HC Deb 26 November 1976 vol 921 cc443-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Thomas Cox.]

4.1 p.m.

Mr. Julian Critchley (Aldershot)

The borough of Rushmoor in my constituency is facing a disaster in that a housing estate known as Tice's Meadow, which consists of 461 houses, a development which was conceived in 1962 and completed in 1969, has to be rebuilt.

A whole legion of severe structural faults which oblige the local authority to rebuild walls and roofs has occurred. If I am unable to persuade the Government to provide some form of extra grant the local authority will be obliged to meet a bill of £1.25 million next year, over and above its present obligation. This extra sum does not include the cost of 20 mobile homes at £4,000 each, through which the occupants of each of the 461 houses will have moved while the whole process of reconstruction is carried out.

If we are unable to persuade the Government to be generous the local authority will be faced with undersirable courses of action. It could put the whole of the additional cost on council house rents. It is estimated that that would increase those rents by 73p a week during 1977. If, on the other hand, the cost was to be found from the rates, that would be an equivalent of 1½p increase in the rates.

Let no one be under any illusion that Rushmoor is a rich borough. Of all the boroughs and local authorities in Hampshire it has the lowest reserves. It has no land of any kind which it can easily or conveniently sell. The Army occupies a great amount of land in that part of the world. I wish to persuade the Minister to consider acting under Section 105 of the 1974 Housing Act, which would enable him to charge this reconstruction to a loan.

Of these 461 dwellings, 271 are houses, as opposed to maisonettes. The estimated cost is £4,000 each house for reconstruction. The cost of reconstruction for the 180 maisonettes is £2,200 each. This matter goes far beyond repairs, and involves major reconstruction.

The local authority is left in the humiliating position that both the firm of architects which designed the estate and the builders who constructed it have gone out of business. There is no possibility of any redress from them.

Socialism inevitably runs out of other people's money. A Conservative Government, devoted perhaps more acutely to good fiscal housekeeping, might well have been in a position to help Rush-moor. My question to the Minister is whether he will be persuaded to come to the rescue of Rushmoor to the tune of more than£1 million in a unique and extremely difficulty situation.

4.5 p.m.

The Minister for Housing and Construction (Mr. Reginald Freeson)

The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley) has performed a service in drawing attention to a most important topic. While this case is peculiar to Rushmoor, it reflects in varying ways a problem which has emerged with some large housing schemes built 10 to 15 years ago, and more recently, in various parts of the country.

I am disturbed to hear of the defects in public housing schemes which appear from time to time. Indeed, I have seen many of them and they have convinced me of the need for careful detailing of designs for new houses and of the importance of strict supervision on building sites when houses are being erected. If more care were taken over these matters, perhaps we should not be confronted with the serious problems which have been described in previous exchanges, in correspondence and more briefly in the House today.

The borough of Rushmoor has been particularly unfortunate over the situation in which it found itself with the housing estate at Tice's Meadow, Aldershot. The present council was created as part of the local government reorganisation in 1974, and it inherited the problems which resulted from the housing schemes undertaken by the former Aldershot Council. As the hon. Gentleman said, the present council can obtain no effective redress from the sponsor of the house-building system used or from the contractor, because both firms went into liquidation some time ago. The situation echoes some of the arguments used in comparing the private and the public sectors and the problems encountered in both of them.

I am aware that the former Aldershot Borough Council undertook some improvements and modifications to the houses and flats at Tice's Meadow, but the trouble from water penetration continued and tenants on the estate have had to endure very unpleasant conditions for a long time. In the circumstances, the authority was wise to obtain an independent report from the National Building Agency as a basis for future action.

The report disclosed a serious situation. The principal remedial measures proposed were the replacement of front and rear wall panels of houses and flats, the replacement of roofs of maisonettes, and the stripping and resurfacing of balconies to afford proper drainage and replacement of many external doors and windows.

It is perhaps a matter of semantics to consider whether these works amount to maintenance or rebuilding, but I fully acknowledge that they involve substantial works to cure inherent defects in design and construction. The council is rightly concerned about the condition of the buildings, and I understand that it now has work in hand to put the dwellings into good order.

I was not clear about the hon. Gentleman's particular request. There may be more underlying what he says, and perhaps we can follow it up later. We have already complied with his request before it was put to us. My Department has given the necessary authority under the Housing Act 1974 for the expenditure to be incurred during the current financial year and has also given borrowing powers for that purpose. We shall have this scheme and its problems very much in mind when we shortly make allocations for similar work under Section 105—rehabilitation and capitalised repairs work —for 1977.

To touch on a point that the hon. Gentleman has not put to me and which I think should be put on the record, Rush-moor Borough Council has asked the Department to give housing subsidy for the expenditure to which the hon. Gentleman may have intended to refer.

Mr. Critchley

I referred to "grant" when I should perhaps have said "subsidy".

Mr. Freeson

It is a word which slipped my ear. The council has asked for the expenditure to be subsidised, and the hon. Gentleman has strongly supported its plea, not only today but on previous occasions. He has drawn attention to the burden that will be borne by the tenants if the cost is met by rent increases, or by the ratepayers at large if the cost is placed upon the rates. Either way, that is an onerous burden.

However, I am not sure that I would accept, on the information that I have, the precision of the hon. Gentleman's figures. In quoting the rent figures, he may have been suggesting that that was a calculation based on the carrying of the full cost by the tenants of the estate.

Mr. Critchley indicated assent.

Mr. Freeson

I can only say that, as I understand the position on pooled costs, which is the position with most local authorities, the costs would involve an average increase of about 30p a week. I do not say that to be little the problem because, against the background of a local authority's responsibilities under the housing revenue account, a 30p average increase is not to be taken lightly.

Having given the background, I must explain that, under the Housing Rents and Subsidies Act 1975, housing subsidy is given specifically for new construction and for the purchase and improvement of older dwellings. There is no subsidy specifically for maintenance and repairs. Nor is there any provision for a second subsidy on the same properties which, when newly constructed, were the subject of subsidy which is ongoing in relation to the outstanding loan debt. The category of maintenance and repairs includes remedial works to correct inherent defects in design or construction, although the non-specific elements in the subsidy system—the basic, special and high costs elements—take account of certain repairs expenditure.

Many claims have been put forward for extra Exchequer assistance towards unforeseen expenditure on housing defects. Recently, for example, there was the work to deal with high alumina cement concrete and there have also been a considerable number of dwellings suffering from water penetration or which have defective brick cladding or balustrade rails and similar problems.

However, I realise what a severe financial burden this work imposes on Rush-moor Council and I sympathise with it in its problems. As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has already told the council, this is not a category of work for which subsidy is normally paid. What I have to consider is whether the burden is so great in this case that it would be right to treat it as an exception to the normal rules.

If I were to do so, it would be the first to be dealt with in this way and would set a precedent for the future. I would not regard it as such necessarily, but it might be taken as a precedent by other potential applicants with similar problems. I must, therefore, be very sure that my decision is the right one—not only in relation to the local authority in question but in relation to my awareness of similar problems.

Even if I do not have a comprehensive body of information across the country, I am aware of several similar problems else-where involving high costs. I must be sure that the decision is right for the local authority concerned and in relation to problems that I know will be put to me or have been put to me by other authorities. I must, of course, take into account background questions of resources such as the hon. Gentleman touched on, though I will have to take account of a rather more extensive area than the points he put to me.

I do not want to turn the case down again today. Equally, I do not wish to undertake that financial aid will be given. We have until now given the answer "No". I have taken note of what has been said. I have been having my own further thoughts on the matter. I will reflect on my thoughts and reflect on the latest appeal that the hon. Gentleman has made to me. I will write to him. I cannot give him a precise date for when I will write to him, but it will be soon.

I do not wish to raise false hopes. This must not be taken as a commitment to give assistance as requested, but it is a commitment to reflect on the matter further, recognising that there is a serious situation here for the local authority, and to give an answer "Yes" or "No" at a later date.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fifteen minutes past Four o'clock.