HC Deb 03 May 1973 vol 855 cc1627-36

11.23 p.m.

Mr. Harold Gurden (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

I wish to raise the question of the environmental problems in my constituency of Selly Oak, including Mosely and Kings Heath. What I say will probably convey the impression that my constituency is moving towards being a slum, but that is not very obvious because it remains a pleasant part of the industrial city of Birmingham. I offer a warning, however, that the environmental problems will result in my constituency becoming a slum and this warning applies to almost every other industrial city in our land.

With very little advance publicity, a meeting was called in my constituency to discuss this matter, because it is one which greatly concerns the councillors and aldermen of the city. To our great surprise, the large hall that we booked for the meeting—too large, I thought-was filled to overflowing. My constituents flocked to a meeting called by their Member of Parliament to discuss environmental problems when my impression was that the public were not all that much aware of environmental matters. I am grateful to Councillor Gilroy Bevan, Councillor Butcher, Councillor Trevor Solomon and Alderman Lionel Wood, representatives in the constituency who joined this effort.

For the first time we now have a Department of the Environment. If it means anything at all, I hope that what I have to say tonight will be worth while.

Some of us tend to think of environmental problems as being about rivers, trees, pollution, noise and the like, but to someone living in an industrial city they mean what he sees every day of his life at his home.

A decay is taking place in the middle rings of our cities, and my constituency is in the middle ring of Birmingham. Between the city centres and the more modern outer rings which are common to most cities there are houses which were built between 50 and 80 years ago. They are mostly very good properties which are not lacking in the usual amenities, but they have not been maintained properly.

The fear is that the decay of which I speak will spread from the inner rings of our cities to the new outer ring constituencies. My hon. Friend the Undersecretary will know what I am talking about, because he represents one of the other very pleasant parts of the city which so far have not been affected, but before the turn of the century I suppose that it will happen there as well. It is probably the decay of house property which starts it, and I date that back to when rent control started and the owners had insufficient left from their rents to spend on the upkeep of their properties.

We are allowing the spread of decay from city centres which largely have been rebuilt to create slums faster than we rebuild. They are not obsolete or bad structures without amenities, and it is very sad to see them going. In Birmingham the decay has spread gradually from the city centre outwards until it has just reached the edge of my constituency. There is no doubt that it will encroach further into the constituency.

I have not got the time at my disposal to explain the matter fully or do justice to what I have in mind, but perhaps I might list some of the causes and effects of the problem. As I say, I believe that low rents were the start of the trouble. There is multi-occupation on an expanding and serious scale. There are what I call the slum bed-sitters, as compared with some very good bed-sitters accommodation. Immigration has aggravated the situation, because overcrowding is excessive. Lorry parks are not built generally throughout our cities, and certainly there are not sufficient in Birmingham. Therefore, lorries park in my constituency, and we suffer from a few old bangers as well.

There are litter louts. The local authority has concentrated on the old slums on the east side of the city and on rebuilding of the outer areas and of the city centre itself, neglecting the middle ring for the last 20 years under all shades of local authority representation.

There is the neglect of street cleaning. I do not know how often the streets are cleaned. Those of us who look at these matters with a critical eye never see them cleaned. There is very bad road and footpath maintenance. As I understand it, the overcrowding is to the point of being illegal, and the local authority should have done something about it long ago.

I know the problem of immigrant houses and the overcrowding which takes place there and the problems posed for local authorities with the inflow we have had over the past 10 years, not to mention the Ugandan Asians.

Then there are the complaints about prostitution which seem to come with this sort of trouble. We have noticed recently the take-away food shops and the betting shops coming into the otherwise very pleasant shopping areas. There are a few anarchy groups and lawbreakers. One hears of the muggers coming in. Those are the areas to which such people come —not so much into the new outer ring or into the city centre. We have an outdated transport system and outdated roads almost untouched in the constituency for the past 40 years.

Now, to crown it all—this brought the matter to a head—there has been a suggestion of a road bypassing Kings Heath and part of Moseley. We have all seen the modern new concrete structures creating the new city roads in Birmingham and elsewhere. In Birmingham I would describe them as something between the Manzoni follies and the Spaghetti Junction. If that kind of thing comes into such areas as Kings Heath, Moseley and perhaps Edgbaston, the people will have something to complain about, because such roads ruin any respectable area.

I want to suggest some ways in which something could be done. The local authority must face its responsibilities. It should renew pavements: they have not been touched for in some cases 30 years. It should do some street cleaning in these areas rather than concentrate on the new city centre or the new outer ring. It should modernise and increase the volume of street lighting. The local authority has a chance to recondition some of the properties it owns. It has taken over some of the properties on the periphery of the constituency.

This would be a grand opportunity for the local authority to recondition the exterior of the properties, paint them, clear the forecourts and make them an example to the neighbours. If we cannot have regular weekly street cleaning, as we do in Westminster and other places, at least we could have a good old spring clean once in a way, and there would be nothing better than to do it now. Many of the forecourts of these once beautiful front gardens ought to be cleared, if necessary by the local authority. It has had to do this in some of the slum areas. I think that the local authority has powers to deal with the lorry parking, which is excessive in the district.

In the long term, the local authority could certainly start to provide some low-cost, small homes for the young married, the elderly and the bed-sitter people. This modern demand is not sufficiently met by the local authorities. We all like to see the provision of houses for large families, but for far too long the young married and the bed-sitter people have been left to fend for themselves. If the local authority feels that this is rather too severe a criticism, let it tell Ministers and their Members of Parliament what sort of powers and what sort of money it needs to deal with the problem.

I suggest, too, that there should be a full, independent inquiry into one of these areas. I would like it to be the area of which I am speaking, but it could be done for any area in the city which is similarly placed. Such an inquiry might be extremely useful and provide us with the information in detail and, perhaps, offer some solutions.

I feel that the Government could do something. The improvement grant system has been remarkably effective throughout the country, and I congratulate the Government on the pressure they have applied in this way. Is it not time, however, to think about revising the terms of the grant so that it covered the exterior of properties to a certain standard of maintenance? I have in mind some of the houses in Pimlico, so near to us here, where private enterprise has done away with the slums, not by reconstruction of properties, not by clearance, but by transferring the tenants and selling off the leases or letting to tenants on condition that the whole of the outside of the property is cleaned annually and painted every three years. The city council has joined in the scheme, repaved the streets and pavements and erected modern lighting, and the whole area has been transformed. I would say from experience that such areas—I live in one —were far worse than the Birmingham case I have quoted. It may well be that the Government could help the local authority, and I suggest that the local authority should say what help it wants, by changing or extending the improvement grant system.

The question of the bypass road, however, is extremely important. When the day comes, if it does, when the Government have to make a decision on the local authority's planning, I want them to bear in mind that this could again aggravate the problem and create a new slum in Birmingham. We all know the area around these great concrete structures running through the suburbs and creating a wide belt of slum area.

There are better solutions than a bypass road. There is the idea—it is not new but it is practical—of a tube road. I have put this proposal before the Department so that, when it considers this or some other plan, it can look at the idea of a tube road.

There is the revival of the almost redundant railway which Councillor Bevan, as chairman of the local transport undertaking, has suggested and is actively pursuing. But as for the road as at present envisaged, certainly not! I support all those who would rather not see such a road built. We know what it means in Birmingham. We have examples in half the city now. There is a better way to deal with the problem.

My constituency contains well over 60 per cent. of the homes which are provided for the mentally subnormal and for ex-prisoners. I know that there is a great social service here, but it is unevenly spread and does not help. Not every ex-prisoner who is looked after so well in these homes goes straight. To have 60 per cent. of this load added to other problems concerning law and order, and with prostitution and the like creeping into the edge of my constituency, is disturbing. Unless we set an example now, the problem will be extremely serious in the years ahead. That is the idea of preventing more trouble of this nature.

If environment means anything, it means a better standard of life for millions of people in our cities. I hope that before too long we shall have a full debate and that there can be a general inquiry, if not what might be termed a guinea pig inquiry. I shall listen with interest to my hon. Friend's comments.

11.43 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Reginald Eyre)

I have listened with great interest to the very proper expression of concern by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Gurden) for the maintenance of the quality of life in these areas of his constituency. He will forgive me if I start by observing that what he has described so well is not, of course, a unique problem but is one that we must face increasingly in many areas of our industrial cities. I fully accept that the environment in this sense has many aspects to it, but the most fundamental need—I think there can be little argument about this—is good housing and having somewhere decent to live in pleasant surroundings. All else flows from this.

In the short time left to me to reply to my hon. Friend, I can approach this matter along two avenues. First, there is the house itself and the need for good space standards and amenities inside the dwelling. Then there is the outer environment, which embraces the setting of the dwelling, the amount of intrusion by traffic and industry, accessibility to parks and green fields and the like.

The situation calls for a two-pronged attack in which central and local government must work together. I should like to highlight and exemplify this by dealing with the Government's approach to the overall problem of slums and older housing.

We are convinced that with a really determined heave we can deal with all unfit houses within 10 years, and last year the Minister for Housing and Construction launched local authorities on such a drive. The efforts of local authorities will be backed by the new slum clearance subsidy introduced by the Housing Finance Act and the generous Government grants for house improvements.

Added to this, my Department has in hand a review of policy on older housing, The review will take into account the wealth of suggestions made by local authorities in response to the Minister's invitation. The adequacy and flexibility of house improvement grants will be looked at, and also whether anything needs to be done to stimulate work in general improvement areas.

I am well aware that the environment neither starts nor stops at one's front door. I agree with my hon. Friend that the urban environment must be seen as a total entity—a combination of numerous conditions and influences that require a multiple approach when one comes to consider just what practical steps are needed to bring about a worthwhile improvement. I believe we have recognised this by offering to local authorities a range of powers and grants that cover items such as tree planting—for 1973 a 50 per cent. grant towards approved expenditure is available; derelict land reclamation—grants of at least 50 per cent.; and the acquisition of land for public open space—again 50 per cent. grant. All these are in addition to grants and subsidies specifically related to housing, the environment immediately surrounding houses, and roads. The means are there and I am sure the will is there also, although the decision on priorities can be a difficult one—I might say an agonising one—for some authorities.

It is the local authorities which must take action on the ground, and in this case it is the Birmingham City Council, which is the local authority for the Selly Oak constituency. Let us not forget that since the war Birmingham City has had to face a vast housing problem which it has tackled—and I say this across party boundaries—with admirable energy. Slum clearance and house improvement have run at high levels and the city council has been a power house of practical ideas and innovation. For instance, under Sir Francis Griffin's leadership it introduced rent assistance for tenants of privately-owned houses, acting as a forerunner of the Government's general legislation on this point. In the wider field of urban renewal the city council has its own Standing Urban Renewal Joint Conference to co-ordinate the work of various departments.

To deal with these problems, certain basic approaches are being proposed by Birmingham, depending on the nature of the area. These are, first, general improvement areas, where owners are encouraged to improve and rehabilitate their properties with the assistance of Government grants. Nine such areas have already been declared by the council and I am informed that a total of 68 is intended by 1978.

Within general improvement areas— an important part of Government policy —a great deal can be done to deal with a wide range of environmental blemishes and unsightly patches of neglected land. Such areas are frequently turned into attractive gardens of quiet recreation or children's play spaces. The Government contribution of £200 per house in certain circumstances can be used to tidy up the external appearance of houses, such as garden fences, or walls or untidy passages.

I am glad to see that Birmingham has plans for a major expansion of its general improvement area programme. We in the Government will continue to give every encouragement to this policy. Indeed one of the matters to which we are giving careful thought in the course of our review of policy on older housing is the question of what additional help may be necessary to foster the successful development of general improvement areas.

There is one preliminary point which has emerged from the policy review and which I know will be of some interest to my hon. Friend. The Government are becoming increasingly convinced that it is rarely effective to try to deal with housing stress by means of declaring a general improvement area. Such areas of housing stress were described by my hon. Friend. Where there is an area which suffers from a high degree of overcrowding and multiple occupation, which has a high incidence of furnished accommodation with low-income tenants, it is very difficult, if not almost impos- sible, to make a real success of a general improvement area.

Unless something is done to deal with the housing conditions in these areas of deprivation, the squalor and the decay tend to increase rapidly. This point was stressed by my hon. Friend. This is another matter to which the Government's policy review is addressing itself. As the White Paper "Widening The Choice" stated, the Government will be coming forward with proposals later in the year to deal comprehensively with the housing problems of those areas suffering from the greatest degree of stress. I am confident that many of these proposals will be relevant to some of the more severe problems which my hon. Friend has described tonight.

As a final word on improvement grant policy, I should mention that the Government are also looking very closely at the question of repairs. I am conscious that perhaps a little more needs to be done to ensure that essential maintenance to older houses, both internally and externally, is undertaken. I am not able to predict what the outcome of the policy review will be on this point, but I can assure my hon. Friend that the need to secure an adequate state of repair throughout our housing stock—and especially in areas of stress, which includes areas like parts of my hon. Friend's constituency—is very much in the Government's mind.

There are also renewal areas. That concept, advanced recently by Birmingham and a number of other local authorities, is one which I am watching with great interest. Such areas can best be described as lying somewhere between general improvement areas and clearance areas, where neither of those processes is wholly appropriate at the moment. The immediate aim is to undertake short-term environmental works with the object of arresting the decline in physical and social conditions until general rehabilitation programmes can be put in hand sometime not too far ahead. Renewal areas are essentially a phasing device ensuring that these areas do not slide further into the morass of decay.

Although the managerial responsibility for all these activities rests with the city council, the central Government are also playing a direct part in improving the Birmingham scene.

My Department, jointly with the local authorities concerned, has recently put in hand studies of selected inner areas of six towns and cities, of which Birmingham is one, with the purpose of gaining a better understanding of the needs of rundown areas and devising a total approach to remedial measures. The job is being done in Birmingham by consultants, working closely with the city council, in a part of the city not far from Moseley. I hope that this will meet the point raised by my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend is more particularly concerned, and rightly so, with parts of his constituency, including the suburbs of Moseley and Kings Heath. I hope he will accept from what I have said that the Government are determined to play their part in developing policies capable of dealing with the problems like those which exist in certain parts of his constituency. Neither I nor my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State can direct the city council as to priorities in its choice of programme. No doubt the city council will take note of the many points which my hon. Friend has made, including multi-occupation and lorry parking as well as street cleaning and the renewal of pavements and roadways.

My hon. Friend is also concerned about a suggested bypass for Kings Heath and Moseley. I have said very little about traffic and main traffic routes so far because roads, however distressingly obvious they may be when one lives near to them, are for the most part an exceedingly local if at times virulent threat to the environment.

The A435 is a radial route carrying heavy commuter traffic to and from Red-ditch New Town and Alcester. Birmingham City Council is the highway authority responsible for the road, and for some years it has been thinking of measures by which the congestion on it could be alleviated. Early ideas for widening the main road on its present alignment were abandoned some time ago.

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 seven minutes to Twelve o'clock.