HC Deb 13 May 1981 vol 4 cc771-3 3.41 pm
Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Edge Hill)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Public Health Act 1936 in relation to minimum housing standards. The country is currently living off its camel's hump. Victorian sewers in the North fold up daily. Some Victorian housing is built to standards such that conscientious farmers would not put their livestock in it. The buildings are damp have leaking roofs, and lack inside sanitation. Homes are falling into chronic disrepair. In no way are we reinvesting in that camel's we are simply squandering the wealth created by our forefathers. Rather even than patch as best we can, we are bleeding our capital dry, like the worst sort of gambling and drunken landlords.

Nowhere is that more obvious than in our housing stock, where perfectly sound homes, which merely lack proper facilities, are being wilfully neglected. Decent people are being forced to live in worse conditions than cattle would be subjected to. Without reinvestment, the rampages of the bulldozer in the 1950's and 1960's will be as nothing compared to what will be necessary in the 1990's. There will need to be a swathe of destruction through our urban communities, and there is no guarantee that funds will be available to pay for it.

Meanwhile, skilled workers are lying idle, although simple things could be done to make our homes more habitable. Over 300,000 building workers are on the dole, yet nearly 1 million homes are still without inside sanitation. In the face of that, we find a passive acquiescence on the part of the Government. I sometimes wonder whether hon. Members are in touch with reality and whether they understand the indignity of a mum having to bath her child in the kitchen sink, or the indignity of a sick old lady having to go out into the cold of the night to find some ramshackle and broken-down backyard toilet. That is the reality for thousands of my constituents and for people all over Britain.

My Bill seeks to do three things. First, it seeks to promote the National Home Improvement Council's proposal to make it a legal requirement under the Housing Act 1980 for all dwellings to have a hot water supply. At the same time, it seeks to update the Housing Act 1957 definition of "unfit" by including a full list of the standard amenities as set out in Department of the Environment circular No. 170/74, appendix B, paragraph 5. Dwellings should also conform to minimum standard requirements before allowing grant-aided improvements by private owners, as defined in Department of the Environment circular No. 160/74 and in paragraph 6 of circular No. 170/74, which defines the 10-point standard. Regrettably, the Housing Act 1980 was an opportunity lost, because it did nothing about these things.

My Bill would make it compulsory for every home to be provided with an inside toilet, bathroom and running hot water. The same 75 per cent. level of grant that is available in housing action areas should be available for this work. The Bill would also amend the Public Health Act 1936, to bring electrical wiring within its remit. For many of those who live in homes with decrepit and faulty electrical systems the choice is often between a cooker or a fridge, because their electrical system will not take both. As for the Prime Minister's suggestion that people should buy deep freezers and purchase in bulk, it should be borne in mind not only that they cannot afford to buy large quantities of anything, but that to suggest that a deep freeze should be run on an antiquated electrical system is to live in cloud-cuckoo-land.

Secondly, the Bill would amend the Public Health Act 1936 to enable the Public Health Inspectorate to enforce such minimum standards. The present levels of enforcement are more suited to Victorian workhouses than to modern twentieth century housing.

Thirdly, the Bill seeks to tackle the shocking conditions that exist in many council-owned properties that are infested by damp, mildew and fungus, and that lack ventiliation. Hon. Members must recognise that dampness is a national problem. Design, building materials, building methods, as well as lack of finance, are to blame. A recent study has shown that £200 million is needed to put right design and building defects in publicly owned dwellings in 60 local authorities. Over 8,000 council houses and flats have already been, or are being, considered for demolition because they were badly designed and built. Many of them were built in the 1950s and 1960s, despite warnings at the time.

In my city of Liverpool, a new lord mayor, Mr. Cyril Carr, is being installed today. It is ironic that in 1964 he had the foresight to speak out—a lone voice—against those virility symbols of the 1960s, which were erected all over Britain. Twenty years later we can see how right those warning voices were. Dampness is a major problem in blocks of both low- and high-rise flats. A number of studies have shown that infections of the upper respiratory tract, bronchitis and pneumonia are much more common among flat dwellers than among those who live in houses.

One study compared medical records of patients living in houses with those of patients living in three- and four-storey flats. For the families living in flats, first referrals to doctors were 57 per cent. greater than for those living in houses. The incidence of infections of the upper respiratory tract, bronchitis and pneumonia, was also greater in women aged between 20 and 29, in women over 40 years old and in children under 10 years of age. Living in unsatisfactory and inadequate housing often produces disease, which in turn lead to an increase in mental stress and to the increased use of tranquillisers and other drugs. The incidence of psycho-neurotic disorders amongst those living in flats is twice as great as it is amongst those living in houses.

The need to combat such conditions, particularly dampness, black mould, inadequate play facilities and loneliness, contributes additional mental stress to other social and economic problems, such as coping with unemployment, as well as hard and often low-paid jobs. In one survey of 17 families, all of whom had young children, five families suffered from a recognised medical or psychiatric condition, which was aggravated or maintained by their living accommodation. The remaining 12 families also showed symptoms of psychological upset, which directly resulted from their living conditions.

My Bill would make it compulsory for every local authority to establish specialist teams to tackle dampness, and as part of the annual housing investment programme aplication, to submit a design fault rectification programme.

There are three practical proposals in the Bill. First, it seeks to provide hot running water, inside toilets and bathroom facilities, and decent electrical wiring in all homes. Secondly, greater enforcement powers will be provided for public health inspectors. Thirdly, the Bill will provide for measures to tackle the chronic dampness that plagues many council properties all over Britain.

One hundred years ago, Liverpool was a pioneer in tackling the urban squalor of the late nineteenth century. The courts and stinking hovels of Liverpool were decimated by cholera, typhoid and the results of insanitation. Liverpool led the way in providing public health facilities. It provided the first wash houses, the first Public Health Inspectorate, and Dr. Duncan—the first medical officer of health in Britain.

However, 100 years later it feels as if the clock is turning back. For many people, things have hardly changed in the austere surroundings of the back-to-back terraced houses. Only the ration coupons, the pea-soup fogs and fried fish and chips wrapped in the Daily Herald have disappeared. Their homes have not changed at all.

The Bill is a marker demonstrating concern for the dignity, well-being and self-respect of 1 million citizens caught in a time trap in homes that are no different today from what they were in pre-war days. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. David Alton, Mr. Stephen Ross, Mr. A. J. Beith, Mr. Cyril Smith, Mr. Geraint Howells, Mr. Russell Johnston and Mr. David Penhaligon.