HC Deb 03 December 1964 vol 703 cc915-26

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

12.20 a.m.

Mr. Charles R. Morris (Manchester, Openshaw)

I welcome the opportunity tonight to speak of a subject which, in the years ahead, could be the means of immeasurably improving the lives of those citizens of Manchester and its environs who have, for far too long, been obliged to live in housing conditions which can only be described, putting the best face on things, as deeply disquieting and unsatisfactory.

I should like first of all to refer to the general situation by saying that the Lancashire and Merseyside Industrial Development Association, in its report on development prospects and needs to the North-West Regional Study Group, stated that against the background of Manchester's growth as a provincial capital, its housing and urban renewal problem was one of the most serious in the country. I hope that the Minister of Housing and Local Government will take the first opportunity, although I appreciate his many commitments, to travel north to Manchester to apprise himself of the problem at first hand.

If I may now move from the general to the particular, I would tell the House that a recent survey in the Openshaw constituency covering the Gibbon-street, Bradford, Kay-street, Openshaw, and Harlston-street, Openshaw, areas, indicated that of 492 houses inspected, 489 had sagging roofs, 492 had bulging walls, and 272 were homes which were denied adequate natural light and ventilation. Taking Manchester as a whole, the number of such houses still to be demolished as at 30th June, 1964, was 49,600. One may well ask what effect do these conditions have on the health of those obliged to live in them?

In this regard, I should like to refer to Dr. Metcalf Brown, the distinguished Medical Officer of Health for Manchester, who, in a report on an investigation into infant mortality in the city in 1961, stated: Even under the best conditions of housing and maternal and medical care, the mortality from infectious diseases is high under the age of one year. It is not surprising, therefore, that infants condemned to live otherwise are not only more susceptible to infection, but also more likely to succumb. This is the extent of a very moving human problem—the extent to which decent, industrious people have been obliged to live. The housing conditions here are an affront to human dignity, while successive Ministers of Housing and Local Government have obliged the city to tread what even the most prejudiced observer will agree has been a long, frustrating and weary road in its efforts to rehouse her people.

Perhaps I may be allowed to recall what, in fact, has happened consequent to the announcement by the then Minister of Housing and Local Government, that he was considering in November, 1951, the establishment of a new town for about 60,000 people at Congleton in Cheshire. In two short years, that mirage faded, and by March, 1953, the then Minister, Mr. Harold Macmillan, the former right hon. Member for Bromley, had decided not to proceed with his proposal, and the project was abandoned. However, in April of the same year, the city council, against its background of desperate need for housing sites, sought Ministerial authority to undertake development at Mobberley and Lymm. In October, 1954, the Minister, for one reason or another, rejected both these applications.

In January, 1955, there was a new Minister—the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Streatham (Mr. Sandys)— and an ageing problem. The new Minister said he quite appreciated Manchester's problem, and he decided to visit the city. In September, 1955, he visited Manchester, and certain overspill sites, including Lymm, and undertook to consider the problem.

Alas, before he could make up his mind, he had departed from the Ministry, to be followed by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hampstead (Mr. Brooke), who made it clear that he was not prepared to give a decision but invited the Corporation to make application for any area or areas which it thought were appropriate. They took him at his word and resubmitted Lymm for which they had previously applied in 1953. The subsequent public inquiry rejected the application and this decision was later endorsed by the Minister. The corporation was then obliged to have recourse to the development of a multiplicity of small sites around the city—Hattersley, Marple, Handford, etc., etc., and so to Westhoughton.

On 31st July, 1963, the Manchester City Council made a compulsory purchase order in respect of the land at Westhoughton in Lancashire. There then ensued one of the most fiercely contested public inquiries of all time. We even had the remarkable situation where one reverend gentlemen held a service of divine intercession for his parishioners in order to keep Manchester's homeless at bay. Good Samaritans are hard to come by in the field of housing. However, the reverend gentleman did not really need to rely solely on divine providence, for we now had yet another new Minister—the right hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph) who, despite any other faults he might have, could never be accused of rushing decisions. In fact, the city is still awaiting the decision on that inquiry.

Following renewed deputations and pressure, the new Minister conceded that the solution to the city's housing problem lay in the provision of a new town. Therefore, to meet Manchester's housing needs, which at 1st January, 1964, stood at 70,300, he made the momentous announcement on 16th June this year—four Ministers and 13 years after—that he proposed to designate an area east of Warrington as a new town to meet the housing needs of Manchester and its neighbours.

As I indicated in the House on that occasion, this location would make almost total the urbanisation of the whole of the South Lancashire area between Manchester and Liverpool. It is an area where 1,100 men have recently lost their jobs through redundancy. It is the area eloquently described in the following extract from the annual report of the Lancashire branch of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England.

The report says: The scheme is far from an attractive one regarded solely from the point of view of those who will come to live at Risley because it is low lying and subject to frequent and persistent natural fog throughout the autumn months and being on the downwind side of large concentrations of industry and houses, including in the near future the Fiddlers Ferry Power Station, may well be subject to 'smog' as well. Other disadvantages are the scale and unsightliness of the wartime development which will cost so much to clear away and the fact that the surrounding district, whilst open farmland, is also flat and visually unimpressive. There are no hills and valleys as at Skelmersdale or riverside escarpment as at Runcorn. Many people will doubt that it can ever be made into an attractive and stimulating town to which the citizens of Manchester can be encouraged to settle and stay, especially at a time of almost full employment when it will have to compete with many more attractive places. My only comment, if I may be forgiven for making it, is that for Manchester people it would be a move from industrial haze to autumnal fog in one bronchial move.

This was the area in which, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Newton (Mr. Lee) pointed out, all railway lines are due for closure. I am well aware that the former Minister of Transport made confusion worse confounded by stating after the announcement on Risley that, despite his decision to close the stations, he would leave the rail tracks down in case they might be needed. How Gilbertian can one get?

In the six months since the Risley announcement, even the most charitable could hardly claim that the Ministry has demonstrated any degree of urgency in its approach to the issue. The sum total of its efforts has been to carry out a land survey in the area, employing three men. I do not dispute that such a survey is essential, but why was it not carried out when Manchester Corporation gave its view on the site in January, 1963? Why did not the Minister proceed with the appointment of a chairman of the development corporation and the associated procedures if in fact he believed that Risley was acceptable?

For my part, I take the view that Risley might serve as an overspill development area. I would hesitate in endorsing entirely the suggestion that it be designated as a new town. I must stress to the Parliamentary Secretary and my right hon. Friend that time is now the essence of the problem. Urgency has never been more urgent.

Mr. Stanley Orme (Salford, West)

Many hon. Members from this side of of the House are from the Manchester and Salford area and we note, unfortunately, that there are no Members on the other side from that area or from Cheshire which we are speaking about tonight. The problem of Cheshire and the opposition that the Conservatives have consistently shown to a new town over 13 years, has been based purely on political considerations. Unfortunately the hon. and gallant Member for Knutsford (Sir W. Bromley-Davenport) is not present—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

This is a long intervention.

Mr. Morris

Thank you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I appreciate the interest demonstrated by my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme) and my hon. Friends that Members for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Rose) and Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Alfred Morris). If I may continue with the point I had in mind, may I turn to the question put by my hon. Friend about the Cheshire sites which have been the subject of examination in the past, the sites at Congleton, Lymm, Mobberley, plus Knutsford.

I support the view that the balance of advantage lies in favour of Lymm. It offers substantial attractions for new industry; the surroundings are suitable to agreeable development, and it lies near enough to Manchester to enable large numbers of people to travel to work to Manchester daily. In addition, it is sufficiently convenient for industry to move out to provide employment on the spot.

If, during the past 13 years of Conservative administration, successive Ministers of Housing and Local Government have seemed to be too susceptible to the political pressures exerted by hon. Gentlemen opposite, the knights of the Cheshire countryside, I hope that the new Minister will appreciate that there are Members on this side here tonight who are equally determined that Manchester's homeless and the city's housing needs should receive the consideration, indeed social justice, which they have for so long been denied.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. James MacColl)

No one could possibly question what my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Openshaw (Mr. Charles R. Morris) said about the real hard and devoted work which Manchester City Corporation has put in in trying to find sites for its citizens who require rehousing. The hon. Member himself was for many years a distinguished member of the corporation, and he speaks with great authority about it. I have to take the situation as it is at the moment and there is no point in my going back over past history and trying to attribute any responsibility or censure. My right hon. Friend, I hope, will appear to my hon. Friend as an intervention of divine providence rather than the opposite. He is faced with the position of having to decide what he is to do now about Manchester's housing problem. I can give my hon. Friend what I think is not cold comfort, but not perhaps terribly warm comfort, and that is that the immediate housing situation and the supplies of sites will keep up to Manchester's own estimates of what it requires. So until 1970 at least, on the sites that have been agreed, or, like Westhoughton, are in the last stages of consideration, Manchester should be able to reach its target of getting up to its 50,000 houses over the 10 years.

The trouble begins after 1970, when the figures begin to drop, and, as I understand it, by 1974 the drop will be something like 6,000 missing. That, of course, is a very serious matter because it will be a time when a good housing policy should be gathering momentum. These site shortages will become acute, and the question therefore is what is to be done in this interim period?

That is where we are faced with the fact that Risley has been provisionally selected as a possible new town. Even if everything goes well with Risley, and my right hon. Friend is hoping to make a statement at the beginning of the New Year about the soil investigations that have been made, if they are satisfactory it will be necessary to have consultations with the other Government Departments, like the Ministry of Agriculture, which is concerned with this. It will also be necessary to have consultations with the local authorities.

Mr. Bernard Conlan (Gateshead, East)

Does my hon. Friend realise that the Manchester Corporation is opposed to the site at Risley, and would prefer, now that there is a new Government, that consideration should be given to Lymm and Congleton?

Mr. MacColl

Perhaps my hon. Friend would allow me to develop what I am saying, because I am making clear what the problem is. It is not as easy as that. It is perfectly easy to scrub out Risley, but the difficulty is what does one put in its place? With the whole procedure on a new town which has been provisionally selected, there will not be houses going up in Risley or in any other new town in a similar position for another four years. It is a slow business to get a new town going.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

As the hon. Gentleman may be aware. I wrote to his right hon. Friend rather more than a week ago suggesting that he might consider visiting the City of Manchester to look at its housing problem at first hand. I wonder whether the Parliamentary Secretary can give any indication that his right hon. Friend will visit the city? I might add that we are all very conscious of the extremely grave housing problem which he has inherited from his predecessors, but if the Parliamentary Secretary can give an indication that the Minister will be visiting the city it would be good news for all concerned.

Mr. McColl

My right hon. Friend is anxious to get round as many areas as he can. He feels very strongly that the best way of finding out what is going on is seeing and talking about these problems with the people on the ground. I am certain that as soon as he is free he will very gladly accept an invitation to see this particularly acute problem. I am not in a position to say what will be the result of the soil inquiries, but the two factors that are important about Risley are, first, that it would come into operation just when the sagging began in the sites and, therefore, the flow of houses would be brought up to the top. Secondly—and this is a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Openshaw—it is accessible to Manchester, and it is common ground that for the early stages of slum clearance it is important to have sites which are close to Manchester.

If Risley is rejected on the ground of its quality, or if it turns out to be unsuitable because of the result of these inquiries, it is easy enough for my right hon. Friend to withdraw from using it. The question arises, what are we going to put in its place? My right hon. Friend and the Department are already beginning discussions with the local authorities in Lancashire and Cheshire. These discussions are going on now with a view to finding alternative sites. I hope the Cheshire County Council will realise how acute the situation is and will recognise that something has got to be done in a constructive way to meet the needs of their fellow citizens in Manchester. I hope that if the case is put to them forcefully they will be co-operative. As I have said, those discussions about alternative sites are proceeding and I am not in a position at this stage to say what the result will be or what other site will be found. That is the interim stage.

I want to say something about the further stage, because even if a new town comes into operation in the course of the next five years, that is only a first step. It is important that there should be other new towns coming along at a later stage to take the excess population from Manchester. I am on my best behaviour here. I am not anxious to impute responsibility for the present difficulties in the North-West—with which, as my hon. Friend knows, I am very well acquainted—but I think that what has gone wrong is due to the fact that these decisions were not taken 10 years ago. As a result, they have now got to be taken in a great hurry. We want a flow of new town sites becoming available so that when one new town is completed the teams employed by the corporations can move to the next. The work of finding a new town site should have been done years ago. We must not make the same mistake. We must prepare the ground for the future.

We are waiting for the North-West Study which we hope will be finished and available some time next year. As soon as that Study is available, intensive consideration will be given to the selection of other new town sites, possibly to the north and possibly to the south of the Mersey. These will not have to be quite so close to the big conurbations of South Lancashire as the first lot of new towns, because by that stage the back of the slum clearance programme will be broken. Then the problem will be the much more general one of settling people and finding new homes for them. The final stage will be finding further new town sites.

I know the feelings of my hon. Friends about Risley and I am not in any way implying that my right hon. Friend is in any sense committed to Risley. He is not. It may happen that technical considerations will decide this matter. In the end, it may be considered best not to go to Risley, but I emphasise that if this does happen it will be at a price. It must be remembered that that price may be going back to the beginning, with all the discussions and negotiations necessary under the new town procedure. That procedure is slow and in some ways it is a good thing that it is slow, for it concerns the building of communities for all time. No one wants to start off a new town on the wrong foot, so time must be taken to ensure that we select the right place and build the right type of community in the right way. We must ensure that everyone is consulted.

From the point of view of doing something immediately to meet the vital needs of Manchester, there arises a question of balance. It is the balance between doing something speedily to help solve the immediate problems, and finding a longterm solution—the slow development of a properly balanced new town policy.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend would like to see the place for himself. I have been telling him about it and, while he paid a brief visit to Liverpool, I am certain that he would like to see that other city. I will not hold any balance between the two. Perhaps Widnes might be regarded as being between the two. I can assure my hon. Friends who are concerned about this that my right hon. Friend is acutely aware of these problems and is anxious to do what he can to be of assistance.

12.47 a.m.

Mr. Stanley Orme (Salford, West)

I thank my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary for repling to the debate, which was initiated so ably by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Openshaw (Mr. Charles R. Morris). All hon. Members appreciate the Joint Parliamentary Secretary's point about changing horses, as it were, from Risley to another site and how that would cause delay as a result of the procedure involved in the establishing of new towns.

It should be fully realised that the guilty parties are not the Joint Parliamentary Secretary and the Minister but the previous Administration, who played about with this problem for 13 years and solved nothing. We should have had a new town years ago. Hon. Members opposite who represent Cheshire, and the Cheshire County Council, have been far from active in trying to find a suitable site for Manchester. Various towns have received small numbers of overspill families, but nothing concrete has been done to establish a new town and so settle this problem once and for all.

Unfortunately for too long there has been a desire to push any possible new town underground, so to speak—to get it out of sight because it would be comprised mainly of council houses. On the south side of Manchester, in the Lymm area, within easy reach of the city and the Trafford Park area, is one of the largest industrial conurbations in the North-West. This is an ideal site for future development and I hope that the Minister will weigh up the position between the establishment of a new town at Risley and either here or elsewhere.

If matters have not gone too far and if he can speed the machinery the other way, I hope that he can switch the siting of a new town towards the south so that we may have a new town in Cheshire, where it is badly needed. The problem we face in Manchester and Salford is the colossal problem of housing. In my constituency, for example, only one house in three has—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Thursday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at ten minutes to One o'clock.