HC Deb 30 June 1969 vol 786 cc107-31

The percentage of grant payable by the Secretary of State towards the costs incurred by local authorities in the strengthening of high tower blocks as a result of the Ronan Point disaster shall be increased from 40 per cent. to 60 per cent.—[Mr. Gordon Campbell.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Gordon Campbell

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Speaker

It will be convenient to discuss at the same time Amendment No. 35, in the Title, line 17, after 'tenancy', insert: 'to increase the percentage grant payable to local authorities for the strengthening of high tower blocks;' I remind the House that we discussed the principles behind the new Clause on the parallel English Bill.

Mr. Campbell

The new Clause has the effect of raising by 20 per cent. the Exchequer's share of the necessary costs to ensure safety in certain multi-storey buildings. I remember the debate of a week or two ago to which you, Mr. Speaker, have referred, but it was restricted by the Chair to a discussion of the situation in England and Wales. The principle is the same in Scotland. Therefore, I should like briefly to indicate the problem in Scotland.

The disaster over a year ago at Ronan Point has, fortunately, not been repeated elsewhere as far as I know. There was an inquiry straight away and it was found that certain kinds of multi-storey buildings which had previously been thought to be entirely safe required strengthening because it is possible that in a certain combination of circumstances such buildings could suffer partial collapse.

The Ministers concerned, including the Secretary of State for Scotland, gave guidance to local authorities and other public authorities concerned to obtain the advice of consultants. I understand that that has been done in Scotland. I do not know whether all local authorities have yet done it, but the trend has been that local authorities have employed consultants who have advised them that certain buildings need strengthening. No doubt this process is continuing.

Local authorities concerned and Parliamentary replies have indicated that there are 18 local authorities concerned in Scotland. They are confined to certain areas, but in those areas where there are several such buildings this is a very serious matter. It is not only a question of the cost of paying contractors to carry out the work. There are the ancillary expenses of loss of rent when tenants have been moved out, and of finding alternative accommodation for the tenants; and I believe that tenants can reasonably claim for moving expenses when they have to move lock, stock and barrel into other accommodation. These are necessary expenses. I repeat that at the time these buildings were constructed they were regarded as being entirely safe. No disaster like Ronan Point was foreseen or in any way apprehended.

We are not concerned here with increased public expenditure. I say that in case hon. Members opposite say, as they sometimes do, that we on this side of the House are arguing for increased public expenditure when at other times we urge the Government to curb it. Our proposal refers to the essential work which must be done to make these buildings safe and the expenditure incurred in doing that work. Both sides of the House will agree that this work must be carried out. The question which arises is how the expenditure is to be shared between the public authorities upon whom it falls. If it is to be shared in the way suggested by the Government namely a 40 per cent. Exchequer grant with the rest to be covered by local authorities, the few local authorities which have several buildings in this condition will be faced with a comparatively large bill which will seriously affect their housing finance. We suggest that more of the expenditure should be covered by the Exchequer. It would then be shared by the whole country and would cause less of a problem to local authorities which, through no fault of their own, and entirely by misfortune, suffer from this danger and are having to spend money to put it right.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House have had occasion to express their anxiety on this subject, but we have not been able to discuss it as it affects Scotland, although there have been many Questions on it by which we were able to draw attention to what was happening and to ask the Government what they were doing. They have always replied that they were engaged in discussions with the Scottish local authorities. When we managed to discover what was happening the indication from local authorities was that they hoped that at least 75 per cent. of the cost would be covered by the Government. We naturally do not know the course of those discussions, but we got the impression from our contacts that the local authorities concerned expected a great deal more than 40 per cent.

In a case like this, where a disaster has occurred but, fortunately, has not been repeated—although the danger exists—we believe that this must be regarded as money which has to be spent on safety and that more of it should be covered by the Exchequer than is proposed by the Government.

Sir John Gilmour (Fife, East)

As there are no high blocks of flats in my constituency, I feel that I can look on the new Clause rather more dispassionately than some hon. Members from constituencies where there are flats of this type. In the same way, when one seeks, as the Clause does, to spread the net wider, it means that my constituents would be paying their share. In all the circumstances, however, I think that that would be the fairest way of dealing with the problem.

It is no fault of the local authorities concerned that this accident took place. Indeed, it may be the case that, because of the needs of safety, more remedial work has been done than is absolutely necessary. Be that as it may, the justice and the logic are surely that when a mistake in design has been made, if the blame cannot he pinned fairly and squarely on one person, the fairest thing to do is to spread the burden as widely as we can. That is what my hon. Friends seek to do in the Clause, and I very much hope that this view will prevail.

Mr. Esmond Wright (Glasgow, Pollok)

I wish to reinforce the points made by my hon. Friends but to put the matter in a Glasgow context. I should like to be reassured, when the Minister replies, that of the 58 high-tower blocks in Scotland, only three of the 18 in Glasgow incur the risk of needing these repairs.

I support my hon. Friends in the contention that in simple justice and equity the burden should not be loaded as to 60 per cent. on Glasgow and only 40 per cent. on the national Exchequer. The logic for Glasgow operates pro rata for Cumbernauld, where, I understand, there are 15 high-tower blocks, but I do not know how many are vulnerable and need at least checking, and there are 14 in Edinburgh.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Moray and Nairn (Mr. Gordon Campbell) has pointed out, local authorities, rightly or wrongly, were under the impression that they would get a 75 per cent. grant. How will the Minister approach the City of Glasgow, which has just carried through what is, perhaps, the first effective revision of its rent and rate structure following the 33 wasted years of a Labour-controlled Glasgow Corporation? How will the Minister of State ask Glasgow Corporation to find what, I understand, may amount to £.1½ million to cope with the consequences of the disaster?

I should like to draw a parallel, as we did in the House a week or 10 days ago, with Hurricane Q, which hit Glasgow 18 months ago. I suggest that the Ronan Point disaster is exactly similar to the disaster which struck Glasgow 18 months ago. In all justice and equity, the burden should be carried by the Government at least to the extent of 60 per cent. and not 40 per cent.

When the Minister responds, I should like him to give the facts concerning the the number of blocks affected and to reply to the case which I seek to make in terms of justice and equity.

7.15 p.m.

Mr. N. R. Wylie (Edinburgh, Pentlands)

Arising from something that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow. Pollok (Mr. Wright) has said, I feel justified in intervening shortly. My hon. Friend referred to Edinburgh, which is one of those cities in Scotland where high flats are becoming more and more obvious and to which greater resort has to be made because of the shortage of building land. In my constituency, there are three high-tower blocks which have been affected by the Ronan Point disaster.

Unfortunately—or fortunately, perhaps; I do not know—one of those three blocks is occupied and was occupied at the material time. The housing authority felt it possible and safe to leave it occupied. The other two, however, have remained unoccupied. That means that in my constituency alone, something like the equivalent of 260 houses are unoccupied. When one has regard to the enormous waiting list for local authority housing in Edinburgh, this is something which we clearly cannot allow to continue.

I understand from discussions which I have had with Edinburgh Corporation that negotiations have been going on with the central Government and with the Minister for some time, and I certainly would not wish to say anything that would prejudice those discussions. The Government's attitude seems, however, to have precluded any advance on the 40 per cent. grant which some days ago, in connection with the Housing Bill for England and Wales, we challenged as being inadequate. We make the same challenge again.

It seems to us quite inadequate that the central Government should pay only 40 per cent. of the cost of restoration, which, I understand, in Edinburgh's case will be in excess of £½ million. That is a considerable burden for the ratepayers. I ask the Minister, even at this late stage and notwithstanding that the matter was resolved against us in the Housing Bill for England and Wales, to have regard to the needs of housing authorities in Scotland, particularly those which are affected by the problem, because it is the major housing authorities and the major cities which have to go in for this type of development. It imposes a very heavy burden upon the ratepayers. I ask the Minister to think again.

Mr. David Steel (Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles)

I share in this matter the altruism of the hon. Member for Fife, East (Sir J. Gilmour) in that there are no tower blocks in my constituency. As the member of my party who served on the Committee stage of the Bill, however, I received quite a lot of representations from members of my party throughout Scotland when it was known that this matter would be discussed. On behalf of my colleagues, I support the new Clause in the name of the Opposition.

In trying to determine the fair balance between what the national Exchequer should bear and what the local authorities affected should pay for this remedial work, it is worth casting our minds back to the report of the inquiry into the Ronan Point disaster. It shows that a fair amount of responsibility lies with agencies of the central Government. The report states, for example, at page 52, that the National Building Agency was not excused for a failure to consider how this type of building would react when damaged as a result of some abnormal incident. The other Government organisation which might have been expected to be aware of the structural implications of system building is the Building Research Station…the B.R.S. appears to have taken no steps either to follow up the structural problems of system building, or to give warning of the danger of progressive collapse". On page 53, it is stated: It is unfortunate that just when many large building firms, with the support of some architects, were advocating continental system building, engineers in this country were largely lukewarm or uninformed. It was in these unpropitious professional circumstances that the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, who themselves did not have qualified engineering staff to advise them, launched their industrialised building drive. In the first place, therefore, it is fair to suggest that the national or Government authority must itself accept a considerable part of the responsibility for the local authorities proceeding with this type of building.

To be fair, the Government have not dodged their responsibility in this matter. In a letter from the Scottish Development Department to local authorities on 6th June, it was stated: As to the use of industrialised building for this purpose, the Government accept that its extended use has been a feature of the policy both of themselves and of their predecessors". So I think this is the first thing we ought to get absolutely clear in trying to assess the balance of expenditure between the national and the local authorities.

I will, if I may, just raise two questions about how these grants are to operate and about the advice which has been given to local authorities and which has been drawn to my attention. In the same letter which I have just quoted it is suggested: In each instance it is proper that the local authority which commissioned the building should consider whether any claim lies against the contractor.

Dr. Dickson Mabon

Hear, hear.

Mr. Steel

This may well be so. The Minister says "Hear, hear", but I wonder, if a local authority takes legal action against the contractor and fails in that action, whether the Government will regard that as part of legitimate expenditure for which they would pay grant. I think it is a fair point, and the local authorities are entitled to know this before reaching a view on the advice given to them.

On the same point of coincidental expenditure, in the circular issued by the Development Department on 21st November local authorities were advised by the Secretary of State that he also strongly recommends that in any instance in which, having regard to the standards set out in the Appendix and any previous appraisal, there is any doubt about a high block's freedom from the danger of progressive collapse, any gas supply which is still connected should be cut off, after appliances using electricity have been substituted for those operating on gas, as soon as possible, without waiting for further appraisal. Will those local authorities who act on this advice and incur expenditure, installing electricity appliances, and who feel, on further examination, that they are not required to make further alterations, be eligible for grant? That is a question which should be raised now.

This is a matter of balance, and on the whole I certainly feel that for the Government to say, "We accept less than half of the expenditure involved here", is underrating what their responsibility is. They said in their circular that they had given very full consideration to the matter, and I know they have, in England and Wales and Scotland, but, as one who comes from an area not affected by this kind of expenditure, I feel that those local authorities landed with this kind of expenditure have a legitimate grievance if the Government only accept 40 per cent. of it, and I think that the Opposition's proposal is about the right balance.

Mr. George Willis (Edinburgh, East)

As one of the hon. Members representing one of the areas very much affected by this matter I have had no representations at all about the manner in which it is proposed to make the Government contribution. I should have thought that if there were a great deal of feeling about this at least the Members of Parliament would have been informed.

It seems to me that, as the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. David Steel) said, this is a matter of balance; there is no principle here. The Government have accepted a responsibility, and the only point at issue—there is no vital principle here—is simply the amount of the Government's contribution. I have no doubt at all that my hon. Friend will be able to give excellent reasons—[Laughter.] Hon. Gentlemen opposite laugh, but I have no doubt about it at ail. An hon. Gentleman wants me to give some of the reasons. I could occupy a long time doing that, and it is not my business; it is my hon. Friend's job to give the reasons.

However, I should have thought there would have been a good deal more dissatisfaction on the part of the local authorities affected—

Mr. Wylie

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that Edinburgh Corporation has been making very forceful representations direct to the Government about this matter?

Mr. Willis

Well, it is about time. Edinburgh Corporation can make representations to me about a vast number of things, and if it feels very deeply about this I should have thought that the right thing to do is not only to make representations to the Government but also to the Members of Parliament for the city. Till I receive such representations I will find it hard to believe that my hon. Friend did not put very good arguments when he met the local authorities and discussed this matter with them.

One does not want to go into all the pros and cons, but I can think of other things which have happened in Edinburgh. I remember a housing scheme in which balconies fell off the houses. I did not hear hon. Gentlemen coming along and asking about a 50 per cent. or 60 per cent. grant to make all the balconies on those Edinburgh houses safe. I did not hear this argument at all then.

Sir J. Gilmour

The contractors were at fault. It was nothing to do with design.

Mr. Willis

This is one of the points which arises here. The only point I am making is that, after all, this would be approved by the central authority, if not to the same extent as in this case, but I did not then hear hon. Gentlemen coming along and saying, "What about 60 per cent. for Edinburgh to examine all its balconies and make them safe?" I did not hear that at all.

Therefore, I view this new Clause with a certain amount of scepticism, particularly in view of the fact that hon. Gentlemen who represent Edinburgh are not even here to put the case. There cannot be much feeling about it if they are not even here.

Mr. William Hannan (Glasgow, Maryhill)

Nor during Committee on the Bill was there any mention made of this. My recollection is that in Committee there was no Amendment put down about this matter. It may be that there have been afterthoughts since the English Bill went through.

Mr. Willis

It is unfortunate that whenever I speak I always prompt other people to speak.

Mr. Gordon Campbell

We continually questioned the Government on the Floor of the House, and the Government told us that they were in negotiation with the local authorities about this, but they did not announce that they were going to give only 40 per cent. until about two weeks ago, when in Committee we had long gone past this point. Indeed, I think the Bill was out of Committee.

Mr. Willis

I understand. I heard hon. Gentlemen raise this at that time. I am not quarrelling with the fact that they have raised it, although I should have thought the Long Title of the Bill would have to be altered to include this.

Mr. Gordon Campbell

That is another matter.

Mr. Willis

This indicates that it is not very appropriate to this Bill, and that this new Clause has been moved as an afterthought.

The only point I wanted to make was that if there were all this dissatisfaction on the part of Edinburgh we should have had more representations from the Members of Parliament for Edinburgh. Where are they? I do not know. Why are not all the hon. Members here clamouring for justice for Edinburgh Corporation? My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Oswald) is here. I am not speaking of hon. Members on this side of the House but of hon. Members opposite. Where is the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North (Earl of Dalkeith)? Where is the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Clark Hutchison)?

Mr. Speaker

Order. I hope we are not going to have a catalogue of absentee Members. We will talk about the new Clause.

Mr. Willis

I wished only to make the point and to make it only briefly and I have not been allowed to do that—that I have not received any representations about this matter. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles seems to have received a lot of representations.

7.30 p.m.

Mr. Hugh D. Brown (Glasgow, Provan)

I certainly will be brief. I think that the most significant contribution made so far was the loud "Hear, hear" by the Minister, if I may say so, on a technical point, and this was one of the things I wanted to raise. Obviously, when there is a 40–60 split it is very tempting to ask, "Why not make it 50–50? Then everybody would be happy". But it is not as simple as that.

I should like the Minister to explain to me where the money is coming from. The altruistic approach we have had is most encouraging. I take it that what hon. Members opposite are saying is that they would not object to their local authorities having a reduction in some kind of grants next year provided that the money would go to the local authorities which are involved in this matter. Is that what they are saying? Is that what the hon. Member for Fife, East (Sir J. Gilmour) meant? Or did he mean that the Exchequer had to find it from some other source?

Sir J. Gilmour

I simply suggested that if a mistake is made which cannot be attributed to a particular place, it is wiser and better to spread the load wider rather than put it on the local authorities particularly affected.

Mr. Brown

The hon. Gentleman could in time become a Minister if he makes such replies as that. He obviously has not answered the question. I am surprised that his hon. Friend the Member for Moray and Nairn (Mr. Gordon Campbell) did not raise this specific point. Are we to understand that the North Dakota prairie dog philosophy is applying here? Is it the case that we want to encourage local authorities but whenever expenditure is incurred, through no fault of their own and through no fault of the Government, they must always look to the Scottish Office? Is this the philosophy that hon. Gentlemen are putting forward?

Mr. Gordon Campbell

For example, my constituency in the North of Scotland, which was entirely unaffected last year by the hurricane in the South of Scotland, in no way resented the money that went to restore the damage in the areas which were affected.

Mr. Brown

We have still not had a reply to the specific point whether or not all local authorities in Scotland next year will make do with less than they anticipate in rate support or any other grant to make sure that the local authorities which are involved in this expenditure have an increased contribution from the Exchequer. In the absence of any clarity from the Opposition, I can only think that, as usual, they are playing at politics.

Will the Minister say what we are thinking of in terms of cost? In Glasgow, with the usual exaggeration of the city treasurer, the cost was estimated to be about £2 million; everyone now recognises that it is more likely to be £1 million. No proper estimate was made, and there were legitimate fears at first sight that more work would have to be done than has proved to be necessary. How many local authorities are involved? What is the expenditure per head of the population to the local authorities concerned, and will the Minister give an assurance that, in the light of this genuine good will that is shared by everyone, he will look again at this matter?

Dr. Dickson Mabon

I was interested in the debate on this matter which took place on the English Bill. One or two generous tributes were paid by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Wright), and by the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith), particularly in column 598, in relation to storm damage, who made the good point that with storm damage we were dealing with remedial measures for which the Government accepted full responsibility in that they gave a handsome contribution. This cost the hon. Member for Moray and Nairn (Mr. Gordon Campbell) nothing; so I do not think that he should take credit for that. There we judged the needs of individual authorities and made grants accordingly.

It has been suggested that this is the way in which this assistance should be given; that we should look at the Government contribution quite apart from the proportion, to see whether there could be a differential distribution of the Government's share. That, I took it, was the somewhat crypto-ministerial argument of the hon. Member for Fife, East (Sir J. Gilmour). I agree with him that that is a perfectly sound argument, and I thought that the way in which he replied to my hon. Friend was perfectly fair. It may be ministerial, but it is still perfectly fair. We are very willing to discuss this with the local authorities. I reaffirm what my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government said. When my noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State, Lord Hughes, meets local authorities—and he has offered to meet them as soon as possible—we shall discuss whether or not there should be a differential distribution of the share that has so far been provided.

Local authorities are not always as noble and generous as the hon. Member for Fife, East they may not agree with this, and it might be difficult to apply. My instinct is that it would be just if we were able to do it. I counsel the House to recognise that we do not know exactly how people will be affected, and I agree with my hon. Friend that many extravagant and silly things have been said by local authority elected members about how people will be affected. The assessment work has not yet been completed. There are in Glasgow 33 Corporation blocks of large panel construction, and they are being appraised. The hon. Member for Pollock mentioned the three—I presume in Albion Road—which are already being evacuated.

I cannot say, and no one can say, at this stage how much work will need to be done and on how many blocks. People are presuming that all the blocks will need to be repaired in a substantial, and perhaps even unnecessary, way because of the fear of a recurrence of the disaster. This must be done in a sensible way by making proper assessments.

The hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. David Steel) mentioned the question of further inspection. The man responsible for the judgment on further inspection is the consultant employed by the local authority, and it is up to the local authority to accept his opinion. A genuine error has been made in the case of one block in my constituency. The consultant's advice on one occasion was reversed on another occasion. I do not blame him: we all makes mistakes we are all human. Even the best professional man sometimes makes an error. If there are genuine mistakes we will seek to help the local authority, but the ultimate responsibility is with the local authority. The Government cannot compel all authorities to stand aside, abdicate their responsibilities and let us step in; it would be far too great a job for central Government to do.

The job of central Government is to seek to advise, to pool the experience of authorities in Scotland and England and to try to give the best possible counsel. We do not give directions. The circular to which the hon. Gentleman referred is not a direction. It does not allow the authority to opt out of the responsibility. I very much agree with the view that when local authorities are given responsibility they must accept that there is a financial penalty if they make a mistake. Otherwise, what is the point of giving them responsibility? This is a grown-up view of local government. It is wrong that local authorities should come running to the Government whenever they get into trouble. Free agents as they are in many ways, and while they should listen to advice and to the experience of their confreres elsewhere in Scotland, they must accept ultimate responsibility for mistakes, however genuine they are.

The Government accept in principle their responsibility here. Had they been all-wise and all-knowing, and had they had all the technical advice they would have liked, the Ronan Point disaster would never have happened. The responsibility is not confined to this Government. The previous Government must accept responsibility for the way in which the industrialised building programmes was launched and supported in the early 1960s, and the previous Government should not be blamed any more than we should be blamed. This is not a party argument. It is an argument about what happens when Governments give advice and guidance, and encourage authorities to do certain things.

Mr. Gordon Campbell

The Minister referred to something which he described as a mistake. We have never regarded these buildings as mistakes. When these buildings were authorised no one for a moment thought that they were not completely safe. Will the Minister tell us in respect of each of these blocks whether or not he considers that a mistake has been made?

Dr. Mabon

The hon. Gentleman is not a technical professional man, neither as I in this regard. Neither he nor I can say which blocks are or are not in need of reinforcement. We, like the local authorities, can only rely on advice. When I say "a mistake", it was a mistake of design, a failure to appreciate the risk of progressive collapse of load-bearing panel construction following damage from explosion.

There have been arguments in the technical press ever since Ronan Point about the degree of pressure resulting from explosion and whether or not it is tolerable. In the blocks that we are studying in Scotland we are dealing with a large number of systems and variants of systems. But the one particular block affected was only one particular form of construction with only one application in Scotland, and that was not an exact copy. Therefore, it is not easy to appreciate the technicalities.

We are not yet out of the wood. I counsel hon. Members to be patient with the authorities. They are having a difficult time, as are we centrally, in making sure that the preventive work is carried out properly. I am sure the House would be annoyed if either the Minister or the local authorities were to rush things and come to snap decisions about this difficult problem. Nothing in the procedures for the submission for approval of subsidy-earning housing developments, the building regulations, the codes of practice or suggestions for the use of industrialised building compel a local authority to adopt a particular form of construction. Therefore, they do not relieve it of its responsibility as the authority exercising a function to provide houses. This is the principal difference between Hurricane Q and Ronan Point.

Nobody has argued, apart from one authority in Scotland—namely, Greenock—that it is entirely the Government's responsibility and that 100 per cent. grant must be paid. But if the Government accept some responsibility and if, as I am arguing, the local authorities have some responsibility, surely some responsibility must be borne by the building industry and also the professions associated with it. The Government do not make the contracts. The contracts are made between local authorities and contractors. We have asked local authorities to con- sider their contractual position vis-à-vis contractors who may be involved. It is still to be decided in discussions with the local authorities what items of incidental expenditure will quality. But I assure the House that it will be safe to assume that the removal of gas will qualify.

It would be wrong of me to go on to agree with the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles that if an authority feels it has a case in law on the contract and goes to court and loses the action, it should be able to come to the Government to ask for partial relief in the payment of its legal costs. I do not see the logic of that. If the responsibility of entering into a contract lies with the local authority and if it wants to challenge the contract in the courts, then it is right and proper not only that the authority enjoys the benefits of a successful action but that it suffers the penalty of an unsuccessful one.

Mr. David Steel

The only reason I raised the matter was to seek clarification since the Department's own circular refers to "such other expenditure as may be agreed to be reasonably incidental". I thought it was something which should be understood. However, the Minister has given his answer.

Dr. Mabon

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman. I have no doubt that the matter will be raised in the discussions with the local authorities, and no doubt the fact that the hon. Member has raised the point and that I have given my reply will be useful to them in understanding our thinking on the matter. But I do not see the logic of pursuing the issue to the point of saying that they must get their legal costs.

In all the arguments which have been deployed hon. Members opposite must remember past practice and consider how they would be placed in a similar situation if ever they were returned to power. I can assure the hon. Member for Moray and Nairn (Mr. Gordon Campbell) that this Government will still be in power next year, so that he need have no worries about that. I hope that we shall see the matter to a successful conclusion.

7.45 p.m.

As for the Edinburgh blocks, I am not aware of the precise number involved. There are still blocks at Sighthill which are empty, but as yet we have no proposals for remedial works. I could not comment on the figures given by the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Wylie) about the impact of the situation in Edinburgh. I was then asked by the hon. Member for Moray and Nairn whether it would apply to all blocks. My answer is that not all blocks need strengthening.

It is sensible that when the local authorities meet my noble Friend they should be willing to look at the question of altering the flat rate suggestion to a differential rate. It is a matter for persuasion because many adjoining authorities in Scotland will not be affected. It is unfair to leave out those authorities which, probably for the best reasons, have embarked on high-rise buildings because of shortage of land and so on. Perhaps the local authorities will look at the matter, and the Government are prepared to accept a variation of the decision.

The new Clause is unnecessary since we have the right to make extra-statutory payments. But, however it is varied, this is still public expenditure; it is still to be accommodated within the budgets. The Government do not wish to witness a falling off in house building. We accept that the Government's share of responsibility for the design is the same share as the equivalent of the current value of the subsidy paid on new building. We accept that additional responsibility. The subsidy on new building is roughly 40 per cent. That is why we have arrived at this figure. There is no logic in choosing a figure of 60 per cent. without breaching the principles of responsibility which must be shared between the Government and the local authorities.

I end by saying that, although we have mentioned two authorities concerned to share responsibility, I pose the question to the House: is there not a third? As Members of Parliament concerned with the public purse, whether it be related to ratepayers or taxpayers, should we not ask the industry to look again at its part in this matter to see whether it should not honour, in some ex gratin way, its responsibility to local authorities, which have been good customers for many years and which have taken professional ad vice from contractors, from outside consultants and from the Government, and yet have come upon this evil day.

Mr. Mick Buchanan-Smith (North Angus and Mearns)

We are grateful to the Minister of State for his sympathetic attitude, but at the same time we are disappointed that he has moved no further from the position that was taken by his right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government in an earlier debate on this subject.

We appreciate that the hon. Gentleman is in process of discussion with the local authorities. We hope that out of those discussions the matter of money may be adjusted in accordance with the wishes of the local authorities. We welcome that, and we also welcome the fact that, the Government's mind is open as to the way in which the money should be apportioned. This still leaves the Government bearing only 40 per cent. of the total cost over the country as a whole as against the 60 per cent. which they are to require from the local authorities. Although the Government are prepared to co-operate in the administration of the grant in seeing that it is as flexible as possible, the Minister today has not moved in any way on the main matter from the stance adopted by his right hon Friend.

In the latter part of his speech the Minister mentioned the co-operation that he was hoping to receive from the building industry and those responsible for the construction of these flats. Does not the hon. Gentleman realise that, even though they have a liability, either legal or moral, it still leaves them with a very big burden, and it is that burden on the local authorities which concerns us? Whether or not it is a matter for litigation, at the end of the day a substantial amount will have to be met by the local authorities. Incidentally, very few building contracts go to what might be termed legal litigation. Normally any dispute is dealt with by a process of arbitration. That is the established way of dealing with such matters.

Earlier in his remarks, the hon. Gentleman spoke of mistakes. We do not intend for a moment to attempt to apportion blame to this Government or to previous Governments. We are not think-of that. What has happened in terms of design and so on is past history. The fact remains, however, that the mistake was not the fault of the local authorities. They accepted advice based on the best codes of building practice known at the time, and they have become the victims of unfortunate circumstances in that they will have to find the major amendment to put right the mistakes which has occurred. What concerns us is the size of their contribution in relation to the responsibility which they have, and it is the amount of money and how it is to be found to which I want to direct my remarks.

Although it is many months since the Ronan Point disaster, it is unfortunate that we are still not in full possession of the facts. I do not blame the hon. Gentleman for that. There is a great number of blocks to look at and a tremendous amount of work to be done before we can know the facts. But we have had considerable time, and we do not want to let much more time pass.

In an earlier debate, the point was made from the benches opposite that there was an impression amongst local authorities that the Government would be more generous and that now that it is realised that the Government will give only 40 per cent., the fear is that local authorities may hold back in completing surveys and carrying out remedial works. I hope that that will not happen, but that was the suggestion which came from an hon. Member opposite who represents an area which is particularly concerned with high tower flats. The Government having announced their intention to contribute 40 per cent. to the cost of remedial works, I hope that it will not mean that any local authority will hold back in carrying out such works.

Dr. Dickson Mabon

There is no Ministerial authority for ever having said 75 per cent. at any time—or, indeed, anything in excess of 40 per cent. The authority which hesitates to carry out remedial work because of the Government's 40 per cent. grant will lose more in rent by not doing the work than it would by embarking on some sort of phased programme.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

I accept that last point, but that does not apply to blocks which are in occupation. When the hon. Gentleman says that, he must be referring to blocks under construction or those which are not yet occupied, in which case, the longer the delay, the longer it is until the authority concerned can get tenants into them.

The right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) implied that we raised this matter as one of great principle. That is not our object. We raise it as a purely practical point of how the cost is to be apportioned. If we raised it as a matter of pure principle, we should have said that the Government ought to bear 100 per cent. of the cost, as the Minister of State acknowledged in his speech. We are not asking for that. We believe that the cost must be shared, and we are not treating this as a great matter of principle. It is our aim to get to the practical point of trying to apportion responsibility and, having done that, to see how the money to meet the cost of carrying out remedial works is to be found.

The right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East said that local authorities in Scotland were not concerned about it—

Mr. Willis

I did not say that.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

He said that they were not showing their concern.

Mr. Willis

The hon. Gentleman must not misquote me. I said that I had heard nothing from Edinburgh Corporation, and I did not think that any other hon. Members had heard from Edinburgh Corporation and that, if anyone had, he was not here to say so.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

That must reflect on what Edinburgh Corporation thinks that the right hon. Gentleman will raise in this House. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Clark Hutchison), on the other hand, is renowned for the way in which he takes up the building problems of his constituents. On 20th June, in answer to a Question which sought to discover the size of the problem, we were told that Edinburgh has 14 blocks likely to be affected, Cumbernauld has 15, Greenock has 14, Lanark County has 12, and Glasgow has 58.

Hon. Members who represent Glasgow constituencies are aware of the great concern which is felt in the Glasgow authority. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Hugh D. Brown) said that there were some exaggerated statements in the early stages. According to a report in the Glasgow Herald on 7th June, the convenor of the housing committee said: I regard a 40 per cent. grant by the Government as quite inadequate. All this extra expense stems from the Government encouraging industrialised system-building in the first place, and the corporation following Government advice on remedial measures after the Ronan Point disaster. That shows the concern which is felt in Glasgow, and the figure given following that meeting of the Glasgow housing committee was £1.4 million. That certainly is a substantial sum, and it shows the concern which is felt there.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Moray and Nairn (Mr. Gordon Campbell) said, there is concern not only about the expense of strengthening but about the trouble and inconvenience caused to families who have to be removed while it is being done. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Wright) spoke of the Albion blocks, as did the Minister of State, where something like 285 families are likely to have to move as a result of the remedial action which is necessary. We look at the problem not only from the point of view of the cost but from that of inconvenience to those who have to move to comply with what is necessary for the remedial work to be done.

The real point is to discover from what accounts the money is to be paid. If the Government are to pay only 40 per cent., and 60 per cent. must come from the local authorities, that must be paid for in certain ways. The first possibility is that it is paid out of rents and put upon the tenants of the authorities affected, in which case it will fall heavily on those areas which, through no choice of their own but for reasons of land shortage, have had to build these high flats. If it does not fall on the tenants, it will have to fall on the ratepayers, despite the fact that, in March of this year, in Circular 15/69 the Government urged local authorities not to allow their housing revenue accounts to go into deficit. They will go into deficit increasingly if a large amount of expenditure on remedial action is to go on the housing accounts and if it cannot be passed on to the ratepayers and others.

8.0 p.m.

We, on this side, are concerned because the problem of the high tower flats is concentrated in the areas of particular local authorities on which it bears very heavily indeed. If the local authorities in those areas are to bear so high a proportion of the expense, it will fall either on the tenants or on the ratepayers in those areas. We are concerned about these people, and that is why we have put down the new Clause.

Earlier, the Minister said that no definite assurance was given about how the cost was to be apportioned. In the debate on 20th February on the Rate Support Grant my hon. Friend the Member for Moray and Nairn was chided by the Minister of State for raising the question of remedial action in strengthening high tower blocks. The Minister said: Perhaps we shall decide it in the storm damage way."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th February, 1969; Vol. 778, c. 840.] This is the kind of encouragement that local authorities had: that the Government would be more sympathetic towards the problem than they had been. This has concerned local authorities.

Dr. Dickson Mabon

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will allow me to point out that storm damage grant was awarded to those authorities that were affected, and this is a point still to be discussed. As a Minister, I have gone as far as I can in indicating my preference to be discussed between Lord Hughes and the authorities. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will tell me whether he favours a differential arrangement or a flat-rate arrangement?

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

The whole point of having a discussion with local authorities is to get their points of view. Local authorities have not put any particular points of view on this to me. I shall be interested to hear from the Minister what he has heard.

But this is not the point at issue. The point is whether the Government will give 40 per cent. or the 60 per cent that we believe they ought to give. We feel that the Government are treating this problem as an ordinary housing problem. The Minister of State has said this tonight and the Minister of Housing and Local Government said that on 18th June. We do not believe that this problem is in the ordinary run of housing problems and should be met in the way in which should be met in the way in which they are normally met. We believe that this is an abnormal situation which should be met in an exceptional way. As the Government have totally failed to grasp and realise the exceptional nature of the

situation, I ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to support the new Clause.

Question put, That the clause be read a second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 107, Noes 142.

Division No.300.] AYES [8.4 p.m.
Baker, W. H. K. (Banff) Griffiths, Eldon (Bury St. Edmunds) Pounder, Rafton
Bessell, Peter Gurden, Harold Prior, J. M. L.
Biffen, John Hall, John (Wycombe) Pym, Francis
Biggs-Davison, John Harris, Reader (Heston) Renton, Rt. Hn. Sir David
Boardman, Tom (Leicester, S.W.) Hawkins, Paul Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon
Body, Richard Heald, Rt. Hn. Sir Lionel Royle, Anthony
Boyd-Carpenter, Rt. Hn. John Heath, Rt. Hn. Edward Russell, Sir Ronald
Brewis, John Hiley, Joseph Scott, Nicholas
Bruce-Gardyne, J. Hirst, Geoffrey Sharples, Richard
Buchanan-Smith, Alick (Angus, N & M) Hogg, Rt. Hn. Quintin Shaw, Michael (Sc'b'gh & Whitby)
Bullus, Sir Eric Holland, Philip Silvester, Frederick
Campbell, B. (Oldham, W.) Hornby, Richard Smith, John (London & W'minster)
Campbell, Gordon (Moray & Nairn) Hutchison, Michael Clark Speed, Keith
Carlisle, Mark Iremonger, T. L. Stainton, Keith
Carr, Rt. Hn. Robert Kitson, Timothy Steel, David (Roxburgh)
Chataway, Christopher Knight, Mrs. Jill Stodart, Anthony
Clark, Henry Lancaster, Col. C. G. Tapsell, Peter
Cooper-Key, Sir Neill Lane, David Taylor, Edward M.(G'gow, Cathcart)
Corfield, F. V. Langford-Holt, Sir John Taylor, Frank (Moss Side)
Costain, A. P. Legge-Bourke, Sir Harry Tilney, John
Currie, G. B. H, Lubbock, Eric Turton, Rt. Hn. R. H.
Davidson, James (Aberdeenshire, W.) McAdden, Sir Stephen van Straubenzee, W. R.
Dean, Paul MacArthur, Ian Wainwright, Richard (Colne Valley)
Deedes, Rt. Hn. W. F. (Ashford) McNair-Wilson, Michael Walters, Dennis
Digby, Simon Wingfield Maude, Angus Ward, Dame Irene
Dodds-Parker, Douglas Mawby, Ray Weatherill, Bernard
Doughty, Charles Maxwell-Hyslop, R. J. White-law, Rt. Hn. William
Elliot, Capt. Walter (Carshalton) Mitchell, David (Basingstoke) Wiggin, A. W
Elliott, R.W.(N'c'tle-upon-Tyne, N.) Monro, Hector Williams, Donald (Dudley)
Errington, Sir Eric Montgomery, Fergus Wilson, Geoffrey (Truro)
Eyre, Reginald Morrison, Charles (Devizes) Worsley, Marcus
Farr, John Murton, Oscar Wright, Esmond
Fletcher-Cooke, Charles Nabarro, Sir Gerald Wylie, N. R.
Foster, Sir John Page, Graham (Crosby)
Gilmour, Sir John (Fife, E.) Pearson, Sir Frank (Clitheroe) TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Goodhart, Philip Peel, John Mr. Anthony Grant and
Grant-Ferris, Sir Robert Pike, Miss Mervyn Mr. Humphrey Atkins.
Allaun, Frank (Salford, E.) Eadie, Alex Jackson, Colin (B'h'se & Spenb'gh)
Alldritt, Walter Edelman, Maurice Jackson, Peter M. (High Peak)
Ashton, Joe (Bassetlaw) Edwards, Robert (Bilston) Jenkins, Hugh (Putney)
Atkins, Ronald (Preaton, N.) Ensor, David Johnson, James (K'ston-on-Hull, W.)
Atkinson, Norman (Tottenham) Faulds, Andrew Kenyon, Clifford
Bidwell, Sydney Fernyhough, E. Lawson, George
Binns, John Fletcher, Ted (Darlington) Leadbitter, Ted
Blackburn, F. Forrester, John Lee, Rt. Hn. Frederick (Newton)
Boardman, H. (Leigh) Fowler, Gerry Lee, Rt. Hn. Jennie (Cannock)
Booth, Albert Freeson, Reginald Lee, John (Reading)
Boy den, James Gray, Dr. Hugh (Yarmouth) Lestor, Miss Joan
Broughton, Sir Alfred Gregory, Arnold Lewis, Arthur (W. Ham, N.)
Brown, Hugh D. (G'gow, Provan) Grey, Charles (Durham) Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)
Buchan, Norman Griffiths, Eddie (Brightside) Lomas, Kenneth
Buchanan, Richard (G'gow, Sp'burn) Hamilton, James (Bothwell) Loughlin, Charles
Butler, Herbert (Hackney, C.) Hannan, William Lyon, Alexander W. (York)
Carmichael, Neil Harrison, Walter (Wakefield) Mabon, Dr. J. Dickson
Carter-Jones, Lewis Haseldine, Norman MacColl, James
Chapman, Donald Heffer, Eric S. MacDermot, Niall
Concannon, J. D. Herbison, Rt. Hn. Margaret McKay, Mrs. Margaret
Dalyell, Tam Hooley, Frank Mackenzie, Gregor (Ruthergien)
Davidson, Arthur (Accrington) Houghton, Rt. Hn. Douglas Maclennan, Robert
Davies, Dr. Ernest (Stretford) Howell, Denis (Small Heath) Mallalieu, E. L. (Brigg)
Davies, Rt. Hn. Harold (Leek) Hoy, Rt. Hn. James Mallalieu, J.P.W.(Huddersfield, E.)
de Freitas, Rt. Hn. Sir Geoffrey Huckfield, Leslie Manuel, Archie
Delargy, Hugh Hughes, Hector (Aberdeen, N.) Mapp, Charles
Dewar, Donald Hughes, Roy (Newport) Marks, Kenneth
Dobson, Ray Hunter, Adam Mason, Rt. Hn. Roy
Doig, Peter Hynd, John Maxwell, Robert
Driberg, Tom Iremonger, T. L. Mellish, Rt. Hn. Robert
Mendelson, John Robertson, John (Paisley) Walker, Harold (Doncaster)
Millan, Bruce Rodgers, William (Stockton) Wallace, George
Milne, Edward (Blyth) Ross, Rt. Hn. William Watkins. David (Consett)
Moonman, Eric Sheldon, Robert Wellbeloved, James
Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe) Shore, Rt. Hn. Peter (Stepney) Wells, William (Walsall, N.)
Morris, Charles R. (Openshaw) Short, Rt. Hn. Edward (N'c'tle-u-Tyne) Whitaker, Ben
Ogden, Eric Silkin, Hn. S. C. (Dulwich) Wilkins, W. A.
Orbach, Maurice Silverman, Julius Willey, Rt. Hn. Frederick
Orme, Stanley Slater, Joseph Williams, Alan Lee (Hornchurch)
Oswald, Thomas Small, William Williams, W. T. (Warrington)
Owen, Will (Morpeth) Spriggs, Leslie Willis, Rt. Hn. George
Paget, R. T. Steele, Thomas (Dunbartonshire, W.) Wilson, William (Coventry, S.)
Parker, John (Dagenham) Stonehouse, Rt. Hn. John Woodburn, Rt. Hn. A.
Peart, Ht. Hn. Fred Symonds, J. B. Woof, Robert
Pentland, Norman Taverne, Dick
Price, Christopher (Perry Barr) Thornton, Ernest TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Price, William (Rugby) Tinn, James Mr. Ioan L. Evans and Mr. Joseph Harper.
Rankin, John Tuck, Raphael
Rees, Merlyn Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne Valley)