HC Deb 12 November 1969 vol 791 cc572-84

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

10.54 p.m.

Mr. Arnold Gregory (Stockport, North)

In raising the matter of the Lancashire Hill flats development at Stockport I fully realise that we are dealing with a specific issue and not one of the broader implications of housing in the borough.

The Minister of Housing and Local Government and my hon. Friend's predecesso- at the Ministry, my hon. Friend the Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl), will recall discussion on the subject on 26th June when the Minister met representatives from Stockport and Macclesfield with my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, South (Mr. Orbach) and the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir A. V. Harvey). In all instances the need for special consideration to the borough's problems was sought, and today we are in precisely the same position.

It is a matter with massive financial implications for the size of the authority involved, an issue that presents colossal problems which remain completely without settlement or reasonable conclusion today.

My right hon. Friend is fully aware of what is at stake. He wrote to the Mayor of Stockport as recently as 23rd October, 1969, in his now famous housing black list communication, as follows: I am writing to you as Mayor of an authority which appears to be reducing its housebuilding and clearance. I realise, of course, that the problems and delays that have occurred this year over your scheme at Lancashire Hill had an effect on the housing programme But with 6,000 unfit dwellings to be cleared and more than that number to be improved there can be little doubt that the Council have still housing problems to be solved. Indeed the council has. I am informed that the flats are still unfinished and remain unoccupied and, whereas it was hoped by the authority to have them finished in September last, the date has had to be postponed until May, 1970.

What is the measure of the Lancashire Hill flats problem, and what has gone wrong? When the panic of the terrible Ronan Point collapse and disaster had subsided, the matter then fell to other local authorities with tall blocks of system-built flats, in the words of the Ministry to have an appraisal made of any high blocks (over six storeys) owned by them with system buildings—that is, in large panel construction with load-bearing walls". That was issued on 13th August, 1968.

Immediately, the Stockport Borough Architect Took action to meet the Minis try's requirements. These were, first, to eliminate gas supplies for cooking; second, to consult the National Building Agency; and, third, to ask the Jespersen 12M designers, Messrs. Laing, to meet all the Minister's requirements. Also, the Minister was asked as a sponsor of the project to advise forthwith on necessary action and to arrange for appraisal on all other tall blocks in the town.

Reaction to all this was painfully and expensively slow. The resultant costs and effect to Stockport are tantamount to monstrous. Notwithstanding that, on 30th August, 1968, the Minister advised the authority that work should stop on blocks 2 and 3 of the 6-block scheme, containing units of seven storeys, and it was indicated that work on blocks 1, 4, 5 and 6, with six storeys or less, should continue.

The borough architect wrote for specific advice from the Ministry on remedial structural work on 12th September, 1968. This was formally repeated at a meeting on 27th November. Requests by letters and telephone were put out by the town clerk and the borough architect. It was not until 7th March, 1969 that a reply was received. This reply suggested that the council should appoint one of three consultants to make an appraisal. Apology was given for the delay. Reference was made to the amount of expenditure and to some Exchequer assistance. with certain conditions.

It is small wonder that all this, after so much delay, should he regarded as totally unsatisfactory and also give rise to opinion in the town that the affair had been shabbily handled. Work on the Lancashire Hill site had stopped dead because of sheer lack of essential information. On 24th February, 1969, Messrs. Laing, the constructors, were instructed to cease work on the flats. Apart from the appraisal work done by Messrs. Kenneth Severn Associates, that is the position today.

Can anyone be surprised at the sense of sheer disappointment that is felt by Stockport borough surveyor? The council is presented with a gigantic problem. So are the people on the waiting lists and those living in bad housing conditions who cannot occupy the flats, and so are the ratepayers who are the ones who face a massive bill.

A local newspaper, the Stockport Express, wrote on 19th June, 1969: It is a scandal that there has been so much shilly-shallying at Government level on the question of who foots the bill for work on the Lancashire Hill flats. Recently, in responding to the Minister's letter pressing the council for action on the council's housing programme, the same newspaper commented: The rocketing charges in respect of the Lancashire Hill flats is a case in point. £200,000 is a considerable amount of money to find and particularly so when such a charge has arisen through no fault of the local authority. In this context, there can be quite a bit of criticism pitched at the local authority—that is the controlling authority—for selling off municipally-owned land at prices which they are alleged to have put lower than that they paid for it, and that kind of activity will not go unnoticed, but the authority finances are not helped either when they are presented with a bill of this magnitude for something for which they are not entirely responsible and, indeed, the amount increases.

Why then the special case to which constant reference is made? It is because the Stockport Council maintain—and they have informed the Ministry several times—that they were not free agents in the decision to build system-type flats in the first place. It was at the instigation of the Ministry that they entered into a contract with Laings for the erection of these dwellings. They were to be built in deck access of the Jespersen 12M system, and on the recommendation of the Ministry a tender figure of £1,252,200 was negotiated with Laings on 19th June, 1967. It was to form part of the West Pennine Group project and the Ministry fully commended the system.

At a meeting of the West Pennine authorities in December, 1963, the Ministry commended the Laings Jespersen 12M system specifically—as early as that—and it was after many more meetings and discussions amongst officials that finally the decision was made. On 21st May, 1965, the Ministry wrote to the Town Clerk of Stockport: The Ministry can fully commend this system and I ask whether your council would approve in principle the negotiation of a large scale contract for this work with Messrs. Laing through the West Pennine Group. In fairness, everyone, including my right hon. Friend, obviously could not foresee trends, and the disaster of Ronan Point was three years away. But the developments since have caused this local authority great problems, and, whereas we know the Minister has recommended a 40 per cent. rate in meeting these costs over all the country, some difficulties are greater than others. In meeting the costs, Stockport faces a bill of £122,000 for strengthening the flats and another £110,000 to cover contractors' claims for delay, and equivalent to an annual charge of £8,179. Furthermore, during the period of delay, they had to meet additional interest which amounted to £1,587 per week for 18 weeks, a total of £28,566 which will be a charge in the accounts for 1968-69 and 1969-70. There may be other authorities in greater difficulties, but this charge is bad enough and Stockport is involved.

I shall be only too pleased to let my right hon. Friend have the details given by the town clerk on this aspect. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will want to know that all of this was said to be an element leading to rent increases. The council faces an estimated deficit of £139.000 on housing revenue account at 31st March, 1970.

Another measure of all this is that the Stockport 1 d. rate represents £22,000 and the effect equals a rate increase of something like ls. 1d. or Is. 2d. to be met by the Stockport ratepayers. This is a crippling burden to the authority and its ratepayers, and for Stockport it has massive implications. The point must be put to my right hon. Friend and the Ministry that they should again look into the special circumstances of the case. The authority believed that it was dealing with high ministerial policy. Whatever the degree of emphasis it placed on the advisory services—and is there small wonder in view of the type of building and its constructional links; that is, the 12M Jespersen system it was left to ponder, "Who are we to thwart a recommendation of this sort?"

I believe that the Minister has a continuing responsibility in the matter and, as the situation shows, it is far from having been discharged. To say the least, some concession is needed. I hope that my hon. Friend will give one tonight.

11.5 p.m.

Sir Arthur Vere Harvey (Macclesfield)

am sure that the people of Stockport will be grateful to the hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Gregory) for raising this matter, which equally affects the Borough of Macclesfield. The two hon. Members for Stockport and myself saw the Minister of Housing and Local Government towards the end of last Session. He had the facts presented to him in the presence of the officials, the town clerks and the borough architects, and there can be no excuse for the Minister saying that he does not know, because the facts are well known.

The Macclesfield Corporation, as well as Stockport, has been placed in an intolerable position through the action of the Ministry. It is a member of the West Pennine Housing Group, which is sponsored by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. For a long period, the Ministry has pressed the technical examination of the 12M Jespersea system. As far back as March, 1965, the Ministry's representative drew attention to the "current lead" of the system. The Ministry said that it was convinced that the system was satisfactory.

Then, in May, 1965, the regional officer of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government said that the system had emerged as the system most suitable for deck access development. On 21st May, 1965, the regional officer wrote to the Macclesfield town clerk: The Ministry can fully commend this system and I ask whether your Council will approve it in principle. The borough architect pointed out the most unusual nature of a negotiated contract of this size—over £1 million for a small borough—but the council relied on the advice of the Ministry. I wonder, and I ask the Minister, what would have happened if Macclesfield and Stockport had gone against the advice of the Ministry. As I see it, it is a case of Whitehall knowing best. Macclesfield is a much smaller borough than Stockport and it has to fall into line.

Even the Ministry's architects took an active part in the detailed design of the dwellings. After the Ronan Point collapse in August last year, the Minister failed to appoint consulting engineers to examine this sponsored system. I believe that it was only yesterday that the report to Macclesfield came to hand, and I do not have details of it.

The loss to the Corporation to date is £219,700. The Minister said that he would contribute 40 per cent. of the cost, a figure which is already out of date and far too low in relation to current subsidy levels. That means that if the council has to borrow the rest of the money -- 60 per cent. of £219,000—for a period of 60 years, it will incur additional loan charges on the housing revenue account. This would amount to £12,454 per annum on a small borough, which represents a 9s. I ld. per week increase on each dwelling or Is. per week additional rent on all the houses in the borough. Alternatively, it represents rather more than the Stockport figure, or 10. in the £ per annum on the rates.

All this has held back slum clearance in Macclesfield. Because of the extra cost, the corporation cannot commit itself. It is a tragedy for people who expect to be rehoused. The Minister sets the maximum rents which can be charged. If the corporation has to put these extra interest charges on the rents, will the Minister give dispensation? I very much doubt it.

I would like to have spoken much longer, but I want to register this complaint in the strongest terms I can command. I have never seen such treatment meted out to local authorities in the 24 years I have been a Member of the House of Commons. If this is the way the Minister deals with local authorities, I am sure that there will be retribution, if not tomorrow, certainly at the General Election. The Minister may smile, but I ask him to look at the matter again with great sympathy, because the two boroughs are in dire difficulties over this problem.

11.10 p.m.

Mr. Maurice Orbach (Stockport, South)

There is no doubt in my mind, from the attendance at the meeting held in June, when representatives of both boroughs were present, together with my two colleagues and myself, and from the subsequent correspondence, that there is a great number of misunderstandings and ambiguities about this matter which have not been cleared up. I rise to support both my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Gregory) and the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir A. V. Harvey) because I believe that there is a fundamental issue behind this situation. We are not dealing only with a calamity which occurred in the London area and which had repercussions throughout the land, arising from an act of God or the stupidity of an individual or a leak in a fuel system which caused the Ronan Point disaster. We are dealing also with the fact that we are condemning many people to wait very much longer for the housing accommodation which they badly need.

As Member for Stockport, South I am not immediately concerned in the problem, but of course I am concerned about the rates which will have to be levied in future to clear up the deficit on the housing account, which has reached astronomic proportions both in Stockport and in Macclesfield. The local authority in Stockport—and I gather from the hon. Member that this is the situation in Macclesfield, too has had to curb or to halt its housing programme. Indeed, in Stockport it has gone further and has declared that it wants to sell the land which was purchased by the previous majority for clearance purposes—and in some cases to sell it at lower prices than those which were paid for it. The authority is also closing down its direct labour department. and it is doing all kinds of things which will affect the amenities for which the ratepayers pay their rates.

I am seriously concerned that the corporations of Stockport and Macclesfield are not given the opportunity to say, "We were persuaded to this action by the Ministry". In my opinion the Ministry have not been clear on the issue and I am concerned that they should arrive at their conclusions as quickly as possible.

First, we claim that we are in a special position because suggestions were made to the borough architect—particularly in Stockport; and he is a man we greatly admire—that he should use this building system. Not only was it suggested that he should use this system. but it was also suggested that he should accept these contractors—which is contrary to the established convention in any Government or local authority contract. In fact, a 40 per cent. grant has been offered to the local authorities concerned, but we believe that we are in a special position and that we should be offered more than 40 per cent. In addition, we want to know, what does the grant cover? Does it cover the long period of delay in making these premises available—a period during which no rent could be collected? Are we to lose not only the assets but also the revenue which might have been collected—without the Government giving us any assistance?

I very much hope that in his reply the Minister will tell us that he will reconsider the level of the grant, possibly for the whole country and certainly for these two authorities, and that at any rate he will tell us what the grant will cover. Surely we shall not be asked to pay the full 100 per cent. to the contractors of the amount which they are requesting —and requesting because of the delay caused by the Ministry. I ask the Minister to appreciate the depth of feeling which exists in the County Borough of Stockport and, I am sure, in Macclesfield, too.

11.15 p.m.

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

I appreciate the depth of feeling on this matter which is not confined to the two authorities concerned but to authorities elsewhere in the country. The fact that it is generally felt in no way belittles the strength of feeling reflected in speeches this evening.

I start by saying that whatever the difficulties—and I assure the House that I was not smiling—facing local authorities which have experienced the aftermath of Ronan Point, there is no justification for priority housing areas cutting back on housing programmes. There is even less justification for anything which will pre-empt the situation in regard to future programmes in years to come. If that is the position which threatens in Stockport or anywhere else, I hope that there will be serious and urgent second thoughts by local authorities. I do not in any way belittle the difficulties arising from this particular situation, but make my comment as a general proposition in the light of the housing difficulties facing so many people in these particular authority areas and elsewhere in the country.

I should like to turn, in the limited time that 1 have available, to deal first with the position of Stockport. The arguments presented this evening by both hon. Members who have spoken have been advanced in such a manner to suggest that the system of construction and the choice of it was such in this case as to build up a special relationship with the Ministry, by reason of which my right hon. Friend is morally obliged to refund to the county borough council and to Stockport and Macclesfield the whole cost of construction of these blocks irrespective of what he may decide to do in respect of other local authorities.

I make the general point that, following discussions held by my right hon. Friend's Department with the local authority association on the 40 per cent. Government grant to assist in financing strengthening work on these blocks of flats throughout the country, my right hon. Friend considered representations made generally on behalf of local authorities regarding that grant which the Ministry has so far agreed should be paid. It is not this evening possible for me to speak on behalf of the Minister as to the results of his consideration, but I hope that there will be an answer to these representations fairly shortly.

Sir A. V. Harvey

What does the Minister mean by "fairly shortly"? Will he say when?

Mr. Freeson

The hon. Member must take the point as far as I have taken it. The Minister is considering that representations on behalf of all local authorities concerned and will come to his conclusions as soon as he has finished that consideration. It is not for me to give the date and time when he will do so. The matter is being seriously considered by the Ministry and there will be an announcement as soon as he has come to his conclusions. I cannot make an announcement this evening in respect of either Stockport or Macclesfield ahead of what the Minister may conclude about local authorities generally.

I speak at some disadvantage since this matter was argued at some length at a meeting between my right hon. Friend, my hon. Friends and the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir A. V. Harvey) on 26th June. I was not present at that meeting having been appointed to my present office subsequently. But I have carefully studied the record of the events which have been described and I have seen the letter of 8th August from the Town Clerk of Stockport, copies of which were received by hon. Members concerned. There is much that is common ground. It is not denied that over a period of years there was active Government sponsorship of industrialised building systems employing large load-bearing concrete panels.

I hope that it will be accepted as a matter of general agreement that the increased production of housing has been in the broad interest of the whole body of housing authorities in the country, and should not be treated as if it was beneficial to Ministers in some special way. It has been beneficial to the housing programme nationally.

It was by reason of this active sponsorship and the attribution of responsibility by the tribunal of inquiry that my right hon. Friend thought it right to offer the extra-statutory capital grants to which I have referred under the 40 per cent. heading.

Equally, it is agreed that the borough architect in this case was advised that the system in question would be suitable for use in the scheme under discussion, under a directly-negotiated contract. But, with the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, South (Mr. Orbach) and the hon. Member for Macclesfield, my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Gregory) has sought in his argument about a "special relationship" to produce a picture of a reluctant authority which was steamrollered into using the system by the then Principal Regional Officer, backed by some kind of implicit or explicit guarantee. I am afraid that I cannot go that far.

The record shows that the application of system building in this area was exhaustively studied by a technical committee of the West Pennine Group, a consortium of local housing authorities which has the backing of the Ministry, as have other consortia elsewhere in the country. It is accepted that the then Principal Regional Officer gave his services as chairman, but a considerable part of the active and participating membership consisted of local authority officers, including the Borough Architect of Stockport. It was the recommendation of the committee that the system in question was suitable for deck access schemes, and the then Principal Regional Officer acted as spokesman for the committee of the local authorities' consortium when he suggested the system to the authorities.

The final decision to act on this advice rested, as it had to, on the councils concerned. Therefore, I must agree with the words of the Department's letter which was sent in August before I was appointed to my present post and which said: A reading of these documents in full lends no support to the contention that this was a form of development, a method of construction, or a procedure for placing a contract which was being pressed on an uninformed or unwilling authority. Rather does it indicate a course of action arising out of long and detailed consideration, in which the authorities were fully involved, of all the relevant factors. I am afraid, therefore, that I cannot accept my hon. Friend's general contention that a special relationship existed in the terms that he has described this evening. Stockport is in principle in the same regrettable position as other authorities which have to strengthen flats because of defects which were not foreseen by the professions and the industry, both at home and abroad, the local housing authorities and the Ministry.

A number of other points were raised. I take, for example, the question of the financial burden remaining on Stockport. As to that, my right hon. Friend offered to discuss with the local authority associations an arrangement whereby part of the grant which he had offered might be distributed differentially according to the burden falling on local authorities and the strength of their resources. However, he was unwilling to pursue it unless the associations agreed. Unfortunately it has been found to be unacceptable to them. I say that with regret, because it might have been a more sensitive way of handling the matter financially and would have affected the costs falling on Stockport.

My hon. Friend also spoke of conflicting advice. There is some truth in this, but it did not affect the financial position. We have been talking about finance—

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

Adjourned at twenty-four minutes past Eleven o'clock.