HC Deb 24 May 1974 vol 874 cc855-66

4.1. p.m.

Sir George Young (Ealing, Acton)

As the tallest Member of the House, I feel that it is wholly appropriate that I should raise the question of tower blocks, although I hope that in my later years I shall not be responsible for the same neuroses.

My hon. Friends and I are often reminded by Labour Members that Centre Point symbolises all the defects inherent in our basic philosophy. We are told that it is an inescapable monument to the greed and inefficiency of the capitalist system.

The tower block is the Socialist "Centre Point", a monument to the short-sighted and rather doctrinaire paternalism of so many city fathers. The trouble with this country is not so much that Centre Point is empty as that the tower blocks are full. More seriously, I find it a matter of regret that although Centre Point has frequently engaged the attention of the House, and has now triggered off legislation, the tower block has never been debated, nor are there any proposals to remedy the acknowledged problems it has caused, although they are of infinitely greater importance, as nearly 500,000 families now live in them.

With the aid of my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, North (Mr. Durant), I hope to outline the problems caused by this form of construction and coax from the Minister an acknowledgement that his Department is alive to the issues we raise and has positive proposals to put matters right.

That tower blocks are an economic and social disaster is conceded by the fact that no more are being built. I should like an assurance from the Minister that loan sanction will not be given for any more should any applications be made.

However, that would be a small consolation to the 500,000 families, more planned against than planned for, who will have to live in them in an inadequate, artificial and often rapidly deteriorating environment. A survey of one estate in my constituency revealed that only 10 per cent. of those in it actually wanted to live in a tower block. The other 90 per cent. wanted to live in a house in a street. Only 4 per cent. of the tenants thought that the general appearance of their estate was either good or excellent, while about three-quarters thought that the appearance was poor or deplorable.

That the accommodation itself, narrowly defined, is an improvement on what many of them previously enjoyed I do not dispute. But we have totally failed to provide the necessary adjuncts to go with that accommodation without which normal community life is impossible, particularly for children.

The planners have built what they are pleased to call accommodation units, but they have not built what I call homes. They have extinguished the fire of community life in the back streets of our cities and failed to rekindle that fire on the new estates.

The issue is simple. Shall we do what they are now having to do in America, which is to pull down the tower blocks long before their useful life has expired because they have been unable to arrest the downward spiral on them, or shall we wake up to the problems on these estates while there is still time and, as a matter of urgency, try to correct them? Every member of the local authority that built one tower block estate in America voted in favour of its demolition only 20 years after it had been built. Many of the diseases that infected that estate, fatally as it turned out, are now showing their symptoms on our estates, and I refer hon. Members to an article in The Guardian of Wednesday 15 th May for an analysis of that estate and its problems.

What, then, is going wrong? I believe that there are many problems on these estates, doubtless all inter-related in a way that some sociologist will be able to explain to me, but let me list them as I see them. First, there is the deteriorating physical environment: litter everywhere, refuse chutes blocked, lifts fouled, graffiti on the walls and on the communal staircase. Going to the shops for many people has become less of a pleasant excursion and more of an obstacle race. One has only to walk round one or two of the less popular estates in London and other cities to see quickly what unacceptable conditions many people are expected to live in. Secondly, there is a very high incidence of nervous tension and disorders, particularly among young mothers trying to bring up children in an environment where they simply do not stand a chance, and we are all used to seeing these mothers in our surgeries. The problem was well summed up by The Times on 6th March: There is overwhelming evidence that towers are unsuitable for children. The isolation has harmful effects on them, which has been pointed out by the NSPCC among others. Children living on these estates are a constant source of worry to their mothers. Either they are totally isolated in the flats, or they are playing in an unsuitable and often dangerous environment outside. Unless the mother stands on a balcony with a pair of binoculars in one hand and a loud-hailer in the other, it is difficult for her to keep in touch with her children. The nervous diseases suffered by the mothers are well documented. They have a ripple effect on normal family life and on the children's upbringing.

Thirdly, I detect social polarisation on the more difficult estates. As the more articulate and better-off citizens are able to leave these estates, their places are taken by others who have no alternative. Forty per cent. of the population on one estate in West London have criminal records, and concentrations of this order in one area are hardly healthy for the rest of the community.

That leads to the fourth point, which is the increased vandalism, often caused by younger children. We have all seen the broken windscreens, the trees ripped up, the lifts jammed, old people terrorised and flats broken into.

In the face of this combination of problems, many local authorities are regrettably surrendering. Caretakers become impossible to recruit and to keep, so standards of maintenance and management decline. Ordinary families are not offered accommodation on some estates in case they become adversely affected by the environment and a further burden on the overworked social services. This accelerates the imbalance that I have described.

As fast as the local authorities repaint the walls, replant the trees, repair the windows remove the piles of refuse, tidy the open space, repair the lift, the abuse is repeated. The areas become tatter than the surrounding streets, and the residents of the estates are looked down on. They find it difficult to obtain credit at local shops or to persuade tradesmen to deliver goods to them. The physical problems have led inexorably to social problems, and we shall not solve the social problems until we have solved the physical.

Of course some people can live in these estates, and I am sure that the Minister will point that out, but the people who cannot cope are the larger families with young children, often with social problems and low incomes, and it is exactly that sort of family that is now being allocated accommodation on the estates.

Some of the problems confronting people living in tower blocks will be described by my hon. Friend. But, by a happy coincidence, this week's local newspaper published a feature on a tower block in my constituency, and I should like to quote one or two comments from my constituents.

One said: I wish I didn't have to bring my children up here. I would like to have somewhere where the kids just walk downstairs and be outside. No waiting for lifts, or not being able to see them. It's no life for a kid here. Another said: Like living in rabbit hutches. I worry all the time about the kids playing outside—one is six and the other is 12 and I can't keep an eye on them. And I really miss not having a garden. I would much rather live in a house than here. Another constituent said: The kids have got nothing better to do —the place is always getting smashed up. Those are the comments of people living on these estates all over the country. The indication is that once these estates deteriorate beyond a certain point it is almost impossible to rescue them.

Where do the solutions lie? Inevitably we have to talk the language of priorities, and, in my view, the top one should be to rescue the children. Although the research of the Department of the Environment suggests that children should not be housed above the first floor, this is simply not being observed at the moment because the blocks comprise family accommodation. But those estates which are least suitable for children should stop absorbing them, and other estates in the area which are perhaps more able to absorb children should be dramatically improved until the situation reaches the point where everyone who wants a house and a garden can have one. My top priority is to get out the children and to replace them with students or other single people, with a generous sprinkling of the architects and planners who designed the estates.

Secondly, we must cut into the downward spiral to which I referred earlier and provide the missing physical facilities on the estates. We must also pay for higher standards of management and maintenance. If only we can get people to take a pride in their estates, we shall be half-way there. But we shall do this only if we provide them with the facilities that they expect and are entitled to. The penny-pinching approach of the cost yardstick must be reappraised and the missing infrastructure provided.

It is against this background of the direction in which I believe we should be moving that I come to the letter written to me by the Minister announcing the commencement of some projects designed to solve these problems. One would provide advice on the adaptations that could be made to unpopular estates to make them more acceptable. I should like to know the time scale of the project and whether the finance will be made available to implement the recommendations.

The Greater London Council, which 1 have similarly been importuning on this subject, has now announced its own studies, and I hope that the Minister will ensure that the GLC's studies and those of his Department are properly co-ordinated.

It will be tempting for any Government to say that these problems are the responsibility of local government. In a sense they are right. However, these tower blocks would not have been built on this scale had there not been such pressure from the central Government to build them.

Secondly, after the Ronan Point disaster the central Government stepped in with substantial finance to remedy the deficiencies in the structure. I believe that this provides a precedent for the central Government providing funds to rectify other deficiencies no less damaging on these estates.

Thirdly, many local authorities simply do not know what to do, and inevitably they look to the central Government for advice and guidance.

For all those reasons, I believe that the Government should take an initiative in this matter and make it clear to local authorities and tenants living on these estates that the Government are concerned about their problems and are determined to do something to put them right.

4.13 p.m.

Mr. Tony Durant (Reading, North)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) for giving me the opportunity to say a few words about this problem. My reason for intervening is that I wish to highlight the fact that this is not only a London problem. It is a national problem and, indeed, an international one.

In the town of Reading there is an area known as Coley Flats which has a series of these blocks, and it gives rise to problems which are typical of those to be found in tower blocks. It is cut off. There is only one road to it, with an occasional bus service. The people who live there think that they are different, that they have been cut off and left out of the area.

People living in flats are very often much more isolated than people who live in houses, and I wish to devote my remarks to the social problems which arise. We have heard about the mothers of small children and the mental strain that they suffer. Then there are the old people who are afraid to use the lifts in case they become jammed, as they sometimes do.

Basically man is an open-air animal, and putting him in a tower block is not providing living conditions which are something between green fields and living in a nice little house.

We look to the Minister to provide additional facilities for these areas. They need more community centres, for example. Community centres are provided by local authorities out of Government resources. Whenever there is a cut, however, the community centres are not provided. But I should like to see more community centres provided, especially for people who live in these high-rise areas.

I should like to mention particularly fire protection. This is a matter that people worry about, particularly in high rise flats. The increase in the numbers of cars blocking the entrances to tower blocks makes people worry whether fire engines can get to them.

Staffing of nursery provision for young children is another aspect which needs to be looked at.

I have watched "Coronation Street" on television. The programme starts with a shot of a tower block and then the camera pans down to a little street below. I am sure that the programme makers do not believe that everybody wants to live in tower blocks. I believe that they are panning down to the kind of place in which people prefer to live.

An interesting point came to my notice today. Outside Paris there is a district called Sarcell which has had the tower block problem for some years. There is a new disease in France now called malade Sarcell, which is mental disturbance caused through living in tower blocks. Therefore, this is an international problem. I urge the Minister to look into the problem and to make more money available to improve facilities for the tower blocks in all parts of the country.

4.17 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Gerald Kaufman)

The hon. Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) has raised a subject of great importance. It is a happy coincidence that he has done so on the day that marks the return to this House of his former opponent, now my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing). The number of people who voted for his Conservative opponent could just about fill a large tower block.

The hon. Member for Reading, North (Mr. Durant) has demonstrated that this problem is not confined to London. My experience as Member of Parliament for Manchester, Ardwick bears that out. During the last Parliament I raised the problems of people living in tower blocks on many occasions.

The hon. Member for Reading, North referred to the need for community centres. I feel a little bitter on that subject, because we were going ahead at West Gorton with a new community centre which was to service an area with two tower blocks. Last December, however, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale (Mr. Barber), made cuts which deprived us of that community centre. It is a matter about which I feel extremely unhappy.

The Ardwick constituency contains a considerable number of tower blocks. It also has a further number of deck access blocks in which the problems are, if anything, as I shall seek to illustrate, even worse. These deck access blocks include what is now, following last week's television programme on BBC-1, the nationally famous Fort Ardwick, which is one of the great decorations of my constituency.

I differ from the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton in some respects when he condemns all tower blocks. My experience as a constituency Member dealing intimately with these problems is that high-rise blocks need not necessarily be problem blocks. I have some tower blocks in my constituency—for example Platt Court and Bickerdike Court, which would adorn the poshest neighbourhood of any city in the country. The waiting list for Platt Court could be filled every day of the year if there were vacancies.

Certainly I get complaints, even from those tower blocks, but they are of a specialised kind—for example, that entryphones do not work very well. However, I do not get many complaints.

Why are tower blocks of this kind a success? I shall come to the failures. The hon. Member for Ealing, Acton need not fear that I am dismissing what he said. I take his points extremely seriously.

Why are these tower blocks a success? First, they are well designed and excellently finished. They have their own private entrances with entryphones and each resident has a key to the external door so that only residents and their guests or the caretakers can get in. Therefore the lifts, instead of being befouled, full of graffiti, disgusting excreta and so on, are clean and well maintained and work very well indeed.

Secondly, these creditable tower blocks are well landscaped. Platt Court has the most delightful approach, and it can give a tenant pride in bringing visitors to blocks of flats such as that. Thirdly, and this point was validly made by the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton, it is because careful thought has been given to the allocation of tenancies at these blocks of fiats. In many cases they are reserved mainly for old people, with a certain leavening of families without young children. There is, therefore, a minimum of friction between the young and the old, and anybody who knows the problems that arise in these multi-storey developments will realise that that kind of friction is one of the things that one meets.

Other blocks have problems, and Fort Ardwick—or Coverdale Crescent—in my constituency is as good an example as any which thrusts up many of the problems to which both hon. Gentlemen have referred. There are serious problems between the young who live there and who, naturally want somewhere to live and play and the elderly, who equally naturally want peace and quiet.

There are the problems of repairs that need to be done. The very nature of the structure of these tall deck access developments means that the problems are tremendous, because there is vandalism, and the repairs are often not done anything like as soon as they should be.

There is the problem of keeping estates tidy. The litter blows along the windswept corridors up in the air and it leads to a demoralisation of the people living there. I visit these blocks of flats most weekends and I see for myself how fed up people can get with the kind of life that is imposed upon them by the limitations of their environment. The lights can get broken, and that leads to accidents to children, who are as it were marooned in mid-air

. There is the problem of repairing lifts which vandals regularly put out of action and which, as the hon. Gentleman said, are often fouled. I say categorically that after comparing Fort Ardwick and other similar blocks with those which I have mentioned which are a decoration to my constituency one realises that external lifts in high-rise developments are a mistake, because it means that children, who do not necessarily live on the estate, have access to them and use them as a kind of adventure playground. It means that drunks can get into the lifts and bother women and girls as they are going home at night.

As both hon. Gentlemen have validly said, in developments of this kind there are problems of morale. I have been into many of the flats in the development to which I have referred. Taking Fort Ardwick as an example, there is no doubt that internally they are extremely nice homes of which anybody can be proud. The tenants take pride in them but they feel that the external appearance and atmosphere diminish their possibilities of leading a placid and trouble-free life. These are real problems, and the hon. Gentleman has been right to bring them before the House today.

Considerable numbers of people are involved. In the last 20 years 14 per cent. of the dwellings built by local authorities were in blocks of five or more served with lifts. It is estimated that at least half of these are potential family dwellings, but the lessons have been learned. Blocks of 10 or more storeys represented 18 per cent. of all tenders approved in 1966 but only 2 per cent. of those approved in 1972. We are therefore left with a problem of some size but a residual one.

I cannot guarantee that no loan sanction will ever again be given for tower blocks. That would be a doctrinaire attitude which the hon. Gentleman, as a member of a party dedicated to enterprise, would greatly deplore. Not all high blocks are to be condemned. Many are an asset to their neighbourhood and are liked by the residents. Nor is it right—I say this in a cross-bench spirit— to lay the responsibility for these tower flats at the door of the Government. No Government, neither Conservative nor Labour, built these tower blocks. No Government manage them: that is done by local authorities. The yardstick, for which the Government are only too responsible, can certainly accommodate sensible landscaping of these developments. Subsidisable allowances are available towards the cost of providing unsupervised play space for new housing schemes.

The providing or improving of play space on existing estates is reckonable for subsidy. I wish—I say this advisedly from this Dispatch Box—that local authorities would take more advantage of the possibilities open to them. On large estates they could get thousands of pounds in subsidy to use in providing playgrounds for people living in these circumstances. Naturally, we recognise these problems and are anxious to help in solving them.

My Department has launched two important studies. The first is a study of children in homes off the ground and the compensatory provision which may be needed if they cannot be transferred to ground level dwellings. The hon. Member referred to this. It was mentioned by the Minister for Housing and Construction in one of his letters to him. I cannot state a time scale. The study is under way. We shall naturally look at it very carefully. I have been discussing it only today with one of the responsible officials, and I am taking a personal interest in it.

I am also taking perhaps a stronger personal interest in the second piece of research that is going on in our Department—this is very much something that the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton has in mind—namely, research into the reasons why some dwellings are difficult to let and into how they could be put to better use. In addition, Home Office studies are going on into vandalism on local authority estates.

As I say, we recognise the problems and will look with care at the points that both hon. Members have made. But in the end this is a matter for the local authorities. They have the opportunity to take action to cope with the play space problem on existing estates. Their housing management policies can make a great deal of difference to life on these developments. In defined areas of special social need, grants could be available under the urban programme for a wide range of social projects.

It is important for local authorities to allot flats to tenants who like them and are suited to them. It is absolutely idiotic to put mothers with toddlers seven or eight storeys up in the air when that can be avoided. This has happened in my constituency and I find it intolerable. Local authorities can make life easier by ensuring that the caretaking service deals speedily with such problems as repairs and breakages. They must do everything possible to keep lifts clean and in working order and to repair them swiftly when they go out of order.

Parking problems must be sorted out. They are a great danger, impeding the convenience of residents and threatening the safety of children. There are problems with communal TV aerials, and other needless irritations. The cleansing departments should deal efficiently and speedily with litter problems. More imagination is needed in providing facilities to make life easier for tenants— wash-houses and launderettes rather than an extra pub to add to the profusion of drinking facilities all around.

Above all, tenants must be given a much greater part in the management of their estates. In London, in particular, the housing shortage means that many high-rise flats will for a long time to come be tenanted by families who, ideally, would prefer to be elsewhere. But even where this is not the case, tenants will feel much happier if they know that what they say counts, that they do not have to wait for an election to complain to their council or parliamentary candidate, that they do not have to organise a petition or march to the town hall to win play space or shopping facilities, that repairs will be done quickly, and that their views of what is needed on their estates will prevail.

Ideally, I should like to see tenants' committees involved in housing management. I certainly believe that tenants' associations should be regarded by housing departments as partners rather than trouble-makers. I work very closely with my tenants' associations, and so should every public representative.

Many people living in tower and high-rise blocks will read or hear of this debate. They should know that Parliament is aware of their problems. They should also know that the Government care deeply about their problems and are ready to play their part in trying to solve them.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Four o'clock till Monday 10th June, pursuant to the Resolution of the House yesterday.