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Hostels (London)

Volume 20: debated on Thursday 18 March 1982

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That the House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Thompson.]

11.15 pm

I want to raise the looming crisis in London's hostels.

"London has a legacy of large Victorian hostels for single men and women that now face closure or substantial modernisation."
Those are the opening words of the joint London Boroughs Association and Greater London Council all-party report on the single homeless. The report, issued six months ago, anticipated the likely loss of some 3, 750 hostel bed spaces over the next five years. Most of those losses will be at the largest hostels. There are 12 huge hostel institutions in London, each providing between 250 and 1, 000 bed spaces where modernisation schemes would entail significant reductions in the number of available beds.

I am not opposing modernisation or even closure, provided it is done within the framework of a carefully worked out timetable which would include the provision of rehousing facilities for those people disturbed by the necessary schemes.

What I oppose and want to spotlight in this short debate are decisions to embark on premature rundowns or closures not immediately linked to alternative provision, such as the decision of Westminster city council to embark on the immediate rundown of some 250 bed spaces in its 695 bed lodging house, Bruce House. Despite entreaties from voluntary organisations, as well as from the all-party Greater London Council single homeless panel, Westminster earlier this month approved a closure plan which in its first phase will shut down 247 bed spaces by July this year, without having made any replacement provision or rehousing effort to help those displaced. By closing down between 30 and 40 more bed spaces each month, the council appears to think that the problem will vanish. Somebody has called it the thin air strategy of Westminster.

Unless Westminster city council is deflected from this path, by next Christmas Bruce House will have a maximum capacity of 448 bed spaces while, on its own figures, an average of over 600 men have occupied the lodging house over the past six months. As well, by next Christmas the nearby St. Mungo's hostel at Charing Cross, currently providing 500 bed spaces, will have closed down, with only 200 bed spaces being replaced by the Housing Corporation, as the site is required for redevelopment. The adjacent Strand subway, which last winter sheltered up to 120 homeless people per night, will have been shut off by the GLC following complaints by Westminster city council.

I am aware of Westminster's plans to replace 160 of the places lost when it finally closes Bruce House in 1984, but the need for spaces is now, not in 1984. If nothing is done to alter Westminster's policy, we will have a Westminster crisis at Christmas 1982.

What may happen is that pressure will be put on spaces in other boroughs where responsible authorities like Camden and Lewisham and the Department of Health and Social Security are in the process of planned, phased updating and closure and, indeed, have started the process in some hostels. In addition to Westminster, the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea is in the process of selling the site occupied by St. George's hostel, which has 70 bed spaces. I appeal to the Minister to intervene to halt these premature closures in advance of plans to rehouse those residents who are being displaced.

I have mentioned Camden, where the council is in consultation with Rowton Hotels Limited, voluntary organisations and statutory bodies about the improvement of the huge, 1, 000-plus-bed hostel, Arlington House. It is also phasing the rundown of the Parker Street hostel, following intensive planning and consultative processes that should be taken as a model for all authorities with this problem.

The Government themselves, with the Minister's support, are also working to a timetable in relation to the closure of the appallingly outmoded Camberwell resettlement unit. This is the only way in which the crisis can be averted. We are entitled to demand that this approach be adopted universally. The alternative is to force more single people to sleep rough or to be exploited in the kind of properties that we know exist, where unscrupulous landlords are still free to operate in the uncertain legislative jungle that surrounds this kind of property.

Of course, standards need to be improved. Our attitude towards the single homeless must be improved, and now is the time. I should like to say a few words about the existing standards. When we talk about the single homeless we invariably talk about bed spaces—not flats, units of accommodation, bed-sitters or furnished rooms, but bed spaces and cubicles. We appear to have accepted that the single homeless person should aspire to nothing more than a bed space, rather than a home like the rest of US.

In St. George's homeless people are housed in tiny cells with barely enough space even for a bed. In Camberwell they live in huge rooms with up to a hundred occupants in each, whose only facility other than rows of double bunk beds is a tiny lavatory. In a "hotel" in Southwark well known to all of us there are 229 people in dormitories and cubicles without any bathing or shower facilities. In Lambeth there is a tram shed converted many years ago for emergency use and still in use. There are many other examples that I would give if I had time.

What frightens me, and what I am sure must frighten the Minister, is that if a fire occurred in any of those establishments the consequences would be unthinkable. Therefore, I ask the hon. Gentleman to clarify legislation on that matter. Will he place clear mandatory responsibilities on local authorities to ensure that homeless people living in hostels and houses in multiple occupation are protected from the risk of death or serious injury by fire?

Last week the inquest into the horrific fire at Clanricarde Gardens, Notting Hill, heard evidence of faulty wiring and lack of fire precautions and of the deaths of eight people. It seems that almost every two years I have the sad task of raising such tragedies in the House.

Will the Minister now bring local authorities' duties under schedule 24 of the Housing Act 1980 within their duty under section 70 of the Housing Act 1969 to search out large houses in multiple occupation? That duty was removed in the 1980 Act. Will he also amend their duty to inspect under section 70, so that is not open-ended, as it is now, but is fixed to a timetable?

There are other old purpose-built hostels, built by the London County Council around the turn of the century, providing mainly cubicle accommodation—1, 500 cubicles in all. We should look at what is a cubicle. It is really a cubbyhole, usually about 7 ft by 4 ft, to which people are usually admitted by night only, being excluded during the daytime hours. Often the partitions do not go right to the top, so there is no security. Possessions can be tampered with and stolen, and often are. So there is no social life for the single homeless people forced to live in these conditions, no social life as we know it. None of those residents can invite someone back for a cup of tea, a chat or a meal, or indulge in any of the social activities like the rest of us. No one can agree with that. They have no security, privacy, security of tenure and very few rights. Surely the Minister must agree that it is now time to speed up the phased replacement of this blot on our housing record and, indeed, on our social and Christian consciences.

A recent survey carried out in Lewisham revealed a disturbing profile of residents in hostels—extreme social isolation, chronic ill-health and frustrated housing aspirations. A total of 83 per cent. of the people surveyed wanted to live in a flat or a bed-sitter. That figure, taken some months ago, closely resembles the housing preference finding of 85 per cent. contained in the recently-published document "Single and Homeless". I hope to refer to that more fully in a future debate.

What is the way forward? The Minister said not too long ago when introducing the "hostels initiative" in September 1980:
"there is significantly greater scope for helping some of those now living in impersonal, over-large and unsatisfactory hostel accommodation to establish themselves successfully in self-contained accommodation".
Good! He compared the challenge of housing and homeless and rootless with
"the challenge of the slums, "
and stated
"there is a clear responsibility here for the Government as well—a responsibility that is part legislative, part administrative and part financial".
Fine words! The report of the Department of the Environment Housing Services Advisory Unit, released at about the same time, found that
"the scope for rehousing from hostels and lodging houses does not appear to have been widely tested or investigated".
That same report acknowledged the "particular problems of London", and said some London councils
"face the greatest concentration of problems",
although it is true that the researches said that
"the problem in London is one of degree rather than difference".

A year later, the GLC and LBA published their strategic programme for the capital, and the two main prongs were, first, an investment of £10 million a year in small hostels, group homes and other forms of shared housing for the next five years and, secondly, a minimum target of 4, 000 new hostel bed spaces. They stressed that this was a minimum target, and said:
"We feel that this is a modest target: it is little more than the minimum required to deal with the immediate crises of London's hostel closures".

A target of 500 lettings, mainly flats, to be made available each year through the GLC and LBA was another suggestion.

At borough level, they proposed a locally planned housing arid hostels strategy, including a resettlement service to help hostel residents move into mainstream houses. It is that aspect which Camden is already operating. I want to see it copied elsewhere.

It is true to say that the Government have so far boosted housing association funding for "special projects". The vice-chairman and myself of the all-party parliamentary committee for the Homeless and Rootless—CHAR—welcomed the Government's initiative. The committee saw that as filling a serious gap about which we had been deeply concerned for many years. However, we are still concerned about the need for a similar boost to ordinary rented housing for single people from both housing associations and local authorities, for as the Minister acknowledged in that September 1980 speech:
"Housing associations cannot be expected to deal with these needs wholly themselves".
Yet the £10 million London hostels "package" to provide 985 new hostel bed spaces by 1987, announced shortly after the ministerial meeting with the GLC and LBA leaders last November, confines itself entirely to the funding of housing associations. The package is welcome. There are some attractive features in it, but the whole package offers nothing to London boroughs. It represents only a fraction of the LBA/GLC target figure.

I gave the Minister's office notice that I intended to ask some questions and make an urgent appeal. Will the Minister back his colleagues on the GLC single homeless panel when he meets the Westminster city council delegation on 31 March by pointing out that its irresponsible treatment of single homeless people in Bruce House is unacceptable to Parliament and inconsistent with Government hostels policy?

If the Minister is asked by Westminster council to provide special capital funding for small new hostel schemes to be provided by the city council, will he insist that the council guarantees rehousing for all residents in Bruce House on the lines of Camden's Parker House strategy?

Will the Minister back the crucial strategic role of the London housing authorities with further capital and revenue funding so that they are able to play the fullest possible part in achieving the LBA/GLC targets?

Will the Minister take action on the London Boroughs Association proposal, put to the Department last November, that the generalised need index should take account of the needs of local authorities to rehouse single homeless people from hostels, so that that factor can be includued in the allocation of the 1983–84 housing investment programmes to the London boroughs?

At this late hour in terms of the impending hostel crisis, I appeal to the Government to provide London boroughs with emergency housing capital to supply London's single homeless people with decent homes and to take acion against racketeering private landlords. I demand that no hostel closures should be allowed except within a planned timetable designed to provide housing alternatives for displaced residents.

11.33 pm

The hon. Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard) has built up a reputation in the House for being concerned about this problem. He has taken a further step this evening in developing that reputation. He has chosen the subject of hostels in London well because it is topical as a result of the publication of the report which he mentioned. The hon. Member said some kind words about my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction who referred to hostels in 1980 as

"an unswept corner of housing policy."

As a DHSS Minister until a few months ago, I was involved with homelessness. I recall replying to an Adjournment debate on the subject initiated by the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown).

I have been round Camberwell and many other hostels in London and I welcome the opportunity I now have to take our policies forward. The subject has attracted much attention recently—and deservedly so. Equally important, a debate of this nature is a further step in encouraging a more compassionate and enlightened attitude towards hostel users, who are among the most vulnerable members of the community.

As the House will be aware, there is a wide variety of provision on the London hostel scene. It includes commercial hostels and lodging houses, hostels provided directly by local authorities, resettlement units provided by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services; and hostels provided by voluntary and religious bodies, and housing associations. I shall say something about each in turn.

Commercial hostels and lodging houses have traditionally been one of the sources of simple but relatively cheap accommodation in London for single people. Standards in some have failed to keep pace with what we as a society now expect, and in the worst cases conditions have been degrading by any yardstick.

If management is unwilling to raise standards to acceptable levels, responsibility for taking action rests with the local authorities, which have a wide range of powers for this purpose under the provisions governing houses in multiple occupation in successive housing Acts. These provisions include powers to deal with overcrowding, basic amenities such as washing facilities, and means of escape from fire.

Since 1974, local authorities have been able to offer a grant known as "special grant" to the owners or managers of houses in multiple occupation, to assist them in meeting the costs of standard amenities falls. We introduced more flexible powers in the Housing Act 1980 to tackle overcrowding.

The hon. Member mentioned means of escape from fire and referred to two recent distressing fire accidents. He asked me to extend schedule 24 to try to deal with this problem. Schedule 24 enables a local authority to specify the works to be done to provide necessary means of escape from fire, but there is no statutory definition of the term.

I am advised that the British Standards Institution definition refers to "structural means", and the Department's view is that grant should cover only structural alterations to fixtures. Therefore, fire precautions are not covered by schedule 24, and an amendment to the recent Housing Bill to extend the provisions of the schedule was rejected.

More recently, as the hon. Member knows, we have placed a duty on local authorities to ensure that houses in multiple occupation above a certain size have adequate means of escape from fire. They retain the power to take similar action in the case of smaller houses.

Our objective was to draw the terms of the order sufficiently wide to cover those hostels where the potential risk was greatest, without making it so wide that a major new administrative burden was imposed on local authorities.

In addition to the powers that I mentioned, local authorities can also act where the management of a house in multiple occupation falls below an acceptable standard, and they can make a management order to ensure that facilities are in a proper state of repair, are clean and in good order.

Local authorities are much more likely than the Government to be aware of specific problems arising in the area for which they are responsible. Local authorities have a battery of powers which enable them to regulate almost every physical aspect of the operation and management of hostels. These powers are backed up by penalties and in some important instances by powers to pay grant.

The hon. Member went on to talk about a particular hostel that is run by a local authority—Westminster council's Bruce House. I felt that his remarks about Westmister council were a little unfair, and I shall be discussing with Westminster council later this month its proposals for dealing with the problem. It recognises the problem and I am convinced that it wants to tackle it in a responsible way.

My hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke), whom I am delighted to see in his place, has been in touch with me on the matter and has displayed a keen interest in helping to tackle the problem.

A further form of provision in London, to which I have already referred briefly, is that of the resettlement units provided by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services to discharge his responsibilities under schedule 5 to the Supplementary Benefit Act 1976. This responsibility is for the provision of temporary accommodation for people without a settled way of life, with a view to influencing them to lead a more settled life, and is discharged in London by the provision of eight resettlement units providing 1, 110 places for men and 65 for women.

Many of the people at the resettlement units suffer from a wide range of problems, as the hon. Member mentioned, and resettlement officers at each unit are there to try to discover the problems of each user, and, in the case of those with particular difficulties, to put them in touch with relevant agencies who may be able to help further.

There are also powers under schedule 5 which allow the DHSS to contribute to voluntary organisations providing a service similar to those of resettlement units.

The hon. Member mentioned Camberwell and reminded the House that this facility is due to be closed in 1985. It will be replaced by a joint Department of the Environment and DHSS package which will provide full capital and revenue funding for a total of 1, 115 places for people in London without a settled way of life. The package includes provision for the extra costs involved, providing the degree of care and support which the residents need. We envisage that 985 of these places will be found by housing associations and voluntary organisations and the remainder by a combination of extra places in existing resettlement units—up to 70—and part III accommodation in London.

This is an important initiative which aims to replace old and unsuitable institutions with a number of smaller, caring units, and it is a new approach to resettlement. Voluntary organisations, especially those which cater for groups with special needs, can often provide accommodation in small caring units which are greatly to be preferred to large impersonal institutions.

A joint assessment and resettlement team has already been formed to liaise with local authorities to obtain ordinary housing accommodation for those in resettlement units able to cope with independent living with minimal support. So far, 120 people have been rehoused with a good success rate. One of the problems faced by the resettlement team has been the difficult task of placing people who may lack many of the necessary social skills to go into independent accommodation direct from resettlement units. I am confident that the Camberwell replacement programme will make the work of resettlement easier and more effective. We must try to avoid institutional solutions to individual problems.

The last form of London hostel provision, and one of fast growing importance, is the accommodation provided by the voluntary movement. There is a long history of achievement in this field, but, as with other forms of hostel accommodation, much of the accommodation is in old buildings which were not designed for modern conditions. In many cases, this ageing stock requires refurbishment or renewal.

In recent years housing associations have also become increasingly involved, often in partnership with voluntary bodies, and new flexible styles of hostel provision have been pioneered not only for the traditional users of London hostels but to provide a base in the community for a variety of people who have special problems and need a degree of skilled support. These include ex-offenders, ex-alcoholics, the young homeless at risk, ex-psychiatric patients, the mentally handicapped and battered wives.

Improving standards and making good losses on existing stock, whilst providing for special needs, were among the main aims of the hostels initiative launched by my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction. The Government recognised that funding was necessary, and for the first time in the year commencing in April 1981 a specific allocation was made for hostel provisions within the Housing Corporation's programme. Within the national total of £12 million the corporation has devoted a substantial share—about one-third—to London. For the year commencing 1 April 1982 the total national provision will be £18 million, and London can expect to secure £6·5 million. This will provide more than 600 bedspaces.

The hon. Member mentioned resources for Westminster and for other London boroughs. The HIP allocation recognises the problems facing Westminster and other boroughs, and an element is added to that allocation to help them discharge their responsibilities. Many other hostel places in London have been approved under our initiative, and those were listed in the reply of my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction on 20 November. The hon. Member mentioned the general needs index, and we are in correspondence with Councillor Simon Randall about this. We are quite happy to look at the weighting given to homelessness within the grant-related expenditure for housing to make sure we have the correct weighting.

I hope that I have made it clear that the Government are well aware of the extent of what is sometimes called the London hostel problem. Much of the present stock of accommodation is in hostels or lodging houses concentrated in inner London, which were built many years ago, and some of which now face closure. They are often bleak and unwelcoming and reflect past standards of amenity and past attitudes to single homeless people In the very worst cases they have lacked even basic standards of safety and cleanliness and have been inadequately staffed.

We believe that local authorities have a major part to play in dealing with hostel problems in their area. They have had a variety of powers for many years to enforce higher standards, where necessary, in the declining commercial sector; we have recently strengthened these powers through the Housing Act 1980.

Local authorities can also contribute substantially by investing in the refurbishment and renewal of hostels which they own themselves, and for which they have a direct responsibility. They also have an important contribution to make through enlightened planning policies which will permit the provision of new hostels by the voluntary sector. We are making resources available through our hostels initiative and seeing the first major expansion in hostels expenditure for a generation. London stands to gain a very substantial share of the benefits.

I hope that I have convinced the hon. Gentleman that the Government take the problem seriously, that we have identified the appropriate solutions and that we are moving towards them as fast as we reasonably can.

Question put and agreed to.

House accordingly adjourned at sixteen minutes to Twelve o'clock.