HC Deb 24 July 1979 vol 971 cc562-72

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

1.45 a.m.

Mr. Hugh D. Brown (Glasgow, Provan)

I am not sure whether we have now cleared away all the procedural difficulties which the House apparently has to face these days, but I am delighted that the Under-Secretary of State is here from the Scottish Office. I am a little surprised that no one has commented on the fact that the Scottish Office is working a Minister short compared with what we used to do. I do not want a reply on that, because the hon. Gentleman will perhaps argue that the quality has changed as well. I merely say that I recognise that it is sometimes inconvenient to be here at this time of the morning. For what it is worth, I can tell the Minister that, including my three previous Adjournment debates, this is about the earliest I have managed.

As I was forced to go back to look at what I had said on those occasions, I found it interesting, and not surprising, that the three subjects I raised related to Easterhouse, to Scottish housing and the Cullingworth report, and in 1970 to a report from the Scottish Housing Advisory Committee entitled "Council House Communities". Again tonight I am on a similar subject, the problems facing the peripheral areas of Glasgow.

The Minister knows the report, "Glasgow: Implications of Population Changes to 1983". I do not think that there is anything between the parties on the background and analysis. Ultimately, there was common ground with the district council, the regional council and the SDD. That all-party recognition of the problem, to call it that, probably first emerged in 1972, when the late Robert Mansley, the director of planning in Glasgow, produced for the council his report "Areas of Need in Glasgow". On page 4 of that report, he drew attention to the fact that Co-ordinated action, involving many Committees and Departments of the Corporation, is needed, and the very high level of expenditure necessary will illustrate that the Government's recent offer of finance for a form of 'first-aid' environmental improvement becomes virtually irrelevant to the scale of the problem to be tackled. I do not suggest for one moment that the previous Government were able to provide resources on the scale which Glasgow always thought should be provided. I do not argue that problems have suddenly emerged of which we have not been aware over many years. But from the SDD report, paragraph 23 on page 17, it is clear that in the past, as I say, there was general recognition of the scale of the problem, although, for obvious reasons, there was never agreement about the scale of resources needed to tackle it in the terms now presented by the report on the implications of population changes to 1983.

There has been general agreement and all-party recognition of the figures: that Glasgow is continuing to lose 25,000 of its population a year, that by 1981 there could be 25,000 houses empty and by 1983 there could be 30,000 houses empty. That is the size of the problem confronting Glasgow and Strathclyde in that context.

We therefore need an assurance from the Government. This is the first opportunity that the Minister has had to speak on the subject, since Glasgow was not even mentioned in the debate last week. I do not blame the Minister for that, and I had better not say anything about the selection by the Chair or I shall be in further trouble. But it was unfortunate that no voice was heard raising these issues, and this Adjournment debate is therefore pretty timely.

I now draw the Minister's attention—I am sure that he will be warned of it—to what was said in the Evening Times on 27 June by Bailie Derek Mason. Dealing with the need to face up to the financial crisis which he sees as more or less permanently facing Glasgow—perhaps somewhat exaggeratedly—he said: It is the intention of the Conservative administration to give the Government such detailed information about Glasgow that, rather than cut any assistance, they will be prepared to treat us as a special case. We are all familiar with how special cases can be built up. The Minister will be fully aware that there will be special pleading when he meets the representatives of Glasgow in the near future.

The Minister should also be aware that I am not just arguing about the peri- pheral areas. I also seek an assurance about the future of the GEAR programme. When the first cuts in public expenditure were intimated, there was a statement by one of these anonymous Scottish Office officials—the type of statement that seems to be made at weekends. I confess that I always shuddered when I read them when I was in Government and said "I wonder who on earth made that one". This was well up to standard, displaying the classic approach that seems to emerge from time to time. It dealt with the question: Will the GEAR programme be affected? The answer was: Yes, but it will maintain its relative priority. As I understand that, it means, in ordinary layman's language, "If everyone else is to get cut back, so will the GEAR programme". Perhaps the Minister will explain.

I should like some assurance that the urban aid programme will continue at its present level. This is entirely within the control of the Government. Will that, too, be affected?

I put my next question in the context of Easterhouse and of one scheme in particular, at Garthamlock. As the Minister will know, in the housing management report for last year, at page 70, the district council, accepting the need for action following on the report dealing with the implications of population changes, said that it had set up what it called an Environmental Revitalisation Officer to prepare a brief which is developed with the assistance of a local community and which balances the requirements of the city with the needs of the existing population in an area. The point has been reached where the emerging surplus of dwellings in Glasgow is beginning to be apparent in certain areas. On page 71 there is recognition of this because there is reference to the preparation of briefs covering five areas—Drumchapel, Garthamlock, which is in my constituency, Priesthill, Lochend, again in my constituency, and Pollok. This is part of the general recognition of the need to do something about these peripheral areas. The briefs in preparation cover over 7,000 houses in these five areas.

The importance of that reference is that it raises expectations in a community. It is all right for us to say "But there was no commitment given that there would be £X million forthcoming." Here we have large communities, and no one can deny that a lot of effort is needed.

I refer again to Garthamlock. Its description is the classic description of a deprived area. A total of 70 per cent. of its residents want to leave it; 44 per cent. of residents have submitted a transfer application form; 32 per cent. wish to leave because of violence and vandalism. There is no sheltered housing in the area. There is a high rate of abscondencies in a year—about 130 out of a total of 1,600 households. Ten per cent. of all households are single-parent families. Unemployment is exceptionally high, with almost 50 per cent. of economically active males unemployed. Car ownership is only 6.5 per cent. of the population.

All the classic indices of a deprived area are set out there in one small part of the so-called Easterhouse township. Yet the Government apparently feel that the selling of council houses is a panacea that will solve all these complex problems. There is some inconsistency here.

The Government's circular of 20 June gives local authorities more discretion. They are no longer required to submit detailed housing projects for approval. I welcome that continuation of our policy, but if the Government believe in it why are they taking such a rigid and doctrinaire attitude to the selling of council houses?

The Prime Minister admitted today that there would have to be some discretion—that, for example, houses in national parks, and tied cottages, might be exempt. I hope that the Minister will not reply too dogmatically and that I am being helpful when I say that I shall seek exemptions in areas of need, where the problems will not be solved with a blanket approach and which need a changed approach to the size, style and layout of houses.

Does this mean—I do not necessarily expect an answer tonight—that there will at least be consultations with local authorities to determine, as the Minister has apparently done with the SSHA, that houses due for imminent modernisation should be excluded from sale? That is a practical problem in some areas. If the expectation of a substantial injection of public money has been raised, might that not enhance the value of an area and allow the argument about selling council houses to continue?

I know that I am raising fundamental questions, but I was not happy with the Minister's attempt in the Scottish Grand Committee on Thursday to justify this policy on financial grounds. I am not now talking about social policy. Of course I believe in extending owneroccupation—I wish we could go into that tonight—but I am not satisfied with his explanation.

This seems like a short-term advantage, like someone selling his gas fire to pay for his summer holiday because he will not need heating until the autumn. That may be an unfair analogy, but the Scottish Office will be forced to seek short-term gains in public expenditure because of the pressure on it to make its contribution to the savage cuts dictated by the Cabinet.

We must consider whether we are not storing up long-term financial trouble. I do not always agree with Shelter—the Minister probably has had more responsibility for that organisation than I ever had—but many arguments in its document on this subject should be taken seriously.

It might be worth while if the proposed Scottish Select Committee considered the arguments on this matter. I warn the Minister—I am not threatening him—that there are areas of discontent. People know that one reason for involving them in this exercise is to enable someone to build a new shooting lodge in the Highlands when nothing is done about houses that are not of a tolerable standard. In other words, the tax relief to those who are earning well over £10,000 is colossal compared with the experience of many of our constituents who will suffer because of the Government's approach.

The Government should take on board that in the summer of discontent that will undoubtedly be theirs there is a need to pause and reflect before they return to this place in the autumn with legislation that they now think they can steamroller through the House merely because they have a parliamentary majority. It is not enough merely to have a majority. There must be social consensus or the right state of mind in the areas where Government policy will bite. I argue that the Government's policies will not be accepted in the areas that I have described.

When reading the report of the Royal Commission on the National Health Service, 1 was struck by paragraph 2.3 of chapter 2, which states: It is a wry comment on the way of life in developed countries that we now pay more attention to the diseases of affluence than we do those of deprivation. In the years ahead the Government may be accused of adopting that approach on housing policy. The Government should not overlook the less fortunate in society. I am talking about an area that has colossal social problems. The problems will not be solved by an extension of urban aid contributions. Something much broader is required for Glasgow, which has at least started working on a scheme.

I appeal to the Minister to bear in mind that we need to put a great deal of effort, and be seen to be putting a great deal of effort, into large schemes in Glasgow at Drumchapel, Castlemilk, Easterhouse and Pollok. I appeal to the Government to proceed cautiously and not to be too doctrinaire. If they assess the problems, they will surely accept that it is necessary to spend more money and devote more energy to the difficult areas.

2.2 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Brown) has ranged rather wide in his remarks, but it is highly desirable that he should have introduced a debate on the report on the implications of population changes in Glasgow. The report was especially welcomed as it followed one of the few occasions when there was close, useful and productive liaison between district and regional authorities. That has produced a good result which will be to the benefit of the community that the authorities serve. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Scottish Office contributed to the report. It is an example of a degree of co-operation and liaison that is clearly helpful.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned some dramatic conclusions contained in the report, especially the likely continuing drastic reduction in the population of Glasgow over the next few years. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the report concluded that on current trends the population of Glasgow from 1977 to 1983 will decline from the present 830,000 to between 714,000 and 770,000. That will be a substantial fall. As the hon. Gentleman indicated, one of the most dramatic conclusions concerns the housing implications. By 1983 there could be between 11,000 and 29,000 empty houses in Glasgow. That is a dramatic figure and one that calls for the most serious consideration by local authorities and by all who are concerned with the quality of housing in Glasgow, the implications of changing circumstances and the policies that should be pursued to deal with them.

As the hon. Gentleman is aware, the report indicates that a high proportion of the vacant houses may prove impossible to let. It may prove impossible to find people who are prepared to live in them. These houses are concentrated in the peripheral areas, especially in the four estates of Castlemilk, Pollok, Drumchapel and Easterhouse.

It is interesting that the report indicated why it was believed that the vacancies would be concentrated in those areas. It pointed to the poor quality and lack of variety of housing in those areas, the poor environment, the shortage of social facilities, the high level of unemployment, the lack of convenient employment opportunity, poor public transport, a significant degree of vandalism, arid a high crime rate. It is obvious that where there is a concentration of these factors in a specific area the social consequences for the housing of that area and the related problems that go with it can be very serious.

The hon. Member referred to Garthamlock. In addition to the statistics he mentioned, one is conscious of the fact that fully 9 per cent. of the properties in Garthamlock are vacant. That is for 1977, and one can only be apprehensive as to what the consequences in 1983 might be if that trend continues.

Concerning expenditure to deal with this problem, the hon. Member—indeed, the House as a whole—will be aware that the policy of the last Government, which this Government are pursuing, is that it is ultimately for local authorities to determine, within the expenditure available to them, the priorities that they will apply to deal with local problems. While the Secretary of State is obviously con- cerned and takes the decision as to the overall amount of expenditure available, it would not be right, desirable or possible for him to dictate the specific way in which that expenditure is to be allocated.

The hon. Member, quite correctly, reminded the House that of course the problems of the peripheral areas have to be related to the other problems in Glasgow, particularly the inner city difficulties and the GEAR project. He asked for an indication as to the future of the GEAR project and poured some scorn on what he chose to call anonymous weekend statements. I am not sure whether they were weekend statements but they certainly were not anonymous, because I made them myself and am quite happy to admit authoriship of at least a certain proportion of them.

The hon. Member referred to what he considered to be the difficulty of understanding what might be meant by maintaining the same degree of priority. Perhaps I can explain the phrase in this way. Obviously, if there are expenditure restraints affecting Glasgow and Strathclyde region, it is possible that there will be less cash available in the GEAR area. But what the Government have indicated is that they would hope that the same degree of priority that is presently given to the GEAR project within the expenditure available to Strathclyde region, to Glasgow district and to the other authorities involved in the GEAR project should be allocated to the GEAR project, whatever the total amount of available resources might be.

The hon. Member also asked for a statement from me this evening as to the future of the urban aid programme. I can indicate to the hon. Member that in regard to Glasgow and the West of Scotland area the urban aid programme will. of course, continue. Indeed, it is likely to have in the next year a level of resources comparable to that which it enjoys in the current year. I am not suggesting that it will be mathematically exactly the same, but the overall level of resources available to the local authorities out of the urban aid programme is unlikely to be significantly different in the forthcoming year.

The hon. Member ranged quite considerably over the problem of the sale of council houses and related this to the difficulties in Glasgow and the housing problems of the peripheral areas.

The Government have never suggested that the sale of council houses will in some way be a panacea for all the housing problems of the hon. Member's constituency, much less of Scotland as a whole. We see that policy as relating to an expressed demand from many council tenants throughout Scotland and as playing a part in dealing with the housing problems of Scotland, but obviously the problems to which the hon. Member has referred go beyond the simple question of the form of tenure, and the Government have never suggested otherwise.

The hon. Member asked specifically whether there would be exempted categories in regard to the statutory right to purchase that we shall give to tenants. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister indicated earlier today, there will, of course, be exempted categories, but I must emphasise that these exempted categories will amount to a very small proportion of the total public housing stock. It will be our policy to give a statutory right to buy to public sector housing tenants, and although there may be one or two exemptions the hon. Member should not conclude that they will relate to other than a small proportion of housing available.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether we would have consultations with the local authorities on the question of the sale of council houses. I can answer him by saying that we have indicated to COSLA and to the Scottish local authorities that we will certainly be willing to discuss with them the details of the policy of the sale of council houses. We do not consider it appropriate to have discussions or consultations on the general principle whether tenants should have a statutory right to buy, but we will certainly be happy to discuss with them—indeed, a meeting has already been arranged which I shall attend—the detailed implementation of these proposals. If they have specific suggestions to put forward, we shall, of course, be happy to give full consideration to them.

The hon. Gentleman emphasised that in his view any financial benefits that might result from the policy of the sale of council houses would be essentially short-term benefits and that this should not be the basis of the Government's policy. Let me make it quite clear—obviously we shall have plenty of opportunity in future months to discuss this in greater detail—that the fundamental reason why the Government are embarking on this policy is not financial. It is the social factor.

We believe that in Scotland in particular there is an overwhelming need radically to expand the level of home ownership. Indeed, I hope I pay the hon. Gentleman a tribute in saying that I think he recognised that when he was the Minister responsible for these matters. I think that he sought to educate some of his own hon. Friends of the need in Scotland compared with the rest of the United Kingdom, and particularly compared with other parts of Western Europe, to change the depressing legacy of past years and to have a radical expansion in this sphere. He knows that the private sector alone cannot meet that target and that a significant proportion must come from the sale of existing houses in the public sector.

I return to the specific point of the consequences of the likely decline in population in Glasgow, the hon. Gentleman's constituency and in other peripheral areas. In general terms, we can perhaps draw two conclusions from what has been experienced and what is being experienced at the present time. First, it calls for the local authorities in particular, but also everyone concerned with the welfare of Glasgow and Scotland in general, to re-examine the whole future of the public sector as regards those parts of the public sector housing stock that will remain in the public sector, notwithstanding the Government's policy. Obviously, large numbers of houses, particularly in the kind of estate which the hon. Gentle- man represents, will at the end of the day remain public sector housing. Clearly the appropriate course must be to consider all possible ways of ensuring that houses are occupied. In some cases that will mean selling, if not to sitting tenants—if there are no sitting tenants—perhaps on the open market to anyone who may wish to live in them. It will perhaps involve consideration of underletting in areas that would not otherwise have property occupied. It may involve changing the kind of tenure that is available in those areas. One must have a maximum, flexible approach to ensure that at least the houses are occupied. The way in which they come to be occupied is a lesser consideration if we are to avoid the major problem of gross and massive derelict areas in our cities.

The other general point is that, by contrasting the needs of the peripheral areas with those of the inner urban areas, the report highlights the present absence of a comprehensive plan for Glasgow. There is no such plan. There are some extremely good analyses of particular problems. There are some very good recommendations in respect of the peripheral areas. There are other organisations and bodies concerned with the inner areas or with the GEAR project. But what we have not had up to now is a more comprehensive approach, whereby the local authorities and others concerned with the future of Glasgow are able to present in a single set of proposals an analysis, suggested remedy and suggested degree of priorities for the rehabilitation of the city—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Tuesday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at fourteen minutes past Two o'clock.