HC Deb 30 January 1981 vol 997 cc1230-8

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

2.31 pm
Mr. Anthony Steen (Liverpool, Wavertree)

It is very difficult to catch Mr. Speaker's eye. I am glad that his hand was guided by Divine Providence and gave me the opportunity to raise this afternoon an important subject, namely, the effect of the continued demolition of private housing and business premises in larger industrial cities.

I apologise for raising such a serious matter with a Minister who has only just arrived in the Department of the Environment—I congratulate him on his appointment—but the debate will give him the marvellous opportunity, for which he has been waiting, to get his teeth into a problem. He will be able to display his skill, his dexterity and his concern, for which he rightly enjoys a national reputation.

Demolition is not something of the past. It goes on every day in many of our larger cities. It is not just old buildings that are pulled down but new housing blocks barely 10 years old. In Liverpool, we are planning to pull down a public housing estate which has been up for only 10 years. We put them up and we pull them down.

It is true that the numbers of buildings demolished each year are fewer, but I wonder whether that is because of Government policy or whether we are simply running out of buildings. In nine of our largest cities, in the first three months of this year, 1,500 houses were demolished. True, the figure in 1975 was double that, but why are we still pulling down buildings? It is just not true that all of them have reached the end of their natural life.

Demolition has a number of serious side effects. If we pull down people's homes they have to be rehoused somewhere. This destroys communities and neighbourhoods and breaks up the extended families. The transfer, lock, stock and barrel, of the inner city population to the outer city vast council estates needs no comment. The damage and problems that this has already created are well documented and are continuously evident. Furthermore, such demolition inevitably results in the increase in the numbers of acres of public vacant land for which the local authority has no use, or no money with which to rebuild.

When businesses are demolished, there are other consequences. Businesses, once closed, often do not reopen, as the alternative accommodation offered often exceeds 10 or even 20 times the rent which those businesses were paying in their old premises before the accommodation was demolished.

Once a firm closes, it tends to add to the blight of the area. It also causes a loss of rate income for the local authority. The planned closure of Tate and Lyle in the inner area of Liverpool is estimated to lose the Liverpool city council £600,000 of rate income. That is one major closure and one major gap for the local authority, but there are many little ones in regard to which the local authority is losing rate income the whole time.

The Government, like their predecessor, are committed to a policy of rehabilitation wherever possible rather than demolition. But when the Secretary of State for the Environment in the previous Administration said in 1978 to the whole world—I think it was at the Habitat conference in Vancouver— Britain has pensioned off the bulldozer", that was manifestly untrue. We pulled down nearly 10,000 houses in that year. Since then we have continued to pull them down. Bulldozers are still very much in business and the present Government, like the previous Government, have taken no special steps, as far as one can see, to stop it.

The Government are committed, like their predecessor, to the revival of the inner cities. However, the continued demolition, largely within inner cities, causes a continuing loss of rates, a loss of homes and a loss of jobs. The bulldozer merrily ploughs on, even in partnership areas.

The Government have appointed a Minister who is specifically responsible for the inner cities and a Minister who is specifically responsible for small firms. How can they stand by when firms are being bulldozed out of existence? Is the job of the Minister responsible for small firms merely to offer the concluding prayer?

How can the Government, who are committed to wealth creation, stand by when the bulldozer moves in to destroy successful firms? It is not good enough for the Government to say "That is our policy, but we must leave it to the local authority to implement it." If the local authority does something completely at odds with Government policy, that is not something that a Government should tolerate. What happens on the ground is the test, not what happens in Whitehall.

I shall give three specific examples of what I am talking about. They are hard cases. They can be followed up. If they are, the Government will understand what I mean. The first example concerns a Liverpool firm called Packenham in Church Road, Liverpool 13, in my constituency. It has been in the Old Swan ward for 24 years. The premises have been under threat of a compulsory purchase order for nearly two and a half years, since when the area has become blighted.

Packenham's employs over half a dozen men and most of them come from the local area. The turnover is approaching £250,000. Mr. Packenham has an export trade. He pays rates—and plenty of them. What does the city council decide to do? It decides that the best thing is to pull down Mr. Packenham's business and to replace it, believe it or not, with public council housing paid for out of taxes and rates.

Packenham's owns the freehold of the site, which is half an acre. The city council initially offered it £5,000 in compensation. It has now increased it to £13,000. It offers alternative rented accommodation for Packenham, and the minimum rent that is requested for a similar site in Liverpool is £40,000 per annum. Therefore, the city council offers £13,000 in compensation to pull down a business and to replace it with public council housing, and offers compensation that will pay the rent for only three or four months. Has the Minister ever heard anything so ridiculous? Packenham's is a going concern that will be destroyed. It is in a deeply depressed and deeply disillusioned town. Extra and unnecessary unemployment will be created.

I ask my hon. Friend why he or his Department has not intervened. I had a letter from the Department of Industry, from the Under-Secretary of State who is specifically responsible for small firms. The penultimate paragraph of the letter of 19 January states: Matters such as this are disturbing for the firms involved, but they do not affect the Government's overall policy of encouraging small firms and creating an economic and legislative climate conducive to their prosperity. We have already emphasised to local authorities the importance of encouraging small businesses and of keeping a balanced and viable community in our circular on development control. Other measures taken to help small firms have been designed to encourage investment in them, including small industrial premises, to ease the legislative burden on them. That is not a very helpful reply. It will not stop Packenham's from being destroyed.

I give my hon. Friend a second example. It concerns a London firm. The problem is not confined to one city. Indeed, it is to be found throughout the country. In London there is a company known as Brainos. It is just south of the river, in Southwark. It is a well-established manufacturing business with a managing director, a successful physicist and an entrepreneur, and employs a London work force. It operates in an area that is now scheduled for demolition. Who by?—the public authority, the Corporation of London.

What has the public authority done to find Brainos and Co. an alternative site? Like Packenham in Liverpool, the company has been besieged by paper. List after list is sent through the post by the local authority's industrial development officer. The company is a manufacturing business, sited in a partnership area, an area where the Inner Urban Areas Act applies. It is situated in the inner city of our capital. Yet the only accomodation offered by the public authority has been at 10, sometimes 20, times the current level of rates and rent that Brainos is paying, or was so unsuitable that it was not possible for the company to get its machines in. One of the places offered had arches and columns.

A bevy of bureaucrats is involved. There are industrial development officers, planners, solicitors. Numbers of officials come round measuring, looking, talking. They are public bureaucrats paid for out of public funds, all planning the destruction of a private firm.

What is the Minister with responsibility for the inner areas doing about that case? I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will not tell me that it is not his responsibility. If it is not his responsibility or the responsibility of my hon. Friend the Minister responsible for small firms, who is responsible?

Finally, I wish to refer to the case of Mr. Caplin, a pensioner in Liverpool who fought for the country in the Battle of Britain. In his younger days he managed to purchase one or two properties to augment his pension when he retired. The property that he owns in Maple Grove in Liverpool has over 20 years of the lease left to run. It is soundly constructed and would probably go on for 100 years more. He let the property to Trust Houses Forte at a modest rent, and he of course paid the rates. A compulsory purchase order was served by the city council and the building is now vacant. The rate income to the city will be lost. The building is in a general improvement area, which is suitable only for housing.

Planners do not want storage space in residential areas, even though it brings life, vitality and jobs. Therefore, they are pulling the building down, though it is a sound building, performing an important job. What will they put in its place—more public authority housing, which we, the taxpayers and ratepayers, have to pay for, or will they simply leave a hole where the building was?

Those three illustrations show the failure of our Government to protect small firms, especially the manufacturing firms which are the wealth-creators, those in the inner city, from demolition. They show the Governments unwillingness to intervene to save jobs, to stop local authorities building new council houses. It also shows our unwillingness to intervene to preserve older buildings rather than allow them to be demolished.

2.43 pm
Mr. Christopher Murphy (Welwyn and Hatfield)

In support of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Steen), may I look briefly at the urban problems that he has so admirably highlighted by considering their effects at the other end of the spectrum—the new towns?

It appears that for every home that is demolished in the inner city a further property must be born in the countryside. For every business destroyed in the town centre, further premises must be created in green pastures. Governments have become like latterday Abanazars, with a cry of "New towns for old". But, as Aladdin found out clearly enough, there are certain advantages with the old that are not necessarily found with the new.

Over many years people have been encouraged to move from the cities to the country, where new towns have been built, with improved standards of housing. But that good example of better living conditions has by no means been copied in the towns, where homes have been flattened but the land has been left vacant and derelict.

The process continues, with resulting difficulties. The original new towns, such as Welwyn Garden City and Hatfield, are virtually complete, but what new housing there can still be for the natural expansion of the local population will be under pressure for occupation by those still in the process of moving out from the inner city and other urban areas.

Families who have built their futures in the new towns are therefore in danger of being denied the normal development of their life styles, and young couples in particular may suffer as a consequence. Meanwhile, the more recently conceived new towns expand over agricultural land as the cities are laid waste. Surely the time has come to get to grips with the realities of the situation and ensure that that movement is reversed.

Mr. Steen

Is my hon. Friend aware that, because of that process that he has admirably described, 60,000 acres of good agricultural land are being destroyed every year?

Mr. Murphy

My hon. Friend underlines the very point that I am trying to make.

Where demolition of inner cities has already occurred, let new towns bloom amid the urban desert. Where demolition is still only a twinkle in the planner's eye, let us not destroy but improve. Town and country each has its respective role to play in Britain. We must ensure that they are not confused.

2.45 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Giles Shaw)

First, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Steen) for his glowing introduction to my new position. Not only is it ill-deserved, but I have the feeling that, at the end on this short debate, it will not be merited either. However, no doubt in due course my hon. Friend's constituents will be able to plant a large wavertree in the open space which the demolishers will create.

This is an important matter. There is plenty of evidence of the problem in the examples given by both my hon. Friends. It would not be right for me to respond immediately to the individual cases that my hon. Friend the Member for Wavertree has raised, although we have been in correspondence about Brainos and my information is that, in the case of Packenham, agreed offers of new premises have been made. I may be wrong about that, but I shall look into the matter and write to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Steen

It is correct that offers of accommodation have been made by the local authority to Packenham. The only snag is that Packenham owns the freehold and the accommodation being offered the company is at a rental of between £40,000 and £80,000 a year.

Mr. Shaw

I accept that. That highlights the whole problem of urban renewal anywhere—that what is to be created for the future is bound to be at high capital cost; therefore, there will be a high cost of recovery through rates or taxes. My hon. Friend is right—there will be a significant difference in the cost.

The point that I wish to establish is that local authorities are doing what they can in nearly all instances to offer alternative opportunities for businesses to transfer. But the main theme, as my hon. Friend puts it, is that the bulldozer is still active and the demolition process is going on, sometimes regardless of its consequences on small businesses and, to some extent, on housing as well.

Demolition of properties may be necessary for many reasons; for example, because they are unsafe, because the land is needed for new developments, because houses are unfit or because industrial use is no longer appropriate where it was once located. I am sure that neither of my hon. Friends would wish to return to the wholesale slum clearances of the past, but we must accept that demolition has a part to play in the overall attack on older properties and substandard housing.

My hon. Friend was anxious to be assured that the Department of the Environment or the local authorities would take a new view on demolition, cease to demolish in the way that they did in the past, and control what is done. My hon. Friend will agree that it would be wrong for the Department to seek to intervene with local authorities in this matter. It would be wrong philosophically, because both my hon. Friends and I fought an election as recently as 19 or 20 months ago on the understanding that we would seek to reduce Government intervention in local government. It is therefore not possible for the Department to keep a register of the demolition policy applied by local authorities or even of the number of buildings that might still require demolition.

Mr. Steen

I am mildly surprised to hear my hon. Friend say that. His Department is compiling a register of vacant land. It is just as simple to have a register of demolished buildings as it is to have a register of vacant land.

Mr. Shaw

My hon. Friend will recognise that, under present planning procedures, with structure plans and so on, there is already a planning concept into which new and vacant land will fit. Planning permission is not required for demolition, and therefore there is not a statutory framework within which a scheme such as I have suggested could be set.

I accept that there will be many practical objections to demolition by owners and occupiers of buildings. I have no wish to add to the burdens of private individuals or companies by requiring them to notify local authorities before they demolish. We could ask local authorities to keep the Department informed, but I suggest that this would be a form-filling burden, which I should not be willing to see introduced.

If we leave the demolition point aside, we can say that it is the Government's aim, however inadequate it is in my hon. Friend's eyes, to create the atmosphere in which local authorities and local commerce and industry can work together towards revitalising their local economies. My hon. Friend will have heard the Secretary of State speak about this.

I accept that there is a pressing need for local industrial representatives to be part of the planning system. If the system is operated inefficiently or unsympathetically, as the cases raised by my hon. Friend might suggest, local industry will suffer from production delays and wasted capital, and the local community will lose employment opportunities. So there is a need to bring industrial interest, especially that of local industry, alongside the local authorities.

When my Department issued its development control circular last November we emphasised the need for the planning system to be as helpful as possible to industry and commerce. This emphasis does not represent a threat to the quality of the environment, whether it be in towns or in the countryside, but the attitude that a local authority takes towards development can be a substantial benefit or a substantial cost to the economy of its area.

Development policy must seek to encourage expansion and must also be seen to be a valuable vehicle to maintain existing enterprises which do not wish to grow, but which provide an important prospect and important employment. We must accept the fact that in local authority areas we are seeking primarily to encourage new development and new starts. In so far as we must have an objective suitable for the majority, the majority objective must prevail.

My hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield (Mr. Murphy) contrasted the position of new town development with the policy of urban renewal in the existing cities. He was right to stress that there has been a cause and effect relationship between the two. I accept his view that these two objectives must be complementary and not competitive. We must make sure that a policy of urban renewal or regeneration of our inner cities is used to relieve the pressure which may be occurring in the new towns of years ago and which, perhaps, have reached their optimum development. I agree that our policies for urban renewal must be a way of easing the pressure and bringing back to the inner cities, by sensitive development of the spaces which have now been created, new oportunities for employment and housing. In that way there should be less pressure arising from the problem which my hon. Friend described.

Mr. Murphy

Does not the Minister agree that we can learn from the difficulties that we have today with the older new towns so that we do not see the same happening in the newer new towns, for the benefit of those establishments?

Mr. Shaw

I accept that entirely. It is very important that we apply the lessons learnt in these new towns, especially in relation to the problem, for example, of agricultural land. This is being taken into account in the provision of the structure plans. It is to avoid this kind of pressure that we seek to provide in areas throughout the country structure plans which will prevent the wholesale use of agricultural land simply because we seek to develop new housing or even new industrial opportunities on the edges of our new or older towns and cities.

My answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Wavertree is that we must pursue a broader initiative and the objective of improving relations and understanding between local government and local industry and commerce, whether larger scale industry or the small industries of which my hon. Friend has given three important examples. We are convinced that there is much to be gained from joint co-operative effort on issues of mutual interest and concern. Planning is certainly one such issue.

If we are to succeed in our aim of restoring national prosperity, we must make sure that local government understands, and is sympathetic towards, the problems and needs of industry and commerce and the likely effects on them of local authority policies and activities. Industrialists and local authorities should therefore seek opportunities for private sector expertise to assist local authorities in formulating policies, particularly on issues of economic development.

Mr. Steen

The Government are rightly building many small advance factories all over the North. The snag is that only manufacturing companies are allowed to move into them. Packenham's in Liverpool is not a manufacturing company, but it has a turnover of £¼ million. Surely something can be done about those empty factories.

Mr. Shaw

I shall look into that matter. If the result of the policy is that service industries are being ignored, that is an omission which we should seek to rectify. To arrive at a sensible decision-making process one needs a reasonable understanding of the needs that local industry foresees and the needs that the local authority foresees in planning for orderly development. We cannot have a return to a haphazard situation in which a local authority proceeds in its own way and does not bother to consult the local industry that could help to formulate sensible local economic policies. That is the point that my right hon. Friend has been stressing recently.

My right hon. Friend has invited representatives of industry and commerce to find ways in which they can try to improve communications with local authorities. He sees particular value in encouraging chambers of commerce to play an active role. In some areas, the private sector already has good relations with the local authority and we should like to see such contacts flourish and be extended to cover areas where contact is slight.

My hon. Friend is aware of developments in Liverpool. The urban programme and the development in partnership that has occurred in Liverpool offer good examples of how the schemes can work. In 1980–81, while urban programme spending was kept at the same level in real terms as in 1979–80, the economic and environmental projects' share of the Liverpool inner area programme rose from 50 per cent. to nearly 70 per cent.

If we have to resist the suggestion, on which my hon. Friend has tabled a question for answer on Wednesday, that private sector representatives be admitted to the partnership committees, he knows that, first in Liverpool and now elsewhere, we have hit on perhaps a more effective way of making sure that the voice of industry and commerce is heard.

As my hon. Friend knows, we have three-member independent review teams. For the past 10 months such a team has been assessing the results of Liverpool's 1979–80 programme.

In common with another, more recently celebrated Gang of Three, it is concerned to ensure that wise counsels prevail. The team, which includes the chairman of the Liverpool chamber of commerce, presented its report to the partneship committee on 12 January, and I am sure that all members of the partnership found discussion of the private sector's view of the partnership's structure and programmes valuable.

Gangs of Three have a habit of being followed by Gangs of Four, and my hon. Friend will have been heartened to see that the four-man independent team which the three local authorities and my noble Friend recently nominated to review the Manchester—Salford partnership is composed entirely of local business men. More such gangs will follow in other partnerships.

Mr. Steen

Not demolition gangs.

Mr. Shaw

I am dealing with construction for the future and not destruction of the past. There is plenty of evidence that there are systems whereby we can get local businesses involved in the planning process and particularly with the development of inner urban areas. There have been some considerable successes. I should like to mention a specfic case of a small firm that was assisted by the Liverpool development agency. The firm, manufacturing steel drums for the petrochemical industry, and based in an industrial improvement area, came up with an innovative design. With the aid of a city council grant of £15,100, it refurbished two old industrial premises in which to develop its new technique. It is intended that 20 jobs will be created over three years.

That is the sort of small-scale enterprise that my hon. Fried had in mind. After six months, six jobs have already been created. The firm is moving on pretty well and there are other cases that I cannot mention, since time is so short.

We are determined to pursue a vigorous inner city policy and we have recognised that the particular problems of the London docks and Merseyside docks areas require a different approach from that pursued under the previous Government. My hon. Friend has welcomed what is being done on Merseyside. In our view, the scale of the problem in those docklands needs new bodies with the specific objective of regenerating whole areas and therefore we have taken powers under the—

The Question having been proposed after half-past Two o'clock 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 one minute past Three o'clock.