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Local Authority Tenants (Heating Charges)

Volume 22: debated on Tuesday 20 April 1982

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3.31 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to confer on local authority tenants a right of access to accounts forming the basis of communal heating charges and a right to be consulted before such charges are fixed; and for purposes relating thereto.
The Bill would give to council tenants rights which Parliament has already given to tenants of private landlords and to tenants of housing associations. Under the Housing Act 1980, when a private landlord levies a charge for services provided to a tenant, such as a charge for communal heating, the tenant has a right to get information about the accounts on which the charge is based and a right to challenge the level of the charge as unreasonable in the courts. Council tenants have no such rights.

The rights of private tenants in more detail are as follows. The tenant can demand to have a summary of costs giving rise to a service charge, including a heating charge. He can then demand to see the accounts and receipts on which the charge is based. If he thinks that the charge is too high for the service provided, he can take the point to the county court, whose decision is binding on the landlord, or he can pay only what he thinks is reasonable and leave it to the landlord to take him to court. This is a package of extremely valuable rights which tenants can use to avoid being over-charged for heating and other services. Council tenants are, of course, given rights also under the 1980 Act, but not those I have just described relating to service or heating charges.

Local authorities are obliged to consult their tenants on matters of housing management, but charges for heating or other services are specifically excluded from the definition of housing management by section 42(3) of the Act.

If it is argued that the mere fact that a local authority is an elected body should make it unnecessary to give council tenants the same rights as private tenants, I would point out that elected bodies are sometimes guilty of action just as high-handed and unfair as private landlords.

A more serious argument would be that section 159 of the Local Government Act 1972 gives everyone a right of access to accounts, including bills, vouchers and receipts, of a local authority. To that, the answer is that without any obligation on the authority to provide a summary of the costs specifically relating to a heating charge, no member of the public could possibly identify and draw together the relevant information unless he was a chartered accountant and district auditor who had missed his profession. Even if he did manage to dig out all the information explaining the level of the charge, he would still not have the right the private tenant has to challenge the reasonableness of it in the county court.

It is particularly wrong for Parliament to discriminate against council tenants on this matter, because those council tenants who have communal heating systems pay far more for their heating than anyone else would consider remotely reasonable.

In my Adjournment debate on 31 July last year, I showed that on average council tenants with communal heating systems pay about double what most others pay for the same service. They pay double what the gas boards and the Department of Energy publish as normal costs. The difference is not explained by the fact that many communal systems use oil, whose price has overtaken that of gas. Even when using the same fuel, many communal systems cost tenants far more than systems with separate boilers in each house or flat under individual tenant control.

Some examples drawn from my own constituency are as follows. On the Packington Square estate, the charge in a three-bedroom maisonette is about £500 a year. For that one gets hot water and space heating in only the sitting room, dining room and hall—no heating in any of the bedrooms.

In Jessop Court, one pays about the same for a three-bedroom maisonette, and besides hot water all one gets is hot air from one central heating column blown into the sitting room, the hall and the kitchen. Few people, of course, want extra heating in their kitchens, but the architects who have over the years treated council tenants as guinea pigs for their diseased imaginations are unaware of that fact.

On the Golden Lane estate belonging to the City of London, the occupant of a bedsitter now pays about £370 for hot water and one space heating outlet.

On the Delhi-Outram estate, a modern and efficient system with heating in every room costs tenants £680 a year for eight radiators and hot water.

Why are the charges so much higher than in individually controlled systems? It is partly because the systems are old, partly because they are inefficiently serviced, partly because the efficient systems must subsidise the inefficient ones and partly because with most communal systems the tenant either has no control of the system at all or, if he can turn it off, he gets no financial gain from doing so. So, even if the house is unoccupied all day while everyone is out at work, the tenant cannot save money by turning the heating off.

Where the systems provide only partial heating, tenants must supplement, usually with forms of heating such as electric fires which are particularly expensive, so they lose all round. When the systems break down, as they not infrequently do, it is the devil's own job to screw any refund at all out of a local authority.

The whole situation begs for some central body to take an interest and to do some central research. One would think that with energy saving so much in the air, the Department of the Environment would at least be prepared to collect some sample figures throughout the country to see just how big the problem is and what we might do about it. But two successive Department of the Environment Ministers have refused my request to do exactly that, and the Department of Energy seems to be doing no more about it. I still hope that it will summon up the energy to reply to a recent letter from me on the subject.

But even if those Departments took the interest that they should take, there would still be a need for the Bill I am proposing. Tenants faced with bills double the size of what they should be ought to have a right to get at the costs behind them and ought to be able to challenge the reasonableness of the charge in the courts just as private tenants can. My Bill would give them the right to have a summary of the calculations behind the charge, just like a private tenant; the right to see the books, just like a private tenant; and the right to challenge the charge as unreasonable in the county court, just like a private tenant.

It is worth pointing out that any council tenant who buys the leasehold of his flat under the right-to-buy legislation and who has a communual heating system will have the rights of a private tenant with regard to a heating charge. He will have the rights, but the person next door who continues to be a weekly tenant will not have those same rights.

If the Government mean what they say about enfranchising the council tenant, they will accept this proposal in principle. I shall be happy to negotiate with the Government on the exact drafting of the Bill, which might present some minor difficulties.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. George Cunningham, Mr. David Alton, Mr. W. Benyon, Mr. Peter Bottomley, Mr. John Cartwright, Mr. Bruce Douglas-Mann, Mr. Christopher Price and Mr. Phillip Whitehead.