HC Deb 04 February 1974 vol 868 cc999-1010

10.0 p.m.

Mr. Roy Hughes (Newport)

I welcome this opportunity to discuss the question of housing in Newport. At present there is speculation about the possibility of an early General Election. I hope that if that election comes, one of the principal issues in it will be this vital question of housing. The home is the very basis of family life. Nothing sickens me more than when I am given details of the conditions in which people in my constituency of Newport are forced to live. It is in this crucial area that the Government's policies have been such a dramatic failure.

Yet the Conservative manifesto at the last General Election promised a new housing drive for the Seventies. There were three objectives—to house the homeless, to bring about a great increase in home ownership, and to see that the tenant, whether of a private property or of a council house, received a fair deal. These are all commendable objectives, yet this Government have taken housing back to the 1930s. Nowhere is this more so than in my constituency. The housing statistics issued a few days ago showed that new house building is now at its lowest ebb since 1947. There were 107,500 council houses completed last year. There has been a sharp fall in private house building. Land is at a premium. Whereas property speculators can make fortunes overnight mortgage rates are at record levels. What chance have young home buyers? In Newport building contractors are offering to sell to the Corporation complete housing estates because they are in despair. People just do not have sufficient income to raise a mortgage.

It has long been felt that the Government have had some sort of vendetta against council tenants. The Housing Finance Act has been enacted. In Newport there are over 600 individual projects about rent increases being forced on tenants against the advice of the local authority. Yet this is the Government which promised to increase the independence of local authorities. In South Wales there are three major housing authorities. Cardiff, the capital city, has a waiting list of over 5,000. Swansea has a waiting list of over 3,000. In Newport, according to the figures given by the Housing Manager, Mr. Bader, in a letter a few days ago, the waiting list of Newport District Council is likely to be in excess of 3,600. In addition to that he says that there is a considerable redevelopment programme.

It will be borne in mind that Newport has approximately one-third of the population of Cardiff so that on a pro rata basis Newport seems to have the worst housing situation in the whole of South Wales. I must be fair and say that all of the blame cannot be placed on the Government. The Newport Corporation has a lot to answer for. From 1967 to 1971 we had the Government's local counterparts in control in Newport, buttressed by a small number of Ratepayers. Certainly from a housing standpoint that four years was a disaster. In 1968 not one house was started in the town. Yet major redevelopment schemes were allowed to go ahead. Where they expected people to live in the years ahead no one knows.

Added to this inaction and neglect was the fact that the corporation's attitude at the time was given some sort of official sanction by the statement of the right hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Peter Walker), now the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who was advising local authorities not to build houses. His tenure of office as the Secretary of State for the Environment was equally disastrous as is his present term of office at the Department of Trade and Industry.

The Newport Corporation at that time were not without sound and practical advice. The then Secretary of State for Wales, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. George Thomas), described its housing record in this House as "pitiful" and exhorted it in every way he could to build houses.

From 1960 to 1967, for example, nearly 500 houses annually were being completed in Newport. One does not need much imagination or to be a mathematician to realise that if that level of building had been maintained there would be nothing like the housing shortage of today. Now even hardship cases have to wait for over three years, many living in what are acknowledged to be deplorable conditions.

I want to give the House two examples that have reached me in the past week or so. I interviewed a lady at my surgery and from the notes I made at the time I wrote to the housing manager. I said that the lady lived with her husband and two small children in a top-floor flat. The bottom-floor flat was now vacant, having been previously occupied by her father who died 2½ years ago. Other houses in the street had been boarded up and the house next door, which was a disused shop, had a fire some time ago. The flat was in a deplorable state with damp running down the walls, and both children had bad chests.

The lady struck me as a respectable woman. She pointed out that, due to general, dilapidation in the area, the house was infested with mice, which were running over the children while they slept. In the morning she found mice droppings on the pillow. In view of those circumstances I hoped that some emergency action would be taken about the plight of the family.

The housing manager acknowledged that many families in town are living in similar conditions. I am glad to say I have had a letter from the housing manager indicating that this family, at least, have now been placed on the priority list for rehousing. It makes one wonder whether young children such as the two I have referred to have first to develop either pneumonia or tuberculosis before their family can be rehoused.

The second example I give concerns a letter I received a few days ago. The writer, a lady, asked whether I could help her "With my living conditions," as she put it. She added, I have a flat. I have got one bedroom and living room. My cooker is on top of the landing and my sink is on top of the stairs. I have got to share the toilet. She goes on to illustrate all the inconveniences resulting from that situation. I have got two children, a boy nearly three and a girl 5 months. We are overrun with mice. I have had poison put down but it is still there untouched. I have had boxes of baby's food gnawed through; teats of my boy's bottle gnawed. I have woke up in the night and have found mice on my baby's forehead and also in my son's cot. I have had to buy trunks to put my clothes in because they are eating my clothes. I have wrote to Dr. Clarke "— the Medical Officer of Health— and he sent someone down. The man went over my place and I told him that my bedroom is damp and showed him the wallpaper falling off the wall in the bedroom. Also I said that I had nowhere to put a single bed for my son to sleep as there is no room and I don't think it's right that four should sleep in a room. There are five adults and three children in the house. The man told me we were not overcrowded. I am on the council list. She goes on to say that her son has nowhere to play and that his health is being affected and so on. She continues: I am afraid I have had enough being overrun with mice and overcrowded and not being able to sleep in the night. It is also affecting my husband. He is a driver on Newport Corporation Transport, and some weeks he has to get up at four o'clock in the morning. If he does not get his proper sleep I am afraid he will make himself ill. A man after finishing work likes to come home to the comfort of his home. It is the other way round with my husband. He dreads coming home. These cases illustrate the situation of the terrible conditions in which people are living. I have deliberately not mentioned the names and addresses, but I am prepared to let the Secretary of State have the correspondence. I suggest that he should send one of his housing inspectors to see the conditions at first hand. As I say, these cases illustrate the conditions in which people are living in prosperous Newport in 1974. Many other similar cases could be cited, as the housing manager all too readily admits.

But, alongside this stagnation in house building, major redevelopment schemes in the town have been allowed to go ahead. Hundreds of houses are being bricked up. In the Pillgwenlly area of Newport, which has largely been mutilated, the decay is all too evident. This was a closely-knit area with a wonderful community spirit, and one asks what sort of life the people who remain are living.

It is clearly laid down in the Housing Act 1957 that a local authority must satisfy itself that it can provide sufficient accommodation in advance for people who are displaced as a result of redevelopment. This condition is not being met in Newport. Many of the bricked-up houses have been unoccupied for several years. Families could have been living in them. The council's policy in this respect needs looking into.

I accept that certain limited progress is now being made, but the housing manager speaks of the state of frustration he is in at present. He points out: … it appears that contracts for Council house building are the least attractive for any builder and, therefore, it has been almost impossible to obtain tenders for developments and when tenders have arrived, these have been so far outside the limited cost yardstick that they could not be accepted. He goes on to say—and I want to be fair—that the policy of the Welsh Office has been a bit more liberal in recent months and that this has been of some help.

Then there is the question of the compensation paid for houses which are subject to redevelopment. I say without fear of contradiction that the sums paid in compensation are completely inadequate, and many examples could be cited. The Government should ensure that the compensation enables the owner-occupier to purchase a similar house in an equivalent area. It is even more relevant that the redevelopment in the town should be slowed down. That should have been done some years ago.

I have described the position in Newport, but I know of many other areas in which there are similar housing shortages. Drastic action is required, but I do not have much faith in the Government in this respect. During the four years in which they have been in office the situa tion has deteriorated. The Housing and Planning Bill which the House will discuss tomorrow is only of limited value.

The Labour Party has far-reaching proposals for dealing with housing. It calls for full public ownership of building land, repeal of the Housing Finance Act, the provision of mortgages at a reasonable rate of interest and an increase in the subsidies that the Government have cut, because housing is vital. It is necessary to ensure an adequate rate of council house building, together with a reasonable level of rents.

The building industry needs long-term stability, not the slump and boom periods of recent years. There must be no more Centre Points. Inessential office building must be cut out, and the "lump" ended. Craftsmen must be persuaded back into the building industry. More apprentices must be trained. The process of prefabrication must be examined and speeded up.

Action is now required, and the people in my constituency are demanding it. Our town needs a five-year crash programme. If the Government are not prepared to produce the emergency measures that are required they should make way for a Government who are prepared to do so.

10.18 p.m.

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Thomas)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport (Mr. Roy Hughes) on securing this Adjournment debate and on raising the very important subject of Newport's housing problems. I am well aware of his intense interest in the subject because he has written to me and to my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Welsh Office about the subject on numerous occasions.

Let me say right away that I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is a housing problem in Newport. Newport County Borough Council also agrees that there is a housing problem in Newport. In fact, the local authority is doing its utmost to find a solution, both short term and long term, to these problems, and my officials at the Welsh Office are giving every support to the local authority in its endeavours. This situation is not new. We have been aware of it for some time, and all those who are involved are exerting themselves to the utmost. The hon. Gentleman is pushing at an open door in suggesting that more should be done to deal with Newport's housing problems.

Perhaps I may comment on some of the individual problems mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. He spoke of fair rents and referred to protests that are being made in his constituency. As he will be aware, Newport County Borough Council and its tenants are exercising their statutory rights to make representations to the rent scrutiny board about the board's determination of fair rents. The matter is therefore sub judice and it would not be proper for me to comment on the merits of the case.

I think I can, however, safely make one general comment. When the fair rents are eventually fixed no tenant need suffer hardship because of the level of his rent. Any tenant who cannot afford to pay his rent can apply to the local authority for a rent rebate, and the level of rebate allowing under the Housing Finance Act 1972 is generous.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the waiting list in Newport. I believe he said that there were over 3,000 names on it and that it is anticipated that there will be more. He will appreciate that houses cannot be provided quickly, although in one respect, to which I shall refer again later, the local authority is coming close to achieving even this. The hon. Member was fair enough to say that all the blame cannot be placed on the Government. That, of course, is a very fair remark. He knows that the provision of housing takes years of forward planning, and to find the cause of the shortage of houses today the hon. Member, as he did, must look back several years. He mentioned that in 1968 not a single house was started. I am sure that the council now has the matter in hand, and it has plans which will ensure an adequate supply of housing in Newport in future years.

At the end of 1973 Newport County Borough Council had schemes in progress which will provide 488 dwellings. A further 386 dwellings are in the pipeline, and for the near future over 1,100 houses are at the planning stage. Looking further into the future, the programme aims at building some thousands of houses by the early 1980's. Sites have been earmarked in various parts of the authority's area for the progressive development of the housing programme, and the long-term outlook seems bright.

Understandably, the hon. Member is concerned about the effects on his constituents of the short-term situation. I said that I would refer to efforts by the authority to provide housing quickly. This it hopes to achieve by buying houses built or in the course of construction for immediate allocation to persons on the waiting list.

As part of the endeavour to find a rapid solution to the current housing problem, Newport CBC and my Department are investigating as a matter of urgency the feasibility of reducing noise pollution from the M4 motorway at Coldra to a tolerable level so that the site there can be used for housing purposes. Up to now the problem of motorway noise has been an inhibiting factor, but various methods of providing sound insulation are being examined and these offer some hope that the site can be made usable for housing.

Another effective short-term remedy which has been applied in Newport is the increased use of the improvement grant. Figures of improvement grants tell their own story. In 1968 and 1969 the numbers of improvement grants paid were 85 and 83 respectively. In 1972, the first full year when the benefits of the 1971 Housing Act were felt, the number of improvement grants paid was 851. Since 1970 improvement grants have been paid on over 1,600 houses. This is a massive contribution to Newport's housing problem, as a house improved is a house saved from unfitness and made available as better living accommodation.

The hon. Member referred to the problems created by redevelopment proposals. There is a problem here, in particular in the Pill area. I share with the hon. Member his respect and admiration for community spirit. This is a feature of life in Wales of which we are very proud. It exists not only in the Pill area to which the hon. Member referred but also in the valleys and in many other areas throughout the Principality.

The hon. Member referred to the Pill area as a close-knit area. The Welsh Office is always anxious to preserve community spirit, community relationships and community facilities. When the hon. Member studies the Housing and Planning Bill which we are to debate tomorrow he will find that community considerations figure prominently in Part IV.

Newport County Borough Council also recognises the importance of community spirit. It has borne this very much in mind in planning for the redevelopment of the Pill area. It has established an information centre in the very heart of the area, to which any resident can go—indeed, is encouraged to go—to find out how the redevelopment proposals affect him, what benefits and safeguards are available to him and even how he can make his opinion felt on the redevelopment proposals. Substantial modification to some sections of the redevelopment plan have already been made in response to representations from the residents. This illustrates how anxious the council is to respect the wishes of the community.

Nevertheless, there comes a point when other action must be taken. Some houses have reached the point of no return. To spend money in an attempt to rehabilitate them would be just pouring ratepayers' and taxpayers' money down an open drain. The sensible thing to do in these circumstances is to clear and rebuild. I have every confidence in the local authority's judgment in this matter.

I know from the continual discussions which the local authority has with my officials in the Welsh Office that it is striving to follow a policy of improvement wherever this is at all practicable in order not to disrupt or destroy existing communities and facilities. But in the local authority's judgment—it is ultimately a matter of its judgment—there are houses in the area which are no longer improvable.

I am quite sure that the hon. Member, who gave examples of housing stress, would not advocate that people should continue to live in totally unfit accommodation solely on the grounds that community spirit must prevail—and by totally unfit accommodation I mean accommodation which is manifestly detrimental to the physical and mental well-being of the occupants and not merely accommodation which is technically unfit because it lacks, say, one of the standard amenities prescribed by the Housing Acts. I recognise that it is a wrench for the occupants to be moved from dwellings for which they have formed an affection as their homes of many years, and I wish that there were some way of sparing them from having to make the change. But, having said that, I must stress that in our experience those who have made the change in many other parts of Wales have, once the settling period is over, realised that it is immeasurably for their benefit that they have been moved into accommodation of a much higher standard.

Local authority practice on the question of improvement or clearance must rest entirely on the circumstances. Local authorities may have to make very fine judgments in some cases, but in the long term the occupants of unfit accommodation cannot but benefit from being moved into better standard dwellings. As the hon. Member will know, Newport council is not proposing to displace the Pill community permanently. Some measure of displacement is inevitable initially in order to free one or two blocks of housing for a start to be made on clearance; but until the site is clear there can be no rebuilding.

As far as Pill is concerned, the intention is to rebuild on the identical site. After the first stage the present residents can stay in the same area, the area which they have known all their lives, and there is no reason why the community spirit should not be retained and protected.

From 1960 to 1968 Newport had a flourishing housing programme, which provided over 4,000 houses. In 1968 and 1969 a halt was called to this programme, for reasons which seemed good to the council at the time but which, with the benefit of hindsight, are now seen to be not so good. But no one concerned is sitting down idly. Newport Council is tackling the shortage in a vigorous manner, and the figures I have given demonstrate that the object is to renew the building programme on a large scale.

My office is giving every assistance consistent with my responsibilities under the various Housing Acts. No restrictions have been imposed and no obstacles have been placed in Newport's way. Where problems have arisen, the local authority and the Welsh Office have co-operated in finding a solution.

I do not wish to look back to 1968 and 1969. What matters is that the Newport housing situation is now firmly in hand, and the hon. Member's constituents should reap the benefits in the years to come.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'clock.