HC Deb 07 December 1978 vol 959 cc1699-709

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

8.4 p.m.

Mr. Stan Thorne (Preston, South)


Mr. Speaker

Order. I ask the hon. Gentleman to wait a moment. I ask other hon. Members to withdraw or to resume their seats.

Mr. Thorne

Every cloud—[Interruption]—has a silver lining. It seems that I now have a little more time at my disposal. If that is not so, at least there are others who may care to take part in the debate within the period that is available to us. I notice, Mr. Speaker, that at the bottom of the desk there is a tin of red paint which you might care to have removed.

On 23rd March 1977 a decision was taken by Preston council to submit a compulsory purchase order in respect of a number of properties in an area where there was considerable unfit housing. The council wished to clear the area and to make alternative arrangements for the land that would become available. The Preston (Plungington No. 2) compulsory purchase order 1977 was the subject of a public inquiry on 9th May 1978, about six months ago. I understand that the North-West economic planning council is about 12 months behind schedule in dealing with decisions on compulsory purchase orders, and I recognise that within the Department of the Environment there is a backlog of similar requests by local authorities in areas where there is a need to demolish—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I have a brief statement to make to the House.

I have advised the Serjeant at Arms that he should put the person concerned in the recent incident in the custody of the official authorities.

Mr. Michael Clark Hutchison (Edinburgh, South)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. What does that mean exactly? I deeply resent that interruption of our proceedings from the Gallery. When you say"in custody ", do we have the power to put the miscreant in the Tower for a while? What exactly is proposed?

Mr. Speaker

The course that I have followed is to instruct the Serjeant at Arms to hand the person over to the police for action to be taken, because a tin was thrown that could well have injured somebody in the Chamber.

Mr. Clark Hutchison

I am grateful for that reply, Mr. Speaker. However, do we not have powers to be rather more strict than perhaps the police will be? The act was self-evident, and I think that from the House we should take very stern measures against such action.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman is correct, but it is over 100 years since the House ordered anybody to the Tower. I think that we would be well advised to leave the matter in the hands of the police authority.

Mr. Thorne

I was saying, Mr. Speaker, that we are concerned with a compulsory purchase order in respect of a number of properties broadly within an area of about two miles in the Springfield Street-Aqueduct Street area. In that area there are land, workshops and 67 properties, of which properties 58 are unfit houses. Some of the unfit houses are in a deplorable condition.

Unhappily, the application for the compulsory purchase order is made against a background that must be considered by the Department of the Environment. The Department will not be unfamiliar with the present housing situation in Preston generally. There are about 2,500 people in the Preston area who are waiting for suitable housing accommodation. The bulk of those people need accommodation urgently. Many of them are medical cases.

The local housing authority's policy is to build 100 new houses per year. The Preston council is Conservative-controlled. The policy of building 100 houses a year is its way of dealing with the situation that I have described. Therefore, some of the families in need of housing will, clearly, never be rehoused in good accommodation. Some of their children will be married and 25 years older before they are likely to obtain reasonable housing accommodation.

One of the unfortunate aspects of this compulsory purchase order application—it is not uncommon in a number of towns and cities—is that the local authority has indicated its complete unwillingness to rehouse the occupants of some of the unfit dwellings pending the Department's decision on the compulsory purchase order. It implies that it cannot rehouse them until that decision has been made. The Minister knows better than I do that there is no rule in any housing or other Act which prevents a local authority from rehousing tenants in unfit accommodation in advance of a decision on a compulsory purchase order. Unhappily, the Minister has no direct power to intervene, but my plea is that Preston borough council should attempt to rehouse some of the worst cases involved in this compulsory purchase order area.

The Minister will recall that I was fortunate enough to have an Adjournment debate some months ago on the question of housing. In that debate we were considering the problems of multi-storey dwellings in the Avenham and other areas of Preston. The Minister offered to intervene in the sense of being willing, should the local authority make a request to him, to give advice on changing that situation.

I should be interested to hear whether the local authority has taken up that offer of advice. It seems to me, particularly when I read statements made by the chairman of the local housing committee and observations which are made in council when housing is discussed, that advice is something from which the Preston housing authority could well benefit.

There has been—and the Minister probably has a similar problem in his constituency—a growth in my correspondence over the last 12 months containing pleas for me to intervene and assist constituents with rehousing. You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will no doubt recall from your experience that it is not the job of a Member of Parliament to seek to intervene in housing allocations or lettings in his constituency. That is a job for local councillors. In regard to this compulsory purchase order, one of the local councillors, Joe Ward, has been extremely active in pressing for rehousing for some tenants.

I want to give the Minister every opportunity to reply in depth, and I do not want to go outside the terms of this Adjournment debate, but there is often —and it is true in this instance— a correlation between deprivation which arises from unfit housing and other forms of social deprivation. So it is with some of the families involved. As I said earlier, they are a mixture of elderly couples. Some of them have been owner-occupiers but, in the main, as might be expected, it is landlord-tenant accommodation with which I am concerned.

In recent years these people have found it extremely difficult to attempt to redecorate and to deal with water seeping through roofs and so on. Some of them, it must be admitted, have given up the fight. They have virtually closed the upper parts of their houses and are living almost entirely downstairs. I went into one house which did not have a stick of furniture upstairs. The walls were black because of damp and moss was evident near the windows. Therefore, one could understand why they had deserted their upper storey accommodation.

The Hewitson family in Springfield Street has for some years been seeking rehousing because of its deplorable conditions, but without success, and that applies to other families in the street.

I recall seeing three houses in that area which were to be demolished, but they are now propped up by beams of wood at the rear. That poor families—there is such a family, with small children—have to live in those conditions is a tremendous reflection on how the Preston housing authority is prepared to ignore their plight. It is a deplorable situation. The whale area is a blot on the Preston landscape and a disgrace to any housing authority.

I should be glad to learn from the Minister that he has high expectations of giving an early decision. Certainly that would considerably help the worst cases in this area. Some indication of an early decision would help me to apply further pressure on the Preston council to make advance lettings to a number of these families. I should welcome the Minister's remarks in this regard.

8.17 p.m.

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

I welcome the opportunity of responding to my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, South (Mr. Thorne). Apart from the occasions on which he has raised the problem of housing in his constituency in Adjournment debates, he has been a constant pressure group on my Department. I welcome his interest in and deep concern about the conditions in which some of his constituents live.

My hon. Friend, in the reasonable way in which he put his argument, put his finger on a quandary which confronts us all. The problem of compulsory purchase orders is difficult and vital. It is a question, on the one hand, of the onus on both central and local government to minimise hardship to residents in areas affected by the prospect of compulsory purchase and, on the other hand, of the rights of individual citizens, some as property owners objecting to compulsory purchase orders, to have recourse to the proper legal procedures. That can sometimes take a considerable time.

My hon. Friend will understand that I must avoid touching on the merits or demerits of the order to which he has referred. To do so would open the door to counter representations which would have to be considered, and that could mean further delay.

My hon. Friend is particularly concerned about the welfare of residents in the clearance area which include Springfield Street and Aqueduct Street—the Preston (Plungington No. 2) compulsory purchase order 1977. In correspondence with my hon. Friend I have explained some of the reasons for the time taken in dealing with this order. I very much regret the backlog of compulsory purchase orders, because I appreciate that we are dealing not with paper statistics, and so on, but with living conditions and with people who are in desperate need of new and decent homes. Therefore, I appreciate my hon. Friend's concern.

It is a fact that in the North-West region the number of applications for CPOs has grown tremendously. From January to November 1977, 166 decisions were made for the North-West region, and in the same period this year that number increased to 308. I am sure my hon. Friend will appreciate that the staff have been under great pressure indeed.

This CPO was submitted to my Department for confirmation on 15th September 1977. I can well understand that those affected are wondering why it has taken so long to come to a decision. It is the local council's intention that these homes be demolished and the land redeveloped for light industry. Objections were made to the inclusion of various homes in the order and a public local inquiry had to be held. That took place on 9th May 1978. The inspector's report has been received and the order is now with the Department's North-West regional office in the queue awaiting consideration. My hon. Friend has already been advised that a decision should be issued early next year. I shall have something to say about that later.

I accept that such a long delay between public inquiry and decision is, to say the least, unsatisfactory. The delay stems from the large threefold increase in the number of orders which have been submitted by local authorities in the North-West during the last three years. Last year the regional office received 45 per cent. of all the slum clearance orders submitted in England. This has overstretched staff resources, which are already limited by manpower constraints. Nevertheless, despite there being until recently no increase in staff—as I indicated in the numbers that I gave—special efforts have secured an 85 per cent. increase in the output of decisions so far this year compared with the same period last year. I am glad to say that steps have now been taken to allocate more staff to this work. but with new orders coming in all the time it will take some time to clear the accumulated backlog.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, Preston is an old industrial town with a high proportion of worn out and substandard terraced houses built to high densities in streets of grid-iron pattern. The local councils policy in relation to this obsolescent housing has over the past 25 years been one of phased clearance, starting with the worst areas first. One problem in achieving this aim has been the shortage of available land. The clearance of areas of older housing has been necessary, not only to eliminate unfit dwellings but to produce in-town sites which can be redeveloped for new housing accommodation.

Following the Housing Act 1974 and my Department's recommendation that wholesale clearance was no longer the only desirable method of dealing with substandard housing, the borough council decided on a thorough and detailed review of the houses contained in its present slum clearance programme. Many houses originally classed as suitable for some slum clearance at some future date have, in the context of present-day policies, been found to be capable of improvement. In Preston more than 2,500 houses have been removed from the clearance programme. The new emphasis on improvement is a major task.

I know my hon. Friend understands the new system that we have introduced, which gives us much more detailed information of the strategy of the local housing authority. The housing investment programme submitted under that new policy, covering the period from April 1979 to March 1983, envisages the improvement of 3,000 substandard houses during that period. In the case of council-owned property, this is to be achieved by direct action by the borough council and local housing associations, and in the private sector by making available improvement grants and local authority loans, supplemented by mortgages under the building societies support scheme.

The 3,000 dwellings represented half the present substandard stock, having allowed for the clearance of about 1,000 homes which cannot be saved. I wish the borough council well in its efforts. There are, of course, still areas of older housing stock where clearance will be the only satisfactory form of action. Urban renewal is a gradual process—the improvement of some houses, the selective clearance and replacement of those beyond the pale. The borough council's submitted housing strategy recognises the need for an increase in the overall dwelling stock to accommodate demand from residents of clearance areas, as well as other needs such as overcrowding, the housing waiting list, and the anticipated increase in population.

The council's building programme, supplemented by housing association activity, is intended to cope with this demand. Altogether, 850 council houses are expected to be completed in the next five years, and housing associations are expected to add a further 900 dwellings. Additionally, the Central Lancashire new town development corporation will be building to meet local needs as well as the needs of the incoming population.

I turn to action in the Plungington area. The local council's main priority for urban renewal is the Plungington area, where it is fortunate in having the assistance of the Central Lancashire new town development corporation. The borough is working in partnership with the development corporation urban renewal team. A study has commenced of the whole area, involving some 2,500 properties, with a view to assessing the correct approach. This partnership is to be applauded. The development corporation's help includes making staff available, financial assistance towards improvements and the provision of new dwellings on cleared sites in and around improvement areas.

Action in the Plungington area is to consist largely of improvement. One general improvement area has already been declared, and the borough council hopes to declare further areas—covering as many as 1,000 dwellings—in the near future.

I can understand my hon. Friend's concern for the plight of residents occupying houses which the council wishes to clear. The hardship of those living in the CPO area is well understood by me. The responsibility for alleviating this rests with the borough council. Local authorities have been advised in circulars that they should do everything possible to assist residents during what is often a disturbing change in their pattern of living. They should encourage owners to carry out essential repairs or modest improvements needed to make conditions more tolerable. In the case of tenanted properties, there is no reason why the local authority should not acquire the properties and undertake the work themselves.

It is open to owner-occupiers to serve a blight notice requiring the local authority to acquire their property in advance of the decision on an order. But local authorities should themselves do everything in their power to counteract the effects of blight, although blight always presents considerable difficulties for everybody concerned. They should intensify the provision of housekeeping services such as street cleaning, refuse collection, adequate rodent control and general maintenance of the surroundings.

I have not had any representations from councils or, indeed, from residents about living conditions in the area. If the local authority requests that priority be given to this order because there is evidence that people are suffering such severe hardship, I shall be prepared to consider taking it out of turn so that a decision on the order can be brought forward.

With that in mind I shall read carefully what my hon. Friend has said tonight. If necessary I shall get in touch with him, and certainly I shall be in contact again with my officers in the regional office. I have no doubt that the Preston borough council will take note of what my hon. Friend has said and, indeed. of my reply to this debate.

8.29 p.m.

Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk (Ormskirk)

I do not think that the House should be allowed to adjourn this evening until it has had the opportunity, which the Opposition have denied it, of debating the subject of sanctions, which have—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)

Order. Is the hon. Member proposing to address the House on the subject which is before it at present?

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

I am addressing the House on the motion for the Adjournment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Does the hon. Member mean the motion which has been put forward by the hon. Member for Preston, South (Mr. Thorne) or another motion? Is the hon. Member raising another subject?

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

Yes, I am raising the subject of sanctions, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I must refer the hon. Gentleman to page 285 of"Erskine May ", where it is clearly set out that the Chair has on many occasions deprecated the introduction of such subjects in cases where due notice has not been given to the Minister concerned ". That happened in Sessions 1963–64 and 1970–71, amongst others.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

With respect, Mr. Deputy Speaker, my understanding was that what we were debating was a motion to adjourn the proceedings for today, and that on a motion for the Adjournment it was possible to raise any subject. Therefore, it is permissible now, particularly as we still have one and a half hours of the normal allotted time that is given to the House for the subject of debate today, to raise the subject of sanctions, as in fact it was earlier intended to be raised by the Leader of the Opposition on the motion for the Adjournment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman is quite correct. In what I have already said, I have indicated that it is in order, but it is an abuse of the practice of the House on occasions such as this to address the House when a Minister has not been advised and is not present.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

There is a Minister present, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Whether my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will feel inclined to reply to the debate is, of course, a matter for him. I briefly mentioned to him that I would be raising the subject, but I accept that I did not give him what would normally be termed a proper or reasonable notice or advice, nor do I expect that he would reply to the debate. Nevertheless, I am sure that he will honour us with his presence during the debate, so that particular aspect of the regulations—if one can call them such —is satisfied.

Perhaps I may now continue, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I believe that we have before the House an important subject—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)

Order. I have already explained to the hon. Member for Ormskirk (Mr. Kilroy-Silk) that a can of paint has been thrown from the Public Gallery. The paint has considerably damaged the carpet on the Floor of the Chamber, the upholstery and various other items of the furnishings. In order to avoid the damage being permanent, it is necessary to have the carpet cleaned whilst the paint is still wet. Therefore, I propose to suspend the sitting until 9.45 p.m. to enable the repairs to be carried out.

8.33 p.m.

Sitting suspended.

9.45 p.m.

On resuming

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