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Council House Sales (Lambeth)

Volume 127: debated on Friday 19 February 1988

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

2.30 pm

I shall make a clarification at the beginning of the debate. The House will hear certain criticisms of Lambeth council's services. They spring from the frustration that is suffered by my constituents and, indeed, by me. They spring from Lambeth's apparent inability to answer letters, answer telephones, make decisions, and maintain its services, especially housing services, which seem to be near collapse. I hold the political leadership of Lambeth council at fault. Typical hard Left leadership is involved in internal feuding and doctrinaire policies. There is a lack of management skills. However, the vast majority of officers of Lambeth council are hard-working and responsible, and they do their best in difficult conditions.

I applied for the Adjournment debate to bring before my hon. Friend Lambeth's failure to meet the legal wishes of council tenants to buy their own homes. About 2,500 tenants are waiting to have their applications processed. Some of them have been waiting since 1986. I am talking about those who have written to me. At least one has been waiting since 1984. Delays in processing the right-to-buy applications spring more from Left wing bias among the leadership of Lambeth council against home ownership than from inefficiency. In support of that, I adduce the fact that, since the right-to-buy was started in 1980, Lambeth council has sold fewer than 2,000 council homes to tenants. Since a year or two before 1980, neighbouring Wandsworth council, which is approximately the same size, on its own initiative, has sold about 10,000 homes —five times as many. That cannot be due to chance or a matter of efficiency or inefficiency. It must be a matter of political will-power.

Most of those who suffer aggravation and delay write to their local councillors, but a number write to me. I shall briefly refer to some of my recent letters. A family in Streatham Hill applied in September 1986. It had telephoned once a week, written to the Department of the Environment and to Lambeth council, but it has had no reply. Applicants in Kings avenue applied in May 1987. A surveyor arrived in August. There have been countless telephone calls. They were told that it will be at least another six months. Applicants in Kings avenue applied in January 1987, but they have heard nothing. An applicant in Dray gardens applied in June 1987, but has heard nothing. Another applicant applied in January 1987. The house was valued in July, but he has heard nothing.

Clearly, there is a great deal of delay, aggravation and frustration. I shall tell the House of my own experience with Lambeth council, which was rather unusual — in certain quarters, anyway. In August last year, I wrote to the director of administration listing a number of constituents who had approached me with difficulties over delay. He answered courteously a few days later saying that he had forwarded the letter to the chief solicitor, Mr. Robert Bloomfield who would contact me. Mr. Bloomfield did not contact me. At the end of September I wrote to him and received no reply. In the middle of October I wrote again to Mr. Bloomfield and received no reply.

In the middle of October I wrote to Mr. John George, chief executive of Lambeth council saying, "For heaven's sake, what is going on?" I received no reply. So I retreated and invited Mr. George to lunch. He was a charming man and was very apologetic. He promised to send me answers to the cases that I had raised. Again, I received nothing. In December, I received three paragraphs saying that I would receive a report by the end of the week. I did not receive it. On 22 December I wrote again to Mr. George and received no reply. On 29 December I wrote to him again and received no reply. Eventually, on 27 January, six months after my first letter he wrote to me in response to one of the very many cases that I had sent to the chief executive. I wrote on 4 February about yet another case and, of course, I received no reply.

The House will understand why I am raising an Adjournment debate on the matter. I advised Mr. George some months ago that I would do so unless I received a reply. If a Member of Parliament, acting in the interests of his constituents, receives such discourteous, inefficient treatment, heaven help the residents of Lambeth.

The second matter that 1 wish to draw to the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Planning relates to service charges. Lambeth is using service charges in an improper and unjust way to penalise those who have bought their council houses and to deter those who might be thinking of buying them. I gave as an example a block of flats in Bushell close, Palace road where a number of tenants bought their flats in 1982 and 1983. The residents were told that they would have to pay a service charge of some £500 a year for which they were invoiced and which they paid. Three years later, in 1987, they received a letter from Lambeth council saying that the matter had been looked into, a mistake had been made and that the service charge would be not £500 a year but £1,000 a year, and that that service charge of £1,000 a year would be backdated to 1984. Therefore, the residents had to pay an additional £500 for 1984, for 1985 and for 1986. That service charge included costs for window cleaners and gardeners. The residents had seen no window cleaners or gardeners during that time.

I add that a number of those cases have been drawn to the attention of the local government ombudsman who, no doubt, is considering them and making a report in due course.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister whether councils have the right to raise such service charges against residents who have bought, are buying or are proposing to buy their council houses? Is there any way in which councils can be deterred from exercising that right? If there is no way of controlling them, a way must be found, otherwise councils can make service charges of £2,000, £3,000, £4,000 or £5,000 a year to frustrate the right-to-buy legislation, if they are doctrinaire and ill-tempered enough to do so.

It has been put to me, and I put it to my hon. Friend the Minister, that the increased complexity introduced by the 1986 legislation may, to some extent, slow down the progress of sales. I am told that the neighbouring borough of Wandsworth used to give a 10-year guarantee on every flat that was sold and, consequently, increase the valuation of that flat. That worked admirably and without any trouble for many years but the council can no longer do that because of the 1986 legislation. I am told that for flats the council must give an estimate of what may need to be done during the five years following the sale. We all know how extraordinarily difficult that would be for private owners, let alone for a council. Furthermore, the law could be interpreted as saying that a full structural survey must be made. Even well-inclined councils are finding that it takes much longer to organise the sale of flats than it did before the 1986 Act, with its increased stipulations against which, I am advised, Wandsworth protested most vigorously during the consultation period before the legislation was promulgated. Its protestations were ignored.

I should be grateful if my hon. Friend would consider that fact to see whether it has caused, in part, some of the log jams in the processing of right-to-buy applications. It certainly gives a field day to the councils that are less well-inclined towards home ownership, such as Lambeth. It seems that the Act, which I supported strongly, encouraged demand, but also created new delays. Perhaps something could be done about that—indeed something certainly should be done in that area.

If Lambeth cannot respond to the perfectly legitimate interests of its tenants—who want to buy their homes and who are supported in that by two Acts of Parliament —either through inefficiency, which I doubt, or through lack of will — I believe that that is the cause of the delays—I urge my hon. Friend to consider Government intervention. As the House knows, the Government have such powers. They have powers to take over the management, to get sales moving and to sort out this situation, which is causing many problems for my constituents.

I suggest that we should consider whether we could privatise — I leave to my hon. Friend the question of whether it is possible to legislate to persuade councils to privatise — because it seems sensible to privatise the valuation of properties and the legal services used. I know that Wandsworth has tried that. I shall not conceal from the House the fact that Wandsworth found difficulty because of the complexity of the 1986 legislation which I have mentioned. However, that apart, it seems sensible to consider whether those valuations, which are at least straightforward, could not be performed by private companies, which are just as expert as the borough valuer. Of course, the borough valuer could then check them to make sure that they were not completely out of line.

The legal services involving the transfer of property and the land registry could also be performed by the private sector. I should add that the delays in Lambeth's land registry services are appalling. I believe that they are running at about 16 weeks whereas Wandsworth takes one week. In 1986, if my memory serves me correctly, Wandsworth carried out about 16,000 checks whereas Lambeth carried out about 13,000, although it has twice the number of staff in its land registry office as Wandsworth. Presumably, Wandsworth is computerised and Lambeth is not, but I do not know.

In conclusion, it is deeply wrong that Parliament's intention to grant home ownership, which coincides with the wishes of many of my constituents, should be frustrated in this way. I have used this Adjournment debate to bring that issue to my hon. Friend's attention and to urge him to consider what can be done to resolve it.

2.44 pm

I am grateful both to the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Shelton) and to the Minister for agreeing to my saying a few words on this subject. Firstly, please let me stress to the hon. Member for Streatham how much I sympathise with the very unequal exchange that he appears to have had with the chief executive for the borough, trading him a lunch for no reply to his letters.

It is very irritating, of course, in either central Government or local government when one does not get a response. I had, for example, exactly the same problem with the Home Secretary on a matter concerning the overcrowding of Brixton prison. I first wrote to him on 23 December. I reminded him again. I have had no reply and it has now been more than two months. I have had to put down a written parliamentary question on the matter, so, of course, it is not simply a matter of local government. None the less the hon. Gentleman has a substantive point in that he is entitled to replies.

I submit that one problem is that of staffing. Lambeth is a rate-capped borough and now has to undertake cuts in anticipated or actual expenditure by £60 million in this coming financial year. That will mean a reduction in the staff involved in housing from around 1,000 to just under 850 persons. Unfortunately, rather than being able to allocate the staff, it may get worse.

I think that the hon. Gentleman has a point on the valuer's staffing. If, indeed, there is twice the staff in Wandsworth, it is well worth looking at. On the other hand I submit to him that private valuation would be very two-edged. After all, there are always two or three firms in the local property market, and as Adam Smith once said, nothing is more certain when two or three producers or entrepreneurs are gathered together, even for merriment of diversion, than that they will seek to conspire against the public interest by a contrivance to raise prices. Perhaps in this case we might retain the safeguard of public valuation.

I have nearly finished these points but the other factors are simply these. Certainly, Lambeth was off to a slow start. There is no doubt that this reflected a certain lack of enthusiasm for sales, partly because—and I think that the hon. Gentleman would admit this—there is a difference here between the north end of the borough and Streatham, although there are big estates in Streatham. In my part of the borough of Lambeth we overwhelmingly have flats rather than houses and there are real problems on sales there. On the service charges, for example, I understand it to be the case in Wandsworth that flats are being sold and that sums of £1,000 are being charged for service charges. However, the hon. Gentleman has a good point when he says that these charges should not be retrospective.

The homelessness problem is really chronic in Lambeth. Naturally, there is a case for a plural housing sector—I finish on this point—of council, private, co-operative, housing association and others. But Lambeth's record is such that in 1986 there were 1,121 applications approved, as I understand it. In 1987 there were 2,575. It has gone up from an average of 93 a month to over 200 a month and I think that, even on the hon. Gentleman's own criteria, the situation is not quite so dire as he suggests.

2.48 pm

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Shelton) and to the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Holland) for the way in which this important little debate has been introduced, because the situation in Lambeth is worrying. From the experience that we have had in the Department I can confirm a good deal of what my hon. Friend says.

First, I shall say why the right-to-buy policy can be of benefit to the borough. I was glad to hear the hon. Member for Vauxhall taking a pragmatic view of this. Certainly, the aim of a mixture of tenures in his and in my hon. Friend's area is a sensible social objective. What is more, in those areas where there is serious dilapidation and problems that often arise from badly designed 1960s estates and other estates, resources are needed. The right to buy and the receipts that arise from it, provide one additional source of such money. It is noticeable that the London boroughs with the most acute problems have been, for perhaps understandable political reasons, slowest to tap that source of money and that must be regretted.

I suspect that there is some political bias against the policy, which has meant that there is a little slackness in the administrative procedures. If there is no leadership, there will not be good organisation. There is another depressing statistic. If Lambeth council brought down the gap in relets to the average level, another 500 lets would be available each year. That would make a big impact, particularly on the bed and breakfast problem.

Something is going wrong in the housing department. The right-to-buy situation has deteriorated. Initially, there was not a great demand in Lambeth. The Department had no reason to believe there was any undue delay. At least, if the system was not very good, it was not very bad. The Department did not receive many complaints, which is a barometer of the situation. The number of complaints to local Members of Parliament is another, and perhaps better, barometer. When we set up the monitoring list, Lambeth was not included among the boroughs. In the initial stages of the right-to-buy process, Lambeth did not handle many cases and, therefore, there were few complaints.

The situation has deteriorated. Although there are now many more applications, there has been an increase in complaints. In the past few months, there has been a 100 per cent. increase in the number of complaints to the Department, in respect of Lambeth. Lambeth is now in the sad position of being in the top five, behind Camden, Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Southwark. That is not a competition that anyone wishes to win. That situation has developed as a result of weakness in administration and organisation and of a lack of political will.

It is difficult to obtain answers from Lambeth. The Department wrote to the chief executive on 23 November. We have not thought of offering him lunch. Perhaps that would be another ploy. After hearing the experiences of my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham, we might send him the bill. The Department requested that measures should be taken to improve matters. We chased things a good deal and eventually received a reply on 27 January. We have continued to take up cases with Lambeth, but without much response.

Like that of my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham, the patience of the Department is not inexhaustible. We shall have to decide whether Lambeth should go back on the list of monitored authorities. Ultimately, we have the doomsday weapon of intervention by the Secretary of State. My right hon. Friend watches these matters closely. Like my hon. Friend, we do not write letters just for fun. We try to ensure that the legal rights of our citizens, about which they feel passionately, are properly protected.

I should like to comment on two points raised by my hon. Friend. First, he suggested contracting out or privatising the process. It is open to local authorities to do that, if that is sensible. Compulsion to do so, when an authority is determined to be obstructive, might not work because there is bound to be a major role for the local authority in that process. It may find ways of making the life of an outside valuer or solicitor extremely difficult. We must try to get the council to do the job properly, one way or another, using our fallback powers if necessary. As many other Labour authorities throughout the country have shown, if they put their backs behind this policy, they can soon get sales going, even for flats.

My hon. Friend made an important point about service charges. I have had the same problem in my constituency in Bristol. We have not necessarily got the legislation right, but it is worth remembering why we took the step and disagreed with Wandsworth over this. We were finding that people were being given estimates for service charges which were instantly shown to be ill-considered, to put it mildly, and perhaps misleading. Bills predicted to be £200 or £300 turned out to be thousands of pounds. We said that the estimates must be binding, so that local authorities would take the matter seriously. As my hon. Friend said, that imposes a legal obligation on a local authority, which involves it in a great deal of work to ensure that the estimates are correct.

As a result of this debate we shall consider the matter again. There is a danger that local authorities could err so far on the side of safety or expense that they could frighten off buyers. The matter must be considered carefully and seriously because, as anyone in the private sector will know, service charges on flats can be high. People buy flats and find themselves landed with higher service charges than they had expected and then get into difficulties.

The intention of the Housing and Planning Act 1986 was to give people security and to stop an authority simply changing estimates radically as soon as a sale had been made. As usual, we had to legislate to deal with an abuse in a few authorities and by doing so we have probably made it more difficult for authorities which were behaving perfectly honourably and sensibly on the previous voluntary system. That is the frustration of this. One takes legislative powers to deal with abuses only to find that one has made life more difficult for those with no intention of abusing the previous system. We shall reconsider the position, but as it is not long since we legislated, perhaps we should let things settle down a little.

There is immense opportunity for Lambeth both to gain more resources for its housing needs, which are acute, and to establish local communities by increasing the level of owner-occupation. If the council followed that policy and put a little more enthusiasm behind the provision of the rights which exist in law, it could not only do good for tenants who seek to exercise their right to buy, but for the borough as a whole. Whether before or after lunch, I hope that the council will take note of this debate and remember that the Government do not legislate for fun or provide themselves with back-up powers for no reason, and that if there is no sign of improvement it will be impossible for my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department not to consider taking further steps of a type most unwelcome to Lambeth, in order to assist my hon. Friend's constituents in achieving their legal rights.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Three o'clock.