HC Deb 09 March 1982 vol 19 cc790-826

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

7.54 pm
Mr. Anthony Steen (Liverpool, Wavertree)

This is a very great opportunity which has never befallen me before. It allows me to address the House on the problems of the cities—a matter in which, as the House may know, I have a special interest. I have the privilege to represent a city seat which is rather like a segment, the narrow part being in the inner city ward and the broad part in the outer city ward. It is a rare opportunity for any hon. Member to have the attention of the House, or of those hon. Members who remain, on a matter of increasing importance to the country.

In former days it was believed that what happened in the major industrial conurbations was of little importance to people in the rest of the country, and that what happened in the inner city areas was of no consequence to those living in the middle and outer city areas. It is clear from the happenings of the past 18 months, however, that what goes on in the inner city areas is of direct consequence to people living in the middle and outer city areas and indeed to the population of the country as a whole.

That was clearly reflected in the Chancellor's Budget speech, which recognised that more money must come to the city areas and more money must be made available to improve the housing in our community. It is therefore especially appropriate that, after a Budget which seeks to make the best of things and to utilise to the full all the latent assets of this country, the opportunity should arise to raise in the House a matter which should concern us all and especially those of us who represent the principal conurbations.

My subject today is the wasting away of abandoned houses. Abandoned houses in the middle, inner and outer city areas have tended simply to be ignored. The scale of the problem is not fully realised or understood. It probably runs into millions of pounds being left to rot away in the fabric of abandoned and decaying houses. It is not a new phenomenon. It has simply not been fully comprehended in the past. It has not been grasped either by local authorities or by central Government, and it has not been identified as a matter about which something must be done.

The scale of the problem and the number of houses involved has also not been realised. Nor are the abandoned houses only in public ownership. Nobody knows just how many abandoned older houses there are in our principal conurbations. Liverpool city council cannot say categorically how many such houses it possesses or which streets they are in, nor how many there are in the private sector and which streets they are in. It does not know how many have been declared unfit. It can only say that a large number of houses in the inner, middle and outer city areas are not lived in but are abandoned and derelict.

It is not just in the public and private sectors that abandoned houses are found. Housing associations also own some, but it is fair to say that those houses will be improved because the associations have sufficient public funds to put them right. That is not the case for those in local authority or private ownership.

The purpose of this debate is to bring the situation to the attention of the country. These houses, albeit abandoned, could house thousands of homeless people. The property was abandoned simply because of a vicious spiral of public bureaucracy and legislation which have locked the houses into a state of constant decay.

It is worth considering the situation in our cities. The pattern is similar. The problem goes back to the period when the planners were in control. A splendid publication, "New Life for Old Cities", has been well reviewed by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. Alton), whom I am glad to see in the House. I am also glad to see the hon. Member for Liverpool, Scotland Exchange (Mr. Parry). It is said: The initial culprits appear to have been the city planners whose sheer folly it was to have believed that wholesale clearance of inner city neighbourhoods could bulldoze away the city's s problems. Could they really have thought that they could just superimpose Comprehensive Redevelopment Plans on to close-knit communities built up over generations under the flag of private enterprise? Take, too, the extensive financial and social consequences inflicted by 'Blight'. Was it not possible for City Councils to have foreseen that 'Planning Blight' would have adverse effects on the value of private property once redevelopment areas had been designated, and would also sharply affect the prosperity of small businesses situated nearby? Or, take the planning process itself and the continued updating and revision of Structure Plans. On what basis were these expected to benefit the cities, committed as they were to doctrines of rigid planning zones and restrictive uses? Hard on the planners' heels came the bulldozers. I think hon. Members know that my bete noire, if I have a bete noire, is the bulldozer.

Mr. Christopher Murphy (Welwyn and Hatfield)

Hear, hear.

Mr. Steen

I am glad that my hon. Friend supports that statement because he, representing a new town, knows that but for the bulldozer he would probably not have these people in his constituency.

Hard on the planners' heels came the bulldozers, hundreds of them. They razed neighbourhoods completely to the ground as part of an imaginative—so the planners thought—large scale clearance. It is probably worth quoting for the record the statistics between 1966 and 1976. Liverpool demolished 21,489 houses; Birmingham demolished 19,715; Manchester demolished 29,265; Glasgow demolished 53,396; Sheffield, which may not be thought of as a major conurbation in the same terms as Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester, demolished 21,776; Leeds demolished 24,055.

Mr. Murphy

My hon. Friend rightly draws attention to the problems of destroying many homes in city areas. Would he not agree that often it has been a case of destroying homes that had a considerable architectural value which was appreciated by the families? If better bathrooms and kitchens had been provided they might have continued to be adequate homes for many families who would have enjoyed staying in them rather than being transferred to tower blocks.

Mr. Steen

I am most grateful for that intervention because, as always, my hon. Friend has hit the nut on the head.

The planners are constantly in sack cloth and ashes for being party to the pulling down of these older houses. In fact, it was not just the planners; local political figures had as much responsibility to bear. They were impressed by the beautiful designs which the planners dreamt up. To give them all their due, many of the houses were substandard. They were thinking of a land fit for heroes after the war. The idea was that they would demolish the central core of the inner areas and rebuild homes fit for heroes. As I shall outline later, this did not take place. The intention was the best possible, but it did not work out.

It is not just the houses that have been pulled down that I am concerned about but the houses that will be pulled down because they are being abandoned by the public sector and by the private sector. Perhaps it will be news to the House and to the country that there are tens of thousands of houses rotting away unoccupied in inner, middle and outer areas of our great urban conurbations. These houses could be occupied.

Mr. Murphy

Before my hon. Friend leaves the point about tower blocks, would he agree with the comment made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister some time ago that people preferred to have streets that are horizontal rather than streets that are vertical? I think that my hon. Friend would agree with me that that is a good way of describing the problems of the tower blocks. Despite all the good intentions of the planners, people did not wish to live in tower blocks and have always regretted being moved into them. They would have been much happier being left on the ground in many of the homes which have been destroyed.

Mr. Steen

As always, my hon. Friend has scored another bulls-eye. He is right. I always agree with the wisdom of the Prime Minister. On this occasion she illustrated that she understands the problem. I think I should let hon. Members into a secret; my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister must have been reading the book "The Life and Death of the Great American City" by Jane Jacobs. That was the very phrase which Jane Jacobs used when describing tower blocks. I am glad that my right hon. Friend has read that book. It is a marker which all planners should read. Unfortunately, they may have read it too late because it was produced too late. It would have prevented the wholesale demolition of good housing stock which could have been improved. It was not improved because at that time, between 1966 and 1976, the planners took the view that they had to demolish lock, stock and barrel.

Mr. Robert Parry (Liverpool, Scotland Exchange)

I agree completely with the hon. Gentleman's criticism of the planners and the bulldozers. Does he accept that during the construction of the second Mersey tunnel hundreds of good council houses were demolished to make way for that tunnel and that in the inner areas of Liverpool, including Everton and Scotland Road, there are hundreds of acres of green fields which could have had housing stock on them?

Mr. Steen

I am glad that the hon. Member has raised that important point, which is continually being raised in the House. It is well to remember it.

It is not realised how many vacant, dormant and derelict acres there are in Liverpool. The estimates range from 1,200 acres to 1,800 acres. The register suggests about 1,200 acres, but it excludes sites of one acre or less. Many of the vacant sites are on the outskirts and I do not know whether they have been included in the register.

There is no doubt that there is a great deal of dormant, vacant and derelict land. The tragedy is that about two-thirds of it is owned by the local authority or the public undertakings—gas, water and the railways. They always have good reason for not building on it or not otherwise developing it.

If there is time tonight, I shall be happy to extend this discussion, because it is a broad debate, to discuss the whole question of vacant land, which is one of our problems. Successive Governments have tried to tackle it. The present Government have tried to tackle it .in a new way, but I believe that there will be no great improvement until that land is auctioned off. It is all very well to make lists of the land. In fact, one does not need to make lists, because one can see it. What we must do is to market it, bring it into the market place, whether it be used by the public sector or by the private sector.

I have proposed that the private sector should be able to serve a compulsory purchase order—that the private citizen could serve an auction purchase notice on a statutory undertaking which owned vacant land, asking it either to develop the land within, say, six months or a year or to put it on the market by way of auction. I want to start mobilising market forces in these areas.

The problem is that much of the land has a negative land value. It is easier and cheaper to develop a green field site on the outskirts of the city than to develop an inner city site. Unless the Government or the public sector prepare the land so that it is ripe for the private sector to develop, no private developer, no bank or insurance company will wish to invest in the inner city area if there is a green field site that can be bought much cheaper and where it is cheaper to install services. The real problem is one of negative land value and auctioning off the land, a matter which successive Governments and city councils have not directed their minds to.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Edge Hill)

I entirely agree that there is a great need to bring in private developers and for them to work in partnership with city councils, but in Liverpool land has been made available to private developers who are not now developing it for homes because they legitimately point out that in the present economic climate, and in a city with 55,000 out of work, it is not that easy to extend home ownership. That is a major problem that will have to be overcome.

My second point concerns the derelict homes—the ugly, horrible eyesores, the tinder boxes, the breeding grounds for vermin, which we are all concerned about. The Government are reducing the money available for housing and rate support; £23½ million has gone in the past two years. How can the hon. Gentleman justifiably put forward his argument until that money is reinstated, because the local authority needs the tools to do the job which the hon. Gentleman is legitimately asking about?

Mr. Steen

I always enjoy listening to the hon. Gentleman, even if he gets his views a little twisted. I should like to explain why they are twisted. First, there is a further reason why private investors will not invest and private developers will not develop. It is part of a vicious spiral: "Liverpool is a dangerous place to invest in. It has riots. It is unsafe. Our premises will not be safe there and our employees will not wish to live there, or they will come in from some distance. We think that we can get a better return for our capital and development if we go south." There is a natural instinct of the private sector not to want to invest in the prime urban areas the further north they go. Liverpool is a special case.

The problem is that, unless the private sector is given a financial incentive to invest in derelict, rundown inner areas, there is no reason why it should go there. Therefore, I have often proposed the issue of industrial bonds or municipal revenue bonds, which would allow the private sector to invest in ailing urban areas and obtain interest on its money at perhaps 3 or 4 per cent. below bank rate, but tax free. Bearing in mind that the Government give enormous sums to ailing conurbations, I want to find a way in which there can be a real partnership between the public sector and the private sector, which means private money partnered by public money. The only way in which to get the big financial institutions to invest in areas of decay and inner city problems, areas such as Liverpool, is to give them a financial incentive. Lack of it is the principal cause of the problem.

A building society—I think the Abbey National—has announced that it will lend more in the decayed, rundown areas. I was glad to learn that. The society wishes to see not only white ownership but black ownership. I have no doubt that part of the problem of the inner city in Liverpool, and of Toxteth in particular, is the lack of ownership by the black community. It does not own things. The more public buildings and public housing are erected, the worse the situation will become. That is why I am uneasy about the amount of public money going to such places as Toxteth. Rather than make the situation better, it may make it worse.

Mr. Alton

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman about ownership by the black or white community. I want to see an extension of ownership. Many of the Asians who live in inner city Liverpool are owner-occupiers. They own their own homes and their own small businesses. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman's argument does not necessarily apply.

I accept what the hon. Gentleman says about the question of security and people coming into the city from outside. Does he think it helps that this year, when one crime is committed in the city every four minutes, one home is burgled every 20 minutes, and one car is stolen every 26 minutes, there should be a reduction of £½ million in the police budget? At the same time a major disincentive to small businesses in the inner city is introduced with an enormous increase in the precept of the Merseyside county council.

Mr. Steen

The hon. Gentleman sees the facts in a slightly jaundiced way. I understand his view, but I do not agree with it. I always question crime statistics such as the hon. Gentleman has just given us. I do not know whether there is someone using a stop watch every time someone does something. The problem of violence and other crime on Merseyside is serious, but it is exploited and constantly brought into the news headlines. I think that it is exploited to the point where we are creating bad news which generates more bad news. It is unfortunate, even if understandable, that the media give such attention to, for example, difficulties in a school in Toxteth. The exposure of the difficulties on Merseyside, which are also experienced by many other urban areas, does us no good.

The private sector will not return to the inner city not only because of the violence but because of the kind of statements that were made yesterday by the Labour candidate for my constituency, comparing the present Government with the Fascists in Spain in the 1930s who supported the concept of civil war and riot. That kind of statement, which was widely reported, can do nothing to bring confidence to private enterprise, private wealth and private investment. On the contrary, it undermines the social fabric and leads to further social unrest.

Therefore, I believe that the media should ignore such statements, because they are calculated to attract attention. They succeed in that, and that in turn tends to drive away the very sectors that are needed to bring life back into the ailing urban areas.

Mr. Parry

I agree with the hon. Gentleman completely about the rise in crime, particularly in inner Liverpool. I was born in inner Liverpool, and over the past 12 months I have been constantly approached by constituents complaining about muggings and people being beaten up. Can the hon. Gentleman equate his arguments with the heavy cuts imposed by the Government on the police budget? It is impossible for the police to deal with the problems of law and order in inner Liverpool when the budget has been so massively cut.

Mr. Steen

I am glad of the opportunity to come to the second part of my answer to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. Alton). The first point I was making was that there were other aspects as well as crime and vandalism and that militants, who were too well reported, were causing an artificial reaction. It is easy to say that the Chancellor has cut this and that. In fact, without going into the arithmetic, it is not difficult to see—the hon. Member for Scotland Exchange may not like what he sees—that the Government have taken a much more robust economic approach to the inner city areas than any previous Government.

We were talking about derelict land and the need to bring back firms into the inner area. One of the problems is to correct negative land value and persuade the private investor to return. That is exactly what is being done by the urban development corporation. The Secretary of State for the Environment took what I believe to be an enlightened view, that the Liverpool dockside area would never be revitalised unless sizeable sums of public money were spent preparing the land and putting in the infrastructure. The hon. Members for Edge Hill and Scotland Exchange may say that they would not do it that way, but, whether they would or not, public funds have been made available.

There is the interesting experiment of the enterprise zone, which has about 68 units built by English Industrial Estates. I have been there with the Secretary of State and it is amazing to see those new units. The Dunlop factory is being demolished and we hope that there will be a new project there. The British Leyland plant of 1.2 million sq ft is lying empty, which is a disgrace. It will be given a chance. I have remonstrated with the Secretary of State and said that the most useful thing that could be done would be to divide it into a number of small units at a very low rent so that some of those small entrepreneurial companies that can afford a rent of only £1 or £1.50p can move in. I should like to see the whole of that Leyland plant as a massive manufacturing market with a number of small firms given an chance—there are no rates to pay of course—to get going. We have seen at the south docks how 200 firms can start up under the arches. The rent is about £1 a sq ft and they can really make a go of things.

I do not think it is true to say that there have been cuts. One can say that a particular item has been reduced but if one looks at the whole of Merseyside there is no doubt that the amount of cash that is going there has been vastly increased. One may not like what it is being spent on. That is an entirely different matter.

Mr. Murphy

My hon. Friend is very generous in giving way. Would he not agree, when talking about the importance of developing jobs and industrial opportunities, that the measures announced today in the Budget will be of great importance to urban areas and new towns? Would he also agree that the enterprise package with its measures—the more generous business start-up and loan guarantee scheme, the extension of the small workshops scheme, which may be of particular significance to what he has been saying, the tax relief on contributions to enterprise agencies, the high profit limits of small companies, corporation tax and VAT relaxation—are part of the Government's policy to help small businesses develop, which will help to regenerate inner city areas? Would he agree that that is of vital importance?

Mr. Steen

I feel like a cricketer at the stumps receiving balls from different directions, but I am glad to have the opportunity to deal with these points, because hon. Members will see that the ammunition, the flexibility and the versatility are there. I am happy to hit the ball back in a way that I hope is helpful. My hon. Friend is quite right. I believe that it is sour grapes, which I can understand, on the part of Opposition Members. The Budget is really quite a remarkable achievement.

Mr. Parry

The point I was making before was not about the Chancellor's Budget—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)

It was not a point of order.

Mr. Parry

It was about the police budget.

Mr. Steen

I was explaining that it is understandable that Opposition Members should want to complain about the Budget. I think one can say that the whole spirit of the Budget will help Merseyside. It does not help when Opposition Members try to ground it before it has even started. If they are concerned about their constituencies they should support the measures in the Budget and say that it is a marvellous opportunity and one should make the most of it. One can guess that, whatever the Budget proposals for Merseyside, Opposition Members—whichever party they represent, and it is difficult to know sometimes—would find a reason to object. I do not think that it would be right in such an important debate to be drawn by some of these issues. The important thing is to return to the main thrust of the argument.

Mr. Murphy

My hon. Friend has been outlining the successes, as he sees them, of the Budget proposals with regard to inner city policy. I believe that he is right. Would I also be right in thinking that the construction package that the Chancellor has put forward, which includes higher home improvement grants, which will achieve an early increase in demand, more home insulation, 75 per cent. capital allowances for new buildings, will help with the regeneration of the inner city areas?

Mr. Steen

There is no question but that this is the purpose for which they are designed. They are to help revitalise ailing urban areas. It is sour grapes on the part of Opposition Members to complain that it is not enough, that the matter has been approached in the wrong way, or that something else as been cut. We have to grasp what we have got and make the most of it. My criticism might be that one of the problems of the principal urban areas is that the level of public finance and public intervention tends to drive out private enterprise and also tends to make people living in these areas too dependent on the public sector to get things put right. A balance is needed. It is perhaps the case on Merseyside that a balance has not been struck.

Forty per cent. of housing in Liverpool is in public ownership and 5 per cent is in the ownership of housing associations. The fact that 45 per cent. of the housing stock is financed by the public sector may have affected the attitudes of people. In the inner areas of Liverpool, a sizeable proportion of the population, often through no fault of its own, is dependent on the public sector. I am not sure it is healthy that a society should have such heavy concentrations of people sustained and supported wholly by public intervention.

I welcome all the approaches made by the Chancellor. The test of their value is whether they will attract private enterprise and whether they will provide the incentive for people in Liverpool to get off their back sides to take the opportunity when it comes.

Mr. Barry Porter (Bebington and Ellesmere Port)

I am trying to clear my mind. I am not from the opposite side of the House but I am from the opposite side of the Mersey to my hon. Friend. Sometimes, one obtains a strange view of what happens in Liverpool. On the one hand, my hon. Friend appears to argue that there is a need for great public investment in Liverpool. Following 30 or 40 years of great public investment, my hon. Friend abuses the planners and thinkers of all parties who have destroyed the inner city. My hon. Friend still asks for more money but now appears to be saying that this in itself is not a good idea unless there is a partnership with the private sector.

My hon. Friend may care to consider the proposition that the difficulties of Liverpool are not concerned with planners or public investment. The difficulties may have something to do with the fact that the basic industries of Liverpool, which have been in decline over a number of years, have always used semi-skilled or unskilled labour. Is not the major problem of Liverpool, as opposed to the Wirral, one of training for skilled occupations? When one talks of Liverpool as an attraction for industrialists, it has not a great deal to offer in terms of skilled labour.

My hon. Friend has cited the example of the British Leyland site at Speke. One might gather, following the great public investment in that site, that this is a clear example of the fact that Liverpudlians are not especially keen to work in rather dull industries of that nature. My hon. Friend will presumably address his mind to that failure and will perhaps agree that training in the Liverpool dimension is more important than merely supplying more money when so much money has already been wasted.

Mr. Steen

My hon. Friend, from the other side of the water, has made some interesting remarks. If time were available, there might be a case for pursuing them. The problem in Liverpool, as in Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle and Sheffield, is that when the bulldozer demolished houses it also demolished single-plant firms that operated in one place and had a proprietor who worked on the site or near the site. The demolition of small, single-plant family-owned firms destroyed not only the firm and the rate base that came from the firm, but also the opportunity for skilled and semi-skilled labour. Between 1966 and 1976, 21,489 houses were demolished in Liverpool together with many small firms. This resulted in the destruction of the rate base, the decline of opportunities for skilled and semi-skilled labour and the evacuation of those groups to new towns being built beyond the city boundary.

Much of the problem arises from the demolition of the older housing in the inner area coupled with the building of new housing in the new towns, the destruction of the small firm and the building of new units on green field sites. Of course, there was not the same massive demolition programme elsewhere and the rebuilding of small firms' premises was in a small compass compared to the Liverpool area, where small firms had to move 10, 15 or 20 miles, and some of them never restarted.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bebington and Ellesmere Port (Mr. Porter) made a point about public finance. There is no doubt that the public sector causes distortion of market forces. There is always a fine balance as to which way it goes. However, between the 1960s and the late 1970s, the distortion was too great and the forces with which the public sector was involved distorted the market force to the point where the private sector could not get it right. Consider, for example, the abandonment of small firms and the destruction of their buildings in the inner cities.

The new industrial estates were not in inner areas but on green field sites, beyond the boundaries. That aspect was financed by regional aid. Therefore, whereas the Department of Industry could have agreed to lend only public funds to rebuild factories or sites in the inner areas to reinforce the rate base, which had been destroyed, instead it abandoned that concept and, with regional aid, pushed these factories out artificially to the green field sites and provided rating income for other areas. Taking that a stage further, the regional aid, of course, persuaded large industrialists, such as motor car manufacturers, to move to regions that they would not mormally frequent.

Therefore, if one considers the regional aid programme in the 1950s and 1960s, one observes that Ford and British Leyland, which would not normally have moved to Speke in Liverpool, provided artificially created jobs in that area. That was the effect of too much public intervention over too short a period in a particular area.

The impact of public intervention can distort for the worse, unless the private sector partners what is happening. I do not know whether that answers my hon. Friend, but that is the distinction between what happened on each side of the water. Perhaps, at this stage, it would be useful to try and return to the main theme of the argument. Some interesting interventions were made and I hope, in the course of my speech, to pick up some of those points and, no doubt, my hon. Friends and hon. Gentlemen, if they think it useful, will pick up some of my points.

Between 1966 and 1976, there was an enormous comprehensive demolition of inner areas. I do not mean only in Liverpool, but in many other areas. It is curious that most local authorities, while now readily acknowledging that demolition on that scale was a fundamental mistake, still carry out small-scale demolition with remarkable energy and zeal. They are pulling down the remaining older houses. Between 1975 and 1980—only a few years ago—on the most recent statistics, Liverpool demolished 6,446 houses, Birmingham 2,735, Manchester 9,854, Glasgow 17,497, Sheffield 11,130 and Leeds 8,403.

When the Secretary of State for the Environment in the last Administration told the world habitat conference in Vancouver that Britain had pensioned off the bulldozer, we were going hell for leather demolishing ever more houses. Paradoxically, the right hon. Gentleman was telling the House that Britain no longer bulldozed old houses, that the bulldozer was pensioned off, yet one received a nast shock when one considered the statistics and discovered that the bulldozer was still hard at work. When one inquires today of the Liverpool city council whether the, bulldozers have been pensioned off, the answer is "No. There are another 1,900 houses to demolish." I do not know where it finds all these houses to pull down. It intends to pull down those 1,900 houses under a stage 2 clearance. If one asks "Can we not save these houses?", the answer is "They are past redemption". That is just what the council said five, 10 and 15 years ago.

I prevented the premises of a small firm from being pulled down by saying that if the building was to be demolished I would stand in the way of the bulldozer. I actually stopped that retailing outlet being pulled down. I said that the council had no right to pull it down. I pointed out that the man had been there for many years and that there was no reason why the council should demolish a retailing outlet if the owner, who was making a meagre living, had nowhere else to go. That is the paradox and sadness of the story. When the shop was ultimately demolished, the man had nowhere to go. He is now in a council flat, deteriorating physically and mentally because he lost his source of income. That happened solely because the small firm was demolished.

Mr. Porter

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. Indeed, I was emotionally disturbed by the tale that he told. Does he agree that, while the desire of local authorities in the 1950s and 1960s to demolish was undue and perhaps over-emphasised, the shift in emphasis has been towards rehabilitation? Now when local authorities want to demolish property they are subject to strict criteria, and the houses that they demolish really deserve to be demolished. I speak as an ex-chairman of housing who was committed to rehabilitation. It is no good saying that local authorities want to demolish in a wholesale manner or that houses are not saved where it is possible to save them. From my experience on Merseyside, I know that houses are being saved, and rightly so. We are now down to the filth, the slums, which must go. We should not say that, because a building is old, it should be saved, but if the building is old, filthy and incapable of being lived in, it should be demolished.

Mr. Steen

I hate to disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bebington and Ellesmere Port, who has enormous experience in this connection. We know of his love of old housing and his knowledge of the practical problems in trying to save houses that are beyond repair.

However, he tends to speak as though this were a thing of the past. In fact, the figures that I gave show the enormous amount of work that was done by bulldozers between 1975 and 1980. The tale that I told about how I delayed the bulldozers in the case of the small retailer's shop happened only last July. It is not something that happened in the past; it is happening now.

Of course, we cannot save every old building, but we must realise that old buildings form part of a neighbourhood. They form the landmarks and are part of the security of the local community. I am sure that some of the problems of an area, such as Liverpool, relate to the speed with which the geography and environment are changing and the way in which the neighbourhood buildings are constantly changing. People can no longer associate themselves with a building or neighbourhood.

Not only is the environment changing physically but the names of the neighbourhoods are changing. The ward names, parliamentary boundaries and health authority areas are changing. As soon as people adjust to the neighbourhoods in which they live, the names of the places are changed. Moreover, the speed of change is affecting the stability of the Liverpool inner area communities. The effect may not be so severe over the water. The environment in the Wirral and in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bebington and Ellesmere Port is far more salubrious and comfortable, and change has not been so fast.

Mr. Parry

The hon. Gentleman is correct. The bulldozer is far from dead in Liverpool. Is he aware of the proposed massive development in Clayton Square in the centre of Liverpool—the heart of my constituency? Wimpey has put forward development plans which involve the demolition of many small businesses. Many old pubs with long histories and ancient buildings in the centre of Liverpool are affected, including the Blessed Sacrament church. Development in Liverpool is demolishing part of our heritage, but we are continuing to build concrete jungles.

Mr. Steen

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman said that. His constituency is in the inner city—the core. I agree with him wholeheartedly—even if that means having to stand with him in front of the bulldozer in Clayton Square.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

I shall be driving.

Mr. Steen

I am glad that the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) said that he will be driving, because I understand that he cannot drive very well. Therefore, he might miss us.

There is little to stop the inner city neighbourhoods being picked off. The older houses can be picked off one by one without anyone in the area noticing. Things go wrong when authorities try to bulldoze an area such as Clayton Square, or parts of Birkenhead, which can be clearly seen. That is when the protests arise.

I join the hon. Member for Scotland Exchange in defying the city council and all the local political leaders who believe that they should destroy more of inner Liverpool. I am delighted that the Secretary of State wants a competition to be held to design the best development in front of the cathedral. Once again, however, the problem is change. Although the site may be derelict now, there will be more change and more distortion. I am anxious that some of the old buildings should not be destroyed as rebuilding and further changes take place.

Mr. Murphy

My hon. Friend is referring to what can best be described as urban renaissance. Does he agree that the Government, by making £100,000 available—to be matched from other sources on a pound for pound basis—are assisting the provision of specialist advice on building rehabilitation and site clearance projects in urban areas? Surely this is a great step forward in redressing the balance so that we may appreciate the buildings that are there rather than knock them down and start again. Does he agree that urban renaissance is a fundamental part of the policy that we need to pursue?

Mr. Steen

I am never sure what all these weasel-worded names mean. We are so good at using them. Urban renaissance sounds like something from the seventeenth or eighteenth century. It is a flowery expression. My hon. Friend has made the telling point—it is not quite the bull's-eye but it is close—that the Government have realised that they cannot change the urban areas. However, they can provide resources to enable others to change them. I like some of the initiatives that have emerged from the Department of the Environment because they are not global or total. The are enabling measures. In this instance, the renaissance funds will provide small grants to voluntary and community groups which need help from professional designers, architects and planners to enable them to set up an environmental improvement scheme. That is an attractive concept.

It is said that the provision of funds must be matched pound for pound by the private sector. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said that he is providing a fund of £100,000 that must be matched by a further £100,000 from the private sector. If a voluntary or community group wants to improve the environment in a certain neighbourhood, it must find 50 per cent. of the money that is needed to employ professionals to help it with the design of the environment from the private sector. That is the right approach. It is the real partnership to which I was referring.

It is no good the Government providing 100 per cent. funding from public money. The community groups must help themselves. The concept of getting small groups to help themselves and getting the public and private sectors to match funding pound for pound is one that I wish to see deployed more often. That is why I say that unless private investment is brought back into inner areas to partner the vast sums that are being made available by the public sector, there will not be the sense of corporate community commitment that we shall need if areas such as Liverpool are to revive.

Mr. Murphy

My hon. Friend rightly says that words, such as "renaissance", are capable of meaning many things to many people. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Environmental Services told the European Campaign for Urban Renaissance that there are two objectives which are often overlooked. The first is that economic regeneration is not an end but a means—an objective on the road to the universal goal of improvement in the quality of human life. The second is that improving the urban environment is not to be regarded as a long term spin-off from economic growth, but a necessary parallel and related economic objective en route to that goal. Does my hon. Friend agree that that sums up what urban renaissance should be all about?

Mr. Steen

Yes. My hon. Friend has quoted a pertinent purple passage. I am glad that he selected it, because it is especially pertinent to the debate. However, this is a wide subject and I hope that he will forgive me if I return to the main thrust of the argument.

I look forward to joining the hon. Member for Scotland Exchange in a joint approach to prevent the bulldozer continuing its work where it should not be operating. I shall gladly join the hon. Member for Birkenhead, if he would like me to cross the water, to do whatever I can to stop the bulldozer from demolishing the area.

Mr. Field

I may take up the hon. Gentleman's kind offer at some stage. However, before he finishes his interesting discourse, will he turn his mind to a problem that has arisen in my constituency? It is not always a clear-cut issue of preventing the bulldozer from coming into operation. I often find that local authorities and public bodies, such as the churches, deliberately allow their property to be vandalised so that they can present a case for demolition. How does one prevent that from happening? I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman, but I fear that his arrival at that stage of the proceedings may be a little late.

Mr. Steen

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. I shall think it through as I am talking. I can present a similar analogy. In a street in north London a friend of mine kept a car that he never washed. The neighbours asked him whether it was his car and he agreed that it was. They said "It is lowering the tone of the street. Would you mind washing it?" I am told that in the streets of Moscow dirty cars are not appreciated and people feel compelled by their neighbours to wash them. That is happening in north London as well. The analogy may be right. It is up to the community round a church or a public building not to allow that building to get into a state of disrepair.

I have not been allowed to develop my argument, but if the hon. Member for Birkenhead remains in the Chamber a little longer I shall try to explain how to deal with the problem of the older decaying housing stock and the steps that the Government could take, without much cost, to save that housing. My solution for housing may also be a solution for some of the older churches.

Mr. Field

I was trying to suggest that the problem was even more deep seated than that of dealing with the bulldozer. If those in public positions wish to clear sites, they can do so in a number of ways without going through the normal procedure. For example, we in Birkenhead lost two of our finest churches by a very simple device. The authorities did not seal them properly. When that happens, there are vandals in them in no time, the buildings become unsafe and in no time a certificate is issued for their demolition. If the attitude of public officials cannot be changed, the hon. Gentleman's kind offer to come across the river to prevent the bulldozer from moving in will not help, because by then many of the surrounding community will want the bulldozer to operate.

Mr. Steen

That is a serious point. I have come across officials in the city councils of Liverpool and elsewhere who are not concerned about saving the fabric of their buildings. Many of them do not appreciate or care about it. They care about a clear site. They believe that once the site is cleared it can be used for rebuilding. However, they do not understand that to destroy landmarks, the neighbourhood and the community, is to destroy something irreplaceable. They live miles away and they do not have any close connections with the area. That is perhaps the biggest problem. Because bank staff, insurance staff and the staff of local councils have no emotional or financial attachment to the areas that they supervise they go by the book, which is often against the interests of the neighbourhood or the community.

Mr. Field

May I take the hon. Gentleman to the next stage of the argument, as it probably affects both sides of the river? As a result of Government policy the Wirral does not now have the funds to carry out the rehabilitation that most people in the Wirral agree is needed. It is not so much a question of trying to build a renaissance on the basis of matching pound for pound with the private sector, as of not having the resources for basic repairs. We are adding to the bulldozer's work in 10 years. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to keep me in the Chamber until the end of his interesting discourse, I hope that he will say something about how crucial it is to have adequate Government funding to preserve our housing and public utility stock.

Mr. Steen

Of course I shall say something about that. No doubt the hon. Gentleman was in the House when the Chancellor made his splendid Budget Statement a little while ago. He may have heard that a sizeable sum of money will be made available. I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State will deal with that matter. However, the hon. Gentleman has made a relevant point. I think that more public funds will be made available, but I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman is really talking about the attitude of those in the public sector and of those in local councils, who were human when they began, but who, for some reason, now tend to behave contrary to the interests of the local neighbourhood. For example, for some weeks I prevented a shop from being bulldozed. The man working there earned a meagre living. The council's view was that the shop was a fire hazard. I looked round the house but could see nothing wrong. I was told "It's a fire hazard if someone sets fire to it". I suppose that that was a fair comment. However, there was no desire to save the man's business or to allow the shop to remain because, in the council's view, it marred the landscape.

The problem is not a lack of Government finance. There are plenty of opportunities to find funds. Indeed, churches do a wonderful job and are marvellous at raising funds. The problem arises from the attitude of local councillors and local authorities. Often local councillors are not sufficiently enlightened, robust or concerned to save the very areas that they represent from the bulldozer.

Mr. Field

Why does the hon. Gentleman think that it is an "either or" situation? Surely both situations are relevant. Although it is right to consider the attitude of public officials, it is also right to consider the lack of resources. Birkenhead has several post First World War council estates that do not have adequate damp-proofing. The sky is visible from the lofts of those houses. Therefore, it is not surprising that many tenants say that their houses are extremely damp. Clothes hanging in the wardrobe have green fungus growing on them. That has resulted not from the attitude of some housing official, but from the lack of resources in the Wirral to maintain homes in a decent state of repair.

In addition, some public officials want to demolish buildings that should not be demolished. The hon.

Gentleman makes an error in thinking that it is an "either or" situation. Surely both situations are relevant to Merseyside.

Mr. Steen

That is a profound point. This is a question of balance and of how much, where. I have drifted away from my main theme, but I have been tempted to speak about council housing and will respond.

In my constituency there is a council estate called Belle Vale, which is a contradiction in terms. It won an architectural award in, I believe, 1971 for being one of the best designed estates in the country. However, a healthy crop of mushrooms can be grown in the little downstairs bedrooms because of the damp. In its wisdom, the council recognised that the design was faulty, that the estate was inadequately built, that the cost yardstick might have been wrongly applied and that those rooms were virtually useless. Thanks to the Conservative group on the Liverpool city council, rents on those rooms have been abated. I drew the group's attention to the situation and it persuaded the city council—with I believe, the help of some other parties—that, because of the damp, the accommodation was useless and that, therefore, the rates and rent for those rooms should be abated.

Mr. Alton


Mr. Steen

I shall give way shortly, as I know that there is an interest in mushroom growing in those damp estates. Those of us who represent Merseyside have similar problems.

Should we provide more public funds to correct an error already made by public funds? If so, what guarantee is there that more public funds will solve the problem? Alternatively, should such buildings be pulled down? The demolition programmes will soon run out of private housing and the evidence shows that attention is being turned to the public sector. The council is planning to pull down high-rise blocks both on the Belle Vale estate and the nearby Netherby estate. The bulldozer seems to have turned the full circle and, far from pulling down private housing, it has moved to public housing.

I believe that local councils should be banned from pulling down more private housing unless they can show specific cause. However, while we are debating whether they should demolish the private sector, they are moving towards the public sector and demolishing those houses. It may be that the damp flats and houses that the hon. Member for Birkenhead has in his constituency, and I have in the Belle Vale and Netherby estates, will be pulled down. That will start the cycle again. There will be a loss of rate income and the population must move outwards beyond the city boundary which will cause a further loss of population.

Mr. Alton

I am especially interested in the Belle Vale and Netherby estates because in 1972, when I was first elected to Liverpool city council, one of the first debates in which I took part was about the construction of those estates. I recall voting against the proposals of the then Conservative-controlled city council for the construction of those two estates.

When I was chairman of the housing committee in Liverpool, I established a working party to consider the problems of those estates. We came to the conclusion, partially because of the representations of local people, including the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Steen), that the best thing would be for the blocks to be demolished. Therefore, I find it curious to hear the hon. Member for Wavertree now complaining that Liverpool city council did what he suggested it should do—to pull down properties that should never have been built and which were built because of his party's proposals.

Mr. Steen

I was not complaining that those blocks of flats were being demolished. I said that the situation concerning the bulldozer had turned the full circle. It is no longer pulling down private housing but has now spotted the bad building of public sector houses and has moved there. I was pointing out the consequences of that, which is a much more important task in some cases.

However, I counsel the hon. Member for Edge Hill to remember that many blocks are decent and reasonable, but, for some reason, they have been destroyed by the people who live in them. Whatever we had built would have experienced the same problems. That is why I believe that tenants should own their council blocks. One could have a condominium. If the tenants of high-rise flats were given the opportunity to own and manage their own flats, there should be a totally different attitude and many of the high-rise blocks that are being pulled down could be saved if they were handed over for perhaps £1 to the sitting tenants, giving them the responsibility for managing the blocks. I have seen that happen in the United States of America and in Canada, where condominiums run by those who live in them are a great success.

Mr. Alton


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

Order. Long interventions tend to make long speeches even longer. I understand that some hon. Members wish to catch my eye. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Steen) has been very generous in giving way.

Mr. Alton

I wish to try to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but it would seem that the hon. Member for Wavertree will continue to the end of his allotted time. That is why I crave your indulgence to intervene again.

In the Netherby and Belle Vale areas there are houses built for rent which are very successful. Those houses were built at ground level with small gardens at the back and the front. They are precisely what people were asking for, but those who were put into spine blocks, high-rise blocks and cluster blocks—the virility symbols that were erected all over the cities in the 1960s and the 1970s—rejected them. When asked what they wanted, people said that they did not wish to live in high-rise blocks, but the planners and the politicians went ahead and built them.

Mr. Parry


Mr. Steen

I have been giving way to hon. Members, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because it is clear that some of them will not catch your eye.

Mr. Parry

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Steen) said that he would be completely opposed to any further demolition of private and public sector housing unless there was just cause for it. Would he not agree that the blocks of pre-war tenement flats which are mainly in my constituency in Liverpool and, which were built in the early 1930s and have not been maintained or sufficiently repaired should be demolished? Some years ago the Labour-controlled city council agreed on a programme of demolition, but the coalition of Liberals and Tories has stopped it.

Mr. Steen

Is the hon. Member for or against that? Mr. Parry: I am for it.

Mr. Steen

There is a problem, because there are vested interests, but that aspect cannot be developed in the debate.

However, it might be worth taking up the point about high-rise blocks. What is odd is that some of the most luxurious blocks in London are high-rise. Perhaps, if one put in carpets, a good lift and a porter, some of those blocks would start to take off. I am sceptical about those who want to destroy all high-rise blocks because some of the best high-rise hotels and blocks are in London, and are successful.

I have a slight love-hate relationship with high-rise building, because I do not know whether the problems are caused by the unsympathetic ear of the council which has put the wrong people in the wrong place at the wrong time, by the types of people in the blocks or by the lack of efficient services. It could be a mixture of all three. If only the flats could be given to those who live in them for £1 , and if they were told "You are in charge of the block now, you can repair it and you can do what you like with it", here would be a different approach, although it is true to say that some of the blocks are so badly built and the environment is so oppressive and soul-destroying that people want to leave at any cost, Therefore, each block must be looked at separately.

It is an appalling waste of public money to build blocks in which nobody wants to live and then to pull them down. That is wrong. Something must be built to fill the space.

The demolition programme has sparked off controversy and discussion and some important points have been made. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Birkenhead has had to leave the Chamber. He made the important point that some of the authorities, private and public, had abandoned their property and had allowed the vandals in, which has led to the demolition of the property. With the bulldozer came the exodus. Those living and working in the inner city areas left, not because they wished to or chose to, but because of the compulsory purchase powers that forced them out.

Between 1966 and 1976 Glasgow lost 205,000 people—21 per cent. of its population. Liverpool, because of the bulldozer and demolition, lost 150,000 people—22 per cent. of its population. Manchester lost 110,000 people—18 per cent. of its population. Inner London lost 500,000 people—16 per cent. of its population. Those are enormous displacements, and the social unrest that we are witnessing today has to some extent been caused by the displacement of large numbers of people from inner city areas. There is an imbalance between the people who remain—Toxteth is a good example. There are too many unemployed people, too many elderly, too many poor and too many who come from a different ethnic background, The result is that the problem has been made worse by the evacuation of the population which created a balance.

In many ways the Toxteth problems will not be solved by greater Government intervention, more cash or more improvement money because the real issues at Toxteth are about ownership and the wrong mix of the community. The only way that that can be put right is by bringing back to the inner areas the middle income group, the owner-occupiers and those who have a different approach. That is not a better group of people, but a different group of people. What is essentially lacking in the inner city communities is the mix that creates a happy and prosperous community.

Mr. Alton

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point about the mix and ownership patterns in the inner city. Will he explain how the initiatives announced by the Secretary of State for the Environment last year after the riots will change that? How can he justify a reduction of £231½2 million in rate support grant and housing revenue money to the city of Liverpool over the last two years, while at the same time Government funds are being provided to the tune of £22 million for a garden centre in Toxteth which will be ornamental and will not be used by anyone living there? It is irrelevant and will not solve the area's problems. How can the hon. Gentleman justify a Mersey festival or the Secretary of State's latest suggestion, that we should move some of the Tate gallery to Liverpool? All those suggestions are cosmetic and irrelevant to the problems of the neighbourhood.

Mr. Steen

Not all the points that the hon. Gentleman has made can be easily explained. The Secretary of State has a package. He has adopted an approach that means that, if one picks up one or two of those items and asks what sense they make, they cannot be said to be attractive on their own. The Secretary of State's approach is best understood when taken in the round.

The Secretary of State is taking away funds that he believes can be better spent in different ways. If those different ways are to provide opportunities for people living in those areas to help themselves and to provide help by which the banks, insurance companies and building societies start to pump in funds to the ailing urban areas and if my right hon. Friend recognises that people in the downtown decaying areas of the inner city must be helped by being enabled to use public money to partner private money, as well as helping themselves, he has got it right. If all that the money does is to pump sums to areas in the hope that in some way other money will come in, he may be mistaken. I hope that his principal approach is to tackle the problems of the city as a whole and to approach them in a new way.

Mr. Alton

The fundamental problem in the inner city of Liverpool is that 55,000 people are out of work and that there are serious law and order problems—a crime is committed every four minutes. Those two factors are related. Council tenants are faced with a rent increase of £2.50 a week. Those are the fundamental, bread-and-butter issues in inner city Liverpool. These issues are being preyed upon by extremists from the far Left and far Right. In that context, how can the hon. Gentleman and others justify £22 million being spent on a garden city in the Herculaneum dock in Toxteth?

Mr. Steen

I understand the strength of the hon. Gentleman's feelings. I feel the same way about the problems. However, I take a more magnanimous view.

I hope that the approach of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is that the problems of Toxteth are the problems of an intense community deprived of its balance.

It is an intense and distorted community because the balance—one could say the flora and fauna—is lacking from that neighbourhood and that community. The Secretary of State wants to bring back the groups of people of which that inner area is deprived. Therefore, one of the things that he is doing is bringing a garden centre to the Herculaneum dock in the hope that people will start to return to live in Toxteth and that the building societies—and the Abbey National announced today that it would do so—will start lending to the middle income groups who will want to return to live in Toxteth. I understand about the problems of crime and unemployment. The Secretary of State is trying to tackle them in a way that is different from the way that the hon. Member for Edge Hill would tackle them, but it is a way. He and I may not agree with all the facets of it, but it is an approach.

Mr. Murphy

Does my hon. Friend agree that what he is saying is best described as the doughnut principle? The cities are increasingly representing a doughnut with an empty hole in the middle where the downtown area used to be.

Mr. Alton

Jam tomorrow.

Mr. Steen

What my hon. Friend says is right. We are trying to bring back the jam to fill the empty hole.

I understand the approach of the hon. Member for Edge Hill, and his criticism, but he has not said what he would do about the problem. This is something that the Opposition parties are good at. They constantly complain about what is wrong, but they do not say what should be done.

Mr. Alton

I hope that the hon. Member for Wavertree will say whether he will leave time for the hon. Member for Liverpool, Scotland Exchange (Mr. Parry) and myself to contribute to the debate. We should like to put some constructive points about what can be done in the city to improve what is wrong there.

However, may I draw the hon. Member on the question of the lack of investment by private enterprise in the inner city of Liverpool? I would like to see major investments by private enterprise. Last year the Secretary of State had a Cook's tour round the city of Liverpool and showed business men around. Perhaps the hon. Member for Wavertree would name some companies that have invested in Liverpool as a result of that initiative.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will also say why it is that the Barratt development company, which was to have developed the site on the corner of Lodge Lane and Smithdown Road in the centre of the area, has now pulled out. It does not think that it could sell its houses there if it were to build them. Are these not indicators that what is required is something more radical, and not just a reliance on private enterprise, which does not believe that the answer is to pump money into inner city Liverpool? What is needed is a much more fundamental review of what is wrong and, unfortunately, we are now being beguiled by the same formulae that we have had in the past.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Steen) has addressed the House for almost an hour and a half. I suggest that he takes no more interventions. There are hon. Members waiting to catch my eye, and I hope that the Minister will have an opportunity to reply.

Mr. Steen

I shall take that guidance from you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was being drawn, perhaps wrongly, by hon. Members sitting on the Opposition Benches.

With your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall deal with the significant point raised by the hon. Member for Edge Hill. I probably agree with him that radical solutions are needed and that the Secretary of State to date has been understandably cautious in his approach. I am sure that a more radical approach is needed to the inner city areas. It may not be the approach that the hon. Member for Edge Hill would agree with, but it must result in more private homes for sale, with private mortgages being made available and the middle income group returning from the outer to the inner city to live and work. One must reduce the problems of crime and violence on the streets and of unemployment that are concentrated in the inner cities.

The problems have been compounded by the loss of population and that loss was of those people in the community who were the most flexible, the most able to move and most able to get jobs elsewhere. The problem in Toxteth—this applies not only to Liverpool but to Glasgow, Manchester and inner London—is the concentration of the poor, the unemployed, the unskilled, the elderly and the immigrant population in a concise and tight area.

I am grateful for your intervention, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I shall now get on with the main thrust of my argument. Vast tracts of inner city land were laid waste. Where were the people who lived there supposed to go? They were sent to the vast council estates that were built, with huge sums of money borrowed from the public purse, on former agricultural land on the periphery. That outward thrust of people and homes eroded the green belts and huge areas of agricultural land were consumed by urban sprawl. That explains why 60,000 acres of food-producing land have disappeared in each of the past 30 years. It is perhaps not appropriate now to explain that that may even be an underestimate. According to the Department of the Environment, as shown by the answer to a parliamentary question, in the five years to 1979 the average annual loss of agricultural land was about 100,000 acres. There is some dispute about whether the figure is 60,000 or 100,000, but the problem plainly is large.

While agricultural land beyond the city boundaries was being swallowed up, large tracts of clear land in the inner cities remained vacant. By the time local authorities were ready to do something about that vacant land, borrowing and rebuilding costs had escalated so far that they decided to wait and did nothing. Nor were local authorities minded to sell such sites at market rates—in other words, the price that people were prepared to pay—preferring to ask for the historic price, which bore little relation to what the land was worth. As the proceeds of the sale of public land are used by local authorities to offset Government grants for the following year, there is little incentive for them to part with surplus land. Among the nationalised industries, British Rail argues that it needs to retain surplus land in view of changing travel patterns, which certainly exist, although not necessarily in favour of rail. Similarly, the Gas Corporation demands adequate space for the manufacture of new energy sources if this is needed in the future.

I am giving the preamble to the major problems of dormant, derelict and older houses in inner city areas. Before I move on to that specific point, perhaps the House will allow me to explain that the bulldozing to which I have referred is not confined to houses. The debate embraces industrial problems. The amount of dormant, vacant and derelict land in the inner city and the development of green field sites on the outskirts has shrunk the rate base, thus driving up commercial rates.

The scarcity of suitable office and business premises has forced rents to spiral upwards and small and family businesses have been caught by escalating costs and the absence of skilled labour in the reduced inner city work force. Many firms have shut up shop altogether, while others have found it expedient to move outside the city boundaries, thus adding to the growth of urban sprawl. Countless small business enterprises, retail and service industries and artisans' workshops were driven away. Many have been totally extinguished because they cannot find suitable low-cost alternative premises close to the traditional markets and staffed by what was a close-knit local work force with specialist skills. It was like scooping up a handful of intricate mosaics, throwing them into the air and expecting them to fall down together as an intricate original whole in a predetermied and approved location.

It is not surprising that 6,000 small firms left the centre of Birmingham between 1975 and 1970 and 436 firms in Liverpool were displaced between 1975 and 1980. The last statistic is worth repeating, because the destruction or demolition of 436 small firms in the inner area of Liverpool contributes to the problem that hon. Members on both sides of the House have raised in this debate.

The approach of the planners, who insisted upon rigid separation of residential and business use, merely aggravated matters, as did a whole generation of supporting legislation which meant that those moving 10 new premises had to comply with what many of them regarded as unnecessarily expensive standards.

Having given a wide picture of the problems of the city areas, I bring together the main points that I wish to emphasise. It is important that they be made as they form the main thrust of the debate.

For all the reasons that I have given, Liverpool has accumulated 2,000 acres of dormant and derelict land. There are 78,453 units of accommodation in public ownership, but many are so badly designed—high rise, and so on—that it is not surprising that 18,000 of them are now hard to let or are empty. Having demolished private housing in the inner city areas and destroyed close-knit communities in the 1960s, the bulldozers have turned their attention to other property.

Mr. Parry

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I and the hon. Member for Edge Hill have now been waiting for an hour and a half. Will it be possible for us to speak in the debate before the Under-Secretary of State winds up?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

That is not a matter for me. I have already appealed to the hon. Member for Liverpool., Wavertree (Mr. Steen), and referred to the interventions. He knows when the debate must finish. We can only leave it to him.

Mr. Steen

Perhaps I may help the hon. Member for Scotland Exchange by saying that I do not propose to continue until 10 o'clock. I hope that he will have the opportunity to say a few words, but I wish to complete the argument that I have been given the opportunity to advance. I am sure that he will be kind enough to agree that I have given him every opportunity to raise a number of points in interventions.

Perhaps I may come to the main thrust of my argument. It is difficult to do so when there are interventions.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman has mentioned his main thrust at least six times. Other hon. Members have sat through the entire debate and are anxious to take part. I ask the hon. Gentleman to use his judgment in these matters.

Mr. Steen

I think that at least half an hour has been taken up with interventions. Nevertheless, I shall come to a speedy close once I have completed this point.

There is now a list of 2,000 houses in Liverpool—old Victorian houses which can be improved, and which need not be demolished—and some developers believe that there are nearer 8,000 abandoned houses in the inner area. This may be a familiar problem in North American cities where abandoned houses are all too common, but to acknowledge that the same problem exists in our cities is perhaps a revelation to the House.

The houses in Liverpool are mostly of the two-bedroomed, four-roomed—two up, two down—terraced variety. Many of the larger Victorian houses were occupied by single families when Liverpool was prosperous. After the Second World War, many were converted into flats and bedsits, but the Rent Acts hit the private landlords, who did not maintain the houses and could not obtain the rent that they needed. The houses fell into disrepair and the council moved in.

Some of the houses compulsorily purchased were handed over to housing associations which, with 100 per cent. public money, have done a first-rate job of refurbishing them. However enthusiastic they may be, they cannot tackle the scale of the problem. Of the 9,732 people on the Liverpool council waiting list, nearly 6,000 are living with relatives. Those people could be accommodated if the existing Victorian houses which are vacant and derelict were rehabilitated and transformed. This does not necessarily mean more public money, although what the Chancellor said about increasing the availability of public money is greatly appreciated.

A searchlight should be put on the wasting assets which, by default, are eroding and destroying many city neighbourhoods. In turn, this is affecting rate income and having an adverse effect on the services that local authorities can provide.

To wind up my lengthy contribution, I want to suggest one or two things that the Government could do to release and provide about 2,000 new homes in Liverpool. The case has been made from both sides of the House that something more needs to be done. The city council could embark on a homesteading programme, with the Government's persuasion, and sell off for a nominal sum of, say, £1 the older houses which have been acquired by compulsory purchase. People who were willing to repair and rehabilitate them and then live in them could covenant not to sell for five years, with half the proceeds going back to the local authority. That would relieve the local authority of responsibility for these houses.

Homesteading is hardly heard of in Britain. Cities outside London have rarely done it properly. Yet, in most American cities homesteading is big business for banks, building societies and individuals. Tens of thousands of decaying older properties are saved from demolition and people are brought back to live and work in downtown neighbourhoods. People would jump at the opportunity of buying a home of their own for £1. That is the first approach that we could make towards refurbishing the older Victorian houses which are lying idle in the centre of Liverpool.

The Minister may say that he does not have power to do anything because it is for the local authority to decide. Surely this is something on which the Government could give a lead. There is a great deal of public money going into Merseyside. An affirmative action programme could be embarked upon to persuade Liverpool city council that it would make better sense to homestead many of the older houses than to spend £180,000 building and maintaining a council house over a 60-year repayment period. Surely it would be much better value to sell off vacant and derelict houses for £1 each.

Another solution to the problem would be for the Minister to authorise the city council to auction many of the houses. Why should they not be put on the market and auctioned to the highest bidder?

Improvement grants of 75 per cent. should be extended beyond housing action areas. Housing associations can borrow all the money that they want from the public purse, but if the Government extended the 75 per cent. grant beyond housing action areas to include older Victorian houses which are being abandoned, they would find an enormously fast take-up from private developers.

I have covered a wide range of subjects on the inner area. I am concerned that the Government should make the best possible use of a wasting asset. Bearing in mind the experience we have had, there can be no argument for allowing any more of these older houses to be so vandalised that they have to be demolished. It must be better sense to find a device for putting them on the market and allowing market forces to decide how they can best be used, provided there is no chance of undue speculation.

The subject of older houses concerns hon. Member on both sides of the House. It is perhaps not surprising that a Conservative Back-Bench committee, being concerned about the enormous number of older private houses which lie abandoned, as a canker in the streets of our older areas, and about the decay of the inner, middle and outer city streets, not only in Liverpool but elsewhere, has decided to promote an exhibition in the House to illustrate the problems and to suggest practical solutions. I know that it will have the support of the whole House. We plan to mount it towards the end of April. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister and his Department will wish to be associated with it, as it will illustrate how many abandoned private and public dwellings there are all over Liverpool—dwellings which could be put to good use if they were homesteaded or auctioned off.

I hope that the message is clear tonight. We want to save a wasting asset. I hope that my hon. Friend will support the concept of saving that which is good and provides a focal point for neighbourhoods, and which could, with imagination and radical solutions, as the hon. Member for Edge Hill said, be put to good use, and provide homes for some of the 6,000 homeless people in Liverpool who are now living with relatives but who could be moving into those dwellings as proud house-owners or flat-owners.

9.41 pm
Mr. Robert Parry (Liverpool, Scotland Exchange)

I had not intended to speak in this debate, because, like other hon. Members I had expected it to begin at 10 o'clock. Therefore, I do not have available the facts and figures that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Steen) produced. I shall speak for only about 10 minutes, so that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. Alton), who has also been waiting nearly two hours to speak, has an opportunity to do so.

I wish to deal with two main issues of the problems of inner Liverpool—unemployment and the environment. First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Wavertree on choosing this subject for debate. It is about time that we had the opportunity to debate the massive problems of our inner city areas, and particularly of Liverpool. When the Labour Government were in power the hon. Gentleman and I served on the Committee considering what became the Inner Urban Areas Act 1978. We have shared concern for the inner areas for some years.

In November 1980 I asked the Secretary of State for Employment to give the total unemployment figure for my constituency. I thought that he would not give me the answer, but I was surprised to receive a reply from the Under-Secretary. It showed that 60 per cent. were unemployed—a staggering figure, provided by the Government themselves. That was before the shocking closure of the Tate and Lyle refinery in the Vauxhall part of my constituency, which resulted in the laying off of another 2,000 people and possibly 1,000 in related industries.

I believe that one of the reasons—not the only reason—for the riots not only in Toxteth but in the inner areas of Manchester, Bristol and London was massive unemployment. I should like the Under-Secretary of State to deal with the question of unemployment in inner city areas, not purely with environment and housing issues. When the Secretary of State for the Environment came to Liverpool immediately following the riots he came with the image of "Mr. Wonderful" or superman. He brought all kinds of promises and I believe that all Opposition Members representing Liverpool constituencies will say that we have seen little of the Government's initiative in solving the problems of inner Liverpool. I am convinced that the recent trouble we had in St. Saviour's school is the tip of the iceberg and that there are still problems simmering under the surface not only in Toxteth but in Everton, and Vauxhall, Sandhills.

The Office of Population Censuses and Surveys recently issued papers on the inner areas of Liverpool. They show that four of the wards, Granby, Abercrombie, Everton and Vauxhall, and Sandhills were deprived. There was massive unemployment, bad housing stock, bad schools and bad environment. I raised the issue with the Prime Minister this afternoon, when I said that those four wards were probably four of the most deprived wards in the United Kingdom and possibly Western Europe. We asked the Prime Minister whether she would visit Liverpool and the answer of course, was "No". It is significant that the Prime Minister has been to Liverpool only once, immediately after the Toxteth riots, when she flew in, was there for a few hours and then left. She showed no real interest in returning to see what has happened since the riots.

I thank the hon. Member for Wavertree for giving way to so many interventions. When I raised the matter of the Clayton Square development I said that that is part of the old area of Liverpool, which will be smashed by the developers and the bulldozers. I would argue that it is another case of municipal vandalism and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman said that he would support me in any opposition to the scheme. We have seen too much in the past.

We saw the demolition some years ago of the Cavern, where the Beatles made their name. We feel that Liverpool could be a tourist area, but we have seen so much destroyed by the bulldozers and the planners that I believe it is virtually impossible to resurrect it as a tourist area.

I deal next with the rate support grant and the massive cuts that have been imposed on the city of Liverpool and the county of Merseyside. I am delighted to have read .in the press that the new chairman of the county council, who is in fact a councillor in my constituency, has said that he would be prepared to take on the Government, and that he will not support any policy that will reduce services or result in job losses. I shall support the chairman in fighting the vicious cuts that have been imposed on local authorities. I will end now because I have made my main points in the earlier interventions.

9.50 pm
Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Edge Hill)

I am pleased that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Steen) has raised these matters and given us the opportunity for this debate. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Scotland Exchange (Mr. Parry) also tried last week to obtain such a debate. I wish that we had known in advance—although this was not, of course, possible—that this amount of time would have been available. If we had known I am sure that more hon. Members representing Liverpool would have participated. The debate is long overdue and much needed.

There are many issues on which I should like to touch. The first concerns the initiative begun last year by the Secretary of State for the Environment in the wake of the Liverpool riots. The hon. Member for Scotland Exchange has talked about the Prime Minister's visit. Some people in Liverpool say that it took a riot to bring the Prime Minister to the city. It is a tragedy that people should take such a view. I hope that the Prime Minister, if she reads this debate in Hansard, will be prepared to come to Liverpool again. Last year, before the riots, other Liverpool Members and myself appealed to her to come to the city. She said "No". I then asked her if she would be prepared to meet Church leaders, political leaders and trade union leaders here in London. Again she said "No". Her reply was to the effect that she did not see such delegations herself.

Then there was a riot and she came. But she has not been back since. The Secretary of State, when he comes to Liverpool, stays at the Atlantic Tower Hotel in the centre of the city. From those Olympian heights he said that he did not know that conditions such as those in Liverpool existed anywhere in the United Kingdom. It is my view that he should have done, but I welcome his conversion. It was tragic that the Conservative Party conference later that year turned down his proposals, as did the Cabinet, when he called for limited reflation and talked of the need for a job creation programme in Liverpool and the reform of local government and particularly the abolition of the profligate Merseyside county council.

When the right hon. Gentleman came to Liverpool and saw what was wrong he encouraged private business men to come into the city. He gave them a Cooks' tour of the city. Since then, there has been no evidence of any major investment by private enterprise. That forces me to believe that we should beware Greeks bearing gifts. The Secretary of State may have come with good will. However, since his visit all that we have received is £22 million for a garden centre in Toxteth. That is totally irrelevant. He has completely missed the point. We have been told that part of the Tate Gallery will be moved to Liverpool. The sum of £50,000 was spent on sending 25 business men to the United States. Any local authority that had taken such action would have been blacklisted and would no doubt have had its rate support grant reduced for frittering away ratepayers' money. Other than that, the Secretary of State seems to have done little.

It was particularly significant that, at the end of his first week in Liverpool, the right hon. Gentleman returned home for a birthday party for his daughter. I do not object to that, but I read in the newspaper that it cost over £20,000. That indicates the difference between the lifestyle of the Secretary of State and that of the people of Liverpool. It would have been far better if the right hon. Gentleman had stayed in the city and lived in the heart of one of the inner city constituencies to see for himself the problems on the ground. The right hon. Gentleman would have found that one of the biggest problems on people's minds is unemployment—the fear that one will lose one's job and join the 55,000 already out of work and the fear that in constituencies where 45 per cent. or more of people are already out of work there will be no possibility of getting a job.

The fact has to be faced that Liverpool is becoming almost a Carthage, a city that is dying through lack of investment and the closure of major companies on Merseyside. There is no point in talking about projects such as homesteading and building on derelict land while such major inner city problems as hard core unemployment continue to exist. Sometimes, it is true, Merseyside can be its own worst enemy. Militancy is one of the problems in industry. I welcome therefore one part of the Budget—the Chancellor's agreement to extend profit-sharing schemes, initiated over the last two years. I hope that more profit-sharing and a greater degree of workers having a say in the running of their firms will bring more harmony to the work place on Merseyside. One thing is certain. There is no better work force anywhere in the country than Merseyside people when motivated properly.

Workers and industrialists in Liverpool seek a secure place in which to operate their businesses and to live. One crime is now committed every four minutes. In January alone, there was a 56 per cent. increase in burglaries. A home is broken into and a car is stolen every 20 minutes. Everybody knows that it is dangerous to go out on the streets in broad daylight, let alone at night. I should like to see 1,000 more community policemen on the Merseyside beat and the reopening of neighbourhood police stations. It was crazy that a new headquarters was built in Canning Place, where no one lives, while small police stations were closed down all over Liverpool. Have we not learnt the lesson that bigger is not necessarily better? Have we not learnt that small neighbourhood police stations and policemen on the beat—men who are not alienated from the public—is the way to go about maintaining law and order?

Equally, it must be said that it does not help Merseyside when groups take to the streets trying to undermine good law and order. It was a matter of some sadness that the hon. Member for Warrington (Mr. Hoyle) and other members of Labour's national executive visited Liverpool and led a procession through the streets, after 700 policemen had ended up in my local hospital following the Toxteth disturbances. It did nothing for good police-public relations to have a coffin carried through the streets of Liverpool with a severed pig's head on top of it. It brought great discredit to the people who organised that procession and it was against the interests of the good running and administration of the city of Liverpool.

Liverpool is also a city in which people want to be able to bring up their children. Considering the appalling record of many of the schools, which do not produce a single O or A-level pass and have no chance of sending youngsters into higher or further education, it is about time that the Department of Education and Science got down to working out with the local authority an acceptable reorganisation plan. Two have been turned down so far—one by the last Labour Government and the other by this Conservative Government. The sword of Damocles hanging over local schools is one of the worst possible things for morale and is a reason why our education system is in a state of crisis. We must resolve the problems of depopulation in schools and the crisis of confidence in our education system.

We must also reconsider the so-called "comprehensive" system in Liverpool. We have replaced the system of passing an exam through ability by something even worse—the ability to pay. These days, if one can afford to buy a house in the leafy suburbs, one can send one's child to the neighbourhood school. However, if one lives in downtown Liverpool, one's child is often relegated to a third-division status school which has no chance of producing O and A-level passes. The sooner we get rid of the clapped out dogma, when referring to educational standards, the better.

It is a scandal that council tenants in Liverpool pay up to £30 a week for two and three-bedroom houses. Many face rent increases above the Chancellor's recommended £2.50 a week. They simply cannot afford to meet continued rent increases for lower and lower levels of repair and maintenance. They live sometimes in the most rotten and ugly surroundings. If one places people in such surroundings, one should not be surprised when they end up doing ugly things.

I turn now to housing action areas and the rundown of derelict houses. There are 1 million homes in Britain without inside toilets, running hot water or bathrooms. The renovation of such homes is not helped when housing funds are reduced. Nor does it help local authorities to tackle those problems when their funds are cut. Surely we require a major injection of funds.

We shall be building fewer homes this year than at any time since the First World War. That is a scandal, especially when there are 350,000 building workers in the dole queue. What economic sense does it make to have to pay unemployed people £4,500 each per year? That is the cost in unemployment benefit, social security and the loss of tax that they would otherwise be paying. While there are all those homes that need inside sanitation, running hot water and bathrooms it makes no economic or social sense to leave them unimproved.

On homelessness, the Crypt night shelter in Liverpool is well-known to the hon. Member for Scotland Exchange. It is a place where many vagrants and homeless people arrive each night, because they cannot get a roof over their heads. The Under-Secretary has a special interest in homelessness, and he will be aware of the report that was issued yesterday by his Department. It showed that the position of homeless people was getting worse, nowhere more so than in Liverpool. People are being turned away from the night shelter in the Crypt because it does not have enough spaces and because there is not sufficient accommodation in hostels in Liverpool for dealing with homeless people. It is a matter to which the Government will have to pay attention.

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Alton

I too listened to what the hon. Member for Wavertree said about homesteading. Naturally, I agree with him, but let us not pretend that Liverpool city council has not tried. The hon. Member for Scotland, Exchange will know that three blocks of flats in his constituency—Canterbury, Crosby and Haigh Heights, known locally in Liverpool parlance as "The Piggeries"—were offered, as the hon. Member for Wavertree said, for £1. That was the expression that I used when I was chairman of the housing committee at the time. I said that if anyone wanted those blocks they could have them. A developer came in, Michael Hayes, and has recently submitted proposals for renovating and improving those properties and putting them back into use for people in housing need in Liverpool. I am delighted that that has happened. There is certainly a place for such activities, but we must not pretend that homesteading is a universal remedy for the problems of inner city Liverpool.

In local government on Merseyside there are many conflicting agencies. There is the Merseyside county council, the Liverpool city council, an urban development corporation, and we have enterprise zones as well. It would be much better if these were all under one umbrella, and one group of people were to tackle the problems of Liverpool. The worst element of the present situation is the impasse, the conflict between these elements of local and central government.

I am concerned about organisations such as the urban development corporation. It has well-intentioned and well-motivated people but people who are unelected and unaccountable. They have prescribed remedies such as £22 million for a garden centre in Liverpool. Anyone who read The Sunday Times a few weeks ago will have been concerned to see in the gardening section that horticulture experts wonder whether it is feasible or possible for the garden centre to be completed in time for the exhibition that is planned. There is a danger that this type of centre will be seen as a universal remedy—a panacea—which it is not.

There is also a danger that people living outside Toxteth will say that the only area of Liverpool that is getting anything is Toxteth. That simply is not true. However, it is the popular view outside Toxteth. One of the most worrying comments that I hear in the streets of Liverpool today, is "What do we have to do? Do we have to riot to get anything for our areas?" If I have heard that once I have heard it a hundred times. It is one of the most disturbing and dangerous things that I hear. I hope that the Minister will take that to heart and ensure that other parts of Liverpool are given the attention that they require—not garden centres, not bits of the Tate Gallery, not Mersey festivals, but a restoration of the grants that are being cut, provision of security, a tackling of the housing problems, and the reform of local government.

I want to say a word about extremists and those who prey on the disadvantaged people in Liverpool. On the far Left there is the Workers' Revolutionary Party. On 7 April last year, I brought to the attention of the House the activities of the WRP in the Gloucester Place youth training centre. It was established by Vanessa Redgrave. She contacted local politicians and local personalities and asked them to support the establishment of the centre. Last week, she announced an appeal for £100,000 for the establishment of more of these centres, both in Liverpool and elsewhere. She has just opened another centre in Nottingham.

I warned the House last year that people like the Workers' Revolutionary Party were preying on the disadvantaged. I said last April, that it was like a time bomb ticking away in the centre of Liverpool, and that it would explode. I did not want to be a self-fulfilling prophet, but it was clear to me—I saw what went on in the streets of Liverpool—sthat throughout the riots the extremes of politics were deliberately orchestrating events and fermenting much of the trouble. The House should be aware that their activities are far from over. Mr. Tony Cliff of the Socialist Workers Party, speaking in Liverpool, said that last time he and his supporters got the bread and that next time they would get the bakery.

There is no question about the nature of Mr. Cliff's intentions and those of the Workers Revolutionary Party. Youngsters were beguiled into attending youth training centres in the belief that they were going to drama courses, hairdressing courses or to learn about cookery, for example. That is what they thought when they received a leaflet from an organisation called Youth Training that was signed by Vanessa Redgrave. They went to the centres to learn a skill, but when they attended the courses, as ,The Times reported two weeks ago, they were shown how to beat up a policeman and how to organise in a riot. They were shown how to use citizens band radio to outmanoeuvre the police. The Government had better be well aware that these groups are still at work in Liverpool.

If we move slightly to the Left from there, we find other groups, such as Militant Tendency. The Minister will be aware that four of the prospective parliamentary candidates in Liverpool are members of Militant Tendency. I hope that those on the Opposition Front Bench will do what they have already done in the case of Mr. Wall, who has attempted to become a Member of Parliament for Bradford. I hope that they will disown those who are using the name of a party that was once respected in Liverpool. The Labour Party has been a respectable party, but some are using it to ferment their own brand of political extremism.

Labour Members, such as the hon. Member for Scotland Exchange, are not to be included with the extremists. I know that the hon. Gentleman is not of that ilk. However, there are those in Militant Tendency who do not have the same parliamentary and democratic objectives as the hon. Gentleman and other Labour Members. It is important that the Government Front Bench is aware of that.

On the Right of politics, groups such as the National Front and the British Movement are at work. They have established organisations such as the Viking Youth. They are out to prey on the anguish and suffering of so many of our young people who are frustrated, bitter and angry at what is happening in our city. The Government must accept that they are creating a breeding ground in which these groups can operate.

Mr. Parry

The hon. Gentleman and I oppose the continuance of the Liverpool inner ring road. He knows that the county council has stopped the ring road going any further. When the hon. Gentleman was chairman of the housing committee I recall him making a pledge that he would support some municipal housing on the land that was left. I understand that the Liberal-controlled council intend to allow the land to be used for private development. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a mix of private and municipal housing should be developed in the area?

Mr. Alton

My answer is an unequivocal "Yes". I spoke to the tenants in the area at the time and I gave them my word, which I stand by, that there would be mixed development on the site. The tenement programme that I initiated when I was chairman of the housing committee should go ahead. People are entitled to local rehousing and I should like to see a mixed development on the site.

Mr. Steen

Although this is an opportunity for the hon. Gentleman to voice his views, I remind him that we want to hear what my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary for State has to say.

Mr. Alton

I am amazed, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have been speaking for less than 20 minutes so far. As the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Steen) spoke for nearly two hours, it comes somewhat amiss for him to lecture me on brevity. However, I shall conclude, because I know that the Minister must reply to this important debate.

I shall make my final contribution in the context of the Budget. Liverpool's problems cannot be isolated from the nation's problems. I very much wish that the Chancellor of the Exchequer had today taken the opportunity to abolish the national insurance surcharge. That would have been the best contribution that he could have made to stimulate employment on Merseyside. I understand from the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), to whom I spoke earlier, that it is possible that a further 300,000 may join the dole queues as a result of the Budget proposals. If that happens, many of the additional unemployed will be in Liverpool.

I regret that the Budget was deflationary. It is regrettable that 2p is being put on the price of a pint of beer. It is equally regrettable that the price of tobacco and petrol is to increase. These increases will hurt ordinary folk in Liverpool. The central Government money that is being taken from Liverpool should be restored. I plead with the Minister to ensure that the policies that are pursued are not ephemeral or superficial. We should go to the heart of the problems in the city. We must turn our attention to the extremists who are preying on the problems. There is a need to reform local government, to tackle the housing problem, to examine the education system and to ensure greater security and law and order in the city. Most important of all, we must tackle the unemployment crisis in the city.

10.10 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir George Young)

May I intrude in this private Merseyside debate to respond to the many points that have been raised during the past two hours? Like my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Steen), I represent a segment of a city with part of my constituency way into the inner city and part of it in the suburbs. I well understand the problems that he described. He spoke with logic and with eloquence. I recall the first Adjournment debate that I initiated on the problems of people living in tower blocks. My hon. Friend enunciated some of those problems earlier this evening. I know how easy it is to extinguish the fire of community life by wheeling in the bulldozer and how difficult it is to reignite the spirit later. As a result, one is left with cold, lifeless council estates.

My hon. Friend referred to my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield (Mr. Murphy) hitting a nut on the head. I hope that if my hon. Friend is confronted with a nut he will pick up a spanner rather than a hammer, because he will make more progress that way.

A number of hon. Members have raised the question of resources available to Liverpool, in particular the housing resources that enable them to tackle the problems that have been spoken about. The housing investment programme allocation for Liverpool city council for 1982–83 is £46.1 million. That is an increase in real terms. Together with the normal tolerances and capital receipts, the permitted spend is well over £50 million. One must tell the representatives of the city of Liverpool that there is a significant underspend this year in their housing programme, partly because of the council strike. The government have tried to make available to the city council the resources that they need to tackle the housing problems.

In the debate we have been on a conducted tour of Merseyside, around the various estates in Liverpool with the odd foray across the water to Bebington, the Wirral and Birkenhead. The debate has been wide-ranging. We have had excerpts from "Gardeners' Question Time", "The Money Programme", and some do-it-yourself programmes. When my hon. Friend sat down after an hour and 47 minutes, I asked myself how on earth he would have coped if he had been given the normal allocation that hon. Members have on the Adjournment debate and had been obliged to compress his thesis into the usual 15 minutes.

Hon. Members have raised unemployment issues. I do not have responsibility for employment, but I will pass on the remarks that have been made on that subject. However, my Department is responsible for the urban programme. We try to use the projects in the urban programme to create jobs in the inner cities and to try to rebuild the economy in Liverpool and in other areas where we have urban programmes.

I shall address myself to the main thrust of my hon. Friend's remarks on the problem of derelict property in the inner cities. I have outlined the Government's strategy to deal with this. The views of the Government and of my hon. Friends about the strategy to deal with those problems do not differ significantly. My hon. Friend's opposition to clearance policies, his support for the rehabilitation of older dwellings and industrial properties, particularly as they affect Liverpool, are well known. The Government support the initiatives that he has been promoting for some time.

Like my hon. Friend and hon. Members opposite, I am appalled by the waste of the housing stock through the decay and demolition of properties which could be rehabilitated. It is because of my right hon. Friend's abhorrence of unnecessary demolition that he has set his face against claims by local authorities for continued subsidy on dwellings which they demolish, and only in limited circumstances will he allow the subsidy to continue.

It is tragic to see any buildng destroyed, but particularly when that building is relatively new and has been destroyed because of structural imperfections or because it has for some reason become difficult to let. We have seen that happen all too often with local authority properties. We have, however, taken steps to try to ensure that such waste is reduced in future. We are conscious of the contribution that the private sector can make in rehabilitating some of those blocks.

The general consent to the sale of council houses and flats and disposal of housing land now permits the sale of such properties to private developers for them to rehabilitate and pass on into owner-occupation. My right hon. Friend is also prepared to look sympathetically at proposals to sell such properties at less than best price in order to ensure them of a future and a place in the stock of usable dwellings.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. Alton) mentioned the vandalised tower blocks in Liverpool known collectively and appropriately as "The Piggeries". As he said, instead of being demolished they are being sold to a developer who plans to refurbish them for owner-occupation. I understand that there are now similar proposals to sell another tenement block, Myrtle Gardens.

I turn to the estates that are difficult to let. Involving the private sector is one way of revitalising derelict or potentially unlettable property. But many difficult-to-let properties remain in council ownership. Our aim has been to see what can be done to restore those properties to an acceptable condition, in particular by involving the tenants in plans for their future. The Department's priority estates project has been testing possible solutions to the problems of difficult-to-let estates—though the lessons learnt are often applicable over the full range and condition of council property. The project has not specifically sought cheap options, but one important lesson has shown that a little money well spent on things which reflect the tenants' needs often achieves more that the grandioise improvements schemes that may appeal more to those who are remote from the estates.

I turn briefly to the question of properties in local authority ownership that are vulnerable to slum clearance. My hon. Friend has drawn attention to the large-scale clearance still taking place in Liverpool. The wholesale clearance to which he refers is, I hope, a thing of the past. We have seen right across the country a turning away from clearance and a very significant decline in properties cleared from the peak of 72,000 in England in 1971 to below 30,000 in 1980–81. In Liverpool, I understand that the clearance programme is running down rapidly from 1,000 properties in 1980–81 to 450 in 1981–82 and with much lower levels projected for 1982–83—97 properties—and for 1983–84—20 properties. We have all learnt from the mistake of the 1960s and early 1970s and no one could welcome back large-scale clearance programmes. Clearance must be the policy of last resort.

My hon. Friend was keen to promote rehabilitation. The general improvement and housing action areas were conceived out of a reaction against those clearance policies and since the powers to declare areas for improvement action were introduced there has in most authorities been a reversal of policies, turning away from clearance positively towards rehabilitation.

We have taken significant steps to foster the course of rehabilitation by the promotion of, for example, certain low-cost home ownership initiatives. The improvement for sale scheme was introduced in the Housing Act 1980. It enables local authorities to improve properties which are in a poor condition and subsequently to sell them to the private sector. The Act introduced a central Government contribution towards the net cost of improvement for sale so that local authorities would not suffer as a result of pursuing that policy.

My hon. Friend also developed the theme of homesteading. This is a method, promoted by the Government, to salvage derelict properties, which might in the past have been considered suitable only for demolition. The policy tries to ensure that they are put to good use in future by offering very low-cost homes to first-time buyers. Local authorities are, under the general consent for the sale of council houses and flats and the disposal of housing land—which was issued in June 1981—able to sell suitable properties to priority categories at a discount of up to 30 per cent.

We usually impose the condition that the properties be improved within a certain period by the purchaser and the purchaser usually receives an improvement grant from the local authority and sometimes also a loan to cover the cost of the works. Where local authorities provide mortgages for these properties they may, with my right hon. Friend's consent waive, for a period of up to five years, part or all of the interest payments. There can be financial advantages for both the authority and the purchaser in such schemes and we are seeing a welcome increase in the numbers of authorities embarking on them.

Mr. John Page (Harrow, West)

I apologise for not having been here earlier to hear my hon. Friend's speech. Does my hon. Friend agree that the homesteading that has taken place in Greater London has been successful? Is it a model that could be followed?

Sir George Young

Any Member who represents a London constituency is well aware of the valuable initiative taken by Sir Horace Cutler, when he was leader of the GLC, in pioneering homesteading in London. In my constituency it has been enormously successful. We owe much to Sir Horace Cutler, who shares a seat with my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Page), for developing the initiative.

My hon. Friend will welcome the fact that in the current financial year 80 authorities are improving houses for sale and 85 are selling houses which the purchasers undertake to improve. That is a significant increase upon the figures for 1980—81 when only 37 and 55 authorities, respectively, undertook those activities.

Whether or not they take advantage of the schemes, local authorities may encourage the sale of vacant houses for owner-occupation by offering shared ownership as the basis of sale. This is a scheme which enables a person who is unable to commit himself to outright purchase at the start to secure a first foot on the bottom rung of the home ownership ladder. At first, his outgoings will be made up partly of mortgage repayments and partly rent. As his circumstances improve, he can increase his share until full ownership is reached.

Another valuable weapon in the battle against derelict properties is local authority expenditure on improvements. I hope that my hon. Friend will accept from all that I have said so far that Government housing policy is aimed very much at rehabilitation rather than at wasteful neglect and demolition. It is interesting to note how, in general, those policies are reflected in the pattern of local authority expenditure. Local authorities are now spending an increasing proportion of their HIP allocation on improvement. Provisional figures for 1980–81 showed that 31 per cent. of the allocation is being spent on improvement as opposed to 12 per cent. in 1975—76, and it appears likely that there will be a further increase to 35 per cent. in 1981—82.

My hon. Friend mentioned some properties that were relevant to Liverpool. No one who has been to Liverpool would deny the real housing problems that exist there, which have been underlined by all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. I realise that the city has particular problems with its housing stock, with many substandard and unsatisfactory dwellings in both the private and the public sectors and an especially high proportion of pre-war dwellings among its stock.

Liverpool is taking some positive steps against this difficult background—the decline in slum clearance, the promotion of conservation and the proposals to sell some of its vandalised blocks of flats to the private sector. Liverpool has also been very active in promoting area improvement. It has a vigorous action area programme, and its aim has been to give priority attention to 33,000 dwellings built before 1919 with a target completion date of 1986. Some 55 housing action areas have so far been declared. The first phase covered 4,600 dwellings of which some 80 per cent. have so far been improved to a high standard. The second phase of housing action areas was declared in 1979, comprising some 9,000 dwellings and about 30 per cent. have so far been improved. The council aims to declare a third phase in 1982 and a fourth in 1983. That is testimony to the city's intention to promote improvement and make good use of the tools that the statute has made available.

Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)

So far the Minister has spoken only about housing development and renewals. Does he accept that there is a need to renew whole areas in terms of environmental improvement, industrial investment and housing combined? Would he commend to Liverpool—perhaps the Government should consider it in more detail—the GEAR project in Glasgow, where all three factors are combined? Perhaps that is an example of the way forward for Liverpool.

Sir George Young

I am grateful for that intervention by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton). A wide range of geographical interests has been represented in the debate. I shall pass on to the authorities in Liverpool the details of successful policies in Glasgow where, 10 days ago, I saw how some of the problems were tackled.

Renovation grants are another valuable weapon in tackling derelict housing. Our first major step was the Housing Act 1980. For improvement grants it imported the maximum opportunity and flexibility that is possible under the present system. The highest rate of grant—75 per cent.—was previously available only in housing action areas. It is now firmly related to the condition of the dwelling and is available anywhere. In addition, when the applicant is in financial hardship, a further 15 per cent. grant can be paid, making a possible maximum grant of 90 per cent.

Now 75 per cent. improvement grants may be paid, at the local authority's discretion, wherever a house is unfit, lacks one or more standard amenities, needs substantial or structural repairs or is a house in multiple occupation that lacks adequate means of escape from fire. In other words, the rate of grant is determined now by the condition of the dwelling. In addition, authorities may pay a further 15 per cent. when the applicant is in financial hardship. This raises the maximum grant to 90 per cent.

Besides raising the rate of grant and giving authorities the power to make it more widely available, we have also raised substantially the limit on costs towards which grants may be made.

The effect of those changes is to increase substantially the sums that authorities can make available. For example, an applicant in financial hardship wishing to convert a three-storey building into three flats is now able to apply for a grant of up to £26,460 towards a cost of £29,400.

Not all authorities have used those opportunities to the full. I hope that the measures announced earlier today by my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor will lead them to do so. The sum of £74.5 million in additional resources is being made available in England. At the same time, the maximum rate at which repairs grant may be paid and the rate at which intermediate grants are paid are to be increased. In each case, the rise will be from 75 per cent. to 90 per cent.

The additional resources are to cover the increased demand that may be expected for grants. In the case of intermediate grants, for basic amenities—hot and cold water, a toilet, bath, basin and sink—that is a demand that the authority is required by statute to meet. The grants are mandatory. But the availability of those resources will also help authorities to give more repair and improvement grants.

In allocating those resources, which an authority will not be able to use for other housing purposes, we shall be looking at authorities' estimates of demand for intermediate and repairs grants and the action that they are taking to stimulate the level of improvement activity in the private sector.

Renovation by the private sector is cheaper in public expenditure terms, provided that the standard of work is equally satisfactory and appropriate. It can also be doubly attractive to a local authority because of the comparatively small demand that it places on an authority's own resources.

It is not always understood that 75 or 90 per cent. of the total cost of house renovation grants is met by the Exchequer. As more authorities go out of subsidy, I hope that they will examine carefully the opportunities for maximising expenditure on improvement grants. As a further incentive, for a limited period, the Exchequer contribution on repairs grants is to be raised to 95 per cent. That means that local authorities will be able to make twice as many repairs grants for the same cost in terms of their own resources.

The necessary orders to implement all the changes to home improvement grants announced by the Chancellor will be laid next week before the House for approval. I hope that they can come into effect as soon as possible in the new financial year. Meanwhile, each authority has been invited to submit a bid to the Department for a share of the additional resources being made available.

Before rounding off, I must, I think, having so far emphasised the move towards conservation and rehabilitation, remind my hon. Friend that there is another side to the coin that we cannot ignore. The main thrust of our urban policy is directed at stimulating inner city economies, which form the foundation stone of the prosperity of the people who live there. Our determination to foster economic development is most recently shown by the Chancellor's statement today that up to £70 million would be available in 1983—84 under the urban and derelict land programmes for joining public and private sector development schemes.

We already willingly fund through the urban programme a wide range of rehabilitation projects, which contribute to the general objectives of economic regeneration—for example, the rehabilitation of factories, grants to restore shop fronts in return for internal work, and environmental improvements.

However, it would be quite wrong for us to forestall economic development in the inner cities by, for example, insisting that firms use only old buildings, which may be inappropriate, and costly for new industrial processes. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bebington and Ellesmere Port (Mr. Porter) said, we ought not to prevent the demolition of any old building, no matter how poor its condition, how outmoded its design, or how closely it resembles a slum. We have to adapt the—

The Question having been proposed after Ten 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 half past Ten o'clock.