HC Deb 20 March 1969 vol 780 cc887-98

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

10.23 p.m.

Mr. George Darling (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

I am grateful for being allowed the opportunity to have another bite at this cherry and that I can also direct my remarks to the right Department and to the right Minister. I want to draw attention to the housing conditions of hundreds of my constituents who live in two new housing estates and whose homes, because of constructional defects are unsatisfactory, below the standards of comfort which they are entitled to expect, and in many cases not fit to live in.

My purpose in raising this matter is not to ask for an inquiry to discover who is to blame for the faulty conditions of the flats, maisonettes and houses on these two estates—the Foxhill Estate and the Stannington Estate in Sheffield. It is to find out what needs to be done to make these homes properly habitable. I shall, therefore, ask my right hon. Friend's support for that purpose. I hope that he will be able to answer my request.

Most of my comments concern the Foxhill Estate, which consists of about 450 homes, most of them in blocks of two- or three- or four-storeyed flats and a number of maisonettes and houses. This estate, like many of the housing developments in Sheffield, is built on a steep hillside. The hills in Sheffield make the laying-out of attractive and well-designed estates very difficult but, because of the shortage of land within the city boundaries, the City Architect immediately after the war and the Public Works Department, which did most of the work, found ways and means of overcoming the difficulties, and they have since created several large and excellent housing schemes on hillsides.

However, the Foxhill Estate, which is properly named, because it is on a hill, was not laid out, and the buildings were not designed, by the City Architect. The building contract went to a private firm. No one can complain about the way the estate is laid out. It fits into the hillside well, and its design is quite good. But the general opinion of the tenants is that whoever designed the flats had never experienced winter conditions on an exposed hillside, and had never felt the full force of the strong winds and driving rain that come over the hills and moors of the Pennines. The rain drives straight into the fiats and houses on the higher ground.

This is the main cause of the most frequent complaint, which is that rain pours through the window frames and for most of the year makes all the rooms, at least in the higher flats, persistently damp. But this intolerable dampness, which turns plaster into black mould, causes wallpaper to peel oft and cracks to appear in ceilings and walls, makes clothing, shoes, handbags and furnishings go mouldy, ruins carpets, and contaminates food, is not the only complaint about the structural defects, neither are ill-fitting window frames the only cause of this unbearable and ruinous dampness.

I have visited scores of these homes and seen for myself the deplorable state they have fallen into in a very short time. The first residents went into them only about seven years ago, and the estate was completed about two years ago. The Tenants Association has provided me with a list of complaints made by individual tenants to the Sheffield Corporation's housing manager. I have made a summary of about 250 requests by tenants for repairs to make their homes properly habitable. The housing manager and his department have tried to remedy some of the worst troubles, but it is clear that patching up will not put things right.

As I have said, most of the complaints are about dampness, and the major cause is faulty window frames, but it is not the only cause. Many tenants report water lying on the balconies outside their living rooms, and a heavy downpour brings it under their doors. This is clearly a fault in design, and it seems to be a fairly common fault that the drains and downpipes cannot cope with rain water after a heavy downpour.

A further allegation as to the cause of so many flats being almost perpetually damp, given to me by skilled building workers among the tenants, is that the contractor used inferior materials, such as sub-standard bricks, unseasoned wood and so on. If that is true, and I am not saying that it is, it may explain why in some of the flats there seems to be dampness seeping right through to the interior walls and not just on the outside walls.

There are distressing features about dampness in homes. To have clothing, furnishings and carpets sodden and mouldy, with the continuing cost of replacing them, and to have food spoiled is bad enough. But even worse is the deleterious effect on the health of tenants who are susceptible to chest and bronchial complaints or rheumatism. Numerous cases have been brought to my attention of old people continuously ill and children developing chest complaints which their doctors attribute to the damp conditions in which they live. It does not need much imagination to understand what these people have had to endure during the past few months of severe weather. There is still about two feet of snow on this hillside.

I have not time to go through the whole list of structural defects which the tenants have reported to me. I must, however, try to show my right hon. Friend the scope of the inquiry that I, on behalf of the tenants, ask him to discuss with Sheffield Corporation. There are scores of complaints about faulty and ill-fitting doors; about stair banisters coming loose; about warped woodwork; about wash basins coming away from walls; broken gutters and leaking roofs; loose gas pipes; no ventilation under floors. These all point to skimped construction work or faulty materials, or both.

These and other faults, apart from the dampness, which is bad enough, seem to indicate bad design or failure to follow the architect's plans. A large number of the flats have or did have an open fire in the living room with a back boiler to supply hot water to radiators throughout the flat for central heating. Many of these fire places are completely useless. The chimneys are too narrow. They have too many sharp bends in them or, as some tenants believe, are blocked up At any rate, they do not take up the smoke and the tenants cannot even keep the fires alight.

So the Corporation has replaced these open fires with gas fires which now stand in front, which means that the central heating radiators cannot be used. They are still in the flats but are useless because there is no means of getting hot water into them. Where this has happened, in more than 50 flats according to the Tenants Association, the tenants have had to buy electric heaters. But this poses another problem because in some of the flats the pervading dampness has rotted the plaster in the walls and loosened electric plugs and sockets and made their use dangerous.

I have gone into some detail to explain the worst of the structural defects that I have seen or had reported to me so that my right hon. Friend can gauge the extent of the faults, which I am sure he will agree must somehow be remedied—not just patched up, as is now happening and has gone on since the first blocks of flats were built but without putting right the root causes of the defective conditions.

It is heart-breaking to talk to the tenants who went into these flats gratefully and happily expecting to live in modern, comfortable and delightful homes. They have spent a lot of money on good furniture and household fittings only to see their dreams of decent housing turned into a long, miserable grumble about bad faults and substandard work. I am saying that repeated patching and mending will not put these homes permanently into a good state of repair. Unless something more drastic is done, this estate, which should be a show piece of design and construction, will become a squalid slum.

I am not asking for a witch hunt. Neither the tenants nor I are looking for scapegoats. They have their own ideas about what went wrong with the building operations and who to blame, and so have I. Their main concern is to get things put right. I have been assured by the Tenants Association that I have the tenants' unanimous backing for the request I am making to my right hon. Friend for an expert technical inquiry into the structural defects to see what needs to be done to remedy the basic faults.

Such an inquiry is not only needed to make these homes comfortably habitable but it might well help the Corporation and the City's ratepayers. I understand £30,000 has been spent on repairs during the past five or six years, repairs which have had only a temporary effect. It is a very heavy bill, and it is a bill that will go on, year after year. It may well be that the assistance of my right hon. Friend's Building Research Directorate, if it can advise on the structural work that is needed, and if the work is properly carried out, will remove this need for continuous repairs and that the cost of the operation may well, over a period of time, actually save the ratepayers and the Corporation a vast amount of money.

I quite understand the Corporation's attitude in this. I think it is wrong, but it is understandable. The Housing Committee and the Housing Department do not know what they would be letting themselves in for if they asked for an expert inquiry of this kind. The Corporation has spent a lot of money—public money—Government money is involved—on building this estate, and it goes on spending a lot, trying quite unsuccessfully to keep it in good repair. It is a losing battle, and something ought to be done.

The other estate which I wish to refer to briefly is the Stannington Estate. It also has the problem of dampness, mainly in the end houses of terraced rows. The cause of the trouble seems to be a fault in design. The Corporation's housing manager puts it down to condensation. I know condensation is a problem in many types of modern buildings. I can quote from a letter he has sent me: I am convinced from my own examination that the condition derives from excessive condensation which is a problem that is undoubtedly on the increase. Unfortunately, the application of heat to the whole house, which is part of the answer, is a costly business and I am afraid that few tenants can accept this advice and act on it. This seems to suggest that inadequate ventilation is provided in the design of these houses. This is something that has been suggested to me as one of the causes of the trouble. Of course, it is no comfort to the tenants concerned to be told what the cause is. They also have shown me mouldy clothes, furnishing and rotted carpets, due to the damp- ness in which they live. Something needs to be done to remedy the structural faults. I therefore ask my right honourable Friend and his Department to have speedy discussions with the Sheffield Corporation. They might then persuade those who are responsible for the city's housing administration to consent to an expert technical inquiry into the structural defects that I have described, and I would hope that the Corporation would act on its findings. My right honourable Friend will, I trust, be able to give me, and the tenants I represent, a favourable reply.

10.39 p.m.

The Minister of Public Building and Works (Mr. Robert Mellish)

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for the courteous way in which he has made his points this evening, and I fully appreciate the problems which his constituents are facing. I share his concern that faulty or inadequate design and construction should cause so much personal discomfort and misery. The particular contract in question was in no way the responsibility of my Department and it would not be proper for me to comment on it in any detail. I can, however, let my right hon. Friend have my views on the general application of the results of building research into construction problems such as those he has outlined so vividly. The difficulties which have affected his constituents in such an acute form arise, in some degree, only too frequently.

The situation he described is an example of an important general problem—how do we get the results of building research across to the industry?

Let me say at once that I am very willing to place at the disposal of the Sheffield Corporation, or of any other interested local authority, the considerable expertise and advice of my Department in dealing with questions of building technology or management control. My officials have already given help of this type to a number of public authorities and I shall give examples of this in a moment.

Most of the difficulties that arise in recently completed construction could have been avoided had the results of past research been fully used. The fact that problems like condensation and dampness arise so frequently when the basic answers are known is a serious reflection on the machinery for translating research into practice, and on the alarming lack of knowledge on the part of many builders. One reason for this situation lies in the newer methods which designers and builders are now adopting. Traditional practices evolved over the years have had to be adapted to the reasonable requirements of high building and exposed sites. Designers must also take account of people's changing habits and expectations, such as the demand for warmer living conditions, which can change the performance requirements for ventilation.

None of this imposes insuperable problems on building technology, provided those concerned with the building are aware from the outset of the difficulties which may arise, and get the advice which they need to deal with them. In the past it has proved very difficult to get the results of research across to the industry. I must at once say that no one is more conscious than I am of the need to get research applied, and that my Ministry is working hard to get this done, both directly and through other bodies.

Let me first take the Building Research Station. From its beginnings in 1921, it has always concentrated on real problems faced by the industry or by the Government as a client. These have ranged from the need to improve productivity and quality in house building to the best methods and material for repairing the stone-work of the Houses of Parliament. More recently, B.R.S. has played an important rôle in mechanisation and in the development of tests for building components on behalf of the Agrément Board. Above all, the last couple of years have seen a thorough reappraisal of B.R.S.s rôle in relation to the industry. Its research programme, which is now published to the industry, is based on two main guidelines. The first is that research projects must be related from the start to the marketing prospects of its results. Secondly, that the Station must concentrate its research resources on major problems and direct its results to those most likely to make effective use of them.

The Station has sharpened up its service information about its work. Some 50,000 copies of each research digest are circulated to the industry and professions. It runs short courses and seminars on its recent work, which have so far have been aimed at the teachers of building subjects in universities and technical colleges. It is now able to extend it to Government and local authority architects—a factor of particular interest to my right hon. Friend. It is also establishing an applications section, to study how past research has been applied and bring this experience to bear on the choice of new projects and the effective marketing of results. What the Station cannot afford to do is dissipate its expert resources.

There are in the industry 50,000 professional qualified men and women, engaged in the design and management of building and civil engineering work and there are nearly 80,000 firms of contractors and specialists, and several hundred public authorities. B.R.S. deals with thousands of inquiries each year from all these, but it is significant that the overwhelming majority raise no new issues requiring fundamental investigations. For every inquiry that reaches B.R.S. there are many more never asked, simply because people do not know that there is a problem to be solved.

This is why I should like to see a country-wide information and advisory service. It would take from B.R.S. the burden of offering advice based on existing knowledge, and would set about the job of ensuring that information on good practice and new developments penetrated into the dark corners of the industry. It was our hope that the Construction Industry Research and Information Association, we call it C.I.R.I.A., would tackle this important question as part of its work. The difficulty has been that, despite the early hopes of substantial support, the Association has drawn few new members from the building industry and its professions. As a result, shortage of funds has prevented the Association from any significant extension of its work into building matters.. In particular it has not permitted the introduction except on a pilot scale, of the national information and advisory service, which many people in the industry think so important—rightly in my view. This serious situation cannot be allowed to drift much longer, and I am already re-examining with leaders of the industry on my National Consultative Council, how this can be given a bigger push. This is a body set up some time ago, and the levy is voluntary. It just cannot get the money to do the job for which it was set up.

Quite apart from B.R.S. activities, my Department is doing important work to accelerate the use of technological developments by the industry and its clients, particularly those in the public sector. We have given a lead in various ways to architects and engineers in the public sector, for example by co-ordinating the efforts of Government Departments to introduce rationalised dimensions, based on the metric system, and to move towards objective specifications of performance which will widen the scope for informed choice by designers and for innovation by manufacturers. We have specialists on the management of design and construction organisations and processes, who have acted as consultants to several local authorities on the organisation of their architectural and building departments.

My Directorate General of Research and Development, in addition to its direct functions, was originally responsible for establishing three independent bodies with key roles in this applications process—the National Building Agency for which my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government is now responsible, the Agrément Board which is making considerable progress in extending objective quality control over new products and methods, and the Construction Industry Research and Information Association to which I have referred.

We are also a production organisation, with great experience in designing an unparalleled range of building types, from offices and telephone buildings to defence installations and radio telescopes; and we are ready to use all this experience to help solve the problems of others. The inquiry into the Ronan Point disaster called in the expert advice both of my Department's structural engineers and of the Building Research Station. This is not the only example of our advice assisting in problems in the local authority field. Sir Donald Gibson, the Controller General, investigated the circumstances in which Bedford County Hall needed structural modification after building had started. One interesting example was when the Scottish Laboratory of B.R.S. was involved in the investigation of storm damage in Glasgow last year. The problem of gales is not unknown in the North of England, and was one of those which affected the Foxhill Estate in Sheffield.

I should like very much to see still wider recognition of the expert resources of my Ministry, and further growth in its contacts with local authorities on matters of building technology. I can assure my right hon. Friend that we are most willing to help Sheffield Corporation in any way possible. I see this, above all, as one important way of building up co-operation throughout the public sector and improving the flow of knowledge, so that standards are not only maintained but improved.

As condensation is apparently one of the troubles at Foxhill, I should mention that we recognised some months ago that condensation was a general problem, on which existing knowledge was insufficiently used. We have produced a film on the subject, and my Directorate General of Research and Development is about to publish a handbook prepared by an interdepartmental working party. We have also mounted a series of highly successful conferences on prevention of condensation.

Finally, there is the question of building standards. While I cannot say what went wrong at Foxhill, in general clients would be well advised to insist on more rigorous quality control under British Standards. The Greater London Council's Scientific Advisory Service is a model for local authorities. Clients should also insist on Agrément Board certificates for any new components and, in the case of system-built housing, an appraisal by the National Building Agency. The tests that B.S.R. undertakes for the Agréments Board would ensure that windows, to which my right hon. Friend made special reference, and other external components could withstand the most severe weather conditions they were likely to encounter. We are moving into a period when there will be no excuse for failures in use of components. I should like to see the situation shortly when not only Government Departments, but every designer in the country, demands an agrement certificate before using new methods or products.

To sum up, whilst I cannot comment on the specific circumstances of the Sheffield case, as, I am sure, my right hon. Friend will understand, I repeat my offer that if Sheffield Corporation feels that expert advice would help it to master this problem, my Department will be very glad to help.

I have been more concerned tonight with the general passage of information between research workers and those in the field. I believe that good building practice depends as much as anything on the contacts between practising designers and builders and those responsible for research and education. It is in this spirit that I wish to make the resources of my Ministry available to other public building authorities.

I started by commending the way in which my right hon. Friend introduced this debate. Although it may seem that this is a matter, as he put it, which concerns only a certain number of people in Sheffield, there are very few of us who, as Members of Parliament, do not know of similar problems in our own constituencies. We have long gone beyond the day when local authorities should not be too proud to seek the best advice they can get and to seek it from those whose experience might help.

I say once again to my right hon. Friend that I offer him the services of my Department to help in whatever way We possibly can, and that his constituents can well be proud of the way he has handled the problem tonight.

10.52 p.m.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

I thought that the Minister started his speech by putting the Building Research Station rather on a university pedestal, but we all know that it enters into field work and engages in practical matters. The Glasgow storm damage, Ronan Point and the Bedford County Hall are good examples.

The right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Darling) tonight made a good case for another practical application of the Building Research Station. I should like to support him in his request to the Minister to put the services of the Building Research Station, in any way that is possible, to help these unfortunate people in these homes where something has gone very wrong. I think that it has gone as wrong there as it went wrong at Ronan Point and at Bedford County Hall—

Mr. Mellish

The hon. Member will understand that Sheffield must come and ask us. It would be quite impertinent of us to go there.

Mr. Page

Of course. It puzzles me why Sheffield Corporation has not asked the Minister.

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

Adjourned at seven minutes to Eleven o'clock.