HC Deb 25 March 1970 vol 798 cc1613-22

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

12.48 a.m.

Mr. Hugh D. Brown (Glasgow, Provan)

If I was guilty of any discourtesy to the House on Monday, 6th March, it was not intentional. For my share in that mistake, I have had to listen to three hours of agricultural debate, although there is not a farmer in Provan, and that is punishment enough. I had thought that farmers were early bedders, but obviously it is only the gentleman variety that we have in the House.

I want to change the subject and deal with the Report, "Council House Communities: A Policy for Progress". My hon. Friend and I are always unfortunate in Adjournment debates: they always seem to be at six o'clock in the morning or some other unearthly hour, when there is no great interest. Also interesting is the fact that the last time we had an Adjournment debate it was on the previous report from the sub-committee on Scotland's older houses, the Cullingworth Report.

It is appropriate that I should discuss this report, because my constituency contains the largest number of council houses of any constituency in the country. Two schemes—Blackhill and Easterhouse—were specifically mentioned and, worse perhaps, photographed in the report. But I am not complaining about that.

I want to compliment the committee on the thoroughness of the report. Not enough public recognition is given to the unpaid service which members of such committees give. But that does not mean to say that I shall not criticise, though perhaps mildly, both the committee and the Government and the general system of issuing reports. This is the third report issued by the Scottish Office which I think has been badly handled. For example, a report from the Joint Working Party on Community Relations included a recommendation, among other things, about the infamous Easterhouse wall. No one was consulted locally, and I say that advisedly. The result has been that the proposal has been dropped because of lack of local support.

Secondly, there was the report called "School and Community", by Catherine Lindsay, issued a couple of months ago. This was a research project sponsored jointly by the Scottish Home and Health Department and the Scottish Education Department. This dealt with two comprehensive schools in my constituency, one Catholic and the other non-Catholic. Although it was an excellent piece of research work, there were some controversial matters in it which had political implications.

It is unfortunate that, when this report was published, no one thought of sending a copy to me, although I got a copy of it two days afterwards. I suggest again that this is due to lack of proper appreciation of what could have serious political implications in any constituency, certainly one that gets as much attention as my constituency does in this report. I was, naturally, a bit incensed about this.

I put a series of questions to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, who replied by letter on 17th February. He did not answer all my questions, one of them being how often and when this sub-committee had visited the schemes it was reporting on. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister of State will pay some attention to this aspect of the contents and publication of these reports.

I want to deal with three main points of the report: first, the internal improvements in the older schemes; secondly, the environment and amenities of the post-war schemes; and, thirdly, and probably most important, the effect on the house building programme. I am shocked by the apathy and scandalous indifference of the Glasgow Tory Progressive group towards the housing needs of the citizens of Glasgow. I strongly resent the suggestion of the leader of that group that I and my Labour colleagues in Glasgow are somewhat ill-informed on this subject. I have not received a copy of his 17 points, although it is two days since he said it would be sent to all hon. Members. I have a hard enough job in this House getting a copy of the Scottish Daily Express, quite apart from receiving any letter from him.

I turn, first, to the improvements in the internal fittings of the old houses. In Glasgow, under the 1919 Act, about 4,600 houses are being rewired at a cost of about £120 per house, making a total of about £600,000. This is only the start of something which should have been done years ago. It is not generally known by the public, and I doubt whether it is known by many members of the Corporation of Glasgow, that the Government grant is just short of £300,000. The public and the corporation should know the amount of money involved in improving the older council schemes or houses referred to in the report.

On the second aspect of this, the environment and amenities of post-war schemes and the rehabilitation or improvement of the amenities, may I refer to the shocking decision by Glasgow in the experimental unit 4 scheme in Easter-house, in my constituency, involving 1,300 houses. The original proposal, which was almost identical to the recommendations of the sub-committee's report, was that there should be a general provision made for car parking, better cleansing arrangements and landscaping—all the things which we have perhaps neglected in the past. This scheme has been in existence only for 10 years, and already it is recognized by planners, councillors and the Government that something needs to be done to make it a better community. There is nothing wrong with the people, but there are certain deficiencies.

The corporation has cut the proposed scheme from £80,000 to £15,000. Has any application been made to the Government to contribute towards this under Section 59 of the Housing (Scotland) Act, 1969? In case the Minister does not compliment me, I had better do it myself. I was the only hon. Member to draw attention to the fact that this was a very important Section and I hoped that local authorities would take advantage of it.

Paragraph 141 of the report draws attention to this Section and suggests that the powers should be clarified, although my right hon. Friend in an interjection during the debate of 17th June, 1969, in column 333, made it clear that the powers covered grants for amenity purposes in council schemes. The Glasgow Corporation should be reminded that money is available for this.

The most serious aspect of the report is the recommendation in paragraph 48: but we are firmly of the opinion that, if the only way of rescuing existing schemes from further deterioration is a cutting back of the rate of new house building, then in many areas this would be justified. This is a rather dangerous recommendation, when it is obvious that the Tory and Progressive Group in Glasgow needs no encouragement to cut back the building of new houses in the City and outside.

May I refer to the reply given by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow. Maryhill (Mr. Hannan) on 11th March this year, when he said that the total starts in 1969 for local authority, S.S.H.A. and all other houses were 1,551. This is the lowest figure on record since there has been a house building programme.

I refer also to the statement made in the Glasgow Herald of 12th March, where underspending of £9 on the 1969–70 estimate of £25.1 million was highlighted. The estimate for 1970–71 is a reduction of almost £4 on the 1969–70 figure. Even in financial terms, which I know do not always correspond to the actual programme that is completed, there seems to be an intention to cut back on the expenditure and, therefore, on the number of houses provided.

There has been a tremendous fanfare of trumpets about the tremendous saving to the ratepayers. This seems to be the only matter in the minds of some of the leaders in the group at the moment. We need a more responsible attitude in measuring the cost to the community.

I conclude by mentioning specific demands and the grant position in relation to Section 69 of the Act. I hope that my hon. Friend will consider the appointment of community association leaders or officers in terms of the report. In paragraph 80 an example is given in Edinburgh, I do not like to concede that Edinburgh is ahead of Glasgow, but it looks as if that is the case in this respect. It would give a tremendous boost to voluntary organisations even statutory bodies if, in schemes like Blackhill and Easterhouse, community association officers were appointed, partly paid for by the Government and partly by local authorities. It could be treated as a pre-Wheatley experiment.

Lastly, I would conclude by suggesting, indeed, demanding, a public and independent inquiry into all aspects of Glasgow's housing problems. This would include examining cost procedures, the cut back in programmes of new houses, improvements and redevelopments, cost of overspill, including the shambles at Erskine, and the availability of sites in Glasgow. There is in the Glasgow Herald of 3rd March an astonishing quotation from what was said by the leader of the Conservative group, Derek Wood: In some cases developers have had planning permission in principle for many years and have not gone ahead with private building. Even that aspect alone is worth examining. One of the councillors concerned has called a special meeting in Blackhill this week, a meeting to which the report has given impetus.

I hope that my hon. Friend will look in a kindly way on the suggestion of community association officers. The Glasgow people deserve more than just the leader of the progressive group and the Minister of State, for whom I have great regard, being locked in mortal strife as paper tigers, with all the controversy in the Press. The Tory Progressive majority in Glasgow is a luxury that we can ill afford. I know that my hon. Friend will take his due part in the public debate, but he also is more concerned about the building of more houses, and I hope that he will use his influence to that end.

1.3 a.m.

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

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Hugh D. Brown) for raising this subject and for his remarks. I would much prefer it if Glasgow Corporation looked carefully at its present programme rather than that it should conduct a debate in public. It was not my intention that we should have a debate in the newspapers, although I am quite willing to take part. In fact, I am grateful to the Scottish Daily Express for providing a platform.

On the question of a general inquiry about the present Glasgow plans, not only about council houses generally but about council house building, on 29th January my noble Friend the Minister of State was able to get agreement from the corporation to set up a joint working party of officials from both the Scottish Development Department and the corporation. I hope that this working party will complete its deliberations next month. I hope that my noble Friend will be able to meet the corporation in May.

I have referred in the newspapers to the fact that Glasgow should pull its socks up during the next six weeks. I meant that it should get down to the factual process of examining the sites which it claims are there to be developed.

I am sorry that my hon. Friend has had a difficult experience with a report on an educational matter, but, of course, I am not responsible for education. As for the report of the Joint Working Party which made a proposal about the Easterhouse Wall, that body was set up by my right hon. Friend as the result of intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrew, West (Mr. Buchan), the Joint Under-Secretary, and the Glasgow Corporation, when it was thought to be a good idea to make certain proposals regarding parts of my hon. Friend's constituency.

The purpose of the report was to advise the corporation of the difficulties involved in certain new housing areas, and all but one of the recommendations related entirely to the corporation's own powers. It was, therefore, for the corporation to decide whether particular recommendations, including the one about the Easterhouse Wall, should be accepted and implemented.

The question of the wall is, therefore, not a matter on which the Secretary of State could decide but one on which the corporation must decide for itself. The Easterhouse Community Development Committee raised this matter, but it is really one for Glasgow Corporation. I understand that the corporation has refused to go ahead with the building of this wall, despite the Joint Working Party's view that, in the interests of the community, there was a case for building it. I must add that it is a good report. It is not right in all its recommendations, but no report ever is. I have yet to read one that is unanimous in all its views.

Under Section 59 of the Housing (Scotland) Act, 1969, to which the Sub-Committee referred—I join my hon. Friend in congratulating Sir James Miller and the members of that body, who worked extremely hard—we provided, for the first time, for special grant assistance towards the improvement of the amenities of residential areas. This was, of course, conceived in the context of the improvement of older houses, particularly the areas of 19th century tenements in the cities, but we purposely made the legislation of wider application so that other areas needing attention could also be grant-aided if necessary.

When the 1969 Act was going through Parliament I emphasised that it would be necessary to limit the grant to cases where the proposed improvement of the environment was to be carried out in conjunction with the improvement of houses. We have before us proposals from certain local authorities and we are looking at these closely. But the answer to my hon. Friend's question is that none of those received so far have come from Glasgow. That is not our fault. Glasgow cannot get a grant unless it asks for one, and, naturally, if it does not ask, it will never get a grant. We cannot repeat this too often. The corporation must put proposals forward before we are able to examine them, and then we can agree or disagree with them.

On the question of improvement grants for council houses individually, in 1968 there were discussions between Glasgow Corporation and the Scottish Development Department about grants towards rehabilitation work on pre-war council houses. The work proposed by the corporation included the rewiring of electricity installations, the renewal of bathroom and sanitary fittings and the replacement of sink units.

It was explained to the corporation that the bulk of the work was appropriate to the housing repairs account and was not eligible for improvement grant. The corporation was told that work costing about £3.1 million would qualify for grant. This was mainly the installation of power circuits in houses which, when built, were wired for lighting only.

It has been the policy of successive Governments that improvement grant is payable only for work on subsidised houses where that work is for the provision of amenities which were previously lacking and not for work of repair or replacement. This was originally set out in the Scottish Development Department's Memorandum No. 54/1964 and we repeated it in the new Scottish Housing Handbook Bulletin No. 2, issued last December.

The report, as my hon. Friend emphasises, draws attention to a problem we cannot afford to neglect. We cannot shut our eyes to the fact that in many parts of Scotland houses which are good in themselves are in an environment which is unsatisfactory by modern standards. There are areas of land lying derelict and drying greens which have become deserts. They lack adequate shops and social facilities and are the victims of both vandalism and neglect.

The report points out that these conditions, if not checked now, will lead to a cumulative deterioration in both the physical and social conditions of the area. Tenants will lose heart and give up trying and houses in the area will become difficult to let.

The problem is important. We all know about it, but few local authorities have so tar taken much trouble to improve such areas. The report recognises certain things and suggests a combined operation. That is perhaps the key to the whole thing, but if departments of local authorities, police, social work, housing managers, roads and parks, do not work together, we will not get the right solution. Our local government committee structure at present does not always lend itself to the kind of framework for action necessary in those areas.

Nobody who has read this report fully will doubt the need for urgent action. It points out the needs of some areas mean individual suffering—children being brought up in areas deprived of proper environment—and that this can have a permanent effect on those children. The report records that skilled workers have been put off by the appearance and character of the housing which is sometimes offered. It is not just a social case, but an economic and industrial case.

We have a stock of over 700,000 local authority houses which represents a capital investment of over £2,000 million. Many of these houses still have 40 or 50 years of life and represent assets which should not be run down prematurely. It is important that we get ahead with the report's recommendations.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State intends to draw the attention of local authorities to the problems which exist or may arise in various spheres and, in circulars, will suggest solutions. We shall consult local authorities about what is done in Edinburgh and about my hon. Friend's suggestion about community leaders. We want to hear suggestions. Above all, we want action, and action by Glasgow.

That does not mean that we should be reducing or accepting the reduction of any housing expenditure. If the Tories want to save money on housing, they have no alibi that they cannot spend money on the improvement of stock. We want them to do that. My hon. Friend has done a service in emphasising their inadequacy tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes past One o'clock.