HC Deb 23 January 1974 vol 867 cc1808-20

11.37 p.m.

Mr. Edward Lyons (Bradford, East)

The housing situation in Bradford is increasingly desperate and the price of land for building has multiplied tenfold during the last 10 years. The current price of building land in Bradford stands at about £25,000 an acre, and it has also been said that each house costs about £2,000 before a brick is laid. This has had a devastating effect on both local authority and private house building.

Bradford is a low-wage area. With new houses on sale at a minimum of about £7,000 each and usually more, young married couples have no chance whatever of buying a house of their own. They cannot get a mortgage. Even if they could, they would not be able to afford the interest payments, which have spiralled heavenwards to 11 per cent. That means that young people are condemned to living with in-laws. This can create intolerable pressures on the marriage. It is a recipe for divorce, and the in-laws themselves lose privacy and are subject to tensions produced by overcrowding.

A reputable local builder told me tonight that his company has good new houses which it cannot sell because people cannot get the money or afford to buy them. This means that builders build fewer houses. It is an absolute scandal that a situation has been permitted to develop that new houses lie empty while there is a tremendous unsatisfied demand for homes.

Because new homes are impossibly expensive for people in Bradford, more and more people are applying for local authority tenancies. The waiting list for council homes in Bradford has shot up from 3,483 in February 1972 to nearly 5,500 under two years later, yet there are only just over 25,000 council houses and flats altogether. That means that one family in every five would have to leave their home before all on the waiting list could be found somewhere to live.

This situation grows graver week by week. Nearly 500 aged and handicapped people need special accommodation. They have not got it. Over 600 families from slum clearance areas are awaiting homes. I get complaints in my postbag from constituents living in rat-infested and mice-infested houses while waiting lengthily and impatiently to transfer to a council home. The huge shortage of ground-floor homes means that there are mothers in my constituency who have to drag prams and babies up two flights of stairs. Again, that is a complaint which appears in my postbag.

In 1968, against demands from the Labour Government's housing Minister for 1,200 houses a year in Bradford, against advice from the National Housebuilding Agency and the regional planning council, the new Conservative council majority refused to sanction any new houses. I do not want to make party noises, but the effect of their callous policy was to deprive Bradford, over a period of four years, of about 3,000 new homes. Had they been built, the picture of housing misery today would have been far less bleak. Incredibly that Conservative council, while building little, actually demolished 6,000 dwellings, so that the shortage became even worse.

In the result, sheer lack of homes means that councillors and Members of Parliament can only seldom get satisfaction from the local housing department for their constituents, although one could wish that letters of refusal from the housing officials conveyed at least more sympathy and less curt indifference.

Over half of the city of Bradford's housing stock was built before 1919. About 16 per cent. of all houses lack one or more basic amenities such as hot water, bath or indoor lavatory. In the new Bradford Metropolitan District it has just been announced that nearly 10,000 council houses need modernisation, at a cost of £30 million. In the private sector the need for modernisation is even greater.

The one bright spot in the sombre picture is Bradford's excellent record in the improvement areas, under councils of different political hue, although it has to be said that houses improved are usually the best of the through-type dwelling house.

Bradford today has the advantage of a determined and very able chairman of city development, Alderman John Senior, and a dedicated housing convener, Councillor Tim Mahon. They are battling with appalling problems. What is needed, in both the private and public sectors, is to build, build and build. Every possible type of shortage, however, exists. Thus, when Bradford finds that it wants to build it is confronted with these handicaps: shortages of materials, of men, of reasonably-priced land and of money. Action on these problems is for the Government and not for Bradford.

Plasterboard has been exceedingly difficult to obtain in the past three months. Plaster itself is scarce. There are few apprentice plasterers. The "lump" ensures high costs and an uncertain labour force. Every house now being built by the corporation is behind schedule. The housing associations, which do good work, are likewise handicapped, and private builders feel obliged to hold back.

In this situation Bradford has sensibly reduced the rate of slum clearance. It is giving 100 per cent. mortgages to those who have difficulty with building societies and is taking the lead by making repayments on those mortgages a good deal easier. An absolute minimum of 1,200 new houses a year in the public sector alone is needed. Local authorities should also buy up new unsold houses so that builders are less afraid to build and are not handicapped by having their money tied up for long periods in empty houses. Private builders need a good deal more assurance than they have been getting so that they will build to their maximum. Bradford is developing industrially, and for it to continue to do so in an active way it needs to tackle the housing situation.

The Government's duty is to make a decent building programme possible and attainable. The tremendous increase in the price of land is the main problem. It has extremely damaging social effects not only for housing but for education and social services. The situation calls for drastic measures. The Government should at least consider the merits and demerits of taking powers to acquire compulsorily development land at existing use value. Hopefully it could then pass on that land at reasonable prices to local authorities and to private builders alike. That would enable the Government to control the way in which resources are used.

To promote an adequate supply of men and materials for house building, permission for offices, hotels and similar buildings should be most sparingly given. Action should be taken about the "lump". The small number of apprentices now being trained spells future disaster. The building industry is fragmented. Its efficiency could be much improved. Building bottlenecks should occur less often. There could be greater standardisation of some equipment without loss of variety of design.

I urge the Government to set up immediately a Royal Commission or a committee of inquiry into the building industry, and to include in its remit the manufacturers and suppliers of building materials. I ask the Government to introduce an extensive system of awards for good design and construction in house building. It is essential to introduce new legislation as quickly as possible for the proposed new housing action areas. It is likewise essential for the Government to approve as many areas as possible in Bradford under that new legislation as housing action areas with a substantial subsidy. I urge that that subsidy be at 75 per cent., the same as the subsidy which has existed and which is to end under current legislation. I ask for the Minister's assurance on that point.

The compulsory purchase order procedure is dilatory. Why cannot more power to decide such matters be given to officials in the regions rather than have files lying on London desks awaiting decisions by London officials for many months? The regional officials, it can be assumed, are more likely to know the local situation, and delay is not the way to get things moving.

I suppose that it is too much to hope for the repeal of the Housing Finance Act, which forces local authorities to make a profit out of their tenants. The Government should increase the Exchequer subsidy for local authority house building purposes. Something must be done to help Bradford to produce new homes for its people. Something could be done to publicise more the rate rebate scheme, which I find is virtually unknown to many people in Bradford. New houses are the priority. I should like to hear the Government outline their proposals to increase the rate of house building in both the private and the public sector in the interests of all the people of Bradford. The difficulties are appreciated, but stern action is essential.

11.50 p.m.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Bradford, West)

The House is grateful to the hon. Member for Bradford, East (Mr. Edward Lyons) for raising this very important subject, which is of considerable interest to the citizens of Bradford. In spite of his disclaimer, the hon. Gentleman could not refrain from a little party politicking. He mentioned in particular Councillors Senior and Mahon and expressed confidence in them, but it was notable that the citizens of Bradford did not express confidence in the party to which Councillors Senior and Mahon belong, because Bradford went markedly Conservative in the spring elections.

It is important to realise that the city of Bradford some six years ago had a surplus of council housing. The priority of the council in the latter part of the 1960s and the early 1970s was to accelerate a programme of improvement, modernisation and repair of the existing council house stock. The council's main emphasis was on providing council accommodation for those who needed it most—that is, the elderly and the infirm. I believe that to be right. Also, Bradford suffered from a substantial legacy of older council estates, so the council provided more grants for the modernisation and improvement of existing council housing and during the five years up to 1972 an additional £1 million was spent on repairs.

I think it was a very great pity that the hon. Member skated over the fact that the city of Bradford won a gold award for its general improvement areas. Whole areas of the city have been transformed by the general improvement areas. The housing improvement grants have made a substantial difference to people in Bradford. In 1968 only 58 people who owned their own houses took advantage of the discretionary housing improvement grants. By 1973 the figure had risen to no fewer than 2,019.

Bradford has always benefited from having many more houses in owner-occupation than the national average. The national average is 48 per cent. owner-occupiers. In my constituency of Bradford, West the figure is no less than 62 per cent. The proportion of council housing has always been markedly lower than the national average. The national average is 30 per cent. In my constituency the proportion is 19 per cent. This means that people in Bradford have had the benefit of owning their own homes and the difficulty has been that so many of those homes have not had adequate facilities. For example, of the 17,000 households in Bradford, West which are owner-occupied, 1,500 have no bath and 2,500 have outside lavatory facilities. What the Government have been so right to do is to provide the improvement grants that get rid of these antiquated facilities and improve the value of these properties.

On the rented unfurnished side, of 3,000 households in my constituency no fewer than 1,300 have no bath and 1,600 have outside lavatories. Therefore, for private rented accommodation and for owner-occupiers alike the improvement grants have made a very great difference.

The Housing Finance Act has benefited almost half the tenants of local authority housing who have been enabled to get substantial rent allowances, and of course the rent allowances have been extended to the tenants of private accommodation, whether furnished or unfurnished. These are some of the people most needing assistance.

11.54 p.m.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bradford East, (Mr. Edward Lyons) for giving us this opportunity to discuss housing in Bradford, and I appreciate the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Wilkinson).

Every town in the country is unique and each has its own housing problem. For that reason alone it is right to spend time in this House in examining the housing situation in Bradford. There may be nothing quite like it anywhere else, but other towns have similar problems. In any event, Bradford merits the consideration of this House in its own right. This is a great city, which has done much in the world and will do more.

No one in his senses would deny that many of Bradford's citizens are at present inadequately housed and that much remains to be done to provide decent homes for them. But in saying this it is only right and fair to pay tribute to Bradford's achievements in the housing field. Over the years, the council has rid the city of much of the bad housing which was a legacy of the last century and by its imaginative efforts and with the help of the higher grants, operated by the present Government, it has achieved a remarkable increase in house improvements.

As the hon. Member for Bradford, East, will know, Bradford's Barkerend general improvement area won a good design in housing award in 1972. I was pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West, referred to this in his interesting and informative speech. That area is a model for many older housing areas and its success is not measured solely in design terms. It is a successful operation in terms of human relations and proof that area improvement is well worth the effort. Bradford has demonstrated that it has the right approach to house improvements, and improvements are of vital importance in an old-established community such as this. There is a solid basis in Bradford on which to make further advances.

I should like to pay tribute to the good relations which have existed for many years between the city council and my Department. There has been very full understanding on both sides of each other's problems and objectives. I am sure this is one tradition which will be continued by the metropolitan district council.

The hon. Member for Bradford, East, raised a number of subjects relevant to housing, some intensely local to Bradford but others with wider implications. In the limited time available I may not be able to reply in the detailed manner that I should have liked. I shall read his speech carefully and write to him on any outstanding points, as I will to my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West.

I have mentioned the city council's record on slum clearance. Since the war it has taken action to close or demolish no fewer than 15,000 slum houses. When houses are clearly unfit and redevelopment is the best answer, the council may rest assured that it has our encouragement. We have made this clear in the White Paper "Better Homes: The Next Priorities". What is more, we have removed much of the financial burden of clearance which faces local authorities. The slum clearance subsidy introduced in the Housing Finance Act will subsidise losses following the use of slum clearance powers. Bradford and other local authorities can plan the redevelopment of cleared sites with a much freer hand, and in planning this subsidy we owe much to the city council's explanations of its problems over the years.

But clearance is not the only remedy for unsatisfactory housing. The measures already taken by the Government have helped and are helping Bradford and other towns to deal with substandard houses. My hon. Friend was right to emphasise the importance of this matter. In Bradford, as in other towns, there has been an enormous increase in the number of improvement grants. The number in 1972 was nearly treble the number in 1969—1,824 in all. It looks as though the number for 1973 will be at least as great as that in 1972. I realise that my hon. Friend too was very pleased with the progress made in this respect.

It is our intention to take further measures to increase the options open to local authorities in dealing with their older housing stock. We have introduced legislation which will help to bring the benefits of improvement to those in greatest need. There will be increased rates of improvement grant in general improvement areas and housing action areas. I am sure that the hon. Member for Bradford, East will be pleased to hear this. While grants will still be generally available, we will ensure that help is directed to the areas which need help most. These proposals are aimed to help cities such as Bradford with areas containing particularly difficult housing problems.

There has been some criticism of the decision to end the 75 per cent. rate of grant for house improvements this year. The Government have given the matter most careful consideration but have decided that the deadline on the 75 per cent. grants cannot be extended beyond 23rd June 1974. They have fulfilled their purpose. The assisted areas have caught up with the rest of the country in improvement work of this kind. Higher rates of grant would be better directed towards the special areas of concern which may well include parts of Bradford and which will be dealt with in the new legislation. As I have said, we intend that the 50 per cent. rate of grant will continue, with higher rates available in those special areas. The 50 per cent. grant still represents a remarkably good bargain.

The Housing Finance Act provisions will ensure that substantial aid will continue to be available towards the improvement of older council houses. The costs of improvements and associated repairs in excess of the statutory limits will be reckonable for subsidy purposes. I am sure that the new district council will see the great virtue of a steady programme over the coming years to improve the remaining substandard prewar houses throughout the district.

The hon. Member for Bradford, East was kind enough to praise the work of the housing associations. The new legislation will not only help to concentrate improvement where it is most needed ; it will help the associations to take their rightful place as providers of good homes for families. A strengthened housing association movement with financial support geared to an increasing rôle will help local authorities to meet local need. In addition there will be variety in both design and style of management. Bradford City Council has worked well with housing associations in the past and there is every reason to hope that this cooperation will continue.

There may well be a continuing demand for houses built and managed by the local authority—although in passing may I say how sensible it is to allow local authority tenants to buy their houses, something which the Bradford City Council has wisely encouraged.

1 accept that in Bradford—and in many other towns—over the past 12 or 18 months housing lists have been lengthening and the number of vacancies in existing council houses has been diminishing. The hon. Member for Bradford, East was right to stress the difficulty caused to families by these problems with the waiting list. We are all disturbed about them and want to do everything we can to ease the problem.

I accept too that there are several groups of people—old people and the disabled—for whom more needs to be done. Assisted by Government finance the city council recognised the need. Nearly 800 council houses are under construction along with nearly 500 housing association houses.

I accept that some families may be living in accommodation which is not really suitable for them. It is, of course, the council's responsibility to allocate the various kinds of accommodation that are available to it. Priorities are a matter of local responsibility and I am sure that the local council does its best, sometimes in difficult circumstances.

The hon. Member for Bradford, East referred to the state of the construction industry and what he regards as its inability to deal with the present housing situation. No one would deny that there have been many problems associated with the construction industry over the last year or 18 months. Demand expanded very rapidly and the industry in some respects found it difficult to cope.

There were shortages of some skilled labour, although there were still large numbers of unemployed unskilled men. The Government undertook a very substantial expansion of places in construction skills in the Government training centres to deal with some of these shortages, particularly in key trades such as bricklaying and carpentry. The provision of places was expanded from 4,500 in 19.72 to 6,500 in 1973 and should be 8,500 this year.

The hon. Member referred to difficulties about shortage of supply of materials. My Department has been closely in touch with the industries and companies responsible for supply and great efforts have been made by them to cope with the rising demand. These efforts have been most successful and we receive many representations of an easing in the situation. However, these efforts could be adversely affected if the fuel supply situation worsened. I am sure the hon. Member appreciates the unfortunate consequence that that could have for the industries which are striving to expand their production.

Another problem arising from the very rapid expansion of demand was the inflation in tender prices. By the autumn of last year most parts of the public sector were suffering price increases at a quite unacceptable rate. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister therefore announced an interruption in the placing of public sector contracts until the end end of the year to deal with the overheating. Since then my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced on 17th December, as part of a general package to deal with the new economic circumstances, reductions in public expenditure which will have a substantial impact on the demands being placed on the construction industry. I emphasise that.

We have deliberately excluded housing from both the rephasing and reductions in expenditure I have just described precisely because we place the highest priority on the provision of homes. There have been no cuts in housing expenditure. In ideal circumstances we would have continued to seek to solve the difficulties of the construction industry at a time of high demand by removing or minimising constraints on output such as insufficient skilled men. But demand generally has had to be reduced largely because of circumstances outside our control. One consolation is that this should make it easier for local authorities to get contractors to tender for their housing work.

In all this I am looking beyond the present fuel emergency, which, if it were to continue, would affect the construction and other industries very seriously.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Wednesday evening, 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 past Twelve o'clock.