HC Deb 09 July 1975 vol 895 cc705-12

11.51 p.m.

Mr. Jim Callaghan (Middleton and Prestwich)


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. George Thomas)

Has the hon. Member reached agreement with the Department for a Minister to be present?

Mr. Callaghan

The Minister is here.

I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to take over the Adjournment debate at such short notice. May I also thank the Minister for coming here at short notice.

I should like to raise the problem of overspill estates throughout the country, especially the Langley and Hillock estates, which lie within my constituency boundaries. Repeated requests to the Manchester Metropolitan District Council, which owns these estates, to discuss the transfer of the overspill estates owned by Manchester have not in recent years met with a favourable reply. In fact the reply which we received from the Manchester authority was Manchester is unable at this stage in the development of its housing policy to consider any changes in the ownership of its overspill estates". I will explain the reasons given for the reply. They were first, that Manchester would lose some of its housing stock and be left with a preponderance of older flats and deck access dwellings; secondly, that Manchester would not be able to continue with its slum clearance programme or to rehouse people on its long waiting list, as to do both they are dependent on the relets which are available from their many overspill estates; and thirdly, that Manchester council would not be able to justify to the ratepayers of Manchester the continued expense of building high cost council housing if at the same time it gave away low cost housing already in its ownership.

It is accepted by the receiving authorities that the overspill housing was built to enable Manchester to accomplish its slum clearance programme and that the overspill housing must continue to serve this primary purpose as long as Manchester has a slum clearance problem. I am pleased to note that in a relatively few years all slums in Manchester will have been abolished.

However, in the light of my experience as a local councillor in the Middleton borough, I would argue in favour of the transfer of the overspill estates on the grounds that the tenants of estates such as Langley, Downhill, Hillock and others are less favourably placed than the tenants of normal council housing in that, first, the Manchester housing authority is more remote from them, and second, that their elected representatives are powerless to raise their complaints or to cater for their needs in any elected assembly.

Taking the Langley Estate as one example, we note that the estate was built 20 years ago, consists of 4,728 dwellings and caters for a population of 25,000. The rest of Middleton, in which it is situated, has a population of 33,000.

It is my contention that Langley has in fact become a huge transit camp, which militates against its becoming a stable community. The reason for this is that relets on the estate do not go to the young married couples from the estate itself. A local Langley clergyman has stated that when he shakes hands with a newly married couple from the estate he is in fact saying goodbye to that couple. The Rev. Jack Nicholls of the All Saints and Martyrs Church, Wood Street, Langley, who officiates at about 90 weddings a year at Langley, has said that he knows of no couple whom he had married who now live on the estate.

Thus the estate is seen as a transit camp unrelated to its neighbouring communities and remote from the main authority in Manchester. The problems of Langley thus become more intense as the years go by.

Any examination of the referrals to the social services department in the borough of Middleton shows that 50 per cent. of the referrals come from the Langley Estate, and that generally speaking, 75 per cent. of the referrals on child care and family problems come from Langley. For example, in 1974, of the families moved to Langley from elsewhere, 25 per cent. had been referred to the social services department by January 1975.

Of the total of 1,422 cases referred to the social services department, about 25 per cent. were designated as child care problems—that is, reception into care, designated as family problems—that is, behavioural problems, court reports, and so on—and about 23 per cent. were financial, accommodation and matrimonial problems.

The reasons for these problems were given at a recent meeting of professional people and volunteers working on Langley. There was a feeling that the annual 200 relets available to Manchester have been taken up mainly by families, including large families and one-parent families, from slum clearance areas in Manchester urgently requiring housing, but that no priority is given to the children of these families once they are rehoused.

If we can draw correct conclusions from this, there is a constant influx of new families from the most deprived areas of Manchester, from areas in which the EPA schools are now operating. However, the play areas and facilities on the Langley estate are limited. A properly equipped and staffed adventure playground is needed and should attract high priority. Resources for youth work are also inadequate and insufficient. Such resources as there are appear to be well supported financially, but the potential has not been fully developed. Youth work is carried out under great difficulties and requires greater financial support from the local authority than it appears to get, though there are hopes of building a new youth club on the estate.

Langley is an area of social deprivation with a need for community assistance from central Government funds. However the provision of amenities for the estate is more difficult to achieve whilst the authority owning the overspill estate—namely, Manchester—is not the same as the authority which exercises other local government functions. The sites for amenities are often in the ownership of Manchester. Transfer to the receiving authorities would ease these problems.

From the point of view of Langley and Hillock—Hillock is another overspill estate within the boundaries of my constituency which, again, is owned by Manchester—the total approach to welfare advocated by the Seebohm Report, by having housing and social service functions in the same authority, is hampered by the separate ownership of overspill housing. The relation between housing problems and welfare problems is too well known to need amplifying, but I give as an example rent arrears.

Today the overspill areas are now in areas where the local authority is a housing, social services, education and planning authority all in one. This gives the opportunity for the first time for one authority to undertake a total approach to the needs of the residents of such estates as Langley and Hillock—and that authority is the receiving authority.

Manchester's objections to the transfer of overspill estates to the receiving authority could now be met, and most of the needs of the tenants and receiving councils could be met, by suitable carefully drafted agency agreements, by which the metropolitan district councils could become the agents of the Manchester Metropolitan District Council under the powers contained in Section 101 of the Local Government Act 1972.

Perhaps such an agreement can eventually be made, for earlier this year a statement of intent was issued by the Manchester City Council, and the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith will probably know that it was agreed to by the Rochdale Borough Council). It is hoped that that statement will form the basis for the draft agency agreement for the management of the Langley estate. I believe that a similar offer was made by Manchester to the Bury authority for the Hillock estate.

The councils intend to provide a system for the continued operation of the Langley and Hillock estates which will have the effect of putting the overspill estates on the same footing, in all respects, as that of the receiving borough's tenants on its estates.

The borough accepts that for the time being Manchester will retain ownership of the estates, but the city in return acknowledges the borough's wish to retain ownership. Accordingly, the city is willing at any time to consider whether the transfer would then be appropriate upon a request from the borough and it will in any case raise the issue as soon as it becomes clear that its present commitments arising from undertakings given by the Secretary of State for the Environment under Section 42 of the Housing Act 1957 have been met, or can reasonably be so, from the city's other housing resources, apart from the overspill estates.

The principal objective in any such agency agreement must be the creation of working arrangements which will ensure that the Langley and Hillock tenants have the same recourse to the borough as do other residents of its area and are treated in the same way as are tenants who come under the borough. Undoubtedly, the best future for any overspill estates must lie in their full integration into the receiving communities.

12.6 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

My hon. Friend has raised an important issue, and there is no doubt that his previous experience in local government and his knowledge of the area concerned gives us the key to the solution of the problem which he raised.

Overspill has caused a number of difficulties and presents problems. The area which he mentions is one in which the tenants feel remote from the town hall and the housing authority seems a long way away. My hon. Friend referred to difficulties peculiar to the area. My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) raised a similar matter with the previous administration. The presence of the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith) is an indication that those of us who have experience in local government—and I was a member of a housing committee in the North-East—recognise the existence of a housing problem. Indeed, that problem is the greatest social issue facing the country. We must always remember that we are talking not about statistics but about families and the raising of children. We must seek to give families a sense of community if they are to become the mature adults we need in present society.

I have not been long in my post in the Department, but I have read a great number of reports pointing to the problems which face our people in terms of accommodation. I repeat that we are dealing with people rather than with mere figures. The other day at a meeting I was confronted by a whole series of figures which suggested that I had a deprived upbringing. Although I lived in a house which by modern standards was overcrowded, we gained as a family in our sense of community. I lived in a small mining village, but we felt we belonged there. Unfortunately, in overspill estates that atmosphere is impossible to create.

Although we sometimes deal with these matters in respect of the share of GNP spent on housing and spell out the tremendous increase in the allocation of resources in respect of new homes or the improvement of houses built 40 or 50 years ago, we are conscious of the fact that the injection of resources cannot equal that sense of community which existed in past years. Tenants must feel that they can participate in the management of their estates. I assure my hon. Friend that this is being given the closest attention by my Department.

My hon. Friend will not expect me to go into the details of the case he has raised since he brought the matter up so recently. I will study carefully what he has said when I am able to read it in Hansard and will write to him. It is not the Department's policy to lay down rules and regulations governing the management of estates or to instruct local authorities one way or another. I would not wish to comment on the merits of the case my hon. Friend has raised.

It is a matter for local people who understand the area to come together and discuss how best they can serve the interests of the families living on these overspill estates. We shall draw to the attention of the relevant authorities the concern expressed by my hon. Friend and by the tenants. It is our desire to bring in more people so that they can discuss what is best for the people living on the estates, rather than pretending that the people in Marsham Street know best. The latter is not my approach to the housing problem.

This is a difficult problem. My approach is to explore every opportunity for involving tenants in the running of the estates, enabling them to accept responsibility for the efficient operation of their housing areas. We shall use our good offices and do all we can to help. Tenants should have the opportunity to express their views to the men and women in public life who understand them. In that sense I respond to my hon. Friend's case. I will study what he has said with care and see whether we cannot improve matters for the folk living on the estate to which he has referred.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes past Twelve o'clock.