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Housing, Streatham

Volume 463: debated on Wednesday 13 April 1949

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

11.56 p.m.

We have heard a great deal tonight about housing, or the lack of it, in Scotland. I wish to talk about housing in my constituency Streatham was heavily bombed during the war, and in the life of this Parliament I have been deluged with letters from my constituents who are in desperate need of homes. These letters make pitiful reading and represnt a sum total of human misery which is heart-breaking. In the first year or so I was able to explain the massive task which faced the Government and the Wandsworth Borough Council, both of whom I was anxious to assist. I deprecated premature criticism in this House, I endeavoured to become acquainted with the difficulties and I brought the plight of my constituents to the notice of Ministers of Health and Works, to the borough councillors, and officials, so that they would realise the urgency of the problem. Like all other hon. Members I earnestly hoped that the housing drive would succeed, and I genuinely regret that my hopes have not been realised.

The state of housing in Streatham is shameful. The Ministry of Health and the Borough Council have failed lamentably. The war has been over four years. The Government have been in office for almost four years, and the number of new permanent dwellings erected and completed by the council is only 41–41 new dwellings, in one of London's towns where there is a population of 75,000 people, and which was heavily bombed. The number of rebuilt demolished council dwellings which have been completed is 24. These are pitiful figures. A number of requisitioned houses have been divided into flats, and although the actual living accommodation has not been increased it is fair to say that a large number of people have been accommodated as a result of these conversions. At the present time there are 8,500 families, comprising over 27,000 people, on the borough housing lists awaiting rehousing, and there are many more on the lists of the L.C.C. These figures reveal abject failure. It is not a housing drive, it is a crawl.

Here are four examples of unwarrantable delays, and I believe these are typical of hundreds of cases throughout London and the country. First a small house of six rooms, 10, Blairderry Road, requisitioned in 1944 and occupied, vacated in March 1948, has remained unoccupied ever since. It is now being divided into two flats. I inspected it on Friday. I am amazed that such a small dwelling should be deemed worthy of conversion. It should have been offered to one of the large families on the housing list for immediate occupation. But here it remains, idle and empty, for 13 months, while the rent of £120 a year runs on and the taxpayer has to pay. One of the saddest things of all in relation to this particular house is that it did accommodate seven people before they started to convert it into two tiny flats, and now it will accommodate only six people, because that is all the accommodation which is provided. Actually, a bedroom has been lost in the conversion.

The second instance is one which I raised in this House on 10th March and again on the 24th March. It is a large self-contained flat, 29, Mount Nod Road. It was under requisition, and became vacant at the end of October, 1948. Any of the suffering families on the housing list would gladly have taken it. Two families wrote to me, which is how I got to know about this case. They wanted to occupy the flat as it was, but the council took the view that some decorative repairs were required—painting or wallpapering a room or two.

Here is one of the tragedies, I think perhaps the kernel, of the situation. It is that a council cannot spend more than £50 on a requisitioned dwelling without the consent of the Ministry of Health. The great Borough of Wandsworth, with a population of more than a quarter of a million and an annual income and expenditure running into millions, has to go cap in hand to the Ministry of Health if it wants to spend more than £50 on such work. These decorative repairs came to £64. There was four months of delay in corresponding and negotiations between the council and the Ministry of Health before sanction was given for this expenditure. And there are 27,000 people awaiting homes in this borough. Four months elapsed before paint was put on a wall or a wall was papered. Yet the house was ready for immediate occupation when it became vacant at the end of October. I saw this flat on Friday afternoon. It is available for accommodation, but is still unoccupied—more than five months delay while so many people are living in misery.

The third instance is that of a large double-fronted house at 41, Tierney Road and was requisitioned in May, 1948. After continuous occupation for years, a family walked out when the council requisitioned the house. Instead of putting the house at the disposal of people in desperate need, the council decided to divide it into three flats. There was eight months of negotiation and correspondence between the council and the Ministry before a scheme of conversion was approved. The work of converting the house is still going on. I saw this place also on Friday afternoon. It will be several months before the house is occupied. The rent is going on all the time, and it cannot be less than £200 or £250 a year. So this house will be out of occupation for 12 months or more after being occupied continuously for 50 years; and out of that 12 months, eight months were occupied with these ridiculous negotiations between the council and the Ministry. During that time homeless people were passing the house and were writing to me about it.

The fourth and last example is 44, Gleneldon Road. These are all roads in Streatham only 15 minutes by road or rail from this House. Streatham was one of the most severely bombed areas of London. This small densely populated area received no fewer than 44 flying bombs in 1944 and more on its borders. Here is the report of the Wandsworth housing manager written a few days ago. He said that the house was previously let to a family which occupied the whole house from 15th January, 1945 to 28th June, 1948. On the premises becoming vacant, an immediate inspection was made and owing to the size of the accommodation it was recommended for conversion into two flats and passed to the borough architect on 6th July, 1948. May I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to give his attention to this? Details of the proposed conversions were submitted by the borough architect on 3rd January, 1949, to the Minister of Health. The house was vacated on 28th June. It was not until 3rd January that any scheme at all was put forward. The Ministry of Health considered that a more economical scheme of adaptation only should be adopted, excluding the greater part of the works of conversion. Specifications for the amended scheme are in course of preparation and will be submitted to the Ministry shortly. In short, a house vacated on 28th June, 1948, is still empty tonight, or rather this morning, 14th April. No work has commenced, and no plans have been approved.

These dreadful cases of delay have all occurred in the last year when labour and materials have been available. They are due to unwarrantable delay by the borough council and to the financial control of the Ministry of Health, conducted in a leisurely fashion, entirely out of keeping with the times in which we live. It has to be remembered that the rent is being paid all the time, and greater sums are being wasted in that way than would be saved on checking and pruning repairs. Great waste is going on as a result of this ridiculous financial control. I am more concerned about the health and wellbeing of the people than in saving a few pounds per house after months of delay. Every public health regulation is being broken daily in my constituency through overcrowding with all the other troubles which flow from such conditions. If the situation is not remedied, the people will sweep those responsible from office, and that will be a well-deserved fate.

12.7 a.m.

I do not want to be as critical as the hon. Member for Streatham (Sir D. Robertson) has just been, but I should like to say that I am concerned about the delays in repair to requisitioned property in my own borough of Lewisham. I consider that that borough has done a good job in the post-war circumstances so far as housing is concerned. We had no claim to be considered as a competent housing authority; no land was purchased for re-building, before the end of the war as requested, and there was no real housing department: we had no architect. It was many years since the borough had taken a direct part in any house-building, though there were some appalling buildings, some more than 100 years old. But we have been able to re-house eight thousand families and that, I think, is not a bad record.

Nevertheless, one is continually having one's notice drawn to properties which have been requisitioned and not used, and this is all the more galling to people needing accommodation so badly, who see these houses daily. This gives rise to the wildest rumours. Recently, for example, it was stated that there were "hundreds" of such premises in the borough which were remaining empty for two years; but, on investigation, of course, this was found to be nothing like the truth of the position. But if there is only a very small number remaining empty for a few months, the position should be brought to the notice of the Minister and remedied at once.

There are, I think, two categories; there is the case where houses become vacant after they have been occupied for a period as a requisitioned property. This is the type of case quoted by the hon. Member for Streatham. I have two such examples before me now. One became vacant on 22nd November, and another on 16th December, and when I complained to the local authority, I was told: "Well, these repairs are reckoned to cost more than £50, and therefore, we must get the permission of the Ministry." Furthermore, the Ministry insisted that the work should go out to competitive tender. Really we just cannot wait for the long-winded procedure. I know it is public money that is being used, but these local authorities are great public concerns, and surely they should be given a little more discretion. If there was thought to be some error, surely they could be subject to a surcharge. A surcharge could be levied if it was thought the local authority had really done something not in order. In any case, surely competitive tender is not necessary for these small amounts.

The second category is that where repairs have to be done when the premises are first requisitioned. I have one example requisitioned last July and still not available. I do beg the Minister, if he can, to give us some encouragement tonight by saying that the whole system of authorisations will be looked at and that these large local authorities will be given a little more discretion financially than has been given to them in the past. After all, the great boroughs of Wandsworth and Lewisham collect and disburse millions of pounds every year. Surely they could be trusted to do the job without these cumbrous checks.

12.10 p.m.

I want to endorse very warmly the plea about housing conditions in the borough of Wandsworth, which the hon. Member for Streatham (Sir D. Robertson) has put to the House. It is no credit to the present Administration that four years after the war came to an end, we still have in this borough a housing list as long as the list at the end of the war. Something like 25,000 people are still requiring to be re-housed and I can endorse from experience in my part of the borough, the great annoyance and discouragement which is felt by the people there when they find empty houses not being converted and, if converted, still standing empty for weeks and sometimes months, when people know that there are long lists of applicants waiting for homes.

The point I should like to mention to the Parliamentary Secretary in particular is the difficulty caused by the overlapping of activities as between the L.C.C. and the boroughs. That is particularly bad in Putney where there is open land and competition between the L.C.C. and the borough for the use of that land. There seems to be a lack of co-ordination and where schemes are started—sometimes by the county and sometimes by the borough—they seem to be too large for the resources available. They are started and abandoned, or started and slowed up and then, when they are completed by the County Council, people are brought in from other parts of London so that the case of the local inhabitants is by no means assisted. In fact, there is a great deal of friction because they find their own list in the borough as long as ever and because the overriding authority of the County Council is used to take what they regard as their own land and use it for people from outside their own borders. I think that question of co-ordination between the county and the borough is a problem which should really receive the attention of the Minister.

12.13 a.m.

I appreciate the concern of hon. Members in all parts of the House on the question of ensuring as speedily as possible the provision of accommodation for the very many people in their constituencies and elsewhere who are urgently needing housing accommodation. Tonight I will try first to deal specifically with the points raised by the hon. Member for Streatham (Sir D. Robertson) in connection with requisitioned property that requires repair and maintenance, where licensees have already been in occupation and where there has been a change of licensee, and he is very properly complaining of delays which have occurred. In the specific case which the hon. Member for Streatham has raised and which he raised in Questions in the House, I would not attempt to defend the delay which occurred. It is the case of a particular property which the hon. Member raised; it was quite extraordinary and I hope to suggest a way in which to ensure that it will not occur again.

I should like to put this matter in its proper setting. In fact, local authorities hold under requisition some 90,000 properties and very many of those are held here in London. When maintenance and repair work must be carried out, a convenient time to do it is when there is a change of licensee. If the amount of work to be carried out is under the value of £50, no application to the Ministry of Health will need to be made, although the cost is to be met out of Exchequer funds. If the cost is to run out at anything more than £50, the procedure in the past—and it will continue to be so in the future—was that an application had to be made to the Ministry for approval. The reason for delay in the particular case that has been raised, is that an estimate was submitted to the Ministry without any competitive tender having been obtained. In this particular case the direct labour scheme was suggested and it has been the practice of the Ministry, in its proper desire, I should have thought, to safeguard Exchequer funds, to require a competitive tender to be put forward.

In the normal case this type of problem does not cause any difficulty. We find that on the average, roughly about 100 cases of this kind are submitted each week to the Ministry and they are dealt with within a fortnight. I do not think there can be any complaint about that. But I agree that where an authority, such as Wandsworth, has its own direct labour force and where the estimate is under £100, it is unreasonable that a competitive tender should be asked for, and we are arranging in such cases that in future we shall not require this competitive tender so long as the case is submitted to the Ministry for the ordinary reasonable checking of the estimate. After all, this is national money and I should have thought that hon. Members on the other side of the House would have been anxious to see that a proper check is made on expenditure of that kind.

Would the Parliamentary Secretary explain what is the value of the competitive tender for work being done by a local authority under the direct labour scheme?

It is to see that the cost put forward in the direct labour tender by the local authority is comparable with a tender by a builder. It has, in practice, saved a considerable sum of money. Where the sum involved is small, we are not going to insist on it in future. In the case of new requisitions, longer delays occur because much larger sums of money and different principles are involved. We must insist that there is a proper check on schemes submitted for conversion of properties which in some cases, in our view, are unsatisfactory for conversion. Often we find proposals are put forward that would involve large sums of money without any proper guarantee that the dwellings will be of real value for housing purposes over a reasonable period of time. In that type of case it is inevitable that there will be some delays to ensure that the money spent for that purpose is properly spent. It is all too easy to waste very large sums of money indeed on conversions that do not really give us the kind of accommodation we want. I therefore urge hon. Gentlemen not to press us to do, without a proper check, this type of conversion, where I suggest it is essential we should have this proper check.

It is the case that where new conversions and new requisitioning do not require expenditure of more than £250 in repairs to make them fit for occupation, no application need be made to the Ministry. I should have thought that was a reasonable limit under which quite valuable minor conversions can be carried out. If we were to make wider provision for authorities to spend much larger sums without proper check and examination, I am sure that the hon. Member for Streatham would be the first to complain about extravagance and waste.

No one is more conscious of the need to protect the public purse than I am, but I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will read in the OFFICIAL REPORT what I said—the cases I gave about human misery. I have files of most agonising letters. Savings of sixpences and pence cannot be set against them.

Why cannot the hon. Gentleman deal with the question of surcharge of authorities? That is done by other Government Departments. Why cannot the method be used in these cases?

I do not think that this is a suitable field for surcharge. Authorities should know where they stand. Where a small sum up to £250 is involved in the case of new requisitioning for repairs, required before occupation, no application need be made by authorities to the Ministry; but surely it is reasonable to insist that where larger sums are involved, proper application should be made and a proper check should be instituted to ensure that the best possible use is made of the sums involved.

I assure hon. Members that we are most anxious to assist in every way we can. I believe that the change I have mentioned, which has been notified to the Wandsworth Council, will help in securing a speedier handling of the problems of repair and maintenance as they arise. I insist that the Ministry, far from being dilatory, is dealing with the general run of problems at a reasonable and efficient rate.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-three Minutes past Twelve o'Clock.