HC Deb 30 November 1973 vol 865 cc870-82

4.0 p.m.

Mr. Alan Haselhurst (Middleton and Prestwich)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the problem of overspill estates. The hon. Member for Heywood and Royton (Mr. Joel Barnett) would like to have been present this afternoon and he has authorised me to say that he shares my view about the future of overspill estates, as does the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Cyril Smith), who cannot attend. We are all Members of Parliament for the Rochdale metropolitan district of the Greater Manchester county and speak, obviously, with experience of that area. Other hon. Members who may try to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may also speak of the same area.

The problem exists in many areas. There are 23,000 dwellings involved in this problem in the Greater Manchester area. The total list of overspill estates throughout the country is unknown. A letter from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary gave me the names of 70 estates built between January 1966 and June 1973. He pointed out that there was a difficulty in compiling a more complete list, because fully comprehensive statistical information had never been collected. The Minister will forgive me if I say that that admission confirms my fear that the Department may still somewhat understimate the full social problems of overspill estates if it has not yet compiled a list of the numbers of estates and the number of dwellings and people concerned.

My own concern is with the Langley Estate in the borough of Middleton, which has 4,800 dwellings, and the Hillock Estate in the urban district of Whitefield which has 1,050 dwellings. Langley with Middleton will become part of the Rochdale metropolitan district and Hillock part of the Bury metropolitan district. Both district councils, plus others, are concerned about the future of the estates from 1st April next year.

First and foremost are the problems of people living on the estates. There is the obvious problem that they are the victims of "no taxation without representation". They did not elect their landlords in the district, and they do not control the people elected to form the city council, which is their present landlord. This must be undemocratic by any test.

Secondly, the whole concept of overspill estates tends to lead to the break-up of families as social units. When youngsters grow up and marry, it is not the normal way of things for them to expect to be able to live on the estate where they have grown up. There is an opportunity for re-letting, but it does not overcome the major problem confronting those most intimately concerned. Clergy who marry the couples say that they are virtually bidding them goodbye. The young couples move to another district while their parents get older and cannot always be assisted to solve their problems by their children, who are too far away. So the elderly parents become a problem for the social services, whereas if the newly-weds were able to live in the same area, such problems would not be so acute.

The third problem is that of education. When young marrieds move away, their children do not go to the school that they attended. Schoolteachers will attest that there is no first or second generation build-up of pupils in overspill estate schools. Fourthly, people on these estates feel that the bigger the estate, the less it belongs to the town in which they have been placed. The feeling, I am afraid, is reciprocated by the older inhabitants of the town which has received the overspill estate. These are all serious prob- lems which have been evidenced now for many years. The Langley Estate has been in existence substantially for 20 years, and all of these problems are writ very large indeed in the eyes of the people and those who work among them.

If there are problems for the people, there are now also problems for the local authorities which will be taking over on 1st April next. They believe that they are being given the powers of planning, education, housing and social services. They wish to be able to exercise those powers throughout their territory. It seems rather odd that they will have, in some cases, veritable islands which they do not control. They wish to have a total approach to welfare problems, such as Seebohm recommended. But housing and welfare are closely intertwined. How can the new authorities maintain this total approach to welfare if they are not the landlords of all the publicly-owned housing within their district?

They cannot sensibly provide amenities on an area basis if parts of that area are treated in a different way and look to a different landlord for many functions. We shall not see a proper community built up. Certainly the new authorities will not be able to have a sensible allocation of tenancies throughout their district which will make the most economical, sensible and humane use of the housing stocks available.

This situation is crying out for action. To do the Government justice they have recognised this fact, and issued Circular 107/73 in August, inviting local authorities concerned to try to reach some agreed solution to the problem. I fear that the circular has its limitations. These have been illustrated by the attitude of the Manchester District Council which received a request from the metropolitan district councils which are its neighbours, and will have these overspill estates in their territories, to meet their representatives to discuss the question of transfer. The reply was : Manchester is unable, at this stage in the development of its housing policy, to consider any change in the management of its overspill estates. It then enumerated certain reasons, two of which were that Manchester would lose some of the best of its housing stock and would not be able to continue with its slum-clearance programme or to re-house those on its large waiting list.

Those reasons are not at all satisfactory, because it is fully accepted by the other metropolitan district councils such as Bury and Rochdale that if they took over ownership of the houses in overspill estates they would have an on-going obligation to help Manchester solve its housing problems. These houses would not therefore, be unavailable to Manchester. The metropolitan districts would accept the obligation to take so many families from Manchester on an agreed basis. Transfer of the ownership of the houses on these estates over a period of years seems to be the most satisfactory solution.

There need be no fear on the part of Manchester that it will be deprived of the answer to its housing problems. There would have to be guarantees by the metropolitan district councils that Manchester's terms in that respect could be met. There is the matter of financial provision which I know concerns some of the metropolitan district councils. But I should like to hear from my hon. Friend that the Government might be able to ease the transition if there were any apparent difficulty. I imagine that the transfer would be done on the basis of outstanding loan debt, but I should be interested to know whether the Government have any alternative view and whether it might be done on the basis, for example, of the value of the house. The metropolitan district councils should at least be given the opportunity of making an agency arrangement with Manchester under Section 101 of the Local Government Act 1972.

Serious social problems exist on overspill estates and I hope that they will not be overlooked at this time of local government reorganisation. In human, social and organisational terms the situation should not be perpetuated beyond 1st April next year. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will be able to give some indication of the Government's latest thinking on this matter.

4.11 p.m.

Mr. Tom Pendry (Stalybridge and Hyde)

I am sure that I express the view of hon. Members who have overspill estates in their constituencies when I say how indebted we are to the hon. Member for Middleton and Prestwich (Mr. Hasel- hurst) for raising this subject today. We have the opportunity of expressing our dissatisfaction with the system in the presence of the Under-Secretary of State. I do not intend to explain the difficulties in my constituency ; they have virtually been dealt with by the hon. Gentleman.

We all accept the overall concept, that it is good that people should be removed from slum conditions to more pleasant surroundings in estates outside the city, and it is very attractive at first sight. There are, however, immense problems. Some of the estates are concrete jungles, and Members who have to deal with these problems daily are well fitted to speak to the Minister on this matter. In the past, Governments, whatever their political complexion, have not dealt with the problem. Therefore, this is not a party political issue.

I must declare my interest. I represent a constituency with two overspill estates from Manchester in the new Tameside district of which my constituency is part. I have Hattersley in Hyde and Carrbrook in Stalybridge, with about 8,000 to 9,000 overspill dwellings. I therefore know something about the subject. I believe that the Manchester District Council has genuine reasons for stating a case to the contrary, but it must be told that by ridding itself of a slum problem it is giving other authorities problems of equal difficulty. There are problems on the social side and on the question of representation, for instance, which are not always taken into account by the city authority.

Those of us who press for change are not alone. In 1971 the North West Economic Planning Council, in its document "Social Planning in New Communities", concluded that Experience in the North West suggests that the co-operation between authorities would have been greatly enhanced if it had been agreed that the receiving authority would assume ownership of the development on completion…. It went on in the same vein to say : … we recommend that during the forthcoming reform of local government arrangements should be made to bring about a similar situation in respect of existing development". It came down firmly in favour of the sort of suggestion which the hon. Member for Middleton and Prestwich has made. The Under-Secretary of State can be assured that those of us who represent people on overspill estates are fully behind the hon. Gentleman in what he has said today.

4.15 p.m.

Mr. Spencer Le Marchant (The High Peak)

As the hon. Member for Staly-bridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) said, the House owes a great debt to my hon. Friend the Member for Middleton and Prestwich (Mr. Haselhurst) for bringing up a problem which might appear only to be a ripple but will grow into a great wave. We are talking about the lives and environment of many people.

In my constituency there are but 4,000 of these souls in about 1,500 dwellings, yet they are up in the Derbyshire hills completely overlorded from the vast metropolitan sea-level city of Manchester. That is wrong. They have no representation on the Manchester Corporation. These are the words of Mrs. Sheila Duncan, a local councillor : It is a frustrating fact that when matters of the main social factor occur, i.e. housing, I have no direct means of representing them on their housing authority. The question of the missing landlord is all-important. That is illustrated in the estates in my constituency in Gamesley and Hadfield by the fact that so many tenants want to go back to where they came from. They feel at home neither in Manchester nor in the High Peak. After 1974 they will feel no differently, because Derbyshire will be outside the metropolitan area of Manchester and control will still come from Manchester.

The case of Manchester Corporation as put by my hon. Friend the Member for Middleton and Prestwich is a weak one. Manchester says that it will lose its best housing and be left with its worst. We in the High Peak fully recognise our responsibility in Gamesley to rehouse people who have been cleared from the slums of Manchester. We recognise also—strong believer though I am in the sale of council houses—that these estates should not be sold because they must be kept for people generally, including those who are cleared out of the Manchester slums.

We must take on the people and we must pay the proper price, but we can do the job much better by trying to integrate the people into the areas in which they live. To give one example, in this estate there are 600 houses with flat roofs. Who in their senses would build a house with a flat roof in the Derbyshire hills when we have such bad winters? These houses are already rapidly deteriorating. The new High Peak authority will be much better able to cope with that situation than is a vast Manchester organisation.

I ask my hon. Friend, please, to put people first. These are first-class citizens and must be treated as such. If the authorities will not co-operate between themselves, I ask him to take powers to ensure that they do.

4.18 p.m.

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

I am sure that the House is grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Middleton and Prestwich (Mr. Haselhurst) for providing the opportunity to discuss this question of housing development which lies outside the area of the owning authority. I know how much importance he attaches to this subject and I listened carefully to what hon. Members on both sides said, I recognise that this feeling arises largely from their real concern for the well-being of their constituents.

My hon. Friend the Member for Middleton and Prestwich recalled the previous occasion when he raised the matter on the Adjournment. That was on 6th May 1971, when he was concerned particularly to draw attention to the special problems of the Langley Estate, Middleton, in his constituency.

At that time, the Government's proposals for local government reorganisation were still under consideration. Since then the Local Government Act 1972 has been enacted and as from 1st April 1974 the Langley Estate will be part of the new Rochdale Metropolitan District.

My hon. Friend's primary concern is with the future control of these estates. He believes it to be wrong that in the case of the Manchester estates control should continue in Manchester's hands and wants the opportunity of local government reorganisation to be taken to transfer control to the new Rochdale District Council.

I can assure my hon. Friend that we have given very careful consideration indeed to the problems to which he drew our attention then and to which he has again directed the attention of the House today. I recognise the strength of his view—and the views expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for The High Peak (Mr. Le Marchant), and by the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry)—that the action we took as a result may not go far enough, and I think the House would want me to give an account of our views on this matter because of its intrinsic importance and because it concerns a number of other hon. Members who have similar housing developments in their constituencies.

What are the particular problems which arise? As my hon. Friend has indicated, the tenants have no direct say in the election of councillors on the landlord authority. In that respect they differ from tenants of other council houses where the owning authority and the area authority are the same, and they feel very strongly that this puts them in a difficult position.

It might also be thought that it may be confusing for tenants to have to look to one authority for most local government services and to another for their housing, and that with such a situation they might find it less easy to feel themselves as part of the community. They might, as it were, be looking back to the place from which they came rather than giving themselves fully to the life around their new home.

There are also the housing responsibilities of the local authorities concerned. The landlord authority provided the houses in order to meet its housing needs and may well feel that it continues to require most of the vacancies which arise because of continuing housing needs. But the authority in whose area the houses are located also has housing responsibilities arising from the people who have come to its area. Second generation families are formed who may want to be housed near their parents.

All these matters need to be borne in mind and it was because we recognised them that we decided to issue Circular 107/73 after consultation with the local authority associations. The circular draws attention to the kind of problems to which my hon. Friend has referred and asks that the local authorities concerned should consult together and seek ways of overcoming whatever difficulties might have arisen or might arise in the particular case.

The circular refers to transfer of ownership as a possible solution and also to ways in which special arrangements can be made for adequate representation of the interests of tenants.

The terms of the circular rested on our belief that, whilst it was right to draw the attention of local authorities to these matters, the difficulties and solutions required were bound to vary from place to place and that it should be possible by voluntary arrangements between authorities to overcome the problems which had been identified.

We did not believe that compulsory transfer of ownership was the proper course, nor, indeed, had we any reason to believe that this was the solution favoured by local authorities generally. Our consultations with the local authority associations about the terms of the circular indicated that there were different views as to what the right solution might be in particular cases, but I think it is fair to say that no association thought that the ownership of all these overspill estates should be compulsorily transferred.

My hon. Friend has himself referred to another possible way of dealing with these situations. He suggested that failing transfer of ownership, an agency agreement might provide a possible solution through which management would be in the hands of the council in whose areas the houses are situated.

The circular was not intended to provide an exhaustive list of all possible solutions. Moreover, it was designed for general application. But it is very clear that the social problems and indeed the problems of democratic participation with which we are all concerned in many different fields are exacerbated where the scale of the development is very substantial.

There is no doubt that the scale of the case with which my hon. Friend is primarily concerned is substantial. Indeed, from the reports I have had from social workers, the police, and the churches and from tenants themselves, it seems that the real concern in these very real problems arises primarily, if not entirely, in relation to the vast overspill developments such as those which serve Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham.

This is also true of the interest in the subject which has been expressed to Ministers in my Department by hon. Members on both sides of the House. The right hon. Member for Huyton (Mr. Harold Wilson) has written to my right hon. and learned Friend about the problems in his constituency in relation to the Liverpool estates there. The hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde is concerned, as he said today, about the Manchester estates in his constituency, as is my hon. Friend the Member for The High Peak, and similar concern has been expressed by the hon. Members for Rochdale (Mr. Cyril Smith) and Heywood and Royton (Mr. Joel Barnett), as well as by my hon. Friends representing constituencies in the Manchestesr and Birmingham areas. It is also relevant to refer to what my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State—the Member for Meriden (Mr. Speed)—said on this subject in relation to the Chelmsley Wood development in the Standing Committee on the Local Government Bill on 20th January 1972, when he described the problems of the tenants.

There are some cases, outside those areas, where the authorities concerned will merge on 1st April 1974 so the problems of future ownership do not arise there. No doubt too discussions between authorities concerned are proceeding elsewhere on the lines suggested in the circular.

In a few other cases, I am told, agreement has been reached voluntarily between the authorities, which will be concerned after 1st April 1974, that ownership shall pass to the authority in whose area the estates will then be situated.

So some progress is being made along the general lines which my hon. Friend favours, and I very much hope that in all cases the discussions between authorities will produce arrangements which are in the best interests of the tenants and which will reflect the differing housing duties, responsibilities and needs of the authorities concerned. I hope that these matters will be capable of satisfactory resolution whichever authority is the owner.

The main problems, as I have said, seem to arise in the Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham areas. I am sure the House will be glad to learn that negotiations between the new Liverpool Metropolitan District and the new Knowsley Metropolitan District Council have produced agreement in principle that the ownership of the Liverpool houses in Knowsley will be transferred to the Knowsley council. I feel sure those two authorities are to be congratulated on the spirit of co-operation exemplified in their agreement.

It is very disappointing, however, to hear from hon. Members representing other areas that other major authorities seem so far not to have approached the problem in the same open-minded way. In the Government's view it is essential that no possible solution should be excluded from discussion and that there should be a determination on the part of all concerned to produce agreements in which the predominant factor will be the satisfaction of housing needs. These needs include both the present needs of existing tenants and the future housing needs of people living in places like Birmingham and Manchester, which will have to be met at least in part by the continuing use of vacancies arising on these estates.

Mr. Julius Silverman (Birmingham, Aston)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that people are being transferred to Chelmsley Wood at the rate of 30 a week and that it would be very serious for Birmingham if the Chelmsley Wood estate were taken away from it?

Mr. Eyre

I know that the need for re-lets to serve the needs of Birmingham is well accepted in respect of the Chelmsley Wood estate.

I was discussing the continuing need of people living in places like Birmingham and Manchester, and I was pointing out that they will have to be met at least in part by the continuing use of vacancies arising on estates of this kind. This means that there should be a generous recognition, in any agreement, of the continuing need of authorities, like Birmingham and Manchester, for the allocation of the tenancies of re-lets. I very much hope that the local authorities concerned will settle all these matters between themselves and not compel the Government to intervene. Appropriate financial arrangements may depend on the situations of the two local authorities concerned. That is a negotiable matter, and I hope that my hon. Friend will allow me to pass from that point and to say that there are several forms that such settlement could take ; for example, management agreements, the transfer of the property with conditions concerning re-lets, and so on.

The Government cannot stand aside where there is no prospect of a satisfactory solution to these problems, which are so important for the well-being of large numbers of people. In the absence of a satisfactory agreement between the authorities, the Government will have to consider taking positive action to secure a solution.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Four o'clock.