HC Deb 08 June 1978 vol 951 cc511-20

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

10 p.m.

Mr. Stan Thorne (Preston, South)

There are clearly only a few hon. Members who are interested in the points that I wish to make. I am aware that housing is basically a local authority matter, but we are concerned nationally about standards of provision. The Department of the Environment is in business to help local authorities, where possible, to improve their housing stock and to advise in many areas, including the management of stock.

The background to the problems of the inner town area of Preston cannot be covered in depth in a short speech, but part of the history must be told. In 1955 the council embarked upon the first slum clearance programme affecting a part of the town known as Avenham, between Manchester Road and Frenchwood Street. When clearance was under way and the cost of land was known to be £32,000 an acre, Preston was pressed by the then Minister, on financial grounds, to build upwards.

Two multi-storey blocks, Lancaster House and York House, were opened in about 1960. They were closely followed by Cumberland House, Westmorland House and Northumberland House. To people in need, these represented acceptable residences. In 1962, further blocks, Carlisle House, Richmond House and Durham House, closely followed by Kendal House and Penrith House, provided a total of 849 dwellings of mixed types including bed-sitters and one-, two-and three-bedroomed flats.

In 1965 the housing committee was faced with complaints by tenants of heavy condensation and various attempts were made through the construction industry to remedy those defects, without notable success. It subsequently came to the notice of the council and certain social and behavioural problems were also appearing within these blocks.

The housing committee sought, as far as practicable, not to rehouse into those blocks families with young children, but it must be reported that this policy has failed. I am not involved with many of the families with young children in these multi-storey blocks who want to get out as quickly as possible for a variety of reasons, but mainly because of the difficulties of providing children with play facilities and the mischief that children can clearly get into in that sort of environment.

The financial problem for the local authority has been immense in terms of cost of building, landscaping maintenance, and so on, and rents have varied over the years. The conditions in these dwellings deteriorated noticeably in about 1970, when vandalism became rife and the behavioural problems produced the fouling of lifts, excess noise, bad neighbour relations and damage to windows and other property within the buildings.

Attempts were made by the local authority to control these aspects through meetings with tenants and the scheme for locking up in one block, Kendal House, fairly early at night. That produced a pattern of breaking and entering, and was not a success.

The operation of the lifts has produced a loss of several thousand pounds in refurbishing, and the lift suppliers have clearly lost interest in maintaining an adequate stock of spares to keep the lifts running.

Under the Fair Rents Act an attempt was made to have the blocks valued in such a way as to provide for a reduction in rents on the ground of inferior accommodation, but that was unsuccessful. Indeed, they were rated at about £10 more than comparable properties in much better areas.

Various suggestions have been considered by the housing committee, political control of which has changed over the years, as to alternative use. Investigations have been carried out concerning criteria for entry—for example, no young children, executive-type employment, or student occupancy through the Preston Polytechnic. The latter presents considerable difficulties in terms of finance.

There is about £9 million owing for the next 40-odd years, and any release of accommodation for students would, I believe, not rank for grant or loan. A rent for a flat may emerge at about £20 a week. Modifications have been estimated in respect of one block to amount to £120,000. As students normally require accommodation for only 40 weeks a year the other 12 weeks' rental presents a problem. Additionally, it must be recognised that some of the present occupants wish to remain in the buildings. One suggestion was made that the blocks be used for elderly people, but discussions with Age Concern soon dispelled that notion.

After the decision to reduce the number of families with younger children had been taken the numbers of families wishing to transfer crystallised. There are now about 130 families seeking a transfer in a situation in which there are 2,563 families in Preston seeking a home, many of whom—it is estimated at over 50 per cent.—are priority cases.

The house building programme of the present Conservative-controlled council is 100 houses for rent this year, with the hope that housing associations will supplement that figure. An area cleared for rebuilding, known as Maudland Bank, is presently being developed. Wimpeys are building thereon 72 houses, most of which win be for sale to local authority housing list applicants. In Ingol, about 200 units of accommodation are planned. Within Ingol and Grange Estate there are many families becoming increasingly discontented in two-, three-, and four-storey flats where they have young children and where there are problems of vandalism and anti-social behaviour.

The Central Lancashire New Town has a role to play in urban renewal and it would be interesting to know whether it can assist in the particular area to which I refer. It is possible that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will be able to comment on that. Recently the council has employed staff to knock on doors to sell houses. The end-product is likely to be 1,000 fewer houses for rent. During the past six weeks a further 270 families have been added to the priority list and the trend suggests that by the end of 1978 there are likely to be 3,000 on the waiting list in Preston. That will be the highest figure ever recorded in the town's history.

My purpose in raising these extremely difficult problems is to seek my hon. Friend's advice on their solution. I recognise that that is not an easy proposition. Is there any way in which a local conference of Ministers, housing committee members and officers, Members of Parliament, community representatives within the social service sector, the probationary service, tenants and residents associations and others, could be set up to consider how in a collective way we can overcome the difficulties and plan a progressive housing policy at Preston?

I should welcome my hon. Friend's advice on that score. As I have taken only 10 minutes, and have done so deliberately, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, North (Mr. Atkins) will be allowed to say a few words to supplement the points that I have made which I am sure the Under-Secretary will find little difficulty in accepting. I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to raise these matters.

10.10 p.m.

Mr. Ronald Atkins (Preston, North)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, South (Mr. Thorne) for allowing me a few minutes to make a contribution to this short debate.

We suffer from changing fashions in planning. In the 1950s and early 1960s planning opinion favoured high-rise flats as the answer to problems of land scarcity in town centres. These blocks today are almost universially condemned by the same planners. Tenants are refusing to live in them as being unsuitable for their familities or for other reasons.

It is a pity that we cannot anticipate, or even to want to anticipate, the wishes of those who have to live in the buildings that we plan for them. This lack of consultation is also evident in modernisation. For example, some tenants are forced to accept central heating which they cannot afford to cope with and are advised to keep their windows open when condensation or fungus appears on the walls.

There is a need for consultation and a freer choice in all housing matters. Housing authorities provide better houses, but not always better communities. The authorities do not ask grandparents whether they want to be segregated, with others, away from their children and grandchildren. They do not ask parents whether they would like gran—the best and cheapest baby sitter—to live in a street nearby.

We in this House deliberate in our Select Committees and discover that violence in the family is often due to the break-up of family ties which in the past made a family secure and a community balanced. High-rise flats are unsuitable for children, and couples need to move when they have children. How can we have a stable community in such conditions?

There is much to be said for good old-fashioned houses to replace the old streets which are being demolished. When I was a member of the Preston Borough Council, I advocated that, as the houses in the Wilbraham/Geoffrey Street area were being pulled down, the rebuilding of the street should proceed soon afterwards, enabling those who wished to do so to remain in the neighbourhood. If the Tories had adopted that Labour policy, we would have seen houses rising on what is now waste land which attracts vandals, rubbish and vermin.

It saddens me to see Tory district councils wanting to rid themselves of their most important remaining function—their housing services. In Preston, the housing waiting list has now reached 2,576. It has increased by 105 in the last few weeks. That total was already much too high. But, apart from not carrying on the programme which Labour started, the Preston Council is waiting for others to get on with the job of building on waste land that has been waiting for houses too long. Good housing is the most important factor in social improvement. We ignore it at our peril.

10.13 p.m.

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

I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Preston, South (Mr. Thorne) and Preston, North (Mr. Atkins) for raising this very live issue. You will know, Mr. Speaker, that I used to believe that education was the key to everything. I must say that my experience in the Department of the Environment with some of our housing problems leads me to agree with my hon. Friends' comments about the basic necessity of good housing for the family and for the com- munity and for all the things that we regard as being essential to the good life.

Housing authorities have an obligation to meet the genuine housing needs of the local community. The new Government policy on housing investment programmes affords the opportunity of achieving a comprehensive housing strategy which is sensitive and responsive to the local situation.

In two constructive speeches tonight, we have been reminded that the solution to our housing problems is something more than we used to believe. We used to talk about the physical provision of units of accommodation. We are talking about homes, the environment, people and families. There can be no more important subject. Sensitive management is essential if we are to overcome many of our housing problems. I find it reassuring, therefore, that there is a growing awareness of this amongst local authorities, with which the day-to-day responsibility for housing management rests.

My hon. Friends spelt out plainly the responsibility of local authorities. But the Government have views about housing priorities, and we also have some responsibility and involvement. I believe that my Department has its part to play in disseminating advice on the best practice, and the recognition of this by my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, South tonight is welcome.

By drawing particular attention to multi-storey flats, my hon. Friend has raised again a problem that has received a great deal of publicity. For many of us, the mention of high-rise dwellings brings to mind all that is worst on the contemporary housing scene. Life in high-rise dwellings can be difficult, and, naturally, there is frustration when things go wrong. We all understand that. Unfortunately, practical solutions to these problems are not easy to find, and I shall be talking later about ways in which we in the Department are trying to help.

When we were considering how we could help raise the standard of housing management, we decided that we should look first at the Department's own organisation. That was how the housing services advisory unit has come into being. It will be a valuable source of professional advice for the Department and will also give us a new channel of communication through which good practice can be spread.

The Department's housing services advisory group will also continue to make a substantial contribution. It includes local authority officers and members, representatives of the voluntary movement and researchers, and it has already gone into a number of important topics with great care. Six reports are already available, and it is currently coming to the end of a study of how local authority housing is allocated.

My hon. Friend has pointed out that in his constituency families with young children are still living in multi-storey blocks. This is often where the trouble begins. We expect the HSAG's report to touch on the steps that local authorities should take, through the allocation process and in other ways, to alleviate this and some of the other problems of high-rise living.

We must not forget, however, that some high-rise flats are successful and popular—believe it or not—with tenants. It is just as important to learn from success as from failure. Some tower blocks are well designed, excellently finished and well landscaped. But, at least as importantly, careful thought must be given to selection of the occupants.

In some cases, for example, tall blocks are reserved mainly for old people, with a certain leavening of families without young children so that the friction which can and does arise between the young and the old is avoided as far as possible. My hon. Friends have implied that local authorities are being advised against arrangements like these, but there have been a number of cases where this sort of solution has proved acceptable to them and their elderly tenants.

In other cases young, single people in groups, or students, have gone into these dwellings. I can reassure my hon. Friends about the worry they expressed about the loss of loan or grant in such cases. Local authorities will not lose housing sibsidy provided that the management of the dwellings remains under their direct control. It is for them to fix rents according to whatever criteria they choose, and rebates are, of course, available to tenants who cannot afford the rents asked.

Security, as my hon. Friends rightly stressed, is vital, and the installation of entry-phone systems has helped to prevent damage and nuisance by outsiders and to reduce lift breakdowns associated with vandalism.

As for families with young children, the Department's policy is to recommend local authorities to put them into ground-level dwellings, preferably houses. I am glad to say that we have evidence that this advice is being heeded.

In some places, however, a complete removal of all families with children is not possible, and our social research division, which has for some time been studying the whole question of children living off the ground, has been interviewing families which took second-best solutions, such as the lower floors of tower or walkup blocks. We expect to learn from this fairly soon whether such moves have been successful or whether new problems are emerging.

Where transfers are not possible, we hope that local authorities will consider the provision of compensating facilities such as playgroups, mother-and-toddler groups and so on. The social research division is now looking at this question, and we hope in due course to give advice to local authorities based on best practice.

Some multi-storey estates are also those where dwellings are becoming progressively more difficult to let. My Department is looking at ways in which we can help, and the findings from a series of studies are to be published later this year. They should give some valuable insights into the problem. Where specialist advice is needed, we hope that authorities will contact the housing services advisory unit through the Department's regional office. In addition, housing authorities have to determine for themselves whether this harder-to-let accommodation fits into their housing strategies—perhaps, for example, as accommodation for young single people willing to share. Demolition is not necessarily the best or the only solution. There may be cases where it is unavoidable, but it should be regarded as very much a last resort.

Vandalism is a problem which seems to afflict worst those very areas which are already run-down and unattractive. I believe that while we can certainly give vandals fewer opportunities by care in the way we design and the materials we use, to get at the causes we need to go deeper and look at ways in which we can develop community interest and responsibility in the neighbourhood concerned. The Department is already keeping in close touch and exchanges information with the Home Office and the Department of Education and Science. In the short term, we hope to issue advice to local authorities later this year. The anti vandal exhibition which was organised by Council magazine and which I opened this week is another example of ways in which useful experience on the subject can be disseminated.

Many of the problems encountered in housing management are due, at least in part, to the breakdown of established communities. Many people feel overpowered by the scale of their estates and remote from the management of them. There is a great deal of scope for bringing housing management closer to the neighbourhood level, with easily accessible estate offices and local co-operation between other services and the housing staff. In this way, housing managers can develop a deeper knowledge of their estates and their tenants and become much more in tune with their problems. By looking at housing on a human scale, we can start to re-create communities which people can identify.

I listened most carefully to what my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, South said about the Avenham estate, which, as he recognised, is the responsibility of Preston Borough Council. The Department would be happy to give such advice and assistance as is in its power. This could probably best be done in the first instance by informal consultations between the council's officers and the Department's regional office. This is also just the sort of situation in which the new housing services advisory unit might be able to help. The regional office would be ready to bring in the unit's director as necessary, if the local authority should decide to follow this course.

We are tackling other aspects of housing management in various ways. But what I have said tonight illustrates the need for a new approach to housing management. To succeed, it must be comprehensive, purposeful and sensitive to the needs of individuals. As our work in the Department progresses, we shall continue to issue advice based on our findings. But it can only be advice. Day-to-day management must remain the responsibility of local authorities. We want to work with them and draw on their experience.

I am most grateful to my hon. Friends for giving me this opportunity to give an account of our efforts to date on this important social issue. I shall read with care what has been said in this debate, and if I have missed any point I shall certainly write to my hon. Friends. I assure them of our continuing concern to meet the genuine housing needs of the community, and any co-operation or advice that we can give will be readily available.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-four minutes past Ten o'clock.