19 MAY 1973, Page 22

Housing and colour— the problems • and some answers

Reg Freeson

If the housing problems peculiar to Commonwealth immigrants and their descendants are to be tackled, their relation to general housing and other social problems must be clearly understood. In the main Commonwealth citizens' difficulties are those of most workers on the move in our society. But they have colour as well as class discrimination to contend with.

The greatly increased Commonwealth immigration during the past 18 years coincided with increased migration generally into and within the conurbation areas, particularly Greater London and the West Midlands. As the more successful families moved out of the inner rings they were rapidly replaced by people — coloured and white—on the move.

There is nothing new in this, except in the increased tempo of movement. Immigrants and migrants have always gravitated to the older parts of our cities.

There they have some chance of rehousing by slum clearance, although residential qualifications give them low priority on council waiting lists. In most built up areas today the only way to build new is to clear old districts. Displaced families are then often rehoused whether or not on the waiting list. But councils are often selective in rehousing—refusing to do so if people have not resided for more than two to three years, or putting them in old houses soon for demolition.

With the possibility that coloured immigrants may be re housed irrespective of waiting lists, and in previously all-white areas, there is much pressure on councils to delay or 're-phase' slum clearance in areas of immigrant settlement, even though this means that larger numbers of native-born are thus condemned also to stay in the slums. The situ ation is worsened by the refusal of outer metropolitan boroughs to contribute land for housing fami lies from inner twilight areas in need of renewal. Thus class and race prejudice take precedence over housing and planning needs.

Meanwhile, Commonwealth immigrants face the marked degree

of discrimination by some private landlords against letting to coloured tenants and the fact that, where these lettings occur, the rents are generally higher. These difficulties have led to widespread purchase of houses by coloured immigrants. Capital raising is done by great thrift and 'community pooling' of resources.

Owner-occupation in blighted areas is not confined to immigrants. It is an important new factor in slum clearance. Over many years the residents in such areas have been overwhelmingly tenants, but a growing percentage today are owner-occupiers. Some local authority slum clearance action adds to the difficulties of recent comers—Commonwealth immigrants and others—who object strongly to becoming tenants again after they have struggled to become home owners. Either they., go on the move again or become unwilling local estate tenants.

Unfortunately, too, immigrants are often the victims of inexperience and ignorance of the traps of the housing market and of exploitation by a disreputable fringe of people making quick profits out of their difficulties. Self-styled 'estate agents', unscrupulous mortgage brokers, and certain building societies; moneylenders and solicitors charge big fees for minimal services and offer mortgages at highly excessive interest rates. The immigrant purchaser becomes the owner of poor property for which he has paid too high a price, saddled with rates, interest and mortgage repayments far beyond his means, and with obligations for repair which he can not fulfil.

Moreover, some landlords provide a cynical answer to the hous

ing shortage by putting large houses to more 'profitable' multi,

occupied use. They are joined by some immigrant entrepreneurs with economic initiative and limited social sensibilities, to whom building societies, 'finance corporations' and money-lenders will give short term loans at high interest. The landlord thus rackrents at from £6 to £8 and more per one or two rooms per week.

The sale value of multi-occupied rented property goes up un less it is held at the fag end of a lease. Therefore once a house becomes multi-occupied it is very tlifficult to reverse the process without the intervention of hardpressed local authority health in spectors. Under the 1964 and 1969 Housing Acts they can give notices requiring basic amenities, such as toilets, sinks, hot water, etc, to be installed, and limitation on the future number of residents as some vacate their rooms. They can register .multi-occupied properties and in extreme cases a control order can be placed on the property, bringing it under local authority management. But these ' powers can only be applied after the bad conditions arise and are actually discovered. There is a great shortage of health inspectors and they are undermined by the protracted procedures laid down in the Health and Housing Acts. These allow bad landlords to play cat and mouse games with local authorities for a long time before conditions can be fectitied.

Bad housing is found in two types of neighbourhood. We have obsolete and ill-equipped property built to house working-class people in the nineteenth century; and we have houses originally built for better-off families who have long since moved to other districts. These houses, now subdivided and lacking toilets, baths, hot water, wiring, and so forth, are the characteristic 'zones of transition' of newcomers, white or coloured.

The housing problems of our big cities are not amenable to easy all-embracing solutions. But a number of answers clearly emerge, on which both national and local government could take immediate steps. The necessary legislation has for the most part been introduced during the past few years; the 1969 Housing Act, 1968 Town Planning Act, Social Needs Act 1968, 1967, Social Services Act 1969.

The first step must be to reinstate the house-building programmes which many priority area local authorities cut back during 1968 to 1971. This is closely linked with the slowdown in slum clearance which must be reversed.

The chief obstacle to housing advance in twilight districts is the fragmentation of local authority efforts in unrelated actions, policies and cumbersome procedures. Separate powers and departments are used for slum clearance, for comprehensive development schemes, for improving properties, controlling multi-occupation and insanitary conditions, seeking basic amenity standards, car park planning, road improvements, extending school playgrounds and open spaces, planting trees, providing community buildings, and for many other things.

Instead of this local authorities should organise combined assaults on all these problems in specific districts. Teams of town planners, architects, social workers, health inspectors, housing managers, educationalists, community leaders, should plan for the phased control, improvement and, redevelopment of such areas, integrated with social development programmes.

Local authorities should exercise their new powers under the 1969 Housing Act to control lettings and conditions by registration. They should directly or in association with housing societies acquire property over the areas, require improvements as a condition of allowing lettings, or under take improvements direct. The object would be to establish control over properties in prospective twilight areas before deterioration really sets in, not afterwards.

More public health inspectors are essential. Their recruitment and training is quite inadequate. Provided they were. available, local government could absorb. twice their present number jn valuable work. Meanwhile, their duties should be reviewed to allow employment of more technical assistants for much routine work.

Different Housing Subsidy Acts have helped local authorities with special problems considerably. But some still hold back because of the heavy cost of refinancing old debts, of buying and clearing inner twilight areas, of environmental improvements, holding property well ahead of renewal programmes, high staffing on capital programmes and the Government's rigid cost yardstick.

The Government should consider wiping off some of the old debts or introducing a broad urban renewal subsidy for councils to build, buy and modernise whole areas of our cities, covering housing and other community needs, A state financed urban renewal development corporation (similar to those for the new towns) should also be set up to service the city authorities with the biggest problems. And there should be legal registration of estate agents and accommodation agencies. Legislation should establish that any agent has a professional responsibility towards prospective buyers and tenants, as well as vendors and landlords, regarding the physical and legal conditions of property negotiated. The practice of "let the buyer beware "should be ended.

The potential of housing as-. sociations cannot be realised while they remain so fragmented in their organisation and financing. Urgent thought should be given to combining the work of the Housing Corporation and the National Federation of Housing Societies and encouraging cooperative association between societies in the older parts of cities.

Most local authorities are still not organised to sponsor housing association activity in their areas, despite the new powers and resources given in recent legislation. And where they do help, there has been an unhealthy tendency in recent years for this to be a substitute for local government action on housing instead of an extension of its work. The important thing is for government and local authorities to take a positive posture right down the line into the community, across a much wider field of housing than in the past. The problems in old districts are so great that if we are to avoid runaway decay and serious social strife in the near future, every social agency must be brought to bear on them in an urgent, sustained and integrated effort.

Reg Freeson, Labour MP for Willesden East, is shadow minister for housing.