HC Deb 26 July 1979 vol 971 cc1211-21

8.10 a.m.

Mr. James Hill (Southampton, Test)

It is a pleasure, Mr. Speaker, to be called at 8.10 in the morning. This is perhaps a fairly dry subject but nevertheless one that is of great importance to the council tenants of this country. I am sure that all local authorities will have had widespread experience in the correcting of condensation and mould growth in their council properties.

Many remedies have been employed, but still the problems persist. At this point I might say that Southampton as a housing authority has had an excellent record over the years, under both Labour and Conservative control. Naturally, Southampton is as concerned as any major urban conurbation that it tackles these problems with intensity and necessary finance. The reason for the debate is perhaps to encourage my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State to look kindly upon my local authority.

The main factor is that there has been a complete change in domestic lifestyles in this country. More women now go out to work, the dwellings are left empty all day, the heating is switched off completely, and the end result is a concentration of moisture-producing activities as and when the family congregates in the evening. Baths, cooking and the washing and drying of clothes all take place at a time when the fabric of the dwelling is at its coldest. Of course, the change from expensive heating to inexpensive heating such as paraffin stoves will result in a great mass of water vapour. I know that most hon. Members present know that the burning of a gallon of paraffin will create just over a gallon of water vapour in the air.

Southampton was fortunate to be given a free survey of four properties by a firm that specialises in this very obscure professional treatment, one of the foremost experts in this area, namely Condensation and Mould Treatments Ltd. I should like to read some of the conditions that it found, without naming the addresses of the properties: Black fungal growth is widespread. It is to be found on walls and on ceilings, is particularly severe in all corners and junctions and is even rampant in food cupboards and wardrobes. The areas worst affected are kitchens, bathrooms, bedrooms and walls Condensation is streaming down the walls. It is internally induced since there are no obvious signs of damp penetration. There is considerable washing and drying of clothes. Dampness is everywhere. On walls and ceilings, in sheets, mattresses, pillows and on clothing and carpets. All walls—particularly external—are severely affected by damp. Beds have had to be pulled away from the walls becaue of the damp—in two incidences, bedrooms are completely unusable. In respect of furnishings and clothing, the survey states: Severely infected by mould which is clearly visible on mattresses, carpets, shoes and curtains. Tenants informed us—and in the existing conditions we are quite prepared to accept their word—that many clothes have had to be thrown away. It continues: Almost everywhere a musty damp smell pervades the dwelling, and is particularly severe in the bedrooms. We found incidences of wallpaper peeling. In some cases, several layers of wallpaper are superimposed one over the other, with mould growing in between the layers. We found incidences of mould-devouring insects running about on the walls of the kitchen. In three of the dwellings there are young children. The occupants told us that their children suffer from chest complaints. In the existing conditions this is quite inevitable—indeed almost certain. They are living and sleeping in damp conditions and are constantly inhaling mould spores due to the heavy airborne contamination. That is perhaps an indictment of council properties which is a phenomenon of the age. It goes almost unnoticed by the House simply because the debates here repeat it time and time again, until the tragedy is almost completely lost sight of.

What I might call the long title of this debate is "Energy conservation, insulation and the eradication of condensation and mould in council-owned properties". That will be no new problem to councillors and Members of Parliament. Every hon. Member who has a constituency with a vast number of council flats and houses knows how often his advice service is packed with constituents conveying problems of the cost of energy, the lack of insulation, the condensation running down walls and black mould growing on wallpaper and ceilings.

It was only on 9 March that a similar debate was originated by the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun), who was nostalgic for the Coronation Streets which have now disappeared. He was perhaps unduly oppressive when he blamed the architects of the early 1950s who with new materials designed prefabricated units, all without fireplaces and chimneys. But he was correct to point out that the magazine Building Design had estimated that £200 million-worth of remedial work was needed on council houses less than 30 years old. The hon. Gentleman's solutions were straightforward—increase the housing cost yardstick of each new unit by £400 and spend £7 million in Salford in one year to correct those houses that were already occupied.

Perhaps in 1978 Southampton did not have the facility of being able to reach the ear of the Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore). Of the housing investment allocation at that time for block 1 expenditure, which was about £5½ million, only £120,000 was for energy conservation. The objective was to provide basic insulation in all public sector dwellings by 31 March 1988. As the 1978–79 allocation would be sufficient only to insulate between 960 and 1,200 dwellings, and the city of Southampton has 24,000 council dwellings, it became clear that the 10-year programme was unrealistic and covered only loft insulation, draught stripping and the lagging of water pipes.

No dwellings built in Southampton before 1961 had any loft insulation. Those constructed between 1961 and 1971 had only 1 in. in depth of loft insulation. Those built between 1971 and 1976 had 2 in. Many flat-roofed dwellings were unable to be insulated within the cash limits. It became clear that energy conservation and insulation were in a very primitive stage.

The position became extremely serious when electricity charges began to increase between 1975 and 1978. Many of the housing units about which I am concerned were all-electric, with underfloor heating, under the tenants' control. Statistics in Southampton showed that those in 20 per cent. of the houses to which I shall refer were not making full use of the heating system. Even worse, 30 per cent. were not using it at all.

In Southampton there are 2,000-plus council houses with electric underfloor heating, with loft insulation ranging in depth from 2 in to nil, with no cavity fill insulation and no double glazing to windows ranging from floor to ceiling. As the Under-Secretary can imagine, the predominant complaint from the tenants concerned the high running costs, result-in many of the poorer families switching off all heating and resorting to alternative forms of fuel and appliances, such as paraffin or flueless gas heaters. This led, almost immediately, to serious condensation and mould problems.

The officers of the Southampton housing department investigated various methods of reducing the heating running costs. I put on record the full co-operation received from the Southern electricity board, which went so far as to share the costs of completely insulating 12 houses to demonstrate the effectiveness of cavity insulation, both foam and rockwall.

In November 1978 it was agreed to insulate to the following standards 38 houses, 14 in foam, 18 with rockwall cavity insulation and six with double glazing or dry lining. In respect of the latter—this is one of the most serious of local authorities' problems—it should be noted that 722 of the total number were houses with electric underfloor heating of non-traditional construction and, therefore, with solid walls with no cavities. It was also agreed, in these 38 experimental houses, to increase the insulation of the roof space by means of a 75 mm fibreglass quilt.

A full monitoring exercise by the Southern electricity board was initiated on the 12 properties which had tenants who used their underfloor heating. The housing department went to the expense of purchasing 12 items of measuring equipment—one for each house. The results showed that the cavity insulation and the additional 75 mm fibreglass quilt in the roof space produced savings of approximately 25 per cent. If the properties change from tariff A to tariff F at no charge, the savings amount to 36 per cent. Double glazing and additional roof insulation, as expected, showed a lower saving of 10 per cent. This on tariff Fx was increased to show a saving of 23 per cent. Double glazing is a very expensive way of creating insulated surfaces.

The tariff Fx was found to be unsatisfactory for the larger families, due to the off-peak water heating. The properties monitored were eight end-terrace, three mid-terrace and one was a stepped mid-terrace All achieved the design temperature when occupied of 65 deg. F. in the living area and 55 deg. F. in the circulation areas. Only, surprisingly enough, 100 tenants out of over 2,000 chose to transfer to the Fx tariff, which would have provided them with a saving of about 15 per cent. at no charge to the tenant.

During the Southern electricity board experiment the solid fuel advisory service asked permission to convert one house to solid fuel. This was agreed to. The full installation comprised an attractive stove which served radiators on the ground floor. The prefabricated flue extended from the living room through to the rear bedroom and through the rear roof space and out through the roof.

The total cost of providing the system amounted to £795 and the running costs were 2½ tons of solid fuel at a cost of £175 per annum. The temperatures were in excess of 70 deg. in the winter and the tenants were extremely pleased by the results. If we were to do that to each property and if we were to receive no assistance from the Government, it would mean an increase in the weekly rent of £1.71.

About this time the Southern gas board also wished to participate in the experimentation scheme. It came in late and, indeed, did not complete its installation until June 1979, but the heating costs are estimated at £131 per annum. The cost of the installation to Parker Morris standard was £1,002. Therefore, without any assistance at all, that would mean an increase in the weekly rent of £2.15.

It is fairly obvious now that the cost of the full insulation of the property is of paramount importance. To give my hon. Friend some examples, the fibreglass quilt was £55 per house, the foam cavity fill was £108, the rockwall cavity insulation was £140, the insulation of nontraditional properties was £275 and, as I said earlier, without drying lining, the only way to insulate is with double glazing. Therefore, the average estimated cost of insulation is between £213 and £234 per property, and that means an increase in the weekly rent of the equivalent of 15p to 17p.

The great difficulty has always been the availability of funds. Southampton's capital estimates for the current financial year include £110,000 for works to properties with underfloor heating sysems. We are hoping in 1980–81 and 1981–82 for a further £400,000, for which a request has been made, to bring the overall total to £510,000.

The Department of the Environment has recently informed the Southampton council of its intention to review housing capital allocations in the light of these problems in all-electric houses with such great energy losses. Yesterday's news of another electricity charge increase of 8 per cent. will not help the situation.

The Labour Government, in circular 66/78 and domestic energy note No. 3, recommended that a heating system change should be considered only as a last resort. I venture to surmise that would be the attitude of the Minister.

The figures for conversions are quite high. Complete gas conversion of 2,000-plus houses would cost about £2.2 million. Solid fuel conversion of the same number of houses would cost £1.6 million. Therefore, realistically that leaves only a comprehensive insulation programme with an energy saving of 30 per cent. at a cost of £510,000.

I should like to give my hon. Friend some interesting statistics for his Department. Average weekly running costs of underfloor heating during winter work out as follows: tariff A with no insulation £6 per week; tariff A with insulation £4.05 per week; tariff Fx with no insulation £4.32 per week; tariff Fx with double glazing £3.87 per week; tariff Fx with cavity insulation £3.25 per week.

Those are, of course, normal unrestricted electricity consumption costs of about £110 a year. Water heating costs, at an unrestricted tariff of about £95 a year, are on top of that, as are heating costs on the off-peak tariff of about £130 a year, making an average burden on tenants of all-electric houses of about £335 a year. Even with full insulation, further consideration would have to be given to the hot water system, including the roof tank. Of course, all pipes must be lagged and off-peak tariffs must he used as often as possible.

I hope that I have made a case which the Minister finds interesting. I must stress that this is an economic solution within, I suspect, the budget of the Department of the Environment. There will be pressures on me and the city council to go for full conversion to another heating system. I do not think that that is viable in the present economic climate, but if the Minister can give me some hope that over the next three years Southampton will be allowed to complete a full insulation programme, the debate will not have been wasted.

8.31 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Marcus Fox)

This topic is a complex and important one which is not, unfortunately, confined to the public sector, though that is the area on which attention has focused recently. It is one on which the Government are concerned to do what they can to help, and I shall briefly outline what we have done and are doing as well as deal with the problem in Southampton.

The Government are fully aware of the importance of energy conservation. It is primarily the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy, but as domestic energy consumption accounts for about one-fifth of national energy consumption it is also a subject of importance to my Department. About half of total domestic consumption is for space heating and about 20 per cent. is for water heating. We have two programmes aimed directly at saving energy in those areas—the public sector insulation programme and the homes insulation scheme 1978.

The public sector programme enables local authorities, new towns and housing assocations to install loft insulation, tank and pipe lagging and draught stripping. The resource provision for 1979–80 is about £24 million. Local authorities are given capital allocations and may claim subsidy on their expenditure. The homes insulation scheme covers similar measures and provides grants from local authorities for owner-occupiers, tenants and landlords towards the cost.

Those measures were chosen because there are about 2 million dwellings in the public sector, and about 5 million in the private sector, that lack basic insulation. The measures are cost-effective, cheap and easy to install. Recent work at the Building Research Establishment has shown that loft insulation has an internal rate of return of between 10 and 20 per cent. Tank lagging has a return of more than 100 per cent.

Other measures, such as cavity fill and double glazing, are expensive and technically complex and have a poor rate of return. Not all the dwellings without loft insulation will have to be insulated before we consider further measures, but they must remain our first priority.

Some electrically heated dwellings have had problems with high fuel bills and condensation. The joint working party on heating and energy conservation in the public sector, chaired by my Department, has published advice to local authorities on this issue. In its domestic energy note No. 3, it suggests a whole range of remedial measures that could be taken and advises on how authorities could evaluate the problems in their dwellings and decide on the measures most appropriate. It has also issued a note advising authorities on the key points to bear in mind when considering the building of new dwellings with electric heating systems. My hon. Friend will not be surprised when I tell him that one of the points on which the working party laid great stress was the importance of high standards of insulation.

I turn now to Southampton and its request for a further allocation—so forcefully put by my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Hill). I have seen the letter to the Department from the city treasurer and my hon. Friend's letter to the Minister for Housing and Construction. I am not in a position at present to tell my hon. Friend what will be Southampton's share of the general cutback in cash limits for 1979–80 or what form the guidelines for HIP allocations in future years will take. However, I understand it is unlikely that the cuts would be so severe as to prevent the council from spending £100,000 on energy conservation this year and a further £400,000 over the next two years—provided, of course, that the council is willing to give this work sufficient priority over other activities.

Of course, insulation is not just important for energy conservation and for reducing ever larger fuel bills; it also has a vital role to play in eradicating condensation and mould growth. My hon. Friend gave a number of examples of this. It is obvious that this can cause suffering and distress, particularly in dwellings which require more heat than the tenants can afford.

During recent winters there has been an increase in the number of complaints of dampness and mould growth resulting from condensation in dwellings. Most of the complaints brought to the attention of the Department have concerned public sector dwellings, but there are indications that it also affects the owner-occupied and private rented sectors, although its extent is not clear. Nor is the problem confined to specific types of dwellings, although it appears to be worse in some than in others. It seems that the problem may be a national one which has its roots in changes in building design and construction practice, in rising fuel prices and in changes in living standards and lifestyles, to which my hon. Friend referred.

Condensation is moisture produced in a dwelling by normal household activities and is a result of a complex interaction between the building itself, the levels of heat and ventilation and the living standards of its occupants. It is not a new problem. This Department and its predecessor have circulated a great deal of information and advice over the last 20 years in an attempt to combat it. It has also taken steps to prevent its occurrence in new building. The last building regulations increase in insulation standards for domestic work in 1975 was for this purpose—and on grounds of health and safety, not energy conservation.

The general remedies for condensation are well understood—readily controllable ventilation, cost-effective thermal insulation and reasonably priced heating systems. However, continuing changes in all the causative factors mean that the measures appropriate at all times need to be tailored to suit the particular circumstances.

Currently the occurrence of condensation and the oft associated problem of black mould growth has, as my hon. Friend graphically pointed out, seemed most acute in dwellings with electric central heating. This is because rapidly increasing costs have made the heating system expensive to use and it is frequently run at too low a level, or too spasmodically, to maintain the fabric of the dwelling at a heat level which would prevent condensation.

The use of liquid petroleum gas or paraffin heaters in dwellings such as these, as an alternative method of heating, has added to the problem because they produce high amounts of moisture when in use. But condensation has been reported in dwellings heated by other fuels and in older dwellings which have been extensively improved. It can also occur in well insulated dwellings if sufficient care is not taken to ensure adequate ventilation.

Again, this problem of condensation and mould growth has been examined by the Joint Working Party on Heating and Energy Conservation in Public Sector Dwellings. Its recently issued "Domestic Energy Note 4" drew together and added to advice previously given to authorities. It placed emphasis on the need for authorities and tenants to work together if the problem is to be tackled efficiently. The joint working party has also produced a leaflet for householders showing ways in which condensation and mould growth could be reduced. There has been considerable demand for both the technical note and the leaflet. I am glad that they are proving useful, but at the same time I am sorry that they are needed.

Just as the causes of the problem are variable, so are the remedies, and it is important for authorities to examine their dwellings carefully before embarking on any extensive remedial programmes. The pilot study and monitoring done by Southampton sounds extremely useful and interesting. I should be grateful to receive any more details that my hon. Friend is able to send me. I shall pass them on to the joint working party, which has a continuing interest in the problem. It has commissioned the Building Research Establishment to carry out a survey which should establish whether further work needs to be done on appropriate remedial action. It is also interested in learning of particular authorities' experiences and I know that its members would be keen to visit Southampton in the near future to learn about the problems and the remedies used there at first hand. From all that my hon. Friend has said this morning, I am sure that they would enjoy their visit and that it would be fruitful to all concerned.