HC Deb 07 July 1953 vol 517 cc1208-14

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

11.20 p.m.

Mr. William Irving (Wood Green)

I wish, first, to take the opportunity of expressing our regret that the Minister of Housing and Local Government is indisposed and our wish that he will soon be restored to the Government Front Bench.

In the spring and autumn of 1946–47, the Ministry of Works erected on the Wood Green Borough Council's Perth Road playing fields 89 temporary aluminium bungalows to accommodate families on the council's housing list. The bungalows, which remained the property of the Government, were of prefabricated construction. The roofs were of very low pitch, and the underside of the sloping roof had an insulation attached to it by bitumastic adhesive. Within two years of the occupation of the bungalows the summer heat melted the adhesive and the weight of the insulation caused it to part from the metal, leaving the under side of the roof bare to the elements. The result was that during the cold winter nights there was acute condensation on the exposed metal surface and water dripped on the furniture and the bed clothes, causing great discomfort to the occupants.

Another danger is that there is electrical wiring in the U-shaped members of the roof structure, and these members fill with moisture because of condensation. It is only a matter of time before a short-circuit occurs, possibly with very serious consequences. On one occasion at least the fire brigade was called for this reason.

The tenants have had to put up with deplorable conditions for five years, and many complaints have been received. Investigations were made by the council's officers, and exploratory remedial measures were taken to alleviate the trouble. The Ministry's officials have inspected the bungalows and have agreed to the carrying out of the remedial work.

In October, 1951, the council received the proposals of the Ministry of Local Government and Planning for combating the condensation in the bungalows, which expressed the view that the cost of carrying out the measures should not exceed £25–£30 per bungalow. A further communication about the financial arrangement was promised to local authorities, but this has never materialised.

As a result of a further examination of the bungalows, it appeared that 14 of the 89 were badly affected and should receive treatment on the lines suggested by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government on the recommendations of the Department's officials. Following the inspection, quotations were invited from three firms for carrying out remedial measures to the Ministry's specification. None of the firms had any experience of this type of building and quoted for only one bungalow, reserving the right to amend the quotation after having had experience of the pilot bungalow.

The lowest quotation received was from a local firm, amounting to £26 2s. 9d., which was accepted by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. On completion of the work to the one bungalow, the firm quoting the lowest tender put in an amended quotation for £33 3s. 6d. per bungalow for the remaining work. This figure has not been accepted by the Ministry.

The council consider that the whole cost of the remedial measures, in addition to repairs and decorations, should be borne by the Government. Now, arising from this complaint which I received from the borough council, I put down a Question to the Minister of Housing and Local Government to ask if the Minister would increase the figure of £30 allowed by his Department for remedial measures to combat condensation in these temporary bungalows, and to agree to meet the cost of repairs arising directly from that condensation. I thought that that was a reasonable request, and expected a sympathetic reply; but the reply, when I had it, was disappointing. It was to the effect that £30 had generally proved adequate to meet the cost of the remedial measures recommended by the Building Research Station, particulars of which had been sent to Wood Green Borough Council in September, 1951.

I suggest that costs do not remain stationary in these years, and this added burden is proving to be a great difficulty to Wood Green and other local authorities. We have heard today about the Exchequer Equalisation Grant, and we have also heard recently about de-rating, and since that latter provision was placed on the Statute Book, the burden on local authorities has increased considerably with the result that last year new high levels were reached in increased rates throughout the country. I hope that tonight the Parliamentary Secretary will say that he will meet the cost of these remedial measures; for one thing, the property is not that of the borough council. It is the property of the Government, and the council is merely acting as an agent for the Government which. I suggest, ought reasonably to accept the responsibility.

11.28 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Marples)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Wood Green (Mr. Irving) for his expression of sympathy for my right hon. Friend, who, at this moment, is in hospital, and I will convey those sentiments to him. I am sure he will join with me in appreciation of them.

The House has just listened to a feast of reason on a subject which the hon. Member has raised on more than one occasion. He has given it unremitting and devoted attention, but I would like at the outset to consider the background of the aluminium bungalows because there has been some difficulty due to condensation; and if I call them A-L-U-M-I-N-U-M, instead of "aluminium," I hope that the House will forgive me. During an extensive tour of Canada and the United States, nobody understood me unless I referred to "aluminum," and I find it difficult now to use the word more currently used here.

In March, 1950, trouble occurred in some of the aluminium bungalows, and was found to be due to condensation. They were erected by the previous administration, and the fault was discovered during their term of office. The Building Research Station was invited to examine the bungalows. May I explain that this organisation is the technical branch of the Government concerned with technical defects and errors in buildings of all sorts. It has no political connections. But it has the equipment, and the personnel, and resources to examine any defect. It found that the only way in which the condensation could be removed, with any guarantee of satisfaction, was by thermal insulation of the roofs. That is very expensive, and the experts also found that in most cases, satisfaction could be given by modifying the existing heating systems.

Therefore, the building research station, in August, 1951, advised the then Government—not this Administration, but the previous one—that two alternative methods of amending the heating system should be adopted. Their cost was £25 to £30 for each bungalow, as the hon. Member has said. Full details of these methods were circulated by the Government—again, I stress that that was the previous Administration—and it was agreed, Treasury consent being obtained, that a cost of not more than £30 should be borne by the Exchequer. This was discussed with the local authority associations, who agreed to it.

There were 42,000 of the aluminium bungalows in the country as a whole, of which Wood Green had 89, or just under one-quarter of 1 per cent. Of the 42,000, only 10 per cent., or 4,200, had this defect. Therefore 90 per cent. were satisfactory and 10 per cent. unsatisfactory. Wood Green had 14 which were unsatisfactory, which was just over one-quarter of 1 per cent. of the total that were unsatisfactory. Therefore, Wood Green is a representative sample of the country as a whole. They had just under one-quarter of 1 per cent. of the total bungalows, and just over one-quarter of 1 per cent. of those that were defective were in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. That is the background.

Consider the case of Wood Green in particular. Wood Green, I think, made a mistake. Details of the remedial measures which should be taken were issued to local authorities in September, 1951. Had Wood Green been like other authorities and effected the remedial measures in August and September, 1951, or perhaps later that year, they would have been able to carry out those measures at a cost of £30 or less per bungalow. Wood Green did not, however, act on the advice given by the hon. Gentleman's own Government. They experimented themselves, and they did not act with that degree of celerity with which one would expect Wood Green to act.

Mr. Irving

Was that not because a further circular was promised in 1951, but it never materialised? They may have been waiting for that circular.

Mr. Marples

The reason why Wood Green were tardy and a little timorous is not for me to say.

Mr. Irving

I think that that is the answer.

Mr. Marples

It may be the reason, but it is not an excuse.

Most local authorities carried out the remedial measures at once, at a cost of under £30. Wood Green tried some of their own measures. They had their own technicians. They altered the ventilators, put lining on the ceilings, and carried out their own remedial measures for about 12 months. Their remedial measures were not successful, however, whereas those of the Building Research Station were successful. Therefore, it was not until a year later, in September, 1952, 12 months after the original instructions were sent out to local authorities, that Wood Green decided to carry out the recommendations of the Building Research Station.

Mr. Irving

Is it not true to say that they carried out this remedial work with the consent of the Ministry's officials?

Mr. Marples

It may be true, but it does not absolve Wood Green from responsibility. The Ministry officials did not control the matter and did not take the initiative. The initiative came from Wood Green, and they took it entirely on their own responsibility.

As I say, in September, 1952, after waiting a year, Wood Green tried the measures recommended by the hon. Gentleman's own Government on advice from the Building Research Station. They had 14 houses suffering from condensation, but they were rather timid and ventured only on one house. They got the work for that one carried out for the sum of £28. When that was successful, they waited until January, 1953—a considerable time after September, 1951—to carry out remedial measures on the remaining 13 houses. On this occasion it came to £33.

The hon. Member said that costs did not remain stationary, and I agree. That is all the more reason why Wood Green should have moved earlier in the matter rather than later. Shakespeare said: Call back yesterday, bid time return. But time will not return. It would appear that this will cost Wood Green more than about £30 which most local authorities paid. There is no hope of the Government providing more than £30.

Mr. Irving

How can the local authority carry out the work if no contractor will contract for less than £33?

Mr. Marples

The point I am trying to make is that from September, 1951, to September, 1952, the work could have been carried out for £30. If Wood Green does not move until 1953, 1954, 1955 or 1956, obviously it will cost more, and not only from the contractural point of view. It is a trite saying, but "A stitch in time saves nine." This is a powerful argument in the case of repairs. We all know that if a leaking roof or a sea wall is not repaired immediately more damage is done. The fault here lies with the Wood Green authority. If they had carried out the work straight away it would have been done, as for other local authorities, for less than £30. There is no hope that this will be reviewed by the Government.

Mr. Irving

Fourteen of the 89 have been affected and quite a number more may be affected this year or next year. Are we to take it that £30 is all that will be allowed in spite of rising costs?

Mr. Marples

If it has not occurred already it is hardly likely to occur in the future.

Mr. Irving

I hope the Minister is right.

Mr. Marples

It only occurs in houses where conditions are exposed or there is a great deal of moisture.

The £30 grant will not be increased, I want to make that clear. But if the total annual outgoings on the aluminium bungalows are in excess of £8 the local authority can apply for a reduction. So far there has been no sign of Wood Green wishing to take advantage of that facility.

Wood Green is the only authority I know about who have complained. Of the 42,000 bungalows, 4,200 were found with moisture. Most of them have been settled satisfactorily. The reason the £30 was not adequate in the case of Wood Green was because the local authority did not carry out the work quickly enough. They had their own ideas of how to remedy the defect. Unfortunately their ideas were not as sound as those of the Building Research Station. If they had been the authority would not afterwards have carried out the recommendations of the Building Research Station. If Wood Green spends more than £8 a year on the maintenance of the bungalows there is provision whereby the council can make application to the Minister.

Mr. Irving

Does that £8 include decoration? Because of condensation, the bill for decoration has increased considerably.

Mr. Marples

The Wood Green Council has given no sign, so far, of wishing to make a claim under the Section. If it does make a claim, the Minister or I will consider it sympathetically.

Adjourned accordingly at Nineteen Minutes to Twelve o'Clock.