HC Deb 04 March 1976 vol 906 cc1703-13

11.57 p.m.

Mr. John Cockcroft (Nantwich)

The short history of the Mount Pleasant housing estate at Winsford, Cheshire, in my constituency, is a chequered one. I am delighted to have the opportunity to bring its problems to the notice of the House. I do so as much in sadness as in anger, and sincerely hope that as a result of the debate something will be done to put matters right and to allay the fears of the estate's long-suffering tenants as to their future, for, to use the famous phrase, something must be done and it must be done soon.

When they have considered what has been said in the debate, the Ministers of the Department of the Environment, or at least a Minister, may consider visiting the estate to see the extent of the problems. If adverse publicity were threatened concerning the cost of such a trip to the north of England following events elsewhere, I and others interested in the matter would be happy to pay the fare.

Winsford made a so-called overspill agreement with Manchester in 1958 and the first people moved there at the end of 1962. In 1964, the agreement was enlarged to include Liverpool, because the first agreement did not have the required degree of industrial priority. When the expanded agreement was drawn up the then Board of Trade insisted that Winsford should raise its target from 32,000 people by 1971 to 70,000 by 1986. A plan prepared by consultants, approved by the then Ministry of Housing and by the Cheshire County Council, provided for an even larger final population, possibly 100,000 by the year 2000.

Major industrial growth followed in the late 1960s, and Winsford's house building lagged behind the industrial requirements of homes for workers. A series of crash programmes was undertaken, and Shanklin, Cox and Associates, the consultants to the Winsford Urban District Council, selected the design for the Mount Pleasant estate from a number of alternatives offered by the then Ministry of Housing and Local Government.

The Mount Pleasant estate, conceived in 1967, followed two smaller estates built on a similar pattern, totalling about 1,300 homes, which now house a population of about 4,000 people, mainly nominated by Liverpool Corporation in the beginning. These two smaller estates were plagued, and are plagued, by recurrent fires, which have also occurred on the Mount Pleasant estate.

The Mount Pleasant estate consists of 750 houses. Its construction was completed five years ago, at a cost of about £3 million. Local industrial firms, attracted to Winsford in part by generous Government financial incentives, were anxious that there should be accommodation available for their workers as soon as possible. On to the old village of Winsford were grafted rapidly several new housing estates, to accommodate workers from Liverpool and, to a lesser extent, Manchester. In the unattractive, but commonly-used phrase, Winsford, with a total population now of about 27,000, has become a "Liverpool overspill." Further growth is both planned and probable.

Soon after the estate was finished it became apparent that the type of flat roofing used on the houses was inadequate, in that a large number of leaks, letting in rain to upper rooms, developed. Hence, it was decided to re-roof all 750 houses, at a cost of over £350,000. The material used was an aluminium overlay skin.

I may say, in parenthesis, that at the lime of the building of the Mount Pleasant estate, the Ministry apparently wished to get away from the older, more traditional designs of such estates. Moreover, both labour and bricks were then in short supply. The new design, which was apparently urged on local authorities at that time, was hence a reasonable attempt, before one could speak with hindsight, to overcome the constructional difficulties which had been experienced then and in the past. These problems were not, of course, unique to Mount Pleasant, or, indeed, to Winsford.

Clearly, there is a case for industrialised house building methods, in particular on the grounds of economy, as long as they do the job for which they are intended. In this case, they did not.

In September 1975, three of the new roofs were blown off by high winds. As a result, all 750 houses were apparently checked by Vale Royal Council, the successor body to the old Winsford council. The tenants were then assured by letter that the remaining undamaged roofs were safe against wind speeds of up to 100 mph.

On 2nd January, 25 roofs were carried away by winds which reached a velocity of 92 miles an hour. By British standards, this was a hurricane. Needless to say, it resulted in considerable hardship, illness, loss of work and general distress. The tenants feel strongly, and so do I, that only conventional housing methods, applied to the building of a new estate or to the reconstruction of the existing estate, will suffice. Financial pressure on central and local government, however great, should not prevent early steps in this direction.

Meanwhile, obviously the tenants live in constant fear of another disaster, brought about by abnormal weather conditions. Children are understandably afraid to sleep upstairs on account of possible high winds. At a time of such winds, the tenants are afraid to leave their homes. When the wind velocity rises above a certain level, the emergency services are alerted.

There are other problems also, such as the tenants' fears of the houses becoming fire traps, since they are mainly built of timber, and fears of subsidence, in an area of salt-mining—an activity going back to Roman times. There are also drainage difficulties. I shall not strain the patience of the House by enumerating all the serious problems that exist. It can rest assured, however, that the tenants of this estate, crowded together as they are, with relatively few community facilities, feel uneasy about what else may befall them.

Surveys show that many of the tenants suffer from considerable depression concerning the conditions in which they live and their future prospects.

The Vale Royal Council has done much to tackle the short-term problems of the estate, which are largely not of its own making. After the January gales, a lot of labour was at once drafted on to the estate and most of the immediate damage was repaired. The main objective was, of course, to make the houses waterproof. This was a major exercise. Moreover, there was damage to be repaired, albeit less damage, on the other Winsford estates as well.

Thus after the January gales officers of the Cheshire Fire Brigade worked on the estate for 36 hours with hardly a break. A local councillor rightly referred to their sterling work at the scene as being the nearest thing to the Liverpool blitz that he had ever seen.

The Council, after examination of the damage, decided that there were two main reasons why the roofs had blown off. In some cases the gutters had come off, allowing the wind to get between the two layers of roof. Often the fixing had not been adequate to withstand such abnormal climatic conditions. Moreover, there was the perhaps fundamental original error of using polystyrene insulation on the houses.

The rents have been reduced by the council to help those most affected by the gale damage. This has been done on a differential basis, but all the tenants of the estate have benefited, it must be admitted, relative to those living in similar conditions nearby. Even so, they feel most unhappy with the rents they pay, in present conditions, for what they regard as an inferior product.

An individual example of the recent havoc may suffice. A tenant on the Mount Pleasant estate rents a garage not far from his work. On the night of the January gales, his car was in that garage. A roof from another block of houses flattened the garage. The quotation for repairing the car was more than £300. The tenant claimed from the Vale Royal Council. His car has only third party insurance. He needs the car to go to work each day in Chester. The Council maintains that it is not its responsibility, since the aluminium roof came off a block of houses which had not been inspected and approved by the roofing contractors. The latter's insurers say it was an "act of God" and therefore not their responsibilty.

To summarise, the outstanding issues concerning the Mount Pleasant estate are these: to what extent the lessons of the last five years concerning the design of the houses there have been learned, and applied elsewhere; whether the methods used to correct the original mistakes on the building of the estate will be critically examined; whether careful consideration will be given to modifying the existing buildings—perhaps by reducing the height and width of some of them—so that in the future gales will be less channelled down the alleys between them; what assurances can be given to the tenants of the estate that the general dismal environment in which they live will be improved eventually; and whether a high-level inquiry is not called for to assess and investigate the important points raised in the debate—in particular, how long these rickety, damp-infested houses are likely to endure; finally, to what extent are the Government prepared to help the Vale Royal District Council to cover the costs of its repairs, the temporary rehousing of the tenants. and so on?

I thank the House for its patience in considering a matter which, although ostensibly of only local concern, raises much wider issues.

12.7 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Kenneth Marks)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Nantwich (Mr. Cockcroft) on securing this debate and on the lucid manner in which he presented the problems facing his constituents.

The history of unsatisfactory roofs at the Mount Pleasant estate at Winsford is, of course, well known to the Department, and I sympathise with those tenants who have been greatly inconvenienced—and still are—by the problems that have developed. However, I would ask those tenants to be patient just a little longer while the local housing authority—Vale Royal District Council—with the aid of professional and technical advice from my Department, decides on a solution that will produce permanently secure and waterproof roofing to the houses in question.

Perhaps it would help if I were briefly to explain to the House how this problem has come about.

In 1971, the Mount Pleasant council housing estate was constructed with the aid of the normal Government subsidy under the town development provisions to provide about 750 system-built houses, chiefly for Merseysiders moving to the expanding town of Winsford to take up jobs there.

The consultant architects commissioned by the then Winsford Urban District Council decided on a roof design different from the one normally used by the builder on this type of house, and the dwellings were redesigned to incorporate flat roofs rather than the standard pitched ones. It was accepted that the designs of the roofs and materials used were, as then, rather untested, but they were incorporated in good faith and the contractor carried out the works to the specification laid down.

At this stage the former Ministry of Housing and Local Government's involvement was limited to the consideration of an appropriate cost yardstick for the site having been given that necessary certificates by Winsford Urban District Council, saying that the dwellings would be up to the mandatory Parker Morris standards, had planning permission, and had been designed by a registered architect, amongst other matters required to be certified. On the basis of this, the council was then free to accept a tender for the erection of the estate without further approval from the Ministry if that tender was within 10 per cent. of the cost yardstick figure notified for the site. This is what in fact happened, and the Ministry's involvement from then on was its statutory approval of loan and subsidy from the tender details supplied to it by the council.

But, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the roofs started to present problems at an early stage and leaks were reported almost before the contract was completed. Remedial measures were taken by the former council—Winsford—on an ad hoc basis and, although the council felt that it had no legal claim against either the consultant architects or the contractor in respect of the leaking roofs, it did secure an out-of-court lump sum settlement from the contractor to cover the leaks that had occurred to a given date.

By 1973, however, the leaks had become more extensive and common throughout the estate, and the council sought the advice of the Building Research Station and the Department's regional office. An inspection of the estate disclosed that although only 70 of the house roofs had developed leaks, the felt coverings were not proving effective and, far from lasting an anticipated 20 years or so, were developing leaks after only a three-year life. It was therefore agreed by all the officials concerned that the roofs throughout the estate required replacement to give the houses a maximum weatherproof life.

A number of alternative solutions were considered before it was decided to affix an aluminium "layer" on top of the existing roofs, after first checking with the designer that the house structure would sustain the additional weight. The great advantage of this solution was that it could be done without disturbing the tenants too much and, when completed, would provide what was considered to be a permanent and lasting solution. The cost was only a little higher than that involved in a straightforward re-felting exercise, with its uncertain success for the future.

The Building Research Station advised on the design of the aluminium-layer roof to be fitted on top of the existing roof, a contract was let by Winsford Urban District Council, and the work was commenced early in 1974. The Department gave loan approval for the works and is providing subsidy towards the cost of the repairs as a special case.

After some initial teething troubles over the fixing, the aluminium layers proved wholly successful in preventing further leakages, and all seemed well—until the arrival of the almost freak storm-force winds which, as the House will recall, caused country-wide damage at the begining of this year. I was within a few miles of Winsford on that evening, and it was certainly the stormiest night I had ever known.

It seemed that one corner of the Mount Pleasant estate was particularly vulnerable to the gales, in view of the prevailing wind direction at that time, and in this area of the estate about 25 houses had their aluminium roof layers blown off or otherwise damaged. Let me hasten to put the problem in perspective. That was 25 houses out of an estate of over 700. None the less, I am not seeking to minimise what was clearly a nasty experience for the tenants affected.

Subsequent investigations have shown that neither the layers nor the original flat roofs were in any way defective in themselves—and indeed, none of the original house structures was damaged by the wind. It does seem likely, however, that many aluminium layers may have been attached to the roofs below by an insufficient number of fixing points—indeed, fewer than had been recommended by the Building Research Station—and that this, coupled with a peculiar wind effect in that part of the estate, combined to cause the resultant damage. Let me, however, reassure both the House and the tenants of the estate that nothing yet brought to light suggests that the aluminium layers were unsuitable in themselves or that they or the structure of the houses are unstable.

I, too, must here pay tribute to the speed and effectiveness with which the Vale Royal Council officials approached the situation following the gales. Not only was the emergency service called out on the night of the gales; over the weekend these services, with the help of council and the contractors' workmen, were on hand to clear up, and by Sunday evening had covered all known defective roofs. Families were rehoused as necessary and within a few days the council had sought the reports of fire services and others on the scene and brought in both the Department's Building Research Station and the regional office as well as an expert in aerodynamics from Salford University, part of whose study I have seen. It is a very commendable achievement, and one that must have been very reassuring to the people affected.

My Department was able to assure the council that loan approval would be available immediately to enable the damaged houses to be repaired without delay, pending consideration of any long-term action that might be necessary to the estate. The council has apparently carried out temporary measures to make the damaged houses habitable and has also made significant reductions in the rents payable throughout the estate to compensate the tenants in degree for the inconvenience caused. It has also had a meeting with representatives of the tenants, resulting in the setting up of a complaints centre on the estate to provide a most useful liaison service, on a regular basis, between the tenants and officers of the council, concerned with their well-being.

Whilst all this has been going on the Department of Aeronautical and Mechanical Engineering at the University of Salford has been carrying out tests in its wind tunnel to assess wind effects on the estate, and the council's own officers, in collaboration with the Department's technical officers, have been considering what remedial works are necessary. I am advised that a recommendation by the chief officer of the council is shortly to be put to the elected members.

The decision as to a long-term solution is one for the Vale Royal District Council. I feel sure that the hon. Member will agree that all concerned have done what they can to see that the Council has the benefit of comprehensive advice on which to decide what action to take. The end of the tenants' worries about the state of their houses therefore looks to be in sight.

As to whether the problems associated with the flat roofs have now been overcome, although I am unable to say completely that this is so, because I do not know what course the Council will adopt, I am sure that the hon Member will agree, from what I have outlined, that there is little reason to doubt the solution of the problem. The leaking that occurred has already been satisfactorily remedied, and I am confident that with more secure fixing of the additional roofing layer to the already well tested house structure there is unlikely to be any repetition of the damage suffered on 2nd January.

Let me turn now to the question of compensation. The House may well recall a statement issued by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on 7th January about the country-wide storm damage caused early in that month, which outlined my Department's position regarding the funding of resultant works of repair. Essentially, existing legislation already permits local councils to consider making grants or loans to help with these works under the Housing Act and the Local Government Act 1972, and local authorities are expected to repair damage caused by normally insurable risks from their own resources, with claims as necessary against the appropriate insurers.

There can, therefore, be no question of special compensation in these cases, and it is not accepted that in the case of the Mount Pleasant estate the Department has any special responsibility compared with other local authority properties.

The Department has, however, been able to assure the council that when the full-scale remedial measures have been determined we shall, subject to the reasonableness of the costs and the adequacies of the council's financial resources, be prepared to see that any loan approval required will be made available with as little delay as possible.

As I have said, we all hope for a speedy and lasting solution to the problems that seem to have beset the Mount Pleasant estate. I emphasise that the prime consideration must be to provide a solution that will be reassuring to the tenants, so that they can have confidence that there will be no recurrence of the inconveniences and disturbances which some of them have experienced.

In concluding, let me stress that whilst my Department has no direct responsibility for the conditions on the estate, I am pleased that we have been able to assist both the former Winsford Council and the new Vale Royal District Council to deal quickly and effectively with the problems that have arisen, to the benefit of the tenants who, after all. are the persons really affected.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes past Twelve o'clock.