HC Deb 22 November 1965 vol 721 cc202-14

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

11.45 p.m.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

It was put to the House recently, in a notable Parliamentary speech, that Manchester's great renown is symbolised by its most famous school, the Cathedral, The Guardian and the Royal Exchange. But we shall be concerned in this debate with an altogether different inheritance of my native city, the grim problem of her slum dwellings. We shall be concerned also with the generous, brave and industrious people who live in Manchester's slums, for on the manner of our response to their claims will depend the city's future renown.

Manchester was described by the Royal Antiquary, John Leland, following his visit to the North in 1538, as "the fairest, best builded" town he had seen. More recent official visitors have reported differently. The North West: a Regional Study, written by Government officials and published in July, states that the first and lasting impression of the visitor to the region is one of astonishment that the housing conditions he sees around him can still exist in a relatively prosperous part of an advanced industrial country.

One-fifth of the poorest dwellings in the country are in the North-West and about three-quarters of the region's slums are in the "Mersey Division"—the Report's new title for the dense population belt dominated by Manchester and Liverpool. In terms of sheer numbers, our slum problem is described as being probably without parallel in Britain today.

In Manchester, in a vast belt immediately outside the central area of the city, there still exist all too many remnants of a planless, knotted chaos of dark, dismal and crumbling homes. Many of these crossed the verge of uninhabit-ableness long before their most elderly inhabitants were born.

The Manchester slum in which I was born, long condemned as unfit for human habitation, was mercifully one of the more impatient of its kind; it anticipated the coup de grâce of the demolition gang. But I shall never forget my childhood days in the slums of Ancoats. Nor shall I ever ignore the claims of those who live in such areas still.

Whatever else may be said of the hard-faced and grasping private landlordism of the past, its effects are nothing if not ugly today. The human problems of the slum areas often lurk unseen and their social cost is not easily assessed. But statistics show that the children of families living in slums are unable to take proper advantage of educational facilities and that their health and physical development is impaired.

Only one child in 250 achieves grammar school entry and there is virtually no chance of entrance to a university. Yet five years after a family is rehoused we find in Manchester that the children are taller, heavier, fitter and able to take advantage of the educational facilities available in the area to which their family has been moved.

How then is the City of Manchester tackling the forbidding problem of its slum areas? On all available evidence, it has shown more vigour, courage and compassion than any other of the great provincial cities of Britain. Slum clearance is given top priority. In 1961, the City Council adopted a target of 4,000 houses to be demolished and 4,000 new houses to be erected each year. It was also agreed that, as soon as possible after this target had been reached, there would be a new one of 5,000. In 1959 the building programme had been one of only 1,500 dwellings per annum.

The figure of 4,000 was achieved both in 1963 and 1964 and seems likely to be achieved again this year. Since 1964 the City Medical Officer of Health has been "representing" houses at the rate of 5,000 a year. This means that the city may be able to achieve 5,000 completed houses a year by 1968–69, subject to the availability of land, about which I hope that my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will be able to give some assurance.

Of a total of 201,627 present dwellings in Manchester, some 54,700, or 27.1 per cent., are estimated to be unfit. A comparison of slum clearance action taken by six major local authorities, Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, Liverpool, Sheffield and Bristol, shows that for the five years ending 30th June, 1965, Manchester was top of the league, both in compulsory purchase orders confirmed and the number of houses demolished or closed. Manchester's figures of 13,151 houses demolished or closed compares with that of 12,434 by Leeds, 11,026 by Birmingham, 8,268 by Liverpool, 6,846 by Sheffield and 2,792 by Bristol.

Manchester's nationally outstanding achievement in this respect has not, however, been gained without considerable cost both for ratepayers generally and council houses tenants in particular. There has been constant strain on the city's housing revenue account. The striking of a fair balance between the ratepayers and the tenants, who are, of course, themselves also ratepayers, is a matter entirely for the local authority. This problem has given rise to much controversy in the city and there is strong feeling on both sides of the argument that more of the cost of redevelopment should be met by the ratepayers generally.

Each new dwelling immediately places an average annual cost of £107 on the housing revenue account and while no one with any regard for human values would advocate this solution to our problem of rates and rents, a reversion to the 1959 building programme of only 1,500 dwellings a year would give considerable financial relief to ratepayers and tenants alike. Let me quote some examples of the actual costs for Manchester for accelerating the slum clearance programme and of the consequential increase in the pace of erecting new housing accommodation.

In a recent report on house building on expensive sites, prepared by the City Treasurer, consideration is given to erecting 492 houses in an area where land acquisition cost alone is estimated at more than £63,000 an acre. If a decision is taken to acquire the land, the deficiency falling annually on the housing revenue account, after subsidies and rents have been taken into account, will be one of £35,806, or £73 per house.

An examination in July of this year of housing schemes approved since December, 1964, showed that the weekly deficiencies per dwelling, after deducting subsidies and current rents, ranged from 17s. 6d. for flats in a suburban multi-storey scheme to £2 5s. 5d. for two-storey houses in a redevelopment area. The deficiency on a three-bedroomed overspill house, after Government subsidy and rate contribution, was approximately £3 6s., which, with a rent set at £1 16s. 3d., left the housing revenue account with a net weekly deficiency of £1 9s. 9d. Similarly, for a three-bedroomed maisonette in a redevelopment area, there was a deficiency, after subsidy and rate contribution, of £2 1s. 3d. Under the local authority's present pooling system, these deficiencies are met from the rents of tenants of earlier assisted scheme houses.

As my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government knows, building costs increased by 7½ per cent. between 1963 and early 1965; Government subsidies have been static; land values, about which action has been promised in the Queen's Speech, have soared in recent years; and interest rates, because of the unprecedented economic mess bequeathed to the present Government by their predecessors, have continued high. These factors give further emphasis to Manchester's outstanding achievement in slum clearance.

If Manchester's civic leaders had decided to walk on the other side of the road, as it were, from the city's slum dwellers, if instead of giving it top priority they had reduced slum clearance activity as housing costs increased, both rates and rents would have been very much lower today. But why should slum clearance not have been regarded by Governments as a national problem? Should not local authorities, tackling their huge slum clearance problems as Manchester has done during the past five years, have been given extra help from central funds? Why should the reward for vigour and courage be higher rates and rents? And why penalise compassion?

After all, the problem of slums, leading as it does to so much waste of talent and ill health, is certainly a national problem. It is no fault of the present ratepayers and council house tenants of Manchester that the city was so badly ravaged and disfigured by the irresponsibility of acquisitive private landlords of the past.

Unfortunately, the policy of the Conservative Party on this matter has become one of deep cynicism. We find in the latest Conservative pamphlet on housing—"Target for Homes", from the Conservative Political Centre—a proposal which would mean the abolition of the general council house subsidy. The authors of the pamphlet are Mr. Geoffrey Rippon and the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Corfield)——

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Samuel Storey)

Order. The hon. Member is going wide. He can discuss only that for which the Minister is responsible—and the Minister is certainly not responsible for Conservative Party pamphlets.

Mr. Morris

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The point which I wished to emphasise with all the strength at my command is that the Conservative Party's way is not the way to solve the housing problems of our great cities. I trust that my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will utterly reject the advice of his Conservative predecessors and that he will give a clear indication that cities like Manchester will receive much increased help in their urgent task of removing the curse of their slums. In my view the council house tenants of Manchester are shouldering a very heavy share of the burden of slum clearance costs.

One suggestion which he might consider is that of greatly increasing the subsidy payable by the Government into the local authorities' housing revenue accounts to take care of the first 10 to 15 years of the life of new housing accommodation. During this period, the occupants will be rehoused slum dwellers, many of whom will be replaced by the next generation within 10 to 15 years and the remainder of whom will rid themselves of the degradation which living in a slum inevitably produces. At the end of the 10-to-15-year period, it seems fair to assume, the occupants would be able to pay a higher proportion of the economic rent, partly because incomes should have risen by 30 to 35 per cent. in the next 10 years and partly because a much larger proportion of the children of the slum dwellers will have benefited from a full education by the end of the 10-to-15year period and will be commanding salaries in the middle income group.

Perhaps the subsidy could be worked on an escalator so that it is initially much higher than at present but is reducible at the end of every 10-year period. It would be in the national interest also for the subsidy to be designed to encourage local authorities to build larger and better quality accommodation. Too many local authorities still think in terms of providing houses for X number of slum dwellers. Instead they should be facing the fact that they are currently providing houses which will be occupied by at least five generations of people over the next 100 years, during which time the proportions of people in the different income groups will alter beyond all recognition.

If we fail to make provision for larger and better quality accommodation, subsequent generations will never forgive us. As soon as the last slum has been demolished, people will be saying that while we were about it we might have made a proper job of it. Certainly Manchester will rejoice in any new initiatives to improve quality and design, as is demonstrated by the City Council's present activity in this field. For all of us in Manchester's public life have it on trust to make her again, in the words of Leland, "The fairest, best builded" city of the North.

Mr. Charles Morris (Manchester, Openshaw)

I wonder whether my hon. Friend would join me in inviting the Parliamentary Secretary to visit Manchester in order to acquaint himself at first hand with the extent of this very human problem which exists in that city?

Mr. Alfred Morris

I am entirely happy to note that suggestion and I am certain that my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will also wish to take note of it. I am equally certain that he will be an extremely welcome visitor in the City of Manchester because of his great knowledge of the problem of slum clearance.

11.59 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Gov-eminent (Mr. Robert Mellish)

First may I pay a tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Alfred Morris). He has been a Member of the House for just over a year and, if I may say so without intending to be patronising in any form, he is a credit to the House and to his constituents. It is appropriate that on this Adjournment debate he should raise this very human problem of slums in his own city. I took note of his invitation, and I shall be coming to Manchester, I hope, in the not-too-far-distant future.

The Manchester problem, which has been put so clearly and concisely by my hon. Friend, is, in fact, smaller than that of Liverpool. We sent a circular to all local authorities in February seeking up-to-date figures and Liverpool estimated that 45 per cent. of its dwellings were unfit for human habitation. But 27 per cent. unfit, or one in every four, is still an immense problem, and that is what Manchester faces. This has to be compared with an average of 5 per cent. for the country as a whole.

It has not been a case of Manchester sitting back and failing to face up to its responsibilities. Figures show that Manchester is an authority which has been getting on with the job. I should, therefore, like to take this opportunity to underline what my hon. Friend has said. The Manchester Corporation's record in this direction is outstanding.

Since the drive to clear the slums was resumed in 1955, Manchester has knocked down more slums than any other authority in England and Wales outside London. Well over 20,000 slum houses have been got rid of by the Corporation since the beginning of 1955 and over 13,000 of these have gone in the last five years. Until 1962, Manchester's average clearance rate had been 1,350 houses yearly, but, being a truly progressive authority, it recognised that this was not fast enough and decided as a deliberate act of policy to speed this up. The rate of 4,000 a year for the past three years is something for congratulation.

I know, too, that Manchester has plenty of clearance proposals in the pipeline to enable it to go even faster. There are now with my Department 29 slum clearance compulsory purchase and clearance orders relating to 4,000 houses. In addition, we have received notification of another 196 clearance areas recently declared by the Corporation involving another 6,500 houses. Action to secure the clearance of 5,000 slums yearly is a tremendous achievement. This is the position that Manchester has now reached. If it keeps up this rate, it will by 1974 have demolished all the houses found unfit out of its 1955 estimate of 68,000 slums. This is a very different picture from 1955, when the Corporation gave 45 years as the time that it would take. After 1971, it should be starting to tackle the houses which have become unfit since the 1955 tally.

Let us not forget, however, that this is first and foremost a human problem. It is the rehousing of those who had previously been condemned to live in houses unfit for human habitation that is the prime object of the operation. This means the building of many more new houses by the local authorities with these immense clearance problems. They must be given priority. That is exactly what we are doing as a Labour Government in our National Plan.

During the four years 1961 to 1964, my Department gave approval for 13,900 houses to be built in Manchester. For the four years 1965 to 1968, we are willing to give approval to a programme of 18,000—that is approval for an increase of 30 per cent. over the previous four years. Vastly increased programmes will be given to the other great cities and conurbations. Surely, nothing could illustrate more clearly the Government's intention to give top priority to housing and my Minister's intention to give first priority within the programme to the areas where the need is greatest.

Manchester stepped up its completion rate from 1,260 in 1961 to almost 4,000 in 1964, and that was a post-war record. This record, however, should soon be passed. At 30th September, the Council had over 3,000 houses and flats under construction and nearly 1,500 in tenders approved and about to be started. By 1968, we expect Manchester to reach 5,000 completions.

The House may well say that it is all very well talking about increased programmes of this size, but where will the money come from. My hon. Friend is absolutely right in drawing attention to the additional burden and the effect of this upon rent and rates, or both. He said in effect that its position at the top of the slum clearance league results in Manchester being penalised financially, and that it is easy for a Government to stand on the touchlines shouting encouragement, but they should at least be paid up members of the supporters' club.

The fixing of council rents must be the responsibility of the local authority. Considerable Exchequer contributions are already being made to local authority housing, and such payments to Manchester are now running at an annual rate approaching £.1.4 million. But we have been very conscious from the beginning of the difficulties which face authorities like Manchester, and for this reason we have reviewed the whole structure of local authority housing finance. Our aim is to ensure that local authorities will be able to provide rented houses for those who need them most at rents which they can afford, and to see that the cost of providing them does not impose too heavy a burden either on the ratepayers generally or on the tenants of existing council houses.

Mr. Paul B. Rose (Manchester, Blackley)

With the new proposals, would my hon. Friend say whether it will be possible for an authority like Manchester to go on with its housing programme without having to increase rents every two years as is necessary at present?

Mr. Mellish

I was just going on to say that my own Minister is hoping to announce details of the new subsidy scheme this week. When it is announced I am sure everyone will agree that it has been well worth waiting for. I believe that his proposals will give a new impetus to local authority housing building. My hon. Friend will understand that I cannot say more than that. Indeed, I dare not.

Manchester Corporation did write asking if the Minister would receive a deputation so that it could put its financial problems to him. In our reply it was suggested that the proposed meeting should be deferred till after the Government's proposals generally were announced. If the deputation still wants to come, after it has heard what we are proposing, we will gladly meet it.

The Minister is anxious that direct labour organisations should play their full part in the expanding house building programme. This was explained in a circular issued to all local authorities a few days ago. Manchester has an active direct labour organisation which is already making a considerable contribution, and it is hoped it will continue to do so. Of course, costs must be kept at a satisfactory level.

A house building programme which in total will be working up to half a million houses a year is dependent on both a rising level of productivity in traditional building methods and on increasing use of industrialised methods. Manchester clearly recognises this. In its forward programme up to 1968 it has said that from 20 to 25 per cent. of all its dwellings are likely to be system built. There is also plenty of scope now for direct labour departments to make extended use of industrialised methods. If Manchester's own organisation has not gained experience of industrialised house building, now is the time to do so.

Finally, let me say this to the House. Events of the past few weeks have shown a fundamental cleavage between the Labour and Conservative Parties over the way in which we should tackle these problems in Manchester and elsewhere. Let us make no mistake about it: we are not even going to begin to get to grips with the slum problem without a radical increase in the number and proportion of council houses built. Let us make no mistake about it: if the Opposition were in power today—and there is not one of them here to listen to me—they would not be announcing anything like the enormously increased programme I have just outlined for Manchester and we shall be announcing for all the other great towns and cities shortly.

The Opposition, through their Leader, the right hon. Member for Bexley (Mr. Heath), object to such increases, and refer to them in such terms as "swindle" and "betrayal". I have no doubt that such sectional and irresponsible attitudes come all too easily to the comfortable bachelors of the Albany and its environs. Nevertheless, it is a great shock to all those, of whatever political persuasion, who have looked at these problems dispassionately, to see a desperate Conservative Party dissociating itself from all the lessons to be learned from the Milner-Holland Report, surely one of the most important social documents of our time. Thoughtful Members may think that some of the opposition to a massively increased and soundly based programme is becoming just a little too sour and fanatical to be explicable on anything remotely approaching rational and humanitarian grounds.

The existence of so much squalid housing in the so-called affluent society of the third quarter of the twentieth century is an insult to our nation's past sense of priorities. It is for that reason that my Minister and I make no apology for making need—the needs of the regions, the needs of the conurbations and great cities, and needs arising from slums, obsolescence and a rapidly growing population—the criteria by which we shall plan our housing programme. Judging by the opinion polls it seems that that is what the nation wants. I hope that I have said enough tonight to convince my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe that Manchester will play a full and I have no doubt an illustrious part in this programme.

My hon. Friend referred to the land problems of Manchester, and I can only say to him that he will know that there has been a compulsory purchase order with regard to Westhoughton. Discussions are still in progress between Manchester Westhoughton and the county on the next steps at Westhoughton. I hope very much that these will lead to early and rapid progress.

We believe that Manchester can perfectly well make a start on the basis of the present confirmed compulsory purchase order and the approved town map without fear of being left in a difficult position. We accept the council's view that the development should be of new town proportions and when endorsing the compulsory purchase order, as we did, we did so with no reservations. I am saying in effect that whilst we recognised that Manchester's land problems are difficult, we for our part will do what we can to help them.

My hon. Friend rightly referred to my coming from London. I was born in a slum and know something about the conditions. I think my Minister is absolutely right to ensure—and he has given me this personal task—that in allocating our future programmes of housing to the regions we shall put the accent on the needs of the regions. This means that if we are going to give larger housing programmes to the great conurbations, the Londons, the Manchesters, the Liverpools, the Birminghams, the Nottinghams, and the rest, elsewhere in some of those re- gions there may well have to be cuts. But the whole basis of our arguments on future planning must be to ask where is the need greatest. Those which have slums must have priority. That is why so far as Manchester is concerned I am pleased to announce tonight this 30 per cent. increase in the programme. It can have the assurance that my Department will do all it can to help it overcome its serious and disgraceful problems. But Manchester has already done an enormous job, and my hon. Friend can be proud of his own city.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes past Twelve o'clock.