bill does is to restate in a more urgent form the responsibilities of the local authorities in this matter by requiring them to submit a comprehensive plan within twelve months. Your Lordships will remember that these duties have been virtually ignored since 1939. For obvious reasons, slum clearance ceased during the war. After the war the Labour Government told the local authorities that it was not to be resumed. My right honourable friend the Minister has different views. He thinks that the problem of the slums must be tackled again. He has already issued a circular, as your Lordships are aware, which removes the ban imposed by the late Government. He has now placed in the beginning of this Bill a definite statutory obligation which gives proper expression to the urgency of the task. It is, therefore, to my way of thinking, quite absurd to suggest that patching-up proposals are intended to have the effect of slowing-up slum clearance.
My right honourable friend regards patching as an exceptional measure. Let me emphasise that—an exceptional measure. The powers he has taken in Clause 1 to modify the proposals submitted by local authorities will enable him to take action with any local authority who are disposed to patch up slums which they could really demolish forthwith. Let me make this point absolutely clear: speedy demolition is the goal of Her Majesty's Government. Everyone with any knowledge of this problem knows perfectly well that in some areas these houses must remain standing for ten, fifteen, and even twenty 345 years, because it is physically impossible to replace them sooner. Not even this Government can do that. The alternative which we have to face here is not between patching and demolishing, but between leaving them as they are, with all their imperfections, and endeavouring to make them a little better—a little more tolerable to live in. In the Government's opinion it will be indefensible to leave these houses in their present state. That opinion, as far as I can see, has not been seriously challenged in another place, and I did not really think that the challenge put out this afternoon by noble Lords opposite was a serious one.
The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, then moved on to what was really the most important point raised by anybody in this debate—a fundamental point, a point, almost, of political ideology. He first posed this question, if I understood him aright: Is private landlordism out of date? We have listened to a strong defence of the landlord by the noble Lord, Lord Broughshane, and it is comforting to hear somebody make that now and again. But the point which was put before us by the noble Lord, Lord Silkin was: Is the private landlord able in present conditions to carry out his rôle in our social structure? In our view the answer is that he is able to do so; and in the view of the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, and his colleague, the right honourable gentleman for Ebbw Vale, the answer is, "No."
If one has the time, it is worth reading the whole of the philosophy on this subject as expressed by Mr. Aneurin Bevan in Standing Committee. It is a lengthy, but extremely interesting, political statement. I should be out of order, of course, if I quoted it, but the gist of it, roughly, is that Mr. Bevan is not opposed to owner-occupation but his general view is that six million to seven million rent-restricted houses are held in a "false property relationship." The owners of houses are prevented from dealing with their property according to the ordinary laws of supply and demand. In this field, therefore, of artificial restriction, there is no practicable scheme for protecting tenants against increases of rents following these economic laws whilst leaving owners to enjoy the advantages possessed by other owners of 346 private property. The solution propounded by Mr. Bevan is that all houses should be taken over by local authorities. This is the only way, in his view, in which property can be kept in good repair and used to the best advantage of the community.
What I could not help noting with interest was that although he put that strong view forward, the right honourable gentleman the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, when he was winding up the Second Reading debate in another place, was very careful to make no reference at all to that fundamental statement of doctrine. The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, was also very cautious to-day in the way in which he dealt with this fundamental problem. He was challenged by several noble Lords, and by the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack in his opening remarks, to produce some alternative if he found the Government's proposals unattractive to him. The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, did his best, but I cannot for the life of me see the difference between what Mr. Bevan has proposed (at which most of his colleagues apparently have taken fright) and the ultimate and logical conclusions to which Lord Silkin's policy must also lead him. They seem to me of the greatest importance and I should like to devote a moment or two to them, because these things go to the root of the whole of the Bill and, indeed, to the whole of the nation's housing policies.
Briefly, the arguments as I have understood them are these. Private enterprise has always broken down in providing shelter for millions of working-class people. Public authorities should therefore become responsible for building, repairing and maintenance. If public authorities were responsible, the tenants could be confident that any repairs increase in rents would be spent on the houses and would not be diverted into the pockets of the landlords. As local authorities are representative bodies they would, unlike private landlords, be answerable to the electorate for the manner in which they handled their houses and would be kept up to the mark accordingly. Public ownership would enable full use to be made of existing accommodation by facilitating exchanges and transfers among the tenants—a point which has been mentioned more than 347 once this afternoon—thus substantially reducing the need for additional new houses. If the houses were in public ownership there would be an end to the landlord's making a profit by the sale of his house with vacant possession when a local authority rehoused the tenant at considerable public expense; and then finally there would be an end to the gradual "disuse" of the Rent Restrictions Acts as statutory tenants died off. Those, my Lords, if I have understood them correctly, are the arguments put forward on this vitally important question of the municipal ownership of all rented houses.
To my way of thinking, the suggestion that local authorities should take over some six million houses, and manage, maintain and repair them, accords very strangely with the fear which has been expressed here this afternoon—by the noble Lord, Lord Burden, for one—and elsewhere, that the local authorities' staffs will have their work cut out to provide the round figures required by Clause 1 of the Bill within the year allowed. If slum clearance is to be carried out as energetically as we hope, the local authorities will, in fact, have a very big job of work to do, and I should have thought that they ought not to be distracted from it by being asked to look after all the fit houses as well. Indeed, the provision of decent living conditions for all the people is a job which can be done with reasonable speed only if full use is made of all the agencies, public and private, at present engaged in it.
That is the view which was put forward in an eloquent speech by my noble friend Lord Amherst of Hackney. Lord Gage, too, mentioned it, and added also the housing associations. Of course, to secure this co-operation of all concerned in housing, of all individuals and of all the authorities is fully the Government's intention. The local authorities will deal with the slums—they are best able to do so. The owners of existing houses will be encouraged to repair, maintain and improve them, with adequate safeguards to ensure that the repairs increase is not misapplied; and private enterprise will be encouraged to play an increasingly large part in the provision of houses for rent and for sale.
Apart from the practical impossibility of making the local authorities everyone's 348 landlord without detracting from the part which they must play in the campaign against the slums, there seems to be no reason why many of the advantages claimed for municipal ownership should not be achieved by other less dramatic and less drastic means. In some areas there are already arrangements between the local authorities and private owners for exchanges between their tenants. Ways of making better use of accommodation by other means were suggested in the Report last year by the Housing Management Sub-committee of the Central Housing Advisory Committee on "Transfers, Exchanges and Rents" which has been referred to more than once this afternoon. In the light of the discussion of the Bill in another place, my right honourable friend has asked this sub-committee to see whether any further administrative or legislative measures are desirable. We think that we ought first to see how much could be accomplished in the ways already suggested by the sub-committee and to consider their further advice when this is available.
Even municipal ownership of all rented houses would not solve all the problems, for there are, unfortunately, local authorities, as well as private landlords, who will not entertain proposals for exchanges at all. In any event, I think many tenants of privately owned houses will have other views on the proposal which the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, has hinted at this afternoon. It would sweep away any protection they have at present under the Rent Restrictions Acts and would make them liable to compulsory transfer to smaller but perhaps higher rented houses. Local authorities already have the power to acquire existing houses, by agreement or compulsorily, in order to repair and improve them, or to secure their better and fuller use. This is a valuable sanction, but if the maximum contribution to the solution of this great social problem is to be made by all agencies and by all authorities it ought to be used only in the last resort and in individual cases where private ownership has failed to make the most of its opportunities If the noble Lords opposite are going to develop at all this idea about the municipalisation—to use the dreadful word which I am afraid we shall have to get used to—of private houses, I think 349 they should devote a great deal more thought to it, and to the problems it brings, than they at present seem to have given it. So, for different reasons, must we.
I turn now to a question which has been asked of me by, I think, three or four Members of your Lordships' House this afternoon, and that is what further safeguards to the tenants have been suggested and how are they to be regarded. There are three that I think have been put forward this afternoon. One is the issue of positive certificates of repair to be obtained by the landlord; another is the periodic expenditure test, and the third is the set-off against rent for tenants' expenditure on repairs. The proposal that the landlord should obtain a certificate of good repair before getting the rent increased was most sympathetically considered by my right honourable friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government before he introduced the Bill, and it was only because he came to the conclusion that, it would throw an intolerable and often unnecessary burden on the local authorities that he abandoned it.
The suggestion of a periodic expenditure test would mean, I understand, an examination from year to year of about 7 million accounts. Moreover, it is not always necessary for the landlords to spend up to the average in order to keep a house in repair. A scheme of the kind I am commenting upon would throw too much emphasis, I should have thought, on expenditure. After all, the essence of the scheme is that houses must be kept physically in repair, not only that money has to be spent. The third proposal as regards set-off of tenants' expenditure can, of course, relate only to the past. Administratively, I should have thought that it was dreadfully difficult. As regards the future, it is most unlikely that tenants will go on carrying out repairs and paying increased rents when they know that such repair work is definitely the landlords' responsibility, and that if a house falls into disrepair the tenant can get a certificate and withhold the rent increase.
The noble Lords opposite, or, to be more exact, their friends in other quarters, have declared that they are going to set up in the various districts rent offices to give advice to tenants on how to secure their nights under the terms of this Bill. 350 Her Majesty's Government for their part also intend to issue a booklet for landlords and tenants as a guide to their repective rights and duties. This brings me to a point which has been raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Buckmaster, and one or two other noble Lords this afternoon—that is, the question of publicity. The noble Viscount, I think, complained that in relation to improvement grants not enough was known of the local authorities' powers. I can give him evidence of increased interest being shown in improvement grants since the issue on April 20, 1954, of the circular. The noble Viscount, Lord Buckmaster, may be interested to know that, so far, in May alone—it is only May 4 to-day—we have had requests for 3,000 copies of the pamphlet Notes for Applicants for local authorities to issue to individual inquirers. This compares with 4,400 in the whole of April, 1954, and 1,450 in the whole of June, 1953. That means that more than twice as many applications have been received in the first four days of May of this year, after the issue of the circular, as in the whole of June, 1953, so I think I can assure the noble Viscount, Lord Buckmaster, that we are doing our best to let this information become as widely known as possible.
§ LORD MANCROFT
From local authorities for issue to individuals. The noble Viscount also referred to another point about publicity. He referred to the power of the local authorities to make loans for repairs, the reluctance of the authorities to do so and the ignorance of the owners of these facilities. My right honourable friend is to-day issuing a circular to local authorities reminding them of, amongst other things, this power. This circular (I have a copy of it here) will be given the widest publicity. If noble Lords are interested, it is Circular No. 42 of 1954.
The noble Lord, Lord Greenhill, said that local authorities are not satisfied because they would like large schemes for demolition. That is also, of course, the 351 desire of Her Majesty's Government. Patching is a supplementary provision, to be invoked only where, even with large schemes for clearance, it is not practicable to clear all the slums in the first five years or so. The noble Viscount, Lord Buckmaster, also, if I understood him aright, wanted local authorities to be compelled to make improvement grants.
§ LORD MANCROFT
One or two other noble Lords made that point, too. I am afraid that I cannot agree with that. I think it might lead to unfortunate results. It would mean constant and detailed interference in local administration of a kind which my right honourable friend would not wish to contemplate. In effect, he would have to interfere to overrule the local authorities whenever the latter turned down an application for a grant without proper cause. I think it would result in a good deal of friction. I will look at the point more carefully, but that is my first reaction to it.
§ LORD WOLVERTON
I did not go so far as that. The noble Lord has referred to what other noble Lords said. I said that, if the applications complied with the conditions and the local authority entertained them, then they should give a grant of the full 50 per cent. That is not going as far as the noble Viscount, Lord Buckmaster, went.
§ LORD GREENHILL
The underlying assumption is that the applicant wishes to have the grant and the local authority refuse to give it. I do not think that is justified. Owners are afraid to apply for grants.
§ LORD MANCROFT
Perhaps, if the noble Lord has any evidence of that, he would like to talk to me about it in more detail. It is getting late. I have been asked a large number of other questions in this debate. I have tried to deal with the more important of them. I will see that the other questions are properly dealt with and that in due course your Lordships receive what I hope will be a satisfactory answer.
I have been asked one question by all noble Lords opposite, and by several 352 noble Lords on this side of the House, concerning the future stages of this Bill. My noble friend who advises me in these matters is perfectly prepared to allow the House to have as full and detailed a debate as is necessary for this measure. There is no question whatever of rushing it or skimping it. I will, however, say this in defence of my right honourable friend the Minister, to rebut any idea that this matter has been "skimped" in another place. Ninety-nine long hours were devoted to it. Admittedly, it is a long and detailed Bill but ninety-nine hours is a pretty long time to devote to it. That, of course, is nothing whatever to do with us in this House. We will devote to it, as we always do with any Bill, the full time necessary to give it proper and worthy consideration.
I should like to end on this note—it has been emphasised by several noble Lords sitting behind me. This Bill must not be taken by itself. It must not be regarded in isolation. It is only part of a solution to part of a problem. It must be read in conjunction with the whole of the rest of the Government's housing policy, a policy of which I say, quite unashamedly, I think that the Government have every reason to be extremely proud. This Bill is merely one step forward in the great housing drive. It brings us one day nearer the time when, as my noble and learned friend so graphically put it, the child will turn round to its father and say: "Father, what was a slum?" This matter cannot be taken in isolation, nor can the problem rest solely with the Government. It is part of the Government's whole plan towards the fulfilment of their pledges, towards the completion of their great housing campaign. For the part that this Bill can play in this great housing campaign, I confidently recommend it to your Lordships for a Second Reading.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.