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Metropolitan Trust Estate, Hemel Hempstead

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Sackville.]

11.54 pm

Mr. Robert B. Jones (Hertfordshire, West) : I welcome the opportunity to introduce this short debate on the supervision of housing associations and the importance of ensuring that bodies entrusted with public money are well run and considerate to their tenants.

Housing associations are like local authorities ; some are good--I have been involved with some in my constituency, the performance of which is excellent--and some are bad. The debate is about the performance of one housing association--the Metropolitan housing trust, which is known to me because of its ownership of a small estate in my constituency, Woodhall farm, Hemel Hempstead. The history of the estate is substandard building, negligent maintenance, botched workmanship and complete contempt by the trust for the views and conditions of my constituents who have the misfortune to be its tenants.

I have been dealing with tenants' problems since I was elected in June 1983, often with a bewildering succession of officials and at least two chairmen. Correspondence has been protracted and fills half a drawer of my filing system. I have had numerous meetings with representatives of the trust, individual tenants and their leaders and the local authority. On one occasion, I chaired a public meeting of the tenants, at which trust representatives were present. I am sorry to say that all this effort appears to have made little difference to the trust's attitude. My last resort, therefore, is to place the facts in the public domain and rely on the reputation of my hon. Friend the Minister for concern about the problems of public sector tenants, when their landlords are indifferent to their plight.

The estate at Woodhall farm was built by Fairview Estates in the late 1970s as a speculative development. The majority of the housing there is owner- occupied, but certain areas were acquired by outside public bodies. Those formerly owned by the Greater London council are now in the hands of Dacorum borough council, although many have now been bought under the right to buy. This debate is about the smallest group--those acquired by the Metropolitan housing trust, a charitable housing association set up and funded by the Labour-controlled London borough of Haringey.

The Metropolitan housing trust owns 117 three and four-bedroom houses, which are occupied primarily by families originating from north London. In fairness to it, it must be said that there is substantial circumstantial evidence that the housing was substandard at purchase. Tacit recognition of this is evident from Fairview Estates' agreement to carry out certain remedial works and the company's financial compensation paid to another housing association on the estate, the Circle 33 housing trust, despite the passage of 10 years since construction. It must, nevertheless, be obvious that the trust did not take the prudent steps necessary to know what problems might lie ahead. The elementary piece of advice, caveat emptor, seems not to have been followed.

Residents have watched the steady decline of the condition of their homes in contrast to the generally

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well-maintained and managed local authority and owner-occupied parts of the estate. Although all the properties were built to the same specification, there is a clear difference between their condition now. The initial poor workmanship has therefore been exacerbated by the Metropolian housing trust's failure to carry out effective repairs over the past 10 years.

Most obvious of the defects in maintenance is the condition of the paintwork, which is a disgrace. A casual visitor to the estate would be struck forcibly by the peeling paintwork and rotten woodwork. No effective painting cycle has ever been in effect. As a result, comparatively trivial maintenance problems have deteriorated through inattention. I will give one example of what I mean. My constituent, Mrs. A, had occasion to report three years ago that part of her door frame was rotten. Without attention in the meantime, it has now become necessary to replace the entire porch.

There are many other such problems, and during the past few years I have taken officials and members of the trust on inspection tours. All of them have been shocked by what they have seen. I should not want my hon. Friend the Minister to think that this was a problem that only a lick of paint could cure. My constituent Mr. L has had to put up with his garden wall collapsing on to a parked van. Even after part of the wall was demolished and rebuilt at the instigation of the trust, Dacorum borough council's chief planning officer had to write in March 1988 in these terms :

"The defects referred to have not been rectified by the works and are likely to constitute a danger to the public in the near future under the provisions of the Building Act 1984".

Yet another botched job! Simple repairs have taken three to five years. Kitchen cupboards have crashed to the floor having been fixed to the wall by four floorboard nails instead of screws. Typical of the trust's approach, even now, is the repainting of a rotten frame by one workman, followed a few weeks later by a carpenter who has cut out the rotten wood, leaving the new wood unpainted. No doubt that will be rotten by the time it is painted again.

My constituents are reasonable people driven to the point of despair. One of them, Mr. Fred Rantle, has led an excellent campaign to get the Metropolitan housing trust to face up to its responsibilities and to provide an acceptable repair service. He is now chairman of the residents' group and has been helping other tenants with advice. I would like especially to thank him for his work and encouragement.

The trust itself recognises the repair backlog. It commissioned a professional survey between April and June 1986, which concluded that £500,000 needed to be spent. That amount must be higher now because of the passage of time. As a result of this survey by the trust, the officers of the trust reported to its members in October 1986 : "Members have been aware for a considerable length of time of significant defects to the dwellings at the above estate. These defects, due to their severity, have never been able to be handled in a comprehensive manner."

We then come down to the basic problem of money. The trust itself is in deficit by a reputed £500,000. No doubt that is due to mismanagement, as always. It has, therefore, three basic options. First, it approached the London borough of Haringey, which predictably shirked its responsibilities. I feel, as do my constituents, that this attitude owes much to the fact that they have no votes in Haringey and can therefore safely be treated with

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contempt. That failure by Haringey was confirmed by the trust's director in a letter to me dated 21 June 1988, in which he said : "First of all it has become clear that the London Borough of Haringey have no intention or capability of providing major repairs funding for the estate at the moment."

The second option to be examined was to ask the Housing Corporation for more money. That is quite unacceptable as the taxpayer has already paid for the houses and is entitled to expect them to be properly maintained. I believe that the trust has had a dusty answer from the Housing Corporation. The third option--the only practicable one--is for the trust to raise the money from sales of its property, which is what it is now doing. That brings me to a parallel, but related, bone of contention between the tenants and the trust. Since moving to Hemel Hempstead, many of the tenants have prospered. They see around them council tenants who have become owner- occupiers and, quite naturally and justifiably, they themselves have aspirations to see their hard work rewarded by similar status. On behalf of a number of families, I have repeatedly pressed the trust to allow tenants to purchase. Predictably, the trust's members, who I believe are all owner- occupiers themselves, have denied that opportunity to their fellow citizens.

Given the financial circumstances, however, needs have triumphed over ideology and the need to raise £500,000 has moved minds. But that is the only silver lining in a very clouded sky and even that silver lining is tarnished. First, the discounts being allowed are mean in the extreme and are far inferior to those operating under the right to buy. It is grossly unfair to see similarly placed tenants in identical houses, funded entirely by public money, being faced with wholly different prices for a home of their own, depending on whether they are a council or housing association tenant. Much of that unfairness was discussed at length together with the repair problem, at a meeting for all tenants which I chaired in November 1987. It was attended by nearly every tenant and voted unanimously to request the same terms as those operating under the right to buy. Needless to say, the tenants' views were wholly ignored by the trust.

The trust went ahead with its own terms and circulated tenants in December 1987. The reaction was clear. Of the 30 families expressing an interest in purchase, only a handful could accept the terms. Some of these have now completed, but several other injustices have surfaced. One family which was originally unable to buy has since benefited from improved financial circumstances. With my support, it approached the trust to be reconsidered. The door was slammed in its face.

There is a sting in the tail, which will really shock my hon. Friend, if he has not already been disgusted enough by the trust's behaviour. The Metropolitan housing trust, a bastion of Stalinism to the end, has included a strict covenant in the contract imposing conditions on the new owners right down to the paint that they can use--a supreme irony in view of the trust's paint-free history. The conveyance also stipulates that purchasers should submit to the Metropolitan housing trust, with a fee, any request for alterations and extensions, despite the fact that these matters are properly dealt with under planning law. The ex-Metropolitan tenant will thus be left a semi-serf in his own home.

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I am afraid that I have one more major complaint. Recently, tenants denied the opportunity to buy have been angered to see vacant houses on the estate sold on the open market. Perfect strangers can buy the association's houses, whereas long-standing tenants cannot. I am also told that the restrictive covenants do not apply to those sales, although I have been unable to confirm that point.

The evidence is damning in the extreme. In my view, the Housing Corporation should hold a full inquiry into the management of the Metropolitan housing trust and its finances. It should visit the estate and meet the tenants, who can add volumes of damning evidence. I have a petition signed by virtually every tenant, except those who were not in on three separate visits. The petition calls for a public inquiry--a call that I support. I would add a request that my hon. Friend looks closely at the principle of whether a housing body funded by a local authority should be allowed to own property beyond its own boundaries.

In its own conditions of tenancy the trust undertakes to obey these two conditions, among others :

"C.1.a) The Trust shall be responsible for all repairs and redecorations to the exterior of the premises

b) The Trust shall be responsible for the repair and maintenance of the structure of the premises."

In view of its abject failure to fulfil those conditions, I believe that the Housing Corporation should order the trust to be wound up and its assets transferred to another body that is more competent and considerate of its tenants.

Finally, I place on record my appreciation to the two Conservative councillors for this ward, Mike Griffiths and Denis Samuels, who have consistently supported the tenants' case, and, above all, to the tenants themselves, who have been prepared to fight for their rights.

In another debate on another subject, I might have used the phrase "battering one's head against a brick wall." In the context of the trust's shoddy masonry, I shall simply invite the Minister to give its tottering establishment one last shove.

12.8 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. David Trippier) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) on securing the debate. My hon. Friend has in his constituency many properties run by housing associations in a very proper manner and I am grateful to him for his kind remarks about those associations.

Naturally, I am sorry to hear that my hon. Friend thinks that the attitude of one association towards its tenants lacks the care that is traditional. I am sure that we all suffer from day-to-day worries about repairs to our homes but perhaps in this case there are more serious problems attributable to the original construction which are a worry to Metropolitan's management as well as to its tenants. Having promoted housing associations, the Government want to be confident that they will continue in their tradition of being responsible landlords. Through its normal monitoring and reporting system, the Housing Corporation is prepared to get to grips with a registered association that is demonstrably remiss. It is aware of the problems at the Woodhall estate, and in view of the

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concern that my hon. Friend has clearly expressed this evening, I shall ensure that the Housing Corporation makes proper inquiries. My hon. Friend raised a specific point about ownership. We have always been cautious about interfering with the acquisition and disposal of housing association stock. The right to buy is deservedly popular with council tenants who wish to progress to home ownership. I can understand why the home ownership scheme for tenants of charitable housing associations is close to my hon. Friend's heart. At this stage, he would not expect me to pass judgment on why one association has acted in a particular way on a particular estate. For all I know, its committee may be pressed by circumstances to take a line that is unpopular with several tenants to safeguard the interests of most. Again, in view of my hon. Friend's concern, I will see how the Housing Corporation views the matter.

Although the management of housing association grant has now been delegated almost entirely to the Housing Corporation, my Department was previously extensively involved in the details of new build and conversion schemes that attracted grant. Doubtless there were occasions when, for example, grant was withheld on work done when additional expenditure was incurred without proper consultation with the guardians of the public purse. Housing associations involved in building work with our

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financial help need to understand that they must respect the same discipline over expenditure using public money as they will have to when spending the private funding that is increasingly flowing to them. Similarly, they cannot automatically assume that they can continue to make substantial calls on the public purse if they run into problems. They may need to take tough decisions on how to finance solutions from their own resources.

I will take seriously the information that my hon. Friend gave the House. My hon. Friend is a staunch supporter of the housing association movement and of the Government's policies as enshrined in the Housing Act 1988. For those reasons particularly, I am taking seriously what he said. The Government's provision of public money for housing associations and our responsibility for the nation's housing policy mean that we need to make sure that there is appropriate oversight of the process, and not just setting up and running housing associations. All too often, the anti-social activities of a minority are unreasonably used to condemn all private sector landlords, and I include housing associations.

We need to check that associations are not only properly motivated but will have all the financial, managerial, technical and social skills to manage and service property and investment and to serve their clients' needs. I repeat my assurance to my hon. Friend : when the Housing Corporation has carefully examined the points that he has raised, I will be in touch with him.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes past Twelve o'clock.

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