HC Deb 19 February 1970 vol 796 cc733-44

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

10.8 p.m.

Mr. Tom McMillan (Glasgow, Central)

I welcome the opportunity of airing in the House the plight in which a large number of my constituents find themselves today. They are in fear and danger of their lives.

On 1st February a support wall and chimney head of a tenement building in my constituency crashed through the houses at 44 to 50, Fisher Street, Glasgow, and the lives of 43 people were put in grave peril. The dangerous condition of this building had been reported by me to the city engineer on 23rd January. I later received from him a letter dated 27th January, which I will read: Property, 44/50 Fisher Street: I am in receipt of your inquiry of the 23rd instant, and have to advise you that my district inspector has arranged with the factor for the property, Messrs. Murray & Muir Ltd., 135 St. Vincent Street to have these cracks infilled with cement and plaster so that any further movement in this bed recess wall will be observed without further delay. That is the situation that existed up to 1st February. But before the examination and observation could be made the tragedy occurred.

The frightening thing is the procedure which follows when somebody reports that a building is dangerous. The present procedure is that the factor, the landlord or agent is informed and then there is a waiting period, which might run into months. During this time a very dangerous situation can develop where lives are put at risk.

My constituents are forced to continue to live in these dreadful buildings during this period of terror. I have had occasion in my area as its Member of Parliament and a former city councillor, to report a large number of buildings as dangerous. I should like to give the House some examples of my experiences.

There was a case where a city engineer's representative and I went to examine a toilet stock, a 60 to 70 foot high block of toilets added to a building, which I considered to be dangerous. The engineer's opinion was the same as mine but did not carry the same urgency. A few days later, about 3 o'clock in the morning, the stock collapsed and only by the grace of God no one was killed. If the collapse had taken place at any other time of day there would have been people using the toilets who possibly would have been killed, and children might have been playing in the back courtyard into which the stock collapsed.

Another example occurred in the vicinity of the near-tragedy on 1st February. In this case the city engineer's representative and I both agreed that the building was dangerous. The factor was informed and he agreed to spend about £1,500 to make the building safe. Weeks passed before, under pressure from the occupants, a safety barrier was placed around the defective wall. This barrier, however, quickly became ineffective because of vandalism and children's activities, and indeed the wall collapsed before any remedial work was done.

I will give another example of what is happening at this moment. In a large tenement building there is a bulging wall which the factor had been asked to make safe. This man is one of the best factors in Glasgow, but nevertheless months have passed and, so far as I know, nothing has been done. One of my constituents has complained to me that she lives in the top flat of this tenement which is about 70 ft. high and she finds that her doors jam and that cracks have appeared in her ceiling. She has become a very frightened woman.

Last Sunday I visited the house almost next door to the collapse in Fisher Street. The movement in the building was such that the amount of wood cut from the bottom of doors to make them close left a two-inch gap. In fact, somebody who visited the property told me it was like walking on a listing ship. From top to bottom of the building a huge crack has appeared, which my constituents point out to me every time I visit the building. They have observed that it is getting bigger.

My hon. Friend will remember the debate on the Housing (Scotland) Bill in 1969. He will recall that I described an area of 600 to 700 houses and asked if they could be included as a treatment area. His answer was "Yes". The area I described is the one I am now talking about, and this has led to the present Adjournment debate.

I knew then that over 80 per cent. of the houses in this area did not meet the standards set out in the Bill. I had hoped that, because of continuous representations made by my colleagues on the council and by the ward secretary, this would be one of the first to be considered as a house treatment area. It would now appear that this is not to be so. One consolation, if it be a consolation, is that there is more activity in this area than ever before.

I am sorry that disaster has caused this activity. The problem of procedure is still with us. The chimney heads being taken down are from property owned by Glasgow Corporation. With the private property the waiting game continues. In this area when the wind blows at night—and this happens only too frequently in winter—the lights go on all over the area. What is happening is that the women are getting up, putting on the lights, moving the beds away from the area where the chimney head is, sitting up all night, ready to help if a serious situation occurs. This is going on all the time in these houses. It is very difficult for people who have never lived under such circumstances to understand the terror in which these unfortunate people live.

One day in 1953, following a storm, I came home from work to find that my whole family and many others had escaped annihilation by a few yards when a chimney head crashed to the ground, hitting every floor of the tenement building next to my own home. The cause of this appalling situation is clear—it is the neglect of the landlord over many years. There are no gutters throughout the area, the rain washes down the face of the building, undermining the whole structure. Pointing has not been done in the last 30 years.

The answer is clear—build more houses in Glasgow. The statement made recently by the administration spokesman in Glasgow, that there would only be 3,300 starts on new houses this year is, to my mind, a near criminal announcement. I hope that the citizens of Glasgow will react strongly to those who count only the cost and who could well bring about a situation where they will be counting lives. I have tried to bring out some of the fears of myself and my constituents. One of the problems which will remain for some time unless action is taken is that in the tenement buildings in this area and many others when the bottom houses become empty the steel shutters are put on the doors and windows. During the thaw water pounds through the house at the bottom. For months water is pouring in, undermining these buildings. The factor has to be got, we have to wait his time to get in and inspect the building. A social worker who helped to take families from the collapsed building to the institute at Forest Hall—there is no other place for these people, they have to be separated in wards—said that dangerous buildings were causing trouble at least once a week.

When Shelter came to Glasgow, it chose this area for its national report. Photographs of the buildings, and statements made by the people, I am talking about were in this national report. I ask the Government to try to find ways and means of helping Glasgow with this dreadful housing problem.

10.18 p.m.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Dr. Dickson Mabon)

The House is much obliged to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Tom McMillan) for the concise way in which he has stated his case, particularly in view of the urgency and genuine human concern surrounding this subject. We all agree that it is intolerable for people to have to live in houses that are unfit for human habitation. It is even more intolerable that they should have to live in buildings which are positively dangerous.

Let me deal with the question of dangerous buildings first. The power to deal with these rests with Glasgow Corporation, which can order the owners to take down or secure dangerous buildings or buildings likely to become dangerous. It can acquire the buildings compulsorily, take the necessary action and deduct the expenses from the compensation payable. My right hon. Friend has confirmed 60 compulsory purchase orders for that purpose in the last three years and 13 more are being considered.

Through the Master of Works emergency action can be taken to evacuate dangerous buildings and prevent access to them. All this is done under the corporation's local Acts of 1937 and 1965. Sections 99 and 100 of the Glasgow Streets, Sewers and Buildings Consolidation Act, 1937, give the Dean of Guild Court powers to require owners to take down or secure dangerous buildings or buildings which are likely to become dangerous. Through the Master of Works steps can be taken in an emergency to evacuate and shore up such properties to prevent access to them. In many cases, however, the corporation has no alternative but to meet the cost of demolition and and so on itself.

Section 5 of the Glasgow Corporation (No. 2) Order Confirmation Act, 1965, empowers the corporation to acquire such properties compulsorily and, as I said earlier, to deduct its expenses from the compensation payable.

Each building inspector keeps buildings in his area under surveillance for signs of their becoming dangerous—for example, bulging in walls and loosening of mortar in joints round chimney heads. A particularly close watch is kept on the central area of the city.

Reports are prepared by the Master of Works who, in an emergency, has power to evacuate the building and exclude access to it. In most cases reports are submitted to the Dean of Guild Court who appoint a Reporter, an "independent man of skill", to advise the court on whether the building should be demolished. The owner is cited to appear at the court in due course at which the Reporter's recommendations are considered. In 1969 the Dean of Guild Court dealt with some 80 cases involving possibly five to 10 individual houses in each instance. Many involved properties which the corporation, as housing authority, was in the process of clearing.

I now turn to 45/50 Fisher Street, Dennistoun. The chimney head of this tenement property collapsed on 1st February creating extensive damage to the dwelling houses concerned. The property had already been earmarked by the housing authority for clearance. Nine families—33 people—were evacuated by the corporation. Four of the families had been previously rehoused by the corporation and had returned of their own volition. The property was inspected just prior to the collapse, but a thorough inspection was not possible as the basement had been bricked up. While the reason for the collapse has not yet been determined, the Master of Works suspects that a broken wall moved for lack of support. This led to the fall of the chimney head, causing extensive damage. The case for demolition of the property is to be heard by the Dean of Guild Court within the next few days.

We had a similar collapse at a tenement property in Stanmore Road, Dennistoun, a slum clearance area, at the beginning of January. A burst water pipe had softened the ground near the wall foundations. The Secretary of State's responsibilities for these matters are confirming compulsory purchase orders. Otherwise he has no part to play in the procedure for dealing with dangerous buildings.

Mr. Edward M. Taylor (Glasgow, Cathcart)

Stanmore Road is not in Dennistoun; it is in Cathcart.

Dr. Mabon

I apologise. It does not make any difference to the fact that throughout the city there are numerous problems.

One of the lessons of the storm damage done by the great gale of 1968 and the consequence of having to survey all the damaged property, which involved thousands of houses, was to demonstrate clearly that in Glasgow properties had been sadly neglected by many factors and landlords over a great length of time. This is the reason why the storm took such a toll of property and left many properties in a state of uncertainty about their future and precise length of life.

The corporation's officials now have a large encyclopaedia of knowledge about these properties that they did not have before. They welcome the 1969 Act not only for the obvious reason that it helps to improve houses, but also for the additional power which is given, which clarifies beyond doubt that the corporation can take extra action not only in relation to dangerous buildings after they have been negelected, but before.

Section 24(1) of the Housing (Scotland Act, 1969, provides: Where a local authority are satisfied that any house in their district is in a state of serious disrepair, they may serve on the person having control of the house a notice— Subsection (2) says the local authority …may themselves execute the works…". Subsection (4) says: Where a local authority are of the opinion that a house in their district is in need of repair, although not in a state of serious disrepair…. This was because we discovered after the storm damage that the preceeding Acts of Parliament, including the consolidating Act of 1966, allowed the local authority to intervene only after the house had become unfit for human habitation. Section 13 of the Building (Scotland) Act, 1959, operates only after a building has become dangerous and Section 16 of the Public Health (Scotland) Act, 1897, operates after the premises are in a state such as to be a nuisance.

Only local Acts such as those in Edinburgh entitled the corporation to step in and repair properties before they had reached the state of serious disrepair. We have remedied that in the Measure by giving the right to every local authority to step in and repair properties before they reach a state of serious disrepair. The Government hope that that Section will be translated into reality by every local authority, particularly by the great City of Glasgow, which has such a terrible heritage of buildings. I am assured by Glasgow that it is very much alert to the need for action where a building is dangerous and it is dealing with such buildings. That is certainly a specialist job.

I do not know all the details of the exchanges between my hon. Friend and the corporation on the cases he has mentioned, but I wholly agree that action to deal with dangerous buildings and buildings which are reasonably and responsibly suggested to be dangerous should be swift and effective. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, both as a councillor and Member of Parliament, for having always acted responsibly in his dealings with officials and in reporting the many defects in housing in his part of the city. I sincerely hope that the corporation, whose responsibility this clearly is, will take close note of what has been said tonight and make sure that its procedures are fully effective in future.

On the broader front, the real root of the problem is that many of the old tenement buildings in Glasgow have simply been there for far too long and have not been kept in proper repair. They certainly do not offer an acceptable standard of housing. My hon. Friend said that the real answer to the problem was to build more houses, and I wholeheartedly agree. I have discussed this with the corporation on many occasions since I was first Joint Under-Secretary of State. One of the first objectives we tried to secure with the corporation was the construction in the calendar years 1965–69 inclusive of 25,000 houses. We earmarked sites in the city for 27,500, giving ourselves that 10 per cent. excess in case of difficulties over site clearance, acquisition and so on. In fact the total built in those five years was 24,264, which, considering all the difficulties of the city, is quite good.

Unfortunately, while the number of houses built has been almost up to expectation that is not true of starts. This is where we are really alarmed. That is why on 29th January my noble friend the Minister of State had a wide-ranging discussion with the corporation on new building in the city, the improvement of existing sub-standard houses, and consequential necessary building outside the city for Glasgow families, and the speeding up of the comprehensive development areas, which are not up to schedule. If one does not arrange for approvals and starts in large numbers, one cannot expect a large number of completions at the other end. While we have done reasonably well, with the corporation, over the five years I mentioned, that cannot be said of the next five years. That is why we have set up a working party. I am glad that the corporation quite recently ratified the arrangement whereby a joint working party of its officials and the Scottish Development Department will work together in trying to get agreement, and put into practice that agreement, on the biggest number of houses to be built on available sites that is practicable and possible.

In 1965 the number of starts was 5,238. In 1966 the figure was 4,673 and in 1967 it was 5,486. That is why 1968 and 1969 were such good years for completions. The good work had been done in starts in 1965, 1966, and 1967. In 1968 the number of starts fell to 3,278, and it may be argued—and I have every sympathy with this view—that one reason for that was the diversion of forces from building new houses to repairing houses damaged by storm. I am willing to agree that it is possibly fair to argue that that made a marginal difference, and this is not a party political point. It may be argued that the administration had a heavy burden to carry. It was agreed on both sides of the House that the first priority was to repair storm-damaged houses, irrespective of what the effect of transferring the labour force to that work would be on the construction of new houses.

But that cannot be said of 1969, when the number of starts in Glasgow was 1,311, which means that this year, in 1971, and in 1972, we shall see a fall in the number of houses built in Glasgow. That is why my right hon. Friend has urged his Ministers to do their best to try to secure the building of more houses outside the city to make up for the shortfall which there is certain to be in the city as a result of the failure to achieve an adequate number of starts last year.

The figure of 3,000 mentioned by my hon. Friend was the figure announced by the corporation prior to the visit of my noble Friend the Minister of State on 29th January. That figure was said to be what would be realised during each of the live calendar years beginning this year. We do not regard that as an adequate number. It may be that the working party will demonstrate to us that that is the only practicable number that can be built. If that is so, it is all the more important that the number of houses directly available to the city factor should be increased to meet the shortfall between the number of houses which can be built in the city, and the number of families who need to be rehoused.

We reckon that, taking into account all the different agencies, the S.S.H.A., and so on, in dealing with overspill throughout Scotland the new towns should take in at least three cases out of five. We reckon that they should take in well over 80 per cent. of their new inhabitants from the City of Glasgow, if not formally at least indirectly. About 10,000 families should be rehoused each year. That is the ideal figure, and is the one which was announced way back in 1957 as being the objective of that decade, but it was never achieved.

As long as these families cannot be rehoused in the numbers that I have suggested, and the longer this is postponed, the slower must be the inauguration of housing treatment areas. It is not possible to clear sites without first rehousing families. Those who know Glasgow intimately know that in the Gorbals area, which is two-thirds cleared and where one-third has been recreated, for every three families which used to live in that one-third, now only one family can return. This is a simple fact of the redevelopment of the city. No one can expect to go back to the high density figures which there were in this area. The number of families housed will total one-third to one-half of the numbers that were there before.

That being so, it follows that Glasgow, whether it likes it or not, has to turn its mind to arrangements outwith the city and consider the tenancies of houses outside. Alas, in the arrangement which we have concluded with the Corporation about Erskine the corporation has been content to accept only the limited nomination system which was devised by hon. Gentlemen opposite, rather than the exclusive system which we urged as being the right way to deal with the problems of the city. If the city factor does not have direct access to houses outside the city for rehousing families, he will have to be an administrative genius to accommodate these families through the normal machinery to which I have referred.

While I am grateful that we have arrived at some settlement for the rehousing of people in Erskine, I am most dissatisfied that the city has failed to grasp the fact that it should have houses outside the city to rehouse these families.

I appreciate that my hon. Friend wants to see more building done in his constituency, many parts of which are derelict. While it is important for the corporation to get on with the job of developing the sites that it has acquired, it is to be hoped that it will advance the number of comprehensive development area plans that it submits to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Unfortunately, between June, 1966, and the end of 1969, we did not receive one such plan. That represented a three-year blank.

The factors I have mentioned are, of course, of vital importance. We must, naturally, have the programming of housing within the city. If the figure is up to 3,000, we must press on with building more houses outside the city. If it is more than 3,000, we must not be content; and with the number of starts at slightly over 1,000, we cannot regard that as good enough for Glasgow.

It must be thoroughly appreciated that unless we push forward we will never get ahead with clearing away the old slum houses that exist in Glasgow, remembering that they represent a great danger to the families living in them. I hope that we will not have occasion to have another Adjournment debate like this and that, with God's grace, none of the calamities of which we are keenly aware will occur. We will never be certain of that until we solve the house building problem.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes to Eleven o'clock.